Poetic Discursiveness and Lineated Prose: Some Questions

Though his discussions of J.V. Cunningham’s “Epigram #1” from Doctor Drink and Frank Bidart’s “Golden State” in the essay aren’t bad, I find Robert Pinsky’s “Two Examples of Poetic Discursiveness” rather unconvincing on a conceptual level. I’m not sure I can do better and perhaps the problem’s with me when I fail to understand how he proceeds

  • from identifying the contradictory senses of “discursive” in how it “describes speech of writing which is wandering and disorganized” but “can also mean ‘explanatory’–pointed, organized around a setting-forth of material (133)”
  • to reconciling those opposites by referring to the figure of “motion over terrain…going through or going over one’s subject” (to which he adds, “Such a method tends to be inclusive; it tends to be the opposite of intuitive,” which confuses me partly because I’m not too clear about the relationship he makes between “inclusive” and “intuitive”)

And I can’t quite articulate why I’m so bugged when the preceding discussion finally leads him to describe “poetic discursiveness” as:

It is speech, organized by its meaning, avoiding the distances and complications of irony on one side and the ecstatic fusion of speaker, meaning and subject on the other. The idea is to have all the virtues of prose, in addition to those qualities and degrees of precision which can be called poetic (ibid).

When I think about it, perhaps this is rooted in differences between Pinsky’s poetic and mine. The promise I see when he asserts, “Much of the work of the so-called ‘New York poets’ could be described as mock-discursive (134)” is defused when he follows that with: “Moreover, much of the memorable writing by these poets seems to emerge when there is the least amount of ‘mock’ statement, the largest element of open discourse (ibid.).”

And I guess I also had some problems of expectation. I thought Pinsky would look at something that would illuminate, say, Zukofsky having been “moved by the fact” of how Stevens’s “music thruout has not been impaired by having philosophized (97).” I also thought Pinsky might address the common problem of poems that seem more like “lineated prose,” but that doesn’t happen either.

Now if I could do it, that is, if I could go through the subject matter of poetic discursivity, to, as it were, discourse on discursivity, I’d like to look into:

  1. John Ashbery’s “Definition of Blue”
  2. portions of Frank Bidart’s “Advice to the Players” and the whole of “Young Marx” (both found near the bottom of this page)
  3. Matthea Harvey’s “I Would Have Stayed,” which lineates the sentence from Giorgio Vasari that begins with “The vinedresser of the Belvedere having found a very strange lizard…”
  4. Butterflies, Lineated,” where Jeffrey Robinson lineates a phrase from one of Keats’s letters, with other examples of such “found poems” here

I’m one of those willing to quote “without irony” from the Ashbery poem, so I think I’m missing something when I read it, as I do, with a straight face. The same goes for the prose portions of Bidart’s “Advice to the Players. “Young Marx,” however, apart from “attribution of source” at the end, does gain something from the lineation, as does Harvey’s poem and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Robinson’s lineation of Keats.

So, once again, lineation, and what it does to syntax, especially the syntax of prose. It’s also a matter of diction as well, I suppose. The result is some kind of “discursive transformation,” I guess, but what kind? And more importantly for people who write poems, how?

The Spoils: August 2012

  1. The Mooring of Starting Out: The First Five Books of Poetry by John Ashbery
  2. The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination by Wallace Stevens
  3. Romanticism by April Bernard
  4. Savage Night by Jim Thompson
  5. Daydream Nation (33⅓:) by Matthew Stearns
  6. Rid of Me (33⅓:) by Kate Schatz

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!


WordStars, word processors:

Wallace Stevens
W.S. Di Piero
W.S. Graham
W.S. Merwin
W.S. Gilbert
W.S. Rendra

Word Stew. Warning Sign.

Link Roundup: Weil, Wordplay, Dark Hopkins

After that mad rush of a previous entry, I’m going to take a breather before thinking my way through Jack Spicer’s “A Lecture On Practical Aesthetics.” For now, a link roundup showing some (other) recent preoccupations.



First up is a blog entry that contains in its entirety James Lindroth’s 1987 essay “Simone Weil And Wallace Stevens: The Notion Of Decreation As Subtext In ‘An Ordinary Evening In New Haven’.”

I’ve yet to go through it fully since I severely lack context: I’ve never read Stevens’s essays from The Necessary Angel (an unforgivable insight, I know!), and my only encounter with Simone Weil is how she figures in Anne Carson’s Decreation (another review here).

Speaking of oversight, that’s the only Anne Carson book I’ve read. I’m somewhat interested in the way she uses Keats in The Beauty Of The Husband and her exploration of the theme of desire in Eros The Bittersweet, but I’ve yet to buy copies of those.

While looking through reviews of Decreation to use as a hyperlink, I found a critical review-essay on Carson’s book and Jorie Graham’s Overlord that also uses Weil’s notion of decreation through Stevens’s treatment of the idea: “Prayers To An Absent God: The Poetic Revealings Of Simone Weil.”



Wordplay was not only how I rediscovered Stevens; it’s also a recurring device in the kind of poetry I’ve been writing for my MA, for better or for worse. (Someday, I’ll talk about how Northrop Frye’s “Charms And Riddles” works for the writing I do.)

Eleanor Cook has appeared here before, particularly for her work on, yes!, riddles, so it was a thrill to have discovered these essays yesterday, especially because of all the responses that followed:

  1. Cook, Eleanor. “From Etymology to Paronomasia: Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, and Others”
  2. Hecht, Anthony. “In Reply to Eleanor Cook, ‘From Etymology to Paronomasia'”
  3. Vaught Brogan, Jacqueline. “From Paronomasia to Politics in the Poetry of Stevens and Bishop: A Response to Eleanor Cook”
  4. Rosu, Anca. “In the Line of Wit: A Response to Eleanor Cook”
  5. Bahti, Timothy. “Palm Reading (A Response to Eleanor Cook)”
  6. Hollander, John. “A Note on Eleanor Cook, ‘From Etymology to Paronomasia'”
  7. Cook, Eleanor. “Paronomasia Once More”



Although I love to read “The Windhover” aloud like Kwame Dawes, I’m pretty much a Hopkins n00b. While reading “The Introduction Of Fancy Into Hopkins’ Poetry” (an essential resource for my thesis), I noticed a reference at the bottom of the page to his “dark sonnets.” A couple of search results later, I learned he wrote these “Dublin sonnets” from 1885-1886.

Since I’ve just read “Spelt From Sibyl’s Leaves” for the first time, after I read about it in Cook’s article, and so was still reeling from the deliriously wonderful poem Hopkins once called “the longest sonnet in the English language,” I’m going to link to those sonnets Hopkins wrote during what seems, by all accounts, a dark night of the soul:

  1. “To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life”
  2. “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day”
  3. “No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief”
  4. “My own heart let me have more have pity on; let”
  5. “Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;”
  6. “Patience, hard thing! the hard thing but to pray”

Yes, those are their respective first lines, even if the next-to-last poem is already commonly referred to as “Carrion Comfort.” I’m going to read them later, ALOUD.

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.

Lauterbach on Stevens

From Ann Lauterbach’s “Is I Another? A Talk In Seven Beginnings,” as published in The Night Sky: Writings On The Poetics Of Experience:

Stevens moves me, because he comes to the very brink of transcendent vision, only to subvert it through a kind of alchemical pragmatism, where sequels of flamboyant mediation lead him back the “ordinary” and even beyond to the stripped profane dump, “the the.” In Stevens, the obdurate declivity between authorial subject and textual object quickens, so that Foucault’s “possible room for possible subjects” begins to emerge. In this regard, Stevens provides a prelude to Ashbery’s cast of shifting pronouns, where the idea of a single self, coherent and cogent, gives way to plural subject positions, aspects of perception and response, within a characteristic habit of mind. (37-38)