In The Beginning: Questions

Two years ago, on the first day of the first graduate-level poetry workshop I ever attended, my teacher asked us to bring copies of a poem we liked. This was, I imagine, designed to be both an assignment and an icebreaker, perhaps even an introduction. For the next few days, I kept several poems in mind and tried to decide between them. At that time, this included the following:

In the end, I copped out and chose not one, but two: the Stevens and the title poem from Harvey’s collection. My teacher didn’t care much for the latter but vigorously discussed many of the formal devices Stevens employs in “High-Toned.” Afterwards, however, he warned me of the tendency in Stevens’s poetry to exclude the reader, which became one of the many ideas I wrestled with that semester as I wrote my poems and submitted them for critique during the workshops.

(To be honest, I can’t remember the word my teacher actually used to describe Stevens’s writing; I often think it was “arrogant” or “aloof,” but there are times when I feel it could be something else like “snobbish.” A year later, I would remember his point but not the word he used, when I read Louise Gluck’s “Invitation And Exclusion,” the essay in Proofs And Theories where she describes how her early “encounter with Stevens was shattering (114),” because reading his work made her feel “superfluous, part of some marginal throng (115).” By that time, I had learned to simultaneously heed and ignore the warning; though I somewhat understand where Gluck is coming from when she characterizes Stevens’s work as such, I admit to loving his poetry precisely for that very quality.)

The other question my teacher asked that first day was just as confusing: “How do you reconcile choosing Stevens and Harvey?” I was puzzled for several reasons. After all, as someone who loves listening to both “So What” by Miles Davis and, er, “So What” by Anti-Nowhere League, I considered the differences between Stevens and Harvey to be much less irreconcilable than that.

More to the point, while Stevens’s lyricism and Romanticism, not to mention his frequent use of blank verse, can make him seem arguably more conventional than, say, Pound (“break[ing] the pentameter” was Pound’s “first heave” but Stevens doesn’t seem so interested in that project) or Eliot, the indulgence in wordplay and musicality makes many of Stevens’s poems approach, limit-like, the point of nonsense.

In “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman,” it’s obvious in bits like “tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk,” but many of the other lines make their sense through sound: “like windy citherns hankering for hymns,” the last two lines of the poem, and many others seem to me to form the “jovial hullabaloo among the spheres” which is the poem itself. It’s a play of sound without being nonsense, and neither is Harvey, despite how skittery the latter (and even the former) seems to, say, Tony Hoagland.

I still like those two poems I’ve chosen, although, when another teacher in another poetry workshop I took one year later gave the same assignment, I chose a different one: Ann Lauterbach’s “Rancor Of The Empirical,” which I consider a little Stevensian in theme and language. It has since become my “totem poem,” although I did have a runner-up: Chad Davidson’s “Cockroaches: Ars Poetica.”

Riddle Me This

I would like to read two books by Eleanor Cook: Enigmas and Riddles in Literature and Against Coercion: Games Poets Play. Both of them may, I suspect, play a role in my thesis. Here are the opening sentences from “Riddles, Charms, and Fictions in Wallace Stevens,” an essay from the latter book:

Among the many riddling poems Wallace Stevens has given us are some that are riddles structurally. That is, they cannot be read with much beyond pleasurable puzzlement until we have found the questions for which the poem provides answers.

I wish I could have cited Eleanor Cook for the last paper I wrote, since much of it was about “pleasurable puzzlement.”

Or, I could also find a copy of Northrop Frye‘s Spiritus Mundi (reviewed here), the essay collection of his that contains “Charms and Riddles,” which Cook acknowledges as a critical influence on her own work in the first of those books.

Five for Today

  1. Ermita is a district of the city of Manila where I live. It has long had a reputation as a red-light district, so I was surprised to learn that the word itself “always refers to an uninhabited or isolated place, a location for spiritual retreat”: the sacred and the profane?
  2. I like jazz a lot, but if there was a musical genre I’m trying to integrate in my work, it would be (punk) rock. Still, Lauren Camp’s “What’s In The Notes: The Sound Of Jazz In Poetry” made for interesting reading.
  3. I’m not really too cozy with the work of Richard Wilbur, but “A Birthday Card For Richard Wilbur” is a nice piece that spends time talking about simile, which is not one of my strong points, and it reminds me that Wilbur has a poem called “Lying.”
  4. “The Sweetest Sounds I Ever Heard” is a short piece about what it means for a piece of prose to be poetic. I’d prefer a longer discussion, but it’s not always that you read an article for general readers that focuses on the sonic quality of language in prose. As someone specializing in poetry for my MA but also struggling through taking a fiction class this semester, I enjoyed reading this.
  5. Actually, I used to aspire to be a fiction writer, and one of my early influences was Patrick McGrath, which means I very badly imitated him. These days, I don’t read him that often anymore, much less imitate him, but I still enjoyed his short stories a great deal when I re-read a couple last year. I like reading his interviews, too. Here’s another.

John Cheever on Lies and Life, Fiction and Reality


I was reading the confessions of a novelist on writing novels: “If you want to be true to reality, start lying about it.” What do you think?


Rubbish. For one thing the words “truth” and “reality” have no meaning at all unless they are fixed in a comprehensible frame of reference. There are no stubborn truths. As for lying, it seems to me that falsehood is a critical element in fiction. Part of the thrill of being told a story is the chance of being hoodwinked or taken. Nabokov is a master at this. The telling of lies is a sort of sleight of hand that displays our deepest feelings about life.


Can you give an example of a preposterous lie that tells a great deal about life?


Indeed. The vows of holy matrimony.


What about verisimilitude and reality?


Verisimilitude is, by my lights, a technique one exploits in order to assure the reader of the truthfulness of what he’s being told. If he truly believes he is standing on a rug, you can pull it out from under him. Of course, verisimilitude is also a lie. What I’ve always wanted of verisimilitude is probability, which is very much the way I live. This table seems real, the fruit basket belonged to my grandmother, but a madwoman could come in the door any moment.

via Paris Review – The Art of Fiction No. 62, John Cheever

Timothy Donnelly

I once posted an excerpt from a great interview with poet Timothy Donnelly, but I’ve yet to write about how captivated I am by his poems and poetics. His recent collection The Cloud Corporation has gotten rave reviews, and he’s been compared to Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane (and Jay-Z).

What I’d like to do here for now is link to the text of “The Cloud Corporation” and his reading of it, as well as a review that discusses the difficulty and duplicity of his work, especially with regard to selfhood (and which also compares him to Jay-Z). All of those are themes I’m seeking to explore in my thesis. Well, not Jay-Z, but you know.

Jacques Derrida Goes Up My Scale

In the course of all my current reading about Heidegger these days–“about,” not “of” because I’m using cheat sheets secondary literature–I came across the video above and found myself somewhat amused. (I enjoy watching that video, as I have a soft spot for XtraNormal videos set in the academic world, but it’s not really that funny, because the points it makes on both sides do make sense.)

That, of course, reminded me of how I still haven’t read my copy of Derrida’s Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question beyond the first chapter that begins with words that seem to me thrilling in every sense of the term: “I shall speak of ghost, of flame, and of ashes. And of what, for Heidegger, avoiding means.” (Italics his.)

Of course, as the Reading and Time video above demonstrates, it’s not always a good thing to keep piling up the research when what I’m preparing for isn’t really a scholarly article but, well, a somewhat irrealist short story I need to be writing, especially given how difficult it’s been from a moral perspective.

So I decided I’ll  forgo my reading of Derrida for some later, more leisurely, time. This was until I remembered that his Without Alibi (review here), which I also have a copy of but one I haven’t read at all, might prove very useful to my thesis (an altogether different project from my Heidegger short story), especially its first essay, “History of the Lie”…

…which I’ve just learned was spurred by his reading of Hannah Arendt, who brings us back to Martin Heidegger. Though I think I’ll take us back to Derrida by way of Antonio Gramsci Scritti Politti. How I wish I could have a T-shirt printed with “Desire is so voracious, I wanna eat your nation state.” Now dance:

POSTSCRIPT: Jesus. I just found a great online journal called Double Dialogues. Not only does it have two issues devoted to “Art and Lies” (!), pretty much every other issue contains something of interest (the Dominique Hecq essay “Uncanny Encounters: on Writing, Anxiety, and Jouissance” is simply one of many, but I’m mentioning that, because I want to meet Hecq someday.)

Text, Lies, and Philosophy

James Ryerson’s New York Times essay on “The Philosophical Novel” made for very interesting reading, though obviously for a general readership. I’m especially grateful for how it led me to Clancy Martin, whose work I suspect may be of great help to my thesis…if I could only find copies of his works that won’t cripple my finances.

I’m especially interested in the anthology he edited called The Philosophy of Deception (reviewed here), and am somewhat disappointed there’s no PDF sample of, say, his introduction to the volume. I also wish there was a way to read his dissertation, which I think might be about Nietzche’s masterful essay on necessary deception.

He also has a forthcoming book for Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (i.e., a publisher whose books are less expensive than a title released by a university press) entitled Love, Lies, and Marriage. I don’t know if it’s a novel–Martin isn’t just a professor of philosophy, he’s also a published novelist–but I suspect/hope it’s a book-length version of some of the writing he’s been doing lately.

In the meantime, I’ll be lending an ear to this.