Friday, June 29, 2012

Or there was no sadness, just a simple fold in time.

Cole Swensen has a new book out and I’m absolutely crazy about it. It’s titled Gravesend, after the town of that name in England. The book is an investigation of that, but also so much more about graves and endings and ghosts and her restless and nimble mind at work.

It’s broken into three sections, “Have You Ever Seen a Ghost?”, “How Did Gravesend Get Its Name?”, and “What Do You Think a Ghost Is?”

Each section has a short prose bit, a few pages long, culled from interviews Swensen conducted with people circling the questions that title each section. The rest of each section is poetry.

It’s one of the things I admire about Swensen’s work, her ability to inhabit a question, and to bring research and her thinking together to chip away at it with the suggestive power of art. It’s the contribution art makes to a subject, full of open spaces.

Anyway, here’s a bit from one of the prose sections, to give you a feel for the tone and voice:

“Ghosts? You’re writing a book on ghosts? This place is full of them. It’s the oldest pub on the river. They say Pocahontas died here. No, I mean here, in this pub, that’s what they say—and why not believe it? No, I’ve never seen a ghost, but I’ve heard one. I’ve been down here in the bar, and heard someone walking directly above me when I knew that no one could be up there. And bottles fly off the shelves sometimes, or chairs get up-ended. Everyone who works here has a different story; we all feel them.”

And here’s a poem:


In the grounds of Bayham Abbey in a garden designed by Repton
a procession of monks just about dusk or just after darkness has fallen
go walking.

Or there was no sadness, just a simple fold in time.

One must be for others a reason to live.

Often, it is said, the presence of a ghost is signaled by illogical cold.

Lord Halifax noted it when investigating “the Laughing Man of Wrotham,” who strode into his brother’s room and murdered him night after night

to the horror of the maid who, a century later, wedged a chair against the door and watched him disappear.

There is no cure

for anything, and that cough you have, Madam, once

there was a fire every Friday the 13th, and once there was a death
that seemed to deserve it, but that was an illusion. Once there was a
death, but that was illusory, too. And all over Kent, someone is still
heading up the stairs, lighting the way with a match.

Finally, here’s one more poem, that extends the theme a bit. I’m not able to post it here without messing up the form a bit, so I’m including a picture so you can get the feel for how the spaces work.

The Beginnings of the Modern Era

It wasn’t until the ghost story became a genre           that ghosts became strangers

denied as they were      by a Romantic flagrance so      stylized it found itself poised
to the tip of a letter opener           and the man holding it               in his hand

silhouetted      from the back      on a promontory      over a crevasse, which makes
his sister die of music      or the ghost is reduced         to an overpowering smell

of the sea      and only she can hear it:      what we’ve inherited      fletcher of tongues
thin in the wind who blinded by now      a ghost in fingers      is touching them empty

of all its burning      And we claim we never knew them living which gets lost in living
and thus the phaeton stopped to pick him up      and went on to plunge over the cliff

just as it had done in all its lost                         every night for the past fifty years
the ghost ship                  the phantom train                              the cathedral fear

and how right we are      to claim it isn’t ours      though it leaves them stranded
or we abandon      or we, a screw      in a door nailed shut.         It isn’t our fault


At 6/29/2012 7:08 PM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

John, why do you suck up to Cole S? Her stuff is horrible. It's so obviously cut-and-paste from other sources.

At 6/29/2012 7:21 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hah! Well, I talk about her work now and then because I like it, and I like talking about what I like.

I talk highly of several poets, though, and have for decades. I think one should be allowed to talk about what one likes without the sucking-up accusation. But such is the way things are.

There is a "cut-and-paste" aspect to Swensen's work, absolutely, though it's usually heavily rendered. She acknowledges it and usually notes it in the poem itself (and if not, then in the notes section of the book). I fail to see how that makes it horrible. But to each one's own. I think these two poems I've posted here are first rate, for instance.

At 6/30/2012 4:10 PM, Blogger adams24 said...

I'd argue CS may be the most exciting syntacticist of the last twenty five or so years. And to just cut and paste may be dullish (tho often enough I bet it ain't) but to cut and paste into a beautifully flexible, experimental syntax which has ghostings of traditional, complex, subordinate syntax is most excellent. DEven if the poems are pastings, the syntax activates and constitutes the poem's medium more than collage.

adam strauss (responding to TB)

At 6/30/2012 4:53 PM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

(shrug) I guess I'm just looking for something different from poetry. If I want 'cut-and-paste' information, I'd rather just go to the source and study the information myself. 'ghostings of traditional.' Yea, sure. Ghostings. Half-baked, in other words. I'd rather read Larkin's grumpy rhymes, because at least you are getting how someone really feels about life. When you ask someone, "How are you?" instead of a polite response, poetry is supposed to tell you how the person really feels---and how refreshing. Poetry that is merely odd is not interesting to me whatsoever for that reason. CS doesn't tell us how she feels; she gives us 'cut-and-paste.' If I want that, I'll go to the source itself, not read it through the prism of difficult-to-read writing by an obviously limited writer (because that's why they cut-and-paste in the first place).

At 7/01/2012 7:10 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


This, as you call it, "cut-and-paste" thing, I think you're exaggerating. Yes, there is a lot of research in Cole Swensen's approach to poetry, that is then heavily rendered, but very little direct quotation. So "cut-and-paste," really, in the end, it's not. That's probably a distinction without a difference to you, but I wanted to clarify that point.


"Syntacticist"! I love this coinage, even if I trip every time I try to say it three times fast.

At 7/01/2012 9:53 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

Perhaps you're right, John, but I suspect there is not one original phrase in those two CS poems you quoted; she found all that stuff somewhere. That's certainly what it sounds like. Ree-search. And I find line-breaks attempting to be profound or significant because of where they break, just highly annoying. That's part of the 'cut-and-paste' mentality, too, I suppose.

At 7/01/2012 3:18 PM, Blogger adams24 said...

"And I find line-breaks attempting to be profound or significant because of where they break, just highly annoying"--it seems like this quotation displays disdain for one of the key dynamics which distinguishes poetry from prose or, in other words, these words seem like those of someone who may in fact not care much for poetry; I shudder to contemplate Paradise Lost as a work in which Milton was, nay, is, not rather obsessed with line-breaks and their semantic heightening. I do not think CS has a flawless "hand"--sometimes her clinamens seem to be a loss of control rather than a refiguring--but, frequently, I'd argue she does make clear how much energy language contains/can manifest. Which is not to suggest "They fuck you up..." is not a fabulopus first-line!

At 7/01/2012 3:23 PM, Blogger adams24 said...

@TB--reading essays and interviews by Rosmarie Waldrop, Mallarme's Throw of Dice, Christanne Miller's book A Poet's Grammar, might help create a lens for engaging with CS.

At 7/02/2012 4:39 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

Your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.

At 7/02/2012 6:48 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

Fuzz hit the nail on the head re: CS.

My complaint might be based on the contemporary blending of poetry and art. Abstract art, concept art, etc is art trying to be writing (the "painted word") And poetry that relies on 'how it looks on the page' is writing that tries to be art.

This blending gets some people really excited. Myself, I find it the worst of two worlds, mostly fatuous, cloying and silly. A dumbing-down by unwise mixing. Let's make a poem look pretty on the page! STU-PID. My name is Steward Pid. I'm a poet---and also an artist! Let's make a painting be like a piece of writing! STU-PID. My name is Stewart Pid. I'm an artist---and also a poet!

Would someone please tell Stewart Pid that he's neither a poet nor an artist? Thanks.

At 7/04/2012 4:42 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

"How it looks on the page" isn't just "the contmeporary blending of poetry and art." You see it back in the 16th century, in shaped verses by George Puttenham &/or Gabriel Harvey, and in Puttenham's list of possible shapes, some of which were later used by Dylan Thomas. You see it in George Herbert and other Metaphysicals. (Incidentally, don't the fat-skinny-fat centered lines and uppercase words in "The Altar" remind you of McClure's projectivist verse?) You see it in Apollinaire's calligrammes--pre-WW II, so not quite contemporary. And if you look at "Vision and Prayer" or calligrams and shaped poems by May Swenson, you'll see that playing with typography needn't be mere prettification--or a cloak for ignorance of aural prosodies, or a cloak for any other ineptitude. It's just more fun with language. What's not to like?

At 7/05/2012 12:10 PM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...


How many would define poetry by font size? Or the 'shape' of a poem? Isn't this essentially trivial? In a whimsical mood, anyone might want to 'put their poem in a shape,' just as one might want to write their poem on blue paper. But my point is that more recently poets have taken this essentially trivial fact---the 'look' of a piece of writing---and have been treating it as if it has great significance. And I would include line-breaks here. And if it's only "Fun with language," well, that phrase just makes me want to gag. The 'look' of a poem matters, sure---you want an expensive, tasteful presentation---that's want it to look nice...but the instant this becomes 'attention-grabbing' or 'scholarly' we need to call it what it is: ridiculous.

At 7/05/2012 4:54 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

Lighten up, Tom. "Fun with language" makes you gag? Even serious poems are partly playful, partly word games that lead you to thoughts you wouldn't have thought of otherwise. And it may seem trivial & silly to shape a poem like a mouse's tale--or a scimitar, as I think Kenward Elmslie did; but isn't rhyming "stones" with "swans" in "The Wild Swans At Coole" just as trivial & silly? "I will acquaintance strangle and look strange," Shakespeare says. Isn't it silly to repeat "strang" that way--silly for a grown man to play with words in that childlike way?But such childlike trifles can help to make poetry moving and memorable.

At 7/06/2012 12:52 PM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...


Fair enough. Poetry is mug's game, etc.

But it just seems to me that rhyme and alliteration are what poetry does---not to mention its meaning--and a poem's shape is something imposed from without.

At 7/06/2012 1:24 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I have heard people say that a prose-poem is not a poem, because it doesn't have line-breaks. That's enough for me to say there is something going on at the "how it looks on the page" level.

It's usually a very subtle thing, how a poem looks on the page. And a poem could look different ways on the page without much changing someone's reading of it, if at all. But these are beside the point. The point is that how a poem looks on the page is part of the poem, as much a part of the poem as any other.

At 7/06/2012 2:29 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

You say rhyme & alliteration are what poetry does, but some people dislike rhyme & alliteration. You know, Milton disliked rhyme, O'Hara alliteration--Thomas's "Welsh spit." Rhyme & allit. are as irrelevant to some poets as the look of the poem is to you. I think analogy is what poetry does, but some poets don't like metaphors. Creeley didn't use metaphors. & there are things I don't like, e.g., the way some poets, almost with a hipper-to-contemporary-parlance-than-thou attitude, use cute variations on fashionable locutions like "you do the math." But when we express our annoyance over such things--when we say poetry does what I do, not what this person's poetry does-- we're just exploiting a prejudice.

At 7/06/2012 2:40 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I don't much care for simile, especially decorative simile, for instance.

At 7/06/2012 3:02 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

Right, sure. & I like simile. One reason I like Charles Wright is his great similes. De gustibus non est disputandum.


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