Thursday, March 31, 2011

I'm off! The YFOTTOG train is leaving the station . . .

Actually, that's not really true, G.C. Waldrep has already been out in support of it, but this is MY first time out with copies in hand.

John Gallaher will actually be here tomorrow
Posted in ARTS to Previews by Caleb Curtiss on Wednesday, March 30, 2011 at 4:00 pm

John Gallaher
Thursday March 31st
Krannert Art Museum
Champaign, IL
7:30 p.m.

Tomorrow (or today if you're reading this on Thursday), the U of I MFA Program's reading series, VOICE, has a special event that will celebrate U of I's award winning literary journal, Ninth Letter, by having John Gallaher drive all the way from northwest Missouri to Champaign, IL to read some poems. There will also be live music and light snacks.

John agreed to do this, presumably, because of the stipend he's probably being paid, and because he's had his poetry published in the Ninth Letter. Oh, and also because he's never read from his work here in C-U before, despite what I thought when I set out to interview him earlier this week.

Smile Politely: You were in Champaign last June for a reading alongside another poet, G.C. Waldrep as a part of the U of I's Carr Reading Series. What brings you back this time around?

John Gallaher: Whoever that was, it wasn't me! I'm glad to hear, though, that it seemed like I was there. I like the idea of going places I don't go. It adds an air of mystery to my normally not very interesting life. I'm going this year to take part in celebrating Ninth Letter. I love the way Ninth Letter tosses everything together, it's one of the journals I suggest to anyone who asks what interesting things are going on in literature these days.

SP: Okay, this is off to a good start. I guess I'll have to go rough up my source. Anyway, I'm assuming that the readings you have done with Waldrep were set up because the two of you collaborated on a project together. Can you talk a little bit about what that was like?

Gallaher: I did a couple readings with him in Colorado last year, and will do a few more this summer, and yes, it is because of the book. If not for the book, I'd still want to read with him, though. He's fascinating.

The book! It's called Your Father on the Train of Ghosts, and we wrote it in two big frenzies of activity in early 2008, and then a couple months about a year later. In total, we wrote 425 poems. The book is collaborative, but the individual poems aren't. What we'd do is that one of us would send a poem to the other through email, and then the other would, as soon as possible, respond to it. Sometimes that involved quoting from the received poem, but mostly it involved listening to its world and trying to find some further messages there. You might call it riffing, I guess. Or spelunking. Maybe a version of SETI.

SP: What impact would you say the collaborative experience has had on your writing?

Gallaher: I don't know that it's had much of a direct effect on my writing. GC and I both are pretty receptive to whatever happens, when we're writing. We share similar metaphors of composition. The collaborative process just made it all more literal. I consider, in my abstract way, all of my writing to be collaborative, it's just that most of it is in collaboration with a wall of TVs in an electronics store.

SP: So, if your book get's nominated for a Pulitzer, who will give the acceptance speech.

Gallaher: Do they give Pulitzers to collaborations? I suppose they must, but I know there are some awards and things that don't. If that happens, I'd like to stand wherever the winners stand (do they get a stage or a podium or something?) and move my mouth while GC speaks from behind a partition upon which would silently play Jean-Luc Godard's Une histoire d'eau. That would be nice, as I've never seen that film, and it sounds interesting.

SP: In addition to writing your own work, you also publish other writers in The Laurel Review. At the risk of sounding like my father, allow me to ask: what have you learned from this experience?

Gallaher: At the risk of sounding like my son, my first response is: I don't know. My longer version of a response is that the more I learn about writing in all its forms, the less I feel certain about saying anything specific about it. What I'm most interested in is what surprises me. I like combinations of things. I want to feel that the author is being as surprised by what's happening in the work as I am reading it. And editing, and having a blog where people comment, has pushed me more in that direction. I like rooms that are cluttered rather than rooms that are neat, unless I have to eat there. I like my eating spaces to be neat. I dislike bugs of any sort.

SP: In perusing your blog, it seems like you're pretty open about engaging the political aspects of the poetry world: from gender disparity in the publishing world to the recent Claudia Rankine/Tony Hoagland beef. What do you think the writer's role is when it comes to these issues?

Gallaher: The poetry community is a community, and functions as such. Some people try to deny that, and say we're all just supposed to sit somewhere and make art . . . but even then, the art we make exists within a community once we've made it. No matter what our intentions are, we're always coming back to the community. We have to talk with each other. That's the only real role I see for us when it comes to these issues. We have to talk with each other. And then what we say, well, that can float off and come back as voices speaking to us in our art. For good or ill.

SP: You also have some pretty interesting thoughts on contemporary music in your blog. Does the music you listen to inform your writing? Does it ever get in the way of your writing?

Gallaher: Right now while I'm writing this, I'm listening to the new album from The Mountain Goats. The song that's playing has just mentioned gathering jewels from graveyards, and then it mentioned shame and guilt. It's all just more stuff that floats around that we sift through in a day. I like to remain open to whatever floats by. Guilt, shame, and graveyards, you know? There's a lot there to work with.

I don't know if any of it gets in the way. Mostly I find that the biggest thing that gets in the way of my writing is when I try too hard to make it be something. When I bring my intentions to it, then it tends to flatten out. Keeping myself open to people stopping by, to what's playing, is usually better than my intentions. But I don't know. A lot of poems, in the end, don't work out. But then again, a lot of things we do don't work out . . . and of course, a lot of things that we don't think are working out, later turn out in interesting ways. We're never quite free either way. "Never Quite Free" is one of the song titles from the album I'm listening to. It's all one thing, I guess.


John will be in town tomorrow (Thursday) night reading at the Krannert Art Museum from 7:30-whenevs. Don't miss it.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Two Thoughts for the Voices

Denver Prediction

I rarely believe something strongly enough to state it as a principle, but I do this, that the line of cities with Denver at the center and with Ft. Collins to the north and Colorado Springs to the south will, in the future, be talked about in the way that we talk about Black Mountain. And I think it’s currently in its heroic phase. Denver is where I would live if I could live anywhere, though Ft. Collins and Colorado Springs would also do.

Letterism Adagia

--Muses only flirt.

--Originality is less important than a good blender.

--The best metaphor is one you’ll never think of.

--There are always other choices that would work, so whatever you’re thinking isn’t the point.

--The term “avant garde” is a publicity stunt.

--Poetry is aware of genitalia, just not yours.

--Because the political situations in the past that created situations from which the art of that time was produced are not the same as our current political situation, we must not think we are them.

--Transubstantiation does not occur in words.

--Everything is always a kind of something else. We must get over it.

--The only possibility there is is somewhere else: X does not mark a spot.

--Messages are permitted. As are voices.

--Entertainment is also permitted as something to distract them with while the work continues.

--Every surface is a surface.

--Passing over in silence is also a form of critical engagement.

--There are two sides to the river, named Sound and Mental Image. We’re in a boat on the river, sitting back to back looking at different banks, trying to describe water.

--Poems are like jokes in that they are always on you.

--Poems are a way of looking at wealth.

--The voices know that there is always someone who will do what you do more cheaply.

--You are not in control.

--All voices lose volume as distance increases.

--Everything you build is between yourself and the voices.

--The voices don’t care what you think of them.

--If you don’t hear the voices you’re sitting in silence.

--If you empty yourself completely, there’s nothing there for the voices to write on.

--An imbalance is contextual.

--There is no unconscious to leap into. It’s just you napping.

--Riding the horns of a bull can become comfortable as well, if you’re built for it, and then stops being dangerous.

--The pure avant garde is an infomercial.

--All conceptions of things are more wrong than right, but they are both wrong and right.

--If everyone agrees something is good, then it’s a failure.

--There are only ever hints.

--Handedness is also a gender.

--Poetry does not relieve back pain unless you’re lying on it just right.

--What good is standing on the diving board if you can’t imagine jumping?

--You can be sincere or not, it makes little difference to the voices.

--Everyone gets something to carry, but not everyone gets to know what it is.

--Your lifestyle and your vocabulary are one.

--Sleight of hand is called magic.

--Any community that upends a poetry community creates a poetry community, and all communities act like communities.

--Very few artists who are successful are successful.

--Art is a sex act.

--Letterism is alphabetical, but in numerical order.

--All manifestos are worth $1.98 each.

--The voices are not interested in dialogue.

--The voices come from the world.

--Poets are part of the world.

--The voices don’t care if you listen.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A few things that you shouldn't miss!

Spring Break Bookshelf:

Two new books:

Zach Savich, Events Film Cannot Withstand. Rescue + Press.

Rescue Press is brand new and they’ve really struck gold with this wonderful book of meditative, memoir-ish, prose. This is Savich’s fourth book in about two years, and that might cause a book like this, that’s unclassifiable and from a brand-new press to get lost in the shuffle. I hope that doesn’t happen. It’s a very different thing. Quite remarkable.

Diane Wald, Wonderbender. 1913 Press.

Another very small, new-ish press. This is Wald’s third book of poetry and if you don’t know her work, it’s a good place to start. “[T]hese small things we need” she writes, and that seems a perfect philosophy to me. Wald has seemed to me one of the poets who should be talked about a lot more than I feel she is. Next year 1913 Press will bring out a collaborative book, titled Conversities, by Dan Beachy-Quick & Srikanth Reddy that I’m looking forward to.

Two new artbooks/chapbooks by two of my favorite poets:

Kate Greenstreet, CALLED

Delete Press has just released Kate Greenstreet’s new chapbook, CALLED, in a small and elaborate handmade edition. Two pieces of original artwork make up the book covers, the images registered from linoleum cuts. Each book comes inside a linen slip sleeve. (You can see a couple of photos here: ) $10 includes shipping. Delete is a young press, devoted to making beautiful books. They have books by Rachel Levitsky and C.J. Martin also for sale.

Paige Ackerson-Kiely & Adie Russell, This Landscape

This came out the end of last year, but I’ve just found it. Beautiful, color manipulated photographs accompany Ackerson-Kiely’s beautiful, manipulated paragraphs.

Spring Break Soundtrack:

The Dodos, No Color

(They sound a little bit like Paul McCartney versions of Peter Gabriel songs, which means they remind me a lot of a mix of Menomena and The Morning Benders)

Smith Westerns, Dye it Blonde

(They sound a lot like what I would expect would happen if Teenage Fanclub started playing T-Rex songs, which means I'm having a lot of fun listening to them.)

Smith Westerns

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Jack Spicer [More from Vancouver Lecture I]

Jack Spicer

from Vancouver Lecture I
June 13, 1965

[Here’s a bit more from the lecture]

Language is part of the furniture of the room. Language isn’t anything of itself. It’s something which is in the mind of the host that the parasite (the poem) is invading.

I don’t think that anyone who’s a practicing poet, even a practicing bad poet, who’s done it for a long enough time, would disagree with the fact that there is something from the Outside. [. . .] But I do think that an awful lot of poets feel at the back of their minds that they would really rather express themselves. “This poem is me. I am this poem,” you know, and so forth.

[Spicer was very against the idea of the poet expressing her or himself.]

I think it is true . . . that anyone who’s doing anything more than just dabbling on the surface, trying to write diaries essentially, and so forth, has this feeling, and even if he tries to resist it, it’s pretty hard.

[E]verybody as a host to this parasite has a different reaction.

[T]here are plenty of times when you’re so busy writing it and you have to wait for two hours because the thing is coming through in a way that seems to you wrong. It may be that you hate the thing that’s coming through so much, and you’re resisting it as a medium. Or it may be that the thing which is invading you is saying, “yeah, well that’s very nice but that hasn’t anything to do with what this is all about.” And you have to figure out . . . which is which. And it’s a dance in some way, between the two.

You have to interfere with yourself. You have to, as much as possible, empty yourself for this. And that’s not noninterference. I mean, it’s almost an athletic thing.

[I]t’s the rhythm between you and the source of the poetry. You have to dodge here, it has to dodge there, and all of that. And you’re going to make some missteps. And maybe the source is just as bad as you are. I’ve never been able to figure that one out. I mean, this Martian, this ghost, this whatever the hell it is, may be just as dumb in its own way as you are . . . . So it is in this sometimes horrible interlocking of you and the poem. And the you just has to—well, it doesn’t lead.

I really honestly don’t feel that I own my poems . . .

I don’t think that any intellectualization of the thing really matters too much, but I do think that if you keep your ideas closed and your mind open, you have a better chance by and large.

When I’m writing a poem, I always try not to see the connections.

What I’m saying is—just like I said the Martians could take these alphabet blocks and arrange them in your room—you have the alphabet blocks in your room: your memories, your language, all of these other things which are yours which they rearrange to try to say something they want to say. They are using my memories. In the dictated poems of any poets I know, their memories are used, naturally, because that’s all there is to it.

I mean, when I say Martians, it’s just to be funny. But just to make it even funnier, suppose Martians were trying to communicate. They couldn’t really say “pnixlz on the prazl” and so forth and so on. They would have to use your own memories of what your things were rather than theirs.

And so, the nearest relationship I can see—or that the Martian can see is, that if my grandmother chewed up the jigsaw puzzle, which was in her bedroom when she died in the livingroom, it could mean, in different people’s memories, different people’s terms, almost anything. Which is why poetry is so hard to translate.

Q: What happens when the sources disappear?

JS: You either write bad poetry or you stop writing. Until they come back.

Q: Well, what I was directing the question at simply was your tension about finding out what the sources are. You say you don’t ask questions.

JS: You have to be much more gentle. Otherwise they destroy you. And I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that because time destroys you anyway. In the meantime, though, you do get some poems when you have a nonaggression pact with whatever it is.

I mean, philosophy about it is fine. Making lovely statements, writing essays doesn’t hurt anybody. But the closer you get to it the worse off you get, and the more it eats into you.

Q: Are you saying that all poetry has to be written this way, or that some poetry is written this way, or what?

JS: If you mean it as a recipe for baking a cake, obviously no. If you mean believing in all of this, obviously no. But it’s my firm conviction that all poetry, good poetry, is written this way, in spite of the poet.

I don’t think there’s one formula, but I do think that the simplest thing for a poet is not to try to say I have a great metaphor, and I’m going to put it down on paper and expand it.

Words are things which just happen to be in your head instead of someone else’s head, just like memories are, various other pieces of furniture in this room that this Martian has to put the clues in.

That you can follow a word back to its source. You can’t, unfortunately. But even assuming you could, you’d get something which was, well, some nice furniture to work with, but no more than furniture, as history is.

And the business of history is an important thing, but essentially it’s furniture.

I can’t remember any good advice I’ve gotten from one of my poems . . . . The advice they give is just not interested. It’s like someone treating you fairly abstractly. At least I’ve never had any experience with a poem that I wrote that was really interested in my welfare, namely what I want, my happiness, or anything else.

I don’t really know what [poems] are for. I can’t imagine why these dumb Martians are doing all of this. It’s probably some funny game they play.

I’m not sure there is any sense for a poem’s existence.

[W]hen Blake really was sure that the angels were speaking to him, they stopped speaking.

I think he got the idea that he was writing prophetic books all right. And so he started writing prophetic books. I think the angels had already left him.

I think you have to get your house prepared for [the Martian]. And the thing that you’re most comfortable with. It doesn’t really matter terribly. That sort of formalism is just a question of where you have the most freedom and where you don’t.

[R]hyme . . . is like wearing a straightjacket in order to restrict you from scratching your nose.

As long as [your formal restraints] free your mind from what you want to say instead of what you need to say, what the poem needs you to say, anything which takes out the trap of the personal is all to the good. . . . Anything, if it works. But that’s just furniture.

[T]hings that you ought to be suspicious of are things that you can use for your own personal interests rather than anything else.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Important Moments in American Poetry (Pt I)

Jack Spicer
from Vancouver Lecture I
June 13, 1965

But [W.B. Yeats] finally decided he’d ask a question or two of the spooks as Georgie was in her trance. And he asked a rather good question. He asked, “What are you here for?” And the spooks replied, “We’re here to give metaphors for your poetry.”

That’s something which is in all English department lectures now, but it was the first thing since Blake on the business of taking poetry as coming from the outside rather than from the inside. In other words, instead of the poet being a beautiful machine which manufactured the current itself, did everything for itself – almost a perpetual motion machine of emotion until the poet’s heart broke or it was burned on the beach like Shelley’s – instead there was something from the Outside coming in.

Now the difference between “We have come to bring metaphors for your poetry” and what I think most poets who I consider good poets today believe – and this would include people as opposite in their own ways as, say, Eliot on one hand and Duncan on the other – is essentially that there is an Outside to the poet. Now what the Outside is like is described differently by different poets. And some of them believe that there’s a welling up of the subconscious or of the racial memory or the this or the that, and they try to put it inside the poet. Others take it from the Outside. Olson’s idea of energy and projective verse is something that comes from the Outside.

I think the source is unimportant. But I think that for a poet writing poetry, the idea of just exactly what the poet is in relationship to this Outside, whether it’s an id down in the cortex which you can’t reach anyway, which is just as far outside as Mars, or whether it is as far away as those galaxies which seems to be sending radio messages to us with the whole of the galaxy blowing up just to say something to us, which are in the papers all the time now. Quasads, or. . .

Q: Quasi-stars.

JS: Something like that. At any rate, the first step is reached, I think, with Yeats. But the way that it works – “We have come to bring metaphors for your poetry” – this is like “we have come to bring fertilizer for your fields,” that kind of thing. You know, “well, you have such nice poetry, Mr. Yeats, and we spooks have come down from above to give you metaphors to hang it on to.”

Now this is not really what happens in my own experience, and I’ll be talking about my own experience most of the time. But I think I can also speak for the experience that others I now have had in dictated poetry.

I think the first kind of hint that one has as a poet – and I must confess I was, as Karen [Tallman] would say, a retard in this respect – is after you’ve written poems for a while and struggled with them and everything else, a poem comes through in just one-eighth of the time that a poem normally does. That’s the first experience. And you say, “oh well gee, it’s going to be much easier if I can just have this happen very often.”

So then you write seventeen or eighteen different things which are just what you’re thinking about at that particular moment and are lousy. It isn’t simply the matter of being able to get a fast take. It’s something else. But the fast take is a good sign that you’re hooked up with source of power, some source of energy.

Then the next thing is you suddenly figure out, well gee, when I’ve been wanting something, say I’m in love and I want to sleep with this person and, you know, the normal thing is, with a fast take, you write all these things down with an idea of, essentially, a way of selling a used car. [Laughter]

And this doesn’t work.

So one day, after you’ve had this first experience, which just was something you couldn’t imagine, and the poems haven’t come this clean, this fast – and they don’t usually, in dictated poetry anyway. Again, suddenly, there comes a poem that you just hate and would like to get rid of, that says exactly the opposite of what you mean, what you have to say, to use Olson’s thing in one of its two meanings.

Olson says the poet is a poet when he says what he has to say. Now, you can read the two ways: what he “has” to say, namely “I want to sleep with you honey,” or “I think that the Vietnam crisis is terrible,” or “some of my best friends are dying in loony bins,” or whatever you want to say that you think is a particular message. That’s the bad thing.

But what you want to say – the business of the wanting coming from Outside, like it wants five dollars being ten dollars, that kind of want – is the real thing, the thing that you didn’t want to say in terms of your own ego, in terms of your image, in terms of your life, in terms of everything.

And I think the second step for a poet who’s going on to the poetry of dictation is when he finds out that these poems say just exactly the opposite of what he wants himself, per so poet, to say. Like if you want to say something about your beloved’s eyebrows and the poem says the eyes should fall out, and you don’t really want the eyes to fall out or have even any vague connection. Or you’re trying to write a poem on Vietnam and you write a poem about skating in Vermont. There things, again, begin to show you just exactly where the road of dictation leads. Just like when you wrote the first poem which came easily and yet was a good poem, a poem beyond you. In the second stage you then say, oh, well, then I’ll just write this thing and I’ll take a line from someplace or another, or use a dada or a surrealist technique (in a different way that I’m going to use the word “surrealism” tonight, but the French surrealist way of placing things together, taking the arbitrary and all of that) and that won’t be what I want to say, and so that’ll be great. That’ll be hunky dory.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t work terribly well either. You have to no really want not what you don’t want to say. It’s a very complicated kind of thing. You can’t play tricks on it. That’s the second stage.

The third stage I think comes when you get some idea that there is a difference between you and the Outside of you which is writing poetry, where you feel less proud of the poem that you’ve written and know damn well it belongs to somebody else, that your wife had the child by another father, and the wife being inside you, which makes the metaphor rather bad.

But the you start seeing whether you can clear your mind away from the things which are you, the things that you want, and everything else. Sometimes it’s a twelve-hour struggle to get a ten-line poem, not changing a single word of it as you’re writing, but just as it goes along, trying to distinguish between you and the poem. The absolute distinction between the Outside and the inside.

And here the analogy of the medium comes in, which Yeats started out, and which Cocteau in his Orphee, both the play and the picture, used a car radio for, but which is essentially the same thing. That essentially you are something which is being transmitted into, and the more that you clear your mind away from yourself, and the more also that you do some censoring – because there will be all sorts of things coming from your mind, from the depths of your mind, from things that you want, which will foul up the poem.

For example, mediums always have to have the accents that they were born with. There’s a medium who’s supposed to have been in contact with Oscar Wilde, and she – I think mediums are almost always, if not always fake, but just pretend that mediums were real because some of them may be, particularly in primitive tribes – she got all sorts of epigrams and they came out in Cockney because she only spoke Cockney.

Now, if you have a cleft palate and are trying to speak with the tongues of men and angels, you’re going to still speak through a cleft palate. And the poem comes distorted through the things which are in you. Your tongue is exactly the kind of tongue that you’re born with, and the source of energy, whatever it is, can take advantage of your tongue, can make it do things that you didn’t think it could, but your tongue will want to return to the same normal position of the ordinary cleft-palate speech of your own dialect.

And this is the kind of thing that you have to avoid. There are a great many things you can’t avoid. It’s impossible for the source of energy to come to you in Martian or North Korean or Tamil or any language you don’t know. It’s impossible for the source of energy to use images you don’t have, or at least don’t have something of. It’s as if a Martian comes into a room with children’s blocks with A, B, C, D, E which are in English and he tries to convey a message. This is the way the source of energy goes. But the blocks, on the other hand, are always resisting it.

The third step in dictated poetry is to try to keep as much of yourself as possible out of the poem. And whenever there’s a line that you like particularly well, which expresses just how you’re feeling this particular moment, which seems just lovely, then be so goddamn suspicious of it that you wait for two or three hours before you put it down on paper. This is practical advice and also advice that makes you stay up all night, unfortunately.

But even if you’re not interested in poems as dictation, you will find, two or three years later, that the lines you liked best when you wrote them were the ones that screwed up the poem. The poem was going one way, and you had this beautiful line. Gee, it was a lovely line, and just expressed how you felt at the particular moment – and oh lord, how lovely!

But at the same time, you are stuck with language, and you are stuck with words, and you are stuck with the things that you know. It’s a very nice thing, and very difficult thing. The more you know, the more languages you know, the more building blocks the Martians have to play with. It’s harder, too, because an uneducated person often can write a better poem than an educated person, simply because there are only so many building blocks, so many ways of arranging them, and after that, you’re through. I mean, the thing behind you is through. And it can make for simplicity, as in good ballads, American and English. In the long run, it can make for a really good poetry. And sometimes for great poetry, an infinitely small vocabulary is what you want. Perhaps that would be the ideal, except for the fact that it’s pretty hard to write a poem that way.

But the more building blocks, the more you have to arrange your building blocks and say to the Martian, “Oh no, Mr. Martian, it doesn’t go this way. That the spelling p-r-y-d-x-l doesn’t make any sense in English at all. We’ll change it around.” And then you make an anagram of it, and you spell what the Martian was trying to say. The more building blocks you have, the more temptation there is to say, oh yes – yes, yes, yes – I remember this has to do with the Trojan War, or this has to do with this, this has to do with that, and so forth.

But on the other hand, given a source of energy which you can direct, you can direct yourself out of the picture. Then given the cooperation between the host poet and the visitor – the thing from Outside – the more things you have in the room the better if you can handle them in such a way that you don’t impose your will on what is coming through.

And that’s the whole problem you have in modern poetry – the fact that most poets from, say, nineteen to twenty-seven that I know, who are good in San Francisco, are really against education because they know that education is essentially going to fuck them up because they can’t resist, if they have all of these benches and chairs in the room, not to arrange themselves instead of letting them be arranged by whatever is the source of the poem.

BONUS: Here’s a link to an excerpt from Vancouver Lecture III:

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Tony Hoagland: Litany, Gamesmanship, and Representation Pt III

[Ohio University Press has come out with a book of craft talks, taken from visitors from the Spring Literary festivals over the past ten years or so. They cover fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. All proceeds go to assist graduate student scholarship opportunities. It’s well worth a look. The title is LIT from Within: Contemporary Masters on the Art and Craft of Writing. Edited by Kevin Haworth and Dinty W. Moore.

The following is the final part of one of the essays. My reaction (I found it highly problematic) to the version of this essay that appeared in Gulf Coast (which was slightly different) back in 2009 can be found in the post just below the first part. ]

CAN A POEM engage some of these self-conscious, anti-nominative (anti-denotative?) conventions, and handle content at the same time, in a nonconventional but truly enlightening way? Can gamesmanship, and a preoccupation with means, combine itself with meaningful, purposeful ends? It’s not clear how the new conventions will combine with the old, but some new poems demonstrate new territories of possibility.

One final, intriguing example of litany, and of the New Poetry’s relationship to style, gamesmanship, and representation, is Thomas Sayers Ellis’s poem “Or,” a poem produced by a “system” of using words grouped around the syllable “or.” Ellis’s poem presents a radical strangeness: it is a stylistically, “technically” intensive poem—declarative, it doesn’t use the personal pronoun, or even much grammar. Impersonal and challenging, ominous, “Or” is a broken text, as well as an example of a “procedural” poem. The conventions that it invents, however, serve to deliver content in a new way—its way of saying has all kinds of implications about what it says.


Or Oreo, or
worse. Or ordinary.
Or your choice
of category


or any color
other than Colored
or Colored Only.
Or “Of Color”


or theory or discourse
or oral territory.
Oregon or Georgia
or Florida Zora


or born poor
or Corporate. Or Moor.
Or a Noir Orpheus
or Senghor


or a horrendous
and tore-up journey.
Or performance. Or allegory’s armor
of ignorant comfort


or reform or a sore chorus.
Or Electoral Corruption
or important ports
of Yoruba or worry


or fear of . . .
of terror or border.
Or all organized

Disjunctive? Yes, “Or” omits transitions. In fact, it has no verbs, or as the poet-critic David Antin would say, it “omits explicit syntactic relations.” Which is to say it leaves syntactic relations implicit. It offers no discernible narrative, no essayistic argument. The jumble of the poem is held in place by the repeating syllable, as well as the frequent rhyme in the poem—these are the prosodic cohering agents of the erratic, dented, irregular dance of the selection in the litany. For yes, the poem is a list. That list is not really a “progression,” which is to say that its ingredients don’t escalate except through repetition; they don’t accrue a meaning that grows slowly in import and precision. Yet the poem has a powerful undertext of experience: the history and present of American racial estrangement.

In Ellis’s poem, the energy and mystery characteristically generated by ellipsis creates a poem that is something like a riddle—enigmatic, terse, dark; the identity of the speaker is repressed—there is no pronoun, no verb of action—but the dark subject matter oozes through; we sense the context of the poem—racism—leaking through the fragment. Dickinson says that art is a house that tries to be haunted, and it is striking in this example how alternative aesthetic devices make that no less true; the poem is haunted by the subject of American race history. The indirectness of the poem, its enigmatic stance, its randomness of signals (the way “born poor” and “Moor,” “Yoruba” and “Electoral Corruption” cast a kind of unevenly distributed net of inference) allow a kind of menace of subtext to loom behind the poem—a haunting. Here, not knowing the intent of the speaker, not having intimacy with the speaker, works because it implies a lot of possible speakers that readers can imagine.

Ellis’s poem brings us to an important aesthetic crossroads: the intersection or interface between representation, expression, and construction. Ellis’s poem is not “organic” in any conventional sense—it does not arise from a discernable story, its content does not seem to preexist its form. In fact, one of the sources of the poem’s energy is that it does not exist entirely either for its means or for its ends. Rather, they are commingled in the invention of the poem. At moments we might say the poem is making its way forward on the improvisation of the linguistic game; at times it is more emphatically asserting the referential urgency of its buried subject matter.

I N   E A C H   O F  these poems, the act of naming is central, but radical differences in poetic emphasis are visible, from the representational (paying homage to the cat Jeoffry), to the theatrical ingenuity of language (a Kama Sutra position called “Representational Democracy”), to the tactile wit of language unhinged from function (“A dart is the jimmy of a limousine”), to the veiled, scrambled code words of a suppressed social history (“of Yoruba”). In each of these poems the act of naming is positioned in greater or lesser tension with the agenda of sense-making, with the desire for meaning. That dynamic dialectic (between sense and song) has always been a part of poetry, but the New Poetry is informed by new tensions, new understandings (the instabilty of language), and new possibilities. It shows no preference for narration, description, or confessions of the autobiographical self. It seizes hold of a radical new plasticity in signification, and thus—as has been the case in other revolutions—poems of the New Poetry head off in dozens of distinct directions. However, these diverse New Poets share some fundamental characteristics—they have an instinct for gamesmanship; they are stylistically and technically intensive; their starting point is the indeterminacy, the innate unanchoredness of language (which can animate either affirmative or negative impulses). They feel the plasticity of language. They also feel an obligation to approach knowing in new, often oblique ways. They might be called Experimental or Avant-Garde poets, but these labels seem, in 2008, encumbered with baggage—it seems better that they simply be called poets of the New Poetry.

Tony Hoagland: Litany, Gamesmanship, and Representation Pt II

[Ohio University Press has come out with a book of craft talks, taken from visitors from the Spring Literary festivals over the past ten years or so. They cover fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. All proceeds go to assist graduate student scholarship opportunities. It’s well worth a look. The title is LIT from Within: Contemporary Masters on the Art and Craft of Writing. Edited by Kevin Haworth and Dinty W. Moore.

The following is part II of one of the essays. I'll post the last part in just a bit. My reaction (I found it highly problematic) to the version of this essay that appeared in Gulf Coast back in 2009 can be found in the post just below part one.]

Some Background Perspective

This might be a useful moment in which to introduce a few background contexts. Plumly’s speaker, ill at ease in the world, deficient both linguistically (in naming) and epistemologically (in knowing), is emblematic of a culturewide modern condition. We have never mistrusted language more than in our postmodern era. Not only that, we have never so mistrusted the art of “knowing” itself. As the first line of a John Ashbery poem declares, “You can’t say it that way any more.” The gap between words and things, and between words and “truth,” has never been more conspicuous. Our trust in the reliability of representation has never been more fragile and paradoxical. We have a general sense of instability, of indeterminacy; and we feel the impermanence and probable imperfection of any kind of knowing.

In addition to whatever existential causes there might be for this condition, media and consumer culture have contributed heavily to erode and corrupt our faith in language. Most of the language we encounter in daily life deploys some manipulation, and conceals some motive. Our mistrust of public speech is a sensible response. And naturally, this mistrust has had an impact on poetic practice. It has destroyed an innocence we once had about the word—which has resulted, in turn, in a poetics of high style, irony, and gamesmanship.

T O   G E T   A  taste of the way in which language itself moves ever more prominently into the foreground of poetic practice, compare the contemporary poem “Guidance Counseling,” by Dean Young, to the poem by Smart and Plumly. Young’s poem, which is a litany, playfully adopts the premise of being a kind of Kama Sutra, a sex manual:

Guidance Counseling

When the woman, her shoulders on the bed,
lifts her pelvis into the standing man,
it is called Dentist Office. When the man,
after an hour hiding in the closet, couples
with she of the silk flowered dress, snug
in the bodice, it is called Representational
Democracy. When the woman licks her burnt
finger, Tiny Garden Hose. Often as we grow
old, life becomes a page obscured with
too many words, like the sea with too many
flashes. Like my screaming may obscure
my love for you. How will we ever understand
each other? When the woman sits on the ladder
and the man churns like a lizard, stiff
in melting ice cream, it is called Many Dews. . . .

“Guidance Counseling” does not suffer quite the tone of existential unease in Plumly’s poem, but here too Language, the act of naming, preoccupies of the foreground of the poem’s subject matter. Young’s poem is not obviously about alienation, or speechlessness, but tells a tale of comical disjointedness—Language is seen as a king of impediment between people. The poetic attention has been shifted from the realm of nature (perception) to the realm of language, naming. The poem could be said to be celebratory, even erotic, in its playfulness—but it emphasizes the nutty arbitrariness of the act of naming: Tiny Garden Hose, Representational Democracy, Dentist Office. If we listen closely, we can further recognize that these coinages are a parody, an echo, of commercial product brand names, such as might be used to name perfumes, sell ice cream flavors, or catalogue paint chips.

Young’s poem, like Whitman’s catalogues, enumerates the cornucopia of phenomena—it playfully suggests there is a rich universe of experience to be named, but in Young’s poem, the wonder is located in not in nature but in the stylistic dexterity of artifice.

The Disconnect Goes Farther

The disconnect between words and things can grow much more extreme, as can the emphasis on language as the preeminent subject matter of poetry. For example, consider the following 1990s poem by a New York School poet, Jordan Davis. “Woman (A.S.)” is a declarative litany, but what is being declared, or litanized? Or is it the illusion of naming that is being demolished?

The red moon is a banjo
A jinx is a flat rate
I am a drop shot
Arizona is the sunrise of a fuckoff
Tonight is the uncompiled code of an iced coffee
A dart is the jimmy of a limousine
My homeland is the dogma of brimming
Turpentine is the Paul McCartney of your letting me know
My lever is tomorrow
A starling is a skinny boy
A drifter is a paragraph
Dehydration was your joyride
Pacman is a percentage
Spelling is diamonds
The grey grass is conformist
Her hat is Alaska . . .

Davis’s poem is just one representative of a widespread radical shift in the poet’s relationship to the word; and, as important, we could say, of a radical loss of faith in the veracity of naming. “A Woman (A.S.)” seems pointedly intent on “neutralizing” some of our most deeply held assumptions about poetic language—that words are signs for “pointing,” for instance; that a poem is “about” something; that metaphor serves a function of equation; even that a poem is a message passing between two people. Nor is Davis’s poem “additive,” in any conventional way—it does not, as it progresses, acquire more meaning, deeper emotional significance, or more coherence. In this particular poem, all these conventional presumptions about a poem are discarded, and displaced by style, gamesmanship, and a lesson about postmodern language.

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

Another Piece of Perspective

For the last forty years, American poetry has been largely antitechnical in its orientation. A prejudice against fancy rhetoric, elaborate prosody, and erudite allusion might even be said to be part of the American character. Certainly an ethic of plainspokenness has characterized most of our poetry since the midcentury. The poetic revolution of the fifties and sixties, for the second time in the twentieth century, took American poetry from the hands of specialists—academics, professors—and “democratized” poetry into free verse plain speech. In the sixties, a hundred manifestos were written about the primacy of inspiration. The anthology Naked Poetry (1970), for instance, in its introduction, makes poetry out to be an explicitly “spiritual” enterprise, governed by personal and psychic necessity. Poetry is not engineering, asserts the editor, Stephen Berg. Academic training and formal rules are only of secondary importance. Poetry is not a profession, but a shamanic calling. Poetic shape is discovered “organically,” from inside out, not imposed by some cultural convention, like that of the villanelle and sonnet. American poetry—and our national spirit in general—is naturalistic, pragmatic, plainspoken, and often anti-intellectual. Our national pride is still “We don’t need no book-learning;” we have a kind of contempt for erudition and artifice. Thus, in the last fifty years especially, plain speech and forthrightness (not to mention joyful vulgarity and bluntness) have been the stylistic emblem of democracy in American poetry.

This bias against artifice accompanied the flourishing of the plain style in American poetics, which has delivered most of the great American poetry of the last forty or fifty years, from Allen Ginsberg to Adrienne Rich, from Sharon Olds to Philip Levine. The plain style most trusts language in its spare, forceful incarnations. Like all aesthetics, the plain style made a bargain with the poetry gods—in exchange for the powers of intimacy and clarity, it would forswear the more specialized possibilities of prosody and artifice.

The New Poetry, in contrast to the poetry of forty years ago, is extremely engaged in technique; preoccupied with formal experiment, technique, and matters of style, it celebrates its artifice. Another way of putting this is to say that it is big on gamesmanship. It is not so obsessed with “capturing” anything, or apprehending a “truth.” It is process-, not product-oriented. It is deeply interested in exploring representation as a subject in itself. In that sense, it often seems that the New Poetry’s main subject is its own meaning-making, or the nature of means; or, we could say, perspective itself.

This might be a moment to reiterate one of the epigraphs introducing this essay, a statement by critic Stephen Burt: “Epistemology and theories of language—how we know what we know, how we say it—have become as central to contemporary lyric as psychoanalysis in the late 50s, myth and politics in the late 60s.” The New Poetry is not about politics or psychology, but about how we perceive, and how language affects that perception. Thus the physics of representation often holds the foreground of poems now.

A contemporary poem which elegantly and wittily embodies the preoccupation of the New Poetry with saying and the emphasis on perspective is the second section of Robert Hass’s longer poem “My Mother’s Nipples.” It, too, is a litany, but its preoccupying subject is how things are said, not what.

The cosmopolitan’s song on this subject:

Alors! les nipples de ma mère!

The romantic’s song

What could be more fair
than les nipples de ma mère?

The utopian’s song

I will freely share
les nipples de ma mère.

The philosopher’s song

Here was always there
with les nipples de ma mère

The capitalist’s song

Fifty cents a share

The saint’s song

Lift your eyes in prayer

The misanthrope’s song

I can scarcely bear

The melancholic’s song

They were never there,
les nipples de ma mère.
They are not anywhere.

Here, in the middle of an autobiographical meditative poem about family and loss, is a litany of adroit examples of how different kinds of speakers might sing about their mothers’ nipples. In its rhythms, its wit and patterning, the poem becomes a language game, a catalogue of styles like fabric samples. It is as much, perhaps more, about manners of speech, as about experience. Or, to extend more credit to the enterprise, the poem is about how perspective and style—that of the utopian versus the capitalist, for example—shape perception.

H A S S ’ S   PASSAGE   IS  a lyric interlude in a more general meditation, but its medley of transformations is not so different from Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Hass’s poem might be called “Thirteen Ways of Speaking of My Mother’s Nipples.” The field of fantasia is not experience, but speech (a very specialized kind of experience). Hass’s poem “performs” the anthropological idea that language shapes perception, that cultural givens create variations in consciousness. Hass’s poem plays a speech game; and, through managements of style, it implies content. “My Mother’s Nipples” also is about how sophisticated we’ve become as readers—if a straightforward narrative is now considered obvious, and insufficiently subtle, an elliptical style-game like this one is challenging, a sport for the reader as well as the writer. Whereas before, careful readers might have explicated the psychosymbolic implications of, say, a barn owl in a poem, they now can savor the structuralist wit of diction shifts.

That the poem is “fun” makes Hass’s poem consistent with the New Poetry. That this litany occurs in the work of an older poet, a senior poet, is only an indication of the pervasiveness of our changing, transforming aesthetics. Section 2 of “My Mother’s Nipples” exhibits gamesmanship, ironic playfulness, linguistic self-consciousness, and is style-intensive—an emissary of the New Poetry.

Tony Hoagland: Litany, Gamesmanship, and Representation Pt I

Ohio University Press has come out with a book of craft talks, taken from visitors from the Spring Literary festivals over the past ten years or so. They cover fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. All proceeds go to assist graduate student scholarship opportunities. It’s well worth a look. The title is LIT from Within: Contemporary Masters on the Art and Craft of Writing. Edited by Kevin Haworth and Dinty W. Moore.

The following is one of the essays. This is part one. The next couple parts will come in future posts, so stay tuned. My reaction to the version of this essay that appeared in Gulf Coast back in 2009 can be found in the post just below this one.

T O N Y   H O A G L A N D

Litany, Gamesmanship, and Representation
Charting the Old to the New Poetry

The old poetry can be about willows;
Haiku requires crows picking snails
in a rice paddy.
—Basho, announcing the new aesthetics, circa AD 700

Epistemology and theories of language—how
we know what we know, how we say it—have
become as central to contemporary lyric
as psychoanalysis in the late 50s, myth and
politics in the late 60s.
—Stephen Burt, “The Elliptical Poets,”
American Letters and Commentary

A S   A M E R I C A N   P O E T S   A N D  poetry readers, we find ourselves in the midst of the third wave of poetic modernism, when American poetry is exploding into a galaxy of formal experiment and innovation. All manner of things drift under the poetic sun, from diction-saturated abcdarium poems to fragmentary metaphysical minimalism. Because we are in its midst, we aren’t sure yet of its nature, its meanings, its idioms, or how to assign value to its productions. Is it camp? Is it absurdist? Is it defiantly detached, self-preoccupiedly mannerist clever coterie poetry? Is it self-defeatingly sophisticated? Is it the inauguration of an amazing new physics of representation? We just can’t tell yet.

One place to begin is to consider the evolution, in the last sixty years, of the poet’s relationship to the word. This essay will review and explore the course of those changes by considering a series of examples of the litany. Because the litany, by definition, is a poetic form dedicated to the act of naming, it provides a useful source for sampling the changing perspective of the poet upon language itself.

In his ninth Duino Elegy, Rilke hypothesizes that the cosmic purpose of human beings on earth, surprisingly enough, might not be procreation, but speech:

Are we, perhaps, here just for saying: House,
Bridge, Fountain, Jug, Olive Tree, Window,—
possibly: Pillar, Tower? . . . but for saying, remember,
oh for such saying as never the things themselves
hoped so intensely to be.

Rilke suggests a vocation for poets: a kind of stewardship. The poet names, and her/his speech vivifies reality (olive tree, window) by pronouncing it. To name is to recognize and endorse material reality, to encourage it, and at the same time to illuminate and spiritualize it. The Biblical resonance—to Adam’s act of assigning the first names—is evident, and like that story, Rilke’s scenario suggests a sacred relationship, which places into transaction three elements: the poet, the word, and the thing. Man is redeemed by the unique usefulness of his speech; matter is elevated by recognition; speech holds unique value for its precision and responsiveness. Here, there is no hint of misfit between words and things—no inaccuracy, and no misrepresentation. Rilke implies that the cosmic breach between spirit and matter can be healed when we embrace, through our speech, the whole world of creation.

This confidence about the functional harmony between speech, things, and humans has not remained constant. In the twentieth century, our faith in the adequacy of language has shifted nervously around again and again, as has our belief in the reliability of knowledge, perception, and human nature. If we want to see how poetry has changed in the last sixty years, we can learn a lot by looking at how the poet’s relationship to the word has continued to change. The literary form of the litany, because it engages in a kind of ceremonial naming, like the one proposed by Rilke’s poem, offers an ideal poetical prototype from which to draw examples of how naming changes.

Rilke’s poem proposes an almost premodern model for poetry’s relationship to the word: perception, recognition, endorsement. We poet-humans are allowed to frolic in the naming of the world. Something like what the British poet Christopher Smart might have been feeling when he sang a pre-Whitman ode to his housecat.

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
( Jubilate Agno, Fragment B, lines 695–710)

Smart’s litany illustrates a set of premises about poetic speech: in the meticulousness of his observation, he reveals a faith in the ability of language to precisely convey; likewise, he believes in the obligation of the psalmist to be accurate in his depictions. Thirdly, the poet of Jubilate Agno is allowed some inventiveness—licensed to add verbal and imaginative flourishes, which, in this context, act to mimic the gusto of the cat itself, as well as enact the delight of the speaker. As postmodern, more self-conscious writers, we can admire Smart’s lack of inhibition, his confidence that words are enough; that the world does not revolt against being named; nor do words betray material reality. The result is an athletic song of praise with both naturalness and literary flourish.

But scroll forward through the anthology of years, and consider the contemporary poem “Wildflower,” by Stanley Plumly. Like the previous examples, “Wildflower” is a poem of loving praise, and a poem in contact with the sensory universe of nature. But it is also a poem into which linguistic insecurity has entered: a poem which has been forced to make the flawed, slippery act of naming part of its subject matter, part of its approach to “truth”:

It is June, wildflowers on the table.
They are fresh an hour ago, like sliced lemons,
with the whole day ahead of them.
They could be common mayflower lilies of the valley,

day lilies, or the clustering Canada, large, gold,
long-stemmed as pasture roses, belled out over the vase—
or maybe Solomon’s seal, the petals
ranged in small toy pairs

or starry, tipped at the head like weeds.
They could be anonymous as weeds.
They are, in fact, the several names of the same thing,
lilies of the field, butter-and-eggs,

toadflax almost, the way the whites and yellows juxtapose,
and have “the look of flowers that are looked at,”
rooted as they are in water, glass, and air.
I remember the summer I picked everything,

flower and wildflower, singled them out in jars
with a name attached.

Plumly’s litany of naming is a ritual of praise, but not just praise: it also turns on the topic of lost youth, which is synonymous with lost certainty. There was a day in which the speaker knew the names of things, and trusted them—when everything had “a name attached.” But now a gulf has opened between himself and things. The older, less trusting, and less trustworthy, speaker names the flowers as if stabbing at something he can’t get exactly right. Thus the poem tells the tale of a double fall from grace—not just from youth into the uncertainty of adulthood, into alienation, but also into the situation of knowing oneself to be disconnected from the creation. The estrangement from self and the estrangement from language have become symptomatic of each other. It seems appropriate that the speaker, mid-poem, cites T. S. Eliot’s wry, cross-eyed description of flowers: “the flowers have the look of flowers that are looked at.” A gulf has opened between words and things. In this postnatural existence, once man is lost in the maze of self-consciousness, all things recede into the distant mirror. It is impossible to get any closer to X than the sign for X.

Plumly’s speaker-poet has a case of language cross-eyes, a modern bifocal condition that has only worsened for poets over the last thirty years, this double vision that can lead to a host of speech impediments like stuttering, dyslexia, and muteness. The next generation of poets would contract a case of dislocation influenza that makes Plumly’s linguistic uneasiness look like the sniffles.

Tony Hoagland on The New Poetry (from 2008-9)

[A couple years ago I posted the following on an essay by Tony Hoagland in Gulf Coast. Well, the essay is now collected in a new anthology from Ohio University Press, entitled, LIT from Within: Contemporary Masters on the Art and Craft of Writing. It’s an interesting read. More on that in a bit. First, here’s a reposting of what I wrote. The Hoagland will follow in separate posts.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are his main example poets:

Christopher Smart
Stanley Plumly
Dean Young
Jordan Davis

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

Robert Hass
Thomas Sayers Ellis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Because I would give it all up for Rock & Roll, part II

The Renos
Postcard Town

On this song, The Renos are:

John Gallaher – Vocals, Acoustic Guitar
Brian Bonhomme – Lead and Electric Guitar, Bass, Hammond B2
Graeme Higgins – Drums

We had a lot of fun. And we still have something like 60 or so unrecorded songs just sitting there, calling out in pitiful despair.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Editorial Friday: Tenure & Unions & Conservatives in Higher Ed

Do the math.

Naomi Schaefer Riley has a very predictable agenda, and she’s absolutely tireless in pursuing it. As she wrote a while back in the Wall Street Journal:

Where she extols the virtues of doing away with tenure, because once one does that suddenly one is ready to start “offering students a fulfilling education.”

It’s a strategy of assertion, dotted with quotes from university presidents (Amazing! They’re mostly against things like tenure!) and special cases. It’s true, higher education can go along quite well without unions and tenure (etc), but it can also go along quite well with them. That doesn’t make a very good claim, however, so she keeps with the binary. If one is going to make claims about higher education in general, one is going to have to find general evidence, not possibly anomalous anecdotes.

She has other things on her radar as well, mostly the usual: feminists are bad, religious colleges are great. And yesterday, another of her obvious positions: faculty unions are bad. Very bad.

The title of her new book, coming out in a few months, tells you pretty much what you need to know: The Faculty Lounges . . . And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the Higher Education You Paid For. Lazy faculty! We’re all a bunch of fat cat freeloaders! It's a wonder I even had the energy to get through that whole title . . .

She has an editorial in yesterday’s USA Today, titled “Why unions hurt higher education.” Once again, it mostly skips research, and reads read from the script: “with that sort of belt-and-suspenders security you can expect even the laziest, most incompetent or radical professor won’t get fired.” People in unions are always lazy, aren’t they? Because if they weren’t lazy, they wouldn’t need unions. And if they weren’t incompetent, they’d be conservatives . . .

Her upcoming book should do very well, and, like so many books on education, completely miss the point. Should there be such a thing as tenure? I’m ambivalent, to be honest. I used to think of it as a way bad teachers could hide, but, the truth is, bad teachers (as well as poor administrators, etc) can hide pretty well without tenure. From my experience, tenure doesn’t do much one way or the other. If it would make conservatives shut up, I’d be more than willing to give it up. On the other hand, does tenure shield faculty from the whims of administration? In general, I think it does. When you have an administration like the one at my university, where the university president makes something like $225,000 a year (That was our last president. I don’t know what the new one makes.) while faculty, such as myself, as an Associate Professor (with tenure) make $50, 625 a year, you’re going to have a power imbalance that matches the pay imbalance. Administrations are always trying to impose new and fancy ways they think we should teach out classes. Tenure allows us to stand up for our curricula, as do unions. But they’re not absolutely necessary. There are other ways to have a voice in what goes on in our classrooms, just as with tenure and unions, there are still ways that administrators can have a voice in what faculty do in their classes. All people want job security, and do all sorts of different things in different situations to try and get it. The corporate model, which Riley and other conservatives prefer, is hardly a study in success either, with its porous hidey holes where all manner of lazy, incompetent, and radical people can hide.

But of course, giving up tenure or unions (there’s no union where I teach, so that one would be pretty easy for me to give up) wouldn’t make conservatives stop their assault on higher education. There are many other things Riley would like to see change: the easy conservative targets of unions and feminists, and the easy suggestions for change: more religious ideology. But one that always seems to get dropped into opinion pieces such as the one in yesterday’s USA Today is the lack (genuine and/or perceived) of faculty who are conservative Republicans. As long as this “ideologically one-sided” situation exists, it will be in the best interest of people like Riley to throw whatever they can at higher education. Faculty, by and large, don’t vote for them. We’re easy targets, just as are many branches of science, along with artists, public television, and unions.

Here’s what I have to say to those who keep on about the lack of ideological balance in the sciences and academia: money. I posit that if there started being a lot more money paid to faculty in higher education, then all those conservative undergraduates who love the humanities (and there are plenty) but become business majors “because that’s where the money is” instead, would decide to become teachers. I don’t know why it is that liberals and moderates (I know many people who teach in higher education who vote Republican-ish, but none who are what would be called “ultra conservative”) are the ones to “follow their hearts rather than their heads” and stick it out to go to graduate school for years only to turn around for a starting salary that is currently (national average) 48,000, and who after seven years (the tenure process at my university) would look forward to a raise of around $2,000.

“We’re in it for the love of what we do, not the money,” I’ve heard some academics say. And then we turn around and get told by people like Naomi Schaefer Riley how lazy and radical and liberal we are, and what terrible educations we’re giving the youth of America. I’d be quite willing to give a very large raise a try.

Because we all dream of the free and easy life of teacherdom.

(Side note: If people who teach in higher education are bent on liberal indoctrination, then why is it that there are so many conservative graduates from higher education? Are we all such incompetent indoctrinators? If so, then why on earth would conservatives try to make us more competent? Wouldn’t that just help us indoctrinate people into our liberal anti-Americanism more successfully?)

Let's be logical.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

The New Masculinist Lyric Part II

You know it's important when it gets its own coloring book.

When I read Vanessa Place’s bit about the “New Masculinist Lyric” on The Constant Critic a year or so ago, I thought it was going to be a one-off, a stab at getting some talk going. So I didn’t think much about it beyond a little head-scratching over sentences like this one:

“Like the new feminist lyric, the new masculinist lyric moves “away from an individual space towards a shared, connective space” (Spahr); the shared connective and collectives spaces manifest by these three poets smartly speak to the guyness of today, in bass and tenor voce.”

The guyness of today? That’s a perfectly fine thing to speak to. But I would think that all poets speak to their experience and mix of gender / race / sexual / political conditions. So what Place is looking for is where these poets under consideration are, I suppose hyper-male:

“[Douglas] Kearney is an action poet, not of the obvious variety (e.g., the vidpoem or perf), though there is that—his performance/reading of his work is so atheleticized that, like Christian Bök or a male walrus, he fairly scares off any other would-be dominant males–but in the occupation of the shared collective/subjective conscious space.”

OK. So that’s about as far as I got in reading the review-essay last year. I wasn’t much interested in that line of inquiry. But there is was a point to the investigation, a defining characteristic. The short essay ends, going back to two female touchstones that were brought up earlier:

“In her essay, Perloff came down in favor of the palimpsest as the lyric form of the then-moment; the “writing over” that doesn’t entirely efface what’s come before, but incorporates it as a way of going forward. Spahr found that poetic innovation in her collection of contemporary women’s poetry was a way for gender to re-inscribe the lyric; in hip-hop culture, biting both links and distinguishes one lyrical work from its predecessor. Kearney, Wagner and Zultanski’s poems are in part the voices of “men speaking to men,” but they are men who write over, with, and in, the speech of other men as they speak quite particularly in their own shared connectivity—one decidedly, and consciously, male.”

So it’s this “men speaking to men” thing that seems to be what binds NML poets together. Even then, though, it’s qualified by “these poems are in part the voices of ‘men speaking to men.’” So, even there a hedge.

The male talking to males (which reminds me of the recent conversation regarding Tony Hoagland’s idea of tribes and when and where poets write for specific ones) idea is not one that gets me very interested. I don’t have much to say back to it other than I don’t feel very convinced. Yes, Steven Zultanski wrote about all the things in his apartment that his dick could or could not lift. And yes, James Wagner does seem to mention males in his poems a lot. And Douglas Kearney does seem to be self-consciously, and aggressively “avoiding mastery.” All these things might be some version of male, as the writers are male, but they also seem to be poor examples of any way to talk about a movement. Of course, as people have always known, examples always seem to destroy perfectly interesting and fun theories. And then there’s the question of tone. I was under the impression that Masculinist is at least partly a goof? But a goof on what I keep forgetting. (I should keep up on these things.)

Gendered Language: It's a bit small, but you can still see it.

So there we are. But not quite. Vanessa Place has now, a year later, revisited the issue:

First off, it’s a PDF, and it needs to be, as it’s written over the top of Rebecca Solnit’s essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” an essay (you can read it here , or, if you’re patient and clever with the cut and paste, you can strip it from underneath Place’s essay [which is in itself an interesting commentary]) that has something to say:

“Yes, guys like this pick on other men's books too, and people of both genders pop up at events to hold forth on irrelevant things and conspiracy theories, but the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered. Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they're talking about. Some men.

Every woman knows what I'm talking about. It's the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men's unsupported overconfidence.”

Before I continue, yes, it has been true to me experience that the kind of crazy Solnit is describing does seem to be gendered. But once one agrees with this there comes the next step that most people don’t’ want to take, the step of “OK, so what form of crazy might be specifically gendered female?”

So the fact that Place is writing over the top of this essay, silencing it (well not really, as it’s been around for some time now . . . and she’s less silencing it in her effacement, than she is bringing it back as a form of counter, or uncanny presence) with her own conversation about some male poets who “explain things” is intriguing. Is she going to posit these poets as the positive counter to the male on exhibit in Solnit’s essay? Is she arguing with Solnit? Will she argue with these male poets? Turns out, these aren’t overtly addressed, so whatever you come up with is going to be how you read the overlay. Context might not be everything, but it’s certainly a lot.

The books under consideration look interesting, and they leave Place “with the question how much do we want to explain things. For [ . . .] what we cast in language, of course, is never an object surrounded by the nothing it is thereby distinct from, but stuff carved from and forever inlaid with other stuff. What the poetry here shares is the quality of language animated by –and into—a body, though of course language itself is just so much black marble. De omnibus omnia sese: explanation as composition.”

The pdf can be found here:

I like a lot of her points, though I still don’t see what’s particularly male about what she’s finding.

Now get back to your pride, dude.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The Renos are coming out of hiding

I’ve given it all up for Rock and Roll.

Here’s our first video:

“Coming Apart”
The Renos

The Renos are (on this song):
John Gallaher – Vocals, Backing Guitar
Brian Bonhomme – Lead Guitar, Backing Vocals
Darian Stribling – Bass, Backing Vocals
Jordan Trotter – Drums

The whole album is (at least last time I checked) downloadable for freebies in the links on the right.