Friday, September 29, 2006

A Cannonball


Rather dumbfounded to read (in The Argotist) Marjorie Perloff, defender of a whole slew of poets, most of them notably lacking in anything resembling “individual genius,” and many denying its existence (beyond a petty, laughable social constructivist version), saying: “It’s not a matter . . . of using this mode or that one, being part of this school or that one, but having individual genius. There are plenty of very fine poets today—perhaps not just in England at the moment or in the U.S. But in less likely places.” And, in the next sentence, talking of “the utter nullity of much that currently passes for poetry.” Perloff’s diagnosis: “I think, at least here in the U.S., the real fault is not the refusal to engage pop culture but the unliterariness of ‘poetry’ so-called. Most of our poets NEVER READ ANY POETRY or other literary work. It’s so absurd. They want to be ‘poets’ but heaven forbid they should read any when they can be reading theory or political tracts or whatever. . . . I believe it’s the wanting to be ‘with it’ that is destroying the poetry scene. If you want to be a poet, you have to have some sense of the poetic tradition.”

Two things: only one who’s propped up by gaudy (meretricious) laurels is allowed to make vapid broad general remarks like that without a shred of evidence for support. Who determines what is “unliterary”? Who decides what is “poetry.” (In the previous paragraph, Perloff’d made the argument for Beckett as “first and foremost a poet, in that the density of language—its sound, multiplex nature, visual aura, and so on—that is foregrounded.”) Who are the poets? (“Most”? Name some names. Remember Benjamin’s “who cannot take sides should keep silent” in “The Critic’s Technique in Thirteen Theses.”) Secondly, what “poetic tradition”? Or whose? (After the vague nod to those “less likely places,” where the “fine” poets congregate, Perloff slips back into the rhetoric of the traditional (Western) canon.) Combined upshot: she is unable to imagine a cultural milieu that differs too noticeably from her own. If she points to the “de Campos brothers in Brazil, Augusto and Haroldo, those marvelous poets” as models, it is due precisely to typical Western canon work—they “translated everyone from Dante to Rimbaud to the writings of Boulez and Cage.” Truth is, everyone’s got culture—crackerjack, comic book, cinematic, hip-hop, and it’s all language, all of it capable of providing material of “poetic” density. To insist differently is to privilege conservation (status quo, standstill) over any possible advance (movement).

Trying to “do Greek”—a thieved (transliterated) two lines of Euripides—with the aid of a Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms found in the street:
So the Corybantes, brain-fever’d, dance with flapping testicles,
So, too, the apple-cheek’d poets, fuckin’ crazy, make shapely songs.

Genuine polemics approach a book as lovingly as a cannibal spices a baby. (Walter Benjamin)

Marjorie Perloff and Samuel Beckett

Thursday, September 28, 2006

A Swerve

A Gap

If, looking for material about Reverdy, I open Kenneth Rexroth’s book, An Autobiographical Novel, and note the “vertiginous excitement” he greeted Kandinsky’s Art of Spiritual Harmony with (followed by the “awful letdown” at reading “Kandinsky’s suety Teutonic metaphysic”), I know I’ll have to dash into that water, no matter that it is apparently—that “novel” tag’s apparently there to shoo away lawsuits—chock’d full of several varieties and half-varieties of that showy genus Truth. (Trying to recall Rexroth, who attended a conference organized by Al Poulin, Jr. in Rochester, New York, early ’eighties. He listed, gouty-legged. He and James Laughlin, two tall Joneses, and Eliot Weinberger, dapper and energetic, scarily smart, and Charles Plymell, whom I bumped, inebriated, through a late-night McDonald’s with, needing grub (Plymell talking to the congregation of semi-homeless drunks there assembled), and Ronald Sukenick with (in memory) a doughy post-acne face like Tom Hayden’s. I think other attendees or readers included Clayton Eshleman and Mary Oliver. I swear it against my phantasmagoria’d brow—things were less stratified then. William Stafford, genial, avuncular, kind, shooting photographs. I attended with Ithaca House wares, with Baxter Hathaway. Late that night, the molecular air pinging with drink, I tuned in the hotel TV to first reports of the bungled Iranian hostage snatch-back, “Operation Eagle Claw,” helicopters downed in the sand.)

Which is not what I’m talking about. Rexroth writes (though apparently the book is largely “dictated episodes and digressions into a tape recorder . . . aired on Pacifica radio stations KPFA and WBAI” and later transcribed) about how “out in the cow-country universities there were no courses in the seventy-seven and a half types of ambiguity. If you wanted to understand Apollinaire, you just had to read him until you did, and if you wanted to know how he did it, you just had to keep on reading until you’d figured it out. . . . We had no guides , but neither were we misguided.” And: “I met Sherwood Anderson, whom I discovered to be a distant relative. He not only took an interest in me, but unlike most older authors who take an interest in young ones he took a helpful and comprehending interest. He loaned me books to read, and he gave me a book by a friend of his—Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. The explosively liberating effect of Tender Buttons on an adolescent modernist at the beginning of the Twenties is quite impossible to convey. Although I had deciphered poets like Pierre Reverdy, this was the first thing which seemed to me to be doing in literature what I was trying to do in painting. Today I realize that I was mistaken. Tender Buttons is in reality the poetic analog of Analytical Cubism, especially of the paintings of Juan Gris by a writer with a remarkably commonplace mind. Although I was mistaken about Gertrude Stein’s intent, she set me off on a program of “abstract poetry.” Some of this has survived, some of it has even been incorporated in poems written years later. It wasn’t so abstract as I thought it was, but doing it taught me a lot about writing.”

(Nous sommes tous les modernistes adolescentes.)

An Autobiographical Novel, first published (by Doubleday) in 1964, and subsequently expanded (in several complicated stages), carries Rexroth only into the early ’thirties. As Robert Duncan apparently asked after publication (in 1981) of a later chunk, Excerpts from a Life: “What did he have to say about us kids?” And think: if only one had Rexroth’s piquancy and pig-headedness and wit to saddle some of the mouthiest West coasters with! (Or: is Rexroth’s star tumbled somewhat out of the western sky? Is it partly due to a sense that he didn’t engage the second half third of the twentieth century with the ferocity he did for the first?)

(We all talk through our hats.)

Theo Scratcher expedites an odd tidbit: “And yet at the last Election the same S— having now gained the Additional Titles of M— and E— to promote his pretensions, becomes very officious in tendring us his Service in the Blogland; and with as little Invitation to our Pockets as ever we had to his Table, over the Bridge come his Horse and He (the principal Bloggers being not yet resolv’d which of the two do the actual Writing) and being encourag’d by some few male-content Renegado’s from amongst us, who like Whifflers came justling and making Elbow-room for him, he sets up for Himself, and will be our Representative, and put his hands into our Poems whether we will or no.”

Kenneth Rexroth, San Francisco, 1955
(Photograph by Jonathan Williams)

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


Pink Man

Joseph Ceravolo (“I suffer when I write the name ‘Joseph Ceravolo’”—too besmirched by my first ‘meeting’ with Ceravolo, Ron Padgett’s ‘Listen, Joe Ceravolo / You’re O.K.’ in “Words to Joe Ceravolo” (Great Balls of Fire, 1969). The kind of reassurance a nineteen-year-old loves to mutter to himself . . .), somebody called him a cubist. Joseph Ceravolo wrote:

            Saturday night         I buy a soda
Someone’s hand opens         I hold it
It begins to rain
Avenue A         is near the river
Hiking a mountain in Alsace, Ballon d’Alsace, I claimed my first (only) comprehension of cubism. Thousands of sapins, a coniferous green moving rill stung by each individual tree, each individual tree offering up the hundred spokes of its branches in full dimensional successives—static rigamaroles of darling green. (Unconvincing, partial, wordy.) It (cubism) show’d its facet’d simultaneity, a momentary dynamo, and gone. A similar thing—visceral, stunning, corrosive—’d occurred in the Jeu de Paume, human-scaled home (circa 1972) to a modest (human-scaled) collection of Impressionist works—one knew seeing there by testicular quiver, by ventral clench. How did Hemingway put it? About going hungry to museums, that involuntary sharpening of senses. (Or Henry Miller?) (Unconvincing. Metaphorical. Adrift in names.) The only other writing I recall ’s being called “cubist” is Pierre Reverdy’s:

                Quelqu’un vient de partir
Dans la chambre
                                          Il reste un soupir
La vie déserte

                La rue
                          Et la fenêtre ouverte
Un rayon de soleil
Sur la pelouse verte

                Someone just took off
In the room
                                          A sigh remains
Life empties off
                The street
                          And the window opens
One sun-shaft
On green lawn
In something so small, syntax and relation (even spatial) weigh terribly, articles become clutter, necessary or not. Everything (each word) sits on a scale. Why “cubist”? Is it in the way the short phrases and sparing use of connectives impose a multitude of syntactical possibilities? That “déserte” may be the hinge of the poem, possibly referring to “la vie,” possibly to “la rue.” Reverdy, two remarks out of Self Defence (1919):
§ Il y a de justes rapports entre des éléments libres mais l’harmonie n’est qu’un embellissement.

. . .

§ Qu’est-ce qu’une oeuvre dont on peut détacher l’idée ou l’anecdote qui, isolées, ne sont rien, et dont après cette soustraction il ne reste rien?

§ Je parle d’un art non descriptif et non pas d’un art descriptif en moins de mots.
§ There is a certain right rapport among individual elements though any harmony is mere embellishment.

. . .

§ What is a work which—once its idea or story (which, in isolation, amount to nothing) is set aside—nothing remains?

§ I’m talking about a non-descriptive art, not about a descriptive art made of fewer words.
So feverishly (I fetched a pile of books to my table—I am, I sense, nearing a cusp of knowing something) I try to scoot back to poor collapsed Joseph Ceravolo. In “I Like to Collapse” the elements make a kind of imploding scene (barely descriptive: end of work-week outing, sense of tranquil (domestic) comfort, soda, company, drizzle, familiar streets). What harmony there is (and there is) is likely tossed into disequilibrium by the title. And by the degree of abstract interference (radio static) a final line like “Avenue A         is near the river” slips (almost muffled) into the poem’s carefully plotted (piecemeal) low expectations. The effect is self-collapse, poem-collapse, writing itself become vehicle for author’s announced desire. Refusal of statement, muddle and mumble. (Least convincing. Inchoate. Indefinite and awkward. Tortured. What comes out if one begins with an “idea” rather than a “music.”)

What Kenneth Rexroth says about Reverdy and “cubist” poetry:
When the ordinary materials of poetry are broken up, recombined in structures radically different from those we assume to be the result of causal, or of what we have come to accept as logical sequence, and then an abnormally focused attention is invited to their apprehension, they are given an intense significance . . .

Amedeo Modigliani, Pierre Reverdy (1915)

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Sublimity’s Shame

Two Birds in Stone

All the sour hoopla and gum-gnashing about The Best American Poetry—who cares? It’s small cheese (in attention-getting terms). And were it a bigger (smellier) cheese? What’s the point of whining about lack of American attention when it is precisely American attention—that vacuous, know-nothing, shiny-eyed adulation pointed violently, religiously, searingly in one direction (before swinging violently away, finished with that)—that messes up any American artist unlucky enough to fall under its drill-press light. The lucky ones—through subterfuge or cussedness—avoid attention like any other plague-swolled bubo. The only possible upshots: a work-trajectory of thinner and thinner self-caricature, dissipation (gin and wild party girl) and unremitting sore-headedness, self-doubt squeezing one into a trickle (or freezing one into a mold), a counterblast of insufferability (self-confidence gone haywire), a thirty aught six smashing through the cranial shell, all of the above. It’s only poetry, most Americans’d refuse to donate a single fleet bowel movement to its continuance, keep at it, keep quiet about it (stop whining), keep dodging the bloody-mouthed hounds of even the most ginger-fingered celebrity-hood. And never trust those that think any differently. They are rockists and circus geeks. Heed the words of Joseph Ceravolo:
What have I gained
by lying in this abyss
waiting for the masonry
to show a little slit
for my soul to get through?
Only the little nothing that nothing is, and that is poetry enough.

Dining by myself, forking the mean vittles meanly in whilst reading a recent book review, I note a claim (apparently by philosopher Berel Lang) that in attempting to represent disaster (he points to the Holocaust) one risks the “possibility that content may exceed any possible form.” And trouble the thing a little. Isn’t it the case that all (any) content exceeds its form? If I walk out into the savage night, into the high interpellant raspings of the insect fury, into the undercarriage of tire hum and the puncta of human voice and screen door concussives, and I put it down so, all one is left with is a sentence. If I make another sentence of the leaf-bobbing revelations of the streetlights, semi-plosive oratorios of orange light, that’s two sentences. No precise savage noctambulism is made available to the available reader. The problem is not structural (aesthetic), it is ethical (moral): one ought to attend to disaster, one ought to act in an ameliorist way against our mutual slaughters, our mayhems and terrors. I am reminded of a photograph of people in the immediate aftermath of September 11, presumably near “ground zero,” writing, writing. The one legible: “We shall never be the same,” a common sentiment of that period. And the fact is, how little changed. Habits, regimens, poetries, antagonisms, aesthetics, expenditures, percepts—where’s any fundamental change? That human need to forget all we know, to capture little, to exist in a sublime thrall to what is, mysterious, ineffable, inexpressible. The savage night I go out into is uncompassed, teeming, wild, and my sentences, inconsolable, can never retrieve it.

(Writing: a parenthetical life.)

Joseph Ceravolo

Monday, September 25, 2006

A Screening

Screen Door

Javier Marías in Your Face Tomorrow: Dance and Dream, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (New Directions, 2006):
You content yourself with whatever comes our way and are even grateful that something or, above all, someone does come our way, even if they’re only diluted versions of what has been suppressed or interrupted or of those your miss; it’s hard, very hard indeed to replace the missing figures from our life, and you choose a few or none at all, it takes an effort of will to cover the vacancies, and how painful it is to accept any reduction in the cast of characters without whom we cannot survive, can barely sustain ourselves, and yet if we don’t die or, at least, not very quickly, it is always reducing down, you don’t even have to reach old age or maturity, all it takes is to have behind you some dead beloved person or some beloved person who ceased to be beloved and became instead a hated omission, our most loathed erasure, or for us to become that for someone else who turned against us or expelled us from their time, removed us from their side and suddenly refused to acknowledge us, a shrug of the shoulder when tomorrow they see our face or when they hear our name which, only the day before yesterday, their lips still softly whispered. Without actually saying as much, without formulating the idea in our minds, we understand how difficult this business of replacement is, just as, at the same time, we all offer ourselves up to occupy vicariously the empty places that others assign to us, because we understand and are part of the universal, continual, substitutional mechanism or movement of resignation and decline, or, sometimes, of mere caprice, and which, being everyone’s lot, is also ours; and we accept our condition as poor imitations and accept that we live ever more surrounded by them ourselves. Who knows who is replacing us and whom we are replacing, we only know that we are someone’s replacement and that we ourselves are always being replaced, at all times and in all circumstances and in any endeavour and everywhere, in love and in friendship, in work and in influence, in domination, and in the hatred that will also tire of us tomorrow, or the day after or the next or the next. All of you and all of us are just like snow on somebody’s shoulder, slippery and docile, and the snow always stops.
If literary criticism hound I were, I’d say: “Ain’t that the whole cheese?” And argue for that final sentence as a snicker-snack on the final paragraph of Joyce’s “The Dead”: “snow was general all over Ireland.”

Devon weather Sunday. Or Dorset. Where I walked and hitched through sun-blasts and rain-squalls with my minuscule canvas pack, a nineteen-year-old with a homemade soul. I knew nothing in those days of the autonomous work of art, how it remained autonomous by means of confronting its heteronomy. Mostly I read inchoate (chopped out) lines of Shakespeare, and grew tan (my hands, my blunt Dutch physiog), and strong on hostelry-food, tinned rice puddings and packages of shortbread. Mostly I didn’t think of the subjective lyrical I. If I scribbled something of a poem, I made sure anybody reading it would see it for a mountebank’d thing, a game tossed against the lateness of the day for activity of such pudeur and escort. Meaning, I flipped it off even whilst I belted it out.

That kind of day. And the goldfinches, a male and two females, autumnal wash-outs perched on the black-spiked tops of the Echinacea. And (I, not the goldfinches) misread a tiny Joseph Ceravolo line as: “oh / je fist tout” (“Fits of Dawn”). The kind of thing that makes one hamstrung by self-identity, checking one’s own papers, in a kind of disarray, just the opposite of thinking one owns any piece of the lyrical “rock.” (Prudence, what is prudence? A denial of variance, a genial defeatism? The “I” as accumulated doubts and advisories and contra-distinctions?) That kind of day.

In the wash-out (next) morning—bitingly cold without a tracery of cloud or cloudlet, the star-sharp pricks of the celestial cutlery (Oh, stop that), I think of how Marías repeats things, sentences and paragraphs, worrying a line, reading it again against whatever new angle he’s bumped up against. And so I think how—it must be in a letter—I wrote: “I read Shakespeare without qualms now, my neck and hands splendidly tan.” Back in my itinerant youth. And why recall it of all the other lines of my itinerant youth? Why stuck so on Marías’s repeated reference to one Colonel Rosa Klebb, a character in Ian Fleming’s From Russia with Love, director of SMERSH, some particularly ga-ga torture agency (all torture is ga-ga), a woman Marías calls “hoggish in bed”? Why, too, “see” in my scuttling brainpan’s cinematic cloakroom (not the main, brightly lit auditorium) a short reel of a man named Ken Follett (in Ithaca, a local mason, not the dour Welsh thriller-writer) holding aloft a lengthy chunk of hard salami, shouting “Here is a poem!” and moving it mechanically in a stutter-y semi-circle, clenched in a killer’s hands with a killer’s eyes to back it up? Shakespeare without qualms? All reading is about qualms, no?

William Shakespeare and Ian Fleming

Friday, September 22, 2006


My Wild Party Girl

In the late ’sixties, after Donald Hall’d wrought the change—boyish darling and Paris Review interviewer of the “ancient glittering eyes” set (Hall met Frost at Bread Loaf at age sixteen) to pal to the mischief-making second-generation New York School (it was Hall’s position as reader / advisor to Harper & Row that got things like Tom Clark’s Stones, Clark Coolidge’s Space, Lewis MacAdams’s The Poetry Room, and Dick Gallup’s Where I Hang My Hat published there)—he read fairly often around Ann Arbor. I think I probably heard him a handful of times. Often enough, Hall’d do an exaggerated mimic-thing to preface a poem called (I think) “Men with Crewcuts”—lumbering with bowlegged and gum-chomping aggression across the stage, or wherever. A crowd pleaser. A mid-Vietnam War crowd pleaser. Too, he’d often read a self-consciously “wild” poem (read, overworked and cringe-adducing) called “Happy Days”—a kind of professorial-surreal number, though, astonishingly, I recall several of its lines (“Tongues, tongues, they grow on the porch” and “Karen, the walnuts are bothering me!”)

I think about Hall’s showmanship because of a little thing Jordan Davis nudged up yesterday. Referring to the poetry of the Rods—Mengham, Smith, and Toscano—in performance (I assume, based on the question of “the memorable”), Davis says: “the measure of the experience is not whether you can integrate their critique into a consistent theory, the measure is how memorable are their zingers.” Admittedly, tone is difficult to determine here, and maybe the remark is simply cheeky . . . If not, though, I got questions. Is an assault (or a sprinkling) of one-liners enough? (Is entertainment enough?) (A “zinger” entertains without instructing—meaning it’s unlikely to point to any coherent critique, or convince the unconvinced.) Is the “zinger”-style (call it Rod-kunstwerke) a direct result of performance-anxiety? (That is, writing written for reading, for “getting out the laugh.”) (One writes differently for the known audience.) (In places of thriving “community” or “scene,” most reading-audiences are (mostly) known.) Is the criticism leveled at the supposed showmanship of a Billy Collins inapplicable to the modèle zingeresque of the Rods? (Is the difference an innocuous-inane humor versus a fierce, pointed humor?) (A humor longing to be dangerous?) (Is showmanship (what I loosely term “showmanship”) a form insusceptible to any too-dangerous content?) (Do you think one could laugh oneself through a revolutionary change?)

As Javier Marías (the impertinent) writes (Dance and Dream): “. . . one must always be careful with talk, a second’s distraction and it can become infinite, like an unstoppable arrow that never reaches its target and continues flying until the end of time, never slackening its pace . . . opening up more and more subjects or parentheses that never close, each one containing its own thousands of digressions.”

So the thousand cloudlets singed by salmon light spatter out over the western reaches. We toss off the brilliantine urges and snuggle up with prose. The morning gets snockered with light, it pours through the tree-shaggy brows of the horizon, just. One writes just for sheer rapturous niggles of contentment, lining up the words, blowing off the charts. The way, biking in the spittle-hung dawn, one sings inside the stockade of one’s square-headedness, a crow-voiced Dylanesquerie (“I ’s rollin’ with my Johnson in the Johnson grass . . .”). It’s all, simply, a gaseous wonderment, and buoys my fever so!

Donald Hall c. 1970

Thursday, September 21, 2006



Out of Viktor Shklovsky’s newly translated (by Richard Sheldon) Knight’s Move (Dalkey Archive, 2005):
In order to make an object a fact of art, it is necessary to extricate it from the facts of life. To achieve that, it is necessary, above all else, to shake things up . . . It is essential to tear the thing from the set of customary associations in which it is lodged. You must turn the thing like a log on the fire. In Chekhov’s Notebook (I don’t have it at hand) there is such an example. Someone walked down a side street each day for either fifteen or thirty years. Every day he read a sign he thought said, “Big Selection of Sigs” [a kind of salmon] and every day he thought: who needs a big selection of sigs? Finally, the sign was taken down and put on the wall sideways. Then he read: “Big Selection of Cigars.”

A poet takes all the signs down from their places. An artist always foments the revolt of things. In the hands of poets, things revolt, throwing off their old names and taking with the new name a new face. The poet uses images, tropes, similes; he calls . . . a fire a red blossom or he attaches to an old word a new epithet or, as Baudelaire says, “The carrion raised its legs like a woman for shameful caresses.” In this way the poet makes a semantic shift. He wrests the concept from the conceptual set in which it stood and transfers it, with the help of a word (a trope), to another conceptual set. Thus we feel newness, the location of the object in a new set. The new word fits the object like a new dress. The sign has been taken down. This is one of the ways of turning an object into something which may become material for a work of art.
Is it in Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” that objects, furniture mostly, become increasingly animate, the ottoman (pouffe?) or some sort of low chaise seeming to throw the unsuspecting Ivan out of it? [Yes: “on her way to the sofa the lace of the widow's black shawl caught on the edge of the table. Peter Ivanovich rose to detach it, and the springs of the pouffe, relieved of his weight, rose also and gave him a push . . .”] Some Russian switcheroo I recall, whereas Ivan becomes object himself, slunk into the reaches of a bag. Shklovsky himself—in a slim (though deadly) argument against using art for propaganda purposes (declaring “I am going to defend propaganda in the name of propaganda” and that “Propaganda, poured out into the air . . . is ceasing to be felt. What is taking place is an inoculation against it, a certain immunity”—thus blindsiding those, like Trotsky, who’d counter-argue against art’s purity)—says: “If you take hold of a samovar by its stubby legs, you can use it to pound nails, but that is not its primary function.” No ignoble slouch of a word-slinger himself, Trotsky’d referred to Shklovsky as “a very capable high school boy who had a very evident and quite ‘self-sufficient’ intention to ‘stick a pin into our teacher of literature, a noble pedant.’” (In an article titled “The Formalist School of Poetry and Marxism”—directly attacking Shklovsky’s “Ullya, Ullya Martians,” wherein he (Shklovsky) lists five propositions to demonstrate the independence of art from life.) The Futurist ditty: “New form gives birth to new content.”

Theo Scratcher writes: “Engagé or enragé? It seems to me that if one desires an art that is something more than a sublime doodad, a temporary distraction, a carnival ride replete with greasy mechanic-operator who pockets the dix mille balles straight into the bib of some brand-name overalls, then that art must taunt and provoke and go straight for the jugular of the existing distractions (read: other claimants to the art of the day). By such means is it possible to rid the museum-musts of the contemporary, and return art to its part in the everyday struggle, to make an adversarial art of irruption and dialogue, the most “present” thing there is. To say, you boys and girls pipe down (subtext: we are doing art here) is a platitudinous mockery of the art’s raison d’être and smacks of the most oafish traditionalism, contrary to avant-garde thinking. To announce oneself a “post”—beyond the avant-garde moment (it exists only in a moment, is constantly recouped (cut short) and recuperated (recovered as material thing, denied existence as action)—is to admit defeat in advance.”

Viktor Shklovsky and Vladimir Mayakovsky

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Drifts of a Thing


Fussing through a newish book by Raoul Vaneigem, Journal Imaginaire (La Cherche Midi, 2006), I am struck (again, instinctual contempt, involuntary nausea) by what I see as a kind of French sanctifying of “La Poésie.” That manner of summing up: tout cela, c’est de la poésie, making tout cela unspeakable, beyond any consideration excepting awe and obeisance, couched up in some stratospheric airy-féerique land with the cloud-cuckoos. If I hadn’t flung the book back into the black morass (or, hopper—it “churns”) of the library, I’d offer up a quotable. I did slip away with Vincent Kaufmann’s newly translated (by Robert Bononno) Guy Debord: Revolution in the Service of Poetry (University of Minnesota Press, 2006). Wherein, curious about Vaneigem, I note that he got accused by Debord of being something of the “head of the ‘navel gazers’”—that is, a “reformist” leader who acted against Debord’s expressed refusal to see the Situationist International become “an ideology or object of contemplation.” Rather like La Sainte Poésie. Object in lieu of action. And somewhere out of the background of these cerebral rumblings (or mimings, one is never certain one is “thinking”) comes a drunkard and a beggar (Marías is full of beggars, and of gypsy girls and three-legged dogs, unholy dejecta) whose path I crossed near where the rue Pascal becomes a tunnel (under what street?), a sloppy, stumbling man, almost Anglo-Saxon in what appeared a rough animal pelt. He stopped in front of me and made a gigantic fist, and I briefly feared some mundane violence’d ensue. He plunged that fist skyward and roared an utterance that sounded like “Et le ciel si cruellement bleu!” For years I attempted to identify the phrase, thinking it a Baudelairean fragment, a splendid challenge to the sanctimonious (abstract) French poesy (that carousel). And to “think” how Guy Debord drank. A long (stretching out its neck) notion that drinking, too, is a kind of dérive. Vehement, voluntary, tout seul drinking with a vengeance against order and clarity. The drinking that draws out the inherent displacements of the inner landscape, movement and escape, a psycho-bibitory journey. (See Edward Phillips’s 1696 New World of English Words, wherein he defines the Bibitory Muscle: “the Muscle that draws down the Eye towards the Cup when we drink.” Avoiding all gaze beyond that of the bottle. Art and identity (each as non-monumental as the other) existing only in the practiced, unroving eye of the drinker. (I blague, though pas trop, to get insufferably French about it, to détourne my own insufferable Francophilia, that bug.) Jack Spicer is akin to Debord, counterpart and coeval—“A noise / annoys” is pure drinker’s détournement. Think of Spicer’s clandestine journal J. That refusal of the fixed identity.

Jack Spicer and Guy Debord

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Fracture and Globs


Finished the Javier Marías Fever and Spear volume of Your Face Tomorrow in a series of blasts interrupted by half-dozing bouts in the particulate-light of fancy-sleep. An hypnogogia-slick slithering in, in its lizard-caress. (Marías’s writing is never so fancy—he’d rather spear a thing in all its simplicity on the tines of pure statement—though that thing may skitter off the plate, tines athwart and re-poising for another try, what he calls “literary thinking”): “ideas only surface when we need them, even the very simplest of ideas.”

Marías toujours contre le temps, voleur du temps: “There are collections of picture cards from forty years ago which fetch the most exorbitant prices, and the people who bid for them like mad things are usually the same ones who collected them as children and who, as young adults, threw them out or gave them away, who knows, perhaps, after a long journey, after the albums have passed through many hands, they’re buying back the ones they themselves once collected and filed with such childish perseverance. It’s a curse, the present, it allows us to see and appreciate almost nothing. Whoever decided that we should live in the present played a very nasty trick on us . . .” “Like mad things,” that’s the clincher. In Marías’s world, madness resides unseen in the most ordinary activities, an unsung quotidian thing.

As one correspondent notes, Marías floods the pages, how parcel out a flood? How choose a bouquet that does not diminish in the selection to mere poetry? He is overflow and spray, a list that—by the novelist’s rule of thumb—ought limit itself to nine items goes to the dozens, haywire busting the bales, tangle-mussed.

“It seems to me that people who know absolutely nothing, people who have never consciously paused to think for a moment about anything, who do not have a single idea of their own or anyone else’s really, nevertheless talk untiringly, unceasingly, without the slightest inhibition or self-consciousness . . . exchanging greetings and telling each other the four miserable scraps of news that everyone knows about anyway because it’s common gossip, or bringing each other up to date on their usual two bits of twaddle and three pieces of villainy . . . One imagine that they must often have to resort to saying nothing and to loudly clearing their throats, that they must have to suffer embarrassingly long pauses and endure witty comments about the rain and the clouds as well as the awkward silences characteristic of dead time at it most defunct and even stillborn, given their absolute lack of ideas , amusing remarks, knowledge and the necessary inspiration to recount anything, of ingenuity and dialogue and even monologue: of intelligence and substance. And yet that isn’t the case. One doesn’t know why or how or about what, but the fact is that they spend the hours and the days chatting endlessly, brutishly, spend whole evenings engaged in chit-chat, without once closing their mouths, even snatching the word from each other’s lips, all intent on monopolising it. It’s both a mystery and not a mystery. Speaking, far more than thinking, is something that everyone has within his or her grasp (I’m talking, of course, about things volitive, not merely organic or physiological); it’s something which is shared and has always been shared by the bad and the good, by victims and their executioners, by the cruel and the compassionate, the sincere and the mendacious, by the not very bright and the extremely stupid, by slaves and their masters, by the gods and mankind. They all have it, imbeciles, brutes, merciless sadists, murderers, tyrants, savages, simpletons, and even the mad. And precisely because it is the one thing that makes us all equal we have spent centuries creating for ourselves all kinds of tiny differences, in pronunciation, diction, intonation, vocabulary, phonetics and semantics, all in or to feel that our group alone is in possession of a mode of speech unknown to others, of a password for initiates only. It is not only a matter for what used to be called the upper classes, eager to distinguish themselves from and scornful of everyone else; those known as the lower classes have done the same, they have proved no less scornful, and thus have forged their own jargons, their own ciphers, the secret or encrypted languages that allowed them to recognise each other and to exclude the enemy, that is, the learned and the powerful and the refined, and to prevent them from understanding, at least in part, what their members were saying, just as criminals invent their own argot and the persecuted their codes. Within the confines of the same language, their entirely artificial aim is to be not understood or at least only partially; it’s an attempt to obscure, to conceal, and, with this end in mind, they seek out strange derivations and fanciful variants, defective and highly arbitrary metaphors, tangential or oblique meanings that can be separated off from the common norm, they even coin new and unnecessary substitute words, to undo what was said and to mask what was communicated. The reason being that what makes language intelligible is the habitual and the given . . .”

Monstrous, one glob of coagulate out of the Maríasine butter-churn. “Nothing surrenders itself so completely as the word.”

“Almost everything that everyone says and communicates is humbug or padding, superfluous, commonplace, dull, interchangeable and trite, however much we feel it to be “ours” and however much people “feel the need to express themselves,” to use the appallingly “cursi” phrase of the day. It would have made not a jot of difference if the millions of opinions, feelings, ideas, facts and news that are expressed and recounted in the world had never been expressd at all.” Ah, the supersaturated fallout, the Brobdingnagian immiscibles, of the age of glut.

Javier Marías

Monday, September 18, 2006


A Barrel

The Guardian published Susan Sontag journal snippets the other day, making me think that a book’s coming. (I stumbled, too, over notice of an upcoming Norton collection of letters exchanged between Guy Davenport and James Laughlin, edited by W. C. Bamberger, proprietor of Bamberger Books, the outfit that re-published Davenport’s long poem, Flowers & Leaves. Bamberger lives, I learned, in Whitmore Lake, just up the road. Anyhow, Sontag, talking about the terrains of painting and writing (1966), with a sense of magnificent possibility (one never overhears such things now, only, “everything’s a rehash”):
The situation in painting is tight: like science. Everyone conscious of “problem,” what needs to be worked on. Each artist by his recent work issuing “white papers” on this or that problem, + the critics judging whether their chosen problems are interesting or trivial . . . While in literature, everything is so loose textured. One could make a parachute jump blindfolded—anywhere you land, if you push it hard enough, you’re bound to find interesting unexplored valuable terrain. All the options are lying bout, barely used.
Sontag’s sense of her own “genius” (like Stein, recall the ring-a-ding of a little bell when she encountered herself the first time . . .) And how she—Sontag—sees in Sartre the same seeing of genius in oneself (surely, an odd category):
Sartre (cf. “Les Mots”) the only other person I know of who had this “certainty” of genius. Living already a posthumous life, even as a child. (The childhood of a famous man.) A kind of suicide—with the “work” of genius you know you’ll do when adult your tombstone. The most glorious tombstone possible.
Or, in Sartre’s case, a tombstone made of Dexedrine tablets . . . Somehow that “posthumous life” reminds me of that thing Javier Marías talked about: the unspoken rapture of some individuals in one’s own life story, its perfect (unblemished) trajectory.

No getting around it: Ron Silliman’s what Ezra Pound’d call a “bean-counter.” I find it both depressing and indicative of the particular brand of criticism—what he apparently thinks of as “sociological”—he practices, that Silliman’s first response to Steve Evans’s Attention Span listings—listings overwhelmingly annotated—should descend to more sloppy numerological calculations as a form of commentary. A dumbshow algebra of proof ranging from the painfully obvious—“what I see in these annual exercises is a sense of just how rich our contemporary poetry scene is”—to the mistaken: there’s no “list of invited contributors”—there is an open invitation, posted at Third Factory. As a data-set for statistical analysis, Evans’s forty-six respondents are meaningless. That’s less than one-half of one per cent. of Silliman’s posited “10,000 publishing poets.” It’s ironic that Silliman chooses the statistical approach in a year when Evans pointedly delayed posting the totals and tabulations, preferring the harder work of making available the notes (defenses) on the books selected. Where’s Silliman’s list? It’s always easier to count and haruspicate than it is to make finely considered distinctions, and attend to small arguments for what’s worthy.

Questions: Why so sneeringly single out Graywolf and Copper Canyon as “larger independents closely associated with the trades” and not include Coffee House? (I suspect the answer lies in the sense that Coffee House’s printing of nth generation New York School makes it “less trade.”) Why point to Wesleyan University Press as a place where “younger post-avant poets would generally be more likely to reach receptive readers” when Wesleyan’s list is (both recently and historically) rather incoherent, a veritable hodge-podge of tendencies intermixt’d with one-shot wonders. I suspect a more worthwhile sociological study of post-war U. S. poetry would consider the shifting committees of readers for Wesleyan—the poetry series began in 1959, and how, when consensus fails, one ends up with a dynamics whereby Mark Rudman is published alongside Rae Armantrout. Or Rachel Zucker alongside Barbara Guest. Historically, too, one notes anomalies, odd couples, helter-skelterisms: James Tate, Robert Morgan, Vassar Miller, Hyam Plutzik, Gregory Orr. One wonders most—considering Silliman’s blithe call to “younger post-avant poets” to “reach receptive readers by going with certain university or small presses” (referring, most obviously, to Wesleyan and California)—at the recent “indefinite” shutdown by Wesleyan of any consideration of manuscripts other than invited ones. I, for one, imagine myself witness to a consolidation of institutional gains by whatever group of readers ’s currently got hold of the ear of Suzanna Tamminen, the editor in chief.

Regarding the “younger post-avant”’s reaching readers through the university / small presses (the trades being “closed”—and therefore, according to Silliman, mostly dispensable), the issue is less trade animosity toward the “post-avant” (whatever that is), than it is the standard repeated trajectory of the post-war U.S. poet’s publishing history. See Charles Wright. First book, The Dream Animal, published by House of Anansi Press in Toronto in 1968. Wright’s a late-bloomer, aged thirty-three. Two years later, first Wesleyan book, The Grave of the Right Hand. There follow three Wesleyan books, Hard Freight (1973), Bloodlines (1975), and China Trace (1977), before Wright’s first trade book (eleven years after the first Wesleyan), The Southern Cross. Wright is forty-six that year. The succeeding years amount to a consolidation with a particular trade, FSG, who does Zone Journals in 1988, following the Vintage / Random House The Other Side of the River of 1984. In 1988, Charles Wright is fifty-three, and, one imagines, contractually obligated to FSG for first refusal (at least) on all subsequent collections. (Not always a sure thing. Just as university / small presses get used by the trades as hoops and bankability sorting stations for those on the way “up,” they also cushion the fall of those who fail to cut the mustard and are heading “down”—too well I recall getting a F. D. Reeve query at Ithaca House in the early eighties, apparently hatchet’d by Farrar, Straus and Giroux after the (relative) failure of The Blue Cat (1972). Is that it? Or was it F. T. Prince, the Ashbery-huzzah’d Prince. (No, he’s British, and I tend to confusion.)

The upshot of it all (I love upshots): quit the whinge-ing and whining and write as if your socks depended off it.

Theo Scratcher writes: “I am seeing again. (‘All art is about seeing.’) Walking the Commons yesterday—par example—I noted ants working the sweet interstices of a rotting yellow pear, rind browning. And a boy, faux-hawk’d hair like a tall green wave forever cresting, peddling madly at a too-big bicycle, grinning deliriously. And then all my impulse, my desire, my mania goes toward the writing of my words on other words. A kind of graphigraphy, a clutter and a smudge. Pelting the shaggy nap of a printed page with its own: more and more words in an ungracious honest mess.”

James Laughlin and Guy Davenport

Friday, September 15, 2006

Conical or Comical?

Red Cone

The daily Marías: “Someone has an idea and normally that one idea is enough, they pause, pleased with that first thought or discovery and do not continue thinking, or, if they’re writing, do not continue writing more profoundly, they do not drive themselves onwards; they feel satisfied with that first fissure or not even that: with the first cut, with piercing a single layer of people and events, intentions and suspicions, truths and quackery, the times we live in are the enemy of inner dissatisfaction and, therefore, of constancy, they are organised so that everything quickly palls and our attention becomes frolicsome and erratic, distracted by the mere passing of a fly, people cannot bear sustained investigation or perseverance, to immerse themselves properly in something in order to find out about that something.”

A sentence that—in its trajectory—lassoes (unintentionally) Allen Ginsberg and pulls him howling into the maximal arms of Charles Olson? (Or so it did the sly, sloppy synaptic—squeaky!—hinges that allow the neuron-fire in my most mechanical brainpan.)

And: “He always has in his mind his entire trajectory: his past as well as his future. He sees himself as a story, whose ending he must take care of, but whose development he must not neglect either. It isn’t that he will allow no upsets or weaknesses or stains in his story, he’s not that naïve. However, these must be of a kind that do not stand out too stridently, that do not inevitably leap out at him (a horrible protuberance, a lump) when, each morning, he looks at himself in the mirror and thinks about “Dick Dearlove” as a whole, as an idea, or as if he were the title of a novel or a film, which has, moreover, already achieved the status of a classic.”

A sentence that—in its outlooping—gig-hooks (unintentionally) Ron Silliman and pulls him howling into the ever-lovingest arms of Ron Silliman, micro-manager? (Or so it did the semi-bonkers ball-and-joint—lacking lubricant!—“elbow” that acts as “nudge” to my mad mechanical brainpan.)

And, continuing: “I know quite a lot of other people of no objective significance or fame, who, nevertheless, perceive themselves in just such a way, or similarly, and who watch their life as if they were at the theatre. A permanent theatre, of course, repetitive and monotonous ad nauseam, which does not scant on detail or on even two seconds of tedium. But those people are the most benevolent and easily pleased of spectators, not for nothing are they also the author, actor and protagonist of their respective dramatic works (dramatic is just a manner of speaking). This form of living and seeing oneself has become fact on the Internet.”

Sentences that . . . (Too many candidates to count in my mischief-streaming bad brainpaw.)

Graffiti, Glasgow

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Cable Stitch

Blue Cable

A criminy (Lawdy!) of slithery details embustling up the minutes of my momentary journal. Bike, avoirdupois, hint. Foxglove fever devastating the total population of the South Enigmas. You heard it here first.

Javier Marías (Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear):
Often the present infantilises the past, it tends to transform it into something invented and childish, and renders it useless to us, spoils it for us.
The times have made people insipid, finicky, prudish. No one wants to see anything of what there is to see, they don’t even dare to look, still less take the risk of making a wager; being forewarned, foreseeing, judging, or heaven forbid, prejudging, that’s a capital offence, it smacks of lèse-humanité, an attack on the dignity of the prejudged, of the prejudger, of everyone. No one dares any more to say or to acknowledge that they see what they see, what is quite simply there, perhaps unspoken or almost unsaid, but nevertheless there. No one wants to know; and the idea of knowing something beforehand, well, it simply fills people with horror, with a kind of biographical, moral horror. They require proof and verification of everything; the benefit of the doubt, as they call it, has invaded everything, leaving not a single sphere uncolonised, and it has ended up paralyzing us, making us, formally speaking, impartial, scrupulous and ingenuous, but in practice, making fools of us all, utter necios . . . Necios in the strict sense of the word, in the Latin sense of necius, one who knows nothing, who lacks knowledge, or as the dictionary of the Real Academia Española puts it . . . “Ignorant and knowing neither what could or should be known.” Isn’t that extraordinary? That is, a person who deliberately and willingly chooses not to know, a person who shies away from finding things out and who abhors learning. Un satisfecho insipiente. . . . And that’s how it is in our pusillanimous countries, people are educated from childhood on to be necios, fools.
The present era is so proud that it has produced a phenomenon which I imagine to be unprecedented: the present’s resentment of the past, resentment because the past had the audacity to happen without us being there, without our cautious opinion and our hesitant consent, and even worse, without our gaining any advantage from it. Most extraordinary of all is that this resentment has nothing to do, apparently, with feelings of envy for past splendours that vanished without including us, or feelings of distaste for an excellence of which we were aware, but to which we did not contribute, one that we missed and failed to experience, that scorned us and which we did not ourselves witness, because the arrogance of our times has reached such proportions that it cannot admit the idea, not even the shadow or mist or breath of an idea, that things were better before. No, it’s just pure resentment for anything that presumed to happen beyond our boundaries and owed no debt to us, for anything that is over and has, therefore, escaped us.

Foxglove, New Zealand (Photograph by Steven Pinker)

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Pond Life

The Pond in August

For Metaphor

Truculent after-rain morning smells of fish and decay sucked deep into the olfactory chambers, never enough. Never enough: I want that smell to be fish, or a roistering rot of cabbage. Downtown giving way to near-skunk and tobacco, an immiscible lot. A trudge of the hard-hatted go by, with a couple of cut-ups thrown in, the giddy hangover sort. They all brandish enormous coolers, lunches. If I open a book by Osip Mandelstam and discover that “A page of music is, firstly, the deployment in battle of sailing flotillas and, secondly, the plan according to which night, arranged in plum pits, sinks,” do I, first, find it breathtakingly wondrous? Enough so, that, second, I immediately ride roughshod over any niggling doubts? I am in the mood to see in a treble clef a branding iron. Tired of the Stevensesque ‘Cleansed clean of lousy Byzantium’—through sheer efficacy of the American will. Décor is my battle cry. I launder the etymologies and proclaim a new derive: “straight out of the heart.” See Brookfield’s Random Reminiscences (as if they could be anything but): “He was afraid some heavy piece of décor had fallen upon me.”

Javier Marías (Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear): “It is the danger that stalks every artist or politician, or anyone whose work is subject to people’s opinions and interpretations. If a film director, writer or musician begins to be described as a genius, a prodigy, a reinventor, a giant, they can all too easily end up thinking that it might be true. They then become conscious of their own worth, and become afraid of disappointing or—which is even more ridiculous and nonsensical, but it can’t be put in any other way—of not living up to themselves, that is, to the people it turns out they were—or so others tell them, and as they now realise they are—in their previous exalted creations. ‘So it wasn’t just a product of chance or intuition or even of my own freedom,’ they might think, ‘there was coherence and purpose in everything I was doing, what an honour to discover this, but what a curse too. Because now I have no option but to abide by that and to reach the same wretched heights in order not to let myself down, how awful, what an effort, and what a disaster for my work.’ . . . There is nothing worse than looking for a meaning or believing there is one. Or if there is one, even worse: believing that the meaning of something, even of the most trivial detail, could depend on us and on our actions, on our intention or our function, believing that there is such a thing as the will or fate, and even some complicated combination of the two. Believing that we do not owe ourselves entirely to the most erratic and forgetful, rambling and crazy of chances, and that we should be expected to be consistent with what we said or did, yesterday or the day before. Believing that we might contain in ourselves coherence and deliberation . . .”

One of the reasons for homonymics. Think of Romain Gary’s becoming Émile Ajar, out of impatience with the “slotting” (by the French literary culture) of the “roman de Gary.” That desperate desire (become need) to become someone other, if only to regain some freedom to write stupidly again. Just as all “advances” come about “stupidly.” Je suis imbécile, je suis idiot, je suis bête et méchant, battle cry of the necessary freedom.

Osip Mandelstam and Romain Gary

Tuesday, September 12, 2006


Red Cape

Jumpstart the work: I am writing a book called A Legal Pencil. It is allowing me to wallow in Gertrude Stein, a wallowable sort surely. For my titles, I am selecting words out of each paragraph of a Stein piece titled “Americans” in a yellowing book called Geography and Plays printed by the Four Seas Company, in Boston, in 1922. In that era when the turning of pulp to slurry at the paper mills got hurried along by hydrolysis (and the addition of aluminum sulfate) leader to papers besodden’d with sulfuric acid. The upshot: a chemically unstable paper, molecularly weak cellulose. Brittle book. A book that is liable to explode into fragments at the merest glance. I knew girls like that in my “younger” years. I doubt anyone ever looked at Gertrude Stein and fancy’d her liable to burst into fragments. The “Americans” paragraphs, short. If I continue with my book (see, I am besodden with doubts), it’ll be a long book. Book or opus? Obus is what the French called German artillery shells (“les obus boches commencent à pleuvoir”). Or, Apollinaire did. He was sort of Polish, sort of “laddish.” Read Lettres à Lou. Lou, a solid sort. I think Guillaume mentioned her thighs, cuisses monstrueuses. Though that’s not the word. Croupe? Like whooping cough? Poor Guillaume. Poor me. I detest the kind of faux-idiot-savant voice that’s inhabited me here. Mostly I find writing that hangs off a spectacle of voice rather annoying. (“A simple matter of ventriloquism” is what a novelist-friend said about a Paddy Doyle novel, and I never forgot it.)

Javier Marías (Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear), on the life of a laugh, and its funeral: “Laughter creates a kind of disinterested bond between men, and between women, and the bond it establishes between women and men can prove an even stronger, tighter link, a profounder, more complex, more dangerous and more lasting link, or one, at least, with more hope of enduring. Such lasting, disinterested bonds can become strained after awhile, they can sometimes become ugly and difficult to bear, in the long term, some one has to be the debtor, that’s the only way things can work, one person must always be slightly more indebted to the other, and commitment and abnegation and worthiness can provide a sure way of making off with the position of creditor . . . The quality of that laughter, its spontaneity (its simultaneity with mine perhaps) has led me, on occasions, to meet a woman and approach her or even to dismiss her at once, and with some women it’s as if I’ve seen them in their entirety before even meeting them, without even talking, without them having looked at me and with me barely having looked at them. On the other hand, even a slight delay or the faintest suspicion of mimetism, of an indulgent response to my stimulus or my lead, the merest suggestion of a polite or sycophantic laugh—a laugh that is not entirely disinterested, but is egged on by the will, the laugh that does not laugh as much as it would like to or as much as it allows itself or yearns or even condescends to laugh—is enough for me promptly to remove myself from its presence or to relegate it immediately to second place, to that of mere accompaniment, or even, in times of weakness and a consequent slide in standards, to that of cortège.”

Notes (titles) to myself out of Attention Span, in two categories.

To locate a (library) copy of (and read):

Douglas Oliver, Whisper ‘Louise’: A Double Historical Memoir and Meditation, Reality Street, 2005
Robin Blaser, The Fire: Collected Essays, California, 2006
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas, A Novel, Vintage Canada, 2004
John Yau, Paradiso Diaspora, Penguin, 2006
Stephen Cope, ed., George Oppen: Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers, California, forthcoming, 2007
Anne Carson, trans., Grief Lessons: Four Plays of Euripides, New York Review, 2006
On the Passage of a few people through a rather brief moment in time: THE SITUATIONIST INTERNATIONAL:1957-1972, MIT, 1991
Adam Phillips
Richard Wollheim, Germs, Black Swan, 2005
Marina Tsvetaeva, Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917-1922, Yale, 2002
Rob Halpern, Rumored Place, Krupskaya, 2004
Charles Altieri, The Art of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, Blackwell, 2006
Anna Moschovakis, I Have Not Been Able To Get Through To Everyone, Turtle Point, 2006
Nathaniel Mackey, Splay Anthem, New Directions, 2006
Morton Feldman, Morton Feldman Says: Selected Interviews and Lectures 1964-1987, ed. Chris Villars, Hyphen, 2006
Carrie Noland, Poetry at Stake: Lyric Aesthetics and the Challenge of Technology, Princeton, 1999
John Press, The Chequer’d Shade, Oxford, 1963
Elias Khoury, Gate of the Sun, Archipelago, 2005
Arkadii Dragomoschenko, Chinese Sun, Ugly Duckling
Franklin Lewis, Rumi Past and Present, East and West: The Life, Teachings and Poetry of Jalal al-Din Rumi, Oneworld, 2000
Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Knopf, 2005

To plunk down the money for (and read):

Guy Davenport & Jonathan Williams, A Garden Carried in a Pocket: Letters 1964-1968, ed. Thomas Meyer, Green Shade, 2004
Eugene Ostashevsky, Oberiu: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism, Northwestern, 2006
Elizabeth Willis, Meteoric Flowers, Wesleyan, 2006
Peter Gizzi, A panic that can still come upon me, Ugly Duckling, 2006
Anselm Berrigan, Some Notes on My Programming, Edge, 2006
Jeni Olin, Blue Collar Holiday & A Valentine to Frank O’Hara, Hanging Loose, 2005
Geraldine Monk, Escafeld Hangings, West House, 2005
Bill Berkson & Bernadette Mayer, What's Your Idea of a Good Time?, Tuumba, 2006
James Schuyler, The Letters of James Schuyler to Frank O’Hara, ed. William Corbett, Turtle Point, 2006

“Bolero style waistcoat in red flower-patterned brocade cloth with gold rim and two-button closure,” in Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas papers, 1837-1961)

Monday, September 11, 2006

A Wavelet

Two Waves

Charles Bernstein, in The Brooklyn Rail, in a squib mostly concerned with Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, claims Hart Crane’s the “second wave modernist poet” who “bears the closest resemblance to” Dylan. Besides being ass-backwards (I think we’re talking about Dylan, not Crane), one wonders who else fills those vaunted “second wave” ranks. Of course, Bernstein also uses the wordy and awkward is redolent with (he must of loined it off Silliman who, coincidently, writes about the Bobbo on the exact identical day, and is a connoisseur of such hyper-“correct” and ear-grating grammatical duds—Silliman’s piece, whilst ostensibly about the new CD Modern Times, avoids saying anything about that, music, words, or melodies, shuffling off into a no doubt Google-researched cobble-together of the history of Dylan’s bands.) Bernstein, before a final-line exhortation to “Bob” to “grow up” (that is, “we love you, grow up”—nodding studiously, though enigmatically to Frank O’Hara): “Dylan’s early work is redolent with Adolescent Sublime.” Indeed. So the ossified (read: done for) (always) lament them wild lost youths.

Bernstein’s complaint with Dylan is the old one, the hideous ur-complaint, the one “Bobby” always shucked off: sing us another protest song, be our leader, tell us how to live. (Which is to say: “stand still.”) According to Bernstein, Dylan’s “not so much apolitical as anti-political.” Dylan’ll have none of it, refuses that rôle, or any (and knows everything is a rôle). Bernstein, another shape-shifter—L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E clown and Henny Youngman figure, joker, “bad” poet and defiant doggerelist, librettist, postcolonialist, and “born-again sentimentalist” of the post-9/11 immediate aftermath (see: “Report from Liberty Street” with its dopey refrain: “They thought they were going to heaven.”) Oddest note: that Bernstein, veteran of the post-’sixties (1966) French theory fallout—Death of the Author, signifier pouncing on signified (and missing), the construct’d self, yadda yadda yadda, would so plaintively note that “much of the effort” in Dylan’s Chronicles “is directed at throwing the overly curious off the trail of the ‘true’ person behind the songs.” As if Bernstein himself’d pounced and missed. (Here: Billy Ray Cyrus’s Achy Breaky Heart music in the background.) Maybe it’s Charles Bernstein, the gruff earnester, who shouts it out mid-disc of the Rolling Thunder Revue (1975)-era Dylan: “Play a protest song.” And Dylan, laconically, dry-snarly, dismissive: “Yeah, here’s one for you,” launches into the lament “Oh, Sister,” as if to say, “Oh, brother,” or Snoopy-style “Good grief.” What’s the Oscar Wilde line?—“To get back to one’s youth one has merely to repeat one’s follies.” Some need repeating.

Javier Marías (Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear): “There is a taste today for exposing oneself to the base and the vile, to the monstrous and the aberrant, for peering in at the infra-human and rubbing up against it as if it had some kind of prestige or charm and were more important than the hundred thousand other conflicts that besiege us without their ever plumbing quite those depths. There’s an element of pride in all of this too: you plunge into the anomalous, the repugnant and the wretched as if the human norm were respect and generosity and rectitude, and we had to make a microscopic analysis of anything that deviated from that norm; as if bad faith and treachery, ill will and malice did not form part of that norm and were the exception, and therefore merited all our effort and attention. And that isn’t true. It’s all part of the norm, and there’s no great mystery about it, no more than there is about good faith. This age, however, is devoted to the silly, the obvious and the superfluous, and that’s the way it is. Things should be the other way around: there are actions so abominable and so despicable that their mere commission should cancel out any possible curiosity we might have in those who committed them, rather than creating curiosity and provoking it, as is the imbecilic way of things now.”

A note writ by Dr. Johnson, discovered in a copy of Michael Drayton’s poems: “I could have written longer notes, for the art of writing notes is not of difficult attainment.”

Bob Dylan

Friday, September 08, 2006

Dullsville Stomp


Standard witlessness of a Friday, and nothing on tap. Sous pression. The pleasant morning odors—slightly acrid scent of crabapples squashed underfoot and turning to alcohol, the ambergris smell of sunlight lancing the oak canopy—succumb to the automobilist’s exhaust. My druthers: another, earlier century. I bicycle by the Sake-Bombs Depot, uncomprehendingly. My nodding acquaintance with sleep ended too early. I think of myself akin to Cap’n Cook off the Great Barrier Reef—an enmyth’d place of my childhood, not unlike Maine’s Acadia—‘we found the Tide of Ebb gushing out like a Mill stream so that it was impossible to get in’—never entirely ‘inbayed by the Reef’ of sleep. To spend the day botanizing and sketching, isn’t that the reverie of all fair to middling clerks?

Binary distinctions are clearly no fun without names. And Theo Scratcher’s squib of yesterday—beleaguered by copycatisms (think Lévi-Strauss’s ‘raw and cooked,’ Robert Lowell’s ‘redskins and palefaces,’ Richard Hugo’s ‘Krebs and Snopes’—though, there, one’s delineating ‘insiders’ as opposed to ‘outsiders’ who want ‘desperately’ to fit in; think of Nietzsche’s Apollonian and Dionysian ‘principles’) is limited by such prudence. I propose a short beginning (additional nominations, counter-arguments, threats, any of the usual bombast that passes for critical acumen, will all be entertained). Quickly then.

Of the classical temperament: Michael Palmer, Frank Bidart, Ron Silliman, Barrett Watten, Joshua Clover, Billy Collins, Peter Gizzi, Forrest Gander, Barbara Guest, Elizabeth Bishop, Jordan Davis, Rae Armantrout, the Flarf Ops, Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Tony Hoagland, Dean Young, Susan Howe, Donald Justice . . .

Of the romantic temperament: Anne Carson, Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, Ted Berrigan, Amiri Baraka, Kamau Brathwaite, Frank O’Hara, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, Jennifer Moxley, Clayton Eshleman, Jeff Clark, August Kleinzahler, Kent Johnson, Jorie Graham, John Ashbery, Richard Hugo, Anselm Hollo . . .

Oh. An unutterable lethargy and weariness overcomes me. I ain’t hardly started and what’s apparent is not how ‘unfair’ be such divisions, or wrong, or how so many ‘fit’ not the individuals—what’s apparent is how certifiably dull it is. The worst crime: to fail to amuse. The ‘classic’ trajectory is, certes to begin (“bliss to be alive, and to be young was very heaven—” or “Grace to be born and live as variously as possible”) with a romantic temperament and age (think quagmire, thing ossify) into a classical temperament. Which is what makes distinctions difficult. The opposing trajectory—a kind of ‘diminuendo’ into a keen-tongued and exuberantly-spangled idiocy—is rarer. That I should live long enough to exhibit it myself. Question in the back there regarding ‘Ops’? I think it means ‘operatives’ or ‘opportunists’?

Richard Hugo

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Fall

Virginia Creeper

Theo Scratcher reports: “To paraphrase Ernest Renan—‘Philosophies and theories of poetics are nothing in the last resort, when they are analyzed out, but the affirmation of a temperament,’ Or, as Nietzsche put it, succinct, indubitable, aphoristically: ‘Poetics is autobiography.’ One could delineate two tendencies, no? Say, the classical temperament and the romantic temperament. And all our poeticizing animalicules’d fit just, cursory, even-Stevens, in one or the other.

The classical temperament: precise, balanced, poised, sees the hierarchy and accepts it, combats disorder with ‘A questionable right babinski’ (Fuller), constant (plodding), smells of the State, quashes internal anarchy with blunt rules, in a fever of rationality, lacking suppleness: ‘The root of classicism is this, that if the rules are of no value without genius, yet there is in them more of genius that there is in any great genius himself’ (Hulme). A classical line: ‘A sentence with Norway in it’ (Dobbin).

The romantic temperament: vice-ridden, capricious, contradictory, immature and impure, ‘suppurating with the astonishing stink of the Divine’ (Herkimer), stagey, petulant, a liar, crass and spastic, uncontainable, anti-systematic, peeved, ‘covetous of applause, / Loth to leave the stage’ (Hulme), sucks the cow dry, sucks the cowherd dry, curious, clings to the cliché of the new, always escaping, probably insane. A romantic line: ‘Anthemic and anemic, that’s it!’ (Cherwinski).”

Javier Marías: “One book always leads to another and another and they all have something to say, there is something unhealthy about curiosity, not for the reasons usually given, but because it leads inexorably to exhaustion . . . Gratuitous or motiveless curiosity (which is what afflicts the erudite) turns us into puppets, shakes us up and hurls us about, weakens our will and, worse, divides and disperses us, makes us wish that we had four eyes and two heads or, rather, several existences . . .”

What stops me cold: knowing I will die before I read X. (The accompanying thought is Nabokov’s: what is wasted at death—all that accumulated memory, that particular grey-matterization (to put it hideously) of one’s experience . . .

Wednesday, September 06, 2006


Class War

Javier Marías in Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (New Directions, 2005):
Life is not recountable, and it seems extraordinary that men have spent all the centuries we know anything about devoted to doing just that, determined to tell what cannot be told, be it in the form of myth, epic poem, chronicle, annals, minutes, legend or chanson de geste, ballad or folk-song, gospel, hagiography, history, biography, novel or funeral oration, film, confession, memoir, article, it makes no difference. It is a doomed enterprise, condemned to failure, and one that perhaps does us more harm than good. Sometimes I think it would be best to abandon the custom altogether and simply allow things to happen. And then just leave them be.
Ironic that, shortly after noting that, I should come across—in the course of investigating the story of the disappearance of Andrés Nin, leader of the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, an anti-Stalinist revolutionary groupuscule in Civil War era Spain), apparently tortured and killed by Stalin’s agents—a death that’s part of Marías’s novel and, too, part of Peter Weiss’s Aesthetics of Resistance—these remarks by George Orwell:
I know it is the fashion to say that most of recorded history is lies anyway. I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written. In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but it each case they believed that ‘the facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable. And in practice there was always a considerable body of fact which would have been agreed to by almost everyone.
The kind of thing that’s apt to heave a sledgehammer after the fly in the postmodern ointment. Apparently, Nin, a figure, too, in Catalonia’s literary and linguistic revival, translated Dostoevsky and Tolstoy—versions read still.

Andrés Nin

Tepid times. Dog of a cynic’s brow. I see there’s an excursus on the issue of the poetry “book” as opposed to the “collection” (of poems). Against the vagary of disjoint, the omnium of posies gathered willy-nilly, the proud prow of a more majestic battleship moves out (into the careerist-infested waters). Truth is, the “book”—once a suitable shtick is summoned, O ye muses!—is a vastly less demanding “enterprise.” One no longer confronts a succession of blank pages, and the demands of the immediate “moment,” one is “filling in” the gaps in a trajectory, episodic, plotted, or pre-determined (Alabama to Wyoming, I to CLIV, Hydrogen to Lawrencium, A to Z).

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Crook and Duck

Diptych: “Crook and Decanter” and “Puzzle and Duck”

A divot tossed up by looking into the Berrigan Collected. In the note concerning “Tambourine Life,” I read how the poem got “anthologized in The Young American Poets, ed. Paul Carroll, . . . a highly influential anthology that crossed over into both mainstream and avant-garde territories.” And I think: isn’t that reading history through a distortingly contemporary lens. I recall snapping that book up at the pre-ironic age of fourteen, and rushing breathlessly into the house with it, a red block, clutched in my arms! In pre-torque’d light! Pre-neo-formalist air! Ah, there I could be a boy, in the pure light of poetry. Maybe I got born naïve. I don’t recall making a distinction. I can’t find my copy of that book. I remember Diane Wakoski pointing a gun at the reader. And how Charles Simic looked as if he still carried a goodly amount of baby-fat. And James Tate’s enormous head. And, later, reading (rather recently, I think, did Paul Hoover refer to it?) how Bernadette Meyer mailed Carroll a bag of shit (human, presumably hers) because she’d been excluded. I recall liking “Tambourine Life” and disliking the title. Thinking it terribly too Dylanesque, a sad, misdirected stab at getting “rock-star-level” attention. (“There was a lot of that going around.”) (“There still is.”)

Ted Berrigan

How gratifying and right it is to learn that Javier Marías’s translated into Spanish the works of John Ashbery, Wallace Stevens, and Frank O’Hara (in addition to Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici and Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.) And, among a pluck of novelists, favorites Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stevenson, and (the underrated) Anthony Burgess. Apparently an unstoppable worker, cigaretted. In the early ’fifties, he (b. 1951) lived in Massachusetts, an American baby. Jorge Guillén’d invited the family, Marías’s father exiled, unable to work in Franco’s Spain. In an interview (apropos translation):
If you rewrite high literature in an acceptable way you’ve done a lot. Your instrument is more resilient than it was. You can say that you’re capable of renouncing your own style, adopting someone else’s, yet the wording is always yours. The common idea is that the translator is a slave to the original text. But that’s not true at all in the sense that there is not one sentence in any language that allows just one translation. You always have to choose.
Mark of a Marías sentence: digression and choice, forking paths. Even at the level of the modifier, a whole battery is proposed. If two people split up: “The sad one doesn’t know what to do or how to behave, trying first one thing and then another and then the opposite of each . . . and nothing works because they are already condemned, they try being charming or unpleasant, gently or surly, indulgent or critical, loving or belligerent, attentive or uncouth, flattering or intimidating, understanding or impenetrable, but the result is confusion and a lot of wasted time.” (Note how the paired adjectives, while posing syntactically as antonyms, refuse the role, and so open up a myriad of malleable and highly “complicated” (impossible) stances. The aim of Umberto Eco’s Open Work is here made manifest by Marías’s ever-slippery, ever ill-defined, rambunctiously digressive narrator: he tells the story, he is contradictory and seemingly unaffected, distrustful of meaning. One suspects he’s nimble enough to tell the same story again and again, always differently. It’s not that he is changed (by the story), he is too nebulous for that: a cloud with a Dictaphone machine. Marías:
In my books there is not only the action, the character, the story and so forth; there is reflection as well, and often the action stops. The narrator then makes a series of considerations and meditations. There is a tradition within the novel form, almost forgotten now, which embodies what I call literary thinking or literary thought. It’s a way of thinking which takes place only in literature—the things you never think of or hit upon unless you are writing fiction. Unlike philosophical thinking, which demands an argument without logical flaws and contradictions, literary thinking allows you to contradict yourself.

Friday, September 01, 2006

O Cap’n Ludd!

Wrench in the Works

O Poss, it says, “springs from the spleens of Dale Smith and Hoa Nguyen,” and is “spontaneous and irregular.” Its “look” is of ’sixties mimeograph, smudgy, side-stapled, quick. Its “feel” is emergency, ras le bol, pissed off. “Contributors will be solicited one or two days in advance of production.” One wants to believe (imagine) a kind of cinéma vérité—“slice of life”—in these pages, the pulse of the country—through some of its writers—took (accounted for). And there’s some of that. Alice Notley: “This free software will render you even more anonymous and in your simple faith the story can come to you; who are those trashy people out there with their unabolished bodies?” Philip Trussell: “across the street a gated yuppieplex was bunkered against the night of surrounding Hispanics and Blacks . . .” Brenda Coultas: “The parking meters on Houston plastered with “Bush Lied Thousands Died.” Hoa Nguyen: “Dear Texas                   here I am / near your “heart”         and the “Value Sky Park.” Susan Briante: “And D. suggests I look at Melville’s travel journals, the entry in which he compares Jerusalem to a skull infested with flies.” And more. (And, sadly, less—some same old-same old, whatever so-and-so had sitting around.)

The piece that demands reading is the final one: Ammiel Alcalay’s blunt excerpt out of scrapmetal, due out soon through Bill Marsh’s Heretical Texts, and apparently written for that series (“what does all that mean, now that I’ve been asked to write this ‘heretical text,’ specifically meant to address ‘political poetry?’”). Short paragraphs, gruff memoir, recurrent short histories of “Work”:

I finished from the warring factions on August 2, 2001, the day General Radislav Krstic was convicted of genocide and sentenced to forty-six years by the International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague for his role in the massacre of some 7,000 people at Srebrenica. A friend of mine who’d been on the front lines defending Sarajevo figured out that the sentencing amounted to 2.39 days per person.


Paper route: when I first started, they issued us beautiful canvas bags to put the papers in. Once the route got going, someone tossed a bale of papers onto the porch, usually around six in the morning. Unless it was snowing, I went by bike. Years later I ended up using the bag to keep my hawk and trowel in when I was plastering—it was perfect.


I started what ended up as the beginning of the book on December 1st, 1993, when the siege was in its second winter. The first poem, dated then, references a series of events that culminated in an evening for Sarajevo held at Symphony Space in New York City and organized by PEN American Center. The only Bosnian appearing on stage that evening was Zlatko Dizdarevic, a journalist that I became very close to in the process of translating two of his books and dozens of his articles during the war. While very well-intentioned and practically oriented (as a fund-raiser to help Bosnian PEN members survive the winter), the event had a distinctly colonial approach to the natives about it. Even though I’d brought the people who mattered most to the event (i.e. the Bosnians), I was almost thrown out of the building, along with several friends, for selling—without “authorization”—a magazine we’d edited, a special issue of Lusitania dedicated to Sarajevo and published bilingually, the first such thing to appear in the United States.
O Poss, opus, o possible, o posse!

O Poss

I think I ought reread Guy Davenport’s essays, those collected in The Geography of the Imagination and Every Force Evolves a Form. What I recall is the factoids—Charles Olson twenty-two inches taller than John Keats, how the Lascaux caves were discovered (in 1940) by a rabbit-chasing dog named Robot. What I forget is the nimbleness with which Davenport steps back for a larger look:
Art is the attention we pay to the wholeness of the world. Ancient intuition went foraging after consistency. Religion, science, and art are alike rooted in the faith that the world is of a piece, that something is common to all its diversity, and that if we knew enough we could see and give a name to its harmony.
Reason enough to shun any too dismissive (narrow) dogma, of any group, or any self-appointed categorist and hegemony-mongerer—reason enough to swivel one’s radar often and ineluctably, up out of the tiny holes we mostly dwell in. Davenport is undoubtedly a principal contemporary example of such perspicacity. It’s visible in a single sentence—how, talking about “the rib of an ox on which some hunter carved with a flint burin seventy lines depicting we know not what,” he says, “It is man’s oldest known work of art, or plat of hunting rights, tax receipt, star map, or whatever it is.” Evidence of a simple and precise fluency in things beyond the merely “literary.”