Sunday, February 26, 2006

Louisville Haiku

Back (earlier than planned) from the Louisville conference, to which I've been going for a decade or more. Distilled from those many years of experience at the estimable shindig, the following lines about its admirable and industrious leader:

It's Alan Golding --
Every year I am surprised
He wears an ear-cuff.

(More to come -- let a fella recover from the conference before you start making demands on him already. I mean, sheesh...)

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Points South

I'm escaping from Chicago and heading south, first to get my literary groove on in Louisville at the 20th Century Lit Conference, and then down to Austin, where I'll be giving a reading at what seems to be on the verge of becoming an institution in its own right: the fringe-events surrounding the generally gawdawful, resolutely anti-intellectual, networkers-in-full-on-self-promotion AWP Convention. (Do I sound bitter? Sorry. I mean, I'm sure your panel will be good, but look around in the corridors at the hotel sometime. Doesn't the posturing, posing, and pussyfooting sort of creep you out, just a little? I mean, even more than at the MLA?)

Prophetic Statment of the Day: Someday, far in the future, the AWP fringe will devour the core events, as happened with the Edinburgh Fringe Festival so long ago.

Anyway. The Austin reading, which will be MC'd by G. Matthew Jenkins, will be held on Thursday, March 9 at 8pm at The Bouldin Creek Cafe in what Jenkins (an actual Texan) tells me is the low-key hipster "So-Co" neighborhood.

On the off chance that you want to buy me a drink in Louisville, you can look me up at the Seelbach.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Trojan Horses in the Republic of Theory

Back when I was an obnoxious, dismissive, egomanaical dipshit of a grad student, I used to love hanging out in the O'Shaughnessy Hall coffee shop at Notre Dame (where I was once brushed aside by John Favreau during the filming of Rudy). Somewhere between my third cup of coffee and my second or third rant about [insert name of whatever guys with ponytails were ranting about in the mid nineties] [no, I don't have the ponytail anymore], I'd probably opine thusly about whatever poet had recently visited campus: "Oh sure, [insert name of poet] is good at what he attempts, but the poems, you have to admit..." (here I would pause portentiously, and gaze at whoever hadn't quietly slipped away from the table) "...the poems are inadequately researched." At this point I would lean back in the smoky air and feel smugly superior for a moment before steering myself toward the sandwich tray.

Oyez. Already I was a big fan of contingent difficulty in poetry, of the notion that the poet who isn't trafficking in the long ago or far away or arcane or weird was missing out on everything important. I've mellowed in my premature dotage, no doubt, and one feature of this mellowing is to note that I was (rightly or wrongly) out of step with the times. The movement that was already gestating back then, and that has since come to fruition, wasn't toward the researched poem, but the theorized poem.

A number of people have been talking about this new state of affairs, in which the poet is almost expected to write a kind of poetics. The phenomenon is interesting and can, I think, be explained as the result of several trends converging. It has all sorts of implications for poets, but also for poetics. In fact, I think it has a chance of changing the way the theory of literature is written.

Joshua Clover has turned his gaze onto this state of affairs, writing that there is now a kind of presumption out there that:

...poets should have theorized their own work explicitly and completely as a necessary supplement to the poetry, without which it can't be trusted or read as such .... the relative success and insight of recent poetics in making theoretical accounts of itself that are at once persuasive, and relevant to poetics in general, has perhaps produced a certain set of expectations. Certainly there is a rise in general in the sense that poetry is well-accompanied by the author's "poetics," as seen in, for example ... the increasing footage given over to critical writing by the poets in the back of the Norton Anthologies.

Mark Scroggins picks up the discussion and notes that there's an institutional dimesion to it:

I'm interested in how this has been institutionalized, how the writing of poetics – often quite apart from any engagement with "theory" in the sense that the term is most often used in the academy, but nonetheless drawing on the etymological sense of "theory," to look at with detachment – is being written into the requirements for creative writing programs. One can see this in the web pages of various CW programs around the country, which have begun requiring "theory" and "poetics" courses, and some sort of "poetics" component to their theses & dissertations. Even Our University has instituted a self-reflexive "poetics" moment into the requirements for the MFA .... I'd agree with Joshua that this is straight-up "academicization," the final downfall of the old "workshop"/"atelier" model of teaching writing, which can now look only wistfully back on its origins as an artificial imitation of the buzzing café or the intense mardi, where the young gathered – voluntarily, with no grades assigned, no registrar involved...

There's a lot of evidence for the Clover-Scroggins hypothesis -- from immediate personal experience, I offer the following:

  • Consider Catherine Daly. I've been reading her lately, since she's coming to the &NOW Festival here at Lake Forest in April, and since I'm teaching her book DaDaDa in my poetry seminar. One of her web sitesincludes a brief page on "poetics" that starts with the statement: "In certain circles, one is continually asked to codify one’s poetics in a written statement." We get a real sense that Daly experiences the writing of poetics as a kind of obligation.

  • Or consider Steve Halle,, whose MFA thesis I read a few weeks ago. He's written about 70 pages on the theory of contingent difficulty and investigative poetics as part of his creative writing program. It's good stuff (and will also feature at the &NOW Festival, to which you really should come). But it is very different from the kind of thing I was asked to do when I was working on an MFA. I remember being considered eccentric when I included a few pages of semi-theoretical statement at the end of my thesis. It was nothing more, really, than a rip-off of T.S. Eliot's observation that "immature poets imitate, mature poets steal," and was meant a kind of self-protective gesture, since my poems stole a hell of a lot. But such a statement now wouldn't be considered eccentric, except for its relative minimalism.

  • Or consider Gabriel Gudding, about whose recent reading in Chicago I'd intended to blog as a sequel to the Gudding post below (I don't have to, now, because Steve has covered it). His first book, A Defense of Poetry, takes its title from Shelley's famous essay on poetics, and his forthcoming book includes a long, comic, prose defense of his first book, "Dung in an Age of Empire: An [sic] Defense of A Defense of Poetry.". Sunday, at Myopic Books, he read from it exactly as he would from a poem.

    So. The poets are, increasingly, writing poetics -- not just personal statements or bits of autobiography, but theoretically informed and engaged stuff. This, I hasten to say, beats the hell out of the kind of thing many poets who came of age in the seventies still say when asked to comment about their poetry. I mean, it's all just a little embarrassing when one of the old-school Iowa-style crowd says something like:

    I write, I work, I do with a pencil. I like how the words come out of my head and travel down my arm to that sharp point. I like holding a pencil. Also a baseball, a smooth stone fresh from the river, a walking stick, my daughter's hand. So I write everything in pencil first.

    (No, I am not making this up.)

    But why is this happening? What has propelled the poets into theorizing? Forthwith, the Four Explanations, with all their limitations and lacunae:

    1. Explanation: Stylistic

    We live in an time without any single, received notion of poetic style. We have no generally-accepted set of conventions or genres in poetry, and as a result we find that we can't rely on people to anticipate what our projects will be. We can't rely on an audience prepared to be in sympathy with us. Like modernism and avant-gardism, with their raft of maniestos, pluralism means always having to introduce yourself, and make explicit the theoretical underpinings of your art.

    I used to believe this was, on its own, a sufficient explanation for the increase in poets writing poetics. Back in 2001 I began my intro to Vectors: New Poetics by riffing on a quote from Wallace Stevens' "Of Modern Poetry," which really needs no riffing:

    The poem of the mind in the act of finding
    What will suffice. It has not always had
    To find: the scene was set; it repeated what was in the script.
    Then the theater was changed
    To something else. Its past was souvenir.

    In the absence a repeatable script for poetry, we find each poet writing his or her own poetics. I'm still convinced there's some truth to this explanation.

    2. Explanation: Institutional

    Academe lionizes theory. Poetry now lives, for the most part, in the orbit of academe. Need we say more?

    3. Explanation: Marxian-Materialist

    When the poet turneth his pen to prose about poetry, he faces the same market conditions faced by the ordinary, sublunary literary critic: you cannot sell a single-author study. You can barely sell studies of groups of writers. The specific moveth not the heart of the press director, only the general promises to move copies, so only the general (that is: the theoretical -- poetics rather than litcrit) will do. Until we finally relenquish our insistence on the prestige of wood-pulp pages bound between covers and give prestige to the electronic publication, this will be a factor in what kinds of things get published.

    Actual conversation overheard in the lobby of the Inn at Penn during the Modernist Studies Convention in back in 2000 (scrawled on the back of my coffee-stained program, and found in the back of my desk drawer last fall):

    Cast of characters:
  • Guy who seems to have Just Completed his Dissertation (JCD)
  • Guy who seems to be the Director of a University Press (DUP)

    JCD: So, since we're being candid, how should I pitch it?
    DUP: Just don't say it's a just book about Forster. I mean, maybe, maybe you could mention A Passage to India as a kind of postcolonial text, push that angle.
    JCD: But...
    DUP: Just don't do it that way. No single-author studies. But if it's postcolonialism...
    JCD: That's a part of a chapter, but...
    DUP: If it's the theory of the novel, the you work with his Aspects of the Novel?
    JCD: Not really, but if you want me to revise?
    DUP: No. Maybe. How about as queer theory?
    JCD: Oh. Yeah. I could totally change it.

  • Oosh. It leaves me feeling clammy and vaguely violated to remember it, though I'm not exactly sure why.

    Oh wait, I think I do know why: the eager self-abasement of the life of the mind before the idol of the marketplace. Yeah, that's probably it. I'm mandarin enough to get queasy when I see it.

    4. Explanation: Dialectical

    I think this would run something like this:

    Thesis: The English Departments of the 1980s and 1990s (high theory by theorists)
    Antithesis: The MFA Programs of the same period ("craft"-oriented workshop model for poets)
    Synthesis: Us, now (poetics by poets)

    Now that's Aufgehoben, baby.


    Okay, right. So what happens to poetics when it is taken out of the hands of, say, Aristotle or more contemporary straight-up theorist types and put in the hands of poets? Lots of things. But one of the more interesting is this: we start to more of the formal techniques we associate with "creative" or "literary" writing in the theory. I mean, when guys like Benjamin Friedlander write extended pastiches and present them as criticism, or when Gabriel Gudding writes highly-wrought, deadpan-funny, alliterative, Jakobson's poetic-function having essays on poetics, something interesting is going on. Poetics are getting (forgive me for this) poetic (Brooke Bergan rates a mention here: her "How MiMi Got (Presque Ou Peut-Etre) Postmodern" in Vectors is a tour de force of poetic technique in the creation of poetics).

    If form signifies (as it does), all this will change theory. After Plato chucked the poets out of the ideal republic for their emotional appeal and their freewheeling approach to the word, he said he'd be glad to let them back in if they could write a proper defense of poetry — in prose. In writing poetics that employ the literary techniques we associate more with poetry than with discursive prose, there's a kind of smuggling of the poetic back inside the walls of the republic of theory.

    Allrighty, then. Having spent the afternoon expounding on the contradictions of feminine desire in the Victorian novel, I'm off to see if I can scare up the ingredients for one of these.

  • Sunday, February 12, 2006

    I'd like to thank the Academy...

    Having seen this very blog and the old Samizdat site singled out for praise, I wish to state that while I am not worthy, I'm not turning anything down.

    Thursday, February 09, 2006

    Theremin at Seven Corners

    You remember the theremin, right? The musical instrument developed by electronic music pioneer Léon Theremin in the 1920s? Most of us know it as a maker of weird, spooky sounds in the sci-fi flicks of the fifties, or perhaps from the beginning of The Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations." The thermin works through an electromagnetic field, so you don't even have to touch it to play it — you just wave your hands in the air like a conductor. It was orginally developed as part of Theremin's grand scheme for a purely electronic symphonic orchestra, but it took a few odd turns in its development, as did Theremin's life ( which involved Paris and New York in the jazz age, marrying the African-American ballet dancer Lavinia Williams way before the civil rights movement, being kidnapped by the KGB and forced to develop the electronic eavesdropping device known as the bug, and other things that won't happen to you or to me).

    I'd been thinking about writing a poem about Theremin for years, and had originally intended to contrast the utopian future he'd dreamed of in the twenties (a sort of Fritz-Lang's Metropolis-looking world of wireless orchestras) with the very different utopia he saw at the end of his life, when he went to California and heard "Good Vibrations." Fritz Lang vs. Michael Lang, really.

    But that poem, which I may still write someday, took some odd turns of its own. Originally called "Theremin in California" it has morphed (via all the discussion about names over the past monts, among other things) into "Called Léon, a Leonardo" and it is up at Seven Corners, a new site with some great stuff by Kristy Odelius up as well.

    Oh yeah. The poem has links that help make the looking-up of contingent details a little easier, as well as a link to a tremendous little film clip in which a nonegenarian Theremin demonstrates his invention.

    Saturday, February 04, 2006

    The Eccentric, the Repellent, the Abject: Enjoying Gabriel Gudding, Part One

    Since I'm planning on heading down to Myopic Books for Gabriel Gudding's reading on the 12th, I thought I'd have a look at his 2002 book of poems, A Defense of Poetry, which I haven't read since it came out. Coming back to it after having spent a lot more time with Surrealism, and a little more time with poets like Ted Berrigan, I'm a lot more sympathetic to the project now than I was then when, moody and deep-deep-deep into Geoffrey Hill, I saw that Gudding was on to something, but didn't really get into it (to paraphrase George Steiner, I got it, but I didn't dig it at the time).

    Having recovered from my 2002 bout of gravitas (watching your country ramp-up for a needless, devastating war will do that to you), I'm in a better position to get down with Gudding's poems. His New York School influences are clear enough: there's the breezy, sometimes goofy, talkiness of the poems, sometimes combined with a faux- or semi-faux- naif attitude (oh, how changed is the world, when the New York School lives and breathes in Bloomington, Illinois). There's also a touch of (forgive me, poetry hipsters) Billy Collins in the humor, although usually with a darker edge.

    As for Surrealism — well, there's nothing really by way of direct influence, although Gudding's world, like his sentences, does tend to operate in accord with a set of rules different from that which governs the square community. But before I made it a half dozen pages into this year's reading of A Defense of Poetry, I had to abandon my enormous red chair and run upstairs to dig my way into the back of the closet that consitutes the official home of the Samizdat archives in search of Michel Delville's punchy little article, "A Secret History of Belgian Surrealism." (Delville's piece is in Samizdat #8, which isn't on the website yet, but anyone who wants one can email me at the address on my profile page and I'll see if I can't hook you up with a copy). Here's what Delville had to say back then aboutGabriel and Marcel Piqueray, Surrealist poets active in Belgium in the 1950s:

    As for the irreverant, scatalogical aesthetics of the Uninhibited Poems, it is typical of the work of Marcel and Gabriel Piqueray. To me, the "Sproks" poems have always resembled a cross between Satie, Beckett, Buñel, and Laurel and Hardy. The proximity of food, garbage and shit in the poetry of the Piqueray brothers points to a poetics that does not shy away from describing fantasies of infantile regression and puts them to the service of a popular art that delights in imagining how the most banal situations can degenerate into absurdist extremes. Such manifestations of the eccentric, the repellent, and the abject create a space where the shock aesthetics of the revolutionary avant-garde meet the verbal games of the poèt-farceur, who considers poetry a form of slapstick comedy.

    Gudding is certainly more poèt-farceur than revolutionary avant-gardist, but a lot of what Delville has to say about the Piquerays pertains to Gudding's poems. I mean, check sections seven through nine, and their footnote, of the book's 26 section title poem (these are right and left justified text blocks, but I'm feeling an html-deficit today, so you'll just have to imagine, class):

    7. Is your butt driving through

    that it should toot so at the
    world? I am averse to urine,
    yet I shake your hand upon

    8. I have made a whiskey of your
    tears—and Joe-Bob made a
    flu-liquor of your night-

    9. That some of your gas has
    been banging around the
    market like a small soldier
    carrying a table. God-booby1

    1Just as the fog is shackled to the
    dirty valley stream and cannot go
    out loosely to join the loopy clouds
    who contain hollering eagles and
    whooshing falcons but must stand
    low and bound and suffer the
    scratch of a bush and the round
    poop of deer and the odd black
    spore of the American black bear or
    the bump of a car on a road or the
    sick crashes of paintings thrown
    from a rural porch, so also is your
    mind bound to the low reach of
    trash and the wet wan game of
    worms and the dripping dick of a
    torpid dog—and unlike the clouds
    above you you do not feel swell but
    clammy and pokey and sweaty: a
    leaf-smell follows you, odd breezes
    juke your brook-chaff, lambs and
    rachel-bugs go up and forth in you,
    and when a car passes through you,
    windows down, the car-pillows in
    that car get puffy, absorbing water in
    the air, and those pillows become
    bosoms, gaseous moving bosoms,
    and that is the nearest you come to

    Okay! Right! I imagine you can see why the transition from Geoffrey Hill's sombre and powerful work to this sort of thing was a bit tough for me. But only a year earlier I'd been translating the Piqueray bros., and I should have seen the parallels. I mean, you've got the eccentric, the repellent, and the abject front-and-center with the elaborate treatment of flatulence, and the claiming of this sort of thing for poetry gives the same kind of transgressive frisson now as it did decades ago — good taste gets jumped and roughed-up by the abject elements of the body.

    But wait! There's more! Not only does Gudding bring the abject into the poem, he attacks two kinds of discursive pretentiousness at once in his footnote. Here, he pulls a classic act of Bakhtinian transcoding (the mix of high and low for comic effect) by writing about "poop" and the weirdly quaint "bosoms" in an overly-long, overly-elaborate epic simile ("just as blah-de-blah-de-blahdeeblah, so blahdeblah-de-bah"). But just as the epic simile gets skewered here, so also does that other form of high-discourse writing, the footnote, signifier of scholarly earnestness.

    If I weren't out the door to catch a movie I'd try my hand at a critical pastiche (see "Pastiche as Criticism," two posts back), adapting bits of Delville's piece on the Piquerays into a brief discussion of Gudding. But this will have to do: the projectionist waits for no man.

    Steve Halle will be at the Gudding reading. Let's hope he brings cigars for everyone!

    Friday, February 03, 2006

    Notre Dame Review #21: Rejoice!

    The latest issue of the Notre Dame Review has made landfall in the nearby harbor, and from the hold of that mighty vessel come poems and prose both rich and strange. There's a short story by Ihab Hassan (whose Paracriticisms first turned me on to PoMo back when I picked up a copy at a garage sale when I was in high school (dad was an art prof, so I grew up in a university ghetto, and the books of the moving-because-they-didn't-make-tenure crowd were often on sale at a deep discount). Also poems by Albert Goldbarh, Tom Raworth (and yeah, he did the cover too), Joe Francis Doerr (the ND Review and Salt seem to have a lot of overlap lately), and the crazy-good and utterly unknown Jere Odell, who someone's got to put on the radar soon. And John Peck, writing on Christopher Merrill with his usual 400-pound-per-square-inch perspicacity.

    My own piece in the issue, "Gravel and Ghosts," treats the historcial poetics of Kevin Prufer and Albert Goldbarth. Since all my thinking about them began on this blog, I'm posting the first two paragraphs of the ND Review piece. They go something like this:

    If you catch me on a bad day and ask me about the state of American poetry, you’ll probably get an earful of ill-humored grumbling about the enervating predominance of two kinds of poetry. “On the one hand,” I’ll gruffly opine, “we’re still swamped with the poem of the semi-confessional backyard epiphany.” You’ll probably tune out after ten minutes or so of examples drawn from recent contest-winning books, and your eyes will glaze over during my comparison of Charles Altieri’s notion of the Scenic Mode of Poetry and Ron Silliman’s idea of the School of Quietude. You won’t need to hear the finer points of their theories, because you already know what they’re talking about: poems that focus on the exquisite sensitivity of the speaker, caught in a meditative moment in an ordinary American life. Just as you think you’ll be able to slip out the back door of the campus coffee shop, though, I’ll start in on my other bête noir. Citing examples from the fat, respectable university quarterlies as well as any number of weird little online magazines, I’ll grumble and gripe about the linguistically hazy, indeterminate, pseudo-sophisticated nonsense verse that has emerged from the wreckage of language poetry. “Post-avant, they call it!” I’ll shout, alarming the people lined up by the cappuccino machine, “but Faux-avant is more like it! Poems about nothing, doing nothing that hasn’t been done before! This emperor has no clothes, and we’re all too cowed by Charles Bernstein-quoting associate professors to say so!” This outburst will leave me a little sheepish, and I’ll no doubt appreciate a few kind words from you before you make your getaway and your mental note never to ask me about the state of poetry again.

    If you caught me a few weeks ago, though, when Albert Goldbarth’s Budget Travel Through Space and Time and Kevin Prufer’s Fallen from a Chariot landed on my desk, you’d have found me in a considerably better mood. Both poets find grist for their creative mills outside of those usual stockpiles of contemporary American poetry, sensitive autobiography, and sophomoric wordplay. Both Goldbarth and Prufer turn to the long-ago and the far-away as means of understanding contemporary experience, and their poetry is much the richer for this xenophilia. Both seek out facts, images, and anecdotes from history, and both interrogate contemporary experience through the examination of the exotic historical other. The two poets use the past to interrogate the present differently, though. Goldbarth is an omnivore, devouring anything he sees, hears, or reads, absorbing it, ascribing significance to it, and using it to understand contemporary experience. Historical anecdotes are the chunks of gravel in his gullet, and he uses them to digest the often-difficult world around him. For Prufer, the past is more elusive. While it offers parallels to contemporary experience, those parallels are often mysterious in nature. The past doesn’t explain the present, it haunts the present. Images from poems set in the past recur in poems set in the present, but the full meaning of the images remains undisclosed, as does the meaning of the recurrence. Indeed, the recurrence of these mysterious, melancholy, and beautiful images is, in some sense, their significance: the sublime unknowability of the world endures, the ghosts shimmer into appearance but cannot be grasped.

    Of course the cartoonishly-caffinated Archambeau depicted above is a bit more of a believer in the avant/quietude dichotomy than is the sedate and mild-mannered Archambeau who reads quietly in his study of an evening, but the real me makes lousy reading. Anyway, some of the issue is up online, along with bits and pieces of bonus material.