Saturday, March 08, 2003

Matthew Zapruder objects:

Dear Mr. Silliman,

I was one part amazed, and one part appalled, to read the recent entry featuring the disagreement between Noah Gordon and the organizers of the reading to protest the war in Northampton, MA.

Where to start? Well, how about with what the hell does the "aesthetics of dissent" mean? That's the mother of all straw men if I've ever met her. Is the implication of the use of that term that the organizers were trying to make (or were the unwitting victims of, in which case policing seems like the wrong, yet perfectly passive aggressive, term) firm categories about what kind of poetry is acceptable to protest the war, and what isn't? Come on, does that really seem plausible, or to the point? Isn't it more likely that they were doing the best they can to hold an event with a bunch of readers for an audience probably not used to listening to poetry, and making the judgment (to which Noah is of course, since we still live in a democracy, entitled to disagree) that his poem wasn't going to work in this particular situation?

"Policing the aesthetics of dissent?" Holy unnecessary jargon, Batman! It seems that the organizers were pretty clear, not to mention polite, in expressing that they just thought that Noah's poem wasn't going to work in that context, because of its "density" (i.e. the more elusive relationship it has than your usual anti-war poem to protesting the war). Agree or disagree, but they are the ones who are responsible for throwing the event, and making it work, and they honestly seemed to think the poem wasn't appropriate for the venue or situation, which seems like a very reasonable thing to think about given the fact that this is not a poetry reading for Noah, but a WAR PROTEST. If I wanted to get up and read a ten page poem about a wilting flower as an allegory for this war's effect on democracy, I think the organizers would be pretty well within their rights to tell me to go find something a little less brilliant to read.

And holy naked act of self promotion, Batman! Call my a cynic, but I don't think that the fact that at least one of these parties (the other being dragged in clearly against his will) is willing, if not eager, to share his correspondence (not to mention his poem) proves anything about anyone's "best possible intentions." For, lo and behold, in the guise of a discussion on the "aesthetics of dissent," we end up discussing ... Noah's poem! I also love the repeated reference to Sean Bishop as a "student" organizing a reading against the war. Whose student? Noah's? Noah Gordon also happens to be a student, of the MFA Writing Program at UMass, which is a very fine thing to be, and certainly doesn't stop anyone from being a good poet and publishing worthy poems long before getting a degree. Yet I have the inescapable feeling that what really pisses Noah off (in a polite and patronizing way) is that a student had the gall to judge his work, or at least its potential effect on an audience. Frankly, the politics of that situation seem a lot more hierarchical and problematic than worrying about anyone "policing the aesthetics of dissent."

This is particularly evident in the part of Noah's letter which discusses the abstraction of the war. This just seems like a clever point to make, with at best tenuous relevance. Is the fact that people in the U.S. tend to apprehend the war as an "abstraction" (i.e. something that's not "real," but just an idea, which in a way seems the exact opposite of the problem -- people aren't thinking ENOUGH about the ideas and rationales for this war, and just accepting the given terms) somehow a justification for Noah reading an "abstract" poem, whatever that means? What a weird kind of mimeticism.

And does Noah really accept the definition of his poem as "abstract" (which it isn't, as you correctly point out)? Those of us who teach know that when a student says a poem is "abstract," what they really mean is, "I don't know what you're talking about, and/or why you've bothered to say it." It's mainly a word to hide the word "bad" behind. In this case, to give the organizers credit, what I think they meant was that they felt the relationship between the anti-war sentiment and the imagery and general mechanisms of the poem wasn't clear enough for the situation of this particular reading.

They may be right or wrong in their judgment (I personally think there's some good stuff in the poem, but it's kind of histrionic and self-righteous ... it seems to treat the whole war as a personal problem for the poet, which is the thing that makes writing political poetry really really hard). But here's the real point: if the motivation to read at a war protest is, in fact, to protest the war -- and not to read our latest poems to a lucky, albeit captive, audience -- then I would think that even if the organizers were so horribly misguided as to incorrectly judge the possible effect one of our brilliant poems would have on said audience (which by the way, they have taken the time, responsibility, and trouble to assemble), then perhaps we could put up with their lamentable short-sightedness and stupidity and figure out another way to put our queer or otherwise shoulders to the wheel.

The fact that Noah decided not only not to read another poem, but not even to attend, makes his whole motivation more than a little suspect. I don't want to sound crude, but what's more important to Noah: Noah's poem, or protesting the war?

Well, I can think of other reasons why a war protest in Northampton might be a waste of time ... talk about preaching to the converted. If there is a poor sucker living in that town who actually is in favor of the war, I almost feel sorry for him, if he hasn't already been garroted by a hemp friendship necklace. So one may ask, if one is still reading, why am I wasting my time with this?

Because first of all, as should be obvious, I disagree with everything that Noah has said, and just find the hypocrisy and self-righteousness really annoying. Also, when I see a poet self-righteously complain in a public forum about whether his poem was suppressed or not, under the guise of defending the right of poetry to be able to do whatever it is that he thinks his poem is doing, while bombs are about to fall on Iraq, as a poet I feel embarrassed. And third, because poets ought not sit with our arms folded pretending that all poetry is equally apprehendable (regardless or difficulty of syntax, or unfamiliarity of imagery, etc.), and that anyone who can't see that is a cretin. On the contrary, it's our job to try to help educate and prepare our readers for the next new thing. The way we do that is by making an implicit contract with them: if you promise to listen carefully, I will promise to make something that hangs together in some way, and (here's what's important here) exists for a reason other than to promote myself.

To turn this situation into a discussion on aesthetics, or the nature of dissent, seems disingenuous and self-absorbed, which is particularly upsetting given the stakes. For whatever reason, the organizers didn't want Noah to read his poem. I don't think they're suppressing dissent in the least: Noah could have read a different poem, or (god forbid) a poem by another poet, one that would have been more easily apprehendable to the audience at this reading. Or he could have just gone to the reading and clapped when other poets read their poems. And if he thinks that this particular poem is such a great way to protest the war, why doesn't he get up and read it in the middle of Main Street?

It seems evident that there is a time and a place to fight this battle, and a war protest is neither. I realize that with this last sentence I am going to open myself up to all kinds of attacks ("when IS the right time to defend poetry?" "what's the real battle we're fighting here?" "isn't the struggle for clarity of language, versus easy propaganda?"). In fact, I've listened to "My Back Pages" probably too many times, as have we all ... here's to hoping we can all be a little bit older, if not wiser, than that now.

Matthew Zapruder

Zapruder appears not to agree with my presumption that Noah Eli Gordon is “motivated here by the best possible intentions” – as in fact I think both sides in that exchange are. What I found troubling – and the reason I thought to include the correspondence, poem & all, in the blog – was precisely the point that Zapruder blithely accepts with regards to the poem:

they just thought that Noah's poem wasn't going to work in that context, because of its "density" (i.e. the more elusive relationship it has than your usual anti-war poem to protesting the war).

The problem – and this is why it was important to include Gordon’s text – is that the claim of density or elusiveness patently isn’t true. And, if it isn’t, then the rest of Zapruder’s argument more or less dissolves into smoke. For the claim to be true, the Northampton audience would have to be not merely focused more on the war than on aesthetics, but functionally illiterate.

I agree completely with Zapruder – & I think Gordon agrees also – that stopping the war is far more important than any poetry reading. But I’m concerned about a practice that would edit out a poem that would not have been either dense or particularly elusive at a protest for World War I. What bothers me about it is how neatly this dumbing down of density fits into a broader pattern of behavior that dates back decades now, of treating progressive writing, from the modernists to the current post-avant community, as though it were difficult – & thereby excludable – when, in fact, that is not the case.

Such behavior is part & parcel of the (not very) benign neglect that underlies not merely the sort of editorial malfeasance one associates with the likes of a Helen Vendler, but even, alas, with the Poets Against the War project. If one sees the broader spectrum of poets who have contributed to its website, the poetry that is part of its official “chapbook” is notably skewed toward the school of quietude – the principle exceptions are Robert Creeley, Phil Whalen* & a pair of Beat generation chestnuts, Lawrence Ferlinghetti & Diane Di Prima. Even the project’s Poem of the Day selection, intended to bring out a broader representation than the chapbook’s ”selection of especially powerful poems and statements by prominent poets,” to date has managed only one poet generally associated with the post-avant world, Kent Johnson. We wonder if the Poets Against the War editors recognize that Margaret Wise Brown, the author of Goodnight Moon, which Johnson’s poem gently parodies, saw herself as an active follower of Gertrude Stein & was writing within a framework of progressive educational theory.

This sort of intellectual bad faith has become so widely & deeply associated with the broader school of quietude that it, in fact, always needs to be publicly pointed out whenever & wherever it shows up. Not only is such erasure profoundly anti-democratic & inherently dishonest in & of itself, the process reinforces – just as the establishmentarian poetics of the school of quietude do – the larger social forces that argue always against social change & for a traditionalism whose sole justification is inertia.** From the perspective of the poets who commit such misdemeanors of editing, this dumbing down is merely self-contradictory and self-defeating behavior. For the poets who are consistently disappeared by this process, it’s invariably a painful reminder of the structural inequalities at the heart of the “American way.”

* Whalen deserves extra credit for submitting his work while dead.

** It’s no accident that the great antiwar poet of the Vietnam era was Allen Ginsberg & not, say, James Dickey or Robert Bly or Donald Justice, all of whom also wrote antiwar poetry.

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Friday, March 07, 2003

One thing about the Internet: when you get it wrong, you can be corrected from a great distance almost instantly. From Capetown, South Africa, Robert Berold & Paul Wessels, the publishers of Deep South, whose books include Seitlhamo Motsapi’s earthstepper/the ocean is very shallow, identify a thread I missed entirely in my reading of one of Motsapi’s poems in Tripwire 6:

dear ron silliman
we think you are making too much of the obscurity of seitlhamo motsapi's poem. how about simply
moni = money
culculatahs = calculators (with pretensions)
conputers = computers (with the con of capitalism)

robert berold+ paul wessels
Moni being money brings the stanza I was most confused by into much greater focus:

their kisses bite
like the deep bellies of conputers
the gravy of their songs
smells like the slow piss of culculatahs

But I wasn’t arguing for the obscurity of Motsapi’s poem, only my own difficulty at knowing how “to grasp some portion of the references & allusions without importing too many.” While I thought conputers  was clear enough, the initial “cul” of culculatahs threw me – I still don’t hear it, although the reference back now to moni pulls the chain of elements into a single overarching scheme of references tightly enough. The problem, if it is one, is that I personally lack the context – literally – for hearing moni as money, there simply isn’t enough diversity among the speakers in my social milieu for that to strike me as a probable variant. My own ignorance here simply underscores the question I was raising. Happily, though, my conclusion that “I don’t need to know this in order to recognize that ‘moni’ is an unquestionably wonderful poem” still stands. Motsapi strikes me as a poet absolutely worth reading, regardless of how much cultural baggage I need to shed in order to do so.

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Thursday, March 06, 2003

A couple of people wrote to suggest that my general list of outsider poets was far too “inside.” Michael Helsem notes that

Xexox Sutra Editions (now Xexoxial Endarchy) published several writers who must be considered bonafide "outsiders", notably the artist/poet Malok (who is now online); his drawings in particular bear comparison with anything at Lausanne...

Chris Sullivan, editor [if bricolage can be called editing] of the excellently weird zine, Journal of Public Domain, comments:

Todays discussion of "outsiders" got me to wonder [sic] if you are aware of the "song-poem" genre.

There's a website devoted to it, and I'm forwarding a link to a page about Thomas Guygax

To which I would note that, yep, these guys are so far outside that they need to carry sun block. In general, the writers I listed were successful poets who, for various reasons, live or lived pretty marginally, at least in economic or social terms. But, since the original note from Jason Earls to which I was responding invoked Henry Darger as its example, the hospital janitor & pedophile painter/novelist whose work would have been lost had not his landlord been an art-savvy professional photographer who discovered the paintings & writing among Darger’s effects after this escapee from a “home for the feeble minded” passed away, perhaps I should have been thinking further outside the box.

These notes harkened me back to my work with the Tenderloin Writers Workshop in San Francisco between 1979 & ’81, and some of the writers there, especially Harley Kohler, a bearded (!) cross-dresser who wrote generally obscene sonnets in a language given almost entirely over to neologisms, or “Spider” James Taylor, a young man who penned long, obsessive novels with a gritty comic-book realism. The Workshop – which had a “no guns in class” rule that I made up on the spot one evening – included an amazing diversity of inner-city perspectives, from drug-addicted street people to senior women who would crochet while listening to the different readers, then simply comment something like, “Well, I think all junkies should be shot, present company excepted.” A few of the writers who participated in the workshop – Mary Tall Mountain, Bob Harrison, Charles Bivins – went on to publish quite successfully. But one of the strongest memories I have of the group was an evening in which Bob Holman, traveling through San Francisco, dropped by in time to watch two of the writers, one from New Orleans, the other from the Caribbean, disagree on the nature of Santeria &, accordingly, cast curses upon one another.

There were even writers in the Tenderloin in those years whose lives proved so far outside that even the notably free-ranging workshop was far too confining. One man, whose name I only knew as Douglas, would pen long, mostly unreadable texts in black magic marker on the neighborhood’s few very scrawny trees.

One of the things I like most about Cary Nelson’s Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945 (Wisconsin, 1989) is how Nelson constructs a panorama of the entire range of between-wars poetry starting with one of its most “despised” subgenres, leftwing doggerel published in “non-literary” political tabloids. The idea that the whole of writing might be continuous may be something of a theoretical fiction – it’s much more like overlapping tectonic plates – but Nelson’s tour-de-force (the book is a single long prose meditation on the violence hidden in canonization, while the footnotes, which consume half or more of almost every page, constitute a history of one period of American letters as detailed as any written) does demonstrate just how much further beyond the traditionally conceived boundaries belle lettre truly extends.

Everywhere, people write. My experience of the Tenderloin was that I got to see manuscripts from perhaps two percent of the adult community in any given year. Extrapolate that out across the population of the United States & you get a number in the millions. Indeed, the 1,000 actively publishing writers in the Philadelphia region that Robin’s Book Store claims to have in its database would, at that rate, represent only one percent of all the local people who actually write.  Now, inner city communities with large populations of the retired as well as the disabled may well prove to have more writers than the exurbs of quiet desperation, simply because these segments of the population have that rarest of commodities, surplus time, but the general principle itself still stands.

Over the years, I’ve learned an enormous amount from writers like Harley Kohler & Spider Taylor. These writers don’t necessarily connect to poetry as a social practice, though they do, it seems, very much rely on its role as a personal one.* They make it possible for me to see, however fleetingly, just which presumptions I might be making with regards to my own poetry. How publishing itself is predicated on a long list of such presumptions. Should I count these people in my roster of “outsider poets”? I think that may be a definitional question, but I absolutely count them among my own significant influences.

*Kohler in particular got to know some of the other poets in the Bay Area, such as Lyn Hejinian. His partner at one point was a caretaker in the first board-&-care home that Larry Eigner lived in when he first moved to Berkeley.


Wednesday, March 05, 2003


Dear Ron,

Since it seems like yr blog has become somewhat of a forum as of late, I figured I forward you this email exchange and ask your opinion on the aesthetics of dissent...

I sent four poems, including the following, the most straight-forward of the bunch, to a student organizing a Poets Against the War reading in MA:

a black mirror for the capital


Decision can still the clock’s hands,
wrap the moment in a voluminous straightjacket.

In the room, six flights underground,
two men wear identical keys around their necks, waiting,

as though the gears of the earth could be silenced
by the flick of a wrist.

Rubble, a suffix for the burning city,
a coat stitched from the strikepads of empty matchbooks.


It’s clear enough:
the gutted chassis of a pickup in black & white.

& you’ve seen the girl, naked & screaming,
arms splayed as though she could take flight

from the road—from this heat.
The body shackles memory beneath the skin,

raises a map of welts:
the blueprints for a massive ark.


Will a sandbag stop a bullet,
keep a hot-air balloon from melting near the sun

Will staring at a solar-eclipse burn the retinas,
is the reflection in a puddle safe

Will the rats grow too large
to squeeze out from under the floorboards

Will Sacajawea haul her child
out of the prison of our new coin

Will she still point toward the river


Someone once asked me
what forgiveness feels like,

now I’d know to take my finger
& trace the mortar

between the bricks
of an abandoned fire station.

This was the student's reply:

      I'm happy to tell you that we have sorted through the submissions for the "Poetry in Protest" event, and some of your writing has been approved for the reading. Because of the density of most of your writing, we suggest that you only read a small piece of "a black mirror for the capital." We would like you to read only the first part of the poem, ending with "a coat stitched from the strikepads of empty matchbooks". We felt the rest of it, while good, was a bit too abstract for the setting.
      We are asking all participating poets to be at the West
Lecture Hall of Franklin Paterson Hall by 6:45 on the night of the reading, Thursday, March 6. We will get you seated up front at that time, and give you the details of how the reading will proceed (we haven't figured it all out yet). There will be a mic for you to use in case you're a quiet reader. You are encouraged to read slowly, and if you like you may say a few words about how you feel about the war before you begin your poem. We want this to be a relaxed and personal event, which is one of the reasons we opted for one of the smaller lecture halls. Looking forward to seeing you there. Email or call me with any questions.

Sean Bishop.

And here was my reply to Sean:

Dear Sean,

Let me say that it's great that you've been working on putting together this reading. It's an important event, important not because it gives folks a chance to read, rather in that it's able to offer poets a forum to publicly show their dissent against the atrocious policies of our current government; however, I'm a bit taken aback at your policing of the aesthetics of dissent. I'd completely understand if it were merely a question of time constraints, but to use a phrase like "too abstract for the setting," is problematic for me on two accounts.

Firstly, it seems to me to be a judgment not of the effectiveness of the poem to convey whatever it's attempting to convey, but a judgment of the notion of audience. I take it to mean that you want to make sure everyone "understands" the poems, that everyone is able to leave each poem with the sense that, yes, that poem is against the war, that yes, I get it, which is exactly the problem of war: it's not that simple.

Secondly, war is just about the most abstract thing to us Americans that there is. We won't see any of it on tv. Our lives will go on as usual, a bit foggy perhaps with the idea that people are dying somewhere. War really is the ultimate abstraction. That said, I wanted to let you know that I just wouldn't feel comfortable reading in such a setting and have decided that I won't attend the event. I hope it goes well, and again, it's great that you've been working to bring the event into existence.

Noah Eli Gordon

I'm just wondering where you stand on the issue of poetry of dissent, what is poetry of dissent? It seems like the last issue of the Poetry
Project newsletter took some of your comments out of context, so perhaps you could address the issue.


I asked Sean Bishop for permission to run his letter here, which he immediately gave with a couple of tiny edits, also suggesting that I should include his response to Noah:

    I'm sorry our decision upsets you, but I rather resent your remark about "policing the aesthetics of dissent." We had to make editorial decisions. These decisions were not always based entirely on the quality of the work (whatever that word means.) We weren't judging your capabilities as a poet, but yes, we were making some aesthetic decisions. The length of your poem was the largest factor in this. A short abstract poem can be appropriate for a reading setting, but yours is quite long, and we suspected the audience would be entirely lost by the beginning of the third page/section. Paul and I both felt that the piece began to lose its grounding after the first part, which is entirely capable of standing alone as a poem, and which is really quite striking all by itself.

     You wrote that you thought this was less a judgment of the effectiveness of the poem to convey its message, and more a judgment of the audience. In truth, both are true. We don't want everyone to "get" what every poem means, or to know with certainty that a poem is "against the war." We do want them to understand the bare bones of the poem: what is it talking about? where is it? how does one image lead to another or engage in dialogue with another? the messages insinuated from the imagery and language of a poem do not need to be comprehended immediately, but for the purposes of a verbal reading, we felt a certain sense of continuity was necessary.

     Yes, war is an abstract concept for Americans. No, the war is not simple. Perhaps I should have used a better word than "abstract" to explain your poem, but the only other word I could think of was "convoluted", which sounds like an attack. I'm sorry you won't be attending the event. You seem to feel that we were searching for a particular aesthetic, and anyone who didn't fit into that aesthetic was rejected, which simply isn't true. We have formalists, slam poets, and everyone in between reading at this event.

Best wishes,
Sean Bishop

I should say at the outset that I think both Gordon & Bishop are motivated here by the best possible intentions – and their mutual willingness to share this correspondence reflects that.

Having said that, the poem & correspondence itself raises questions. While I think it is possible enough to argue that the poem loses a little focus in its third section, the second – clearly grounded in part by Nick Ut’s infamous 1972 photograph of nine-year-old Kim Phuc with her clothes burned off by napalm – can hardly be called either abstract or convoluted. It’s one of the most widely recognized visual images associated with the atrocities of war.

What I do hear in Bishop’s words, especially in his second letter, is a question of intelligibility & yet if I look at the text of Gordon’s poem, no such problem even remotely exists. So I go back to Bishop’s own words, noting that he argues that the event would have “formalists, slam poets and everyone in between.” That’s an interesting phrase, precisely because it describes only a narrow segment of the literary community, maybe 25 percent of the possible range. My immediate association was to the way in which television, & PBS in particular, has tended to represent the political left through people like Mark Shields, a Democrat in name only who positions himself well to the right of center. Thus PBS can have debates between the center and far right and pretend to be representing the entire spectrum of ideas.

Bishop underscores my association in his second letter when he suggests that a reader would not get “the bare bones of the poem.” To not get the bare bones suggests a reading problem as well as fairly stunning lack of historical memory. If anything, the second section’s association of Vietnam’s brutality with other instances of devastation – I think it’s possible to associate the “gutted chassis of a pickup” with both the first Gulf War & the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack, an ambiguity I believe Gordon intends: the final image of the “abandoned fire station” is being set up this much in advance.

Bishop’s phrase reminds me of all the times I’ve heard language poetry – I’m not suggesting that Gordon is in any way a langpo or even post-langpo – described as difficult or unintelligible or, in the words of Robert Swards immortal review of Clark Coolidge’s Flag Flutter & U.S. Electric, printed in Poetry back in March, 1967, “a psychedelic outpouring,” “verbal hop-scotch,” & the ever popular “chic, trivial piling up of images.” Bishop doesn’t go this far with Gordon, but he doesn’t need to. The problem in some ways reflects Kit Robinson’s wise observation that the only people who ever found language poetry difficult were a group of graduate students who no longer knew how to read. Having read my own work in the Maximum Security Library at Folsom, I know that Robinson’s take is generally accurate – there’s nothing difficult about such writing unless one brings preconceptions about poetry to the text that render all but a very narrow range fairly opaque. I’m going to test this again tomorrow, when I teach seven fifth-grade classes at a suburban middle school here on the Main Line.

School environments of course are notorious – with reason – for their lack of openness to the new. One can simply read the reviews of the student John Ashbery in the archives of the Harvard Crimson, an online archive that goes back to the 19th century. But at least Ashbery & Koch were noted as student writers there – Creeley appears to have been the invisible undergrad.

I have no idea what Bishop’s aesthetic commitments might be, whether he positions himself in that tiny conceptual slice between slam poetics & formalism – two genre that depend mostly on the same literary devices, contextualized differently – or in the far broader terrain where the bulk of American poetry has thrived for the past two centuries.

With regard to Gordon’s final question of the forum in the Poetry Project Newsletter, I’ve heard about the forum from several people – one contributor wrote me an apology – but I actually haven’t seen the issue, the first one I seem to have missed in several years.

On a more positive note, the poem I contributed to Poets Against the War finally has appeared on its database, missing only its title (sigh).

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Tuesday, March 04, 2003

Rob Stanton has some follow-up questions.

Dear Ron,

Huge thanks for your thorough and thoughtful blog-response to my query about Engines. I think I was hoping that you might say something more about collaboration in general, just as you did - the proliferation of poet/poet and poet/artist collaborations in the current poetic climate is something I find particularly fascinating (just thinking about examples you mention, I recently read - and loved - Leningrad, and the idea behind The Grand Piano seems both interesting in itself and strangely inevitable). I was intrigued that you picked "A"-24 as a possible precedent - I too feel distinctly ambivalent about whether it really does 'cap' "A" (and whether that sort of 'terminal' idea was tenable in the first place). In a sort of sentimental way, I think it does - making semi-actual the scene envisioned in "A"-11: music, words and performance. Apart from that, the nature of the collaboration in "A"-24 seems particularly complicated: firstly, there is Celia Zukofsky's work in setting Zukofsky's words to music, then there is the actual presence of Handel's music (suggesting a Handel/Zukofsky interaction, mediated by Celia), and then there's the question of whether the four 'voices' of Zukofsky presented actual represent a unified 'whole' (one of the joys of that Factory School site is the recording of the 'live' version organised by Barrett Watten*).

Given your point about how collaboration provides an opportunity to sidestep and/or interrogate the 'raging control freak' aspect inherent in an individual 'style', I was also interested in your mention of 'the metabolism of one's own processes'. I'm not sure to what degree you intended the biological inference, but this immediately put me in mind of Olson's repeated emphasis on the physicality of the poet/m. I've always felt that his talk about the individual 'breath' of the poet was strangely close to mainstream whitterings about the necessity of 'individual voice' etc., despite the very different poetic 'ends' advocated. Is 'self' inevitable in poetry? Does the inevitable communality of collaboration offer a real alternative, or does it simply place the problem at one remove (I hate to admit it, but despite the efforts toward some kind of group expression in Leningrad , I found it hard not to 'see' differing styles in the separate passages)? Or, to put it another way, if the problem with most mainstream poetry is the foregrounding of 'unified self' as end rather than mean, is all poetry simply somewhere along a sliding style of degrees-of-leaning-on-personal-experience? (I've been reading The Prelude recently and have been intrigued by the incredibly arbitrary and piecemeal nature of the Wordsworthian 'epiphany' on a larger canvas.) You've written of 'the abstract lyric' before in your blog in relation to the work of Barbara Guest, but is such a thing 100% possible?

Anyway, this has been a horribly rambling email. Apologies in advance, and thanks again.

All the best,

Rob Stanton

The question of the person, in Olson or in collaboration, is invariably a difficult topic, precisely because works are written by individuals, either singly or in groups, & yet we know that “the individual” itself is a complex & internally contradictory construction. If we follow the cognitive scientists and neurobiologists, one of the first things we will discover is that, even within the human being, there is no “monad,” no single site of thought or language. Rather, different portions of the brain work in conjunction to apprehend our world & build responses to it – many of these occur below the level of consciousness & outside of our waking life.

When Olson first began to produce the poems for which we remember him today in the late 1940s, he actually appears to have been almost the only poet in the United States to demonstrate any awareness – more anticipation than knowledge, really – of these issues. In his “Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn,” first written in 1955, one year ahead of Ginsberg’s Howl, Olson notes that “millennia . . .  & . . . person”

are not the same as either
time as history or as the
individual as single

The first three pages of “Proprioception,” written six years later & easily Olson’s most ambitious & successful critical project, show O working through this problem, this question, at great length. He is so concerned with place that he is driven to find such, somewhere. Proprioception itself, kinesthesia, one’s awareness of the actual physical rubbing together of one’s inner organs, the growl of the stomach & peristaltic pulse of the bowels, is for Olson a key, an awareness that precedes any other mode of knowing – “I am I because my little gut knows me.” The body for Olson is the place of the unconscious. The “soul,” an entity with which Olson was much obsessed, proved to be profoundly physical. Projection – the meat of his practice as a writer, a (literally) Projectivist poet –

is discrimination (of the object from the subject) and the unconscious is the universe flowing-in, inside.

Maximus, this great comic persona that both is & is not Olson – and most certainly is not Russell Crowe – represents O’s attempt to have it all ways. And while Olson is most certainly not the only poet among the New Americans to push the person beyond its traditional boundaries & unveil the constructedness of such “natural” categories – think of Kerouac’s “Imitation of the Tape” in Visions of Cody, Burroughs’ use of cut-ups in Naked Lunch & The Ticket that Exploded, Spicer’s theory of Martian radio – Olson appears to have been the only one to have had a critical understanding of the question, as such.

So, sure, there is a fair amount of persona floating about Maximus that is not so terribly different in its own way from the imaginary blue-collar worker Phil Levine posits in his “I.” The self in such poetry is largely a type, & I always think of the stereotypical signals thereof worn by the ‘70s rock group The Village People: you can tell which one Levine would have been, though I fear that may be Olson under the feathered headdress. Bly’s serape, Blackburn’s cowboy hat & Duncan’s purple cape were hardly more subtle. Yet it’s Olson, among all of these, who understands not only that it’s funny, but that there are issues here, & as such worth exploring.

That “worth exploring” is, I think, the answer to the question of whether or not “self” is finally inescapable. It will always be, like “the social,” one possible horizon among several, regardless of how nuanced our understanding of its composition might become. After all, how far have we advanced in this regard from Shakespeare’s Lear, responding with a quartet of words that operate like a series of concentric circles, moving from the outer inward: Edgar I nothing am? The same response – worth exploring – is, I suspect, also the underlying principle beneath the continued attraction of the abstract lyric, even if I personally find the issue less compelling. The answer to Stanton’s question’s isn’t ultimately so much why as it is why not?

 * For some reason, the Factory School site fails to credit Bob Perelman, though my understanding is that it was Bob who initiated this collective process in the first place as well as substituting his piano for Handel’s harpsichord. In my video copy of the November 15, 1978 San Francisco State performance, it is Perelman whom Poetry Center director Tom Mandel has introduce the event in addition to his performance therein.

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