Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Karla Kelsey on The New [Daily] Thing

This was the email Karla Kelsey sent from The Constant Critic a week or so ago, that I’ve just now found time to read:

“This week I essay into the poetry of the everyday, taking Brian Henry's Wings Without Birds along for the ride. I've come to think that the everyday has become the poetry realm du jour and that not all speakers have been equally invited to this party.”

I was immediately intrigued.

She starts off by contrasting Henry’s new book from his previous two.  She writes:

In contrast, the speaker of Wings Without Birds does not feel fictive in the least and readers will likely think themselves ridiculously indoctrinated into New Critical workshop etiquette if they call the entity voicing the poems “the speaker” rather than “the poet himself” speaking as the poet himself. The book, dedicated to Henry’s family, moodily circles around domesticity and domicile, directly addressing family members as in: “Daughter who tells me the hills are a moon” (“In the Neighborhood of Horses”). In these poems Henry names, by proper name, his wife “Tara, sleep-nursing” (“Wings Without Birds”) and dispenses with pretense, bringing to the surface the fact that the writer of these poems is writing poems. Henry directly addresses the reader at times, and also directly addresses other poets such as Tomaž Šalamun, a poet who Henry, Šalamun’s translator, obviously knows. We may, of course, remember that all written I’s are precisely that, written, and therefore naturally papery-versions of ourselves with all the fictive qualities this entails. But this book overtly challenges the eye-diverting decorum we develop when we talk “speaker” instead of “poet,” inviting us to read this poetry as work that puts the stuff of nonfiction at stake.


She then goes on to talk about his three books, which leads her to some larger observations of what she sees going on in contemporary American poetry.  She writes:

Our culture’s continued and ever-entrenched fascination with everyday life hardly asks for remark, for status updates and tweets create an everyday that constantly comments upon itself. As such, writing has become integral to the digestive practice of everyday life. As pre-factory farming cows once stood in their fields grazing on grass to digest, re-digest, and digest yet again only to shit out fertilizer for more grazing, more digesting, many of us suffer the everyday kindly only insofar as it provides fodder for texting, tweeting, facebooking. Which in turn informs our cooking, eating, walking, talking, reading writing (etcetera) habits, fingers twitching for keyboard and keys. Given this obsession with articulating the everyday, it is no surprise that the best-selling genre is non-fiction, and documentary modes of entertainment have superseded the overtly fictional.

As such, it should not be a surprise that much of what is attended to in contemporary poetry responds to this interest in the everyday. The everyday and its attendant mixture of detritus and significance hovers behind the following much-remarked upon modes of contemporary poetry. First, we have the following project-oriented manifestations:

•Conceptual Writing (from such forefathers as Duchamp and Warhol we arrive at, for example, Kenneth Goldsmith’s Weather, Fidget, Day, etc))

•Flarf (we would be hard pressed to find a source more daily than the internet)

•Documentary poetics (many of which push at our assumptions of whose everyday we intend when we employ the term: see projects such as C.D. Wright’s One Big Self and Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary)

In addition, we find trends accentuating the everyday in a manner that corresponds more immediately to the lyric tradition such as:

•The poetry of motherhood (see the anthologies Not For Mothers Only: Contemporary Poems on Child-Getting and Child-Rearing, edited by Catherine Wagner and Rebecca Wolff and The Grand Permission: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood edited by Patricia Dienstfrey and Brenda Hillman along with recent books by such writers as Rachel Zucker, Julie Carr, Eleni Sikelianos, and Laynie Browne.)

•Poetry written from the lineage of the Objectivists, of Williams and of Creeley, as opposed to the lineage of Stevens.

In recent essays published in the Boston Review Stephen Burt promotes both of these last two trends, employing in “Smothered to Smithereens” the work of Rachel Zucker to exemplify the poetry of motherhood. In “The New Thing” Burt promotes the work of contemporary writers such as Rae Armantrout, Graham Foust, Devin Johnston, and Jon Woodward to exemplify a trend in contemporary poetry that pursues compression, compact description, humility, restricted diction, and—despite their frequent skepticism—fidelity to a material and social world. They follow Williams’s “demand,” as the critic Douglas Mao 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.

Such writing attends to the things of the everyday, accentuating fidelity to the texture of life as it is lived, as opposed to the imagined life. The supreme importance of fidelity to life “actually” lived, rather than imagined, is exemplified by Armantrout’s statement that she uses material from her dreams, but would not feel comfortable making up dreams. As such, poets of the New Thing zero in on the landscape of contemporary objects as they are experienced, as opposed to the interior landscape of the self.

While the intensity of our fascination with everyday life feels particular to this contemporary moment, discourse on “everyday life” is itself nothing new. Everyday life studies blossomed in France during the 60s and 70s, Henri Lefebvre’s Critique de la vie quotidienne dates from 1947, and anthologists track predecessors back to surrealists (see Michael Sheringham’s Everyday Life) and to Freud (see Ben Highmore’s The Everyday Life Reader). And, although such study has deep roots, theorists are far from over such concerns. As Sheringham notes, “the period between 1960 and 1980 is a phase of active, if often invisible, invention and the period from 1980 to 2000 (and beyond) a phase of practice, variation, and dissemination” (14). I bring this point up because I think it provides intellectual context for contemporary poetry’s fascination with the everyday and deepens the stakes of its pursuit. At their best, writers pursuing everyday life have the ability to challenge the status quo and effect change. As such, it deeply matters whether or not, as a contemporary poet, you are invited to participate in the poetics of the everyday.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the everyday vis-à-vis contemporary poetry is the tension it brings to the surface surrounding the concept of subjectivity. Notice that there has been the most hype around poetry of the everyday that eschews lyric subjectivity: Conceptual Poetry, Flarf, and Documentary Poetry are built on a rejection of such sensibility. Furthermore, on the lyric end of the spectrum not just any kind of speaker is invited to talk about his or her subjective experience (by which I mean emotionally, physically and intellectually embodied) of the everyday. Poets writing from a still-marginal position (such as that of motherhood) can pull off speakers who engage in the everyday as needing, wanting, proclaiming subjectivities. We even like it when they tell us their secrets and get pissed off.

Not so the speaker who comes from the position of power we associate with non-mothering, straight, white, middle class culture which of course includes men but also women when they aren’t mothering, or when they aren’t featuring their mothering roles. If you read Burt’s essay on the “New Thing” you will notice that he is careful to note that poets of the “New Thing,” most of whom write from this position, are interested in objects in the world—not in the subject that apprehends them. One of the traits of New Thing poets is that subjective emotion is so submerged that Burt notes that readers will likely have to re-read such poetry to pick up their affect. For example, “We may have to reread to see, amid these scenes, the grief (for Woodward’s dead friend Patrick) that guides the whole book.” Indeed, the New Thing poets of the everyday are interested not in interiors but in what they can clearly see before them. Subjectivity, it seems, for these speakers, is off-limits.


So Kelsey raises some fascinating questions. Are we leaving a period where Stevens (through Ashbery, perhaps?) loomed large? And are we then entering a period where William Carols Williams (through whom? Perhaps Armantrout? Or perhaps in a different aesthetic, Kay Ryan?) will loom large?

Or (in a more controversial way of saying it [in some quarters, at least]) are we in a period where experimental writing is folding itself into the more daily aspects of what poets were largely attempting in the 1970s? (Which is: will it be shades of WCW [Spring & All] or shades of Robert Lowell [Life Studies]? In the way that Lowell also claimed William Carols Williams as a model of how to break free from New Formalism?)

Or, in another different way of saying it: If LANGUAGE poetry can be called a kind of formal writing, writing in forms [which I believe Ron Silliman does?] is conceptual writing or experimental writing or whatever you want to call it starting to move closer to the very sort of pseudo-biographical writing with which LANGUAGE writing was in direct opposition?

Now that would be funny, if we ended up there! (Even if we largely never left [but that's an ongoing argument].) (This has been the conversation of American Hybrid, right? To keep the distance of conceptual writing, but to add the nearness of daily life? Can subjectivity be far behind? Or was subjectivity well ahead? Should we blame DNA?)

Not that any of the books Kelsey talks about look anything at all like Lowell, by the way.  But what I'm thinking about is, in the strand of poetry Kelsey is reading, what will come next.  Is it on a trajectory?  And what might this trajectory be? Away from Ashbery, perhaps, and toward Schuyler?  But, as in any period in American poetry, many things are happening at the same time. And many things will continue to happen.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Skittery Poem of Our Moment, Open for Your Pleasure

The Skittery Poem of Our Moment, Open for Your Pleasure . . .

The Yurtmaster:

So the call went out and several people replied with “The Yurtmaster / The Yurt Master” poems. Noah Eli Gordon was the first to send one (or the second, as Colin Sheldon, as the administrator, has the first poem up). There are more to come (every other day or so, I think?). Who will they be? Did you send one? If not, I hear you can write one and send it to:

And it will be considered. “It has nine entrances but only four exits. It dresses warmly in case of snow,” Sheldon says.

Here’s your chance to contribute to the skittery poem of our moment. Pick up your yurt and go.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Norma Cole TO BE AT MUSIC: Essays & Talks (Omnidawn 2010)

Norma Cole TO BE AT MUSIC: Essays & Talks (Omnidawn 2010)

Norma Cole’s essays and talks work less as trajectory than by accretion. This might frustrate a certain kind of reading, one looking for a direct thesis and development structure, but for those ready for a tour of thinking, which includes points and examples, this will be a rewarding read. I wish more essays were written in this style. Three exerpts:


Improvisation and progression are development, orienting each other. Development, which is motion, is involved with preference. Preference is involved with subjectivity and direction and creates expectation. Writing is involved with movement, development, subjectivity, preference and direction. Subjectivity, which does not depend on pronouns, occurs in movement, development, writing and preference.

Improvisation and progression, their motion, include rupture, discontinuity. Discontinuity is startling, shatters expectation. The questions become how great a surprise can you tolerate and how small a surprise can you register? Linkages, not always lineages, like lists and like submerged autonomic systems, have direction.


Oppen writes another, slightly different version of this explanation to his friend Julian Zimer, where the reference to the relationship between writing and family life, or more specifically, parental responsibility, is foregrounded:

“Julian: there were only some fifteen years that political loyalties prevented me from writing poetry. After that I had to wait for Linda to grow up. Yes: the poem says I don’t like to die. Papa couldn’t say it: Buddy [Oppen’s nickname] says it. Go lean on someone else.”

Go lean on someone else. Here is a glimpse of the fathomless crack between the biography and the life, between Papa and Buddy/George Oppen/Poet. This split is related to the startling moment where Mallarmé inscribes a copy of the sumptuous limited edition of L’Après-midi d’un Faune (“The Afternoon of a Faun”), illustrated by Manet, to his young son Anatole:

“à ’tole,

“ne le déchire pas

“Stéphane Mallarmé”

“To ’tole, don’t tear it, Stéphane Mallarmé.” The intimate nickname, the paternal finger raised in warning, the formal signature of the poet, all on the same page. There will be a time in the future of both these parent/poets where these distinctions blur. For Mallarmé, this will occur after his son’s death.

For George Oppen, there have been things he cannot imagine saying to his daughter. For instance, “Go lean on someone else.” From a crossed-out paragraph, “some ideas are not politically useful, or useful to the childhood of a daughter.” (Selected Letters 66)

But the poem will not abide such restrictions. There is a statement of this law with which many of us are already familiar. This is where Jack Spicer says, in his first Vancouver Lecture, 1965: “Like if you want to say something about your beloved’s eyebrows and the poem says the eyes should fall out, and you don’t really want the eyes to fall out or have any vague connection. Or you’re trying to write a poem about Vietnam and you write a poem about skating in Vermont.”

Curiously, in a letter from 1963, Oppen, responding to Gil Sorrentino, writes, “I haven’t read Spicer but I will.” Immediately following is a letter to Denise Levertov in which Oppen writes: “There are things we believe, or would like to believe, or think we believe, which ‘will not substantiate themselves in the concrete materials of the poem.’” (SL 81)

The asocial radicality claimed by and for poetry is explicit in the work of Oppen’s contemporary, Lorine Niedecker . . .


The state had come to us fragmentary. Our writing was unavoidable.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Elegance of Timothy Donnelly's The Cloud Corporation

I’ve been reading Timothy Donnelly’s The Cloud Corporation over the last couple weeks. What strikes me first about his work is its elegance. It’s a Wallace Stevens sort of elegance, an elegance and eloquence that is apparent both in its rhetoric and image. And in that, there’s a distance that is marked off from the subject that brings the poems again and again closer to the idea than the thing . . . the theory that lays itself over reality. It’s captivating, as thinking of, as Tony Hoagland calls it, the “skittery” poems of our time, these poems appear as, well, not skittery, even as they enact the sort of roaming mindset that one would think would manifest as skittery. It’s not a book to rush through. And, happily, I still have a section to go. It still gets to be new for a while. Nice. Here’s an example:

Timothy Donnelly

The comparison only went so far: the suffering
from which we had come to expect so much
remained mere suffering; the swamp due south

to which we had thought to compare it in our youth
stayed water choked in excess life, its voices
thoughtlessly forcing the same plump syllables

across the distance into windows furred with night.
But here in the room where we sit thinking that
if suffering had to enter our house, it should have

been the kind that sang, or else the kind from which
small shapes would zoom and circle the light
hanging in the middle of the room like a thought

whose fifteen petals open and whose opening we become
custodian to, here in the lotus of half-sleep, I am
beginning to forget where a comparison falls short.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Mary Jo Bang's Location / Dislocation

Mary Jo Bang’s poetry is both specific and elusive, playfully serious or seriously playful. I’m continually fascinated by the way her poetry is able to contain these kinds of moves, where location and dislocation can share the stage equally and to powerful (ephemeral?) effect.

Here’s an example from her most recent book The Bride of E. You can see the play and locationing / dislocationing from the title of the poem on (Is it “consider this corruption” as in “consider THIS thing here as corruption” or is it “consider this corruption” as in “consider this corruption here before us” is the poem the site of the corruption or the chronicle of the corruption?  Or is it both?  Nice.  )


In the film concerning the cult of the living,
The woman was taken.
Some people looked at her and said nothing
And some said one interpretation is that

All action is in the mind, a cluster of notions
In depravity’s head independent of the dreadful
Invention of the magnetic temporary where
A partition is positioned between right and wrong.

On the back of the partition,
On the aspect from which she and we are reading,
It is written: Everyone is reckless sometime.
What will come next? There is no worse punishment

Is there than this other empty body:
             The eyes half-closed, the canvas in back
whitewashed into a steady gaze. We are appalled
apparently. We are held up by a rug-covered table.

The gift is the effortless image of bent rebar lengths
Encircling a neck. Thank you.
We are for all intents and purposes broken.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Gaming the Future of Education

Yes, but once the box is open, you're going to have to wear it.

Is technology going to destroy the field of education (as we know it), and lead to the end of teachers? Ah, such a fun question for the start of another fall semester.

The following video just barely touches on the education tie-in, but it’s still a very good overview of the next phase of where technology is taking us. The last layer was the social media layer, the next layer will be the gaming layer. And it’s being built, here's a glimpse:

By now, we're used to letting Facebook and Twitter capture our social lives on the web -- building a "social layer" on top of the real world. At TEDxBoston, Seth Priebatsch looks at the next layer in progress: the "game layer," a pervasive net of behavior-steering game dynamics that will reshape education and commerce.

And then this, from the article “Games without Frontiers” from the September issue of DISCOVER:

Q: As games get more flexible and interactive, what kind of new goals and applications do you foresee?

Tiffany Barnes: I would say that in the future we’re going to see gamelike frameworks around more and more things we do. People will manage their lives more in a sort of gamelike structure: “OK, this week I want to spend this long working out and this long hanging out with my friends, and I need to go to work, and I need to do this, that, and the other thing,” and I’m going to play a little game that manages all that and gives me point for doing the things that I said I wanted to do. Or when I take a class, I’m not going to sit in a lecture anymore; I’m going to do different experiences that the teacher has arranged for me and assigned points to, to let me know which things are important for me to do.

For a teacher, this could mean arranging a class in a game kind of structure and not just plopping down in front of the students and giving them a book and saying, “Read this” and “Do this test.” Instead we might have teachers saying, “Oh, here’s a bunch of quests you can do, and here’s the points for every one, and here’s how everybody else is doing.” Then I can play and learn, and it’s no longer some tedious thing that I’m doing because someday I need to get a degree so I can get a job.

Q: Jim, you have talked a lot about the historical roots of interactive education. Why is it taking off now?

Jim Bower: About 600 years ago, we invented a technology, the printing press, that had a substantial effect on the structure of universities. And they love each other, right? We also invented professors. It all worked great and solved the scalability problem. We had a small number of people who knew something and who wanted a larger number of people of people to believe what they believed. Well, gaming technology addresses the scaling problem in a completely different way. It actually solves the scaling problem. So I can simultaneously educate thousands, hundreds of thousands of kids, with them doing it themselves. It allows self-education, which is really how humans learn anyway.

Already, at 34 minutes per log-in, our kids are doing more science on Whyville than they’re doing in middle school. One thing to remember is that brick-and-mortar schools and the current structure of education have not been around very long. Another thing is that it doesn’t work very well. Maybe the thing that will be most disrupted by what we’re talking about—beyond media, beyond finance, beyond everything else—is education. It’s kind of already happening. I think video or games are a way to play educationally and learn, and that’s actually how we learn. So we finally have the technology to learn the way we really learn.

+ + +

I’m fascinated, and, of course, terrified as well. If such ideas fall first to the hands of our elected officials, I can see how they might take this to pushing us into a completely online teaching environment. But, on the other hand, if educators are the ones who run with it first, there’s the possibility of something really interesting happening. I have this glimpse of students off on these quests, getting their points and such, and then coming together in face-to-face discussion groups, so that the teacher becomes less of a gate-keeper (assessor) and more of a coach (guide). I would like that.

So, here are some homework questions: Is this happening now, as they suggest above? At Princeton? In middle school? If so, what are people doing? How might a humanities course be structured in this new environment? How about a creative writing class?

Because this is who they think they want, right?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Neil Young - Le Noise (the second video)

Here’s another video from the upcoming (Sept 28) album from Neil Young:

Neil Young
Le Noise

This song was first performed (I think?) back in 1992, a bit slower, and on acoustic guitar. And without the last verse. Sometimes he holds onto a song for 18 years . . .

The reviews I've seen so far have been very positive.  Saying some version of "his best album in years."  That may be true, but it's still quite a ways away from being one of his best albums. 

My criticism from the other day still stands. As big and textured as the guitar sound is, it still feels like it’s lacking something in the mix. Percussion would help. Is that a drum at his feet in this video? Was it put there just to taunt me?

But that brings up an interesting question about reception. I have many albums of solo acoustic guitar and a singer, so why am I feeling that when the singer changes to electric, the solo performance isn’t enough? Well, I’m trying to keep an open mind. And I still wish Neil Young would spend more time on his lyrics, though this one seems to me a step above the rest of the album.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Let's Play Telephone


This was one of the most interesting things I’ve ever been a part of. I’m ecstatic about how it turned out. Five poems from the German poet Uljana Wolf, each translated as many as twelve times, and no two alike (as, at least in my case, I really only know one German word: Schadenfreude. It’s very useful.). It’s not only good reading, it’s also a journey into language. It’s a rabbit hole that’s well worth falling into.

If you're in the area:

Friday • 7:30pm - 9:30pm
Triple Canopy
177 Livingston Street
Brooklyn, NY

I'll be phoning it in. 



bet / t


by Uljana Wolf
translated by Mary Jo Bang

we start with soon and end with soon a second time; meanwhile, our hair at best cannot be held, not in nor of itself, nor can it be grasped in the hand of good or bad. instead in the morning on the way up the mountain (nehmen sie eine wette an) and at night aus bett heraus (see adv. for in what way) you can reasonably hold it as you would a hedgehog caught and conquered, similarly that single long strand found in a letter you can for a moment and with impunity press it against your cheek.

Neil Young - Le Noise (Early Peek)

True to form, Neil Young remains fascinating. And I'm looking forward to hearing the full album that NPR is hoping to stream from Sept 20 - 28. I hope that happens.

So, three songs from it are circulating already. “Walk with Me,” “Love and War,” and “Angry World.” The Lanois treatment is a definite plus. Musically they're complex and rather beautiful. I'm still finding myself cringing at a lot of the lyrics, but with the ambient-ish elements so, well, elemental, I can't help but be quite charmed by it, though it is definitely hurt by a lack of percussion.

It might not be quite the "best album in decades" that Bob Boylen says, but it’s certainly the most interesting album since Sleeps with Angels.

Here’s the video for “Angry World”:

Other tracks can be heard here:

“Love and War” and “Walk with Me”:

“Walk with Me”:

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Where The Answers Don’t Matter, But The Conversation Does

Some questions are simply more difficult than others.

The Huffington Post (the new it-website for poetry? [should we be afraid?]) posed these questions:

Is American poetry at a dead-end?

Have American poets betrayed the great legacy of modernism? Why or why not?

What worries you about the present moment in poetry?

Do you see signs of life?

Where is the most promising work coming from?

What is your advice to a young poet trying to make sense of the current poetry scene?

Of these poets:

Clayton Eshleman
Annie Finch
Ron Silliman
Danielle Pafunda

And then posted the answers here:

The following poets have also contributed to the debate (the piece continues), and you will be reading their views in future installments:

Campbell McGrath
Kevin Prufer
Akilah Oliver
Elaine Equi
Chad Prevost
Cathryn Hankla
Martha Rhodes
Sidney Wade
Ben Lerner
Alfred Corn
Cynthia Cruz
Julie Carr
Wayne Miller
Anna Rabinowitz
Maxine Chernoff
Claudia Keelan
Rebecca Seiferle
Hadara Bar-Nadav
Shelley Puhak
Raymond McDaniel
Jane Satterfield
Becca Klaver
Catherine Wagner

The answer is out there. If only we have the right question.

One of the things I find interesting about these lists of poets is that they’re not the “usual suspects” of such lists and such questions (a couple of them I’ve never heard of, which is always interesting). But then again, looking at the questions asked, I’m not sure if I’m going to tune back in to see what they all say. These questions say something about what’s on the mind of whom exactly?

Opinions are like t-shirts.

“Is American poetry at a dead-end?”

Do poets ask themselves this question? Should they? Or is this the type of question that comes from places like The Huffington Post? I mean, isn’t art always at a dead end, and not, at the same time? Because, even if it is it isn’t, as there’s always a strand of what’s happening (even if it’s not noticed by most readers) that changes things. And that seems to be the general thrust of the answers so far. What other answer can there be? Yes? No? Let’s have popcorn and find out?

“Have American poets betrayed the great legacy of modernism? Why or why not?”

So, are these questions to get at the heart of the matter, or to try to get people to say things that will start a fight? Someone says POETRY IS AT A DEAD END! And then someone else can say YOU PINHEAD REACTIONARY! HOW CAN SOMETHING AS DIVERSE AS POETRY BE AT A SINGULAR DEAD END? Anyway, I don’t remember there being a contract that poets had to sign saying they’d never betray modernism. I agree the legacy is great, as a lot of my favorite poems were written by these poets, but as many or more of my favorite poems have been written since, and very few poems I’ve seen since modernism look just like modernism. Our poems no longer look like their poems. For better? For worse? Things change out of necessity, as new people join the conversation. Better and worse are beside the point. No matter what the answer is, it’s a reification of the past we’re dealing in with such a question. What do you do with a period that had MAKE IT NEW and IT MUST CHANGE as major statements?

“What worries you about the present moment in poetry?”

So is this series going to be the spark of the moment? Maybe it will. But what worries me (though no one is asking), first, is the propensity for people to ask this question. Beyond that, it’s all about distribution, isn’t it? If all people hear about poetry is what they hear from NPR, then they’re going to get a very lopsided idea of what’s being written these days (one that, in my mind at least, keeps them at a distance from the most interesting things that are going on). But that’s not feisty enough. This question wants one to level accusations against the MFA degree or The Poetry Foundation or something, right? It makes me wonder if these questions are less about dialogue and more about starting the kind of disagreement that gets a long comment stream going.

“Do you see signs of life?” / “Where is the most promising work coming from?”

These are good ones. They get the respondents to say things they like. And, in a way, The Huffington Post itself, in devoting space to a conversation on poetry, WWF as it is in tone, is a sign of life. It shows someone cares enough to notice, and that’s a good thing.

“What is your advice to a young poet trying to make sense of the current poetry scene?”

And this last question is one that always gets a lot of people to get interested, for everyone interested in writing poetry or interested in reading poetry, are interested in the creative process, the HOW TO aspect of the art . . . even as the answers are always going to be variations on: ignore as much of the "business" as you can get away with, read a lot of poetry, write a lot of poetry and prose, and live a lot, and pay attention a lot.

Has American yarn betrayed the great legacy of modernism?

From what I’ve read so far, the respondents are interesting enough. Clayton Eshleman is worried about MFA programs, Annie Finch thinks that form and meter is increasingly hip, Ron Silliman is the most positive, seeing hundreds of good young poets out there, and Danielle Pafunda sees a positive plenitude, but is worried about the “70% men : 30% women publishing ratio, and the equally/even more disturbing ratios for race, class, disability, LGBTQ, and any other marked category we can imagine.”

I’ve seen that “70% men : 30% women publishing ratio” cited before, but when I go to the journals I like and the publishers I like, it’s nothing like that (it’s really close to 50/50, sometimes tilting male, sometimes female). The only thing I can figure is that there are other journals and presses out there that I don’t pay attention to, that publish a massive amount of poetry by males that I don’t pay attention to. I do know that someone said that about either [journal name deleted] or [journal name deleted], when I was talking to them at AWP, but as I don’t read those journals, I can’t check. I hope the above ratios turn out to be incorrect. If they are correct, then, well, we really do have a problem.

I yearn for simpler times when the answer was always "go green"

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Jennifer Moxley and the Canon

Approximations 1, MaJo Keleshian

Jennifer Moxley’ Clampdown reads something like an anthology of the last 100 years of American poetry, as she shifts between modes and voices, sometimes in a chatty, post-New York School, way, as some poems even proclaim “after James Schuyler” or “after John Ashbery.” But just as present is the voice and style of much earlier poets like E.A. Robinson, as she writes of Robert Creeley and for Robert Kelly, with epigraphs from figures as diverse as Jack Spicer and Blake (and the above mentioned Robinson). There’s even a long poem in seven sections “written while looking at seven paintings by MaJo Keleshian.”

Unified? Not hardly. But neither is it schizophrenic. All in all, it’s an impossible book to pin down, and that fascinates me. Below is an example of what I mean.

How to describe this poem? It seems to owe as much to Wallace Stevens as it does to Jack Gilbert (interesting the number of male examples surrounding this book). Is this what we mean by a hybrid aesthetic? Probably. But yikes, in a way, as well, the ways this book, wherever one opens it, seems like a completely different thing. Above all else, Clampdown seems to be asking a question of form and voice, and the answer it comes to is one that is against the unitary aesthetic.  Again, I'm fascinated.


and I cannot choose to remember you.
I remember the look on Nurse Diesel’s
face as she ate her fruit cup, a slight moustache
dusting her lip, in Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety,
but I cannot remember a single spoon
entering your mouth. I have near perfect
recall of the “Grotesque Old Woman” hanging
in the National Gallery, and the sleek coats
of Stubbs’ horses, with their high-strung eyes
rolling back in their heads against the walls
of the old Tate, but of your similar ocular dramas
I have no adequate picture. In moldering
snapshots you’re there, but you aren’t.
A level emotion provoked by an image,
hollow and shameful, like an orgasm
coaxed from a dispassionate body,
a cruel exploitation of instinct.
Antiseptic odorless visual memory, it
works with art and film, but becomes
mere tedious unfolding of things: which is,
via the photo album, a self-justifying
story shown without drama to eyes
from which politeness has driven the life.
Would that there were no photographs.
A documentary impulse driven by millennial
fears or spiritual unrest. Today’s maladies.
They cannot compete with the irreducible,
gentle eddy of wind, the familiar
sweetness which seems to recapture
several lost lifetimes, illusory maybe,
but possessed by the quality, most lovely,
of evanescence. A beautiful privacy
belonging to no one, not even the skin
it thoughtlessly taunts into shivers
of pleasure. Art stops change, and thus
we can see it. My own face is less clear
to me than the faces of a thousand starlets
immortalized upon the screen. What will I
see the next time I see it, mirror-reflected,
busy with hygienic chores? I will see
something, fear perhaps, or the denial
of change, but I will not see what others
see, nor will a picture make a difference.

Friday, September 03, 2010

In which Tony Hoagland applauds Lyn Hejinian’s Poetry

From this distance, you can't tell where the paint was re-touched.

In the “A for Effort” category, we have Tony Hoagland’s interesting and problematic model:

For Hoagland to achieve the sort of largesse he’s attempting as an observer of contemporary poetry, he has to figure out how to talk about that type of poetry that he’s both drawn to and repulsed by, and he’s been trying to write his way into it for quite awhile now.

Here’s the frame:


…one by Wordsworth, one by Stevens:

type a: Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.

type b: The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully.

These two assertions, though not opposed, place distinctly different emphases on the function of poetry. The first description, Wordsworth’s, suggests that poetry is a means of gaining perspective on primary experience: powerful emotions can be gathered, then dynamically relived, translated, and digested in the controlled laboratory of the poem—by proxy, such a poem also constructs perspective for the reader.

In contrast, Stevens’s description implies that the poem and the reader engage in a sort of muscular struggle with each other—that struggle is how they become intimate, how they really “know” each other. Stevens suggests that a good poem, as part of its process, resists, twists, and enmeshes the reader (and perhaps the poet as well), an engagement in which perspective is challenged, and by no means guaranteed.


I don’t want to trouble the waters too much at the onset, but I have to mention that there’s a problem with using the Stevens in this way, as Stevens’s assertion here doesn’t necessarily have to do with the reader at all. “The intelligence” can have as much to do with the writer, on the one hand, and, on the other, the intelligence is not the totality of the reader, which is: The reader is not being resisted, just the intelligence. I think that’s an important distinction. It’s not the writer vs the reader here, but the imagination vs the intelligence.

And, thinking a little further, as he's saying this Type A poetry takes "recollected in tranquility" as its entry point, is Hoagland getting close to theorizing Ron Silliman's "Quietude"? 

But, after that, I’m fascinated by Hoagland’s journey and I applaud his tenacity. But what do we have to say about this essay, though? Is he spot on, or does he miss the mark. Hoagland observes:


What do we, as readers, want from a poem? On the one hand, plenty of poetry readers are alive and well who want to experience a kind of clarification; to feel and see deeply into the world that they inhabit, to make or read poetry that “helps you to live,” that characterizes and clarifies human nature. To scoff at this motivation for poetry because it is “unsophisticated” or because it seems sentimental—well, you might as well scoff at oxygen.

Similarly, to dismiss the poetry of “dis-arrangement,” the poetry that aims to disrupt or rearrange consciousness—to dismiss poems that attract (and abstract) by their resistance, thus drawing the reader into a condition of not-entirely-understanding—such a dismissal also seems to foreclose some powerful dimensions of poetry as an alternate language, a language expressive of certain things otherwise unreachable. Perhaps language as a study of itself has ends which are otherwise unforeseeable.

In our time, this bifurcation of motives among poets has become so pronounced as to be tribal. The polarization in premises has been further enhanced by a whole generation of poets who have been intellectually initiated into critical perspectives on language and meaning which render all forms of “recognition art” suspect, problematical—or, even worse, boring. Because the fit between the human mind, the actual world, and language is imperfect, is fraught with distortion, to manifest those distortions in poems has come to constitute a subject matter, even an idiomatic universe of its own, accompanied by a host of lyrical conventions and manners.

The poetry of perspective is well known in its essentials—it is an integral part of the history of rational humanism. This essay will focus on the relatively more recent poetry of “resistance,” the poetry of derangement, and try to exemplify some of the contemporary options.


He has a couple points, and is supposing we all are fine and agree with point number one, that “On the one hand, plenty of poetry readers are alive and well who want to experience a kind of clarification; to feel and see deeply into the world that they inhabit, to make or read poetry that “helps you to live,” that characterizes and clarifies human nature. To scoff at this motivation for poetry because it is “unsophisticated” or because it seems sentimental—well, you might as well scoff at oxygen.”

True, one should not scoff, but I imagine one could feel that there is a large strand of this type of poetry that is reductive of the human condition, and that it should be resisted as a sort of secular propaganda, as it gives false color to being in the world, which actually hinders our full living in the world rather than helping it. So, for me, I’d like to see some sort of explanation of how these poems “clarify” when one could just as readily see the tendency to more often glaze over, and how they “see deeply” when one could see them instead do a sort of pop psychology dance with family and history that is anything but deep. But, in general, I will take his point. This is the popular strand of poetry, one that we are to take for granted and not theorize or need to explain. The other tendency, though, needs some explaining.

One more lock ought to do it.

And from that second strand, he sees a period style emerge:


One might extrapolate from these several examples [George Oppen, John Ashbery, Karen Volkman, Lewis Warsh, Ben Lerner, Rusty Morrison, C.D. Wright, Jorie Graham, D.A. Powell, James Tate, Lyn Hejinian] the features of a period style. Here are the characteristics I observe:

1. A heavy reliance on authoritative declaration.

2. A love of the fragmentary, the interrupted, the choppy rhythm.

3. An overall preference for the conceptual over the corporeal, the sensual, the emotional, the narrative, or the discursive.

4. A talent for aphorism.

5. Asides which articulate the poem’s own aesthetic procedures, premises, and ideas.

Surely I am over-generalizing and omitting some things. But it is curious how much contemporary poetry bears some combination of these stylistic features, even when the poets are concerned with quite different possibilities of poetry.


I’m changing my mind about the idea of a “period style,” the more I think about it. I was, recently, arguing against this sort of characterization, as this characterization (as he’s attempting it) is of a decidedly small number of poems being written (as one can extrapolate from the examples). My thinking was that the period style is what is most common in the period, and what is most common in this period is much more like the poetry of Reginald Gibbons than it is the poetry of Rusty Morrison. But the more I think of the period styles of previous decades and generations, the more I’m being reminded that any period style is a decidedly minority style that lingers long after the more common types of poems from that time are forgotten. Modernism is a good example.

So Hoagland is right, I think, in saying that our period style is going to be defined by the future as something other than what is most common in the poetry being written, but the jury is still out on if it’s going to be on the sort of poetry he’s using as examples here.

Don’t get me wrong, I hope he’s right, because the sort of poetry he’s talking about here is just the sort of poetry I tend to like, and I’d like to think that what I like is what is going to be the period style. Still, though, the examples bear little resemblance to the poetry of Reginald Gibbons (where Reginald Gibbons stands as a place holder for any number of poets from Rita Dove to whomever), and, looking at the awards for poetry handed out in most years, they are going to poetry that is decidedly NOT what Hoagland is describing (to take his examples as, well, examples). So is there always to be this disconnect between that which is called the period style and that which wins the poetry awards in the period? Probably. As one could posit there isn't ONE period style, but many. Or at least TWO.

Or, to look at what he writes above as a description of the [one] period style without the example poems to clutter the issue (or to focus our attention), maybe he’s simply being too general (as he tries to cicumvent by acknowledging)? I mean, if a description could be said to encompass the work of both Dean Young and Lyn Hejinian (or Kay Ryan and John Ashbery), is it much of a description? Or maybe that’s the point, to use examples from a very narrow slice of the poetry pie, but to take from it a description general enough to describe, say, two-thirds of that pie. But then, to trouble it further, one could say that the above description also describes the work of Wallace Stevens and Gertrude Stein. And there is where the problem lies. He’s less describing the current style (or a current style) than he is describing poetry from the early 20th Century on (I think he might even agree with this, as he uses Wallace Stevens as omen). I could, if I felt inclined, make Robert Frost’s poetry fit this description (“The Road Not Taken” is a wonderful example of how declaration and disjunction work in a way to trouble both form and argument). So is he describing a period style?

He asks: “Is this assertiveness of quantity and momentum a kind of correction for the general helplessness of our circumstances? Is it reflective of a new aesthetics of “confrontation,” which strives to overwhelm with velocity and facility? One question we can usefully ask in regard to a particular style or poem is, What is the range of feeling or sensibility in this poetry? Is it narrow or broad? Is it merely whimsical, merely disjunct, merely antagonistic, or can it also be friendly, entertaining, deep, and spacious?”

It can in Tate and Hejinian, he asserts, just as it’s largely absent in Ashbery (where I think he’s misreading Ashbery, but in a way that others do as well), but is there any further answer to his line of questioning?

I’m glad, especially, that he’s praising Hejinian, as she’s not someone often praised by, for want of a better phrase, mainstream critics. The fact that she’s being used as an example does seem to nod that a sea change is happening, or has happened. It’s the sort of sea change that several wondered about recently, as major awards went to Rae Armantrout, Mary Jo Bang, and Keith Waldrop. And I think, in the above description and questions, Hoagland’s attempting to understand why and how these poets who so recently seemed off limits can now be given major awards in poetry with barely a ripple in the time-space continuum. The way to talk about them is to say either they’re more like “regular” poems in their content, even as their formal structures diverge, and also, our “regular” poems are more like theirs than we thought, as the period style of declaration and fragment describes us all.

This kind of pointing toward the fact that she has real human content in her work, and Hoagland's "post-tribalism" gesture, acts as if that had been in question. Well, I guess it has been in question (that was the first argument against this sort of poetry back in the 80s-90s), as it remains so for poets like Ashbery, who will always trouble the sort of large apparatus that Hoagland is attempting. So the conversation he’s participating in is an interesting one, and I mostly applaud his bookshelf choices, but I think it’s a creaky house of cards. On the other hand, he’s attempting to popularize several poets whose work I like, so in that way, I say more power to him.

It's just like looking in a mirror!

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Sandy Knight -

Thanks to Sandy Knight, we have a cover:

You can see more of her work here:

And here: