Friday, April 4, 2014

A mass of badinage

I say we had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believ'd in, (for all this hectic glow, and these melodramatic screamings,) nor is humanity itself believ'd in. What penetrating eye does not everywhere see through the mask? The spectacle is appaling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout. The men believe not in the women, nor the women in the men. A scornful superciliousness rules in literature. The aim of all the littérateurs is to find something to make fun of. A lot of churches, sects, &c., the most dismal phantasms I know, usurp the name of religion. Conversation is a mass of badinage. From deceit in the spirit, the mother of all false deeds, the offspring is already incalculable.

-- Walt Whitman, ca. 1870

Monday, March 31, 2014

An Interrogation

If we are to think about poetry as a kind of violence, we will have to rethink form itself. It can no longer be the fence which separates poetry from other kinds of discourse. It must instead betray that difference, inciting us to imagine poetry as a separate and protected sphere, and then disappointing the desire that it has itself created. It’s easy to imagine how this argument applies to texts in the modernist tradition—texts which ostentatiously betray their own formal limits. But these betrayals involve a set of assumptions about traditional forms: that they need to be broken open, dismissed, discarded. That, in other words, their machinery protects poetry from generic rupture and ensures its difference from ordinary language. In this centennial year of Anglo-American modernism, it might be profitable to interrogate this foundational conceit. Can we conceive of traditional forms as themselves as a false and porous fence between poetry and its other?

-- Toby Altman, "Against Procrustes," referencing Slavoj Žižek, "The Poetic Torture-House of Language," in Poetry, March 2014

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Voice of the Thing Outside

"Little magazines (and I wish to god they wouldn’t call themselves “little” but literary; it is a mind state that builds smallness—let’s use the good words) tend to start well if they are going to start at all, but it is not long before they begin to be formed by pressures, the pressures of opinions and other editors, critics, readers, writers, printers, street car conductors, lady friends, university libraries, eunuchs, soothsayers, subscribers, punks, dilettantes, clowns, fame-seekers, and the steam and stench and grip and strappade of going down to the heavy Voice of the Thing Outside telling us what to do."

-- Charles Bukowski ca. 1963, quoted by Garrett Caples, "What's Big in Littles"

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

You do not really feel that.

"Sentimentality" is often the accusation brought by the critic when he would refuse some experience or idea arising in the poem that does not satisfy or support his personal world of values but would threaten, if it were allowed, to undo that world.  The word "sentimental" means "supposed" experience, I suppose.  "You do not really feel that" or "you are letting your feelings get away with you" is the reproof often where we would not like to allow the feeling detected to advance, lest we too feel what the advancing feeling brings with it.  Much of modern criticism of poetry is not to raise a crisis in our consideration of the content or to deepen our apprehension of the content, but to dismiss the content.  When such critics would bring the flight of imagination down to earth, they mean not the earth men have revered and worked with love and awe, the imagined earth, but the real estate modern man has made of Earth for his own uses.
-- Robert Duncan, "The Truth and Life of Myth"

Monday, February 10, 2014

Poetry totters when she licks us with her tongue


"It totters when she licks it with her tongue." - Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in yellow wood. And then converged. And that has made no difference.

Is the new Sappho a bit disappointing--the fragment the best. Or is it that we need some cleaning by Pound. Still, it was always a life-long dream of mine that we would find a Sophocles around, a few Euripides, a book that Eco wanted: the golden book of Comedy by Aristotle. Let's all get together and translate the Sappho again. When my son was 12 he wrote a love poem that was: "You burn me." That seems a fairly authentic fragment. Most archaeologists tell me that what they want is a laundry-list, and one told me she particularly loved the listing of the boats. She hated poetry, she loved Egyptology.


Funny that Frost is as great as the idiots think. Poetry totters when she licks us with her tongue. Purposely and for him I like to play tennis at night with the net down, up and down. It's very difficult to play tennis without nets; but try it. You have to guess a lot and be quite accurate.


One week years ago I was studying Plath for an essay and felt bad except that it seemed no scholars had seen the Trakl in her work particularly the sudden expressionism in some late poems. But she appeared in a dream one week and I said to her: Sylvia, I like some of your poems but I don't like those who prefer the tape-recordings of your screams. She looked hard at my apology and slunk back into the dream--unappeasable it seemed. Years later I was asked in Prague whether I wanted to hear a recording of Jan Palach's last agony and screams. I said No. I preferred the paragon of freedom to his fearful cries...


One day Richard Kostelanetz asked me who was my favorite living poet. I said Wallace Stevens. He said But he is dead. I said Not for me.  Many other poets are not yet alive. Pasternak received special medicine from Dr. Zhivago. All my favorite poets are alive: Keats, Sappho, Akhmatova. Native American artist told me she had no word for art but used another: 



Tap my phones, keep my papers free.

-- David Shapiro 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

He’s become one more entertainer.
      His drunken bouts, fornications, his medical history,
his alliances or fights with the other clowns in the circus,
      or with the trapeze artist or elephant tamer,
have guaranteed him numerous fans
      who no longer need to read the poems.

-- José Emilio Pacheco 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Forms of circulation and address

Virginia Jackson, in Dickinson’s Misery (2006), reminds us that we cannot understand the what of lyric without understanding the when. She traces the process by which, since the 19th century, “poetic and lyric have come to seem cognate.” These terms were not always equated and, increasingly, they are no longer. Jackson looks at Dickinson’s work in the context of letters, wide-circulation magazines, and other materials, and reminds us that the subsequent century saw the migration of the lyric from the popular press to the classroom. Jackson writes, “What has been left out of most thinking about the process of lyricization is that it is an uneven series of negotiations of many different forms of circulation and address.” 

-- B.K. Fischer, "Sieves of Consciousness," Boston Review

And certainly, writers who stay afloat in terms of reputation are willing to self-promote and to indulge in the networking that connects them – via readings and workshops and signings and conferences and and and  — with insiders in the world of media and publishers. Ponsot, in a 2003 interview with Benjamin Irvy,  had this to say about her interrupted career:  “I was very busy. It’s really that I was entirely out of all those professional poetry loops. That’s worth saying, because it’s easy to keep writing without tremendous agitation in whatever time you have. If you don’t imagine yourself as a career poet but rather as a person who writes poems, you can just go on doing that.” She goes on to say, “You really have to believe me when I say my dissociation from the idea of publication was not deliberate, contemptuous or passive-aggressive; it just didn’t occur to me. Think of all those seventeenth-century cavalier poets who had no interest in publishing their work – it didn’t occur to them either. Frequent publication of poems is a nineteenth-century development.” 
-- Julie Larios, "Undersung | Marie Ponsot: Wandering Still," Numéro Cinq

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Yes, servile.

 “The language they think of as democratic anti-elitist are really the scraps of the English language that have dropped from the feasting tables of the oligarchs. This sort of ordinary-language poetry isn’t democratic at all: it’s servile. Yes, servile.”

- Geoffrey Hill

Saturday, November 9, 2013

On Veterans' Day / Remembrance Day

On the El not long ago, I met a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who is now a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools.  We discussed what it means for a country to suffer from the deterioration of its ideals and infrastructure.  I dedicate this post to him.

Every Veteran's Day, I feature the following story, told by Katy Evans-Bush on her outstanding blog, Baroque in Hackney; this year, I'm posting it with gratitude to my seatmate, and to countless others like him who are doing, have done, work that few of us can imagine - but all of us can appreciate.


In June 1918, a young poet called Eloise Robinson, touring the Front on behalf of the YMCA, was giving a poetry recital to an audience of American soldiers. Guy Davenport tells it: “Reciting poetry! It is all but unimaginable that in that hell of terror, gangrene, mustard gas, sleeplessness, lice, and fatigue, there were moments when bone-weary soldiers, for the most part mere boys, would sit in a circle around a lady poet in an ankle-length khaki skirt and a Boy Scout hat, to hear poems.”

I can’t find a picture of Eloise Robinson. But she was reciting poems, and in the middle of one poem, Davenport tells us, her memory flagged. “She apologized profusely, for the poem, as she explained, was immensely popular back home.” A hand went up, and a young sergeant offered to recite the poem. Here is what (in, as Davenport reminds us, “the hideously ravaged orchards and strafed woods of the valley of the Ourcq, where the fields were cratered and strewn with coils of barbed wire, fields that reeked of cordite and carrion”) the soldier recited:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree...

Eloise Robinson was surprised and impressed that he should know it. “Well, ma’am,” he told her. “I guess I wrote it.”

Joyce Kilmer was killed by a German sniper less than two months later, only three months before the Armistice. His most famous poem had been published in Poetry (Chicago) in 1913.

Eloise, for her part, continuing about her duties at the Front, wrote to Poetry that August: “I wish I might tell you of my visit to the French front, and how for two nights I slept in a ‘cave’ with seven Frenchmen and had a hundred bombs dropped on me. Not directly on top, of course. The nearest hit just in front of the house. And for five days and nights after that I was taking chocolate to advance batteries, to men who can never leave their guns.”

Davenport mentions how Kilmer’s Trees is in fact a self-reflective poem, about poetry itself. These days that’s a sort of no-no, a workshop cliché, but - even though the poem rates itself as second to a tree - the fact nevertheless gives us a clue to something ...

Please click here to read the rest of this wonderful post commemorating Remembrance Day/Veteran's Day, in which Katy moves forward to Tom Disch's reworking of the Kilmer poem (also published in Poetry magazine), complete with a comment from the legendary Samuel R. Delaney!

As Katy sums up:
"Disch’s poem [which is called "Poems"!] also gets at something else, something important, that Kilmer – however conventional and pious – knew very well, and knew while he was writing Trees: the reason why he would bother to write a poem about a thing like a tree in the first place – and the reason Eloise Robinson was reciting poems to soldiers."

In appreciation for those who have served. 

Pictured above: The poet and solider, Joyce Kilmer.