Saturday, August 11, 2007
Is Language Poetry
”The Un-American Tree”
Johanny Vázquez Paz
The New Yorker
and the death
the most conservative
series of poetry podcasts
Tales from the
poet in retreat
The People’s Choice
of Tom Chivers
Pearl Buck’s heirs
just to display
Where fiction ends
& the world begins
Dylan & Picasso
Six ways of looking at
& the intellectuals
Friday, August 10, 2007
Photo by Amy King
To ask what makes John Ashbery a New American Poet is to ask the implicit question of what made the New American Poetry (NAP) distinct, not just from various tendencies of the
The traditional, historic answer has generally been that as the NAP
has emerged in
Thus sayeth Donald M. Allen, right there in the second paragraph to the “Preface” to The New American Poetry. But what then about poets like John Ashbery & Jack Spicer, neither of whom followed “the practice and precepts” of Pound or Williams? One could make the social argument for Spicer of course – his circle, including everyone from George Stanley, Joanne Kyger, John Wieners & Steve Jonas (albeit briefly), Harold Dull, Larry Fagin, Stan Persky & even Robin Blaser & Jack Gilbert, was crucially at the heart of Bay Area poetics for a decade, at least once you got more than ten feet outside of City Lights Books. But during that same crucial decade from the mid-1950s through the mid-‘60s, John Ashbery was not in
Ashbery’s first book had been released without much distribution by Tibor de Nagy, the same gallery that brought out work by Frank O’Hara. But Ashbery’s second book, Some Trees, had been the 1956 Yale Younger Poets volume selected by Wystan Auden, hardly a camp follower of the Pound-Williams tradition, indeed the most significant figure in the School of Quietude (SoQ) not aligned with either the Boston Brahmin crowd around Lowell or the somewhat older Fugitive poets about Warren, Ransom & Jarrell.¹ The Tennis Court Oath, Ashbery’s next volume, came out from Wesleyan at a time when that university house still published only SoQ poets, while Rivers and Mountains came out from Holt, Rinehart Winston, one of the lesser New York trade presses. The Double Dream of Spring came out from E.P. Dutton in its American Poets series. It was only after Wesleyan reprinted the British Selected Poems, first published by Jonathan Cape, letting Some Trees go out of print, that Ted & Eli Wilentz, owners of the Eighth Street Bookshop, republished the Yale edition under their own Corinth imprint in 1970. Which means, in fact, that it is not until 1975, when Black Sparrow releases The Vermont Notebook, the most under-appreciated of Ashbery’s One-Off volumes, that a major NAP-related press actually first publishes one of his books – 19 years after Some Trees.
Is Ashbery a New American Poet then strictly by friendship & accident? I think he comes by it legitimately, which is to say formally, as does Spicer. I do think that there are some poets in the Allen anthology in particular about whom you might make an argument that they don’t necessarily belong to the NAP tradition even if they were also outside of the
Until recently – maybe last week – I would have said that Spicer & Ashbery are much closer to the New American Poetry because their work also focuses the readers attention on the materiality of the signifier, precisely what the School o’ Quietude attempts to efface. Spicer was the one person among the 44 Allen gathered to have actually studied language, working as a professional linguist. As such, he didn’t buy the mythological line = breath unit Piltdown personism Charles Olson was promoting & said so frankly. His own counter position, radio dictation from Mars, was no less metaphoric but in its functional process the idea severed the simplistic psychologism that actually underlies much NAP neo-romanticism, whether that of Olson or Ginsberg or O’Hara. If you’re taking dictation, then this text isn’t about you.
What all New American Poetry tendencies have in common, or so I might have said just one week ago, is this general emphasis on the materiality of language. Whether it’s in the compositional strategies of the Black Mountain poets, ever seeking a more accurate method of scoring the page for sound, in the oracular excesses of a Beat poet going “overboard” verbally, via spontaneous bop prosody, as Kerouac put it, or in the densely crafted imagery of Ginsberg’s hydrogen jukebox or Michael McClure’s ecstatic lion roars or in the softer & more ironic variant offered up by O’Hara et al, every one of these poetries comes alive precisely because it resists the conception of a transparent referential language, something only a few of the SoQ poets seemed to be capable of doing (most notably in the 1950s Theodore Roethke & John Berryman).
The group that really brought this home for me is the Zen Cowboy poets, the tendency that borrowed from every one of their peers & discounted any pretense of a theorized style. But what you see in the best work of this group – Whalen, Collom, Welch, Brautigan’s poetry (and at least the early novels), the later Kyger & occasionally even Snyder – is a focus on focus, on presence, immanence. Be here now is very much a poetic program. Its motivation may be different, but its practice varies hardly at all from the in-the-moment / of-the-moment poetics that could generate a classic called Lunch Poems or a series like Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets. Among the Projectivists, this emphasis is the essence of Creeley’s Pieces, or of the phenomenological mobiles of Larry Eigner.
Really with the exception of Stein & Zukofsky, I don’t think the materiality of the signifier was the intention of the modernists – it’s an area where, for example, George Oppen is far stronger in Discrete Series, his supposed juvenilia of the 1930s, than in the award-winning Of Being Numerous thirty years hence. It’s part – but not all – of the program of Spring & All. And you might say that it’s what remains of Pound’s layered densities of reference in The Cantos once you throw the bogus scholarship overboard & just read what’s on the page. Ditto the 19th century philology at the heart of Finnegans Wake.
Indeed, one might make the case of the New Americans generally that they read what the modernists wrote, rather than what the modernists thought they wrote. Which is how a Robert Creeley could profess to be stunned that William Carlos Williams did not voice his line breaks as such, once he’d heard Williams read. It was so obvious if you just looked at the page. Just not to Williams.
But how then square this underlying first principle of the material signifier, the immanent word, with something like this?
There is no staying here
Except a pause for breath on the peak
That night fences in
As though the spark might be extinguished.
He thought he had never seen anything quite so beautiful as that crystallization into a mountain of statistics: out of the rapid movement to and from that abraded individual personalities into a channel of possibilities, remote from each other and even remoter from the eye that tried to contain them: out of that river of humanity comprised of individuals each no better than he should be and doubtless more solicitous of his own personal welfare than of the general good, a tonal quality detached itself that partook of the motley intense hues of the whole gathering but yet remained itself, firm and all-inclusive, scrupulously fixed equidistant between earth and heaven, as far above the tallest point on the earth’s surface as it was beneath the lowest outcropping of cumulus in the cornflower-blue empyrean. Thus everything and everybody were included after all, and any thought that might ever be entertained about them; the irritating drawbacks each possessed along with certain good qualities were dissolved in the enthusiasm of the whole, yet individuality was not lost for all that, but persisted in the definition of the urge to proceed higher and further as well as in the counter-urge to amalgamate into the broadest and widest kind of uniform continuum. The effect was as magnificent as it was unexpected, not even beyond his wildest dreams since he had never had any, content as he had been to let the process reason itself out. “You born today,” he could not resist murmuring although there was no one within earshot, “a life of incredulity and magnanimity opens out around you, incredulity at the greatness of your designs and magnanimity that turns back to support these projects as they flag and fail, as inevitably happens. …”
At first, this seems to be the antithesis of a poetics of immanence – be anywhere but here would seem to be the message, both at the level of content & in practice. “The New Spirit” is the only poem I know of that includes a sentence that contains the word magnanimity not once but twice with but a dozen words between occurrences. Trying to pin down Ashbery’s argument, as such, is the proverbial scooping up mercury with a pitchfork. You simply can’t do it.
If, however, you read Ashbery the same way you do Larry Eigner, as a model of consciousness itself, the place of presence refocuses in a new way. Ashbery in Three Poems reminds me, more than anything, of the Buddhist adage that You are not your thoughts, and with the underlying idea that thinking itself represents a form of anxiety. The whole purpose in meditation of focusing on breathing is precisely to make the individual conscious of the degree to which thinking goes on, even when one pays it no mind. Meditators never fully banish thoughts – it’s not even clear if that would be doable – but rather get distance from them, so that when thoughts rise up & intrude on the meditation one can simply turn them aside. Three Poems replicates this process better than any work of literature I’ve ever read, before or since. As experience, the poem’s mode is one of continually refocusing, then drifting, then refocusing again, then drifting further. If it never settles, this is because there is, as Stein once characterized her hometown of Oakland, “no there there,” no topic sentence, no secret center, no monad “I” or “eye” at the work’s heart.
Ashbery telegraphs this in any number of ways. One of the most effective, for me at least, is his occasional breaking up of a paragraph literally midline as tho one might have a stanza break with no other vestige of traditional verse devices. Thus, for example,
For I care nothing about apparitions, neither do you, scrutinizing the air only to ask, “Is it giving?” but not so dependent on the answer as not to have our hopes and dreams, our very personal idea of how to live and go on living. It does not matter, then,
but there always comes a time when the spectator needs reassurance, to be touched on the arm so he can be sure he is not dreaming.
This is not an epic challenge between solipsism & phenomenology, but rather a poetics that wants to include both the real and all of our difficulties getting in touch with that plane. It’s not that Eigner or O’Hara propose to be here now & Ashbery does not, only that Ashbery wants us to be conscious that both here & now are concepts that need to be unpacked, that neither is quite what it seems.
Years ago, somebody in an interview tried to provoke Allen Ginsberg into dismissing language poetry, which was only then coming into prominence. For a generation, Ginsberg replied, poets point at the moon, then poets notice they’re pointing. In a period during which Robert Creeley could – and did – write
John Ashbery is responding literally in kind – one can palpably feel the nod to Creeley in the generosity of Ashbery’s phrasing – when he begins the most important of his poems
I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.
Three Poems is not merely John Ashbery’s best and most important book, one that American literature is still working to fully incorporate, it is a demonstration that the principles underlying the New American Poetry can be arrived at from a completely different direction than that employed by 99 percent of his peers in the late sixties, early seventies. As such, it represents one of the most intellectually ambitious literary projects ever written.
¹ Indeed, one could write a history of the School of Quietude that focused on Auden’s impact in America as the most explosive force other than the sudden emergence of the NAP in causing the SoQ to begin its own steady devolution into a variety of sometimes quite mutually hostile tendencies, so that the crowd around FSG, the trade presses, and the Eastern foundations became quite a target both for bad-boy Brahmins like Robert Bly & the more western & less urban (and less urbane) poets out in Iowa City.
Thursday, August 09, 2007
Christopher Arigo, Into the Archives, Omnidawn,
Michael Earl Craig, Yes, Master, Fence Books,
Michelle Detourie, Bellum Letters, dusi/e-chap kollektiv,
Patrick F. Durgin, Imitation Poems, Atticus Finch,
Marco Giovenale, A Gunless Tea, dusi/e-chap kollektiv,
Ted Greenwald & Hal Saulson, Two Wrongs, Cuneiform Press,
Barbara Henning, An Arc Falling into the Bougainvillea, Long News,
Barbara Henning, Long News,
Christopher Janke, Structure of the Embryonic Rat Brain, Fence Books,
Hwang Jiwoo, Poems from Someday I’ll Be Sitting in a Dingy Bar, translated by Scott Swaner & Young-Jun Less, Tinfish Press, Kāne’ohe, HI, 2007
Michael Lally, March 18, 2003,
Michael Lally, Of: A Poem, Quiet Lion,
Chelsey Minnis, Bad Bad, Fence Books,
Sarith Peou, Corpse Watching, forward by Ed Bok Lee, Tinfish Press, Kāne’ohe, HI, 2007
Ariana Reines, The Cow, Fence Books,
Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell, translated by Donald Revell, Omnidawn, Richmond, CA, 2007
Jennifer Scappettone, Beauty [is the New Absurdity], dusi/e-chap kollektiv,
Priscilla Sneff, O Woolly City,
Gianluca Tramacere, Restano Le Cose Di Siempre, New Press,
Edwin Torres, The PoPedology of an Ambient Language, Atelos,
Bill Berkson, Sudden Address: Selected Lectures 1981-2006, Cuneiform Press,
Leonard Michaels, Sylvia, FSG,
Leonard Michaels, The Collected Stories, FSG,
Larry Smith & Ingrid Swanberg, d.a. levy & the mimeograph revolution, Bottom Dog Press, Huron, OH, 2007
Boxibee Magazine, Denver 2007. Includes Julie Carr, Brandon Johnson, Craig Perez, Amy Wright, more.
Gam, No. 5,
Interim, Vol. 25, Nos. 1 & 2,
Mantis: Number 6 Geographies,
Open Letter, Thirteenth Series, No. 3,
Tinfish 17, Kāne’ohe, HI, June 2007. Includes Zhang Er, Shin Yu Pai, Kaia Sand, Matt Rohrer, Steve Shrader, Afaa Michael Weaver, R. Zimora Linmark, Deborah Meadows, Meridith Quartermain, Kimo Armitage, Craig Perez, Jane Sprague, Cyril Wopng, Truong Tran, more.
All items received since July 28
Labels: Recently Received
Tuesday, August 07, 2007
Photo by Hikmet Koç
An Ubuweb tribute
to Mary Ellen Solt
to the audience of
the Poetry Foundation
Reading Kerouac now
A video interview
with Cole Swensen
& much more!!
Poems vs. monologues
in the land of
by Stan Brakhage
It’s the end of the world
as we know it
Actual recording of
the title of my poem
Little Books / Indians
An Indian view
Shakespeare in Dogpatch
The news in Pakistan:
of just history”
by Matthew Sweeney
A poet’s chronicle
for an anniversary
in Abu Dhabi
the daughters of
The Good Earth?
Is art education
Is this not made
on Bergman & philosophy
The other day, I was saying, vis-à-vis some scenes in the films of Michelangelo Antonioni & Jean Eustache, that they “showed me how art, any temporal art, at its very greatest slows down time.” Which got me immediately into trouble with some close-readers out there, who noted that in both of the examples I was giving, time was being slowed down to something akin to “real time.” Which of course only points up that in narratives of almost any type, not just film, time is telescoped out of all proportion, anything akin to “accuracy” is thrown overboard almost instantly. If you go back to the dawn of the English novel, with Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, the first thing you note is the problem of time, that the actual recounting of an ongoing life is perpetually being delayed by this or that digression. In some sense, the first trope of English prose is of the impossibility of its relationship to time.
Anyway, over the weekend, Krishna, Jesse & I (Colin’s at camp), decided to take in an argument for the other position, pro speed mas o menos, in seeing The Bourne Ultimatum at the local gigaplex. Ultimatum is Latin for “third film in the trilogy” I do believe. I’ve commented before that
in more formulaic
· Chaotic introduction of detail that gradually sorts into elements of plot, character, genre, etc.
· Machinery moving the plot from point A to point B
· A car chase or similar FX-heavy conclusion
which Ken James informs me is known in
In any given 120-minute film, the first 30 minutes are devoted to the set-up of the situation and characters, the middle 60 minutes focus on complications of the situation, and the last 30 minutes focus on the resolution of those complications
The Bourne Ultimatum plays with this formula in that it’s all chase, from the opening moment of the show to the last. All other elements of the motion picture is tucked into small moments – one almost wants to call them breathers – in this single ongoing structure. With Bourne, sort of a James Bond with amnesia, the question of why is this happening is in fact the mystery of the film, so letting it out slowly, in dribs & drabs, makes some kind of sense. Because of this, however, the question of character becomes far more complex, because it entails so many different versions: who is Jason Bourne, who am I really, and what do I mean by really. In one scene, Bourne, played with remarkable understatement by Matt Damon, dispatches a CIA hitman with his bare hands – Krishna calls it the longest, bloodiest fist fight she’s ever seen in a film, tho she tends to avoid films known to have them – then afterwards stares at his swollen hands & bemoans the person he’s had to become. In another, he makes a small decision that seems to be against character, so much so that even the person who is trying to kill him has to ask about it. In a third, finding out who he “really is” turns out to be the non-event of the film – patently so – while the real event, the twist in the narrative, is learning why Bourne became Bourne. All of these details take up less than 11 minutes in this 111-minute film.
The rest of it is spent in one chase sequence after another. We have tracking chases, attempted assassination chases, running through third-world homes chases, running over roof top sequences, bad-ass car chase scenes, jumping off rooftop escapes, jumping into the East River escapes, bombs in backpacks, motorbikes-up-the-stairs chases, breaking-and-entering, multiple (at least three by my count) scenes where the local police get boggled up in the middle of a chase scene having to sort out which side is which. And lots more.
The interesting thing here is that these aren’t the sort of spectacular chase scene acrobatics that led off, say, the most recent version of the James Bond flick, Casino Royale, where hero & villain are choreographed leaping from crane to high rise to car-top like gazelles with guns. Nor are these the sort of heavily stylized slow-motion erotics of combat in the mode of Chinese cinema (imported into the west via The Matrix & Quentin Tarantino). These are scenes that are deliberately jump-cut, hand-held (with a twitchy, palsied hand at that), sped up to maximize your experience of the chase as out-of-control confusion. If you read the discussion boards at the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), you will note that this is the most controversial part of this film. Director Paul Greengrass (United 93, for which he received an Oscar nomination, The Bourne Supremacy – but not The Bourne Identity – Bloody Sunday among others) has deliberately made a motion picture in which you can’t fully follow 100 of the 111 minutes or so of film. How did that car get upside down at the bottom of that ramp? I felt constantly throughout the film that looking at a given scene two, three, four times was not going to answer questions like that. This is particularly true with the one long chase scene that takes place in Tangiers. The army of stunt men listed in the credits at the end is longer than any I’ve ever seen before for a motion picture, Lord of the Rings included.
This is so clearly a decision on Greengrass’ part that it’s interesting. It’s not that the action starts out confusing and gets more clear as you adapt to it during the course of the film. In fact, the one halfway intelligible chase involves Bourne, a reporter for the Guardian (best product placement in the movie), in Waterloo Station in
But it’s not NASCAR, even if it sounds like it at times. And I won’t be surprised to see a deeper backlash against this film over time as those who go back for second or third viewings separate themselves out from other film goers who at some moment in the process simply disengage.