Tuesday, June 29, 2010

You can't say what you don't know

Q: I have a new book I'm writing called, "No More Wire Hangers: Life Lessons from Mommy Dearest"? It's a book that features specific lines of dialog and scenes from the movie and what I learned from them, how they can be applied in real life. Do I have to have permission from the studio to do it? How can I get around the whole copyright issues and still do the book?

I sure hope it's ok to quote these words from the Galley Cat, where you (re)appropriators can read up on the potential legal pitfalls of your poetical technique!

Recently on Steven Fama's blog, Curtis Faville expressed the following about the excerpt from Ron Silliman's "Revelator" featured in the June issue of Poetry:

"The most troubling aspect of Ron's work over the last 30 years is its dogged sameness.

Here's a man who taught himself all the finer points of verse, tried them all out for size, and then wholeheartedly rejected all of them in favor of a poly-contextual prose style that no one without a degree in advanced literary criticism is likely to fully appreciate.


The new work in Poetry is exactly like all the rest of the work in The Alphabet. I can understand wanting to be consistent and being comfortable enough inside a familiar style to want to keep using it, but for someone with as perspicacious a mind as Ron possesses, it's really astonishing to me that he never strays from the narrow path.

It's almost as if he's now become shy of writing in any other form, for fear that someone might accuse him of capitulating to a tired formality. It's like a program of avoidance."

To which I replied:

"I'm surprised that Curtis finds a 'dogged sameness' in Ron's new work. (And I'm not defending it because we published it, honest!) For me, it's quite different from what's in The Alphabet. The structure of the five-word lines, tipping his hat to the excerpts from Zukofsky's "A" that first appeared in the magazine, for instance; and what seems to me a big-hearted, panoramic look back at the figures and landscapes of his life and work. When I saw "Revelator" - and as Steven has rightly pointed out, it's a far longer work than we ran in June - my eyes just lit up. For me, at least, it represents quite a development in Ron's work, even as much as it's continuous with what came before. Your mileage, of course, may vary."

And then... I stumbled upon a tweet from The Paris Review with the text, "All your poems are in a sense one poem." Hm, so did I speak too soon? The words emanate from The Ghost of Robert Lowell, and are from this famous interview; here's another bit of it:


You said that most of the writers you’ve known have been against the grain. What did you mean?


When I began writing most of the great writers were quite unpopular. They hadn’t reached the universities yet, and their circulation was small. Even Eliot wasn’t very popular then. But life seemed to be there. It seemed to be one of those periods when the lid was still being blown. The great period of blowing the lid was the time of Schöenberg and Picasso and Joyce and the early Eliot, where a power came into the arts which we perhaps haven’t had since. These people were all rather traditional, yet they were stifled by what was being done, and they almost wrecked things to do their great works—even rather minor but very good writers such as Williams or Marianne Moore. Their kind of protest and queerness has hardly been repeated. They’re wonderful writers. You wouldn’t see anyone as strange as Marianne Moore again, not for a long while.

Before you go off on tired old confessional-poetry-yadda-yadda, let's think on this, instead: "Perhaps it is that certain languages are less ego-centric, linguistically speaking..." One hopes so; read more in this fascinating blogpost by Dr. Michael Shaughnessy, a professor of German who specializes in computer assisted language learning and visual representations of culture. He notes that -

Apparently, the only universal content in regards to spatial perception in language appears to be the direction 'up' since it is a function of the gravity that we all feel, regardless of our cultural or linguistic background.

Geography, culture, and even technology shape how we view space in our world. In addition to variance among cultures, there is constant change within languages. Additionally, it is not solely a function of this 'lens of language'; it is both a function of our language and our experiences. For example, the exposure to mathematics and science has an impact on how we perceive space.

Hm, well, what happens when languages jumble together? As Tony Judt says in the NYRB: "Cultural insecurity begets its linguistic doppelgänger." Yes.

An excerpt:

"I was seduced by the sheen of English prose at its evanescent apogee. This was the age of mass literacy whose decline Richard Hoggart anticipated in his elegiac essay The Uses of Literacy (1957). A literature of protest and revolt was rising through the culture. From Lucky Jim through Look Back in Anger, and on to the “kitchen sink” dramas of the end of the decade, the class-bound frontiers of suffocating respectability and “proper” speech were under attack. But the barbarians themselves, in their assaults on the heritage, resorted to the perfected cadences of received English: it never occurred to me, reading them, that in order to rebel one must dispense with good form...

Sheer rhetorical facility, whatever its appeal, need not denote originality and depth of content.

All the same, inarticulacy surely suggests a shortcoming of thought. This idea will sound odd to a generation praised for what they are trying to say rather than the thing said. Articulacy itself became an object of suspicion in the 1970s: the retreat from “form” favored uncritical approbation of mere “self-expression,” above all in the classroom. But it is one thing to encourage students to express their opinions freely and to take care not to crush these under the weight of prematurely imposed authority. It is quite another for teachers to retreat from formal criticism in the hope that the freedom thereby accorded will favor independent thought...

When words lose their integrity so do the ideas they express. If we privilege personal expression over formal convention, then we are privatizing language no less than we have privatized so much else...

Words can lose their integrity in a big way if you suffer from a stroke, as Marie Ponsot recently did. Large chunks of memory, poetry, and erudition vanished for her, causing her to discover - in a terribly real sense - that "you can't say what you don't know." Her hunt for syntax is no poetry game. See what she does with it in this amazing NYT article, viz-

Some big memories, she thinks, are gone — “stones at the bottom of the river,” she called them — and certain categories of words throw her. She consistently swaps pronouns for men and women — which, she noted with delight, some people mistake as ironic commentary on gender identity.

“You’re talking about a guy and ‘she’ comes out,” Ms. Ponsot said. “People think, ‘That’s a fancy thought’ — and no, no I’m not thinking at all, I’m just talking.”

She also slips on units of time. “I’ll say, I haven’t eaten in three weeks,” Ms. Ponsot said. “I really mean three years.”

She paused. “I’m messing that up,” she said.

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