Monday, February 27, 2006

well I'm back

The University of Louisville's 20th-Century Literature & Culture conference, as usual, was great fun. The normal pleasures of hanging out with friends, acquaintances, and frequent interlocutors – Alan Golding, Norman Finkelstein, Bob Archambeau, Ken Sherwood, Joel Kuszai, Lynn Keller; of meeting folks I hadn't before; the piquant doro wat at Kilimajaro restaurant; and Ear-X-tacy, a very cool record store that I tear myself away from conference-going to visit every time I'm in Louisville. It's by no means one of the world's greatest, but certainly better than anything I know in South Florida. I was relatively restrained: Black Acetate, John Cale's latest; Heaven and Hell, a 'best of' from the Mekons; and a brand new expanded reissue of John Martyn's 1975 Live at Leeds, a hard-to-find concert album that is to British folk what the Who's Live at Leeds is to rock & roll. This is Martyn at his most interesting, having grown out of the pseudo-Dylanisms of his earlier period and still a few years away from his overproduced, keyboard-drenched excesses of the 80s and 90s. For most of Live at Leeds, it's just Martyn's heavily echoplexed acoustic guitar and the astonishing double bass of his then-partner Danny Thompson (formerly of Pentangle). The two of them, according to interviews, spent the mid-70s pretty much continually dead drunk, and while that would certainly seem to be the case here judging from Martyn's between-songs patter, the alcohol hasn't blurred their musicianship one whit. A really dynamic set, hanging around the intersection of blues, folk, and free jazz, and occasionally descending into downright noise.

Down the street from Ear-X-tacy, one of the best guitar shops I've been in in recent years. They have my holy grail: an original Gibson ES-295, circa 1955 – like the one Scotty Moore played. No price tag – does that mean if I need to ask I can't afford it?, I query the counterman. "Naw. Price tag jes' fell off. I'll look it up... right, $7500." For some reason, I don't whip out the credit card, but give the guitar one long look before retreating out the door.

I had planned to fly into Louisville on Thursday, but ended up spending half the day in the West Palm Beach airport waiting to find out how badly my flight was delayed. (I ended up rebooking for Friday morning.) Ever anxious to improve the time, however, I read Christopher Middleton's Of the Mortal Fire: Poems 1999-2002 (Sheep Meadow, 2003), in the process reminding myself just how amazing a poet Middleton is: a truly stunning density of thought and sound, even in a collection he describes as "only afterthoughts" ("odds & sods," Pete Townshend would say). From "The Curlew":
Well, he has done rinsing the sky
Clear of ghosts now.
And the true, still it fools
All the hectic sectarians.
Only the hermits hear
But obey the cry's lash. Heavily
Clouded vistas they spread into
Seldom welcome
Such questioners, each in his arms
Or hers, as they patrol
Targeted streets, cradling
An old cave, snatched up
At the last possible moment,
A crystal hollowness torn
From its crag, now distant, each
Coolly questioning equipoise.

I mean to write some of my impressions of the conference itself – that seems to be a growing genre, conference-blogging (for a shockingly complete take on my own paper, see this post by Joshua Stuart). But I was conscious above all else of a certain "hole" in the proceedings. I've been going to L'ville for over a decade, always with pleasure and edification, always enjoying the company of other poets and scholars. But one motivation I've always had for going there was to jump in my rental, drive over to Lexington, and spend a few hours in front of the fire in Guy Davenport's sitting-room, surrounded by thousands of books, drawings, & paintings, listening to Guy ramble through his encyclopedic knowledge of pretty much every aspect of human culture that one might want to know something about. And now Guy's gone. Louisville is a fine and good thing, and I'm sure I'll be coming back – but the trip will never be the same.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

A Party to which I haven't been invited

Well. The former-left-winger-turned-rabid-conservative David Horowitz, doing his best to sustain interest in his latest screed against commie-traitorous-terrorist-supporting academics in American universities, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, is running a poll on the Frontpage Magazine website to determine who's the #1 "worst professor" in the U.S. I'm sorry to say that I'm not listed on the poll, nor is there a space in which you could write me in. (I didn't even make it onto Horowitz's encyclopedia of paranoia, Discover the Network – tho some of my colleagues down the hall did.) At any rate, Michael Bérubé is leading the Frontpage poll for "worst professor" by several thousand votes, having urged his blog readers to come by and vote this morning.

Now I'm convinced that Michael is perfectly dangerous, especially when it comes to tree trimming gadgets and other sharp objects, but come on, folks: surely Cornell West (14 votes at this writing), that soft-spoken proponent of love, peace, and spiritual rebirth, poses a danger to the current hegemony? And what about Fredric Jameson (4 votes at this writing), whose books have probably caused more nervous breakdowns among grad students than anyone since Paul de Man? Isn't that dangerous? So go by the site and vote for your favorite evil lefty terror-monger; and as they used to say in Chicago, vote early and often – in the best intelligent design scientific spirit, you can vote multiple times from the same IP address.
A very brief blog hiatus while I hie myself up to Louisville for the 20th Century Literature and Culture conference; hope to see you there.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


oh my.
And some sentences, from Simon Jarvis's 10 February TLS review of a clutch of Austen books, that make me wish I were reading Emma rather than Moby-Dick:
It seems likely that, for many of us, commentary on Jane Austen affords the scene of our first encounters with literary criticism, and, therefore, of our first disappointments with literary criticism. Not because the brightest and best haven't been the ones supplying the commentaries (they often have, at least among anglophone critics), but because it is so rarely given to literary criticism to find a style capable of facing Austen's. That style is not a container for content, nor an ornament to it, but the whole substance of whatever Austen's fiction knows. Nothing passes into her books untouched by style. After reading her, it becomes hard to tolerate any novel in which mere information or narration appears without the evidence of continuous thinking provided by work on language. The styleless author can tell us something outwardly quite probable, such as that Mr X got up from his chair and walked over to the window, and, after reading Austen, we just don't believe a word of it.
Repeat: "the evidence of continuous thinking provided by work on language."

Monday, February 20, 2006

Poetry on the ground

Michael Peverett made a useful comment to that last line of thinking (which has also been picked up by Bob Archambeau at some length, and with some witty schematicism). Michael remarks,
Seems to me Mark that there's a subterranean train of thought going on in your blog, from Thoreau's joyously disenchanting meditation on how literature that starts off "out there" turns into our comfort zone, then via Frankfurt, to the huge success of poetics as a sexy subject with students and as an institutionalized shaper of good citizens.
(I like that last phrase – "an institutionalized shaper of good citizens" – very much. It reminds me precisely how strongly the last century's crop of poet-theorists were theorizing with the ultimate end of making society something that one might be proud to be a citizen of, whether that might be a neo-renaissance fascist arcadia, a "polis" of connected and wide-awake townspeople, or some more ill-defined utopia: whatever they were working towards, it wasn't the colorless tenure-track "collegiality" that Michael's acid "good citizens" perfectly captures. [Michael is a sharp fellow, with an eye for a lot of things around him that aren't on pages: check out his blog.])

Michael's quite right about how grum and pissy Culture Industry gets when I try to think about contemporary poetry in the amalgam, its institutionalized forms, its networks and linkages and chains of power, whether pobiz or alt-pobiz. When I think about poetry in practice, when I turn to individual poems and books, then I'm altogether more sanguine. There's rarely a week when I don't read a poem or a book, by someone whose works I've known a long time, or by someone of whom I've never heard, that makes me say "Wow! how'd she do that? that's beautiful/compelling/totally surprising!" Latest cases in point:

Prageeta Sharma's Bliss to Fill (2000, reprinted subpress collective 2005): an entirely invigorating collection of poems that revolve around matters that one would think are entirely played out: youth, love, desire – all that stuff. But there's a wonderful, almost awkward obliquity to Sharma's turns of phrase that make one's distant youth come alive again. For instance "Paper II" (one of the collection's more straightforward moments):
There had been enough time for her to become an adult
without it having too much of an effect on her parents'

nervous system. She had certainly told them in a slow,
honest way, with a pre-planned epiphany – that she had lovers.

Madhu and Raju, her parents, out of their arranged marriage
grew a rhyme. And their daughter grew into a poet.

Or she grew into a lover which was taking up all her time
and poetry was only a series of mistakes worth claiming

to a page and not a lover.

Or Stephen Collis's second full-length collection, Anarchive (New Star Books, 2005). (Bloody brilliant title, and one that I'd certainly have used first if I'd had the gumption to think it up.) Collis (whom I consider a young poet only because he's a few months younger than me) works in what I like to think of as "late modernist" mode, writing poems that deform syntax and resist straightforward reading, but that still revolve around clear "subject matters." Mine, his first book, reads a bit like Robert Duncan presenting a history of the Vancouver Island coal mining industry. (In other words, nothing like Clark Coolidge's Mine, but quite as alluring in a very different way.) Anarchive plays over the matter of Republican Spain in the 1930s, a moment when the anarchist ideals that were so attractive to Joyce and others looked like they might actually get road-tested (until they were run over by the Fascism so attractive to Pound and others). Collis casts a wide net over the Anarchist archive – even the Clash and the Pogues make it into this book – and draws up a gleaming, idealist catch. This is political poetry, make no mistake, but political poetry that melds idealism with resignation, that steers its way from agit-prop to elegy:
If we are alone with the word

it is because wells
spring from all eyes

how is it learned
but through follies

naked we enter the bed
of their eternal wars

our hands intruding love
where blind fortunes hate

we become the penumbra
of powers know

death is certain
inconstancy distracting rage

as they would order nature
while nature must into its own orders fall

and we would keep to the chaos of growth
open at the top and

lifting from the bottom

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

institutionalizing poetics ii

New mailbox; will post photo when I get around to photographing it – you'll just have to wait.
Joshua/Jane responds to my last post:
For what it's worth, I'm not sure that I draw the same conclusions. I'm interested in the expectation that poets ought to have theorized their own work in certain ways -- and how that expectation might be historicized. I'm less interested in debating whether actually theorizing one's own work is good or bad, and am prepared to take that on a case by case basis.

Relatedly: from my own experience of writing programs, I would say that it's frustrating that "poetics" (et al) courses are expected in lieu of critical/analytic courses happpening down the hall in the English Department. I am not at all averse to the idea that writing program students ought be expected to labor over critical knowledge, and indeed, contra your history, fear that these poetics classes are disreputable not for being an unnecessary supplement, but rather an insufficient one: a pale compensatory veil to cover over the absence of historical, aesthetic, and philosophical engagements that were once far more common among poets. When I hear "mardi," I think Mallarmé and Valéry.
Nothing here to disagree with: and SM & PV were precisely what I had in mind when I mentioned "mardi" – tho the fiction writers at least in my old program were far more like to think "Mardi Gras." At least within the institutions of MFA and PhD programs in creative writing, one might historicize the recent demand for poets to theorize their work in terms of something like disciplinary mimeticism: English studies managed to legitimize the reading of vernacular literature precisely by inventing the theoretical scaffolding of New Criticism; creative writing, now by some accounts one of the few growth sectors in the humanities, is trying to legitimize itself – while simultaneously trying to retain the air of the individual afflatus – by requiring self-reflexive "poetics" moments.

The increasing appearance of "poetics" sections in poetry anthologies, and even of anthologies of poetics, is I suspect largely driven by the market these new "poetics" emphases in creative writing programs have created. Most of such books are precisely as useless as the ubiquitous, mushroom-like "introduction to theory" volumes that turn up in my department mailbox every month.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

institutionalizing poetics

Damn the postal service. Our mailbox got whacked during Hurricane Wilma last October – I mean deeply whacked: buried under a stack of tree limbs, the metal post broken off level with the ground. As soon as our yard got cleared, I rescued the box itself, which now looked like Daffy Duck's head after one of those TNT-swallowing incidents, tried to restore it to something like usability (let's just say at one point I was inserting a tire jack into it in an attempt to uncrumple it), and duct-taped it to the top of a handy three-foot stump at the end of the driveway. And there it's been ever since, until the duct tape wore away a few weeks ago. Now it balances atop the stump, except when the letter carrier leans out of his/her jeep to stick mail into it (then it inevitably slides off, usually into a big puddle when it's been raining) or when a windy day tips it over. Anyway, the p.o. has now informed us by rude form note that our mailbox is inadequate: apparently they won't deliver mail to anything that requires the letter carrier having to (horribile dictu!) actually get out of the vehicle.
Sighted, a couple of displays of virtuosic snarkiness:

Michael Bérubé and the vile David Horowitz are at it again; Michael wins on points, because
a) Michael writes gracefully and makes good funnies (tho snarky funnies);
b) David knows neither how to punctuate (e.g., "Michael take note" needs a comma) nor how to insert accents into proper names (for "Berube" read "Bérubé");
c) Michael's right: David's a pathological liar and an evil dwarf.

On another front, Joshua Clover responds to Dan Hoy's rather weird essay on Flarf (should that be capitalized?) with some flashes of characteristic "more (cultural-)materialist than thou" snarkiness. But I'm taken with his final paragraphs:
If there's anything new-ish to the action, it's the presumption that poets should have theorized their own work explicitly and completely as a necessary supplement to the poetry, without which it can't be trusted or read as such (thanks to Tom Orange for the conversations regarding this topic). For this, Hoy can't be held entirely responsible; the relative success and insight of recent poetics in making theoretical accounts of itself that are at once persuasive, and relevant to poetics in general, has perhaps produced a certain set of expectations. Certainly there is a rise in general in the sense that poetry is well-accompanied by the author's "poetics," as seen in, for example, the collection edited by Spahr and Rankine (and the follow-up, Sewell and Rankine), or the increasing footage given over to critical writing by the poets in the back of the Norton Anthologies.

This issue — of how responsible poets are, especially those who make some claim on unfamiliarity, for theorizing their own practices — seems worth pondering further. This is true in part for exactly how historicizable an issue it might indeed be; it does seem inseparable from the endless parallel debates about the increasing academicization of poetry and the increasing centrality of the writing workshop.
So let's ponder it further. By "the relative success and insight of recent poetics in making theoretical accounts of itself that are at once persuasive, and relevant to poetics in general" I suspect Joshua means the array of theoretical and poetics-oriented writings produced within the general milieu of Language poetry. But I'm interested in how this has been institutionalized, how the writing of poetics – often quite apart from any engagement with "theory" in the sense that the term is most often used in the academy, but nonetheless drawing on the etymological sense of "theory," to look at with detachment – is being written into the requirements for creative writing programs. One can see this in the web pages of various CW programs around the country, which have begun requiring "theory" and "poetics" courses, and some sort of "poetics" component to their theses & dissertations. Even Our University has instituted a self-reflexive "poetics" moment into the requirements for the MFA.

All very different from when I did an MFA back in the day, where the very notion of an MFA student actually writing prose about what she/he was doing was seen as an idea landed straight from Saturn.* Without making any judgments about whether the general quality of work coming out of the poetry industry has gotten any better since management started requiring students to produce blueprints of their processes,** I'd agree with Joshua that this is straight-up "academicization," the final downfall of the old "workshop"/"atelier" model of teaching writing, which can now look only wistfully back on its origins as an artificial imitation of the buzzing café or the intense mardi, where the young gathered – voluntarily, with no grades assigned, no registrar involved – around the table or at the feet of the elder artist. What's at the root of it all, one suspects, is precisely how profitable creative writing programs are to universities.

*Read no nostalgia there.
**My sense is that it has, but I wouldn't hazard a causal relationship.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006


I haven't actually dropped off the face of the earth, tho it might seem that way – it's just turning out to be one of those semesters, one of the ones where there seems never to be the time even to think, much less to write. But I've just cleared one large hurdle, & am gearing up for the next one, so I have a few days' breather.

Reading biographies lately – Rüdiger Safranski's Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil (trans. Ewald Osers, Harvard UP, 1998), which I mentioned a while back; Robert D. Richardson, Jr.'s Henry David Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (U of California P, 1986), which I picked up on a whim at our library's sale shelf, & which is turning out to be a truly luminous, beautiful book (doesn't hurt when if you have Barry Moser designing and illustrating). The mail just disgorged Stefan Müller-Doohm's Adorno: A Biography (Polity, 2005), which I'm doing my best to avoid starting, since I know it'll eat up a substantial chunk of time (almost 500 pages of text, and another hundred of notes). The dedication alone is enough to put off those of us who have little patience with the fabled German ponderousness: "I dedicate this biography to my daughter Anna-Maximiliane because I would like my account of Adorno's life and work to help keep alive for future generations something of the thinking that was so influential for my own intellectual orientation." Phew! If you can’t wait for the paperback (I couldn’t), go to Amazon, which is offering a pretty substantial discount. But reserve at least 3 inches of shelf space.
New on Michael Rothenberg’s Big Bridge is the collaborative poem, “Blue Poets in a Red State.” Some trifling prize to anyone who can find the 10 lines I contributed.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Reading Material

Delightedly received today: The latest issue of Talisman: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics (#30-31, Fall 2005-Winter 2006). This one has nutty goodness in every bite, friends, including new work by Hank Lazer, John Olson, and a bunch of others, reviews by Susan Smith Nash, Tony Tost, and Norman Finkelstein (and a bunch of others), and a selection of North Carolina Poets edited by Joe Donahue. The centerpiece of the issue, however, is a memorial festschrift for Gustaf Sobin, who died last year. There are pieces here – mostly poems – by some very fine poets indeed: Peter Cole, Forrest Gander, Pierre Joris, Robert Kelly, Cole Swensen, Charles Tomlinson, Michael Palmer. There's a snippet of new work by Susan Howe, a piece of something called Souls of the Labadie Tract:
I'll borrow chapel voices
Song and dance of treble
bass for remembrance Stilt-
Walker Plate-Spinner air
piebaldly dressed heart's
content embroidered note
Distant diapason delight
Like most of the excerpted Howe I happen upon, it makes me itch to get my hands on her next book.

Yes, and there's my review of Michael Heller's latest, Uncertain Poetries: Essays on Poets, Poetry, and Poetics. But don't let that put you off of running out and buying a copy.