Sunday, June 27, 2010

George Oppen - Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers

George Oppen
Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers

It’s been out awhile, but I’m just finding some time to read it all the way through. In case you don’t have a copy, as a teaser, here are a few snippets from Daybook I:


Words are a constant enemy: the thing seems to exist because the word does

Truth must follow after things

IF NOT this deluge of bric-a-brac, Nothing

I don’t think life should be valued only when it can be sentimentalized (this remark derived from Yeats)

—even Keats’ feeling that he had to say something “profound”—Keats weakening—writes Beauty is truth and truth beauty—if it were true, the line would be beautiful, and it is not. It is not in any case how poetry makes “meaning.” The meaning of Williams’ poetry, for example, is that life is not valuable only when it can be sentimentalized or only when it can be generalized. To be able to say that, as I have said it here, does not constitute great poetry, of course; the achievement of the poet is to prove it by the aesthetic success of the poem. And Williams’ vision------ . . .

And Williams has been important to us: the end of sentiment, the end of generalization is very nearly upon us: it is no longer convincing. Williams therefore
/ . . .

It can not be said that Rezi was as “important” as Williams, Pound, Eliot, because he was not important to the development of modern poetry. Simple, almost none of the poets had read him. He could have been of great importance, it is even true that it would have been a very good thing if he had played an important role: he would have presented at least an alternative to the influence of Williams, the aridities derived from Eliot—We might have avoided a great many difficulties; Williams’ model has rather made fakery easy, Pound

and the obfuscations of Ezra Pound

invite even easier imitation, and tho Auden and the Eliot school are perhaps not altogether easy to imitate, it is at least true that the manner apparently can be acquired with a certain amount of education even by those who possess no poetic intuition at all.

but it is probable that nothing of
importance in Rezi can be imitated. And it is likely that
which explains the neglect of his work


In Oppen’s bit here from Daybook I, it’s interesting that he mentions neither Gertrude Stein nor Wallace Stevens. But I think, if he did, he would say that Stein fits in with the Williams bit, where fakery would be easy, and Stevens would fit with the Eliot, that the manner can be worn by those with education but no intuition. But I’m guessing. (Actually, it's really not that difficult to imagine why he didn't mention them, as, at that time, neither had the buzz that they do now, at least compared with WCW, Eliot, and Pound. And then Pound. Is there anyone who still talks about Pound?  And this was the late 50s, early 60s, when poetry was still a boy's club ... )

A step that he couldn’t have foreseen in the early 60s, is that the sentimentality and generalizations that Williams was going to be the wall against, would be breeched by Deep Image and Confessional poetry, and their various strands through the 70s and 80s. (And then, in countermeasure to that, the rise of Ashbery and the second look at Stevens which is a very different thing than either.)

But I adore Oppen’s version of the WCW inoculation against generality and sentimentality. It makes me want to go walk up town and pick at the courthouse bricks.

And what of the work of Charles Reznikoff [the Rezi above] and William Carlos Williams? Well, it seems that George Oppen’s doing quite well these days, and WCW, while not getting all as much name-dropping as Oppen or Stevens, is still doing fine. But Reznikoff, indeed, his work isn’t wearing well. What was precise and specific, now is starting to look a bit misty. This is “Similes” from By The Well of Living and Seeing and The Fifth Book of the Maccabees (1969)


Indifferent as a statue
to the slogan
scribbled on its pedestal.

The way an express train
snubs the passengers at a local station.

Like a notebook forgotten on a seat in the bus,
full of names, addresses and telephone numbers:
important, no doubt, to the owner—
but of no interest whatever
to anyone else.

Words like drops of water on a stove—
a hiss and gone.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Music of 2010 (So Far)

My Picks for the Top 10 Albums of 2010 (at the halfway mark)

1. The National – High Violet
2. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening
3. Broken Bells – Broken Bells
4. Clem Snide – The Meat of Life
5. Cowboy Junkies – Renmin Park
6. Damien Jurado – Saint Bartlett
7. Dr. Dog – Shame, Shame
8. Eels – End Times
9. Mates of State – Crushes (The Covers Mixtape)
10. Laura Veirs – July Flame

Other Albums That Have Some Good Things Going for Them

Angus & Julia Stone – Down the Way
The Bird and the Bee – Interpreting the Maters Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall & John Oates
Beach House – Teen Dream
Bill Callahan – Rough Travel for a Rare Thing
Josh Ritter – So Runs the World Away
Suzanne Vega – Close-Up Vol 1, Love Songs

Albums That Are Worth Mentioning But Don’t Strike Me All That Much

The Flaming Lips – The Dark Side of the Moon
Band of Horses – Infinite Arms
Jay Bennett – Kicking at the Perfumed Air
Joanna Newsom – Have One on Me
Blitzen Trapper – Destroyer of the Void
MGMT – Congratulations
Plants and Animals – La La Land
Rogue Wave – Permalight
Sarah Jaffe – Suburban Nature
She & Him – Volume Two
Beach Fossils – Beach Fossils

Friday Morning Addendum:

Phosphorescent - Here's to Taking it Easy

It was suggested to me on facebook, and I've gone crazy for it. It's excellent. If your favorite Wilco album is Being There, or if you like A.A. Bondy or Bonnie "Prince" Billy or early-70s Neil Young, or anything in that general category, then you really should check this out (and the back catalogue!).

Monday, June 21, 2010

Criteria: show me yours and I’ll show you mine

Criteria of Excellence. As soon as I hear that, I feel like I’ve been transported to some dark schoolroom in the dark, foreboding past where one is bound to be smacked across the knuckles with something hard at any given moment.

So here’s Anis Shivani’s question for us all, and his criticism of what he sees as a symptom of our time:


“What is it that we expect of a poem today? Are there any criteria at all? What are the standards we expect a poem to meet before we can call it a good poem?

The poems I mentioned [in a review of the 2009 Best American Poetry]—and I could have done the operation for almost any of the poems in the [Best American Poetry] anthology—seem to me to fail to meet any standards. They are reflections of the verbal adaptability of certain masters: look what I can do with words, I can play with them. And that’s fine, too, as a standard, but then it needs to be something truly impressive, and not duplicable with a blindfold over one's eyes, if it is to amount to something. Should a poem be beautiful? If so, how? Should it have political meaning? If not, what else must it do to be a good poem? Should a poem elicit certain emotions in the reader? If the answer is no, no emotional reaction is necessary, then what other criteria make the poem a good one? It's a pretty basic question, and I think the BAP, year after year, fails on this primary level.

I think these poems represent an extreme state of decadence in American poetry. If decadence is the standard, that's fine too, I have no problem with that, but I think the majority of the defense mounted in favor of such poetry does not acknowledge the decadence, it posits other criteria. Such as that Jorie Graham's poetry is politically astute (she, along with Glick and Olds, is one of the worst poets today, or at any time in any place). Or that Olds's poetry is feminist (no, it's positively medieval in its reductionism of the female to the female body). Or that Philip Levine's poetry dignifies the working man (I don't think he knows the first thing about the working man--he has memories of memories of having been a working-class man for a short period of time some sixty years ago).

So if this is supposed to be the BAP, what are some of these poets doing that would make us proud to hold them in comparison with some of the acknowledged greats of the past? Can we say that this poetry is some sort of advance over Bishop, Lowell, Berryman, Merrill? If so, in what way? Is it a retreat? That's justifiable too, but then let's articulate it that way.

I'm open to further discussion, using any of the BAP poems as examples. What is good about the Bibbins poem, to take one example? Is it beautiful? Does it make me think? Does it evoke some feeling (what feeling)? I'd like to hear the defenders' standards for this poem.”


I disagree with Shivani, but I believe his question is posed in good faith. He says the great majority of American Poetry appears to be written without criteria, or criteria that is observable by Shivani, and, by extension, the general reading public.

Are we in a post-“criteria of excellence” age? Of course not. But I did notice a decade or so ago that it seemed most everyone I talked to about poetry was, first, quite ready to talk about what they liked and didn’t like, but, conversely, seemed allergic to having a conversation about what makes a good poem. Criteria. Rules. It’s that whole “criteria” thing which makes me squirm. Criteria smacks of preconceived notions of what is going to be good or great before the encounter. Criteria sounds like a voice over narrative. Criteria sounds like authority standing there with a clipboard and checklist.

One doesn’t want that. One wants to say it’s gut first, and then everything else after. I want to say that. But it’s also true that I know within a couple seconds of reading a poem whether I’m going to like it or not (or at least if I want to keep reading or not). A couple seconds is long enough to know very little about form or content, then, and I’m already in a YES or NO mode. Sometimes I’m surprised by a poem that goes awry (in my estimation) or a poem I’d written off, that for some reason I keep reading, circles back around and gets good. But usually that doesn’t happen.

For me it’s something about the attention to language at the sentence level that will either get me to sign on for the ride or to want to bail out. I like conversational American English sentences that contain a lot of strong images with very little modification. Everything else is secondary, but also important (twists of wit and surprise, the hint of narrative or a suggestive scene, a feeling for the frame). That’s not a full list of “criteria,” but it’s a start, for me. It’s as close as I want to get to enumerating it, for whatever reason.

I get a lot of pleasure from poetry, but not all poetry. Formal poetry does almost nothing for me, for example. Neither does most of the poetry that might be described as the post-confessional, autobiographical poem of the small moment with a thematic epiphany. But the poetry I do find pleasure in, I find it to be a pleasure of language, of speech, and then the pleasure of surprise, as unexpected things occur, and then, finally, a gesture at something to continue to ponder after the poem ends, and that could be a “theme” (something about living now, of getting through our lives) or a way some image has been turned (which can also be something about living now, of getting through our lives). So it could be conceptual (suggestive), formal, or philosophical.

I don't have the Bibbins poem to hand right now, as I don't have a copy of the 2009 Best American Poetry. But the above are the elements I find in Bibbins's poetry generally, and in most of the poetry I admire.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Who are the Contemporary American Surrealists and what do they want?

Gulf Coast has a conversation with Heather Christle, Hannah Gamble, Matthew Rohrer, Zachary Schomburg, and Matthew Zapruder on Surrealism:

Gulf Coast conducted the email exchange “because it seemed, to [them], that a new generation of surrealist- and absurdist-influenced poetry had emerged in the U.S., written by poets ranging from their mid-twenties to mid-forties and rooted in small presses like Wave Books, Black Ocean, and Octopus Books.” And this is their question: “But what does ‘surrealism’ even mean, in American poetry today?”

Names for things always fascinate me, so I was interested in reading this exchange. And my first questions when starting to read this exchange, were:

1. Is there a movement that could be termed a contemporary American surrealism, and if so, who are its practitioners?

2. Who gets called surreal (in reviews, essays, and on the backs of their books)? And for what reason, and to what outcome?

First, and helpfully, we have four contenders here from Gulf Coast: Hannah Gamble, Matthew Rohrer, Zachary Schomburg, and Matthew Zapruder. There are a lot of essays out there on movements and such, and they usually seem to be a little example-light. So, starting with these three presses and four writers, it’s not difficult to begin to make a list to get a sense of what they’re talking about:

Authors from the Octopus books catalogue:

Matvei Yankelevich
Heather Christle
Eric Baus
Julie Doxsee
Emily Pettit
Patrick Culliton
C. D. Wright
Shane McCrae
Matthew Rohrer
Ana Bozicevic-Bowling
Lily Brown
Jonah Winter
Jen Tynes
Erika Howsare
Sueyeun Juliette Lee
Eugene Ostashevsky
Joshua Marie Wilkinson
Genya Turovskaya
Samuel Amadon

Authors from the Black Ocean catalogue:

Julie Doxsee
Joe Hall
Zachary Schomburg
Aase Berg (translated by Johannes Göransson)
Joshua Harmon
Rauan Klassnik
Paula Cisewski
Carrie Olivia Adams
Scott Creney

Authors from the Wave Books catalogue:

Eric Baus
Joshua Beckman
Charles Borkhuis
Laynie Browne
Garrett Caples
Gillian Conoley
Michael Earl Craig
Timothy Donnelly
John Godfrey
Arielle Greenberg
Christian Hawkey
Brian Henry
Franck Andre Jamme
Tyehimba Jess
Aimee Kelley
Caroline Knox
Noelle Kocot
Dorothea Lasky
Brett Fletcher Lauer
Katy Lederer
Anthony McCann
Richard Meier
Chelsey Minnis
Eileen Myles
Sawako Nakayasu
Maggie Nelson
Philip Nikolayev
Geoffrey Nutter
Peter Richards
Matthew Rohrer
Mary Ruefle
Steve Shavel
S.A. Stepanek
James Tate
Diane Wald
Joe Wenderoth
Dara Wier
Jon Woodward
Andrew Zawacki
Rachel Zucker

Granted, every single author from each press is certainly not going to be an example of American Surrealism, but it’s still a good place to start, as Gulf Coast has done. But after that, things begin to get quite complicated. I’ve heard Dean Young called a Surrealist in Publisher’s Weekly. And, if the above poets are examples, then we also have many others to add to the list. If Dean Young, then probably Dobby Gibson? Who else? Mathias Svalina, perhaps, through his association with Octopus. Who else? Black Ocean also publishes a journal, Handsome, as does Octopus. Those might be good places to go for more names.

Most, if not all of the above poets that I’m familiar with are also called Post-Avant poets, I believe? So should “Post-Avant” be divided up, or should it ever have existed in the first place? Or does it still exist? Is now the time? Or are any of these categories actual categories? Is there some shared enterprise among the above lists of poets?

Here’s Zachary Schomburg from the symposium:

“What the original Surrealists were doing is something I, too, am trying to do, so I feel I am a part of that lineage. I’m certainly influenced more by them (and the Russian Absurdists perhaps) than by any other poetics. However, that label is far too simple. The process through which I write is entirely different from Breton’s (or what Breton may claim), as are my politics, my philosophies, etc.

Besides, the word “surreal” has—in our broader, non-poetry lexicon—come to mean something much simpler: strange, unreal, weird. I’ve read too many poems that are labeled surreal only because they are not obviously confessional or sincere. I’d hate for the word to become a catch-all, one that has no recollection of Breton. In other words, if we’re going to label something surreal now, those poems should probably resemble each other in some tangible way, or they should perhaps resemble the French Surrealists’ poems in some tangible way. There should probably be a new word for it, and a new manifesto, and maybe this conversation can spark something like that.”

I would be interested in seeing someone take a stab at that new word for it. Looking at the above lists of poets I feel there might be some way to say something generally descriptive that might hold. Who wants to start? Poetry Magazine, maybe? That would be a nice special issue idea.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Anis Shivani on BAP 2009 and the poetry of the interchangeable

Anis Shivani is thinking about the 2009 Best American Poetry, and finding the poetry lacking. He’s joining the conversation. What do you say in return?

The title is enough to give you the gist: “David Lehman's Incestuous Coterie: Why the New 'Best American Poetry' Sucks Even More Than Its Twenty-One Predecessors”

One minor part that intrigued me is his bit on Mark Bibbins. I like Bibbins’s poetry quite a bit. And here’s what Shivani has to say about it:


Here's some of Mark Bibbins's "Concerning the Land to the South of Our Neighbors to the North": "West Virginia was made overseas and brought to us, chunk by chunk, / aboard container ships." Later, he goes on: "Scientists predict that Colorado will soon be an archipelago, / though not in our lifetime, and Florida shall turn dusty / as the Necco Wafers scattered nightly across Massachusetts."

This is gibberish pretending to be poetry. What on earth does any of it mean? This is what I mean by poetry generating itself from itself, without relevance to the empirical world or any sense of reality. All right, I'll say weird stuff about the fifty states, just meaningless stuff, and string it all together, thinks Bibbins's clogged brain one fall morning at the New School. How hard can it be? Which is precisely the point, because everything in this anthology screams: Poetry is not hard at all! Anyone can do it! You don't need to know any actual art or music or politics or philosophy or history or geography or biology or physics or even other poetry to do it. The subjects and predicates in the above poem are completely interchangeable. It could have been "Colorado" rather than "West Virginia" that was brought over "chunk by chunk." And what does it mean anyway? In his explanation, Bibbins remarks, "I realized after writing the poem that it's a sort of gawky distant cousin of John Ashbery's 'Into the Dusk-Charged Air,' to which the former tips its star-spattered hat."


I'm skipping most of what he said about Bibbins to concentrate on one bit that, to me, has a larger scope: I submit that nearly any poem is just as unstuck in “The subjects and predicates in the above poem are completely interchangeable” way as the Bibbins poem appears to be. That’s an accusation hurled a lot at younger poets (and Ashbery): that it’s all just random, that it could be shuffled and no one would notice.

So I did a little experiment. Here’s a poem from a poet I would consider the antithesis of Bibbins, William Logan, as logical and straight-forward as I could find, from the new issue of Pleiades:

Midges in Material Form

I cannot look at paint and not see death.
Unshaven sixty stares me in the face.
Painting is still the material form of desire.
They licked the brush and there, they drew a tree,
a smudge the eye agreed to call a birch.
The early artists of wash, of body color,
stole the cold secrets of transparency.
The speared wisteria, stiff, Japanese,
holds off the light, uneven in this season—
blunted, familiar, valedictory.
That is the cost of refusal. A cloud
of midges blurs the wicker fence,
a stain where thistles starve the summer air,
the lilac shavings dropping as if burned
onto the stone.

Does this poem seem inevitable? As if it had to be written this way? Well, if it doesn’t, Shivani wins, but if you think it does, then I win, as I just typed it out backwards. And one could imagine another formulation:

Midges in Material Form

The early artists of wash, of body color,
stole the cold secrets of transparency.
They licked the brush and there, they drew a tree,
a smudge the eye agreed to call a birch.
Painting is still the material form of desire.
The speared wisteria, stiff, Japanese,
holds off the light, uneven in this season—
blunted, familiar, valedictory.
A cloud of midges blurs the wicker fence,
a stain where thistles starve the summer air,
the lilac shavings dropping as if burned
onto the stone.
I cannot look at paint and not see death.
Unshaven sixty stares me in the face.
That is the cost of refusal.

One could do this all day, and never resolve the possibilities, and each version heightens a different aspect of the feeling, but none to me feel like the one final logic. I think that idea of inevitability that people say they see in poems is a trick of their reading habits. We want to feel like we’re being lead when we’re really not. A poet is just trying to get down the page. To get the feeling that randomness is happening is just as much a construction as getting the feeling that logic is happening. There is no regular conversation logic in anything other than play. It’s art production.

But anyway, that’s a minor part. Here’s the link to the article again:

What do you think?

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Renos - Free Download

This is a few years old now, but it still exists, and since it exists and is free, I thought I might as well post it again.

The Renos is (was) a band that I was in with Brian Bonhomme. The songs are written by us (in this collection, they’re mostly by me). I sing most of them. Brian sings a bit ("Nothing Ever Happens Here" and "Down") and plays most of the guitars (except the last six songs), bass and keys. The arrangements were by the both of us, but mostly by Brian, as he played most of the instruments (except for the last six songs that I wrote and performed alone on the computer).

If anyone out there is in a band and wants to perform these songs, go for it. And if anyone out there is a record executive and wants the band to get back together, just say. We’re not getting any younger you know.

Coming Apart

Nothing Ever Happens Here

Postcard Town

Motion Pictures

Floating Saturday



No Talking

The Weather In Space

Whirling Away

The Future is Chrome (live)

Bonus tracks:

Painless demo

From A City That's Turning demo

See How They Run demo

Directionless demo

Music Monday

I’m enjoying these recent new albums more than I expected to:

Cowboy Junkies – Renmin Park
Angus and Julia Stone – Down the Way
Damien Jurado – Saint Bartlett
The Bird and the Bee – Interpreting the Masters Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates

The Cowboy Junkies album (MP3 version) is on special sale at the downloads store today. $3.99. It’s excellent. The Angus and Julia Stone album is surprisingly good. I wasn’t much of a fan, but once I got used to them, this album really grew on me. Same with The Bird and the Bee. At first I hated it. Now I rather love it.

I was hoping I was going to like the Damien Jurado album, as I’ve really liked most of what he’s done. And I liked it even more than I expected to.

You can check out (and download) selected tracks from all of these here at hype machine. Just put the band name in the search bar.

Cowboy Junkies:
Suggested: “Stranger Here”

Angus and Julia Stone:
Suggested: “Down the Yellow Brick Road”

Damien Jurado
Suggested: “Cloudy Shoes”

The Bird and the Bee
Suggested: “Sara Smile”

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Stephen Dobyns - How To Like It

A couple people wrote to me that the Dean Young poem I posted this morning has something in common with this poem by Stephen Dobyns. So here’s the Dobyns.

Stephen Dobyns
How To Like It

These are the first days of fall. The wind
at evening smells of roads still to be traveled,
while the sound of leaves blowing across the lawns
is like an unsettled feeling in the blood,
the desire to get in a car and just keep driving.
A man and a dog descend their front steps.
The dog says, Let’s go downtown and get crazy drunk.
Let’s tip over all the trash cans we can find.
This is how dogs deal with the prospect of change.
But in his sense of the season, the man is struck
by the oppressiveness of his past, how his memories
which were shifting and fluid have grown more solid
until it seems he can see remembered faces
caught up among the dark places in the trees.
The dog says, Let’s pick up some girls and just
rip off their clothes. Let’s dig holes everywhere.
Above his house, the man notices wisps of cloud
crossing the face of the moon. Like in a movie,
he says to himself, a movie about a person
leaving on a journey. He looks down the street
to the hills outside of town and finds the cut
where the road heads north. He thinks of driving
on that road and the dusty smell of the car
heater, which hasn’t been used since last winter.
The dog says, Let’s go down to the diner and sniff
people’s legs. Let’s stuff ourselves on burgers.
In the man’s mind, the road is empty and dark.
Pine trees press down to the edge of the shoulder,
where the eyes of animals, fixed in his headlights,
shine like small cautions against the night.
Sometimes a passing truck makes his whole car shake.
The dog says, Let’s go to sleep. Let’s lie down
by the fire and put our tails over our noses.
But the man wants to drive all night, crossing
one state line after another, and never stop
until the sun creeps into his rearview mirror.
Then he’ll pull over and rest awhile before
starting again, and at dusk he’ll crest a hill
and there, filling a valley, will be the lights
of a city entirely new to him.
But the dog says, Let’s just go back inside.
Let’s not do anything tonight. So they
walk back up the sidewalk to the front steps.
How is it possible to want so many things
and still want nothing. The man wants to sleep
and wants to hit his head again and again
against a wall. Why is it all so difficult?
But the dog says, Let’s go make a sandwich.
Let’s make the tallest sandwich anyone’s ever seen.
And that’s what they do and that’s where the man’s
wife finds him, staring into the refrigerator
as if into the place where the answers are kept --
the ones telling why you get up in the morning
and how it is possible to sleep at night,
answers to what comes next and how to like it.

Dean Young – First Course in Turbulence

I’ve had this book for years, but one of the things I’m doing this summer is to reread books I’ve had around. I hate the idea that there are many books on my bookshelf that haven’t been opened in years.

Dean Young - First Course in Turbulence

The wren says, Let’s fly really fast
then veer sharply but the man just sits.
The kettle says, Let’s just sit here and
get really really mad but the man’s
been reading about ruins again and

he wants one of his own. Maybe just
a jaw to put on his desk to fondle
and think. Miraculous and what’s the point.
Also it’s May so the man goes outside
and starts digging and soon he’s uncovered

what looks like the top of a stone head.
Let’s rest awhile, says the music
coming from the radio then, Let’s
crash an airplane into the Everglades
but by now the man’s realizing he’s

started another thing he doesn’t want
to finish and the hole is shouting,
Something’s in me, get it out! So
after a couple root-popping, clay-
prying hours, he’s exposed a whole face,

pupils plugged with mud, lips straight
as if the teeth are meeting beneath.
The neck, he has to use his hands
to get to the neck, it’s two strong
tendons and then what he hopes aren’t,

but are, shoulders. Let’s forget all
about this and explode our brains, propose
the daffodils. Watch what I can do
with my shadow, says a tree, spooky huh?
But the man’s wondering about this thing’s

expression, is it about to laugh or
pass some terrible judgment? And what
about the arms? Holding a spear, scroll,
lyre, some farm implement? Already
he’s bleeding when all he wanted

was some fragment as a sort of proof
like the moth wings a woman sent him proved
she never wanted to see him again. What
kind of reasoning is that, asks the garbage
truck, gnawing. What do you know about

perishing? There’s always this point when
he becomes engulfed in extravagances and
nearly too dirty to walk into his own house.
Let’s eat mud and make mud, suggest the worms.
Let’s be nothing but big bellies above

the planet, advise the clouds but the man
knows he’s got weeks of work ahead, he needs
to find out if he’s got some god here
or just another swindling dignitary,
he needs to know if this is the king

everyone’s supposed to worship, the one
the taxes flow to from this weedy
province where we’ve nearly given up
all our appropriate dread. Horses
in the night, glittering breastplates

of thunder, red eyes blinking
on the radar weather maps, tell me
who I am, tell me what I’ve become.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Elisa Gabbert – The French Exit

I have a lot of books around that I’ve read but not posted anything from, so I thought I’d take some time this week to post a poem from each. My own little Poetry Daily.

Elisa Gabbert – The French Exit
Blogpoem w/ Autorape

There are no new words, words I haven’t mis-
pronounced or –used before, so I’m starting over—
with that A-hole who gave me an Atomic Harvest
tape and his debate club shirt that said
Making the world safe for hypocrisy; he saw
all those kids get killed in the bonfire, left a creepy
note on my car that I balled up and tossed
in the dumpster. I was eating an eggplant
parmesan sub, I lost that too. This is my fake
abecedarian, blasphemous chiclet diary entry
read by no one. Feels like getting caught
telling jokes to myself that I’ve already heard.
They pretty much tell themselves, I pretty much
just sync them up with my laugh track. I’d like
masturbation better if it could be a surprise attack.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Responding to David Biespiel's This Land Is Our Land

So here’s the original essay, by David Biespiel, first in Poetry Magazine and then in The Huffington Post. It’s the same little essay, so don’t bother reading both. Just choose your venue!

He says things like this: “Instead, I mean to question American poets’ intractable and often disdainful disinterest in participating in the public political arena outside the realm of poetry.”

And he asks the questions: “Is contemporary poetry’s aura of self-reliance mixed with cultural victimhood so pervasive that individual poets shirk any sense of responsibility for addressing matters of civic or political concern? Is it unrealistic to expect the contemporary poet to leave the enclaves of poetry to speak about something other than poetry, and in so doing risk saving American poetry and perhaps American democracy too? Or must we all admit finally that what poetry has become—perhaps was destined to become in our assimilated, couch-potato culture—is simply another industry of hermetic self-specialization?”

And a bit I’d really like to talk about more:

“Now consider the balkanized world of American poetry. Like Americans everywhere, America’s poets have turned insular and clustered in communities of aesthetic sameness, communicating only among those with similar literary heroes, beliefs, values, and poetics. Enter any regional poetry scene in any American metropolis or college town, and you will find the same cliquey village mentality with the same stylistic breakdowns. Over here you have the post-avant prose poets, over there the kitchen-sink confessionalists, and across the road are the shiny formalists—and no one ever breaks bread together. As with politics, where you have “I’m voting for That One” liberals and “Time for a Tea Party” conservatives, poetry has evolved into a self-selected enclave, and also—exactly like other sectors of American life—it has stratified into enclaves within enclaves that are hyper-specific and self-referential.”

That, more than anything else in the essay, shows to me that Biespiel is living in a very different world than I’m living in. For one thing, why should poets all hang out and be all cross-aesthetic with people of different aesthetic affiliations? Where’s the fun in that? When has that ever happened in the arts, in any age or location? Why is that a sign of some bad cultural movement? I’ve never been a fan of the Unitarian Argument, anyway. But then again, I think of the people I meet and talk to at readings in cities and universities and around at conferences and I realize I spend a LOT of time with people who I don’t particularly agree with, at least not all the way down the line. So Biespiel is wrong twice there.

But anyway, I wanted to write something more about this, but other things kept intruding. Here, though, are two reactions finding some flaws in his argument (if you go, remember to come back!):

Where Tamiko Beyer writes:

“I find it ironic that Biespiel is, himself seemingly too insulated in his own poetry world to recognize the work of established poets such as Myung Mi Kim, the late June Jordan, Martín Espada, Patricia Smith, Joy Harjo, and Juliana Spahr (yes, mostly women and people of color). Not to mention the rich, exciting work of emerging poets who are unabashedly and unapologetically engaging in the poetics of politics – poets such as Craig Santos Perez, Ching-In Chen, Tara Betts are just a few that immediately come to mind.”


Where Brian Spears suggests Biespiel: “Just get out there more, beyond the major organs of the press and dig down to the–forgive the cliché–grassroots. We’re there and we’re having an effect on the discourse, alongside the community organizers and other writers and activists.”

To this I’d like to now add, not something I wrote, but something that I came across in another conversation. It was written by Nicholas Sturm, and it approaches the Biespiel essay from a slightly different perspective. I asked if I could post it here, and so here it is:


Biespiel’s “This Land Is Our Land” manifesto is loaded. Let’s talk about why. First of all, this essay holds a clear partisan bias that, instead of opening up a discourse about poetry's contemporary relationship to politics, wrongly criticizes American poets' lack of civil engagement. Biespiel adopts a liberal humanist rhetoric that supposes poets should be leading "a culturally rich or civically engaged life" in which America's "leading thinkers or writers" will help create a bald eagle-soaring "dialogue with the greater public." (He says later, "a great public"!) Who are America's "leading thinkers or writers"? What is "the greater public" or a "great public"? How is Biespiel's punch line, "This divide between poet and civic life is bad for American poetry and bad for America," anything more than empty political rhetoric? Is that really his thesis? What kind of empire of letters is this guy talking about?

The truth is that Biespiel is something of an artist-insider in the privileged tiers of the American’s “great public.” For the past few years he has been contributing to Washington's political media machine via Politico, a political journalism organization that is financed by Robert Allbritton, a conservative bank and television CEO, and run by Frederick J. Ryan, Jr., the former Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. Yeah, it trickles down. (For fun, consider taking a look at a recent Politico Arena post from Biespiel that puts the blame for the recent BP oil spill on the “American people” ). Even if Biespiel’s contributions are cross-party, as the organization itself claims to be, the issue still remains: what does a poet, or any artist, risk by participating in that kind of shortsighted rhetorical game? Should poets be mimicking P. Diddy and his Vote or Die campaign? Is the former Puff Daddy an example of Biespiel’s civically engaged artist?

As far as the historical foundation Biespiel works off, the influence of Emerson and Whitman on American political poetry is palpable, but is another "Democratic Vistas" really desirable, or even realistic? Is an Emersonian infatuation with the "wealth of the commonwealth" a productive way of imagining art's "duty" to American democracy? Furthermore, Biespiel cites Czech writer Vaclav Havel, the country's first democratic president from 1993-2003, as an example of how American poets might also become politically engaged. What Biespiel leaves out of his foolproof example, and which readers of Poetry magazine might overlook, is that Havel is a playwright, not a poet, and therefore had an intrinsic platform and audience for his art, an audience that can afford that kind of "high" art (no disrespect to Havel), and later gained power from the political and social upheavals in Czechoslovakia during the collapse of the Soviet Union. Would it be better for American poetry if the Soviet Bloc stood at our back door? Maybe widespread civil unrest would do the trick?

One last thing: Biespiel's pandering to Hirsch's presidency of the Guggenheim and Dana Gioia's supposedly praise-worthy work as a "political appointee confirmed by the US Senate" (how is that "good for American poetry"?) does little other than provide a wave of support for a privileged upper echelon of agenda-driven cultural agencies. And the pandering seems to have worked. Earlier this year Biespiel was elected to the Board of Directors of the National Book Critics Circle. Now there’s some cultural power we can appreciate. Maybe it’s just me, but to suggest that "America has turned its back on poetry" because we're not writing poems that could be ticker tape on FOX news is not only absurd, but pompous, arrogant, and historically blind.

- Nicholas Sturm


Paul Otremba sent me a note that was a little too long for a comments box, so I’m, with his OK, posting it as an addendum. Here it is:


There is one assumption that Biespiel makes that I haven’t seen too many people challenge, but if such challenges exist, I’d be grateful to be pointed in their direction. Biespiel’s assumption is that poets by the nature of what they do should be considered competent to address political issues in civic roles. I see how poetry can be a medium for voicing indignation with, or support for, or moral correction to a civic readership or government, but what I don’t see is the evidence for Biespiel’s causal claim between being a poet and being competent to find solutions to “difficult-to-solve public issues such as cultural fragmentation, national health care, decrepit infrastructure, threats of terrorism, energy consumption, climate change, nuclear proliferation, warfare, poverty, crime, immigration, and civil rights.” Upon reading the bravado and utopian overreaching of that litany, I was immediately transported back to the scenes I saw on television during Jesse “The Body” Ventura’s gubernatorial victory, where there were keg stands, moshing, and chants of “We want a politician who is not a politician,” or at least that is how I remember it.

I find a danger to the rhetoric of entitlement and exceptionalism that would claim that “Poets are actually uniquely suited and retain a special cultural gravitas to speak publicly and morally about human aspirations,” which seems to originate for Biespiel in their “core values of illumination, imagination, reflection, and sincerity.” This belief in the poet as a special kind of person who by her very nature and the activity of her work is a more moral being leads too often to the self-righteous and self-satisfied posturing you see in Facebook status updates. Indignation expressed individually and collectively perhaps has proven to have some civic and political efficacy, but it is not a program or set of solutions to real, complex problems. Neither is reading a poem or writing one.

Practicing the attentiveness and sympathy it takes to rigorously write or deeply read poetry can be an activity that offers us what Kenneth Burke might call “equipment for living,” which I think is similar to what William Carlos Williams believes poetry provides us instead of giving us the news. But reading poetry, any kind of poetry, doesn’t make us moral, and writing poetry doesn’t make us good people. The claim that it does is too easy to throw out there, and too easy to throw away. I’m sure many of the execs at Goldman Sachs and AIG read The Inferno in school, although they seem to have forgotten what circle of hell is reserved for those who commit treacherous fraud. You don’t have to read deeply into biographies of Biespiel’s exemplar civic poet “C.O.” Robert Lowell or his letters to realize he was too often an inexcusable jerk.
- Paul Otremba

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

From the Notebooks - part four (of the summer series)

The thing I like about writing things in notebooks and then transcribing them out is that they don’t have to be worked up into something. They’re little questions (especially the assertions) that can form the basis of future questions. Because they’re fragmentary, they’re, by definition, incomplete. I like that.

This notebook I think is from around February through April, 2010. It’s a nice shade of purple, nearly violet, right where the rainbow wraps back from violet to red. Nice. It’s my favorite little notebook color, and one of the more rare ones. Of course. Perhaps if gray were rare, I’d like it more?

Is there a language unwounded?

What used to be research conducted by generalizations, has now become research conducted by key words. This seems a fundamental shift, but what it means (if anything) I don’t know.

The lessons of history show obsolescence.

“One’s own perspective, like one’s own age, is the only orientation one will ever have.”
—Rosalind E. Krauss

Art is not in the business of telling you what to do. Art only calls you to attend. You can ask it anything you want, but it’s you that answers.

I was hopeful when I bought that radio at the Spicer estate sale, but when the voices speak to me, all they tell me is the time.

I heard on the news one day about a study that was conducted using cell phones, tracking them for a period of time, and it quickly became apparent that once a few days had gone by researchers could predict where any given person would be at any given time with 90% accuracy. And here you thought you were whimsical, unpredictable

That the sunset swallows you is perspective, not resonance.

“Photorealism frees one from being sentimental or anecdotal.” That seems a naive statement now.

Question for the work of art: Is this bringing us closer to reality or further away from it? Make of the answer what you will.

They want to remove your memories and replace them with an advertisement for soap.

Every golden age is followed by another age that’s never called golden.

We tend to be interested mostly in new books by young writers, first books. It’s how art has this social bias, the rush of energy and vitality of the NEW. I call it the AWP bias, as that’s a lot of what publishers push at the AWP Bookfair. And of course. What use is there in pushing a ten or fifteen year old book when you have a new spring line? It’s enough that every now and then I swear off of everything and only read books that have been around for at least 20 years.

Young poets (with a first book) are less likely to be encumbered with family or jobs that demand strict attendance. They also usually have the most energy for late nights and borrowed couches. They are also what a lot of MFA students want to see and hear and meet. There is a lot of pressure in that, which isn’t a bad thing, in and of itself, as there is also a large pressure for the long-established, award-winning poets. What is lost, though, are the poets who are neither young nor award-winning.

Over time the mortality rate is 100%.

A sketch of only details.

Portrait of the Artist with Eyes Sewn Open and Mouth Sewn Shut

The argument against intentionality in art is that we see more than we can conceive of.

What one of us means by “pleasure” is not always what others mean by “pleasure.”

Genius = It seems like, every now and then, someone gets to remember the future. And sometimes we realize that while they’re still alive, as we move into that future.

Some poetry is written in opposition to other poetry, some in addition to other poetry, and some in completion to other poetry. I feel like Harold Bloom while I think this thought. Is this a way to describe poetry, or is it internal, more about the way the poet creates? A way that might be invisible to a reader?

Art is an argument for attending. Art objects do not have to be an argument against other art objects. Attending doesn’t have to be replacement. And sometimes people make arguments that the art at hand is an argument for replacement when it’s not necessarily so. The way David Wojahn or Franz Wright see books that they’ve recently written jacket copy for are not necessarily what they are. But perhaps they become that through assertion. Is Michael Dickman’s book really here to replace, say, Zachary Schomburg’s book? Dickman mostly likely doesn’t think so, but Franz Wright seems to think so (I’m guessing at the names, as Wright doesn’t name names).

What I mean by replacing: I see Rae Armantrout’s poetry as replacing Kay Ryan’s, for instance. Which is, Armantrout, for me, leaves no reason for one to read Ryan.

Poets I’ve talked with, by and large, don’t care much for, at least, 75% of the poetry they come across. Often that includes their own poetry (after the fact).

In opposition to: I am in opposition to probably close to 50% of the poetry I come across. This is different than liking or disliking. It’s more that I find them incompatible with other poetry. They are in competition.

Our strongest memory from childhood is always that things there were larger.

To attend to art is to listen to oneself in the presence of the art object. It begins in crisis. You have to admit crisis if you are going to get anywhere.

The problem with power is that power seems to only understand power.

All artistic ideas rot.

Is the idea of hybridity in poetry placed against the idea of synthesis? Where synthesis is an admixture that becomes one new thing, whereas the hybrid is a graft with visible lines? Is it the same as saying something like “mixed-mode” poets?

If we look at the idea of hybridity as strictly that, the grafting or flipping back and forth, then John Koethe’s “The Distinguished Thing” would be a good example, as it slips genre in the middle, and then switches back. As well, all poets that write in dual languages would be automatically hybrid.

There are always other ways.

The aesthetics of vertigo: From AWP: Tony Hoagland on the slippery aesthetics he sort of doesn’t like: “I copy it. I think it’s great.” It’s a difficult argument to follow.

“Language is not limited, we are.” vs. “There is nothing after language.”