Wednesday, April 16, 2014
So you're looking for the latest in midcentury Afro-Caribbean women's surrealism? You've come to the right place! Well, almost. You'll need to click over to Circumference: Poetry in Translation to see two new translations of Lucie Thésée's work, "Poem" and "Rapture: The Depths," by Jean-Luc Garneau and the present humble blogger.
More of the translations Jean-Luc and I have been working on appear here and here in Poetry. There's a little essay about them here, and the New York Times did a little feature on one here.
Friday, April 11, 2014
If you want to appreciate W.H. Auden, you’ve got to come at him with a good grasp of camp, that hard-to-define quality that combines exaggeration, pastiche, transgression, and so many other things (the origins of the term probably lie in the French word camper, and refer to the exaggerated formalities and prescribed behaviors of a 19th century military camp, with all those big salutes, high stepping marches, and all of those epaulets, gold braid, and brass buttons). Camp is essential, for example, to Auden’s first large-scale achievement in verse, the play—or, more precisely, the charade—Paid on Both Sides. Completed in 1928, it appeared first in T.S. Eliot’sCriterion in January 1930, and later that same year became the longest piece in Auden’s Poems, a volume published by Faber under Eliot’s aegis. One can see much in Auden’s play that would recommend it to the author of The Waste Land: like that poem, it gives a clearly modern landscape, and it depicts a struggle between a faltering life-wish and the forces of sterility and death, and even includes a depiction of spring’s life-force faltering, in the manner of the famous opening of Eliot’s poem. One wonders whether Eliot was sensitive to the differences between the two poems, though. There are, after all, reasons to doubt how thoroughly Auden embraced the world-view that seems to pervade his poem.
That world-view is distinctly Freudian. In 1920, at the age of 13, Auden had discovered Freud via his father’s library, and Auden consumed his works eagerly, along with those of others associated with psychology and psychoanalysis, in the years that followed. His attitude toward psychological theory tended toward the camp—taking the ideas seriously, but at the same time making fun out of them, an activity (as Auden’s friend Christopher Isherwood liked to point out) quite distinct from making fun of them. Auden enjoyed the theories and made much art out of them but self-consciously presented himself as giving them greater credence than he truly did, striking the pose of the dogmatist.
Sunday, April 06, 2014
The title of this talk, which I hope will only detain you for 45 or 50 minutes, is "When Poetry Matters," but since, like most people who've written poems, all I really want to talk about is myself, I've given it a subtitle, so the full, double-barreled name for what follows is "Why Poetry Matters, or: My Slide Down the Slopes of Parnassus." I think I can get away with this, because one way to talk about the conditions under which poetry matters (whatever "mattering" may mean") is to talk about how I became less of a poet and more of a literary critic — how I slid off the slopes of Mount Parnassus, where poets commune with the true, the good, the eternal, and the beautiful, and landed in a research library, where critics push little carts of footnotes and citations around under the dim and flickering light cast by fluorescent tubes, refreshing themselves only with little plastic wrapped sandwiches and paper cups of terrible coffee from the commissary. It was better on Parnassus, where we poets lived only on the nectar of the gods.
Don't get me wrong: I haven't given up on poetry. Far from it. It's just that, back when I was writing poetry full time, without the shadow of scholarship looming over me, I began to wonder whether, and how, and to whom, and under what circumstances, poetry actually mattered. So I decided to investigate the question from a historical, and to some degree sociological, perspective. Well, the muses are intolerant of this sort of thing, and kicked me down the mountainside. A decade passed, and here I am with my report...
Sunday, March 30, 2014
When a devotee of the astringent ‘difficulty’ of J.H. Prynne and de facto member of the Cambridge School publishes a 7,000 line Anglican poem in formal rhyming verse, it is safe to conclude he has had something of a change of heart. Not total, perhaps. Simon Jarvis’ Night Office, the poem in question, echoes and alludes to Prynne and foregrounds the sort of Adorno-inspired theorizing Jarvis and others have used to justify Prynnian poetics. Even the way Jarvis writes as if no one had produced a rhyming couplet since 1908 may be more a result of subscription to modernist orthodoxy than evidence of its renunciation. Still, there is no pretending Night Office is your standard Cambridge fare.
Sunday, March 16, 2014
|Archambeau, Burt & Mazer before "Poetry: What's Next" at the Grolier|
Here, courtesy of Mark Schorr, is an audio recording of "You Will Object," my talk on the future of poetry at the Grolier poetry bookshop.
Mark made my day afterwards when he compared my talk to something Kenneth Burke might have said.
Monday, March 10, 2014
Sunday, March 09, 2014
Research continues in the vital field of descriptive poetic sociology, people, and my army of assistants labors ceaselessly in the fourth sub-basement of the secret backyard writing dojo. Below find a compilation of current research results: a provisional and partial descriptive vocabulary for life on the slopes of the American Parnassus!
Bestseller: A poetry book purchased by at least one person neither related to, nor a former student of, the poet in question. The existence of bestsellers has yet to be verified.
Censorship: Something that happens to poets in other countries. American poets are protected by the constitution and widespread public indifference.
Close Reading: An event at which one performs one's poems in a venue the size of a phone booth.
Impoetence: Writer's block. A failure to rise to the occasion.
Metafore: The act of trying to convince a more prestigious poet that the two of you have met on a prior occasion.
Multiclutchural Poet: One who tries desperately to find a Native American, African-American, or Latino ancestor. Mid-career name changes may be involved.
Reversifier: A poet who tries to write in meter but gets it backwards. A New Formalist.
Many thanks to R.S. Gwynn, Paul Bond, T.R. Hummer and Michael Anania for their valuable research in cataloging these terms.
Saturday, March 01, 2014
Wednesday, February 05, 2014
The shades of Oppen and Rimbaud stalk unmentioned through much of The Poet Resigns: Rimbaud, the intransigently avant-garde Communard sympathizer who abandoned poetry for gun-running; Oppen, who bailed out of the Objectivist “movement” (and poetry itself) in order to organize strikes for the American Communist Party. The two men are as it were limit-texts for the collision of poetry and active politics. But in their wake there have been whole generations of poets, in both Rimbauldian and Oppenian genealogies of influence, who have argued that making poems can be in itself a way of doing political labor. Archambeau’s subtitle, “Poetry in a Difficult World,” evokes Adrienne Rich (An Atlas of the Difficult World): where Rich’s poems aim to examine and perhaps even to intervene in a world of disquiet, cruelty, and injustice, Archambeau is interested in the place poets stake out for their art, the claims they make about the relationship of poetry and power—and the motivations for such claims.
Secondly, Scroggins nails something about how I tend to think. He notes that the essays in the book were all written for one sort of occasion or another, then adds:
And they have the advantage of the best occasional writing: immediacy, a sense of responsiveness, conversationality. But Archambeau is a “big ideas” critic: he invariably wants to spin his momentary interpretations of texts into larger insights about the place of poetry in the world. Sometimes, as in the more general essays in the first half of the book, this results in excellent and provocative meditations; sometimes individual poets, poems, and passages from poems become grist for a relentless point-making mill. There is enough to think about in The Poet Resigns to fill a shelf of books, and if Archambeau has the tendency sometimes to answer the big questions of our poetic moment a bit more rapidly than I’m comfortable with, he’s to be given abundant kudos for raising them in such a clear and thoughtful manner, and for tackling them in such lively and intelligent prose. There are many moments in The Poet Resigns when Archambeau’s affection for poetry (in all of its forms) and his sensitive critical intelligence align perfectly with his structure-making impulses. And the more personal moments of this collection, such as the delightful “My Laureates,” show that the poet-critic, whether his resignation be temporary or permanent, is by no means afraid to subject his own socio-politico-theoretical position to the same examination he has brought to bear on others.He's got my number, Scroggins has: every time I read a poem I do want to spin the interpretation out into a general discourse on the history of Western aesthetics since the Enlightenment, and a concomitant social analysis! And I do love giving an outline of an entire system of thought as a prelude to making often relatively minor observations (see, for example, the blog post preceding this one). This can certainly be a vice, even as it can, on a good day, perhaps be a virtue. Scroggins isn't the only person to have noticed this. During the recent MLA convention in Chicago I was several drinks into the evening with the writer of another, forthcoming review of The Poet Resigns, who told me "most of those essays ought to be books!" I took this as a compliment at the time, but I suppose there's a very different way of seeing it, too.
Anyway: I get what Pinsky means: its good to be seen for exactly what you are, and Scroggins sees pretty damn clearly.
The whole review can be found here.
Saturday, February 01, 2014
After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it -- "I refute it thus."
Just as humans do not dissolve into their parents or children but rather have a certain autonomy from both, so too a rock is neither downwardly reducible to quarks and electrons nor upwardly reducible to its role in stoning the Interior Ministry. The rock has rock properties not found in its tiny components, and also has rock properties not exhausted by its uses. The rock is not affected when a few of its protons are destroyed by cosmic rays, and by the same token it is never exhaustively deployed in its current use or in all its possible uses. The rock does not exist because it can be used, but can be used because it exists…. It is a real form outside our minds. It is what medieval philosophers called a substantial form: the reality of an individual object over and above its matter, and under and beneath its apprehension by the mind.
According to one familiar narrative… philosophers used to be naïve realists who believed in real things outside their social or linguistic contexts; these things were ascribed timeless essences that were not politically innocent, since they subjugated various groups by pigeonholing each of them as oriental, feminine, pre-Enlightenment or some other such tag. According to this view, we have luckily come to realize that essences must be replaced with events and performances, that the notion of a reality that is not a reality for someone is dubious, that flux is prior to stasis, that things must be seen as differences rather than solid units…
The problem with individual substances was never that they were autonomous or individual, but that they were wrongly conceived as eternal, unchanging, simple, or directly accessible by certain privileged observers. By contrast, the objects of object-oriented philosophy are mortal, ever-changing, built from swarms of subcomponents, and accessible only through oblique allusion. This is not the oft-lamented 'naïve realism' of oppressive and benighted patriarchs, but a weird realism in which real individual objects resist all forms of causal or cognitive mastery.
If Keats' 'beauty is truth, truth beauty' can only adequately be read as the outcome of the earlier part of the poem, this is not true of the whole of the earlier portions, Cleanth Brooks notwithstanding. We can add alternate spellings or even misspellings to scattered words earlier in the text, without changing the feeling of the climax. We can change punctuations slightly, and even change the exact words of a certain number of lines before 'beauty is truth, truth beauty' begins to take on different overtones. In short, we cannot identify the literary work with the exact current form it happens to have.
...attempting various modifications of these texts and seeing what happens. Instead of just writing about Moby-Dick, why not try shortening it to various degrees in order to discover the point at which it ceases to sound like Moby-Dick? Why not imagine it lengthened even further, or told by a third-person narrator rather than by Ishmael, or involving a cruise in the opposite direction around the globe? Why not consider a scenario under which Pride and Prejudice were set in upscale Parisian neighborhoods rather than rural England—could such a text plausibly still be Pride and Prejudice? Why not imagine that a letter by Shelley was actually written by Nietzsche, and consider the resulting consequences and lack of consequences? … all the preceding suggestions involve ways of decontextualizing works… showing that they are to some extent autonomous even of their own properties. Moby-Dick differs from its own exact length and its own modifiable plot details, and is a certain je ne sais quoi or substance able to survive certain modifications and not others.
Thursday, January 23, 2014
“We are all Tunisia in the face of the repressive,” wrote the Qatari poet Muhammad ibn al-Dheed al-Ajami, in a poem praising the uprisings of the Arab spring. He wrote in praise of those who put their lives at risk for freedom, and must have known he was taking a great risk himself: his poem landed him in a Qatari jail, where he remains. He’s a poet who knows about the kind of risk it is hard to imagine an American poet running—protected as our poets are by freedom of speech and widespread public indifference. It’s not that American poets can’t run risks; rather, it’s a matter of much lower stakes. The most common thing our poets put at risk is the sympathy of their readers and editors, and they may do so by aiming too high or too low.
***UPDATE FEB. 4, 2014: My contribution to the symposium is now available online.