Saturday, November 09, 2002

First thought, best thought

I’ve always been interested in the poem’s relationship to the process of thinking & often see poems as documents of that process. From Kerouac’s speed-ridden prose scroll through Olson’s sometimes stumbling forward, using enjambment  & variable line length in his poems to lurch towards an idea, to Ginsberg’s transcription of audio tapes in “Wichita Vortex Sutra” or Duncan’s wrong-headed insistence that his final book appear typed rather than typeset so as to capture best what the poet thought he was doing at that instant, I’ve been drawn to works that often are written so as to appear unfinished, in progress, the poetic equivalent I suppose of “distressed” furniture or pre-faded jeans.

Not surprisingly, then, I think of myself as somebody who doesn’t revise much in my own poetry. So I was surprised this past Spring doing a little tour of the Southwest (Tucson & San Diego) when a woman at one of the events insisted that my own writing process appeared to be one of total revision. What I do in practice – and this pretty much has been the process for the past few years – is to gather individual sentences into a notebook (of late, into a Palm Pilot) until I have a decent number of them, at least 100, sometimes as many as 150. I then sit down with whatever notebook I’m using and with my trusty (if rusty) old Waterman felt-tip pen that I bought at a stationer’s just down from Zabar’s on the Upper West Side of Manhattan back in 1981 and use those sentences to compose the next passage of whichever work is at hand. Sometimes I’ll use just a few sentences, but other times it might be a fair number. On rare occasions, I’ll insert some sentence that occurs to me during this process, usually out of a sense that “this sentence belongs right here.” Once the number of raw sentences “in the hopper” drops down to a certain level, however, somewhere around 80, I seem to need to stop, there no longer being enough raw material from which to select. From the Palm Pilot to the notebook, I do make significant changes, even rewriting the basic sentence, although this occurs maybe in no more than five percent of the sentences I eventually use. & it’s possible for a sentence to “hang out” in the Palm Pilot (or the pocket notebooks & Sharp Organizer that I used before that) for perhaps two years or more before I decide that I really must not be intending to use that sentence. One the notebook itself is “complete” (& my definition of what that means changes from project to project), I type the poem into the PC. At this level, I change well under a single word per page – and this is what I’m thinking about when I say that I don’t make much use of revision. From end to end, this process can easily take years.

The argument that this one questioner put to me was that the revision was in the translation from Palm Pilot into the notebook. I’ve been mulling that idea over for months & it still makes me furrow my brow. At some level, I don’t think I’ve committed to the sentence until I get it into the notebook – I have no idea, even intuitively, where or how it might be used, the context into which I will finally place it. So it doesn’t feel to me that I’m actually writing poetry until I have my Waterman in hand with a physical notebook.* How then could that be a process of revision?

One of my favorite poets in the universe, Rae Armantrout, however, has a radically different approach to the question. Revision plays a strategic role in her writing process, perhaps its most critical element. Armantrout tries out an almost infinite number of possible combinations before committing to even the shortest passage. In addition, Armantrout is one poet who uses what any marketer or product development specialist would recognize as a focus group as part of her process. She sends draft versions of poems to a handful of friends, myself among them, asking for our response, advice, possible revisions, etc. She used to do this in person when we lived not so far from one another in San Francisco, then by mail for many years after she and her family moved back to San Diego. With email, however, the process has accelerated. There have been instances in which I’ve received four different versions of a single text within the space of one hour. And while I & the other members of the feedback team (or however Armantrout thinks of us) have over the years learned to be fearless in the suggestions we can & do make – a less confident poet would be crushed by some of the things we say – my sense is that Armantrout almost always does exactly what she herself intended to do with the poem, using us as much as anything as a means of clarifying her own thinking about the text.

One side effect of this process for me is that I often see so many versions of a single poem that I have no clear idea in my mind which version Armantrout eventually settled on until I see the work in print. Sometimes it’s a version that’s slightly different from every version I’ve seen. No one is more surprised by Armantrout’s poetry in a new volume than I am.

Today about dawn I was reading a passage in Frank Stanford’s The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You in which the writing is, as often it is in this fabulous book, delightfully over-the-top:
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God has lost so much blood now he can’t speak he had to go to giving
hand signals like a deaf and dumb man
all was silent as a winter pond silent and untrue like a featherless arrow
like a shaft of sleeping wine beneath a tree the rotting teeth
and the dreaming knife and my dreams still ricocheting so close
and so far apart like journeys into space like the fast madness
of butcherbirds like field mice and toads and grass snakes all of them
with holes in their head have you seen that bird beating the minnow
against the branch he’s got him by the tail the eyes of the minnow like rubies
tin lids with their duets under the creek in the moonlight
like planetoids who never make it weep for the children with their bellies
buzzing like a hornets’ nest full of snakeskins made by the sparrow
the pieces of stars passing my ship
so slowly I can reach out and touch them if I could
I lay in slumber charged with death
stuck like a sword in a battleground giving its aria
like a dancer coming to life
in the solar ditch I ask the sailor of space touch one
finger with the other like a symphony the blessed legend in the void all over
again o how we died
ago we slept friends I tell you I heard the oboes that belong to the wolf
the opera two steps from the blues the light years boogie all the
time I heard the blind tiger guitar so that is how it goes how my dreams
those sad captains
treat me the unkept rendezvous with the void which is black the pocketknives
I lose in infinity those blades of grass that cut you in the dark

“Those sad captains” stopped me cold, although I’d already tripped over the reference to Peter and the Wolf three lines earlier. Is Stanford here alluding to Marc Antony? To Thom Gunn? To the sentimental story by Sarah Orne Jewett? Is it something that just popped into his head from the overheard & undigested language of everyday life? If I had to guess, I’d wager Shakespeare, but, like the allusion to Prokofiev, the intrusion of any sort of book learning is so curiously Other in this text that it can only send shivers through the poem, a memento mori to the preliterate society Stanford is exploring.

These lines are filled with phrases that don’t bear too much probing “like planetoids who never make it,” “the blind tiger guitar,” “the sailor of space,” etc., yet collectively work because they’re so consistently excessive. It’s more that these gaudy phrases mark the speed of writing than they do any point of reference within. When one does suddenly resonate with meaning, the impact can be dazzling. For me, this whole passage is completely justified by giving occasion to “like a sword in a battleground giving its aria.”

Without ever having seen the original manuscript of Battlefield, I would suspect that it doesn’t show much in the way of revision – other than possibly deletions & insertions of entire sections. It’s not the sort of poem that could ever be tidied up. Yet if what revision represents is the function of critical thinking in the act of composition – which is what I come up with, thinking of how radically differently I proceed through the writing process compared with someone like Rae Armantrout – then revision in this sense must already be present in Battlefield. There is something in Stanford’s imagination that told him when & how to bring in extraneous information, whether it’s oboes or Marc Antony, and ultimately it doesn’t matter if Stanford “got it right” or not. In this poetry, neatness doesn’t count.

* I’m totally weird & neurotic about notebooks as well, but that’s a topic for another time.
            But this does raise the question of what I think I’m doing when I’m writing/collecting sentences into my Palm or a pocket notebook. Research, perhaps. I don’t at that point in the process have any commitment, emotional or otherwise, to the sentences collected. & I’ve gathered them under conditions that felt like the furthest thing from “writing poetry” – in the middle of business meetings, while driving, twice while undergoing eye surgery. Whereas “writing poetry” for me has an emotional feel to it that is very little changed from the days as a kid when I would sit on my bed in my room with a spiral-bound notebook in hand, writing away with some kind of deep pleasure.

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Friday, November 08, 2002


This blog is not the official sponsor of the Canadian poetry wars. Nor, for that matter, any other. There has been speculation on at least the Poetics listserv as to why there isn’t a comments section here. Part of it simply has to do with Blogger’s lack of such a function in its software & my own meager HTML skills, attempting sans success to import a comments capacity from a third-party provider.* But I haven’t tried harder to solve that technical challenge because of the quality & tone of such discussions as one sees them, for example, in emails & on listservs. The vituperation that has characterized some of the recent Canadian exchanges, for example, has been depressing & counterproductive. Even more depressing has been the fact that I’ve never written anything of substance about a female poet here, at least until my piece on Ange Mlinko, without receiving at least one email attack – the ratio when I write about male poets is about one such blast per ten items. What an amazing coincidence that isn’t. If you want to send me a comment, the email address is on the left.


Underneath the name calling of the Canadians lies a more serious issue: the question of literary formation in a time of extraordinary post-avant productivity. There are, as I’ve listed by name in the postscripts to more than one anthology, literally hundreds of poets now writing compellingly in ways that can be traced back to the New American Poetry, the Stein-Pound-Williams-Zukofsky tradition or parallel European innovative traditions. This doesn’t even touch poets impacted by subaltern innovative traditions like the modernist prose poem from pre-WW2 Japan or indigenous poetics from every continent save Antarctica. Tho if we stretch a little to include Donald Finkel, we can count the South Pole as well.


What about all this writing? No individual, regardless of how voracious & encyclopedic a reader, can ever hope to take in all of it. Therefore, by definition, one is forced to make choices. Will I read Eunoia or The Mood Embosser? Hoa Nguyen or Jena Osman? Barbara Guest or David Bromige? Ange Mlinko or Mary Burger? Simon Ortiz or Simon Armitage? This volume by Ed Foster or C.D. Wright or Bruce Andrews means how many other texts will never be gotten to, regardless of how good they are, or of how much I might get out of them? I have a stack of unread books in my bedroom – next to an entire bookcase of same – that is as tall as I am. Eleven other bookcases in my house are overflowing. & yet there is always some book that I want or need right now (this week it’s Adelaide Morris’ Sound States) that I don’t have & can’t get easily.


Such conundrums may bedevil the individual reader, but they have corollaries throughout the field of poetry that have consequences – many of them less than happy – for individual poets, especially those without a lot of power, such as younger writers. First, editors run into the exact same problems as do readers. This is as true for a web journal hosted on an advertising-based “free” server as it is the most expensively produced hard copy publication. There are just more good poets than you will ever be able to publish. The problem ramps up much more steeply when we come to the question of books – few publishers of poetry print more than a handful of volumes per year. Without a sense of a larger project at hand, decisions get made based for  local & personal reasons, which at one level is okay. At another, however, there is no way in this system to assure that good writers don’t literally fall by the wayside. A poet who is reclusive or finds it difficult to actively promote his or her work, such as a Dick Gallup, is apt to disappear from view literally for decades. Has anybody read a book by Harold Dull in 30 years? By Ebbe Borregaard? Mary Norbert Korte? Gail Dusenbery? Victoria Rathbun? Kirby Doyle, like Borregaard a contributor to the Allen anthology, seems literally to have disappeared. A poet like d Alexander dies & is never heard of again. Darrell Gray’s landlord simply dumped his papers into the trash after he died.


In the current highly atomized state of the literary scene, books do get published, but what occurs to them after that remains far too much a matter of happenstance. When a volume happens to sell well, become, at least in poetry terms, popular, and gets sucked up into the highly tokenized process of the print industry’s publishing awards, the phenomenon appears all but random. Thus Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary, Alice Notley’s Mysteries of Small Houses and Christian Bök’s Eunoia end up both carrying the hopes – and resentments – of large numbers of other poets. It’s as though out of the forest of poets, those seedlings have been anointed by sunlight & thus the opportunity to thrive.


We need to look at this process more critically. I would argue that it is in large measure because of the almost total absence of discernable shape & shading within the literary terrain, its sheer unmappability, that such exceptionalism becomes, by default, the only means available for the culture – by which in this instance I mean the totality of readers of poetry – to organize itself around points of discernability. But what it really points to is an abdication by the poets themselves -- & I don’t mean Harryette or Alice or Christian. By leaving a vacuum, poets permit other institutional forces – especially trade & large institutional publishers and the awards-givers who are really just an adjunct to the trade publishers – to occupy the very space that makes it possible for newcomers to get a sense of what’s where in the world of poetry.


I’ve ridden this hobby horse before. & I probably will again. The failure of poets, particularly when they are acting as editors & critics, to articulate a shape for the writing they want most to see & with which to be associated, is the necessary precondition for the disappearance of many, perhaps most, poets. To return to an old lesson from Jean-Paul Sartre: your choice is between the series – absolute atomization – and the group. Though that latter term has multiple meanings.


So almost as distressing as the name calling in the Canadian dispute is Darren Wershler-Henry’s reflexive denial of group status: “there's no Oulipo branch office here.” It’s as puzzling and ultimately self-defeating a position as that posed by Juliana Spahr on this blog back in September when she characterized the creation of Chain as an act against articulation:


we started chain b/c there were too many arguments being made. we started it in the climate of apex and o-blek. there were arguments already and we needed other sorts of conversations to happen. this felt crucial to us. we needed to make a place for us to think about things in our way--a more sideways way or a less declaratory way. now, perhaps, we/poetry community need arguments again. it is sad that apex and o-blek are gone and really haven't been replaced. and somehow for some reason that i'm not sure i know yet, we keep doing chain. (my emphasis)


Chain’s co-editor Jena Osman poses it as being a choice against canon-building. Which might be the case if one poses it solely in a my community vs. your community context. But, one thing the poetry of the 1970s certainly attempted (with mixed results) to demonstrate in practice, articulation – argument – need not be destructive at all. Dialogues between communities ideally begin with an interest in what the other community is doing. So what is edited out when editors opt for a telephone book or dictionary model of the alphabet as organizing principle is precisely “Combinations, interruptions, complex conversations and crossings over.”  What is left is everybody talking simultaneously with a minimum of listening to one another.


The poets behind Apex of the M and O•blēk argued for a new spirituality in American poetry. That may seem like a quirky, even perverse place to begin, but it was at least an attempt to make a start. In retrospect, those new gnostics look like the last gasp of poetry organizing itself before utter atomization left every woman & man to themselves and the poetry scene surrendered over to the infinite consumerism of picking this book here, that book there, with no hope of ever creating a larger sense of event.


Let me pose what seems to me an obvious possible grouping, something that, to borrow a phrase from Peter Balestrieri, I will call The Collectors. The Collectors acquire that name because of a predisposition to utilize & recycle found language, although this can also mean the use of a poetic text to process an event. When Mark Peters searched the internet for every sentence that included the word “men” & then composed a booklength poem by that name, it was just an act of collection. The détournements of Brian Kim Stefans & event documentation works of Edwin Torres and Kenny Goldsmith, the text creations of Alan Sondheim as well as the work of Craig Dworkin all loosely fit this definition. Around this core one might pose questions of rule-determined work, which might fall on one side of this equation, and which just might include the Oulipo non-branch in Toronto. On the other side would be those writers interested in documents for precisely what they do and say socially, incorporating them into their works – both Spahr and Osman could be posited there. Further, one could go back and ask about such antecedent poets as Paul Metcalf on the one hand and David Benedetti’s computer-written texts of the 1970s on the others. Viewed from the perspective of The Collectors, there is a context in which both Christian Bök’s Eunoia & Louis Cabri’s The Mood Embosser not only complement one another, they virtually require one another.


This literary formation exists in everything but the real world. While some of these writers know one another and might even work together from time to time, there is no attempt that I’m aware of on anybody’s part from within this potential formation to point it out as a major tendency in contemporary poetry. Which means as a direct consequence that there is nobody trying to create the kind of internal – and external – dialogues that would enable it to accelerate its own development. And that its potential as a point in common for other groups to bounce off of is muted, if not nil. Only when such formations exist in real time can the “combinations, interruptions, complex conversations and crossings over” that Jena Osman envisions begin to occur. You can’t cross over until you have identified a place from which to cross.


The benefits of literary formation seem to me obvious: we would not have the ready availability of the work of Carl Rakosi without his relationship to the Objectivists, nor this big fat new volume of Lorine Niedecker’s so lovingly produced by the University of California Press. Long term, the work of Joe Ceravolo, Dick Gallup and the other poets of the New York School’s second generation stands to gain enormously because of this same phenomenon. If anyone ever is to rescue the work of Darrell Gray, it will be because of his role within Actualism. In each instance, the presence of a literary formation provides not just strength in numbers, but a situating context large & complex enough to motivate a graduate student like Andrew Crozier to locate & approach a man like Carl Rakosi. Rakosi had not written in a quarter century before Crozier approached him in the 1960s; by his own account on his webcast this past week, Rakosi had not even read poetry in a quarter century. 


But at that level, the idea of the Collectors is as much a fiction as M.L. Rosenthal’s Confessional Poetry once was. So, if we believe Wershler-Henry, is the experience of a Toronto-centered process-driven poetics. What it all points to is a profound silence precisely where there needs to be discussion. And organization. And arguments. On this point, Juliana Spahr is absolutely right: “we/poetry community need arguments again.” Lots of them, conducted in the poems, in readings, in the fundamentally political act that is editing, in forums like talks & seminars & conferences.


To which I would add this one word of warning: name calling seems a better way to shut discussion off, that it does to open it up.





* Ditto for a search engine.


Thursday, November 07, 2002

In a footnote on Halloween, I wrote that “it seems unlikely” that Jack Spicer “would have heard of” the fictive literary figure Ern Malley. This brought the following note from Kevin Killian:


Hi Ron,

I'm not sure this changes your point much, but I know you'll be glad to know that further research indicates that Jack Spicer was indeed aware of the Ern Malley/"Angry Penguins" affair, and that indeed he came up with a plan to imitate the hoaxers in a variety of US magazines some 20 years before the Book of Magazine Verse. I don't want to blow all the surprises, but the next issue of the new Bay Area magazine 26 will publish an article by me and Lew (Ellingham) which grows out of our recent interview with Barbara Nicholls, a woman who now lives in Eugene (Oregon) but who once was part of the so-called "Berkeley Renaissance." She got in touch with us some time after our biography was published and offered to fill in some of the gaps. Last year she came to the Bay Area where we met her and got the entire scoop. It's a pretty good article and well, to make a long story short, Spicer's post Ern-Malley hoax involved an ambitious scheme to spoof New Critical practice by elevating the works of Gene Stratton Porter to canonical status.* Largely forgotten today, Gene Stratton Porter was a photographer, naturalist, novelist and mini-mogul . . . her novels were romantic fantasies of mankind versus Mother Nature and included Freckles and The Girl of the Limberlost. She died in a tragic Frida-Kahlo-like trolley accident in Los Angeles in the 1920s. Hope you find this of some use. xxx

Kevin K.

* Some Gene Stratton Porter links:

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Wednesday, November 06, 2002

I was reading an Allen Curnow poem from the early 1960s, “A Small Room with Large Windows,”* when the prosody of its fourth section struck me:

A kingfisher’s naked arc alight
Upon a dead stick in the mud
A scarlet geranium wild on a wet bank
A man stepping it out in the near distance
With a dog and a bag
                                        on a spit of shell
On a wire in a mist
                                    a gannet impacting
Explode a dozen diverse dullnesses
Like a burst of accurate fire.

This passage, by no means Curnow’s best, stood out in contrast to the section immediately preceding, which carried an AABBCC… rhyme scheme, a relatively rare occurrence for the late New Zealand poet. I like the prosody here, even if words such as “naked” & “dead” in the first two lines appear to have been inserted solely for the sake of sound. I can hear it – the music of this passage reaches me just fine.

Which reminded me of how seldom this is the case for me with poets from English-speaking countries other than the United States. With the very notable exception of Basil Bunting, I find there to have been shockingly few poets from the old Commonwealth on either side of the equator whose work I would characterize as having a strong ear. More often than not, I can’t hear it at all, not even in Hopkins’ so-called sprung rhythms. Whatever the other values the poem might propose – & often enough they are many – the prosody of so much non-Yank Anglophone verse strikes me as jumbled, prosaic, “a dozen diverse dullnesses.”

There are of course exceptions, but I notice how many of them are poets who seem to have taken a particular interest in the American tradition of poetry – Tom Raworth, Thomas A. Clark, Fred Wah, Jill Jones, Lee Harwood, Gerry Shikatani. Yet the whole idea of poetry’s relationship to spoken English – & through speech to sound – is one that invariably leads back to Wordsworth & Coleridge. This makes me wonder if there isn’t some disability within me that just can’t hear it, whatever “it” might in this instance be, rather like the Kansan watching a British film with North Country accents who longs for subtitles.

I also wonder if there isn’t something specific about U.S. verse & its history that isn’t turned toward sound & might not be peculiarly tuned to the tones & rhythms of speech – at least of American dialects. While Whitman clearly had some desire to relate his writing to speech, Dickinson had a more charged push-pull relationship towards the possibility. In fact, the often intrusive editing that her work received can be viewed as an attempt to normalize her poetry on a model more identifiable as speech. Pound & Stein likewise bring their own strong sense of melopoiea to the party, though incommensurate with one another’s. Where Stein often seeks a cubism of the ear, Pound’s remarkable prosody turns on a wide range of models, from Beowulf to the Bible, proposing speech as such usually as satire:

“an’ doan you think he chop an’ change all the time
stubborn az a mule, sah, stubborn as a MULE,
got th’ eastern idea about money”

Something Josephine Miles once said to David Melnick & myself jumps out at me here. Recalling William Carlos Williams’ poetry in the 1930s & ‘40s, she noted that she could not – these were her words – “hear him,” she and her friends had no idea how to read those texts that today seem so self-evidently the paradigm for spoken English. The very features of his verse that today seem so obvious as to be boring – a level of acceptance that has come to hurt Williams’ reputation – were in fact impenetrably opaque not that long ago.

In fact, in spite of his own critical comments, these features may have been somewhat opaque to Williams as well. Robert Creeley, one of the first to recognize Williams’ poetry as an apotheosis of transcribed speech, has commented on how surprised he was to discover that Williams himself did not respect his linebreaks when reading the poems in public.

Olson in theory took care of that. With the Projectivists proposing a hard or rigorous version & the New York School and the Beats offering “soft” ones, U.S. poets from the 1960s onward have had a ready toolkit available for what speech might look like translated into line & stanza. & for the past 20-odd years, these have been supplemented by a variety of post-avant text strategies intended to problematize a too simplistic one-to-one correlation, ranging from sound poetry at one extreme to visual poetics at another.** What these various interventions have not done is to add significantly to the prosodic vocabulary of the poem.*** The number & potential combination of sounds in English is not infinite, even though the number of possible meanings & utterances is. Thus the elaboration and expansion of poetic forms over the past 30 years, impressive as it has been, has not been accompanied by much in the way of a new cadence.

The limits of prosody are a major motivator behind the technological augmentation of poetry, substituting a divergence in lieu of an advance. To paraphrase Robert Grenier, all technologies say the same thing: hummmm. The margins of poetry have been littered with attempts at expanding the terrain of verse at least since Hugo Ball and the Russian zaum poets aimed at writing beyond language, but to date no one seems to have noticed that such projects age at an accelerated rate, moving from startling to quaint in something less than 30 years. This difficulty is not coincidental and promises only to get worse the more closely it attaches itself to Moore’s Law.+

A by-product of this phenomenon is that books that do think seriously about the question of poetic sound, such as Charles Bernstein’s Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word (Oxford, 1998) or Stephen Ratcliffe’s particularly excellent Listening to Reading (SUNY, 2000), have yet to tackle the problem of prosody as it impacts the relative impenetrability of different variants of English. It may be easy enough, outside of Boontling, Gullah or Hawaiian pidgin, to envision American English as one language, but the minute you cross national borders it patently is a problem of another order, a larger & radically different context. In Close Listening, the essays that do focus on the poetics of specific communities do so in terms that are more social than linguistic, with the pointed exception of Dennis Tedlock’s “Toward a Poetics of Polyphony and Translatability.” Nick Piombino, Marjorie Perloff and Bruce Andrews all consider the role of sound within different sectors of the U.S. poetry community, but nobody appears able to consider the possibility that a poem by Tom Raworth or Allen Curnow, might mean something quite different in Oxford, UK, at the Kootenay School of Writing in Vancouver, at New College in San Francisco’s Mission District, at the Iowa Writers Workshop, in Algiers, Louisiana, or at the Northern tip of the Southern island of New Zealand.

* Early Days Yet: New and Collected Poems, 1941-1997 (Auckland University Press, 1997), pp. 177-178.

** “Who would have thought that fewer than forty years after Olson celebrated the ‘LINE’ as the embodiment of the breath, the signifier of the heart, the line would be perceived as a boundary, a confining border, a form of packaging?” Marjorie Perloff, “After Free Verse,” in Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, edited by Charles Bernstein (Oxford, 1998), p. 99. But that was exactly the condition that created this reaction.

*** The two writers who perhaps represent the most aggressive attempts to expand prosody would probably be Ted Enslin with his endless (or very nearly so) variations on the line in his long works from the 1970s and, somewhat more recently, Clark Coolidge, whose sense of jazz rhythm, from bebop to pomo, clearly informs his sense of line and stanza.

+ In this sense, the move away from something that is simply “the verse print bred” that makes the most sense to me are Grenier’s hand-lettered scrawl works.

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Tuesday, November 05, 2002

NB: Tom Devaney tells me that the next-to-last item among the poetry links of his below ( actually is an unsigned review of a single poem, written by Erik Sweet. It’s still very cool and worth reading.


Hearing Ange Mlinko at La Tazza, a cavern of a tavern with a modicum of food on Chestnut off Second in Philadelphia. I know Mlinko’s work only from little magazines and things I’ve seen on the web.* I don't already know the poems she is reading & in any event she's not reading from a book, but rather from loose sheets of paper neatly grouped, voice soft, just modulated enough, the pieces short, lively - no clichés even as a device - I decide almost instantly that I like the juxtapositions in this 'continuous nerve movie.' What if the names O'Hara, Koch, Gizzi (M., not P.) had not been mentioned in the introduction: would I have heard echoes? But in fact I don't hear them even now. What I do hear is intelligence & wit in ample doses – Mlinko's 'voice' is completely distinct. One of the poems she reads is “The Men”:

Like that lion on the stamp of the
New York Public Library! Is it Astor,
Lenox and Tilden in composite? Like an ascot
blending with swept-back locks
away from the arch of the half-closed eye!
In the fact of a whole head in its halo of motto,
like a coin, is it the final pursuit of such men
to stock a library with rare books
on a marble avenue, with an exhibit
this go-round of “utopias”, an inevitable
speculation with the bums & the rich
brothers in desultoriness studying
Jefferson’s handwriting in a fair copy
of the Declaration of Independence?

Ice grips the steps of stopped hands.
Violin wood of the reading room,
violet snow in the window.

You said you loved a photocopied book
like a keeper of mysteries, like a visitor
to libraries, under the hieroglyph
of light rays

                   or the trompe l’oeil skylight
of perpetual sunset (or dawn?)
                                       It zipped
along the wool blanket with flashes
lighting up the dark. They gathered into
a tooth that nipped when I reached out
of a repetitive dream.
                             “Come to bed,” I said.
“No, why don’t you sit up with me awhile?
The mountebank insomnia has me.”

You called me to the window to see a man
hail a cab. Had a hand in the writing
of the Russian constitution.

        A gratuity,
and aren’t I a connoisseur?

I don’t hear those exclamation points in her reading of this piece. I do hear this extraordinary ear:

Ice grips the steps of stopped hands.
Violin wood of the reading room,
violet snow in the window.
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I resolve that I have to read more of her poems on the page when I can. There is a book I believe from the defunct Zoland, but I don’t know if one can find copies now. “One more sad one” Mlinko says with a smile. It doesn't sound sad at all.

Tom Devaney's poetry has a social edge**, but isn't political in the narrow sense. If anything, it’s as personal as Mlinko’s, although I suspect that what either of them would mean by that term would turn out to be quite different. The contrast with Mlinko at La Tazza works to everyone’s benefit, as if each maximizes the ability of the audience to hear the distinctness of the other. It’s a happy event in the history of curating poetry.

Devaney is one of the most visible presences on the Philadelphia scene, currently employed as the program coordinator at Kelly Writers House. A man of broad interests, Devaney was a moving force in setting up the Carl Rakosi webcast this past week & he is the sort of poet who can appear in Jacket and APR both. I’ve spoken to him on numerous occasions & always find him with something interesting & pertinent to say, but before this reading I’ve only seen works in mags, so in a sense I am side a new side of him here also for the first time. Formerly a resident of Brooklyn, Devaney very much reads at La Tazza as “the local,”*** dedicating a poem to Don Riggs at the bar, selecting works with Philadelphia references. One of the poem he reads is “A Free-for-All Ends at A.C. Airport,” which first ran not in a literary magazine but in the daily newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer:

"The airport parking lot was known as a free-for-all where tow trucks routinely had to sort out the parked at all angles,...often with no discernible ingress and egress."

New Jersey is the greatest poem never written.
Not an accident, but constant accidental.
Parking space is the central fact to man born in America.
There are several hundred ways not to understand.
Despite the invitation to excess, in A.C.
no bets are placed on the stay-at-home team, Pomona Nomads.
Directions: 1.) Park and lock your car 2.) Fly to Florida for the winter
3.) Remember, there's little reason to think
New Jersey when you're not
there--even if that's where you parked.
Fluxus is the name of the vapors coming off the cinder fields
meeting the black birds as they come in at night.
Before the war, getting a good spot
was what most Americans considered warfare.
The forward function is a maneuver
all novice tow truck drivers like to do for you.
Your delight in pattern and repetition is dropped off
to search a dusty field filled with hundreds of towed cars.
Until you actually say it, unscriptability and New Jersey rhyme.
The State's equilibrium is located elsewhere.
The car alarm. The unison HONK. The techno field jam.
The songs Bruce Springsteen will not write anymore.

* An Ange Mlinko sampler:

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** A Tom Devaney sampler:

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Critical Prose
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Political Prose
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*** Ironic in the sense that Mlinko, who has been active with the St. Marks Poetry Project & lived for a time in Morocco, grew up in the Philadelphia area, part of it in Paoli, the very town in which I live.

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Monday, November 04, 2002

David Bromige & New Zealand poet & book dealer Richard Taylor have been discussing the relative value of some of David’s books in the rare book market on the Poetics Listserv. It made me think of the path mapped out by the early Bromige, volumes that I still consider indispensable, but which have become hard to find. The list that follows is not exhaustive. But what matters to me personally is the absolute logic of his journey, as articulate a personal history of the evolution of poetry from the 1960s to the 1980s as has been written.

The Gathering (Buffalo, Sumbooks, 1965). My copy of Bromige’s first book has turned almost unimaginably dark with oxidation, worse even than Wieners’ Hotel Wentley Poems (which is seven years older). The Gathering shows a still-Canadian Bromige moving under the spell of the Projectivists, a consequence of the first Vancouver poetry conference and his friends at the magazine Tish. Published by another Canadian with a strong interest in the New American Poetry, Fred Wah. Bromige already shows the great wit & care for which he will become known, as evidenced by the first line break in the title poem:

Picking mushrooms out of a horse
pasture, evening, seemingly
none when we first look, then
one, a dozen, luck turns or they
grow, youd swear, at the turn of a back –

The Ends of the Earth (Los Angeles, Black Sparrow, 1968). Bromige’s one true Projectivist volume, written while in graduate school at Berkeley, he is already pushing the received formalism of this tendency, mostly with an ear almost perfect in its capacity to make distinctions. Here is the first stanza of “First”:

One aches to know
one fact as axiom
to act. Whatever I do
I die
as you
also at times doubt
the beneficence of the inevitable
Earth-bound as one is.

The work in this volume is what Bromige was writing when I first saw him read with Harvey Bialy in the Albany Public Library Series (the same reading where I was to meet David Melnick while hitch-hiking back to Oakland). I remember being filled with envy at Bromige’s ability to combine the demands of both the sentence & line together like that – and I still am. This is a slender book, especially for Black Sparrow, with just 56 pages, but there are several poems here, in addition to the one cited above, that are among the very best I have ever read: “A Final Mission,” “Weight Less Than the Shadow,” and “Forgets Five.” If Bromige had never written another word after this, he still would have been one of the great poets of the 20th century.

Threads (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1971). This is a more complex & larger book, difficult precisely because Bromige is straining against / struggling with the limits of Projectivism. In retrospect, the most important poems in this volume are among its very shortest, such as “Precept”:

I’ve helped you in the past
Okay, go ahead, help me in the past again

It seems like a wise crack – & at one level that’s exactly what it is – but at its core, Bromige’s poetry is starting to look at the role of logic & its relation to both meaning & syntax. It was only today (after having owned this book for 31 years) that it dawned on me that the other major influence at that first Vancouver shindig besides the Black Mountaineers was of course Spicer & his circle, Spicer being pre-eminently a poet of consciously contradictory logics. If Spicer’s relation to much of the New American Poetry was as its guilty conscience (implying always that “language is not the solution you think it to be”), Threads represents a book in which that same nagging whisper has started to emerge.

Birds of the West (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1973). The exceptionally thick cover of this book has always made it a hard one to handle – you are forced to choose between opening the pages slightly or else breaking the binding. My binding is still intact. Because Birds of the West was distributed more actively in Canada than in the U.S., this book seems not to have had the influence on this side of the border that it warranted. Bromige is continuing to work through the same issues as in Threads, but in a far more relaxed, less anxious fashion. Especially wonderful is the long section of short pieces entitled “The White-Tailed Kite” which begins to approach langpo in rather the same way that Creeley’s Pieces could be said to have done. Also of great interest here is the afterword, “Proofs,” a sensible & insightful assessment of Bromige’s processes as a poet.

Tight Corners & What’s Around Them: Prose & Poems (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1974). Subtitled (being the brief & endless adventures of some pronouns in the sentences of 1972-73). Tight Corners is a book that could seen as documenting the move from Projectivism to langpo, although I don’t think many people recognized it as such at the time. The volume begins with one of Bromige’s finest poems “in the old style,” “They Are Eyes.” But soon, interspersed with these poems, the short prose pieces called “Tight Corners” overtake the text. Each figured in the text with a graphic symbol (roughly ┌) that hovers just to the left of the first letter, these pieces are constructed almost entirely through the syllogistic connections of a disruptive sense of logic, sort of Frege as rewritten by Lenny Bruce:

Faceless Fussduck put away his dry revolver. The closet was wet.

As the title of the book suggests, Tight Corners is obsessed with the connections between things & the possibility of altering direction (a process that at a  line “break” is called “verse”) while in motion. This will be Bromige’s last large collection of new work for six years.*

My Poetry (Berkeley: The Figures, 1980). One of the masterworks of poetry – there is not a single false move in its 98 pages (nor in the 99th, “My Palaver,” a poem that gently parodies the various notes & dedications Bromige has been using ever since The Ends of the Earth). Picking it up is, for me, an experience not unlike holding a copy of Sgt. Pepper or Highway 61 Revisited. This book as a whole is very much like a symphony, carefully executed. After the initial title piece, a mock review of his own poetic past taken in part from seriously transformed versions of real reviews, Bromige proceeds with “Six of One, Half-a-Dozen of the Other,” a reprinting of seven of his better known poems, each paired with a discussion, halfway between a memoir & a critical unpacking, of each. The echo of Jack Spicer’s “Homage to Creeley,” from After Lorca, but with Bromige having turned the prose on its edge in utter seriousness (or such as Bromige’s irrepressible wit can commit). The third section contains four poems in a “new” mode. The first, “Our Tongues,” turns Projectivism on its head, right side up, a prose poem that discusses the organ of speech ranging from neomedical physical description to comic “how to” instruction. This section takes its title from the second piece, “An American Heritage History,” a long, skinny (3 columns to the page to underscore the point) piece, perhaps what you might expect if Ted Berrigan had happened to write one of the middle sections of Zukofsky’s “A.” The third piece, “Authority,” is Oulipudlian in its impulses – two of its five sections only use words beginning with “a.” The fourth piece, “One Spring,” is one of Bromige’s most famous works, a long, luxurious détournement taken entirely from language lifted from the local newspaper over a season. The next section of the book is a series of seven works, including a reasonably straightforward “torture poem” intended to be read at political occasions, the previously published “Credences of Winter,” and a delightful & daft play whose eight speakers include istorian, aspirant, objectist, anthony abstract, one more authentic voice, love poet, chainsaw jack and I. Speakes. After the play comes what might best be called a short story, although it occupies that middle space that is neither story nor poem exactly but both, then a prose poem, “By Visible Truh We Mean the Apprehension of the Absolute Condition of Present Things,” that I included in the critical “Second Front” section of In the American Tree, and finally two more prose pieces, “My Career” & “My Plan” that are from the same series that the title poem (& the afterword) were also taken.** Finally, Bromige closes with “Hieratics: A Triptych,” which, tellingly enough, is in five parts numbered 0 – 4. A prose poem with a sense for overall surface texture – I don’t think it can be successfully quoted here – that is as strong in tone as Bromige’s earlier works were in their fabulous push-pull between sentence & line, “Hieratics” perhaps points most clearly to the later work, which is the writing that perhaps today is best known of Bromige’s work.

Many of the poems, from My Poetry & the other early books, can be found in Desire, the 1988 Western States Book Award volume from Black Sparrow, but not in the same order. And not in the same order means not as part of the same evolving literary narrative as the earlier books themselves articulated. For example, one finds “Hieractics,” but not “One Spring” or “My Poetry,” nor is extraordinary sense of occasion that was My Poetry available through a selected, any more than one can grasp the full import of Williams’ Spring & All from the poems printed in Williams’ Collected.

Only 650 copies of My Poetry were ever produced, in spite of the lush Francie Shaw cover that suggests to my eye a much larger printing. Only three copies are available through abebooks, the website for rare and used books. The same site currently shows seven copies available of The Gathering, 15 of The Ends of the Earth, eight for Birds of the West. These are among the treasures of our literary heritage and, as a group, an essential collection for the history of writing.

* There is, during this period, a selected, Ten Years in the Making, which is typed rather than typeset but which includes two dozen otherwise uncollected pieces; plus some smaller items, such as Three Stories, Out of My Hands and Credences of Winter, all chapbooks from Black Sparrow; a slightly larger collection Spells and Blessings from Talonbooks that I’ve never seen; a collection of songs written with Barry Gifford & Paul DeBarros, also something I’ve never seen.

** That section of this series turn up in different places, to different effect, within My Poetry is characteristic of Bromige’s approach to his work. My only complaint about this book is that it failed to include my personal favorite of the “My” works, one with a curious title I recall as “Glurk.”


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