31/12/2004

Happy new year from the staff of Bemsha Swing.

29/12/2004

I really should be at the MLA. Oh well, I'm not.

27/12/2004

I'm on vacation, standing in a mac store in San Diego. The blog will be back in a few days.

20/12/2004

I gave Julia Sleeping on the Wing as early Christmas present. The back cover says the book is for High School Students and beyond. Am I too pushy a parent? I told her it was also for intelligent fourth graders. It really isn't too large of a step beyond Rose, Where Did You Get That Red.

19/12/2004

It is not every day that I receive in the mail a book of poetry designed to fit exactly into the left hand breast pocket of a classic size 44-short blue blazer, a book, by the way, whose kevlar cover would nicely deflect bullets directed at the heart, if only the book were larger (but then it would no longer fit in the pocket!--a good example of "Silliman's paradox" if ever you wanted one.) I wonder, however, whether Nathan Cremshaw's Blue Blazer Poems satisfies the "Alexander Pope" test. That is, whether the fact that it comes with the coffee stains already on it is enough to evoke the ambience of the 18th-century coffee house. These stains were at first rather puzzling; I almost complained to the distributor about them before I realized that they were part of the intertextual game. I do wonder, however, about the gender and class politics of Cremshaw's sartorial gesture: most women readers do not wear blue blazers, in this size at least, and working class men rarely wear blue blazers.

I used to watch Cremshaw writing his poems on Telegraph Avenue, in the Café Med, so the coffee-stained effect is definitely appropriate, although perhaps too "forced." I must say that my impression that he is the American poet who mostly adeptly investigates the purely pragmatic aspects of language, while maintaining the most principled animosity toward trade presses, has not dimmed with time. In fact, it is precisely the combination of these two factors that makes him perhaps the leading poet of our time who hasn't actually made his name known, until recently, to more than exactly three people: myself, Curtis Faville, and the anonymous publisher of "sawtooth press." (note the lower caps)

18/12/2004

Change of address: if you want to send me anything during the rest of the academic year, please use my home address in St. Louis, not my University address, where I won't be. If you don't have my home address, and have something good to send me, let me know. I'd rather not publish it on the blog.

If you want to invite me to read, let me know. I have an open schedule for the next few months. NYC would be good, since I'm planning a trip there at some point.

17/12/2004

I don't know what got into me in that last post. I'll leave it up anyway.

16/12/2004

Dear New York Times Ethicist:

Farmer Brown often comes and takes a few of us more obese pigs for a "ride" from which no pig has ever returned. Some of us think that these pigs go to "hog heaven," a more luxurious pigsty where food is in every more plentiful supply. Others think that the missing pigs are cruelly slaughtered for human food. I myself subscribe to the "cruel slaughter" theory, but publicly advocate the "hog heaven" theory in order to encourage other pigs to gain weight faster and be taken first. Am I doing the right thing?

--Porcine Opportunist

Dear PO:

My human ethics forbid me from telling you which of these theories is "correct." I must be loyal to my species. However, you are probably familiar with "Wilbur's Bet." If you don't fatten yourself up, you will miss going to "hog heaven," if such a heaven exists. If you are wrong, you will be slaughtered and go to "hog heaven" anyway, so you can't lose either way. Publically, then, you should maintain a strictly agnostic stance.
Robert Conquest: "It might be argued that, as with the personnel of the state apparatus proper, there is now such a superfluity of the artistically and literary 'educated' class that their very number is part of the means of coping with, and employing part of, the product. "

Why someone who simply can't write feels qualified to make pronouncements on literature is incomprehensible to me. Here's the next complete paragraph from the same essay:

"There comes to a point, hard to define specifically but more or less obvious, when a regrettable general impression is unarguably convincing--well, not 'unarguably,' yet beyond serious debate. Still, an organism, or a polity, may present faults seen as lethal that are in practice comfortably contained and do not require therapy. Nor would one want there to be any implied use of power from outside institutions or individuals. "

Let's see, there is a general impression that is regrettable yet convincing, arguable yet not arguable, coming at a point in time that is obvious yet not specific. Meanwhile the patient is suffering from a lethal disease that requires no therapy! What is an "implied use of power"? And what is he talking about anyway? The words here appear to refer only to their own discursive gestures. What a platitudinous windbag! What grade would you give this in freshman comp? Maybe I can get a job as a writing coach for aging conservative cultural commentators.




The real "Blake test" would be to see whether the "platform" is integrally necessary to the reception of the poem. Sure we can read Blake without looking at his illuminated manuscripts, but we lose so much. I prefer the "Mayhew test," which is my own top secret formula for deciding the aesthetic value of any poem.

I'm trying to wrap things up today. I can't possibly anticipate what books I'm going to need for the next 8 months. I guess I'll have to make trips back here just for that.

15/12/2004

After coming back from my sabbatical and working the requisite period I owe the university, I need to make a decision. I cannot commute to St. Louis from here the rest of my life. I need to quit this job for my health and sanity and do something else. I no longer care as much whether I am the top specialist in modern Spanish poetry in the country, about gaining or maintaining that position. I enjoy working with graduate students, and undergraduates as well. I have great colleagues. The money is not very good, in relation to years of experience and education; I am victim of typical Associate Professor salary compression. On the other hand I couldn't get a job paying the same in another field right off the bat. Adjuncting in St. Louis area would mean taking a huge cut in pay and working conditions. The reduction in expenses would only partially offset that cut. Any suggestions?

14/12/2004

The poetics seminar yesterday: we had a nice discussion of my paper on Wittgenstein. David Perry was there, along with writer Deb Olin Unferth, new to the faculty here at Kansas, in the English Department. She said she had come here with her boyfriend, who turns out to be none other than famed Fresh Air jazz critic Kevin Whitehead!!! Unfortunately I am leaving for sabbatical on Thursday of this week, so I won't be able to take advantage of Lawrence's increased hipness quotient until I get back next August.

11/12/2004

I was in Border's and saw a new edition of Bly's translations--a $30 hardbarck with a blurb from Merwin on the back. Also, large editions of critical prose and poetry by Richard Howard.

10/12/2004

Dear New York Times Ethicist:

I had this dream: I was in a used-bookstore and found a copy of a novel by David Shapiro, with some water damage, for $10. It was printed in a large, sans-serif type-face. I wanted to browse some more, but I kept wandering out of the store by mistake: the store was in a sort of mall/student union type building and it wasn't clear where the bookstore ended and the expresso bar and other shops began. I re-entered the bookstore several times with the book under my arm. The employees were strangely indulgent. The last time, I wandered out of the store with the book and woke up, realizing with relief that I wouldn't have to return the book because it had all been a dream. Did I do the right thing, or should I have tried to fall back asleep so that I could return the book to the store?

--Confused in Kansas

Dear CIK:

Since the book was damaged, and David Shapiro has written no novels to date, and it was all a dream anyway, you are not guilty of theft. However, you did evade your ethical obligation by not bringing this priceless book back to the waking world. You must purchase the book in your next dream and bring it back when you wake up.
tributary on Bly.
I know getting a poem published in a print journal is a fairly banal event for most of the readers of this blog, but the last time I published a poem in one, Ron Silliman was still drinking, and I was only about 12 years older than Julia is now. Jimmy Carter was president. What makes it even more special is that my daughter Julia has a poem in the same issue.

For years I did not even consider myself a "poet." It seemed embarrassing, somehow, like what if people expected me to be all sensitive and self-absorbed? I made only sporadic and unsuccessful efforts to publish. I have a few poems floating around the internet, but, call me old-fashioned, that never seemed like "real" publication to me. It's too easy. So thanks to Gabe Gudding for publishing Julia and me in the same issue. Now I feel like a real "poet."

9/12/2004

I got my copy of Spoon River Poetry Review today. It's got a lot of bloggers in it: Kasey, Anthony, myself, Julia!, Tony, Daniel, among many other familiar names. Somehow I manoeuvered my way to the front, though the rest of the poets appear in alphabetical order.
I don't feel very qualified to talk about J. Mac Low, who has just passed away. I've always liked his work, but have never studied his work in an obsessive way, the way I've done with other poets.
I think you can argue that Robert Bly has had a ruinous effect on American poetry. Dana Gioia, a poet and critic whom I detest with passion, wrote a devastating article called "The Successful Career of Robert Bly," in which he lays out a convincing case from the right. I remember a throw away line from Sorrentino: he is discussing John Gardner's prose and says "Maybe John Gardner simply can't write--sort of a Robert Bly of prose." That's a critique from someone who wouldn't agree with Gioia about anything else.

As a translator, Bly is simply the worst we have. That is, the worst translator in proportion to his overall stature/reputation. (There maybe some translator worse whom I've simply never heard of.) I reviewed a book for a University Press a few years ago, in which the translations were by various hands. Bly was by far the worst of any of the translators included. (I remember James Wright being one of the best in this same group.) I won't even get into the men's movement Jungian crapola.
A series of impressive testimonials to Ashbery in the comments to this post by Michael Snider; read Andrew Epstein's lengthy comment. We take Ashbery for granted, in some sense. That is, we assume that we don't have to make the case for him again and again. But this is not really the case: there will always be new readers, or old ones who just were never convinced. I remember being virtually the only one in my university/town who was into Ashbery. (This was in the late 1970s in Davis, California.) There was one sort of review that would be written repeatedly, by different hands, claiming that Ashbery made no sense, that he was essentially a fraud. This was after the triple prize book of 1975. A famous poet giving a reading told me that Ashbery had no ear. Hah! The poet telling me this was Robert Bly, surely one of the worst minds of his generation.

8/12/2004

Seeing that Ron S has 5,000 poetry books, I thought it might be interesting to see how many I had. I have about 10 shelves in my office filled with mostly poetry books (along with books of criticism about specific poet, novels written by them etc...). Assuming and average of 70 books per shelf, that would be 700. Another 10 books in the trunk of my car. Maybe 50 in my apartment in Kansas that I haven't brought to my office yet. In St. Louis I have maybe 100 more. So anywhere from 800-1000 is my best guess. The biggest categories are: 1) Twentieth-century Spanish Poetry 2) New York School poets. 3) Other American poets 4) Latin American poetry.
For what it's worth, Chris Lott at cosmopoetica does not necessarily differ too much from me in our respective evaluations of individual poems. We both thought Carson's poem sagged in the middle, that the Bang was like a dutiful classroom assignment. We both liked the Oni Buchanan poem very much. Ditto the Kim Addonizio. It's not like I praised every "language" poem to the skies in my BAP round-up. I did come down on Collins pretty hard, it's true.

Am I allowed to be snobbish at least about this?
There is a deep human need to look down, to feel superior. I think Richard Dawkins discovered the gene for it, if I'm not mistaken.
I'm like, Dude... let's navigate the Discourses of juvenile masculinity, and he's like, dude, what are you talking about?

7/12/2004

Is there a slump in Ashbery in Shadow Train and April Galleons and maybe As We Know? It's an arguable point, at least. Early and Early-Mid Ashbery is consistently interesting, up through Houseboat Days, which I had virtually memorized at one point many years ago. I also like the books from Flow Chart and Hotal Lautreamont onward.

There is an 80s mailaise in some of the work of this period. Hell, we were all in a malaise, I think. I'll have to go back and read April Galleons to see what I think.
Things are winding down. The seminar on hybrid genres is drawing to a close. Highly successful from my point of view, in that it appears that I sold them on the concept of the course. What was fascinating was that the 10 papers I will receive are on 10 completely different topics, with little common ground. I am not producing 10 copies of myself. God forbid. That would be frightening. I don't even like being too influential.

6/12/2004

Hall Center > Faculty Development >My seminar paper. Password is "philandlit." It's a work in progress, please do not judge too harshly.
Sestinas, pantoums, prose-poems. At least one canzone and one villanelle. Short, abstract lyrics; long meditative poems. A verse translation in zany heroic couplets. Haibun. Proto-language-poetry collage poems. A poem mentioning the name of a river in each line. Maybe 20 books of poetry all together, plus: Art Criticism. Half of a novel. Gave the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard. Has won every award except the Nobel Prize.

Biggest influence on avant-garde American poetry in past 30 years. Also biggest influence on quietudinous poetry. Championed by Perloff, Vendler, Bloom. Admired by everyone from Auden to James Tate and Bruce Andrews.

Yet fans of his are not likely to meet and spontaneously recite his verses together in a grand chorale! Imagine that!

5/12/2004

Memorize any Ashbery lately? As a matter of fact I have. Whenever I reread a book of his I memorize a few poems. It strikes me the memorability is a bit like specificity. It might be a good shortcut, but cannot be a decisive litmus test for quality. Some poets are more difficult to memorize than others. There are poets I don't even like very much whom I can memorize more easily than other poets I love. Emily D. is easier to memorize than Walt W, but you wouldn't use that, in and of itself, as a criterion for preferring one to the other.

"The Skaters" is a great masterpiece. "Self-Portrait" is another.

4/12/2004

Eagle's Wing

HOW MY DAD GOT HIS BEARD

My dad got his spiky beard
because he ran into a porcupine
some of the bristles got
stuck in his chin and now
whenever he shaves the
bristles grow back on his
chin
Could specificity be a test of writing, as Ron suggests, few days ago? At best it's a shortcut: good writing tends to be more specific than bad writing is, so if the writing is specific, it is more likely to be good. And otherwise bad writing that has some specificity to it might have something salvageable. It's similar to my conception of "conventionally good writing." Writing with strong imagery, an attention to rhythm, etc... is going to be better than writing without these things. But this is ONLY a shortcut. For example, the poem of Rukeyser quoted by Ron does not seem particularly good to me, despite the specificity of the details. It seems to me the poem has to strike us as good first. Then, if asked why, we might point to the things that make it good. A very abstract poem, that witheld its specifics, might be very good too!
How parody the master-parodist?

How humor the humorless?

"I hate people who don't wear hats"

Seriously, I get impatient sometimes.

I need to stop doing that.

3/12/2004

How about a graduate seminar on plagiarism? That could work...

2/12/2004

Someone should put together a grammar of cursing. What is the "decorum" for using certain words? When are they socially required? You could do a study of David Mamet's use these words (or better yet Elmore Leonard) and compare them to a transcript of real speech. Cursing should be

1) Casual. You don't use the word in order to use it, but as a part of an idiomatic expression. It doesn't call too much attention to itself, although it definitely is a mark of register.

2) Idiomatic. It's got to be the right idiom, in the right tone of voice, at the right time.

3) Rhythmical. It has to recur at certain intervals, punctuate speech.

4) Pragmatic. It's got to follow all the regular Gricean rules. Relevance, etc...

I'm not a particularly adept curser. It was interesting to go to Spain for the first time and learn the rules there.
Henry G: "Maybe most shifts in style depend on a new sense of decorum. That is, if there's a fitness in relation to experience or reality, then, as our general sense of reality changes, the old styles or old forms of decorum will no longer ring true. (Maybe some forms of decorum never change, though - built as they are on our direct responses to certain basic kinds of experiences. Laughter in comedy is just a special application of humor in general.)"
I went to an extremely interesting talk this afternoon about the alpaca and llama trade. I'm not being sarcastic, it really was a fascinating presentation, by my friend Marcia Stephenson of Purdue University. Issues of colonialism, race, gender, and the relation between humanity and the natural world came up in the discussion.



Piety might be a form of decorum, or a more serious way of understanding decorum. It is as much of a profanation to pray at a football game as it is to play a football game inside a church. Maybe that's what KB means by piety as a sense of "appropriateness."

I remember seeing the title of a Greenblatt book or essay, "Learning to Curse." It is a quotation from The Tempest, of course. But I was disappointed when I discovered it was not an autobiographical essay on how Stephen Greenblatt himself learned how to use "profane" language. That would have been much more interesting that what he came up with. The rules of cussing are very complex, and an introspective account of how someone acquired this system would be fascinating. No such luck.

1/12/2004

I am not sure why Kenneth Burke calls "piety" what I have been calling "decorum." I remembered the passage below quite well, but misremembered his terminology. I had thought he had used the word "decorum" but he doesn't:

Refined critics, of the Matthew Arnold variety, assumed that exquisiteness of taste was restricted to the "better" classes of people, those who never had names ending in "ug." Yet if we can bring ourselves to imagine Matthew Arnold loafing in the corner with the gashouse gang, we promptly realize how undiscriminating he would prove himself. Everything about him would be inappropriate: both what he said and the way in which he said it. Consider the crudeness of his perceptions as regards proper oaths, the correct way of commenting on passing women, the etiquette of spitting. Does not his very crassness here reveal the presence of a morality, a deeply felt and piously obeyed sense of the appropriate, on the part of these men, whose linkages he would outrageously violate?
The doctrine of decorum has its modern form in the fallacy of "imitative form." The form of the literary work should somehow imitate the subject-matter. Is this really a fallacy though? In its naive version, maybe. But haven't poets always believed in some version of this idea? "When Ajax strives somes rock's great weight ... " then the verse about Ajax doing this will be, if not imitative, congruent with the idea of slowness and effort. No, you can't write a limerick about the holocaust, I'm sorry. That's an obscenity.
Of course, most modern poetry flouts decorum, flaunts its lack of decorum or fittingness. Yet doesn't the ability to recognize incongruity depend on a notion of congruity in the first place? In other words, we cannot get an effect of incongruity until we notice that something seems "wrong." We also have to feel that this "wrongness" is "right" in its context, that it works and is not simply a mistake:

The right notes.
The wrong wrong notes.
The right wrong notes.

***

The problem is not "not taking poetry 'seriously.'" After all, one could take poetry very seriously indeed yet have no ear, no eye, no notion of what poetry is. Earnest but misguided. Pompous and grave. Or one could seem to take poetry more casually yet actually take the serious part of poetry more seriously. What is the opposite of serious in this case? It is not the comic nor the casual. The only word I can come up with is "Pinsky": the wrong kind of seriousness can be much worse than a sense of unseriousness.
demo to ink, Concierto animal, St. Martins, La nieve en los manzanos, Baladas del dulce Jim, Variaciones sobre un cuadro de Paul Klee, Pieces, Vanishing Points of Resemblance, The Magic Christian, What, Lit, Tjanting, Alfred and Guinevere, Never, El infarto del alma, The Age of Huts, The Country of Our Consciousness, Rayuela, Poems from Deal, Inventory, Words, Blue Book, Descripción de la mentira, Cobalto, Ladera este, The Basement of the Café Rilke, After Taxes, Underground with the Oriole, The Beautiful Focus of You, Flow Chart, Selected Prose, Narciso en el acorde último de los ecos, So we have been given time or, Unknown Man #89, Your Name Here, Stripped Tales, hello, The Sinister Pig, Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O'Hara, Oklahoma Tough, The Big Bounce, Wittgenstein's Ladder, Chinese Whispers