Monday, October 31, 2005

Back from a great weekend in NYC—especially yesterday, when the weather was transcendentally mild and lovely. Emily and I did the town: we saw Doubt on Friday night, which is as good as you've heard, and a terrifically funny and entertaining musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Wonderful meals here and there, and on Sunday we followed a trip to St. Mark's (where I wrote down the titles of about a dozen books to order for The Bookery) with a splendid stroll in Soho. I'm running out of superlatives so I'll stop there.

David Letftwich wrote me a long e-mail about my Friday post on Dan Chiasson and Brandon Downing inquiring about my use of the word "mainstream," as in "mainstream poetry"—pointing out that there's no sense in which Dan's book would be considered an "event" by ordinary publishing standards. It provoked the following reply:
It's true that no poetry book is an event the way a Dan Brown or Harry Potter book is, or even something more literary by a major author like J.M. Coetzee. But Dan Chiasson's book is out in hardcover from a major press and has a fair chance of attracting _some_ mainstream attention (perhaps a short review in the NYTBR or The New Yorker). In the attenuated terms of the po-biz, I'd call that an event. The word "mainstream" shifts around a little when I use it. I would argue that most broadly conceived, mainstream American culture is utterly post-literate: you can acquire plenty of cultural capital simply by keeping up with the latest trends in movies, music, and TV without ever picking up a book. Then there's mainstream literary culture as represented in venues that generally have some variation of "New York" in them—where fiction, particularly realist fiction, is king, and once again no knowledge of contemporary poetry is required to be a cultural capitalist (though you're expected to recognize quotes from the great anglophilic dead like Yeats and Auden and Lowell). Narrow down considerably and you have the poetry world, where I take "mainstream" to mean the poetry published by major houses or the bigger universit presses by poets who win awards and teach at places like Breadloaf. On the fringes of this world are the various regional and/or aesthetic coteries—NY School, Language, Bay Area poetry, avant-queer, etc., etc.—where most but not all of the most exciting writing is going on, and where I believe the most passionate and devoted readers can be found.

I have a lot of sympathy for the aesthetic tendencies you describe as being most to your own taste—that's a very worthy list of poets you came up with [Ikkyu, Tu Fu, Sydney, Dickinson, Hopkins, Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Williams, Mandelstam, Trakl, Neruda, Paz, Celan, James Wright, Creeley, Oppen, Fanny Howe, Jean Valentine, Inger Christensen right up to such poets as Foust, Ales Debeljak, and Cole Swensen] and I admire or want to know more about them all. But I've come to feel that simple taste doesn't provide me with adequate knowledge of the field of available poetries—or rather, that my taste wants education (on the bus down to New York I was reading The Education of Henry Adams—I could see the appeal of his dry, ironic, at times rebarbative prose to the likes of Pound and Zukofsky immediately). So I'm always looking for new axes of force or theory to help educate my desire and introduce me to new possibilities in poetry, while perhaps helping me recognize what veins of ore have been played out. So I have come to think that the means of poetic production matter—that where and with whom a poet publishes is important information, if only because I can come to discover new poets because I've found a particular editor or press to have tastes consonant with my own. At the same time, a post like Friday's goes to show that an overly dogmatic conception of the effect a situation of production has on poetry will cause me to miss or misinterpret a great deal. End result: I can read and enjoy a patently post-avant poet like Downing and a patently mainstream poet like Chiasson. So like you I might describe my taste in poetry as "eclectic." I've taken a long and eccentric road to that quasi-destination (starting as a fan of Richard Hugo and James Wright, passing through the Language poets and Marxian interpretation, and now emerging into more multicolored fields of poesy), but probably no longer or more eccentric than anyone else's road.

Of course what grabbed my attention about the two books was a certain similarity in their concerns: I think they're both struggling with our postmodern moment, particularly regarding the self (as appropriate for lyric poetry), but not simply resting in that moment and fooling around with it as had seemed adequate for a few minutes in the late nineties. I think they're both grappling with our ever-more-fragmented, ever-mediated experience and the degraded language on offer for expressing experience, and though Dan might, for example, revert to classical models like Pliny and Horace (as you refer to late modernists like Coltrane and Camus), his poetry feels as exciting and relevant as Brandon Downing's because both poets' forms smack of the 21st century, using sampling and hypertext and half-dismantled personae to try and formulate human tactics (android tactics?) in the face of a mediated/mediating capitalism that is working very hard to turn us all into weak citizens and pliable consumers. The latest form, if you prefer the long view, of the domination that poets have resisted or made bitter accommodation with since Plato tried to throw us out of the Republic.
Some of this makes more sense with Leftwich's original message behind it: if he gives me permission to post it, or if he posts it himself, I'll adjust accordingly.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Reading in two books that couldn't have more different provenances, yet which ring similar changes: Brandon Downing's Dark Brandon (from Faux Press) and Dan Chiasson's Natural History, published by Knopf. In large and small ways the books are marked as experimental coterie book and mainstream "event" book, respectively: no blurbs vs. blurbs, softcover vs. hardcover, interior artwork vs. no artwork, no sections vs. sections, etc. But both poets are struggling to register and engage subjectivity while dodging or critiquing the standard-issue lyric "I." Downing does this with his title, of course, and with poems that seem to half-ventriloquize the personages of the films they're associated with while also registering contexts that only a viewer or film student could know about: in film language, the speaker oscillates constantly between diegetic and nondiegetic levels (I should note too that instead of any blurbs or description the back cover has a note reading "Poetry / Cinema Studies"). Having myself written some poems about the 1960s TV show The Prisoner, I was interested to read Downing's take on it: here's a piece of the first poem in the book of that title:
The Plover Lying In The Dust, by John Coletti

I'm so angry! I'm so mad!
The models wouldn't stop kicking me!
I spent extra money to get footsteps.
I can't look at myself, I am covered by tracks.
Because I said, "Come to me, I am 'Lex Luthor',"
I go outsie to the garden, Mundo,
To get leafy greens, I got stabbed!
Not a great statue untouched by the caustic millennia
Energetic, angry, conveying the investment we make in the movies' dream life and the disappointment that results, the disorientation of leaving the matinee to find broad daylight. I was interested to put this book down and pick up Chiasson's: many of his poems also directly interpolate "Dan Chiasson" and, though less frenetic and more wry, they can create a similarly edgy affect (somewhat in contradiction to the "affability" and "friendliness" attributed to him by his blurbists—Linda Gregerson and John Ashbery, respectively). Here's Part II of a four-part poem, "Four Horaces":
To Helena Concerning Dan Chiasson

The water at the bottom of the river, way down, the coldest
darkest water: if that water were your only drinking water
what would you do: thirst forever? Or drink the freezing water?

If A, send me a postcard from la-la land, where
Mom bays like a donkey and Dad is an oil slick,
because that's where dehydration takes you, fast.

If B, I'd buy the biggest wool parka I could find
and put it where the sun don't shine—otherwise
you'll feel a subzero chill no mug of tea will thaw.

I chose B, and now it's winter, and I'm outside your door
like a baby seal on an ice island, waiting
to be clubbed or saved by a Green New Zealander.

Come out. When Dan beats off again, when
he drifts away the way he always does, come out:
zip up that pantsuit and rescue me from my Horatian

sense of humor! There's a great jazz bar nearby
that doesn't charge a cover. They will play
only the nine jazz songs we know, over and over.

And the world will narrow the way it always does
when we're together, only nine jazz songs
ever written, and we know every one by heart.

And if some kid from the local jazz college walks in
and starts playing the tenth song, that's when
we get our clubs and club him like a baby seal.
Chiasson is, like Downing, exercised over the mediation of his own life, but he comes at it from a different angle: the poems mourn the assault on (human) nature and express guilt over his participation in same, registered through the pathos of animals brough to the edge of speech by a kind of wry empiricism (inspired by the writings of Pliny the Elder).

I can't ignore the different origins, the different imagined readerships, that are encoded in the packaging of these two books. Nor is the poetry similar in any consistent sense: Brandon Downing practices a manic dialogism, deliberately bleeding the barrier between poetry and discourse white (and black); Dan Chiasson is more discrete and discreet, more concerned with the shapeliness of language even if there's sometimes broken glass in his mouth. But I think they form an interesting mini-constellation, a snapshot of the limitations of the various dichotomies and trigonometries of the poetic field that are currently on offer. Chiasson especially seems aware of how the available maps might lead him to be overlooked or misread by coterie readers—paradoxically the most desirable readers for a "mainstream" writer because of their intensity. But he enjoys his symptom. This last stanza to a poem called "Tulip Tree" could have come from a "post-avant" book, yet the fact that it didn't is what gives it its meaning, what makes it a plea:
I want fried clams, the ones with gritty fat bellies.
If I strike the apocalyptic tone you lke, won't you
drive up Route 1 with me, right now, to find those clams?
Farewell, unqualified nonentity! Now I suppose we'll have some fire-breathing wingnut to contend with: the obvious strategy that will permit a post-indictment Bush to re-energize his base. But it really does seem that without the full attention of Rove this White House is utterly incompetent both politically and governmentally. Oh, for a parliamentary system! Oh, for a vote of no confidence!

Rereading the short poems of Zukofsky, rereading Lisa Robertson's Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture. Amazed to realize that Zuk's shorter poems are positively crammed with nature imagery: here it seems was a New York poet who couldn't enjoy the subway without a blade of grass (or a preying mantis) handy. As for Robertson, my respect for her gift for lyric cognition is deepening into awe. Here is a writer I'd follow anywhere, along any train of thought. She seems to have created out of whole cloth the self-questioning postmodern pastoral that I find so alluring.

Headed down to NYC tomorow to meet Emily, who's been doing singing- and work-related stuff down there. We're going to see a couple of shows, wander around, and generally celebrate the four years we've been together more or less as of this weekend. Not sure I'm going to make it to the Creeley memorial: I revere him, but it sounds like it's shaping up to be too much of a scene. But I will pay my usual pilgrimage to the St. Mark's Bookshop and maybe I'll see you there.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Farewell, Rosa Parks. And farewell, 2,000 brave men and women who have sacrificed their lives for—well, no one has yet given me a convincing explanation of exactly what for. Nor do I understand why untold thousands of Iraqis have had to die. Nor do I understand why those numbers are untold.

Fitzmas can't come too soon.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Wonderful belated birthday presents from Aaron and Wendy yesterday: a whole pile of books and chapbooks from Pressed Wafer. I'm looking forward to diving in and reading... someday. I seem to have very little time or mental space for any sort of reading nowadays that isn't vaguely connected to the dissertation—though in the evenings I'm reading the first contemporary novel I've indulged in for a while, Colum McCann's Dancer, a kind of fictionalized biography of Rudolph Nureyev. The books opens with a tour-de-force account of the unspeakable hardships undergone by Russian soldiers in the defense against Hitler's invasion, and the first half is generally excellent at depicting young Nureyev's uncanny appetite for life against enormous odds. After his defection to the West the book seems to have shed some energy, chronicling his life among the rich and famous and his love affairs with other male dancers and the occasional rough trade. Its heart is in Soviet Russia and those he left behind. A valuable portrait of the ruthless egotism sometimes required of an artist if he or she is to realize their full potential. Such people fascinate, even as they treat others like garbage, in much the same way a character like Tony Soprano does: we are as hypnotically drawn to someone who doesn't arrest their own desires the way most of us are taught to in order to become productive members of society. But we are also taught not to become assholes, and as Martha says, that's a good thing. That's the main personal challenge for a creative person in this culture: you have to become a kind of monster of self-assertion, sending your work uninvited hither and yon, and yet you still have no right to treat others badly, even if you yourself have been so treated in the past. Perhaps Shakespeare's Sonnet 94 is in part about the balance and calculation required of anyone who seeks power, including simple sovereignty over one's self:
THEY that have power to hurt, and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow;
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces,
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others, but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself, it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
    For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
    Lilies that fester, smell far worse than weeds.
Of course there's a cold stream of irony that circulates through the lines of this poem: there's something a little inhuman about such an attitude toward self and others. Most of us will choose the company of a Falstaff, for all his narcissism and unreliability, over the frigid nobility and ruthlessness of a Prince Hal.

Can you tell we're in the middle of the Shakespeare section of the course I'm TAing? Well, re-reading is usually good reading.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Looking at the new Poets and Writers I was saddened by Kevin Larimer's sympathetically written account of Bin Ramke's resignation as editor of the Contemporary Poetry Series—hounded out of the job by the resentniks of F0etry. It's certainly no victory for poetry, though I'm glad to hear that Georgia plans to continue publishing it in some form or other. Ramke tells Larimer that he always thought of himself as more of an editor than a contest judge,admitting, "Certainly, I can be faulted for a certain casualness in process over the years. I never considered the process to be a contest, but rather a method for casting a wide net, for inviting lots of different kinds of poetry to be considered for publication." What I think has happened over the course of the 22 years Ramke edited the series is the ever-intensifying professionalization of poetry, with a corresponding anxiety about the first book as all-important credential for the teaching jobs that MFA programs reflexively train their students for. In a way Ramke's attitude was a hold-over from a superficially more genteel era in which poetic ambition was less firmly tied to economic ambition. What some have perceived as Ramke's failure to enforce the boundary between judge and crony may in part be the result of his attempt to enforce this older boundary that separates an editor's aesthetic judgments from the professional fate of the writer whose work he or she publishes or rejects. This age of innocence, if such it was, is clearly over. Contests exist to produce the poet as Professional with a capital P, leaving aesthetic judgment (and tacitly, the actual reading of poems) in the dust. (Poet, Professional, Poetry: as Larimer and Ramke lament, the last "p" gets the shortest shrift in these discussions—we should write it poetry.) Those who see contests (correctly!) as an accrediting process are (correctly) outraged by the "certain casualness" of their administration, just as the consumers of tests like the SAT and GRE would be outraged by malfeasance on the part of ETS.

What's lost? Poetry itself, as I've said; but also sacrificed is an idea of "career" that arguably precedes the category "professional" and which ideally outlasts it. That is, career in the sense of what's produced by the arc of a creative life, produced in collaboration with readers present and future—in a word, the old goal of immortality. The careers of Shakespeare and Dickinson, Langston Hughes and Lorine Niedecker, are still going strong—in many cases, stronger than they were when the poets were alive. (Two dead poets whose careers have just received must-deserved boosts through the publishing of their collected poems are Kenneth Koch and Ted Berrigan.) Properly stated, a poet's career refers not to the career of the person but of the work: in the sense I want to use the word anyone concerned to share their work with others is fostering that work's career. Profession can have an influence on career: the canniest poets will use their professional perks to advance their own careers (canny and generous poets advance the careers of others as well; you could argue that "career" is always a social category while "professional" associations are only guilds). The caricature of the Professional is the poet wholly obsessed with the perks and privileges accorded to his person and his ego; the caricature of the Career Poet (trying to avoid the word "careerist") is the poet who lives, to the point of self-effacement, Pound's credo, "It matters not at all who writes great poems, but it matters very much that great poems get written." Those who tend too much toward the first pole look pretty crass to those who tend toward the second, while diehard Professionals tend to resent or ignore the Career Poets and are the first to cry foul when they catch the Careers playing by their own rules on what has become a Professionals' field.

Most of us, of course, fall somewhere in between these extremes, and I often experience a kind of parallax effect when regarding them. For example, the crew at F0etry seem wholly uninterested in Career (they often seem uninterested in poetry, period): they raise Professionalism to a pitch of hysteria that in their eyes justifies all manner of slander, character assassination, and standards of evidence unworthy of the name. But the pieties of high Careerists (okay, I succumbed to the term) are nearly as irritating when they take the form of broad and general indictments of MFA programs, the desire for recognition, poets who teach or otherwise make their living in the poetry-industrial complex, etc. And most of us are suspicious of those who grandly recuse themselves behind the curtain of Career while racking up every Professional point in sight. Some of us even make satirical cartoons about them.

The new issue of P&W also contains a feature on eighteen first books ranging a reasonable aesthetic gamut (though there's nothing from very small presses and thus nothing genuinely odd or outre). I'm glad to see my friend Sarah Gridley's Weather Eye Open listed, and there are other books on the list I'm going to order for the bookstore. But the article as a whole teeter-totters between Professional and Careerist perspectives. The author (Kevin Larimer again) begins by invoking the "great first books of poetry" by such safely canonical authors as Eliot, Stevens, Hughes, and Ashbery. And it ends by proposing hopefully that "maybe some day one of the recently published debut poetry books will get the attention it deserves, and future generations of poets will look for it up there on the top shelf, along with the well-worn copies of Prufrock, Harmonium, The Weary Blues, and Some Trees." But the bulk of the article is devoted to profiles of the poets (with actorly head shots) as Professionals and their books as Professional Documents: here are the categories on the form I imagine each participant must have filled out:
Graduate degree:
Time spent writing the book:
Number of contests entered:
Representative lines:
In the works:
A bit of advice:
The tension between "Influences" and "Blurbs" is worth an essay in itself. Of these topics, only three are devoted to the question of Career (Representative lines, Influences, and In the works), while the final category is open to interpretation. Most of the poets use it to offer Professional advice: "Keep sending it out"; "Submit to presses that can accept several good books a year"; "Read first books and know which presses are receptive to your particular aesthetic." A few are Career-oriented, or blur the lines: "the purpose of publishing a book [is] to share your work with others"; "Practice all forms of literacy—visual and emotional, too"; "It is necessary, in my opinion, for poets to find the fire within, to know why they write and never compromise their work for the sake of publishing." Sarah eloquently splits the difference: "On a practical note: Go in fear of epigraphs. Obtaining permissions consumes time and money. On a philosophical note: In readings some of Walt Whitman's prose accounts of his travels in the West, I came across a Shoshone oath which he had made a special point of recording: 'The earth sees me, the sun sees me: shall I lie?' I think the best thing you can do for yourself as a writer is to keep the endeavor that clear, that strong, that focused." Amen, Sarah! And the epigraphs bit is good advice, too. Perhaps a dialectical relation between Profession and Career might be possible: to give or not give your book an epigraph is both a practical and an aesthetic decision. The rules of the poetry game will serve as well as any other set of rules to constrain a writer and stimulate her creativity. That strikes me as being at least potentially a more productive path than becoming either an insincere, ass-kissing, backstabbing Professional or a holier-than-thou butter-wouldn't-melt-in-my-mouth Careerist.

Still, it would be more healthful both for poets and for poetry as a whole if the Career side of the equation was allowed to exert more pressure on Professionalism than the other way around. To engage Jane from an eccentric angle, the Professionals often treat the Careerists as if they were the victims/perpetrators of false consciousness who refuse to acknowledge the material conditions—the social networks—that have helped to enable their success. But the reverse is just as likely to be true: not only do many Professionals deny the role social networks have had in their own "getting ahead," but more fundamentally they don't engage with those ideas of the social that can have a crucial role in the creation and sustenance of actual poets and actual poems. Professionals have friends and associates, but no comrades. And maybe that's what they hate the most about the Careerists, whose modes of association suggest an alternative to the zero-sum economy the Professsionals are committed to.
Grading. Fiddling with nano. Walking around in the leaves and the breeze. That's pretty much it, campers. To paraphrase Kanye, I wanna talk to the Muse but I'm scared 'cause we ain't spoke in so long.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Joshua Clover is probably right to reject the theory/poetry binary: the attempt to subtract the one from the other in order to make alliance with praxis/life just points to their fundamental similarity as modes of rhetorical cognition that stand at some necessary distance from, y'know, doing something. (To argue that they have no such distance, that they are forms of praxis immersed in a "life" that there is by definition no outside to, is itself a form of theory that theory naysayers are unlikely to take up as a battlecry.) For me his "Coda" is the most persuasive, particularly the claim that "theory" represents a specific body of texts/thought (Franco-German, Marxist or in some explicit relation to Marxism), and to reject it constitutes "a rejection of specific social and political projects and practices." That phrase illuminates a lot, not least why any form of poetry that foregrounds non- or anti-hegemonic social practices is excluded from the pages of the so-called paper of record.
Kickass reading Saturday night. Kevin Elliott was and is, as Theo said in her introduction, the best-dressed man in town. And Chris Nealon was a delight: he's a fine performer of his own poetry, bringing out both its sardonic, neurasthenic (not to say campy) edges and its pathos. Aaron once again did an outstanding job with the broadsides. We're all very pleased. Next month it's Sean Cole and Guillermo Juan Para, which I know you don't want to miss.

Not a whole lot else going on upstairs. The dissertation crawls along. Poetry production came to a halt a long time ago, nor have I sent anything out for a while, but I'm feeling zen about it all. (Interesting how we use that word, "zen," to mean a kind of unconcern that does not equal disinterest or irresponsibility. Very useful.) In geeky news, we're making the transition from first-edition AD&D to the newfangled version tonight. The rules just make more sense. We'll miss those classic illustrations, though.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Dag, yo. That shuffle feature on the iPod is sweet. In the past half-hour I've hopped from Kanye to Mint Royale to Elton John and I'm now listening to a little Charlie Haden. Vaguely Latin brushes sweeping the skins in my left ear, a bass stumbling and thumping in my right, spare soft piano notes holding it all together in the middle. I've always been more casual about music than most in my peer group, but this little gizmo might make me much more serious and inquisitive about it.

The Swedes have great taste in literature. I'm starting to put together a course on drama for next semester in which I want to emphasize language: language as character or builder of character, and a Pinter play should probably go on the list. I also want a play by the late August Wilson, a little Shakespeare (Much Ado About Nothing or Love's Labour's Lost), maybe some Stoppard or Kushner.

Haven't said anything here about the earthquake and that's not likely to change. Simple horror. This has been an incredible year for disasters; it's tempting to say that the earth is angry at us, and not without justification. Yet the people with power who make decisions with transglobal consequences are never the ones affected by these things. Maybe this will somehow effect change in Kashmir—the spectacle of Indians rushing to the aid of Pakistanis is a moving one—but looking for the silver lining seems ghoulish right now.

My fellow Jews are fasting today, but I am secularly thinking about lunch.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Life as I've known it is over and a new life is about to begin: my sweetie has given me an iPod nano for my birthday. I haven't fetishized an object so fervently since my toy Millenium Falcon circa 1978.

Been thinking two things: one, an author who defends his book always comes out looking like an ass. Two, having done a little such defending, I think I may have used overly harsh language in defense of my baby. Let the record show: Joyelle McSweeney is not tone deaf, nor can I really call her review of my book a misreading without announcing an intention to try and control all possible readings: an intention I hereby disclaim. I was disappointed in her interpretation; I consider her a friend and was surprised she wasn't more sympathetic or willing to give credit to the ways in which the book's uses of form complicate its statements, its swerves into bathos, its voices. But there I go defending again. Joyelle is an exceptionally careful reader of poetry and not tone deaf in the least, as her own writing amply demonstrates. So I regret the characterization. Let a thousand readings bloom, for to be read, to paraphrase Whitman, is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Wonderful, soggy weekend with my Vassar buds in the southern foothills of the Adirondacks. Photos may be forthcoming. Since coming back I've taken advantage of October Break to throw myself into dissertating with an intensity I haven't managed since I started teaching again. Rewrote the first, theoretical chapter and I must say I'm very pleased with it. The Pound chapter is almost completely rewritten as well. Now I must turn back to Zukofsky, but there's a lot of grading standing in my way, especially with the Eng Lit Trad midterm looming on Friday. I'm glad I've given myself the extra year: if I went on the market this fall and actually got a job, I could probably manage a finished dissertation by September 2006. But only at the cost of my health and sanity, Emily's health and sanity, and the well-being of my dog for good measure.

Over at Here Comes Everybody, that increasingly invaluable archive of poets' thinking about poetry, there's a newish interview with one Jules Boykoff, a poet I'm not familiar with but almost exactly my age and with a number of congruent interests. I like this little text of Rod Smith's he posted as a coda to the most recent sortie of the poetry-and-theory debate:
Let us pause a moment
to consider the relation
of theory to poetry.

Poets who do not have
an interest in theory tend
to be boring because
their works are uninformed.

Poets who have too much
interest in theory tend to be
boring because their works
are not alive.

This is what is known as
a dichotomy.
Commonsensical, maybe, but that's what seems to be lacking in many of these debates: a sense of what poetry and theory have in common as modes of cognition/imagination. Poetry's "aliveness" is arguably more fundamental to it than the "information" (I'd like to stress the form hidden in that word) Smith associates here with theory. But of course every poem proceeds from a theory of some sort: the question is whether the poet has arrived at that theory through inquiry and self-questioning or if it has been received wholesale or piecemeal from authorities who may or may not have a coherent relationship to each other. Denying theory's necessity or denying that you have one is still a theory, but theory-as-strategy, designed to foreclose argument and set yourself up as an authority more or less through brute force. "Theory" is not equivalent with any particular brand of theory, like French theory or German critical theory or Wittgensteinian language games: but using such languages might make your own theorizing more coherent or at least intelligible to others. An alternative is to write in the mode of "poetics," here meaning particularly those peculiar texts that are both about poetry and use at least some of poetry's formal means: Juliana Spahr's "Spiderwasp" and Charles Bernstein's "Artifice of Absorption" come first to my mind. I like this sort of thing, and I also like poets who think within philosophical frameworks I find valuable and valid, such as materialism—though most poets worth their salt negotiate competing or contradictory value systems in fascinating and necessary ways. Many choose to do this solely through their poetry and shun poetics and theorizing alike, and that's fine except that it leaves too much power in the hands of critics who tend toward mystification (the first sort of boredom Smith describes) or dessication (the second sort of boredom). I like to see the poets doing it for themselves.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

October break is almost here and I'm looking forward to traveling to a little house in the Adirondacks tomorrow where I'll be meeting up with some old college friends, including Mr. and Mrs. Noz. Emily hasn't met most of these folks which makes it extra exciting. She made some soup.

There's yet another new issue of The Believer (for a 10-issues-a-year mag there's something rapidfire and relentless about its production; maybe it's the $8 cover price that makes me gasp) and there's some very fine stuff in it: I liked B. Kite's (is that a real name?) discussion of J.M. Coetzee's morally vivid, half-convincing doppleganger, Elizabeth Costello (who pops up in Coetzee's new novel as well) and there's a surprisingly dense, chewy, and satisfying discussion of the philosophy of law with one Peter Fitzpatrick (interview conducted by Jill Stauffer). Most notably there's Jim Shepard's uncanny comparison of the Bush administration to Nosferatu: as that which destroys what it purports to love, specifically in this case the all-volunteer Army as personified by Pat Tillman, the NFL player whose death by friendly fire has been covered up and denied. On the day the President has made yet another meaningless stay-the-course, honor-their-sacrifice speech, the last three sentences demand to be quoted:
When this administration talks about sacrifice, it does so with a weird doubleness, an edge. The all-volunteer Army is doing precisely what the major figures in this administration—from Donald Rumsfeld to Dick Cheney to George W. Bush—refused to do, whatever their pst or present rhetoric about the glories of sacrifice. We're very grateful to those who sacrifice for us, and grateful as well to those who embody the virtues to which we claim we most aspire. And we're enraged by them, as well, for all they demonstrate to us, through the example of their behavior, about ourselves.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Ange's first post referencing Fourier Series was answered by Joshua Clover; she responded to him and to Chris Nealon (who's coming soon to a reading series near you) and then Jordan chimed in. Got all that? Hardly seems necessary for me to comment at this point, but I did write an e-mail to Ange the substance of which seems worth reproducing here.

Ange's original post raises a lot of questions for me, like does my being a poet-critic who reads Heidegger and Adorno and talks about it somehow mean I'm held to a higher standard and/or make my poetry more mistakable for "discourse"; in other words, did my personal penchant for philosophy make me liable to Joyelle McSweeney's misreading, or is Ange referring more to a general tendency among poets that led Joyelle down that primrose patht? I suspect the latter; I had taken her weirdly tone-deaf reading of Fourier Series to derive from some kind of blanket political correctness: perhaps my use of Native Americans does have an "Orientalist" tinge, but I was drawing on a mythos of the American West that still has a lot of currency while, I think, opening it to question from unexpected vectors. I also don't think I'm the unambiguous John Wayne booster she makes me out to be, and she's obviously never seen The Searchers, which is a major presence in the book. Perhaps she took Wayne for a George Bush figure, but W's swagger is a poor imitation of the dancer-like grace with which Wayne could move; he also lacks Wayne's surprising capacity for expressing vulnerability (crystalized in the famous Harry Carey gesture he makes in the last momentts of The Searchers. (An important source for my use of Wayne was Garry Wills' book, John Wayne's America.)

None of this has much to do with "philosophy," but it does range the question of "treating poetry other than as a vehicle for argument." And here I don't quite know if I agree with Ange, even if that means I have to endorse Joyelle's review in a backassward sort of way. Poetry is NOT a "vehicle" for argument—I totally agree with that—if that's all it is, it's bound to be lousy poetry OR poetry with an aggressively anti-aesthetic bent (which can be interesting, since poetry simply by laying claim to the name "poetry" can never fully escape the aesthetic). But in addition to being whatever else it is, poetry, by being composed of language, resembles and tends to draw into itself recognizable chunks of other sorts of discourse: argument, philosophy, begging letters, what have you. This creates a confusion that you could lament, or that you could accept as intrinsic to the form and therefore play with as a material for poetry just as you play with rhyme, alliteration, imagery, etc. I don't see anything wrong with poets appropriating theory or any other sort of linguistic material for aesthetic
effects, but they do risk "doing it wrong" from the perspective of the experts who don't know how to read a chunk of theory any way but AS theory. It's akin I think to Ezra Pound's problem with translators of Chinese and Latin poetry who were not themselves poets; people fussed over the anachronisms in his "Homage to Sextus Propertius" without recognizing that this was one of the markers by which Pound intended to mark his poem not as a translation but as a poem. Now, I've written this whole book called "Fourier Series" and I'm hardly a Fourier expert; I'd read a marginal quantity of his enormous oeuvre and not in French, either, plus some secondary literature (Barthes was useful) when I began writing. The idea of him and his work was inspiring enough to become the mainspring of a poem: but the scholar in me worries sometimes over inaccuracies or misunderstandings; now I read about Fourier and sigh with relief when I don't find anything to contradict what's I've already put out there in black and white. But the poet in me isn't worried at all, he just displays his tattered license.

So I'm all for a poetry of impurity, which invites confusion with other sorts of texts, though I'm also often drawn to poems which insist on the purity of their poemness, which wrest their verbal materials so far out of any recognizable context that you'd feel foolish trying to "read" anything "into" them. Generally the more intense a poem's formal qualities—the more abstracted it is from prose—the more counter-intuitive it seems to try and turn it into philosophy or any other sort of non-poetry. I find it telling that most of Joyelle's negatives in her review come from the prose poems in the book.

Ange wants to preserve a space for the "lyrical impulse" as something prior to all this folderol, in the process expressing a surprisingly Poundian sentiment: "the certainty that only the quality of the emotion remains." There's a corresponding anxiety about readers/critics who get it wrong, who override the poet's will toward indeterminacy (somehow it seems linked with the lyrical impulse—because qualities of emotion resist full determination?). I certainly didn't intend anything resembling a straightforward argument when I wrote Fourier Series, but for me the answer for the problem of misreading can only be MORE (mis)reading: let competing interpretations thrive, such is arguably the life and health of a text. At the same time a reading of poetry which wants to disregard its aesthetic intentions and impact in favor of "message" is most definitely missing the boat. What may be most interesting is interpretation that reaches to the level of form: my publisher has expressed surprise that no one has yet commented in any sustained way on the book's formal devices, which are certainly distinctive (contrained literature, anyone?) and uncertainly derived from Fourier's theories. That is, aesthetic effect has its own message to relate, while (hopefully in the case of my work) carrying with it a superabundance of pleasure ("sunstruck supercargo") that is itself the point. And so a kind of Russian doll effect ensues.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

In honor of Mark's birthday, a few sentences from Andreas Huyssen's After the Great Divide that do plenty to explain both Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus' response to him; it may even speak somewhat to the Bob Dylan controversy:
[M]ass culture indeed seems to be repressed other of modernism, the family ghost rumbling in the cellar. Modernism, on the other hand, often chided by the left as the elitist, arrogant and mystifying master-code of bourgeois culture while demonized by the right as the Agent Orange of natural social cohesion, is the strawman desperately needed by the system to provide an aura of popular legitimation for the blessings of the culture industry. Or, to put it differently, as modernism hides its envy for the broad appeal of mass culture behind a screen of condescension and contempt, mass culture, saddled as it is with pangs of guilt, yearns for the dignity of serious culture which forever eludes it. (17)

Monday, October 03, 2005

Reading de Certeau on how consumption can be a kind of production, I find myself wondering if any major studies have been done on the poet as consumer: browsing through the landscape of commodities remaking it as he or she sees fit in order to make a livable environment. I find myself thinking that this is a good general description for the practices of the New York School. I then think that the Language poets look more like constructivists, with a production-oriented aesthetic as a natural outgrowth of their Marxism. Which oddly makes the Language poets look nostalgic in their basic orientation (looking back to the constructs of Modernism) while the New York School poets are straight-up postmodernists, renouncing production of anything but the livable private moment in a world geared toward elimination of public life in any terms other than those of commodity and consumer, celebrity and spectator.

Now I find myself returning to Bakhtin and his notion of heteroglossia as the centrifugal force in language that subverts unitary centripetal authority (the official discourses of various disciplines and genres); heteroglossia sounds an awful lot like bricolage as de Certeau describes it, although Bakhtin doesn't seem to leave as much space for agency. What on earth does any of this have to do with Zukofsky and pastoral? Something to do with improvisation, with somehow seizing or delimiting the empty space of the universal, which contains or is contained by nature. I proceed by guesswork in the dark.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Party Time, Excellent

A pose is a pose is a pose.

Josh & Emily, or Profiles in Partying.

Jen, Theo in the chair, Karen, me, and Roger Gilbert.

It was a raspberry ganache...

Chris and me, coolness incarnate.

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