31 may 2005

Jose Lezama Lima : Selections (Poets for the Millennium)
Pierre Joris has a new blog, Nomadics. In a recent post, Pierre (and Jerry Rothenberg) answer Silliman's recent contention that Millennium II offers an implicit argument for Fluxus, and not the New American Poetry, as the central movement of our time. This will be an interesting debate to follow, although I hope it can be done without too much personal acrimony.

Millennium II reflects the personal perspectives of its two editors. How could it not? It is also markedly "United States centric," despite its international reach. That is, it touches on the work of many, many North American poets while viewing "foreign" poets much more selectively and through an inevitably American/European viewpoint.

I am not sure how "domestic policy" and "foreign policy" relate to each other in this debate. I don't think Ron is that concerned with international poetry very much at all, for one thing. But I suspect the disagreement has to do with "local politics" in a way I don't fully understand.

Several of my favorites, too, are missing from Millennium II. I won't list them because that is too easy a game to play. I hesitate to criticize the book at all, in fact. Let me just say that one writer I missed originally was José Lezama Lima, and I am happy to say that he is one of the "Poets for the Millennium" in a book series published by UC Press and edited by Pierre and Jerry. The editor of the Lezama volume is Ernesto Livón-Grosman. Check it out, it's a "Bemsha Swing Selection." Translations by Robert Tejada, Nathaniel Tarn, and James Irby, among others. (James Irby is Ken's brother, btw.)

28 may 2005

My own answers. I can't say how grateful I am to everyone who answered them. I won't say who wrote my favorite set of answers, because they all taught me something.

1. What is your sense of the poetic tradition? How far back does your particular historical sense range? What defines your tradition? Nationality, language, aesthetic posture? What aspect of your poetic idiolect or tradition most distinguishes you from your closest poetic collaborators?

A tradition is a fictional account of how we got where we are. In my case, the tradition is, in the first place, contemporary American poetry, especially the 5 orginal New York School Poets and their immediate followers. Clark Coolidge, David Shapiro. Secondly, the "great moderns"--Pessoa, Rilke, Stevens, Surrealism, Lezama Lima, Kavafy. In a larger sense, any artistic practice from any period of time that can be incorporated into the fictional account. I'm big on Joseph Cornell, the T'ang dynasty, and Japanese poetry. Being a scholar of Spanish poetry I have a whole 'nother tradition that I know fairly well. It isn't my tradition, exactly, though it is my field. When I write in Spanish directly I am still myself: I can't channel Lorca. American poetry is my tradition, especially American poetry inflected by French (not Spanish) poetry.

2. How would you define contemporary poetic practice? (Say, the typical poem that would be published alonside one of your in a magazine where you are published.) How does this practice relate to the tradition defined above? Does poetry of the "past" (however you define the past for these purposes) occupy a different corner of your mind?

Contemporary writing can only actualize a tiny fraction of the tradition. (This is true of any period, not just our own.) I believe in being a "schooled" poet, but a poem I might write may only show a tiny fraction of this schooling. There are no separate corners of the mind. The tradition is a creation of the present.

3. Whom, among poets you most admire, do you understand least? What is hindering a greater understanding of this poet?

José Lezama Lima. I have never invested the time in understanding his poetry and "poetic system." A little bit goes a long way. Generally, poets like Blake who carry around extra baggage. I admire such poets but do not understand them.

4. Are we over-invested in poetic "hero worship"? Is it necessary to have a poetic "pantheon"? How does the poetic pantheon relate to the notion of an academic "canon"? Are they mirror opposites, rivals?

I am definitely overinvested in the pantheon. A personal tradition or pantheon is an idiosyncratic account, whereas the academic canon is an institutional narrative. A poet who is important to me offers a constant source of renewal.

5. Is "total absorption in poetry" benign? How about "poetry as a way of life"?

Nick had a great response to this one. Maybe what I was getting at was a sense that poetry is so large we can never be devoted enough to it. Ars longa, vita breve, and all that. When I look at art or listen to music, that is still poetry.

All these questions are a single question.

6. Do you see poetry as a part of a larger "literature," or is poetry itself the more capacious categtory?

"Literature" means prose fiction, for a lot of people today. Poetry is older and includes more types of writing practice, though the contemporary tradition might only actualize a tiny fraction of these practices.

7. Are humor, irony, and wit (in whatever combination) a sine qua non? Or conversely, is humor a defense mechanism that more often than not protects us from what we really want to say?

I have trouble with "humorless" poets. Also, with jokey poets who never step out of that role. Humor has to do with a certain humility vis-a-vis the "tradition." We don't show all we know at every step. Frank O'Hara was more erudite than Anthony Hecht.

8. Is the poem the thing, or the larger poetic project?


The poem is the thing. I admire the discrete object "poem" in its jewel-like perfection. The poetic project is the narrative that allows the object to have meaning, "ever perfect / ever in itself renewing." you can't have one without the other.

9. What is the single most significant thing anyone has ever said about poetry?

This is a dumb question. How could anyone answer this? My own sense is that "ars longa, vita breve" might be the most significant possible insight. The life so short, the craft so long to learn. Poetry is bigger than any of us. A single lifetime is insufficient. Yet there are poets who manage to do it even dying young.

10. Which of these questions asks you to define yourself along lines of division not of your own making, in the most irksome way? How close do these questions come to the way in which you habitually think about poetry? What other question would you add to this list?

These questions come very close to how I think about poetry. I thought them up in the shower a few days ago. They are all versions of the same question, I realize as I try to answer them myself. (9) is the most irksome to me. (1) was the least popular, though the one I think the most about.
A late entry to the field, from Laurel at JewishyIrishy. I can't say I prefer one set of answers to another. At some point I'll have to answer them myself!

27 may 2005

I'm having a hard time keeping up with the responses. Here's one from <$Xvarenah$>
Silliman's Blog

25 may 2005

Odalisqued: 05/01/2005 - 05/31/2005
San Diego Poetry Guild: Synaesthetic Chortle (A Response to Jonathan Mayhew's
Le moi haissable II

I experienced a strange kind of snub yesterday. Someone in an email saying "I didn't know you wrote original poetry; I thought you were just a translator." I was hurt, because from my point of view this person SHOULD have known I was a poet. (My poetry might not be that "original" but that is harina de otro costal.) After all, I only know him in the context of poetry readings and from hanging out with poets. He had asked my opinion of his poems once, and I had offered a friendly critique, etc... I know he has seen my blog at least once or twice, because he mentioned it a few times, but I also know he is not a habitual reader of it or any other blog.

After thinking for a while the Snubber was a jerk (which is not true), I decided that I am REALLY bad at promoting myself. I feel an acute embarrassment at putting myself forward as a poet or talking about my own work. This reticence does not go well with the bruiseable "poet's ego." By being unassertive in the first place, I was in a way setting myself up for the inevitable "snub." I realize now that my self-effacement, far from being an efficient way of protecting myself, actually ends up leaving me more exposed to the obtuseness of well-meaning stranger/friends. Someone should write a book on "The Care and Feeding of the Poet's Ego."

It strikes me too that my impulse to say that the incident was not my fault and that the Snubber was not a jerk is itself too self-denying. I am still angry.

I sent out 4 or 5 batches of poems and translations yesterday. I can be rejected but at least nobody can say I never told them I was a poet.

24 may 2005

Growing Nation: Response to Jonathan Mayhew at the blog of the other Jordan.
Henry takes the exam. Hope you're feeling better soon, Henry!
Mayhew Poll at tributary.
Nick at fait accompli comes in strong with his answer to one of my questions of yesterday. I feel like this blogging "professor" leading a wonderful on-line discussion. The "students" in my class, however, just happen to be far wiser and more knowledgeable than the "professor."

23 may 2005

Le moi haissable

A couple of times I've wanted to comment on my own poem in The Hat, only to stop myself in acute embarrassment. Not because I don't think the poem is good, but because of Pascal's adage, "Le moi est haissable."
Pantaloons: Tykes on Poetry
Gary answers the questions. His excellent answers make me think the questions are good ones. Others at work on them, possibly, are Ron Silliman and Jack Kimball.
Expect, very soon, a self-published book entitled Fox of Gold,written and illustrated by a family member.


What is the editorial policy of the Hat anyway? Although I came close to stating it, according to one of its editors, I still don't know what it is. As far as I can tell, it's to make me a very happy person. Have I found poems I didn't like within its pages? Yes, but very few so far and those hardly worth mentioning. I can't read it it cover to cover anyway. I just browse randomly, frequently, and happily. More poems I've found (that I do like): Friedlander, "Museum," Rod Smith, "Ordinance Disposal Satellite." There is a dominant tone here, which John Latta astutely identified a few days ago. There is also a good deal of tonal variation. Coming upon Henry Gould's poem, I think: "yes poetry can still do that too."
Questions for Ron Silliman (and everyone else too)

1. What is your sense of the poetic tradition? How far back does your particular historical sense range? What defines your tradition? Nationality, language, aesthetic posture? What aspect of your poetic idiolect or tradition most distinguishes you from your closest poetic collaborators?

2. How would you define contemporary poetic practice? (Say, the typical poem that would be published alonside one of your in a magazine where you are published.) How does this practice relate to the tradition defined above? Does poetry of the "past" (however you define the past for these purposes) occupy a different corner of your mind?

3. Whom, among poets you most admire, do you understand least? What is hindering a greater understanding of this poet?

4. Are we over-invested in poetic "hero worship"? Is it necessary to have a poetic "pantheon"? How does the poetic pantheon relate to the notion of an academic "canon"? Are they mirror opposites, rivals?

5. Is "total absorption in poetry" benign? How about "poetry as a way of life"?

6. Do you see poetry as a part of a larger "literature," or is poetry itself the more capacious categtory?

7. Are humor, irony, and wit (in whatever combination) a sine qua non? Or conversely, is humor a defense mechanism that more often than not protects us from what we really want to say?

8. Is the poem the thing, or the larger poetic project?

9. What is the single most significant thing anyone has ever said about poetry?

10. Which of these questions asks you to define yourself along lines of division not of your own making, in the most irksome way? How close do these questions come to the way in which you habitually think about poetry? What other question would you add to this list?

22 may 2005

{lime tree}: What Is the Most Important Poetry?.

A nice response to one of the fearsome "Fulcrum" questions that Ron was addressing a few days ago. Kasey also is caught up short by the Pollock/Rothko/Warhol sentence.

Far from being anti-intellectual, his response is very intellectual. More so than this question deserves. I was amused that someone would think Ron was violating a copyright by re-printing these questions. Can one copyright a cliché? If I formulate a question like "What does poetry tell us about the human spiirit?", can I forbid all future uses of this question? Maybe I could charge royalties whenever anyone used the phrase "the human spirit."

What should the questions be?

20 may 2005

I am finding some good poems in the Hat #6. Rachel Loden, "Lesbianism," Maggie Nelson, "Thanksgiving 2003." Tony Towle, "A Sunny Day." H. Gould, "from Dove Street" (See the drawing that inspired this poem on Henry's blog). A poem by CA Conrad that begins "Robert Creeley cab / driver look / alike." They could do half of a Best American Poetry just from poems in the Hat. Why there's even David Lehman himself. Mario Milosevic! Sounds like a pen name, but I liked his poem "Compulsion." If only Sasha Frere Jones were poetry editor of the New Yorker.
Le châpeau est arrivé. C'est magnifique. Kit Robinson, Anselm Berrigan, Henry Gould, Tony Towle, Katie Degentesh, Nada Gordon, Gary Sullivan, K. Silem Mohammad.

My own contribution to this journal is a confessional, school of quietude poem, one section of which I wrote when I was 16.

Silliman's Blog: "... any history of American painting of the last century that doesn't put Warhol on the same plane ultimately with Pollock isn't credible, I would think, just as one that tried to place Rothko or Rauschenberg on that same plateau would not be credible."

I guess I just don't agree that there are these two planes, and that one's credibility depends on placing these painters on these two "planes" in the way that Silliman suggests. Rothko belongs on the same "plane" with Pollock and DeKooning and Fairfield Porter. Rauschenberg belongs on the same "plateau" as Warhol. I'm not saying that the respective merits of these painters cannot be debated. In fact, I'm saying that the respective merits of these figures should be debated, and that the results of this debate cannot be pre-empted with talk of a "credible" position. Ron's earlier dismissal of Rodin as Romantic Kitsch leads me to believe that he is not a credible guide to the visual arts.

The comment boxes in Ron's blog, by the way, are ridiculous. If I drew such a low caliber of comments I would cut them off in a heart beat. It might be a problem of having too many readers.
Olfactory poeetics from Language Log
Guy Davenport on O. Henry or Barthelme made me think of Borges. There is a distinctively Borgesian tone in Davenport's writing, that I didn't see until yesterday. That sly erudition and slippery voice that say "things are not what they seem."

Davenport, Creeley, Sontag, and Bellow all died recently. The last two names, however, resonated in the media in a way that the first two didn't. Of course, I have my own view of the respective merits of these four names.

What poets from Don Allen's New American Poetry went on to win significant mainstream prizes (Pulitzer, Nobel, National Book Award, etc...)? Snyder for Turtle Island, Ashbery for Self-Portrait come to mind. And Schuyler won a Pulitzer prize.

19 may 2005

My dream of Gary Sullivan, last night...

Gary had been appointed as some kind of special editor of the American Poetry Review. What was his actual title, I asked him? He said he didn't want to have an official title, because it would restrain his freedom. Also, his editorship was supposed to be a secret. Before, he explained, he has been "Geriatric Editor," but felt he needed a change because people associated that with old age (for some reason).
The Blogger's Code was is so last week. This week, the topic is the marketing of poetry. See this post at E l s e w h e r e and work your way backwards through Gary's links.
Leiter Reports: "It's an odd situation in America today: on one side, we have hordes of ignorant yahoos--driven by various forms of delusion and without any regard for reason or evidence--denying the foundation of modern biology, the theory of evolution by natural selection; on the other side, we have various social scientists, some ill-informed law professors, and a handful of biologists--driven by various forms of intellectual imperialism and with only slightly more regard for reason and evidence--advancing selectionist ('Darwinian') explanations for a wide range of human behaviors, even though these explanations systematically fail to meet the evidential standards well-established in the biological sciences."

18 may 2005

white scalloped pearl grey,

cumulus blown up periphery

skipped under sagebrush

in shadow-fragrant prarie

--Ronald Johnson

I've been very unfair, reading so much poetry, more than my fair shair. I should leave some for the rest of you, and done inestimable damage to my mental health. I promise to stop reading poetry that I don't really have to for my professional responsibilities and to be polite to my poet friends. I could read maybe one book every two months, or read only one or two poems of each book. I should give up the illusion that the secret of poetry is somehow available to me, if I only could find the 100 most significant poets and read their works until I understood the secret of each one. My actiivity seems all out of proportion, almost fetishistic in its obsessiveness. I try to justify myself with that Kenneth Koch line about total absorption in poetry being fairly benign. I'm not sure that's the case.


16 may 2005

Gary takes apart some poetry blurbs of pseudo-academic appeal and discusses the most effective approach to marketing comic books to retailers. (Happy anniversary, Gary and Nada.)

The "X poet dignifies his poetic project with an irreverent but sly nod to discontinuous contingencies of value" genre of blurbs never appealed to me, as a real honest-to-goodness academic who hates jargon and pretentiousness with all my heart. Blurbs have a limited range anyway. They have to be hyperbolic. "A few of Jonathan Mayhew's poems are not half-bad" does not quite do it. They have to try to say something descriptive in 15 words or less, something which is very hard to do. Then there's the fact that the blurber's name counts for more than what the actual description says. "Blah, blah, blah... --John Ashbery" Insert generic Ashbery blurb here.
I have plenty of hats, but not "The Hat," which everyone else in blogland seems to have on hand already. I'm sure mine will come in tomorrow's mail.

15 may 2005

Column A:

Ronald Johnson, Barbara Guest, Lorine Niedecker, Clark Coolidge, David Shapiro, Bernadette Mayer. . .

Column B:

Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, Mark Strand, Billy Collins, Richard Howard, Donald Hall, Dana Gioia...

It's not that every poem by any of the column As is superior to anything the B's might produce.

It's not that the names in column B are not worthy of some respect, or that Column A is uniformly beyond reproach. I don't even know that it's a question of conservatisim vs. "avant-garde." Is Ronald Johnson in the "avant-garde"? Who cares?

What is the difference then? For me, column A is a source of endless poetic renewal. I can go to school with these poets in the art of poetry. Column B are poets who enjoy success in the poetry world, who have earned a respected place in this world but whom I cannot accord the same degree of respect. I frequently find their poetry deeply flawed when not simply dull. I would find it odd that any young poet would admire such writers if he or she had read and studied work from Column A. This is what Tony Tost once kindly dubbed "Mayhew's Fallacy," that is, the tendency to extrapolate from my own views and think them unversal. Fallacy though it is, I cannot escape it.

I'd like to say that all this is purely a matter of quality. In other words, that I have no bias toward the avant-garde per se, but simply happen to find that these are better, more artistically accomplished poets, offering more fruitful aesthetic possibilities. Of course, nobody would believe me, since column B happens to include only poets of certain arbitrary categories. That seems a bit too convenient! From my own perspective, though, my preference does not seem "ideological," but simply the result of long years of study.

I could come up with a list in reverse, say, of poets I admire who are more "conservative" and "avant-garde" poets I don't like. If I think Elizabeth Bishop, Auden, and certain poems of Roethke, belong in the A column, part of Anne Waldman and a good chunk of Ginsberg after 1970 in the B column for example. One important point, though, is that Pinsky is no Auden, Knott is no Cavafy. In other words, it could be argued that the conservative poets of today are not even good even when measured by "conservative" standards.

14 may 2005

New poems over here.
Also in the APR this issue, Clayton Eshleman's translations of poems from Vallejo's Los heraldos negros. I have to say the translator gets Vallejo's voice with an almost eerie acumen, (to borrow a word from Efraín Kristal, who offers a brief introduction.) He should, since he has been working on Vallejo for many, many years. (Efraín, a colleague of mine from Grad School, is one of the most intimidatingly intelligent person I have ever known.) Eshleman's complete Vallejo is coming out in Fall 2006.

Vallejo is very hard to translate, because of his subtle logopeia. Tonal shifts that prefigure Ashbery, but with an emotional directness the polar opposite from JA's reticence.

13 may 2005

Jordan is a member in good standing in the David Shapiro fan club.


This time of year I always feel emotionally devastated, approaching the 5-year anniversary of my father's death on May 14. I just seem to sink lower and lower and my "Associate Professor Malaise" kicks in. A little evaluation letter from the Chair of my Department that we all get this time of year results the proverbial "death from a thousand cuts." It's not so much that it is an unfair or even predominately negative evaluation. I'm just someone who cannot take criticism at all. I have no resources at all to deal with it. I thought I could handle it this year but I was wrong. Usually I just try not to read these things. That usually works. I have to say, though, that APM is a disorder of the relatively privileged.
I took this quiz too. I had a hard time because most of the questions seemed nonsensical to me. That is, there was not enough substance to the question to merit an agreement or disagreement. I did the best I could anyway, and I came out as a postmodernist--which makes a whole lot of sense, since I HATE postmodernism. (I'd rather be a modernist). To me, a statement like "interpretation is an intrinsic feature of the fabric of the universe" is just meaningless. You have to assume that the universe has a fabric with certain features, some of which are intrinsic and others of which are not. That interpretation can be a feature of something, that we are in any meaningful position to know whether or not this is the case (or not). The same for "spirituality halts the progress of society" or "there is a spiritual side to being human." Agreeing with propositions like these is as absurd as disagreeing with them.

There ought to be another category for people like me, the Wittgensteinian cynic.

12 may 2005

I recommend John Yau's piece in the APR on O'Hara and Ashbery as art critics. (I don't think it's available on line). He takes issue with my friend Raphael Rubinstein, among others, who say their art criticism is not particularly great, and offers some reasons why it is. I've found some of JA's writing somewhat perfunctory, but Yau makes me want to go back for a second look.

[finishing this post a little bit later]

Ashbery's low-key prose style is criticized by one observer as not up to the level of Seamus Heaney or Derek Walcott.

Also in this piece the idea put forward by some more theoretical art historians that writing about art by such poets is "fustian." I'd rather read a fustian poet on art than Hal Foster or any other such theoretician. I don't even know what fustian means but sign me up for the fustians. I don't want to look it up in the dictionary because I'm afraid it might mean something like "vaguely poetic and unrigorous, effete and purplish, given to unreasonable flights of hyperbole, indolent and self-absorbed."

Yau makes the very good point that Frank O'Hara is erased from the present-day MOMA. You would think his work there would be advertised more prominently, promoted or memorialized in some way. They should have a Frank O'Hara room there, a Frank O'Hara floor. Frank O'Hara tee-shirts and, god forbid, BOOKS, in the gift shop.

A catalogue essay on Pollock, produced at MOMA, that doesn't so much as mention O'Hara as the author of the first monograph on the painter. Even if you disagree with everything Frank O'Hara wrote about Pollock, and think it "fustian" and irrelevant, you might at least mention it. Good point, JY.


I liked too Yau's essay on Creeley's collaborations, which accompanies a museum catalogue on these collaboration that I have left behind in Kansas for the semester (now the summer). He points to the abstract nature of Creeley's poetry. very far from WCW's insistence on concrete particulars. Creeley can be concrete as well, of course, but that abstract tone is what makes him more distinctive.

Note to self: read more of John Yau's poetry.
I commented like this over at Emily's blog:

"How a post on my own reluctance to criticize blogger poets became a post on 'the benefits of attacking other poets,' I don't know! I was not even being 'prescriptive,' but simply describing my own practice and the reasons behind it. I think there are two sorts of envy/competetiveness: against poets who are better, we might feel real envy. "I wish I could write like that." The envy of the success of mediocrity is more pernicious perhaps. To see mediocrity rewarded is deeply troubling, causes me an almost physical pain. I envy those who can stand by with equanimity.

To say we are not always fully conscious of our own motives is true enough. I am fully conscious, however, of this mixture of competitiveness and envy. It is something I think about a lot, in fact. To say negative criticism = competitiveness seems deeply reductive."

You can also read comments there by Nick, David, Emily, Julie, Jess, and Robert, among others.

Are there "benefits in attacking other poets"? Put so starkly, it would seem not. However, to rule out negative criticism is to rule out criticism itself. Such a move might also be the result of motives not wholly conscious. Who benefits from the absence of open, honest discussion?

11 may 2005

poesy galore : Competition: "I mean, please, ubiquitously-published poets, kick my ass."

Yes indeed. That is the point of all of this, isn't it? A competition we are better off losing. Well put.
The few times I've written formal book reviews of poetry books, I've gone out of my way to choose books that I already liked, by youngish writers. I'm not a professional book reviewer and can pick and choose what I want to write about. I didn't have to be dishonest and praise something I didn't really approve of. That being said, I think there is a place and a function for negative or "mixed" reviewing. I get impatient with a lack of truth telling. I've had the experience of struggling with a poet that everyone seems to agree is great. Finally, I ask a friend, is this is bad as I think it is? Yes, comes the answer. Then why is nobody saying it out loud? We all know it's crap, but there's a taboo against actually saying it. "They'll just say we're jealous or competitive; our motives will be distrusted. He's my friend, don't quote me on this. He's a nice guy, let him off the hook..." etc.. What's the harm in pretending so-and-so's a great poet? Who does it hurt?

One answer is that it brings the conversation out into the open. Why not debate each poet on his or her merits, rather than hiding the unpleasantness under the rug?

These taboos only protect established, "name" poets. Nobody fears the repercussions of panning some young unknown.
Patrick Durgin writes:

I'm not a blogger, but I'd like to leave a comment on the recent posts to Bemsha Swing.  & here it is:
"Since one of the most important divine attributes is infinity, both text and talk, the letter and the voice retain fluidity and remain limitless.  The same logic that not only safeguards but vehemently protests against the word becoming either flesh or spirit also upholds the equality of the exegete: adhering to signs, beginning and ending with the words it expounds, commentary emerges not as reduction or limitation but a way of reinscribing and expanding the parameters of memory and knowledge, perpetual source of possibility and recuperation."  -- Ammiel Alcalay on the Levantine tradition and its foreshadowing of "postmodernism." From _Memories of Our Future_."

10 may 2005

Rarely have I had the experience of picking up a book, by someone I had never heard of before (a rare event in and of itself), and knowing, just from the way THE PAGES SMELLED, that I was in the presence of true poetic greatness. This olfactory perception is, in these exceptional cases, 100% accurate, and makes the actual reading of the book somewhat otiose. A book that smells so complexly *American,* of lavender and uncured tobacco leaves, subtly modulated with baking soda, owl excrement, india ink, vanilla, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, ammonia, and the sweat of Tibetan monks, could not possibly fail to please the other senses as well. All of this, needless to say, while maintaining a complete artistic independence from the world of NATURE to which these rigorous aromas only SEEM to refer. It could be safely said that no other American poet of recent years, with the possible exception of myself of course, has such a highly developed poetic NOSE. Not even I have gone so far in the direction of olfactory "literalism." The anthologies of the future will have to find a way to preserve this "redolence" in a medium that, up until know, has privileged retrograde notions of "resonance" and visual "acuity."
tympan: The Blogger's Code?
"Impatience" By Rachel Hadas

Would it be possible for Pinsky to choose worse poems for Slate? (Except for the poems by my fellow bloggers, of course, which get the famous "blogger's pass"). Yes, there is indeed a level of poetic abjection even lower than Hadas and C.K Williams: the poems that readers post in Slate's "fray," mostly just plagiarized doggerel from what I can see. Instead of commenting on the crap RP chooses, the fraysters parasitically put up their own poems, then criticize one another for stealing horrible lines from other horrible poems.
Joel Sloman sends me the following information:

Born in Brooklyn, Joel Sloman was Joel Oppenheimer's first assistant director at the Poetry Project in 1966-1967, and was the first editor of The World. His books are Virgil's Machines (Norton, 1966), Stops (Zoland, 1997), and Cuban Journal (Zoland, 2000). He lives in Medford, Massachusetts, and works at MIT.

Apparently he is known to many of you already, but not to me. You can still send me information about any of the others listed on on the back cover of Sorrentino's book (see below).
Nominate your choice for special invited speaker for the poetics seminar in comments below. The special invited speaker must be:

1. Poet and/or distinguished scholar or critic.
2. If poet, also able to give a seminar in academic context. If not a poet, not too "academic."
3. Able to attract a crowd across more than one department.
4. Don't nominate [your name here]. You don't invite yourself. I invite you.
5. Not too expensive. I'm thinking of using my money to invite two lesser well known people, rather than splurging on one star. I was embarrassed how small the honorarium was one particular year, in relation to the huge name I was bringing.
6. Willing to come to Kansas.

I usually have a selfish motive for bringing in someone. Often someone I've had email contact with but who I've never met en persona. I do have some names in mind but I'd like to hear from the Bemshamites as well.

9 may 2005

The Hat. Get yours.
Much of Sorrentino's work is a brief against faux-hipness--the belief in one's superiority based on one's artistic taste or intellectual armature, especially when this taste is itself corrupt. Lunar Follies and The Moon in its Flight, which I'm reading now, certainly falls in this category, as does the much earlier Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things. While good art doesn't make you a better person, bad art is even worse, even more corrupting. Sorrentino would not be as brilliant a satirist if he weren't a kind of moralist underneath it all. Even the metafictional games have a "moral," like "don't confuse fakery with the real thing." All hipness is faux.

The poet/anti-hero of a Sorrentino novel or short story is often a talentless poet, or even worse a poet who has squandered his talent. He is a figure who has no gravitas. Someone I know once referred to someone we both knew with the phrase "Il n'est pas une personne sérieuse." At best, flimsy; at worst, rotten to the core. Sorrentino is one of the best reviewers as well. His essays bear a second look.

I worked a lot with Sorrentino when in Graduate School. He was not the type to waste time with a lot of small talk, or "to suffer fools gladly." You had to prove yourself. He had wonderful comments on my papers and was quite encouraging, helping me to get my first article published. He probably liked me in part because I knew my WCW; that at least gave me some credibility. Hell, I even knew my Sorrentino, though I never discussed his own work with him.

I am (re)reading GS (he is the "GS" in WCW's Paterson, by the way) because I fortuitously came upon some editions in Gotham Book Mart, then was almost coincidentally sent some review copies from Coffee House books shortly after.
Perhaps the best sestina ever written. I'll forgive KSM this *slight* exaggeration, given the generous sentiment behind this compliment. There are a few other sestinas that might be considered among the *best*. You know, by Arnaut Daniel, Dante, Petrarch, Auden, Ashbery, Carlos Germán Belli, Jaime Gil de Biedma, Elizabeth Bishop--just to name a few.
My own blogger's code says not to criticize the poetry of another blogger who is known to me primarily, or principally, as a blogger, and is not a quote unquote famous poet. That is, if Pinsky gets a blog, he is still fair game, but if I didn't happen to like a poem by [insert your name here] I wouldn't criticize it publicly.

The reasons are . . .

1) if you are a relatively unknown poet, young, old, or middle-aged, you probably get enough rejection or neglect anyway.

2) If you are mediocre and wise enough to know it already, you don't need me to tell you. If you're not wise enough, you'll just think I'm mean. Which I would be being in this case.

3) It is a cheap trick in an argument about some other substantive issue to say, "Yeah, but your poetry's no good either." Let's not go "there." Then you would point out I'm no Clark Coolidge myself, and so on.

4) Blogger solidarity. If you're a blogger and get a poem published in a nice place, I feel happy for you even if I think your poem is not one I would enjoy upon reading that same publication. It kind of falls into a different category for me.

I make no claims of virtue for this "code." I suspect many of you have some version of it, or maybe the issue doesn't even come up because you are much nicer than I am in the first place. I need it as a kind of "check" for my own occasional mean-spiritedness.

8 may 2005

From the back cover of Sorrentino's The Perfect Fiction (Norton 1968)

"Other Books of Poetry

All / the collected short poems 1923-1958 / Louis Zukofsky
All / the collected short poems 1956-1964 / L.Z
The Music / Helen Wolfert
Love Makes the Air Light / Raymond Roseliep
Plain Song / Jim Harrison
Nosequences / Christopher Middleton
A Beginning / William Burford
Virgil's Machines / Joel Sloman
The Dumbfounding / Margaret Avison
Necessities of Life / Adrienne Rich
Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law / A. R.
The Book of the Green Man / Ronald Johnson"

Information on Wolfert, Roselipe, Burford, Sloman, Avison?
A mother's day poem on Eagle's Wing.

6 may 2005

ArtsJournal: PostClassic: "Later I had another composition student who wrote an orchestra piece entirely on the C major scale, no sharps or flats. I once wrote an ensemble piece on the C major scale myself, and John Luther Adams has several lovely orchestra pieces using only the C major scale, one of them 70 minutes long and recorded on New World. I see no problem with this. But I let her finish the piece the way she wanted it, and then I said, 'Will you do me a favor'? 'What'? 'Transpose the piece up a half-step.' A couple of clicks in the notation software, and the piece was now in D-flat major. This time the performance passed without incident, the realization that there were no subsequent accidentals having come rather late in the game. I knew if a student of mine had turned in a piece using only the 'white' pitches, there would have been another investigation. "
Peter O'Leary Interview. Learning to write poetry word by word with Ronald Johnson. I don't know Peter's poetry. I plan to remedy that very soon.
Truly good writers like Ronald Johnson, by standing out from the crowd, setting a higher standard, provide a certain perspective on the work of other poets not-as-good. I don't mean to use him as a stick to beat up on any other poet, but I do believe that RJ offers all the benefits of traditional poetry--close attention to sound and sight, depth of insight, concentrated language. You know, if you like that sort of thing, poetry of great clarity and beauty that doesn't condescend to the reader. I don't mind looking up a few words in the dictionary.

5 may 2005

I could write a post every day just pointing to things I disagree with in Silliman's blog. I agree with him about 90% of the time, but there's always that other 10%. He writes a lot, so I wouldn't have any problem being a full-time Silliman refuter. I could find faulty sentences and ideas that could have been phrased better.

His problem is not, however, his dislike of Billy Collins, his lack of attention to poetry "itself," or his use of the SoQ label. He didn't invent the dichotomy. It's not his fault that so much of mainstream poetry is crap.
Yes, the evil dichotomizers are all on the avant-garde side. Mainstream poets never divide the poetry world into camps or factions. Oh no, that would be too similar to what Ron Silliman does, with his scandalous neglect of the poetic text itself. Mainstream poets represent poetry tout court. {French for "the whole tennis court") They have no ideogical agenda, but are just interested in the "text itself," enjoying poetry for its own sake, and overcoming the divisions. They are uniters not dividers. They stand for truth, beauty, and clarity. If an avant-garde poet (perhaps I should say arrière-garde; there is no avant-garde anymore: the modernists already did everything before anyway) complains about some imagined slight, some exclusionary logic, it is probably his fault for feeling slighted. There really is no difference between the avant-garde and the mainstream anyway; it's just who you hang out with--plus the fact that the avant-garde poets can't write clear and beautiful poems like the real poets do.

Adapting Minds - The MIT Press

This book looks like a plausible debunking of the weakly supported field of "evolutionary psychology," of which I've long been suspicious.
Suppose a debate rages all night long on the respective merits of Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. Although neither of the two participants in the debate dislikes either saxophone player, each has a strong preference for one style. At the end of the debate the factor of "taste" might enter, as a space for describing how ones individual central nervous system is better suited to listening to Coltrane or Rollins. One interlocutor might just say: "my central nervous system prefers to follow the architecture of construction of Rollins' solos, whereas yours prefers the hypnotic repetitions of Coltrane, let's leave it at that. I prefer the wit of Rollins, you identify with the more solemn tone of Coltrane." The discussion cannot really go any further because the participants have hit rock bottom. There's some irreducibly personal element not susceptible to more discussion.

On the other hand, if we change Sonny Rollins to Kenny G in the above example, the appeal to taste no longer works in the same way, because the terms up for debate are not even comparable in merit. Or if it's a clearly bad student poet who says "You don't like my work, but that's just your TASTE. I deserve an A in this class." The professor has to be able to say, look, it's not just taste; you have a long way to go as a writer. Would it make sense to say, "crappy student poems by inexpert writers are just not to my taste"? That might seem odd, but maybe it's an opening into something more fascinating:

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), the line between taste and judgment is impossible to demarcate so clearly. One woman's taste is another man's judgment. Some people even write "judgement" instead.

What if the debates were between proponents of Bukowski {spelling correct here?} and Updike? I can see how either could be seen as a very lousy writer or as a very good writer, with very good-sounding reasons on all four sides of the debate. There might even be someone with the genius for finding the merit in crappy undergraduate poems--maybe a comix artist who could find the exact images to create a kitschy classic out of them. There is a certain genius in recontextualizing, but that's perhaps fodder for another post.

4 may 2005

{lime tree}: Taste Tests?. I'll have to think about this a bit more. I am sleepy and am going to take a shower and go to bed.
I found the negative review of Gary's brilliant Elsewhere #1 to be rather oddly non-comprehending. It was as though Spurgeon never quite got into the rhythm of Gary's world. I'm no comics maven, what do I know? I read the book in the tradition of the "poet's comic." I'm assuming the faux-manga ink-work and choppy rhythms--which complement each other perfectly, by the way--were deliberate, not the product of an immature artist.
When one re-remembers a memorized poem, one does not have to have the entire poem in mind at a single instant of time. Rather, the poem unfolds through time, just as it does when reading from a page. One is in a sense "reading" the poem from the memory. For example, I might not know the couplet of a Shakespearian sonnet until I get there. (Give me the first line of the sonnet and I can give you the second line, but to give you the concluding couplet, I would have to go through the entire thing in my head until I got there.) Memorization involves a complex relationship to ongoing duration. If you're interested in that kind of thing.

In fact, the human experience of the "present" always involves "just having been there" and "where I am about to be" as well as "where I am now." The present is the cusp; it hardly exists except as a sense of time passing, of duration and ongoing measure. Rhythm only works in time. It cannot function as a series of isolate flecks. I don't want to fetishize memorization, because I have to respect that fact that some people simply aren't memorizers. They simply don't relate to poetry in that way, and I'm not about to criticize them for that, much as I fail to understand them.
If you agree with me, but using language I don't at all identify with, you will convince me I'm wrong. As I read Silliman's blog each morning, I come to distrust more and more my own propensity to invest in rankings and hierarchies. [It's not so much that I disagree with Ron's invididual judgments, but that they are often stated as applications of a categorical rule. (His suspicion that memorizing poetry takes one out of the Buddhist here-and-now is an oversimplification, at best. An attempt to make a categorical statement based on his own propensities. {For me, the memorization of poetry is an involuntary act, for example, you teach a poem and at the end of the class period, you find you have it memorized. Music when soft voices die vibrates in the memory. I wouldn't want to disparage non-memorizers of poetry based on my own feeling that memory is essential to the entire process of understanding poetry.})]

On the other hand, I reject what I perceive as the easy way out, simply saying "de gustibus non est disputandum." Debates about "taste" are the only debates worth having here at Bemsha Swing. That's the whole reason Bemsha Swing exists. Individual taste should only be invoked as a last resort, not as a way to forestall discussion. It is a kind of strategic withdrawal from debate, necessary at times, but not a good starting point.

3 may 2005

For some people the hierarchy of aesthetic values IS the main point. Far from being a damaging distraction, the way Art lends itself to being categorized and RANKED is precisely what gives it its value. For such people, if there is no way of answering the question "how good is it? is it better than ...?" the game cannot be played at all. The criteria for deciding that THIS is better or worse than THAT have to be extremely arbitrary and difficult to apply--otherwise any fool would be able to tell the good from the bad.

You gotta problem with that? I do. I'm not saying I don't have my own hierarchies, (and they're better than yours, don't forget!), but they often get in my way. I'd like to dismantle them, not systematize them, or "reify" them as we used to say in grad school. My prejudices don't make me better than I would be without 'em.

So anything goes? Not really. Blandly accepting everything as more or less equal does no good either, because it's a lie. I don't have a solution to this aporia. I'll keep thinking about it.

2 may 2005

Here's some names and titles you don't want to spell wrong:

Thelonious Monk (not "Thelonius")

Ashbery (not "Ashberry")

Allen Ginsberg (not "Alan")

The Waste Land (not "The Wasteland")

Finnegans Wake (not "Finnegan's Wake")

Zukofsky (not "Zukovsky")

Jonathan (not Johnathan, Jonathon...)

Kasey Silem Mohammad (I think that's right, at least)

Jackson Pollock (not Pollack)

Usually, when someone hasn't taken the time to learn the correct spelling of the author or title, the person's opinion is not likely to be worth very much. For example, I myself misspelled Zukofsky's name a while back, and I don't really know very much about him. I wouldn't dream of talking about Robert "Creely" or John "Ashberry" --poets I do know quite a bit about. I obviously know very little about Solshenitzen.

UPDATE: when someone leaves an offensive comment, I have to hide the whole thread, including other more productive comments. This is not a blog for 13-year olds proud of their ability to spout obscenities.

Sorry for the visual chaos. I am trying to teach myself these basic things.
I'm trying to get these colors changed on this template. I can find html codes for various colors, but am having a hard time deciphering where in the template to insert the colors I want. I really should be a better web designer, though I usually give it no thought.
Leo wrote a play once, very flimsy. I told him so and he told me that I didn't know anything about the theater. Who does? I don't trust a verbal art in which the language is held in contempt. Even the dance is better if you can bear to put up with all those symbolic twists and floor stampings... Actors think they know something. Have you ever talked to an actor? It's like calling up Dial-A-Prayer. This is very intolerant, but who can care about an audience?--which they do.

Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things
I don't like anonymous comments. Unfortunately I don't seem to have a capacity for deleting comments. I try, and the comment just stays there. If you are not a blogger user you can still log on anonymously and just "sign" your name below your comment. This is my rule for comments, but I have no way of enforcing it until I can figure out how to delete comments--unless I hide comments for an entire post. So the rule will have to be enforced on the honor system. I doubt the commenter on the post below would have been so condescending if he (or she) hadn't been anonymous.

1 may 2005

'Lunar Follies'
I received Ben Lerner's The Lichtenberg Figures (Coppercanyon Press) several months ago. Since it arrived when I was being inundated with other books, I put it on my shelf and forgot about it. Now, opening it up at random, I find a poem dedicated to Ronald Johnson, whom I have also been reading. Not only that, but the guy (Ben) is really, really good. Witty and humorous, and with a serious sense of surprise, a shifty way of modulating tone. There's not a boring line in the book, that I can see. It's much better than the average book that crosses my desk. I wasn't expecting Copper Canyon to come up with something this hip and intelligent. (It's undoubtedly the C.D. Wright connection that explains this.) Another Kansas poet, Ben Lerner! (He's from Topeka.)

I almost didn't want to blog about this book because I felt some serious envy. Supressing my reaction wouldn't make my poetry any better, though. I liked the poem that began

"Your child lacks a credible god-term, a jargon of ultimacy.
He fails to distinguish between illusion (Schein) and beautiful illusion (schöner Schein).
He is inept and unattractive."

All the poems have 14 lines, I believe. None has a title, and there is no table of contents. I'm very sorry that I didn't start reading this book before. A free review copy, no less! I shouldn't undervalue what I get free of charge. I feel like an ingrate.

This is definitely a selection for the "Bemsha Swing Reading Club." They should put little stickers on the books: "As seen on Silliman's blog," "A Bemsha Swing Selection." "An Equanimity Book."