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Poetry and Poetics

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?

Above is painter Sean McElroy’s “So Just Be It.” I have known Sean a long time, and I admire both his art and intellect. I was reminded of his work yesterday as I settled down with Ben Lerner’s new book of poems, Mean Free Path (Copper Canyon Press, 2010)—a book I’ve been excited to read since, well, Lerner’s last book of poems. If I tried to say too much about these paintings and poems, I’m sure my reach would exceed my grasp, so to oversimplify I’m trying to tell you that Lerner’s new poems and McElroy’s paintings are interesting because of their appropriations of geopolitics, war, pop culture, the lexica and imagery we take for granted—I’m trying to say they get me really worked up in my thinking about our world.

Below is a Lerner stanza that reminds me of a McElroy painting:

All these flowers look the same to me
Night-vision green. There is nothing to do
In the desert but read Penthouse and lift weights
My blood is negative. That’s all you need to know
Sophisticated weaponry marries the traditional
Pleasures of perspective to the new materiality
Of point-and-click. I’m writing this one
As a woman comfortable with leading
A prisoner on a leash

To offer just a stanza doesn’t do Mean Free Path justice, of course. This is a mere snippet of a sequence of intellectually rigorous, often strange and surprisingly beautiful fragments in a composite formation. But the idea behind the piece reminds me of McElroy’s art. In a world of militarized language and images, how do we say or present our experience in a way that doesn’t slip into a Daily Show-esque mode of ironizing? Or a mode of superirony? Or something else? See McElroy’s “Looking for Fun, Outgoing, Spontaneous” for something else:

"Looking for Fun, Outgoing, Spontaneous"

What I’m trying to say is that these two artists make a great pair, and their work is great individually as well. See this from Lerner (I’m trying to mention his new book favorably, to be clear, and suggest that there’s much more to be gained by experiencing the sequence):

Birds were these little ships that flew and sang
There were some cool pics online. Funny
Strange, not ha-ha funny, how the black
Canvas grows realistic, a bird’s-eye-view
Of their disappearance. Wave after wave
Of déjà lu. After the storm, the sky turns
Night-vision green. The color of murder
I can hear the soldiers marching in my
Pillow. Even in Canada

Even when Lerner is hard to swallow, sometimes even off-putting, he’s at least interesting. See McElroy’s “A Brick is Drawn out of the Great Tomb for Thee” for such masterfully composed disturbance:

"A Brick is Drawn Out of the Great Tomb for Thee"

So what do you think? I’ll try to more coherently explain myself next week, when I attempt to more carefully review Lerner’s new book. In the meantime, I want to know if anyone else has paired a particular contemporary poet and visual artist (apart from Bianca Stone, who is enviably both in one), and I want to know what you’re excited to be reading.

You can see more of Sean McElroy’s work at: http://www.goldensplinter.com/SEAN_MCELROY

In 1977, Bill Berkson and Bernadette Mayer began a kind of interview correspondence where with they exchanged questions and answers on a variety of topics. This mutual interview continued well into the mid-80s (and still continues intermittently between Berkson and Mayer today). A book on their letters, questions, and answers titled: What’s Your Idea of a Good Time? was published a few years ago (you can find it on amazon and Alibris).

I recommend it for Bill and Bernadette’s incendiary answers, of course, but also for the questions posed (great material for cocktail parties, I might add). Often the questions one asks can be more revealing than their answers.

Here are some questions posed in the collection. I invite people to respond and pose questions of their own.

What’s your idea of a good time?

What does distance mean, in poetry?

Are poets “normal”?

What is luck or blessedness? Is it related to the sublime?

Are you the same person you were 10 years ago?

How do you decide what to wear (regardless of the weather)?

What do you think of Rousseau’s paintings?

Is poetry a residue? And of what?

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?

What is your secret inner life?

Are you interested in the Mafia?

What poems do you know by heart?

How often do you think about death?

How do you feel about children watching television?

Do you like J. Pollock’s paintings?

What are your rules for your own behavior?

Tell me something you don’t understand.