Sunday, May 11, 2014

On the Air and at the Poetry Foundation!

John Matthias, the present humble blogger, and Steve Halle

Last week Larry Sawyer launched America's only live poetry radio show, Other Voices, on Chicago's Q4 radio, 1680 on the AM dial.  It was heavy with goodness, including Michael Gregory Stephens in the studio talking about his days on the Lower East Side poetry scene and his run-ins with Thelonious Monk, along with call-ins from Timothy Yu, Nick Twemlow, and others.  The show airs every Saturday from 3:00-5:00 p.m.

Next Saturday, the 17th, I'll be joining Larry in the studio.  You can listen on the radio in Chicago, or hear it streaming on

Then, on Tuesday the 20th, I'll be reading at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago (61 W. Superior, 7:00 p.m.) with my great mentor John Matthias and my former student Steve Halle.  I'm thinking I'll bust out "The Kafka Sutra" for the first time in years, but don't let that deter you!  John and Steve are fabulous readers.

Michael Gregory Stevens in the studio for Other Voices (photo: Larry Sawyer)

Friday, May 09, 2014

New Notes on the New Gnosticism

"The infinite starry realm of scribbing, scrambling poets every now and then produces a new galaxy, that is a new movement or school"— so writes Henry Gould in an excellent essay on the New Gnosticism in poetry up at Coldfront.  It's a great introduction for anyone who hasn't been following this intriguing bunch of poets, a group in which we might number the great Nathaniel Mackey (recently-honored by the Poetry Foundation), Pam Rehm, Peter O'Leary, Norman Finkelstein, Joseph Donahue, Mark Scroggins, Ed Roberson, Ed Foster, and Alice Notley.  John Matthias has similar concerns, and I have been described as the materialist among all these mystics, a kind of pickle fork in the silverware set of Gnosticism.

Gould characterizes the New Gnosticism as a rejection of Language Poetry poetics.  His description, necessarily compressed and simplified, goes like this:

In sum, the Language movement can be characterized as : 1) analytical — a critique of styles it aimed to challenge (mainstream, NY School); 2) materialist — a (post)rationalist approach which subsumes the spiritual or psychological to “objective” historical forces; and 3) relativist — suspicious of claims of individualism or textual autonomy, of any absolute which might deny the inherent mutuality of writer/reader, the collective “production of meaning.”
This is the constellation, in my reductive sketch, with which the New Gnostics find themselves at odds.  Joseph Donahue offers his own take on that incipient event at the Poetry Project, when Ed Foster was called out by Charles Bernstein: "Foster’s dispute is not with an emerging theological orthodoxy, but an academic one."  The critics, a triumvirate composed of Stanley Fish, Cary Nelson and the Russian theorist V.N. Volosinov, who himself may have been a disguised Mikhail Bakhtin, and appear here to be a covert Charles Bernstein, argue that the text is nothing, the critical community decides what the poem is and what it means.  Foster counters: critics are nothing.  Not even readers are needed.  Readers die, but the text lives on.  "The poem is an otherworldly presence, an icon, discernible to the senses but ultimately unknowable.  In encountering this unknowability, we experience our true origin." 
One way to think of the New Gnosticism, then, might be as the overturning of an analytical negation (Language Poetry).  It includes, also, a reversal of the “old” Gnosticism : which was itself a sort of skeptical deconstruction of canonical Biblical texts.

There's a lot more in the article itself, available here.   Talisman has a special issue on the New Gnostics, and here's a little something from the Poetry Foundation's Harriet Blog.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

It's Not What's in the Picture, It's Where the Picture Puts You: Cubism in Focus

Cubist painting puts a lot of people off, and, in a way, that's the point—but not in some sophomoric "let's shock our parents" way.  One of the main accomplishments of cubism is the way it dislocates the viewer, but to understand just how this works it's probably best to take a look at the highly developed mode of painting that cubism rejects—the kind of representational painting that relies on single point perspective.

It's not really a coincidence that this sort of painting comes into being in the Renaissance, reaches a zenith in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and only really begins to be challenged in the nineteenth century.  Consider how the dates co-ordinate so well with what  Michel Foucault, in The Order of Things, calls "the classical episteme."  This episteme, or way of organizing knowledge —incipient in the Renaissance, dominant around the mid-seventeenth century, and continuing on through late eighteenth century—reflects the ideology of absolutist monarchies.  The stress is on order, centralization, and sovereignty in all things: in politics, in theology, in economics.

Aesthetics is no exception: the Palace of Versailles and its gardens give architectural and spatial expression to the notion of a grand and centralized scheme, and order based on the location and prestige of the sovereign.  The king's inner chamber, and, in the final analysis, the king's body are the center of a world that points toward, and radiates out from, his presence.  The single point perspective that dominates representational painting during the classical era also reflects the values of centralization and sovereignty.  We see this not only in grand portraits that assert the power of absolute monarchs, such as Hyacinthe Rigaud's famous portraits of Louis XIV, but in the formal underpinnings common to so many paintings of the classical episteme.

As Christopher Kul-Want puts it, "In painting during this period (especially in southern Europe), the subject stands literally and metaphorically before the pictured world like an omnipotent God.  In Raphael's School of Athens, for example, a central space is reserved for the subject, who is both viewer and addressee of the painting." As a viewer, you know where you stand in relation to the image, and it's a place of command and access: everything opens up, available to you and directed at you.  In a sense, you complete the scene, and stand at the point that gives it order.  In the case ofThe School of Athens, you stand directly before the greatest and most central of philosophers, as if to command their conversation and interrogate them about whatever subject you wish.

In The Order of Things Foucault discusses Velázquez's Las Meninas as a culmination of the classical episteme in painting.  Here, we take the position of the sovereign: the mirror in the back reflects the images of King Philip IV and Queen Maria Anna — and we, as viewers, soon realize that we stand, quite literally, in the place of the sovereign.  We command the creation of pictorial space, since Velázquez paints himself here as someone who is in the process of painting a commissioned portrait of us (the little girl is visiting us while we sit for this portrait).  We are also, by virtue of the mirror with our reflections in it, at the center of pictorial space.  And, most importantly, we are in the privileged place of the spectator for whom all of the visual elements are ordered and displayed.  There's a lot going on in Velázquez's painting but, among other things, Las Meninas is a comment on the nature of pictorial space, and on the privilege granted to the viewer of single-point perspective representational paintings.  In this kind of painting, we, the viewers, are kings, and gaze with mastery over all we survey.

There's a long, slow breakdown of the classical episteme, and many of our cultural landmarks are both symptoms and causes, of that breakdown.  Consider Isaac Newton's Principia: Newtonian space is a far more potent challenge to the classical episteme than Galileo's decentering of the earth in favor of the sun ever was.  If space is the neutral, ever-extending field Newton theorized, it lacks a center, and therefore is impossible to hierarchize: every point is as significant as every other point.  Or consider Voltaire's "Micromégas," a story in which a centuries-old, 20,000 foot tall creature from an enormous planet orbiting Sirius visits the earth, along with his 6,000 foot companion from Saturn.  Their contempt for the tiny inhabitants of our planet, and the philosophical reflections that stem from differences of scale in space and time serve to displace our sense of our own centrality and sovereignty.  A more familiar example of the relativizing of our perspectives and values comes in Swift's Gulliver's Travels, which helps spell the death knell for the theology and political thought of the classical episteme—even though Swift himself was none too happy about the decline of the old values.

But I digress.  This is about Cubism.  And one thing that Cubism does is to displace the viewer from the privileged space he occupied during the classical episteme.  Whether it's a matter of presenting a profile view with both eyes visible as if in a frontal view, or a matter of representing the many different planes that might form the entry point into a painting, Cubist paintings find ways of not letting you assume a steady place from which the represented objects can be seen clearly.  In the Cubist world, we're no longer able to see from a position of sovereignty and command: we're no longer that important.  What is more, we're forced to confront the fact that it is not possible to survey the world from a vantage point that makes everything available to us.  Every imaginable perspective is partial, every perspective leaves something out.  Things in themselves are visible to us only in bits and pieces, in stolen glances.  Cubism denies Matthew Arnold's old ideal "to see life steadily and see it whole," and asserts something more like what E.M. Forster asserts when, in Howards End, he tells us "it is impossible to see modern life steadily and see it whole."  We can, like Forster's Mr. Wilcox, see it steadily but in a very limited fashion, or we can, like Forster's Margaret, see it whole.  Cubism is a kind of Margaret, offering the whole only by shaking it up into bits, and placing us in an unsteady position.

To understand painting of the classical episteme, we could stand in a position of sovereignty and command a view of the objects before us.  To understand Cubism, we have to stop asking what's been put into the picture, and start asking where the picture puts us.  ​

Saturday, May 03, 2014

The Poets' Prize: Notes on Finalists Michael Collier and Albert Goldbarth

The Roerich Museum, where the ceremony took place.

I'm back from New York, where I was very happy to play a small part in this year's Poets' Prize ceremony.  Among other things, it was very good to finally meet R.S. Gwynn face to face—he's the poet I'd known longest online without actually meeting, and I'm hoping to write something about his fine, witty new book Dog Watch soon.

Although I was under the weather and presented a somewhat muted, sweaty, trembly figure, I managed to make my way to the lectern at the Roerich Museum and deliver a few remarks on two of the finalists for the award, Michael Collier and Albert Goldbarth.  Here's what I had to say.


It falls to me to say a few words about two of this year's finalists for the Poets' Prize, Michael Collier and Albert Goldbarth.  Both are so distinguished that I feel I could only do them justice by reciting their titles and honors, in the manner of a bard of the dark ages singing out the praises of a King of Wessex.

Michael Collier – director of the Bread Loaf Conference, Professor at the University of Maryland and former poet laureate of that state, Guggenheim Fellow, N.E.A. fellow, Pushcart Prize winner, recipient of other honors too numerous to list, and author of a half dozen books of poetry, one of which, The Ledge, from 2000, was a finalist for both the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award!  Michael Collier, author of Make Us Wave Back: Essays on Poetry and Influence, and author of a translation of Euripedes' Medea — a translation that puts the force and horror back into the language of the old Greek master.  When the critic James Longenbach described Collier's imagination as populated with a "sinister and yet oddly comic cast of misfits, ogres and giants" he was speaking of Collier's poetry, but the statement could just as well apply to Collier's choice of translation project or, for that matter, his essays on poetic influence, a subject rife with ogres and giants.

Many have described Collier's poems in terms of their loving, careful, and sometimes uncanny description of physical things, and there is a sense in which Collier follows the great dictum of William Carlos Williams, "no ideas but in things."  Indeed, Collier's own comment about the great, mad Romantic John Clare pertains as much to his own poetry as to Clare's: "Clare pays kind of scrupulous attention to the world, that the world itself kept him alive and whole, the particularity of the world… there's no one who's described a nest or a burrow the way that Clare has. And then also the other thing about Clare, and this goes along with the sort of purity of response in him, is the humility you feel and the way in which he praises the world for its beauty and powerful simplicity."

But we mustn't let the truth of this cloud out the range of Collier's achievement.  One of his most important accomplishments is the way he gracefully interweaves personal experience or family connections with a larger, less private world—a world of history and, in a subtle way, politics.  Nowhere does he manage this more deftly than in the title poem of the volume that made him a finalist for the Poets' Prize, An Individual History:

This was before the time of lithium and Zoloft
before mood stabilizers and anxiolytics
and almost all the psychotropic drugs, but not before thorazine,
which the suicide O'Laughlin called "handcuffs for the mind."
It was before, during, and after the time of atomic fallout,
Auschwitz, the Nakba, DDT, and you could take water cures,
find solace in quarantines, participate in shunnings,
or stand at Lourdes among the canes and crutches.
It was when the March of Time kept taking off its boots.
Fridays when families prayed the Living Rosary
to neutralize communists with prayer.
When electroshock was electrocution
and hammers recognized the purpose of a nail.
And so, if you were as crazy as my maternal grandmother was then
you might make the pilgrimage she did through the wards
of state and private institutions,
and make of your own body a nail for pounding, its head
sunk past quagmires, coups d'etat, and disappearances
and in this way find a place in history
among the detained and unparoled, an individual like her,
though hidden by an epoch of lean notation -- "Marked
Parkinsonian tremor," "Chronic paranoid type" --
a time when the animal slowed by its fate
was excited to catch a glimpse of its tail
or feel through her skin the dulled-over joy
when for a moment her hands were still.


Albert Goldbarth, too, weaves the personal and the historical together—along with the scientific, the mystical, the demotic, the mythological, the quotidian, the remote, the comic, and (to hijack the title of one of Goldbarth's books) the kitchen sink. Despite, or perhaps because, of all this variety, Goldbarth's voice remains singular and eminently recognizable.  Eric McHenry, writing for Slate magazine, understood the nature of Goldbarth's singularity when he wrote that "What distinguishes most contemporary poetry from prose isn't meter or rhyme or even line breaks, but a self-conscious spareness and a slightly arch or elevated diction.  An Albert Goldbarth poem, by contrast, is wacky, talky, and fat."  Corpulence, in an age of bulimia, is no vice, and readers have been appreciative: Goldbarth has won the Theodore Roethke prize, an N.E.A. fellowship, a Guggenheim fellowship, the Mark Twain Award for Humorous Poetry, and he is the only poet to receive the National Book Critics Cricle Prize twice.  Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at the University of Wichita, he has written 25 full-length books of poetry as well as many chapbooks, a novel, and five collections of essays, one of which, Many Circles, won the PEN West Creative Nonfiction Prize.

For all of its wide-ranging talkiness and its elegant leaping from astronomy to zoology, Goldbarth's poetry, like Collier's, maintains a loving attention to the particular, an attention best explained by Goldbarth himself, when he says "It's not my place to define the job of poetry, but a lot of my poems do try to serve as memorials, as segments of frozen time that save people or cultural moments that have otherwise passed away or are in danger of passing away."  We get a taste of this love, even reverence, for the transient and particular in an uncharacteristically short poem of Goldbarth's called "How Simile Works," which I offer not because it is new, but because it is one of the first poems of Goldbarth's with which I fell in love:

The drizzle-slicked cobblestone alleys
of some city;
             and the brickwork back
of the lumbering Galapagos tortoise
they'd set me astride, at the "petting zoo"....
The taste of our squabble still in my mouth
 the next day;
            and the brackish puddles sectioning
 the street one morning after a storm....
So poetry configures its comparisons.
My wife and I have been arguing; now
I'm telling her a childhood reminiscence,
stroking her back, her naked back that was
the particles in the heart of a star and will be
again, and is hers, and is like nothing
else, and is like the components of everything.

Michael Collier and Albert Goldbarth are fine poets, and it is an honor to name them here tonight.


Naomi Replansky was the other runner-up for the prize.  At age 94, she attended and read wonderfully and in strong voice.  This year's prize went to George Green.