31 jul 2005

Back from San Francisco/San José. I didn't see anyone poetry related except for Kevin Killian, who set us up with some tickets to the Tuttle show at the SFMOMA. I did go to City Lights, where I picked up some Ron Silliman books--Toner and N/O. Curiously enough the former has a blurb by Kevin Killian and what appears to be Ron's own signature in it. A copy of Creeley's Presences in what appears to be the orginal Scribner's edition from the 1970s. I got it for the 1970s price--$7.50. Maybe it's a second printing or something? Otherwise it seems like a "steal."

25 jul 2005


The hardworking staff of Bemsha Swing will be taking a brief hiatus from the blog until August 1. We will also be likely to be away from email after tomorrow. Comments will be temporarily disabled until I'm back. Sorry to interrupt any hot threads going on now. If you want to reach us in the next week, email me now or tomorrow before noon and I will give you the top secret cell-phone number.

24 jul 2005

Just a brief guide to some major hitters in LA poetry:

Vallejo. (Perú). He's perhaps the greatest Latin American poet of the century. Most people who know what they're talking about think he's superior to Neruda. No "duende." Eshleman's the major translator here.

Neruda. (Chile). A great virtuoso poet of many styles. The "Residencias" are his greatest works. After that, he wrote very unevenly. The most widely translated and popular LA poet.

Borges. (Argentina). He's the great "conservative" poet of the period. He rejected the avant-garde style of his first books. But did he really?

Lezama Lima (Cuba). The founder of the Cuban neo-baroque style. See Ernesto Grosman's recent book of translations (edited by him, with translations by other hands).

Paz. (Mexico). Think of him as the "High Modernist" Eliotic poet of Latin America.


Guillén. Brought Afro-Cuban consciousness to Cuban poetry.

Huidobro (Chile). Fierce enemy of Neruda. Think of him as the doctrinaire "avant-garde" poet, follower and instigator of all the "ismos."

Parra (Chile). Founder of "anti-poesía," a style opposed to the grandiloquence of Neruda. HUGELY influential.

Cardenal. (Nicaragua). Politically active poet associated with the Sandinista movement.


There are many, many more names to be reckoned with: Gelman, Varela, Rojas, Zurita. The ones I list are simply the most "canonical." I've listed them in approximate order of my own preference + overall importance. The Venezualan poets are very good. María Auxiliadora Alvarez, for example. But for some reason no Venezualan poet has achieved quite the contintental or international renombre as the most prominent Mexican, Chilean, Cuban, and Argentine poets.

23 jul 2005

PROFOUND THOUGHT OF THE DAY: I saw someone shooting baskets at the gym the other day, very awkwardly. Not quite as awkward as I am, but pretty close. (I never learned to shoot a baskeet properly.) Anyway, I was thinking: what is awkwardness anyway? I wouldn't have been able to describe just what about the motion was awkward. Did I already have to be familiar with what a smooth motion looks like to define this other motion as awkward? Or was awkwardness inherent in the motion itself? This seems to be a very basic aesthetic judgment, one that even a little kid could make.
The great thing about reading for aesthetic ideology is that you get to give mediocre crap by your friends a free pass. "You" is often one of your friends.
"This work demonstrates an allegiance to the principles by which I and my work live, therefore viva our team."
That's what I hate about poetry (what I'm trying to train myself out of).

I'm guilty of this too, to a degree. You can't avoid a certain gregariousness that is more inclusive, even of a certain amount of poetry that is "mediocre crap." I'll never hypocritically single out a poem I think is mediocre for praise.

22 jul 2005

Think of all poetry written in English in the twentieth century, in the U.S. and the British Isles and elsewhere. We have Pound, Eliot, and Auden, Zukofksy, Yeats, H.D., Stein, Larkin, Heaney, Langston Hughes and Ted Hughes, Sharon Olds, Susan Howe, Ron Silliman, Ted Hughes.

Ok, now think of a single word or concept that would encompass all of this. You know, "English-language poetry with its typical _______."

That should be easy, right? I certainly couldn't do it.

Now think of poetry written in Spanish during the same period. We also have more than one continent. Within Spansh America, we have several distinctive regions: the Southern Cone, the Andes, the Carribean, Mexico, Central America. We have avant-garde movements and neo-conservative reactions on both continents. There is politically engaged poetry and poetry that is written in opposition to this engagement. Poets who hated each other, like Jiménez and Neruda with their famous feud. I won't say there's as much variety as in English speaking poetry, but only because I don't know how to quantify such a thing.

Do you see where I'm going here?
What do you call Fra Angelico robbing a bank?

Felonious Monk.
He has it wrong... Maybe so. I often am wrong. The original context of this was that I personally, as a writer, would not use a tired phrase like "wander the earth" without some self-awareness that this was indeed a tired phrase. I would never rule out all un-ironic or "sincere" uses of language in poetry. As for that, there is plenty of "Old Sincerity" still out there. Isn't that what Louise Glück does? There's a solemnity untempered by sensitivity to tone. These people don't listen to themselves. They aren't aware of how they sound.

21 jul 2005

Hot eclecticism at {lime tree}. I guess my reaction is Yes! The jazz analogy works great. I remember reading a Sharon Olds poem in one of the BAPS and thinking: this isn't so bad. In other words, I didn't think it was the poetic equivalent of Kenny G. (For the record Kenny G=Billy Colllins.) I didn't have to stretch too far to see Olds as a legitimate poet who just happens to be on the other side of an aribtrary and artificial socio-political division. That's what Jordan was saying too. Whereas other SoQ poets make me think: no, this division is real and tangible. I agree with Kasey about the contextualization, with one caveat. Sometimes the divisions are misleading. For example, why is Denise Levertov acceptable whereas Ammons is not, in certain circles? Is it a difference in their poetry, or in the social groupettos to which they belong?
Was delighted to learn that "Iambic Pentameter" was an alternate title for "Epistrophy."
What I'm trying to say is that I need the poetic speaker's voice to be self-aware. If I'm going to write something like "Many times I have pleaded with Apollo for respite from my troubles," it's going to have an ironic edge to it. I don't think anyone can manage that kind of thing "straight." Of course, there are about hundred tonalities of irony available for the task. Mock-heroic, campy, faux-naif, detached, paranoid, deadpan dry, over-eager, "teen-age sarcastic," Proustian-aristocratic, proletarian, mock-sincere. (Well, that's 11 just off the top of my head.) Since irony arises from a clash of opposing perspectives, any two perspectives can enter into productive tension.
Jordan on Glûck. Isn't the problem here a certain tone-deafness? Both the 3rd person narrator and the Greek Goddess Demeter speak in a stiff, hyper-literary "poetic diction." Yet the reference to a "politician" rings totally false. You can't imagine anyone saying these lines. The language is tired. "wandering the earth." "She has no wish / to continue as the source of life." "Tell me, how can I endure the earth." Yet this diction is forced to do all the poetic heavy lifting. Glück has lost her ear for verse rhythms and the images are out of focus.
It's not the quiet that puts me off, it's the sedated quality of so much mainstream work; I'm guessing it's the effect of too much revision.

Maybe so. I've often thought the same thing. I'm uneasy when a poem works the first time. Shouldn't I revise it? Isn't that what the real poets do? Sometimes a correction will occur to me as I look something over, but I rarely subject a poem to endless rewriting. I'd rather just start anew. I guess revision could work in the opposite direction--toward greater roughness--but it tends toward the elimination of "mistakes" that might be productive.


Profound thought of the day:

My hands know that the words "greatest" can be typed using only the left hand. Yet my mind does not know this. In fact, my hands know where all the letters of the alphabet are on the keyboard. But "I" do not know this. If I want to know, I consult my hands. They can tell me.

20 jul 2005

I've written "North of the Sunset," "Little Rootie Tootie," and "Humph" recently, not to mention "Misterioso" and "Monk's Mood." The slow ballads are giving me some trouble. Too much pressure. I used my poetry amnesia idea in the "Green Chimneys" section.

I know I said discussions of process were dull. That's true. But I've found out a few interesting things while writing this long poem. Since the sections appear in alphabetical order, but I am not composing them in this order, the poem is developing "internally". For example, I wrote several sections using as similar voice or technique in the past few days, but they appear scattered in different places in the poem. The reader won't be able to tell what order the poems were written in, so this development is largely invisible.

.Also, I am not using all 70 titles of Monk's compositions, so I also have certain freedom to shape the sequence without "forcing the issue." When I get an idea for a poem that might be part of this sequence, I can see what title it matches up with best.

I once abandoned a similar project because I couldn't get any "traction." it was to be called "How I Wrote Certain of My Books." Maybe I'll come back to it some day.

The riddle has still not been solved: "What do you call Fra Angelico robbing a bank?"

19 jul 2005

In other news, Gary steals "my" title. Thanks a lot! Actually, though, I'm thinking it would be a good title for my amnesia/aphasia novelette. The first book my hero could pick up would be The Tennis Court Oath. I went to the gym and they were having an aphasia conference, apparently (that's what the sign said). That inspired the line "At the aphasia conference, I couldn't make myself understood."
{lime tree}: Would You Still Climb Everest if There Were No There There?: "Someone might object that this discounts the possibility that some readers could find that they value poets from both ends of the spectrum equally. Sure, there could be such readers. There are probably also people who identify politically with both Noam Chomsky and Ann Coulter. These people are confused."

18 jul 2005

What if I woke up one day with amnesia and tried to figure out what all these poetry books are doing here... Suppose I had all the normal mental facilities, was able to drive a car and order in a restaurant, but that I had no specific knowledge of the contents of any of the book, or of poetry specifically.
I'm looking forward to my San Francisco trip next week.
For example, C. Dale Young's lines about You weigh me down / like generic hairspray... I like these lines more than I do any poem by [insert here the name of some poet you think I probably don't like but that you think C. Dale probably likes]. The simile is fresh and smart and the sentiment genuine. It's like a parody of one of those bad hardboiled styles ("She clung on me like cheap perfume...") C. Dale can only look back and think how bad his poetry used to be, whereas if I were to read these lines in an on-line poetry magazine named after a certain hair product they wouldn't be out of place at all.
Speaking of dull writers and their writing processes. Jordan likes this poem, and indeed it is very likeable. An engaging fantasy of poetic celebrity and ambition. I have to ask, though, what this fantasy of having the flight attendants take interest in his "writing process" really says? (The narcissism of this is quite incredible, once you get past the likeability.) Like when I'm on the plane, my fantasy is to have a flight attendant recognize me. "Aren't you Jonathan Mayhew, from the Bemsha Swing blog? Do you write in the morning or the night?" And of course he has to place the process of writing in some stereotypically meditative setting and end the poem with a godamn nature image. Couldn't you just see that coming? Fucking swans? Since this is from the "humor" issue, I sure hope he's making fun of himself.
Discussions of the process of writing can be dull, because the real question behind the question is, "Where does it all come from?" They might be interesting if they addressed that question more directly. Discussions of how poems might best be arranged in manuscripts are also inherently dull. Should you divide the manuscript into different sections? Roman or arabic numerals? Arrange the poems into chronological or alphabetical order? Anyone up for a debate about the ideal Selected Poems of Charles Olson? A Master's Thesis on the order of poems in James Tate collections?

It's not that these questions lack all importance or relevance, but that the results usually end up being mighty banal. Could any reader actually tell whether a James Tate collection had been "shaped" in a particular way or simply thrown together? Of course MY books of poetry are arranged according to a secret method that I will never reveal.

There was a time I would have been keenly interested in discussions of the mechanics of process. But of course the real process takes place in the brain, not on paper or on the computer, not with pen or typewriter.

Oh, another thing. I'm not interested in seeing your drafts on line. I'm not at all interested in the fact that your first and second versions of your clumsy poem are even clumsier than the "finished product." "Yes, I took out that word because it seemed quite unnecessary." Nobody cares to see what your woodworking project looked like before you sanded it.

On the other hand, when an interesting writer like Gary talks about his process of developing projects he is interesting. I'ts like when Fairfield Porter said: "If you are vain, it is vain to sign your paintings and vain not to sign them. If you are not vain, it is not vain to sign your paintings and not vain not to sign them."

17 jul 2005

jane dark's sugarhigh!: The Future of Poetry, etc

When I submitted my first and only "religious" poem to The Hat, it never occured to me that it would fit right in with the rest of the issue. I was sending it there because I didn't want to send them a New York School, jokey poem, coals to Newcastle and all that. Of course, there are poems of this type in the issue too. Just saying...
pseudopodium.org: " Holbo seems -- as a civilian, I'm sure I oversimplify -- to define it as a self-contradictory mutually-supporting set of incoherent arguments from indefensible premises."
pseudopodium.org: " 'Theory' is not a necessary condition for worthless blather."

16 jul 2005

I keep wanting to react to this post at Cahiers de Corey. I'm not sure why I care particularly, since I'm not Jewish, but I can't go along with the reduction of the Jewish ethical tradition to a series of negative prohibitions, "thou shalt nots." It seems a little strange to me that Josh associates Christianity with a lot of vibrant popculture spiritual phenomena (Narnia!) while being so cut off from his own tradition--Judaism--that he is somehow unable to recognize Levinas as the specifically Jewish philosopher he is. After describing Levinas's conflation of ethics and transcendence, Josh says that he distrusts this conflation because of his own "latent Judaism." Maybe I'm misreading the argument here? It would seem that he could put Levinas (and kristeva for that matter) in his own list of Jewish writers like Benjamin, Kafka, Adorno, Jabès...
There is a particular kind of emotion, or tonality, that I associate with the writing of Heidegger--and yet another such particularized feeling I get from Wittgenstein. When I started that whole "poetry is a form of thinking" discussion last week, it didn't occur to me that a lot of people think of "thinking" as the opposite of something else called "feeling." Ideas are not inherently dissociated from emotions, for me. Maybe that's why I don't think of philosophy as dry or abstract--or separate from poetry. I don't do that whole head/heart split.

15 jul 2005

I love submission guidelines for journals that say: "Do not mix genres in the same envelope."
Silliman on Lawrence poetry, featuring a picture I shot using Jordan's camera.

14 jul 2005

Fra Angelico robbing a bank?
I've completed a few more sections of the Monk poem. I have 8 sections written, though ironically I had to scrap the Bemsha Swing section when I discovered on re-reading it that it was no good. I'm working on "Ugly Beauty" today. It strikes me that the phrase has two meanings. "It seems beautiful, yes, but it's a really "ugly" kind of beauty." Or, what seems ugly is really beautiful.

I also came across a line from Ashbery that I want to use as a title for a poem: THE CLEAN FART GENITAL ENTHUSIASTIC TOE PRICK ALBUM SERIOUS EVENING FLAMES.

Unfortunately no poem could be as good as that title, so I probably won't be able to use it.

I'm using the phrase "Poems Retrieved" as the tentative title for my second manuscript. Does that sound too presumptuous? I guess I could say "Poems Retrieved (Tentative Title)," which would be much worse. I'd hate to have someone 20 years from now order the book by mistake on the internet and find out it's not by Frank O'Hara.
I was at a poetry reading in a dream early this morning. The poet--a blogger I don't want to name for obvious reasons--was reading in a kind of pub with all the lights turned off. I was trying desperately to stay awake but kept dozing off on the bed that was conveniently there in the pub. I kept trying to get someone to turn on the lights. I kept thinking: "if they really want people to stay awake for these readings they should not have beds and the lights off."

13 jul 2005

That kind of post I just wrote (right below) must seem like the dullest kind of shop talk. Who cares about the size of our packages of poetry? I'd be just as happy with 200 pages of Rachel Loden at a time.
I'm a little burnt out with the journals. After a while, there is a certain sameness that seeps in: the white noise of the contemporary that makes it hard to hear yourself thinking above the din. I don't know how journal editors do it, reading lots of poetry like that. Maybe if you do enough of it, you can tune out the noise and hear what's really going on.

Rachel Loden's Richard Nixon Snow Globe has arrived. I wish I'd thought of that title! It's a excellent chapbook with a unified feel to it, and made me think that the chapbook is the form I'd really like to work in. That is, that's the ideal length for reading and writing poetry. Not the 60-80 page "full length" collection. So portable and elegant. It works for Jess Mynes and Rachel Loden (two very different poets needless to say), and I think it would work for me. I can see that there are poets who might feel constrained by this length, that they could not make the case for their poetry in only 25 pages. Maybe I'm just lazy because I have almost 30 pages in a new manuscript and want to bring it to a conclusion.
I'm blogging over at The Valve this week as a guest contributor for the Theory's Empire discussion, at the kind invitation of John Holbo.
{lime tree}: What Does Poetry Mean? Pt. 3. Kasey is on his game here. Don't miss it.

12 jul 2005

stamped and metered flying fish, a new blog (to me) jumps into the conversation.
What if I said "The Red Wheelbarrow" was a paraphrase of some other poem, or of some other text that we didn't have access to? That the real meaning of the poem was expressed in this other text, and that the task of criticism was a search for the real "Red Wheelbarrow." You'd probably say, well, what's wrong with the poem we have in front of us?

What if the paraphrase turned out to be another poem, also in need of paraphrase? Wouldn't we be getting further away from the meaning of the poem? (Not the meaning of the poem, but the poem's own meaning.)

11 jul 2005

I really do love meaning. Nothing of what I love in poetry strays very far from the orbit of meaning. For example, I don't read poetry in languages that I do not understand at all. Neither do you, most probably. Even pure sound in poetry takes place in a meaningful context. That is, it cannot be "heard" separately from the understanding of the words. I know this because of learning a foreign language and watching myself be able to hear it better the more I understood it.
I'm kind of stuck on the "Brilliant Corners" section of Monk fake book poem. The title seems too overdetermined. There's even a magazine with that title devoted to jazz and literature. (I hate "jazz and literature," don't you?) I did come up with a "Blue Monk" section and a "Boo Boo's Birthday," along with "Epistrophy" and "Bemsha Swing" and "Well You Needn't." One rule I've set for myself is that each section has to be written as a different kind of poem from any other section. In other words, I'm not going to just go through and write the whole thing in the same "mode." Here's "Boo Boo's Birthday":

I don't need your sanctimonious condescension. Not any more!


Taking / a small child places, / places where she needs / to go.


I love meaning.
ArtsJournal: PostClassic: "
I remember that when I was young I once nurtured an ambition to be known as the world's smartest and most knowledgeable musician. Today that seems laughably perverse, like wanting to be the world's tallest locksmith, or the world's fastest-swimming accountant. Life has taken a tremendous toll on my memory, and I seem to no longer understand the complicated theories and philosophical positions I did when I was young. And I keep getting this eerie feeling that every decline in my intellectual abilities is accompanied by an improvement in my music. "
Jordan joins the paraphrase game. I can't wait for those paraphrases from Solution Passage.
Or spozin I wrote out a paraphrase before I wrote the poem. I wouldn't do this of course, but I supposing I did versify some more abstract content I had arrived at before the fact. That would be interesting precisely because it is so foreign to the way we think about poetry nowadays. There would be two texts, in a certain relationship to each other. It would be rash to conclude that the first text was the "intentional meaning" of the second.
The Cream Filled Donut Theory of Poetic Meaning.

It's interesting, because I was thinking, after writing my original post, that I have used paraphrase in teaching and in writing about poetry. That is, I think it perfectly legitimate to say, "give me a paraphrase of this poem," in other words, an approximation of what you gather to be the semantic nugget of this text. After all, we all do, when reading poetry, formulate some sort of interpretation that, if verbalized, can be a useful heuristic tool for discussing the poem. The fallacy would be in overestimating the significance of some stand-alone paraphrase, which can not be either defiinitive or adequate. The verbal structure of the paraphrase itself can get in the way. Arriving at an adequate paraphrase is not the end goal. It is simply a tool. I cannot even say that it is one that should always be used.

How would I paraphrase this text?:


I can walk through only one park at a time. There is no danger of it turning into another park. Its borders are secure. No, it's not that:

The parks are separated by non-park-like expanses. Each park has its own rules. I don't think about the rules of the park I'm not in. That's what I call "parsimony." There is little danger of accidentally obeying a rule from another park. No one would think about it like that. Me least of all.

Obeying a rule is not an emphatic gesture, like reaching for a weapon at a predictable point in the story. There are no weapons allowed in most of the parks, unless you count shoe-laces and sand.

When in doubt I obey a code of my own devising; its prohibitions are scarcely onerous. I pass through unnoticed, through the park. Whichever park it happens to be.

The non-park-like expanses are governed by other laws. I am not thinking about them, in the park.


I am the author, so I presumably have some insight into the meanings were intended here. I know what the poem is "about," following rules, whether consciously or unconsciously. Yet there are many things I don't know about the poem either. Is the speaker a conformist, obsessed by obeying the law but trying to seem more nonchalant about it? Or is he (or she?) a kind of lost soul, for whom these imaginary rules serve as a kind of spurious security? Does the poet view these park rules as repressive or comforting? Do the parks seem like safe havens or dangerous terrains? Why does the speaker not name the city streets that come between the parks, resorting instead to the euphemism "non-park-like expanses." What is the relation of this poem to Thelonious Monk and the Monk title phrase "Well you needn't"? There are a lot of questions that I could answer, but no better than any other reader of the poem. Two readers might come up with separate paraphrases and then use them to argue about what "I" really meant.

UPDATE: Another variable I have no control over, as author, is whether the poem is compelling enough to even provoke a reader's curiosity.

10 jul 2005

I've added Shafer Hall to the blogroll. Shafer was kind enough to allow me to "sit in" at a reading a few months ago at the Four Faced Liar in the Village.
Most of Monk's compositions are not conventionally good vehicles for jazz improvisation. The slower ballads are especially recalcitrant to simple blowing over the changes, and are not really played that much by other musicians. I'm thinking of "Crepuscule for Nellie" or "Pannonica," or even "Ruby, My Dear." The many blues and blues-like compositions and certain up-tempo numbers are played more often: "Straight No Chaser," "Well You Needn't," or even "Bemsha Swing," from where this blog got its name. "Round Midnght" may be the most familiar tune in the Monk book.

Another fascinating aspect is how quickly simplicity can change to complexity. There are compositions like "Thelonious" that are barely more than one note. Yet his music can be extremely difficult to play correctly. This is a composer's music, and the compositions themselves can get in the way of certain standard jazz practices. You can see critics complaining about the repetitions and the monotonous format in the Monk discography in the Columbia years. Yet most of the tunes he wrote appear only a few times, and some only once.

I feel I understand so little about this music, and don't even quite understand my own fascination with it. Certainly his approach to rhythm is quite distinctive, and quite distinct from the bebop norm. The harmonies are wonderfully angular as well. Then there's the peculiar sound and technique of his piano playing.
It is precisely because I haven't considered myself a "career poet" until fairly recently that I am putting more attention right now into "career building and maintenance." I have published exactly 4 poems in the last twenty years--not counting a few internet things here and there--beginning in 2004. I have participated in maybe 3 poetry readings after my college days. I don't have a book of poetry or even a chapbook. This Spring and summer I launched a concerted effort to publish more poetry and be considered a real poet. I have had a few acceptances in magazines I like, along with the inevitable rejections. I am grateful to those who have rejected my poems but offered words of encouragement along with the rejections; also to those who have accepted work. It still feels weird to me to call myself a poet. I don't like all that career and ego baggage that goes along with it, but on the other hand I like to feel like a member of the guild rather than someone "hanging around but not attending a school" or "almost being friends with someone."

To recognize myself as a member of a "school" is simply to point out that, however unique I am as a poet, my work is written in a context that includes many other poets who, to any objective observer, might seem somewhat similar to me. I don't like making a spurious claims to individuality. What individuality I do have will emerge even in my most derivative work. I don't need to force the issue.

9 jul 2005

Keeping Nick up until 2:45 a.m.!
How does a poem come into being? The idea that one first has something to say and then tries to express it runs contrary to my way of working. For example, I recently purchased a book entitled The Thelonious Monk Fake Book. The idea came to me that I should write a poem with this as a title. It would be a fairly long poem, with individual sections named after various Monk tunes, in alphabetical order as they appear in this book. I thought of Kenneth Koch poems with a similar structure, but decided that I would make the individual poems slightly longer, and avoid obviously Kenneth-like moves within the poem itself. I also decided it wouldn't be a poem about Monk's music in any obvious sense, and that the titles of the tunes would generate the poems, but rather obliquely. I like the idea of a "fake" book for obvious reasons: fake suggests a certain fictionality, as well as referring to the concept of a jazz musician's "fake book." I also made some other decisions of this type, but without thinking too much about what any sections would actually say. You can see that I formulated many "intentions," but very few having to do with intentional meaning in the way this is usually conceived. The first section I've written, "Epistrophy," reads like a list of possible definitions of this word. A second, "Bemsha Swing," is narrative in which that phrase appears at some point, as an explanation which explains nothing. I also incorporate Ernesto's comment today: "Ahora se está muriendo gente que antes no se moría."

Everything about this poem is meaningful. In other words, every word is used because of what that word means. A person not knowing the meaning of the words I use would have no appreciation of the poem. Yet I haven't felt up to now that I was expressing a "meaning" formulated before hand. I wanted to use an example from my own work, not because I want to explain how I wrote certain of my poems à la Henry Gould, but because I believe that is how poetry is written. This has certain consequences for how poetry should be read, as well. The question is not what the poet wanted to say, but what decisions were made in order to produce this particular set of meanings. I apologize for the banality of this observation.

UPDATE: Re-Discovering, through this poem, the inner logic of the names of these tunes. Family resemblances, as it were. Nicknames for family members (LIttle Rootie Tootie, Boo Boo's Birthday, Jackie-ing, Crepuscule for Nellie), references to himself (Thelonious, Monk's Dream, Blue Monk, Monk's Mood). A dense system of poetic reference.
What is it with the poets dying? Lorenzo Thomas... now Gustav Sobin. I feel it most poignantly when the poet is one in my peripheral vision, one I've never paid my full attention to. I feel I've failed such poets, not having read him or her more assiduously during their lifetime.

8 jul 2005

The idea that poetry is a distinctive kind of thinking, that cannot be replaced by paraphrase. Heiddeger thought so. So did María Zambrano. The Anglo-American New Critics thought so. Derrida thought so. William Blake. William Carlos Williams, John Ashbery, C. Dale Young, and André Breton, all agree. So does David Shapiro. Gerard Bruns and Maurice Blanchot. Chantal Maillard, recent winner of the Premio Nacional de Poesía in Spain for her book La muerte de Platón thinks so. She is also a philosopher and specialist on María Zambrano, a Spanish philosopher better than Ortega y Gasset. Even Helen Vendler thinks so. I don't know Lance Armstrong's opinion of the matter, though I'd like to know yours. I suspect Joe Montana and Charles Bernstein agree with me, not to mention K. Silem Mohammad.

This is an idea so basic and foundational to modern poetics, that it can serve almost as a litmus test. Someone who thinks of poetry as fancy language for dressing up other kinds of "propositional content" are on the other side of a great divide. Excuse the fact that I am being a "lumper" here rather than a "splitter." That is, I'm not going to go through and explain all the differences among those I've lumped together.

7 jul 2005

Shyness Is Nice, but...

On behalf of shy people everywhere, I accept this apology. Actually, I wasn't offended by the original statement, because I think it was meant in a kind of provocatively metaphorical way. I too get irritated at those who maintain that "hypocritical abstention from confrontation." Of course, the passive mode that refuses to formulate judgments might be a sign just of relative youth or inexperience, in some cases. That is, it might be found more in relatively young people who don't yet have the kind of confidence needed to get up and mix it up with others.
I have the Aaron Kunin book too. Fence is doing a good job of getting it out there to the bloggers. I recognize some lines in it from an issue of Carve I have on my shelf. I'm really not prepared to say anything about it yet.
This is still the home of the David Shapiro fan club, and soon, I hope, headquarters of the International Ron Padgett Association. I just felt the need for a change in my blog description.
There is also the sense in which the real subject of theory is the literature department itself. In other words, "theory" is whatever institutional legitimization the English (or Foreign Language) department needs at any particular time to justify its existence. This explains why theory is often not taught at all to undergraduates, who presumably aren't interested in that kind of "shop talk," but emphasized as the most significant possible thing to graduate students, as part of an indoctrination and professionalization in the field. This part of theory can presumably be ignored by someone interested in literature but not interested in being a professor of literature. A lot of the debate about whether there can be multiple interpretations of a text, about whether we need theory at all, about what the English (or FL) Department needs to be doing, is not theory about the object of study, but theory about the studiers themselves. Almost every theoretical text Stanley Fish ever wrote falls into this category. Excellent works like Cultural Capital by John Guillory, as well. Charles Bernstein's A Poetics and My Way are also part of this debate. That is, Bernstein is interested in the English Department and his own place there, so an essay like "Revenge of the Poet Critic" takes as its subject this particular insertion of the Language Poet into academia.

(This kind of debate, not coincidentally, is what Michael Bérubé is best known for. I know him for this sort of "public" writing, not as a specialist in American literature, which he presumably is as well. He does this political/institutional writing quite well, better than almost anyone else, in fact, but you won't find him writing about Clark Coolidge on his blog. Oversimplifying by a mile: the poets are the ones interested in poetry; the English department people are interested in the future of the English Department; the prose fiction writers are interested in the book industry and the state of literary journalism.)

I'm not saying there are not real issues at stake, just that I wouldn't be interested in these issues if I weren't an academic. Of course, since the university is a hugely influential institution, nobody can totally ignore what's going on there either.
Michael Bérubé has a good, though a bit longwinded, post about theory.

People who resisted "theory" in English and Foreign Language Departments in the 1980s and 90s were, for the most part, intellectually incurious folks, as Michael points out. To cling to some love of "literature" in a purely reactionary formation is not helpful at all. On the other hand, there was a kind of theorizing that did indeed suppppress the "literary," and, indeed, the "theoretical" itself. That is to say, defenders of the literary did have a point; their problem was that they identified the "literary" per se with a single school of criticism ("New Criticism") in a profoundly ahistorical way. "Theory" is not a single thing, but the inevitable result of intellectual curiosity. While I may not be sympathetic to every direction theory has gone, I wouldn't want to put any pre-established limits on this curiosity.

There is a kind of fantasy that if theory somehow disappears, we can get back to the good old days. There were no good old days, however. Even the establishment of the "literary" was the result of a theorization, and came at the expense of other kinds of knowledge and erudition.

The negative aspect of theory has to do with a sort of bland eclecticism that takes every theorist of a certain renown as a valid starting point. That is, you can't just take for granted that a theorist has "demonstrated" something to be the case. You can't mix your Foucault and Derrida without taking into account the potential contradictions between the two thinkers. You can't just say, "It's all good." Some of it may be bad.

Michael makes a good point about the Eagleton book that is used in many courses for graduate students. He calls it "a book so glib and unreliable that I would not inflict it on any serious student." I agree, but the fact is that such books have been used countless times to promulgate a sort of short-hand, glib, paint-by-the-numbers approach to theory. When I teach theory I only assign primary texts. Of course the students hate me for this!

There is also the demand that theorists demonstrate their literary bona fides. Yes, I really do love literature, even though I never talk about it in my work! I always get suspicious of a Frank Lentricchia who discovers that he really likes literature, after having tried to suppppppress literature for years!

6 jul 2005

{lime tree}: Goodman's Graces.

Of course, this debate on poetic merit seems wholly secondary to the real question of preventing the supreme court from going Christian right, but I did formulate a response:

I see Kasey's point, and I'm sure he's sincere in seeing the quality of sprezzatura in Goodman's poetry. I know Goodman has other admirers, like the composer Ned Rorem, who has set some Paul Goodman texts. To me, however, this particular poem, like many of Goodman's poems, illustrates nearly the opposite: making something that should be easy look difficult and strained, impossibly botched. I just can't feel this quality of easy grace in Goodman. On the other hand, this shows that the vocabulary of literary criticism is so far from being "technical" that there are no descriptors with a shared meaning. "Elegant" can mean "awkward in an insouciant manner" to one person and nearly the opposite to someone else. I do agree that PG is not in O'Hara's league, and that FO'H is elegant in the way Kasey describes. I also like the Goodman poem as a political statement, but I feel--and I'm exaggerating but just barely--that almost any change in it might be a poetic improvement. For example, the word "bugs" seems totally off to me. Bureaucrats DEMAND or REQUIRE that people sign loyalty oaths. The entire poem lacks that sense of inevitability. Of course if it had a reactionary message to it I wouldn't hesitate to trash it even more: the message carries the poem, something I also hate to see.

If it were almost any other blogger I would be confident of my opinion, but I fear, since it is my second favorite blogger Kasey, that it is I who am missing something here. I've hit the brick wall of my own limited "taste." I can't like this poem.
New issue of TARPAULIN SKY is out.
For some reason, I can't help making the pun submission/submission when I submit to a journal. Submission as the opposite of dominance.
Contemporary poetry doesn't depend on literary theory in a direct sense. The founders of the major styles and modes have not been literary theorists in a direct sense: Ginsberg, Ashbery, Rothenberg, Antin, Creeley, O'Hara, when they write about poetry, do so in fairly "direct" terms. Creeley's distinctive "Creeley-speak" is a struggle to articulate something significant that he cannot express in plainer speech. It's not a plain speech insight dressed up in a theoretical meta-language. People have "applied" Derrida to Ashbery, but Ashbery does not sit around reading Derrida at night.

There are counter-examples. Olson, for example. McCaffery. Some of the language poets have adopted a more theoretically dense style, although interestingly enough I can see a lot of them moving toward a "plainer" speech than was fashionable in the 1980s. Bernstein defends obscurity in principle but writes an increasingly pellucid prose. No special training in literary theory is required to read Ron Silliman's poetry--or his blog.

Of course, avant-garde literary theory in France arose from the attempt to codify or explain the findings of the literary avant-garde from Mallarmé to Robbe-Grillet and Sollers. There is a natural affinity between, say, Derrida and the literary avant-garde of his time. When he wrote about poets he wrote about Celan, Ponge, Mallarmé, Jabès, just as Barthes wrote about the nouveau roman, or Blanchot about Char. "Deconstruction" in the US tended to gravitate toward re-readings of Keats or Wordsworth, so this connection was obscured. Hillis Miller never made it past WCW.

I guess there is a basic literary culture that both poetry and "theory" belong to. Some basic assumptions about language. The idea that poetry puts the signifier in the foreground. Studying some literary theory isn't going to do any harm--unless you take it too seriously. It is not a master-discourse which explains literature, but part of literature, an attempt to explain in formal terms what poets already know. It could have some heuristic value.

The same could be said for poetry itself, and the issue of "difficulty." Difficulty itself has no particular value. Some poets need it some of the time, and some readers need that experience of texts that need to be "worked through." Some of my favorite poets are relatively "easy." Kenneth Koch, who died on this day a few years ago. (Those lines in the post below are from "The Art of Poetry," by the way. I'm sure "you" knew that already.)

Not even "intelligence" has an absolute value. Sometimes "stupid" is ok. It's gotta be the smart kind of "stupid," though, not the dumb kind. Just as intelligence has to be light on its feet rather than ponderous.
I have long been haunted by these lines:

"Almost any amount of time suffices to be a 'minor poet'
Once you have mastered a certain amount of the craft
For writing a poem, but I do not see the good of minor poetry,
Like going to the Tour d'Argent to get dinner for your dog,
Or 'almost' being friends with someone, or hanging around but not attending a school,
Or being a nurse's aide for the rest of your life after getting a degree in medicine,
What is the point of it?"

For two or three reasons: "Almost being friends" describes a lot of my more superficial friendships. And, of course, my book of poetry is entitled Minor Poets of the New York School. It is a school I hang around but do not attend. Those Seinfeld episodes in which a character (once it was George, another time Kramer) shows up for a job for which he has not been hired resonate with me strongly.
I guess what I meant in post below was that what passes for a fairly hip, up-to-date style, such as what one might find in the "typical" poem here and there, can be found 35 years ago in Ted Berrigan, in Ron Padgett. I read a poem from the period (30-40 years ago) and think, wow, that poem could have been written yesterday. It's totally contemporary. Or I read a poem written yesterday, and say, it could have been written 30 years ago just as easily. This is itself holds no problem, though it might make me slightly less impressed by some recent poetry. All my blogger friends, needless to say, are exempt from this criticism.

5 jul 2005

I wonder sometimes whether writing these funny, shallow poems is a way of not taking myself seriously as a poet. Is this a defensive posture? A kind of false modesty? It certainly feels self-protective. After all if I write in such a mode I have little to lose if someone doesn't find it amusing.

The best poems of this type are ones that include a certain "vulnerability" along with the humor. I tend to respond badly to certain "jokey" poetry of others when it reminds me too much of my own worst impulses. A certain kind of joke poem seems a dime-a-dozen. The 4th-hand New York school poem any number of people could have written and in fact have written. I love Ron Padgett, but I don't think we need another couple dozen Ron Padgetts.
Why Poets & Writers? I've never understood the title of that magazine. After all, all poets are writers. It would be like saying, "painters and artists," "pianists and musicians," "shirts and clothes."


I get this a lot in academia: "narrowly focussed on poetry." "That's all you do, poetry?" As though poetry weren't infinite! "You mean you only study physics? You don't do a little biology on the side?" I should be more interdisciplinary, I guess. It's not as though I lack extracurricular interests, but I am too modest to claim that I actually master another whole "discipline."


The Lawrence, KS, issue of Black Spring is here. It's got Kenneth Irby, Judith Roitman, Jim McCrary, Dale Smith, John Mortiz, Lee Chapman. Robert Grenier (and others) writing on Irby. Monica Peck, Marybeth Larkin, Jonathan Mayhew, Steve Tills, and a few others. If you want your own copy I'd suggest moseying over to Black Spring and finding Steve's email there. I'm sure he'd sell you a copy for $7. There's a lot of Lawrence literary history I don't know myself. I've only lived there 9 years and so I'm definitely the new kid on the block.
I've also been reading 1913: a journal of forms, a sumptuous journal out of Iowa City. It's not clear who the editors are. I came across issue 1 (2004) in a bookstore the other day. I don't know when issue 2 is coming out.

4 jul 2005

I like a lot of what I see in The Tiny (issue 1, 2005). Katey Nicosia, "In Passing," starts off like this:

The nearby stranger's ashy jacket,
wrinkling a complaint of staircases,
like accordions or card pyramids...

Also: Hazel McClure's "Ghost Frames." Some poems by Maggie Nelson, whom I also noticed in The Hat. Nelson has a Creeleyesque thing going on that I appreciate

"It is what

it is. But

what is it?"

Another example, a poem starting like this:

"Today I am not
praiseworthy. Yet

you punish me
unduly.... "

How about Juliana Leslie's excellent "Hotel Utopia"? Another name that's new to me.

These are just my personal highlights. The entire issue is worthwhile. 93 pages of poetry that can be read in a few days--not quite as intense as 200+ pages of The Hat. The few poems here I don't care for particularly are those that wear their premises on their sleeves. I hesitate to criticize them because they are the type of poem I might enjoy myself in a different mood.

A shout out to some present and former bloggers in this issue: Noah Eli Gordon, Lamoureux, Behrle, Thorson, Nester, Huth, Shafer Hall, N. Moudry, Pafunda, Tieger. And the cover design by Jame Meetze. And of course, to the editors, Gina Myers and Gabriella Torres.

3 jul 2005

We are not amused

I should have acknowledged the whimsical J. Bahr for his inspiration for the rant below. It's not directed against him personally, obviously. That is, I don't particularly care that he finds amusing something that I do not find amusing. I just thought it would be a good excuse for going on a friendly but splenetic rampage against my good friends at Poetry magazine, that bastion of dullness.

2 jul 2005

No, the lame "humor" issue of Poetry has nothing to do with poetry, or with the motto from Kenneth Koch I have on my blog. I have to second what Jordan says about this.

"The very existence of poetry should make us laugh." This is not laughing at the foibles of poets who use "workshop" as a verb. What is at stake is, rather, the joyous laughter that something so strange and wonderful should even exist at all. That is to say, we can imagine poetry not existing: that would be more plausible. Poetry is like something that doesn't have to exist, but, miraculously, does. We laugh in awe and amazement at this existence. It doesn't serve any ostensible purpose but we cannot do without it. We literally can't know what it's for, what it's all about. Maybe its purpose is to induce in us this very sentiment of awe. Kenneth Koch is known as a "humorous" poet but at his best his humor is of this very wise type. His observation is a very profound and serious one. "The Art of Poetry" is a great poem; very wise even in its seemingly spurious advice. (When he says that most people in a position to be judging poetry know nothing about it, that is very true; I'll get the exact quotation tomorrow I have to go to bed now.)

It may be fun to do humor ABOUT poetry and poets. I too laugh bitterly that people calling themselves poets would have so little sensitivity toward language that they would use "workshop" as a verb, meaning "to submit a poem to a group of people who know nothing about poetry in the hope that they will improve it.". See, that's funny, Ha Ha. But this is not the profound humor OF poetry. It's about as funny as jokes about dentists would be at the dentist convention. This is what Poetry will never understand.
In the mail today. An order for Fox of Gold, a copy of The Tiny, a rejection from Chicago Review that said my poems are smart, funny--and shallow. This actually cheered me up a bit. Only superficial people don't judge by appearances and all that.
Poetry is naked. It can't really appeal to anything outside itself for justification, wears no protective clothing, carries no baggage. Can appeal to no objective criterion outside of itself. I hate alibis for poetry, appeals to "subject matter." Anything that displaces the hard burning flame. "Poetics" is an alibi. This is my poetics, to have no alibi, no excuses. Like people who play Mozart for their babies to make them smarter. Isn't that an insult to Mozart and to babies? Such people should be strangled by Kenneth Koch's strangler (only symbolically of course!). The avant-garde is not a "school" of poetry, but a recognition that nobody has the answers, that there are no recipes except those that must be "unlearned" time and again. There is not even special equipment needed. A child's composition notebook and a #2 pencil are sufficient. Creeley notes this when he says that he was fascinated by his father's doctor's bag: the notion of "packing light." Like when I was 9 years old and went out into the street to play wearing only a pair of cut-off shorts.

1 jul 2005

I am depressed. I am having a hard time getting through the days. When I feel this way, the first thing I want to do is trash some hapless SoQ poet or flame the comment box of some fool making a dumb remark about Jordan Davis's aspiration to write a million poems. So before I start attacking, I'm making a plea to noted psychoanalyst and poet Nick Piombino. Please stop me! I think it will make me feel better to go on a rampage like the strangler in Kenneth Koch's "Fresh Air," but it won't.

RAUNO RaSaNEN: Pragmaattista solipismia: A ten-year-old poet (amazing!): "Molemmat esimerkit houkuttelevat kokeilemaan omaa versiota. Varsinkin ensimm?inen, 'that takes off from a familiar premise', saattaa viel? inspiroida kokeiluihin.
Tuo ensimm?inen premissih?n on - kuten tietysti koko runo - Pastissi rakastamastani William Carlos Williamsin runosta - The Red Wheelbarrow." Any Finnish speakers out there?
I'm reading In(ex)teriors / ex(in)interiors by Jess Mynes. An elegantly printed chapbook of poetic prose in the Language Poetry mode of a sequence of seemingly disconnnected sentences or sentence fragments. There's a fairly subtle Coolidge influence as well. You would never confuse it with a text by Silliman, Coolidge, or Hejinian, though. It's definitely it's own thing. I wish I could describe it better. This is a Bemsha Swing selection. I would hurry up and order it from Jess, since there are only 75 copies printed.


I don't necessarily approve of using my daughter's poetry as a stick to beat up the SoQ. You could just as easily say a ten-year old (actually 7-9 at the time of composition) could write a better poem than Ann Lauterbach, Jessica Grim, or Jonathan Mayhew. You would probably be right (especially with JM.) Some hapless new formalist named Brock was the victim du jour. That gunk in the machinery clogs up a lot of poetry of different "schools." (Of course, Ron, if a leaf fell on his front porch tomorrow morning, would use that leaf to argue against the SoQ.) Ron's point that the process of learning to write is mainly a process of unlearning is a good one, however. That might be what Laura Carter is going through now.