Monday, July 21, 2014

"New movements in literature are those which copy the last century but one."

New movements in literature are those which copy the last century but one. If they copy the last century, they are old-fashioned; but if it is quite clear that they are much more than a hundred years old, they are entirely fresh and original. It is true that there are certain literary men, claiming to inaugurate literary movements, who try to avoid the difficulty by various methods; as by writing their poetry upside down, or using words that consist entirely of consonants; or publishing a book of entirely blank pages, with a few asterisks in the middle to show that there is a break in the narrative. These or similar scribes are conjectured to be trying to copy the literature of the next century. They may freely be left for that century — to forget. Moreover, parallel perversities, if not exactly the same ones, are also to be found scattered through the centuries of the past. Of such a kind, for instance, were the Renaissance games or sports which consisted of shortening or lengthening the lines of poetry, so as to make the whole poem a particular shape, such as the shape of a heart or a cross or an eagle. Anyhow, if we eliminate a few such eccentric experimentalists, who think they anticipate the intelligence of the future by being unintelligible in the present, the general rule about change and rejuvenation in literature is much as I have stated it. It is essential for the pioneer and prophet, not so much to go forward very far, as to go back far enough. The general rule is to skip a century, as some hereditary features are said to skip a generation.

G.K. Chesterton, ca. 1936; via Berfrois, where you can read more

Monday, July 14, 2014

On sentimentality

Philip Larkin once said he didn't understand the word "sentimentality," figuring that Dylan Thomas's definition of alcoholic—"a man you don't like who drinks as much as you do"—worked as well for "sentimental:" "someone you don't like who feels as much as you do."

Sentimentality, whatever it is, is not popular in contemporary American poetry.  I suppose that poems that are sentimental fall into the category, roughly, of poetry that has palpable designs upon us (though who was more sentimental than Keats, whom I've paraphrased?).  Or maybe it has to do with the endless quotidian work of demolishing, or at least distrusting, subjectivity.

Anyway, there was even recently a Pleiades symposium, led by Joy Katz, on "sentimentality" (PDF of the forum here); and the subject, pardon the pun, comes up again in a review of Matthew Olzmann's book Mezzanines at The Margins.  So... a few bits from my commonplace book.


- from Oscar Wilde,"The Critic as Artist":
the real artist is he who proceeds, not from feeling to form, but from form to thought and passion. He does not first conceive an idea, and then say to himself, 'I will put my idea into a complex metre of fourteen lines,' but, realising the beauty of the sonnet-scheme, he conceives certain modes of music and methods of rhyme, and the mere form suggests what is to fill it and make it intellectually and emotionally complete. From time to time the world cries out against some charming artistic poet, because, to use its hackneyed and silly phrase, he has 'nothing to say.' But if he had something to say, he would probably say it, and the result would be tedious. It is just because he has no new message, that he can do beautiful work. He gains his inspiration from form, and from form purely, as an artist should. A real passion would ruin him. Whatever actually occurs is spoiled for art. All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling. To be natural is to be obvious, and to be obvious is to be inartistic.

Apparently even small flukes of grammar, like the seemingly arbitrary assignment of gender to a noun, can have an effect on people's ideas of concrete objects in the world (click link for details).

Because of the growth of entropy, we have a very different epistemic access to the past than to the future. In retrodicting the past, we have recourse to “memories” and “records,” which we can take as mostly-reliable indicators of events that actually happened. But when it comes to the future, the best we can do is extrapolate, without nearly the reliability that we have in reconstructing the past... -- via 3 Quarks Daily

Even for the one — before all for the one — for whom the encounter with the poem belongs to the quotidian and self-evident, this encounter has to begin with the darkness of the self-evident, [that which] makes every encounter with a stranger strange.: “Camarado, this is no book, who touches this, touches a human.”

Only from this touch — which is not a “making contact” — comes the way to intimacy. Aisthesis is not enough here, man is more than his sensorium. It is a question of conversation, as it is a question of language: (noesis does not suffice; it is a question of the angle of inclination under which one came together; it is a question of fate, as is the case with every real encounter, of the Here and Now, this place and this hour. -- Paul Celan, via Pierre Joris

Our reaction against the sentimentality embodied in Victorian and post-Victorian writing was so resolute writers came to believe that the further from sentimentality we got, the truer the art. That was a mistake. -- Richard Hugo

Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid. -- G. K. Chesterton


t is therefore plain that the culture of transgression achieves nothing save the loss that it revels in: the loss of beauty as a value and a goal. But why is beauty a value? It is an ancient view that truth, goodness, and beauty cannot, in the end, conflict. Maybe the degeneration of beauty into kitsch comes precisely from the postmodern loss of truthfulness, and with it the loss of moral direction. That is the message of such early modernists as Eliot, Barber, and Stevens, and it is a message that we need to listen to.

To mount a full riposte to the habit of desecration, we need to rediscover the affirmation and the truth to life without which artistic beauty cannot be realized. This is no easy task. If we look at the true apostles of beauty in our time—I think of composers like Henri Dutilleux and Olivier Messiaen, of poets like Derek Walcott and Charles Tomlinson, of prose writers like Italo Calvino and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—we are immediately struck by the immense hard work, the studious isolation, and the attention to detail that characterizes their craft. In art, beauty has to be won, but the work becomes harder as the sheer noise of desecration—amplified now by the Internet—drowns out the quiet voices murmuring in the heart of things.

One response is to look for beauty in its other and more everyday forms—the beauty of settled streets and cheerful faces, of natural objects and genial landscapes. It is possible to throw dirt on these things, too, and it is the mark of a second-rate artist to take such a path to our attention—the via negativa of desecration. But it is also possible to return to ordinary things in the spirit of Wallace Stevens and Samuel Barber—to show that we are at home with them and that they magnify and vindicate our life. Such is the overgrown path that the early modernists once cleared for us—the via positiva of beauty. There is no reason yet to think that we must abandon it. -- Roger Scruton on "Beauty"

And here's Kevin Prufer on "Sentimentality & Complexity."

"Instead of offering a surplus of inappropriate emotion, it seems to me that sentimental literature often reduces strong emotion to a single channel.... And it was here that it occurred to me—not for the first time!—that the way we teach poetry in our schools—the way I was taught poetry in high school!—is deeply fucked up. I remember learning that a poem was like a puzzle. If I could just sort out what each element in the poem symbolized—the window, the fly, the keepsakes, the light—then I could put them together and voila! solve the poem! Or, put another way, I’d been taught to think of poetry as a kind of coded language, a medium in which writers resisted communicating with readers. Poetry, I’d learned, is a kind of really hard crossword puzzle, but with a meaning at the end."



Cf. Philippians 1:9 in the New Testament:

kai touto proseuchomai, hina e agape humon eti mallon kai mallon perisseue en epignosei kai pase aisthesei
(And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment
) aisthesis from aisthánomai = to apprehend by the senses, to perceive and in NT speaks primarily of spiritual perception; our English = aesthetic; the root verb is aio = to perceive) refers to the capacity to understand referring not so much to an intellectual acuteness but to a moral sensitiveness. It thus speaks of moral perception, insight, and the practical application of knowledge--the deep knowledge Paul had already mentioned. Aisthesis therefore is more of an immediate knowledge than that arrived at by reasoning. It describes the capacity to perceive clearly and hence to understand the real nature of something. It is the capacity to discern and therefore understand what is not readily comprehensible. It refers to a moral action of recognizing distinctions and making a decision about behavior.

It is interesting to note that the meaning of aisthesis is almost the opposite of the English word “aesthetic” which is derived from the Greek word. Aesthetic speaks of one who is appreciative of, responsive to, or zealous about the beautiful. It has largely to do with personal taste and preference. Paul calls believers to put aside personal tastes and preferences and to focus instead on achieving mature insight and understanding.

The English dictionary states that discernment is the power to see what is not evident to the average mind and stresses accuracy as in reading character or motives.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Not On My Shelves!

The idea that somehow poets, and publishers, are failing the public at this time, in not delivering the goods, is a pernicious error that some poets (those especially who neither understand or engage in, business, much) are trying to spread, because it relieves them of having to face the wider horror of an abysmal culture barely poetry literate.

Instead, small presses... have gone out of [their] way to make books beautiful to hold, read, and share - by excellent poets - accessible and/or innovative - writing on subjects of great current interest - the economy, ecology, desire, love, sex, politics, humour, time, life, faith, science - that could hardly be of a wider range.  The books are priced the same or less as novels of the same standard, and can be found in local shops and online, easily.  They get reviews so people can hear about them and there are also plenty of readings, tweets, posts and status updates, to get the news out and about.  There is no stone or bulletin left unturned. 


... let me remind you, the reader, of one thing: every time you don't make a poetry purchase, that poetry press lacks a sale.  And, sooner, or later, without funding or patronage, presses that don't sell a lot of books have to close.

Simple as that.  Salt cut its brilliant poetry list to the bone, not because the publisher hates poetry (he loves it) but because it ceased to make business sense.

Poets tend to forget that most small press publishers risk savings, and marriages or partnerships, to work for years on end, often unpaid, for very little in return. The least they should expect is that people who read, and enjoy, and appreciate poetry, should stump up and keep buying their books.

Not buying poetry books - and there are a million good reasons, but only give them to me if you are unemployed and never buy alcohol, tobacco, or food in restaurants - is like saying you love the environment, but never recycle.  It's like wanting a democracy, and not voting.


There is a kind of NOMS - Not On My Shelves - idea - that it's a nice idea that other people buy books, just not me.  Of course it will always mean a sacrifice, and one can't buy all the poetry books, but - and only if - if one actually wants a small press to survive, wishes won't be enough.  You need to support them, by buying books.

-- Todd Swift, Eyewear blog, Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Pejorocracy

"Poetry and fiction have grieved for a century now over the loss of some vitality which they think they see in a past from which we are by now irrevocably alienated."
-- Guy Davenport in the Georgia Review ca. 1974, in his essay, "The Symbol of the Archaic;" he discusses the "pejorocracy" and much more. You can read it here.

Pictured: The narrow passage that leads to Petra.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

On hierarchies of purity

Historically, there are hierarchies of purity. Certain aspects of poetry are very, very pure. The lyric poem can’t be anything but the lyric poem. If you want to do what Sylvia Plath is doing, you cannot get discursive, you can’t get philosophical. You’re caught and wriggling on the psychological pin in the way that she was, basically. And that’s the experience of the poem. Ashbery’s “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is essayistic and discursive. A lot of Ashbery’s gestures are a part of the world of lyric poetry. But a lot of them are part of the world of the essay. He used to write art criticism, and so was steeped in prose. The barriers between genres were low for him. The barrier, on the other hand, between the short story and everything else is high, very high. The short story is protected, enclosed in its garden: what Lorrie Moore writes, what Alice Munro writes. But Ashbery wrote a book called Three Poems comprising three long pieces of prose that are extremely essayistic in the way they think and move. They don’t resolve, they don’t get anywhere, but they’re like essays.


Phenomena are always determined by history. You abstract certain qualities and say that they define a genre. A long, discursive Ashbery poem is nothing like an essay by George Orwell, which has an intention. The intention of an essay by George Orwell, like “Such, Such Were the Joys,” is to change society by making us aware of class differences and their harmful consequences. And a long, discursive Ashbery poem has little in common with that. But it has a lot in common with an essay by Montaigne, because Montaigne is inviting you into his mind, and the movements of his mind…rather than the content of his judgment. So you can’t say, “Well, the essay is this and the poem is that.” You can’t make credible hard-and-fast characterizations, especially now, when there’s so much intermingling.

-- Vijay Seshadri, at The Believer Logger

Wednesday, June 11, 2014


I’m not, in all the foregoing, attempting either to defend or critique what conceptual poets are up to. I just don’t see why people can get so aggravated about what these poets do. Is the spectrum of contemporary poetry not broad enough to accommodate their work? If not, why not? A century ago, people were scandalized by Prufrock, The Rite of Spring, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, and countless other modernist works. Are people today really so shocked or annoyed by conceptual poetry? If so, these poets are onto something. If not, then we haven’t learned from our own literary history; and worse, have arguably become inured to that which is truly shocking: the things that go on in this world. Though not without its foibles like all else in poetry, conceptual work is a legitimate and probably inevitable response to “lyric narcissicm,” text-fettered writing, dullness, complacency, boredom, and much else besides. If it didn’t exist, it would have to be invented.
Read the rest here.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A new poem by Tom Clark

L7th Heaven: Circling the Square, or, A Self-Referential Reading of "Self-Reference" 
- by Tom Clark 

To start with, to defend this

poem from its own attack, in my shot in

the departmental photo gallery I guess I’ll just

look off to one side, with a mopey expression

as if to say I couldn't care less

about being a professor, I'll wear

my San Francisco sweatshirt to proclaim

I was there then, but in a non-persona

kind of way that convinces me

I can write something certain other

members of the herd at the trough

will have no trouble recognizing as the self-referential

circling of the square that announces

immediate ascension into L7th Heaven

never forgetting that both the flush left

and irregular right margins constantly loom

as significant events, often interrupting what

I thought I was about to

write and making me write something

so unbelievably boring even the champion

bores of the marginal subset of boring poetry

since they identify themselves as poets

through style and publication context

will wish they could call their own

in a quite literal sense

and I could go on, but oh -- prose poems

are another matter, so,

in other words, doubly marginal,

thus heroic, making the birth of post-

industrial code-splicing from a shoal of

territorial barks appear minuscule

in comparison -- but not to put a fine point on it

so much as to put on display the poet

as engaged, oppositional intellectual going

back and rewriting, but discovering

the problem still infuriatingly

or maybe, who knows, conveniently

reappearing anyway even after the pieces

dislodged from the hidden pockets

of the "relaxed" conferencing outfit have fallen

by the wayside, into the margins

of this page, as it were, where any passing graduate

student on the way to a meeting

could easily find them, pick them up,

piece them together and experience

that unique Eureka! sensation which comes

with the knowledge the bounty reaped

for such a remarkable self-referential

performance, stacked up, assessed, and then again broken

down into pieces, will still add up to something

greater than the sum of its parts --

all the king's horses are fuming impatiently

down the corridor now, though, so

I'd better get my casual throw-away

brilliance hat on, and put all this into

that row of small portable hermetically-sealed

boxes, which are already somewhat crowded

as they contain gnomic and often completely

undecipherable sentences handwritten

on separate slips of paper, grafitti-like scrawls

that dramatize in a particularly problematic

fashion the tautological narrative

by which the "living hand" of the contingent

author (yours truly!) becomes imbued, after

the fact, with eternal potency; and once

having said this, I am overcome as always

by the need to say a bit more

on the subject of the considerable history

of my deployment of antiabsorptive

techniques (nontransparent or

nonnaturalizing elements) (artifice) 

for absorptive ends... In my poems, as

everyone who is reading these words knows, I

bury certain hidden opaque and

nonabsorbable elements, digressions, 

interruptions, non sequiturs, and the like,

potentially explosive elements

somewhat like WMDs

stashed in unexpected places, like

at the site of the traditional caesura, or in

the candy bowl on the desk in my office,

as part of a technological arsenal

to create a more powerful (“souped-up”)

absorption than possible with traditional,

blander, two-ply absorptive techniques

such as pretending to have feelings,

or a soul, for example, though let's not

go there before the afterparty

blows up, or comes crashing down

in such a way as to problematize

if not also foreground, the scale and complexity

of what I am trying to bring down

simply because I don't have the power

to shut up, or to crap on a fig-wort

without the necessary supply of text

to clean up after, or at least clarify

a conundrum whose social geometry

is similar to the physical geometry

that ultimately contains a bomb blast:

whatever I destroy tends to shield

contiguous and remote areas

so I really don't have to feel too bad

about once again airing out

the now fabled battlecry -- “absorption!”

at one level, viewed from an oblique angle,

becomes “anti-absorption!” at another

and vice-versa, all the livelong,

textually liberated, totally engagé L7 day

on which I grant myself as usual any liberties

and/or privileges that may obtain

for an academic industrialist of my standing

or bending over, as the case may be -- I accept

full political agency for my anti-response

as a political tool, paratactically

intact, and not forgetting

the subsidiary aim of radically

reconfiguring the pre-existent categories

of literary status, naturally -- though "nature"

will necessarily have to remain

another category entirely, for now,

even though I’m once again going

back and rewriting (look at me, mom!), the problem

still maddeningly

reappears every six words or so -- so this,

and every poem like it, if I may say so, is a marginal

work in a world entirely without margins

but with direct deposit to be counted upon

at the beginning of every month, as

a result of which I feel empowered, so that

I am going to make an argument, that

there is such a thing as a sentence, and that it occurs

more or less exclusively wherever 

I and/or my fellow ambitious hirelings happen to be

on any given beautiful L7 day, within a given

narrative frame, or else thrown together at random

but not really, say at an MLA convention

where parataxis is elevated to the level

of shop talk, in the meet 'n greet

booths, where, to express our difference,

we wear our nametags in a rakish

sort of way, either with the label facing

inward, or, in an ultimate gesture in the direction

of tangential relevance, with one of those corny

I-heart thingies prominent, as in

heraldry, on a coat of arms, just so

you know I identify with ordinary

people in this new, autonomous, conditional

sort of way, so that the meaning of a sentence when I use it

is heightened, dissipated, weakened,

broken down, disintegrated, reintegrated,

shored up, torn down, reordered into units

small enough to fit into the tiniest

broom closet in the doll-house, or else

strengthened, questioned, or changed

by the degree of separation or connection

that the reader perceives with regard

to the surrounding sentences, so that s/he may feel free

to linguistically innovate

in master-texts like this one

created by the disruption of lexical tactics

imposed upon us by traditions

like the anachronistic desire to communicate

across the broadening gulf

between islands whose populations

retain no knowledge or awareness

that a world exists outside

their strictly defined geographical boundaries

and now I wish we had more time to spend together

but they're locking up, so let's grab

a couple pops, after office hours, let down our hair,

if we still have any, and try

"making sense" in that ordinary oldfashioned way

until the firing squad shows up

just so long as no one's taping all this

and if they're not, in other words, why not?

Poem reproduced by generous permission of the poet.  More new work by Tom Clark forthcoming in POETRY magazine.

Monday, May 5, 2014

"Translation is outdated"

Translation is the ultimate humanist gesture. Polite and reasonable, it is an overly cautious bridge builder. Always asking for permission, it begs understanding and friendship. It is optimistic yet provisional, pinning all hopes on a harmonious outcome. In the end, it always fails, for the discourse it sets forth is inevitably off-register; translation is an approximation of discourse.

Displacement is rude and insistent, an unwashed party crasher — uninvited and poorly behaved — refuses to leave. Displacement revels in disjunction, imposing its meaning, agenda, and mores on whatever situation it encounters. Not wishing to placate, it is uncompromising, knowing full well that through stubborn insistence, it will ultimately prevail. Displacement has all the time in the world. Beyond morals, self-appointed, and taking possession because it must, displacement acts simply — and simply acts.

Globalization engenders displacement. People are displaced, objects are displaced, language is displaced. In a global circulatory system, components are interchangeable; there is no time — and certainly not enough energy — for understanding. Instead, there is begrudging acceptance and a blinkered lack of understanding, ultimately yielding to resignation. Nobody seems to notice anymore. Translation is outdated. 

-- Kenneth Goldsmith, The European, May 5, 2014

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