Saturday, November 29, 2003

Curtis Faville sent the following thoughts concerning my comments on Ulla Dydo’s reading of Stein.


Stein: Now there's a psyche to conjure with! Re: Your blog for November 19th. In reviewing the sequence of Stein's early career, we see that she is first preoccupied with abnormal psychology, then straight narrative, then early abstract Modernist painting, then "anti-"narrative, then a long series of "abstract" prose documents interspersed with some fairly "literal" autobiographical panels (if you will), and lectures "explaining" her abstractNESS. The key development is her perception of painting as an "objectification" of reality, and the way in which non-referential (accretion of paint, words, some SUBSTANCE) matter is a "profile" of a feeling or one's sense of a person, place or thing (that's a Shapiro title!). The avant-garde taught her audacity — how the insistence on a non-sequitur would be perceived as an opacity rather than as a transparency (or, a perfect transparency showing nothing but the age of reason's "sensible emptiness"). That opacity could justify any representation as self-referential, complete, and profoundly resistent to traditional explanation (external reference) — i.e., one of the cornerstones of Language School writing. Clearly, in Stein, as unlike Pound (who on some level does actually want you to know all the history and theory he refers to), there is no desire or concern that the reader know anything whatsoever about the hermetic "secrets" of the text's hidden narrative (code). A "portrait" may be a "letter" to Alice about how satisfying her morning bowel movement was, but there is no literal evidence of this in text. Stein stayed stuck in this rut for about 30 years, and her writing appears not to have undergone any major shifts thereafter. An American soldier is a rural church is a carnation. The Autobiography is another example of the objectification of "material" neither more nor less "true" than her "abstract" writings. It makes a painting of her life in the same way that Picasso and Gris would have, and had done circa 1910. [The shifting viewpoint and disintegration of consciousness implied in Duchamp's demonstration of Bergson's impressionism in Nude Descending are post-Steinian.] And that's the same loop Hemingway became stuck in when he perceived her "cubistic" phrase-making and turned it into the Big Two-Hearted River (sorry to wander here). The key perception for me is that for Stein language can be a nest in which to shelter from distraction, and simultaneously a (public) work of (abstract) art, perfectly opaque, "beautiful" and even redemptive while owing nothing to ["the"] world and its attractions and partisan forces. So there!


I countered that “Your argument differs from Dydo precisely in that she does see change in Stein's writing & can articulate it pretty clearly,” to which Curtis then replied:



Dear Ron:


The "changes" are mostly in execution — i.e., autobiography, lectures, etc. — rather than in position. That's easy to see and not particularly perceptive. It seems that GS's sense of her own place in the world changed during the 1930's and '40's. The Depression and War, chiefly, gave her a sense of participation in "actual" event which she felt a new license to celebrate. Conversing with her during the 20's in the Paris atelier would not have been materially different than talking with her in Chicago 15 years later. She was writing less as time went on, but the technique didn't change much. The Yale material volumes, especially the later ones, seem to me an elaboration of earlier ideas, in the same way that Coolidge's late works are to his first efforts (Ing, Space, Quartz Hearts). It is unlikely that GS would have done any more significant executions had she lived, say, an additional 15 years. Three Lives to The Making to Tender Buttons to Geography to Bee Time Vine — it's ALL there.


Make of it what you will.



Thursday, November 27, 2003

Somebody in the next 24 hours will be visitor number 80,000. To everyone who stops here from time to time, I do indeed want to say thank you.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Years ago, an interviewer asked Allen Ginsberg what he thought of the language poets. The way he asked the question, you knew he was hoping Ginsberg would say something juicy to rev up the poetry wars again. But Allen was having none of that. Instead, he made a comment about how one generation of poets points at the moon, then the next generation of poets notice that they’re pointing. I’ve always thought that was a great remark, generous & on target.


It’s what popped into my continuous mind movie when I wrote the name Armand Schwerner in the list – indeed, really first in line – of the poets whose work Patrick Herron’s Lester brings to mind. Lester’s Be Somebody is rather like The Tablets turned inside out. Then yesterday I was thinking about George Oppen & how it was possible for somebody like Edward Hirsch to completely misread him. And that brought up the comic travails of the infamous “scholar-translator” – I love that hyphen & all that those two terms do to one another – of The Tablets & there was Armand again. And, frankly, of the poets I once used to think of as the Caterpillar Group – Robert Kelly, Jerome Rothenberg, Clayton Eshleman, Diane Wakoski et al – it was Armand who always struck me – I’m not even completely sure why – as the living connection between that tradition & the Objectivists.


When I first set out to start a little magazine in the 1960s, knowing absolutely nothing about what I was getting myself into, Armand Schwerner was one of the first half dozen poets to whom I wrote, asking for work. As everybody who has ever started a little mag knows, half the reason for having one is just so you feel permitted to write to these famous older poets and ask for work, for correspondence in the most literal sense . . . for any acknowledgement of your existence, really. And Armand sent in a Tablet. I was totally thrilled, but I was also paralyzed by the daunting tasks of putting together a magazine. By the time, four years hence, that I finally managed to get the first issue of the much transformed project printed in its vast run of maybe 100 xeroxed copies, Schwerner’s first large collection of Tablets I-XV was out & I never did get around to printing any of his poetry. Looking at the back cover of that first volume now, I find a quote from George Oppen.


There were, finally, 27 Tablets, published posthumously in a sumptuous edition by the National Poetry Foundation, complete with an accompanying CD of Armand reading 15 of the texts. The CD makes enormous sense, because it brings out the full three-layer structure of the text in a way that what’s on the page itself might not. The first layer – I’ll let you decide which is inner, which is outer – consists of Schwerner himself, the second the scholar-translator, the third the unnamed author or authors of the Tablets. I have a sense that when he started the project, it was the idea of the Tablet and what he refers to in a postscript of sorts – 30 pages of notes to himself entitled “Tablets Journals / Divagations” – as the Tablet people, that motivated him, but that as the project matured, the scholar-translator loomed ever larger, more problematic, ultimately the focus of satiric text.


The idea of the long poem as fake, as satire, is markedly different from the precious-object status that Pound, say, wants to lend his sphere of light.* While The Tablets is the work for which Schwerner is most well known – his Doomsday Dictionary, co-edited with Donald Kaplan, was published in 1963 by Simon & Schuster – my favorite book remains Seaweed, published by Black Sparrow in 1969, the largest collection I believe of the “non-Tablet” texts from that period. Other books included The Lightfall; (if personal); The Bacchae Sonnets; Redspell, from the American Indian; the work, the joy and the triumph of the will, Sounds of the River Naranjana & The Crystal Skull Pantoums, this last published as part of Sylvester Pollet’s great series of chaplets.


Here’s one of the pantoums, just to give a sense of Schwerner as a non-satiric, non-conceptualist poet. To each pantoum Schwerner noted where he had gotten some material, in this instance from the poetry of Robert Kelly and Ted Enslin.


The Way Up is the Way Down


so often

as if earth had a trachea

full of dust

I envision my sons Adam and Ari falling through the street


as if earth had a trachea”

that was your phrase but

I envision my sons Adam and Ari falling through the street

that wasn’t what you had in mind?


that was your phrase but

I was drawn to an image of falling

that wasn’t what you had in mind



I was drawn to an image of falling –

the way up is the way down


did you used to have such pictures?


the way up is the way down

so often

did you used to have such pictures

full of dust


This poem, curiously enough, is the closest I can recall any American poet – any poet, period – capturing a spirit that I would associate with the sensibility of the painter Marc Chagall. It is, all at once, both simple & complex, and in that sense balanced as few poems are.


When he died in 1999, Schwerner was translating Dante’s Inferno. My understanding is that that project was not finished, although some pieces did appear in magazines. I would love to see what passages there are.







* A phrase I can never hear without thinking of The Cantos as a giant, mirrored disco ball.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

The Washington Post changed its online format over the weekend, so that I couldn’t find Edward Hirsch’s weekly poetry column until I got my (also weekly) email from Poetry Daily with a proper link. It should come as no surprise to my readers that Hirsch & I have different views of the world of poetry — he represents the school of quietude (SoQ) at its most hushed — but I do check out his column every Sunday. He takes his responsibility as a reporter on poetry for a mostly non-poetic readership seriously & the column on occasion is an opportunity for me to check in on older SoQ poets that I haven’t thought about in awhile, as well as to learn about new ones. 


As it so happens, his column this past Sunday focused on a poet for whom he & I both share an enthusiasm, George Oppen. But in his reading of Oppen — he quotes portions of two poems from This in Which, one from Of Being Numerous — Hirsch creates a poet rather unlike the man I knew in San Francisco. He sets up his revisionist interpretation instantly in his opening sentence:


George Oppen (1908-1984) is widely known as an Objectivist poet, but I think of him more as an American solitary, akin to Edward Hopper. (emphasis added)


Thus this Communist organizer, this partaker of literary & political movements, turns out secretly to have been that libertarian icon, the Rugged Individual. It’s an odd, but interesting, twist to give to the man & his work, and I can’t help but think that Hirsch must have some idea what he is doing here.


His argument is anything but gratuitous. Particularly given that Hirsch has only some 530 words in which to make it — and that a second (if unwritten) rule of his newspaper column is to quote a certain amount of poetry* — Hirsch’s waltzes through a deft series of critical moves, taking on poems that can be seen as central to Oppen’s project. In Hirsch’s reading, Oppen envisions the natural as radically Other & opaque, but that words fail people because they cannot make themselves transparent & thus bring that Other clearly to us. Oppen’s goal, in this reading, is to establish “clarity in relationship, for the ‘this in which,’ the determination of the human in relation to the Other.” So far as this goes, I have no great problem with it.


But Hirsch takes it a step further — “Oppen's self-reflexive poetry of consciousness strives to restore meaning to language by faithfully using it to refer outward to a world of things” — and this seems not at all accurate to my sense of Oppen. For one thing, to restore meaning to language imposes a narrative to the conception of meaning that feels foreign to Oppen’s sensibility. And the idea that one might use it “faithfully . . . to refer outward to a world of things” cascades a series of assumptions over the conception of language that the Oppen I read would have some trouble recognizing, precisely because it is wrong.


Hirsch’s evidence, the poem this is leading up to, is “Psalm,” one of Oppen’s anthology pieces, which the online version of the Post makes a hash of, obliterating indentations, stanza breaks & the distinction of the epigram’s font.** [A correct printing of the text can be found here.] “Psalm” provides the title for This in Which, Oppen’s third collection (and second after the 25 year hiatus between Discrete Series & The Materials). It’s something of an unusual work for Oppen, in that he uses a more fixed, reiterative stanza than was generally his practice.*** After an initial three-line stanza setting up an image of deer bedding down in a forest, each of the other stanzas is introduced with a single indented line announcing its focus. The progression is worth noting:


·         Their eyes


·         The roots of it


·         Their paths


·         The small nouns


After these announcements, each stanza follows with three lines in what appears to be free verse. Yet each of the next three stanzas also proceeds by focusing the reader’s attention on a single anomalous word positioned near or at the end of the stanza’s next to last line:


·         the alien small teeth


·         the strange woods


·         the distances


Such nebulous, judgmental terms as alien & strange seem out of place for a poet whose “ethical imperative is to reach for the actual,” in Hirsch’s terms. These words do the exact opposite of reaching “outward to a world of things.” They are, by both position & content, the most telling & important words of their respective stanzas. They are the terms on which each stanza pivots.


It is when we recognize the function of these pivot terms that the stanzaic symmetries come into focus – not just the number of lines, but that every second stanza ends in a period (which means also that every stanza beginning with Their ends without punctuation). This poem is as far from the organic mimicry of forms as Oppen will ever get in his writing – it’s a closed pattern as tight as any of Zukofsky’s.


So it is worth noting what comes in that same position in the next to last line of the final stanza: the wild deer. This positioning does two things at once – first it refocuses our attention onto the ontology of deer-ness in the first place; second, & more important, it underscores that the adjective wild is every bit as strange, conceptual & ultimately empty of content as the terms used in each of the three preceding stanzas. It is the opposite of natural, the opposite of being “rooted in the thing,” it is cultural . . . almost in the anthropological sense of that word. The term wild has no meaning in the context of deer other than as an index of the distance from our own realm, the not wild.


Which is why the announced topic of the final stanza is so critical – The small nouns. The deer, these deer certainly & in some sense all others, exist not in “the wild,” but rather in this in which they stare back at us – through language. Escher-like in its process, the poem unveils itself at last not to be about deer, but about language. That they are there! – the final line of the first stanza now takes on a powerful new meaning that both is & is not an assertion of nature’s immanence.


The poem literally stands Hirsch’s assertion – that Oppen seeks “to restore meaning to language by faithfully using it to refer outward to a world of things” – on its head. The poem is an analog to Wordsworth’s crossing of the alps in The Prelude, looking into nature only to see his mind, unable to get beyond. The poem argues against the restoration of something that never existed in the first place, a transparent language.


So Hirsch gets the poem exactly backwards. And it’s a misreading, I would argue, that occurs in good part because he wants to take Oppen out of context, right there in his very first sentence, to make of Oppen something he never was. For to take Oppen at his word would be to challenge everything Edward Hirsch holds dear. Edward, you must change your life.






* Which is why, I suppose, the column is not the newspaper standard 700 words.


** Why can’t newspaper typesetters get this right, even on the web? The mangling of poetic form seems to be journalism’s primary contribution to the history of poetry. 


*** Indeed, it is an anthology piece for Oppen in part for the same reason that “The Yachts” is one for Williams – it is the poem those who don’t like his more “extreme” works can get into, because it looks deceptively familiar.

Monday, November 24, 2003

My sock puppet, my self.


The cult of the person casts a long shadow in the history of poetry: Whenever I speak, I speaks, as Creeley put it. From Dante’s poems to Beatrice, a love that would have gotten Roman Polanski or Michael Jackson into trouble, to Jack Spicer’s letters to Lorca, the poem with an intimate you has long been a text with a presumptive I. From Sappho’s love poems to Catullus’ far more sardonic fare, where there is a you, there is an I, a we, a universe of relations posed sometimes by no more than the simplest pronoun.


It’s a problem I once broached under the heading of “ventriloquism” in a piece, “Who Speaks” – not, you will note, a question – that Charles Bernstein appended as an afterword to the anthology Close Listening. Now the approach of ventriloquism goes one giant step further in the form of Lester, sock puppet extraordinaire & alleged author of the booklength manuscript, Be Somebody. Lester, obviously, is in the tradition of other wisecracking dummies from Charlie McCarthy to Triumph the Insult Dog, but also Armand Schwerner, Art Language & just possibly the aforementioned Mr. Bernstein & David Antin. &, dare I say, Spicer too falls on this side of the line, certainly in Language & Book of Magazine Verse.


Conceptual poetics is by definition problematic. When, during the last days of the Soviet state, Dmitri Prigov tore poems into pieces & then sealed the pieces inside envelopes, the role of the text & whole hosts of questions concerning literary “value,” even of the idea of value, were thus invoked. Be Somebody similarly pokes a very hard finger into the chest of Western literary assumptions. Consider, for example, this poem entitled – not numbered – “4.”


I: Hi. How am I?

I: I am fine. How am I doing?

I: Great. My me and me just bought a me up in me.

I: Is that so? I live in me too.

I: Well, that's terrific. I'll be neighbors! Say, me and I would love to have me and my me over for me sometime after the me is over.

I: Great! I think I'll take me up on that. I'm in a terrible me and I've got to run. Say 'hello' to me for me, will I?

I: OK, I'll take care. See me later.

There is a Steinian level of play here, but even more active is the setting up of the pronoun as jarring: this is only half-hidden by the joke of the ego-centric that underscores this text. Later in the book, one will run into, in reverse numerical order, 3, 2, 1, & 0, the first three of which replicate this text almost identically save for the pronouns, 3 focusing instead on You, 2 on We, 1 on They, and 0 on, one might say, zero:


0: Hi. How are?

0: Are fine. How are doing?

0: Great. And just bought a up in.

0: Is that so? Live in too.

0: Well, that's terrific. Be! Say, and would love to have and over for sometime after the is over.

0: Great! Think take up on that. Are in a terrible and got to run. Say 'hello' to for, will?

0: OK, take care. See later.

The range of texts in Be Somebody is fairly wide, all the way from the epistolic to poems that border on nursery rhymes. One hears not so much echoes of Bernstein, nor of, say, Alan Davies or Steve McCaffery, as one does their concerns, played out here with a level of commitment, the proverbial straight face, that would I suspect give even Davies a start:


What's going on here before your eyes, on this page? Yes, I am talking to you. Is it after the end of our world? Where has everyone gone? Please reply. Speak louder, I cannot hear you. I know everyone, as I know someone, or at least that is knowledge of many and one good enough for them. What they say, everyone, is what they say. Everyone is one, yes, someone, so one is many and many, one. You read that once, in a dream, but you have forgotten it. You are everyone, you are sleeping as one, as many things, all slowing down. Everyone turns at least once each night. Please reply. Speak louder. Normally everyone is what they say. Everyone is someone, or so they say. Or so that's what they say because someone has disappeared from this page and our world is at an end. I am talking to you, only you. Everyone. Someone. Please reply. I cannot hear you. Only silent things are said after the end of our world.


In the manuscript version, at least, the cover of Be Somebody offers us a mask, specifically the hockey mask of B-horror flick fame. If we want to know who speaks, we are told Simon says. And there are poems here with stanzas like this:


01 50ld 01's 5p1r1t f0r 4 9h05t,

c0rp0r4t3 v0c4t10n, c045t t0 5cr34m1n9

c045t 4nd 1t 15n't cl34r, th3 5p3ct3r

0f th3 n34rly l1v1n9, th3


I read that as:


I sold I’s spirit for a ghost,

corporate vocation, coast to screaming

coast and it isn’t clear, the specter

of the nearly living, the


Like somebody who understands that what makes Moby Dick great is all that stuff about whales, Be Somebody is difficult in the way the very best books are – it challenges our desire for the familiar (and nothing is more familiar than my pronoun, not even my name) & holds on like a pit bull with lockjaw for the entire trip, in this instance 58 pages.


Someday, someone is going to publish this book & then we will all have to deal with Lester’s intimate striptease of the self. Until then, it will remain – like the full-length version of Mark Peters’ Men – one of the great rumors of contemporary poetry. Lester has his website. But you have to read the book.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

The calendar hath moved to Sunday, November 30.