Thursday, May 28, 2009

Photo by Laurie Duggan

One of the joys of poetry is coming across the work of somebody first rate whose writing you had not previously known. This was true when I was 16, first coming across William Carlos Williams’ The Desert Music in the Albany Public Library & having my first “aha experience” with poetry, something that had eluded me previously reading Robert Frost, Lawrence Ferlinghetti & randomly about in various Oscar Williams anthologies. And it was true this past week when I was reading (& rereading) Carol Watts’ When blue light falls, a chapbook from Oystercatcher Press in the U.K.

In the past I’ve written about the difficulty I sometimes have hearing British poetry on the page &, reading blue light, I tried to recall the last time I a book of poems by a Brit made me excited about line breaks. My immediate thought was Basil Bunting, but that was over 40 years ago. That’s obviously an overstatement – Lee Harwood, Thomas A. Clark & Tom Raworth all come to mind (tho that’s not necessarily what I focus on in Tom’s work) – but not as much of an overstatement as I wish it was. Actually, thinking about the last time I had the same reaction to the line breaks of an American poet – perhaps Joseph Massey¹ – I realize that this is not a great moment for thinking about line breaks (for which I may be partly to blame), and that the people who are doing really interesting work here are in fact going against the grain to a degree we may not realize.

When blue light falls clearly is one of those books. It contains what the author characterizes as the “first 16 of a cyanometric work in progress,” which immediately poses the questions when will it be complete? And when can I get the entire volume? I sure hope that Watts works faster than I do.

Watts also characterizes the project as “a series of even and odd number sequences,” which is to say that these 16 poems don’t proceed 1 to 16, but rather with all the even numbers first, then the odd. There is a considerable difference betwixt the two. Using an epigram to invoke Barbara Guest (“Blue enters later”), Watts proceeds as if following Guest’s airy strategies of the abstract lyric (a mode of poetry she could be said to have invented), but what results feels quite different:

when it came down

did it reach as far as

your skin

and mine

that blue light


in absence

of air

would catch you

gaping for

the next

so blue never is


how it marks

Set apart thus, individual lines hover, framed as tho each were a text in itself. At the same time, this piece is a small portrait indirectly told. A lot is implicit here, permitting a content term (noun is too neutral for what’s going on) like skin to carry a lot of the narrative. Indeed, the strategy seems to be to having the telling replicate the quality of light to the degree imaginable. Soundwise, the poem seems very aware of its vowels, tho it leads more by how carefully the p / b sounds are placed (never more than one to a line, and not at all until the fifth line).

Here is the poem that, if the numbers indicated order in this book, would have preceded the poem above:

pale cold light


taut gum  skin

switch  in distance
sounds of water

in beds and  journeying

pours from her

or through interiors
what she is


The equation of a woman with a “floe” is the sort of assertion that ought nowadays to be difficult to sustain. It suggests the hokiest sorts of metaphors, not all of which are woman-friendly. But instead of reading “1” first, it appears here halfway through the book, after “16,” the last of the even-numbered sequence. In context, after dealing with poems explicitly about breathing, obsessed with the qualities of air, especially including its invisibility in the immediate environs while deep blue when observed at a great distance, one reads interiors very differently & likewise the last couplet. The sum is one of the cagiest demonstrations of the parsimony principle in poetry I’ve come across. What at first glance could have been read as a variation on the old romantic trope woman is a fluid is instead a portrait of two people on a brisk morning. There ought to be a name for this effect, some verbal equivalent not of trompe l’oeil exactly, but a more Escher-like effect, where what you see on the page palpably is not what you get.

I find such attention to detail – and such respect for the reader’s intelligence – thoroughly invigorating. This probably shouldn’t have been news to me – one can find a fair amount of Watts’ work on the web, including “Zeta Landscape” in How2, an excerpt from Occasionals in Signals, and something entirely different, alphabetise, a downloadable volume that is as much art book as it is “prose poem chronicle.” It’s a complete blast. Charles Alexander, recounting a trip of his own to England two years ago, calls Watts’ work “a revelation,” & that makes absolute sense to me.


¹ Joel Chace’s reading at Robins Books May 19 makes me want to look at his linebreaks again as well.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Ruth Padel quits Oxford post

Explains tipping reporters to Walcott’s past

Padel: “I’m sorry

Oxford calls for “period of reflection”

Clive James wants the job

The surprise is not that the School of Quietude is ruthless in its practice of power politics. That has been its hallmark forever – beginning with a century-long pretense that it represents the whole of poetry, rather than just an anti-modernist / premodernist sliver within a far larger spectrum. No, the surprise is that the SoQ is so very bad at it. The charge against Walcott was that he abused his power as a professor & as the canonic comprador poet to the British Empire. But a misuse of power is exactly what brought Padel down. Instead of quietly arranging to have a third party inform the Oxford electors of Walcott’s past indiscretions, she sent emails to reporters, which is not only outside of the circle of Us v. Them, but traceable. It was that last detail that likewise tripped up Oliver North with regards to Iran-Contra, and it is worth noting that nobody has learned anything in the past 25 years.

Walcott represents the tail end of a generation in which more than a few senior professors of poetry simply presumed grad students (and some junior faculty) were sexual chattel.¹ He got entangled in the change of cultural practices & standards as women students, encouraged by feminism, insisted on the right to control their own bodies, which included the subsidiary right to choose with whom they would or would not fuck. His problem lay in presuming that it was 1965 when it was not, a classic SoQ mistake, the literary movement untouched by the 20th century.

Padel’s mistake was in thinking that an email to a reporter was, in fact, “quietly arranging” for third-party intervention. To the degree that SoQ customs mime those of old school Britain (and it is hard to get much more old school than Oxford), going outside the circle is unseemly and isn’t done. For one thing, it looks like competition, which of course is exactly what it is. But just as “amateur” athletics was treated for decades, if not centuries, as though it represented a higher, more pure form of competition than its professional counterpart, when in fact its primary function was to keep people from the “wrong” colors, classes, accents out, the premise that poetry likewise represents some higher calling – above gutter politics – is constructed on a whole chain of notions, every one of them a lie.

The great innovation this time was to have been that Oxford, after 300 years of mostly irrelevant choices (Christopher Ricks!?), was going to go outside of its own “time-honored” tradition & choose a subaltern. The sole question was whether this Other would be female, black or of South Asian heritage. This of course had all the charm of a street gambler proposing the old shell game, which we should note is not so much gambling, but a confidence trick.

If all of this looks every bit as tacky as the GOP’s attempts to “reach out” to the previously excluded, it’s no accident. This isn’t to suggest that Walcott is Oxford’s equivalent to Michael Steele or Padel its Sarah Palin, nor Arvind Mehrotra its Bobby Jindal. But, hey kids, how are these processes not parallel? The interesting distinction is that the GOP Triumvirate of Difference have shown themselves to be more decorous & less of an embarrassment.

Maybe that term should be School of Ineptitude after all.


¹ Not all of these professors were male, though most were, simply because most literature professors were men.

Sunday, May 24, 2009