31/1/2005

The one style of reading I cannot stand is the "poetry reading chant," in which all accented syllables are emphasized at the same exact, high pitch and duration, and the voice drops sharply for the unaccented syllables, (also uniform in pitch.) Do they teach that in MFA programs?

my HEAD is HURTING
i WISH you were HOME
I've been awarded the Nobel prize of blogging.
This at one time seemd outrageously modern--

"somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence"

Omitting the space after the comma, how incomprehensible that made the poem. There was a guy named Stanley Coblenz, I believe, who in the 1960s was writing books like The Poetry Circus in which Cummings, Eliot, Moore were castigated because they were too prosaic. From Cummings to Coolidge is not too big a step:

"The tune of a cold trunk is thin
mute cat behind glass
that I write at all is bannered
in the close grains of sight outlasted"

From Creeley or Niedecker to Armantrout is a baby step. Silliman is easier to read than Duncan. Bernstein is easier than Stevens (doesn't make him better).

Language poetry is a conservative movement, trying to maintain the discoveries of modernism; to have all that not lost in the rising tide of workshopped lyrics. In order to be conservative in this way, it has to push forward just a little bit.

What is "craft"? It usually means conformity to a period style. The well-crafted poem is one that in Poetry will not seem like it shouldn't belong there. Usually the amateur poem that has been revised in order to look like a well-crafted poem is still basically an amateur poem. It's lost its amateur status but hasn't gained very much. Isn't that the moment to reach for a more profound sense of craft?

***

Weinberger famously called Bly "A windbag, a sentimentalist, a slob in the language."

29/1/2005

{lime tree}: My Walt Whitman Can Beat Up Your Walt Whitman. Hell yes.
Tayson on Whitman and Language Poetry. A profoundly wrong-headed article. (Via Josh (who incidentally is one of most consistently intelligent poetry bloggers out there.) I especially love the contrast between Sharon Olds and Leslie Scalapino, in which the young poet siimply takes the latter's emotional coolness at face value. And when he quotes Jorie Graham; that's priceless. The poetry that he seems to dislike, that found in most literary magazines today, owes more to Graham than to Scalapino or Bernstein. Isn't it Graham who dilutes Ashbery to just the right consistency to be acceptable in the MFA programs? I see much more second-rate Ashbery/Graham imitations than second-rate Clark Coolidge imitations. The period style of today owes very little to LP.

28/1/2005

Fink interview at e-x-c-h-a-n-g-e-v-a-l-u-e-s
LRB | Eliot Weinberger : What I Heard about Iraq
VISION (Concha García)

Nothing is more irritating than to hear water in a drain
on a night of insomnia. Salamanders emerge
from cracks in sewers and the remains of the foam
of people brushing their teeth are mixed with the water
of a pipe. The water in the conduits of an entire city,
with remains of saliva, goes out to sea tonight.
I live close to the outlet, I know that yesterday
you were here and I lean out the window
imagining the water with which you rinsed
in a wave.

27/1/2005

Famed Santa Cruz linguist Geoffrey Pullum over at Language Log is one of the best ranters in the blogging world. You want to laugh and cry at the same time when he tells a story with such well-warranted righteous indignation.
Here's another poem by the same poet:

LEAP OF SURPRISE

We might even be able to contemplate without disdain
that piling up of what now is fine.
To return to delight, anticipate once more
a sort of loss under the leaves
of paper, in the kitchen, the newspapers,
the advertisements in the mailbox, the leaves of the countryside,
and how alone we are when everything is fine,
what laziness to climb the stairs, what rancor
of steps.
Or take the case of Harold Bloom. He likes David Shapiro's poetry because at the time he first encountered it he was still open to new aesthetic experiences. He wouldn't respond to the new David Shapiro of today with as much openness, I suspect. I think the clock stops for all of us at one point or another. I'm hoping it won't with me, but it is hard work NOT to let one's preferences harden with age. I force myself to listen to music I hate, for example.
Twice yesterday I saw honesty invoked...

Does anyone really think Vendler can be honest because she's not a poet? Once she invests a certain amount of time promoting someone's career, she can't really change her mind or stop writing blurbs for the person, even if she sees the poet's work going downhill. On the other hand, honesty is overrated. To say I'm bored by some unknown poet's work might be honest, but also pointless and cruel. To expect Vendler to be open to work of 30-year old poets would be expecting a lot, since the clock probably stopped for her a long time ago. I wouldn't trust her judgment on any poet under 50 or 60. Not to say she isn't perceptive or eloquent about the poets she does like.
Here's a poem by the Spanish poet Concha García. The translation is by me:

I'd like to be the man
with a thin mustache who takes the bus,
his hands aren't frozen.
A man of medium height
who is not headed for the bar
a man who chats
with the bus driver
and tells him: I've finished
for today it's done.
Someone
who feels that for today it's done
and not to have frozen hands.
I've done it, he tells the driver.
In his lips there is a hint of illusion.
It's as though something else
were awaiting him
somewhere, I can't define what it is
that could make someone
of medium height and mustache
say, I'm done. I wonder
what type of sensation that might be. That he's done
and that probably he's done.
I don't know what he could have done
it's obvious in the way he says it

The interesting thing for me is the verb "acabar"--to end, to finish to be done, to accomplish something. At what point in the poem does "being done" change over from the sense of accomplishment to the sense of being "done" in the negative sense? The ambiguity carries through in the English translation.

26/1/2005

Some thoughts on the Chicago reading which actually took place in St. Louis:

1) Yes, I did knock over that empty beer bottle under my seat. The floor was wooden and the acoustics quite cavernous. Very loud and embarrassing. I also sneezed loudly several times.

2) I laughed out loud during Julie Dill's wonderfully hilarious sestina, and wondered why I was the only one. Everyone else was sitting there stone faced. I would have laughed harder, but didn't want to stand out too much.

3) I look quite a bit like Jonathan Mayhew, but not so much like people's image of him. Apparently I am skinnier in person than on my blog.

4) Robyn's poetry was quite striking, as was Nicks, but I felt I had to hear more of it to form a lasting impression.
Was that post on What's for Dinner? confusing enough? I was having an argument with myself about the book and hadn't resolved the problem before I wrote about it. Alfred and G. is better. Now I have to find a copy of A Nest of Ninnies.

***

I have never heard of any of the Book Critics Award nominees in poetry, except for Snyder and Rich. I just cannot keep up with everything being published, nor do I have any desire to. I'm sure I'm missing good books. I'm also sure I'm avoiding many books that would depress and overwhelm me in their sheer quantity. Surely these writers, (aside from Rich and Snyder) are "mid-list." I looked up a few on the web, and wasn't impressed. The National Book Awards had a more impressive list of nominees.

I found it odd that Jordan had not heard of the existence of the book by the two famous poets, while at the same time he knew more about the poets I had never heard of .

***

I used to get depressed reading the APR, because it seemed to set itself up as a major journal, but to have no criterion of value other than fame and photogeniality.

25/1/2005

I just read James Schuyler's What's for Dinner?, which I found at a used book store. It is as though Schuyler were going through the motions, writing a novel but not taking the form at all seriously. It seems to be a parody of a type of novel that I myself have no acquaintance with. That is, I'm sure there are dreadful novels that are just like this, but written with less tongue-in-cheek intent. All in all, it is quite a good book. Some of the scenes in the mental hospital drag a bit, and the archness of the tone can get wearisome after a while, but the narrative picks up at the end and you realize he knew what he was doing all the time. The novel is not in the least "experimental." It is a campy comedy of manners. After a while you realize that he really did mean to write a real novel, with believable characters and all the trappings, and he pulls it off better than many "real" novelists. It's like the anti-Updike novel of suburban alcholism and adultery. Did people really talk like that? Schuyler has quite an ear for slightly unbelievable and hilarious dialogue. And that very ungainly sentence that works at being awkward. "Mary C. Taylor--the laughing Charlotte of the class of 19**--found the sweet mood brought on by contemplation of the spick-and-spanness in which her husband Norris perused and, presumably, memorized the evening paper, soured." Schuyler is assuming the reader will realize that he's doing this on purpose.
Looks like Tony liked my review of his book.

24/1/2005

Here's a good post fromThe Reading Experience on General Symbolic Interpretation. A couple of comments.

1) The proposal to study all sorts of phenomena--clothes, popular entertainment, advertisements--is part of Roland Barthes' semiotic project of 40 years ago. We've been hearing this sort of talk for years. Even in Kenneth Burke's project of studying symbolic action, whether in literature or not.

2) Yet Barthes was very committed to studying literature as well. He constantly emphasizes the specificity of literature.

3) Barthes would not have seen this "anthropological" project as incompatible with the study of literature, but he would not have emphasized interpretation, or "symbol-mongering." He would have been more in tune with Sontag's "erotics of art." Of course, Sontag was influenced by Barthes and similar writers.

23/1/2005

On "the propensity of intelligent people to agree with me," I'm assuming that intelligent readers everywhere will see this as a self-deprecatory dig, and perhaps even recognize themselves in this aphorism. Every time I find myself saying to myself "damn he's smart, he agrees with me and says it even better," I am acknowledging my own bias. I can't be the first person to have this particular insight.

The other side of this would: "Boy, this guy really likes my poetry. He must be a fool." I am prone to this cognitive distortion as much as to the first, depending on the circumstances.

People who think I'm wonderful (all three or four of them) are very hard for me to dislike.
How others might have phrased the aphorism:

The confident egotist is very good for himself. --R. Creeley

The regard we have for others is but a disguised form of amour-propre. --LaRochefoucauld

I'll join any club that will appoint me president. --Groucho Marx

I am the least difficult of men; all I want is boundless love. --Frank O'Hara

He wrote a whole book on beauty without mentioning me! --Anonymous
If five people email me and tell me I am right about Swensen, does that mean I am right, or that all seven of us are wrong? I'm still waiting for the other shoe to drop. [Gary at DagZine is also included in the tally]

***

I have realized that my point a few weeks ago about perception and judgment was at least partially wrong. Aesthetic perception always has an element of judgment inherent in it. I can't perceive anything aesthetically without some kind of response, good, bad, or indifferent. Perception without judgment is dull. (Or was I correct before? A lot of people agreed with me or thought it was a valid point.) You look at a Rothko painting and it hits you, it moves you. You don't sit there describing it for an hour before you decide whether you like it.

22/1/2005

The corollary of this is that I am impressed when people happen to come up with arguments that I might have come up with on a good day. Things I have often thought, but ne'er so well expressed. Kasey Mohammad and Gary Norris have done so recently.
One characteristic of highly intelligent people is their propensity to agree with ME.

21/1/2005

Jordan found a letter I had written to Kenneth Koch in 1983, while going through some papers in order to edit the Director's Cut DVD of The Pleasures of Peace (I made that last part up.) I had forgotten completely about the fact that I had written him a letter. I'm surprised he kept it. My wife reminded me that I had sent him a poem based on Some South American Poets. I had absolutely no recollection of this, although a line Jordan quoted me from my letter rang a bell, as something I would have said.
Here is Andy Debicki's obituary, with a photo taken at the symposium I (and my colleagues) organized in his honor a few years ago.

20/1/2005

It looks like actual "ordinary" readers take more enjoyment in Anne Carson than Mike Snider would grant them. Never let the actual evidence of positive reader response get in the way of a good argument!

UPDATE: (the next morning)

I just wanted to present the other side of the story. To me, any tangible evidence I can find points to the fact that Anne Carson is an enjoyable writer whose novel and verse and translations of Sappho meet with an appreciative reception from the type of reader who is an actual reader, not a mere hypothesis in a hypothetical bookstore. I'm an empiricist. On a good day Carson can outsell another of my favorite writers, Elmore Leonard. That to me is encouraging.
I'm more than a little disappointed with Cole Swensen's Goest. The book flaunts its intellectuality, but I never found the intellectual pay-off. The language is flat, and despite the emphasis on visuality, I don't think she has a very keen poetic "eye." The factoid-filled history of incandescence that makes up the middle section of the book has a tedious, academic feel to it, like a workshop exercise that's gone on too long. This is poetry that should BE incandescent, not just talk about it. Those luminous details just don't shine brightly enough. Too many poems had an inconsequential tone to them, at least in my first reading of the book. The first prose poem, "The Girl Who Never Rained," was mildly amusing in a sort of muted Russell Edson manner. I liked this poem ok, but it's nothing special.

This is part of an argument I'm having with myself. I feel that this is the sort of poetry I ought to be enthused about, yet somehow I'm not, because I sense that it's dull and Iowaesque, despite the blurbs on the back from Hejinian and Waldman. It's a very cautious, defensive style; you won't find a bad poem in the book, nothing to make fun of, and quite a few passages of half-way decent writing that I could easily defend, but is this really one of the best works by this poet? Is this one of "our" best poets? Or is this the sort of post-language poet who is most palatable to the hideous Iowa aesthetic of dullness? Or maybe the book is great and I'm just in a bad mood and will have to take everything back tomorrow?
I just received the news the my friend and colleague Andy Debicki passed away, after a battle with cancer. He was my professional mentor in many ways, and essentially brought me to Kansas. He has been, for about as many years as I have been alive, one of the leading scholars in the field of 20th-century Spanish poetry, as well as an enormously generous person. RIP.
AP. St. Louis MO. World is reconformed in accordance with conventional wisdom.

In a striking development, reality has been reconformed to accord with preconceived ideas about it, according to high-level sources that did not wish to be quoted for this story. Reactions to this event have been mixed. John Smith, St. Louis-based meteorologist, was happy to know that this had happened, although he had always assumed that all his prejudices were in fact correct. Novelist Tom Wolfe also welcomed the event: "There were too many many poets voting for Bush, ordinary people enjoying difficult poetry and painting, and college students not having sex," said Wolfe. "Something had to be done to combat the rash of sober frat boys and people who think my novels are dull repetitive tripe." Jonathan Mayhew, local poet and raconteur, was not so sanguine: "This will stop sales of Harriet Mullen books to construction workers and may even eliminate the existence of Henry Gould, who does not conform to any stereotypes," said Mayhew. Gould himself, ominously enough, could not be reached for comment.
More meaningless Amazon ratings, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing

Gluck, Wild Iris 12,615
Wilbur, Collected Poems 22,420
Mullen, Sleeping with the Dictionary 23,100
Hejinian, My Life 25,252
Stein, Tender Buttons 29,722
Simic, Selected Poems 33,744
Howe, The Midnight 51,252
Graham, The End of Beauty 55,245
Tate, Selected Poems 89,980
Hecht, Collected Later Poems 111,711

The few of us who do read poetry read widely and well. Our preferences are often strange and unpredictable.

19/1/2005

I think the argument has to be made with a lot more subtlety and historical precision than telling me that I'm simply "wrong." The middle-class popularity of Tennyson is a unique historical fact, not an indication of the eternal popularity of poetry in all places and eras. You have to look at literacy rates, changing historical conditions, and, yes, even the rise of modern mass media. Byron was a celebrity in his day; in fact that one of the origins of the modern celebrity culture. Why did this not happen before in the same way? Pope had the first poetry best-seller by selling subscriptions to his translations of Homer. Dryden did not have the same audience. Courtly poetry has existed in many societies, not just in the 16th century. What was the literacy rate in Heian Japan? Mass literacy is a modern phenomenon. I'm sure John Ashbery has more readers now than Dryden did in his day. Poets cannot re-create the same historical conditions as existed in Victorian England by sheer force of will, and those that try are not guaranteed that readers will follow them: how can you compete with a diet book without putting your poetry on a starvation diet? On the other hand, people never stop buying Howl.
Mike seems to have missed my point. All poetry is written for a small audience, like it or not, so the fact that Lyn Hejinian sells more copies of My Life than many poets who supposedly reach for a more mainstream audience might be a significant fact, if you want to argue that language poetry is more audience-unfriendly than other kinds. (Hejinian's book is at about 40,000). (The U.S. poetry best seller list does include a few living poets that Mike misses in his hasty summary: Walcott, Hoagland, Angelou.) The Hejinian BAP is on the list of the top 100, along with the Hoover postmodern Norton. I consider any poetry book to be ranked higher than 100,000, even if for a very brief time, to be doing very well indeed. After all, poetry books can't help you shed those unwanted pounds or defeat a liberal in an argument. On the other hand, any book ranked above (should I say below?) a million simply is not reaching its audience. In this group are many worthy writers who are not read because readers don't know about them. I'm sure Mike would say this is true of Rhina Espaillat. It's not her fault that she's not read, is it? Surely this would be a case of the audience being inadequate to the poet, not the poet being inadequate to the audience.
Mike Snider has been making the argument that poets should write for a more general audience. When we look at what poetry people actually prefer, though, we find a mixed bag. Septagenarian formalist poet Rhina Espaillet's latest book ranks in the 7 figures in amazon sales; it doesn't look the general public wants her kind of poetry very much! Her other books are in the high 6 figures. Ron Silliman's Tjanting stands at #506,375, outselling any book by Espaillet. Surely something is off-kilter here. I'm sure she's a better poet than Maya Angelou or Mattie Stepanek, who have quite a public following. Maybe if Rhina were a teenage rock diva or a former president she could sell the same sort of poetry to many times the readers. Maybe she should go on Oprah. My point is that the routes that poetry takes to reach its audience are variegated and devious, and that the popularity of various poetic styles won't line up with anyone's scale of poetic values.

That Ron outsells Rhina proves absolutely nothing, and if the reverse were the case it would prove absolutely nothing either. The obvious fact is that a multitude of factors influence the way poetry reaches its audience: it's not some natural, unmediated process. If Bruce Andrews were published in the New Yorker, he would sell more books. If Charles Wright were not published in the New Yorker, he would sell fewer books.

The ordinary reader recognizes quality poetry, except when he or she prefers crap. The ordinary reader prefers new formalism to language poetry, except when the opposite is the case. No neo-formalist poet under 80 is popular by any meaningful standard. Baxter Black, cowboy poet and former large animal vet, is more popular than Dana Gioia, a discovery I find oddly comforting.

Appeals to the general reader are sheer demagoguery.

18/1/2005

People who aren't poets find a variety of uses for poetry. The top selling book of American poetry at amazon, children's books aside, is Howl at 3,227 (Sales Ranking). Ariel is quite high at 4,007. What Narcissism Means to Me stands at 5,355, suggesting that the post O'Hara urban sensibility is still appealing. And let's not forget Alicia Keys and Tupac. A certain number of people will buy a book by whoever's poet laureate at the moment. And the immortal Mattie Stepanek, wise beyond his years, ranks up there with Richard Wilbur.
I'm also reading Jessica Grim's The Inveterate Life. A first reading gave me little point of entry, no "hook." I couldn't distinguish one poem from another. Yet read another day this impression seemed entirely false, and the book became much more variegated.
I enjoyed Zero Star Hotel (A. Berrigan) quite a bit. Swarm (J. Graham) is causing me problems. I want to like it but it seems so ponderous and self-important. For my real work I'm re-reading Concha García's Ayer y calles. I love the way this book disappoints expectations that the poetic act will lead to an epiphany. The constant dullness and anticlimax, but with a strange intensity and focus.

***

I'm not really all that interested in the amount of work that goes into the poem. I'm only interested in the end result. In fact, a great SHOW of effort can produce a clotted effect. A poem that seems to have been written more easily will be more graceful than one exhibiting a lot of muscular tension. Maybe that's why I'm not overly fond of Jorie Graham or James Merrill, fine poets though they be. I'm not recommending a lack of dedication or seriousness, obviously. I'm talking about the way O'Hara "The only way to be quiet / is to be quick" ("Poetry") is a re-writing of Yeats' "If it does not seem a moment's thought" ("Adam's Curse"). In fact O'Hara cites the Yeats in an interview.

17/1/2005

Let such teach others who themselves excel,
And censure freely who have written well.

Instinctively, I tend to agree with Pope's thought here. Ezra Pound also insisted on this same point. I grant my trust to poet-critics who have shown some skill at writing poetry, and withold it from those who haven't. If a poet I respect recommends a poet I have doubts about, I have to keep an open mind. On the other hand, if the critic both makes ridiculous pronouncements AND is him or herself an incompetent poet, then I tend to assimilate those two facts in my mind. Logically, of course, it is perfectly possible for a bad poet to be a good critic, but in this case it would be a person with bad judgment about his or her own work. And if the work is not only bad, but hideous, the judgment is all the more lacking in the poet who would put forward such work.
The Reading Experience: Acquiring the Taste
Children's poetry is a different animal. You have to take it on its own terms. When it's good, it can be very very good, delightful and amazing. Most poetry written for children is quite awful. Milne is good, I believe. And if you google children and poetry you get some godawful things too. Just the sort of thing that Kenneth Koch was complaining about 30 years ago. Teddy bears and sugarplums.

Julia wrote another new poem, "Praise to Music," which is among her best. I've been asked a few times whether I help her with her poems. Usually the process involves a selection of a "poetry assignment" from one of Kenneth Koch's books. She might ask me for clarification, "does it have to be realistic?" for example. I usually give her wide leeway. Then I just type the poem into her blog, correcting a few minor spelling errors but otherwise not changing anything. I don't suggest that she revise at this stage.

I'm the last person to ask for objectivity in judging these poems. Obviously some are better than others, and I can perceive the difference, but placing too much emphasis on this difference would not be productive. Sometimes she comes up with things that amaze me.

16/1/2005

A new poem from Julia.
I have little appreciation for the humor of Wodehouse. I don't choose to read about an asexual ineffectual Edwardian squire and his slightly more effectual manservant. Yet--here's the point--I don't doubt that those who do find it funny are really laughing. I don't think of their laughter as somehow not real laughter. Wodehouse is genuinely funny--to those people. If I don't laugh there's a mismatch between me as a reader and this kind of humor, not because Wodehouse is objectively "not funny." Now why people want to doubt that my appreciation and comprehension of Silliman or some other avant-garde poet is not genuine in this sense is something I don't understand. That is to say, people who don't "get it," in the same way I don't get Wodehouse, want to say that this poetry is invalid, biologically incorrect, and that somehow the people who promote it must be deluded. There's this idea that we are only pretending. It would be as if I said that the person rolling on the floor in laughter while reading Wodehouse was only pretending to laugh.

I'm sure that those who enjoy Billy Collins are getting something out of it, that they fully enjoy that kind of thing.

14/1/2005

GIANTS

Giants are much too beautiful
They live in a house called bigger dimensions
They never suffer from delusions of grandeur
and I have met many giants and this is always true
A giant will always pity you

Still, giants sleep with their eyes on their business
which mainly now is the killing of tourists
the flow is getting smaller since the end of the summer
the fall of leaves keeps many customers away
still, I could never say goodbye
to all my friends among the giants
and they have frightened all my enemies away.

The giants know that I'll be strong some day
for I have planned one insuperable attack
against this habit of closing my eyes when I sleep
because I want to hold on to light as long as I can
and because I want to kiss the small of your back.

--David Shapiro

There are very few poems I wish I had written. This is one of them. There is a childlike quality that is not forced, and a knowingness about this quality that is not too knowing. Children are fascinated by strong powerful things that could destroy or possibly protect them: dinosaurs, eagles, giants, tigers. This is a coming of age poem, the age being adolescence. Compare it to "There I could never be a boy." I don't think this poem suffers by the comparison at all. A line like "They never suffer from delusions of grandeur" is brilliant in its implicatures. Why don't they suffer from such delusions? They are grand creatures, thus thinking themselves grand is not a delusion. The implication, though, is that I, the speaker of the poem, do suffer from such delusions. If I know I suffer from these delusions, though, then I have also gained a certain self-knowledge, a distance from this delusion. "A giant will always pity you" is another wonderful line. I like the mixture of transparently easy lines and ones with more complex implications.

There are poems I admire greatly but have no wish to have written; that is, they don't speak to my own aesthetic aims. Poetry should not be boring.

13/1/2005

I just got back from a poetry reading--Julie Dill, along with some people from Chicago, Robyn Schiff and her husband Nick Twem... I'm blanking out on correct spelling of his last name. It was fun. I met Tony Robinson too, of the Geneva Convention Blog, a very nice guy. On the way there I hit a pothole and probably broke something: the car is making a strange sound and the steering is off, the wheel makes these little jerks.

I think I'll skip the next one, which is Kirby Olson.
Why do get trapped into defending a poet I don't even like? Well, I was thinking a little more about Bruce Andrews, and realized his characteristic mode is not all that far removed from a lot of forms of hip hop lyrics and slam poetry that are certainly more accessible to today's 18-year olds than Shelley is:


"Nasty simulacra -- you jerk, you forgot your pistol
Bunny potlatch -- Slam Slam Happens
Integrabby glisses up
You're the cowboys, we're the cattle
And Scrooge McDuck
The non-oligarchical wisecracker irritainment
Listen honey, we call it passive regressive
Dirt at crime scene -- cineplex moonshine foxtrot
White Collar Hairnet -- Burn-outs for Christ
Culture dead codehead down, pre-rave accessorizing the wick
Wallet had icing
Cops money satan"

In fact, I might do a "Bruce Andrews or Hip Hop Lyric Quiz" very soon.
In other news, I notice my daughter's sestina is mentioned in the recent issue of Poets & Writers.
A slight factual error has been kindly pointed out to me. It turns out chimps don't read poetry at all. Well, if Kenneth Koch can try to teach polar bears to write poetry, I can certainly try with chimps. Seriously, though, is it too much to ask a critic to try to understand what it's about before passing judgment? For a critic to orient the reader, or a teacher the student, just enough so that the text will no longer seem difficult, if the difficulty is due to a lack of knowledge of the relevant context? Is it outrageous to point out that this is essentially the same process that the teacher performs when the text is by Milton or Shelley, and that the difficulties and challenges are comparable in all meaningful respects? The difference has to do with prejudice: even my second graders a few years ago "knew" that poetry always had to rhyme. Almost every nonpoetry reader's cultural default for poetry is essentially Victorian, but someone who sets up shop as a critic should at least be aware of twentieth-century developments.
I can make the most outrageous statement that I only half believe, and Kasey will carefully prove that I'm right with a patience I cannot muster. I could teach a chimpanzee to understand Bruce Andrews' poetry, which is not difficult in the least once you shed a few prejudices. You don't need to read huge tomes of Language Poetry Theory to see what he's doing. The chimpanzee might have more trouble with Shelley. Sure, it's soothing and familiar sounding, so he would say, "that's nice, I like it," without really understanding a word. There is such a thing as being a more schooled reader; the least someone knows about any art form the more conservative and conventional their taste will be. Why is that schlocky Christian painter whose name escapes me so popular? Familiarity is very soothing, but I imagine that Andrews, the last thing he wants to do is soothe his audience.

12/1/2005

I am enjoying my new (to me) copy of an old book, January, by D. Shapiro. It's brilliant stuff, written and published before the poet had turned 20. This sonnet for example:

First Love

I imagine you dressed up as a gowned Hasid
A blackbearded girl--a girl I might have married
A stick we take to bed and call John in bed
Later a white-breasted Protestant girl to be buried.
Who are you and what cruelty in what theater
Do you still play cello and strip for friends
Atlantic City fingers warmed by the electric-heater
Sun--a decadent iimage everybody understands.

And you smile by the chorus of a Psalm of David
Your smile twirls in the air just before I cry
"Your team is my team" and you change the bid
On your body to a strangulating price I cannot buy.
Slowly walking in Boston with a music note
Your composition stabs me like a bat.
Hells yes baby.
I think this poem by Bruce Andrews would be a lot easier for most contemporary readers than the "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty." Hell, I don't even like this poem, because it's too easy, too self-evident in its devices. Sure, when I serenaded some construction workers this afternoon with it, they weren't too appreciative. Ouch, the brick in my back still hurts. Why could that be? Maybe you need a teeny bit of context to understand what this kind of writing is trying to do. Context that a critic might provide, that being the critic's job. But when the critic presumes to speak for the uncomprehending reader instead of doing her job, then we are right to call her on it.
{lime tree}: Inorganic Utopias, an excellent post from one of my favorite bloggers. He has the patience to explain what I merely assert. See also his comment on Mike Snider's post referenced earlier.
I'm on "Waltz for Debby" now. What a wonderful recording. I love Scott LaFaro.
Checked out of the U City Public Library: Swarm, Zero Star Hotel, Many Happy Returns, A Border Comedy.
On the other hand, I might be delusional too.
Understanding a poem is one thing, having an interest, a stake in it, is something else entirely. Poetry that demands my allegiance to it, my commitment. The opposite of a "disinterested" view. (I'm using disinterested in the pedantic sense of "having no stake," not in the sense of "uninterested"). Intelligence is not a capability but an attitude. of valuing the intelligence. I'm sure there are smart people who are anti-intellectual; they just find it easier to shut down their minds.
Mike Snider: "either he's {I am} delusional or the students he knows are functional illiterates to whom all writing is equally opaque."

Yes, indeed, they are readers unused to any poetic writing at all, for whom any such writing would be equally opaque. The amount of effort that it would take to teach them to read Tennyson is approximately the same as the amount of effort it would take to teach them to read Bruce Andrews, ceteris paribus. Not only that, but they would quickly see that Andrews is speaking of issues relevant to the present day. Silliman would be far easier to teach to them than Tennyson. K. Silem Mohammad's flarf poem in the BAP could reach students quite easily. They might not accept it as poetry, but that might provoke an interesting discussion. I think students would enjoy poems by Arielle Greenberg in the BAP as well, with very little special training, and many others. It is not writing that is opaque but readers who are closed off to new possibilities. Opaque readers, as it were. It is not so much a lack of intelligence as a lack of open-mindedness.

11/1/2005

Eschewing my usual randomness, I'm listening to my itunes on my computer in alphabetical order, starting with Anthony Braxton, passing through Art Pepper. I'm on Art Tatum now. Next I have Barbara Guest, Bill Evans, and Billy Higgins. I have 1:01:59:33 of music and poetry, 350 "songs" for 1.75 GB.
No, we don't have to take Houlihan seriously as a reader. She is the best possible example of a non-reader, someone who refuses to read in any meaningful sense of the word. When the vast majority of printed matter is written for those with more conventional tastes, it seems perverse for those with conventional taste to go after the hundreth of a percent of printed material that offers the reader a little bit more of a challenge. Let us have our fun! We are smarter than you, it's true, and in an anti-intellectual society like ours that is supposed to be a bad thing. Why is the prejudice against smart people still considered legitimate?
I don't think the average college student today would find Tennyson or Shelley any less opaque than Silliman or Andrews.

***

More "hokum from the last century":

1. The great poets are the alcoholic, suicidal, self-destructive ones: Jarrell, Plath, Thomas, Sexton, Lowell, Berryman, Spicer.

2. The "New Critics" cared about poetic form.

3. William Carlos Williams was an intellectually limited man who really didn't know what he was doing.

4. Henry James made the novel into a "serious" art form.

5. The most interesting work in literature today is being performed by literary theorists like Harold Bloom and Paul de Man, not by poets, novelists, and playwrights.

6. Randall Jarrell is one of the best literary critics of all time.

7. The New Formalism of the 80s was a significant movement.

8. The New Formalism of the 1950s was a significant movement. Hecht and Wilbur are major poets of the century.

9. This is a great time for poetry, there are many major poets alive today, most of whom teach in MFA programs. Norman Dubie is a great poet, for example.

10. "Homage to Mistress Bradstreet" is a major poem of our time.

11. Ashbery doesn't have an "ear."

12. Creeley's poetry is "boring."

13. Frank O'Hara just wrote casual poems on his lunch hour; he didn't take poetry that seriously.

14. Kenneth Koch is a comic poet who we don't need to take all that seriously.

10/1/2005

Here's a new blog,e-x-c-h-a-n-g-e-v-a-l-u-e-s, by one of the best interviewers of his generation.
My book on Spanish poetry basically addresses questions of value. That is, what is at stake in the attribution of value to a paricular mode of writing. The panicky feeling that I haven't made the case I meant to, that the book is missing some essential element.

9/1/2005

All my comments about "difficulty" should be taken with a caveat: the reader must be intelligent. Stupid people already have enough forms of entertainment directed their way. Why add poetry?
More "Hokum from the last Century":

1. A poem is a static object whose purpose is to provide fodder for academic analysis.

2. The "Beats" were "know-nothing Bohemians."

3. Modernism in the arts either never existed or was an abject failure; the truly great poets were those who continued Victorian and Edwardian models.

4. The Language Poets are intereting in theory, but their poetry is dull.

5. MFA programs created a renaissance in verse.

6. American poetry needs the influence of more imaginative, surrealist poetry from Latin America to correct its inherent dullness.

7. American poetry is a minor branch of the poetry of the British Isles.

8. American poetry is most interesting because it is "American." It is self-sufficient; it is most American the further it gets from either coast.

9. American poetry is interesting to the extent that it resembles French poetry.

10. American poetry is interesting to the extent that it transcends its mid-western, corn-pone nature. It can only be written in either the Eastern sea-board or the San Francisco Bay Area.

11. It is perfectly possible to be a poet without learning a foreign language.

I have Lyn Hejinian and Bill Berkson in my email address book. I've never sent or received a message to or from either one, but I have their emails just in case I need them.
Houlihan doesn't even try to see what Bruce Andrews is doing. She just lazily invokes principles of conventional writing and finds them absent. Does she even notice that there are some more conventionally good poems in the book, by Arther Sze for example? No, all must be tarred with the same brush. I don't even like Andrews that much, but I don't see his writing as particularly opaque. I might have my problems with the Hejinian selection, but there are many hidden treasures--Erin Moure for example--that any open-minded person should be able to recognize. Chris Lott, who is open-minded almost to a fault--found many things to like as well as dislike in these pages.

I must say that not seeing Hejinian's protestations about the concept of "bestness" as a subtle captatio benevolentiae betrays a certain rhetorical deafness.

8/1/2005

Houlihan is at it again. This essay illustrates to perfection the principle that praise and dispraise, in the complete absence of perception are largely worthless. We don't learn anything except that she doesn't like it.

7/1/2005

What I most hate is adding the phrases like "as we have seen in Chapter III."
mmm...gruel.
My comments about reviewing have been noticed by a few other bloggers around the web. They relate to an aphorism by Pound that Creeley is very fond of: "take care of your perceptions and your taste will take care of itself." Also, an urge in myself to be less judgmental.
Divide the work into small tasks: translate the quotations in one chapter, check the bibliography of another, then accomplish three or four of these tasks each day. Thus gradually the book will be complete.

6/1/2005

Not only fascinating, but "Very Perceptive" as well. Keep those compliments flowing.
"In other news, I have long been fascinated by the poetic possibilities of spam & particularly the strange invented names of spammers. Here is a person who actually saw this possibility through into creation here. The rest of his blog is every bit as fascinating."

Thanks!
I make a pact with you, Ron Silliman.
I know I've been asked before why I don't have comments on my blog. The short answer is that comment boxes are evil: they encourage the worst aspects of internet usage: snarkiness, parasitism, timewasting, spam.
It takes very little to fascinate me.
Errol Laud stands out in the rain looking at his clogged gutters. He wants to weep but somehow can't.

Dickie Xehecet wonders how the coffee filter knows what to let through?

Fay Mayberry sends me an urgent message that I promptly discard. I don't believe in the existence of Fay Mayberry.

What of Millie Gtaxa? Nothing can be said about her.

Emilio Lanier investigates his geneology; he is descended from clouds or gods.

Linwood Beale revives the musical comedy; he hasn't comic bone in his body.

Grady Cooley perfects a certain "look," which nobody notices.

Milford Dentor passes unnoticed into the land of the shades.

Angelica Esposito peoples my world, all by herself.


***

I've been fascinated by why the names of email spammers seem so implausible. All resemblance to non-existent persons is purely coincidental.

5/1/2005

I'm trying to finish this book of mine during the sabbatical as fast as I can so that I can have the rest of the time for other things. I'd like to finish two chapters and put everything in order. This last task, putting everything together, is the one that costs the most amount of energy. I'd rather start a totally new project!

If I introduced one reader to Kawabata my blog has already justified its existence in 2005. Big Kawabata fans include myself, David Shapiro, Jordan Davis, and the late Kenneth Koch.

4/1/2005

On the other hand I'm shocked when someone confesses that they can't get through a page of Lezama Lima. Some difficulty really is worthwhile.

***

I'm of two minds about Sze, which I'll get into maybe tomorrow.

***

I found this amazing poem on my hard disk--it wasn't by me, I was sure of that. Not only did I not remember writing it, but it is not my style, and is far superior to any of my work anyway. My first thought was that someone had somehow secretly put the poem on my computer. After a few moments I realized that I had transcribed it from an audio recording by Barbara Guest. It's from her forthcoming book:

Closing up shop is what happens in Milan and places older

Who is protecting us, we
who were noticed by the emperor
cruising in his vessel?

Remember navigators tasting
lemons from the trees'
other birthplace

Do we know how they felt
born under different signs?

Silent are the honeys
in velvet cups.

I just got an Arthur Sze book at Borders. Looks like it could be a pleasant change of pace. I'll be blogging along to my reading of it over the next few days.

***

Reading Tony Tost's Invisible Bride on the plane to San Diego I noticed "book review guy" in my head coming up with certain bookreviewish-sounding phrases to use about it. It was distracting to have book review guy in my head when I was trying to read--like a premature reaction. I'd much rather have blogging guy in my head.

***

My strategy for reviewing is to perceive the book in as precise a way as possible rather than to praise or dispraise. The praise or dispraise, such as it is, should arise organically out of the perception.
Winter 2004-05 Reading list:

Miniatures. A Pale View of the Hills. Invisible Bride. Snow Country. Botchan. The Homecoming, Beauty and Sadness, The Redshifting Web

3/1/2005

I'd like to think that my distaste for obscurity in my own writing is a form of attrractive modesty.
What I like, then, is not difficulty, but difficulty vanquished.

Can one despise easiness, then? Not easiness itself, but the appeal to easy responses.
Do I really enjoy difficult poetry myself, though, as a reader? Certainly I enjoy writers other people think of as difficult, but I myself don't think of them that way, necessarily. (Poems can be difficult the way people are "difficult") I would certainly protest if anyone thought a poem I had written was difficult. Isn't it always the "easy" parts of the difficult poets that everyone really likes?

Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation - A Critique, from an interesting new blog.

2/1/2005

I am a fan of "difficult" poetry, but I realized recently that all of my own poetry is transparently "easy." As a writer I have no interest at all in difficulty--only as a reader. Where is the source of that discrepancy, I wonder?

1/1/2005

Imagine on a given night there are a thousand nightclub fires, in each of which 100 or so people die because the exit doors are locked, as happened recently in Buenos Aires. It would impossible to respond emotionally separately to each of these fires. You cannot simply multiply the emotional impact of 100 deaths a thousand-fold either. If the toll ends up being 130,000, you can't simply add 30 more night-club fires. It is the staggering nature of the numbers that makes the emotional impact, in a real sense, incalculable.
Two or three images from Kawabata's novels: an "expert" on Western ballet who has never actually seen a ballet performed (Snow Country). A novelist who has his wife type up a novel about his own true-life love affair with a 16-year old girl. The emotional shock causes the typist/wife to miscarry (Beauty and Sadness). A brothel in which aged men can spend the night with prostitutes drugged unconscious. Taken together, these images compose a stunning condemnation of "masculinity" as a mode of errrant unknowing.
I had a quite vivid dream: in order to be promoted within the university I was required to take a PhD examination that I had somehow missed during my actual PhD program. In anticipation of this, I was making notes with a fountain pen. I came up with the brilliant idea that the only basic problem in literary criticism was making distinctions between seemingly equivalent phenomena, or bringing together seemingy disparate phenemena (lumping and splitting). I had had a sneak peak at the exam, and knew that one of the question had to do with defining the word chiastic. I was also planning on writing extensively about the failure of the enlightenment. At one point, I began to see that my notes took the shape of a poem, with little line and squares of text scattered on the page. One said "love, love, love, .love, love.."