Friday, May 29, 2009

Word Salad Radio

"You know when a communications medium is obsolete?" my media theorist collegaue Dave Park likes to ask, before answering himself by saying "when they start using it for art." I think what Dave means is that, when a medium is in its commercial and technological prime, it becomes a money-making machine, and artists get squeezed to the margins by more mercenary figures. But when a medium is brand new, or when, later on, it begins to lose its commericial mojo, there's a chance for art to move in. It's certainly how the movie industry has worked: the best era for American art film came in the early 70s, when television had killed off the old studio system and Hollywood started making movies like Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. Of course Spielberg and Lucas found a way to beat T.V., by emphasizing special effects and big-screen spectacle, but for a while it was directors, not producers, who seemed to be calling the shots (both Lucas and Spielberg have, of course, long since become producers themselves).

Radio, of course, is venerable, and has gone through many phases, from being a place for serial drama (another victim of television) to being all about music. And now the good people at WSUM have turned to poetry, with the weekly broadcast of "Word Salad," a kind of melding-together of poems in a big, luxuirous sound collage. They've been deluded enough to feature a few of my poems in recent weeks, and you can listen to them online.

"Two Short Films," a couple of older poems from Home and Variations were included in the May 28 broadcast, which also features work by Tom Raworth, Lisa Jarnot, Louis Zukofsky, and Anne Sexton, as well as music by Tristan Murail.

"Glam Rock: The Poem," which originally appeared in Absent, was aired on the May 21 show, along with John Ashbery, Crag Hill, Hanet Kuypers, Stu Hatton, and some Merzbow music, along with much more.

"Sheena is a Punk Rocker," which appeared in The Cultural Society, was part of the May 14 broadcast, along with poems by Nico Vassilakis, Andrea Brady, and Amanda Stewart, and music by John Adams (played by the Kronos Quartet), along with other things.

The Word Salad blog has a complete set of playlists, and links to all their shows. You could spend a long time listening to this stuff: consider yourself warned!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Educating Ezra

What thou lovest well remains,
                                  the rest is dross
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs
              or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee

Those are probably the best-known lines of Ezra Pound's "Canto 81." The passage lodged itself in my head when I was a modernism-obsessed undergraduate, and I still sometimes wake up with those lines echoing in my ears. Canto 81 is one of the Pisan Cantos, written after Pound had been captured by the American army in Italy, and was being held in a detention cage, uncertain of his fate but fearing the worst: that his pro-Mussolini radio broadcasts would soon see him swinging from a hangman's rope. So the desperation in those lines is real enough: Pound, here, is a man looking at the end, and wondering what, when we stare into the abyss, remains for us.

If the sentiments are real, though, the diction is stilted and affected (although very much of a piece with the mixed-diction and quotation-filled texture of The Cantos and, indeed, of Pound's work as a whole). Why such a strange, non-contemporary diction? Of course there have been plenty of times and places when poetry has been written in archaic diction: Dante, for example, was considered an oddball for not writing in the archaic Latin language, and had to defend his use ofthe contemporary Italian language in De Vulgari Eloquentia — a treatise, ironically enough, written in Latin. But why this particular instance of a poet writing in such an idiom? It was by no means the only convention out there: it certainly wasn't the idiom of William Carlos Williams.

One explanation lies in Pound's education. Pound was part of the first generation of American poets in which significant numbers of poets were the products of graduate school. Of course graduate study in language and literature was different in the early years of the twentieth century than it is now: it was dominated by philology, the tracing of linguistic evolution, often in literary texts. There's a whole interesting history of how philology became the dominant mode of literary study in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (Gerald Graff's Professing Literature tells the story well), much of it having to do with nationalism and with the kind of disciplinary-legitimacy anxiety that has been the fate of English and the humanities in general ever since the rise of the research university model. But none of that matters, here, I suppose: the important thing is that Pound enters into literature via a specific academic path, and gets a very particular perspective on literature: historical and linguistic-centered. It's quite a bit different than, say, William Blake's point of entry (Evangelical Protestant Bible study) or Alexander Pope's point of entry (Greek and Latin classics). If Blake's mythical, prophetic imagination can be traced to his educational roots, and Pope's neoclassicism to his, we can just as surely find in Pound's education the roots of his own polyglot, historical, found-text-obsessed poetic, and the source of his ease in feeling authorized to write in archaic-sounding language. An attachment to philology could also explain Pound's early attraction to Browning, and the faux-archaic speech of his dramatic monologues.

Pound's early investment in the cultural past can also be seen as contributing to his particular brand of modernism. He, like Eliot, wanted to preserve the past, to (as he famously put it) "make it new." It's a project of cultural rescue, quite different from, say F.T. Marinetti's Futurism, which called for the destruction of Venice and all its statuary. (Nationality has got to be significant here, too: Pound and Eliot came from a country feeling a kind of history-deficit, while Marinetti's generation felt oppressed by the enormous cultural achievement of Italy). Pound, in a way, isn't a radical, but a kind of reform conservative, looking to rejuvenate rather than eject (or, for that matter, mummify with reverence) the cultural heritage.

Of course, reform conservatism depends on a sense that the past and the present can be made to accommodate one another. When the conservative mind comes to see the present as having moved too far away from what is valued in the past, a strange mutation occurs, and he becomes what Klaus Epstien, in his monumental study The Genesis of German Conservatism, calls a "revolutionary conservative." This is a category as paradoxical as it sounds. Normally, conservatives want to preserve some elements of the past, or of the status quo (when the status quo is capitalistic, this gets weird, since capitalism depends on an ongoing process of creative destruction, but that's another story). The revolutionary conservative feels his cause is so lost he needs a radical program to wipe away the present and restore what he imagines to have been the best elements of the past (of course there really is no restoration — the thing about the past being that you can't get there from here). When Pound turned to Mussolini and Fascism, I'm pretty sure it was out of a deep-seated conservative disposition that had become terribly alienated by the present age. It's tragic stuff, really.

There's another element of Pound's characteristic means of addressing himself to the reader that isn't connected to his educational background, at least not directly: his sense of himself as our instructor. As Gertrude Stein famously, and snarkily, put it, Pound was "a village explainer, excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not." Stein, of course, was full-on committed to an experimental agenda, in which formal innovation was central, and instruction seemed kind of quaint. But Pound was attached to an older model of the poet. Someone like Stein didn't really expect a big audience, and she certainly didn't expect for her words to echo in the halls of power. But Pound, naively, wanted something like the Victorian relation of poet to audience. There have been a number of really fine studies on the relation of the Victorian writer to audience (the best of them, Stefan Collini's Public Moralists doesn't much deal with poetry, but the points he makes there transfer to certain Victorian poets, especially Tennyson. Believe me here: one of the main points I'm trying to make about Tennyson in the book I'm writing is really just a transposition of Collini's ideas to Tennyson's work). Long story short, Collini's argument is that, in the Victorian period, there was a kind of intimacy between important figures from realms like politics and (certain) literary people: he points out how the Athenaeum Club, founded for the power-elite, took to admitting writers on a regular basis (there's a list of prominent writers admitted to the Athenaeum, by the way, and it's well worth a look). This allowed for a kind of co-opting of writers by the power elite (think of how Tennyson became the trumpeter of Queen and Country), and allowed writers to think of their work as being heard, as having a public role, as mattering to those in power. In such a context, writers didn't emphasize form: they became moralists, seeking to ameliorate the excesses of the system (but never to challenge the system directly — this could lose them the indulgence of the power elite).

Pound certainly wanted a situation like this: even near the end, when he was locked up in St. Elizabeth's Hospital, he was fond of preaching economic policy, and once sent a visiting Senator's wife home with a copy of The Unwobbling Pivot as a guide to politics for her husband. But the discursive situation of poetry had changed: those in power were no longer rubbing shoulders with poets at the club, and poets were not often obsessed with being the kind of public moralists Collini described. If there's a way Pound's education comes into play here, it's this: the very existence of graduate programs like his on a large scale was a sign of the increasing specialization of knowledge, of the growth of a technocratic world where government goes its way and literature goes off on its own path. Pound, the product of this new world, longed for the older one, and wrote as if he were in it, becoming shriller and shriller as time went by. (I wish I could remember the name of the critic who wrote that Pound "overestimated the relevance" of his kind of literary knowledge to the political crises of his time — this critic, whoever he is, is the perfect product of our world, where knowledge is rigidly categorized). Anyway: in this instance Pound's education isn't so much an influence on him as it is a symptom of a cultural condition he didn't fully recognize, and would never fully accept. And for all the talk of poetry and politics now, and of speaking truth to power, I think by and large most poets have, at some level, accepted the new situation. I mean, I can't imagine John Ashbery or Ted Kooser or Jorie Graham actually expecting that the world of power would take their ideas on social policy seriously. It'd be delusional if they did. And would we really want them to operate as if they did expect this? It could drive them as crazy as it drove Pound, and I don't think we want to see any of them locked away in St. Elizabeth's.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Just One Book

There are only a few presses that have changed poetry publishing. New Directions in its heyday helped bring Modernism to the bookstores. City Lights fostered the Beat movement. More recently, Neil Astley's Bloodaxe ushered in a new generation of British poets. And Salt publishing changed the whole game: international in scope, broad in aesthetics, interested in the avant-garde, writings of indigenous peoples, and criticism as well as poetry, Salt has been on top of new technologies in publishing and distribution as well as new movements in poetry, and they've been great about being loyal to their authors. In many ways, they've been the most living thing in poetry publishing for almost a decade. Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery (seen above with their Independent Publishing Prize), and their partner John Kinsella, deserve nothing but praise as promoters of poetry. And they've done well as a business, too — until quite recently, when fallout from the economic meltdown (thanks, Milton Friedman, thanks, gospel of unregulated greed, thanks, University of Chicago Econ Department!) put them in a tight spot. Here's a recent note Chris has sent out over the internet, announcing the situation and proposing a solution to the current quandary:

Saving Salt Publishing: Just One Book
Wednesday, May 20, 2009

As many of you will know, Jen and I have been struggling to keep Salt moving since June last year when the economic downturn began to affect our press. Our three year funding ends this year: we've £4,000 due from Arts Council England in a final payment, but cannot apply through Grants for the Arts for further funding for Salt's operations. Spring sales were down nearly 80% on the previous year, and despite April's much improved trading, the past twelve months has left us with a budget deficit of over £55,000. It's proving to be a very big hole and we're having to take some drastic measures to save our business.

Here's how you can help us to save Salt and all our work with hundreds of authors around the world.


1. Please buy just one book, right now. We don't mind from where, you can buy it from us or from Amazon, your local shop or megastore, online or offline. If you buy just one book now, you'll help to save Salt. Timing is absolutely everything here. We need cash now to stay afloat. If you love literature, help keep it alive. All it takes is just one book sale. Go to our online store and help us keep going.

UK and International


2. Share this note on your Facebook or MySpace profile. Tell your friends. If we can spread the word about our cash crisis, we can hopefully find more sales and save our literary publishing. Remember it's just one book, that's all it takes to save us. Please do it now.

With my best wishes to everyone
Chris Hamilton-Emery
Salt Publishing

Things have started to work — Chris even compares what's happened to the end of It's A Wonderful Life— but Salt needs us. And poetry needs Salt. Let's see what we can do. If you don't want to use the Salt website, you can get a list of their books on by going to "books," then "advanced search" and searching for "Salt Publishing" under "publisher."

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

We Got a Yeats, You Got a Wallace Stevens

"We got a Yeats, you got a Wallace Stevens." That's what Eavan Boland told me, more than a decade ago, when I interviewed her for the Notre Dame Review. Boland had recently started teaching at Stanford, and we were talking about some of the differences between American poetry and the poetry of her native Ireland. The point she was making had to do with the public status of poetry in the two countries: in Ireland, poets have had a much more public role than poets in America, and this is reflected in the nature of the poetry itself: Ireland ended up with W.B. Yeats as a major figure, while the United States ended up with Wallace Stevens. While Yeats was capable of intense obscurity (in both his early, symboliste-inflected work and his later period of personal mythology), a substantial portion of what he wrote was deliberately public, even news-editorial-ish. Poems like "Easter 1916" or "September 1913" took on public events, and offered opinions about them in langauge that was both beautiful and accessible. A surprising number of Yeats' mid-period poems actually appeared in newspapers. Stevens, of course, is a different animal. In a country in which poetry has had very little public role, Stevens was a very private poet. Hell, most of the guys at the insurance office where he worked didn't even know he was a poet. And while I'm sure one can tease references to public events out of damn near anything with the application of sufficient quantities of Dr. Adorno's Magic Ointment, it's tougher to make a case for the author of "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" as a political poet than it is to do the same for the author of "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death."

There's much truth to what Boland said. But the reason it comes to mind today is that I'm doing the final read-through of a review I just wrote of some books of recent scholarship on Irish poetry, and I'm sensitive not only of the truth of what Boland said, but of the falsehood. That is: while she's right about the visible Irish tradition, the scholarship I've been reviewing has made me acutely aware of how much Irish poetry lies outside this tradition. The discourse that has developed around Irish poetry over the last two centuries has been a nationalist one: it expects, even demands, that the poet speak on national themes to a national audience. There are good historical reasons for this: in a colonized society, there's very little in public life in which one can place one's trust. All the institutions are dominated by the colonizer. But poetry, at least, remains relatively free, and can become a medium for nationalist consciousness to form in opposition to the colonizer. All well and good, but like so many things, such a discourse can be as oppressive as it is enabling. The demand for a nationalist poetry means the poet is meant to write about some themes, not others, and to do so in a language that is accessible to a broad audience — hence the anti-Modernist style of much Irish Revival poetry. So in Ireland, a publicly-lauded tradition of the nationalist poet came into being. They had a Yeats, while we had a Stevens (we've had aspirants to national poet status, but Walt Whitman, who yearned to be a national figure, never became one until many decades after his death). But along with this visible tradition, there's been a long tradition of Irish poetry that falls outside of the nationalist paradigm. The Irish may have had their Yeatses, but they've had their Stevenses, too. They just didn't fit the paradigm for what an Irish poet was meant to be, and therefore didn't get much attention.

Who are these guys? Well, in the mid-twentieth century, there are people like Brian Coffey and Dennis Devlin. And in the current generation, there are people like Billy Mills, Randolph Healy, and Catherine Walsh. They haven't had their due, living in the shadow of the nationalist tradition. But in an Ireland long since emerged from colonialism, and now a kind of prosperous province of the European Union, nationalism is fading as a paradigm for poetry. Seamus Heaney may well be the last figure to be consumed by it. And the Irish Stevenses may yet have their day.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Marginality, Manifesto, and Poetry's New Thing

No, no, I'm not dead or otherwise incapacitated: it's just that I've been busy tapping out some reviews and plugging away on a chapter about Tennyson for The Big Boring Book of Aesthetics, Politics, and Poetics, which, if my current pace continues, promises to be a posthumous work.

But that's not why you stopped by. You wanted to ask "what have you published lately, chump?" Ah! Glad you asked. Well, the June issue of Poetry just arrived, and it includes "Marginality and Manifesto," an essay I wrote about poetry manifestos. Specifically, the essay responds to the collection of manifestos from the February issue of Poetry.

Long story short, what I say in the essay is this: when one looks over the February collection of essays, one wonders whether the manifesto form might be, for the moment, exhausted. Not that the manifestos were bad: they were, without exception, interesting, clever, and engaging. But they tended to be anti-manifestos of one sort or another. Some parodied the will-to-power aspect of the genre, others were deliberately provisional where manifestos have traditionally been bold, others were defenses of tradition where manifestos have tended to be avant-garde, still others were nostalgic for a lost era when manifestos seemed to matter. Why, I wondered, this sense of exhaustion?

To answer the question, I had a look at what I took to be the two main motivations of manifestos in the early 20th century: to challenge the marginality of poetry in society, and to challenge the established poetic style from the margins of the art. The first of these goals still seems to motivate poets across a wide stylistic spectrum (it's the impetus behind both Dana Gioia's Can Poetry Matter? and Charles Bernstein's "Warning Poetry Area: Publics Under Construction"). But the second, which always produced more manifestos, doesn't seem to pertain: we don't, I argued, really have an establishment style in any meaningful way. Which is not to say we don't have a poetic establishment (Jed Rasula's book The American Poetry Wax Museum is a great study of just how that establishment works). But the establishment isn't predicated on style so much as on institutional access and support, on big name journals, grants agencies, and prestigious university posts. One could rail against this, as one's instinct is to rail against all privilege. But in a way, we're lucky to have grants and university posts: in the early 20th century, poets were, by and large, without any kind of market or patronage, having lost the old aristocratic system of support over the nineteenth century. One could even see the flurry of manifestos in the modernist era as a symptom of a climate of scarcity: when people are well fed, they're less inclined to fight. Or so I argued.

Of course the movement away from prescriptive, declarative manifestos doesn't mean there aren't broad shifts in style, and attempts to describe them: in fact, the latest Boston Review contains a very interesting essay by Stephen Burt on just such a stylistic shift. The essay, "Poetry's New Thing," argues that emerging poets (emerging, I suppose, to broader visibility) like Graham Foust, Devin Johnsoton, Zach Barocas, and Elizabeth Treadwell have moved away from the elliptical style that became one of the more prominent modes of poetry in the 1990s. These poets, Burt claims, are more interested in documentary, mimesis, and things in the world than were the elliptical crowd. He's certainly right to see the influence of Objectivism on many of these poets, and I'm happy to see him single out The Cultural Society as an important venue for the work of many poets in this crowd: I think it's one of the best poetry things going on the web.

Steve, who gave elliptical poetry its name a decade ago, is out to name the new thing, too. In fact, given this kind of poetry's emphasis on things (as opposed to linguistic disruption), he offers "The New Thing" as a name. I kind of like the minimalism of it. We'll know it's taken off as a term if people start arguing about it. I'll start now: Steve argues for Rae Armantrout as a major precursor to The New Thing. Fair enough, but since The New Thing includes, along with neo-objectivists, an emphasis on documentary, I'd argue for John Matthias and Michael Anania as precursors, and point to their influence on a number of the poets Burt names, such as Devin Johnston and Michael O'Leary. And while I'm glad Steve points to the University of Chicago as a breeding-ground for The New Thing, I wish he'd mentioned Garin Cycholl, currently teaching there, as an important documentary-style poet. Anyway: it's an exciting essay. Sadly, it's not on the Boston Review website, at least not yet. But you can scoop up a copy at the bookstore when you're picking up the latest Poetry.

UPDATE MAY 26: Will Fertman, the self-described "P.R. goon" for the Boston Review dropped me a line to say that Steve's piece is now up online. Check it out!

Monday, May 04, 2009

The Scholar Escapes (For Now)

I've done it: I've watched the students troop off from campus, to whatever beach or internship awaits. Much to the dismay of the sensitive observer, I've gone sockless, kitted-out in sandals and shorts and Mexican short-sleeved shirt. I've hauled the bicycle out and had at it with oil and wrenches, readying it for the dusty trail. I've laid in a supply of frosty beverages, and piled the appropriate books out by the adirondack chairs. Summer, people, is on the way, and I'm hauling out one more thing, for all the academics who are experiencing the end of the teaching term — an old poem by Austin Clarke. If he hadn't lived in the considerable shade generated by Yeats' monumental stature, he'd have been the most musical Irish poet of his generation. Check out the crazy consonance, assonance, half-rhymes and scansion here, and the (to my mind) devastating turn at the end, when the easy flow of pastoral escapism comes to a screeching halt, and the scholar once again finds himself, as we all do, working for The Man. I'm going to have to scare up a slim volume of Clarke's to cart around on the bike trails while the summer lasts...

The Scholar

Summer delights the scholar
With knowledge and reason.
Who is happy in hedgerow
Or meadow as he is?

Paying no dues to the parish,
He argues in logic
And has no care of cattle
But a satchel and stick.

The showery airs grow softer,
He profits from his ploughland
For the share of the schoolmen
Is a pen in hand.

When mid-day hides the reaping,
He sleeps by a river
Or comes to the stone plain
Where the saints live.

But in winter by the big fires,
The ignorant hear his fiddle,
And he battles on the chessboard,
As the land lords bid him.

—Austin Clarke

**UPDATE MAY 7** Mike Begnal has posted some comments about this to his blog, noting that Clarke is actually reworking an old Gaelic poem, reversing the earlier poem's point even as he honors its sound patterns. Good stuff!

Friday, May 01, 2009


The premiere issue of Mayday is up online, featuring (among other things) Kent Johnson's "Some Darker Bouquets," an open letter responding to Jason Guriel's Poetry magazine defense of negative reviewing. The good people at Mayday invited a host of people who review poetry to respond, and there's a big, here-comes-everybody set of responses to Johnson (including, for what it's worth, my own). It's a real debate, people, and despite my contribution, an intelligent one!