Monday, January 31, 2005

Today's Reading

Worst days, when I wane, impotent and mildly bourgeois beside the radio or in front of the blinking cursor, I may fall prone to a hopeless countenancing of humanity's-end-as-only-viable-solution-to-humanity's-problems--without, of course, the metaphysical fireworks and fireside chat with God. I might say, to anyone within earshot, "get on with it and kill us all. Just hurry." This happens less now that I have a child and furniture from IKEA for which there is no refund policy in the afterlife. But it happens, and if I wanted to understand this impulse better I might turn to Fanny Howe's Selected Poems (California, 2000), where the end of suffering, the end of capitalism's vicissitudes is figured and reconfigured in many an open-ended, hush-filled poem-sequence.

Most days aren't worst, however, and I play with the baby and put blood--er, gasoline-- in the car, buoyed by whatever anti-entropic, beautifully inhuman force I'm using as my soundtrack to get through the day. I like to think it's something more than fear or self-preservation, and if I were the speaker of Howe's poems I would be confirmed in that belief. Even if, like the speaker of "Robeson Street," the concord I long for / Is like not being alive but finished," paradoxically, if I allow myself such a wish-- if I'm chill with, like, the worst-- I'm given the necessary fortitude to ". . . set up a night fork / And face the materials." This teleological view, this willingness to bear the end, gives Howe a remarkably perceptive apparatus, where

Away from the park and zoo

bends become
calamities of bricked-up

but also where "black grackles . . . sit between / each invisible spot of/ happiness." Well, not so invisible. Not today, and not for this reader.

Some of my favorite poets are liars. I mean, some truths--especially universal ones--are best kept in the bedroom. Honesty's good; it's sincerity that gets me in trouble every time.

But if by dishonest poetry, Jordan means meretricious, pretentious, look-editor-no-hands type stuff, I'm on his team. I've always wanted to be on a team. With t-shirts.

There may be cause for a limited reclamation of the terms "genuine" and "authentic" from the dustbin of the 'eighties. As long as I don't have to write what I know or crash airplanes in the Serengeti--definite trouble there.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Unsurprisingly, I agree with most everyone else that Richard Tayson's post over at is right well chowderheaded. Despite all its universalizing gestures and overtures, Whitman's preface speak to his particular historical and geographical moment, and to continue to look to it for dicta about how to write a poem in the 21st century is to misread him both in spirit and letter: "You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me. . . ." For precisely the reasons Whitmans enunciates in his preface, formulaic poetry will always seem pernicious--regardless of whatever philosophical system you can attach it to. Sharon Olds--who is neither a terrible poet nor a great poet, I enjoy some of her poems--isn't all that original intellectually or formally, since she's a derivation of the much more capacious work of Lowell and Plath. But the same can--and should-- be said of a good number of langpo or avant or post-avant writers. I've never read anything by Leslie Scalapino that I cared for, but I'm sure she has some good poems.

As for Vendler's remarks about the paucity of major thirty-something poets, I'm of the mind that age matters much less than page count. More often than not, it's a poet's second or third book that establishes their lasting value, although there are certainly some writers whose first books were tremendous. Anne Carson is, to my mind, a major poet who has done most of her work in the last decade. Although I'd be interested in her life story, from the standpoint of "major writing" I don't really care all that much how old she is. I care how old her poems are in relation to the relative ages of other poems.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

from Five Drives


None-below or all-above:
the roots of fire
founder on a thicker star.

There’s no music for this,
a thief in weeping, a mold in the poles.

Is it an election or a siege?
Where freedom, read Jesus.

Day, multiply, in power!
Day they bear the image / to be a slave
To the other side
We are not this author

A pox on your hex! If murder’s
beauty’s guarantor. . .


Exegesis’s bulletholes in the cuneiform.
Have I been good? Has a bad gold been here?
If you can fetishize an ambulance,
if your limbs extend
deep into those darkest jellies. . .

Up ahead, the road’s closed.
They’re routing us through Waterloo.

Friday, January 28, 2005

"As for the prohibition on smoking, Berryman told Eileen to tell their landlords that what poets did was smoke. Only occasionally, very occasionally, the Misses Resor had to understand, did poets actually write poems."

Wow, it feels good to be writing, really writing, for the first time in a while, and teaching where I live, mentally. I'm trying to break the superstition that if I talk about it, the writing, that it will go away, that the work will sour, turn to shit. A residue of my childhood, of magical thinking in the face of powerlessness, where I thought: if I don't love this person, maybe they will love my not loving them back. If I don't want it, I'll get it. Which of course never works, since the not-wanting is only a kind of masquerading want.

But it's also a bit terrifying that poetry meets some foundational need in me that everything else, however powerful or enriching or life-consuming, can't. Not the love of the most wonderful of women, not fatherhood, not faith in an invented, alien voice in a world born of error, and not all of the life-saving things I've had to do to stay here on earth and share such maunderings with you. Maybe this will change someday.

My Post-WWII Am. Po. students are falling in love with Berryman, which is wonderful to watch, learning his idiom and thinking about self-invention and self-construction in B. as a reaction to and repudiation of Eliotian depersonalization. Read in this light, the Henrification of the child-sized and half-abandoned lyric I, the Henrification of Berryman's life, the creation of persona as an escape from personality and emotion only leads to hysteria, repetition-compulsion and some damn good poetry. But in The Dream Songs, unlike in The Waste Land and Prufrock, the I survives to tell about it, survives the foundering of the poetic vessel into 1st, 2nd and 3rd person strains. It puts me in mind of Josh Corey's Heideggerian reading of Whitman, where there is the socialized, inauthentic Walt Whitman, a cosmos, and then the authentic "me myself" that stands "apart from the pulling and hauling." Berryman, though, interpolates a third term here, the imaginary friend who serves to remind Henry of the common denominator he shares with everyone else: mortality, his "Bones" which to the plain, non-archaeological eye would look remarkably similar to anyone else's. It is this friend who permits Henry's daring and to some offensive identification with, and transformation into, the marginalized and dispossessed, the preterite-- Holocaust victims and the victims of American slavery and white supremacy. As Berryman himself learned when arguing with an anti-semite who later called him a Jew--because he "looked like a Jew and talked like a Jew"--such designations are in part something that one is called from without, not a calling from within. I'm eager to see how my students think through this difficult material, and what it might tell us, in a few weeks, about Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. To be continued. . .

In my other class, Advanced Poetry Writing, it appears that my students are attracted by and large to the experimental and difficult, picking poems by Bruce Andrews, Rae Armantrout, Michael Burkard and Dan Beachy-Quick over some of the more conventional but no less accomplished offerings in our three anthologies: BAP 2001, BAP 2004 and The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries. Does this contradict Josh's hypothesis about the initiation required for an appreciation of experimental poetry? Or do they--having studied and written poetry, but not necessarily being that well-read--count as already-initiated? Does initiation mean fostering a willingness to be surprised? For their experience, at least as relayed to me, was one of discovery; many comments along the lines of: I've never seen someone do this before, and I want to understand how and why it works. Of course, this isn't a very reliable empirical survey, since it's obvious to them what I value and since my assignments have clearly sought to motivate experimentation on their part. So maybe I've already initiated them, in which case it's not such a hard thing to do. More like a baptism. Dunk them in the water twice and presto! Had lots of smart things to say, they did: comments like "in this poem, the dashes function more like words than punctuation." So thrilling to have engaged, trenchant students.

An auspicious start to the semester, then, and I have four-day weekends! I'm going to try and post more frequently and add a few more links Th-M. Thanks to all who keep visiting. You force me to think as clearly as I can.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Deep in Berryman this weekend, while the snow stockpiles its small cold forms outside. Reading outside The Dream Songs, which I haven't done in years, and reading Paul Mariani's biography, a page-turner:

Although Mariani doesn't suggest this, it strikes me that the hinge-moment in Berryman's life is when he visits Heidelberg in 1937 (I think this is right) and witnesses firsthand the Nazi's consolidation of power, meaning and culture. When he returns to Cambridge, there's an insuppressible rage to his poetry and correspondence, breaking through the overlay of well-formed Yeatsian imitation. No-one--except perhaps Yeats and Shakespeare--survives his scathing criticism of poetry's impotence in the face of fascism, and in the resulting century-sized ambition, we get the first hints of the twisted syntax and slippery diction of later works.

It may be the case that after the dust clears, if it does clear (if we are allowed a future continuous enough to permit an examination of this historical period), some of the best poets of my generation will have found "what suffices" in these years after September 11th, years of war war war. It comforts me to think of someone right now--someone who came of age (read: got laid) in the early nineties or late eighties-- rising to such a challenge, writing a poetry adequate to the seemingly insurmountable ambit of the present. This narrative of challenge and response comforts me, it truly does.

Certainly The Blog is aswarm with many voices who will object to such a politicization of "the role of the poet." When, for instance, I read through the interviews at Here Comes Everybody, I'm surprised at how clearly compartmentalized these very smart and interesting poets see the political and the poetic. It's much murkier for me. Without a doubt, poetry does not (except in certain historical moments) effect direct political change, and when it attempts to it is often very bad for the poetry. But poetry does often speak--in an indeterminate and open-ended way-- to its historical and political moment, and continue to speak to future moments. What the reader does with such a dialogue is unpredictable--given the same poem, a Pound will turn to Mussolini and a Ginsberg will turn to some kind of psychosocial anarchy. Nevertheless, good poetry can create a space for the play of political and moral impulses, a place where the receptive reader's sense of his or her historical moment is enlarged, allowed to stretch out and try on various, particolored responses. I don't think all poetry does this, but many poems do, and in this way the political can be an important material for poetry. I must admit that it disturbs me to note that so many poets whose work allows me this kind of experience might disavow such a role for poetry. Is it fashionable to say that poetry has nothing to do with politics? Are we too afraid that history will make fools of us?

This is when his syntax starts to knot up, too.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Frequently Asked Questions

The Fact is no sister our son can rough up lovely
with suffrage flowering about his ankles like
the truth is—Breathe, blood—hirsute: a mouth full of broken who’s.

This is my final meta-mission, my subcommander.
Uterus, u-boat, pronoun: the overhours of Oblivion
ruffle and aspirate. Love is live, my lissome, and leans out from and against
if-so and says how wrongly la-la-la life is somewhere. On the front page,

the space capsule Genesis slips through the hydraulic
claws of the helicopter and its argot-
cargo of delicate starshit (wherein we might
decode our own abasement) plunges

into the North Specific. We pinball through the sefirot.
I’d make a point of making a paint of that.
I’d color him sail and hope. Rub the ever in good.

Not once has a hand reached up from wet
concrete of the recent past
to give the all-clear sign.

The mind is no place to raise a child.
No face to rise from, bedizened, into measureless camouflage.

That guy, this guy. One of them walks into the middle of what I’m saying with a gun.

Friday, January 21, 2005

To clarify my last post, which strikes me now as (and perhaps is) sexist: anyone can be a father (even a mother) but only one person can be a mother.

Animals can be tamed, but not mouths

The pillowiness of my teaching schedule this semester--T and Th--and the fact that Anna is on a MWF schedule has afforded Noah and I a great deal of time together. It's fascinating, joymaking and, in its way, saddening to watch Noah enter into language (the father's province, if we're to believe those Europeans). We'll tell him not to do something (say, play with the electrical outlet), he'll stop, and then three seconds later begin doing it again, but this time muttering no no no no to himself, internalizing the voice of prohibition. And this is what's heartbreaking, that language in its most incipient, inchoate form creates a split in consciousness, a split between word and desire, action and desire, between name and desire, hell, between desire and desire. We try not to use the word "no" too much, but in the case of electrical outlets. . . Certainly, we all just want to plug into the world, but there are good outlets and bad outlets. Poetry is a good outlet, mostly; crackpipe bad. Sex good, mostly; gun to head bad. And on and on, with the father and his vital, life-saving, socializing, pleasure-deferring "no" all the way back to Abraham. But we can't forget the equally vital yes when word and object almost match up.

Last night I was reading Noah a bed time story, Lacan's Ecrits to be exact, and he said "Daddy, this is such total bullshit. Let's read The Little Engine That Could."

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Inauguration Day, January 2005

The now has married snow and sand.
Snow's shattered hourglass, a split infinity, from B.
To D. in half a scratch. Say brain is mind
Is bioterrorism; no novel chemical
Eli Lilly would author could lave the phantom hand
Bodyless and holding still its gun-blind will.
Apparently, sad Said says, no future brave or there enough
To point its endings back at us.
I watch white’s lazy ovals carve out offices
Among our lexicon of wind: secretary of reverse,
Department of negation, disorders from on high.
Look, the rigged raw wars, where thought's a lie
Metaphysics won’t torture pleasure out of us.
Convict, there's no one here to help you. . .

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

"But let's not rewrite history. It's too soon to do that." A good left hook, this Boxer has.

Oulipo breaks Vachel Lindsay out of of jail at Cahiers du Corey. He hot.

Monday, January 17, 2005

I'm feeling you.

Noah's first day at daycare today. Cherubim, and a flaming sword to the east of Eden. No no no no no, he said, when he got home, and gave the television a kiss. I know how he feels. I don't know how we fail him, only that we do.

In other noise, reading through the n-dimensional game of chutes and ladders that is Tony Tost's Invisible Bride. I love the open-headed, even-handed wonderment of the poems, their slow currents and shallows. I'm tempted to use the word mysticism. Is that just one of those catch-alls for a form of inarticulateness? In any case, when I read him, I can sort of feel my synapses taking the road less traveled. It's so nice to have something to read, and such a sign of my particular pathologies that I often feel like there isn't anything to read.

"Comparisons are odious," says Moore, but it's an impulse I'm addicted to. Please ignore me whenever I say something is better than or worse than or best or equivalent to. Please ignore me often. I'd hate to see a streetfight for best jeremiad between "For the Union Dead" and "The pure products of America. . ."

Saturday, January 15, 2005

New Additions to Noah's Vocabulary

No (somehow I forgot this one last week)

Some Thoughts on Self in Poetry

Just finished reading a section of Jenny Boully's "The Body" in John D'Agata's essay anthology The Next American Essay, and now I'll have to buy the book from Slope (oops, it's sold out). Consisting entirely of footnotes to a non-existent text, it's a piece of formal, narrative and thematic-associational brilliance; it gives us a portrait of the mind of the author at work, a portrait of all of the subtext, all of the image-swatches, conversation-snippets, musings and one-liners that go into writing a poem or essay or short story (the text itself, all white space, is any and all of these). Boully's brilliance was to realize that this material, this unfinished process, was the text itself. In the hands of another writer not the ghost of Nabokov, such a way of making disjunction salient--we've seen this before--could seem gimmicky; it does seem gimmicky in Infinite Jest, a book I love (despite its messiness) and will defend ardently against any and all detractors. But the reason Boully succeeds, I think, is that the text constantly and patiently suggests to the reader the necessity, indeed the inevitability, of its form. The oedipal (yes, I know the narrator is a woman) figure of the "great poet" who, like Eliot, suggests that she keep the personal, emotional and autobiographical out of her work, make it subtext and not text--becomes a stifling and tyrannical figure. And yet, a necessary one, too, because for all of its intimate details and personal anecdotes, this isn't confession served up whole; it's Eliot's "escape from personality" gotten at precisely by surrendering to it.

I think about this issue (how to deal with the morass of the self) a great deal--not only because my first manuscript is, in the words of a friend, "a very personal book,"(the former title poem "Interference" offers up a narrative of its own besotted genesis in a three page long footnote)--but more because I am often confused or hurt or upset by the disparaging remarks people I admire have for writers like Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell and, to a lesser degree, John Berryman, dubbed with the pejorative moniker "confessional." I've indicated in earlier posts that I find it necessary to distinguish between these writers and what I might call petit confessionalism. Robert Hass has said that he likes the early Lowell better than the Lowell of Life Studies, For the Union Dead and Near the Ocean. Lowell is probably one of my biggest influences; I claim him wholly and unabashedly--and while I, too, treasure the early Lowell, I think there is much to be said in favor of the three books listed above. My sense is that people write off Life Studies in the same way that they write off Freud. Freud is so much more than the find-the-sausage game that people think he is, just as Lowell's poems are so much more than the person whose news-briefs people think they are. While Life Studies may claim to "say what happened" that's just Lowell vulgarizing himself: the book is about the legacy of history--national, personal, familial-- as it impinges upon our lives, and about the fine web of relationality wherefrom identity derives. While there may be a great deal of direct self-portraiture in this book, it's worth noting that most of the space in these poems is devoted to people other than himself. Look at "Memories of West Street and Lepke" or "Waking in the Blue" or "Skunk Hour," or any of the other anthology favorites. The speaker in these poems only exists in the interstices between other lives, only exists in relation to, and through, and at the mercy of, these other people. "Skunk Hour," for instance, is a portrait of a community in crisis; the poem spirals through five or six character before fixing on the skulking narrator in its closing stanzas, whose crisis is merely an emblem of the larger network of fierce, classist privacy and its kissing cousin, voyeurism. And while we may find something indulgent in the closing movement, it's a far cry from the imitations it spawned, which essentially take the "I myself am hell" lines as their platform, and lose all of the generous attention to other people's lives. It would be difficult, I think, to call these poems narcissistic, or self-involved. And these few poems are about as confessional as Lowell ever gets. The next two books are much more concerned with history, and the way that it bears, horribly, upon the present. In, for instance, "For the Union Dead," one of the best poems of its type since Jeremiah, Lowell the man is but a footnote to the horrible mortmain of the past, a feeble attempt to satisfy its debt. I need this poem today, as I've needed it just about every day of the last three years. I think that a good yardstick here is to ask whether the poem's fealty is to an individual life, an individual's experience, or life and experience in general, whether the vector of the poems is toward individual experience or away from it. Lowell and Plath, when they are hot, exemplify the former movement; petit confessionalism the latter. These poems aren't attempts to document a life, but attempts to find in that life and that experience the thread and trace of the other, the past, and perhaps the future. Jenny Boully's essay, I think, succeeds for the same reasons. One can, of course, feel excluded by the Lowell's poetry--by its privilege and erudition--and I wouldn't want to deny anybody such a feeling. His allusions can be annoying, no doubt, and he's capable of some monstrous clinkers. But on January 20th, when the captain turns on the "Fasten Your Seatbelts" sign and our Present Dented starts using the f-word (freedom), I'll turn as I turned four years ago to Lowell's "Inauguration Day: January 1953," a poem that succeeds at being both political and occasional without any of the morning-after regrets:

Ice, ice. Our wheels no longer move.
Look, the fixed stars, all just alike
as lack-land atoms, split apart,
and the Republic summons Ike,
the mausoleum in her heart.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

"There comes a time in any such discussions as this when the effort to avoid the word reality becomes too great a tax on the writer's agility." --George Oppen

Noah's Current Vocabulary (spoken)


Much admiration here for the sensitive, nuanced and generous response to Houlihan's review of BAP 2004 over at Josh's Calle de Corey. I agree with his sense that, to a certain point, such dismissals must be reckoned with, responded to with an intelligence and energy equal to or greater than that put into them. Houlihan is witty, and intelligent, and a pretty good poet, despite her cramped and anxious aesthetic--a series of dont's and prohibitions, an aesthetic without a sufficiently positive description. I guess I'm not as kind and sensitive of a person as Josh, or I enjoy word-as-weapon too much. Sorry: growing up, I had no other way of defending myself. But I feel that my response to Danielle Chapman's review of The Iowa Anthology could stand as a response to Houlihan.

I am not sure that avant or post-avant (or whatever name you want to give them) poetries, or those that assimilate such practices to a greater or lesser degree, are really that inaccessible to the common reader; when they are good, as they often are, they will have immediately apprehensible pleasures to them. I think that the problem (as Josh has himself indicated) is one of expectations: if you expect a poem to have a message, to mean in a certain kind of way, or if you expect it to deliver up pleasures of a certain variety, then you will be disappointed. And I'm not sure if it's the common or general reader that needs responding to, as much as the university- educated critic and poet who feels threatened by a certain poetic. Joan Houlihan has obviously read quite a bit, and it's admirable that she at least sits down and reads things that she doesn't expect to like. Most don't. But, semester after semester, my students (who often have had very little exposure to poetry, let alone experimental poetry) demonstrate their ability to enjoy something which they don't understand (despite what Marianne Moore says). They are fine once they understand that their first task is to experience Paul Celan's poem, or Brenda Shaughnessy's, or whatever it is I'm teaching, rather than understand or reduce it to some crystalline message or point. They may, at first, ask "what's the point?"But there are good answers to this question, good ways of returning the question by addressing their experience of the poem's difficulty. These students need to be told that the writer's goal is not to establish some intelligence differential between writer and reader, but to adjust the way that we experience, perceive and read the world. They need to know that the answer to the poem's multiple choice question is close to "all of the above" or "all of the above except c." As a colleague of mine often says there are an infinite number of values between 0 and 1, an infinite number of valid responses to a particular poem, although four isn't one of these values, and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" probably doesn't have anything to do with the Napoleonic Wars (although I might be wrong).

I'm intrigued by the organic-inorganic continuum that Josh gives, but I'm not sure I get it. I haven't read Burger's book, but the system confuses me because so much of the poetry that one might call "organic"--say confessional poetry of the bad, derivative and misunderstood variety, the Anne Sexton rather than Sylvia Plath or Robert Lowell variety-- takes as its justification a grounding in something exterior to the poem--a historical personage, the life of the author, a historical event, etc. We may, for instance, like a poem about a suicide attempt because of what it's about not what it is. This was, as I understand it, the point of the Yasusada hoax, to catch people liking poems not because of what they were but because of who wrote them. And much of the project of Romantic poetry and American trascendentalism, as I see it, and as Paul DeMan suggests, involves the author foisting off creative agency onto the world, a way of deemphasizing artifice and naturalizing the creative process. Wordsworth "discovers" in the daily life of ordinary people a poetry of radical promise; Whitman discovers in the grass "a uniform hieroglyphic, "a transcendental writing that he need not create, only receive. The working of tropes in these poems claims its validity from contiguity--the grass is the "beautiful uncut hair of the graves" because people are actually buried under it--not from the creative and active crafting process of the poet's mind, which is content to employ artificial conceits and metaphorical transformations. Of course, we all know that Whitman and Wordsworth are creating rather than discovering. It's the basis of all magic tricks--you put something there so that you can then pretend to find it. They are planting evidence.

And I get doubly confused because much of the poetry that I consider "non-organic" seems to purposely avoid a grounding in the extra-textual or representational, to have the associational and paranomastic action of the poem not one between signifier and signified but between signifier and signifier (as impossible as this is, of course). I'm not sure, then, that poetry like Tender Buttons (which must certainly earn a "6" on Josh's scale) refers to an extratextual telos or "reality." In fact, I think Stein endeavors to avoid such externalizing of language effects, to strip language of its representative functions--even if some of the portraits work as portraits that's a secondary effect of her project. The fun is in the chafing of words against each other, the grinding gears of grammars, the pure rhythms unattached to a world they might be called upon to imitate.

Certainly the organic-inorganic distinction works very well for discussing the poetry's level of internal cohesion, whether it's composed of fragments that fail to cohere or whether the writer presents a seamless wholeness or unity. Perhaps, though, I'm not understanding and someone would like to explain it to me. I do so love talking and thinking about this stuff.

Monday, January 10, 2005

The Job Market

I write to apply for your. I write to imply. I right to reply to your Pogrom in the job you posted for a position of, where I have excellently. I write to apply for a ductile wrist in the Department of Anguish. I am white inside. I write where I hide. I am a Professor. Have profited from teaching various. Have published in. Care deeply about the process insert x into correct grammatical slot.

As for the teaching of, students often, when encountering, cry out or for their parents, for whom your machinery has little clemency but great imagination. My instruments are almost exactly like yours.

Although, without a doubt, perhaps, on the one hand and on the other, I will be attending the and look forward to hating you.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

On First Looking into Chapman's Boner

The end message of Danielle Chapman's review of The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries in Poetry is that we poets should stop playing with our thingies (words, sounds, meanings) and grow up and start "seducing" respectable readers like Chapman. Procreate, don't dial your own phone number! I shall try not to make too much of the extended metaphor of her review, which seems somewhat arbritrarily chosen, and intended to get a rise out of me (no pun intended) but the "giggles" and condescencion which mastubation elicits here seem better suited to a 'fifties hygiene handbook than a poetry review. The title of the review is "Bad Habits." Get your hand out of those dungarees, Mr. Whitman! (Curiously, Whitman, despite his virtuousic descriptions of poetic masturbation, seems to have a hang-up--perhaps his only hang-up--on this issue. He subscribed, as did Proust, to the spermatic economy model, whereby the less orgasms you have the smarter you get; reading through his prose, you can often come across phrases like "the gray drained faces of onanists.")

But infelicities of metaphor aside, let us move on to the marshmallowy substance of her argument. She quotes Reginald writing, in his introduction, that "They are all poets for whom . . . experience is not prior to the poem but something we undergo with and within the poem, for whom the poem itself is an experience." Her response is that "since this experience rarely requires the author to reach beyond himself"--as opposed to into his/her own pants, note her consistently male-gendered pronouns--"our role as readers is limited to watching." Now there are websites where people pay good money to watch others masturbate, but Chapman completely misreads and misunderstands Reginald. When Reginalds writes that the poem is an experience we undergo with and within the poem, he's pointing to the way that these poems discourage precisely the kind of passive reading/voyeurism that she decries. That's the point to process-oriented as opposed to product-oriented poetry; its slippages of syntax, grammar, semantics and form encourage an active process of assembly and head-scratching by the reader. For Chapman, any encounter between poet and reader seems entirely the responsibility of the former; but it's a two-way street, this one, and hers is a rather lazy theory of reading, if you ask me. I bet she never gets on top.

Poetic onanism, for Chapman, is the behavioral manifestation of narcissism (yes, I always fantasize about myself when masturbating!), and my contemporaries and I "find [ourselves] infinitely fascinating, and the tricks of our memory and sense the best possible material." But if Reginald's description of these poets is right, and both Chapman and I seem to agree that it is, it is the experience of writing a poem and being a person-in-language that is fascinating, not the bio-pic details of our lives. You will find hardly any poems in here which apply, or must apply, to one-life-and-one-life-only; if there is autobiography here, it is of the one-size-fits-all variety of which Ashbery talks--meant, in fact, to encourage precisely this point of intersection between reader and writer. You won't hear any of these poets saying "this poem goes out to all of the people who can really, like, dig what I've been through, man. The rest of you, if you want, feel free to either a)pity me b)admire me." I guess she missed the first sentence of my Artistic Statement, in which I talk about how uninterested I am in the facts and details of my own life. I'm saving that for the $$$$-memoir.

In fact, poets in here are remarkably selfless and un-self-interested. They may write about inner life, or psychic experience, or thought, but not in a proprietary "stand-back-and-watch-me-think" kind of way. They purposely invite the reader to experience the poem; I'm opening pretty much at random and avoiding the names to whom Chapman concedes some talent:

do you know how it feels
to pull hair like a sibling

to break the bird to spare
its awful speech this is

relapse another intrusion
a day to sing a hole

in the ground
sister on the roof weapon
near her face

a shovel to pray
for something like proof
they do adult things
with no words ("Of Children on Wood," Malinda Markham)

You get the sense that if this poem were rewritten around an I, in rhyming quatrains, Chapman just might like it. Or,

Beneath any common belief
lies the unspoken, occluded, torn
way we proceed ("Night Blindness," Jocelyn Emerson)

Perhaps the above would have been OK had it been delivered as the epiphanic ending to a quaint, largely narrative poem about a breakup. It seems that Chapman's problem with such poetry is that the poet has let "thought master feeling." "Philosophy, not poetry, is the best vehicle for abstract thought," she writes. One could write a small tract on the problems with these two claims; in fact, people have. First off, the distinction between thought and feeling is a problematic one, and I wonder what a feeling unmastered by thought would "feel" like. How do you feel in words without thinking? And isn't that precisely what the attempt by many of these poets to cast off the onus of denotative language is doing? Much of what we call feeling is, in other places, a kind of thinking; unless we're talking about very primal feeling-states, there is probably a good deal of thought involved; notice the interchangeability of "I feel" and "I think." If an emotion has on object, there is a thought to it. That's part of the process of psychoanalysis, making the thoughts that subtend an emotion visible; and that's part of the work that good poetry, like lucid dreaming, can do for us. As for the second claim, she may be right that philosophy is the best vehicle for abstract thought, but is abstract thought the best vehicle for philosophy? Poetry can body and sensualize philosophical abstractions (does she like Stevens? Dickinson?), which is precisely what the Jocelyn Emerson poem proceeds to do. Using imagery and metaphor. This is, like, Poetry 101, and it's Philosophy 101, too. Kierkegaard, Nietschze and Wittgenstein all employ poetic techniques to convey their ideas; they are often pretty good poets, too. And while, certainly, there's a Kant or a Hegel for every Nietsczhe, there is more than one way to skin a philosophical problem. Boy, I sound like a real pedant. I'd rather be a sophist than a pedant when I grow up, but pedantism is called for sometimes.

Is there anything to commend Chapman's review? Yes, she gets some things right, but she gets them wrongly right. For her, the "poems are explanatory tracts about what 'the big hunger' would be if they [the poets] did experience it, not examples of it." Now, aside from the pejorative "explanatory tracts," I find this description compelling. Yes, the hunger is in fact so big that its object cannot be named; it is sublime, is outside of language. If it is truly an existential hunger, then to give an example of it would necessarily diminish it--any example will be a metonymic displacement, a la Lacan. An objectless hunger, a lack without a name, without dogtags or a barcode. Maybe not unexperienced--but at least incapable of being directly experienced in language. It can only be performed, shown, like the rules of Wittgenstein's language. It can be pointed at, and it is the reader's job to see where the arrows are pointing. We're not talking about a Big Mac here, are we? We're talking about something akin to God or justice or the freeedom from the prison-house of language, however you choose to frame it, toward which all the petty desiderata and shopping lists of bourgeois desire point. But Chapman's big desire is to be "seduced." She knows what she wants. God bless her. I, on the other hand, always feel a bit let down afterward, a bit used, like I might have been better off just playing by/with myself in my own little sandbox. Because seduction is dishonest, isn't it? It's never quite all I expected.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Insanity Is the Insistence upon Meaning

Now if I were the kind of person who forgets to take her meds and reads The DaVinci Code and begins to have deeply and terrifyingly meaningful thoughts about the meaning of everything at the same time I might be inclined to think that Daniel Liebeskind's plans for the WTC site are clear evidence of the end of days. "Insanity is the insistence upon meaning," I read once (if someone could give me an attribution for this--Emerson? Nietschze?--I'd be very indebted) and what surer sign of apocalypse could you have than a Jewish kabbalistic architect--whose Holocaust museum in Berlin seems incredibly brilliant--building the "freedom tower" during the reign of a messianic Christian President. Always a bad sign when there are so many capitalized nouns. The trouble with History.

I often listen to the Family Life Network while driving through the gently sloping wine-and-dairy country between here and Geneva, as I like to keep up with the signs and wonders, etc., and I'm always intrigued and terrified when the preachers begin to talk about Israel and Palestine in terms of Revelations. I must say I find nothing more terrifying (yes, I've overusing this word) than the confluence of the ambitions of militant zionism (settlements, all of Jerusalem, permanent eviction of the Palestinians) and messianic christianity--a historical pact not unlike that between Stalin and Hitler (and we know how that turned out). That, for instance, my uncle supports Bush seems patently absurd. Doesn't he realize that for Bush Israel is just the proverbially and provisionally friendly enemy of the enemy, quick to be jettisoned at the opportune moment? I don't know much about the messianic aspects of Judaism, don't know all that much in general--except for the Elijah cup on Passover--but what I like about Judaism is its insistence upon right action (mitzvah) in the here and now, and its close-lippedness about any future world--heaven, hell.

Bring on the rapture, I say. Wouldn't it be just grand if all gay-and-heathen-hating Fungusmentalists were beamed up into the cumulonimbus? On earth as it is in heaven for sure.

A friend of a friend relates his vision of a giant turd descening upon the dome of the White House: he calls it The Crapture.

By the by, I've been reading Revelations lately, and I must admit it's some damn compelling poetry. Here's the one and only reappearance of the tree of life which, plus knowledge, equals godhood. This is the last verse of the New Testament, 22:

And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the lamb.

In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of it, was there the tree of life . . . .

Now, to my mind that's a pretty brilliant conceit. The street of the river? The tree growing on both sides? I don't know what John the Revelator was on, but please don't slip it in my drink.

Wishing you all some sane meaninglessness,