Saturday, April 17, 2004


I’m getting jaded. I didn’t even notice that the visitor count had gone over 125,000 this past week. The idea that one might have readers, tho, still fills me with a boyish optimism. Thank you for stopping by.

Friday, April 16, 2004


Here’s a project. Twenty-six poets take one letter of the alphabet each & write a poem that is supposed to last, when read aloud, no more than two minutes. Each piece also is to focus upon an exhibit, one for each letter, of items from the permanent collection of the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia in celebration of its 50th anniversary. The museum was the home of rare book dealer A.S.W. Rosenbach and his brother Philip & was created to house & present their personal collection of mostly literary treasuries. Such as the manuscript for Ulysses. Or — and this is the crowning jewel — Marianne Moore’s Greenwich Village living room, completely recreated in this museum that is no larger than a duplex.


The poets involved are a diverse lot, to say the least — Linh Dinh & Paul Muldoon, Bob Perelman & Karl Kirchwey, Susan Stewart & W.D. Erhart, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Daisy Fried, Nathalie Anderson, Mytili Jagannathan, even yours truly. My letter is J as in “J is for Juvenile,” and all the objects in my exhibit relate to youth:


·         A “pap boat” that looks like small silver gravy dish, intended to feed the young or infirm

·         A “battledoor,” literally an early mode of badminton racquet that was turned in this instance by Jacob Johnson, a Philadelphia printer circa 1810, into a kind of art book children’s alphabet

·         An oil portrait of a child by an unknown artist, circa 1780

·         A photograph of Alice Liddell (the muse of Alice in Wonderland) with her sisters Lorina & Edith taken by Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) that ripples with Dodgson’s sense of preteen eros — Alice is literally holding a cherry over the open mouth of a sister.

·         And this, Marianne Moore’s first poem, written at age eight, copied by hand with illustrations not once, but twice:


This Christmas morn

You do adorn

Bring Warner a horn

And me a doll

That is all.


You can see one of these holographs (the lower one I think) on the page facing page 1 of the new The New Poems of Marianne Moore, edited by Grace Schulman.


Rachel Blau DuPlessis has “K is for Kinship” & rumor has it that Bob Perelman got “B is for Baseball,” a collection that includes a ball autographed for Ms. Moore by Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. The terms themselves are all quite quirky — Y is next to D in the exhibit, no doubt because one stands for Yankee, the other for Doodle. Alongside each selection, in Lucite display cases upon pedestals of varying heights, is, most often askew, one or two pages from the American Heritage Dictionary on that letter. For J, for example, there is part of the page that contains the term juvenile as well as the first page, which informs us of the evolution of the letter itself, derived ultimately from the Phoenician yōdh, meaning hand & voiced as the modern y as in boy. The dot over the lower case j turns out to have been imported literally from its neighbor i & save for that detail, what stands out graphically for me is how much the sign itself is characterized by a single stroke of the pen.


These poems will all be assembled for a reading on the 28th of April, joining together the Rosenbach & the National Poetry Month. Some sort of publication is planned as well, tho I doubt it will appear on a battledore.


Looking at my own collection, I am taken with how much tension & desire seems apparent in these “innocent” objects, Moore’s desire for toys for her brother & herself, Dodgson/Carrol’s obvious desire for the girls, the anonymous child whose only evidence of having lived might well be this painting. Even the book created from a piece of sports equipment and the feeding dish, which, being silver, was actually given to memorialize a birth, seem caught between dual uses. What I see is a sense of childhood as a place in which everything is defined by what it is not, what it doesn’t have, what is not there.


Moore’s rhythms speak to me — they remind me at once of cadences Robert Creeley has used & those also of children’s books. This reminds me also that this museum holds the largest extant collection of the work of Maurice Sendak, whose presentation of the dark side of childhood stands as a polar opposite to the sunny tales of Dr. Seuss. It seems curious that none of the Sendak pieces are among my “juvenile” materials. But those rhythms & that sense are enough to spark something. It goes like this:


J is for Juvenile


This April eve
you do deceive
with a sign of youth
as an open mouth

or a book laid wide
& a wish supplied
anonymous as a stare
that cried “I was there”

with my silver boat
& a mouth my moat
so never mourn
the boy his horn


one stroke to score
his battledoor

Thursday, April 15, 2004


Note: Robert Creeley’s reading tonight at Villanova will be in the President’s Lounge in the Connelly Center, the school’s student center – it’s a much more appropriate setting.


Readers of this blog will know by now that while I am interested in most aspects of the post-avant writing landscape, one sector that I have tended to be less enthusiastic is that segment of retro-avant-gardism that tends to employ new technology in order to generate post-rational texts, ranging from tossing dice to the latest in flash technology. I often feel that such writing is too in love with techné & not with the text, sort of an avant-gardism at all costs strategy that can yield works as lumbering as anything the school of quietude could produce. This is ironic, given that such work, to proceed at all, generally must ignore Blake’s Law – that all good poetry must be platform independent. Ironic because Blake, as the first intermedia poet, is something of a father figure – 200 years removed – to this poetics.


& ironic, perhaps, in another sense as well. It’s not that I haven’t done a little of this myself – you will find a (partially) chance-created work in Crow, my very first book


what high lurking hornets buick the moose


– and one could argue that my own use of mathematics, such as the Fibonacci series, or the disruptions between syntax & context that account for the cognitive dissonance at the heart of a work like 2197 play into the very same ethos. Yet it’s precisely my own encounters with such indeterminacy that drives my own view that such poetry is best practiced in moderation, for what it can teach about the limits of meaning & intention, not as the central project of anyone’s work.


Indeed, it is partly my take on the retro-avant world that pushes me to prefer the term post-avant to describe contemporary progressive poetics, to point to what renders progressive poetry progressive – the sense that art continually evolves, expands, transforms. Recreating zaum in 2004 is hardly any different than recreating the Italian sonnet, just a little more interesting. Certainly there is no word to describe poetry that is more antiquarian than “experimental.”


The result is that I tend to approach certain venues – Augie Highland’s Muse Apprentice Guild, the email journal Poethia, Geoffrey Gazta’s BlazeVox, even UbuWeb – with some caution. As I do writers who primarily associate with such locales. Thus when I write something positive, say, about the poetry of Peter Ganick, as I have done & just may do again, it is not because he is such an integral part of the retro-avant scene, but almost in spite of that.


Which leads me to Jeff Harrison. Harrison is a poet I know about mostly through exactly the publications I’ve just listed. And when I look at the work itself, I mostly find that I like it. Here is the piece that provoked me into writing this note:


the tall-parody crook

tells me his dog is one

of the central zeroes




WW breaks quills,

seems however

fabled flesh really




red ready read

cut with a gurgle

a back pile of puddles

cut with a gurgle


tub meat untended




who said a nightmare's


a sly kind of counterwish




still they continue -

referred to as A,B, & C

mumbo jumbo types





the surface / of carcasses

he's a good sort





his best,


caught its breath




he did,


wonder the work

at the other




with shame

a last leave

to waylay him












zero, spume

verge on yet,

stamnos, lemmings' wiles

toast w/out crust for

1. one

2. reef

3. star

4. for who folds

          the sheet




fresh decks of

several basic






snatches up the broom

can't be! QUIZ:

what was his name?




did you know his loot

listens to me when he's laughing?

his poor little worried loot!




his impression

washed with

dark olive suggestion




Wormswork in the world?



Wormswork in the world?

for them!






Harrison sent this piece, which is titled “50,000,000 Wormswork Fans Can't Be Wrong,” to the Imitation Poetics listserv, which is where I saw it. He may well have sent it elsewhere as well. If you click on the link under the word “work” above, you will find another “Wormswork” piece, one that connects it a little more directly to a certain contemporary of Blake’s.


I don’t know whether or not Harrison used any system or technology to generate this work, tho I doubt it. Frankly, tho, I don’t care – the piece works on its own terms, as it should. The first stanza, whose first line rises & falls around the word parody immediately brought me in & the contrast between one & zeroes – it’s a misnomer to call it a joke, although humor is one of its levels – hooked me.


Indeed, much of what is good about this is how sparingly each stanza or section is written – there is no excess. Individual sections are mostly abstract, but revolve sufficiently tightly around a core set of terms & frames to never seem pointless. My favorite –





-- has an almost Grenier-like quality to it, the two terms perfectly balanced off of one another. If I were teaching, that stanza would be a good one for a demonstration of the parsimony principle – there are a lot of possible narrative frames that can be generated out of such minimal details & it would be fun to see who would incorporate the other sections into their projected reading & just how they would go about it.


This spare approach to abstraction combined with a discursive range that is tight enough to let it all “cohere” is something you cannot concoct through chance save, in fact, by chance. I don’t think that Harrison accomplishes this in everything he does – see this selection from Moria, where the excerpt from “Postmortem Series” feels like a stew with so many ingredients that it’s lost any distinctive taste, but where the excerpt from “Accuracy” feels quite sharp, eye, ear & mind fully functioning. Overall, tho, Harrison’s work seems to have many more highs than lows & even if I don’t get all of it all the time, he’s got me interested in whatever he tries.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004


Books, chaplets & literary journals that came via mail or UPS on Monday, the day after I got back from one week’s vacation:



·         Jeff Clark, Music and Suicide

·         Jack Collum, Extremes & Balances

·         Geoffrey Dyer, The Dirty Halo of Everything

·         Graham Foust, Leave the Room to Itself

·         Peter Gizzi, Some Values of Landscape and Weather

·         David Meltzer, Shema

·         Hoa Nguyen, Add Some Blue

·         J.H. Prynne, Furtherance

·         Richard Roundy, The Other Kind of Vertigo

·         Kaia Sand, Interval

·         Cole Swenson, Goest


Fiction & Plays

·         William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch: The Restored Text

·         Frank O’Hara, Amorous Nightmares of Delay: Selected Plays

·         Gertrude Stein, Mrs. Reynolds

·         William Carlos Williams, The Great American Novel


Critical Writing

·         Bill Berkson, The Sweet Singer of Modernism & Other Art Writings 1985-2003

·         Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings: Volume 4 – 1938-1940

·         Michael Davidson, Guys Like Us: Citing Masculinity in Cold War Poetics

·         Daniel Kane, What is Poetry (Conversations with the American Avant-Garde)

·         Charles Olson, Selected Letters (edited by Ralph Maud)

·         Joan Retallack, The Poethical Wager



·         Crayon

·         Dodo Bird

·         New Orleans Review

·         Poetry Project Newsletter

·         Skanky Possum


A number of these I bought. Some I didn’t. The chances that I will have the time to read all 26 this week so that I will be ready for whatever next week brings are exactly zero. Not to mention all the journals I get for the day job, The Nation, plus a dozen or so publications that come with frequent flyer miles from airlines I seldom use. Did I mention that I read six newspapers every day as well?


My point being that it simply is impossible for even the most responsible or compulsive reader to try & keep up, truly keep up, with the state of post-avant writing. At some point, something is going to have to give, people will & do make choices & out of those choices, I would venture, new, further cracks in the landscape must appear. When there are well over 100 “New York School,” gen Y poets around (not all in or anywhere near Manhattan or even Brooklyn), does a young poet really need to pay attention to what’s happening in the neo-projectivist camp? It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest to learn that, fifty or 100 years from now, what we imagine today to be relatively continuous realm of post-avant writing, ranging from vizpo & performance work to poets who are indistinguishable, say, from the Objectivism of the 1930s – with all their new evolutions & permutations & the complaining we will no doubt hear about something like the Ancient Regime of New Brutalism, etc. – will have evolved into several strains as different from one another as I am from Timothy Steele. If so, that will actually be a sign of health, the literary equivalent of biodiversity at work.


In 1967-68, I worked for about 18 months in the employ of the U.S. Post Office, my one stint of federal service. Specifically, I was a dispatch clerk in a facility called The Ferry Annex in San Francisco, a warehouse the Post Office took over for the duration of the Vietnam War to handle the increased mail from hundreds of thousands of Americans bivouacked in Southeast Asia. Because our facility handled incoming “surface” mail, & because I had an unusual assignment – the “route rack” – a sorting function that required my learning the first three digits of the zip code for all 6,000 California postal facilities – I got to glimpse a lot of the European shipments that were wending their way ever so slowly for Unicorn Books, which received its mail, if memory serves, in Goleta. That was the closest I ever came to working in a bookstore directly, but at the time I reveled at the thought of what these various packages must have held. What treasures were coming from publishers like Agenda or Fulcrum?


Relatively soon thereafter, Jack Shoemaker moved north from Santa Barbara and, with Peter Howard, started Serendipity Books in Berkeley. This rapidly enough evolved into a bookstore, both new & used, and a distributor, the forerunner of today’s SPD. In those days, I was sufficiently naïve not to understand that most major college towns did not also have a bookstore devoted entirely to poetry.


Bill Corbett has an piece in the current Boston Phoenix, explaining the why & how of Pressed Wafer. Up in Canada, Don Gorman has been devoting much of his weblog precisely to the question of poetry’s distribution. The challenges each describes are hardly unique to them. This shows up in my list of books received in how, outside of poetry, so many of the other writers are either (a) dead – every author in the fiction & plays category, for example – or (b) my age or older. Daniel Kane is the only notable exception.* So there’s a funneling effect here – ancillary works, such as O’Hara’s plays, Olson’s letters or Williams’ “novel,” are published less for themselves than because of the poetry that exists elsewhere. These books are more often apt to be published by university presses – only Berkson’s art writing comes from a typical “small” press.


In addition to the aesthetics of poetry & the politics of poetry & the distribution or economics of poetry, a snapshot like this points toward a sociology of poetry as well. The social funneling processes are not distributed evenly & I suspect one could spell out in Bourdieuean fashion why this or that writer ends up publishing what & where they do. What, for example, is Jeff Clark doing publishing with FSG? How does a Joe Ceravolo go from a high profile beginning to near obscurity only to emerge posthumously as enormously influential? If so few women have followed along the path of the projectivists, how do we explain, say, Denise Levertov? How is she like/unlike those other New Americans who broke with their projectivist beginnings, Dorn & Baraka?


Questions for which I don’t really have answers, even where (as in Levertov’s case) I might have “instincts.” But things that I think about as I begin to plow through this mountain of books.







* Among the collections of poetry, however, only three of the eleven authors are my age or older – there are also more women & the one person of color in this rather accidental set. While I wouldn’t want to generalize from such meager evidence, it is the case that poetry today, in post-avant circles & elsewhere, is far more reflective of America than it was ten or twenty years ago. If anything, the list above under-represents that trend.


Still, we’re a long ways yet from parity. While half of MFA students may be women, a figure I’ve heard & cannot verify, only 28 percent of the 263 bloggers listed to the left for whom I can reliably identify gender are female. Between reading & studying and publishing & speaking publicly a second gendered funneling process continues to occur, even if it’s not at the same level it was a decade ago.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004


While I was away some folks decided to turn my comments section into their own little listserv, which then descended into at least three people calling one another names, a level of personal invective I would not accept in my own children. As I didn’t have my laptop with me, all I could do, once I realized what was going on, was to pull the comments function altogether.


I’ve resurrected the function now, but deleted everything after April 1. I’ve also used the Squawkbox “banning” feature to ensure that the three folks in question take a time out to think about their behavior in public.


Much of what makes Hellboy so much fun as a motion picture relates, I think, precisely to this question of influence I was mulling over yesterday. Hellboy is not only *not* original, but is very nearly slavish in its overt sampling of its sources. Just a few of these include Indiana Jones, Ghostbusters, X-Men, Frankenstein, Mimic — director Guillermo del Toro is quoting himself there — Spiderman, Men in Black, Lord of the Rings (notably the Balrog & troll sequences), Harry Potter, Shrek, Edward Scissorhands, The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Girl Interrupted, the writings of H.P. Lovecraft & the songs of Robert Johnson. I know that I'm missing more references than I got, especially since I don't follow either the American slasher or Hong Kong kung fu genres.


What holds this anthology of low rent devices together is editing. The film virtually never slows down — the few scenes that give the audience a chance to catch their breath & build the nominal depth of character for the narrative's four main characters — Hellboy, his girl Sparky, their FBI keeper John Myers, and HB's "father," good ole absent-minded professor Broom (John Hurt made up as Albert Einstein) — are short & filled with both edits & flashbacks so as not to let go of the film's underlying, relentless pace.


As you might anticipate from this circus of allusions, the film's focus isn't on hanging together narratively — indeed, there are large gaps, most notably in the lumbering way that the film takes Hellboy's primary partner, "Blue," a creature from the Black Lagoon type who appears to have cribbed his sensitive soul from 3CPO, the Star Wars bot, out of the story line for the film's last third so that it can concentrate on the love triangle between Sparky (Princess Lea) and Hellboy (Hans Solo) & Myers (Luke Skywalker) as they  try to keep Rasputin from opening the portal to the Other Side. For all of the energy that has gone into creating Hellboy, a sort of red Shrek, Blue & Sparky or Liz, a gal with a pyrokinesis problem, the film's bad guys are remarkably lacking in charisma.


That this gumbo hangs together at all is a considerable achievement, yet, as should be obvious, this is a film that eschews greatness, depth, insight or real affection. The film is so firmly focused on its roster of homages that it never looks up to consider what it might add to this pantheon of Saturday afternoon thrillers. The result, I suspect, may be that the film will rake in the requisite hundreds of millions of dollars, but have no impact whatsoever even on the genres it holds most dear.


Hellboy, in short, is a filmic equivalent of new formalism. If, that is, new formalism took its marching orders from the livelier venues of poetry. Which, in turn, new formalism emphatically does not.


Which brings me back to the question of influence & originality vs. derivation. Robert Duncan, the most thoughtful of those arguing for a derivationist perspective, for the idea that no poem is born disconnected from the whole of literary history, nowhere argues that poetry itself does not thereby evolve. Indeed, I think it is clear from his work that poets necessarily write the poems they themselves need & that this need can be seen (or, perhaps better, felt) as a lack or absence in the poetic constellation. Hellboy, like new formalism, works from the presumption that the map of the heavens for its genre is largely, if not entirely, complete. The most one might strive for is to add one's own name to an already crowded roster.


I used to think — and still do, mostly — that what so animated the Poetry Wars of the late 1970s & early '80s was that language poetry, simply by existing, demonstrated that the constellation of possibilities articulated by the New American poetries of the 1950s where themselves not complete. Langpo's most animated opponents where those, like Tom Clark, who had signed up for a particular flavor of the New American mapping, and who were passionately committed to the idea that their universe not change. It was, to say the least, a teleological reading of literary history. What was most objectionable about langpo therefore was simply that it existed. Had langpo presented itself as, say, third-generation projectivism, nobody would have complained. Perhaps, precisely, because no one would have noticed.


To date, newer tendencies, such as the New Brutalism, have yet to articulate exactly how the map of the constellations itself must change. As certainly it must. Langpo's origins in the Vietnam conflict may position it with regards to the issues of today, but they hardly render it adequate to a post-Soviet universe in which the issue of anti-modernism, whether in failed states — where anti-modernism comes out as a mode  of theocratic fascism — or in post-industrial centers (where one form of anti-modernism shows up as the School of Quietude), is inescapable. The langpo position, I would suggest, is that the tasks of modernism itself were never completed, that the bulb of the Enlightenment has mostly flickered without giving full lumination, & that much remains yet to be done.


So I look at Hellboy as a guilty pleasure for a world in which guilt itself is no longer palpable, and it would be easy to despair. What happens when there are no more films to make, no more poems to write? Hellboy's solution, that we should make the old ones over & over, feels to me woefully inadequate. What is excluded from this motion picture is precisely what cinema needs.


Monday, April 12, 2004


How does one gauge influence?


Two of the books I carried around with me during my Virginia roundabout this past week were Kevin Davies' Lateral Argument (Barretta Books, 2003) & Jim Behrle's City Point (Pressed Wafer, 2000). Both books are great fun to read, with much going on, but in each instance part of what goes on is a relationship to an earlier mode of writing. In Behrle's case — and I hadn't expected this, knowing him principally through his blog — projectivism, or at least a side of the New American Poetics that one could trace to Charles Olson, Paul Blackburn, Phil Whalen &, more recently, to the likes of Bill Corbett. In Davies' case, the connection is to language poetry.


Both of these poetries are close to my heart, tho one obviously is so close as to make me itch:


Not not this. What,


this then?


That's Davies writing. Just typing it makes me twitch.


Lyn Hejinian has argued that language poetry is or was first of all a relationship to knowledge & that an almost symphonic heterogeneity of detail is a characteristic feature that results from this — yet projectivism, especially as practiced first by Olson & then by Blackburn had a very similar epistemological reach, a desire to be able to include anything & everything next.


Here is Behrle's "Power Outage":


a fat candle beneath a leggy one.

words through my fist's shadow, huge on the page


only our street,

windows around the corner electric.

kids playful on the dark hill.


Boston Edison's "aware of the problem"

and has "dispatched a team."

that's a relief.


book abandoned,

a room full of candles.


writing a poem for the new Meanie

out Sunday at Waterstone's.

will it be ready?


truck headed up the hill

against the one-way, headlights

push the dark.


we need more words for "the dark."

minute before

the lights return

seeing how lonely a candle

over the dead phone looks.

wick still, its shine rings the wall.


Reading this, I find myself intrigued at Behrle's choices, for example to mention not just the name of the publication in which the outage either will or won't impact his ability to complete the work, but the date & location of its publication, yet not to name the abandoned book. It's not simply that Behrle's the coeditor of Meanie, but rather that only at the point of anxiety do Behrle's terms come into a sort of terminological hyperfocus. Elsewise, with the lone exception of the electric company, nouns function here as types: truck headed up the hill.


It's against this correlation of anxiety with naming that Behrle makes his demand for "more words for 'the dark'" It's an extraordinary act of metaphor, particularly coming with all the surface features of a poetics that has been said to eschew metaphor.


I can't make the same kind of reading, I realize, with Lateral Argument – even tho I think Davies work here offers both greater range & more depth than does Behrle – simply because I feel so close to what Davies is trying that I don't trust my own judgment. At 27 pages, with ear & wit turned up to the max, Davies' poem feels like a major work of art. But in some ways (many ways) I would trust that conclusion so much more if I couldn't find my own reflection here. That, in turn, makes me feel that I'm being unfair to him, and very possibly I am.


Davies uses line length & positioning to give a sense of poem as field that is itself fairly close to the projectivists (tho more so to Duncan than to Olson or Blackburn), which renders it almost  impossible to quote here on the blog. Further, Davies does something else that I've seen a few times of late of often ending a sentence in the first line of a new stanza, so that it becomes impossible not only to see the stanza as anything like the contained "room" of words implied by that term's origin, but impossible also to quote the stanza out of context. It's a mode of writing that resists any sense of rest until the poem's very end, which means that almost any excerpt would have to be "incomplete," if not actually "bad."


This makes it easier for me to explain why I think Jim Behrle's poem is a good one, but it's Davies' Lateral Argument that will gnaw at me far longer.

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