Friday, November 21, 2008

STL #78: Ferlenghetti

(Note: The misspelling of the subject's name in the title seems somehow appropriate in reflecting my utter lack of interest in the poet, so I have intentionally left the incorrect form. Other errors are unintentional.)

Some time ago, I said that the only poets in NAP I knew were Creeley and Levertov. Using the threshold of being in the same room with as knowing someone, I actually know Lawrence Ferlingetti too, having been loitering in the City Lights poetry room when he came sprily up the stairs. I've known his poetry for a long time, having come across it in an anthology my sister had called, dig this hipness, Beowulf to the Beatles (cause the modern rockers, they're like poets man). The "little charleychaplin man" and "christ climbed down" are in there for imagery or something. I read Coney Island of the Mind on the recommendation of a hipster I knew while an undergrad. Despite (or because of) the long acquaintance, his poetry doesn't mean that much to me. The Coney Island book has become an official Beat artifact, and it's hard to read it as other than something acting out its own dated hipness. I don't think this is a fault exactly, but there's nothing in the book that transcends the period it helped define. In NAP, a handful of poems from Coney Island are presented as numbered sections of, by implication, a book-length poem. I had never thought of Coney Island of the Mind as a long poem. That doesn't salvage it for me, but does make it potentially interesting. Unfortunately, neither my memory of the whole text or the represented extracts show on extension from the beginning to the end. Each poem begins by invoking an outsider artist (usually through a specific work) and ends with some existential resolution: damning the "engines/that devour America," or contemplating "her eternal form/spreadeagled in the empty air/of existence." There are other repeated elements to these poems: the descending and ascending white space, the scare quotes thrown around phrases, the agressive alliteration and long-vowelled assonance. Later poems I've seen work out of this paradigmatically 'beat' framework: not to my taste still, but more varied.

STL #77: A Blessing

The last piece I wrote in response to a political event was four years ago, after a terrible election when I was in a desperate mood. (It was actually on Inauguration Day: read it here.)Following Obama's election, I'm more optimistic--hopeful really--about government than I can ever remember being. And in the month it's taken me to find time to return to this post, I've become even more hopeful. And while STL is not a political organ as such, I wanted to mark this mood by prying into coincidence that entwines my mood with Obama and my own intellectual geography. "Barack" means "blessing" in Arabic, just as "Baruch" does in Hebrew. The coincidence is that that because Benedict Spinoza's birth name was "Baruch," and because Louis Zukofsky loved Spinoza, etymologies and puns, variations of the word "blessed" are woven through Zuk's long poem "A". I'm very familiar with "A" which is, as it happens, a work which is easily navigable by its index. Its index notes nineteen occurrences of "blessing," "blessed" or "blest," so as an experiment I cobbled together a poem from those lines. That poem isn't interesting and regardless I certainly will never publish original poetry here. But to get back in the saddle (its been forever since I've posted), I thought I'd examine a few of the most striking and relevant lines.

1.) "Honor, song, sang the blest is delight knowing/we overcame ills by love." From "A"-11, the famous turn into family life. Most uses of the word suggest a redemption, overcoming a difficult (cursed) past. It also suggests unity, with the collective pronoun.

2.)"Some hundred years later the blest:/ A timid child thinks he can fight" Time and transformation. This also suggests the disenfranchised standing up, "yes we can" etc.

3.)"To be blest--/To act well/Or live well (235) But to be blessed is a cultivated virtue. You can bless yourself by acting nobly.

4.) "Blest/Ardent/Celia/ unhurt and/ Happy" Most of the uses of 'blest' occur in "A"-12, where the word is a cipher for Spinoza, one of the movement's tutelary spirits. The four motifs entwine here: to be blest is to behave with an ardent heart. If you are like Celia, you will be like Celia: unhurt and happy.

5.) "how unhappy a place once blessed can grow" The four key terms come together again. The place is America.

6.)"none legislated/into blessedness: Blest/ against obstinacy" Suggesting the hope of coming change.

7.)"mean 'no/shame'--that is 'blessed' sun/for a light" And that change: to not be ashamed of the land once blessed that will end blessed.

There are small blessings, like the three week break that will give me the time to somewhat recoup the three and a half months of silence (not once since the first week of the semester did I post!), but then there are the larger blessings, like the return of public discourse, of debate and deliberation, of drawing energy from allies and opponents alike. Am I too optimistic? I hope not.

Coming up in STL: Back to the NAP project with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, albums of the month from Minutemen, Led Zeppelin and Fairport Convention, and the year in this and that.

Recencies: West Wing seasons 1 and 2, trip to Baltimore (Lola Montes at the Charles St. Theater), Ian Fleming and Allan Furst novels, bunch of Black Saint recordings.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

STL #76 Summer's End

I had thought of writing posts on both summer movies and summer reading, but since summer ended suddenly (it's the first full week of classes), I might not get to both. So instead I'll roll both into a cumbersome omnibus (cumnibus).

I. 3 Super Hero movies: Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Dark Knight: 2008 will certainly mark the apex of the "comic book movie"--Wanted and the second Hell Boy movie also came out, and next year's Watchmen adaptation is provoking buzz and booksales with its trailer. Watchmen might well be the Heaven's Gate that ends the comic book (actually superhero) movie motherlode by exceeding its grasp, but this summer, the genre has offered a range of spectacle and even aesthetic satisfaction. Iron Man was maybe the most satisfying as spectacle--though I enjoyed the fun performances of Downey and Bridges (the Dude turns evil), what sticks with me is the coolness of armor. My favorite scene was an action set piece. Iron Man sets down in the middle of a hostage situation--terrorists have guns close on a number of innocents. We switch to the Iron Man internal display--like a high tech security camera, with digitized information of some sort floating around the figures of the scene. Abruptly, guns built into the armor pop up and take out the terrorists in one precise instant. As a display of technology and force, which is after all the appeal of this movie as a techno-thriller, it's pleasing in its mastery and abruptness. The situation goes from impossible to solved in the blink of an eye.

As spectacle, the Hulk movie leaves a lot to be desired. The animated title character is offensively fake--not that I want the 7 foot tall green monster to look "real," but I don't want it to look like a video game demo, which is what the last third of the movie is. I like the first third quite a bit. The backstory is dealt with quickly in an old fashioned montage of news reports and headlines, and the movie becomes a tense and human fugitive movie for a while. The Rio shanty town is a captivating setting, and Ed Norton's performance brings out the desperation and sorrow of his character, along with one unexpected joke, when he warms some bullies in his broken Portugese that they "wouldn't like him when he's... hungry."

The Dark Knight is really the one that demonstrates the potential of the super hero movie to succeed as a serious work. It's a probing psychological piece that transcends the apparent silliness of its costumed protagonist. He's simply a driven man with some unusual methods. Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker is of course getting a lot of attention, but it's well-deserved. While Nicholson's performance was also ballyhooed, the contrast between that and Ledger's reveals the ham-handed clumsiness that it is. Every choice Ledger makes is toward the understated. His Joker looks down at the ground, mumbles, demonstrates a deep protectiveness of his interiority. It's a shockingly good and immensely scary portrait of real evil. I'd like to watch it again, to think about how Bale's Batman follows and departs from this model. The Batman voice is extraordinarily grating on the ear, but I think that's the point--on one level it's a mask for hiding his identity, but on another it's his true mad and wounded self.

II. Summer Reading

I had some time for reading this summer, which is nice. I reacquainted myself with some of the sf/fantasy writers I liked in my early teens. I read books by Michael Moorcock, Urusla K. LeGuin, and Philip Jose Farmer. I read 2 of Moorcock's "Von Bek" books--The Warhound and the World's Pain (which I had read before) and City of the Autumn Stars (which I had not read). I liked the former--the protagonist and Lucifer were enjoyably presented, and the magical "Mittelmarch"--a counter-Europe hidden in strands across the continent--was a lot of fun too. One of the most provocative bits is a passing reference to an adventure in the alternate Europe where Carthage destroyed Rome and, centuries later, an order of Rabbinic Knights had arisen as a sort of counterpart to the Knights of Malta. The latter book didn't captured my fancy. It had more of Moorcock's multiverse philosophy of a strugle between order and chaos. Moorcock's ideas seem to have been vastly influential on Dungeons and Dragons, and is actually a simple but powerful tool for thinking about ethics, but can make for tedious writing. It's a problem in the Elric novels I also read through. I had fond memories of Elric, and while I still like the idea of the character--the effette end of a long line of emperors, a weak albino kept alive by drugs, spells, and an evil, soul-eating sword--the novels read little better than role-playing scenarios.

I'm unlikely to go back to Moorcock, but was very excited by Le Guin's work. I loved her Earthsea trilogy when I was younger, and while they hold up (I have two of the later second trilogy to read yet), I'm very excited by her science fiction. SF of the seventies, reflecting a range of foment from radical collectivism to libertarianism, produced some of my favorite genre novels. Her short stories that I read in The Wind's Twelve Quarters inspired me to read The Left Hand of Darkness and especially her anarchist novel The Dispossessed.

The seventies also produced Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld. The first book, To Your Scattered Bodies Go is short and readable, but the real triumph is, as so often in this genre, the idea. The entire population of the world's history is clustered near a river with no known beginning or end. Courageous individuals are able to navigate this river, though they don't know where they're going. This is really a lovely metaphor for the human condition, though I'm not sure if that's enough to keep me reading through three more novels.

So summer's over, like I said. I'm off today, trapped in the house by torrential rain. The last movie I saw was early Fall fare--Woody Allen's Vicky Christina Barcelona. I'm reading Adam Bede. People are deceptive but not costumed. The have secret identities but are not heroes. They fight but with paltry power, with words and negligence, and not laser beams or swords. I guess I'm back in the real world now.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Favorite Movies, 1999 edition

Found a print out of the following in my files. Recorded for posterity's sake. Strikethroughs made at some later date.
Noslen 100 (sic=99)
11/24/1999

8 1/2
A Nous la Liberte
Across 110th Street
Amateur
The Apartment
Apu Trilogy
The Bad and the Beautiful
The Bad Lieutenant
Badlands
Barry Lyndon
Bicycle Thief
The Big Lebowski
Breathless
Bleu
Bonnie & Clyde
Bride with White Hair
Bring me the Head of Alfred Garcia
Bringing Up Baby
Broadway Melody of 1935
Casablanca
Children of Paradise
Citizen Kane
City Lights
The Conversation
Cries and Whispers
Crimes and Misdemeanors
Days of Heaven
Dr. Jeckel
La Dolce Vita
Don't Look Now
Double Indemnity\
Drowning By Numbers
Dumbo
Easy Street
Elevator to the Gallows
Everybody Says I Love You
Fallen Angels
Fanny and Alexander
Flirt
The 400 Blows
Frankenstein
Freaks
The Godfather Trilogy
Goodfellas
Grand Hotel
Intolerance
Irma Vep
Hard Boiled
High Noon
His Girl Friday
Hoop Dreams
Jules and Jim
King Kong
King of Comedy
Last Days of Disco
The Letter
Lone Star
The Man Who Knew Too Much
Manhattan
McCabe and Mrs. Miller
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
The Naked Kiss
Night of the Hunter
Nights of Cabiria
Nosferatu
Out of the Past
Out of Sight
Pat and Mike
Paths of Glory
Picnic at Hanging Rock
Philadelphia Story
The Player
Psycho
Pulp Fiction
Ran
Rear Window
Roaring 20s
Rope
Rules of the Game
Safe
Scarlet Empress
Seventh Seal
The Shining
Smoke
Stagecoach
Stranger than Paradise
Stop Making Sense
The Sweet Hereafter
The Thin Man
The Third Man
The 39 Steps
To Have and Have Not
Touch of Evil
Tristiana
Vertigo
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf
The Wild Bunch
Woman Under the Influence
Yojimbo

Final Cuts: Annie Hall, The Big Sleep, Discreet Charm, English Patient, Kiss Me Deadly, Lolita, Once a Cop, Rashomon, Reservoir Dogs

Written Down Later: Hud, Chinatown, Duck Soup, Raging Bull
I am a Fugitive...
Sunset Boulevard, Aguirre, Sweet Smell of Success
Singing in the Rain
My Best Friend's Wedding

Saturday, August 9, 2008

STL #75: Four San Franciscan Medievalists

On Helen Adam, Brother Antoninus, James Broughton, and Madeline Gleason

Moving now into the second geographical grouping of the anthology, I encounter a group of poets I am much less familiar with. Of the 13 poets in this section, I only know a handful by name and have only read Lawrence Ferlinghetti and a couple of poems by Lew Welch and Philip Lamantia. What little I do know about the SF poets is through Beat connections, so I'll be interested to see how the groups diverge in the NAP. (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, and Peter Orlovsky get a section to themselves.) Two poets I most associate with SF, Duncan and Kenneth Rexroth, aren't here--Duncan is filed under Black Mountain and Rexroth was apparently born too early (1905). So I have fewer preconceptions about this grouping than the last, so I'll have to develop a wholly new framework for reading this group. Toward that end, I'll be grouping poets together when there's a reason to. Strangely enough, the commonality I see in the first four poets of this section is, despite the group's naming as the San Francisco Renaissance, a real interest in the medieval period.

Helen Adam is only a few years older than Kenneth Rexroth, but it is probably her strong attachment to Duncan that brings her here. I don't have any tangible evidence, but I strongly suspect Duncan somehow convinced Allen to include the eccentrically medieval Adam. I've heard that Duncan would withhold his work unless he had a commensurate page count to Olson's, so perhaps he also insisted that his mentor be included. He credits her example with freeing him from the Modernist cult of style. Duncan writes that "Adam was right, passions may have voice in ballads and orders appear in fairy tales that were otherwise mute or garbled." Before coming to write this piece, I was inclined to agree with Duncan's idea but nonetheless thought that Adam's ballad seemed 'wrong.' But I'm starting to find the mysterious gaps that make a ballad like "Sir Patrick Spens" enchanting. The way that the man's fetishizing of the woman's hair somehow magically imbues it with the power to revenge her death suggests one of these deep, muted passions. While I think anachronistic forms can do the work Duncan says--heck, we're talking about print forms in the 21st century--but I doubt if I'll be spending much more time with Adam's work.

William Everson, aka Brother Antoninus, also appeals to a medieval tradition--Catholic mysticism. He modulates it through a nice variety of the nature lyric, as seen in "The South Coast." The sound pattern of this short poem prominently features long vowels, e's and a's, mostly "closed" by consonants (that is to say, the long vowels are curtailed by consonants at the end of words--like "bean" rather than "be.") Short vowels are similarly closed, with few exceptions for the nigh unavoidable "the." The effect is a very consciously articulated, clipped sound. Here's the beginning of the poem: “Salt creek mouths unflushed by the sea/And the long day shuts down.” “Sea” and “day” are two of six substantive nouns that have an open sounding, and all the rest rhyme with “sea”: three, lea, sea, He, be. Since “He” is God and the “sea” is the focus of Antoninus’s meditation, the long e is a crucial part of poem’s meaning. It’s part of the central question about the pattern Everson sees: “Whose mind conceives?” Both a and e contribute to the answer: “God makes”; “His own mind conceives…Where He, whom all declares,/Delights to make be!”

Based on this sample, the defining aspect of the San Francisco Renaissance seems to be philosophic anachronism. We next come across James Broughton, somewhat more modern in style and perspective, although his "Feathers or Lead?" seems to be an alchemical treatise at first blush. On closer inspection, it’s actually a portrait of medieval quackery haunting modern medicine. The physician, “the Devil of Remedies” locks his patient in the exam room to “claw [her (?)] belly.” Some sort of “Other” is aborted, and the speaker tears the physician apart. The speaker looks at the pile of disgorged “filth”: “Feathers or Lead?/ the dungheap cackled/and slithered out under the door.” Broughton’s poem shares in the fairy tale ordering that Duncan attributed to Adam. The meaning is in the poem but not extractable from it. It resists the intelligence successfully.

Madeline Gleason curiously combines the all the virtues of these quasi-medieval poets. “Once and Upon” exhibits Broughton's ability to modernize time-worn themes in a modern style and sensibility yet emulates Adam's commitment to tone of the the ballad tradition (though in a modern form) and also equals or surpasses Everson's finely crafted sound, with Christian overtones to boot. Here's a representative stanza:

Once and Upon

she ate the plum

and from a full mouth

disgorged the pit

into her hand

while Mother spun as she canned

peach and plum in season--

the land, holy Mother to

the plentiful fruit


Gleason's poem does more to "make it new" than Adam, yet avoids the jaded, dated hipness of Broughton. It has the mystery of language and action that might draw me back.

To read: Michael Davidson's San Francisco Renaissance. I think I consulted this book while working on my dissertation, but nothing stuck. Maybe some more Gleason and Everson.
To listen: Howls, Raps & Roars: Recordings from the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance

Monday, July 28, 2008

STL #74: Loaded

The first Album of the month (TM).

The story behind the title of The Velvet Underground's final album Loaded is that their new record company were pressuring them to find commercial success, to make an album "loaded with hits." They record is tight, and is more commercially-oriented than the previous three efforts, but asking the Velvets to make a hit record is like putting a chef to work in MacDonald's. People of taste will hear about it, but don't expect it to change your business. The injunction to produce a hit became a buried theme of the album's 10 songs, which subtly parody hits and popular formats, and critique the machinery that makes hits and the audience that consume them. At least, I think that's right, but let's run down the track list and think about it.

"Who Loves the Sun" kicks things off with a dour rebuttal to the "Here Comes the Sun"-worshiping flower children. While it's a lovely, hummable love song that shoulda/coulda been a hit, it also sets up a nihilistic counterpart to the frame of popular rock in the late sixties. It's a great start to a great album, but nothing compared to the next two tracks.

Lou Reed delivers a wonderful, swaggering vocal in "Sweet Jane," punctuated with asides to us and Jim ("just watch me now") and arriving at something like bliss in the end. Like a lot of songs on the album, it suggests a story more than tells one. It describes a dynamic between the singer of a rock and roll band to two peoples who got to work but live a bohemian, intellectual life in a bubble separated from the rest of their city.

In "Rock and Roll," we find another, another Jane (the lyrics online say Jennie, but I hear "Janey") finds another refuge, but not in bohemianism but in the New York station that plays a revolutionary thing called, rock and roll. That for a moment transcendence and redemption could be heard on the airwaves must have been an astonishing thing, but to the Velvets this didn't happen in the free-form FM of the sixties, but in the racially integrating inchoate rock and roll of 10 years earlier. I guess that WLOVE in the following "Cool It Down" alludes to call letters of a radio station too, but it's the kind of love you can "rent by the hour" from Miss Linda Lee, not the love of the Aquarian age.

This is an album 'loaded' with characters like five of the second and third songs. Reed and Doug Yule casually mention names of the people who populate the songs, though one of the most memorable characters is the Fat Blonde Actress of "New Age." These peoples, from Jack and Sweet Jane to Linda Lee to the actress, populate a Weird Urban America that is at once part of but separate from the late 60s, just as the music is sometimes rock and roll but often also involved with other popular music, from the ballad of "New Age" to the country of "Lonesome Cowboy Bill" to the doo-wop of "I Found Someone." It's always the case, as in "Sweet Jane," that "those were different times"; in fact, these are different times. These are different people too--different even from themselves. Many of these songs are about the private lives of people who wear masks in public, whether as a bank clerk or as an actress or cowboy.

"Head Held High" suggests what's under those masks: "But, just like I figured, they're always disfigured." This song also hearkens back to the wild rock of the 50's, complete with exortions to "do the dog." "Train Round the Bend," another rave-up, includes a wryly humorous description of the train "Takin me away from the country/I'm sick of the trees." The rock and roll playing on Janey's radio isn't the self-indulgent concept rock mocked by the Velvets and Frank Zappa, but an older more deeply rooted version. This wasn't necessarily the best recipe for making a hit in 1970 though.

The highlight of the album for me, after many listenings, is the last cut, "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'." Without being too grandiose about it, it a requiem for the living: "Say a word" for Jimmy Brown, for Ginger Brown, for Polly May and Joanne Love who all walk the streets with "nothing at all." The last word, of the album, of the real Velvets career, is a beautiful, poignant Nothing that lasts, in its full version, a good seven and a half minutes. The album went to number zero with a bullet--it never charted.


Loaded was the first album of the month in a new listening club that J and I have started (and are the only members of). It's purpose is to draw our attention to an album that is important to us and that we want to know better. The album of the month of August is the Minute Men's Double Nickels on the Dime, which I will write about in a month or so.

Friday, June 20, 2008

STL #73: Three (Once) Young Poets

On Ed Dorn, Jonathan Williams, and Joel Oppenheimer

One thing I'm not doing well in this project is reading the poems in context. Although I've been mindful of the anthology as an artifact of the 'poetry wars' of circa 1960, I tend not to think of the individual poets as existing at the time the poems were written--rather, I'm thinking of most of the poets, the ones I am familiar with at least, in the context of their careers and the poems as indicators of some single aesthetic realized over the course of a career. The thing I've been forgetting is that these guys are all young. With the exception of Charles Olson, who was fifty in 1960, and Robert Duncan (41), everyone I've written about was under 40 at the time of publication. The three men I'll be writing about today, Ed Dorn, Jonathan Williams, and Joel Oppenheimer, were all students at Black Mountain in the 1950s and were around 30 in 1960. In that spirit, I'll be reading their poems as the poems of young men.

Ed Dorn was 27 when he wrote "The Rick of Green Wood." I know Dorn's work fairly well. I've read his long poem Slinger two times; I also like his North Atlantic Turbine. His humor, masculine blinders, and line seem similar to Paul Blackburn's. You can see most of these qualities in "The Rick of Green Wood" which tells an anecdote of Dorn taking his daughter into the Skagit valley woods to purchase firewood for his wife. I suppose it's self-consciously mature in its dramatic situation: a man in the woods, doing business on behalf of his wife and family. During the business transaction, he literally declares his presence: "My name is Dorn, I said." His identity, still taking the traditional shape of adulthood. The poem is strangely like a folk ballad in the way an action is elaborately described but the consequences of it arenot entirely clear. Dorn is adamant that the "rick of wood" (an archaic measurement) not be green because his wife couldn't handle it: "Her back is slender/and the wood I get must not/bend her too much through the day." That seems considerate, but suggests that Dorn might be leaving her "in the november/air, in the world, that was getting colder." And who is this woodsman "Burlingame," with whom Dorn exchanges names and spends time "there in the woodyard talking/pleasantly, of the green wood and the dry"? Burlingame seems the most important person in poem, more than the wife, daughter, or Dorn himself. These questions are subtly suggestive, and the poem rich enough to nourish but not resolve them.

I also know Jonathan Williams's work fairly well, having read his thick selected Jubilant Thicket and his earlier selected An Ear in Bartrams Tree, which I quite admire.* (I bought the first New Direction paperback printing of this book a few years ago for the list price of $1.95. It had apparently been sitting on the shelf since 1972.) In a way, Williams was the James Laughlin of Black Mountain. Although he was known as a publisher of important poetry, he wrote exquisite, witty, frequently erotic poems himself. "A Little Tumescence" shows his light touch. It's not the kind of poem you can describe, so

This time, I mean it:

twice tonight!

(omne animal, always

The Hope

Triste, triste

situation, such outrageous

limitation,

limp,

simply



I always think of Williams as an old man, and in fact his aesthetic seems fully mature here at the ripe old age of 25. He's self-deprecating, off-handedly learned, and shows the finely tuned ear you'd expect of one of Zukofsky's publishers. Look at the sequence of i's, from the pair of optimist long vowels in "twice tonight" that shrivel up to a chain of short sounds that are "limp, simply." This poem may have been written by a young man, but it's not a young man's poem.

Finally, there's Joel Oppenheimer, who was only 23 when he wrote "The Bath." This is a young man's poem. Like Dorn's, it is shrouded in the mantle of maturity. It describes, from the point of view of a commanding masculine presence, "his" wife taking a bath. It's quite dated in form and content. I guess it implies a critique of the patriarchal society it portrays: "what he is most pleased about is/her continuing bathing./in his tub. in his water. wife." That quote also shows the stylistic ticks in this selection: a lack of capitalization and a bounty of sentence fragments. As far as I can determine, these are meaningless affectations of a young man.

So, there you have it. Three poems by young men: two good, one overcoming the poet's youth and the other irrelevant to age; and one bad because of the poet's youth. I guess I'm happy to be growing old, though these three men had a lot more to show for themselves when they hit 30 than I do now. Ah, well, at least I can criticize!

I hope to do more more posting for the rest of the summer, but I might take a break from my Test of Poetry. I've made it to the end of the Black Mountain section, and there's a few other things I've been meaning to write about before delving into the San Francisco section. For instance:

/reading/: a rash of fantasy novels, something I haven't done for 20+ years
/watching/: a few of the summer's superhero movies, season 3 of Entourage
/listening/: moving into the requiem form, listening to VU's Loaded repeatedly

*Gilbert Sorrentino on JW: "His extraliterary concerns include wildflowers and other flora, stories and speech patterns of Southern mountain people, jazz, classical music, baseball, and on and on. He is a wit, gentleman, bon vivant, hiker, raconteur, and discoverer of scores, if not hundreds, of artists and craftsmen of this and other centuries, minor but oftentimes brilliant people whom time and fashion have obscured... He is a unique man, one to whom everything is interesting; i.e., I cannot imagine him ever being bored by anything that is not fake."

STL #72: Shut partly in

On Larry Eigner's "Open"

Even though I know very little about Larry Eigner's life, there is one biographical fact that can't be escaped when reading his work. As he puts it in his biographical note in the NAP, "I'm a 'shut-in,' partly." What this means, to snip from Wikipedia, is "Eigner suffered from severe Cerebral palsy among other physical disabilities, and his parents believed that he was incapable of language until he taught himself to use a typewriter in his teens. The physical act of writing took more effort for him, and the physicality of each line is something that Silliman has remarked on repeatedly on his widely read poetry weblog." Now, there's some kind of New Critical 'heresy' in reading poetry through the facts of the author's life, but that in Eigner's case how can you not? (By the reading rules I've set up, his biographical note, beginning with the specifics of the institutions he was born into (the hospital in Lynn, MA) and schooled in (correspondence course with the U of Chicago) and describes him as a "shut in, partly" is admissible as 'text.' ) The "partly" modification is fascinating, since the rest of his note describes how he "bumped into Cid Corman reading Yeats, on the radio... from Boston." The part shut-in "bumped into" Corman "on the radio." The ensuing correspondence continued and one gathers supplanted his University education, converting him from a "non-declamatory way of reciting" and was the means by which he "got introduced to things." The last phrase of the biographical note is "the ice broke considerably," which I think means not only the friendship of Eigner and Corman, but Eigner's seclusion. He entered into the Black Mountain 'company' of poetry and continued as an elder statesmen for Silliman's cohort of Language poets. Through poetry, he was in the world, though physically he was largely shut out of it.

There is a poetry interview site that has been dormant for a while called "Here Comes Everybody" that asked an array of poets the same 10 questions. The tenth question always seemed strained to me, but it is provocative in thinking about Eigner: "What is the relationship between the text and the body in your writing?" A full answer to that question on behalf of Einger might be contentious and theory-laden, and would have to respond to his later work, which is dominated by concrete nouns and largely devoid of conventional syntax. This earlier work is more conventional, but still indicates a physical relation to the world found nowhere else I know in poetry. The obvious marker of the relation of language to body is the word "I," a word manipulated in a fascinating way in "Open." The poem begin in the lyric standard Romantic sublime: "They [flowers] nod at me and I at stems." As in the Romantics, nature seems to mirror the psychological interior, "me," as "I" fully engages in a relation to nature, but not all is as it seems. After two more uses of "I" which demonstrate imaginative engagement with nature ("I flower myself" and "As, I pass on the air"), the personal pronoun morphs into the lower case "i," a letter which stands for an imaginary number. This marker appears four times in the poem, replacing the mask of "I" with "As i, pause / As i dream" and finally "o i walk i walk." The "pause" not only sonically mirrors the "pass" of the preceding line but marks a literal pause during which the Romantic I becomes an imaginative 'i' cognizant of and bound by reality. The only other time the upper-case I intercedes is between "i dream" and "i walk": "I have been on all sides / my face and my back." There is an i that dreams and walks, and there is an I constrained by the limitations of his body and by the conventions of language.


To read: areas lights heights, Writings 1954-1989

Thursday, June 19, 2008

STL #71: Paul Carroll's "Father"

Paul Carrol is the first poet in the NAP collection about whom I had no previous knowledge. I had never read anything else by him and am quite sure I'd never even heard of him. He must have had some direct connection to Black Mountain or the friendship of one of its members, because "Father" might as well be a Beat poem as a Projectivist one. It's an enumerative, troubled-elegiac, image-strewn memory poem about a father's funeral. I find some sociological interest in it as a treatise on immigrant power in the U.S.. Carroll's biographical note mentions the financial success of his Irish immigrant father, and this poem alludes to how he "transform[ed]/that old cow pasture Hyde Park/into [his] own oyster" and how he earned "his millions by himself" and coming to the position where he could "quarrel with congressmen from Washington about the New Deal bank acts./Or call Mayor Kelly crooked to his face." There's nothing particularly bad about this poem, though the language is a little stale: "the raw October rain/ rasped against our limousine/guiding the creeping cars back into Chicago." In all honesty, that sounds like something I might have written in my early 20s: romantic strum and drang, heavily worked consonance and subtler assonance, neither particularly meaningful. There is one image that does pop out as intriguing in context. After getting a haircut in preparation for the funeral, the penniless Carroll thinks of "that old snapshot of Picasso/& his woman Dora Maar" which belonged to the elder Carroll (implying he knew Picasso?) It is an image of age and the remembered vigor that preceded it: "Picasso bald & 60. But both/in exaltation, emerging/with incredible sexual dignity/ from the waters of the Golfe Juan." It's a very lively image partitioned by space and time from the dour occasion of the poem. Note that the sound in this image is much more subtly wrought: the short [a] of 'bald,' "exaltation," and "waters" thread through, an [r] rolls gently through "emerging," incredible," and "waters." The sound is more secure and dignified than the description of the emotionally frenzied funeral scenes.

STL #70: Robert Creeley

I haven't done the homework, but I suspect that a lexicon of Robert Creeley's poems would be surprisingly small in comparison the the girth of the two chunky volumes that comprise his Collected Poems. Creeley gravitates to a handful of small, seemingly innocuous words, words like "this" (he has several poems bearing that title), and his poems and conversation returned often to a set of abstract nouns like "company," "circumstance," and, most oddly, "etc."

Out of this modest lexicon, Creeley built a body of work that seemingly rejects the weight of lyric tradition yet fully embraces its history of craft, of the well-wrought urn. Creeley saw himself as part of a company with his fellow Black Mountaineers working in the open field. Yet reading his prose statements, one doesn't find antagonism toward the other side of the 'poetry war' of which which the NAP was a major front. While he notes that "a division of method appears between those who make use of traditional forms, either for discipline or solution, and those who, as Olson, go "By ear... " he does in this passage note good reasons for using traditional forms. Tradition continues in his company; it is "an aspect of what anyone is now thinking, --not what someone once thought. We make with what we have..." The difference between his company and those who use traditional forms is described in this passage: "They [the traditionalists] argue the poem as a means of recognition, a signboard as it were, not in itself a structure of 'recognition' or--better--cognition itself. Some, then, would not only not hear what Olson was saying, but would even deny, I think, the relevance of his concerns. The great preoccupations with symbology and the levels of image in poetry insisted upon by contemporary criticism has also meant a further bias for this not-hearing, since Olson's emphasis was put upon prosody, not interpretation." Olson and Creeley's emphasis is on prosody, perhaps the strongest tradition in poetry that there is.

For this company, prosody is what Pound said: "the articulation of the total sound of the poem." Creeley uses the surprisingly traditional method of rhyme over and again. In this selection, 11 of his 14 poems use some sort of end rhyme, including slant rhyme and irregular patterns. The question I want to turn to now is simply "why?" To limit my investigation I'm concentrating on the poem "The Warning," though I will also open myself up to the more traditional realm of prosody, meter, to better graph the "total sound of the poem."

Since I'll be discussing the poem in detail, here it is in its entirety:

The Warning

For love – I would
split open your head and put
a candle in
behind the eyes.

Love is dead in us
if we forget
the virtues of an amulet
and quick surprise.

There it is: eight lines, 32 words not including the title. The dominant meter is iambic dimeter, but expressively varied--the shocking second line starts with a decisive dactyl and grows an extra foot. The seventh line complicates the poem and is also longer, though a smooth iambic tetrameter. The seventh line lets out some hidden context before the eighth line pulls it quickly back. The final rhyme, reaching back to the last line of the first stanza, is the most pronounced rhyme, but looking back you see it is not the only rhyme. While the first stanza is unrhymed (a, b, c, d), the fifth line slightly echoes the fourth (eyes/us) and the sixth and seventh don't only rhyme with one another but pick up "put" from the second. Broadening the definition of rhyme, the rhyme scheme of the poem might be seen as (abcd d'b'b'd), though more conservatively as (abcd effd). Beyond rhyme, the poem is tightly knit together by recurring sounds in these unassuming words: l and d sounds in the first three lines, n sounds in lines 2-5, z sounds in lines 3-4 and 6-7, and r sounds in the last three lines. Particularly impressive is the n, d, l pattern in the first stanza, and how all three sounds cluster around the mysterious "candle" in the skull. Finally, its worth noting that almost every word is closed--begins and ends with a consonant. You might say this sound pattern is a guarded, close-mouthed one.

After the gruesome imagery of the first stanza, the second stanza twists away ending with an in-itself-surprising "eyes"/"surprise" rhyme. The second stanza is in itself a "surprise" that as with a lot of Creeley poems I can't quite resolve. The most unusual word in the poem is perhaps "amulet." Not an uncommon word except when compared to the rest of the word in this poem, amulet is taken up in its shamanic sense as a charm against evil. But that must be read ironically--in the name of love, I will kill you to make a charm to protect love? But what is the "quick surprise" of the last line? Is it a new love? As I recall, the book this eventually appeared in, For Love, is largely concerned with the disintegration of a marriage and specifically the complications of infidelity. That may sound like the kind of confessionalist crap that was starting to be churned out at the time, but note that "The Warning" doesn't describe anything at all, but enacts a state of mind.

To (re)read: For Love, Words, Pieces. A Quick Graph.

Monday, June 9, 2008

STL #69: Paul Blackburn

Paul Blackburn is a poet I've heard of, and I've read some of his poems in, I think, the Origin anthology. But I don't know his work well at all. He is a hanger-on at the edge of biographies I've read, most recently turning up pretty devotedly in the second half of the Zuk bio. Judging from the gathering in NAP, Blackburn writes in two modes: short wry jokes in contemporary urban (usually) settings ("The Continuity, "The Assistance, "The Problem," "The Once Over," "The Encounter"), and longer poems drawing on medieval traditions ("Night Song for Two Mystics," "Sirventes"). Though my tastes generally run to the former, I'm drawn by "Night Song for Two Mystics." The two mystics are W.B. Yeats and "Llull," who Wikipedia suggests is Ramon Llull (1232-1315), also known as Raymond Lully. Llull was a scholar of astonishing breadth, writing on theology, mathematics and logic (his work forecasts modern information science) and the author of the first prose narrative in Catalan (and arguably the first European novel.) He lobbied for the study of Hebrew and Arabic in the universities, and sought the conversion of Muslims through his system of logical argument. Renowned in this time, the man Duns Scotus nicknamed "Dr. Illuminatus" (there's a comic book name for you!) was parodied by Swift and condemned by Popes until 1858. Though I've seen the name "Raymond Lully" here and there, I think it's safe to say he isn't now widely known.

The Llull that Blackburn writes about is both a mystic and a philosopher of love. There's a longish quotation in the first half of the poem which describes "the light of the beloved's room" illuminating (this key term for Dr. Illumunatis is stretched out over a line by Blackburn: "t o i l l u m i n a t e") the lover's room. "[T]hen/all the shadows are thrown back,/then he is filled and surfilled/with his peculiar pleasures/the heavy thoughts, the languors." The light of the beloved overtakes and inhabits every corner of the lover's room and mind. He changes his life and his habits for the beloved, but she "remains forever/far enough removed/and in a high place/ as to be easily seen from a distance." I'm not sure of the source of this quotation, but in the end this love story seems to transform into a theological parable.

The second half of the poem questions the other mystic, Yeats, on what lesson we might learn from Llull, from the distant perspective of the twentieth century. The second half starts with two quesions, one rhetorical "you see where we stand?" and one critical "must it always lead to gods?" In other words, must earthly love be divinely transformed to be worthwhile? Is Llull still meaningful in an age that has outstripped his philosophy? Llull is gone and nearly forgotten: "The man's shadow dissolves in shadows./Most men go down in obliteration/with the homeliest of remembrances." Blackburn opens a parenthesis on the seven deadly sins, asking what are the positive virtues with as much force, and then opens another suggestive parenthesis ("down, sailor/blow the man/c o i l e d d o w n t h e r e") that at once recalls the spacing of "illuminate" on the previous page and also invokes the serpent "in the dark pools of the mind." The poem ends with a classically ambivalent take on mortality: "Dust, Yeats, all dust,/tho Llull remain a lover." It's not overreaching to say that the mysticism of Yeats and Llull is transient and trendy, but love (or really their lyricism that conveys it) is what will endure.

I may have been attracted to writing about this poem simply to find out who Llull was. Most of the poetry I read is densely allusive, a quality that leads people to the conclusion that the poetry is difficult, or 'hard.' The assumption, erroneous I am sure, is that if you don't know who Llull is, then you don't know what the poet is talking about (or plug in other examples from Eliot, Pound, etc.). Blackburn doesn't offer in any cribs of notes, yet read with attention the poem yields up a great deal of intellectual pleasure. The cited Llull is really all the Lllull you need--such was Pound's argument about The Cantos. ("It's all there.") The minimal background I dug up on Llull revealed the illumination joke, and I'm sure further acquaintance with his work might deepen my understanding, but these two night mystics have been brought into the field of the poem so that we might learn from them and converse with them, as the poet himself does. They aren't there to make us feel deficient or confuse us. The "hard" poetry I like is not elitist; quite the opposite I think. A poem like this embraces seven centuries, and welcomes any reader who cares to stop in.

To read: Journals, praised in Sorrentino's excellent essay on Blackburn in Something Said. Also Proensa: An Anthology of Troubadour Poetry.

STL #68: "Beyond whatever ends"

On Denise Levertov

In the run-up to the this new "Test of Poetry," I think I said Denise Levertov did not have a statement on poetics included in the NAP. That is incorrect. I made the mistake because the order of the poetics section does not quite follow the order as the poetry roster. Robert Creeley jumps the line from fifth in the poetry section (based on his age) to third in the poetics section (based, probably, on his stronger identification with Black Mountain.)* I'm glad Levertov's statement is there, because it brings up her enticing idea of organic form: "I believe every space and comma is a living part of the poem and has its function, just as every muscle and pore of the body has its function. And the way the lines are broken is a functioning part essential to the poem's life." She also believes that "content determines form, and yet that content is only in form. Like everything living, it is a mystery." In these few lines we can see the strong intellectual identification with the other Black Mountaineers, especially Duncan and Creeley who she considers the "chief poets among [her] contemporaries."

With her thoughts on organic form in mind, "Beyond the End" reads as an ethical defense of how that form emerges in free verse. It begins "In 'nature' there's no choice --" which seems to argue against the 'organicism' of free verse. Free verse offers infinite choice, so how can it be called organic, in the sense of 'natural'? If "flowers/swing their heads in the wind, [and] sun & moon/are as they are," then why should the poet presume not to similarly confine verse to the boxes of sonnets "as they are"? The answer will rely on those inverted commas around "nature" that I will work my way back to. While "nature" operates without "choice," "we seem / almost to have it." Choice is Olsonian "energy: a spider's thread: not to / 'go on living' but to quicken, to activate: extend:" The energy is creative, one that reaches out to contribute to ("quicken" or "activate" as opposed to simply represent) that which exists. 'That which exists' surely must be nature-- a spider web as much as "the girls crowding the stores." Although this creative energy exists in and affects "nature," "[i]t has no grace like that of/the grass." It is "barely/a constant" like other natural forces. It does not only manifests in work, although "every damn / craftsman has it while he's working / but it's not / a question of work: some shine with it, in repose." Rather it is a Stevensian "will to respond"--again, not to represent--that shapes poetry. The poet, in a sincere response to "nature," creates further "nature" that is "beyond the end/beyond whatever ends: to begin, to be, to defy."

This creative defiance, in a poetics descending from Pound to Zukofsky to Olson, is defined in by poetic line. The line, the organic unit of breath in the Black Mountain/Projectivist program, is often linked to the poet's integrity or sincerity. Levertov specifies the poet's decision of the line break to be essential to craft. I touched on line breaks when discussing Olson, and indeed I'm always fascinated by line breaks in both open and closed forms. But as interesting in open forms is lineation itself. The poem has stanzas of 6, 6, 4, 6, and ends either with one of 11 or probably two of 7 and 4 (there's a page break that confuses the issue.) I could hit my prosody handbooks to come up with closed forms with 6-4 line patterns, but it's the variation-- the shift from 6-6-4 to 6-7-4, that is most important. The 7-line stanza, concerned with craft, incorporates the Stevens quotation which overflows into the next stanza, the only stanzaic enjambment of the poem. This construction echoes the pushing "beyond the end" of the poem's argument.

At this stage in her writing career, Levertov that the "social function" of poetry, if it has one at all, "is to awaken sleepers by means other than shock." (Her Vietnam-era poetry might suggest she reconsidered this position.) Perceiving the craft in this poem and meditating on its significance could be just such an awakening. There's a small lexicon for the awakened mind in the second and the final stanzas. The two triads map onto one another nicely: quicken=to begin, activate=to be, extend=to defy.


To read: the Poems 1960-1967 I've had on the shelf for a dozen years.



*Levertov and Creeley are the only poets in the NAP I ever met. ("Met" is an exagerration; I was in the same room as Levertov once and Creeley twice.) Some time later than this writing, Levertov became a Northwesterner, writing at least a few poems about Mount Rainier. I went to a poetry reading of hers sometime in the early 90's. She was a dignified kindly presence, with a slight British accent remaining and, I remember, a slight lisp.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

STL #67: Melees and Mosaics

On Robert Duncan's "Poem beginning with a line by Pindar"

"There is natural mystery in poetry. We do not understand all that we render up to understanding."

Duncan writes that a poem "is an occult document" subject to "x-rays and vivisection." In this sense, "occult" means that a poem resists and it yields, in Stevens's sense that it resists the intelligence almost successfully. This happens because the poem is a "field" into which the poet brings his or her materials. In the case of his long, famous "Poem beginning with a line by Pindar," the materials are not only the Roman poet's Third Pythian Ode, but the myth of Pysche and Cupid (as represented by Goya), a poetic lineage from Whitman to Williams and Pound, and American Presidential history.

The poem is in four parts: the first begins with a mishmash of Pindar, the beautiful but nonsensical "The light foot hears you and the brightness begins," quickly clarified as "god steps at the margins of thought." In some ways, this poem provides evidence of the numinous: a foot cannot hear in any way we understand, but the lingering occult presence brings with it luminosity. Most of this first section describes Goya's painting of Pysche and Cupid, the troubled story of a god in love with a human. The second section transitions from myth to the imperfect present, using the strokes of President Eisenhower and William Carlos Williams to represent the rupture of poetry from public policy (a public poetry being possible from before Pindar to Whitman). The stroke victims' language is a distorted, mis-signifying stutter: "The present dented of the U/nighted stayd. States. The heavy clod?/Cloud. Invades the brain." At this point in history, "The smokes of continual ravage/obscure the flame." A catalogue of presidents is a list of graceless "idiots fumbling at the bride's door." In the third section, dedicated to Charles Olson, we see Ezra Pound, an inspiration for such a jeremiad against "liars in public places." Pound as Olson came to know him at St. Elizabeths is the broken "old man at Pisa," though, unlike WCW, his language is untouched and stronger than ever, even if he a "A man upon whom the sun has gone down." Pound transforms into a mythic figure, "the hero who struggles east/widdershins to free the dawn." He is against the grain of the American myth, in which "West/from east men push." The fourth section is a diffuse return to the misreading of Pindar, punctuated by the footfall of a "boundary walker," his "foot informed/by the weight of all things." This walker traverses a wilderness and dissolves into a ring of children dancing. Near the end of the poem, Duncan represents its genesis: "the information flows/ that is yearning. A line of Pindar moves/ from the area of my lamp/ toward morning." The poem ends with the children dancing "In the dawn that is nowhere... clockwise and counterclockwise turning."

In this final section, Duncan comments on his line from Pindar in a prose paragraph aside that also describes the poem: Pindar's art "was not a statue but a mosaic, an accumulation of metaphor." It is an inspiration for Duncan's poetics of the field. He, like Olson and others in NAP is not pursuing a well-wrought urn, but initiating a sometimes occult process, or creating a field where thinking and music can occur. Found within his "Pages from a Notebook" is a statement enclosed in quotation marks but not attributed: "I do not seek a synthesis but a melee." This uncontrolled "melee" is as apt a description of field poetics as the accumulating mosaic. It is a poetics of action and of presence--poems are not objects for readers to enjoy but fields of participation. They are energy transfers (Olson's) or "passionate dispersions" of magic (Duncan).

While working through this poem, I have begun to identify with Duncan the same way I identify with Olson. Personally, politically they are far apart, and they have different intellectual interests too. But each seems on first blush a little ludicrous. They have large ambitions that seem to have been accomplished by others in styles that seem dated. But I'd encourage any one interested enough to have read this far to give both consideration. Though I've read and liked his Opening of the Field, studying "Pindar" at length is driving me to further study of his work.

Recommended: The Opening of the Field
To Read: Lisa Jarnot's bio (forthcoming), Bending the Bow, Roots and Branches, Selected Prose

Thursday, May 22, 2008

STL #66: "Image, therefore, is vector" (on Charles Olson)

My fascination with the big American poet Charles Olson (1910-1970) began with a line break. As an undergraduate with some time between Fall and Winter quarters, I read through the whole anthology I had used in my Intro to Poetry class, and I came across a poem headed "Maximus, To Himself" which begins with the two lines, "I have had to learn the simplest things / last. Which made for difficulties." That sequence "simplest things / last" instantly became a sort of motto, both for the truth of the notion (it speaks to my habit of struggling with complexities at length to eventually step back and say "oh, I see") and for the energy inherent in the lines, energy that derives from that line break. The meaning of that first sentence hinges on the last word, and starting the line with it relays it with astonishing power. (And no small verbal irony, in that the last becomes first.) There's much to admire just in the very beginning of the poem: the temporal precision of the verb tense (present perfect, which "suggests the process is not complete and more actions are possible") and the pattern of declarative ("I have had to learn...") and parenthetical elaboration ("Which made for difficulties"--truncated but poignant). (Olson uses parenthesis (often nested and/or unclosed) to open new lines of energy

"New lines of energy..." What does that mean? I mentioned "energy" twice in that paragraph, in part because in Olson's own poetics, energy plays a defining role. In "Projective Verse" (1950), he argues that that a poem is a "high energy-construct” and so reading and writing is a matter of transmitting and receiving that energy by means of breath and eye, syllable and line. In a sense, Olson is the father of modern poetics, as I alluded to in my previous note. In his work, theory and practice are nearly indistinguishable. Likewise, work and life are identical too. Personal letters (famously and lengthily to Creeley, but in NAP to Elaine Feinstein) serve as public statements of practice. Olson's "Letter to Elaine Feinstein" follows his more well-known essay in the anthology, and although it is less well-known than the former, it is explicitly a continuation of "Projective Verse." There's a special focus on the image (actually "Image") I want to focus on. It depends on a special definition of "image," which he never articulates. Common ideas of visual and auditory images aren't useful to him: Poetry's truth is not accessible by description. The Image has to be taken by a double (the reader)=its seems to be the conduit by which energy in transferred. "Image, therefore, is a vector," meaning that it is a magnitude (of force) coupled with a direction (to a reader). (This thinking is actually very close to the constructivist pedagogy I'm getting into via John Dewey: An idea can't be given to someone, it merely takes the form of an accepted fact. To be an idea, the learner needs to enact the thinking that leads to it. Teaching as creating a vector. Olson said that "what you find out yourself ('istorion) keeps all accompanying circumstance.")

Okay, I think we need to stop and figure out what "Image" means. Olson, despite his decidedly liberal politics, is closely identified with Pound in matters of technique, and rightly so. With the help of Hugh Kenner's astounding The Pound Era, we can hear the influence of EP on Olson's idea of Image. Pound calls the poetic image "...a radian node or cluster... a VORTEX, from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing." Upon which quote Kenner elaborates: "A patterned integrity [knot] accessible to the mind." From his early days as Imagiste to his last poems, we can see in EP's work the intention that "An 'Image' is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time." The Pound/Olson poetic is essentially fractal (no doubt chaotic) in that an image is an irregular piece of larger whole that reflects that irregular whole.

There are only one or two traditional "images" in "Maximus, to Himself." The second verse paragraph reads


It is undone business
I speak of, this morning,
with the sea
stretching out
from my feet


The assymetry of the 1st/2nd stanzas strikes me as powerful: it implies this short passage has the commensurate energy of the first one. This image, then, ought to be a vector (the magnitude of the sea does stretch out from his feet) or a radiant node through which his ideas rush. And in fact, the longer first stanza resonates in every word of this one: he has received his mission or "business" from his insight, (the simplest thing he has learned is that "we grow up many / And the single / is not easily / known") the sea, which was not his trade, lies before him, immense but conquerable. This is a vector that points to the future, to a newly defined reality.

I haven't begun to dig into the magnitude of “Maximus, To Himself." There are layers of linguistics and history, all realized on the level of the syllable. I finally discovered, while thinking about Olson these past few weeks, what he meant by identifying the poetic line with the poet's ear and the syllable with the mind when the opposite would seem to be true.
Cory Greenspan’s 1972 article "Charles Olson: Language, Time and Person" ends with an Appendix of “Words Governing ‘Maximus, to Himself” that lists entomological touchstones that Olson used in constructing this poem. (To Feinstein, Olson wrote of "the line of force" one can discover by "tracking any word... to Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Greek, and out to Sanskrit.") The morphem "reg" means “moving in a straight line”; “to direct to rule” in Greek (oregein) and Old English (gerecenia) and is heard in the poem in “arrogance” “sharpness” and “stretching out” Furhtermore, with Old English and Sanskrit relatives reccan and raga therefore are subsidiary meanings, through various languags, of rain, to put in order, to dye red.

You can effectively parse my motto "simplest things / last") this way too.
“Simple” relates back to Old Norse “Soemr” making one, or reconciling ; “things” relates to German and Old English words for throw, mark, and teach (Olson has found "what pleasures / doceat allows and Greenspan notes the relation to "tokens"); while last is governed by “leis,” to learn. Leis also means "footprint" which links the first sentence of the poem with the final image of the sea at Olson's feet.

I've become fascinated by Olson's life and work. I've read much of his prose, and read his lengthy Maximus Poems Though his writing is can be chaotic and convoluted, it promises a generative cosmos of meaning. Some how it's larger than a cosmos=it's a supercosmos in which you can invent your own universe. "Supercosmos." That's the perfect note to end on for a note on Olson-- a freshly coined term, halfway between poignacy and embarrassment, and far away from where I began.

Further reading: short poems (esp in Archaeologist of Morning and The Distances) and his prose The Special View of History another time through Maximus and A.N. Whitehead, an important influence.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

STL #65: ATOP II: NAP

I've decided to undertake another "test of poetry," this time over Don Allen's seminal anthology New American Poetry 1945-1960. [Thus is uncoded the obtuse title of this edition of Simplest Things Last.] In worrying over whether I "passed" the last test, I noticed that in my reading practices, "I accept the [Poundian] model of melopeia, judged on criteria of suitability (sound that echoes sense), vigor, and mellifluousness; phanopeia, judged by resonance [and] freshness; and logopeia, judged by aptness, pacing, and soundness. I find that my taste responds to complicated surfaces, luminous details, competing systems (frames, registers, etc), slight shifts (when I can detect them), assonance and consonance, and reserved mystery" (STL #48). In this second test, I am seeking to deepen and enrich that framework. The anthology in question is well-suited for this purpose. The poets represented in all respond in some ways to Pound's poetics (sometimes to contest or reject it, but never in ignorance of it) and the anthology was the first to include a "poetics" section (it might mark the birth of that discipline, but that's a question for other scholars.) My question for this test is "In what terms, and by what terms, should poetry be judged?" I'll coordinate between the statements on and enactments of poetry and in each post develop some key terms of my poetics.

In coming weeks you can expect to see pieces on the first four poets in the anthology, the Black Mountaineers Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, and Robert Creeley. The anthology include statements on poetics by all of these except Levertov. I plan on writing between the two sections of the book as much as possible: I've started on Olson, using his idea of the Image as Vector to think about "Maximus, To Himself." I'll follow suit with Duncan, but with Levertov I've decided not to seek out any poetics. I did once write a short essay on this model, drawing on material in Paul Hoover's Postmodern American Poetry, a volume from the 1990's very much modeled on Allen's anthology. However, I've decided to strictly limit myself to materials included in NAP. I reserve the right to respond however I wish--if inspiration leads me back to Zuk's or Pound's ideas, I will follow it.

With that procedural stuff out of the way, I'll concluded this long-delayed, awkwardly formed note with some further thoughts on the anthology. It's often pitched against Donald Hall's traditionalist New Poets of England and America which appeared a few years earlier. I only know that book by reputation, but judging on titles alone you can see that Allen's interest is in creating a new distinct tradition--not only the geographical refinement but even the movement from Poets to Poetry does that. This anthology therefore is an argument--that there is a strong and variegated community of poets at work in the U.S.A. He divides the 44 poets he selected into five groups: Black Mountain, San Fransisco, the itinerant Beats, New York, and an odd "other" group that no seems as easy to sort into the existing categories as the others. No matter--the geographical groupings suggests a period of ferment about to mature, that "something is happening but you don't know what it is." And indeed, much did happen subsequent to this anthology. In the 1960's many new poetries made an impact on American and world culture. In the seventies, the poetics section of the anthology had grown into the first poetics programs in universities--spearheaded by Olson's and Creeley's work at Buffalo. To say that NAP defined a field is no overstatement. I'm now beginning to see how it's a touchstone to my own scholarship, and surely Olson more than any one refined the understanding of poetry as an intellectual nexus, creating a space for poets as researchers, fitting in as poets at research universities. (That's an influence he has had apart from what I fear is a generally declining poetic influence.)

I'll end a good way--abruptly. I see I've started to talk about one of my favorite topics, Olson, and so I'll pick up with his poem that gives this blog its name next time.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

STL #64: writing, memory, and knowledge

"a clock clink hardly the solid links/and retell, more retell, and all retell"

This post has been taking up time I don't really have right now, so I am posting it in less than finished shape. I hope to revisit and extend it sometime, probably into some other form.

Like a lot of people, I know Lyn Hejinian's work primarily through My Life, which is probably the only book in the so-called "Language" tradition to achieve anything like a 'breakthrough success' or become a 'beloved classic.' It is taught, though probably less than widely, in colleges and high schools. My Life is read and liked by people who have the curiosity to pursue the Language poet's critique of language as a representational medium, but who aren't consumed by that critique to the point where all language is inevitably about language. (And therefore can live a normal life.) I am more than the casual fan--I find language-oriented writing, which can sometimes but not always be sorted into the categories of theory and poetry, to be very powerful and a necessary mode for understanding the world today--yet I had never read Hejinian beyond My Life. I corrected that oversight by reading her earlier volume Writing Is an Aid to Memory yesterday, and since the edition was not in a fit condition to keep, I thought I should type up my notes for posterity (to put that memory into writing).* Where My Life was written in 37 blocks of prose (expanded to 45) that all relate to the title, Writing is written in 42 lineated blocks that explore the important relationship of writing to memory, and of both to knowledge. As readers of My Life and her theoretical writings (though it's all theory: ""writing constitutes the mind of the/theorist in the mind/Latin is a very genteel business") know, writing, memory, and knowledge all exist within the same medium--language.

In the Preface to Writing, Hejinian writes that she is "always conscious of the disquieting runs of life slipping by, that the message remains undelivered, opposed to me..." Memory, which follows along this rush of experience is "the girth, or again." Because the reliving the past again through language struggles to embrace the whole missing past (the girth of it), writing is not so much an aid to memory as a supplement, adornment, or extension of the past, or "a gain." The memorial function of language cannot fill in the gaps of onrushing time, but, paradoxically, it overfills these gaps: "Argument demonstrates that truth cannot end. Continuous quantities, like continuous qualities, are endless like the truth, for it is impossible to carry them." Prefiguring the images of cats and dogs in her poem, Hejinian ends the Preface with the suggestive line "Though we keep company with cats and dogs, all thoughtful people are impatient, with a restlessness made inevitable with language." This image of restlessness shows the pull of writing against the memorial function--though equipped to memorialize life gone by, it just as soon charge ahead.

Any individual section of this poem might be described by "that sweet little block/the taste of a larger pattern." The larger pattern is Hejinian's argument about memory and language which by nature of subject and medium is "endless like the truth. Like language, "memory only mimics/paint." Memory works, supposedly, by removing a part from a whole, and preserving it--but these blocks are necessarily pieces of the whole. Memorials, ruins, diaries, --these are seen again and again in her text. The complete sixth section reads

you must show yourself to catch
to be amused, to equate the man, to
shoot his autobiographical work.

This equation of the record and the subject is the idealized goal of language and memory, but is unattainable. Is the job of writing then "recognizing patterns or pruning the truth"? A lot of pruning happens in Writing. Periods of ellipses are broken down into physical images in the poem ("link rule dots"), and in fact the poem is brimming with conceptual "ellipsis [that] makes its promise leaving us to get out." Faced with these gaps, we are forced to ask "how did this happen like an excerpt"?

The question is difficult to answer, and difficult to ask. This writing is less than pellucid. The first line, "apple is shot nod" is uninterpretable as sentence, and followed immediately by non-signifying morpheme ("ness"). Throughout the poem, Hejinian incorporates little known words and coins nonce words like "ting," "persion," "guage". She truncates existing words ("guage" from "language") , and coins reasonably acceptable terms like "pensated change" (presumably thoughtful change), but because none of these are in dictionary, the poem moves along resistant to exterior authority. At one point she writes "I remember a very good joke, something which everyone/can understand/as thoughts should be." But aren't.

As a forty-two block poem unified by thought if not action, Writing, like any longish poem, begs comparison to other long poems, most notably for Hejinian are Pound's and Zukofksy's. LZ seems manifest in several places in this poem. In the Preface, Hejinian evokes Zukofsky in a passage, which sounds like a quotation from Bottom: "Knowledge is part of the whole, as hope is, from which love seeks to contrast knowledge with separation, and certainty with the temporal." LZ almost manifest in Block 19, from its numeric/alphabetic incantations to its violin music:

number city and numerical the alphabet
do trees in the thickness of thoughts
glides out of the minute
across as through thread
fiddle by the rough of hidden music
it were otherwise quickly and hours each rate
rough most better of recent dark
two borders a series takes
as through thick bits to any limit
fixing do trees glide two rates
trot of taught beauty
hour my daily connection like an edge trod
every blind fuddle something sweet.....

Block 32, on the other hand, might be an undercover appearance by Ezra Pound. On rereading, I find many potential references:

"all small colors have colors with an infinite number of/images" (Pound's gold)
"we may take the smoke between the eye/and a background" (historical backdrop)
"The mess of air rises five times bluer
of the same size
between the great variations and a background
veiled from a bench and without precise
limits vaguely economic
populist: sum at the daily paper is a little volume
bandit through chew deal abstract lack" (lateness in history, closer to Zuk's diction tho)


but what really struck me where these lines which I think acknowledge the weight of the cultural archive that is everywhere in Pound:

"history lovers look backward at the daily paper/thrown to a better philosophy"
"yellow-papered thousands but tacks/in depth or to speak to the house of a great man/chosen were from tent quotations"
"many other are luscious mentioned
chant ships may happen
cooper different wooden stack and pin.... goats and high wages
trade each social busily... ideas a happy little opera"

While Pound thinks of knowledge as the production of history, that can be combed through and sorted, as a "happy little opera" that can be contained in time and space. Zuk sees it as a function of language that is always rife with connection, with continuous quantities and qualities. I think that it is to Zuk's mission that Hejinian relates late in the poem:
"I suppose a dictionary with a rhythmic base
an impulse of remembering
could show what I could"

and in the final block

"I study is material
thoughtfulness collage bit river
the test apple bank as material think is
sense difference later differ doubt the
shape"


***


I mentioned that Writing predates My Life, but Hejinian had already started work on it as several hints divulge. She seems to refer to its structure: "nothing less is done in one year block/cut it only in dark reduction/how ness posites/autobiography sees the world." And she is more specific in referring to the thirty-seven annual blocks in "the more regretted cozy paradise/the nature of my thirty-seven of whom/my own astonished sequel." (The astonishment of My Life is seen in Writing as well, occasionally as "wonderment." Even as she was working on the volume at hand, it's evident that she had a sense of a major work in the offing: "I am impatient to finish in order to begin." Like many of the so-called Language poets, Hejinian has a sunny disposition toward her work and her world. The complications of language which prevent memory from definitively preserving the past aren't something to despair over: "memory is a trick of coincidence/which overturned has invisibly legible/use." That "legible use" is the always astonishing creation through language of memory and knowledge.




*If these notes seem more disjointed than usual, it is probably due to the fact that in getting rid of the book, I became intent on "saving" all the "good" parts I marked. I've tried to weave these into something coherent, but no doubt failed again.


**Cats and dogs appear throughout the poem. As an example, section 9 begins with allusion to the jazz idiom: "a cat is 'in time'/ between wind and water a queer character" while the first line of section 10 combines the wind and water into "rough plays smooth the surface of dogs"

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