Saturday, May 24, 2003


Several bloggers (Jordan Davies, Jonathan Mayhew, Henry Gould) take exception to my association of the New York School v.1.0 with Auden & with that association having conditioned their reception by certain institutions, particularly the trade publishing houses. Hey, guys, that’s not an attack on the NYS, and far more of a comment on reception than on writing. Where I sometimes think that Cal Lowell at his very best had the potential to write like Frank O’Hara on Quaaludes*, Auden, as they say, had serious chops. & thank you, Kasey, for coming to the defense of my “salvageable insight.”


Also, to be accurate, I can’t & don’t take credit for “school of quietude” – that phrase was coined by Edgar Allen Poe. In the 1840s, Poe was caught up in the very same debate over whether American literature was British writing writ small or something altogether different when Henry Theodore Tuckerman rejected “The Tell-Tale Heart” with the admonition that Poe should “condescend to furnish more quiet articles.” That adjective did not sit so well with Poe.**


Because it was originally received as a break with the previous New American traditions, langpo’s own interest in & indebtedness to various aspects of the New American Poetry of the 1950s and ‘60s has not always been acknowledged. That thought runs through my head as I’m sitting here reading a wonderful book that reminds me of nothing so much as Pomo Lunch Poems, Kit Robinson’s 9:45, his seventeenth volume just now out from Post Apollo Press of Sausalito.


Not to suggest that these poems were written during, say, lunch hours, nor even – although I suppose it is a possibility – at 9:45, but rather that these works carry within themselves an attitude & psychic quickness that I associate with Frank O’Hara at his best.


These are all short poems & all have a double dynamic. First there is a relationship – at minimum in their titles – to number, numbers & numbering.*** Second, these texts operate off of a three-line stanza. What I mean by “operate off” is that the tercet  is the standard logical unit throughout, but that 13 of these 31 poems – is that numeric palindrome an accident? – have a final stanza that is either one or two lines long, because that is what the logic of the poem demanded. The form is so cleanly & powerfully defined that I have no hesitation whatsoever at describing the poem “1.5” as a three line poem in two lines:


Take a risk

with one and a half sticks


Here, in its entirety, is “$1250”:


Whether you gave her

first and last

and a deposit


Or whether the last
was the deposit
that is the question


This is a poem that looks simple enough, but which is doing a couple of things at once. In addition to bringing together two radically different realms – Hamlet & the rent – the poem functions by never using the key noun (rent) anywhere in the text. Each by itself is humorous, although the social situation they depict borders on tragic. Part of what makes this poem work is the degree of discipline in Robinson’s line: the breaks & italics are each exactly where they need to be.


Not all of the poems are as tightly woven as that. This doesn’t make them loose, but rather frees them to range over broad mindscapes in remarkably compact spaces. One favorite is “27,” the significance of whose title is entirely opaque to me:


The heart itself

contains genetic instructions

to like certain things


Pros like Jay don’t need tips

you don’t refuse to breathe, do you?

I leaned against the door and breathed


A word of it

and waited for my heart

which was now full of new information


The echoes of the last three lines of Frank O’Hara’s most famous poem, “The Day Lady Died” –


leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT

while she whispered a song along the keyboard

to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing


– are unmistakable. And, if one thinks about, O’Hara is a patron saint of the vocabulary of number in poetry. Consider that same poem’s first five lines:


It is 12:20 in New York a Friday

three days after Bastille Day, yes

it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine

because I will get of the 4:19 in Easthampton

at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner


None of this “explains” Robinson+, though it may illuminate both his project & its influences. In fact, I think of Robinson as someone whose sensibility is closer to v. 2.0 of the New York School than it might be to O’Hara. None of the first generation really had the light touch for the small stanza written entirely without waste, but it’s something you see repeatedly in Padgett, Berkson, Schjeldahl, Shapiro, Ceravolo & Fagin.++ This same touch shows up from time to time in some interesting spots among the langpos – Ray DiPalma, for example, as well as Alan Davies, Fanny Howe, Alan Bernheimer & John Mason. And you can see it elsewhere, also, among this same age cohort – Merrill Gilfillan, Curtis Faville, some of the Actualists – but nobody is more adept at it than Kit Robinson.


I’m not quite sure how to characterize this capability – this sort of stanza is one of those things that I’ve learned I’m not terribly good at – but I suspect that almost any of the above would tell you that this aptitude for concision & balance is a thing that can only be achieved through a subjective sense very close to “feel.” Whenever I’ve tried it – you can find a few examples hiding in The Alphabet – I’ve felt clumsy and ham-handed. So I appreciate it all the more when I find it, in Robinson as in the poem I quoted last Tuesday by Fanny Howe. It’s a gift.






* The two poets in the Boston Brahmin group who could really write were Berryman & Plath. Sexton is interesting for the same reasons that Jerry Springer or reality TV are “interesting.” The poet in that tendency who deserves to be rediscovered, though, is George Starbuck.


** The “positive” correlate for School of Quietude, Henry, is “decorous” or perhaps “understated” or “plain-spoken.”


*** Whereas  the school of quietude approach to this same project would, no doubt, have been numb and numberer.


+ Who, for example, is Jay & what is “27?” The theme of the heart could lend itself to an almost infinite variety of interpretations.


++ The closest approximation you will find among those poets born in the 1920s turns out to be Creeley, but Creeley’s sense of the stanza is seldom as finished or polished in affect as this.


Friday, May 23, 2003


Rodney Koeneke posed some intriguing questions about the nature of doubt in his response to the Fanny Howe prose poem by that title. Note that Koeneke doesn’t call Howe’s piece a poem at all:


But going to Howe’s essay, I wondered if doubt as she conceives it might mitigate against the kind of political commitment you see in a lot of the most exciting U.S. poetries of the last half century. Howe’s take on doubt, as I understand it, might be calling into question the possibility of a political poetry at all, or at least any poetry we currently recognize as political. . . .


But does doubt leave an adequate basis for political action? Didn't it take a kind of certainty to advance the political and poetic aims of Language writing in the teeth of mainstream resistance? A lot of mainstream poets argue that poetry shouldn’t be political on grounds not totally dissimilar to the ones you outlined today. Politics is the place for slogans, principles and self-evident truths; poetry for doubt, ambiguity, ‘feelings’ and inexactitude. Obviously you don’t agree — it’s just that I could see Collins nodding his head in approval over key sections of your post: “Yes, exactly! That’s why I stick to the knitting!”


While I was mulling this over, old friend Tom Beckett sent along a note indicating that his decision some 20-plus years ago to devote two issues of his journal The Difficulties to my work and that of Charles Bernstein came about because “I thought at the time that you and Charles represented two different poles of "language" writing. Specifically, I felt that Charles' work proceeded from doubt and that yours proceeded from certainty.” As Nick Piombino would say, “Wow!”


The problem of doubt is a question I’ve been mulling over for some time. Like more than a few other human beings, I’ve been appalled at the devolution of talk radio & cable-talk TV from the diverse perspectives that characterized public discourse in the 1970s to the Rush Limbaugh-Fox News era of today. At the same time, counter measures that have been attempted from time to time, from Jim Hightower’s syndicated radio spots to many of the “preaching to the choir” news programs I used to get off Pacifica radio (KPFA-WBAI etc) tend to be cringe-making in the extreme. That sort of reductive radio just makes me embarrassed to be a progressive.


Attempts to present left perspectives on the cable networks have been no more encouraging – Phil Donahue, Mark Shields & other talking heads “liberals” are at best Rockefeller Republicans & when one does see a genuine progressive, such as Eric Alterman or Katrina vanden Heuvel, one is reminded that decent politics don’t necessarily translate into effective public speaking skills. The current project to raise funds for a liberal radio network sounds like another train wreck just waiting to happen. The reason, in part, has to do with the medium, which rewards certainty of the sort Bob Novak, Ollie North, Gordon Liddy, Rush Limbaugh & Bill O’Reilly so readily have at their disposal.


The underlying problem is not that certainty is the opposite of doubt, but rather that certainty is the opposite of complexity. I sometimes think that the political spectrum today runs not on a left-right axis, but rather on a simple-complex one. That’s why opposing the Rush Limbaughs of the world with leftward radio ranting never works – while it may counter the reactionaries at one level, it functionally concurs with them on a deeper, in some ways more profound one, insisting that the world is simple. Just pick the red team or the blue team.


The right – both directly & through the media – has been masterful over the past 35 years in playing to (& capturing) the simplistic end of the spectrum. Ronald Reagan’s infamous “There you go again” quip to Jimmy Carter was intended precisely to interrupt a complex response to a question. Similarly, George Dukakis was savaged by the media for giving a complex answer to the question of what he would do if somebody raped & murdered his wife. Al Gore became a laughingstock – much as George McGovern had 28 years earlier* – because he couldn’t give a simple answer to anything. Whatever one thinks of Bill Clinton’s gift for evading personal responsibility, his response “that depends on what the meaning of is is” is a statement that presumes the possibility of levels of meta-discourse. You will note that, with the sole exception of the social democrat McGovern, not one of these examples even qualifies as a progressive. Rather, the right has perceived that a substantial portion of American society is creeped out by any idea of nuance or the possibility that a single term might have more than one meaning at one time. Depending on the social context, such discourses are dismissed as legalese, psychobabble or pointy-headed intellectualist double-talk.


This can work both ways, of course. Popular media, which has the same general pack instincts of a herd of pigeons, is quick enough to typecast any “candidate of simplicity” as a buffoon or simpleton the instant they or their policies are perceived as weak – Jimmy Carter benefited greatly because Gerald Ford’s policies became equated with his penchant for falling down stairs in front of photographers, George Bush the Elder was ridiculed for his tongue-tied qualities & lack of the “vision thing,” and Dan Quayle will go down as the only former vice president in the 20th century to run for the top job and be denied his own party’s nomination.


Bill Clinton, to date the only Democratic presidential candidate to really understand how to work this issue, notes that “When people feel uncertain they'd rather have someone strong and wrong than weak and right.” The Republican formula associates strength with certainty with simplicity, implying that the Democrats, by virtue of their tendency toward complexity, thereby are filled with doubt & weakness. Thus, in 2000, the assaults on George W’s obvious intellectual limitations, the focus on Bushisms, such as his promise to “make the pie higher,” actually strengthened Bush’s standing with a critical portion of the electorate precisely because it contrasted with the complexity of a candidate who had been the VP of a President who clearly used nuance & meta-discourse as an evasive measure. At one level, whenever Gore attempted to give an intelligent answer to a question he was tightening his association with the prevarications of the First Philanderer.


Presidential politics merely offers one clear demonstration of the problems of complexity. As I learned in the fall of 2001 when I suggested on the Poetics List that a war against al Qaeda was unavoidable, more than a few of that community’s 900-plus trained readers were unable to discern the difference between the inevitable and the desirable. My point then was that I felt trapped by the double bind of having an unavoidable conflict prosecuted by the entirely untrustworthy Mr. Bush. I still feel that way. The war in Iraq – which had no appreciable weapons of mass destruction, no demonstrable link with international terrorism & posed a threat only to its own people – demonstrates my point exactly. Whatever Gore’s flaws – they were legion – or the compromises to capital made by an abject Democratic party – they too are legion – no Democratic president would have attacked Iraq. Nor would any have thought to warehouse prisoners at Guantanamo simply to keep them beyond the reach of the U.S. Constitution. Nor authorized the various Draconian measures suggested by Mr. Ashcroft & others in the Bush2 administration.


The relationship between certainty & doubt, simplicity & complexity, intersects with poetry at many different points & angles. There are poets whose work looks simple but is often, perhaps always, quite complex, such Howe, Niedecker, O’Hara, Bernstein, Creeley or Armantrout. There are poets who openly embrace complexity – Olson & Duncan are excellent examples, as are Rachel Blau DuPlessis or Susan Howe. There are poets whose work is genuinely simple – some of whom write simply (Cid Corman, James Weil, Carl Rakosi) & some who do not (Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Billy Collins). There are also poets whose work attempts to look complex when it really is not, a phenomenon I first saw up close & personal in the posturing of Jack Gilbert, but which I see more often today in too many on-line poems that are (literally) all Flash™ & little substance.


Olson & Duncan, whom I’ve categorized as openly embracing complexity, differed on the role of doubt – that, at least in part, is what the debate of “Against Wisdom as Such” is about. Interestingly, Olson, who argues for the value of doubt, is sometimes taken as an instance of the opposite, the most macho & heavy-handed laying down of The Law, simply by virtue of the fact that he would argue the point, almost any point, if it came up & he engaged the issue.**


Duncan is not arguing for certainty in the sense that, say, Bush & Cheney & Rumsfeld do, because, as somebody raised as a theosophist, as part of that religious counter tradition, Duncan was interested in the idea of alternate wisdom & the idea of knowledge as hidden. I’ve sometimes thought that he & Olson were talking at different levels, Olson coming out of New England where the prescriptive element of the Puritan tradition could at one time just seem crushing. The Puritans would have burned Duncan’s adopted ancestors at the stake, in that sense.


In practice, Duncan & Olson are both interested in a poetry that is exploratory, almost – especially in Olson’s case – as a mode of investigative thinking prior to (& really quite apart from) any interest in the text as a made or finished art object. Thus doubt, or Doubt, is a primary ingredient for each. This isn’t at all far from Charles Bernstein’s concept of poetry as the active aspect of philosophy. And one can find approximate parallels in all manner of other art forms, from the films of Stan Brakhage, Michael Snow, Henry Hills or Abigail Childs, to the music of Cecil Taylor, John Zorn or Anthony Braxton. Think of Harry Partch, whose music required him not only to compose it, especially those songs derived from graffiti and the letters of hobos (an amazing use of found language given how very early on it is), and to invent his own instruments on which to perform these strange compositions, & finally even to invent his own 72-tone scale in which to hear it. In order to take responsibility like that for every single element that enters into his art, Partch has to put into question anything he might have “learned” about music. That seems to me a very clear demonstration of how an artist doubts.***


How to separate out this kind of doubt, which is really an openness to complexity, from the indecisive prevarications the right invariably will characterize it as being – that is the question. How can the left embrace complexity? How can it articulate ideas that are at once dense & filled with layers of ambiguity without, in fact, coming across as “weak and right?” The work being done by George Lakoff and by groups such as The Metaphor Project – although I don’t always agree with their analyses (which could use a little more complexity, frankly) – seem to me a hopeful step, in that they are at least asking appropriate questions, confronting the problem at its core.


In & of itself, such work is not enough to characterize or sustain a movement. However, the propositions being put forward by Lakoff, the Metaphor Project & maybe a half dozen other like-minded groups offer an opportunity to address the questions of peace, justice & the distribution of prosperity in terms that neither abandon their complexity nor cede the field to the next generation of post-neocons. I doubt that any alternative to the depredations of the right that fails to heed their message is apt to succeed.







* The Republicans used this strategy against McGovern, as they had against Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s, because McGovern was such a sitting duck for it. It was Reagan, who developed his personal arsenal of political tactics as the anti-student-protestor governor of California, who understood the deeper implications of complexity as a political issue in & of itself and installed it at the heart of the Republican party. 


** I wonder (self-doubt) if this isn’t a little like what Tom Beckett must have been thinking when he placed me into the camp of certainty circa 1980. [Note to self: change behavior.]


*** It occurs to me that Beckett may be thinking of my use of visible exoskeletal structures as an example of certainty, contrasted against Bernstein’s use of forms that, at least at that point in his writing, moved from point to point not unlike the writing of either the Projectivists or certain members of the New York School. Yet close readers like Aaron Shurin pointed out very early on that very few of my “forms” are actually “set” in a programmatic way. Follow the final sentence of each paragraph in Ketjak and you will see what I mean.

Thursday, May 22, 2003


A version of Kristin Prevallet’s Lead, Glass and Poppy (LGP) which I reviewed here on 12 May, can be found in Scratch Sides, Prevallet’s book from Skanky Possum. There is a four year difference between the two books – that’s a sign of just how high my stacks of unread material have gotten – and the differences between the two editions warrant examining.


As before,  LGP contains two parallel texts divided by a vertical – in the Primitive Press edition, that vertical was created by the chapbook’s spine, here the two texts appear on the same page with a vertical bar. On the left, the text is more writerly & carries a ragged left linebreak. On the right, the text speaks to source materials and consciously appropriates the discursive features of journalism. (A third variant appears in the excerpt of LGP on the EPC website – the two texts without the intermediate vertical bar.) The use of end notes for the right-hand text in the Primitive Press version does not appear in the Skanky version, which trades them in for a general note about sources.


Two other differences are more important. The first is the elimination of stanza demarcations in the left-hand text in the Skanky LGP. Thus the later version promotes a one-page one-stanza approach, even though the “journalism” texts on the right break into stanzas when multiple elements of fact come into play.


Most significantly, the endings are radically different. Here is the left hand text of the later (or Skanky) version:


The clearing is variously inscribed

with official words

not quite innocent of all

that has been cut out.

Where the planes themselves

in time will rot

back into the sea

irreversibly, a story

that repeats itself over and over

now more than ever

as the globe shrinks closer and closer

to Eros, you

burn me

straight through to the wars

over the rumors

of wars

where a fire means

there is always an other side

that has died for one reason

or another.


The right-hand text is as follows:


There seems to be

a significant chance

that within the next

1.14 million years,

an asteroid named

433 Eros

could hit Earth,

with dire results

for the human

race and most

other species.

The sole difference between the two versions of the right-hand text is an end-note number. But the left-hand text has been substantively revised. In the earlier (or Primitive) version, it consisted of a three-stanza section on the page facing the right-hand text, plus one other entire page with a text that was centered. Here is the left-hand page of the Primitive version of LPG:


In the clearing we are all variously forged

with official words

not quite innocent of all

that has been broken


where the planes themselves

in time will rot back into to the sea

of irreversibility, that story

that repeats itself over and over


now more than ever as the globe shrinks

close and closer although the wars over the

rumor of wars are always the battles

left for other continents to die over.


Thus over four years, we see a number of substitutions:


forged inscribed

broken cut out

of irreversibility irreversibly

although straight through to


There are some subtle, but critical alterations of linebreaks as well, most notably where


the wars over the

rumors of wars . . .


has now become


the wars
over the rumors
of wars


The lineage of the Primitive LGP places the greatest emphasis on rumors, whereas the Skanky LGP emphasizes wars.


The ending of the two left-hand sections vary even more. The Primitive version:


wars are always the battles

left for other continents to die over.


The Skanky version:


where a fire means

there is always an other side

that has died for one reason

or another.


This is, I think, a revision of quality more than of content – the generalization of the earlier LGP has become a more specific & concrete image, a partial attempt in the poem to confront the problem of the anonymous murder of invisible Others.


But what are we to make the deletion of the entire final page of the Primitive version. It read


Rise up holy, in corsets arched

to the sun-struck heavens


bring news of pillage

as once a woman

naked among the ashes


(or that of her child)

did bend in half

and was broken before

the eyes of a mob


frenzied and rushed

away to the center


cannot hold but promises

at least to stay still

for awhile longer.


Presented in the same font as the “writerly” left-hand stanzas, this page thematically & graphically brings about a type of closure. As I wrote in this blog on the 12th, this passage is “a complex & ambivalent (multivalent, in fact) moment at the end of a complex & at least equally ambi-/multi- valent text.”


Its absence altogether from the Skanky version leaves us with a far more somber & pessimistic poem. Further, I read its absence as the origin of sorts for the italicized insertion that pops up in the Skanky text’s last left-hand side:


to Eros, you

burn me


Each version entails some engagement with the flesh – the Primitive version of the woman “naked among the ashes,” the Skanky one through a direct interjection to Eros – albeit one glance at the right-hand page forces us to remember that this is also (at the very least) a reference to impending collision with asteroid Eros 433.


The stillness which is associated with promise in the Primitive version might be read as part of what appears in that final concrete image of the Skanky edition, where it is associated now not with any respite or absence of conflict, but rather with the smoldering ruins of death. Given the timing of the two editions, one might characterize the Skanky Possum version as the post-911 version. One might read the difference between the two versions as political. If so, the former poses the possibility of the personal as a respite against the social. The latter, as I read it, counters the social with the sensual, but finds relief in neither. It is indeed the more pessimistic text.


In theory, of course, the later text is typically considered the “corrected” or final version. But as readers of The Prelude will know, it is the earlier published edition that sometimes survives as the one cherished by generations hence. Personally, I don’t think that one has to – or necessarily even ought to – choose one over the other. Rather, these twin texts position one of our most interesting poets at two different moments in history & that in itself is a more valuable service than playing eeny-meeny-miny-mo with these extraordinary works.

Wednesday, May 21, 2003


Before I got up this morning, I spent some time in bed reading through Joe LeSueur’s delicious new memoir, Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara, a wonderfully intimate & informal portrait of a world that is utterly gone now. There are some amazing moments in this book, such as the tale of how an incident with Chester Kallman convinced FOH to give up anonymous sex or how, far more reticently, LeSueur visiting O’Hara on his deathbed proved unable to say anything or even reach out to touch his dying friend. 


I’d paid no attention to the work of Frank O’Hara until I saw the mesmerizing television show* on him in Richard Moore’s Poetry USA series on PBS, a blur of constant motion – O’Hara on the phone & typewriter simultaneously while managing to keep up a conversation with the camera, drink & smoke, he was the ultimate multitasker decades before that term came into use – until, in the show’s closing credits as I recall (I haven’t actually seen the whole thing in 37 years), the voiceover mentions that O’Hara has recently died. I remember at the time sitting in front of the little black-&-white TV completely stunned, as if I’d seen a wonderful door open, only to have it slammed shut in the last 10 seconds of the show.


O’Hara’s death, not unlike that of Jack Spicer a year earlier, marked a critical moment in the history of the New American poetry. Both poets had been the central social organizers of distinctly geographic literary communities, and their passing transformed each town. Almost overnight, or so it seemed at a distance, the New York scene shifted its focus away from this group of largely gay men born in the 1920s – Ashbery was in Europe, Schuyler too much the recluse – and onto younger (& straighter) acolytes. The role Ted Berrigan would soon take in the environs around Gem Spa hardly seems conceivable in a world in which Frank O’Hara attends a party whose primary memorable feature is a lascivious tale told by W.H. Auden’s partner.


Auden’s role with regards to the New York School both was & was not like that taken by Kenneth Rexroth toward the poetries that crowded into San Francisco during the 1950s. The two poets were parallel in that Auden, like Rexroth, functioned at least partially as a sponsor, going out of his way to put Ashbery’s second book into the Yale Younger Poets series for first books. And, also like Rexroth, apparently felt some ambivalence about what these youngsters were up to. But, whereas Rexroth aligned with the bulk of the New Americans in his distrust for an American poetics that was cravenly derivative of the conservative mainstream poetry of the British isles – a distrust you can find amid the Beats, the Projectivists & the so-called San Francisco renaissance** – Auden virtually was British poetry, easily the most established & celebrated British poet since Yeats, even if he was now living variously in Brooklyn & on St. Marks Place.


I’ve sometimes wondered if the ease with which the first generation New York School connected with New York trade publishers wasn’t simply an accident of proximity, but also occurred at least in part because the NY School, at least until Mr. Berrigan showed up – and this really is Ted’s great contribution to this tendency – did not challenge the paradigm that American poetics was a tributary of British letters, a paradigm that has been central to all variants of the school of quietude.





* Listen to O’Hara’s reading of “Having a Coke with You” from that TV show here.


** Virtually everyone who at that point took William Carlos Williams seriously. While one can similar attitudes in American poetry over a century earlier, Williams rather steady campaign of negativity towards Eliot resonated with the rise of New Criticism, which had gain control over many of the English departments after WW2 even if the New Critics themselves had long been spent as poets. In this regard, the stance taken by the Objectivists, the first wave of Williams followers, deserves more scrutiny. It is also worth noting, of course, that this debate between anglophiles and those arguing for a “new” or “indigenous” poets was ongoing as early as the 1840s. The fact that American universities looked to England for legitimacy in their model of post-secondary education led most early U.S. colleges to align with the anglophiles, a phenomenon that is still visible in many universities.


Tuesday, May 20, 2003


It’s evident that I’m a firm believer in close reading. It’s a process that I think can be easily extracted from its origins in New Criticism* and put to good use in a wide range of contexts. Close reading generally will lead you to notice things that might otherwise escape you. But there are poems & poets that demonstrate almost as clearly just what the limits of this process might be. “The Descent,” the third section of Fanny Howe’s newest book, Gone, is a great example. Among its fifteen poems are some the finest Howe has ever written (which is saying something), but they are the sort that can only be partially unpacked via the close reading process. Here, almost at random, is one of maybe 6 or 7 “favorites” of mine, entitled “Again”:


When training to die

with your back to the train


you cry green green

to a blind Metropolitan


it means

you can’t and you can


Then leap on the lap

of the tall blind man


who asks you to repeat


the word again


though now you’re so beat you can’t open your eyes to speak

or are you just unmanifest


Close reading will cause you to follow the course of vowels & consonants in this work, which is amazingly complicated & yet seems so extremely simple – an excellent example of Howe works her magic. Follow, for just one example, the long i sound through die, blind, blind & finally eyes (noting the pun), then the long a & long e as they work through the piece, then the deployment of terminal n sounds – six of the poem’s eighteen lines, seven if you permit the ns combination of means, end on this sound. Note also that the poem is not entirely composed of couplets and the two single-line stanzas that form the exception do so in order to create the remarkable line the word again, a phrase that can be taken at least three different ways (all of which I find audible virtually on first reading, thus setting up a terrific resonance). Then note how that long penultimate line is built not only around long e & long i but also on the terminal t of beat & the k in speak (echoing repeat & even leap), leading to the absolute – and absolutely deliberate sonic trainwreck that is unmanifest. This last term will also recall the one other word here that violates the simple aural palette of the text, Metropolitan.


It’s possible to recognize, follow & read through all of the above in this text, even just as markers of what a master craftsperson Howe is, yet I don’t think any of them – or even the sum of them all – can tell you precisely just why this poem is so terrifically powerful. It is conceivable to say, almost as a problem of the philosophical construction of language, that Howe develops multiple, partially conflicting & partially accumulative image schemas in order to structure a meaning that is at once complex & indeterminate – and that this indeterminacy has to be completed in some fashion by (within) the reader – but that ultimately doesn’t tell me anything. It’s like reading a bad prose description of Baryshnikov’s dancing – there is just no way for a reader to come away with any sense of the grace that inheres to this text other than through reading it & rereading it & rereading it. I’ve done so over a dozen times already & feel as though I’m only starting to scratch the surface.








* Which is to say that the problem with the New Critics was not close reading, but rather in their (sometimes willful) misuse of the process to agitate for a reactionary poetics that was sclerotic 50 years before they came to the fore in the 1930s.

Monday, May 19, 2003


Rodney Koeneke offers his own reading of Fanny Howe’s great prose poem, “Doubt”:


Dear Ron,


    I enjoyed your post today on Howe and doubt,  especially since it revisited some of the folks from our earlier exchange.  I found myself right there with you in equating certainty with the holocaust, gulag, Khmer Rouge & U.S. unilateralism, while putting doubt on the side of the angels, poetry and, fundamentally, language itself.  Three cheers for inexactitude!


    But going to Howe’s essay, I wondered if doubt as she conceives it might mitigate against the kind of political commitment you see in a lot of the most exciting U.S. poetries of the last half century.  Howe’s take on doubt, as I understand it, might be calling into question the possibility of a political poetry at all, or at least any poetry we currently recognize as political.  Her approach is appealingly interrogative, in its form (essay = attempt) as well as in some of its key constructions:


  “Is there, perhaps, a quality in each person—hidden like a laugh inside a sob—that loves even more than it loves to live?”


Imagine her “is there?” as a “there is,”  how differently that would read (and how much Spicer’s line profits—“If there isn’t/A God, don’t believe in him”—from that conditional ‘if’).


    At the same time, Howe calls Weil a poet (sorry—she “could be called a poet”) “because of the longing for a transformative insight dominating her word choices.”  The choice of that most political of words, “dominating,” can’t be accidental.  Is the surest protection against the “claustrophobic determinism” that scared Woolf in Freud, and may drive your own conviction that “certainty has killed more people than doubt,” a belief (or at least a longing for belief) in some kind of transformative other within the self?


    Howe’s sympathy for Woolf & Weil seems to stem in part from the tragedy of their efforts to will themselves to believe:


   “Anyone who tries, as [Woolf] did, out of a systematic training in secularism, to forge a rhetoric of belief is fighting against the odds.  Disappointments are everywhere waiting to catch you, and an ironic realism is so convincing.”


  and, earlier on:


  “While a change in discourse is a sign of conversion, the alteration of a single word only signals a kind of doubt about the value of surrounding words.”


    Am I reading this right as a suggestion that a will to change—a politics—without some kind of conversion, transformative insight, sense of a “dominating” force guiding word choice, boils down to so much  rhetoric?   “My vocabulary did this to me.”  Was the problem in the end that it was merely vocabulary,  Howe’s “rhetoric of belief”?  Or was it too much lyric uncertainty of the kind Woolf and Weil half-resisted?  That would suggest a less sanguine reading of doubt in Howe’s essay than the one you offer in your post.  Or am I all wet?


    I'm especially interested in this question as a way of figuring out how to balance political conviction with poetic uncertainty.   “I find myself deeply troubled,” you write, “by the promise of certainty, which invariably must also be the promise of belief.”  I hear you—utopias wilt to dystopias awfully quick in modernity’s heat.  But does doubt leave an adequate basis for political action?  Didn't it take a kind of certainty to advance the political and poetic aims of Language writing in the teeth of mainstream resistance?  A lot of mainstream poets argue that poetry shouldn’t be political on grounds not totally dissimilar to the ones you outlined today.  Politics is the place for slogans, principles and self-evident truths; poetry for doubt, ambiguity, ‘feelings’ and inexactitude.  Obviously you don’t agree—it’s just that I could see Collins nodding his head in approval over key sections of your post:  “Yes, exactly!  That’s why I stick to the knitting!”


    Anyway, doubt, poetry, politics, belief—they all went up in my head after your blog today and still haven’t come down.  What a day.


          Rodney Koeneke  

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