Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Cole Swensen on Four Specific Modes of Ambiguity

Cole Swensen, writing in Poets on Teaching, has the following to say about four types of ambiguity, or perhaps what can be seen as four traditions in ambiguity. I like the way she talks about these, it creates a kind of buffet of possibility, a thought experiment of affiliation. Here she is (I’ve reformatted it a bit so that it’ll look better in the blog format):

Keats’s negative capability, Rimbaud’s dérègelement de tous les sens, Shklovsky’s ostranenie, and Lorca’s duende. Each of these takes the point at which knowledge, including one’s own bearings, begins to slip and uses that exact slippage as a vehicle to get to the interstices of language, to occupy, even if for just an instant, a place where language cannot go. But, coming from four different cultural traditions, each approach gets there in an entirely different way:

Keats, with his air of calm suspension, as if a kind of radical acceptance could leave us hovering in a zone of distilled space and time;

Rimbaud, casting off all the controls that regulate the senses and welcoming an ungovernable onrush of sensory data;

Shklovsky, seeing in rigorous attention the possibility of returning to the objects of this world their bottomlessness, their unknowability, the true uncanniness of which our lax attention has robbed them;

and Lorca, suggesting that we can tap into a power beyond the individual to participate in the soul of an entire people, or, more precisely, an entire art.

Each of these approaches has its own hidden assumptions:

Keats’s, that there are uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts to be wallowed in;

Rimbaud’s, that there’s a tumultuous world of impression and sensation always trying to bombard us;

Shklovsky’s, that every little thing has a unique and limitless nature;

and Lorca’s, that there is a soul, both individual and collective.

Despite their differences in detail, all these approaches rest on a radical faith in the world, not necessarily the faith that is safe or good, but simply that it is, and that the experience of its is-ness is fundamentally different from the knowledge of it. Furthermore, the work of these poets and their writings intimate that language, with its constant production of knowledge, blocks us from experiencing that is-ness, and yet, paradoxically, can be used to get beyond the very blocks it sets up.


Here are the Wikipedia definitions of the four terms, just for fun. It’s nice to see this alternate take, to color in a bit what Swensen sketches above.

1. John Keats used the term negative capability to describe the artist as one who is receptive to the world and its natural phenomenon, and to reject those who tried to formulate theories or categorize knowledge. In a letter to his brothers on December 21, 1817 he employed negative capability to criticize Coleridge, who he thought sought knowledge over beauty:

“I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason - Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.”

2. Rimbaud, wishing for new poetic forms and ideas, wrote:

“I say that one must be a seer, make oneself a seer. The poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, and keeps only their quintessences. This is an unspeakable torture during which he needs all his faith and superhuman strength, and during which he becomes the great patient, the great criminal, the great accursed – and the great learned one! – among men. – For he arrives at the unknown! Because he has cultivated his own soul – which was rich to begin with – more than any other man! He reaches the unknown; and even if, crazed, he ends up by losing the understanding of his visions, at least he has seen them! Let him die charging through those unutterable, unnameable things: other horrible workers will come; they will begin from the horizons where he has succumbed!”

3. Shklovsky is perhaps best known for developing the concept of ostranenie or defamiliarization (also translated as "estrangement") in literature. He explained the concept in the important essay "Art as Technique" (also translated as "Art as Device") which comprised the first chapter of his seminal Theory of Prose, first published in 1925. He argued for the need to turn something that has become over-familiar, like a clichè in the literary canon, into something revitalized:

"The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important." (Shklovsky, "Art as Technique", 12)

4. [A]t least four elements can be isolated in Lorca's vision of duende: irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical. The duende is a demonic earth spirit who helps the artist see the limitations of intelligence, reminding him that "ants could eat him or that a great arsenic lobster could fall suddenly on his head"; who brings the artist face-to-face with death, and who helps him create and communicate memorable, spine-chilling art. The duende is seen, in Lorca's lecture, as an alternative to style, to mere virtuosity, to God-given grace and charm (what Spaniards call "angel"), and to the classical, artistic norms dictated by the muse. Not that the artist simply surrenders to the duende; he or she has to battle it skillfully, "on the rim of the well", in "hand-to-hand combat". To a higher degree than the muse or the angel, the duende seizes not only the performer but also the audience, creating conditions where art can be understood spontaneously with little, if any, conscious effort. It is, in Lorca's words, "a sort of corkscrew that can get art into the sensibility of an audience... the very dearest thing that life can offer the intellectual." The critic Brook Zern has written, of a performance of someone with duende, "it dilates the mind's eye, so that the intensity becomes almost unendurable... There is a quality of first-timeness, of reality so heightened and exaggerated that it becomes unreal...".

Lorca writes: "The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, 'The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.' Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation.". He suggests, "everything that has black sounds in it, has duende. [i.e. emotional 'darkness'] [...] This 'mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher explains' is, in sum, the spirit of the earth, the same duende that scorched the heart of Nietzsche, who searched in vain for its external forms on the Rialto Bridge and in the music of Bizet, without knowing that the duende he was pursuing had leaped straight from the Greek mysteries to the dancers of Cadiz or the beheaded, Dionysian scream of Silverio's siguiriya." [...] "The duende's arrival always means a radical change in forms. It brings to old planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm." [...] "All arts are capable of duende, but where it finds greatest range, naturally, is in music, dance, and spoken poetry, for these arts require a living body to interpret them, being forms that are born, die, and open their contours against an exact present."


As Swensen writes: “On a more mundane level, focusing on knowledge and its limits shifts the class’s perspective, taking the attention away from notions such as craft, which, while they have their place, can also be distracting . . .”

Statements of Faith (Part Several Later)

There are as many ways to talk about the making of art as there are art objects themselves. By far, my favorite thing to talk about, my topic of choice, is what has been called “The Artistic Sensibility.” For me, this is nearly everything. I would even say it’s more important than the art objects themselves, because it is through the art objects that the audience is brought into communion with the artist’s sensibility.

Because of this, I’m very sensitive (some say overly so) to what sounds like prescriptions for artists, for artistic production. I try as best I can to stay away from such conversations. I’m interested in where artistic ideas come from, though, don’t get me wrong. And I’m interested in the craft of art making, as well. And of course I’m very interested in art objects. But all of these, for me, are secondary to the experience of art, the artistic sensibility.

I was raised under the banner of Art Can’t Be Taught, But Craft Can. But even people I knew who believed this strongly, and therefore tried to keep as close to craft as possible, ended up talking a lot about “mystery” and “the unknown,” those sorts of things. My response was always that this craft stuff seemed to be the hollow rituals for something no one wants to talk about, so I want to skip them and go right for that.

There is a devotional aspect to my attitude toward art that I usually try to hide, but it’s fundamental to the way I participate with art. I don’t have much of an explanation for it, suffice it to say it’s not the same as a religion. Maybe others would say it is, though. That’s fine with me. Others, more inclined in political ways, see art as a manifestation of politics. Maybe we're both right or wrong. Maybe these are metaphors for the same thing in the end. But our choices (if it's even a choice) of metaphors sets us down divergent paths sometimes.

I say this, because this undergirds my reactions to poets like Tony Hoagland, Franz Wright, and others (including the recent exchanges I and others had with Kent Johnson) when they make general statements about different types of poetry that end up in a prescription of some sort (Hoagland basically saying that people should stop writing these things he calls “skittery,” Wright saying that there is something inherently evil about MFA programs, etc). Not all of my reactions are adversarial. There have been terrible poems written in the “skittery” mode; there are—I’m sure—some MFA programs out there that are so prescriptive and anti-experiential that they damage the people in them. It’s when the complaint is universalized that I find myself having to talk back to it.

Sometimes I get close to universalizing as well, when I find myself defending a style, mode, or general tendency in poetry, I can get caught up in the oppositional nature of the essay or poet I’m reacting to. It becomes an US /THEM, or a ME / YOU situation sometimes, and, in reality, it’s anything of the sort. If there is one thing that can be said with confidence about our age, it’s that it is plural.

Some of that plurality is going to be exhibited purely as a formal difference in how the poems look on the page. This is easy. It’s easy to say OK to that, and to then say it’s a taste issue. In that case, one can usually say something like “Well, that’s not really what I like best, but I can see that it’s well done, and therefore admire it.”

This often gets conflated into a second category, one that is more difficult to talk about. In this category, the differences between what two poets do, or what the reader and the poem are doing, is not so much a formal difference (though there is often that as well), but a difference in sensibility. This is where, I think, a poet such as Tony Hoagland is coming from. He’s trying to act like he’s seeing and dealing with craft issues, but really he’s dealing with much larger differences in sensibility, in world view.

Such a moment is frustrating for all of us. It’s frustrating for Hoagland, because he is finding it difficult to make anything useful for himself out of these art objects that other poets are able to experience and to find pleasure in. So, for him, it’s not a problem with him as a reader, it’s a problem of both the poem at hand, and the audience that endorses the poem (Fence, Wave Press, etc).

Similarly, a difficulty I have with some poems, and some poets in general (Ted Kooser being an easy example), is that I can read them just fine, but I find nothing there that I didn’t already know, and worse, that I found to be fundamentally flawed in its enacting of what it means to live in the world.

These are two examples, there are many more. Why I’m mentioning this, is because we’re at a time when all these divergent poets, divergent aesthetics (much of them divergent but compatible and much of them divergent and incompatible) are being tossed together in the same room. The Table X row at AWP is one example. A friend of mine saw that as a political statement, and saw them as co-opting the figure of James Tate. That friend wanted a to counter with a different example of the lineage of James Tate. There are other examples, universities, for one: Tony Hoagland vs Claudia Rankine, which was as much an aesthetic fight (what the poem is for) as anything else.

To the outside, for people who don’t read poetry, so all the poetry they see seems pretty much the same, this all seems obscure. A lot of them are still trying to come to grips with the fact that poetry no longer has to rhyme. (“Well, then how am I to know it’s a poem?” someone, not a student, asked me a few years ago.)

All this is just to say we’re in an interesting time of pockets of interest groups, some of whom are quite content to go on their way making art, some who are trying to influence the larger conversation, and still others who say they like mad yaks. I wonder sometimes how it’s all going to shake out.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

St. Vincent / Björk / Feist

A few months ago it was starting to look as if this was the year only boys were putting out music I like. And then came Wye Oak and EMA, to push the needle from a complete boy year. And now I’ve these three albums to look forward to, from some old faves:

St. Vincent

Ha! Annie Clark's take on a particular form of acquiescent evaporation (the logical outcome of her earlier song "Marry Me" it would seem.). This is the second song I’ve heard from her upcoming album (the other being “Surgeon”), titled Strange Mercy. I’m looking forward to it.


I’ve heard four songs so far (Cosmogony, Moon, Virus, and Crystalline), and of them “Crystalline” I like the best. So I’m not really sure if I’m going to be crazy about the album or not. I’ll find out soon enough. But it’s certainly going to be interesting.

Let It Die (Live in Paris)

OK, yes, this is a video of an old song. But it shows how good she is live, so that’s something. I’ve heard one song off the new album so far, “How Come You Never Go There.” It’s good, solid. The album will be called Metals. Maybe this time around I’ll finally get to see her live. She’ll be touring with Mountain Man, I believe.

Monday, August 22, 2011

What’s Rio Got to Do, Got to Do with It?

Tony Hoagland wearies me. He’s a person of great energy to write essays and with the ability to get these essays published in some of the highest visibility venues, and yet he has so little of value to contribute to the conversation. Still, he has quite a stage for his views, so he gets notice. On the one hand, he is grappling with new poetry, and finding some poets he likes, such as Dean Young or Matthew Zapruder. I’ve no problem with that. These are poets worth liking. But on the other hand, he has to lop off the statue’s arms to get it into the museum. Simply put, Hoagland is not a good lover.  All he really knows how to do is fight, which he doesn't do all that well. His moments of acceptance are short, and his energy for dismissal is deep.

An essay by Tony Hoagland, when it’s on his topic of The Skittery (though he’s now thankfully stopped using that term), will follow the logic of something like this, as a shorthand paraphrase:

“There’s this zany, lightweight stuff going on that is a falling off from the heroic history of strong poetry that started with The New York School (and/or Language Poetry). I like the energy of this poetry and am influenced by it. Nobody does it well. Dean Young (or Mathew Zapruder, etc) does it well, because he’s (his examples in these essays are almost all male) participating in the grander, heroic history of poetry. I picked up an issue of a journal (Fence, etc) and there were poems in there that weren’t as good as Dean Young’s (Matthew Zapruder’s, etc), evidenced by these three poems from relatively unknown young males (he once in an essay used an example from a male student in his workshop in Houston). Poetry’s in bad shape these days, and young poets in MFA programs have to get away from imitating Dean Young/ The New York School and/or Language Poetry.”

That’s pretty much his point. And I feel for him. He’s in a tough situation, as I get the feeling he’s honestly trying to come to terms with the fact that he really likes some of this poetry, while hating it in general. To make himself understand his feelings, he needs to rewrite, or at least, renovate what he sees these poets he likes doing. In doing so, he does a lot of damning with faint praise, of them, as well as poets like O’Hara. (Or maybe that’s “feint praise.”) Large-circulation journals such as The Writer’s Chronicle are happy to give him pages and pages to work through his issues. Why, I don’t know, because none of this is doing a service to poetry.

First off, before I go any further, Tony Hoagland needs to read more work from younger female poets. The fact that he keeps writing these essays about the major poets and trends of our time without talking about anything written by women is doing all of us a disservice. I’m not saying Hoagland can’t or won’t write about female poets, because he can and he has, but for whatever reason, when he’s writing about poetic influence and the major figures of the present and the past, it becomes a very male conversation. I wonder how a poet like Mary Ruefle, for example, might complicate his view, or Rae Armantrout, Martha Ronk, or Mary Jo Bang, etc. These are some poets that could easily fit his argument, pro or con. If he’s talked about them in this regard, I’ve missed it. Instead, he uses a strong, mid-career male voice (Dean Young, Mathew Zapruder) and positions that against some much younger random male examples from a random issue of a random journal (or his grad workshop, etc). This is not the way to build a persuasive argument, especially if one has lofty period-influencing ambitions.

So all of this as long preamble to his new essay in The Writer’s Chronicle, titled “Blame it on Rio: The Strange Legacy of New York School Poetics: An Evolutionary Story of Delight and Dissipation.” (I’m not sure what Rio has to do with it, by the way. But I’m rolling with it.) Johannes Göransson talks about this essay over on Montevidayo:


As usual, Hoagland’s essay starts out interestingly enough, with an appreciative, if low-key, bit on Frank O’Hara and the New York School poets, positing that the group is now pretty much the most influential strand in American poetry. This brings up for me my usual knee-jerk reaction to the usual period style argument. Is The New York School really that widespread in its influence? Well, in certain circles, yes, but if you go by the avenues of power and prestige, certainly no. Looking around the rest of The Writer’s Chronicle, one quickly sees a broader picture of who’s in, if anyone really is. And the more Tony Hoagland asserts that O’Hara (or Ashbery, the more usual target in essays such as this) is the reigning influencer, the more the real wagons of power and prestige can feel threatened and double down in reductive assertions of all those kids out there playing on their lawn. But I digress.

He names a few venues for this nth-wave New York School poetry: Jubilat, Conduit, Fence, and Forklift. And a couple presses, Wave and Verse (there is no longer a Verse Press, by the way, it became Wave awhile back, which reveals at least an inkling of Hoagland’s lack of depth regarding what he’s talking about). “And here’s the bad news,” Hoagland writes, “the aesthetic traits O’Hara passed down to us have not been universally beneficial in their absorption.” And he goes on to say that as “history suggests, some of this can be laid at the unassuming feet of the second generation of the New York School.”

Hoagland sees a direct line from O’Hara to you and me, and that is his largest error. He commits the fallacy of talking about lineage by starting history in the late 1950s (The Fallacy of Temporal Dumbness, I think it’s called). But what of the poets who influenced O’Hara? What of these other writers who have, independent of O’Hara, been influenced by these earlier writers (Stevens, Rimbaud, Stein, Jacob, etc)? And, more specifically to his argument, how do James Tate and Russell Edson (just to keep it male) fit into his straight line lineage? Hoagland has to create a false model to make his assumptions seem inevitable. Jack Spicer, for example, radically messes with his superstructure, as do Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop, C.D. Wright, Jorie Graham, Anne Carson, and a host of others. Influence is not a line, but a web. To reduce it as Hoagland is doing here, is to write a lot of the poetry of the 20th Century out of existence.

But that would make it messy, and Hoagland wants to keep it neat, so on he goes. For one thing, he refuses to admit that the New York School poets, either the first or second generation, have depth or emotional resonance, a claim I find absolutely absurd. About Ted Berrigan (and by extension, The New York School[s]), he writes, “[They] declare their harmlessness with a vengeance. They are ruled by the muse of defiant triviality: Disheveled Lite.” In answer to that, I would kindly direct him to the poetry of Ron Padgett and Alice Notley, two second-generation New York School poets he’s obviously not aware of, though he should be (and John Koethe would work in here as well). He can start his education by catching Alice Notley at AWP this year, and he can catch Ron Padgett at The Academy of American Poets Poet’s Forum this October in NYC.

It’s true that Hoagland admires O’Hara (though he steers clear of saying anything much about Ashbery, Koch, or the others), by saying such things as, “O’Hara . . . brought an improvisational nobility to his work, a warmth, dignity, and humanness.” I agree. But I would argue that it is precisely this warmth that linked him with Ashbery and Koch (et al). And it is this warmth, this humanness, that links them with the anti-pretentiousness of the second wave of New York School poets, and further, it is this same tone that links them with James Tate. In fact, James Tate seems a much better candidate for “influencer of the year award” than either O’Hara or Ashbery, if one wants to go on surface similarities to young poets writing today. Read the poem “Absences” from his 1972 book Abesnces, for example, with stanzas such as this:

In a drunken moment years ago
the hero would be me,
effervescent, welcoming a rattled polka dot
of snow, instead of just sitting here
nervously, twisting a casual wink
into this, in a ditch computing
the future, the dust & the whiteness.
I feel a morbid desire for music.
It comes to zero,
knowing another is near,
a wise man, singing.
Never say drunken angry visionary.
I knit the floating mouth
to the sheep called nobler.

Maybe he’ll write that essay next, decrying the diminishment of Tate’s genius in the hounds of wannabees. It’s all so silly, this line of thinking. “They write like O’Hara, but not as well!” “They write like Tate, but not as well!” “They write like Dean Young, but not as well!” Bah. I remember reading old reviews of Ashbery where some reviewer was saying he wrote like Rimbaud, but not as well. Know what I’m saying? It’s a drone. A mantra. The Ohm of the over-the-hill gang as they’re secretly mourning the fading of their own relevance, trying to argue it back into existence.

In this iteration, Hoagland calls upon an ally, David Rivard, to back him up, quoting him thusly: “The first generation of New York poets invented themselves against a backdrop of conservative ’50s American culture—a context against which their aesthetics meant something fresh and liberating—even spiritual. Consequently, it might be reasonable to think that what our present moment in culture needs from poetry right now is a counter-position; something with weight and existential gravity, asserting counter-values.”

What a switcheroo that is! It’s a convenient argument to rid ourselves of The New York School once and for all. Say they were good but slight, then say their influence has diluted into vapidity, and then say they’re no longer relevant anyway. Boom, all done with that! (By the way, I won’t go down the tangent of arguing about the absence of weight and existential gravity in The New York School poets, though I want to.)

One of the problems with that is that Tony Hoagland likes some of the poetry that comes out of this impulse. He really likes Dean Young’s poetry, for example. He really likes Matthew Zapruder’s poetry, for example. And both of them, as he’s saying here in regards to Zapruder, come out of this tradition. Which, then, begs his next question: “One might ask, by way of proof [of the inconsequential nature of the influence of O’Hara, et al]: What major figures have emerged from the second or third generation New York School of Poetics?”

He has a head of steam now, so he goes for a big finish: “If there’s a kind of heroism and commitment missing from contemporary American poetry, that absence is surely born of many forces. . . . The result is a shortage of the visionary.” If this statement is true, it’s as true of Hoagland’s, Rivard’s , and your poetry (if you've written poetry or not). The answer is easy: heal thine self.

I say “if this statement is true” because I really don’t believe it’s true. I find much to cheer for in contemporary American poetry, just as Hoagland does, and some of the poets I cheer for are poets he cheers for. It’s why I have such a difficult time with what he says in these essays. I feel depressed for him. He’s very interested in lineage and schools of poetry, and he does such a poor job of talking about them. “Where’s the duende and fierceness of mind that authorizes vision in our time?” he asks finally. In answer, I suggest he read more poetry, and stop being so silly about it.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Sturm on Dodd Lee

Nick Sturm

Review of David Dodd Lee’s The Nervous Filaments

Highly dynamic, irreverent, subversive, and driven by a kinetic music that often breaks into riot, The Nervous Filaments is equal parts burning car and predatory rain, an unstable, hugely intelligent electrical box that bleeds. From “Loveless, The Gravel,” the opening poem, witness:

Here is your
story, in my

horizonless competence,

a nevertheless fine
kettle of


I could see ambulance spelled

I could see the eels spilling
out of the horse’s head

With a total of three books out in less than a year, including Orphan, Indiana and Sky Booths in the Breath Somewhere, The Ashbery Erasure Poems, it has become clear that David Dodd Lee has been eating deep sea, bioluminescent fish. How do I know this? Read these poems in the dark: they glow. From “Meditation: Farm Pond,” again, witness:

I don’t want any more goose bumps, the hunchback cries in her sleep

she who is just like you

reptilian-plasma lodged in the brain between cold rudders

poor cowering girl

naked meat-eater

These poems singe with their limber, imagistic abilities. Reading this book sometimes feels like holding an array of transparencies up to one another, aligning divergent frequencies and worlds in an attempt to see what shines through. Indeed, without due attention it might be easy to dismiss them as totem poles of non-sequiturs, if such a thing even exists. However, there is an uncommonly brave depth to be found in this book. Dodd Lee is a master of attention at the molecular level, casually juxtaposing line, image, and syllable in a fierce, uncompromising weather that accumulates into a brazen aesthetic project driven by place, experience, and a serious conviction in poetry as art. Absorbing and reimagining the poetic manifesto of Charles Olson (“One perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception”), The Nervous Filaments confronts a wide swath of American culture from abstract painting to Oprah to the Michigan wilderness. And everywhere Dodd Lee looks the world, the self, is falling apart, dissolving, going hybrid: “the geese half-mated with swans // the blood on their wings” (from “Who But I, O Reckless Death”). What can be salvaged is darkly illuminated. But even in a society utterly distracted by attractive packaging and the spectacle of reality TV, a calm, disturbing beauty breathes in the purgatorial heart of this book: “They shredded the moon again she said about the falling snow” (from “Romantic”). And the world is, these poems are, full of this unstable magic.

As for craft, Dodd Lee takes seriously the belief in the power of the line, its unfettered ability to transcend narrative and description through the continual discharge of imagistic energy. “I’m tired of pathos,” he writes in “I Am Never Going Back,” both a critique of contemporary poetry that begs for attention by tugging at readers’ emotional sympathies and a declaration of this book’s aesthetic ambition. Driven by the engine of the line and breaking apart in moments of crashing epiphany, these poems are difficult and engaging, challenging the rules of cohesion but always returning to the world and defining it in a way that is vital and full of passion: “love is a form of gambling,” (from “Geology of the Lake Superior Basin”); “the world is what you can see while breathing,” (from “Columbia River”); and “I believe in words. One by one / they dismantle everything I have faith in,” (from “Wildlife”). One by one, one by one, little wrecking balls in the dark.

Throughout The Nervous Filaments there is tension between the cerebral and the emotional, the human and the nonhuman, that comes through in moments of tonal variance, the mixing of high and low culture (such as Nietzsche and rhinestones in “Contract Pleasure”), and a post-pastoral perspective that finds little solace in the natural spaces that so many American writers and thinkers once looked to for inspiration and reinforcement of identity. A quick glance through the table of contents shows how close these poems are to the natural world, and this poet is unabashedly linked to the places these poems haunt. But with so much of the nonhuman diluted and absorbed into America’s vapid, post-industrial landscape, Dodd Lee feels trapped, betrayed: “tell me what you think I was thinking / and I’ll tell you rage is the outcome of // most reveries in Nature…” (from “Meditation: Farm Pond”). That the Nike slogan shows up in the middle of a poem called “Wilderness” is testament enough that something has gone seriously wrong.

In the volatile borders between the present and the future, the beautiful and the grotesque, clarity and confusion, The Nervous Filaments creeps under your skin in the worst, most exhilarating way. This book is a warning: you’ve never felt more alive than in the moment before everything comes crashing down. You sure-as-hell better start running.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Blast from the past!

Another of those books I remember floating around the house when I was a kid. I doubt my parents actually read it. Where it came from I don't know. Where it went I don't know. The 70s! Man! Dig? And the omnipresent smiley face.

From Wikipedia:

I'm OK, You're OK, by Thomas A Harris MD, is one of the best selling self-help books ever published. It is a practical guide to Transactional Analysis as a method for solving problems in life. From its first publication during 1967, the popularity of I'm OK, You're OK gradually increased until, during 1972, its name made the New York Times Best Seller list and remained there for almost two years. It is estimated by the publisher to have sold over 15 million copies to date and to have been translated into over a dozen languages.

The phrase "I'm OK, You're OK" is one of four "life positions" that each of us may take. The four positions are:

1. I'm Not OK, You're OK

2. I'm Not OK, You're Not OK

3. I'm OK, You're Not OK

4. I'm OK, You're OK

"Good times are comin', but they're sure comin' slow" as Neil Young sang it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Meow Happens

Well, we knew this was happening. It’s been happening for a long time. But last night’s News Hour has a pretty user-friendly segment on it:

Watch the full episode. See more PBS NewsHour.

A little reminder of where all the money went.

WARREN BUFFETT, Berkshire Hathaway: It should be a land of opportunity. And people that get rich. They -- nobody is going to confiscate everything or anything of the sort.

But the distribution in this country -- market system has led to extremes. A guy that is wired like me -- I don't have any special status in this world. I'm not -- a great nurse, a great teacher may be much more valuable to society than I am. I'm wired so that I can figure out what things are worth. So...

WARREN BUFFETT: Yes. So, I get super rich.

And somebody whose adenoids are in a certain arrangement gets rich. But television makes a lot of people rich. I mean, Lou Gehrig held out for $25,000 in the late '30s. You know, they benched him. They didn't bench him, breaking his streak, but he had a long -- he had a long struggle.

Television has made the .230 hitter or the .240 hitter better than Ted Williams at .406.

So, it -- there's a lot of serendipity. We -- everybody in this country owes their good fortune in some way to the rest of the country.

Here's the cat version:


Saturday, August 13, 2011

An Interesting Moment for Kim Addonizio

from An Interview with Kim Addonizio
by Susan Browne
Five Points, Volume 14, Number 1

As part of her line of questioning, Browne apparently wants Addonizio to talk about the “split” in American poetry. Is there “a” split? I think it’s probably more like a net of fissures. But over and over again, when I hear people talk about contemporary American poetry, they often talk about it as if it were these two creatures. One is a semi-autobiographical (or autobiographical-sounding, or pseudo-autobiographical) narrative/lyric that revolves around a realistic-feeling scene with an identifiable lone speaker going through some generally domestic task. The other side of the split is usually described as something like “energetic word play.” What bothers me most about this, is that the first category is centered around content, and the second, around an attitude toward language. That sets up the question of what we’re looking for when we go to poetry. We know examples that are usually trotted out for each. For the first category, we have Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins. For the second, we have John Ashbery, et al, and groups with names (LANGUAGE poets, Post-avant, experimental, etc).

The problem—well, one of the problems—with this is that it isn’t so cut and formed as that. Where does Dean Young fit, for example? Category A, we agree. But why? Where does Kay Ryan fit? Also A, but why? The lines are, in many ways, political. It’s like party affiliation. So lately I’ve read things by people trying to claim Rae Armantrout into Category A, from out of Category B, so that people can feel OK reading her work, I guess. Or something like that.

What a mess. Kim Addonizio is a solid Category A poet, though, which makes the following exchanges all the more interesting.

Here are a few excerpts from the interview:


Addonizio: When I write, I'm making a poem, period. I don't care what people think about how I portray them or myself (or rather "myself"), because it's a construction. It's a fiction, to me, as much as a novel or short story, and operates in exactly the same way; the underlying concerns are mine, but the drama of how they are enacted on the page may or may not directly correlate.

Let me try and put it another way, because this bugs me, the whole "confessional" brush with which I'm tarred. In a poem, I might take a fleeting feeling and amplify it for the sake of making it more dramatic. I'm not suicidal, for example. But if I have a moment when I can inhabit the consciousness of what it would be like to want to kill myself, I might write a poem with a suicidal speaker. I might even write the poem in order to inhabit that consciousness. Or, at the other extreme, I might ramp something up for the sake of the comedy. I'll change details, etc. I don't give a shit about "what really happened," because it's confining to stick to it; I'd much rather make things up. And if there is an "I" in the poem it might or might not be me.


So far so good. This is the party line on autobiography. But then it starts to get more complicated (interesting):


Browne: Your poems, in the past, often have been narrative. Do you feel your work is changing now? What about that thorny issue, narrative/non-narrative? Some contemporary poems are all leap and no heart, so difficult to follow and resistant to meaning that I feel they lose any connection to anything other than language play.

Addonizio: I do believe in poems making a kind of sense—the sense of each part being necessary to the whole. But when a poet seems to be setting out to say something, and yet that "something" remains obscure even with a lot of investigation on the reader's part, I end up as frustrated as you.

Browne: What poem of yours surprised you the most, either in rereading or writing it?

Addonizio: I just created a poem out of a revision exercise I gave my students. It's from The Practice of Poetry. You cut up an old, failed poem and save just the good parts—little bits of intriguing language—and it usually turns out there aren't very many good parts. My poem was originally titled "By Way of Apology." I had a few phrases, one of which was "a pair of big, invisible hands." Just for the hell of it, I made that the title, and got led into a very weird and fun piece. Another surprising one was generated by a writing exercise I found on the Internet that poet Josh Bell had given a group of students. It had all kinds of random requirements to follow. I love how, using chance, you still pull in the things you need to address. Some level of your brain puts it all together. And it's more interesting to me, right now, than sitting down to tell a "this happened, and then that happened" kind of story. I love narrative, but the way I know how to write a narrative bores me, and I want to do something different. I want the drama to be lyric, and not narrative, if that makes any sense.

Browne: I want to hear more about that.

Addonizio: Take a poem like "November 11," from Lucifer at the Starlite. As Orwell said, "The war is not meant to be won; it is meant to be continuous." That poem has narrative moments: a character drives to the gym and thinks about various deaths—first some closer to home, then it moves out into the war deaths, and slings back to a neighbor's niece. So all that happens in the poem is that she runs on the treadmill. But of course it's not about the gym. That's the framework.

Browne: It's interesting how you weave little bits of the narrative all the way through. If you didn't have the narrative, I don't think I'd be there. . . What about emotion, which seems so suspect in much contemporary poetry? I'm thinking of another poet—call him Poet X. His poems have interesting language play. Maybe, at the very end, they have a glimmer of heart. Then I say, OK, and go on to the next poem and a bunch of language pyrotechnics that are nicely done. Even though I have a pretty good vocabulary, I look up these words and learn some new ones, and the poem is over, and I feel nothing. So is it me? Maybe it's me. And I don't care how much Poet Y has been broiled over the non-narrative fire and turned into a brisket because of that—but I can't wait for her next book to come out because I think I'm going to hear, as William Carlos Williams said, some human news.


Browne’s response is as interesting as Addonizio’s comment. It seems to me Browne is almost admonishing Addonizio to keep from straying too far from the narrative (the party line): The Narrative, the solid Category A platform. It’s quite an interesting moment. The poet, Addonizio, is expressing boredom with the party, wanting a little of that Category B mix-it-up attitude, and is being nudged back by her reader, Browne.

And why must there be this frame? This narrative frame of the person going to and then at the gym? Is it a counterpoint? Is it necessary? Life vs Death? What would the poem be like if it were to be just the stuff Addonizio seems to want to talk about (the piles of dead), rather than what she feels she needs to add? It’s a small moment, but telling, when it comes to our predispositions, our assumptions about what art needs. Browne is reminding Addonizio not to forget to add the frame. Why? Because if it weren’t there, Browne wouldn’t know how to follow it. But why does the narrative frame help? Why can’t the poem just be the web of accruing associations around the idea of death? Would it then be a Category B poem? Possibly. Might this be the line of distinction?

So Dean Young is Category A, because as imaginative and various as his lines are, he still maintains a hint of this narrative frame. And a poet like Ashbery doesn’t . . . But what about the Category B poet who writes a project book? Cole Swensen, perhaps? There’s a LOT of frame in some of her books, but it’s not the personal narrative frame. That seems to be it. The moment of difference. And Addonizio is growing weary, perhaps, of politely staying on her side of the line. I hope so. And I hope a lot of other poets also grow weary of this unspoken requirement. It has long become a telegraphed move. This next bit is also telling, in this regard: the Category A poet Y and the Category B poet X (I know, I know, the math is getting complicated, but this is what happens when people refuse to name names):

And what of a poet like James Tate? He's always been a heavily narrative poet. And what of Mary Jo Bang? I'd call a great many of her poems narrative . . . So it's not just narrative, but a particular flavor of narrative, where the associations don't get too wild (tinged with the surreal, maybe), and the language is treated as a conveyor of singular content (without the messy Derrida troubles?). There seem to be a lot of rules in Category A/Y. And so what of the special cases, like Dean Young and Kay Ryan? Or are they special cases?


Addonizio: But you know, I'm a little bored by Poet Y. I couldn't get through the last book; the poems seem to make the same moves over and over, so I know where Poet Y is going already, and I lose interest.

Browne: Me, too, but would you rather read Poet Y or, oh God, Poet Z?

Addonizio: Anyone but Poet Z. Who is doing very well without my readership.


So yes, back to a little joke to break the tension. We can all agree about Popular Poet Z. But what about these Xs and Ys? Category A and Category B? For me these categories are almost completely useless, unless it’s to simplify voting day. It’s like Democrats and Republicans, when really both parties are a huge mix of tendencies.

Yes, but, back to the questions: who gets Russell Edson? James Tate?

It’s one of those things that only looks like you’re really talking about things if you’re flying 1,000 feet up. So let’s say Poet Y is Rita Dove (or Lynn Emanuel), and Poet X is Forrest Gander (or D.A. Powell). Who is poet Z? Probably Billy Collins, then, I guess? He really gets it from everyone. But anyway, you get the point.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Part five of the six-part GC / JG BOA conversation is up.

The Romantic I is our tennis ball this time around.


From the file of tonal ambiguities: "Father will take the children to the circus"

Whew, we’re in the home stretch. Only one more installment to go.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The New2 Sincerity? The New Spirituality?

Noah Purifoy, Joshua Tree 1995

I’m in casual conversation with Weston Cutter over on the Kenyon Review blog this week. Here’s a link to Part 1:


This seems to be what the zeitgeist is saying right now: “We meant it as a goof but somewhere on the way we became believers.” Or something like that.

Noah Purifoy, Joshua Tree 1995

My earlier post on the subject, for context:

Here are a couple poems to go along with. First, an example of what might be called New2 Sincerity:

Falling Life
Zachary Schomburg

You are in a very high tree.

If you jump
you will live a full life
while falling.

You will get married
to a hummingbird

and raise beautiful part-

You will die of cancer
in mid-air.

I will not lie.
It will be painful.

You are a brave little boy
or girl.

Noah Purifoy, Joshua Tree 1995

And second, an example of New Spirituality:

Dana Levin

Hawk perched low on a hedge of vine.

On hunt for what hid
          in the tangle

The small citizens, mouse and gopher.

Body of Ra the hawk signified.

In the symbol book, which I opened after climbing the stairs,
          after the hawk fanned out its banded tail like I should

          pick a card—

The book was a prisoner of my ardor for the dark—through it I stalked,
          a seeker.

It was a character out of a Victorian novel—Symbol Book, an
          imbecile, a Dutch inventor.

Saying, You must bow
          to the Hippogriff (half raptor, half horse), it must

          lower its head to your hand.

Halcón Pradeño. Mexicano. Come to me for my winter ground.

According to Whatbird.com.

Hawk perched low on a hedge of vine. Going
          heel to toe, so as not to startle.

Cloud unhooding body of Ra a pale pearl of winter sun—

Renaissance printers
          often stamped their wares with hooded falcon,

          emblem of the dungeoned seer.

That “hope for light” the darkened nourish.

Closed books, post tenebras spero lucem along the spine—

I found the phrase in the Office for the Dead, in the Latin Vulgate:
          after darkness I hope for light—

Then: hell is my house, and in darkness I have made my bed—

I thought of my father and mother and sister being dead, I was so sick
          of feeling anything about it—

The hood stood for hope of liberty.

Of wanting to swoop and soar over enormous swells,
          as in my dream.

I hovered high, I could see the mammals in the raucous waters, their slick
of danger and wonder.

My soul hath thirsted, the Vulgate said, He hath put a new song
          into my mouth.

The hawk appeared. Unhooded.
          An auspice, from auspex, avispex, “one who looks at birds”—

I’d been wanting to know if it was all right to live.

An ascensional symbol on every level, the symbol book said.

Body of Ra. Solar victory. If one can believe the book
          of symbols.

Noah Purifoy, Joshua Tree 1995

And when I’m saying “new” here, there is the air of a “new take” but I want to downplay that a little. Perhaps it’s just a new interest as much as anything else. (I’m hedging a little, yes. I’m aware of that.)

Monday, August 08, 2011

Bookshelf / Soundtrack (August 2011)


These are the books I’ve gotten over the last few weeks that are staying with me. It’s something of the “people I know” edition, so be aware of that. But it’s because of their work that I know them, so here are a few brand new books for your late summer:

Aby Kaupang, Absence Is Such a Transparent House – This is Kaupang’s first book. Hers is a fragmentary approach, but where fragments usually turn out sounding like cutups from other sources, hers come off much more lyrically. “I thought entering this that I might / evaporate,” she writes, early in the book, which sums up nicely the tone and stance of the book.

Kathleen Ossip, The Cold War – I like books that are smarter than I am, and this is several shades smarter than I am. It’s not an oppressive intelligence, so I don’t’ feel defensive. I feel more like saying things like “WOW” as Ossip jumps and turns from historical moments to the interior of the self. On top of that Sarabande, once again, does a wonderful job with the construction of the book. They really make fine objects. And this one deserves the treatment.

C. Dale Young, TORN – I met C. Dale (actually, as I write above, I’ve met all of the poets I’m mentioning here except for Suzanne Doppelt) in 2007 in New York City, and liked him right away. I might not have come across his poetry otherwise. How to say this? There are different worlds of poetry, where one group doesn’t know a whole lot about what’s going on in the other group. Something like that? For me, C. Dale is a bridge figure. He brings to the personal lyric a real knowledge of something else (medicine), that infuses it with a second turn, one that, for me, draws me in. People often speak about the period style as if it were one thing, but it’s not. There are several strands weaving in and around the period right now, and I think Young’s poetry is a good example of one of those strands done very well.

Suzanne Doppelt, The Field Is Lethal (trans. Cole Swensen) – I just got this yesterday, and I’m fascinated. The pictures on this post are all from Doppelt. The book is composed of Doppelt’s close prose meditations, fragments, and photographs. I can see why Cole Swensen wanted to translate it.

Matthew Cooperman, STILL: – I also just got this one yesterday, but I read it awhile back in manuscript. It reads to me as if someone took time-lapse slides of (mostly) American culture from right about now, and then placed the slides under a microscope. Each slide contains directions for use, and comes with descriptions and raw data. Cooperman writes: “Premise: the loss is smaller than the gain.” I think of Cooperman's approach as The Kitchen Sink approach. He throws everything at it, whatever it is at any given moment. I mean this all in a very good way. It's remarkable the intelligence and energy he can command in this book, as he did in his last one, DaZE.

Joshua Kryah, We Are Starved – The inaugural volume of the Mountain West Poetry Series from University Press of Colorado, edited by Stephanie G’Schwind. Again, a beautifully made book. Even if you don’t buy it or read it, you really need to hold a copy. And then, once you’ve held it, you’re going to want to buy it. Kryah’s poetry is a very good example, along with Dana Levin’s, of the New Spirituality I was writing some about on the blog this summer. It’s more about, well, hunger, than it is grace, or what many might want from a “spiritual” book of poems. It’s not a polite book of devotion, but it is a book that is devoted.

Soundtrack: Moonface, The Rosebuds, and Jolie Holland.

Moonface, Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I Wanted - Moonface takes a little explaining. It’s a solo album by Spencer Krug, best known as lead singer for Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown. Moonface is a very different animal. It’s just simple drum machine with several layers of overdubbed organ. And then over the top of that, Spencer Krug sings. The songs are long. Seven or so minutes each. I went ahead and added the 20 minute EP track he put out last year, and a non-album track I found on the Internet to make the thing seven songs and over an hour. I rather love this album. “Do this in the hospital lobby, singing, leave the revolution to the revolutionaries,” he sings, or I think he sings.

The Rosebuds, Loud Planes Fly Low – Apparently this is the divorce album from the former husband and wife duo that is The Rosebuds. It’s a rather nice mess of sadness and regret, mostly not played out directly as the breakup of a relationship. It has some twee moments, some grunge moments, some ethereal moments, some spacey moments. In short, nice.

Jolie Holland, Pint of Blood – This is the album Lucinda Williams should have made after Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. But I’m glad someone finally has.

Upcoming releases:

Björk! and St. Vincent! both have albums coming up soon. I’ve heard two songs from the Björk album and one from the St. Vincent album so far, and all seem pretty strong. I’m looking forward to September.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Rae Armantrout - Money Shot - Nick Sturm

Because The Laurel Review is a fairly low-circulation journal, I've decided to start posting some of the reviews from it here. This review is in the forthcoming issue, which is at the printer right now.

On Rae Armantrout’s Money Shot
Nick Sturm

“Staging,” the first poem in Rae Armantrout’s Money Shot, begins massively:

Everything will be made new.

The precision coupling
and uncoupling,

the studied
and folding

have already begun.

Use these lines as a means of understanding how these poems operate: taut direct statements will be rigged to detonate, the tension created by opposition will create a friction that makes disjunction both explicit and ambiguous, and language will be stripped (an ambiguously appropriate verb) and used to simultaneously erect (another appropriate verb) and raze our expectations of these poems, as well as what we thought was a secure, stable understanding of our current situation. In other words, you will leave this book shocked and exhilarated, feeling a bit defiant and ripped at your now-quite-visible seams. You will be finishing the first poem in this book and be presented with the lines, “The spray / of all possible paths.” Then you will read the last line, looking for a moment of cohesion, some kind of revelation, and you will receive neither; instead, a terse, audacious voice will make everything new: “Define possible.”

And there are a lot of possibilities. Which is exciting, and frightening. Even the book’s title, Money Shot, is packed with referential pressure. The most common and provocative reference is to the moment of the male orgasm in porn films, raising issues about the exploitation of the body, the gendered quality of language, and the commodification of pleasure. However, a money shot can also refer to the most expensive scene in a movie, or an intensely physical or emotional scene, and also to the moment when, on a surveillance tape, a gunman is seen reaching over the counter at a convenience store to take the money. But separated from one another, as Armantrout would surely require that we consider, the words ‘money’ and ‘shot’ point towards a cluster of ideas swirling around concepts of worth, violence, manipulation, privilege, and control. These poems are interested in utilizing the anxiety between the singular and the multiple inherent in this language in order to invest a necessary amount of doubt and wonder into our myths about gender, economics, and politics.

In “Soft Money,” all of these factors come together with a clever dose of reimagined language.

They’re sexy
because they’re needy,
which degrades them.

They’re sexy because
they don’t need you.

They’re sexy because they pretend
not to need you,

but they’re lying,
which degrades them.

They’re beneath you
and it’s hot.

The ambiguity of the pronouns makes these lines unusually disconcerting. Furthermore, the sexual and social vagueness of “beneath you” is an example of Armantrout stretching language to its most illuminating limits. The poem ends with an amazing moment of twisted sexual language: “They want to be you, / but can’t, // which is so hot.”

Another apt example of Armantrout’s interest in politics and the self occurs in “Spin,” a poem in three short parts, each of which considers the idea of the self and language, and how these things are spinning or spun.

That we are composed
of dimensionless points

which nonetheless spin,

which nonetheless exist
in space,

which is a mapping
of dimensions.


The pundit says
the candidate’s speech
“all the right points,”

hit “fed-up” but “not bitter,”
hit “not hearkening back.”


Light strikes our eyes
and we say, “Look there!

The self is an accumulation of disjunctive pieces, the poem seems to suggest, and our participation in the world can be reduced to series of reactions to stimuli. Politics, perhaps the most volatile stimulus of opinion, and therefore identity, is revealed by Armantrout to be nothing more than a game of dead rhetoric, a spinning of language to fit a particular ideology. One might call to mind a certain conservative opinion maker who claims to exist in a no spin zone, and how the very declaration of such a space is a rhetorical contradiction, a bloated, preemptive assertion of truth. No, these poems are not concerned with truth, but they are more than willing to point to the spaces between what we think of as true, and in doing so, make us question those truths. From “Day”:

It flashes
but doesn’t gather.

It rhymes and does not

There is no wholeness, no affirmation, but there is music, and the need to confront what masquerades as absolute. From “Following”:

We think things moving in tandem
are parts
of some larger being.

We think
things coming in order
move in tandem.

Daybreak and nightfall
are parts
of some larger being –

someone perfect

and impervious
to grief.

If truth is perfection, says the poet, than truth is devoid of emotion, and how can that be when emotion touches everything? Like Armantrout’s poems, all we have are pieces and parts, fragments and conflicts, and it is our responsibility to revel in the pressure created between these bodies of language. That these poems continually resist resolution is one of the most engaging aspects of Money Shot. The second section of the book’s title poem is the essential example of this resistance.

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

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

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

Why don’t I?

Cut short of the money shot, these lines not only emphasize the grotesque absurdity of luxury, they stress the importance of defying the acceptance of the idea as is, suggesting that there is an alternative space between clarity and confusion where the energy of “what you mean” is all the more clear and baffling because of the ambiguity that surrounds and informs it. Though an obvious contradiction, one could call Armantrout’s poems an exercise in precise ambiguity. That these poems can contain such a contradiction makes them all the more striking.

What else is striking in these poems is their lack of comparative language. But this is no detriment. What is real is more than enough. From “Measure”:

I am not alone in this

A bee has landed,

on a purple tip
of lavender,

pitching in wind.

In the midst of a natural chaos, small piece of hope. But what’s small isn’t always so buoyant. The last section of “Bubble Wrap”:

An immigrant
sells scorpions
of twisted electrical wire
in front of the Rite Aid.

The desperation contained in the image is what is most unsettling, and the social and political repercussions are ours to deal with. Descriptions of the self, and the body, are also jeopardized. From “Outage”:

The body is sprouting grapefruit.

The body is under-
performing in heavy

Armantrout’s fight against cancer is aligned with the failed economy of the body. The poem ends with a proclamation against thinking more about how we say what we mean.

Reception is spotty.

Someone “just like me”
is born
in the future
and I don’t feel a thing?

Like only goes so far.

Indeed, the charged openness of language is itself enough to power these poems. What makes Money Shot such a success is Armantrout’s ability to distill this linguistic energy without compromising the ability of these poems to make lucid associative connections. Though Armantrout is commonly linked with the Language Poets, these poems don’t treat language as inadequate or feel like cold, post-structural experiments. Yes, Armantrout is continually calling into question the language she uses, and these choices are always elegant and amazingly intelligent, but there is genuine emotion in these poems. One can sense the poet’s fears and bewilderments beneath the language, as evasive as that voice may at times try to be. There is something startlingly, crushingly human about the existential crisis in the following lines from “Advent” that make me believe Armantrout at every turn.


Pick out the one
that doesn’t belong.

Let’s play a game, Armantrout seems to say. This game has to do with language, and either it will destroy us or leave us alone on a sunny day. Take your pick.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Waldrep / Gallaher Part 4 - BOA

Part four of the GC / JG six-part conversation is up on the BOA blog:


Elevator Museum: A pair of elevators at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Which I visited this summer without GC. "So how can art approach fundamental meaning?" you may ask. Indeed. What a question! 

In this post, we talk about you. Dolls and animals make an appearance. As does Giacometti. What a crew, crowd, menagerie.

But it’s good to have something to do with all these pictures, anyway. Good times. You know?
We were all so much taller then. We grew large, waiting for the elevators.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Poetry, Medium and Message

So if we both say the same thing we're still not saying the same thing. Yes, but do we mean the same thing?

“So what’s is your poem about?” begins the little essay. The issue is one that keeps popping up, isn’t it? It leads Lepore to consider the translatability of poetry, and the division between meaning and the poem’s singular, written, manifestation.

Coincidentally, I’m reading a book on Derrida right now, so, under its influence, I’m thinking about how philosophy, and culture, privilege speech over writing. I’m now convinced (at least for the rest of the day) that this is a large part of the difficulty, the situation of poetry. Speech is closer to thought, and writing is a distant third, right? In that economy? So poetry, of all the arts, would be the most suspect, as it relies more than does any other art on its written manifestation. No wonder it gives so many people the jitters.

I will admit to a certain level of snooze-facor in this. Maybe it's because I'm over this issue? Maybe I just have a short attention span?  A problem with italics? I'm allergic to binaries? Or maybe it has something to do with mystery. Anyway, here you go:

Poetry, Medium and Message
July 31, 2011

The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless.

Here is a question that has been confounding or even infuriating poets for eons.

So what is your poem about?

(If you happen to personally know any poets, you may even have empirical evidence of this.)

That frustration has little if anything to do with the supposed stormy temperaments of poets. It rather derives, at least partly, from the fact that the question, simple as it may appear, is one that in fact has no satisfactory answer.


In “The Well Wrought Urn” — that well-known and well-wrought book of literary criticism — Cleanth Brooks described what he called “the heresy of paraphrase.” The main idea — that efforts at paraphrasing poetry into prose fail in ways that parallel attempts for prose do not — was not new. It has been generally agreed upon since Aristotle. This skeptical thesis was championed in the first half of the 20th century by the New Critics as well as by their guiding spirit, T.S. Eliot, who, when asked to interpret the line “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree in the cool of the day…” from his poem “Ash Wednesday,” responded, “It means ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree in the cool of the day.’ ”

Eliot’s implication was that repetition is the best we can hope to achieve in interpreting poetry. Translators of Rimbaud likewise lament that because French is soft, melodious and fluid in cadence, English and other non-Romance languages are unsuitable for translation. The poet E.E. Cummings went further, claiming that even the visual impact of the typography of his poems renders them unparaphraseable.

Eliot Contemporary philosophers and linguists have either ignored such skepticism or dismissed it out of hand. The idea that an unambiguous word might mean one thing in a news article or shopping list and something altogether different in a poem is not so easy to embrace. How do we figure out what a poem means if its words do not carry familiar learned meanings? And further, isn’t this skepticism vulnerable to the following simple refutation: take any expression in any poem and introduce by fiat a new expression to mean exactly what the first one does; how could this practice fail to succeed at paraphrase or translation? Though such substitutions can change the aesthetic, emotive or imagistic quality of a poem, how could any of them change meaning?

Despite the simple refutation, the heresy of paraphrase remains compelling. Anyone familiar with Roman Jakobson’s or Vladimir Nabokov’s lamentations over translating Pushkin into English will feel its force. But can their irresistible skepticism concerning poetry translation and paraphrase be reconciled with the obvious logic of the simple refutation?

There is a way out, but to find it one must first attend to a crucial but universally ignored distinction between linguistic expressions and their vehicles of articulation: to this end, consider two individuals both of whom know English but one only speaks while the other only writes. For them, communication is impossible even though they share a common language.

Since each expression requires articulation for its presentation, it is easy to conflate words and their articulations. (Many philosophers and linguists have!) And, of course, more often than not, the linguistic sounds or marks with which we articulate our language make little difference to our intended message. It usually matters little if at all to our grasp of what someone says whether he speaks or writes. But if you reflect upon the distinct possibilities for presenting language, it’s easy to see how what normally goes unnoticed can take center stage.

Or, here’s another way of saying it, one that makes Neko Case cry. And I don’t blame her, friends. There’s a singular spot-on quality to this tender, duende-filled, romantic song. Take your protein pills and put your helmet on, and jump!

For instance, typing the word “brick” in italics (as in “brick”) obviously draws attention to a particular presentation of the word, not to the word itself. But it is one of many. The word might have been spoken, rendered in Braille or even signed. Surprisingly, in this instance, a moment’s reflection ought to convince you that no other articulation could have been used to make this point in this way. In short, that “brick” is italicized cannot be said out loud or signed or rendered in Braille. In effect, the practice of italicization allows the presentation of a language to become a part of the language itself.

If poems too can be (partly) about their own articulations, this would explain why they can resist paraphrase or translation into another idiom, why, for example, substituting “luster” for “sheen” in Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” breaks the bind between its lines, and thereby, alters the poem itself.

And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken —
The ice was all between.

Since synonym substitution in a poem can change meter or rhyme, etc., to the extent that poems are about their own articulation they prohibit paraphrase and translation. Accordingly, as with other forms of mentioning, any effort at re-articulation inevitably changes the topic. Here’s another illustration of the point. Although Giorgione — Big George — was so-called because of his size, Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco was not, even though he is Giorgione. This is possible because the “so-called” construction is partly about its own articulation. Change the articulation and you change the claim even if substitutions are synonymous. These sorts of considerations expose what’s misguided about the simple refutation.

The language of poetry is not magical, nor even distinct from the languages of other discourses; they are identical.

Of course, we can introduce a new expression to mean exactly whatever an old expression means but since poems can be about their own articulations, substituting synonyms will not result in an exact paraphrase or translation. To do so requires not only synonymies but also identical articulations, and only repetition ensures this end.

This explanation of the heresy of paraphrase differs from the New Critics’ quasi-mystical invocation of form shaping content. Linguistic expressions mean whatever they mean wherever they occur, but in poetry (as in other forms of mentioning) the medium really becomes the message. From this, however, it does not follow that the language of poetry is magical or even distinct from the languages of other discourses; they are identical. The words in a Cummings’ poem mean exactly what they do in prose. But because a poem can be a device for presenting its own articulation, re-articulating Cummings while ignoring his versification fails.

Is this what Sartre might have meant when he said the poet “considers words as things and not as signs”? Likewise, Dylan Thomas writes of his first experiences with poetry, that “before I could read them for myself I had come to love just the words of them, the words alone. What the words stood for, symbolized, or meant was of very secondary importance — what mattered was the very sound of them as I heard them for the first time on the lips of the remote and quite incomprehensible grown-ups who seemed, for some reason, to be living in my world.” Thomas might have simply said that his first concern was with articulation, especially sounds — a perceptible property.

Pause and examine these letters as you read them — their shapes are not unappealing. The poet concurs. But, unlike ordinary folk, the poet wants to draw the audience’s attention to these articulations as much as to the ideas the words so articulated express. The poet achieves this end through the devices, for example, of rhyme, alliteration and sundry others. Unintended, rhyme or alliteration and other mishaps and distractions are often rectified by re-articulation, perhaps with different pronunciations of the same words or with different words or linguistic structures that convey the same content. In such circumstances, the discourse is decidedly not about its own articulation. With poetry it is different.

As W.M. Urban noted, the poet does not first intuit her object and then find an appropriate medium in which to articulate it. It is rather in and through a chosen medium that the poet intuits the object in the first place. The philosopher Suzanne Langer once wrote, “though the material of poetry is verbal, its import is not the literal assertion made in the words but the way the assertion is made and this involves the sound, the tempo … and the unifying all-embracing artifice of rhythm.”

Given this, what might poetic effects achieve? Poe’s “The Raven” is an over-the-top case, but a clear one. The poem is partly about sound and its effects on thought, and words and meter are chosen to evoke the sounds themselves, as well as the words: ”the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain..” The repeated rhyme is also important, by the time the raven first says “nevermore,” the pattern is established, so that the raven’s pronouncement arrives with a sense of finality and inevitability which echoes or mirrors or just helps the reader appreciate the way thoughts of death and loss have taken over the narrator’s mind — the bleak obsession that is the theme of the poem.

Brooks and the New Critics would have us believe that what is at work is somehow magical. But there is no mystery here.

It's simple really. Like rain starts in the ocean, right?

Just so that there's no mystery here, either: Ernie Lepore, a professor of philosophy and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Science at Rutgers University, writes on language and mind. More of his work, including two related studies, “On Words” and “Against Metaphorical Meaning,” can be found at his Rutgers Web site.

Monday, August 01, 2011

The Midwest Chapbook Series! Postmark Deadline Today!

Due to cuts in our funding we had to make some tough decisions. We have the funding to produce a chapbook and to bring the author to campus for a reading, but we didn’t have the funding for advertising. Therefore, our submissions are down from what we expected.

Today is the postmark deadline. Please help get the word out.

The Midwest Chapbook Series
GreenTower Press/The Laurel Review

Final Judge: Dana Levin

The contest is open to anyone who is living in, from, or closely associated with the Midwest, excluding close friends and former students of the editors or contest judge, as well as employees and students of Northwest Missouri State University.


20-30 pages (typed, single-sided, one poem per page).

Individual poems may have been previously published. You may include an acknowledgements page if you wish, though one is not required.

Include two cover pages: one with title only, the other with name, address, email address, manuscript title, and a short note establishing your connection to the Midwest.

Your name should ONLY appear on the cover page, which the staff will keep on file. Manuscripts will be read blind.

Reading period opens February 1 and ends August 1, 2011. Late entries will be returned unread.

$10.00 reading fee. Please make checks payable to GreenTower Press. Reading fee gets you a one-year subscription to The Laurel Review, starting with the summer issue.

The winning chapbook will be published in an edition of 300 copies. Winner will receive one hundred copies. Additional copies offered at 40% off the list price ($7.00) plus shipping and handling.

Winner also will be invited to give a reading at Northwest Missouri State University’s Visiting Writers series, which includes travel expenses paid and an honorarium of $250.00

All entries will be considered for publication in The Laurel Review.

Winner will be notified by email or telephone, and will be announced on our website (http://catpages.nwmissouri.edu/m/tlr/ ) in September, 2011.

If you’d like an acknowledgement of receipt send a SASP; please do not send a SASE.

Send entries to:

GreenTower Press
Midwest Chapbook Series
Northwest Missouri State University
Maryville, MO 64468

Questions may be addressed to the editors of The Laurel Review at: TLR@nwmissouri.edu

Recent chapbooks available from GreenTower Press:

BLOOM, Rob Schlegel
Show Me Yours, Hadara bar-Nadav
Off the Fire Road, Greg Wrenn
Instructions for a Painting, Molly Brodak
ITINERARY, Reginald Shepherd
Anatomy of a Ghost, Rumit Pancholi
Grenade, Rebecca Hoogs
The BirdGirl Handbook, Amy Newman