Saturday, March 20, 2004

I don’t agree with many of his conclusions, but Gary Norris certainly has examined my riff on anonymity & context with as close an eye as anyone.

The Lyn Hejinian events at Writers House – reading Monday evening, conversation on Tuesday morning – have had to be postponed. I’ll post the new dates as soon as I know them.

Friday, March 19, 2004

I took yesterday off as part of my Blog Less, Blog Better campaign & noted that, as has happened a few times before, days – especially during the middle of the week – on which I fail to blog at all often receive the heaviest traffic. There must be a few people who are checking back several times just to see if I posted later than usual. Nope. Wednesday was Krishna’s birthday & I was just focused elsewhere, having a perfectly good time.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

“Leaving the Atocha Station” became an elegy last week. The poem, one of John Ashbery’s most famous early works, beginning with the lines


The arctic honey blabbed over the report causing darkness

And pulling us out of there experiencing it

he meanwhile . . .  And the fried bats they sell there

dropping from sticks, so that the menace of your prayer folds . . .

Other people . . .             flash

the garden are you boning

and defunct covering . . .  Blind dog expressed royalties . . .

comfort of your perfect tar grams nuclear world bank tulip*


might not seem the prototypical elegy &, so far as we can tell, neither poet nor poem sought nor foresaw this fate. But in the wake of over 200 deaths and 1,500 injuries from a coordinated series of bomb blasts on the Madrid trains, the meaning of the words Atocha Station have been irrevocably transformed. Indeed, the instant you associate the name with explosions certain words in the text – darkness, pulling us out, menace, prayer folds, flash, nuclear & on & on – start to shift into a new, previously unimagined alignment in the reader’s mind. It’s as if the poem has been waiting over 40 years for these connotations to be unveiled.


This is not particularly a defect in Ashbery’s poem, which I’ve always taken to be a great one. But it tells us something about the nature of art, the nature of poetry, that relates back to this discussion of poetry & anonymity we’ve been having. Or I’ve been having, with many, many replies. And that is, contra I.A. Richards et al, that the poem, however well wrought it might be, never is composed with the impermeable glaze of an urn. Works of art, just like words & phrases – embedded, gay marriage, weapons of mass destruction, electability – acquire new associations & through them meanings shift. Indeed, a major reason we need a Supreme Court is precisely because words mean different things at different times. The word privacy, for example, currently very much under debate. The word marriage. The entire premise of the strict constructionists – that the meaning of laws should be fixed at the moment of their passage – is predicated upon a concept of language that is patently bogus.


The question of anonymity and its opposite – a category for which, tellingly, we have no easy name, only approximates – is really one of what do we permit into the poem & where do we let “non-present” elements sway our reading, our interpretation, our judgment. Would a poem by Richard Hugo published under John Ashbery’s name suddenly become interesting? Would the inverse be true as well?


When we were walking up Second Avenue – a street whose very name carries its own literary affiliation – Larry Fagin told me of a poetry group in which he had participated where he’d conducted a large-scale version of the experiment I tried here. I think he said that he’d photocopied over 80 pages of poetry sans attribution and brought them in for people to discuss. The response, he said, was that people were “furious! They couldn’t read the poems without the names. They didn’t know how to think about them.”


There are certainly moments in the responses I received to suggest that a few – maybe more than a few – of this blog’s readers felt likewise. One new formalist blog called me “a condescending douchebag” for a day or so, tho they’ve since edited out those remarks. People who didn’t share the values conveyed through the poems – really the only thing some readers had to go on – tended to be highly vituperative: “this sounds like a teenage girl with braces cutting into her lips” means what, exactly? Besides, that is, the fact that the respondent hasn’t thought through the sexist implications of his own language. [Ditto the word “douchebag” above.]


There are multiple things going on here. One is that a poem without a poet's name is, in some very real sense, incomplete – that, to my eye, is the problem with projects like Anon. A second one – one that I tapped into without fully realizing its implications, I think – is that we’re in a very specific moment in American literary history. In the 1950s, the number of practicing poets in the U.S., people who actually published, appears only to have been several hundred & even that was a dramatic rise over the years before World War 2. When Don Allen came up with four “groups” through which to articulate the New American Poetry, he may have been a little heavy handed & sloppy, but the categories were adopted by so many younger poets precisely because they were already thinking that way. And Allen managed to miss Objectivism and Deep Image.** By the 1970s, the number of publishing poets had climbed to several thousand & today there are easily a few thousand poets just in the broadly defined post-avant tradition alone. In spite of some interesting attempts – Apex of the M, The New Brutalists, Social Mark, even, I dare say, New Formalism  there really hasn’t been any sort of sustained identifiable community whose presence is defining just through its ability to articulate a position since language poetry 30 years ago. In practice, this means that one reads poems that aren’t necessarily examples of types.


In fact, one of the ways we do speak of poetry is in terms of its heritage with regard to an identifiable community, thus post-NY School, post-langpo, post-Beat, etc. And this sometimes offers the reader clues or anchors when confronting any poet new to them.


So this is, for me, the second place where Larry’s argument breaks down. When you see a poem in journal by a poet whose name you don’t know, the only instant association you can make is predicated on the journal itself. If it’s House Organ, with its post-Black Mountain stance, you might come to one conclusion. If it’s Mark(s) out of Detroit, you might come to another. If it’s Can We Have Our Ball Back you might come to a third. But these distinctions are far less clearly marked off than they were ten-fifteen years ago. If I pick up House Organ 36 (Fall 2001), for example, I see a number of writers who fit my sense of its editorial stance: Carol Bergé, Diane DiPrima, Clayton Eshleman, Vincent Ferrini, Fielding Dawson, Rochelle Owens. But what about Hugh Fox, John Bennett, Lawrence Fixel, Sheila E. Murphy, Joseph Massey, Maurice Kenny or Daniela Gioseffi, none of whom really connect to that same aesthetic, at least not in ways apparent to me. And then there are writers whose work I don’t know at all, or only barely: Daniel Zimmerman, David Starkey, Brian Hill, Anita Feldman, Robert VanderMolen, Jim McCrary. In what ways are these poets not anonymous, in that I don’t know “what” their names might signify?


So Larry’s dream of the unpolluted text is exactly that, a myth. I can post poems anonymously on my blog, but it’s still my blog. Or your blog. Or it’s Larry bringing you a sheaf of poems he typed up & copied. There’s always a context.


I can publish under pseudonyms, a la Araki Yasusada or Ern Malley, but the project itself takes on many of the elements we would otherwise associate with The Person. You can’t really escape it there either. If you think of a project like Anon, you realize pretty quickly that it’s one thing if they publish anonymous work by people whose writing you know or anonymous work by people of whom you have never heard.


And even if this myth could be realized, you would still have the problem of “Leaving the Atocha Station.” The language of the text is no more freed of the impacts of the Outside, of commerce with the quotidian, of a reader’s assumptions & associations, than anything else.


The unspoken question behind Larry’s anonymity is this: how do you know whether or not a poem is any good? I only published ones that I liked & that happened to be in my backpack at the exact moment Larry & I were talking. In retrospect, I wish I’d picked something by Annie Finch, something by Eileen Tabios, something by Whittaker Chambers. There’s an uncollected poem by Jack Gilbert that begins “Helot for what time there is in the baptist hegemony of death.” I’ll bet I could get some readers to accept that as a language poem with no great difficulty. That might be unfair, both to the readers & to Jack. But it’s definitely do-able.


Names may be the simplest shorthand we have for so many of the diverse external pressures on the poem. One year ago, I had no clue who Stacy Szymaszek was. Today, that name conjures up an aesthetic, a poetics so clearly defined one can almost taste them, a sense of subject – in her case, the sea – a set of proclivities in her writing (she likes to use her ears, for example, far more actively than a lot of other poets) and even a literal community, the Milwaukee writing scene.


In my day job, we call that brand equity. Stacy Szymaszek has acquired a lot in the past year. Brenda Iijima, Charles Borkhuis, Noah Eli Gordon and Lisa Jarnot all have brand equity as poets as well. What we associate with those brands, their names, and the degree to which we recognize them – top-of-mind as the focus groups say – may vary, just as do their poetics. But the social process is largely the same.


That, in fact, is why Silliman’s Blog isn’t called something terminally cute, like so many other weblogs. Who, for pity’s sake, is sodaddictionary? Whether he’s a poet I love or hate – and I do presume it’s a he, based on internal textual details – there is nothing about that blognym that will ever cause me to pick up one of his books, simply because I wouldn’t know how to associate it. But there must be 50 poets whose work I knew first as bloggers – Jim Behrle, Kasey Mohammad, Jonathan Mayhew, Heriberto Yepez, the aforementioned Ms. Tabios, Tim Yu – and that led me to their poems. 


That’s also why my blogroll generally uses real names – I’ve really resisted calling people by the Internet equivalent of CB radio handles & cringe at every exception I make, whether because I can’t really figure it out – 2 Blowhards or Grand Text Auto, for example – or because they write and ask that I stick to something silly, like Karl Merleau-Marcuse or Johanna’s Rutabaga. It’s one thing when a writer has a serious reason for needing to be anonymous, such as the Invisible Adjunct who often reports on the demeaning aspects of a career that is permanently temporary & in jeopardy, or even for a group blog like IowaBlog or As/Is. But otherwise, it’s mostly an index of discomfort with the idea that, as a writer, you are a brand. Just like Janet Jackson. Like Martha Stewart.


I’ve argued before about poets failing to deal with that aspect of their lives & work. But it comes into play for us as readers as well. That really is what Larry Fagin is asking when he tells me that “names are the biggest cop-out” in poetry. What is a poem dissociated from its brand? His presumption is that it’s still the poem. But I would counter that, at a very important level, no, it’s not. Even more than generic oatmeal from your supermarket is not the same as Quaker Oats, which, more often than not, also manufactured that generic brand.


Finally, to look at the question from a radically different angle, I’d recommend Barrett Watten’s talk at SUNY Buffalo. You can get the text in PDF format here and a superb PowerPoint presentation here. I recommend that you read both.




* Ellipses in the original.


** Tho he could be rightly excused as saying that Deep Image (a) came somewhat later, circa 1965, and (b) never really was a single thing, given the presence of Robert Bly, James Wright, Jerome Rothenberg & Robert Kelly all under that umbrella.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004




Unlike the scattered seamount, unlike the ridges, unlike the bed of the sea, unlike a typical volcanic cone. Unlike winddriven currents, unlike the continental mass, unlike a submarine canyon, unlike the several hundred upper fathoms. Unlike harbors, unlike capes, unlike towering shapes, unlike black rock. Unlike subterranean fires, unlike deep unrest. Unlike islands, unlike fog. Unlike lava.


Unlike the birth of an island. Unlike the planetary currents, unlike the epicenter. Unlike icy water, unlike partial thaw, unlike tidal movements, unlike the sky. Unlike raw productivity.




Even now


Whenever I read in public for any length of time at all, I hyperventilate. A 40-minute reading leaves me light-headed, to say the very least. As those who have approached me immediately after such events may have noticed, I am very much in an altered state by virtue of having read. I sometimes find, even just an hour later, that I have almost no recollection as to who approached & what they might have said. Then later I fret that I’ve come across as impossibly rude or spacey or both.


One thing that did occur at the Church after I read there nearly two weeks ago was that, among the people who came up with books they wanted me to sign, was a young woman who introduced herself to me as Brenda Iijima. As she handed me something – I have no memory of what – to sign, I reached into my own backpack & pulled out Around Sea, which I’d been reading over dinner right before the reading, for her to sign as well. I love symmetry. And I can prove this wasn’t an hallucination because my copy of her book is now signed Terrestrially yours + infinity. I guess she must have noticed how high I was.


“1” is the first piece (duh!) in a series whose only title is the Roman numeral “II,” one of six such series in Around Sea: I, II, III, IV, o, … Yes, that ellipsis is a title. I read these as a series of suites, more than, say, as aspects of a single poem, largely because of great the range of material Iijima takes on in this work. Still, it’s worth noting that the whole of section I originally appeared in The East Village Other, No. 8, where it was entitled “from Viewed from the Sea.” So the book as a whole is clearly One Thing.


As the fourth of the pieces selected for this blog’s test of anonymity, Iijima’s poem suffers unfairly by its position. Generally, it was read by readers already taxed by whatever effort the three pieces before it required. Its use of parallel construction, an important device also in “Swamp Formalism,” tho employed here quite differently, was taken by a few readers almost as a transcendental signifier. As with every other piece, a couple of people, including Pamela Lu, listed it as their favorite and one or two – notably that Midwestern poet, himself anonymous – really could not stand it.


Reading the reactions, I was reminded of the degree to which this exercise turns out not to be about close reading – let alone contemporary poetry – so much as it proves to be a Rorschach of aesthetic value. After all, specialized readers – or at least so went the New Critical line – would tend to come to similar conclusions if they could in fact just examine the poem “objectively.”


I can, I think, explain why every one of these texts is well written, if by that I mean that the text is an effective, inventive, tightly composed instance of the author’s intention. Yet, as should by now be apparent, that is hardly ever enough. Because values are hardly ever “obvious,” let alone “objective.”


Consider, for example how Iijima uses parallel construction, compared with Lisa Jarnot’s deployment of the device in “Swamp Formalism.” While it is the most palpable of Jarnot’s devices, it is only one of several instances that build contrasting, sensual structures within her 25-line poem: “as if” accounts for just 20 of the 146 words, 13.7 percent. “Unlike” represents 25 of the 87 words in Iijima’s text, 28.7 percent. The feel of the two texts is, dare I say, decidedly “unlike.”


One could write an entire paper on the vagaries & nuances hidden away in “as if,” a comparison that pulls away finally from being a true assertion, its push-pull dynamic articulating a double-sided economy of desire. “Unlike” is a far less ambiguous term – it’s the exact denial of syllogistic movement, A ≠ B. Indeed it was this constant, obsessive negation, this depiction only in terms of categorical opposites that appealed to the boy in me who once started a long poem of his own with “Not this. What then?” I will concede to an intense, almost visceral response to “1.” Whatever Iijima’s selling, I’m buying.


There are two other formal elements in “1” I should note. The first is how Iijima uses sentence length within these stanzas, which almost feels to me similar to the elegance of Baudelaire’s counting sentences within his prose poems. The way I read Iijima, the unit is the phrase, a number you can almost get to by counting instances of “unlike”. Thus we see in the first two paragraphs something like a reverse zoom effect:


·         8,4,2,2,1

·         1,2,4,1


The telescoping effect is more sensual than that list of numbers suggests – the second sentence of two phrases in the first paragraph differs from its immediate predecessor through the elimination of adjectives, so they’re parallel & yet they’re note. Note also that Iijima isn’t simply deploying a down & back structure here either – she breaks off the progression at the end of the second paragraph and the third, spatially distance stanza – as a single phrase, it doesn’t have much of the sentence, let alone paragraph, about it – the one phrase in the poem lacking an “unlike” hovers out there in all its difference.


But the most distinct aspect of this poem lies not in its use of post-avant forms but rather in the language that follows every “unlike” – a vocabulary that is very much “around sea,” so to speak, terms that suggest the ocean & the Arctic. This constantly reinforcing referential frame is normative & unremarkable in much poetry – the narrative continuity of the entire School o’ Quietude is predicated on it – but here it gives the text instead a monochromatic quality: the reality effect teasingly deconstructed through a strobe of form – or it might be, were it not for the constant canceling of unlike’s negativity.


Iijima’s has emerged as one of the smartest new writers around. In addition to three other, earlier books of poetry, she’s just published an monograph, Color and its Antecedents, from Yen Agat Books in that bastion of pomo, Bangkok, Thailand. She is also, unless I’m mistaken, the impresario of Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, a micropress whose work has been noted here with approval before.

Monday, March 15, 2004

Word Worn


even your doggerel-scratch
has a beat to it

and the heart condenses into rain
if I take the time to listen

in the firmament a fake
come-hither solitude

still takes my breath away
or is it just another star advancing

as atoms thrown
into a dervish spin closer

stretch out an index
to an indifferent twinkle


the first line writes the poem
but you can’t get it back

here and there signals sent
one digit to the next

in time life gives in
to affirmations

family outings birthdays bent
round the clock

but the sky doesn’t stare back
the town is not tucked inside the valley

nor do hills roll except in words
these luminous beacons of indiscretion


Of the four poets included in my test of poetry one week ago, Charles Borkhuis has been active the longest & in perhaps the most diverse set of roles. His first book, Hypnogogic Sonnets, came out 12 years ago, his first play was initially published 22 years ago, he himself has been in New York since the 1970s & has been part of the rotating team of curators for the reading series that started at the Ear Inn, moved to the Double Happiness & now is at the Bowery Poetry Club every Saturday afternoon for at least a decade. His work appeared in both volumes of the famous O•blēk Writing from the New Coast anthology, and more recently he’s had poetics pieces in both Telling it Slant: Avant-Garde Poetics from the 1990s & We Who Love To Be Astonished: Experimental Women’s Writing and Performance Poetics.


In short, the man has street cred as well as a résumé that is as deep as any poet in his age cohort. “Word Worn” strikes me as a pretty fair example of Borkhuis’ work – the elegant & confident handling of the stanza, the wry humor, the surface residue of a deep reading in surrealism, the perception that’s so right on it makes you rethink something you thought you’ve known all your life (“the first line writes the poem / but you can’t get it back”). Yet of four poets I included, nobody was more thoroughly misidentified – even malidentified – than Borkhuis. Readers who responded seemed to think that “Word Worn” was written by a woman – a “hot” one at that, according to one email I got – or by me. Hey – I have my feminine side too. Jonathan Mayhew, having gotten both of the first two poets right, speculated that the poem “isn’t dissimilar to Rae Armantrout or Pam Rehm, or Norma Cole,” three writers who are completely different from one another.


There is a tradition in American poetry that doesn’t get cited as such that much, largely because so many of its practitioners prefer to work outside of clusters or scenes, and because they themselves are a most diverse aggregation of poets, that arises from the confrontation of various tributaries of the New American poetics of half a century ago with surrealism. It’s the Ed Dorn of ‘Slinger, the visual dazzle you find in Jerry Estrin’s work or that of Daniel Davidson, it’s never that far from home for many of the contributors of Exquisite Corpse. It’s a focus or anti-movement or what have you with its own history of lost masters – the poetry of the late Jim Gustafson, for example. It could be seen in the writing that emerged out of Chicago around the Yellow Press in the 1970s (and which was quite different from Franklin Rosemont’s doctrinaire & tedious implementation of surrealist techniques). And you could find aspects or hints of it in everything from some of the Actualist poets to the early writing of Barrett Watten. But as this list should serve to suggest, it wasn’t exactly a femme phenomenon. Indeed, the closest instance I can imagine of a woman’s writing to add to this roster is the long-out-of-print work of Victoria Rathbun, part of the Actualist scene.


There is a historical relationship between surrealism & langpo that’s worth exploring, tho I’m not at all certain Charles Borkhuis is the best point of entry for the discussion – better to triangulate Estrin & Davidson (both of whom saw themselves as critics of langpo rather than practitioners) with Watten & Tom Mandel, and then branch out from there. My sense of Borkhuis is that he comes to that debate somewhat after the horse has left the barn, and that, so to mix metaphors, he has different fish to fry.


I picked this poem because my favorite couplet here (the aforementioned “the first line…) throws you back to the beginning right when you’re in the middle & heightens your awareness of what a deliberately minor note Borkhuis has chosen to start with & how effortlessly those first two stanzas in particular operate – the second one in particular is a masterwork of economy. That central seventh couplet also sets up the next to last – the movement after the seventh is consciously flatter right up to that moment when Borkhuis throws out the second “back” & brings it all in for the finish. That reiterated “back” pulls the poem to a halt, setting up the discrete focus on the next line. It then appears as if this will be the first of a series of almost parallel constructions cast around not & nor, only to have the end of the first line in the last stanza slide elsewhere, the poem closing with the flourish of a dependent clause.


A major factor in how different readers might respond to this poem, I think, has to do with their reaction to some of the devices Borkhuis’ inherits from surrealism, especially its love of adjectives. The gaudy redundancy built into luminous beacons – as distinct from the other kind, I suppose – exists in order to create the contrast with the quietness of indiscretion, the poem ending on a note as muted as the one on which it began. As they say in the software industry, that over-the-top element is a feature, not a bug, of this writing.


Borkhuis strikes me as a poet who works in stanzas as least as much as he does in lines & several of these – the second stanza, for example – are just breathtakingly well done. Borkhuis runs the risk, both here & elsewhere in Savoir-FEAR, that individual stanzas will be, literally, too fabulous, distracting from the poem as a whole. But I sense here, as I have in Borkhuis’ earlier books, that risk is something he values, maybe even seeks, in the poem, the way that long cosmic chain in the first half of “Word Worn” – firmament to star to atoms to twinkle – will exhaust the reader right at that last word, before the couplet that actually announces the closest thing this work has to a topic. Just to reinforce the point, Borkhuis reproduces this same sleight-of-hand all over again in the poem’s latter stanzas – the luminous beacons of indiscretion are an exact parallel to the earlier twinkle.


One aspect of the New American poetry Borkhuis has taken on is the desire to create a poem that is this carefully crafted & give it very much the unfinished air of something “just jotted down” – no capital first letter, not terminal punctuation, a tone that harkens to speech. This is sort of the literary equivalent of prewashed jeans & the aesthetic behind them is not dissimilar. What separates Borkhuis out from a lot of writers whose work I see online or in little mags, poets that treat that casualness as literal, is that Borkhuis knows the difference.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Enormous changes at the last minute caused me to update this calendar just one week later on March 21.