Showing posts with label Cole Swensen. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Cole Swensen. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Cole Swensen


@ Brown, 2013

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


“All conceptual writing is allegorical writing” argue Rob Fitterman & Vanessa Place in Notes on Conceptualisms, a fascinating little book with painfully small type. At the core of Cole Swensen’s Ours, published last year by the University of California Press, is the allegory of the garden, French gardens to be exact, and especially the work of André Le Nôtre (1613-1700), the “father,” to use Swensen’s term for it, “of the French formal garden.” Le Nôtre’s work most famously includes Versailles, as well as Chantilly, Saint-Cloud, Sceaux, Vaux-le-Vicomte & the Tuileries, where he himself was born, the son & grandson of royal gardeners. Le Nôtre, of course, means ours in French, but this isn’t the most important dimension of the pun tucked into the book’s title. Rather it is the logic of the garden, or of a certain type of garden, & the logic of the poem, our art. Or of a certain type of poem, the sort that Cole Swensen might be called upon to write. And beyond that, possession (or at least possessiveness) of the earth itself, such as royalty might imagine to be their “divine right.”

But if all conceptual writing is allegorical, does it then follow that the reverse is also true? If Ours represents a booklength allegory, does this mean that it is a form of conceptual writing? And is Cole Swensen a conceptual poet? As the co-editor of American Hybrid, an anthology that seeks to define a middle path between post-avant & quietist poetics, one might think Swensen exists outside of the flarf vs. conceptual debate, or that her work & vision of poetry in some way precedes it. It’s difficult to imagine the precision of her writing alongside the loud (and knowing) nonsense of Kenneth Goldsmith typing up (or, more likely, scanning in) The New York Times, or the Hugo Ball-meets-Daffy Duck aural pyrotechnics of Christian Bök’s Eunoia, the thinking man’s Mel Blanc.

Like Goldsmith’s work, which makes extraordinary use of facts even as it problematizes that category, Swensen’s poem is obsessed with external detail:

The first orangerie in France was built by Amboise at the end of the 15th century,

but the form reached its height in the 17th

coinciding with what’s called “The Little Ice Age,”

a series of exceptionally cold winters

But where Goldsmith’s work – and to a lesser degree that of Bök & the other poets who are normally (or normatively) implied by the rubric conceptual – strives to demonstrate form without ever being at all “literary,” Swensen is writerly as all get out. Its demonstration of “the literary” is its claim to form. One could write a book about how Swensen uses the line in Ours, and of the balance between prose & verse evident in so many of its sections. That book would be much larger than Ours, and would never be completely equal to its subject. Consider the second of these three lines: The circle of philosophers / in stone; riven by voices, they stand at crossroads; they incite fountains. The voices / grow louder whenever someone lives. A line with not one but four hard stops – Swensen offers the most complex verse line since Olson, but never does so with the wheezing lunge that propels the bard of Gloucester forward like a lemur through a forest’s canopy. The essence of her line is balance, just as his is imbalance. Yet her line here, not unlike so many of his, begins and ends in the middle – there is nothing contained or complete.

Allegorical writing is necessarily inconsistent, containing elaborations, recursions, sub-metaphors, fictive conceits, projections, and guisings that combine and recombine both to create the allegorical whole, and to discursively threaten this wholeness. In this sense, allegory implicates Gödel’s First Incompleteness Theorem: if it is consistent, it is incomplete; if complete, inconsistent.

At which moment Place & Fitterman insert their claim that heads up this note.

All of this is true – in spades – of Swensen’s Ours. Is she therefore a conceptual poet? One might think so, and yet

One might as well argue her role in the history of flarf on the grounds that, long ago & far away, she was Nada Gordon’s junior high school teacher.

Flarf & conceptual poetics have been treated as antitheticals, except where they’re not. In five years (or minutes) no one will remember that they were once imagined to be oppositional, rather than as flavors of a larger investigative poetics. Flarf will discover that conceptualism expands the terrain of writing by valuing the extra-(and anti-) literary, conceptualism will discover that flarf’s ruling framework – “badness” – is an inherently conceptual move.

Hybrid poetry, by definition, brings alternative paths together: Pound’s Mauberly not perceived as satire. The first hybrid poet, almost by design, was Marianne Moore, old friend of Pound, advocate of Williams, but working a day job as editor of The Dial, the magazine that invented “dull” long before Paris Review, Granta or Narrative. Yet there was nothing dull about Moore, just as there is nothing dull about Swensen, C.D. Wright, Ann Lauterbach, Robert Hass, Donna Stonecipher, Forrest Gander or any of the other poets one might today imagine as “hybrids.”

If allegory assumes context, conceptual writing assumes all context. (This may be in the form of an open invitation, such as Dworkin’s Parse, or a closed index, such as Goldsmith’s Day, or a baroque articulation, such as Place’s Dies.) Thus, unlike traditional allegorical writing, conceptual writing must be capable of including unintended pre- or post-textual associations. This abrogates allegory’s (false) simulation of mastery, while remaining faithful to allegory’s (profound) interruption of correspondences. Allegory breaks mimesis via its constellatory features – what scattershot this is. Conceptualism’s mimesis absorbs what Benjamin called “the adorable detail.”

This suggests instead good vs. bad allegory. On the one side are a series of texts that might be called instances of mastery (Ours would be a case in point), on the other a series of texts that approach (indeed seek) unreadability in the name of breaking mimesis. A literature of works that one might have no particular desire to read, not unlike the idea that not everyone will want a urinal in their living room, even if it is signed “R. Mutt.”

Swensen reminds us that the old fashioned approach to extraneous (non-lyrical) data invading the text is called research. Ours sits like an ice flow atop a surface beneath which lies all of her reading & thinking on the subject of gardens. If, in fact, there are “adorable details,” they arrive via selection, precisely what the conceptualist counter-examples listed above seem to call into question.

What is the role of selection in poetry?

When I moved to Pennsylvania in 1995, one of the local phenomena that I had not anticipated was the presence of numerous formal gardens open to the public: Longwood Gardens, Chanticleer, Winterthur down in Delaware. The first & last of these had been homes for the DuPont family, who very much sought to replicate the best of French noble living in the new world (the founder of the American business empire had in fact defended Louis XVI & Marie Antoinette from a mob at the Tuileries in 1792, an act that led to the family’s move to North America). Gardens such as these remind one very much just how close culturally this part of the nation is  to its European roots, a far cry from either the drought resistant gardens that are the rage these days in the American west or the consciously socialist landscape architecture of a Fredrick Law Olmsted. That Swensen would pick Le Nôtre, rather than Olmsted, as the source for her work is, as a poker player might put it, a fascinating tell. She is, after all, one of our leading translators of poetry from the French. But if the logic of Olmsted’s gardens, with their sensitivity to landscape & imbalance, might lead one inexorably to the poetics, say, of a Charles Olson, the gardens of Le Nôtre seem obsessive in their symmetries.

As an aesthetic dynamic, symmetry is inherently stable, even static. Asymmetry by definition is unstable, it tends to lurch about. La Bayadère vs., say, Sally Silvers, Simone Forti or even Twyla Tharp. Symmetry is the driving principle of all closed works of art, indeed of closure itself.

One might argue that the conceptualist works figured above are themselves obsessively symmetrical – completeness is a value in & of itself (it’s not enough to do just a page of the New York Times). Just as one might argue that they are nothing but catalogs of adorable detail.

And one might argue that Swensen is no less obsessive than, say, Goldsmith, in the projects she takes on – Ours is not a poem about a garden, but a book, and one that leaves unspoken what is surely its largest single claim – that writing poetry is essentially (I mean this adverb literally) a process of gardening. From the forest of language to arrive at a garden of text, a poem.

Is Cole Swensen a conceptualist or the disproof of conceptualism? Or is conceptualism the proof or disproof of Cole Swensen?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

“Language is eyes,” Zukofsky’s Shakespeare reminds us repeatedly throughout Bottom, which is perhaps why it seems so odd that Zukofsky & so many of those who have followed his lead in American letters over the past half century get slammed from time to time for being “non-referential.” Referentiality is inherent in language and while it can be played with, even (as Clark Coolidge demonstrates conclusively in The Maintains and Polaroid) stymied, it never goes away for very long. Cole Swensen’s The Glass Age is a masterwork that takes the question of reference seriously, making it the subject of her book, a trio of interlinked series that focus on windows, glass, motion pictures, post-impressionist painting, phenomenology, ontology & life as it currently is being lived.

A remarkably adept, even facile craftsperson – I know of no poet who makes the most stunning verbal effects on the page look more effortless – Swensen is in some ways the epitome of a third way poet in today’s cultural landscape. Her critical assumptions, literary strategies and approach to the text clearly places her among the finest post-avant poets we now have. And, as this volume amply demonstrates, Swensen addresses a topic long associated with post-avant poetics in ways that are primarily narrative and figurative, strategies long associated with the School of Quietude. It’s not an accident that Swensen is on the faculty of the Iowa Writers Workshop, nor that this book comes blessed with a blurb from John Ashbery, the quintessential poet with one foot in each world. It is, I think, the most challenging tight-wire proposition in contemporary poetry, but Swensen makes it look “natural,” even “easy,” terms whose multiple, conflicting connotative shadings she would be able to de- (and re-) construct without breaking stride. Consider this page, or passage (or section – it is in some sense all three) towards the end of “The Open Window,” the first of the three serial poems that make up The Glass Age. It begins with a consideration of the paintings of Pierre Bonnard, a painter whose life stretched from shortly after the American Civil War until just after World War 2. Bonnard’s many paintings of rooms dominated by an open window is the governing figure of this first suite. However, the two previous sections each focused on issues of early cinema:

There’s something cinematic about Bonnard’s compositions, each scene accentuating action, yet also decentralizing it, diffusing the focus into a plane that hums, a homogeneous intensity extending anarchically

which is echoed in its details – the pattern of the curtain coming in at the same scale as that of the variegated crops in the background and the tablecloth in the fore. It’s an equivalent world, one in which each element serves as a clinamen to trip the homogeneity into precipitating specifics so numerous that they can construct a roiling chaos quite able to hurtle through darkness without a hitch.

Which can also be said of glass, with its random atomic arrangement, like that of a liquid, say, a river stopped mid-gesture, the blink that fixes the picture, suspending it on the surface, a permanent floating leaf.

The form of this passage mimes the content. The discussion starts off at a high level of generalization, goes through some exceptionally complex flourishes before coming to a perfect rest only with the final image. The flourishes are exactly what Swensen suggests, “a homogenous intensity extending anarchically” – it’s worth thinking awhile as to what that might mean – and (my favorite) “a clinamen to trip the homogeneity into precipitating specifics.” What’s so remarkable here is how clearly Swensen plays the clatter of p & t sounds to signal a high degree of organization right as she is about raise the figure of a “roiling chaos,” albeit one “quite able to hurtle through darkness without a hitch.” All of this takes place in an independent clause, one that is balanced by the primary architecture of this same sentence: It’s an equivalent world. Indeed.

With justified prose blocks that contain a sentence that ends one paragraph only to also begin the next, the text plays with concreteness & abstraction, not unlike “a river stopped mid-gesture.” Because there are 23 pages prior to this one, all of them invoking facets of these same figures in a variety of juxtapositions, this somewhat closer reading barely touches of the surface of the connotative fields virtually every noun here sets into motion. These kinds of breath-taking displays occur page after page in The Glass Age, making the reader, this one anyway, almost giddy at the connectedness.

One question for me reading this book is whether, in fact, it is one work or three. I think ultimately it is one, albeit one in the same way that John Ashbery’s Three Poems is a single poem. The inter-relationships active in each of the three texts – Bonnard is on the first page, Bonnard is on the last – are so dense that breaking them down into three sequences seems ultimately the harder-to-justify act, the integrity of these movements seems infinitely more tenuous than that of the whole.

Though I’ve already invoked him twice here, the poet whom I really think it is most interesting to pose as a context for The Glass Age isn’t John Ashbery, but Michael Palmer. For one thing, many of the values in Palmer’s work – precision, beauty, the philosophical dimension of language – are active in Swensen’s poems as well, more so than in Ashbery’s, which is more open to humor &, perhaps as a result, takes on more of a hopalong gait. Ashbery can seem quite goofy, something neither Palmer or Swensen ever do. But if Palmer is more of a language poet than Swensen, it is precisely because his own aesthetic, one part Robert Duncan, the other part de Chirico, feels much closer to the New American poetry & its quarrel with modernism, as such. Swensen, who has written of this very issue with regards to contemporary poetics, seems largely free of the problem. Even as Swensen writes of Bonnard, or of Vilhelm Hammershøi, another painter of windows born in the 1860s, her poetry doesn’t feel backwards-looking in the slightest. If there is any part of Ashbery that is at all close to what she’s doing, it’s his work in Rivers and Mountains, especially “The Skaters” and “Into the Dusk-Charged Air,” writing that imagines what would happen if surrealism & Oulipo were entirely American phenomena. Swensen carries this sense of possibility much further, while being a lot smoother than Ashbery was more or less at the same age. The question for her here is something more like what if philosophy were geometry were art history, the sum total being a poem. From my perspective, it’s almost impossible to describe. You will just have to read The Glass Age to find out.