Showing posts with label Jennifer Moxley. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jennifer Moxley. Show all posts

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Friday, April 25, 2008


Of the 16 other books from Poetry Society of America entrants that I feel all deserve awards, hoopla, and great notice, three are books that I’ve already reviewed here on the blog: Jean Valentine’s Little Boat, Jennifer Moxley’s The Line & Laynie Browne’s Daily Sonnets. It has now been five months, nine months & a year respectively since I first read & reviewed each of these volumes, and one of the substantial pleasures of judging the William Carlos Williams Award lies in seeing just how very well each stands up. It gives me great confidence that when (not if) I return to these books ten, maybe even twenty years from now, they will continue to shine just as brightly.

I’m not going to re-review these work here – you can click on the links above & go back to my original notes as well as get to further links through which each can be ordered. And you should – these are books that deserve to be in everybody’s library. But I want to note here one of the telling facets of this contest for me. Of the nineteen books that totally convinced me they deserve such kudos as these, 13 are by women. Just stacking the books from the next layer, the male pile is almost identical to the stack of books by women (I note however that more guys have “fat” books than gals). The implication is obvious: we have arrived at a moment when women have reached at least parity when it comes to the production of poetry – and at the highest levels it may be much more than just parity. Yet if I go back to the hoopla that surrounded the “numbers trouble” (PDF) debate several months back, I recall that Juliana Spahr & Stephanie Young had tracked reviews in this here blog o’ mine and noted that I too skewed male, noticeably so, when it came to reviewing books of poetry. Yet even I’m willing to concede that of the 19 best books of last year, at least 13 are by female authors, a ratio of better than two to one. What gives?

I think there are a couple of things going on here. The most significant I think is my age: 61. I first came into the world of writing when the Donald Allen anthology, The New American Poetry, was at its height at defining the New American canon – and that book had just four female contributors among its 44 poets. Also hot news there in the mid-1960s was the Totem / Corinth mini-anthology, Four Young Lady Poets, edited by the notable feminist LeRoi Jones. The young ladies included Carol Bergé, Rochelle Owens, Barbara Moraff & Diane Wakoski. Today, that title – and all the attitudes it projects – sounds as dated as an episode of the Twilight Zone.

My generation really came of age as poets in the early 1970s, and while women were starting to write in great numbers in that decade, what Judy Grahn has called the “strategic decision” of separatism on the part of many women poets actually reduced the number who were participating in scenes that included the likes of me. If nothing else, this had the short-term impact of reinforcing the maleness of some scenes. When, in 1981 & ’82, I put together In the American Tree as an anthology of what had become known as language poetry, I had the opportunity to decide whether to stick to the historical record of who published what & where, or of puffing the book up in the name of a better political balance. As I’ve noted here before, there were just three poets who fit the objective qualifications for the anthology who were not included. Two were male – Curtis Faville & David Gitin – both of whom had at that point stopped publishing. But the omission of Abigail Child was, in retrospect, a flat out blunder on my part. Still, In the American Tree was 75 percent male & Abby’s inclusion would not have radically revised those numbers.

If you factor in the number of women on the scene who were obviously post-avant, but who consciously distanced themselves from langpo – the writers who would make up the core of (HOW)ever, for example – you can see that the overall balance in the 1970s was clearly changing, but it was still a far cry from what we have today.

To the degree that I am a creature of my generation, focusing on my own age cohort and those immediately older, say up to the age of my parents, the numbers you see here on the blog are, I think, pretty predictable. When I focus on writers who are older than I, the numbers will be a little worse, and on my own generation, a little better, tho still a far cry from parity. But to the degree that I focus on what is going on in poetry right now, recognizing that the real changes in contemporary writing are now being done by a group of writers all quite a bit younger than I, then I think it’s apparent that these figures have to change.

This isn’t easy. Of the poets of my parents’ generation, the one who really took an interest in younger writers, reading them, promoting them, actively engaging their concerns, was Robert Creeley. Of the poets from the intervening generation, between my parents & my own, the poets who have done this have been Jerry Rothenberg & the Waldrops. That’s not exactly a long list. Most poets as they age tend to stay fixed right where they focused when they first matured as writers & readers. And as the writers in whom they are interested die or go silent, most poets as readers find their world contracting, rather than shifting down to the next generation(s).

I have an active interest in trying to get to that next generation (or three) of younger poets – I want to see how the story of poetry itself continues to evolve, even as I have an increasingly complicated relationship to the question of “now.” So here’s to the idea that, over time, the percentages here of male to female will have to change, just to reflect the real world.

Monday, July 02, 2007

No two books of Jennifer Moxley’s really seem remotely alike, so it’s no surprise that The Line feels like a radical departure not just from her last book, Often Capital – which is a “last book” only in terms of its publication date, having been written in 1991 prior to her “first” volume, Imagination Verses – but from every book she’s written. It’s as if Moxley decides to become, in some sense, a different person between each major writing project, so that the work that comes forward feels inevitable – The Line certainly does – but that the connections that come to mind for a reader aren’t necessarily back to her work as a historical record, but rather to the whole of literature itself, which is now being invaded & rendered problematic in some altogether new fashion. I can’t think of another writer who manages this sort of effect from book to book beyond, say, the later publications of Jack Spicer. But Moxley goes much further – there are continuities between, say, Language and Book of Magazine Verse that I think Moxley would reject on principle. Which is not to say that there aren’t continuities, but that you’ll have to read much deeper than a proclivity for a certain type of line break or sentence style to find them.

The names that kept coming to me as I read The Line over the past five days were Lydia Davis, John Ashbery, W.S. Merwin, Kafka & Borges. There is a revealing interview with Lydia in the new Poets & Writers that I’m not entirely done with yet & this weekend saw not one, but two reasonably fawning reviews of the new Merwin collection of short prose, a book that my first thumb-through invoked words like “flaccid” & “lifeless.” The Line plays with this same form of the self-contained prose work, often the apparent recounting of a dream, that one associates with several of these writers, but it does with a buzz-saw attitude that is unlike any of the above:

The Periodic Table

She was wearing a dress that looked like a book but actually was a baby. All of the letters were on her back to make room for her bulging stomach. I climbed through many foreign backyards in search of my bedroom window. I lived on
Ire Street off of Sport in room one hundred and ten. The mailbox was filled with paychecks or grade sheets, I couldn’t tell the difference. Is this my name or isn’t it? Pink, yellow, and white, a temporary carbon-based witness.
    I sleep with approximately 14,000 days sitting on my chest. A slow hour many years old pushes aside yesterday’s appetites and enters as a whisper through an unmuffled ear: “remember me, remember me, remember me!” And so the incantation continues until I open my eyes to find that I am changed into a patient on a table. Wait, it’s not me, it’s my mother. Men are taking her out on a stretcher. Oh no. Blood, blood, everywhere!

That’s not a poem I will forget anytime soon. It raises so many questions, starting with its very first word, She. Everything here makes me want to pull this imagery – part Alfred Hitchcock, part David Lynch – into a coherent whole, which is possible only if (as) She becomes I becomes my mother. The poem even asks the question: Is this my name or isn’t it? In doing so, it underscores what we already know, that these associations are superimposed & not at all “inherent” in the text itself. It’s as if Moxley knows exactly how to identify that razor-thin edge between what is in the language & what we bring to it. Again, Moxley knows we can’t read patient on a table without hearing Prufrock, but excising the aestheticized etherised from Eliot’s poem renders the present reader guilty at having imported the association. That Prufrock is, in addition to being brilliant, one of the most egregious uses of persona as appropriation only sharpens our sense of reading as complicity.

The tone of horror with which The Periodic Table – think of the implications of that title – ends is very much a part of this book, tho it appears through a variety of different registers:

The Pitiful Ego

Take yourself off of the market before you become an embarrassment. Last night, believing yourself to be the bomb, you stripped him of his T-shirt and kissed every spot on his slim hairless chest as if you were a famished child sucking on a piece of sugarcane in order to drain it of its last drop of sweetness. While you were thinking how grateful he must be he was silently plotting his escape. He lay on his back on the coffee table, feeling the cold touch of your old lips, his head cocked toward the door. A flock of boots and hairdos were giggling as they watched this. He pulled away and, leaving you with a grin of apologetic condescension, joined the youthful group.
    Moving to the end of the plush couch you pulled the flannel throw to your neck and shrunk down in humiliation. How could you be so stupid as to mistake deferential attention for ravenous sexual desire?

There is not a single word out of place in this piece, including sucking & cocked. But where the sheer horror of the referent comes through is in the impersonalization of boots and hairdos. They’re youthful because the impersonal can’t age, not having a body, whereas less than four dozen words separate you as famished child from you as old lips. The delicate balance of this prose pushes back in both directions – it’s not he that experiences ravenous sexual desire, the word before in the first sentence rings a loud bell of denial. We’re supposed to recognize the askew in each.

There is a ruthlessness in much great art that is unmistakable here – Pound’s despair in Pisa, Spicer’s love poems between pitcher & catcher, the rawness that Kathy Acker permits, especially in her early books. Tho both began their careers as writers in San Diego, Moxley’s work differs from Acker’s in that time or age is the potent condition that appears to trigger everything for Moxley, rather than sex. Each, however, is an arc bracketed by death & desire:

The Wrong Turn

Is it true that your memory and senses are enslaved to creative projects? Immaterial textual existence has come to claim your remaining years. A Faustian pact? Lay there and think about it. Sleep and worry. You’ve been taken in by a fast-talking salesman and won’t see your money again. On the cartography of your aging body a new nodule has suddenly appeared which definitely augurs death. A clarion call at the cellular level. Such are the melodramas of
midnight, the punishment for assuming the many your master instead of the missing necessity. Why does this poem exist? Nobody knows. But it seems to be mourning the ideal.

There is a wistfulness to the end of this poem that echoes, for me at least, the work both of John Ashbery & Rae Armantrout. So often Ashbery’s works, particularly his best writing, appears to come around almost cyclically to certain themes as if he had a “catch & release” policy on meaning. With Moxley, the hooks, once in, stick, so that the “innocence” implied in the final sentence, the idea that a poem might aspire to an ideal, comes across much more starkly because the counter terms (aging body, death) have so many heavier connotations lumped upon them over the course of this book. Where Ashbery always seems to deflect or turn away from conflict, Moxley here is digging in, refusing to blink & refusing to let you blink either. It’s no accident that this volume of prose poems is called The Line, for what is the line to poetry? It’s the measure of time, ergo the measure of death. What does it mean to write a book of prose poems and call it that?

The Line is the kind of project that, had it been published by FSG, would have been nominated for all of the awards. And it’s the kind of project that, were Jennifer Moxley to repeat this book five or six times, would ensure her a franchise as one of America’s best writers. Yet the most predictable thing about her work is that the next book is going to be completely different. Completely compelling, completely crafted, completely courageous, but utterly different nonetheless. All you can do is strap yourself in and get ready.

Saturday, December 28, 2002

At the core of his email on irony, Chris Stroffolino asks:

but it seems that what you're driving at is the question of WHAT OTHER WORK IS THE POEM DOING BESIDE MEANING (that is assuming that it IS also meaning, or meaning to mean, which of course is not a safe assumption in the 20th century)

Beside suggesting that Chris check his calendar – it’s later than you think – I would concur with his assessment that this discussion is ultimately about much more than “just” irony – consider just how far afield the discussion has traveled since my original flip aside concerning Jennifer Moxley’s poetry – and would turn the question rather on its head: what are the ways in which the poem manifests meaning? Underneath which sits the further question: what is meaning?

All of which takes me back to the first three sentences of a wonderful book, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, co-written by George Lakoff & Mark Johnson, which are presented also as the first three paragraphs:

The mind is inherently embodied.
Thought is mostly unconscious.
Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical.

Lakoff & Johnson are, among others, founders of what today is called cognitive linguistics & George has been both a friend and an influence on my poetry for some 25 years. Nowhere in his corpus are its underlying findings more concisely stated.

Thought is mostly unconscious is an idea I’ve, uh, thought a lot about, and have a great deal more of thinking yet to do. At one level, the concept explains the possible power of an irrationalist poetics like that of Jack Spicer. At another, it suggests to me that the reading process – even when we are paying the greatest attention, doing literal “close” reading – is itself more unconscious than not. Both it and the idea that mind is inherently embodied go a considerable distance toward explicating the issues posed, for example, by electric guitars or why poets might take a line such as “green ideas sleep furiously” as meaningful when old-school linguists (the Chomsky generation, say) do not.

Thought is mostly unconscious destroys a project such as the Tractatus, though not (we note) Wittgenstein’s later forays into this same territory. It has, of course, a certain Freudian, if not Lacanian, ring to it, yet it is not in that psychoanalytic direction that Lakoff appears to be pointing. Even if we understand reason, for example – just one mode of thinking among others – as a series of syllogistic operations, a number of multivariable “if” clauses that would lead ultimately to the consequence of “then,” Lakoff & Johnson’s position suggests that what we imagine to be complex enough procedures with dozens of steps may in fact have hundreds, if not thousands, conducting not only in our waking life, but elsewhere.

Here of course is the principle behind the idea of waking up to a solution that, prior to a night’s sleep, had seemed impossible. Or why anybody – you or I – might be able to apprehend when something someone asserts sounds “wrong” to us, well before we can honestly articulate precisely why. It represents the architecture of the “gut feel.” It is in this sense that a poem like Ketjak or Tjanting can be understood literally as single syllogisms that cannot, in fact, be paraphrased.

Here also is the reader’s participation in consuming, and in so doing reproducing anew, any given text. To have excluded the reader’s contribution to the meaning of a text may have seemed “neat” to the New Critics in the sense that it offered boundaries that they might then patrol, but to do also yielded (& still yields to this day) a kind of literary dyslexia, an illiteracy in the name of reading competence – the same illiteracy that sometimes will cause a grad student to conclude that langpo is “difficult” in some manner that the world itself is not.

Song approaches the question of embodiment far differently than does poetry – as virtually every attempt to blend the two eventually proves all over again – but embodiment is essential to both. The music of vowel & consonant is no less a constituent of meaning than is any argument the denotative text might make. This is a reality that might be discounted in one or another tendency within poetry, but it is not one that can be safely abolished. My own interest in vizpo is real enough, but it is much more anthropological than it is literary, for which I make no apologies. The visual is never for me an adequate condition of embodiment for the poem.

This does not mean that I require poetry to be “beautiful” prosodically – some of the most interesting in recent years has, I think, sought out a sonic realm I would associate more closely with post-industrial life than with song – Barrett Watten or Rod Smith, to name two who seem especially adept at this.

Poetry that pays little attention to how it sounds – there’s enough of it out there that I don’t need to name names – strikes me in exactly the opposite way. Such work seems at times the aesthetic corollary of a serious stroke victim – unable to complete its thought. Thus the best argument in the world, if it pays no heed to the question of embodiment, strikes me as not very meaningful – a condition of far too much “political poetry.” Even as the simplest lyric is itself always already political.

So what is meaning & where do you find it? Williams called it “the news,” but that phrase, bandied about as much as it is, is often understood in far too narrow a fashion. I often will find it in a poem lurking not in the words as such so much as in the vowels, or in the way a phrase alters my expectation (a particularly NY School approach), in how lines enjamb or a phrase is inverted, in the length of a line. All to me seem primary modes of meaning.

& the student who is not taught how to see, to read these things, has in fact never been taught to read.

Sunday, December 22, 2002

Gary Sullivan ended his dissertation on humor & context the other day with what I would characterize as an imponderable: “How is Celan’s work read by those who don’t know who he was, his history?” Now Annie Finch sends an email to ratchet the issue of irony up one more notch:

Dear Ron,

the whole [Jennifer] Moxley discussion has been fascinating. if this inspires thought for your blog, I'd be interested to read your response. I think the poems I was recalling are in With Strings or if not, another recent book. I guess part of the question raised is, how much does the context of the writer's other work affect the irony that individual poems can retain?

"Charles Bernstein has written some poems that I would not be surprised to see in a book by X.J. Kennedy. Ron, can you imagine a time in which the context separating those two is lost, or is that taking the idea too far?"

Two more thoughts/questions:

Do you think poems that go too much the other way, that don't have enough irony, are just as vulnerable to being lost after their originary time is over as poems that depend too much on transitory irony?

Then there is the phenomenon of poems that are written with irony and STILL survive after the irony is long gone in most reader's minds. Examples: Frost's The Road Not Taken and Blake's Songs of Innocence. Where do these fit in?


I would suspect that one of the Bernstein poem’s Annie might be remembering is “The Boy Soprano”:

Daddy loves me this I know
Cause my granddad told me so
Though he beats me blue and black
That’s because I’m full of crap

My mommy she is ultra cool
Taught me the Bible’s golden rule
Don’t talk back, do what you’re told
Abject compliance is as good as gold

The teachers teach the grandest things
Tell how poetry’s words on wings
But wings are for Heaven, not for earth
Want my advice: hijack the hearse

Compare this with Kennedy’s “A Brat’s Reward”:

At the market Philbert Spicer
Peered into the bacon slicer –
Whiz! the wicked slicer sped
Back and forth across his head
Quickly shaving – What a shock! –
Fifty chips off Phil’s old block,
Stopping just above the eyebrows.
Phil’s not one of them thar highbrows.

Kennedy, poetry editor of the Paris Review in the 1960s betwixt Donald Hall & Tom Clark, is a long-time practitioner of light verse as well as poetry for children – the smoothness of his metrics here is an index of just how good at this he is. Considering that we’re discussing mutilation in the market place, it’s remarkable just how free “Reward” is of even the slightest hint of social comment. The only moment it shows up is at the very end – that distancing effect of slang in “them thar highbrows.”

Even if we were unaware of the Anna Bartlett Warner hymn – hard to envision in a world in which Google shows over 40,000 pages devoted to it & its variants* – on which Bernstein’s poem is based, there’s a depth of sarcasm in the writing that is impossible to erase over time. Even presuming we don’t recognize the allusion – a presumption basic to satire – this displacement of “Daddy’s” love to granddad’s word for verification & the references to family violence in the first stanza make it unmistakable. As does the use of the term “abject” in the second stanza. As does the “advice” of the final line. Even prosodically, the degree to which Bernstein pushes away from the seven-syllable line of the original twists the poem away from the harmonic closure of the 19th century lyrics toward a result whose dissonance – the degree to which it sounds “off” or “wrong” – underscores the connotative domain.

What we have are two poetries that have certain surface similarities, one of which is adamantly social & will remain so, even if many topical elements are drained away, the other of which is only incidentally (& possibly unknowingly) social. So while in theory the possibility of two poetries merging in such a way as to dissolve their original differences exists, in practice I think this is apt to happen only with much more parallel kinds of writing, the way the elliptical side of the mainstream (say, Jorie Graham’s work) shades over into aspects of post-avant writing (someone like Ann Lauterbach sits almost perfectly in the middle here, as do Forrest Gander & C. D. Wright). But not in work that is truly diverse, regardless of surface features.

Is it possible for poems to not have enough irony? My sense is no, in that I suspect that writing can incorporate an almost total spectrum of metalinguistic distancing effects, from no irony whatsoever (Denise Levertov) all the way to total irony (Joe Brainard). It is, however, possible for poems to use irony ineffectively, as Walter Conrad Arensberg does in “To Hasekawa.” That’s a different issue.

But as time passes, contexts fade. There are poems in which irony disappears only to reveal other strengths of the poem – that’s pretty much the situation with Blake. But other elements shift around as well. Just as Bernstein’s poem will continue to reveal a social structure regardless of whether we recognize Warner’s hymn, so too will the dark world envisioned by Paul Celan remain, whether or not the reader relates it to the holocaust:
the sleeplessy wandered-through breadland
casts up the life mountain.

From its crumb
you knead anew our names
which I, an eye
to yours on each finger,
probe for
a place, through which I
can wake myself toward you,
the bright
hungercandle in mouth.

Hungercandle (“Hungerkerze”) is not a term that is mistakable, any more than “mouth” can ever be softened without a pronoun. The bleakness of the situation could be Kampuchea, Babi Yar or the Balkans. What is not relieved, however, is the underlying sense of deprivation. Only in a world in which hunger & genocide were both abolished & forgotten could these lines appear to lose their sense of deprivation. Which I fear means that we are a long, long way from being able to test the ability of Celan’s work to operate without context.

Of the writers mentioned here, Jennifer Moxley is perhaps closest to Celan in her overall vision of humanity. Like him, she is on the low end of the irony spectrum. Neither has any interest in letting the reader escape the enveloping circumstance of the poem – like Celan, her poems may long for relief, but they seldom if ever offer any. That her works employ a neutral language, rather than, say, the high-torque neologisms of a Celan, is part of the analysis. Like Annie Finch, I’m fascinated by the reactions to her work. They underscore my own sense of its importance.

* Including a few that touch on its use by the Ku Klux Klan.

Friday, December 20, 2002

Responses to my reading of Jennifer Moxley’s The Sense Record fell rather evenly into three categories:

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>People who liked my reading & like her work & were glad to see that this was shared

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>People who thought my reading was way off, because I didn’t see her poetry as a mode of deadpan humor

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>People who agreed with my assessment that her work is serious, but don’t much care for it, at least in part because of its seriousness

Those diverse reactions combined with my own positive response to Pattie McCarthy even as I admit that there are places where her interest in medieval Christian concerns leads her that I can’t (or don’t) follow and with Gary Sullivan’s most revealing comment yesterday that, when he was a mere lad, he used to find Woody Allen, Donald Barthelme or Firesign Theater more funny before he learned what they were riffing on. These diverse experiences all ring what for me is by now a rather old bell, a 1981 Parnassus review in which Peter Schjeldahl effusively praised the poetry of Joe Ceravolo even though “I rarely know what he is talking about.”

All of these items share in common the problem of how one receives and deals with the unfamiliar. Sometimes, as with Sullivan’s laughter at Firesign Theatre, we welcome it. But other times not. My own sense of the responses I’ve heard toward Moxley’s work is that the more skeptical positions sound almost identical to comments I recall hearing a quarter century ago directed at the work of another new poet who was coming forward with an unconventional but distinct sense of style, Leslie Scalapino. Moxley & Scalapino are radically different poets, but their position vis-à-vis the poetry world strikes me as not dissimilar. Each can, simply by their practice, be read as a critique of their generational scene as it is constituted.

Twenty-six years after the publication of The Woman Who Could Read the Minds of Dogs, Leslie Scalapino has demonstrated beyond any doubt the wisdom & power behind strategies that once seemed to many oblique or simply obscure for the sake of obscurity. If Scalapino has required patience on the part of her audience, she has rewarded them (us) for sticking with it handsomely. Her argument, to call it such, is a vision of literature that is virtually panoptic. To catch only a glimpse of it in some ways is just sort of a teaser – it makes greater sense to take as much in as possible, so that the references & key points accumulate.

Moxley’s long sentences & deliberately neutral vocabulary strike me as being as integral to her project as poet as Scalapino’s syntactic angling is to hers. I can see not buying any of it – no reader is going to “get” all poets. I know that I will always find William Bronk torturous and I have yet to figure out, after all these years, why Gustaf Sobin seems important to so many other writers I know. So, in a sense, I find myself thinking of the people who take Moxley seriously, but opt out at that point, as being “better” readers of her than fans who think it’s a spoof.

Let me give an example, a single sentence midway through  the first poem in The Sense Record, “Grain of the Cutaway Insight”:

Long lost friend, with whom I once
spoke into the night of books and

left, thinking to myself on my short

walk home of all the things I wanted so

to tell you

            in a poem, I am lonely
            in the in-commiserate word,

its small sound remains

            an incipient dis-harmony

sounding through dissembled day’s

            would-be routinization.

This passage moves not in one but two profoundly opposite directions. Up to the word “you,” every single line is enjambed – after it, none are. It is right at that word also that the first step away from the left-hand margin occurs in this sentence, as though the second-person pronoun were a literal hinge to this statement. In fact, it makes great sense to look at this sentence having just such a fulcrum. Before it, in five lines, all cemented to the left margin, we have 33 words, only three of which are even two syllables long. After it, we have 23 words spread out over six lines, 23 long words. Two have five syllables, two others have four. The second half of this sentence only twice returns fully to the margin, each time to register a verb that will carry the next major chain of syntax.

There is a chain of sound as well, following principally through the deployment of vowels, especially “o.” Thus the long “o” in the first half carries both “spoke” and “home” into that terminal “so” – the most important word in the first part of the text, a tone that gets heightened measurably in the concluding portion. The use of “o” becomes far more complex here – the “ou” combinations emerging to carry the thrust of the idea in the final couplet. But Moxley won’t let us not hear that term “lonely,” the section’s melody of “o” sounds challenged by a contrary rain of short “i” combinations, “in” and “is.” That hiss in good part is why “in-commiseraterather than “incommensurate” is the right word at that moment in the text. One need only note the number of “o” and “o”-combination syllables appear in this sentence compared with, say, those for “a” and “e.”

Yet if one reads this sentence as bald text without hearing its remarkable articulation of vowels, without registering enjambments & end stops, it might prove to be all but invisible as language. It’s a fabulous moment in the history of formal devices & really one of the great aesthetic flourishes in recent poetry – but in the same moment, it’s also a test of the reader & the levels of attention they bring to the poem.

Sunday, December 15, 2002

On the Poetics List, there was a certain to-do over the wink I suggested was absent in the poetry of Jennifer Moxley. This was not, as I noted at the time, a criticism, but rather an observation, an index of her willingness as an author to write precisely what she believes needs to be written, regardless of fashion. Any number of commentators rushed in to rescue Moxley’s reputation from sincerity or even earnestness, with Steve Vincent – a friend of this blog for over 30 years – suggesting that I had been “pulled into the wax.” Aaron Belz goes this way & that – he feels like Edgar Allan Poe on the issue when he’s not feeling like Bugs Bunny. Many ideas were thrown into the hat, no doubt causing the rabbit to feel crowded. Some of the more pertinent ones were:

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>The wink is a necessary “courtyard of emotion,” an idea I’d like to endorse just so I can use that phrase a few times.

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>The wink is a postmodern twitch.

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>The wink is a New York School thing (with some hint that there’s relatively little winking between 14th Street & Columbia, where it is again permitted).

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>James Tate does/does not wink. Unless of course those messages that mentioned only the surname were referring to Allen Tate, a man whose poetry has been known to glare.

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>There is such a thing as a “bad wink,” implying of course that its opposite might also exist.

At this very same moment, the Gertrude Stein list has been going on about what Stein meant when she said, sometime in the early 1930s, that Adolph Hitler deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. & a fellow at Buffalo emailed to ask if “Franzen’s boast in his 30 September New Yorker article that he defied the intentions of Coover and Pynchon by reading them to identify with their characters militate against your interpretation of the J-Franz/Oprah contretemps?”

My answer to that latter question would be that, no, it confirms my interpretation, because it reveals Franzen to be consciously operating on exactly that set of presumptions. And I would have thought that we have all learned by now that Franzen’s style vis-à-vis media inquiries into his process is to obfuscate & dissemble to the max. But, as the Stein quote suggests – it’s being employed apparently by Holocaust deniers – humor doesn’t necessarily travel well. If the wit is dry enough, it may in fact scrape.

I would characterize irony – the ability to say one thing while communicating something quite discordant to the denotation – as one aspect of humor & an especially important one in this epoch in the U.S. (I don’t want to generalize here.) Context is so important in humor &, by definition, so pliable & subject to change, that it is almost impossible to ensure that what is uproarious in one setting will remain so over time.

Almost certainly, everybody has had the experience of writing some bon mot in an email only to discover that your recipient has been horribly offended, perhaps justifiably.* The very same communication in person might not have had the equivalent impact because it would have been presented, with body language & tone, in such a way as to situate its reception.

Much of Stein’s humor – in Tender Buttons and the portraits, for example – does travel well over the decades. But I’ve always thought as well that Pound believed Mauberly to be a barrel of chortles & there is more wit in Eliot’s Prufrock & Waste Land than was noted when we were in high school. Eliot the ponderous was largely a critical fiction up until the Quartets showed that he’d begun to believe his own reviews.

But if you go back further into the recesses of the canon, what you find is that humor carries forward most effectively when it is most fully contextualized – in drama, for example, or in poetry that proposes its own contexts, like the Canterbury Tales. But the humor in Pope comes across now as stilted & clunky – which may be why he is not dealt with as seriously as he deserves, particularly when you consider how close he came to inventing the prose poem.

Which makes me wonder about the eventual fate of our current moment, long after we too have exited stage left. Irony today serves an important social & historical function – as an index of our own lack of innocence. It’s a confession that we expect our leaders to lie & all our social institutions to fail us, to do so systemically, & to do so cynically. When the FDA declares Claritin safe for over-the-counter sales, “making it available for everyone,” what that action really does is separate out one of the most common costs insurers have had to cover. Last month’s $10 co-pay for your prescription will be next month’s $30 charge at the cash register.

Many tendencies in poetry, not just the New York School, have relied more than a little on humor & irony – the actual figure of Maximus in the Olson poems is pretty funny. There is a lot of wit in Robert Kelly’s poetry – read Axon Dendron Tree if you don’t believe me – and in Jackson Mac Low. Clark Coolidge’s humor is one part Phil Whalen, one part Jonathan Williams. Dorn’s ‘Slinger is a long philosophical poem built on the model of a comic book. & no language poet does more with humor than Barrett Watten.

But identifying someone else’s humor on the page can be as problematic as taking excerpts from the work of Leslie Scalapino at random and knowing why this page is a “comic book” and that is an “opera.” Humor is always – & only – in the eye of the beholder. & what that eye sees depends very much on context – the moon at the horizon is big, but at the peak of the sky it’s very small indeed. This I think is at least partly why so few readers actually understand Ginsberg to have been primarily a satirist.

So while I am willing to concede the conceivability of Stephen Vincent’s suggestion that I have been “pulled into the wax,” I really doubt it. More important, I doubt that in the long run it will make any difference. If for any reason Moxley did not intend her statements in that poem (or any other) to be taken at face value today, there will come a time in the future when that is exactly how they are understood. The same will apply – ironically – even to John Ashbery & Charles Bernstein.

Which makes me wonder about the fate of the poetry of poetry today – it may very well be that we are creating a collective oeuvre that will age at greatly differential rates down the road. Jonathan Mayhew the other day in his blog characterized H.D.’s Hellenism as “kitsch” – yet its function during her lifetime was diametrically opposed to that very idea. Even now, if you look at the diverse poetics of, say, the early modernist period, it makes you want to scratch your head. If I thumb through an anthology like Harriet Monroe’s New Poetry (Macmillan, 1917 & 1923), the so-called “revolution of the word” is almost entirely absent. While the founder of Poetry includes Pound & Williams, and even such radicals as Carl Sandburg & John Reed, there is no Stein, no Loy, no sign of the Baroness, no Hartley, not even Hart Crane. Yet New Poetry does include Thomas Hardy, Edward Arlington Robinson, Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, even Joseph Campbell and John G. Neihardt. Perhaps the most telling inclusion is Walter Conrad Arensberg, he of the “Ing? Is it possible to mean ing?” There is some interesting work to be found in Arensberg, but Monroe is having none of that.  Here is the shortest of his five poems in the anthology, “To Hasekawa”:

Perhaps it is no matter that you died.
Life’s an incognito which you saw through:
You never told on life – you had your pride;
But life has told on you.

It’s not self-evident whom Hasekawa might have been – a search on Google turns up nothing – but what is evident is the humor here. Without any context, it’s not funny, so that the husk of its structure is all that remains. It’s like a deaf person watching dancers with no hint of the music. In this case, it would seem that the dancers are a little clumsy, but that’s about all you can say.

Literature evolved away from the vision that Harriet Monroe held & while some Arensberg poems are still read today, this one mercifully is not. It would be easy enough to argue that Monroe’s sensibility was pedestrian at best, but I suspect that the reality is that it was not as pedestrian as it might now appear. Rather, it is merely that large portions of the work she favored and printed seems – 75 years later – terribly antiquated. Now there are poets from the 19th century – all of Dickinson, much of Whitman – that don’t seem half as ancient as much of the writing in New Poetry. The problem isn’t time – it’s the variable rate at which poems age.

If the wink is in fact the ticket into our contemporary “courtyard of emotions,” it comes at high risk. While I like humor & wit, I think that a writer needs to recognize – presume even – that, of all the colors in his or her pallet, the ones that will fade fastest are the bright, funny ones. If you want some sense of how your work might read 70 years hence, just ask yourself what will remain of your poetry when none of your readers get the jokes. 

* My own most recent experience of this came on Friday the 13th when one of the readers of the blog thought that I was comparing J.H. Prynne to the music of John Tesh or Yanni. In fact, what I was suggesting was that the problem of the “regional ear” was different from that of distinguishing good art – figured into that discussion as Anthony Braxton – from kitsch. If I had been making a Raworth is to Prynne as Braxton is to X kind of comparison, I probably would have said someone like John Zorn. I instinctively “get” Braxton in a way that I don’t Zorn, but I wouldn’t then suggest that Zorn was kitsch. 

Monday, December 09, 2002

The title piece of Jennifer Moxley’s extraordinary The Sense Record is an astonishing poem – astonishing because it dares to go where virtually no post-avant writing has gone in a generation. This is the first stanza:

Under the threat of another light downpour
Eros, soaked by the rain-water,
spoke to the sentient flowers.
Sadness, no longer extraneous,
began the derangement of nerve,
bypassed the bleeding heart
to pierce the blood-brain barrier.
This all en route to the two-car garage.
I was worn with the labor that augurs despair,
life in the futile percentile, when past
my squeamish eyelash, buffeted by scallops
of small will, the slightest fairy brushed.
My rubber soles conformed to the stones
as I followed and spied the backyard starlet
allongée on an orange blossom, delicate
beside the drinking bees, blithe amidst
sharp blades of grass, a rain-drop seductress
entertaining ants on the folding lip
of a pinkster leaf.

Sadness, despair, futile, squeamish, derangement, “the bleeding heart.” Yet Eros communing with the “sentient flowers,” it becomes apparent by the end of the next stanza, was the cheery part:

                                                From aloft
the insect mezzanine these patterns
portend the rot of hours, as one paperstrip
wilts atop the next. Little deaths
sufficient to wake the council of
discarded causes. Under the concrete cracks
the tenacious weed-roots rattle,
reassigned from lawn destruction
to ankle espionage, and in the grass
the poet whispers:

            “death death death death death

            between two hopes
in brittle mid-years, all is vanity”

Or later, from the second of the poem’s six sections:

I feel sick to think that she, that we
had, and have, but one pursuit
and one pursuit alone.

Or the opening of the final section:

Eros tell me why, without love,
without hate, listening
to the softly falling rain
upon the rooftops of the city,
my heart has so much pain.
What I write in truth today
tomorrow will be in error.
Yet the words keep coming,
mundane and repetitive
With no job “to be done”
nor doctrine to stand for.

Oh postmodern irony, where is thy wink? It’s not to be found anywhere in this poem’s eleven pages. Largely bracketed between two quotations from Verlaine, “The Sense Record” presents the grimmest view of contemporary alternatives we have had since perhaps William Bronk. I don’t normally think of Moxley in that context – she is so much more the stylist that one can slide easily into the elegance of her forms & almost luxuriate at that level alone.

That, I think, is why “death” is repeated five times in the most utterly artless moment in the entire book. Moxley doesn’t want to let us off the hook – one can almost imagine how another poet such as Ashbery would deflect the absolute directness of this address, bringing in everything from elderly aunts to whatever he’s rescued from the Disney back lot. For anyone with such access to style, the argument that the pleasure of the journey is life’s point might well be enough. For Moxley, clearly it’s not.

This is where the question of fashion gets interesting. In pure terms of traditional stylistics, Moxley is an absolute master – much more adept than, say, Geoffrey Hill’s hurdy-gurdy efforts. To make matters even more complicated, Moxley associates with – and publishes in the journals of – the newer generation of post-avant writing, which allegedly eschews direct address & seems to treat the absence of irony as one of the great sins of the poets of quietude.* Some of the other poets published by Rod Smith’s Edge Books include Anselm Berrigan, Kevin Davies, Tom Raworth, Aldon Nielson, Mark Wallace, Phyllis Rosenzweig, Joan Retallack and Chris Stroffolino. So how is it that Moxley fits in here? Why isn’t she hailed as the salvation of traditional values in literature? And why is she accorded such great respect from poets who refuse to write an elegy without slipping in at least a triple-entendre somewhere?

I know a few folks who would argue that Moxley might be yet another item in a list of evidence suggesting that it’s not what you know in poetry that determines where a writer plays so much as who you know. But I don’t think that’s it at all. Rather, I think that the reason one doesn’t find her line up alongside the “anti-anti-coherency” contingent is that her work déjà toujours presumes the context of post-avant writing. That little barb out of Pound’s Cantos at the end of the poem’s first section is a tell-tale clue. The directness of her address & that loving attention to the nuances of syntax is a combination that makes its greatest sense situated midway between, say, Anselm Berrigan & Tom Raworth.

Just as John Berryman’s Dream Songs would make for dreadful language poetry, but whose excellence shines through when set against the backdrop of the Boston Brahmin variant of the school of quietude, Moxley’s poetry takes its razor’s edge from its social context. In one way, she is as out of place in her time & her crowd as Jack Spicer once was amidst the speech-based (& often enough linguistics-ignorant) poetics of the New American Poetry. It’s as if she has decided to be the bad conscience of post-avant writing, the one who reminds everybody else that “this is serious – you are doomed.”

Poets who take this kind of stance are often in for a certain amount of tsuris. Barrett Watten has had to contend with readers who, struck dumb it would seem by his demand for a serious reading, can’t begin to see where the marvelous sharp wit in his poetry lies. I know major post-avant writers who say point-blank that Spicer is somebody they just don’t get. And I know others who would argue that this is why William Bronk falls outside almost every major post-avant anthology, as though he were everybody’s designated blind spot (as he seems to be mine).

So Moxley has chosen not to take the easy road, but rather the most difficult one of all. And she does it with such great skill in places that it makes you want to cheer – until you remember that she means it. You are doomed.

* Thus when Jonathan Mayhew complains of my blog’s ”earnestness,” he’s absolutely serious & not at all out of step with a lot of contemporary post-avant writing. I plead guilty even as I note the difference between my critical writing & my poetry.