Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Martha Collins - Blue Front

I'm still going through stacks of books from 2006 (even as books from 2007 are starting to arrive!), and I've just reread Blue Front, by Martha Collins.

She read here in Maryville last night. If you ever get a chance to hear her read from this book, I recommend you go.

I wrote down a paragraph about how much I like this book, and now I've misplaced it. If and when I find it, I'll place it here. Until then, here are a couple sections from this most amazing book-length poem.


Anyone can get it wrong, laying low
when she ought to lie, but is it a lie
for her to say she laid him when we know
he wouldn’t lie still long enough to let
her do it? A good lay is not a song,
not anymore; a good lie is something
else: lyrics, lines, what if you say dear sister
when you have no sister, what if you say guns
when you saw no guns, though you know
they’re there? She laid down her arms; she lay
down, her arms by her sides. If we don’t know,
do we lie if we say? If we don’t say, do we lie
down on the job? To arms! in any case,
dear friends. If we must lie, let’s not lie around.


as a mirror on a wall, or the fall
of a dress. a dress, a shirt on a line
to fasten to dry. on the rack, or back
in the closet again, a sweet curse
on it all, sliver of nail, delayed
attack. shamed creature, a curse
on itself, so the act of doing it
changes the verb, tense with not
quite right. with rope, like a swing
from a tree. from a pole, like a flag,
or holidays, from an arch lit white
with lights. in the night, in the air
like a shirt. without, or with only
a shirt. without, like an empty sleeve.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Because Seeing Is Believing

This is not a pipe.

Indeed. But if it were a poem, who would write it?

What would it look like?

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Quan Barry

you are standing at the ocean,
in the moon’s empirical light
each mercurial wave

like a parabola shifting on its axis,
the sea’s dunes differentiated & graphed.
If this, then that. The poet

laughs. She wants to lie
in her own equation, the point slope
like a woman whispering stay me

with flagons. What is it to know the absolute value
of negative grace, to calculate
how the heart becomes the empty set

unintersectable, the first & the last?
But enough.
You are standing on the shore,

the parameters like wooden stakes.
Let x be the moon like a notary.
Let y be all things left unsaid.

Let the constant be the gold earth
waiting to envelop what remains,
the sieves of the lungs like two cones.

—Amy Quan Barry

Friday, January 26, 2007

Catty Wampus / Samba / & Neil Young

Ah, the real me, here I am hanging onto the podium, "Catty Wampus" to the side of my head. Could life get any better?

Yes, it could:

Taken from http://www.nme.com/news/neil-young/26040
and From Uncut http://www.uncut.co.uk/news/neil_young/news/9279

Neil Young's live album tracklisting revealed
'Live At Massey Hall' includes DVD

Neil Young's has unveiled the tracklisting for his forthcoming livealbum 'Live At Massey Hall'.

The album, released on March 12, was recorded in Toronto in 1971 and features a DVD which features footage of the show minus three tracks.

Young said: "This is the album that should have come out between 'After The Gold Rush' and 'Harvest'. David Briggs, my producer, was adamant that this should be therecord, but I was very excited about the takes we got on 'Harvest' andwanted 'Harvest' out. David disagreed. As I listen to this today, I can see why."

The tracklisting for the album is:

On The Way Home
Tell Me Why
Old Man
Journey Through The Past
Love In Mind
A Man Needs A Maid/ Heart of Gold Suite
Cowgirl In The Sand
Don't Let It Bring You Down
There's A World
Bad Fog Of Loneliness
The Needle and the Damage Done
See the Sky About to Rain
Down By The River
Dance Dance Dance
I Am A Child

On his fall release, Archives Vol I, there will be, reportedly, 38 unreleased tracks:

The anticipated release date of 'Archives, Volume 1' is September this year. The collection will feature eight discs, including "Live At the Filmore" (released last November) and the above mentioned "Live At Massey Hall".

Thirty-eight previously unreleased songs will feature on Archives, billed as a 'musical autobiography' of Neil Young. Tantalisingly, the eight CDs only cover the period from 1964 to 1971, suggesting it is only the beginning of a vast release campaign.

Allan Jones, Editor of Uncut says "This is incredible news for Neil Young fans, like myself, who seem to have been waiting the best part of our adult lives for the release of this archive material. Neil has been talking about it for years. When I interviewed him in 1989, he told me it was coming together and to expect it soon. Which is also what he told me when I interviewed him in 1993. It looks finally like it's s happening at last, though, incrediblly enough. On the evidence of the Live at The Filmore CD, it should be mind-blowing stuff."

Thursday, January 25, 2007

A Manifesto's Manifesto

I'm going back to my old books these days. A fresh move from all this new new new that will be coming in 2007.

First up: Spring & All, by William Carlos Williams.

William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, circa 1923, were much more alike in their thinking, and much of their poetry, than history has since made them seem.

If one wants to be reminded of this, one need go no further than Williams’ Spring & All. If you’ve never read this book, you’re in for a treat. It’s a wildly imagined tour de force of the imagination. A manifesto of imaginative brio. Yep. We all know the famous poems from this volume, but how often have we reminded ourselves of the prose?

“I speak for the integrity of the soul and the greatness of life’s inanity ; the formality of its boredom ; the orthodoxy of its stupidity. Kill ! kill ! let there be fresh meat. . .”

And the purity of its assertions:

“There is only “ illusion ” in art where ignorance of the bystander confuses imagination and its works with cruder processes. Truly men feel an enlargement before great or good work, an expansion but this is not, as so many believe today a “ lie,” a stupefaction, a kind of mesmerism, a thing to block out “ life,” bitter to the individual, by a “ vision of beauty.” It is a work of the imagination. It gives the feeling of completion by revealing the oneness of experience ; it rouses rather than stupefies the intelligence by demonstrating the importance of personality, by showing the individual, depressed before it, that his life is valuable – when completed by the imagination. And then only. Such work elucidates –”


" today when we are beginning to discover the truth that in great works of the imagination A CREATIVE FORCE IS SHOWN AT WORK MAKING OBJECTS WHICH ALONE COMPLETE SCIENCE AND ALLOW INTELLIGENCE TO SURVIVE --"

And this, my favorite bit:

" The only realism in art is of the imagination. It is only thus that the work escapes plagiarism after nature and becomes a creation "

And then, of course, the glorious IS-ness of the poems.

Of death
the barber
the barber
talked to me

cutting my
life with
sleep to trim
my hair --

It's just
a moment
he said, we die
every night --

And of
the newest
ways to grow
hair on

bald death --
I told him
of the quartz

and of old men
with third
sets of teeth
to the cue

of an old man
who said
at the door --
Sunshine today !

for which
death shaves
him twice
a week

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Levis Poetry Prize

I would like to add my voice to that of C. Dale Young, regarding Four Way Books.

The first few copies of my book came in the mail yesterday, and they’re perfect. But what’s more important than that, is how Four Way Books has treated this book (& me!) throughout the publication process. I could ask for no better. It’s been quite wonderful.

So, if you’re a poet looking for a first class publisher, do as I did, and send your manuscript. They’re reading for the Levis Poetry Prize right now:

Judge: Tony Hoagland

Submission Dates: January 1 – March 31, 2007 by email or regular mail

Awarding publication of a book-length collection and $1000.00

Open to any poet writing in English who is a citizen of the United States.

Finalists not chosen as the winner by the judge will be considered by the editors for publication outside of the contest. The press has a history of publishing finalists, but is under no obligation to do so.


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Poetry Workshops from 1987 - 2007, Part III

Part III

So then, what do we do in workshop? What practical things can we do to move through the massively unpractical activity of art production?

The way I approach the daily activity of the workshop is evolving. And I always like having conversations with others who facilitate workshops, about the sorts of things they bring. In the interest of sharing, then, here are some (almost!) practical things that I like to bring to workshops. I would love to hear what others do (hint hint).

First, poems in a poetry workshop are part of the process of poetry-making for each poet. In this way, each poem brought to class is transitional. All poems are potentially of equal importance to future poems from the poet. In the light of this as a process, here are a few things I sometimes ask workshop participants to do:

1. Bring in a group of poems per poet to talk about together. My thought is that this might help us address the poetry, the larger interests of the poet. We want the poem, the future poem, to shock itself into the new. The now. To startle the reader by startling—in our reading—the poem itself. In what practical way might this be applied? One way, would be, that we could look for places where the poems are moving, or potentially moving, out of their habits of seeing the world. This would be another way of conceptualizing the moments, two-thirds of the way through many poems, that the poems seem to be changing their focus. Rather than consider this a moment for normifying revision, this might be seen as the true moment where the poem is revealing its newness . . . when what the poem thought it was talking about shifts. But, more importantly, I think, is that when we start to look at several poems together by a poet, the poet begins to conceptualize the poetry into larger constructs, the book, yes, but out of the tyranny of inspiration and into the commitment of poetry. That’s the theory, at any rate.

2. Poets present each other’s work by situating it in context. By context, here, I mean within the world of other poems. Poems that bear a family resemblance to the poetry of this poet. These are non-evaluative responses, and are meant to describe the project, or envision the project of this poet’s work. Not just what propels the poem forward, but what propels this poet’s poetry forward. This conversation is descriptive, not evaluative. And often, description of a poet’s work in context can be just as interesting and generative as close reading. One of my favorite things to do in workshop is to bring poems that seem to share the context of what the poem at hand is up to, and, as well, poems that take a radically different journey. For a poem of shared endeavor, I might bring for some poet, a poem by Mark Halliday, say. But then I might also bring some James Tate or Dean Young, to show, if not really a radically different journey, perhaps a divergent tone, or way of thinking about the subject, the landscape, from a different location.

3. Ongoingness. We can ask ourselves, “what is closure?” by evading it. We can read Paterson. Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous.” Ashbery’s Flow Chart. Or any number of other closure-evading projects, including the poetic series. An obvious choice being Berryman’s “Dream Songs.” Or Olson’s The Maximus Poems. Or Martha Collins’ Blue Front, or Lyn Hejinian’s My Life.

4. Subject Matter – Science, Philosophy, History, Myth, Painting. Which is, I like to have us encounter things that aren’t poetry, but to encounter them generatively, not academically. To illustrate quickly, what I mean is not to read these texts to study, necessarily, their arguments, but to investigate these texts for what they might mean for the production of art. Take science, for instance. Reading that the world we don’t see, the quantum world, functions under rules that are completely different than the world we experience with our senses, could potentially open a world of possibility for art.

Questions that might surround outside readings might be: How does reading this book on science, philosophy, etc., prepare the next poem to set forth? How does this book change the context of the next poem’s journey? Filling one’s context with other things, science, history, politics, painting, as well as filling one’s context with previous poems, and talking about what those poems have investigated, seems a good idea. But, just as important, I think, is a radical unknowing, the exploration of the unlanguageable . . . taking a walk, say. And then to make the theoretical turn back from what one is doing to why one is doing it. This is the who of who one is as a writer. This is also the thinking behind the value of revision. So what about subject matter for poets? It is what it is. But it cycles through different poets in radically different ways. Think of the poetic possibilities of science in the work of Bin Ramke and Linda Bierds. Or for Thylias Moss and Albert Goldbarth.

But, is seems, even in overtly narrative poetry, that narrative is not the finality of action—not the outcome—or almost not. It’s a difficult balancing, which is what I have the most fun thinking around. What might an Impressionist version of this scene look like? A Cubist version? A Pop Art version? Questions such as this might not, in the end, mean much for the poem at hand, but they can be generative for future poems, for us as well as the poet under discussion.

5. I like to use portfolios. In the portfolio, I think it’s important to have us all think about our own work in context, or to create a context for our work. Toward that end, I like to have poets write reflective essays. Or call them manifestos, or seminar papers. And also toward that end, I like to bring various manifestos, or essays on poetics, to class. Manifestos, and essays on poetics, are tremendously interesting to me, both for how they describe and situate the poetry they endorse, but also for how they are often undone by examples. Along with this idea, I’ve used course packs in the past, or an anthology such as The Best American, or a brand new one like Legitimate Dangers, which I’m working with right now. We can talk about what’s there, and what’s not there. The argument that is the anthology. The anthology, in some cases, as manifesto. The politics of canon formation. Weinberger’s American Poetry Since 1950: Outsiders & Innovators comes to mind.

The workshop is a context, I keep repeating. And context, to some measurable degree, forms the person. How does the reading construct the poet? As a poem is a phenomenon in context, what a poet reads and exists through has meaning, carries meaning to the idea of future work. Reading lists are therefore important things. You become what your context demands of you. So, in order to write different poems, place yourself in a different context. Different texts. A more difficult context. “A mythology reflects its region,” Stevens says. The believer sees belief in everything. Or the economy of belief. Different texts cause the poet to sharpen the difference, or to embrace some moves of the difference. To be influenced, one way or the other.

Here are a couple revision strategies I like to bring to workshop: This first one has the poet take all modifications out of the poem. What do you have left? In two days, and without looking at the previous draft, put what is necessary back. After, compare the two. What has changed? (This can also be done with any signature strategy a poet uses: simile, for instance.) In the second revision strategy, the poet is to read the poem aloud. Then turn the page over to the blank side. Without looking back, write the poem again. What has remained? Why? These two strategies are meant to get at the center of gravity of the poem.

The tension between the desire the poem has to enact a scene as well as to render a narrative, seemingly autobiographical, situation.

Essays I often like to use in workshop include, Stephen Burt’s “The Elliptical Poets,” Charles Simic’s “Negative Capability & Its Children,” Mark Strand’s “Some Notes on Craft,” A.R. Ammons’ “A Poem Is a Walk,” Lyn Hejinian’s “The Rejection of Closure,” and Ron Silliman’s “The New Sentence,” to name a few.

For generative purposes, I have workshop participants purchase a Little Memo Book . . . 3 X 5. I have them write odd phrases in it over time. Anything they overhear, read, or think up that might possibly be of interest to their work—or anything that strikes their fancy. We work with this and share phrases/scenes/etc. I use this for various reasons . . . to work against writer’s block is the most important one. And one we spend quite a bit of time in classes discussing.

I think of a poem as a wholeness (even a fragmented poem is a wholeness) because it is itself. My questions, and the questions of the workshop, are toward 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 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. This is not saying that there isn’t an antic aspect to these parts contributing . . . that there isn’t a contradiction in parts . . . as well, there’s a way that wonderful phrases or images, etc., can be placed in a poem for no other reason than the fact of their presence. That still contributes to whatever it is we say is the poem’s wholeness.

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? That is the continually open question. Another way to phrase it might be, when faced with new art, with respect to what can one validate it? Perhaps this, from LeCorbusier, might be a way: “Respecting the forces of nature is superior to respecting tradition.”

CONCLUSION as repetition: Here are a couple thoughts I like to stress in workshops:

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 poems are, and therefore the workshop itself is, a dwelling in possibility, which is the most important value the workshop has, in my estimation. And then, to repeat myself, our questions in workshop become, finally, questions for our own poetry: how to be a good host to the poetry before us, how to be a helpful ally to the voice that is this poetry.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Hello, Blue Monday!

Alas. I've just heard that today is:

Blue Monday: the most depressing day of the year!

Monday, January 22, 2007

Bring it on, as they say.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Poetry Workshops from 1987-2007, Part II

Part II

The first question for a reader coming across a poem in workshop might well be, if you came across this title only, what would your reaction be? Imagine it in a Table of Contents. What poem would you be expecting to have follow this title? And then, looking at this poem, what do you receive? This might begin one of my favorite conversations: The Big Poem-Title Conversation.

And then, what is the propelling force of this poem? And then a second question, what is the center of gravity of the poem?

Questions such as these, hopefully, help steer the conversation as large as possible, away from the line editing of the poem at hand and toward talking about its poetry. Of course, the poem’s what we have, so it remains our focus, but I enjoy workshops most when participants characterize the poem at hand into larger constructs—what world does this poetry reveal?—what are its inclusions as well as what are its necessary exclusions?

What does this poetry allow itself to say? What does it exclude from its world? And the attendant questions: What is this poem looking at? What is it looking for? Which will give us something of the seen of the poem. And, What is this poem listening to? What is it listening for? Which are harder, more abstract, and often more profitable questions.

Some of these conversations end up concentrating on form, some concentrate more on the philosophy in the work. It’s important, of course, to keep bringing the conversation back to the specific poem, to where the specific words on the page make for the possibilities of the poem’s thought . . . and how these words might be thought about differently—how different words, different moves and decisions (what to show and what to tell, and when) at any given point take us, as readers, to very different places.

This is why I like to have discussions in fairly wide circles around the places in poems where people get snagged. If we can describe and discuss our reactions with the audience of the author, we can perhaps give the author a lot of data to take back to this poem and to future poems, and we, as readers, can practice approaching each poem on its terms, enlargening our frame of reference for approaching future poems as readers and as writers.

It’s important for me to keep reminding myself when workshopping poetry, that whatever is in the poem is part of the poem for some reason. Why is it behaving the way it is? Maybe it knows something I don’t know. Maybe I’ve taken a wrong turn in my reading . . . maybe it’s taken a wrong turn in its enactment. The only thing we can do is guess why the poem has gotten itself to this place where, in our reading, its come undone. What brought it here? And then, what stopped it?

- Could it be the FORM: Received form or occasional form, the sound of words, the lilt or meter or rhyme causing the poem to forget that words, not only are things, but that they also refer to things.

- Or the THINKING: The poet preceding the poem. The poet knows more about the poem than the poem does. Or, we, reading the poem, get the feeling that the poet knows more about the poem than the poem is showing. Is the poet wanting to create a story through suggestion? A story that the poet perhaps knows and is hoping the reader will guess? If so, why?

- Could it be an OMISSION, then: Where is an omission evocative and where does it conceal? Does it seem an enactment of the mystery of living in a finally unknowable world, or does it seem a trick or puzzle, with an “answer” buried somewhere? What is the proper care and feeding of the fragment?

- Or could it be simply a RANDOMNESS: Chance bringing one a tonally off or dead moment or image? A mistyping? I don’t know how many times I’ve been part of a long conversation about some part of a poem, only to have the poet later say it was a typographical error.

The point in workshopping poetry is to imagine voices. To court possibility. What is this poem listening to? What is it listening for? Here we are asking these questions in order to see how the poem wants to take shape, and how the poem, or the next poem, might change in concrete and radical ways.

And often, there’s this antic impulse that says, whatever the advice that’s offered is, perhaps the opposite (or oppositional) advice is best. Whatever the advice offered to the poem is, perhaps the poet should do otherwise. This is why it is so important, I think, to have conversation around the poem situated in this creative space, this open art space. What is the possible to say? If the space is welcoming enough, the generative conversation can go in speculative, interesting directions.

So, back to the small, when we come to a breakage in a poem, we usually take four general approaches in our suggestions:
- Cut it.
- Mend it.
- Add something.
- Do nothing.
. . . any of which, at any moment, might be something interesting for the poet to hear. The author, being the owner of the words, has the final say, but the author doesn’t always know best, being, consciously or unconsciously, filled with intentionality. But we don’t always know best either. Hopefully though, we, as readers—trying as best we can—can approach, or help the writer approach, a necessary level of objectivity regarding the work. Leaving what the poet might be listening to, and toward what we might conceptualize the poem as listening to.

When asking questions of poems, I have the workshop, as much as possible, question not just the poem, but the basis for our questioning. We can move through all four general approaches, but we also question our approaches. The fourth move, the “Do Nothing” approach is often the hardest to speak toward, because it calls on us to fall to the poem, or to look above what the reader thinks is a breakage to a possible earlier breakage we read over. It’s good to remember that at times, the breakage that we see will no longer be a breakage if something earlier in the poem is changed/clarified/added to/or cut. A breakage can go away if the title changes, say. Hypothetically, if a reader says the problem is “why did this red bird suddenly appear?” And then the poet changes the title of the poem to “The Sudden Appearance of the Red Bird . . .”?

When we read texts in poetry workshops, we tend to read toward a revision of the poem that yields a story that all can follow. Toward a narrative, a certain coherence. But when we talk of the poems we ourselves love, the ones we return to, we often speak as one haunted.

If we, in poetry workshops, when reading poems, look for ways to reveal the fragments of the poem, and to let the breakages speak, we might find our poems becoming larger. So rather than asking a poem to yield itself to our ideas of a necessary surface unity, we open our thoughts to looking for a deep unity behind fragments, our questions and our enjoyment might possibly be enriched.

This sounds all well and good, but it’s more than a little abstract. How to make it more concrete, or as concrete as possible, is our job in the workshop.

And what of asking what this poem is listening to? Listening for?

Saturday, January 20, 2007

In the Dim Lands of Peace

In the Dim Lands of Peace

They hate Ezra Pound.

James Arthur, Traveling

James Arthur, whom I have the pleasure of knowing, won the Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship, and has been on the road most of the year. Turns out he's a very good travel writer, and his journey most interesting.


A snippet:

Because I'm heading north into Turkey, I bought a warmer coat while I was in Aleppo. My new coat is corduroy and has broad lapels of artificial fur.

My last stop was Qala'at Samaan, a ruined basilica built around the pillar of St. Simeon Stylites. St. Simeon Stylites was a 5th-century monk who lived on top of a column for 37 years, preaching and meditating. An interesting side note is that when St. Simeon was 16, he was ejected from a monastic order because his excessive fasting was a source of worry to his superiors.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Poetry Workshops from 1987-2007, Part 1

This year marks the twentieth year I've been, in some way shape or form, associated with poetry workshops. To mark the anniversary, I'm going to blab everything I can think about regarding poetry workshops. Bear with me . . .

This, from Theodore Roethke, stands as the most succinct statement of the value of a creative writing workshop that I’ve come across:

“A few people come together, establish an intellectual and emotional climate wherein creation is possible. They teach each other—that ideal condition of what was once called ‘progressive education.’ They learn by doing. Something of the creative lost in childhood is recovered. The students (and teacher) learn a considerable something about themselves and the language.”

I would stress two aspects of Roethke’s remarks. First, the establishing of a climate, a space, wherein creation is possible. It’s a tonal issue, how the workshop is going to feel to the participants. The workshop could be thought of the way Miles Davis thought of a set list: “I’ll play what the day presents.” And this space, this climate of searchingness, this questioning, does not have to mean we reach, or reach for, consensus—dissensus is as interesting—perhaps more so, for the production of art. Disagreement, in a positive atmosphere, can be the most productive, and rigorous, workshop experience.

The second thing I’d like to stress is that by conceiving of the workshop in terms of questions and possibilities, all participants can learn a valuable something about the language and about themselves. Or perhaps, blending it a bit, we can learn about ourselves in and through language. It’s important for us to hear the words in front of us as “real presences,” to quote the title of a book by George Steiner that I’ve used in workshops in the past. The words on the page are instructions for performance, and the poems are only fully poems when they are read, when they are lived. We are coming into contact with live material.

The goal, as I see it, of the writing workshop, is to open the context of the writing, to broaden the discourse community, and to challenge the next writing situation. Workshop participants, in this model, focus more on the idea of the poem making process, than the idea of fixed poems.

In practical terms, when workshopping poems, we get to small moments through close reading. Close reading tends to foreground connectivity, though. It tends to foreground the rational elements of poems: scene, character, etc. . . which is productive, a good first step, but it's not the goal.

And when reading, we get to places in the poems where we hitch up, the famous “this didn’t work for me” places. What’s usually asked, by someone, at this point, is for the poet to clarify. But what is really being asked is more general, I think, less easily addressed.

So the question continues for me: is there a way, through close reading (or around it), to speak of and toward the non-rational elements, or at least the non-quantifiable elements, of the poem? Something that is not reportage, or solely concerned with surface meaning. How can we make room for the associative leaps and bounds of the poem, the magic of the non-linear and necessary turns of phrase? There is a rigor to this, a performative rigor, that we have to bring to the table. The confidence to speculate.

When readers offer advice to writers—when they are trying to be helpful—they offer, of course, what they think are good suggestions. The problem with “good suggestions” in this case is that they tend to be suggestions that the poet make the sorts of moves in the poem that the person offering the advice would make, which tends to be, or to become, a version of “write like me.” This is the biggest drawback to the workshop model, this tendency to blunt the necessary individuality of each participant, and to answer questions perhaps a bit too readily. It’s the one thing I try more than anything to work against.

In workshops, then, I have the most fun, and the most profitable experience, when , or others, bring questions, or pose problems, to attempt to bring the conversation away from this sort of economy—questions leading toward how to be a good host to the poetry before us, how to be a helpful ally to the voice that is this poetry. We talk about the direction in which this poetry wants to be going, what this poem seems to want to do—and hopefully not to force it in a direction, subjective, rational, or otherwise . . . but also to help the writer not force it into a direction, either.

A good, practical goal, of the poetry workshop, I think, is for us to help ourselves be less what we think we are, or should be, in our poems. I think this is a productive goal, because it asks workshop participants to remake, to rethink, their intentionality—it almost sounds like I’m going back to Eliot here. To clarify, then, I don't think the poet needs to remake her or his personality or subjectivity, but, instead to resist pre-conceived notions of what the poem at hand is, or should be. These are questions, finally, for the poem.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Form + Content = Robert Creeley

In 1999 I was at the 20th Century American Literature conference in Louisville (I think it was '99), where the featured poet was Robert Creeley.

After the reading, the person in line before me to get his books signed—he had several—asked Creeley if he, Creeley, might write “that famous quote of yours” in one of the books. It had been a long day, and Creeley looked fatigued, and a little distracted, but he wanted to oblige. “What quote?” he asked. “About content and form,” the reply. “Oh, ok,” Creeley said. And then he couldn’t remember it. Finally, after a few seconds, he wrote “Content is nothing more than an extension of form.” Upon hearing him say this as he wrote, I said that he had it backwards. Creeley looked at what he’d just written, quizzically, and then said, “so it is.” And then wrote under it: “or vice versa.”

I think this is a wonderful moment to remember when thinking of form and content in poems.

Monday, January 15, 2007

On the Irrational Imagination - 2007 Version

I'm still thinking about this tendency in many contemporary poets, this tendency toward the irrational (the way that tending to the times begins to look like the surreal, the closer one looks). So I've put together some thoughts from the fall, and thougth I'd trot it out, all gussied up for 2007.

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?

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.”

Take Warhol’s Campbell soup cans and take Levittown and you have the Suburban dilemma: Is this scene pleasant or horrifying? The desire each of us has for creature comfort translates itself into middle class, machine-made lives. The desire each of us has for personal trimmings, for a spice of uniqueness within the comfortable, when seen from a middle distance, serves only to heighten the blandness of comfort. There is a disquiet in the tension between similar and dissimilar lives, the threat of being average within the solace of being unthreatened. There’s always TV. But backing up a little further from a field of Campbell soup cans, one can see the ordered beauty of Mondrian. This is the true ambivalence of the contemporary.

Habermas states what he considers to be the contract between the reader and the work of literature: “Since the quasi-speech acts of literature are not carrying on the world’s business—describing, urging, contracting, etc.—the reader may well attend to them in a nonpragmatic way.”

Taking this as a given, then, Habermas goes on to add: “neutralizing their binding and bonding force . . . removes [the poetic uses of language] from the sphere of normal speech, and thereby empowers them for the playful creation of new worlds—or, rather, for the unmitigated demonstration of the world-disclosing force of innovative linguistic expressions. This specialization in the world-disclosing function of language explains the peculiar self-referentiality of poetic language. . . .”

With this as a contract, and modernity as the poetic material, a Poetics of sense/nonsense (which is the irrational) seems the most accurate way poetry can exist as a polemics of being at this point in time. Here, where there is no everything (just as there is no nothing), no all encompassing possible in art, we rarely, if even briefly, extend past our limits of spot and reduction. This is the struggle. The struggle that the language arts (and poetry specifically) must wage with the twin desires of science and religion, of design and ecstasy.

But—and this is a big but—Don Gifford, in The Farther Shore, relates something of the problem facing the writer who would try for perspective in this modern situation: “when we attempt to focus this midrealm of ours through the lens of the big numbers, the approximations should trouble us even more because they leave so much that matters out of account, because they seem so much more fragmentary then elegant.”

The balancing act between that which is generalized and that which is specific has been the project of poets for a long time, but the particular use of the disjunctive, the fragmentary, has been the life and death of art in the twentieth century. It’s not much of a leap from considering Mondrian (or poets such as George Oppen and Robert Duncan) elegant to considering him (them) fragmentary. In this same way, any whole is a fragment of a larger whole, it’s just that some artists/writers acknowledge this within the productin of thir art. And what then of the spatial elegance of Edward Hopper (and in poetry, his tonal affinities with Elizabeth Bishop on the one hand and Mark Strand on the other)?

The true strength of this poetry, of this poem, is that it moves toward that which is not understood within the context of that which is understood. This is the irrational understanding that, in the end, knows that it will not understand. This is the steady gaze at a subject/object with all the pressures of its vital present tense—the seeing of what is, in its milieu, without the false solace of closure.

There is no closure, only reverberation.

The last meaning, the highest purpose, in this poetry seems to be to align the reader to the relationship between the one world he/she is regarding and the many worlds that he/she isn’t. The meaninglessness surrounding meaning(s). The purposelessness surrounding purpose(s). To hear the music of is, these phenomena. To inhabit these borders and find them at the point of losing their distinction, is the goal.

A politics beyond public policy. How fragmentation can be the energy of completion.

This is the fundamental movement of the poetry of the Irrational Imagination, and what I’ve been attempting to think with here.

One must have faith in the force of the world to speak from out of myriad worlds. That the world will indeed speak through and as the poem. The poem must attend this sensual world (in the midst). Simply stated, the poem of the irrational imagination must not forget the real world outside of language, that it (impossibly) must (and does) reverberate in the representational qualities of language.

The irrational imagination, then, is concerned with the play of the rational intelligence on the subjective apprehension of things—before (but within) story, before (but within) the human needs of the body—where the poet finds worth in the manner of matter to speak the day into sensual presence, while at the same time acknowledging the crisis inherent in any perception. The crisis of the eye in beholding.

First, some house cleaning: a thank you to uncle Ezra, aunt Hilda, and what’s-his-name Aldington for:

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 the metronome. (How often these days poets do neither—)

A) With a revision by Bruce Andrews: There is no ‘direct treatment’ of the thing possible, except of the ‘things’ of language.

B) And a corollary from Stevens: Not all objects are equal. The vice of imagism was that it did not recognize this.

It is through the poetry of the Irrational Imagination where we find the contemporary shock of the sublime, the extremes of which can be mapped from Robert Hass, Thomas Lux, and Charles Wright, through Brenda Hillman and Anne Carson, to Martha Ronk and Michael Palmer. Though any aesthetic position that has both Robert Hass and Michael Palmer as examples is predictably widely encompassing, there still can be seen certain sympathies, certain denials, that are made in the poetry itself—not a masking of story (or narrative), but a meditative unmasking that will never complete itself, an unmasking known to be futile, known as failure, but necessarily undertaken. Which is why, I believe, so many contemporary poets keep mentioning Stevens.

I am bored with the term postmodern, and I have little use for schools of poetry, and I'm tired of paeans to complexity, but I do think it's important to hold together, if only for a moment, poets and poems that attempt to go beyond the comfortable limits of understanding, who worry the edges of thought, and perhaps bring something back to show for their trouble. Poets who exist within and among knowns and unknowns, neither as far into the aphasic constructed/un constructed poetries of the leading edge of the avant garde, nor as far into the voice poem delivering learned truths as the post-confessional period style illustrates. But existing within, and in relation to, both.

Poetry, and here I’m speaking of poetry that holds itself open to its irrational elements, is the is that falls between the artifice of the too-well-wrought urn and the eternal and of journalism, between the staid and the unsettleable. And when confronted with the simplicity of that which is beyond us, it can only act As If. As George Steiner (among others) has said, the artist, when creating, is continually going toward the As If, the bargain one makes with imagination when confronted with that which is beyond knowing.

This type of poem is the poem of continuance: the poem as the journal of a tour. A tour that can exist only in reference to itself. On a tour, interruption and distraction can be as much the point as anything else. As Robert Duncan writes, “Everything that happens in writing the poem, as it belongs to the poem, must be acknowledged and undertaken as meaning.” The traveling is what gives points A and B meaning, is what gathers them together. One of the chief functions of art is to refuse limitation, both spatially and theoretically. The poem must move through discoveries, through layers, through attachments.

(new poetry = new way of seeing [point A, point B]).

Without a ground and a movement, we have no support for the sentences of our lives, we have a shapelessness of disordered, of willed, occurrences.

In the same way, then, this writing’s dwelling. Writing which isn’t heading for, or going after. Writing’s dwelling. Living in. Where everything that happens becomes part of the poem. Here one can think, as well, of Charles Bernstein’s “Artifice of Absorption.”

This poetry is aware within the poem that poetry can get no closer to signifier or referent than a middle ground. A tentative stepping out that aggressivity would rupture.

On the flip side: what does this hovering middle ground do with issues of actual time and temporality?

What the poem half creates by perception: that things as they are are not as the observer wills, but in the past remain so removed and colored by belief and desire that they pretty nearly are, is a difficulty that this poetry must continually face.

Poems of the irrational imagination are continually aware of the tonal power of grammar. How in seeing, by and through language, one is constantly in a tense relationship with that which has caused one to look in the first place. How intentionality tinctures one’s perceptions. Perceptions we hold and suspend at the same time, until that which propels us forward ceases, and we recognize, as Stevens phrases it, “our unique and solitary home.”

In this landscape, the parenthesis mark, as well as the material inside, is tonal design (—as is the dash: the colon, etc.). But it’s not willed —it arises out of the desperation one feels for wholeness, for a moment of unity. So the poetic use of punctuation is not toward the sentence but away from it, it resides outside of grammar but within it—post—so to speak.

For example: the parenthesis can make a place for ‘the other’—consider an old couple, long married, trying to get through a story —they support and supplant each other, they add but do not complete. This is the gesture of long acquaintance and competition, the desire to join in the telling. This is the manner of matter, of fragments, to coalesce. And in coalescing, to complicate matters, rather than simplifying them, rather than reducing them.

A) Stevens: A great disorder is an order.
B) Lyn Hejinian by way of Valery: Two dangers never cease threatening in the world: order and disorder.

The project of any poem is to find the principle of its regulation. To find its order. And for poems of the Irrational Imagination, the project is to find what exists one tick past order. When “things” haven’t fallen apart and yet no longer condition themselves as “whole”. To exist at the border of its disruption. And to find out how long one might reside in this liminal alterity. And then? One must strive to remain (for as long as one can) in the presence of that which is continuance. And in continuing, the poem must look for the individual code that the present circumstance calls for in its singularity so that the poem may center itself while decentering that which is taken for granted. But isn’t de-centering really just re-centering? This is the question that leads to further poems. This is the politics of art.

The poem must be aware that it is being enacted through a doubled voice (a self address, a personal utterance that is both objective & subjective). Through the poem the subject and the object merge as the many and as the one (“We have chosen the meaning/Of being numerous,” Oppen writes). One (as a noticer of stuff) has to discover what this page wants done. And move.

Charles Wright: . . . “listen to John, do what the clouds do.”

Friday, January 12, 2007

A Poetry Criticism Reader

One of the books I picked up in December is A Poetry Criticism Reader edited by Jerry Harp & Jan Weissmiller.

It collects essays writen over the past several years on poetry, by Stephen Burt, Jorie Graham, James Harms (on James Tate), Lyn Hejinian, Mark Jarman, Donald Justice, Dennis O'Driscoll, Helen Vendler, Karen Volkman (on Lorine Niedecker), Joshua Weiner, and Stephen Yenser. It's good to have these essays together. It's quite a lively dinner party.

Two things of note so far:

"If this collection proves successful, we plan to oversee the production of more such volumes. . . . We shall invite a different poet to choose the pieces included in each volume..."

For this reason alone, we should all go out and buy a few copies. What a wonderful project that would be. Will be.

Another thing of note is a short footnote to Stephen Burt's essay, "The Elliptical Poets," that did as much as the rest of his essay to conceptualize what it is he's talking about. Of course, I'm not saying he should have just written the footnote and not the essay . . . it would have been too short that way:

"Thus neither Rosmarie Waldrop nor Michael Palmer, nor Albert Goldbarth, Frank Bidart, Charles Wright--to name some talented older poets who care for epistemology and disjunction--could count as Elliptical; the first two work too far from an "I" in a real world, the other three too unproblematically close."

I'm enjoying it quite a bit.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Thomas Lux - To Help the Monkey Cross the River,

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, January 07, 2007

Kathleen Ossip - My 20th Century

Kathleen Ossip
My 20th Century

We are having tea and
dobosh torte, my mother
and I, dressed in hobble
skirts and buttoned boots,
in Peacock Alley of the
old Waldorf. (She thrives on
luxury.) Hey Ma, I say,
this Sigmund Freud says neuroses
arise from repressed sexual
fantasies! She clatters her cup
in a kind of trance.

We’re having tea and Ritz
crackers, my mother and I,
dressed in chemises, shingled and
bobbed, in the sitting room
of my first apartment. (She’s
a little jealous.) Hey,
Ma, I say, Susan Anthony
won! We’re getting the vote!
She moves like a brown
bird on a brown branch.

We’re having tea—the sugar
is rationed—my mother and
I, wearing trousers and snoods,
in a soldier’s canteen. (I’m
her supervisor.) Hey, Ma, I
say, have you seen that
movie about Scarlett O’Hara, the
heroine who proves, once and
for all, that a woman
can be hard as nails
yet loved by millions? She
hefts a widget, not too friendly.

We’re having drinks in the
Sputnik Lounge, in daydresses and
ballerina slippers. (She’s dating a
pilot.) Hey, Ma, I say,
y’know Rock Hudson, that
actor you like? Well, I just
read in Tittle-Tattle . . . She
hits a high note like
a wigged castrato.

We’re taking spoonfuls of blue-
green algae in the solarium
of the nursing home (I’m
getting tired; her joints are
sprightly). We’re dressed in
leopardskin aerobicwear. Hey,
Ma, I say, there’s this
guy who says all religions
derive from a shared mythology.
What do you think? She
swivels and rides
away on her trike.

I’m eating bread and water
alone, naked as the day
I was born. Hey, Ma,
I say, though she’s not
around, you won’t believe this.
Physicists say that in
addition to a yes and a
no, the universe contains a maybe.
Off in the distance, under the stars,
she moves like a platypus,
neither here nor there.

Kathleen Peirce - Red Bird

Kathleen Peirce
Red Bird

We stopped believing we
could name the color of ascension,
and we learned to split the redness
from the cardinal’s voice. But they
came near, especially in winter,
as an absolute comprised of many forms
we could, if not approach, be glad
for the existence of. It was when the inflection
of their song so often rose that we knew again
the correspondence of the visible and oral forms;
how could those who only sang by rising
not rise up? We were glad it was rare for us
to see them fall, but we trusted that they fell
quietly, while in their periphery, inflections
of our sentences continued their descents
from the time we were children who could speak,
who could be brought to weep even by the thought
of our own deaths. What secret had their bodies closed around,
brilliant there, singing up the disappearing song?

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Reginald Shepherd

Reginald Shepherd has started a blog!


Ryan Murphy's Poetry

Ryan Murphy's imagination is as wide ranging as his eye is clear to what's in front of him. This poem is from a short chapbook titled Poems for the American Revolution. His full-length collection is down with the ship

Ryan Murphy
Commodore John Barry

Speed the day.
Yes, the streets are full of threats
and children,
money managers and movie stars.
Singing in the wires.

And there is a feeling of fall
and summer and winter
(the wind from the west
off the river—
                                   starry blight

And it is inside you
on certain days, when the light
is right.
And it is falling asleep,
and it is beside you.
Sleep the color of ashes.

3:17 am and the nightpilots
return with their charges.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Dean McWilliams 1939-2006

In Memory of Dean McWilliams; 1939 - 2006

I attended Ohio University from 1995-2000 and took a class from Dean McWilliams. Through his encouragement and conversation, I submitted and presented my first conference paper. He was an example of what a scholar should be. This is very sad news. We've lost a very good man this week.

This is the statement from the Department of English Website:

It is with great sadness that we report the death of Professor Dean McWilliams on December 31. Dean McWilliams, the Hamilton-Baker Professor of the Humanities emeritus, was a vital member of the Ohio University English Department for thirty-seven years. He was the author of three books on a wide-range of 20th Century novelists: Michel Butor (Ohio University Press, 1978), John Gardner (G.K. Hall, 1990), and Charles Chesnutt (University of Georgia Press, 2003). He also edited two of Chesnutt’s novels published by the Princeton University Press in 1999. He served for five years as the chair of the department’s graduate program and was active in every major effort to reform the undergraduate or graduate curriculum during his years on the faculty.

Dean was also a distinguished teacher having been honored by his students with a University Professorship in 1981 and by his colleagues with the Janet Grasselli Outstanding Teaching Award from the College of Arts and Sciences in 1993. He was also twice a finalist for the Outstanding Graduate Teacher Award. He had a passionate commitment to liberal education and spent the last decade of his career teaching almost exclusively in the university’s General Education program where his freshman writing seminar devoted to The Brothers Karamazov and his senior-level Tier III course on The Existential Vision became legendary among Ohio University’s undergraduates. His love of teaching and liberal learning was recognized in his appointment in 1998 to the Charles J. Ping Institute for the Teaching of the Humanities where he has held the Hamilton-Baker Professorship in the Humanities since 2000.

Dean was a noted internationalist. He held visiting professorships at universities in Mexico, the Philippines, France, and Germany and lectured widely in Africa under the sponsorship of USAID. Perhaps his greatest gift to the department was the establishment of the professorial exchange program with the University of Toulouse-Le Mirail. For twenty years, on an almost annual basis, both departments and universities were enriched by a steady flow of professors between Athens and Toulouse, Toulouse and Athens. Dean made these exchanges work smoothly and his example encouraged others to seek international opportunities beyond the Toulouse connection through the Fulbright and other exchange programs.

Dean took genuine pride in the accomplishments of our younger faculty as the department remade itself in the 1990s as the wave of those hired in the 50s and 60s began to retire. He and his wife, Alvi, opened up their house up on Old Peach Ridge Road, with its wonderful western vistas and dramatic sunsets, to a variety of department parties and celebrations. It was a happy spot and we made good use of it and their hospitality. Dean was a noted scholar, a vibrant teacher, a world traveler, and a passionate colleague. He made a difference.

An Athens memorial service will be held Saturday, January 6, at 3 p.m., in Galbreath Memorial Chapel on the Ohio University campus. The family asks that, in lieu of flowers, contributions be made in his memory either to Appalachian Community Hospice, 30 Herrold Ave., Athens, OH 45701; or to The Athens Foundation, P.O. Box 366, Athens, OH.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Poetry Workshop: a Question

I’m thinking about the production of poetry, and poetry workshops.

Here’s the trace of my thinking:

Consciousness alienates us from an engagement with the world. The word “world” places a veil over the world. In this way, we’re alienated by desire from that which we desire. So? We’ve known this for a long time. What language does. To the object. And we know it’s veils all the way down.

The question for me is how do we, when we’re writing poems and talking about the poems of others, work with, and pay respect to (and not just fiddle with) the nature of words for things.

One way to work with the interpretive veil of words is through the poetic fragment. The fragment as the allowance of mystery. Not the fragment as willful action, as trick. The fragment which admits that all poems are already only fragments of an understanding.

This use of the fragment is toward an opening text where the reader exists rather than consumes. An example of what I mean could include poems where the fragment is actually quite large. Perhaps fragment is the wrong word for what I’m thinking. By saying “fragment,” I’m trying to get away from the way some poems exist within an assumed language, and an assumed singular world. An assumed totality.

Perhaps I could call it the poem that allows itself to remain open to mystery. Or the poem that holds itself open to its haunted nature. This description would work as well for a poet like Thomas Lux as it would Martha Ronk.

For me, that seems a lovely combination.

This might be a way of producing a text, yes, but more importantly, it might be a way of reading a text.

When we read texts in poetry workshops, we tend to read singularly and reductively, toward a revision of the poem that yields the story that all can follow. Toward a narrative, a certain coherence. But when we talk of the poems we love, the ones we return to, we often speak as one haunted.

If we, in poetry workshops, when reading poems, look for ways to reveal the fragments of the poem, and to let the breakages speak, we might find our poems becoming larger. So rather than asking a poem to yield itself to our ideas of the necessary surface unity, we open our thoughts to looking for a deep unity behind fragments, our questions and our enjoyment might possibly be enriched.

I’ve left too much undefined here. It’s an open question, and one I’ve been throwing around in workshops for a number of years.

Or perhaps I’m just trying to rehabilitate Wordsworth’s “spots of time.” (I hope not.) Or maybe I’m overly worried about solipsism. It’s good, I think, to be overly worried about solipsism.

Dan Kaplan: Bill's Formal Complaint

Well, what a bit of good news!


From the NEWS section:

"12/06: Congratulations to Karl Elder and Dan Kaplan, whose books Gilgamesh at the Bellagio and Bill's Formal Complaint (respectively) are also slated for publication by The National Poetry Review Press."

I've had the good fortune of reading some of Dan Kaplan's work (and publishing it in The Laurel Review), and I'm very pleased that we will all get the opportunity of reading the full collection.

Here's a poem from Dan Kaplan, first published in The Laurel Review:


You enter from left, from the kitchenette.
Cross to chair. Eat before the television.
Daylight thinning. Your face and walls and throat
and fishbowl flickering. The cat licks
your soup when you arise to fix the image.
It is still snowing in Tijuana.
The steaming tacos and streets are frosted,
protagonist fleecy, slipping through people,
and when the phone rings you barely stir,
tilt head to 45°, and why
is this where it seems scripted, your pause,
your questioning answering, the brevity
of the call, your return to sitting, tray
back on your lap although you’ve finished eating . . .