30 nov 2004

I'm listening to an O'Hara recording. A couple of lines jumped out at me:

"Some people are outraged by cleanliness"

"I don't think psychoanalysis shrinks the spleen"

(from "For the Chinese New year and Bill Berkson's Birthday")
I'd go even further to say that this sense of decorum or fittingness must be present for literature to be convincing. In other words, any sense of a lack of adequation with the subject matter is fatal. Of course, there could be cases where readers disagree about whether this quality is present or not. After all, we all have our sense of what goes with what. I'm listening to Oldies on the car radio and a 50s chevy passes me. I feel that this is somehow "right" or fitting. Could Lawrence Olivier do a more convincing Barney Fyfe? I doubt it. Can we imagine a more "appropriate" style for O'Hara Lunch Poems? Doesn't Milton's style "go with" the subject matter of Paradise Lost?

Of course, these connections are man-made, not set in stone. I can imagine an alternate literary universe where things match up differently to one another.
The Anne Winters Challenge - Should a Marxist poet be stylistically ornate? By Dan Chiasson: "The desire to assign proportional representation in poetry, to make poetry resemble, and therefore be palatable to, its subjects, has resulted in some pretty weak art, from Carl Sandburg forward. The fact of the matter is, in poetry the score is always 200-0 in favor of the poet. The poet always has the ball. The poet designed the ball, and invented the game, and can change the rules. You always lose when you're the subject matter of poetry. Attempts to make the subject a worthy competitor feel condescending, like when your tennis coach serves leftie to build up your self-esteem."

This sort of thinking seems to neglect the ancient principle of "decorum" or fittingness. Falstaff must speak as Falstaff speaks; Sandburg, for all his weakness, would not have been better if he had chosen a less populist mode: the meaning of his poetry, and whatever value it has, lies in its populist mode. "The poet always has the ball" is pretty lame reasoning. Hasn't this guy ever heard of negative capability? This game doesn't sound very fun to play, does it?

Does Elmore Leonard write like Henry James? Doesn't the "subject" dictate style in a profound sense in both cases? Leonard's language illustrates the principle of "decorum." Not that it is decorous, but that it "fits" the spirit of his books. Can we write an Elmore Leonard novel in heroic couplets? Leonard is a fantastic prose stylist, and part of his genius is for this sense of linguistic appropriateness.
Horace: Ars Poetica:

Discriptas seruare uices operumque colores
cur ego, si nequeo ignoroque, poeta salutor?
Cur nescire pudens praue quam discere malo?
Versibus exponi tragicis res comica non uult;
indignatur item priuatis ac prope socco               
dignis carminibus narrari cena Thyestae.
Singula quaeque locum teneant sortita decentem.

The concept of decorum, of course, harks back to classical poetics:

"Nor will the genius of the comic muse
Sublimer tones, or tragic numbers use;
Nor will the direful Thyestean feast
In comic phrase and language be debased.
Then let your style be suited to the scene,
And its peculiar character maintain."
After Claudio Rodríguez

Blesséd is the one who one day wakes up cold
and opens his closet, and, lo and behold
his overcoat, unused for seven months or so
and where are his gloves? Why in the pockets of course!
with some loose change, and on the car radio
"Moanin," which he mistakes for Lee Morgan's "Sidewinder" at first,
but who cares? he likes both songs,
and he gives thanks, to what or to whom?
that for once in his drunken life
things don't have to be so friggin' complicated.

29 nov 2004

A recent review I wrote.
Another thing about the Joe LeSueur book is my own memory of reading certain Frank O'Hara poems before I knew anything about the author. One could say that I literally didn't know what I was reading, that I understood the words and the sentences but not the context or the tone. I didn't know what "camp" was. And yet I knew I liked it, that it was the most compelling poetry that had been written in the US during the period. Digressions allows me to measure my own previous lack of understanding against a deep contextualization by an inside observer. These are very personal, private poems. Do you have to now who Mike Kanemitsu is? Yes. No. Maybe.
Blogger is being temperamental today. Won't publish when I want it to.
I read Oklahoma Tough yesterday. Somehow I had missed it when it came out.

Y'a de l'espoir aux USA

28 nov 2004

Check out Julia's dog poem over on Eagle's Wing.


Just finished Digressions on Some Poems of Frank O'Hara over the Thanksgiving holiday. It really should have won the National Book Award for non-fiction, and fiction too: it reads like a wonderful novel. Joe LeSueur is not a literary critic, and the structure of the book really is digressive, but there is still a clear "plot." The characters are unforgettable, especially Frank himself and the narrator. Joe knows he isn't in the same league as F O'H; he is an aspiring writer who doesn't write that much, from what we can see. His idea of what to do with his life is to be in the presence of greatness, rather than being great himself. Lest you think I'm being cruel, this is pretty much what he himself says. The relationship between Joe and Frank is at the center of the book. This relationship--a partnership and almost brotherhood rather than a passionate love affair--shifts depending on who Frank's (and Joe's) other intimate friends and lovers are at any given moment. Joe is more concerned with showing Frank in a positive light than looking good himself.

The book is hilarious, gossipy, and extremely moving. He is harsh with some figures from the period, but (with a few exceptions [LeRoi Jones]) his primary aim is not to "settle scores."

24 nov 2004

I'm in the Denver airport between planes. My review of Sawako's book is up at "Mipoesias." I can't provide link just yet due to technical difficulties.

23 nov 2004

Equanimity: "... the weird noise so beloved to poetry junkies is mostly screened out when people want poetry to serve this proxy function. (Incidentally, it's that noise, and the poetry junkies' love of it, that bugs the shit out of certain gatekeepers, and is almost invariably what prompts vocal hostility to poetry.)"

Yes, it's almost as though there were a frequency that some people couldn't hear, or could perceive only as an annoying "noise."

It struck me today that there are probably some people who attempt to read poetry silently to themselves, and without even "subvocalizing." People who literally aren't hearing what they are reading. Of course we are taught in school that hearing the language we are reading will only slow us down.

People who really don't like poetry and want it to serve some spurious "proxy function," in Jordan's appropriate phrase.

And those gatekeepers. We all have our favorite examples of those.
The readership of poetry in historical terms. This is my sense of things:

In the 1920s the Great Moderns had very small audiences. This poetry was not yet taught in Universities. There were a few literary magazines of small circulation. Poetry readings were rare.

This situation continued. A few poets like Eliot and Auden gained more celebrity in the 1940s, but were read mostly in intellectual circles. Dy

With the G.I bill and the New Criticism, modern poetry was taught more in the Universities after WWII. Poetry readings were still rare. The academic poets of the age (Wilbur, Shapiro) had a small, university-based audience. Dylan Thomas makes a splash.

With Allen Ginsberg and the Beats poetry began to reach a youth audience. Poetry readings became more prevalent. John Ashbery, returning to the States in the mid-1960s after a decade in Paris, noted a huge change. Lowell and Plath, with a more confessional mode, helped to popularize poetry as well. There were poetic movements associated with social movements: feminist poetry, ecological poetry, black poetry.

Creative writing program expanded in the 1970s, creating a vast supply of poetry, as well as an increased demand: students studying creative writing. (Supply increased faster than demand, but both increased.) John Ashbery's Self-Portrait sold more than 20,000 copies, a number that would have been unthinkable in the 1920s for a difficult modernist poet.

Things continued more or less along the same path. Popular, elite, and middle-brow forms of poetry co-existing. A small but vital poetry blog culture emerging in 2002. All the audiences that have emerged since the Beats have more or less kept going in some form, with new venues and audiences emerging. I'm sure even a mid-list poetic author of today has more of an audience than Wallace Stevens in the 1930s. Hell, I have more readers than William Carlos Williams in the 1920s.

Confessionalism, beat rebellion, expansion of higher education, and middle-brow media like NPR have "grown" the audience for poetry, which was relatively miniscule before Howl and Life Studies. May Million Poems have a million readers.

What if Ashbery were influenced by Tate, and not (just) the other way around? I certainly see a certain kind of Tate-like zany anecdote going on in Ashbery, but the latter lends more gravitas, as well as more sheer funiness, to these narrative scenarios. And Tate tends to make an entire poem out of a single anecdotal situation, whereas Ashbery will construct a narrative out of several such premises, linking them by some unseen metaphorical process and thus increasing the level of complexity. Two poets quite similar to each other, one relatively easy and the other relatively difficult. One could train a reader to read Ashbery by first introducing Tate, then giving incremental doses of shorter Ashbery texts until the transition is complete.
It's interesting to keep track of what I'm reading. I got Digression on some poems to read on the airplane tomorrow.

22 nov 2004

Now seems as good a time as any to re-read Stripped Tales, by Barbara Guest and Anne Dunn. I thought of it because in the Schuyler Selected Letters I'm reading, there are quite a few written to Dunn.
I finished a review of Sawako Nakayusa's book. I won't anticipate the conclusions here. I'll let you know where to find it when I comes out. Now I have to write the Wittgenstein paper and insert some translations into the article for Diacritics.
Is there an intimidation factor in poetry? The genre itself is intimidating to many readers. That is, just knowing it's a poem makes people think "I won't understand it," even if it is the most accessible text possible. This is based on a fundamental misconception that poetry is a language of secret meanings that some readers know how to extract and others don't. It's basically a High-School English class view, but unless someone has some other meaningful encounter with poetry later on, it will likely stick.

Of course there are difficult texts, and even "hidden meanings." The problem is when even a simple text has to be read in an allegorical mode. You know, those plums in the ice-box have to be about sex, or death. The John in "I Know a Man" is John the Baptist. There is a time to be more literal-minded, or to have the sensitivity to know when an object in the poem is not a "symbol" of something else.

(Well, those plums really are about sex, at some level, but that is not their meaning. It's more like an overtone that's "there" without being there.)

Now what Billy Collins does is elicit symbol-mongering with a broad brush, insulting the reader's intelligence. People love to have their intelligence insulted, apparently. His poems explain themselves to the reader. They are like the academic poem of the 1950s (a Nemerov, say), but taken down a few educational levels (Graduate School to High School).

Now back to the instruction manual on the use of new metals.

21 nov 2004

Two (or three) ideas for books to write.

Culture 1960. Everything that happened in the years 1959-1961. A giant contextualization around the year of my birth. Not to be egocentric about it; my own birth carries no weight at all. I just happened to be born when Ray Charles, Sinatra, Beckett, Ornette, Frank O'Hara, Claudio Rodríguez, Joseph Cornell, were all alive and at the height of their powers.

Cuarenta libros. I would write five pages each on my favorite forty books of Spanish poetry published between 1953 and 2003.

How I Didn't Write Certain of My Books. A book consisting entirely of 200 outlines for book projects, each one a page long. I am much better at thinking up ideas than completing them.

20 nov 2004

I'm stuck in Kansas for the weekend. We have a three-hour meeting this morning.

I read a good bit more of Flow Chart last night. I'm reading it aloud to myself, so it's taking an hour to get through a 35-page chunk of it.

19 nov 2004

Three graduate students from my Department, Laura, Erin, and Kirsten, have started Venceremos Wear, from where you can order politically activist tee-shirts for the other 49% of us. I like the "Raise hell Kansas" design. Order yours today.
I got a copy of Ashbery's Selected Prose last night and read most of it. He is very good on Marianne Moore, whom others of his generation (Sorrentino for example) tend to dismiss. Border's does not have Joe, so I'm going to have to order it. What are Robert Grenier's picks for the best books of the year?


18 nov 2004

Dealing with a lot of Graduate Director matters today. It's not a difficult job, but I don't get along very well with chronological time so I have a hard time keeping up.
Two wonderful presentations yesterday. Leslie Bayers, our own graduate student, gave a talk in the Poetics Seminar about visuality in contemporary Peruvian poetry. She has trained herself to read this poetry, which draws on everthing from Borges and Charles Olson to Inca traditions.

Then Laura Freixas gave a talk about how the Spanish press reviews novels written by women. The semiotic code is a very simple one: "masculine = good; feminine bad."

Thus a favorable review of a woman's novel will say: "it's not like those other, bad books that we normally associate with women's writing."

An unfavorable review of a book written by a man will say "it appeals to the female reader."

A positive review of a man's book will make no mention of gender.

A negative review of a woman's novel will associate the badness of the book with the author's femininity.

It could be one of the Greimasian squares--if I only remembered how to do them.

Josh Corey's remarks about James Tate this morning are extremely astute. He sums up what I have often felt about Tate: the repetitiousness, the sameness of tone, balanced by the genuine pleasure one can still get out of Tate, in small doses. The Lost Pilot was (and still is) a very good book, and I continued to enjoy Tate quite a bit up to a point sometime in the mid-1970s. Absences was a disappointing book for me. The lack of intellectual depth hurt Tate; he didn't develop enough as a poet. Contrast him with Ashbery, who in separate decades came out with works like Self-Portrait, A Wave, and Flow Chart that took his work in new directions. It's also curious that Tate has become so derivative of Ashbery. After all, The Lost Pilot was published before the late Ashbery style was developed, so Tate was already an original poet in his own right. Why the need to be Ashbery-lite? Ashbery is a powerful influence on many poets, to be sure. Everyone from Tate and Albert Goldbarth to John Ash, John Koethe, Lyn Hejinian, Anne Lauterbach, and Susan Schultz.

Now maybe you'll say that Ashbery repeats himself too. I won't be reluctant not to deny it. But just when it seems that he has nothing left to say, he'll come out with a fine and surprising work.

Reading Flow Chart my level attention is variable. Some passages seem simply superb, and others less so. I don't know how much of this variation is due the variability in my own attention, and how much is due to the ebb and flow of Ashbery's attention.

17 nov 2004

I took Laura to the Diane Arbus exhibit at the Spenser museum. I had a good time interpreting certain aspects of American culture to her. Debutantes, Ozzy and Harriet, Madalyn O'Hare. Some strange photos of Lee Harvey Oswald's mother.
This is an acrostic about how horrible Bush is for the world.
I'm reading Flow Chart. What a magnificent lexicon Ashbery has. He rarely repeats a substantive, colorful word.

I'm meeting the Spanish writer Laura Freixas today. She's here to give a talk and meet with some classes.

16 nov 2004

Another translation of "amour-propre" would be "ego"; that covers a lot of ground, about as much as "amour-propre," although I'm not sure it's the same ground exactly.
The Reading Experience: Vulgarians. This was the point I was trying to make on Sunday morning about Laura Miller's obnoxious column. It is interesting how "poetry" gets coded in discussions of fiction.
Equanimity - if not a poetics, then what?: "Reading La Rochefoucauld I realize I have no idea what he means by 'amour-propre' -- is that supposed to cover the entire spectrum from gluttonous vanity to self-preservation, or what?"

... just when I was about to observe that nobody reads La Rochefoucauld anymore. There is a high level of generality in his maximes. I understand amour-propre as basic self-regard/pride/dignity. La Roch seems to view it as a basic part of everybody's personality, but at the same time as something to be criticized generically. That is, he cannot imagine human personality without this factor, yet finds much to criticize in it. All other apparent motives seem to boil down to the attempt to preserve a basic image of oneself (for oneself and in the eyes of others as well.) The target of his satire is just about everyone, not merely those whose flaws are obvious.


There used to be
only one tree.
There was a storm.
It was so muddy the
water was brown
and the tree drank
it and it turned
brown because of
the muddy water.

15 nov 2004

Unprotected Texts has a new contest up. It's quite a provocative one.
Beads threaded along a single string, but with no logical reason, other than mere contiguity, that explains why one bead follows another. That is, the order of the elements seems arbitrary. Yet the more one studies or devotes oneself to the text, the more the ordering of the elements emerges as inexplicably but powerfully inevitable. Is this an effect of reading? In other words, another order of the same elements, to another reader, would seem equally inevitable.

14 nov 2004

Eagle's Wing is back in action. Julia is writing again.

I'm a little tired of those gripes about the National Book Award nominees in fiction. The New York Times Book Review has yet another article this morning about it. The novels, according to Laura Miller, are too similar to prose poems. The good thing about poetry, according to Miller, is that it doesn't go on too long. What crap.

11 nov 2004

We discussed blogs in my Graduate Seminar today. At least one subject on which I am an expert. We looked at two Mexican writers: Heriberto Yépez and Cristina Rivera Garza.
Maybe lots of folks are reading Berryman et al and I just don't know it. I was basing my perception on my reading of both mainstream literary media and blogging circles. Certain names just don't come up as much nowadays. The NYRB will never tire of Larkin and Lowell, but when was the last time you saw a reference to Karl Shapiro in its pages?
I studied with Karl Shapiro, whom Nick mentions today, with a link over to the Mark Wood's fabulously informative blog. Shapiro has one of the best "homosexual panic" poems, "On Learning that your Favorite Poet is a Homosexual." He used to infuriate people by giving public lectures against the very idea of creative writing programs, while teaching in a creative writing program. He was basically telling his own MFA students to go to hell. Not a particularly nice man. His prose poems of The Bourgeois Poet are expressive of a cultural moment in the 1960s when the literary establishment had to react to the Beat Generation and its youth-culture aftermath. Shapiro championed Henry Miller and WCW, wrote the hilarious prose-poem "Lower the Standards, That's My Motto." He attacked Pound and McKuen. A double-voiced discourse in books like In Defense of Ignorance. Defending "ignorance" against the culture-poems of Eliot and Pound, yet wanting to defend the barriers against the barbarians.

There was a notorious lawsuit, when someone reported mistakenly that KS was dead when he wasn't.

He was part of that Lowell/Jarrell/Berryman/Schwartz generation. Nobody reads these poets anymore, except for Lowell. Schwartz survives in biographies and novelizations (Atlas, Bellow), and his connection to the New York intellectuals. Jarrell is known for his criticism. Berryman survives in Henry Gould's echoes, almost nowhere else.

He gave me my first and only B in college.

10 nov 2004

A colleague lent me an examination copy of Poetry in Theory: An Anthology 1900-2000 edited by Jon Cook. (Blackwell, 2004). It sports a blurb by Terry Eagleton and contains more than 600 pages of text. Aimed obviously at the textbook morket, I can imagine it will be adopted by some instructors. It is resolutely Anglo-centric, with only token representation of anything outside the English Language. It contains only one text originally written in Spanish: predictably enough, Lorca's duende essay! So Borges, Lezama, Paz, have no place here. Of course, there are a few French poets and theorists (Lacan, Barthes, Kristeva, etc...), slightly fewer Germans, and a handful of Russians. So the poetic map constructed is US + England at the center, the major nations of Western Europe (France + Germany) at the periphery, and the rest of the world represented by "tokens" (Lorca, Césaire). Since this is pretty much the way the English professor sees the world, these choices make a lot of sense in market terms.

Celan does not appear in the index. No mention of Rothenberg or ethnopoetics either. But hey, you couldn't leave out Edward Thomas and Randall Jarrell, figures of no international trascendence at all.
Theory of Negativity. (via Language Log). A significant poetic principle.
Should I read Brodey today? I've had this book for a while, The Art of the Breath, but I haven't delved into it. There always seemed to be too much there, as though the book should have been a fourth the size and left the reader asking for more.

9 nov 2004

It also could be meaningful that the last post contained two obvious typos, which I won't bother to correct.

My backchannel communications are getting richer, although they can be more time-consuming that the blog.

All the work I didn't do last week with election hangover now demands to be down today.

8 nov 2004

I got my copy of Underground with the Oriole. (Frank Lima. New York: Dutton, 1971). Not a terribly expensive book on the used market, but a valuable edition to my collection of NY Poets. I need to have these books because of my love for the paratext. The blurb by Allen Ginsberg and the dedication to Kenneth Koch. The epigraph from Picasso. The title poem is dedicated to Joe and Rosemary (Ceravolo I assume).
One of those stretches of minor inconveniences. A trumpet mouthpiece that gets stuck on a Sunday with no music store open. I notice my socks are soaking after walking on the carpet in the basement. Waited around for the plumber and left late, getting to my office at 5:30 rather than 2. And then I had to write that instruction manual on the use of new metals. Meeting of the committee on polyrhythmic perversion must be postponed.

6 nov 2004

I actually identified this language correctly as Somali. Not bad for a strictly amateur linguist.

Here's a newish poetry and politics blog, Oracular vagina takes her place.
David Shapiro joins Sunday boycott:

"I now willingly forfeit all Sundays in honor of the poetics of polyrhythm. I am even willing to forego Saturday as part of a strategy to desecrate the false religions--true religions being invisible at this or other times and having to do with thet ruth of loving the stranger, the poor, and the other first..."

4 nov 2004


November 4, 2004

In a shocking move against the religious-military-NFL complex, unacknowledged legislator of the world Jonathan Mayhew has excised Sunday from the days of the week, sowing panic in the fundamentalist and sporting communities. Other poetic experts, including Kasey S. Mohammad of Ashland Oregon, have pointed out that such a move is purely symbolic, and that no poet has the actual power to shorten the week in such fashion. Mayhew clarified his proposal in the following addendum:

"From now on, time will elapse in a complex and fascinating polyrhythm of '6 against 7.' Those who observe the traditional seven day week will lag behind the progressive 6-day-week community, ulimately causing a rhythmic hiccup in the music of the spheres. The end result will be the defeat and humiliation of the Bush administration, since the religious fundamentalists that support this incompetent and criminal regime will be unable to 'keep up' with the passage of time. I was inspired by Kasey's own abolishing of Christmas, Nick Piombino's innovations in poetic time travel, and Gary Sullivan's reaction to Kerry's concession speech.

Poetic officials are studying Mayhew's proposal. Ron Silliman and Henry Gould are expected to rule on the matter before next Sunday. Dick Cheney could not be reached for comment.


fluid hokum,
molten dweeb.
Atop berg,
vine diva



rusting fronds,
sweat lines
on sky
level. Stunned
mica blush.

--Thomas Fink (from After Taxes)

The sheer hilarity of this illustrates the Kenneth Koch motto I have in my blog description immediately to your left. Comedy is as cathartic, as cleansing, as tragedy. That such poetry should exist at all should fill us with wonder and awe and make us laugh out loud. ("Daven" means "to pray" in Yiddish, by the way. I had to look it up.) A little bit of Fink's poetry goes a long way. "Motel / with permanent no- / vacancy scowl: chipped latex." The exactitude of that, corrosive. A benchmark. Measure it against poets who subtract rather than add to the language. It's an ethical imperative for me. There is truth in my exaggerations.
I still don't have Joe or Digressions on Some Poems. I'm way behind on my collection of New York School Poets.
The prejudice against Gay and Lesbian people is the last one that is not only socially acceptable in many parts of the country but is actively sanctioned by the state in the name of "morality."

3 nov 2004

I got my copy of the selected letters of Schuyler, today. I've been on book buying spree. In fact, I didn't even remember ordering the book. I'm sure I did, but I had forgotten it was coming.
I'm having a hilarious and absurd email conversation about a fine point of grammar, in order to get some relief from this post-election hangover.


Appreciative email this morning from Frank Lima, who promises to send some poems to me.

2 nov 2004

I was listening to the "Diane Rehm Show" yesterday. She had a panel of people talking about the Supreme Court. The woman on the panel said that the Supreme Court only mattered to those at either "extreme." At one "extreme," she explained, were people who cared about civil liberties. Now when I was brought up, civil liberties were seen as essential to democracy, not the concern of some fringe group on the left. It's going to take a while just to get the discourse back so that those of us who take fairly mainstream postures (we shouldn't practice torture) will be considered centrists rather than extremists.

Allen Bramhall rediscovers For Love. Robert Creeley could not be reached for comment.
Goal of the day: throw axis of evil out of power. (GWB, Cheney, etc...).

I do not use the word evil lightly.

1 nov 2004

I wish I'd said:

"The truth about poetry is how often the 'readers' don't stay in the dark with the book long enough." --David Shapiro.
I'm putting this up again since some newer readers might not know what "Bemsha Swing" means:

All poetry is narrative poetry.

Some of it is "plotless narrative," however.

I re-read Descripción de la mentira, by the great Antonio Gamoneda. Such magnificent rhetoric and rhythm. Also reading Cobalto, by Esther Zarraluki. I'll tell you about it soon.


A reader objects to my "unfortunate" remark on Merwin. To say Merwin is not a poet is obviously hyperbole. Look at this poem to see what I mean. The rhymes and flaccid language are downright embarrassing, as should become abundantly clear. You can also check out my Rod McKuen/Merwin quiz of a few months back. A tone of solemn high-seriousness does not make you a poet. It is a shtick as bad as any other.