Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Politics and Style

Okay, I know that the most offensive thing in the following passage from the new White House plan for victory in the midterm elections (uh, I mean in Iraq) is the overt lie (that the war in Iraq is part of the war on terrorism, not a distraction from it that makes us less safe). But let's stick to matters of style:

As the central front in the global war on terror, success in Iraq is an essential element in the long war against the ideology that breeds international terrorism. Unlike past wars, however, victory in Iraq will not come in the form of an enemy’s surrender, or be signaled by a single particular event – there will be no Battleship Missouri, no Appomattox.

Right. It is well known that George W. Bush has issues with language, but you'd think the White House would be competent to hire some good writers, capable of lying to us in a grammatically correct manner. But no! While the writers mean to say that Iraq is the "central front in the global war on terror," they actually say that success in Iraq is the central front. Success isn't a place! No! Who are these writers? Power-point monkeys of some kind? The English professor pulleth out his hair in frustration.

One also has to wonder about the writers including a reference to the Japanese surrender aboard the battleship Missouri. Didn't Bush already tell us something about victory from the decks of a warship? Sigh. Grumble.

ADDENDUM: For a good example of the way ideology and political crisis can distort language, see this article on how Donald Rumsfeld doesn't want us to use the word "insurgency" anymore. No indeed. He wants us to call the Iraqi insurgents (noun, "people who revolt against civil authority") "the terrorists." I suppose the idea is to re-enforce the Big Lie at the start of Bush's new plan: that Al-Queda and the Iraqi insurgency are, somehow, one and the same. Interestingly, as the story reveals, his own generals have refused to toe this line.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Simone Muench in the Gray Ganges

When I shuffle down my driveway Sunday mornings to pick up the newspaper Tony Soprano style (tee shirt, boxers, bathrobe, morning stubble and rope-soled canvas shoes), I generally know what to expect: the great gray Ganges that is the New York Times reliably delivers an editorial I'll like (generally by Frank Rich), and editorial I'll hate but that is just intelligent enough to compel me to read through to the end (generally by David Brooks), a magazine I'll be unable to pry loose from the hands of the lovely and talented Valerie, and a book review section more interesting for its treatment of historical nonfiction (lives of rich dead white guys, mostly) than for its choice of literature. But lately some more interesting things have been surfacing there, and the once-moribund poetry reviews have been spiced up with the occasional comment on a book of poems I actually want to read. Today a new high-water mark was reached, I think, as the oyster-gray waters lapped up on me bearing a review of Simone Muench's latest, Lampblack and Ash.

Joel Brouwer, who wrote the short review, seems to know what he's reading. "Many poets have developed crushes on the French surrealist Robert Desnos," Joel writes, "his reputation as the dreamiest of the dreamers in Andre Breton's circle ... make[s] him a fascinating figure." Joel sees his influence in Lampblack and Ash (he's right, I think), but he does better than that: he provides a brief and quite precise description of Simone's method in the book: "Muench tends to begin a poem with a vague suggestion of setting or theme, and then piles on gorgeous phrases." This is exactly right, and very much in the French tradition. Desnos may be an immediate influence, but behind him you've got to see the whole Symboliste groove, the shaping of suggestive and connotative fields without a great deal of literal context. This is, I suppose, part of the whole movement toward indeterminacy that's been going on in American poetry for a generation or more, and the presence of a review dealing with these issues in the New York Times can only confirm the thesis that this sort of writing has gone mainstream. I know I spend a fair bit of blog-time grumbling about lousy examples of this sort of writing, but the poems in Lampblack and Ash are always interesting and generally successful poems in an idiom that lends itself to going badly wrong in less skillful hands.

There's an interesting essay to write, someday, about the development of Simone's writing. I was surprised when, a while back, she gave me some poems for Samizdat in her current style, since her first book, The Air Lost in Breathing, was much more literal, solid, and down-to-earth in its anecdotal style. Still, I should have seen the seeds of her new developments in those poems that would take a surreal turn, or break into odd images. (I can't quote from it just now, since some students I sent to do an interview with Simone borrowed my copy). In a way, Simone's development can be seen as typical for our times: from a family-confessional mode toward a kind of symbolist-surrealist influenced poetry of acontextual images. What's anything but typical in her work is the degree of skill with which she's worked in both idioms.

I remember a capacity crowd of students in Lake Forest's Meyer Auditorium eating up the poems from The Air Lost in Breathing a couple of years ago. It was no surprise: Simone said it had been important to her when writing the book that the poems work well for a reader like her sister -- a sort of common reader of the kind described by Virginia Woolf, not a habitué of the poetry demimonde. I remember, too, a reading a few months later, at the much-missed Gallery 312 in Chicago. Simone and I were both on the bill for a crowd that consisted of poets, publishers and others in town for the AWP conference. Simone read from poems that were to become part of Lampblack and Ash, and the demimondain crowd loved it. I wonder, though, how things would have gone had the audiences been reversed. I imagine that the two books appeal, for the most part, to two different audiences, neither of which would allow themselves the pleasures offered by the other book. But I hope I'm wrong.

Sadly, the brief format the Times has turned to for its poetry-roundups (usually 8 books or so in two pages) doesn't allow for a whole lot of analysis, let alone a kind of retrospective look at a poet's work. Still: when the paper of record starts writing about Simone Muench, something's right in the world. I remember why I come to the great gray Ganges in the first place.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Chicago: Open City?

I trekked down to the offices of the Chicago Review the other day, students in tow, and picked up my contributor's copy of the latest issue, in which my big article on James McMichael appears. I'd taken some students from Lake Forest to the Regenstein library, where the incredibly well informed David Pavelich gave them a look at some of the Special Collections holdings of literary magazines — old copies of Big Table, Verse, Poetry, and the Chicago Review, newer journals like the Joel Felix/O'Leary brothers production LVNG, and original correspondence by all kinds of people from the span of a whole century. It was a bit of a surprise for some of the students, I think, when we left the lavish displays at the Regenstein, hoofed it a few blocks over to the Lillie House, and walked up three flights of rickety stairs to the crammed and slightly crummy offices where the Chicago Review is actually edited. I think they were expecting a journal with this kind of history to be housed somewhere a bit more glamorous. But isn't it always the case in the culture industry that lavish offices are a sign of deep decline? I mean, think of the fate of Manchester's Factory Records back in the rave days.

Anyway. For all of its ups and downs over the years, Chicago Review has had a remarkably strong record, especially when you consider how it is edited by graduate students, usually Serious Young Men in Dark Crew-Neck Sweaters (and yeah, the gender-thing is real. I don't think the journal has done too well at putting women in charge of things, but that's another story). Two of the current editors, Josh Kotin and Bobby Baird (who fit the editorial type even unto the dark sweaters) were on hand when I showed up, and were kind enough to hang out with my students, talking about the magazine, its history and its goals, even though it made them late for the Jim Powell reading that evening. One thing that impressed me about Josh's editorial outlook was his insistence on being open to poetry from all traditions. He went into great detail about the editorial process, and clearly has a discerning taste, but he's absolutely adamant about not excluding work from any particular tradition or style. (This accounts, I suppose, for my essay on the neo-classical and therefore very non-mainstream James McMichael sitting almost adjacent to a John Wilkinson piece on language poet Marjorie Welish. There aren't many journals out there willing to take both McMichael and Welish seriously). I was impressed, too, by Josh's commitment to keeping the review open to poets from around the world. There have been good issues on German and Polish poetry in recent years, and Bobby Baird promises to keep the review's interest in British poets going.

I got a bit sentimental about Our Fair City on the way back up to Lake Forest. I mean, aren't Josh and Bobby just continuing the best traditions of Chicago as a literary city? Behind all of the Nelson Algren/Studs Lonigan/Carl Sandburg buzz about grit, there's something more important and more vital, I think: an openness to different traditions of writing and to developments around the world. Harriett Monroe was all about this sort of thing back when Poetry was the best thing going in American letters, and, in a more modest way, it was what I had in mind back in '98 when I started Samizdat. Here's what I thought then, as I looked over the proofs of the first issue and typed up my editorial:

I notice, looking at the present issue, that a map locating the contributors would look a bit like a United Airlines route map: centered on Chicago with lines stretching out to other parts of the country and to points around the world. The centrality of Chicago and environs is, to some degree, a function of the magazine’s location in metro Chicago, but it is also, I think, reflective of the way that the cultural climate of Chicago has fostered poets without pressuring them to conform too closely to the establishment or the counter-establishment. It is in the interstices between orthodoxies that poetry finds innovation and life, and this is why Chicago has become one of the good places for poetry.

Had my thinking followed its usual course the other day, I'd have gotten home, shaken off my sentimentality, and dismissed the idea that there's something about Chicago's literary culture that is somehow condusive to open-mindedness. I mean, are the poets of, say, Boca Raton really closed-minded? Even the formerly rigid Buffalo types are no longer burning candles exclusively at the shrines of the language poets. And the once-provincial people at the Iowa Writer's Workshop seem to have woken up to a world a little bit bigger than the backyard epiphany. But just as I was about to dismiss the idea of Chicago's literary culture as more than usually open, I cracked open my hot-off-the-presses Chicago Review and read this, from a piece by Paul Hoover:

For years, Chicago was a fly-over city. The real world of literature existed on the coasts. Chicago's main poetry event used to be Poetry Day, sponsored by Poetry. In 1972, at the suggestion of Paul Carroll, a few of us, including Lisel Mueller, Mark Perlberg, and Martha Friedberg founded the Poetry Center at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The idea was to bring poets to Chicago to read their work. For the same reason, to leap high enough to connect with what was not local, Maxine [Chernoff] and I published New American Writing, which sponsored a reading series at Links Hall, and served on the board of the Poetry Center. San Francisco comes ready-made. Someone else did the work of building (Kenneth Rexroth, the Duncan and Spicer circles, and so on). Chicago remained to be built.

And what was the young Hoover up to in this as-yet-unmade city? He was listening, it seems, to a thousand voices from a thousand different traditions:

The most important turn in my reading may have come when a classmate dropped Ron Padgett's Great Balls of Fire on a conference table in Adams Hall at UIC....I didn't plunge completely into the New York School, nor did I remain where I was. I'm thankfully still in passage, within and among a number of heavy planets: Deep Image, Surrealism, the English Metaphysicals as well as the American (Dickinson), Williams and Stevens, Cesar Vallejo and Pablo Neruda, Language Poetry, Ashbery and Schuyler, Lorine Niedecker, Thomas Trahearne, Robert Creeley, Zukofsky's "A-14," Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore's "The Fish," and Gwendolyn Brooks' amazing vocalizations and close rhymes...

This is interesting. I mean, had Paul started out in San Francisco, one wonders how different he'd be. New American Writing would have been a more narrowly Duncany-Spicery kind of journal, I think. And what if Paul had first seen that Padgett book in New York? The powerful gravity of the New York School's levity could well have pulled him in, I think, and left the Trahearne and Brooks and Vallejo sides of his poetry less well developed.

Then again, Paul is speaking of the Chicago of several decades ago, and he seems to think the city has become far less of an unmade place. The open frontier has, in his view, has been replaced with a new city, one to which he, from his secret base at Columbia College, carried The Revolution, or at any rate The Revolution of the Word:

For many years, I taught at an open admissions arts and communications college in the South Loop that had a large enrollment of first-generation college students. In Auden's terms [sic] we were throwing the little streets upon the great, and it was working. My poetry students were being accepted into the country's leading MFA programs -- Brown, Bard, Columbia University, University of Iowa, Bennington — and were becoming known in the world (Elaine Equi, Mary Jo Bang). At the same time, the poetry I had supported, a melange of New York School and Language poetry, was coming into its own....By the mid 90s notable poets of the former mainstream like Jorie Graham and Brenda Hillman were being impacted by the new style....Had the little streets defeated the great?

Okay, let's leave aside the howling error of attributing to Auden a line by Yeats. And let's leave aside the begging of that most-begged question of experimental poetry in America, the equation of aesthetic radicalism with left-wing political action. Let's concentrate on the notion of the triumph of a particular aesthetic. In this view, the possibilities of poetry have actually narrowed, with a hybrid of New York School/Language poetry and the "former mainstream" constituting the period style of the new century. This is true, I think, in the case of many poets, and of many journals. And I'm perfectly willing to grant Paul his role in bringing this state of affairs into being. I'm just not at all sure that it is a good thing. Who but an ideologue would willingly see poetic diversity reduced to a kind of monoculture, after all? Or even into the kind of dual-track culture Paul seems to be describing, with the good guys from the little streets, and the watered-down version of the good guys on what's left of the great streets? But there's an enduring tradition of openness in our city, and this saves us from reduction of possibilities inherent in the situation Paul describes as a kind of triumph. This is the tradition of openness — a classical liberalism of the aesthetic — that Josh Kotin is continuing, and the tradition, I should add, that kept Paul from plunging all the way into the New York School, and that made him into the interestingly various poet he has become.

If the unbuilt city of Hoover's youth is gone, along with its cultural-frontier-openness-by-default, we should be glad of institutions that enshrine the ideals of liberality and openness. The Chicago Review remains one of the best such institutions Chicago has to offer.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

What Do Poets Want?

Every now and then, the Academy of American Poets sends me a letter asking me to subscribe to their newsletter and receive sundry other benefits in exchange for my contribution. I'm not quite sure why I'm on their mailing list, but several explanations present themselves. They gave me a prize, once, and a poem of mine was published in one of their anthologies. I've also committed other acts that could get me on the list: subscribing to poetry magazines, writing a book of poems, being an English prof, etc. But what interests me here isn't their interest in me (or my money). What I'm interested in is their pitch. Check out the opening paragraphs of their letter, class, and tell me what it is they think I (and any other poet on their list) want and need:

Dear Friend,

Today it gives me great pleasure to invite you to become an Associate Member of the Academy of American Poets.

As Chairman of the Academy, I very much hope you will accept.

In joining us today, you will enter into a new and exciting relationship with the best American poets of today and tomorrow. You will receive public recognition for your role in nurturing the art of poetry. And you will receive a number of material benefits which will bring you closer to the center of the American poetry world.

That's right, class: the "material benefits" are beneath mention at this point. Here, at the start of the pitch, the writers have chosen to concentrate on selling their real products, which are (yeah, you guessed it) BELONGING and ESTEEM, or at the very least the hope/illusion of them. I become something far more esteemed than a subscriber: in exchange for my check I'd become a member (just like the subscribers to National Geographic -- uh, I mean the members of the National Geographic Society). And I'd have a "new relationship" with the best American poets (I suppose the literal truth behind this statement is that I would, in a very minor-league way, be a patron of their art, but the implication seems to be that I'd somehow know them better, maybe even meet a few by a large fireplace in an oak-panelled room where we would sip brandy and discuss Anthony Hecht). Also, I will "receive public recognition for [my] role in nurturing the art of poetry." Woohoo! Will there be a plaque of some kind? Perhaps laurels? I'd like laurels.

As if all this this weren't enough, I will be brought "closer to the center of the American poetry world." Ah, at last! I will be loved! Valued! Picked out of the common mob and taken where, exactly? I mean, what center? The Iowa Writer's Program? The SUNY-Buffalo English Department? St. Mark's in the Bowery? The 92nd Street Y? The Poetry Center of Chicago? The Kelly Writer's House? Helen Vendler's doorstep? John Ashbery's loft? John Ashbery's pharmacist? Or, in some weird real-life version of the Commodore Vic-20 era movie Tron, will I be transported physically onto the internet and placed inside Mark Scroggins' blog? Wherever it is, I'm sure the inhabitants (with tweeds or with pierced tongues, with sherry or rare B-sides by The Fugs) will see, accept, value and love me. At last, at last, at last...

By the way: the Academy of American Poets is a fine organization, and I support their outreach efforts and their desire to do some good for poetry. I'd really support any effort on their part to give me a grant. That's the kind of "public recognition of [my] role in nurturing the art of poetry" I could get down with.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Piotr Gwiazda Knows How It Feels to Live Here Now

At times I can barely understand myself,
living in the place called Brainwash.

My visitors talk to me in headlines
I reply with absurd proverbs.

(from Piotr Gwiazda's "Four Autobiographies," a poem in his new book Gagarin Street, which arrived in the mail about fifteen minutes ago).

The poem is about being an immigrant to America, but I think many of us, at this time when political strain and propaganda has distorted language,know what Gwiazda means. I remember an old comment of W.H. Auden's about feeling caught between the language of agitprop (that's agitation and propaganda, for those of you not immersed in the culture of the 1930s) and Mallarme. I remember, too, that old saw about Language poetry coming into being in response to the corruption of public discourse following Vietnam. Lately, I suppose, everything feels like a headline, and every headline feels like a lie. How to talk back? More headlines? A set of rah-rah propagandistic tropes of our own to counter (if only for a few) the angry spew of Fox News? Or something subtle, something that, with its recognition of nuance, irony, and difficulty, seems cryptic and odd, and destined to survive nowhere but in the valley of its own making. Gwiazda sees the problem. I can't wait to finish the book.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

The Fringes of the MSA and the Axis of Ambition

"The border wars define the pallid center of the empire," writes Chris Hamilton-Emery in the latest PN Review. He's thinking about Salt, the upstart-turned-success-story of poetry publishing in Britain (and -- full disclosure -- my publisher), but his comment came to mind the other day down in Chicago, where the Modernist Studies Association held its annual conference at the Michigan Avenue Marriott. I bailed on attending the conference itself this year, but that didn't stop me from catching the Metra down to Michigan Avenue, meeting a poet, a critic, and a poet-critic or two and heading out for the kind of venue where all the real action happens at any conference: a nearby bar. I've always thought that the real exchanges at these places define the success or failure of any conference. I mean, I've enjoyed going to the 20th Century Literature Conference in Louisville for years, but I've learned more from talking until closing time at the bars on Bardstown Road and the jazz lounge in the Seelbach Hotel than I have from any of the panels. Except perhaps for the panel where Charles Altieri blew me away by saying, of the presentation I'd just given, "I find your paper irritating, but I didn't think anything else here was interesting enough to be irritating." But that's another story.

So I got together with Piotr Gwiazda (whose Gagarin Street is just out), Stephen Burt (whose Parallel Play is about to come out), and Matt Hofer (who just finished writing his Distance and Resistance: Modernist Polemic in American Poetries) and we talked poetry and drank Goose Island in some crummy dive until we split up, Matt and Steve hitting the big party at Walter Benn Michaels' place while Piotr and I kept talking up and down Michigan Ave.

Two items emerging from the Archambeau-Burt-Hofer-Gwiazda discourses:

1. The Axis of Ambition.

I brought the crew up to speed on the the ongoing blog saga of how-to-anatomize-contemporary-poetry, and they all proposed third axes to help make David Kellogg's model more useful. Steve's was, I think, the most useful: ambition. In addition to charting poetry in terms of the claims made for it as innovative/traditional or communitarian/individual, Steve proposed an axis that would chart the way the poems were seen in terms of the scale of their ambition. I suppose one would have to see the binary here as major/minor. I like the retro, even archaic, quality of the scale, and I like in particular the way thinking of this kind forces us to be evaluative critics, (and, with any luck, to get a bit reflexive about the criteria of evaluation, too).

2. Donald Davie, Poetry Critic or Poet-Critic.

Since the discussion had touched on classification and evaluation, and since I found myself at a table with three people who'd read all of Donald Davie's work -- a position I don't occupy every week -- I took a straw poll on how we should classify and evaluate Donald Davie's acheivement. Two votes went for "poet-critic," one for "scholar" and one for "man of letters" (yeah, that was me). Curiously, though, when we each named our favorite Davie book, all were books of criticism (one each for Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor, Ezra Pound, and two votes for Articulate Energy). So whatever we want to call him, Davie seems to be most valued as a critic. (Incidentally, only two of us had favorite books of Davie's poetry -- Six Epistles for Eva Hess was mine, The Shires was Steve's).

We never quite got to the question of where we'd put a guy like Davie on the modified Kellogg grid. I suppose I'd have to put him more toward the community end of the community-individual axis, because of all the Little Englandism in Thomas Hardy and British Poetry. As a poet and critic with Thomas Hardy over one shoulder and Ezra Pound over the other, Davie covers a lot of territory on the tradition-innovation axis. As for ambition -- harder to say. As a critic he did big things, but never wrote a book that tried to totalize (no The Pound Era or American Renaissance). As a poet, he ranged over a wide terrain, but didn't write a single Big Poem of the kind that signaled ambition for Modernists and midcentury New American Poets. He had just enough Larkin in is soul to keep him from that. So I'd have to scratch my head and, somewhat surprised, put him somewhere around the middle of the axis of ambition.