Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Pleasure of Reading Zukofsky

At the beginning of the summer, I bought several new books from Amazon with the intention of getting to them all. So far I've done a fairly descent job, but one book has been sitting on my nightstand ever since I opened it: The Complete Short Poetry of Louis Zukofsky (which is ironically the book I was most excited about).

I have not purposefully been trying to snub Mr. Zukofsky. I have opened it several times and read several poems, but each time, I've ended up more and more confused about exactly what I was reading. I turned to Robert Creeley's introduction to try to gain some insight, and I found it somewhat helpful. Creeley advised keeping Zukofsky's own definition of poetry in mind, "The test of poetry is the range of pleasure it affords as sight, sound, and intellection. This is its purpose as art." I tried to read it aloud as Creeley also suggests, and I did find pleasure in the sight and sound and the obscurely juxtaposed lines of thought, but I was still not convinced that I had cracked Zukofsky.

Fortunately, a few weeks ago, Silliman posted an interesting link to an article called Betting on Poetry by Joel Jensen about the difficulty of reading Zukofsky "cold." I could definitely sympathize with his trouble, and some of the comments to the blog were helpful, but it still didn't help me read Zukofsky.

Then again, a few days ago, Silliman posted another link to a very clearly articulated article called Louis Zukofsky Selected poems by Mike Bengal, which I highly recommend. In it, he suggests that a comment by T.E. Hulme is extremely helpful for reading Zukofsky:

"language is by its very nature a communal thing; that is it expresses never the exact thing but a compromise – that which is common to you, me and everybody. But each man sees a little differently, and to get out clearly and exactly what he does see, he must have a terrific struggle with language... Language has its own special nature, its own conventions and communal ideas (Hulme, “Romanticism and Classicism”)."

Bengal connects this to Zukofsky by claiming that:

"Zukofsky’s work preeminently reflects an awareness of the socially-constructed nature or “communal” aspect of language. He allows it to take center stage, rather than trying to make it bend to his will. He “struggles” with it, in the sense that he disbelieves in language as direct representation, but is nonetheless concerned with what and how it might signify in other ways, and how it relates to the realities of the material world."

He then goes on to develop several examples of Zukofsky exposing the inadequacy of language to communicate ideas other than the communal ideas in the readers' minds and how Zukofsky treats language as an object (hence, Creeley's emphasis on sight and sound in the poems). I won't recount all the details, but I will suggest that you take a look for yourself.

After reading it, I returned to Zukofsky fresh and began reading his 43 section poem "Anew," and I found that Bengal's suggestions had radically altered my persepective. I could see how Zukofsky exposes language. For example, the first section in the poem goes:

I walked out, before
"Break of day"
And saw
Four cabins in the hay.

Blue sealed glasses
Of preserves - four -
In the window-sash
In the yard on the bay.

The waters
At the ramp
Running away.

Clearly, the poem has a lyricalness, and a visualness, and interesting juxtaposition, but considering Bengal's idea of Zukofsky exposing the inadequacy of language, the poem reaches a new level of insight and genius.

Automatically, a reader might envision four cabins in a field, with jars in the windows, beside a river, and yes, those images are there, but if you consider the actual images and relations of the words as they appear, the poem becomes ridiculous. "Four cabins in the hay," for instance, is not four cabins in field (which the mind automatically might make it), but more literally, it could be four cabins (like toys) in a pile of hay. Also, the "blue sealed glasses" literally are sealed with blue, and the "window-sash" becomes not wood but fabric. Furthermore, they are in the yard on the "bay" about which Zukofsky claims in his following note:

"[bay] should convey something of all the meanings of the word 'bay': red-brown, the laurel, the laurel wreath, a bay horse, a deep bark or cry, a window-bay, a large space in a barn for storage as of hay or fodder, the state of being kept at a standstill, but more specifically two meanings that seemed to include all the others, they are, an arm of the sea, and a recess of low land between hills."

The more literally we take Zukofsky's words, the more inadequate they become for expressing any particular idea but only as much as the reader can formulate. This, I considered to be my first real encounter with Zukofsky.

I went on to read the rest of the sections, and I found that they are all radically different exposures of language. The pleasure, it seems to me now, of reading Zukofsky is the pleasure of reading the words themselves together as they appear in their odd constructions and keeping up with his own cunning exposures of language.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Poetry vs. Rhetoric

Kenneth Goldsmith raises some very tantalizing points in his sentences on conceptual writing - especially considering the fact that I have spent the the last two months working on the same poem (!). Exhausted with all these wasted hours and lines, I am literally one conceptual manifesto away from abandoning every creative impulse and poetic technique I've ever learned, then tearing up my books.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

It has been some time since I have put up a post. I have been mostly busy with getting married, honeymooning, settling in, etc... but I have been working and reading. Hopefully, I haven't completely alienated my small readership. I did come across this very interesting collection of audio readings from Ted Berrigan on the UPenn website. Check it out.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Evolving New Genius

Yesterday in class, my students were giving oral presentations. The first group went off without a hitch, but the second group had some technical difficulties with the powerpoint, so there was about a five minute lull while they emailed their project between computers and synched up the projector. As they were sweating out the file downloads (which seemed to take several tries), I took a second to look around the room and noticed that at least three quarters of the other students had taken the small intermission as an opportunity to jump on their phones and start texting.


And though this is typical behavior (I've developed a dirty look for just such times), I had never really considered the fact that they were writing – freely and of their own will! – a feat I've spent long hours decisively plotting. If only there was a way to harness that kind of creative energy, I thought – we would have a culture of writers and poets. In a sense we do – in a much different way than my generation ever wrote (not that I'm old, but I did just miss texting craze). Some of these kids must spend hours a day writing, and with so much coming through onto the "page," even without formal intentions, they must be developing a sense of line and lyricism (if only to impress their friends), and especially thinking though their word choices and economy (at, I believe, a price per letter). Isn't this exactly what we do as poets?


Furthermore, without the small but particular constraints of versely educated audience, they are free in a sense that most "Poets" aren't. For while we (meaning Poets) may be ostracized from certain topics or thoughts (encroaching on the realm of cliché, for example), these texting-poets, in their ignorance (I mean this a positive sense), are unconstrained by the expectations of a critical and overly-informed audience. In this sense, they may not retreat (as so many contemporary Poets (and Artists for that matter) do) into the bizarre, or grotesque, or obscure, but may rift, instead, on topics like love, or roses, or sadness without the same fear of exposure we "Poets" have.


And also, without the pressure of a "readership" (for while many poets claim to write for themselves, we all want an audience), texting-poets don't create their work under the same demands of necessity. These texting-poets, for instance, probably don't feel the "need to write a poem" or the "horrible impotence of writer's block." And so, what they create is probably not the result of force, but instead, the result of desire. This seems like a much better reason to write. In creating out of these circumstances, as opposed to creating out of responsibility to the poem, texting poets are most likely prone to a more genuine art. And while it may be cliché in our view, it could be insightful for them.


Of course the obvious criticism against such poets may be that they, like many general writers, fall slave to the language methods and structures and develop mindless patterns of creating. This is probably the case for most texting poets (particularly some of those in my class), but I can't help but think there probably are a handful that naturally view it as an art and push the limits of their art and the language ,and that this type of poet, without the pressures of the Traditional Poet, may be the pure genius of the future. And while it may or may not have already happened, it seems to me that the conditions are ripe (like a primordial soup) for just such this occasion.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Another take on the same old thing


Lucid winter, season of art serene,
Is sadly driven out by sickly spring,
And where dull blood presides within my being
Impotence stretches itself in a drawn-out yawn.

White twilights glow lukewarm beneath my skull
Squeezed by an iron band like an ancient tomb,
As, following a vague, sweet dream, I sadly roam
Through fields whose sap is flaunted to the full

- then fall, enfeebled by the trees' perfume,
And hallowing with my face a grave for my own dream,
Biting warm earth in which the lilacs push,

I wait, engulfed in rising ennui...
- Meanwhile the Azure laughs on every bush
And wakened birds bloom twittering in the sun.

Stephane Mallarme (tr. Henry Weinfield)

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Early Spring (After Horace) by Devin Johnston

The hardest of winters will crack
at the tap of spring and milder systems:
performance yachts
are winched from dry-dock storage;
chafed by confinement,
the amateur botanist hates his apartment,
and city parks no longer shine with frost.

Venus ascends through the elms
as the moon swings closer
and teens entwine
their fingers as they ramble,
sandals abandoned; a night-
shift employee waves her scanner,
restocking surge suppressors
of summer lightning.

Now is the time to relax
with a puff of grass to tangle thoughts
with flowers, which float
above the thawing earth.
On the shadowy paths
of the graveyard, it's time to burn
some useless sacrifice to wildness.

Colorless death will descend
on Division's tattered kiosk
or Board of Trade, regardless.
You've been lucky, David:
hope for the future's restricted -
the longest of lives is short.
Night and half-remembered
forms are closing in -

a thin and emotionless heaven.
Within its walls,
no joke of yours will ripple
through the darkness
(lending a wonderful curl
to McPherson's lip, for whom
the boys now burn, and girls will soon catch fire).

Monday, March 17, 2008

Pound’s “Mauberley”

I don't know Greek and only a small amount of Italian (enough to know that I need to know more), and it seems like that would be a problem for someone reading Ezra Pound – but especially the "Cantos" or "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" (where every tenth line is in a different language). Normally, that would really agitate me. I would feel like I had to run to the computer to look things up. However, I have come to accept (from my reading of Eliot) that I don't know what Eliot and Pound knew.

Actually, I don't think anyone does, and that seems like it is the point. In terms of references, they were drawing on the worlds they knew to create their "art emotions" ("Tradition and the individual talent"), and they didn't care about who got their obscure references or whether or not they were "accessible" to the general readership – they were finding the correlatives for their feelings. And the more a reader knows what Pound knew, the closer she can get to his poem. In that sense, to get bogged down in the references (ie, throw the book in the trash because you don't know Greek and can't understand the entire poem) is to miss the parts of the poems, which you could know.

"Mauberly," I think, is exactly this same way – a sort of poetic barometer by which to measure yourself against Pound. But even on the first reading, without the references, it is clearly a revolutionary poem about the inadequacy of poetry and Pound's own inadequate ramblings. He seems to denounce the "thoroughfare" of poetry which has "long since superseded the cultivation of Pierian Roses" – of people who don't value the art but the "sculpture" of rhyme – as if poetry is some old ritual to be performed by men in robes at secret clubs and not by beautiful women. "The age demands," he repeats constantly; as poets, we need to live up to the demands of our own time and not paraphrase the classics. And so, by being entirely contemporary to his own ideas and knowledge, pound created poems that were emotions of his experience, and ironically believed that he too will "pass from men's memories." So in a sense, to toss his book out because it doesn't match your understanding is also to ironically prove his point in "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley."

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Reginald Shepherd on dumming-down

I found this comment regarding "accessibility" (whatever that is), posted on Reginald Shepherd's blog particularly interesting:

"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)."

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Howe's The Kingdom of Ordinary Time

My previous post provides some of the background views that I have held about Marie Howe. I have always seen What the Living Do and The Good Thief as confessional yet lyrical – without the “linguistic masturbation” of most poets, and I feel (somewhat) the same way about her new book – The Kingdom of Ordinary Time.

It does, in many poems, provide a much wider context than simply her life, so, as a reader, I don’t feel like I am just hearing her thoughts poured out. Look, for instance, at a part of the poem “The Massacre:”

It moved through me like a clot – clear, cold,

and for an instant I knew myself – shouting in the careening

trucks with the rest of them

and what, in my exhilaration, I could become

These lines interest me because, although they are “confessional,” they don’t just share Howe’s personal ideas but help convey feelings to the reader – she is giving us the sensations of her thoughts, “shouting in careening trucks with the rest of them.” Like many of Lowell’s poems, this poem moves away from the self. Also, these lines are very lyrical – “It moved through me like a clot – clear, cold.” There is a very nice music in here, and throughout the book. In a sense, she doesn’t just spill her guts, but she also builds art. I value her for that.

Another thing I liked about this book, which I also admired in her previous two books, is the way they function as books (as opposed to individual poems). Howe does have a nice sense of building something greater than any one. And many of the poems in here really do create a dialogue. Thoughts and images are often started, repeated, and finished throughout the volume, and this builds a nice layering effect that connects the poems and allows the reader to consider them in each other’s context – often providing a much wider interpretation. Furthermore, by layering images and thoughts, Howe also invites the reader to connect similar themes – (ie) fear and the post 9/11 world. This (very contemporary connection) is referenced through her layering of images, but it isn’t beaten over our heads like war propaganda.

Although I really appreciate all this, in another sense (and perhaps it is myself as a reader), I also feel a little tired with this book. I was never expecting a radical change from her, but it would be nice to get something different. In many ways, the last section centering on the death of her mother mirrors (too closely I think) the poems of her brother’s death from What the Living do. As a poet, I think she needs to seek out some new territory. And while she does deal with new themes – post 911 skepticism, the depersonalization of society, and the failing of love – the tone, I think is too close to her other works – she needs a Dolphin to combat her life studies.

Thoughts on Howe’s The Good Thief

I have been a pretty avid reader of Marie Howe for the last five years or so – reading whatever she puts out, and I have always been pretty interested in her work. Her last book, The Good Thief affected my writing a lot. Here are some thoughts submitted for my MFA program on the book:


    Marie Howe's The Good Thief, much like her book What the Living Do, is a very careful collection of poems. On the surface her poetry is colloquial and may be defined as "narrative" or "confessional." However, a demanding level of precision always underscores her work. Every poetical choice in her book serves a purpose and everything unnecessary is omitted. This level of care separates Howe's work from other "narrative" or "confessional" works because it remains focused, not rambling, but direct. Howe never simply tells, but instead uses her life as a vehicle to explore deeper issues.

    One of the most impressive aspects of The Good Thief is its remarkable unity of thought. The book almost always focuses on the mysteries of death and spirituality; Howe uses her writing to explore her past religious history and discover new answers. She presents retellings of biblical stories in "Part of Eve's Discussion," "The Mountain," "The Unforgiven," and "Mary's Argument." She also delves into the realm of ghosts in "What the Angels Left," "Gretel, from a sudden clearing," and "The split." In addition she tackles the issues of an apparently abusive, drunk, father, and an apparently split family. Though her writing seems like a catharsis, it never feels like Sharon Olds' writing, which does exactly the same thing. Marie's Howe's writing is fresh; it's poetry that often challenges the reader to follow distant and abstract, non-linear images. It also presumes a faith and a desire to understand the unknown. These two aspects, in addition to a very distinct, believable voice separate Marie's writing from the linguistic masturbation of other confessional poets.

Ginsberg's social responsibility

A recent thread started by started by Linh Dinh on Poetry's Harriet Blog particularly caught my attention. It focused on how Ginsberg's poetry is now an aging relic, and that Moloch, whom he passionately fought, is winning - America is creating a society of mindless, governmentally imposed drones. There were several good comments, but in the end, I don't think we can really blame him for our condition. Check out the thread.