Saturday, January 25, 2003

Last Wednesday would have been my father’s 76th birthday. It’s been 38 years since he died from burns suffered in a plant explosion while working at a Westvaco paper recycling operation in Charleston, South Carolina. It’s been 45 years since I last saw him. I tend to think of those days as being the very distant past, but then I pick up a book like Chinese Whispers by John Ashbery, a poet born the same year as my father.

Ashbery is one of just a half dozen or so poets from the Donald Allen New American Poetry who are still actively publishing new poetry on a regular basis. Chinese Whispers is at least the fifth book by Ashbery since Flow Chart to gather Ashbery’s short poems into a relatively slim volume & the 16th such volume in his career. It’s a form & format that has stood Ashbery well. When I first recognized it as such, which was absolutely by Rivers and Mountains if not The Tennis Court Oath, I was convinced that the model was one adopted in the 1960s by Wesleyan University Press – original publishers of The Tennis Court Oath – and functionally, even subliminally, defined the “academic” book of poetry.

The Wesleyan roster, from the founding of the Wesleyan Poetry Program in 1959, through 1970 is worth thinking about. The press published the following books of verse:

  • Barbara Howes, Light and Dark, 1959
  • Hyam Plutzik, Apples from Shinar, 1959
  • Louis Simpson, A Dream of Governors, 1959
  • James Wright, Saint Judas, 1959
  • David Ferry, On the Way to the Island, 1960
  • Robert Francis, The Orb Weaver, 1960
  • Donald Justice, The Summer Anniversaries, 1960
  • Vassar Miller, Wage War on Silence, 1960
  • Alan Ansen, Disorderly Houses, 1961
  • Robert Bagg, Madonna of the Cello, 1961
  • Donald Davie, New and Selected Poems, 1961
  • David Ignatow, Say Pardon, 1961
  • John Ashbery, The Tennis Court Oath, 1962
  • Robert Bly, Silence in the Snowy Field, 1962
  • James Dickey, Drowning with Others, 1962
  • Richard Howard, Quantities, 1962
  • Chester Kallman, Absent and Present, 1963
  • Vassar Miller, My Bones Being Wiser, 1963
  • Louis Simpson, At the End of the Open Road, 1963
  • James Wright, The Branch Will Not Break, 1963
  • James Dickey, Helmets, 1964
  • David Ignatow, Figures of the Human, 1964
  • Donald Petersen, The Spectral Boy, 1964
  • Vern Rutsala, The Windows, 1964
  • Tram Combs, saint thomas. poems. 1965
  • Donald Davie, Events and Wisdoms, 1965
  • James Dickey, Buckdancer’s Choice, 1965
  • W. R. Moses, Identities, 1965
  • Turner Cassity, Watchboy, What of the Night? 1966
  • John Haines, Winter News, 1966
  • Harvey Shapiro, Battle Report, 1966
  • Jon Silkin, Poems New and Selected, 1966
  • Richard Howard, The Damages, 1967
  • Donald Justice, Night Light, 1967
  • Lou Lipsitz, Cold Water, 1967
  • David Ignatow, Rescue the Dead, 1968
  • Michael Benedikt, The Body, 1968
  • James Dickey, Poems 1957-1967, 1968
  • Edwin Honig, Spring Journal, 1968
  • Philip Levine, Not This Pig, 1968
  • Vassar Miller, Onions and Roses, 1968
  • Marge Piercy, Breaking Camp, 1968
  • James Wright, Shall We Gather at the River, 1968
  • Gray Burr, A Choice of Attitudes, 1969
  • Leonard Nathan, The Day the Perfect Speakers Left, 1969
  • Marge Piercy, Hard Loving, 1969
  • Anne Stevenson, Reversals, 1969
  • Richard Tillinghast, Sleep Watch, 1969
  • Michael Benedikt, Sky, 1970
  • William Harmon, Treasury Holiday: Thirty-Four Fits for the Opening of Fiscal Year 1968, 1970
  • David Ignatow, Poems 1934-1969, 1970
  • Charles Levendosky, Perimeter Poems, 1970
  • Clarence Major, Swallow the Lake, 1970
  • James Seay, Let Not Your Heart, 1970
  • Charles Wright, The Grave of the Right Hand, 1970*

The form was relatively simple – maybe one “major” poem of as much as twelve pages, surrounded by a series of one-page pieces, coming to anywhere between 60 & 100 pages total &, if you were part of the “core” group, one such book every three or so years.

Laughable as it might seem today, those of us of a certain age will remember when this modest list – usually just four slim books per year – was the closest thing to a hegemon as existed in American poetry. Simpson won the Pulitzer in 1964 for Open Road, Dickey won the 1966 National Book Award for Buckdancer’s Choice, Justice’s 1960 volume was a Lamont Poetry Selection. There are, of course, some decent books here – Wright’s later two volumes, the two by Ignatow, Harvey Shapiro’s book**, Justice’s ’67 volume, Michael Benedikt as seriously out of place as Ashbery. If you follow the dates, you can see that part of the program’s success lay in its relatively cohesive aesthetic approach up through 1967 – the sense of shape & scene is as important for conservatives as it is for the post-avant world – at which point the social impact of the 1960s in general appears to have intervened, with leftists both real (Piercy) & nominal (Lipshutz, Levine, Levendosky, the poet laureate of Wyoming) suddenly showing up as well as a writer of color, Clarence Major. By 1970, the Wesleyan “moment” had passed.

But the great irony of Ashbery’s parody of the Wesleyan form (and it had more than a few counterparts among other presses during that period), nearly four decades hence, is that, of all these books, his is perhaps the only volume that will still be remembered distinctly forty years from now. Indeed, unless one is an avid (or masochistic) reader of Hilton Kramer’s neocon New Criterion, the one overtly rightwing cultural journal in America***, most of these names have already receded from general public awareness. Indeed, Tram Combs would be a plausible candidate for what Jonathan Mayhew once referred to as “sillimanning” (“rescuing from literary oblivion in great, painstaking detail”­). But overall, a list like the one above exists as “the unmarked case,” the normative median against which the interesting work of that decade was written – with the notable exception of Ashbery.

I’ve heard the complaint more than once that Ashbery’s books have become too predictable & that he hasn’t evolved in any particular direction in nearly 30 years, writing the same colorful, not quite surreal poems again & again. I’ve heard similar complaints about Robert Creeley. Frankly, I could continue reading both gentlemen with great pleasure for the rest of my days even if they waver not a single iota for the remainder of their careers. In part, I think such complaints reflect the enormous impact each has had on contemporary poetry & a misplaced expectation that, having changed poetry to some degree in their own image in the past, these writers shall – or should – continue to do so in the future. I think such an expectation misjudges what it was that they actually accomplished, and what writers can & do achieve when they exert a serious impact on their peers & descendants.

If, from Some Trees through Flow Chart, John Ashbery’s work evolved in directions that would expand the terrain of the possible for poetry, it was not, I suspect, out of any sense of historical mission that he worked. Rather, like any poet (you included), he wrote the poems he needed, and having arrived at a scope that gives him ample room in which to work, he to some degree has settled in. One can see this exact same process at work in Creeley as well, from The Whip & For Love through A Day Book. If the work since then has operated within that territory each poet articulated over decades, it is hardly a failure of the poets themselves.

* This list is taken from the back matter of the second printing of Ashbery’s book, issued in ’67, then supplemented for later years through Abebooks, although I have much less confidence in the year of publication for the latter source.

** Even if it was published primarily to ensure that the rest of the series would be reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, which Shapiro edited for many a year with absolutely no hint of aesthetic shape.

*** The Atlantic is still politically in the closet, though editor Michael Kelly seems determined to catch up with Kramer & poetry editor Peter Davison will have no trouble obliging Kelly’s new order with a musty formalism.

Friday, January 24, 2003

My blogs on the work of Robert Grenier generated several responses. Allen Bramhall wrote with a first-hand account of Grenier’s cards at Franconia College (ellipsis in the original):

Dear Ron,

mention of Robert Grenier makes me jump up. Robert arrived at Franconia the second of my two years there. he has influenced me greatly, even tho I have not stayed in touch with him since leaving school. his curiosity and openness remain lessons to me as a reader and writer. I remember him hauling out his batch of cards and saying he didn't know what to do with them. sometime after that he filled a hallway, that was normally given over to displays of photographs and prints, to a... well I want to say a performance of his cards. he pinned them in neat rows and columns on the corkboard. I remember seeing him at it, and there was something of a graffiti artist's earnestness about where he was doing this. the hallway was rather dark but with the white cards notably brighter. I did not expect the visceral effect of seeing so many of his pieces on display. there was and is a neat feeling to holding a pile of his poems on your lap or spreading them across a table or the floor, but the hallway display was of a different order. I remember waiting for those poems to appear in some published form, because he had said he wanted to bring them out somehow. his poster Oakland* is one attempt to make a display of his works. the Franconia hallway was much more spacious, of course, and whether or not he was satisfied with how the poster worked, it was different from filling a hallway. I remember sticking a poem on the wall, a quiet homage I think, not to horn in but because it felt right. the display seemed to ask for response, as in an addition of voice or something such. no one else saw fit to chime in, but as I said, the hallway display bore at least a little of the sense of graffiti. anyway, I was quite ignorant about poetry at the time, and the year with Robert threw all sorts of mysteries at me, Olson, Stein, Coolidge, Ashbery, Saroyan. he got Coolidge, Ashbery, and even Larry Eigner to read at Franconia, no small feat considering the school's proximity to nowhere. it pleases me that you speak of him.

yours sincerely,

Allen Bramhall

Barrett Watten notes that This published the selection entitled “30 from Sentences” with (not in) This 5, not no. 4, which places the publication date in the Winter of 1974, rather than the Spring of the previous year, as I’d indicated. I also suggested that the selection was 30 cards, but in fact the cards are printed on both sides – unlike the 200 copy Whale Cloth Press box edition – which, with a card set aside for the title, made it just 16 cards. Watten also reminded me of Sentences from Birds, another selection of the cards that was published by Curtis Faville’s L Press in 1975. I know I had that at one time & I’ve never sold a Grenier item in my life, but like the poster, it seems to have wandered off on its own. According to Faville, only 100 copies were published to “little or no feedback.”

Bob Grumman posted a dissent to the Poetics List that said, in part:

Ron also opines that Grenier's “Sentences still qualifies as the furthest anyone has pushed poetry & form in the investigation of the world.”  I AM enough of a literary historian to know that this is certainly not true.  It may be possible reasonably to claim that Grenier pushed poetry and form as far as anyone, but further?  It's extremely hard to make comparisons (because of the apples/pears problem, among other things) but it seems to me Ron is overlooking Stein, Pound, Cummings and Aram Saroyan, for a start--and all of visual poetry and later pluraesthetic works.  I would add that in some respects, Sentences is pretty straightforward minimalism that's been around quite a while. 

Grumman is on target in that I did not make myself very intelligible with that statement, since that assertion could be taken to mean almost anything. His alternative suggestions illustrate the point nicely. All four writers Grumman cites were interested in various extensions of poetic form – Stein & Pound making profound contributions in that area, cummings & Saroyan more modest ones. What Grenier did was to focus on what linguists still call parole, the language as she is spoke by them what speak it. Neither Stein, Pound, cummings nor Saroyan focus on that particular dimension, although Stein comes closest & has a sense of grammar & discourse as developed as anyone has ever had. However, like Joyce, she has a 19th century-centric sense of language as infinitely plastic & malleable that language itself does not bear out (hence the failure of Finnegans Wake). Unlike Joyce, Stein seems to have had a stronger sense of self-confidence in her own analytical skills with regards to the language – she never is in thrall to the 19th century concept of language as historic philology, which bedevils both Joyce & Pound (&, I dare say, Kenner). Where Stein & Grenier diverge most strongly is that Stein’s interest lies principally in the compositional possibilities of language, whereas Grenier is most focused on, as the famous “On Speech” flatly states, “

the word way back in the head that is the thought or feeling forming out of the ‘vast’ silence / noise of consciousness experience world all the time, as waking/dreaming, words occurring and these are the words of the poem . . . . (boldface in the original)

This is, it seems to me, as true of the scrawl works of today as it was of Sentences. One might say that Stein & Grenier were on parallel tracks, headed however in opposite directions.

There are of course antecedents for Grenier’s minimalism – really a mode of gigantism, in that he is literally putting elements of language under a microscope: Stein’s Tender Buttons, Creeley’s Pieces, many short poems by Zukofsky & even Aram Saroyan’s brief foray into innovative poetics in the 1960s. & if one examines a book such as Saroyan’s Pages (Random House, 1969), you can find a few pieces that are reminiscent of Sentences:

incomprehensible birds



Or even


But these works merely put the proverbial toe in the water compared with Grenier’s exploration of the whole ocean.** A good part of what make Sentences such a profound experience is its scale – 500 poems with no set order. I find that reading the work over & over – the forthcoming website underscores this aspect of the experience, especially since the cards are shuffled each time one begins again – is when I start to get, literally, “into the work.” A single poem, or even the selections published by Watten, Faville or to found in In the American Tree, don’t begin to approach this project. It is a classic instance of a text that resists excerpting or editing.

Grumman’s other alternatives – “all of visual poetry and later pluraesthetic works” – reinforces the point. Such poetries, which can be both delightful & dazzling (no argument there, I hope), tend to move towards the graphic or whatever other media pluralizes them & thus even further from any focus on parole. They may at times be grammatological, in the sense of invoking the written system of a language, but they’re seldom truly linguistic. Part of what makes Grenier’s recent scrawl writing so fascinating is that he has taken on both the linguistic & grammatological dimensions simultaneously. The scrawl works are virtually the only intermedia writing I can think of that isn’t déjà toujours “poetry &” – as in “poetry & dance,” “poetry & painting,” “poetry & music,” “poetry & anime,” “poetry & programming,” “poetry & laundry.” Those ampersands invariably seem fatal.

* The poster is, in fact, CAMBRIDGE M’ASS. Oakland was a chapbook. Both were published by Tuumba Press, the poster in 1979, the chapbook in 1980.

** There is a good doctoral dissertation to be had in figuring out why Saroyan, for all purposes, abandoned poetry while Grenier, in the face of little early recognition, persisted & took his project so much further. Why & how do artists make such choices?

Thursday, January 23, 2003

Back in November, I used Richard Deming as one example of reading a poet “cold” – that is, about whose work & life you know nothing – and very much liked what I found. Deming has since been gracious enough to send an issue of A•Bacus devoted to his writing from May, 2001. Unlike Mirage #4 / Period(ical), it has a contributor’s note. He’s apparently a student at Buffalo who has previously published work in a variety of places, including Sulfur.

A•Bacus has been publishing in the same format since 1984, a few pages photocopied and stapled in a single corner given to the work of one individual. In its 146 numbered (and three special) issues to date, the publication – started by Peter Ganick & edited more recently by Dan Featherston as part of the evolving Potes & Poetics collective – has published an enormous range of writing. Out of those 149 items, only four people – Ganick, Laura Moriarty, Stacy Doris & Charles Bernstein – have been the focus of three issues apiece. Another two dozen poets have been the focus of two issues apiece, ranging from household names (at least in poetry households) such as Jackson Mac Low, to up-&-comers such as Susan Roberts or Pete Spence. & 89 poets have been the focus of one A•Bacus each. When you look at it, the idea of a project as simply produced as this publication managing to focus such attention on 117 different writers is simply breath-taking.

But, as so often is the case, a publication’s strength is also its weakness. Publishing so many different poets over the years has given A•Bacus a well-deserved reputation for diversity, but inevitably has muted any sense of an identifiable aesthetic, beyond, say, under-representation of  poets associated with (or visibly influenced by) the New York School. Finding Deming’s work in this context is intriguing precisely because his work in Mirage #4 / Period(ical) called to my mind the work of John Ashbery. This is not the case in the A•Bacus selection, entitled Somewhere Hereabouts.

The ten poems that make up Somewhere Hereabouts take some 23 pages – in a different format, these would more than make up a chapbook, particularly given the long lines towards which each gradually moves. When I first read them, my sense was that this project was much closer to Projectivism than the work in Mirage, primarily because of the variable lines. Reading them through a second time, though, I changed my mind – this is much more clearly a modernist, even neo-modernist, literary project. With its unabashed use of narrative tropes, recurring figures – most notably Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel* – multiple voices & languages more out of Eliot than of Pound, & a structure that openly refers to the forms of classical music, Somewhere Hereabouts would be easy to characterize as a moment in nostalgic modernism. But I think it would be wrong – or, at least, that this would be missing the point.

What most clearly defines these poems is not at all far from the very different works in Mirage: the great specificity of Deming’s language.

                   It is, for instance, (an instant)
          Autumn. Leaves spill
                             and cover
          condom wrappers and cast-off shoes.
Kindergartners drag their feet and leaves make it
sound like rain. Or, sound like sound. Or, soun.
What to use to cover things up.

Helicopters circle the neigh-
          borhood all night. Search
lights move through
          the hallways of my apartment. The blades’ whir washes
out the music from
          the CD player

Collectively, these poems aren’t as successful as the ones in Mirage, mostly because the mode they’re exploring is an exhausted one. Yet whatever these poems might missing in their attempt to make modernism new they make up for in their absolute ambition.

I’ve noted before how often current poets, especially around language writing, when asked about their work’s relationship to postmodernism, characterize their own sense of their project instead as somehow kin to modernism, perhaps to Habermas’ concept of the need to rethink what modernism could be at a later stage in the history of capitalism & without the devastation of totalitarianism. I read a lot of what Deming is trying out here in very much the same vein. These aren’t at all simple questions & poets ultimately tend to be judged not so much by how they achieved these goals as by what they accomplished in the process of failing. If anything, Deming’s project recalls the hubris of Louis Zukofsky’s “Poem beginning ‘The’,” written when LZ was all of 19.

It’s not at all evident to me whether the poems in Mirage or A•Bacus were written first & I don’t want to invent a narrative of progress to impose over the 14 pieces I’ve read. But Somewhere Hereabouts recalls “after Hart Crane” in the Mirage poems & altogether the A•Bacus group shifts my sense of just who Deming might be – or be becoming – as a poet. Regardless of how he proceeds, that gift for the specific that you can see almost instantly in his writing is something that both he and the reader will be able to trust.

* Though this angel has more of the look & feel of Bruno Ganz in Wings of Desire

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

In the past week, I’ve read on various discussion lists that nobody reads blogs but other bloggers. I’ve also read that bloggers “control” poetry. I’ve seen an article that quotes incoming Guggenheim executive Edward Hirsch calling language poetry a “cult,” & read another listserv message suggesting that there were far too many avant-garde or experimental poets – an estimate of 10,000 was offered. There does seem to be a diversity of opinion.

The fear of an Other is an interesting, if sometimes dangerous, phenomenon. Denial of its existence and/or importance is really only the flip side of the paranoid nightmare that It, whatever It may be, has overrun & secretly governs the world. Need I suggest that the truth is probably somewhere in between?

One of the values of blogging for poets is that it can deepen the degree of critical thinking poets themselves do, more so I suspect than the scatter of listserv discussions. If there is a bias hidden in the blogging form, it’s toward poets who think critically, but that by no means ensures that said poets will be post-avant, let alone any particular flavor thereof. It also suggests that there is a role for critical thinking & writing outside of the received forms of the academy – & I am convinced that this is all to the better as well.

If there is a potential for post-avant poetry in raising the bar of critical thinking, it might be to help address the question that is rather unspoken in that wildly overdone estimate of 10,000 experimentalists: how, as the post-avant heritage expands to yet another generation, are those poets going to create the necessary sense of shape to differentiate between all these young, interesting poets? If the New Americans broke uneasily (& somewhat too artificially) into their various clusters of NY School, Projectivism, Beat & SF renaissance – the latter is almost entirely a fiction – when there were only a hundred or so poets practicing in the Pound/Williams tradition in the 1950s, how many such tendencies are really just waiting to (a) get their act together and/or (b) be recognized as such? That problem of “shape” or differentiation is I think – I know I’ve said this before, I know I’ll say it again – the primary critical issue facing younger poets in 2003. The squabble among Canadian poets between those interested in the use of forms & those more interested in, say, a politicized version of the NY school is at the least a sign of life. I’m in favor of both sides of that debate. As I am heartened every time chris cheek complains that some version of post-avant history is too book & page oriented, even though I’m certain I must be part of that problem.

Another value I’d hadn’t anticipated from blogging is the simple verification effect of being able to register how many readers come to one’s site. Ten thousand visitors to this blog in just four months should answer any fear I might have that Ed Hirsch is correct in his assessment of my work, or even the idea that it’s simply an elite practice, too arcane for many.* Currently, this blog averages slightly over 130 readers per day. Yesterday saw 198 visitors to this blog, the most ever – that the average number of readers can continue to expand in the face of the explosion of poetry blogs makes me realize just how much we need to rethink the idea of the post-avant audience. It’s larger than we imagine.

But of greatest value to me are all the other blogs that are now focusing on poetry, poetics & closely related literary concerns. Not only are the numbers increasing, so is the diversity – aesthetically & otherwise. Below is the list of the literary blogs that I currently check at least once or twice per week. One thing I’ve definitely noted among these blogs is the presence of several people who might be characterized as either New York School, gen XXXVII or as post-NY School (there being different ways of looking at this), a tendency previously imagined by some folks as allergic to critical thinking. Guess again. This may be the most significant theoretical development that has come out of blogging to date & it will be interesting to see how it evolves.

The list below consists of 37 bloggers, maybe 28 of which are less than six months old. “The creation of new forms as additions to nature,” as William Carlos Williams wrote. There is a group blog, an audioblog & even a blog that denies its own blogitude.

Since “abortive” blogs are also a part of the phenomenon, I’ve only included sites that have updated since the beginning of this year with the notable exception of Camille Roy’s site, Ich Bin Ein Iraqi, which uses the blog form for a piece on the subject of her Iraqi childhood. It may be the first instance of serious blog literature – as distinct from literature merely published in a blog – & absolutely needs to be read.

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Cahiers de Cory (Josh Corey)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Chaxblog (Charles Alexander – the background color really does change as you read)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Eeksy Peeksy (Malcolm Davidson)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Elsewhere (Gary Sullivan)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Equanimity (Jordan Davis)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>for the Health of it (Tom Bell)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Free Space Comix (Brian Kim Stefans, one of the first bloggers)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>HG Poetics (Henry Gould)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Hypertext Kitchen (Blog of Eastgate, the hypertext software folks)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Ich Bin Ein Iraqi (Camille Roy)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Ineluctable Maps (Anastios ??)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>jill/txt (Jill Walker)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Jonathan Mayhew’s Blog (His list of the best sax players includes neither Steve Lacy nor Anthony Braxton?!)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Josh Blog (Josh Kortbein)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Laurable.Com (One of the first poetry blogs & one of the best – with a focus on recordings of readings)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Lester’s Flogspot (Patrick Herron’s sock puppet has an attitude)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>lime tree (K. Silem Mohammad)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Mike Snider’s Formal Blog (the only new formalist blog I’ve found)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Million Poems (Jordan Davis’ blog for his poetry)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Nether (Angela Rawlings)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Overlap (Drew Gardner)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Pantaloons (Jack Kimball, currently trying to forget everything Joe Brainard ever remembered)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Pepy’s Diary (The Ur-blogger has risen from the grave – welcome to 1659/60)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Possum Pouch (Dale Smith, though he denies it’s a blog, has converted his web newsletter to…a blog)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>process documents (Ryan Fitzpatrick’s long poem in progress)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Ptarmigan (Alan de Niro)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>reading & writing (Joseph Duemer)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>rrrart (Judy MacDonald, a fiction writer)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>San Diego Poetry Guild (a group blog)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>SpokenWORD (Komninos Zervos’ Australian audioblog)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Squish (Katherine Parrish)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>texturl (Brandon Barr)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>The Tijuana Bible of Poetics (Heriberto Yepez, who also has a poetry blog in Spanish)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>The Year of Living Musically (Joseph Zitt, poet, musician & webmaster of the long-running John Cage listserv, Silence)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Ululations (Nada Gordon)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Virgin Pepper (Jim Behrle – is there a sock puppet here?)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Wine Poetics (Eileen Tabios)

My own blog would make 38 & I’m sure that I’m missing some. I’m finding that the ones I learn the most from are not necessarily those that may appear closest to my own aesthetics – in addition to Camille Roy, Jonathan Mayhew, Heriberto Yepez & Nada Gordon have all kept me awake at night, rethinking my assumptions about the world.

That’s the point, isn’t it?

* I’m a subscriber to the theory that the only people who find langpo “difficult” or “obscure” are a small set of people who have become developmentally challenged through graduate school.

Tuesday, January 21, 2003

There are many instances of poets who do excellent work over a number of years & receive far too little credit for their labors. One poet who has been doing really eye & ear opening work for decades but who has yet to receive the giant festschrift & celebration that his writing deserves is Stephen Ratcliffe. He has been publishing books of poetry since 1983, 18 by my count, as well as a pair of critical volumes. There is no web page devoted to his work at the Electronic Poetry Center & Ratcliffe’s latest collection of poetry, SOUND / (system) isn’t even listed on the Green Integer web site, although it has a 2002 publication date & has been around for awhile.

SOUND / (system) consists of 240 sonnets, or, perhaps, as Tom Raworth would put it, 14-line poems, composed either very quickly – the book jacket gives a time span of just eight months – or fairly slowly – the dating after the final poem suggests a period of seven years seven months.* Each poem has a single word title & in fact several of them share titles – at one point there is a run of four consecutive poems entitled “Mouth.” As a whole, the project, we are told,

employed the letters of Henry James as a source in order to explore the poetics of narrative, sound as thought and the shape of words as meaning.

I’m not convinced that a reader needs necessarily to know (& certainly doesn’t have to like) James in order to read these poems. Ratcliffe has used source texts before, but always comes up with a work entirely his own.**

What moves me most about these poems is the complexity & deep beauty of their lines. Ratcliffe writes very close to the word & phoneme –by no coincidence, he has written one of the most insightful & useful pieces on Bob Grenier’s poetry – and this level of attention pays off again & again. Consider “Reverse”:

the position of the body
going on” (think)
to the heart
dedicated to “feeling”
a situation, the man who is anxious
from the standpoint of things
in relation to reading
a certain novel
(amounts) named by the woman
in confidence, complex
meaning her mind
about to ask (comparative)
what is touching
its failure to “decline”

So many of the lines here go in multiple directions or are filled with stops & pauses that those that do proceed straight through are palpable, their own radically separate music. Thus lines six through eight speed the text up – not unlike Raworth’s work for this small instant – only to slow it back down dramatically with the parenthetical “(amounts).” At one level, the poem proceeds through parts of the body, heart to head. Yet at another, the word “(think)” in the second line leads directly to “mind” in the eleventh. The poem is, at once, both very simple & extraordinarily complex – and manages to hold these twin possibilities not as a contradiction or conflict.

There is a lateral logic, line to line & sometimes within lines, both here & throughout much of Ratcliffe’s work. It’s a logic that reflects a Projectivist heritage, though more one of Projectivist prose – Creeley’s short fiction, for example, or the work of Douglas Woolf – as well as the writing, also often in prose forms, of Leslie Scalapino. It’s impossible, I think, to separate this logic from the close attention, point to point, that characterizes these poems – it’s not just that these two aspects of SOUND / (system)  fit one another well, but that each demands & generates the other.

I find myself reading many of these poems over & over, wanting to savor their processes, to internalize what Ratcliffe is doing. The use of the terms in parentheses above, for example, is quite interesting & happens to balance exactly with the number of words set off by quotation marks. It looks casual, almost incidental, but then you realize how the use of a comma to pause the language mid-line itself is balanced, once in the first half of the poem, once in the second. What you have is a text that is far more carefully crafted than anything the new formalists propose for the poem – think of that cringer by Sophie Hannah in yesterday’s blog.

I only have one qualm here. I find that with these poems it is easy for me to fall into a habit I have of either forgetting to read the titles, or remembering to do so only after I’ve read the body of the piece. The text seems so tightly woven that something as distant as a title feels extraneous – and this impression is probably underscored by having multiple poems share the same title. I think that this ultimately has more to do with my own issues with regards to titles*** than it does to Ratcliffe’s poetry. Yet at the same time, this reaction makes me realize that if there is a necessity for these poems to have these specific titles, I haven’t figured it out.

* I’m inclined to believe the latter. The publication is not without its errors: for example, mispagination in the table of contents.

** A good point of contrast might be the way John Cage uses the work of James Joyce. Reading Cage always returns me back to the source texts & has the feel of a degraded literary tourism. Ratcliffe’s work leads you absolutely into the writing itself. The source material is at most an “interesting fact,” for what you are reading is Ratcliffe writing, not some blurred version of a deferred original.

*** One reason to write long poems is to minimize the number of titles you have to write. & the absence of any need for a title is one feature I very much appreciate about the blog form as well.