Wednesday, October 27, 2004
How can that drape-rod bear
to hang there the same, each day,
its white-globe finial
reflecting the same bulb, so.
The velvet folds
from it, I in bed
sick and in my sickness a health
I'll never understand, austere
as looking through the glancing
which we surround all our objects with.
The globe casts a shadow
same as always, the drapes let no
sun or draft
disturb my convalescence
which is also a sickening
desire to avoid the revelation
tormenting its way out through me,
small as light, as death:
and opposite the shadow a depthless bead
centered on the globe
which I stare at, or through, like a star
myself, blinking occasionally
though, my muscles now so sore
and my neck so insistently stiff
that I remain otherwise unmoved.
I can't really attest to its quality, because I wrote it in a state of hyper-conscious delirium. Which state can lead to a) good writing or b) bland writing (usually this one). I probably wouldn't be able to accurately assess it anyway, since I almost never can tell whether I've written anything worthwhile or not. Maybe the quality of my poems does vary (the most generous interpretation), or maybe they are all of similar quality i.e. middling or poor, and the distinctions I use to distinguish my poems are not so great as I make them. I say this with no special humility, by the way, sometimes I think I'm the bee's knees, too. Depends on the day.
I mean, I'm ambivalent about everything. Even being sick. It is awful to be unwell, but it is interesting and eye-opening in its own way and I know, how much understanding can one person stand (tell the truth but tell it slant, and all), but there is, in illness, an opposite-of-illness which one is unaware of during normal states of health. Not that I'd ever desire to feel as I too often do, but following the worst of the unpleasantness, I can see in it a purpose, one purgatorial, sometimes, and calm, others. The feeling afterwards is one of cleansing either way; that is, I usually feel better after an immune episode like this one. Though very tired. And not very coherent. I hope this is in some way understandable.
To my rice noodles.
Monday, October 25, 2004
First, MacCulloch's prose is much more agile and expressive. Zinn is blunt to clumsy dullness, and though this trait serves/complements his earnestness well, I'd say not perfectly well. The shape of what is to come is more-or-less known a few sentences into each chapter, and it gets kind of sloggy, unless you're getting emotional about the outrage along with him (which is unavoidable, sometimes, and advisable, sometimes, too).
Second, having that book precede this one highlights that this too (though, unlike Zinn, not only) is a people's history. More good humor (and an undertone of wistfulness for a more earthy Christianity, which he pretty convincingly documents as existing pre-reformation) enabled, obviously, by the historical distance to his subject (as opposed, again, to Zinn).
The chapter on Erasmus is truly excellent. His ability to relate in a few pages what is obviously a vast familiarity, and so elegantly, is stunning.
Interesting, nearly-at-random excerpt:
"French armies invaded [Italy], sparking military and political miseries that disrupted the peninsula for half a century. A terrifying and hitherto unknown disease also broke out. Apparently as fatal as the plague, unlike that disease it played with its victims for months or years, destroying their looks, their flesh, and sometimes their minds, and producing sores and scabs that stank and made the sufferers loathsome. Equally seriously it brought public shame, because very quickly people realized that it had an association with sexual activity. The disease rapidly set off on its travels, aided by the movements of armies, but in any case, it reached as far away as Aberdeen by spring 1497. Naturally, the Italians in their double affliction called the new scourge the French pox, a name that soon caught all Europe's imagination, much to French annoyance. France's attempt to relabel the pox as the Neapolitan disease was not an especially successful piece of spin-doctoring. We now call the modern descendant of this pox syphilis, thanks to the name of the hero (Syphilus) of a poem published in 1531 by Girolamo Fracastoro, a sixteenth-century Italian doctor."
That naming part, what a fascinating thing. It's not like the French government was annoyed by the disease; just its coined name. And the lame 'spin-doctor' motion. Wow. Sound familiar ("want some freedom fries, anyone?"; or more seriously, "those explosives? O, we just kind of didn't notice." or "Clear Skies Initiative" etc etc ad nauseum.)?
Do I even need that last paragraph, or does it go without saying?
Saturday, October 23, 2004
Friday, October 22, 2004
Ok, I'll reconstruct, though spottily:
I think I got off track on my last post a little bit. The simple point I was getting at was that Milton, modeling an attachment to "person" as opposed to contingent "self" in a transcendental fashion, draws us into the drama so we experience, where we are attached to 'ego', desire (i.e. "c'mon, Son, take the ability to redress every temporal injustice in the world!" or "c'mon, be super-smart, so you can figure out anything!" Desires we've all have had.). And then question this desire in the face of Jesus' inaction and it's posited holiness, egolessness.
That this function meets neatly Grossman's definition of poetry as a model for how to fulfill our communication with others as to the 'value' of 'personhood' as opposed to 'selfhood', the temporal contingencies which we can confuse with our own self-value (what Milton would, I think, call soul).
"[Milton] chooses to regard our natural affinity for language and actions that are concrete and immediately satisfying as a symptom of a radical defect, which, if it is to be extirpated, must first be acknowledged. Accordingly, he deliberately provokes what will, in the context of a reader's predisposed sympathies, be recognized as the wrong response or at least a response that is problematic, and therefore a response we will feel obliged to think about. That is to say, the reader who is discomforted by the Son's behavior will be moved to ask a question--"What can this mean?"--and to the extent that he becomes able to answer the question, the source of his discomfort will be removed."
(A little background: the entire 'plot' of Paradise Regained is Jesus in the wilderness. Satan tries to tempt him to do things which appear on their face good (give hungry people bread, for example) and Jesus' response is to do nothing. Satan gets frustrated and asks "What dost thou in this world?" An earlier sentence by Fish, then I'll continue the long, Grossman-relevant quote: 'No matter what form Satan's temptations take, their thrust is always to get Jesus to substitute his will for God's, to respond to his own sense of crisis, to rely only on remedies which are at hand and in his own control.")
Continuing the quote:
"This suggests a pattern of (possible) progress in our career as readers--from impatience to understanding to approval--which constitutes a subplot in the poem's action. The main plot works itself out in terms of the Son's response to Satan; the reader's plot, in terms of a response to the Son's response to Satan. The son declines to act on the basis of the motives Satan nominates, caring only to do his Father's will; but these are motives which are at least superficially appealing, and it is disconcerting when they are not only scorned but dismissed, as if the issues of tyranny and hunger were fictions. . . . to the extent that understanding involves approval of what the Son does, it involves also discarding the values in which the dignity of the self inheres--wealth, power, fame, charity, statesmanship, language, literature, philosophy, mind--and substituting for them the single and all-inclusive value of obedience to God."
I find interesting (well, lots, but locally this) that if one discards the representational valences of Satan, the Son, God, obedience, these terms fit very well with the understanding of truth other meditation traditions have arrived at. I'll stick to what I find most attractive, Taoism: one wants to move not from one's own impulse, but from the Tao--one wants to understand to a point where, actually, there is no difference. If one takes a Blakean approach to understanding the Son ("God is a man full upright in the noon sun" I believe is the quote) as oneself in full embodiment of the one Self, sort of Stevens' "impossible possible philosopher's man", as an example of one in the fullness of one's absence, boddhisattva-esque, understand Satan and sin less as a malignant adversary (this is less a transformation, I think, than a cutting through an interpretation of the world which acts against our realizing it) than as an aspect of consciousness not necessary for consciousness (there is basis for this even in the radical Protestant tradition of Milton, he makes the point in, I think, Paradise Lost, that evil does not exist in itself, it is only a "debased good"), and God as less the beardy man (or, is it the neoplatonists/cabbalists, or was it earlier, who understood this image less as god's totality than as the totality of the face of god a human could apprehend, the 'demiurge'?) than the total creative impulse of the world (call it Tao), then you have here Milton apprehending and communicating what every contemplative tradition has in its own way for, in my guess, though I could be wrong in my understanding of what a human and of what society is, as long as there have been humans.
Wednesday, October 20, 2004
Last night, I dreamt that I’d been living in a New York apartment (midtown)—as I was entering my building, the lobby guy/landlord told me that “someone” had put a Patriot missile in the apartment above me. You mean I could be incinerated in a second, if it launches? Yep. Oh. And then thinking about moving the long elevator ride up.
I'm also reading "The Sighted Singer" by Allen Grossman with Mark Halliday (that's how it's attributed). The first half is a dialogue between the two men, and the second half is a long treatise-in-the-style-of-Aquinas on 'the commonplaces in speculative poetry' titled "Summa Lyrica."
The conversation took place in 1981, so obviously there's a lot of bridges built over this river since then (so to speak), but there's a lot of very interesting stuff in it. Here's a quote I've been rolling over (Grossman talking, as he mostly is):
"Now, I am making a distinction which I think is alien from the way you think about things: a distinction between selves and persons. I believe that poetry is fundamentally antipsychological, and I would summon as my witnesses the High Modern poets with their advocacy of impersonality, which led them all, each in his [sic] own way, to reject the analysis of the "real" self that we find in Freud. I am in effect saying to you that poetry has a destiny not in selves, but in persons; and that, whereas selves are found and discovered, persons and personhood is an artifact, something that is made, an inscription upon the ontological snowfields of a world that is not in itself human. I view the world, and I think poetry by its very structures calls attention to the world, as not human; and in the presence of that world not human, the world that lies in the white spaces upon which our words are inscribed--on that world poetry writes the name of the person. And the distinction between person and self is that the person is value-bearing . . . When I speak of keeping the human image, I am speaking of keeping, not selves, but the value of selves.
What I mean by "presence" is the person-making power of evoking the disposition to honor selves which is expressed in, but not identical with, love. The disposition to honor selves, awakened by poetry, must be responded to if poetry can be said to be truly read. This is what differentiates the kind of presence I'm talking about from mere being with in the world."
I don't know if I "buy it" wholly, but it is a very eloquent and attractive description of poetry's vitality.
One other thing: Earlier, he had begun the conversation by claiming for poetry two functions: that of bringing people together, and that of modeling for people how to be together. Both are, for him, aspects of the "greater function of poetry . . . the keeping of the image of persons as precious in the world. Language is inherently a principle of relationship, and when language is about language there is required a refinement and searching of that principle--so that talk about poetry tends toward the perfection of the means of relationship."
I think I have a Fish quote regarding Paradise Regained which will sit nicely next to that last one from Grossman. Later.
Monday, October 18, 2004
For whatever reason, this poem of mine:
The Boothbay Glassblower
It was the way he quick-spun the tube
into flame and pulled by eye the filament
into an oblong lobster-trap, boat
or pot. It was how the fig-shaped globe
expanded on the glazier’s breath, thinning
from bell into bulb into fist into hope into cantaloupe
into the child’s eyes hard as soft and rapt
by what they watched become; creation
mattered, a convex clarity; and he said so,
stout arms shooting out from his body
in arced imitative stabs, and stuttering;
and his Poppa's powerful bulk broke in,
in his measured breath asking how much;
and the glassblower stared clear through him, as if glass.
I've been remembering writing. I wrote it in frustration with my first mfa workshop, seven years past now. I don't think I can write like that now, on account of my health. I stayed up for seven or eight hours on it, rolling out and over again the line breaks, trying to get it right. Not that it feels like more than a slight thing, but at the time I was pretty happy with it. Now the thing is, I assumed it would just be the first of many, and there would be a kind of progress, intensification, improvement, following. But it's actually hard to find many poems (for me, at least) one can keep working on like that (though I have enough that I like well enough). Though when one happens upon/into one, it feels like the easiest thing in the world, and that like the moment which gave rise to it, so could any moment could give way and allow one's attention to endlessly consider a a flux of discrete relationships (words, syntax, etc) before 'firing' (as in a kiln) their singular (and appropriate) form set. That any moment can expand into an aesthetic consideration of itself. Though in practice so few do. It really is the tension of forcing oneself to stop tensing oneself through habit. Time is a habit. (& Why the exhaustion from relinquishing it? Withdrawal, a temporary difficulty?)
So that this poem is still with me, I find interesting. Not in a backpat way (I'm sorry if talking about my own work here seems so, but that's what my mind's on now, cold weather and all turning inward), but rather the balance of two facts: that I accomplished more then than I knew, or was told, and that I've accomplished less since than I expected, or was able to.
By the way, does anybody (Greg, maybe?) know, is that guy is still there?
Sunday, October 17, 2004
well, I'm having a hard time writing, or thinking really, beyond checking the news every hour. It is mostly the election, but I think a lot of anxiety is getting tied up in that contest, which that contest is only a part of, and not even a part of all the history moving through us our way. I mean, there are many hours I forget, but there is a kind of quiet just outside my ears I feel like I'm trying to listen through, to hear what's coming. Mostly I'm happy, I mean I'm not in a state of physical tension, and I'm enjoying life and my family tremendously; but still.
I know, terrible rambling, no point. If anyone has any thoughts regarding the point of my first paragraph, I'd be curious to hear. Or a pointer to a good book on the subject. I suppose one option I've left out is c) religious invention & messianic movement. Is that artistic?
Saturday, October 16, 2004
So have I read boring Josh Corey poems? Yep. But I've also read Josh Corey poems I've enjoyed greatly. And in general, his poetry gets better the more you read and think about it, which is the kind of poetry I dig. So that's just me.
Friday, October 15, 2004
" . . . psychologists warned that people who keep diaries are more likely to suffer from headaches, insomnia, digestive complaints, and social problems."
Eliot I found much easier going than I used to--actually, this goes for all the texts I returned to, but most striking with Eliot. I've forgotten how important he used to be to me, as an example of rigor and of intelligence. But what used to seem to me unintelligibly convoluted, his strainings for spirituality, now struck me as awkwardly lovely, and elegant in their attempt to delineate some sense of religion. Now, as far as the Norton goes, I used to know the whole thing, and if not all by heart a not-insignificant amount so. It served the function it is supposed to, and it is decried for, it gave a mind a place to turn for the study of what this hard-to-put-into-words thing poetry might be. Again, I was drawn to the more rigorous and involved poems, but loved poems like Raab's "Attack of the Crab-Men" (I think it was called, like I've said, my memory has been nothing to what it was since my life turned) and pretty much everything. The available range felt established; that is, what was primarily important was that the aesthetic approach each poem/poet established for itself was whole and, for lack of a better word, 'honorable'. A similar, if smaller-scale, attachment, I felt for that issue of the Paris Review, which accompanied me to work (copy editing) on the train/subway each day. I really got to know it very well. More to dislike in it, of course, but lots to learn from and enjoy as well.
I don't think there's as much I attend to the way I used to these texts (and others, of course, but these are what I've fished out these past days). I do think I apprehend the poetry available in poems much faster and more completely now, I'm a practiced reader, my practice did me well. But there are other variables, and there's something about accepting a text as it that allows a certain quickening, an enlivening of one's own going-ness into words and the world, that perhaps belongs to a younger approach to the question of what poetry is and what one is in relation to it. The paragon of such would be, I suppose, Keats with his Shakespeare. I don't know if I'm capable of slowing down enough like my quick attention used to be only on Ulysses, say, for the years it was. Or even the summer of Proust (there, the length and intricacy served to induce such a state, and one I'm still in, in a way, regarding that book). But it woke me up deep.
One function of difficulty, then, is to force a mind to dwell on a text long enough for the text's thoughts to become alive in the mind; to teach a mind to think something out of its own habit, and apprehend that poem as if it were a thought thought by itself, from within. That's what technique means, to me. A fifth-column approach, though benign. That's kind of been my aim with what I've done. If I've missed the boat on fashion, on current modality, as I sometimes think I have (other times I think I haven't, most of the time I don't bother thinking about it of course), well. Risk of the game. And time. And arrogance.
Wednesday, October 13, 2004
Regarding the New Yorker poems, I'm not going to be religious about them, but last week's by Mark Strand I both enjoyed and found easy to forget. What I came away with from it was the feeling that he is steady, as always, amidst a confusion not only large but unsettled. Confusion? It just pours through him, like gatorade through a marathoner. Steadying and comforting. I used to feel (strongly, and don't get me wrong, I still value his poetry) that there was something important in that tone of his. So why does he feel lesser in "these" times? His taste is the quaff of a personal, not widespread, confusion, which resolutions are in their own way more necessary and frightening than personal ones: are certainly more immediate. Illusions of safety is I'd argue more important (psychologically speaking) when threatened by civil disorder than when threatened by personal disorder.
So he feels slighter, in his clarity of confusion, though even more reasonable than ever for tending to what he does. It's just that the sense that what he is writing about was shared and immediate is less so, for it is obscured by something else shared and immediate I really don't have a way to describe yet.
Monday, October 11, 2004
My study's walls are tiled with poems. I've taped them up in order, and move them around when it seems right to. I read them through, I don't want too much correlation in the flow, but I want it to be reasonably linked. I want there to be a sense of progress (though ironized), but then I notice almost all the end is ekphrastic. And deathly too. What's that about? I'm confused. Why did all my poems with fire in them end up in the first third? Is that interesting, or unbalanced? Is "Portrait of the Artist" an appropriate model for a book of poems? "Dubliners"? "A Winter's Tale"? I have no sections. Is this a good thing? I've put in sections; does this heighten the similarity of tone and content between poems, would such heightening be too much to the point of a bored reader, or does it jar what would be harmony otherwise? Is four the wrong number of sections? Is it too common?
What if my catchiest poems (do I have any?) don't belong in the beginning? What if my epigraphs are stupid? Why is my title so boring? Is it? What if I've chosen the wrong 50-odd poems altogether?
I feel like i'm getting dressed for a senior prom. I feel like I'm in Groundhog Day. I'm very confused.
Calmer: my biggest concern is that I was obviously moving within/towards a 'project' which my protracted illness interrupted. That was around half-way there, and now I'm not sure if what I'm doing is finishing it well, or finishing it Frankenstein-ish, and I should let go that material. Probably the root of a lot of my discomfort.
Saturday, October 09, 2004
9:21 Love it when Bush talks about not joining the International Criminal Court. Do average Americans know what that is or do they think he's talking about the Superfriends?
Friday, October 08, 2004
Hmm. The way Bush said “nexus,” was inflected just like his father would, New England-y. Interesting.
Ok, that was enjoyable. I got a little carried away with the posting, maybe.
Things are evening out now. I guess I’m greedy to want a donnybrook all 90 minutes. Oh, wait, here comes abortion. And Bush is calling Kerry names again. Bet it gets fun again. Yep, here it comes, a little. "That's just the way it is. Reality."
10:14: Oh good, stem cells.
Oh, please Kerry, don't go overboard on the "I have a tax cut" pledge. Keep it normal.
Oh my god, he is furious. I think he wants to spank Kerry. And the audience. Holy. And Kerry is really doing it well. So well. And every question is about a screw-up from the administration. "If only you saw it my way, and not your way, you'd see how right I am." Wow.
I would be embarassed for him if it wasn't so cathartic. Four years.
"And the Short Chimney
wld have died right there, been plugged by a fisherman if
Conant had not ordered Capt Hewes to lower his gun, to listen
to what the little man from Plymouth had to squawk about
wld have been the first to lie in the cemetery where my father does,
at least where I say he does,
where I wanted him to, either that
or load him in a dory, row him
beyond the Breakwater, and set fire to it, let him go, so,
That a man's life
is what there is
that tradition is
at least is where I find it,
how I got to
what I say"
(forgive my inability to indent as Olson intended)
Thursday, October 07, 2004
Table of Contents
Means of Production, and Behind the Stove is My Heart 2
In Words 3
Coming Home 5
Pear Trees 7
The Boothbay Glassblower 9
The Guinea-hen of Manalapan 10
In Van Gogh’s Wheat Field with Cypress 11
My Story 12
Owning Pear Trees 16
Late Nap, Hydrangea
Over It 24
Interior Landscape or, All Men Have Secret Lives 26
Off on a Tangent
Idée Fixe 29
Lament from the Western Slope 30
The Burn of Vanity 32
What Remains 34
Self-Sought Song 37
Crossing Over 38
Beyond the Wild Roses 40
Small Fall 44
Chains of Love 46
My Lead Hat 48
Old Song 53
The Only Painting in the Met 54
Poem with One Broken Line 56
The Smell of Warm Grass, and Shakespeare’s Majestic Silence 58
Self-Georgic: Dwarf Gravenstein 60
Two Oranges 63
Green Room 64
Wednesday, October 06, 2004
When I was at NYU, an English professor (I feel terrible that I forget his name) died, and all his old journals were put on a rolling bookshelf for us grad students to take, if we wanted them. The guy who told me got all the old Dials, but I was still pretty early, and grabbed a bunch of old Poetrys (in hindsight I wish I’d taken more, but I was being nice to those on their way) and I have to agree with Josh Corey, that Rago as an editor did manifest a genuine openminded and inclusive publication. Frankly, the issues feel suffused with a curiosity, almost impatient to gulp through itself to the next month.
That said, I think such a thing was easier (not, though, easy) then,* and perhaps a sharp-elbowedness is a) the first clearing-out, opening step of Wiman to clear out the old before he can engage more positively/inclusively with what he can bring as an editor; and b) (really an extension of a) an attempt to clear away the Parisi-sense of uniformity (the clever way he arranged the poems to ‘link’ in a chain, thematically, always felt dismissive of the poems, like a Count playing chess with his peasants as the pieces; and not that he only picked sleepers, but he did those too) to bring to his pages the individuality-within-a-community which necessitates contentiousness, a la Spicer. Again, that this impulse, manifest in the editorial decisions behind the letters-to-the-editor and the “Antagonisms” sessions, is part of the project, not the realization yet of (the poetry selections so far have been, from what I’ve read, more varied). He is making it new, editorially speaking, and such work famously involves some acts of destruction. So this is sort of a channeling of an adolescent spirit. Again, this is kind of a ‘meta’ sense of where these energies are coming from, to be expressed as they are being.
As far as Logan goes, there is the feeling regarding his criticism that it is petty, and personal. Only in his dreams does Bush orate like Churchill, and so it is with Logan and Jarrell. Jarrell was, as his primary critical characteristic, accurate. Logan is, as his primary critical characteristic, cruel. He disregards any worth a poet may have in his glee at correcting them for what he obviously feels they should be ashamed of. It is this superiority he affects which lead me and, apparently, others, to look at his poetry and see that that which he misses in his criticism is that which he lacks in his poetry—he can’t see what is good about too much that his poetry needs (like a pulse. sorry.).
That is, unlike so many of the best poet-critics who are not such great poets, his poetry is the obvious end result of his criticism, and this not only devalues his criticism but exposes the fear which must drive it. This is, I want to say, not true of all his modes, but one which does seem to be becoming more pure and unaffected by a forgiving (that is, human-eyed) sense of relationship with what he reads. Not too open to newness. I mean, if he can’t see that what’s good about Hopkins is more than worth the struggle he ridicules, he’s not willing to go very far for his art, is my feeling. Call me opinionated.
That said, I still go out of my way to read his reviews because when he does score, it is wonderful and necessary. But he used to more; it seems to me (and I say that understanding the change may be mine not his) in the last few years he’s had less fun and more bile, less accuracy and more gratuitously mean commentary.
I apologize to Mr. Logan for what I’ve said, he may be a wonderful person and I may miss the wonder of his poems; but he doesn’t pull back from saying what he sees, and this is how his sight seems to me. Maybe I’ll feel different tomorrow.
*the familiar criticism of now as fragmented, fragmented being a different thing from varied. Perhaps all nows are so, not just this one, and all thens, are so, too, not just that one. I have only one perspective.
Not that I don't think Edwards got the better of Cheney, but the only way Cheney was able to hold place like he did, and even push back, was on account of his voice (I know, hardly original thought). The debate format, I see, favors the cool-measured toned over the emotive. Edwards' intonations wanted more time to play out their amplitude--the subtler play of intonation Cheney and, Kerry, use, calm and boring, works perfectly in the multiple-2-minute format. With Edwards, I felt like I got a whole bunch of starts, and each had a strong emotional shape to it, and with so many starts near each other, the similar shape became noticable, which to my ear made them less effective. This dynamic helped Kerry last Thursday against Bush. And listening, Edwards sounded a little jumpy and eager; like an excited smart student but without the sense of proportion and measure in assessing how to say what where that years would give (though he still did so better than Cheney; I'm focusing on this one quality, one of pacing and measure). So I guess it seems to me, at least (who liked Edwards early on in the primaries), that maybe the whole 'electability' thing wasn't just vapor after all. But what do I know? And that I still really like him as a candidate.
My favorite moment of the debate? Cheney's heartfelt (it sounded genuine to me) response regarding his daughter and refusal to argue the Republican position concerning gay marriage. He obviously feels the constitutional amendment is wrong. And the question that followed that exchange, though I forget what it was, made me laugh with happiness--that the whole debate was worth either of those moments, if nothing else.
Tuesday, October 05, 2004
three ideas in my head now.
one: between Bush and Cheney, I think they have all the characteristics covered that Oswald Cobblepot and Max Schrek (sp?) shared, in Batman Returns, as well as the essential of that relationship. I wish I had figured out how to post pictures, because I'd love to post one of Cheney alongside a specific sidelong glare from The Penguin from that movie; that is certainly one physical aspect. Though Bush did a great job last Thursday night, and one of those powerless hatred looks he gave would serve almost as fine. And is it that hard to see in Bush's personality and life-trajectory something of Cobblepot's attempt to claim the family birthright he was denied and exemplified? The constant propaganda of his election, the up-is-downism, the hiding of an alliance of capitalist and fascist under a cloak of civic and moral goodness?
I don't know how much that movie (which, I think, patterned itself on the rise of Nazi-ism) was meant to be a general patterning of how politics is played against the civil body (sort of a Joseph Campbell-esque metamyth of democracy), but it did a pretty good job, as far as I can tell, given where we are. Eerily so, frankly. And while Kerry is only just now coming out of his mild-mannered millionaire fop disguise to do earnest battle against those who've done their best to goad/neutralize him by attacking his heroism with their own self-image, he didn't do such a bad job of filling that role of hero out--at least from my perspective. I hope he keeps it up. There was no Robin in that movie, but I can stretch it to put Edwards in as.
And can't you just see Cheney, enraged by some wounding of his facade during the debate tonight, lunging across the table and biting into John Edwards' nose?
Two: I remember an idea I used to have, I think it was the same time in college I read the idea of phylogeny recapitulating ontogeny (disproved, I think). My idea (if solid enough to call it that) was that just as, at conception and for some time after, a fetus is undifferentiated cells dividing and dividing until, based on no one knows what (or didn't), they begin to differentiate--some into skin, some organs, some brain, some bone, and so on--yet some remain original, those stem cells, undifferentiated, all potential available, so a poet is someone like the stem cells, someone who has maintained the imaginative ability to travel into any path and yet is dedicated to none, kind of a negative capability idea. So that's what I used to think a poet was.
three: I don't remember. I think maybe it was more than adequately answered by the Milosz quote I linked to in my previous post.
Sunday, October 03, 2004
Art is ripe for a symmetry break - a shattering into a myriad of different narratives which are incompatible, in the sense that they require coherence. And coherence is the one thing that any "let's all play nice in the sandbox" era can't abide by. It must be incoherent by definition, since incoherence is the defense of the establishment against one part kicking another part. Incoherence means there is no moral imperative to artistic activity.
And that is what bases the new narrative of art: art is what we do, it is the sphere of activity. It does progress to the extent that it can acquire, and keep, techniques and ideas - and to the extent that it can create audiences for artists. And it is for this reason that art has been going backward, not because of what is being done, but because what is being done really does have a meta-narrative, as much as the people doing "contemporary" art want to deny it.
Art, in the present moment, is the study of people who live, in the garden of media. Just as the Romantic studied people molded by nature, and the Victorian people molded by society, and the Modern people molded by the new urbanity - the Post-modern man, and the new POMA - are people molded by the artifacts of living in a mass manufactured world as isolated individuals. It is for this reason that contemporary art looks so self-indulgent, even when it is not, because the "self" is the only narrative that any artist can recognize - every artist is forced, by the way we do art now, to have a self-narrative, which can be told without reference to any narrative.
This, of course, is a narrative in itself.
Reaction Paper to the Jack Spicer of The House That Jack Built With an Eye to What Has Come
Q: But would the location that you changed to, would it be quite familiar or quite like the situation or place that you normally use?
JS: Well, no. The situation is not familiar. But I certainly try to make it as familiar as possible—just like a cat when he goes to a new house—try to get things which are like the old house and get associations and all that.
Q: But she means a place you feel easy in.
JS: I think she means more than that, a place where you can actually get something coming.
Q: I mean, is it almost like a physical situation—I’m finding it very hard to express.
JS: I know what you’re talking about, and I just am not sure what the answer is because I think that a lot of my thing is laziness. I certainly prefer the same situation for writing poems of the same book and all of that, but I think that’s probably just real laziness, acedia, the kind of thing I really shouldn’t do. I should probably climb a mountain writing one poem and go to Death Valley in another, but I’m too lazy to do that. I don’t really think it makes that much difference because your laziness simply opens your mind. But I really don’t think that this has anything to do with any advice to any other poets.
GH: Still, laziness is a habit?
What I find remarkable about this passage is that Spicer is (in apparent contradiction with a poem like “Thing Language”) resting on pure personality. He avoids abstraction at every turn (and I mean the ‘he’ of that sentence as active as well as passive). What he means by empty, it strikes me, is what the Taoists mean by empty, in that he is exactly what he is and nimbly avoids the reordering/self-alienating pull of the social machine around him; not what a Cartesian would mean by empty, which is vegetal. And his advocacy is for each to follow each their sensitivity, not him. Brave man.
Throughout this lecture, questioners question him as to generalities and he counters with ‘well, me, I . . .” Which is a very interesting tactic for someone who advocates, in writing poetry, the escape of the dross of the self which he calls, earlier and throughout, pungently, ‘furniture.’
He goes so far as to call the future, if it could be foreseen, furniture, compared to poetry and Outside. Which means that when he says Outside, he means outside of whatever there is to be conceived. Which again strikes me as a peculiar move for a poet of his bent to make (again, regarding “Thing Language,” that language is an ordering of things), revealing a severe Platonism on his part (that is, an overriding concern with not the order of things, but with what lies behind the order of things; Ahab-y).
In his purity of this, Jack Spicer seems alienated (pun intended) from himself—he locates his wilderness/SPACE/voice/nature in a nonhuman beingness—Martians—from a nonhuman locale—East Mars. Along with this affective structure, his attendant anxiety manifests itself in a semi-combative jokesiness, the taolike, tricksterish agility I noted above, which is where I also locate his profound Protestantism (emphasis on the first two syllables of that word). Nothing attempts to locate him that he doesn’t assert himself against; except for the call of the Martians. “My way of singing is always peculiar.”
JS: What I’m trying to say is that I think that the difference that a town makes in poetry is this kind of way of walking, and this probably doesn’t have anything to do with dictation at all. It’s just that if the green Martian tells you to walk somewhere, you walk different if you have seven ribs broken than if you don’t. . . . It doesn’t really matter. What matters is getting from place A to place B, and you do that whatever gait you use.
It seems to me he’s alienated from what I will call his soul, and trying to negotiate his terms of survival with that alienation, that overpowering alienation, within its terms. He seems absolutely pessimistic about personality ever being more than a joke, though he rests his entire strategy on it—but he goes on about it in a way that suggests an image from physics to me, that of light, as it passes through different mediums, adjusting to that medium though unaffected by it in the way that, a sunbeam broken by a crystal prism can, with an appropriately-shaped prism, be reconstituted into white light unbroken. So personality, furniture, all the things a cat might look for assurance in its new home in, are the prism. The Martians’ message, the poem’s impetus (and, in its ideal state, the poem itself), is the cat.
JR: Your mind is a blank?
JS: No, it isn’t, unfortunately. It’s trying to be a blank. And trying to be a blank is utterly different from being a blank. Again, the guy who was talking about Jesuit exercises was absolutely dead right, on course, on the thing. The point is that you can’t really make your mind a blank. . . . You can’t. It’s impossible. There’s this utter animal spirit which is coming out and saying, well, gee, can I lay this person if I write this line, and all sorts of things like that. It’s just impossible to make your mind a blank.
Well, yes, you can make your mind a blank, if by blank he means awareness without words, or reaction. Enough non-Western traditions (and Western esoterics) have established that. But, I know what he means; often (and though rare, when it happens it feels like a compositional secret revealed never to be forgotten; as if at any moment one could dive down through any contingency of weather and find the deeps teeming with deep words; though it’s hard to return to that sense, or maybe just to truly remember that it is so) it’s a restraint of self to give to a poem space, but only, I believe, because what we call ‘self’ is a constant grimace—it’s the restraint of not grimacing, of letting your face relax out of a tension it’s been held in for so many years.
Where his extreme Protestantism (an intellectual Puritanism of the moment, one might say) combines with the moment is for-exampled when he says “Well, I’m trying to become an orange,” referring back to a previous exchange about baseball and citrus fruit combined in a pitched metaphor meant to convey his peculiar sense of composition. Here he’s turning it on wit’s head, and you really have to be with his consciousness to get meaning from it, and his consciousness at this point, in the exchange, is inseparable from the exchange—he’s appropriated the ‘furniture’ and rearranged it to comport with some Platonic communication he’s trying to get across with any means possible, though he keeps asserting that those means themselves subvert what it is he’s trying to say, though they really have nothing to do with it at all. It’s very confusing. It’s like he’s trying to destabilize any potential stable construction a reader/listener may take away from the exchange, any stable contribution to a closed world-perception.
When a questioner tries to play his game (gamely, I might add), saying “But you’re a poet who does funny things with bats,” Spicer resists, “I think our baseball thing has gotten all confused.” At first read it seems maybe he means the metaphors have gotten crossed, etc, and have overburdened themselves beyond utility, but I think maybe he means ‘no, no, you stay on that side of the inventive-manipulative line, and I stay on this one. You’re confusing the rules of the game.’ Another audience member, DL, responds in a manner suggesting at least subconscious apprehension of this role-rule-making, “Basically, we don’t know anything about baseball,” assenting to his Spicer-assigned role.
But this discourse is I imagine a far more democratic process than Hutchinson’s (his antinomian spiritual predecessor) famed meetings were, however much it is the result of all the participants being completely alienated from that sensibility they are trying to gain access to (an access gained successfully, I might add, in their/our own peculiar way of tacking into the wind of denial bit by bit), which Hutchinson brought into being for her congregation. Which is part of Spicer, too, that is his ‘resistancism’ (what I’ll coin for his brand of Protestantism) is a must for an existing person to continue existing in society. All must resist each other as nimbly as possible in order to co-exist. Co-exist truly, that is, as opposed to subsume oneself to another’s purpose and method. Spicer resists, in his perversity, even the impulse to align others into like-him. Which is admirable, though it smells like the urge is strong in him. He still brings ‘down’ something of the ineffable spirit Hutchinson must have, though the mechanism of authority (she may have been an antinomian, but she had followers. I don’t know, can one properly say Spicer had followers?) is complicated by/in his evasions as such, less simple than fervency would have allowed.
WT: I suppose you’ve answered this fifteen different times in other ways, but does the thing that’s speaking or dictating work through what the poet happens to know?
JS: Furniture, yeah.
WT: Say baseball was not an interest of yours. Say hockey was.
JS: Or schkertl, which is a Martian sport played on Mars.
Shifting back a little, here we see his interest in transcending frames-of-reference, in triangulating specificity away to find what is essential, the determining pattern. (Seemingly paradoxical, that he would do so simultaneous to, in converstion, constantly asserting his peculiar personality and habits as the basis of his composition. ) This is a Modernist technique (exemplified for me by Joyce’s use of ‘parallax’ in Ulysses), here applied to/by a robust Platonic sensibility. A sensibility which feels out that poetry can be the hinge upon which many specificities can swing, and that if you can transcend your own you get to see it so. Platonic, and mystic too (I’d say theological if I was more familiar with the distinction between mysticism and theology), an attempt to see the “form of forms,” the everchanging is-that-is-is. That Spicer references it so with schkertl, absurd self-belittling and self-alienating humor, is part of his ‘resistancism’, his evercontrarian project. He chooses a game, baseball, to carry so much of his poetry; why? I’m not sure yet I fully understand his gameplaying yet; I’m not sure I ever will (I’ve never been much for baseball), but these are notes towards an understanding, not fully even so yet, so.
Q: This change of geography—is it important to most poets, and to yourself specifically? Does it bring about this change that Allen has noticed and other people have noticed, the measure and all that?
JS: I’d say so. “Gait” is maybe a better word than “measure.”
Again, his sensitivity to surroundings (as well as to resisting/controlling his social surroundings) is striking—he is not only the medium for poetry, he is what passes through different mediums. He is very sensitive to the relationship of medium and what passes through it, and how each expresses the other. This points back to his Martians, to his Platonic ocean of “Thing Language.” I suppose it is an easy answer to say he covers his hyper (nearly paranoid) sensitivity with his tough talk. This comes up over and over in this lecture. That it is your gait that the Martians (rather, their transmission) comes through.
Q: Well, I was a little confused. Are you concerned right now that the ghosts aren’t operating you? Or do you want to be totally operated by the ghosts?
JS: I just want to lead a simple life. [Laughter] I mean, the question is sort of ridiculous. I don’t know what I want myself, and if I did know what I want, it would be the wrong thing to want.
Q: Now this is what I don’t understand. If you know what you want, why is it wrong?
JS: Well, on account of the fact that I ain’t myself only. I’m a member of the team.
Again, he is constantly returning to the ‘pattern’ whereby consciousness of the relationship of a medium to what passes through it is a necessity for free will—that is, to understand oneself you must see from otherness. The self-enclosed is always a tangent to the Self. Any controllable perfection will strangle what it purports to improve. To understand free will, you must understand what you are. And to understand what you are, you must understand what you aren’t. (I’m afraid I may be too earnest a reader to fully appreciate Spicer’s capriciousness; but I do what I can.)
JS: I think that any poet who doesn’t sing off key ought to be very careful because singing on key is . . . Well, all poets sort of know that, nowadays. One of the few things we have learned is that you have to learn to sing off key in someway or another. Again, you have your infinite resources in the furniture. You can make the vocabulary the off-key thing, like Crane did, or you can make the metrics the off-key thing, or you can make the whole structure, or anything else, and then the ghosts come and decide differently.
Off-key is open, Olson’s openness, open to Olson’s ENERGY, receptive. To paraphrase Nietzche by way of the Thoreau of “Walking,” when you walk through the woods, the woods walk back through you. For this purpose, Spicer preaches the necessity of individuality, for song passing through a person-medium must bear some stamp of that passage—to be allowed passage, and not mere repetition which entails the person putting aside their totality, which the putting-aside-of includes the putting aside that individual’s beyond-them, their Outside. This may seem paradoxical, but it is not, though it is, in the proper sense of the word, mysterious; open; Negative Capability is what mere reproduction entails putting aside so as to mimic, instead of passing on/through what the poem is, the ocean’s tossing, or the orange’s, or the ball’s.
Commodius vicus, brings us back to Thoreau, “Walking,” where we (I) started years ago. Though Thoreau is less nervous than Spicer (‘sauntering’ being the the gait proper Thoreau adopted though the open fields and woods which were his medium, he was medium of), one can’t but be struck generally by the similarity of each’s civic positioning to Milton’s Abdiel, that paragon Protestant—one’s obligation to contextualize oneself, as far as meaning and existence go, to the absolute, and not to limit one’s definition (in both word-senses) to the societal and relative civil moment; to resist the easiness which crowd-definition offers. Thoreau does so by turning to what is most physical and resists closed interpretation, nature. “Thing Language” can be properly seen as a radical extension of this practice, and Spicer’s edginess with the attention of his audience seems in direct descent from Thoreau’s. As does the impulse behind “Book of Magazine Verse.”
Yet Thoreau drew such peace from his practice. From Thoreau to Spicer, a profound alienation seems to take hold, one it looks, in hindsight, traced by us through this course. The argument after argument is against American materialism, commercialism, sentimentality, conformity, the thick hide we (we poets, that is) somehow never grew successfully as the polis tried to foster us to. We seem to lack a certain base to which we can return to. As time goes on, our retreat becomes more desperate (remote?). So we tether more tightly to now, outside of historical time, like any exile the future ever-now, “So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn.” Thoreau says a good saunterer never loses the way but by not straying; yet this bankside is no Martian, but Earthly, landscape.