Showing posts with label Language poetry. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Language poetry. Show all posts

Thursday, June 17, 2010

LangPo for the Long Haul

I wouldn't disagree with the assertion that Language Poetry distinguishes itself from the dry confines of Marxist formalism by allowing the author the room to upturn, uproot and upset the conventionalized narrative strategies several generations of writers and readers have absorbed; it is a refreshing notion that the author needn't be taken to task or potentially punished for not following a political script. Language , though, is that thing that we cannot step out of it and take a hard look at, as if through a microscope, and this is an idea that has been with writers for like generations, those poets and writers at the further edges of their period's cultural lines. The  inspiration to  engage in free-play with the usual phrases with all sorts of convention -shattering constructions didn't begin with the Language Poets. Few of the like-minded iconoclasts coming before them, however, were as much fun. It was double- barreled combination: the theories were exciting and persuasive, and the poems challenged, provoked, irritated, and entertained, and after all the controversy and reasoned dismissals and lines in the sand, the books were still read, still on the shelves , moved from apartment to apartment, still capable of making you want to yell "eureka" when the right deconstruction came along.
What I'd say is that writings of LangPo's central writers--Ron Silliman, Rae Armantrout, the late Leslie Scalapino, Barrett Watten, Fanny Howe, Bob Perelman--read amazingly well after the decades have passed. It is a poetry that foregrounds language and it's seductive verbal templates as the subject, but this is not a poetry to stall itself on the trite assertion that the subjects and meaning of writing are undecidable, or that the writer and his or audience are seduced by multiple hegemonies intended to keep populations complacent . These are not dry politicos--within their shared interests in how ingrained rhetorical approaches create the coherent narrative line that amounts our existence, each poet is distinct in their thinking , in their writing.
Rae Armantrout's inward, delicately arranged lyrics project a personality assuming itself through a continued assault of formula poses, Ron Silliman assembles the details of the overheard and the closely observed for something coming close to the jazz visuals painter Stuart Davis awarded his art patrons, Bob Perelman directs a circus with a dozen center rings where the tropes of advertising,the Academy, Literature, television and popular culture transgress over each others' obtuse  readings  of simple phrases,  and Leslie Scalapino insisted on recalling and imagining a hard perception from all the angles,like a cubist painting, luring a reader to look at a skeletal phrasing about a tangible event, and then making them look at it again, from a different vantage, in a different voice, in different clothes, until one is frightfully aware of how vulnerable one is when they are shaped in the word choices of another agent. This is the trusty sidekick horse in Ed Dorn's Gunslinger cautioning all he came upon to make take care as to not find themselves "described", as it is the equivalent of being eaten alive.  These descriptions of their poems, of course, are too general to be of any critical help, but they do  show, I think, that Language Poets were not an ossified political movement with members co-signing each other's over recited talking points; these good people are a diverse group.
One might name their own choice example of destroyers and creators who've livened up the verbal assaults prior to the avant gard, but my favorite of the moment is Mikail Bakhtin, who wrote of the writer charged with the task of "making strange" the language of their tales, and of the ploy of "defamiliarizing" the narrative in ways that force to reader to grasp the linguistic tricks and twists that are at play. Bakhtin, I suppose, had a socialist utopia in mind as the ideal situation at the end of his philosophical rigor, but his assumption seemed to be, along with most Modernist ideas of icon smashing, that a collective Awakening would assert itself once the audience was exposed to the figurative props were exposed and from there be empowered to make real decisions about how to maintain social change. The real result, of course, is legacy of experimental writing informed by provocative, if occasionally opaque theories. The work itself is judged , in retrospect, on aesthetic value rather than political virtues, which is another way of saying that entertainment value has usurped transformative promise as the thing we look for. Language poets haven't forgotten their progressive desires , it seems to me, but they seem unburdened by the notion that one must consider their work as a continuous critique of what capitalism has done with our language. Theirs is a poetics of pursuing an approach that honestly interests them.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Auster's poems

Strange to think, but the spare, undecorated prose of Paul Auster does achieve a poetic effect of sort, but it's something that comes about because he can create situations and odd scenarios that often times gives us the duplicitous ironies that are a good poem's hall mark. One is not sure where they stand after reading an Auster novel, and his poetry in kind does a trick of seeming like John Ashbery without the prolixity.Ashbery's genius is the concurrent circles of reference his hard objects inspire in his mind; they conflate gracefully, refusing closure. Auster's poems refuse closure as well, but his are stanzas that have a hard glare like black and white streets; no technicolor, just high contrast black and white.The stanzas and images are crystalline, hard, unadorned, and the dreamy language around them, the assumptive tone that starts with a given set of attitudes and finds itself changed or shattered by poem's end, is blurry, confused, and imprecise. An interesting tension results--there is the feeling of someone overwhelmed by the conflations and overlapping demands of events and walking away, blinders on, into a new identity.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Tom Sleigh, Again

It's prudent to refrain from declaring someone a bad writer merely because you might dislike a particular piece they've written, particularly a poem. Bad poems happen to good poets who write them, and such is the case for Tom Sleigh, who's poem "The Hole" I slammed awhile ago when I first read it in Slate. Perhaps my case was over stated, but I still think it's a stinker, but lo!, doing a Google search on Sleigh produced a bounty of helpful info on him, and some of his poems as well, all of them ranging from pretty good indeed to absolutely splendid. Sleigh might be tone deaf occasionally--my own work is too often a drone one experiences in vacuum cleaner product testing laboratories--but he is , in essence, a solid crafts men, a genuine lyricist. His erudition creates resonance , not static, and what I especially liked is this poem:

After Midnight

After midnight in the summer heat,
the black river of the road flowing out and out,
windows rolled down, tires buoyant as water,

the car floats through the night gone still forever
around the hospital on the hill,
the neon of the ER turning the waiting eyes to glass.

Mist rises from the river,
the moon nowhere in sight,
only thick-leaved trees sweeping the cool black.

Secret in her power, like a sunroof
sliding open to the air, Athena touches you
and makes you, to yourself, younger, stronger

--vital as the river where rats
along the bank breed in the sweet grass
infusing the heavy air,

the radio tower
above the quiet city beaming
from its lone eye a voice sobsinging,

"Spring can really hang you up the most" . . . disenchanted
siren who sings you back into yourself
warily hoarding the charmed strength

of your middle age, your eyes not on the stars
but on a shadow under the trees
like Cyclops in his cave

praying to Poseidon to deliver you
to destruction even as you boast, "My name
is No Man, No Man is my famous name--"

the car hurtling weightless through the open night.

The lives of the gods are truly our own as Sleigh
invokes the classic paradoxes, challenges and tests in unpretentious language that sounds like it is actually addressing tasks that have weight, are a burden. All this rushing, hurrying, desperate conquests of obstacles are no less and no more important than the jitters of nervous gods on a hot night on Olympus, and as we humans struggle with torpor and fend off the urge to fall asleep behind the wheels of cars, we draw our strength from gods we've forgotten the names to. Similarity is everything, and it's merely a matter of scale --Herculean meets Walter and Mrs.Mitty---but the frustrations, satisfactions and the moods in between are the same.

The language as well is enticing, intoxicating, set up with verbs and adjectives that artfully stationed; the movement is tangible, as in the sharp, effervescent sweep of the opening.Fine, fine writing.

After midnight in the summer heat,
the black river of the road flowing out and out,
windows rolled down, tires buoyant as water,

the car floats through the night gone still forever
around the hospital on the hill,
the neon of the ER turning the waiting eyes to glass.

This is a panorama worth of John Dos Possos's from USA Trilogy, in a world where it would seem Harte Crane and Wallace Stevens have their personalities melded for a sense of the Supreme Fiction settled in a city we recognize as very much like our own.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Grousing about work

No one likes to work, and everyone likes to complain about having to do so. A general statement, for sure, but accurate in a general sense. Some folks we bond with and empathize with their experience, while with others given to grousing and grumbles we encourage to shut up, for God's sake. What's clear is that some folks are better at listing their complaints than are others. It's about style, attitude, on whether there's something interesting to hear, or read.Philip Levine is a sure cure for anyone who can't push the proverbial boulder up the hill anymore, and his poem "What Work Is" is a magnificent detailing of the glory and grime of getting your hands calloused for a paycheck. Levine, a Detroiter, is keenly aware of the layerings of the working Middle Class, and finds a way of speaking to their lives without swooning in faux socialist praise about "innate nobility". He respects the working class and his own experience too much to be anything but truthful about it. It's a fine poem. Stephen Burt's poem, though, has many problems. That he can write isn't one of them; this man can put together a sentence. But there are bigger fish to fry than skewed grammar.

The critical offense in Burt's poem "Dulles Road Access" is it's scarcely contained arrogance and repulsion of having to work, of having to sell something to someone who needs to be convinced to buy it. His theme was bad faith on all sides, and complains readily that our all our training in the arts and history are reduced to mere skill sets intended to move the Bottom Line. Everyone complains about work, everyone, no one wants to work, no one, everyone feels denatured and reduced in stature and squeezed for time as obligations time for hobbies and the arts, one feels less than human because of the need to fend, forge and feed ourselves and our own. Yet people work anyway, they show up on time, they do their jobs well, and somehow create lives for themselves that are worth sticking around for, and within the limits created by work, men and women create lives that are not entirely bereft of value , joy, aesthetic virtue. I've been working since I was fifteen, and though I might be deluded on the point, my life hasn't been the eternal grey wall Burt imagines the lot of us staring at while the office clocks ticks slowly to 5pm.

An old complaint, expressed at every water cooler, coffee house and bus stop across the country, and Burt's addition to this chorus, apart from adroit rhythms, merely repeats the muckraking findings of Vance Packard and Philip Wylie two generations previous. This is the poem who has dropped their rattle and can't retrieve from the crib they refuse to climb out of.

We are untrained
to manage even the pace
at which we live.

This is worthy of a groan and an obscene gesture, an insight the Hugh Prathers and RD Laings of the world offered up in the Seventies when the culture had a morbid interest in each inexplicable twitch in their individual moods. Burt can write about work as an institution and work as an experience in anyway and in any style he wants to,
but there's nothing "fresh" or generationally unique to his perspective except, perhaps, his willingness to complain more openly than other good writers have been. But this becomes bellyaching and complaining and the negative -thinking equivalent of all those feel-good bromides one comes across in pop psyche and New Age literature. In this case it's a conditioned response regarding the dehumanizing aspects of working for a living, and even the implied "we" of his generation's allegedly collective attitude toward being a professional, it amounts to the same species of precociousness that made much of the Sixties and Seventies counter-culture a morass of unfocused, clueless indulgence. It's an attitude one grows out of, provided that sense of specialness doesn't kill them, spiritually and literally. Really, the plain message of this poem is that the narrator hates his job and thinks in generalizations to convince himself that he'd rather be lazy than productive. Levine, as the title declares, actually talks about work, this bothersome, tiring, repetitive activity we with varying and tailored approaches, attitudes, responses. His poem gets across the finer and subtler dimensions of labor by actually sussing through the particulars of desire colliding with necessity; this is where he finds his poetry, and it is here where he can address the conflict in unexpected and believable ways. You trust that Levine knows something about having to show up on time for a job he hates (or loves). Burt convinces us only that he has hard to meet needs.Burt's poem is nostalgic, really, and he seemed to writing in the shadow of the truly colossal complainers and, as such, has written a poem that is sorrowful reminder of the worst creative writing classes can do. The worst they do is that teach young people to be professional poets who are more concerned with making life accommodate language and not the other way around.

Friday, March 9, 2007

BREAK, BLOW, BURN: Camille Paglia's Poems that Matter

Camille Paglia
I'd said some rude things about Camille Paglia's reemergence as a regular columnist at, berating her for basically wasting the opportunity to be smart about cultural and political issues by lavishing each form of self-flattery. To court cliche, even Norman Mailer has more modesty. I haven't changed my mind, but I should mention her 2005 collection of poetry criticism, Break, Blow, Burn. It's the liveliest collection of critical remarks I've in years. Camille Paglia published her collection of poetry essays Break, Blow, Burn (now in paperback) in 2005, and straight away there were those neoconservatives who seized upon the firebrand professor as one of their own, someone brings "reason" back to the classroom. It was hoped in some discussion groups I've recently emerged from that Paglia is Sanity itself, ready to unfasten the chokehold of incomprehension that's been around literary criticism for decades. The short version of that conversation was that Paglia would be the celebrity academic intellectual who would sift through the Great Books and present a straying society the Values and Virtues William Bennett cherishes almost as much as he does a solid poker hand and a stall stack of chips. Hold the phone. I don't think Paglia represents "a voice of reason" since the word "reason" is the last thing you want to apply to a close reading of a poet's work. It implies, by default, rationality, and it's never been the poet's assignment to reason through experience as if he or she were a scientist trying to classify and categorize the world about them. 

Rather, poets, good poets, and their work continue to attract us because the way in which they usurp the instructed ordering aspects of language and instead find ways to integrated what is seemingly inexpressible, felt the experience, the interiority of being, with what is observed in the factual being. It's perilously hard poetry to write successfully and, even when it's done well, reviewers toward totalizing , sense-making totems that bring a reasonable and agreeable sheen of coherence to a work; the way we've come to discuss poems falls too often in the smelly troughs of conventional wisdom, received perceptions, cracker-barrel philosophy,  simple-minded platitudes, devised, by consensus or conspiracy for readers and reviewers, to have the world remains entirely comprehensible and sane. A worthy critic from the eighties, Clyde Hadlock, once wrote of the best verse being something unique in literature. He asserted, with deft metaphor, that if the prose was the photograph of how the nature of the world appears to the author, then "...poetry is the x-ray." The voice of reason is the enemy to good poetry, and that is what Camille Paglia knows better than any other commentator; a poet, she argues in Break , Blow Burn (now in paperback) is that a poet , though a conscious and determining artist, acts nonetheless as a conduit for the wild strands of personal narrative, religion, myth, comprehensible realism, rage, philosophy merge, blend, twine and twist in the same discussion. Poetry is the language of unreason, another way of taking the pulse of the culture as seen from the particular and individual poet's voice who lives within and yet is compelled to view it askew. The essays in Break Blow Burn argue that the poems under review aren't required to “make sense”, to deliver a singular meaning, easily digested and disposed of, but exist instead to provide a subtler, more nuanced , more complex sense of what experience entails. Many ideas from many sources come to bear on a poem's thesis, and Paglia pulls them out, addresses them, and demonstrates the fascinating dialectic of the way ideas, images, expressions and varied diction influence one another, offer shades of inference, change meanings. 

It wasn't enough that the national discussion on poetry was already pathetic and contrived, a contest between assorted second and third generation splinter groups of specialized enclaves trying to inhale what was left of the air in the tiny room where the debate raged. Amazingly, the conversation had become as dumb as it was insulated. In the 2001, the New Agers and refugees from shoe gazing concerts got into the act with the publication of Roger Housden's slim collection Ten Poems to Change Your Life, in which he presented the undefined general reader with a set of poems, varied to gender, nationality, religion, lifestyle orientation, that they might consider between errands and cell phone chats: " The Journey" by Mary Oliver ,"Last Night as I Was Sleeping," by Antonio Machado, "Song of Myself" by Walt Whitman ,"Zero Circle" by Rumi ,"The Time Before Death" by Kabir,"Ode to My Socks" by Pablo Neruda , "Last Gods" by Galway Kinnell, "For the Anniversary of My Death" by W. S. Merwin, "Love After Love" by Derek Walcott "The Dark Night" by St. John of the Cross . A high-quality selection, give or take exceptions according to tastes, but Housden's intent seemed less to introduce readers to the wonders and varieties of perspective poetry might offer than to bring us to the lectern where he would deliver his Message of the Day. Following each poem there was a light discussion of the life's circumstances the preceding poet wrote about and Housden would extrapolate through a number of nimbly massaged points of literature, theology, popular spirituality, to give the image reader a broader perspective, a moment's respite from that crackle and insistence of contemporary consumption. The aim of the collection, hardly surprising, was to have the stressed audience abandon their cell phones, laptops and other devices of damning distraction,  and make time to smell the roses before they were gone, trampled under the heel of progress. It's not an original premise, but it remains sage advice all the same, and one could for the moment put their disdain for the use of a poet's work as fodder for a feel-good mill, although containing the contempt was harder than it would seem. The irony was that the fresh perspectives, the original language use, the carefully crafted evidence of subtle intelligence interrogating the problematic nature of existence  used as another means of delivering readers to insights they already know. One hoped, even prayed, one hid under sheets of wishful thinking; any way of bringing readers to quality poets was worth a bit of pimping by an enterprising editor and motivational guru. Or was it? The problem remained that the skewed thinking that characterizes much of the best work would only confuse and further complicated the world for an audience that wanted assurances, not ironies from what they read and reflected upon. The mind was already a roiling with contradiction and discontent. Housden's editorial genius was his ability to ignore the problematic subject and stir his declarations skyward, looking over the hill for the displaced Gods who formerly assured us a coherent world.

Ten Poems to Change Your Life turned into a series of five similarly named collections, a choice gathering of poets per volume, followed by Houston's compulsively upbeat chats. A gimmick has been established for Housden and was performing handsomely—the books, pocket-sized, were perfect for bookstore cash register stands as impulse purchases, and in the dozens. One despaired seeing that Housden's books sold while the poetry section remained the slowest selling in the store where one worked; the audience was ready to read one poem by Walt Whitman and absorb a slight ration of cracker barrel spiritualism as an afterward, but such readers weren't inclined to pick up "Leaves of Grass" and do their thinking. Housden's audience is one that wants to be told what things mean. Housden's brilliance isn't what he says about the poems, but rather in recognizing an area of mild interest to big audiences that hadn't been  exploited and denuded of any possibility of inspiring even a minor itch.

It was enough to make one want to give up the game entirely and watch DVD reissues instead, but there is a blast of fresh air coming through the room, Camille Paglia's Break, Blow, Burn, a collection of forty-three poems brought together for close reading by the author. Paglia is a humanities' professor at University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and made her entrance on the national stage with the publication of her bulging, bombastic and usually brilliant book Sexual Personae, a sprawling study of sexual identity, its profound effect on art and culture, and the endless way that it's been disguised and altered. Personae was maddening in all its phases and investigations, with theories and declarations worthy of full dissertations popping up every few pages, yet no matter how one reads her breathless, in-your-face explications that every proverbial pore of existence, society, and culture was dripped with sexuality (repressed or blatant), you couldn't dismiss with the usual brush off lines. Paglia's basic thesis about the best way to appreciate poems is to stop worshiping reputations and the sordid prestige that comes and begin instead to read and think about particular poems. Hers isn't a sensibility to bow to fashion or someone's deeply intoned name; fame and a gimmick will not acquaint the poet under review any slack. As she says in the preface, what she believes in are great poems, of themselves, separate from larger bodies of work. What we get in the forty-one essays in Break, Blow, Burn are her intense, close readings of what she regards as the best poems in English; the selection and the arrangement of what these "best" poems come to be won't satisfy every taste or notion of what honestly comprises the best work, but Paglia didn't write these missives in order to cosign every lazy idea we've had about poets and their work.

These are her favorites, using her criteria, and quite unlike many skimpy or corpulent collections slapped between covers to satisfy a fleeting fashion, she will lay her arguments in solid, comprehensible and far-flung terms, returning again, again and yet again to the respective poems she's reviewing. Less a medium to make us feel warm and secure, her poems have to do with an extreme engagement with life on life's terms. Whether finding whole worlds of secular metaphysics contained in the few lines of Wallace Stevens' "Anecdote of a Jar," sweetly limning the edgy and cavalierly erotic voyeurism of Paul Blackburn's "The Once Over" or marveling at the triple-tiered city speak of Frank O'Hara's fantasy "A Mexican Guitar," Paglia discusses each of the poet's work as points in which spiritual certainty and intellectual pragmatism come into conflict, war with one another, and emerge by poem's conclusion with some third perception larger than the opposing inclinations which reveal a finer, more complex, less fixed situation for the human condition. In each case, Paglia follows the poet in the process of bringing together the poem, their process of perception, beginning with what was observed, the associations the image conjures or suggests, and delicately observing how the poet controls their associations, no less careful than a great composer, giving play to the various senses and associations each phrase and delicious reference appeals to. Paglia's genius is her ability to recreate the poet's thinking at the moment of composition. This makes her discussions intimate, vital, a whirlwind of excited speculation. Flux, change, destruction, growth, all the things that make the up the endlessly repeated cycles of death and birth, are what connect these poems, and Paglia, in these vividly studied pieces, isn't about to let any of us slide by with only a nodding acquaintance with what a poem can mean as well as be. Her view of art is that it increases our awareness of life's enormity, not reduces it to some meager paragraphs of ego massage, and it's a good thing that she was willing to put her notoriety on the line in introducing some rigor into the general chat. Finally, what is especially inspiring in Paglia's fierce arguments is her refusal to grant the readers slack. None of this material is over your head, she seems to insist, Get on the ladder and see what's out there.