27 nov 2003

Julia wrote a poem based on Rimbaud today. Nothing to do with thanksgiving.


Email is still trickling in from Monday. I won't answer too many of those "ask a language poet" letters I've been getting. Especially the ones with the equal signs between the letters of LANGUAGE. I usually prefer my own forced humor to your forced humor.

26 nov 2003

Dear Language Poet:

I am a three-year old female Golden Retriever. Every time I see a cat or squirrel I cannot help but chase it. I've never caught one, and don't know what I'd do with it if I could. They always jump up on the fence or climb a tree before I can get there. I know I will be scolded for this activity, but for some reason I cannot help myself.

Can you help me?

Desperate Dog

Dear DD:

Unfortunately, Language Poet is on vacation, and I am filling in for him. I am a thick, white, viscous condiment made of egg yolks and oil. Since I am an inanimate object, I am having a hard time grasping the concepts of your letter. My only advice is to lay as flat as possible; spread yourself out evenly on the slice of bread rather than letting yourself remain "clumped" up into unsightly gobs. I hope to have helped.


If you've emailed me recently I might not have gotten the message. The university server has been coping with a huge spam attack, and legit messages are being blocked also.

Dear L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poet:
My brother's son is only four years old and has already decided he wants to be a "language poet" when he grows up.
The task has fallen on me to convince this precocious four year old of the folly of the task. I try to tell him that while all the "cool kids" may think it is fun to "deconstruct the core memes of cultural hegemonic processes pertaining to the implied absence of 'otherness' in post-avant discourse" and refusing to read Dr. Seuss despite assignments by the teacher, calling it "formalistic nonsense verse", that he may one day be harming his chances for tenure at a major university.
He will be moving from junior kindergarten to kindergarten next year, and it is time to start thinking about tenure track.
My brother has given up and it has fallen on me, as the "poet in the family" to convince the young boy that poetry can only lead to no good, of which my own life is a prime example.
Please give me some advice.
the michael
Dear the michael:

"Each new page insults the past, only to apply for membership.

The school teacher patrols the yard at recess.

A man in a room hits his forehead with the butt of his hand."

As for us who love to be amazed. Dr. Seuss is a language poet. I hope to have helped.



Nota bene: this is an actual letter I received today in my email. The answer is plagiarized from an actual Language Poet whose initials are RS.

25 nov 2003

Texture Notes


It must be its ability to embody wetness better than other items of food and beverage. Raw oysters are even more wet than water, I would wipe my eyes with it in a desperate moment. Or rather, desperate for something that could act as a tonic, I would feed it to the next person who was in danger of drying out, yes you."

This beautiful text reminds me of Francis Ponge. I love the alternation between the singular and the plural.

Hugh Kenner has died. I found out just now from Language Hat.
A year ago today in Jonathan Mayhew's blog:

National Middle-brow Radio officially fell to National Low-Brow Radio today with Terry Gross's interview of minor celebrity ex-spouse Tom Arnold. He had nothing interesting to say about his dysfunctional life. Rose briefly to highbrow with a discussion with Wendy Steiner and Arthur Danto on beauty in art--flawed because noone seemed to be asking the questions that I would have asked. The panelists seemed to assume that modernist art and literature were ugly by definition and that we needed to return to beauty. Back to National Middle-Brow Radio with an interview with Jonathan Franzen, a rather dull and earnest novelist, most famous for snubbing Oprah (a middle-brow gesture if ever there was one) plugging his book of essays. That's what I get for having to spend five hours in my car.

I have two major objections to what I wrote: the objection that Steiner and Danto didn't address my particular concerns is absurd: how could they read my mind? My characterization of Franzen as a dull novelist is unfair, because I've never read his novels. He may or may not be a dull novelist. What I meant to say is that he's a dull person to interview.

24 nov 2003

Short but intenser than thou work week.

22 nov 2003

A new advice column:

Ask a Language Poet

Dear Language Poet:

My husband and I haven't been communicating very well lately. He talks in a string of seemingly disconnected sentences, only some of which are related to the topic of discussion. He frequently accused me of something called "hypotaxis." Can you help me open up a line of communication with him?


M**** J*****

Dear MJ:

We are them who love to be amazed. Am I right to see myself introduced into the introduction of all those other things you might have held me to? Pencils. A communication strategy implies an ideology. Take two aspersions and call me in the morning. I hope to have helped.



Dear Language Poet:

"Sometimes the words will not mean / what they must mean to others to me. / Have I changed them so their / meaning only I will know / and yet do not?"


C. C.

Dear CC:

?Not do yet and
know will I
only meaning their so
them changed I have
me to others
to mean
must they
what mean not will words
the sometimes.



21 nov 2003

A year today ago in Bemsha Swing (then Jonathan Mayhew's Blog), I wrote this:

"In my car yesterday, listening to NPR. A nice feature on Copper Canyon Press, how they only published poetry and have two out of five nominees for National Book Award. Of course, the question in my mind was 'who are the two poets in question?' I stayed in my car for an extra five minutes to find out, and of course the feature ended with no mention of the actual names of the poets."

I went to a drum clinic done by Rusted Roots drummer Jim Donovan yesterday evening at a local store. He had us playing djembes in no time. I had never been to a drum circle before, and it was quite satisfying. Of course, the minute it was over I was in my usual state of anxiety, but it was a welcome relief for an hour and a half.

20 nov 2003

Joseph Duemer has been found!


Oops. I've fixed the link above.

Blog doldrums... Jordan is in California and not posting. Lend him a computer, someone! Gary, Nada, and Kasey are posting at a reduced rate recently. The skeptic has committed suiblogicide. Joseph Duemer's blog has disappeared into thin air. On the other hand The Jim Side is going stronger than ever.
Postscript on Literary Lacanianism

To the extent that PA theory is already always literary, many critics simply skip the step of seeing PA as a valid theory of how the psyche actually functions. You simply read Lacan, say, as a rather eccentric reader of Poe. The vagueness is inherent to this method. The "unconscious is structured like a language" is not a statement about the human mind, if it is merely heuristic. I'm wondering whether that statement even has a meaning that can be debated. What if it isn't "true"?

Lacan saw both Freudian PA and structural linguistics as valid. He was trying to work with the best concepts developed in those fields up to that date, fusing them in a brilliant synthesis. I would think a contemporary critic would also want to master the best available linguistic and psychological theories that have been developed up until now. But no.
Two possible objections to the preceding post:

"Psychoanalysis works for me; the results are confirmed in my interpretations"

"PA has a cultural influence in 20th century culture. I need to know about it to study the literature of this period."

"There is no other system of thought dealing with the recesses of the human psyche; PA is simply the best we have so far."

The first objection is easy to deal with: all critical approaches are self-confirming. You want to find castration anxiety, you will find it.

The second I agree with completely. You can't understand Hitchcock without Freud, because Hitchcock was influenced by this theory.

The third has some merit. However, those who sincerely believes this should take a critical look and throw out those parts of the theory that are least tenable. They would be left, I predict, with a vague psychological theory that owes very little to the specifics of Freudian concepts. They might also come to see that the way in which PA thought evolved slowed advances in psychology by holding on to dogmatism.
PA critics of an earlier period believed that they were applying valid concepts. That is, they assumed the validity of Freud's claim that PA was a scientific discpline. To say that PA has only heuristic value, then, is already a major concession. In a translation class I asked students to translate a text from Spanish to English without using the letter "e." This was a generative device designed to get the students to come up with insights that they would not have arrived at otherwise. But the idea of translating in this way has no independent validity; it is merely heuristic. If PA has this same status, then critics who use it should not make any special claims for its validity or truth, or claim that skeptics who reject this model are doing so out of "resistance" to PA truth.

When choosing a critical model, it should also be asked why we should prefer one that is based on an untenable or obsolete model of the human psyche. That is, the utility of the critical metalanguage should have at least some correspondence with its independent validity. Otherwise, what is the point? For example, an application of linguistic concepts to a literary text should be based on the best available linguistics, not on a linguistic theory that the interpreter believes to be faulty or untenable.

The utility of Freudian theory might lie in inverse proportion to its specificity. This is a paradox: defenders of Freud tend to point out the importance of general concepts, such as the idea that we are not fully conscious of or motives or that a good deal of psychic life occurs below the surface. It is much hard to defend specific details of Freudian theory, like the idea that neuroses are caused by the repression of infantile sexual traumas. Thus a "vague" Freudian has a much better chance of coming up with valid results than someone steeped in this tradition and loyal to its specificities.

The hermeneutical defense of PA, which takes it out of the scientific realm, also rids PA of its anchoring in reality. Freud as a hermeneut could also be shown to be a bad model to follow. In other words, his readings of dreams, slips of the tongue, and neurological symptoms are arbitrary and capricious, overdetermined by theoretical deductions. Thus the idea that Freud is valuable because of the supposed "brilliance" of his interpretations is indefensible. A lot of the brilliance he demonstrates occurs because he must use so much ingenuity to demonstrate rather inelegant or otherwise unconvincing interpretations. There is no sound hermeneutical method to his readings.

In conclusion, the heuristic value of PA in the Humanities is very small. It makes a very weak claim to its validity, and tends either to vagueness or theoretically overdetermined readings.
The Heuristic Use of Psychoanalytic Theory in the Humanities

The problem: the empirical basis of psychoanalysis has eroded to the disappearing point. Contemporary analysts no longer believe literally in the validity of Freudian concepts. They readily concede that major chunks of the original theory have fallen into disuse because of their basic untenability. Academic humanists who use PA as an interpretive tool have some awareness of this obselescence, yet when challenged they are likely to say: "it doesn't really matter, PA is not a science anyway. It is a heuristic device. It works for me, giving me satisfactory results."

This, I will argue, is not a satisfactory answer.

19 nov 2003

Back to the Michael Davidson project, after brief detour through Henry Gould (who in my parody sounds more like a cross between Lowell and Crane, [more than he sounds like himself {as he's pointed out to me}]).


A play-on-words on "stagecraft," a prose-poem romp through a number of theatrical and literary commonplaces. Stereotypical plots. Hypotactic, although having the parodic structure of a weird opera plot. Constantly shifting metaliterary "play."
Here's a section from Stalwart Glum, a long poem I wrote in the mid-nineteen-eighties, while supposedly doing my job cataloguing rare books in the Brown library. I stuck it in a melancholy drawer:

Walking dim-backwards through the snow,
I fell through Akhmatova's tomb, with stalwart grasp
Of Poe's echt-grease-stain, Hart-Crane bound.
Providence could not hold wise Henry's Oracle,

Christened with calamari on an antique plate,
Jealous of supermarket crosshairs in a Brodsky sprezzatura.
Whole grievances of millenarian grime died out
On the dusky plain. An Anglican primate wrenched the dawn...

[Nota bene: "Oracle" was the name of my grandmother's Siamese cat, who loved to eat squid off my Puritan ancestor's pewter.]

"Thinking the Alps" (Michael Davidson)

"Bob," the protagonist of the poem, is the Romantic poetic subject taking a mountainous and metapoetical hike through poetic history, from the lake poets to postmodernism. ("Bob" always goes in quotation marks.) The poem is easy going, humorous in tone, rich in cultural references (literary, musical, philosophical), frequently iambic. The diction is parodic. The style resembles that of "Mixed Aryan" somewhat.

"Lords Over Fact"

The "I" of the poem seems to be reading music, taking all the repeats:

"I come to the letter eight
and start over
I come to the letter sixteen
it is the same thing"

The poem goes on in that vein for 2 1/2 pages.

Influence of Creeley?


Another poem in two columns. The two poems (original and rewrite) share about 70% of "content." A man who suffers severe burns. Davidson's short lined free verse makes me think of Creeley, his long-lined poems, Ashbery.

Britney goes medieval, courtesy of Lime Tree:

"Me thinkes I dydde it agayne
I mad thee beleve we are more than iust frendes
o babye it moun seeme lyk a crushe
but it ne meaneth that I am serious
bycause to lose alle my senses
that is iust so typicallie me
o babye, babye"
Trying to read 30 files for a position in 20th century Spanish literature in one day.

18 nov 2003

"The Form of Chiasmus; The Chiasmus of Forms"

A prose poem in three short paragraphs. The title illustrates the trope of chiasmus. Words likely to be misspelled are stretched out on a clothesline to dry: "Focused, sabbatical, acknowledgment, component and grateful are starched." The typical langpo wavering between a scene described and the language used to describe the scene. The poem is paratactic, but with a thread that can be followed. Some of the sentences exhibit a Silliman-like wit: "His limp had developed in response to another limp." "They were the first to be belated."

"The Second City"

A poem in tercets , a dream-like evocation of the problem of urban geography: how does one make one's way through a city. Is a landmark in one city equivalent to a landmark in another?

At the top of my crush list is:

No Way... is Julia's blog bandwaste. Now take that back!.

The paratext for Post Hoc:

The cover is black. The title of the book appears on the front cover in about 18 point type. Underneath is a red grid or screen with another grid superimposed over it at a 15 degree angle. The author's name appears below the grid in slightly smaller type (16?).

The spine: title, author, and publisher, evenly spaced out in twelve point type. The entire book is about 8 1/4 " by 5 1/2". 85 pages.

On the back are three blurbs, by Charles Bernstein, Marjorie Perloff, and Bob Perelman. (I'll get into those later.) The book was published by Avenue B (Bollinas Ca) in 1990, in an edition of 1000 ("twenty-six of which are lettered and signed by Michael Davidson"). I am one of the lucky 1000, but not one of the lucky 26.

The book was funded (in part) by the NEA. How much governmental support did LP get in the Reagan-Bush I period?

Also, a list of recent books by Davidson, and a list of publications where the poems appeared before. A list of distributors: SPD, Segue, and Sun & Moon. I bought the book used in St. Louis. It may have belonged to David Hess previously.

A dedication, "For Lori and Sophie," and two epigraphs, one from a court case and the other from L. Hejinian.

R900/Rode The Nine Hundred:

"So I was busting on this little kid's poetry website for being bandwaste, and then I notice that her dad's blog is pretty fun to read. Then I discovered that Ron Silliman has his own dang blog. Then my mind exploded [incoherent guitar solo etc etc]"

Thanks--I think... I wonder whether this little kid's poetry is more of a waste of bandwidth than this guy's vacation photos of sailboats or of his own kid in the bathtub. I've never seen anything else negative on the web about Julia's poetry, which has actually been quite a hit with most readers.

What an odd way to find out about Silliman's blog: Julia to Jonathan to Ron.

On with the Michael Davidson reading... (Post Hoc

"Subject Matter (a rewrite)"

An allegorical dream narrative in two columns, the right presumably a re-write of the left, adding another layer of complexity to reading experience. A strong presence of a first person-singular. I don't have much to say about this poem.


A crowd of people, with an undertone of violence, attend a concert. An air of nervousness. The sound is described in metonymies: "gut / and aperture tuned / around an air, turned / into sound." This poem could be analyzed forever.


A liminal space, "neither top nor bottom / but in between." The protagonist of the poem is a "grommet maker" in search of health insurance. I know what a grommet is: it's a little metal reinforcement inside of a hole. (I am familiar with grommets in snare drum air holes, though I'm not sure they are found elsewhere.) The grommet maker is a manufacturer of holes, of absences. Yet a grommet is not itself a hole, but something that (partially) fills a hole, makes it more substantial.

"Mixed Aryan"

More Ashberian (although with a political edge) than "language-y," in its hypotactic narrative of racial differences, compared metaphorically to linguistic differentiations. There is some wit: "Later you work for the Weenie king / And learn what goes on in Fairy Land." The rhythms are loosening up now.


I am deliberately avoiding value judgments in this commentary. It's not that I am indifferent to them: I do like some poems of this book more than others. I'd prefer to defer my judgment until the very end, so as not to make evaluation an ever-present distracting demand. I think the book has value, or I wouldn't be reading it. Yet Davidson is not a poet I have a personal investment in either.

17 nov 2003

I posted this to the As-Is blog over the weekend. Tom Beckett left a nice comment about it there. I wrote it in my head waking up in bed, trying to remember it until a few hours later when I had a chance to write it down. I may have forgotten some of it. The title was a line from the poem that didn't seem to fit in anywhere when I tried to reconstruct it, so became title.

Avant-garde Poetry Bootcamp

Laundromat of fear
construction unacceptable
to native speakers
of which there were none
in radius of miles

the creation
of society for the prevention of the gratuitous
is itself

if there were wit
what would it be witty

she was kissing me
without enthusiasm
yet it was my fantasy
how locate the opera singer
in laundromat


I just got my copy of Dear Head Nation. I'm looking forward to reading it this evening if I can get my students papers graded. Optometrist called to say my reading glasses are ready: I am truly middle-aged. I'll get back to the Michael Davidson commentary soon. What the two books have in common: blurb from Charles Bernstein.

14 nov 2003

I've decided to do something totally non-judgmental and out of character. I'm going to read the poems in Michael Davidson's Post Hoc one by one, refraining from making any value judgments. I don't want to refute the article on language poetry by taking issues with its arguments. I want to simply do my own affirmative reading of Language Poetry and see what shakes out.

"Post Hoc"

The first poem of the collection, which shares its title. A possible reference to the "Post hoc, propter hoc" fallacy. I get a sense of religious awe from this poem; it's very mysterious and abstract. There is a grid in both space and time, set in motion after a clock strikes twelve. A sense of expectation. The poem is not highly visual, so for a visual reader is hard to follow.


A footnote to the first poem? There is a binary opposition between being "lost in a forest" and a grid-like structure of streets crossing each other in town. Also a contrast between depth and flatness. The ghost of a fairy tale with a maiden and a moat. The possibility of a didactic use of this tale "to illustrate the ill effcts / of theft."


A powerful, musically attuned voice flows through the protagonist of this poem, who stands both inside and outside of language. There are fifteen lines.

13 nov 2003

Since that project (debate about LP with OI) came to naught, I'll have to think of something else equally productive, equally generative of genuine thinking about poetry. I am a genuine poetry addict: I need to constantly read and think about poetry, have my mind stimulated by the ideas of others.
Oren Izenberg has declined my invitation for an online debate about his article on Language Poetry. He thinks online discussions are prone to hasty judgments, and he is probably right. Oh well, it was worth asking.
Foo! cold day! Rid a
yak of sun? Bar the
burr? Do bloom. Lackin'
hide. Agar may hew.
My experience with jazz:

When I was a kid (1960s) I assumed that jazz was a music of the past. I didn't know that it was still an extant musical practice. My parents had some old records, one of the JATP sesssions with Illinois Jacquett honking away, for example. Coleman Hawkins' "Body and Soul" blew me away, especially when I learned it was improvised.

I used to listen to one of those hokey "music of your life" stations just to hear the occasional Armstrong or Tatum performance. I always loved jazz even before I had really heard much of it.

By the 1970s, when I was slightly older, I realized that there were still jazz musicians plalying. I could get KPFA in Berkeley from where I lived, although the signal would cut out once in a while. There was a woman who had an avant-garde jazz program, which would drive my dad crazy. (Everyone else in my family was into classical music.) I knew the Creeley had been into bebop, that Larry Rivers had been a jazz musician. I eventually realized that jazz was central to American poetry and culture generally. (I hated folk music, because of the anti-intellectualism implicit in it.) No one else I knew was into jazz, until I went to college.

I don't have much musical talent. I can play a blues chord progression on the piano in a couple of keys. I can also play basic jazz drums and various afro-cuban rhythms on a conga drum. I can pick out a melody on the piano by ear, but not without making some basic mistakes.

It bugs me when Charles Bernstein uses the name of Thelonious Monk to talk about the performance of poetry, but then never really says anything specific about Monk. The jazz reference is just for show; it's a teaser. I hate kitschy jazz poetry.

Culturally speaking, the young lions movement of the 1980s is reactionary. I always thought the Marsalis approach was dull. Q: What's duller than a Marsalis brother? A: Two Marsalis brothers. To be fair, Jason M. is supposed to be a pretty good drummer.

12 nov 2003

I was reading a dissertation proposal today and who do I find quoted there but Nick Piombino (his concept of the "aural ellipsis"). This on the topic of Quechua poetry in Peru. Thus my blogging circle and and my professional life magically converge.
Is The Skeptic quitting the game? I hope he writes the 20 volumes of his blogicide note before he picks up his marbles and goes home.
Dear Oren:

I've read your article on Language Poetry in Critical Inquiry. I'd be interested in debating the ideas with you by email and putting the results up on my blog. (http://jonathanmayhew.blogspot.com) I was thinking of sending in a response to the journal itself, but I don't particularly like the tone of those debates, in which the participants try to vie for theoretical supremacy by misrepresenting arguments, or claiming that their own arguments have been misrepresented.

Basically, I don't agree that language poetry is programmatically and "objectively" dull. I find it quite aesthetically challenging and varied in scope. I don't think it can be limited to the production of Chomskian sample sentences. This might apply to a poet like Barrett Watten, although I don't think he would agree. I don't think it has much relevance to Coolidge, Fanny Howe, Susan Howe, most of Hejinian, Bernstein, or Silliman. But then again, I find Samuel Beckett's writing beautiful as well. I'm not saying your taste in poetry is deficient, but rather that you perhaps "universalize" your own reaction in excess.

Marjorie Perloff has written many essays in which she discusses LP in aesthetic terms, using a fairly traditional Poundian vocabulary. It is poetry with melopeia, logopeia, phanopeia, etc... and is rooted in avant-garde poetics. How would you address the fact that this poetry is in fact amenable to such an approach?

Your critique of the community building aspects of LP are quite interesting, if inconclusive. If language poetry's community building has been for naught, so be it. You demonstrate some problematic aspects of the Leningrad project, but it seems to me different from "literary politics as usual." Earlier you said that the LP community was indistinguishable from any other literary community, but, as you yourself demonstrate, they were at least trying to do something different.

Silliman's use of the computer program does seem naive to me. It is a crude measure at best. I agree with parts of your critique at that point in the article.

I don't see as you as particularly interested in engaging with the actual ideas of LP. You substitute a simpler, more elegant paradigm, but one that leaves out quite a bit of the potential theoretical debate.

If you choose to respond, please indicate whether you want me to post your response. Congratulations on getting the article published in such a visible and prestigious journal. Although I disagree with the premise that LP is thin gruel, I think your thoughtful arguments are worth consideration.


Jonathan Mayhew

Dear Prince Clifford:

I am honored that you have contacted me about your business opportunity. It is great to hear of your enormous trust in the deity, who has led your message to my in-box. The fact that you have contacted only me about this deal is extremely flattering. Perhaps you are a reader of my blog Bemsha Swing. It may come as a surprise to you, but I actually get three or four similar business propositions every day, from the highest government officials (or their relatives) in Nigeria and several other African countries. Even more surprisingly, all the emails I receive tell basically the same story, with slight variations, and promise a similar percentage of the recovered funds.

These millions of dollars languishing in African bank accounts were originally stolen from the people of your great continent! What you propose is that we form a criminal conspiracy to steal the money once again, since the original thieves are missing or deceased. Since the deal you propose is unethical as well as illegal I will not be able to help you out.


Jonathan Mayhew
A year ago today on "Jonathan Mayhew's Blog" I wrote the following:

"My translation course is inevitably the source of new insight. It is as though any problem relevant to my own intellectual pursuits can be approached via translation. Whether the students feel the same way is another matter entirely.
Borges has an essay on the "Superstitious ethics of the reader" (approximate title). The idea is that, by dint of repetition, a particular literary passage might come to seem inevitable "En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme..." "Longtemps, je me suis couché à bonne heure." "Of man's first disobedience...." But the original author would not necessarily have thought of this language as sacred or immutable. For Cervantes (says Borges) the opening of the Quixote was nothing special. Borges's approach to translation, then, involves a questioning of the idea, found in theorists from Benjamin to Steiner, that the original is a sacred text.
The OuLiPo approach, exemplified by Harry Mathews, sees translation as a game with particular rule or constraints. Why translate with an artificial constraint, the prohibition of the letter "e"? The point is to become aware of the less visible constraints that govern translation."

I saw two students yesterday who had been in my translation class a few years back. James is getting his PhD in Education, working on SLA (2nd Lang. Acquisition) in Spanish and ASL (American Sign Language) in a fascinating combination. (I was on his PhD orals.) Carlos, whom I ran into downtown in the evening, is working for the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Kansas City, promoting commercial ties with Mexico. Neither is an avant-garde poet or aspiring professor of literature. Yet I feel that asking them to apply oulipean procedures to translation, reading some derridean translation theory, or comparing five versions of a Machado poem fostered exactly the critical thinking skills they can use in their careers. I'm not overestimating my own contribution. I'm just saying higher education as a whole, for all its frustrations, does have tangible results.

11 nov 2003

Silliman's Blog quoting WCW:

"And thus poetic form comprises the words and its structural uses -- that character which the structure superadds to the words their literal meanings. But the form thus achieved becomes by that itself a 'word,' the most significant of all, that dominates every other word in the poem."

We are not very far from Mallarmé's assertion that the poem itself is a mot.

And I wonder: can modernist forms themselves be "stuffed" with content in the way decried by Williams? Isn't that what happened with the Ashberians of the right? With those who imitated Williams' style without adding anything new? Cid Corman would be "weak" by this logic. I like some of his poetry but it is imitative to the extreme.

Williams' dismissal of the Objectivists needs to be unpacked and explained. It would seem they are closest to him yet he views their success as extremely limited.

To what extent do the more interesting developments in recent poetry come, not from the objectivist/projectivist/language lineage, with its technical obsessions, but from those who see this technical obsessiveness as a trap? Spicer, Frank O'Hara, Antin, in their different ways. A concern with structure in this sense cannot guarantee that poetry remain "progressive." Lining up formal qualities of the text with political values is extremely problematic, even if I agree to call Marilyn Hacker "conservative" in her style. It is like a poetic version of Whorf/Sapir hypothesis. I believe a case could be made, but I haven't been able to elaborate it yet, despite my sympathy for this line of thought.

Surely structure is just one factor among others. One of the most effective contemprary poetic structures is the list: one thing after the other. Does Paterson gain its effectiveness through the rigor of its architecture? I think not. I love whole chunks of it, but I couldn't justify its construction.

10 nov 2003

AS-IS is like that game with the baseball bat where you try to get your hand at the top to see who bats first. I can't even find a poem I published there last week.
Kari Edwards at the City Museum in STL on Saturday, reading with local talent Jarek Steele, the latter accompanied by numerous friends and well-wishers, even a younger sister. I bought a copy of Kari's Iduma, with a wonderfully busy graphic design and some trenchant and memorable poems--one, a near faithful copy of a Dept. of Justice document, was frightening and hilarious at the same time. I enjoyed meeting her, since she is both funny and warm. (I haven't been to a reading this good since ... the last reading I went to at the City Museum a few months ago.) David Hess was there: no plans to bring back Heathens in Heat any time soon, he told me.

J. Steele, who works at Left Bank Books, read an effective autobiographical prose piece about growing up male in an ostensibly female body. I didn't get a complete sense of him as a poet, since he didn't read very many poems, but his reading worked well thematically with Kari's more indeterminate gender bending.

Aaron Belz, organizer of the series, read a poem by Arielle Greenberg, who is coming next month. There were fewer technical glitches this time--only a door propped against a door-frame that came down a few times for some welcome comic relief. There were no injuries.

9 nov 2003

7 nov 2003

Bad poetry, in the sense I'm talking about, can be dumb but it can't be dull. It can aspire to dullness, but it can't actually get there. It probably shouldn't go on too long.

6 nov 2003

There's little risk in writing a deliberately bad poem. It's innoculated against criticism from the get-go. Yet if it works, it is still a good poem. I win either way. What is the flaw in my logic here? Don't answer, Kent Johnson.
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Why would Nick assume I was sad when I wrote "Ballad of the Language Poetry Hater"? As a matter of fact I have been depressed lately, but that poem is an expression of pure parodic joy. Anyone who has read Bemsha Swing more than twice knows I am always jumping to the defense of language poetry.
What is the "rhythm rule"? I'm glad you asked. It's why you say thirTEEN when you say this word by itself, but THIRteen rich men. The woman on All Things Considered always announces her name as MI-chelle Norris. I'm sure she would say her name is Mi-CHELLE if it weren't for the rhythm rule, a handy device for shifting the ictus to the left to avoid clashing stresses. VANN Ness Avenue vs. Van NESS would be another example for those living in the Bay Area. I'm not a linguist so don't ask me any more about this rule. My four most habit-forming blogs, equanimity, Silliman, monkey, limetree, have not published yet today, so I'm trying to take up the slack a bit.
To scan free verse: follow the same steps. This time there will not be a single abstract pattern with which to compare results of steps (1) and (2). However, there may still be constantly shifting (or shiftily constant) metrical ghosts.
Mayhew's simple rules of scansion.

1. Forget the poem is in verse: simply mark where the major stresses lie.

2. Apply any phonological rules (e.g. the "rhythm rule"). Mark secondary stresses. Note the difference between "in love" and "eating on the way." In the first phrase the preposition has no stress at all. In the second, on has a secondary stress because it falls between two weaklings. Words like "secondary" have a primary stress and a secondary stress.

3. You're done! No, wait a minute. You can now compare these stresses to what you think the abstract metrical pattern is. You will find either a good match (i.e. most of the stresses fall where they should, or not. Are there extra syllables? Missing syllables? Inversions? The hardest to reconcile tend to be polysyllabic words at odds with the abstract paradigm. Read some Paul Kiparsky.

4. Reading poetry aloud for hours at a time, you will simply learn how to pronounce English more or less normally while at the same time feeling the abstract pattern of meter. I recommend Shakespeare, Paradise Lost, The Prelude, and anything by Dryden or Pope. Learning to scan single lines is pointless without this extended practice. Now practice speaking in blank verse:

It isn't very difficult, you know
since English tends toward regularity
of alternating strongs and weaks. My house...

It isn't hard to write verse. What's difficult is to write poetry in verse.

5 nov 2003

This got me thinking again about an idea I had several weeks ago: avant-garde eye for the mainstream poet: A team of four or five post-avant bloggers descend on the hapless straight man and start telling him to lose the blurb from Robert Pinsky, straighten out his similes. I think this could work. Any volunteers?


Update: Henry Gould has volunteered to be the first subject! Actually not, but he has an astute reaction to the post above.

Julia hasn't been blogging much, but she has been reading Poe's "The Raven" repeatedly in dramatic fashion. I'm going to have to get her to audblog it this weekend.
Adding a link to the left to "as is," since I'm now a member of this blog.
Cahiers de Corey - poetry, language, thought:

"The fictional 'ideal speech situation' of Habermas, free from conscious and unconscious sources of domination, sounds pretty darn close to what I've been thinking of as the space of postmodernist pastoral, in which writers at least try to fantasize a deliberately miniature utopia in which these conditions of speech prevail."

That would be a fascinating idea to see developed, but I wonder whether any language poet would want to sign up for a Habermassian discussion group in which enlightenment ideals prevail. Wouldn't that be too close to comfort to the "ideational mimesis" that Bernstein is always denouncing? Habermas's theory of language (such as it is) is hard to reconcile with the practice of language poetry. Putting on my professor's hat, I would say you might want to look (Josh) at Christopher Norris, who argues that Derrida and Habermas are not as far apart as they would seem to be.

The great Luddite controversy at Star Lines
I woke up up at 4 in the morning and this poem started to write itself in my head:

Ballad of the Language Poetry Hater

Language poetry
is not my cup of tea.
It fills me not with glee.
Like gruel or hominy,
it doesn't nourish me.
I love humanity
not Silliman-ity
All those who hear my plea
with me they must agree
that ancient poesy
is cattle on the lea
or green leaves on the tree
not gallic théorie
or postmodernity
(I hate John Ashbery).
It's pleasant harmony
and winsome melody
not strained obscurity
and vile diFFICulty...

That's all I can remember of it, fortunately.


Update 4:26 p.m.: I just this moment remembered the line "I hate John Ashbery" which I've inserted in the appropriate place.


The next day: I've added some more lines I remembered: "Like gruel or hominy / it doesn't nourish me. / I love humanity / not Silliman-ity"


The day after the next day. I remembered the line: "It fills me not with glee."

4 nov 2003

Getting to take a writing workshop with Harry Mathews. How cool that would be. Lucky Shanna Compton.

A lot of google searches today for poems in Yusef's BAP , from which I surmise some college prof out there has assigned students to analyze a poem from this volume: the students are led to my blog, where they will attempt to plagiarize me. The professor will then google the phrase "plagiarized essay about a poem from Yusef Komunyakaa's Best American Poetry 2003" and will nab the student.

Clearly the WSJ will get flarf poetics before Critical Inquiry gets language poetry.

"I was late for the bus and it was cold and dark, but there were two skinny boys pulling a handcart full of bricks and they were stuck on a curb, rocking the cart, flexing little bums and failing.

I put down my pack and got my hands under the back and heaved while they pulled the cart over the curb. One said 'we thank you' and they went round a corner.

Just down the walk, I found a hole knocked in a garden wall and a hundred bricks missing. The weeds spread through."

This is an impressive little prose poem.
Ok, I've calmed down a little now: What is known as "language poetry" constitutes a range of aesthetic practices that cannot be reduced to a single theoretical construct. "It" is rooted in the avant-garde poetics of the New American poetry, in continental and American modernism, in Marxist thought, in Wittgenstein, in Russian formalism, and in post-structuralist theory. "It" is nothing if not literary. To say that "its" theory is more successful or meaningful than its poetic practice ignores the fact that the "theory" "it" invokes is itself inspired in avant-garde poetic practices. (I don't think Chomsky is even in the top 20 list of language poetry influences.)

I am not the defender of all things "language poetry." Some of "it" is better, more compelling, etc... than other parts of "it." It would be astounding if that were not the case. What I object to is the casual oversimplification. It seems to me clear that, of the poets who number among my favorites, Silliman, Howe, Howe, Coolidge, Hejinian, Armantrout, Palmer, and Scalapino have a significant investment in aesthetics as an act of perception involving beauty. This is not an insignificant swath of the language writers. Others I have not listed either are not my personal favorites, or are ones I haven't invested as much time in reading, but my list could easily be expanded four-fold. These are not poets of thin poststructuralist gruel; you can get a substantial logopoetic meal from them.

None of this is directed at Josh Corey, of course. I am grateful to him for pointing out this article, which I will read in its complete form when I have a minute. I may even write a response and send it in the CI.
Cahiers de Corey - poetry, language, thought, quoting an article from Critical Inquiry : "Language poetry considered under this description is simply not a literary practice, for it does not produce objects that belong to any category of language use. Nor is it, properly speaking, an aesthetic practice, for it is not oriented toward aisthesis , or perception. It is, rather, an ontological and ethical practice. Language poets produce poetry that is precisely equivalent to language, where language is considered as a kind of creatural knowledge or potential; therefore Language poets tend to treat the objects of their art--poems--as epiphenomenal evidence of a constitutively human capacity for free and creative agency that is the real object of their interest."

This, not to put too fine a point on it, does not even rise to a basic level of theoretical competence. How does reading a Robert Lowell poem involve an act of aesthetic perception that is somehow absent from reading a poem by Coolidge, Howe, or Silliman? How can a poem be "precisely equivalent to language"? I'd say very imprecisely equivalent. What can a "constitutively human capacity for free and creative agency" be if it excludes aesthetic practice? How can an ethical/ontological use of language not be aesthetic? Why are these terms opposed in this way?

(If language poetry were "precisely equivalent to language" in this respect, it would be the most wonderful poetry in the world: imagine capturing all of human creativity in one poem!)

But the argument seeks to demonstrate the old canard: the theory is interesting, but the poetry's not. In Critical Inquiry no less!

3 nov 2003

Jack DeJohnette once explained his very sophisticated broken-time approach to me by using an analogy from a laundromat. He called his concept “washing machine time” and told me to visualize it like this: in a laundromat the washers and dryers have windows through which you can see the moving clothes. This motion is caused by the clothes being moved by the regular rotation of the machine’s inner chamber, but the clothes never fall to the bottom of the chamber at the same point in the rotation. One time the clothes will be carried 1/4 of a revolution, then they will fall to the bottom. Another time they may travel 5/8s of the way around before they drop. Another time they could travel completely around without gravity pulling the clothes to the bottom. Jack told me that the fixed rate of the rotation of the machine, in real time (seconds), was analogous to the fixed duration of a musical phrase; i.e., one measure or four measures or eight measures, etc., and that he can feel “musical time” in terms of seconds, --not just in terms of counting a certain number of beats per phrase. His ideas can fall anywhere in a phrase, just as laundry can fall at any point in the machine’s rotation, without disrupting the musical flow.

--John Riley, Beyond Bop Drumming
Whew. . . Finished that tenure letter. Now I can get back to my student papers and exams, NEH proposals. Or actually not. Leave those for tomorrow. Collect poetry for Bad Mickey Television Sock! Edit my paper on metrical styles. Jazz it up with some quotes by drummers.
Now that one article/chapter is out of the way for the time being, I will go back to my piece on "metrical signatures" in Rodríguez and Valente, written the summer before last. Each poet has a particular "feel" for the passage of time. If I can define that signature with some precision, mixing objective and subjective analysis at my whim, I will have a convincing study.


The virtues Jordan sees in Mary Ruefle remind me a lot of his own poetry. See his review at the Constant Critic site.

I got an invitation to join a blog, but the link I followed gave me an error. What's up with that?