Wednesday, January 28, 2015

There's More than Corn in Indiana: New Poetry from the Midwest

Hot news!  New Poetry from the Midwest, edited by Okla Elliott and Hannah Stephenson, is about to be unleashed on the world (the official uncaging of this tiger will be at the AWP in April, but word on the street is that you'll be able to score a copy before the convention.

The anthology includes poetry by Nin Andrews, Jason Bredle, Kwame Dawes, John Gallaher, Lyn Lifshin, Natalie Shapero, Lee Upton and many others, and includes my own contribution, a gnostic little poem called "Nag Hammadi: A Parable." Show up at the AWP with a copy tucked in your tote bag and amaze the long line of people waiting to get theirs at the New American Press booth!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Auden! Eliot! Perloff! Lorca! Campiness! Revolution! Apollinaire! — The New Battersea Review Goes Live!

I swear to what gods may be, I know of no literary journal as committed to in-depth criticism and analysis of poetry as The Battersea Review, the latest issue of which has just gone live on the internet.  Great poems, deep archival materials, exciting translations—and some of my favorite critics (multiple pieces by Marjorie Perloff, as well as Richard Tillinghast and Stephen Burt)... and three things I wrote—one each on Auden & Campiness, the young T.S. Eliot, and the future of poetry.  Check it out!

A new translation of Federico García Lorca'a "Dark Love Sonnets" 

New translations of Guillame Apollinaire

Poems by Joshua Mehigan

Poems by Ruth Lepson

Reviews of the complete letters of T.S. Eliot
Robert Archambeau on volume one 
Saskia Hamilton on volume two
Marjorie Perloff on volumes three and four 

 Marjorie Perloff on the minimalism of Ian Hamilton Finlay

 Letters & Poems of the 1950s by John Wieners 

Richard Tillinghast on the Quiet Revolution in English Poetry

Robert Archambeau on W.H. Auden, Camp & Fascism

A symposium on the future of poetry featuring... Stephen Burt, Robert Archambeau, and Ben Mazer

and more, more, more!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Inventions of a Barbarous Age: Contemporary Rhyme in Poetry

The latest issue of the Spoon River Poetry Review is out, and contains my essay "Inventions of a Barbarous Age: Rhyme in Contemporary Poetry."  Some very talented people have been writing in rhyme lately, both in and well outside the old 'New Formalist' movement.  And they've been rhyming in vastly different ways (I look at Michael Robbins, Amanda Smletz, R.S. Gwynn, and Ben Mazer).  Moreover, some very bright people have been thinking about the meaning and history of rhyme.  The essay begins by examining what two of these people—Stephen Burt and Anthony Madrid—have to say.  Here's how the essay opens:

Rhyme, argues Milton, defending the blank verse of Paradise Lost, is "no necessary adjunct or true ornament of a poem… but the invention of a barbarous age," and the poet's freedom from rhyme is "an ancient liberty recovered… from the troublesome modern bondage of rhyming." Times have changed: try thinking of a contemporary poet who has felt the need to defend the lack of rhyme in his or her poetry and odds are pretty strong you'll come up blank. Indeed, it's the rhymers who are more likely to feel the need for a defense. The best defense, of course, is a good poem in rhyme—and if we look, we begin to find these in many different quadrants of the poetry world.

But there are rhymes and there are rhymes, and it's worthwhile considering what some of the recent scholarship has to say about the differences between them, especially if we hope to understand the various ends to which contemporary poets have put rhyme. Perhaps it's not coincidental that the most provocative critical thoughts about rhyme in recent years have come from poets, notably Stephen Burt and Anthony Madrid.

Burt looks at rhyme primarily in terms of its function, making a general distinction between what he calls “background” and “foreground” rhymes. For most of the history of rhymed poetry in English, Burt writes in his essay “Cornucopia, or Contemporary American Rhyme,” rhymes were not meant to pull focus away from other elements of the poem. Rhyme was one element in the “metrical contract,” an agreement between poets and readers that poems would be more tightly organized and musical than prose. Individual rhymes, though, “would not usually draw more attention than other aspects of the verse.” Indeed: they were part of a norm—a background—against which deviations became more visible. They were the settings in which verbal gems were placed, not the gems themselves. When they were too ingenious—or, alternately, too worn and cloying—they pulled focus and failed to serve their vital if unglamorous function. Burt cites Robert Graves’ analogy between good rhymes and good servants as an example of this theory of rhyme’s function: good rhymes, says Graves, “are the good servants whose presence at the dinner-table gives the guest a sense of opulent security; never awkward or over-clever… You can trust them not to interrupt the conversation.” Rhyming “moon” with “June,” in this view, is much like spilling a bowl of soup in a diner’s lap; while rhyming “intellectual” with “hen-pecked you all” is more a matter of spending far too long explaining the choice of appetizer, or making an unctuous compliment about the diner’s choice of necktie.

When rhyme forces itself onto our attention, it pushes itself into the foreground. The move may be propelled by all sorts of different fuel: rhymes may jump forward “because they are polysyllabic, because they employ proper nouns… because the words they use are the oddest in their respective lines” or for any number of other reasons. What matters is that it demands attention: rather than being part of an accepted contract, it comes across as a violation of some kind, making the verse seem “consciously artificial—ornamental, or antiquary, or ironic (even sarcastic), or willed, or faux-naïve.” Most of you wouldn’t want this kind of rhyme serving you dinner on a big night out, though you’d probably enjoy it as a cabaret performer.

A contract, of course, has two parties, and Burt’s theory of rhyme isn’t so much about the qualities of rhymes in isolation, but about the way they interact with readerships. The percentage of published American poems that rhyme is smaller than it was even a few decades ago —fewer and fewer readers take rhyme as a norm—with the result that it is harder and harder for rhyme to fulfill a background function. Foreground rhyme, therefore, “has become, for most American poets now, the only kind that we can use: its possibilities have expanded immensely, while background rhyme has become, though not unheard of, scarce, and extremely hard to use well.”

While Burt focuses on the function of rhyme in a shifting context, Anthony Madrid gives us a bold, broad history of English rhyme. In “Warrant for Rhyme” he tells a story of rhyme’s transformation from the Renaissance to the present day, centering on a “rhyme shift” that quietly remade English poetry over the course of the seventeenth century. Before this shift, we find a much greater emphasis on rhymes that bear a sematic resemblance as well as a sonic one: “cherry” and “berry,” for example, or “mother” and “brother.” After the shift, though, such rhymes occur with greatly reduced frequency. By 1660 or so, Madrid argues,
 …serious poets unconsciously resisted using rhyme pairs wherein the two words bore to each other any strong and essential semantic link. This resistance sometimes reached a pitch of utter exclusion in cases where the words in the rhyme pair were perceived on some level as participating in a semantic algebra of equivalence or opposition… whole categories of rhyme were decommissioned. In particular, rhyme pairs wherein the words are near-synonyms or near-antonyms were to be avoided. Thus, {moan | groan} would have been counterintuitive to an Augustan poet, because the two terms are near-synonyms. {Sad | glad} would have seemed undesirable because the words are opposites.
Since the move away from semantic/sonic combinations in rhyme happens in poetic practice without ever becoming the subject of a manifesto-like polemical essay in the period, the rationale remains evasive, although Madrid advances a hypothesis that we might take as a description of the birth of what Burt calls background rhyme. “[T]he implied purpose of rhyme” after the shift, says Madrid, “was to affect the audience in the same way that music does: not by encoding information, but by manipulating the sensual apparatus of the body." The hypothesis, then, is that poets sought “ to exclude rhymes they expected would call attention to themselves, thus disturbing the operation of the music.”

For Madrid, this system began to break down in the nineteenth century, beginning with the comic masterpieces of Lord Byron. In Byron we see the first poet to work, not intermittently or marginally, but in his great works quite consistently, with rhymes that willfully violate the norms of decorum. He does so not by turning back the clock to the Renaissance emphasis on semantically significant rhymes, but by turning to a kind of rhyme that insistently “demonstrates inventiveness and originality.”

This turn to eccentricity prepared the ground for the diminished role of rhyme in modern poetry. The flashy virtuosity of Byronic rhyme inevitably led the reader to ask, “Are not all these crazy rhymes a joke on poetry itself?” The ultimate effect of Byron and those he influenced was to help undermine the old contract about rhyme between poet and reader, giving us a “demotion of rhyme from an effect that characterized a given poem as a whole to a local and unpredictable effect whose pretensions to power were sharply limited.” We find ourselves in the world of Burt’s foreground rhymers, with rhyme coming across as artificial, ornamental, willed, ironic, or faux-naïve. Madrid laments this situation, claiming that while rhyme culture never disappeared among songwriters, in literary poetry rhyme will, in the absence of some champion, “languish in a perpetual catarrh, and students of English poetry will have to strain hard to lend half of our greatest poets the sympathetic ear they deserve.” “When, oh when,” Madrid seems to call out in the wilderness, “will the covenant be revived?”


Well, it goes on, with readings of recent work by of R.S. Gwynn, Michael Robbins, Amanda Smeltz, and Ben Mazer, who employ different types of rhymes to different ends for different audiences.  At the moment, the essay is only available in the print version of the Spoon River Poetry Review (39.2, winter 2014) but the online version should be available soon.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

The Power of Poetry in the Modern World

Rejoice! The new issue of the South Atlantic Review (vol. 77 nos. 1 & 2, for those of you compiling bibliographies) will soon find its way into print (and onto your local JSTOR server), and it's a special issue on the power of poetry in the modern world—essential reading for anyone interested in understanding how poetry interacts with the larger world.  In addition to poems and reviews, it features the following articles:

Marjorie Perloff, "John Cage as Conceptualist Poet"
Lisa K. Perdigow, "Coming Undone: Entering Jorie Graham's Poststructural Poetics"
Emily R. Rutter, "the story of being: Revising the Posthumous Legacy of Huddie Ledbetter in Tyehimba Bess' leadbelley"
Jason M. Coates, "H.D. and the Hermetic Impulse"
Ronald Schuchard, "Yeats and Olivia Revisited: A Pathway to The Winding Stair and Other Poems"
Tara D. Causey, "Stories of Survivance: The Poetry of Karenne Wood"

There's also my own essay—"The Fall and Rise of Poetry: T.S. Eliot and the Place of Poetry in the Modern World."  Here's how it starts:

T. S. Eliot was far from alone among modern poets in perceiving a crisis in the social position of poetry and in dreaming up a solution to that crisis. Yeats, for example, sought to bring poetry out of the aesthete’s garret by allying it with both mystic rites and nationalism; while Ezra Pound dreamed of a world in which “the damned and despised literati” would, through clarity of language, keep “the whole machinery of social and of individual thought” functional and therefore make themselves crucial to the legislators and governors of the world. Eliot’s particular sense of the nature of the crisis, and of its solution, was colored by the decline of his social class and of the kind of public, moralistic poetry associated with that class. Eliot had strong family connections to a Boston-based, cultivated elite that entered a phase of steep decline around the time of his birth and similarly strong connections to the poetic traditions of that class, traditions whose supporting institutions eroded rapidly in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. Eliot’s reaction to the decline of public poetry was, at first, to retreat from such poetry into the aestheticism of his 1905 graduation ode and later to satirize his declining class and its culture, including its literary culture. Out of his satire, though, emerged a new theory of poetry, in which the energies to which popular culture speaks are harnessed to the civilizing power of a tradition of high culture and spiritual discipline. Eliot sees a public role for this new poetry—but not as a replacement for popular culture. Rather, he sees it as being important in the formation of a new caste of cultural leaders who will, he hopes, have a broad influence in society. When a new class of educated professionals takes up Eliot’s poetry (and humanistic culture more generally) in the postwar era, this class partially fulfills Eliot’s ambition. Unlike Yeats or Pound, Eliot sees his dream for a revivified poetry, with a kind of power in the modern world, come to some measure of fruition.

I'm especially happy to have my essay on Eliot—really a kind of social class analysis of aesthetics in poetry—appear in an issue guest edited by Nancy D. Hargrove, a distinguished Eliot scholar.  The South Atlantic Review is under new and dynamic editorship, and promised great things in the years ahead.  Excelsior!  Now, if only they could do something about cover art...

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Danny Devito Explains "The Poet Resigns"

Danny Devito passionately explaining my work.

Just in time for the new year, the latest issue of Pleiades has arrived.  The current issue put me in a bit of a dilemma, since I didn't know where to turn first.  Should I plunge into the teeming multitude of promising looking poems?  Grab onto my colleague Rebecca Makkai's short story?  Or rush ahead to the virtuosic, and sure to be controversial, Mark Halliday take-down of Traci Brimhall's Our Lady of the Ruins (I have not read Brimhall's book, so I don't know if Halliday is right, only that he writes a hell of a take down).  Should I begin at the beginning and race on to the end?  These, I'm a little abashed to say, weren't the questions. Rather, I was stuck between wanting to read my own contribution—an essay on John Matthias' poetry, to see if the typesetters had changed innocent words into vile profanities—or to read Amish Trivedi's review of a collection of my own essays, The Poet Resigns.  Anxiety warred with vanity!  I won't tell you which won out, but veil the embarrassing result by quoting, instead, from both pieces.

My essay on Matthias is called "Indirections," and takes as its occasion the publication of his collected poems.  But it's really out to make a general statement of Matthias' poetics.  It begins like this:
John Matthias is so thoroughly a European poet he could only be American. That is, his poetry, now collected in three volumes from Shearsman Books, is so saturated with European geography, history, and, most importantly, personages from the history of high culture, that a reader coming to it for the first time would see at once an affiliation with Europhile American poets like Pound and Eliot. Like those poets, Matthias spent a considerable period of his life in Europe (mostly England), and like them he has read widely in the poetry of the continent. Like them, too, he takes Europe as a kind of whole, and as a single living tradition—very much an American thing to do, and not at all English, or Spanish, or Lithuanian. Every inch of Europe seems to open out into a richly storied past, and one senses that at least part of his attraction to Europe is that it offers an escape from a perceived American historical shallowness, the sort of thing Harold Rosenberg described when he said that America “builds and acts on a thin time crust—its constructions reach upward rather than down, its politics take account of the immediate future rather than the past.” 
One thing that the opportunity these three volumes—some 900 pages in all—offers is the chance to see the consistent appeal of Europe to Matthias, and to recognize a fundamental pattern in the way Europe plays into the poetry. Despite the serious religious concerns of poems like the 45-page “A Compostella Diptych” (which traces ancient pilgrim routes across France and Spain), Matthias does not seek in Europe a path back to a meaningful religious communion, as did Eliot. Nor does he use the European past as a way to cudgel Americanized modernity, with its preference for mass produced plaster over artisanal alabaster, as did Pound. Instead, Europe, and especially Europe’s past, provides a kind of Archimedean point outside of Matthias’ immediate experiences from which he can re-imagine them. From his earliest poems to his most recent, we find Matthias changing his perspective on experiences—often difficult or painful ones—by placing them in the context of distant geographies, remote pasts, or foreign lives.

Even the erotic poetry of Matthias’ youth works this way. Consider “What They Say,” a short poem written when Matthias was twenty and published for the first time in volume one of the Collected Shorter Poems. Grouped with other erotic poems like “Female Nude, Young” and “Swimming at Midnight,” it describes the Viennese painter Egon Schiele in his studio, posing his models and friends as “onanistic nudes,” then climbing a ladder to a loft to get the odd angle he desired. “And it’s the perspective that distorts,” writes Matthias, “The ladder and the beds/were Egon Schiele’s.” while “The postures and/the gestures/were all theirs.” It’s a simple poem, and very much juvenilia, but in a way it contains the poetic career that will to follow for another half century and more. It’s not just that Matthias’ erotic imagination, here, runs toward the visions of long-dead artists in faraway Europe rather than the proximate body of a lover: it’s that the important thing, the thing that makes Schiele more than a pornographer, is his distancing himself from his material, his climbing of a ladder to gain exactly the right point of distance and perspective.

Amish Trivedi's review of my book The Poet Resigns begins by explaining the book with reference to some lines spoken by Danny Devito's character in the move Other People's Money—a gambit that I never would have thought would work, but does:
"We're dead alright.  We're just not broke. And do you know the surest way to go broke? Keep getting an increasing share of a shrinking market.  Down the tubes.  Slow but sure" (Other People's Money, 1991).  In The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World Robert Archambeau confronts Danny Devito's point: no matter how successful a poet may become, it is a success limited by poetry's ever-diminishing position within the world. While there are plenty of poets who wish that poetry were as marketable as popular fiction or Miley Cyrus, the central question Archambeau asks is whether or not poetry can successfully return to some imagined high point of a golden past...
Trivedi cuts to the core of the book when he says that its central question is "What is the role of poetry in contemporary society?"  Trivedi says some kind things about the book, but personally, I feel The Poet Resigns only starts to answer that question.  I'm hoping the critical book I'm resolving to finish in the year ahead, Making Nothing Happen: Poetry in Society, Poetry for Itself takes things further.  And in a way I'm kind of hoping a future reviewer will find a way to link that book to the Danny Devito oeuvre, too.


Pleiades 35.1 is currently available in print—online selections from the issue will appear soon.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Invitation to the Voyage: Notes on The Modern Poetic Image

“Invitation to the Voyage,” the dark jewel in the crown of Baudelaire’s prose poems, is many things.  For me, lately, it has become a touchstone for understanding what is modern—and, for that matter, postmodern—in poetry.  The modern quality of Baudelaire’s prose poem shows best when we hold it up in contrast against its most significant background: Dante’s Vita Nuova. Both “Invitation to the Voyage” and the mixed prose and poetry of the Vita Nuova are drenched in yearning for a woman who is more than just a woman: she is also a gateway to something infinite and eternal.  But the differences between Baudelaire’s eternity and Dante’s are striking, and go beyond matters of religious doctrine to the far more serious issue of the nature of the literary image.

Aesthete that he is, Baudelaire gives us, in “Invitation to the Voyage,” an image of a place that is somehow the antithesis of the ordinary world—a place that isn’t described in isolation, but through contrast to our busy, vulgar world.  It shines in the beyond, this other, better place where “slower hours” than ours “contain more thoughts, where clocks strike happiness with a deeper and more significant solemnity.”  The nature of the place isn’t defined with any exactness, but evoked by a series of images—tall windows divided into leaded glass panes, a bright, shining array of kitchen copper, the light of sunsets settling richly on the walls—is it an aesthetic place? A place of interiors and artifice? A place of order? Of dignified domesticity?  It’s hard to say, exactly, except that there’s a mood of quiet and order and timelessness.  It isn’t just an indefinite place, though: it is also an impossible one, or contradictory: it might, says Baudelaire, be called “the China of Europe.”

If anything is certain about this place to which Baudelaire would flee, it is that it is a country made in the image of his beloved—a point on which he insists. Everything made in the country, he tells her, “is made in your image”—indeed, it is a country entirely “in your image.”  As the prose poem reaches its climax, we read “These treasures, this furniture, this luxury, this order, these perfumes, these miraculous flowers, are you.  They are you, too, these great rivers and these quiet canals.”  The beloved is this escapist paradise, into which Baudelaire himself enters in his mind. Continuing with his image of rivers and canals, he writes “these vast ships that drift down them, laden with riches, and from whose decks rise the monotonous songs of laboring sailors, they are my thoughts which slumber or rise and fall on your breast.”  It is the beloved who, in embodying or signifying the better, purer, more timeless place, brings Baudelaire away from this world and toward the eternal: she leads his river-faring thoughts “gently toward the sea, which is infinite.” This infinity isn’t the beloved, exactly, though: it is a place the poet reaches via love for her, a place where his thoughts can stay only for a while before they weary of it, and “now enriched… return to you from the infinite.”

The debt Baudelaire owes to Dante is profound.  Firstly, there is the way the beloved woman connects to the other, better world.  The best way to describe the relationship of the two in “Invitation to the Voyage” is to lift a passage on the Vita Nuova from the scholar and translator Barbara Reynolds, who says Dante writes of Beatrice in a manner that represents “not personification or symbolism, but the perception that actual persons can be images of qualities beyond themselves.”  That is: a real person, rather than an allegorical figure, an imaginary metaphor, or a symbolic creature is the image and pathway to a world better than the one around us. The concept is new with Dante, and ranks among his greatest inventions.  It is a concept very much alive in contemporary poetry, as we see, for example in Lorenzo Thomas’ poem “God Sends Love Disguised as Ordinary People,” where we needn’t go further than the title to see the notion that real individuals in our lives represent something greater and more eternal than themselves. 

What is more, the specific qualities of the world Baudelaire associates with the beloved hold much in common with the world to which Dante ascends via Beatrice.  For both poets, the beloved is the gateway to a love not only of the beloved herself, but of eternity.  Dante’s initial love for Beatrice in the Vita Nuova begins with the senses, with his glimpse of her on the street.  The book recounts the transformations of this love: from a love governed by the sensual attraction, to a love of the poetry of love, to a despair of love at the death of Beatrice, to an abortive revival of earthly love for “Lady Pitiful,” the woman who looks on him compassionately in his bereavement.  Had Dante allowed this new love to flower, the Vita Nuova would have been a startlingly secular book, one in which the pleasures of this life follow upon one another cyclically, one dying love leading to another.  But the new secular love, a “little spirit, newly sent by Love,” that “Its longings and desires before me brings” is banished.  Dante tells of how, before this little spirit could grow, his “heart began to repent sorrowfully of the desire by which it had so basely allowed itself to be possessed for some days.”  Instead, he turns his gaze upwards, to love Beatrice in Heaven—and this brings about the final, most profound transformation of his love.  His love becomes “a pilgrim spirit” and “ascends into the heavens.”  The final poem of Vita Nuova traces the journey:

Beyond the widest of the circling spheres
A sigh which leaves my heart aspires to move.
A new celestial influence which Love
Bestows by virtue of its tears
Impels it ever upwards.

Just as Baudelaire’s voyage on the river of the beloved guides him to the infinite sea, Dante’s quest for Beatrice guides him away from the moral to the eternal.

Of course Dante’s is specifically Christian—indeed, when he depicts Beatrice following one Giovanna (the Italian feminine of John) he makes her a female Christ, appearing after John the Baptist, and his association of her with the number nine (the age at which he first saw her, among other things) underlines her specifically Christian perfection, since nine is the square, or perfection, of the trinity’s three.  This is one key difference between Dante and Baudelaire: Baudelaire’s infinity is indefinite and visited only momentarily—it lies outside of any particular doctrine or orthodoxy. In contrast, Dante takes pain to affiliate his sense of the infinite with specifically Christian iconography and dogma.

The pains Dante takes to specify the specific nature of the eternity to which he ascends are at least as important in differentiating him from Baudelaire as the Christian nature of his eternity.  Not only does he work with Biblical allusion, Christian numerology, and other semiotic systems to control the way the poems of Vita Nuova are read: he structures the book in such a way that most of the poems are sandwiched between contextualizing prose passages and little critical interpretations of their meaning—including helpful indications of what he meant in each part of the poem, and where exactly the parts should be divided.  Moreover, he makes his wishes for hermeneutic clarity explicit, writing that poets must be able to “justify what they say,” for "it would be a disgrace if someone composing in rhyme introduced a figure of speech or rhetorical ornament, and then on being asked could not divest his words of such covering so as to reveal a true meaning."  "My most intimate friend and I," Dante adds, "know a number who compose rhymes in this stupid manner."

Dante is, indeed, very clear about the way the love that begins with the senses directed at a woman can lead to a love of the divine (or, one should add, for a woman’s sense-based love of a man to do so—Dante allows for both forms of heterosexual desire, although his views of same-sex desire were less tolerant, as readers of The Inferno know).  So very clear is Dante about the relation of earthly to divine love that his views, announced at the end of the thirteenth century, endure and become a doctrine, still articulated in full force more than two centuries later in Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier.  In Castiglione they appear as part of the ideological equipment of all civilized gentlemen:

… speaking of the beauty we have in mind, which is that which is seen in bodies and especially in faces, and which excites this ardent desire that we call love, — we will say that it is an effluence of divine goodness, and that although it is diffused like the sun's light upon all created things, yet when it finds a face well proportioned and framed with a certain pleasant harmony of various colors embellished by lights and shadows and by an orderly distance and limit of outlines, it infuses itself therein and appears most beautiful... like a sunbeam falling upon a beautiful vase of polished gold set with precious gems. Thus it agreeably attracts the eyes of men, and entering thereby, it impresses itself upon the soul, and stirs and delights her with a new sweetness throughout, and by kindling her divine goodness excites in her a desire for its own self…. Love gives the soul a greater felicity; for just as from the particular beauty of one body it guides her to the universal beauty of all bodies, so in the highest stage of perfection it guides her from the particular to the universal intellect. Hence the soul, kindled by the most sacred fire of true divine love, flies to unite herself with the angelic nature, and not only quite forsakes sense...
The attempt to delimit specific meaning and to control it is central in Dante and, as the legacy of European literature for centuries after he wrote demonstrates, largely successful.  It is also entirely understandable for someone who wrote about eternity in a time when religious orthodoxy was enforced at the end of pikes and halberds.  And this is by no means something limited to Catholicism or to the middle ages: in the seventeenth century, the great English protestant writer John Bunyan prefaced his Pilgrim’s Progress with a poetic “Apology” in which he goes to pains to prove that his allegory contains nothing but “sound and honest gospel strains,” perhaps like those sung by Cromwell’s soldiers on their way to behead that Catholic sympathizer, Charles the first.

Here, in the insistence on a clearly defined meaning, we see the principal point of difference between Dante and Baudelaire, and the point at which we can begin to pinpoint what is modern about the latter poet.  Baudelaire’s prose poem is suggestive, not definitive.  It evokes meanings, but does not delimit a specific meaning.  Baudelaire was not the first to work with elusive poetic images: indeed, he draws upon a rich Romantic heritage, including the works of Coleridge, whose theory of the symbol (as opposed to the allegory) can serve almost as a statement of poetics for Baudelaire and his kin.  Coleridge uses the term “symbol” inconsistently over the course of his career, but it is his sense of the word in The Statesman’s Manual that is important here.  In that work Coleridge tells us that, unlike the allegorical figure, the symbol is characterized “above all by the translucence of the eternal through and in the temporal.”  It connects us to the ever-changing yet timeless eternity that Coleridge calls “the infinite I AM.” As the scholar James C. McKusick puts it, with Coleridgean symbol, “the form of the sign is determined by the form of the referent” – and when the ultimate referent is the infinite I AM, as it must at some level be in true works of imagination, the form will, like its referent, be dialectical, a process of coming together and diffusing.”  That is, with symbols, we never come to a definite meaning, but watch the process of meanings come together and fall apart; are evoked and dismissed and replaced continuously in the rapt mind of the reader.  We’re pretty far from Dante’s ideal situation, in which the meaning of the poetic image can—indeed must—be paraphrased by any poet aspiring to a state beyond stupidity.

The emphasis on an ultimately elusive poetic image grows over the course of the nineteenth century, reaching a kind of apogee in the works of the French symbolists of the fin de siècle. Mallarmé, for example, tells us that the poem ought to present an array of “resonant meanings and associations” rather than specific referents.  As he put it in an 1891 interview published in L’Echo de Paris, “the contemplation of objects, the images that soar from the reveries they have induced, constitute the song…. to suggest, that is the dream. It is the perfect use of this mystery that constitutes the symbol.”  This art of suggestion rather than delimitation is at the very heart of the symbolist enterprise: Paul Verlaine insists, for example, that the poet “must not/select [his] words without some vagueness.”

In the early twentieth century the notion of the modern poetic image as suggestive rather than definitive becomes codified by that great tribe of rationalizers of the irrational, the Surrealists. André Breton cites Baudelaire as an inspiration in the First Manifesto of Surrealism, where he proclaims that the most powerful poetic image is that which presents the greatest degree of arbitrariness; that 

which takes the longest to translate into everyday language, either because it contains an immense amount of apparent contradiction; or because one of its terms is strangely hidden; or because proclaiming its sensational nature, it has the appearance of ending weakly… or because it is of a hallucinatory nature...

He then cites examples, including Lautréamont’s “the ruby of Champagne,” Louis Aragon’s “the frosted gleam of freedom’s disturbances” and his own “on the bridge the dew with a she-cat’s head rocks itself to sleep.” The grand point of such images is not that they communicate a meaning already determined by the poet, but that the mind, “at first confining itself to submitting to them, soon perceives that they stimulate its powers of reason… it goes onward, borne by these images which delight it.”  The night of confusion through which such obscure images take us is, for Breton, the confusion that leads us to discovery, to new and unpredictable insights, and so it becomes “the most beautiful night of all, the night of the lightning-flash: day, compared to it, is night.” 

Après les Surrealistes, le déluge: the decades between the First Surrealist Manifesto and the present brim over with poetic language and images that cultivate the indefinite, that seek by their strange beauty to refute Dante’s assertion that the poet ought to be able to write a clear prose summary of his meaning.  From the New Critical heresy of paraphrase to the midcentury American “deep image,” from the drifting syntax of John Ashbery to the elliptical juxtapositions of Anne Carson or Graham Foust, to Michael Stipe’s ambiguous lyrics (styled after Patti Smith, herself a student in the school of Baudelaire and Rimbaud) our proximate heritage consists of a thousand versions of the poetics of evocation, rather than definiteness.  It is a tradition inviting us to discovery rather than educating us in dogma, and in that sense the modern poetic image is not an illustration of an idea, but something altogether different: it is an invitation to the voyage.

Friday, December 26, 2014

David Caplan on The Poet Resigns

David Caplan in Venice, presumably recovering from reading The Poet Resigns

It's always good to hear what intelligent people have to say about what one writes, so I consider it a great end-of-year treat to run across David Caplan's review of The Poet Resigns in Modern Philology. The review starts with these kind observations:
Robert Archambeau’s The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World collects twenty-seven of his essays on poetry, written (as the publication history listed in the acknowledgments suggests) approximately over the past decade and a half. The essays split roughly into two types: discussions of broader issues and considerations of a fairly eclectic group of individual poets’ work. Archambeau is best known for his monograph Laureates and Heretics: Six Careers in American Poetry (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2010), a study of Yvor Winters’s influence on five of his particularly notable graduate students (Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, James McMichael, John Matthias, and John Peck) and for his Samizdat blog. The essays in this collection resemble his previous writing. Again he is a smart, affable critic; his work is admirably lucid and consistently engaging. 
In broad terms, Archambeau’s interest in poetry might be termed more sociological than formal or thematic: he returns to questions concerned with “poetry and politics, poetry in relation to its social situation.” One chapter—which I will examine in greater detail—is arrestingly titled “Poetry and Politics, or: Why Are the Poets on the Left?” Several other chapters pose similar questions in their opening paragraphs. Referring to “the phenomenon of the poet as professor,” another chapter poses as its central question, “How does the confluence of poetry and academe change the poet’s self-definition?”
Caplan goes on to pick a bone or two with some of the book's conclusions in interesting and informed ways.  The whole review is available free to all here—an unusual and welcome thing for a journal accessible through JSTOR.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Modernism and Decadence, or: The Modernism That Hurts

Vince Sherry mesmerizing the present humble blogger with talk of modernist decadence

Hot damn, people! Vincent Sherry, author of such books as The Great War and the Language of Modernism and Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and Radical Modernism (which really shook things up for me) has a new book out: Modernism and the Invention of Decadence.  Here he is, talking about "the modernism that hurts."  He's a good talker, by the way: he once had me so drawn in that I followed him out of a bar in Louisville, leaving my tab unpaid.

Sherry, possibly telling Joseph Donahue that whatever I'm saying to Peter O'Leary is bunk.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Orlando Notebook

No, not Orlando, Florida: Virginia Woolf's Orlando, which I've been reading for the first time in years.  As always, I've taken too many notes.  Here are three of them.


The question of the old-school bildungsroman like Jane Eyre is "how can the individual find balance and rule herself?"  The question of a more naturalistic novel, like Hardy's Tess or Jude, is "can the individual find agency in a world of chance and Titanic forces?"  The question in one type of modern novel, like Orlando, is "is there a self beyond conventions?"


When Orlando gives birth to a son, it comes as something like a non-event in the novel, and we never meet the boy.  This is significant: in a novel so concerned with gender, we find that motherhood does not define a woman.


"What is life?" asks Woolf's Orlando, near the end of the novel, when we read that she is finally growing up.  It matters that the question comes after the publication of her poem "The Oak Tree."  For much of the novel, identity has been a dialectic of social conventions (of an era, a genre, a gender) and solitude or withdrawal, the latter associated with both the poem and the actual, ancient oak tree to which Orlando retreats from society.  Now, though, she turns the poem loose into the world, and she feels herself to be a part of that world in a rich and particular way: she is a palimpsest of different eras and experiences, a multitude of accrued identities, the culmination of "the selves of which we are built up, one on top of the other, as plates are piled on a waiter's hand."  She no longer worries about being reducible to any one set of conventions, having lived through so many of them.  So she no longer feels the same need to withdraw, to retreat from society to solitude.  This is Woolf's take on what it means to grow up, to become someone in particular.  The vision of growth is less schematic than what we find in Jane Eyre, where we're being taught how to balance passion and reserve, how to become a self-policing bourgeois subject.  Orlando is as much a feminist's book as is Jane Eyre, but it is far more of an aesthete's book, out to show us the rich, strange evolution and accretion of individual personalities—personalities treasured not for their self-control, but for their idiosyncrasy.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Allan Kornblum, R.I.P.

Allan Kornblum in 2002

Sad news: Allan Kornblum, whom many of us knew as the presiding genius of Coffee House Press, has died.  I heard the news from Michael Coffey, who kindly agreed to let me post his tribute to Kornblum:

Allan Kornblum was a true pioneer in American publishing. He was present at the creation of the small press movement, which fed upon energies for social change in the 1960s and that sited its passions in a not-for-profit business model. This inevitably brought Allan from Iowa City, where he learned the craft of letterpress from the legendary Harry Duncan, to Minneapolis in the early 1980s, an environment that benefited from a progressive state arts program (Allan joined Scott Walker, who had moved Graywolf Press to the Twin Cities, from Port Townsend, Wash., for similar reasons). Coffee House Press, a new name for what in Iowa had been called Toothpaste Paste—a renaming reflecting Allan's intention to build a larger community around his literary press—was among the original eight publishers distributed by the then-fledgling Consortium Books and Sales Distribution. Allan's combination of book-making skills and his tastes for the New York School of poets, for new ethnic voices in America, and particularly those voices that had found their way to the Upper Midwest, made for an impressive and award-winning list. 

Of course, to all in the independent publishing community, Allan was a longtime friend and presence at the various book fairs, particularly the BEA, where he would appear each year with a printer's apron and visor and a new broadside of a poem beautifully typeset by hand and always having to do with the wonder of language and books. Allan published a book of my poems because, he told me, "Michael, I can see these poems matter to you—and it comes through. That's what I want to publish." Allan, ever the visionary—there was no foot-dragging at Coffee House about doing books in digital formats—also saw his own end approaching, and managed a brilliant succession, selecting and then grooming and then adjudging that he had his man in Chris Fishbach, who now steers the press with his own independent and unique tastes (which Allan told me was as important as anything) but also with a spirit that is the continuation of Allan's. As for the larger literary culture, it is by Allan's efforts that we have been able to follow Anne Waldman's essential trajectory, read the delicate poetry of the brilliant Anselm Hollo and got the whole of Ron Padgett's work. Not to mention the finds: Laurie Foos and Karen-Tei Yamashita and Sam Savage, these discoveries that now meld into Chris's, with Eimar McBride's A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing as the latest example. In this instance, Allan's passing does not mark, for publishing, an end of anything, but rather highlights a bright legacy that has been handed on, for which we should be thankful.