Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Graham and the Garden (Guerdon) of Advancements

I've been listening to the discussion about Graham and the problematic of the rubric avant-garde by Josh Corey, Ange Mlinko and Tim Yu with great interest. I think I agree with Tim particularly, although unlike Tim I'm a big fan of Graham's third and fourth books. As I indicated before, and as Yu points out, I think that often poets qualify or do not qualify as avant-garde because of their associations, their poetic lineage and the way that their work has been contextualized and canonized: Graham's not a-g because Helen Vendler likes her; because she teaches at Iowa, indeed because she made Iowa Iowa. In other words, the author-function. For this reason, I think that Josh, for all his intelligence, seriousness and erudition, has a difficult time defining a-g writing as a function of the text itself, a function of the rather ill-defined term "form" which he deploys. He claims that unlike a-g writers he likes, the negativity of her writing devolves upon its content rather than its form, and I think that a look at the formal innovation in The End of Beauty will controvert this claim. By form, I'm assuming that he means, also, style, and not just the lay of the lines on the page. I'm assuming that he includes in form such things as diction, acoustic effects, syntax, etc. Otherwise, what to do with Stevens' cordwood stanzas? I'm drawing on the fact that I know Corey to be indebted to Stevens in numerous ways. Graham plays with all of these "formal" effects to problematize the reception of her work. You can think, as many do, that her use of the _____ is cheesy, but she's still doing it, and I think that success or failure is not what we're talking about here.

In the end, I think that what Josh dislikes about her poetry is not its discursivity (since he mentions Whitman I'm assuming that a certain type of discursivity is OK), but her sensibility, her tragic and emotionally intense view of the world which doesn't allow for the kind of lightening, deflating play that many value in the work of say, Stein, Zukovsky, Duncan, Ashbery, Hejinian, etc. There is play, in her work, but it always moves toward the tragic, the tragedy of thought. The lack of humor that he mentions is probably her most serious flaw, and I agree that in her later work this allows her to slip into melodrama and bathos and a heightened self-regard. What saves this early on, though, is the way in which she reflects on the problems of such vanity, such fragrant self-creation, and pokes fun at in a witty way--look at "Orpheus and Eurydice." But there are plenty of a-g writers who aren't funny, aren't even witty, and who succeed at it. Unless we're going to define irony and humor as form, further problematizing the binary of form/content, we're going to have a hard time locating such flaws anywhere but the vague rubric of tone, sensibility, world-view.

Monday, April 25, 2005

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Check in to No Tell Motel this week and check out my poems. Much thanks to Reb, indefatigable editor and mother.


Back from Passover in Mt. Kisco. Good to see everyone, and gather, around the table, the many lines-of-descent and relation. Best gefilte fish ever. A very, very short Haggadah, but one which featured "Go Down, Moses!" Passover can either be unbearably poignant, or if there's no awareness of the wider social and political implications, intolerable. This one was good: no-one is free until everyone is free.

Noah was quite impressed with all the trucks and busses in Manhattan, all the beep-beep-beeps and multilayer reflections the rain played down around him. We live next to the main road into town here in Ithaca, and so trucks, banging against the potholes outside our door, have become an integral part of his dream life.

Happy to get to the Whitney and see the Twombly and Hawkinson shows, each one a delight in its own completely different way. Twombly's housepaint and crayon "blackboard" paintings are much more interesting in real life than in reproduction-- the subtle grayscale play and graininess of the lines doesn't come through a photograph. It put me in mind of the painter, forced by the AbEx syndicate to write the same sentence over and over until finally, thank god, it loses all meaning: I will not make referential art. I will not make referential art. I will not make referential art.

That Twombly was a Army cryptographer makes absolute sense.


Ah Cy Twombly
when you think of him
doing his military service in Somewhere, U.S.A.
as a cryptographer
in 1953
you know how inscrutable the 20th century can be

1)But Bolsena! Inside that gorgeous midden heap of rectangles and decoy measurements, there's an encrypted do-it-yourself Italian landscape. Arcadia-by-numbers. Shipping and handling not included.

2)The hours of the clock wander off, cotangential, to look at bargains in Romantic sleepwear.
Someone is carrying a windowacross a field.

3) The late Twombly paintings (of the '80s and '90s) are irresistibly gorgeous. Beautiful, inviting unmade beds. High rent colors and the inexhaustible particularities of the flower. But aren't they Joan Mitchell? As good as, maybe better than, but. . .

4) But no Letter of Resignation and no Poems to the Sea. For my money, that's as good as it gets, by anyone.

More on Hawkinson later.

Monday, April 18, 2005

The woman who runs our family daycare is on vacation in Florida this week, so there's little time for anything but the usual responsibilities and readings as various as possible of Eight Silly Monkeys and The World Book. But I realized that I had forgot to post here that I accepted at Berkeley last week; the money finally came through, and so that's where we're going, a fact about which I haven't even the slightest sense of what-if or regret or worry (plenty of time for that later). I think it's the best place for us and for me as a person, a poet and student.

The semester's coming to a close and we're capping my Cont. Amer. Poetry class with The End of Beauty. There seems to be a good deal of antagonism and faint praise toward Graham here in blogland, sometimes more toward Graham the person but also toward Graham the poet, by people I deeply respect, so I hope to make my case for why this book and Materialism stand in my mind as two of the best works of the last twenty or thirty years. To tell you the truth, I'd never thought of Graham as an Ashbery imitator, as Jonathan Mayhew has suggested, and so I've been considering that as I read. Right now I'm thinking that whereas Ashbery seems to resign himself (resing?)-- sometimes wryly and sometimes jovially-- to indeterminacy and the futility of ideation, Graham sees it as a much more terrifying proposition, accepting it, but also allegorizing the urge to work against it in the figure of Orpheus. To my mind, she gives me cause to consider the dark side of the indeterminate and the open-ended, the violence that accompanies the destruction of held beliefs and assumptions. For me to tell a fairly entitled kid from Scarsdale that the self is an illusion means one thing, means that all of the things he considered as his birthright were put into place around him, and as such don't truly belong to him. Such work is valuable. But to say the same thing to a fourteen-year-old junior high dropout selling dope at the intersection of Pico and Hoover might be a brutalizing or dehumanizing gesture, not to mention unappreciated. It's difficult to quote Graham, as her poems have such a cumulative effect, but here goes:

a place which is a meadow with a hole in it,

and some crawl through such a hole to the other place

and some use it to count with and buy with

and some hide in it and see Him go by

and to some it is the hole on the back of the man running

through which what's coming towards him is coming into him, growing larger,

a hole in his chest through which the trees in the distance are seen
growing larger shoving out sky shoving out storyline

until it's close it's all you can see this moment this hole in his back.

More on this later. The other good news is that Karl Parker was hired to teach at Hobart and William Smith next year. It's a great match, for the students, the faculty, and of course, for Karl. It makes me happy to think that the rich, punning chatter in the 123 annex will cotinue in my absence. Lots of fun for everyone involved. I'm really going to miss the department and HWS in general. I may never find a place as warm and familial.

Friday, April 15, 2005

People (and I should probably, reluctantly, include myself here) seem, basically, crazy lately-- too many y-sounds, a derangement in the bluey, unconscionably gorgeous air, tax day, bankruptcy in the legistatures. Nitid. I've had three verbal altercations with people in the last two days. I never know where the blame lies in these things, but it's interesting that I've consciously meditated on being kind to others every morning for the last few days. The unconscious revolts, I suppose. I wish I could attach my tax anxiety to my disgust with the purposes to which such dollars are or are not directed, but that's not what I consciously attribute it to. I just feel deeply incompetent in the face of these kinds of tasks; sequencing errors; like trying to learn long-division every year from third-grade until seventh, even though I eventually became quite good at math. It always seemed too much like that game Hangman, the rules of which I now forget--long, long, long division.

My book-buying moratorium is over, and I ordered my copy of Joshua Corey's Fourier Series yesterday. $4 off, if you buy before the publication date. Get yours!

Also, check out the moving tributes to Creeley over at Conjunctions. There are some great poems in there.

I recently bought and read Jordan Davis's collection Million Poems Journal. Like Marianne Moore, Davis is a collector, building nests for his poems out of all kinds of seemingly disparate bytes, qualia and partial objects. But, in Davis, anything gets granted object-status, the elegant and inelegant alike--silk panties and french fries; decontextualized phrases and internet fallout and the physical stuff left behind by urban life, full of pleasure-giving potentialities:

Even the dumpsters shine beer for
A bird at war
With a bottlecap in the marigolds.

Perhaps this will raise some hackles, but Jordan is the only real inheritor (as opposed to imitator) of the O'Haraesque urban pastoral. His exuberance makes most poetry of joy seem dour by comparison, and it's intriguing to see a voice working so hard to maintain a consistently upbeat affect. That is, the poems make me think about affect as something consciously constructed, rather than what merely falls into place, beyond the poet's will, as a result of philosophical and attentional choices. Affect, it seems, drives these poems, and it's a strangely successful way of writing. It's an inspiration to those of us who'd like to live better, and treat ourselves and others better. And, as I'm reading Adorno's Minima Moralia, it was a nice break from general insufferableness.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Poetics of the Mongrel

Whoever it is that has accused Ron of obsolescence sounds deeply threatened by any but the stiffest of poetics. And, I can say that, except for Tate, I can't think of a year in which a deserving poet won the Pulitzer; it seems to be virtually a guarantor of irrelevance, a Trojan Horse if you will.

Now, I love Ron as a poet and a critic and I can't think of a piece of critical writing as powerful, unpretentious and rigorously logical as "The New Sentence." Reading it changed the way I think about poetry, about Stein, about grammar. But for a long time now, I've been troubled by the rather easy opposition he sets up between the "School of Quietude" and "The New Americans." I do prefer it to the default distinction--mainstream vs. avant-garde/ post-avant, etc., which seems blatantly pejorative and reads the poetry market wrongly. It seems obvious, but it must be said: any binary distinctions drawn between something as complex as 20th-century poetry are going to ignore the complex, imbricated and multivariable lineages that make the poets we like to read the poets we like to read. The term "New Americans" seems to literalize as a self-conscious school what was the ex-post-facto work of an anthologist, and at times "School of Quietude" seems to impute to certain poets an almost conspiratorial cohesion. Certainly the Pound-Williams--->Zukovsky-Oppen--->Olson-Creeley-Duncan lineage is a coherent and powerful genealogy that kept important aesthetic and poetic views alive. But I find it important to remember that Ashbery, for instance, is as much the child of Stein as he is of Stevens and Auden. What, exactly, is genteel and corseted about Berryman's The Dream Songs? It's about as noisy, shocking and formally experimental a work as I can imagine. Sometimes, I feel that with such binary distinctions poets get judged more by their associations and friends than the actual qualities and characteristics of their work. This is the danger of an overly historical perspective. Rae Armantrout, a poet I admire deeply, is not really all that experimental--on the continuum Quiet/New American she's probably right about where Jorie Graham is. But it seems as if her lineage, and her associations, causes people to read the poems differently.

Such distinctions are going to be useful at lining poets up into rows only to a certain point--we could divide writers depending upon the orientation to the self, to reverence, to form, politics, etc., and each would prove useful to a certain point, more useful for some poets than for others. But to continue to reify the political meaning of a certain group of poets' stance to another group of poets decades after the continental plates have shifted is to fight an invisible enemy. It's been said before and I'll say it again: avant-garde practices don't carry the same meaning today that they did forty years ago, and the best writers, I think, are aware of the ways in which their poems' iterability frustrates any kind of complete meaning in them, or so says Derrida. There are always going to be, thank god, interesting writers who frustrate these categories. And the poetic world today--where one can inherit both Merrill and Clark Coolidge--seems to laugh off such an easy distinction. This is why I admire the way that Jordan reads, with an aesthetic receptive to the accomplishments of people from all across the spectrum, however inadequately you choose to frame it. Most of the best poets these days are mongrels. Toward a poetics of the mongrel, the bastard, the orphaned!

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

I'll return your Pope, if you give me back my Creeley and my Bellow.

--It takes me so long to read the 'paper,
said to me one day a novelist hot as a firecracker,
because I have to identify with everyone in it,
including the corpses, pal.'

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

What a lovely place to swim, what strata! Get out your binoculars. . .

Monday, April 04, 2005

I'm getting that raw-all-over just-hatched feeling concomitant with the inclemencies of early Spring. Is it Hejinianistic? Hejinianic? Hejinianian? Whaddaya think?

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Feeling guilty about leaving my blog empty for, what, a week now, but also feeling uninterested in the diaristic and/or cognitive trivia of my life. Yesterday, Chris Nealon gave a talk on Adornian and queer-theoretical disappointment in poetry, and particularly that of George Stanley, noting the productive and constructive powers of disappointment and resignation, in which he used the term disco-homographesis, a first I would expect. Nealon's essay on "Camp Messianism" which you can get through Project Muse (if you have access) is really fantastic, a wonderful articulation of recent and future tendencies in poetry, namely a concern with all that effluvial shit no-one knows what to do with, "Man on the Dump"-style. The the. Per Nealon's reading, and Josh's rec., I'm reading Kevin Davies' Comp. which is just a fantastically wild ride that makes me rethink everything I might otherwise think about diction, that it exists, etc. Great title, too. How many meanings in those four letters? Four, five? Teaching My Life. Jessie, my honors student, is finishing up her project, a remarkable collection of poems, some of which I will soon post here. And another student, who is going to present on Gabe's A Defense of Poetry recently brought the book to a fraternity open-mic, where they spent the entire night reading from it, and laughing, Gabe being perhaps the most universally hilarious poet I can think of, only the most corseted and uptight of people, I think, could fail to find a humor--lowbrow, highbrow, scatological--to their liking there. With all respect and love, a fraternity might be Gabe's ideal audience--farts, violence to animals, etc.

What else? Noah is walking, toddling's the word, with less and less circumspection. He'll be running soon, I'm sure, and then we're really in for it.

Not sure where I'm going next year, either Stanford or Berkeley, depending on whether or not I get a fellowship package from Berkeley. Both great places, with people doing important work on poetry and related interests.

I'm putting together a chapbook-length version of the LA poem for Burn Denver Down. It's good to have a deadline to force some concentrated attention.

Karl and I are planning to do some kind of collaboration for our reading at Soon in May.