Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Off to Chicago tomorrow morning to help celebrate my dad's 60th birthday. We're going to eat a lot of hot dogs with sport peppers, visit the Art Institute, and take an architectural boat ride down the Chicago River, all with a minimum of family-induced stress. Hopefully. Tim, you still in the city with the big shoulders? I'll see the rest of you in blogland when we get back Sunday.

Here's a juicy quote from Muriel Rukeyser's The Life of Poetry, which I just discovered the other day, to tide you over till I get back:
   In our own time, we have become used to an idea of history in which process and relationship are stressed. The science of ecology is only one example of an elaboration of the idea, so that the life of land may be seen in terms of its tides of growth, the feeding of one group on another, the equilibrium reached, broken, and the drive toward another balance and renewal.
   We think of the weather now as a dance of airs, predictable in relationship, with its parades of clouds, the appetites of pressure areas, and aftermath of foreseen storms.
   But in the areas dealing with emotion and belief, there is hesitation. The terms have not been invented, and although that does not impede expressive writing—a poem, a novel, or a play act emotions out in terms of words, they do not describe—the lack does impede analytical work. We have no terms, for example, for "emotional meaning" or "emotional information." We have not even the English for Claude Bernard's "milieu interieur," that internal condition of a body, the invironment where live the inner relationships.
   That obstacle is nothing.
   We are poets; we can make the words.
   The emotional obstacle is the real one.
   For the question is asked in a thousand ways each day: Is poetry alive? Is there a place for poetry? What is that place?
So the reading, incidentally, went very well and felt good. I actually rehearsed beforehand, which I've never done before, but it's an awfully good idea—no guessing about how long things were going to take, or what a particular transition from one poem to the other would sound like. It was stressful—there's something about reading in front of people who know you primarily as another ordinary person and not a Poet that makes it feel a bit like "coming out"—but fun.

Speaking of Poets, I've been reading this interview with Jorie Graham in the latest Paris Review. It's not a magazine I pay much attention to these days, though for a long time it was my Platonic ideal for a literary magazine, probably simply because it invoked the presence of Paris at its most romantic in its title (though as far as I can tell the magazine has had nothing to do with the actual Paris, much less French literature as it has currently manifested itself). Anyway, the tone that Graham uses, the urgency and drama of it all, in conversation with Thomas Gardner just fills me with an unstable mixture of amusement and awe (awemusement?). Here's a typical passage:
The early years in Iowa City. Getting up at night to feed her, put her back down, and then going to my typewriter with the terrible postpartum fear that I would never write again, not truly or deeply, and then feeling the black windowpanes holding the sleeping town and all its dreamers. It was as if I could feel all the dreams floating over the bodies in all the rooms in that town—and that silence full of dream beginning to pull that book out of me, beckoning, allowing me back into the ancient stream via dream and myth and listening while others slept. A roving consciousness over a sleeping world. That's what Iowa was like, for me, in those years. It was not merely "not-Washington," or "not-Rome." It was the unimaginably mysterious life of mothering.
She talks like a romance novel. The thing is, of course, that she really does talk like that, she's not putting you on—her commitment is total. I find myself torn between the impulse to ridicule her for her oversized persona and a certain admiration, maybe even a flicker of envy, for someone who manages to be a Romantic poet in the grand style—she's genuinely Byronic—in 2003. (She even wears a cloak in the form of all that hair.) It's absurd and carried on without a whiff of irony, though she does make attempts at self-deprecation in the interview (referring to her habit of carrying a pen and pad even into the grocery store as "a kind of craziness") which only serve to further the myth. In her way she's as crazy as Allen Grossman, who also seems to carry a sense of being charged with the task of being some kind of high Romantic seer in his self-presentation, though his cultural touchstones are more likely to be found in the Borscht Belt than in Cinecitta-era Rome, which makes him considerably easier for me to take. Still, I do like Graham's poetry—Materialism and The End of Beauty are extraordinary books, and I'm thinking of giving Swarm a look-see. I'm just flummoxed by both the conviction with which she carries herself as a 21st century female Byron and the way in which various ministers of culture, like the Paris Review, seem to unquestioningly accept that self-presentation. The other interesting thing about her is how she tries to engage with political life, with history as it happens, while remaining firmly in her Romantic perch. She engages real political events all the time in her poetry—she talks about writing a poem about the execution of Timothy McVeigh—and yet she tends to come off more as the horrified and helpless angel of history than as another human being touched by and touching these events.

At least she was never a teacher of mine; she came to Montana once on a whirlwind three-day visit and dazzled pretty much everybody, including me, with her intensity and intelligence. But it seems like many of the poets I know who studied with her were at least glancingly damaged by being caught within her gravity well. A cult of personality is almost inevitable when your personality is the size of Jupiter.

Monday, July 28, 2003

I'm on to you, Kasey, and that means more schooling for more students at More Science High!

Saturday, July 26, 2003

The Bisexual Poet

So I was talking on the phone with my old friend Chris, who happens to be an ex-girlfriend, about her difficulties building an identity around her bisexual feelings. A long time after we broke up she was in an exclusive relationship with another woman; this recently ended and she's been coming to terms with the fact that she still desires men, although her relatively newfound desire for women has not faded. A little later in the conversation we were talking about my problems with presenting myself in public, at a reading, say, as a "poet" because of the different meanings that can be assigned to this word. It's my belief that when you say "I'm a poet" to most people, their minds are filled with the expectation that you are claiming to be some kind of visionary, extraordinarily sensitive, filled with "deep" feelings, and unable to keep them to yourself. At worst you are taken for pretentious; at best some kind of vatic wisdom is expected—in any case, a poet who identifies as a poet in this sense is making a Romantic claim of self-definition. To another, much smaller group that same statement denotes someone who is primarily concerned with language and with investigating the ways in which language manifoldly means—melo-, phano-, and logopoeia—with the possibilities for thinking that language offers when one understands how it is always going to "mean" more than anyone could consciously "say." (A subset of this group understands the poet as a kind of cultural worker, who neither asks for nor expects personal privileges but who rather demands the freedom of making—the means of cultural production—in the name of his or her group or class. Identifying with a larger group would seem to be one way of synthesizing the two positions, or at least of having equal access to them: as Alcalay writes, "It is revolutionary... [to open] up personal history in a tradition of writing that has largely concerned itself with the fate of a people." But even a poet less sure of his or her "people" is presumably less concerned with being a rugged invididualist when they are pursuing an investigative poetics.) Anyway, as I was talking about my dual attraction to Romantic, visionary poetry and a "harder" more investigative roles for the poet, Chris laughed and told me, "You're bisexual too!"

Now I am not particularly bisexual in my desires; despite sincere efforts at experimentation I could never muster much authentic desire for male bodies. But I think the bisexual metaphor works in many ways when applied to my feelings about poetry and being a poet, so much so that it almost ceases to be a metaphor. Writing poetry, after all, even now in the 21st century, still carries with it a whiff of effeminacy. It is not at all difficult to read Pound and Lewis' obsession with "clear" "hard" writing as opposed to the kind of poetry Pound sneeringly associated with "the PYE-AN-o" (an instrument for feminine "accomplishments") as a kind of overcompensation for their feeling that to be a poet was to be seen as being less of a man. Even Perloff's Pound/Stevens dichotomy participates to some degree in this gendered divide: look at bearded, angry, bohemian Ezra and his international adventures next to the soft, pleasure-loving, stay-at-home figure of Stevens: he worked in insurance, for god's sake—is there a more limp-wristed product out there? It's not even a product; it's almost as bad as usury! (You can feel the pressure of this behind Perloff's statement at the end of her essay, "Pound/Stevens: Whose Era?", paraphrasing Kandinsky: "the 'two poles'—the expressionist and the constructionist.") Men build things; women sit around and flutter their fans and exclaim about all the pressure this masculine reality has put their feminine imaginations under. Anyway, nowadays the expressionists have their own ways of overcoming homosexual panic through their proud adherence to traditional form, or to a stable and centering I—the most evolved, of course, have either ceased to worry about accusations of effeminacy or else have actively embraced them. The constructivists forge ahead, with the most die-hard of them openly in contempt of the notion that poetry has anything to do with self-expression.

And then there's someone like me, homeless and horny, covertly longing for the soft, warm embrace of expressionism while trying just a little too hard to be fit in with the muscular, cool constructivists in their sunglasses and hardhats. Trying to come to terms with the fact that, like any bisexual, there is no ready-made culture for me to slip into as someone who desires to do both kinds of writing, sometimes simultaneously (what a pervert!). And like any bisexual I'm faced with the alternatives of trying to build such a culture from scratch, or else rejecting the internal and external pressures I feel to build an identity on what I desire. (What a prison Nick Hornby's formula from High Fidelity is: it's not who you are, it's what you like.) Another way to feel bisected and bifurcated; another Fence-sitter.

One solution, as I've already noted, is to dedicate myself for speaking for/through/to a particular group or class: to politicize not my poetry, but my position as poet. Or at least to attempt something along the lines of a poetics of relation (still waiting for the Glissant book to arrive, so I should be understood to speaking very tentatively here), which would, I imagine, be a poetry that demonstrated the constructedness and context of the fragmented I's that would nonetheless attempt to express something personal. Right now the best I can do is point to individual poems and say, this tends toward expressionism, this is constructivist, this moves in both directions. And I can reserve the right of a person in an enlightened society (who must always ignore the many ways in which enlightenment shows itself to be late-arriving) to spend one night with Stevens and the next night with Rachel Blau du Plessis. I just hope I won't be taken for one of those trendy constructivists who makes out with other constructivists just to give the expressionists a hard-on.
Why do I keep bludgeoning myself with the NY Times' pitiful, naive, and yet smug excuses for literary journalism? Phooey.

Friday, July 25, 2003

What should I read tomorrow? Yikes. I enjoy reading, or I used to, and I think I'm getting better at not doing the dreaded singsong "poetry voice," but it's hard to figure out exactly what poems to read and how. If my book were out I would probably just confine myself to poems from that, but for a reading like this the sheer mass of material I have to choose from daunts me: three full-length manuscripts and a 40-page work in progress. For a venue like this one (which faithful readers know has presented Ithacans with the Berrigan Bros. and Gary & Nada among other fine avanty poets) it's tempting to try out some of my more experimental material, like the quadrants from Fourier Series (you can see a sample of that book here, just below the three Severance Songs, courtesy of Can We Have Our Ball Back?). But I'm tempted to choose some of the more stand-alone crowdpleasing poems from Selah and The Nature Theater of Oklahoma (the MS whose poems I've probably published the largest percentage of in magazines) because I'm a ham at heart and want to please the crowd. I only have 20 minutes or so, and I think I could only do the more conceptual poems justice if I read a considerable volume of them over a period of at least 30-40 minutes. Hurm.

I'll probably err on the side of the more conventionally lyrical, "voice-driven" poems. There goes my indie cred, if I ever had any. This makes me think for some reason of my Kant group's general attitude toward the Third Critique: aswim in French theory, they seem attracted mostly to his concept of the sublime (the struggle between imagination and reason) and dismiss the beautiful as wan and passive (the harmonious accord of imagination and understanding, or intellect as Arendt has it). But I'm still stuck on the beautiful, I can't help it.

Here are some things I wrote in my notebook yesterday in response to Arendt and Kant:
Arendt explores the gap between aesthetic judgment and moral reasoning in her lectures on Kant's political philosophy. Apparently judgments of taste are only to influence action—to turn practice into praxis—in the most indirect of ways by preventing the morally righteous man from being merely "an idealistic fool." I take this to mean a certain tempering (through the "cosmopolitanism" that Kant held was the highest good for human development) of the passions stirred by moral reasoning—a kind of imaginative empathy (though Arendt is careful to exclude empathy as some kind of necessary special ability for aesthetic judgments, which achieve their universality through imagining how others might respond to an object) that might mitigate the style of a moral action if not its substance. Of course this distinction opens a whole new can of worms.

The split, the homelessness that I sometimes feel as a poet/scholar could be expressed through Kant's distinction between genius and taste. [I hope it's obvious in what follows that I'm not claiming to be "a genius," which is something else; Kant defines his term this way: "Genius is the talent (natural gift) that gives the rule to art. Since the talent, as an inborn productive faculty of the artist, itself belongs to nature, this could also be expressed thus: Genius is the inborn predisposition of the mind (ingenium) through which nature gives the rule to art." A little further down: "the word 'genius' is derived from genius, in the sense of the particular spirit given to a person at birth, which protects and guides him, and from whose inspiration those original ideas stem" (all from § 46).] Genius is guided by spirit (Geist), "the animating principle in the mind" (§ 49), which cannot be taught; taste is educable, or rather is a process of education (each experience of the beautiful or sublime stretches the capacities of the faculties (understanding, reason, imagination). If I follow Kant's formula (which is Kant at his most Romantic) my evolving taste must set the limits for my "genius," but it seems to me that it's especially easy for a person of my temperament to pay too much attention to the strictures of taste. I don't want to hobble that "spirit," whatever it is—the one thing unique to me, unable to be acquired or cultivated by anyone else. Surely it's possible to honor and nurture one's own spirit without falling into the traps of egotism and solipsism? I don't claim any special status for myself—only a freedom which is the right of all, though few are permitted it and even fewer permit it to themselves.

Spirit: that which enables genius to find an expression for the ideas "by means of which the subjective state of mind brought about by them. . . can be communicated to others" (§ 49). Spirit finds the objective correlative.

"In a word, the aesthetic idea is a representation of the imagination, associated with a given concept, which is combined with such a manifold of partial representations in the free use of the imagination that no expression designating a determinate concept can be found for it, which therefore allows the addition to a concept of much that is unnameable, the feeling of which animates the cognitivie faculties and combines spirit with the mere letter of language" (§ 49).

Perhaps poetry has boxed itself into a corner: "geniuses" speaking only to each other. The Spirit which renders something communicable is demanded not of the writer but of the reader—taste is not enough to read the "difficult" poem. Poets speaking to poets. But there are some non-poet readers—either they are all poets manqué or, as I'd prefer, their taste has been more rigorously educated (and what is taste's freedom of play if not Negative Capability, that which refrains from seeking a concept?) than that of the otherwise highly literate people who love complex novels but shun poetry. Blaming the reader? Epater les bourgeois? Is that sufficient any more, if it ever was?

Tonight: more poetry books at the Bookery, unless they make me do real work again.

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Almost forgot Nils. You go on with your bad HTML-savvy self.
Updated my links for a change.
Hannah Arendt:
Crucial for our enterprise is Kant's distinction between Vernunft and Verstand, "reason" and "intellect" (not "understanding," which I think is a mistranslation; Kant used the German Verstand to translate the Latin intellectus, and Verstand, though it is the noun of verstehen, hence "understanding" in current translations, has none of the connotations that are inherent in the German das Verstehen). Kant drew this distinction between the two mental faculties after he had discovered the "scandal of reason," that is, the fact that our mind is not capable of certain and verifiable knowledge regarding matters and questions that it nevertheless cannot help thinking about, and for him such matters, that is, those with which mere thought is concerned, were restricted to what we now often call the "ultimate questions" of God, freedom, and immortality. But quite apart from the existential interest men once took in these questions, and although Kant still believed that no "honest soul ever lived that could bear to think that everything is ended with death," he was also quite aware that "the urgent need" of reason is both different from and "more than mere quest and desire for knowledge." Hence, the distinguishing of the two faculties, reason and intellect, coincides with a distinction between two altogether different mental activities, thinking and knowing, and two altogether different concerns, meaning, in the first category, and cognition, in the second. Kant, though he had insisted on this distinction, was still so strongly bound by the enormous weight of the tradition of metaphysics that heheld fast to its traditional subject matter, that is, to those topics which could be proved to be unknowable, and while he justified reason's need to think beyond the limits of what can be known, he remained unaware of the fact that man's need to reflect encompasses nearly everything that happens to him, things he knows as well as things he can never know. He remained less than fully aware of the extent to which he had liberated reason, the ability to think, by justifying it in terms of the ultimate questions. He stated defensively that he had "found it necessary to deny knowledge. . . to make room for faith," but he had not made room for faith; he had made room for thought, and he had not "denied knowledge" but separated knowledge from thinking.

. . . The need of reason is not inspired by the quest for truth but by the quest for meaning. And truth and meaning are not the same (The Life of the Mind 14-15).
At the library now, procrastinating. I'm enjoying the heck out of Montana-mate Nils Michals' blog, particularly this entry on Los Angeles. I've never lived there, but I remember having a similarly dialectical reaction to the place—bright and sticky with shallowness by day, a numinous landscape by night, ideal for driving. Don't worry Nils, I found driving around San Francisco (and even up and down 280, "the most beautiful interstate in America") blasting Radiohead to be plenty satisfying.
What a crazy weekend—only today, Wednesday, does it seem fully over. My dad and stepmother came to visit and took us to one of the best meals of our lives at Spa Mirbeau in Skaneateles (pronounced "skinny atlas") a beautiful if slightly tchotchke-crazy little town north of here a ways. On Sunday they came over and proceeded to rearrange and redecorate our house. That afternoon Bogie broke a toenail on a rock and it got infected overnight; we had to take him to the vet hospital on Monday and they actually had to knock him out to take it off; very stressful. Yesterday a visiting friend of Emily's and her small daughter found themselves homeless after a lake rental didn't work out and they came to stay with us. Whew. It's the middle of the week and it's finally time to get to work.

My friend and neighbor Gina Franco (a poet and Cornell MFA/PhD who's off to a tenure-track job at Knox College in Illinois this fall: her book is The Keepsake Storm, due out from Arizona this fall) had a small meeting at her place (she lives just upstairs from us) asked me and the students enrolled in Cornell's joint MFA/PhD program to do some thinking about what it's like to live in the two worlds. Which I'm going to do a little later, but I just realized it's almost noon and I have to go to the library and finish reading A.R. Ammons' letters from the 1950s. This has been an interesting experience. Ammons is not one of "my" poets, and I don't have the personal connection with him that so many people at Cornell have. I did enjoy reading Sphere in Roger Gilbert's Whitman seminar, but so far the stuff I've come across in his papers (it's is "I am Ezra" phase) leaves me pretty cold—the whole poetry-science thing that Cornell seems to specialize in (a tradition actively continued by Alice Fulton) is interesting in theory but in practice I find I like to approach the big questions through philosophy rather than through physics, biology, and chemistry (maybe I just don't know enough about these subjects to extrapolate interestingly from them). Anyway, it's still interesting to read the letters of an ambitious poet, just a couple of years younger than I am now, in a very different environment from today's: he's completely isolated in New Jersey, with no MFA program to guide him or his career, just a few individual correspondents like Josephine Miles who can suggest literary magazines for him to submit to. Where I am in his life he's still working like mad to get into Henry Rago's Poetry, little knowing that he was going to become one of the mainstays of that magazine well into the 1990s. He's anxious and unsettled, trying to write some fiction, comparing the urge to write with "the sexual urge," and taking the round of acceptances and rejections from magazines VERY seriously. Many admire Ammons' persistence and eventual success given his isolation from literary circles, but reading this stuff I find myself mostly grateful for the much maligned system that I came through, and which I like to think hasn't damaged my poetic intuition, much less my "voice" (a concept that going through the creative writing system has led me to question). Hm, I seem to circling back to Gina's question and not getting any closer to the library so I'll stop there. But Ammons' palpable loneliness in his letters makes me grateful for the friends I've found in academia, and for blogland (though the latter is largely a subset of the former, I find).

Friday, July 18, 2003

To paraphrase Stephen Merrit: pack bags call cabs and hurry to my reading next Saturday!
Priscilla Becker's Internal West. Boy, this book has a lot stacked against it: the whole Paris Review debacle (here's a typical letter on the subject—scroll down) combined with the relentless "I-ness" of poems by a poet who like Eliot seems nearly smothered under her own death drive—how is it possible for a reader not to take a line like "I look forward to a cessation of life" as melodrama, if not self pity? But the book deserves better, as our own dear skepticJohn Erhardt argues in a review of the book at slope. Curiously enough, John compares Becker's work favorably to Confessionalism in general and Robert Lowell's work in particular, citing "Skunk Hour" with a fair degree of disgust. I hope he'll have something to contribute to the discussion that's been going on re: Lowell when he gets back from Wisconsin. Anyway, there is a fierceness in Becker's writing, a tension, that makes me think there's more going on here than the neurasthenics you might expect from the poet as described in Joanna Rakoff's article. I'm convinced by some of this work that Becker is not only as alienated as she claims—which is in itself of limited interest—but also that she is effectively manifesting the alienation that any of us might feel—in Kantian language she has hit upon a universally communicable experience, which seems more significant than the experience itself. I'd like to spend a little more time with this book to see if it stays within the realm of a subject alienated from all objects or if it delves into the more interesting territory of a divided subjectivity, whose parts are constantly shifting in and out of objectification. It's especially compelling when a woman writes this way; it feels that much more true and urgent because I think it speaks to the basic condition of women under patriarchy. But of course men are hardly immune from this vocation (another word I've gotten from Kant—Bestimmung, which has Stimmung, voice, as its root).

It's closing time!
Scary-good Nina Simone now: "Break Down and Let It All Out."
I really like some of what I find in Lee Ann Brown's The Sleep That Changed Everything. The book's structure grabs me, too: big, loose-limbed, with definitions of words like "insufflation" and "estivation" (look 'em up!) surrounded by constellations of quotations and then followed by poems similarly constructed along radiant lines of association (melopoetic, erotic, visual, etc.) from that word and its attendant connotations. Neat stuff. "Estivation" is my favorite section of the ones I've looked at; okay, here is the definition she offers:

The way flower petals lie in the bud


to pass the summer in a state of torpor—compare

I'm gonna read more next week.
Listening to what I am forced to call the hauntingly beautiful soundtrack to Almodóvar's Talk to Her.
The store is supposed to have two copies of Barrett Watten's The Constructivist Moment and I can't find either of them. Hell and death.
"...the Sanskrit word for 'war' means literally 'desire for more cows.'" —Norman O. Brown, Hermes the Thief

Thursday, July 17, 2003

Thanks to those who wrote in with their sympathy. We are doing OK.

Not much on my mind which is a bit of a problem, since I'm supposed to be finishing my Stein/Lawrence paper, turning the phrase "modernist pastoral" into a viable dissertation topic, deciphering Kant, etc. I'm doing all these things but it doesn't have much to do with poetry. I think I will set some time aside now for Olson and Oppen, who are coming into sharper focus for me than they have in a while. Tomorrow is Friday, which means more browsing in the Bookery's poetry section—I may have something to report on then.

Don't think I ever mentioned how jealous I am of the big Bay Area reading that everyone and her sister was blogging about this past weekend. But life has been pretty full in little Ithaca, and the weather's been very Berkeley-like, so in the words of Bran Van 3000 "we got nothing to complain about." Except love and death, the fixed points of pastoral. I'm becoming obsessive, but tersely so, at least at the moment. That's something.

By the way it looks like we're just going to go ahead and print the book, full speed ahead, sans LoC info. Inshallah, it will be in a bookstore near you by the end of September.

Monday, July 14, 2003

In Memoriam

A friend of Emily's and mine died today. She had been ill a long time and had endured an incredibly debilitating round of chemotherapy and her liver failed this weekend and she died this morning. She had many friends and loved poetry and her family was there. There's nothing to say about it, of course, except simply to acknowledge what happened. She was more Emily's friend than mine but she took a passionate interest in us as a couple and our dog and my writing, and I'm sad that she's gone.

Novelistic and Novelish

Still feeling a little tempted by the idea of the lyrical novel, in which the same kind of language work is done as in a poem but on a larger scale: "Here the theme is creative and has vista" (Whitman). The "lyrical novel" probably doesn't go any further in ambitious speculation than Keats does:
I have heard Hunt say and I may be asked - why endeavour after a long Poem? To which I should answer - Do not the Lovers of Poetry like to have a little Region to wander in where they may pick and choose, and in which the images are so numerous that many are forgotten and found new in a second Reading: which may be food for a Weeks's stroll in the Summer? Do not they like this better than what they can read through before Mrs Williams comes down stairs? a Morning work at most. Besides a long Poem is a test of Invention which I take to be the Polar Star of Poetry, as Fancy is the Sails, and Imagination the Rudder. Did our great Poets ever write short Pieces? I mean in the shape of Tales - This same invention seems indeed of late Years to have been forgotten as a Poetcial excellence.
I don't even have time for that "Morning work" as of yet, but I do dream of doing something Big—even though it's a little hard to reconcile this desire with my burgeoning sense that writing should not be about creating perfect monuments, at least not to one's self and one's Genius. Perhaps it's natural to wish again for immortality when death has entered my private atmosphere. But I'm thinking about all this chiefly because a customer has ordered a copy of Julio Cortázar's book Hopscotch and I'm glancing at it in betwen customers. It's a book that's been mentioned to me but I never read it or attempted to read it, even back in the early 90s when I was obsessed with postmodern doorstoppers. I was struck by this passage when held up in the mind next to what Maso prescribes for her own style of writing:
To provoke, assume a text that is out of line, untied, incongruous, minutely antinovelistic (although not antinovelish). Without prohibiting the genre's great effects if the situation should require it, but keeping in mind the Gidean advice, ne jamais profiter de l'élan acquis. Like all creatures of choice in the Western world, the novel is content in a closed order. Resolutely opposed to this, we should search here for an opening and therefore cut the roots of all systematic construction of characters and situations. Method: irony, ceaseless self-criticism, incongruity, imagination in the service of no one (396).
Something tells me that this novel, and the phrase "cut the roots," has already launched a thousand ships of scholarship on the rhizomatic seas. Cortázar leaves out, at least in this passage, the analogy with poetry and the stress on language that Maso made in her essay. It looks like an interesting book; I'd like to read it. But there's scarce world enough nor time for me to keep up with my Kant group, which is meeting again tonight in spite of everything. I'm considering buying this copy of Deleuze's book on Kant that Patrick has been talking about, in particular the way Kant stands commonsense notions like that of time as being conditioned by movement on their head. His comments (both Patrick's and Deleuze's) make a lot of sense to me—I for one still haven't gotten over the weirdness and also the rightness of Kant's notion that the world's conformity in appearance to what our mind can comprehend is merely a necessary presupposition for thought and nothing we can actually know. I wonder if, to extend Patrick's Perloffian analogy, Symbolist poetry (the three-headed beast of Baudelaire, Eliot, and Lowell) corresponds to a notion of poetry that attempts to assign the objects of perception to concepts, either on the personal level of autobiographical confession (this image of the skunk corresponds with me and my unright mind) or on the transpersonal level of tradition (reviving medieval emblems or what have you in The Waste Land); either way the poem remains what Cortázar calls a "creature of choice... content in a closed world." The other side revels in "free play" and is more truly aesthetic in that it does not attempt to assign what is perceived/described to any concept: Pound and his followers Olson et al do not choose, letting each perception lead not to a concept but to a further perception. The flaws in this analogy are gaping and obvious (I haven't attempted to make the necessary distinction between judgments of taste as they apply to writing versus judgments of the sublime) but I also think provisional maps like this are extremely useful, especially to folks like Patrick and me who (I presume) are trying to understand some of the broader currents and eddies in the history of poetry that have washed us up where we are.

Friday, July 11, 2003

Distracted from my task by a blurb for Glazer's book by Carole Maso, who I had not really heard of before Kazim Ali called her to my attention some time ago as an author the Bookery should stock. The Glazer wasn't doing much for me but I went and grabbed our copy of AVA and read that for a few astonising pages. Then I went and got Maso's book of essays, Break Every Rule, and read her essay, "Notes of a Lyric Artist Working in Prose." Her language is so supple, embracing both moment by moment subjectivity and also moving outward to seize objects in a lapidary embrace—she's right to see Woolf as her predecessor. I'm struck by how her defense of her kind of writing is basically a defense of modernism, and an attempt to revive a modernist spirit in a commodified age where, as she notes, "many novelists, now commodity maekrs, have agreed on a recognizable reality, which they are all too happy to impart as if it were true." She turns to poetry to resuscitate the novel through poetry's foregrounding of language, rhythm, and image. It's inspiring on one level—I want to run home and start my own "lyric novel"—but disheartening in the sense that it makes me feel like artists are just trying to hold a crumbling ground. What's really, really coming after modernism? Postmodernism is just modernism without elegy. What's next? What do I have in me to contribute to that next? Is the fetish for the new just a kind of conservatism after all? Conservatism in the strictest sense, which always to my mind conjures an image of a sandbar losing it grain by grain to the tide. A holding action. Conservation of natural resources always struck me as a flawed concept for the same reason. I'm all for preserving the forests, the reefs, the scraps of remaining clean air, but is conservation enough? Who's making more of it? And I don't mean technology—something closer to nurturing, or Heidegger's dwelling. Is there an analogy to artmaking possible here? The making new as an act of preservation. Most practically: self-preservation. Most nobly: an act of preserving what is other.

Misread her sentence "Much of my work is propelled by the desire to be reunited with lost, unremembered aspects of self and world" (30). Read ruined instead of reunited.

What could be new: capturing our disintegrated now with the tools that lay to hand. The unexpected rippling power of the word "Bosnia" in the middle of her essay, in a passage that flits from Maso's childhood to Orion's belt to Bartok to her apartment in New York and back to childhood. A bookended life, reminding me of the best lines I came across in that strange Mark Ford book (he's very English, seemingly positioned as a kind of Ashbery-Larkin hybrid): "I was born, and then my body unfurled / As if to illustrate a few tiny but effective words— / But—oh my oh my—avaunt."

And here's a quote from Tarkovsky that comes near the end of the essay: "The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good."
Another Friday night at the Bookery. Tomorrow we're having a garage sale early early, after which we're hoping for normalcy. Come and buy something.

I may yet get to the Shippy I was looking at last week but right now it's more fun to browse through some of the newer arrivals at random. Lots to like in the Timothy Donnelly book that was featured in Entertainment Weekly, 27 Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit. I'm left with the impression of remarkably dense formations of verbal wit, with a flicker of Steinian repetition as one of its engines. Some lovely stuff in Katie Ford's Deposition, but I'm put off by the foregrounding of Christian spirituality, or at least Christian imagery (the word apparently means "the taking down of the body of Christ from the cross" along with its more familiar definitions). How many books with a spiritual bent are fundamentally Christian, and me not realizing it because I haven't been trained to think that way? Am I being unknowingly "Christian" when I start thematizing things not seen in my own writing? It gives this secular Jew some pause. Next on my list is a book by a fellow named Mark Ford, Soft Sift, which has captured my attention principally by having an introduction by John Ashbery—I didn't know he did that sort of thing. Also on the list is a book by Michele Glazer, It Is Hard to Look at What We Came to Think We'd Come to See, which bears the imprimaturs of Carole Maso and Jorie Graham (Jorie also blurbs the Ford and Donnelly books); Fanny Howe's Gone, which I've looked at before (more Christianity?); the Shippy book; and a Green Integer book of a Japanese poet I'm unfamiliar with, Hagiwara Sakutaro, because every now and then I am shamed by my ignorance of poetries outside of English. This is a pretty good job sometimes.

Seriously, come and buy something. We've got an iron, no fewer than three computers, some blankets and kitchenware. Lots of stuff. 321 Pleasant Street, Ithaca, 8 AM sharp.

Thursday, July 10, 2003

Home from our little Kant discussion group and thinking not so much about Kant as about self-definition, which with all the "What kind of ______ are you?" quizzes floating around (and the continuing debate about self-positioning vis a vis quietude/negativity—see the very interesting and useful exchange between Jeffrey Jullich and Kasey Mohammed on lime tree) seems to be topic A this week. The Kant group is small and intimate, consisting of myself; Tracy McNulty, a Romance Studies prof. who has studied with Derrida and Lyotard; and Rob and Audrey, a couple who came here from a masters program in Florida (not sure which Florida). They are both disappointed in the fragmentation of the Cornell English Department (everyone keeps their heads down and does their own thing) and in the lack of interest among their peers in doing theory. I think most of my fellow grad students know theory, at least bits and pieces of it, but doing it is something else—the phrase that came up was that there are lots of critics and few theorists, at least among the grad students. Of course I immediately began to wonder what sort of animal was I, and I had to conclude almost immediately that I was, or will be, a critic. I wonder if I would feel Rob and Audrey's drive to do pure theory—to come up with my own original methodology—if I didn't identify primarily as a poet. Probably. The energy that might otherwise go into extensive conceptualization goes into my poetry, which shows tendencies toward becoming more conceptual but is for the most part still positivistically concerned with actual words and actual experiences and the chemical reactions they make when shoved into each other (words into words, words into experiences... colliding experiences directly seems much harder, maybe impossible).

I do get a difficult, nubbly pleasure out of reading Kant and Lyotard and Lacan and all those bad boys. Their texts are literally sublime: reason and imagination struggle to the brink of death as I read, with my capacity for abstract thought strengthened and toughened by the workout far beyond anything I would have thought possible when I was an undergraduate. And as dangerous as it might ultimately be to my sense of intellectual integrity, the principle of analogical thinking that is promoted by reading theorists alongside one another—parataxically, so to speak—is often exhilirating: how it's possible, for example, for me to overlay Lacan's notion of the pastoral over Kant's notion of the beautiful as he is read by Lyotard. And I have attempted at least one paper, which I presented at our department's grad conference this past spring, which "did" theory insofar as it was a reading of theorists like Barthes and Heidegger and Levinas with only a token gesture toward criticism (a reinterpretation of Kafka's "Before the Law") at the very end. Although really a close reading of theory still only deserves the name of criticism and cannot be compared with actual theorizing—the closest I came to doing that was in choosing to read a certain style of theoretical writing as Diasporic/nomadic, as opposed to Zionist/reterritorializing, and then finding through Levinas a glimmer of Zionism in Kafka's Diasporic "minor literature." Damn, criticism again.

But what's wrong with criticism? If I didn't feel that my most "original" work weren't destined to happen in poetry (though the "original," like "the great," is part of a value system I've come to question) then perhaps I'd be more anxious about being a reader and only a reader insofar as all my writing is about reading. (Though some of the most interesting writing I've encountered foregrounds itself as an act of reading, as I argued about Robin Caton's book a while back.) There's something really satisfying about good critical writing—Doug Mao's book takes a lot of the ideas that have been floating around in my head attached to various names (Kant, Jameson, Sartre, etc.) and applies them with wonderful concreteness (without losing a certain speculative headiness) to the work of Virginia Woolf (that's the first chapter—where I'm up to he's just quoted the same bit from Orlando that Catherine did last week). There's plenty of "original" seeing that happens in a book like this, and it has this additional value: by showing how a "creative" writer has thought and explored urgent ideas in her particular metier I realize hope for doing the same in my own work.

Still, identifying as a critic makes me feel a bit of a fuddy-dud next to hardcore theoryheads like Rob and Audrey and Tracy. I'm genuinely interested in theory, I love to read it—but there's a lingering Anglo-American skepticism about the French stuff (I'm more comfortable, it seems, with the Germans—that's the tragedy of European Jewry in a nutshell) that makes me feel, er, conservative on Kant night. It's ooky.

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

I'm terza rima, and I talk and smile.
Where others lock their rhymes and thoughts away
I let mine out, and chatter all the while.

I'm rarely on my own - a wasted day
Is any day that's spent without a friend,
With nothing much to do or hear or say.

I like to be with people, and depend
On company for being entertained;
Which seems a good solution, in the end.
What Poetry Form Are You?

I do like the form, but I have a little trouble with the content. Oh well, it's always like that.
I'm Drew Gardner. It could be verse.

Frustration today because it turns out the Library of Congress form that my publisher and I sent for Selah was unacceptable because it was a poor photocopy, or the wrong sort of paper, or didn't smell right, or something. Federal bureaucracy! AARGH. So now we have to start all over again, which means either doing without LoC info (not even exactly sure what it's function is—do I need it if I want libraries to buy the book?) or pushing back the publication date till, I don't know, November or something. Verrrry frustrating. It gives me a dark premonition of bureaucratic snafus to come.

Been doing some good reading this week—started in on The Maximus Poems, which are much more like a novel than I ever would have guessed, and I'm also knee-deep in Kant and Kant-related things. Some interesting dovetailings between Kant, Lyotard's Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, and the book of one of my professors, Douglas Mao's Solid Objects: Modernism and the Test of Production: it's all about the tortured relationship between subject and object, which I've become very interested in both as it pertains to the work of the Objectivists and as it might pertain to pastoral. I'm becoming more and more convinced that "pastoral" as a mode has nothing to do with shepherds and instead is just a manifestation of the ancient fantasy of a) the unity of the subject and b) the unity of that subject with the object world (which changes valences interestingly if you redefine object world along the lines of "history/society" rather than as "nature"). Kant's "serene" experience of the beautiful, as clarified by Lyotard, is nearly synonymous with what I've been thinking of as the pastoral: "The analysis of the beautiful allows one to hope for the advent of a subject as a unity of the faculties, and for a legitimation of the agreement of real objects with the authentic destination of this subject, in the Idea of nature" (159). Of course Lyotard goes on to call the analytic of the sublime a "meteor dropped into the work" (ibid) because he seems to have derived his notion of the differend from the incommensurability of the faculties of taste and desire, the one being always disinterested and the other being always very interested indeed. It's all fascinating to me and probably dull as dishwater for you to read about. I promise to get back to talking about actual poetry someday.

Why is everyone so interested in these quizzes all of a sudden? Does hot weather incline us to waste more time than usual? Me, I'm taking the dog for a walk, right after I figure out what poetic form I am.

Tuesday, July 08, 2003

Holy shit.

Is it my imagination, or does this piece of information blow every Clinton-era scandal out of the water for sheer opprobriousness?

What next?

Monday, July 07, 2003

The holiday haze has yet to lift. The barbecue was great—a perfect sunny evening and nothing caught fire except what was supposed to (okay, I did discover that I have a lot to learn about grilling bacon over coals). Our house is looking more houselike than ever now that the stereo system has been set up and the TV is in the desired inobtrusive-yet-easy-to-watch position. We can even wheel it into the bedroom and watch TV in bed now if we like—unimaginable luxury.

The topselling fiction book here at The Bookery continues to be Harry Potter; the topselling nonfiction book is Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed. I wonder how easy it would be for the computer to put together a poetry bestseller list. I've only sold a couple of poetry books—one was Billy Collins' Poetry 180 anthology, one was Donald Revell's My Mojave. On Friday, when I was working the poetry register (I'm up front today with the cookbooks and biographies) I got a chance to browse through the latest Iowa Prize winner: Peter Jay Shippy's Thieves' Latin. Great title, reminding me of a desire I once had to write a book called Cant—maybe I will yet. I don't want to worsen my already deplorable reputation for talking about books I haven't actually read, but a glance through made me wonder if this was the sort of book quietudinous writers might point at to indicate all that's bankrupt in the "experimental" tradition, just as Mr. Collins is one of my favorite straw men in the other direction. It reminds me a bit in tone of Ben Doyle's Radio, Radio—arch, often funny, striking lines and phrases burying each other through a convoluted syntax. Actually, it reminds me of any number of books by pomo young men—individual poems dazzle, but a number of them in succession start to numb. There's nothing necessarily wrong with this—why should we always want to sit down and read a book cover to cover? I almost never do this. I think this is a book I would enjoy very much if it were something I just scooped up, read a poem or two from, and then put down again.

I won't say more because I haven't read the book and it really is a bad habit of mine to post what other people could easily mistake for a review up here. Even though I defend my or anyone else's right to write extemporaneously and from the hip on their blog, I think that when it comes to talking about other people's poetry books I want to be a little more careful. I don't want someone to read the weakest poem in Selah (which one is it? if I only knew!) and talk about the whole book disparagingly in a forum where dozens of strangers will hear about it, now do I? This doesn't mean I'm going to restrain myself from talking about the buzz or position of a particular book I haven't read, any more than I would or could ignore the good or bad buzz surrounding a film (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, for example, is a great comic book that from what I hear is almost sure to be a travesty on the big screen).

Having said all that I now resolve to read Thieves' Latin so that I can talk about it. Because I suspect I might be able to say something larger about the particular sliver of "experimental" poetry that it occupies once I've read the whole thing.

A little kid in the children's section keeps pushing the button on one of those books that plays music, driving me mad—I believe it's the opening bars of "Waltz of the Toreador." What if all books had buttons that played music? Schoenberg for Minima Moralia? Wagner for Jorie Graham? Shippy has a poem called "Buzzcocked" so we know what his button should play, anyway. Send in your suggestions for other music buttons today!

Friday, July 04, 2003

Just installed blinds in the bedroom—what a pain in the neck. But now voyeurs will have to work extra hard.

I see that Patrick Durgin is also reading Critique of Judgment rather than doing something more fun. From the beautiful to the sublime to the Fourth of July. We're going to have a little barbecue, but on Sunday. The Fourth of July pressure is just too much. Ithaca did the fireworks already on Wednesday for some reason, so there's nothing special happening tonight anyway that isn't alcohol related.

Hot out. Head empty. Dog panting.
Listening to an old Billy Joel album this morning in honor of Moving Out, which Emily saw and loved this time last week on her trip to NYC: she said the dancing was spectacular. Particular favorites: "Summer, Highland Falls" and "Angry Young Man." Couldn't help but think of Ron and the Lowell business that has been so well analyzed by Brian and Kasey and Jordan when I heard this line: "And he'll go to the grave as an angry old maaaaaan."

Not much to add to that discussion, really, except to say that I am interested in the poetics of negativity, which seems like a very Adornoesque (Adornonian? Adorno-like?) concept—perhaps just an extension of what's modern about modern art. And I like the comment from Kent Johnson posted on lime tree and the subsequent discussion about the difference between style and affiliation. So go read those if you haven't already.

Tuesday, July 01, 2003

Fiction writer Lewis Robinson, an old friend of Emily's (they used to work together at Random House) is coming up to Ithaca for a short visit—his book of pungent, cinematically precise narratives about life in small-town Maine is called Officer Friendly and Other Stories. Just back from Wegmans with the materials for burgers and beer. He's our first houseguest and the house isn't quite finished, but oh well. This morning I was reading in Adorno's Aesthetic Theory, which is kind of like getting the wide end of the telescope of aesthetics—the narrow end being Kant's Critique of Judgment, which I'm also reading. Last night our little group took up the Analytic of the Beautiful and got kind of bogged down on what exactly Kant means by "simple colors" (einfache Farben) and why he describes the so-called "ideal of beauty" as being some kind of groundless ground for impure aesthetic judgments... oh, don't get me started. The Adorno is a surprisingly rich reading experience, crammed full of aphorisms, and not so different in tone and form from the other great aphoristic text of his that I'm familiar with, Minima Moralia. It's a little bit like reading an endless version of one of Emerson's essays: almost every sentence is like a flash of lightning, with comparatively little in the way of rhetorical connection between the sentences. Infamously, the book lacks chapters or even indented paragraph breaks, which certainly contributes to a sense of its difficulty, or at least monolithicness (monolithicity?). It's not actually all that difficult, just dense as hell—it took me two hours to read about fifteen pages. Here are some of the sentences I find most provocative:
Artworks are alive in that they speak in a fashion that is denied to natural objects and the subjects who make them (5).

If it is more than mere indifference, the Kantian "without interest" must be shadowed by the wildest interest, and there is much to be said for the idea that the dignity of artworks depends on the intensity of the interest from which they are wrested (11).

Art's promesse due bonheur means not only that hitherto praxis has blocked happiness but that happiness is beyond praxis (12).

The bourgeois want art voluptuous and life ascetic: the reverse would be better (13).

The humiliating difference between art and the life people lead, and in which they do not want to be bothered because they could not bear it otherwise, must be made to disappear: This is the subjective basis for classifying art among the consumer goods under the control of vested interests (16-17).

The new wants nonidentity, yet intention reduces it to identity; modern art constantly works at the Munchhausean trick of carrying out the identification of the nonidentical (23).

If art were to free itself from the once perceived illusion of duration, were to internalize its own transience in sympathy with the ephemeral life, it would approximate an idea of truth conceived not as something abstractly enduring but in consciousness of its temporal essence (28-9).

Among the dangers faced by new art, the worst is the absence of danger (29).

New art is as abstract as social relations have become (31).

Art is no more able than theory to concretize utopia, not even negatively (32).

The idea of a moderate modernism is self-contradictory because it restrains aesthetic rationality (35).

For the most part, experimentation takes shape as the testing of possibilities, usually of types and species; it therefore tends to degrade the concrete work to a mere example: This is one of the reasons for the aging of new art. Certainly aesthetic means and ends cannot be separated, yet almost by its concept experimentation is primarily concerned with means and content to leave the world waiting in vain for the ends (37).

To survive reality at its most extreme and grim, artworks that do not want to sell themselves as consolation must equate themselves with that reality. Radical art today is synonymous with dark art; its primary color is black (39).

The share of subjectivity in the artwork is itself a piece of objectivity (41). [Pure Kant!]

By virtue of its mimetic preindividual elements, every idiosyncrasy lives from collective forces of which it is unconscious (42).

Art brings to light what is infantile in the ideal of being grown up. (43).

In every improvement to which he is compelled, often enough in conflict with what he considers his primary impulse, the artist works as social agent, indifferent to society's own consciousness. He embodies the social forces of production without necessarily being bound by the censorship dictated by the relations of production, which he continually criticizes by following the rigors of his métier.... Métier sets boundaries against the bad infinity in works. It makes concrete what, int he language of Hegel's Logic, might be called the abstract possibility of artworks. Therefore every authentic artist is obsessed with technical procedures; the fetishism of means also has a legitimate aspect (43-4).

The fragment is that part of the totality of the work that opposes totality (45).
Invigorating stuff. That last remark, plus the description of the Barbara Guest event on CorpsePoetics, makes me want to go sit in the backyard with the dog and her Selected Poems right now. I'ma gonna do it.

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