Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Lyre or the Liar? [Abramson's] American Metarealism

Seth Abramson has gotten excited about Metarealism. An American Metarealism, he’s thinking. It comes to him through Mikhail Epstein, writing about 1970s/80s Russian poetry. I’m intrigued.

Here’s a link to his post:

And now here’s some of the Epstein, from Russian Postmodernism: New Perspectives on Post-Soviet Culture, talking about the differences between Metarealism and its counter-movement, Conceptualism. The debate has a familiar ring (from page 105-6):


2. In every epoch, poetry is the battleground of convention [uslovnost] and freedom [bezuslovnost], playfulness and seriousness, analysis and synthesis. In the 1960s and the first half of the 70s, the struggle was between realism, based on vraisemblance or the lifelike, and metaphorism, which celebrated contingency and play . . . . This opposition, from which poetry derived its dynamics and its tension, acquired new forms from the middle of the 1970s onward—namely, in metarealism and conceptualism. Though the old battles still continue, they have lost their relevance.

3. Metarealism is a new poetic form which, freed from conventionality, open up onto the “other” side of metaphor, not preceding it like a literal, lifelike image, but embracing and transcending its figurative meaning. “Meta,” the common prefix for words such as “metaphor,” “metamorphosis,” “metaphysics,” conjures up a reality that opens up beyond the metaphor, to a region where metaphor carries over or transfers its sense, beyond that empirical dimension from whence it took off. While metaphorism plays with the reality of the actual world, metarealism earnestly tries to capture an alternative reality. Metarealism represents the realism of metaphor, the entire scope of metamorphosis, which embraces reality in the whole range of its actual and possible transformations. Metaphor is bt a fragment or remnant of myth, whereas a metarealistic image (a unit of metareal poetry) attempts to re-establish mythic unity; it is an individual image that tries to converge with myth to the extent possible in contemporary poetry.

4. Conceptualism is a new form of conventionality that denies mythic unity as something inauthentic and inorganic. A concept is an idea attached to a reality to which it can never correspond, giving rise, through this intentional incongruity, to alienating, ironic or grotesque effects. Conceptualism plays with perverted ideas that have lost their real-life content, or with vulgar realia, whose idea has been lost of distorted. A concept (Russian kontsept as a unit of conceptualist art) is an abstract notion, which is attached to an object like a label, not in order to become one with the object (as in myth) but in order to demonstrate the impossibility and the disintegration of such unity. Conceptualism is a poetics of denuded notions and self-sufficient signs that has been deliberately detached from the reality it is supposed to designate. It is a poetics of schemas and stereotypes, in which form falls away from substance, and meanings become detached from objects. In conceptualism, the naïve mass consciousness serves as the object of self-reflexive and playful representation.

5. Within one and the same culture, metarealism and conceptualism fulfill two necessary and mutually compensating functions. They peel off the layers of conventional, false and ossified meanings that words have acquired (conceptualism) and restore to them a new polyvalence and fullness of meaning (metarealism). The verbal texture of conceptualism is untidy, rough, shredded, artistically not fully fledged. All of this is in keeping with the initial aims of the movement, namely, to show the shabbiness and doddering old-age impotence of the lyrical-ideological vocabulary with which we make sense of the world. Vsevolod Nekrasov [JG interjection: could John Ashbery be substituted as an American example?], for instance, uses mostly interjections, subordinate and connective words, like “eh!” “that,” “who,” and “yet,” which have not yet lost the ring of truth, as distinct from elevated, nominative words, such as “thought,” “love,” “faith,” and “country,” which have suffered from ideological corruption. Metarealism, on the contrary, constructs a lofty and sturdy verbal edifice, striving for fullness of meaning through the complete spiritual transfiguration of objects and their reunification with universal meanings. Metarealism seeks out true value by turning to eternal themes or the arch-images of contemporary themes, such as love, death, logos, light, earth, wind, night, garden. Its material is nature, history, art, and “high” culture. Conceptualism, by contrast, shows up the contingent and illusory nature of all designated value, which is why its themes are demonstratively linked to the present moment, to everyday life, political and colloquial clichés, to the “low” forms of mass culture and mass consciousness.


And it goes on. It’s an interesting debate. One that I do think resonates with certain moves in recent American poetry. Clearly Conceptualism has a rough analogue with that group variously named things like Elliptical Poets, but even more so perhaps with things like Flarf? Maybe? But what about these Metarealists? They sound kind of Neo-Classicist to me. Anyway, Abramson is placing the idea of American Metarealism as another candidate for what is or will be rising in opposition to Ellipticism, as Stephen Burt has recently done with his essay on The New Thing in Boston Review. Here's a link my post:

But if you are comfortable talking within binary thinking, the two serve as nice poles, with, I’m guessing, most everyone falling between the tendencies. For me, I find Conceptualism sounding like more fun, though both tendencies have cringe as well as cheer moments for me.

Anyone what to take a crack at it?

Versions of Realism 1 (hyperrealism/ photorealism 2)

For Ralph Goings it’s a more painterly photo-realism, peopled, and with a less composed air. The one-off of the snapshot. It’s still crazy sharp, and chrome, but there are carefully un-careful moments that force one to look at the light for narrative. Four Decades of Realism, his website header reads, as opposed to photorealism or hyperrealism. It's easier to see an analogue in poetry for Goings as opposed to Monroy, or is that just my imagination?

Tally Ho Diner

Hot Sauce
SoHo Sabrett

Half & Half Creamer

My paintings are about light, about the way things look in their environment and especially about how things look painted. Form, color and space are at the whim of reality, their discovery and organization is the assignment of the realist painter. --Ralph Goings, 1978

Versions of Realism 1 (hyperrealism/ Photorealism)

For Bert Monroy, it’s in the chrome-like details. And then the details of the details, as you take the works down to the pixel, past, or at the edge of, how the eye can see. His works are composed on the computer, which allows an insane level of color saturation and clinical detail. Is all of the world suddenly uniform? Every speck planned? Is there a contemporary analogue in poetry?

Damen, 2006
As a photo-realist painter, I have often been asked why I don’t just take a photograph. Good question, when you consider my paintings look like photographs. Well, for one thing, I’m not a photographer. To me, it is not the destination that is important—it is the journey. The incredible challenge of recreating reality is my motivation. —Bert Monroy

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse & David Lynch & More

Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse have gotten together (along with David Lynch!) to produce an album and book. The book is now available. Unfortunately, due to a legal problem with EMI, the CD is not included.

Therefore, you should buy the book and then, well, you know what to do. Go here for a download site:

Download (rapidshare)
192kbps / 65mb

I’m listening to it right now. It’s a wonderful album.

In addition to Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse (Mark Linkous), who wrote the songs, other artists appearing on Dark Night of the Soul (mostly to sing) include:

James Mercer of The Shins
The Flaming Lips
Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals
Jason Lytle of Grandaddy
Julian Casablancas of The Strokes
Frank Black of the Pixies
Iggy Pop
Nina Persson of The Cardigans
Suzanne Vega
Vic Chesnutt
David Lynch
Scott Spillane of Neutral Milk Hotel and The Gerbils

In total, the sound of Dark Night of the Soul, seems more like a Sparklehorse album than anything else by the contributors, though each track pairs well with the contributing singer/ band, and the lyrics are much more straight-forward than Mark Linkous usually comes up with (in other words, this really sounds like a collaboration). Standouts for me, not surprisingly, include the opening track (with The Flaming Lips), and the Jason Lytle contributions (which, more than any other contributor, sounds more like Grandaddy tracks than collaborations). But really, the whole thing is quite arresting. It was great, for instance, to hear Iggy Pop thrashing, singing “Look at Jesus and his hair—”and then, “I’m a mix of God and Monkey.” Good stuff. And David Lynch sings!

What are you waiting for?

The Renos - Yearly Post and Free Download

So every now and then I feel the need to post this. Apologies if it feels like I’m petitioning, but, since it’s free and all, my thinking is that I’m not really asking anything of anyone—

The Renos was a band I was in with my good friend Brian Bonhomme who had a brush with the music industry as lead guitarist (and some songwriting and background vocals and such) for the British band Roman Holliday back in the early 80s.

The Renos was mostly me on vocals and songwriting (except for the two that Brian sings, which we co-wrote [which he mostly wrote, actually]), and Brian on guitars, keyboards, and etc. Tracks 10 – 15 are demo tracks that I recorded on my home computer, playing all the instruments and incorporating sound files (mostly drum tracks).

I hope you like it.

The lost Renos CD

Check out what several critics had to say about the CD.

Listen to the songs in mp3 format or download them:

The Renos CD (That Never Even Had a Name):

Track 1:
Coming Apart (4.3 MB)

Track 2:
Nothing Ever Happens Here (3.7 MB)

Track 3:
Postcard Town (4.9 MB)

Track 4:
Motion Pictures (5.7 MB)

Track 5:
Floating Saturday (4.7 MB)

Track 6:
Echolocation (7.4 MB)

Track 7:
Down (4.3 MB)

Track 8:
No Talking (0.7 MB)

Track 9:
The Weather In Space (4.7 MB)

Track 10:
Whirling Away (4.7 MB)

Track 11:
The Future is Chrome (live) (5.7 MB)

Bonus tracks:

Track 12:
Painless demo (3.2 MB)

Track 13:
From A City That's Turning demo (4.8 MB)

Track 14:
See How They Run demo (5.4 MB)

Track 15:
Directionless demo (5.3 MB)

Track 16:
After The Gold Rush (3.6 MB)

Find the lyrics of the songs and the liner notes of the CD here.You can also check out the Renos page on MySpace.Feel free to send John your reaction to the material.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Stephen Burt in Boston Review - The New Thing

Robert Archambeau posted on Stephen Burt's essay in BR last week:

It took me a bit to get a copy, but now that I have, I find Stephen Burt’s essay, titled “The New Thing, or, The Object Lessons of Recent American Poetry,” tempting. (It's now been put up on the BR website: The—to reduce the thing down very far indeed—idea that the impact of Wallace Stevens, which blossomed in the late 1980s and has continued to grow (we are often considered to be in the Age of Ashbery, but I see it more as the off-shoots from the presence of Stevens) is coming to share the stage with a new, second (after an influence on the late 1950s) impact of William Carlos Williams (as streamed through the Objectivists [yes!] and more recent poets like Rae Armantrout and C.D. Wright [double yes!]). How could one not be excited by such a prospect?

Poetic movements, in their viral way, evolve and shift and sway, of course, and they also overlap and go dormant and reappear.

Here’s Burt’s description of the first group in this essay, the post-Stevens (Burt doesn't mention Stevens, by the way. That's my, perhaps hyperbolic, addition.) group:

* * *

For most of the past decade the most imitated new American poets were slippery, digressive, polyvocalic, creators of overlapping, colorful fragments. Their poems were avowedly personal, although they never retold the poets' life stories (they did not tell stories at all); the poets used, or at least mentioned, difficult ideas, especially from Continental philosophy, although they never laid out philosophical arguments (they did not lay out arguments at all). Nor did they describe concrete objects at length. Full of illogic, of associative leaps, their poems resembled dreams, performances, speeches, or pieces of music, and they were (in M.H. Abrams' famous formulation) less mirror than lamp: the poets sought to project their own experiences, in sparkling bursts of voluble utterance. Their models, among older authors, were Emily Dickinson, John Berryman, John Ashbery, perhaps Frank O'Hara; some had studied (or studied with) Jorie Graham, and many had picked up devices from the language writers of the West Coast. These poets were what I, ten years ago, called "elliptical," what other (sometimes hostile) observers called New Lyric, or "post-avant," or Third Way. Their emblematic first book was Mark Levine's Debt (1992), their emblematic magazine probably Fence (founded 1997-98); their bad poems were bad surrealism, random-seeming improvisations, or comic turns hoping only to hold an audience, whether or not they had something to say.

Their good poems were good indeed: we are going to keep reading them.

* * *

He goes on to say about them:

Almost all literary movements and moments expire in a crowd of imitators: what Hoagland called, disparagingly, "the skittery poem of our moment" may be about to slip into just that crowd. Yet Hoagland's nominee for its replacement—what he calls "narrative," especially the autobiographical sort—seems an unlikely successor. What will come next instead?

* * *

I think Burt’s right. The air has gotten pretty think in that elliptical room. That doesn’t mean it’s the end of that mode (How can it end before it even has a stable name? Alas!). There were important things found there. Some of the best poets of this tendency are going to continue to find worthy and excellent poems there. And Burt would agree with that, I’m certain. But, he’s also right in that tendencies tend to expand dramatically and then settle down to a much smaller group, to be replaced by a new expansion. So what is the next expansion? It’s a fun question.

The group he nominates (the WCW / Oppen / Armantrout / C.D. Wright strain) seems a viable candidate. Armantrout and C.D. Wright have both been gaining in stature over the past decade, so that now they’re at the point of gathering enough momentum so that we might be at the brink of a new expansionary period. I would welcome that.

He sees these poets as turning from the interiority of the (well, since this is Burt’s essay I’m talking about, I’ll go with his nomenclature) Elliptical Poets to a more world-oriented, thing-itself, vision. Likewise, by and large, the large, effusive tendencies of the Elliptical Poets, in the poets of the New Thing, get revised into a much more spare, attenuated line (picture the difference between the way a Jorie Graham poem and a Rae Armantrout poem sit on the page and in the world, and you get the idea).

And if this comes to pass, a few of the younger poets Burt names as exhibiting this tendency include Jon Woodward, Graham Foust, Heather Dubrow, Devin Johnston, Douglas Mao, Joseph Massey, Maureen McLane, Michael O'Brien , and Alissa Valles.

Here’s how he describes the mode:

* * *

The new poetry, the new thing, seeks, as Williams did, well-made, attentive, unornamented things. It is equally at home (as he was) in portraits and still lifes, in epigram and quoted speech; and it is at home (as he was not) in articulating sometimes harsh judgments, and in casting backward looks. The new poets pursue compression, compact description, humility, restricted diction, and—despite their frequent skepticism-- fidelity to a material and social world. They follow Williams's "demand" (as one critic put it) "both that poetry be faithful to the thing represented and that it be a thing in itself." They are so bound up with ideas of durable thinghood that we can name the tendency simply by capitalizing: the New Thing.

The poets of the New Thing observe scenes and people (not only, but also, themselves) with a self-subordinating concision, so much so that the term "minimalism" comes up in discussions of their work, though the false analogies to earlier movements can make the term misleading. The poets of the New Thing eschew sarcasm and tread lightly with ironies, and when they seem hard to pin down, it is because they leave space for interpretations to fit.

* * *

The essay is lengthy (close to 5,000 words), so I’ve skipped over a lot. It’s well worth it to go find a copy. If you’re patient, at some point in the future, Boston Review will put it online.

As well, a couple caveats:

First, Burt goes to some length to say that many of the poems of the Elliptical Poets are very good poems, and continue to be. As well, what he’s saying about the New Thing isn’t evaluative, but descriptive. He’s not putting these poems and poets forward as necessarily better poems. This is not a manifesto.

Second, and this is my own addition: a mode or a period in one thing historically, and quite a different thing aesthetically. What I mean is, though we often think of the Objectivists, say as a product of the 1930s, some of the best poems in that mode were written (I’m specifically thinking of Oppen here, but one could also argue the same for several others) in the 1960s. So to say that this is not the age of The New Narrative poets (which I believe was the 1980s?) or the Elliptical Poets (this last decade) or Talk Poems, etc., is not to say these poems aren’t relevant or productive. It’s just placing an X over the site of expansion.

I still stick with my own assertion that we’ve been in the age of prose-like, simile-heavy, autobiographical-sounding narratives since the early 1970s, judging from the overwhelming number of these poems being written. This is the base of what Ron Silliman terms (insert all necessary warning signs and disclaimers) the School of Quietude. While these other movements (Elliptical / Third Way / Etc.) might be sites of expansion, or even ascendant period styles, they are not the most common type of poems being written. Has it always been so? That what one says about a period is only reflective of one (and not the most common) aspect of that period? The answer seems "yes" to me. This only leaves me to wonder.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Rachel Loden - Dick of the Dead

I’ll be writing more soon, on this wonderful new book from Rachel Loden, whose fist book Hotel Imperium delighted me a few years ago. Anyway, if you don’t have that one, go buy it. And if you don’t have this new one, go buy it as well. I’m only five or so pages in, and I just had to put it down and rush to the computer. It’s just wonderful.

Rachel Loden
from Dick of the Dead


Who, if I pitched a hissy fit, would even
blink a powdered eyelid

among the angelic orders? The night sky
is indifferent and glittery with facts.

A third millennium giddily
boots up and Lenin, firm and pliant

from his glycerine bath, waits for kisses
in the glass sarcophagus. But I too

wish to call a meeting of the Committee
for the Deathless Beauty

of the Tsar, the standing Congress for
the Recarnation of the President. I too

wish to lie in state inside the Hall
of Pillars, in the echoes of the Capitol

Rotunda, cooing to my tricky
one, crooning to my trembling Republic.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Philip Levine on Poetry Daily

Philip Levine seems to be relaxing a bit, to very nice results. I hope this isn't a one-off. I like it.

The Language Problem

Cuban Spanish is incomprehensible even to Cubans. "If you spit in his face he'll tell you it's raining," the cab driver said. In Cuban it means, "Your cigar is from Tampa." Single, desperate, almost forty, my ex-wife told the Cuban doctor she'd give a million dollars for a perfect pair of tits. "God hates a coward," he said & directed her to an orthopedic shoe store where everything smelled like iodine. A full-page ad on the back of Nueva Prensa Cubana clearly read "Free rum 24 hours a day & more on weekends." ("Free rum" was in italics.) When I showed up that evening at the right address, Calle Obispo, 28, the little merchant I spoke to said, "Rum? This is not a distillery." They were flogging Venetian blue umbrellas for $4 American. Mine was made in Taiwan and when it rained refused to open. Before sunset the streets filled with music. In the great Plaza de la Revolución the dark came slowly, filled with the perfume of automobile exhaust and wisteria. I danced with a girl from Santiago de Cuba. Gabriela Mistral García was her name; she was taller than I & wore her black hair in a wiry tangle. She was a year from her doctorate in Critical Theory. After our dance she grabbed me powerfully by the shoulders as a commandante in a movie might, leaned down as though to kiss me on the cheek, & whispered in my good ear, "I dream of tenure." It was the Fifties all over again.

Philip Levine
Michigan Quarterly Review
Spring 2009

Sunday, May 17, 2009

from the "I Will if You Will" Dept.

Boston Review
Twelfth Annual Poetry Contest

Deadline: June 1, 2009
Judge: Rae Armantrout
First Prize: $1,500

Complete guidelines:
The winning poet will receive $1,500 and have his or her work published in the November/December 2009 issue of Boston Review. Submit up to five unpublished poems, no more than 10 pages total. Any poet writing in English is eligible, unless he or she is a current student, former student, or close personal friend of the judge. Manuscripts must be submitted in duplicate, with a cover note listing the author's name, address, and phone number; names should not be on the poems themselves. Simultaneous submissions are not permitted. Submissions will not be returned. A $20 entry fee ($30 for international submissions), payable to Boston Review, must accompany all submissions. Submissions must be postmarked no later than June 1, 2009. All entrants will receive a one-year subscription to Boston Review, beginning with the November/December 2009 issue. The winner will be announced no later than November 1, 2009, on the Boston Review Web site. All poems submitted to the contest will be considered for publication in the Boston Review. Send entries to:

Poetry Contest, Boston Review,
35 Medford St., Suite 302,
Somerville, MA 02143

Read winning poems from past years:
Sarah Arvio (2008)
Elizabeth Willis (2007)
Marc Gaba (2006)
Mike Perrow (2005)
Michael Tod Edgerton [PDF] (2004)
Susan Wheeler (2003)
Max Winter (2002)
D.A. Powell (2001)
Christopher Edgar (2000)
Stephanie Strickland (1999)
Daniel Bosch (1998)

For more poetry in Boston Review, click here.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Son Volt and Wilco (one more round)

Son Volt and Wilco (once again!) have new albums coming out at pretty much the same time.

I’ve had the good fortune to listen to them both several times.

I’ll start with the good news:

Son Volt. If you’ve ever liked Son Volt, you will find much to like on this album. Son Volt, much like the new Cracker album (which is also excellent), is going back to Son Volt basics, which means accordions, fiddles, and steel guitars, along with fuzzed out, slow rockers. The most consistent criticism of Son Volt over the years, is Jay Farrar has never been much for phrasing, annunciating, or simply trying to sing well. This is helped quite a bit on this album. He seems to be swallowing the ends of lines a bit less, and droning a bit less, and there are some backing vocals from the rest of the band to help things out.

Much has been said about this album harkening back to Trace. And it’s true. But it’s more as if the spirit that infused Trace was being reinvestigated through the production values of their last couple albums. “Cocaine and Ashes” sounds more like “World Waits for You” than anything on Trace.

In the second half of the album, first “Dust of Daylight” and then “Pushed too Far” vie for being placed next to “Tear Stained-Eye” as Farrar’s best in that mode, while “When the Wheels Don’t Move” is as good an electric lurch through apocalyptic vision as they’ve ever done.

It’s familiar territory, and the echoes to late 60s Dylan and 70s Tom Waits show here and there. This is what Farrar has been running away from since Trace. But he’s always been at his best when the themes are large and the music basic. It's good to have him back.

“We’re exiles now, pulling out of this place . . . . chasing a world to call our own” Farrar sings, on "Exiles" near the end of American Central Dust, and ever since the initial notice Son Volt got after Trace, nearly 15 years ago, it’s been a difficult journey. And while everything they do will continue to be measured against it, maybe, in going back, Farrar can make peace with who he is and what he does best. “A reminder that renewal only happens within.”

Just as 2009 finds Son Volt going back to the center of their sound, Wilco is still wandering the wilderness. The album is streaming here:

Wilco (the album) continues to follow the trajectory of their last few albums, A Ghost Is Born and Sky Blue Sky. If you liked those albums, especially Sky Blue Sky, then Wilco (the Album) will sit well enough with you, though still, it’ll not be distinguished in any particular way. If, on the other hand, you found Sky Blue Sky to be, as one person wrote, “the edgiest album America ever made,” then Wilco (the Album) will come in as the softer sibling, as Jeff Tweedy continues to explore to softer side of 70s easy listening music with brief moments of sonic disturbance here and there, with exceptionally self-regarding lyrics as “if I die I’ll die alone like Jesus on the cross.”

The individual in personal crisis has been Tweedy’s stock in trade for some time now, and he did it best on the brilliant Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which stands for Wilco the way Trace stands for Son Volt, but while Son Volt seems to be making peace with their strongest album, Wilco is still trying to figure out where to go next.

“Bull Black Nova” is as close as they get to really sparking the set up, as it sounds a little like a cross between “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” and “Handshake Drugs.”

Once I started carrying around a media player, I looked at albums differently. Now, rather than an album being good, I think of how many songs I want to keep from it. The new Son Volt has one track I didn’t keep (“Sultana”). The new Wilco has two tracks I kept (“Bull Black Nova” and “Country Disappeared”).

Disclaimer: Sky Blue Sky, that a lot of people seemed to like, had five tracks that I kept without much enthusiasm, so maybe I’m not the best to talk about recent Wilco.

Disclaimer 2: Wilco is great live.

Also, I kept seven songs from the new Neil Young album, six from the new Dylan album and all the tracks from the new Cracker album.

Friday, May 08, 2009

From the Family of Craig Arnold

Our dear friends and family,
Though Craig himself has not been recovered, the amazing expert trackers of 1SRG have been able to make themselves and us certain of what has become of Craig. His trail indicates that after sustaining a leg injury, Craig fell from a very high and very dangerous cliff and there is virtually no possibility that Craig could have survived that fall. Chris will pursue what he can about getting specialists to go down into the place we know Craig is so we can bring him home, but it is very, very dangerous and we are not yet completely certain what that will require. The only relief in this news is that we do know exactly what befell Craig, and we can be fairly certain that it was very quick, and that he did not wait or wonder or suffer.

David Wojahn on Younger Poets

from How Do You Bottle the Lightning?
Anna Journey sits down with David Wojahn

You can find the whole interview here:

Johannes Göransson has written about this interview (from the same issue of Gulf Coast that occasioned my earlier post on Tony Hoagland [see below]) over on his blog. I don’t want to just repeat what he wrote, but I do have similar questions. Here’s my version.

I very much like the general way that David Wojahn talks about a desire for, or way of, writing:

“: . . . Bringing order out of chaos is all well and good, but sometimes it’s a worthier goal to simply make the chaos interesting. . . . Juxtaposition does a better job of replicating real life, and it better reflects the way I think. . . . and the juxtaposition of seemingly unlike images can make for some very fortuitous meetings.”

I was hopeful when I read this, that this interview might go to some intersting places. Juxtaposition is a way of writing that has become increasingly important in recent poetry. It’s the primary method of composition from The Waste Land to John Ashbery, and onward. I would go as far as to say that, as I was just reading a poem on Poetry Daily by Kim Addonizio yesterday that used juxtaposition as it’s major compositional strategy, that it is or is becoming, if not the preferred method, then at the very least the most common way of putting a poem together, across styles (or schools). I might even go so far as to say that “Juxtaposition” typifies the contemporary American poem. But then again, if one would try to pin juxtaposition down, it would quickly evaporate into a kind-of all-encompassing “one thing next to another” that would quickly lose the ability to describe anything (even if it's still not the same as composition by narrative or autobiography or argument). OK, so never mind. But I think this has a lot to do with what Wojahn is getting at when he starts to complain about younger poets (perhaps poets who he thinks take the notion of "juxtaposition" too seriously?):

“: . . . You know, there’s no small degree of charlatanism in contemporary poetry, a lot of facile and merely clever writing . . . . facile and the trivial.” He then places this against the idea of “authenticity.” So, are you a younger poet? Is he talking about you?

OK, so he’s not going to name names when he says this, because he’s mostly, it seems, arguing against something that’s in the air. In the abstract, since he’s calling “facile and merely clever writing” the period style (erroneously, I believe), the names should be all around us. My guess, thinking of poets that have been described in this way by others, is that he’s talking about presses like Wave Books and Action Books, and specifically, poets like Joshua Clover and Joshua Beckman, though I could be wrong. But whatever it is he’s arguing against has a lot to do with lineage, the canon, the writers from the middle 20th Century (which would seem to go against the above, as many of these younger writers are keenly aware of at the very least early 20th Century poetic movements):

“Earlier this summer a friend of mine asked me to participate in an AWP panel that would celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies. Some terrific people had agreed to be on it and we all thought the panel proposal was a shoe-in. Life Studies has been an absolutely essential book for generations of American poets. But—go figure—AWP rejected it. We’re in a somewhat preposterous situation right now. It’s not simply that readers don’t know the tradition, they don’t even know recent literary history. There are a lot of pretty articulate and well-read people who are clueless about the crucial poets of the middle generation. They draw a blank when you mention Oppen or Rukeyser or Roethke, or even Berryman, Lowell, and Bishop. Admittedly, those writers aren’t easy models—they’re militantly self-confronting, sometimes self-lacerating, sometimes self-humbling. The approach to the self that Lowell championed and pioneered in the late ’50s changed the whole game for two or three generations of American poets. He wasn’t the only one to do this at the time; poets as diverse as Ginsberg, Snodgrass and Penn Warren were doing similar things. But Lowell cast the longest shadow; he made possible a new sort of autobiographical urgency, as well as the deep emotional subjectivity that you see in, say, Merwin’s The Lice or James Wright in his best poems. The interior journey is immensely important for these poets, they want to circumnavigate the self.”

So it’s less that young writers haven’t read anything from the past and more that they don’t appreciate enough the generation born around the 20s. I think these things are connected. He’s arguing against Skitteriness (“facile and merely clever writing”), lack of reading knowledge of the middle generation, and the inauthentic (that the writing of many younger writers is theory-driven, not lived). It’s the same anxiety hovering behind Bob Hicok’s poem “Weebles Wobble” that he read on the News Hour the other night, when he starts to tell a story about a woman devastated by recent economic upheavals, and then folds back to a version of “we can’t say it that way anymore”:

“Sadly, I think that in our post-modern, theory-inflected climate, the very notion that self-representation can be authentic and sincere—can in fact be an essential goal of poetry—seems to a lot of people a little passé.”

Self-representation abounds in contemporary American poetry. Poets, to me, seem to have no problem with exploring “self-representation” in poetry. But what he means here, I think, is less the exploration of how the self can be represented that is a common concern of many younger poets (Arielle Greenberg / Ben Diller / and on), and more the self-representation that is more flatly autobiographical. It seems he’s making an argument for, to use Ron Silliman’s term, The School of Quietude. And he positions it against a sort of masking he sees in his students:

“I find it maddening when students in graduate workshops write obscurely not for any abiding aesthetic reason, but for mere self-protection. The workshop never gets beyond the rather pointless exercise of trying to figure out the poem’s dramatic situation, and when you finally ask the poet to say something about her work, the answer goes something like, ‘Well, I didn’t want to tell it like it actually happened because that would seem too ‘confessional.’’ And so ‘confessional’ has become an unjustly pejorative word like “liberal” or “community organizer,” so vastly out of fashion that it seems like it’s never going to rise again.’

I find this an amazing moment. Maybe we really are at a crossroads. A good number of students are, for whatever reason, skeptical of flat autobiography, and the Confessional poets in general, but they don’t have an alternative model except to be kind of abstract about it. The accusation he makes earlier that students haven’t read the Middle generation is a little odd to me here, because if the students haven’t read them (well, at least the Confessional poets), how do they know to say they don’t want to write like them? It’s possible that students aren’t reading them deeply (which is fine with me, as it’s not nearly as important and interesting a generation to me than Modernists, for instance), but to say they haven’t read them at all seems hyperbolic, to say the least. To give Wojahn credit, I also have found very few young poets who have read Oppen (and many who’ve never even heard of the Objectivists).

It’s pretty clear why this is happening. In their literature classes, students get a pretty decent education of everything written from Modernism backwards. That’s what the surveys cover. But anything written after Modernism is usually going to be tossed in in very idiosyncratic ways, either in a creative writing workshop, or as the last book or two in some themed seminar. This is always the case. The closer one gets to any present time, the more available literature there is. The more choices. And less agreement on what’s important. Wojahn thinks we should read more Lowell. I think we should read more Spicer. That’s just the way it is.

The other factor playing into this is that living poets will come to your class and talk with your students about writing. And living poets are likely to be the friends of the professor. So, in any student’s education, that student is going to have a blind spot around the generation that is recently deceased.

He goes on:

“Tony Hoagland has a withering label for the way we’ve almost all started to write—he calls it ‘the skittery poem of our moment.’ Don’t get me wrong: I find some of the Language writers very compelling. Rae Armantrout’s new collection is brilliant, and says a lot of wise and frightening things both about selfhood and culture that couldn’t be stated in any other fashion. Nevertheless, I think the current period style has replaced self-confrontation with slipperiness, with various strands of irony. We now have as many gradations of irony as the Inuit have words for snow, and I’m tired of irony being our lingua franca. We’ve become brilliant at cannibalizing the trappings of contemporary culture, but I sometimes worry that it’s all a form of solipsism that blinders us to the workings of the world. I know a lot of the Language poets really talk up Marx and in an oblique way they want to emphasize the social responsibilities of the poet, but I’ve had it with Skitter-ism.”

This is about as close as he gets to naming names, and it’s pretty close, as he does implicate “all of us,” in it, but, more specifically, he’s talking about all the younger poets he sees that he describes as writing in ways where “the social and political” that “are evoked are facile and theoretical rather than urgent.”

So who are some contemporary poets that he admires? The ones who don’t write in this “facile and theoretical” way?

Mark Doty
William Olsen
Tom Sleigh
Beckian Fritz Goldberg
Yusef Komunyakaa
David Rivard
Claudia Emerson

Mary Ruefle
Dean Young
Mark Halliday
August Kleinzahler
C. D. Wright
Jorie Graham

Kevin Young
Major Jackson
Beth Ann Fennelly

Rae Armantrout

And then the earlier writers we should be reading more of and talking more about:


I find the addition of Mary Ruefle, Dean Young, C. D. Wright, Rae Armantrout, and Jorie Graham to be especially interesting. I would guess that the writers he’s speaking against would also consider at least a few of these writers to be models. So maybe here these four writers stand as the dividing line.

(Rae Armantrout! If I were to nominate one poet as the most likely to enter the canon from our period, I would nominate her. Her work seems to sum things up, much like Ashbery has. But maybe that’s just wishful thinking because I like both their work.)

He then comes to something of a conclusion that shows what he means as the flipside to what’s going on in our moment:

“When I look back on Oppen’s generation and back at the generation born in the twenties—the Levine, Rich, Merwin group—the integrity of their ambition always humbles me; they saw the mission of poetry as something far different from the way we see it. They didn’t see poetry as a profession or a career, but as something more mysterious and grave. I also admire how grounded they were in the entire tradition. When I see Lowell in Near the Ocean laboring so mightily to find a way to modernize and contemporize the line of Milton and the line of Marvell, I never fail to be astonished. And who in our century has such lofty goals? We lack them in no small measure because of an imperfect and very limited reading knowledge—but I suffer from that same shortcoming.”

For most of this little tour, I’ve just been trying to get at what Wojahn’s thinking, but here I want to step out and clearly say that I think he’s wrong. Just because you don’t like what you’re reading in the poetry of some younger poets, doesn’t mean there’s no ambition behind it. I recall the same sort of argument against Lowell and James Wright, back in the early 60s. Their turning from the formalism of that period to open their work to more conversational language and interior images had many people calling them all sorts of names.

Wojahn makes that same turn many people are making these days in many guises. It’s the same turn John Barr makes. It’s the anti-academy turn, where the making or art and teaching are conflated: “They didn’t see poetry as a profession or a career, but as something more mysterious and grave.”

Maybe I’m being willfully obtuse, but I just don’t see it in the younger poets I know. Yes, AWP has a tendency to become something of a job talk week, and yes, poets do talk about who is teaching where way too often for my nerves, but to say that somehow that has something to do with the poems themselves is going too far. I also recall that the middle generation was the first one to start these conversations? Weren’t they the first generation of university professors? And didn’t they do all sort of gossiping about who should and who shouldn’t have what job, what award?

And since I'm ending on a bunch of questions, here's another, perhaps telling question, going back to the title of the interview ("How Do You Bottle the Lightning?"):

Why would you want to bottle the lightning in the first place?
Therefore, a circular addendum:
Carousel: cops vs clowns, directed by Adam Berg

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Verse Daily as Research Tool

Until this morning, I was unaware of just how extensive and impressive Verse Daily has become. I was told an hour or so ago, via a facebook friend (which is a huge topic in and of itself as regards the lives of poets), that I had a poem up on Verse Daily, so I went there.

Clicking on the link from my name I found a little history of my poems on the web. And then I started looking at other poets, and their histories. It’s quite a wonderful resource.

Go there and browse. It’s a great way to spend an early summer day.

And because this is my blog, and I’m self-absorbed, you can start with the me me me show [though I think technically, looking at the bio they put up for me, I’ve written three books, not four. The chapbook is a different category. At least that’s what I always thought?]:

Today's poem is "Duly Noted"
from West Branch

About John Gallaher:

John Gallaher is the author of four books of poetry, most recently The Little Book of Guesses (Four Way Books) and Map of the Folded World (Akron). He lives in rural Missouri and co-edits The Laurel Review.

Other poems by John Gallaher in Verse Daily:

January 23, 2009: "What We're up Against" "On the way home from the funeral..."
June 8, 2007: "Earth-tone Anecdote" " They are speaking in the other room..."
May 12, 2007: "When I Say World I Mean Please" " We begin somewhat after the beginning, in..."
January 4, 2007: "A Guess Is Spiritual Then, & Will Try to Help You" " Two pregnant women are walking together under the portico...."
June 10, 2006: "Anecdote of the Field" " The children are running across the field, each..."
May 26, 2005: "No Encores. No Autographs." ""When I was little, and could float..."

Other poems on the web by John Gallaher:

"The Poem from the Poem: Ars Poetica II"
Three poems
"Bomb Went Off"
"On Your Brilliant Escape"
"A Guidebook to When Things Were Better" "A Guidebook to The Afterlife"

John Gallaher's Blog.

John Gallaher according to Wikipedia.

And then it goes on with a history of West Branch poetry on Verse Daily. See what I mean? You have to kind of search around to find what you're looking for, but once you do, there's a nice little trove of things. What a great place to begin to investigate journals and individual poets.

About West Branch:

Subscription: 1 year (2 issues), $10
West Branch * Bucknell Hall * Bucknell University * Lewisburg, PA, 17837
Editor: Paula Closson Buck

Other poems from West Branch in Verse Daily:

May 5, 2009: "Chicken Little" by Tiffany Atkinson
December 13, 2008: "Nothing is Haunted" by Sandy Longhorn
December 12, 2008: "When Worlds Collide (1951)" by Maggie Smith
June 10, 2007: "Looking Forward to the Twentieth Century" by James Doyle
June 8, 2007: "Earth-tone Anecdote" by John Gallaher
June 3, 2006: "The Customary Mysteries" by Aleda Shirley
June 2, 2006: "[When You Asked, I Thought At First]" by Boyer Rickel
May 31, 2006: "In A Week Or Two, My Love, The Maple Will Be Empty." by David Swerdlow
January 15, 2006: "Pursuit" by Sarah Sloat
January 5, 2006: "Rehoboth Beach" by Matthew Ladd
January 2, 2006: "Ghazal of the Bright Body" by Sarah Sloat
December 28, 2005: "Rain-Freighted" by Eric Pankey
May 21, 2005: "The Innocent" Jean Nordhaus
May 17, 2005: "Vespers" Charles Wright
December 14, 2004: "The Tortoise" by Betsy Sholl
December 13, 2004: "Grackles" by Lisa Williams
August 10, 2004: "Anecdote of the Turkeys" by Wayne Dodd
August 2, 2004: "Speak, Zero" by Mary Ruefle
June 19, 2004: "Yes, to the Mole, Emerging in Night" by Daniel Bourne
February 10, 2004: "Rorschach on Pond" by Sean Serrell
February 9, 2004: "Deer" by Sarah Kennedy
June 1, 2003: "First Thing" by Bill Knott
May 20, 2003: "Succession" by Bill Knott
May 19, 2003: "Angry Music" by John Nixon, Jr.
May 16, 2003: "I Never Promised You a Worm Farm" by Charles Harper Webb
January 31, 2003: "Collect Call" by Michelle Boisseau
January 15, 2003: "Cautionary Tale" by Nance Van Winckel
January 8, 2003: "The Climbers" by Jeffrey Skinner
January 7, 2003: "Steadily" by Michelle Boisseau

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Monday, May 04, 2009

Cracker - Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey

Turn On Tune In Drop Out
The album comes out on May 5th

I’ve been a fan of Cracker since the very start. It’s amazing to me that it’s been almost 20 years. Well, they’ve had their ups and downs: huge success in the early 90s, dropped by their record company later, and having to watch that record company come out with a greatest hits package without them. So what did they do? They re-recorded their own songs for their own greatest hits package. And since then they’ve come out with two of their strongest albums since the very first two: Greenland, and the new one, Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey.

I’ll write more about it after I’ve had it a bit longer, but it’s Cracker doing what Cracker does (fifty percent ironic / fifty percent sarcastic / fifty percent sincere). In other words, if you ever liked Cracker, you’ll like this album. They’re in a very uptempo mood this time around. Loud and fast. “Turn On” is as mellow as it gets. “Yalla Yalla” is more typical of the sound of the album.

And if you like the opening two videos for “Turn On” and “Yalla Yalla,” you’ll like the album. So what are you waiting for?

Yalla Yalla

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Tony Hoagland’s Take on Contemporary Poetry

Gulf Coast is one of my favorite journals. I don’t always like it, but I always like it, if you know what I mean.

The current issue is a case in point: Billy Collins and Tony Hoagland.

I don’t need to talk about Billy Collins. If you like Billy Collins’s poems, nothing I say will be of much interest to you, and if you dislike his poems, you already know what I would say, so enough about that. Still, it’s nice to see what he’s up to. I guess.

But Tony Hoagland is different. He’s here with an essay on poetry. Tony Hoagland is trying to be helpful. He’s being a part of the conversation.

First off, Tony Hoagland is not a dunderhead. He loves poetry and he wants to make sense out of, or at least help describe, how poetry changes (and is changing). He's aware things are going on. But what they are, well, that gets him a bit pretzelled up.

The essay is titled, “Litany, Game, and Representation: Charting an Arc from the Old to the New Poetry.” It sounds as if it’s going to be large. And at least he’s making an effort, even if it’s free of female examples and any mention of non-heterosexual sexualities—not that every essay has to talk about such things, I know, but it would seem to me that if one is going to try to put one’s finger on the pulse of what’s happening in poetry, one might want to cast a little wider net. At the very least, he should have put the word “male” in the title. That, at least, would have narrowed his rather absurd generalizations a bit. I hope that doesn’t sound unfair. I’ll move on:

Here are his main example poets:

Christopher Smart
Stanley Plumly
Dean Young
Jordan Davis

And then, near the end, he makes a side turn to:

Robert Hass
Thomas Sayers Ellis

And, as conclusion (and even with a subheading titled “Conclusion,” just so that we're in no doubt) he is confident enough to make the following statement about “the New Poetry”:

“. . . the New Poetry is informed by new tensions, new understandings (the insatiability of language) and by new possibilities. It shows no preference for narration, description, or confessions of the autobiographical self. It seizes hold of a radical new plasticity in signification, and thus—as has been the case in other revolutions—poems of the New Poetry head off in dozens of distinct directions. However, these diverse writers share some of the same fundamental characteristics: they have an instinct for gamesmanship, they are stylistically and technically intensive, and their starting point is the indeterminacy and innate unanchoredness of language (which can animate either affirmation of negative impulses). These poets feel the plasticity of language. They also feel an obligation to approach knowing in new, often oblique ways. They might therefore be called Experimental or Avant Garde poets, but these labels seem, in 2008, encumbered with baggage—better that they simply be called poets of the New Poetry.”

There’s always some truth in such massively large generalizations, but unfortunately, these truths get so watered down by the largesse of the net they have to sit under, so these assertions of Hoagland's become little more than, “look, their poetry seems different in some way than ours was.”

That doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try. And try is what Hoagland certainly does here, as he charts the progression:

1. “Smart’s litany illustrates his premises about poetic speech: in the meticulousness of his observation, he reveals a faith in the ability of language to precisely convey; likewise, he believes in the obligation of the psalmist to be accurate in his descriptions.”

So now that we've covered that, let's skip the pond and forward in time to the next poet of interest, in the present-ish:

2. “Plumly’s litany of naming is a ritual of praise . . . . [b]ut now a gulf has opened beween himself and things. [….] The estrangement from self and the estrangement from language have become symptomatic of each other. [….] In this post-natural existence, once man is lost in the maze of self-consciousness, all things recede into the distant mirror. It is impossible to get any closer to X than the sign for X.”

OK, I’ll stop just for a second to say I’m sooooooooo glad we’re past this “Dilemma of X.” I was very bored in graduate school having to have this conversation over and over again. Yes, of course. Language is metaphorical. Gads, people, just get over it already. And so now, apparently, we have. Dean Young rode in to save us in a kind of fun and mostly harmless way:

3. “[Dean Young’s poem] does not suffer from quite the same tone of existential unease we find in Plumly’s poem. But here, too, language—the act of naming—occupies the foreground of the poem’s subject matter. [….] language is seen as a kind of impediment between people. The poetic attention has been shifted from the realm of nature (perception) to the realm of language (naming). The poem could be called celebratory, even erotic, in its playfulness—but it emphasizes the nutty arbitrariness of the act of naming . . . . [I]n Young’s poem, the wonder is located not in nature but in the stylistic dexterity of artifice.”

So we can see what Hoagland is going for. He’s tracing a line from belief in the THING, though the anxiety about the fraught nature of that belief, to a belief in the play of the words that stand for THINGS. And he sees that arc find its completion in Jordan Davis. This is where Hoagland is most ill at ease. Listen to his defense (to himself?) for even bothering to talk about someone like Davis:

4. “One response to such a poetic mode might be to call it cynical; to accuse Davis and his tribe of the deepest nihilism, terminal irony, or poetic anarchy. Yet not all the evidence supports such a reading. Davis’s poem exhibits too much pleasure and gusto to be written off as cynically hip or disillusioned. It is as if, freed from obligations of representation, sense-making, narrative, and autobiography, the fields of play are infinitely open to indefinable adventure. In an era of deeply mistrusted speech, it is a paradoxical fact that this uninhibited sense of play is a common characteristic of the New Poetry. The alienation, angst, and unease of one generation becomes the liberating poetic license of the next.”

Ah, the things Hoagland has to skip over to make such a statement! All the poets he’s had to erase (because they would, for one, erase his gender bias and his timeline). But, even giving him that, the subtext of Hoagland’s arc here is readily apparent. As a poet himself, he’s somewhere close to Plumly, but leaning just a hint toward Dean Young (mostly in that he likes to be kind of funny sometimes). And now he’s an older poet, watching younger poets doing different things. What to do about that? Well, if one can trace an arc, from the past to the present, one can domesticate the present. Make it more friendly, even while scratching one’s head and implicating that it might just be a bridge too far, what these young people are doing these days.

“Ah, the way they play, these kids! How cute they are! Davis and his tribe!” I don’t buy it. In fact, I also don’t buy that it’s just a sudden, right-now, thing that we’re “[i]n an era of deeply mistrusted speech.” Speech has been mistrusted since just about the time there was such a thing.

In the end, I don’t think this is is a very helpful reading of the poets Hoagland is trying to represent by Davis, but it is an interesting reading of poets that Hoagland might be said to represent, those in a position of power, trying to chart a legacy of influence. (I'm not, I want to make clear, knocking the poets he's talking about, or the quality of their work. I'm simply knocking the way he's talking about them, the rather grand assumptions he's making.)

He then tries to do something similar with Hass and Ellis, so it would redundant to go into it. Therefore, I’ll just nod as I pass.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Zachary Schomburg - from Scary, No Scary

Your Limbs Will Be Torn Off in a Farm Accident from Zachary Schomburg on Vimeo.