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Poetry and Poetics

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.

When I was 19 I interned at The Bowery Poetry Club. I can tell you that I didn’t get much done in the way of writing press releases; I was there to experience poetry. I was there to meet the real live poets who didn’t seem to exist on my college campus. I attended a private Long Island university where writing poetry meant none of the business student boys wanted to date me and most of the frat guys thought a stanza was a complicated version of the keg stand. Therefore, at The Bowery Poetry Club, I thought I was going to find what I was looking for: Poets Who Took Poetry Seriously.

Performers with names like Lovely Lazarus and Serenity Divine would grace the stage in mismatched outfits and dirty hair and then proceed to swoon the entire audience with a kind of audible beauty I imagine the Sirens possessed. Their lyrical composition was balanced by emotive arm movements or by their ability to seamlessly weave a poem from Prince’s When Doves Cry. There was a kind of competition amongst these poets usually noted amongst athletes. The audience scored each performer on a scale of 1 to 10 and reigning champs not only had bragging rights but word-of-mouth-fame.

While these performers were certainly impressive, and the ability to memorize a fifteen-minute performance can undoubtedly be envied, I soon realized that this group of poets were really, performers. It wasn’t that performing their work automatically made them more performer and less poet. It was that the sole purpose of their poetry was to be heard. It was poetry intent on being sung, enhanced with jumping and hip-jutting and physical rigor. It was my first live introduction to slam poetry and the incredible presence of Bob Holman’s master performers. However, I realized very quickly, that while I could envy the ability of any poet who could make an audience both cry and laugh, the purpose of my recitation and reading would not be supported by numerical scores or competitive bravado. I didn’t see myself as that kind of poet—one who read with entertainment in mind.

Fast forward about five years later to a classroom at The New School where the late Liam Rector sat before us in a room pungent with his last cigarette break. He looked  regal in his thick framed glasses, his hand stroking his chin as he demanded an answer: “Are you going to make it to your 25th year?” The 25th year was Rector’s figurative marker for a poet’s success.  Basically, if we didn’t reach that 25th year, we wouldn’t become Poets For Life. Aside from Rector’s ability to shake the very fear of poetry into his young pupils, he also cultivated a level of respect from us that resided in his ability to quote, recite and often assume the voices of Gunn, Larkin, Yeats, Sexton, Keats, Wordsworth and others that he mentioned too quickly for us to write them down. This ability was part of Rector’s lure. We often left class dizzy with names, lines, and an ever growing list of books we had to read if we were ever going to be the kind of poets he would call Poets. At one point, this combination of my departure from the slam poets I observed as a teenager and now the notion that a serious poet worthy of being a poet had to be able to quote 100 or more “important poets” cultured an anxiety that made me shun the idea of memorization completely. Truthfully, I felt I was incapable of memorizing a poem and knowing it so well that one would be unable to tell where I began and the poem ended. The very idea numbed me. I felt the page was where my words belonged and I would read my poems for people to hear them, sure, but it would not become a kind of game like the competitive events at The Bowery Poetry Club. I suppose I had unknowingly resigned myself to the category of poets that Do Not Memorize. I realize now, this fear was part of being a green, insecure graduate student and also about being under the spell of Liam Rector—a spell that has transfixed all of us who were among the very last group of students he taught.

Fast-forward again to 2010. I give a reading at this beautiful wine shop in Brooklyn. I recite, from memory, a few sections of a longer poem. I proceed to read newer poems that are not memorized, but I can give three or four lines without glancing down. I know the poems. The poems know me. I don’t feel a separation between the words and my page and my body. There is something physical about the way these specific poems ask to be read. I didn’t choose this, they chose. Several people approach me at the end of the reading. They want to know how long it took me to memorize, how I chose which poems I would recite. Later, I’m inundated with fellow poets who talk about how they cannot memorize their poems and how it is just so hard to do, etc. I’m told that reading my poems from memory was  “kind of badass.” I immediately think of Liam Rector and I suppose that for a moment or two, I feel like a Badass Poet.

Fast forward yet again a few weeks later. I read some of the same poems in a lovely coffee shop. One fellow poet compliments my reading and she says that she likes how they read like a monologue. A stranger tells me it was his favorite part of the reading. Later in the reading, James Copeland reads from his new chapbook, Why I Steal and for one poem only, he completely leaves the page. His eyes click with the audience and from memory he speaks to us. He isn’t even necessarily reciting the poem but talking to all of us as we recline in our little green chairs. The hazy moment of hearing the third poet of the night is now magical and memorable. My non-poet friends tell me that it is their favorite poem of Copeland’s. I too, agree.  As Copeland continues, the poem lifts into the air and we can see it and touch it and we understand something about Copeland’s poems. There is a connectivity, a sincere quality that becomes apparent when he recites this one poem: the poem is human.

Obviously, I have been thinking about memorization a lot. A lot. I have always analyzed the way people read, their inflection, their tone. I pay attention to accents, to poets who read in a voice other than the one that they speak with and I like knowing that a poet knows his or her work so well that they feel it is necessary to give the poem the kind of life it wouldn’t have if it stayed locked in a line or inside of a book. I am curious about whether or not they pace their living room, reading the poems over and over so they can hear them aloud, so they can listen to what the poems want to do or how they should change.

Of course, there are poems I will never read aloud—they are too cumbersome in my mouth or their structure is complicated and only suited to burden the eye. There are poems that are written with an audible voice in my head and these are surely, the ones that find a sound stage. I have to add that I really enjoy reading. When I stand at the podium, sails lift inside of me. The Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria are off inside of my limbs and each poem is a new America. A nervous (sometimes very nervous) excitement builds until it finds itself in a new world. There is something familiar about reading the poem aloud—perhaps because I have done so many times. There is also the thrill of foreign discovery: moments the audience laughs when I didn’t expect them to or lines that hang in the air long enough for people to recite them back to me at the end. I often find myself feeling just as scintillated when I see someone recite his or her own work.

So why all of this obsessive thinking about the recitation of memorized poems? Many of you may feel that yes, well, knowing one’s work is part of a being a poet—a way of making the work, “one’s own.” The truth is that a friend and fellow poet and I got into a slightly heated (on my part) debate. He said that he didn’t like when people recited their work; it made him nervous. He liked a fellow poet’s recitation the least of one particular reading, which I only assumed, was also what he hated about mine. He said that finding recitation favorable was “a matter of taste” and that the time one spends time memorizing could be the time one spent writing. This is one of those moments when I realize that you, dear reader, may align yourself with the enemy and say, well yes it is a waste of time! Yes, one could be writing new poems instead of memorizing. However, what you need to realize (and probably already know) is that for every ten poems you write, one or two will be “good.” I say, you could have spent the time writing those crappy poems, memorizing the one or two good poems.

In short, My Friend Against Memorization believes that memorizing one’s poems and reciting them from memory at a reading is a waste of time, if not a little pretentious. Given my love of arguing, and the challenge (because it truly is a personal challenge) of memorizing one’s work, I made this a personal battle.  I stated that for one, his poems were not the kind of poems that begged to be memorized and given flight by the reader’s eye contact and tone. He agreed. I offered this notion as a small white flag and suggested that perhaps this was why he felt so beleaguered by memorization. I also pointed out that some poems lie flat on the page but when spoken, are infused with a gorgeous rage that is confirmed on the faces of the people listening. Most poets I know are in awe of other poets who read from memory. So why does my friend disagree so wholeheartedly? Is there something I am missing? Am I caught up in the glam of performing? (I am a Leo, after all…)

I think part of the answer lies in the way we accept confrontation. Rector’s knowledge was intimidating to a young graduate student. However, his delivery also enforced a power that few recognize until they are faced with it. I’d like to think of the audience like the soon-to-be-prey of a rattlesnake or a deer in the headlights of a clattering car that will not have time to move. We are all shaken, even if just a little bit, by something coming head on. When a poet is at the podium, staring at you, reading a piece of work, there is no red cape. You can look away, but you feel that poet’s eyes on you like a bull charging. In a memorized poetry reading the tauromachy becomes human. It is going to draw an opinion from the crowd and that opinion is based on how one feels about being taken and swept up into someone else’s world. This isn’t to say that if you aren’t impressed by the memorization of a poem that there is something wrong with you or that you avoid confrontation or conflict. But I do think, that if you can’t find something innate, something diamond and startling about a poet who delivers a poem, eyes locked to the audience, like a line drive to the heart, that you are missing one of the targets of poetry itself. Why keep all of it on the page? Why not give yourself up to the poem entirely?

Poetry began in the mouth. It was given by the voice as a gift. Today we write on Macs and Dells and print out a stark white sheet with little black letters on it and these letters spell something and that something is read—silently or aloud. I think that there are poems that can exist and be resonate if only seen and read silently. I’ve seen Joshua Beckman read directly from the page and feel just as inspired as when Carolyn Forche recites The Colonel. But I also believe that hearing a poet recite a piece from memory is like watching a plane take off from the runway.

You know that both poet and poem are connected, but you also need to see and hear the poem delivered completely away from the page, to know it can fly. I felt this way when I heard Eileen Myles read. It wasn’t that I didn’t like Sorry, Tree before, but hearing her tone injected a fire into me that didn’t exist in the private experience of me and the page alone. Hearing her recite pieces of the book, hearing her give not only her voice but the poem to us, cemented the experience. This experience, I believe, is an experience. When you go to hear live music, you want to feel what the musician is singing. Of course some musician’s lyrics stand alone, but most require the live presentation to sustain a following. All of us are a little bit Amelia Earhart—we stand in the field and wait for that plane to soar over us just as we sit at a reading and pray not to be bored. When a writer is reciting from memory, I pay attention a little more and I’m less inclined to let the words slip in and out of me as fast as they are spoken.

The topic of memorizing other poet’s poems is one that I am preparing to delve into and I assure you, that if you stay tuned, I can offer more insight into what is a kind of craft—just as nostalgic as making a book by hand. Poets Who Memorize the work of “classic” and contemporary poets are like physicists who internalize the periodic table or pilots who know the migration of all the birds on their flight path.  I have several friends who try to memorize another poet’s poem each week. I regard them with mixed jealousy and respect. I think if we want to be responsible writers, we should commit to knowing a few pieces that live inside of us, not only in a book. The truth is, it IS difficult to memorize many of the nuances in a poem, especially ones that are wrought with complicated enjambment. Therefore, by accepting the challenge, you can only further the ownership of each poem you write.

This weekend I had the pleasure of hearing Heather Christle read from her debut book, The Difficult Farm. She sat at the microphone and proceeded to recite—Every. Single. Poem. It wasn’t just the fact that Christle was a Poet Who Memorized, it was that the poems became ours too. She read in a slightly monotone voice, a slight smile on her face. It complemented, if not elevated, her work. Mid-reading, I messaged My Friend Against Memorization, who is also a huge fan of Christle’s, just to let him know that one his favorite poets could be scratched off the list of Poets Who Have Taste. Just to let him know that, you know, maybe I was just a little bit right about something. He texted me back: Reynolds-1, Me-0.

In a photograph of my father’s Rhode Island,
His home describes itself in tactile, sculptural terms.

A well looms. Once, I stared the photo down
Till I could picture it—till the clapboard

And shingles lay like any focused thought
Against a pure white backdrop. Now

It was an idealized beauty treated as a vision,
But an abstraction unquiet in its given body—

Insistant, puritanical & aware of its materials
And heft—stolid and wooden. The roof joists

Turn up, but return earthward decisively
Like a check-mark upside-down.

We staked it out when I first saw New England.
My father pointed, Look at the well, it’s gone.


Alexander Landfair lives on Manhattan, where he is the associate poetry editor of Narrative Magazine. He was recently a Finalist for Poetry’s Ruth Lilly Fellowship.

Posted in tandem with www.scatteredrhymes.com

Part 1

Part 2

Monkey Heart

Pick it up.
Consider it a machine.
Put it down.
Remember you need it.
Go back to where you left it.
Airport terminal, donut shop
seventh grade. Are you scared?
It’s ok. So am I.
Take a wet rag. Put it on your head.
Let’s retrace your steps.
Do you love your wife?
Is she made of dolphins?
I love my fucking life.
Even my secrets
and the terrible things I’ve done.
They’re like small smooth stones
in a green plastic bottle
with no label. What were we doing?
Driving down a long dark street?
Does it feel exactly right?
Little fist that pumps the blood.
The flicker in your empty.

WAVE MACHINE

We go out for drinks and attack a dumpster. D takes off his pants and tries to have sex with J. My lighter is busted. I run to catch the 22. “The next step is to think like Brian.” D escapes through the kitchen. I forget to lock up the knives. Her drawer is full of strawberry condoms. I look for the green bunny poem. She drops me down the building’s side. It’s sober day. Thanks for coming to the show. There is no origin. Your emails wince. I wish they were something else, not alone. J calls me shitface with tears in his eyes. We meet at 8 and grab a bite to eat. Someone says my name is Booth. She gives me my third drink for free. Z laughs whenever a kid starts a fight. There isn’t enough sex to go around. “I can’t believe they killed-off Bodie.” I manage to see three shows a week. I’ve decided to stop sleeping you. It’s a bag of baseball bats I hand the kids. Most of the day is spent on the floor. I never open the envelope marked C. I walk down Valencia over a grate.

When Time and Space Collapse Return This Poem to its Source

Do you ever think about love?
I believe love is Michael Burkard.
There are many disturbing facts

about the nature of reality. Burkard
takes the L to Lorimer St. and transfers
to the G. He is meeting friends for dinner.

All matter is just empty space revolving
around a pinhead of energy growing
more and more tired each moment.

Sadness is a kind of purity that Michael
Burkard uses to drain the darkness
from his fingertips. When droplets of rain

fall from the branches into the water
below it creates concentric ripples moving
outward into everything and cannot be stopped.

Michael Burkard is thinking about this poem
he won’t write until seventeen hours
in the future, while he sits alone in his apartment

feeling like a ghost. Purple light passes
through curtain after curtain until it reaches
the retina and escapes. Michael Burkard

is eating spaghetti with friends. He is rewriting
a line of poetry again and again in his head.
He is writing the Selected Poems of Michael Burkard.


POSTSCRIPT
Links to things mentioned in the interview; they will all open in a new tab so you can indiscriminately click without interrupting the show:

Mirov’s Blog

Books
I is to Vorticism by Ben Mirov
Collected Philip Larkin
Kasmir by John Leon
Envelope of Night: Michael Burkard Selected and Uncollected
Ooga Booga by Frederick Seidel

Music
Archers of Loaf
Islands
Bibio
Bill Evans
All this stuff is thanks to Mirov, but here’s one tune I’ve been obsessed with recently:
Bill Callahan

Today I thought I should add my secret voice to your evaluations.
Your intelligence may be genius, but remember as my mother said also always be nice.
A seventh grade teacher consoled me when I was teased:
You can always tell the genius by the enemies who surround him.
Try, though it’s impossible. See JA. Make no enemies.
Well, you’ll always have aesthetic enemies just by liking something “they don’t.”
But I’ve noticed even one personal enemy is too much in the tiny circle of Prospero’s Kabbalah.
You impress me and you’re so young, so you have I think one task: Go on! Keep working,
and keep your opinions growing widening and changing.
One day love Chatterton. The next day read Villon.
One month give up to Proust, one year give up to Kafka.
Pound’s big canon is correct: Be curious like a physical scientist (Aggazis for Pound).
Keep your work, throw nothing away, it might be the best you’ll do one day.
Don’t be arrogant with the stupid as I was accused and am.
See the dynamics of politics and art but without getting bitter.
Reject none of the great religions—read and memorize all sacred texts without belief.
Or keep them with you if must for certain periods.
Be interested in all the arts. That includes architecture, dance, painting, sculpture.
Read more than philosophers in philosophy.
But don’t make your poems be a vessel just of abstractions.
Exercise in real life, stay healthy, don’t take drugs, don’t drink like kids.
Read all the old magazines. Find a library that has them.
Know 1952 and 1852 as if they were 2010.
Have together in your mind the value of the concrete particular.
Make your work dazzle but not razzledazzle—make your being elegant and defended.
Read all of Shakespeare and the great commentaries—that doesn’t just mean Uncle Harold necessarily.
Learn languages. Each language is worth 500,000 or more.
When you learn a language, keep it up.
Translate a page every day.
I mean mistranslate a page every day and that will be a religious duty.
Don’t be a Rilke—practicing vulnerability.
Make it your business to read Marx AND Finnegans Wake.
Search out no great men—be a great man.
Don’t let emotional problems destroy you.
Don’t commit suicide obviously, and learn to scorn it but not the victim.
Don’t get married too young and if you have to write love poems, do.
Try writing 20 songs a year.
Try writing short stories. Read Kawabata.
Read everything that Meyer Schapiro footnotes.
Learn to travel and be one “on whom nothing is lost.”
Continue reading James even if others tell you they haven’t.
They will and they will have the subtlest teacher. Therefore,
read William and Henry and their father. Good luck,
David Shapiro in a Polonius-like mood.

This is not my first year of teaching high school English, but it is my first year teaching at one of Portland, Oregon’s lowest-achieving high schools. There is much to say about my students’ backgrounds that might explain their sub-standard reading and writing: they come from a variety of places, including the mountains of Southeast Asia, refugee camps in Africa, former Soviet republics, Pacific Islands, etc; the neighborhood culture is, in general, one of generational poverty, which means that many students lack good role models and education-minded guardians at home (or they transfer to other schools in the district, as more than half of the neighborhood’s students have done based on their No Child Left Behind right to attend successful schools); a lack of steady educational funding and organizational constitution has created tremendous instability in this particular school in recent years; and this list of could go on forever.

But I’m not writing to regale you about the challenges of public education in North Portland. What I’m interested in today is how writers think about and cash in on unintended slips in language. For example, my ninth grade students recently wrote essays about a novel in which a character wakes up from a coma. In every third paper, however, I found this character waking up from a “comma,” and immediately wondered if I myself could capitalize on their typo by using it in a poem. This reminded me of hearing Matthew Zapruder talk to a gathering of graduate poetry students last year (myself among them) about his process in writing one of his books.

First, Zapruder told us, he had the romantic notion to write the whole thing on a typewriter. Second, he told us that when he made an error, he let the typo remain in place of the consciously intended word, with the rationale that typos plumb the depths of our consciousness and contemporary word processing suppresses or erases evidence of our subconscious language about the world. Zapruder seemed to feel that his typos weren’t missteps, but expressed what he perhaps truly, if only deep within, was trying to say.

Clearly, this is not what was happening in my students’ papers. The fact is, bless their hearts, some of them do not appear to know that “coma” and “comma” are different words. This suggests that Zapruder’s approach could, in the wrong hands, lead to automatic writing—which of course points to the experiments of Gertrude Stein and a whole host of early 20th Century ideas about the structures of our minds, identities, the occult, and language. I’m dubious about this as a process for writing good poetry, despite the scant mathematical possibility of a hypothetical monkey, given enough time and a typewriter, randomly recreating the works of William Shakespeare, and/or all of the “Chicken Soup for the [insert your typo here] Soul” books, and/or Matthew Zapruder’s poems (which I admire), and so on.

Yet this approach to writing also reminds me of the classical notion of divine-inspired artistry. In a more positive light, Zapruder’s method invites a muse, disguised as Accident, to write his poems. Per my own romantic leanings, I’m far more willing to accept this as an approach to making poetry. The poet, in this schema, is conscious of his or her agency as a conduit for divine creation. Mebdh McGuckian’s wonderful poetry springs to my mind here, as I long ago heard her use the word “vatic” to describe her process. Yet in this same discussion McGuckian was quick to mention that she remains highly conscious about words and their apt usage—she asserted that you only get to use some words once, and then never again. The word “fontanelle” was the example she gave as one that she never will be able to use twice, even if her subconscious or muse might will it. One’s ability thus to revise, to assert his or her consciousness on the muse’s inspiration, is required. The Ancient Greeks themselves were well aware that some people were better “conduits” for poetry than others.

Lastly, as a final thought on accident and inspiration, my students’ coma/comma confusion also reminded me of a poem by Stephen Dunn. “His Town,” which appears in Different Hours (which won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize), bears the epigraph: “The town was in the mists of chaos. –A student’s typo,” and the first stanza reads:

He wasn’t surprised. What town wasn’t?
Everywhere the mists of property, the mists
of language. Every Main Street he’d known
shrouded in itself. The mist-filled churches
and the mist-filled stores in strange collusion.

For Dunn, accident is supple—a point of possible redirection from we expected or intended to go. In his student’s error he finds not a rueful mistake but a useful “mist.” And perhaps this is a clue about how to think about accident and inspiration. When lucky, our mistakes may become mists. We may credit the divine or the murky depths of ourselves for such slips, or we can acknowledge the great mistiness of where everything comes from, including our mistakes. For in the end, concern for from whence the products of our lives spring might amount to a bit of pedantic frippery—psychology, spirituality, whatever. Yet somewhere, someone will always be waking from or slipping into a “comma,” including the best educated, the most grammatically and syntactically refined of us. We should remember to thank our proverbial gods for this.

I recommend playing all the videos at the same time.
[click to continue…]

Life consists of propositions about life.

—Wallace Stevens

I.

A certain esteemed professor requires that those enrolled in his poetry workshop meet with him in his downtown studio apartment, right off Washington Square.

Once inside, the student hands over a few poems and watches the professor–clipboard in one hand, red pen in the other–scrutinize every word of every line of every stanza of each poem.

At the end of the hour, the student will rise from the couch, the professor will rise from his chair, a small ancient French bulldog that has since settled, drooled and snored on either available lap (usually the student’s) will remove himself begrudgingly and resituate his arthritic corporeal freight on the floor, and fall back asleep.  The student receives his or her scarred poems, exits the apartment, takes the elevator downstairs, crosses the courtyard, goes through a stone tunnel, and passes through the tall iron gate onto Waverly Place.

That is, believe me, the easy part.

II.

Upon arrival for the appointment, the student would stand outside the gate.  He or she would locate the correct code and buzz the professor.  A corresponding buzz would sound.  But nothing happened.  The gate, unwavering, would not open.

The student would have, then, three options:

1) Buzz again, knowing that each additional buzz directly corresponded to the professors heightened annoyance level.

2) Wait for a resident of the building to pass through the gate, then sneak in behind them.

3) Run.

3a) Away.

III.

Let me take a moment to reproduce here the beginning of Kafka’s “Before the Law”:

Before the Law stands a doorkeeper.  To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law.  But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment.  The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in later.  ‘It is possible,’ says the doorkeeper, ‘but not at the moment.’  Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior.

(Let me interrupt for a moment.  This man trying to gain admittance to the Law has it easy compared to the MFA student trying to gain admittance to Poetry.  The gate to the Law is just standing there wide open!)

Observing that, the doorkeeper laughs and says: ‘If you are so drawn to it, just try to go in despite my veto.  But take note: I am powerful.  And I am only the least of the doorkeepers.  From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last.  The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot bear to look at him.’

(Ok, sure.  This guy’s situation looks a little bleaker.  But I’d hedge my bets that no doorkeeper is so terrible that a little monetary persuasion wouldn’t go a long way.)

These are difficulties the man from the country has not expected; the Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone….

(These were difficulties the MFA student from Virginia had not expected; Poetry Class, I thought, should surely be accessible at the appointed time and to me.)

IV.

I started bringing an accomplice whose function was to ensure that I enter the gate, not remain stuck outside it, crumbling to a ruin of a human being into a pool of my own tears and sweat.

This is how we’d work it:

1) Dressed in inconspicuous clothing, arrive a half hour to an hour before the appointment.

2) Wait for a resident to pass through the gate, going in or going out.

3) Student thrusts a limb between open gate and its jamb.

4) Accomplice waits outside the gate; Student waits inside the gate.

5) At the appropriate time, Accomplice buzzes Professor, impersonating student, if need be.

6) Student waits for signal–the sound of the mechanism buzzing but not unlatching.

7) Student hurries upstairs; Accomplice hurries to nearest bar.

V.  Intermission

The Gate

by Marie Howe

I had no idea that the gate I would step through
to finally enter this world
would be the space my brother’s body made. He was
a little taller than me: a young man
but grown, himself by then,
done at twenty-eight, having folded every sheet,
rinsed every glass he would ever rinse under the cold
and running water.
This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This—holding up my cheese and mustard sandwich.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This, sort of looking around.

VI. Sentimental Ending

Time is marked, I’ve found, by eras in which a certain combination occurs–that class, that job, that boyfriend, that song, that idea, those people, that uptown train, that crosstown bus, that metaphor, that place for coffee in the mornings.  This winter, I’ve been thinking about that winter, the first winter I was finally living and writing in New York, when I felt like I was just outside the life I was trying to make for myself.  That was the winter when, once a week, I’d take the 1 train to the R to 8th Street, where I had an appointment to hear about all the things I was still doing wrong.  That was the winter when I’d meet Accomplice at the gate and we’d just stand there together, waiting.

I’m planning on doing another entry today about Grossman, but I’m at work and I forgot my copy of Singer. In the meantime, I wanted to share a BBC series that is available on YouTube. A professor I know shared this with me, after I shared a link to Simon Schama’s Power of Art episode on Rembrandt.

I’m sharing this video (and my e-mail response to that professor) in an attempt to balance my Grossman post from last week, lest you think I’m only a cranky traditionalist.

First, the video…

And my email response to this professor…

an interesting set of videos.

though i’m not sure i’d start where scruton starts: art being buffeted on two sides by the cult of ugliness and the cult of utility. i think that’s putting the cart before the horse, in a sense, because it implies a sort of propriety about what art should contain and what it should not. i’m not the only poet who is grateful for the high modernist poets like eliot and pound and for the postmodern cornucopia of styles. on the other hand, i recognize the crisis that this freedom has unleashed.

for me, it seems the proper place to start with art is with the person, with a love of persons. in a sense, i would begin where scruton ends. and move backwards through the videos. i think it’s interesting when scruton finally talks about the value of persons (around video 5), he begins to acknowledge the way that messiness, filth, even ugliness can be great art. i’m thinking of a piece like guernica, which is just awful to stare at and ponder. it’s incredibly ugly, in a sense, yet what makes it great and vital, in part, is the fact that it contains the tragedy of persons.

when i look at emmins bed, i see an egoism that is ugly because it the artist has no care for the opinion of the those who see the art: “it’s art because i say it’s art and i don’t give a damn what you have to say about it.” there is no reaching out, no interest in the community that art could serve. the painting of the bed does not demonstrate this hatred for neighbor.

i’m really interested in the idea of the person, and have been reading a lot of jp2 recently. i want it to be less about finding a place where the “real and ideal meet.” i can appreciate that statement but i’m not sure how helpful it is. i feel like the “personalistic norm” is important somehow, but i’m still trying to figure out how.

What did you think of the video? Is Scruton just a cranky traditionalist or does he have valid criticisms about “the cult of ugliness”? Does this cult even exist?

‘Crusoe in England’ was first published in The New Yorker in 1971, then later collected in ‘Geography III,’ perhaps Bishop’s finest single volume of poems. (Only recently I discovered the title of which was suggested to her by John Ashbery. He had found a little geography textbook of the eponymous name, and sent it to her, thinking she’d rather enjoy it. Turns out, she did.)

I can’t help thinking ‘Crusoe in England’ is Bishop’s greatest poem, though Bishop is the type of figure who inspires worshippers, and therefore, nearly all of her poems are considered The Greatest, The Most Favorite, The Defining Classic: ‘The Fish,’ ‘At the Fishhouses,’ ‘One Art’ (which wears on me), ‘The Man-Moth,’ etc. Ashbery’s favorite is characteristically ‘Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance.’ After reading it, he wrote Bishop his first and only fan letter and attached the poem he wrote in tribute ‘Soonest Mended.’ Ashbery also adores ‘A Miracle for Breakfast’ for the charm of a strict form like the sestina depicting a daily meal (one thinks of a Fairfield Porter interior in the Bonnard style, teacups and silverware placed around a family dinner table next to a copy of Wallace Stevens’ poems). Helen Vendler’s favorite is ‘Brazil, January 1, 1502’—or maybe it’s simply the poem of Bishop’s she has written most beautifully about. Harold Bloom’s favorite is a small gem from her first book, ‘The Unbeliever,’ which he finds to be a pure Romantic lyric in the Shelleyian vein. Christopher Ricks once told me how much he cherished ‘The Filling Station,’ though he has reservations about EB, and prefers her prose. Scott Cairns—like Mark Strand—thinks ‘The Monument’ a perfect poem because it is enacts what it describes, full of those tromp l’oeil effects where poems step off the page: “Look!” (Similar grand examples of this: Keats’ ‘This Living Hand,’ Ashbery’s ‘The Instruction Manual.’) And while I know Merrill considered her the greatest poet of his time (like many others: Randal Jarrell, Robert Lowell), I’m not sure which was his favorite poem. ‘Pink Dog’ is surely the most Merrillesque—for its astute powers of observation mixed with the reticence of its sophistication. It’s a mellow poem that reminds me how much both poets really learned from Auden.

Clearly, she was and is a well-loved poet. I’ve been using ‘the greatest’ and ‘favorite’ almost interchangeably, which is not quite right. ‘Crusoe in England’ might be both for me, though I admit to always having had a soft spot for ‘North Haven.’ Was a more intimate and moving elegy ever written by one poet for another? As Bishop said to Lowell in a letter: “I want to be heartbreaking.” ‘North Haven’ is compactest proof.

So what’s so amazing and appealing about ‘Crusoe in England’? For starters, it’s one of Bishop’s longest poems, if not the longest; it was written towards the end of her life, and in it, one finds an entire life—Crusoe’s (i.e. Bishop’s)—compressed soberly, hauntingly. Bishop was a wordsmith but in her poetry she is no less a painter: the array of detail is uncannily fresh, mostly for its accuracy, but no less for its originality. Steam rises in the distance from the volcanoed island like flies; the volcanoes themselves stand like mountains with their heads blown off. Every sense has been answered to, from the smell of guano to the touch and texture of the hissing lava, the rolling gulls and quaking turtles, the horrifying baby goats.

Still, previous poems of hers have shown the same brilliance and grace of description. In ‘Crusoe,’ that painterly hand is matched with a cadence of melancholy and surrender that comes from staring back at the unexpected—or was it expected?—course of a single life. “None of the books has ever got it right.” “Beautiful, yes, but not much company.” “I often gave way to self-pity.” These asides, seemingly dropped down in the poem carelessly, are the signs of her mastery. The voice of this poem, like its tone, betrays her inimitable dramatic understatement. It reminds me of the quietness of Auden’s love lyrics, or the intimacy of Coleridge’s Conversation Poems. And speaking of Coleridge, of whom Bishop was a lifelong devotee, ‘Crusoe’ is also a poem suffused with allusions to Romanticism—there’s the title character, of course, written in the vein of 19th century adventure travelogues; there’s also the Wordsworth quote from ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.’ I also hear in her hallucinated sunsets that mysterious ballad ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ And then in her play of Mont d’Espoir for Mount Despair—a telling trickery, that is so reserved, and sad—you also see a wink at Shelley and Wordsworth who found in the Alps something like a confrontation with existential reality—a sublime affirmation for one, a sublime negation for the other.

Bishop spent most of her adult life in Brazil, away from academia and the limelight she had received ever since Marianne Moore brought her to the attention of the general reading public. An orphan, an exile, a lesbian—all of these personal histories are entwined in ‘Crusoe in England’ that underscores how her life ended. Bishop would return to America, die in Cambridge, having survived the love of her life’s suicide. Her last days were as a professor at Harvard. As the title belies, the adventures have ended. Crusoe is back in England, Bishop in the States. Just as Crusoe’s imaginative paraphernalia have been incased in museum glass, so have Bishop’s manuscripts and poems been handed over to other people. What ultimately remains of any artist’s life but an attempt to make some lasting object? That’s the Ovidian monument against time, yes, but it’s also another momentum mori. Art may go on, we certainly don’t. Like Don Quixote waking from his reveries to find himself the published character in his mad odyssey, we—like Crusoe, like even the great poet Elizabeth Bishop—are defeated by reality.

You can read and hear her reciting “Crusoe in England” at Poetryarchive.org. Below, a recording of Bishop reading “In the Waiting Room.”

Elizabeth Bishop – In the Waiting Room .mp3

by Elizabeth Bishop

The moon in the bureau mirror
looks out a million miles
(and perhaps with pride, at herself,
but she never, never smiles)
far and away beyond sleep, or
perhaps she’s a daytime sleeper.

By the Universe deserted,
she’d tell it to go to hell,
and she’d find a body of water,
or a mirror, on which to dwell.
So wrap up care in a cobweb
and drop it down the well

into that world inverted
where left is always right,
where the shadows are really the body,
where we stay awake all night,
where the heavens are shallow as the sea
is now deep, and you love me.

Forgot to post yesterday. To compensate, I am typing a poem “by heart”—you may know it already, by Ms Jorie Graham…

THE WAY THINGS WORK

is by admitting
or opening away.
This is the simplest form
of current: Blue
moving through blue;
blue through purple;
the objects of desire
opening upon themselves
without us;
the objects of faith.
The way things work
is by solution,
resistence lessened or
increased and taken
advantage of.
The way things work
is that we finally believe
they are there,
common and able
to illustrate themselves.
Wheel, kinetic flow,
rising and falling water,
ingots, levers and keys,
I believe in you,
cylinder lock, pully,
lifting tackle and
crane lift your small head—
I believe in you—
your head is the horizon to
my hand. I believe
forever in the hooks.
The way things work
is that eventually
something catches.

On our way back from the Sand Paper Press reading at Adobe Books in San Francisco, Arlo Haskell and I drove through Big Sur on our way back to Los Angeles.  Arlo had never been before; this was my fourth visit, my third in six months.  I never stay longer than twenty-four hours.  I don’t know why.  As someone who doesn’t normally feel a primal connection to a place, I ought to take advantage of the stirrings when they occur.  Certainly I wouldn’t have been the first to feel them in this place.  Robinson Jeffers, Henry Miller,

Jack Kerouac, California pioneers, assorted Hollywood moguls, and migratory whales have all experienced Big Sur’s poweful pull.

The other day the ambience at Big Sur was particularly dramatic.  There was mist in the air from everywhere – from the mountains to the west, where fog was stuck; from the ocean, which was pounding the rocks with particular force.   And the sun stuck the mist similarly everywhere, so that the air glowed yellow, the fabled gold of California.

When you drive south through Big Sur, you must stop and see the elephant seals at Piedras Blancas.  There were huge males on the beach on Tuesday, maybe 15 feet long, with doe-like black eyes and crumpled snouts  that look like a baby bird has perched on their faces.

This reminds me of a poem by the wonderful Argentinian poet Hector Viel Temperley, whose work I have been translating for some years.  It’s from Legión extranjera (1978), a breakthrough volume in which Viel’s surrealist and visionary Christian impulses begin to catapult one another, and the reader, into vertiginous orbit.  The poem is ‘El verde claro’ (The Luminous Green), and in it the poet listens to a woman (perhaps a naturalist?) as he stands on the shore: ‘Between the lighthouse and the spray and the green crags / one of the women explained it all: / She explained how old elephant seals / are forced to stop pursuing the females and so / They rub their penises on the baby / elephant seals / and with their flippers keep them still // I told her a different story : / Not so long ago I met a young monk fresh from the cloister / who writes hymns for the services / And not only does he write music and lyrics / But he signs his name and sings them / He’s got a good voice / and can play the guitar / But this isn’t getting us anywhere! / I dreamed about closer, more likely things / My other and I are two bags of luminous green / connected by an umbilical cord / And sharks flee from our luminous / green shadows / while we tread water in a luminous green sea / in the luminous / Green breath of an African sea.’

Viel deserves to be better known even in his native country, and certainly in this one as well, a situation I am hoping to soon improve.

(Disclaimer:  Ok, yes.  This is a post about pens.  But bear with me—I actually do have an idea here.)

I found my favorite pen at home—my mother’s house in Northern Virginia.  The townhouse is a small one, and is filled with thirteen years worth of the kind of stuff a family with an inclination toward a breed of boredom that stems from a general suspicion that life is meaningless accumulates when it stays in one place for long enough:

Construction paper, watercolor paper, canvases, palettes, coloring books, markers, crayons, colored pencils, pastels, gauche, acrylics, water-soluble oils, oils.  A flute, a piccolo, three recorders, an Irish penny whistle, a Jew’s harp, a harmonica, a kazoo or two, an old guitar.  Knitting projects, beading projects, thread, needles, needlepoint, thimbles, embroidery floss of all colors, clay.  Two chessboards, Scrabble, Perquacky, Yahtzee, Sorry, Past Lives, Life.

The house is also full of exhausted pens.  It usually takes three or four trial runs on scrap paper to find a pen that still contains some ink.  (Maybe throwing away an empty pen, for my family, seems a gesture rife with symbolism, a gesture of giving up?)  The working pen I happened to find and accidentally adopt, tossing it in my bag on one of my visits there before heading back to New York, reads in white lettering on a translucent dark green casing: ADAMS-GREEN FUNERAL HOME AND CREMATORY, with an address, phone number and website.

It’s only held favorite status recently.  I’d reach into my bottomless tote, scrounging as always, and pull any one of the writing implements out, but I started to notice that when I’d pull out this pen, with the translucent green casing and the silver tip, something in me would exclaim, “You!” and I’d find myself grinning.  And then again, I’d reach in, and, “Ah ha!  There you are!”  And, “Bonjour! Adams-Green!”  And, “A.G.!  You little vixen, you!”

I like it because it reminds me:  Write something down because you are going to die.

This might seem like an unnecessary amount of pressure to put on oneself, especially if the writing implement is being used to write something like—I’m reaching for the nearest mini post-it pad as we speak—“Bob wanted to play Yahtzee & eat oatmeal cookies.”  But this note matters.  I don’t know how or why just yet, but I feel it does.

In “Body and Soul,” from A Short History of the Shadow, Charles Wright writes, “Write as though you had in hand the last pencil on earth.”  Right.  Right?  Right.

It’s important not to lose sight of this:  That what is written, even if no one reads it, is important, that there isn’t really any time to waste, that if you have something to say—even if it’s “Bob wanted to play Yahtzee and eat oatmeal cookies”—say what you came here to say, and try to be honest.

In their second conversation, Mark Halliday and Allen Grossman attempt to answer the question “Where are we now in the history of poetry?”

I figured I’d highlight a few of the most interesting takes on poets of the last hundred years. I want to then use it as the basis of a discussion on the relation of past poetry (and other art) and its relation to the present situation of poetry. Overall, there is a rather nice arc that Grossman paints…

On the “high moderns” (Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and I think he later includes Crane):

[They] used up the idea of greatness or implicated that idea in complex ways with aspects of civilization…that produced the Second World War….Poetry was not helping us learn how to live because the High Moderns…set poetry against life. They seemed to have established the outcome of poetic enterprise outside of life in unreachable transcendentalisms which no longer made any sense at all [to poets coming after World War 2]. The immediate response to the High Moderns was to conserve them academically and therefore neutralize them, and then to retrench upon the world not of transcendental reality but of what, loosely speaking, can be called an immanent counter-reality.

Lowell came along to take on the mantle of “immanence”:

Life Studies (1959) [was his attempt] to effect a disencumbrance of mediations, to obtain a direct relationship to the life of his own consciousness unmediated by the vast structural impositions of the greatest predecessors, of whom Yeats is the example that most often comes to my mind….I think that the sentiment which surrounded Lowell’s massive and persevering effort to obtain a poetry which was more fully immanent to the world of his consciousness, and less fundamentally characterized by the self-reference of poetry to its own history, represents a response to that predicament which I was speaking of in our first conversation. It represents an effort to obtain a poetry which is in harmony with the life of sentiment; that is to say, the life of human immediacy rather than, as in Yeats, a poetry which demanded of what he called “the intellect of man” that it choose between a perfection of the life, for which he had little talent, and that perfection of the art for which he was so massively gifted.

Grossman is careful to note that Lowell’s search “did not indeed constitute a disavowal of greatness, a disavowal of universal stature.” That is, Lowell did not disavow transcendence in favor of immanence, which Grossman defines as follows: “initially a theological word,…it means indwelling; and that inness always implies an internality to the human world.”

On “immanent” confessionalists:

There is the mortal family and the immortal family. The immanent confessional poets, who announced the world in which you began writing, turn from the transcendental family to the mortal family, attempt to construct a poetry internal to that mortal family, a poetry founded in the notion that the language adequate to produce the picture of the person as precious is consistent with the language of ordinary life.

About Ginsberg:

…in Howl, [he] undertook “to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose” on the basis of immediate relationship between persons. The enormous opening sentence of Howl constitutes an effort to extricate a single relationship from the predation of transcendence upon the fragile scene of human love. In Ginsberg’s poem, the whole world of drugs in indistinguishable from the central culture of decadence, and the angelic transcendence of a prior metaphysicalism embedded in the Beat jargon which he practiced, hardly distinguishable from the Moloch which he calls contemporary society.

Grossman points out that an important shift happened in 1950s America: “the national symbol, always a resource for the grounding of poetic authority, was discredited….The discrediting of the national symbol—“America” for the American poet—continued relentlessly through the sixties and early seventies…and disempowered one great basis for legitimation of the self—the nation.” He goes on to say that “the absence of a world that is organized by authority…[is] enormously disabling, and yet at the same time, enabling in a fashion so open it lacks the magnanimity of direction.”

On Ammons:

…situates his poetry on the fundamentally romantic problem of epistemology, the problem which focuses the business of personhood upon the question as to how the way in which we know the world affects the way in which the world is experienced.

Ashbery:

…[writes] in virtually autistic isolation…a poet whose creative power, particularly whose capacity to conceive of ways of entering into discourse inconceivable to me until he showed the way…seems to search the resources of discourse without ever allowing them to complete themselves….Ashbery is an epistemological genius whose world has arrayed itself around him as a world in which it’s possible for a man to live on condition that he reserves his passion for totality, as it were for another life. His world is a separate world in which it is impossible to meet another soul….Ashbery is not so much an epistemological writer as a writer about ontological orientation.

(Halliday described Ashbery as “melting together…syntactical fragments that could have been quite at home in a poem from an earlier age.” For a fuller explanation of this, I recommend Chris Robinson’s opus on how Ashbery composes poetry.)

OK! Flurry of quotes done. Since this conversation happened in 1981, it seems appropriate to try and update this arc. Admittedly, I left out a few other poets that Grossman had fascinating takes on, mostly for the sake of space and forwarding my rather tidy narrative of poetic fragmentation.

I would be very interested in hearing your reactions to Grossman’s characterizations as well as your own thoughts on the state of current poetry. What follows is mine.

I confess that there seems to me to be a crisis in current poetry. There is so much free space to carve out, nobody knows where to begin, and everyone seems to be waiting for the next great someone to do something that wows. Stephen Ross talks about this in the Oxnian Review, the trend in recent poetry to be hybrids only:

Hybrid poets have also breathed new life into the use of caesura, a break or a sense pause in verse often marked by white space between the words. In this regard, they have been inspired in equal parts by sources ranging from Beowulf to John Berryman’s Dream Songs. Sometimes, they break their lines into a kind of staggered ladder, a la William Carlos Williams. Other times they just write in prose. All of it flows from the postmodern horn of plenty.

Hybrid poets are by-and-large adept, though sometimes shallow, name-droppers from the western and eastern intellectual traditions. In American Hybrid alone, one finds direct references to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simone Weil, the pre-socratics, Cornel West, Paul Celan, Hsuan Tsang (a possibly fictitious Buddhist monk), Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ezra Pound, Sophocles, Maimonides, Alfred North Whitehead, Wallace Stevens, J.M. Coetzee, and Hegel. Thomas Aquinas and scholasticism also appear surprisingly often; indeed, the hybrids have a kind of neo-scholastic penchant for (often inane) logic-chopping and for communicating in breathtakingly precise terms.

My sense of crisis lies with this question: Are we so poetically promiscuous out of a sense of freedom or because we don’t know what else to do? Ironically, modern poets name drop as much as Pound and Eliot, but for completely different reasons. For the High Moderns, there was a sense that they could realistically “shore these fragments against [their] ruin.” Today we shore them because we’re garbage collectors of the dump of the past. Less-educated poets often have no idea who they’re channeling. More-educated poets sometimes channel so much it’s suffocating. Moreover, the channeling is less about inspiration, using the poetic past as a way forward.

This brings me to another crisis in current poetry, that of publishing (ironically, I am speaking from the platform of a brand-new poetry blog, self-powered by WordPress). Many of you might have read David Alpaugh’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The New Math of Poetry” in which he repeats the oft-heard lament that the current world of poetry is so large and unwieldy that it is completely impenetrable:

Every now and then someone asks me, “Who are the best poets writing today?” My answer? “I have no idea.” Nor do I believe that anyone else does. I do have an uneasy feeling that a Blake and a Dickinson may be buried in the overgrowth, and I fear that neither current nor future readers may get to enjoy their art.

We recent poets have two great tools at our disposal: freedom of poetic license, and freedom of publishing. Generally, we can say whatever we want, and get a significant number of people to hear what we have to say. The question is whether this freedom has led to better poetry or degeneration. Perhaps that’s not the best way to put it. The question should be, even if somebody is doing something amazing and new in poetry, would we even see it? Will we travel all this way to find that we really did need the gatekeepers of poetry??

What should our attitude be toward the “postmodern horn of plenty” that has affected both poetic license and publishing? Film also seems to be facing a similar crisis with the question of digital vs. film. I found an interview with one of my favorite film critics, Armond White, in which he addresses this question.

Steve Boone: What it suggests to me is that radical visions from people who would otherwise not have been bothered because of the mountain you’d have to climb to get a film completed, the translators you’d have to employ, would no longer be an issue, and you’d take camera in hand. Super 8, Pixelvision, Hi-8—all that stuff was nice, but it was low-resolution and if you put them up against a 35mm projection, audience prejudices would discount these other media. Now we have these new cameras that, if you know how to light and compose and expose, your image is going to be free of those subliminal triggers that provoke an audience to dismiss a film as “not film.” All that stuff goes away.

Armond White: Well, you say “audience prejudice.” I say “audience preference,” because the screen is not a level playing field. And Americans are very fortunate to have had Hollywood, to have experienced–to know– how great photography can be. So don’t give me no bullshit. I know what great photography is. I don’t want to see somebody scrambling with their camera and trying to do things modestly. I’ve seen Joseph August and Gordon Willis. I don’t want anything less.

Two last points:

1. All this reminds me of the indie trend of a few years ago (a trend I think is dead, as indie has largely gone mainstream, right?). Everyone was obsessed with finding/naming the “greatest lost track of all time” (as Wilco put it). Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of great “indie” rock—but there’s also a lot of trash.

2. Why do I always feel like I’m complaining in my blog posts? I will say something nice in my next post, or say nothing at all.

3. OK, one more point: Who are the greatest poets writing today?