Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year from Configuration Space!

Another go at the Big Bang

The matter at the point of interest indicates that binary thinking will always arise because our experience of the world yields the intrinsic notion that the inverse of any proposition is also left out in the rain.

Postulate heaven and you get marshmallows. Postulate the geodesic and you get a saddle. That sort of thing. But only for the length of time the rocket boosters counter the pull of gravity, and then genius is the genius in context once again. Everything changed, and we just thought it had gone wrong.

We who prosper into belatedness see every age is falling apart. We have left the Post-Modern (through the postmodern spectacle) for the New Fundamentalism’s reactionary lifeboat. So of course all hands at once go to the rack of fusty fedoras. My fedora or yours? Satin binding and leather trim!

From the buffet table (“Pick your simulacra!”) comes Plan 9 from the Master/Slave Narrative: “Pick your nostalgia!” We’ve got your Modernism, your Quietude, some Jihad here under the table while the House of Representatives will be reading the Constitution on my birthday (Happy Birthday to me and to Sherlock Holmes [I get to pick my simulacra as well—that’s how Relativity works {E=SQ3R}]).

Tonight it’s called Transgressive as Toothless Wonder: Conceptual poverty (and/or Flarf) are turning the establishment values on their head! Unfortunately, the establishment has been drinking heavily for 50 years, so standing on its head feels like just another night on the town. Turns out, though, it’s a pretty fun night on the town anyway. There’s a beach with twin sunsets. The salesmen are watching the sailboats as lexicography: Everyone reading this, have your parents send me a dollar!

At home, facebook and email updates wait for you with “Good News!” and “Congrats!” to the non-existant group you belong to around someone else’s success. Also the plants need water. It’s good advice, even if your plants are plastic, just as it’s nice to see all these books with cheery slogans like: “Make my book the biggest seller on Amazon, SPD, and/or Goodreads for the time it takes Einstein to slice a loaf of bread and I’ll win a toaster!” though it’s a little long for a bumper sticker.

Does anyone still make toast? I mean, in that way? Doesn’t it cause space-time to melt or something? Better to hit them together, I imagine, with someone friendly who says, “Tell me all the reasons I should like something so that I can tell you why I don’t like it.”

It’s a vast, clear landscape. The only one left alive (sweet irony) is the author-function, and it’s you.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Metaphor &/or Metonymy

So is it metaphor or metonymy? Or tautology?

I’m continually finding myself falling in and out of understanding when I read theory. A lot of it is my impatience or boredom pulling me away, but some of it is due to the shifting nature of abstract ideas. It’s always, in the end, much less precise than I’d like. Or that I think I’d like. It depends on if I’m thinking about writing something or if I’m thinking about something that’s already written.

There are many ways a way of formulating things can be useful, but how one approaches a way of doing things will be predicated upon what one intends to do with it. For it to be helpful in creating art, it must be open, generative—while to be helpful in talking about art it must be reductive. Many attempts at conceptualizing things (manifestos, especially) have failed to notice this distinction.

So perhaps my finding theory to be constantly elusive owes a lot to the fact that in the end I’m interested more in making art than in talking about art that’s made.

Even so, one thing I really want to be clear on is my reading of [BIG M] Metaphor and Metonymy, especially in Roman Jakobson’s formulation. On the metaphor side, I’ve always felt that simile was greatly over-used by contemporary American poets (at least that was the case when I was starting out writing in the late 1980s), and that metaphor was a way out of it, but I’ve come, more recently, to think of metonymy as a more interesting way to proceed.

Of course, all language (and language arts in an even more heightened way) works through both metaphor and metonymy, so they are both going to be present in some, even if masked or downplayed, form. What I’m thinking about is the conscious use of them as methods of propulsion in poetry.

1. Metaphor is mainly a way to associate images (metaphor / simile) or concepts (analogy) through their similarity to other images or concepts. 2. Metonymy is mainly a way to associate things in a sequence or proximity (not similarity), through substitution (the part for the whole, something associated with the object for the object). They both work with a tension between similarity and difference, and poets, depending on their attitudes toward similarity and difference, use them in radically different ways. (When one writes poetry, and when one reads poetry, is one drawing things into similarity or difference? Both, sure, but in general? This will play into the poets [not necessarily the types of poems] that interest you. It’s more about sensibility [how the world works] than aesthetics [how art works].)

But these definitions don’t approach the houses of metaphor and metonymy. Roman Jakobson, in his work on metaphor and metonymy, writes about “similarity” and “contiguity” which can also be formulated as “resemblance” and “nearness” before getting put in the museum as Metaphor and Metonymy. (As a non-specialist, I’m relying here on The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism, 2nd Edition. Leitch, et al.)

Metaphor is the easier term, as it’s the most familiar, and in Jakobson it stands easily enough for all the ways we associate concepts as similar: “synonymy, analogy, comparison, even antithesis, with or without the word like” [from the introduction]. Metonymy is more complex, only because it’s less discussed. It stands for the ways concepts are substituted: thing for the thing symbolized, part for the whole, that sort of thing, but, more importantly for me, it’s not based on a similarity of the things themselves, as in metaphor (“love is like CO2”), but my their proximity (“I’m working for the weekend”). When this ideas is extended, the realm of metonymy extends from the “connections among the meanings of the terms” to “the very fact of sequence, syntactically relating all terms that are present in a sentence.” (1143-4)

Words themselves are metaphorical, and language is metonymical. So both metaphor and metonymy are used by all of us all the time in art and in general conversation. Conversation of the two in connection and apart is just another way to focus attention, on the creative process or the finished work. Imagism through much of the 20th Century privileged the conversation around metaphor. The word and the thing. The relationship to further images around that center of gravity. The late 20th Century, however, began to move away from “the perfect image” or the “best words in the best order” to conversations about sequence, gaps, leaps. Rober Bly, “Leaping Poetry.” Ron Silliman, “The New Sentence.”

Those are my go-to essays about this sort of thing, because in many people’s minds they are in strong opposition to each other. I like that, as it keeps reminding me that a conversation around Metaphor and Metonymy need not be a manifesto, though one might posit that to conceptualize the largesse of a poem as needing to conform to a metaphorical unity (someone like Mark Halliday, perhaps, though he’s not probably the best-known example) one would find oneself in opposition to those who conceive of a poem as a metonymical unity (Robert Duncan comes to mind, where he said something along the lines of “everything that happens around the poem belongs to the constellation of the poem” or something like that).

But again, or “even so,” looking at recent American poetry, one finds all sorts of permutations: Michael Palmer, for instance, seems to me very much a metaphor-oriented poet, even as he’s grouped most often with metonymy-oriented poets (Rae Armantrout and the Language poets), while a poet like Dean Young, say, seems to me a metonymy-oriented poet often associated with metaphor-oriented poets.

Selection / Substitution / Similarity = Metaphor
Combination / Contexture / Contiguity = Metonymy

John Ashbery = Metonymy

Donald Revell = Metaphor

Kay Ryan = Metonymy

Jorie Graham = Metaphor

Cole Swensen = Metonymy

James Tate = Metaphor

It’s a fun game, and there might even be a point to it. Anyway, here are some bits from Roman Jakobson’s "Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances" (excerpted in The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism, 2nd Edition. Leitch, et al.) to close this out:

[ . . . ]

Every form of aphasic disturbance consists in some impairment, more or less severe, of the faculty either for selection and substitution or for combination and contexture. The former affliction involves a deterioration of metalinguistic operations, while the latter damages the capacity for maintaining the hierarchy of linguistic units. The relation of similarity is suppressed in the former, the relation of contiguity in the latter type of aphasia. Metaphor is alien to the similarity disorder, and metonymy to the contiguity disorder.

The development of a discourse may take place along two different semantic lines: one topic may lead to another either through their similarity or through their contiguity. The metaphoric way would be the most appropriate term for the first case and the metonymic way for the second, since they find their most condensed expression in metaphor and metonymy respectively. In aphasia one or the other of these two processes is restricted or totally blocked—an effect which makes the study of aphasia particularly illuminating for the linguist. In normal verbal behavior both processes are continually operative, but careful observation will reveal that under the influence of a cultural pattern, personality, and verbal style, preference is given to one of the two processes over the other.

[ . . . ]

In manipulating these two kinds of connection (similarity and contiguity) in both their aspects (positional and semantic)—selecting, combining, and ranking them—an individual exhibits [a] personal style, […] verbal predilections and preferences.

[ . . . ]

In poetry there are various motives which determine the choice between these alternants. The primacy of the metaphoric process in the literary schools of Romanticism and Symbolism has been repeatedly acknowledged, but it is still insufficiently realized that it is the predominance of metonymy which underlies and actually predetermines the so-called Realist trend, which belongs to the intermediary stage between the decline of Romanticism and the rise of Symbolism and is opposed to both. Following the path of contiguous relationships, the Realist author metonymically digresses from the plot to the atmosphere and from the characters to the setting in space and time. [The Realist writer] is fond of synecdochic details.

[ . . . ]

A salient example from the history of painting is the manifestly metonymical orientation of Cubism, where the object is transformed into a set of synecdoches; the Surrealist painters responded with a patently metaphorical attitude.

[ . . . ]

A competition between both devices, metanymic and metaphoric, is manifest in any symbolic process, be it intrapersonal or social. Thus in an inquiry into the structure of dreams, the decisive question is whether the symbols and the temporal sequences used are based on contiguity (Freud’s metonymic “displacement” and synecdochic “condensation”) or on similarity (Freud’s “identification and symbolism”). The principles underlying magic rites have been resolved by Frazer into two types: charms based on the law of similarity and those founded on association by contiguity. The first of these two great branches of sympathetic magic has been called “homeopathic” or “imitative,” and the second, “contagious” magic. This bipartition is indeed illuminating. Nonetheless, for the most part, the question of the two poles is still neglected, despite its wide scope and importance. . . . What is the main reason for this neglect?

[ . . . ]

Similarity in meaning connects the symbols of a metalanguage with the symbols of the language referred to. Similarity connects a metaphorical term with the term for which it is substituted. Consequently, when constructing a metalanguage to interpret tropes, the researcher possesses more homogeneous means to handle metaphor, whereas metonymy, based on a different principle, easily defies interpretation.

*      *      *

ADDENDUM: A Response to this post from Paul Otremba [As this was too large for a comment box, and scattering it among a few comment boxes made it look all beat up]:

Hello John, Once again an interesting and thoughtful post. I really like what you say about theory, that “For it to be helpful in creating art, it must be open, generative.” The distinction between metaphor and metonymy is actually a subject near and dear to me at the moment, which got set off by a comment Ange Mlinko made in her interview with Iain McGilchrist in the October issue of Poetry. She compared Larkin’s “The Trees” to Ashbery’s “Some Trees,” calling the former metaphoric and the latter metonymic, and implied that the former was obvious and outdated while the latter was progressive and more contemporary, and she supported this by invoking Rosmarie Waldrop. I think she was referring to Waldrop’s “Form and Discontent,” an article I know from a previous research project. What surprised me about the Mlinko is that she doesn’t explain how the Ashbery poem employs “contiguity” as metonymy. This also led me back to rereading the Waldrop essay (which appeared in Diacritics in 1996), and in it she also claims a superiority of metonymy over metaphor, contiguity over equivalence, without explaining the workings of metonymy, and she cites the Jakobson as a source for the distinctions between the tropes.

This led me back to the Jakobson. “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances” is a provoking read, but what I find interesting is how Jakobson associates metonymy with realism and prose, with film and its close-ups (not its use of montage), and he sides plays and poetry with metaphor. His sense of contiguity is much more tame than the wild leaps implied by Waldrop and Mlinko. David Lodge in his book The Modes of Modern Writing has an excellent chapter that explains in more detail the implications of Jakobson’s brief talk, particularly as it relates to film and drama. There is also a good article by Marjorie Perloff that discusses how the poems in Robert Lowell’s Life Studies work, and she uses the Jakobson to say that Lowell’s confessional poetry works more metonymically than metaphorically. Perloff writes of the characters in Lowell’s “Man and Wife”: “their plight is dramatized in terms of selected, patterned detail.” This is the kind of metonymy used in the close-ups of film. I wonder if the kind of radical associations or stretches of context that Waldrop, Mlinko, and you attribute to poets like Ashbery might be better described by the tropes of metalepsis (a metonymy of a metonymy, which really extends the chain of contiguity) or catachresis (which gives us the wonderful, intentional abuses of mixed metaphors).

I really like that you are not attaching value to either the metaphoric or the metonymic “house” (a term that I really like as opposed to the metaphor of “camps,” which is too militaristic, and as George Lakoff might say in Metaphors We Live By, if we use the word camp we won’t be able to see the issue as anything but a war between metaphor and metonymy). I didn’t mean to implicitly side you with Mlinko and Waldrop, who I do feel are making evaluative claims about metaphor and metonymy without a close enough consideration of either. You are more generous and careful with your identifications, particularly Palmer and Ryan. I think the Kay Ryan association with metonymy is close to what Perloff claims for the Lowell. These houses are also continuums, and the more radical side of the house of metonymy would be metalepsis and catachresis.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Dear Art in the Present Time,

Dear art in the present time,

It’s mostly the noise we like.

“What ease,” one might say.
“What else?” another might.

I’ve been meaning to write for a while now.

Q: Why do you keep thinking about these things?
A: Why do you keep breathing?

There are many sand castles on the beach of thinking.

What would Freud have written if he had paid attention to the surrealist poets and to Dada? What if he would have encountered Ashbery?

The trajectory (in Ashbery) of forward wandering. The way that what is dismissed continues, that what is noticed doesn’t accrue, that the conglomeration begins to resemble, reassemble, coherence. What do such things mean for those critics interested in the uncanny and repetition compulsion? The attentiveness, the object-hood of subjectivity, where we recognize in meaning-like ways, our distance from final meaning, over and over again.

“Our unique and solitary home.” (Stevens)

I’m reading some Roman Jakobson this week: “[O]ne topic may lead to another through their similarity or through their contiguity.” Metaphor or metonymy. Still, even after Jakobson, we still haven’t done much, not nearly enough, with metonymy. (Tomorrow, maybe . . .)

If each historical period has its episteme (through Foucault) that governs the totality of how knowing can be experienced, what is ours?

Zeitgeist, I suppose, is another way of asking it?

(Knowing that such a thing would entail stepping from it, and that poses insurmountable difficulties.)

“Why don’t you just say /what you mean?” //  Why don’t I? (Armantrout)

OK, to use something of the structures of Foucault (keeping in mind the critique of his rigidity, etc), The Renaissance gave us the large scope of metaphor (convenientia / aemulation / sympathy / analogy) as a way of knowing. It was a working through of similarities, of making guesses through resemblance—of interpreting signs—knowing was poetic (metaphorical).

Then entered the Classical episteme, and reason: representation. Language becomes transparent, and the subject is bound to escape its representation. Knowing was metonymical (scientific / categorical).

The Romantic through the Modern period: The eruption of the “I.” Language does not represent knowledge, but, rather, creates it, following deeper, hidden structures. This causes a constant series of binary oppositions to erupt (for some reason): Man vs Nature, etc.

Is any of this helpful? Emerson shines an inner light and T.S. Eliot can’t get to sleep?

Ways of thinking—ways of making art, can only exist in their period—outside of their period, they become other. Suddenly Hamlet also wants to kill his father and sleep with his mother . . .

The thinker in Stevens who has the mind of winter to understand snow and the attendant vacancies of all that is and is not there is each of us in our episteme.

So where would that (if anything close to true [TRUE being under constant pressure-see below]) leave us now? “Dear Art in the Present Time,” the writer begins . . .

We’ve problematized the similitudes, the representations, and the I. We’ve seen the underside of Modernism, and we’ve fractured upon its shore. We’ve swept that breakage, that inherent criticism of Modernism back against it, as Postmodernism. But now we feel we’ve left that behind as well (what does one do when one leaves behind “leaving behind”?). Well then? One cannot become post-categorical, sorry. Language forces it upon us.

Is this a stance, an episteme, of only skepticism? And then what of skepticism’s twin, fanaticism? Whoopee, if that’s where we are. Abracadabra.

But then again, all ways of thinking are implicated in the “Will to Truth” where what can’t be assimilated is pushed away, violently. (Foucault through Nietzsche?) Is there nothing other than social and situational for truth to be? Wasn’t that Foucault’s great weakness, that his critique of TRUTH was to be taken as true?

Someone must always be oppressed. “The poor you will always have with you.” –Jesus

We imagine the present moment. And then we try once again the theory of trying to get outside of theory, where “if you choose not to decide you still have made a choice” (RUSH).

All these poems of identity I’m seeing seem holdovers from Western /Christian beliefs of individual salvation. What am I to do with them? “What does your identity do, Superman?”

More interesting is the obliteration, the more Zen-like other within the individual, where the author, being no one, has as much claim on going nowhere as going all places at once.

And how did Emerson get back into this? Through John Cage? Through Bloom? Abracadabra, indeed.

All best regards,


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Freud - Nietzsche - Beautiful Advice

Compassion counters cruelty, and both oppose indifference.

In this way, art, no matter its aesthetics, is opposed to indifference first. This is both the indifference of the depicted as it is the –potential –indifference of the audience.

Indifference regarding what? The “benign indifference of the universe” (Camus)?

Tan Lin once told me (while I was driving him to the Columbus airport) he was pursuing a poetics of boredom. I’ve been turning that over in my head for over a decade now, without much to show for it. Is boredom opposed to indifference? Is “boredom” something one can even work with? If one is productive in using boredom as a goal, is one then really using boredom? This continues to trouble and interest me.

Indifference to the collective, the condition of being with the world. For me, this is the primary indifference that art can address. To find meditative space within the inevitable.

“Desperate, but not serious,” as Adam Ant would have it.

Nietzsche was wrong in so many ways as to be nearly useless—most notably (outside of his use of masculine/feminine and Christian/Jewish dichotomies) is his view of the struggle of the artist in bending materials to his/her will. One can quickly see the implications of where this leads. Flip the idea though, and there’s a much more interesting, to me, economy: what of the conception of the artist as one who is in deep sympathy with her/his materials? Must it be a contest, or can it be affection? Of course it can, and Nietzsche was a political and sexual mess.

Imagism quickly found the limits of objectivity. Objectivism built an apartment complex there.

Art is the continual debate, the always opening question that cannot close, between certainty and doubt. They are the propelling forces through the work of art.

Art is a (not the) function of illusions. It becomes evidence in the series of monologues we have with ourselves and others. We place art on book jackets, we play it at occasions, we quote from it to give our ideas a push-off from shore.

As literary texts can be associated with the workings of the imagination and of dreams (Freud), so too, then, only the dreamer can illuminate the dream—creating an always receding “meaning” —but as an audience can always (in the present tense) participate with art, can be in sympathy with it, so too can this audience dream along and illuminate the artwork.

Art is only communal in this secondary way. A “talking about.”

Where art manifests as communal at the outset, as its primary instance, it is propagandistic.

I blame Freud, first, for the idea so many have that art is performed like a puzzle, and that through interpretation lies the puzzle’s “solution.” This is just another version of “The Will to Power” that leads to a (wherein I get to blame Nietzsche, again) retreat from sympathy.

A compassion, rather than a cruelty, that counters indifference.

Or, here’s another way of saying it (as an email that sympathetically avoided my junk folder):

-----Forwarded Message-----

Subject: Re:
Date: Wed, 22 Dec 2010 16:12:18 +0000

hi, i saw your photo on that site.. ( i think your cute) anyhow id love to chat with you sometime on windows live messenger my name there is add me i'll be online for most of the holidays.. talk to you soon

Madison xoxo

with all the curiosities I observed, being studious of brevity.
praise the Lord!!

master, assists in teaching him. The language described. all which acquirements, I should be a living treasure of then turned the light on the derelict and kept it there.

-----Original Message-----

From: Madison
To: You
Sent: Wed, Dec 8, 2010 4:55 pm
Subject: Fw: Fwd: Fw: Fwd: Fw: Beautiful Advice

We must keep one another strong for what is before us. We have a cruel contemptible, and helpless an animal was man in his own nature; worth, and their bodies left to be devoured by dogs and birds of And often, I've been told, not even to her. I felt it very improper, for you can't go on for some years

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Important to Whom?

Important to Whom?  Indeed. These are the questions we like to toss at ourselves about artists (poets / musicians, etc). So, in that vein, Anis Shivani asked 22 poets who they consider the most important poet of our time.

I admit that such a question would have twisted me into a pretzel. My favorite poet, maybe? The poet I think is the most popular? The poet I think has had the most influence on other poets? What sort of influence (as a writer or editor or administrator)?

Certainly in the political sphere, Dana Gioia has had a large impact (as have the poet-editors of Poetry Magazine and The Best American Poetry series as well as the poet-administrators of Breadloaf). Billy Collins and Mary Oliver sell more books than pretty much any other poets. And John Ashbery’s poetry has certainly had the most influence on younger poets (I’d nominate him for King of the Cats), while at the same time, his poetry is reviled by large numbers of people who comment on such things as The Huffington Post . . . and what about the Poet Laureates? The Pulitzer Prize winners? They could all be said to be our most “important” poets (at least in the American segment of the question).

Important. Important to whom?  Maybe the answer is that we (as a collective) do not have a most important poet.  At the very least, there’s not really an answer to “importance.” It’s interesting, though, to see what people say.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Rae Armantrout – Money Shot

I'm travelling right now, so I'm away from the blog for a bit.  Here's an interview with Rae Armantrout from jubilat that ran this week on Poetry Daily. I've added a couple poems from Money Shot to it, one at the start and one at the finish. You can order a copy! It will be out soon . . .


Everything will be made new.

The precision coupling
and uncoupling,

the studied
and folding

have already begun.

Stillness of gauzy curtains

and the sound
of distant vacuums.

Prolonged sigh
of traffic

and the downward
curve of fronds.

The spray
of all possible paths.

Define possible.


Interview with Rae Armantrout
by Robert N. Casper
from jubilat, Issue 18

Rae Armantrout was born in Vallejo, California, in 1947. She is the author of eleven books of poetry, including Versed (2009), which received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize and the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award. Her other poetry collections include Next Life (2007), selected as the New York Times "Notable Book" in 2007; as well as Up to Speed (2004) and Veil: New and Selected Poems (2001), both finalists for the PEN Center USA Award. She has also published a collection of interviews and essays, Collected Prose (2007). Armantrout's other honors include a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation and two Fund for Poetry awards. She is a professor of Writing and Literature at UC San Diego, where she has taught for more than two decades. This interview was conducted by Robert N. Casper in New York City on March 13, 2009.

* * *

Can you talk about the importance of voice in your poems?

There are so many voices in the air. Sometimes they become the voices in my head—voices from the media, or a tone of voice from my mother. All of those voices go into who we are, and are distinguishable from us too. My beginning point is to separate myself from them, or throw them off by putting brackets around them. There wasn't much conscious use of other voices in my first book, Extremities. However, the first poem in my second book, The Invention of Hunger, was taken partly from a Scientific American article about termites and partly from some material about S&M bondage. And certainly my use of outside voices continues: for instance, here is my poem “Integer,” from Versed:


One what?
One grasp?
No hands.
No collection
of stars. Something dark
pervades it.


is ritual sacrifice.

It kills the look-alike.

metaphor is homeopathy.

A healthy cell
exhibits contact inhibition.


These temporary credits
will no longer be reflected
in your next billing period.


“Dark” meaning
not reflecting,
not amenable
to suggestion.

The third section came directly from my phone bill. While I was working on the poem, my husband Chuck read that aloud to me and said, “What does this mean?” and I thought, That goes in. We didn't know what temporary credits were, but it sounded sort of ominous—temporary credit now being revoked.

It’s interesting to note how that found section is embedded in the poem, and how the poem responds to it, as it is echoing and questioning its terms.

The fourth section responds to the word “reflected” in the third section, but it also responds to the word “dark” in the first section. That pulls the three sections together, at least in my mind, and then goes to “not amenable to suggestion”—as if reflection is a kind of suggestion. It also connects back to the second part and portrays metaphor as a kind of reflection.

Can you talk more about the use of question-and-response as a rhetorical device in your poems?

A good example of that might be the last two sections of “A Resemblance,” in Versed:

Look alikes.

“Are you happy now?”


Would I like
a vicarious happiness?


Though I suspect
yours of being defective,


I ask two questions, then give an answer. “Look alikes” actually responds to some of the comparisons I’ve made before—it refers to the similes poetry is supposed to deal in. And then, “Are you happy now?”—okay, so I’ve made some similes, are you happy now? That’s the kind of voice you hear in a relationship . . .

Or one you might hear on television—it’s a stock phrase.

Right—it’s also something that might occur in dialogue. When I use such phrases, I call it “faux collage”—sometimes they are “real” found language, and sometimes they only seem to be real. Putting “Are you happy now?” in quotes makes it look like the former, but it isn't, really . . . I didn’t see it somewhere or hear it on television. Sometimes I do pick out phrases I see or hear on television, but sometimes I just make them up because they’re already in my head.

By contrast, the next question, “Would. I like / a vicarious happiness,” seems wholly original.

And I answer it with “yes” and an exclamation point. What follows undercuts that “yes” a bit—it’s as if I’m saying I’d like to share your happiness in a vicarious way, although I’m also suspicious that you’re faking your happiness. Which I’ll never know.

I’m happy you brought that up: I admire the ways your poems use the exclamatory, as in the final section of “A Resemblance.” Which made me all the more surprised by the lack of a period at the end of the poem.

Sometimes I just want to give the sense that the thought process isn’t quite finished, so I won’t put a period at the end of the last word of the poem. And other times, I want the reader to get the sense that they should keep thinking, because this might go on.

I often begin with a sense of puzzlement about something—with a real question, perhaps unformed in my own mind. There might not be an answer to it, so you work through and you still end unresolved—I find this aesthetically interesting, because then you have a kind of dynamics and complexity going on. Forces pulling away from and pushing against each other.

I wonder how the fluid interplay of private and public language in your poems relates to their speaker?

I'm fascinated by, and concerned with, what the self is—what a single thing is, what defines oneself or a thing. I think that the edges blur . . . I’m not saying we don’t have selves, but I’ve always been interested in the tension between the singular and the multiple. I was just reading Being And Event by Alain Badjou, in which he talks about the initial act of consciousness, which he calls "Count as One." At some point in our early development, in the midst of the buzzing, blooming, confusing world of sensory phenomenon around us, we define the object—what is the chair? Is it part of the table or not part of the table? Yesterday I went to see the Pierre Bonnard show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and in many of his pieces one color spills over from an object where it apparently belongs onto an object or a person on which it apparently doesn’t belong. I’m interested in pointing out those edges and those blurs, whether they’re personal or have to do with objecthood.

I would like to talk about “Dark Matter,” the second section of Versed. Did working with a thematic focus—i.e., addressing your fight with cancer—affect your writing process?

My method didn’t really change. It’s just that that part is more thematically coherent because I kept thinking about the same thing over and over . . . it was not going leave my mind, at least not for awhile. It’s starting to recede a bit now, so I’m moving on to other subjects—I hope not prematurely—but of course that was going to be uppermost in my mind for the first year and a half or so, right? There was a de facto coherence, and then after awhile I began to see how it was coming together with a certain tone. Some poems at the end of the first section deal directly with my illness, so it’s not an absolute distinction. For instance, the poem “Owned” is based on notes I took in the hospital, even in the leu. It’s amazing to me that I couldn’t read, but I was still scribbling things. By contrast, I wrote the poem “Birth Order” after I got home, when I was just thinking about cancer. “On Your Way” deals with death, and it’s near the end of the Versed section—it sort of shifts there. The poems in the second section are written in the moment of a sort of afterlife—after surgery, and after the shock I went through, because I had no idea I had cancer. In fact, I was in New York three weeks before I was diagnosed, walking around giving readings, and I was fine. It was very sudden, and I was completely unprepared—I wasn’t even that upset, because I was too shocked. Then I went into surgery, and came home with a slim prospect of recovery. I thought, Okay, now I am a dying person. “Dark Matter” was written from that point of view—not exactly deliberately, but that’s how it happened. There were a few poems that I moved . . . “Heaven” is one, oddly, and “Guess” is one that I wrote after I came home. I can’t remember why I moved “Heaven,” because it seems like it could have been in “Dark Matter” now. Sometimes we don’t understand these things. The first section in Versed is a bit more manic, and there are a lot of playful notes in poems like “Pleasure” or “Name Calling” that refer to sex and even romance. There was that kind of liveliness and quirkiness in “Versed,” and “Dark Matter” grew more somber. In the end, I was not always writing to the topic of disease, but striking a more austere tone that I would want to return to.

In a previous interview, you seemed to resist being called a lyric poet. What does the term lyric mean to you, and how might it relate to your poems?

I recently wrote an essay on my relationship to the lyric, for the eighth installment of The Grand Piano project—a kind of collective autobiography I’m involved in. I’m never sure exactly what people mean by lyric poetry—they seem to mean a relatively short, self-contained poem, as opposed to a book-length work. And it’s not a prose poem. Do they also mean a poem that foregrounds or emphasizes sound? Maybe . . . but Pound did that in the “Cantos,” and the “Cantos” is a book-length quasi-narrative poem, so I don't know if you’d call it a lyric. Or is the lyric something that tries to stop time or freeze a moment in an epiphanic way? My poems try to sort of imagine a complicated present that doesn’t really lead to an epiphany per se. But still, my poetry might relate to the lyric in its attempt to bring together a version of the present . . . I read with Cole Swenson last night, and it struck me that her work is always about the historical in some sense, while mine is always about the present.

How do you see scientific and religious language fitting into your present? Certainly both play a role in your poems.

I’m attracted to both scientific and religious explanations without necessarily believing in either. Of course, I come closer to believing in the former—I believe its method is closer to a process of truth. Still, that doesn't mean that at any point a particular scientific paradigm is true. I like the way both ventures of thought are trying to reach to ultimate causes. But at the same time, I tend to want to question them, and to put them in conjunction, perhaps because I was raised in a fundamentalist religion. I probably turned to science at first as a kind of prophylactic against religion. I’ve already seen science’s idea of the universe’s change, and it’s changing fairly rapidly now—I mean, they just came up with the idea of dark energy, and discovered the universe is expanding at a faster rate instead of slowing down. So, the scientific attempt to reach truth is obviously provisional.

Along the same lines, do you see poetry as a process of truth?

Well, sometimes when I read a poem and I enjoy it, I do get the sense of “That’s true.” I think we’re always going for truth—you can read a statement in one poem and have a “That’s true” response, and later read a poem that says almost the exact opposite, which in context will also give you that truth. Lisa Robertson and I read together recently, and we discovered that we both have a poem about heaven. Mine’s called “Heaven” and in verse, while hers is called “Essay on Heaven”—and they actually said the opposite thing! For instance, the second part of my poem states, “Heaven is symmetric with respect to rotation,” while hers had something do with asymmetry. It was odd that we both had this concept, and it seemed like either one worked in context. Then you realize there really is no firm meaning there.

Getting back to an earlier topic, I think the phrase “Symmetrical with respect to rotation” came from one of these layperson books about science. We think of symmetry in relation to beauty and aesthetics, and as a grand concept, but that line was such a dry description of it—reductive yet accurate. There’s such a jarring clash of tones in the poem—it’s an example of how I connect religion and science.

In your essay “Cheshire Poetics,” you state, “I think of my poetry as inherently political (though it is not a poetry of opinion).” Can you elaborate on that statement?

Well, I'll see if I can get this quote right: I think it was Yeats who said, “Of our argument with others, we make rhetoric; of our arguments with ourselves, we make poetry.” I guess a poem of opinion would be essentially an argument with others, trying to persuade others. When you attempt to do so, you make as consistent an argument as you can. I’m more interested in the way we argue with ourselves and the potential dissonances that we find around us.

Through those dissonances, and your use of public language, your work has a clear political engagement. Yet its unwillingness to define a line of argument frustrates a straightforward political reading.

Maybe the poem “Fade” is an example of that kind of thing:

The new reality
is a pastiche
of monologues.

Fighter pilots
in the Gulf

worry out loud
about their performance.

But how do we
come into it?

“Zombie Strippers!”

living pay-off
to pay-off,

numbed out,



So much happiness
is caged
in language,

to burst out

and fade

The poem starts out with a political commentary on “new reality,” or reality television. There actually was a PBS version of a reality TV show about an aircraft carrier, in which fighter pilots talk off-the-cuff, off-guard. And they say, “Am I dropping enough bombs?” and “I don’t get to drop my bombs”—that sort of thing. Which I thought was so odd I had to put it in a poem. The term “zombie strippers” comes from a sort of B movie called Zombie Strippers that I happened to see an ad for at that same time. In the second part of the poem, I’m really talking about poetry and myself as a poet, and that’s a different subject. I like the way “language” and “caged” echo each other, and then are “ready / to burst out / anytime // and fade” like a jet taking off or a bomb exploding, producing a sort of release.

I’m happy you brought that poem up—I think it’s a good example of the interplay between the abstract and the concrete in your work. How do you think both types of language operate in your poems, and how do you decide to turn from one to the other?

This is something I often have to discuss with my students. Recently I taught a graduate workshop, but with art students, so there was a really high level of abstraction. Somebody actually put the phrase “Derridian paradigm” in a poem, and “heteronormativity”—that’s a mouthful! So we had to have the abstraction discussion. Basically I told them you don’t want to rely a lot (or entirely) on abstract language, unless you’re a philosopher—philosophers create their own definitions, logic, and contexts for their abstractions. And abstraction doesn’t work unless it has a context, but the poem can try to provide a context for the abstraction by embedding it in situations or images or something concrete. In my poems there is always a tension between the abstract and the concrete, but I hope there's also a relation, and so it's a productive tension.

One can see the poem title as concrete, as well as metaphoric. The first stanza is entirely abstract, but then you switch to a moment that is, if not overly descriptive, at least more concrete.

It provides an example.

It also announces the poem's political framework, which gets played out via your signature juxtaposition of ideas and notions and tones. Also, the poem uses more abstract language than you might think upon first read—it seems to concretize its abstractions.

Yeah, I think that’s true.

And a word like “caged” (like “fade”) plays it both ways, as in the condition and the actual cage.

And the stripper might be in a cage.


Especially since she’s a zombie.

One would hope! The poem “Money Shot” ends with the quote “why don’t you just say what you mean? Why don't I?” Could you talk about the balance in your poems between revelation and resistance?

Well, actually that section of “Money Shot” is based on a dream—it’s not uncommon for me to include dreams in my poems. Dreams are always to some extent coded—it’s as if you’re censoring yourself in your dream, at least as Freud would have it. And why are they coded? You could ask the same question about poems, really—why are they disguised? There must be a reason. I’m not sure I know it—it’s just how the mind works. The last line is actually a play on a voice from the dream . . . I’m on a crowded ship, and I’ve been served the wrong breakfast—this small mound of soggy dough is not what I ordered. I complain, and the waiter replies, “Why don’t you just say what you mean?” When I woke up and began to write out the poem, I thought the ‘I’ in the poem is equivalent to the dream. And I wondered, Why isn’t the dream saying what it means, and what does it mean?


Money Shot


Able to exploit pre-


Per. In. Con.

I’m on a crowded ship
and I’ve been served the wrong breakfast.

This small mound
of soggy dough
is not what I ordered.

“Why don’t you just say
what you mean?”

Why don’t I?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Rosmarie Waldrop - Driven to Abstraction

Rosmarie Waldrop - Driven to Abstraction

I have it on good authority that Santa just had some elves order this book for me (or do they actually make them, like they make the toys? I've always been unclear on this.). It's one fo the things I've really been looking forward to, and it's finally winging my way.  Coming soon: Rae Armantrout's Money Shot (January 2011) and Michael Palmer's Thread (Spring sometime?).  What other books are coming in 2011? 

Here's something from Driven to Abstraction that was posted on Poetry Daily a couple weeks ago: 

All Electrons Are (Not) Alike

Rosmarie Waldrop


A view of the sea is the beginning of the journey. An image of Columbus, starting out from the abyss, enters the left hemisphere. Profusion of languages out of the blue. Bluster, blur, blubber. My father was troubled by inklings of Babel and multiplication on his table. Afraid that an overload of simultaneous neural firings would result in an epileptic convulsion. The explorers' attention, like the foot of a snail, held on to the planks of their vessels, not communicating. Too intent on the physical fact, waves, whales, or poison arrows. Later, though, poured forth stories never dreamed of by the natives. As if languages were kidnapped as easily as green shady land profuse of flowers.


As Dante followed Virgil, so Columbus, Marco Polo. In those days spring came before summer, but the world was neither round nor infinite. Actual observations served to confirm what he already knew. True, clue, loop and thimbles, line up to the mast. If they did not, he rolled his eyeballs, duplicating the movement of the heavenly bodies. As if there were no transmission of impulse from cell to cell. Repair work is hard, of doubtful and intricate nature, as when a gap appears between two planks or the yarn breaks that was to haul you through the maze. What signifies? he asked. The temperature of the hand or that it held a scepter? Is it the nature of the mind to reach toward the future, to anticipate events about to happen? Stance, chance, all hands on deck. And though I do not understande their language yet I know their king offered me his island for mine own.


Triangulation: greed, religion, stunned surprise. Cabeza de Vaca "passed through many and dissimilar tongues. Our Lord granted us favor with the people who spoke them for they always understood us, and we them." All electrons are alike, a sunny surmise, surf, surface. Not raked by interpretation. With a flavor of asymmetry. Like the electric shock from a battery of Leyden jars administered to 700 Carthusian monks joined hand to hand. Later. Under Louis XV. No note of bruises, blunt instruments. Do we need to open and shut the window when it is transparent from the start? Or a special organ for what trickles through the hourglass? Enough to stretch your hand westward at the right moment and pull down the sun.


Pigafetta in the Philippines. Antonio, the exception. Amid sharks and shattered masts sharpened his pencil. For if a man has not learned a language can he have memories? Pointed at parts of the body and shaped a body of words: samput, paha, bassag bassag, buttock, thigh, shank, the "shameful" parts, utin and bilat, as well as ginger, garlic, cinnamon. The natives stared at the document. Unblinking. Trying, my father thought, to distinguish its parchment body from blemishes in ink rather than title, preamble, or appendices. Perhaps rather troubled with doubt. Scorching air may refute grammatical relationship as much as movement from Vicenza to Mactan, though the speed of nerve signals increases if the organism gets warm, and the creature becomes excited, perhaps delirious. Yet when an object has never been seen back home what good is a word? You have to bring the thing itself and empty your bag to make conversation.


Absence of meaning cracks the mirror. Yet every shard shows Columbus unfurling the royal standard on October 12, while the wind blows from the East by authority, custom and general consent. Curls, fur, furbelow, furious, further. Whereas my father was disturbed by Being and Time, it's in the face of uncovered nakedness Columbus issued the required proclamations. And was not contradicted. And named the islands. Was this the patter of administrative order with a gold standard? Or more self-interest than alternate fear and attention, wonder and universal grammar? Wonder is not registered in heart and blood, but occurs strictly in the brain. Hence it escapes moral categories, hatches heresies from the smell of lemons and fineness of metals. But does not leave a mark on the land, not even a patch cleared of plants not dwarfed by grafting or trained upon a trellis.


Take Diaz's memory congealed in time as in a chunk of amber, ambush. This city where the sun rolled over the water and through gold and silver that outshone it. Display delirious as the love-making of flowers. Up the 140 steps of the great pyramid. To meet you by the altar where blood is blood. The supply extravagant for all the brain's complexity. This splendor, says Diaz, of which no trace remains. Likewise closed ranks raked up to make a Spanish noche triste. Time does not cross precisely calibrated spaces. It flows across three months of siege. Irregularly like a river. Of blood. Noise noisome, nauseous, noxious to distant peripheries. Spears, arrows, stones, bullets, the clash of arms, the cries of warriors, war drums, conches, flutes, and cymbals. Then when the pile of dead is higher than the ruins of the temple, yet does not yield electric current, when Spaniards, walking over the dead bodies, take possession (from "seat" quasi positio). The replete sun. At the same fixed time. Amid dead silence.


Merchants of language travel with paper currency. Columbus's fleet had no priest, but had a recorder. Transactions with eternity less pressing than 'legality' secured by writing. The power to name. When I was ten I read Westerns by Karl May and with him crossed the border between Mexico and Canada. Columbus erased heathen names like Guanahani. Christened the islands to become king of the promised land. As Adam, who "called the animals by their true names," was thereby to command them. San Salvador. Salvation, salve, salvage, salvo. The power to name is power. Especially when backed by guns.


The history of discoveries is his story of traps, mishaps, constant hurt. Of loaded dice. Outcome like reflection of clouds on ice. And once he set foot back on the continent of the past tense, the kingdom of certainty: what had Columbus found? For Ferdinand and Isabella who hoped to travel to the Indies? A packet of islands off China, vulgar pebbles a dog might worry in hot weather. Though pearls for eyes that see his steering wheel environ a round earth turning on its axis like a wheel of fortune on which more than limbs are broken. The rhythm of the midriff so closely linked to vapors of the mind. Diaphragm, frenzy, frantic, phrenology (discredited), and schizophrenia. And on the next page, my father says, a wall is still a wall, but rivers and crocodiles enlarge the landscape.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Several Indefensible Assertions About Art

Art is as much a part of things you don’t need as it is a part of things you do need.

Art is an opportunity to escape from one’s subjectivity by blending it with the necessary subjectivity that is the art object.

Art is as it will be. It washes up against itself as time.

Art is always going to refer to itself as “Post-war Paris” but it’s always going to sound as if it’s saying “Plaster of Paris.”

Art always knows less than you do, but something that you don’t.

Art does no better escaping time than you do.

Art exists so that you can ask yourself if you inhabit it or if it inhabits you.

Art wants to say “inhibit” as much as it wants to say “inhabit.”

When our art is gone, so are we.

Everyone dislikes most art.

Art gets as caught up in the moment as you do.

The best art wants you to question it. The best art makes you feel as if you should question it.

Art can do nothing but deliver you to yourself.

Art is necessarily ambivalent. The frame forces the issue.

Art school is not the same as art. The best art schools know this and work within this tension.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

What's Wrong and Not Wrong with American Poetry (or something like that)

This post is a bit long this morning.  Apologies. I owe it to the temperature (three degrees, with a bit of wind and a new dusting of snow) and the fact that everyone else in the house slept late.

The Huffington Post has been asking questions of poets and then posting the answers.  You can google over there, if you haven’t already, to see some of them.  There was an earlier set that I also commented on: 

There are several bits in this new set that I found interesting: 

“one way to be successful as a poet in American culture has been to carve out a niche, a particular ‘voice’ or style that is recognizable as a brand name, and to cultivate that niche for decades. . . .  The attitudes and jargon of our consumer culture are perfidious, and poetry is not unaffected; hence, the cultivation of a "voice" as if it were a brand name, the isolation of the poetry-ego viewing others' experiences as material for one's sincere posturing, the round of networking and readings and mutual publications not unlike any social network with business connections.” 

This reminded me immediately of the brochure I just received the other day advertizing the 2011 AWP conference in Washington DC, particularly these parts: First, “Browse through AWP’s Bookfair, featuring more than 500 literary presses, journals, editors, and publishers.”  This intimates that the AWP Bookfair is an opportunity for writers to meet and perhaps to make deals with “editors” and “publishers.”  This is, at the very least misleading, but it gets worse: “Network with your peers at dozens of parties, dances, off-site events, and literary receptions.”  OK, maybe AWP has always had a bit of a “networking” creepy factor, but that’s not all it has going for it.  I think of it less as a networking opportunity and more of a family reunion.  Maybe they’re the same thing?  Oh well.  The brochure, at any rate, filled me with a kind of “Gnostic horror” (a phrase a friend used in an email to me recently that seems an appropriate reaction to many different situations in aesthetics and the life around literature). 

But the larger point from the first quote from the HP thing, is this first one: “one way to be successful as a poet in American culture has been to carve out a niche, a particular ‘voice’ or style that is recognizable as a brand name, and to cultivate that niche for decades.”  This really surprised me, using the highly negative connotations around brand name and branding for what is in essence one’s way of writing.  What is it in William Carlos Williams or Elizabeth Bishop or Wallace Stevens, for instance, that makes their poetry their poetry?  If one didn’t have some sort of recognizable through line in one’s poetry, then what is there to make a poet’s poetry the poetry of that poet?  The best way I’ve heard this phrased is by Elisa Gabbert in an essay that will be coming out early next year in The Monkey and the Wrench: Essays in to Contemporary Poetry that I co-edited with Mary Biddinger: “If each of a poet’s poems were unlike the others in every way, there would be no reason to prefer some poets to others; one could only have favorite poems, not favorite poets.” 

Maybe there is too much talk of “voice” and such in MFA programs these days?  Maybe that’s what the poet is reacting to?  The crass side of writing like yourself? 

On the other hand, this brings up another issue that has been tapping at my shoulder recently: Is it necessary for a poet to change one’s way of doing things over time?  Are the examples of John Ashbery and Rae Armantrout (and others: Dean Young, Mary Ruefle, Kay Ryan, etc etc), who haven’t changed their ways of doing things much at all over the years, examples of continued investigation or examples of poets who have failed to “develop”?  I suppose such a conversation would need to proceed on a poet by poet basis, but you see my point.  Is change (“development”: which always bothered me as a phrase pertaining to artists as it intimates that there’s some place to develop towards, and such things give me pause [more on that below]) to be sought? 

Sure, why not?  “Variety is the spice of life,” and all that, but must it be sought?  Stevens said so, famously.  Anyway, I continue to bat that one around without one side scoring much of an advantage, unless it’s to say, simply: Just write things.  Let others decide if you’ve changed or developed or whatnot.  (Yes, I just wrote “whatnot.”)  The job of the artist is to be inquisitive and to make art.  At other times I think that’s too easy a philosophy, that the more we understand ourselves, the better we can understand what we’re doing.  And understanding what one is doing is a good thing for an artist.  So there I am.

Another bit that interested me from another poet in the HP piece, pretty much on this same topic, is this better idea of what one can mean by voice: “One challenge for contemporary poets would be to discover a new kind of voice that could encompass or easily move between both the private and the public sphere, the individual and the group mind. I'm not sure exactly how it could be done. Whitman is one example, but I'm thinking of something less transcendent.”  I second that.  Yes, please.  I want to find that poetry.  It doesn’t matter who writes it (in my better moments this is how I think), but that it gets into the world.  Examples of poets who might be in line for such a voice?

And then comes this, from yet another poet: “I'll risk restating the obvious by venturing that there's only one useful piece of advice for any young writer: write. Pay no attention to the state of American poetry, the death of the book, the legacy of Modernism, the bedbugs in your cheap apartment: ignore as much as you possibly can get away with and write. Resist the careerist temptations of PoBiz. Stay home and write a poem. There is no particular place to get to in Poetry Land, anyway. The point of the journey is the journey itself, the process of writing poetry, which hopefully you consider enriching and indispensable.” 

This is the bit that a friend of mine emailed to me yesterday asking my reaction.  Well, on the one hand, my reaction is, sure, I agree.  There are a few quibbles I might have with it: first, well, it’s important to pay attention closely to the world around you (the apartment, etc) as that will help you write about the world, but I don’t think the poet meant it that way.  It was meant more in the way of not letting the things themselves keep you from writing about them.  Same with this think called “PoBiz,” which, as I get older (I turn 46 in three weeks!), I’m finding harder to find.  Sure, AWP is PoBiz, as we’re all supposed to go there and “network” (THAT’S STILL IRRITATING ME) but other than that, what is it?  Who gets awards and such?  Trying to get some awards as well?  Good luck with that.  But my second quibble is the way the poet conflates by proximity the last two sentences: “There is no particular place to get to in Poetry Land, anyway. The point of the journey is the journey itself, the process of writing poetry, which hopefully you consider enriching and indispensable.”  Yes, of course.  Artists make art.  (Which is what I was just agreeing with above.)  But, you know, that’s much easier to say when you’re Campbell McGrath, and you have a strong press and many friends to do the PoBiz thing for you, than if you’re Young Poet X, just starting out, looking for ways to publish.  This is not meant as a slam against McGrath (OK, I’ve outed him as the author of this last quote, but you’ll have to go to HP to find the first two.), what he says IS true, it’s just that art must be marketed.  Now I’m sounding crass.  Time to check out. 

Because all art is self-portrait.

Finally, I really liked Wayne Miller’s answer (disclaimer: he’s a close friend of mine) quite a bit. So here it is, in full. The question posed by HP was something along the lines of “Have poets betrayed the poetry of Modernism?”  And “What bothers you and what makes you happy in contemporary American poetry?”  Or something like that.  I’ll let him take us home: 

At any point in poetic history, one finds hand-wringing about the state of the art. These days, Tony Hoagland is concerned by the “skittery poem of our moment,” Ron Silliman complains about the pervasiveness of the “School of Quietude,” anzFray ightWray [JG: Sorry for inserting the Pig Latin there, but if I ever mention this person on my blog he gets a notice through google alerts and then comes and says mean things about me in the comment stream] worries about the chatty sociability—the lack of focused quietness—found in the “MFA generations,” Dorothea Lasky is bothered by too many poets writing “projects,” John Barr complains about the lack of safari-going among today's poets, Ange Mlinko decries the legacy of Lowell’s “tyranny of psychological verismo,” Michael Theune frets that “middle-ground poets” don't have clear evaluative criteria, Anis Shivani worries about the “mechanical” nature of our poetry, and numerous poets have asserted in response to Ashbery that “the emperor has no clothes.”

I say “these days” because we could also be in some other historical moment when, say, William Carlos Williams is complaining about T. S. Eliot’s “conforming to the excellencies of classroom English,” or M. L. Rosenthal is bothered by the “shameful” nature of Confessional poetry, or France is scandalized by Baudelaire's “incomprehensible” and “putrid” work, or Ezra Pound is attacking the influence of Walt Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass “is impossible to read [. . .] without swearing at the author almost continuously,” or the Acmeist poets are decrying the lack of craft in the work of the Russian Symbolists, or Dunstan Thompson is complaining of “the smugness, the sterility, the death-in-life which disgrace the literary journals of America” in that poetic nadir of 1940—the same year Auden published Another Time, E. E. Cummings published 50 Poems, Kenneth Fearing published his Collected Poems, and Kenneth Rexroth and Robert Hayden made their literary debuts.

The legacy of Modernism is alive and well—though, frankly, it's so broad as to be pretty much unbetrayable. After all, the Language poets and Philip Levine both envision their work as building on William Carlos Williams. Robert Bly thought “Deep Image” poetry was a return to true Imagism, yet Ron Silliman lumps Bly and James Wright with many of the “academic” and Confessional poets Bly excoriated in The Fifties.

All poetry lives somewhere on a spectrum between Classicism and Romanticism. If high Modernists such as Eliot, Pound, and Moore tilt toward the Classical side, and the Confessional and Beat poets inhabit the Romantic, then we've more or less marked the boundaries of the Modernist legacy. But that gives us quite an aesthetic and intellectual range to play around in.

Many American poets frustrated by 1980s post-Confessionalism—which leaned largely on personal narrative and ad misericordium for its effects—have turned back to the high Modernists, Objectivists, and New York School to balance out a poetic that was, in the end, too baldly Romantic. Sometimes this turn has produced new work that's mechanical, emotionally flat, or unparsable—but that doesn't negate the fact that this rebalancing is mostly a good move, one that's hardly a betrayal of Modernism. Indeed, it's a backward turn similar to Eliot's when he exalted the Metaphysical poets over the Victorians and Romantics.

There are a number of things that worry me about poetry today:

• Ignorance of poetic—and literary—history. I was once on a panel with a well-published poet who said she had little use for the Modernists because her work was about collage. It's just this sort of foreshortened view that leaves poets thinking either (a.) that all poetry must be built around reportage of personal epiphany, or (b.) that Dadaism is new.

• I worry when I hear writers say they're not interested in reading—or writing—“great poems.” I still subscribe to the quaint idea that poets write in the hope of producing a few great works—works that, assuming society doesn't collapse in one of its many possible conflagrations, people will continue to read a hundred years from now because those works will continue to be valuable. Call me an optimist.

• I fear that America's most visible and influential critical apparatuses have yet to notice how much American poetry has decentralized. Our next important poet could just as easily be living in Cleveland, Houston, Chico, Tucson, or Lincoln as (s)he could in New York or Boston. How long will it take the New York Times Book Review to pay attention?

• Childishness. I understand that poems written in the whiny idiom of a 15-year-old about Barbies and action figures and teenagery romance are, at their best, intended to approach seriousness through the back door. But, come on: we're adults. We don't need to apologize for having adult concerns. And if we haven't stumbled upon them by the time we're in our mid to late twenties, we should go looking for them. Call me stodgy.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Poet's Bumper Sticker Company (Part II)


Well, maybe . . . .  Anyway, I commented on this brouhaha last week:

And it looks like either they’re continuing the joke or they really do intend to make bumper stickers to sell at AWP, as there’s now a website up:

Who knows? (And I see they used some of the suggestions from the comment stream from this blog! We're all collaborators now!)

So there you go.  

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Dean Young Is in Need of a Heart Transplant - Message from Tony Hoagland

To make a donation to NFT in honor of Dean Young, click the link below. If you'd prefer to send your gift by mail, please send it to the NFT Texas Heart Fund, 5350 Poplar Avenue, Suite 430, Memphis, TN 38119. Please be sure to write "in honor of Dean Young" on the memo line.

A letter from Tony Hoagland:

Dear Friends,

If you are reading this, you are probably a friend of Dean Young and/or a friend of poetry. And you may have heard that our friend is in a precarious position. Dean needs a heart transplant now. He also needs your assistance now.

Over the past 10 or 15 years, Dean has lived with a degenerative heart condition--congestive heart failure due to idiopathic hypotropic cardiomyopathy. After periods of more-or-less remission, in which his heart was stabilized and improved with the help of medications, the function of his heart has worsened. Now, radically.

For the last two years he has had periods in which he cannot walk a block without resting. Medications which once worked have lost their efficacy. He is in and out of the hospital, unable to breathe without discomfort, etc. Currently, Dean's heart is pumping at an estimated 8% of normal volume.

In the past, doctors have been impressed with his ability to function in this condition. But now things are getting quickly worse. Dean has been placed on the transplant list at Seton Medical Center Austin, and has just been upgraded to a very critical category. He's got to get a heart soon, or go to intermediate drastic measures like a mechanical external pump.

Whatever the scenario, the financial expenses, both direct and collateral, will be massive. Yes, he has sound health insurance, but even so, he will have enormous bills not covered by insurance--which is where you can help, with your financial support.

If you know Dean, you know that his non-anatomical heart, though hardly normal, is not malfunctioning, but great in scope, affectionate and loyal. And you know that his poetry is what the Elizabethans would have called "one of the ornaments of our era"--hilarious, heartbreaking, courageous, brilliant and already a part of the American canon.

His 10-plus books, his long career of passionate and brilliant teaching, most recently as William Livingston Chair of Poetry at the University of Texas at Austin; his instruction and mentorship of hundreds of younger poets; his many friendships; his high, reckless and uncompromised vision of what art is: all these are reasons for us to gather together now in his defense and support.

Joe Di Prisco, one of Dean's oldest friends, is chairing a fundraising campaign conducted through the National Foundation for Transplants (NFT). NFT is a nonprofit organization that has been assisting transplant patients with advocacy and fundraising support since 1983.

On behalf of Dean, myself, and the principle of all our friendships in art, I ask you to give all you can. Thanks, my friends.


Tony Hoagland

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Cloud Corporation - Timothy Donnelly

One of the reasons I started this blog was because I wasn’t seeing much conversation going on about the books of poetry that I was most interested in. My how times are changing. Mary Jo Bang, Rae Armantrout, Keith Waldrop, all with recent major awards, and large notice going out to Rachel Zucker, and many others in The New York Times, and on and on. I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Is this really part of a change in the reading habits of whomever it is who reads poetry? Or is this just a blip of inclusion that is going to swing some other way next ? Whatever happens, I still am surprised a book that captured my imagination as Timothy Donnelly’s The Cloud Corporation has this fall, has seemingly captured the imaginations of many others as well.

I've posted on it, with a poem, briefly before:

But there's much more to say. 

The Cloud Corporation is an elusive book. It’s both highly metaphorical and abstract as well as direct and aggressive, by turns. It’s a large book: 147 pages of poetry. It resists the very sorts of things that usually make books of poems popular (for poetry): overt autobiography, usually in the form of some historical or traumatic personal event, as well as short poems that encapsulate the “project” and nod to an instance. Instead The Cloud Corporation is largely cultural, with nods to the ideas of both “could” and “corporation.” Many of the poems are long, going on for several pages in numbered sections. It’s lyrical, and beautifully rendered, but it’s also structured with a bureaucratic thread, a sort of overwhelming pile of long sentences and intricate ways to navigate minute distinctions. Call it a combination of red carpet and red tape. By all accounts, it shouldn’t work. But instead it’s one of my very favorite books of the year, one that I’m returning to this week, as luck would have it, just as the most recent review, the link to which I just got this morning, went live over at The Constant Critic:

Here are some bits from the review:

The Cloud Corporation has earned reviews in venues usually disinclined to praise younger poets; the book is only Donnelly’s second, and it has been seven years since his first. Part of what accounts for this celebration (which is wholly due, I think) is the book’s fearless cerebration. I agree with this assessment, but not because brains are good for their own sake—that’s zombie logic—but rather because the unfolding of Donnelly’s thoughts, as beautiful as a bolt of silk flung down a marble staircase, is central to his subject. Think about that action, though: in any individual example, it’s an apotheosis of skill. Taken in aggregate, however, it can become, well, monstrous. One bolt of silk unfolds with liquid loveliness. Billions of bolts of silk unfolding in slow motion begin to inspire organic unease. The machinery of life is elegant at scale; expand the scale and it becomes gross, horrible, cancerous, Blob-like.

“Donnelly’s plenty smart, but it’s his focus on the plenitude that matters here.

. . .

“What I admire most about The Cloud Corporation is Donnelly’s frank yet elaborate acknowledgment that these riches are, essentially, good for nothing. A view from the top is a view to the apocalypse. From without, The Blob is a threat; from within, it’s a womb the comfort of which is compromised by the individual’s sense of how their privilege and their predicament are one.

. . .

The Cloud Corporation is a big book, big and sublime in that it inspires a kind of queasy awe. Its strengths are considerable, even as the poet dissolves the distinction between macro and micro to tell us how it feels to be all wound up with nowhere to go. But I treasure it in terms I rarely apply to art: this book is great because it’s true. In reading it I regularly shuttled between the satisfactions of the verse (‘That’s that!’) and admiring dread (‘Fuck. That is that.’)”


I will add to the review that if you happen upon a copy, and I hope you will, and if you don’t like it, which I hope doesn’t happen, that before you put it away you skip to section four. If you’re going to read the whole thing, please do. It’s absolutely worth it. But section four, you must read, whoever you are.

Here’s the first poem from section four to get you started:


You wager too much, small self, on the way you feel. Nothing
     you have thought should last forever can’t be lost.

Even the yellow wind that begins at once to strip the last of the
     heart-shaped foliage from the tree across the way

knows that feeling is a spell from which the mind can
     rouse itself awake if it would only let itself be taken

leaf by leaf apart. And you have felt this fear before, clung
     as to a vapor misremembering what had stood to

live through memory alone. Or was it afterwards among
     fog folded into blankets of some self-erasing sleep.

Or when, conversely, focused on the constancy of any given
     thing without dispersing, undissolved—an icecap-

white moon or clock-face on a tower—the mind intent on far
     too fine a point to take in any more. You will outlive

yourself again, and what you feel now, this adamantine
     sorrow, will scatter its dicethrow behind you into swans.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

20th Century - Ashbery - Armantrout - My Philosophy of Life

BEING and TOTALITY were mid-20th Century master narratives, and we’ve come away from them shaken. What is art to aspire to after that? (The same things as it always has.)

If our time is “in the shadow of” 20th Century art and philosophy it’s because the art and philosophy of the 20th Century were totalizing, and our time is one of contraction, of a counter movement rather than a redirection or revision.

The error of our age is when we treat occurrences as instances. Not all walks to the mailbox are fraught with the weight of history. Usually it’s just junk mail.

If 20th Century master narratives are cages, 21st Century competing narratives are shadowboxing. Either can yield great as well as forgettable art.

There are some things we do not want to say so we remain silent. We are social.

Because in the artwork the instance must emerge, the experience of time is disrupted by attention.

In art, time is less sequentially monadic and more prismatically nomadic. Obvious examples: think of the structure of Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” or Terrantino’s Pulp Fiction. You can even find this tension in Wordsworth, if you must. It’s always been this way. But it gains currency in the early 20th Century.

It will be a long time before we’re done dealing with the early 20th Century.

And we have the idea of time layered in Ashbery, where the poem often advances by shifting horizontally, geographically, one time to another—an accretion of middles of instances culminating in a panorama, the visual representation of the previous disparate occurrences. Armantrout, my other go-to example from our time achieves a similar effect by shifting time not across individuals and instances, but down the line of instances vertically, organized by one consciousness. Where Ashbery can appear as montage, clustered instances, Armantrout uses montaged, sequential absences.

The art object exists as an encounter its perceiver constructs alone. It is less a presence than a prompt. It is difficult, therefore, to agree to criteria for excellence, for whatever excellence one sees in art is really an encounter one is having with oneself.

How can one succeed, then, in convincing someone that a poem is worthy of praise? (When all parties are being honest and not cynical, we're like the priest, the rabbi, and the Imam on a lifeboat comparing mythologies.)

Arguments about art, necessary as they are (or appear to be), are necessarily beside the point.

When one is saying a poem fails, one is saying that it has failed to prompt that person into an encounter with her/him/self. The operation of that failure doesn’t necessarily reside with the poem in question just as it doesn’t necessarily reside with the perceiver. None of these are givens.

It’s always as much about form as it is about content. Form is about content.

Art need not be a representation to be an ecstatic presence.

Art is not social. In this way, art contends that every wedding you attend is a wedding of people you don’t know. Call it a philosophy of life . . .

My Philosophy of Life
John Ashbery

Just when I thought there wasn’t room enough
for another thought in my head, I had this great idea—
call it a philosophy of life, if you will. Briefly,
it involved living the way philosophers live,
according to a set of principles. OK, but which ones?

That was the hardest part, I admit, but I had a
kind of dark foreknowledge of what it would be like.
Everything, from eating watermelon or going to the bathroom
or just standing on a subway platform, lost in thought
for a few minutes, or worrying about rain forests,
would be affected, or more precisely, inflected
by my new attitude. I wouldn’t be preachy,
or worry about children and old people, except
in the general way prescribed by our clockwork universe.
Instead I’d sort of let things be what they are
while injecting them with the serum of the new moral climate
I thought I’d stumbled into, as a stranger
accidentally presses against a panel and a bookcase slides back,
revealing a winding staircase with greenish light
somewhere down below, and he automatically steps inside
and the bookcase slides shut, as is customary on such occasions.
At once a fragrance overwhelms him—not saffron, not lavender,
but something in between. He thinks of cushions, like the one
his uncle’s Boston bull terrier used to lie on watching him
quizzically, pointed ear-tips folded over. And then the great rush
is on. Not a single idea emerges from it. It’s enough
to disgust you with thought. But then you remember something William James
wrote in some book of his you never read—it was fine, it had the fineness,
the powder of life dusted over it, by chance, of course, yet still looking
for evidence of fingerprints. Someone had handled it
even before he formulated it, though the thought was his and his alone.

It’s fine, in summer, to visit the seashore.
There are lots of little trips to be made.
A grove of fledgling aspens welcomes the traveler. Nearby
are the public toilets where weary pilgrims have carved
their names and addresses, and perhaps messages as well,
messages to the world, as they sat
and thought about what they’d do after using the toilet
and washing their hands at the sink, prior to stepping out
into the open again. Had they been coaxed in by principles,
and were their words philosophy, of however crude a sort?
I confess I can move no farther along this train of thought—
something’s blocking it. Something I’m
not big enough to see over. Or maybe I’m frankly scared.
What was the matter with how I acted before?
But maybe I can come up with a compromise—I’ll let
things be what they are, sort of. In the autumn I’ll put up jellies
and preserves, against the winter cold and futility,
and that will be a human thing, and intelligent as well.
I won’t be embarrassed by my friends’ dumb remarks,
or even my own, though admittedly that’s the hardest part,
as when you are in a crowded theater and something you say
riles the spectator in front of you, who doesn’t even like the idea
of two people near him talking together. Well he’s
got to be flushed out so the hunters can have a crack at him—
this thing works both ways, you know. You can’t always
be worrying about others and keeping track of yourself
at the same time. That would be abusive, and about as much fun
as attending the wedding of two people you don’t know.
Still, there’s a lot of fun to be had in the gaps between ideas.
That’s what they're made for! Now I want you to go out there
and enjoy yourself, and yes, enjoy your philosophy of life, too.
They don’t come along every day. Look out! There’s a big one . . .

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Coming Soon to an AWP Near You?

I really have no idea where this came from (WikiLeaks is my guess). The email address that sent the email with this didn’t have much for clues, and it was signed by the company. But on the off-chance that there really is going to be a table at AWP with bumper stickers, it seemed like it might be worth posting. I might even buy one or two. If they’re not too expensive. And they seem to be open to further suggestions, though if you decide to suggest, please keep it clean.

I’m still ambivalent about posting it, though. One person’s satire is another’s snark. And a few of the references elude me entirely. (Maybe someone can clue me in on Amiri Baraka and Barrett Watten?) And it seems odd that one of these mentions a regional university in Missouri, since I teach at a regional university in Missouri (though I never went to Iowa). I feel a little double-dog dared.

Offensive? In good fun? Anyway, if anyone complains that these are over the line, I’ll take them down.

Here you go:


Bumper Stickers We Plan to Sell at the 2011 AWP

(We are a new business, in fact, and would appreciate any suggestions. Thank you.

--The Poet’s Bumper Sticker Company)











































Wednesday, December 01, 2010

From the Aquamarine Notebook: Part Two

A few more things from the notebook. It’s small and aquamarine. And tentative. Sometimes indefensible, as well. 


For an art object to have unity, a unity must be willed by the perceiver. The reading of the art unifies disparate elements. This is why I always distrust readings (explications) of poems. They become a translation. This is not a new thought, but it’s the thought I’m having today, stuck on repeat.

Unknowable things clutter the landscape, causing us to trip.

Unity is a trick (or by-product) of form and temporality. It is written over the work at hand by the reader’s desire for a coherence, or it is abandoned if the reader feels there is going to be no coherence at the macro level. Coherence, as well as unity, is a trick (or by-product) of the frame, the form, the temporality, of the art object.

Coherence, unity, and meaning are not indivisible.

In this way, the part does not require the whole. Just as the part of the world that is the art object does not require the entirety of reality to exist, so too, one can find meaning in the art object without a need to create a unified totality of it. The parts do not need the whole.

This is obviously true, and avoided by many people.

Metaphors of unity, when relating to art, impose a false economy on what is in actuality gestural and provisional. Readings reify. I’m not thinking of deconstruction here, as I’m not interested in breakages, but in constructedness, in the fissures that bring things into a contextual relationship.

Art begins as the mystery of otherness, and ends with the mystery of the self. Parts to a whole.

The whole and unity are not indivisible.

In the way one can say “at room temperature” and mean any one of several precise measurements.

If an artwork can be called “more than the sum of its parts” we can know for certain that art is, at its finality, irrational.

If art is at its finality irrational, why should it, finally, be expected to yield to rational readings?

Is there a possibility for art beyond representation? What is beyond representation? Time itself? The future? The alterior?

For art to be successful it must be more than what it is. Exceptional art will express more than it can.

This is why Imagism / Objectivism / and Language Poetry (etc) are best in their failures. The examples ruin the poetics. In art, this is what examples must do. The goal of art is not the accomplishment of the theory or the application of the theory. That’s between you and your box of robots.

But can one regard art without presuppositions?

Art is a radical presence—metaphor is key, an irrational whole, whereas simile is attendant, rational. These are tendencies only.

Ethics in art is a presupposition. Ethics is not in the art but in the perceiver of the art (this is less true, of course, in art that is directly meant to persuade, but it is still present). The art object is static though its ethics is dynamic. Ethics requires the social. Art, even communal art, is not in and of itself social. It must be carried over by a perceiver.

Ronald Reagan's 1984 campaign used "Born in the USA" as an inspirational, pro-USA, way to get the crowd pumped-up. I found that odd. 

An ethics of art will always be contingent on the alterity of the artwork.