Saturday, March 13, 2004


Cid Corman


1924 -2004




Death is the
dance life does.
Alone with

alone on
the crowded
Silence -

the music -
finally -
reaching us.




I am reminded that possibly the very first critical writing I ever did about a contemporary poet was a review of Cid reading in Berkeley for the Daily Californian, circa 1970. Hard to imagine that he was ten years younger then than I am now. When he first started Origin, publishing the likes of Charles Olson & Robert Creeley long before others would, he was 26 years old. A few kids with one good idea can change the world.


I’ll return to what Greg Perry calls my “silly little poetry game” on Monday.

Friday, March 12, 2004




It could be when you gave me a book of quiet thoughts the moths had already eaten through, the section on the luxury of growing old completely illegible & the purpose of turning a page more umbilical cord than ignition, I should have realized radio was the first form to conceal its function. A crude sort of Hamletism, I know, but there’s a shovelful of fresh dirt under every condemned building & waiting til you’re married to grow a moustache won’t help the hooves parade across the quicksand or the tides to harness anything except how small a boat can make you feel when you’ve lived like a brick-&-mortar neighbor to every nearby enemy. So there’s disservice in reputation, but at the end of the daybreak the radio’s already gone back to its native land.


In many markets, certain points on the radio broadcast spectrum are set aside for use by non-profit organizations, NPR, college stations & the like – typical are 88.5, 90.1 & 90.9 FM. Increasingly, the rest of the spectrum is being gobbled up by a handful of large, ideologically driven conglomerates such as Lowry Mays’ ironically named Clear Channel. Tis a far cry from the raucous days of 1949 when a group of anarchists in California around Lew Hill & Kenneth Rexroth set up shop at 94.1 FM, KPFA. A community-based radio station before NPR was a twinkle in a bureaucrat’s eye, the flagship station of Pacifica Radio was a haphazard collaboration among volunteers, one of whom, Jack Spicer, had something akin to a folk music program devoted mostly to local musicians around the UC Berkeley campus. Radio in those days was not yet a 7 by 24 operation and Spicer’s program is said to have “gone dark” when everyone was simply too tired or drunken to do, say or play any more. None of those old shows appear to have been saved – the six Jack Spicer-related programs listed in the online Pacifica archives, one of them a 1972 reading of Language by blogger Gerard Van der Luen, were all broadcast after his death, mostly from tapes made at the Vancouver & Berkeley poetry conferences of 1963 & ‘65. It’s too bad because what we think of now as radio is a very different beast than the medium Spicer himself confronted in the studios upstairs from Edy’s ice cream parlor on Shattuck Avenue in the late 1940s, and yet, for my generation at least, it was Spicer who fixed radio as a primo allegory for the poetic process. In the Spicerean formula, the poet is a radio, a counterpunching radio.


So it’s Spicer’s ghost, above all else, that Noah Eli Gordon has to negotiate in his booklength poem The Frequencies. Each section carries as its title a plausible broadcast frequency – there’s always that odd digit in that first decimal place. And the radio appears figuratively on almost every one of the poem’s 74 pages. Yet if there is an influence here – and I’m not sure I’m not hallucinating it onto the text, frankly – it’s not Spicer at all, but Francis Ponge, especially the Ponge of the extended prose poems, Soap or “Fauna & Flora.” One sees an idea develop over time, as if Gordon is turning the concept of the radio over in his mind very deliberately. In fact, I was surprised in the responses to my test of poetry that readers felt some sense of Brenda Iijima’s poem being just a portion of a larger whole, yet made no such comment with regards to Gordon, whose three-sentence piece above strikes me as calling out for the greater context of the whole.


There is an awkwardness in these three sentences that I don’t read as a weakness. I think comes precisely from serving two masters – the paragraph at hand & the larger work as a whole, particularly the ongoing interactions between I & you. The tone is more relaxed than Jarnot’s, in part because of the length of these sentences but even more because the rapid shift of reference frames within them results in the lumpy feel of disparate discourses.


So if the work is Spicerean, it’s the Spicer not of Language or Book of Magazine Verse, but rather of “Imaginary Elegies” – a text printed in a reduced font in the appendix of the Black Sparrow Collected Books & remembered these days mostly as the source for Spicer’s “Poet, be like God” admonition. Like “Elegies,” The Frequencies is simultaneously a project of extraordinary scope & ambition and still very much an “early” book as well. The give-away is the trope of the radio itself, which isn’t decisive in the development or denouement of I & you in this text (the way, say, Spicer uses baseball as a frame for discussing love). In Spicer’s later work, such forces become primal. Here, they feel like they’re cohabiting.


There are so many different ways one can react to a project like this, and at different moments I do respond quite variously. I’m less concerned, I think, that individually these pieces don’t always work, or that maybe the machinery seems a little heavy at moments for the lifting it’s doing – the second sentence above would be a good example. I’m much more interested in seeing just how Gordon attempts to harness this massive talent & ambition as his work evolves. And for that, The Frequencies makes an excellent foundation.

Thursday, March 11, 2004


Swamp Formalism

for Donald Rumsfeld


As if they were not men,
amphibious, gill-like, with
wings, as if they were
sunning on the rocks, in a
new day, with their flickered
lizard tongues, as if they were
tiny and biting and black,
as if I was a hero or they were,
as if the they and these us that
arrived, out of the same blue
ground bogs, as if from my
bog that I saw the sun and
swam up to the surface, as if
the surface was shining, like a
lizard to embrace, as if the
random pain of lizard heads
on sticks were prettier to eat,
as if I didn’t kill the plants, the
water, and the air, as if the
fruit and the sheep were all
diamond shaped and melted,
allowing in the sun, underground,
crowned, in shadows, in the
main dust, from the self same
main dust spring.

Lisa Jarnot’s “Swamp Formalism” is the third poem in her seven poem suite, “My Terrorist Notebook.” If you have heard Jarnot read in the last couple of years, you almost certainly have heard this poem before. It appeared originally in the online journal, Can We Have Our Ball Back & has appeared in at least two anthologies, O Book’s antiwar anthology Enough & After the Fall: Artists for Peace, Justice & Civil Liberties, the online adjunct to The Art Paper’s own antiwar efforts.


“Swamp Formalism” is becoming, if it has not already become, Jarnot’s “anthology poem,” the work for which she is most immediately recognized. Shanna Compton was right in suggesting that this poem would be readily identified by a number of the readers of my blog. My defense is that I couldn’t help myself. I think it’s one of the great poems of our, or any other, time.


Besides, I’ve wanted to type the words “Swamp Formalism” from the moment I first heard Jarnot read this poem. Jarnot herself appears to have borrowed the title from Jack Collom, who taught a course with this title at Naropa in the third week of the summer program there in 2001, two months before 9/11 & the same week that Jarnot was teaching a class on Poetry, Analysis, and Autobiography. Collom’s description of the course is:


Explorations in the nature of poetry "hard and soft" resonant and full of surprise "human and inhuman" we will read, write and talk about what poetry may be, starting with the silliest fact and watching it grow. Handouts. In class writing. Bring paper, pen, simplicity and complications.


Whether or not Jarnot sat in on the course, as some Naropa faculty are known to do, or simply absorbed the title second-hand over the week, I do not know. What does seem apparent, tho, is that it’s a perfect title for this work, joining as it does the tale of Ulysses & the Sirens and something akin to the origin of humankind, an almost Lovecraftian creation myth, more Swamp Thing than Adam & Eve.


The primary dynamic of the is not between these two tales per se, but rather between the pull that exists betwixt them and a parallel formal tension in the work between phrase & line. The reiterated phrase as if signals this not just by its emphasis, ten occurrences over 25 lines, but through where in the line it occurs, four times at the left margin, six times embedded, every time but the first coming after a comma. A third system that is perceptibly active in the poem is the contrast between multisyllabic words – amphibious, prettier, allowing, underground – and the poem’s many (over 120 out of a total 146) one-syllable words. A fourth is what I think of here as the waltz of the comma, so carefully placed – only five of the 25 lines are without one (while three have two). A fifth is the perpetual deferral of the main verb phrase, put off in this single sentence poem that we almost do not notice that it possibly never shows up at all. What amazes me most about this poem is that Jarnot handles each of these elements as if they were separate instruments, say, in a sextet. They are, to my ear, absolutely palpable when reading the poem, especially aloud, and they’re as well integrated as anything ever written by Duncan, Creeley,  or Crane.


It’s a masterful music that leads to some extraordinary moments, my favorite being the two seemingly parallel lines – the eighth & ninth – that start off with “as if.” At one level, the first of these integrates grammatically with imperceptible grace & ease, while the next thrusts itself forward with all of the materiality unanticipated single-syllable words can muster, seven consecutive bricks hurled at the readers head. The most awkward phrases – “the they and these us” – are, I would argue, the absolute center of this poem as well as the instant when the first tale glides up against the second.


As majestic is the ending, starting with the 22nd line, the only one in the poem to have two three-syllable words, followed then by a line with two commas, divided very clearly into thirds. The 24th line introduces the key phrase “main dust,” a phrase whose soft phonemes – s, ā, m – echo in the soft sounds of the line’s end, springboard to the final lines three last words, thump thump thump, one syllable apiece. Is the final word spring the main verb at last, that old David Ignatow effect reborn here in a poem with an ear & an air? That’s one possible reading, but only one.


The poem is, I think, dedicated to Rumsfield because the question – hero or monster? – may be the deepest of identity questions & p.o.v. counts for a lot. Our actions in the world have meaning dependent upon our intentions, but these, the poem suggests, are up for grabs.


“My Terrorist Notebook” is one of four sections in Black Dog Songs, and frankly they all seem terrific, tho I’ve only glanced thus far at the last two. I’ve written before that I think Jarnot is one of the major poets of our time & everything I’ve seen here just confirms this impression. Jeffrey Jullich wrote an excellent review of Black Dog Songs to the Poetics List, to which I see Annie Finch, a very different poet altogether, has concurred. Let me third the motion, even tho I’m not yet through the entire volume. I greet each new book of Lisa Jarnot’s the way I once did the appearance of works like Roots and Branches or Of Being Numerous. It is consistently an event of that scale. It’s an extraordinary gift that we should live in a time when we get to read these poems. I plan to appreciate every word.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004


This is going to be impossible. On Monday, the day I posted my four-part test of poetry, this blog received 546 visitors, the most ever. I got back more – and more interesting – responses than I could have hoped to have received. People like Tim Yu took my impulses into entirely new directions. Others, like Josh Corey, pretty much challenged some of my basic assumptions. In addition to Kent Johnson, a man with experience using other identities, Noah Eli Gordon – a commentator as well as one of the anonymous poets here – points up the existence of a press dedicated to anonymous literature – These folks publish the journal Anon out of the same mail drop in Brooklyn used by the casting agency employed by Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.


So I’m not going to pretend that this is a particularly coherent weaving of all the comments I received on these four poems – whether from emails, on others blogs, or in the very busy comments section to Monday’s entry. In fact, since it’s directly accessible from here, I’ll mostly refrain from repeating what’s in 20 items now in the comments section on the blog. That will enable me to keep the rest of this down to just ten pages, single spaced. A mere 4,648 words.


Rather, what follows is an anthology of response, a range of reactions, starting with a reminder from Curtis Faville that I had argued with him against this very kind of project only a few months ago. Actually, I didn’t say that I didn’t argue against it with Larry Fagin this time either. (I did.) I do think that all the extraneous inferences that permeate a text are legitimately a part of what the reader must integrate through the reading process. I’m not, in that sense, a New Critic, even tho I do value close reading as a tool & share some of New Criticism’s source influences, particularly the Russian Formalists. But it was their closing off of the poem right at the borders of the text that made possible the sleight of hand that enabled them to become defenders of a reactionary poetics (and politics), even as they appropriated (mostly sans attribution) gleanings from Shklovsky, Tynjanov, Jakobson & Bakhtin.


But this time – maybe I was feeling expansive, having just read to a full house at The Church – I thought I would test the process. Lets start with Curtis’ note:


Dear Ron:


You surprise me with your latest blog.


About six months ago, I launched into a diatribe regarding the sins of identity in art, to which you took strenuous objection (or so I recall).


I actually suggested a literary magazine which published in each issue works without by-lines, so that they could be read and appreciated without regard to their reputations/preconceptions/judgments, and the names of the authors could be identified in the subsequent issue. This would allow the work of unknowns to be read side-by-side with veterans, without anyone being able to set preconceptions about their value/meaning/impact/interest. What a pleasure it would be to challenge someone like Harold Bloom or even YOU (!) to decide how good these works were, and/or who he/you thought the works belonged to! This is the best tonic I can think of to the tiresome partisan posturing of literary entities. As an editor – either you have a vision of what you believe in, which drives your sense of the quality of what you promote, or you're a hack. What you choose to publish should be based on the quality and integrity and interest in the work alone, without regard to favors, friends, or reputations.


Is not your "Test" actually an oblique application of my program?




P.S. Gardens is Snodgrass, but I find all four of these selections terrifically boring.


P.P.S. I always get off reminding people that Tom Clark and Robert Creeley and Allen Ginsberg all published poems in The New Yorker, which they later disavowed!



Michael Bogue and Rodney Koeneke both noted early on how closely this exercise mimics the exercise conducted by I.A. Richards that led to his writing Practical Criticism. Indeed, the online Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism depicts his use of anonymity in its entry on Practical Criticism:


Practical Criticism draws on Richards's experiences and experiments in teaching. In his very popular Cambridge classes, Richards would distribute sets of poems from which the author's name, the title, and other identifying marks had been removed. Student responses ("protocols," to use Richards's term) were then collected and analyzed, with Richards's insightful, sarcastic, or suggestive commentary providing the next lectures. These were lessons designed less to demonstrate the specific sources of poetic power than to identify the specific sources of readerly weakness; in other words, it was the protocols, rather than the poems, that were examined.


Michael Bogue also posted an excellent reading of the first poem, “Swamp Formalism,” on his own weblog.


Steve Tills sent his analysis of “Swamp Formalism” by email:


I lean toward this being a womin, but I’d rather say that I believe it’s a “femin/ine/ist subjectivity,” for such subjectivity can be used by either male or femaele or other gender identifications.


Why femin/ine/ist subjectivity? (1) the subject matter(s) and subject(s) altogether – i.e., “As if they were not men” is, for one, “writing poems as if from non-male p.o.v. AND also sarcasm toward assumptions of doing so but really just rehabitually redoing the same old male “hero” (including “make it new”), heroics, nonetheless. Those transcending “male” competition subjectivities/ego don’t need to be heroes? (2)”Females” are more likely to be, “sunning on the rocks,” prostrate, naked, vulnerable, open to attacks from “the same blue [melancholy male] [sky, which is NOT the actual next term.] (3)Again, “as if I was a hero or they were” calls into question heroes, heroics, and all related male tropes. (4)Then, “as if the they and these us that / arrived” is a questioning of male US/THEM splitting, again, a male trope, male trope-ing. (5)Recognition that in fact it’s the same “blue / ground bogs” from which both genders derive, probably in fact from pre-split life form neither femaele nor male, to begin with (pun kept). (6)Then, too, “as if I [too] didn’t kill the plants, the / water, and the air” critiques dominating male/masculine obsessions (Irrational Man, William Barrett; The Chalice and the Blade, Riane Eisler) with “mastering” nature, “subduing” nature, taking position “above” nature, “overcoming” nature – nature, here, “femaele” and “other,” or “mother,” from which males “by nature” must “split off” in order to develop Self-identity/selves (Feminism and Psychoanalysis, Nancy Chodorow) a “male trope very early encoded, thus, by crucial psychological development instinct, predating Lacan’s and Freud’s Oedipal stage by 6-12 months, and perhaps setting the stage for all that is “male” in the splitting of humans from nature and the destruction of nature and the preference of “competition and domination” over “cooperation” (willingness to be one with rather than separate from “mother,” other, nature). (7)Then, too, “fruit and sheep were all / diamond-shaped” suggests revering the usually degraded fruit (biblical, for which Eve was blame) and sheep (meek). And then, just as quickly, there’s “and melted,” so as to undercut the act of revering (“diamond-shaped”). (8)Then, “in the / main dust [from which we all rise and then return, all mortal, even Rumsfield/eld], from the self same / main dust spring” is, again, that at bottom we are all THE SAME (neither male better than femaele nor vice versa nor other gender identifications Over others, etc.). What’s important is LIFE, from “the / main dust,” from “spring,” from “underground” (the Unconscious) and “shadows” (the Unconscious again, this time Jungian, typically a stranger male figure in dreams for male dreamers and a stranger femaele figure in dreams for femaele dreamers, hence repressed and split-off “bad” selves we do not want to integrate and instead thus project onto others, like “the Vietnamese” or the “Republicans” or “the Moslems” or “the Communists,” hence wars).


Well, this is what [one] I of mine would have meant had I written this poem and I would have liked it to be femaele or, in fact, transgender subjectivity based and directed, I guess. But then, I’m “totalizing” the heck out of it – “a male reading/habit.” Ah, well.


Steve Tills


From just the other side of Valley Forge, Jasper Brinton also focused on “Swamp Formalism”:


Here's my reply to, A Test Of Poetry, Please accept this as my rough off-the-top comment on the following poem. The premise of anonymity you are exploring has definite relevance. I love for instance browsing turn of the century privately printed amateur poetry books often found in used bookbarns. So many bittersweet passions cast to the winds as ghosts.


(A) Swamp Formalism by (?)


Admired this poem in particular.


But a poem for our great D.R.? - well I thought at first this is going to be tough street creed. The title's cute, almost a paradox. Bound to be a set up and then a crash. And look, the topical idolater's dramatically honored in italics. That put the bait in my trap, I'll concede. - got my attention. So I guessed ahead the poem would be an anti- editorial gone full tare. Then after reading on I'm not disappointed, surprised, -in fact stunned. A powerful fighting metaphor looms forward, (amphibious), strong enough, apt enough, to weigh in self-referentially for the delicate hint of cynicism that creeps ahead. Yet it resolves and balances out towards another kingdom. Sensitive in primordial sweep. The text easily outstrips any preconception the strange title challenged. Any note of insincerity too, or silly politicizing, vaporized. In fact I've been reading Juniper Fuse recently and the poem resonates well with the concept of primal awareness, especially in the poem's last coda "in the main dust" that also clinches a pun on spring, with perhaps, Gaen renewal. If there is anything one could take to task, it might be the too "universalistic" muddle of talking hard, but that's easily ameliorated by the running rhythmical urgency that seems to jump out of situations like "my bog". Also the word "formalism" in the title gave me the impression the poet was a little tense about how far to torqued the overall language, a substitutes for "oh well, I better fess up, its an experiment". The whole thrust though, brought to mind David Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous. and the loss of origin, et al.


I have to guess a studious poet with mythic sensibilities penned this cry. Or weep; if you will. My roulette chip goes on red for F-e rather than black for M-e – I was a friend of M.C. Richards incidentally, who you may remember wrote The Crossing Point in the Sixties. She would have cottoned on to this poem I believe.


From the U.K., Michael Peverett found “the I.A. Richards business alarming.” Peverett substitutes a form of persona I had not imagined, envisioning the poems themselves as selves:


I “meet” each poem and at that moment as at a cocktail party I make snap judgments based on snap inferences, I feel a liking or a distaste, so though I can’t be said to know the people something still feels like a social contact.


Poem A.


I feel an immediate resistance to the title; it’s a jamming together of nouns that immediately suggests a whole world of media-fuelled magazine reviews that is alien to my own way of thinking. Never would I write these two words. “You’re not like me”, I judge. I also reject the structure of “as if”s, I find myself internally calling it “a conceit”, or some such other judgmental term. I take against the line “as if the they and these us that” - the ugliness seems over-familiar. I can’t but acknowledge certain pieces of intelligence that rise from this swamp (“tiny and biting and black”, “lizard heads on sticks”, “fruit and sheep were all diamond shaped”), nevertheless I feel free to ignore them because rejection is the easiest thing.


Poem B.


We like people who are like ourselves, so I’m immediately attracted to a form that I think I would like to create myself. I think there is a rueful tone that is socially winning, too (“A crude sort of Hamletism, I know”). There is plenty in the poem to back up my initial sense of intelligence and care: moustache printed on face like hoof on sand, radio when you’re alone in a boat - I like those buried narratives and connections that aren’t stated. “neighbor to nearby” - yes, that’s an intelligent music. “daybreak” with its hint of radio stints and advertising breaks and daytime programs... At the same time a tiny little doubt grows, which takes shape as this: that the author really has had a clever thought (“radio was the first form to conceal its function”) and that the author’s clever thought has simply been stuck into the poem, though it’s merely what the author believes. I am guarded now, it’s a question-mark about sincerity. I have another drink.


Poem C.


The thought is itself well worn and of course I am conventional too and so I sympathize with it. I feel at ease in certain ways. I know how this person will react; this is the one I’d choose to be trapped with in an emergency. I don’t think well of “a fake come-hither solitude”, which sounds like someone who is thoughtlessly pleased with their skill at ranting, and I reject the last line (“these luminous beacons”) as a too-easy finale (rising to noble heights, like a poorish fourth movement).


Poem D.


Instant reaction was to condemn the repetitive syntax of “Unlike...” - compare “as if...” in Poem A. I knew where this poem was going, I seemed to have read many such poems happily inhabiting the big spaces of all those negations and leading to a fairly commonplace epiphany. Yet after a little more consideration I’m won over. The strictness of the form persuades me of a seriousness I care for. I approve of the subtle placing of fog, and lava; the poem’s dynamics are more varied than I thought at first. I like things more (perhaps even a little excessively) when they overcome an unfavourable first impression. I weigh the amount of space before “Even now” and approve it - more space than I would have used; the right amount of space, it now seems. I think the poem can mean more than what I first jumped to, though it means that too.



Pamela Lu picks up on this same sense of the poem itself as persona, focusing more on the title than does Peverett:


Dear Ron,


This is an interesting project, a good way to use the blog as a polling tool.


I echo the comment from Marcus Slease – my first assumption, reading through all four poems quickly before scrolling to the explanatory text, was that Ron Silliman had decided to post a handful of new short poems on his blog, possibly with some occasional motive in mind, or just simply as a way to post some fresh work. Then I got to the rules of the "test" and had to scroll back up and immediately rethink my initial reading of the poems.


Some thoughts: 1. My reading was affected by the fact that you preserved the original titles and section numbers. So that I was trained to think of A through D as parts of discrete poem entities, and more specifically, B as a possible part of a serial poem sequence (journalistic, arranged by date?) and D as stanza 1 of a longer poem. Makes me look at C as a complete short poem and want to evaluate it on the basis of whether it succeeds in developing its premise and achieves a satisfying "closure."


So the title of a poem can also function as a name attached to the poem, leading to


2. my assumptions about A, based on the dedication to Donald Rumsfield, which frames the poem as (and I always assume this of writers within 6 degrees of separation from me) a part earnest, part tongue-in-cheek political critique of the Bush Administration, in the form of an implied rhetorical address to our Secretary of Defense. Lizards = American soldiers? Iraqi civilians? An infinitely more deterministic framing than if I'd read the same poem with title and dedication removed along with author.


3. Getting back to your original line of inquiry about the authors behind the text, based on my initial, relatively quick readings (basically the pace with which I go at texts in a print or online journal), I can't say anything conclusive about the age of the authors. To me, all four could have believably been written by the same person-- they don't seem to exhibit terribly different ideologies or poetics. They are at home with open-ended forms and the metonymy of language. A and D seem to resemble each other the most in their interest in or denial of the simile. Then again, the fact that I could easily imagine interchanging the authors of these similar blocks of poems might indicate that the authors are younger, more fluid and less identifiable by a signature style.


4. I can't make any guesses about the authors' ethnicities. No obvious markers here.


5. I conclude that all the authors are college-educated. I would wager that most, if not all of them, have MFAs.


6. There are no obvious class-identity indicators here. By class I mean the socioeconomic background that the author grew up in. Of course, #5 might actually be a leading indicator of this. Or its leading erasure.


7. I like to make gender guesses, though. Here are my bets:


A: female


B: female


C: male


D: this one's a toss-up, can't say either way (incidentally, it happens to be the poem that interests me the most out of the set)


thanks for letting me play,


Pam Lu


I like Pamela’s willingness to take risk there in number 7 – she has two of the three she commits to correct, missing only (B).


Tim Yu uses his blog to a sharply political analysis of what one might learn from this exercise – both sharp and political. Tim’s right, of course. In several senses, I’ve stacked the deck here.


Josh Corey scolds me for dividing poetry into Us & Them – I think that’s called recognizing history – and attempts to point out “something interesting in Ploughshares.” But he has to go back 27 years to find an example and – well, read it yourself – what he comes up with is genuinely awful. I guess he thinks it’s language poetry because it doesn’t make sense.


An even more viscerally negative response came in a series of short emails from a young poet from the Midwest who doesn’t want to be identified:


Swamp Formalism


this sounds like a teenage girl with braces cutting into her lips. maybe she has a headache from the orthodontist's tightening them.





it sounds exasperated and the "it could be" adds to the affect, something you seem to remember even though it's meant to be forgotten. seems as if confusion has maybe become a sort of pastime like comparing baseball statistics in your head. the form, the shape of the poem, is boxed, even square-- rigid, cantankerous. the reference to Hamletism, and crude, suggests an apathy or antipathy, or even disgust for academic convention, maybe. but most of all the title reminds me of a Liz Phair lyric, when in the chorus she magically croons, "ninety-eight point five." and I can only listen to her when I'm strong.


Word Worn


First and again, it's easy for me to relate to, from the start. It appeals to my desire to have an indifferent person be interested by me, especially a woman. But I feel, after reading it a few more times, that the best of this poem is in the first few stanzas. The rest is ho-hum, but it still kind of turns me on. Gosh I hope a woman wrote that. 




I hate this. It reminds me of nepotism, makes me think it only took a secret handshake to print this. It mocks me. I hate it.


I hate the word "raw". It's like the privileged substitute for crazy, psychotic, inane, or stupid or... sigh.



Gary at thinks I won’t be crazy about the readings on his blog, either. But he gets the gender of the writer wrong three out of four times.


Lynn Behrendt takes a similar approaching, trying to guess the gender, age, and time of writing of the poems:


Dear Ron,


I didn't recognize any of the 4 poems. I read through them before I read the explanation about your conversation with Larry Fagin. And (though this is a little embarrassing to admit since it probably reflects on the poor attention I pay in first readings) I read the four poems as sections of one piece, written by one person. I liked it that way--better, in fact, than I like any of the individual poems.


The above makes me think about appropriation, and anthology.


The thing I find myself first trying to determine is the gender of the writer, followed by the age, followed by the approximate date the piece was written. If your test is just to guess who wrote the poems, let me fail right off the bat, because I haven't a clue. But, on first reading, I thought Swamp Formalism was written by a man in his early 40s. Then it seemed that only a woman 35 or under could write


as if I didn’t kill the plants, the

water, and the air, as if the

fruit and the sheep were all

diamond shaped


Obviously it was written within the past year, due to the Rumsfeld dedication.


My guess is that 95.9 was written in the last five years by a man around 60 years old.


Word Worn was written about 15 years ago by a woman either in her early 30s or early 40s.


The last poem, titled 1, I would have guessed was written by a very young man, early 20s, about 8 years ago. But since I read "Even now" and the 3 final question marks as part of the poem, I don't know. Those last two elements make it much more interesting than the previous too-listlike lines using what I find to be an annoying plethora of commas and line breaks that I just don't understand and don't like.


Another person preferring anonymity, an assistant professor at a western university, hazards a guess as to the identity of the first poet . . . and gets it right.


Ron –


First I was just gonna say the dog ate my test, but on second thought,here are a few more than random, less than rigorous comments....


a) I’m out of it enough right now not to have read Lisa Jarnot since Ring of Fire but this is her unless it’s somebody else consciously imitating her; that recursive revising of a phrase, what could be a very simple phrasal prosody but with line shortened and energized to get the keywords in different positions: imagine doing this to a Whitman litany...


b) This troping-on-cliché mode reminds me of Christopher Dewdney, possibly the first experimental poet I ever heard/met; it also reminds me of Bob Perelman; more generally, its use of the syntactical props of discursive argumentation without the corresponding logical relations makes me think of the first experimental poet I ever read seriously, Ashbery. I like the play with scale, the use of synecdoche...


c) I don’t love it; the sense of an ending is too lyric-epiphany for me; even though the poem is about the trite, the truistic, I don’t feel it does enough with the mode....that line ‘the first line writes the poem’ reminds me of any number of Ron Silliman gestures, but I don’t think this is Silliman...


d) The word “unlike” starts to quiver and blur, in the way of the word you recite late at night in bed...the intercutting of the geographical with, gradually, other discourses (political, economic, sublime) could be read in terms of Romanticism: the language of nature (aesthetic value) vs. the language of economic value, or, another dichotomy, natural vs. productive forces: production, change, emergence seems the dominant metaphorical strain. And the refusal of resemblance: plug in your theoretical apparatus of choice here and fire it up....this seems a part of a long piece; as it stands I don’t find so much going on formally but I’d be interested in reading more...


Jonathon Mayhew seconds the correct identification of Jarnot, albeit in a roundabout manner, and adds a second one, Noah Eli Gordon:


Dear Ron:


I'll take a stab at your test:


(a) is trying to be "poetic." It reminds me of Lisa Jarnot a little bit. (b) Noah Eli Gordon's The Frequencies? (I just read the book a few weeks ago). (c) is a mainstream attempt at "language poetry." I hear a female voice here though it could just as well not be. It isn't dissimilar to Rae Armantrout or Pam Rehm, or Norma Cole. (d) could be Julianna Spahr. Or maybe not.


What strikes me is that there isn't a whole lot of individual differences perceptible in these short pieces. To read the author's personality into the text you'd already have to know the author's "personality," which doesn't come through immediately in most cases. I don't know why I wanted to project a woman's voice onto each one of them. It looks like all four poets have read the same reading list and are all writing around 2004.


Jonathan Mayhew


K. Silem Mohammad posts responses on his weblog for all four. I believe Kasey when he says that he knows who wrote three of these pieces, tho we’ll have to use the honor system, since he did not name names there. Shanna Compton, in the comments box, thought the identification question was so easy as to be bogus (I’m paraphrasing & just maybe overstating a wee bit for emphasis). Yet, including the comments box, I received over 25 responses, only two of which actually named some names – a total of three identifications out of 100 possible.


I’m intrigued at how diverse readings generally were, especially those that were judgmental. Every poem seems to have been somebody’s favorite and somebody’s least favorite as well. I take that as a good sign.


I’m also intrigued – definitely – at the couple of readings that suggested trying to see this all as the work of one writer, especially me. For the record, I’d have loved to have written any one of these but I know myself well enough to know that I couldn’t have written any one of them.


I said before that I had stacked the deck. It’s true in the sense that (a) I only picked poems from books that were in my backpack as I walked up the midnight streets with Larry last Wednesday, one of which I’d been given only a couple of hours before, and (b) I only picked poems that I personally like a lot – this latter condition probably homogenizes the instincts of these poets more than would otherwise be the case.


I’ve already given away the first two poets, but here’s a formal list.


(A)        “Swamp Formalism”   Lisa Jarnot, from Black Dog Songs


(B)        “95.9”                          Noah Eli Gordon, from The Frequencies


(C)        “Word Worn”               Charles Borkhuis, from Savior-FEAR


(D)        “1”                               Brenda Iijima, from Around Sea


I want to thank everyone who participated in this. Tomorrow, if I get a chance, I’ll take a look at the first of these four poems & poets. Followed each day by the next poet (with maybe a break over the weekend). Then, if I’m not sick of the topic by then, I might return to the question of anonymity one last time.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004


One thing I sometimes do when I visit New York is to visit the galleries just to see who is doing what in the visual arts space. I’ve only managed it three or four times since SOHO finally surrendered & turned into a district of infinitely overpriced shoe shops, the gallery scene drifting up to the eastern end of Chelsea. So I felt I was overdue & made that Thursday’s game plan.


I didn’t have that much time, either, wanting to get out of town before the afternoon rush hit & having gotten off to a late start that morning in part due to the clutter in the Gramercy Park Hotel lobby & in the immediate streets outside resulting from a shoot for the TV series Third Watch. Henry Winkler is the guest star in this episode & is going to be confronted by regulars Molly Price & Jason Wiles as he comes out the front door of the hotel. Like most film & TV shoots, this one seems to involve large numbers of people mostly milling around, with industrial strength power cords everywhere. I’ve never actually watched an entire episode of Third Watch, tho I could say that for most television, and I can’t say that this episode looks at all scintillating. One thing I did note, tho, was that Winkler was very careful never to make eye contact with anyone between shots, unlike Price & Wiles who stood around chatting with the techies & seemed far more relaxed. But, hey, it’s their show.


My timing for this trip wasn’t great in terms of seeing great art – the new Whitney Biennale doesn’t open for another week and several galleries (Mary Boone, Matthew Marks, Gagosian) were closed, preparing for shows due to open the next day. Mostly I hit 25th & 24th streets, exhausting myself in the process without ever really running into anything extraordinary.


Well, there were three significant exceptions to that statement – work that has had me thinking about it for the past several days now. 


The first was Hong Hao’s show at Chambers Fine Arts on the role of reading in China – it consists of mocked up books, giant scanned collages of books – for example Mao’s Red Book in literally dozens of editions – plus every other bit of reading matter that one might imagine – i.d. cards, food containers, whatever. There are tromp l’oeil two-sided works that appear to be an open three-dimensional book (one of these is blank), so that you have to approach closely to realize that it’s really two-dimensional. The room overwhelms you in the way that Marcel Duchamp’s gallery at the Philadelphia Museum of Art overwhelms you, maybe even more so. Unfortunately, of all the shows I saw, this one has the least competent or effective web site.


The second show was William T. Wiley, a longtime Northern California artist who had a show that has now closed at the Charles Cowles Gallery called “More than Meats, the I.” Wiley is one of those Northern California souls – Robert Hudson & Robert Arneson are two others – who has always struck me as the perfect visual arts analogy for other San Francisco-Marin-Sonoma cultural trends, such as the San Francisco Sound of the 1960s. Mellow, witty, formally intelligent without being formalist, full of color. So I was surprised to see the rather sharp political turn from his recent work. One diptych in particular struck me as moving almost to the sort of postmodern space I associate with David Salle, but a Salle with brooding politics. Mellow is not one of the terms one would employ to characterize the show at Cowles. Despair might be far closer to the target, especially with a piece in which a young George W is being scolded by a teacher for drawing a giant cock on the classroom blackboard. 


The third show is a collection of recent paintings by Hermann Nitsch at Mike Weiss Gallery, mostly what he calls splatter paintings, giant drip productions that would scream nostalgia for Jackson Pollock save for one notable distinction – they’re monochromatic, impossibly deep yellow or an equally impossibly rich red. One gallery in each color. Some paintings have a crossbar attached to the front of the canvas from which hangs a plain t-shirt that has become fused to the rest of the work through this process of spilled paint. And some have saw horses in front of them on which are laid old priests’ vestments.


My sense of Nitsch is as a conceptual artist, part of Viennese actionism – and his productions have a fixation with the crucifixion that Mel Gibson might understand. But like so many artists whose primary work is more cognitive than material – think of Christo – Nitsch has figured out that what a conceptual artist can sell is documentation. So it is important that these pieces fit into the (literal) iconography of his major obsessions, just as it is important that they look good as art. Unlike Pollock, tho, there is no interest here in documenting the sanctified moment of creation – no equivalent to that spilled line that is essential to Pollock’s weave. But it made me wonder just how much the larger projects of these conceptual pieces he does are predicated on the need to spin off enough snazzy documenta for the collectors.


From these two shows – both of which moved, puzzled & to some degree troubled me – the drop-off struck me as pretty steep, down to shows which were technically excellent, but whose intellectual premises irritated me. A good example of this was Robert Longo’s loving & heroic – both in presentation & size – charcoal renditions of the atomic era. What makes this work so cynical – in all the wrong senses – is its knowing aspect of retro beauty: mushroom cloud as designer object. In a similar vein, Bettina Von Zwehl’s photographs of women, always dressed in black, standing under what appears to be an off-camera hose – the show is titled Rain – presents a show so knowing in what works, what is good formally & yet just hip enough culturally, that one feels thoroughly manipulated by the sum of these pieces, even as – or possibly even because – they are so well executed. More interesting, because it’s less well executed – you can see her thinking in the interstices between works, not simply presenting Terrific Output – is Joy Episalla’s exploration of birds & lawn chairs at Debs & Co. But the project is overwhelmed by its need to present itself in all its projectness.


Another level down, there was work that exceptionally well produced, but which felt cognitively empty to me. The first of these was Jem Southam’s show of British nature photography at the Robert Mann Gallery at 210 11th Avenue. Southam uses color in the most painterly fashion imaginable and any of these works would look great on a bank wall – that’s also their limitation. In a very similar fashion, Michael Abrams’ show of oil landscapes at the Sears Peyton Gallery presents the most fawning nostalgia for American impressionism I’ve seen in ages. These too will look fabulous on the walls of a major financial institution.


Then, of course, there were all the works that wouldn’t look good even on a bank wall, which were conceptually muddled, derivative without any attitude and/or hopeless muddled. There’s a lot of that out there these days. I’m not sure that this hasn’t always been the case. But if I go into another small dark room to watch a bad video only to notice that there is sand on the floor, I’m going to spew. Or abstractions that scream out that the last person to have a good idea about abstract art was Hoffman or Pollock or DeKooning.


Of all of these shows, only Hao’s felt at all new to me, doing what I take to be a primary task of art – cognitively pushing into the real world in such a way as to add definition. And in the process expanding the definition of art itself. Hao was born & raised & lives in Beijing, not where you’d expect someone active in the contemporary art scene to live. He’s also under 40. Chambers Fine Arts is at 210 11th Street and the show will be up until March 20.

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