Saturday, September 30, 2006

Neil Young & Crazy Horse live, 1970

Neil Young has confirmed the rumors, as reported by several music news outlets: The first release of his "Archived Performance" series will be Live at the Fillmore East 1970, due November 14th on Reprise records.

Neil Young fans have been teased by Neil Young's Archives project since at least 1989 . . . that's when I first read, in an interview, that he was working on his archives. Well, it's 17 years later, and the Archives haven't yet seen the light of day. But, with this live release, one can hope (I can hope) that the Archives flood gates might now open.

This performance of Neil Young & Crazy Horse is legendary. The performances were recorded for a live album that never came out (instead, in usual Neil Young fashion, he moved on, recording the most brilliant album of his career, After the Gold Rush), and have been widely distributed on bootleg recordings. I'm listening to it right now as I type.

The album, as reported, will feature six selections from Crazy Horse's March 6th and 7th shows at the Fillmore East in New York City, at a time when late guitarist Danny Whitten was in the band. The version I'm listening to has seven songs

Let's Go Downtown


Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere

Down By the River


Cinnamon Girl

Cowgirl in the Sand

Rumors are the song that will not make the cut will be "Cinnamon Girl." One can quibble, as I'm going to do, that the shows were so good that to only select six songs (even these versions which rival, if not exceed, the studio versions) is something of a crime . . . but, thankfully, this set will finally see the official light of day. With this set we get to see how the songs first evolved with the interplay between Young and Whitten on electric guitars, and with the excellent addition of Jack Nitztche on electric piano.

Reports are that Live at the Fillmore East 1970 will also be available in a CD/DVD edition featuring a high-resolution audio mix, photos from the show, Young's handwritten song lyrics and press from the era.

Crazy Horse, 1970:

Neil Young (guitar/vocals)

Danny Whitten (guitar)

Billy Talbot (bass)

Ralph Molina (drums)

Jack Nitzsche (keyboards)

Other things I'm looking forward to in the Archives & Performance series: Neil Young's aborted mid seventies album Chrome Dreams, a full recording, including spoken word parts, of Tonight's the Night, as well as something from the live Neil Young solo shows of the late 60s, early 70s.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

On the Irrational Imagination 2

To apprehend the tradition of the Irrational imagination in 20th century American poetry, I'm finding it necessary to keep going back to the “Imagists” and the “Objectivists” (as well the “Projectivists”), and to go back to the various Modernisms of Stein, Moore, and Stevens. I'm finding, in so doing, that poets have basically no new subject matter (just the waning of the old subject matter [of course, one could say it's indeed, turtles all the way down, but for my purposes, I'm needing to designate a starting point, so I will call it 1911])—that even Wordsworth felt his times in danger of fragmentation. So? Do we Make it new! yet again? Yet, though the subject might not have changed, the consciousness (the self-consciousness) has. As poets, we’ve become hyper-aware of both ourselves and words. This is our circumstance. How one decides to deal, or not to deal, with this circumstance, leads to the extreme divergence, this century, between styles of poetry.

As Martin Amis stated it in 1987, “The past and the future equally threatened, equally cheapened, now huddle in the present. The present feels narrower . . . straightened, discrepant.”

The question arises (though many don’t seem interested): how to formulate an empathic gesture toward this circumstance? Or the assertion arises: We can’t write new work until we begin to see ourselves in new ways. Or, new work necessitates new ways of seeing.

But to explain this new gesture? This empathy?

As Stevens says, “I believe that, in any society, the poet should be the exponent of the imagination of that society.” So then the question, phrased yet another way, is: What does one do with the spirit of the times? First of all, Stevens (again and again) reminds us of the individual and of the particular, that the “something said” is important, but it is important for the poem only insofar as the saying of that particular something in a special way is a revelation of reality.

So the imagination exists only in relation to, and at the mercy of, “the real.” But what we see in front of us is not reality but the visible. Poems, one might irrationally hope, can unlock reality from the “merely visible” so that more of reality can be present than the senses normally allow — this is attention through imagination. And this attention, this language, is always metaphorical. Things are not metaphorical: things simply are. Obviously (though some artists and theologians would have it otherwise). But from Physics we learn that the matter that we see functions under principles that the matter we don’t see apparently feels no compulsion to follow. What does this then do to one’s rigid sense of “seeing is believing”? What is reality now?

This, from LeCorbusier: “Respecting the forces of nature is superior to respecting tradition.”

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Making of Poetry, 1912

I'm browsing through very old books today, which I like to do. Here's a little bit from one that seems fun, recontextualized from the start of one century to the start of the next . . .

From The Making of Poetry, 1912, p. 168.

All the standards which any one makes use of . . . are but reflections of his own potential self; they are a part of himself. A standard of feeling, of thought, or of action which any one holds, is something to which he regards himself as at least potentially capable of rising; it is, in the truest sense, a reflection of himself. . . . It is this ideal self that each reader or spectator becomes. So long as he remains in an aesthetic attitude, so long as the flash of pleasure and delight lasts, he actually becomes his ideal and potential self; he is that self which he ideally conceives. The ideal of himself, so vainly and ineffectually pursued in the world of dust and action, suddenly becomes, in imagination, both real and present. The experience may last but for a moment; in any case it must be very short; but for that sweet moment he has held himself at the high level where “. . . the most difficult of tasks to keep / Heights which the soul is competent to gain.”

And there the pleasure lies. Not in what the poet gives us but in what he enables us to do for ourselves do we find delight. . . . The child does not play with the rag doll; she plays with her imagination; the doll is simply a concrete starting point.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

On the Irrational Imagination 1

On the Irrational Imagination

I've been wondeing about this for some time now. Why I like what I like in poetry . . . so today I've begun to write it out. Here's the question, as I see it. The question that leads me to the sort of poetry I find myself most drawn to. And, of course, it starts with Stevens:

". . . it is becoming easier every day to say that we are irrational beings; that all irrationality is not of a piece and that the only reason why it does not yet have a tradition is that its tradition is in progress."

Attend. ATTEND. Directive: Attend.

First, it’s important to remember where we’ve been. This, from William Wordsworth, in “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” (1802):

"The objects of the poet’s thoughts are every where; though the eyes and senses of man are, it is true, his favorite guides, yet he will follow wheresoever he can find an atmosphere of sensation in which to move his wings. Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge—it is as immortal as the heart of man. If the labors of men of science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we habitually receive, the poet will sleep then no more than at present, but he will be ready to follow the steps of the man of science, not only in those general indirect effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of the science itself. The remotest discoveries of the chemist, the botanist, or mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the poet’s art as any upon which it can be employed, if the time should ever come when these things shall be familiar to us, and the relations under which they are contemplated by the followers of these respective sciences shall be manifestly and palpably material to us as enjoying and suffering beings. If the time should ever come when what is now called science, thus familiarized to men, shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and blood, the poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the being thus produced, as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man."

And this, Harold Bloom’s footnote to the above selection:

"Alas, this has not come to pass. Science, so far from being 'familiarized to men,' has developed to the point where it is beyond the comprehension of most men, including poets."

The tension between these two positions, one, that the poet must (will) be aware, and work with, the “material revolution” of science (as forecast by William Wordsworth in his preface to Lyrical Ballads) and two, that the comprehension of this revolution is beyond most people, (as noted by Harold Bloom) reveals the tension at the heart of the progressing tradition of the irrational imagination. Proceeding through the very real day, looking for sign posts, poets of the irrational imagination attempt to put a “form of flesh and blood” on what has, and hasn’t, come to pass, to move, while at the same time, remaining aware that much of what has come to pass is, or is nearly, inexplicable. So what assumptions, what politics, might guide this poetry?

Thursday, September 21, 2006

TRUTH! Etc. in Poetry

Truth in poetry. I’m not thinking of “TRUTH” as in “The! One! Way! Things! Are!” of the social realm, or the kind of truth that is the sincere retelling of a bit of the author’s life (did the poet REALLY do that?) . . . I’m thinking of truth as a stable part of the world enacted by the poem.

When one runs up the street shouting, “the president has been shot,” one is most likely taken literally. If one writes a poem in which one states, “the president has been shot,” one might be doing any number of things. Perhaps “Truth” is not a good word for this. So I'll try to complicate it a bit by saying “truth value.” Perhaps that still doesn’t quite get to what I mean.

I've read a few things recently. One, by C. Dale Young, about the difficulty of the role of persona on blogs, and another, on Collin Kelly's blog, about his feeling that there is no such thing as "bad" poetry. And then, Jonathan Mayhew was thinking about the inherent problem of taste yesterday.

This has me thinking this morning about the difficulties we have in talking about what art is for, and how we can, or can't, appreciate it.

I think of a poem as a wholeness (even a fragmented poem is a wholeness) because it is itself. My question is how (and then why) do the parts contribute to this wholeness . . . the singularity that is this discreet act of language. No matter what the center of the poem holds – even a de-centered poem – the parts must enact it. And if there is an "it" to enact, then it must, if it is successful, be a wholeness. Even if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice, as the band, Rush, sings, way back when.

There must be some way, in the economy of the poem, to gauge if the poem has been successful or not in its forward movement?

Here are a couple thoughts I'm trying to help myself with this morning:

What does the poem allow us to say, about it, about the world? The world that is the poem . . . the alternate world-creating power of language enacting its space before us. And then the world that is NOT the poem . . . our lived lives in this daily, pedestrian world.

What does this poem allow us to bring back from the poem-world to the daily world? That is, I think, what people talk about when they say one is—or that one might be—changed by art. When the art spills over into the life, the life is shifted a bit. Perhaps not permanently, and perhaps only slightly, and certainly not every time, but changed nonetheless. Even if it quickly reverts.

And what, then, does the poem NOT allow us to say, to bring back to the world?

Remembering that a poem is not a math test, and that one need not show all of one’s work, it is important to note that there is no answer that comes out of a poem. If a poem has an answer, it’s closed to possibility, and then might be reportage, or reflection, or a sincere reenacted truth, but it is no longer a dwelling in possibility, which is the strongest move poetry has, in my estimation.

And in speaking about these things, we must come up against the twin devils of TASTE and VALUE.

Can we talk about the movements of a poem, its potentials and reductions, without being accused of TASTE (you just don’t like it -- !)? Can we speak of the poem’s movement with internal coherence, with its enacted TRUTH, without being accused of VALUE (don’t put your truth on me, man -- !)? Probably not, but it’s good to try, I think. And I suppose we all should fail, as, I suppose all poems must fail . . . or else there would be the end of poetry. Maybe.

All this sounds like STANDARDS of GOOD POEMS, which makes me feel like a reactionary. I don't like that.

Questions for further heated arguments with myself:

How is the form of the poem working with/against the content?

Why do you think the poet broke the poem’s lines where they are broken?

What role does sound (does rhythm) play in this poem?

What does the world look like that is being enacted by this poem? (Image)

To what end are the gleaming machines making?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Object of the Poem

The Object of the poem. The resonance that you will take with you, to which you attach the meaning of the poem. The green blanket, say. An image that can accrue meaning over time, that can be more than itself. A symbol. The thing itself.

To disrupt this power, the power of the IS, are the two devils of contemporary poetry: Simile and Over Modification.

I think Simile is a weak connector, and nearly always, strikes me as fancy rather than unification, just as rhetorical metaphor often sounds overly dramatic, aggrandizing . . . . As in all things though, moderation. The well-placed fancy of Simile can complete a voice. It can bring an association into soft proximity, when soft proximity is what is called for. But Go in Fear should be written on the title page of The Book of Simile.

In much the way that Don’t Editorialize should be written on the cover of The Book of Modification. Modification, where the value-added words of “murky” “beautiful” “doe-eyed” etc., enter, is a cheap shortcut to meaning. The poem is its meaning. Simile and Over Modification blur the object of the poem, and force resonance. They create easy avenues to nostalgia and sentimentality, which should be difficult places to get to, if not avoided at all costs.

This is not an admonition to Show, don’t Tell. Show, don’t Tell is a cheap reduction of the complex relationship between the parts of the poem.

I have two guiding lights that I look for when reading poetry: The power of the image itself. And the poem unfolding as if spoken in the real language of living. They both come from Imagism, of course.

For my money, Imagism was the most interesting “discovery” in poetry in the 20th Century, so I’ll give it over to Pound (for better and for worse), as he writes the three principles of Imagism (which I’ve here edited down a bit):

1. Direct treatment of the 'thing' whether subjective or objective.
2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
3.As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.


An 'Image' is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time. I use the term 'complex' rather technical sense employed by the newer psychologists, such as Hart, though we may not agree absolutely in our application.

It is the presentation of such a 'complex' instantaneously which gives that sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art.
It is better to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works.

All this, however, some may consider open to debate.

To begin with, consider the three propositions (demanding direct treatment, economy of words, and the sequence of the musical phrase), not as dogma - never consider anything as dogma - but as the result of long contemplation, which, even if it is some one else's contemplation, may be worth consideration.


Use no superfluous word, no adjective which does not reveal something.

Don't use such an expression as 'dim lands of peace'. It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer's not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol.

Go in fear of abstractions. Do not retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose. Don't think any intelligent person is going to be deceived when you try to shirk all the difficulties of the unspeakably difficult art of good prose by chopping your composition into line lengths.

What the expert is tired of today the public will be tired of tomorrow.

Don't imagine that the art of poetry is any simpler than the art of music, or that you can please the expert before you have spent at least as much effort on the art of verse as an average piano teacher spends on the art of music.

Be influenced by as many great artists as you can, but have the decency either to acknowledge the debt outright, or to try to conceal it.

Don't allow 'influence' to mean merely that you mop up the particular decorative vocabulary of some one or two poets whom you happen to admire. A Turkish war correspondent was recently caught red-handed babbling in his dispatches of 'dove-grey' hills, or else it was 'pearl-pale', I can not remember.

Use either no ornament or good ornament.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Thomas Lux - To Help the Monkey Cross the River

This is a poem I keep going back to. Consider it a little Monday morning motivation to keep going . . . it's by Thomas Lux, from The Cradle Place

To Help the Monkey Cross the River,

which he must
cross, by swimming, for fruits and nuts,
to help him
I sit with my rifle on a platform
high in a tree, same side of the river
as the hungry monkey. How does this assist
him? When he swims for it
I look first upriver: predators move faster with
the current than against it.
If a crocodile is aimed from upriver to eat the monkey
and an anaconda from downriver burns
with the same ambition, I do
the math, algebra, angles, rate-of-monkey,
croc- and snake-speed, and if, if
it looks as though the anaconda or the croc
will reach the monkey
before he attains the river's far bank,
I raise my rifle and fire
one, two, three, even four times into the river
just behind the monkey
to hurry him up a little.
Shoot the snake, the crocodile?
They're just doing their jobs,
but the monkey, the monkey
has little hands like a child's,
and the smart ones, in a cage, can be taught to smile.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

"Live Music Is Better" Bumper Stickers Should Be Issued

I'm listening to live albums today. Here are six of my favorites:

Neil Young - Live Rust
Wilco - Kicking Television
Pink Floyd - Is there anybody out there? The Wall Live 1980
Thelonious Monk - Misterioso
Dave Brubeck Quartet - Live in Amsterdam / Carnegie Hall / Copenhagen
Jay Farrar - Stone, Steel, & Bright Lights

There are many other good live albums, but these six, in a way, redefine the artists who produced them. Put any of these albums up next to the studio versions of the songs covered, and you'll see worlds of difference, most notably in the way Neil Young discovered a new electric guitar sound half way through Like a Hurricane, or Dave Brubeck proved he could swing, or Jay Farrar proved his solo material wasn't just studio goop. One can hear, on these discs (I think), the artists really living into the songs. The way Wilco has to create the "studio noise" live, as a played part of the song, rather than a computer insertion. The way Thelonious Monk was the most stutteringly beautiful Thelonious Monk. Or how Pink Floyd, free of the studio, actually sounded like a band . . .

Some of the other live albums deserving honorable mention:

Dylan Live '66 - for obvious reasons
Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall - where one can hear Coltrane really start becoming Coltrane.
Neil Young - MTV Unplugged - imperfect, but it does present better versions of the songs from Harvest Moon.

I also really like the bonus live disc that came with the Cracker album Forever.


Question of the day: Is it still plagiarism if Bob Dylan does it?

Friday, September 15, 2006

Face of the Poet

Robert Hass, September 14th, 2006. Maryville, MO.

Makes me wish I could travel the country taking pictures of poets.

He and Brenda Hillman make a wonderful pair for an evening.

Brenda Hillman & Robert Hass

We hosted Robert Hass and Brenda Hillman last night. It was about as good as readings get. I'm continually amazed by how friendly and compassionate some readings (and some poets) can be.

This picture is from the Q & A. It's refreshing to hear Hillman and Hass, especially as a duo, speaking to issues of aesthetics, politics, and the life of the writer. They bring a larger context to issues such as the more often reductive, scare-quote, "poetry wars" skirmishes that are floating around these days.

And, oh yes, the poetry was wonderful.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Driving Directions

When you get to HWY 71, take a right. When you see the signs for Maryville, follow them.

My house is down this road.

Welcome to Maryville.

Driving Directions

You will pass houses like this. Do not be afraid. It's only Missouri.

Driving Directions

Then you follow HWY 136.

Driving Directions

When you get to Shelton Fireworks, you exit onto HWY 136, heading East.

Driving Directions

It's easy to get from Omaha to Maryville, MO, as I discovered the other day. First, you take HWY 29 South.

Reading List / Soundtrack

Reading List:

This week I picked up the new books by Charles Wright (Scar Tissue) and Mark Strand (Man and Camel). They both are very good so far (OK, I haven't gotten very far in either of them, but I have a good excuse).

I also picked up this week at the Wave Bus Tour Reading in Omaha:

Suspension of a Secret in Abandoned Rooms by Joshua Marie Wilkinson (I loved his book lug your careless body out of the careful dark)

Can You Relax in My House by Michael Earl Craig

Moon Garden by Anthony McCann

They all look promising. I'm looking forward to reading them. But before I get to them (and before I really read the Wright & Strand seriously) I'm re-reading the work of Robert Hass and Brenda Hillman, as they're visiting my slice of Missouri this evening. This is my first time reading Hillman's Pieces of Air in the Epic. I'm loving it.


I just discovered Clem Snide. Excellent. I recommend The Ghost of Fashion. Highly.

Also in high rotation on the mp3 player:

Greenland by Cracker
At War with the Mystics by The Flaming Lips
Modern Times by Bob Dylan
Living with War by Neil Young

Actually, it's not Living with War, though, I have a bootleg compilation of the Living with War songs as currently done by Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young on tour. It's much better. Fuller. And the songs sound more realized, though the lyrics could have used an extra afternoon's work. Neil Young, why must you work so fast?

Best album of the year for me though, is still a toss-up between the Cracker and Lips albums.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Wave Poetry Bus Omaha Stop - Readers Two

Again, I'm bad with names. The guy in the floral shirt is Matt Mason, I believe, and the guy holding the paper and singing is Joshua Beckman.

Zachary Schomburg has uploaded some pictures of the Wave Books Poetry Bus stop in Lincoln at The Lovely Arc. It looks like they had a very different atmosphere there. That seems to me part of the beauty of a tour such as this.

The Wave Poetry Bus Omaha Stop - Readers One

Here are pictures of four of the poets who read at the Omaha stop of the Wave Books Poetry Bus Tour. I was working through a headache, so I wasn't able to catch the names of the ones I didn't already know, but I do know the guy with the bright blue shirt is Joshua Marie Wilkinson, and the woman holding up the red book is Erin Belieu.

It was a very good, brief (three poems each) reading. But more on that later.


Addendum. I've been informed that the guy with his hands up to either side of the mic is none other than Lincoln, NE poet Mathias Svalina. Go here to read his recap of the Lincoln reading from the night before.

Wave Poetry Bus - The Omaha Stop Sept. 12

I went to the Wave Poetry Bus stop in Omaha yesterday. Little did I know 60 or so kids from a local elementary school were going to be showing up as well.

It made for a very different sort of reading. Quite good. It was wonderful to see the poets interact with the kids. They did a great job. And the kids were as attentive as I've ever seen elementary school kids.

The reading began with what seemed the customary shot of the crowd . . .

Pictured: Travis Nichols, MC of the event. (As reported by Mathias Svalina.)

Wave Books Poetry Bus - Omaha

Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Wave Bus Tour

This really is the thing we need more of in the poetry world. Something to catch the imagination. 50 cities in 50 days. If you haven't heard of it yet, go to Poets & Writers for a little overview.

Here's the one I'm driving up to, since they're not swinging down through Kansas City.

Omaha Public Library along with Wave Books has promised an action-packed occasion with award-winning poets:

Joshua Beckman
Matthew Zapruder
Joshua Marie Wilkinson
Omaha’s own Matt Mason
and others

Don’t miss it!

11AM to 1PM
Omaha Public Library’s W. Dale Clark Library
215 South 15th Street

Visit for more information.
So anyway, I have my Yahoo! Map and I'm ready to go . . .

Michael Palmer, from Company of Moths

Michael Palmer


What of the wolfhound at full stride?
What of the woman in technical dress
and the amber eye that serves as feral guide

and witness
to the snowy hive?
What of the singer robed in red

and frozen at mid-song
and the stone, its brokenness,
or the voice off-scene that says,

Note the dragonfly by its iris
but ask no questions of flight,
no questions of iridescence?

All of this
and the faint promise of a sleeve,
the shuttle’s course, the weave.

What of these?
What of the century, did you see it pass?
What of the wolfhound at your back?


And here's a short bit from The Washington Post:

Avant-Garde Poet Wins $100,000 Prize

The Associated Press
Wednesday, September 6, 2006; 12:06 PM

NEW YORK -- Avant-garde poet Michael Palmer has won the Wallace Stevens Award, a $100,000 prize given annually for "outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry."
"Michael Palmer is the foremost experimental poet of his generation and perhaps of the last several generations," according to a statement issued earlier this week by the Academy of American Poets, which gives the prize.

"A gorgeous writer who has taken cues from Wallace Stevens, the Black Mountain poets, John Ashbery, contemporary French poets, the poetics of Octavio Paz and from language poetries. He is one of the most original craftsmen at work in English at the present time."

Palmer, 63, is the author of Company of Moths, Codes Appearing and numerous other collections.

Previous winners of the Stevens award, which was founded in 1994, include John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich and W.S. Merwin.


Quibble. "Avant-garde Poet Michael Palmer." It's like needles in my eyes when I come across how reduced the reductions can get . . . We can't just say "Michael Palmer," can we? We can't just say "Poet Michael Palmer." No, we have to find a further box. Oh where would we be without the specific boxes for the specific persons? And make those persons fit! Even if it means we have to chop off little pieces from them to get them in there.

But what does "Avant-garde" even refer to anymore? I thought we were over that one. It seems to me, these days, to be code for "don't bother, you won't like it." Or somesuch.

On the other hand, it is good to see a real article in a real newspaper mentioning something about a poet. Of course, it's only because of the money. But money is a kind of poetry, as Wallace Stevens, namechecked here in the article, once wrote.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Michael Palmer / Wallace Stevens Award

Matthew Thorburn has informed me that Michael Palmer has just been announced as the winner of the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets.

The New York Times writes:

"The accolade recognizes outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry. Mr. Palmer, an experimental poet who was born in New York in 1943 and has lived in San Francisco for more than 30 years, will read from his works at the academy's award ceremony on Nov. 8 at 7 p.m. in the Lang Auditorium at the New School, 55 West 13th Street, in Greenwich Village. The event is free and open to the public."

It's appropriate, I think, that Palmer win an award named for Wallace Stevens, as I feel Palmer's poetry is close in spirit to an aspect of Stevens, the lyrical mind thinking . . . the elusive lyrical argument.

Here’s a poem from Palmer’s most recent book The Company of Moths:

The Thought

We breathe in, we do not think
of it. We walk and we speak

beneath the blue-flowering trees
and do not think. We breathe.

We cross the stone bridge
above a fisherman in a skiff.

We pass the blind man, the legless man
and the woman who sings of a coming storm.

We sit by the river in the rising wind,
we raise the crazed cup to our lips

and do not think,
here where the light does not differ from dark,

here where pages tumble to the floor,
here in the lake of ink,

the stain of ink where we fashion a calendar from a wall.
Invisible lake, unreachable shore.

Exhale and do not think.
Close their eyes a final time close our eyes.

Little Heidegger Bit on "Poetry"

I came upon this as I was surfing around this morning. I've always been somewhat interested in Heidegger. Here's the last bit of the paper I came across (link to full text is at the bottom). As it seems obvious to me that poetry is not communication, it always comes as a surprise when people think of it that way. This rather basic (even reductive) version of Heidegger is, therefore, useful:

Heidegger's writings constantly remind his readers that relating to language as a gift that can lead to thinking is central to a worthy human existence. Repeatedly, in writings that have little to do with poetry, he exposes his belief that language is much more than a means of communication and assertion. He frequently emphasizes the significance of adopting a more profound, more worthy attitude to language. For instance, in a series of lectures on Aristotle's Metaphysics, Heidegger pointed out:

The human being "has the word"; it is the way he makes known to himself his being, and the way in which he sees himself placed in the midst of beings as a whole.... To be empowered with language --; language, however, not merely as a means of asserting and communicating, which indeed it also is, but language as that wherein the openness and conversance of world first of all bursts forth and is. Language, therefore, originally and authentically occurs in poetry... -- however, not poetry in the sense of the work of writers, but poetry as the proclamation of world in the invocation of god. But nowadays we see language primarily from the point of view of what we call conversation and chitchat; conventional philology is in accord with this.

This passage again suggests that to teach poetry in accordance with Heidegger's insights means developing a different relation to language, whereby language is not just a means of asserting and communicating. Pupils and students can be shown that through reading and listening to great poems you can relate to language "as that wherein the openness and conversance of world first of all bursts forth and is." Heidegger would probably advise the teacher to point out to students how great poetry can assist each person to consider language as a source of perceiving beings and relating to Being from new perspectives. The teacher should indicate that listening to the Saying of great poetry is a manner of dwelling upon earth. Such has nothing to do with the accepted approach which views poetry as a manner of appealing to the reader's or the listener's aesthetic feelings. Heidegger would also probably hold that once the students can, at least partially, adopt such a relationship to language they will find themselves in the neighborhood of thinking. In that neighborhood, a person can often glean wisdom from great poetry.

You can read all of this interesting paper at:

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Michael Palmer's Poetry

I love trotting this poem out every now and again, with its high lyricism and awkward curves, and its touch upon the anxiety and conflicted nature of the age, it continually brings me back to an awareness of how much power poetry has to enact the space it's in. Amazing stuff.

Notes For Echo Lake - 4

Who did he talk to

Did she trust what she saw

Who does the talking

Whose words formed awkward curves

Did the lion finally talk

Did the sleeping lion talk

Did you trust a north window

What made the dog bark

What causes a grey dog to bark

What does the juggler tell us

What does the juggler’s redness tell us

Is she standing in an image

Were they lost in the forest

Were they walking through a forest

Has anything been forgotten

Did you find it in the dark

Is that one of them new atomic-powered wristwatches

Was it called a talking song

Is that an oblong poem

Was poetry the object

Was there once a road here ending at a door

Thus from bridge to bridge we came along

Did the machine seem to talk

Did he read from an empty book

Did the book grow empty in the dark, grey felt hat blowing down the street, arms pumping back and forth, legs slightly bowed

Are there fewer ears than songs

Did he trust a broken window

Did he wake beneath a tree in the recent snow

Whose words formed difficult curves

Have the exaggerations quieted down

The light is lovely in trees which are not large

My logic is all in the melting-pot

My life now is very economical

I can say nothing of my feelings about space

Nothing could be clearer than what you see on this wall

Must we give each one a name

Is it true they all have names

Would it not have been simpler

Would it not have been simpler to begin

Were there ever such buildings

I must remember to mention the trees

I must remember to invent some trees

Who told you these things

Who taught you how to speak

Who taught you not to speak

Whose is the voice that empties

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Laura Jensen's Poetry

Kevin Prufer is reminding us of several neglected poets over at Good Times.

First up in his list is Laura Jensen, an amazingly interesting, wildly original poet, whose three books demand republication. One, Memory, has been reissued this year by Carnegie Mellon.

Bad Boats (ECCO, 1977), a book everyone should have, is still, apparently available from several used bookstores. You can find it through

Here’s a poem from Bad Boats, which shows, along with the title poem Prufer quotes, some of her unique power. As Mark Strand wrote, from the back cover, "[Jensen's poems] are charged with an eerie energy that compels our attention continuously."

The Red Dog

You know that he is going to die
as soon as I tell you
he is standing beside me
his hair in spikes and dripping
from his body. He turns his head.
Canadian geese
all of them floating along the shore.
The red dog is swimming for them
only his head shows now
they flap into a curve and move
farther along the bay.
You know that he is going to die
this is the time for it
while there is a way to vanish
while the geese are moving off
to be their hard sounds
as their bodies leave the water.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

From the Notebooks

I keep a little notebook in which I write down things I read, hear, and/ or think, as it seems everyone does. Today, I’ve filled up one of these little notebooks. The following are some of the things I’ve found, looking back through it. I no longer know the sources which inspired them, or if they came from anywhere in particular, or which ones are mine and which are quotes. Apologies.

“What are you doing,” is ultimately an existential question. A nostalgia for a fantasy.

You should hope for the moment when you do this thing and you scare yourself. Or you startle yourself. Or for a minute you are outside of yourself.

How when flipping television stations, the people begin finishing each other’s sentences.

When composing a poem, take only one thing seriously, and never tell us what it is.

After you arrive in a new place and you keep thinking you see old friends. This is a world of other people.

The four minds of the poem:
Philosophical – mystical
Narrative – human – social
Musical – words – phrases – the sound of speaking
Elemental – image – the sensual being

By such ruses we gather our way.

Always ask yourself, when writing, when reading: why am I being told these things?

What might “the grace of the elemental” mean?

Beginnings are useful things. And then the looking for what comes next. How interest turns.

We all need expressive language.

What might the motive of the poem be? Curiosity? Desire? For what? Why?

Always hoping for the new language to begin. Always keeping in mind there are other paths.

What is the nature of this movement? To live in that open question. Which is any open question, really.

Water feels still within its flowing.

Behind all language, the unsayable words.

The meaning of the poem is the experience of the poem being. As the meaning of a life is the experience of being alive.

Everything one says about poetry is disputable. So sing whatever it is you have to sing. And know the real edge and the pretend edge. The real singing from the pretend singing.

You can go anywhere when you’re someone else. The goal is never to arrive at the place you are.

Where is your biggest fear? Go there with a picnic basket.

No, this road doesn’t go anywhere. It’s always stayed right here.

So, what is pacing? What is direction? Tone? Toward/Against/From/With?

Having a mind of and.

Enacting the space you’re in, its organizational spirit, its genius.

You don’t have to have a full deck of cards if you have all the best ones.

Q: How much energy is there in that poem?
A: I don’t know, grammar took me there.

Don’t ignore what complicates the reading. The twisted image, perhaps, off to one side. The odd connotation. If the poem is a wholeness, it’s not to be divided for meaning.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Charles Wright's New Book

There is a handful of poets that no matter my location or financial situation, when they come out with a new book, I buy it. Charles Wright is one of those poets. He’s found a way, over the years, to enact perception, to enact the mind thinking in a beautifully gestural, persuasive manner. Work like his makes comments by people like John Barr (saying we’ve worn out our period style and need a new type of poem / poet) evaporate. These poems are the antidote.

Here’s one of the poems from his new book Scar Tissue, re-published on Poetry Daily.


The older we get, the deeper we dig into our childhoods,
Hoping to find the radiant cell
That washed us, and caused our lives
                                       to glow in the dark like clock hands
Endlessly turning toward the future,
Tomorrow, day after tomorrow, the day after that,
                                                   all golden, all in good time

Hiwassee Dam, North Carolina.
                                               Still 1942,
Still campfire smoke in both our eyes, my brother and I
Gaze far out at the lake in sunflame,
Expecting our father at any moment, like Charon, to appear
Back out of the light from the other side,
                 low-gunwaled and loaded down with our slippery dreams.

Other incidents flicker like foxfire in the black
Isolate distance of memory,
                                        cross-eyed, horizon-haired.
Which one, is it one, is it anyone that cleans us, clears us,
That relimbs our lives to a shining

One month without rain, two months,
                                          third month of the new year,
Afternoon breeze-rustle dry in the dry needles of hemlock and pine.
I can't get down deep enough.
Sunlight flaps its enormous wings and lifts off from the backyard,
The wind rattles its raw throat,
                                               but I still can't go deep enough.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

AWP Is Taking on the Poetry Foundation. Part Deux.

This time it’s personal!

OK, so just posting that email wasn't enough, so here goes, reading along through it the second time, this is my response to the version of this essay distributed by AWP. If you're interested in reading John Barr's complete essay, go to

“The following excerpt is from the September, 2006 issue of POETRY, 'American Poetry in the New Century,' by John Barr, President of the Poetry Foundation and investment banker for SG Barr Devlin:”

Already I’m thinking “oh how I can’t wait to read this insightful, thoughtful, subtle essay written by someone who has a true appreciation for art. If only Dana Gioia had a hand in it, and perhaps if it would hold up Mark Twain as a model for contemporary poets, then I really could consider it relevant and even-handed.”

So Barr begins by, pardon me, lowering the bar:

''More than a decade ago, Dana Gioia recognized poetry's disjunction from public life, in his seminal essay, ‘Can Poetry Matter?’ The question still pertains.”

Now that seminal Dana Gioia has been invoked, and the muse is present, seminally, we can begin. Apparently. And seminally.

“Lacking a general audience, poets still write for one another. (Witness the growth of writing workshops and the MFA program.) Because the book-buying public does not buy their work, at least not in commercial quantities, they cannot support themselves as writers. So they teach. But an academic life removes them yet further from a general audience.”

Here’s where I start calling John Barr an elitist snob. Mr. Barr, I hereby challenge you to name three people in the “general audience.” Look out your window. I know they’re small down there somewhere in the mists of Chicago . . . but I’m sure you stood next to one once while getting gas? It is hard for me not to allow myself to sink further into sarcasm, but I’ve absolutely HAD it with this kind of “Ivory Tower” argument. What kind of teaching does he think “MFA program” poets end up performing? And where are these jobs? The average MFA poet ends up teaching a 4/4 load, at least half in general education, at a regional university for something around 42,000 a year. Living, working, and being a part of, the general population. Going to general audience movie theaters and general audience restaurants. I propose, therefore, that John Barr is further removed from the general audience than most poets. Or at least his suit is.

He goes on:

“Each year, MFA programs graduate thousand of students who have been trained to think of poetry as a career, and to think poetry has something to do with credentials. The effect of these programs on the artform is to increase the abundance of poetry, but to limit its variety. The result is a poetry that is neither robust, resonant, nor---and I stress this quality---entertaining; a poetry that both starves and flourishes on academic subsides.”

So here he is. First off, how divorced from reality must he be to say that there is a limited variety of poetry out there? Obviously, all he does is read “Poetry” (the magazine, that is). If all I read were “Poetry,” I, too, would think the poetry written these days limited, and neither robust nor resonant. And then he really gets to his major concern: Poetry is not entertaining enough. OK, so Mr. Barr, after his long day of Poetry Foundationing and Investment Banking, wants to find some entertaining poetry to sooth him into his evening slumber. And get him all ready for another go-round tomorrow!

The problem here is that MFA poets have much less of a problem than does Mr. Barr’s imaginary general audience. Poetry can’t compete with TV, I’m sorry. Or actually, I’m not sorry. Why someone would want poets to be entertaining is beyond me. Art should be entertaining? Where does it say that in the historical record? Last I recall, poets are supposed to be thrown out of the city. So, poetry needs to be more decorative. Which of course makes sense, coming from someone whose deepest reading on art is “Can Poetry Matter?” I’ve been irritated (is this coming across yet) by that silly essay for years. Dana Gioia’s best argument (ok, I’m going from memory here) for increasing the enjoyability of poetry as performance is to have less poetry and more performance. Music or something. Maybe wear a Robert Pinsky Halloween mask. My biggest complaint about Dana Gioia’s argument is his complete inability to take his own advice.

How popular must poetry get before John Barr gets happy? Should Dan Brown write some verse? I'm sure he could. He has a computer and apparently is great at google searches.

And the pot shot that Barr takes at ‘academic subsidies.” John Barr thinks that poets are sponging off of the academy. As opposed to, say, a $100 Million dollar subsidy from a very wealthy patron?

Back to Mr. Barr:

“Not surprisingly, poetry has a morale problem. A few years ago I read a review, in the Sunday Times, of three books of poetry.”

OK, another problem. If all he knows of poetry is “Poetry” and the “Sunday Review” from a few years ago, he’s certain to say what he’s going to say next:

“One was about the agonies of old age, one about bombed-out Ireland, one about the poet's dead father. The question arises: how does one rouse an entire art form out of a bad mood?”

Two things: If he’s only reading three REVIEWS (from a few years ago), how is he to know what’s really in those books (or any actual books - I mean, if this is the best example he can come up with, why are we listening to this guy? Oh yes, the $100 Million...)? Granted, these three books don’t sound very interesting to me either, but rather than read a review of three high profile “experience” books, I think I’ll actually go out and read three real books.

The last book of poetry I read is Annus Mirabilis, by Sally Ball. I can’t get pithy with a one sentence synopsis of its content, because it’s an interesting, thoughtful mix of poems roughly circling the lives and theories of Newton and Leibniz, filtered through a lyrical, experiencing contemporary voice. It's NOT a downer, by the way. Currently, I'm re-reading the books of Robert Hass and Brenda Hillman. More about that some other day.

Oh yes, Mr. Barr is still hammering away at it:

“Of course the tragic has a place in poetry. Indeed one of poetry's jobs is to descant on the worst that life can hand us. As Yeats said, let 'soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing / For every tatter in its mortal dress.' But art should not be only about malfunction. Poetry need not come only from impairment. To the extent it does, it makes for a poetry that is monotonic---mono-moodic, if you will. . . .”

I’m not sure what he’s getting at here. Are we all too much like Yeats? Do we just need a happy pill? Surely THAT can’t be his real argument. We aren’t happy enough? What does he want now, stand up comedy? So, two poets walk into a bar?

So, two poets walk into a bar.
The third one ducks.

“Poetry's limitations today come not from failures of craft (the MFA programs attend to that) but from afflictions of spirit. American poetry has yet to produce its Mark Twain.”

So now we have it. Mark Twain. So Mark Twain is funny? Upbeat? Someone should clean this guy’s glasses and send him back to those books. But even so, taking his argument in the spirit it was given . . . “Be more pleasant and don’t go one so about things falling apart” . . . I submit that if Billy Collins can’t connect to a large general audience, then I shudder to think of what the poet Mr. Barr is imagining would look and sound like. Aren’t Billy Collins and Robert Pinsky and Dana Gioia precisely what Dana Gioia and John Barr are calling for? People tell me Billy Collins is funny, right? Or Robert Pinsky? (PS. Do MFA programs really attend to craft? When is the last time John Barr sat in on an MFA program? Where is his information coming from?)

''The combined effects of public neglect and careerism, then, are intellectual and spiritual stagnation in the art form.”

And where does this come from? In what way was this point argued or proven? As if Robert Frost wasn't careerist? or should we be going back further? Wordsworth? Pope? Where is the golden age Barr is wanting to resurrect?

“Although poets pride themselves on their independence, when did you last read a poem whose political vision truly surprised or challenged you? Attitude has replaced intellect.”

OK, now he’s completely shifted gears. Perhaps he’s realized that his little rant was silly, and he’s trying to re-direct. I hear that investment bankers are good at such things. I challenge John Barr to read Amiri Baraka, if he wants surprising and challenging political poems, if challenging and surprising is really what he wants. Or he could google search “poets against the war.” But maybe those are all attitude poems. Perhaps we need more intellect. But isn’t that what Robert Pinsky and Dana Gioia and Billy Collins and Ted Kooser are for? Aren’t they the burning intellects of contemporary letters? They’re the ones I keep seeing on TV. They must be, right? Is John Barr calling them out as well?

As AWP writes in response:

“Clearly, Mr. Barr needs some cheering up. Send your favorite, humorous contemporary poem to:

The President
Poetry Foundation
444 North Michigan Ave., Suite 1850
Chicago, IL 60611”

Yes, clearly John Barr needs to get out more. But with $100 Million in his pocket, if John Barr can’t find good poetry in America, it surely must not exist. It’s amazing and wonderful to think that someone would give such a huge sum to a literary journal / foundation. It’s tragic that the organization is this short-sighted, insular, stuffy, reactionary, and all around annoying one headed by John Barr. I don’t hate John Barr (love the sinner, hate the sin, as they say), I just think he has no idea what he’s talking about.

I’ll give the last word to a poet. Here’s Brenda Hillman, from Cascadia:

Weather taught
you to write funny. When it stops
being wrecked, we’ll write normally.

Put that in your pipe, Mr. Barr, and smoke it.

AWP Is Taking On The Poetry Foundation

AWP is taking on The Poetry Foundation. This time it’s personal!

The following is a message to all poets from AWP:


The following excerpt is from the September, 2006 issue of POETRY, ''American Poetry in the New Century,'' by John Barr, President of the Poetry Foundation and investment banker for SG Barr Devlin:

''More than a decade ago, Dana Gioia recognized poetry's disjunction from public life, in his seminal essay, ŒCan Poetry Matter?¹ The question still pertains. Lacking a general audience, poets still write for one another. (Witness the growth of writing workshops and the MFA program.)Because the book-buying public does not buy their work, at least not in commercial quantities, they cannot support themselves as writers. So they teach. But an academic life removes them yet further from a general audience. Each year, MFA programs graduate thousand of students who have been trained to think of poetry as a career, and to think poetry has something to do with credentials. The effect of these programs on the artform is to increase the abundance of poetry, but to limit its variety. The result is a poetry that is neither robust, resonant, nor---and I stress this quality---entertaining; a poetry that both starves and flourishes on academic subsides.

''Not surprisingly, poetry has a morale problem. A few years ago I read a review, in the Sunday Times, of three books of poetry. One was about the agonies of old age, one about bombed-out Ireland, one about the poet's dead father. The question arises: how does one rouse an entire art form out of a bad mood? Of course the tragic has a place in poetry. Indeed one of poetry's jobs is to descant on the worst that life can hand us. As Yeats said, let 'soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing / For every tatter in its mortal dress.' But art should not be only about malfunction. Poetry need not come only from impairment. To the extent it does, it makes for a poetry that is monotonic---mono-moodic, if you will. . . . Poetry's limitations today come not from failures of craft (the MFA programs attend to that) but from afflictions of spirit. American poetry has yet to produce its Mark Twain.

''The combined effects of public neglect and careerism, then, are intellectual and spiritual stagnation in the art form. Although poets pride themselves on their independence, when did you last read a poem whose political vision truly surprised or challenged you? Attitude has replaced intellect.''

Clearly, Mr. Barr needs some cheering up. Send your favorite, humorous contemporary poem to:

The President
Poetry Foundation
444 North Michigan Ave., Suite 1850
Chicago, IL 60611

Thank you for supporting AWP.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Reading Ashbery - Erasing Ashbery

Ignorance of the Law Is No Excuse

We were warned about spiders, and the occasional famine.
We drove downtown to see our neighbors. None of them were home.
We nestled in yards the municipality had created,
reminisced about other, different places —
but were they? Hadn’t we known it all before?

In vineyards where the bee’s hymn drowns the monotony,
we slept for peace, joining in the great run.
He came up to me.
It was all as it had been,
except for the weight of the present,
that scuttled the pact we made with heaven.
In truth there was no cause for rejoicing,
nor need to turn around, either.
We were lost just by standing,
listening to the hum of wires overhead.

We mourned that meritocracy which, wildly vibrant,
had kept food on the table and milk in the glass.
In skid-row, slapdash style
we walked back to the original rock crystal he had become,
all concern, all fears for us.
We went down gently
to the bottom-most step. There you can grieve and breathe,
rinse your possessions in the chilly spring.
Only beware the bears and wolves that frequent it
and the shadow that comes when you expect dawn.

I like this poem very much, I’ve decided. I’ve been sitting with it a bit this morning, living around it. Now, if someone asked me to say what it means, after I first discounted the question as immaterial to an appreciation of art, and then was forced to, as someone might say that to toss out the old “immaterial to an appreciation” argument is just to hide behind a naked emperor, I suppose I’d say, well, read down the poem and let its images and sounds play across your imagination and see if the tone finds its way into language.

For me, doing that, this is what I guess I come up with (reduced though, as whenever we try to put a TONE into words, we reduce it):

It starts with a warning remembered by the speaker, and ends with a warning given by the speaker. Both are good warnings to heed. The images and sounds continue quite unified down the page – spiders become the hymn of bees (become the hum of wires), become bears and wolves. As the poem advances, the dangers become larger until even the sun is blotted out.

And the narrative of dangers, watch how it accumulates:

Stanza one: famine . . . no one’s home . . . the city creates the small plots of the natural world where we rest . . . all places are the same . . .

Stanza two: we tried to make it otherwise . . . the present we’ve made is somehow wrong, a violation of the natural order . . . but we were outdone by our technology . . .

Stanza three: the idea that people can advance on their own merit is over . . . it worked awhile . . . fears . . . skid-row . . . at the bottom step of society, emotion is possible, and life, though the emotion is grief and the life is only breathing . . . but you can rinse (cleanse?) your possessions (yourself?) there in some fragment of the natural world . . . but don’t kid yourself, bears and wolves are there with their large dangers . . . and instead of dawn you get only the advancing shadow (which I suppose would be the ever encroaching technology . . . the shadow that buildings and civilization casts . . . or perhaps the generalized anxiety [death, one would reduce it to, as we like to in poems whenever there’s darkness] that is three fourths of the law).

David Dodd Lee, over at has been making /unmaking some interesting Ashbery erasures (a long tradition from Bloom’s playbook . . . Rauschenberg erasing a deKooning . . . Neil Young and Stephen Stills erasing Crosby and Nash from “Long May You Run” . . . [I'm always happier if I can find a way to toss in a Neil Young reference]).

These erasures are interesting in their violence, yes, but also in their privileging of a reading, which is what we all must do when reading, I suppose, but this privileging is also a showing, which can be revelatory. So here’s my showing/erasure of this poem’s more “tame” center. Ashbery almost sounds, ahem, “getable” this way, as it’s the revelation of my “getting” of the poem. I like his poem more than my erasure, rightfully. It contradicts itself and contains the multitudes I’m excluding from the conversation. But here it is anyway.

Ignorance of the Law Is No Excuse

We were warned about the occasional famine.
We drove downtown to see our neighbors. None of them
were home.
We nestled in yards and reminisced about other,
different places —
Hadn’t we known it all before?

We slept for peace, joining in the great run. In truth
there was no cause for rejoicing,
nor need to turn around. We were lost
just by standing,
listening to the hum of wires overhead.

We went down gently
to the bottom-most step. There
you can grieve and breathe,
rinse your possessions in the chilly spring,
and the shadow that comes when you expect dawn.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Sally Ball, Sarah Manguso and the Dramatic Monologue

The (Impolite) Dramatic Monologue Since Browning!

OK, not really, but Browning is where a lot of poets really get thinking of the potential power of an “I” speaking impolite truths about itself. To be impolite, then, which has a long history in art, is hard to resist. Think of the power of confessional poetry. Robert Lowell. Sylvia Plath. Or the beat poets. “Howl,” etc. These were (are) just another form of the dramatic monologue, of course, but they acted like non-fiction, like they were something confessed, or even more shocking to many, something celebrated (think Allen Ginsberg, and to problematize it further, think of Walt Whitman [but I’m trying to keep this manageable]).

Many poets are still using the “pure” (for want of a better term) form of the dramatic monologue . . . Frank Bidart, Norman Dubie, Kathy Fagan, among many others, including Sally Ball, whose recent book Annus Mirabilis is a wealth of allusion and dramatic monologues. Her book is an interesting pivot point between “pure” dramatic monologue and what I’m thinking of as the de-re-contextualized contemporary dramatic monologue.

Leibniz Under House Arrest

Oh how I love that he should be a George,
my valet, who knows perfectly well

where we have been, where we find ourselves now.

George, King of the wood market.
George, King of the rued philosophers.

The trouble with intelligence
comes when curiosity has withered.

I shall not wither much more.

I have been so many places. I have tried to solve
real problems in the world—not identify, not bemoan.
It is hard to love
and be loved
when you are thinking all the time.

I shall try
to be alive like this. Alive here.
With George, with a good library.

The move from the historical realism of the title to the much more subjective and layered (doubled) “I shall try / to be alive like this” is the special strength of this form, and why I like dramatic monologues so much. Reading the poem without knowledge of Leibniz, and the King he found himself on the wrong side of, heightens the dislocations of an “I” speaking both across history and from the present of the poem’s action (and then of course layered with the voice, the desire [why chose a historical character?] of the poet. It’s a lovely layering.

There has been a shattering power in that move of “I” disclosure from the 1950s onward in American poetry, until now, where (pseudo?) autobiographical moves are a major force in contemporary poetry (very non-fictionish). Many do it, but usually in a lower register, and rarely to confess, or shock, or otherwise employ the impolite. Most poets using the “I” pretend in the poem, as is the period style, that the poem is not a construct of the “I,” but a “real” voice disclosing social content.

There is, recently though, an energetic group of poets who employ the “I” in interesting, shifting, ways. I’m quite interested in what they do, because there is a desire to state things, to tell, and a desire to suggest things, to show, in the creation of poetry. The “I” doing visible things in a poem (or the “you,” as some poets employ it) has a certain possibility that “she/ he/ we/ they” can’t quite match. And poets who use this method mostly do get to have it both ways in these poems, as the surreal, the imagined, the actual, and the absurd, mix into a froth that can’t be finally put to the “did she or he really do that?” test. But, at the same time, they get to have most of the impolite power of disclosure.

So abstract and actual exist as one! Perhaps. Which is why the current wave of ambivalent dramatic monologues is rather popular (at least I think so this morning). It’s an interesting revision of the confessional poem filtered through postmodern veils mixed with a little cultural desirability model (sex appeal), or some such. And what is the power of disclosure in a first person poem anyway?

Here’s an example of one of the poems I'm thinking of in this regard, from Sarah Manguso’s excellent book Siste Viator.

Kitty in the Snow

Meanwhile I fuck this sculpture
In my mind until it melts, then stop.
Mmm, cold.
At the party I talk to everyone’s honey
And sip poison and then go home,
Get shitfaced, and get it on with myself.
I’m so good, I give it to myself every bad way I know.
I whisper in my ear as I come:
Sarah Manguso, you’re a damn fine lover.
Maybe someday we can be together, too.