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. 


At 7/24/2012 4:49 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

What thoughts does Ashbery's style disallow? Ashbery could express ANY thought. What his style disallows is a certain emotional attitude toward certain thoughts.

At 7/24/2012 5:39 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

But is a thought separable from its emotional subtext? I may say Brutus is an honorable man, but I haven't really expressed the thought I've ostensibly expressed.

At 7/24/2012 7:51 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I like this question. It gets right to the heart of Ways of Saying = Ways of Knowing. One of the things people tend to say about Ashbery is something along the lines of, “Reading John Ashbery’s poetry is like being let loose in a garden of all thinking,” or perhaps, “Ashbery’s poetry mirrors the mind’s way of thinking.” So, I suppose his poetry (which I admire very much) would be an extreme test case of if this assertion is true or not.

“Perhaps some things should not be allowed?” That’s one position. But, at the very least, any decision a way of saying follows is several other decisions not followed. If I were pressed, I would say that one thing Ashbery’s style doesn’t do much with would be the close focus of attention on a singular thing (“Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is a good example of his close attention causing an expansion, rather than a contraction of the subject.). If it’s possible to say that a poet like William Carlos Williams (to reach back, but in a different way I could also posit Cole Swensen, Rae Armantrout, or several others) adds something through subtraction and focus, one must also say that is a route Ashbery doesn’t take. He might get similar results through maximalism, but differently, as the thoughts manifest in different language.

As for emotion, I think the same structure would hold. Or maybe it doesn’t. I could be talked out of any of these statements, as statements of this sort are always going to be situational and provisional.

At 7/25/2012 1:12 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

There are only two ideas in the world but no one can agree what they are.

At 7/26/2012 8:41 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

When all of Ashbery's books are crammed into one fat Collected, they could title it something from 'Fantasia on ''The Nut-Brown Maid''': The Shelf of Whatever Happens.

At 7/31/2012 5:58 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Hi John. Are you saying that immodest assertion is on the rise again, or is this nostalgia for la folie du doute? (Doo doot doo doot doo.) (Thanks for your notes on the WCW pieces, by the way.)

At 7/31/2012 7:30 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Thank you for your much more thought-out and weighty notes on WCW! “Immodesty”. There are so many directions I could go with that, I’m finding myself at something of an impasse. I’m not sure if immodesty is on the rise (formally? personality? content?), or if it’s about the same as it ever was.

There used to be this idea that poets were the high-priests of art. I hate that idea. It goes against everything I believe, and I find it destructive to art production. That’s one kind of immodesty that’s kind-of left, or at least I’ve been able to block it out. Whatever the case, I don’t think “immodesty” is the word I would use. But I’m all for modesty in all things. And brio, too.

But I’m feeling you mean “immodesty” in a different way. Reading your final WCW piece this morning, I’m imagining a conversation about modesty. Does WCW’s work seem more or less modest than the other Modernists?

I’m finding myself in agreement with your strong assertion:

“I don’t think Stevens’s contribution is as significant as Moore’s or as Williams’s. I do think it is easier to make good poems that derive from Stevens’s insights than it is from Williams’s or Moore’s. But facility really doesn’t tell you anything. Quantity doesn’t tell you anything. I think the intensity of Williams’s and Moore’s work is more valuable…There aren’t really unsuccessful poems with Stevens—they all work, they all do the thing he seems to have wanted his poems to do, and they remain satisfying. So Stevens has accomplished something neither Williams nor Moore nor Eliot nor Pound nor H.D. could.”

Part of that is because of the reaction to Stevens and WCW since 1990. Stevens has had direct, visible influence on many poets (even before 1990, but I think 1990 is when things really started taking off--). But I think a lot of the Stevens influence has been superficial, People take the easy Stevens, the Stevens of “It must resist the intelligence almost successfully” in similar ways that they’ve taken WCW’s “American speech”, and missed more interesting avenues. At least a lot of people have.

But this probably doesn’t have much or anything now to do with modesty. I wish there were more modesty on facebook, for instance. And fewer kittens with big eyes with clever sayings about coffee.

And, of course, whenever one says “facebook,” one really means “poetry.”

At 8/01/2012 6:09 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

John - I suppose it's tellingly wrong that I associate what you call "communication" with what I'd call "immodest assertion."

I take your point about the vatic/clerical role of poets. I hate it too. I wonder if what we're allergic to isn't this specific priestiness as much as a general corrupt perpetuation of authority whether or not it's genuine.

I don't enjoy Duncan often, for example, despite his excellent balanced cadences and peculiar observations, because he doesn't often seem to me to be saying much worth thinking about (as opposed, say, to Schuyler or Whalen, either of whom could also have been cast in that high priest role).

To respond to your query re WCW and modesty: I want to say he was pretty brash, and that that's one aspect of what I value in his work. Said what he thought, and if he had to qualify that thought, it didn't lead him to hold back -- he disclosed the conflict.

You're right about the superficial influence of Stevens. I probably spend too much time thinking about the huge percentage of nitrogenous (inert) work that gets printed in the magazines civilians see; my sense is that Stevens's influence has never been as great there as it continues to be in the university journals and other peer-cheerled publications.

Any suggestions how to spend less energy on superficial poetry?

At 8/01/2012 7:15 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Immodesty of that sort. What an interesting pairing of concepts. I suppose, then, that one of my prime offenders of that sort would be Rita Dove’s “After Reading Mickey in the Night Kitchen for the Third Time Before Bed,” pairing the excesses of “communication” with the “did she really need to say it that way?” It’s easy and banal. And as for communication, it doesn’t rise above the “we’re all the same under the skin” cliché. I can’t believe she wrote it, and I can’t believe people like it. A superficial take on superficiality.

Superficial poetry we will always have with us. And who’s to say, really, what that even means. Well, I guess we’re all to say, but to ourselves. Marjorie Perloff dislikes “the new surrealist poetry” as well as “the old surrealist poetry,” for instance, and I’m guessing she’d call both superficial. She hasn’t though, so I might be making that up. But others have. And I find a lot of surrealist poetry (Max Jacob comes to mind as an easy example) to be quite effective, not superficial at all.

I probably shouldn’t have mentioned Perloff in that. I’ve not researched her dislike of surrealism, so that might not be fair. But there is superficial poetry all around, in all guises. I’ve written superficial poetry as well. I’m sure we all have, deluding ourselves we’re being deep or elemental or transgressive or clever or whatever.

I guess the way to spend less energy on it is to take up soccer. At 47, I've just started playing, and I'm finding pick-up soccer is wonderfully difficult.

At 8/01/2012 8:49 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Do you get to Akron ever? There's a Rita Dove Lane near the zoo.

Soccer! I like having an intact collar bone, but some kind of group sport is probably a good idea. There's a disc golf course in Athens, as you know. Maybe I'll try it.

One strategy I've found for avoiding superficial poetry while remaining somewhat engaged with the field, is to discount by half anybody's work after they win a prize, jump to a much bigger press, or otherwise face an increase in demand.

At 8/01/2012 8:55 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

The Pulitzer, especially. Not many have survived that one.

The press thing. What was it that was the saying in the second wave NYS poets? "Don't get famous," or something like that?

Collarbone's, sure. And the head. But it's the legs that catch most of it, especially in pick-up games. Best fun I've ever limped away from.

At 8/01/2012 10:43 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

"Work your ass off to change the language & don't ever get famous." -- Bernadette Mayer

At 8/01/2012 1:43 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I love that.

At 8/01/2012 1:55 PM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

It's highly amusing to hear simultaneous dismissals of the poet/priest idea with such bowings and scrapings to minor figures such as Stevens Moore, and Williams. Even the High Modernist critic/priest William Logan would blush.

Williams attempted traditional verse, failed, tried haiku-based Imagism, failed, got into the university thanks to a few friends in high places, (such as the New Critics,) and now he reigns as an obscure poet-priest among certain free verse advocates in the academy. "American speech?" Nope. Original? Nope. Masters was doing WCW before WCW, when WCW was still rhyming. See Spoon River Anthology---1916.

Come now, gentlemen.

At 8/01/2012 2:35 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hi Tom!

So what are your thoughts on soccer? Do you think the US women's team isn't playing their leads properly? And Hope Solo. She tweets, you know.

Lo, he babbles of the fish-frys of long ago!

At 8/02/2012 6:12 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Hi Tom. You're wrong. I won't abuse John's hospitality by repeating here what I've stated elsewhere. I'm sure you can find those pieces -- if not, ask somebody.

At 8/02/2012 6:25 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

"You're wrong." Run along and read what "I've stated elsewhere."

Yes, we all have "stated things elsewhere," and to disagree on any subject would certainly "abuse John's hospitality," so Jordan must be correct: If we have any creds at all we most certaintly own "statements elsewhere" and let's not sully Jordan's paradisal vision of John's blog. Yes, that's it! Edgar Lee Masters is an embarrassment to the hardcore poetry community and its WCW worship, I know, I know...

At 8/02/2012 7:07 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Who said Masters is an embarrassment? Well, this is something of the way things go when we make claims for artists.

I’ll take one small shot at an answer, knowing full well the futility in continuing this:

I think Masters was an important figure, but a minor poet. Spoon River had wide popularity (in poetry terms), as well as an interesting formal looseness. I can imagine that his somewhat conversational free verse (or even, if you want, dramatic monologues) filtered in to how other poets considered voice. Sure. But making that case (which, as I’ve said certainly can be made) negates the poetry of William Carlos Williams. To call WCW an “obscure poet-priest” is, to my mind, an inappropriately hostile reading. On the other hand, this argument of yours has been going on for nearly a century. Well, I guess not. WCW was ignored for quite some time (especially by “the academy”). It wasn’t until the 50s, I think, when he started really getting serious notice. Be that as it may, the fact that the argument over WCW has continued this long, that some of his poems can still cause a stir, is pretty remarkable. So much depends, as they say.

At 8/02/2012 9:30 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

Thanks, John.

I dunno, "obscure poet-priest" sounds very mysterious and sexy to me, but even if "hostile," it's perfectly appropriate, I think, in literary studies to be "hostile" to inflated reputations---believe me, it has nothing to do with any personal feelings (I have none) for Mr. Williams. Or maybe the
"hostility" is being felt by those who might be inflating the reputation? I agree with everything in your reply, except I do believe among a certain set Williams is cool, and Masters is not, and Williams is a significant starting point for many, when he really isn't a starting point, and you seem to agree with me re: Masters. As for Jordan, I'm happy to infer that he has indeed said something interesting "elsewhere." I'm sure he has. Thanks again, John,and I apologize for any "abuse" which may have occured.
Cummings, Millay, Masters not cool? Moore, Stevens, Williams, cool? I may pursue this for a chuckle..."elsewhere" of course!

At 8/02/2012 10:52 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Oh, I should have used a softer word than “hostile.” I was just thinking that you were making rather too large of claims against WCW. For me (I don’t know about others) he’s an important signpost, but he’s by no means a starting point. If I were to point to a starting point, it would be Lyrical Ballads. Yippie for me. I felt no abuse from you, though I disagree with about 95% of what you say.

WCW is cool? I don’t know about the cool scale. I’ve never been much for that. WCW seemed to be much more cool in the 50s and 60s than more recently, where it seemed Stevens was the one to name-drop. But maybe WCW is back on the upswing. I like WCW, Moore, and Stevens. I also like Cummings quite a bit, so he’s cool with me.

I think Millay gets talked about now and then, but she’s starting to sound a little cobwebby. She was very important back in her time, though. She probably will be again, especially if we move into a more aesthetically conservative time (and they redo the stacks), which seems at least possible. And what about our favorite misanthrope, Frost? Is there no one talking about him anymore?

At 8/02/2012 11:00 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Longfellow: uncool
Whittier: kinda sorta cool
Poe: way cool
Whitman: way cool
Melville: way cool
Dickinson: First--Chill--then Stupor--then the letting go--
Stevens: cool
Williams: meh
Pound: meh
Moore: meh
Eliot: cool
Cummings: short
Crane (Hart): way cool
Roethke: way cool
Lowell/Berryman/Schwartz/Jarrell: a cold flame of tinfoil
Plath: way cool
Ginsberg: cool
Ammons: cool
O'Hara: way cool
Ashbery: way cool

At 8/02/2012 11:14 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


That just about gets it (for currect reception), but I'd change this:

Williams: kinda cool
Pound: way way uncool
Moore: cool
Eliot: kinda cool

And, looking at current things young poets are saying:

Armantrout: cool
Spicer: way cool
Graham (Jorie): who?
Wright (Charles): who?
Kinnell: who?
Olds: who?
Wright (James): who?
Kizer: who?
Hugo: who?

I'm looking for that/those generation(s) to have a reassessment soon. It could go up or down. I've no idea.

At 8/02/2012 11:44 AM, Blogger David Grove said...


That was a very whimsically compiled list of my personal feelings about those poets. No doubt some of my feelings conflict with the prevailing critical orthodoxy. I've imbibed W.C. Williams's influence indirectly, but I prefer C.K.'s poems. Millay's translations of Baudelaire used to be interesting to me... & I left out a lot of poets. I too'd say Armantrout cool, Spicer way cool. I've never cared two cents about Olds.

At 8/02/2012 2:56 PM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

Spicer? That's not poetry, that's joking.

It seems if poetry is odd, for whatever reason, it's cool.

I think these judgments have something to do with poets' inferiority complex: if poetry is coherent and packs emotion, Millay, or Olds, etc, the poets think: this belongs to short stories and novels---not poetry.

The strategy of cutting off poetry from the other genres is a desperate act of survival, with poets determined to have something which they can call their "own," even if it's small, emotionless, and ugly.

That's my guess of what's going on...

At 8/02/2012 3:56 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

Odd poetry has always been my favorite kind of poetry. Poetry that comes from the Martians (Spicer), from the car radio in Cocteau's Orphee. Mind-manifesting, consciousness-enlarging poetry. It enables you to escape from "the pressure of the real" to an alternate world (Stevens, Ashbery, et al.). Odd poetry can trouble you, too--disorient you, defamiliarize the ordinary. Bill Knott, for example, can make me feel uncomfortable. I want that discomfort. And odd poetry can be fun--something suspect in our Puritanical culture.

At 8/03/2012 8:39 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...


"Puritanical" culture is "odd," though, isn't it? I don't like being uncomfortable. If I did, I'd watch "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," not read dweeby poetry.

This goes back to "Lyrical Ballads," though, right? The project was explicit: Wordsworth made the familiar strange and Coleridge the strange familiar.

Poe certainly mined this, too.

But I suppose all artists want to be "strange" as opposed to say, bland, or predictable.

But the merely oddball is not the strange---which partakes of the sublime.

Blake and Ashbery might both be considered odd, for instance, but Blake is strange (sublime) whereas Ashbery is merely oddball. Or, perhaps it is Ashbery who is strange in a sublime manner, and Blake is the oddball. It depends on a number of factors, I suppose.

Also, the odd can be sci-fi or the odd can be funny---two very different types of odd.

We might ask: how much 'odd' or 'strange' do you need? For some people the unusual color of the full moon by the horizon on certain evenings is enough. For others, they need something approaching the really uncomfortable. Or, the inscrutable. I suppose the inscrutable is automtically strange. But not sublime.

At 8/03/2012 10:28 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Right, Lyrical Ballads, though when I wrote et al. after Stevens and Ashbery I was thinking only of Poe, music transporting the reader to a realm of supernal beauty. Rather in your line, I should think.

I want the kind of discomfort Knott induces, not the kind aroused by Leatherface on the rampage. (I like that film, incidentally.) The kind provided by philosophy--not the philosophy of, say, Maritain, who claims that the truth about all fundamental questions was discovered back in the Middle Ages, so just shut up and listen, but the kind of philosophy that fosters Pyrrhonism and negative capability. The kind you'd feel in a looking-glass world or on another planet. David Berman can make me feel that way, too.

Of course a strangeness that evokes the mingled sensation of ravishment and horror you might feel beside a tumultuous ocean is preferable to mere oddballness, making a clam play the accordion. But judicious use of oddballness can subvert the predictable.

How much odd/strange do I need? I don't know. A lot, the way some people need a lot of sex or mysticism. Odd/strange is an escape route. We need all the escape we can get, as Ashbery says.

At 8/03/2012 3:38 PM, Blogger JforJames said...

I enjoyed reading your aphoristic comments re poetry, art, language, etc.

If I may be 'immodest' for a moment, allow me to mention that I too have an affinity for aphoristic poetics/aesthetics, and have been blogging in the short form for a few years, interspersed with quotes of things I happen to be reading.

Also, the blog All Aphorisms All The Time
posts groups of aphorisms under a short intro; and James Geary who owns the blog is always interested in finding the aphoristically inclined, in case you're interested in sending him a selection of yours.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home