Saturday, October 04, 2008

 

When I first met Barrett Watten, in 1965, he was a senior at Skyline High School in Oakland, while I was just out of Albany High, hanging out among the teen flâneurs on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. It’s hard to imagine now, but the fellow who first introduced us, Davy Smith-Margen, has been dead for 42 years, killed when his VW rolled the following spring. The Watten I first knew seemed quiet & introspective. I don’t think either of us knew that the other wrote at first. I discovered this about him (and perhaps him about me) several years later when I was in Bob Grenier’s office at UC Berkeley circa 1970 & inexplicably Watten showed up at the door. He’d already graduated from UC & headed off to Iowa City to work on an MFA & was back in town for a visit.

In 1970, the number of people who understood – or thought we understood – the implications of Grenier’s unique combination of impulses from the work of Gertrude Stein, Louis Zukofsky & Robert Creeley was small enough to have had dinner at a restaurant without having to push tables together. But what really cemented the relationship was a discussion Watten & I had – it took a couple of hours – when he dropped by the north Oakland cottage I shared with Barbara Baracks & tried to persuade me to take the work of Clark Coolidge seriously. I got it that Coolidge had already moved beyond the poem-as-speech metaphor so beloved of creative writing workshops in the 1960s, but what I didn’t get at that point was what the alternative principles of selection might be. I might even have thought, well, hanging with the New York School let’s you get away with that – look at John Giorno. Barrett’s strategy was to get me to see the role of humor in Clark’s work. These were in Coolidge’s early books, I think Ing and Space were the ones I had on hand, before the more programmatic writing of The Maintains and Polaroid, which may have been more radical formally, made it easier to see into Coolidge’s process & thinking. The humor was, Watten insisted, directly related to an interest in the work of Jonathan Williams & Phil Whalen, two poets I would not have then thought to put alongside Clark. Thus in the matter of an afternoon, he’d taken me from a place where I had only seen surface effects & permitted me infinitely greater access into what I’d thought of as “abstract” & even “forbidding” work. It was, among other things, a close-reading tour-de-force.

My sense of that afternoon was not unlike my first exposure to Bob Grenier’s reportorial microwriting, a good portion of which would go into Sentences. What I felt was vertigo: I realized that the world I thought I knew of poetry – which was pretty much outlined by the Allen anthology, modified only by the arrival of a younger group of poets – Robert Kelly, Clayton Eshleman, Diane Wakoski, David Antin – associated with Caterpillar, alongside a few outliers such as Ronald Johnson or John Taggart, that world was about to change, and this change would be as dramatic in its own way as had been the arrival, say, of the New Americans announced by Olson’s “Projective Verse,” Ginsberg’s Howl & John Ashbery’s “Europe.” At least it would be (and was) for me.

I didn’t see a lot of Watten over the next year or so – he’d finished at Iowa City, but had moved up to the Mendocino area while I finally began my “alternative service” as a conscientious objector & moved into San Francisco. When he did move down to the City, maybe a year after I did, into a large apartment building on the edge of the Mission, we began getting together once a week or so & would invariably discuss / argue poetics. What I enjoyed then – and enjoy now – is the intensity & thoroughness of Barry’s mind, his ability to look at things completely fresh ways. Watten at a poem is not unlike, say, Cecil Taylor at a piano – there’s no inherent reason why the keys should get all of the attention, you could open the box & literally play anything inside, or look at the frame from every conceivable angle.

By this time Watten had not only started This magazine with Bob Grenier, but had taken on the full reins of the venture. It was already evident that the vague sense I had of this looming change in poetry was in fact happening & that Watten & Grenier & a bunch of other folks we were coming to know were all going to be part of this in some form or other.

So in 1974, I roomed with Barrett on Missouri Street on Potrero Hill & it’s no accident that it was there that I wrote Ketjak. What with Watten, Grenier & someone like Kathy Acker, whom we’d both gotten to know, all around then, it was clear that giving it your all, writing exactly what you thought needed to be written, regardless of whether it looked comfortably familiar or not, was the only way to go. Anything less really was just too boring, too timid. Why even bother?

It was Watten’s This Press that would publish Ketjak in 1978, an event that functionally changed my life as a poet. Once it was out, I found myself in a position to publish pretty much everything I wrote. That a small press with only the relatively primitive distribution systems available to such publishers in the 1970s could have this impact was itself instructive. Watten also published Coolidge’s The Maintains and Quartz Hearts, to this day my favorite book of Clark’s. This Press published Kit Robinson’s Dolch Stanzas, Ted Greenwald’s You Bet!, Larry Eigner’s Country / Harbor / Quiet / Act / Around, Grenier’s Series: Poems 1967 – 1971, Bruce Andrews’ Sonnets (memento mori), Carla Harryman’s Under the Bridge, Bob Perelman’s Primer, and two of Watten’s own early books, Decay and 1 – 10. I’m pretty sure that’s not a complete list – it’s what jumps out at me from my own shelves.  

Except for the books, which start in 1975, all of this occurs really before the time-frame we’ve set for ourselves in The Grand Piano project. Not to mention the nearly 30 years of work that Watten has done since the days of the GP reading series. Which include two of the best critical books I’ve ever read, multiple volumes of poetry (also among my favorite in the world), and spearheading the process by which The Grand Piano itself is being written. To say that working with ten language poets is like herding cats fails to convey just how strong headed and busy these cats are. But as I learned as his roommate, Watten is the James Brown of American poetry, the hardest working man in the room. To this day, I’ve never met anyone who puts the same amount of energy into thinking – and doing – whatever the poem requires. And I have, for 43 years, learned an enormous amount just by paying attention.  

I’ve written about (or otherwise included) Watten here before: These are some of the more noteworthy:

On The Constructivist Moment

On Plasma / Paralleles / “X” (from my selection of “essential works” that most influenced me for Peter Davis’ Poet’s Bookshelf)

On Watten’s own contribution to Davis’ second volume (in two parts: here and here)

Watten’s poem ”Tibet” which I ran in response to the violence with which the Chinese put down demonstrations there earlier this year.

I can’t be in Detroit for the big reading today at the College for Creative Studies. But I want to acknowledge Watten’s role in this adventure, which is proving to be a fabulous experience. Consider this a tip of my not-quite pork pie hat.

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Friday, October 03, 2008

 

Tomorrow in the Motor City!

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Thursday, October 02, 2008

 

Joanne Kyger’s
Permission by the Horns

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Edward Mendelson
on Frank O’Hara’s Selected Poems

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Reading Alice Notley’s
”Radical Feminism”

In the Pines

§

Kevin Killian:
”What I saw at Orono, Part II”

Parts 3, 4, 5, 6

§

Konstantin Pavlov has died

§

Nicholas Manning notices
that workshops suck

§

Jeremy Prynne
lectures on
Maximus IV, V, VI

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Talking with Joshua Clover
(a.k.a. Jane Dark)

§

Joseph Hutchison on Hayden Carruth

An appreciation from Ted Burke

§

Nobel Lit chief:
U.S. writing “too insular”

But this doesn’t stop the bookies

§

poets don’t buy books

§

A poetry press
whose e-books
average 7,000
downloads each

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A remembrance of Jonathan Williams

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a…wobbly tower of
performance poetry
history

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Thrownnest,
a collaboratively written play
in progress

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The Academy of American Poets
announces that the 2008
Lenore Marshall Prize
has been awarded to
Henri Cole,
a former executive director
of
The Academy of American Poets

§

Jonathan Lethem on Edward Dahlberg

§

Geof Huth reads “Oz

Plus “Paradise
(I think this is my favorite
of his readings to date)

& mimics “Quindecagon

While EBay lists
The Alphabet
as
”Nonfiction … Literary Criticism”

§

Recent reviews
of Omnidawn books
(Hejinian, plus
the Chernoff/Hoover
Hölderin)

§

John Ashbery reads John Gallaher

Ashbery’s moment

§

Gibson Square
stands by
Jewel of
Medina
in spite of fire bombing

But freedom of speech
is at risk

§

Banned Book fest
at the Rosenbach

§

Every book read by
Art Garfunkel
over the past 40 years

§

Kristen Gallagher
on hanging with the GOP
in
St. Paul

§

Exquisite Corpse
moves to Arkansas

§

Talking with Djelloul Marbrook

§

Going ballistic
with
Billy Collins

§

Diann Blakely’s
Cities of Flesh & the Dead

§

What kind of reviews do we need?

§

Troy Lloyd
on
Nico Vassilakis

§

Kashmiri cartoonist attempts
to mount exhibition
in
Delhi

§

Michael Lally on
John Ashbery & Trevor Winkfield
at Tibor de Nagy

§

Talking with Kenneth Baker
(Parts 1, 2 & 3)

§

C. Wright Mills &
The Politics of Truth

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

 

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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

 

Jeff Hilson’s new anthology, The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, is flat out the best book of its kind I have ever seen. It is easily – too easily, alas – the finest collection of contemporary sonnets ever put together. And it’s one of those books – not unlike Donald Allen’s anthology, The New American Poetry, or Jerry Rothenberg’s first ventures into the field, with Shaking the Pumpkin & Revolution of the Word, that make you realize that just how important and powerful a truly good anthologist can be. And what a force for good. Hilson, by gathering together the very best that has been done in the name of the sonnet, along with his contributors, from Edwin Denby & Ted Berrigan & John Clarke to Laynie Browne, Juliana Spahr & Jay MillAr – called here Jay Millar – may just have rescued this venerable genre from the necrotic clutches of nostalgia, the formalist side of the School of Quietude.

If the new (and old) formalists have claimed the sonnet as their own turf for far too long, it’s part of a larger program of bitter disappointment that the present is not the 19th, or perhaps the 16th, century. For those poets, the sonnet represents an ideal to which one can aspire, although perhaps “long for” is a more accurate verb phrase. What separates that approach from the 84 poets Hilson gathers, a roster that is simply stunning from Robert Adamson & Tim Atkins to John Welch & Geoffrey Young, is that contemporary poets – starting no doubt with Ted Berrigan (tho he is not the first, and obviously took permission from Edwin Denby in ways that would be worth discussing) – have seen in the sonnet precisely the dynamics of constraint that elsewhere drives Oulipo toward its amazing proliferation of forms. The point of the sonnet therefore is not to put oneself up against the likes of Shakespeare or Ben Jonson, but rather to see the sonnet for our time as a series of powerful literary devices that can open the present up completely.

Hilson’s collection is not perfect – notable absences include the sonnets of Zukofsky’s “A” -7, Robert Duncan’s “Domestic Scenes,” John Tranter’s Crying in Early Infancy, & there are some names missing I expected to see, including John Ashbery, Joe Ceravolo, Jack Spicer, Lee Ann Brown, David Schubert, Duncan McNaughton, Frank O’Hara & Tom Clark (tho Thomas A. is here)¹ – but this book is as close to perfect as we have yet had or are likely ever to get. Some of the important innovative poets who have worked in this form & are gathered into these pages include Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Christian Bök, Ebbe Borregaard, Jonathan Brannen, Pam Browne, Adrian Clarke, Bob Cobbing, Clark Coolidge, Bev Dahlen, Ken Edwards, Allen Fisher, Kathleen Fraser, William Fuller, Bill Griffiths, Alan Halsey, Anselm Hollo, Lyn Hejinian, Lisa Jarnot, Justin Katko, John Kinsella, Michele Leggott, Tony Lopez, Steve McCaffery, Jackson Mac Low, David Miller, Geraldine Monk, Harryette Mullen, Alice Notley, Ron Padgett, Bern Porter, Tom Raworth, Peter Riley, Stephen Rodefer, Robert Sheppard, Aaron Shurin, Eléni Sikélianòs, Mary Ellen Solt & Lawrence Upton. That list is simply stunning.

The sonnet began to morph from the rigid backward-looking template of the SoQ as early as the 19th century – many of Baudelaire’s first poems in prose are 14 sentences long. But for the English speaking world, it would require some key poets making the form their own & showing others that it could be taken not as a limit, but as a baseline from which to move forward. Edwin Denby was the first, but as or more important, at least in the United States, have been Berrigan, John Clarke & Bernadette Mayer. All are amply included here. Clarke’s inclusion strikes me as  the best test of this book, since he never received the accolades his level of accomplishment warranted & if you didn’t have pretty direct access to the Buffalo scene you might not realize that he was nearly as influential on the young poets coming out of that town as were Charles Olson or Robert Creeley.

In choosing to present the poets here in order of birth year – Denby, born in 1903, goes first, Sophie Robinson, born in 1985 (after both Denby & Berrigan have died) is the youngest – Hilson gently suggests patterns of influence, as well as foregrounding an interesting set of poets. The first ten include, in this order, Denby, Bern Porter, Mary Ellen Solt, Jackson Mac Low, Ebbe Borregaard, Clarke, Berrigan, Anselm Hollo, Bev Dahlen & Kathleen Fraser, every one of whom can be read as influencing a good part of what comes after. Thus Denby & Berrigan are vital for Bernadette Mayer, while Dahlen & Fraser lead us to both DuPlessis & Shurin further on. Etc. And, as Hilson makes clear in his introduction, Shakespeare is never that far from many of these pieces.

No doubt, of course, this anthology will prove to have been the weakest with the youngest generation represented. For one thing, until poets are in their 40s, there doesn’t seem to be much parity of access to print, so there could be a lot of good work by younger writers that just hasn’t gotten around yet. And many younger writers no doubt still have their work in this form still in front of them. It’s worth realizing that poets like Hilson, Sikélianòs, Bök, Spahr, Jarnot, Laynie Browne – some of whom feel like they’ve been around forever – are just now entering their 40s.² But Jackson Mac Low didn’t have his fourth book until he was 48 & didn’t really become widely known until he was in his 50s. We’ll no doubt see that same sequence replicated again.

As valuable as putting his contributors into chronological order is the decision to include poets from five nations: the U.K., U.S., Canada, Australia & New Zealand. This more accurately captures the world of poetry in the age of networks – not the situation in letters 30 years ago, but certainly the one we face today (and which will only become more, not less, international in the coming century). This in particular acknowledges the degree to which American poetry influenced its peers worldwide in the 20th century, while recognizing that, thanks to technology, we are now in a position where the link between location & influence is flexible, if not broken altogether. You need not live anymore on St. Marks Place or in San Francisco’s Mission District to have a global impact on poetry.

Donald Allen was fortunate (and also unfortunate³) in having the assistance of Robert Duncan in formulating his anthology roughly 50 years ago. While he was an active reader, it’s almost certainly true that he could never have come up with such a good selection of 44 poets entirely on his own. Hilson, in contrast, shows us that he did not have to rely on luck in putting together his collection, with an introduction that is considerably better than the brief one Allen was able to mount. You can download a PDF of Hilson’s here. It’s a good short discussion of the recent history of the sonnet and exemplary as an act of positioning for an anthology.

Shakespeare’s own sonnets were themselves written as an act of contestation – the “unlettered” writer from the sticks, better known for his work with a “low” form, theater, demonstrating that he could fashion a cycle of verse as well as any of the so-called University wits, as the School of Quietude was then known. Much of what makes this book great is that same sense of engagement – Berrigan’s sheer joy of composing sonnets “out of school,” so to speak, resuscitating a pattern that William Carlos Williams once dismissed as moribund & that Pound thought simply a “mistake.” Or Tim Atkins’ “Sonnet 20”:

Dogs
Window
Gar
.
.
.
.
.

March
.
.
in jet-streams, jet-streams
.

yabber

Certainly a sonnet is possible in which these words fall in these places. Yet is not clear if anything, in fact, is missing. As such, the text stands mute, ironic, self-amused all at once. Its use of reiteration & of slang, the mystery of the capital at the left-hand margin. Another poet who uses erasure is Jen Bervin, who grays out all but a handful of words in Shakespearean sonnets to fashion new ones that may be as simple as: “sluttish / wasteful war // you // wear this world out.” These words appear on lines 4, 5, 10 & 12 of Shakespeare’s 55th sonnet. Simple proximity pairs them into two two-line assertions. Each, it turns out, is five syllables long, the first breaking out into a two / three pattern focused on two-syllable words, the last into a one/four pattern, every word a single syllable. The force is palpable and one doesn’t mind at all the ways in which the poem has mined Ronald Johnson’s process with Milton’s Paradise Lost that resulted in Radi Os.

Poem after poem here offers new delights, like watching 84 brilliant physicists attack the same theoretical problem (or, conversely, 84 choreographers compose for the same score). Of the major forms in poetry, the sonnet is unique in not being predicated in some fashion upon prime numbers, the way we speak of iambic pentameter rather than the 10-syllable line, or how classic haiku uses three lines of 5, 7 & 5 (a sum of 17) syllables. Yet the sonnet’s 14 lines can be taken as double sevens, as three quatrains & a couplet, as multiple combinations adding up to an eight & a six, without even once challenging this strange conception I can only call 14ness. David Miller’s visual sonnets are paintings of 14 brushstrokes each. And we see poets here working in prose, in shorter forms or even, as in Allen Fisher’s excerpts from The Apocalyptic Sonnets, with a 28-line form (seven quatrains) that manages never to lose sight of its point of origin. Or Maurice Scully’s “Sonnet” that uses 14 stanzas, from two to nine lines each. Instead of stanza breaks, Scully’s shift their indentation.

So this book is a wonder. In addition to showing all the ways in which the sonnet might yet have a rich post-avant history, it is also a terrific demonstration of serious thinking about form as such. Nothing I’ve seen in the past decade, certainly, does a better job of showing just what that might be in practice, in contrast say to the use of pattern by so-called new formalism, which is a sham formalism at best. If, going forward, a poet takes the sonnet seriously, this book is where they will begin.

 

¹ One suspects that some of these absences can be traced directly back to questions of getting permission from persnickety estates, and the costs associated therewith.

² When I attended the 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference, really my first attempt at getting involved in the world of poetry, both of my own parents were 38. Anyone that age seemed self-evidently ancient.

³ Because some of the obvious omissions of the anthology – say Diane di Prima – can be traced back to Duncan’s hand. Plus Robert went around for decades telling everyone that he’d picked the poets who were included in the book, ultimately an overstatement.

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Monday, September 29, 2008

 

Radical Vernacular:
Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place

§

The architecture of Hettie Jones

§

Frank O’Hara in Italy

& at the Stork Club

§

Talking with Tao Lin

§

Poetry Bailout
Will Restore Confidence of Readers

§

PEN audience is shocked, shocked (!)
to discover that Amiri Baraka
& Terry McMillan
won’t be voting for McCain

§

Borders
has until Wednesday
to find a buyer

§

Videos of
Etheridge Knight & Harryette Mullen

§

John Ashbery’sThe Virgin King

§

Behind the Lines:
War Resistance Poetry
on the American Homefront
Since 1941

§

Technicians of the Sacred
40 th anniversary reading videos
(& audio)

§

Is Bob Dylan a poet?

17” & “21

§

Women poets
of Western North Carolina

§

Remembering Ahmad Faraz

§

In praise of Urban Dictionary

§

Rusty Morrison wins the James Laughlin Prize

§

60 Indian Poets

From Nissim Ezekiel to
Aimee Nezhukumatathil

a motley group of poets
formed in the 1980s”

§

American Book Review’s
Line on Line
(PDF)

§

Poetry & place
in the work of
Denja Abdullahi

§

Lyn Hejinian: two talks

The Rejection of Closure

§

The invention of Thomas James

§

Jewel of Medina publisher’s home
set on fire

§

Homer as history

§

An alternate history of
performance & poetry

§

Clive James, the dabbler

§

Kay Ryan, Emily Dickinson & Carla Bruni

§

Geof Huth reaches “Non
in his one-letter-per-day
reading of
The Alphabet

§

Jo McDougall’s
Emerson County Shaping Dream

§

Ben Okri: why teens are poets

§

Dinkar’s centennial

§

October 10th at the KGB
in New York City:
Jonathan Bumbauch, Harold Jaffe & Sheila E. Murphy

§

Ten books
that turned K. Silem Mohammad
onto poetry

§

Shakespeare on Toast

§

Missy McEwen’s review & interview blog

§

Tuesday at Writers House in Philly:
Ben Lerner

§

Galway / café / wine / time / Shore / more

§

More from Maya

§

Paul Muldoon & Ciaran Carson

§

Is e-lit dead already?

§

The editor as personal monster

§

Ann Beattie
on ambient sound in modern lit (MP3)

§

Who killed David Foster Wallace?

§

Milton, the exhibition,
Milton, the party

§

Why Syracuse (NY) isn’t Paris

§

When critics reach
the point of no return

§

A theological argument for
(and from) Projective Verse

§

More on bin Laden’s poetry

Streaming audio
of a bin Laden “reading

§

The best School of Quietude event this year

§

Doug Messerli
on the art of collaboration

§

Talking with Samuel Green

§

We missed
National Punctuation Day!

§

Setting William Stafford to music

§

Is Neal Stephenson the Tom Stoppard of sci-fi?

§

The Utah Book Award short list

§

That “mad, bad, dangerous” Byron

§

Simic’s Roth

§

Modeling & emulation
in writing

§

How journalism differs

§

Graphing theory’s decline

§

Godzilla vs. King Kong
of theory

§

Jaron Lanier & George Dyson on
Nasim Nicholas Taleb’s critique of statistics

§

The “reader in chief

9 poets,
all School of Q

§

Gagosian in Moscow

§

The beliefs of Gerhard Richter

§

Applause & the decline of
presidential rhetoric

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Sunday, September 28, 2008

 

Brewers win, Mets lose. Welcome to the playoffs, Milwaukee. We’ll see you in Philadelphia on Wednesday.

One sign I saw on the telecast of last night’s Phillies game –

Universal Sign
for Choking:

Hint: you can’t blame Willie Randolph this time.

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