Saturday, July 05, 2003
time I saw “Biotherm,” my impulse was to squint. As published in A Controversy of Poets, the 1965
anthology edited by Paris Leary &
The result is that on the first page of O’Hara’s poem, the title itself – “Biotherm (for Bill Berkson)” – looks huge in its standard 9 point font, O’Hara’s name, at 9½ points, looks like a billboard. Contrasted with these, the body of O’Hara’s text produces a sort of vertigo, as though one were looking down from a great height. As I’ve noted before, I didn’t really connect with Frank O’Hara’s work until I saw him in Richard Moore’s brilliant USA Poetry PBS documentary in 1966, in which O’Hara is something akin to the Tasmanian Devil cartoon character, writing, drinking, smoking, talking to the camera, to friends in the room & to someone on the phone simultaneously with an ease & grace that was jaw-dropping, the typewriter keys clattering on at an almost alarming rate. I bought the Kelly/Leary anthology at Cody’s as a result of seeing Louis Zukofsky in the same series – it was the only volume in Cody’s that had any work by Zukofsky at all. But I don’t remember if that was before or after the O’Hara show. I already had seen O’Hara’s work in the Allen anthology, but it didn’t click with me there – I suspect that it must have looked too “easy” or casual & I was a very serious teenager indeed. So “Biotherm,” even in that itty-bitty type (or just possibly because it required that itty-bitty type), was really the work through which I began to first take O’Hara as a poet seriously.
All of which is just to note that there is a terrific essay on the poem in Sal Mimeo #3 by none other than Bill Berkson himself. Part memoir, part close reading, part meditation on the aspects of genre, with an exceptional seven-page glossary of references to the topical & situational references in O’Hara’s poem (itself only twelve pages in original manuscript), Berkson’s piece originally was composed “for a booklet accompanying the deluxe Arion Press edition of ‘Biotherm’,” published in 1990. With 42 lithographs by Jim Dine, that volume is still available new at a mere $2,750. (A second suite of eight Dine lithographs selected from the illustrations to Biotherm goes for ten grand.)
Fagin’s Sal Mimeo – which looks
photocopied to me, in spite of its title – presents Berkson’s material in a
more workmanlike setting. It’s one of several “historic” pieces in the current issue.
Others include a 1988 interview with the late John Wieners, poems by Richard Kolmar from the 1960s & others by Alan Fuchs from his
1971 chapbook, Before Starting. Part
of what makes Sal Mimeo so much fun
is that it balances not only the historical with the new, but also the widely
known with the still emerging. Some of the poets certainly are the
Labels: New American Poetry
Friday, July 04, 2003
A Final Sonnet
How strange to be gone in a minute! A man
Signs a shovel and so he digs Everything
Turns into writing a name for a day
is having a birthday and someone is getting
married and someone is telling a joke my dream
a white tree I dream of the code of the west
But this rough magic I here abjure and
When I have required some heavenly music which even now
I do to work mine end upon their senses
That this aery charm is form I’ll break
My staff bury it certain fathoms in the earth
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book
It is Dear Chris, hello
gone this day
Thursday, July 03, 2003
I noted the degree to which the reception of Robert Lowell’s Collected Poems constitutes an act of
literary CPR, an attempt to return the
If someone of Lowell-like talent and Lowell-like ambition were to come along now, it's not a given that poetry would be his or her No. 1 career choice. If you had a literary bent and really wanted to become famous and leave a stamp on your generation, you would write novels or screenplays. Or, better yet, you would set your verses to a bass line and become a rap artist.
the Times not to notice, since its
advertisers still have budgets, that the normative adult novel as an art form
is far deader than even the poetry of the
Part of the
great frustration one senses from Lowell’s acolytes has to do with the fact
that his generation in general & Lowell in particular failed to quash the
rabble – the Olsons & Ginsbergs
& O’Haras – in his day, thus enabling all manner
of post-avant nonsense to come tumbling after. By the time
implication just beneath the surface of all these texts is that Lowell et al
didn’t deal these threats from outside because Lowell & more than a few of
his comrades – Berryman, Sexton, Plath, Schwartz, Jarrell – were bonkers. “They
were all a little nuts,” as McGrath puts it, &, “except for the teetotaling
Jarrell, they were all alcoholic.” (These are the “horrific odds” that Caroline
Labels: School of Quietude
But I think
the reality of the situation is different. For one thing, Lowell himself was
never so hostile to the New American poetry &, after a reading series on
the West Coast in 1957 introduced him to readers who placed greater demands on
poetry than he was used to in Boston (or at least the Boston he knew), Lowell’s own poetry changed.
Indeed, reading the reviews as they come out now, it’s always important to see
where the reviewer stands with regards to the Early vs. Late Lowell question.
Lowell himself never rejected the idea of “confessional poetry,” M. L.
Rosenthal’s hokey attempt to link
younger writers – Bly, Merwin, Rich – brought up
essentially in the same tradition as
The poems in Hank Lazer’s Doublespace – and especially Lazer’s later writing – demonstrate that there really is no third way. The closest thing we have to it in contemporary American poetry is ellipticism, the tendency that one might cobble together from, say, the work of Jorie Graham, C. D. Wright, Ann Lauterbach, Forrest Gander & their peers, seems more of a decision deferred than a uniting of opposites. That most of the poets who come to ellipticism do so as refugees from the broader SoQ tradition suggests further that the problem both Crane & Lowell confronted – what should an intelligent poet do when they realize that they’ve been writing within a tradition that no longer has any compelling reason to exist? – has not gone away.
Labels: School of Quietude
Wednesday, July 02, 2003
feel too completely dismissive of Robert Lowell, I think of Bob Grenier.
Grenier studied with
On the lawns before the brown House
on the hill above the city
the wheeled sick sit still in the sunshine –
Lowell turns up again as an influence in the “conservative” portion of Hank Lazer’s remarkable Doublespace: Poems 1971-1989, his attempt to bridge the gulf between Le School d’ Quietude & post avant poetics. One of Marjorie Perloff’s first books was her 1973 The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell.
always gets in the way of any possible admiration I might have for
especially the early
Labels: School of Quietude
In a sense,
it was on
On the one hand, you would expect the SoQ to be beating the drums, proclaiming this to be the literary event of the year. & there has been some of that. The subhead to Peter Davison’s review in The Atlantic Monthly, a journal founded by James Russell Lowell, reads “The new collection of Robert Lowell's poems will doubtless stand from now on as The Work.” Similarly, the subhead to a review A. O. Scott, the New York Times film critic, in Slate, calls Lowell ”America’s most important career poet.” The Los Angeles Times, which chose a woman who wrote a book on “living and dying” in the Christian Science church to review Lowell’s Collected, says that “the magnitude of Lowell's achievement — an achievement won against horrific odds — can now come fully and magnificently into view.” That at least deserves some sort of award for overwriting.
At the same
time there has been a lot of ambivalence expressed in the reviews as well, not
so much at the poetry as at the career & faded reputation, suggesting a
deeper (and not overtly expressed) anxiety about what his life & work say
about the SoQ in general. The New York
Times ran a Sunday Magazine piece on “The
Vicissitudes of Literary Reputation,” by Charles McGrath, editor of that
journal’s Book Review. W. H. Pritchard’s review in the Times notes that “
shall. The Collected represents in
many ways one final chance for the
Labels: School of Quietude
Tuesday, July 01, 2003
Consider “Another Artifact”:
Open lips for sucking and pouting were all stopped up with a plug that wouldn’t come out. Without result, lips and teeth tugged on the plug of a wasp wasted object. Baby’s hands were moist as usual so she wiped them down the side of her shirt. But she couldn’t pull the stopper out even with the use of her wadded up shirt, which she had finally struggled out of. A voice from behind her said, it isn’t supposed to open. Hands pried baby’s digits away dislodging the object, which was returned then to a shelf and set between a portrait of baby and a kachina doll with green pants and something earnest about it moving forward. For a minute baby looked around for her shirt. It had apparently disappeared along with the door shutting. Baby’s lips moved in and out in a sucking pout as she contemplated the wasp-wasted relic on the shelf. The object was obviously the physical manifestation of the inside of a song bound up methodically around the middle with twine. Such fortification caused baby to place her hand two inches below her navel and rub there with a circular motion. Her belly was getting hot and her body was tuning up. Eee sounds rose clear and up into her throat from her navel. If there had been silence, silence would have been pierced but the room was always humming.
Whenever I’m feeling like I have this writing thing half figured out, all I have to do is come across a text like the one above, by Carla Harryman from the latest issue of Larry Fagin’s zine, Sal Mimeo, & I immediately have a sense of just how very little I really know & how much more there is to learn.
“Another Artifact” is one of 16 pieces from Baby published here. In 2000, a Harryman contributor’s note in How2 referred to a “book of prose poems titled Three Portraits: M., Baby, and Him.” My presumption is that this text comes from that project, although it is always possible that the project itself may have evolved in the three years since that note. But what intrigues me here is the use of the genre identifier “prose poems” in conjunction with the work above &, indeed, with the entire series in Sal Mimeo. Harryman, here as elsewhere, is pushing definitions out to places they’ve not previously inhabited.
I’ve tended to see Harryman’s written texts as exploring a terrain between what have traditionally been thought of as fiction & theater, but doing so with an understanding of language that extends directly from her engagement with poetry. Thus Baby in general, and pieces like the above in particular, seem to me very much about the construction of the metasignifier Character. The depictive terrain – the referential context of the piece as a whole (& indeed of the 16 pieces gathered here) – is restricted much in the way that theater limits its frames.
Unlike much post-avant writing, the individual sentences in “Another Artifact” integrate unimpeded into narrative frames, enabling Character to very rapidly accumulate amid referential schema once Baby is introduced by name. Indeed, the work insists on it, recycling words & phrases over multiple sentences: plug, lips, wasp wasted, shirt, sucking, pout. At the same time, the text is remarkably clear about its aural palette: Hands pried Baby’s digits, not fingers. With so many s, p, t, b & d sounds, the text all but hisses & spits. Baby’s orality is amply figured.
More mysterious, indeed just the opposite of Baby in this text, is the nature of the object pried from Baby’s digits. This object is wasp wasted & has a plug that “isn’t supposed to open.” It can sit on a shelf & is “the physical manifestation of the inside of a song bound up methodically around the middle with twine.” If required to do so, could you draw it? Of what material is it made?
What makes this object the opposite of Baby is that its existence is derived entirely from the observation of external features – something that “the physical manifestation of the inside of a song” problematizes – whereas Baby is constructed conversely, as much out of what she does & doesn’t see or say – for example, failing to identify the person who takes the object from Baby & returns it to the shelf other than as “a voice from behind her” – as from actual depiction of her actions.
Such devices are as old as modernism:
Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree. They took the flag out, and they were hitting. Then they put the flag back and they went to the table, and he hit and the other hit. Then they went on, and I went along the fence.
In The Sound and the Fury, Benjamin’s developmental disability disrupts his ability to create coherent schema from the actions he sees. The reader must then read through him &, in turn, read his character through precisely these disruptions & distortions. Yet Faulkner in 1929 quickly resolves the character back into a normative model of narrative types, even as, in places, the author (rather than the character) pauses to linger over the possibility of an infinite sentence, the “flaw” in Faulkner that lets you know he could imagine further than these cinematic family tragedies, even if he couldn’t quite bring himself to act on his vision.
Like Faulkner, Harryman throughout her writing uses the figures of family in an almost chesslike fashion to articulate narrative configurations. But here – & this is where I think the “prose poem” comes in – even if Harryman’s interest lies in the construction of Baby, it does not seek to integrate this character unproblematically into a figure of recognizable psychological tropes. Where the opacity of Faulkner’s passage drops away the instant the reader clues into the figure of a developmentally disabled adult & his handler trailing along watching a game of golf, the resistance of “a kachina doll with green pants and something earnest about it moving forward” will not dissolve. The opacity in Faulkner is merely apparent, a tease. In Harryman, it’s a commitment & this makes all the difference in the world.
Monday, June 30, 2003
Suprematism (Construction in Dissolution)  is one of the
later works in Kazimir Malevich's Suprematist retrospective at the
The painting is one of a series of white-on-white oil canvases — the background surface more accurately an eggshell tone, but, as with all of Malevich's work, very tactile & worked, by no means a flat plane disappearing behind the object. The object, or foreground, or figure, in this instance is composed of four shapes, one basically an elongated rectangle over which three curving arcs are drawn. The rectangle, to call it that, begins just to the left of center at the top of this vertically oriented canvas, extending diagonally down to end four-fifths of the way to the lower right corner.
At this relatively late moment in Suprematism, Malevich was no longer painting completed geometric figures. Instead, one side always slides into a blur & just fades out. For the rectangle (almost, say, the shape of a ruler), that side is its long right edge. Quite near the top is the first of the three arcs, this one the longest & least curved of the three. It has roughly the same width as the rectangle, but its fading edge faces toward its inner or bottom side. The two other arcs below it, more or less equidistant, are both shorter & more tightly curved, tho it is their bottom, inner portion that also fades.
There is room along the rectangle for a fourth arc — it would have appeared right at the bottom edge — so it is its absence one notices, as much as the presence of the others.
While Malevich has often been characterized as a painter of geometric shapes, it is in fact all the off center moments that predominate in this exhibition. Malevich's black circle, for example, is not centered on its canvas, but to the right, in the upper corner. His black cross has a deliberately hand-drawn, inexact quality that is at least as important to the overall effect of the work as the shape itself. And many of his other paintings are palimpsests of small geometrical shapes scattered across white fields. In them what I often pick up most are the colors — there is the gentlest pink in this exhibition that I ever recall having seen — and the degree to which these canvases, especially those in "portrait" orientation, mimic the printed page, with objects invariably proceeding (as with Suprematism (Construction in Dissolution)) from upper left to lower right.
While Malevich's canvases & constructions — the only ones in this show are architectural fantasies realized in plaster — Malevich would have loved Legos! — plus a quasi-cubist tea setting that is reproduced for way too much money downstairs in the gift shop — often are associated with the Futurist poets with whom he collaborated, such as Khlebnikov & Kruchenykh, his own thinking in these works comes across as more programmatic & formal. His painting gives, as their texts do not, the sense that one is in the presence of a scientist as much as an artist, investigating the logic of his medium in a way that had never before been explored.
Sunday, June 29, 2003