Sunday, July 31, 2011

Read This Poet Because S/He’s Better Than You: The Review as Argument Platform

I like coming across poets that I’ve not heard of, and I’m always surprised when I find that often these poets have published several books, won awards; in short, have been around awhile.

Such was the case the other day when I came across Stephen Burt’s review of Allan Peterson’s As Much As in Boston Review:

Burt starts off setting the scene within which Peterson largely operates:

“What if all that mattered in a life, all that stuck in the mind or pulled at the heart, were the well-defined events and decisions: where to live, what to do for a living, when to get married, whether to go to war? What would we miss? Almost everything that makes a life worth living. We want not just actions and consequences, victories and defeats, but dragonflies and paperclips, daydreams and counterfactual syllogisms. And perhaps poetry—that verbal art form without obvious consequence, whose shapes are not the shapes of events and plots—best suits those apparently negligible phenomena: if it cannot preserve them, it can at least show how we care.”

And Burt makes a good case for a reader to investigate Peterson’s work. Awhile after reading the review, I went google browsing for some representative Peterson poems, and though I can’t say I liked them quite as much as Burt does, I was pleased to find them, and to find this poet who’s been around awhile but off of my personal radar. (So much for my personal radar.)

So, for that, you might be interested in the review.

Now comes the quibble. (Did you see it coming?) Here goes. Burt writes:

“That is not the only goal for poets, nor is poetry the only art that adopts it (Virginia Woolf to the white courtesy telephone, please). But it is a goal that many poets take on, by precept or example, and there may be no better example right now than Allan Peterson. No other poet—to judge by this third book, As Much As—focuses so fully on the inward effects of apparently inconsequential observations; no other poet makes them speak so well.”

And then, a little later, he adds:

“Peterson’s visual gifts—so attentive to freshness, so careless about decorum—can make most other poets seem like they aren’t really looking.”

I’m happy that Burt is so moved by Peterson’s poems to make these large assertions for their value. I like strong opinions. But, on the other hand, does he really have to slam a generality of all these “other poets” to make a case for this one?

Seriously, my body is a boat, man. A BOAT!

It’s another version of “The voice of the generation” sort of thing that some of the people who write blurbs for the backs of books have done, off and on. Yes, it’s great that this poet is wonderful, or is looking attentively at the machinations of the world, but when I’m reading a review of one book that makes a generic claim against all the other books (or, more difficult to pin down, “most other poets”), my attention leaves the poet under consideration, and goes to my bookshelf to look for examples of poets who aren’t as good. It gets me into an unnecessary compare/contrast feedback loop that makes everything a competition.

I don’t think Burt really means to make an argument here about how other poets don’t regard moments as well as Peterson. If he did intend that, he would trot up some examples. He’s a very good writer, who could find examples of that if he wanted to. And the art of poetry needs people to write about it, as Burt does. I think, though, this sort of half-argument, rhetorical device is a crutch. It allows the reviewer to build a sense of importance for their subject, to build a reason for a reader to be reading. “Read this because it’s about a poet who does something better than most everyone else!” gets more attention than “Read this because this poet does this thing well.” One-stop shopping vs general interest. If you read Peterson, you don't need to read these other poets because they're not as good.  This is all you need (in this style).

In a time where 90% (I’m just guessing at the figure) of books of poetry are read by people who also write poetry, calling a book or a poet better than most other books or poets, runs a great risk of building, not interest in the book under consideration, but hostility toward it. It makes everyone defensive. Sometimes that’s a good thing. That’s what Greenberg was trying to do in the essay I linked to yesterday. He wants an argument. He is saying “this works better than this in this way.” Agree or disagree, he’s put the examples before us. Reviews and blurbs are different, fuzzier, animals.

Am I overstating it? Well, yes, probably. But my thinking about this issue, when I came across it, took me out of the essay and I didn’t end up finishing it and looking up Peterson until much later.

I did have an interesting time contrasting the way Peterson looks at things (simile is his favorite 2X4) and the way Cole Swensen looks at things (a sort of parataxis of inner reflection and outer observation make her scaffold, “the length of which dozens of field mice are strolling calmly in twos and threes”)

Sorry: one size doesn't fit all.

Waldrep / Gallaher YFOTTOG BOA blog Pt III

Part III of the GC / JG conversation is up at the BOA blog:

Including a picture of the mysterious clown head, and more!

Don't forget lunch!

Because the world needs to know.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

And How Is Charles Bernstein like Glenn Beck, exactly?

 Exhibit A
Exhibit B

First off, I’m pleased all over the place that someone thinks poetry is important enough to talk about in this way. It’s my firm belief that if we keep pretending it is so, it will become so. So, in that spirit, wowie, but this is an interesting rhetorical analysis essay:

First, David Micah Greenberg sets up the situation by analyzing the rhetorical stances and devices of some of those on the far right. (Is “far-right” the proper thing to say? He calls them the U.S. right. Is that what they call themselves? I'm bad with names. Full disclosure: I also forget faces.)

Then he moves to poetry:

“Comparisons are the business of poetry, and political poetry faces especially significant choices about the use and limitations of comparison. Poetry’s terrain is the commonplace of experience and consciousness. Of experience, see descriptive or confessional lyricism, the turn of a moment toward insight or despair. Of consciousness, read poets in experimental traditions, who employ fleeting, dissociative thought or image. Experimental poetry is often framed as political by virtue of its implicit subjects, formal inventiveness, and remove from the literary marketplace. But within any poem, how its substance is oriented toward the field of action is not predetermined and forms the core of its politics. At stake within each poem is how consciousness may be enlisted toward action.”

So far so good. Makes sense to me. Then he writes:

“Poets use many strategies of situating the everyday with the political. To see two, compare experimental poets Charles Bernstein and Arkadii Dragomoshchenko. This comparison is unfair, as will be later claims that Bernstein’s rhetorical strategy may be set side by side with that of the U.S. right. But I make the comparison because Bernstein’s rhetoric is emblematic not just of one experimental mode but also of a certain type of critical reception to poetry—one that employs a totalizing, and perhaps despairing, hope to direct the substance of consciousness, experience, and art in its dailyness toward political goals.”

And I’m scratching my head. If the comparison is unfair, why make it? Likewise, if the setting of Bernstein’s poetry side-by-side with that of the U.S. right is unfair, why do it? I’m completely puzzled. It seems a defensive move. Greenberg really does want to compare Bernstein and Dragomoshchenko, and he really does want to place Bernstein side-by-side the U.S. right, it seems to me, but he’s worried that a lot of poets aligned with Bernstein are going to be all over him, so he starts with the disclaimer that largely negates whatever he’s about to say. To say “I’m about to do two big unfair things” and then do them, is, well, unfair. And being unfair is imply not nice. Especially when it's on purpose.

But I’m going to pretend he didn’t think it’s unfair. I’m going to pretend he thinks it is fair:

“. . . one of the most common claims about experimental literature is that it is a literature of resistance. In Bernstein’s critical writing, it is this experimental form that makes the poem political. But what, or rather, how does it resist, if the terms it generates are not remotely in the same sphere as the forces it opposes? Bernstein argues that engaging with difficulty itself gives readers the capacity to reject dominant discourses.’

‘But clearly there is a difference between the difficulty, abstraction, and dissociativeness of experimental writing, and the work of political organizing, which requires not just inventiveness but also clarity, concreteness, and relatedness. Perhaps the disjuncture between the poem’s substance and what it purports to be is part of a broader program, one that recalls Beck’s strategy, described above. To claim that the aggressively apolitical in substance and practice is identical to political engagement is a totalizing, utopian (not apocalyptic) stance, a hope to see, in the unfettered stuff of consciousness, the terms of liberation.”

So there you have it in snippet version, how Charles Bernstein is like Glenn Beck. It’s an interesting read, if you agree or not. Again, the link:

He ends, by the way, with this, which is worth noting, an aesthetic as well as political question:

“A question for the left is whether it has developed a critical vocabulary that can fully differentiate between work that generically “stands” for politics and work that makes room to address the political spheres: literature that can expose suffering and make it seem possible to act against it, possible to see what needs to be done while expanding the possibility of seeing.”

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Happy birthday to John Ashbery!

John Ashbery's birthday party in 2007 (wish I'd've been there!)

I hope he’s having a great day. He’s gotten many awards and accolades over the years, and he’s stitched now into the fabric of our time. That must be an odd feeling. But, more importantly to me, his poetry continues to inspire and charm me daily. For that I am eternally grateful.

A poem from his most recent book that I like quite a bit. It’s about spring, of course, as it says, but I’m also charmed by the figure of the spilt paint, having just spilt a can of paint in my living room this week.


Is it possible that spring could be
once more approaching? We forget each time
what a mindless business it is, porous like sleep,
adrift on the horizon, refusing to take sides, “mugwump
of the final hour,” lest an agenda—horrors!—be imputed to it,
and the whole point of its being spring collapse
like a hole dug in sand. It’s breathy, though,
you have to say that for it.

And should further seasons coagulate
into years, like spilled, dried paint, why,
who’s to say we weren’t provident? We indeed
looked out for others as though they mattered, and they,
catching the spirit, came home with us, spent the night
in an alcove from which their breathing could be heard clearly.
But it’s not over yet. Terrible incidents happen
daily. That’s how we get around obstacles.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The _________ of Collaboration

 Q: Conspiring with the enemy or making art?

I. Choose one:

___ Collaboration is a valid form of artistic endeavor.

___ Collaboration is not a valid form of artistic endeavor.

___ None of the above.

___ All of the above.

Because without a diagram we'd be no better than the animals.


When I did a google image search on COLLABORATION, I got mostly business images.

When I did a google image search on COLLABORATIONS, I got mostly school and music images.

When I did a google image search on COLLABORATORS, I got mostly WWII images, and then a picture of John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Robert Rauschenberg . . . (Pictured above, so now you have your answer [if you were wondering]).

That about sums it up?

COLLABORATING, by the way, gave me a mix of things. (But doesn't it always?)

In fact, you're soaking in it right now. 


I didn’t have much of a theory or notion of what was going on when G.C. Waldrep and I began collaborating on what was to become Your Father on the Train of Ghosts. In fact, I wasn’t aware we were even collaborating until we’d been doing it for a month or two, and by that time it was, in our minds at least, too late to turn back. And now we have this book with both of our names on it. "The Accidental Book," G.C. was calling it for a long time.

I mention this, because, though I’ve now been part of a collaboration, I still don’t really know all that much about collaborations. This is turning out to be a little bit of a problem as people are starting to ask me questions about collaborations, and I’m starting to hear from more and more people who are involved in various collaborative works who have interesting things to say about what they are/were doing.

One of the things that’s surprised me is that a great number of people dismiss collaborations as knock offs, less than, or finger exercises. The idea being, that if any of the poems were actually any good, then one of the authors would claim it as his or her own. This idea of the singular, this Author, is still alive and well. This has surprised me. (So much for the end of the author = authority . . .)

These thoughts have brought me back to a short essay by Dean Gorman published last year in Gulf Coast, titled “The Third Mind: American Collaborative Poetry & Its Roots.” So here are a few bits from it, with some interjections from me.

Gorman starts off with a list of writers/artists who have recently collaborated, James Tate & Bill Knott, Olga Broumas & Jane Miller, and Joshua Beckman & Matthew Rohrer, among others. He then nods to the fact that collaboration is institutionally met with “resistance by mainstream journals and other institutions that support the literary arts.” In thinking about this, he goes into a very brief history, mostly a 20th Century history, of collaboration, focusing mainly on the surrealists and The New York School. He writes:

“Collaboration has managed to maintain a certain distance—a lawlessness—in relation to the mainstream; it is the international waters of poetry, so to speak. The practice at once ancient and fiercely modern, at once a nod to history and a disintegration of it.”

That’s a bit lofty for my taste, but it does speak to the difficulty people have in talking about collaborative works themselves. It’s one thing to say, “These people collaborated,” and quite another to attempt to talk about the final product. A friend of mine recently told me that collaborations are especially difficult to write reviews of, because reviews have a general form, one that positions the book under review in the arc of that writer’s career. So a collaborative book is neither a first book, nor a book that can comfortably fit in A writer’s arc.

The poets I most often turn to, it seems (taking a quick survey of my desk), are The New York School poets and the Language Poets (generally speaking), many of whom collaborated. I suppose this is why I didn’t reflect much on collaborating. Sure, sounded good to me. As Gorman quotes Lehman quoting Kenneth Koch:

“One of the most wonderful ways in the world to be with someone’s sweetness and brilliance is to collaborate with that person . . . I like collaborating the way people like drinking—[it] is making a game out of real life.”

It is perhaps this “game” notion that makes some people skeptical of collaborative work. Why this should be the case, I don’t know. If a single author “plays a game” to create art, say, the poet makes up a set of arbitrary rules, or randomly draws lines from TV, the poem isn’t necessarily suspect. But if two poets do it together, something changes. Gorman quotes Rohrer speaking to this:

“When we did it privately, people would think it was an odd or interesting way to use our private time. But when we filled our public time with it, people were skeptical.”

It’s as if collaborations are a version of trying to get other people to watch your wedding video, or to hear a night full of stories about the antics of your children and/or pets. It’s a fascinating issue, and, other than the fact that I’ve been part of a collaboration, I don’t have much to say, theoretically, one way or the other. I’ll just scratch my head and leave you with this bit, where Gorman quotes Bill Berkson:

“All art is collaboration. You collaborate with your culture, your language, your reading. You collaborate with your peers, either directly (that is, you write together) or not (that is, by parallel creations you form the work that comes to be recognized as that of a period style, the art of your time). Competitiveness is a form of collaboration. Addressing an audience—conceiving an addressee, a reader or viewer . . . Artistic collaboration is often a spontaneous extension of social life.”

Social life: Because who wouldn't want to collaborate with Angelina Jolie?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Waldrep and Gallaher on Spicer, Doors, & the Music of the Spheres

Part two of our six-part exchange is now up on the BOA blog:

With more pictures from our drive from Louisville where we were hosted by the very wonderful folks at Sarabande to Urbana-Champaign, where we were hosted by the very wonderful folks at Ninth Letter, with a stop along the way in Bloomington, where we were hosted by the also very wonderful folks at Boxcar Books. It was nothing but a delight the whole way. I want to do it again. I'll clear my schedule if you want to invite us to where you are.

“Like somebody knocking on your door at three in the morning, you know. And you try to pretend that you aren’t breathing.” 

Friday, July 22, 2011

It’s time for a new publishing model (give it away)

For a while I’ve been thinking about the way books of poetry are published. First, they’re expensive (compared to mass-market novels, for example). Second, they’re almost solely available through places like Amazon.

There's not a lot that can be done directly about either of those problems, granted, but today I was reading the new issue of Scientific American, and came across this partial solution (spoiler: it's not a new idea, I know), by David Pogue:


I make most of my income writing computer books. To my great distress, I discovered that they are widely available online as PDF files. But when I griped on my blog, my readers challenged the assumption that I was losing sales.

“First of all,” they said, “you’re counting a lot of people who never would have bought the book in the first place. Those don’t represent lost sales. And you’re not counting the people who like the PDF so much, they go buy the print edition or discover from the PDF sample that they like your writing.” One reader challenged me to a test: make one book available both on paper and as an unprotected PDF file. Report the effect of sales after one year.

I did that. The results were clear: Piracy was rampant. The book was everywhere online. But weirdly, my readers were also proved right. Sales of the printed edition did not suffer; in fact, they rose slightly year over year.


OK, so one example doesn’t make for a study, but I think there is a basic truth to this. PDFs are like browsing in a bookstore. Amazon is set up for a version of this sort of thing, where one can browse a few pages from many books. It’s probably about as far as Amazon can go. But publishers and authors can go further. In the way that music labels give away free samplers of their current releases, and individual artists usually have a few mp3s up for free on their websites, I think publishers and/or authors should post PDFs of a good chunk (if not all) of books of poetry.

My first book is out of print, and I have a PDF version of it that I was going to add to this post, but I just realized I don’t know how to do that. I need a hosting site, I suppose. Here I thought it was going to be easy . . .

Oh well (I'll keep looking). So I’m not making the grand gesture (for now). But I do think the time has come for authors and poetry publishers to make this sort of gesture. I’m not sure it will help sales much, but I’m quite certain it won’t hurt them.

I heard Donald Revell refer to the publishing of poetry as a “gift economy.” I’ve always liked that phrase. It’s what POETRY magazine does (in a slightly different version), and it seems to be working fine. It’s one of the things I think they do well. I think the rest of us should join in. Even if it does little for sales, it will do a lot for the community, and the discussion of individual books and poets. One of the things I’ve been bothered by when talking to poets is our lack of shared texts. This would up the discussion. And it’s my belief that if the discussion is upped, sales will follow (even if modestly).

Compare and Contrast the Future and Past

Because the present is all we get, right? And Emily Dickinson dies almost completely unknown . . .

This, from Stevens in 1951:

Not long ago I was listening to a conversation between two men about modern poetry. [I have just used the words “modern [poetry]”. These words are intended to mean nothing more than a poet of the present time.] One said to the other “Do you really think that any of these fellows are as good, say, as Sir Walter Scott?” Now, how many of you when you go home tonight are likely to sit down and read The Lady of the Lake? Sir Walter Scott’s poetry is like the scenery of a play that has come to an end. It is scenery that has been trucked away and stored somewhere on the horizon or just a little below. In short, the world of Sir Walter Scott no longer exists. It means nothing to compare a modern poet with the poet of a century or more ago. It is not a question of comparative goodness. It is like comparing a modern soldier, say, with an ancient one, like comparing Eisenhower with Agamemnon.

. . . [W]hat a modern poet desires, above everything else, is to be nothing more than a poet of the present time.

What he derives from his generation he returns to his generation . . .


Stevens states it more strongly as I would, as I can think of a lot of cases where an ancient poet can suddenly gain new relevance, either through translation (Sappho, for instance), or through rediscovery (the way Melville and Dickinson have become more relevant to future generations than they were to their own).

But that said, in general, I agree with his Eisenhower vs. Agamemnon analogy, though it does raise the question, why has no one made that video game yet?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Anecdote of the Bear that Got into the Jar in Tennessee

Anecdote of the Jar
Wallace Stevens

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Tenn. Black Bear Saved From Jar Stuck on Its Head
Published: July 21, 2011 at 12:09 PM ET

NEWPORT, Tenn. (AP) — A black bear is back in the woods in Tennessee after getting help with a problem — a plastic jar stuck on its head.

State wildlife officers looked for the bear for three weeks after reports he was caught in the jug. The Knoxville News Sentinel said the male bear was roaming around Newport, in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.

On July 17, wildlife officer Shelly Hammonds was checking another report of the bear when the animal ran in front of her vehicle. Hammonds fired a tranquillizer dart and the bear collapsed in downtown Newport.

The bear weighed just 115 pounds, about half its expected weight. It was released into the Cherokee National Forest. Wildlife officials believe the bear got into the jar while foraging through garbage.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Ways of Seeing – John Berger

Lest we forget.

“Ways of Seeing” was how I was raised into the arts. It means a lot to me. I don't remember when I first saw it. maybe on PBS? Maybe on video somewhere? In the 70s? In the 80s? Anyway, I'm very glad the fashion in clothing changed, but I wish the ideas became more the mainstream. I think there's still (why is there still?) the argument to be made.

This summer, I’m going back to authors, music, and ideas that I remember fondly, and re-experiencing them. Sometimes to disastrous results (Mark Strand. Yikes.).

So anyway, here’s episode one of the four episode program Ways of Seeing, hosted by John Berger and ghosted by Walter Benjamin.

Meaning is not a constant.

How to experience art, not how to admire it.

And then, in the end, he calls for the invention of the internet . . .

Friday, July 15, 2011

G.C. Waldrep & John Gallaher on The International Circus Hall of Fame Museum (and more!)

This week, G.C. Waldrep and I are doing some guest posts on the BOA blog:

Come on over, the weather's great! And you'll see more of the pictures from The International Circus Hall of Fame Museum in Peru, IN! It's a really big shoe!

People found this funny once? Right?

John Gallaher - Redondo Beach CA

I read last month at Redondo Beach, CA and Philip Martin was there with one of his cameras, and came away with some pictures. I had a great time.

Recently I did a google image search on my name and up popped the same picture over and over. It's a picture I don't like, so I'm posting these hoping they pop up next time. These are better.

 John Gallaher (Action Shot: Reaching for Glasses)
 John Gallaher (Between Poem Zen Meditation)
 John Gallaher (Going Interactive)
John Gallaher (The Muses Like It When I Look Up & To The Left [That's Where The Ghosts Sit])

Here's a link to Philip Martin's flickr site:

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Poetic Imagery, 1918 style

In 1918, Henry W. Wells, Ph.D. sees it this way, lest we forget:

The types of image:

The Decorative Image
The Sunken Image
The Violent Image or Fustian
The Radical Image
The Intensive Image
The Expansive Image
The Exuberant Image
Images of Wit and Humor

Yes, Shakespeare is a type. From the introduction:

“The study faces many difficulties. It is difficult to estimate the subject in its bearings and to pursue it with caution and restraint. The popular estimate of its significance has suffered from an early association of symbolism with rhetoric, not, as one might wish, with religion, philosophy, idealism and humor. Poetic imagery has been discussed as though it were a distinctly literary matter, like a point in dramatic technique, and not an element in the very air we breathe. For example, much of the division between Catholics and Protestants from the sixteenth to the present century has been caused by divergent attitudes toward imagery.”

Which shows us a little of the way people would write about poetry back then . . . . Here’s more:

“If primitive and exuberantly undisciplined forms decline in use, we may assume that more sophisticated ones take their place.”

“When the physicist unbends his fancy the universe shakes with laughter through his imagery.”

“What are the circumstances which arouse poetic imagery? We have observed it in the expression of ideals. The more resonant imagination appears under some pressure of emotion, and often with some relaxation of rigorous thinking. Wine it may be observed is a great breeder of imagery. The idea of intoxication itself is sufficient to evoke a flood of metaphors.”

Like “flood of metaphors,” I suppose. Anyway, what a funny little book this has turned out to be:

“While English poetry is perhaps richer in metaphor that the poetry of the Romance languages, metaphorical ceremony seems to flourish with greater distinction among the Latin races. The English people may be said to excel in the transient image of poetry, and the Romance peoples in establishing conventional metaphors for popular abstractions in the pictorial arts.”

It’s 230 pages:

“The Elizabethan age is a windfall of the imagination.”

“No strict definition of metaphor is possible. By this I mean that no two people can so define the term that in any considerable body of poetry they will agree as to what does or does not constitute the metaphorical thoughts. A working test is however practicable. Metaphor is the recognition of a suggestion of one concept by another dissimilar in kind but alike in some strong ungeneric characteristic . . . . The idea can be illustrated by the use of geometric circles which are neither congruent nor removed, but at some points intersect.”

“In Elizabethan imagery there is something to discard, little to imitate and much to admire.”

Now you know.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Tony Hoagland on Spirituality (But not really. Really he’s making another argument about manner.)

Or not.

Every time an essay from Tony Hoagland arrives, I’m intrigued. He has a knack for continually finding topics that I’m also very interested in, while invariably falling into an argument hostile to my take on the issue. So then, as I am here, I find myself having to respond in some way. That way is usually a few emails to friends, and then a simmer-down period, followed by either walking away from it, or saying something about it on this blog.

So here I am saying something about it on this blog.

The essay this time is titled, “Soul Radio: Three American Spiritualist Poets.” It’s in the July/August 2011 issue of APR.

The thing of it is that if he were just going to grab three poets (in this case Linda Gregg, Marie Howe, and Jane Hirshfield) and talk about how they use spirituality, I’d be fine with it. I’d make no argument about that. But Hoagland can’t stop there, he has to add the argument. Here’s some of his introduction:


In our odd contemporary moment, when, in some corners, poetic directness and sincerity are cause for aesthetic embarrassment, the so-called “spiritual” poet runs pronounced risks. The manners of the day are more disposed to obliquity than testimony, and the straight-forward urge toward wisdom is considered a rather unsophisticated undertaking for poetry. Most poets under forty are more comfortable telling it slant, with a twist, than speaking directly of faith. If all signs only point to other signs, and if meaning infinitely recedes as we approach, what is the object of pursuit?

The work of so-called “wisdom poets,” like Lucille Clifton, or Jane Kenyon, or Carl Dennis, or Sharon Olds, or Stephen Dunn, or William Stafford, or W.S. Merwin, or Galway Kinnell, aren’t taught in many MFA programs; such poems aren’t, perhaps, viewed as difficult enough to need smart people to explain them. Against a postmodern background, to someone with a headful of indeterminacy poetics, their sincerity must seem, well, touchingly simplistic. After all, there isn’t enough time in the semester to visit and examine the obvious! And the interdependence of aesthetic difficulty, institutional learning, and officially sanctioned artistic value has to be maintained. Doesn’t it?

Moreover, such poets also renew our confusions about the difference between categories of art and spirituality, between poets and “teachers,” between poems and gospels, artists and seekers.


There’s a lot in those opening paragraphs to unpack. Here goes.

“In our odd contemporary moment, when, in some corners, poetic directness and sincerity are cause for aesthetic embarrassment”

How much truth is there in this, his opening statement? First off, what does he mean by “odd,” “some corners,” “directness” and “sincerity”? I’m going to guess he’s saying that what’s going on now is an aberration, and in the past poetry was praised for its directness and sincerity. How far back do we want to go? Let’s jump to the canon. Shakespeare? Would you call his poetry direct and sincere? Hopkins? Whitman? Dickinson? Stevens? Eliot? Pound? You see where I’m going with this. My argument would also extend to many of the very poets he above praises. Take Kinnell, for instance. The Book of Nightmares, arguably his best book, is anything but a tour of sincerity and directness. To make the argument about sincerity and directness, even in poets often praised for it, one is going to have to reduce the poetry to a cartoon version of itself. Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams are good examples of that.

So, number one, I find nothing odd about the contemporary moment, where we want an art capable of taking on the fullness of life and spirituality in ways that don’t’ reduce it to a bumper sticker. Even Hoagland’s own poetry (the much talked about recent poem for example), like it or not, brings up complex subjects in ways that leave open a host of responses. How does one gauge sincerity? Was T.S. Eliot sincere? Was Elizabeth Bishop? How about Gertrude Stein? I would like to see a bullet list, please, of what criteria go in to making a work of art sincere. I think, what one will find with such a list is that the marks of sincerity are going to be tied to cultural normativity. If someone talks about things in conventional ways, ways everyone else is used to getting them, then it will be called sincere. One person’s sincerity will then be someone else’s simplicity. In that way, Hoagland’s right about the charge that could be leveled against these (or some of these) poets.

I have yet to see anyone embarrassed by the charge of sincerity. I’ve never seen it. I would like to hear one anecdote of someone being called, pejoratively, sincere. And then had a reaction of embarrassment. Show me if I’m wrong. This is often a charge against fringe aesthetics, that they, in their avant-garde or pseudo avant-garde manner, are somehow insincere. John Ashbery has been called that for years. Just for a second, let’s say he is insincere. If one is insincere, and is consistently so for 60 years of publishing, can one really be insincere? How long can you not mean it?

I’ve seen insincere young poets. Maybe I was one, even. Because when one is young, one is trying on hats. Some of those hats will just be wrong, insincere. You move on, if that’s the case.

[Word choice side note: Did you notice the two “so-called”s in his opening? “so-called ‘spiritual poet’” and “so-called ‘wisdom poets’”. It’s an old argument trick that is able to side-step the issue. Who calls them this? Are these real categories?]

“The manners of the day are more disposed to obliquity than testimony, and the straight-forward urge toward wisdom is considered a rather unsophisticated undertaking for poetry.”

What does Hoagland make of the poetry of Rae Armantrout, then? What about C.D. Wright? Julie Carr? Wright and Carr, specifically, use direct testimony in their work. But even so, obliquity and testimony are not opposites. One could be interested in both or neither. Here’s a question: Is the journey to wisdom ever straight-forward? Not in my experience. One must cast about to discover things.

[Snarky side note: it’s good to see Hoagland finally got the spelling of “sophistication correct.” I was worried.]

When one is casting about, it can and will often look oblique to others. Paul Celan is a great example, but so is (I’m being generous to all aesthetics here and none of these examples should be taken as endorsement) Kay Ryan.

“Most poets under forty are more comfortable telling it slant, with a twist, than speaking directly of faith. If all signs only point to other signs, and if meaning infinitely recedes as we approach, what is the object of pursuit?”

What a mistake to make an allusion to Dickinson here: tell it slant. First, Dickinson, in telling it slant, was a great example of both wisdom and spirituality. But beyond that, when does “telling it slant” mean that one must sign on for “meaning infinitely recedes as we approach”? The postmodern position on meaning is yes, it does recede, but that’s only when one is searching for final meaning. Take physics for example. The more we answer questions, the more we uncover more questions. So, in this way, meaning is receding, but many answers are popping up along the way. Hoagland’s reading of the postmodern dilemma is, at the very least, the kind of simplistic reading that infuses much of the poetry and criticism he supports.

And then, my final (kind of) point. About who is and who isn’t taught in MFA programs. First, MFA programs aren’t literature programs, so there are different questions that arise in constructing reading lists. In my MFA and PhD programs I read a variety of books, from Ben Johnson to Bin Ramke to Rosmarie Waldrop to Linda Gregg. It was all over the place.

This leads me to the three poets he talks about: Linda Gregg, Marie Howe, and Jane Hirshfield. I have nothing, as I said, against their poetry, but I do have something against the way he’s positioning them as if they were rebels of some sort, outsiders at the table. He describes them, generally, this way:

“In a time when ‘directness’ is unfashionable, they take the risk of addressing matters of faith.”


Let me remind you who these three people are he's talking about:

Linda Gregg’s first book of poems, Too Bright to See, was published in 1981. Since then, she has published several collections of poetry, including: All of It Singing (Graywolf Press, 2008), the 2009 recipient of the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and winner of the Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Williams Award; In the Middle Distance (2006); Things and Flesh (1999); Chosen by the Lion (1994); The Sacraments of Desire (1991); Alma (1985); and Eight Poems (1982).

Gregg's honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Foundation Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Whiting Writer's Award, as well as multiple Pushcart Prizes. She was the 2003 winner of the Sara Teasdale Award and the 2006 PEN/Voelcker Award winner for Poetry.

She has taught at the University of Iowa, Columbia University, and the University of California at Berkeley. She currently lives in New York and teaches at Princeton University.


Marie Howe’s most recent book, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time (W. W. Norton, 2009) was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her other collections of poetry include What the Living Do (1998) and The Good Thief (Persea, 1988), which was selected by Margaret Atwood for the 1987 National Poetry Series.

Stanley Kunitz selected her for a Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets in 1988.

Her other awards include grants from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Bunting Institute, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She has taught at Tufts University and Dartmouth College, among others. Currently she teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, New York University, and Columbia University.


Jane Hirshfield received her B.A. from Princeton University in their first graduating class to include women. After that, she went on to study at the San Francisco Zen Center. Her books of poetry include After (HarperCollins, 2006); Given Sugar, Given Salt (2001), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, The Lives of the Heart (1997), The October Palace (1994), Of Gravity & Angels (1988), and Alaya (1982).

She is the author of Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (1997) and has also edited and translated The Ink Dark Moon: Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan (1990) with Mariko Aratani and Women in Praise of the Sacred: Forty-Three Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women (1994).

Her honors include The Poetry Center Book Award, fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, Columbia University's Translation Center Award, the Commonwealth Club of California Poetry Medal, and the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award. In 2004, Hirshfield was awarded the 70th Academy Fellowship for distinguished poetic achievement by The Academy of American Poets,

In addition to her work as a freelance writer and translator, Hirshfield has taught at UC Berkeley, University of San Francisco, and been Elliston Visiting Poet at the University of Cincinnati. She is currently on the faculty of the Bennington MFA Writing Seminars.


Similarly to the list of poets who are not taught as he says they should be in MFA programs (which I’m not sure he’s correct about, by the way), these three poets have all taught in some of the largest, most prestigious graduate programs in the country (which seems to defy logic, I mean, if these people all teach in these prestigious graduate programs, you know, what are they having students read?). As well, the awards they’ve won and the houses they’ve published with, are all large circulation (by poetry standards), prestigious houses.

If these poets are risking it all by being unfashionable, then fashion doesn’t seem to be minding one bit.

Here’s a bit from his conclusion:

“One notices, in our era, how much presumption simplicity requires—how much ease and confidence, or is it conviction, or need?—is required to aim for wisdom; to seek the way inside appearances and beyond transience. So much poetry now has lowered the stakes, settled for the habits of beauty.”

That’s a rather clumsy first sentence. “Simplicity requires presumption to aim for wisdom.” Is that what he’s saying? Or is it more: “Simplicity requires presumption—which includes ease and confidence, but also perhaps conviction and/or need—to aim for wisdom.”

Do you agree with that, as an assertion? What might an essay on this topic about different mid-career poets who write from a spiritual foundation: Donald Revell, Jean Valentine, and Fanny Howe? Or some from the next generation under that one: Dana Levin, G.C. Waldrep, Kazim Ali?

Hoagland’s essay about spirituality does not have to be an argument for poets “of clarity, [who] write in plainsong, which employs a simplified vocabulary, speech accessible to almost any reader.” The type of poets who write lines like:

I walk back across the mown lawn
loving the smell and the houses
so completely it leaves my heart empty.

Which Hoagland then praises for its understatement. Whatever the merits of this poetry, understatement is not it.

This is a large issue, with a lot of room for discussion, but, simply,  this essay isn’t it.

And we end with an interesting but simplistic diagram. Taa-daa.

Monday, July 04, 2011

John Ashbery - The One Thing That Can Save America

The One Thing That Can Save America
John Ashbery

Is anything central?
Orchards flung out on the land,
Urban forests, rustic plantations, knee-high hills?
Are place names central?
Elm Grove, Adcock Corner, Story Book Farm?
As they concur with a rush at eye level
Beating themselves into eyes which have had enough
Thank you, no more thank you.
And they come on like scenery mingled with darkness
The damp plains, overgrown suburbs,
Places of known civic pride, of civil obscurity.

These are connected to my version of America
But the juice is elsewhere.
This morning as I walked out of your room
After breakfast crosshatched with
Backward and forward glances, backward into light,
Forward into unfamiliar light,
Was it our doing, and was it
The material, the lumber of life, or of lives
We were measuring, counting?
A mood soon to be forgotten
In crossed girders of light, cool downtown shadow
In this morning that has seized us again?

I know that I braid too much on my own
Snapped-off perceptions of things as they come to me.
They are private and always will be.
Where then are the private turns of event
Destined to bloom later like golden chimes
Released over a city from a highest tower?
The quirky things that happen to me, and I tell you,
And you know instantly what I mean?
What remote orchard reached by winding roads
Hides them? Where are these roots?

It is the lumps and trials
That tell us whether we shall be known
And whether our fate can be exemplary, like a star.
All the rest is waiting
For a letter that never arrives,
Day after day, the exasperation
Until finally you have ripped it open not knowing what it is,
The two envelope halves lying on a plate.
The message was wise, and seemingly
Dictated a long time ago, but its time has still
Not arrived, telling of danger, and the mostly limited
Steps that can be taken against danger
Now and in the future, in cool yards,
In quiet small houses in the country,
Our country, in fenced areas, in cool shady streets.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Aesthetics as a Form of Ethics

Arts movements arise and fail for the same reason: there is no neutral set of ideals.

Aesthetics: do you know this or do you believe this?

When looking at literature, should we just look at what people write, or should we also look at what (we think) they believe?

An aesthetic stance cannot be proven.

The unexamined art is not art.

Art must ask questions first, stated or implied. If there is no question there can be no engagement toward conclusion. Once you know what it is, you will better understand how to behave with it.

Must the empirical follow from the reasoned? The reasoned from the empirical? A reciprocal economy? Or need they not cohabitate? (Is there an outside implied in aesthetics?)

Because aesthetics is posited as a perfection, it exists outside of the work at hand. The work then, as empirical evidence, will never attain it. The work is excluded from it, and must be.

Outside of aesthetic groups, people participate with aesthetics. What categories go unannounced from these personal encounters?

Aesthetics can only function as something to which one can aspire or deny. It is not a description.

Group aesthetics is as much a corrupting force as a utopian force. It functions in a reductive way for any who espouse it too strongly.

There are no benign aesthetics.

The desire for group aesthetics is a combination of the desire to establish friendship bonds and a marketing strategy.

Aesthetics participates with living-in-the-world. It has an empirical foundation. This means that aesthetics can affect that experience as well as being affected by that experience. Art doesn’t change but still it changes = how many Hamlets have there been by now?

Is it important to articulate a personal aesthetics? A personal aesthetics will be a desire. The work then can legitimately be called “experimental” as it attempts to reach the aesthetic desire.

Aesthetics can become a duty, and one can lose sight of its constructed nature.

Aesthetics falls between doing what comes naturally and resisting what comes naturally.

Aesthetics is irrational.

Aesthetics is a useful generalization.

One cannot prove aesthetic positions.

Aesthetic positions are psychological, not logical.

Aesthetic positions are bound between IS and OUGHT.

Aesthetics is no more than people expressing their feelings.

Is there a form of aesthetic knowledge? If so, where does it come from? Is there a way of talking about it that doesn’t posit another world?

Aesthetics is a recommendation or an order (in several senses of the word).

An aesthetics, because it is in language, is never severely unconventional.

Is aesthetics nature or nurture? Can one choose to be something else? To me it would seem so, but I’ve seen others bristle at this. If we are free to choose a different aesthetic position at any given time, does this debase aesthetic positions? Are we saying they are equal in some way?

Do different aesthetic positions carry different values? The answer to that would have to be yes, at least implicitly. But if so, should we then attempt to force others to adhere to those we endorse? Who decides?

No freedom to choose is ever total. How free to choose are we then?

What does it mean to say “I produce art the way I want to” when one has long learned from others and studied art?

As aesthetics is a subjective, emotional utterance, and not knowledge itself, it can’t be verified outside of a subjective rightness one feels between it and one’s experience of something else: prior art, culture, politics, religious belief, etcetera. There are no guarantees, therefore, that aesthetics will produce anything useful, or that what is produced will in any way continue to feel subjectively right.

Art objects are ideological artifacts.

Art objects suppress other (possible) art objects.

Aesthetics is a layer over one’s artistic inclinations, accentuating them, clarifying them, focusing them, deforming them, obscuring them. It is difficult or impossible to know which.

Most artists are relatively unaware of their inclinations, and most aesthetics are rationalizations of larger personal desires.

Thinking of aesthetics as reasoned can lead to untenable and reductive certainties.

Are artists to become consumers between aesthetic products?

The fact that mainstream aesthetics goes untheorized is a sign of its hegemony. It considers itself natural, embedded, fixed, common-sensical. It manufactures consent, the air we all must breathe. It pretends to be outside of questions.

Once the foundations of aesthetic positions are shown not to exist as such, how then to continue, as all aesthetics must have a foundation? Again, the idea of the Necessary Fiction arises.

Does the distrust of large-scale truths have to manifest as ironic detachment? The answer to that would seem to me to be “no.” One can behave “as if” as a way to circumvent the belief in the objectivity of an aesthetic position. What if one were to foreground the subjectivity of one’s aesthetic position instead? Subjectivity, known as such, need not be an ironic stance.

“All aesthetic positions are on the table” can also be coercive as the bewilderment of stances can become a kind of white noise over which the mainstream will continue to float, seemingly rational and true.

Still, no matter what age, interesting art continues to be made. Isn’t that something.

Without grand narratives, can one have great art?

Can ambivalence achieve grandeur?

Has aesthetics become hopelessly privatized?

Without a grand narrative, there is freedom to pursue whatever one wants, but with the uncertainty as to what is worth pursuing. Will this make us more or less tolerant of the competing aesthetics of others?

Do we, as individual artists, need group aesthetics?

Aesthetics pretends to be work centered (the art object), when really it mostly functions as a friendship economy. What if we were to posit an aesthetics, then, directly toward the behavior of artists as a community, and not about the work they produced? An aesthetics of sympathy and communal endeavor, not of what the art, specifically, should look like or address? How long would that last? Minutes? A week?

Because there is no stable base to work from, artists can now spin the wheel of fortune once, or as many times as they wish, to create art or to construct an aesthetics. Like the imaginative power of surrealism, but want the personal weight of confessionalism? Fine, do both at the same time. Want to be Wallace Stevens but also William Carlos Williams? There you go. Want to be a language poet? You’re a language poet.

But what about the need for mutual agreements? We make them, even as we know they have no real foundation.

We will never discover an aesthetic truth.

Aesthetics is perhaps a branch of politics and not a metaphysics after all.

I typed “meatphysics” above and almost left it.

Is it futile to invent elaborate abstract systems and then impose them where they don’t really fit? Is it futile not to?

Aesthetics is essentialist in nature. What then might a pragmatic aesthetics look like?

And then what of the needs of the art objects themselves? Is that too silly or abstract to consider? because we are not outside of the art but are immersed in it, perhaps this isn’t as odd a thing to think about as it first appears.

Can art objects suffer?

What would a good person do?