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Preview: Reginald Shepherd's Blog

Reginald Shepherd's Blog

A blog about poetry, literature, and art, that occasionally engages other issues of importance and interest.

Updated: 2017-12-19T06:40:03.049-06:00


Recent Publications of Reginald Shepherd's Work


I suppose I should have publicized these a bit earlier, but I don't always have it completely together lately. In any case, there have been a number of publications of Reginald's poetry and essays since his death last fall.

Five of Reginald's poems are anthologized in American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry, edited by Cole Swensen and David St. John. The poems included are: "Direction of Fall," "A Parking Lot Just Outside the Ruins of Babylon," "The Tendency of Dropped Objects to Fall," "Turandot," and "You Also, Nightingale."

"My Mother Dated Otis Redding" was published in Volume 7/2008 of Margie: The American Journal of Poetry.

"The Invisible Diva," an essay on Kate Bush, was included in the essay collection My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women who Inspire Them, edited by Michael Montlack.

Several biographical essays about gay poets have been published in LGBTQ America Today: An Encyclopedia. Reginald's essay entries include those on Donald Britton, Hart Crane, Tim Dlugos, Timothy Liu, Carl Phillips, D. A. Powell, Brian Teare, and Mark Wunderlich.

Kevin Prufer on Reginald


Following up on the recent announcement that Reginald's essay collection, Orpheus in the Bronx, has been named a finalist for the award in criticism by the National Book Critics Circle, NBCC board member Kevin Prufer has posted a short piece about Reginald on the NBCC blog.

Reginald and the Muses


by Robert PhilenIn the few months since Reginald’s death, I’ve revisited and reread most all of his writing, poetry and prose, a time or two, mostly as a way of coping with his loss and staying in touch with his ideas, though also because in my capacity as his literary executor, I’ve also been collecting together and editing a variety of his works for publication. One piece I’ve recently returned to is his short essay, “Taking Dictation from a Martian Muse,” in which he treats the notion of poetry as derived from the muses in a variety of guises, though focusing especially on Jack Spicer’s notion of poetry as dictation.Reginald was largely skeptical of the idea of poetry as dictation or as derived from Muses or as transmissions from the ghost radio:“Interesting and even inspiring though Spicer’s notion of dictation is, with its promise of escaping what he calls "the big lie of the personal," I wonder if it’s not simply the mirror image of romantic inspiration. Instead of coming from deep within one, from one’s soul or innermost self, the poem comes from outside one, from the Martians or the spooks. In either case, the poet is passive, and abdicates thought and responsibility...Spicer’s Martians seem to be the Muses dressed up in space suits, another way to preserve the romantic (small “r”) notion of the poet as a specially inspired individual with access to the transcendent…”This is not at all to say that Reginald rejected the notion of poetry as inspired through something like a muse (whether one thinks of that in terms of Martians dictating, ghost radios, the workings of the subconscious mind, or possession by muses):“I like the idea of poetry as dictation, because writing does feel like that sometimes. I’ve had at least one poem that was literally dictated to me—I woke up and the poem was reciting itself in my head, though I had to come up with my own ending. Don't we all? In that sense Spicer conveys what it often feels like to do poetry.”I’d say it’s more that Reginald felt that while muses may be involved in the process of writing poetry, they are not sufficient, for the poem requires the active working by the poet upon potentially poetic material, wherever that may have come from:“The poem, when it is at its best, when we are at our best, is a kind of agon between the poet and the language, and the poet has to bring all his or her resources to bear, or it’s not a real struggle at all, just a performance.”Reginald’s penultimate poem (if it may be called that – more on that below) is a good example of the relation between muses and poetry, both in the sense of its writing being clearly of something other than his fully conscious, cogent mind, and in the sense that it’s obviously not fully formed poetry.As many who knew him or follow his writing know, in mid-April last year, several months before he did die in September, Reginald almost died as a result of a perforated intestine, followed by massive abdominal infection and blood poisoning. He was unconscious for ten days in the Intensive Care Unit, with a ventilator down his throat, alongside many other tubes, lines, and pieces of equipment. Even when he regained consciousness, he was completely unable to talk until the ventilator tube was removed, and barely able to talk after that because of lack of strength. For a few days after regaining consciousness and having the ventilator tube removed, he had frequent hallucinations (the result of both the sedatives he had been on and his sickness) and slipped easily in and out of fully cogent consciousness even when I don’t think he was hallucinating.During the period of a few days during which he was in and out of consciousness but was largely unable to talk, Reginald communicated to me or to his ICU nurses by writing on a clipboard. Much of this writing is completely illegible, as he didn’t have good motor control in his arms at that point. Much of what is legible is lacking in cogency (he was frequently hall[...]

National Book Critics Award Finalist


Reginald's essay collection, Orpheus in the Bronx: Essays on Identity, Politics, and the Freedom of Poetry, has just been named a finalist for the award for criticism by the National Book Critics Circle. I'm obviously saddened that he didn't live to see this honor, but I'm please nonetheless by the positive attention this book of his has received. Robert Philen

Follow this link for more details.

Comments on “Kinds of Camouflage”


KINDS OF CAMOUFLAGE For Robert Philen1. Déjeuner, with HerbsThen I am sitting naked on damp grass(it rained in my yesterday)while two white gentlemenin black frock coats share luncharound me, passing chèvre, cold andouille,and baguettes, passing bon motsin French, in someone’s nineteenth century,my muddled impression of one. I can’tunderstand a word. There must bea picnic basket somewhere, lined witha red and white checked cloth,some visual cliché, althoughI know the cloth’s pale blue, pale echoof a sky that isn’t there. They hardlynotice me (two men now passing apples, anda bottle of medium quality red wine), or no,I exaggerate, they don’t see meat all, my body naked to the breezetoo cold for noon although it maybe May; my skin respondsin kind and gets no answer, a situationI am used to. Browned warmth of my fleshtones is quickly cooling, and the dayis downcast, overcast: the basket’sbeen tipped over, grapes, peaches,and some fruit I can’t make outspill over, shadowing green. I hate poemsabout food. I am a paintingby now, varnish smudged and darkeningin storage, and getting hungry fast.2. Field GuideAbove the highway we drove homebetween two hills of snow (from oneclassical town to another), a birdyou couldn’t recognize at firstwhen I asked, What is that?.Something trailing confused you,threw you off track, a streamer,scrap of dragon kite, festoon orcrimson plume. Oh, it’s a red-tailedhawk, with something caughtI can’t make out. Dinner, anyway.A piece of will defeatedin the wind, some little life’sfluttered surrender. Perhapsa red squirrel, rare coloraround here (you told methat), I could have thoughtbut didn’t. The hawkwon’t be hungry for long, we’re almosthome. It will be again.“Kinds of Camouflage” has long been one of my favorite poems – by Reginald or anyone. The poem appears in Reginald’s most recent poetry collection, Fata Morgana, published last year, though it was written quite a while earlier, about a year or so after I first met and fell in love with Reginald, sometime during the winter of 2000 – 2001, or perhaps as late as early spring 2001. (I can place its writing in time because Part 2, in addition to being evocative poetry, is a pretty straight description of something we saw and a conversation we had while driving between Syracuse and Ithaca, New York, and that is the possible time range in which we might have made that drive with snow on the ground.)Here I offer, paralleling the structure of the poem, two commentaries, distinct from one another, but related. Robert Philen1.One of the most striking things about Reginald’s poetry is the strength and power of his images.His images are typically straightforward and clear. In reading his poetry, I’m often reminded of the clarity of imagery in some of the poems of one of Reginald’s favorite modern poets, Williams – the red wheelbarrow (upon which so much depends) beside the white chickens, or “This is just to say”’s plums so cold and so delicious, to reference two famous examples.Reginald’s imagery is also typically highly evocative. In Part 1 of “Kinds of Camouflage,” there is of course the reference to and evocation of Manet’s painting, but also a sense of the fear of exposure of nakedness (literal and figurative), fear of lack of interest in that nakedness exposed, and perhaps also a bit of a sense of the pomposity in which others are clothed (literally and figuratively).But as Reginald was often quick to point out, in writing, speaking, or conversation, there are no images in poetry, barring some examples of concrete poetry. An important part the workings of his poetry was the tension between imagery and the fact of the poem as comprised of words.This tension is often made explicit through calling attention to the “wordiness” of imagery. In Part 1 here, following imagery of food with “I hate poems about food,” followed by a new fiction and im[...]

You, Therefore


Of all Reginald's poems, "You, Therefore" is among those that seems to resonate most with people. It's the one I've seen most used as part of the many online tributes to Reginald that have been put up since his death. It's one of two poems I selected to be read at his memorial service (along with his last poem, "God-With-Us").

I can't say with absolute certainty that it was his favorite among his own poems, but "You, Therefore" was definitely among his favorites. From the time he wrote it, he always closed any of his many readings with this poem. Robert Philen


For Robert Philen

You are like me, you will die too, but not today:
you, incommensurate, therefore the hours shine:
if I say to you “To you I say,” you have not been
set to music, or broadcast live on the ghost
radio, may never be an oil painting or
Old Master’s charcoal sketch: you are
a concordance of person, number, voice,
and place, strawberries spread through your name
as if it were budding shrubs, how you remind me
of some spring, the waters as cool and clear
(late rain clings to your leaves, shaken by light wind),
which is where you occur in grassy moonlight:
and you are a lily, an aster, white trillium
or viburnum, by all rights mine, white star
in the meadow sky, the snow still arriving
from its earthwards journeys, here where there is
no snow (I dreamed the snow was you,
when there was snow), you are my right,
have come to be my night (your body takes on
the dimensions of sleep, the shape of sleep
becomes you): and you fall from the sky
with several flowers, words spill from your mouth
in waves, your lips taste like the sea, salt-sweet (trees
and seas have flown away, I call it
loving you): home is nowhere, therefore you,
a kind of dwell and welcome, song after all,
and free of any eden we can name




after Jean Valentine

What will I call you
when you are gone?
How will I know your name?
Little star, reflection
on the Sea of Galilee,
a lantern in the wood, half-hid,
reflecting on what can’t be
touched, be known?
And the sheen of milk
across the sky, the galaxy poured out
like me, true sky, false dawn,
and a young woman’s nipple,
star of milk, star of a
nursing child’s mouth, my
child, my lord, whoever
you may be today, tonight
which will not end, a cup
passed to me, from which I may
or may not drink, half-empty
star, still asleep by now?
And your small body, Emmanuel,
how small my heart
to fit inside yours)
lie there, pearled, asleep…
How I want to believe.
(a pearl, an irritant).

Note on "God-With-Us:" This was the last poem Reginald wrote. He wrote it while in the hospital, about two weeks before he died. It was read at his memorial service by his longtime friend Jocelyn Emerson. Robert Philen

Reginald Shepherd, 1963 - 2008


As most readers of this blog are probably by now aware, Reginald Shepherd died September 10 after a fight against cancer.

Reginald was my partner, my best friend, my constant companion, my lover, my confidante, and much else besides. I don't know what I'll do without him for the rest of my life. I do plan to occasionally post material about Reginald here, along with writings from his files.

The following is a short piece about Reginald I wrote for his memorial service, which was held yesterday. Robert Philen

Reginald Shepherd, 1963 - 2008

Reginald Shepherd was born April 10, 1963 in New York City and passed away September 10, 2008 in Pensacola, surrounded by people whom he loved and who loved him.

Reginald was the son of Blanche Berry, who was originally from Macon, Georgia. He grew up in Bronx, New York, along with a sister, Regina Graham. He moved to Macon and lived with his aunt, Mildred Swint, after the death of his mother when he was fifteen.

Reginald earned a B.A. degree from Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont, and M.F.A. degrees in Creative Writing from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and the University of Iowa in Iowa City. He taught literature and creative writing, most recently at Antioch University and earlier at the University of West Florida, Cornell University, and Northern Illinois University, and he was remarkably dedicated to his students and the craft of writing.

Reginald was a magnificent writer. He published five books of poetry (Some Are Drowning; Angel, Interrupted; Wrong; Otherhood; and Fata Morgana) and a book of essays (Orpheus in the Bronx), and he edited two poetry anthologies (The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries and Lyric Postmodernisms). He recently completed a sixth book of poetry and a second volume of essays that will be published posthumously. Among many awards for his writing, he most recently earned a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008 and won the 2007 silver medal for poetry in the Florida Book Awards.

Reginald met his partner, Robert Philen, in December, 1999 in Ithaca, New York, and ever since, their relationship has grown, based in conversation, compassion, sharing, friendship, passion, and profound love. The two have lived in Pensacola since July, 2001.

Over the past year, Reginald faced tremendous adversity and continuous pain from a series of illnesses related to cancer, but he faced it all with profound strength and courage, tenacity, love of life – and gentleness, dignity, and innocence. He fought long and hard against the illness, but as one nurse who worked with him toward the end put it, “He remained a gentleman to the end.”

Any of us who knew Reginald are devastated and heartbroken at this loss, and we will miss his unique combination of verve and vivacity, wit and intelligence, tenacity and strength, gentleness, empathy, and sweetness, generosity and innocence. We will also, despite our profound sadness, remain ennobled, happy, and blessed by the time we spent with him.

On Alvin Feinman’s “True Night”


I am in the hospital for the fourth time in the past five months, this time for excruciating abdominal pain that turned out to be due to a partial bowel obstruction which has still not cleared up. I have had a tube down my throat and have been unable to eat for over a week. I spend most of my days trying to sleep through the pain and nausea.In the course of the various tests to try to determine the cause of the obstruction, my surgeon found several large masses on my liver which, after a blood test and a liver biopsy, have turned out to be a fast-growing resurgence of my colon cancer. Thus I am in the hospital cancer ward for the foreseeable future, starting chemotherapy again (it had been on hold during my assorted medical crises of the past few months), before I have had time to fully recover from my recent illnesses and surgeries.Despite all this, and to remind myself that I am not a bundle of symptoms and sicknesses, I am posting (or rather, having my darling Robert post) this final tribute to my recently deceased mentor Alvin Feinman, a discussion of his poem “True Night.” This is an excerpt from a piece on Feinman’s work in general that is included in the anthology Dark Horses, edited by Kevin Prufer and Joy Katz, and in my essay collection Orpheus in the Bronx.True NightSo it is midnight, and allThe angels of ordinary day gone,The abiding absence between day and dayCome like true and only rainComes instant, eternal, again:As though an air had opened without soundIn which all things are sanctified,In which they are at prayer—The drunken man in his stupor,The madman’s lucid shrinking circle;As though all things shone perfectly,Perfected in self-discrepancy:The widow wedded to her grief,The hangman haloed in remorse—I should not rearrange a leaf,No more than wish to lighten stonesOr still the sea where it still roars—Here every grief requires its grief,Here every longing thing is litLike darkness at an altar.As long as truest night is long,Let no discordant wingCorrupt these sorrows into song.“True Night” is a lovely example of what Bloom calls “a central sensibility seeking imaginative truth without resorting to any of the available evasions of consciousness,” whose temptations are both acknowledged and refused The poem opens at midnight, “The abiding absence between day and day,” a present absence which is both instant (and an instant) and eternal, because it is no given day and no single time, but rather the moment between dates. This no-time is all times, both everlasting and utterly ephemeral. It is (or rather, it is “As though”—what we know is not the thing itself, but only its appearance, our own knowing of it) an air which has opened soundlessly, an air which we take into ourselves with every breath. Particularly within the precincts of a poem, the phrase “an air” in conjunction with the evocation of sound calls up a pun on the Renaissance sense of an “air” as a song. Here, it is a song without sound; it was Keats who wrote that unheard melodies are sweetest, and this soundless air is sweeter than any song one could ever hear.Here in this time which is no time, the polarity of identity and difference is suspended, and opposites meet. Things are beside themselves, at peace with their own restlessness and discontent, their own failure to be identical with themselves: they are “Perfected in self- discrepancy,” like the off-rhyme of the words “perfectly” and “discrepancy.” All wrongs are posed in the perfection of a still-life, no less wrong but now transfigured into necessity and equipoise: “Here every grief requires its grief.” The poet’s task is both to capture this momentless moment and to leave it undisturbed, to touch its untouchability into art without marring or altering it. The line “I should not rearrange a leaf” can be read ei[...]

What's in a Name? Part Three


Because I am not devoid of pride, and because I always want to know whether I’m being talked about and what people are saying if I am, I periodically look myself up online or, as they say, “google” myself. (Perhaps “Google” should be capitalized, since it is a trademark.) The only other Reginald Shepherd who comes up is an aged and very Caucasian Canadian painter, a self-described “poetic realist” who seems well-known in his native Newfoundland and in neighboring Nova Scotia, but nowhere else as far as I can tell, even in Canada. I think of myself as a kind of poetic realist as well, in life and in my poetry, so perhaps our kinship is more than name deep.

Years ago, when I lived in Chicago, another, decidedly less savory Reginald Shepherd popped up when I searched myself. An apparent career criminal (all that came up were his various arrests), he was something of an evil doppelganger. I once was almost denied an apartment because there was a record of my arrest for “criminal shoplifting” (I always wondered what legal shoplifting was) in 1991, two years before I moved to Chicago. And once I received a letter from a social service agency that some woman had named me as the father of her child. I had to call and explain that the last time I had been in the vicinity of a woman’s vagina was the morning I was born. One of the other Reginald Shepherd’s old addresses even appeared on my credit report, an error (among others) I had to call and write in order to rectify. My criminal double has either settled down into legal respectability or died (either is equally likely), as he hasn’t shown up in my web searches for several years. I would like to think that he has seen the error of his ways and now become a law-abiding citizen, but I have no great desire to inquire further.

When I look up the most common misspelling of my name, Reginald Shepard, which people sometimes insist upon even when they’re publishing or paying me, no matter how many times I sign and print the correct spelling of my name, besides finding various references to my misspelled self (I try to correct them when I can), I also find references to a death row inmate in Florida by that name. I don’t know what his crime was, but I imagine that it was probably murder. I find it a little disturbing to once again have a criminal doppelganger living (though who knows for how long) in the same state. At least there are two crucial letters separating my name from his, his fate from mine. But still…

What's in a Name? Part Two


Now that I am once again out of the hospital and able to sleep in my own bed without being wakened several times a night to be weighed or have my vital signs taken, I have the opportunity to think about other things every once in a while, or at least to return to thoughts over which I've been mulling for a while. Thus I present part two of my musings on names and naming.The name Reginald has very different connotations for white people and for black people. For white people, the name sounds very English, and my Anglo accent, though one that I can’t hear, often makes them inquire as to whether I am English, or perhaps West Indian. I just reply that I got my accent from my Barbadian father (whom I met once) and my Jamaican stepfather (who abused my mother and me). But almost the only people in America nowadays with the name Reginald are black. It’s become an almost quintessentially black name, like Antoine (often spelled Antwan, or Antuan) or Leroy/Leroi (“the king”).Mine is one of a set of categories of black names. There are the names that white Americans don’t use anymore, like Cedric or Tyrone, names that have been handed over to black people (though in the hospital I did have a white physical therapist named Tyrus—but then, the South has always been a bit backward). There are also names like Reginald, Maurice, or Roderick (this last one is on the edge) which have become predominantly black names but aren’t yet perceived so by white people. There are the made-up names, like Materia, Tawanna (a cousin of mine—she was meant to be named after the Mexican border city), or Chicalaundra (pronounced “Shalandra”). There are the Frenchified names, like LaQuan or LeVante or LeBron or LaToya (also LeToya), or the (male) driver of the Greyhound bus I used to take to work when I lived in Chicago, LaHarry. I remember joking once with a black friend that you can make any name black just by adding “La” or “Le” to it; then I realized it was true. (“De” will also work, as in DeWayne, DeMarcus or, my favorite, Da’Sean, pronounced “DAY-Shawn”—the apostrophe makes all the difference.) Then there are the faux-African names, like Kechia/Keshia/Keisha, Kena (another cousin of mine), Kima, and Kwame (this last a genuineWest African name appropriated by black Americans). There is an overlap between Frenchified black names and faux-African names, as in Lakeisha or Deshondra, and between the made-up names and the faux-African names, like Tawanna or Kima or Ebony/Eboni. There are also the Arab names, like Jamal and Malik, Omar and Raheem/Raheim. I’ve always found black Americans' tendency to give their children Muslim names odd, since Muslim Arabs were major slave traders for over a thousand years. A category which seems to have dwindled are names taken from words of rank and position, so that a white person calling a black person by (usually) his first name would still have to show respect, even if the act was meant disrespectfully. The singer Prince a/k/a “Symbol Thing” (born Prince Rogers Nelson) and poet Major Jackson would be examples. Mine is also an example of such a name, since, as I wrote earlier, my mother always told me that it meant “Great King.”When I was a kid, and up until my mid-twenties, I went by “Reggie.” The only other two Reggies I knew of in my childhood were the baseball player Reggie Jackson and the Archie comic books laughingstock rich bad boy Reggie Mantle. He once went into an office and, unsatisfied by the secretary’s refusal to be impressed by him, announced “Someday my name will be a household word,” to which her response was, “Like dirt?”A few months before my twenty-fifth birthday, I decided that I was too old to be called “Reggie.” That was a child’s name, and it was time for m[...]

What's in a Name? Part One


Steven Burt’s January post "all-name team" on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, and the posts I did in February here on this blog on gay poetry post identity politics, have had me musing about identity, social and personal, and about the role names play in producing identity. I’ve been thinking about names, what they are and what they do. As Burt points out, poetry is a kind of naming, and naming is in turn a kind of poetry. In poems, names are like magic talismans that contain and convey the essence of the thing named. So when two things are given the same name, then they are or become the same. And when the name changes, then the thing named changes.The thought of changing names and things, in turn, has me thinking of my own name (everything makes me think of me), the changes it has undergone over the course of my life, and a couple of people with whom I share that name, whom I’m quite sure are not the same, as me or as each other. But when I look myself up, there they are. And when I look up the wrong spelling of my name, some other version of me, there I am anyway, as if I were two people who’ve led the same life, or at least who’ve published the same things in the same places. As Steve Burt points out, “Titles, names, labels ask questions, and raise possibilities.” So who are the possible me’s my name makes possible?1I was born Reginald Berry on the morning of April 10, 1963. Berry was my unmarried mother’s last name; like the protagonist of Diana Ross and the Supremes’ “Love Child,” I started my life in an old, cold, rundown tenement slum, burdened by the stigma of illegitimacy, which for me was the same as poverty. The birth certificate I am always losing documenting the birth of “Reginald Shepherd” was issued in 1968, after my mother had sued my deadbeat Barbadian father to prove that he was indeed my father. What we got out of that I never understood, since he almost never paid the meager thirty-five dollars a week in child support as ordered by the court.I sometimes wonder if who I am changed when I ceased to be Reginald Berry (I was five) and became Reginald Shepherd: indeed, when I ceased ever to have been Reginald Berry. Reginald Berry was erased, as if he had never been, and his place was taken by Reginald Shepherd, as if I had always been him and he had always been me, except that Reginald Shepherd came into existence at the age of five, having completely bypassed birth and infancy, not to mention the terrible twos and threes.I was enmeshed in the social services network at a very early age (as everyone in her family always said, my mother knew how to work the system), and to this day I am in the Social Security Administration records as Reginald Berry Shepherd, a name I have never legally had or even gone by, a name that has never been mine. They remember all the pasts, and conflate them into one.Would my life have been different if I had remained Reginald Berry, if Reginald Berry had not been erased as if he had never existed? At the least, people would have much less occasion to misspell my name, and who knows what effect that confidence that I would be correctly spelled could have had on my self-esteem?My mother (who went from being Blanche Berry to being Blanche Graham—my stepfather’s name—without ever having been Blanche Shepherd) always told me that my name meant “Great King” in Celtic. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary (whose only authority is that of its author, Douglas Harper), my name derives from Old High German and means “ruling with power.” According to Unabridged (which bases its claim to authority on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary), it derives from an Old English word meaning “counsel and rule.” I believe that [...]

In Memoriam Alvin Feinman, 1929-2008


I am still in the hospital, awaiting surgery on an abdominal fistula that refuses to heal on its own—quite the contrary—but it’s very important to me to have Robert post this piece.In Memoriam Alvin Feinman, 1929-20081The wonderful poet, teacher and friend Alvin Feinman died a few days ago after a long struggle with emphysema and Parkinson’s disease. Alvin was one of the most important people in my poetic life, and I would like to pay him some small homage here.Alvin Feinman was born in 1929 and raised in New York City. Though he has been named by Harold Bloom as part of the essential canon of Western literature—Bloom has written that “The best of his poems stand with the most achieved work of his generation”—Feinman is not included in any of the standard anthologies of modern or modern American poetry, not even Cary Nelson’s recent Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry, which explicitly aims at recovering and rediscovering neglected writers. Nor is he listed in the purportedly comprehensive Contemporary Authors reference series.Though always committed to poetry (including, in his words, “even doggerel narratives in early childhood”), he had originally decided on philosophy as a career, and did graduate work at Yale to that end, until he realized that the dominant analytical school excluded all the important philosophical questions. It was in poetry that those unanswerable questions, questions of knowledge, perception, and the relation between being and appearance, could properly be addressed. As Feinman somewhat jocularly told me, “I was, even philosophically, convinced that, as I liked to put it, if according to Aristotle, ‘Poetry is more philosophical than history,’ so is it more philosophical than philosophy. The work I’d have had to do in philosophy would be to lay out the grounds for privileging poetry—which indeed our era has been more or less doing—vide Heidegger, Rorty, Derrida, etc.”Feinman’s first book, Preambles and Other Poems, was published by Oxford University Press in 1964 to praise from such figures as Allen Tate, Conrad Aiken, Geoffrey Hartman, and Bloom. (Bloom’s discussion of this volume in his book The Ringers in the Tower: Studies in Romantic Tradition is the only extended treatment of Feinman’s work of which I am aware.) Now out of print, it was reissued with a handful of additional poems by Princeton University Press as Poems in 1990; that volume is also out of print. Feinman’s lack of a wider reputation is partly due to the unabashed difficulty of his poems, though as Harold Bloom writes, “their difficulty is their necessity” (The Ringers in the Tower, 315). But, given the popularity of other “difficult” poets, his neglect is mostly due to his distaste for the rituals of literary self-promotion.Alvin Feinman is a true visionary poet, heir to Stevens and Crane in the modern line and, further back, to Blake, Wordsworth, and Shelley, poets who invented human consciousness as a subject matter for poetry. In Harold Bloom’s description, “the central vision in [Preambles] is of the mind, ceaselessly an activity, engaged in the suffering process of working apart all things that are joined by it” (op. cit., 315). Bloom calls this “a tragedy of the mind, victim to its own intent, which is to make by separations” (op. cit., 316).Feinman’s poems demand much of the reader (at times resisting the intelligence almost successfully, as Stevens said that the poem should), but they offer many rewards in return, including dazzling imagery (light and the work light does is omnipresent) and dense, rich verbal music. Eliot wrote that genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood, and Feinman’s poems do so amply.John Ho[...]

On the New American Poetry


The question of what a tradition is and who is entitled to lay claim to it is quite alive these days. Many contemporary poets trace their literary ancestry back to what have come to be called the New American Poetries, after Donald M. Allen’s influential anthology The New American Poetry. Furthermore, those who claim this legacy often assert a) that the very diverse poets gathered under the rubric “New American Poetries” were political and/or social revolutionaries and b) that they shared a program of total or near-total negation.I thought that it would be illuminating to go back to Donald M. Allen’s seminal anthology to see what was actually there. Looking through the poems and the author’s statements, though many of them manifest a strong will to transformation, the forms in which this transformation is imagined rarely correspond to political impulses, and often imagine politics as another shackle that must be broken or transcended. The rebellions which many (though hardly all) of these poets engaged or hoped for were often explicitly anti-political, as utopianism often is. In his essay “Buddhism and the Coming Revolution” (reprinted in Donald Allen and Warren Tallman’s anthology The Poetics of the New American Poetry, an assemblage of prose statements published by Grove Press in 1973), Gary Snyder writes that “The belief in a serene and generous fulfillment of natural loving desires destroys ideologies which blind, maim, and repress—and points the way to a kind of community which would amaze ‘moralists’ and transform armies of men who are fighters because they cannot be lovers” (393).While we talk about “New American Poetries” in the plural, for Allen the new American poetry was singular, though he did divide his assembled poets into five groupings, four semi-geographic and one a catchall of “younger writers who have been associated with and in some cases influenced by the leading writers of the preceding groups, but who have evolved their own original styles and new conceptions of poetry” (xiii). He admitted that his groupings were “occasionally arbitrary and for the most part more historical than actual” and that they were for the convenience of the reader as much as a reflection of any reality other than that of geographical milieu (ibid.).Allen was not modest in his claims for the poets in his book: “Following the practice and precepts of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, [the new poetry] has built on their achievements and gone on to evolve new conceptions of the poem. These poets have already created their own tradition [an interesting feat], their own press, and their own public. They are our avant-garde, the true continuers of the modern movement in American poetry” (xi). All forty-four poets included constitute the new American poetry. If you’re not in it, you’re not in it. One the one hand, the Nineteen Fifties literary scene was rather exclusive and exclusionary, though it did find its way to giving Gwendolyn Brooks the Pulitzer Prize in 1950. On the other hand, avant-gardes traditionally define themselves by what they push away much more than by what they accept or include. (Many members of various artistic groupings hated one another and despised one another’s work. But together they all hated something else more.)Peter Gay makes this point in Modernism: The Lure of Heresy: “Like the avant-garde clusters that came after [them]—much, in fact, like the Impressionists—the Pre-Raphaelites were united more by what they detested than what they valued” (83). But it’s important to remember that no one in this anthology called him or herself “a New American Poet,” just as no one (at the time) called[...]

One of the Lesser Epics


As those who have been reading this blog know, near-fatal illness, a hospital stay of over a month, and a long and ongoing recovery process have kept me from blogging for quite a while. Although I intend to post here as I am able and have things of interest to say, things will be quiet here for a while, since I see no point in a day-to-day journal of my recovery. (As I've written before, for me at least, being sick, while it can be miserable, painful, exhausting, and draining, is usually not very interesting.)

In the meanwhile, I am posting for the Poetry Foundation's Harriet blog again, and my musings, such as they are, can be found there throughout the summer. Given my current financial state and my mounting medical expenses, that venue takes priority, as it pays.

I want to thank everyone who has directly or through this blog expressed their concern, support, and good wishes for my health and my recovery. Crises can either bring out the best in people or the worst; I've been very lucky in that mine has brought out the best in people near and far. Your support, knowing that there are people I've never even met in person, who care about my welfare and my well-being, has meant a great deal to me. I haven't the time or the energy to respond to everyone individually, but I want you to know how much this outpouring of support has meant to me. So thank you, thank you all.

I'm closing with a poem included in my most recent book, Fata Morgana, from which this post takes its title. I feel as if for the past two months at least, and probably the past year or so, I've been on some kind of minor-level (to the universe, not to me) odyssey, destination as yet unknown. But the love of my darling Robert and the support of friends near, far, and wide have made the journey much easier.


Love doesn’t need this yellowed sodium lamp
humming on the roadside winter’s five o’clock
to find the way when I am clambering myself
out of the garish hells which I’ve domesticated,
assorted underworlds in which I’ve domiciled
my monopolies of suffering, memory’s
scares and stall tactics: love finds the way by smell
or sound of you, touch of an index finger
on your freckled forearm, remembering skin,
every quirk of asphalt, tarmac, macadam
leads back to you, the light as it came upon us
all afterthought. I’ve given every person
place and thing your name, you answer to them
willingly. Then we become the sunlight
(we’ve come from that far away), scattered
so widely, as easily dispersed.
Surely someone will be saved.

Speech After Long Silence


My recent extended absence from this blog, and from the Poetry Foundation's Harriet blog, has been due to severe illness (the worst of my life, including my colon cancer) and a long hospital stay.The short version: I was in the hospital for over a month, and almost died during the first week. According to my infectious disease doctor, by the odds, and given everything that was happening to me at once, I should be dead.The long version: Around April 14 I suffered a perforation of my small intestine which filled my abdominal cavity with unfriendly bacteria and led to a bad case of peritonitis, an inflammation of the intestinal tract. No one knows why or even exactly when the perforation occurred, so no one knows whether it might happen again, let alone how to keep it from recurring. The bacteria spread to my circulatory system, and I developed a nearly fatal case of septicemia, blood poisoning. I had three surgeries to clean out my abdomen over the course of ten days, including a resectioning that removed part of my small intestine (in addition to the portion of my colon that was removed in November along with my tumor) because it was irreparably infected. I was so swollen and distended that I couldn’t be fully closed up after the first two procedures, because the internal pressure would have been too great. Before the first operation, my blood pressure collapsed (to something like 40 over 20), I had a heart attack, and my kidneys briefly stopped functioning; immediately after the second procedure, as I was coming out of anesthesia, I had a seizure. For quite a while I was on a ventilator, because I couldn’t breathe on my own. The surgeon also discovered a bone fragment in my liver, probably the cause of some of my pain in that region.I was unconscious or semi-conscious at most for all of this, so I have no memory of these events. I only know they happened because Robert (and my doctors) told me about them. Indeed, Robert knows more about what happened to me than I do, since he was there, while I wasn’t, at least not in any meaningful sense. I remember waking up at one point while Robert, who came to see me every day for as long as they would let him stay, was with me in the intensive care unit, and asking how long I’d been there. “Two weeks,” he replied.That I could have died and not even known I was dying, not known that anything was happening at all, is terrifying to me, even more than the (quite terrifying in itself) knowledge that I almost died itself. There’s an element of adding primal insult to injury in the thought that my own death wouldn’t even be part of my experience, as if it weren’t mine at all.For me, writing all this down has the dual and perhaps contradictory effect of simultaneously bringing these events closer and keeping them at a distance; it serves both to internalize and to externalize what happened to me. Writing something down, achieving the mental distance to give it shape and form, is a way to gain control over experience, rather than be overwhelmed by it. But I didn’t experience these things at the time; my knowledge of them is all after the fact. So writing this is also a way of making these experiences mine, of internalizing these events so that they become part of my experience. It makes them simultaneously more real (more mine) and less real (less crushing).Illness is in general not interesting, though it is painful, time-consuming, and overwhelming, capable of taking over one's life. But some of the mind’s ways of coping with the body’s utter helplessness are fascinating. I was very heavily sedated for the first two weeks or so of my hospital stay, largely for my [...]

The Dialectic of Expression and Construction


A dichotomy is commonly made between aesthetic expression and aesthetic construction, in which the two terms are set in opposition as ways of proceeding in art. One is either exploring the possibilities of one’s medium or one is expressing one’s emotional and psychological state. One is either following formal necessities or emotional necessities. I find this dichotomy to be false. As I am noticing more and more, musicians seem to be far ahead of writers in breaking down such false oppositions.

The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Opera contains an excellent chapter by musicologist Alan Street on Schoenberg and Berg, who along with Webern comprised what has been called the Second Viennese School in music (the first being that of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert—a loosely defined “school” indeed), that talks very intelligently about the dialectic of construction and expression, pointing out that in the best twentieth century operas (from Bela Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Berg’s Wozzeck onward) the two have worked together, expression through construction, construction through expression: “Schoenberg was at pains to emphasize the impossibility of distinguishing between artistic acts of spontaneous expression and deliberate construction” (89). Street quotes fellow musicologist Douglas Jarman’s description of “the seemingly paradoxical fusion of technical calculation and emotional spontaneity that gives Berg’s music its particular fascination” (94-95).

Much contemporary American poetry is stuck setting the two against one another, and tends (probably in reaction to the still-prevalent aesthetic of personal authenticity) to privilege construction over expression. Again, I feel that in other areas of artistic endeavor this dichotomy has been put to rest, at least among practitioners. (Though self-appointed music critics are still fond of dismissing or denigrating Webern’s—nonexistent—“snarling dissonance” on the basis of an utter ignorance of his crystalline work.). For that matter, I think of Charles Olson and Robert Creeley’s complementary statements on the relationship of form and content—each is only an extension of the other.

For example, Christian Bök is clearly a very intelligent and talented writer, but when I read his book Eunoia, I see all construction and no expression: it’s a clever idea, but it doesn’t go any further than that. If Bök were to attempt to do something more with the technique of using only one vowel per section, that would be more interesting and engaging. But as it is, the book is not only a one-trick pony, but its trick has been done before, by Georges Perec and Harry Mathews and the Oulipo school in general. I’m reminded of another quote from Alan Street's chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Opera, again about Schoenberg and his circle: “for a group of composers compelled, like so many of their creative contemporaries, to withdraw from the commitment to a consensual form of expression, linguistic reinvention of the medium was never allowed to become the abstract end in itself that subsequent theoretical codification might suppose” (86). They never fell into the trap of valorizing technique for its own sake.

In the words of Pierre Boulez, a doyen of the musical avant-garde, “You are not modern—you are merely expressing yourself according to the coordinates of your time, and that’s not being modern, that’s being what you are” (quoted in Arnold Whittall, Musical Composition in the Twentieth Century, 9).

Narcissus as Narcissus


I take my title from Allen Tate's well-known essay discussing his poem "Ode to the Confederate Dead," in which he professes himself to be far from an expert on the poem just because he happened to have written it. As I'm sure it was for him, my use of this title is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, since there's always something self-regarding about publicly discussing one's own work. But I hope that there may be something of interest and even use in my discussion beyond mere amour propre. My work, after all, is not me, nor are the ideas which inform that work. I hope that the discussion is at least true to the work.My poetry operates within a literary tradition and a literary language to which I owe my formation as a writer, yet which is not “mine” (as a black gay man raised in Bronx housing projects): I wrestle with this necessary angel and rise renamed, blessed but also lamed. This language, the language of Yeats and Stevens, Eliot and Hart Crane, has both made me possible as a writer and made being a writer an asymptote. It is a language to which I aspire in the act of writing it and being written by it (every writer is as much the tool of language as its wielder). Thus my relationship to my own language (simultaneously mine and not mine at all) is ambivalent, constantly haunted by the questions, “Can I truly speak this language? Can this language speak through me?” Eliot wrote that the poet must always mistrust words, but the problem of language is foregrounded for me in ways it needn’t be for writers with a more settled, if illusory, sense that language is “theirs.”It’s my intention to inscribe my presence into that language and that tradition, not to “subvert” it but to produce a place of possibility within it. I wish to make Sappho and the South Bronx, the myth of Hyacinth and the homeless black men ubiquitous in the cities of the decaying American empire, AIDS and all the beautiful, dead cultures, speak to and acknowledge one another, in order to discover what, if anything, can be made of a diminished thing (in Robert Frost’s phrase).I am constantly working toward a poetic mode in which the lyric (a lyric I wish neither to destroy nor to consign to the trash heap of history) confronts its others, both the historical experience of abjection it has traditionally erased and the abjection of language itself that lyric “mastery” attempts to alibi and cover over. I am willing to give up none of the transformative possibilities of lyric, possibilities which have been at worst foreclosed (as pretention, presumption, or prevarication) and at best permitted to lapse in most contemporary American poetry, both the MFA mainstream practicing, ever-unobtrusively, the aesthetics of transparency, sincerity, and personal authenticity, and the Language poets so busy exposing the lying babble of media-speak that they forget the positive, creative possibilities of poetry. Nor am I willing to surrender the necessary and enabling critical-utopian distance of lyric from the society that both produces it and repudiates it, that cannot live up to its own promises. On this uncertain ground, lyric communes with the social text, while historical circumstance is refracted through the redemptive lens of a revised lyricism.My work surrenders neither lyricism nor lucidity (in critic Charles Altieri’s terms), charting a liminal space of the coincidence of song and thought, enchantment and disenchantment, the somatic and the cerebral. I hope to uncouple what Russell Berman has called the proximity of form and domination, and thereby to salvage what Adorno (following Sten[...]

Good News From My World


Now that it's official, I can finally tell the world that I have, on my fifteenth try (yes, I've been applying since 1993), been awarded a 2008 Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. While I would certainly have liked to have received one earlier, this fellowship could not have come at a time when I needed it more, as my medical bills for my cancer treatments and surgeries have been mounting at a frightening rate.

I keep looking at the list of Fellows on the Guggenheim Foundation web site to confirm that my name is still there. Sometimes the world does give one what one needs when one needs it. Just not very often...

Wallace Stevens and Otherness


In his very interesting and deeply flawed essay “Stevens Without Epistemology” (in Gelpi), Gerald Bruns attempts (and, finally, fails) to read Stevens against the grain, in Walter Benjamin’s phrase. Bruns attempts to read Stevens “deconstructively,” attentive to the rifts and fissures in his discourse. I have undertaken to do the same for Bruns, while preserving a sense of the value of his intervention.Most of Stevens’ critics have read him from within the ideology of the text, sharing its foundational assumptions: i.e., the posing of questions of epistemology as its fundamental problematic. They have engaged in what Theodor Adorno calls immanent critique. The question Bruns poses is “What happens to our reading of Stevens’ poetry when the problem of how the mind links up with reality [i.e., epistemology] is no longer of any concern to us?” (24). Bruns is quite careful (sometimes to the point of condescending to the reader) to situate Stevens’ work within an intellectual framework. At times, he seems more interested in the framework, and in particular in debates with Geoffrey Hartman and Jacques Derrida, than in Stevens’ work. This is hardly rare among literary critics.Bruns defines “the ‘epistemological turn’ in Western thinking’” (24), initiated by René Descartes, as the point when “questions about nature, reality, or the world began to be reformulated as questions about...Mind or Spirit” rather than about Being (24). The linguistic turn, seemingly simultaneous with the incipience of the twentieth century, and implicitly identifiable with the unmentioned Ludwig Wittgenstein, in turn reformulated these questions about mind into questions about language. Finally (but at no specified point), “there came a time when questions about language (and also therefore questions about mind and reality) began to be reformulated as questions about social practice” (24). This was the hermeneutical turn, concerned “with the historical and dialogical nature of understanding” (25).Both the vagueness of Bruns’ periodization and its absences strike me as rather odd. Wouldn’t Karl Marx be rather crucial to any account of a soi disant “hermeneutic turn,” if such a “turn” is indeed a matter of attendance to “social practice?” And wouldn’t this hermeneutic turn predate the “linguistic turn,” which can be seen as a reaction against the hermeneutic turn as so defined? (I don’t think this is an idiosyncratic view of logical positivism, for example.) After all, in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Marx did write that while philosophers have traditionally attempted to interpret the world, whereas our true duty is to change it.This absence reveals a certain anxiety of influence on Bruns’ part, in its implicit insistence on the priority and originality of his discourse. He makes an explicit claim to be doing what has not been done before, and his implicit positioning of himself as a pioneer of the new, original, “hermeneutic turn” seems crucial to that claim. Nor is the erasure of Marxism and the specificity of “social practice” it stands in for irrelevant to the emptied-out, idealist categories of “otherness” Bruns deploys. Bruns claims a social and even potentially political engagement that his conceptual apparatus rules out from the start.Bruns contends that Stevens cannot be accurately read in terms of the linguistic turn, because “language [as just another mental product] just didn’t have much reality for Stevens” (25). To the extent th[...]

The Fascination of What's Difficult


The question of difficulty is one with which I wrestle constantly. I want to communicate in my poems—I can’t imagine writing without the desire to reach someone (nor could Paul Celan, a very “difficult” poet)--but at the same time I don't want to pander, and I don't want to do or say things in the conventional or expected ways. No one should set out to write difficult poetry (that’s just to provoke), any more than one should set out to write easy poetry (that’s just to pander). One should follow the lead and the needs of the poem at hand.I don't think that any good poet intends to be difficult (or that any good poet intends to be "easy"), but I also think that difficulty is sometimes both unavoidable and necessary when one is trying to get at something complex, to say something that doesn't already have an already available vocabulary (it's usually a bad thing when something does have that conveniently at-hand language), or just when one tries to approach something in a unique and distinctive way, which good poems always try to do. T.S. Eliot said that genuine poetry can communicate before it's understood, and that's certainly been my experience. If one feels the poem, the conviction of its language and its emotions, as I felt “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” when I first read it, that can lead to understanding—at least, that's the only reason one would want to understand it, the only reason one would care. It's like the experience of listening to music: we don't necessarily "understand" it, but we immerse ourselves in it and it affects us.Much of what people say about "accessibility" is very condescending, as if "ordinary people" (whoever they are—certainly not us) are incapable of grasping or appreciating something complex, as if they're too dumb to connect with anything that has any nuance. I don’t think that poetry should be difficult, but I do think that it should be as complex as the world is. Poetry should live up to, enrich and illuminate the world, not simplify or flatten it out, which too many poems of all camps do (and probably always have—despite the perennial narratives of cultural decline, good poetry, real poetry, is a rare thing and always has been).These days there is too often a cultural leveling, in which the notion of "equality" means that everything must be "equivalent," and all cultural products must appeal to the lowest common denominator—which is also highly patronizing, assuming that "the masses" can neither be interested in nor understand anything complex or challenging. This kind of thinking seems to function largely to displace desires for equality and democracy from the social realm to the aesthetic: a bracketing not everyone can afford. I have heard people assert that writing complex poetry is equivalent to writing in Chaucerian English (as if complexity were something obsolete which we must move past), and that difficult poetry is "unfair to the mental capacities of non-poets." Such condescending attitudes would discourage anyone from trying to read poetry—no one wants to be looked down upon.The popularity of crossword puzzles, sudoku, video and computer games, and even convoluted television programs like 24 and The Sopranos indicates that people do in fact enjoy mental challenges. But, when people think about poetry (which is not often), and when they think of it as other than Hallmark card verse, there is the assumption that poetry is more difficult than other things (though many television commercials are more difficul[...]

Robert Duncan and Me


I have always had a fondness for verbal extravagance in poetry, for rhetorical splendor and a fine excess. One should be suspicious of such excess to a certain extent (Eliot wrote that a poet should always be suspicious of language), lest it descend into mere self-indulgence. But ours is, in French novelist Nathalie Sarraute’s phrase, an age of suspicion, in which intensity of feeling and expression is an embarrassment, at best an admission of lack of discipline and self-control, at worst an invalidation of whatever one may have to say. “You’re being so emotional,” people say, as if to feel strongly cancels out the worth of one’s thoughts, arguments, or positions.As Lani Guinier, Clinton’s failed nominee for attorney general, said in a 1994 interview in the magazine Vibe, “if you show too much emotion of whatever kind, that then defines you forever, and you don’t have the opportunity to present yourself in any nuanced or multifaceted way.” It sometimes seems that to express emotion, let alone passion, is to be marked as de trop by definition. Emotion is only allowed vicarious (and stereotyped) emotional expression by means of music, movies, and television, which offer up reified, commodified (and sterilized) versions of feeling. As Roland Barthes, as quoted in the Financial Times, of all places, once said, “What the public wants is not passion but the appearance of passion.”Robert Duncan is a passionate poet and a poet of passion, verbal, emotional, and intellectual. His work is sometimes dismissed as sentimental. Critic M.L. Rosenthal so dismissed the opening lines of “A Sequence of Poems for H.D.’s 73rd Birthday,” from Roots and Branches [Rosenthal mis-cites the poem’s title], in his 1967 book The New Poets:The young Japanese son was in love with a servant boy.To be in love! Dont you remember how the whole world is governedby a fact that embraceseverything that happens?The passage goes in this vein for several more lines, concluding with “And youth in love with youth!” before veering off in a more mystical direction. Rosenthal’s discussion, in which “I will not say that such a passage is an imposition on the heterosexual reader” (as if homosexual readers have not been imposed upon for centuries), and in which he denigrates the passage’s emotional exuberance as a “girlish outcry,” has more than a whiff of homophobia—the expression of homosexual passion or desire is by definition “too much,” “excessive.” Rosenthal is more approving when Duncan writes of the pain and shame of homosexual desire, as in “Sonnet 1”:Now there is a Love of which Dante does not speak unkindly,Tho it grieves his heart to think upon menwho lust after men and run.Sometimes Duncan’s poetry is sentimental. That is to say, sometimes the excess feels gross rather than fine, willful rather than felt, like a performance. As Wallace Stevens noted, sentimentality is not a surplus of feeling but a failure of feeling. But that is not Duncan at his best.I am impressed by the unabashed and unembarrassed lyrical and emotional exuberance of Duncan’s poetry, the utter absence of irony or defensive self-consciousness. Not that Duncan is unself-consciousness (far from it), but self-awareness is not used as a shield or a weapon. As poet Brian Teare writes in his essay “A Drama of Truth”, “it’s Duncan’s lack of irony about his vocation, as well as [about] the possibilities and functions of both imagination and language, that makes[...]

My New Anthology


My new new book (after my recent essay collection, Orpheus in the Bronx), Lyric Postmodernisms: An Anthology of Contemporary Innovative Poetries, has recently been published by the new and small but quite excellent Counterpath Press, who have published books by Laynie Browne, Brian Henry, and Andrew Joron, among others.Marjorie Perloff writes of the book that "Like the best of museum curators, Reginald Shepherd has trusted his own poet’s eye and ear in assembling poems by twenty-three of our best (mostly younger) poets—poets not usually linked, belonging, as they do, to different schools and movements. From Rosmarie Waldrop’s ironic prose poems ('I gave up stress for distress') to Cole Swensen’s elegant ekphrastic prose, from C. S. Giscombe’s minimalist geographies to Susan Stewart’s resonant mythic landscapes, the dominant impression—rare today—produced by this lyric assemblage is that of quality—the sure hand of those who have mastered their craft and can therefore Make It New. This is a truly exciting and memorable anthology!"Charles Altieri writes that “All the anthologies of contemporary poetry I know are far too generous. They seem incapable of excluding almost anyone who has gained any reputation, and then they have to compensate for their breadth by such scanty selections there is no possibility of depth. Not so with Reginald Shepherd’s Lyric Postmodernisms. Shepherd had the courage to select 23 poets—spanning two generations—then offer them enough space to provide statements on their aesthetics, display their range (including selections from long poems and uncollected texts). This anthology treats poets not just as makers of objects but as thinkers with visible and engaging projects, who bring lyric consciousness into almost every domain of active life. . . . Here 'lyric' can have its fullest meaning only if there are many more than one postmodernism, as Shepherd elaborates in his brilliant and concise introduction.”I am grateful to them both for these generous and eloquent endorsements.Lyric Postmodernisms gathers twenty-three established poets whose work crosses and transcends the boundaries between traditional lyric and avant-garde experimentation. Some have been publishing since the 1960s, some have emerged more recently, but all have been influential on newer generations of American poets. Many of these poets are usually not thought of together, being considered as members of different poetic camps, but they nonetheless participate in a common project of expanding the boundaries of what can be said and done in poetry. This anthology sheds new light on their work, creating a new constellation of contemporary American poetry.These poets explore and discover new territories in the intersections between lyric enchantment and experimental investigation: they innovate and interrogate while still drawing upon and incorporating the lyric past and present; their critical art is also a celebration and renewal of the riches of the lyric tradition.The book includes generous selections from each poet, so that a reader can get a sense of the writer’s work as a whole, and wherever possible I also include uncollected work that, even if published, might be difficult to track down. It is important to include a substantial representation of each poet’s work, rather than a cursory sampling, since it's often a poet’s other work that teaches us how to read any given poem of hers or his. I also include aest[...]

Defining "Post-Avant-Garde" Poetry


This is a considerably revised and expanded version of a piece that I originally posted on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, where it incited a quite extensive and vociferous response. I hope that the discussion here, should there be any, will be more calm and reasonable.I appreciate the attention (including reasoned and productive disagreement) the original piece received from Robert Archambeau, Christian Bök, Joshua Corey, John Gallaher, and Paul Hoover, not to mention the two citations on the Chronicle of Higher Education web site. This revision has benefited from their thoughtful discussions.*The phrase "post-avant poetry," which was either coined seriously by Ron Silliman or parodically by Joan Houlihan, is bandied about quite a bit in the online poetry world. (I’ve never seen the phrase in print, an indication of how separate the two realms often are, though many people participate in both.) It’s used with the assumption that "we all know what that is," but the term is rarely defined. Here follows my attempt to pin down a term much-mentioned but seldom specified, with the caveat that Stephen Burt makes in a postscript to his essay on what he calls “The Elliptical Poets”: “People who follow the arts like to talk about schools; often they prefer talking about schools and trends to talking about individual poets and their poems” (48). I hope that this too-broad discussion is not taken as a substitute for discussing actual poets and actual poems."Post-avant" (as in, "post-avant-garde"—insider groups love shorthand) poets can be described as writers who, at their best, have imbibed the lessons of the modernists and their successors in what might be called the experimental or avant-garde stream of American poets, including the Objectivists (especially Oppen and Zukofsky), what have been called the New American Poetries, particularly the Projectivist/Black Mountain School and the New York School(s), from Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan to John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, and the Language poets (including such poets and polemicists as Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman), without feeling the need (as so many other poetic formations have) to pledge allegiance to a particular group identity (the poetry world is full of fence-building and turf wars) or a particular mode of proceeding artistically. As poet Elizabeth Willis writes in her artist’s statement in my anthology Lyric Postmodernisms, “part of what’s so interesting about the current moment is its refusal of an overtly oedipal relation to literary traditions on either the right or the left, and a willingness to construct and invent not only new kinds of poetry but new ways of reading.”These poets don’t form a movement, let alone a school, but something more like a set of tendencies. As Stephen Burt writes, “Whether a school exists, or where its boundaries lie, seem…questions both less profound, and less durable, than the questions we ask about each poet and about individual poems. At the same time individual poems may respond to their historical moment and invoke their stylistic [formal, and thematic] affinities with other poems” (50).Poet and editor Rebecca Wolff writes of the work in her journal Fence, a home of the post-avant (along with such journals as Boston Review, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, New American Writing, Verse, and Volt, and such publishers as Ahsahta Press, the University of California Press, th[...]

Two Posts on Creativity, Quality, and Taste


Cultural anthropologist (and my much-loved partner) Robert Philen has two recent posts on his always fascinating blog that I think will be of particular interest to readers of this blog.

The first, "A Democracy of Creation and Taste (But Not Quality)," he points out that while "In much of the world today, there is something like a democracy of creative expression, where most everyone can say what they want about whatever, even if some people are better able to have their voices heard and are more influential," at the same time, though "There’s no single way to evaluate the quality of and other instances of creative expression do have objective qualities – meaning that they are objects in the world with empirical qualities"--qualities that can be analyzed, evaluated, and judged.

In other words, the democratization of creativity is not equivalent to a democratization or leveling of judgments of artistic quality: as Robert writes, "the fact that there’s no single way to evaluate the relative quality of works of art, doesn’t mean that all creative expression is the equal of every other." The aesthetic world is not flat.

Robert's second and more recent post of interest is called "In the Long Run Our Culture Has Good Taste," in which he points out that "People often have the impression that pop culture and the arts used to be better. This impression comes from the fact that in the long term, we actually have good taste, and this skews our memory of the past." We are very aware of the ephemeral dreck (my phrase, not his) of our own time, but that of the past has fallen away, and all that remains or tends to be remembered are the high points--Frank Sinatra's soulful ballads, not his duet with a talking dog.

As he points out, and this is a way in which the two posts are directly related, "Objects of creative expression (and I would include scholarly expression as much as art here) that maintain the interest of many for very long, though highly various, tend to have objective qualities that reward repeated reflection and rumination (i.e. they’re actually at least somewhat profound) and that are not overly determined by the moment of their creation, allowing them to communicate across temporal contexts."

I encourage everyone to read these stimulating and insightful pieces.