Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Graham Foust: As in Every Deafness

As in Every Deafness, Graham Foust (Flood Editions, 2003)


The short-lined free verse lyric, as pioneered in the 20th century by such folks as Zukofsky, Williams, Robert Creeley, AR Ammons, Cid Corman, Frank Samperi, etc., runs its own set of risks & offers its own rewards. Both risks & rewards are on display in Graham Foust's first full-length collection.

By "short-lined lyric," of course, I mean something distinct from a merely short line, which can serve as the formal basis for much longer works (LZ's "A"-19, for instance, or Samperi's or Ammons's various long poems): I mean a brief poem,  rarely two full pages, in which the lines tend to hover around a 4-word average, in which the proportion of blank space to printed paper is at times overwhelming. Mallarmé's Un coup de dés was the 1st great verbal exploration the aesthetics of the isolated mark against the void of the blank page, but the weight of silence or nullity has long been an obsession of contemporary arts – think Arvo Pärt, Morton Feldman, John Cage, Brian Eno's Music for Airports, & any number of 20th-century visual artists.

The most obvious effect of writing poems that are shards of language marooned in a sea of white paper – or scattered stars shining out of an otherwise empty sky, choose your metaphor – is that an almost unbearable weight is placed upon what few words do appear. At least this is the case in Foust's poems, which almost never have the insouciant, tossed-off quality of so many of Creeley's short lyrics. They're composed, sometimes almost painfully so.

More often than not, the poems work. Foust has a very good ear, and as importantly a strong – tho not unerring – sense for the off-balance, the off-kilter & incomplete that saves them from becoming Bronkian reports on reality or Cormanesque cuff-jottings. I sense that Celan is a tempting model for Foust, as well – Celan, the singular master who's led so many young American poets into dead-ends of laconic portentousness – but Foust has a wonderfully light touch that enable him to nod to the German poet without falling into his gravitational black hole. As in Every Deafness – dark poems, but with a wry, slanted darkness that makes the reader smile uneasily, lines stuck in her or his head.


Ed Baker said...

you are now "into"
what I have been (also) into

these guys that you Academisize about are
close to me..

working now on Restoration Poems 1971-2008

check out Restoration Letters on my site..

you might "know" many 'folks' who I know...


all of "this" ain't noh big deal...

I have many relatives who moved to Fld and died!

they all called Fld "the Jewish Elephant's
Gravwyard" I cld tell you stories... but Who is caring?

Vance Maverick said...

How would Celan have felt about your apostrophizing him as "the German poet"? "Der Tod ist ein Meister aus...Rumänien."

Stepping back a little further from Cage and Feldman, take Webern as a source for the pointillist aesthetic in music. (Supposedly they met after a performance of the Symphony.)

Mark Scroggins said...

Vance -- ouch! how right you are; by "German poet" of course I meant no more than "poet who writes in German," but when that phrase comes into the orbit of "singular master," Todesfuge can't be far behind. My apologies to the Bukovinan (or French, since that was his citizenship after 1955) poet's shade.

Webern is right on -- tho I can't help throwing in, maybe perversely, Satie.

Ed Baker said...

or, perhaps, Arnold Schoenberg
and his "mirror inversion" ?

see George Rochberg's "The Hexachord and its
Relation to the 12-Tone Row" (c) 1955

still "ringing" in my mind Schoenberg's the
"String Trio" and his choral work "De Profundis, op. 50B" ...

some 'constructs', eh?!

Vance Maverick said...

Trying again here (since I can post comments elsewhere on Blogger).

Schoenberg is great, and obviously the primary influence on Webern. And yes, the rows and hexachords are short in themselves. But in Schoenberg and what was later "standard" serial practice, composers use many copies of the rows. Generally, and for most listeners, the repetition is audible only as a sense of relatedness -- a bag of intervals being reused. It doesn't sound like just six notes, or just twelve, or a repeating pattern. (This is true, I find, even of the Trio, which is quite schematic in its reuse of the row -- for most of the score, there are exactly twelve notes per bar.)

The choice of Satie as an example is not perverse. He's a good ancestor for repetitive music -- but not I think for the plink-plonk-silence school of Webern, Feldman, Kurtag. (There's repetitive Feldman too, of course! These days better known than the earlier Webernian one.)

Vance Maverick said...

Also, for repetitive music, don't forget the "development" section of the Pastorale.

Curtis Faville said...

Mark: You frame your context with respect to Foust in such a way as to make it seem that there's something illegitimate, or at least slightly disreputable, about writing poems with shorter lines, or with fewer words than an official verse culture would define as "normal."

I'm surprised that a critic who's spent the better part of his career on the work and life of Zukofsky would take this fall-back position, casting a cocked eye at Foust's discrete "minimalism," while not codifying what makes Foust's work different (other than its brevity), and possibly interesting in its own right.

For my money, Foust isn't a minimalist, nor are any of the other figures whom you mention as antecedents. Also, you seem reluctant to make distinctions between the various efforts. For my money, Ammons and Corman and Samperi don't belong in the company of LZ, WCW, Creeley.

Starting off, a priori, to discuss the work of a poet in terms of other writers who may superficially share some particular compositional aspect of the subject, is a recipe for vagueness. Foust is not like Corman. He is superficially like Williams and Creeley, and a little like Celan (in his line-breaks and gloomy surprises). Trying to make Creeley "insouciant," with a "tossed-off quality" seems more about trying to create a false opposition than a fair, accurate use of Creeley at his best.

Just what is it that Foust DOES get from WCW and Creeley and Satie?

Foust strikes me as a very talented writer who's willing to let extremes and exaggerations stand for unsubstantiated assertions. Creeley never did that. He always, like Pound, tended to want to stand by his words, and master them to some purpose. Foust seems unwilling to take that responsibility. His method, at least so far, is so much fun and so filled with unintended energy and fireworks that he's reluctant to reign it in. But there's a danger in playing games--a room full of mousetraps and ping-pong balls can be diverting, but not as an end in itself.

The best precedent for Foust's experiments is Oppen's Discrete Series.* Until Foust is able to use his gift to make whole poems that are directed to some felt purpose, his work will remain unfocused. But he's obviously talented enough to do that. IF he chooses.


*And also some of Creeley's early lyrics from the 'Fifties.

P.S. I think it's not useful to compare atonality in music to some quality of language. There's no reliable definition anyone has ever come up with to show a metaphorical expression of "atonality" in language, except perhaps, "made-up" words.

Joseph Massey said...

"Until Foust is able to use his gift to make whole poems that are directed to some felt purpose, his work will remain unfocused."

Curtis, funny that you'd say Mark is sounding like the official verse culture, and then to make a confining, backwards crack like that.

Maybe you could elaborate on what "whole" means in regards to short poems. "Felt purpose" sounds like something Joan Houlihan, or whatever her name is, would say, in her diatribes against language poetry.

There's a whole lot of feeling in Foust's poems and, to my ears, they're their own individual machines -- not unrealized scraps.

I see no Oppen in his work. Foust is not a post-Objectivist by any stretch of one's imagination, once you get beyond the bare fact of the page and how his words look on it.

He seems to come out of Stevens and Bronk, to my ears, with Creeley's line breaks, and a weird pop sensibility that I wonder if very many readers of more advanced generations even pick up on. But that's boiling it down too much. He's doing his own thing.

Anyway, my few cents.

Joseph Massey

Vance Maverick said...

Curtis, w.r.t. your PS, the musical comparison is not to atonality but to minimalism. True, the extreme examples of note-by-note minimalism in music are atonal, but Mark explicitly includes repetitive minimalism, which is often tonal.

Ed Baker said...

just googled Grayhma Foust too conditional

and makes essay/opinion "look like" Poetry..

he shld drop out and learn his craft...nothing much ever happens in a crowd and it sure is getting crowded!

he sure as hell ain't anywhere near Bronk or Oppen or an of the other s that you mention!

you guys been buying too many degrees and taking too many courses maybe get a ditch-digging job before those jobs are (also) "out-sourced"

would toughen-up your hands/minds

... but, what do I know?

Curtis Faville said...

Joseph: Thanks for responding.

I'm not trying to put Foust down. I like his work a lot, and it's interesting in its own right, despite whatever disagreements we might have about its true antecedents. Whenever I discover the work of a new writer whom I admire, I strive to link it to the best of what came before. I find it demeaning to try to say, for instance, that Foust is "like" or "after" Corman, Bronk, Samperi, and Ammons (at his less than best). Foust is better than they are.

I wasn't attacking Mark, either, just trying to point out how faint praise, in the name of some ideal of critical equipoise, might do his subject an injustice. Creeley's best work might serve as an example of where Foust's method comes from. Foust's changes are much more surreal and disjunct than Creeley's ever were. I just question whether Foust always "believes" or "wants" what those quick changes frequently imply. They're explosive and often revealing, but do they "say" what he wants to say--assuming he has something specific in mind? It's possible to make wonderful assertions "by accident" (which you sometimes don't notice until after you've written them), but it may occasionally be better to concentrate on something more valid than simply grooving on strangeness. Would you say, for instance, that Pound makes constructions and arrangements that are "out of his control"? I often get the feeling that Foust is simply upping the ante and trying to think of the most improbable next word or phrase, defeating expectation hands down. That's a trick, but not a method.

Is this clearer?