Saturday, May 29, 2010


Luis Quintanilla’s portrait of John Dos Passos “as he saw himself”

John Dos Passos
reads about Isadora Duncan
at the 92nd Street Y, 1965,

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Friday, May 28, 2010


Chris McCreary

Laurie Duggan the other day struck a chord I had not heard in a while, or perhaps more accurately the critical equivalent of a guitar string snapping mid-song:

Poets like Ron Silliman often enough claim Oppen, Niedecker, and Zukofsky at least for their own purposes. But the kind of chiselled, glyph-centred work the Objectivists produced … seems to me a long way from ‘the new sentence’.

As an alternative he points to three poets he enjoyed hearing recently in London, Michael Heller, Elaine Randell & Robert Vas Dias. I don’t know Randell’s work, but there’s no question that Heller & Vas Dias are just two of many poets who have found inspiration in the literary devices deployed by Objectivism, particularly in its earliest neo-Imagist phase. One would be hard-put to characterise Zukofsky’s “A”, Reznkoff’s As Testimony or Holocaust, Oppen’s late work, or any of the long poems written by Basil Bunting as “chiselled, glyph-centered.” Similarly, one would be hard put to characterise the earliest writing by the Objectivists as neo-Imagist if by that one included the work Zukofsky chose by Kenneth Rexroth for the Objectivist issue of Poetry, by Pound’s Cantos, H.D.’s Trilogy, Williams’ Paterson, etc. In neither instance is this question of heritage one of either/or, as if Michael Heller & I were fighting a custody battle over the right to claim the influence of Zukofsky or Oppen. Rather, I’ve always thought that it was more a matter of both/and – there are many roads that one might take from Objectivism, as indeed there are many that can be taken from Imagism as well. Had Duggan read my own contribution to the most recent Jacket, he might see that I have my own roots not so far from that same “chiseled, glyph-centered” tree. And, had he noted the work, say, of Rae Armantrout or Ted Pearson or Kit Robinson, he would have had to have acknowledge that it is something that one can find quite often associated with language poetry.¹

As do many, many others – say Robert Creeley, particularly in the work of Words & Pieces. It’s no accident that Creeley in the 1960s (when those books of his were written) was one of the poets most audibly advocating a recovery of Objectivism from the disappearance it had suffered over the previous 20 years. Tho one might say the same of Robert Duncan, a poet who shared much with Creeley in terms of an aesthetic, albeit “chiselled, glyph-centered” was not one of them. And who was himself the poet most responsible for bringing back the reputation of Hilda Doolittle. Or Larry Eigner.

The value that Duggan is identifying here is an intense focus on precision within the construction of the free verse line & stanza, and there is no question that it is one of the deep pleasures one can find in both Imagism & Objectivism, as well as in more recent work such as Heller or Vas Dias. But I would argue that this value has spread out much further than that in recent decades as well, that one should not just limit this attention to precision only to a kind of neo-Objectivism but rather recognize the broader aesthetic of precisionism that includes many otherwise different poets. Some of the New Precisionists whose work I enjoy a great deal these days includes Graham Foust, Joseph Massey & Chris McCreary. Might anyone confuse them with Objectivism, neo- or otherwise? Only carelessly. Do they read one another? I certainly hope so. As I hope they read the Objectivists, and poets like Michael Heller & Kit Robinson, Donna Stonecipher & Laura Sims. Are they in touch with one another? I have no idea. Do they constitute a movement? I think they would be the first to say no. What they do constitute, however, might just be part of a moment, one in which many writers – think of Devin Johnston or the brothers O’Leary or John Martone or Jonathan Greene, even Kay Ryan – in which what at first seems to be a poetics of minimalism exists precisely to magnify the etched qualities of precise poetics. Hence precisionism. All of this attention to the exact, occuring right now in a world of a blur, often feels like a political statement, a politics each of them shares dedicated to sharpness, to specifity. I would distinguish this from the so-called well-wrought urn of two generations ago by noting that this new generation, with few if any exceptions, explicitly rejects the glaze. It has, I suspect, less to do with craft than with ethics.

Next week, if I get the chance, I want to look at the work of Chris McCreary, who seems to me a test case because the language he deploys is the most figurative, and therefore the least “Objective.” But which, at its best, is as hard-edged as anything ever written by George Oppen.


¹ If my concern here were simply one of kvetching over Duggan’s too-narrow reading, I would argue further that the New Sentence represented an attempt to foreground some of the same values that he finds in Objectivism in the context of prose, and that the New Sentence never implied a devaluing of precision in the verse stanza at all. If anything, quite the opposite. But that’s a different, less interesting essay.


Thursday, May 27, 2010


No less an authority than Herman Melville once declared Redburn: His First Voyage to be “trash,” a work of commerce & not art. It was the fourth of the eight novels that Melville wrote in an eight-year period of immense creative output stretching from 1846 through 1853. Written after the commercial failure of Mardi, the book recounts the travels of Wellingborough Redburn as he ships out on a voyage to Liverpool & back. In it we see less of the wide-eyed autobiographical memoir of his first two books – Melville certainly is not Redburn, a supercilious young prig buffeted by the lumpen of the ship’s crew – but don’t yet find the majesterial wanderings of imagination that feed into Moby-Dick.

It is, in fact, the seams that I find most compelling in this book, which I downloaded from Gutenberg & popped as a PDF file onto the old Palm Pilot I still use for such purposes. Melville teaching himself to write is the much more fascinating tale here & anyone who has read Moby-Dick knows that the digressions are not just part of the story, but very much its essence as well.

Digression, of course, is as old as Tristram Shandy, even Don Quixote. It’s baked into the formula of the novel itself, regardless of whatever Saul Bellow & the other advocates of the invisible text might think. More interesting, at least here, are the other seams, for example Redburn’s character, which Melville struggles to separate from himself. Redburn comes away as pompous in that defensive manner overly serious young men can take on. In turn, what it tells us is that our narrator is both young & uncertain of himself. This latter part is tricky, since the tale is told retrospectively. To what degree are we to read Redburn’s callowness as an index of his youth, and to what degree is this a character flaw inherent in the man? And do we ever spy Melville himself peering through the veils?

One place would appear to be a trio of mentions of John Milton scattered throughout the book. The first two mentions are the sort of passing allusions one might expect from Buttons, as the other sailors call him, who takes his rural New York sophistication seriously, for example, saying of the drone of a particular Liverpool beggar that

it produced the same effect upon me, that my first reading of Milton's Invocation to the Sun did, years afterward.

The second occurs in the most magical passage in the entire book, Redburn’s flight of fancy in response to the hand-organ music of his friend Carlo, which invokes – among many other things – a door that “like the gates of Milton’s heaven … turns on golden binges(sic).”

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Recently Received

Books (Poetry)

Kostas Anagnopoulos, Moving Blanket, Ugly Duckling Press, Brooklyn, 2010

Amaranth Borsuk, Tonal Saw, The Song Cave, Northampton, MA, 2010

Ben Doller, Dead Ahead, Fence Books, Albany, NY, 2010

Triny Finlay, Histories Haunt Us, Nightwood Editions, Gibsons, BC, 2010

Rachel Contreni Flynn, Tongue, Red Hen Press, Pasadena, 2010

Susan Gevirtz, Aerodrome Orion & Starry Messenger, with an epilogue by Susan Thackrey, Kelsey Street Press, Berkeley, 2010

Daniel Hudon, Evidence for Rainfall: Poems and Prose, Pen & Anvil Press, Boston, 2010

Daniel Johnson, How to Catch a Falling Knife, Alice James Books, Farmington, ME, 2010

Gary Lenhart, The World in a Minute, Hanging Loose Press, Brooklyn, 2010

Tan Lin, Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004 / Joy of Cooking, foreword by Laura Riding Jackson, Wesleyan, Middletown, CT, 2010

Jennifer Martenson, Unsound, Burning Deck, Providence, 2010

Ben Mazer, January 2008, Dark Sky Books, Seattle, 2010

Ben Mazer, Poems, Pen & Anvil Press, Boston, 2010

Chris McCreary, Undone: A Fakebook, Furniture Press, Towson, MD, 2010

Denise Newman, The New Make Believe, The Post-Apollo Press, Sausalito, CA 2010

Sarah Sarai, The Future is Happy, BlazeVOX, Buffalo, 2010

Lina ramona Vitkauskas, The Range of Your Amazing Nothing, Ravenna Press, Spokane, 2010

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010


Talking with Rae Armantrout
(check the audio!)

Armantrout on PBS Newshour’s “Artbeat”

Radio Rae Armantrout: On Point

A critique of Tom Ashbrook’s
On Point interview of Armantrout

A more charitable reaction to the same interview

John Gallaher on Chiasson’s Armantrout

Chiasson’s Lydia Davis

Christopher Reiner on Armantrout’s Pulitzer

B&N’s bookclub blog on Armantrout

An Armantrout resource guide for writers

Armantrout is just one
of the poets announced
for the 2011 US Poets in Mexico confab

Jeet Thayil’s “landmark anthology”
60 Indian Poets

Deaf American Poetry: An Athology

Endi Bogue Hartigan:
new poems

Marcella Durand, Jessica Lowenthal,
Jennifer Scappettone & Al Filreis
read Howe’s Dickinson

Albert Huffstickler: the way of art

Clayton Eshleman’s Anticline

Ron Silliman Rocks
(the real story is here)

Read more »

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Monday, May 24, 2010


Judson Crews

1917 2010

Also Cerise Farallon, Willard Emory Betis,
Trumbull Drachler, Tobi Macadams, Charley John Greasybear,
& Mason Jordan Mason


Sunday, May 23, 2010


Joshua Cohen talking with Joseph McElroy

Triple Canopy podcasts

Triple Canopy programs at 177 Livingston

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