Saturday, December 28, 2002

At the core of his email on irony, Chris Stroffolino asks:

but it seems that what you're driving at is the question of WHAT OTHER WORK IS THE POEM DOING BESIDE MEANING (that is assuming that it IS also meaning, or meaning to mean, which of course is not a safe assumption in the 20th century)

Beside suggesting that Chris check his calendar – it’s later than you think – I would concur with his assessment that this discussion is ultimately about much more than “just” irony – consider just how far afield the discussion has traveled since my original flip aside concerning Jennifer Moxley’s poetry – and would turn the question rather on its head: what are the ways in which the poem manifests meaning? Underneath which sits the further question: what is meaning?

All of which takes me back to the first three sentences of a wonderful book, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, co-written by George Lakoff & Mark Johnson, which are presented also as the first three paragraphs:

The mind is inherently embodied.
Thought is mostly unconscious.
Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical.

Lakoff & Johnson are, among others, founders of what today is called cognitive linguistics & George has been both a friend and an influence on my poetry for some 25 years. Nowhere in his corpus are its underlying findings more concisely stated.

Thought is mostly unconscious is an idea I’ve, uh, thought a lot about, and have a great deal more of thinking yet to do. At one level, the concept explains the possible power of an irrationalist poetics like that of Jack Spicer. At another, it suggests to me that the reading process – even when we are paying the greatest attention, doing literal “close” reading – is itself more unconscious than not. Both it and the idea that mind is inherently embodied go a considerable distance toward explicating the issues posed, for example, by electric guitars or why poets might take a line such as “green ideas sleep furiously” as meaningful when old-school linguists (the Chomsky generation, say) do not.

Thought is mostly unconscious destroys a project such as the Tractatus, though not (we note) Wittgenstein’s later forays into this same territory. It has, of course, a certain Freudian, if not Lacanian, ring to it, yet it is not in that psychoanalytic direction that Lakoff appears to be pointing. Even if we understand reason, for example – just one mode of thinking among others – as a series of syllogistic operations, a number of multivariable “if” clauses that would lead ultimately to the consequence of “then,” Lakoff & Johnson’s position suggests that what we imagine to be complex enough procedures with dozens of steps may in fact have hundreds, if not thousands, conducting not only in our waking life, but elsewhere.

Here of course is the principle behind the idea of waking up to a solution that, prior to a night’s sleep, had seemed impossible. Or why anybody – you or I – might be able to apprehend when something someone asserts sounds “wrong” to us, well before we can honestly articulate precisely why. It represents the architecture of the “gut feel.” It is in this sense that a poem like Ketjak or Tjanting can be understood literally as single syllogisms that cannot, in fact, be paraphrased.

Here also is the reader’s participation in consuming, and in so doing reproducing anew, any given text. To have excluded the reader’s contribution to the meaning of a text may have seemed “neat” to the New Critics in the sense that it offered boundaries that they might then patrol, but to do also yielded (& still yields to this day) a kind of literary dyslexia, an illiteracy in the name of reading competence – the same illiteracy that sometimes will cause a grad student to conclude that langpo is “difficult” in some manner that the world itself is not.

Song approaches the question of embodiment far differently than does poetry – as virtually every attempt to blend the two eventually proves all over again – but embodiment is essential to both. The music of vowel & consonant is no less a constituent of meaning than is any argument the denotative text might make. This is a reality that might be discounted in one or another tendency within poetry, but it is not one that can be safely abolished. My own interest in vizpo is real enough, but it is much more anthropological than it is literary, for which I make no apologies. The visual is never for me an adequate condition of embodiment for the poem.

This does not mean that I require poetry to be “beautiful” prosodically – some of the most interesting in recent years has, I think, sought out a sonic realm I would associate more closely with post-industrial life than with song – Barrett Watten or Rod Smith, to name two who seem especially adept at this.

Poetry that pays little attention to how it sounds – there’s enough of it out there that I don’t need to name names – strikes me in exactly the opposite way. Such work seems at times the aesthetic corollary of a serious stroke victim – unable to complete its thought. Thus the best argument in the world, if it pays no heed to the question of embodiment, strikes me as not very meaningful – a condition of far too much “political poetry.” Even as the simplest lyric is itself always already political.

So what is meaning & where do you find it? Williams called it “the news,” but that phrase, bandied about as much as it is, is often understood in far too narrow a fashion. I often will find it in a poem lurking not in the words as such so much as in the vowels, or in the way a phrase alters my expectation (a particularly NY School approach), in how lines enjamb or a phrase is inverted, in the length of a line. All to me seem primary modes of meaning.

& the student who is not taught how to see, to read these things, has in fact never been taught to read.

Friday, December 27, 2002

Chris Stroffolino suggests that the term irony covers up a broader range of issues:

Dear Ron – –

I've been wanting to respond to a point you made on the blog about "irony" – specifically this...

“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.”

I like this perception/insight. One issue for me about the above definition of irony (and not with your statement in particular – since it's part of a common definition of irony) is that it seems it could also equally be applicable to a lot of things that aren't called "irony." That old "New Critical" saw that (I'm probably slightly misquoting it) "a poem should not mean but be" (or a poem should not JUST mean but also be) would seem to be very similar to your definition of irony. Is any awareness of a difference between connotation and denotation, or between a singular intention and multiple interpretations, or of a suggestive ambiguity that often is reduced to being read one way, necessarily "ironic?" If so, then, doesn't the word "ironic" become so broad that it would become itself a mere connotation rather than a denotation; that it refers to a mood the reader is in when s/he reads the poem or other writing-act?

I guess it is because of such "definitions" of "irony," that I am wary about its usefulness as a critical term. To label such a process "irony" seems too narrow – which is why I often buckle at the way the word "ironic" is used (whether dismissively or even as a non-pejorative kind of shorthand characterization) to describe a poem or poet. This also applies to something called "non-ironic" (since that term presupposes irony)....

I know there is supposed to be a "serious" vs. "ironic" distinction, that is perhaps ultimately "musical" (and thus – I'd argue – in the ear of the beholder), but it seems that what you're driving at is the question of WHAT OTHER WORK IS THE POEM DOING BESIDE MEANING (that is assuming that it IS also meaning, or meaning to mean, which of course is not a safe assumption in the 20th century). And it would seem that a poem that does, on one level, have "something to say" may be at odds with itself as a poem much more than a poem that doesn't have anything to say.....and this may be why "didactic" or seemingly didactic poetry makes some people uncomfortable, and why others sometimes crave it.... For me analogies with rock music songs are helpful in addressing this question – in part because I took rock lyrics seriously before I took poetry seriously. When I started taking poetry seriously, one of the questions I asked myself was: What is it that poetry must do that song lyrics don't do? What is the equivalent – in poetry – of the singer's "voice" or the guitar solos, etc? There's a lot to say about this, but, to be brief and tie it more explicitly back to your point, it seems to be that this question, to you (by your definition of irony), might be paraphrased as "what must a poem do to be ironic?" Thus, is any awareness of aestheticism (however "dissonant" or "discordant" or "clunky" or whatever) in poetry automatically irony? Well, that's one of the implications I see in your definition....

Perhaps the more profound issue is the term "postmodern irony" – If I tend to see what is often called (though not by me) "postmodern irony" in pre"-postmodern" writers, it could be that I'm simply reading them with my own "postmodern" sensibility, but it could equally be that what's called "postmodern" irony isn't as "postmodern" as some like to believe.

Okay, I'll stop here now – –

I just wanted to write because I really appreciate what you're doing with the blog....


Thursday, December 26, 2002

Bad writing isn’t always a sign of a poet’s incompetence. Sometimes it seems even to be intentional. Let’s read a poem, something from the new issue of Washington Square, “Class Picture, 1954”:

I am the third one
from the left in the third row.

The girl I have been in love with
since the 5th grade is just behind me
to the right, the one with the bangs.

The boy who pushes me down
in the playground sometimes
is in the top row, the last one on the left.

And my friend Paul is the second one
in the second row, the one
with his collar sticking out, next to the teacher.

But that’s not all—
if you look closely you can see
our house in the background

with its porch and its brick chimney
and up in the clouds
you can see the faces of my parents,

and over there, off to the side,
Superman is balancing
a green car over his head with one hand.

The first thing we notice is that this poem functions very much like a Hollywood movie or TV sitcom – each stanza will carry one & only one idea. If there is a single defining feature that characterizes the barrenness of American commercial media, that’s it! The complexity & nuances even of a Howard Stern talk show are consciously & deliberately drained away.

There have been genres of poetry that focused on a single meaning for a short unit of verse – imagism & some aspects of Objectivism come to mind – but neither composes with the kind of loose, prosoid, tho very clean, style evidenced here. It’s precisely this cleanliness of the writing that makes me think that this poetry is intentional. Yet the unit = idea phenomenon for these older modes tends very much toward the line &/or phrase. Thus, clean as it is, this is a rather bloated concept of “directness” (or however the poet thinks of it).

The reader is very much invited here to identify the narrator of the text with the poet, which tends to set off (at least for this reader) some calculations as to what grade of students is figured in the text. The second stanza lets us know that it is past the fifth grade, while the third tells us that it is still in the playground bully-victim range – seventh grade would be pushing it. Yet the distancing effect of “since the 5th grade” makes sixth grade improbable, at least if we presume the competence of the writer. Placing it at seventh or above, though, suggests that the narrator is a particular type of pathetic figure, sort of a self-actualizing victim & a general bully magnet.

It’s a conundrum – either the poet is inept or the narrator is intended to seem a particular type of unattractive human being – but as quickly as this enters the frame, it’s passed by. Paul of the fourth stanza enters & appears to have no other function than to spread the focus of the narrating gaze beyond the simple dramas of puppy-love & school ground terror. Neither Paul nor his teacher ever do anything, in this stanza or elsewhere.

The “But” at the head of the fifth stanza now announces the drama of the poem, as though the first four strophes were no more than scene setting. There are other things visible in this photograph – the narrator’s home, the site of who knows how many psychic dramas. The first line of the sixth stanza keeps us very much grounded in the physical realm of the photograph, while the second line performs a double function – the closest moment in the entire poem to complexity. It appears, at one level, to describe the physical world, yet is revealed in the next line as the transition to a cloying sentimental cliché in a bizarrely American variation of magic realism. The last line of this stanza is so atrocious that it virtually cries out for Jeff Koons to come & give us a sculpture of the image in porcelain. Or marshmallow. Or something.

What if the atrociousness of the line is intentional? What if that’s the point of the poem in some weird fashion? It’s almost like one of those old Hollywood flicks that tells a moral tale about how violence is bad by giving us as much blood & gore as it conceivably can. If this is the case, then I don’t have a problem with the poet’s competence, but with the poet’s ethics. Or lack thereof.

The seventh stanza suggests that this might be the case, distancing itself from the almost horrific sentimentalism of the sixth with this image “over there, off to the side.” It’s Superman! Literally. Rescuing us from having to take this image of the sanctified (& by implication dead) parents of the sixth stanza too directly – as if to acknowledge that the poem is bypassing whatever real emotions it might want to call into play. Thus, the most fascinating word in this literary auto wreck is the adjective “green” that starts off the final line. Its specificity argues for a return to the real while at the same moment placing the image entirely into a comic book landscape.* The entire stanza is really an escape from the possibility of grief suggested by the placement of the parents faces into the clouds. It’s as though the poem wants to point to the emotion, but doesn’t want to “own” it.

A different kind of reader might suggest a correlation between the bullied presence of the pathetic figure in the early stanzas & a narrator unable to acknowledge emotion later in the text, but this would be the critical equivalent of putting a bow tie on a pig. What is more telling is that it is apparent that this poem is not incompetent, or is incompetent only insofar as it tells us some very unattractive things about the author that he may not have intended to give away. The poet, by the way, is Billy Collins, whose name appears at the head of the list of contributing “heavies” on the issue’s peach-colored cover, right above Rick Moody and Amy Gerstler.

This is the kind of poetry that often makes post-avant poets livid with fury that anyone capable of signing their own name would take it seriously, as if there were a conspiracy to offer awards, trade publication and recognition only to the most vile of human instincts. But just as there are human beings who see in George W. Bush a plain-speaking compassionate man who had demonstrated great inner strength confronting the terrors of the world, there is an audience for this kind of literature as well, pathological though it may be. That such pathologies are so prevalent as to be institutionalized in our society – institutionalized in the political, rather than clinical, sense – is one of the more lurid phenomena about America in its Late – but never late enough – Capitalist phase. This poem, if it is read 500 years from now, will be a message to the future that our century lived in the dark ages.

Putting Collins’ name first on the cover only draws attention to Washington Square’s embarrassment in including this work at all. College literary magazines tend to fall into one of two categories. The first contains all those journals that primarily exist to print student writing, sometimes contextualized by inclusions of faculty or visiting writers – this is sometimes done well (as U.C. Berkeley’s Occident did occasionally), but more often simply presents work by writers who will never appear in print again & go onto other endeavors in their lives soon enough. The second category of college literary journal focuses on “name” writers – I’ve appeared in Washington Square I must admit – and are really intended as training in editorial skills for the student staff. These journals also are sometimes done well (as Chicago Review has done at different points in its history) but more often reveal – as here – that the next generation of New  York trade editors is apt to be every bit as wretched as the one we have now.

* The George Reeves television series Superman did not begin filming in color until the 1955 season, a year after the date posed in the poem’s title.

Tuesday, December 24, 2002

It was quite dark the other morning between rain storms, and, as is almost always the case when this occurs, the gloom reminded me of “The Dark Day”:

The “dark day” of last week, so strange in its complexion, so altogether unlike anything that has been recorded within our time, served to frighten many superstitious people as if it were an omen of ill fate, and to fill the general talk with wonder and speculation, while it draws attention also to the fact that this is in every respect, over large regions of the earth, an exceptional summer, marked by extraordinary weather and by “signs in the sky” as extraordinary.

The piece goes on from there. The term “dark day” itself dates back, at least in the United States, to May 19, 1780 when smoke from distant forest fires caused New England to grow so dark at midday that candles were needed and farm animals went to sleep. Certainly anyone who has experienced this kind of phenomenon, as I did on the day of the Oakland Firestorm in 1991 – which I first noticed in my backyard in Berkeley when the sun “set” at 11:30 AM – will not soon forget the sense of disorientation that ensues until one figures out the cause. In that instance, the fire consumed over 3,400 units of housing within a 5¼ fire perimeter and cost some 25 lives (including that of my cousin Bob Cox), taking two days to control & turning the Oakland & Berkeley hills into an imitation of Nagasaki.

The “dark day” of the text above, however, precedes the Oakland Firestorm by some 90 years, being dated September 11, 1881. The text appears in the fourth issue of This, published in the Spring of 1973. Even in 1973, found texts were not unheard of, although they were still uncommon in most literary journals. This 4, the first not to list Robert Grenier as co-editor*, was formally pushing its own envelope – in addition to a lengthy interview with Clark & Susan Coolidge & a series of “station breaks” by Joanne Kyger (e.g. “What are your references” or “A swirl of white petals / momentarily blind him”) that eat up as much available white space at the end of selections as possible, the issue came with an insert (not listed in the table of contents) of “30 from Sentences” by Grenier, a series of 16 4½  by 6¾-inch cards wrapped in a red rubber band. This issue also contains Watten’s “Factors Influencing the Weather,”** the piece among Watten’s early poems that certainly had the strongest impact on me as a poet – I’ve stolen from it again & again over the years.

A newspaper article that commingles weather with cosmology, “The Dark Day” continues for three pages. It’s not especially great prose. One sentence could in fact qualify for one of Jay Leno’s patented “stupid newspaper items”:

The sky has been marked by noticeably brilliant sunsets, and some auroral displays of peculiar nature have occurred, like that of the night of July 2, following the attempt to assassinate President Garfield, which was repeated with more remarkable beauty last Monday evening.

A few years after This 4 came out, I would have a job in which one of my duties included reading through selected dates & sections of the San Francisco Examiner over the course of the previous 80 years. As “The Dark Day” makes evident, what passed for both news and journalistic prose style was quite different at the end of the Victorian era.

But what I got from it in 1973 was the idea of language as evidence, an idea that may have been proposed elsewhere previously, but with which I never actually connected until I saw it at work almost simultaneously in two very different contexts. One was ”The Dark Day,” the other was the early novels of Kathy Acker, I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac Imagining, The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula & The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec. The idea of language as evidentiary is what really enabled me to think of sentences as doing something other than “telling a story,” a recognition that led within a year to my beginning work on Ketjak. In retrospect, I think it may well have been the range of usage between the absolutely non-committal presentation of “The Dark Day” in This & the openly transgressive appropriation in Acker’s fiction that made it apparent just how much room there was to investigate the uses of language in writing.

So often, on a “dark day,” I think back to this old anonymous newspaper article and the tremendous impact it had on my life.

* In fact, Grenier had pulled back from editing duties well before this.

** In a single-stanza version visually quite different from the one that begins on p. 290 of Frame.

Monday, December 23, 2002

How did Shiny get to be 16 years old already? Michael Friedman’s journal of poetry, now a biennial, has pushed quiet excellence just about as far it can go & managed to do a marvelous job in making each issue an event. Number 12 arrived just in time for Christmas & it’s hard not to simply throw out an infinite number of Christmas present/stuffed stocking tropes to indicate my pleasure at its arrival and all the great work inside.

When I lived in Berkeley & San Francisco, I would never save a magazine unless some of my own work was included in the issue – it wasn’t a question of desire, but of room. There is a point, somewhere around 2,000 books, when the amount of space to physically store a library becomes limited. I blew past 2,000 books years, maybe decades ago. A secondary result was that, since I knew in advance that I would not save the publication, I virtually never subscribed or bought copies of mags. The downside of this, of course, is that there is a lot of work, especially by newer writers who have not yet had a “big book” that you can’t learn about in any other fashion.

But we had long since maxed out of our book space in Berkeley, even with built-in bookshelves and a fairly impressive bricks & boards system in several rooms. When I was first contemplating the job offer that brought me to Pennsylvania, Krishna tells me that she could tell I was seriously thinking about because I went & got some cartons just to pick up the books that were lying around in stacks on the floor in case I wanted to invite a realtor over to talk about selling the house. It came to 13 cartons.

Now that I live in Pennsylvania in a house close to three times the size of our home in Berkeley, I still have stacks of books lying around everywhere – even as we’ve added nine book cases. So I’m still pretty rigorous about not getting or holding onto too many journals – my periodical collection has only five shelves allotted to it. Yet I’ve noticed that there are some magazine that are just too important to ever throw away – Chain is an obvious one, as is Combo – and I realize now that I’ve been saving Shiny for the past ten years. My only regret is that I didn’t get those early editions way back when.

I think of Shiny as being one of the last truly articulate manifestations of the New York School, the sort of generalization that is both true and not true at the same time. The journal started, I believe, in New York & didn’t acquire a Denver address until double issue 9/10 in 1999. Some classic New York School figures show up in every issue: Ted Berrigan, John Ashbery, Harry Mathews, Kenneth Koch, Alice Notely, Ron Padgett, Tom Clark, Brad Gooch, Joe Brainard, Tim Dlugos, David Shapiro, Larry Fagin, Paul Violi, Clark Coolidge, Michael Brownstein, Ed Friedman, Charles North, Steve Malmude, Tony Towle, Eileen Myles, Susie Timmons, David Trinidad, Elaine Equi, Jerome Sala, Kim Rosenfield, Lewis Warsh, Ted Greenwald, Michael Gizzi, Bernadette Mayer, Anne Waldman, Bill Berkson, John Godfrey, David Lehman & Clark Coolidge have all appeared in these pages. Yet langpo has never been neglected – in the current issue alone, I can find not only Greenwald & Coolidge, but also Bruce Andrews, Rae Armantrout, Alan Bernheimer, Stephen Rodefer & Kit Robinson. There are also a number of younger writers who resist any sort of grouping: Alan Gilbert, Lisa Jarnot, Kevin Davies & Dierde Kovac, Andrew Levy & Mark Wallace, just to pick a few. Plus a few older folks likewise hard to pin down: Steve Ratcliffe, Bill Corbett, Tom Raworth, Terence Winch, Anselm Hollo.

What makes Shiny a New York School magazine is Michael Friedman’s sense of active editorship – and here the contrast with Chain is fairly pronounced. In addition to the high design value and the inclusion, in every issue, of recent visual art*, Shiny uses positioning – Ted Greenwald leads off the current issue, Ted Berrigan led off 9/10 with a 25-page selection from his journals  -- interviews (Brad Gooch, Harry Mathews) and design to focus its aesthetic concerns. & while Shiny is quite ecumenical with regards to current poetries, it has generally shied away from non-NYS friendly poetries from the generation of the New Americans, including only John Wieners (twice), David Meltzer & some Allen Ginsberg photographs over the years. The current issue is dedicated to Kenneth Koch.

Running between 160 and 250 pages, each issue of Shiny has many, many treasures. It’s rare & wonderful to see four new Rae Armantrout poems in a single journal. And it’s simply wonderful to come across the long (14 pages) ”A Burning Interior” by David Shapiro, Kenneth Koch’s serial poem,  “The Man” –


Coldly the knife is Montana

– two pieces by Terence Winch (a D.C. poet whose work I haven’t seen in far too long), two pieces by Jacques Roubaud (my personal favorite of the Oulipo writers), 16 sections from Mark Wallace’s ”Belief is Impossible,” three poems by William Corbett, two by Ashbery, excerpts from a collaboration  by Dierdre Kovac & Kevin Davies (“The cultural badger is hungry”), two poems in tercets by Kit Robinson & an excerpt from Bruce Andrews’ “Dang Me,” part of his turn to a new mellower tone (“Treat me as well as your pets”).

There are pieces to which I want to direct closer attention. The first is Alan Bernheimer’s “My Blue Hawaii,” The first stanza establishes the poem’s sense of style & the kind of world it projects:

Every queen loves a lobster
with the nerve to kill time
since it’s easy to be sure in a bistro
where more than dogs are turned away

This is the kind of pop art landscape that John Ashbery pioneered & the second generation New York School virtually patented – Ron Padgett, Joe Ceravolo, Bill Berkson are all superb at this. Bernheimer uses the same devices not so much to focus on style as such – this is why he’s not “really” a New York School poet – but on the language beneath:

Your mother had the particle
but key words are too brittle
to warp the probity of a lifetime
for a perp walk through a wafer fab

While “wafer fab,” a facility that manufactures silicon chips, turns up more times in a Google search of the web than Anna Warner’s hymn, “Jesus Loves Me,” none of the 48 occurrences on a page that also includes “poem,” “poetry” or “poems” actually appears in a poem.** What we have here is not merely a moment of marvelous prosody – let those last two lines roll around on your tongue for awhile – but also an instance of the culture coming into the language of a poem for the very first time.

Lisa Jarnot’s two pastorals also jump off the page & into the ear. Here is “Hound Pastoral”:

Of the hay in the barn
and the hound in the field

of the bay in the sound, of the
sound of the hound in the field

of the back of the field of the
bay and the front of the field

of the back of the hound and the
front of the hound and the sound
of the hound when he bays at
the sound in the field

with the baying of hounds in the
baying of arms in the field

of the hound on the page in the
sound of the hound in the field

of the hay that unrests near
the hound in the barn in the field

of the bend in the barn in the
sound of the hound in the bay
by the barn in the field.

Jarnot may have the best ear of any poet under 40 – Lee Ann Brown is really the only other poet who comes close – so it’s no accident that she is willing to take risks like this – the actual climax of this poem comes with the word “bend” in the first line of the last stanza, the introduction of a new sound that completely shapes everything around it.

At the age of 21, Jarnot published a book entitled Phonetic Introductions. The collage that serves as the frontispiece to her 1996 Burning Deck volume, Some Other Kind of Mission, is built around a Perec-like phrase: “there are no ‘e’s’ in the other language.” Ring of Fire, published by the late, lamented Zoland Books in 2001, is filled with works that no other poet in the world could have written. I’d wondered at first why Jarnot, who seems so out of place generationally, could have been selected to fill out the Curriculum of the Soul series of critical pamphlets, but her volume, One’s Own Language may in fact be the strongest one in that entire series. It’s one of those “knock you on your butt” kinds of books – reading it reminded me of what reading Tristes Tropique, Proprioception & The Mayan Letters felt like when I was a youngster reading them for the first time. It also made realize just how very long it has been since I have had a reading experience like that.

I noted before that Shiny has generally steered clear of the likes of projectivism – Robert Creeley seems never to have appeared in its issues. Yet here is Jarnot, Duncan’s biographer & perhaps the closest thing in her age cohort to an extension of that aesthetic. Her appearance in Shiny 12 is not her first, either.

It has been Shiny’s particular contribution to poetry to show to us what has evolved out of the original (or at least second generational) New York School – it’s really the only publication now doing that. That it can also show us how this vision of poetry ties into everything from langpo to this multigenerational gumbo of mavericks is a test of what a great journal can (& maybe even should) be.

* Duncan Hannah has been Shiny’s art editor since the move to Colorado, and this has shifted the art included to figurative works mostly in neo-Pop post-post-impressionist modes, somewhat away from the more conceptual work of its earlier issues. Every artist in the last two issues has been represented by a New York gallery.

** I’m not certain how encouraged I am to discover that the editor of Chip Scale Review has penned editorials in verse, however.

Sunday, December 22, 2002

Gary Sullivan ended his dissertation on humor & context the other day with what I would characterize as an imponderable: “How is Celan’s work read by those who don’t know who he was, his history?” Now Annie Finch sends an email to ratchet the issue of irony up one more notch:

Dear Ron,

the whole [Jennifer] Moxley discussion has been fascinating. if this inspires thought for your blog, I'd be interested to read your response. I think the poems I was recalling are in With Strings or if not, another recent book. I guess part of the question raised is, how much does the context of the writer's other work affect the irony that individual poems can retain?

"Charles Bernstein has written some poems that I would not be surprised to see in a book by X.J. Kennedy. Ron, can you imagine a time in which the context separating those two is lost, or is that taking the idea too far?"

Two more thoughts/questions:

Do you think poems that go too much the other way, that don't have enough irony, are just as vulnerable to being lost after their originary time is over as poems that depend too much on transitory irony?

Then there is the phenomenon of poems that are written with irony and STILL survive after the irony is long gone in most reader's minds. Examples: Frost's The Road Not Taken and Blake's Songs of Innocence. Where do these fit in?


I would suspect that one of the Bernstein poem’s Annie might be remembering is “The Boy Soprano”:

Daddy loves me this I know
Cause my granddad told me so
Though he beats me blue and black
That’s because I’m full of crap

My mommy she is ultra cool
Taught me the Bible’s golden rule
Don’t talk back, do what you’re told
Abject compliance is as good as gold

The teachers teach the grandest things
Tell how poetry’s words on wings
But wings are for Heaven, not for earth
Want my advice: hijack the hearse

Compare this with Kennedy’s “A Brat’s Reward”:

At the market Philbert Spicer
Peered into the bacon slicer –
Whiz! the wicked slicer sped
Back and forth across his head
Quickly shaving – What a shock! –
Fifty chips off Phil’s old block,
Stopping just above the eyebrows.
Phil’s not one of them thar highbrows.

Kennedy, poetry editor of the Paris Review in the 1960s betwixt Donald Hall & Tom Clark, is a long-time practitioner of light verse as well as poetry for children – the smoothness of his metrics here is an index of just how good at this he is. Considering that we’re discussing mutilation in the market place, it’s remarkable just how free “Reward” is of even the slightest hint of social comment. The only moment it shows up is at the very end – that distancing effect of slang in “them thar highbrows.”

Even if we were unaware of the Anna Bartlett Warner hymn – hard to envision in a world in which Google shows over 40,000 pages devoted to it & its variants* – on which Bernstein’s poem is based, there’s a depth of sarcasm in the writing that is impossible to erase over time. Even presuming we don’t recognize the allusion – a presumption basic to satire – this displacement of “Daddy’s” love to granddad’s word for verification & the references to family violence in the first stanza make it unmistakable. As does the use of the term “abject” in the second stanza. As does the “advice” of the final line. Even prosodically, the degree to which Bernstein pushes away from the seven-syllable line of the original twists the poem away from the harmonic closure of the 19th century lyrics toward a result whose dissonance – the degree to which it sounds “off” or “wrong” – underscores the connotative domain.

What we have are two poetries that have certain surface similarities, one of which is adamantly social & will remain so, even if many topical elements are drained away, the other of which is only incidentally (& possibly unknowingly) social. So while in theory the possibility of two poetries merging in such a way as to dissolve their original differences exists, in practice I think this is apt to happen only with much more parallel kinds of writing, the way the elliptical side of the mainstream (say, Jorie Graham’s work) shades over into aspects of post-avant writing (someone like Ann Lauterbach sits almost perfectly in the middle here, as do Forrest Gander & C. D. Wright). But not in work that is truly diverse, regardless of surface features.

Is it possible for poems to not have enough irony? My sense is no, in that I suspect that writing can incorporate an almost total spectrum of metalinguistic distancing effects, from no irony whatsoever (Denise Levertov) all the way to total irony (Joe Brainard). It is, however, possible for poems to use irony ineffectively, as Walter Conrad Arensberg does in “To Hasekawa.” That’s a different issue.

But as time passes, contexts fade. There are poems in which irony disappears only to reveal other strengths of the poem – that’s pretty much the situation with Blake. But other elements shift around as well. Just as Bernstein’s poem will continue to reveal a social structure regardless of whether we recognize Warner’s hymn, so too will the dark world envisioned by Paul Celan remain, whether or not the reader relates it to the holocaust:
the sleeplessy wandered-through breadland
casts up the life mountain.

From its crumb
you knead anew our names
which I, an eye
to yours on each finger,
probe for
a place, through which I
can wake myself toward you,
the bright
hungercandle in mouth.

Hungercandle (“Hungerkerze”) is not a term that is mistakable, any more than “mouth” can ever be softened without a pronoun. The bleakness of the situation could be Kampuchea, Babi Yar or the Balkans. What is not relieved, however, is the underlying sense of deprivation. Only in a world in which hunger & genocide were both abolished & forgotten could these lines appear to lose their sense of deprivation. Which I fear means that we are a long, long way from being able to test the ability of Celan’s work to operate without context.

Of the writers mentioned here, Jennifer Moxley is perhaps closest to Celan in her overall vision of humanity. Like him, she is on the low end of the irony spectrum. Neither has any interest in letting the reader escape the enveloping circumstance of the poem – like Celan, her poems may long for relief, but they seldom if ever offer any. That her works employ a neutral language, rather than, say, the high-torque neologisms of a Celan, is part of the analysis. Like Annie Finch, I’m fascinated by the reactions to her work. They underscore my own sense of its importance.

* Including a few that touch on its use by the Ku Klux Klan.