Saturday, July 12, 2008

 

I know I’m repeating myself, but this seems to be a point that a lot of people get stuck on. Plus this is my 2,000th post to the blog, and I’m feeling feisty. The history of poetry, like the history of any art form, is not a procession of its “best works.” Indeed, the well-wrought urn is, if anything, the deservedly forgotten one. Having codified and smoothed out the rough edges of any given tendency in poetry, such works are monuments to triviality and soon ignored.

In the 1960s, there were dozens of young poets who wrote “just like” Robert Creeley or any of a number of other, first-generation Projectivists. John Sinclair was a terrific approximation of Charles Olson transplanted to Detroit. Ross Feld had Jack Spicer down cold. More than a few poets during that same period “did” John Ashbery almost better than Ashbery himself. And there quite a few Allen Ginsbergs & Gary Snyders as well. Where are they now? Those that persevered – many did not – have changed, sometimes quite radically. There were a hundred Ted Berrigans, but it is worth noting that Alice Notley has not been one of them. Last I heard, John Sinclair was a DJ down in New Orleans – his great magazine Work has had its title appropriated by some folks out in Oakland – I wonder if they even know the literary heritage of that name.

In The New American Poetry, Ron Loewinsohn – just 23 when the book was first published – demonstrated an uncanny ability to channel the style of William Carlos Williams. A look at his professor emeritus page at UC Berkeley shows no publication of new poetry since 1976, no new writing of any kind in over twenty years. Yet Against the Silences to Come, Loewinsohn’s 1965 chapbook from Four Seasons Foundation, arguably is the best work ever written “in the Williams mode” of stepped free verse. Who (but me) celebrates that?

That’s the phenomenon in micro- form. It has a macro- variation as well. Articulating the possibilities of the prose poem, say, or dramatic monologue, or free verse – the three great formal innovations of the 19th century – has meant dramatically transforming what those genre mean. Charles Olson’s Maximus is possibly the only innovation in dramatic monolog in the 20th century even worth discussing. But look at how Pessoa’s heteronyms carry the underlying dynamics of dissociating author from speaker in a completely different direction. Now, a few decades hence, heteronyms are a dime a dozen as well.

The history of poetry is the history of change in poetry, an account not of best works, but of shifts in direction, new devices, new forms, as Williams once put it, “as additions to nature.” The cruder writing & rougher edges of the first to do X, whatever it might be, invariably are preferable. Better Spicer than Ross Feld. Better Howl than _________ – you can fill in that blank yourself.

There are of course poets and readers who hate change, sometimes hate it intensely. There are, for example, those who claim that Pound’s “good” writing stops basically at “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly,” avant The Cantos. Pound in those years was something of a stylistic gigolo, plagiarizing all that was interesting in Victorian poetics. Had he stopped there, he would have been the Ron Loewinsohn of his generation. And you would never have read him.

This may be why, actually, the School of Quietude generally does such a poor job of celebrating, preserving and carrying forward the work of its own stalwarts. Does anyone think you could fill up an auditorium at Columbia for a weekend, for example, to celebrate the centenary of Yvor Winters, Allen Tate, Robert Francis or Richard Eberhart, the SoQ poets closest in age to Louis Zukofsky? Why is it that the London Review of Books still thinks it necessary to order a hit piece of Zukofsky when all these contemporaries of his have long since disappeared from view? Or that Charlie Simic does the same to Robert Creeley (or William Logan ditto to Frank O’Hara)? It’s not that the SoQ poets, then and now, were bad writers – I think you can demonstrate that it’s objectively not the case. But they didn’t create change for poetry in their poetry (and, indeed, the most interesting of that earlier quartet are the two who helped to create institutional change in the academy through their critical writing, tho they did so precisely to thwart a modernism that was already threatening our shores). The assaults on Zukofsky, Creeley & O’Hara are little more than tantrums on the part of writers who understand that they’re the Robert Francises & Richard Eberharts of today, and are doomed to be just as widely read. They’d love to be able to curb the influence Zukofsky et al are having and will continue to have on younger writers, but they know already that this is impossible. Their pain is real.

Each art form has its own dynamic around issues such as form and change. For example, one could argue that the visual arts world, at least in New York & London, has become self-trivializing by thrusting change into warp drive because of the market needs of the gallery system. There, capital demands newness at a pace that hardly ever lets a shift in the paradigm marinate awhile. I seriously wonder if any innovation in that world since the Pop artists let in the found imagery of the mid-century commercial landscape has ever had a chance to settle in. That settling process seems to be an important part of the run-up in helping to generate the power of reaction, to motivate whatever comes next. The problem with the visual arts scene today is that innovation is constant, but always unmotivated.

Poetry has the advantage of not being corrupted by too much cash in the system. That ensures that change can occur at a pace that has more to do with the inner needs of writers as they confront their lives. Change, when it occurs, is driven by this confrontation.

But this may also be why, at least partly, there are so many poets still thoroughly, even comfortably, ensconced in the aesthetics of the 19th, let alone 20th, century. Why not? There are plenty of people to read you now. Do you even care what readers think 40 years after you’re gone? By their actions, Simic & Kleinzahler & Logan are telling us they do, but should we assume that this is true of every conservative or traditional poet? Can’t you just be Wendell Berry & do your thing? I’d like to say, sure – just don’t go throwing tantrums. (Those tantrums aren’t about aesthetics, anyway – they’re about power.)

All of which is to say that I take the current murmurings of flarf, conceptual poetry & now even slow poetry to be a very good thing indeed. In contrast with Simic et al, this really is the right way to discuss change. Not that any one of these is the “solution” to the question of What Comes Next in poetry, nor even that the roster of possibilities is anywhere near to being filled out. But we are hearing the first signs of a new discussion and that’s a necessary stage, preparing the ground for whatever will in fact show up. Which ought to be some great writing (and in some instances already is).

Part of this discussion, at least as its currently being framed, makes me wonder just how much of these aesthetics are being conditioned, for example, by the existence of the net, and beyond that by changes in technology, capital formation & globalization. Both conceptualism and flarf are, in very different ways, enabled by the existence of new technology, while slow poetry seems precisely to define itself by carrying forward other, older literary values. You could probably do a Harvey Ball chart plotting how each of these formations relate to a series of these kinds of issues and the answers would be interesting. Maybe even enlightening.

Some people have been complaining about the use of labels in this discussion – they’re still pissed at the idea of post-avant & the School of Q, which (to my mind, at least) designate much broader & looser aesthetic formations. Stephen Burt’s idea of ellipticism, of a third-way poetics, sort of an avant-quietude, gets similarly abused. I think these complainers are misreading the use of all these terms. Rather than representing constraints, such labels as flarf or slow poetry or uncreative writing are really statements of positionality. (It’s no accident that each occurs within – or in Burt’s case, right at the edge of – the terrain of the post-avant, since that’s the tradition that’s friendly to ideas of change.) Each term organizes how we see the entire field of poetic practice. In a sense, they’re aesthetic markers that might be as clear as saying Amherst, Iowa City , San Francisco, the Lower East Side. And it seems to me obvious that these catch phrases are necessary because, without such terms, people wouldn’t be able to talk about what’s changing and what still needs to do so. For example, conceptual poetry and uncreative writing are often used to refer to the same set of poets, but these phrases have radically different aesthetic implications. You could call Jena Osman & Juliana Spahr conceptual, but I don’t think you could call either uncreative, not even in the highly ironized meta- use of that term. As I’ve written here more than once, there is no such thing as poetry, only kinds of poetry. An example like this shows exactly how that works in practice.

If you step back and look at all this anthropologically, it has a logic – almost an inevitability – to it that seems unassailable. This discussion – where is poetry going? – needs to occur right now, and we need it to be passionate and detailed and committed. I can see pros & cons to every position out there, and I really don’t have a dog in this race. Or maybe mine just hasn’t shown up yet. But I look at other, just slightly earlier formations – I’m thinking of New Brutalism and the PhillySound – that made use of this same kind of group adhesive without positing an accompanying aesthetics. It’s as if they were announcing the need for this discussion without actually starting it. What I wonder is will they – can they – now revisit the question (all these questions) and come forward with their own ideas? Here’s hoping they can.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

 

Alan Gilbert on the King Kong
of summer writing conferences

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Close reading Rae Armantrout

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Minimal man, Aram Saroyan

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Kyle Schlesinger on the books of Ted Greenwald

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Leon Lewis & William Bradley
on why the know-nothing approach to Zukofsky
knows less than it thinks

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Dale Smith on Andrew Schelling’s Orono talk
about the Zen Cowboy / Wounded Buffalo school(s)

Slow Poetry & temporary autonomous zones

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Mark Scroggins on Graham Foust
& the risk of short poems

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Reginald Shepherd on the New American Poetry

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Books by Lewis Warsh, Geoffrey Young & Edmund Berrigan

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Amanda Stewart reading (MP3)

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MP3s from the Aggression conference

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The last interview of Thomas Disch (MP3)

An obit from The Telegraph

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Movie City Indie obit of Bruce Conner
with lots of film clips

NY Times obit

Artforum obit

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Lawrence Joseph,
in conversation with Charles Bernstein (MP3)

Joseph reading (MP3)

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Neruda’s love poems
to his wife’s niece

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Experiment,
but like you vote conservative

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Vanessa Place on NIco Vassilakis’s Text Loses Time

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Reviews of Phil Whalen, Hannah Weiner,
Allen Ginsberg’s Buddhist Poetics
& much more in ABR’s
LineOnLine
(PDF)

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Indiana judge opts for the First Amendment (PDF)

How predictable was this?

PEN flunks the PRC

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Salman Rushdie in Los Angeles

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Taking it to the street
in New Zealand

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Agent fights to salvage cred

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Of 1,000 journalism jobs that were lost last year,
121 belonged to critics

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Garrick Davis’ love song for New Criticism

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Books by & about Mahmoud Darwish

Darwish: sarcasm & hope

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Travis Nichols’
tracks the blogs responding
to William Logan’s
trashing of Frank O’Hara

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A love that begins
at Beyond Baroque

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Peter Gizzi,
narrating his bewilderment

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Matthea Harvey’s Modern Life

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Reading Zukofsky without much context

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When bad books happen to good writers

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“the quiet labor of refinement

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Talking with Kevin Goodan

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The sexiest poets (living)

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The Green Lake Poet is back!

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APR’s latest all-Philly supplement

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A bookstore in Nairobi

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On Martha’s Vineyard,
A Bunch of Grapes burns
(a 2003 profile of the store)

Grapes plans to rebuild

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Karuta,
the Japanese poetry card game
travels to
China

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CFP:
Naked Lunch @ 50

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Grammar trouble, gender trouble

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A Nepali poetry fest
in
Baltimore, MD

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Fictive Frost

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Shetland poets in Edinburgh

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Ron Hansen’s Exiles

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Slammin’ in Atlanta

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Robert Minhinnick explains himself

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Davis McCombs’ Dismal Rock

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A profile of Jacob Erin-Cilberto

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Mark Ward’s Thunder Alley

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4 poems by Dana Gioia

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Billy Mills on poetry & memory

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A mild-mannered accountant by day
& a psychopath at night

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A profile of Vivian Bogardus

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Do libraries need experts?

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Do pizzas need poetry?

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Adobe lets PDF go open source
& become an ISO standard

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Mondegreen is now a word

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Memoir of widowhood
wins for Abse

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Tung-Hui Hu
in
Oxford, Mississippi

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The peculiar institution
on the honorary degree

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The first cut-up

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The first intermedia

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An “ATM for books

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Digital Imaging Best Practices 2.0 (PDF)

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NPR expands its book coverage

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Maxwell Corydon Wheat’s
still not pulling punches

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A profile of Kafayat Abdul-Quadri

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God’s Red Poet:
The Life of Kenneth Leslie

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A Zimbabwean poet
in Che in Verse

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The Times’ original (1922) review
of the poems of Isaac Rosenberg

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A poet of the Congo
writing in English

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Improv & critical thinking

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Aim for the omnivore

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An Allan Bloom for Generation Next
(blame it on technology)

And a Chong

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Jay Parini:
why poetry matters

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The only First World War poet
with surviving children

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Million’s Poet
ups the ante

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JoAnn Balingit,
Delaware’s 16 poet laureate

Sam Green,
Washington’s first

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Restoring
Poe’s home in the
Bronx

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Reading Surender Bhutani
in
Bucharest

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A Brazilian bookfest

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Perfectionism:
crime against humanity

§

The end of theory
scientific method

& responses

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He h8s txt msgs

2b or not 2b

The joy of text

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Is the future of English already here?

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The impact of censorship
on search engines

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The death of Antioch

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The “burden of the humanities

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Technologically,
the best promo for a literary / art mag
I’ve yet seen

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Why no good films
about great writers?

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Language, acting, “professionalism”

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Movie critics do matter

Maybe

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S l o w music

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Too old to be hip?

§

When you’re glad it’s a Strad
& when you’re not

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The music of Harry Hewitt

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The evolution of sound

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The whistle of death

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Art and/or crime

§

Indie film:
the sky really is falling

Can it be stopped?

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At Mass MoCA,
creating Sol Lewitt

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Talking with Frank Gehry

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“There’s never been a great woman artist

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Koons at Versailles

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Chairman Mao & Chinese (post)modern art

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Shen Wei returns to Beijing

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Charles Bernstein’s one-word review
of J.M.W. Turner at the Met

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A donor’s intent

At the Barnes,
blaming the woman

Just who are the Barnes’
true friends ?

§

The Louvre’s deal in Abu Dhabi

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Goya the plagiarist?

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Models

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The “Long Tail” isn’t

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The best-seller nobody wants to review

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Bourgeois anarchism & authoritarian democracies

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

 

 

Photo: Lorna Dee Cervantes


Alfred Arteaga

19502008





    

Thomas M. Disch

1940 2008

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

 

Because we had an hour between the end of breakfast on Saturday morning & when we needed to be back at the inn to gussy ourselves up for the wedding later that afternoon, Krishna & I strolled up & down Main Street in Gloucester & I managed to search through the poetry sections of the Bookstore of Gloucester & Dogtown Book Shop. This part of Gloucester has definitely moved well into the weekend resort town chi-chi look, antique shops & boutiques, tho it is a far cry from the hell that is Rockport just five miles away. And the sad reality of it is that if the “historic West End” ever takes hold, the genuine thrift shops & bookstores would be doomed.

The Bookstore of Gloucester is an indie new-book emporium, with a decent poetry section overall, not as far back as it could be and twice the size of the selection at your typical Barnes & Noble. They only had one Charles Olson volume – the paperback Collected Poems – but they had a half dozen Vincent Ferrini titles and even carry chapbooks. I picked up two Ferrini books I’d not seen before: Magdalene Silences (Igneus Press, Bedford, NH 1992) and The Indweller / Emperor of Mars (Igneus Press again, 2000). “We miss Vincent,” said the woman who took my money, who also made a point of telling me that there is a new Ferrini volume coming out quite soon & that they would be having a reading for it later in July.

Dogtown Book Shop is across the street & up the block, which means of course that it’s nowhere near Dogtown – and a good thing too, given that commerce in those environs that were taken back over by brambles & “open space” ages ago would not be possible. Mostly it’s a used bookshop, tho there were multiple copies of a big coffee table book on the antique homes of Gloucester and some pamphlets on Dogtown itself up front, along with a DVD for Polis is This, marked at $30. “Henry Ferrini’s film,” the guy behind the counter called it.

Dogtown Books otherwise is your standard used book shop. Not a lot of poetry, but at least not in the furthest back corner. “Turn left at Robert Frost” is literally the way the fellow at the register pointed me toward it. Not a lot of books there either, tho I did find two gems, an early Stephen Ratcliffe volume that somehow escaped me 22 years ago, Distance (Avenue B, Bolinas 1986). Since Ratcliffe is one of the poets I think everybody needs to own all of – the scope of his project is spectacular, especially when you consider his fidelity to detail – this is a serious find.

The other volume is the Random House gathering of works by V.R. “Bunny” Lang that includes Alison Lurie’s 70-page memoir of Lang to give the book a very modest collected works heft. Lang died very young, just 32, in 1956, and her absence in The New American Poetry is to this day legitimately a scandal – Lang’s poetry was so much a piece of the New York scene that one of her poems ended up in Frank O’Hara’s Collected mislabeled as his work.

Otherwise, the most notable thing about the store’s selection was a considerable collection of older critical books about Ezra Pound – somebody had obviously dumped his or her collection – many of them hardback review copies.

Walking around reminded me that Polis is This turned up a lot of people who still remembered Charles Olson, tho he’s been gone now over three dozen years. That’s the sort of continuity one associates with small town life. Gloucester the fishing village is a manifestation of that perspective & most any turn into the neighborhoods has that look to it. But Olson’s own introduction to the town, as the summer get-away for his postal worker father to take the family from Worcester, 77 miles inland, already reveals Gloucester to adapting to a second function – that of regional tourism. The Ocean View Inn, where we stayed – and which bills itself as a convention center – is on Atlantic Road, a strip right on the ocean that consists of one motel or inn after another. Not one of them is new construction.

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Monday, July 07, 2008

 

Abusing Laura Riding

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