The Spoils: April 2013

A bookstore sale allowed me to pick up loads of titles this month, namely, the first seven titles in the list below. The last three came from a much-delayed online order.

  1. The Pirates! In an Adventure with Communists by Gideon Defoe (third book in a series but this and the fifth book on the Romantics are the ones I’m really interested in)
  2. The Dream Archipelago by Christopher Priest
  3. The Stain on the Snow by Georges Simenon (published in the US as Dirty Snow)
  4. Midnight Plus One by Gavin Lyall
  5. Before, During, and After: Poems by Hal Sirowitz
  6. The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein by Peter Ackroyd
  7. The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard
  8. The Winter Sun: Notes on a Vocation by Fanny Howe
  9. The Lion Bridge: Selected Poems 1972-1995 by Michael Palmer
  10. Thread by Michael Palmer (reviews from Jacket 2, Lana TurnerThe Constant Critic, Poetry magazine, and Publishers Weekly)
  11. Conjunctions 37: Twentieth Anniversary Issue (Fall 2001)
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The Spoils: July 2012

From left to right, top to bottom:

  1. Sonnets from the Singlish by Joshua Ip
  2. Who Wants to Buy a Book of Poems? by Gwee Li Sui (review)
  3. The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbors’ House by Nick Lantz (review of this book and Lantz’s We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, which I already own and love)
  4. Sad Little Breathing Machine by Matthea Harvey (reviewed with three other books)
  5. Modern Life by Matthea Harvey (reviewed here, here, here, here, and here)
  6. Company of Moths by Michael Palmer (mashed up here)
  7. Mythology of Touch by Mary Stone Dockery
  8. The Wait of Atom by Jessie Carty

David Shapiro

I brought a few poetry collections to work today. Three of them (Spicer, Stevens, Palmer) are omnibus volumes, “meta-collections” gathering collections that were previously published as separate books. The Lauterbach is a selection culled across several volumes, none of which are represented in its entirety, with a possible exception being the 1997-2000 poems in the section entitled The Call, which were gathered here in If In Time for the first time, as far as I know.

Foreground: four books from the personal canon. Background: lots of other significant stuff.

While I already have my hands/head/heart full with these writers (hands…literally!), there’s another book I meant to bring today but forgot to grab before I left. It’s a single collection, the only one I have by David Shapiro, and it’s ironic to think and write about this absent book when its title is After A Lost Original.

I first found out about Shapiro when a Google search for either “Ezra Pound” or “John Berryman” led me to this piece about difficult poetry collections, with The Sonnets of Ted Berrigan (onetwothreefour!) now joining The Cantos and The Dream Songs. The comments were even more helpful by pointing to poets I was already familiarizing myself with (Hart Crane, Louis Zukofsky, Basil Bunting) and Shapiro, who I only found out about through a comment that “nominated” A Burning Interior.  Another Google search, for Shapiro and his “difficult” collection this time, led me to a fantastic set of articles and interviews on Jacket.

I’m fond of quoting lines from After A Lost Original, such as the last two lines/sentences that end, um, “Sentences,” which I’ve always found heart-tugging in its evocation of a link between author and reader, one based on an experience not founded on understanding and knowledge:

The reader loses his way richly, but it is not certain that the reader loses.
Nevertheless, you found your way about, though I do not know you. (31)

I also like Shapiro’s “Prayer For My Son,” a response to (parody of, rewrite of) Yeats that offers advice like:

Be concealed
Like a conceptual tree
And when you need to be explicit, be (18)

and (cited here)

Forget what you have earned
Learn to know what you have not yet learned
Until you confuse the good
With the beautiful
Don’t seek out the wise, be wise
Never abandon the beloved
Just close your eyes
To the world and open your eyes. (ibid.)

In fact, and this is why I’m a bit irritated about not having my copy of After A Lost Original at hand, I like the lines Michael Leddy cites in his review, such as this one from “You Are The You” (the 8th poem in the Broken Objects, Discarded Landscape section):

To look up into your face
Is like looking into the devastated stars (33)

and, from the third stanza of “Dido To Aeneas” (4th in the same sequence):

I am a city and a statue and a wall and a revenge
It is a recent cut like an accident in a forest. (29)

and, from “The Mistranslation,” the third poem in the sequence entitled Voice:

The mountain hears bright shadows shine.
A mountain brightens; shadows shine.
I hear the mountains; bright shadows shine. (57)

I’m moved by how seemingly ordinary language in lines becme dramatized by a line break that turns a verb into an imperative (again, from “You Are The You”)

To whom does the you in your poem
Refer (33)

I wish I could say something more coherent about Shapiro’s collection, but I’ll just leave it to William Keckler who blogs about Shapiro’s After A Lost Original here and also includes “You Are The You,” the source of the last lines I’ve just quoted. And over here, Keckler has Shapiro’s “A Night Of Criticism,” another one I often plunder for lines to cite.

Here’s a PDF of Thomas Fink’s critical essay on Shapiro’s New And Selected Poems, which I’d go ahead and order if I wasn’t so fixated on buying each of Shapiro’s other collections, so as to get as much of his poems in my hands/head/heart.

I’ve linked to Joanna Fuhrman‘s interview with Shapiro before, but here it is again. I just enjoy reading it now and again. From its evocative title (“pluralist music” sounds like something that calls to me as an ideal to aspire for in my own writing) to so many gems and insights, it’s well worth reading again and again. If I had a hard copy of it, I’d be highlighting most of the text.

Finally, here are some aphorisms from Shapiro that dance around how he “makes it new — with stickers.” I’m not as skilled in that kind of papercraft, but here’s something to look at and think about:

Heavy meta mayhem!

My Rambling and Personal Context for Jack Spicer’s “A Lecture On Practical Aesthetics”

From Ann Lauterbach’s “Introduction” to The Night Sky:

…I have a desire for a practical aesthetics, wherein connections to the making or appreciation of forms have direct application to daily life, and daily life in turn inflects and conditions how to relate to the forms, artistic and otherwise, of the world. This shifting reciprocity is central to these writings. (4, italics hers)

I’ve read those words several times before, and based on what else I’ve been reading deeply these days, Lauterbach’s words resonate with, say, those of Michael Palmer from “Octavio Paz: Circulations Of The Song”:

The first stirrings of vanguardism…can be found in the theoretical matrices of German and English romantic theory, with its revolution of forms, its conflating of genres, its collapsing of life into art and art into life.”  (108-108, italics mine)

I also think of Wallace Stevens and the constant not-as-simple-as-it-seems dynamic of reality and imagination animating much of his work, and how it seems on one level to fit within the art-life scheme but, and I think this is important, not on others.

And then I think of Jack Spicer.

During the Vancouver lectures Spicer delivered shortly before he died, the poet was asked how Stevens fits into the notion of the serial poem Spicer discussed in detail in the second lecture. You can hear the question and answer on the audio clip embedded on this page, but here’s the quick answer: Spicer doesn’t really think “Notes Toward A Supreme Fiction” or “The Man With The Blue Guitar” conform to his ideal for the serial poem.

Spicer sounds a little unsure though, at least enough to somewhat concede a little and cite Transport to Summer (incidentally, the collection where “Notes Toward A Supreme Fiction” is found as the final poem) as coming close to what Stevens was trying to do in Harmonium. He’s unsure enough to say “I don’t know” before discussing instead what one may call the academic context of reception of Stevens (more on this later) and admitting that the term “serial poem” isn’t really very strong.

The first interesting point here is the emphasis on the book as the serial poem itself, which seems to me a play of scale (book = serial poem) similar to that found in a Symbolist like, say, Stephane Mallarme, whose “Crisis Of Verse” (PDF) ends with the following paragraph equating word with poem:

It’s an idea compelling enough to have been echoed in Hart Crane‘s “General Aims And Theories”:

(I’ve left out the part of “General Aims And Theories” that led to this sentence, but it’s worth reading for the explicit link Crane makes between the Romantic and the Symbolist when he mentions Blake and discusses matters in terms of innocence and experience.

The latter word, by the way, bears a rich set of etymological associations, one taken up by Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, from which that footnote was taken, and by Lauterbach, who not only writes within what she calls a “poetics of experience” but also links that word with the experimental.)

Nowadays, Spicer’s book as serial poem idea no longer seems so radical if, instead of grounding it in the dictation from a Martian radio–a science fiction update of traditional occult sources of the poetic as may be found in, say, Williams Yeats and Blake–we instead think of it in  pragmatic terms. “The book as project,” for example, or what Natasha Sajé calls dynamic design and the structure of books. Also, the requirements of an MA thesis in creative writing.

So despite Spicer having it out with the Romantic tradition, when he offers the figure of the poet not as

a beautiful machine which manufactured the current for itself, did everything for itself—almost a perpetual motion machine of emotion until the poet’s heart broke or it was burned on the beach like Shelley’s—instead there was something from the Outside coming in

there seems to be a more complicated relationship going on between Spicer and Romanticism. (As an aside: I’m amused and shocked that Spicer would use as an example Shelley, who for Michael Palmer

represents a radical alterity, an alternative to the habitual discourses of power and mystification by which we are daily surrounded and with which we are bombarded. He represents a poetry of critique and renewal, rather than of passive re-presentation, a poetry which risks speaking to the central human and social occasions of its time, yet speaks from a decentered and largely invisible place. It exploits the margins to speak as it will, out of difference, rather than as it is always importuned and rewarded, out of sameness. (204)

But there’s something else going on here, and it has to do with the academic discourse framing Stevens in 1965. Right after Spicer tries to half-heartedly discuss the aesthetics of Stevens’s work by means of the serial-poem question, he says the following oftquoted remark, expressing with more conviction why he “distrusts” Stevens:

The awful thing I’ve noticed about Stevens that I’ve noticed is that everybody in English departments who hate poetry, which is just about everybody, loves Stevens. I liked Stevens a great deal more before I saw that. You get somebody you know very well just hates poetry, like some people hate baseball or French movies like I do. You know there’s just a real weird hatred. Well, they always like Stevens, all of these people. And the more they hate poetry as it is in the process, the more they like Stevens. So although Stevens moves me, I’ve gotten more and more distrustful of him.

As strange as it may be to connect Spicer and Louise Gluck, I can’t help but remember how she also feels a similar distance towards Stevens, assuming of course that distrust can be rightly considered distance and a lack of intimacy and nearness. I think it does, somewhat, and that’s where an interesting dynamic of agon takes place.

I found Aliki Barnstone’s essay on Hart Crane moving precisely because she struggles against Crane and herself: “My intent when I began this piece was to defend Crane, but as I reread, I found myself recoiling. I’d never written about a writer I wasn’t in love with, and now I’d fallen out of love with Hart, viscerally.”

Similarly, I like it when a struggle with Stevens takes place in poems by, say, John Berryman, Terrance Hayes, Cole Swensen, or Frank Bidart. (I guess, for the sake of consistency, I should also say that I like my bitter struggle with what seems to be a Bloomian preoccupation, despite some misgivings I may have about some of his critical judgments.)

And so, I go back to beginning, though I’ve digressed so much that I’ll have to talk about this in another entry.

That bit from Lauterbach at the very top? The “practical aesthetics” she italicized and which she links to her “poetics of experience”? That rang a bell with me when I read it recently, because just before I did, I read an early Jack Spicer poem where he struggles with Stevens from an aesthetic, rather than discursive, perspective. It’s an apostrophe to “Mr. Stevens” and the repetition of that address at several points in the poem sound to me like a snotty punk kid doing an “Officer Krupke” spiel.

The title of Spicer’s poem? “A Lecture On Practical Aesthetics.” Emphasis frigging mine. But I’ll write about this next time. This has gone on too long.

Finally: Jorie Graham

After years of reading whatever I can find online by and about Jorie Graham and making do with what few poems by her I have in this or that anthology, I finally bought a copy of her now-15-year-old collection The Errancy yesterday. I’m surprised it’s taken me this far, given how I echo her twin interests in philosophy and film studies.

Although I’m not sure how The Errancy ranks with her other books, I was won over by reviews that mention Lacan and Deleuze, that listen to Graham’s “heady, improvisational music” and “accretionary syntax,” and that cite bits from her “mutated love poems.” It also helped that I’m preoccupied with errors, secrets, and lies–all those different ways one swerves away from capital-T Truth–and the very title of The Errancy certainly points to that.

(I should also mention that Emily Galvin, Graham’s daughter with James Galvin, has published her own collection with a strong basis in mathematics, also an interest of mine, poetically speaking. I think I should read James Galvin’s work sometime, just to complete this little family circle.)

I’ve posted a link to this interview before, pointing out Graham’s remarks about Michael Palmer, but this time, I think I’d like to paste the relevant excerpt here, as a reminder to myself about the work I’m (supposed to be) doing (all emphases mine):

keeping the song alive is keeping alive a world in which song is possible. You have to keep hope alive. Any kind of truth you might arrive at that hasn’t contended with hope is going to be very partial. [pause] Michael Palmer is very interesting in that regard. He has extraordinary music. I think he’s learned better than anyone the Stevens trick of making the poem disintegrate on the surface but stay totally alive musically. To me he’s very important in that regard. The way he uses repetition. The particular way he will bring certain images back without that turning into structure. Pure desire kept alive in the act of writing by the way fragments recur.

I also like how Graham talking about silence (“Making the silence come awake in the poem is important to my process. The silence – or anything else that resists the impulse to imagine, own, transform.”) leads her to a really brilliant disquisition on her use of the poetic line, one where I’m hard-put to emphasize any idea as more important than another:

…lines of breath-length, say, lines that contain up to five stresses, sometimes feel to me like measures that make that silence feel safe. A silence that will stay at bay for as long as it takes to get the thing said. Writing in lines that are longer than that, because they are really unsayable or ungraspable in one breath unit for the most part (and since our desire is to grasp them in one breath unit) causes us to read the line very quickly. And the minute you have that kind of a rush in the line (emphasized perhaps by the absence of commas and other interpretive elements) what you have is a very different relationship with the silence: one that makes it aggressive – or at least oceanic – something that won’t stay at bay. You have fear in the rush that can perhaps cause you to hear the fearful in what is rushed against.

What you feel – this is Romantic of course – is the pressure of a silence that might not wait until the end of the line to override you. And so you have to rush those words into it. In this new book, I’m writing mostly in traditional lines again, with less counterpoint from such prose-length units. But the calm assurance of the standard English line has always interested and troubled me. In Erosion, the line-length tended to be much smaller than the norm. The voice in that book was, in fact, so aware of the overriding presence of the white space that it just tried to mash words into that space. With great pressure. To create the sensation of that gravitational weight. Sternness. Solemnity. As if to build cell by cell a fabric that could take the weight of eternity into it – like human tissue.

And here’s a bit from a poem that isn’t in The Errancy but in a later collection called Never. It moved me this morning when I read it, out of the context of the entire poem:

from the 2002 collection Never

from "The Taken-Down God" by Jorie Graham

Five From Cole Swensen

And now, Cole Swensen, with five poems from the same journal where I read Stuart Dybek. Although I’ve listened to a lot of the clips on Swensen’s Pennsound page, I’ve never quite had the chance to actually go deep into Swensen’s work, apart from some rather tangential encounters:

  1. the list of poems Swensen recommends as “required reading” has me vigorously nodding along in agreement
  2. a teacher mentioned her in passing a few years ago, and my ear caught on Swensen’s first name, which is the same as my son’s
  3. Nick Lantz‘s ruminations on Swensen’s Goest were beautiful and insightful but now sadly taken down from his blog archives*
  4. two years ago, I bought Caroline Dubois’s You Are The Business, which Swensen translated from French

Now I don’t think I can write about Swensen as well as, say, Forrest Gander does here, but I can gush over, say, how the first two poems combine prose sections with the usual lineated stanzas. It’s a “look” (shape? structure? form?) I’ve always loved in the works of Jack Spicer, Michael Palmer, and Ann Lauterbach, though I’m ashamed to admit I don’t know of any earlier instances. (George Oppen and Louis Zukofsky maybe? Egads, I need to bone up on my history.)

In terms of title and content, I should like “What Is On The Page” a lot and I do, actually. Swensen’s poem begins with “There is no ink on the page but a shadow,” and ends with “…I do not allude, though / we are fond of words / and use them when we can.” I’m reminded of some of Michael Palmer’s 80s poems though, as well as my own proclivities. I can read “What Is On The Page” again and again like a close friend, but it doesn’t quite make me feel as if the top of my head had been taken off. It’s comforting, which is both good and bad.

That the second of Swenson’s poems here is called “Bastille Day” is appropriate. My head does feel taken off, blown off, with lines like: “I finish the letter as the sky fills with toy windows, the smell of water and an irregular pulse.” I’m not sure what it means, but these images are provocative, stronger in their effect on me than the metalinguistic pronouncements of “What Is On The Page” (although it does have the beautifully enigmatic “…the ocean / left out in the rain you wear for dying”).

The three poems that follow are more formally conventional: no hybrid of prose and lineated verse, just the latter in the irregular short lines common in the contemporary lyric form. But I just love these, because they certainly belong to Visiting Wallace and should have been included in that anthology: “Wallace Stevens Waking At Night,” “Wallace Stevens Walks By The Sea,” and “Wallace Stevens Walks Along The Beach At Night.”

Interesting linkages going on here, as evinced from the titles and some recurring words and images. The first poem begins with “Something from the dark sea / rises and flies,” and it becomes an easy temptation to read the other two poems as happening in the same “imaginative space,” especially when the second poem starts with “And now it is that it rises” and the third with “The edge of the dark sea rose.”

(Some questions: why is the first poem in the third-person–a “he” which seems to be Stevens–but the other two use the first-person?)

Some of the words and ideas also appear freighted with significance in Stevens’s own poems: the sea and the ocean, flight, “…what freedom / resists the mind and everything” from the first poem. The second poem repeats some of these and adds “Everything beautiful is also in motion,” motion and movement being important to Stevens since Harmonium and after.

Things get really interesting for me though, in the third poem. There is “a ghost in an open mind,” but this phantom becomes flesh by an insistence on the carnal and the emotional not always seen directly in Stevens: “And that which might have been a man / made of blood and love and grief.” There is a necessary violence before we reach the late-Stevens sense of simplicity (the plain sense of things, perhaps?) and slowness, and the direct rhymes emphasize the words: “The world rocks down to its / direst simplicity / and the shock of evening / which settles in slow.”

And when it ends with “Far back in the town / I hear my house burning,” this image of a noisily-burning house, one that is heard as it burns, is a shock, certainly unlike the quiet decline and abandonment of “[t]he great structure [that] has become a minor house.” The destruction is closer to the aural Sensurround-Stevens of Harmonium, rather than the quiet physicality of a late poem like “The Rock.”

I don’t know whether Swensen has other poems directly addressing Stevens like in these three poems. I don’t think she needs any more–these three have more than enough substance to work with–but if she has more, I for one would love to read them, as atypical it may be of her usual work.

Bonusa blog entry on Swensen’s identification of “four specific modes of ambiguity.” Now I’m interested in Noise That Stays Noise, her book of essays.

* If I remember right, and I may not, Lantz had a three-part reflection on the ghostly in three poetry collections. Though I can no longer be certain, I have a lingering impression that one of the two other pieces was on Cornelius Eady. I wish I saved a copy of those pieces. Aside from Lantz’s poems, those pieces were instrumental in getting me interested in him as a writer.

The Spoils: January 2012

I used to buy at least twice as many more books in a single month, but those days are gone. Thankfully, the idea of “quality over quantity” takes on the strength of a bona fide principle when applied  to books. So not only am I pleased to own these titles, I’m also quite grateful to my wife; everything except the last title was her Christmas present to me:

  1. Visiting Wallace, edited by Dennis Barone and James Finnegan
  2. My Index Of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge by Paul Guest
  3. Active Boundaries: Selected Essays And Talks by Michael Palmer
  4. Codes Appearing: Poems 1979-1988 by Michael Palmer
  5. Hapgood: A Play by Tom Stoppard