Saturday, December 21, 2002

Peter Ganick is an extremophile of American letters. Extremophiles, as any ten-year-old addicted to the science shows on the Discovery Channel can tell you, are those amazing creatures that thrive in extreme conditions, such as in the lightless & chilly depths of the ocean or in fire-orange lips of lava at the edge of a live volcano, even conceivably on asteroids or other planets sans atmosphere. These include (but aren’t just limited to) anaerobes, thermophiles, psychrophiles, acidophiles, alkalophiles, halophiles, barophiles, and xerophiles. Fun folk one & all.

In poetry, an extremophile would be someone whose interest in the dynamics of his or her own work are intense, detailed & radically distinct, but which develop with only the most passing concern or correlation with whatever else might be going on in the world of poetry. Extremophiles have been around for some time: Bern Porter, Bob Brown & Ian Hamilton Finlay all qualify as examples of extremophile literature at its finest. Alan Sondheim is another contemporary example, but it is characteristic of extremophile writing that although Sondheim & Ganick are relatively like-minded souls practicing at the same point in time who live within only a few hours of one another, no one would suggest that you might make a group phenomenon out of this ensemble of impulses.* The closest you could come in recent U.S. poetic history to an extremophile grouping would be the collaborative projects of Stanley Berne & Arlene Zekowski, who also demonstrate the principle that extremophile writing need not be interesting just for being extreme.

Ganick hasn’t always been perceived as an extremophile in part because there are some aspects of his poetry that, if you were draw it up as giant circle in a Venn diagram, would slightly overlap some other things going on in post-avant poetics, for example in the most purely prosodic pieces of Clark Coolidge’s writing. And by virtue of having been one of the major publishers & promoters of post-avant poetics, Ganick has been in the thick of things now for a few decades. But his best work, which is to say the poems in which he seems to be most fully himself, are longer works in relatively constant forms where the language builds only to be itself. Read aloud, books such as No Soap Radio, Agoraphobia, Rectangular Morning Poem or <a’ sattv> lead a reader toward trance-like states that are not meaning-invested, but rather ultimately meaning-liberated. These states are zones unique to Ganick’s poetry. & I suspect that you or I could not conceivably come close to duplicating them if we tried.

tend.field is Ganick’s most recent project, a PC CD of a single 223-page paragraph that exists both in PDF format and as a self-scrolling text, that appears to run literally forever. There is also a series of related abstracted line drawings, although I could not explain to you how they’re related to the text if my life depended on it.** But it’s the self-scrolling text to which I really want to call your attention. Subtitled in parentheses a philosophy, the text itself is pure Ganick – no capital letters, just streams of sentences such as:
which sly in recanting olé yesterday’s impasse the memorized cloister, ailing with which one seeks a decent paradigm for annuity. rendered universal, saving which adrenaline blister, on as much to repent with glaringly thought of hidden discomfort in otherness’ pileation, so major as nodule perhaps riddance to evidential gleams. of which in constriction the abolished shoulder of roadway calling out in an advent of persuasion, trial size formalization so regaled those predicated on hopefulness’ factuality restructured. some sleeping window nest, gravity of expanse the time of for which name naïvely preoccupies the margins of a destiny modeled after waiting’s insurgency not breathing - less. when as constricted from address, to pull into a gossamer flange more the parade solar aspects in huddle remotely isolationist as caveat, not the advantage the blessing-with that mandalas implicate formally. on as one could seek, permission granted that being on a folder to be wrenched infotainer’s materializations aside the curious name-calling’s prudence. some so gained as to merit wideness of pertinence, well into scrambler’s official derangement, more fleshy that wilted on haphazard notification elsewhere sandwich. lanyard on the motionlessness, one creates out of a camera to beaten down shut as orange to skimmer flood the feeling in leggings more mundane as permitted. schismatic retaliation of sic with-in a space in documentation maternally the fullness of bluntness talking at hula horrors, the emptiness of wishful gradients. some other specimen of tangibility in other packages merely lionized. scholiast. venerable mistral, with garble and chain-song, reurged in the camped-over, where wit as synergy tempts an icy startling of vestigial prosody, the celebrated more than which with an announcement of negotiation, somewhere out inside the temporary. while affording in selected retentions -ive the merging ogre to blemish with not haggling out of the shoebox named for a full salute here to befriend of pranams why thresholds flail. some rendered which has not startled invasively premonition therefore unsold or sold, that beginning from endgame in parlance therefore to be else in fact. whose elementally curious not wished failure, template on-site the having which affords one’s explanation of culpable secretion, manicure where aspects remove tiles longing for beatitude. not recognizable from one’s clangorous monotone, that being as hidden rend on prior tear to the millefleur grail-proof in derivation of parlance’s emulsified feverishness, something addicted to scramble, with whose affording one classes others’ notions therefore something else to be headless in reminder.
This represents less than one half of one percent of this paragraph. In book format, or even in a PDF file on a screen – on a PDA for example – this is rough going, even though phrase by phrase it’s always of some interest. But the use of the scrolling text –Macromedia Projector is the underlying program – transforms a very difficult slog through language into something else altogether. Line by line the language rises from the bottom of the screen only to exit at the top. Roughly twenty lines are visible at any given moment, but they’re moving very quickly – a line stays on the screen for its entire journey for no more than 7 seconds on my Pentium 4 1.8GHz Windows XP system. This means that it’s impossible even for a speed reader to do more than pick out phrases as they flash past.

This is where I think that subtitle comes into play. Ganick is in fact arguing here for a new way of reading, one that can be understood as glimpsing (or perhaps “registering”) data as it flashes past. In practice, this means that no longer how many times you run the program, tend.field will never yield the same poem twice. Not in the sense of a random language generator working with a set vocabulary – the computer-written poems of David Benedetti like Ideas Imagine Passion would be an example – but rather in the sense that you will never notice the same things as you proceed through this forest of language.

Reading around in a text has, of course, existed as a process for centuries, mostly unspoken about, undescribed as a process, treated rather as a form of not reading or of inferior reading if it shows its head in college lit class. But it occurs constantly in “real life”: as one walks down any commercial street in America, for example, Canada included, one is inundated with signage & figures out how best to absorb (or not) the onslaught of commercial speech in public display. Ganick’s innovation is to identify just how far beyond pure Burma Shave poetics we have actually advanced & to develop a text – and the means for presenting it – that turns this “alienation from nature” in on itself until, in fact, it truly becomes a new nature. Which is why my trope of a “forest of language” in the paragraph above was not accidental.

If there is a process that is anything like the experience of reading tend.field – note the pastoral terms welded together (but also kept separate) by punctuation here – it is exactly a walk in the country. But an exceptionally frenetic one – you realize very rapidly that you will never be able to take in more than a fraction of what is scrolling by & you then have to decide just how copasetic you are with this as a reader. It’s a new country alright, one driven & occupied by language – bureaucratic, commercial & manipulative “where wit as synergy tempts an icy startling of vestigial prosody.” Exactly!

I’m on record as a skeptic on the subject of new media – I’ve expressed a concern that the applications and software platforms on which they’re mounted will prove increasingly short-lived – and nothing here really alters my overall assessment of that. But even if tend.field proves as temporary as the Macintosh & Windows operating systems on which it is intended to operate, it makes a substantial contribution to our understanding of what reading & writing might be right now.

* Theoretically, Robert Grenier’s relationship to langpo, which has been profound, complicates the issue of placing him fully into the extremophile category, although everything from the “Chinese box” Sentences to the more recent scrawl works suggests that Grenier is just such a critter.

** One drawing is vaguely visible as the background to the scrolling text

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Friday, December 20, 2002

Responses to my reading of Jennifer Moxley’s The Sense Record fell rather evenly into three categories:

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>People who liked my reading & like her work & were glad to see that this was shared

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>People who thought my reading was way off, because I didn’t see her poetry as a mode of deadpan humor

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>People who agreed with my assessment that her work is serious, but don’t much care for it, at least in part because of its seriousness

Those diverse reactions combined with my own positive response to Pattie McCarthy even as I admit that there are places where her interest in medieval Christian concerns leads her that I can’t (or don’t) follow and with Gary Sullivan’s most revealing comment yesterday that, when he was a mere lad, he used to find Woody Allen, Donald Barthelme or Firesign Theater more funny before he learned what they were riffing on. These diverse experiences all ring what for me is by now a rather old bell, a 1981 Parnassus review in which Peter Schjeldahl effusively praised the poetry of Joe Ceravolo even though “I rarely know what he is talking about.”

All of these items share in common the problem of how one receives and deals with the unfamiliar. Sometimes, as with Sullivan’s laughter at Firesign Theatre, we welcome it. But other times not. My own sense of the responses I’ve heard toward Moxley’s work is that the more skeptical positions sound almost identical to comments I recall hearing a quarter century ago directed at the work of another new poet who was coming forward with an unconventional but distinct sense of style, Leslie Scalapino. Moxley & Scalapino are radically different poets, but their position vis-à-vis the poetry world strikes me as not dissimilar. Each can, simply by their practice, be read as a critique of their generational scene as it is constituted.

Twenty-six years after the publication of The Woman Who Could Read the Minds of Dogs, Leslie Scalapino has demonstrated beyond any doubt the wisdom & power behind strategies that once seemed to many oblique or simply obscure for the sake of obscurity. If Scalapino has required patience on the part of her audience, she has rewarded them (us) for sticking with it handsomely. Her argument, to call it such, is a vision of literature that is virtually panoptic. To catch only a glimpse of it in some ways is just sort of a teaser – it makes greater sense to take as much in as possible, so that the references & key points accumulate.

Moxley’s long sentences & deliberately neutral vocabulary strike me as being as integral to her project as poet as Scalapino’s syntactic angling is to hers. I can see not buying any of it – no reader is going to “get” all poets. I know that I will always find William Bronk torturous and I have yet to figure out, after all these years, why Gustaf Sobin seems important to so many other writers I know. So, in a sense, I find myself thinking of the people who take Moxley seriously, but opt out at that point, as being “better” readers of her than fans who think it’s a spoof.

Let me give an example, a single sentence midway through  the first poem in The Sense Record, “Grain of the Cutaway Insight”:

Long lost friend, with whom I once
spoke into the night of books and

left, thinking to myself on my short

walk home of all the things I wanted so

to tell you

            in a poem, I am lonely
            in the in-commiserate word,

its small sound remains

            an incipient dis-harmony

sounding through dissembled day’s

            would-be routinization.

This passage moves not in one but two profoundly opposite directions. Up to the word “you,” every single line is enjambed – after it, none are. It is right at that word also that the first step away from the left-hand margin occurs in this sentence, as though the second-person pronoun were a literal hinge to this statement. In fact, it makes great sense to look at this sentence having just such a fulcrum. Before it, in five lines, all cemented to the left margin, we have 33 words, only three of which are even two syllables long. After it, we have 23 words spread out over six lines, 23 long words. Two have five syllables, two others have four. The second half of this sentence only twice returns fully to the margin, each time to register a verb that will carry the next major chain of syntax.

There is a chain of sound as well, following principally through the deployment of vowels, especially “o.” Thus the long “o” in the first half carries both “spoke” and “home” into that terminal “so” – the most important word in the first part of the text, a tone that gets heightened measurably in the concluding portion. The use of “o” becomes far more complex here – the “ou” combinations emerging to carry the thrust of the idea in the final couplet. But Moxley won’t let us not hear that term “lonely,” the section’s melody of “o” sounds challenged by a contrary rain of short “i” combinations, “in” and “is.” That hiss in good part is why “in-commiseraterather than “incommensurate” is the right word at that moment in the text. One need only note the number of “o” and “o”-combination syllables appear in this sentence compared with, say, those for “a” and “e.”

Yet if one reads this sentence as bald text without hearing its remarkable articulation of vowels, without registering enjambments & end stops, it might prove to be all but invisible as language. It’s a fabulous moment in the history of formal devices & really one of the great aesthetic flourishes in recent poetry – but in the same moment, it’s also a test of the reader & the levels of attention they bring to the poem.

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Thursday, December 19, 2002

On the issue of humor, I got emails from several people. The most detailed response came from Gary Sullivan, who advocates a temporal theory of wit:

Hi Ron,

I’m typing this in Word, hoping I’ve got the settings correct so you won’t get question marks where apostrophes or ellipses are intended (a problem that I think I just fixed, but ... we’ll see ... if not, my apologies).

Your blog today touched on two of my favorite topics: humor and context.

Before I start in on all of that, though, I should say that “But I’ve always thought as well that Pound believed Mauberly to be a barrel of chortles” made me laugh out loud. (It was “barrel of chortles” that did it, for what it’s worth – in other words, the linguistic construction, which I’ll get to in a bit.)

The thrust of your argument seems based more on ideas about irony, specifically, and less so than on humor, or there seemed to be some conflation of the two as I was reading it.

I think you’re right about that Arensberg poem, it’s not really interesting. But, is it the lack of context that makes it so? Obviously, some context would help. But I’d argue that it would still be a lame poem (for me, anyway) if I knew who Hasekawa was. Also, the “humor” there seems more about something universal than Hasekawa (who may, ultimately, have been a made-up name, referring to no one in particular). The problem though isn’t – to me – that it’s simply humor, but a failed attempt at humor:

Perhaps it is no matter that you died.
Life’s an incognito which you saw through:
You never told on life – you had your pride;
But life has told on you.

There’s something metaphysical about the humor there, this idea that “life” is an “incognito.” But the ideas are so fuzzily presented, we don’t know what that really means – it’s too abstract. We (or I anyway) don’t know what he means by “Life’s an incognito” ... maybe he’s getting at something about the “life-force,” that it isn’t “personal” or that it’s invisible? Or “You never told on life.” What could that possibly mean? “Life has told on you,” probably means that Hasekawa, whoever he was, died anyway, as we all will. I mean, it’s impossible to tell. My sense is that we probably wouldn’t know even knowing who Hasekawa was ... unless Hasekawa had made some statement about life and incognito – in other words, unless this is Hasekawa’s language being used against him. In which case, touché, you’re right. I don’t know for sure, of course, but I doubt that that’s the case here. It seems like this is Arensberg’s language here. In which case, the problem is probably not lack of context, but poor structure.

I really believe humor requires more than just making manifest enough context for it to be understood, and that comes from laughing out loud when I was a lot younger at Woody Allen or Donald Barthelme or Firesign Theater pieces where I had no idea what they were “talking about.” (Months or years later, I’d figure it out, and it was as often as not less, not more, funny – although there was that feeling, yes, like, “aha! that’s what you meant!” In other words, “aha!” and not “ha ha ha,” which happened earlier, bereft of context.) It wouldn’t matter, in other words, if I knew who Pound was or, if I did know of Pound, what Mauberly was, but that, “barrel of chortles” is a completely hilarious construction.)

Humor depends largely  not exclusively, but I’d argue predominantly – on timing, if verbal, or measure, if written. Why, in other words, has the Greek Anthology persisted – and not simply as a kind of historical item read in college, but as something even contemporary poets as well as humorists might pilfer from, retranslate, read for pleasure, or otherwise use. Epigrams give less opportunity for context about what is said than they do for the mechanics of what is said.

But, again, it seems like your primary argument is not about whether or not humor will last, but whether or not irony is read as irony over the years. Some English students may remember reading Swift’s Modest Proposal and “not being sure” at first if he’s “kidding.” But not me. Because, although there is no real context presently for that piece in the piece, it always arrives framed – in an English textbook anthology with an introductory essay, maybe, or however else one might conceivably receive it (in a Penguin edition, with footnotes explaining?) Same with Petronius’s Satyricon. Context can get carried over by others, by previous readers. Swift is, in other words, probably less shocking today, because we often get it with a set-up. Someday, your Stein quote will be recontextualized by a scholar somewhere, and that might be, for the next hundred or so years, that. Anyway, back to Swift, because as an example he’s “as obvious as an ear” – part of his plan, so it seemed, was that one would not know he was being ironic. That readers of the day would internalize the argument, to some extent, and then come out of that experience, understanding some level of concomitant participation in the genocide of the Irish. But, irony of ironies, he’s now read with the foreknowledge that he was being ironic. And the effect of reading him is, ironically, diminished.

That, btw, is the kind of irony I’m often most interested in. And it does have a very limited, immediate value. We’ll never read Swift – no one will – as he was then. But I think he’ll be remembered, and learned from, mimicked, used, referred to, and enjoyed, for a long time, despite that.

As you say, “Humor is always – & only – in the eye of the beholder.” I agree with that. But I also believe that meaning/intention and value are also always – and only – in the eye of the beholder. It’s all problematic or changeable or contingent upon context, I’d argue.

How is Celan’s work read by those who don’t know who he was, his history?

Enjoying the blog,


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Wednesday, December 18, 2002

Between the poem & the longpoem come several intermediate modes. One that interests me greatly, because it’s one with which I have a lot of personal affinity, is the booklength poem that might not (yet) be a longpoem in the true sense of taking a decade or more to compose. It can be – although not always is – really the poem as book (which, conversely, almost always means the book as poem also), calling up that curious zone in which the transpersonal elements of a text become deeply immersed with the qualities of embodiment that bookmaking represents.

Jack Spicer was a master at this level. After Lorca, The Heads of the Town Up to the Aether, Language & Book of Magazine Verse were all composed as much as books as they were poems. Gilbert Sorrentino’s The Orangery is another volume that comes immediately to mind as an exemplar of this mode – as are Charles Alexander’s arc of light / dark matter, Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets, John Ashbery’s Three Poems, Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, Robert Creeley’s Pieces, Barrett Watten’s Progress, David Melnick’s Pcoet, Tom Mandel’s Prospect of Release, & more than a few books each by both Bernadette Mayer & Clark Coolidge.

At the heart of the poem as book is not just having a project that is sufficiently large enough to warrant capturing as a whole between two covers, but rather one that understands itself in precisely such terms, that takes its own free-standing nature as a given. Book design, of course, allows for a lot of fudging – the 64-page volume that was my own Paradise was a 35-page manuscript. Whatever its integrity as a poem or project might be, it was Rosmarie Waldrop who had the formal sense to see that work as book. Thus, not every poem (or poetic series) of size carries this sense of itself as a condition of the writing. Of the volumes listed in the previous paragraph, the one I sometimes wonder about in these terms is Berrigan’s Sonnets. As wonderful as they are – and they hold up to rereading after rereading over the decades, as rich & glittering as ever – Berrigan was such a young writer when he composed that sequence that it’s not clear to me that he was yet even thinking in terms of books at all.

What calls this to mind is a volume entitled bk of (h)rs by Pattie McCarthy. It’s a dense, rich, sometimes dark (& sometimes playful) volume clearly conceived & written precisely as a book. For a relatively young poet – I believe this is only her second volume – it’s a project of stunning ambition & self confidence. And, as readers of this blog will have figured out by now, these are qualities in poetry that I completely endorse. The title alone announces that this will not be an “easy” read – although, because this work is so well written, there are constant & continuing pleasures in doing so, making bk, if not an “easy” read, at the very least a delightful one.

McCarthy’s model of course is the medieval book of hours, which between the 13th & 15th centuries was the most popular of all book forms, but which today is remembered principally for the detailed illustrations that decorated these favored objects of the rich. As her use of abbreviations makes evident (& the Apogee Press design reinforces, especially in the dense prose of the third section), McCarthy is interested primarily in the intellectual / social / spiritual elements of the form, not its role in a history of design. The first section of the book does indeed follow the “hours” of medieval practice – matins, lauds, prime, terce, sext, none, vespers & compline – actually set times of day for traditional sets of prayer. The second section is, as one would expect in this form, is called “(p)salter,” & while the psalms or songs that follow are less polyvocalic that either the first or third sections of this book, one would be hard put to characterize them as lyrical.

I suspect that a reader who was more of a Christian than I would see more levels & depths of reference here than do I. It’s one thing for me to recognize the use of Julian dating in “(p)salter,” but quite another for me to understand quite what to do with it. At that level, I have to ask myself just how much I trust where the author is going, particularly one who, like McCarthy, actively invokes a broad a range of reference, especially in the 21 prose paragraphs of the volume’s third & final section, where the sense of density is accentuated by McCarthy’s resistance to upper case. Since at no point where I can follow does she ever once misstep, my gut feel is to trust completely the places where I simply have to acknowledge my own limits as a reader. A passage like the following demonstrates absolute ability in total control:

the second letters of the original seven
antiphons read backwards yield the acrostic :
I shall be with you tomorrow.
divinations to undertake – times
& purposes to be determined regionally.
I’m not one for a public shrove.
a green winter makes for a fat churchyard.
a long winter makes for a full ear. poke
            holes in eggshells to keep
            witches from going to sea. we look down into it.

bk of (h)rs will probably look like early work one day to McCarthy, precisely because she demonstrates herself taking on such a range & such steep challenges that you can almost palpably feel her growth as an artist in these pages – the literary equivalent of, say, a Beatles album like Rubber Soul, where the Fab Four just start to make the move from best-in-class of the genre they’ve inherited toward working on some whole other level that will transform not merely their own work, but that of everyone else around them. I don’t want to overstate the case here, but bk of (h)rs is a fascinating view of an artist right at the inflection point of her career.

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Tuesday, December 17, 2002

Looking at Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Draft 1: It again this morning, I realize that what I’d previously taken for a more abstract drawing that comes later in the text is, like the pair of drawn Ns at the front, letters, in this instance Ys. In each case, one letter is much larger than the other, with the smaller inscribed in a wedge of the larger. It’s funny how you can look at something off & on for 15 years, before a detail this basic jumps out at you, but there you have it.

The Ys occur at the end of one of the more curious passages in Draft 1:

The struggle from whiteness
into whiteness
via black wit-




Nothing in my prior experience of DuPlessis gives me reason to believe that she has an interest in what I’ve called the alternative wisdom traditions, so the appearance of the old Chinese system of chance divination gets my attention because it is unexpected. Further, the idea of “black witness” – a phrase I can easily imagine DuPlessis speaking – refers on a very different level to the civil rights movement of the 1950s & ‘60s. But from whiteness into whiteness suggests that other meanings have to be given precedence here. There is a discourse of color in Draft 1 that is worth cataloging: “sunlight / silver backed,” “it / lettered on green up hillside’s social lining,”  “Black // coding inside         A / white fold open,” “A white house seems / to be a further / coagulation of mist / Lucite see-thru overlay,” “CANO*, can o,       yes     no,” “’sea-blazed gold’,” “clouds       for fat and white,” “space white and open a flat / spot a lite on / it,” “Object (pronoun) / squeaks its little song its bright white / dear dead dark,” “theater of the / / page    cream    space    peaks,” “where in the placement of saffron / . . . and black tuft of heide,” “one point is to achieve a social momentum of switched / referents and (merry coral        white clover / ding ding ding) commentary,” & then this remarkable passage:

a kind of orange it happens
a kind of orange
rose rinse, vertical green
Away anyway has shadow
a typical Rachel shadow”
blue starts limb long and torso struggles
its window when all around there’s not a single
wall, NO blockages
hardly stopped at all except by the pleasures
of color are you getting the picture
it hppns BLUEW one from the sequences of looming
comes            longing

White & black are of course unique hues, white figuring as the undifferentiated presence of all color in light, but as the absence of color in pigmentation. Light/pigment, white/black, yes/no (Y/N), sound/silence – a string of threshold points appear to surround & pass through that simplest, most self-effacing of pronouns. It’s in this sense that I begin to understand the allusion to the I ching. Of all pronouns, it most completely functions as a lens, directing sight, refracting color, offering nothing (or very little) of itself as object.

In a way, DuPlessis is playing with the idea of language’s ostensible transparency, but only to point up all the problematic catches, the moments where the signifier itself happens (or, for that matter, “hppns”) – meaning, sound, sight, desire, the whole of the world trying to come through – “a plot,” as she notes, bracketing the phrase in quotation marks, “a plot / against the reader.”

* Spanish for “white”

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Monday, December 16, 2002

Commenting upon George Stanley’s excerpt from Vancouver in The Poker turned out to bring goodies in time for the holiday season. Kevin Davies sent me a copy of another excerpt from Book One and I was directed to yet another shining example in the new issue of Shampoo  by editor Del Ray Cross. This last piece has two different descriptions of the late Angela Bowering that make me envious of those who knew her, as well as further confirmation of my theory of Vancouver & the poetry of transit. The poem also has  a wonderful dictum that I suspect Stanley would like to believe – write carelessly – tho in fact he is one of the great careful writers of our time. 

All of which made me think of how we begin the longpoem, those of us who do write them, and that one of my New Years Resolutions for 2003 is to read Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Drafts 1-38, Toll with the kind of long, slow, luxuriating attention that I believe it deserves. So I got a jump on the new year and sat down & read (reread, really) Draft 1: It, first in the large Wesleyan University Press edition, then in the even larger (at least in terms of page size) Temblor 5 where I first encountered this poem back in 1987. Way back when, I don’t think it struck me how one of the keys to Drafts was (or, really, back then, would be) how each section always links to a title, most often (but not always) a single word. “Links to a title” may seem a funny way of phrasing this, yet I sense that these are not titles in the same way that, say, “The Multiversity” is the title for Passages 23 for Robert Duncan or Paradise is the title of one section of my own Alphabet. As I think becomes clear when reads DuPlessis, every word for her is always provisional. The monumental aspect of poetry titles seems something very different – and yet, these aren’t “captions” either, at least not in the way that Benjamin distinguishes between those two categories, one name the work, the other pulling out a highlight or foregrounding some element within. My own sense here at least at this point, is that DuPlessis uses these words & phrases to identify territories in the vicinity of which the poems then work.

In 1987, I knew DuPlessis as one of several poets whom I might characterize as post-Objectivist, a grouping as diverse as John Taggart, Michael Heller & Armand Schwerner. DuPlessis was notable also for being the one woman who seemed actively drawn to this literary tradition. But nothing in her (first?) book Wells (Montemora Supplement, 1980) prepared me for this suddenly expansive use of the page. Perhaps if I had read Gypsy / Moth (Coincidence Press, 1984) more attentively, I would have realized that its title page, assigning the two poems of that volume to a longer project, the “History of Poetry” (and with the word Keats both printed and X’d out right in the center of the page), was in fact announcing DuPlessis’ taking on of something of greater scale, not just in size but also in intellectual ambition.

DuPlessis is more explicit in Tabula Rosa (Potes & Poets, 1987), which includes 17 pieces from the “History of Poetry,” including the two David Sheidlower had published in the earlier book. The section – it forms the first half of the book – has an epigram that is telling: “She cannot forget the history of poetry / because it is not hers.” That was the clearest statement yet of DuPlessis’ own sense of herself as writing as an outsider, a position that will very much inform Drafts. The second half of Tabula Rosa is, in fact, entitled “Drafts,” & reprints the first two from Temblor. But it also contains a serial poem, “Writing,” that, with commentary, runs 30 pages, longer than the two sections of DuPlessis’ new longpoem.

“Writing’s” ultimate relation to Drafts isn’t self-evident – it’s not included here in the Wesleyan edition. Reading it, it feels (very much as the “History of Poets” does for me also) as a necessary step for DuPlessis to clear the ground on which she could begin the true longpoem. Already in “Writing,” DuPlessis is moving away from standard type-driven forms. Handwritten in one section are these sentiments: “wanting to have her book virtually nameless / what is the most transparent name?” Tabula Rosa, in spite of its pun, “Writing” and Drafts all seem possible responses to that question.

Between Tabula Rosa and the Wesleyan edition, DuPlessis will publish three more collections of Drafts:

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>A volume from Potes & Poets entitled Drafts, containing numbers 3 through 14
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>A large & wonderfully designed Singing Horse Press edition of Draft X: Letters
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Another volume from Potes & Poets entitled Drafts 1-XXX, The Fold.
“It” is as contra-auspicious a title one might propose for the opening of a longpoem, which is the point. The poem itself begins with an initial “N.” that is then repeated, followed by two hand drawn Ns, large & asymmetrical, giving the page as much a sketch of a mountaintop (my immediate thought, seeing them, was Wordsworth’s alps – Bunting’s version of same also – although to a later reader the use of the hand here would no doubt call up Bob Grenier’s own “scrawl” texts*), followed by a section divider, which in this piece is a pair of equal signs. Thus signs & sounds are all that we are given in the very first section. There is not even one vowel. & the consonant chosen (no accident here) comes more than halfway through the alphabet itself. There’s no way to make a word out of this, the way one could stretch “m” into “mmmmmm.” The use of the period with each “N” reinforces its “vocal but subverbal” qualities, just as the mountain tops carry us back to a time when language is as much picture as conventional representation of sound.

Think of every longpoem you have ever read – none has an opening passage even remotely like this. No jewels & diamonds, no round of fiddles, no going down to the ships. The closest I can imagine is Duncan’s reference to a cat’s purr, but that is at the start of the second Passages, not the first. So, even if we buy the scrawled Ns as mountain tops, any allusion to The Prelude is at best an echo that tugs ever so faintly in the work.

The second passage is everything the first one is not:

and something spinning in the bushes                               the past

                                    dismembered                                         sweetest

            dizzy chunk of song

Here suddenly we have miracles, memory, history, fragmentation, qualities, the whole idea that song, for example, might be characterized as a “dizzy chunk.” When I get to this moment, I do in fact hear an echo from the start of a longpoem, but on a very different order:
I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer way.

                 clean-washed sea

The flowers were.
John Ashbery’s “The New Spirit,” the start of Three Poems (which I will always read as one), presents a very similar opposed pair – but note that DuPlessis has reversed the order, or at the very least suggested that possibility.

One image or theme that runs through this passage is light: “all the sugar is reconstituted: / sunlight” or “light this / governed being:    it?        that?” This question of embodiment leads to the section’s last stanza, which transforms a Zukofskian moment of closure that is almost stunning in how directly DuPlessis gets to it”
plunges into every object
a word and then some                      chuck and
pwhee wee
have tune’s
There are no half measures in these two passages – DuPlessis takes you right smack into the heart of writing with all of its epistemological & ontological questions in what amounts to a “take no prisoners” directness. The ambition of the moment is both sweeping and breath-taking. We are indeed at the cusp of a great adventure.

* I’m not sure whether any of Grenier’s scrawl works, which I believe existed by the mid 1980s, had appeared anywhere that DuPlessis might have seen them at this point in history. My guess is not.

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Sunday, December 15, 2002

On the Poetics List, there was a certain to-do over the wink I suggested was absent in the poetry of Jennifer Moxley. This was not, as I noted at the time, a criticism, but rather an observation, an index of her willingness as an author to write precisely what she believes needs to be written, regardless of fashion. Any number of commentators rushed in to rescue Moxley’s reputation from sincerity or even earnestness, with Steve Vincent – a friend of this blog for over 30 years – suggesting that I had been “pulled into the wax.” Aaron Belz goes this way & that – he feels like Edgar Allan Poe on the issue when he’s not feeling like Bugs Bunny. Many ideas were thrown into the hat, no doubt causing the rabbit to feel crowded. Some of the more pertinent ones were:

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>The wink is a necessary “courtyard of emotion,” an idea I’d like to endorse just so I can use that phrase a few times.

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>The wink is a postmodern twitch.

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>The wink is a New York School thing (with some hint that there’s relatively little winking between 14th Street & Columbia, where it is again permitted).

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>James Tate does/does not wink. Unless of course those messages that mentioned only the surname were referring to Allen Tate, a man whose poetry has been known to glare.

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>There is such a thing as a “bad wink,” implying of course that its opposite might also exist.

At this very same moment, the Gertrude Stein list has been going on about what Stein meant when she said, sometime in the early 1930s, that Adolph Hitler deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. & a fellow at Buffalo emailed to ask if “Franzen’s boast in his 30 September New Yorker article that he defied the intentions of Coover and Pynchon by reading them to identify with their characters militate against your interpretation of the J-Franz/Oprah contretemps?”

My answer to that latter question would be that, no, it confirms my interpretation, because it reveals Franzen to be consciously operating on exactly that set of presumptions. And I would have thought that we have all learned by now that Franzen’s style vis-à-vis media inquiries into his process is to obfuscate & dissemble to the max. But, as the Stein quote suggests – it’s being employed apparently by Holocaust deniers – humor doesn’t necessarily travel well. If the wit is dry enough, it may in fact scrape.

I would characterize irony – the ability to say one thing while communicating something quite discordant to the denotation – as one aspect of humor & an especially important one in this epoch in the U.S. (I don’t want to generalize here.) Context is so important in humor &, by definition, so pliable & subject to change, that it is almost impossible to ensure that what is uproarious in one setting will remain so over time.

Almost certainly, everybody has had the experience of writing some bon mot in an email only to discover that your recipient has been horribly offended, perhaps justifiably.* The very same communication in person might not have had the equivalent impact because it would have been presented, with body language & tone, in such a way as to situate its reception.

Much of Stein’s humor – in Tender Buttons and the portraits, for example – does travel well over the decades. But I’ve always thought as well that Pound believed Mauberly to be a barrel of chortles & there is more wit in Eliot’s Prufrock & Waste Land than was noted when we were in high school. Eliot the ponderous was largely a critical fiction up until the Quartets showed that he’d begun to believe his own reviews.

But if you go back further into the recesses of the canon, what you find is that humor carries forward most effectively when it is most fully contextualized – in drama, for example, or in poetry that proposes its own contexts, like the Canterbury Tales. But the humor in Pope comes across now as stilted & clunky – which may be why he is not dealt with as seriously as he deserves, particularly when you consider how close he came to inventing the prose poem.

Which makes me wonder about the eventual fate of our current moment, long after we too have exited stage left. Irony today serves an important social & historical function – as an index of our own lack of innocence. It’s a confession that we expect our leaders to lie & all our social institutions to fail us, to do so systemically, & to do so cynically. When the FDA declares Claritin safe for over-the-counter sales, “making it available for everyone,” what that action really does is separate out one of the most common costs insurers have had to cover. Last month’s $10 co-pay for your prescription will be next month’s $30 charge at the cash register.

Many tendencies in poetry, not just the New York School, have relied more than a little on humor & irony – the actual figure of Maximus in the Olson poems is pretty funny. There is a lot of wit in Robert Kelly’s poetry – read Axon Dendron Tree if you don’t believe me – and in Jackson Mac Low. Clark Coolidge’s humor is one part Phil Whalen, one part Jonathan Williams. Dorn’s ‘Slinger is a long philosophical poem built on the model of a comic book. & no language poet does more with humor than Barrett Watten.

But identifying someone else’s humor on the page can be as problematic as taking excerpts from the work of Leslie Scalapino at random and knowing why this page is a “comic book” and that is an “opera.” Humor is always – & only – in the eye of the beholder. & what that eye sees depends very much on context – the moon at the horizon is big, but at the peak of the sky it’s very small indeed. This I think is at least partly why so few readers actually understand Ginsberg to have been primarily a satirist.

So while I am willing to concede the conceivability of Stephen Vincent’s suggestion that I have been “pulled into the wax,” I really doubt it. More important, I doubt that in the long run it will make any difference. If for any reason Moxley did not intend her statements in that poem (or any other) to be taken at face value today, there will come a time in the future when that is exactly how they are understood. The same will apply – ironically – even to John Ashbery & Charles Bernstein.

Which makes me wonder about the fate of the poetry of poetry today – it may very well be that we are creating a collective oeuvre that will age at greatly differential rates down the road. Jonathan Mayhew the other day in his blog characterized H.D.’s Hellenism as “kitsch” – yet its function during her lifetime was diametrically opposed to that very idea. Even now, if you look at the diverse poetics of, say, the early modernist period, it makes you want to scratch your head. If I thumb through an anthology like Harriet Monroe’s New Poetry (Macmillan, 1917 & 1923), the so-called “revolution of the word” is almost entirely absent. While the founder of Poetry includes Pound & Williams, and even such radicals as Carl Sandburg & John Reed, there is no Stein, no Loy, no sign of the Baroness, no Hartley, not even Hart Crane. Yet New Poetry does include Thomas Hardy, Edward Arlington Robinson, Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, even Joseph Campbell and John G. Neihardt. Perhaps the most telling inclusion is Walter Conrad Arensberg, he of the “Ing? Is it possible to mean ing?” There is some interesting work to be found in Arensberg, but Monroe is having none of that.  Here is the shortest of his five poems in the anthology, “To Hasekawa”:

Perhaps it is no matter that you died.
Life’s an incognito which you saw through:
You never told on life – you had your pride;
But life has told on you.

It’s not self-evident whom Hasekawa might have been – a search on Google turns up nothing – but what is evident is the humor here. Without any context, it’s not funny, so that the husk of its structure is all that remains. It’s like a deaf person watching dancers with no hint of the music. In this case, it would seem that the dancers are a little clumsy, but that’s about all you can say.

Literature evolved away from the vision that Harriet Monroe held & while some Arensberg poems are still read today, this one mercifully is not. It would be easy enough to argue that Monroe’s sensibility was pedestrian at best, but I suspect that the reality is that it was not as pedestrian as it might now appear. Rather, it is merely that large portions of the work she favored and printed seems – 75 years later – terribly antiquated. Now there are poets from the 19th century – all of Dickinson, much of Whitman – that don’t seem half as ancient as much of the writing in New Poetry. The problem isn’t time – it’s the variable rate at which poems age.

If the wink is in fact the ticket into our contemporary “courtyard of emotions,” it comes at high risk. While I like humor & wit, I think that a writer needs to recognize – presume even – that, of all the colors in his or her pallet, the ones that will fade fastest are the bright, funny ones. If you want some sense of how your work might read 70 years hence, just ask yourself what will remain of your poetry when none of your readers get the jokes. 

* My own most recent experience of this came on Friday the 13th when one of the readers of the blog thought that I was comparing J.H. Prynne to the music of John Tesh or Yanni. In fact, what I was suggesting was that the problem of the “regional ear” was different from that of distinguishing good art – figured into that discussion as Anthony Braxton – from kitsch. If I had been making a Raworth is to Prynne as Braxton is to X kind of comparison, I probably would have said someone like John Zorn. I instinctively “get” Braxton in a way that I don’t Zorn, but I wouldn’t then suggest that Zorn was kitsch. 

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