2016-12-02T13:50:31.029-06:00Rejoice! 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 points out that perhaps this initial social capital gain is accidental before it leads to other things, but that[...]
2016-11-21T18:18:35.266-06:00The 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.
2016-11-16T08:50:09.452-06:00If 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 Académie française.It's not hard for most of us to understand the division between an aesthetic of beauty and an [...]
2016-10-11T10:10:45.899-05:00Inventions 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-theorized category of the “interesting.” As in “Conceptualism? Well, it’s… interesting…” &nbs[...]
The whole thing is online here.1. OBSCURITYOne 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.
2016-09-07T07:55:10.760-05:00Here'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![...]
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.
2016-08-15T21:02:03.761-05:00I 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.[...]
2016-07-20T14:28:57.181-05:00You'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 group of skaters on a frozen pond:These decibelsAre a kind of flagellation, an entity of soundInto which being[...]
2016-07-19T16:30:04.773-05:00So 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 narrative here, to be sure: indeed, it seems almost like a group biography for Ashbery and his circle of poet-frie[...]
2016-07-16T20:12:44.160-05:00Rejoice! 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. [...]
2016-07-25T10:52:13.395-05:00W.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).[...]
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...
2016-05-31T17:21:35.887-05:00What 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, contribution to the team, largely through analysis of what he sees. He needs a bit of distance to do this—he’s[...]
2016-05-27T10:00:37.842-05:00I'm quite convinced this photograph of Robert Duncan touches on something central to the man and his poetics. Two things, actually. When Michael Anania showed me the photo, taken by David Lenfest when Duncan was reading to Anania’s students at the University of Illinois—Chicago, he described the movements of Duncan’s arms, which made Duncan appear almost as if he were in flight. “One hand played the rhythmic beat,” said Anania, “the other kept the longer cadence.” And here, already, is the first fact of interest: the fact that Duncan was not only a strongly rhythmic poet, but that he thought of his poems in polyrhythmic terms, so much so that he enacted those rhythms for his audiences.Just as interesting as the figure of Duncan ‘conducting’ his own reading, though, is the contrast of the figure with its ground. The background does not, at first, seem particularly promising, and from a visual standpoint, it isn’t striking, although those two long blackboards do provide a nice dark field against which Duncan’s light shirt can pop. What’s interesting about the background are less the visuals than what they represent—if we taken them as metonymic, as parts representing a larger whole. What are blackboards, after all, but nearly universally recognized signs of the educational system of which they are instruments? They show us that this is a university, an event sponsored by an English department, by the rationally organized, administered, modern institution that has become the major venue for American poetry’s reception and, increasingly, its creation. Many poets and lovers of poetry cringe a little at the word “academic,” even though (or perhaps because) so many of them bear advanced academic credentials, and have, at the end of their email addresses, the letters “edu.”Duncan, too, was uneasy with the academic institution as a venue for poetry—and, indeed, with the much broader cultural and historical movement of which the university is but one minor emanation. He was uneasy with—no, that doesn’t go far enough—he waged war against modernity itself, inasmuch as modernity can be defined as the triumph of the rational over the irrational, the positivist over the mystical, and the disenchanted over the magical. The university lecture hall hardly seems a fitting place the broad, dramatic gestures caught in Lenfest’s photograph of Duncan. Don’t they belong elsewhere? Perhaps in a sacred grove, a temple, or a catacomb where the members of a sect have gathered for their rites.Duncan’s mysticism and irrationalism are, of course, in his blood: his adoptive parents were Theosophists, believers in the occult, who selected him as their child based on astrological projections. He was raised with a deep respect for the mystical, and we find this background very much alive in his conception of the poet as magus, as the sorcerer-priest of a heterodox spiritual tradition. "There is a natural mystery in poetry," wrote Duncan in one of his notebooks, "a poem, mine or another's, is an occult document." Metaphors matter: any reader of poetry knows that. And Duncan's metaphor is a far cry from, say, William Carlos Williams' when he writes that a poem is a machine made out of words. Come to think of it, though, Duncan doesn't intend this notion of the occult document as a metaphor. He means it, earnestly, seriously, literally.Duncan’s[...]
2016-05-19T08:09:21.710-05:00This afternoon the latest issue of The Hudson Review landed in my mailbox with the satisfying thump of old-school print media, and it's a fine issue, with writing by Alfred Corn, William H. Pritchard, Dean Flower on Nabokov's letters, Carol T. Christ on Jeanette Winterson, and much else, including my own essay, "John Crowe Ransom's Quarrel With Himself." It starts like this: Once, in the waning days of the nineteenth century, a southern preacher’s son quarreled with his father about the place of human happiness in God’s plan. He pointed defiantly to the world’s disorder as proof that God cared little for our desires, but he was too much his father’s son not to doubt his own position, not to wonder if benevolent Providence could be real. He carried his doubts with him when, years later, he sat down to write. That preacher’s son was John Crowe Ransom, and the quarrel with the father became a quarrel with himself, from which sprang his poetry. Later, his doubts resolved, he took up quarrels with the world and modernity. From this sprang prose and, eventually, disciples both political and literary. The poetry of the old inner quarrel was never quite abandoned, though the font of inspiration ran close to dry. Instead, the poems were rewritten, ironed smooth, the self-division suppressed, chastened, or ironized. What remained was assured, refined, supple—but somehow confined. One thinks of Rilke’s panther in its cage. During Ransom’s lifetime, many thought that what he’d wrought in poetry was great, and numbered him among the storied names. Robert Lowell, speaking of the generation of American poets born in the 1870s and 80s, listed Frost, Williams, Pound, Moore, Eliot, and Ransom as the masters, sure of lasting fame, adding only “who outranks whom will be disputed.” Randall Jarrell said Ransom’s poems would “outlive Mother Goose.” And at the height of his own fame Robert Frost told a fawning audience at Kenyon to redirect their enthusiasm, because the greatest living poet was their own Professor Ransom. From certain perspectives, Ransom’s legacy may count for more than that of more enduringly famous poets. The rest is available in the Spring 2016 issue of the magazine, available now![...]
Comedy is a funny kind of art: much loved, but rarely held in the highest esteem. Aristotle ranked it lower than tragedy, and the last unambiguously genre-specific comedy to win the Oscar for best picture was Annie Hall, in 1977. Comic poetry suffers a similar fate: it is under-represented in anthologies and rarely given systematic critical consideration. But do we even know what comic poetry is? Well, it’s poetry, for starters, although the worms that spill out of the can when we ask what constitutes poetry are too numerous to count. As for what constitutes comedy, the theories are a bit more manageable, and fall into three main categories: incongruity theory; relief theory; and superiority theory. All of these are encompassed, implicitly or otherwise, by Henri Bergson’s treatise Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, which forms the basis of Aaron Belz’s theoretical speculations on comedy. If I’m not mistaken, though, Belz warps Bergson’s theory in interesting ways, ways that help us understand the very serious intent—and rather dark view of the world—of the comic poetry in Belz’s book Glitter Bomb.
Theories of comedy are no more comic in themselves than theories of sexuality are sexy. Immanuel Kant, for example, is no one’s idea of a comic writer, but he is the great promulgator of the incongruity theory of humor.The whole essay can be found in the latest installment of the journal At Length.