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Updated: 2017-01-13T01:10:22.188-06:00


What's Your Poem Worth?


What's your poetry worth? And who's to say?

Ernest Hilbert is a good guy to ask when it comes to these questions. Not only is he a poet of distinction, he's also been running America's premiere rare book establishment for years. He talks about it in "The Muse and the Auctioneer’s Gavel: Learning About Poetry from First Editions," the latest installment in the "Essays and Comments" section I edit for Plume magazine. Here's how Hilbert's essay begins:
For a decade and a half I have worked more or less contentedly as a rare book dealer, roughly half the number of years I’ve devoted to being a poet, an equally eccentric pursuit. In that time I’ve had the pleasure of placing quite a number of extraordinary first editions of poetry into my clients’ collections. I am often asked what precisely makes a book “rare.” Why, for instance will one volume of poetry sell for $5 (a used copy of a recent title, something I would buy for myself), $50 (a first edition of Diane Wakoski’s 1966 Discrepencies and Apparitions signed by her along with a drawing in her hand), $500 (poet and translator Richmond Lattimore’s copy of the 1955 first edition of Elizabeth Bishop’s second book Poems: North & South and A Cold Spring), $5,000 (an inscribed 1926 first edition of Langston Hughes’ The Weary Blues), while another might sell for $50,000 (a 1633 first edition of John Donne’s Poems by J.D. with Elegies on the Author’s Death), and yet another for well over $500,000 (Edgar Allan Poe’s impossibly rare 1827 first book of poetry, Tamerlane, authored by “A Bostonian,” which hammered at $662,500 at a 2009 Christie’s sale, a tattered and rather stained copy at that, but one of only 12 thought to remain from a print run of 50). While no easy answer concerning this sort of marketplace value will fully suffice, there are a few measures upon which one may fairly rely.
The rest is online here. Check it out!

Find Your Protest


Remember that guy in the big London scene in Wordsworth’s Prelude—the battered old veteran begging on the streets, holding a sign that tells his story? His image haunted Wordsworth for many years, mostly because unlike us (and oh, this speaks terribly of what we have become) he didn’t see this sort of thing all the time.  It shocked Wordsworth to see that, among all those people, there was so little community that no one knew this man’s name, let alone his journey, his struggle, and his pain. It shocked him that the man couldn’t count on the community to know him—in the ever-growing metropolis, the man who needed his story told was reduced to holding it on a sheet before him, hoping someone would pause.I thought of that guy when, some years ago, I stood at a train platform outside Chicago. An older man walked by, wearing that mix of odd bits of cammo and discarded workout clothing that we’ve come to associate with homeless veterans.  His war would have been Vietnam, and he walked back and forth in an exaggeratedly slow pace, looking at the ground, speaking to himself. Or, rather, not to himself, but to—well, I was the only other one around. But it wasn’t an address to me, either—it was something I was meant to overhear.  He spoke in an affected voice, as if he were trying to sound like a voice-over announcer in a documentary, commenting on footage.  And the footage was of a protest rally of some kind.  “Students and veterans alike gathered,” he said, to some imagined television audience, “and when the man on the platform said how the president lied the crowd shouted I actually understand this” he continued, “it was in Carbondale, a cold fall day…” he continued this way, and I began to see that here, in a dirty army cap, was Wordsworth’s veteran—telling the story he needed to tell, but at such a terrible distance, so far from being able to connect. One sensed he had been alone a long time. One sensed he had been sent to war young, and that he had never really come back.I mention this today because I have known many veterans of that war. I’ve worked with them, or lived near them, or found them in my family.  These are the lucky ones, the ones who came home. And I don’t know a single one of them who hadn’t, like the man at the train station, left some part of himself back there.  And today we find out, beyond any reasonable doubt, that Richard Nixon, after he’d won the election but before he took office, worked behind the scenes to scuttle the peace talks between north and south Vietnam.  He didn’t want the Democrats to take credit for peace. And so the war continued for years. One could look up the dates and count the number of people who died for Nixon’s vanity, but those numbers always lie. Those numbers always leave out the dead or half-dead who came home and walked like ghosts in the streets.  But this isn’t about Nixon, for whose sake one wishes Dante’s Hell were real. This is about the danger of having a president so mad with the thirst for adulation that nothing will be enough, not even the presidency itself. This is about any reckless and fragile president who talks tough, encourages violence, and cares nothing about breaking the lives of others on the anvil of his own vanity. This is about where we are now, and what we’re going to do about it.There are inauguration day protests scheduled throughout the country.  Find yours.[...]

In Hyperallegic Now: "Aesthetic Interference—On Those Photos from Ankara"


Those photos from Ankara, with the Russian ambassador lying dead on the floor? They're haunting, and not just because they depict an atrocity. They're haunting because they are more beautiful than they should be. They are so beautiful they seem wrong.  I wrote a little about it for Hyperalleric—you can find it here. It's about seeing things as aesthetic objects, and the inhumanity of that under certain circumstances. Or maybe it's better to say that it's about how beauty can be a scandal.

If you'd prefer to read it in Turkish, try this translation by Yorum Yapin.

The Chicago Review on The Kafka Sutra


Whatever the reason—his insightful writing on Polish literature for the TLS, his poems, or the kind of courtesy he showed when we both tried to get into the same taxi on a cold Belgian morning 20 years ago—I've long admired Piotr Gwiazda. And now he's said some kind things about my book of poems and literary oddities, The Kafka Sutra. He's said them in the latest issue of The Chicago Review. His piece begins this way:

Robert Archambeau’s new book of poems The Kafka Sutra differs from
his previous book Home and Variations (2004) in the degree to which it
explores the possibilities of appropriation as a literary device. Appropriation,
moreover, becomes a hermeneutic tool in Archambeau’s hands. A poet and a
critic—the author of Laureates and Heretics (2010), The Poet Resigns (2013),
and the forthcoming Making Nothing Happen—he employs it to compose
his poems and to perform criticism on his textual sources. Entertaining and
intelligent, The Kafka Sutra shows Archambeau’s in-depth engagement with
this widespread, increasingly dominant poetic practice.
The title sequence at first quite implausibly grafts several of Kafka’s
enigmatic parables onto the subject matter of the Hindu classic Kama
Sutra. Describing it elsewhere as “one of the odder things [he’s] done,”
Archambeau promises, at least in theory, a merging of existential anxiety,
sensual fulfillment, and didactic intent. The result is indeed odd, but not
entirely foreign to anyone who has ever had the experience of reading
creatively more than one book at a time. The sequence is also disarmingly
playful and funny, as are the accompanying illustrations by Sarah Conner.

The full text is available here. 

If you can't get enough commentary on The Kafka Sutra, have a look at Stu Watson's "Reflections on Recent Poetry" over at Queen Mob's Teahouse.

Spain in the Battersea Review! Amish Trivedi on Poetry Contests in Plume!


Rejoice! This troubled world has been blessed with two new lights in the darkness—the latest issues of The Battersea Review and Plume.The sixth issue of The Battersea Review (proud Associate Editor: me)  is a special Spanish number, edited by Mario Murgia and Flamminia Ocampo. The contents are almost too substantial for the internet to bear:POETRY "Introduction" by Mario Murgia and Flaminia Ocampo"Three Poems" by Héctor Abad, translated by Zachary Bos"Poems in Translation" by Samuel Beckett, translated by Juan Carlos Calvillo"Six Poems" by León Felipe, translated by Walter Smelt"Five Poems" by Andrés García Cerdán, translated by Jorge Rodríguez-Miralles"Three Poems" by David Huerta, translated by Mario Murgia"En Tren (“By Train”)" by Antonio Machado, translated by Walter Smelt"Three Poems" by Fernando Noy, translated by Geoffrey O’BrienCRITICAL PROSE "Spain on the Horizon: Some Notes on Astronomy and Medieval England" by Raúl Ariza-Barile"Juan Rodolfo Wilcock’s Two Phases" by Horacio Armani"Clarice: Woman, Body, and Voice" by Gabriella Burnham"Ferdinand’s Renunciation" (from The Constant Prince) by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, translated by Geoffrey O’Brien"An Appreciation of Pedro Páramo" by Nicholas Christopher"Milton in Puebla, Mexico" by Angelica Duran"Xavier Icaza’s Untimely Avant-Garde" by Christian Gerzso"Writing and Translation" by Alejandro Manara"Remembering Alejandra Pizarnik" by Flaminia Ocampo"The Goddess Coatlicue: Environmental Renewal and Femicide in Homero Aridjis’ La leyenda de los soles" by Adela Ramos"Polyphony and Portable Identities: The niuyorriqueña poetry of Tato Laviera" by Salvador San Juan"The Slingshot (A Parable)" by Luisa Valenzuela, translated by Geoffrey O'Brien"When Borges was Director of the National Library" by María Esther Vázquez"Erotica in the Rio Grande: Thoughts on Sandra Cisneros’s Loose Woman" by Gwendolyn Díaz-Ridgeway"Pilgrim Tales: Luisa Josefina Hernández’s Medieval Fiction" by Ana Elena González-Treviño"Cernuda" by Gabriel Linares"Survey: Fifteen Favorite Latin American Writers" by Flaminia Ocampo"Black Surrealism and Rooting in the Literature of the Antilles" by Salvador San Juan"From the Feather to the Poncho: A New Yorker Vicuña" by Lila ZemborainIn the "Essays and Comments" section I edit for Plume, you'll find "Confessions of a Contest Junkie," in which Amish Trivedi takes us through his travails and triumphs as a recidivist participant in the world of poetry contests.  It begins like this: If you have any vice or addiction in your life – and we all have something – you probably already know that what you are hooked on is bad for you. You already know how you justify your fix. You know how you feed your high. And yet, you cling to your degeneracy, denying it is a problem. Your enablers support your actions and claims.            My vice? Poetry contests. And the system itself is my enabler— a system which has encouraged me and so many others through the hope that maybe something will work            In the poetry contest system there are winners. Judges whittle submissions down to a select few, a single one of whom sees a poem, a chapbook, or an entire book lauded. The winners add another publication to their record. The press or journal heralds the winner and their own selection skills. The win takes on a life of its own, serving as the launch pad for a career or a stepping stone on the path to tenure. Pierre Bourdieu po[...]

Resist Much/Obey Little — Call for Contributions


The good people at Spuyten Duyvil are putting together a collection of poems to coincide with the inauguration of the man chosen by a minority of American voters as our next president. I'm contributing. You might want to get on board too.

The Frogs Who Desired a King: A Short Fable Of Our Recent Election


In one of Aesop's fables, "The Frogs Who Desired a King," the frogs of the local pond grew disillusioned with the king Zeus had given them. Fair enough: the capricious deity had, after all, sent them a log to serve as king, and under the log's reign, nothing was done to help the frogs.  The original Greek text says nothing about growing economic inequality among the frogs, or pond deindustrialization, or some of the less open-minded frogs being uneasy at the arrival of newts from the other pond behind the reeds, or some of the male frogs feeling somehow diminished by the increasing equality of the female frogs, but I'm just going to assume that those portions of the text are lost, and will come to light in due time.  Anyway, some of the frogs grew tired on the complacency of their political establishment, the log king, and cried out to Zeus for another king, a new one who would bust things up and get things done.  Not all of the frogs did this: many stayed home, skeptical of what any king might do. Indeed, more frogs opposed the petition to Zeus than supported it but, the electoral map of the pond being what it was, Zeus granted the wish, and sent them a heron to rule over them. The heron arrived, looking a little surprised at having been chosen to rule, and promptly ate the frogs.

Is Shakespeare Any Good? A Postcard from the Eighteenth Century


If you're like me, you're probably thinking that this is not a good year to sit down to Thanksgiving dinner with extended family, that it'd be in everybody's best interest to step back from what threatens to be a relationship damaging political confrontation. Me, I'm stepping all the way back to the eighteenth century, which has stood me in good stead as a haven in times of crisis. It was, the savage indignation of Jonathan Swift notwithstanding, a literary century of great urbanity and exemplary civility.  But Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, one of my usual safe havens, failed me this time around—accounts of the destruction of a once great polity by human folly turned out to cut a little too close to the bone.  My emergency back-up plan—to read Addison and Steele's Coverley Papers from The Spectator—seemed like a sure cure, but when I came upon passages about Whigs and Tories refusing to dine together, and footnotes about the violent hatred between these parties, I had to set the book aside. So I turned, at last, to the pages of The Mirror, a lesser-known imitator of The Spectator from the other end of the century.  Here, in an essay on Hamlet, I ran across the following words:No author, perhaps ever existed, of whom opinion has been so various as Shakespeare. Endowed with all the sublimity and subject to all the irregularities of genius, his advocates have room for unbounded praise, and their opponents for frequent blame.  His departure from all common rules which criticism, somewhat arbitrarily, perhaps, has imposed, leaves no legal code by which the decision can be regulated, and in the feelings of different readers, the same passage may appear simple or mean, natural or preposterous, may execute admiration, or create disgust.This is fascinating. Right away, we see that the late eighteenth century was a period with a richer variety of opinion regarding Shakespeare than is our own, in which no figure in all of English literature, and few in all of world literature, receives such a universal praise as does Shakespeare. Indeed, Shakespeare's name and image have become shorthand for the idea of literary greatness, the broad collar and high dome of the Droeshout portrait of him from the First Folio becoming for literature what Einstein's crazed white mop of hair has become for science: a universal signifier of genius.It is precisely the status of genius that matters in understanding the difference between our era's estimate of Shakespeare and his rating under the late eighteenth century's regime of taste.  "Genius," in our common parlance, is an unmitigated term of praise. But when the article on Hamlet appeared in The Mirror in 1781, "genius" was still very much a descriptive term, rather than a purely laudatory one. The article on genius from Diderot's Encyclopédie describes works of genius not simply as works of excellence, but as works of a particular kind, whose virtues did not include beauty:For something to be beautiful in accordance with the rules of taste, that thing must be elegant and polished, highly finished but with the appearance of effortlessness. But to be a work of genius it should seem careless, appear irregular, rough, and wild. Sublimity and genius flash in Shakespeare like lightening at night, but Racine is always beautiful: Homer is filled with genius, while Virgil is filled with elegance. The Mirror, then, speaks from the consensus position of its time, in which rule-breaking genius wasn't necessarily a sign of greatness, but a matter of trading off one sort of excellence for another. The excellence of Shakespeare comes at the expense of another kind of excellence, the excellence of a purely Aristotelian tragedy, a tragedy of the sort written in accord with the unities of time, place, and action supported by the Acad[...]

Morning, November 9, 2016, America.


Utter silence on the train platform among the normally talkative commuters.

An old woman in a coffee shop crying quietly, alone.

A man in the parking lot dropping the keys from his shaking hand.

I saw this.

There are the people who understand what we have done.

Letter from India: Worshipping at a Stone Manasa


Back in the 1990s, when I edited the poetry broadsheet Samizdat, my favorite part of the job involved receiving dispatches about poetry from all over the world. We published them as part of a series called "The Word From..." I feel lucky to be able to revive something like that feature of Samizdat at Plume, where I'm not the editor of the monthly "Essays & Comment" section.  The first of what I hope will be many "Letters From..." features is now online: Linda Ashok's "Letter from India: Worshipping at a Stone Manasa." It's an examination of the poetry of the Naxalbari Movement, a social and political uprising that began in the late 1960s. The poetry hits hard and hits home, and is virtually unknown in the West. Read about it here!

Inventions of a Barbarous Age: Poetry from Conceptualism to Rhyme—Now It's Out! Here's What's in It!


Inventions of a Barbarous Age: Poetry from Conceptualism to Rhyme—my latest book of essays—has just rolled hot off the presses at MadHat Press.  What's it all about? Well, the jacket copy gives you an overview (and a few complimentary blurbs):What is the community for poetry? What is its fate, its future? Poet and critic Robert Archambeau begins Inventions of a Barbarous Age with these questions before ranging over the ridges and valleys of the contemporary poetry scene, pausing on the way to investigate mystic and Gnostic poetry, the norms of criticism, and the poetics of camp and the sublime. Taking in poets from W. H. Auden to Kenneth Goldsmith, and topics from poetic comedy to poetic tribalism, Archambeau is one of poetry’s great omnivores, and numbers among the leading poetry critics of his generation. ~ Robert Archambeau is fascinated by the place poets stake out for their art, the claims they make about the relationship of poetry and power; and he is (sometimes uncomfortably) shrewd in ferreting out the motivations for such claims. His essays have the advantage of the best occasional writing—immediacy, a sense of responsiveness, conversationality—but Archambeau is also a “big ideas” critic, spinning his momentary interpretations of texts into penetrating insights about the place of poetry in the world.—Mark Scroggins Archambeau writes prose that’s consistently welcoming, curious, and free of the anxiety that marks so much criticism.—Jonathan Farmer, Slate MagazineA notable poet/critic, Archambeau’s a perfect example of how one person can take on both roles.—Barry Schwabsky, The NationArchambeau is one of our smartest poetic sociologists, and he tackles the biggest problems facing poetry in our time.—Norman Finkelstein, Contemporary LiteratureIf you want to see someone having fun while thinking provocatively about contemporary poetry, try Archambeau. I always do.—Stephen Burt Archambeau has perfect pitch.—Marjorie Perloff  If you really want to know about the book, though, here's the table of contents, along with a few notes on each essay:I. The Future, The Present            You Will Object: Four Futures for Poetry            Poetry as ubiquitous, as commodified, as self-obsessed, as community-building. You don’t like one future? Try another!            Who is a Contemporary Poet?            In which I continue an old argument with Kenneth Goldsmith about what counts as contemporary. The fight is called off when Giorgia Agamben clobbers us both.            The Future of Genius            Does the old category of ‘genius’ have a future? The origin and destination of a category of literary analysis, with reference to Brooklyn hipsters in Warby Parker glasses.            Invitation to the Voyage: Notes on the Trajectory of the Poetic Image            How the literary image changed from Dante to Baudelaire, and what that says about where it has been and may be heading.            Charmless and Interesting: The Conceptual Moment in Poetry            What Conceptualism has going for it and what it doesn’t do very well, with reference to the old aesthetic category of “charm” and the newly-re-theorize[...]

Poetry and Stupidity


Poetry and stupidity are, it seems, secret kissing cousins. Who knew? Lawrence Raab, that's who. Check out his short, punchy essay "Poetry and Stupidity," now online as part of the Essays & Comment monthly feature I edit, and sometimes write, for Plume.

Raab's essay starts like this:
One of the shortest and most provocative pieces in Paul Valéry’s “A Poet’s Notebook” reads in its entirety:
STUPIDITY AND POETRY. There are subtle relations between these two categories. The category of stupidity and that of poetry.
I can’t recall when I first read this, but I remember thinking it was true. Also funny. Also like some zen koan designed to knock me on the head. Was it true because it was so obviously untrue? Or because it seemed to provide no way to ascertain its truth? Or perhaps I just believed it because I didn’t want to feel stupid.
That Valéry’s equation didn’t appear to make sense was a plus for me. Did it even want to make sense? A little further down the same page, I found:
OBSCURITY, A PRODUCT OF TWO FACTORS. If my mind is richer, more rapid, freer, more disciplined than yours, neither you nor I can do anything about it.
This was spikier, more aggressively funny. Or maybe not funny at all.   And obscurity, unlike ambiguity, somehow seemed connected to stupidity—how dumb you felt when you didn’t get the joke.
The whole thing is online here.

Last month's feature, "The Barbarian Invasion of Poetry" (which I wrote) is available here. 

The Mathematical Sublime: Mark Scroggins on Contemporary Poetry


Mark Scroggins is, hands down, bar none, my favorite critic of contemporary poetry. His latest collection is out now from MadHat which, under new leadership from Marc Vincenz, is turning into a press I'm very into watching (they're about to publish the latest book by Michael Anania).  The Mathematical Sublime takes a broad and ecumenical look at contemporary poetry, often of the more adventurous kind, and examines a host of fascinating figures. I mean, Scroggins has taste in poetry, damn it, no matter what one thinks of his Doc Martens and skinny jeans in (shall we say) surprising colors. Poets discussed include:

Charles Bernstein
John Matthias
Eric Selinger
Norman Finkelstein
Maeera Shreiber
John Wilkinson
Rachel Blau DuPlessis
Peter Quartermain
Nathaniel Mackey
Charles Alexander
Rae Armantrout
Daniel Bouchard
Julie Carr
Cris Cris
Stephen Collis
Joseph Donahue
Cecil Giscombe
K. Lorraine Graham
Janet Holmes
Tony Lopez
Tom Mandel
Geraldine Monk
Jennifer Moxley
Tom Pickard
Patrick Pritchett
Kit Robinson
David Shapiro
Ron Silliman
Stephen Vincent
Craig Watson.
Geoffrey Hill
Susan Howe
Robert Duncan
Ronald Johnson

Also, due to Scroggins' idiosyncratic reading, the great Victrorian John Ruskin and some guy named Robert Archambeau.

The fool who does not buy this book is, to paraphrase that icon of literary acumen, Mr. T., to be pitied.

In Which I Host A Deranged Literary Cooking Program


Some interesting reflections on my most recent book of poems, The Kafka Sutra, are up at the Queen Mob's Teahouse site.  Stu Watson has a number of nice things to say, but the one I'm thinking of keeping for a future blurb is "one at moments can almost imagine Archambeau as the host of a deranged literary cooking program." Read all about it here!

Inventions of a Barbarous Age, or: How I Finally Dressed Like Mark Scroggins


Here's the cover of my next book, Inventions of a Barbarous Age: Poetry from Conceptualism to Rhyme. I'll post something about the contents soon, but I'm not here to talk about the contents today, I'm here to talk about the cover.  Because it represents the first time I have presented myself as spiffily as Mark Scroggins, whose The Mathematical Sublime: Writing About Poetry will appear from the same publisher at the same time.Mark, you see, is a snappy dresser. Here he is in his ordinary togs. If you wish to imagine me on the same day, think rumpled cargo shorts (summer) or rumpled Brooks Brothers (winter).  Either way, Mark wins:But compare our book covers:Twinsies! In fact, the resemblance is so strong that MadHat will be offering the books in a special, bundled deal for a reduced price.  Go nuts![...]

The Barbarian Invasion of Poetry (Hurrah!)


The barbarians are here! They've breached the walls of the fortress! The city lies in ruins! Poetry is at their mercy!Well, it's all a bit more complicated and not so grim. Find out more in the first monthly installment of the new "Essays and Comment" feature at Plume. I will be editing, and sometimes writing, the feature.  I wrote the first one, "The Barbarian Invasion of Poetry (Hurrah!)" and it begins like this:This just in: the Empire of Poetry has fallen to the barbarians. The fall was not sudden—it took place over the course of the last seventy years or so, and even before then alarmed sentries spoke of shaggy hordes moving in the dark forests beyond the far-flung border outposts, clutching their axes and the icons of their strange, compelling gods. Let me begin by making clear that I, bred within the confines of the old and dying Empire, welcome the barbarians as friends, and as a force to invigorate our aging and insular imperium. When I speak of barbarians, I speak of them as the Italian novelist and essayist Alessandro Baricco does in his study The Barbarians: An Essay on the Mutation of Culture, a book largely unknown in America, despite having been serialized in one of the most prominent Italian newspapers, giving rise there to a nationwide discussion of the changing nature of cultural production and consumption. For Barrico, the barbarians are a group on the rise, and not just in Italy, or even Europe, but worldwide. Ever more visible, they cause great distress among the more hidebound Catos committed to the old and dying virtues of the Empire—not, it is important to note, a distress that Barrico shares. Barrico sees the barbarians everywhere, marked not so much by their different culture as by the different way they think about culture, be it musical culture, literature, cuisine—even wine and soccer (Barrico is, after all, Italian). The old ways of the Empire are deeply traditional, rooted in an appreciation of the specific history of whatever cultural form is under consideration. But the barbarians see things differently. They are eclectic, these nomads from beyond the borders, and less attached to the traditions of the imperial past.It goes on to talk about Frank O'Hara, Claudia Rankine, Michael Robbins, C. Russell Price, and others, with some notes on how to drink wine and listen to music.  You can find it here.[...]

Culture in the Provinces: A Very Short Note


I like just about everything about Sweden, even the weather. I like their intellectuals, too, mostly for being both meticulous and down-to-earth—at least by the standards of intellectuals. But when I think about the position of intellectuals in Swedish culture, I always think about a moment from the late 90s. I was at a party in the medieval Swedish university town of Lund—a quieter, less touristed version of England’s Cambridge. The man who’d hired me to give some lectures had kindly invited me to his house to a gathering of all his friends, including one of his oldest and dearest. The two had known each other since childhood, growing up in a small town and dreaming of Brecht’s Berlin theater and Picasso walking with Gertrude Stein left bank. My host had become an established professor in a fine old Swedish university, a man who spoke a refined English and (though it was hard for me to judge) a beautiful version of his native tongue. He wrote gracefully about culture for the main Swedish newspapers, translated poetry, and had authored a study of Renaissance sonnet sequences. His old friend, though, was the real success—and like so many truly ambitious citizens of small countries, had left to make his mark on a bigger stage. He held a chair at the Sorbonne, was the world expert on certain elements of classical civilization, was a member of the Swedish Academy, voting on the Nobel prizes. At the party he took me aside, punched me lightly on the arm, and said “You want to know about Swedish culture? Look at him…” he made a graceful, Gallic gesture at the host, laughing gently at someone’s witticism across the room. “In Sweden, there are 2,000 like him. The rest have snowmobiles.”Make of it what you will.[...]

Moleskine Outtakes: Three Short Notes


Like you, I love to have a small notebook in my pocket.  Me, I like Moleskines, preferably green (I am deeply superstitious about color).  The notebooks are usually filled with nothing more interesting than lists: things I need to do; writing deadlines I need to meet; things I'm meaning to read, and the other detritus of the bookish mind. But sometimes I scribble something else, a little more coherent.  When I was younger, these were often bitter little rhymes, like:

Lacking Auden's glib facility
Robs my heart of all tranquility
But I must say it helps a bit
That his later work was shit.

(I have either mellowed in middle-age, or learned to find things in the later Auden that I could not find when I was an eager young bastard).

Anyway: here are three outtakes from my most recent Moleskine.

The Pure Judgment of Taste
Setting morality aside, there's truth in this: the failure to appreciate something is a failure to understand it. But understanding, of course, brings us to the question of morality which, it turns out, can't be set aside.

The Climate for Poetry
Walls can stand without a roof, sure, sure. But a roof's only unimportant if it isn't raining.  I'm writing this because someone told me a poet should never explain his work.

The Book Written in a Variety of Styles
I know, I know, everybody's supposed to "find a voice" or "brand himself" or pursue a consistent project or whatever.  You know: produce a book that is somehow coherent.  But my plan? My plan was to be different, not to do what everybody else does, precisely by virtue of doing what everybody else does.

The Snowflake or the Storm? Reading Ashbery's "The Skaters"


You're probably yearning for a 2400 word reading of John Ashbery's "The Skaters," aren't you? Well, you're in luck! I've just edited this out of the manuscript of Making Nothing Happen: Poetry in Society, Poetry for Itself.  Sadly, the one footnote in the passage is a bit uncooperative as to format, so I've just included it in parentheses in the main text.  Have at it!The Snowflake or the Storm?            John Ashbery's long poem “The Skaters,” like his earlier poem “Europe,” has its origins in an old book purchased from a Parisian book stall—in this case Three Hundred Things a Bright Boy Can Do, in which Ashbery found the passage “some sounds, of course, it is almost impossible to reduce to writing, as for example, the hollow scam and murmur produced by a multitude of skaters…” This, along with the book’s similarity to the “Things to Make and Do” sections of his childhood Book of Knowledge, overwhelmed Ashbery with nostalgia for his childhood in upstate New York (Lehman, The Last Avant-Garde, 122). The poem’s sense of loss and loneliness reflects not only this moment of nostalgia, but Ashbery’s circumstances. Begun in 1963, it reflects a period when Ashbery, still reeling from the reception of The Tennis Court Oath, felt particularly “bewildered, defeated, and alone” (Shapiro “Interview”). Out of this solitude and nostalgia came one of the earlier sustained achievements in what would become the dominant mode of the longer poems Ashbery’s mature period—what we might call, not the long narrative poem, but the long anti-narrative poem.             The anti-narrative poem has many qualities of the narrative poem: scale, a variety of incidents, and, unlike most of “Europe,” a discursive, talky, reflective narrator. What it lacks, though, is a sense of orderly progression, a sense that the parts can all be linked into a coherent totality. It is not only anti-totalization: it is anti-teleological, in that the parts serve no single end. The critic Brian McHale describes the anti-narrative nature of “The Skaters,” and the ways in which it is commonly read, with admirable concision:Unlike the more obviously disjunctive poems of Ashbery’s Tennis Court Oath period, “The Skaters” often appears to make sense locally, inviting the reader to expect to make global sense of the poem. Instead, one encounters an intractable flux of verbal “found objects,” shifting styles and registers, teasing literary allusions and echoes, fragmentary narrative episodes and descriptive scenes. How is one to negotiate or manage such flux? Critics tend to select “key” lines or passages, treating these as interpretative centers or “nodes” around which to organize the heterogeneous materials of the poem. Other materials come to be subordinated in various ways (explicitly or, more often, implicitly) to these “key” passages or are simply passed over in silence, so that the poem is reduced to a skeletal structure of points that yield most readily to a particular interpretative orientation. (591)“The Skaters” embodies this “intractable flux” at the level of form, with its digressiveness and its non-sequiturs. It also thematizes its own non-totalizability and anti-teleology, and links them to both Ashbery’s isolation from utilitarian society and his homosexuality.            The first of the four sections of “The Skaters” opens with an image of a g[...]

Calculated Oddities: Notes on Ashbery and Form


So I've been editing down the manuscript of my book-in-progress Making Nothing Happen: Poetry in Society, Poetry for Itself, and have decided to remove this passage—not because I have a problem with it on its own terms, but because it is redundant in the context of the chapter.  Consider it the litcrit equivalent of one of those music tracks that shows up on a bootleg album of the sort completists used to hunt down in grimy subterranean record shops...Calculated Oddities In his famously lukewarm foreword to Ashbery’s Some Trees, W.H. Auden tells the reader that poets like Ashbery have succumbed to the temptation “to manufacture calculated oddities.” One way in which the diagnosis holds true is in Ashbery’s drawing attention away from denotative meaning and toward form—a foregrounding of the art of the poem over its statement every bit as indicative of Ashbery’s aestheticism as his prioritizing of imagination over the utilitarian world of work. Ashbery’s inventiveness is such that this foregrounding occurs in a staggering variety of ways, some involving the intensification of old poetic devices, and others involving a subversion of those devices.One example of the foregrounding of form through the intensification of traditional poetic form comes in “Canzone.” The traditional Provençal canzone was a poem of 5-7 stanzas of some 7-20 hendecasyllabic lines each, with the same rhyme scheme occurring in each stanza—a challenging enough form in its own right. In “Canzone,” though, which consists of five 12 line stanzas plus a five line envoi, Ashbery has given himself a more challenging task. Instead of rhyming, he concludes lines with repeated words, in the manner of a sestina. He then uses the same words, in different places, in succeeding stanzas. The first stanza gives the general idea:Until the first chillNo door sat on the clay.When Billy brought on the chillHe began to chill. No hand canPoint to the chillIt brought. Where a chillWas, the grass grows.See how it grows.Acts punish the chillShowing summers in the grass.The acts are grass.The lines of the second stanza ends in the same set of words, and follows the same pattern of rhyme, but with the line-ending words repositioned so that they come in this order: grass/chill/grass/grass/clay/grass/can/can/grass/grows/grows. The third, fourth, and fifth stanzas similarly re-use the words in shifting positions, still following the pattern ABAACAADDAEE, with the shorter envoi also using the five repeated words. The brevity of the lines as compared to the traditional hendecasyllabics, combined with the substitution for the traditional rhyme, of repleted of words within and between stanzas, combine to highlight the formal qualities of the poem. What is more, the abstract and elliptical nature of the narrative downplays any sense of statement or extra-musical meaning. Traditional form is ramped up, even as content is pushed to the margin. When John Yau wrote that “Ashbery is an heir to Walter Pater, who proposed that ‘all art aspires to the condition of music,’“ he could well have had this poem in mind.“A Snowball in Hell” takes a different approach in emphasizing form over content. Consider the opening stanza:In the beginning there are those who don’t quite fit inBut are somehow okay. And then some morningThere are places that suddenly seem wonderful:Weather and the water seem wonderful,And the peaceful night sky that arrivesIn time to protect us, like a swordCutting the blue cloak of a prince.There is a recognizable narra[...]

New in the Journal of Poetics Research: Notes on Marc Vincenz's Becoming the Sound of Bees


Rejoice! The latest issue of the Journal of Poetics Research, John Tranter's latest creation (you may remember him for running the original version of Jacket, now run out of the University of Pennsylvania as Jacket2).  This time out the JPR includes "Three Mistakes," a little something I wrote about Becoming the Sound of Bees, the latest book of poems by the enigmatic Anglo-Swiss poet and onetime businessman Marc Mincenz, who has arrived on our shores via China, Iceland, and other exotic locales.  It begins like this:Around the time I sat down to read Becoming the Sound of Bees, Marc Vincenz’s strange, intense book of poems from Ampersand Books, I ran across a news article about the discovery of a tiny, well-camouflaged hut concealed in a vast tract of forest in northern California. It was deep in the wilds of a large state park, and so well concealed that a skilled forest ranger almost had to collide with the thing to discover it. Inside were the necessities for a Spartan life: jars of seeds and dried beans, a rough bed and table, a small wood stove. On a shelf were a few books: an old dictionary, a guide to plants and herbs — and a well-thumbed copy of Public Secrets, a collection of the radical thinker and counter-culture veteran Ken Knabb’s essays and memoirs.The forest ranger, interviewed about this find, seemed reluctant to have had to post an eviction notice: the area surrounding the shelter was pristine, without so much as a footpath or broken branch to indicate human habitation. The hermit living there clearly cared for the planet, and wanted nothing more than to live in peace and think through the fate of the civilization from which he’d fled. When the ranger returned days later, the cabin and its contents were gone without a trace, except for a cryptic symbol on the ground, spelled out in the ashes from the now-missing hut’s wood stove.Coming across news of the radical hermit’s cabin felt like a particularly fortuitous coincidence. The hermit, after all, seemed like a fit analogue for the protagonist of Vincenz’s poems. Vincenz is the sort of poet who likes to work at scale while remaining within the lyric format: in Becoming the Sound of Bees he writes individual poems, but keeps them spinning around a few common settings and themes, and returns again and again to a recurring character, Ivan. The series has been compared to Ted Hughes’ Crow, and I can see why: we’re at least as much in a mythic or visionary world as we are in a quotidian one, and we’re living in the after-effects of terrible devastation. Unlike Hughes, though, Vincenz isn’t dealing with the devastation of personal life. His apocalypse isn’t psychological so much as it is environmental, and possibly social or political: we catch enigmatic glimpses, throughout the poems of Becoming the Sound of Bees, of despoiled seas, birdless skies, and landscapes composed of nothing but desert and despoilation.The rest can be found at the Journal of Poetics Research site. [...]

The Poem is Never Finished, Only Abandoned: W.H. Auden at Work


W.H. Auden—what's not to love? And I don't just love Auden's writing, I love the enormous body of writing about him—memoirs, critical analyses, scholarly exegesis, scandalous gossip, the lot.  That's why I was very happy to write something about Auden at Work—a book of essays edited by Bonnie Costello and Rachel Galvin—for Essays in Criticism.  It's called "Never Finished, Only Abandoned." Here's how it starts:A browser among library shelves, glimpsing the title Auden at Work pressed between the spines of other volumes, might well pull it down with the hope of discovering anecdotes about Auden’s writing process written by those who knew him well. These, after all, can be quite enlightening. What reader of Auden wouldn’t be grateful to come across something like Christopher Isherwood’s observation about the young Auden at work?When Auden was younger, he was very lazy. He hated polishing and making corrections. If I didn’t like a poem, he threw it away and wrote another. If I liked one line, he could keep it and work it into a new poem. In this way, whole poems were constructed which were simply anthologies of favorite lines, entirely regardless of grammar or sense. This is the simple explanation of Auden’s celebrated obscurity.Even glimpses of the poet’s immediate writing environment can be revealing, if perhaps more of the man than of the works. Auden’s one-time American student Charles H. Miller puts us squarely in the scene of creation when he describes Auden’s New York apartment as ‘a cave’ filled with clutter, with manuscripts jumbled among books and bits of clothing, all topped by an ashtray with ‘a final cigarette stub issuing a frail plume of smoke from the top of the heap, signature of a dying volcano’. The whole ‘Auden-scape’, Miller continues, reeked of ‘stale coffee grounds, tarry nicotine, and toe-jam mixed with metro pollution and catshit’.Intimate reminiscences were not, however, what Bonnie Costello and Rachel Galvin were after when they sat down to edit Auden at Work. Their introduction places heavy emphasis on the idea of genetic literary criticism, a form of analysis that treats the text as an ongoing compositional process, rather than as the fixed result of the author’s intention. Following Paul Valéry, Costello and Galvin envision composition ‘as a dance, as fencing, as the construction of acts and expectations’, and the published text as ‘the footprints on the ground after the dance is over’. Auden, whose revisions to such poems as ‘Spain’ and ‘September 1, 1939’ are among the most famous, or infamous, in the history of English poetry, is certainly a prime candidate for genetic criticism.The rest is available in print, or online (starting at the bottom of page 356 in the pdf version).[...]

Sheena and the Sugar Book


Sheena, the Ramones inform us, is a punk rocker.  She wasn't always, though—I once tried to combine the history and prehistory of the various Sheenas and proto-Sheenas of pop culture, and the poem, "Sheena is a Punk Rocker," appears in my book The Kafka Sutra.  It's also been reproduced online here, by E-Verse Radio.

In other news: Johannes Goransson! Or, more specifically: Johannes Goransson's The Sugar Book! Or, more specifically still: my short review of The Sugar Book in The Boston Review is now online as part of their "Summer Poetry Reading" feature. (It's also in the print magazine, if that's more your thing).

Finally, I'm now the Associate Editor of The Battersea Review, which has been going strong and staying eclectic since 2012, with contributors like Charles Bernstein, William Logan, A.E. Stallings, Adam Kirsch, Marjorie Perloff, Stephen Burt, and many more.  The fall issue will focus on Spain, and the issue after that on British Modernism.  You know you love the stuff!

James Joyce Was Born in Omaha


Rejoice! The new issue of Valley Voices is out, and it's a special issue devoted to the writing of Michael Anania.  You'll find new poems by Anania, an interview, and essays an reminiscences about the man and his work by a rogue's gallery of contributors including me.  My contribution, "Modernist Current: Michael Anania's Poetry of the Western Rivers" begins like this:

James Joyce was born in Omaha in 1939.  His first book, Dubliners, contained the poem sequence “Stops Along the Western Bank of the Missouri River,” which treated his native Nebraska with the intense realism that could only come about under conditions of voluntary exile.  Nostalgia and critical distance combined to make the linked-yet-disparate pieces of the sequence so precise that the river could, if necessary, be reconstructed bend by bend from the pages of the poems.  A later and much more complex work, Ulysses, treated the same Nebraskan territory with equal detail.  Its central poetic sequence, though, the ten part “Riversongs of Arion,” combined realism with a concern for myth, finding in the quotidian world echoes of a heroic past.  The result was a truly modernist synthesis of past and present, the construction of an eternal now along the lines of work being produced by Joyce’s modernist peers Pound, Eliot and David Jones. 
Okay, you got me, put down your copy of Ellmann’s Joyce biography. I know Joyce was born in Ireland.  The two points I’d like to make about Michael Anania’s river sequences, though, are made most clearly through an analogy with Joyce...

So You’re a Critic—Now What? A Note on Barry Schwabsky and Critical Distance


What is a critic supposed to do? If I know anything about critics, you could put a dozen of them around a café table and at the end of the evening have at least two dozen opinions, and as many excuses for not picking up the tab for all those bottles of Pinot Gris that disappeared in the interim.  So let’s skip the big gathering, and go straight to Barry Schwabsky, who not too terribly long ago wrote a piece called “A Critic’s Job of Work” for The Nation, where he raises a tremendously important question about the role of the critic, and the very idea of critical distance.Schwabsky begins by saying how much he’s always admired Marcel Duchamp’s dictum about the viewer completing the work of art—“the creative act is not performed by the artist alone,” declared Duchamp, “the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”  It merits attention, this notion of the audience participating in, rather than passively receiving, the creative act.  For one thing, it sets art apart from something like science.  There are, Schwabsky points out, no science critics.  There’s peer review, of course—that’s central to the whole scientific enterprise.  But scientists review each other’s work as fellow practitioners.  Although some art critics are also art makers, the relation of the two activities is accidental, rather than of the essence. The art critic, in his or her role as critic, doesn’t identify as a fellow art maker, but keeps a certain distance, and identifies as a spectator.  Indeed, the critic is, according to Schwabsky, “the self-appointed representative of the audience.” And despite the audience’s creative role, this means being something other than being an artist.Schwabsky points to how, back in the 1960s, Allan Kaprow (godfather of the “happening” as artform) called for an art that had only participants, and no passive observers—he wanted what he called “the elimination of the audience,” if what was meant by the audience were people whose involvement with the artwork was to be nothing more than “empathic response.”  Everyone involved in a Kaprow happening was to be a co-creator, and the distance between artist and audience was to be collapsed entirely.  This is not where Schwabsky wants to be.  If Kaprow wants to recruit the spectator as a fellow artist, Schwabsky envisions the critical spectator as someone who isn’t caught in the binary of creative artist/passive spectator.  Instead, the critic maintains a degree of distance, but from this perspective adds something new to the work, in part by virtue of maintaining that sense of distance.  “I still prefer Duchamp’s model of the spectator who, through his or her distance from the artist’s creative act, nonetheless makes an independent contribution to it,” says Schwabsky, “and my experience tells me that a great deal of art is still being made with this kind of viewer in mind.”  One could make an analogy to a good relationship between a baseball catcher and a pitcher—it’s not that they’re both pitchers, but it’s not that the catcher is entirely passive, either.  He watches what’s going on and makes a real, if largely invisible and certainly unglamourous, contributio[...]