Monday, April 23, 2007


Over the past month, I’ve received three focused anthologies, focused in the sense that none pretends to be “best poets of X” or whatever, but rather use the anthology form to examine something more targeted & specific. Tyler Doherty & Tom Morgan’s For the Time-Being: The Bootstrap Book of Poetic Journals explores a major poetic genre and tradition. Jonathan Wells’ Third Rail: The Poetry of Rock and Roll uses one genre, poetry, to examine another. So does Poets on Painters, edited by Katie Geha and Travis Nichols, the catalog of a show that opens next week at the Ulrich Museum of Art on the Wichita State Campus.

For the Time-Being is one of those “Aha” experiences – the idea behind it is so good and so right that the one real surprise is that this anthology didn’t exist 30 years ago when the likes of Phil Whalen, Allen Ginsberg, Paul Blackburn & Joanne Kyger were putting an American stamp on this genre that has deep roots in the literature of Japan and in the work of such as Thoreau closer to home. Doherty & Morgan understand what they have here also: in addition to poetry & poetic journals – they also include poems as such that are, to employ William Corbett’s term, “observational,” a register of time – the volume includes a quartet of essays as well as interviews with Kyger, Michael Rothenberg, Andrew Schelling and Shin Yu Pai, “poets we had always identified as working in this mode.” In all, they include work from a total of 29 poets including Jack Collom & Joel Sloman – both of whom also contribute essays – Hoa Nguyen, Stephen Ratcliffe, Pam Brown, Joseph Massey, Aaron Tieger, Laurie Duggan, Thomas A. Clark, Stacey Szymaszek, Marcella Durand, Daniel Bouchard, Jonathan Greene, Bob Arnold, Dale Smith, Joseph Torra & more in addition to all the interviewees. There is even an appendix of sort with a list of related books – I was surprised to my own Xing included, but also surprised to see my own Paradise not – and an essay on Morgan on teaching the poetic journal. One good index of the care that Doherty & Morgan have taken is that they replicate the persnickety typeface of Stephen Ratcliffe’s excerpt from Human / Nature, a feature of his work that he picks up, I suspect, from his neighbor & pal Robert Grenier.

If I have any hesitations about Time-Being, they have mostly to do with not including more “historic” materials – Ginsberg’s Indian journals, Larry Eigner’s poetry (which just might be the origin of the “observational” mode, or at least he’s its Shakespeare), some of Blackburn’s work or Whalen’s, perhaps an excerpt from Williams’ Paterson, which certainly is close kin to this mode – and, dare I say, a failure to incorporate any examples from School of Quietude poets, such as A.R. Ammons. While it is true that this is a form that has been developed largely by post-avants poets, it hasn’t been as exclusively their domain as this book seems to suggest.

On of the reasons Time-Being works so well is that it’s ultimately a form- or genre-based project, even as it demonstrates as much as anything else just how wide the genre can be (try to imagine Joseph Massey’s miniatures as a mode of journal & it works, but you wouldn’t typically think of them that way, or at least I wouldn’t). Content-based anthologies are, I think, inherently dicier projects. Third Rail: The Poetry of Rock and Roll demonstrates the problem & creates some all its very own. Ultimately, they ask the poem to do that which is perhaps poetry’s least fruitful function, to be both referential & deferential to something entirely outside the frame of the poem. It could rock & roll, as it is here, but it could just as easily have been the war in Iraq, cats, sex, the problems of diabetes, whatever. In this case, you have one aesthetic mode commenting upon another – you couldn’t get further from the experience of rock itself, which is all about immanence, the directness of direct experience, if you tried. This largely is why I almost always decline invitations to become a part of such ventures.

Jonathan Wells has taken the problem to a new level, tho. He’s gathered together an anthology that is the literary equivalent of Lawrence Welk and is passing it off as Green Day. Worse, Wells has somehow dragged poor Bono into adding a foreword, demonstrating only that he doesn’t read poetry. Wells’ collection of rock poets includes Kevin Young, Campbell McGrath, William Matthews, Billy Collins, David St. John, Philip Levine, Edward Hirsch, Tess Gallagher, Charles Wright, Stephen Dunn, Carol Ann Duffy, Thom Gunn, James Tate, Dorianne Laux, Philip Larkin, David Wojahn, Charles Simic, B.H. Fairchild, Yusef Komunyakaa, Paul Muldoon, Les Murray, Bill Knott, Franz Wright, a bizarrely out of place Allen Ginsberg (strictly a token), Heather McHugh & more. Ginsberg is one of the few poets in this collection who isn’t writing in a tradition that was obsolete two (or ten) decades before Elvis discovered Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. Gunn, Muldoon Tate & Matthew Zapruder shine here simply by contrast. And the collection gives every sign of being ignorant of history: there is no evidence of Jack Spicer’s famous anti-Beatles poem, or the work of Victor Bockris, Patty Smith, Jim Carroll, Laurie Anderson, Ed Sanders, Tuli Kupferberg, John Sinclair, Michael McClure, David Meltzer, Franklin Bruno, Clark Coolidge, Chris Stroffolino, Tom Clark’s Neil Young appropriations or even the high school poetry of Jim Morrison (from whence Muldoon garnered his most recent book title). There is, after all, an actually existing tradition of rock poetry – and it’s entirely absent here. This book is embarrassing.

Third Rail makes one almost hesitant to approach Poets on Painters, visually a much more appealing volume in that it’s a catalog to an art show, the volume designed by Jeff Clark no less. As a derivative literary genre, ekphrasis at least has a history. Further, the writers here are among the more exciting of our younger poets today: Laura Solomon, Hoa Nguyen, Sawako Nakayasu, Noah Eli Gordon, Nick Moudry, Kristin Prevallet, Corina Copp, & more. The foreword is by somebody who actually knows the genre, Anselm Berrigan. And there is an engaging correspondence up front between co-curators Katie Geha, a curator at the Ulrich Museum in Wichita, and poet Travis Nichols, part of the Subtext scene in Seattle, that puts the volume into a larger context. But its methodology is also invariably its limit. After she has suggested as a model for the kind of juxtapositions they’re seeking something along the line of Robert Smithson’s “non-sites” (work Nichols had not previously known) & Nichols in reply notes that “There is no collaboration,” Geha responds, in part:

You are right that there is a rich history of poets and painters working together but that this is not the mode of our exhibition. The emphasis is not on the relationship between the poet and the artists, but rather on the relationship between two texts. The artists in Poets on Painters did not work together; rather, an invitation was extended, a poet was matched with a specific painting and asked to write a poem to correspond. The painting predates the poem, making the poet’s correspondence the wall-text for the exhibition and the text for the catalog, creating an entirely new site and new image. The painting is the first site, the poet’s response, the second. When placed side-by-side, the two works create a new image – the poem and the painting constantly in correspondence.

This note, however, literally ends with a postscript:

P.S. Sawako Nakayasu met with Echo Eggebrecht in New York.

This process puts an asymmetry into the process not unlike Wells’ book: poetry in both cases is asked to be responsive, if not reactive. The pressure is entirely on the poet.

The advantage to Poets on Painters, tho, is that Nichols has gotten some exciting poets who are equal to this challenge. Thus Hoa Nguyen responds to Nina Bovasso with

Eve’s necklace after the legume
seed-pod     black and segmented
Chunky black beads
          And “in the madness of spring”: pink
Flowers drooping in clusters

Burn up thy thought

The mother
Aquarius     (window)

Tho much in Nguyen’s poem might be thought of as depiction – Bovasso’s piece is a remote cousin to this – where it most completely replicates it is in the rapid shifts between lines and the hyperactive punctuation of And “in the madness of spring”: pink. The tempo of the poem is very accurate to the busyness of the painting.

Nick Moudry responds to a work entitled Untitled (Black Butterfly Pink MGoz) – again, a piece related to this – with a text called “The proper perspective”:

Our chief occupation – from a
position not quite central – is

to send them off wildly
in any direction without explaining why

that particular path was
chosen. Lines

converging and crossing.
course in mathematics would

not be so much wasted as
beside the point. After

all, an entire city
can’t believe in chemistry, can

they? Therefore I felt
justified – by

virtue of the law – in reducing the
world to a skeleton. the

first mistake is
to assume every

dialogue is argument.
I need money. Reduce,

reduce, reduce sounds more
alluring than any

purely stated idea. I suppose
we are just fighting off boredom.

The effect is the penetration
that is used exactly as

if the force moves through it rather
than turning back inward I hear.

Both picture and poem foreground the line, albeit obliquely, one barely visible against the black surface, the other barely audible through one enjambed soft linebreak after another. There’s a dry wit – the closest Moudry gets to slapstick is to twist the grammar and give us they instead of it in his question of cities, chemistry & belief. It’s not a poem “about” the painting so much as it is an homage to its impulses, gestures, sense of weight. More akin to an equivalent structure than, say, the correspondence Geha writes of in the introduction.

None of the painters or poets here are (as yet) iconic. One senses that their future is still more important than, say, their past – unlike Time-Being, which mixes the two, or Third Rail, which is strictly backward looking – and for this reason Poets on Painters is the book from this trio I’ll be rereading the most often.


<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?