Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Nabobs and Their Gewgaws

  There's a golf course called The Bully Pulpit. Who knew?

This, by Terrance Hayes, from the book Poets on Poetry, reminds me:


I am walking the streets of an industrial northeastern city with a great writer. She is a year younger than my mother . . . . I have given a reading at her university and now on our way to dinner, she is telling me, in her way, what she thought of it: “The poems are not for you, they’re for your readers,” she says. “Forget that navel gazing, ain’t-I-clever shit people like Ashbery write,” she says, her high-heel boot wounding the sidewalk. When I say, “I like some of Ashbery’s stuff,” she snaps: “Quote some lines of your favorite poem!” I can’t and she says that’s the first sign of bullshit in the midst.

[ . . . ]

We reach the restaurant. Our talk will have to end and to end it I ask what I believe will settle the dispute:

“Do you believe the poem is an animal or a machine?”

“It’s a machine,” she says, without even having to think about it. “A thing finely wrought in language.”

“That means you think a perfect poem can be written? You believe there’s such a thing as a perfect poem?”


“That wrought finely enough, everyone, anyone will recognize its beauty?”

“Yes, my father had a sixth-grade education. I write poems he can read. I write them slowly, labor over them, because Hell, if you’re not playing with the big dogs, the ones who have written the perfect works, what play at all?”


This is far and away the dumbest exchange I’ve ever heard recounted of two poets talking on the way to a restaurant. I don’t even know where to start, it’s so absurd. I’m talking about the unnamed great writer mostly, as Hayes was a guest. What is he to do? Tell her she’s a fool? We’re taught to be polite. I’m polite. At least I try to be. I’m picturing myself in this position. What would I do? But still I feel hayes could have done better than to say “it’s during this conversation that I know/decide we’ll be true friends.”

So first, her assumptions of what “people like Ashbery” write is without foundation. It’s her version that says Ashbery writes “that navel gazing, ain’t-I-clever shit.” Say what you will against Ashbery’s poetry, navel-gazing it isn’t. And I also don’t see any of that pretention necessary for the “ain’t I clever” accusation. I understand some people don’t like Ashbery’s poetry, but really, if you don’t like it you at least can have a real reason. What wonderful, elucidating classes she must teach, if this is an example of her reading ability. And then she just compounds the worthlessness of her position: When I say, “I like some of Ashbery’s stuff,” she snaps: “Quote some lines of your favorite poem!” I can’t and she says that’s the first sign of bullshit in the midst.

OK, there’s very little Ashbery I could quote, probably a paraphrase of a sentence or two, but no direct quotes. Not that Ashbery’s poetry is unquotable, but because I just don’t memorize poetry. I bet it’s that way with a lot of poets. If she were to ask me to quote everything I could quote, I could stumble through Stevens’s “Emperor of Ice Cream,” Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” and e.e. cummings’s “Buffalo Bill’s.” And only those three, because I’ve been teaching them for two decades. I couldn’t recite any of my own poems either, for that matter.

“Bullshit in the midst.” What a stupid thing to say. If you can’t quote it, you don’t like it, she’s saying. Well, thank you for letting me know what I do and don’t like. Any more pronouncements you’d like to make? And then, yes, she has. And this is the part where Hayes doesn’t come off all that well. Sure, I understand him not making a stand in the above exchange. He’s a guest. He’s being polite. But to then ask if she thinks poetry is an animal or a machine. Seriously? Do poets really talk this way on the way to dinner? But then again, I’ve never understood such party games. Is poetry a caboose or a windmill? Is poetry a hammer or a grapefruit? But her answer is telling: “[M]y father had a sixth-grade education. I write poems he can read. I write them slowly, labor over them, because Hell, if you’re not playing with the big dogs, the ones who have written the perfect works, what play at all?”

So what does the sixth-grade education have to do with it? Why is that a badge of honor? And why is it better than saying something like “[M]y father had a twelfth-grade education. I write poems he can read.” Or “[M]y father had a PhD in physics. I write poems he can read.” How about “[M]y father had a dog named skippy. I write poems he can read.” This anti-intellectual strain in America—in higher education in America, in fact—is the real bullshit. If a person can read, that person can read. This idea that Ted Kooser’s secretary (Kooser said almost this very thing about his secretary once, which felt both anti-intellectual and sexist) or this poet’s father have some elemental humanness that makes them poet heroes for writing down to is worse than condescending, it’s deformed.

She writes slowly. Why is writing slowly a badge of honor? Who’s to say that’s how the big dogs write? Maybe the big dogs write/wrote naked on the balcony drunk. This emulation of “the big dogs” is pathological. And what are the perfect works anyway? Are there perfect works? Do we agree on them? If we don’t agree they’re perfect, are they?

So yeah, the things this poet said to Hayes enrage me. It enrages me because this poet is a teacher. It continually shocks me that some teachers, often creative writers, are allowed to bully in this way and not be called on it. I’ve hated bullies all my life, and here comes another, with absurd arguments and pronouncements. Another colorful character.

“The poems are not for you, they’re for your readers.” Really? Does that mean the author can’t read her/his poems? Are artists saints then? Martyrs? Or is it short-order cooks? Bah. If You're a teacher, please don't be this teacher. If you're a student, please don't let your teachers be this teacher.

Somebody save us.
La la la

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Rusty Morrison / Robert Pinsky

Two things today that are interesting me.  The first, I was surprised to find out that Rusty Morrison had a new book out. It’s something of a stealth book, coming out without a lot of advance notice (at least that I’ve seen). Book of the Given is the title, and it’s recently out from Noemi Press:

They have it listed in their chapbook series, but it clocks in at 69 pages. I’d call that a full-length, myself. But then again, I’ve recently seen a lot of full lengths around 119 pages. Books are getting longer, it seems. Have we talked about that much? It’s an interesting phenomenon. 

“Pretend instead that words can make a humanness between us” John Yau quotes from the book in talking about it.  That phrase stuck with me while reading the book.  By the end it felt like something of a subtitle or thesis. It’s a very tactile, human book. Here are a couple poems from it:

Generosity resists clandestine promises

Orders coming in from ‘the understood’. Beautiful, cloud-fed, silk-draped declarations, offering us the means to master this moment. Magisterial, easy to oblige. Orders nonetheless. Courage arrives wordlessly, with as yet unknown signatories. The Young King must teach himself valor for his pose under the fleur-de-lis canopy. I say that I’d trade the velvet-cloaked princess-concentrate for more breathable air. But saying is so easily capitulated inside my head. Every pronouncement should be stamped on my local sky, visible and indistinguishable as halo. Only in paintings, you reply. I remember a willow-lined path, done in oils, hanging above my grandmother’s couch—but not how to explain the halo it held for me. If you won’t arrest me for my manipulations of scale, I won’t make a prison for you with my listening. Today, I will not play the game of large, docile eyes, the kind that dark eye-liner is meant to emphasize.


So why is Robert Pinsky’s name on this post, along with Morrison’s? Well, when I started this blog, one of the things I wanted to do was to advocate for the poetry and poets I admire, especially those who get a lot of, what I consider to be, unfair criticism. Therefore the focus on Ashbery, Armantrout, and a lot of poets who some are referring to as “post-avant” (a name few if any of them claim for themselves). 

Time wears on, though, and now and then I like to post things from poets who are very accepted and honored, praised, institutionalized (of course, Ashbery is all of those, but stick with me), and also criticized in other circles, to trouble the blanket criticism.  So here’s a poem from Robert Pinsky that I saw in the New Yorker that I thought was pretty good. Yes, I’d query a few of his choices (that last line is a little pat, and phrases like “the breath balanced on its floor of muscle” drive me nuts), but all in all, I like the way he works through the scenario here. He’s loosening up here a bit, letting the poem have a little more room. I like that. 

Sayings of the Old

One of them said of mules: A creature willing
To labor for you patiently many years,
Just for the privilege to kick you once.

Few men are good as their fathers, said another,
And most are worse, in the entropy of time,
Though some have said, My child—I am well traded!

One I know said to his son, So now we see you
On television: you’re a celebrity now—
But then, you’ve been a celebrity all your life.

Something inside them, patient as a mule
That pulls the plow of being through the decades,
Has watched the stalks of fashion rise and fall.

“Celebrity” may have meant “I think my wife
Always has treated you better than me.”
The Ibo say, An old man sitting down

Can see more things than a young man standing up.
But sooner or later, the mule kicks all alike:
The young, the old, the stalks of crops and weeds.

One hates the sanctimonious Buddha-goo
But loves to meditate. To think one word
And the breath balanced on its floor of muscle

Falling and rising like years. The brain-roof chatter
Settling among the eaves. All falling and rising
And falling again in the calm brute rhythm of hooves. 

Saturday, September 24, 2011

This is the kind of criticism we need more of (or maybe not)

You! Yes, You!

Adam Plunkett, in Book Forum this week has a review of two books, titled “Why Critics Praise Bad Poetry.” It begins this way:


Pay attention to the poetry world, and you’ll notice a kind of false advertising: most of published criticism is positive even though so much of published poetry is bad. (This is probably why a lot of people don’t pay attention to the poetry world.) One reason for the dearth of critical comeuppances is that even bad poems are often hard to understand and harder to understand conclusively, so negative critics risk missing something and looking like fools. They misinterpret what they malign, they butcher what they slander. A way to acknowledge the problem without giving in to it is to qualify criticisms with an implicit “unless I’m missing something.” As in, unless I’m missing something, the line “At the end of one of the billion light-years of loneliness” sounds like a parody of a pop song. It describes an emotion without conveying it, exaggerates images without making them interesting. “His super-outfit is made from handfuls of oil and garbage blood and pinned together by stars.” Unless I’m missing something, that’s vaguely whimsical but impossible to visualize at all. Blood, toil, sweat, and tears are also ethereal, I get it, but the words are tossed together like a collage I can’t actually imagine—is there oil and bloody garbage floating near the Milky Way, in which case how can the poet see it? How does it look to him like a superhero’s outfit? How is the line not sappy, trite, and nonsensical?


It’s a good question, and agree with Plunkett or not (I think it’s a pretty big stretch to assert that it’s because of the over-praise of poetry in reviews that people don’t pay attention to it, but certainly the over-praise of poetry in reviews isn’t helping the situation any), he’s being clear on what he talks about [Sunday addendum: it looks like Plunkett's nto being so clear after all. Scroll down to the bottom of this post to see an alternate take on his clarity.]. Here are his two examples. The first is Michael Dickman, and the second is Katherine Larson. Here’s his take on Dickman:


The poems in Flies follow the main form of his first book, whose poems at many formal levels open problems but often don’t close them. Their page-long sections are unnumbered, non-linear, associative, with pieces of stories and recurring themes. In the new collection, sentences and phrases are split, even words (“Flying around / the room / like a mosq- / uito”). The effect is to develop patterns of thought and of feeling and to clarify and dramatize Dickman’s conflicts about those thoughts and those feelings, as well as the conflicts the thoughts and feelings lead to. “The swing sets / aren’t really / there,” he writes in “Imaginary Playground,” as if he’d thought to say that they weren’t really real but settled on “there,” as if they could be elsewhere. The style at its best points out its own incompleteness and suggests clear meaningful ways to complete it. The reader can weigh the different ways to think, the different stories

Grey-edged clouds
the color of the desperation of wolves.
of your existence?
There is nothing

for inconclusive resolutions and show unclear problems. Take the first section of “All Saints”:

I made the mask
from scratch
also the wings
all by myself
in the shape of a sick child
or newly cut
It was hard to stand up at first because the wings were so heavy but
I’m getting more and more used to them
More and more ready
waves of silver paint
they shine like
the blind
But the beak is real
A real beak
instead of a mouth

How does a bird outfit resemble a sick kid? Why are blind people glowing? Blinding things glow, such as angels, but why would anyone confuse them with the blind? His childhood self (whose point of view he moves in and out of) thinks that he’s gotten “More and more ready,” ostensibly to fly and to do whatever flying is a metaphor for, and he covers his mouth with a beak so that he won’t have to speak, so he can escape through flight or through silence. We know this, but the poem doesn’t embellish these conventional metaphors—flying, silence—or tell us anything dramatically interesting about the source of the child’s shame or about the intricacies of his reaction, or mimic any childlike feelings about flight and shame, or render any distinctive childlike phrases or habits of mind, or, as it should, set us up to imagine metaphors or stories or feelings or childlike idiom. The section gives us no good reason to wade through its nonsensical images to read what amounts just to Dickman’s saying that he dressed up as a bird as a kid to imagine escape from his shame. Why would anyone want to jump through rhetorical hoops to read a poem no more thoughtful than its cliché of a paraphrase?


Usually when a reviewer talks this way about a book or a poet, it’s because that reviewer has an aesthetic ax to grind. It’s a veiled polemic against “that kind of poetry” whatever that kind of poetry is. But Plunkett doesn’t fall into that trap. Here’s a bit of his take on Larson:


A welcome contrast is Katherine Larson’s lucid incoherence, which invites reflection as it escapes paraphrase:

The Milky Way sways its back
across all of wind-eaten America
like a dusty saddle tossed
over your sable, lunatic horse.

There’s no simple literal sense to the simile (The Milky Way is to America as a saddle is to a mad-horse), but the visceral descriptions draw the objects together (“back,” “saddle,” “dusty,” “wind-eaten,” “lunatic”) with an associative certainty the final rhyme secures (“tossed” / “horse” is a Yeats rhyme, imperfect but accruing). Her image of the Milky Way is a perfect point of comparison with Dickman’s, which is literally incoherent but frustratingly rather than breathtakingly so. Hers is so charged with a depth of sensuous associations that it feels raw and unconscious, dreamlike and primeval, exciting precisely because you can pleasantly think it over endlessly without ever making sense of it or having it lose its mystery. Dickman’s image aims for this, fails to please the reader, and just looks silly, a failure absent from Larson’s stunning first book.


Again, I’m not agreeing or disagreeing with his evaluations of the two books as I’ve not read either, but I am persuaded that he’s talking about these books with a clarity and honesty that I welcome in reviews. He’s not trying to make these books into something they’re not. He’s reading them how they seem to want to be read, and he’s evaluating them from where they are, what they're doing. I would like very much to see more of this sort of thing.

I’ll leave you with his last bit on Larson:


Larson gives a clear image of her poems’ mystery, of how she explores like a sailor and builds like a craftsman and analyzes like a scientist, and of how she, as an artist, renders and deepens the problems that caused her to wonder. She complicates the ideas she offers most clearly, to enrich the basic mysteries. Her meanings, the vessels of her poems, “expand even as [they] fall apart,” like a quantum universe that fixes itself when it’s observed, and as the puzzle of knowing her world gives way to the mystery of how to observe it and of how to live in it:

The astronomer gazes out
one eye at a time
to a sky that expands
even as it falls apart
like a paper boat dissolving in bilge.


You can read the whole review here:

Well, I'd not go this far, but there weren't a lot of good images on criticism out there this morning.

I received an email this morning that seriously troubled me.  I was interested in this review by Plunkett because of what I saw it doing rhetorically.  I haven’t read either book, so I was taking the review at face value.  Actually, I wasn’t thinking much about the books themselves, but rather his trying the navigate the ways each was working with mystery (if mystery’s a good word for it.)

So anyway, someone with knowledge of the Dickman book sent me an email that seriously calls into question Plunkett’s review.  Here’s the relevant bit:


Plunkett quotes the following in his review of Dickman’s book:

      Grey-edged clouds 
      the color of the desperation of wolves.
      of your existence?
      There is nothing

However, this is a misquote from the first poem in FW’s [AnzFray IghtWray -- Apologies, but I have to write his name this way or he’ll show up and write terrible comments in the comment stream—JG] Walking to Martha's Vineyard, a poem called “Year One”.  Wright’s poem goes like this:


     I was still standing
     on a northern corner
     Moonlit winter clouds the color of the desperation of wolves
     of your existence? There is nothing

Aside from that he misquotes at least one line-break/word-break of Dickman’s. In the poem “Dead Brother Super Hero” the word “mosquito” is left intact, and not broken as he says it is.


So anyway, I’ll leave the post up, but if this is true (and I’m guessing it is), then Plunkett’s assessment of Dickman’s book is seriously called into question.  You know how the thing goes.  No matter what your thesis, if your supporting evidence if fallacious, then your argument fails.

So it seems we don’t really need reviews like this after all.

Sheesh.  Someone please send me a review that is a good model for a negative review please. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Risk? The Irrational? Courage? Whatevs...

When we talk of the edge, the risk, in art, what are we talking about?  Leading each other to new forms? New forms of what?  How a poem looks?  How it sounds?  Content?  Approach to content?  New forms of disappearance?  Eh. 

It’s helpful that our bodies do many things without us having to consciously sign off on them.  And then the next move, how we can hold our breath but we can’t stop our hearts.  That’s for the best, yes, but thinking about how the body does these things with and without us allows me to think that those who conceptualize art making as a conscious process are missing a lot of the resonant possibilities of composition. 

I suppose I’m talking about improvisation.  A kind of anti-discipline stance.  Dean Young calls it recklessness.  There is that, yes, but there’s also, as in the best jazz improvisation, or in the semi-improvisation of some films, an attention to what is going on, a listening to what’s happening, to further it and move with it.  In acting, I think, they call it “yes and.”  The idea is that what you say next has to accept what came before it, pay attention to it, but then to add something to it, something new. 

This is an aspect of poetry writing I don’t hear talked about much, and I wonder why that is, as my guess is that all (or almost all? or a sizable number?) poets participate with some version of it. 

The completing incompleteness, perhaps.  The improvisation with what the day presents.  Which suggests to me the act of the irrational. 

It’s not Frost’s completeness that brings us back to his poetry, but his incompleteness, the ambivalence that undergirds the whole.  Form might be his net, but ambivalence is the court.  Likewise, it’s not Eliot’s fragments that bring us back, but the ghost of presence represented by the ruins.  It’s the way in which those fragments reflect a whole. 

The chance, the improvisation, the irrational . . . these are all ways to shake up the pull of the generic, the reductive nature of the statements one makes about living. 

It’s not one thing or another we love about whatever poetry we love, but the way in which they exists as a tension within propositions. To which Valery replied, “But my dear Degas, poetry is made out of words, not ideas!” Poems are made out of words, yes, but words are ideas too.  It’s another pretty sounding dichotomy that slides out the window. 

Shakespeare is a great example.  As is Gertrude Stein.  Wordsworth, if you prefer.  Name your favorite great poet and you’ll find a tension at the heart of the work that sets it as a site of the finally human, the improvised moment from what happens to be at hand.  There are always going to be poets who do this or that well, those who achieve dexterity in a mode who will sparkle for a time as people are thrilled by the reflections.  The landscape gets crowded.  What I mean, though, is that at one time Shakespeare, perhaps, might have been celebrated for his dexterity with the sonnet, but finally, it’s not because of his formal dexterity that we read him 500 years later.  It’s part, sure.  But at the heart of his work there’s a tension, call it a question, a desire, a fracture, a ghosted completeness. 

I see the same economy of desire in Whitman and Dickinson.  There it is in Plath and Ashbery and Armantrout, etc. 

It’s not about aesthetics or craft, so much as it’s the arc of the tension of the irrational improvising through the rational. 

This is the theme I see running through Dean Young’s excellent book, The Art of Recklessness.  And I believe we all kind of agree with this.  And in groups, workshops, etc, we try to deal with it in some fashion. 

“What’s at stake in this poem?” we ask.  What a terrible workshop question! What an inquisition leading the witness to a checklist of acceptable risks.  But we try.  Can we say “improvise more”?  Can we say “write better”? Is improvisation risk? Is form without improvisation risk? maybe I'm just allergic to the term risk.  Risk, in this way is like saying courage or heroism. I think they should be used for moments when one is facing bullets.

I’m drawn by temperament to poetry that begins in a state of fragment and improvises into a completeness (a work of art is always a completeness because it’s there).  In that way, I’m postmodern.  I believe in the ruins.  When I look around, I see shards of culture, experience, humanity.  For me, that’s the given.  So for me, a poet like John Ashbery speaks sensibly.  He makes beautiful use of the shards of experience we’ve found ourselves in.  The same with Armantrout, applied in a very different way.  But I don’t see these poets stopping there.  I see them work those with those fragments in ways that suggest a human, a humane connection, with the world as we find it. 

I completely understand someone not caring for that, for starting with The Waste Land as a given, and then walking out into it and dealing with it in that way.  Luckily for those people, there are other poets, poets who can also be profitably working with our condition, coming from a perceptual direction more like Frost’s, where a whole is presented, but with fissures, those roads that extend out, making all the difference, but being, for all that, pretty much the same. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

John Ashbery's translation of Illuminations reviewed in Boston Review

Robert Huddleston reviews Ashbery's translation of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, from Boston Review. I’m interested in how Huddleston characterizes Ashbery here (“Ashbery is a rationalist, even a phenomenologist of language”). I love that idea of Ashbery of a rationalist. I’ve always thought of his as a/the poster child for the power of the irrational imagination. Huddleston writes:

At first glance, Ashbery seems like a perfect match for Rimbaud. I would emphasize seems because dans l’occurrence, as the French say, there is something fishy about this “Dancing With the Stars” model of translation.

But first we should consider the dance card: Ashbery himself was something of a prodigy, winning the Yale Younger Poets Prize for Some Trees at 29. He is especially notable for being the only poet ever to win the so-called Triple Crown of poetry (the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and the National Book Critics’ Circle Award) in a single year for his collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975). If one measures success by accolades, then Ashbery is Secretariat. Perhaps more surprising, he has also amassed considerable outsider cachet despite this formidable record of insider approval. Ashbery is one of the few “mainstream” poets who is also a darling of the avant-garde.

But for this reason, Ashbery presents an interesting tension with Rimbaud. Imagine an alternate reality where Rimbaud progresses from enfant terrible to celebrated literary elder statesman (“a sixty-year-old smiling public man,” in Yeats’s wonderful phrase) and you would have John Ashbery. But you can’t really imagine it, can you? For then he wouldn’t be Rimbaud. Ashbery is a rationalist, even a phenomenologist of language, tracing the inward contours of perception, the hesitations, digressions, and aporias of thought, which makes him beloved by postmodernists. Rimbaud believed in the “Alchemy of the Verb.” As Claudel observed, the word “like,” that copula of symmetry keeping things intact and in place, approximating without joining, hardly ever appears in his poetry. If Rimbaud is postmodern, he is so by blurring boundaries and yoking heterogeneous elements together by violence. As he wrote to Paul Demeny, in order to be a poet “one must . . . be a visionary, make oneself a visionary through a long, prodigious and rational disordering of all the senses.” We live now in an unvisionary age, and Ashbery is its poet laureate.

You can read the full review here:

AnzFray IghtWray Part Infinity + 1

See? He can smile.

AnzFray IghtWray again on the MFA and contemporary poetry in general. This time from the Huff Post blog of IsAnay IvaniShay. IghtWray has said similar things for some time now on the comments boxes of blogs and on his facebook page.

IvaniShay says of the email interview: “Franz is always compassionate, generous, and kind and friendly in unexpected ways--and I hope the following exchange conveys a little of his warm personality.”

This might or might not be true, I don’t know. But if it is true, no, this exchange does not convey it.

I’m not even sure I should pass this along, it’s such a useless issue, but these comments about MFA programs and contemporary poetry continue to pop up around the block. Is there anything left of value to say about this? Was there ever? I doubt it. Mostly I just find the whoel thing depressing.  (But I'm already depressed, as I just read that R.E.M. has broken up. )

Look, the king is on fire!

Here’s the link to the complete interview:

Anis: Often, in these poems, you proceed by negation of previously stated propositions. The sum of negations in an individual piece might add up, however, to a vast affirmation. What do you think of this way of describing the pieces in Kindertotenwald?

Franz: I can hardly imagine a better way to say this than you just have in your question, I can only say how wonderful it is to have such a perceptive reader, what my father used to call "an intelligent reader of good will," something we are in very short demand of.

They won't have that kind of thing in most MFA programs, and virtually every poet of note teaches in one, with the exception of me and, in my father's generation, Robert Bly and W.S. Merwin, and virtually every poet who publishes a poem in the United States is the product of these programs, where twelve or fifteen blind children sit around a big table and give each other advice on how to write in the manner that is fashionable at the moment (sometimes they have an illustrious poet with no training whatsoever as a teacher to guide them, sometimes a poet nobody has ever heard of and probably never will, perhaps because...never mind--I hate the subject,

I hate the dumbing down of poetry, the lowering of the bar until, as both revered teachers and friends of mine Donald Justice and Simic commented, it is almost impossible for young people to tell the difference between a good and a bad poem, since for decades it has been fashionable to write in such a manner--obscurity for obscurity's sake is how I would describe it--that makes it virtually impossible to tell whether you have any talent, have anything very interesting to say, etc.

It is a remarkable thing. The greatest poetry in the world, it seems to me, was being written by American poets until--coincidence?--around the late seventies when MFA programs became ubiquitous in American colleges and universities. Richard Howard once quipped darkly at a PEN gathering I happened to be at to receive a writing award, that there are now more writers than readers of poetry in the United States.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Paul Legault, The Other Poems

Two things came into conjunction recently as I was reading Paul Legault’s excellent new book of poetry, The Other Poems. 

First, I was captivated by the voice Legault achieves.  It’s as if Beckett was trying to write Berryman’s Dream Songs as reported by Kenneth Koch.  It’s antic, therefore, and appears to be evading overt earnestness, even as the content continues to fold in all manner of attitudes and characters.  The Other Poems picks at the darkness that surrounds the vaudevillian spectacle, or it simply presents it. Or it talks with it.  Or lets it talk.

The second, was that these are formal poems.  They have fourteen lines, so there’s a sonnet echo, but further than that, there’s something that they’re doing that seems repeatable, a form.  I tried to do a rhetorical analysis of some as I was reading, and came up with a few stabs at the form, but it wasn’t until I got to the end of the book and saw that Legault wrote a version of one of the poems as an illustration of the form, that it became (somewhat) clear.  (As you will see it's a rather antic set of rules.) As all good poems do, many of the poems in the collection violate (I think) the form in minor ways, but the form stands, and offers variability within structure. 

I’m interested in what would/will happen when and if other poets take up the form, especially someone from a different aesthetic position.  I’d really like to see that. 

Here’s his illustration of/directions for the form:


[Prepositional statement opening into the continuation
of the second line to the end of the first sentence]

SUBJECT: (descriptor) [Statement of personal action]
OBJECT: [Apology]
COUNTER-OBJECT: [Counter-statement]

put forth to
the ambient audience

addressed to perform a new action]

MEDIATOR: [Question without interrogative punctuation]

on how to place the verbal processes
in relationship to the reader’s final adjustment of the text]

Here’s an example of how he interprets the form in a poem:


Then they made another garden
but differently.

FRAGRANCE: There’s always something in color. 
TEXTURE: There are always bird walks. 
SOUND: There are turkeys on these grounds
                and José the Beaver
                far off in the forest without thoughts.
AUDIO TOUR GUIDE: There is almost always

an irregular ball
                about two feet high
described on this phone-line. 

In the future, or in three months, the plants will change,
                or else they will be about to have to.
THE FUTURE: Who senses me when I’m not there?

LAVENDER: The bed is knee-high
                and lined with a single wall.
WANT: You want to grow your own food,

annihilating all that’s made,
and live in Paradise alone. 

And here’s another, because I like typing these poems out:


By order of everything,
there are a lot of low expectations.

CELIBACY: People are like children.
THINGS: We can always go wrong.
SOUTHERN PEOPLE: What I ain’t ain’t much. 
A WET STRING: That’s what you sound like. 

The landscape is holy if its braids take to water.
The foam curls at the sea beast’s feet. 

I don’t even know who you are most of the time. 
BEAR-CHANDRA: You were going to be me. 

MOLLY: Take me away
                through the mud’s black speculum. 
ORGANS: One thing at a time. 

Nothing’s not normal.  Never mind
how you were thinking about not thinking about it. 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line Pt II

Here's a second glimpse of what's inside A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line.  In her introduction, Emily Rosko has the large task of having to mention all of the nearly 200 mini-essays in the book. It's a good synopsis:

Mapping the Line

Emily Rosko

We have such lines here—to name a few: lines of sight and lines of thought; the line as musical and textual scoring, as voicing and orality; the line as genealogy and elegy; materialities of the line, both in the world and in cyberspace. As Lisa Steinman generously noted in an early response to the essays assembled here, “to consider the tropes used to describe lines of poetry—and to notice that they are tropes—is precisely the kind of insight this diverse collection allows.” Needless to say, it is difficult adequately to survey the essays included here, which represent a diversity of practice and a historical arc that take us, quite literally, from Hammurabi’s Code to hypertext and Twitter. The attempt that follows remains a knowingly partial gloss, what Robert Creeley might call a quick graph. We encourage each reader to make her or his own map.

Near the start of the collection, Marianne Boruch articulates a common theme throughout these essays. “The line against the larger wealth of the sentence,” she writes, “is a rebel thing which undercuts order. With it comes all that can’t be fully controlled: the irrational, the near-deranged, the deeply personal and individual utterance.” Sarah Kennedy supplies us with a more visceral image that we might keep in mind when considering the line’s critical, even violent, energy. Her figure for lineation was conceived in a grocery store parking lot in the face of a howling, growling dog unleashed in the bed of a 4!4: “The poetic line: a big dog in a truck.” Conceding that “lines of poetry are musical in their rhythmic cadences, yes, and they make meaning(s), yes, and they are often beautiful, yes,” she continues to argue that “what makes a line of words a poetic line rather than just part of a sentence broken halfway across the page is that tensive moment at the last word, when the entire animal rushes to the boundary in full gorgeous fury.” For many others, however, it is not this more pointed danger, but how the line holds us close in its cadence, how the line shades into music. “Whether we attend to the fact or not,” Tim Seibles begins, “poetry has deep roots in song. Beyond their meanings, words are sounds, notes if you will.” Whether we view the line as a marker of subversive, even dangerous, power or as the pure pulse of poetic song, as a matter of technical mastery or as an invitation to philosophical and social reflection, these essays as a whole remain interested in the grounding question of how and why poets do or do not break lines. The varied and inventive answers to this grounding question contained herein offer so many crucial windows into how poetry means, and why it continues to matter.

Sturdy conversations underscoring the centrality of the poetic line find new life here. Timothy Liu combines a lively anecdote with his take on a classic pedagogical lesson involving the transposition of poems into prose and vice versa. Robert Wrigley makes no fuss about it and declares that the poetic line, whether free or metered, is the only tool: “All the other attributes poetry is said to possess,” he proffers, “are bullshit.” Other poets—including Bruce Bond, Scott Cairns, and Thomas Lux—reinvigorate these fundamental genre distinctions with powerful statements about how the line remains fundamental to poetry, how it holds a provocative agency that involves the reader in the poem’s unfolding: its momentary plays against concision, to borrow Cairns’s apt phrase with its Frostian echoes. Indeed, many of the essays here touch on that central tension between sense and syntax, but they often give this traditional binary a new twist, a new language. Cole Swensen, for example, thinks of “the crux of poetry as twofold—as excess and as incommensurability: the shape of sense and the shape of language simply aren’t the same, and poetry is the form that, above all others, refuses to make light of that difference. And so it must, instead, address it. Poetry has historically addressed it through the line-break.”

Confessing that she has become wary “of thinking about the poetic line solely . . . as single-voiced encounters playing with expectation and the ephemeral” where emphasis falls always at the line’s end, Catherine Imbriglio describes how she has come to think of “the entire line, not just beginning and end words, as setting up tensions between the temporal and the spatial, with each line having a hard-core relation with every other line and every space in the poem, not just the ones before and after it.” Concurring that we often tend to overvalue line-breaks over the line itself, V. Penelope Pelizzon turns our attention to the beginnings of lines, and, through a reading of Frank Bidart, she examines how the rhythm of a line can be established or productively disrupted by what she terms “soft” or “strong” entrances. Molly Peacock puts pressure on the middle of lines as a place to delicately fold in rhyme. Annie Finch, who has previously pursued T. S. Eliot’s notion that one might discover the metrical code, the ghost of meter, in free verse, foregoes the dug-in defensiveness of New Formalist polemics as she argues for the presence of something like a line-break after each poetic foot. Tellingly, even though she sardonically reflects on how the line has too often become the lone tool for free-verse poets, she defines her sense of metrics not against, but in positive relation to, that dominant facet of the free-verse line. Kevin Prufer looks not only to the ghost of meter in free verse, but to the uses of freedom within fixed forms. Expanding the kinds of things that fall within the purview of the line, Terese Svoboda describes how the line lurks even in prose as well.

Departing from the concerns of technique, other contributors more philosophically defend the value of the poetic line as the singular unit of meaning in poetry. For Heather McHugh, the line models a finely honed and necessary attention, even shelter, in terms that echo Frost’s famous definition of poetry as a momentary stay against confusion. “The poetic line,” she writes, “is an advertency constructed to contend with a world of inadvertencies—inadvertencies that, otherwise, could swamp us.” Graham Foust sees the poetic line as an integer of consciousness, where it figures as both the enactment of a “thinking subject” and, at the line-break’s pause, the poet’s consciousness thrown back on the “thought-about object.” Placing equal weight on the importance of every line in a poem—of each line’s purposeful integrity—Alberto Ríos reminds us: “A line is a moment that has value right then, and which deserves some of our time.” Noting a very similar meditative potential in the line, Kazim Ali offers the following figure: The poem is “not mere rhetoric or reportage or description, but pure mystery, an aspirant to the divine. A book of poems is an abbey of aspirants, each reciting a line to herself in meditation.” Suggesting how mysterious and private poems can appear, even to their writers, and questioning any poetics that would seek to tell us what a poem ought or ought not do, John Gallaher concludes that the poem itself must teach us how to read it: “The poem becomes a one-time use definition of line-break, line, stanza, and so forth.”

The philosophical graces the physical in Susan Stewart’s fluid essay in which she embraces the breath, the voice, the hand, and the body’s dance, all of which underlie a line’s making. Drawing attention to the gendered language of poetic discourse and its limited binary logic, she jests: “All my endings would be feminine unless they were masculine.” Catherine Barnett weaves in a subtle feminist critique to the work of lineation when she admits that “there is an energy in breaking that is perhaps too often sworn or wooed or won out of women. I spend an awful lot of time trying to fix things, trying to make things. I am glad to be able to break.” This visceral physicality that accompanies the making and breaking of lines is key for Carl Phillips as well: “There’s the strange, undeniable pleasure both in controlling and in being controlled,” he writes.

Arielle Greenberg blends the physicality of the line with its potential for an expansive rhetoric as she considers what she calls the “hyperextension of the line,” which involves “pushing the line past the point of sentence unit into something that feels at once fragmented and stretched.” Cynthia Hogue, moving more explicitly from formal to social reflection, explores how the calculated spatial suspension that enables many of Williams’s punning lines becomes devastating in Leslie Scalapino’s revisions of them in the context of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The line,” Hogue reminds us, “is telling, not only in what it says but what it doesn’t say.” Paisley Rekdal further argues how lineation supports meanings that are not explicitly voiced, enabling broader explorations of identity and cultural critique, something she finds exemplified in the increasingly fragmented lines of Myung Mi Kim’s “Food, Shelter, Clothing.”

In the same way that Rekdal turns to Kim, or Hogue to Scalapino, many of the contributors here root their reflections in a fine attention to the work of other poets. This crucial dialogue comes to life in Dana Levin’s comparative look at Allen Ginsberg’s hurtling, uncontainable line and the contrastive appreciation it inspires for the radical enjambments of a poet like Michael Dickman. “I could meditate for quite some time on ‘I’m not dead but I am,’” she tells us, reflecting on a line from Dickman. Joanie Mackowski distinguishes the “productively destabilizing free-verse lines” in Forrest Gander’s work against the more gimmicky line-break one encounters all too often. Shara McCallum turns to poems by Gwendolyn Brooks and Yusef Komunyakaa to show “how the line in free verse, chaffing against or in concert with the sentence, creates a rhythm that corresponds to the inflections of an actual, human voice.” Touching on poets as different as Longfellow and May Swenson, William Carlos Williams and Carl Sandburg, Ravi Shankar unpacks notions of pace, tradition, risk, and sport that chart the possibilities of lineation. Wayne Miller revisits Emily Dickinson’s use of the line, offering striking close readings that show how her dash often does the work of a line-break. Looking to the work of Lily Brown and G. C. Waldrep to demonstrate the fundamentally re-orienting quality of our best poetry—a quality that becomes a kind of ethical charge—Joshua Marie Wilkinson argues that in such poems we “discover new techniques of the poetic line” that have the ability to “undo what we have unwittingly come to expect from poetry, from language, from one another.”

Many poets here reevaluate poetic traditions or trace deep histories of the line, theoretical, formal, or otherwise. Jenny Mueller and Karla Kelsey offer the kind of incisive reappraisals of modernist and language-poetry practices that too often escape critical attention. As the sole contributor to endorse the syllabic line, Robyn Schiff argues that the formal constraint presented by syllable-counting demands “the most physical encounter with words both orally and textually.” Joshua Clover’s more theoretical piece pursues Theodor Adorno’s influential claim that “the unresolved antagonisms of reality appear in art in the guise of immanent problems of artistic form” (8). Turning to the emergence of the free-verse line and the burgeoning problematic of form that resulted in the early twentieth century, Clover suggests one answer to the question of “why this particular mutation of the line appears as an immanent problem of poetic form around the turn of the century.” Taking us back to the speculative origins of the line, Johanna Drucker turns to ancient Babylonian inscription, highlighting the way the graphic line was used at times in cuneiform writing to divide signs into semantic units. This stunning piece of poetic archeology beautifully supplements her essay from The Line in Postmodern Poetry on “The Visual Line.”

While many contributors here look to the practice of their peers, others reflect upon the sense of the line that motivates their own work. There are lively accounts of personal encounters with the line and its difficult potentialities by Brent Cunningham, John O. Espinoza, Kimiko Hahn, Raza Ali Hasan, Martha Rhodes, and Dana Roeser. Meanwhile, poets such as J. P. Dancing Bear, Patrick Phillips, and Mary Ann Samyn track the idiosyncratic ways that the line becomes a measure and a means for composition in their own work. For their part, Ben Lerner and Donald Platt offer candid insights into what motivates and sustains a broken line in their work. Harnessing speech acts, such as the stutter, false start, and interruption, and also using a technique that he calls “braiding lines,” Lerner writes that his goal with each line is to “focus attention on the activity of thinking over the finished thought.” As a practitioner of a highly particular use of the line across a career, Platt explains that his line use (of alternating long and short lines arranged in tercets) offers a generative constraint with which to shape poetic thought. Platt is an interesting exception among poets insofar as the line—his line, across a body of work—is not a variable but a constant, a kind of signature.

Other contributions, more difficult to typify, range from the cutting-edge to the colloquial, from the experimental to the everyday. Evie Shockley, with John Cage’s mesostic form in mind, proposes exchanging strict linearity for more “circuitous routes” as she details this operation in one of her own poems. At the forefront of new-media poetics, Stephanie Strickland argues that in digital poetry the line does not break but embodies “an entire interactional system,” thriving dynamically and simultaneously across multiple digital dimensions. Playing with the ways the line is woven into everyday language and cliché, H. L. Hix raids the colloquial for insights into the poetic. Noah Eli Gordon offers four cryptically Blakean allegories, each concluding with riddle- or koan-like keys that often obscure as much as they clarify, as when he concludes the first allegory with the chiastic observation that “the line fears its love of tradition and loves its fear of innovation.” Charles Bernstein supplies the most micro of contributions here, with a poem consisting of three sections of three, four, and five lines, all knocking the language of cliché o+ center just enough to force insight: “you / break it / you / thought it,” the middle poem scolds. Good advice indeed, for, as he concludes: “a / line is / a / terrible thing / to waste.”

The line lives in these essays most often as a spur to thought, a barometer of historical change, and an index of current creativity. “I wonder, above all else,” Kathy Fagan writes in her essay here, “what a poet’s up to with a line. I adore how charged the choices are. How vital to the body of the poem and its meaning, and how ferociously poets, experienced or not, cling to lineation.” The obverse, of course, is true as well, and a number of essays here demonstrate that a poet’s questioning or even rejection of lineation remains just as vital to the body and meaning of the poem. This broken thing does not require our critical care, some suggest; it requires fundamental realignment, if not utter obliteration. Bruce Andrews revisits and refines his 1988 piece that appeared in The Line in Postmodern Poetry, filling out his previous essay via generous inter- and intrasentence glosses that highlight the reception, rather than production, of lines. Against normative lines—lines of control, property, policing, decorum—he pitches the line as a “countering, an unorthodoxy on [& of ] lines of space & time.” Yet he maintains a sobering sense of how poetic lines and the theorizing that surrounds them so often fail to gauge and reconfigure the social: “but don’t we want to get off the surface,” he writes, interrupting his own heady theoretical riff more than two decades later. Gabriel Gudding tosses aside even this strained and tested idealism that one glimpses in Andrews, stocking his representative poetry workshop full of straw people and offering a list of poetic offenses. His essay is a rollicking catalogue of lyric hyperbole where the line exists as a “fascist reliquary,” a “vomito-aesthetic concrescence of a larger, mystifying ideology.” Such vitriol makes one wonder whether his gracious pastoral coda voices his earnest hope or his own cynically deferred dream. A striking rhetorical counterpoint to Gudding’s piece, Emmy Pérez’s essay weighs the relevance of the poetic line against social realities that exist much closer to home: “How to teach about the poetic line, about desire and syntax, about a poem’s formal considerations as equally significant to the exploration of content, as a search for social justice and possibility,” she asks, “when students and I are standing in Hidalgo, Texas, touching the new concrete border wall?” Voicing a strained hope that the poetic and the political might be integrally related, her essay demands much of us as line-makers and line-readers, but even more as human beings straddling a fraught border.

Confronting a very different sort of material reality, a few notable entries here interrogate how the page imposes limits to the poetic line. Hadara Bar-Nadav raises the question of whether a prose poem has line-breaks—breaks that are determined by page size and formatting, such that a prose poem in one venue offers radically different meanings than it might in another where more generous margins alter the arbitrarily encoded endings. Rachel Zucker forces a different understanding of what we mean by the economy of the line when she discusses how she decided to pay a press so that her poems could appear in a wide-trim book size that could accommodate her long lines. Christina Davis echoes this concern for the page and how a poet’s lines operate within set dimensions when she asks of Dickinson’s work: “Who are we to say that her lines are not as long as Whitman’s in proportion to their original, originating space?” In her essay, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge discusses this idea of space and how she felt the accommodating wideness of a line pulled across a horizontal page: “To register many small colorations or distinctions, I needed a long, pliant thread. I was also transforming some philosophical ideas into the lyric, and I needed room.” In appreciation of Berssenbrugge’s line, Christine Hume begins her tribute to this crucial figure with a rhetorical question: “Remember rotating a journal sideways for the first time to read the Mei-mei Berssenbrugge line?” Such a question kindles a kind of wonder that the poetic line can alter not only how we use the page, but how we conceive of it and hold it.

In what remains a distinguishing aspect of this collection, a number of poets have exchanged theoretical or lyrical prose reflections for enactments of the line itself in works driven by image, collage, association, accumulation, and, of course, line-breaks. Responding to a reading by poet Raúl Zurita, Norma Cole reflects on lines not broken but shattered, where “everything opens up”—a phrase that suggests both certain possibilities of form and also a violent entry into a shattered world-historical reality. For Sarah Gridley and Sarah Vap, explorations of the line blend autobiography and literary pastiche, as when Vap hears in the line a directive to “Go back” as she traces a personal (and a universal) genealogy through parents and children, landscape and nature. Fanny Howe’s unique poetic creation embodies an argument for plain poetry as a tool for writing instruction in the classroom: “If the children could see / the points where breath / and length come together / they might decipher / the necessity of syntax,” she argues. “They might feel the stirrings / of love for harmony / and complexity / that exists in grammar.”

Given the enormous wealth and range of poetic thought in this collection, it is important to note what appear as recurring intensities. First, a preponderance of pastoral imagery courses through these essays. Urban landscapes—so fundamental to poetic modernism from Charles Baudelaire to Langston Hughes, and crucial as well to the lines of postwar poets such as Frank O’Hara and George Oppen—are almost entirely absent. These contributions do much more than equate poetry to nature, of course, and it is stunning to note the richness of the eco-minded figures that flower here, as when Laura Mullen describes the line as “a scored portion of shared sky.” For Camille Dungy, the variable motion of ocean waves correlates with the poetic line, and for Donald Revell, the poetic line embodies a “motile” movement, which he senses palpably in nature. Although urban architecture constitutes part of Eleni Sikelianos’s explorations, she moves beyond the city in favor of nature’s line models such as “the jointed segments in arthropods.”

A second distinct node of concern has to do with the somber tone that recurs throughout. Where Olsonian discussions of the line’s energy course through Epoch’s symposium, an unmistakable elegiac quality resides in many essays here. Though never an absolute focus, it lingers in the background just as it lingers in life, as when Jenny Mueller imagines the free-verse line in age: “What does one make of this wild child so many years on, now that it is bald not in birth but in dotage? Writing with this line today, we rarely associate it with the shock of the new—if by ‘new’ we also mean youthful. In fact, the modern line feels quite old, bearing as it does the freight of modernism’s appalled hopes.” It seems that after periods of prosodic bickering, there is a return to a more authentic and grounded reflection on matters of form. Furthermore, though one cannot definitively announce a shifting ground, one wonders to what extent these concentrations on elegy and death suggest some anxieties about the role of poetry in culture itself, just as the emphases on organic imagery occur alongside an increasingly imperiled Earth. Or perhaps this elegiac temper highlights a certain aging of the very terms we use to discuss poetic concepts. As Ed Dorn reminds us, this talk of the line is an aged and aging discourse.

For all the discovery and energy engendered in the line, then, it might finally seem a vehicle of loss. The line is something—to borrow a line from Robert Creeley’s “The Innocence”—always “partial, partially kept,” a presence verging on an absence (118). But the line also summons the desire to begin again, somewhere. And so we begin, A Broken Thing.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line Pt 1

One of the books I’m enjoying quite a bit this fall is A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line, edited by Emily Rosko and Anton Vander Zee. It’s similar to Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook, edited by Joshua Marie Wilkinson, in that it collects many short essays rather than fewer long ones. I like the short essay. There are things it can handle that a longer essay couldn’t. The short take, the quick dip. And then we—if we see fit—can continue the thinking as we go about our day.

Anyway, there are two introductions. The first, Vander Zee’s, is a general introduction to the topic, going through the recent history of conversations regarding the line in American poetry. The second, Rosko’s, gives an idea of what each of the many contributors is writing on.

You can read the full introductions here:

I’ll post Rosko’s introduction tomorrow, but for now, here are a couple snippets (the beginning and the ending) from Vander Zee’s introduction:

New Minds, New Lines
Anton Vander Zee

In a short letter to Kenneth Burke from November 1945, William Carlos Williams thanks his friend for his hospitality on a recent visit and proceeds to reflect on one particularly meaningful exchange: “I liked your manner of explanation when you lowered your voice and spoke of the elementals that interest us both, the humane particulars of realization and communication”. Such thoughts made it into his half-remembered dreams, for he continues: “I woke in the night with a half-sentence on my metaphorical lips: ‘the limitations of form.’ It seemed to mean something of importance.” Burke, in his response dated a few days later, suggests that the substance of Williams’s formal concern reminds him of their discussions from the 1920s, which, he writes, “were always about ‘form,’ though God only knows what we meant by it”.

The limitations of form must have been particularly pressing for Williams near the end of 1945, just three months after Hiroshima and one month into the Nuremberg trials. Narratives of twentieth-century American poetry often describe a highly aestheticized and experimental 1920s giving way to a more socially engaged posture in the 30s and 40s as artists responded to economic depression and world war. An oversimplification to be sure, but a useful one when we consider how this apparent divide between the art of the 20s and 30s establishes the contours of the durable struggle that we see reflected in the Williams-Burke exchange, and that the most significant works of art since then engage: how to move from word to world, from poetics to politics, and from the limitations of form to life itself. Then, as now, a strong commitment to form persisted despite, against, and alongside multiple crises that remind us constantly—even in the middle of the night in half-remembered dreams—of form’s limitations in light of what Wallace Stevens called “things as they are”.

In the arena of poetry and poetics over the last century, no idea has been more generative, variable, and contentious than the idea of form. And no technical aspect of form has more emphatically sponsored and substantiated this marked formal expansiveness than the line in poetry. But what, exactly, is the line? Should it be defined in strictly prosodic terms? Is there value in identifying certain line-genres as Chris Beyers does in A History of Free Verse (2001), or as Allen Grossman attempts more economically in his Summa Lyrica (1980)? Or should we instead attend to what Stephen Cushman names the numerous fictions of form—those ways in which American poets since Whitman have tended to “overvalue the formal aspects of their art, investing those aspects with tremendous significance,” resulting in a poetry that “distinguishes itself not only by the unique ways in which it foregrounds signifiers but also by the unique ways in which it promotes the significance of its own formation”?

Perhaps all of the above, for these questions suggest a certain lack of conceptual literacy and critical consensus regarding the line that A Broken Thing does not seek to correct. Instead, this general disagreement marks out a uniquely charged area of poetic as well as critical concern that reflects what the poetry of the last century is, in some elemental way, about. The line, in its many ulterior projections, might be an engine for certain ideals of progress—political, ethical, or otherwise. For some, it touches upon the most fundamental epistemological and ontological questions. One finds it caught up in theories of language, and in the very beginnings and endings of things. Remarkably, the line has become an aesthetic, sociopolitical, and, at times, metaphysical variable even as it remains deeply invested in the formal minutiae of rhythm and metrics, rhyme and sound. More than ever, the line is poetry, the radical against which even alternate and emerging poetic forms that foreground the visual or the auditory, the page or the screen, can be distinguished and understood. Extending Burke’s statement to the present context, the line does indeed seem to mean something of importance, but God only knows what—and how—we mean by it.

So yes, the line is overtaxed; it presumes to do too much, and it knows it. What might seem an overextension, however, suggests a core strength of the line that the essays in A Broken Thing collectively embody: its ability to be both critical and self-critical, holding its own elaborate fictions of form at a skeptical, questioning distance. This blend of bold confidence and a self-critical undertow saturates the last century of American poetry. Indeed, the most important American poetry of the twentieth century could be said to display either of the following traits, and often both simultaneously: a penchant for developing ambitious claims about what formal strategies such as the poetic line can accomplish, and a deeply rooted formal concern about such claims. This concern signals a certain anxiety in the face of such ambitious claims for poetry. But it also suggests a certain persistent care, attention, and commitment.

[ . . . ]

Is something broken intentionally, really broken?

[ . . . ]
More recently, in Blue Studios (2006), Rachel Blau DuPlessis distills the most incisive work mentioned above in her probing discussion of the line in poetry as a charged segmentivity. Though her interests here are anchored in Frankfurt School aesthetics, she offers a useful clarification of how fundamental the line is to all poetry: “Something fairly straightforward, but highly distinctive, separates and distinguishes poetry from nearby modes like fiction and drama that also unroll in time and use sequencing tactics of various kinds,” she writes. While narrativity encompasses what is central to the novel, and performativity approximates the concerns of various dramatic forms, segmentivity, which she defines as “the ability to articulate and make meaning by selecting, deploying and combining segments,” fundamentally characterizes poetry. DuPlessis continues:

Both of these now-familiar neologisms indicate the practice of sequencing event, gesture, and image. Poetry also sequences; it is the creating of meaningful sequences by the negotiation of gap. . . . Poetry can then be defined as the kind of writing that is articulated in sequenced, gapped lines and whose meanings are created by occurring in bounded units, units operating in relation to pause or silence. . . . The acts of making lines and making their particular chains of rupture, seriality, and sequencing are fundamental to the nature of poetry as a genre. Fundamental to what can be said of poetry as poetry.

Many contributors to A Broken Thing share DuPlessis’s commitment to ideas of form in both theory and practice, in both word and world, implicitly endorsing her sense that lines are where “materiality and mystery join dialectically,” embodying a “lively tension between eloquent stasis and driven becoming”.

A defining feature of A Broken Thing in relation to the preceding collections and essays mentioned is its lack of defensiveness. Though echoes of old debates persist in a few of the essays, these essays are, for the most part, unconcerned with policing boundaries between experiment and tradition, between prose and poetry, between good poetry and bad poetry. “Free verse” itself—that vague varietal of twentieth-century poetry that has vexed American poets ever since the modernists simultaneously maligned its connotations while exploiting the liberties it offered—has become a much more neutral descriptor here. That said, we should note the reaction that many poets who have committed themselves, often radically and with great innovation, to more traditional or metrical forms might have to the collection’s title: A Broken Thing. Doesn’t the title seem to value the line solely for its potential to break? Such a notion, one could argue, sponsors a very narrow conception of the line. That we foreground the work of William Carlos Williams, an early master of the free-verse broken line, and even go so far as to yank the title directly from his experimental Kora in Hell, certainly makes this all seem like a sly partisan move that belies the supposedly ecumenical vision of its editors. It is a valid point: one can enjamb the metrical line, can stretch the line, and one can elide, substitute, and behead metrical units. And there is certainly a line-break between lines. But one rarely breaks a metrical line—that’s part of a different game called free verse.

To answer this critique, one could argue that, for better or worse, the language of the “line-break” has taken on a much broader sense nearly synonymous with enjambment, which occurs in free and formal verse alike. Or, one could argue that the rhetoric of brokenness—from the recovered shards of Greek lyric poetry to the romantic cult of the fragment and beyond—echoes something crucial within the history of poetry. But a more direct defense of the language of brokenness reveals a dominant fiction about form that has guided us throughout this project, and that many of the essays included here speak to as well. After what Walter Benjamin would call the catastrophe of history, poetry as broken reflects a world as broken, even as its constructive powers collect and collate and—if only rarely and with great difficulty—transcend. We like to think that this more philosophical sense of brokenness is not utterly at odds with a poetics that seeks to reclaim the body of poetry, and for which gestures of wholeness guard against the inclination to rupture. Thus, we hope that poets and critics inclined to balk at our title will take it not as a unilateral declaration of free-verse hegemony, but as an invitation to repair, to counter this force of brokenness. As though in answer to this hope, many of the contributors who reflect on the metrical line here do just that, as they prize integrity above brokenness, form above fragment. If nothing else, a common ground persists as the line exceeds its trappings as a partisan counter, becoming a poetic variable for all manner of extra-aesthetic concerns. Such concerns are less predictable and more wide-ranging than ever, and it is on this stage—where fictions of form converge and collide—that this conversation about contemporary poetry and poetics takes its place.

Noting a similar sense of a post-partisan poetics, Donald Wesling, a careful thinker on the line of both traditional prosodies and non-metrical forms, writes that “there seems to be something like a critical consensus that we appear to have arrived at a historical point of demarcation, a point at which polemics end and a renewed understanding and appreciation of poems and their diverse prosodies begin”. Mirroring this shift of critical opinion, we are tempted to borrow the language of hybridity that Cole Swensen eloquently deploys in her introduction to the recent anthology American Hybrid (2009). In A Broken Thing, too, there is what she calls a “thriving center of alterity,” a healthy disregard for aesthetic divisions. Such hybridity, Swensen implies, is not a concession, not a collapsing toward the middle, nor is it a neatly dialectical movement to the next new thing. Similarly, the essays in A Broken Thing lack the cohesion of any concerted movement in any particular direction, and this is one of the collection’s primary strengths. The essays here—the result of nearly 200 personalized solicitations—offer a diffuse hybridity, a dynamic hodgepodge that we hope captures the breadth of poetic practice rather than isolates or idealizes any narrow tendency. Our unique moment of hybridity—sponsored by the professionalization of writing and the growth of small, independent presses, and also, more profoundly, by the trenchant conceptualizations of hybrid identities and poetics that have emerged over the past three decades—shows a slackening of partisan posturing about, but no less commitment to, poetic form.

In its tendency toward a rigor of range, A Broken Thing shares much with Donald Hall’s classic anthology Claims for Poetry (1982). Though Hall’s anthology does not share the concentrated focus of A Broken Thing, it deserves special mention for its prescient defense of the kind of hybridity and ecumenism discussed above. Emerging on the heels of the Field and Epoch symposia, Claims for Poetry harbors none of the early conservatism that had tended to mark his career ever since he unfurled his landmark anthology New Poets of England and America (1957), which fell decidedly on the reactionary side of the unfolding anthology wars of the 60s and 70s. Instead, Claims for Poetry forswears allegiance to any single tendency, offering an arbitrary alphabetical list of over thirty essays by poets as different as A. R. Ammons, Wendell Berry, Robert Duncan, Sandra Gilbert, John Hollander, X. J. Kennedy, Audre Lorde, Jackson Mac Low, Ron Silliman, Mark Strand, and Alice Walker. Donald Hall’s eloquent defense of his anthology speaks to our purpose just as well. He writes of the dynamic “accidents of juxtaposition” that the arbitrary ordering affords. With such a motley crew, one cannot possibly neatly navigate what he calls the “collage of contentions”; one can only catalog their divergent claims for poetry: “conflicting, overlapping, contentious; avant garde, reactionary; immemorial, neoteric; light, heavy, angry, funny, political, aesthetic, academic, psychological, innovative, practical, high-minded, abstract, frivolous, pedagogic”. With no overlap in authors, and with nearly twice as many essays, we hope that A Broken Thing will become as indispensible as Claims for Poetry, both for new generations of poets and for scholars eager to track developments in twenty-first-century poetry and poetics.

The appeal of the broken . . .