Wednesday, January 07, 2004

I saw three films over the holidays &, as it happened, all three – Lord of the Rings: Return of the King; Cold Mountain; & House of Sand & Fog – were adaptations of novels, only the first of which I’d read (and that some three dozen years ago). But I felt an unease especially with House that made me stop & wonder at the problems of narrative & the relationship between narrative & the form of the novel, cinema & poetry.


I’ve written here before that I see cinema has having drained many of the formal prerogatives of narrative away from the novel, much as the novel itself a few hundred years ago drew narrative away from poetry, a process through which both genres gained immeasurably. More problematic, I’ve felt, is the future of the novel once narrative became merely a “nice-to-have” element, rather than its reason for existence – a point that I see as having been reached with Joyce’s Ulysses on the one hand, and the rise of the first generation of great directors, the likes of Eisenstein & Griffith.


House wants to be a tragedy – almost a Greek one at that – and at the same time a character study in which all the doomed figures are sympathetic even as they move inexorably toward an unavoidable conclusion. This works in good part because three of the lead players are superb – Ben Kingsley gives what is easily an “Oscar-caliber” performance his portrayal of an exiled Irani colonel trying to get an economic toehold in a fictionalized San Mateo County, south of San Francisco. Jennifer Connelly, fresh of her Oscar & Golden Globe performance in A Beautiful Mind, is superb in a more difficult role of a young woman almost paralyzed by depression, torn between her sense of doing right & doing what comes easily. Shohreh Aghdashloo, herself an Iranian actress living in exile in the U.K., easily handles the difficult task of balancing the screen between these two intense performances. The one clunker in the cast – you can tell that the director has no insight into the role – is Ron Eldard as an out-of-control cop, who thinks he’s being a social worker when he’s mostly being a (sexual & other) predator.


The plot, such as it is, is that the young woman’s husband has left her & she has responded with a deep depression – the house is a mess, mail is unopened, etc. – which leads to her defaulting on $500 worth of taxes that she, in reality, doesn’t even owe, for which “Pacific County” then evicts her & sells the property, a three-bedroom house walking distance from the ocean, for some $45,000. The Iranian family buys the property while the woman is attempting to appeal this & has construction done immediately in hopes of turning it around for a quick profit that will then enable them to live more comfortably, and just maybe pay for the son’s college education.


Disregard for a moment that there are enough gaps in administrative due procedure & simple bureaucratic process to drive a semi through, the narrative problem for the film is not that the evicted woman becomes romantically involved with the cop who serves the eviction papers – he’s clearly using the affair as a means of instigating the blow-up of an emotionally dead marriage – it’s that, as a police officer, he has to carry a gun. All of this drama proceeds as if waiting for a gun to go off – and once one does (I won’t say who fires at whom) – everything comes to its inescapable conclusion. It’s as if gunpowder was the verb in this film’s syntax. And while, narratively, it “resolves” everything, it does so by short-circuiting the actual human processes already in motion, replacing them instantly with another layer that isn’t half so interesting. This is, of course, the cheapest Hollywood formula: people are in conflict + a gun goes off = game over. My own sense, from all the various interviews & reviews I’ve seen, is that first-time director Vadim Perelman & first-time screenwriter Shawn Lawrence Otto (“he initially wanted to write novels,” says the film’s official website of Otto, a one-time editor of a Shakespeare journal) have been faithful to the novel of Andre Dubus III, but it makes me what to take somebody by the shoulders – Dubus? – and shake them up & down. Why didn’t you think harder?


One could make much the same charge at Cold Mountain – again I hadn’t read the book & didn’t see the conclusion coming until my wife – who had read it – whispered in my ear “This is where I’m bailing,” and headed out of the theater five minutes ahead of the dénouement. But at least this is a film about the Civil War & about war in general (director Anthony Minghella is opposed). And its characters are much more two-dimensional than those in House – Renée Zellweger uses the occasion to good comic effect, since it’s impossible to overact opposite a stick figure like Nicole Kidman. Kvetching about guns in Cold Mountain would be silly, like worrying about the problems of What-To-Do-Next for any surviving Orcs in The Ring (no mention here of a brief occupation of Mordor or of a quick return to an indigenous regime). But in House, the characters are the issue & a short-cut solution isn’t any resolution at all.


Let’s assume for a moment, then, that the gun goes off as well in Dubus’ book. What does that tell me? That it was written to be made into a motion picture? (Maybe – it’s actually a fate that relatively few novels ever meet.) Or that Dubus as well as Perelman took a short cut right at the most important juncture in the story? I’ll have to read the book to find out.* But it reminds me of the way in which mysteries in particular mime the narrative process as both hero and reader get to discover the predicate: whodunit. One reason that genre fiction has survived more effectively than, say, novels that seek to explore literary values is that such genres have other social reasons for being, sci-fi especially, where the minute that narrative & literary value are uncoupled in fiction, fiction struggles for a good reason to survive. Indeed, much of what has been published over the years by the likes of the Fiction Collection or the Dalkey Archive is fiction that is nostalgic for the novel, and which stretches out different aspects – some better, some worse – as it seeks in vain to find out its way out of the checkmate that cinema has become for narrative-as-plot.


I like a good story as much as the next bloke, but it seems to me no accident that my favorite novels over the past 50 years – Gravity’s Rainbow, V, Satanic Verses, Visions of Cody, Naked Lunch, Underworld, Dhalgren, Islands in the Net – are almost all narratives that “go nowhere,” & which would be unrepresentable in film (as, I would argue, David Cronenberg, proved when he “made” Naked Lunch). And the problems with films like House of Sand & Fog is that, the minute they take short cuts because, narratively, they have “somewhere” to get, the social contract with this viewer has been broken.





* Not really – by the time I’m done reading Guermantes Way, I won’t even remember the problem, only the luminous acting of Kingsley, Connelly and Aghdashloo. 

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

The first book I received this year – Rae Armantrout’s Up to Speed – already has a 2004 copyright date. It also has a book jacket on which Susan Howe compares Armantrout to Marianne Moore’s depiction of Anna Pavlova, & a web site on which Marjorie Perloff invokes Marcel Duchamp & an otherwise unidentified Boston Review piece cites both William Carlos Williams & Emily Dickinson as Armantrout’s “teachers.”* That’s a lot of forest to get through in order to reach the tree, I think, but happily Armantrout is well worth the effort.


To readers of this blog, or elsewhere in my critical writing, it should come as no surprise that I think of Armantrout as one of the half-dozen finest poets of the past half century, perhaps the last two centuries. I also wonder if that comes as any news. It has occurred to me that a positive word here about her book might be chalked up to the unsurprising response of a full-time enthusiast. I had not reacted well, say, to Richard Tillinghast’s piece in The New Criterion on Robert Lowell even though Tillinghast does in fact try to make some salient points with regards to Lowell & his poetry. I just think that asking a protégé what he or she thinks of the master is going to get you a predictable response. And there is a degree to which a lot of us who are temporally Armantrout’s peers are secretly really her protégés as well. After reading her work now for 35 years, I still find myself learning new things about writing every time I take up one of her books.


Up to Speed is Armantrout’s very best work. While at 69 pages the book may be no larger than most of her non-selected volumes, it feels larger, richer, with a fuller emotional range. Often in these poems, I hear not what I would call anger exactly, but a sharper tone than we have had before:


The point is to see through
the dying,

who pinch non-existent
objects from the air



to this season’s
laying on of
withered leaves?


This is an exceptionally complicated sentence, even for a master of them like Armantrout. Nothing twists the knife of angst half so clearly as the question mark at its end – where precisely is the question? & why is seeing “this season’s / laying on of / withered leaves” the point? The punctuation is at least as much a matter of pitch as it is of syntax – Armantrout intends those i & e sounds to be voiced higher than the o tones of the previous line. Given how variously any two of us actually voice the language (my own twin boys speak very differently from each other), it takes an enormous amount of confidence to write a poem – or in this case, one section of a poem – in which the point, to use Armantrout’s term, occurs through a shift in pitch.


This poem, which is entitled “Seconds,” is worth exploring in greater length, both as an instance of this sharper edge & because it is an excellent example of how Armantrout uses the sectionality of her poetry to create objects that are every bit as torqued as the syntax of that first sentence. The title can be read in multiple ways &, always a good strategy when reading Armantrout, all of them bring something to the text. In the second section, lines are double-spaced, as tho stressing the ambivalence of their connectedness:


A moment is everything

one person

(see below)

takes in simultaneously

though some

or much of what

a creature feels

may not reach

conscious awareness

and only a small part

(or none) of this

will be carried forward

to the next instant.


These linebreaks are chasms – the first line is a possible sentence in itself & its meaning transforms the instant that it becomes qualified as what a person takes in, tho the echo of our initial reading never fully fades. Again we have a reference, this time parenthetical – (see below) – that seems potentially as wayward as that question mark in the first section. And again we have words selected so carefully – creature, for example – one can almost feel the pain of precision literally exacted by such writing. The temporality of this section, driven by space & so many enjambed lines, slows down our reading &, with it, our perception of time.


The final section – these are numbered 1, 2, 3 – consists of three lines. Are they the below of which we have been warned? A demonstration of the first section’s point? Far from answering any of the questions raised during the poem, this three line piece presence is at least as mysterious as anything that has come before:


Any one
not seconded

burns up in rage.


This kind of tension without release is a rare effect in poetry, in any art form really.** The last poet who was this good at it was probably Jack Spicer, but only in Language & Book of Magazine Verse. Too often, though, Spicer’s poems can be taken for the frustrations of love. Armantrout’s accessing a much more existential dimension here, so that it feels constantly in these poems that there is much more at stake than just the recognition that love can’t relieve us of our essential loneliness. Once one sees this in these poems, the seeming lightness of this book’s title is turned inside out, so that what we sense in the concept of Up to Speed is a kind of vertigo we’ve all felt, but never quite known how to put into words. Armantrout here shows us how.





* For the record, Armantrout studied with Kathleen Fraser & Denise Levertov while she was in college.


** Think of the impact it had on rock & roll, when Bob Dylan learned how to do this on Highway 61 Revisited & Blonde on Blonde. And it’s the effect that none of the Dylan imitators could ever learn how to achieve.

Monday, January 05, 2004

On New Year’s Eve, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a review* of Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works by John Timpane, who is a poet & author of the surprisingly no-nonsense Poetry for Dummies, as well as the newspaper’s Op-Ed page editor. Given that the Inky’s primary poetry reviewer these days is new formalist Frank Wilson, this was a great breath of fresh air & a good way to cap off the old year. I posted the link above to the Poetics List & Wom-Po, where I thought there might be others interested in reading Timpane’s piece. This led, eventually, to my receiving an email from Gloria Frym who noted that Timpane had invoked what by now has become a familiar trope in Niedecker’s reviews by comparing her work with Emily Dickinson. To underscore the point, Frym also sent along a paper she’d given (apparently at the recent Niedecker conference in Wisconsin) that examined the history of that trope, tracing it back to Niedecker’s mentor & onetime lover, Louis Zukofsky.


This reminded me of how we deploy such tropes, generally. Rae Armantrout, for example, has more than once been compared with Niedecker. Yet once the core elements of the trope are examined, any true parallels between these poets seem trivial. Indeed, once one has gotten beyond the “woman who writes short poems & lives at some distance from a cultural center,” one tends to have exhausted whatever might be gleaned from the figure. Rather, tropes work in other ways &, I am reminded, are not at all unlike the utilization of rubrics, banners beneath which one might cluster all possible modes of poetry. Thus, for example, the two figures I’ve used a lot here – post-avant and School of Quietude (SoQ) – but also beat, modernist, Romantic, Black Mountain, agrarian, Projectivist, New Formalist, New York School, Language, Harlem Renaissance, San Francisco Renaissance, McPoet, etc. And there are a lot of et ceterae in these woods.


Every time I employ my post-avant/SoQ figure in this blog, I tend to hear from certain readers, sometimes directly, sometimes in the comments box & occasionally on other blogs. Generally, objections fall into three general types.


Type A: I have inaccurately included poet X in some category.

Type B: A particular category has been inaccurately drawn.

Type C: Categories in & of themselves are problematic.

For what it’s worth, I tend to agree with most of these complaints. I have sometimes been sloppy and committed what might be called Type A & Type B errors.**  But it’s the Type C problem that strikes deepest into my soul, simply because I think it’s unavoidable. There is no way to throw a conceptual rope around a particular kind of behavior – which can include poems of a given type, any given type – that does not alter the landscape, highlighting some features while casting others aside or into some sort of intellectual shadow. In identifying the New American Poetry, Donald Allen & his cohorts figured a breach in mid-century poetry that may have been true enough with regards to the paleopoetics of writers then associated with New Criticism, but which left other poets more or less in a theoretical void. In particular, younger poets who were heavily influenced by William Carlos Williams but generally outside of Objectivist or post-Pound social networks, such as Harvey Shapiro or David Ignatow, found themselves in the literary equivalent of the duck-rabbit problem. One can cite similar examples around virtually every other possible grouping that has been posed, sometimes with twilight zone consequences. Thus Larry Eigner, severely challenged by cerebral palsy, was routinely grouped with the Projectivist poets & their “line = breath unit of speech” poetics at a time when he was barely capable of speech.


Many, perhaps most, poets – one might even say people – experience categorization, whenever it is applied to them directly, as the mode of violence it inevitably entails. Yet to avoid categories altogether would reduce any speaker or writer to a kind of nominalism that renders any kind of predication, including description as well as judgment, impossible. No ideas but in things, Williams argued, failing to note that these are two of the broadest of all philosophical categories.


I hardly proceed with the kind of rigor that contemporary philosophers can summon to such issues as categorization, explanation, causality, probability and the like.*** Rather, my approach tends to be strategic: I deploy categories when & where I think they will do some good, and only to the degree that they might accomplish this. When I’m hurried or sloppy, the strategic tends to devolve into the tactical, but I’d like to think that I’m at least conscious of that as a problem, even if I don’t entirely avoid it.


I prefer post-avant precisely because the term acknowledges that the model of an avant-garde – a term that is impossible to shake entirely free of its militaristic etymological roots & that depends in any event upon a model of progress, i.e., teleological change always for the better – is inherently flawed. The term however acknowledges an historical debt to the concept & recognizes the concept as temporal in nature – the avant-garde that interests me is a tradition of consistently oppositional literary tendencies that can be traced back well into the first decades of the 19th century, at the very least. The term also has an advantage in being extremely broad – Tom Clark is post-avant & so am I – nobody gets to lay claim to it.


School of Quietude is more complex, I think. The phrase itself was coined by Edgar Allen Poe in the 1840s to note the inherent caution that dominates the conservative institutional traditions in American writing. I’ve resurrected the term for a couple of reasons:


·         It acknowledges the historical nature of literary reaction in this country. As an institutional tradition that has produced writers of significance only at its margins – Hart Crane, Marianne Moore – the SoQ continues to possess something of a death grip on financial resources for writing in America while denying its own existence as a literary movement, a denial that the SoQ enacts by permitting its practitioners largely to be forgotten once they’ve died. That’s a Faustian bargain with a heavy downside, if you ask me, but one that is seldom explored precisely because of the SoQ’s refusal to admit that it exists in the first place.

·         Perhaps the most significant power move that the SoQ makes is to render itself the unmarked case in literature – it’s poetry, or perhaps Poetry, while every other kind of writing is marked, named, contained within whatever framework its naming might imply. Hence Language Poetry, Beat Poetry, New Narrative, the San Francisco Renaissance, etc. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the few cases in which SoQ poetics has named some of its own subcohorts, such as the agrarians or new formalists. These can be read, rightly, as the sign of a struggle within the SoQ over relations of hierarchy & institutional advantage. The agrarians, as it turns out, were successful, the new formalists it would seem were not. I choose the School of Quietude category just to turn the tables here – to call into question the issue of paleopoetics being the unmarked case in American writing. If I am correct in applying a social interpretation to their activity over the past 16 decades, the only way to unhinge them from their position of hegemony through blandness is to name them, to historicize them, maybe even to rescue some of their forgotten heroes so that we begin to understand the pathology at the heart of their poetry. Robert Hillyer, anyone?

This is hardly the only tool in the SoQ kit, but it’s the one that empowers the others, such as:

o        “Salting” their movement presses – FSG, for example – with token examples of other kinds of poetry (Ginsberg, Ashbery) so that readers presume that an FSG poet might be something other than a militant member of a small literary cult.

o        Treating the process of naming per se as though words have no consequence – M.L. Rosethal’s cockamamie “confessionalism” is a reasonably blatant example, as is Alfred Corn’s infamous statement in The Nation (9/16/1999): “I mean ‘postmodern’ in the sense of returning to narrative transparence in place of Modernism’s hermetic and allusive texture.” That’s a proclamation that means nothing unless & until one realizes that by postmodern, Corn means both premodern & antimodern. But by 1999, even the SoQ had heard of postmodernism & was trying to sound hip, just like Pat Boone in biker drag.


I have read that it’s “hurtful” to be called a member of the SoQ – this would distinguish the process from being called a language poet or a beat poet or a fauvist in what way, I wonder. At some level, who among doesn’t think, I’m not an adjective poet, I’m just a poet? And who among us doesn’t know that any poet who tells you that he or she is not an X or Y kind of writer, but is “just a poet,” isn’t being deliberately disingenuous? I wouldn’t say that’s hurtful myself, but the process may in fact be painful. If, after 160 years, SoQ poets still object, I’ll be happy to call things square. However, what I’d really prefer to see is those poets actually taking up the question(s) inherent in their poetries, addressing them positively, even naming themselves. Ed Hirsch & Dana Gioia could learn a lot by paying closer attention to New Brutalism & how those poets are taking charge, however deeply Brutalist tongue may be embedded in cheek.


But in the meantime, I think that I will try harder here to be conscious of the implications in categorizing any of the poets I’m discussing. Tropes like the Dickinson = Niedecker = Armantrout one may be well meaning – the insinuation is that these latter writers are important figures not being taken seriously enough in their own lifetime+ – but it’s a slippery slope, and one should be conscious as to just how far downhill terms like that may lead.





* This link will work only through Tuesday, at which point the article will convert to the Inquirer’s archive collection, available for a fee.


** Chris Stroffolino caught me using “sublime” in a non-pejorative fashion the other day. One could argue, I suspect, a Type D error as well, the problem of inconsistency.


*** Check out the work of Malcolm Forster or Michael Strevens, for example.


+ This seems particularly spurious in the case of Armantrout, who is justly considered one of the major writers alive.

Sunday, January 04, 2004

The big news in blogville is Nada’s ring! Congratulations to both her & Gary! And while you’re admiring the ring, check out that very cool nail job Nada has as well.

Saturday, January 03, 2004

Ron Silliman forthcoming events




24, Saturday, 1 PM: reading with Stacy Szymaszek, Chicago Poetry Project, Chicago Authors Room, 7th Floor, Harold Washington Library, 400 South State Street, Chicago





7, Saturday, 7 PM: reading with kari edwards, La Tazza, 108 Chestnut, Philadelphia





3, Wednesday, 8 PM: reading with Michael McClure, St. Marks Poetry Project, 131 E. 10th Street, New York City



With a little luck & planning, there will be a summer reading in Seattle, a fall reading & talk in San Francisco & a second reading in New York late in the year. And with a little work (not luck), there will be an “End of The Alphabet” event at Kelly Writers House, also in the fall.

Friday, January 02, 2004

One of the things I like about Glenn Ingersoll is that he gets to the point. Responding to my comments on the line “being ‘implicit in all language’, the idea that ‘without it even an individual spoken word would lack beginning, middle & end’” here December 29, he asks “What the hell is he talking about?” Good question. Herewith, then, a little demonstration. Consider the following:




One letter of the alphabet. How do we know that I “wrote it” rightside up? Or don’t have it backwards? Here is another letter:




Now we can make some assumptions – one is that this is the 16th letter of the alphabet and that, unless I have some version of dyslexia, I have not confused it with either of the following:


b       d


What distinguishes these last three letters from one another is the placement of the vertical bar – in the latter two letters the bar comes either before or after the circle, but in the first it is positioned exactly as it is for the letter b save for the fact that it drops below the line. We can tell if the letter is rightside up or backwards. The line is already implicit here in the individual written letter. It is exactly this positioning system we call the line that enables me to deploy these letters into any number of conceivable combinations:


bop            pop            bod


And from here the leap into syntax is simply the next logical step. The line has always been implicit in writing & it’s no accident that we learn to write on pages that contain not solely the primary line at the bottom of the letter, but a secondary one that occurs at the top of the curve in an “o.” Those markers are there whether or not they’re visibly drawn wherever writing occurs. Even in poetry that attempts to break out of the line, such as Robert Grenier’s scrawl works, it continually reappears. A poem such as the one linked here is literally all line.


My argument the other day, however, was that the line is not simply peculiar to writing. It occurs in speech & can be found in oral literature even prior to the advent of writing. The line is literally what enables positionality within a word & the positionality of words within any statement. For me at least, that is its core definition. In oral literature, the line is most audible through the evidence of devices such as rhyme, which demarcate units & break a long tale down into measurable (and memorable) segments. Imagine Homer thinking of The Odyssey as one long line. Indeed, the very word verse etymologically recalls the primacy of the line, the function of turning back, reversing to a margin.** Thus, the instant you have a word, any word, you find the line. Without positionality, there would be no differentiation between pots, stop & tops and this is as true for speech as well as for the written.


It is precisely because the line is always already there, even when we mumble amongst ourselves, that it is so very difficult to pin down in contemporary poetry. One might as well attempt to productize gravity or light.





* Also worth reading is Katey Nicosia’s response, tho I can’t say that I share her enthusiasm for Russell Edson.


** Thus verse can occur prior to writing, but “free verse” & the prose poem cannot. & historically, this has always been the case. There is no known language in which the appearance of these forms occurs in “reverse order.”

Thursday, January 01, 2004

Resolved for the new year: Blog less, blog better.