Saturday, July 24, 2004

Ron Silliman
Forthcoming Readings & Talks

Thursday, August 12, 7:30 PM
, SubText, Richard Hugo House, 1634 11th Avenue, Capitol Hill neighborhood

New York
Friday-Sunday, September 17-19
, times vary, Zukofsky /100, celebration of the LZ centennial, at Columbia & Barnard. Other participants are listed
here. I’m reading Sunday afternoon along with Charles Alexander, Bruce Andrews, Ben Friedlander, Michael Heller, Erica Hunt, Ken Irby, Robert Kelly, Hank Lazar, Steve McCaffery, Geoffrey O'Brien, Meredith Quartermain, Hugh Seidman, Harvey Shapiro, John Taggart, Anne Waldman, and Susan Wheeler

Tuesday, September 21, 7:00 PM
, Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk

Lawrence, KS
Monday, October 4,
Hall Center for the Humanities, reading & talk

San Francisco
Thursday, October 7, 3:30 PM,
San Francisco State University, The Poetry Center (Hum 512), talk on Robert Duncan’s HD Book

San Francisco
Thursday, October 7, 7:30 PM,
Unitarian Center, 1187 Franklin @ Geary, reading with Judith Goldman

Monday, December 6, 6:30 PM
, Free Library, Logan Square, 1901 Vine Street, open reading follows

Washington, DC
Thursday, February 3 (2005),
Georgetown University, a “short talk,” plus a reading
with Leslie Scalapino

Friday, July 23, 2004

Also on Jonathan Mayhew’s blog is a plea to Joshua Corey not to “use the Izenberg article as inspiration for a dissertation chapter.” The Izenberg article being Oren Izenberg’s “Language Poetry and Collective Life,” published awhile back in Critical Inquiry. That took me back both to Josh’s comments about Izenberg – and more interestingly about Giorgio Agamben – and to reread the Izenberg piece. The latter is an almost perfect example of why people who read poetry as, and for, evidence in philosophical debates tend to be clumsy, if not outright incompetent, readers. The article is full of incommensurate leaps – taking individual sentences out of context from within a poetic text & turning them into over-arching claims that language poetry supposedly is making for itself. (Invariably making every langpo responsible for anything any other associated poet may have put into print.) To which Izenberg adds as evidence quotations from some (but hardly all, and hardly a representative sweep of) other langpos, as well as from others who have always been critical of language poetry (such as Leslie Scalapino & Jennifer Moxley), treated here as examples of the problem itself. Not to mention poets who may have felt one way at one time and another at a different time, such as Michael Palmer & Susan Howe. Part of that may just be the problem of trying to shoehorn a complex reality into a streamlined expository narrative, but mostly it’s just intellectual dishonesty. Izenberg very carefully avoids poets like Bob Perelman & Rae Armantrout who would simply contradict most of his major claims. Izenberg’s core complaint – tho he never quite articulates it clearly – seems to be that language poets have more generally aligned themselves with linguistics as defined by cognitive linguistics, whereas he still prefers the older (tho now largely superceded) generative school associated with Chomsky & the magical thinking of his “innateness” thesis.

But if you read Corey’s two blogs on the subject, that doesn’t seem to be what he’s attempting to do at all. So maybe Jonathan’s plea isn’t so much a warning that Corey is wandering down the wrong road as it is that he may be attempting to build a more interesting argument on too flimsy a theoretical base, one that Corey could probably do a far stronger job with just by starting out fresh. Corey has shown that he can read poetry, which appears to flummox poor Izenberg altogether.

The confluence of these three positions, tho, made me wonder something that had not occurred to me in quite this same way before. What if a young poet, or young critical reader of any kind, were to come upon language poetry first? To read Lyn Hejinian or Carla Harryman or James Sherry before, say, not just Ginsberg or Pound or Stein, but Lowell or Pinsky or Gioia or Phil Levine or Merwin or Snodgrass? Or even Wordsworth, Blake, Whitman, Dickinson, Shakespeare? Which is to say “utterly out of context.”

That of course is what happens whenever someone reads poetry – any poetry – for the first time. Context is precisely what is absent. But given the degree to which language poetry has self-identified as an oppositional poetics, what happens when there is nothing already there that one might oppose?

Particularly if one had this introduction relatively late in life – say, as a college freshman – there might well be the sort of foreground-background reversal we’re used to from optical illusions, such as Necker’s cube. Dana Gioia & Timothy Steele might look like the oppositionalists under such a circumstance. Context, of course, resolves those sorts of issues, and context gets acquired over time. But first impressions have a way of lasting, even when they’re skewed.

My gut feel here – no way for me to arrive at this question sans baggage – is that to read langpo without a prior context would tend to foreground certain poets & poetries, while making others seem precious or clumsy. A writer whose work is concerned with its presentation of the text – literally its poem-ness – is going to do better sans context, whether the work looks at least superficially conventional (Armantrout, Perelman, Robinson) or more decidedly not (Grenier, Watten), particularly since the reader would – theoretically at least – be sans convention as well. Works that rely outside of themselves – that depend on our knowledge of other texts, and of conventions – are less apt to fare as well. If you didn’t recognize the satirical target of many poems by Charles Bernstein, for example, works such as his studies of “Nude Formalism” are going to slide right on by.

Fortunately in the real world there are no ideal – nor completely innocent – readers. Layers of allusion & irony, often important elements in any langpo “statement,” can be counted on to be intelligible to large numbers – in poetry terms, anyway – of readers.

So I find that I’m not necessarily hostile to the idea of somebody investigating langpo as pastoral – just so long as they can incorporate the far reaches of Grenier, McCaffery, Melnick & Hannah Weiner into that bucolic mode – because I can imagine a context in which one comes to a project that might be stated as “how do you view the whole of poetry through the lens of pastoral”? At least in the abstract, that certainly beats “close misreading” as an investigative strategy.

As to Josh’s other question –

what are we, the post-Language poets, up to? By returning to "content" are we manufacturing identities and falling prey to the spectacle? Or are we simply asserting our own ontic particularity in protest against the levelling [sic] of affect seen in much Language poetry, synecdochic of the indiscriminate cutting edge of revolutionary violence?

I think the answer is mostly neither – tho I would note that there’s a fair amount of work out there that doesn’t fit the description “returning to ‘content’” just as the implication that langpo ever left it is provably not so. Rather, I think there is a drag effect in the evolution (as distinct from the “progress”) of literary forms. Most post-langpo work that appears to have returned to the terms of a pre-langpo existence is, in fact, pre-langpo. Just as the premoderns among the new formalist are literally that, only a few of them cagey enough to warrant being called truly anti-modern.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Jonathan Mayhew has a terrific piece on his blog about Clark Coolidge’s ear & prosody and its relationship to Coolidge’s experience as a jazz & rock drummer. I agree with Mayhew that it’s almost instantly recognizable that the man is involved in some primary ways with percussion, although I would probably word my explanation of it differently.

Actually, I tend to think that American English has inherent sympathies with percussion. It has to do with how consonants cluster & how vowels are so often contained by them, a relationship that is far less case in romance languages. Consider the following stanza from Coolidge’s The Crystal Text:
Marked cards, enablements to attach comment
or an elastic candle in firm disregard.
Cattle car mottled with starlings, fire truck
gilding out of harm's way a vote for fog.
And the amphibians we will all admit to being.
The crystal apparently on fire. The water
immediately on tap. The light. The light. The light
of its stone enclosure. She spoke, but
we listened.

Coolidge organizes the first three-plus lines around his use of “l”-combinations: bl, ndl, ttl, ttl, rl & ld. They function almost as drum-rolls – one could argue that enablements, with four consonant clusters, very nearly is a paradiddle. This is especially audible in the third line. Note also how often here – and even more so elsewhere in his poetry – Coolidge uses single-syllable words, either two consonants or consonant clusters surrounding a simple vowel, or else just a vowel followed by a consonant . Twenty-nine of the 63 words in this passage fit into those two patterns.

This is something Coolidge appears to have learned from, say, Phil Whalen &/or Jonathan Williams, two of his particular influences, tho the real master of the one-syllable word is Whalen’s old college roomie, Lew Welch, he of the advertising slogan: Raid Kills Bugs Dead. Every word of which follows the “contained vowel” model.

There are obviously ways to discuss all this utilizing traditional metrics, but I would argue that to do so misses what is so often great about Coolidge, which is how his works build upon what he hears in the world.

Coolidge’s model tends to be jazz, but I for one don’t think the relationship (or potential) ends there, whatever its advantages might be. My evidence for this is completely personal. I started Ketjak within days of hearing the West Coast premier of Steve Reich’s Drumming at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco in 1974. At the time, I had been listening to Reich’s music for close to a decade (my 21st birthday present had been tickets to hear Paul Zukofsky perform the West Coast premier of Violin Phase & even then I’d known the tape loop pieces for a year or two). But I never got how one might translate the accumulative nature of Reich’s phased pieces until I heard it in the countable, audible beating of drums.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

First, I was catching up on my reading in The Nation, that progressive publication that has barely updated either its format or its poetics since it first came out in the Lincoln administration. Back in early June – you can tell I’m a month behind (more really, when you think of how The Nation forward dates its issues – the current issue is August 2) – it ran an article by Scott Sherman on “The Rebirth of the NYRB.” Can the rebirth of the San Francisco Call-Bulletin be far behind?

Then Jim Bennett, who has taken over the late Ted Slade’s duties at Poetry Kit, emailed me to ask what my thoughts on blogging per se might be. And then Laura Sells’ blog turned me onto Into the Blogosphere, an attempt at a coordinated academic study of blogging per se. And, for good measure, Sells’ blog links also to an article on blogging in The Chronicle of Higher Education. All of which sets my fevered brow in the general direction of the rolls played by writing, media, intellectuals & society, not necessarily in that order.

The silliest of these pieces is – drum roll please – Sherman’s piece in The Nation, largely because of the breathless deference accorded NYRB’s willingness to sic Norman Mailer on Donny Rumsfeld et al. In Sherman’s view, NYRB is the notable exception to the journals of public intellectuals that gradually (or not so gradually) shifted from the left to the right, as a series of old Trots gave rise to the first wave of Neocons. Yet the New York Review of Books is hardly a peer to the likes of The Partisan Review or Commentary. Founded in 1963 (29 years after Partisan, 18 after Commentary), by Robert Lowell, his then-wife Elizabeth Hardwick & Jason Epstein, NYRB’s particular contribution to the history of the critical journal was its presumption that the public intellectual was also apt to be a tenured (or at least tenure-seeking) one. As it happened, this positioned the journal fortuitously when the center of anti-Vietnam debate & activity during NYRB’s first decade happened to be the American campus. The journal’s practical editors, Robert Silvers & Barbara Epstein, now have between them over 80 years of experience editing NYRB. That, at least, is in keeping with the Public Intellectual / Critical Journal modus operandi. Partisan shut down last year after the death of co-founder William Phillips, while Commentary still looks to Norman Podhoretz as an editor-at-large. The same man who called Allen Ginsberg & Jack Kerouac “Know-Nothing Bohemians” has more recently penned pieces entitled “In Praise of the Bush Doctrine” and “How to Win World War IV.” Is it any surprise that NYRB’s roster of contributors (and approved positions) is very nearly as fixed & immovable as that of the defunct Partisan? That the publication has resisted Bush’s siren song of the weapons of mass distraction is less an index of its “rebirth” than a consequence of how its audience’s demographics differ from these other, older rags.

I take the role of the public intellectual seriously – that’s what brought me to The Socialist Review, where I served as executive editor for a few years in the late ‘80s. It’s an important part of what I do as a poet & even an important component to my day job as a market analyst. You can’t tell a product development director that Marx’ falling rate of profit isn’t real, because he or she has to confront the process of commoditization in real time. The original pocket calculator cost $6,000 only three decades ago.

The same processes are impacting literature – including poetry – that have impacted everything from the “nucular” family to the way print media cover the news. No surprise there. From my perspective, the most disconcerting aspect of this has been the not-quite monopoly that “professional readers” within literature programs have imagined themselves as having with regards to poetry & poetics. If I ever read another piece of theory that attempts to prove its point by turning to look at the 19th century realist novel I am apt to go postal. And when the likes of Frank Kermode & Stanley Fish dis literature altogether, it only confirms my suspicion that their relationship to it was damaged from the start.

So my interest in blogging can be looked at from two perspectives. First, I was seeking out a medium for myself that would let me organize my thinking with regards to poetry, poetics & the concentric circles of intellectual & social activity that surround them. Second, I was hoping to nudge along other poets into doing something of the same thing – on the general theory that I learn as much or more from reading as I can from writing. Happily, literary blogs jumped the shark some time ago and there are now hundreds altogether, including dozens that include serious, insightful critical interventions into poetry.

When I look at something like Into the Blogosphere, what I see, in part, is the academy attempting to recuperate a critical discourse that is starting to get a little out of hand. My guess is that that’s going to be like picking up mercury with chopsticks. So while I don’t expect the web or blogs to cause the collapse of literature programs, I do think that the margins are apt to blur a fair amount as to what is “legitimate” critical discourse & what is some crazy like me on his hobby horse.

The ultimate test will be what poets themselves find to be useful. And from the perspective of the academy, that is the most unfair of all possible results, precisely because it’s not one that can be shaped or controlled. From that perspective, the “peer review” of the refereed journal – a process that in practice is close to 100 percent corrupt – will find itself supplanted by what poets choose to worry about, what they choose to keep in their book bag next to their notebook. So what’s it going to be? The latest twitch in post-reader-response theory or Kerouac’s “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose”?

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

What is the role of expectation in art? That question haunts me one half hour after having watched I, Robot with my sons over in the King of Prussia. The reason why is that, while I saw more than a few previews for this flick, the details they let out about the film itself depicted just its first 30 minutes. Indeed, once Spooner (Will Smith) tracks down the dysfunctional Sonny who has killed the brilliant but deeply isolated Dr. Lanning, the story whose pieces we are fed in the trailers, the tale itself is really just beginning.

It’s a darker film than I anticipated, closer to Minority Report than anything else, but borrowing heavily from virtually every film in the recent Future Noir canon. One part Blade Runner, one part Donna Haraway. And while nobody will make the kind of preposterous claims for this film as cinema-as-social-philosophy, the way some critics once swooned over Robocop or Total Recall, it was, in the words of my son Jesse, “better than expected.”

That’s the second time in recent weeks I’ve had to readjust my expectations in the last few weeks, and I was happy to do so in this direction. My experience of Spider-Man 2 was rather just the opposite: a part of me bought into the “best film ever made from a comic” hype, especially since Roger Ebert was one of those making that sort of claim. Alas, it’s not even the equal of last summer’s Hellboy, let alone American Splendor. (I will, however, concede that Spidey is closer to The Godfather or Casablanca than it is to the Dick Tracy & Batman films. But what isn’t?)

What am I expecting is a question I’m asking myself all the time with poetry. Recently, one poet whose chapbook I reviewed here emailed me to say that he’d “had to revise a few of (his) assumptions about how the world works” because of that, tho he didn’t say which ones. I know that I cringe when I run into people who think of poetry only in clichés, such as those poetry contests that blithely admonish that there should be no more than one poem to a page or that poems must be “under thirty lines long.” Or the questions that non-writers invariably ask when they learn that you’re a poet.  

When I open a publication and turn to the work of somebody I don’t know, I’m already bringing with me an entire series of presumptions, based on what know about the magazine, about the kinds of things I see from its other contributors, whatever. For example, here is number 85 in the Backwoods Broadsides/Chaplet series that Sylvester Pollet has been putting out from his home in Maine these past several years. Pollet, whom I’ve never met has an identifiable aesthetic, even down to a preference for specific generations. Indeed, there was one run in this series – numbers 10 through 15 – which included Carl Rakosi, Bern Porter, James Laughlin, Cid Corman, Jackson Mac Low, and Ronald Johnson. Of those poets, I believe only Mac Low is still with us, and he’s on the high side of eighty now.

So here is Susan Maurer, somebody I’ve not heard of before, with a series of five poems entitled Dream Addict. The title poem, the chaplet’s opening piece, begins thus: 
The damned don’t cry.
Prior dark red fog. Babblefish.
Rain of small green flames.
The donut emergency tire. Scratch rabbit.
With the exception of Mac Low, this is much more of a disruptive writing than one usually gets in the Backwoods Broadsides, so it changes my attention as I read what follows. As it happens, the poem eventually comes back closer to the range I think of as the Backwoods tone – Maurer integrates the poem through the speaker. What we get isn’t so much the new sentence as it is dramatic monolog somewhat in the David Markson mode. Which is fun & fine. But it makes me all the more conscious of how much more closely I attend to this poem than I might have had the first word been “I,” or had the monolog been more continuous. Maurer very effectively sets the poem up against expectations. And that literally is what draws me in.

Monday, July 19, 2004

I received the following email last week:   

Thanks for your blog! I'm an MFA student (a disgruntled grateful one) who has been reading embarrassingly voraciously to catch up with the work that I should have been studying.... Any suggestions? Any suggestions for a student who would like to be a holistic/ aesthetic/ craft-driven/ inspirational/ teacher? Is there a world in academic for a dissident of two sorts? If nothing else, I'd like a brief list of good reads.... Some I'm starting to live with already (the anthologies you mention).

  I do have a theory – that word may be too overblown for it, a hunch – about how to proceed with the “catching up” process. It is, of course, something we all have to do at some point in our lives (and it requires sort of a continuing vigilance – one of the curious discoveries of my blog has been how little I had carefully read of the younger poets who are out there now – those between the ages of 30 & 40, let alone those who are still in their 20s – so one consequence of my blog has been that it’s become a mechanism for me to catch up & try & keep up myself).

  At one level, I think that the best place to begin is anywhere you sense a direct connection with someone’s poetry – in my own life that was William Carlos Williams’ The Desert Music, but I don’t think it matters hardly at all what the triggering text is. Whatever turned you onto poetry in the first place. Start there. Then read around that text until you have some sense not just of that author, but that author’s context. Who was William Carlos Williams? At what point in his career did he write that poem & that book? Who were his friends? Who was out there who was not his friend? What were the literary influences that he & his friends were responding to? What were they reacting against? And which poets responded to Williams & his friends? Can you trace a path of poetry between this trigger text & your own life, your own generation?

  What I’m recommending is a concentric circle approach to mapping out poetry. Start with a text & work outward in all directions. If you begin with Williams, as I did, it will take you inevitably to Whitman & Wordsworth & Blake in one direction as well as to Lee Ann Brown & Joseph Torra in the other, with ever so many in between.

  If what I’m calling your trigger text falls anywhere outside of the School of Quietude, you will sooner or later come upon Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry, the great poetry anthology of the 1960s. It’s a particularly important text, not only for the impact it had on several successive generations of poets, but because it uniquely gathers together most of the different post-avant traditions of that time in a manner that is articulate. This is not to say that the book is perfect – those aren’t my favorite texts by Robert Duncan or Jack Spicer, say, and the “SF Renaissance” section is largely a fiction imposed by the form of the book itself – but because it represents perhaps the last moment in time when the various post-avant poetries were sufficiently few enough & small enough in terms of absolute population that one could attempt to define the world – at least the world of U.S. poetry – in a single book.

  I would try to follow out those different traditions more or less to the present. You will find, I think, that the New York School has been a phenomenon of constantly renewing resources & energy, which is why people joke about NY School generation 17 or whatever. The Black Mountain poets continue to be a very vibrant strain into the 1970s, but then it becomes far less clear what a continuing version of that tradition might look like. This isn’t an accident. I think that a certain slice of the early energy that was associated with language poetry during the ‘70s was something that ten years earlier might well have gravitated toward the Black Mountaineers. (But because it didn’t, langpo was free to borrow from everyone.) The SF Renaissance depicted in the Allen anthology dissolves almost instantly – because it never really existed. And the Beats reinvent themselves over & over, sometimes with a sense of their own heritage (there are a lot of retro Beats out who strike me as the literary equivalent of Civil War re-enactors) and more recently in the form of Slam Poetry. Then you need to ask yourself about the poetries that emerged, especially in the 1970s, that are nowhere to be found in the Allen anthology. Not just the Caterpillar/Sulfur poets like David Antin, Jerry Rothenberg & Clayton Eshleman, but feminist poetries, and poetries by ethnic & sexual minorities. You can absolutely draw a line, probably several, between the early work of Judy Grahn and the Beats, for example.

  One of the things any young writer today has to have some sense about is the remarkable – almost overwhelming – amount of diversity that has become a defining feature of American poetry in the past two decades, and I can’t think of a better way to approach that question than to watch the four or five distinct strains of the 1950s turn into something like 25 tendencies four & five decades later, all of which have extremely blurry boundaries.

  Behind all of this is a primary assumption that I should make explicit. Define your reading by what you need, regardless of any school’s curriculum. If you can’t shape the school’s program to meet your needs, you should come first, not the school. It really doesn’t matter if you’ve never read Spenser unless you think it does. And if the latter is true, Spenser is who you should be reading regardless of whether or not he is still being taught in your particular environs.

  A second assumption, but one that varies a little by region & metro, has to do with the importance of poetry readings. They aren’t the work of literature, but they’re certainly its kitchen & café. Whenever I’ve taught, I’ve asked students to keep journals & to record their reactions to at minimum two poetry readings per week, at least one of which had to be off campus.

  A corollary of this has to do with other teachers. If you never see a particular teacher of writing or contemporary literature at readings off campus, don’t bother taking him or her seriously. Because they’re not. They’re telling you it’s just a job.

  There is an echo phenomenon of this that shows up in reading lists. It has to do with teaching anthologies. Almost all teaching anthologies are useless. The one real exception to that is Paul Hoover’s Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry. But if ever there was an exception that proved the rule, that book is it. Teachers who use teaching anthologies – including all of the other Nortons – are basically being lazy. It’s a red flag about the teacher’s commitment to the class and to the students. Any time you can choose between a teacher you wants you to buy ten books and one who wants you to buy an anthology, always pick the former.

    When I was a college student in the late 1960s, an excellent rule of thumb was that the best literature & writing teachers were crazy people who were in the process of getting themselves fired or otherwise asked not to return to the campus in the future. That phenomenon was exacerbated (or, if you prefer, buffered) during that decade with a false sense that there would always be a next job teaching somewhere else because we were still in the post-WW2 expansion and colleges were still being built at a dizzying pace. Since that came abruptly to an end during the Vietnam era, there has been a lot less of that sense of danger on the American campus & frankly it’s too bad. College should be about risk because that is what will teach you best how to handle what’s coming up.

  Is there a place in the academy today for a dissident? My sense is that everybody I know there thinks of themselves as such. And it is almost uniformly a matter of self delusion. The simplest test is this: are you getting fired for your work?

  Now maybe you don’t actually need to be a dissident – this is more true than a lot of people seem to realize. But it’s still important – absolutely so – to understand what your values are as a writer, and how best to act upon them. So here is a final test. If you were to find out tomorrow that you were dying of cancer and had, at most, six months remaining, are you doing what you should be doing with your life? Here’s hoping the answer is yes.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Has Laurable's weblog gone dark? It's been a month now since it has been updated. One of the first two serious weblogs relating to poetry (the other is Joe Duemer's Reading & Writing (now Sharp Sand), Laurable's weblog has been a beacon of good energy for poetry throughout its existence. I don't think that Laura Willey & I share precisely the same aesthetic, and I've felt at times that she focuses on sound recordings as a fetish of sincerity. But there can be no disputing that her weblog has had a terrific influence on an enormous number of poets, myself included. I'm definitely suffering signs of withdrawal.