Thursday, November 06, 2003

Getting online here in Orono is proving more challenging than I had expected. But it's a modest trade off for the quality of conversation I'm being afforded these few days. One excellent question that Jennifer Moxley posed last night: what is the role of jazz with regards to poetry for poets of "my generation," given I suspect that younger poets (or so I interpret the question) don't share this same sense of access to jazz. I'm sure Jonathan Mayhew would have some ideas here.

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Once you start looking, Ur-blogs & protoblogs abound. Whoever had the bright idea to start running the diary of Samuel Pepys as a blog got it right. Thoreau was a blogger, he just didn’t know it. And Robert Duncan’s H.D. Book (the PDF of which appears to have disappeared from its Factory School location) makes more sense to me as an ur-blog than as a “book” of literary criticism. Indeed, Duncan himself alternately called it The Day Book. Exactly.


What brings these thoughts up however inchoately is the appearance in print form of Bruce Andrews’ “Reading Notes” in the latest issue of PLR: The Prague Literary Review, technically vol. 1, number 4. Ostensibly a series of “notes, at times manifesto-like, on the (often neglected) dynamics of reading radical texts,” that use, as a point of reference, Dorothy Trujillo Lusk’s Ogress Oblige, Andrews’ notes want only for a scrollbar & maybe a Squawkbox to become bloggish in the extreme.


Andrews, in a move that will not be unfamiliar to his readers, is out to take no prisoners:


The call is out for a writing that frustrates, or doesn’t bother with, a leaning back style or comfy ‘read.’


Which is to say without necessarily naming names that Andrews is taking on large portions of even the best younger post-avant writers with such a challenge. Comfy would very much seem to be on the agenda, so Andrews is definitely prodding here. Poking to get a response.


As is so characteristic of the blog form – short note: short note: sweeping conclusion – Andrews’ “Notes” proceed not so much as an argument, but as a list, specifically B-1 through B-5 & its parallel portions amid the C’s or, more accurately, graphically,


B-1 through B-5


& so forth, out of what would appear to be a larger suite, possibly A through J. One need not read them sequentially – indeed they seem programmed to catch the bouncing eye that wanders about this tabloid-sized PLR page. Virtually every section & sub-section appears about to burst into topic-sentence-ness at the drop of a droll quotation:


Action: “to repudiate a lineage.” We can experience such a ripping up of convention as we get over being spooked by those ghosts of coherence & consensus that had been bottled up in them. “Time’s showroom exegete” wants our votes for continuity instead. Yet continuity is little more than the concession that death makes to life, or to dynamic change. ‘Close reading’ is taxidermy The best continuity is death.


Hardly any member of my generation (or, as AARP now titles its new mag for boomer geriatrics, My Generation) has half so consistently pushed for an extreme or complete engagement with the problematics of meaning & society as has Andrews, bursts of wit, documentation, perception, emotion exploding off the page with incredible density – the man never lets up. Trujillo Lusk is extraordinarily fortunate to have, in some sense, found her reader in Bruce Andrews – this is, after all, close reading at its most engaged.


But it’s not a blog – we need to get Bruce to Blogspot or Onepotmeal or Typepad for that – but two pages in a 20-page tabloid, printed on fabulously heavy paper – more the paper stock you would expect for posters than newsprint. Andrews’ first page has, by way of illustration (I read it more as comment), Robert Smithson’s A Heap of Language, the second page wrapped around Carl Fernbach-Flarsheim’s The Boolean Image. Overall, PLR is a great read, tho hardly a comfy one [buyer beware: the lead article in the issue is by yours truly, a piece scribed originally some time back for Leslie Davis’ never-to-appear 20th century anthology]. Steve McCaffery, Drew Milne, Keston Sutherland, Michel Deville*, Ian Ayers, editor Louis Armand & McKenzie Wark will be familiar to many of the readers here. Tho in point of fact it may well just be the names we don’t yet recognize here in the southern environs of Valley Forge who prove to be the real news here, such as novelist Jáchym Topol.


Still a piece like Bruce’s points both ways – it reminds us once again of just how close to journalism the blog itself as a form is (but with so many critical differences) &, vice versa. Andrews himself would in fact make a great blogger. Hey Bruce, you listening?




* Translated by Gian Lombardo, whose versions of Aloysius Bertrand I have also been enjoying of late.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Jake Berry responds to my review of his work & to Bill Lavender’s response thereto:


Thanks Bill for the sending the Open Letter. My thoughts regarding the response anthology are much the same as your own. I was not surprised by The Times Picayune review, but I find it fascinating that it is the only book to get panned. Language Poetry is the avant-garde that most academies now recognize as legitimate, so anything calling itself experimental is going to acquire that label. Of course this is inaccurate and perhaps even insulting to some Language poets and no doubt some of the poets in the anthology as well. We knew this was coming.


And I am not surprised that there are Language poets that wish to distance themselves from the anthology, or at the very least discredit it as experimental, or to use your term Ron, "post-avant" ( a very useful term I think, but the "post-" is as overused as experimental (or avant-garde), and no more accurate). As much as this anthology might get labeled Language writing, it makes sense for one of the founders of that movement to say, in effect, "yes, there may be some good writing here, but it's nothing new, and much of it isn't very good." That's fine with me even though I don't agree with it, but then I wouldn't would I?


However, it is important, that an anthology calling itself southern be published by a press in south if only to inform the writers and publishers of "traditional" southern literature that many poets in the south aren't writing traditionally. You and I have talked about this Bill, and I agree that it is important to make this distinction, expecting the backlash from the start, and knowing the direction from which it would come.


Hank's notion of "kudzu textuality" works as well as any other term anyone is likely to come up with, and better than what I would imagine most anthologists could come up with. And I am sure that most all of us that are in the anthology are not comfortable with it, nor would we be comfortable with any other term. That's the nature of the beast. But it gives the reader, especially the reader of "traditional" southern literature something to hang on to going into the book. It perhaps additionally ironic that kudzu is an import to the south. All of us that grew up surrounded by the stuff find it beautiful but a little frightening because once it sets in it's almost impossible to limit its growth, at least in the South. I don't expect the work in the anthology to thrive quite so well, and it's no threat to Language poetry. Still, it is persistent, the South and the world will have to contend with it for a while yet.


I have not read much of what the MFA workshops have produced (though I have enjoyed some of what I have read), so I am not current on the critical terminology. Thinking about "as dense a cluster of overwriting & cliché" as related to Brambu Drezi though seemed to me a fair enough criticism. Compared to much of the contemporary poetry I read (under whatever label) Brambu is certainly overwritten, precisely because so much poetry seems to me underwritten (and I mean that also as being underwritten by concerns that have little if anything to do with the poetry). Brambu is indeed (sometimes) a dense cluster. And it is sometimes clichéd in a sense, but more self-aware of that than you give it credit Ron. And I may indeed need a little "driving instruction", but I seriously doubt that I would drive anywhere that you would want to go. Part of the idea of Brambu is to develop as it goes, and more recent, and yet unpublished sections, of Brambu 3 do seem, to me anyway, to be more focused, but this is probably because I am more focused in my obsessions. I think this happens to most of us as we get older. It produces a different kind of poetry, but not necessarily better. I have no idea if any of my work will be relevant in the future, nor yours or anyone else's. For instance, I like your work (in fact it is the body of work, among the poets associated with Language writing, that I like the most), and many others like your work, but a few generations down the road all our work may all be dust, utterly forgotten. Maybe I'm just a little more reckless than you are. At any rate I appreciate you taking the time to examine the anthology, and responding to it critically. It's more than most have done.


Thanks Bill for the open letter and for striving for clarity in the argument. Your intelligence is one of the primary reasons this project has been so much fun for all of us.


My best to both of you,


Monday, November 03, 2003

One of the curiosities of Culture, Daniel Davidson’s collection of poetry that – save for one major collaboration with Tom Mandel – constitutes not only his “seven-book magnum opus” but virtually the entire body of work of this poet who, facing a future of declining health, increasing pain & reliance on government welfare, took his life at the age of 44 seven years ago, is that the book, as published by Krupskaya, contains only four of the books: “Product,” “Bureaucrat, my love,” “Image” & “Anomie.” The three other works that complete this oeuvre, “An Account,” “Transit” & “Desire,” can be found in a PDF file available for free from the Krupskaya website (or simply right-click here & do a “save as” to your own hard drive).


I have always presumed that the reason the Krupskaya Culture fails to include the three works is that they would add 61 pages to what is already a 126-page text, placing the book outside the range of what, both formally & financially, the Krupskaya collective could afford. But I realize, in reading (mostly rereading) Davidson, both in print & online, is that I don’t know – because neither the book nor the site make clear – where in the sequence of Culture these works fall. Are they the final three poems? Or not? The question of position & before-&-after has considerable consequence. We have all seen how Mr. Pound once made Mr. Eliot seem quite a bit smarter & sharper than he proved to be, & thus I have a nagging feeling that – as beautiful as the Krupskaya Culture is – the book really is a stopgap measure, to give us some sense as to what is there (& what we have lost) before “the real” compleat edition arrives at some future, unspecified moment.


The three poems that are not included in the print version don’t necessarily strike me as being in any self-evident way “lesser” than the four in the book itself. Here, for a taste, is one section of “Transit”:








relies and remains, the

fabric of discussion, journey of the

whole name, if all that entering into

hopes to be. All are distinguishing some,


and they, quantified the touch of profession

bring machines, then disgorge into

crowd. Ravenous. Return into one,

one into another, then return of the

entry of one. Without convergence the personal


conglomerate slits, looks out, enters

motions the individual, transfers

the physical, then locution, rhetoric

the place where work, the home, and following

the dismemberment, any memory that sells.


Dissolve into place, then into stream,

forgotten ahead, lunge to surround.


What is

the name? Nothing, surrounded by move.


The poet whom Davidson has most reminded me of, over the years, has been Barrett Watten, whose work Davidson obviously read closely – and I suspect with some sense of competition. The shifts between lines, use of categorical nouns, the fondness for one as a neutral pronoun – a term identifying position within a discourse while withholding all else – all feel to me as though I were reading Watten through some kind of half-opaque filter. “Transit” actually strikes me as being less apparent in this regard than do either “Product” or “Image.”


In fact, one of the interesting shifts that my reading takes when I look at what’s on the web in addition to what’s in the book, is that two of the three works in the PDF seem to me to be moving in other directions, not necessarily with less of a sense of being honed in on the writing of one or two poets, but at least different poets.


This isn’t necessarily a criticism of Davidson – I happen to share his fascination with Watten’s work & one could, I suspect, make the very same claims about some of my poetry as well. Yet Davidson’s degree of influence underscores what I think is one of the real limitations of this extraordinary talent – Culture is a very “young” book, younger in some ways than Davidson’s years writing it might suggest (he began it at 37 and worked for six years on these pieces). Prior to embarking on Culture, Davidson hadn’t been a part of the poetry scene in any visible fashion, but, according to old friend & now literary executor Gary Sullivan, had been active instead in San Francisco’s punk music scene.


The result is that I read this book – the physical book – with both great interest & frustration. Not so much frustration that all seven works aren’t included this time around, or even that nobody thought to indicate the final order, but rather that Davidson didn’t give himself the opportunity to set forth on the next journey in his poetic career. What I read here is the foreshadowing of a great poet who never got to get to wherever this work might have gone. Damn.

Sunday, November 02, 2003

I added the Carl Rakosi 100th birthday party even though it's in San Francisco just because it's something we should all celebrate wherever we are. I wish the Poetry Center did webcasting of its programs. Also new this week are Temple's Spring events. Corina Copp has been added to the La Tazza menu, reading with Joseph Massey on November 29.
The calendar has moved to Sunday, November 9.

Saturday, November 01, 2003

Lyn Hejinian’s sentences are more straightforward than Scalapino’s &, indeed, those in My Life in the Nineties are noticeably more straightforward & less apt to be “sentence fragments” than the ones in either published version of her breakthrough My Life. Nineties, as I think I’m going to refer to it, builds on & plays with its relation to that famous earlier work, but is far less “a continuation” of the project than it might at first appear. For one thing, it doesn’t appear to incorporate the reiterative material folded in throughout the earlier, larger project, other than the slightest sprinkling of phrases, playfully added as an allusive garnish rather than integral to the form itself.


But most importantly, the reduced number of sentence fragments combined with the notably longer paragraphs – Hejinian does appear to be going for the sentence-for-every-year approach, although I haven’t counted to see if each of the paragraphs here contains the same number of sentences (as I presume that it must) – to give the poem a radically different sense of rhythm, one that is more casual & relaxed than My Life. This new prosody fits well with Hejinian’s fundamental optimism – she still seems startled at the idea that she of all people should have become one of the defining poets of our time:


To be born at all seems chancy, and having been born, that it should have happened now and here and in human form to me even more so, but after that the most remarkable things occur at points of forced encounter between facts of equal strangeness.


The contrast with Scalapino, born just a few years later, raised in the same city, both attending John Muir Elementary, each the daughter of a professor at the same university, could not be more pronounced. Indeed, this contrast is part of what gives Sight, the booklength collaboration between these two poets, its extraordinary energy. Indeed, more than any other poets I can think of, Leslie Scalapino & Lyn Hejinian are the two great architects of the sentence in my generation, Hejinian’s luxurious elaborations reminiscent of (tho not nostalgic for) the 19th century novel, Scalapino’s rapid-fire shifts articulating an entirely different sense of energy & possibility.


Both conceptions of the sentence deserve greater investigation & thought. In Hejinian’s case, the historic function of the 19th century novel – the last moment when the world-making construct of fiction itself could be anything other than ironic & self-mocking* – and explicitly of the sentence in that work is worthy of much greater consideration. It is a process of thought articulated in stages, enabling care, a panoramic view if that’s required, self-reflection – all the elements that will enable & empower modernism a generation hence. Yet Hejinian’s project as a poet is anything but backward looking – as these constructivist memoirs demonstrate precisely through their subversions of the form. The sentence in her work is a tool of investigation, to a degree matched perhaps only by Barrett Watten, each phrase a probe into the real.


I feel as though I am only scratching the barest surface here, both in discussing Lyn’s work & that of Leslie’s as well over the past couple of days. What I want to get across most, though, is that I think there is a major project that is being outlined by these two simpatico but radically dissimilar writers, one that meets & perhaps reaches its greatest fruition in a reconceptualization of what the sentence is & can be. I’m not sure that either, finally completes that project except insofar as each seems to play such a critical role in staking out what its terms must be. In fact, I’m not sure that the next step is a project that any of us 50-somethings can embark on at all, but it’s out there & when somebody “gets” it, this new further sentence will seem as apparent to our lives as the writing of Melville should have seemed to his.





* A moment that occurs when, “In the Heart of the Hibernian Metropolis,” at the start of the seventh chapter of Ulysses, Joyce starts to peel away the onion-skin layers of realism away from the real itself.