Sunday, November 29, 2009

Morton Feldman - Give My Regards to Eighth Street

Morton Feldman
Give My Regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings

Avant-Garde composer, friend of John Cage, Philip Guston, Frank O’Hara, Mark Rothko, Christian Wolff, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, and Franz Kline, among others, Morton Feldman’s Give My Regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings, which came out in 2000, is a sort of one-stop shop, an indispensable document of that time, as well as the aesthetics that still inform a lot of what has become foundational to our time.

I highly recommend it. There’s an outsider edge to the first half of the book that is quite fascinating. What he says, especially about academic artists and the establishment from the forties through the seventies, is enlightening. I’ve never heard these things talked about in quite this way before. So there’s the history of the thing, but then on the other hand, he’s a close writer about aesthetics and what’s going on in the process of being an artist, that is also something I’ve not found anywhere else. It’s difficult to talk about these things, and he doesn’t always succeed, but he gets further than I’ve seen anyone else get (so far). And it’s also incomplete, as it centers in the music/painting world, with only little tips toward poetry and the other arts, and it’s also a complete boys club of associations and thinking. It misses a lot. But even with that, what it hits, it hits well. This is a necessary book.

I’ll paste something from it here, and maybe a bit more tomorrow. I’m quite taken with it.

+ + +

Now, almost twenty years later [the essay was written in 1971], as I see what happens to work, I ask myself more and more why everybody knows so much about art. Thousands of people—teachers, students, collectors, critics—everybody knows everything. To me it seems as though the artist is fighting a heavy sea in a rowboat, while alongside him a pleasure liner takes all these people to the same place. Every graduate student today knows exactly what degree of “angst” belongs in a de Kooning, can point out disapprovingly just where he has let up, relaxed. Everybody knows that one Bette Davis movie where she went out of style. It’s another bullring, with everybody knowing the rules of the game.

What was great about the fifties is that for one brief moment—maybe, say, six weeks—nobody understood art. That’s why it all happened. Because for a short while these people were left alone. Six weeks is all it takes to get started. But there’s no place now where you can hide out for six weeks in this town.

Well, that’s what it was like to be an artist. In New York, Paris, or anywhere else.

+ + +

Morton Feldman
from Rothko Chapel (1971)

Morton Feldman
The Viola in My Life (1971-72)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

David Rawlings Machine - A Friend of a Friend

So anyway, the David Rawlings Machine’s first record is now out, and it’s quite good. Excellent, even, at times. It’s not a huge shift away from a Gillian Welch album, as she’s here as well, except the two have switched places.

The song below isn’t on it, but it’s one I like a lot, and there weren’t any videos up from the Machine album yet, so it’ll have to do.

The new album is called, A Friend of a Friend. Available in all the usual places. Highly recommended.

The Way it Would Be
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings

Friday, November 20, 2009

Cracker - Kate Greenstreet - Farrah Field

Cracker, “Turn on, Tune in, Drop Out, Give Up with Me”

It’s from their mostly overlooked 2009 album, Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey. It’s a good album. You should own it. I’m going to see them in early January in Chicago. Tickets are only $15.00. Seriously, it’s a crime that Cracker isn’t huge. But I like only paying $15.00 to see perhaps the best rock and roll band in America.

Meanwhile, if you’re in the Raleigh area this Saturday:

Poetry by Farrah Field * John Gallaher * Kate Greenstreet

Broadsides by Christopher Salerno

Saturday * November 21st * 8pm * Morning Times * 10 E. Hargett Street * Raleigh, NC

Farrah Field's poems have appeared in many publications including the Mississippi Review, Typo, Harp & Altar, La Petite Zine, Eklesographia, Effing Magazine, and are forthcoming in Ploughshares. Rising, her first book of poems won Four Way Books’ 2007 Levis Prize. She lives in Brooklyn and blogs at

John Gallaher is the author of the books of poetry, Gentlemen in Turbans, Ladies in Cauls (Spuyten Duyvil, 2001), The Little Book of Guesses, winner of the Levis Poetry Prize, from Four Way Books, and Map of the Folded World, from The University of Akron Press, as well as the free online chapbook, Guidebook from Blue Hour Press. Other than that, he's co-editor of The Laurel Review and GreenTower Press. Currently he's working on a co-authored manuscript with the poet G.C. Waldrep, titled Your Father on the Train of Ghosts, due out in Spring 2011 from BOA Editions.

Kate Greenstreet's second book, The Last 4 Things, is new from Ahsahta Press and includes a DVD containing two short films based on the two sections of the book. Ahsahta published Greenstreet's case sensitive in 2006. She is also the author of three chapbooks, most recently This is why I hurt you (Lame House Press, 2008). Find her poems in current or forthcoming issues of jubilat, VOLT, Denver Quarterly, Fence, Court Green, and other journals. Visit her online at

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Kay Ryan - The Niagra River

I’ve just finished reading Kay Ryan’s The Niagara River, and I have to admit that I just don’t get it. What do I mean by “I don’t get it,” I ask myself. Well, I find great pleasure in a lot of things that are not available to “getting” in the narrow explication sense, so it’s not that. The poems mostly don’t resolve into any discernable point, and that’s fine with me, discernable points are greatly overrated anyway. But what I don’t get is that I think that Kay Ryan thinks that these poems do resolve into something, or at least people out there who talk about her wit and charm and intelligence, seem to think that these poems resolve into some reason for being there (beyond the fact that art objects by being present at all, can be seen as being there because they are there—but again, this line of argument is an avant-garde line, and not one that seems to pertain to these poems or to the way people tend to talk about them).

Take the opening poem, for instance, which I rather like:

The Niagara River

As though
the river were
a floor, we position
our table and chairs
upon it, eat, and
have conversation.
As it moves along,
we notice—as
calmly as though
dining room paintings
were being replaced—
the changing scenes
along the shore. We
do know, we do
know this is the
Niagara River, but
it is hard to remember
what that means.

What’s fun about this poem is the domestic image, with all that entails, as it’s there on the river heading for the falls. It would make a fine painting. We know we’ve placed ourselves upon our doom, as one is supposed to guess they’re above the falls . . . if they’re below the falls, I’m guessing they’d be in much less danger. In fact, looking at their situation, who’s to say that if they’re able to sit on water, they wouldn’t be able to float out over the falls anyway? Or maybe it would be a soft landing. The problem with going over the falls is both the fate of being crushed by the fall and then drowning. Drowning seems to be off the table (so to speak), so really it’s only the fall itself that’s the problem. I’m betting the magical dimwits having dinner here might well be magically saved by their obliviousness.

What I’m getting at is that to make a Kay Ryan poem work, even the very best poems by Kay Ryan, which I find this to be an example, one must accept a fuzzy leap of logic and fancy and then to somehow tie it all back up into the real world. It’s a mild surrealism that is supposed to be a metaphor. In the above case, we have the metaphor of the people who build their house upon sand. Because this story is so ingrained upon us, we have no trouble thinking that this very slight revision (sand become the Niagara River) becomes newly fresh and wise.

Much easier to see is how this works in what I consider to be a weak poem, that apparently Ryan really likes, as it gets mentioned in a recent APR interview with her:

Home to Roost

The chickens
are circling and
blotting out the
day. The sun is
bright, but the
chickens are in
the way. Yes,
the sky is dark
with chickens,
dense with them.
They turn and
then they turn
again. These
are the chickens
you let loose
one at a time
and small—
various breeds.
Now they have
come home
to roost—all
the same kind
at the same speed.

This is supposed to be funny at first and then become a sort of dangerous sounding thing, having one’s chickens come home to roost, another version of paying the fiddler. In fact, one could easily turn this into a pay the fiddler poem. Imagine this, then, as an alternate version:

Paying Up

The fiddlers
are all playing different
songs. The songs are
nice, but every other
song is in
the way. Yes,
the air is thick
with the sound of fiddlers,
cacophonous with them.
They play and
then they play
again. These
are the fiddlers
you asked for
one at a time
when you wanted music—
various tunes.
Now they have
come back
to be paid—all
at the same volume
at the same time.

It’s not a terrible way to write poems. It’s quite fun, really. Imagine what you can do with the pratfalls of the Three Little Pigs, or, as she does a bit later in the book, the elephant in the room that no one talks about. So, in this way, Kay Ryan’s poems can be kind of clever, or quaint, and mostly harmless, as they don’t really trouble any of our notions of how the world works, they simply reaffirm all those stories you knew when you were a child. Maybe they even do some good.

But what I don’t get is the amount of acclaim her work is getting the last few years, and how little negative criticism. I’d like to stress this. I don’t think her work is terrible. There are times where it can be charming, but most often it falls as flat as the platitudes upon which it is built.

Take this poem as an example:

A Ball Rolls On a Point

The whole ball
of who we are
presses into
the green baize
of a single tiny
spot. An aural
betrays our passage
through the
fibrous jungle.
It’s hot and
desperate. Insects
spring out of it.
The pressure is
intense, and the
sense that we’ve
lost proportion.
As though bringing
too much to bear
too locally were
our decision.

OK, first, the metaphor only works if you do a fuzzy kind of imagining that what we are might be some “whole ball” kind of thing, maybe in the “whole ball of wax” way, but then we also have to kind of imagine that it’s a real ball, and then that it rolls (rather than floats or bounces or something equally possible for balls), and then to imagine because she’s made a point about the point at which a ball rests upon ground (which only works on a hard surface—a jungle really doesn’t do) is somehow a point about “who we are.”

Still, it’s fun to say “green baize.” And that’s what I take from Kay Ryan’s poetry in the end: it’s fun to say “green baize” and then to kind of soft-focus ourselves through a life lesson in the way that a well-intentioned, genteel aunt or uncle might at some social gathering.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What Would Harold Bloom Do?

Thought for the Day: Harold Bloom

Poster boy for the joys of reading literature.

Or maybe: Don't let poetry do this to you.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Unterecker on Ashbery

It’s no secret that I’m an admirer of Ashbery’s work. I’ve been reading it with pleasure since I was 21 or so, when I first came across it in anthologies, and then in his first Selected Poems. One thing that I came across then when researching who Ashbery was and what people thought of him, is the sort of stuff I’m finding now as I’m getting more interested in the work of John Cage: the charges of fraud, and charlatanism. I can understand a negative review of Ashbery (as well as Cage, especially so, as I’m pretty cool to a lot of what he did), but I’m really tired of the “emperor has no clothes” line of thinking. The fact of the work, and his continued presence now for over a half century, should be enough to say this hasn’t been a ruse. You can still hate it if you want, but you can’t deny it.

I’m copying the following piece from Andrew Christ’s blog, Birthday’s of Poets, because it’s good, and it’s from a source that seems to be out of print. A thanks to him for getting a copy out here.

Here’s Christ’s introduction (

Usually I include excerpts here with links to the site that has the full article, essay, etc. This time I'm including the whole thing because none of this is online, and the book it's from is not so easy to find. The book was written by David Shapiro and published in 1979 by Columbia University Press. Shapiro's idea was to provide readers with something like a Reader's Guide to the poetry of John Ashbery. He titled his book John Ashbery: an introduction to the poetry. I only learned of this recently from Gina Myers, who I recently met. Gina writes, teaches and edits; you can see what she is up to online mainly at but also at and even at In Shapiro's book, John Unterecker (1923 - 1989) wrote the Foreward. That's what I'm including here, Unterecker's Foreward to Shapiro's John Ashbery. If any copyright issues ensue, you mustn't blame Ms. Myers. She will learn of this after it's been blogged, not before. Mr. Unterecker begins and ends his Foreward with general remarks about Ashbery's poetry, and in between the beginning and the ending of his Foreward Mr. Unterecker . . . looks pretty closely at a poem from Ashbery's most-awarded book, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, called "The One Thing That Can Save America."


The poetry of John Ashbery seems “difficult,” I think, only because we normally ask of literature vast simplifications. “Don't,” we are always saying to literature, “don't, whatever you are, be as complex as life, as liberty, or as the pursuit of happiness!”

We want literature to be a little difficult, of course, but only a little. A “fruitful ambiguity” flatters us because we have no problem distinguishing paired pears from pared apples, even in a tureen of strawberry jello. And though allegory seems heavy-handed, we enjoy a sophisticated chase through any symbolist jungle. We like always to outsmart the detective, recognizing far sooner than he does that the man in the aquamarine beret is not only not the axe murderer who wore two left shoes but almost certainly the missing husband of the disturbingly uncommunicative but beautiful Tasmanian heiress with whom each and every one of us has fallen desperately in love.

Literature normally flatters and reassures us. It shows us what we all want to see: a pattern, no matter how faint, superimposed on chaos. But when the pattern wavers, vanishes, reemerges briefly in the form of a nervous mirage, and then once and for all dissolves into universal jumble, we are likely to become uneasy and possibly cantankerous. “This is difficult stuff,” we find ourselves remarking, meaning by difficult either outrageous or representational or both.

The writer who presents normal human experience in something like its everyday complexity really is outrageous. He offends us by not making rational the incomprehensible or, at best, confusing overlaps of routine existence. Instead, he diagrams such stuff as shifting personality, “I” trying to adjust constantly to all the personalities that are busy adjusting to “me.” Or he notices how easily anyone projects – frequently with disastrous consequences – his “I” into every “you” in sight, and sometimes fatally fails to do so.

Such a writer, representing the real world of the mind, finds meandering thought his true vocation. What goes on in, say, the assembled heads of an audience during a poetry reading – even one by John Ashbery – would look, if mapped, something like neighboring three-dimensional termite nests. Not just dreamers, daydreamers, and the senile find listening difficult; all of us, most of the time, play peek-a-boo with the stuff that comes in at the ear. We respond to what we hear, all right, but as well to the secondary stimuli that bombard us through eye, nose, mouth, and rubbing skin. For literally everything starts us thinking. We listen to the world most obliquely, tuning in and tuning out, dancing a sort of intellectual buck-and-wing as “private” thoughts commingle quite irrationally with the flow of public phrases that endlessly spill from a jabbering world.

What I am arguing, of course, is that Ashbery's “difficulty” is more imaginary than real. Ashbery presents, often in meticulously representational detail, a normal man’s way of apprehending – though not of voicing – reality. In doing so, he is drastically unconventional, since the normal man devotes a great deal of time and energy to disguising the way his mind works. What comes out of the normal man's mouth or typewriter barely resembles the wanderings of his hit-or-miss mind: the ill-heard sentences, the details of his own observation that he can't help notice (the flick of an eyelid, the shadow of a smile), all of the colors, smells, and textures that intrude on him and that, perhaps heroically, he pummels into submission whenever he attempts to “communicate.” We are all hard-working citizens of this kind, much of the time either oblivious to the ways in which our heads work or so disturbed by those ways as to pretend we have no heads at all.

Like Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and others who have attempted to ensnare the psychic processes we so carefully suppress, Ashbery focuses hard on the way the mind deals with the random stuff that drifts into it. But much more recklessly than Stein or Joyce, he offers us not the thoughts of a “persona” – an Alice B. Toklas, for instance, or a Stephen Dedalus – but the abruptly bare phrases that float through his own mind. Or at least he does his best to give us the illusion that those phrases are what he presents, phrases not just obscure but for almost everybody else in the world totally baffling. By drawing on private materials, he forces us to have the strange experience of roaming through someone else’s head. “The landscape looks familiar,” we are likely to think as we read through a non-sequeturing Ashbery poem, “but the hands are the hands of Esau.”

Once in a while, he lets us glimpse the process at work:
I know that I braid too much my own
Snapped-off perceptions of things as they come to me.
They are private and always will be.

Later on in “The One Thing That Can Save America,” the poem I am quoting from, these private matters surface again as “the quirky things that happen to me.”

Such things, central to the private energy that fuels the public poem, are its root force, but they clutter up the surface, effectively entangling us in Ashbery's own business of living. Nevertheless, because purely private material can in no conventional way be simplified by literary analysis, we are much better off experiencing it directly rather than trying to “understand” it. “Understanding,” which most readers of poetry have been trained by generations of text-analyzers to believe is the object of reading, can be extracted from an Ashbery poem only at the price of distortion. What Ashbery offers instead is a chance for us vicariously to engage in something that might be called experiential process; he immerses us in a shifting context of unpredictable “meanings” and tones that constantly qualify everything that has gone before them yet that also are constantly qualified by everything that has been established.

Consider, for example, what happens to the phrases from “The One Thing That Can Save America” when they are reinserted back into the poem. Because paraphrase in Ashbery is not just unnecessary but almost impossible, I'd like to quote the whole poem, pausing now and then to watch shifting tones operate rather than trying to make translations of phrases that are perfectly transparent once they are extracted from the amalgam of the poem. What I hope to reveal is nothing more than technique: Ashbery's method of confining meaning to the page, his system of preventing us from discovering a “solution” to something that is in fact not a riddle but an unsolvable work of art.

This poem that I have arbitrarily made central to my discussion is also almost literally central (pages 44 and 45 of an 83 page book) to Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, and centrality seems initially to be its central concern. The tone at the beginning is neutral, though phrases like “flung out” and “knee-high” force the reader into momentary minor adjustments of physical point of view:

Is anything central?
Orchards flung out on the land,
Urban forests, rustic plantations, knee-high hills?
Are place-names central?
Elm Grove, Adcock Corner, Story Brook Farm?
As they concur with a rush at eye level
Beating themselves into eyes which have had enough
Thank you, no more thank you.

Punning transformations of Stony Brook Farm and Alcott into Story Book Farm and Adcock seem to put us either somewhere in the nineteenth century, on a thruway or possibly on railroad tracks, or in contemporary childhood; but the tone skids away from neutrality and toward a very clear petulance (“enough/Thank you, no more thank you”) as abruptly aggressive (and concurring) places threaten to gang up on the speaker:

And they come on like scenery mingled with darkness
The damp plains, overgrown suburbs,
Places of known civic pride, of civil obscurity.

Again point of view has shifted, for we discover that the scenery we had accepted as “real” scenery is in fact only something that is “like scenery” in a commingling community of jumbled “civic pride” and “civil obscurity.”

The second stanza brings us to the first flat assertion of the poem:
These are connected to my version of America
But the juice is elsewhere.

“The juice,” of course, is private – most likely private energy – and though the tone is again close to neutral flatness (with perhaps an ironic pun on breakfast orange juice), it soon shifts into a rhapsodic lyricism:

This morning as I walked out of your room
After breakfast crosshatched with
Backward and forward glances, backward into light,
Forward into unfamiliar light,
Was it our doing, and was it
The material, the lumber of life, or of lives
We were measuring, counting?
A mood soon to be forgotten
In crossed girders of light, cool downtown shadow
In this morning that has seized us again?

Both time and perspective tangle in this complex scene that is like a painting but not one, a structure built of crosshatching glances in which the observing “I” is both active participant (and consequently invisible) and yet made visible to his own “downtown” memory as he thinks back on the significant moment. Able to be both in and out of the scene, he has no difficulty in translating the streaks of intersecting glances into an invisible pattern superimposed on light and then considering whether this might indeed be how “the lumber of life” is made significant (measured, counted). “Lumber” achieves a lovely suspension, forcing us to recollect the woods of the first stanza – orchards, forests, plantations, Elm Groves, overgrown suburbs – while at the same time anticipating the “crossed girders of . . . shadow” that will threaten to obliterate the morning that “has seized us again.”

Crosshatched by glances, by planes of light, by simultaneously interior and exterior points of view, and by triple time (the opening statement's “objective” time, the “morning,” and the “downtown” memory of morning that soon will be forgotten), the stanza's multiple perspectives present an “it” impossible to define and also impossible not to respond to.

It is at this stage of the poem’s development that another neutral statement returns us to the passages I have already quoted.

I know that I braid too much my own
Snapped-off perceptions of things as they come to me.
They are private and always will be.
Where then are the private turns of event
Destined to boom later like golden chimes
Released over a city from a highest tower?
The quirky things that happen to me, and I tell you,
And you instantly know what I mean?
What remote orchard reached by winding roads
Hides them? Where are these roots?

By now something of the pattern of the poem should be apparent. Stanzas begin in something like a neutral tone, the speaker addressing what at least seems to be a general audience. But that audience, as in this third stanza, soon breaks up into quite private components – as well as the obvious “public” one. Here, for example, the generalized you becomes both Ashbery talking to himself and, by the seventh line, Ashbery addressing the “you” of the breakfast scene. His subject, however, is privacy and its relationship to something as public as music, painting, and poetry. And the abrupt shift in tone of the “golden chimes” question lets him move from a neutral tone to something very different that might capriciously be called oracular. It also lets him distance his material by shifting his statement into a totally different rhetoric – in this instance, a rhetoric that sounds suspiciously like that of Wallace Stevens. Critics – and, for that matter, uncritical readers – have a hard time with allusive echoes of this sort. That is, they can never be quite certain if the shifted “voice” is parodistic, referential, or perhaps even deferential. And there is always, of course, the possibility that the passage may not be deliberately allusive at all – simply a matter of Ashbery unintentionally sounding like another writer. (The last lines of the second stanza, the passage about the “crossed girders of light, cool downtown shadow/In this morning that has seized us again,” sound to my ear a good deal like passages in Hart Crane's poetry; and I am reasonably certain that the final stanza's “All the rest is waiting/For a letter that never arrives” is supposed to trigger us into an “Ah, T.S. Eliot!” response. But what seems to me a Crane allusion may very well not be one; and my conviction that the last stanza's Eliot-like passage is a deliberate allusion tempts me – irrationally – to see the “roots” line of the third stanza as a faint echo of “The Waste Land.”) Such “problems” seem to me ultimately unimportant. That is, the echo or even the possibility of echo is enough to distance the tone. Similarly distancing, the questions at the end of the third stanza force the opening stanza's “real” orchards into a metaphoric role. And distancing through language alone, language that is both serious and a little funny, “quirky things” have some kind of relationship to historical, geographical, and literary landscapes. Yet in spite of all these distances, “I” – both as person and as writer – exist and exist in a present definable America.

The last stanza seems to me to reassemble the scattered tones of the first three. But precise meaning is carefully evaded. The poem is not a sermon:

It is the lumps and trials
That tell us whether we shall be known
And whether our fate can be exemplary, like a star.
All the rest is waiting
For a letter that never arrives,
Day after day, the exasperation
Until finally you have ripped it open not knowing what it is,
The two envelope halves lying on a plate.
The message was wise, and seemingly
Dictated a long time ago.
Its truth is timeless, but its time has still
Not arrived, telling of danger, and the mostly limited
Steps that can be taken against danger
Now and in the future, in cool yards,
In quiet small houses in the country,
Our country, in fenced areas, in cool shady streets.

“We” has by this time become an amalgam of Ashbery, the “you and I” of the second stanza, and the reader that the poem is addressed to; it will become explicitly in the last stanza America. But each “we” also exists separately.

Like the “quirky things” of the third stanza, the “star” that our fate might lead us to in the final one strikes me as rather funny – a cross between the theatrical and heavenly kind. And indeed the ominous Eliotic letter that “never arrives” also takes on faintly qualities when it is ripped open, its contents discovered to be “wise,” its message warning of danger and of the steps that might be taken against that danger now and in the future both known and unknown.

Like much in Ashbery, funny and serious material coexist in one context. The tone of the last stanza grows, however, increasingly “concerned”; and if we never find out what the mysterious undelivered message is that we manage symbolically not to receive, to tear up, and yet to assimilate, we do have some sense of its urgency. It has something, of course, to do with the need for fences and for the walls of small houses, for places that are “cool”; but its “meaning” - like the “meaning” of the poem – is available only to the person who apprehends it without “knowing what it is.”

I offer this non-reading of a poem as a demonstration of technique, but I hope it is also a warning against false readings. Happily, David Shapiro, whose own sense of the integrity of poetry is very strong, approaches Ashbery neither as New Critic nor as historian, but as fellow poet who himself works in modes similar to those used by Ashbery.

He asks us to recall what most of us have casually assimilated: the literatures of America and Europe, an awareness of the history of music and painting, a little knowledge of classical and contemporary physics. Using these tools, he helps us explore not the “meaning” of Ashbery's poetry but the sensibility that gives rise to it and the cultural context of which it is a most vital part.

His approach is unorthodox. His insights into the ways a major contemporary poet organizes his art give us a sense not just of the techniques used by John Ashbery but of a structural aesthetic drawn on by a whole generation of poets, painters, musicians, and sculptors.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Ravi Shankar On Avant-Garde Formalism

Ravi Shankar in The Writer’s Chronicle
Vikings & Yellow Submarines: On Avant-Garde Formalism

Not a lot to interest me in the December issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, but it was nice to see the piece by Ravi Shankar. His contention is a bit like one I’ve seen Ron Silliman make in the past, that there is a space where a lot of avant-garde writing is formalist writing.

It’s not my favorite argument, as, by and large, I’m oblivious to form, as well as most things having to do with most things that one has to remember to do while writing. Once, years ago, when I was studying with Wayne Dodd (a poet who I believe has been greatly undervalued in contemporary American poetry, both as a poet and thinker about the art). He and I were talking about lines, and he was remarking on my poor ear for the music of a poem, an assessment that I admit. He said at some point it’s interesting to look at one’s own poetry and decide if one is more tied to the line as a unit of whatever, or the sentence. It didn’t take me long to respond: sentence. All this to say, whenever I see a conversation about form, I feel like the neighbor looking over the fence. But, moving along.

Shankar’s idea is an old one. He goes all the way back to the very beginning of written poetry to show that the ways of OULIPO have a history, a formal history. The difference being that while what most of us call received forms (Sonnet, etc) are not feeling very fresh these days, though they once were, themselves, avant-garde, it is the formal practices of avant-garde writes today are not arbitrary or ambiguous, as many non-avant-grade people say they are (and to remind us that this poetry has also been described in the past as Realism), going so far as to say, “in some quantifiable way, the Oulipien undertaking is the purest form of formalism that exists today, because once a constraint is set, there is meant to be no deviance from its application.”

Interesting stuff. And he sums it up with a shot across the bow of what has been called New Formalism (the contemporary poets who write primarily in received forms [sonnet, villanelle, and such]), with this snippet from Elliot Weinberger’s “rather scathing” review of one of the New Formalist anthologies, called Rebel Angels:

“The only American formalists of the century may well turn out to be Louis Zukofsky, John Cage, and Jackson Mac Low, who invented their own idiosyncratic and inflexible rules: placement of letters according to mathematical or mystical formulae, predetermined word lists and selection processes, and so on. I’m sorry, but these Rebel Angels are wimps, café Republicans measuring out their lives in coffee spoons that keep changing size.”

I’ll add a caveat to that. There are many other writers of course who have written to harsh formal constraints, and Shankar mentions many of them in the article (I’d like to add that writers like Richard Hugo also participated in this sort of formalism, which tend to muddy the waters—which, apparently, I like to do). It’s well worth the read if you can find a copy.

In the future, once the issue’s been archived, I’ll post it here.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Because it's Friday, that's why

Poem of the Day

Christopher Walken
Poker Face

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Neil Young Is 64 Today

Today is Neil Young’s birthday. He’s 64.

So if you see him, tell him I said hi.

Dreamin’ Man, Neil Young Archives Performance Series #12 is set for a December 8 release. Dreamin’ Man presents the ten cuts that originally appeared on Harvest Moon as performed by Young on his solo acoustic tours that preceded its release, 17 years ago. The first track from Dreamin’ Man is streaming: with the title track now being offered as streaming audio.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Beck Record Club: Velvet Underground & Leonard Cohen

Beck: Record Club

I’ve enjoyed the Beck Record club for some time now:

It’s a wonderful project. Beck and whatever friends he gets together do a quick version of a classic album. First was The Velvet Underground, and then Leonard Cohen. What could be better?

Here are four of my favorites:

Record Club: Songs Of Leonard Cohen "Stranger Song" from Beck Hansen on Vimeo.

Beck, et al. doing “The Stranger Song.”

Record Club: Songs Of Leonard Cohen "One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong" from Beck Hansen on Vimeo.

Beck, et al. doing “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong.”

Record Club: Velvet Underground & Nico "Heroin" (Alt. Version) from Beck Hansen on Vimeo.

Beck, et al. doing “Heroin”

Record Club: Velvet Underground & Nico "I'll Be Your Mirror" from Beck Hansen on Vimeo.

Beck, et al. doing “I’ll Be Your Mirror”

Friday, November 06, 2009

John Cage - from Silence

John Cage – from Silence

[It is interesting to note that all these comments come before 1962. And also how similar the situation has been for the other arts, poetry especially.]

As for the quality of irritation, that is a more subjective matter. One might say that it is at least preferable to soothing, edifying, exalting, and similar qualities. Its source is, of course, precisely in monotony, not in any forms of aggression or emphasis. It is the immobility of motion. And it alone, perhaps, is truly moving.

Any attempt to exclude the “irrational” is irrational. Any composing strategy which is wholly “rational” is irrational in the extreme.

It is therefore very useful if one has decided that sounds are to come into their own, rather than being exploited to express sentiments or ideas of order.

Implicit here, it seems to me, are principles familiar from modern painting and architecture: collage and space. What makes this action like Dada are the underlying philosophical views and the collagelike actions. But what makes this action unlike Dada is the space in it. For it is the space and emptiness that is finally urgently necessary at this point in history.

If one uses the word “experimental” to mean simply the introduction of novel elements into one’s music, we find that America has a rich history . . . . Once, in Amsterdam, a Dutch musician said to me, “It must be very difficult for you in America to write music, for you are so far away from the centers of tradition.” I had to say, “It must be very difficult for you in Europe to write music, for you are so close to the centers of tradition.”

Why, since the climate for experimentation in America is so good, why is American experimental music so lacking in strength politically (I mean supported . . . )?

It is evidently a question of bringing one’s intended actions into relation with the ambient unintended ones.

The conscientious objectors to modern music will, of course, attempt everything in the way of counterrevolution. Musicians will not admit that we are making music; they will say that we are interested in superficial effects, or, at most, are imitating Oriental or primitive music. New and original sounds will be labeled as “noise.” But our common answer to every criticism must be to continue working and listening, making music with its materials, sound and rhythm, disregarding the cumbersome, top-heavy structure of musical prohibitions.

Before studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. While studying Zen, things become confused. After studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. After telling this, Dr. Suzuki was asked, “What is the difference between before and after?” He said, “No difference, only the feet are a little bit off the ground.”

With clarity of rhythmic structure, grace forms a duality. Together they have a relation like that of body and soul. Clarity is cold, mathematical, inhuman, but basic and earthy. Grace is warm, incalculable, human, opposed to clarity, and like the air. Grace is not here used to mean prettiness . . .

Were he saying something in particular, he would have to focus the painting; as it is he simply focuses himself, and everything, a pair of socks, is appropriate, appropriate to poetry, a poetry of infinite possibilities.

Is there any need before we go to bed to recite the history of the changes and will we in that bed be murdered?

Not ideas but facts.

Should one use the materials characteristic of one’s time? It is an intellectual question. Now there’s a question that ought to get us somewhere. I shall answer it slowly and autobiographically.

“If you think you are a ghost you will become a ghost.” Thinking the sounds worn out wore them out. So you see: this question brings us back to where we were: nowhere, or, if you like, where we are.

But the important questions are answered by not liking only but disliking and accepting equally what one likes and dislikes. Otherwise there is no access . . .

We are in the presence not of a work of art which is a thing but of an action which is implicitly nothing. Nothing has been said. Nothing is communicated. And there is no use of symbols or intellectual references. No thing in life requires a symbol since it is clearly what it is: a visible manifestation of an invisible nothing.

Each something is a celebration of the nothing that supports it.

If one adopts this attitude art is a sort of experimental station in which one tries out living: one doesn’t stop living . . . . It all goes together and doesn’t require that we try to improve it or feel our inferiority or superiority to it. Progress is out of the question.

Before studying Zen men are men and mountains are mountains. While studying Zen, things get confused. After studying Zen men are men and mountains are mountains. No difference except that one is no longer attached.

But we are still at a point where most musicians are clinging to the complicated torn-up competitive remnants of tradition, and, furthermore, a tradition that was always a tradition of breaking with tradition . . . that . . . was out of step not only with its own but with all other traditions.

The highest purpose is to have no purpose at all.

I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry.

What I am calling poetry is often called content. I myself have called it form.

The only structure which permits of natural activity is one so flexible as not to be a structure; I write in order to hear; never do I hear and then write what I hear. Inspiration is not a special occasion.

What I think & what I feel can be my inspiration but it is then also my pair of blinders. To see one must go beyond the imagination and for that one must stand absolutely still as though in the center of a leap.

An error is simply a failure to adjust immediately from a preconception to an actuality.

Most anybody knows about the future and how uncertain it is.

A sound is a sound. To realize this one has to put a stop to studying music.

The thing to do is to keep the head alert but empty. Things come to pass, arising and disappearing. There can be no consideration of error. Things are always going wrong.

Before I die, I shall leave a will, because if you want something done, sentimentality is effective.

At all costs inspiration must be avoided which is to say act in such a way that inspiration doesn’t come up as an alternative but exists eternally. Then of course it is theater and music disappears entirely into the realm of art where it knows it belongs. Art silence is not real silence and the difference is continuity versus interpenetration. This is also.

Music is simply trying things out in school fashion to see what happens.

If one feels protective about the word “music,” protect it and find another word for all the rest that enters through the ears. It’s a waste of time to trouble oneself with words, noises. What it is is theater and we are in it and like it, making it.

And what is your purpose in writing music? I do not deal in purposes; I deal with sounds.

Now at last we know that saying one thing requires saying the opposite in order to keep the whole statement from being like a Hollywood set. Perhaps it would be better to be silent, but a) someone else would be speaking; and b) it wouldn’t keep us from going and we would continue doing what we are doing. I remember once his saying: “But this opens up an entirely untouched field of poetry.” And to this day neither one of us has budged to move into that untouched open field.

In the poetry contest in China by which the Sixth Patriarch of Zen Buddhism was chosen, there were two poems. One said: “The mind is like a mirror. It collects dust. The problem is to remove the dust.” The other and winning poem was a reply to the first. It said, “Where is the mirror and where is the dust?”

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Dean Young on Intention

Dean Young has several tendencies that I don’t follow, but he has a method with which I am in sympathy. Or maybe it’s that he’s coming from a base of Romantic identity to which I feel resistant, just as he has a relationship to the role of the imagination with which I agree. Whatever it is, it keeps me interested in his poetry and in what he says about poetry, just as I know I’m not going to agree in total.

The current issue of Poets & Writers is a great example of this. In his essay “Beyond Intention,” he has a tendency to get too woo-woo for me (to use the technical term), but he makes several stops at several important stations along the way.

First off, the title, “Beyond Intention.” How could I not adore that? It’s been my biggest problem with a lot of poetry and things said about poetry for a long time now, that I think many endorse a poetry overly steeped in intentionality. As John Cage writes sometime around 1960, about Rauschenberg, and painting (and the arts in general): “Were he saying something in particular, he would have to focus the painting; as it is he simply focuses himself, and everything, a pair of socks, is appropriate, appropriate to poetry, a poetry of infinite possibilities.” So, for me, the idea of “beyond intention” gets a big YES vote. It takes the art from the planning to the embodying, from the mind to the living.

Here’s Young:

“To approach the practice of poetry as an acquiring of skill sets may provide the stability of a curriculum, but the source of inspiration is as much instability, even recklessness. Poets are excellent students of blizzards and salt and broken statuary, but they are always elsewhere for the test. Any intention in the writing of poetry beyond the most basic aim to make a poem, of engaging the materials, should not be realized. If the poet does not have the chutzpah to jeopardize habituated assumptions and practices, what is produced will be sleep without dream, a copy of a copy of a copy.”


It’s funny to me that he worked three Zs into the end of that paragraph leading to sleep, but that aside, I like the movement of this away from the planning to the doing of art, even as I am skeptical of dream metaphors.

He goes on to attack the “professionalization of creative writing,” which is all fine. That’s his battle, not mine, so I’ll walk away. To be honest, I very rarely come up against this “professionalization” stuff. Mostly I teach general education classes. Maybe I’m just in the wrong part of the country. It is funny though, a little, that this essay is in the annual MFA issue of Poets & Writers. That's something. So, moving along.

He then tosses some shots at “art that defines itself as resistance,” saying that its vitality is dependant on the “continued health of that which it resists.” I’m in disagreement, but not enough to work myself up about. And then he goes after literary theory, and poetry based in it, saying “reader, you can sleep through this part if you want.” So I did. I had a feeling he was going to say things that showed a blind spot to the fact that theory is always present, even in an anti-theory stance, but again not enough to get worked up about. Anyway, I’m starting to sound contrary, so let’s get back to the stuff that makes me cheer:

“There is no more exquisite, lively, and welcoming body of work in poetry than what Ashbery continues to give us, none more world enlarging.”

I like that he tosses that in, as it seemed, from the Theory and Resistance bashing, that he might be starting to make a case against the very poetry that Ashbery can be said to stand for. This causes his argument to become much more nuanced. He’s not anti- the poetry of poets like Ashbery, but the types of poetry that use Resistance and Theory as some sort of Intentionality, then. OK.

The value of this essay, in the end, and perhaps the book that it’s excepted from, The Art of Recklessness, due out from Graywolf Press in August 2010, is to be a kind of conventional essay about the mystery of poetry that sounds as much as it could have been written in 1969 as 2009, but to use Breton, Ashbery, Stevens and de Kooning as touchstones (which could have been examples in 1969, yes, and probably were, but not in the sort of publication that Poets & Writers stands for). I believe this describes a major shift in the center of American Poetry. Most often in the past, if one were setting out to write this sort of essay about poetry from the center of the art, true, the writer might choose Stevens, but after that, the examples, the touchstones, would be much more from the very center of Big A Big P American Poetry, maybe Robert Lowell or Plath or James Dickey or something?

The very center of the thought of this essay is this:

“’Say you think life is trembling,’” wrote Willem de Kooning of an idea he picked un in Kierkegaard, ‘Pretty soon everything trembles.’”


It’s about the stance before the work begins. It begins with a conception of life. Which for Young gets described this way:

“The word, then, is not only fit referent but also magical embodiment of the thing; the word takes its flesh from the world. Transubstantiation. The names of the dead are not to be trifled with. Forgiveness is asked for. And power. And self. We have arrived at the primitive.”

For me, I’d like a version of this without using the words “magical,” “transubstantiation,” and “primitive,” but I’ll not quibble. Or maybe I’ll quibble a little. He goes on:

“I’m asking you here to consider poetry that is unhindered by doubt(while acknowledging that doubt can begin the inspiration toward liberation), a poetry that arises out of recklessness and is composed of convictions of first needs, first minds, of truth in language arising from the active impulse of emotion, moving through the calculations of the rational toward irrational detonation.”

Again, I’d like it better without the bit about “liberation” and the bit about “first minds” and “truth,” but I like the idea here of moving into the irrational. I would posit that the irrational is the content that surrounds us already, and it’s in the materials themselves. We can’t get away from it. It’s the basis of deconstruction. But it’s also the basis of belief. The irrational is the IS. Art that denies this, or attempts to circumvent it by a sort of reductive certainty is more a shell game of what words can do, than any real move to a sort of cooperation with reality. But that’s my own essay that I keep not writing.

Here’s Young, doing a better job with “the primitive”:

“By the primitive I mean exploration of primary human dilemmas, the assertion of the monstrous if need be, the instinctual, visceral, sexual, rogue, absurd, sometimes derangement as a form of innocence. Primary even in afterness. Not ironic.”

I hope in The Art of Recklessness, Young includes the examples of this that are as inclusive as his assertion and touchstones seems to imply they might be. It would be easy for him to take this wild exclamation and then turn to a writer like Kim Addonizzio or Kay Ryan as example. That would be fine, I suppose. But I’d be interested more in what he might do with Michael Palmer and Rae Armantrout after such an assertion.

He then goes on to say something I so completely agree with I actually did give a little cheer: “Everyone is a wonderful poet up until the third grade.” Going further with this, would cause me to spiral out into several more pages, so I’m walking away. Suffice it to say that those of us who teach at universities, who teach content areas to Education Majors, need to seriously consider how we can not just make those Ed Majors read lit and write papers or whatever, but also how we need to do more with how poetry can remain open, inclusive moments where imagination can roam, not atrophy. Less a reduction to a scantron test, and more a way to explore. Now I’ll bail out and turn back to the most important word of Young’s essay: imagination. And I’ll add my little YES to that as well.

The last word goes to Dean Young:

“Poetry must assert itself as poetry. Emotion is our greatest primary effectual mode, moving from recollections in tranquility to meditations in emergency, and to speak of emotion as a noun is misleading. It is a verb: feeling, constantly moving, negotiating between the obligation to and liberty from the world, the medium, and instinctual biological as well as philosophical need. Feeling. The preservation of being is an imaginative act.”

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Yacov Gabay from

These are simply stunning. The light. The line. I just keep going back to them.
Here's the direct link: