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Robert Lowell

Characters:
Wallace Stevens
Marianne Moore
Elizabeth Bishop
W.H. Auden
James Merril
Robert Lowell

Introduction

Lowell: Why are we here? Can someone tell me this, please?

Auden: A little testy, aren’t we?

Lowell: Testy? Of course. I was not planning on being summoned from the grave today, and in fact had plans this afternoon with my dead first wife.

Bishop: Do you mean Jean?

Lowell: Yes, I mean Jean. We were going to visit Boston, MA, so that I might once again visit the stomping grounds on which I bullied my classmates and earned the nickname “Cal.”

Bishop: Short for “Caligula.” And you’re proud of this?

Auden: Proud? He’s positively beaming, the old bully.

Stevens: Bully indeed. I agree with Mr. Lowell, this is a most wretched occasion for being summoned. The malady of the quotidian? I meant to say the malady of the long dead.

Merrill: An elegant turn of phrase, Mr. Stevens – just superb. But less we stray too far from the reason why we have been called from the dead, I suppose I must ask aloud, Who called, and what are we doing here? Where are we, anyways?

Moore: I called. This is my summoning.

Lowell: A-ha! So this is your doing, eh Ms. Moore? Getting lonely with only your mother in the afterlife to tend to your exacting observational powers?

Auden: “To tend to your exacting observational powers”? What happened to the antithesis of long-windedness you developed in Life Studies, by dear Robbie?

Moore: Enough. I called us together for a conversation.

Merrill: A good enough reason.

Auden: Agreed.

Bishop: Hear hear.

Lowell: Yes, and all that.

Stevens: Indeed. But pray tell, Ms. Moore: a conversation regarding what?

Moore: Regarding John Ashbery, my dear poets.

Lowell: Oh god, here we go.

Bishop: Cynical, Robert?

Lowell: Cynical? More like “risible.” I have a deep distaste for that silly man’s work.

Merrill: Ha! “Silly man”? Do explain yourself, dear Caligula.

Lowell: But where to begin? I coined, many years ago – that is, I stole, many years ago – the phrase “raw and the cooked” to describe the difference between my early work and the work of, say, Ginsberg. And yes, with Life Studies I did leave the cooked for the raw. But my poetry always maintained some aspects of the cooked – a certain formality, even in my autobiographical writings. Ashbery, on the other hand, is the rawest poet I have ever encountered, by which I do not mean to praise, but rather simply observe with some disdain.

Bishop: But do explain yourself, Robert. What you mean by “raw,” I mean.

Lowell: We might as well recite something. Here, look at this poem from the poet’s first well-received book, Some Trees. I do not wish to look at the more canonical works – “Instructional Manual,” “Some Trees,” “Illustration,” or “The Painter.” Let us look at something more “minor.” Ah! Here: “Sonnet.” Good and short. (Clearing throat)

Each servant stamps the reader with a look.
After many years he has been brought nothing.
The servant’s frown is the reader’s patience.
The servant goes to bed.
The patience rambles on
Musing on the library’s lofty holes.

His pain is the servant’s alive.
It pushes to the top stain of the wall
Its tree-top’s head of excitement:
Baskets, birds, beetles, spools.
The light walls collapse next day.
Traffic is the reader’s pictured face.
Dear, be the tree your sleep awaits;
Worms be your words, you not safe from ours.

Fellow poets, how are we supposed to read something so surreal, so nonsensical? I’m baffled.

Moore: Great question, Mr. Lowell! How do we read this poem?

(Long pause in the conversation as the poets begin thinking.)

Musicality and Narrative

Auden: I feel I owe some explanation for the poem, as I did choose John over his friend Frank O’Hara for the Yale Younger Poets Prize. Back then, I explained that John’s poetry was interesting but dangerous; that it was an interesting experiment, but that too much nonsense could deprive his poetry of too much meaning. And that would be bad.

But let me try to say more, now, about what I liked about John’s poetry, and therefore what I also admire about “Sonnet.” To begin with, a reader must always interrogate his or her own assumptions about what it is he or she likes about poetry. By self-interrogation, I do mean something analogous to the intention of psychoanalysis – that is, the better a reader understands his or her own predilections, the easier it will be for said reader to find the literature that moves this reader the most. Now, the reason I like “Sonnet” – and I know we cannot stay merely on reasons for “liking” the poetry, but I find it a fine place to begin – the reason I like “Sonnet” is because, like my own early work, Ashbery is developing a different way of talking.

Bishop: How do you mean, “a different way of talking”?

Auden: Well, if you can suffer through it, let me recite from memory one of my earliest works, entitled “Taller Today.” Afterwards I”ll explain why. (Clears his throat.)

Taller today, we remember similar evenings,
Walking together in a windless orchard
Where the brook runs over the gravel, far from the glacier.

Nights come bringing the snow, and the dead howl
Under headlands in their windy dwelling
Because the Adversary put too easy questions
On lonely roads.

But happy now, though no nearer each other,
We see farms lighted all along the valley;
Down at the mill-shed hammering stops
And men go home.

Noises at dawn will bring
Freedom for some, but not this peace
No bird can contradict: passing but here, sufficient now
For something fulfilled this hour, loved or endured.

Merrill: Beautiful. But do explain.

Auden: I believe this poem works for two reasons – one because of its music, and secondly, because of its approximation to narrative.

Lowell: And by “music” you mean…?

Auden: This is hard to say. Yet I think I mean something akin to the music that Mr. Stevens creates in his poetry. Do tell us, Mr. Stevens, how you understand what I mean when I refer to the haunting musicality of poetry, and then I shall be happy to continue.

Stevens: I’m not very comfortable discussing my own work, Mr. Auden.

Auden: Humility, expressed grandly! I appreciate the sentiment, Mr. Stevens. Well, let us return to you in a second. What I mean by musicality is something I believe Mr. Stevens refers to in his “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird:” I mean “the beauty of inflections” and “the beauty of innuendoes.” For poetry doesn’t necessarily sound like human speech. I know this sounds shamelessly obvious, but occasionally what is obvious needs to be emphasized, in case it is forgotten, shamelessly. Poetry is not simply embellished speech given a meter. It is a deeply strange and other way of speaking, with roots I would imagine in divination. It is magical. And yet what makes a phrase magical? It’s sound. Therefore, notice the sound of “windless orchard,” “lonely roads,” “Nights come bringing the snow, and the dead howl”. These are haunted, haunting phrases, and they are haunting and haunted because they are other. No one would say, in a conversation, “nights come bringing the snow,” just as no one, doodling in their notebook, would draw an enormous abstract painting the size of ten men. Such experimentation in language, like experimentation in form and color in the visual arts, heightens and augments our consciousness of language, the way that painting does the same for form, shape, color, and line. It is a seemingly deeper way of talking. And this depth, this haunting quality, is what I mean by “musicality.”

Merrill: Interesting, Wystan.

Auden: Thank you. But now, Ashbery’s work. I believe it carries this same sort of musicality. But moreover, it is a musicality that is Ashbery’s alone – he sounds like himself, and no one else.

Bishop: But what about “Some Trees”? I’ve always thought he sounded in that poem like you, Wystan.

Auden: Well, I mean as he develops as a poet. But notice some of the turns of phrases in “Sonnet,” (named, I noticed, Elizabeth, similar to your great poem, “Sestina”). “After many years he has been brought nothing.” “The light walls collapse next day.” These are assertions which are completely nonsensical. They combine the confidence of assertion with the artifice of imaginative freedom. It is for that reason they are so strange, yet lovely and, in a way, hauntingly enigmatic.

Moore: So, Mr. Auden, are you saying you like John’s poetry because he writes creative phrases?

Auden: No, but I think that is a part of it. What I’m saying is that what John is doing is harder than it looks. Here: everyone come up with a nonsensical phrase. I’ll give us ten seconds. 10….9….8…..7…..

Moore: The pelican’s head was a grouchy artichoke.

Bishop: The sandpiper’s library is a crumb of an almanac.

Stevens: Far from the languorous sea, a dog’s asbestos legs rang vividly.

Merrill: Dear, please send me those pool balls shocking the nerves of a kimono.

Lowell: Damn garret in the house sets my cigarettes to flame!

Auden: “Traffic is the reader’s pictured face.”

Lowell: But that’s a line from the poem.

Auden: Yes. I wanted to juxtapose our “nonsensical” statements, in order to show that John’s line is not very nonsensical. In fact, of all the phrases we came up with, I would say that the line “Traffic is the reader’s pictured face” is a very interesting kind of metaphor, which – in a shockingly disturbing way – seems to serve as a mirror for the reader’s own experience reading the Ashbery poem. For aren’t we all, facing “Sonnet,” as confused as a pattern of honking gridlock?

Bishop: So “Sonnet” is a mirror for the reader’s face? And what happened to the “story” you mentioned, along with the musicality?

Auden: I’m getting there. But notice the phrases in “Sonnet.” “Each servant stamps the reader with a look./ After many years he has been brought nothing. / The servant’s frown is the reader’s patience. / The servant goes to bed. / The patience rambles on / Musing on the library’s lofty holes.” Notice how each line is a separate sentence, until the final enjambed line, which is sensible, for musing is a longer process that would carry itself over, past a shorter sentence. Now, is it dangerous to say that it is as if Ashbery were voicing some of our own experiences reading the poem? For what if we were to replace “servant” with “writer”?

Each writer stamps the reader with a look.
After many years [the reader] has been brought nothing.
The writer’s frown is the reader’s patience.
The writer goes to bed.
The patience rambles on
Musing on the library’s lofty holes.

It makes more sense now, doesn’t it? Ashbery, equating the writer with a servant – perhaps who who serves creativity, imagination, new ways of thinking and talking, poetic knowledge and experience – describes one experience reading a poem. The writer makes the reader pause; the reader feels frustrated; the writer, echoing the reader’s frustration, makes the reader feel less frustrated and more patient; the writer leaves the reader, or the reader puts down the book; the feeling engendered by the skillful writer hangs in the air of the reader’s mind like a powerful lingering scent; and this lingering somehow muses on “lofty holes” in the library – perhaps a metaphor for the strangeness of the familiar.

Stevens: Bravo, Wystan! A very nice interpretation.

Auden: But I’m not finished. First, we can sense the uncanniness of the passage now, a little closer. And yet we can also see how John’s work gestures towards narrative, without becoming a narrative itself. It is suggestive – something Marjorie Perloff has also written about. And here it is suggestive, because it seems, in some very bizarre and weird way, to be ahead of the reader, to out-anticipate us, and know our expectations before we ourselves know them.

Moore: So Ashbery knows us better than we know ourselves. A discomfiting position, to say the least. But what does it actually mean?

Installation Art and Complex Moods

Merrill: I think it means something like this. Take Proust for example, that remarkable exemplar of the winding sentence brooking no obstruction, who wove tapestries of sentences that, in their unwinding joi de vivre, wove us different faces, different ways of thinking about and imagining ourselves. Proust set out to write a book, and the book turned out to be a book with a style innovative enough to spawn myriads of imitators. Why would people try to imitate the master? I believe because it was as though Proust had placed a new face us for within our own hall of mirrors. He had imagined himself and others within a new kind of vocabulary, a vocabulary that stretched our self-image, made it more elastic, more expansive, less fixed or dull. Is this what you believe Ashbery is doing, Wystan?

Auden: Precisely.

Moore: But then what is the difference between sense and nonsense? Wallace, you are famous for saying a poem, pardon the paraphrase, “resists the intelligence half-successfully.” Do not Ashbery’s poems err too much on the side of the resistance?

Stevens: I have wondered about that, especially in the poet’s second book, “The Tennis Court Oath.” For what do we do with passages like, (and this is from “How Much Longer Will I Be Able to Inhabit the Divine Sepulcher…”, a more-praised poem from the book):

Stars
Painted the garage roof crimson and black
He is not a man
Who can read these signs… his bones were stays…
And even refused to live
In a world and refunded the hiss
Of all that exists terribly near us
Lilke you, my love, and light.

I mean, this at least makes some sense, and comes from a poem that itself makes some sense. It is as if Ashbery were giving us some raw blocks of experience, some raw linguistic (and poetic) data, and were asking us to assemble this data in a way in which it makes sense to us. Like a piece of installation art. We walk into this installation, grabbing at particulars that appeal to us, and with these particulars we form our own experience of the artwork. Perhaps Ashbery is simply calling overt attention to the way in which we actively construct meaning.

Bishop: Yes, but then what of the very obscure Ashbery, such as his “Europe”?

Moore: Elizabeth, give us an excerpt.

Bishop: Alright. Here is the opening four sections of “Europe.”

1.
To employ her
construction ball
Morning fed on the
light blue wood
of the mouth
cannot understand
feels deeply)

2.
a wave of nausea –
numerals

3.
a few berries

4.
the unseen claw
Babe asked today
The background of poles roped over
into star jolted them

Now I find these passages suggestively rich, but too lean on the meaning to satisfy.

Lowell: I agree.

Moore: But isn’t that exactly the point? Isn’t the poet simply experimenting, like any poet, with how much he can give us, and how much he can hold apart?

Merrill: John Shoptaw’s book, On the Outside Looking Out, illuminates what “Europe” is ostensibly about. But imagine if we had not read this book; what would we make of this poem?

Stevens: I confess I have never been able to finish it.

Bishop: Ditto.

Auden: Harold Bloom claimed it was an abomination, to put it mildly.

Stevens: Yet other poets, like Charles Bernstein, have claimed it as an important poem, one that figures as a precursor to the Language poets’ experiments.

Moore: So what is it? An abomination? A prescient experiment? What?

Bishop: I think this depends on the reader’s taste, to be honest. If the reader enjoys a poet who does not make overt meaning, but gives us the building block of sense, of intelligence, of imagination, of memory, and asks us to do with it as we please, then perhaps The Tennis Court Oath would be their favorite book. For my taste, I enjoy the Ashbery who does more with meaning then simply barely alludes to it. I like the Ashbery that is funny, that writes long sentences with their own idiosyncratic elasticity, that is brimming over with original ideas, that is wacky, that is fun.

Moore: Is there a specific poem you are thinking of?

Bishop: Yes, actually, Marianne. I’m thinking of “The Skaters.”

Moore: Let’s hear some of it, keeping in mind that it is a much longer poem.

Bishop: Indeed, let’s do that. “The Skaters” begins with these two stanzas:

These decibels
Are a kind of flagellation, an entity of sound
Into which being enters, and is apart.
Their colors on a warm February day
Make for masses of inertia, and hips
Proud out of the violet-seeming into a new kind
Of demand that stumps the absolute because not new
In the sense of the next one in an infinite series
But, as it were, pre-existing or pre-seeming in
Such a way as to contrast funnily with the unexpetedness
And somehow push us all into perdition.

Here a scarf flies, there an excited call is heard.

Bishop: Many critics have pointed out that Ashbery is hearing the sound of people ice-skating, that these sounds are the “decibels” that are “a kind of flagellation, an entity of sound / Into which being enters, and is apart.”

Imagine the poet typing beside a window, and he hears the sound of the ice-skaters. The sound allows him to in some ways “enter” the scene, participate in it, but at the same time the poet is distant, apart from the scene, both in the game and out of it. The sound of this activity does not make the poet want to ice-skate, but rather makes “for masses of inertia” that paradoxically make a demand on the poet. What is the demand that “stumps the absolute”? It seems as though Ashbery is commenting on a preternatural quality of the ice-skating – that the sounds and colors seems somehow to have already existed, that they are a kind of given, a kind of fore-grounded immanence, as opposed to a receding transcendent that constantly eludes the poet; but that this preternaturalness, this givenness of the skaters, contrasts funnily with the way in which their sounds are “unexpected.”

One might therefore create an analogy between the experience of the sounds and colors of the skaters, and the experience of the tradition of poetry within which Ashbery writes. Both the skaters and the tradition are simultaneously given and surprising, old and new, expected and unexpected, traditional and innovative. Ashbery himself, steeped in French poetry, in the works of poets as varied as Pasternak, Rimbaud, Stevens, Auden, the Metaphysical poets, Whitman, etc., still finds a way to make it new. Thus Ashbery is commenting on a dynamic that is rife throughout his own work – the play between the old and the new, between originality and continuity. Indeed, as we read further, Ashbery writes,

The answer is that it is novelty
That guides these swift blades o’er the ice,
Projects into a finer expression (but at the expense
Of energy) the profile I cannot remember.
Colors slip away from and chide us. The human mind
Cannot retain anything perhaps but the dismal two-note theme
Of some sodden “dump” or lament.

But the water surface ripples, the whole light changes.

As you can see, Ashbery now is sort of expanding on this dynamic between innovation or “novelty” and older ways of being. It’s as if we are watching a symphony of colors, light and dark, and the light stands for novelty, which can be exhausting, and the dark stands for habitual ways of living, which can also be exhausting. So that Ashbery is navigating himself and us through this symphony of colors, through desire for change and desire for certainty. We hear that these “Colors slip away from and chide us”, perhaps suggesting that they bring to the poet a kind of regretful nostalgia. And indeed, “The human mind / Cannot retain anything perhaps but the dismal two-note theme / Of some sodden “dump” or lament,” meaning that the human mind is incapable of nothing except a kind of familiar, weary lament, an existential complaint. “But the water surface ripples, the whole light changes” – and yet, and yet, and yet. As you can see with the two stanzas that are sentences –

Here a scarf flies, there an excited call is heard.

and

But the water surface ripples, the whole light changes.

The changes in the activity of the skaters, which seem to precipitate changes in the poet’s mood and mind, consequently precipitate changes in the mood of the poem, and pragmatically effect transitions in the poem from one mood or sentiment to another. We are all going to hell, the first stanza suggests, but “Here a scarf flies, there an excited call is heart.” All we can do is listen to the sad horn in our mind, “But the water surface ripples, the whole light changes.” It is akin to a sad mood interacting with a gloriously aesthetically pleasing landscape – in that bittersweet confluence of longing and temporary satisfaction, we have a tonally rich experience that demands a poem (as Ashbery recognizes, and delivers) to do justice to the pungent, fragrant, potent contours of that experience.

Moore: Bravo, Elizabeth! But you said earlier that Ashbery is a funny poet…?

 

They Used to Dance On Saturday Nights
By Gillian Devereux
Aforementioned Productions, 2012, 34 p.
ISBN 978-0-9823741-4-6

The carnival performers in Gillian Devereux’s They Used to Dance on Saturday Nights (Aforementioned Productions) are always, like Robert Lowell’s prostitutes, “freelancing out along the razor’s edge”, always subject to the fatalities of their trades—knife throwing,  tightrope walking,  sword or fire swallowing. Entertainers are only as lucrative as the opacity of their parlor tricks and/or the chance genetic mutations of their tragedies. Freaks may “share a stomach or a torso”; may “frolic”, frighten” or “fold their bodies flat as farmland”, or an armless girl may have a beauty in [her] strangeness that could ruin a man”. Images may be unexpectedly lovely, or transcendental: a dancing bear “soft as snow piled on pine boughs”, the salmon it’s tossed in its captivity leaping up into freedom and the constellations. Spectator and performer are a working system powered by the promise of newness, the momentary triumph of the illusory exotic.

There are also no dearth of “mutilated souls in cold morgues of obligation”, in Roethke’s phrase, variations of the quintessentially cruel ringmasters or mistress, whose

Children float in dingy beakers
Filled with blue-green bile: the dead stars
Of the dime museum, two-headed fetuses,
Stillborn monsters I carried like a thief…
To pay my way, I populated this carnival
Like Cronus, filled my belly with my own
Offspring, fed on small, disfigured bodies
Until, at last, I birthed my own meal ticket

Devereux’s text is most admirable as a metaphor for illness and survival. Many of her characters are examinations of Plath’s “magician’s girl who does not flinch”, professionals geared to stoicism and efficiency that is nothing like the seemingly effortless magic perceived by their audience. Performers themselves become spectators, housed in their own corporeality, captive audiences to the breakdowns of their own physical existences. But they are anything but passive observers. In The Act of Ignition, a girl whom “The sun hangs over [like] a tumor”

Stands
Alone in a field…
Then a flicker of light
Cuts through her, spills down
He arms and legs, chars her hair,
Crumbles her clothes to ash…
Her power developed
Suddenly: one morning she awoke,
Felt all her organs shift and spark
Like flint inside her…
She learned
To control this in time.
She learned
A single cell can incite a riot…

In Under the Big Top the limitations of the body—momentarily transcended by aerialism and dazzling feats of physical skill—are contrasted against the somehow-less-impressively powered (to the onlooker) accomplishments of nature and the cosmos:

No one notices the night sky…

No one sees
the backdrop, the shadow that shapes
_____and guards each delicate constellation.

Each star spins on invisible wire, falls
_____effortlessly into its assigned position
and not one person applauds….

I fall night after night,
_____netless and alone. I trained for this

my whole life, spent years in the air
_____learning to dive through the white
blare of spotlight; the physics of flight

_____swinging me over the bar
and farther, a solitary wheeling circle…

But nobody ever sees me…

It’s interesting to imagine copies of Devereux’s chapbook being handed out at the gate as carnival programmes; like Diane Arbus’ photographs, they tell us more than any mere propaganda ever could. Certainly this slim volume has something to teach us about magic and control, how indistinguishable the two often are from each other.

I came by Oppen in 1979 via the wonderful–to my way of thinking–historically significant anthology, A Geography of Poets. I remember liking his poem, “Street” and memorizing it, then going no further. I was never one to devour poets (except Roethke, Williams, Stevens, and, weirdly, May Swenson). I preferred anthologies where, if the editor was wise, you would begin to hear the poems holding court and having a conversation with each other. I knew all the chestnuts by Frost, the major poems of Dylan Thomas, the typical schmeer of Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Donne, Byron, Langston Hughes, Whitman, Dickinson, and so on and so forth, but I was never as interested in poets as in certain poems: “Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” the Dickinson poem that begins “I dreaded that first robin so,” Dylan Thomas’ “The Boy’s of Summer” and so on. Roethke, Stevens, Williams, Yeats, and Swenson I devoured. Later in 1979, I would devour Robert Francis, and through him, return to Frost, but I was not, by nature or inclination, a fan. Williams pleased me because I saw in him the struggle, sometime hysterical, yet valiant struggle between being experimental and reconciling it with the banality of the local–a poet who was always in flux as he stayed put, who could not settle down and would do something striking and to my way of thinking, the one thing a great or significant poet must do: blaspheme against all good taste and the temptation to be competent at all times. He wasn’t afraid to fall on his ass. Stevens just knew how to sound definitive and to play with ideas the way others play with images: not as philosophy (you’ll find most of his ideas already in Pater and George Santayana) but as decor–an amazing feat no one has equaled.

But on to Oppen: I memorized “Street,” and would recite it to myself sometimes as I walked to my job as a night shift security guard at Elizabeth General hospital (now Trinitas). It was a rough neighborhood then and the poem settled me down, distracted me from hyepr- alert. I was never mugged or attacked, but once I stopped a man from beating his girlfriend (near the hospital), and something told me it wasn’t over. I called the cops, and they came and intercepted the guy just before he walked to my guard house station and blew my head off with a shotgun. If you don’t die you, fall half in love with the adrenaline rush of almost getting killed. At any rate, I walked two miles to work each night and saw the little girls who expected to be so good in Oppen’s poem. They were gangly, and wise-assed and in love with silent, brooding, beautiful boys who would probably either die before age 25 or live to grow fat and poor and sad on some broken down porch stoop. They would get the girls pregnant and not stick around, or come around occasionally. The economy would cut their balls off, and the girls would raise the kid or kids with their mother, and the cycle would repeat itself in all the languor and temporary rush of summer in places like Elizabeth, and Jersey City, and Paterson. So let me write out that Oppen poem before I get to the one I’m going to wrestle with:

Ah these are the poor,
These are the poor–
Bergen street.
Humiliation,
Hardship…
Nor are they very good to each other;
It is not that. I want
An end of poverty
As much as anyone
For the sake of intelligence,
“the conquest of existence”–
It has been said, and is true–
And this is real pain,
Moreover. It is terrible to see the children,
The righteous little girls;
So good, they expect to be so good…

One night at the hospital, after the infamous Elizabeth chemical fire, a little girl was brought in with 3rd degree burns over 80 percent of her body. She was in shock. She was talking. Third degree burns do not hurt until they begin to heal and then they are a pain so unimaginable that coma must be induced, and sometimes, even in a coma, the person whimpers in pain. She looked at me and my partner, Kenny and said: “Don’t worry, misters. I’ll be alright.” We must have looked–not horrified, but stunned out of all thought, all speech. Kenny instinctively reached for her hand, and her flesh sloughed off in his. We both cried. We were supposed to be tough enforcers of security. I was 20 or 21. Kenny was 18. Both of us had grown up in tough neighborhoods, but here was this kid who was obviously not going to make it, trying to console us. She died two days later. The chemicals were the compliments of crooked dumping deals between politicians and organized crime who, as we all know, love kids and give them free turkeys and fireworks every year (in addition to dumping chemicals that cause cancer in their neighborhoods and which burned this little girl to death). That morning I walked home reciting Oppen’s poem to myself, and I could not wear out the truth of it, or stop the overwhelming sense of grief and anger I felt, but also awe–awe at the child’s calm, her soft little voice, poor Kenny’s deep animal moan when her flesh sloughed off in his hand.

Oppen is a hero to many for various reasons: his integrity as poet (poetry defined by Oppen as “a rigorous test of sincerity”), his use of fragmentation, of the object and word as counterpoint, his stripped down line, his pre-minimalist economy, his politics, his courage, mostly–his freeing up of the line from the tyranny of the sentence–words as singular being, words allowed both to relate and to isolate, to be both a schema of meaning and a schema of thingness.

No one gives Oppen enough credit as a rhetorician for they believe he is the opposite of that, but being at the extreme other end, one might make a case for his poems being caught in the intimacy of opposing realms (what Holderlin spoke of). Many apply Heidegger to Oppen, especially insofar as one takes the statement “Poetry drinks at the waters of silence” seriously. I next encountered Oppen while monitoring a class by Mark Rudman called “Modern Poetry and How it Got there.” Rudman could be a bit of a snot ass, but he picked some interesting poets: Williams, Oppen, Lowell, Berryman, and Jabez. We spent the most time on the book of questions and “Of Mere Being.” Oppen was hot in 1992. Just 25 years before, although he had come back after a long exile and silence, he was excluded from such an otherwise general yet comprehensive primer on modern American poetry as Carruth’s The Voice That Is Great Within Us. But I am stalling. Let’s speak of Oppen as master of fractal rhetoric:

The People the People

For love we all go
To that mountain
of human flesh
which exists
And is incapable
of love and which we saw
In the image
Of a woman–we said once
She was beautiful for she was
Suffering
and beautiful. She was more ambitious
Than we knew
Of wealth
and more ruthless–speaking
Still in that image–we will never be free
Again from the knowledge
of that hatred
And that huge contempt. Will she not rot
Without us and die
In childbed leaving
Monstrous issue–

Oppen’s standard rhetorical operating procedure is fully at work in this poem: the use of amphiboly, the interruption of sentence flow, the haltingly and the not quite uttered statement, the fragment, modified variants of anacoluthean in which the dash works as if one began to say something then abruptly abandoned it to say something else (but it is more along the musical lines of a false cadence, which then “resolves” oddly enough, through its digressions). Like Creeley, Oppen is a master rhetorician of the nearly articulated–the “shifting said.” The best effects achieved by this technique is that the prison of the just so, the “that’s it” is avoided, yet one is left to wander about the provisional landscape of fragments, interruptions, odds and ends that may or may not be “it” at all. Such deliberate and rigorous refusal to adopt the traditional clarity of sentence and line integrity is something the Objectivists bequeathed to language poets. The authority of such a shifting articulation derives from the integrity with which it resists the florid, uses minimal forces to maximize ambiguity and suggestion. All poets that resist utterance in terms of definitive statement are “pure” rhetoricians. They are engaging utterance for its own sake, as if the speech had wandered off from the speaker and had begun living its own life. All the halts and stops and starts, the dash marks, the grammatical incongruity are the performed texts of a ghost rhetoric–a speechifying whose purpose is not persuasion so much as process. It is the process of utterance that provides the “rigorous” test of sincerity for Oppens poetics. Let’s look closer:

For love we all go
to that mountain
Of human flesh
Which is incapable
Of love and which we saw
In the image
Of a woman–

Note the reversal at the opening: not, “We all go for love”, but, ” For love, we all go. The only image is actually a rather hackneyed figure of speech: “mountain of human flesh.” Take it out and the poem would read: For love we all go to that which is incapable of love.” An aphorism, and more so, an opening rhetorical gambit, but I insist it is more “pure rhetoric” than functional rhetoric insofar as it borrows an opening gambit and then does not follow through (at least not directly). Oppens’ mission is not to persuade, but to perform the process of someone attempting to enter speech, the difficulty of entering fully into declaration, the constant re-entering, the false start, the The statement, and it is statement is cut off, and either the people or love is then personified as a woman who was beautiful and beautiful because she was “Sad and beautiful” This is a strange statement. Take out the word sad and it would read “she was beautiful because she was beautiful. Sad has a power of earnestness, I suppose, it allows beauty to pass the rigorous test of sincerity, but, lo and behold, this “Woman” turned out to like things and money much more than she let in–she was, in a sense lacking all sincerity. If she is the people, then Oppen is suggesting this abstraction is distorted and must be corrected, and seen for what it is: a lie, a thing which one turns to for love and which is incapable of love. Oppen is completely rhetorical, for all his tricks of fragmentation. He has embraced and mastered the rhetoric of process–the poem as a thing, a well made thing put together with fragments, with sometimes defective parts. If you look at these parts: mountain of flesh, the people as a deceiving woman…they ain’t exactly profound, but what gives the poem power and validity is the rhetorical performance of process–Oppen’s willingness to join, and attach, and hammer and nail, and, taking shards of shattered sense, make windows of high seriousness. Look at the ending, its grammatical ambiguity:

will she not rot
without us and die
in childbed leaving
monstrous issue–

And the silence of ending interrupts the verbal end, and where’s the question mark? Without, there’s far more possible meanings: it could be an imperative urging the reader to “Will she not rot without us.” Oppen calls for the reader to create the house for which he builds the scaffold. Into that scaffold, much can be made (and lost).

LMB: You recently defended – for lack of a better word – the use of melodrama in poetics. Why do you think people are so uncomfortable with it?

CF: It’s funny, because I don’t think melodrama itself is the problem; think, for example, of the melodramatics in Keats, in Eliot, in Donne – the first stanza of The Good Morrow is as dramatic as any Lana Del Rey song or Minnis poem. I think the real issue is that people have a problem with feminine melodramatics; it’s why Plath became the poster child for some crass concept of Confessionalism (even though another melodramatic man, Robert Lowell, is really responsible for that whole mess) in spite of the fact that she was a master craftsman and genius of the literary costume.

So, I think it’s a gendered issue more than a simple one of dramatic/not-dramatic. The “problem” with girly melodrama in contemporary poetry has to do less with the gesture and more with the thing against which the dramatic girl or queer of female-identified poet is reacting against. Look back to Freud’s case study of Dora, the classic hysteric: her fits of melodrama made people uncomfortable because it forced them to acknowledge some previous hurt or wrongdoing. It’s easier for people to discount the dramatic female voice in literature as a substanceless performance rather than actually dealing with the issues that would cause someone, say, to want to put together something like Marie Calloway’s Google Docs, or Joyelle McSweeney’s very bratty and dramatic Percussion Grenade – which is all about acting out, being loud, wearing costumes, and throwing a tantrum.

LMB: MY LIFE IS A MOVIE – the title itself – is a good bit melodramatic. People seem to be afraid of too many details; I’ve been told myself that “sparse” is good. Less isn’t more, to me, though. In fact, I think melodrama goes a long way. You detail your work extravagantly; I feel like I am getting wasted and then having my heart ripped out. Did you write this book for you, or for the world?

CF: It is dramatic, and intentionally so. In a lot of ways, this was a way for me to work through the issues I have/had with the label of Confessionalism; A lot of the things in MLIAM actually happened, and that’s why I chose the title. The scene with the Austrian welder and getting lost at Ground Zero, and there’s a bit where a jogger gets hit by a car; I workshopped an early version of this and someone actually said that the getting hit by a car thing felt too contrived and overtly melodramatic, that it seemed as though I had put it there for shock value.

The other thing that’s important to note is that MLIAM came directly out of the co-morbid phenomena of reality TV and child actors. My mom and sister had just started filming Dance Moms: Miami, and I had shot two episodes with them and felt really conflicted about it. I was a professional actress for like the first eleven years of my life; I used to be really ashamed, and kept it secret. In graduate school I decided to “come out” as a former child actress when Johannes [Goransson] made us write these manifestoes in my first graduate workshop, and for the first time I allowed myself to acknowledge how intensely that experience (I mean, it was literally half of my life, at the time) affected my poetics.

Growing up in the film and television industry gave me a really different way of thinking about ideas of framing, narrative, truth, and performativity, I think, and in MLIAM I try to give the reader a sense of what it’s like to live within or in the aftermath of that experience.


LMB: You’ve created The Bratty Poets Series. Is there a certain brattiness in all poets that goes unidentified that you’d like to showcase?

CF: Absolutely, and that’s why I started the series – which is less a “Series” in the traditional sense and more a sort of watering hole around which people might gather when they’re feeling a particular variety of thirst. The thing about brattiness is that it’s sporadic, irrational, sometimes childish, and always right. It has an aesthetic but it also doesn’t exclude any particular aesthetic or camp, it’s cliquey but it’s a quality of every clique, by nature. The Bratty Poets Series, more than anything else, is a way to start breaking down the whole “these cool kids over here, those cool kids over there, these aging hipsters hanging out in Brooklyn, those pretentious hipsters in the Academy” quality of “the scene,” such as it is. It’s a nicely decorated padded room in which poets are totally allowed to have a fit.

LMB: Your book trailer is touchy. In it, I say that men don’t only love women for their breasts, but it’s sure a reason. Why did you choose to record your friends, and how does this relate to MY LIFE IS A MOVIE, aside from the obvious?

CF: MLIAM has two definable locations – the City and the Old West. It’s never really clear which is the real and which is the sur-real, because they’re generally interchangeable terms in this movie. When I moved back to New York this summer I was staying with different friends, all of them poets, I was out of school for the first time in almost ten years, I had one suitcase and a guitar, and I felt this really intense sense of being non-locatable. So the footage I shot during those first weeks when I was back in the City and I was really emotionally in shambles for various reasons were in some ways an effort to create for myself a sense of reality; this is my place, these are my people.

The first video I took was of a poet friend sitting on her couch, on which I was sleeping at the time, smoking a cigarette and crying and talking about how many times she had tried to quit smoking. It was very early in the morning, and all anyone had done so far that day in that apartment was write poems and smoke cigarettes, and the light was really perfect and her sadness was so real and beautiful and happening right then; it was like when you see your favorite painting for the first time and want to keep it with you forever. I had an iPhone and there was this gorgeous thing happening front of me and I thought, people should have access to this. Which is the same thought that’s really at the heart of MLIAM.

LMB: If your poetry were any pop-star, who would it be?

CF: Alanis Morisette. She’s such a brat, and very angsty and melodramatic. She’s also a brilliantly talented technical musician. People tend to not see the latter and just think of her as that heartbroken 90s girl who screams, but she’s way more than that. And my favorite Alanis Morisette song is Unsent, which is absolutely no one’s favorite Alanis Morisette song. I was eight when it came out, and it was and is very relevant to my life.

LMB: We both just received our MFAs in poetry. There is a lot of talk about uber-Masters and medieval practices and sheer wastes of money. What are your experiences with the system?

CF: I’m probably the wrong person to ask about this, because I believe fully in the ideas of Poetic Lineage, the tradition of an apprentice being shepherded along by a Master, and Feudalistic economies in general. I write about it in an essay on my blog called FEUDALISM IS RAD, and you performed the role of the Idol in my play, EVERYBODY, LET’S BELIEVE IN THIS IMAGINARY CURRENCY at The Bowery Poetry Club last summer, which was essentially “about” the whole issue of the MFA economy. As far as the MFA itself goes, there are a two things I was told by the person who taught me as an undergrad, and these are some of my personal ultimate truths: don’t pay money to get an MFA, and don’t get an MFA for any other reason than the luxury of two (or three) years during which you have no obligation except to your work.

That being said, once I got to my MFA program (which was amazing, by the way, and certainly not for everyone but I wouldn’t have wanted to go anywhere else) I got very angsty and resentful of the whole thing. I wrote this long allegorical poem called The Princess and The Ivory Tower, which was a very bratty treatise on what I perceived as the injustices of being a young female in a fundamentally broken Academia, during my first semester. That poem really idealizes the sort of Grand Pastoral experience of learning about poetry, which is an exaggeration of my experience as an undergrad, as antithetical to the sorts of masturbatory arguments that can happen in a hyper-theorized context. In retrospect, I’m really glad that such places exist so that arguments, in general, can happen. They need not be “productive,” they need only to continue.

LMB: You write, “I feel so sincere it makes for bad poems” in MY LIFE IS A MOVIE. How does any good poet balance sincerity with craft, and how do you translate the bigness of life into a poem?

CF: That’s the Big Question, isn’t it? Especially with all of the “New Sincerity” vomit all over the internet (to which I’ve admittedly contributed a few bucketfuls). During my aforementioned Grand Pastoral upbringing, my teacher brought two irises into his office when we met to discuss my poem one morning: one was a wild iris, and the other was a hothouse iris. They were both formally excellent examples of an iris, but one had certainly been bred/crafted to have a quality of showiness, whereas the other had more or less just grown. I think the lesson he meant to teach me that day was about the difference between a public and a private poem, but it seems to apply to the sincerity argument, too. Is the hothouse iris less of an iris; is the wild iris less beautiful?

LMB: Your life/poems is/are a Lynch film. Which one?

CF: Actually, I totally can’t watch David Lynch films. And I don’t like Twin Peaks. I’ve tried, and I just can’t – but I get why other people are into it. My life/poems are a Meg Ryan romantic comedy, or one of those movies in which Drew Barrymore fucks everything up and still gets the boy.

__________________________________________________
Carina Finn is a poet, playwright, and multimedia artist. She is the author of I HEART MARLON BRANDO, which was published in a limited screenprint edition in 2010 by Wheelchair Party Press. Her play, EVERYBODY, LET’S BELIEVE IN THIS IMAGINARY CURRENCY, premiered at The Bowery Poetry Club, and THIRTEEN WAYS OF BREAKING was workshopped and premiered thanks to the generosity of the Film, Television, & Theatre department at The University of Notre Dame. She a graduate of Sweet Briar College, has an MFA in poetry from Notre Dame, lives in New York City, and blogs at www.ladyblogblah.wordpress.com

Birds of Lace is a feminist press founded & edited by Gina Abelkop. Born in 2005 and currently based in Berkeley, CA, Birds of Lace publishes the literary and arts journal Finery as well as chapbooks by emerging writers. Recent releases include Jason Helm’s Fetish, Carrie Murphy’s Meet the Lavenders, Leon Baham’s Ponyboy Sigh, and Anna Joy Springer’s debut novella The Birdwisher.

ORDER CARINA FINN’S MY LIFE IS A MOVIE

NOTE: This is part one of a two-part dialogue on Alfred Corn‘s play Lowell’s Bedlam. The first part, by poet and theater historian M G Stevens, appeared previously.

***

Staring out at the audience of the Pentameters Theatre, David Manson as the poet Robert Lowell distrustfully remarks ‘This is a two-way mirror, isn’t it?’  While in Alfred Corn’s play the Bostonian is informed he is looking at a window, part of the work’s triumph is that we obtain a sense throughout that the events we are seeing have been transfigured by a spectator who is both Lowell the artist and Lowell the man, tormented by his past.  Observation, here, is everything.

The ostensible setting of Lowell’s Bedlam is Pitney Akins Hospital, New York in 1949 where the writer is being treated for bipolar disorder.  The director Daniel Ricken, himself a New Yorker, reveals Lowell’s unconscious largely through offstage noises—muffled thumps, groans and sighs—and the insistent repetition of phrases.  Corn’s play has teasing references to his subject’s work too, to ‘very polite’ murderers in a Federal Detention Centre in Greenwich Village, one of whom is documented in Lowell’s poem ‘Memories of West Street and Lepke’;  Czar Lepke was a gang murderer Lowell made into a dignified version of himself by giving him ‘a ribbon of Easter palm’.  In Corn’s searing drama, Lowell views himself as having ended someone’s life, too, through having been at the wheel in a car crash that left his first wife Jean Stafford disfigured and in considerable ongoing pain.

Most strikingly of all Corn’s summonings of Lowell’s poems, there is the avowal ‘I myself am Hell’, a phrase from Milton’s Satan famously adapted in ‘Skunk Hour’ with the addition ‘nobody’s here’.  That poem of Lowell’s describes a panorama of decay, finishing with the disturbing animals of the title, their  ‘moonstruck eyes’ red fire’ contrasting with ‘the chalk-dry and spar spire / of the Trinitarian Church’.  In Lowell’s Bedlam, the antagonist is very much the Catholic Church he tried and failed to get away from through divorcing Stafford after the accident; his new wife, the novelist Elizabeth Hardwick (played by Lowri Lewis), is able to offer scant defence against the onslaught through her tender Southern tones.  The hellish eyes of those skunks loom large in the red light that suddenly floods the sterile bareness of the set when Clair Elsmore as the nurse transforms into Stafford to berate him for abandoning a ‘disgusting patient’ who became ‘too unattractive for a poet to love’.

Nevertheless, the balance of Lowell’s Bedlam shifts markedly with the arrival of Elizabeth Bishop in Act Two.  Bishop—whose quiet cheerfulness and wit are brilliantly captured by Hannah Mercer—provides the model for an alternative approach to both living and writing.  Red becomes simultaneously the colour of not only hell but of the absurdly huge scarlet nose of a Rudolf toy she gives him.  It is both and neither.  Palm leaves are exciting for her not as religious symbols but as part of the secular, tropical flora she includes in poems that reveal the workings of the mind through the observations it makes.  For all her own guilt about her institutionalized mother, she laughs freely about the way she repeatedly contradicts herself, being content to reside in flux.

Perhaps Corn’s boldest move is to explore this idea in ‘Mate’, a Bishop poem centred around chess that is actually the playwright’s invention.  Reciting the poem to Lowell, Bishop tells him that ‘If he found no white pieces, the black couldn’t see / To maneuvre, becalmed in ambiguous fog / With a chessboard and pawns who’ve turned aimless and gray.’  The risk pays off because not only is the poem immediately accessible and relevant to the audience but it is true to the metaphysical cleanness and playfulness of early Bishop poems like ‘The Imaginary Iceberg’ and ‘The Gentleman of Shalott’.  The galloping anapaestic metre is perfectly suited to both the poem’s depiction of a knight’s three-square move in chess and the alleviation of a great deal of the play’s tension once Lowell is in conversation with his great friend who may be, it hints, deeper in his affections than either of the women he has married.

Tennyson’s own writing is used to explain Bishop’s different way of looking through her remark that she is ‘immune’ to his physical charms like ‘”Mariana in her moated grange”’—a misquotation that is also a subtle reference to her lesbianism (in 1948, Lowell had told friends of his plans to propose to her).  To Lowell’s objection ‘That’s not the best Tennyson’, she counters ‘I’m not taking on responsibility for the whole poem, just the “moated grange” part’.  The individual phrase and the moment of saying it aloud take precedence over any grander schemes as so often happens in Bishop’s poetry with its love of details and focus on what occurs in the instant of perception.  All acts of observation are partial and reveal as much about the observer as the observed.  It is a portrait Corn renders with great affection, and the play is almost as much about Bishop as it is about Lowell.

Interspersed throughout is the loquacious narrator Dick Jaffee played by Roger Sansom, an unemployed story editor for film who looks back on his time as a fellow patient.  Far from being a simple comic counterweight, Jaffee as a stranger is a clever device for teasing out those parts of himself Lowell is still keen to present to society (he cannot resist the mention of his Pulitzer Prize) and situating the play within a broader dramatic and political context.  There is Bedlam not only in Pitney Akins but outside it in Hollywood’s blacklisting of Communist writers.  Their dialogue also enables Lowell to make a spirited defence of poetic drama—with his Marxist interlocutor adeptly puncturing, for all his dizziness, the Bostonian’s characteristically elevated notion that every writer should exist away from the realm of paying the bills.

Lowell’s Bedlam is an arresting play that brings to life the psychological nuances of two of America’s most celebrated twentieth-century poets with fire and insight.  To its very last, offstage word, it refuses to leave the audience with easy choices to make about what they themselves have observed; how hopefully or pessimistically we view the play’s conclusion says as much about us as it does about Lowell or even Corn.  It urges us instead merely to remain open to Bishop’s idea ‘that you have to live with both light and darkness in your experience, that they’re somehow … reciprocal’.

NOTE: This is part one of a two-part dialogue on Alfred Corn‘s play Lowell’s Bedlam, which had it’s world premiere on April 7, 2011 in London. The second part, by poet John McCullough, appeared afterward.

***

The poet Alfred Corn has written a marvelous, sharply observed, and brilliantly imagined play about Robert Lowell’s stay in a mental hospital for his bipolar disorder. Corn includes the poet Elizabeth Bishop and the prose writer Elizabeth Hardwick in his dramatic tale, which is told from the point-of-view of one of the hospital’s denizens, a fellow who befriends Lowell over a card game. Pentameters is one of the oldest fringe theatres in London, famous for its relationships with poets, including Robert Lowell, so it was an equally apt venue to present the world premiere production of this work. Leonie Scott-Matthews, the artistic director at Pentameters for the past forty years, introduced the evening by giving the audience a thumbnail portrait of the theatre’s long history, including Lowell’s visit in 1974.

Robert Lowell, besides being a pre-eminent poet of the postwar years in America, also wrote well-received plays, as well as having a long association with Britain. (He taught for many years at the University of Essex in Colchester, England.) A so-called confessional poet, his mental disorders were handsomely chronicled in his poems. That being the case, what purpose a play about this one aspect of his life? Well, Alfred Corn makes eminently clear that when a life is dramatized, often very different things are revealed than in the poems or in a biography. For one thing, the life unfolds before our eyes—not the poet’s exterior world, but the turmoil of his inner life. We experience Lowell at the moment he reveals himself to us on the stage, and because Lowell is such a complex person, it takes an equally deft poet to evoke him. That is what Alfred Corn succeeds in doing so dramatically.

This is not just any bipolar patient in a hospital—the play is set in September 1949 in the recreation room for patients at the Pitney Akins mental hospital in New York City—it is the blueblood Robert Lowell. As he tells his newly met friend on the ward, he has just won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Of course, the other patient thinks that Lowell is being delusional. After all, this other patient has literary illusions, too, and all he’s wound up doing is story editing in film. This Nick Carraway-like character, whom Corn calls Dick Jaffee, is as talkative as Lowell, and perhaps that is where the two make a human connection. The two Elizabeths, Lowell, and Jaffee are all thirty-somethings.

The stage is a great place for unfolding events, the slow revelation of a characters inner life. Invariably characters reveal themselves by what they say about themselves, about others, and what they do. Bipolar patients are famously verbal, but also physically animated during mania. I have heard psychiatrists and therapists describe the manic cycle as one of verbal brilliance, though usually followed by a crash. Lowell was not at Pitney Akins for being verbally brilliant, though, but rather for being mentally ill. He was famously not on the planet when he entered such bouts in his life. Alfred Corn is a poet of considerable verbal skills, too, so that he is able to portray these effects on stage, sculpting them into dramatic moments that reveal so much about Lowell’s inner state. Lowell is guilty and full of shame for leaving his first wife after a car accident that nearly kills her. Then he takes up with Elizabeth Hardwick, his soul mate. Or is Elizabeth Bishop his soulmate?

Bishop is the character with the most to hide, and thus is one of the most revealing characters as a result of that dramatic tension. She clearly loves Robert Lowell—but not that way. He is smitten as well. But she needs to make clear that she is not interested in romance. They are fellow poets. She loves his poetry, and she appreciates his attention to her poems. They are not so much soulmates—that role remains in Hardwick’s orbit—they are kindred spirits. They both love words, are made drunk on their effects. There is a wonderful scene, not dramatized in Alfred Corn’s play, but in Ian Hamilton’s biography of Lowell, in which a line from Racine’s Phedre which Lowell has translated actually comes out to mean the opposite from what the French dramatist intended. Lowell keeps it anyhow because he feels it is a better line of poetry now. That willful, confident poet is in evidence on the stage, but so is the wreck of a person, a man hearing voices, possessed by demons, wracked with guilt and shame, two corrosive emotions that seem to chip away at Lowell’s ironclad New England temperament.

Finally, here is why Alfred Corn’s play is such an important work. It gives us an inner portrait of Robert Lowell that is not found in either the biography or the poetry itself. Robert Lowell the poet is a persona, while Robert Lowell the man is a suffering human being, one ridden with an emotional wound that seems to rend him into two or more personalities. The Ian Hamilton biography, good as it is, gives us details of a life, its comings and goings, the surface narrative. The poems present us with Robert Lowell’s literary obsessions, his lineage with more formal poets like Robert Frost and his 20th century obsessions which align him more with a poet like William Carlos Williams. Towards the end of his life, Lowell once told Allen Ginsberg that both of them were the children of WCW.

If I have a criticism to make about contemporary American playwrights—I am thinking of writers like David Mamet and Sam Shepard—it is how one-dimensional and weak their women characters seem to be. Conversely, I have found so many women playwrights create the most stereotypical male characters. Yet being able to create full-blown characters of the opposite sex is almost a hallmark of great playwriting. Certainly Brecht, Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov created women characters that dominated their stages with their complexity and humanity. Alfred Corn’s women are witty, verbal, real, and daring. Towards the end of this wonderful play, Elizabeth Bishop reads one of her poems aloud to Robert Lowell. But, almost like a play within a play, she reads a poem by Alfred Corn. The moment is luscious, and it reveals the character of Bishop to us, while also suggesting why a poet in the theatre is such a dynamic possibility for drama. This stage tableau becomes even more complex and fabulous, a truly dramatic fete.

 

Alfred Corn’s new play Lowell’s Bedlam will be opening at Pentameters Theater in London, April 7th. The play runs until the Saturday before Easter.

Set in the Autumn of 1949, during a period when Robert Lowell was being treated for bipolar illness, the play also features Elizabeth Bishop and Elizabeth Hardwick. It’s worth noting that Corn met all of these writers several times.

www.pentameters.co.uk
Telephone: 02074353648

When gaining a foothold among the establishment, it is important the so called “outsiders” or mavericks have a figure fully anchored within the establishment who can be “acceptable” to the degree that he is:

1. Friendly to their cause, or, at the least, suffers their presence gladly.

2. Perceives himself (or herself) as being “forward thinking” (it does not matter if he or she is truly forward thinking as long as he or she considers his or herself as having a nose for future value).

3. Often someone with disposable income or privilege fully willing to dispose of it.

4. A disgruntled, black sheep member or son or daughter of the highest inner circles willing to defect and lend their support and contacts and influence to the “new” order.

In terms of the Black Mountain school let’s fill out that order. William Carlos Williams, especially in his more objectivist, socialist form was perceived as friendly to the cause of poetic innovation, and was enough of an outside/insider to prove acceptable as a substitute for Eliot whose triumphant followers in the form of the post-war formalists, and metaphysical poets had a lock on academic positions and public adoration. As the Agrarians had done twenty years before, the Black mountain school found a camp in the wilderness, but, unlike the agrarians (John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, etc, etc) they did not embrace a local, southern aesthetic, but used the isolated camp in the mountains of North Carolina as a meeting ground for international figures of the “new.” The romance of this camp caught the imagination of one of the most “inside” figures in all of poetry: Robert Lowell. Lowell, bi-polar and supremely gifted, and from one of the most powerful and gloried families in New England, was the chief darling, along with Randal Jarrell of the late thirties and early forties elders. In post-war poetry, he was dominant.

His “conversion” to free verse and to writing from life in mid to late fifties put a stamp of approval upon what had been the outsider’s position. I forgot to mention the idea of the “sacrificial lamb” or “innocent victim” around which the outsiders rally, and thereby seize power. In this case, the most comical, and unlikely lamb in literary history: Ezra Pound. Lowell’s championing of Pound, and the defense of Pound, the fight to get Pound out of jail for treason, brought Williams, Pound’s college buddy, and the Black mountain school, as well as Lowell into alliance, putting the final seal of “greatness” on Williams which had begun with Jarell’s introduction to his selected poems, and the rich James Laughlin’s interest in publishing Williams’ work,  This rallying around Ezra brought certain poets into prominence much as the Vietnam war protests of the sixties brought Bly, Merwin, and the Deep Imagists to the fore. So that’s the other condition for outsiders becoming the insiders: a proper “victim” or martyr they can rally around. (“Free Mumia” t-shirt anyone?)

We will be studying these mechanisms in detail through both the poems and essays in the following movements:

1. First and second generation romantics.
2. The Imagists.
3. The Black Mountain school
4. The Beats/ San Francisco/Confessional schools
5. New York School/L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E/Surrealists
6. Deep Imagists
7. Multicultural (or the cannon warriors)
8. Gender, queer, and green theory

And their various alliances, misalliances, temporary marriages of convenience, hybrids, and finally:

9. Slam and spoken word, and its mixture of multi-cultural, beat, gender/queer identity and post-Lenny Bruce menology (as well as aspects of the self-acceptance movement).

Certain suppositions:

1. With the possible exception of spoken word and multiculturalism, none of these “mavericks” were truly outside the power structure, and all of them depended on converts within the power structure to gain a foot hold.
2. All movements, once gaining a foothold, take on the characteristics of power against which they rebelled, and the re-affirmation of elitist exclusion/inclusion tactics. All end up being part of the academic and publishing establishment, and are distilled beyond their original definitive traits into what I will call “establishment and normative” sea. All rivers run to the sea, and that sea is both the death of a dynamic, and the force of the power in all dynamics.

We will be studying these power games through certain theories of co-operative evolution, and one thing the evolutionists are never interested in and ought to be: the tendency of movements and isms to create abnormative, non-breeding “heroes”– not unlike priests who function in the realm of  what I will call “virtual mate selection” and produce “virtual” progeny. The way this is done bears many common traits with actual mate selection and the bearing/raising of children. So we will study these movements in relation to “courtship.

‘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

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?

Richard A. Barney (ed.), “David Lynch: Interviews”

KM: If your paintings had sound what would it be like?

DL: Different paintings would have different sounds. So This is Love would have a muffled sound like talking through a glove. A Bug Dreams would be a really shrill 15,000-cycle piercing sound. She Wasn’t Fooling Anyone, She Was Hurt Bad would be an extremely slow motion, muffled breaking glass sound.

KM: What kind of things function as seeds for paintings?

DL: Inspiration is like a piece of fuzz—it kind of comes up and makes a desire and an image that causes me to want to paint it. Or I can be going along and see an old Band-Aid in the street, and you know how an old Band-Aid is. It’s got some dirt around the edges and the rubber part has formed some black little balls, and you see the stain of a little ointment and maybe some yellow dirt on it. It’s in the gutter next to some dirt and a rock, and maybe a little twig. If you were to see a photograph of that not knowing what it was, it would be unbelievably beautiful.

Italo Calvino, “The Uses of Literature”

Hands up, anyone who has read the whole of Herodotus and the whole of Thucydides! And Saint-Simon? And Cardinal de Retz? But even the great nineteenth-century cycles of novels are more often talked about than read. In France they begin to read Balzac in school, and, judging by the number of copies in circulation, one may suppose that they go on reading him even after that, but if a Gallup poll were taken in Italy, I’m afraid that Balzac would come in practically last. Dickens fans in Italy form a tiny elite; as soon as its members meet, they begin to chatter about characters and episodes as if they were discussing people and things of their own acquaintance. Years ago, while teaching in America, Michel Butor got fed up with being asked about Emile Zola, whom he had never read, so he made up his mind to read the entire Rougon-Macquart cycle. He found it completely different from what he had thought: a fabulous mythological and cosmological family tree, which he went on to describe in a wonderful essay.

Clement Greenberg, “Art and Culture”

One cannot condemn tendencies in art; one can only condemn works of art. To be categorically against a current art tendency or style means, in effect, to pronounce on works of art not yet created and not yet seen. It means inquiring into the motives of artists instead of into results. Yet we all know—or are supposed to know—that results are all that counts in art.

Nineteen out of twenty—nay, ninety-nine out of a hundred—works of abstract art are failures. Perhaps the ratio of success to failure was the same in Renaissance art, but we shall never know, since bad art, even in ages considered to have had bad taste, tends to disappear faster than good art. But even if the proportion of bad to good were higher nowadays, and higher in the field of abstract art in particular, it would still remain that some works of abstract art are better than others. The critic of abstract art is under the obligation to be able to tell the difference. The inability to do so, or even try to do so, is what more immediately makes denunciations like Lewis’ suspect. And the suspicion is not allayed in this case by the statement that Moore, Sutherland, Bacon, Colquhoun, Minton, Craxton, Pasmore, Trevelyan, Richards and Ayrton form “actually the finest group of painters and sculptors which England has ever known.”

Christopher Ricks, “True Friendship: Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht, and Robert Lowell Under the Sign of Eliot and Pound”

Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hectht, and Robert Lowell under the sign of Eliot and Pound: the figure of speech comes from T.S. Eliot, who used it in a letter of 18 October 1939 to the scholar Edward J.H. Greene. Of the poems in Prufrock and Other Observations, only four (Eliot said) place themselves “sous le signe de Laforgue,” under the sign of Laforgue.

Here are five poets who mean a great deal to the world, to me, and—this being the claim of True Friendship—to one another. (Though not quite, I grant at once, to every single one of the others.) That Eliot and Pound were as fecundating for each other as had been Wordsworth and Coleridge—this is not news, although in this setting there may be a few new things to notice about it. Eliot and Pound cared diversely about Lowell and his art. Lowell’s poems and criticism engage in turn, albeit very differently, with Pound and Eliot. Hill’s poems as well as his criticism wrestle angelically with Eliot, with Pound, and with Lowell. Finally, Hecht’s criticism and poems undertake their fervent discriminations in apprehending Eliot and Pound, calling Eliot to account and calling Pound’s bluff. There is nothing by Pound, so far as I know, that touches upon Hecht or Hill, but there remains only the one two-sided vacancy that is of any moment: that Hill and Hecht, despite the shaded respects in which they comprehend their art and its common but far from commonplacec concerns, never really met. Which may provide the ground against which the other related figures can be seen.