Monday, November 28, 2011

Difficulty! Accessibility!

When I walk to my bookcase to pick up a book of poetry, I don’t ask myself how challenged I want to be today. When I decide between two books of poems to take on a trip, I don’t weight their difficulty.

I’m tired of the term “difficulty.” It was a terrible word for art. It does nothing for readers, except to make some people feel smug. “I like difficult art!”

Yes, most of the poetry I like is called “difficult.” But I don’t find it difficult. I don’t’ find it challenging. I find it variable and shifty. I like variable and shifty art. Why not think of it that way, rather than as some sort of fight or homework problem?

“Difficult poetry” sounds like something you have to work hard on. Right? Well, all poetry needs to be worked with, so “difficult” poetry must be the best, most important poetry. And if you don’t torture yourself with it, you just must not be good enough for the best stuff. Bah and fie. That’s a terrible use of terms.

What would the last 30 years of poetry be like if instead of “Difficulty” we used the term “Twisty”? Would people not have taken the art so seriously? Well, have they taken it seriously as it is? (No, not really.) What has “difficulty” done for anyone? (Very little.)

Liking “difficult” poetry is like saying you like to date “difficult” people. It’s just simply the wrong word, unless you’re either a masochist or you just like fighting. Maybe some people do like fighting with their art. Maybe for them “difficulty” is a perfectly good word for how to describe it then. But it’s not for me.

On the flipside, I find the term “accessible” to be so flatly obvious as to make me wonder what value anyone could ever get from it. For me, “Accessibility” is a term for building access: all people, no matter their physical abilities, can get into this building. When applied to poetry, I find this term to be highly patronizing. Demeaning, even. “Even my secretary can read it,” to paraphrase Ted Kooser.

I imagine someone at a bookstore, browsing the poetry section (do people even do that?), and thinking “I hope I can find a book that’s accessible to a reader like me.” I feel that person is in need of a hug. These are just terrible terms.

Someone please invent a new economy. One based on positive experiences of art. Please.

PS. Literary criticism is just another form of fan fiction. Pass it on.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving Break!

I’m off on a little trip!

Your Father on the Train of Ghosts


Monday, November 21, 2011

The End Is Near (Bring Out Your Dead!)

Reports of the death of poetry, both regarding its quality and its very existence, have been with us a long time now. Fifty years? Seventy-five? And one of the things that Frank O’Hara alludes to as a counter-force, or available mass alternative, to poetry in his “Personism: A Manifesto” is the movies. So it is with a large dose of humor that I read A.O. Scott’s, “Film Is Dead? What Else Is New?” in the NYT the other day, in which the decline of film is rehearsed:

What strikes me as funny, hilarious even, is that as critics are talking the death of film, movies are everywhere a, if not the, shared language. Everyone I know seems to have a lot of shared text, shared ready conversation, regarding movies. It’s the only art form that still retains this position. If film were to die, what they’re really talking about, is that it would no longer be a big theater spectacle (is this necessarily a bad thing?). It’s the spectacle they’re talking about, not that films will be replaced by a different thing entirely, a different genre. This is Scott’s summation of the situation:

“Anthony Lane of The New Yorker laments the impending eclipse of moviegoing, a collective ritual ostensibly threatened by the ascendance of home viewing. ‘Enjoy it while it lasts,’ he concludes, offering (by way of a quotation from ‘Melancholia’) a pre-emptive epitaph for a form of cultural consumption, built around ‘compulsion’ and ‘communion,’ with roots in ancient Athens and, apparently, no future to speak of.”

There’s a blurring of the medium (theater vs Netflix [etc]) and value of the object itself that goes on in the discussion of the decline of film (Film vs Movies, maybe) that muddies the argument, as the arguments tend to flip-flop between the quality of the art object (as an artistic experience) and the technology (move to video and digital, etc).

But even with that, there is a lot of crossover I see in this conversation, this anxiety, to the other, more minor arts. Here are the bits that most ramified with the ways I’ve also heard people talk about the visual arts and poetry:


It can be hard to escape, and even harder to argue against, the feeling that something we used to love is going away, or already gone. This is less a critical position or a historical insight than a mood, induced by the usual selective comparisons and subjective hunches. Back then (whenever it was) the stars were more glamorous, the writing sharper, the stories more cogent and the critics more powerful.

Are movies essentially a thing of the past? Does whatever we have now, digital or analog, represent at best a pale shadow of bygone glory? Among the recent arrivals in bookstores — speaking of obsolescence! — are two collections of writing by prominent critics that say as much in their titles. The Library of America volume of Pauline Kael’s essays and reviews is called The Age of Movies, a period that evidently lasted from the mid-’50s until the early ’90s, when Kael departed her perch at The New Yorker. Meanwhile a book by Dave Kehr (who writes a home-video column for The New York Times), titled When Movies Mattered, gathers up his articles from the ’70s and ’80s, when he wrote mainly for The Chicago Reader.

As a platform for criticism, the Internet lends itself to the endless making and circulation of lists, and it has also become a gathering place for cinematic antiquarians of all stripes and sensibilities. At the same time the history of film is now more widely and readily accessible than ever before. We may lament the end of movie clubs and campus film societies that presented battered prints of great movies, but by any aesthetic (as opposed to sentimental) standard, the high-quality, carefully restored digital transfers of classics and curiosities now available on DVD and Blu-ray offer a much better way to encounter the canon.

But the very proximity of this canon contributes to the devaluation of the present. Those Criterion Collection and Warner Brothers boxes — of Ozu and Rossellini, of westerns and films noirs and avant-garde cinema — gaze reproachfully from the shelves, much as the Turner Classic Movies titles lurk in the conscience of the DVR, silently scolding viewers who just want to catch up on “Modern Family” or “Bored to Death.” Shouldn’t we be giving our attention to movies that have proved themselves, over the years, worthy of it?

By all means. The alternative is an uncritical embrace of the new for its own sake, a shallow contempt for tradition and a blindness to its beauties. But there is at least an equal risk of being blinded by those beauties to the energies that surround us, and to mistake affection for a standard of judgment. Of course no modern movie star can match Humphrey Bogart’s world-weary toughness or Bette Davis’s sparkling wit, and of course nothing in today’s movies looks or sound the way it used to. But why — or how — should it? Every art form changes, often at rates and in ways that cause discomfort to its devotees. But the arts also have a remarkable ability to withstand and absorb those changes, and to prove wrong the prophecies of their demise.

The camera has an uncanny ability to capture the world as it is, to seize events as they happen, and also to conjure visions of the future. But by the time the image reaches the eyes of the viewer, it belongs to the past, taking on the status of something retrieved. As for those bold projections of what is to come, they have a habit of looking quaint as soon as they arrive.

The movies survived sound, just as they survived television, the VCR and every other terminal diagnosis. And they will survive the current upheavals as well. How can I be sure? Because 10, 20, or 50 years from now someone will certainly be complaining that they don’t make them like they used to. Which is to say, like they do right now.


It’s better to burn out than fade away . . . natch.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Will I sleep? Will I dream of anthologies?

So here’s my dream:

The Poetry Foundation would fund the creation of an anthology of contemporary American poetry that would be edited by a board of diverse (aesthetically antagonistic, even) editors to attempt an accurate representation of the poetry that’s been written over the past 25 years, from Ai to Zapruder.

The anthology would contain no apparatus or introductions. It would be raw data, just “representative poems” that would be chosen by the editors, and then donated by the poets or their estates for free to the project.

The editorship would be the editors of several aesthetically diverse literary journals, and/or, it could be editors of aesthetically diverse presses, or it could be Don Share, Stephen Burt, Rosmarie Waldrop, and Cole Swensen, or Ron Silliman, Dana Gioia, Rebecca Wolff, and Natasha Trethewey. (You get the point. But, I would recommend that the editors remain anonymous.)

The anthology would be sold as a paperback at printing cost (which I’m guessing would be at most $7.00 or so a copy), and be distributed for free to libraries, local arts agencies, museums, and high schools. All members of AWP who teach poetry would agree to purchase this anthology for use in their creative writing classes at least once. Also, I think Robert Pinsky had an idea similar to this, years ago? He was looking for a way to get anthologies of poetry into hotel rooms? We should float that idea again. And there must be someone out there who knows how to get books into Walmart stores?

There is a lot of power in The Poetry Foundation. But there is also a lot of potential power in AWP, as well as the Poet Laureate who could talk up the anthology to Jeffrey Brown and various newspapers. And the First Lady. I bet she'd like this.

And, as such dreams go, it’s both utopian and would never happen. But doesn’t it sound at least a little fun?


In a related issue, I think The Poetry Foundation should fund the creation of an application for ereaders that wraps text properly for poetry. Unless someone has already done this? I don’t have an ereader, because when I looked at some, the poetry just looked awful. Has that been fixed yet?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Ut pictura poesis was our flame

Two things of interest this week.

First, Jordan Davis, in his conversation of Some Math by Bill Luoma, has some general comments about the 90s, and now, that I think could be considered outside of the specific poetry under consideration:

There were a few years in the mid-nineties when it looked like the poets gathering in New York might fuse a thousand disparate styles and beliefs and wishes into a single beam of classical beauty, rude comedy and what can only be called zen clarity (New York School, Beat, and Black Mountain)—the Newer (American) Poetry. If you have a copy of New Mannerist Tricycle lying around the house, I don’t need to persuade you that this is a true statement, and yes I know one third of that chapbook was and is D.C. based—in the mid-nineties D.C. was part of New York.

I was a baby poet and therefore an unreliable witness, but it seemed to me that of all the stoned geniuses circulating in the time before the hanging chads and falling bodies, Bill Luoma gave off this glow most consistently. His chapbook My Trip to New York City (collected in Works and Days) recounted a series of buddy movie misadventures pitched somewhere between Kerouac and South Park (this was before South Park) that like Ted Berrigan’s masterpiece “Tambourine Life” changes suddenly from picaresque to elegy. It beaned me. A few other chapbooks of roughly the same vintage struck me as similarly serious—Katy Lederer’s Music No Staves, Anselm Berrigan’s They Beat Me Over the Head with a Sack, Lisa Jarnot’s Sea Lyrics. Thinking back on them now (without actually getting hold of my copies of them) I imagine what they had in common was a Jules et Jim light-heartedness, with hard-earned awareness of the effects of gravity.

What most of those poets also had in common, at that point anyway, was a devout commitment to incantation, to a more or less regular, hypnotic cadence.


And then he goes on a bit later to add this:

Poetry has been mistaken so long for an all-or-nothing proposition that it sometimes feels like more of a hierarchy than the A.P. College poll. If a poet isn’t ranked in the top twenty-five, the feeling goes, why read him or her. Maybe I’m imagining it, this consensus-seeking chasing after the current number one with a bullet; maybe it’s real but also only a reflection of the larger culture. Most of the time I remember to forget it.


The second is Richard Deming’s essay on The New York School, reprinted this week on Poetry Daily:

In 1961 . . . “Frank O'Hara . . . published” For the Chinese New Year & for Bill Berkson." In that poem, O'Hara writes, “It’s a strange curse my 'generation' has we're all / like the flowers in the Agassiz Museum perpetually ardent.” [. . .] Still, what is somewhat prophetic about O'Hara's lines describing his peers as flowers in a museum is the fact that the New York School increases in influence and importance with every passing year. [. . .] The School has become an institution.

But what is the curse that O'Hara mentions? Is it because the flowers are not wild or transient but are representations made of delicate and precise glass and on display, kept vivid artificially, at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology that makes being like them a curse? Given that Koch, O'Hara, and Ashbery all were undergraduates at Harvard, there is a specific and prevailing nostalgia encoded in O'Hara's metaphor, as if the poem suggests that their passion and joie de vivre reified at the moment of inception. The possibility of being always already imbued with nostalgia would be a horror. As different as each of the poets was, as dissimilar as their work is in terms of form, content, and poetics, they all prized a certain immediacy and wrote (or in Ashbery's case, still write) poems that seek to maintain a vivid, complex sanguinity, an intensity open to the flow of daily life, poems that do manifest, at their best, a kind of ardor. Yet that ardor, like any ardor, is often fraught, complicated—is never assured.

In that sense, the curse O'Hara's generation wrestled with is the possibility that in work striving for spontaneity, the emotional life, by being on display, becomes in reality an exquisite representation, ever fragile, and ever pointing to some other thing. Ut pictura poesis.

The joy that is so often seen as the defining characteristic of the poets of the New York School needs to be measured against their sadness or even anxiety that the time for immediacy and its corresponding necessary intimacy is always just past. To miss that gap between the ideal and the art is to miss that the spontaneity is never fully achieved, and that what might be called a desperation inflects the attempts of these poets to make life real and present. Or as Schuyler once wrote in his beautifully heartbreaking poem "Daylight," "And when I thought / 'Our love might end' / the sun / went right on shining." It is a lovely juxtaposition, until we realize that the sun doesn't actually engage with the possibility of whether that love might end. The human and the natural world are juxtaposed. And since all things must end—we know this and we know the poet knows this—the sense of denial within the uncertainty is that much keener because "the sun [will go] right on shining" in its certainty. That tension to go on despite the fact that an end will come to all things is where Schuyler's poetry places its stakes in humanity as well as its faith in art. The curse that O'Hara refers to might be, then, that art's semblance of life, however precise, is never life itself—and that exquisite failure is what remains forever memorialized. Call this their aesthetics of affinity.


The legacy of the New York School is, finally, not the gossip or parties or self-celebration, nor even the identity politics. From the early days at Tibor de Nagy to Padgett's newest book, what marks this body of work, taking it in toto, is the persistent sense of wonder that each word we say contains possibility, and that poetry depends not on a particular diction or a magisterial stance or some unblinking look at "the human condition." In the hands of Schuyler, Padgett, and the others, poetry manifests a vivid attention to our own dailiness, and the countless shocks, sadnesses, and joys that constitute a fully human life.


These two struck me as a fascinating duo of Post-New York School, New York School thinking. Or re-thinking. Davis’s 1990s “beam of classical beauty” and Deming’s (O’Hara’s) 50s-60s curse of museum flowers are both part of the architecture now. The “persistent sense of wonder” and the feeling of being just past; the feeling that “a thousand disparate styles and beliefs and wishes into a single beam of classical beauty, rude comedy and what can only be called zen clarity” is/was just about to happen.

This is a feeling that I still see around in many styles. The joy + anxiety. I see it strongly in Heather Christle’s work, for instance (which I mention at random as I’m reading her The Difficult Farm this week). This tradition, as Wallace Stevens once said about the tradition of the Irrational in art, is still unfolding. But it’s changing, of course, as all things must. I wonder where it’s going, as contrary to Tony Hoagland (and others), I see it as healthy and plural.

It doesn’t need to be one thing. It doesn’t need to be the new thing, the old thing, passing, emergent, or passé. As Davis reminds us: “Maybe I’m imagining it, this consensus-seeking chasing after the current number one with a bullet; maybe it’s real but also only a reflection of the larger culture.” I’m also growing more and more tired of the lists, even as I have a shelf of my favorite books in front of me. Yes. But outside of what’s in or out, worthy or dismissed, then or now, these desires remain. And this rough strand of American poetry continues.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

August/September 2011 Notebook

[This time the notebook was a nice pale green. MEAD, 3X5. Plastic cover. As usual. I prefer the plastic covers, as they don’t rip. It’s from August/September. I’m just not getting to transcribing out the poetry bits.]

What art would you make if you made what you wanted to make? If the answer isn’t the art you’re making, then why not?

If you concentrate only on the significant works, you will misunderstand what the movement was all about.
                                                            —John Berber

In any period, the best answer to art is “all of the above.” The biggest error people make when talking about art is surety.

You can’t intimidate architecture.

Some art tries to find things, some art tries not to find things, and some art is otherwise occupied.

There are a lot of people who know precisely which part of the piano you’re hitting at any given time. Turns out, it’s not that difficult a trick.

What can you add to a conflagration, other than yourself?

The question of philosophical language: boundaries are not stable. Between friend and enemy, the new must be restored to conceptual order. And what if we can’t find out? What if it’s undecidable?

We work by enchantment.

We have subjects and we have strategies. Must we say form and content?

There are no such questions but we keep asking them anyway.

I’ve never claimed that what artists do is possible.

The translator has to navigate meaning—does it arise fundamentally from a prior center, or does it arise in the relations of the subject and strategies of the poem. It’s an unnecessary binary, as answers in such an economy turn out to be yes and yes.

Phenomenology and Structuralism holiday at the same places.

Art for art’s sake bores me.

Yes, of course art is relational to the world.

Is the slap Zen, or is the receiving of the slap Zen? What was the question again?

There is only an inside to personal experience. It is a combination of outside forces and the internal working and reworking of those experiences.

I hate dystopia monkey movies. Same with zombies. Not because they violate binaries (Oh how we love our dystopia movies where binaries are violated), but because they want to kill us. I don’t like watching us get killed.

We can’t say what we’re meaning because meaning and saying are over a fence, being good neighbors.

The biggest error people make when talking about art is surety.

I like poems both in their unassembled pieces and in their “totality,” but mostly though, when I read, I read more for the moments than for the overarching theme. I’ve always read poems this way, which is probably why I don’t get hung up on a lot of recent poems that seem to privilege the periphery of a poem’s thinking over the consistent center. I’ve always rather thought consistent centers were a fantasy anyway.

However we spend our time, we’re spending our time. Would you like a cookie?

They treat you better when you’re famous.
                                                          —Kevin Bacon

A book of poetry I came across: The air whooshing from the ties that tie everything up, that great sucking sound.

When you fall down the rabbit hole, sometimes you injure the rabbit, sometimes the rabbit injures you, sometimes you have to marry it, and sometimes all three.

And this does nothing to “explain” poetry. Explained poetry wanders off in search of a restroom.

Save us from Rousseau.

You don’t need an argument to swim when you’re pushed into a swimming pool.

My sympathy for Thomas: It’s difficult to convince me of something if you can’t point to it. I’m not much for going on the perceptions of others that I can’t externally verify.

“Poetry is a hat.” Why do we need metaphors for what poetry “is” or “is like” anyway? Poetry is like science. Poetry is like basketball. Poetry is like philosophy. Poetry is like wow. You know? I just don’t get it.

Can you make outsider art if you’re inside? “Outside” what? “Inside” what? An argument could be made that most (all?) poets are outsiders. An argument could be made that most (all?) poets are insiders.

Small/rural colleges and universities, to a large extent, don’t know how to deal with artists. What they do understand, though, is juried publications, juried shows, performances, etc. They’re fine hiring whatever poet comes along, with any aesthetic affiliation, as long as there are books and publications. To most of them, we’re all at just about the same level of inscrutable.

Art always breaks.

No one knows what poetry is, and I'm OK with that.

If there’s a rational explanation for an art object, it’s not an art object.

(That was fun to write.)

Line breaks make poets consider form at least once every line.

If your poetry doesn’t challenge you, then you’re failing your poetry.

It seems each generation gets its big anthology problem and a handful of schools and theories to get past. None of them really appear as none of them really go away. Remember Leaping Poetry? “Raw” and “cooked”? Naked Poetry?

After reading A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line, the first thing I thought is that we’re all talking about something different when we talk about the line in poetry. I find that interesting.

Often the straight answer doesn’t appear straight, like a path through the woods that winds because it must.

Some things can’t be contained in the available forms.

The biggest error people make when talking about art is surety.

“When I say ‘irony,’ I mean ‘them.’”

Give me an example of what you mean by irony, when you tag it as a negative tendency of the times, and then tell me why you used the word “irony.” I feel this would become a definition something like this: Poetry that doesn’t constantly telegraph how you should feel about its content is ironic.

Art that presses its intentionality bores me. It can still be accomplished and fine and all, but it bores me.

On reading a recent book of poetry: This would be better if I didn’t understand it.

All art is a destruction of possibility.

What we need is a revolution in understanding of how we really work as people, so that we are aware and act accordingly with the knowledge that the rational mind is subservient to the irrational mind.

Rationalists are faking it.

After one renounces everything about art, one must make art.

The parts that are made up are the most true, as they come closest to our desire.

Because grammar hides logic.

On reading a late book of poetry: The poet failed art long ago, and now is left to be only a defender of gestures.

Because anything follows from a contradiction, we tend to overreact when confronted with contradictions, and go running and shouting into the yard.

The old jokes are the best: “This sentence is false.”

The problem with aesthetic stances is that they tend to be recursive. It’s a difficult proposition to keep an aesthetic position fresh, as recursive stances in art tend to yield diminishing returns. This is why I’m skeptical of people talking about “voice” and a “signature style.” To me these sound like blocks against the central questioning/questing that art is best at. But maybe I’m being too literal. Perhaps an aesthetic position, voice, or signature style, can be open enough to allow for an open future. I remain cautiously skeptical as examples of the negative side of this can be heartbreaking.

It’s more a kind of work on oneself that has to happen. On one’s own conceptions. On the way one sees things. The artist must invent his/her own mind.

One of the things science shows us again and again is how what we thought was unitary breaks down and then becomes something we think is unitary, until it too breaks down. If this means anything to how we measure ourselves and our experience, then it means something for the art we make. But just what is an open question.

The biggest error people make when talking about art is surety.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Salon has an article on poetry!

Salon has an article on poetry!

But, alas, it’s this one:

Controversy is always a hit, even when it’s about an art form no one notices outside the family. It leaves me to wonder what life might be like if poetry were talked about in the way that novels even were talked about. But I guess we have to take what we can get? But, really, does it need to be this?

That was pretty much it. It has all the flash of a High School lunch protest in the school library.

In the Salon article, this to-do at The Poetry Foundation is lightly being compared to the Occupy movement. Maybe it’s similar? Certainly the aims are just as elusive and the methods kind of, or almost, funny, in a youthful, futile kind of way. What else is there to say? The Poetry Foundation is doing with its money what it wants to do with its money. That seems a very different situation from the Occupy movement, where the claim is that Wall Street (or wherever) is doing things with our money (I think?). I do really like the idea of someone forming a percentage sheet about poetry. Who would be the 99%? Who would be the 1%?

Here’s the larger question the article gets to:

Odd as the CPC’s agenda may be, it does reflect a common (and romantic) notion that wealth is at odds with artistic authenticity. Nor is it new to fume that poets in particular grow dull amid the trappings of capitalism. In a recent Vanity Fair article on the photographer Milton Gendel, James Reginato tells the following anecdote. Sometime in the 1940s, two American editors at the French Surrealist magazine VVV gave their boss, André Breton, engraved Christmas cards. Breton had them fired immediately. “These snakes at my bosom!” he screamed. “I have fought the middle-class bourgeoisie all my life. And now they bring me Christmas cards!”

Moreover, shenanigans have always had a place in the art world, and they can sometimes needle us into taking a fresh look at things. Sure, one can find plenty to admire in issues of Poetry and in the programs of the Poetry Foundation (in full disclosure, I’ve written articles for them), but one may well ask whether the foundation could do a bit more for the lower classes in Chicago, or whether its wealth now distracts from its mission. It’s also worth considering the CPC’s observation that “the language that [foundation president] John Barr uses in talking about the Poetry Foundation … is eerily reminiscent of the corporate language of marketing and branding.” For them, the fact that Barr used to be an investment banker on Wall Street says it all.

At the same time, these protests reflect an unwitting hypocrisy: The group claims to fight for the common people but in fact has put its own priorities above those of people who attend poetry events. There’s irony in a protest that seeks to defend poetry by disrupting poetry readings. Those who would rather not have their evening “queered” are simply too bourgeois, it seems, to count. In much the same way, one wonders why Ms. Dunn claims to defend art by licking paintings. Between that kind of activism and any form of accountability one finds a buffer of obtuse pseudo-theory, a convenient layer of cerebral anarchy.

I'm with Forrest Gander on this one. Aw, just let ’em go.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Reconstructive Post-Modernism


This is a nice synopsis (from the book description).

Charles Jencks
What is Post-Modernism

What is Post-Modernism? Is it a new world view, or an outgrowth of the Post-Industrial Society? Is it a shift in philosophy, the arts and architecture?

In this fourth, entirely revised edition, Charles Jencks, one of the founders of the Post-Modern Movement, shows it is all these things plus many other forces that have exploded since the early 1960s. In a unique analysis, using diagrams designed especially for this edition, he reveals the evolutionary, social and economic forces of this new stage of global civilisation. But why has post-modern culture arrived?

In an ironic parable, ‘the Protestant Crusade’. Jencks uncovers some hitherto hidden origins: the Modernists’ abhorrence for all things sensuous and natural, and their zeal for all things orderly and mechanistic. This pseudo-religion led in the 1920s to the famous ‘vacuum-cleaning’ period, the purgation of values, metaphysics and emotion. In the 1970s it led on to the ‘Protestant Inquisition’ which inadvertently created the very enemy Modernists feared — Post-Modernism; a Counter-Reformation, the reassertion of worldliness, fecundity, humour and pluralism.

However, more than one tradition emerged and Jencks, distinguishing two types of Post-Modernism (deconstructive and reconstructive) demonstrates that the former is often a disguised form of Late-Modernism. This takes the de-creation and nihilism of its parent to extremes.

The main engine that drives global culture today — post-modernisation, the electronic economy and instant communications network — is analysed in its close relation to other ‘posts’: Post-Fordism, Post-Socialism and the post-national world of trading blocs and unstable nations.

Jencks argues that this may result in catastrophe and global governance, or a web of transnational institutions and obligations. The most radical idea of this challenging book is the conclusion: the notion that the post-modern world does not mean the end of metanarratives, but something quite different. Belief systems are flourishing as never before and, Jencks argues, ‘a new metanarrative, based on the story of the universe and its generative qualities, will soon create a new world view that will affect all areas. It is a story which grows directly out of the post-modern sciences of complexity and is thus both true and mythic.’

Always hoping for a bigger splash.


I haven’t read this book, but I’ve read some other things from Jencks, and this seems to fit well with what I remember of those books. At the time (the 90s), I wasn’t seeing quite what he was talking about in regards to “reconstructive post-modernism,” but now, by 2011, I think his analysis has come into flower.

Post-modernism, as many have heard it talked about (the cliché version, or the kitsch version, of Post-Modernism), is really what Jencks would term “Deconstructive Post-Modernism,” and really, not a proper Post-Modernism at all, but rather the spinning out of Modernism.

The plurality that we see erupting on all sides that doesn’t fit these definitions of Deconstructive Post-Modernism, has now gotten large enough to no longer be able to be swept under the rug of the easy term. I like that idea. I’m sympathetic to that idea. Reconstructive Post-Modernism. It sounds hopeful. (As long as the flowering meta-narratives don't get consumed by their success and we end up with a horrific global order/catastrophe, that is.)

It’s fitting, then, staying on the hopeful side, that David Hockney is one of his favorite examples. He's one of mine, too.

So let's go! Oh, wait, we're already there.

Addendum: Here’s a bit more on the Jencks’s Modern Lineage:

CRITICAL MODERNISM – where is post-modernism going?
Charles Jencks

After developing for thirty years as a movement in the arts, after being disputed and celebrated, Post-Modernism has become an integral part of the cultural landscape. Charles Jencks argues that the movement is one more reaction from within modernism critical of its shortcomings. The unintended consequences of modernisation, such as the destruction of cities and global warming, are typical issues motivating Critical Modernism today. In a unique analysis, using many explanatory diagrams and graphs, he reveals the evolutionary, social and economic forces of this new stage of global civilisation.

Critical Modernism emerges at two different levels.

First, as an underground movement, it is the notion that there are many modernisms (not a single style or ideology). As far as the critical side is concerned, they react to two very different things: their own internal problems and the outside world as they find it, today globalisation and the terrorist debacle. In the arts it means looking critically at both the content and formal languages of creation, simultaneously, and it shares with Critical Theory the idea of exposing ideologies in order to enhance freedom, both of the group and individual. As far as the modernism side is concerned there is the usual commitment to progress, competition, and the romantic urge to overcome the previous generation. This results in a curious continuity and break, the swerve and the concealed repetition.

Second, when these movements follow each other in quick succession, as they do today, they may reach a ‘critical mass,’ a Modernism2, and become a conscious tradition. After two hundred years of one modernism replacing another, this might result in a more reflexive movement, one mature enough to reflect on its own dark side while celebrating creativity, a tradition come of age.

Modernisms: The key polemics

I 3rd-5th centuryModernus. Early Christians proclaim their ethical progress over paganism.

II 1450-1600Moderna. Renaissance usage by Filarete and Vasari on the superiority of the classical rebirth, distinguishing the ‘good’ revival (buona maniera moderna) from the ‘bad’ contemporary Gothic.

III 1600-1850Battle of the Ancients and Moderns. Again ‘modern’ means improvement over the ancient, invention within the classical tradition. The famous “Quarrel” within the French Academy starts in the 1690s and lasts 200 years, while the British contrast progressive classicism with Gothic.

IV 1755Modernism as fashionable rubbish. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary defines ‘Modernism: Deviation from the ancient and classical manner….Modern: in Shakespeare. Vulgar, mean, common. “We have our philosophical persons to make modern and familiar things supernatural and causeless.”

V 1900Modernism. a Roman Catholic movement examining tradition that was officially condemned in 1907 by Pope Pius X for atheism and having an exaggerated love of what is modern.

VI 1914-30Modern Movement. In literature the free verse, stream of consciousness and experiments by Pound, Eliot, Joyce and Woolf; in design the technical and social progressivism of those practicing the International Style; in the arts the isms stem from Baudelaire and include Dada and Surrealism.

VII 1930-50Reactionary Modernism. The movements led by Mussolini, Franco, Hitler and Stalin that accepted the modern notion of the zeitgeist and a progressive technology and mass production.

VIII 1960sLate Modernism tied to Late Capitalism. The proliferation of formalist movements, such as Op and Conceptual Art, and the exaggeration of abstract experiments in a Minimalist direction eschewing content. John Cage in music, Norman Foster in architecture, Frank Stella in painting, Clement Greenberg in art theory, Samuel Beckett in literature, and the Pax Americana in politics.

IX 1970sPost-Modernism. Stemming from the counter culture, was the double-coding of modernism with other languages to communicate with a local or wide audience. In literature, John Barth and Umberto Eco, in urbanism and architecture, Jane Jacobs and James Stirling, in the arts, Pop Art, Land Art and the content-driven work of Ron Kitaj, Mark Tansey and Damien Hirst.

X 2000Critical Modernism. Refers both to the continuous dialectic between modernisms as they criticize each other and to the way the compression of many modernisms forces a self-conscious criticality, a Modernism2. Skeptical of its own dark sides, yet celebrating creativity, it finds expression in cities such as Berlin that have come of age under opposite versions of modernity.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Mark Jarman on Charles Wright

Here is a debatable proposition from Mark Jarman:

More than any other American poet writing today, perhaps more than any poet since Whitman and Dickinson, Charles Wright has recorded in his poems a lifetime of spiritual seeking. That pursuit has had more of Emily Dickinson's skepticism than Walt Whitman's affirmation, more of her struggles with Puritanism, than what Galway Kinnell once called Whitman's "mystical all lovingness." And yet the urge toward Whitman's embrace of multitude and the discretion of Dickinson's straitened thought have combined to create through Wright's genius an instrument which is to the spiritual life in contemporary poetry what the sonnet was for John Donne and George Herbert. Charles Wright has, for over forty years of mastery, given us a mode and a means for that journal of the soul which American poetry has, since Whitman and Dickinson, always had at heart. He has almost singlehandedly invented an American form of the devotional poem.


I don’t have a problem with it, really. I’m not going to argue against it, per se, but it’s a pretty large claim to make, especially of a writer who has (to the best of my knowledge) always referred to himself as a version of agnostic.

Does one have to be religious to write spiritual poetry? I suppose that’s my question. And I suppose then that the answer is no, one doesn’t have to be conventionally religious in the sense of belonging to a denomination, being a member of a recognized faith community to be or to write spiritual poetry. But what about "Devotional" poetry then? So the whole thing has me kind of scratching my head. I’ve admired Charles Wright’s poetry a long time, though I haven’t turned as often to his recent work as I turned to his books from the mid-90s and before.

It reminds me of a talk I heard G.C. Waldrep give a week or so ago. He spoke about the silences, the absences in poetry, especially what one would call “difficult” poetry (where Charles Wright is often placed), as akin to the absence of the physical Jesus in the world. The poem is a place to exercise the imaginative connection one can have with this absent Jesus. Waldrep made a distinction between believers and non-believers, saying that for believers this imagination bridges the absence, makes it a presence, while the non-believer doesn’t bridge this absence, but instead dwells in it.

I’m getting this at least a little wrong, as I’m recreating it from memory. Anyway, it was a brilliant talk, and it got me to thinking of poets like Charles Wright. For Charles Wright (who was influenced by George Steiner’s book Real Presences, which I think is a cornerstone text for this way of thinking about art and the spirit), this is more of a “real absence.” “Devotional” then, for me, isn’t quite the right word for Wright’s idiom, though I suppose it's close.

Here’s Jarman, summing up:

It is in Littlefoot, halfway through, that Wright gives the clearest expression I know to what might be called his existential theology. It comes in section sixteen.

Born again by water into the life of the spirit,

                                                                      but not into the Life,
Rivers and lakes were my bread and wine,
Creeks were my transubstantiation.
                                                        And everything’s holy by now,
Vole crawl and raven flyby,
All of the little incidents that sprinkle across the earth.
Easy enough to say,
                                but hard to live by and palliate.
Camus said that life is the search for the way back
To the few great simple truths
We knew at the beginning.
Out of the water, out of the cold air, that seems about right.

Yes, easy enough for you to say, Mr. Wright! I've been trying to argue this about your poetry for over 5,000 words, and here it is perfectly expressed. Why am I not surprised? The dimensions of the soul, this poet's soul, include the earth and the past, those most apprehensible elements of Time and Space.


The essay is titled, “Soul Journals: The Daily Devotions of Charles Wright,” and it originally appeared in Northwest Review, Volume 49, Number 2.

It’s reprinted here, on the Poetry Daily website (for a short time):

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Frank O'Hara - Selected Poems

Frank O’Hara’s “Poem Read at Joan Mitchell’s” is one of my very favorite poems of the 20th Century. I think of it as a sort of un-writing of Eliot’s “Prufrock.” The flipside, maybe, where it’s not the glittering surfaces or the form of the occasion that do us in or divert us, but the people there we care for that hold us up, and give us hope.

Poem Read at Joan Mitchell's

At last you are tired of being single
the effort to be new does not upset you nor the effort to be other
you are not tired of life together

city noises are louder because you are together
being together you are louder than calling separately across a telephone one to the other
and there is no noise like the rare silence when you both sleep
even country noises—a dog bays at the moon, but when it loves the moon it bows, and the hitherto frowning moon fawns and slips

Only you in New York are not boring tonight
it is most modern to affirm some one
(we don't really love ideas, do we?)
and Joan was surprising you with a party for which I was the decoy
but you were surprising us by getting married and going away
so here I am reading poetry anyway
and no one will be bored tonight by me because you're here

Yesterday I felt very tired from being at the FIVE SPOT
and today I felt very tired from going to bed early and reading ULYSSES
but tonight I feel energetic because I'm sort of the bugle,
like waking people up, of your peculiar desire to get married

It's so
original, hydrogenic, anthropomorphic, fiscal, post-anti-esthetic, bland, unpicturesque and WilliamCarlosWilliamsian!
it's definitely not 19th century, it's not even Partisan review, it's new, it must be vanguard!

Tonight you probably walked over here from Bethune Street
down Greenwich Avenue with its sneaky little bars and the Women’s Detention House,
across 8th Street, by the acres of books and pillows and shoes and illuminating lampshades,
past Cooper Union where we heard the piece by Mortie Feldman with “The Stars and Stripes Foever” in it
and the  Segamore’s terrific “coffee and, Andy,” meaning “with a cheese Danish”—
did you spit on your index fingers and rub the CEDAR’s neon circle for luck?
did you give a kind of thought, hurrying, to Alger Hiss?

It’s the day before February 17th
it is not snowing yet but it is dark and may snow yet
dreary Frebruary of the exhaustion from parties and the exceptional desire for spring which the ballet alone, by extending its run, has made bearable, dear New York City Ballet company, you are quite a bit like a wedding yourself!
and the only signs of spring are Maria Tallchief’s rhinestones and a perky little dog barking in a bar, here and there eyes which suddenly light up with blue, like a ripple subsiding under a lily pad, or with brown, like a freshly plowed field we vow we’ll drive out and look at when a certain Sunday comes in May—
and these eyes are undoubtedly Jane’s and Joe’s because they are advancing into spring before us and tomorrow is Sunday

This poem goes on too long because our friendship has been long, long for this life and these times, long as art is long and uninterruptable,
and I would make it as long as I hope our friendship lasts if I could make poems that long

I hope there will be more
more drives to Bear mountain and searches for hamburgers, more evenings avoiding the latest Japanese movies and watching Helen Vinson and Warner Baxter in Vogues of 1938 instead, more discussions in lobbies of the respective greatnesses of Diana Adams and Allegra Kent,
more sunburns and more half-mile swims in which Joe beats me as Jane watches, lotion-covered and sleepy, more arguments over Faulkner's inferiority to Tolstoy while sand gets into my bathing trunks
let's advance and change everything, but leave these little oases in case the heart gets thirsty en route
and I should probably propose myself as a godfather if you have any children, since I will probably earn more money some day accidentally, and could teach him or her how to swim
and now there is a Glazunov symphony on the radio and I think of our friends who are not here, of John and the nuptial quality of his verses (he is always marrying the whole world) and Janice and Kenneth, smiling and laughing, respectively (they are probably laughing at the Leaning Tower right now)
but we are all here and have their proxy
if Kenneth were writing this he would point out how art has changed women and women have changed art and men, but men haven't changed women much
but ideas are obscure and nothing should be obscure tonight
you will live half the year in a house by the sea and half the year in a house in our arms
we peer into the future and see you happy and hope it is a sign that we will be happy too, something to cling to, happiness
the least and best of human attainments

The poetry of Frank O’Hara loves life. The ragged ease of his line, the purely presentness of his idiom. his was one of the fundamental singular and brilliant visions of the 20th Century. he wasn’t finished when he died. He was barely into middle-age. We never got to see his poetry take on the 70s, and growing older. We’ve seen that in so many other poets, and how that brings them into a new way of telling. O’Hara, like Plath, and many others, will always have this unfinished quality.

Sure, even he joked in his poetry about his “I did this I did that” poems, but what about his larger vision of friendship, love, and one’s time?

In Favor of One’s Time

The spent purpose of a perfectly marvellous
life suddenly glimmers and leaps into flame
it's more difficult than you think to make charcoal
it's also pretty hard to remember life's marvellous
but there it is guttering choking then soaring
in the mirrored room of this consciousness
it's practically a blaze of pure sensibility
and however exaggerated at least somethings going on
and the quick oxygen in the air will not go neglected
will not sulk or fall into blackness and peat

an angel flying slowly, curiously singes its wings
and you diminish for a moment out of respect
for beauty then flare up after all that's the angel
that wrestled with Jacob and loves conflict
as an athlete loves the tape, and we're off into
an immortal contest of actuality and pride
which is love assuming the consciousness of itself
as sky over all, medium of finding and founding
not just resemblance but the magnetic otherness
that that that stands erect in the spirit's glare
and waits for the joining of an opposite force's breath

so come the winds into our lives and last
longer than despair's sharp snake, crushed before it conquered
so marvellous is not just a poet's greenish namesake
and we live outside his garden in pure tempestuous rights

I’ve had a perfectly wonderful time going back through the Borzoi edition of his selected poems this week. “Existence is elsewhere,” I quoted from Breton the other day, thinking about Surrealism, and the Fake Surrealism. John Ashbery has called his poetry soft Surrealism, I think. Or maybe it was “fuzzy” or “lightly” that he used. And we know that Reverdy was O’Hara’s heart. And yet his poetry seems to argue a very different view of existence from either Ashbery or Surrealism. It’s a poetry of place, absolutely. O’Hara’s New York is mythic in its absolute surface . . . but the power of O’Hara’s work is social. He was an ecstatic poet and I wish more poets were influenced by his enthusiasm and unpretentious delivery, his absolute, warm humanity.


How funny you are today New York
like Ginger Rogers in Swingtime
and St. Bridget’s steeple leaning a little to the left

here I have just jumped out of a bed full of V-days
(I got tired of D-days) and blue you there still
accepts me foolish and free
all I want is a room up there
and you in it
and even the traffic halt so thick is a way
for people to rub up against each other
and when their surgical appliances lock
they stay together
for the rest of the day (what a day)
I go by to check a slide and I say
that painting’s not so blue

where’s Lana Turner
she’s out eating
and Garbo’s backstage at the Met
everyone’s taking their coat off
so they can show a rib-cage to the rib-watchers
and the park’s full of dancers with their tights and shoes
in little bags
who are often mistaken for worker-outers at the West Side Y
why not
the Pittsburgh Pirates shout because they won
and in a sense we’re all winning
we’re alive

the apartment was vacated by a gay couple
who moved to the country for fun
they moved a day too soon
even the stabbings are helping the population explosion
though in the wrong country
and all those liars have left the UN
the Seagram Building’s no longer rivalled in interest
not that we need liquor (we just like it)

and the little box is out on the sidewalk
next to the delicatessen
so the old man can sit on it and drink beer
and get knocked off it by his wife later in the day
while the sun is still shining

oh god it’s wonderful
to get out of bed
and drink too much coffee
and smoke too many cigarettes
and love you so much

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Fake Surrealism

I was reading the Montevidayo blog the other day

when I came across the term “fake surrealism” and it reminded me of something, but I couldn’t remember what, and then a quick google reminded me: Theater of the Absurd.

I used to really love absurd theater, ever since Ian Hunter sang about it on Short back ‘n Sides in the early 80s. It was mostly a forgettable album, unfortunately, as his album just before it, You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic, though not an accurate use of the term, was his strongest work. How quickly things fall apart.

ANDRÉ BRETON (all in caps!), in 1924, from


(all in caps!):

“Beloved imagination, what I most like in you is your unsparing quality.”

Unspare me, then. I googled “Fake Surrealism” and the first hit was Montevidayo, but after I waded through a band, Infinity’s Fake Surrealism (!), and the picture (below) from a blog posted back in 09, I came across Eugene Ionesco. I was thinking of Edward Albee, but this will do.

Here’s a bit on Ionesco (just in case).'s+Imperatives%3A+The+Politics+of+Culture.-a016314580

Eugene Ionesco, the late denouncer of rhinoceritis, “the malady of conformity,” and the father of absurdist theater, has, for almost three decades, been sitting in the Pantheon of contemporary classics. In the 1950s, when his plays were largely misinterpreted or ridiculed by established critics and intellectuals for their cacophony, ineptitude, pseudometaphysics, or fake surrealism, Rosette Lamont appropriately coined the phrase “Metaphysical Farce” to define a dramatic genre in which philosophical thought and political criticism were hidden under the wit and laughter of comedy. This dramatic mode was born out of the inadequacy of the traditional genres of tragedy and comedy to represent a contemporary world of mass killings, reification• of human life, tyrannical powers, and “police encampments.” The farce, the grotesque, the irrational, theatrical illusion, caricatures, and parodies contained a power of derision and a critique of language well adapted to “the humiliated physicality and ontological awareness of the post-Holocaust-Gulag world.”

Lamont, a loyal admirer and an insightful decoder of Ionesco's theater, demonstrates how parodies, caricatures, and the use of clichés function as the artist's irreverent debunking of the manipulating discourses of the world while intertextuality reactivates the most visionary texts of Western culture. The encounter of Shakespeare's Macbeth with the French comic strip Les Pieds Nickeles, for instance, results in a corrosive attack on political tyranny.


Not Surrealism, then, but Fake Surrealism. And then what? Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” springs to mind. Because that's what happens next. History is formal in that way.

Breton: It is not the fear of madness which will oblige us to leave the flag of imagination furled.

The point of this post (because points are necessary, the voices keep saying) is just to say my new favorite phrase is “fake surrealism.” It will take all the time one doesn’t spend to decode it. To construct a curriculum for it, and to call it Fear Studies.

Breton: Not so fast, there; I’m getting into the area of psychology, a subject about which I shall be careful not to joke.

Because whatever is, is as a form of action. It shows one how to use a hammer, even though a bronzed videotape of 2001: A Space Odyssey would be more fitting.

And who might the poets of Fake Surrealism be? Indeed. In my mind it’s not a derogatory term, the way American Fake Realism, in my mind, would be. It’s celebratory. Necessary, as position one of dance four.

Breton: What I cannot bear are those wretched discussions relative to such and such a move, since winning or losing is not in question. And if the game is not worth the candle, if objective reason does a frightful job -- as indeed it does -- of serving him who calls upon it, is it not fitting and proper to avoid all contact with these categories?

Such things are time-bound, of course. And later the ones at whom stones were thrown will collect stones from the piles around them to throw at some new interloper. “Because these things have meaning,” they say, “and that meaning is me.” Fake Surrealism celebrates the stones in the air.

I wanted to post Albee’s The Sandbox, and found this version (below) featuring the Übermensch and some pals, patting things down. No worries here. (I have my shovel and my pail.) Turns out it’s a whole genre of YouTube videos. Who knew?

3 mins 33 sec ( as title, the video is 3:34 )

There’s no telling where Fake Surrealism might lead us. I’m all for it. I welcome it.

Breton: Existence is elsewhere.