Sunday, April 25, 2010

Field Report: The Truth and Life of Myth, A Robert Duncan Symposium

You know me, people: I like to hole up in my study and paw through the pages of obscure texts in solitude as much as the next soft-handed, grumpy, poet-critic-professor type. But last week I was dragged from my cave by the lure of not one but two unusual poetry-oriented events just a Metra ride away in downtown Chicago.

The first of these events was a focus group meeting in the offices of the Poetry Foundation to discuss the future of copyright practices for poetry. As many of you know, there's a bit of a crisis just now, in that the law is unclear on just what constitutes fair use — that is, legal quotation without permission — and publishers can get a bit jumpy about letting poets and critics quote from the poetry they publish. The lack of clarity about the extent of fair use has had a bit of a chilling effect, and has allowed guys like Paul Zukofsky to behave like bullies, threatening people who want to quote from copyrighted works even when the law allows for such quotation. If you want to see just how bullying Zukofsky can be, check out his list of demands to those who would quote from his father's poetry. This is probably not the place to go into detail, but suffice it to say that his view of his rights is a bit singular. He's aggressive and tenacious, though, and has intimidated a number of people, including the editors of Jacket magazine, who removed a group of essays on Louis Zukofsky after Paul snarled and yelped at them. Anyway, a group of concerned lawyers is working on setting up some guidelines for publishers that will, it is hoped, keep the poetry world from falling into the kind of litigious nightmare that has afflicted the world of popular music. It was good to be consulted.

As interesting as it was to be a part of the copyright discussion, though, it was a lot more exciting to drop by the Chicago Poetry Foundation's main event for the year, "The Opening of the Field," a seminar on the work of Robert Duncan. The energy kicked in even before I made it in the front door of the School of the Art Institute: as I paused on the street to make a phone call, Peter O'Leary came loping up to me, looking, as always, like a handsomer version of the young Robert Lowell. "You know where you're going, right?" he asked, grabbing me by the shoulder and hustling me inside. I haven't been steered into a building like that since the last time I was in New Orleans and wandered down Bourbon Street past the tourist bars and strip clubs. Once inside I found myself in a crowd that was both numerous and surprisingly familiar: in the seats immediately around me were the poets Reginald Gibbons, John Tipton, Ed Roberson, Joseph Donoghue, and Norman Finkelstein, the critics Richard Strier, Robert Von Hallberg, and Stephen Fredman (an old prof of mine from my Notre Dame days), and the Brazilian consul general, the writer João Almino (who — unlike any American consul to anywhere — has written on Duncan). I also ran into two poets I've read but never before had the pleasure of meeting — Siobhán Scarry (busy putting transparent sheets of poetry over one another to create multi-layered compositions) and Brian Teare. I heard Jennifer Scappetone, too, but didn't actually see her in the sea of literati.

The event I'd arrived at was a curious hybrid — the first half a poetry reading by Nathaniel Mackey, the second half a paper on Robert Duncan and childhood given by Michael Palmer. The event was actually the second part of the Duncan symposium, but I'd been unable to make it to an earlier panel of papers by Siobhán Scarry, Steve Collis, and Steve Fredman.

Anyway: it was the first time I've actually heard Mackey read in person, and it was impressive. He's got a good reading voice, and a cool, slightly distant delivery. As he dipped into various books of his, it became clear to me why he was such a good choice for an event honoring Duncan: not only did Mackey know Duncan personally, his work is deeply indebted to Duncan's poetry. Like Duncan, Mackey works in serial form, writing long, open sequences akin to Duncan's The Structure of Rime, and doing so with a sense of the spiritual possibility of poetry, a sense much akin to Duncan's own. Like Duncan, Mackey refuses to close down the possibilities of any part of his composition: a word or phrase that seems subordinate in one section of a poem may turn out to be the opening into a larger theme in another section, and the ongoing nature of the composition means the poem remains replete with infinite possibility at all times and in all parts. I think this connects with the spiritual aspirations of Duncan and Mackey, too: this kind of composition is a way of seeing the world in just one grain of sand, and of knowing that any other grain may also open up to a similarly large world at any time.

When Mackey writes about the oud (the north African ancestor of the lute), we get a sense of how he sees discrete moments of music, separated by time and space, as connected, as parts of some larger, historical song:


ecstatic elsewhere's

advocacy strummed,
unsung, lost inside

the oud's complaint...
The same cry taken
up in Cairo, Cordoba,
Red Sea near Nagfa,


The kind of connection over distance he describes here seems to me to be something like a formal principle for his serial composition: the parts of the poems constantly reach backwards and forwards to each other; and they yearn to be adequate to some larger spiritual vision that can't quite be grasped, an "ecstatic elsewhere" that we sing of, and to, forever, without quite embodying it in song.

By some odd coincidence, I'd just been reading another African-American poet who works in serial forms, C.S. Giscombe (I'm reviewing his book Prairie Style for The Cincinnati Review). The chance to compare and contrast Giscombe's work to that of Mackey, with Mackey appearing in person, was a real privilege. I think the main point of comparison is the sense of the infinite possibilities of parts of the poem, and the desire to build onto passages that might not have seemed important when they first appeared in the serial sequence of poems. But the difference is this: while Mackey comes out of Duncan's kind of poesis, Giscombe comes out of Charles Olson, whom he's clearly read with care. Like Olson, Giscombe turns to particular landscapes (Canadian, Midwestern, what have you) as his bases of inspiration. Mackey is more free-form, I think.

But I digress. Mackey's reading was followed by Michael Palmer's presentation of a paper called "Robert Duncan and the Invention of Childhood." It began with a collage of familiar writing from the perspective of childhood: James Joyce's famous baby-talk opening to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, both versions of Blake's "Nurse's Song" (the one from Songs of Innocence and the one from Songs of Experience), and a great passage about a princess who could change her head, and kept dozens of alternate heads in elaborate cabinets in her palace (this was from Frank Baum's Ozma of Oz). Palmer went on to discuss how childhood is a period of linguistic openness, where sense and nonsense coexist, with nonsense always lurking just below the surface of sense-making (think of the opening to Joyce's Portrait, where the toddler Stephen Dedalus tries to sing the songs he hears, and comes up with an almost-in-English lispy jumble of syllables, "O the green woth botheth" — it's a liminal case of sense and nonsense existing together). This, said Palmer, is the kind of thing Duncan valued — language, and especially poetry, not as a matter of statement-making, but as a constant hovering at the verge of significance, a hovering that maintains the potential of going off in another direction, or already having a significance that we haven't yet realized was there. Duncan, said Palmer during the Q and A that followed his paper, believed that the poet's ecstasy was like the infant's ecstasy, as the infant tries on all potential syllable combinations and waits to see which few the slow-minded adults can understand. As the father of a fifteen-month old kid, I felt the truth in this.

Palmer's paper must have built on something from earlier in the symposium, since he called us back to some earlier comments about the potential of language. Indeed, "potentiality" seems to have been a big word at the panel I missed earlier in the day: Palmer mentioned that Steve Collis had name-checked Giorgio Agamben, and potentiality is a big theme in Agamben's work. I'm not sure which direction Collis was going in, but I bet it had something to do with Agamben's notion that we should regard all works as gestures toward a larger potential, which can never be fulfilled in its entirety. "Every written work can be regarded as the prologue (or rather, the broken cast) of a work never penned," wrote Agamben in Infancy and History, "and is destined to remain so, because later works, which in turn will be the prologues or the moulds for other absent works, represent only sketches or death masks." My guess is that Duncan would regard this sense of the unending, and ever-unfulfilled, nature of writing as a positive thing, an opportunity to keep talking and aiming one's words at something like Mackey's "ecstatic elsewhere."

As the event wound down I trudged outside for some fresh air, thinking about how glad I was that events like this — with papers as well as readings — were going on outside the auspices of academe (albeit in an academic room). But I didn't get far with these thoughts before running into Zach Barocas, poet and punk rocker extraordinaire, with whom I compared notes on the glories of working in used bookstores (the Strand for him, the long-gone Aspidistra for me), before I hopped into a crowded cab for the next part of the symposium. This time we were extra-academic in venue, too: the Green Lantern Gallery in Wicker Park, which is really a big old loft-style apartment. You know you're in for the real poetry when the instructions for arriving at the reading say: "Green Lantern is above the Singer Sewing Machine shop; the doorbell doesn’t work but the door will be open." You read that and right away you know this ain't no bullshit Derek Walcott reading — this is the genuine, inconveniently located article.

The Green Lantern event began with a great deal of milling around, which was fantastic: I got to talk about the infant's relation to syntax with Palmer and Mackey, got to hear Steve Fredman reminisce about his days on a San Francisco poets' baseball team ("Michael Palmer was the archetypal third baseman, able to go from vertical to flat-out horizontal instantly"), and I got the lowdown on the best Canadian poets I haven't read from Steve Collis (Jordan Stutter and Roger Farr, and someone else whose name I can't quite decipher in my trusty Miquelrius notebook). Brian Teare and I compared notes on the poets at Stanford, especially Ken Fields and Eavan Boland, about whom we have similar feelings.

Since everything was running wonderfully late, I could only stick around for the first two readers — Steve Collis and Joe Donoghue. I'm in dept to both guys. Steve and I first met about a dozen years ago, when we traded chapbooks in the Louisville airport. He's sent me a lot of his work since then, and I've admired all of it. I've just not been prolific enough to send him much of mine. And Joe Donoghue? I think he paid for the bourbon when he and I and Norman Finkelstein hung out at the MLA last December in Philly. And I suppose I'm more in debt now, since each delivered a fine reading entirely appropriate to an event held under the aegis of Robert Duncan.

Collis' early work was very much in the mode of Duncan, and while he's moved on somewhat from that mode, the influence is still clear, even in some of his titles — "Poem Beginning with the Title of a Cy Twombly Painting," for example, echoes Duncan's "Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar." By a nice bit of synchronicity, Collis also showed a reverence for Michael Palmer, using a line of Palmer's ("There's still no truth in making sense") as an epigraph for "Gail's Books," Collis' powerful elegy for his sister. Joe Donoghue read from a serial poem called "Terra Lucida," and was, if anything, even more Duncanesque than was Collis. He worked some fine anaphoric repetitions while speaking of "the coming of a world of light after a life of knowledge," which seemed very much down Duncan's street, especially after Joe introduced a series of troubadours, alchemists, and Bedouins into the poem. Both Donoghue and Collis got the real poet-visiting-Chicago treatment, in that their readings were punctuated by the rumble of the El, which passed just outside the gallery's windows, and by blues harmonica emanating from the nearby Double Door club. If there'd been a little random gunfire they'd have hit the windy city trifecta.

So: all honor to John Tipton and Peter O'Leary for putting the symposium together. They're clearly guys who know Duncan's poetry, and know how to throw a party. Long may the tattered banner of the Chicago Poetry Project wave.


My colleague Josh Corey went to Saturday's Duncan symposium events. Let's hope he blogs about what went down.