28 feb 2005

I will collect my MFA tips into a book. There is no "instructional manual" on writing poetry that I would actually recommend. I see a real need here, a huge void. Kind of a Wishes, Lies, and Dreams for grown-up people. This could be my ticket to fame and fortune. I already see the clichéd blurb on the back: "funny and irreverent."
" Actually, at this moment I tend to enjoy page-turner fiction, or exciting visual poetry, more than work I experience as tediously derivative or duplications of early L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry. Certainly avant-garde purism has become less exciting to me than it was in the 60?s to the 80?s. So much L=A type poetry has been published since then, it has evolved its own conventions that to me are sometimes unconvincing and uninteresting. Right now, almost any kind of dogmatism seems to annoy me."

This statement from the Piombino/Beckett interview resonated with me a lot. One convention from LP I'm not fond of is the "capitalism swallowed my syntax" motif.
MFA Program, Continued

Don't read nothing but contemporary American poetry.

It is extremely limiting. It really is not really all that important to know the difference between Thomas Lux, Thomas Lynch, and Thomas McGrath. I certainly don't. Which one is the funeral director? See, I don't know either.

Study the truly great ones. I will gladly supply you with names. (Sorry for the imperious Poundian tone!) Learn French to read Reverdy.

Later: more on language and voice.
The Reading Experience: Mediocre Novelists

Hey, what's wrong with adding another cog to the academic tenure machine? I see nothing wrong with studying mediocre novels that nobody would really want to read except for research purposes. It is a little "funny" that Gates would say, "it seems less important to add another white woman."

"All those white women are the same, anyway? Same old complaints about patriarchy and the terrors of middle-class existence?"
Leiter Reports: "Academic Freedom" for Larry Summers?

Leiter, by the way, has the best political slash legal issues slash philosophy blog I know of.
I finished the last chapter of my book this morning, with help from Helen Vendler, Pierre Reverdy, Frank O'Hara, and Jordan Davis.

Vendler reassured me that a chapter can be short. If I say everything I want to say in 14 pages, that's fine. Vendler doesn't even have footnotes and bibliography and she's a Harvard professor. Many of her chapters are four or five pages. While I don't share her disdain for 30-years old poets, she writes well and says what she needs to say and no more.

Reverdy came to mind as a poet that I could use as the model of the "unpretentious modern poet." Reverdy is a great poet, but he doesn't bring to bear that baggage that we associate with high modernist poetry. Think of the Poundean baggage or the Rilkean baggage as two particular examples, very different from each other. So obviously I thought next of Frank O'Hara: "My heart is in my pocket. It is Poems by Pierre Reverdy." Then I thought of Jordan's attempt to write a "poetics" statement, placing himself somewhere on a continuum of values not of his own making. Wasn't that the critical problem I was dealing with in my chapter, trying to "place" a poet who, like O'Hara, is too hip for the squares and too square for the hips, in the quaint lingo of that period which still has some application today?

I will always prefer poets like Reverdy, O'Hara, D. Shapiro, Schuyler, Creeley, Davis, and Lola Velasco, subject of my chapter, to poets like Duncan and Olson. Even if it makes me an arch-reactionary, I like a certain kind of "purity," a poetry that doesn't depend on external clutter.

[Note: I am not personally acquainted with Vendler, Reverdy, or O'Hara, much as I appreciate their help]

27 feb 2005

"I'm getting off at the next stop, you murmur.
I am moved by the memory
of your sad and white flesh
and the humble companionship of your night,
the hand that you left
forgotten in my hand
as you came from the shower
just a moment ago,
while I refused to get up.

May you have a good day,
may good fortune find you
in your small, clean house,
may life treat you with dignity."

Luis García Montero, trans. JM

This is what I mean by sentimentality.

The advice to "avoid sentimentality" is probably useless. It is like saying "avoid writing bad poems." Sentimentality is dressing up one's feelings to make them sound more literary and dignified. Take what Luis is doing to his girlfriend here. He's basically dumping her, but needs to feel good about it so he dresses it up as a pious wish. Note the use of the word small, like Hall's "tiny." Sentimentalists love small things because they are more endearing, like baby animals. "May good fortune find you in your sprawling, messy mansion" would sound sarcastic. "Humble" works the same way. The attempt to make banal events fraught with meaning is another sign: "La mano que dejaste / olvidada en mi mano / al venir de la ducha...."
This poem demonstrates the dangers of "craft" and revision. Note the following problems:

1. "All day" -- a variation on the "for days" meme.

2. The emotionally "fraught" line break. "my hand / stroking the deep / gold of your thighs." The too obviously "crafted" use of line breaks to suggest movement and change.

3. The use of the adjective "tiny" as an emotional intensifier. Another period style cliché.

4. Sentimentality.

5. Sentimentality. No emotional tension.

6. A general dullness of vocabulary. The entire scene is viewed through a gauzy, dull lens. All the life has been revised out of the poem (assuming that there was something fresh in the first version!).

7. Absence of wit. Nothing jars us to see something in a different light.

8. Did I mention sentimentality?

[9. Plus, if you came here via limetree, those Wallace Stevens lumps in the gravy. Kasey, while accepting my arguments, still likes the poem, and, indeed, it is a pleasant, likeable poem in many respects.]

Because, or despite, of all this, it is a "good poem." That is, it would pass muster in the writing workshop. All the features I list belong to the conventional practice of writing that Hall and others of his ilk have codified. It is the McPoem that Hall himself denounces.
e-x-c-h-a-n-g-e-v-a-l-u-e-s: Interview with Nick Piombino

Definitely worth reading. Go Tom. Go Nick.

26 feb 2005


At first I thought this guy was joking. No. How about Jerry Rothenberg? Wouldn't he be a wee bit "greater" as an anthologist than Bob Pinsky? How about Ron Silliman? Maybe a "tiny bit" more interesting an anthologist than Bob Pinsky? Donald Allen, with his groundbreaking 1960 anthology? Even Paul Hoover's Norton Postmodern book is "slightly" more innovative than anything Pinsky's ever done.

One characteristic of Pinsky's anthologies is that they include only poems ALREADY IN ANTHOLOGIES. That means he's not really even an anthologist but a plagiarist of other anthologies, a popularist of the already popular. Great anthologists make us see poetry in another light; they are acts of the imagination, not vulgarizations. Doing another Quiller-Couch 100 years later does not qualify you. Hell, I could probably even predict what poems Pinsky would select about any given topic. Would that make me the second greatest anthologist? Who's number 3, Garrison Keillor, Harold Bloom, or Billy Collins?

Sorry, too much caffeine today. I felt some righteous indignation coming on. A good rant clears the pores. Nothing personal against David's otherwise praiseworthy blog.

[UPDATE: David was a good sport about my excessive sarcasm. Jordan posted a link to this post as well.]

Good post from Conversational Reading about style. If you don't have this blog on your rotation I'd suggest adding it. It's good, though mostly about that other part of literature, you know, the part that isn't poetry.

I'm going to have to read the Ben Yagoda book Scott Esposito recommends.

She was in love with a young Nazi. They sang a duet by Richard Rodgers. True, he was still only the telegraph boy. That's the period style for ya! There were certain words you weren't allowed to say, and then you said them and nothing seemed to change.
g r a p e z: Modern Major Formalists: "But he is a reactionary in the true definition of the word, and his work looks more to the past than to the present. His voice is not just elusive; it?s vague at best, chameleon more than not. If there is a formal poet of the mid to late 20th century that deserves our true devotion, I am afraid it is not Wilbur, despite his skills at craft."

Needless to say, I agree with this. I also second Greg's endorsement of Kees.

In need of some church music? Check out my sister Debbie
Justice may be the quietest of quietude poets. Though he has a lot of competition.
The transcription is going a little more easily than expected. I'm on measure 14. As for accuracy, that's another story. There's nothing like listening back and seeing I was correct.

A three-beat phrase repeated twice in four/four time, followed by a little space. It's very simply, but will swing you out of bad health, as the saying goes.

25 feb 2005

I'm transcribing a Max Roach solo. I've gotten through twelve measures (out of 64). Probably incorrectly. It's good to try to do things that you are not very good at. Clumsiness transcribing utter simplicity and elegance. It is my first real transcription. It might take me a month or two to write down the notes in a 90 second drum solo.
Here's a relatively new blog,THE GREAT AMERICAN PINUP. No Vargas girls, unfortunately, but a good post on Sze recently.
Donald Hall revises? Who'd have guessed? How come his poems are still unimpressive if they've been rewritten 80 times? Why doesn't he just not write dead metaphors in the first place? The revision fetish is just as dumb as the no revision, "first thought best thought" fetish. Ashbery revises very little. Same with Creeley. Bronk didn't revise much. All better poets than Hall, who in a generation that included 50-100 truly interesting poets still managed to find a niche for himself. Even Bly and Simpson have more to offer. You have to admire that degree of persistence.
By the way, I am (or was) "JM" at Foetry.com. How's that for a clever disguise? I can't log on any more because my account is "inactive."

There quite a flame war going on at The Jim Show between Behrle and Mike Hoerman. He crossed the line for me (Hoerman did) when he seemed to be accusing Sarah and Jordan of impropriety in the selection of poets for their anthology. You don't drag other people in like that unless you want to be hated. (Flame wars are SO mature and productive, by the way. That's why people are begging me to have comments on my blog, so they can engage in these absurd pissing contests on my dime.) I'm not sure why JB is such a magnet for a-holes. Maybe he just doesn't put up with bull as much as other people.

24 feb 2005

There's so much bad poetry I want to smack down, but I'm keeping it positive here. It's a real problem. I have to stop myself at least 10 times a day from doing it.
Nick LoLordo back-channel on my quiz:

I reversed A and B...

Dean Young's poems are close readable--take example F, now watch the intro to
poetry professor--

"Let's look at these images [writes on board]:  now, can you see anything they
share?" [students doze, eventually we get to vulnerability, fragility, etc]....

Tate's stuff is just a lot weirder and less "crafted"--

"OK, students, now how do you think Bob FEELS about watching the virus?"
[student's jaw drops:  "WTF!?"]--

Young is a good example of tilting a non-craft European aesthetic towards the
workshop mode...

Tate doesn't seem like a bad guy in Worshipful Company of Fletchers....lots of
fun stuff in that one--
Added note on register

The language of poetry has to be different from the language of prose, but this does not imply a higher register. You can't mark the difference simply by elevating the lexicon. By the same token, you can't simply lower your register to a flat colloquial level and expect it to automatically work, just as you can't stuff indifferent prose into rhyme and meter and expect it to become poetic.

What is the difference, then? It's a difference in attentiveness to language. Suppose you do want to use the word "iridescence." James Tate might use it ironically, essentially saying: "look at how corny this word is in this context, it's as though Aunt Mildred just found it in a thesaurus." Henry Gould might use a hifalutin word because it's appropriate to his speaker, the particular poetic voice and persona he's developed: it is the right word for him and he knows exactly what he's doing with it. Logopeia is using words with this particular sort of attentiveness. You establish a relation between the way you are using the word and every other conceivable use of the same word. Look at this insight from Rae Armantrout:

I miss circumstance

the way a single word
could mean

necessary, relative,

and a bird flicks past

the sense that one
has waved one's hand.
MMMFA tips

Don't use similes.

Similes are great, but nothing says "I am trying to write a POEM" like the tossed-off simile used as filler.

Don't use "beautiful" words like "shimmer," iridiscent," "perfect," "beautiful."

Look at the language Creeley uses: "What am I to myself that must be remembered, insisted upon so often?" Or Frank O'Hara: "The only way to be quiet is to be quick, so I scare you clumsily or surprise you with a stab." The work, the poetic burden, is not shouldered by the "poetic" word.

There are excellent poets, like A. Sze, who get by on the present tense and the "luminous" vocabulary. My own personal opinion is that Sze would be even better if he didn't iridesce and luminesce us so much, if he didn't rely on the present tense as default.

All of this is aimed simply at avoiding the "default" style. The style that almost everbody falls back on when they start to write. These clichés "work" to some extent: they get you through the poem. You don't know what to do next? Throw in a simile. And everyone has a default style, even if it's a more sophisticated one. You just don't want yours to be that shared by virtually every other beginning writer. Of course, really inexpert writers use even more obvious clichés than these.

Putting together all my tips so far you might get something like this, read in the "poetry reading voice":

A single perfect hair
for days
like rust on the hood
of my father's 1957 Chevy,
each iridiscent drop of dew
like an ancient word...

23 feb 2005

More Mayhew MFA

Another cliché: the word each used as an intensifier for something that cannot be counted:

"Each drop of rain / falling into limpid pools."

"Each blade of grass / trembling..."

Don't do that either.

By the same token, if there's one of something, don't use the word single. in that affected poetic voice:

"A single bird / flying across a mottled sky"

This advice is contextual. I'm sure that when the first poet used these devices, they sounded fresh. It's the 500th repetition of them that makes them cliché. It's liberating to know this. If you want to write a poem full of these devices you can, making sure to include lots of words like "shimmering." But it won't be a simple default.
In another excellent post, Greg asks Where's Wilbur? Wilbur is a superb translator, a wonderful technician of verse, but there is that missing element that Greg puts his finger on.
Whimsy gets the answers right (on the quiz) and also is extremely perceptive in his view of Young vs. Tate. I share a certain dislike of Tate's persona. I imagine him as the kind of guy who would go around making fun of people for having names like Mildred. Young's poetic persona sounds a lot warmer. Different personalities within the same general style?

If you learn another language and immerse yourself in the literature written in the language, you will find that the duende you came looking for dissipates, occupying only a small corner of the territory you've discovered. In its place is an entire system, as complex and multifaceted as the one you left behind. Think of poetry in English, written on several continents and islands and in a multiplicity of styles. All that variability exists in Spanish too! It's not one monolith ruled by a Lorquian "duende." Your preferences and inclinations within the new system will not be identical to those of your original system. In other words, you might like something in Spanish where you would't necessarily respect the equivalent in English. This is not Charles Bernstein going to look for a language poet in Argentina. What's the point of that? [ed. note: no offense meant to Charles' Argentine colleague, the briliant Ernesto Grossman.]

There are equivalencies that suggest themselves. For example, a conflict between two ways of viewing poetry, one associated with the avant-garde, the other resolutely middle-brow and expressing hostility to the avant-garde. I'm going to be on the same side in both systems, but I'm not sure the avant-gardes would recognize each other in the mirror.
to the squared music
of the lungs,
like lines
to catch
the incendiary
of your flight

--Lola Velasco
B, C, and F are Young; the others are Tate. The more I think about it the more I conclude that they only share about 50% of poetic DNA. Tate would never have written so openly about our genius for hurting one another; Young allows himself an earnest, autobiographical tone that is foreign to Tate. I'm not particularly impressed with Young, on the other hand. Although more sincere and engaging, he seems much less talented as well. I'm just not impressed by him. Although Tate is repetitive and annoying, there is a real talent there, visible even in short snatches, a bouillon cube for two.

22 feb 2005

Mayhew's Handy Free No Residency MFA Hints

The phrase "for [unit of time in the plural]" is a poetic cliché left over from the 70s period style, especially if it is set aside as its own line:

"for hours"
"for days"
"for years"
"for weeks"

or if it is supposed to convey a poignant, plaintive sense of the passage of time. "I stared out the window / for months"

or if it is something that cannot logically be done for that length of time "I stayed in the bathtub / for years." "For decades I searched the house..." "For centuries I washed my back." Friends don't let friends write "for days" in this particular way.

Jorie Graham: "For days they have been crossing. We live beneath these geese."

If you don't recognize this, you haven't been paying attention / for decades.

This is the kind of thing you have to have a separate MFA program just to UNLEARN. My free of charge, no residence MFA program is open for business. Watch for other helpful hints.

By the way, the quiz below is not meant to be impossible without cheating, just difficult. There is at least one significant difference between the two poets, which does come out in some of the examples, even the very brief ones. I'll tell you tomorrow what that difference is.
I'm sure it's been said by others, but I also view the MFA as a good way of promulgating a period style. Peer critique, even more than mentor critique, would seem to reinforce a certain group think in this regard.

What's the distance between James Tate and Dean Young? What percent of poetic DNA do they share? About 99%, or do I need to read a little more Young to get a sense of his individuality in relation to Tate?

I sense a quiz coming on. Tate or Young?


"Grisly leaves used to be attracted
to meatwrappers that blew across
downtown streetcorners in the Midwest
on the first winter night in November."


"You need not cut off your hand.
No need to eat a bouquet.
Your head becomes a peach pit.
Your tongue a honeycomb."


"It scares me the genius we have
for hurting one another. I'm seven,
as tall as my mother kneeling and
she's kneeling and somehow I know

exactly how to do it, calmly,
enunciating like a good actor projecting
to the last row, shocking the ones
who've come in late, cowering

out of their coats, ..."


"What's wrong
with a bouillon cube
for two"?


"Each man is held responsible
for keeping one force in check:
Bob watches a certain virus,
he pulls the alarm the minute
one of them tries to escape.."


"One cardinal sits on a branch, another under.
You've got to be a bird to understand any of this,
feathery and hollow-boned. You've got to be
a claims adjuster staring at a storm. You've

got to be entered by a shower of gold coins."
An MFA is an academic credential. The master-apprentice relationship is less crucial than the idea that one has spent enough time in an academic setting so as to be able to take on a job at another university, fulfill that pedagotic function. It's not about the writing, but about the teaching. It's also about publishing, to the extent that mainstream journals and book publishers want to publish the kind of thing produced in writing programs, however that kind of thing is defined at any given time.

A book publication is also an academic requirement, for tenure if not for hiring. It is an adjunct to the degree, if in the ideal flight pattern the M.A. "thesis," a book of poems, is then published by a University Press.

In order to make MFA programs really be about writing, we have to make sure they never lead to teaching jobs or book publications. Just kidding.

A smart PHD like KSM can bypass the MFA and become college professor with a book publication (or more than one) from a small press. He may have gained more cultural capital by having bypassed the Iowa MFA circuit. Of course not every poet wants to be college professor.

One caveat: I have never received an MFA or taught in an MFA program, so I am guessing about this credentialing mechanism.
... "To leave that there would make some stink!
So thinking hard for all of us,
I scooped it up, heaved it
across the marriage counselor's fence."

Rae Armantrout, channeling Wm. Stafford. This is surely the definitive dead animal poem parody.


I was taught all those shibboleths about not splitting infinitives, not starting a sentence with "however," not using "hopefully" unless you mean "with hope," distingushing between which and that in restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, not ending sentences with prepositions. The idea was that these were not actual rules of grammar, but that some more "careful" writers and readers thought that they were, so if you broke these so-called rules these supposedly more careful writers would think you ignorant of them. Therefore you WERE ignorant, ipso facto, even if you were breaking the rules on purpose. It is a way of preserving meaningless prejudices: the more we follow these inane "rules," in an effort to not offend delicate octogenarian sentiments, the more legitimacy we are giving to these "rules," passing on absurd shibboleths to another generation. We will be the octogenarian grammar police for the next generation, even though we don't really believe in the rules we are enforcing. I still can't use "disinterested" to mean "uninterested," no matter how hard I try to overcome the prejudices inculcated in me.

A shibboleth, of course, is a word that only native speakers can pronounce. If you can't pronounce that phoneme in question, you are slaughtered. If you don't learn the E.B. White New Yorker code of style, you will seem a less adept writer to others of the tribe.

I am not only the slowest drummer in the states of Missouri and Kansas, but also the squarest. All my hip ideas that sound great in my head, and work fairly well in my basement, seem to disappear when I attempt to show them to my drum teacher.

20 feb 2005

Nothing really urgent to say
until that passive-agressive aardvark abuts my house
and the neighbors call up to complain.

The woman with rubies for brains slips into a coma...

That's about as far as I can get with my James Tate impression. Whimsy masks hostility. He is attuned to the absurd in life. It is absurd that his best book was published in 1970. He's continued to write, but hasn't learned anything much; maybe his posture of dead-pan whimsy was not susceptible to that much development.

I'll parody your favorite or least favorite poet. Give me your suggestions.
One significant lesson from Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things is that language doesn't carve up reality "at the joints." In other words, human categories don't line up exactly with things as they are, which are changed upon the blue guitar (hence the title of Lakoff's book.) The imagination creates its own reality, and in fact there is no literal thought; there can be no abstraction without metaphor and metonymy. This sort of linguistic relativism is by no means incompatible with "basic realism." In other words, realty exists. In fact, we have to learn to distinguish categories that do correspond in a meaningful sense to things as they are and those that are based on metaphors that we might easily question. For example, if we use the metaphor "time is a resource," then we can talk about stealing time, spending time, wasting time, using and investing time. But it is easy to imagine a culture that didn't view time metaphorically as a valuable resource, in which this metaphor consequently had no traction at all. Another insight: "folk" theories of reference can enter into conflict with one another. Language is a not a mirro of nature.

I think we already "know" all this from Borges, from Stevens, from Levi-Strauss, just as we know about the "embodiment of knowledge" from William Carlos Williams's book of the same title. No wonder Lakoff was an early defender of Language Poetry, through his friendship with Barrett Watten. Lakoff in fact wrote an article that was then countered by Tom Clark's famous "Stalinist as Linguist" tirade.

19 feb 2005

Language Log: No smooth ride is as valuable as a rough ride

An argument: White and Strunk {notoriously} say that one should write with verbs and nouns rather than with adjectives and adverbs. The linguists at Language Log {adeptly} show that White himself uses {considerably} more adjectives than the average for English prose. White is a therefore a {shameless, contemptible} hypocrite.

It's countered that White is {prudently} offering {sensible} rules for inexperienced writers, and that an experienced writer knows how and when to "break the rules." The {vexing} problem of {unforgiveable} hypocrisy does not {automatically} go away, though, since the {obnoxious} so-called "rule" of avoiding {supposedly unnecessary} adjectives is {stupidly} evoked as a sort of {brain-dead} linguistic fundamentalism. And the {seemingly attractive} idea of depriving {callow,} inexperienced writers of several {wonderfully supple and expressive} categories of words until he or she is {adequately} prepared for them seems {inescapably} paternalistic.
As I hang the laundry up I feel the world's
moral earnestness well up in me for hours, each vertigo
of fraught fission, as though a window stood empty
in a fat snow of nanoseconds, fissures of thought
like grains of oat, filaments of web on my eyeglasses...

That's sort of what Jorie's poetry makes me feel like. It's a crude parody; I'm sure I would do better with a longer and better acquaintance with the style. (At least she doesn't write "finding the dead animal poems" like Stafford's deer or Eberhart's groundhog.) Certainly one feels, reading Graham, that here is a sensitive, serious, and intelligent person, maybe a bit self-absorbed and with a high opinion of herself. There's a way she has of sustaining a particular plaintive tone, never letting it go. The geese flying above her head remind her of the passage of time. She goes from there into a Yeatsian riff on "things fall apart, the centre cannot hold": "as if, at any time, things could fall further apart / and nothing could help them."

A good parody would have to get the tone, the stylistics mannerisms, and make them seem a little bit ridiculous instead of deeply serious. It would not really be a parody of the author, but of a superficial reading of the author.

18 feb 2005

I'm curious about why George Lakoff, in Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, never cites Claude Levi-Strauss. In my own mental categorization these are two of the authors whose thinking about categories is most useful. Lakoff does draw on some structuralist anthropology, studies of kinship systems and the like. Several hypotheses:

1) Intellectual traditions, styles. Lakoff is not at home in the French tradition; he doesn't even feel called on to refute structuralism, although he does take on Whorf and Chomsky closer to home. I'm sure he wouldn't say that Levi-Strauss is less distinguished in this field than Whorf or Putnam. Or maybe he would?

2) Occam's razor, parsimony. He doesn't need to cite Levi-Strauss to make his argument. He doesn't need to trace the steps of an intellectual development that turned out to be a dead end from the point of view of cognitive psychology.

3) Lineage. He traces an intellectual lineage from Wittgenstein through Austin and doesn't need to branch out to look at parallel traditions. (This is another version of # 1). Other versions: Social situation of his research: the other writers he cites and feel close to don't cite Levi-Strauss; nobody in his intellectual circle would "miss" Levi-Strauss in the bibliography.

4) Anxiety of influence. If he did discuss Levi-Strauss it would turn into a book about Levi-Strauss. Better to leave him out completely! Levi-Strauss already demolishes the "objectivist" view that Lakoff also damages, though with a different intention and without drawing on the same body of empirical research, which didn't yet exist.

5) Mayhew's fallacy. Just because I see a connection or potential filiation here does not mean there is one. I am way off track in even suggesting such a thing. Thus the entire problem is a false one.

17 feb 2005

Poets in the academy have been, for the most part, blissfully (or tragically, depending on your perspective) separated from the part of the English Department that does literary theory. Derrida rarely comes up in the MFA workshop. There has traditionally been a clearcut division of labor here. Now there are poets who actually have serious scholarly heft, like John Hollander, but that is more the exception. What Charles Bernstein did with the poetics program in Buffalo was to bring theory and poetry together in an academic setting, where this had not been done before.

Most literary humanists are not poststructuralists anymore, if ever they were. Most I would define as methodological eclectics specializing in a particular area or period, and the further you get away from elite institutions, the less likely you are to find a predominance of theory.

True deconstructionists are extremely rare nowadays. I can't think of any in Kansas, for example.

16 feb 2005

I kind of agree with the jolly elf that it is a shame that "most American poetry is being written by those who make their living in the academic world." That's why I've always tried to invite some poets who aren't academics to speak in the poetics seminar: Jim McCrary, Jordan Davis, Ron Silliman. Of course, I'm an academic myself, and write poetry. My publication of poetry, however, has been miniscule enough so that I'm not a huge part of the problem all by myself.

If you are an academic, it's better not to be in an English department. Better still if you are in mathematics like Judy Roitman or art history like David Shapiro.

Some of my favorite non-professor poets: William Carlos Williams, doctor, Clark Coolidge, (what does Clark do for a living?) James Schuyler, art critic and then simply unemployed, Barbara Guest, (art critic and then... I'm not sure), Frank O'Hara, museum curator, Frank Lima, chef, Joseph Ceravolo, engineer.

Gilbert Sorrentino taught at Stanford, but he was a fish out of water--very ill at ease in academia and for this reason good FOR academia. Academia might not be good for poets but poets can be good for academia, if they are not academic poets.

Jorge Guillén and Pedro Salinas were poet-professors, so it's not an exclusively American phenomenon.
I kind of agree with the jolly elf that it is a shame that "most American poetry is being written by those who make their living in the academic world." That's why I've always tried to invite some poets who aren't academics to the poetics seminar: Jim McCrary, Jordan Davis, Ron Silliman. Of course, I'm an academic myself, and write poetry. My publication of poetry, however, has been miniscule enough so that I'm not a huge part of the problem all by myself.
Interview with Shin Yu Pai

Over the past few days I've been interviewing Shin Yu Pai about her new chapbook Unnecessary Roughness:


The first person singular does not appear very much, if at all, in
Unnecessary Roughness yet I get a strong sense of a definite point of
view, of where "you" stand in relation to your materials.  Maybe you could
address the question of where the implied observer stands in relation to the
cultural clichés that you are subjecting to critique.  Feel free to correct
any misconceptions in my questions.


The point of view in the "Unnecessary Roughness" poems is definitely that of
the critical observer on the sidelines who is more engaged voyeur than
fanatical participant. There is a sympathy towards the non-jocks throughout
this work who are the subject of marginalization and victimization as in for
example the "DODGEBALL" poem which relies heavily on cultural cliche to make
its point. I picture readers of this poem to have their own associations
with this sport (from childhood vs. say the Ben Stiller movie), identifying
with either the words on the outer ring of the structure or the language
inscribed within the center circle.  There is no need for an "I", because
the "I" is the reader who makes a choice to situate him/herself accordingly.


That rings true with how I read the book, reliving those days of Junior High
School Physical Education, which seemed to be an initiation, first of all,
into a certain kind of brutality.  I'm curious about your insight that
something supposedly done to promote health or "fitness" entails so much
threat of bodily harm.


The first poems I wrote for the series were focused on football, hockey,
roller derby, etc.  I was very interested in the penalty language associated
with pro sports and how this particular language socializes violence... in
thinking about this violence further, it seemed to me that this rite of
initiation into tribe actually occurs at an even younger age in childhood
with sports like  "smear the queer" (a game I had never heard about until
doing some research into childhood games.)  I did some research into
dodgeball (aka "killer ball") for my piece and found a news story about a
P.E. teacher and school in Connecticut that tried to ban dodgeball from the
schoolyard.  The P.E. teacher had coaxed one of his less athletic somewhat
awkward students into entering a game.  Within about 5 seconds she had been
smashed in the face with a ball and had her nose and glasses broken.  The
argument to ban the game from schoolyards is that dodgeball doesn't really
teach any physical skills, although it's certainly effective in engendering
fear.  At a party last year, I met a phys. ed teacher who I chatted up about
sports.  She explained to me the different categories which games fall
into.. I think they were "blood and guts", "shits and giggles", and I can't
recall the other just now...

Games like dodgeball and foursquare were part of my own experience of
growing up - I was a skinny Asian girl with glasses in a predominantly
African American/Latin American elementary school in the sketchy part of
town. An easy target for many reasons...

Personal context aside, the poems of "Unnecessary Roughness" actually first
developed in response to the photographic work of Ferenc Suto, a fine art
photographer based in New York.  Ferenc was making these images of
adolescent looking models dressed in oppressive vintage sports gears, coping
with pain and oppression. Looking at these images really put things in a
certain context and stimulated certain memories of violence, both witnessed
and experienced.


I have to confess I played "smear the queer" quite often as a kid, without
any sense of what a "queer" was.

In relation to the look of your chapbook, it struck me that the layout of
your visual poems is often quite simple--a pair of concentric circles, two
parallel columns of words, an oval track with words scattered around it, a
chart that might have been drawn easily on microsoft word.  Working in
multiple media as you do, what is your conception of this book as a visual


The visual poems in the collection draw their shapes and structures in most
cases from the actual playing fields of sports - a roller derby track, a
swimming pool, a four square grid.  I also played around with scoreboards
and penalty box grids. Other poems take different strategies and are more
conventionally narrative and left justified on the page.

The xPress(ed) version of "Unnecessary Roughness" is the predecessor of a
larger project I am working on with Ferenc which incorporates several
hand-printed, distressed photographic images which we hope to publish as an
artist's book in time.  We've looked into presses that do photogravure and
presses with a strong interest in artists' collaborations.  So in the end, I
do see the final incarnation of this project as a very visual object.


Good luck with this project.  I was going to ask how Unnecessary Roughness fit in with your work as a whole, but you've already answered that in part.  To wrap up the interview, maybe you could give us a few more details about this artist book. 


Sure, it's still very much a work in progress, my collaborator is working on
producing the images for the manuscript and ultimately we'd like to see the
work presented as both a book and as a possible traveling exhibition.  I'm
playing around with the idea of blowing up the texts, printing them using
vinyl lettering, and transferring them on to the wall alongside the framed
photographs. The texts aren't literal/illustrative responses to the images
but do connect loosely to the photos, which are diverse in subject: a boxer
in head gear, the back of someone's gender ambigous head wearing a lace-up
wrestling mask, the back of a swimmer's shaved head with goggles. Ferenc
uses some interesting processes to make these images - some of the works are
Polaroid collage, other are silver gelatin prints which are than bleached to
create a distressed/vintage quality.

Thanks for taking the time to interview me on this project, Jonathan!


You're welcome!
I'll soon be revamping my Spanish blog, "Poemas con nombres propios" as a place to put my translations from the Spanish. I finished the sequence of poems in Spanish that I was using the blog for, and the blog is sitting there without doing anything. The list of my blogs on the dashboard includes aborted projects like "Bad Mickey Television Sock."
I've been trying to make the blog less splenetic recently. Debating Jolly Old St. Nick, for example, was not getting me anywhere. My thoughts are as bilious as ever; I'm just not writing them down here.

15 feb 2005

Blogger interface problems.

Yes indeed. Now to get space below your post you must type the {br} tag. I usually do it twice to get to two paragraph breaks below my post. Also, I cannot post pictures unless I am in the "blog this" mode, not the normal "dashboard."

Children are so inconsistent. They can't seem to decide between total independence, having nothing at all to do with their parents, and total dependence, in which they have their parents do everything for them. They want to HAVE IT BOTH WAYS. Moreover, they want to re-negotiate their degree of dependence / independence SEVERAL TIMES A YEAR. What's up with that?
A poet like James Tate who depends so much on the modulation of tone--with very few other poetic devices up his sleeve--can fail when the tone is even slightly "off."

"In order to belong the Million Mile
Club one must belong to the Society
to Prevent Intelligent Intercourse.
The spirit is said to escape, especially

in crowds, like a shout in the park."

The wit is just not sharp enough here. Oftentimes it seems like Tate is just not trying very hard. (Surely he could come up with a better simile than "like a shout in the park.") There a boredom, a stoned desultory feeling to many of these poems in Viper Jazz. The tone is always jokey, but the jokes are so flat at times that the joke is on the reader: "The zebras want to visit Chicago: / it is said they have memories but they don't." I'm feeling the absence of modulation, change in tone. I'll have to go back to The Oblivion Ha-Ha to see if it's passed the test of time a little better.


I once declined the buy a Claudia Rankine book for very little money because the book had a sans-serif typeface that didn't appeal to me. I returned to the store on another day, picking up the book as one I was going to buy, and then putting it back because I didn't like the book design. How frivolous is that? Now I'm wishing I had bought the book.

My drum teacher burned me a cd of a drum lesson recorded by Jo Jones years ago. He imitates many known and unknown drummers of the old days--even some tap dancers. He makes you "see" what he's doing even though you can't literally see him. His narration is eloquent and hilarious. Many drummers kept time on the snare drum rather than the cymbal. Or, like Gene Krupa, on the floor tom.

14 feb 2005

Poem Written by Ron's Second Best Pen

I am Ron Silliman's second best pen.
Boy, I wish I had a chance to play in the big leagues some day!


This poem contains allusions to the following:

1. The second-best pen is a verbal echo of Shakespeare's "second best bed," which he famously left to his wife Anne Hathaway in his will.

2. The idea of a poem spoken humorously by an inanimate object is taken from Kenneth Koch's "Poems Written by Ships at Sea" and from some of the exercises in Wishes, Lies, and Dreams..

3. The reference to the "big leagues" refers to Ron Silliman's love of baseball. The analogy is that a pen to a poet is like a baseball bat to a baseball player. The second best pen wants a chance to write some of Ron's big league poetry, but is forced to do more mundane tasks.

4. The unspoken object of jealousy is, of course, Ron's special poetry writing pen.

5. But you already understood all of this. What am I explaining it to you for?
I've been reading two books from the 70s, Viper Jazz (Tate) and Millions of Strange Shadows (Hecht). Both poets are prodigiously talented within their respective styles, but both seems to be floundering here. Hecht is writing in the period style of the 1950s: his ideal addressee is a college professor from about 1950. I can almost smell the pipe tobacco and the tweed. I had remembered his translation of Voltaire's poem about the Lisbon earthquake from when I first read this book in the 1970s. It is a tour de force. His "Sestina D'Inverno" is good, although not quite as good as sestinas by Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, or John Ashbery. Hecht has a redundancy problem: "Such music becomes the trope / Or figure of that holy amity / Which is our only hope." A trope is the same thing as a figure, and amity is there to rhyme with Galilee later on in the stanza. "That dense, embroidered art / Of interleaved and deftly braided song." Braided means the same thing here as interleaved. The tweedy college professor can apparently understand a whole series of complex illusions but has to have the metaphors pedantically explained to him: this symbolizes that. There are also moments of outright banality: "A certain amount of getting up and down / From my aisle seat to let the others in." Talk about loading every rift with ore! I had frankly expected more elegance from Hecht; his style is more knotty and clumpy than I had remembered.

Tate is a different story. The jokes just don't work half the time. Maybe you had to be there.

13 feb 2005

I got banned from Foetry.com! (thejimside.blog-city.com)

I think the cowards at Foetry have met their match. The Jimside Juggernaut will destroy this increasingly pointless website.

12 feb 2005

Here's another poem by Armantrout that I've always liked:

So these are the hills of home. Hazy tiers
nearly subliminal. To see them is to see
double, hear bad puns delivered with a wink.
An untoward familiarity.

Rising from my sleep, the road is more
and less the road. Around that bend are pale
houses, pairs of junipers. Then to look
reveals no more.

I can understand a reader feeling "underwhelmed" by this poem, saying "it's nothing special" or "what's so great about it?" There is an emotional coolness or detachment in her poetry that constrasts with the expectation that poetry be impassioned. I would have a harder time with someone who said that the poem was incomprehensible, or beneath serious consideration. It's clearly a poem that's been well-thought out and elaborated with great care on the level of "craft." It's almost Elizabeth Bishop-like in that respect: "until a name / and all its connotations are the same."

11 feb 2005

Two years of excellent blogging from the inimitableDr. Piombino. I should say the "imitable" Dr. Piombino, because I really should try to imitate him whenever possible, especially in his admirable non-snarkiness. I really can't remember when he has ever said a bad word about anyone (aside from Karl Shapiro and anyone in the Bush administration.)
A line popped into my head the other day: "Wearing ridiculous hats as a badge of honor." It was just part of the babble that's always there. The first part of the creative process, for me, is listening to this babble, noticing it and rescuing certain fragments. In this case, this line may not be worth rescuing at all.


The cheerfulness and the earnestness of the New Formalism, to me, are disconcerting. These poets tend to be light where I would be serious and serious where I would be light. Thus I feel justified in feeling irritation both at the frivolity and at the earnestness of this poetic movement.


While my daughter was at her library book club, I looked in the stacks at the public library and found this book, The Poetry Circus by Stanton Coblentz, published in 1967. Apparently this guy was also a science fiction novelist. Anyway, the thesis is that modernism had ruined poetry. He fulminates against Eliot, Cummings, Auden--and almost everything else he can shake a stick at. He finds bad poetry in magazines--poetry written by people that I have never heard of as well as people I have--and offers brief snippets for inspection. Almost all of it is found wanting: Marianne Moore, Karl Shapiro, Donald Hall, William Stafford, Alan Dugan, Howard Nemerov, John Ashbery, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley. The distinction between academic and New American poetry is not even relevant for him. The dividing line is between modern poetry, of whatever brand, and traditional lyric of the Edna St. Vincent Millay variety. A great deal of what he holds up for ridicule actually does actually look bad, by almost any standard. I could do the same thing with Poetry or Paris Review today, or even with Eratio. It is easy for the nay-sayers to be right, by the sheer statistical preponderance of bad poetry at any given place and time. What proves that they are right by sheer accident is their lack of discrimination. If nine out of ten Cretans are liars, I can be right 90% of the time if I disbelieve 100% of Cretan statements.

10 feb 2005

I wonder if the new, kinder Bemsha Swing will get as big an audience.

9 feb 2005

qt. in Cahiers de Corey: "... when you assume intelligence on the receiving end of your work, you add dignity to the world." I wish I had said that.
I'm not a long poem devoté. I like parts of Paterson, but don't ask me to defend the coherence of the entire structure. I prefer other parts of Hart Crane's opus to The Bridge. The Cantos is the work of Pound I'm least interested in.

Similarly, with Henry Gould, I tend to appreciate him in small pieces, rather than caring very much about the macro level of his ambitious projects. The poem beginning with the line "It takes about a year for earth to breathe," for example, is exquisite. The sounds and the mood evoked are quite spectacular. I think I even understand what it is about: midwinter spring is its own season and all that. It's not exactly easy poetry, but I wish it would receive a wider hearing. If Nobel laureate Derek Walcott is a tad over-rated, in my opinion, then Gould must be under-rated by a far greater margin, since I find him to be as good a writer of verse (if not better) as Mr. Walcott. It's a style that might take a while to warm up to, but I do think it offers its eccentric pleasures to anyone patient enough to stick with it a while.
Henry also has a fantastic ear for verse. He really blows me way sometimes.
And the bi-ethnic JewishyIrishy chimes in on TKOP, MKOP. If you're bi-ethnic maybe you can be bi-poetical too, and see both sides of the question.

HG's poetry is also MKOP. Henry is someone who really takes a tactile pleasure in words. That's what I miss in a lot of non-MKOP-poetry.
No prejudice seems more acceptable than the animosity toward "difficult" poetry. (TKOP for short, as seen on Janet Holmes' Humanophone. or avant-garde music, abstract painting, etc... ). Since it's sort of a snobbism in reverse, it doesn't even seem like snobbism. After all, the victims of this prejudice ARE the snobs, those people who think they are better than us because they can understand what's going on. It's a struggle even in academia, where colleagues who think nothing of curling up with a Judith Butler book at night might recoil at the mention of Lezama Lima.

If someone were to condemn Brazilian soap operas as not really worth the time to study, that person would be roundly rebuked--and rightly so. Everything human lies within the scope of the humanities. It is true that this prejudice against mass culture persists among some older people--more or less the generation that has just retired from the university, but the prejudice against difficult contemporary works is probably stronger than ever.

8 feb 2005


The Difference between Bruce Andrews and Hip Hop:

I am aware of the yawning abyss separating a popular musical style with roots in R&B and the language poetry of a certain political science professor, which addresses a completely different audience using completely different means. One is blasted out of car windows at high volumes, the other, usually not. There is absolutely no connection or relation between the two, aside from the fact that they both are forms of poetic art with some social valence and are contemporaneous. It's like comparing late Beckett to Disco music. Then why did I come up with such a crazy comparison? Why have a few other people, independently of me and of one another, also come up with this comparison? Am I lazy, insane, simply ill-informed? It's called a METAPHOR. You know, a poetic trope that allows us to compare to things that are not necessarily related to each other directly, because of some real or PERCEIVED similarity? It's outrageous and hip-erbolic, designed to provoke a reaction. If this particular metaphor has no suggestive power, so be it. I see at least two or three things that justify the comparison, along with about twentyfive that make me want to say I'm dead wrong.

If I were phorced to teach Bruce Andrews in the classroom, I would start by telling the students it was like Hip Hop. Some of them would object and I would make an argument to try to convince them that I was right. It would lead to an interesting discussion, even if I were proven wrong by the end of the class period.

7 feb 2005

"Raiding the Vernacular": A Roundtable Discussion on Bruce Andrews:

"N[ick] L[awrence]: When I first read the work in the '80s, and I had no idea about the poetics advanced alongside it, I thought of hip-hop. The energy is all focused on a particularly public kind of utterance, or private-made-public, usually street argot or the kind of language from conversations in bars, etc. -- relatively little so-called reflective or intimate speech."
When I say that Bruce Andrews is a hiphop artist or that Paul Lake's poem is Maoist in its anti-intellectualism I am making a poetic intuition, a hiperbole. Yes, I could explain what I mean and justify my opinion if forced to, but what would be the fun in that?

There is something creepily Maoist about that whole Yvor Winters / J.V Cunningham cadre at Stanford. I feel it; it is an intuition. I got my PhD in Comparative Literature at Stanford, I know what I'm talking about. That poem about the monkeys reminds me of Pol Pot. Is that an outrage? It is the right-wing poetic version of Maoism, at least. Or maybe they are poetic moonies? That cheeful yet earnest lightverse they promote really does give off a cult-like aura for me. I can't be the only one to feel this way, I'm sure.

Bruce has a sort of free association and in-your-face attitude which, combined, remind me of hip hop. I'm not saying that "literally" that he is the same as a rapper.

I'm sure Jim Behrle doesn't think of Ron literally as a parrot either.

6 feb 2005

A poetic analysis forr Greg:

Here's the first section of a poem by Rae Armantrout:


One's a connoisseur of vacancies,

loud silences
surrounding human artifacts:

stucco hulls
of forgotten origin

that squat
over the sleepers

in rows
on raised platforms.

She calls her finds

I object to the notion that you can't judge this by ordinary means, that you need some secret code to be able to talk about the extent to which this poem is effective or not. I am attracted to the central metaphor of archeological fieldwork as a way of understanding our relation to the past. To be a "connoisseur of vacancies" (nice phrase by the way) is to be attracted to those gaps or silences surrounding artifacts of human cultures. The visual evocation of the "stucco hulls" that stand above the archeologists sleeping in the camp falls a little flat for me. There seems to be a lack of intensity in some of these short free verse lines: "in rows / on raised platforms." It's not horrible, but the short lines seem to call for more intensity. At the end of this section we find out that a particular female archeologist calls her discoveries "encapsulations." Armantrout invites us to unpack this word--maybe the suggestion of a "time capsule"? I'm not sure this word is quite as interesting as Armantrout finds it, but my brain is mildly stimulated by the exercise.

One is ebullient,

shaving seconds,
navigating among refills.

She's concerned with the rhythm
of her own sequence of events,

if such they can be called,

though these may be indistinguishable
from those of the lives of other people,

though the continuity which interests her
breaks up
in the middle distance.

The part of this second section that is most comprehensible is also rather flat and prosaic. I like the ideas, which hold my interest, but am a little disappointed by the flatness of the expression and the inability to sustain a convincing rhythm. The more elliptical/enigmatic details aren't quite suggestive enough for me.

She finds the fly-leaves of her new notebook
have been pre-printed
in an old-fashioned script--

phrases broken to suggest

as a site of faux-urgency:

"this work since it's commenced"

"cannot or willnot stay"

I like the way the three sections of the poem give us three perspectives on a single problem, and I like individual moments of all three sections. Armantrout, as usual, offers strong aphorisms and observations, but the poem for me remains a little thin in between the stronger lines. Armantrout is a poet I like somewhat; she is neither my favorite nor a writer I view with extreme skepticism. I have moods in which I find her briliant, and other times when I am mildly disappointed. Needless to say, I mean no disrespect to her work, which is obviously more substantial than anything I have been able to achieve in this art form.

{lime tree}: The Playlist Meme

Here's mine.

1. "Zoo-Baba-Da-Oo-EE" (Charles Mingus)
2. "Footprints" (Miles Davis)
3. "Miss You" (Jimmy Cobb)
4. "Darn that Dream" (Poncho Sánchez)
5. "You don't know me" (Ray Charles)
6. Untitiled Poem (by Antonio Gamoneda)
7. "Campiña Afro" (artist unknown, off one of the Putumayo collections)
8. "Ah Lue Cha" (Roy Haynes)
9. "I Surrender Dear" (Thelonious Monk)
10. "Thou Swell" (Ella Fitzgerald, from the Rogers and Hart Songbook)

5 feb 2005

Pantoum Beginning with Lines from Ezra Pound and David Shapiro

Two small people, without dislike or suspicion:
Snow has fallen into the old bottle of eraser fluid
Like hotsauce on hotcakes,
Stale polemic on rye.

Snow has fallen into the old bottle of eraser fluid.
What good's a futile gesture is noone notices?
Stale polemic on rye,
Ambergris under the hood.

What good's a futile gesture if noone notices?
You might as well put
Ambergris under the hood
Of an artist's sketchbook,

You might as well put
An end to swooning umbrage!
Of an artist's sketchbook
Nothing remains but a dusting of flour.

An end to swooning umbrage:
A turntable spinning in the attic.
Nothing remains but a dusting of flour
On a white apron.

A turntable spinning in the attic;
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion,
On a white apron,
like hotsauce on hotcakes.

I've been in situations professionally, politically, where I could not easily voice objections to certain things, in order not to give "ammunition" to the other "side." For example, a colleague has some weakness (don't we all?), but you still want this colleague to be promoted. You don't want those other colleagues on other side of the divide to take what you say as an argument for THEIR side. Often I have said what I think anyway, just because I cannot stand NOT to allow an argument to remain unvoiced. That's why I value open minded people like Greg, who recognizes a certain truth in the characterization of the new formalism. That's why, too, I sometimes criticize work within the general language/postlanguage camp, things that I OUGHT to like but do not.


Greg also posts a poem, I presume written by himself, and asks why it is not a good POSTMODERN poem, and not simply a bad poem tout court. First of all, I would object to the notion that there is a generic "postmodern poem." Doesn't each poet have to justify his or her own style? Isn't that Phillip's criticism of New Formalism, the blithe complacency of it all? You shouldn't be able to just slide by on a period style, even a faux-Victorian one. I could point to the ways in which Greg's poem fails to employ any strategy with any consistency. Yes, there can be a consistent purposiveness even in disjunction! The "bad writing" (i.e. the phrase "nicely and earnestly") does not seem redeemed by any higher purpose. The first line sounds utterly sophomoric. Forgive me if I am misinterpreting the question being posed here, which seems to depend on the assumption that there is some lower standard of writing for avant-garde and conventional styles. If anything, the avant-garde standard is far higher.

4 feb 2005

Poetry Magazine
I might have something to say about Fanny Howe's new book, On the Ground which is trashed by the same reviewer for Poetry as certain New Formalist poets and poet-Laureate Ted "Cornhusker" Kooser. The reviewer, Brian Philips, gets off some good one-liners at the expense of poets of various tendencies. (tinny anitquarianism, etc...) He is not wholly wrong about Howe either, but I think his remark about her intellectual incoherence is off the mark--or maybe not... Unfortunately, this book, which I have been reading myself before I read the review, does have some obvious weaknesses, but surely a position of "bewilderment," in which I often find myself, is not incompatible with a desire for social justice?

I am a little uneasy about Howe's religiosity, myself. Supposedly it is made more palatable by the fact that it is shrouded in doubt and uncertainty. So she's not one of "those" religious people who think they have access to some actual "truth." But then why give so much weight to that particular religious tradition? Why not go whole-hog to doubt and bewilderment?

The actual poetry is uneven, which makes reading the book interesting. It does oscillate between language poetry and religious revelation in odd and unexpected ways. I guess that's what I like about it. I'm past my stage of enchantment with everything she writes. I'm getting a little more critical at this point.
One more thing that's always confused me: when Cummings writes

"when serpents bargain for the right to squirm
and the sun strikes to earn a living wage,
when thorns regard their roses with alarm
and rainbows are insured against old age"

Is he taking a position on labor relations? After all, you don't see the SUN going on strike, why should we allow YOU to form unions? "You want social security, you ridiculous creatures? Why, RAINBOWS don't have it, why should you! You don't see PORCUPINES suing doctors for malpractice, do you?" I know I should just sit back and enjoy the poem, not worry about the internal logic of the metaphors, a logic which so often turns out to be self-annulling.

Simian metaphors always confuse me anyway. I'm never sure whether we are supposed to be like them, or they are supposed to be like us.
But the poem is not about hermeneutics generally : it's about a particular 20th-cent. pathology of "secondary" language (ie., language about language, language about texts, hermeneutical writing, theory theory) - a pathology which applies its own secondary character to a definition of all language, language in general: in particular, the various mental products or monkey-screeches of the deconstructionists.

You attack the poem as irrelevant : but you're only able to do this by blurring or effacing the specific target of the satire

Doesn't the poem itself belong to this world of language about language? Wouldn't its critique apply equally to all linguistic endeavours (whether speech utterances of interpretations of utterances) not confined to simple warnings of impending danger, including itself? Are not the deconstructionst's writings the exact opposite of monkey screeches, if the latter are simple warnings of impending danger? To me the object of the satire is already blurred, since the satire could logically be applied to ALL human language. So yes, my critique of the poem depends on drawing a more general lesson than the specific (and rather lame!) critique of "theory" that Lake wants to make. I'm saying, if you rule out the "hermeneutics of suspicion" because you are afraid of being eaten by a lion, you are ruling out a lot of other things that also might get you eaten by a lion.

Is that particular poem about poetry?

It's about hermeneutics, or the interpretation of texts. Hermeneutics has its origins in the interpretation of enigmatic and poetic religious texts. Lake suggests that you don't need a sophisticated theory to interpret an utterance like "the lions are coming" in monkey language. What's the point? We all know this. We do in fact need a more sophisticated hermeneutics even to read a smooth and clever poem.

Satire is allowed (to answer the 2nd question) but the satirist can be skewered in turn. Lake ain't Swift. The satire is intellectually incoherent here, in my view, because it tries to say something about "hermeneutics" without any understanding of the complexities involved. Doesn't hermeneutics start with figural language? So what's the point of talking about it in a context in which figuration is not even relevant? Or am I being too literal minded?

A deconstructionist (which I am not) would say: The poem puts into play a certain deconstructive aporia between the figural and the literal. Read as a statement about human beings, it doesn't seem to have any traction, any play; it misses the point. Read as a tale about monkeys, it is simply obvious: monkeys scream and get out of the way of lions, with no need for fancy hermeneutics. So what?

Pugnacious Pinoy : The "Up-note" reading voice
This poem, "A Lesson in Hermeneutics" calls out for a good oldfashioned deconstruction. One could point out, for example, that the monkey who took the time to compose a warning about an approaching eagle or lion in iambic pentameter would also be eaten. Does Lake want to limit human communication to what monkeys are capable of? Consider the figures of speech that are off-limits to them:

allegory: they wouldn't understand Lake's own poem, which attempts to speak of human activities by speaking of non-human actors.

irony: suppose a monkey mistook a tree branch for a snake and raised a false alarm. Later on, the monkeys are talking: "Hey Fred, that was sure a frightening snake you warned us about this morning!"

hyperbole: "five thousand lions are coming!!"

litotis: "being carried off by an eagle is not entirely pleasant."

chiasmus: "working hard, or hardly working?"

Sure, I don't want my stoplight or my fire alarm to be ironical: "Well, sure it is red, but I'll go through anyway; it's a notoriously sarcastic traffic signal!"

But most of what we use poetry for rises above the level of simple fire alarms or APBs. If a monkey stopped to analyze the phonetic pattern of another monkey, "I think his accent is definitely from south of the swamp" and gets eaten up, does than mean we should we outlaw departments of linguistics too?

Evidently Lake wants us to pronounce the word "circling" as "cir-cuh-ling." Oops, I stopped to analyze the meter and was swept up by a hawk. Goodbye.

3 feb 2005

Nick Piombino's incisive and brilliant essay on paranoia has been translated into Spanish. The case Nick makes is quite convincing; I am happy to call the style of the current occupant of the White House "paranoid." I do have a few questions, though. When we use terms that refer to individual psyches and apply these terms to entire cultures or parts of cultures, what exactly are we doing? Is this a metonymy: society is dominated by those suffering from paranoia, or a metaphor: the culture acts as though it were a paranoid individual? Or is it some combination of the two?

If paranoia is caused by some chemical imbalance of the brain, how can the culture itself be paranoid? The culture does not have a brain in the sense that an individual does.

(Aside: I have no problem using the word "phobia" to describe those who have a pathological thought about the sexual orientation of Sponge Bob or Buster Baxter or Winnie the Pooh. But is this the same sort of "phobia" that we associate with people who cannot stand to be in elevators or see spiders? Are these psychological pathologies of the body politic located in individual brains, or are we using these terms metaphorically? If "homophobia" is similar to arachnophobia, should we simply see it as a mental health issue, without blaming those who suffer from this ailment? We could give anti-anxiety drugs to James Dobson)

How exactly, does the mental pathology make the jump to the level of culture? What is the mechanism? Is it when X number of powerful people succumb to the mental illness in question?

How fair is this to mentally ill people, to use their ailments as metaphors for everything that is wrong with the world? Isn't it more frightening that seemingly sane individuals, who would probably not have any malfunction of the brain, are paranoid in this cultural sense?

Finally, does the Piombino analysis, which rings true enough, depend on (largely discredited) Freudian ideas about the etiology of mental disease? If I accept Nick's analysis as valid (which I would like to do), am I also buying into a Freudian scheme? Do we still want to use Freudian concepts for cultural critique even when they no longer apply in the strict sense to the individual psyche? To what degree does our easy acceptance of these ideas depend on an atmosphere of uncritical cultural "Freudianism"?
Steve Tills wonders at my enthusiasm for the David Shapiro poem "Father Knows Best." It's a fair question, why do I find the poem so compelling? I'm glad you asked. First of all, I should clarify that "near perfect," in the way I'm using it here, refers to a quality of a poem that might have some minor imperfection, but that manages to convince me that it can do no wrong. In other words, one could easily quibble with a few details in the poem (as Steve does) but these details do not seem to damage the poem's luminous power. (I did make a typo, replacing the word "which" with "without" at the beginning of last line of penultimate stanza.)

I like the poem's transparency and emotional openness: you have no doubt at all about what the poem is about. Yet nowhere do you feel that the poem is stating its point in too unsubtle a way. It has the oddness of a dream, and demonstrates that Freud was wrong: you don't need to interpret dreams: their meaning has a transparent luminosity: it is only a matter of seeing what is there. Yet the language is oblique enough to avoid the flat obviousness that such a poem could easily acquire.

The reference to the 50s sit-com introduces a campy element. The Mary Poppins umbrellas too. There is a knowingness to the poem, but this element is not overdone either. The balance between the childlike dream and the adult knowingness of the autopsychoanalyst is "near perfect."

There is also that delicate balance between the "universal" and the "particular." In other words, the poem could only be about David Shapiro; it is his experience, his voice. And yet my identification with the experience is unproblematic. It could easily be my father in the dream!

Also, the tension between narrative transparency and lyric opacity, the way the poem builds and maintains the mood of strangeness.

In short, for me it is a "near perfect poem" in the exact technical sense of the term--if such a reckless hyerbole can have an exact meaning. I cannot oblige anyone to feel the same way about it, but I'm glad for the chance to explain what I meant.

Other books arriving: Antonio Méndez Rubio's Poesía sin mundo quotes me on page 39. Suddenly, my words take on an authority and conviction that they didn't have when they were only my words. The translation into Spanish helps.

Méndez Rubio makes basically the same argument that I make about recent Spanish poetry, but in a different theoretical language. I am happy, both that he reaches the same conclusions, and that his language is a different one.

A book of sonnets by Ben Lerner, from Copper Canyon Press: The Lichtenberg Figures.

Differentials by M. Perloff (this one I had to pay for.)


Not to be Sillimanesque, but the hits to this blog in the past few days have been much heavier than usual. I can't really explain why. I haven't even been attempting to induce a gastrointestinal disorder in Mike Snider. Could it be my comment on the "poetry reading chant"?

Speaking of which, if anyone has an mp3 of this chant, I would like to have it so I can analyze it more accurately. Also, does anyone have an opinion as to its gender distribution? My first impulse is to say that women do it more often. What well-known poets use the "poetry reading chant"? I'm not talking about all pretentious modes of reading poetry, only the particular chant in which every accented syllable is extended and sung at the same pitch, and the voice drops a perfect fifth for the unaccented syllables.

2 feb 2005

The law of sabbatical: tasks expand to fill the time allotted them.


Here's one of those near perfect David Shapiro poems:


It is the old show, but the young son can fly.
He sees pink and blue and red umbrellas in the air.
They teach him how to fly.
Of course the family does not see and has resentments.

One day at a snow party he tries to prove he can fly.
But he only leaps a bit and loses the jumping contest.
Then Father realizes son must enclose but a few electrons in his fist
Then son flies high above the family garage and trees, branch by branch.

There are no umbrellas, there are only frosty parachutes,
Little angels who instruct him how to fly.
He must not struggle too much with his hands,
Which having practiced the violin now dog-paddle in air.

High above the invigorated gulf the air walks down to its own road.
And sister jumps up in a dual column of wind.
Inside, Mother serves breakfast; the bluejay gulps at the feeding station.
The family now knows he can fly, but still father knows best.

1 feb 2005

Perloff: "... paradoxically, the poems of Bruce Andrews or Harryette Mullen are at one level more accessible to students than are those of W.B Yeats or Ezra Pound. For however scrambled an "experimental" poem may be--however non-syntactic nonlinear, or linguistically complex--it is, after all, written in the language of the present, which is to say the language of the students who are reading it."

She goes on to say "... the idea of teaching 'beyond the familiar canon' that I have been asked to discuss here is something of a mystery to me, because there is no longer a canon beyond which to go! At Stanford University ... we have English PhD candidates who have never read Keats' 'Ode on a Grecian Urn,' much less Milton's 'Lycidas.'"

"Teaching the New Poetries: The Case of Rae Armantrout."
A few recent gifts I should acknowledge here:

Several books from David Shapiro.

A new Carve, edited by Aaron Tieger. Contains poems by Anthony Robinson and others. Also a chapbook by Aaron in the same envelope.

A book by Rodney Koeneke entitled Rouge State..

And the interval between the high and low pitch of the poetry chant is a perfect fifth.