TheThe Poetry
≡ Menu

Everything

A Green Crab’s Shell

Not, exactly, green:
closer to bronze
preserved in kind brine,

something retrieved
from a Greco-Roman wreck,
patinated and oddly

muscular. We cannot
know what his fantastic
legs were like–

though evidence
suggests eight
complexly folded

scuttling works
of armament, crowned
by the foreclaws’

gesture of menace
and power. A gull’s
gobbled the center,

leaving this chamber
–size of a demitasse–
open to reveal

a shocking, Giotto blue.
Though it smells
of seaweed and ruin,

this little traveling case
comes with such lavish lining!
Imagine breathing

surrounded by
the brilliant rinse
of summer’s firmament.

What color is
the underside of skin?
Not so bad, to die,

if we could be opened
into this–
if the smallest chambers

of ourselves,
similarly,
revealed some sky.

-Mark Doty

I’m currently in a class concerning Animal Studies in the Comparative Literature Department in which the word “anthropomorphism” is a swear word.  The argument is that anthropomorphism is anthropocentric, and thereby undermines the possibilities of the animal’s consciousness by placing the human in a superior (and dominating) role.  It should be noted that while I think this all well-argued and slightly interesting, when it comes to poetry—it’s a large load of nonsense.  We’d have to knock out some pretty significant poems in our extended canon were we to castigate anthropomorphism the way they are proposing. At least for me, and for a long trailing history of ancestor poets behind me, anthropomorphism is the stuff I (we) live for.  And if it’s a profane thing, then @#*& you, Comp Lit people. (It should also be noted I am the only poet in that class, and I am looked at at least twice during every session as if I were a really cool but leggy and crawly beetle that you’re grossed out by but can’t look away from.)

But you haven’t failed me completely, pedants.  You’ve brought into the sphere of my vocabulary a new term that I am finding far more interesting and applicable than the “horrors” of anthropomorphism: ZOOMORPHISM.  Of course it exists the other way around!  Why shouldn’t we, egotistical, dominating humans that we are, take animal traits and ZOOMORPHIZE ourselves to further some exploration of consciousness, personality, experience, etc.?  Now this—this is good.  And now that you bring it to my attention, my esteemed scholars across the way, it’s obvious that it’s zoomorphism that is the most interesting, and the poetry that has been most profoundly affecting for me is that which ventures to gain perspective by putting on another set of eyes entirely not human, kicks up the dirt with its daring hooves, flares its nostrils and doesn’t give a damn about drooling or snorting.

And then comes Mark Doty, with this genius little (enormous!) poem, which anthropomorphizes a crab shell to aid in the zoomorphism of the reader.  I mean really, the man has DONE IT.  My temptation to pass out this poem to my peers in Pedant Class as a semi-guerilla act of poetry warfare is barely tameable.  But I’ll refrain from my nerdling rebellious impulses and just be tickled by the possibilities of what once could have been in this grand ruin of a crustacean edifice that Doty has given me.  Beyond that imagining—beyond “what color is the underside of skin?”—just those remains, just that royal palace of a shell, with “such lavish lining!” is so enchanting, so incredibly enticing that I can’t help but want to go beach combing this instant and stare into a crab shell as I never have before (Wanting a reflection?  Wanting my own to make a home out of?).  This is the kind of poem that changes how you proceed in the world after you read it.  A crab shell is NEVER just a crab shell after this, nor should it ever, ever, ever be.  If you catch my (sea) drift.

If ever I was called a hermit crab by overly-social friends pressing me to leave my precious lair (and oh, it has happened!), I wish I’d rebutted with this poem. Who would ever want to leave their shell if it were anything like that shell? (Though Doty’s crab isn’t a hermit crab, probably just a common littoral crab. Still.)  Magical creature that he’s shown us!  Imagine it in life, scuttling around, clickety-clacking on shore pebbles, a little magician with electric green wands!  Sigh.  Call me crabby, call me (a) hermitic (crab), certainly call me crazy—but thank you, my dear Mark Doty: I forever welcome it all.

So there’s always this double duty, neither to make the best the enemy of the good, nor to make the good the enemy of the best. Scylla and Charybdis. The reason I admire Johnson and Eliot and Empson so much – the thing that holds them together – is that they all think that doing the right thing is steering between two equally dangerous opposite bad things.

Do you remember that Eliot was billed as giving a talk on ‘Scylla and Charybdis’ and he’d realized that they’d simply misunderstood. That is, when he was asked what he was going to talk about, he’d said that these things were always a matter of Scylla and Charybdis and so forth, and this became the title of the talk so that we got a talk on this subject because they’d slightly misunderstood what he was saying. But it’s true to him.

And Samuel Johnson is profound on this. He asked why are we more lenient towards foolhardiness than towards cowardice. If you think of them as being equidistant from the right thing, two opposing faults. Why are we more lenient to the one? And the answer is because it is self-correcting. If you’re foolhardy, you bruise your shins. You find out, you learn from it. If you’re spendthrift, you learn as the miser never does. The spendthrift runs out of money, the miser never runs out of anxiety about money. Equidistant from the true course but one may prove preferable.

We need people to remind us that the good is the enemy of the best and we need people to remind us that the best is the enemy of the good. We need to protect ourselves from the dangers from both flanks.

—Christopher Ricks, interview from The Literateur Magazine

Something in a title suggests everything you could possibly want to say about a certain topic. As in the example of T.S. Eliot’s lecture entitled “Scylla and Charybdis,” mentioned by Ricks above. The title “The Problem of Style” suggested to me everything I wanted to blog about today concerning the evolution of a poet’s style, something I’ve been thinking about while reading through Robert Hass and Henri Cole to prepare book reviews about their new selected works.

Critics and academics—much maligned creatures to whom we should at least be grateful for having something to endlessly argue about—tend to regard style as a fixed thing, an external lacquer or recipe that poets consciously choose, modify, and have to then be evaluated for a/ which style they picked, b/ how well they handled it, and c/ at what expense Style X precluded Y or Z. Two conversations from memory substantiate the attitude I’m talking about, both by formidable minds. Archie Burnett teaching his class at Boston University was talking about John Milton and upon fielding some questions about the make-up of what we identify and label as “The Miltonic Style,” he went on to say “Ah, well, with a great poet like Milton he could have written in whatever style he wanted.” And recently, breaking bread with Daniel Mendelsohn, we entered into a large, hearty and even heated debate on whether or not a writer “sets out to know what he wants to write,”—his point being that whereas an amateur writer may just be throwing darts in the dark, merely provoking “questions,” suggesting possibilities he doesn’t have a finished thought about, the serious and accomplished writer knows exactly what he’s setting out to do, then tackles it with dispatch. I disagree with both of these statements—the first wholeheartedly, the second because of a zillion counter-examples. Milton, supreme artist that he was, wasn’t immobile or unaware of what he was up to, but to think he could have avoided the baroque line, his heightened Latinate phraseology, the robustly complicated syntax, is fanciful. For all his craft and intelligence and arch learnedness, Milton’s rhythmic DNA was predetermined (in a way). People, like poems, are after all a mixture of the given and the made. The made is not what I aim to dispute; but the given needs to be redefined, a little bit.

Style is foremost a tension of contradictions between a writer’s impulses and perception, not an absence of them. In a classical style, a writer’s personality is totally disguised behind the established proportions and prevailing measures of a tradition, or The Tradition, whatever that once meant. In the romantic style, a writer’s style emerges as an indulgence of their impulses and mannerisms that they recognized in past authors and themselves, developing towards “originality.” But originality as we know is at the root of idiocy, of speaking or sounding like someone outside the acquainted norms of the city—the polis. And this is what Samuel Johnson was getitng at when he said in response to a young poet’s manuscript: It is both good and original; the parts that are good are not original, the parts that are original are not good. Johnson, the epitome of the Augustan, classical mindset, looked on idiosyncrasy as a disease, one that had to be tolerated in the presence of a great writer like Swift, great that is for his other qualities, but extirpated in an overrated poet like Thomas Gray, whose diction was remote and eccentric. (I for one love Swift and Gray.)

And yet as Richard Howard has brilliantly written in his essay on Emily Dickinson, it is precisely a writer’s peversities that can make him so good, not in lieu of them, but directly because they were listened to, indulged, cultivated. He argues, shrewdly, that Dickinson’s dashes, capitalizations, peculiar rhythms, coy slant-rhymes are her genius as a poet, not provincial blemises that happen to sit on a great linguistic talent. The opposite point of view can be heard in Eliot’s essay on Blake, where the attitude is: Yes, this man was a great poet, but alas also a home-spun weirdo, who had these troublesome peculiarities that prevented him from being as important as good ol’ Dante. Harold Bloom, dissenting from Eliot (shocker!) has fired back, emphasizing in ‘The Western Canon’ (perhaps tipping the see-saw too much in the opposite direction) that Dante’s centrality to Western literature relies on his extraordinary brazenness, as when he ciphons Beatrice into eternal salvation history (an argument that is found also in Emerson).

But I am digressing between the Classical and Romantic trap, when what I want to talk about is what is akin to both of these modes, intrinsic to writing any poem, regardless of what the tradition it plugs into is.

When we think of style as a pathology—we do artists an injustice, to their deliberation and foresight, as well as to the range of a poet proven over time. Stevens writes in his characterstic mode for his entire life, but between ‘Harmonium’ and ‘The Rock’ the conscious artisan in Stevens decided to become more pared down, less jumpy in his adjective use, and honors the strain throughout his life to speak in the simple sentence.

When we think of style as a choice—we are forgetting that sensibilities are vast and complex and have so many unconscious ingredients, dispositions and biases at work, it’s impossible to say simply why W.C.W. favors the short, clipped line, and Frost keeps to iambic pentameter. One man’s nerves cannot stand noise, another bathes in distortion and static.

One of the problems of style then is when a writer acknowledges a past tendency as a mechanism no longer adequate, or pleasing, or just. True, for the precocious or immensely talented, perhaps this gap is indiscernable, or much shorter—as in a Merrill, who began writing as refined and polished as his very last works. Another exception is the occasional, and rare, writer who assimilates so easily other people’s styles, he can seemingly switch between them—but then isn’t that method their style? Joyce, Eliot, Ashbery: they don’t so much have different styles as styles with immense difference built into them. In Joyce, you see these as discrete effects as you follow his career towards a sea of chaos—but the Joycean tone, flippant, somewhat verbose?, and resigned, that’s there throughout. Eliot willfully goes against his inner discord, his turmoil and polyphony of voices that he discovered in ‘The Waste Land,’ then labors towards a ‘style’ in the ‘Four Quartets’ that is seamlessly regulated, and unified. Ashbery took the opposite route, and after he mastered in his third and fourth books the possibility for disjunctiveness in vocabulary, narrative and form—he has kept going, on and on and on, to this day.

It appears to me that everything that I am saying is grossly redundant, and obvious. So that’s a good place to stop.

The problem of style exists, larger than the unconscious and conscious distinctions I’ve circled around. One way of seeing poems must be not as answers to questions, solutions for the puzzle, or resolutions to the problem—but as a way to discover what the questions are, what puzzles need working out, what problems each writer has in store. If we’re lucky enough, though the problems, like our pathologies, never go away—we do get to master them, instead of them mastering us. That is, one hopes.

Armond White comments on the decline of film criticism:

Journalistic standards have changed so drastically that, when I took the podium at the film circle’s dinner and quoted Pauline Kael’s 1974 alarm, “Criticism is all that stands between the public and advertising,” the gala’s audience responded with an audible hush—not applause.

Over recent years, film journalism has—perhaps unconsciously—been considered a part of the film industry and expected to be a partner in Hollywood’s commercial system. Look at the increased prevalence of on-television reviewing dedicated to dispensing consumer advice, and of magazine and newspaper features linked only to current releases, or to the Oscar campaign, as if Hollywood’s business was everybody’s business. Critics are no longer respected as individual thinkers, only as adjuncts to advertising. We are not. And we should not be. Criticism needs to be reassessed with this clear understanding: We judge movies because we know movies, and our knowledge is based on learning and experience.

“Truth is the first casualty of war,” runs an old axiom of journalism. In the current war between print and electronic media, in which the Internet has given way to Babel-like chaos, the critical profession has been led toward self-doubt. Individual critics worry about their job security while editors and publishers, afraid of losing advertisers and customers, subject their readers to hype, gossip, and reformulated press releases—but not criticism. Besieged by fear, critics become the victim of commercial design—a conceit whereby the market predetermines content. Journalism illogically becomes oriented to youth, who no longer read.

Commerce, based on fashion and seeming novelty, always prioritizes the idea of newness as a way of favoring the next product and flattering the innocence of eager consumers who, reliably, lack the proverbial skepticism. (“Let the buyer be gullible.”) In this war between traditional journalistic standards and the new acquiescence, the first casualty is expertise.

By offering an alternative deluge of fans’ notes, angry sniping, half-baked impressions, and clubhouse amateurism, the Internet’s free-for-all has helped to further derange the concept of film criticism performed by writers who have studied cinema as well as related forms of history, science, and philosophy. This also differs from the venerable concept of the “gentleman amateur” whose gracious enthusiasms for art forms he himself didn’t practice expressed a valuable civility and sophistication, a means of social uplift. Internet criticism has, instead, unleashed a torrent of deceptive knowledge—a form of idiot savantry—usually based in the unquantifiable “love of movies” (thus corrupting the French academic’s notion of cinephilia).

He continues by deriding the blogosphere:

This is the source of the witty riposte or sarcastic put-down’s being considered the acme of critical language. The Algonquin Round Table’s legacy of high-caliber critical exchange has turned into the viral graffiti on aggregate websites such as Rotten Tomatoes that corral numerous reviews. These sites offer consensus as a substitute for assessment. Rotten Tomatoes readers then post (surprisingly vicious, often bullying) sniper responses to the reviews. These mostly juvenile remarks further shortcut the critical process by jumping straight to the so-called witticism. This isn’t erudition; as film critic Molly Haskell recently observed, “The Internet is democracy’s revenge on democracy.”

Yikes. This isn’t the first time White’s burned all his bridges:

[Pauline] Kael’s cutting remark cuts to the root of criticism’s problem today. Ebert’s way of talking about movies as disconnected from social and moral issues, simply as entertainment, seemed to normalize film discourse—you didn’t have to strive toward it, any Average Joe American could do it. But criticism actually dumbed down. Ebert also made his method a road to celebrity—which destroyed any possibility for a heroic era of film criticism.

At the Movies helped criticism become a way to be famous in the age of TV and exploding media, a dilemma that writer George W. S. Trow distilled in his apercu “The Aesthetic of the Hit”: “To the person growing up in the power of demography, it was clear that history had to do not with the powerful actions of certain men but with the processes of choice and preference.” It was Ebert’s career choice and preference to reduce film discussion to the fumbling of thumbs, pointing out gaffes or withholding “spoilers”—as if a viewer needed only to like or dislike a movie, according to an arbitrary set of specious rules, trends and habits. Not thought. Not feeling. Not experience. Not education. Just reviewing movies the way boys argued about a baseball game.

Don’t misconstrue this as an attack on the still-convalescent Ebert. I wish him nothing but health. But I am trying to clarify where film criticism went bad. Despite Ebert’s recent celebration in both Time magazine and The New York Times as “a great critic,” neither encomium could credit him with a single critical idea, notable literary style or cultural contribution. Each paean resorted to personal, logrolling appreciations. A.O. Scott hit bottom when he corroborated Ebert’s advice, “When writing you should avoid cliché, but on television you should embrace it.” That kind of thinking made Scott’s TV appearances a zero.

While White regularly gets pegged as an intelligent troll, my personal take is that he usually hits the critical nail on the head, even if he comes across as disproportionately strident. On the other hand, his rage is perfectly understandable when you consider that Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris are allowed to fall into the same categories as most “critics” today.

In other news, my very smart and artistically talented friend, Gene Tanta, has started his own blog about…well, it looks like everything so far.

I’m sitting up in bed, or on the couch, as it were, where I have been trying to sleep off the slew of vodka-and-tonics I downed last night at our Sand Paper Press reading here in Portland.  Shawn Vandor, whose Fire at the end of the rainbow was just reviewed over at Dossier, and I read at 220 Salon.  Happily I had the chance to meet and fraternize with thethe’s own Evan Hansen.

Happily too I have had the chance to experience a temperate spring.  In my new adopted home we have a desert spring, which is an entirely different beast.   Anyway, it’s been good to see green grass against mud and cherry trees in blossom.  All of this reminds me of the wonderful lineage of cold muddy spring poems.  There’s ‘Spring and All’

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast—a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines—

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches—

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind—

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf

One by one objects are defined—
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

But now the stark dignity of
entrance—Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted they
grip down and begin to awaken

And then there’s ‘A Cold Spring,’ poem that adds its title to the marquee of Elizabeth Bishop’s 1955 updated North & South.  Unfortunately the wintereb is not obliging me, and I cannot find a text of said poem to paste and copy, nor can I manage to get myself out of bed, or off the couch rather, to open the actual book, which is about five feet away from me on one of Shawn’s shelves.  Truth be said, I have been consumed with convalescence lately; well, not consumed with it actually, more consumed by the idea of it.  But you never know when the time will come.   In fact, several people have been recommending Denton Welch’s In Youth Is Pleasure to me lately.

Anyhow, I’m still stuck in this rhyming couplet thing; I can’t tell whether or not it’s a good idea to post my own poems here; especially this one, which I literally just wrote; but nor can I see why this can’t be a forum for, eh, I hate to call it experimentation, or even worse, abusing the reader, but rather using and misusing this poetry stuff in our fraught digital kingdom.

Oh yes, back to the couplets.  Here are some more.  And to further dispel the mystery, I tried to do these while cycling through the vowel-sounds, or vowel-name sounds: ae, ee, aye, oh, you.  A little like Rimbaud, I guess, but without the intimidation.  So, throat cleared, couplets, voyelles, et le printemps froid:

Here in Portland another day
begins, the sky is the color of spring clay
and in fact it is spring, see
the blossoming tree
outside the window?  The sky
is the color of a sigh.
The blossoms show
that flowers too can mimic snow,
and fall, powdering the air they fall through.
The birds seem to have no clue:
can it be said that they pray
for wings they use to flay
the air and so are free?
Their wings must act the key
to a door locked to the sky,
locked no matter how hard humans try
to stick an intrepid toe
through it.  Unlike the winterland show
of crystallized precipitation, the blue
provides no backdrop to our dreams, who
dance against open black highway
of orbits at rushing play.
Their flight is galaxy,
not of this world; while the birds are free
to roost and be shy,
and only when they die
do they understand how gravity is foe.
One falls lifeless to the petals––or are they snow?
Armies of gust, the white specks form a crew.
Clouds retreat.  The Portland sky is blue.

A.
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share…

-Paul Simon

Music, I regret to say, affects me merely as an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds….
-Vladimir Nabokov

To my wife Anne, without whose silence this book never would have been written.
-Philip K. Dick, dedication page from The Man in the High Castle

B. If you place two or more people in a lobby, they will produce words that string together discussions regarding recent changes in weather.  If you put one person in a lobby, he or she will hum a tune no one–not even he or she–knows, atonally and incessantly.

C. This is a cat named Silence.  He meows at the door as I write this.

Silence on "Silence" by John Cage

In the Brooklyn apartment where Silence lives, a man came to look at a room for rent.  The human tenants explained to the man about daily tasks.  “We all contribute,” one said, “when it comes to Silence.”

D. My grandfather tells the story of himself as a boy, talking in class.  “Schweig?” the teacher purportedly said, “SCHWEIG!”

E. Somebody in the lobby: “Did you know that ‘Silent’ is what your name means?”  Somebody in the lobby: “What are you writing about?”

“You are invisible,” the computer tells me.

John Cage

F.
(I have nothing to say

and I am saying it and that is

poetry as I need it.)

G. And there was the time when Charles Wright walked in, sat down and said, “Instead of workshop today, I am going to read from this,” and he held up a book whose cover said, SILENCE.  Charles opened the book and started speaking.

Ben Luzzatto’s THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, ABRIDGED (UDP, 2010) is one of those rare artifacts that transfers its own actual magic—and it is real magic—until the possessed begins to lift a bit toward the sky.

Ugly Duckling Presse has been summed up quite well here as “a publishing collective specializing in experimental poetry and new editions of forgotten textual artist, producing lovely, cheeky books by authors you’ve probably never heard of but your grandchildren will likely read in college…a nesting ground for swans of the avant-garde poetry scene.” It’s true that I do feel personally attached to many titles UDP has produced (such as this or this). THEORY is the most recent in its Dossier Series, which produced the wonderfully heady though deadly pretentious  Notes On Conceptualism, and soon will bring out Dottie Lasky’s Poetry Is Not a Project.

When I first held this particular book though, I do what I do with most books, hold it open it at a distance so I could see the entire cover spread. There was a figure of a someone umbilically attached to something, floating away, or recoiling. An astronaut? A cosmonaut? Where does that road go? You can’t see because of my shaky camera hands, but this is spot glossed over all the silver. This book was printed in Iceland by Oddi, and I haven’t read one word of it as of this point in my engagement and it’s practically trembling in my hands.

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, ABRIDGED, is broken into three sections. 1) The Aqueous Humor, 2) From Nonsense to New Sense, and 3) The Theory of Everything, Abridged. Each is a section of conceptual projects narrated by Luzzatto. The first section, The Aqueous Humor, we get what Luzzatto is after in his writing that oscillates from lyrical dreaminess to the more squared off language inherited from the Era of Theory:

I don’t want to solve the mysteries of the universe, I want to know how I am a part of them…

The more you understand how you are already a part of something, which is the same as understanding how you see something, the more you can separate yourself from it. It is what it was, which already included you, but then it is also something else, which you know does not include you. You have remained together, but you have also become separate.”

Luzzatto’s ideas as he talks them out seem small compared to the immensity of his ideas as he documents them in photographs that accompany the text . We see images of the Cosmos, an umbrella made of funnels, and in section two, From Nonsense to New Sense, an ontological experiment where the subject ties a bungee cord to a tree (then dashes away from the tree without knowing the length of the rope)

Section three takes up most of the book, and one huge thing I’ve not mentioned yet is that this section involves yet another magickal feat of design, about 80% of the book has a hole through it:

This flip section shows two images of Luzzatto standing on a streer corner. The image below shows through the hole and remains static while the images above narrate a street scene in a city. The animation allows Luzzatto to complete his theory of everything:

“I see two of everything but I am usually not aware of it. A world that comes from me, which is expectation, and a world that comes to me, which is what I do not expect. Most of the time they do not appear to be separate.”

My favorite experiment of Luzzatto’s comes in section two, where the artist makes clouds (!) from helium-inflated urethane cells. I had a dream recently where I was back in my hometown hanging out with my buddy Cori and there was a street that was the actual place where all clouds were made. We were watching them appear out of nothing until they were heavy enough for the wind to lift towards to sky. Amazing. I don’t know what it means (what would Freud say?).

Luzzatto however makes clouds while he is actually awake, and it seems, he is quite good at talking about the whole thing (text following the images):

I assume there is a specific moment/distance at which the cloud disappears as it is rising up into the sky. When it is on its way up, still close to us and clearly a manmade cloud, it is more difficult to see the world that comes from me; it is more difficult to see a cloud that comes from my looking At a specific distance the cloud disappears. It looks like the other clouds in the sky…by making clouds disappear I am able to see how I see.


To see more about UDP, the book, and clouds, click here

<> <> <>

Hope is: Wanting to Pull Clouds, (Sigmar Polke, 1992)

Stomach

Teeth remain but lips do not.
A flattened pouch filled
With a jackal-headed god’s
Crumbs, a steady and tasteless
Nourishing, until again the
Lips burn, hungry for fowl
In the infinite field of reeds.

Lungs

Tree dismantled. One half
On top the other, losing pink
Quickly. A baboon’s snout
Blows the new air of a god
Inside and during the rise
Twin sponge-roots relearn
To expand, contract, expand.

Intestines

The longest road of the body
Is watched by a hawk-faced god
Who flies the Nile’s length
In two wing-beats, collects
Water in his beak and returns
The river’s still blue coolness
To the driest coil of flesh.

Liver

The usefulness of what’s left
Behind—blessed by the hands of
A god with a human face, wide-eyed
And mindful. Four parts, four winds
Stilled, the kind of silence needed
To end and begin. To make venom
Essential, to warm again the blood.

I’ve decided to change my strategy for blogging through Grossman. Not only is it almost impossible to try and successfully capture the first part of the book in any systematic way (the conversation shifts too rapidly and it’s almost maddening to trace any idea), but the second part is so lovely and systematically broken down, that I keep gravitating toward it. So I’ll leave the first part of the book for those of you who desire to read it (very much worth it). Instead I’ll be blogging through Grossman’s “Summa Lyrica,” which is the second part of The Sighted Singer.
Grossman begins his Summa by speaking about immortality:

The function of poetry is to obtain for everybody one kind of success at the limits of the autonomy of will….The limits of the autonomy of the will discovered in poetry are death and the barriers against the access to other consciousnesses….The kind of success which poetry facilitates is called “immortality.”…Immortality is the simultaneity of meaning and being. Immortality can be discussed only in relation to persons….Neither immortality nor persons are conceivable outside of communities.

According to Grossman’s understanding, we must first understand that poetry is a tool, a “machine that speaks.” Poetry is not an end in itself (and perhaps, by extension, art is not an end in itself). Yet the purpose it serves is not a political, economic, but rather social. It is “moral work” in service of persons.
This is because the only success that poetry is capable of is that of “immortality.” Thus, it would be impossible to put poetry and art in the service of other ends.
As far as the poetry of immortality, I immeidately think of of Ginsberg’s “Kaddish”:

Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village.downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I’ve been up all night, talking, talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phonographthe rhythm the rhythm–and your memory in my head three years after—And read Adonais’ last triumphant stanzas aloud—wept, realizing how we suffer—And how Death is that remedy all singers dream of, sing, remember, prophesy as in the Hebrew Anthem, or the Buddhist Book of Answers—and my own imagination of a withered leaf—at dawn—Dreaming back thru life, Your time—and mine accelerating toward Apocalypse,the final moment—the flower burning in the Dayand what comes after,looking back on the mind itself that saw an American citya flash away, and the great dream of Me or China, or you and a phantom Russia, or a crumpled bed that never existed—

What is interesting to me about this poem, is the way that Ginsberg seeks to immortalize not only his mother, but also all the objects that are present in his grief. He names them, and sometimes it seems as if he feels compelled to expand upon them (“Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phonograph”) as a way to help preserve them. I wonder how much Ginsberg’s attempts to preserve objects (ultimately in the service of preserving persons) fits into Grossman’s scheme? Is it possible that Ginsberg is using all these objects to create a sort of pseudo-community, a sense of there-ness, that gives him the ability to speak and preserve his mother?
The idea of community in poetry seems very important. It certainly fits in with my idea that we write more from what we share than from what separates us. Yet Grossman insists also that poetry (indeed poetic knowledge) comes at the price of the abandonment of the will. The poet says “Sing, muse…” and hence gives up something in order to speak with the gravitas (and knowledge) of the transcendent.I am less enthusiastic about this latter idea. Grossman says in his conversations with Halliday that this poetic daimon is “the voice not of the self but of that transcendental artifice that I have formally called ‘personhood.’” A speaker seeks to attain personhood (and hence immortality). Yet this can only be possible if the speaker is willing to give up “self” and allow it to be overcome by that which is transcendental. This is where Grossman’s distinction between “self” and “person” gets dicey for me. If self is what I am, my consciousness (in the Freudian sense, I suppose), then where does this “person” come from, and how much is it actually me? What makes us willing to give up self for person in poetry? I suppose it is the attempt to breach the limits of our autonomous wills (death).
Some of this unease also has to do with my unease of the Freudian conception of self. Let me quote from JPII’s essay “Thomistic Personalism”:

A hallmark of Descartes’ view of his splitting of the human being into an extended substance (the body) and a thinking substance (the soul), which are related to one another in a parallel way and do not form an undivided whole. We can observe in philosophy a gradual process of a kind of hypostatization of consciousness: consciousness becomes an independent subject of activity, and indirectly of existence, occuring somehow alongside the body, which is a material structure subject to the laws of nature, to natural determinism. Against the background of such parallelism, combined with simultaneous hypostatization of consciousness, the tendency arises to identify the person with consciousness.

What Grossman refers to as “self,” I think, is what JPII describes as the result of the “hypostatization of consciousness.” I suspect Grossman is trying to get past the inherent limits of the Cartesian view of the human being by thinking of “Person” as some sort of transcendental leap that is allowed by the “machinery” of the poem. Yet, I suspect this distinction between person and self is not ultimately helpful and only furthers the unhelpful Cartesian formulation. For Grossman, persons are value bearing, undeniably moral. Yet the modern emphasis on consciousness is inherently subjective. Hence he must find a way to valorize the person over and above limits of consciousness. Poetry, he believes, allows him to do this.
Yet it seems to me to come at a cost: the moral person is still an admitted fiction. Doesn’t this designation of “fiction” castrate Grossman’s project? Why must we value the fiction over the reality? Is reality not actually beautiful?







How does one choose which poem should be first in a manuscript? Ben Lerner’s new book, Mean Free Path, begins with something resembling a love poem. Joshua Beckman’s latest book, Take It, which I’ve been enjoying lately (click here to see the Believer’s review), uses a kind of apostrophe:

Dear Angry Mob,

Oak Wood Trail is closed to you. We
feel it unnecessary to defend our position,
for we have always thought of ourselves
(and rightly, I venture) as a haven for
those seeking a quiet and solitary
contemplation. We are truly sorry
for the inconvenience….

This is fairly witty–simply to put a short little charmer of a poem out front to ease the reader in–but it also overdetermines my reading of the first few pieces that follow. Then again, where else could such a poem go but at the beginning? I’m at a loss.

Today’s question: How should books begin?

Sometimes when I happy get
I turn on my television set [click to continue…]

I. What Do People Do?

I’d caught glimpses of them before.  Maybe I’d been up very late and into the morning, taking the Brooklyn-bound train from Manhattan and had seen them standing with briefcases on platforms waiting for trains.  Maybe I woke bright and early for my hangover, craving Naked Juice and sparkling water from the corner bodega.  Maybe I had wild notions of pretending I had a nine-to-five writing schedule so that there would be an end to the thankless work.

They all walked in the same direction with a bounce in their step and cups of coffee in their hands.  Because of them, the A.M. New York and Metro New York dispensers that had been magically filled sometime during the night were depleted by noon.  Because of them, the trains in the evening were as crowded as summer hives.

Turns out, there’s this whole community of human beings who wake up in the morning, go to work, eat lunch and return home at around five o’clock.  Midday, they people-watch while they lunch, they shop and they make transactions at ATMs.  Late afternoon, they retreat to the fluorescent cocoons of their offices, and in the evening, like migratory creatures in early spring, they emerge and travel back where they came from, for a run, a shower, dinner and maybe a walk with the dog.

II. When Will It End?

My first week of full-time work, afflicted with existential motion sickness, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, and lunchtime was designated solely for weeping, as was the brief window before work, as were the hours following, until, exhausted I dropped off into an uneasy half-sleep.  On the third morning before work, caught in the murmurous haunt of commuters, I sat almost doubled over in a chair in Starbucks waiting for the barista to call out my $4 drink when a man rested his briefcase down on the bench beside mine.  I was always slightly in the way of these people who moved through space and daylight with the certainty of lethal wasps.  I made a motion to shift my tenuously held together waif of a body so as to avoid crowding the man’s hefty briefcase.  The man had on a neat tie and a friendly face and motioned to me that I was fine where I was, saying, “You just look so comfortable.”

My stomach turned and my vision blurred as my most recent anxiety attack subsided.  How I could have looked at all comfortable, I have no idea, though I suppose mild catatonia could be mistaken for deep repose.

In the window overlooking 17th Street, a mix of cold rain and sleet fell.  The wasps, who had covered themselves with parkas and umbrellas and husk-like hoods, zipped furiously by.

“When will it end?”  I heard.  The businessman was looking at me.

He was continuing the interaction we had tentatively established.  This is what people do, I thought, in the mornings before work while waiting in latte lines.  When will it end?…When will it end?…Which thing?

I looked at him.  “Which thing?”  I said.

The businessman laughed.  I made the businessman laugh.  He replied, with a shrug, “The weather, the economy, everything….”

Then I laughed.

There was a pause.  The rain and sleet had turned to only rain and was still falling.  He continued, “But we have offices on the square, so when we get depressed, we can go for a walk.”

III. Is it really that simple?

I get coffee.  I go to work.  In the afternoon, I go for a walk.

IV. But What Would Herman Melville Say?

“Again, I always go to sea as a sailor, because they make a point of paying me for my trouble, whereas they never pay passengers a single penny that I ever heard of.  On the contrary, passengers themselves must pay.  And there is all the difference in the world between paying and being paid.  The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard thieves entailed upon us.  But being paid,–what will compare with it?  The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvellous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven.  Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!”

V. Why Write?

MFA programs create a set of circumstances that one does not find anywhere else.  You have money (lent or granted, most of which you give away to the institution who accepted you), you have a place to live, you have people to talk to who supposedly care about what you care about.  This cushy existence might make you think, “How can anyone write—or even exist—without these circumstances granted?”  This anomalistic life can cause a web of if-then theorizing about living:  If I have a job, I won’t be able to write.  If something is expected of me, I won’t do be able to do what isn’t—and only in graduate school will writing be truly expected of you specifically (and maybe not even then).  Some programs even go so far as to hold events with titles like “Life After the MFA,” during which a panel of survivors either perpetuate or crush delusions of grandeur.

“The world is ugly, / And the people are sad,” Wallace Stevens writes.  It is ugly.  The people are sad.  How clarifying, then, to remember what the world is and then go from there, because, isn’t the condition of the world and our condition in the world why (if there is a why) any of us are trying to write in the first place?

Before I post my regularly scheduled post, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I give you an excerpt from James Joyce’s “The Dead.”

Gabriel had not gone to the door with the others.  He was in a dark part of the hall gazing up the staircase.  A woman was standing near the top of the first flight, in the shadow also.  He could not see her face but he could see the terracotta and the salmonpink panels of her skirt which the shadow made appear black and white.  It was his wife.  She was leaning on the banisters, listening to something.  Gabriel was surprised at her stillness and strained his ear to listen also.  But he could hear little save the noise of laughter and dispute on the front steps, a few chords struck on the piano and a few notes of a man’s voice singing.

He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife.  There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something.  He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of.  If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude.  Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones.
Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.

Sunday evening I encountered this artifact created out of the weekend’s leftovers. I had been showing family around who had never been nyc before. That meant three miserable days of walking in the rain while forcing myself to be cheerful. This stream or river or rainbow or spittle-barf of umbrellas was an affirmation to me of whats most at stake in being conscious, (which could be described very quickly, I guess, as a reaction). Whoever made this left no trace of themselves nor stuck around to explain. Less is almost always more. I love you, whoever made this, for that.

If I am anything at all, I am a vaudevillian. Considering that vaudville has been stone dead the last 80 years, that’s a hard thing to be, but wouldn’t you want to attend a reading where, first, someone read Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” beautifully, followed by a white poodle jumping through a fiery hula hoop, then a great tap dancer, and then a good torch singer doing “Strange Fruit,” topped off by a rousing version of Etheridge Knight’s “All Fucked Up”? Hell, I would, and this either means I have no aesthetic boundaries whatsoever, or that I prefer, during the course of performance, to do what Ashbery does in a poem: let the flow take me where it will, live in the process and variety of consciousness rather than in some fully set and determined structure. Now it would be even more fun if the poodle held the fiery hula hoop between its paws while the human jumped through, but why quibble?

I am making a point here. At least, I think I am. If the poodle act was done superbly, as most vaudeville acts were, if it was the end result of months and years on the road, honing the act, then I don’t see why it would be any less valuable than a good poem (especially if the human jumped through the hoop). Poems are made out of words, but poesis is made out of a chemical compound of ecstasy and precision. It need not be ecstatic, nor precise, but a synthesis of those qualities is important. By ecstacy I mean the entire spectrum between being good at and enjoying the writing and presenting of poems, and the sort of possessed by the gods kind of inspiration Plato feared. By precision, I mean something that must be done “just so.” If the poodle wavers in her resolve and does not hold the fiery hula hoop at the right angle, the human might go up in flames. This is the secret and mystery of presence: a good tenor goes dangerously to the top of his range. We are waiting for him to fail. He does not fail: wallah! ecstacy with precision!

Most poetry readings are boring these days because we do something absurd: the poet pretends not to be performing. They read in a lack luster voice, often intentionally so. The audience is there to be “present,”—but at what rite? Certainly not the rite of ecstacy merging with precision to become poesis. The rite is called identification: I am a well-credentialed and leading poet, reading to you. You are students in an M.F.A. program performing a snob’s version of cannibalism. By being in my presence (or non-presence) you are hoping to become what I am: a leading poet reading before a group of grad students. We do not clap. We do not do what the vulgar people do. We are all intelligent. We are all “serious.” Look at us! In our midst, a cough becomes significant. At the end, we may clap “warmly.” This is sad.

I hate it. I look for attractive faces and bodies in the audience. I moan and ooh when the audience moans and ooh’s because I don’t want to be left out. I notice the beautiful girl who is dangling one shoe from her well arched foot. I want her. She will never be mine. She will get naked and procreate with a boy who translates Wordsworth’s The Prelude into Bengali. I lament. Where is the fiery hula hoop of the blood?

Don’t think I am advocating that everyone become a spoken word poet. God forbid! That’s just as bad because it is often fake ecstacy, and total imprecision. Spare me your false epiphanies! Spare me your skeltonic rhymes if you don’t know who Skelton is. Spare me!

Let us go back to what I was saying by taking a concrete poet and putting her in an environment I would think showed her to best advantage: Louise Gluck. (Don’t know how to put the dots on her “u”. Sorry.)

I saw Louise Gluck perform at a high school festival about ten years ago. They trotted her out because she was a pulitzer prize winner. They trotted her out because she was a name. They didn’t care about her poetry which, at least in her earlier work, is fantastic. They didn’t care that she was a sort of reserved, introverted, Alfred Hithcock blond. Hitchcock would have known how to present her: Tweed skirt, nice legs (Louise has kiiller legs), a sort of tense primness that calls forth monsters by dint of its introverted splendor. I was on the bill. High school kids like me. I knew my audience. I read , “So Kiss Me Asshole,” a poem of mine. Strangely, Louise liked me, too. She said: “You’re a good performer, and your poems have some merit.” I have been in love with Louise Gluck since I read “Fear of Birth” and re-read it two hundred times in a day when I was 15, and saw her photo on the back of an old anthology. Call it the love of Caliban for that which is fully in opposition to him, yet equally monstrous: she was as introverted, and audience unfriendly as you could get, I am practicly a poodle act, but we talked for a full hour: about Schumann (I told her some of the shorter lyrics she wrote seemed perfect for Schumann, and she agreed). We talked about Oppen (we share this love as well, and she studied with him). She claimed there were too many voices in her poems, and she could never utter them. She hated to read aloud, but the money was good. I said: “Louise, I hate when you read aloud, too. They don’t use you right. They should have you read one short poem, and then someone could play a small Schumann bagatelle, and then you could say something about Oppen, and the importance of mentors, and recite a poem by him from memory. You should always wear tasteful skirts because, I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but you have killer legs.” She smiled and said, “Thank you.”

It is a mistake to think poems written for the page can not be effective in performance. They need the right setting, the precision that brings out the ecstacy. A good poetry reading has the same aspects as a good poem. Lately, I want to strangle audiences. They don’t clap (they are all too intelligent to clap, and they are Mark Doty clones .About fifteen years ago, Doty said don’t clap, and they listened to him. Wretches! Theives of joy! They make me sick). I believe in clapping after any poem longer than a page—just to relieve the stress. Of course, short poems are different. I believe poets ought to work hard at finding the right voice and cadence, and way of presenting what they do. And they ought to be honest: it is a performance, a rite, the second you get in front of a room full of people. The ceremony should be performed with the same artistry as the poems—the right ceremony depending on the voice or voices of the poet. Louise Gluck is like Chopin, intimate: she loses something when placed in a room with five hundred high school students. You don’t get her best effects. You lose all the little trills, and false cadences, and intricate passage work. You lose the deceptively simple lines. She is writing splendid cabaret poems. These ought to be presented like good Kurt Weill songs, soft blue light included. To do that to Gluck and those students is detrimental to poetry. It’s far more vulgar and wrong than a poodle act. I heard kids saying: “She’s so boring.” I was angry. A woman with those tremendous poems and great gams should not be misunderstood. I said: “You liked my poems?” They said: “You’re great.” I said: “Louise Gluck is better than me, way better. They screwed you over. You need to hear her the way you would hear soft rain on a roof at night when you’re lonely, and fearful, and your childhood is dead. It can’t all be ‘So Kiss Me Asshole.’ That’s boring, too. Grow up!”

I fell a little in love with Louise that day because she was kind to me, and she didn’t have to be. She opened in the way a Louise Gluck should open: carefully, with a wonderful reticence and accuracy, with an inward passion. I got the performance out of her I was seeking. When she recited Oppen’s Bergen street by heart, she did so with feeling, and perfection. I was lucky.

So what am I getting at? First, poems that are subtle, or small, or call for pianissimo, should not be thrown into a Dylan Thomas frame work. Seeing a good cabret singer singing in a stadium is just wrong. Second, no poet should read before an audience more than fifteen minutes. All good acts are teasers. They should leave you wanting more. Now to the practical, pedagogical purpose of this:

In a class of ten poetry students, only five should be given the poem on paper at any time. Five should be listening, and listening hard. They should jot down a line that seems off, or one that they like. They should consider why exactly they like a line, or why it seems off. They should be honest about the poem’s effect on them. The other five should be giving the poem a close reading, and not just to find its “flaws,” but to first discover its intentions. “ur” poems, your idea of what a poem “should be” ought to be temporarily suspended, and you should enter the poem as it is—it’s intentions, it’s own private triumphs and failures. A good class trains listeners as well as readers. Poems should be memorized so that the language of poems becomes muscle memory. After a few poems, someone ought to tell a joke, or mention something that happened to them during the week. Digression, if it is good, is more to the point than being overly focused. Before a poet appears at the school, their work ought to be handed out. No poet should read for more than fifteen minutes unless it is an audience well versed in poetry. Over reading hurts poetry. It rams poetry down the throats of those who are not yet ready to recieve it. It’s bad fr the business.

There should be snacks, and, if possible, some music. A good piano player or guitarist (no tuning up please) ought to do something—no words, just music. Maybe some Ellington, a little Maple Leaf Rag. And then the poodle, holding the fiery hula hoop between its paws, and the six Hngarian acrobats leaping through the fire, and the girl dangling her she beside a by who is translating Wordsworth’s Prelude… but I digress.