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Searching for a Heartbeat in Poetry & Music
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Here are three books I’m looking forward to this fall. What else is coming up?
Planisphere: New Poems
by John Ashbery
The only thing I know about it so far is it will be 160 pages, and it will come out in December.
Helen Vendler, below, writing on Wallace Stevens, is also speaking to a kind of divide in American poetry (not the only divide, but an important one nonetheless):
“Stevens wrote symbolic rather than transcriptive poetry.”
Oh, dear. Stevens died over 50 years ago now, and where have we gotten to with this question? Well, maybe there is no place to get to. Maybe there’s always this divide, this tension, between these tendencies. She goes on to say:
“How differently might a reader take in ‘Burghers of Petty Death’ if it had been called ‘A Son’s Lament for His Dead Parents,’ or ‘The Snow Man’ if it had been called ‘Stoicism in a Failed Marriage’? Like Dickinson, Stevens has won a wide audience in spite of the guard he put on his privacy, and we are now better acquainted with his sorrows.”
This fascinates me, the weight Vendler is placing on the titles alone. Of course, her alternate titles are terrible . . . but the idea there is that the poetry would instantly have become more personal by context. More revealing. In much the way that I used to hear people saying that one should replace all pronouns with “I” when reading Stevens . . . the personal, the personal, the personal. What an interesting flip and switch we’re called upon to perform when regarding Stevens. Anyway. She then, moving along, quotes this bit from Stevens, on receiving the Gold Medal from the Poetry Society of America:
“Individual poets, whatever their imperfections may be, are driven all their lives by that inner companion of the conscience which is, after all, the genius of poetry in their hearts and minds. I speak of a companion of the conscience because to every faithful poet, the faithful poem is an act of conscience.”
Well, there you go, then. Here’s her short piece, on the new Stevens Selected:
G.C. Waldrep’s Archicembalo is a wonderful book. Everyone should have a copy or two.
What Is an Anthem
I sought a near care and left without having paid any particular price, I was not stingy, I did not think I was covetous, perhaps I betrayed a more vivid avulsion but I was not without integrity, I was possessed of a certain bodily charm.
When a charm grows ghoulish it demands more from the body, it is a consumptive delight.
I left the money on the table. Each penny separate and together, this is copper, this is how copper behaves: most elegant at high noon burnish. Like noon a furnished room requests the pleasure of a body’s judgment, its sovereign will, as seen in the shadow a hinged door makes, as seen in a cannon’s mouth.
What is inheritance, inheritance is subjugation of time through flesh, it is a staying motion and like a harp’s pedal but more slowly, it remains an intervailing conceit. I left the money on the table, I made every calculation.
Is this pretty at a distance.
When on is beautiful (which is to say when one has inherited) one may stand alone. Does this make one lonely, does this make one less beautiful or more, does this express a miserly disposition and if so when and to what purpose.
The country around Karbala is desert, meaning a dry wind and sand and pilgrims in like season, later skirmish coached with salt. What is a desert, a desert is, and empty desert makes one beautiful, an emptied desert is a breach and thus makes also whole.
I was walking away but I had left the money on the table. This is a question of citizenship, this cannot be disputed. I was not giving up anything, I was within my rights, I was perfectly assured.
I left the money on the table and walked down to the bridge.
A bridge asks more of us. A bridge asks for commitment, a bridge is the instrument of a plaintive investiture, a bridge is the negation of one reputable stance. A bridge is an argument about form, a toll. A bridge may be a disguise.
To be alone one must be beautiful. To be beautiful one must be alone. To lie, with her and again precludes the possibility, to speak when spoken to is a modified circumspection.
To look into a cannon’s mouth is likewise an argument about solitude, it is a risky business. Does this make one beautiful. Of course. Which we have done and more surely for not wanting enough, for not waiting, for wasting and not trusting and for so. In my father’s house are many mansions. Does this absolve.
I left the money on the table and walked down to the bridge. Root and stone, my heart gives way to a third arm. I felt and I thought I was done.
Arch has an interview up with Michael Palmer here.
It’s well worth reading. Here’s a snippet:
LR: . . . Are you concerned about the conceptual usefulness of the book to poetry in terms of the way it's now having to compete with the financial viability of online publication?
MP: Well, poetry, as far as being able to compete, has never been able to compete with anything. [laughter] So, it survives anyway. And it won't be able to compete with technology, but it will go on in its own particular way. And there will be a certain audience that is generated by technology that may want to go to the book itself. Because the luxury of the book, of being able to go back and forth, is not equivalent to pushing a button and going back and going forward. It may be that as the electronic book becomes more sophisticated than it is right now, we'll have the luxury of downloading a library into a little facsimile of a book and reading that way. And those inevitably may more and more come to approximate the book. I'm all for that because I can't travel with a hundred books like I'd like to, you know, to Paris or something like that. And I think that has a great use. Also for reference works. I live in a small house with ten thousand books, you know, and I'd love to be able to get rid of some of them and just access them online for information.
But I find other curiosities about it. For example, when I do teach (from time to time) creative writing now, a lot of the kids are kind of going on line to get particular algorithms for composition. And then they come up with something that's kind of weird and kind of interesting in a jazzy way. But it's just a construction. What they don't realize [is that] in doing that, and then having a kind of mechanistic play with language, they can come up with something strange, but not with something deep necessarily. And so that's something that has a something to do with a kind of maturing relationship to technology. It's like the early days of electronic music when a lot of people thought, "Oh, every sound I make here is weird, therefore interesting." But it soon became clear that everyone else was making the same weird sounds, and they quickly became boring. And then the great composers who worked in the electronic medium produced great music. But the others produced nothing. And I think there is a little bit of the same relationship to that sort of access. At the same time, I was coming here earlier - and I'm giving this talk next week - and one little section of the talk involves Catullus, one particular song of his that was a translation of Sappho. And I was looking through my translations (and they're all terrible) of the Catullus. And so I went online, and I just found this astonishing - I put in "Catullus Carmina 51" into Firefox [laughs] - and I came up with this unbelievable, beautiful scholarship, Latin translations were available, etc. etc. It was a marvel. And so even with my ten thousand books, I couldn't have had that at hand. It was terrific.
That’s just it, isn’t it, in a nutshell? Granted these sentiments aren’t new, but they do bear repeating, and rethinking. Especially this:
“. . . a lot of the kids are kind of going on line to get particular algorithms for composition. And then they come up with something that's kind of weird and kind of interesting in a jazzy way. But it's just a construction. What they don't realize [is that] in doing that, and then having a kind of mechanistic play with language, they can come up with something strange, but not with something deep necessarily.”
Fracture and fragment and cut ups and dislocation and chance operations preceded the internet, but the internet has helped make them cool. Once upon a time, it was fairly difficult to do what can now be done easily, the way one can google search, rip text and paste-collage. You used to have to want to do it, now it seems it’s difficult not to do it. The question has been around a long, long time, from Word Search games to text substitution writing prompts. I’m ambivalent about it all. The problem: Yes, you can do it, and yes, it often looks cool and jumpy and wow, but why are you doing it? Is doing it just because you can, reason enough? What are you revealing? What are you exploring?
The answers to these questions are always going to be nuanced, of course, but still, there must be answers. Meaning (which Palmer side-steps naming explicitly) is such a wobbly concept, and the play of meaning has, by and large, only been legitimated at the level of the signifier, so play at the level of the signified is always suspect by the guardians of what is allowed (all those chatty types who write essays against the jittery tendencies of younger writers [but of course rhyme is OK, but what does rhyme mean? They never much bother to ask that…]).
OK, so that sounds kind of unwieldy, I know. And it can be argued that “algorithms of composition,” as well as other chance-predicated methods are still playing at the level of the signifier anyway, even if they treat the signifier as if it were the signified. It’s a difficult economy to work with, and even more difficult to explain to a hostile audience, as I’ve had to do a time or two. Even so, or even as Palmer himself has been accused by some to be without real depth, he’s right in bringing it up. It’s one thing to toss a bunch of stuff on the page, it’s quite another to mean something by doing it.
By the way, I’m not thinking of Palmer as a hostile audience (he’s anything but). I think he’s making an important distinction, a difficult one to pin down, but an important one.
Johannes Göransson has written about American Hybrid.
I like American Hybrid, myself, and wrote about it several times around the turn of the year. Here’s the conglomeration link [FYI: once you hit the link, you'll have to scroll down, as it's a search resuls link, and this post will be the first result], which includes an email from Cole Swensen regarding their selection process and the full text of her introduction, for reference.
One of the things Göransson gets to that really interests me is this paragraph:
Admittedly, there are many attitudes toward tradition in American poetry. While the idea of the “hybrid” goes back to modernism and the New Critics, it is not the only reaction to various alternative aesthetics to take hold in American poetry. Over the past three decades years, representatives of the Quietist aesthetic—who, need I mention, hold most tenure track jobs in Creative Writing and edit most poetry series and journals—have been digging in their heels to defend “traditional poetry,” by which they mean a watered-down version of Robert Bly and James Wright’s “deep image” poetry of the 1960s. These poets, writing increasingly dull and out of touch poetry, have used their positions of power to control and defend “traditional” poetry against perceived plots and excesses, publishing and rewarding the least offensive poetry available. The summit of this “tradition” is the famously homogenous Morrow Anthology of Younger Poets. For all its faults, American Hybrid is certainly a step forward from that morass.
One of the things that I think a lot about is the fight (often hidden) between aesthetic positions and generations in American poetry. So I want Göransson’s list of names. So often, when one is writing, it’s easy to toss a paragraph like this in (Tony Hoagland has made a stir recently by performing some wild generalizations, for instance) to stand for something that only the initiated can follow, or, perhaps more specifically, allows people to populate in their own fashion. Allowing a sort-of politeness, or deniability.
But what positions and journals is Göransson talking about? Certainly, for journals, he means these, off the top of my head (The list is much longer, but these can stand as general examples):
The Georgia Review
The Gettysburg Review
Tar River Poetry
Looking at them, which I do on occasion, one thing I don’t find is that they “have been digging in their heels to defend ‘traditional poetry,’ by which they mean a watered-down version of Robert Bly and James Wright’s “deep image” poetry of the 1960s.” I wish they were. I kind of liked the Robert Bly of Silence of the Snowy Fields, and the James Wright of The Branch Will Not Break. (Granted, not all Bly and Wright from those books, as they both exhibited a tendency toward a kind of sloppy sentimentality that has always grated on my nerves.) What I see, when I look at the above journals, is a prevalence of “readable texts” that have the appearance of autobiography, or pseudo autobiography, where “communication” of a learned or experienced “truth” is the goal of the poem, often ending in some highly sentimental, elegiac, image (epiphany). I believe this is the “Quietist” that Göransson mentions above, and that Ron Silliman put forward years ago, as a sort of place-holder, so that it could be talked about it as one thing?
I see this much less as an outgrowth of Bly and Wright than I see it as an outgrowth of the post-confessional generation(s): Levine, Kinnell, Olds, Dove, and on, including the touchstones of William Matthews, Tess Gallagher, Billy Collins, David Wojahn. These poets were hybrids themselves of several tendencies (including Bly and Wright), granted, but to place it on Bly and Wright makes it sound much more interesting than it’s turned out to be. What’s lacking in a lot of the poetry I read in these journals is specifically what Bly and Wright were attempting to foreground through image, a certain mystery and unconscious (or preconscious) connection between things. Instead, many of the poets I see in these journals trade that imagistic mystery for a kind of asserted, or verbal nodding to mystery. The poster child for this tendency could well be Matthew Dickman.
What I’m getting at, other than that, is really to agree with Göransson, by stressing that all poets are a hybrid of tendencies. The name American Hybrid, while great for marketing, isn’t very good for an actual definition of anything. It ignores and elides too much. On the other hand, I like the anthology itself very much. It includes a tremendous number of poets I admire. I just wish it had been presented differently. Or as part of a larger conversation.
Back to Göransson:
In her introduction, Swensen mentions that the original idea for the book was to make an anthology of younger poets, but that the editors changed midway through and made it mostly about the preceding generation. There may be many reasons for this, but one possible reason is that much of the most interesting poetry written by younger poets is patently excessive and in bad taste—whether crass flarf, hysterical gurlesque, angry political slogans, or aestheticist panic attacks—a radical move away from Quietism that has been fomented by the proliferation of small presses and Internet journals. A fuller look at American hybrid poetry would have to account for this phenomenon. Meanwhile, American Hybrid merely proves that “indeterminate” poetics has shaped the tradition, leaving it as high-minded and ambiguous as ever.
While not all flarf is “crass” and not all gurlesque is “hysterical,” there is a point to the fact that what once, a decade or so, could be called “Elliptical” can no longer be called so, as the first energy of many of the poets included in American Hybrid has fanned out into a proliferation of fascinating styles (some coming directly from poets included in American Hybrid, and some from other places entirely), which does point to the fact that there IS something of interest in having American Hybrid around. And maybe for close to the very reasons Swensen and St. John put it forward.
Looking at the last sentence from Göransson, above, I like “ambiguity,” but “high-minded” freaks me out. The “high-minded” moments in American Hybrid, and in poetry in general, seem a throwback to something essentialized, reductive. I want that to go away.
Well, do ya?
I spent most of yesterday, while doing the several things there are to do in a day when one has children, thinking about the back and forth about the new consulting firm that’s been created to assist people in applying to graduate programs in creative writing (I’m not posting any links because links seemed to be flying all over the place yesterday. Best just to say, if you don’t know about them, it’s just as well.). I don’t teach in an MFA or PhD program. I did go through an MFA program and a PHD program, however. While there, I didn’t think about graduate program rankings and all that. I was pretty clueless about, what one might call “The Big Picture,” or what others might call “The Scene.” In many respects I still am. I have this kind-of “just work on the art and forget about everything else because wondering or worrying about everything else will lead you down a cynical path that will come back to damage your art” notion that has kept me, by and large, from most all the opportunities out there. Needless to say, this is not my best topic.
But now that I teach undergraduates, I have to make it my topic. Mostly I think I give them the advice that I imagine we all give: look for the program that might be best for you (which for different people means different things: do you want to work on a literary magazine? Do you want to work with a poet somewhat like yourself? Is location really that important to you?), which might not be the program that other people rank as “the best,” in general (My version of “the best” in anything has never been what others consider the best. I imagine that’s the same for everyone?) Apply to as many programs as you can afford to apply to. Work on your writing sample (but please don’t do it cynically [this really makes me cringe, the pressure people feel to do something that they think will be impressive, and how damaging that might be to their art, even taking into consideration that “experimenting” and “modeling” are important ways to find out things…]). Don’t sound crazy in your Statement of Purpose.
I think what depressed me yesterday was the fact that a consulting firm seems to be necessary for what one really should be able to do for oneself, especially if one comes from a place where one has taken creative writing classes already (so one has—hopefully—modeled the behavior or both portfolio and SOP). I doubt a consulting firm will do anyone any real harm, though. At least no more harm than talking with anyone about one’s work (which, of course, could potentially do one a lot of harm). And if one has some money to spend (I think the amount mentioned is $250 or so?), then that’s their business. This consulting firm is doing what creative writing teachers do already for their students. It’s odd, though, to see a price tag on something I do as part of my job. It makes me feel underpaid.
I can envision that there are good candidates for a consulting firm for MFA or PHD admission out there. If a student has a difficult relationship with the person or people that student would have to work with at their school to put an application together, for instance—or if a prospective graduate student has been out of school for a time, and doesn’t feel comfortable going back to talk to people there (or if they've all retired or are in Europe or crazy or _______), perhaps these prospective graduate students would be more comfortable paying strangers for guidance.
Hmm, which gets me thinking. I’ll tell you what. For $20 I’ll tell you if a consulting firm is right for you.
Speaking of reviews, Stephen Burt likes a couple of books I also like, by two people I know fairly well. Well, I’ve driven around Columbus with Angie Estes, and published her poems several times, and I’ve written a manuscript with G.C., so I’m not exactly an objective source, therefore, rather than have me talk glowingly about them, I’ll just reprint the short Burt reviews from the New York Times (and you can go buy their books, if you've haven't already):
By G. C. Waldrep.
Tupelo, paper, $16.95.
Waldrep’s title denotes an antique keyboard instrument with 24, or many more, keys per octave. Notoriously hard to play, such instruments made subtle and challenging music, with notes a conventional score could not include. Waldrep’s sometimes bewildering, often exciting prose poems make their own unconventional music, replete with slippages, repetitions, suggestions: “Every sound is tropical, every sound is perishable,” he writes. “My aunt sends one wrapped in butcher paper & string.” Most poems take quizzical titles from musical terms (“What Is a Threnody,” “What Is a Motet”), and most take rhetorical gifts from Gertrude Stein; yet Waldrep’s poems, far more than Stein’s, revel in the variety of their subjects. Some include clear scenes and characters, as when the poet helps a boy cross a cold road: “we walked slowly, because he was not yet done with being five.” The poet also leavens his intricate compositions with self-consciously playful asides: “Nothing is what it appears to be, I say. To which you reply, yes it is.” Waldrep (who studied the labor movement for his Ph.D. in American history) attends to the meaning of work, to the hardships of lives unlike his own: “Who Was Scheherazade” begins “My job was to pick rocks.” Yet his great triumphs combine such outward sympathies with self-conscious attention to inward oddities, to fleeting thoughts, to the vectors of energy in abstract words: “If I subtract sacrifice from appetite from what fierce attention do I then compromise a strict union, have I faltered, have I made an argument for grace.”
By Angie Estes.
Oberlin College, paper, $15.95.
Gleeful and gorgeous, delighted by puns and other wordplay (including words from French, Latin and Italian), Estes’s fast-paced free verse, rich with internal rhyme, takes rightful pride in the beauties it flaunts and explains. Her fourth collection finds, for recurrent motifs, saints’ lives, medieval manuscripts, gold leaf and the alphabet: “hearts bloom / out of Ds like lamb chop sleeves / in the script of the fifteenth-century / scribe”; in a gilded Book of Hours, “the letters / have fallen out of the words and lie / scattered on the ground.” Each deft poem weaves together multiple topics — some art-historical, others autobiographical — through chains of homonyms and knotty analogies: “Take Cover” skates from the French “couvre feu, cover the fire” (the origin for our word “curfew”) to disheveled bedcovers and 1950s-style duck-and-cover drills. Though Estes revels in European reference (Dante, Trieste, Greta Garbo), her matchless hunger for experience makes her indelibly American: “how the tongue / keeps lapping the world’s / loot,” she exclaims, “even in the 499th lap / of the Indy 500.” The arts — from Cimabue’s painting to haute cuisine — are for Estes never mere luxuries; rather, the arts, and our pride in them, give us the only effective countermeasures to loneliness, helplessness and serious pain. And pain — remembered or feared — is always somewhere: “So Near Yet So Far” connects a lunar eclipse, a film starring Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth, a concept from high-energy plasma physics and “the necklace / of pearls my father bought my mother / for their forty-fifth wedding / anniversary, which she made him / take back.”
OK, so I liked The Rumpus even before I heard that there’s a review of my book going up today. It’s not always about me . . . well . . . not always . . .
Here’s a review of Rachel Loden’s Dick of the Dead, by D.A. Powell, for instance:
Here’s a snippet:
“Her Nixon is a fallen monument, an apparition who stalks the grounds of the Whitehouse; who sits with his head “like a Rushmore in space” awaiting his ultimate pardon. Later, he is a bauble, a plastic man inside a snowglobe “while hoodoo snow is falling.” Loden’s Nixon is the crooked leader for whom I grew nostalgic, as the eight torturous years of the Bush regime raged on like an unchecked virus. Deeply human, deeply flawed, he is the most tragic figure ever to appear on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.”
(That was the famous “Sock it to ME?” bit, above)
And since I’m on the subject of D.A. Powell, there’s an interview with him up at Shark Forum:
Here’s a snippet:
One evening David and I were on one of our typical long phone conversations, and the subject of memoirs came up. I joked that I had been toying with the idea of writing a memoir by lifting sentences from other people's memoirs. David laughed but then he got quiet and his tone turned serious. "You know, that's a really great idea," he said. "Yes," I replied, "but when would I have the time? I'd get bogged down after the first sentence." We talked about a few other things, then David came back to the idea: "Would you do it as a collaboration?"