Saturday, April 30, 2005


I don't know anything about Maurice Rickard except that he seems to be an active musician with a rather literate website of various reviews and musings, but it's worth checking out his account of participating last year in the recording of Branca's Symphony No. 13 (Hallucination City) for 100 guitars, 20 basses, and a drummer. (Yes, that's not a typo – one hundred guitars.) Lots of gritty detail about New York traffic, the horrors of New Jersey Howard Johnsons, and what it's like to be in the studio with ninety-nine other electric guitarist.


Like a naughty boy, I slipped away from my responsibilities today and went to the used CD store. A grand haul: Pixies, Bossanova, Elliot Sharp & the Soldier String Quartet, Chumbawamba, Readymades (I'm a sucker for English political music, even if it is sweetened with techno beats, synthesizers, and horns, and this one has lots of cool folk-singer samples), and best of all, three Glenn Brancas:

Symphony No. 2 (The Peak of the Sacred)
Symphony No. 3 (Gloria)
Symphony No. 6 (Devil Choirs at the Gate of Heaven)

Great noisome slabs of strangely-tuned guitars and metallic percussion. It should help with grading the great slabs of student papers and finals over the next few days.

Thursday, April 28, 2005


Well, the weather turned indeed, though not quite in the way I’d expected: today was drearily muggy and rainy, and the evening is almost but not quite pleasant. Few mosquitos yet, but they’re on their way. At least the roads have cleared out a bit. The end of Passover (or Easter, whichever comes later) marks the end of the “season” down here, and the annual migration of the snowbirds northward. That means many things, among them being able to get into a restaurant without a half-hour minimum wait and being able to get to the factory (a five- or six-mile drive) in a reasonable ten minutes, rather than the twenty-five-minute slog one endures when the population swells.

My old friend and co-conspirator Eric Selinger posts a pithy (or pissy) comment to my own last post: “How you can appreciate an eloquent, mordant master like Richard Thompson and a pissy, self-important brickbat like Watten is one of the mysteries of taste in our time, old friend. ‘Massive, relentless, even brutal’ may be words of praise when you're speaking of, I dunno, the three-guitar attack of some new death-metal band, but for a project in poetry?” (Eric, I believe, is working on a full-length study of the negative dialectics of Bruce Andrews and Leslie Scalapino.)

Spoze I could say something about “eclecticism of taste” (after all, this is the chap whose last two posts on Say Something Wonderful have featured George Oppen and Emma Lazarus, two folks one doesn’t expect to see around the same seder table in the Elysian Fields): my own iPod has been bouncing between Emmylou Harris and John Zorn’s Parachute Years of late, and I’m contemplating trying to work up a celtic-folky version of this Public Image Ltd. tune. Or I could say, yes, there are ways in which Progress (not so much Under Erasure) does evoke “the three-guitar attack of some new death-metal” outfit.

Eric, though he may keep returning to that wee dram of Robert Hayden, is also a keen reader of Ronald Johnson and Susan Howe. He may not ultimately want to swallow the full wad of Watten, but one of the things I admire most about the boy (aside from his rapid-fire davening) is his openness to a whole world of poetic cuisines. (NB: Teddy Wiesengrund did NOT admire a "culinary" approach to aesthetics.) That's a rare thing in any parish of Parnassus these days. There’s a sort of hard-edged puritanism – which we at Culture Industry want to admire, but can’t quite bring ourselves to achieve – which scorns exogamous reading with a truly Levitical rage (how many times has Ron Silliman boasted about how few books of poetry he owns published by trade houses?). So call me, like the president Guy Davenport used to call “that white trash from Arkansas,” a waffler.

I’ll hold off on any lengthier comment on Progress/Under Erasure until I’ve had a chance to digest it more fully – or until it’s proved wholly indigestible (which may, one reading of the introduction suggests, be its intended effect). Now if I could only get the stereo to play Sonic Youth and the Grosse Fuge at the same time.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Weather Report

The weather has turned, and not for the better. We’ve had a very nice run of low humidity and cool nights – sometimes you want to put socks on, or even a sweater. But today the humidity squatted right back down on our little strip of asphalt between the swampland and the sea. It was muggier and hotter at 5:00 p. m. than it had been at noon; by tomorrow I imagine we’ll be back to standard-issue South Florida purgatory.

I’ve been listening my ears out on Richard Thompson lately, having taken in his latest solo tour in West Palm Beach this past weekend. I’ve followed the man’s career for I suppose twenty-five years now, and it just seems to get deeper and richer as time passes. Certainly his singing is better now than it has ever been, and his guitar playing has always astonished this bad rhythm guitar player. At the merchandise table I picked up several live CDs (also available from his website), including the wonderful 1000 Years of Popular Music, the record of a concert show he put together in response to a 1999 request from Playboy magazine for his list of the ten best songs of the millennium. Bugged by the notion of “best songs of the millennium” – which he knew would mean “best songs of the past twenty years” – Thompson put together a set that goes from “Sumer Is Icumen In” to “Oops! I Did It Again,” with stops along the way for lots of traditional tunes, musical hall novelty numbers, a Gilbert and Sullivan song, and covers of the Who, Squeeze, the Beatles, Abba, and Prince. Much of the fun is hearing the veddy British Thompson covering this zany range of material; but he does it pretty darned well, for the most part, and I’d take his version of “Oops! I Did It Again” (or in its medieval version, “Marry, Agayn Hic Hev Donne Yt”) over Brittney’s any day.

Recently over the reading table: John Wilkinson’s Sarn Helen (Equipage, 1997) and Barrett Watten’s Progress/Under Erasure (Green Integer, 2005). The Watten is a one-volume reissue of two books from the eighties and nineties that ought to be required reading for any beginning poet. There’s something so massive, relentless, even brutal about Watten’s project that I hesitate to say anything about the book right now – except that it should be read. Wilkinson is one of the more radical English poets I’ve encountered recently. Sarn Helen, a handsome little chapbook from Rod Mengham’s Equipage series, is a single longish poem with an astonishingly varied diction and syntax that twists in consistently surprising ways:

Retsina. Amber sperm. Who were the butt of a stress
contour, mendicant. You top brass best dive below,
aspirate hit dumdumming mouths scoops of casualties,
rolled out the yellow matting so to doff their sprigs
towards the mainstay, ribboning its bulb It blazons
the exilic camp. Whose proprietory bales were those?

I gather that Wilkinson has joined the English faculty of Notre Dame, where his wife the modernist psychoanalytic critic Maud Ellmann holds an endowed chair. From a great distance, welcome! Here’s hoping the weather is more hospitable in South Bend.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Transatlantic Zukofsky

Louis Zukofsky’s writing has always had more currency in the United States than in Great Britain. That isn’t to say that some British poets and scholars haven’t followed and promoted his writing – the great Northumbrian poet Basil Bunting was one of Zukofsky’s earliest and best readers and a lifetime friend and correspondent, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Gael Turnbull, Charles Tomlinson, and Tom Pickard discovered Zukofsky’s work in the 1950s and 1960s, and for my money Zukofsky’s two keenest commentators are Kenneth Cox and Peter Quartermain (who, while he holds a Canadian passport, is betrayed by his transatlantic accent) – but I’ve always had the sense that the various British poetry communities, particularly the “mainstream” schools covered by the TLS and the London Review, have viewed Zukofsky as something of a peculiarly American aberration. Donald Davie (at heart a Thomas Hardy follower to the end, despite the important Pound criticism he wrote), never could quite accept Zukofsky: in his last year at Vanderbilt, he taught a graduate seminar on “The Objectivists” that wholly omitted Zukofsky.

It’s fascinating then to see Zukofsky pop up on the website of the Poetry Society, the United Kingdom’s peculiar cross between the Academy of American Poets and the Book of the Month Club. He’s there as the subject of the Second Prize-winning poem of the Society’s 2004 competition, Matthew Caley’s “L. Z.” Caley is a Senior Lecturer in Graphic Communication at The School Of Art and Design, University of Wolverhampton, and – according to one website – a “top London poet.” And he’s a poet who seems aware of how deeply retrograde official British verse culture is, even though his own gestures towards a more up-to-date poetics are rather touchingly tame. It’s a shame that “L. Z.,” despite the fact that it’s netted Caley a nice handful of cheese – a thousand pounds – isn’t a better poem. Yes, he appears to have read Zukofsky, or at least hit some of the high points (“Poem beginning ‘The,’” “A”-7). But as any real coming to grips with Zukofsky, “L. Z.” is an abject failure.

It’s not really a matter of the details (though, as Aby Warburg told us many years ago, “God is in the details”). When Caley says Zukofsky “never saw the major work complete,” I assume he means that Zukofsky died before seeing “A” in print in one volume: but the work was complete, and all in print, several years before Zukofsky died in 1978. The sawhorses of “A”-7 are in Manhattan, not Brooklyn. (Zukofsky did not move to Brooklyn until after World War II; his youthful nickname, conferred upon him by Tibor Serly, was the “Manhattan Mauler.” But I suppose one should forgive a Londoner his ignorance of New York borough geography.) New York fire escapes indeed look like stacked letter Zs, but no New Yorker would dream of calling them “zeds.” And I assume that Caley’s “If seahorses could but sing Offenbach, Father” is meant as parody of the “If horses could but sing Bach” line in “Poem beginning ‘The’” (addressed to Zukofsky’s mother), but it’s a pretty damned lame parody.

Caley’s conclusion, that Zukofsky was a “a man who for forty-six years watered a single letter, yet was / left with nothing but the odour of odourless zinnias,” for all of its metrical and musical ineptitude, does however repeat one criticism of Zukofsky that I’ve certainly heard before: that the work, for all of its single-minded complexity, its obdurate focus and cunning craftsmanship, its entanglements in and explorations of the political geography of the twentieth century, is somehow lacking in that much-prized human touch – or perhaps, in line with Caley’s image, that human “odour.” Paradoxically, I suspect that what Zukofsky lacks for Caley is the “wildness” that Caley associates with American poets like Cage, Pound, and Mac Low. Ironic, ultimately: that the careful machinings of Zukofsky’s verse have been best interpreted by the painstaking, penetrating, and very English intelligences of Bunting, Cox, and Quartermain; and that Caley, the Briton in search of new sources of poetic energy, would reject that very verse as lacking the true stench of the American.

Addendum: It’s worth quoting the first sentences of a review by Jane Yeh in the 15 April TLS: “Colette Bryce’s second collection, The Full Indian Rope Trick, sits firmly in the mainstream of contemporary British verse. Rarely longer than a page each, Bryce’s poems are neatly crafted vignettes about personal experiences and the world at large, clearly related in everyday language. They contain a sufficient amount of internal rhyme to be deemed musical, and enough metaphor-making to seem artful.” This, one hastens to add, is meant as neutral description. Glad to hear someone else’s “mainstream” is at least as dreary as one’s own.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Supply and Demand

Since this reintroduction of intellectual labour into the process of production corresponds to the immediate needs of late capitalist technology, the education of intellectual workers must likewise be strictly subordinated to these needs. The result is the crisis of the classical humanist university, rendered anachronistic not only for formal reasons (excessive numbers of students, backwardness of material infrastructure, changes in social background of students, which demand an above-average social expenditure in the university sector, and so on) and not only for overall social reasons (attempts to avoid the emergence of an unemployed intelligentsia; attempts to restrain student revolt, and to step up the ideologization of science for the purposes of manipulating the masses) but also and above all for directly economic reasons specific to the nature of intellectual labour in late capitalism; the constraint to adapt the structure of the university, the selection of students and the choice of syllabuses to accelerated technological innovation under capitalist conditions. The main task of the university is no longer to produce ‘educated’ men [sic] of judgment and property – an ideal which correspondended to the needs of freely competitive capitalism – but to produce intellectually skilled wage-earners for the production and circulation of commodities.

–Ernest Mandel, Late Capitalism, trans. Joris De Bres (Verso, 1978) 260-1

The Board of Governors on Thursday, April 21, unanimously approved Our University's medical education partnership with the University Next Door, and that is a truly wonderful thing for the future of OU. BOG approval is a critically important step that paves the way for us to seek additional state funding for this promising new program.

The Board's unanimous action is an endorsement of the value of this unique public-private partnership in the face of the rapidly escalating need for more physicians in Our State and around the nation. Current studies warn that the U.S. will face a shortage of 85,000 to 200,000 physicians by 2020 unless our universities develop ways to produce substantial numbers of new doctors - up to 10,000 more per year than are currently entering the profession.

Through this cooperative program, OU and the UND School of Medicine are creating the template for a new and more cost-effective way of educating physicians.

–The President of Our University, in a statement posted on the university website 22 April 2005

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

David Melnick: PCOET

The first thing I ever read by David Melnick was probably the essay “The ‘Ought’ of Seeing: Zukofsky’s Bottom” in the fifth issue of John Taggart’s Maps (1973). It’s a brilliant article, still after thirty-two years the best single thing ever written about Bottom: on Shakespeare. Melnick shows himself entirely at home, not merely with Zukofsky and Shakespeare, but with Aristotle as well – more at home with Aristotle, one might venture, than Zukofsky himself, who quotes and comments on tons of passages from that philosopher in the course of his big, weird Shakespeare book.

I read “The ‘Ought’ of Seeing” in grad school in Ithaca, New York, while I was writing a dissertation on Zukofsky and Stevens, and I was still in grad school when I discovered that Melnick was also a poet. I got Ron Silliman’s In the American Tree in 1987, which excerpted two of Melnick’s collections and included the following (self-composed) author’s bio:

     David Melnick was born in Illinois in 1938 and was raised in Los Angeles. By the age of 7 he had invented a private language, and at 13 he constructed a semi-private one with a friend. He was educated at the University of Chicago and the University of California at Berkeley, and now lives in San Francisco. His first book, Eclogs, containing poems written in the 1960s, was published in 1972 (Ithaca House). PCOET, written in 1972, was published in 1975 (G.A.W.K.). Men in Aida, Book One (Tuumba, 1983) is the first book of projected poem based on Homer’s Iliad.
      This poet’s politics are left, his sexual orientation gay, his family Jewish. He has wandered much, e.g., to France, Greece and Spain (whence his mother’s ancestors emigrated in 1492). As of this writing, he has never held a job longer than a year-and-a-half at a stretch. He is short, fat, and resembles Modeste Moussorgsky in face and Gertrude Stein in body type and posture.

That was enough to get me reading. Soon after, thanks to Ithaca’s wonderful secondhand bookstores, I happened upon copies of Eclogs and PCOET, two-thirds of Melnick’s entire published corpus. (PCOET and Men and Aida are available on Craig Dworkin’s Eclipse site, as well as another installment of Men in Aida; a later work, A Pin’s Fee, is online at Logopoeia.)

Eclogs was an important book to me in many ways, but it’s PCOET that has really stuck with me. It’s a collection of 83 short poems, many of them single-liners, some of them a single word. If Clark Coolidge’s Space strips poetry down to the words themselves, then PCOET goes a step further, breaking the words themselves down into their constituent letters and sounds:

o hawero
rrno pori      od bno

mrmdly is

shig weit yxzaaana y-

cgot ghuin,    it 7

shig kulkk
n xprty off wiqap

             oegi boyy


At time it seems as though Melnick is simply typing as rapidly and sloppily as possible over some preëxisting text. At other times he’s running words into one another, forcing the reader to tweeze them apart and attempt to parse out their component parts. This is “active” reading at its most active, a continual struggle to make out the familiar among clouds of the alien.

If that sounds about as pleasant as a root canal, then I haven’t conveyed how much fun Melnick’s text really is. This is a high-spirited piece of work, a running joke that cedes authority from the poet to the reader with a scornful wave. I challenge anyone to read aloud the following –

oange astare
o lawe, o starest
outcat lode hapdne

leslac igowersoas
artest not a leslac


cher waeret, deit


– without bursting in laughter. And one’s next move, of course, is to contemplate how deftly Melnick’s letter-combinations veer towards and then dart away from familiar “sense.” POET would be the most pompous title imaginable for a collection. Throw in a “C” – which, as Zukofsky never tired of reminding us, sounds the sense of sight, the sense by which we see the letters of the words we read – and you have something far stranger, far more self-effacing, and far more sublime: PCOET.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Prehistoric Blogs I: Fors Clavigera

I’m a relative latecomer to the blogosphere, so I’m always discovering new uses people have come up with for the weblog medium, and ways in which people have rethought its potentials and limitations. And of course there’re only probably a couple dozen weblogs that I look at with any regularity – a teeny tiny fraction of that sea of writing going on out there. Much of what I see, especially from blogs that don’t explicitly concentrate on poetry, politics, or cultural criticism, is old-fashioned journal- or diary-keeping: with the ever-present twist that this particular diary, instead of having a lock on its cover or living in the depths of a desk drawer, is on some level intended to be public.

As someone who draws a salary on the basis of pretending to say intelligent things about literary texts, I find myself looking to literary history for formal precursors of the weblog, and with mixed success. The great Restoration diarists – Samuel Pepys, William Byrd II – don’t really fit the bill, because their journals are so resolutely private. Even Henry David Thoreau, I’m convinced, wouldn’t have kept a blog (despite the success of the always refreshing Blog of Henry David Thoreau, which gives you a daily snippet of HDT’s journal, weblog style): as wonderful as his journals are, they’re really a personal storehouse and quarry, the great blocks of observation and pre-composition from which he carved out his actual books. Thoreau had no other ultimate reader in mind for his journals than himself. (That’s a bit more questionable with Coleridge’s journals, which seem to be written with at least half an eye on posterity; and one suspects that Harold Nicholson and Virginia Woolf would rest very uneasily indeed in their graves if their journals hadn’t been published.)

But the other day the postman brought a book that reminded me of one model somewhere in the back of my mind when I started this blog: Judith Stoddart’s Ruskin’s Culture Wars: Fors Clavigera and the Crisis of Victorian Liberalism (U of Virginia P, 1998). John Ruskin, the great Victorian art critic, author of Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice, among scores of other works, from 1871 to 1884 concentrated his energies on a series of monthly pamphlets entitled Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain. (“Fors” is fate; “clavigera” means “bearing a nail,” or a “club,” or perhaps a “key.” Ruskin would play with every possible meaning of his Latin title.) Each of the 96 installments of Fors is dated and datelined; in each of them Ruskin (eventually) comments on and addresses contemporary issues and events; like the “Comments” page on Blogger, the numbers of Fors incorporate letters received, along with Ruskin’s responses; and in an early anticipation of hyperlinks, Ruskin includes both copious illustrations and lengthy quotations from current newspaper articles.

Guy Davenport, in “The House that Jack Built,” a lovely essay on the form of the labyrinth in modernist writing, calls Fors Clavigera a “Victorian prose Cantos,” and traces the ancestry of much of high modernism --– from Joyce to Pound to Zukofsky – to certain labyrinth-passages in Fors. I think he’s overstating, both in regards to Ruskin’s direct influence and to the disjunctiveness of his style. But it’s undeniable that Fors has a kind of zany, paratactic logic that reminds one of The Pisan Cantos or a letter from Charles Olson. In the course of a single number (61, from November 1875), Ruskin will veer from describing the white cat owned by his hostess, to recounting the high-minded reforming impulses that led him to begin Fors, to a fiery castigation of contemporary economic inequities, to an engraving of a leaf with perfect circles eaten out of it by the “leaf-cutting bee,” to a comparison of contemporary bookkeeping handwriting with a line from a Greek psalter (both carefully reproduced), to the family trees of the sons of Noah, to a list of classics that one ought to read. The “Notes and Correspondence” section reprints, among much else, two newspaper articles about workers’ deaths by starvation, a letter by Robert Burns’s brother Gilbert, and an account of a picturesque Welsh valley being ruined by the railway.

It’s all rather exhilarating and bewildering, held together ultimately by the force of Ruskin’s beautiful prose and his overbearing, hectoring personal voice. There’s lots not to like about Ruskin – he describes himself as a “violent Tory of the old school,” and while his compassion for the working classes at times seems to match Karl Marx’s, his solutions to the economic problems of Victorian Britain are so impractical as to be risible. But I am fascinated by how Fors, as a periodical, single-author work, unconstrained by preset subject matter or approach and ultimately at the mercy of the contingencies of the writer’s life and context, provides one model for the ultra-contemporary form of the weblog.

Fors Clavigera is no longer an easy book to come by. I am almost certainly the only person in Palm Beach County to own two copies of it in its 1600-page entirety, both of them modest turn-of-the-century reprints. The definitive edition, part of Cook and Wedderburn’s beautifully edited collection of Ruskin’s complete works (1903-1912) has passed out of the realm of readers and into the country of well-heeled collectors. Dinah Birch, one of the finest Ruskin scholars working, has edited a selection of Fors for Edinburgh University Press – which goes for a mere $135. Abebooks is the place to go to find a usable, probably battered set in the neighborhood of fifty bucks, which is what I paid for my first copy. Ruskin is at best an acquired taste, but well worth the acquiring.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Xmas in April

It’s been a long, hard week, struggling with a nasty and stubborn virus of some sort, trying to stay awake through my own lectures, and anticipating with no little dread the floods of end-of-semester work that will be washing against my breakwaters any day now. The brightest spot of the whole week was the appearance of a big box from the formidable Lisa Jarnot – she’s trying to clean out some of the overflow from her shelves and to raise a bit of cash for an upcoming honeymoon (mazel tov!), and I’m trying to spend my children’s inheritance. As Archie Ammons used to say, Oh My! Christmas in April! A preliminary overview of said box’s contents shows almost eighty items – books, chapbooks, magazines, and other ephemera, all poetry-related. I anticipate much satisfying reading over the next few months.

Casey Mohammad points out that the full text of Clark Coolidge’s Space is online at Craig Dworkin’s wonderful Eclipse site, a real treasure-house of hard-to-find interesting poetry texts. While you’re there, check out the books by David Melnick, my own favorite “where are they now?” candidate.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Clark Coolidge: Space

Clark Coolidge, who’s now in his mid-sixties, was thirty or thirty-one when he published Space. I bought my own copy of the book – second-hand, a library discard with the dust jacket in one of those handy perspex sleeves – in 1989, and have dipped back and forth in it for some time. I’ve only gotten around to reading it straight through this past weekend. Ashes on my head!

What strikes one first are what Gerard Genette would call the “paratexts,” and they give one a glimpse of precisely how different the world of poetry was in 1971. There’s no dust jacket photo, surprisingly enough, for Coolidge is a rather good-looking chap – quite the knock-out back in the early Seventies. The cover design is by Jasper Johns, a perfect marriage of then-current avant-gardes in the visual and verbal realms. The jacket back is bare – no laudatory blurbs from established writers, telling us that CC is “the most promising young voice” of his generation or similar piffle. Instead, on the jacket wraparound there are two paragraphs of plain-spoken prose, telling us that we’ll initially find these poems impenetrable, but if we keep reading, we’ll learn to see and hear words themselves in a new way.

Can you imagine any contemporary work published by a trade press whose dust jacket copy included the words “If you keep reading?” Someone over in marketing would have a stroke. For, strikingly enough, Space – which, if it were coming out in 2005, would be published by a micro-press, or appearing directly on a website – was published in 1971 by – drumroll – Harper & Row. That’s worth thinking about for a moment, that there was a time in living memory when a major American trade publisher would issue a 120-page collection of absolutely, obdurately opaque poems by a young poet who had no MFA, no ties with the power structures of American academic poetry, and who made no compromise whatsoever with what (then as now) most readers looked for in a poem:

a arc bust a writ tin
dew toward
smokes pays tho runs pouch
mass lath
      a pour

This is a terrifically rich book, in a minimalist manner: it impresses the shapes and sounds of individual words upon a reader, holds out momentary possibilities of syntax and connection, always immediately withdrawing them. The little prose poems of Stein’s Tender Buttons (evoked in the Steinian pun “writ tin”?) seem like symphonic orchestrations of symbolism next to Coolidge’s verbal scrawls.

Space marks something like a certain limit point of abstraction – though it was of course nothing like a limit point to Coolidge’s career, and he pursued any number of directions in the thirty or so books he’s published since then. But I remain rather bemused by the fact the book bears the familiar Harper & Row “1817” emblem. It bespeaks a moment before American cultural institutions had quite aligned their publishing programs with their economic interests: when Melvin Tolson’s Harlem Gallery could be published in a tacky small-format paperback edition by Collier ("A Magnificent Comic Ode to Harlem by the Great Afro-American Poet," reads the cover of my copy, dated 1969), when a section of Louis Zukofsky’s “A”-21 could appear on the Letters page of the New York Times, when Scribner’s was issuing both Hemingway reprints and Robert Creeley’s Pieces. Those days seem long gone, at least in the poetry industry. Can anyone think of a genuinely edgy, genuinely innovative poet who, at the age of thirty, has seen her or his work published by a major trade house over the last ten years?

Laughs on Parnassus, part 1

Ho ho ho! Ron Silliman, as he reveals a couple of days back on his blog, has been on the receiving end of nasty e-mail from Mr. Franz “so what if I dress in black and write depressing poems what makes you think you worms have any right even to touch the hem of my garments and so what if I don’t use any fucking commas I oughtta deck you one right now” Wright. As my three-year-old likes to say in response to a particularly side-splitting joke (these days, the nightly recital of how she and her friends smeared themselves at her party with birthday cake “like babies”) – and I wish there were a typographical way of reproducing her chirrupy intonation – “That’s funny!”

One of Ron’s readers points out that this isn’t Mr. W’s first foray into mudslinging: most memorable is his letter to William Logan concerning Logan's review of him in the New Criterion, where he utters threats (scroll all the way down, to the second F. W. letter) that would get Amiri Baraka thrown in jail (not being white, after all, nor a Pulitzer Prize-winner). My own conspiracy theory is that all the poets who’ve been slammed by Logan over the years in his reviews – and he is the most hated man in mainstream American poetry, and not for his poetry, which no-one I know has ever read, much less cared about one way or the other – clubbed together their lunch money and offered F. W. the wherewithal for a weekend in deep melancholia in order to put his name to their seething collective resentment.

We at the Brecht-reading end of the poetic revolution don’t mind F. W. taking a stab at Ron; it’s rather like the neutered Maltese down the road who goes berserk whenever the Muscovy ducks land on the pond – hey, it’s just how the breed works. But we’re practically gleeful to see him doing the Monty Python fish-dance with Bill Logan. Just another sign of how rotten the bourgeoisie has gotten, innit guv?

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Susan Gevirtz: Linen minus

I don’t really know where to locate Susan Gevirtz on the map of contemporary poetry. I own only two of her books, Taken Place (Reality Street, 1993) and Linen minus (Avenue B, 1992). I don’t know whether she’s an East or West Coast poet, or even a midwesterner. I don’t know who she hangs out with, though Linen minus has blurbs from Norma Cole, Kevin Killian, and Kathleen Fraser, three very different poets whose work I respect greatly. But I know that I like Linen minus very much indeed. It’s a brief book, eleven poems that at times read like sketches for more fully fleshed-out works (think Hölderlin’s drafts, or Mallarmé’s notes towards the never-written poem for his son Anatole). There is a poem touching on the Romansh language of Switzerland (“Romansh: the stations of canonization”), another that plays upon the twenty-third Psalm (“(untitled)    ‘restoreth    leadeth’”), and another that seems to be set in a war-torn, Vietnam-like country (“Waterless Road”). In each of them, Gevirtz achieves remarkable intensity through the mosaic-like accreting of little lyrical fragments. “Sluice,” for instance, begins with this wake-up call:

coin of the game
eyes of gone
siphon weather
conduit not
or penny heads
my little precious
quake three palms up
you isolate your short order
ask late in early morning
rise mutter

–and ends with this beautiful passage:

at the wellhole one shoots fishes
the jug breaks and leaks
through your limbs

to break into pieces
water of the wellspring bubbles only
for fishes    shoot forth a ray
do not drink
dive down

leaven leave
coins of winter
palm-sized pine trees laden
our arms dispensable    boughs

Of course I can’t paraphrase what that “says,” but I know it gives me in a concentrated form some of the pleasures I look for most keenly in poetry: intense, isolated lyricism; a kind of indirection, not quite “suggestion rather than statement,” but rather statement unmoored from direct reference.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Bulletin from the Sickhouse

The entire household – yours truly, his lovely wife, the two (sometimes) charming children – laid low for the past few days by a very nasty virus. Mostly we just shuffle around groaning, pausing frequently to catch our breaths and avoid bouts of vertigo. Those who don’t live in “sun-belt” climates don’t know one of the worst aspects of that lifestyle: the fact that one has to suffer foul-weather illnesses in fair-weather surroundings. Aside from a bout of thunderstorms Thursday night, the weather has been astonishingly nice the past few days: sunny, slightly breezing, low to moderate humidity. There’s kind of a karmic rightness to having a foul cold when you’re living in (say) Ithaca, New York, or Edinburgh, at least during the nine months of the year when those place’s weather can be fairly called “unspeakable.” Having a bad cold in Boca Raton, on the other hand, makes one suspect that some deity is out to get one.

The cold hasn’t kept me from reading; and while I find I can’t get through more than a paragraph of the Bourdieu I’m working on without losing his thread (and that’s not always the case), it seems to be almost a perfect laboratory state for rather more non-linear things: Clark Coolidge’s Space, Steve McCaffery’s Theory of Sediment. More later – I have a pill to take.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Stalinist historiography

In an exercise in Soviet Fifties-style rewriting of history, I've decided to delete last month's post commenting on the Louis Zukofsky conference at the University of Chicago last November. I think I stand by much that I said there, but I'm uncomfortable with the rather petulant tone and with the way the post may have misrepresented the positions and statements of some of those present. The whole conference was a grand event, small enough to be intimate and large enough to have a sense of critical mass, and above all else it had the kind of focus that one rarely encounters in academic gatherings.

The question of "greatness" I suppose remains out there, and one of the things that made the Chicago party interesting was precisely the fact that there were people up front who were willing to read Zukofsky critically – to question his importance or value, not to take it for granted – rather than just analytically or ideologically. Do I think LZ is a "major" poet? do I think he's "grrreat" (as Tony the Tiger would say)? Well, the short answer would be "yes," but only if you stripped the terms of all of the canonical and pedagogical baggage that they've accumulated over the last however many decades. Which makes the short answer a long, long answer indeed.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Damage, and pleasure 101

I’ll admit it – four years ago, The Damage Manual came close to redeeming rock music for me, after a period of maybe a decade when I’d bought perhaps a half-dozen new releases and confined myself to listening to jazz, “classical,” and various “world” musics. With the EP >1 and the album The Damage Manual (both 2000), the group somehow made the whole bass-guitar-drums-voice combination viable again for me, in ways that young upstarts like The Strokes and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn’t managed.

It’s not that The Damage Manual was particularly new in any chronological sense. The youngest member, Chris Connelly, was (God help him) just my age, and the instrumentalists were long-time veterans of the punk and industrial scenes: Geordie (Walker), the guitarist of Killing Joke; the bassist Jah Wobble, who got his start with John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd. and has since dabbled in world, ambient, and dub forms; and the drummer Martin Atkins, also a PiL veteran who over the past two decades has built his Chicago-based Invisible Records label into a minor “industrial” industry, spearheaded by his own band Pigface. The Damage Manual was in short a post-punk/industrial superground, and their first two records are a remarkable marriage of relentless electronic grooves and jaw-rattling live musicianship. The locus classicus remains the opening track from >1, “Sunset Gun,” which begins with burst of turntable scratching and electronic noise before settling into a mid-tempo groove reminiscent of Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks.”

All this as prelude to the news that The Damage Manual’s third release, Limited Edition, is flatly disappointing. In fact, it’s hard not to be insulted by the fact that Limited Edition has been released under The Damage Manual moniker at all. Gone is Wobble, whose room-filling bass lent a vertiginous depth to the first recordings; gone is Geordie, whose open tunings and bagpipe drones bear resemblance to few other guitarists. Atkins and Connelly still frown at us from the band photo, but most of the instrumental chores have fallen to Steve Siebold, a long-term veteran of the industrial scene and leader of the band Hate Department. The magic is gone, and instead we are given thirty-plus minutes of competent but not particularly moving industrial rock. There’s a minor moment of redeption at the end, where they’ve tacked on a wonderfully eccentric remix of the old track “Expand,” morphed into something like industrial jazz (!) by Can keyboardist Irmin Schmidt. But even that feels like a space filler. Give Limited Edition a miss; drop by the Invisible Records site and take advantage of their insultingly affordable prices on >1 and The Damage Manual.
Eric Selinger has begun a blog under the sprightly title "Say Something Wonderful." Its focus looks to be in part a pedagogical one – the teaching of poetry – which is grand, because those of us penned in the academy know what it’s like to deal with the effects of the indifferent (or worse) teaching of poetry; and teachers of poetry, I suspect, don’t come much better than Eric. Even more attractive to me is Mr. S’s avowed intention of attending to the pleasure of poetry. He is, in short, a certified hedonist, more likely to be reading Bridget Jones than Gayatri Spivak, getting more from Austen’s Sense and Sensibility than Austin’s Sense and Sensibilia, more inclined to tumescent volumes where bodices get ripped than slim collections whose syntax is decorously disshevelled.

Now we here at Culture Industry feel obliged to distrust pleasure. (By “we,” of course, I mean me – that’s the theoretical collective “we.” Did Teddy Wiesengrund reach for his revolver when he heard the word “pleasure”?) But if anyone’s going to change our mind with lively writing and spot-on one-liners, it’s Eric Selinger. Stay tuned.

Sunday, April 03, 2005


Ron Silliman points out that the PennSound website has put online video files of presentations from the October 2004 Columbia/Barnard Zukofsky conference, among them Bob Creeley's lovely reminiscences (which include the arresting information that LZ really wanted to be a flamenco dancer!). Depending on your degree of masochism, you can scroll down to watch and hear my own (overlong) presentation. Why didn't anyone tell me my nametag was on at such a dorky angle?

Saturday, April 02, 2005


It’s hard for me to remember when I didn’t know Robert Creeley’s poetry, or at least some of his poems. His image was fixed in my mind in my undergraduate days from the Gerard Malanga photograph, where Creeley’s single eye, shining out from under a wonderful eave of Sixties hair, was echoed in the adoring eye of his dog. I must have seen him speak or read, shaken his hand, exchanged greetings, a dozen or so times over the past fifteen years. He took me out to lunch once in Buffalo, so that I could ask him questions about Louis Zukofsky – questions he answered with deliberation and warmth, though I’m sure he was aware he was repeating the same anecdotes he had told in his various essays on Zukofsky. But those were the moments by which he wanted his friend remembered, moments of large and small kindnesses, acts of humanitas – the older poet interesting himself not merely in the work, but in the personal welfare of the younger.

Ever since my first poetry teacher, Wyatt Prunty, handed me a copy of his essay “Emaciated Poetry” – a savage excoriation of the meagre lines of Creeley and A. R. Ammons from the standpoint of a dyed-in-the-wool partisan of the pentameter – I perversely enough decided that Creeley was (like Saul) “one of the prophets.” It came as something of a revelation to me to learn (but I have always been a slow learner) that this man, friend to Olson, Zukofsky, Duncan, had never removed himself from the flows of contemporary poetry; from his chair at Buffalo, he remained in touch with the most lively currents of writing, encouraging the young, learning from them. He became a model for me of one who was growing old in poetry without growing out of touch.

For those who heard Bob speak more than once, or who had engaged him in any length of conversation, it was all too easy to gently mock his favorite words: “company” the noun, “dear” the adjective. But it didn’t take long to recognize the depth of emotion with which he invested those sometimes hackneyed words; an investment much like that of his later poetry, which strove to reinvest the simplest of forms and diction – forms and diction that so many of us, the younger generations, regarded only with scorn – with emotional immediacy. Dear, dear man. Light of our company.