Saturday, January 24, 2009

 


Friday, January 23, 2009

 

There were three instances of poetry during the inauguration of Barack Obama: the anointed inaugural poem by Elizabeth Alexander, and then two different parts of the closing benediction by Rev. Joseph Lowery: the opening, which quoted, sans attribution, James Weldon Johnson’s great “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” sometimes referred to as the “Negro National Anthem,” and then again at the end, when Lowery, the 87-year-old civil rights hero who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with his friend & collaborator, Martin Luther King, in 1957, pulled a moment seemingly out of the history both of the black church and do-wop dee jays¹, with

we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around ... when yellow will be mellow ... when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right.

It’s conceivable that this also is a quote, from the work of Muhammad Ali.

At the one inaugural party we attended later in the day – really more of a “Get outa town, George Bush” affair – I found that the suburban progressives of Chester County had not recognized the Johnson quote and were divided on Lowery’s later contribution, depending on whether or not they thought that humor was appropriate for an inauguration. (It was my favorite moment of the whole inauguration, if that tells you anything.) One school counselor told me that her high school only gets one “news” channel, Fox, and that Fox’s Talking Heads chatted over Alexander, making the poem impossible to hear. Others who had heard it found the poem “nice,” but uninspiring. I was repeatedly asked who Alexander was, answering that she’d taught with Obama at the University of Chicago, that she’d gotten her Ph.D. at Penn, but that I didn’t think she’d been chosen for her writing. Her poem has gotten several reviews (here, here, here, here and here), mostly negative. No matter, the forthcoming book version of the poem is already atop Amazon’s best-seller list.

One of my sons, tho, who has heard quite a bit more poetry than most of my suburban friends, was more interested in Alexander’s stilted delivery which paused. After. Every. Word. He wanted to know if Alexander had had a stroke. I had to explain to him that there is a kind of poetry in which writers do read. Like. That. It’s intended, I added, to underscore the thoughtfulness and urgency of the poem. “Shouldn’t the text do that?” he asked. I didn’t have an answer for that, at least beyond my Cheshire-like grin.

 

¹ One can almost hear Jerry Blavat, “the Geator with the Heator, the Boss with the Hot Sauce,” saying these lines.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

 

Introducing Erica Hunt

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Untitled New York:
Speculations on the Expanded Field of Writing

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A large anthology of new Russian poetry
in the latest number of Jacket

Read more »

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

 

There was nothing ironic in my choice of an image for Saturday’s notice of the passing of Andrew Wyeth. “Trodden Weed,” the 1951 painting I featured, is one of Wyeth’s few self-portraits. In the painting, Wyeth is wearing boots that once belonged to Howard Pyle, the founder of the Brandywine school of painting & teacher of N.C. Wyeth, Andrew’s father & a famous illustrator in his own right. It was N.C.’s illustrations for Treasure Island that enabled him to buy property in Chadds Ford, maybe 10 miles southwest of here. Technically, Chadds Ford is the western tip of Delaware County, but the tiny town where the Battle of the Brandywine – the worst defeat on home soil in the history of the American military – was fought on September 11, 1777 has much more in common with Chester County, which surrounds it on three sides.

Unquestionably, Andrew Wyeth was, is & will ever be the most famous visual artist to come from the western ‘burbs of Philadelphia.¹ That self-portrait shows him walking over Kuerner’s Hill in Chadds Ford, not far from the home where he died. Tempera on a panel, “Trodden Weed” – or “Night Sleeper” above – captures the very fine balancing act that Wyeth’s work always involved:  simply awesome technique, an uncritical sense of painting just ever so slightly on the impressionistic side of realism & an understanding that sentimentality would capsize this genuinely conservative aesthetic. The closest thing to Andrew Wyeth in the world of poetry is probably Wendell Berry, and I mean that as a compliment to both.

I never met Wyeth, never saw him at the Brandywine River Museum that is something of a Wyeth family headquarters for the general public, never ran into him at Hank’s, the diner he ate at once a week (but where I eat only once every couple of years), never saw him out in the yard at his place, tho it’s on one the main roads, one I’ve driven hundreds of times.

But you can’t live here and not feel his presence. He did more to give shape to this region’s sense of self-image than any other single individual, including I dare say George Washington.

 

¹ Tho she once owned the mansion that is now the Upper Mainline YMCA in Berwyn, Mary Cassatt never lived there.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

 


Barack Obama in Paoli, PA nine months ago yesterday

Today is one of the most momentous days in American history. Regardless of how far short of its initial promise the Obama administration should fall – and there really is no other possibility, given just how high expectations are – there can be no question that a profound transformation in American society is being set into motion. Even if you are someone who is quite skeptical of the Democrats in general – and, say,  unhappy that Rick Warren was chosen for the inaugural prayer or that Obama wants Big Medicine apologist and all-around empty suit Sanjay Gupta for Surgeon General – you can’t fail to recognize the shift away from the imperial malevolency that has sent this nation spinning out of control with wars of choice & economies of chance over the past eight years.

There are a lot of layers of event going on here at once. The most obvious is the end of a white male monopoly on power. And a step toward fully committing this country to Thomas Jefferson’s initial vision that all men are created equal, a vision that Jefferson himself could not live up to.

As important, at least, is the turn away from the pursuit of foreign policy through bullying – the “toga boys rule the world” mindset brought in by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al. Far from being the world’s only superpower, we are a nation that has failed miserably at every single military adventure we’ve set our mind to, with the possible exception of the invasion of Grenada, since the end of World War II. The number of people who have died because we don’t understand – or acknowledge – our own history is startling. The percentage of those people who happen to be civilians and even children is stomach turning.

Simply by not being Bush, and by not being identified as white, and having positioned himself as the champion of change, Barack Obama does this nation an enormous amount of good. But the challenges facing the new administration are way beyond daunting. When Nero died, the Roman empire went through three more emperors in less than a year. Anyone who thinks we’re in for an easy time over the next 48 months simply hasn’t been paying attention.

I have my own reservations and concerns about the new administration. When I first endorsed Obama on February 11 of last year, I did so not because I thought he was the most progressive of candidates, but because he was the one I thought had the best chance of winning. Policy wise, he was best candidate on one issue – Iraq – but quite thoroughly one of the pack among that particular group of Democrats on everything else.

Right now, my biggest concerns are that the new president won’t get the best advice from his cabinet of mostly recycled Clintonites. And that he may be making the same mistake that neutered Jerry Brown’s governorship in California a generation ago. Brown, who came to office in 1975 mostly on the name recognition of his father, a former governor who preceded Ronald Reagan in that post, likewise ran as a post-partisan agent of change. And Brown, ever the Jesuit, really meant it. In practice this translated into a belief that government should “raise the contradictions” that already exist within society. So Brown appointed the most militant of troglodytes to various law enforcement positions, while putting serious pacifists and progressives into positions in the courts.

I actually stopped the appointment of Brown’s choice to head the state parole board, Raymond Procunier, who had been the head of the prison system during the days of the San Quentin Six and Soledad Brother fiascos. I knew that “Pro” had taken charge of the board weeks before Brown was ready to announce it, so all I had to do was leak it to the San Francisco Examiner and suggest that Brown was hiding what he knew would be a controversial appointment, since most people on the left thought Pro was responsible for the death of George Jackson. It was Brown’s secrecy more than Procunier’s record that scotched that appointment, but it also was very quickly the first in a series of "gotchas" within the Brown administration where the liberals were only too happy to “take out” the reactionaries – and vice versa. Brown’s chief counsel was soon busted because of 300 marijuana plants being grown in the backyard by his wife (herself then the chief lawyer for the Northern California chapter of the ACLU). I’ve always thought that this was payback for the Procunier misadventure. Brown’s administration never did get its sea legs, and the justices that he appointed to the State Supreme Court were eventually voted out of office because of their opposition to the death penalty.

In trying to “raise the contradiction,” Brown functionally cancelled himself out.. For largely the same reasons, I don’t think it’s feasible to truly have a “national unity” government in Washington. Rick Warren is only there for one bit of distasteful show business, but other divisions run deeper and are already visible. For example, Samantha Power, who was forced to resign her post as a foreign policy adviser to Obama during the campaign after she was quoted in the media as characterizing Hillary Clinton as a “monster” is back already as a key transition team member. I can’t imagine that she’s going to have much luck advising the new secretary of state.

So I’m holding my breath. I think the immediate challenges before us are horrific, and our options aren’t all that many. Further, there remains a tremendous amount of unfinished business in this country, a nation in which black men are still more likely to go prison than college, where women still earn less than their counterparts, where nobody wants to admit to the genocide of native peoples on which this nation was built, and where many gay & lesbian citizens are far from equal in the face of the law.

Still, today is a day when we can all feel the pent-up demand for change that exists in our society. And we can see that as a people we’ve taken a concrete step, however timorously, toward unleashing those forces. I think we’re in for some very interesting times.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

 

By the time you read these words, this blog may well have crossed the 2,000,000 visits threshold. The Site Meter counter on the left will tell the tale. I continue to be amazed at the number of visits this blog receives each day, on average over 1,700. People click on roughly twice that number of links; the amount of time the average visitor spends on this site has increased by more than 50 percent in the past year. And the numbers continue to rise: it took six years, four months & three weeks to reach two million, but at the current run rate it would take just four years to reach the next two million. The record for the most number of visits in one hour – 197 – was set January 16.

It was Daniel Silliman who first persuaded me that one could blog about serious topics. Laura Willey taught me the little I know about HTML. Lynn Behrendt has stepped in during the past year to make sure that the blogroll is current. If I had a dollar for every typo that Lynn and others have pointed out, I could probably throw one heck of a party for everyone who has ever read these pages.

As it evolves, this blog is less about me and more about poetry, which is, I think, as it should be. My goal in starting the blog was not simply to promote my own ideas about a form I’ve loved & practiced since I was a teenager, but to get poets themselves talking again, without having to go through the grotesque filter of the academy to do so. The presence of more than one thousand blogs in the blogroll to the left is the best test of how well I might be doing.

I have stayed with a simple format, and with Blogspot, the entire time precisely because I want to make the point that any one can do this. It takes no particular genius, and only the most modest computer skills, to create a blog. Some of the features I’ve added over time, such as the links lists that turn up here once or twice per week, could be replicated by anyone. The actual format of the links list owes a debt to the poetry of Ted Berrigan as well as to Robert Creeley’s Pieces. I started by putting together some Google alerts, but at this point the majority of links are suggested by readers.

I’m pleased obviously that some of my ideas – that of the post-avant, the School of Quietude, the idea of a New Western or Zen Cowboy tradition of poetry coming out of the New American poetics – have demonstrated some legs. I agree with my harshest critics that School of Quietude, as a construct, is (as one wag put it) criminally vague, but it was never intended as anything other (or better) than a place holder. The minute someone within that tradition begins to take on the responsibility for describing with much greater accuracy its many sub-tendencies and internal points of contention (which surely exist), the phrase will disappear like fog burning off in a morning sky.

That nobody in the past five years has taken up that challenge suggests just how strongly the poetics of the unmarked case is invested in its own invisibility, in the false notion that it is “just poetry,” with the inevitable implication that any poetics that is preceded by an adjective is in some manner marginal, not to be taken seriously. I don’t agree with the phrase Official Verse Culture (and even less with the concept “mainstream,” which is an outright lie) because I don’t think there is any necessary connection between this verse tradition and institutional power. Power is something that could & should be shared by all the traditions of poetry.

Described and conceptualized correctly, the conservative tradition that I have been characterizing as the School of Quietude has a history that is long & interesting, perhaps more than one might think since its roots are pretty much forgotten. In the U.S., it extends back not to Dickinson & Whitman, but to Jones Very, James Russell Lowell, Sidney Lanier & their peers. One of the great questions for the School of Quietude is why does it let its history languish so? A second one might be why are so many of its greatest practitioners, starting with Hart Crane & Wallace Stevens, perpetually rebelling against its norms? If I were a young poet working in that tradition (and, forty-plus years ago, I was just such a poet), the implications of questions like these would make me think very hard about the long-term wisdom of what I was doing.

So I will keep making this point, obnoxious as it surely is, until somebody shuts me up by actually doing the work needed to describe the true terrain of that side of the literary spectrum. But I agree that once somebody does this, the acronym SoQ will very quickly go into the dustbin of history.

Conversely, I’m also very pleased to see the emergence of actual tendencies of poetry in the U.S. that are clear enough in their aesthetics, their politics, and their sense of themselves to take on names – flarf, conceptual poetics, possibly even American hybrid (a better term than elliptical, tho I’m not convinced that it’s any more descriptive of what’s really going on there than “third way”). More than anything, I think this new militancy represents a generational change in poetry, and all to the good. The poets (if not the poetry) that came after language writing tended very much to avoid such terms and group designations. To a significant degree, I think that that allergy toward self- and group identification ran historically parallel to the ascendancy of the right after the election of Ronald Reagan (& deepened by the so-called fall of Communism). Perhaps we all owe George W. Bush a big vote of thanks for bringing that period to a close. That poets no longer feel so constrained is, I think, a good thing. But I think that there is also lots of room for argument, even among post-avants, as to what’s useful or interesting to do.

For one thing, it’s worth noting that the only literary movement that truly is post-language poetry in the sense of doing things langpo never envisioned would seem to be flarf. Conceptual poetics seems weighted down with neo-Dada / neo-Fluxus nostalgia (& Fluxus already was a movement dripping with nostalgia). Hybrid writing is that aesthetic of not taking sides – it should work out as well for these poets as it did for M.L. Rosenthal’s idea of confessionalism, that pained & silly attempt to suggest that Robert Lowell & Anne Sexton were doing the same thing as Allen Ginsberg & the Beats & therefore really were more interesting than their poetry.

And I don’t think anybody yet has figured out how to handle the evolving revolution in poetry’s relationship to its audience. We have way more than ten thousand publishing poets in the English language, which is maybe ten times what it was when I was in my early 20s & close to 100 times what it was when the New Americans were making their way in the 1950s. In another decade, we will easily have more than 20,000 publishing poets. Does anybody think that the actual reading audience for poetry has grown proportionately? (The only way to answer yes to that is if you think nobody reads poetry – or at least reads it seriously – but poets.) This is a far more profound change than, say, the collapse of trade publishing, the death of bookstores that won’t carry your chapbook, or the fact that we are producing close to a thousand new poets every year when the number of jobs for poets expands by about 50.

All of which is to say that there is a lot to talk about, think about, do if you’re a poet or even vaguely interested in the art. Thanks for coming along for the ride this far. I appreciate your comments, your contributions, and your own blogs more than you’ll ever know.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

 

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