Friday, May 27, 2005

Cattiness, and the Dog-Eat-Dog World of Poetry

No, I don't think the poetry world is exceptionally nasty, yet the animal metaphor serves well as an entry into the subject of competition. Following the concepts that writing is a way of thinking and that the nature of the blogosphere is one of immediacy, I don't have this all figured out but I'm working on it as I go along.

Here in San Francisco, on Highway 1, on bluffs overlooking the Pacific, there's a dog and dog-walker's paradise called Fort Funston. Despite the posted warnings that it is a leash-only area, thousands of dogs a weekend come and go along the paths and shrubs and dunes unleashed, following (loosely) their masters, running after balls and other toys, and sniffing each other's butts in friendly greeting, as dogs will do. Many of these same creatures, walking leashed down the sidewalk with their masters, will snarl, bare their teeth, even attack another dog. (My dog only picks on the ones who are smaller than she is, heh heh.) I think the reason behind this is an animal's territorial nature, its need to guard itself and its master from encroachment or perceived danger on the sidewalk. However, free to run from threat and surrounded by miles of space, mastiffs mingle with mutts, pit bulls are rarely pugnacious, and wagging tails are the rule.

What does this have to do with the world of Poetry? Bear with me. As many of us have experienced, success in the business world is as often a matter of who you know and connections, in general, and being in the right place at the right time, as how hard you work and how good you are at doing your job. The smaller and more competitive the world--the high tech situation today, for instance, compared with that of the late 90s--the more those things factor in. Believe me: I am in an enviable job situation while people I know who are far more talented than I have been out of work for years, including people who interviewed me for my job.( Yet no one sends me hate mail.)

In Poetry, where many of the big rewards (I'm not talkiing personal satisfaction now; that is another thing entirely) come in $35/page increments--or two free copies--where, as others in the blogosphere have noted, no one, in the world at large is going to know you even if you win a Macarthur or Pullitzer, and where you will have a hard time all your life explaining to your own family what you do, let alone why you do it, we're all mountain goats, struggling for a foothold on the hill. And we don't want to admit the Facts of Life and Luck here. We don't want to allow that sometimes luck or who you know, or simply knowing how to play by the rules can help or hinder an individual poet's case. And I'm not even talking about sleeping with the contest judge! Let's exaggerate the situation: Suppose you wrote exquisite poetry, were master of both form and content, could assimilate tradition and yet be avant the rest of the garde--and yet you wrote in pencil, in longhand, on onion skin erasable paper and never included an SASE. Believe me, you'd have a better chance of winning the lottery than getting anyone to publish you. Yet when someone wins a competition, even one we did not enter, how easy it is to forget that aside from being a good writer, that person played by the rules. In the latter case, they actually entered. Is that so terrible? Yet sites like Foetry play up tenuous connections, as if all of us should have been born, instead of from the sex act, of immaculate conception and a virgin birth. What I'm trying to say is that the contest mentality, or the intense competition in general for the small (worldly) rewards of poetry is, in my mind, why this happens. If there were room for more of us--or, actually, if there were the perception that there is room for all of us ( because really, my "success" doesn't diminish the chances of your success, does it?) would we be all wagging our tails happily?

Speaking of perception, the ease of connection and communication is, I think, also a factor increasing our sense of competition. I personally think that the Internet is a good thing--because in the past, a nobody like me wouldn't have stood the chance of publishing in the same magazine as T.S. Eliot, let alone maybe communicating with him (if he were alive, that is) or even studying with him. In the past, poets expected to commune only with their typewriters and communicate by mail--and sometimes it worked, but there were many fewer places at the table then. So now, if my right hand and your left hand conflict for space, we can at least be thankful that we are there to sup.

This post is not meant as an excuse for nastiness, not at all. Neither is it a thought-out theory of what we should write or whether poetry matters. We should write our poems. And it does.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Bly Reading

At Robert Bly’s reading last Sunday, he read his own poems from My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy and translations from The Winged Energy of Delight: Selected Translations.

When I listen to Bly, it’s hard not to think of him as a “performance poet.” He frequently interrupts himself to comment on his own poems. Bly probably would not appreciate being compared to Eliot, but his comments almost become part of his poems, like Eliot’s footnotes to The Waste Land. Bly’s image of a hunchback in an Italian piazza is more interesting when he tells you it’s not some “archetypal hunchback” but the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi. When Bly refers to Kierkegaard’s concept of ressentiment, it’s interesting when he explains the concept. I can fantasize a transcription of Bly’s reading that would incorporate his commentary into the poems and create whole new poems—almost postmodern!

It’s also hard not to think of shadows when you think of Bly. For better and worse, he has spent his life trying to bring more darkness into American poetry. The reasons it’s for worse are obvious: we’ve all read too many poems about dark cornfields, dark factories, and the dark pot roasts of Minneapolis.

But the reasons it’s for better are important. I still find Bly’s best poems original and arresting: “God crouches at night over a single pistachio.” Although he’s been writing poems for fifty years, it may be too early to judge his work. James Hillman talked about shadows in his book Inter Views:

I am trying to say that your shadow is your virtue, and that is what love is mostly about. And that’s what remains—if anything has to remain—after a person’s dead. His faults, his unbearable qualities, or hers, become clarified, and you remember them as virtues. They stand out sharp and clear, like essences. It’s amazing how the very thing you couldn’t bear in your mother or father, in your wife or husband—they die, and then the rubies show right in the shadow.”

Isn’t this true of poets too? Whitman’s poems are full of flaws. Do we wish he had gone to a workshop and turned his “barbaric yawp” into a polished gem? His weaknesses are inseparable from his strengths. Williams went too far in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” Plath went too far in “Daddy,” and Shakespeare went too far in Hamlet. (Do we really need all that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern stuff? It’s four hours long, for God’s sake!) Do we really wish an editor had whipped these poets into shape? If you edit out of your poems all the elements that are vulnerable to parody, you’ll take the life out of them.

OK, I can see I’ve gone off topic and gone into rant mode. Whatever you think of Bly, I think he’s encouraged poets to embrace the weirdest aspects of their eccentric visions (as Blake did), rather than cutting their poems to fit any fashion, and I’ll be forever grateful to him for that.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Jackson Pollock vs. Andy Warhol

Wow, one would almost think Ron Silliman had read my dig at Andy Warhol in my last post from reading his latest: “any history of American painting of the last century that doesn’t put Warhol on the same plane ultimately with Pollock isn’t credible.” Silliman is responding to a questionnaire, and his answers are an interesting summary of “post-avant” thought.
The best art in any medium is that which expands our understanding of the possibilities of the medium itself. … A poet who directly understands & confronts his or her medium has an opportunity to address questions such as truth. One who uses language instrumentally, as a second-order mechanism to get at some “truths” that lie elsewhere is not only a bad writer, but a dishonest one.

I realize this sort of thinking is pretty standard, but it still amazes me. Can anyone really believe that when Whitman wrote “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” or Dickinson wrote “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died,” or Joyce wrote Ulysses or Creeley wrote “I Know a Man,” they were not trying to get at some truths that lay “elsewhere”—outside of language? Weren’t some of the best and most experimental artists of the last century (e.g., John Cage) trying to get at truths that lay “elsewhere” (e.g., a non-Western, Buddhist vision)?

I’d say that Ron Silliman’s own best work gets at truths that lay elsewhere too, which I think just means that, like a lot of great artists (e.g., Ezra Pound), his best work violates his own principles. In getting at truths that lie elsewhere, I think of course the best writers do expand the possibilities of language, but it’s only because they’re trying to get at truths that lie elsewhere that the expansion is genuine, not gimmickry.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Are You an Individual or a Citizen?

I went to a reading by Robert Bly last night in Marin. It must be 25 years since I heard him read with Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and others in San Francisco. While I want to write more about the reading later, though, at the moment I'm thinking about an interesting recent post on Josh Corey’s blog:

The real conflict between poetry partisans may not be between mainstream and post-avant but between those who see poetry as a preserve of individual spiritual autonomy and those who see it as an intervention into particular historical and political circumstances. Do you primarily address, do you primarily read as, an individual or a citizen? … My own allegiances are split and confused; I'm caught up in what I suspect is a generational project to synthesize the public and private.

That formulation of “the real conflict” makes sense to me, and maybe his formulation of “a generational project” is right too. I think I’m of a different generation, though, and don’t mind saying I see poetry “as a preserve of individual spiritual autonomy,” and even that protecting that preserve may be the most important political act one can take. But perhaps my generation is overly concerned that writing as a “citizen” tends to lead either to social(ist) realism or to the pyrotechnic ironies of Andy Warhol’s silkscreens of Mao.

Corey concludes by criticizing those who are neither “poets of experience” nor “visionary poets,” but merely “middlebrow poets with a passive relation to the structures that helped produce them.” I am a bit skeptical of that formulation, as I don’t know anyone who’d admit to being a middlebrow poet and I’m not sure what the term means other than “poets who don’t write very good poems.” To me the definition seems to reflect an excessive faith in the intellect, as if mediocre poets could bootstrap their way into excellence if only they’d undertake the tough intellectual work of adopting a more active “relation to the structures that helped produce them.” But then much of postmodernism may reflect an excessive faith in the intellect (just as “postromanticism” may reflect an excessive faith in the heart)!

Friday, May 13, 2005

What It Is--Continuing the Conversation

After my reading last Thursday, Scott, Robert and I went on about Poetry (that's a surprise!) over a few beers. Later, we went out separate ways and continued it into email. The following are the highlights:

from Scott...


Yeah, I do want to continue the conversation.

I think a poem must have something of the heart in it. Poetry is about emotion
-- for me. Maybe not for you.

I'll look into the blog when I get time. Not now. Trying to pack for Mendocino
with N.

Nice seeing you guys last night after the reading.

Hope you're not mad at me for coming in and "crashing" after you'd read. I had
my class up until 8. I did bring two students though.

from Diane...


Well, I want to try and describe what I think fully, not sum it. Since I don't know what I think fully, that's going to be hard. So for now let me say that I think the heart is the side effect. Something like Emily's directive to tell it slant.

Dean Young says:

Poetry's primary and perhaps only obligation is, through the manipulation of its materials, to express and discover forms of liberty, thereby maintaining the spirit through constantly renewed meanings.

A.F. Moritz says:

Poetry is unavoidably the verbal art of independence and refinement. Refinement is essentially vigor. Its opposite is the simulated vigor of cliches, which are forms of conformity, a stereotyping of attitude and behavior, a removal of suppleness by continual production of copies ever more remote and crude. Refinement is suppleness: closeness of the palpable form to the living pith of experience and its movement.

I like these statements and essentially agree with them. More (maybe) later when I can synthesize some of this and talk about it.

from Robert...

Hey, folks, here are a couple quotes that I like. The first is from James Tate's introduction to the Best American Poetry he edited:

“What we want from poetry is to be moved, to be moved from where we now stand. We don’t just want to have our ideas or emotions confirmed. Or if we do, then we turn to lesser poems, poems that tell you killing children is bad, chopping down the rainforest is bad, dying is sad. A good poet would agree with all of those sentiments, but would also strive for an understanding beyond those givens.

“The poet arrives at his or her discovery by setting language on edge or creating metaphors that suggest dangerous ideas, or any number of other methods. The point is, language can be hazardous as it is our primary grip on the world. When language is skewed, the world is viewed differently. But this is only effective if the reader can recognize this view, even though it is the first time he or she has experienced the thought.”

I think Tate's emphasis on "skewing" encourages experimental writing, but his last sentence (“only effective if the reader can recognize this view”) warns against the excesses of experimental writing. Anyway, I especially like this from Charles Simic’s introduction to his BAP:

“Poetry proves again and again that any single overall theory of anything doesn’t work. Poetry is always the cat concert under the window of the room in which the official version of realty is being written.”

from Diane...

I like these. I think what the Tate quote emphasizes for me is that whether
you use "setting language on edge" or "creating metaphors" or whatever,
those means have to work.

I like the Simic quote as well. I may put all these quotes into a blog
post-(is that okay?)

more from Diane...

I guess my only point, if I have one left, is that I think it's important post-Modernism or Post Modernism, that poems make the language new (in the way Dean Young says in that quote) and that I think the avant garde or some of them or pieces of the avant garde do serve to help renew things if only by stirring things up--that I don't want to be reading the bland kind of poetry that gets its whole impact from the truth of the feelings within (because, as I've said before, I distrust that, there being noble or moving feelings everywhere from Hallmark on out) and because I want poetry to do what it can do that prose can't.

from Robert...

I'm feeling a sort of love-hate thing about blogs. I've gotten addicted to reading them, but at the same time I'm tired of reading about all the poetry wars. Part of me just wants to go to a cabin in the woods with no computer and write poems for a year or two. Not that I'd really do that.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Harry Potter vs. Grand Theft Auto

Interesting article by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker on Steven Johnson’s book Everything Bad Is Good for You, about how pop culture is raising people’s IQ. Gladwell quotes Johnson’s only-half-joking contrast of books with video games:

Isn’t the extraordinary success of the “Harry Potter” novels better news for the culture than the equivalent success of “Grand Theft Auto III”? Johnson’s response is to imagine what cultural critics might have said had video games been invented hundreds of years ago, and only recently had something called the book been marketed aggressively to children:

“Reading books chronically understimulates the senses. Unlike the longstanding tradition of gameplaying—which engages the child in a vivid, three-dimensional world filled with moving images and musical sound-scapes, navigated and controlled with complex muscular movements—books are simply a barren string of words on the page. …

“Books are also tragically isolating. While games have for many years engaged the young in complex social relationships with their peers, building and exploring worlds together, books force the child to sequester him or herself in a quiet space, shut off from interaction with other children. …

“But perhaps the most dangerous property of these books is the fact that they follow a fixed linear path. You can’t control their narratives in any fashion—you simply sit back and have the story dictated to you. … This risks instilling a general passivity in our children, making them feel as though they’re powerless to change their circumstances. Reading is not an active, participatory process; it’s a submissive one.”

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

An Evening with Anne Carson at the Herbst

Because Ilya Kaminsky couldn't make it and gave his ticket to Robert Thomas, and Robert couldn't make it and gave his ticket to me, I got to see/hear Anne Carson at the Herbst Theatre last night, in conversation with Wendy Lesser from THREEPENNY REVIEW. It was quite an experience, and I'm glad I went, despite having had to rush there from my workout without dinner and with only a cold shower (the hot water boiler had broken at the YMCA). It was not sold out, which really surprised me, and it seemed evident that the audience was made up of people quite familiar with Carson or Lesser or both.

After a brief introduction by Lesser, Carson and a group of four others performed something she called an oratorio. Appearing and disappearing behind a series of window frames, Carson and her group recited and sometimes sang. The piece, she explained later, had been written for a symposium on Gertrude Stein organized by Susan Sontag. Because it was written around the time the government went to war on Iraq, the emphasis of the piece was on guns. And that's about all I feel equipped to say about it, that it was "after" Gertrude Stein and about guns, and that it made use of the song The Lonesome Pine, a favorite of Stein's. I definitely enjoyed it, but I can't really describe it.

Following the performance, Carson and Lesser sat in armchairs and proceeded with the interview portion of the program. Carson seemed very low key and, while sure of herself and confident, she was not at all brash or arrogant. She talked about how she came to be a classical scholar: She came upon a bilingual edition of Sappho in an ordinary bookstore and became fascinated with the Greek side and then was lucky enough to have a high school teacher who taught her Greek. She discussed how she thought about her writing: in almost a painterly fashion; she would dab here and dab there and then look at the overall effect of what was on the page. She didn't put on airs. While Wendy Lesser, in her questions, showed herself to be intellectual and wide-ranging and profound, Carson's answers were for the most part simple, unpretentious, and straightforward.

I'm sure I'm forgetting a great deal of what was said. Questions and answers, both, were very interesting. What music did Carson listen to? Whatever her friends gave her. She would listen to a CD exclusively for about twenty days and then never listen to it again. She seemed to reject a comparison to John Cage, said she does not make her choices by chance, but artfully. That said, she doesn't define the reader's experience for them. She talked about how Greek drama is not character based, that the characters are masked and not allowed to change, but that the drama is pure action, and that it is that way because the ancient Greeks truly believed in destiny in a way that we do not and cannot.

At the end of the evening, Lesser handed one of Anne Carson's books to her and said that Sidney suggested she read the short portion the book was opened to. As luck would have it, I have the book they used (PLAINWATER, Essays and Poetry) so I can record what she read. It is an Introduction from the section called "Short Talks":

Early one morning words were missing. Before that, words were not. Facts were, faces were. In a good story, Aristotle tells us, everything that happens is pushed by something else. Three old women were bending in the fields. What use is it to question us? they said. Well it shortly became clear that they knew everything there is to know about the snowy fields and the blue-green shoots and the plant called "audacity," which poets mistake for violets. I began to copy out everything that was said. I will do anything to avoid boredom. It is a task of a lifetime. You can never know enough, never work enough, never use the infinitives and participles oddly enough, never impede the movement harshly enough, never leave the mind quickly enough.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Shameful Memories

Paul Guest must be approaching some record with 77 comments so far on his blog on guilty pleasures. It’s not exactly a guilty pleasure, but I was reminded of one of my own shameful memories. I am old enough that in 1967 I was a teenager attending the legendary Monterey Pop Festival. One of my biggest regrets in life, and one of the stupidest things I ever did, was missing the Janis Joplin performance. I saw Laura Nyro and Hugh Masakela, for God’s sake, but I missed Janis Joplin! That’s not the shameful part, though. The shameful memory is that I was one of those people in the audience—and there were lots of us even though no one wants to admit it now—who thought Jimi Hendrix sucked. Yes, I thought Jimi Hendrix doing “Wild Thing” was just a mess of noise and I wanted him hauled off the stage so we could get to the Mamas and the Papas. What can I say? I was young and foolish.

That’s a perfect example, I think, of why one needs to be careful about rejecting experimental poetry as “just noise.” Almost anything original is just noise the first time you hear it, whether it’s Jimi Hendrix or Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Almost anything original has no emotional meaning the first time you hear it, but someday Mahler or Coltrane may bring tears to your eyes. Anyway, I’m interested in the shameful memories people have of gross aesthetic misjudgments they have made.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

The Double Life of Veronique

An interesting discussion on The Great American Pinup about Charles Wright quotes Wright on his own poetry: “My subject (language, landscape, and the idea of God) is not of much interest now. But it will be again.” This interests me because I’ve heard a couple poets say they’ve felt an unusual urge lately to write about God or “metaphysics” (whether or not—most likely not!—they believe in God). It also interests me because current events have certainly brought home in a violent way how important, for better or worse, religion and “the idea of God” still are in the world.

It seems to me there are two currents of “avant garde” poetry: one very accessible that has its roots in poets like Whitman, and one very difficult, almost inaccessible. But both currents often share a progressive political perspective that is deeply skeptical of religion and its destructive impact on people’s lives.

One thing that strikes me is how different this perspective is from the perspective I often associate with Eastern Europe. OK, I’m thinking about this because last night Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique was on cable TV so I watched it again, and I also recently re-viewed the film of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Both these artists are often thought of as exemplars of postmodern experimentation, yet their work embodies values that I think can only be described with words like “mystery” and “soul” and “inner life”—just the values that seem to be dismissed by the good old U.S.A. avant garde as bourgeois nostalgia.

If there is one word that every reviewer uses in describing Kieslowski’s films, for example, it is “poetic,” e.g., Caryn James: “Veronique is poetic in the truest sense, … suggests mysterious connections of personality and emotion ….” “Poetic” seems to be a metaphor for all the qualities (personality, emotion, etc. ) that are just what the “avant garde” want to purge from poetry. And maybe they are right to want to purge mystery and dream from poetry because, well, what are those qualities but “the opium of the people”?

I’m sure many people turn to poetry because of how intensely they value their “inner life.” I’m not sure that being “religious” means anything other than valuing one’s inner life, whether or not one believes in any god. But when you put on one side of a balance all the nuances of your inner life (ah, how the wild iris at Point Reyes makes me reflect), and on the other side all the suffering in the world, it seems like the most self-indulgent soap opera imaginable to pay attention to your inner life, unless you somehow equate it with “God.” God falls like lead on the scales. Anyway, that’s what I’m wondering about: whether all the artistic arguments over poetry are really religious arguments (just like all the political arguments).

But I promised myself I would never post a message over 500 words long so I’m shutting up!