Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Radioactive Cat

I never thought I'd be posting a cat-related message to this blog; I am, after all, not really a "cat person." Yes, when I got married the relationship – like a minivan with a back-seat DVD player – came already equipped with a cat. And our cat, Aphra – named of course after Aphra Behn – is no more a person cat than I am a cat person. We pass like ships in the night, hailing each other usually with affection, but rarely doing the cuddle thing.

At any rate, yesterday I spent some hours dropping Aphra off at a far distant animal clinic so that she could get a dose of radioactive iodine for her hyperthyroidism. She's staying there for the better part of the week: apparently she'll be a rather "hot" cat. I was most struck by the set of handling guidelines we were given by the vet, most of which he confessed were wildly, probably unrealistically conservative measures mandated by the State government. But: "No, they're quite serious about not putting the cat litter in the garbage. Yes, they do have geiger counters at the landfill." Turns out a client of his had blithely tossed out her post-operative cat litter some years ago; the apparatchiks at the landfill detected a radioactivity source in the truckload of garbage, which they sequestered and went thru bag by smelly bag. They traced the offensively clicking cat litter back to the woman's address by means of envelopes in the same bag, and next thing she knew there were men in orange spacesuits putting "Toxic Waste" tape up around her property, and no end of red tape to be cut and explanations to be made.

Flushable litter, the alternative to letting regular litter fester in your garbage can for 90 days (the safe half-life of the isotope), is according to the vet easily diluted in the medium into which the water people discharge their waste (the ocean, I guess). But apparently landfill radioactivity has a tendency to pool down at the bottom of the landfill (that heavy-duty plastic bag layer), causing greater problems.

The landfills, as Archie Ammons recognized some years ago in I think Garbage, are the only real topographical high spots down here. Rather attractive Yucatan-style overgrown pyramids, if you can overlook the wheeling flocks of seagulls & birds of prey, & if you don't have to live downwind of them.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Walter Benjamin on How to Write

Post No Bills

The Writer's Technique in Thirteen Theses

I. Anyone intending to embark on a major work should be lenient with himself and, having completed a stint, deny himself nothing that will not prejudice the next.

II. Talk about what you have written, by all means, but do not read from it while the work is in progress. Every gratification procured in this way will slacken your tempo. If this regime is followed, the growing desire to communicate will become in the end a motor for completion.

III. In your working conditions avoid everyday mediocrity. Semi-relaxation, to a background of insipid sounds, is degrading. On the other hand, accompaniment by an étude or a cacophony of voices can become as significant for work as the perceptible silence of the night. If the latter sharpens the inner ear, the former acts as a touchstone for a diction ample enough to bury even the most wayward sounds.

IV. Avoid haphazard writing materials. A pedantic adherence to certain papers, pens, inks is beneficial. No luxury, but an abundance of these utensils is indispensable.

V. Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.

VI. Keep your pen aloof from inspiration, which it will then attract with magnetic power. The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself. Speech conquers thought, but writing commands it.

VII. Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas. Literary honour requires that one break off only at an appointed moment (a mealtime, a meeting) or at the end of the work.

VIII. Fill the lacunae of inspiration by tidily copying out what is already written. Intuition will awaken in the process.

IX. Nulla dies sine linea – but there may well be weeks.

X. Consider no work perfect over which you have not once sat from evening to broad daylight.

XI. Do not write the conclusion of a work in your familiar study. You would not find the necessary courage there.

XII. Stages of composition: idea – style – writing. The value of the fair copy is that in producing it you confine attention to calligraphy. The idea kills inspiration, style fetters the idea, writing pays off style.

XIII. The work is the death mask of its conception.

One-Way Street, trans. Edmund Jephcott, Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913-1926, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Belknap P of Harvard UP, 1996) 458-9.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Louis Untermeyer & Amy Lowell

Yes, we have been reprieved. Until the very last minute, it looked as tho Katrina would give us a fairly serious evening; our lights went out around 3 in the afternoon, and then the winds started really kicking up. But they kicked up, and then ratcheted down. The power came back before midnight, just in time to save the contents of the fridge. The driveway is carpeted with leaves and small branches, but nothing significant was blown down – aside, that is, from a little camping pavilion I'd set up beside the house for shady reading, and which I'd forgotten to take down. Oh well.
Michael Peverett responded to my post on Olson & his critics with a rather interesting journey into Amy Lowell-land, a place in which I haven't spent much time. He begins by noting my comment on Don Byrd's calling Robert von Hallberg "Mr. von Hallberg," and my offhand parallel of that to Hugh Kenner's "Miss Lowell":

The polite form used to be, that dead authors could be referred to by their first name ("Jane Austen") but that living people should be referred to by title ("Dr Leavis", "Mr Eliot"). This usage was pretty much extinct by the 1950s. It's no doubt true that most scholars prefer dead writers to living writers, which perhaps is why the use of titles often bristles with dislike.

[Thanks, Michael – seriously; this clears up a few dictional questions that buzz around in my mind when I read criticism from the first half of the 20th century. Of course, everything's different now, and I sense there're differences transatlantically, as well. I'm just trying to get my students to drop that damned provicial "Dr." and call me "Professor" (if they must use a title).]

Obviously this usage couldn't apply in Hugh Kenner's case, Amy Lowell having died in 1925 when he was two. Perhaps what really stuck in his craw was a memory of Louis Untermeyer's utterances, as given below (Modern American Poetry: A Critical Anthology, 1919).

Perhaps he was just drawing on the age-old folk-hatred of the unattached woman. Untermeyer and Kenner between them seem to typify very neatly the traditional (not yet extinct?) pattern of male critical response to female poets as outlined by Germaine Greer, namely (1) take them up and over-praise them in an ultimately patronising way, then (2) take violent revenge on their reputations for having been so blatantly over-praised.

Certainly probably for Untermeyer. But HK, so far as I know, never gave Lowell a word of praise, grudging or otherwise. And I suspect that his treatment of her in The Pound Era gave a whole generation of us the sense that we never really needed to read her work at all. Now I'm a great fan of brutal criticism, of twisting the knife & so forth, but what Lowell gets subjected to in that book rather goes beyond the boundaries – gives one a more than slightly shocking insight into a critical universe that's far more misogynist and homophobic than one expects even for 1971. Were there no editors at the University of California Press? (Note to self: post on editors, editing.)

Michael goes on to quote several paragraphs of Untermeyer on Lowell, all of them somewhat flowery and impressionistic, but cumulatively enough to make me want to turn over some pages of Lowell for myself – to see why someone like Untermeyer (far from a first-rate thinker or critic, but certainly a major power broker in American poetry for the first half of the century) would take her so seriously. And why someone like Kenner, whose working thesis in The Pound Era is that these little canonical battles have already been fought and won, would spent so much vituperative energy in trying to reduce her to a figure of comedy.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Katrina & her waves

The Fall 2004 semester at Our University was an ungodly mess, disrupted by no fewer than three major hurricanes in the neighborhood – two of which gave us something approaching direct hits. We’re talking downed trees, damaged buildings, floods, and longish power outages (no small inconvenience in a latitude where balmy September days tends to hover in 90s, with regular 100% humidity). Last October I came up to New York for the Zukofsky/100 conference at Columbia/Barnard in between Frances and Jeanne, and had the pleasure of getting soaked in the remnants of Ivan.

And now it’s all beginning again. The first week of the Fall 2005 semester has coincided with Tropical Storm Katrina, which is at our doorstep and has already closed down classes for the next day and half or so. I’ve lived in South Florida for almost a decade now, but I still haven’t gotten quite figured out the mindset necessary to put up with this irregular barrage of natural catastrophe. Yes, you put up your hurricane shutters, you back up your computer, you wrap your most valuable books in plastic; you huddle in your safest room, listening for the wind-howl to be punctuated by the crack of breaking trees; in extremity, you clear out and head for a shelter. You watch the television news and follow the National Hurricane Center’s website, sometimes obsessively. If you’re so inclined, you pray, chant, or send out vibes to higher powers. But why, I keep asking myself, are people willing to put up with this annual roller-coaster ride? There are simply too many people in South Florida, too much development crammed into this little band between the Atlantic and the Everglades. (If the developers had their way, they’d just pave it over from Palm Beach to Sarasota, and we could all spread out a bit.) The local TV news media down here – which frankly strikes me as the worst local news of any market I’ve ever seen, anywhere – seem to gleefully feed and feed upon the sense of apocalypse that spreads thru this overpopulated concrete jetty whenever a storm appears on the horizon.

The idea of staying in Florida from November through March strikes me as eminently reasonable and pleasant. But the prospect of facing another hurricane season (and by all predictions, a real whopper) makes me long for the good old days of Ithaca winters and lake effect snowstorms. Send out your prayers, chants, and general vibes, okay?

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

loonie watch

This just in:

Extremist Cleric Issues Fatwah Against Godless Opponent!

Monday, August 22, 2005

[in progress]

The spillage of sunlight into
     the still bowl of a windless
afternoon, humming with insects
     and a distant, unidentifiable
clatter. Something comes next,
     follows on. Time’s logic, coded
in our very synapses, demands it.
     Spillage of sunlight into a
bowl of windless – but for a small
     breeze – afternoon. Flowers
purple, blue, bricks bleached grey
     and tan. Spillways of
attention, never settled or direct.
     Enter SECOND ACTOR, tottering
on chopines, face a horrified mask.
SECOND ACTOR: (strikes pose, right hand on heart,
     left hand outstretched, chest heaving magnificently)
Exit SECOND ACTOR. I sold my vote,
     recalled the old man, in the election
bazaar. For a handful of magic beans
     or a mess of red pottage. Spilled
like ochre cat-sick
     on the hem
           of the histrion’s

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Adorno on love (!)

[Oddly moving, this:]

If coldness were not a fundamental trait of anthropology, that is, the constitution of people as they in fact exist in our society, if people were not profoundly indifferent toward whatever happens to everyone else except for a few to whom they are closely bound and, if possible, by tangible interests, then Auschwitz would not have been possible, people would not have accepted it. Society in its present form – and no doubt as it has been for centuries already – is based not, as was ideologically assumed since Aristotle, on appeal, on attraction, but rather on the pursuit of one’s interests against the interests of everyone else. This has settled into the character of people to their innermost center. What contradicts my observation, the herd drive of the so-called “lonely crowd,” is a reaction to this process, a banding together of people completely cold who cannot endure their own coldness and yet cannot change it. Every person today, without exception, feels too little loved, because every person cannot love enough….

Understand me correctly. I do not want to preach love. I consider it futile to preach it; no one has the right to preach it since the lack of love, as I have already said, is a lack belonging to all people without exception as they exist today. To preach love already presupposes in those to whom one appeals a character structure different from the one that needs to be changed. For the people whom one should love are themselves such that they cannot love, and therefore in turn are not at all that lovable. One of the greatest impulses of Christianity, not immediately identical with its dogma, was to eradicate the coldness that permeates everything. But this attempt failed; surely because it did not reach into the societal order that produces and reproduces that coldness. Probably that warmth among people, which everyone longs for, has never been present at all, except during short periods and in very small groups, perhaps even among peaceful savages. The much maligned utopians saw this. Thus Charles Fourier defined attraction as something that first must be produced through a humane societal order; he also recognized that this condition would be possible only when the drives of people are no longer repressed, but fulfilled and released.
–“Education After Auschwitz,” Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford (Columbia UP, 1998) 201-2.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Olson & his critics

[This one’s for Josh H.]

Couple weeks back I wrote a post of some spleen, in part because a few sentences of Don Byrd’s Charles Olson’s Maximus (U of Illinois P, 1980) had been sticking in my craw: yes, I’m still thinking about Olson, and I’m also thinking about critical reaction to him. Here’s the sentences, which refer to Robert von Hallberg’s Charles Olson: The Scholar’s Art (Harvard UP, 1978), and more specifically to von Hallberg’s reading of “The Praises”:
Mr. von Hallberg writes: “…to a poet-pedagogue like Olson – as not to a poet-maker – subject-matter must again be as central as it was to the poet-prophet.” He completely mistakes, however, both Olson’s pedagogical method and his content. Because he assumes that [“The Praises”] is merely a bad lecture, he understands his task as somehow to cut through the muddle. It is a puzzle for him, and, with a single word to key his solution, he arrives at the startling conclusion that the poem is about American Cold War foreign policy!

(Dig that snarky “Mister von Hallberg” – you call your opponent “Mr.” or “Professer” in a scholarly book and it’s doubleplus clear that you don’t like ‘im – rather like when Hugh Kenner calls Amy Lowell “Miss Lowell,” over and over again.) But is von Hallberg really that clueless? After all, I don’t know anyone else who was stupid enough to mistake “The Praises” as a poem about “cold war foreign policy.” What VH actually argues, at the conclusion of a full and subtle five-page reading of the poem, is that one ought to take the context of postwar politics into account in reading the last lines of the poem –
What is necessary is
that that which has been found out by work may, by work, be passed on

“Containment,” that is, was a constant buzzword of American geopolitics from 1947 on, and Olson (who had begun his career as a Democratic Party operative) according to VH “co-opts the language of the reigning politicians and their advisors: his policy of intellectual and cultural containment would rival American foreign policy, which attempts to contain its nemesis rather than its own essence. Removed by this antithesis from the corrupt diffusion of politics, poets might keep culture secure and potent.”

Now that’s an argument that one can reject or accept, but by no means whatsoever has VH “arrived at the startling conclusion” that “The Praises” is “about” Cold War foreign policy. If anyone’s “cutting through the muddle” and oversimplifying here, it’s Byrd. Both DB’s Charles Olson’s Maximus and VH’s The Scholar’s Art are products of the first big wave of Olson studies from 1978 thru 1980 (which also includes Paul Christensen’s Charles Olson: Call Him Ishmael and Sherman Paul’s Olson’s Push). Tho both books are revisions of their author’s doctoral dissertations, I’m tempted to read DB’s attack on VH as an instance of dissertation hubris, the moment where the grad student makes an obligatory swipe at the published “authority.” But it’s symptomatic of a deeper divide between the critical projects of the 2 men. VH is a critic, a scholar of and commentator on poetry, & one who is deeply immersed in the whole tradition of English-language poetry and in the broad range of contemporary writing. The Scholar’s Art is an attempt to begin to account for CO’s achievement within that broader context, and to think about the successes and failures of Olson’s project, not merely on its own terms, but in terms of poetry as a historical continuum of practices, stances, and social formations. It’s also an attempt to account for Olson’s radical poetico-epistemological stances within the context of postwar history and Olson’s biography: yes, perhaps CO’s work represents a radical rupture within Western thought – not to mention Western poetics – but it has its roots in a very particular historical moment and the life of a particular figure.

DB, in contrast, is a not wholly uncritical acolyte, one who finds in Olson an endlessly vital and very exciting new set of propositions approaches to the world and the poem. He is an intelligent and often insightful cicerone to CO’s works and ideas, but he has already accepted the value & validity of those works – he has, in short, taken Olson at his word when Olson claims to have gone beyond the modern, to have rediscovered a mode of seeing that the post-Platonic West has lost. DB’s acceptance of Olson’s premises makes him an eloquent advocate for Olson’s work, but it also makes him entirely unsympathetic with the rather more skeptical operation that is the goal of von Hallberg’s book: to assess Olson the poet, with reference to the tradition of Western poetry since Sappho. DB presents Olson’s various innovations as gambits that have so fundamentally stepped beyond the bounds of the “game” as it has been hitherto played, that they are beyond criticism. “Judged by conventional standards,” DB admits, invoking Matthew Arnold – a sure sign that a straw man is being erected – “Olson does not have a good ear” (28). But those “conventional” standards simply do not apply, it turns out – Olson’s poetry has moved beyond them – and if we attempt to accuse Olson of writing verse that has all the rhythmic and musical subtlety of a drunken frat boy taking over the drum kit as the party winds down in the dawning hours, then we’ve entirely missed the point of Olson’s revolution. (The same goes for his deployment of syntax and, it seems, even for the referential function of his words.)

Now, I won’t deny that Byrd is onto something here, nor that the relentless physical energy of Olson’s poetry is very often sufficient to make even the most conservation reader – VH for instance – set aside her or his yen for euphony. But Byrd has so stacked the deck that he cannot view Olson within the context of a 3000-year-old tradition of poetry, and cannot judge him him within that context: he can only gesture towards and explain the ways in which Olson has set aside or surpassed that tradition. And I’m not sure Olson himself would entirely endorse such a radical severing. At any rate, Byrd’s catty sentences on von Hallberg go to underline the difference between two sorts of scholarly commentators on post-avant poetry: explicatory advocates; and critics. I would suggest that for its long-term canonical prospects, such poetry needs rather more of the latter sort of commentators; it’s already well-supplied with the former.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Slow Days

It’s a low-key week on the blogosphere, or at least the corners at which I am wont to regularly peer. Congratulations to Emily for netting a fine winner for her utterly nifty “Between the Lions” poetry contest – and for getting Poesy Galore back onto a fine heading after what looked like a summary quietus. On the other hand, two of my very favorite bloggers – John Latta and Henry Gould – seem to have put their respective blogs on indefinite hold. That’s too bad: Henry is always worth reading – a sensibility at such an angle to mine that I always find something to learn from him – and John’s lightly worn, sparkling erudition has always kept me alert and amused. Come back, all is forgiven!

Our ten days in New York seem like a dream – a particularly sticky dream, since the apartment we were staying in had no air conditioning, and the sun condescended to shine pretty much the whole time (during daylight hours, of course). Lots of consumption: we went to a half-dozen restaurants, the most notable of which was a fantastic Indonesian/Malaysian place in SoHo (I’ll post the address when I find their card – it’s worth seeking out), and several museums. The Jewish Museum on 5th Avenue has just wound up a wonderful Maurice Sendak exhibit, focusing on his book illustrations and his opera sets and costumes. Fantastic stuff: I’m convinced he’ll one day be recognized as a 20th-century artist of the calibre of Kitaj or Jasper Johns, once people start paying attention to draughtsmanship again. Nothing, however, from his disturbing Fuseli-adaptation illustrations to that weird “Kraken” edition of Melville’s Pierre some years ago.

Of course, the best reason to go to a big city is to visit good bookstores. The following is the take:

Paul Celan, Lightduress
Celan, Threadsuns (both in Pierre Joris’s translation)
James Hogg, Memoirs & Confessions of a Justified Sinner (if you’re the person to whom I lent my Oxford World’s Classics edition of this three-four years ago, I still want the damn thing back – you know who you are, even if I can’t remember!)
Rosmarie Waldrop, Lavish Absense: Recalling and Rereading Edmond Jabès
Robert Pinsky, The Want Bone

St. Mark’s:
Peter Szondi, Celan Studies (more on this later)
Christian Bök, Eunoia
Anne-Marie Albiach, A Geometry
K. Silem Mohammad, A Thousand Devils
Pierre Alferi, OXO
Christopher Middleton, Of the Mortal Fire
Middleton, Tankard Cat (best title of 2004?)
John Peck, Red Strawberry Leaf

The Strand (which, ohmigod, has now been [marginally] air conditioned – thank God, it’s still dirty and badly organized and the staff as rude as ever…):
George Oppen, New Collected Poems
Tom Pickard, The Dark Months of May
Myung-Mi Kim, Commons
Peter Middleton, Distant Reading: Performance, Readership and Consumption in Contemporary Poetry
Barry Ahearn, William Carlos Williams and Alterity
Vincent Sherry, The Great War and the Language of Modernism (60 pages convinces me that this might be the most important book of the new millennium on modernist poetry)
Richard Bozorth, Auden’s Games of Knowledge

And of course the record stores. I managed to be fairly restrained here, but still came away with what might be some good items:
Mr. Bungle, Mr. Bungle (something sophomorically fascinating about an album with song titles like “My Ass Is on Fire” and “Love Is a Fist,” produced by John Zorn to boot)
New Model Army, Raw Melody Men (an early 90s live album by this lefty Brit post-punk outfit that I’m just discovering – yes, it’s true, I was attracted to them initially by their name – NMA was the moniker that Cromwell gave his reorganized parliamentary army during the Civil War – but the band is actually quite good: Killing Joke without the mysticism…)
Spoon, Gimme Fiction (I know next to nothing about this “next big thing” indie band, but they were playing them on the store system at Tower in the Village, and I liked the David Bowie-meets-Radiohead-with-Robert-Quine-like-guitars so much that I couldn’t resist)

And a huge boxed set by the Yorkshire folk group The Watersons, Mighty River of Song (yes, unfortunate title indeed): so if anybody wants to come by and hear some vibrato-free a capella Northron folk-singing, feel free to bring enough beer for four CDs worth.

Finished reading Lord of the Rings for the umpteenth time at Fire Island over the weekend – even read thru the appendices at the end of Return (okay, I confess, I skimmed the stuff on how to pronounce Elvish and so forth). Ended up more convinced than ever that Peter Jackson shouldn’t have skipped “The Scouring of the Shire” in the movies; it’s definitely the best part of the final volume. Anybody have any copies of Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle-Earth they want to unload?

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

“Well, I’m back”

– from New York, and hope to post some notes on the “culture” side of les vacances soon. At the moment, however, I’m prompted by Eric’s uncharacteristically dour response to the last post on Auden, poetic side-taking, and eclecticism – “the critical theory that dare not speak its name”:
I don't think it's a matter of Kierkegaard and Adorno, Mark, that keeps us from embracing eclecticism (or small "c" catholicism) as a critical theory.

If you're eclectic in taste, like my own grad-school masters Cal Bedient & Stephen Yenser, you get no followers, found no school, find your way into fewer and fewer footnotes. You garner far less institutional power this way--make yourself less dramatic, less feisty, less deployable by others; to shift metaphors, you blur your brand identity.

You also blur and hedge and multiply your personal identity--as I like, so I am--in ways that I recall finding very confusing, even scary, in my youth. (How can you I enjoy both The Carpenters and the Sex Pistols, Sondheim and The Ramones? What the hell is wrong with me? I'm not who I want to be? What's my na-a-a-a-me? Etc.)

It's not a theory thing, in short; it's a power thing, both personal and institutional. Auden's modesty--which he adopts precisely because his rhetoric was so powerful early on, in service of the Spanish war--amounts to a shrugging off of just this will to power. (Power over others and power over himself.) No wonder it rankles!

Now who’s being cynical?, I’m tempted to say. It was of course over the top of me to invoke Søren K. & Teddy A. – tho they do stand as useful shorthand for a lot of puritanical thinking out there – but one ought to take apart a few of the nuts & bolts of the “institutional” power thing that Eric proposes here. Last time I checked, both Cal Bedient and Stephen Yenser had positions at UCLA: perhaps not the highest pinnacle of the institutional Barad-Dûr, but none too shabby either – a large university in a major (if somewhat surreal) city, a highly-rated PhD program. Perhaps they don’t have quite the rabid following Big Charles did at Black Mountain, but check out who’s publishing their books – U Chicago, Harvard, etc. One could make an argument that Bedient has far more “institutional” power than any academically institutionalized “post-avant” poet or critic of his generation.

In terms of personal power, however, I can see where the argument tends (and can see how much Emerson is behind it). Rejecting eclecticism of taste on one’s part – consciously rejecting it – gives one access to a purer-than-thou, I ain’t no Laodicean rush, and puts one in a position of what feels precisely like power in relation to those who tastes seem more “slushy,” whose lines are less clearly drawn. The rejection of eclecticism takes various forms, depending on where you’re starting from: the New Formalists had it in for anyone who didn’t write in something evoking traditional forms; the Language Poets in their heyday seemed intent on demonizing anything that didn’t in some way problematize the relationship between language and world (or the personal & the political, etc.).

Eclecticism of taste is a fine thing for critics of poetry, and heaven knows we need more of it – there are far too many pontiffs out there whose blind spots almost overwhelm their moments of insight, and they’re the ones churning out the blurbs, directing the dissertations, and providing the readers of the New Yorker with their idea of what American poetry looks like. (And it goes the other way, I suppose: the duelling assessments of Robert Lowell by Marjorie Perloff and William Logan in a recent Parnassus are worth reading together if you want to get a parallax view of RL that perhaps approaches accuracy.)

But for poets, as opposed to people writing about poetry, I’m not sure eclecticism of taste isn’t just shorthand for an unformed aesthetic. When one is young, one bounces from poet to poet – I remember a period when I was intensely reading J. V. Cunningham, Dickinson, Ronald Johnson, Robert Duncan, and Elizabeth Bishop. At some point, I began winnowing down the sorts of poetry that spoke to me, that stimulated me. It was not a matter of deciding that I had nothing to learn from a certain sort of poet, or that there was nothing worthwhile in a given type of poetry, but that there were certain poets, poems, and general strains in poetry that energized me in ways that the others didn’t, and that I was going to pursue the former. I don’t think that’s so much a matter of “branding” as it is of constructing and growing into a persona – or a person – which is what all of us do.

I’m enchanted with Kasey’s brief and nasty summary of why “bland eclecticism” is such a bad thing for “post-avant” poets:
"bland eclecticism," I posit, is a term used in an attempt by the avant-garde to keep their actual and potential domains of professional activity at a low personnel-density level, thus increasing the margins of mobility and advancement for themselves. This is, of course, the same thing poets in other camps do with terms such as "postmodern nonsense" and "theoretical claptrap" and "intellectual elitism."

(So yes, in some sense it comes down to power, doesn’t it?) And I’m even more enchanted with his brief, peace-pipe finale:
For me, the best reasons for favoring "experimental" poetry, or for resisting what I perceive as "bland eclecticism," are ones that have to do with staying interested and keeping my mind active. If someone likes two different poets with what seems to me like a foggy awareness of the reasons other people would not like those same two poets, I don't feel that that person should stop liking those two poets; I just think that he or she should be aware of those other persons' reasons for thinking the juxtaposition is incoherent. The more aware we are of the stakes in any given situation, the more we are able to form our own opinions with insight and informed confidence--and the more we are able to enter into coherent, constructive conversation with others.

Hard, frankly, to top that. Or perhaps it’s just moved so far into the argumentative center that it’s found a place where Karl Rove and Noam Chomsky can talk.

Saturday, August 06, 2005


One last long ramble before we head north, where if Culture Industry doesn’t take a “hiatus,” it will at least be reduced to the briefest squibs.

Lee Glidewell – a man whose hair I greatly envy – put up a very thoughtful response to yesterday’s post, something of a continuation of his own “Auden III” on “To Ask the Hard Question Is Simple.” To be clear – when I wrote “there are a lot of people out there who take Auden very seriously indeed, who rank him right up there with Dickinson and Whitman,” I wasn’t being rhetorical, or aiming at some straw person of an Auden-worshipping, elbow-patched pipe & brandy relic (in contrast to all us hipsters who know that Auden is auld newes). Nor was I suggesting that it’s necessarily an either/or proposition, that one can’t (or ought not) value both Auden and Loy, Riding and Millay, or even Frost and Pound at the same time. But I remain fascinated by the impulse that causes some of us to trot down the Kierkegaardian primrose path, rejecting any eclecticism of taste as somehow defiling.

That’s what I find in Ron S’s incessant, puritanical division of the world into post-avant (elect) and School of Quietude (reprobate), and it comes out most clearly in his Barnes & Noble post, where he writes of picking a collected Auden in the bookstore: “I picked it up and headed over to the chairs by the faux café. I tried the early work & late & in between & never was able to get beyond half a page of any poem: too prolix, too full of generalities, a sense of meter to doze for.” Well, folks, here we have a scientific sampling: Ron has trawled thru Auden for what – half an hour, 45 minutes? – and the work has been found wanting (as we all knew it would). Too “prolix”? I guess that eliminates Whitman; too “full of generalities”? watch out, late Oppen; a “sense of meter to doze for” (what one might call “lulling,” I think [thanks ems]) is hard to figure out: I think it means that WHA writes (sometimes) in regular, even traditional meters. Clearly, RS went to WHA with a pretty good idea of what he was going to find, and gosh-all-hemlock, he found it there.

I like Lee’s response, which amounts to saying that WHA tends to deflate the very large claims for poetry that RS & co. tend to make. I also like Bob Archambeau’s briefer jet-lagged take on the matter. There’s an awful lot of literary/generational politics going on here, politics that make it well-nigh impossible for RS to approach WHA without a heavy armor of suspicion.

[My own parallel story: In the first draft of the introduction to Upper Limit Music: The Writing of LZ, I was pontificating on LZ’s “peerless blah blah innovative blah blah formalism,” which went well beyond the “jejune formalism” of “W. H. Auden and his latter-day followers.” A wise friend circled the passage: “Read ‘The Shield of Achilles’ and tell me if you still think it’s jejune.’ I did, and I cut the passage. There’s plenty of puerility in Auden – and in my dotage, I’m coming to enjoy those bits more and more (go “continong”!) – but at his best there’s very little that approaches him on his own turf.]

That suspicion goes back a long time before Ron, back to when Pound & Bunting & LZ were dismissing WHA back in the early ‘30s – largely, so far as I can tell, because of the fact that he was so spectacularly successful. Auden was something to be opposed, less for anything about his poetry itself – there are moments when he and Bunting are pursuing strikingly similar paths – than for his position as “the establishment,” the darling of the critics – the “Man.” Auden takes a particular strain of modernist poetics and forges a critically successful, and often highly readable poetry out of it. And therefore he becomes King of the Hill, the person everybody else is trying to dethrone. (I suspect that if WHA hadn’t renounced Marxism and become a Christian, RS would be as nice to him as he is to Muriel Rukeyser, whose poetry he treats with far greater respect – i.e. actually reads thru the entire volume.)

But as I said, this is also a matter of “fundamentally different things one expects poetry to do and be”; Auden sees poetry as human beings talking to other human beings, communicating in ways that would have been entirely familiar to Pope, Wordsworth, or his own darling Byron. The poem is meant to be understood, because it’s the expression of human being who desires to communicate something to other human beings. It’s also a worked artifact, a formal design, etc. – but the notion of communication is always lurking there. In the heady days of youth – “Spain,” “September 1, 1939” – WHA thinks he can get the big ideas across, can move people into meaningful political action. In his later years, he comes to doubt that, and dwells either on the fallenness of human nature or on smaller (sometimes much smaller) subjects.

There is a tremendous amount of distrust among poets of what for shorthand I’ll call the post-avant persuasion – and especially among the Language poets of RS’s generation – for the poem as directly communicative utterance. At its most vulgar, it manifests itself as the blanket dismissal of Billy Collins for the crime of being immediately readable; in more sophisticated forms, it ranks poets on various continuums of “facile” and “challenging.” Always, it involves the literary politics of “inside” and “outside.” And almost always, it manifests a kind of willed amnesia to literary history, to the astonishingly varied ways that poetry has been written in the past.
Yes, Eric, I’d like to think that “tonal elusiveness” was intentional. And as for “superficial eclecticism” as “the critical theory that dare not speak its name” – how could it? We live under the sign of Søren Kierkegaard and Theodor Adorno, and they shame us with their stony moral certainties.

[All this in light of my reading of Robert Von Hallberg’s Charles Olson: The Scholar’s Art, and a particularly nasty response to it in Don Byrd’s book on Maximus. But maybe a ramble thru that territory after “vacation.”]

Friday, August 05, 2005

Waitin' on the Curveship

Okay, I am now dining upon my words – that is, there seem to be lots of folks out there learning from and treasuring Crane: not that I necessarily implied that was not the case – probably just extrapolating from my own reactions; to paraphrase Thoreau, I write about myself because of the narrowness of my experience – but HDT was usually careful not to assume his experience was shared by others…

As for Kasey’s “gateway” poets (see comments on last post): Henry, I think you can find an explanatory diagram, either somewhere in Bourdieu’s Distinction, or maybe in Yeats’s A Vision, or maybe in one of those really big illustrated editions of Dante. (I can’t help you with the handshake – but I really dig those little cars the third-stage initiates get to ride around the circus ring in…) Of course, I can’t gauge the proportion of humor to seriousness in Kasey’s schema, but one has to ask – what about the folks who take a first- or second-stage gateway poet (for argument’s sake, Randall Jarrell or Auden) as really the pinnacle of the art? Admittedly, it’s hard to find someone making that argument for Jarrell, but there are a lot people out there who take Auden very seriously indeed, who rank him right up there with Dickinson and Whitman. Isn’t there a matter of fundamentally different standards at play – fundamentally different things one expects poetry to do and be? And how does one negotiate between those different standards without falling into superficial eclecticism? (I dig Lyn Hejinian when I want to see complex issues of memory and perception explored in a tentative manner, and when I’m in the mood for solid statements about the meaning of life, there’s nothing like a bit of Billy Collins…)

I am moved and sympathetic with Henry’s description of what he values in Crane: “that intrepid, improvisational, brave, audacious, crazy, ecstatic spirit of affirmation -the bell rings out - that "exultance", which he flung in the face of Eliot, Yvor Winters, Allen Tate... (& paid for it in their dismissals). This for me is the authenticity of the authentic, the true insignia, the mark of the poet.” On the other hand, I am turned off by the fact that he chose to do so in an early-19th-century diction of “thees” and “thous” and Shelleyan leaps of incongruity. Glorious incongruity, sometimes, but descending way too often into “bombast.” BUT – I have taken note of Henry’s reading list, much of which already seems to be on my shelves, and hope to give HC the attention he deserves before too long.

I suspect that deep down Henry is a gloriously overreaching Romantic and I am but a doctrinaire modernist, still taking seriously all that business about going in fear of abstractions and breaking the pentameter. All about 70 years hoarier and hokier than punk’s DIY “aesthetic.”

(Nothing wrong with the pentameter, by the way – or the tetrameter, or heptameter, or dimeter, for that matter – I just prefer them in a more demotic, less demonstrative vein.)

& Eric's ruminations about “Platonic idealism” in ‘30s poetry – ooh, that’s interesting: was it Duncan who said that LZ replaces the neoplatonic poetics of Pound with an Aristotelian?
All in haste – this probably the penultimate post before we pack up and head for a week in New York, where the chances of poetry-related activities are slim.
Just in the mail – Peter O’Leary’s new chapbook, A Mystical Theology of the Limbic Fissure, all gold and mosaic, Byzantine icons on blood-red backgrounds with aureate halo’d aureoles. (I describe the poems, by the way, tho the illustrations are awesome as well.) Damned good stuff: Msgr. O’Leary bids fair to become the major Catholic poet of our age, Ronald Johnson crossed with Hugh of St. Victor, leaving poor Frank Samperi far in the dust.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

More grandipoiesis

Very lovely thinking this morning on Henry’s part about the long poem & its relationship to authoritarianism. He has this on LZ, which I think is spot on:
Zuk set himself up as Pound's dialectical flipside (Pound/Zuk, not Olson/Zuk is the real antinomy). But the Mallarmean extremism is not that different from Pound's aesthetic liminality. Wanting to be like Shakespeare : but being a sweet Shakespeare in a kind of muted Joseph Cornell music-box.

And this, a bit earlier:
Pound's attitude stemmed from a decisive technical problem or contradiction. His classicism/archaism, Nietzschean/pagan power-worship was applied as a literary weapon to chastise & excoriate failed (European) civilization. But the role of the Nietzschean avenger-prophet was deracinating : it uprooted Pound from his own American background. He was unable to draw on or benefit from the liberal-democratic alternative to the wasteland of decadent & war-ravaged Europe. So he ended up as zoo exhibit in Pisan cage & Washington nuthouse : fighting a war with the new democratic power which had already rendered his authoritarian allegiances irrelevant.

But then, where does that leave the "long poem"?

Olson, Zuk & WCW came up with their alternatives. Crane had already done something completely different.

I guess we part company in those final sentences, if in minor ways. The way I read it, LZ begins “A” so much under the spell of The Cantos that it’s not inaccurate to make an equation of it: “A” = Cantos – Social Credit + Marx. (& with a somewhat – but only somewhat – different range of cultural references brought into play.) He “comes up with” an alternative, or rather, grows into an alternative, rather late in the game – sometime in the 40s, I’d hazard – and it’s only after that point that the poem becomes something else altogether: a plotting of lived contingencies (including history) and historical recurrences upon a rigorously patterned formal armature. So I don’t think in the early “A” that LZ is seeking an alternative to EP at all, only trying to correct his political blindness with the “correct” way of thought.

Yes, Crane did something completely different in The Bridge (which I went back and re-read this afternoon); but isn’t there a certain authoritarianism lurking as well in that Shelleyan-Whitmanesque über-myth? It leaves me strangely unmoved (tho some of his clunkier circumlocutions resonate with the more otiose bits of The Prelude), and I wish I could see more of Joyce there – especially his sense of humor, which is after all the heart & soul of Ulysses. Crane reads to me like the kid who’s gotten fixated on Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, & can’t get past all that angst.

I wonder about Crane: Henry’s the first case I’ve happened upon in yonks of a living poet under 50 (right?) who’s actually found sustenance in Crane’s work. (Of course I’m living in a hurricane-ridden cave…) It’s certainly not the case of a “gateway” poet in the sense Kasey talks about (& here I think about all the 19-year-olds who are crazy about Cummings & Bukowski) – it takes a very special young writer to glom onto Crane’s wild, elegant, and rather difficult diction. But how many people out there are still reading Crane: reading him, that is, as a living poet to learn from, rather than someone to write an article about?

Tuesday, August 02, 2005


Eric Selinger, on the recently resuscitated Say Something Wonderful, has posted in one place every Ronald Johnson link you'll ever need, including his dandy essay on poetics, "Hurrah for Euphony."
This one I missed first time around, because I don't read its originating periodical, but check it out: August Kleinzahler outfits Garrison Keilor with a brand new Norwegian Bachelor Farmer orifice. Perhaps the best part of the article is a couple of quotations, one of them from Basil Bunting:
Poetry is no use whatever. The whole notion of usefulness is irrelevant to what are called the fine arts, as it is to many other things, perhaps to most of the things that really matter. We who call ourselves "The West," now that we've stopped calling ourselves Christians, are so imbued with the zeal for usefulness that was left us by Jeremy Benthem that we find it difficult to escape from utilitarianism into a real world.

The other a poem by the late Gael Turnbull, "National Poetry Day":
"Transform your life with poetry"
the card said, and briefly I fussed
that this overestimated the effect
until I remembered how it had thrust
several old friends,
plus near and dear,
into distress and penury,
how even I, without the dust
of its magic, might have achieved
peace of mind, even success,
so maybe the advice is just,
not to be ignored, a sort of timely
Health Warning from the Ministry
of Benevolence
at the Scottish Book Trust.

I met Turnbull in Edinburgh five years ago. I phoned him once to see whether we could meet and talk about LZ; he invited us over, and then he and his wife Jill invited us over yet again for a "traditional" Scottish dinner, including a miscellaneous root vegetable dish, a dessert of gooseberry fool, and a steaming haggis (with a vegetarian haggis in reserve, in case we proved of timid stomach). A lovely man.
I can sympathize with Henry Gould's distrust of the long poem business (or should I spell it "longpoem"?); I personally am sick to death of critical sentences that make some kind of funky new genre of The Cantos, The Maximus Poems, and "A" (which isn't to say that I haven't written more than a half-dozen of them myself). Henry:
This long poem thing, the whole grandeurosity... kind of a throwback to an archaic sort of poet's Authority. Has its authoritarian aspect. which is part of the reason I tried to throw Hart Crane & Mandelstam & thems two's inimitable negative capabilities into the mix.

Yez, yes – "And then went down to the ship, set keel to breakers..." "To make a start, / out of particulars / and make them general..." "Off-shore, by islands hidden in the blood..." (Course Hart Crane has his own brand of grandeurosity, which he can deploy in as little as five or six lines, the whole bardic bag o' tricks.) I like what LZ says in 1968:
I simply want the reader to find the poem not dull... A long poem is merely more of a good thing, shall I put it that way?

Sure, why not?

Monday, August 01, 2005

Olson & Zukofsky ii

Everybody, it seems, is reading Olson. Josh Hanson, for one, and Tony Tost, who left a sharp comment on the other night’s inchoate ramblings. Suffice it to say, when it comes to the issue of estates, that yes, the stance of a literary estate towards an author’s work is absoutely key to that work’s reception, something we probably don’t spend enough time thinking about. Olson was certainly happy in his choice of executors, and lucky to find in George Butterick someone willing to devote himself so single-mindedly to editing the Big Man’s work. These days there’s very little cachet attached to being the amanuensis.

The more I think about it, the more Duncan’s and Johnson’s characterization of a particular space of 50s-60s American poetry as a magnetic field, with Olson and Zukofsky at its poles, seems accurate. It’s not entirely true, as Tony alludes to Guy Davenport saying, that they didn’t read each other at all: LZ, in letters to Cid Corman and Thomas Merton, had nice things to say about Olson’s poetry – he just couldn’t abide Olson’s circus-ring-master-movement-leader persona (somewhere Paul Metcalf quotes CO calling Jonathan Williams “one of the good soldiers in my army”) (cf. what Norman F, in his comment to the last post, calls Olson’s “bombast”); for his part, Olson seems to have kept up with LZ’s work to some degree – he mentions the Catullus translations in the Reading at Berkeley. Robert von Hallberg puts it nicely in Charles Olson: The Scholar’s Art (Harvard UP, 1978), one of the smarter – and by far the best written – books on Olson: “Zukofsky and Olson are poets of vastly different temperaments; their programs overlap more than does their poetry.” (Or to quote Norman, “they had many of the same teachers and affinities.”)

Von Hallberg makes a great distinction between the two men’s work when he points out that Olson’s “objectism” (see “Projective Verse”) gives rise to a process-oriented poetics in which the very act of the poet’s digging up the facts and arranging them is primary; while Zukofsky’s “objectivism” (yeah, yeah, he never used that noun, and his shade is rapping my knuckles right now) is directed towards product, towards the poem as object, as “rested totality.” Which distinction goes far towards describing the overall “form” of the middle volume of Maximus, which are all about the process of seeking and discovering, & very little about arranging what is discovered into any sort of shapely final form. Maximus III is something altogether – arranged as it was by Butterick & co. out of a shapeless bundle of manuscripts – but even then, its overall texture isn’t radically different from the middle volume, which Olson himself worked on.

Anybody have any insight into Butterick’s logic for including the fragment on p. 506 of the California edition – “This living hand, now warm, now capable / of earnest grasping…” – which in the Guide he admits to be a mistranscription of Keats’s lines, found written by Olson on an envelope? I can see a pretty interesting poetic justification, but the textual editor in me (a bad-tempered Rupelstiltskin-type) finds the inclusion very fishy indeed. (I can’t help remembering Robert Bertholf’s including LZ’s “H. T.” in his edition of Niedecker’s complete poems, just cuz he’d found an unascribed typescript in her papers.)

The almost total critical eclipse of Edward Dahlberg, Tony, is a very interesting thing indeed. (They’ve got his papers at UT Austin, and I have it on good authority that they’d be more than happy for someone to write on him…) I suspect there it’s a matter of Dahlberg never having found a powerful enough advocate, inside or outside the academy, for his work: lots of folks who admire him off and on, but no-one willing to beat the drum. LZ quotes him in Bottom calling himself “the forgotten man,” and that seems almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’ve got about a half-shelf of Dahlberg books, and went thru a period of intense reading some years back, so much so that when I heard someone referring to Dahlberg as “that guy who Olson had a correspondence with,” I was a bit taken aback. Because I Was Flesh seemed to me then – and still seems – a very great book, any way you slice it. But a decade on, having heard Dahlberg’s name only a handful of times in the interim, I can see the institutional logic that’s beginning to relegate him to the place of a bit player in the major dramas of Olson’s and Zukofsky’s careers.

Re-reading The Prelude (1805 version, of course).