Saturday, September 21, 2002

Philadelphia is just large enough as a literary scene to occasionally present the “problem” of two good readings on the same evening. Due to some fortuitous timing, I was able to scoot between venues and hear Dale Smith & Hoa Nguyen at Writers House on the Penn campus, followed by Joan Retallack & Matt Chambers at the Temple Gallery in Olde City. 

Smith & Nguyen are two San Francisco poets who relocated a couple of years back to Austin, Texas, where they publish a range of American poetry under the banner of Skanky Possum ( While there are many poets today who have become established as writers in relative isolation far from the major writing centers of New York & San Francisco (or even secondary ones such as Washington, Philadelphia, San Diego or Boston), it’s an exceptionally challenging task, especially for someone who is working within alternative or post-avant traditions. Poets such as Tom Beckett, Lorenzo Thomas, Charles Alexander and Sheila Murphy all have demonstrated that it is possible to craft a successful poetic career in such a context that is not local in its scope, but they all also can probably attest to just how difficult this can be. Or see Juliana Spahr’s comments on the blog for September 14 on the use of Chain as a mechanism for keeping her connected to the literary community “over there (continent).” Nguyen & Smith are like Thomas, in that they’ve used their pre-move literary connections wisely to keep them plugged in. And they have the advantage, historically, of the web’s erasure of physical distance – there is more connectivity, for example, between poets as distant as Ireland and New Zealand today than has ever been the case before in history. But it’s a challenge that I as a young poet would not have had the courage to tackle.

Smith & Nguyen have distinct voices and are given to working on different sorts of projects. Listening or reading to Smith, one hears the influence, say, of the late Ed Dorn, in Smith’s uses of scholarship, though not in the actual devices or strategies of the poem. That a poet under the age of 40 thinks to make use of the work of Haniel Long, for example, ought to be grounds for celebration for that fact alone. After reading from her chapbooks, Nguyen sampled fragments from a piece in progress, a narrative about the life of her mother*, that promises to turn into something fabulous.

But the problem with two readings in one night in Philadelphia is that the audience isn’t quite there to support both equally. The event at Writers House had no more than 20 people – no one at Penn is apparently teaching Nguyen & Smith’s work this term – while there were 100 crammed into the oxygen-deprived Temple Gallery** to hear Joan Retallack. Matt Chambers, a “second-year writer” at Temple (and formerly of SUNY Buffalo), opened with a piece filled with dense philosophic metalanguage, undercut by the presence of multiple tape players scattered throughout the audience that echoed elements of the reading.

Retallack has arrived at that wonderful moment in a poet’s life – she is at the top her game, completely confident in what she’s doing (& with good reason) while continuing to go new places with every project she takes on. The excitement is both palpable and contagious. Hearing her read was the perfect capstone to the evening – and made me realize that had the four readers shared a single stage, the order could not have been better.

*”I haven’t even gotten to the part where she runs away with the circus yet…”

**The Temple Gallery can be an especially difficult space to hear poetry and exacerbates this by being the only venue I’ve ever been to that lacks restrooms, drinking fountains and wheelchair accessibility all at once. This is not what Zukofsky meant by the “test of poetry.”

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Friday, September 20, 2002

Corrected the link in today's note – thanks to Laura of for catching that. Ron


Having praised Joseph Massey’s Minima St., one aspect of the book continues to haunt. If its truest predecessor might be George Oppen’s Discrete Series, what does that mean? Discrete Series was published 68 years ago; Oppen himself has been gone for nearly 20. Do my sardonic comments comparing “mainstream” poets with Bing Crosby* not apply if, in fact, the writing from the 1930s happens to be work within my own literary tradition?

I was mulling this over when I came across the first sonnet in Anselm Hollo’s most recent collection, So the Ants Made it to the Catfood (Samizdat, 2001), which begins:

now that some of the young ones
have taken to writing
like Eugene Jolas and Elsa von Freytag again
(if not quite as vigorously)
(pass the thesaurus, said the dinosaurus)
we may once again enjoy the “oh I see
(s)he just found out about that” experience

My own first book, Crow (Ithaca House, 1971), was composed largely under the spell of William Carlos Williams’ Spring & All, which Harvey Brown’s Frontier Press had re-released in 1970. Williams’ book, which had first appeared in 1923, was more radical than almost anything appearing in print in the 1960s. But it was radical not in the Jolas/von Freytag sense of a circus of typographies – Williams’ essay in action was revolutionary in its common sense about the nature of writing & its relation to the world. Forty-seven years after its first publication, Spring & All was still revolutionary.**

If the history of poetry is ultimately a history of change, any model of such a history would account not only for the movement of poetry, the elaboration of new devices and forms, the perpetual redefinition of literature itself, but also for the capacity of all forms to carry onward from whatever point they become socially established as viable. For forms linger indefinitely.

Consider this. Poetry Daily’s directory of current articles and reviews in web-accessible media ( lists the following, as the sum of what was being discussed this week:

<![if !supportLists]>·        <![endif]>Seven pieces on British poets, including two each on Auden and Motion and one review of a Wilfred Owens biography – the bulk of these come from The Guardian, perhaps the only English-language publication in the world that would consider running more than two pieces on poetry in one week
<![if !supportLists]>·        <![endif]>Two pieces on Dana Gioia’s Can Poetry Matter? including one by Adam Kirsch in the militantly conservative New York Sun that characterizes the book as “"one of the most important American books of poetry criticism of the last 50 years."
<![if !supportLists]>·        <![endif]>Two pieces on poet laureate Billy Collins from the Indianapolis Star and Seattle Weekly
<![if !supportLists]>·        <![endif]>An obituary of William Phillips, founder of the Partisan Review, the journal that proved central to the career of Robert Lowell and his group of Brahmans
<![if !supportLists]>·        <![endif]>A review of Mona Van Duyn’s Selected Poems from the New York Times
<![if !supportLists]>·        <![endif]>Seven items on poetry in relation to the commemoration to the September 11th attacks
<![if !supportLists]>·        <![endif]>One seasonal item – Edward Hirsch’s column from the Washington Post – on Yom Kippur
<![if !supportLists]>·        <![endif]>An article on the nominations process for the poet laureate position in Louisiana from the New Orleans Times-Picayune
<![if !supportLists]>·        <![endif]>A piece on the poet Susan Firer from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that actually mentions Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, Ted Berrigan, Kenneth Koch and Alice Notley, “whose thorny work is a strong influences [sic] on her right now.”

Is it any wonder that a general reader might come away with the impression that American writing is, at best, a tributary of the most reactionary British literary tendencies? In this context, a work that demonstrates an affiliation with George Oppen’s early writing most definitely gets a pass – Discrete Series is in many ways more current and relevant than at least 14 of the 15 “non-911” items that appeared in the past week. Spring & All is beyond imagining.

But I worry that I/we fail to do ourselves justice if we merely settle for the perpetuation of our own favorite genres of the past. In my own case, it is true that I needed to go through the writing of Williams in order to begin my own work. It is also true that today there are at least a half dozen different versions of post-Objectivism about. Those that merely replicate the surface features of the poems seem to me radically at odds with what Oppen, Zukofsky, Rakosi, Reznikoff, Niedecker and Bunting were up to some 70 years ago.

*See my note for September 2 in the archive. What this question regarding Minima St. highlights, however indirectly, is that normative mainstream poetry really is the literary equivalent of something that comes before Bing Crosby! Thus Robert Pinsky might be thought of as the contemporary of, say, Scott Joplin, rather than of Anthony Braxton or John Zorn.

** & 32 years after the Frontier Press edition, it still is.

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Thursday, September 19, 2002

In his statement for Michael Lally’s 1976 anthology, None of the Above, the late Jim Gustafson admonished, “Suggest that one strives to read something more than the books that come in the mail.” It’s not bad advice, but doesn’t account for the unexpected delights that once in a rare while do turn up. Joseph Massey’s Minima St. (Range Press, 2002) is just such a treat.

In actuality, Minima St. (a self-published limited edition chapbook with a press run of just 50 copies) wasn’t a total surprise. Rae Armantrout, who had received the book in her mail ahead of me, had written to say that I would like the work. The poems are, as the title wryly implies, minimalist:

by the ticking

not the alarm.

Such close attention to detail demands both precision and a sense of balance – the stanza break prior to the last line is the poem’s most important moment. As a whole, Minima St. manages both values well. I vacillate between a preference for poems like the one above, which focus on an individual element, and other pieces that are less completely descriptive, where the text pushes the reader some to make the connections:

            Gulls –



The off-rhyme pulls together the imponderables: how songs might collapse, the weight of sun, what any of this has to do with gulls.

Minima St. fits into a long tradition of self-published first books mailed out to potentially sympathetic readers that can be traced back at least far as Whitman’s initial edition of Leaves of Grass. In its use of short forms, hard-edged lines, commitment to precision, and especially its fondness for the strategically placed em dash, the most obvious predecessor to Massey’s volume might be George Oppen’s Discrete Series.

Interested readers might be able to obtain copies by emailing

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Wednesday, September 18, 2002

The Envelope, Please by Swifty Lazarus, a collaboration between Canadian expatriate poet Todd Swift and composer Tom Walsh, is the latest attempt to wed the impulses of poetry to sound recording in some format beyond the traditional reading. The major influences – & they’re right out front & center – include Laurie Anderson; the Bill Burroughs of Towers Open Fire; the Brian Eno-David Byrne project, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts; touches of Brecht & Weill; Godard’s sound tracks; and just maybe the backwards-talking dwarf from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.

There is some good writing here, but mostly you have to read the liner notes to get to it. The problem is, I think, inherent in the medium. To carry over as anything other than pure reading, the text as literary signifier must choose to do one of three things:
<![if !supportLists]>·        <![endif]>focus solely on itself as signifier, becoming sound poetry
<![if !supportLists]>·        <![endif]>enter into a collaboration with other media and genre expectations, or
<![if !supportLists]>·        <![endif]>subordinate itself to another form altogether
Ultimately, those aren’t such attractive alternatives.

Collaborations between media are less common than those within one. The major challenge for any collaboration, regardless of the genre involved, is the surrender of control between players and between the conjoined forms. But whereas, within any single medium, two participants or players must arrive at a position that enables each to function, often enough something no one individual involved could have conceived of on his or her part alone, between media the gap can yawn so large that ultimately their interaction may not matter all that much.* It does matter in The Envelope, Please as a gathering of diverse poems (all by Swift, save for one by Adeena Karasick that is buried deep in the found-language layers of a 12 minute track) are transformed into the sonic shadows of recordings we already know, avant-garde as nostalgia. Several of the texts appear to have been written for Lazarus: there are generalizations so bald that they could not have been intended for consumption by a reader – “If History is dead, why do things still happen? / If there is no Truth, why do I bother lying?” But the title piece is a quiet surreal lyric that gets lost as a sort of preface in its 30-second format.

Texts that are subordinated within another form often work best when they immerse themselves without looking back. The poets who have had the most success with careers in popular music – Anderson, Jim Carroll, Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen – produce words for music that share relatively little with their best known writing. Similarly, the finest musical texts in recent years – the work, say, of Dave Carter or Townes Van Zandt – don’t stand up well on the printed page, precisely because they were never conceived as doing so.

Containing sound, reference, syntax, and context, language is déjà toujours intermedia. The instant it combines with any form of instrumentation, the entire history of song is invoked and the result, regardless of how well intended, can never be innocent. Consider from the perspective of poetry the comic inappropriateness of Steve Reich’s filigreed setting for the work of William Carlos Williams as art song in The Desert Music compared with the far more powerful use of found language a much younger Reich demonstrated in tape loops such as Come Out.**  In projects that recruit poetry into other media, the ultimate question of context cannot be begged: where is the language most itself? Collaborators who forget or ignore that question do so at their own risk.

*The most successful intermedia collaborations in recent years – between poets & painters and between poets & dancers – have been in forms where the text functions alongside the other medium, rather than within it.

** A participant in a riot explains on tape what he needed to do to convince the police to get him medical attention:
I had to, like,
open the bruise up
and let some of the bruise blood
come out to show them.
The tape adds, then phases out of synch, multiple tracks of this last line until it gradually evolves into a roar.

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Tuesday, September 17, 2002

Against the orgy of unrelievably bad public poetry commemorating the first anniversary of the September 11th attacks, I had the occasion to read Allen Curnow’s “A Framed Photograph” from his 1972 serial poem Trees, Effigies, Moving Objects, in which the assassinations of the brothers Kennedy is posed against the consequences of their own actions elsewhere in the world, as in this stanza:

Act one, scene one
of the bloody melodrama. Everyone listened
while everyone read their poems. BANG! BANG!
and we cried all the way to My Lai. 

Which in turn brought me back to the poems concerning JFK’s assassination that were written by Jack Spicer and Louis Zukofsky and beyond that, the anti-Vietnam War poems by Robert Duncan and Allen Ginsberg. While none of these were explicitly written for “command performance” occasions, all show the range of what might be possible within this genre that I might characterize as shared public emotion – from the most personal (Zukofsky’s “A”-23) to the most declamatory (Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra, Part II” or Duncan’s “The Fire, Passages 13”).

Spicer’s JFK poem appears in Language:

Smoke signals
Like in the Eskimo villages on the coast where the earthquake hit
Bang, snap, crack. They will never know what hit them
On the coast of Alaska. They expect everybody to be insane.
This is a poem about the death of John F. Kennedy.

Spicer’s poem replicates the process of grieving in the way that grief turns everything, no matter how remote – here a description of the 1964 Alaskan earthquake – into a commentary on its obsessive object. It’s no coincidence that two phrases – “Smoke signals” and “Bang, snap, crack” – apply equally to the devastation in Anchorage & the shots ringing out over Elm Street in Dallas.

Spicer’s ambivalence over public language is on record. His very last poem, concluding Book of Magazine Verse, takes an unnamed Ginsberg to task for allowing himself to be chosen Kraj Majales in a Prague May Day celebration. One poem earlier, Spicer makes the claim that

They’ve (the leaders of our country) have become involved in a network of lies.
We (the poets) have also become in network of lies by opposing them.*

It’s a position that Spicer knows is untenable. Indeed, irresolvable conflict is the primary Spicerian theme. Spicer himself wrote obliquely about the Vietnam War earlier in that same book. And the final poem to Ginsberg concedes that “we both know how shitty the world is,” refusing to place Spicer above the very same behavior he is about to criticize. Yet, while it is possible to argue that, at least in Magazine Verse, Spicer chooses individual human relations over social ones (which thus would be the point of his announced solidarity with the Prague police rather than the counter-cultural demonstrators with whom Ginsberg was parading), the JFK poem clearly places Spicer on the other side of that line. This is ambivalence in the most literal sense.

All of this harkens back to Wordsworthian homilies concerning emotion recollected in tranquility when tranquility is precisely what is lacking if the poem is to be taken as a possible transcript of consciousness (as Wordsworth himself does in the Crossing the Alps section of The Prelude), a category that is as inclusive of emotion as it is of thought. Add to this the impulse to “even out” rough edges until the product shines with that glazed state of crockery called the well-wrought urn** and you have a prescription for literary disaster of titanic – and Titanic – proportions.

*I have always wondered whether to assign the “missing” words in that second line to Spicer’s alcoholism, which would kill him only weeks after this was written, or if in fact the absence of “involved” in particular signaled a deeper level of meaning.

** See my comments for September 5.

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Monday, September 16, 2002

Where is the center of human
suffering? A tight pit at
the pit of the city with the brighter
flesh radiating outward.
Or inside
out, the dark rings around the city moving
in and in? At St. Denis? A man
by the freeway picks black-
berries, and no wood-

lot loomed without song.
Fields of wild mustard outside the sub-
division mushroom, each
<![if !supportLineBreakNewLine]>
one a Flower Beneath the Foot / Sudan / cut off the hands
of my dream when waiting for such things as “Good
night” at the end of the beginning of sleep. Pledge

allegiance, he said, or the pain
starts again. I lived by my book but they asked me to move my body

through a series of movements called “work”     What is the name
that is the game, of the essences of objects of pain? I is another
name of the labels

of laughable
[detours], contents, i.e.,

Night Road Work

These lines are among the most thoroughly conceived and written, most thoroughly heard (&, not coincidentally, felt) since Charles Olson was a young man. The comparison is apt if only because the writer, Eleni Sikelianos, uses many, if not all, of the devices in Olson’s tool kit as she works through this passage, the first third or so of a poem called “The Brighter Flesh,” from Blue Guide, the first of the two books that make up Earliest Words (Coffee House Press, 2001). This formal vocabulary, I would argue, is carried further than Olson himself could have done – follow the “i” and “t” sounds through that first stanza, initially separated in “is” and “center” (that sibilant s sound hissing their segregation), joined in the second line, playing off the contrast between long & short vowel in  “tight pit,” then again in the third line – “pit,” “city,” “brighter” – only to foliate in the fourth within “radiating” (Sikelianos gets more emphasis out of that intervening long “a” than any poet I can recall), only to turn them around & around again through the end of this sentence nearly two lines later. As an instance of pure technical brilliance, the passage is breathtaking, but where it is propelling us as readers turns out to be even more so: to the violence of Sharia, the rule of law imposed by Islamic fundamentalists. Enjambment here governs the prosody of nightmare. 

Earliest Words (and Blue Guide in particular) is filled with such mouth-dropping moments, many of which have relatively little to share with Olson or the Pound/Williams tradition in general (there are, for example, some great prose poems here). But reading this passage & others like it for the first time this past spring made me realize just how long it had been since I had seen anybody do something profoundly useful with this set of discursive tools. You have to go back to the books of the Acoma Pueblo poet Simon Ortiz from the late 1970s to see poetry achieve anything genuinely new in this vein. 

An interesting poet to contrast with Sikelianos might be Rachel Blau DuPlessis, whose Drafts also sometimes carry the surface characteristics of the Pound/Olson tradition of the long poem. If you read DuPlessis chronologically, however, I think you see a rather different developmental journey from her early post-Objectivist impulses toward a work with extraordinary scope and complexity. In short, she has arrived at this outer appearance to her texts quite independently and, if you look at the individual sections closely, they don’t function anything like logical extensions of Pound’s or Olson’s uses of history and reference. Where “the guys” expound, argue and hector in their poetry, DuPlessis thinks. Not surprisingly, it is DuPlessis you meet in the text of Drafts, while Pound & Olson both used the written as though it were a wall they were building between themselves and the reader (Pound’s “great acorn of light” is, in  fact, intended to blind). The result has a radically different affect. It is this point at which DuPlessis’ poetry and that of Sikelianos meet.

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