Thursday, November 07, 2002

In a footnote on Halloween, I wrote that “it seems unlikely” that Jack Spicer “would have heard of” the fictive literary figure Ern Malley. This brought the following note from Kevin Killian:


Hi Ron,

I'm not sure this changes your point much, but I know you'll be glad to know that further research indicates that Jack Spicer was indeed aware of the Ern Malley/"Angry Penguins" affair, and that indeed he came up with a plan to imitate the hoaxers in a variety of US magazines some 20 years before the Book of Magazine Verse. I don't want to blow all the surprises, but the next issue of the new Bay Area magazine 26 will publish an article by me and Lew (Ellingham) which grows out of our recent interview with Barbara Nicholls, a woman who now lives in Eugene (Oregon) but who once was part of the so-called "Berkeley Renaissance." She got in touch with us some time after our biography was published and offered to fill in some of the gaps. Last year she came to the Bay Area where we met her and got the entire scoop. It's a pretty good article and well, to make a long story short, Spicer's post Ern-Malley hoax involved an ambitious scheme to spoof New Critical practice by elevating the works of Gene Stratton Porter to canonical status.* Largely forgotten today, Gene Stratton Porter was a photographer, naturalist, novelist and mini-mogul . . . her novels were romantic fantasies of mankind versus Mother Nature and included Freckles and The Girl of the Limberlost. She died in a tragic Frida-Kahlo-like trolley accident in Los Angeles in the 1920s. Hope you find this of some use. xxx

Kevin K.

* Some Gene Stratton Porter links:

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Wednesday, November 06, 2002

I was reading an Allen Curnow poem from the early 1960s, “A Small Room with Large Windows,”* when the prosody of its fourth section struck me:

A kingfisher’s naked arc alight
Upon a dead stick in the mud
A scarlet geranium wild on a wet bank
A man stepping it out in the near distance
With a dog and a bag
                                        on a spit of shell
On a wire in a mist
                                    a gannet impacting
Explode a dozen diverse dullnesses
Like a burst of accurate fire.

This passage, by no means Curnow’s best, stood out in contrast to the section immediately preceding, which carried an AABBCC… rhyme scheme, a relatively rare occurrence for the late New Zealand poet. I like the prosody here, even if words such as “naked” & “dead” in the first two lines appear to have been inserted solely for the sake of sound. I can hear it – the music of this passage reaches me just fine.

Which reminded me of how seldom this is the case for me with poets from English-speaking countries other than the United States. With the very notable exception of Basil Bunting, I find there to have been shockingly few poets from the old Commonwealth on either side of the equator whose work I would characterize as having a strong ear. More often than not, I can’t hear it at all, not even in Hopkins’ so-called sprung rhythms. Whatever the other values the poem might propose – & often enough they are many – the prosody of so much non-Yank Anglophone verse strikes me as jumbled, prosaic, “a dozen diverse dullnesses.”

There are of course exceptions, but I notice how many of them are poets who seem to have taken a particular interest in the American tradition of poetry – Tom Raworth, Thomas A. Clark, Fred Wah, Jill Jones, Lee Harwood, Gerry Shikatani. Yet the whole idea of poetry’s relationship to spoken English – & through speech to sound – is one that invariably leads back to Wordsworth & Coleridge. This makes me wonder if there isn’t some disability within me that just can’t hear it, whatever “it” might in this instance be, rather like the Kansan watching a British film with North Country accents who longs for subtitles.

I also wonder if there isn’t something specific about U.S. verse & its history that isn’t turned toward sound & might not be peculiarly tuned to the tones & rhythms of speech – at least of American dialects. While Whitman clearly had some desire to relate his writing to speech, Dickinson had a more charged push-pull relationship towards the possibility. In fact, the often intrusive editing that her work received can be viewed as an attempt to normalize her poetry on a model more identifiable as speech. Pound & Stein likewise bring their own strong sense of melopoiea to the party, though incommensurate with one another’s. Where Stein often seeks a cubism of the ear, Pound’s remarkable prosody turns on a wide range of models, from Beowulf to the Bible, proposing speech as such usually as satire:

“an’ doan you think he chop an’ change all the time
stubborn az a mule, sah, stubborn as a MULE,
got th’ eastern idea about money”

Something Josephine Miles once said to David Melnick & myself jumps out at me here. Recalling William Carlos Williams’ poetry in the 1930s & ‘40s, she noted that she could not – these were her words – “hear him,” she and her friends had no idea how to read those texts that today seem so self-evidently the paradigm for spoken English. The very features of his verse that today seem so obvious as to be boring – a level of acceptance that has come to hurt Williams’ reputation – were in fact impenetrably opaque not that long ago.

In fact, in spite of his own critical comments, these features may have been somewhat opaque to Williams as well. Robert Creeley, one of the first to recognize Williams’ poetry as an apotheosis of transcribed speech, has commented on how surprised he was to discover that Williams himself did not respect his linebreaks when reading the poems in public.

Olson in theory took care of that. With the Projectivists proposing a hard or rigorous version & the New York School and the Beats offering “soft” ones, U.S. poets from the 1960s onward have had a ready toolkit available for what speech might look like translated into line & stanza. & for the past 20-odd years, these have been supplemented by a variety of post-avant text strategies intended to problematize a too simplistic one-to-one correlation, ranging from sound poetry at one extreme to visual poetics at another.** What these various interventions have not done is to add significantly to the prosodic vocabulary of the poem.*** The number & potential combination of sounds in English is not infinite, even though the number of possible meanings & utterances is. Thus the elaboration and expansion of poetic forms over the past 30 years, impressive as it has been, has not been accompanied by much in the way of a new cadence.

The limits of prosody are a major motivator behind the technological augmentation of poetry, substituting a divergence in lieu of an advance. To paraphrase Robert Grenier, all technologies say the same thing: hummmm. The margins of poetry have been littered with attempts at expanding the terrain of verse at least since Hugo Ball and the Russian zaum poets aimed at writing beyond language, but to date no one seems to have noticed that such projects age at an accelerated rate, moving from startling to quaint in something less than 30 years. This difficulty is not coincidental and promises only to get worse the more closely it attaches itself to Moore’s Law.+

A by-product of this phenomenon is that books that do think seriously about the question of poetic sound, such as Charles Bernstein’s Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word (Oxford, 1998) or Stephen Ratcliffe’s particularly excellent Listening to Reading (SUNY, 2000), have yet to tackle the problem of prosody as it impacts the relative impenetrability of different variants of English. It may be easy enough, outside of Boontling, Gullah or Hawaiian pidgin, to envision American English as one language, but the minute you cross national borders it patently is a problem of another order, a larger & radically different context. In Close Listening, the essays that do focus on the poetics of specific communities do so in terms that are more social than linguistic, with the pointed exception of Dennis Tedlock’s “Toward a Poetics of Polyphony and Translatability.” Nick Piombino, Marjorie Perloff and Bruce Andrews all consider the role of sound within different sectors of the U.S. poetry community, but nobody appears able to consider the possibility that a poem by Tom Raworth or Allen Curnow, might mean something quite different in Oxford, UK, at the Kootenay School of Writing in Vancouver, at New College in San Francisco’s Mission District, at the Iowa Writers Workshop, in Algiers, Louisiana, or at the Northern tip of the Southern island of New Zealand.

* Early Days Yet: New and Collected Poems, 1941-1997 (Auckland University Press, 1997), pp. 177-178.

** “Who would have thought that fewer than forty years after Olson celebrated the ‘LINE’ as the embodiment of the breath, the signifier of the heart, the line would be perceived as a boundary, a confining border, a form of packaging?” Marjorie Perloff, “After Free Verse,” in Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, edited by Charles Bernstein (Oxford, 1998), p. 99. But that was exactly the condition that created this reaction.

*** The two writers who perhaps represent the most aggressive attempts to expand prosody would probably be Ted Enslin with his endless (or very nearly so) variations on the line in his long works from the 1970s and, somewhat more recently, Clark Coolidge, whose sense of jazz rhythm, from bebop to pomo, clearly informs his sense of line and stanza.

+ In this sense, the move away from something that is simply “the verse print bred” that makes the most sense to me are Grenier’s hand-lettered scrawl works.

Tuesday, November 05, 2002

NB: Tom Devaney tells me that the next-to-last item among the poetry links of his below ( actually is an unsigned review of a single poem, written by Erik Sweet. It’s still very cool and worth reading.
Hearing Ange Mlinko at La Tazza, a cavern of a tavern with a modicum of food on Chestnut off Second in Philadelphia. I know Mlinko’s work only from little magazines and things I’ve seen on the web.* I don't already know the poems she is reading & in any event she's not reading from a book, but rather from loose sheets of paper neatly grouped, voice soft, just modulated enough, the pieces short, lively - no clichés even as a device - I decide almost instantly that I like the juxtapositions in this 'continuous nerve movie.' What if the names O'Hara, Koch, Gizzi (M., not P.) had not been mentioned in the introduction: would I have heard echoes? But in fact I don't hear them even now. What I do hear is intelligence & wit in ample doses – Mlinko's 'voice' is completely distinct. One of the poems she reads is “The Men”:

Like that lion on the stamp of the
New York Public Library! Is it Astor,
Lenox and Tilden in composite? Like an ascot
blending with swept-back locks
away from the arch of the half-closed eye!
In the fact of a whole head in its halo of motto,
like a coin, is it the final pursuit of such men
to stock a library with rare books
on a marble avenue, with an exhibit
this go-round of “utopias”, an inevitable
speculation with the bums & the rich
brothers in desultoriness studying
Jefferson’s handwriting in a fair copy
of the Declaration of Independence?

Ice grips the steps of stopped hands.
Violin wood of the reading room,
violet snow in the window.

You said you loved a photocopied book
like a keeper of mysteries, like a visitor
to libraries, under the hieroglyph
of light rays

                   or the trompe l’oeil skylight
of perpetual sunset (or dawn?)
                                       It zipped
along the wool blanket with flashes
lighting up the dark. They gathered into
a tooth that nipped when I reached out
of a repetitive dream.
                             “Come to bed,” I said.
“No, why don’t you sit up with me awhile?
The mountebank insomnia has me.”

You called me to the window to see a man
hail a cab. Had a hand in the writing
of the Russian constitution.

        A gratuity,
and aren’t I a connoisseur?

I don’t hear those exclamation points in her reading of this piece. I do hear this extraordinary ear:

Ice grips the steps of stopped hands.
Violin wood of the reading room,
violet snow in the window.
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I resolve that I have to read more of her poems on the page when I can. There is a book I believe from the defunct Zoland, but I don’t know if one can find copies now. “One more sad one” Mlinko says with a smile. It doesn't sound sad at all.

Tom Devaney's poetry has a social edge**, but isn't political in the narrow sense. If anything, it’s as personal as Mlinko’s, although I suspect that what either of them would mean by that term would turn out to be quite different. The contrast with Mlinko at La Tazza works to everyone’s benefit, as if each maximizes the ability of the audience to hear the distinctness of the other. It’s a happy event in the history of curating poetry.

Devaney is one of the most visible presences on the Philadelphia scene, currently employed as the program coordinator at Kelly Writers House. A man of broad interests, Devaney was a moving force in setting up the Carl Rakosi webcast this past week & he is the sort of poet who can appear in Jacket and APR both. I’ve spoken to him on numerous occasions & always find him with something interesting & pertinent to say, but before this reading I’ve only seen works in mags, so in a sense I am side a new side of him here also for the first time. Formerly a resident of Brooklyn, Devaney very much reads at La Tazza as “the local,”*** dedicating a poem to Don Riggs at the bar, selecting works with Philadelphia references. One of the poem he reads is “A Free-for-All Ends at A.C. Airport,” which first ran not in a literary magazine but in the daily newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer:

"The airport parking lot was known as a free-for-all where tow trucks routinely had to sort out the parked at all angles,...often with no discernible ingress and egress."

New Jersey is the greatest poem never written.
Not an accident, but constant accidental.
Parking space is the central fact to man born in America.
There are several hundred ways not to understand.
Despite the invitation to excess, in A.C.
no bets are placed on the stay-at-home team, Pomona Nomads.
Directions: 1.) Park and lock your car 2.) Fly to Florida for the winter
3.) Remember, there's little reason to think
New Jersey when you're not
there--even if that's where you parked.
Fluxus is the name of the vapors coming off the cinder fields
meeting the black birds as they come in at night.
Before the war, getting a good spot
was what most Americans considered warfare.
The forward function is a maneuver
all novice tow truck drivers like to do for you.
Your delight in pattern and repetition is dropped off
to search a dusty field filled with hundreds of towed cars.
Until you actually say it, unscriptability and New Jersey rhyme.
The State's equilibrium is located elsewhere.
The car alarm. The unison HONK. The techno field jam.
The songs Bruce Springsteen will not write anymore.

* An Ange Mlinko sampler:

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** A Tom Devaney sampler:

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Critical Prose
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Political Prose
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*** Ironic in the sense that Mlinko, who has been active with the St. Marks Poetry Project & lived for a time in Morocco, grew up in the Philadelphia area, part of it in Paoli, the very town in which I live.

Monday, November 04, 2002

David Bromige & New Zealand poet & book dealer Richard Taylor have been discussing the relative value of some of David’s books in the rare book market on the Poetics Listserv. It made me think of the path mapped out by the early Bromige, volumes that I still consider indispensable, but which have become hard to find. The list that follows is not exhaustive. But what matters to me personally is the absolute logic of his journey, as articulate a personal history of the evolution of poetry from the 1960s to the 1980s as has been written.

The Gathering (Buffalo, Sumbooks, 1965). My copy of Bromige’s first book has turned almost unimaginably dark with oxidation, worse even than Wieners’ Hotel Wentley Poems (which is seven years older). The Gathering shows a still-Canadian Bromige moving under the spell of the Projectivists, a consequence of the first Vancouver poetry conference and his friends at the magazine Tish. Published by another Canadian with a strong interest in the New American Poetry, Fred Wah. Bromige already shows the great wit & care for which he will become known, as evidenced by the first line break in the title poem:

Picking mushrooms out of a horse
pasture, evening, seemingly
none when we first look, then
one, a dozen, luck turns or they
grow, youd swear, at the turn of a back –

The Ends of the Earth (Los Angeles, Black Sparrow, 1968). Bromige’s one true Projectivist volume, written while in graduate school at Berkeley, he is already pushing the received formalism of this tendency, mostly with an ear almost perfect in its capacity to make distinctions. Here is the first stanza of “First”:

One aches to know
one fact as axiom
to act. Whatever I do
I die
as you
also at times doubt
the beneficence of the inevitable
Earth-bound as one is.

The work in this volume is what Bromige was writing when I first saw him read with Harvey Bialy in the Albany Public Library Series (the same reading where I was to meet David Melnick while hitch-hiking back to Oakland). I remember being filled with envy at Bromige’s ability to combine the demands of both the sentence & line together like that – and I still am. This is a slender book, especially for Black Sparrow, with just 56 pages, but there are several poems here, in addition to the one cited above, that are among the very best I have ever read: “A Final Mission,” “Weight Less Than the Shadow,” and “Forgets Five.” If Bromige had never written another word after this, he still would have been one of the great poets of the 20th century.

Threads (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1971). This is a more complex & larger book, difficult precisely because Bromige is straining against / struggling with the limits of Projectivism. In retrospect, the most important poems in this volume are among its very shortest, such as “Precept”:

I’ve helped you in the past
Okay, go ahead, help me in the past again

It seems like a wise crack – & at one level that’s exactly what it is – but at its core, Bromige’s poetry is starting to look at the role of logic & its relation to both meaning & syntax. It was only today (after having owned this book for 31 years) that it dawned on me that the other major influence at that first Vancouver shindig besides the Black Mountaineers was of course Spicer & his circle, Spicer being pre-eminently a poet of consciously contradictory logics. If Spicer’s relation to much of the New American Poetry was as its guilty conscience (implying always that “language is not the solution you think it to be”), Threads represents a book in which that same nagging whisper has started to emerge.

Birds of the West (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1973). The exceptionally thick cover of this book has always made it a hard one to handle – you are forced to choose between opening the pages slightly or else breaking the binding. My binding is still intact. Because Birds of the West was distributed more actively in Canada than in the U.S., this book seems not to have had the influence on this side of the border that it warranted. Bromige is continuing to work through the same issues as in Threads, but in a far more relaxed, less anxious fashion. Especially wonderful is the long section of short pieces entitled “The White-Tailed Kite” which begins to approach langpo in rather the same way that Creeley’s Pieces could be said to have done. Also of great interest here is the afterword, “Proofs,” a sensible & insightful assessment of Bromige’s processes as a poet.

Tight Corners & What’s Around Them: Prose & Poems (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1974). Subtitled (being the brief & endless adventures of some pronouns in the sentences of 1972-73). Tight Corners is a book that could seen as documenting the move from Projectivism to langpo, although I don’t think many people recognized it as such at the time. The volume begins with one of Bromige’s finest poems “in the old style,” “They Are Eyes.” But soon, interspersed with these poems, the short prose pieces called “Tight Corners” overtake the text. Each figured in the text with a graphic symbol (roughly ┌) that hovers just to the left of the first letter, these pieces are constructed almost entirely through the syllogistic connections of a disruptive sense of logic, sort of Frege as rewritten by Lenny Bruce:

Faceless Fussduck put away his dry revolver. The closet was wet.

As the title of the book suggests, Tight Corners is obsessed with the connections between things & the possibility of altering direction (a process that at a  line “break” is called “verse”) while in motion. This will be Bromige’s last large collection of new work for six years.*

My Poetry (Berkeley: The Figures, 1980). One of the masterworks of poetry – there is not a single false move in its 98 pages (nor in the 99th, “My Palaver,” a poem that gently parodies the various notes & dedications Bromige has been using ever since The Ends of the Earth). Picking it up is, for me, an experience not unlike holding a copy of Sgt. Pepper or Highway 61 Revisited. This book as a whole is very much like a symphony, carefully executed. After the initial title piece, a mock review of his own poetic past taken in part from seriously transformed versions of real reviews, Bromige proceeds with “Six of One, Half-a-Dozen of the Other,” a reprinting of seven of his better known poems, each paired with a discussion, halfway between a memoir & a critical unpacking, of each. The echo of Jack Spicer’s “Homage to Creeley,” from After Lorca, but with Bromige having turned the prose on its edge in utter seriousness (or such as Bromige’s irrepressible wit can commit). The third section contains four poems in a “new” mode. The first, “Our Tongues,” turns Projectivism on its head, right side up, a prose poem that discusses the organ of speech ranging from neomedical physical description to comic “how to” instruction. This section takes its title from the second piece, “An American Heritage History,” a long, skinny (3 columns to the page to underscore the point) piece, perhaps what you might expect if Ted Berrigan had happened to write one of the middle sections of Zukofsky’s “A.” The third piece, “Authority,” is Oulipudlian in its impulses – two of its five sections only use words beginning with “a.” The fourth piece, “One Spring,” is one of Bromige’s most famous works, a long, luxurious détournement taken entirely from language lifted from the local newspaper over a season. The next section of the book is a series of seven works, including a reasonably straightforward “torture poem” intended to be read at political occasions, the previously published “Credences of Winter,” and a delightful & daft play whose eight speakers include istorian, aspirant, objectist, anthony abstract, one more authentic voice, love poet, chainsaw jack and I. Speakes. After the play comes what might best be called a short story, although it occupies that middle space that is neither story nor poem exactly but both, then a prose poem, “By Visible Truh We Mean the Apprehension of the Absolute Condition of Present Things,” that I included in the critical “Second Front” section of In the American Tree, and finally two more prose pieces, “My Career” & “My Plan” that are from the same series that the title poem (& the afterword) were also taken.** Finally, Bromige closes with “Hieratics: A Triptych,” which, tellingly enough, is in five parts numbered 0 – 4. A prose poem with a sense for overall surface texture – I don’t think it can be successfully quoted here – that is as strong in tone as Bromige’s earlier works were in their fabulous push-pull between sentence & line, “Hieratics” perhaps points most clearly to the later work, which is the writing that perhaps today is best known of Bromige’s work.

Many of the poems, from My Poetry & the other early books, can be found in Desire, the 1988 Western States Book Award volume from Black Sparrow, but not in the same order. And not in the same order means not as part of the same evolving literary narrative as the earlier books themselves articulated. For example, one finds “Hieractics,” but not “One Spring” or “My Poetry,” nor is extraordinary sense of occasion that was My Poetry available through a selected, any more than one can grasp the full import of Williams’ Spring & All from the poems printed in Williams’ Collected.

Only 650 copies of My Poetry were ever produced, in spite of the lush Francie Shaw cover that suggests to my eye a much larger printing. Only three copies are available through abebooks, the website for rare and used books. The same site currently shows seven copies available of The Gathering, 15 of The Ends of the Earth, eight for Birds of the West. These are among the treasures of our literary heritage and, as a group, an essential collection for the history of writing.

* There is, during this period, a selected, Ten Years in the Making, which is typed rather than typeset but which includes two dozen otherwise uncollected pieces; plus some smaller items, such as Three Stories, Out of My Hands and Credences of Winter, all chapbooks from Black Sparrow; a slightly larger collection Spells and Blessings from Talonbooks that I’ve never seen; a collection of songs written with Barry Gifford & Paul DeBarros, also something I’ve never seen.

** That section of this series turn up in different places, to different effect, within My Poetry is characteristic of Bromige’s approach to his work. My only complaint about this book is that it failed to include my personal favorite of the “My” works, one with a curious title I recall as “Glurk.”

Sunday, November 03, 2002

There may be antecedents to the abstract lyric in English before Barbara Guest – I would point to Gertrude Stein, to David Schubert, Edwin Denby or F. T. Prince & of course to the John Ashbery of Tennis Court Oath – but it is in the poetry of Barbara Guest that the form really comes into focus.


By abstract lyric I mean a poem that functions as a lyric, bounded by modest scale and focused on the elements within. Not all short poems are lyrics – the intense social satires & commentaries of Rae Armantrout, for example, are only incidentally lyrical, if that. Lyric in her case is a feint or strategy, but is very seldom what is actually going on within the poem.


Guest’s poems by comparison are as closed as sonnets or as the sequences of short pieces, say, of Clark Coolidge. But where Coolidge’s works revel in the sometimes raucous prosody of his intensely inventive ear, Guest’s return the reader again & again to the word and its integration into a phrase, to a phrase and its integration into a line, to a line and its integration into a stanza or strophe.


At her best, as in the poem “Defensive Rapture,” Guests paints a tonal language that tends toward aural pastels, constructed around points of contrast. Each stanza is exactly one sentence, in that it is bounded by a terminal period. Consider:


stilled grain of equinox
turbulence the domicile
host robed arm white
crackled motives.


What organizes this quatrain is how that third line deploys only one-syllable words, three of which end with a consonant of closure. It is precisely the prosodic complexity of the multi-syllabic terms elsewhere that generates the stanza’s “turbulence,” felt precisely because of their contrast with this penultimate line. Guest accentuates the difference with the marvelous crackled, which does in fact characterize exactly this strophe’s “motives.”


“Defensive Rapture” consists of 12 such quatrains, each with its own internal demands and resolution. A lot of where Guest is heading and focuses can be analyzed by counting syllables. Thus


commends internal habitude
bush the roof
day stare gliding
double measures.


could be schematized as




The busy-ness of that first line, accentuated visually by its length, is offset by the stillness of the second – not one single-syllable word in the stanza ends on a hard consonant* – which expands in the third line with its two alternate “a” sounds in the first two words, aurally “gliding” into that last term, which returns us to two-syllable words, the last line almost physically demonstrating how strong Guest’s instinct for balance & closure are.


When one looks at the women writers who are just one age cohort younger than those collected by Mary Margaret Sloan in Moving Borders (Talisman House, 998), one sees quickly that Barbara Guest has become the single most powerful influence on new writing by women in the U.S. My own instincts in poetry carry me away from, rather than toward, stillness and I’m often wary of writing that strikes me as so – to borrow Louis Cabri’s term from another context – asocial, but it is impossible deny to the extraordinary skill & intelligence which Guest brings to everything she writes.



* Indeed, the use of soft & complex consonant combinations – sh, th, f – carries its own elegance here, with the first and last coming at word’s end, with the middle one up front.

Saturday, November 02, 2002

“What about all this writing?”
 WCW, 1923


When I wrote on Wednesday that

when one refers to Carl Rakosi as an Objectivist, or of Spicer as writer from the San Francisco (nee Berkeley) Renaissance, one needs to ask further: which Objectivism, which renaissance? The Objectivism of 1931 was a far cry from that of 1945, let alone 1965 or even as recently as 1985. If Objectivism (or modernism, or language poetry, the New York School or what have you) is perceived as a continuous & relatively fixed set of values, then it has become a map unanchored from the territory to which it ostensibly refers.

Which is why it is not possible to write language poetry in 2002.

Kent Johnson replied with this question:


Isn't the crucial difference of Langpo – historically specific as its "original moment" was (late 70's-80's?*) – that it set down a kind of critical map its topographers did envision (in those early years of Discovery, so to speak) as a guide by which future poets might set their course? The other formations you mention never created such a determined and forward-looking atlas of theory. So the analogy you so decisively draw at the end there makes one ask: Is it any wonder Language poetry is "felt" by younger poets today in ways that you, for example, never "felt" those loose and much less theory-specific poetic groupings pre-Langpo?


Which in turn presumes that langpo is thus “felt” in such ways, which I’m not at all certain is the case, given just how intensely everyone I hung out with in the 1960s used to puzzle over every single statement we could find by Olson, Creeley, Ginsberg, Duncan, Kerouac, Dorn, Jones, Sorrentino, Kelly, Eshleman & others. (David Bromige & I once got into an argument with Denise Levertov, during one of her classes at Berkeley circa 1970 where we’d been invited to read to her students, over her interpretation of the length of a pause at the end of a line being one-half that of a pause for a comma – we were both convinced that the theory called for a heavier pause at a line break than for any internal punctuation other than a period. The idea that our elders might not actually have a consensus on this seemed all but intolerable.**)


The other half of Kent’s question suggests that there was/is a qualitative difference between language poetry and “loose and much less theory-specific poetic groupings.” The difference, as I read this question, would be “that it did set down a kind of critical map its topographers did envision . . . as a guide by which future poets might set their course.” If, by that, Johnson intends some sort of a prescriptive model – “do this, don’t do that” – then I think the presumption fails. I see zero consensus on the part of those writers normally associated with the langpo label as to “what is to be done” long term vis-a-vis poetry or society (the latter being the more complex part of that equation). Nor, for that matter, can I think of a major langpo critical piece that is more prescriptive in its manner & tone than, say, Olson’s “Projective Verse” or Zukofsky’s “An Objective” (“The need for standards in poetry is no less than in science”) let alone the over-the-top teaching tone offered by Stein or Pound. Part of what makes Robert Grenier’s “On Speech” & his other essays in This 1 stand out so within the history of langpo lies precisely in that old Biblical tone: “’PROJECTIVE VERSE’ IS PIECES ON,” referring to Creeley’s book that had proven scandalous precisely for the ways it had deployed language outside of the speech paradigm.


Rather, what I see – & I will happily concede that my perspective here is both “privileged” & partisan – is that several (not all) of the writers associated with the term language poetry saw a role for critical discourse itself that differed from the one that confronted prior literary formations.*** Gone, for example, was any defensive need for stylistic markers segregating it as discourse from, say, the institutionally territorial activities of the so-called New Critics, a problem that bedeviled many of the New Americans.+ The New Critics were (are) irrelevant as literary theory, even if they had an important social role at a specific historical juncture in American letters – roughly 1935-55.


Two other phenomena beyond the narrow boundaries of U.S. poetry were also in play in 1970 that were markedly different than the situation that had confronted the New Americans. First, the initial wave of critical theory from Europe was creating an enormous amount of intellectual frisson in the U.S. Everything from Western Marxism to structuralism (&, to a far lesser extent, post-structuralism) to Lacanian analysis went into the mix. This new wave of theory also had the unique historical advantage in the earliest 1970s of having not yet been reduced into normative academic behavior by the good folks at Duke or elsewhere.


Second, feminism, the gay rights movement & some aspects of the black power movement demonstrated the potential power of individuals & groups actively discussing the relevant issues of the lives of their participants. This contrasted dramatically with the situation around the Pound/Williams tradition generally & the New Americans specifically. Forms of academic malpractice, such as M.L. Rosenthal’s construct of “confessional poetry” attempted to invent a level of interest & complexity for the work of certain writers – Sexton, Lowell et al – by yoking them to the visibly exhilarating work being done by the likes of Allen Ginsberg.++  Similarly, Pound scholars of that period evaded the “Mussolini problem” by simply not investigating it. Far from helping Pound, the conversion of fascism into an invisible 500-pound elephant distorted all discussions of his work, a circumstance from which his poetry has not yet fully recovered.


What seemed most clear, in the early 1970s, was that there were an enormous number of possible discussions to have about poetry – this Blog suggests that the number has not dwindled – and that there were obvious benefits to be had if it were poets themselves who had these discussions, rather than leaving them to even the most well-intended of critics.


If this constitutes a “kind of critical map,” as Kent puts it, there would seem to be four possible vectors, one turned toward the past, tracing all the possible routes of how we got wherever we are, a second trying to figure out where it is we have arrived, a third turned toward the future – “where to go & how to get there” – and a fourth focused on traveling as a process. A great deal of the critical writing associated with langpo appears to me as related to the first vector: think of Watten’s great essay Crane & Eigner in Total Syntax. A good deal of energy has also gone into the second vector, although less than has been devoted to the first. Little if any energy has gone into the third. But virtually all critical writing by poets, not just of the langpo brand, can be read as a demonstration of method, “how to improve.” If there is a value to other communities of all this critical fulmination, it is to be found in this last dimension: in the idea that poets conversing about their common interests & enthusiasms, their problems & aversions, will ultimately add up & push thinking to further insights.





* A periodization of language poetry would be an interesting project, given that I’ve always thought of it as a moment, not a movement. The shorthand version I tend to keep in my head is this:


§         A period of “anticipatory” phenomena (e.g., 0-9, the journal edited by Bernadette Mayer with Vito Acconci; Aram Saroyan’s minimalist period; John Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath; Clark Coolidge’s first short abstractions; Joglars, the journal edited by Coolidge with Michael Palmer; Robert Grenier’s Dusk Road Games) all in the late 1960s

§         The formative period around This 1970-73, carried out variously in Berkeley, Iowa City & Franconia, NH (Tottels would fit in here as would the Coolidge issue of Margins), lot of intense conversations among many key players

§         A middle period with increasing numbers of people gathering first in SF-Berkeley, then in NY, phenomena like the Grand Piano poetry series, the emergence of talks, journals such as Hills, Streets & Roads, A Hundred Posters, Roof, Kit Robinson & Erica Hunt’s KPFA radio program In the American Tree, the poets-&-performance artists series at The Farm in SF, the first collective presentation in Alcheringa, the emergence of publishers including The Figures & Tuumba, roughly 1974-78 – this was the period of the greatest activity & intensity

§         A late period of much broader public response, the keys being the start-up of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Tom Mandel’s tenure directing the Poetry Center at San Francisco State, the period of language-bashing gets under way in full force in Poetry Flash, the San Francisco Chronicle, Partisan Review, roughly 1978-1981

§         A moment beyond which langpo was so fully integrated into the broader scene of writing and culture that it becomes functionally meaningless to talk about it as a separate & distinct phenomena – I date this in my own head with the publication of the first issue of Poetics Journal in January 1982. PJ was directed outward to the general culture in a way that none of the earlier publications had been.


** Carl Rakosi’s comment on the Penn webcast that he & Basil Bunting “didn’t get along” would have seemed shocking to me in my twenties. Within a year or so of that argument with Levertov, Duncan would go through a period in which he counted out loud to three after every line break in Passages!


*** Perhaps one-third of the contributors to the anthology In the American Tree have produced substantial amounts of critical &/or theoretical writing. But two-thirds have not. I would argue that it is a mistake to privilege those poets who produce critical writing over those who do not.


+ Scar tissue that was duly marked whenever an older poet argued that langpo was but New Criticism with a human face.


++ Eliot Weinberger falls for this line when he claims that “Lowell considered himself a Poundian; he loved WCW; everyone remembers his famous ‘raw and the cooked’ as referring to him and Ginsberg, but in fact, RL thought he was one of the ‘raw,’ compared to Wilbur etc.”

Friday, November 01, 2002

A correspondence rather in the Open Letter tradition on the “Canadian/New York School Question” has sprung up.


Tom Orange:




very interesting exchange on the absence of ted berrigan and the NYS in canadian poetry.


reminds me of a thread that came up on a discussion list stemming from remarks christian bök made a few summers ago when he and natalee caple were in town and i put together a reading for them. amidst the post- reading chit chat christian claimed not to have much knowledge or interest in recent work by american contemporaries like lisa jarnot or anselm berrigan that problematizes the idea of "lyric voice" in their own interesting ways. some folks here found that claim to be problematic, whereas i insisted that while we here may hold lisa and anselm in a certain position of esteem there's no reason to assume that christian is working in a similar position or with a similar set of values -- both lisa and anselm can be seen in fact coming out of a NAP tradition that someone like christian would have very affinity with or use for. additionally, there's the very real matter of the distribution of small press poetry from the states to canada: i can say from experience that without SPD or bridge street mail order it's very difficult and costly to get small press poetry from the states in canada, literally get the books let alone follow what's coming out.


(along these latter lines, it strikes me that one book in the ted berrigan bibliography that would have had the best distribution opportunities in canada wdve been the grove press sonnets.)


so louis' initial responses aren't all that surprising to me. and i think the formula "canpo = NAP - NYS" is interesting as a thought- experiment (and i'd have to think more about louis' compelling notions of "second-order commodification" and metalanguage), but what it gains in immediate intrigue is lost almost as soon as you get into particulars.


to me, the particular figure absent from these discussions of absences, a presence that might be seen filling the NYS/berrigan absence, is bill bissett. born in 1939 (same year as coolidge, two years before grenier, three before padgett and greenwald) in halifax, bissett left the maritimes for vancouver and ran blewointment press from there, though also kept close ties in terms of publishing poetics and friendship with the toronto scene. his work seems to me to combine the countercultural hipness and attention to dailiness of berrigan with a black mountain poetics of speech (more duncan's than anyone else, tho you'd have to substitute duncan's gnostic/heretic mysticism for a kind of free-love pantheism) taken to an orthographic extreme that bleeds directly into the concrete, visual, sound and performance work of the four horseman.


he thus problematizes coastal alignments (toronto-vancouver being homologous, in a pretty loose sense and again with substantial qualifications, to NYC-SF), generations, schools/lineages, and issues of voice, speech and text in ways that are compelling and utterly unique in canada or the states. and in ways that make me wish bissett had a greater readership in the states.






*          *          *


Loui Cabri:




For now let me just say, in relation to bill bissett, whom you raise as a potential example in Canada of NYS influence, that there’s no denying the idiosyncratic and wide-ranging reading lists of individual poets, and the many influences discernible on their work (so for example in the case of bissett, NYS may be one of them); but that to me is beside the point of how to understand the relation of influence, context, and socially-constituted metalanguage formations such as KSW, TRG – and NYS itself (a name obtains at least to a degree of metalingual function). It really comes down to this for me: If you’re in Calgary, Vancouver, Toronto, whatever, why would you care at all about the poetic expressions of any other city’s “lifestyle,” unless you were a tourist flaneur, especially an expression that is at times (to focus only on the critical for a moment) as self-involved (the word “American” in one of my emails to Ron should have been in quotes), gloriously vain and willfully naive as poetry from the “school” of the City of New York can be?* What saves NYS from such a critical dismissal is the function of the social in its work (but “NYS social” provides, also, its own unique limit). So much of what is great about NYS is the coterie feel, address to friends. Who does it worse than NYS? Who does it better than NYS?


You can make it anytime.


Words, sentences. Suffering


Is not where it’s at, in 1969.


Now, the heart. A breath. Holding back.


Is it necessary to spend long periods of time alone?


Dear friends: you have all been very good to me.


How to remain in 1 place for more than a few minutes.


Bill is snoring. It’s 6 in the morning.


Reading to learn to enjoy yourself.


Please stay where you are at all times.


What you do is draw everything together, Ted.


Reveal the dark side & the bright side too. Don’t


            be afraid to reveal what you’re feeling.


Ron, it’s a good time to be leaving New York.


It’s more difficult not to change than to change.


The problem thinking of you, Anne, is who am


            I thinking of?


----------------is thinking this?


That spells “Release” from Lewis Warsh’s Part of My History (Coach House, 1972) found the other month here in Calgary at one used bookstore for $10 and at another $20.


You don’t get that kind of enacted and taken-for-granted social address to intimates in bissett – instead you get the stretched, still somewhat formalized, “I,” and the political concerns, of NAP. It’s indeed a great “American” thing, NYS’s idea of a democratized coterie (compared to previous European notions of the salon), and is absent up north in part because of the, now I’m ranting, &%!!@#! British influence that NAPoets Davey et al griped about and that is still prevalent in public media (CBC announcers are still too frequently British accented, uniformly – sort of like a series of CBC regional antennae – across the country). bissett is great for reasons separate from the question of NYS.


Instead, in Canada the social is represented as a “concern.” Charles Reznikoff’s techniques of manipulating a historical document is affiliated with a long-standing documentary genre in Canada, and is evident most recently for example in Kevin Connolly’s title poem in Happyland (ECW, 2002), which was “very pointedly inspired by Hilton Obenzinger’s New York on Fire (The Real Comet Press, 1989)” and “published a year before the East Tremont fire,” which the poem is about, “modeled on a Roman Catholic novenario, a nine-day period of prayer preceding an anniversary mass”:




In another city they might have

bulldozed it into the ground.

But this is New York,

the building is still sound,

and the loft craze may yet wind

its way through the Bronx

to Southern and East Tremont,

where the Hondurans used to

dance to Los Gaetos Bravos,

Tito Puente and the Garifuna Kids,

and blue sky about home.


At Happyland the single door

remains boarded, the sign

that smiled over the bodies,

shoulder to shoulder, taken down

the day after, the irony

lost on no one, and with everything

else, too much to take.


There’s even a memorial,

though rarely flowers – most

of the families went home

after the settlement in ’95.

It’s ringed by a high fence,

the names etched

onto a concrete obelisk:

Alvarez, Denny; Alvarez, Hector;

Alvarez, Jose; Benavides, Victor…


From a distance, they resemble

sticks, or the strokes made by sticks

to stand for numbers:

Castro, Janeta; Chavez, Carla;

Colon, Elias – not frightening in

themselves, just rows of names

with a memory looming over them,

an item list, in inverse order:

obelisk, fence, street,

sidewalk, threshold, boarded

door, hallway, stairwell,



Addressing the social in this poem involves structuring and setting a narrative scene. The “item list” of nine narrative elements mirrors the nine sections of the poem – sections which are also structurally presented in reverse order, beginning with section IX and working forwards to section I. The address to the names mentioned in the poem is necessarily moot. The narrator’s knowledge is not owned by any particular person – who knows “where the Hondurans used to / dance”? (The narrator of City Confidential would claim to know...) The implicit and very modest social critique of New York finance capital in Connolly’s poem is nevertheless derived from a traditional metalanguage of what constitutes “a social address.” This metalanguage is not, however, reflexively tied into a specific poetics at the level of form, and the reason is because of a Canadian understanding of “the social.”


That is, I want to convey a sense of how the divide between Warsh and Connolly on the question of how to address the social, and on what scale (from intimate, to omniscient, narrator), is historically shaped by the border.


The only poetic good thing that ever came from Britain to Canada before WWII is socialism in its 30s variant in the work of Earle Birney and a few others connected with the formation (by many Europeans) of the CCF, with a Trotskyist critique of Stalin, and eventually the NDP (these three elements are related). But their poetry – the tradition that Connolly is tapping – is, for all that attention to social address, either direly ornamental in an uninterestingly clarified sense, or else unabashedly conventional in its use of (well-crafted) dramatic narration. That very British influence of the social as in socialism (as distinct from idealist German socialism which prevailed more extensively in the US) prevented modernism from ever establishing itself in Canadian poetry except as decorative stylization (that belated decorativeness, as in F.R. Scott’s imagism, a sign of the important function that Cdn. poetics plays as metalanguage clearinghouse – in critical terms, part of its colonial heritage). There is no equivalent here of “the New York intellectuals” – the closest you get to Partisan Review is Montreal’s Canadian Forum, and that’s a stretch (I mean there is no endorsement whatsoever of “revolution” in form: socialism actually existed in Canada as a social program, and had a tempering effect on word-world homologies).


Circling back to the question I started with, idiosyncratic reading lists and habits, I do think I only read Berrigan in the 90s, and with some difficulty. Ashbery however was one of my first great motivating interests in poetry. I read all of Ashbery right through to his early eighties work, including The Tennis Court Oath and Three Poems, the aforementioned having a tremendous impact on me concerning what poetry could be (as did the devastatingly hilarious spoof in A Nest of Ninnies concerning “Canadian heritage”) – well before I had ever heard of Language Poetry. Actually I did not think of Ashbery as a “New York School Poet,” but read him within the Canadian English/French bicultural divide as someone who, like Hamburger’s translated anthology of surrealist poetry, was reawakening the France-French traditions of Artaud, Roussel and others, including the Surrealists (I was reading these French traditions well before hearing of McCaffery or Nichol).


As to the worldly Christian Bök and his Toronto Oulipoian cohorts, aside from the connection they extend in their work to conceptual art (via McCaffery, Fluxus, etc), their poetic word is stridently a-social. The social is neither enacted “NYS style,” nor represented “Cdn style.” The social as such has been Haussmannized (Brecht considered "asocial" far worse than "antisocial") through their avid absorption in “the new medium” of internet computer forms. That distinctly a-social word results again, to me, from the metalingual inter-border role of Canadian poetics, which can often reduce the social complexity of differing tendencies to their most essential (unreal) terms with success (for example, the role of Oulipo in the literary history of France: there, Oulipo was arguably intended to subvert the role of author as genius, but here, Bök’s reception in particular has been largely in terms of his genius for conceiving a project such as Eunoia and for his seven-year steadfastness at scratching its numbers). A precedent I can think of for the a-social poetic word of the Toronto boysy boys is found in what I call the “inertial word” of Zukofsky’s index (largely of nouns) to ”A” and these words’ roles in the book.





cc Ron, Kevin


* Why NYS caught-on in other areas of the US is another question entirely – and worth exploring. Is that wildfire a form of US regionalism (regionalism needs to operate within a proud national frame)?

*          *          *


Kevin Davies:


I offer here only the abstract-with-footnotes of the argument I would make if I had more time, primary materials, and brain cells:


* The first two generations of the New York School (I will argue another time about why I believe there are _only_ two) have had significant and widespread effects on vanguard Canadian poetry of the past forty years. * These effects are unlikely to be registered at the level of the archive, present-day scholarship, or institutional formation, for reasons that have a lot to do with the nature of the NYS itself. * Only one Canadian poet -- David McFadden(1) -- is unimaginable without the existence of the G1 NYS, but several other poets -- Artie Gold, for instance -- and at least one local formation -- the Vehicule (sp.?) poets of (Anglo) Montreal - were decisively "influenced" by both generations. (I hesitate to use the "I" word for reasons that should be apparent to all of us.) * Though often difficult to disentangle from the various strands of projectivist, SF Renaissance, Beat, (latterly) Langpo, and other forces at play, the work of poets as diverse as George Bowering, Victor Coleman, Christopher Dewdney, Robert Fones,(2) Gerry Gilbert, Alan Davies, Dorothy Lusk Trujillo, Erin Mouré, Peter Culley, Lisa Robertson, and Stephen Cain shows unmistakable markers (stylistic and otherwise) of decisive engagements with the poetry and (implicit) poetics of the NYS. * While I agree that the work of bpNichol and Steve McCaffery can, for the most part, be coherently related only to the Oulipolian fringe/extension of NYS practice,(3) two things need to be noted: -1- the collaborative ethos of their early work has clear precedent in the well-known collaborations of the NYS, and -2- the extreme radicality of _The Tennis Court Oath_ had a powerful influence on the entire English-language avant-garde, and its surface dynamics can be seen in the work of both poets, particularly McCaffery. * Canada, despite being the most urbanized country in the world, is a land of hicks (takes one to know one), and any "influence" of the pseudo-cosmopolitan NYS is likely to be sifted through a hick filter that will obscure its provenance, though it is no less real for all that. * Two poets -- Paul Blackburn and Clark Coolidge -- need to have their positions in relation to the G2 NYS refigured, and when this refiguring is effected the lines of (if not influence, then) relation will highlight different relations to Canpo. * Finally, the poets of NYS, particularly O'Hara, Ashbery, Berrigan, and Mayer, were crucial to the emerging poetry and poetics of _all_ the older members/associates of the Kootenay School of Writing, and their influence (there, I said it without scare quotes) cannot be importantly distinguished from that of early(ish) langpo.(4)




(1) I don't mean to imply that David McFadden would not be a poet without the NYS. He would. His major influences would have been Al Purdy and Irving Layton. He would have hanged himself at the age of 37.


(2) Fones is, I believe, no longer active in poetry, devoting his labours instead to visual art. He was a major poet of the 70s.


(3) At least glimpsed in, for instance, Locus Solus.


(4) Mayer, of course, "invented language poetry." I'll leave her claim alone for now. In my own case, Berrigan was crucial to my education. The first thing of his I read, in the year after high school (while working desultorily at the local mill), was "Tambourine Life," in an anthology at the local community-college library. This event was, I think, similar to what Ron describes when he first encountered The Desert Music: the sense that there was a writing practice that could account for the vagaries and particulars of the life I was living, one that was not tied to the prosody of either the Romantics I adored or the academics I abhorred. Not long after, Peter Culley was writing a long series of "Things to Do in [Nanaimo, Kabul, etc.)" poems, Gerald Creede was poring over Mayer's Studying Hunger and insisting that everyone else do the same, and Dorothy Trujillo was reading everything.


*          *          *


Louis Cabri:


McFadden, of course! I knew there was somebody major overlooked (had thought the other year of pairing McFadden with Luoma, in a PhillyTalk). Already knew, though, I had a myopic view on Canadian poetry: Gold, Fones (as poet) I, the hick, don't know. Are you thinking of Moure's early work, Empire York Street, and Wanted Alive, for instance? All my books are in boxes in Philly, frustratingly, and it's been a long time since I looked at a Vehicule book, but I remember them as performance group orientated. On the rest, would love to read now, including your own work, in view of these questions of NYS influence and of metalanguage. Pause Button already makes more sense just thinking about it from this angle (the social porousness of the "I"). But "influence" is such a bugbear! In my case, no greater set of poets than the Language Ps has "influenced" "me" -- but can or should one "tell" this in the book?