Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Robert Creeley, 1926-2005

Two from Memory Gardens (New Directions, 1986):


After, size of place
you’d filled
in suddenly emptied
world all too apparent

and as if New England
shrank, grew physically
smaller like Connecticut,
Vermont – all the little

things otherwise unattended
so made real by you,
things to do today,
left empty, waiting

sadly for no one
will come again now.
It’s all moved inside,
all that dear world

in mind for forever,
as long as one walks
and talks here,
thinking of you.



Seemingly never until one’s dead
is there possible measure –

but of what then or for what
other than the same plagues

attended the living with misunderstanding
and wanted a compromise as pledge

one could care for any of them
heaven knows, if that’s where one goes.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

David Jones and Biography

Prompted by Josh Corey’s Williams musing, I’m once again thinking biography. I’ve just finished Keith Alldritt’s David Jones: Writer and Artist (Constable, 2003), which I ordered from Amazon and then had to wait six weeks or so until they shipped it over from the U. K. There’s a good reason this book wasn’t published in the U. S. (aside from the fact that there are probably only a hundred or so serious readers of Jones on this side of the Atlantic): it’s perfectly dreadful, a slapdash, sloppily-written hasty skim over the life of one of the two or three most important British poets of the first modernist generation. And astonishingly, it’s the only biography of Jones available. The man deserves his own Richard Ellmann; instead he gets the equivalent of one of those rush-job pop star bios, the kind of thing you’d expect to read about Justin Timberlake or Jewel. Let the buyer beware.

I’m a little less hasty in dismissing Alldritt’s The Poet as Spy: The Life and Wild Times of Basil Bunting (Aurum, 1998) – another book which didn’t make the transatlantic voyage – but only because it has a few racy anecdotes, and because Bunting hasn’t yet attracted nearly the critical attention Jones, born five years earlier, has. It will come. New Directions has recently reprinted Bloodaxe’s handsome edition of Bunting’s Complete Poems (itself a cleaned-up version of Oxford’s 1994 edition, beautifully edited by the late Ric Caddel). (I now have no fewer that five versions of the collected Bunting shelved or stacked.) And Bunting is simply easier of access than Jones: Briggflatts is an intense hour’s read, perhaps best accomplished following Bunting himself on one of the fine recordings he made of the poem. Jones, on the other hand, is at his best in his two book-length works, In Parenthesis and The Anathemata, both of which I think suffer from being excerpted. They’re works which rely upon an overall architecture – like Finnegans Wake or To the Lighthouse – and while you can cull out five- or ten-page passages which are quite stunning, each of the books (it’s hard to know what to call In Parenthesis, the work Jones based on his experience of the Battle of the Somme – some call it a prose memoir, I’m inclined to call it as much poetry as the more thoroughly lineated Anathemata) really depends on the weight and momentum of the work taken entire.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

shiny new flesh, same wormy soul

The I hope fetching ochre background prompted by the estimable Peter O'Leary: "Dude, one suggestion: change the visual display! It takes me several minutes of rapid blinking to do away with the afterglow from reading the bright white text on the black background. There's a reason centuries of books have never opted for that appearance: our eyes can't handle it!"

I will resist Eric's suggestion to retitle the last post "Glum and Glummer," and leave him to his decadent pleasures: aye, laddie, cakes and ale while ye may, and enjoy yer snow – it'll be gey and warm eneugh for ye in the flames of perdition...

Friday, March 25, 2005

Barometer: against meaning

A series of setbacks and irritants – not least among them the return of South Florida’s (in)famous and debilitating humidity – have made this a rather grim and unhappy week. So of course I turn to the Mr. Sunshine of critical theory, Theodor “Teddy-boy” Adorno, for a bit of light-hearted fun:

It is quite clear how contemporary art, in view of its own problematic, should behave in regard to the avant-gardism of the past, and the artists of importance know this well. Anti-conventionalism remains indispensible; forms return only within the interior of works, not as something imposed upon them heteronomously. Such works must consciously measure themselves against the historical situation of their material: they must neither abandon themselves blindly and fetishistically to the material nor mold it from outside with subjective intentions. Only what is free from cowardice and ego-weakness and advances without protection, refusing everything indicated in the German language of the post-Hitler epoch by that loathsome expression “guiding image,” has a chance of creating something that is not superfluous. Every consideration of possible effects, even under the pretext of social function or regard for the so-called human being, is untenable, but then so is the high-handed imperiousness of both the subject and its expression from the heroic days of modern art. It is no longer possible to evade the aspect of paradox in all art itself: this paradox, and not any existential philosopheme, is what the label “absurd” means. In every one of its elements contemporary artistic production must bear in mind the crisis of meaning: the meaning subjectively given a work of art as well as its meaningful conception of the world. Otherwise artistic creativity sells its service to legitimation. The only legitimately meaningful artworks today are those opposing the concept of meaning with the utmost recalcitrance.

[Theodor W. Adorno, “Those Twenties,” Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia UP, 1998) 45]

Take that, Billy Collins! On the bright side, there’re lots of new and newly read books of poetry to talk about (Josh Corey’s Selah and Eric Baus’s The To Sound among them), and talk about them I no doubt will.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Peter Riley: Distant Points

Much of my poetry reading consists of browsing my way through stacks of long-ago purchased but unread books. There’s no decent poetry bookshop within an hour and a half, so I end up buying masses of stuff when I visit the metropoles, then working my way through it later. Needless to say, I don’t do a very good job of keeping up with what’s hottest off the presses. (Yes, do send books – much obliged, and I’m sure we can arrange some sort of swap!)

Which explains why I’ve only now gotten around to reading Peter Riley’s Distant Points: Excavations Part One Books One and Two (Reality Street Editions, 1995). Riley is known as a “Cambridge” poet, which means he’s part of the group vaguely associated with J. H. Prynne – in short, one of the most important epicenters of innovative poetry in the United Kingdom. (The invisibility of interesting British poetry in the United States will be one of the recurrent themes of this blog, I think, something that ought to begin to be rectified by rich websites such as Robert Sheppard’s Pages.)

Distant Points is a series of prose poems, Riley explains, “concerned with the human burial deposits of the so-called Neolithic/Bronze Age culture of what is now the Yorkshire Wolds, as documented in two books of late 19th Century tumulus excavation accounts: by J R. Mortimer (1905) and Canon William Greenwell (1877).” Each poem is titled with the numerical designation of an individual excavation, and combines verbatim descriptions of the mound’s contents – often eliciting a good deal of unintentional (to their original authors) pathos – with linguistic material Riley draws from any number of other sources: various works on Renaissance music, Pound, Kierkegaard, Jacques Roubaud, Elaine Scarry, Beckett, Sir Thomas Browne, etc. It makes for a fascinating mix, which grows in emotional intensity over the course of the book. Here, for instance, from page 37:

head to East, upper torso lying on its back but crouched at a right-angle and knees turned sharply to left, and the head also turned to face South… remembering all the tricks of warmth, twisting aside, avoiding the sky Both hands raised to the head, the left touching the neck, the right arm doubled back with the hand behind the head but clear, clearly coloured clearly set, a whole row of sorrows parting the air, rote of stedfastnes in the hands’ guardian delay. Spun then in passion’s careless reach who thought a life was a sum, with double sorrow dowbyl sorow complayn I must of the failure, to clear before dawn and bring the disadvantaged to their gathering or the self to its principal. As it did in the wrested moment, earth Like heavn still in it selfe delighted.

This strikes me as an extraordinary poetry, one which takes the techniques of modernism to almost a certain limit, yet retains the entire lyric and emotional intensity of the English tradition behind Riley. I’m not sure I see in any point in speaking of this work as somehow “postmodern”: if anything, it announces how much life remains in the techniques and procedures of high modernism.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

[in progress ii]

I do not speak this language term. Soft fasten
pulp prosperity war. Mr. Cleric, Mr. Layman, name
      a “Chaplin” for the Aryan nation. Beat them
           with baseball bats and feed their
      texts or bodies through a shredder. I acted
           only under orders, your honor, I did
      chains temple bricks and feet of clay.
      Too many deictics neuters and feminine rhymes
for this to be an American sonnet. Free to starve
           to kill to speak someone else’s mind.

My name is datum, my nature is
      a gift. Oriel of oriole orisons sea
      to shining scent, purged of scenic estuaries
           methodical fjords and transient
      sporting utility vehicles. My name is torture,
           the best penetrant your money
      can buy. A flag in every classroom, boiled
      head in every pot: your sparrows
are numbered, ticked them off on nine
           curled fingers and a twinkle toe.

     Pull out before you do it, make sure the camera
has a clear shot. Money in the bank. For
casualties read casual tears, for remorse read
      remoras, for regrettable errors read triumphant ner
           era. Galley proof slaves. Resentment
      spawned a bright and shining obsession, poising thought
           against the blurred third-hand idea: truth is to
      beauty as duck is to rabbit. Quack quack, said the
poet, which echoed through the fish-houses.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

[in progress i]

Ask not reason, Klytaemnestra, or probe
     your ice-pick through those multiplying
diptych grams. Ablutions rain down
          worthy patronness, the saint
between cleric and layman gesturing
          prosperity and war. Black lines
     border yellow, red and the white
poofy quiff tangles in a down-heaving
     brand. Shave me clean as an ice-
pick, pink soft fasten bulbous. Splooge
          mascara no good for eyes um.

Caractacus shook off his chains temple
      trembling in wooden blocks – lintel
      pillars architrave and pediment – a sauce
           of pureed white beans garlic
      pepper salt staining blue cobalt plate.
A stiff January wind whips the page from the
           reader’s hand, blurs over the
      microphones. I do not speak this language
well. I cannot read this second term.

      Spencer trends Dylan Andy Big Boy
      tangles of Nereia’s hair not sandy
and in my mouth. A cowlick consummation
      tottering over the steps and into
           the bricks, brought them all
      to what they assumed were their feet.
Vagueness, said Dr. R––––, is the upright man’s answer
           to the arrows and slings of outraged
           specificity. Pull me down another Meister-
      brau. Pull out before you do it.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Disney Hair

I’ve just spent the weekend in the belly of the Culture Industry – Walt Disney World. I’ll leave aside the Epcot experience, even the actually rather cute World Showcase, where Disney attempts to package the architectural and cultural essence of a dozen different countries in about a half city block apiece (Italy a miniature Piazza San Marco complete with Doge’s Palace, Campanile, and fountain, Morroco a miniature Marrakesh with about fifty yards of winding streets, England a stunning collage of an “English” garden and a line of bunged-together buildings whose architecture ranges from a thatched-roof cottage to a tudor house to a Georgian building to some Victorian extravaganza, Canada a collage of Canadian Rockies, Northwestern totem poles, a Victorian palace, and British Columbian gardens). What’s really scary is the Magic Kingdom itself, an amusement park which exists as a giant symbiotic counterpart to Disney’s own imagination industry, its relentless recycling of the corpus of European fairy tales and whatever bits of history and literary culture come into its sights: Collodi’s Pinocchio, Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, Hugo’s Notre-Dame-de-Paris, the story of John Smith and Pocahontas, Milne’s Pooh stories, Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book.

The daily parade in the Magic Kingdom is the most striking event, a ten-minute, painstaking rehearsed procession of what seems like every Disney character you’ve ever encountered (except for the fish from Nemo). I found myself fascinated especially by the actors (“cast members” in Disney parlance, a term which I understand gets applied to every Disney employee from the person in the Pooh costume to the humblest busperson in the hamburger joint) playing “human beings” – i.e. those who weren’t wearing full-body costumes or full-head masks. What’s most notable are the female leads – Alice, Snow White, Belle, Cinderella, etc. – all of whom are made up to the nth degree, so that their faces resemble those of china dolls. Their hands are perfectly manicured, and their costumes precise replicas of those which the animated characters wear. They’re really the opposite of the old-fashioned “animatronics” one encounters in some of Disney’s older attractions, the mechanical animals and characters which are meant to look like living, organic creatures, but which instead resemble what they are – crude robots. The women in the parade (and a few men, as well – Aladdin, Peter Pan, a Prince Charming or two) are human beings who have been gotten up to look like animated films. It shows the most in their hairdos, which are big clunky wigs which seem purposefully engineered to resemble the blank curved planes of animated hair (which has never gotten as sophisticated as digital animation has been able to make it – cf. Donkey in Shrek or the bichon in Shrek II).

So far as I can tell the children love them, are happy to take them for the “princesses” they play. But I find the whole business rather unsettling, uncanny – a transgression of the human/representation boundary – something like a deeply vulgarized version of one of Cindy Sherman’s “old master” photos. Or the “tableaux vivants” that were all the rage as party games in the nineteenth century, where living characters took on the poses of famous artworks (see Wharton’s House of Mirth). Or Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books, with its continual procession of actors in the costumes and poses of paintings.

The only way to get the taste of celluloid out of my mouth was to have dinner at Fat Boy’s Bar-B-Q in Kissimmee, a relatively pure outpost of Southern Cracker culture – something no less contaminated by big business (think Nascar and Jeff Foxworthy), and a poor thing, but mine own.

Friday, March 11, 2005

K-Tel, by Macintosh

My iPod is now fifteen months old. It’s showing its age – that is to say, the case is covered with scratches, there’s some kind of funky drip on the LCD display that no amount of polishing will remove, and I think I’ve cracked one of the earpod speakers playing the fourth movement of the Shostakovich Fifth full blast – but it still works flawlessly. No more than one expects from a Macintosh product. I’m not quite sure how it’s changed my listening habits (aside from the fact that I clearly listen to much more music), but anecdotal evidence from friends suggests to me that this little white box is, in the best MacLuhanite sense, altering sensoria all over the planet.

The iPod may turn out to be a case study in how technologies of artistic reproduction condition production and reception. The history of “popular” recorded music is a series of such case studies: the three-ish minutes available on a 78 force musicians to condense their theoretically interminable blues songs and ballads; in the 1950s and 1960s the unit of artistic production is the 45, on which the musician showcases at most two songs (and there’s considerable record company pressure to make sure that the B-side is, if not actually trash, at least weaker than the A-side). It takes a number of years for the LP to become something other than forty minutes of hit singles interspersed with trash, but when musicians with enough clout to control their own output figure out that they can sequence those two twenty-minute sides to aesthetic effect, then you get the forty-five-minute musicwork – Sergeant Pepper being one of the first and most effective instances (and anything by Yes or Emerson, Lake and Palmer the self-indulgent nadir). The CD holds half again as much music as the LP (this may be urban legend, but I understand that the disk’s capacity – which could have been far larger – was determined by the amount of time consumed by an average performance of Beethoven’s Ninth), but it takes the better part of a decade for recording artists to start thinking in terms of those seventy minutes rather than the forty-five of an LP.

And it’s all rendered moot by the iPod, on which the unit of music measurement – welcome back to the Fifties – is quite explicitly the “song.” Whether that track is one of the sides of Miles’s Pangaea (twenty-odd minutes apiece), a movement of a Berg string quartet, or the latest Britney Spears hit, the iPod calls it a song. The iPod organizes mainly by song; iTunes sells music by the song, and most internet downloading takes place on a song-by-song basis; perhaps most frustratingly, the iPod’s encoding inserts a miniscule break between tracks – “songs” – even when the CD you’ve ripped onto your computer plays continuously: this plays havoc with concert recordings, where there’s always a little blip of silence in the middle of the applause between tracks, and it’s even worse on continuously played “classical” compositions, where the shift from one movement to another – often a composer’s canniest moment – is marred by that little microsecond break.

But what I’m hearing from my friends is that the iPod is doing more than that: after all, most of the people wandering around with those little white earplugs and that autistic gaze (myself of course included) aren’t listening to Schnittke or Berg; instead, they’re listening to various self-selected “playlists” composed not of symphonies or albums but of single songs by various artists. Economically, it makes perfect sense. We’ve all had the experience of buying an entire album for the one good song (my most recent embarassment was Tool’s Lateralus, which I bought for “Schism,” and decided that I could abide only about five minutes of the rest of it). Get the damn thing from iTunes for a mere 99¢, and save the other fifteen dollars for fifteen other songs by whomever. For better or worse, iPod users are turning into song-shufflers, chained to a tiny jukebox. (I’m told some of the newer budget models only work in shuffle mode; is this true?) It’s only a matter of time until this model of listening filters back and affects the production end of things. It won’t make any difference to Britney, whose unit of production has always been the single (or the video), but I can’t help worrying that a song-based economy of reception will work to curtail artists’ desires for a larger canvas. The LP gave us Sergeant Pepper; the CD gave us OK Computer. What will the iPod give us, apart from the up-to-date version of the K-Tel Best of 1978 package?

Monday, March 07, 2005


If culture is defined as the de-barbarization of man, elevating him beyond the state of simple nature, without actually perpetuating this state through violent suppression, then culture is a total failure. It has not been able to take root in man as long as he has lacked prerequisites for an existence marked by human dignity. It is no coincidence that he is still capable of barbarous outbursts because of suppressed rancour about his fate, about his deeply-felt lack of freedom. The fact that he welcomes the trash of the culture industry with outstretched arms – half aware that it is trash – is another aspect of the same state of affairs, the seeming harmlessness of which is probably restricted to the surface. Culture long ago evolved into its own contradiction, the congealed content of educational privilege; for that reason it now takes its place within the material production process as an administered supplement to it.

[Theodor W. Adorno, “Culture and Administration” (trans. Wes Blomster), The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, ed. J. M. Bernstein (New York: Routledge, 1991) 126]

And a puff: the most recent issue of Chicago Review publishes a “Centenary Portfolio” for Louis Zukofsky, including two chapters from my Zukofsky biography. (The stylistic solecisms that so painfully strike my eye when I see the piece in print will, rest assured, be edited out of the final version.) Pay special attention to Barry Ahearn’s brief but meaty selection of unpublished Zukofsky letters and to David Wray’s very brilliant (and beautifully written) meditation on Zukofsky’s Latin translations.