Monday, July 23, 2012

Notebook 2012

Against the idea of “communication” in art: We must also recognize the existence and importance of still less articulate mental episodes in which the thinker gropes for expression and is swayed by dimly perceived intimations of significance or promising roads to solution.

Thoughts come with their expression. 

Postmodernism came about along with a general feeling of relativism, more talk of truths and less of truth.  If any one thing can be pointed to as an indicator that postmodernism has passed or is deep into passing, it is the current tendency to move away from relativism. 

All propositions are true and false.  No they’re not. 

Talking, and writing as well, is full of the chance operations of how one sets off.  As one speaks, structures are set up that must then be filled.  This makes demands upon the direction of the thinking—the formal direction.  It forces us to say it in a certain way.  We all know this. 

Language has a cold. 

Logic has never been enough. 

Is art purposive? 

Language is a forced march. 

Is decorated banality still banality?

Poetry as an expression of a feeling or state of feelings, or as a state of being in those feelings.  This dichotomy has been going around a long time.  It’s a false dichotomy. 

Ideas that seem clear but in actuality, when examined, are not, is the hugger mugger in the museum. 

Most confusion and misunderstandings arise from the multiple and shifting senses of key words. 

Most artists and critics at any given time are clerks of nostalgia. 

You can’t have a boundary of only one side.  To understand a limit, you must, therefore, have some knowledge of what is outside it. 

The pleasures of simple answers do violence to fundamental details. 

Describing should not be about liking or disliking.  Is such a thing possible? 

The problem of poetry in our time is outside of aesthetic positions.  Poetry has become the doily of the PBS News Hour, and now everyone can have one: a fitting proof for any domestic space that no domestic space is calling for.  If one desires, one can even claim it helps them in some way, the way any doily helps preserve the table’s finish in the 1890s. 

The style, the manner of the poem, is the manner of its thinking.  The manner of thinking allows and disallows the expression of some thoughts. 

What once arose from a discovery of language and world, becomes, over time, a wall standing between the language and world. 

Art might well be thought of as a mirror, but then one must supply what it is that stands before the mirror. 

Art production occurs to the side of statements on art, not in line. 

There is a lot of necessary as well as unnecessary theatricality in the presentation of art. 

It’s not that the poem is its own explanation, but that no other explanation suffices. 

Art performs our unreasonableness.  The part of you talking and the part of you answering. 

The best poetry leaves in the reader a feeling that there should be a response, but from whom, or what?

Poetry is always going to seem nonsense to most people. 

In the presence of great art, we feel an acceleration. 

It’s important for artists to think about, and have ideas about, the role and function of art.  On the other hand, there’s this complimentary attitude that one should, like Nike, just do it.  That also is a thinking and a role.  It’s the ones who do neither, who attempt the unexamined art, who make me all itchy. 

There is always noise and there is always music. 

“Once upon a time things were bad until our ideas came along” vs. “Once upon a time things were good, until some people with their ideas came along.”

The problem of a signature style: A person who can always be counted on to say the same thing supplies no information.

I’m going back to something like a foundation, to lay out (at least for myself) the situation of the poem.  It begins with language as an act of empathy. 

The more one attempts the linearity of communication, the more one will drift from the complexities of thought.  The more one attempts the complexities of thought, the more one with drift from the linearity of communication.  This is not really a—or it doesn’t need the baggage of a—question of “experimental/avant garde/conventional” or whatever.  These are social categories for what is at heart a personal disposition toward the problem of language. 

The difficulty of most questions resides largely in the difficulty of making clear to ourselves what we are asking. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012


By Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Period Style(s)

The writing's on the wall. But what does it say?

 We continue to describe, debate, etc., the period style.  Is the period style simply the “usual” poem of a time?  That doesn’t work, because then what we’ve thought of as the period styles of the past weren’t the period styles at all.  So is it the manner of the poems that get the most awards?  Also, no, as the awards of the past reveal. 

So what is it? 

Here’s Seth Abramson’s take:

“Scholars of the avant-garde warn darkly that we are suffused, in the twenty-tens, in a period style enamored with pretty rhetorical gestures, self-indulgent egotism, self-expressive melodrama, and bourgeois epiphanies. These scholars have been reading too little and too narrowly; the period style they describe was ubiquitous in the eighties and early nineties and, while now and then evident even today, has in the greater part been replaced by a dramatically divergent aesthetic sensibility.”

I kind of agree with him here.  This is the negative way to describe a large segment of the poetry that is often termed “Quietude.”  Right?  (There are more positive ways to describe it, but I’ll leave that for others to do.)  But it seems to me, from looking at the raw numbers, that this is still the most common type of poem being written today.  But again, the most common poem doesn’t mean “period style.”  Either way, we all can kind of guess who’s being talked about. 

Here’s where he gets really interesting:

“Dominant now are classically paratactic ‘implied’ lyric-narratives—employing the comma, that is, not the caesura; gesturing at story, not fetishizing it—marked by their disjunctive enjambment, eccentric juxtapositions, an absence of temporality, choked-off grammar and syntax, an indifference to the lyrical ‘I,’ and a penchant for mastering (in the neo-Modernist lineage) extremely well-said non-sense. This period style’s lyricism is all akimbo; its jagged edges and field-composition jump-cuts compose a despairing sort of postmodernist music which yesteryear’s neo-Romantics and New Formalists and post-confessionalists would hardly recognize.”

I want lists of names!  I'm kind of thinking he’s talking about John Ashbery?  Or Ashbery-like poets?  (Skipping the fact that Ashbery’s been publishing since the 1950s.)  Perhaps the poets once described as Elliptical poets?  Post-Avant? Third Way? This is something like the group that Tony Hoagland has said in the past represents the current period style.  If so, it’s a fair number of poets, and some have gotten awards and notice recently.  Here he continues:

“What's most striking about where we've come to in American poetry is just how universally this period style is well-executed, where present: of the many books not selected for review here, a clear majority exhibited a pleasing-enough competence which, while never jarringly or demonstrably idiosyncratic, nevertheless suggested to this critic that a veritable horde of our nation's younger poets, particularly those hailing from academic-institutional contexts in which a healthy one-upsmanship is now brewing, will shortly enough make us very proud indeed. A second group of younger/youngish authors has learned to dial back the period style just enough, and compound it with their own unique contributions just enough, for all those generative period-features and occasional eccentricities of concept and structure to be appreciated rather than merely noted.”

This fascinates me.  The way styles (I’m skipping the whole “period style” thing for now, because I don’t understand it.) work is that once we say things like “how universally this period style is well-executed,” and “a clear majority exhibited a pleasing-enough competence which, while never jarringly or demonstrably idiosyncratic,” about it, then it’s all over and headed for the library shelves.  And this: “A second group of younger/youngish authors has learned to dial back the period style just enough, and compound it with their own unique contributions just enough, for all those generative period-features and occasional eccentricities of concept and structure to be appreciated rather than merely noted” points our possible way to something new. 

So are we done with this style?  Is it all over?  It seems to me, in philosophy, the postmodern period and its attendant interest in relativism that has given these poets much of their energy is no longer generating much enthusiasm.  So what is?  Indeed. 

The new thing.  It’s on its way. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Stay gold, Ponyboy.

Stay gold.

In the past I would have had a lot to say about this kerfuffle.  But these days I'm feeling less inclined. Maybe it's me.   

Marjorie Perloff’s Poetry on the Brink: Reinventing the Lyric:

The Gray Area: An Open Letter to Marjorie Perloff by Matvei Yankelevich:

A Response to Matvei Yankelevich by Marjorie Perloff:

One of the things I find interesting about this is how, in Perloff’s response to Yankelevich, she doesn’t distinguish between “conservative” as it applies aesthetics, and “conservative” as it applies to politics.  I wonder about this, because for years now I’ve heard poets refer to poets as “conservative,” who weren’t at all conservative in their politics. 

Someone’s missing something here.  Maybe it’s me.  (And this is the second time I've said that. Maybe it IS me.  I must be losing my edge.)

Going off of Perloff’s response to Yankelevich, there was an interesting exchange she had with Seth Abramson on facebook, but since I don’t know what the ethics are of quoting from facebook, I’ll paraphrase.  Perloff summarized some of her points against contemporary American poetry (a segment of American poetry, surely, but exactly which segment, I’m not absolutely sure [any help on this would be appreciated]).  Part of her complaint boils down to this, paraphrasing: “Regarding the issue of sound structure and lineation, no, I don't think students do have much instruction on this [in MFA programs], at least not judging by the results—why, for starters, no metrics of any sort?  Rhythm?  Why the endless filler, those words that could be crossed out so readily without changing meaning?. . . what makes the ‘free verse’ (i.e. ‘lineated’) writing I was criticizing in my essay poetry?  In fact, with all the arguments against my essay, I have yet to see a reasonable argument that would explain to outsiders why these pieces are poems—what are the minimum sound requirements to make something a poem?”

So, whether one reads the essays from the links or not, there is a question here, one that would be worth talking about. 

For me, I’m not much interested in large genre arguments.  I also see no reason to allow the definition of poetry become a checklist of metrics, rhythm, and an agreed-upon economy of language.  On the other hand, I would agree that those who are interested in such checklists also have a point.  It’s that I don’t think it’s THE point. 

I don’t really have a side in this argument, then.  I’m mildly in disagreement with Perloff, as I think, in the end, discussions such as this are more about appearance than reality, even though the dividing of appearance and reality is something of an impossible task. 

These essays about “what’s going on in contemporary American poetry,” are they really trying to understand what’s going on, or are they trying to justify their own position?  I guess that’s my position, my question.  There certainly are some poets out there who feign rhythm, the chronic “poet voice” problem that forces a lilt, a semi-question mark uptick at the ends of lines that ruin the natural rhythm of the sentence.  That’s a point I would concede.  But that’s about poetry performance, and has nothing to do with the way it performs of the page itself. 

But say, for instance, that meter, rhythm, and economy of language are the criteria of what makes a poem a poem.  Say, then, that we’re not doing that anymore.  (These are big assumptions, yes.)  Does that really change anything about what we’re doing?  A rose by any other name? 

This is an academic game, perhaps THE academic game, and, to my appreciation of art, beside the point.  Unless, of course, it’s your thing, and then, go for it. 
Everybody's happy!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Jordan Davis On William Carlos Willims

Boom!  Bang!

I’m travelling these days (Sumer! Family!), so I’ve  not really the time to sit and do a proper job with any of the things I’m thinking.  I’ve choices then.  And the choice I’m making is to just toss off some notes. Which, at least today, kind of fits the spirit of the source material. 

I love that someone’s talking about William Carlos Williams!

This is certainly good news.  And I felt the need to write a bit in the margins, which I’ll do here.  Just to gloss a bit. 

Jordan Davis: No one seems to know why (let alone how) to read William Carlos Williams anymore.

I Reply: I kind of agree with this. But there’s a corollary that I also kind of agree with: Everyone thinks they know why someone should or shouldn’t read Williams.  Also everyone thinks they know how. 

Really it’s probably neither of these assertions, Davis’s or mine. But these are the sorts of things one does with Williams, and it’s a strong argument for his importance. 

This is my favorite part:

Jordan Davis: If they’re still minimizing your accomplishments fifty years after you die, you didn’t just change the game, you won. How did William Carlos Williams do it?

I reply: This is the same argument one could make about other “problematic” pillars of recent poetry, Gertrude Stein and John Ashbery, for example. 

The trick with art is to find your own way past the things people say about it.  Things people say can help, true, but they mostly just kind of make stuff up.  Some of the ways I’ve found a lot of critics helpful over the years is as examples of how to pretty much ruin art for nearly everyone.  On the other hand, there’s a kind of easy way a lot of artists hand our conceptions of ourselves back to us.  It’s easy to like these artists, and to praise them.  Williams isn’t like that, and that’s one of the reasons why some people try to write him out. He makes categories problematic. 

Jordan Davis: Jarrell is quite good about the presence among those successes of incomplete and slightly off material, and I’m pretty sure this is where readers unsympathetic to Williams’s aesthetics and politics are relieved to disqualify him—too many clunkers, they say, and head off to read any of the hundreds of cautious imitators of Williams who’ve found wider immediate success (Pinsky, Levine) or the dozens of imitators even more reckless than Williams whose work stands a chance of being read a hundred years from now (Ginsberg, Lowell).

I Reply: The imitators! Yeah, I’ve always been shocked by the people who’ve said Williams is foundational to their aesthetic.  Levine, especially.  Yikes.  If I didn’t know Williams and came across Levine talking about Williams’s importance to him, I’d end up not at all interested in Williams.  I’m glad to have missed that.  Lowell and Ginsberg are more interesting cases.  Lowell, especially.  Williams was inspirational to Lowell, but only theoretically.  Williams gave Lowell the “courage” to break with Tate, right?  Lowell was unsatisfied with how his formal poetry sounded.  He was becoming terminally unhip, and he could feel it.  Williams gave him an out, but not really a model.  At least that’s how I read them. 

A lot of poets these days get compared to Wallace Stevens. “Wallace Stevens” is IN.  Or at least he has been for the past 15 or so years.  Maybe that’s changing?  Anyway, poets get compared to him a lot, but who gets compared to Williams? And for what aspect of Williams? The fact that poets such as Levine and Pinsky are inheritors of Williams should be cause for a revolution.  And the case that Ron Silliman and Philip Levine both count Williams in their foundations should say something.  Maybe it’s a generational thing.  In the 70s/80s everyone was claiming Williams, and then something happened. 

What is it about Williams that makes it so difficult to see as an influence in very recent poetry?  Is it that his use of voice was quickly switched over to The New York School?  O’Hara, for instance, also shared with Williams an ability to jump into his enthusiasms, so that now, that aspect of Williams also seems that it’s come from O’Hara, which, of course, it very well might have.  That’s the problem with inheritance.  And, now, with the prevalence of Stevens in book reviews of recent poetry that bears little resemblance to either Stevens or to other poets who are also being compared to Stevens, it’s not much of a leap to imagine that Stevens will undergo the same “writing out” that Williams went through. Perhaps Ashbery will replace Stevens  as O’Hara has—in some circles—replaced Williams.  And Eliot? Is there anyone out there who’s ever compared to Eliot?  Stein’s doing well.  Cummings, though, he’s in much worse shape than Williams, it seems.  It’s not a game of Highlander, you know? There doesn’t have to be “only one.”

Williams disliked what Eliot did to poetry, how he “sent us back to the classroom.”  But we, later, can be influenced by both.  It all becomes froth. 

Anyway, none of this is meant to be an argument with Davis.  I enjoyed his piece quite a bit, and look forward to the further installments. 

 Or maybe it is.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The day was seized!



The future of physics just got exciting.


John Ashbery


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

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

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

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

Monday, July 02, 2012

Last day to send a chapbook manuscript!

OK, so yesterday was the postmark deadline, but I won't be back from vacation until the 21st, so if anyone still wants to send a chapbook submission to our scrappy little series, then feel free to do so this week. Hurry!

The Midwest Chapbook Series
GreenTower Press/The Laurel Review

Final Judge: Mary Biddinger

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


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

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

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

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

Reading period opens February 1 and ends July 1, 2012.

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

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

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

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

Winner will be notified by email or telephone, and will be announced on our website ( in September, 2012.

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

Send entries to:

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

Questions may be addressed to the editors of The Laurel Review at:

Recent chapbooks available from GreenTower Press:

Elizabeth Clark Wessel, Whither Weather

BLOOM, Rob Schlegel

Show Me Yours, Hadara bar-Nadav

Off the Fire Road, Greg Wrenn

Instructions for a Painting, Molly Brodak

ITINERARY, Reginald Shepherd

Anatomy of a Ghost, Rumit Pancholi

Grenade, Rebecca Hoogs

The BirdGirl Handbook, Amy Newman