Thursday, June 30, 2005

For the Fourth, Blas de Otero

When, in the early nineties, I translated this poem by the mid-century Spanish poet Blas de Otero, it seemed to come from another world. Now, as the Fourth of July flags flutter in a country where reporters can be forced out of their jobs for criticizing the regime, where politicians order prisoners held indefinetely without trial, where elections are manipulated by the ruling party, Otero's world looks, sadly, more familiar. One wonders: was it for this that the American people struggled? Was this what Jefferson and Franklin had in mind? It may be banal to say this, but, very sadly, it needs saying: to love this country means to criticize corruption and incompetance at the highest levels.

Blas de Otero's poem is called "Que Cado Uno Aporte Lo Que Sepa." I've translated it as "From Each According to What He Knows" (this version is in my book Home and Variations):

From Each According to What He Knows

It's true, you know: you can love a person,
a little toad — don't step on it —

and also a continent like Europe,
always split or wounded or crying horribly.

Some words distrub us, you and me,
"treaty," "theater of operations,"

"end of major fighting," "nothing serious,"
and others too.

But people, they believe all that,
hang bunting, run flags from the windows,

as if it were true,
as if such a thing...

It happens, I've seen them myself,
all Easter hats and roses.

In '39 they called the poor men out to Mass,
pulled fuses from a few bombs,

and set off fireworks along the water:
at it again.

After, I heard voices in the next room,
a woman screaming, mad and awful.

We knew,
we knew more than enough.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

What Good's a Goat?

Eric Selinger and Mark Scroggins have started knocking another ping-pong ball back and forth across their blogs: this time it is a question about evaluation. Mark begins by quoting Donald Davie, who looks at two of the great judgmental geniuses of litcrit and approves:

That I cannot concur in either Leavis’s or Winters’s way of dividing the sheep from the goats, is beside the point: what I esteem in both of them is their common insistence that sheep there are, and goats there are; that in the arts, as between the genuine and the fake, or between the achieved and the unachieved, there cannot be any halfway house.

Eric, initially appalled by the idea of evaluative judgment, comes around to a very balanced position when he writes:

Now, I know that we all do, in fact, pass such judgments all the time. Maybe the virtue of Davie's remarks lies in reminding us of that simple fact: we pass judgments, and we should be prepared to articulate and defend them. Maybe this is one of the "things to do with poems" we should add to our list. On the other hand, do I really want to spend class time trying to convince a student--or hallway time, to convince a colleague--that he or she shouldn't like something he or she enjoys?

The thing to remember, I think, is that it is almost meaningless to simply say "Poet X is better than Poet Y." One really does need to specify what the better poet is better at. That is: it isn't good enough to say that "Zukofsky's poetry is good," you need to say what Zukofsky's poetrys is good for.

So evaluative criticism needs to be aware of the telos, or goal, as the standard which it is evaluating a particular poem or poet against. This can take a kind of relativist tack ("Mallarme is a better poet than Bukowski for revealing the mystery of language; wheras Bukowski is a better poet than Mallarme for helping an angry adolescent of middling intellingence feel special and understood," say, or "Wordsworth is a great poet for those feeling unrooted, but Shelley is a better poet for the politically oppressed"). But it can also take an absolutist tack — Yvor Winters could make such idiosyncratic and forceful evaluations because he had one single clear set of criteria which, he'd convinced himself, was absolute ("does this poet judge experience correctly, rationally, and in careful form?" would be a close paraphrase of his position). If a poet were good at something else, it didn't mitigate his badness for Winters, because there was only one thing worth being good at.

I tend toward the judgmental relativist position myself (some poets are better at some things than others are). But I also think it is better, at certain points in time, to be good at some things than at others. Hence my argument for a contingent poetry that embraces history: I think we need something like that now, and, as good as someone may be at the "scenic mode" of personal epiphany, this is less important for our moment.

Friday, June 24, 2005

&NOW...William Gass

Good news, everyone: William Gass will be headlining the &NOW Festival of Innovative Writing/Lake Forest Literary Festival next year.

I was on the phone with Steve Tomasula the other day, working out the details, when Steve and I realized we'd both been at the release party reading for Gass' massive novel The Tunnel, but somehow missed each other. Actually, I think I may not have known Steve at the time: I was just a punk grad student and used bookstore clerk, and I he had a real life and was working for Bill Gates. Be that as it may, it was a hell of a reading, with a full house. Gass had started writing the novel the year I was born — meaning it was 27 years in the making, and the novel and one of its first readers were born together.

Gass is one of the great laureates of loathing: The Tunnel examines hatred better than any other book I know. I remember overhearing Gass at the Arts Club one evening, telling David Antin that he wanted his publisher to print the book in Gothic script like an old German Bible, with the sentences scarring the page "like so many strings of barbed wire." He said something about being upset that he couldn't get a limited edition made with pop-ups (really), but by then the hors d'oeuvre trays were out and I, placing appetite above intellect, left off eavesdropping and made a bee-line for the snacks.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Further Contingencies: Names, Adverbs, and a Discarded Dichotomy

1. Names

Mark Scroggins has named names: the luminaries of contingent poetry include: Ammiel Alcalay, Geoffrey Hill, Geraldine Monk, Peter Riley, John Peck, Allen Fischer, Robert Sheppard, Susan Howe, and John Matthias, along with early Ronald Johnson, and forerunners Charles Olson and (at times) Robert Duncan. Steve Burt has dropped in another suggestion from the forerunners zone: Basil Bunting. So anyone who wants to put together an anthology of contingent poetry is halfway there already!

Let me name another name here, not a contingent poet, but a guy who's condensed some of my cloudly observations into a 100-proof shot of contingent poetics: Henry Gould. Henry tells us that contingent poetry involves "the idea of poetry being infiltrated by, or overlapping with, the "speech-acts" of history, which never really disappear." Nice, and so much clearer than what I'm going to try to say in the "Adverbial Contingency" part of this post!

2. Discarded Dichotomy

I was mulling over the idea of writing an entry in which I riffed on an old distinction of Donald Davie's, from Ezra Pound: The Poet as Sculptor, between the poet as stone-carver and the poet as caster-of-plaster (Davie seems to be in the air lately: he's cropped up on Mark's blog too). I thought I'd say something about how the contingent poet works with existing documents and with language in the context of its history. Maybe, I thought, I could claim that this was like the poet as stone-carver, who worked against (or with) the resistance provided by his documentary materials. In contrast, we could see a lot of contemporary indeterminate poetry as a matter of plaster-pouring: that is, of using language without a sense of the resistance of actual historical text. But I was bothered by two things. Firstly, the simplicity of such a dichotomy meant that it would create about as much confusion as it would clarity. Secondly, the Poundian connotations it would create for contingent poetry struck me as a bit off (Pound was Davie's master stone-carver). I couldn't quite put my finger on the nature of my problem with Pound as a model for contingent poetry, though — until an email from John Peck dropped into my in-box. Peck (as always) had something important to say, and a condensed way of saying it. In this case, it involved a distinction between Pound and Olson that could, I think, go a long way toward isolating what is important about contingent poetry. Pound, said Peck, was a poet of the verb, and Olson a poet of the adverb. Let me (by quoting and glossing) explain:

3. Adverbial Contingency

Peck set up his Pound/Olson distinction by picking up on my comment about synchronicity being an important part of contingent poetry (Peck knows about this stuff, having studied for a dozen years at the Jung Institute in Zurich, so I bow to his superior knowledge here). He says:

Synchronicity is best backed not by the OED but by the joint work of Jung and Pauli in their combined papers on the theme, in the 1950s. The meaning referred to in that OED summary is the result of acausal orderedness, as Jung's translator has it. And that perspective, which submits all of our rationality, discernment, and God-Almightiness to a different grid of meaning than the kinds which submit to the analysis of intention, will, or any of the Aristoelian modes of causaltity, has a number of consequences which only a patient engagement with...materials can work out.

So what, you ask, could this have to do with Pound and Olson? Find out in this next installment:

One corollary of [this] for our own explorations, perhaps, would be the dialogue between Pound and Olson. If Olson can be trusted as a witness here, he was more sensitive to this synchronistic dimension, or intution, than was Pound, his great catalyst in what you are naming as contingent poetics. Pound's hash has never been settled on these scores--is he to be taken as an egoistic fascist, or as a Taoist submitter to the contingent "process" of the several Eastern metaphysical tradtitions? or both? But his hash need note be settled now for us to register Olson's protest against Ezra, namely that Pound was driven by his passions to drive "the beak of the ego" through his (contingent, textual, linguistic-record) materials.

This strikes me as dead-on. While Pound was very much a worker of documents and historical text, he was also very much a poet who would consciously, deliberately bend these materials into illustrations of his utopian dreams. Hence the didactic quality that (to my mind) sometimes mars the work. Hence the accuracy behind Gertrude Stein's famously catty quip that Pound was "like a village explainer, excellent if you are a village, but if you are not, not." (Pound's quip against Stein — that she was an "old tub of guts" was just as mean spirited, but not nearly as witty). Peck goes on, saying:

It occurs to me that Pound's way and Olson's way diverge along lines which philology can illuminate in its good old-fashioned manner.... Pound's egoism, in Olson's view, would correspond to Pound's dogged application of Fenollosa on the Chinese written character as a model for his poetics: to paraphrase that application, reality is not a noun but a verb. Pound's suspended lobes of syntax, which come almost to dominate the later Cantos, typically depend from a relative pronoun — "that" — which can refer either to an unexpressed verb preceding, or to the verb explicit in the suspended phrase itself; or electrically to both the implicit and exlicit verbs in the suspension. Those cantilevered lobes typically express a wish that a certain action be possible, or a certain alignment of civic forces, or configurations of justice, be enacted (when in fact they remain frustrated). These little phrases may seem wistful and fragmentary, but they entail whole genres: utopias simply, and thoroughly, elaborate what such compact suspensions compactly project as syntax.

Right. Bear with Peck on this, because it gets good. So: Pound gets his utopianism into the very syntax of the poetry. I admit to having been a bit bleary about this for a moment, but a quick consulatation with my colleague down the hall, Ben Goluboff cemented the notion in my mind. What we're dealing with here is the optative mood of wishing, combined with a kind of syntactic ambiguity that allows for the pronoun "that" to depend from both an explicit and an implicit verb. My copy of The Cantos is elsewhere, and Ben, having just moved to the enviably commodious corner office of a retired colleague, regrets to say that his is in a box somewhere, but here's an example he concocted (not Poundian poetry, but it illustrates the point: "I wish that the cavalry had come sooner, God still in his Heaven and all right with the world." We've got the explicit wish, as well as an implicit one, in which we assume that the word "that" and the verb "to be" applied to the bit about God ("that God were still in his Heaven...") and so forth. Peck's right about this as a mannerism of the later Pound, I'm sure. (A valuable prize to anyone who sends me a really good example from the late Cantos).

But here's the important bit: what we get with this structure is a sentence haunted by an implicit verb, and in a way Pound's poetry gives us the sense of a world haunted by Pound's own utopian wishes in the form of implicit "would that it were so's." His poetry depicts reality as something that he wishes (even wills) he could make into his ego's desire. He works with document and historical materials, but he wants to bend them to his utopian (and, in many views including mine, dystopian) will.

But how is Olson different? "It seems to me," says Peck:

...that Olson's own suspended lobes of syntax, his self-interruptions, his open parentheses, together correspond to his fascination with those syntactic and relational capacities which English suppresses — thus his commentaries on the Middle Voice for verbs in Greek, for example. And that these structures in Olson's work, prose and verse alike, predispose him to turn away from the reality-as-verb view, and rather toward one in which reality is an adverb: not the substantialist quidditas of nouns, nor the dynamic (and egoic?) energics of verbs, but rather the relational and qualifying process foci of how, when, and where. In your phrase, the contingencies of X rather than their indeterminacies.

So in Olson we don't get the world as ego-guided verb (the world as "would that it were as I willed it") but the world as adverbial. I take Peck to mean something like this: that Olson doesn't project a direction on to his material, that he doesn't try to make something happen, but that his goal is simpler: to understand and describe the specific nature of our experience. The poem won't supply the yearned-for direction of history (verb); it will describe the quality or nature of a dynamic history (adverb). It won't answer questions about what history means or why it is as it is: rather, it will say something about how it is as it is. Here's Peck on this, describing how the Olsonian project feels to him: "What? I dunno, and why? who knows, but how, perhaps, can instruct me, if only I will really look and inquire among the materials of what has been rising/happening/taking place." And this is contingent, in that it is a matter of the specific, proper-noun world of history.

Just as I was mopping the sweat off my brow (something that happens every time I read one of Peck's 400-pound-per-square-inch emails) another email from him popped up on my screen, with this bit, which helped to cement the Pound-Olson distinction for me:

The adverbial function of Olson's poetics ... legitimizes the ego's position by atomizing and reconsituting the ego that Olson saw at work in the cussedly independent Pound. It takes the "bird's beak" and reassembles it in an Escher-like cotillion of Getstalten that fold through each other as they get thrown into upheaval by a stiff whiff of change.

Rather than forming history to the ego's desire, as Pound did, Olson sees the ego as constituted by complex fields of history.

All of this reminds me of what Kristin Prevalet said about Ammiel Alcalay, as well as some of the things Michael Anania had to say about John Matthias' poetry in "Talking John Matthias," from issue nine of Samizdat, which I suppose I should have added (along with the other missing issues) to Samizdat's website. So: if this sense of a self interpollated into history is common to Olson, Alcalay and Matthias (and distinguishes them from Poundian egoism) I think we're on the way to understanding some of the core elements of contingent poetry.

Monday, June 20, 2005

A Flight Through Space That is Inhabited: Addendum to the Contingent Manifesto

There's been some interesting feedback on the 1.0 version of the Contingent Manifesto, both by email and on the blogs. Patrick Durgin writes in from Buffalo, praising the rhizome form that I've maligned, and pointing out (quite rightly) that ontological and contingent difficulties can coexist. Mark Scroggins threatens to name names (go for it, Mark -- we need a usable past for contingent poetry), and hints that Louis Zukofsky would play a big role in his contingent pantheon. I'd love to hear about this -- anything Mark says about Zukofsky is bound to be interesting. Josh Corey, it turns out, has been interested in the same work by Kristin Prevallet as I have, and has posted some interesting reflections that I'll have to think about.

But for today, here's the promised follow-up to the Contingent Manifesto (1.0) -- an actual reading of parts of an actual poem that I think actually embodies contingent poetics.

The work in question is John Matthias’ poem “Northern Summer,” a poem that does much of the work I imagine a poetry of contingency would do with history, docment and synchronicity, and it is the source of my other catagory, "language working upon consequence, consequence upon language." I’ll quote a lot from the poem, since I imagine most of the people likely to read this blog either haven’t seen it for a while, or at all. To understand it you need to know that it was written at a time when Matthias and his family were trying to make a new home for themselves near an old castle in Scotland. You also need to know a short poem from which some of the key images are derived. That poem, “‘Void Which Falls Out of Void’” by Göran Sonnevi, was translated from the Swedish by John Matthias and the Swedish poet Göran Printz-Pahlson for their 1979 volume Contemporary Swedish Poetry:


Void which falls out of void, transparent,
cones, hemispheres,
fall through empty space.
Thoughtform, crescent, trajectory.


However relevant!
In the infinite freedom I can
keep back, give
my notes resilience, in relation
to each other, to my whole body, which also
falls in infinity through empty space:
Charlie Parker’s solo in Night in Tunisia on May 15th 1953.


The flight of sentimentality through empty space.
Through its elliptical whole
an heraldic blackbird’s
black wings, yellow beak, round eyes, with the yellow
ring, which defines its inner empty

The opening section introduces the idea that we have a kind of freedom of mind in relation to the meaningless void into which we have been thrown. We project patterns of meaning — the “cones” or “hemispheres” that the final line defines as “thoughtforms.” The second stanza, through its comparison of the projection of “thoughtforms” to Charlie Parker’s improvisations, asserts that the meanings we make take on significance through our own will: they work as variations on our original act of thought, just as Parker’s solo returns to, and makes variations on, the initial statement of a musical theme. In the final stanza, Sonnevi implies that our projection of discursive meaning onto a meaningless void leads to self-definition. The pattern we project — here, an heraldic bird — defines the limits of our inner space, against the void beyond. While the poem in its Swedish original dates from 1965, the attitude toward meaning and language looks like the product of an earlier decade. It seems embedded in a pre-structuralist, existentialist paradigm of meaning. Rather than seeing meaning as something generated by a system of signification larger and more powerful than the individual speaker, the poem looks at the individual as the heroic creator of meaning in a world empty of significance.

Images from Sonnevi’s poem haunt the long poem Matthias began a year after publishing “‘Void Which Falls Out of Void,’” “Northern Summer.” And, as a reading of “Northern Summer” makes clear, Matthias’ attraction to the poem was in some sense a negative one, in which Matthias was drawn to Sonnevi’s poem as an example of an antithesis to his own position. The poem begins by taking lines from Sonnevi’s “‘Void Which Falls Out of Void’” as an epigraph and then breaks into lines that seem, at first, shocking in their banality. Matthias has really lost it, one thinks, reading his initial description of the castle at Wemyss. The castle, he tells us,

a picturesque
commanding strong position
on the summit of a cliff some forty
feet in height
the base of which is covered
up at flood tide by the waters of the Forth.
Large, magnificent, commodious
with rock nearby and wood and water to afford
the eye a picture of a rare
and charming beauty
forming a delightful and romantic spot…

We’ve been had though, as the next lines make clear, to the great relief of the reader. Matthias has been quoting a source chosen for its banality, and he is about to let us in on his trope:

…the sight of which
could not but amply compensate et
the language of a tour book
threading aimlessly
through sentimental empty space.

The last line resonates with Sonnevi’s poem and implicitly criticizes Sonnevi’s view of language and meaning as the products of our will, exercised in a world void of previously inscribed significance. Language that operates as if in a void is seen, here, as unmoored and insignificant, the merest flight of sentiment.

Matthias’ proposition for an alternative to such emptiness, involves a turn to history — specifically, history as embodied in its documents to give language a meaning and resonance that it cannot have in the ahistorical nattering of a sentimental tour book. Matthias suggests, in this case, turning to the words of Edward the First, the English King who fought Robert the Bruce for dominion over Scotland:

Or build on, say, an Edward’s language
to his dear and faithful cousin
Eymar de Valance
like a second generation builds upon
the ruins of a first?

finding not
in our Sir Michael Wemyss
good word
nor yet good service and
that he now shows himself in such a wise
that we must hold him traitor
and our enemy we do command you that ye
cause his manor where we lay
and all his other manors to be burned his lands
and goods to be destroyed
his gardens to be stripped all bare
that nothing may remain
and all
may thus take warning —

moving upon consequence
upon a language: Flight
of an heraldic bird
through space that is inhabited.

Matthias sees a world comprised of space always already inhabited by significance, always already written over by the discourses of power (“language/moving upon consequence”). If we mistake our condition and fail to see the discourse of which we are a part we risk empty sentimentality and insignificance (in which all we're left with are the sentiments and scenes of Altieri's "scenic mode"). The very real physical place in Scotland where Matthias finds himself has a history conditioned by linguistic acts (the destruction mandated by Edward’s words). Language has already had consequences in the space Matthias quite literally inhabits: he is not, in good faith, able to see it as void of previously inscribed meaning. If knowing the history of power and its discourses does not exactly set Matthias free of power, it does save him from empty sentimentality and a language of exhaustion and cliché. Matthias’ turn to historical text in “Northern Summer” is an act of understanding tradition — of knowing how the discursive space has been inhabited.
As Matthias examines the textual history of his place through reading historical, literary and political documents he discovers that, ironically, much of the material that has filled the discursive space of the region has been the product of those who think they face an uninhabited space. In this process Matthias reaffirms his conviction that “The flight of Sentiment/is through space that’s occupied” and that he is a “guest/of both the present and the past,” always interpolated into the discourse that has made him and has filled the space that Sonnevi saw as empty.

The working through of a specific past through real documents, and an examination of the particular ways in which language has produced and been conditioned by history and power make up the bulk of the rest of the (long) poem. This is a matter of contingent difficulties -- not without lyrical passages -- and seems to me to represent a fruitful direction for poetry now, when the once-resistant poetics of indeterminacy has become a matter of phrases (to use Josh's phrase) "meeting cute."

Sunday, June 19, 2005

&NOW/Lake Forest Literary Festival Call for Proposals

This isn't the promised follow-up to the Contingent Manifesto -- but my colleagues on the organizing committee tell me it is time to get the word out for the upcoming &Now/LFLF festival. This year our emphasis will be on experimental writing, and it would be great to see some of you there. Get in touch if you're interested — you know where to find me.

Here's the official post:

&NOW / Lake Forest Literary Festival
April 5-7, 2006, Lake Forest College, Lake Forest, IL.
Proposal Deadline, October 15, 2005

The second iteration of &NOW: A Festival of Innovative Writing and Art, merged with the second annual Lake Forest Literary Festival (LFLF), will be held on April 5-7, 2006 at Lake Forest College, 30 miles north of Chicago.

This three-day festival will celebrate contemporary aesthetic practice in its most inventive forms: writing, visual, and multimedia art that is aware of its own institutional and extra-institutional history, that is as much about its form and materials-about language-as about subject matter.

&NOW/LFLF will bring together a range of writers and artists interested in exploring the possibilities of form and the limits of expression.

By bringing together innovative writers and artists, &NOW/LFLF will take stock of the "other" tradition-and perhaps offer a glimpse of where it is going.

Proposal Deadline: October 15, 2005
For more information, including guidelines for contributors and book fair exhibitors, see:
Official Web Site
Send all correspondence to:
(*or, if you like, to me at the email address listed on my profile page -- Bob)

The &NOW/LFLF organizing committee:

Robert Archambeau (Lake Forest, English)
Davis Schneiderman (Lake Forest, English/American Studies)
Tom Denlinger (Lake Forest, Art)
Steve Tomasula (Notre Dame, Notre Dame Review)
Christina Milletti (SUNY-Buffalo, English)
Dimitri Anastasopoulos (U. of Rochester, English)

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Contingent Manifesto 1.0

After all the speculation about the death, or at any rate the decadence, of indeterminacy in American poetry that came out of this week’s (fascinating, exhausting) discussions with Mark Scroggins, Josh Corey, Eric Salinger, and everyone who chimed in via email, I thought I ought to turn away from what I think is moribund in American poetry, and look forward, down one of the paths poetry could take, in fact a path that I very much hope it does take. That path would lead away from a poetics of indeterminacy and toward (to use the terms from George Steiner’s “On Difficulty” that we’ve been playing with in this discussion) a poetry of contingent difficulties -- of facts, reference, and investigation.

The contingent path out of the scenic mode/indeteminacy dilemma is something I’ve been thinking about ever since I ran into what I regard as an essay of real importance for our moment in the history of poetry, Kristin Prevallet’s "Writing Is Never by Itself Alone: Six Mini-Essays on Relational Investigative Poetics.” Prevallet begins with the premise that “the pursuit of knowledge as the basis for critical thinking has been suppressed and mocked for many years in this country, as if being ‘intellectual’ is a threat to being ‘normal.’” But she’s unafraid of seeming abnormal in this context — in fact, she feels obliged to turn to a poetry full of contingent difficulties.

For Prevallet, a vital poetry will combine elements of Investigative Poetics (Ed Sanders’ old project), Olsonian Projective Verse, and the relational poetics of Eduard Glissant. (She’s also interested in salvaging elements of langpo, and has more faith in the rhizome than I do). What’s really interesting and important here, I think, is the interest in historical investigation and elements of Olson’s poetics (was it just me, or did anyone else notice the weak representation of Olson at the various Orono conferences? He and Duncan once seemed like peers, but Duncan’s star seems to have risen in proportion to the decline of Olson’s).

Prevallet’s essay is really worth reading -- here for me are a few key areas of emphasis that would be useful for what I’m calling a contingent poetry:

1. History.

A contingent poetry reacts to the quagmire of ideologically-spun language that makes up the contemorary haze of disinformation by making specific investigations, definite investigations about particular things. Despite all the flaws of The Maximus Poems, they offer a model for this kind of thing. Here’s what Prevallet says:

To Olson, history is a complex organism in which an individual connects to his (her) locale through "what he knows, what he really knows." History is what connects a person to space and time; it is not a force that acts upon the individual from the outside. Rather, it is story, imagination, poetry—it is a verb meaning "to find out for yourself." So, instead of allowing larger power structures and forces to act upon you as a passive, helpless object, you act upon them subjectively by expanding your knowledge and writing the story of the universe as you see it—based on the facts and observations that you have collected. Olson's work emerges from the messy materials of historical accounts, notes, and raw information.

2. Document.

Contingent poetry would work with historical texts and let them into the poem. Prevallet is most interested in this in her discussion of Eduard Glissant (whom she calls, using Glissant’s terms, a “relational poet”):

These questions of Relation extend to the very moment of the creative act. How do poems get written? Where does that flash of creativity come from? What is inspiration? The Relational poet simplifies the first question by discarding the last, and rather than sitting on mountaintops waiting for genius to strike, looks around and begins collecting, accreting, gathering. Glissant writes, "We no longer reveal totality within ourselves by lightning flashes. We approach it through the accumulation of sediments. . . . lightning flashes are the shivers of one who desires or dreams of a totality that is impossible or yet to come." This emphasis on the accumulation of sediments implies an apprehension of the world not as an unshaped bundle of materials waiting to be formed, but rather as a diverse and extensive patterning that is already formed and transforming, already imbued with a logic.

3. Synchronicity.

Synchronicity, says the dear old OED, consists of "two or more contemporaneous events that are linked in a meaningful manner." The goal of a contingent poetry is this kind of synchronicity.

Here are two of Prevallet’s comments on this notion:

Synchronicity, in other words, might be thought of as the opening of the poem to the possibility that poetry can be written from several perspectives at once. When the practice of Investigative/Relational poetics is applied to synchronicity, what results is not the obliteration of the observed moment into the overall assemblage of the poem or collage, but rather an activated field in which the source appears in spite of its rough edges.

Through these practices, poetry is infused with the flow of larger reality, a space occupied with objects in constant motion, and with people—us—who exist in relation to both our personal histories, our political inheritance, and the strata of the land upon which we are standing.

4. Language Working Upon Consequence, Consequence Upon Language.

Coming soon in another post -- this will be long, and I’m not unaware that I’m taking up too much of your time already, gentle reader.

Some Bibliography for Contingent Poetry

Prevallet’s essay is probably the most important document for contingent poetry, although she, unconcerned with Steiner’s categories, never uses the phrase.

Ameliel Alcalay’s from the warring factions and John Matthias’ New Selected Poems strike me as important texts for an understanding of contingent poetry.

A new look at Charles Olson’s The Special View of History would be useful.

Okay, then: there’s version 1.0 of my thoughts on one possible future for poetry. This doesn’t mean a total break — one could find many elements of contingent poetry in post-avant work, and even in some works of the scenic mode (Prevallet is quite keen, for example, on Muriel Rukeyser). But the question is one of emphasis, of turning away from the primarily ontological difficulties of indeterminacy, and the bad-faith simplicity of the scenic mode, toward a new kind of difficulty, more definite, more documentary, more fully based in history, more investigative. Any thoughts for 2.0?

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Bleed-Over and Decadence, or: No Bones About It, They're Talking About Language Poetry

“Let’s make no bones about it, what both Bob & Josh are talking about is Language poetry,” writes Mark Scroggins in Culture Industry. The conversation Mark’s referring to, for those of you keeping score at home, has been one in which Josh Corey, in his Cahiers de Corey, and I, in my last two entries here, have both been advancing version of the following thesis: the poetry of indeterminacy has run its course as a vital force in American literature and culture.

Josh’s version of this thesis is subtler and more nuanced than the one I laid down in my last post with all the subtlety of a bull elephant serving afternoon tea. Is the poetry of indeterminacy in its decadence, you ask? “In one respect, the answer is no,” writes Josh, because he feels “the fostering of a capacity for negative capability in readers is an absolute good that poetry can produce.” But in another respect, he maintains, the answer is yes, “because it has been possible for a while to adapt indeterminacy as a style whose detachment from late-capitalist market logic is no longer a meaningful one.”

I think this second part of Josh’s statement is particularly astute, and it helps me in answering Mark’s claim that what we’re talking about here is the future of language poetry. Let me follow Josh’s even-handed formulation and answer Mark by saying yes, in one respect I at least am talking about language poetry when I talk about the poetry of indeterminacy. But in another respect I’m talking about something larger than language poetry. The fact is that indeterminacy has bled over from language poetry (and other sources — but mostly from language poetry) into a great deal of English-language poetry. It is this large body of poetry, a body that includes both language poetry and bleed-over verse, that I call “the poetry of indeterminacy.” The very fact of the bleed-over is, I think, a sign, though not necessarily a cause, of the decadence of indeterminacy.

Before going on to that decadence, I should say that Josh and Mark are both right in noting that despite everything, the most common kind of poetry being written in English remains the sort of thing Charles Altieri has called “the scenic mode.” It’s good to see Altieri’s definition back in play, since it sticks to genre as a way of defining this sort of poetry. I’ve been too willing to define such stuff by what were once its institutions, calling it “MFA” or “APR” poetry. But since so many MFA programs now seem to produce almost as many poets of indeterminacy as they do poets of the psychological moments and narrative interludes that make up the scenic mode, and since so many of those poets find their way into mainstream journals like the American Poetry Review, institutional definitions won’t do the trick anymore. Bleed-over has happened at the level of institutions as well as at the level of composition. Poets of indeterminacy hold a number of the big ivy-league jobs, for example, be they language poets of the purest pedigree (Bob Perelman of Penn, say) or otherwise (take, for example, Jorie Graham of Harvard). Mark Scroggins notes this phenomenon at a less exalted level when he writes “I’m not a regular reader of Poets and Writers, the industry mag, but on my occasional scans through I’m astonished by how many poets of a definitely “non-scenic” bent are getting regular rotation on the visiting writer circuit.”

If, broadly speaking, language poetry’s indeterminacies came about as a way of rejecting the universal commodification of all things — including language — in twentieth-century capitalism, then there’s a real irony at work here. Indeterminacy has become, among other things, a style-marker, even a kind of prestige-brand marker of sorts: in short, a kind of commodity. The scenic mode is certainly the most common kind of poetry, but the poetry of indeterminacy has, in certain limited markets, greater cultural capital. Hence the bleed-over from those most concerned with social issues to those whose concerns have more to do with landing the gigs advertised in the pages of Poets and Writers.

So, if, as Josh says, indeterminacy has long-since “hardened into a style” and more recently “softened into a decadence,” what is to be done? “Whence,” as he puts it, “the new style?” I, too, feel we are on the verge of something new, but the nature of the beast that slouches toward Parnassus to be born has yet to be seen. Theories welcome from all quarters, speculations to follow.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The Age of Indeterminacy in American Poetry: 1962-2005

"What!?" you say, "an age is over? Did I miss something?" No, nothing is over, and you didn't miss anything. I've just decided to go big with some further fallout from the recent Salinger-Heller-Finklestein-Scroggins conversation (from Culture Industry, Say Something Wonderful, and Cahiers de Corey) about poetic difficulty, and make a Giant Unsupportable Claim to lay atop a few minor observations about poetic indeterminacy. The Giant Unsupportable Claim is that, for the last forty-some years, the dominant kind of difficulty in American poetry has been indeterminacy -- so much so that in much casual talk about poetry "difficult" and "indeterminate" are virtually synonymous, despite the wide range of other kinds of difficulty outlined by people like Steiner (thanks to Mark Scroggins, by the way, for setting me straight about "ontological" difficulty -- I've changed the term from "metaphysical" to "ontological" in the post below). Poetry that works with this kind of difficulty has become one of the dominant modes of American poetry -- not only among the sorts of poets that Ron Silliman likes to blog, but among many of the poets we see in the American Poetry Review. So, I thought it might be worthwhile to try to parse out some of the different kinds of poetic indeterminacy. To that end, a few preliminary notes:

The Indeterminacy of Negative Capability.

We know one form of this from Keats -- when he ends the "Ode to a Nightingale" with the question "Do I wake or sleep?" there's no for us way to answer that question with any certainty, and he doesn't feel any need to pursue the point. This is a way of enacting or portraying a state where the reaching after determinate certainties is impossible. A more contemporary version of this, though, involves a variation on the old Keatsian model. Instead of dramatizing a moment of negative capability on the part of the author, the poem will create a moment of where the reader is left with an undecidable interpretive choice. We'll see several ways of piecing together the words, but we're left without a basis for choosing one over the other. The poem forces us into a position of hermeneutic negative capability. Bruce Andrews' "Bananas are an example" is (ahem) an example. William Howe, thinking about Andrews' poetry, notices this kind of indeterminacy and finds himself in a position of hemeneutic negative capability, then grumbles about it a bit, writing:

One of the problems with language writing is that it works too well, in that it destabilizes language to the point that it becomes difficult to give a normative critical reading of it. This is particularly true in the case of much of Bruce Andrews's work. So much so that normative reading is problematized to the extent that a close critical reading becomes much more difficult than looking at the work in general and making broad statements about how it fits into a poetics or politics (and there may not be any difference between the two in reality). Part of the reason behind this overt problematization of a close critical reading of language writing is that language writing resists translation . . . in all its forms.

Pity the critic who wants to say something particular and definite about such works. If such a critic really wants to do close readings of long stretches of poems with this kind of indeterminacy, he's going to find himself having what George Steiner calls a "modal difficulty" — he'll be out of sympathy with the project. A lot of kvetching about language poetry probably comes from such modal difficulties with the indeterminacy of negative capability (hermeneutic variety).

Indeterminacy as Determinacy by Other Means

What is often taken for indeterminacy can also be a matter of determinacy by means other than syntactic coherence. That is, a poem can make no sense by the rules of conventional syntax, and present us with a kind of undecidability in those terms, but nevertheless offer a fairly determinate meaning once one catches on to the different rules the poem creates for itself. A lot of work that comes out of Oulipo and Fluxus seems to work in this way. Caroline Bergvall's "More Pets," one of my favorite poems from the most recent Notre Dame Review works this way. I'm too lazy to type in the whole thing (and I'm sure my limited html skills are going to result in some messed-up margins) but here's a stanza and a half:

a more — cat
a more — dog dog
a more — horse
a more — rat
a more — canary
a more — snake
a more — hair
a more — rabbit
a more — turtle

a more — turtle cat
a more — turtle — more — cat dog
a more — dog — more — cat horse
a more — dog — less — horse — less — cat rat
a less — hair — less — horse — more — rat canary

Okay, there's a lot of interesting stuff happening here: "a more" echoes "amore," or love (in a poem about pets, which seems appropriate); "a more" also juxtaposes the singular with the plural, (which is interesting in a poem about pets as representatives of species). But the most interesting thing is this: while the poem lacks even a vestige of the subject-verb-object relation that would make it interpretable in any conventional way, it is not so much indeterminate as determinable by means other than the conventional ones. The first stanza lays out a series of distinct species, and the stanzas that follow start to pair up those species, later on producing weird hybrids like the "rabbitrat" or "rabbitnot," and even seemingly grotesque or diminished variants like the "turtle trtl" we meet near the end of the poem. The rules of assembly here are not syntactical, but a kind of mimicing of genetic manipulation and modification, and the poem is less an indeterminate mystery than it is a use of unusual form to meditate on a topic. It's as if Eduardo Kac, instead of opening an ethical can of worms by creating green rabbits as artworks, had undertaken his investigation in language. I mean, you can comprehend a poem like this, in a way that you can't with poems that traffic in hermeneutic negative capability.

I think that many of the poems Josh Corey's thinking about when he writes that "sometimes post-avant poetry has the sameness of unrestraint" in its emphasis on "phrases meeting cute" have this kind of semi-indeterminacy. While the phrases are syntacticaly disjunctive, there's usually some kind of wordplay that creates a similarity between the phrases, and the actually determinable point of the poem will be that there are more kinds of linguistic coherence than are dreamed of in J.L. Austin's philosophy. Sometimes, in those poetries that take pleasure in skipping from one kind of linguistic connection to another (I love Josh's "phrases meeting cute" as a description of this) that's all there is to the poem. This can seem tremendously clever or stupendously tedious, depending on the poem, or how late into the evening the reading takes place. I've been at group readings where, after six or seven poets working this vein of indeterminacy, no degree of cleverness will overcome my desire to club myself into a stupor with a chair. Thank god the chairs are usually too full of poets and professors for me to get my hands on one and lay into myself.

So why does what I've pretentiously called The Age of Indeterminacy run from 1962 until 2005? '62 was the year of Asbery's Tennis Court Oath, which seems as good a year as any to pick for the time when indeterminacies of various kinds pulled ahead of contingent difficulties (intertextual look-it-up-or-you-won't-get-it stuff) as the leading kind of difficulty in American poetry. '05 is, of course, now -- the year when I realized that indeterminacy (like the rhizome), had started to become a mannerism. This has happenend with indeterminacy before, around a hundred years ago. Then it led to some modernist grumbling about "the exact word," "direct treatment of the thing," and a poetry "austere, direct, and free from emotional slither." I don't see such a puritanical reaction on the horizon right now, but something's afoot when David Orr calls Jorie Graham out for being "strangely bleary" in her "arty vagueness," and plausibly asks (of the beginning of Graham's ''Praying (Attempt of April 19 '04)'') "what are these lines about? Generalized angst? Adobe Acrobat?"

So, by the powers vested in me By my independence from both Helen Vendler and Ron Silliman? Perhaps by the powers vested in me by my own insolence? Whatever. I hereby declare the Age of Indeterminacy in the mid-stages of its decadence. Any comments on my crude schema and/or my unsupportable declaration are welcome.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Four Fascinations of What's Difficult

Interesting weather fronts have been moving through some of my favorite layers of the blogosphere. Specifically, there's been an exchange between Josh Corey, Eric Selinger, Mark Scroggins, Mike Heller and Norman Finkelstein (these last two via Selinger's blog) about poetic difficulty. For those of you who haven't followed it, the barest of all possible bare bones summaries would look a bit like this -- apologies to the participants for the reductio:

Josh ruminates over Mallarme, Clark Coolidge, and difficult poetry. He finds that while he is often seduced by indeterminacy in poetry, others are repelled. For him, there's a kind of aura of wonder to the indeterminate. Interestingly, though, he speculates as to whether this kind of poetry may be on the verge of being played out. Eric is sympathetic to the idea (articulated by Norman) that difficult poetry can open a space for a kind of religious mystery, but he's also sympathetic to the complaints his students raise about such poetry, and he wonders about a class-bias to this sort of work. Bourdieu, after all, has pointed out that art that distances itself from purpose or from immediate emotional connection is not well liked outside of the more privileged classes. Mike and Mark raise a number of issues, but what I find most interesting in both of their contributions are the way they raise questions about the different kinds of difficulty (Mike asks about the different funcitons of mystery, and Mark mentions "the difference between difficulties").

Since I've been thinking about these last issues a bit -- and since there's been a bit of a tendency over the last few years to equate difficulty with indeterminacy -- I thought I'd drop in a few notes about kinds of poetic difficulty.

George Steiner wrote a useful essay back in the 70s called "On Difficulty," in which he describes four distinct kinds of difficult poety. I don't have it with me, but if memory serves, this is how it goes:

Contingent Difficulty. This is the kind of difficulty that can be resolved through the presence of a good encyclopedia or perhaps a few minutes with Google. It is the difficulty of facts, or dates, or other bits of information. Much Modernist difficulty is like this -- you need an annotated version of The Cantos, and many (not all) of the poem's difficulties are resolved simply through the presence of footnotes. No amount of staring at the page is going to help you understand Social Credit economics, for example, but the difficulty is resolvable with factual information.

Tactical Difficulty. This pertains to texts that resort to various kinds of coding in order to get past censors, or to put subversive messages into works that, were the meaning manifest on the surface, would get the author (and perhaps the audience) into trouble. So certain kinds of Soviet writing fall into this category, and so do things like many Blues lyrics (it took me years to realize what was meant by the squeezing of lemons or the pulling of daisies, for example, oh innocent prairie boy that I was).

Modal Difficulty. Here's where one of Steiner's phrases sticks with me, because it is so completely unlike anything Steiner would normally say: with this kind of difficulty, Steiner says, the reader finds himself saying "I get it, but I don't dig it." Ah, the seventies, when even a tweedy fellow like Steiner could contemplate wearing a medallion. Anyway, this is actually a very common kind of difficulty in classroom situations: the reader understands what's happened in the poem, but is out of sympathy with the project and rejects it as pointless. How many of us have been teaching classes and had a student make a very perceptive observation in the form of a complaint. "It's like James Joyce doesn't think plot is as important as all this other junk," said a student of mine when we were studying Ulysses. "Right!" I said "exactly!" But of course that didn't solve the problem.

Ontological Difficulty. This is the sort of difficulty that Josh was talking about, I think, when he mentioned awe and aura in his post. Here, the poem is made in such a way that it resists interpretation and maintains its indeterminacy. This is probably the most common form of difficulty in poetry today -- so much so that you sometimes see "difficulty" and "indeterminacy" being used interchangably. Steiner hints at religious experience here, the idea being that the elusiveness of meaning in the poem is homologous with the elusiveness of religious mystery. Nowadays you also hear undecidableness and indeterminacy defended as a kind of noncommodifiable resistance to the market, though perhaps unsurprisingly Steiner doesn't take that tack.

There's still a fair bit of contingent difficulty out there -- if you want to write something more ambitious than the poem of the backyard epiphany, it is probably inevitable. But this kind of difficulty can be cleared up with a little effort online or, for the antiquarians out there, with a reference book. I don't imagine there's a really big need in countries like the USA for much overt tactical difficulty in poetry nowadays: repressive tolerance means never having pretend to toe the line. The big issues of the discussion that's been going on seem to have more to do with a combination of ontological and modal difficulty. That is, many people have a modal problem with ontologically difficult poems.

I think it is fair to say that a lot of the class-based rejection of difficult art comes from a kind of modal difficulty, a simple lack of sympathy with the project. One response to this situation is simply to say "So what? you eat your populist apples and I'll see if I can figure out my mandarin oranges over here in Elitist Alley." Another response is to reject difficult art on the grounds of elitism (one would do well to recall the change in Russian art between the vibrant early revolutionary period of experimentation, and the later stultified bullshittery of the Socialist Realist era before leaping to this position). Yet another is to get all Educating Rita and try to be a missionary for the difficult, with all of the ironies, contradictions and condescensions appertaining thereunto. I suppose I oscillate between the first and the third alternative, without a lot of coherence, and without as much self-reflection as I could have.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Some New Publications and a Reading in July

Three new publications from yours truly are now available:

"Rhymes with History: Joe Francis Doerr and Kevin Ducey" an article on two first books of poems, Doerr's Order of the Ordinary and Ducey's Rhinoceros, in issue 19 of The Notre Dame Review. Ducey and Doerr are, for my money, two of the most interesting new poets around.

"Black Dog's Bedside Manner" and "Poem for a War Poet, Poem for a War," two poems, in issue number 44/45 of Another Chicago Magazine. "Black Dog's Bedside Manner" is dedicated to John Matthias, and I had the pleasure of reading it at the Matthias gathering at Notre Dame a few weeks ago (the event is blogged below).

And the Big Publication of the month, "Identity Politics and the Modern Self: Robert Pinsky's An Explanation of America". This is a shorter version of the Pinsky essay from the forthcoming book Laureates and Heretics. It appears in Mantis number four, a newish journal out of Stanford. Their site needs an update, but has ordering information. The issue itself is a special number devoted to poetry and politics, and is packed with good stuff.

There will be a poetry reading to celebrate the new issue of Another Chicago Magazine at Hideout in Chicago on July 14th at 9:00 pm. I'll read, as well as a few other poets including the incredibly cool Simone Muench. Admission is a paltry five bucks, and that includes the post-reading dance party (Simone can dance, I can't, which doesn't always stop me) with DJ Birdy Num Num, whose name comes from the funniest movie of 1968.

Since this is the Me Me Me post, let me add a link to the new page my publisher has put up for my book: they've got good designers at Salt, I think.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Red Strawberry Leaf

John Peck's Red Strawberry Leaf: Selected Poems 1994-2001 arrived in the mail a couple of days ago, and while I've yet to give it the attention it deserves, I can already tell this much: this will be a book that matters to me. It is also a selection that puts Peck's work in a new light.

I've had a running argument with Peck ever since I started writing about his work with a review of his Collected Shorter Poems six years ago. At that time I'd maintained that Peck, despite what he'd told me, was essentially a Poundian modernist. Several years of reading and re-reading have led me to reverse my position and admit that Peck knew more about his poetry than I did. I also maintained, in that article and elsewhere, that Peck was a poet whose importance was matched only by his inacessibility. Red Strawberry Leaf leads me to believe I was wrong there too, as far as inacessibility ws concerned -- wrong enough to merit a bit of a recantation.

The poems of Peck's new book pick up on a tendency I'd noticed in the poems that closed his previous collection of new work, M and Other Poems: they do away with some of the more obscure and arcane intertextualities, or at any rate they present their erudition in a manner that allows you to pick up what you need from context, rather than from a nearby copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica. This is not to say that Peck is writing Life Studies. Rather, he's writing in a mode that melds the personal and the intertextual, that shows hiss erudition for what it is: something so internalized that it is lived on the pulses of his own experience.

In one poem, "Walter Benjamin's Hope for the Best," I catch what I think may be a barb aimed at the kind of critic who has labeled Peck a retro-modernist (as I've done at least twice, with the somewhat lamentable phrase "modernist after modernism"). Peck writes:

Stamped arriere-garde? Display the date of franking and say,
Lapsed address.

Whether Peck was once more of a Poundian than he is now (as these lines imply), or whether, as I'm coming to suspect, the more accessible, more personal Peck was there all along, remains to be seen. But I'm done with second-guessing John Peck's self-assessments, at least for now.

His book, which makes an excellent introduction for readers who don't yet know his work, is available here.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

John Matthias as Eminence Gris

Here at last is the long-awaited blogging of the John Matthias retirement festival at Notre Dame some weeks ago. I was invited to speak on a panel and give a reading at what turned out to be a very well-attended event to mark the retirement not only of John Matthias, but of poet/fiction-writer Sonia Gernes as well. The day marks quite a changing of the guard at Notre Dame, where Cornelius Eady will be the new resident poet come the fall (along with John Wilkinson).

Coming in from Chicago on the South Shore railroad, I remembered three years of commuting in from my then-haunts in Wrigleyville/Boy's town. Back then I could count on a daily encounter with one or another version of derangement on the train: the guy who'd stand in the aisle and read from the Bible in Spanish, say, or the two south-side sisters who'd inevitably start arguing and, about every other week, break into a low-grade catfight, or the man who wore a pocket calculator like a badge on his jumpsuit, wrote mysterious numbers on a cash-register roll all the way from Gary to Michigan City, muttered about how he'd live in the woods "like an angel" if it wasn't for how strung out he was on "Juan Valdez Coffee." But no such luck: either the early morning trains have a different clientele from the later ones I used to take, or the city's sothward gentrification has increased social order at the expense of the ragtag alienation of old. The big industrial sprawl and decay was still there, though, through Hammond and Gary and the far south side. I'd forgotten how much those scenes had gotten to me, and how they'd found their way into a number of the poems I wrote for Home and Variations, a book I shamelessly flogged later that day, and which I'll shamelessly flog now: check it out here

The event turned out to the the best sort of literary gathering: an assembly of people who know about many things, care about the same things, and want to listen to each other. This is rare, really. Most gatherings fail either by lacking any focus, or by being too parochial. The big academic conferences (the MLA and its variants) are scattered and somewhat arbitrary -- who hasn't found themselves placed on a panel that should really have been called "Papers that We Couldn't Fit Anywhere Else"? They lack any real community feeling, and a shared professional affiliation can't quite make up for it. Too much gesselschaft and not enough gemeinschaft makes for a dull day. At the other end of the spectrum are those gatherings where the usual suspects get together to talk about the same short-list of poets. What can you say about these get-togethers?

All shuffle there; all cough in ink;
All wear the carpet with their shoes;
All think what tenured people think;
All know the text their neighbour knows.
Lord, what would they say
Did Frank O'Hara walk that way?

The best conferences I've attended have been things like Romana Huk's "Assembling Alternatives" conference on experimental poetry (almost a decade ago now), where everyone shared interests but where the parochialism was countered by a series of truly different perspectives (it was the first time I met Billy Mills and Trevor Joyce and Catherine Walsh and the other alternative Irish poetry crowd, and their take on Bernstein & Co. was new to me, and worth a hundred evenings spent listening to Ron Silliman's friends introduce one another at the group reading, hoping to have their membership in the tribe noticed and prominently blogged). Being there in Belgium when Maxine Chernoff, Paul Hoover, Joe Amato and Kass Fleisher got together with Antoine Caze and Michel Delville was just as good: everyone knew something different, everyone cared about some of the same things, and everyone cared a little differently. (Since I've just figured out how to make html links, I include a link to an account of that event: check it out here

The Matthias event was a best-case gathering: we all loved John's work, but we all knew it differently. Some of us were poets, some of us were critics, some were profs from other disciplines, some were artists, some were old friends of John's, some were relatives. Some highlights:

James Walton speaking about Matthias in terms of two types of egoism. While I've never thought of John as an egoist, Walton made an interesting case. The first kind of egoism, the bad kind, didn't apply to John, this being being the sort in which the egoist builds himself up by tearing others down. The second kind, though, was as John Matthias as any incantation of place names or any hiding of iambics in passages that pretend to be prose. The second kind of egoist enters a room and says to himself "this must be an interesting place, because I'm here!" You won't notice this egoist as an egoist, because you;ll be too busy basking in the Bloomsbury atmosphere he creates by his very presence. He enters a room, and suddenly everyone there feels that they're interesting, talented, clever, and on to something that really should be published right away. The second kind of egoist sees you as important, and wants to talk to you about the interesting thing you're doing. The second kind of egoist is the best of all possible mentors, since those around him bask in a glow of powerful approval (even your mistakes matter, though they need to be set right, since they represent a squandering of your very real, very important talent).

John kind of confirmed this later in the evening when he said that he'sspemt decades feeling like the youngest and the least intelligent person in the room, ever since his Deweyite highschool let him take classes at Ohio State. To hear that from one of the smartest people one knows, and from a man in the act of retiring from a long career is quite strange, and powerful evidence for Walton's position.

Walton, one of the most erudite people you're ever likely to run into, went on to talk of John's work as involving what Aquinas called magnanimity -- the spirit of doing things beyond the merely prudent. This, said Walton, was essential to art (although he told me later over a drink that he'd almost decided that it was ambivalence that was essential -- why make a work of art if you lack ambivalence, and can simply say what you mean?). The person who came on after Walton said something about agreeing with that, and about how poetry is always subversive. When I hear the words "poetry is subversive," I generally sigh or sneer. I mean, who do we in the little demimonde of poetry think we are? I almost choked on my chowder once when I heard someone at one of those U of Maine conferences say "the reason they're cutting funding for our magazine is that they know that in disrupting language we're disrupting power -- we're a threat." Disrupting the syntax on a page in a little magazine doesn't distrub your local arts council, let alone Dick Cheney. But what took place after this "poetry is subversive" comment changed my mind.

Here's what happened: the scene changed over from scheduled speakers to an open mike, and Jessica Maich took the stage. Jessica is a poet I knew in graduate school -- a good one, whom I hope will keep writing. She's also someone who has had a real life before graduate school (unlike me), raising a family in the midwestern community where she grew up. She came from a very different world than I did (I'm an academic brat, and my dad's an artist), so she saw the whole MFA world with different, and clearer, eyes than I did. "When I walked into that first seminar," she said at the microphone, "I thought, these people are arguing for forty minutes about where to place a comma. They're all adults, and this matters to them." This was subversive for her, and subversive in the way that Walton, thinking through Aquinas, would call magnanimous -- the actions that mattered exceeded the merely prudent. I think I was in that class, and for me at that point in my life there would have been no significance to an argument like that except as a drama in which the opinion of someone who was correct (me) and a bunch of misguided people who just didn't get it (anyone who disagreed with me) either triumphed or was thwarted (I was, as you may gather, something of a prick). But Jessica was starting to have a dialogical life in a way I hadn't, maybe haven't yet: she was seeing the logic of a world where conversations about comma placement were important, and the logic of that world was subversive of the logic of her other world, where practicality and prudence were more important than this kind of magnanimity. "They looked so normal," Jessica said of her poetry teachers John Matthias and Sonia Gernes, "they had houses and cars." But despite these signs of belonging to the world of the prudent and practical, they lived in another world, where serious adults cared for things like the comma in that stanza. So the comment about subversion meant a lot to her. Hey, I thought, wow, I get it. And I and felt like a bit of a twit for all of my internal eye-rolling at talk of subversion.

Other highlights for me include:

The Big Dinner, with hundreds in attendance. Nametag follies ensued, as Joe Doerr, Jere Odell and I handed out "Pope Pious II" and "Britney Spears" tags. I gave one labelled "eminence gris" to John Matthias, who was too graceful to take it off. My own read "Rufus T. Firefly," and I had a great moment when a group of grad student types were standing nearby and looking over at me and I overheard them talking about "whether that's him" and how "he looks like the picture on the book" but they concluded that I wasn't the poet in question because "he's Rufus someone or other." The award for best nametag goes to Joe Doerr, though, who went up to Steve Tomasula wearing a tag that read "Tom Stevasula."

Watching the big crowd in the LaFortune Center eating up Mary Hawley's poem about fourth-grade girl's basketball. The poem treats the moment of the first basket as a loss of innocence: suddenly the game mattered, and one could succeed or fail. The loss-of-innocence poem has been around forever, and yet, when one finds a convincing local habitation for it in experiences that one can render well, as Hawley did, people will always love it.

Discovering that Kevin Ducey looks a lot like Robert Duncan -- when he read his poems, all I could hear was "sometimes I am permitted to return to a meadow." Also laughing my ass off while having a smoke with Mark Mattson. Also drinking scotch with Dave Griffith, and hearing him tell me about his new book on the scandal of Abu Ghraib. Also meeting James Wilson or, as I call him, The Wintersian Kid, who read the manuscript of my book on the Stanford poets and liked it even though I'm no Wintersian. Also hearing Joe Frances Doerr talk about Ken Smith and David Jones, and then read his own poems, which sound a lot like Ken Smith-meets-David Jones. Also seeing poets Orlando Ricardo Menes and Francisco Aragon of the Latin American Studies institite -- especially since I ran into Aragon as he was buying a copy of my book (available online -- check it out here)

Many thanks to Coleen Hoover, who put the whole shindig together. Photos and (soon) transcripts are available at: this site.