Because of my interest in Zen I finally got around to Leslie Scalapino's Public World/Syntactically Impermanence. I was curious (and a bit skeptical) about it, but she makes some interesting connections, which I will come back to in another post later today. I also picked up Susan Howe's Europe of Trusts and Rae Armantrout's Veil, New and Selected. There's a haunting kind of tension in Armantrout as well as a humor that is not always immediately apparent, if my first reading of these poems is at all just.


Yes, Joe, I saw the Land Rover ad and found it disturbing. I went to their web site and told them so. Can you imagine that spot with the "Pope-mobile" instead? There'd be calls for a boycott as we speak.


I appreciate John Everhardt's post on Ashbery and share some of his thoughts, but my question of 6.18 was more about Gioia, in the context of recent discussions on traditions. Something about saying that Poet X is "wonderful" so long as Poet X know's Poet X's place bothers me, unless I'm reading too much into Gioia's comment. His assertions often strike me as those of a debate-team captain, who arrives with a stack of notecards from which he will not deviate.


Question for my fellow bloggers. What do you think of this comment from Dana Gioia in the short piece on Ashbery from "Can Poetry Matter?"

"[Ashbery] is a wonderful minor poet but an uncomfortable major one."

Been working on the poetry ms, which is why I have not posted in the last few days. Today the book is half as long and twice as bad as it was yesterday. Note the new blog, HatStuck, linked at right.


The idea of tradition - at least as far as constructing lineages from writer to writer to writer - still strikes me as somewhat artificial, which I suppose is why I'm suspicious of anthologies. Question: if the post-avant attitude towards tradition is one based on a shared general attitude towards art (make it different) as opposed to one of values applied to specific modes (new old formalism), why call it a tradition? And if it is a tradition, is Charles Bernstein "traditional?" Or am I just nit-picking?


The discussion stemming from Chris Lott's email to Ron Silliman is getting interesting. I hope it continues. To Chris' assertion that it is possible to muster equal enjoyment for a wide "spectrum" of poets and poetry - I really would love to agree, and "in theory" I suppose I do, but it hasn't been my experience. There are a number of possible reasons, which I will have to consider more carefully and post later.
I think Ron Silliman's take on the school of quietude's (mis)understanding of tradition is on the money. His distinction that the post-avant attitude towards tradition is one of difference as opposed to familiarity also works for me, if I interpret his post of today correctly.


Thanks to those who pointed me in the direction of an o-blek 12 and to Joe Duemer for the blog tip - the archive links now work.

English as a Second Language

Dear Mother,
I'm all settled in. My students are great, and I'm having a good time. It's funny how they use our language here. I've begun a collection of notebooks with these funny phrases on them. The best quality goods always make you happy. Believe it or not, I sort of enjoy the solitude that comes with being a complete stranger. Dressed up to the toes, I want to stroll in the downtown at night. It is the kind of solitude that the crowded trains seem somehow to refine. The style we call Gothic flourished between the 13th and 17th centuries in Great Britain, when people cared about appearances. Some of my students took me out for dinner last night. We went to this little restaurant under an overpass. The atmosphere was charming, the wine was delicious, but the whale was to die for. We all have devices we are especially fond of. American freak. Which is really Japanese when you think about it. Repeated writing makes the thinking clear. I hope you can visit. Sweet and elegant papers will be your stylish partner. Grace in every letter.


My new copy of My Life (Green Integer 39) arrived today. The dimensions are only 4 x 6, which makes it portable and attractive, since the fatness of it makes the spine nice and wide as well as gives the book some heft in the hand. I never really cared for the large format most university and trade publishers use, which makes some books seem thin. This feels like a book. One difference between the GI edition and my Burning Deck edition is that in the GI edition each section begins at the top of a new page rather than wherever the previous section happened to end. I'm not sure exactly why I prefer this layout - maybe the little extra white space provides a kind of rest.

Like the City Lights Pocket Series, Green Integer books have a uniform appearance that is simple, elegant, and - in a way - brilliant. Just shy of the upper two-thirds of the cover is given to a black and white photo of the author, the lower white space given to the title, etc. It has the same effect a well-designed "selected poems" has. Even if you've never heard of the author or title, looking at the cover will make you feel like you should have by now. Perhaps best of all, it's only $11 (No, I don't work for Green Integer). With many new trade paperbacks of poetry hugging $18-20, I've been buying fewer new ones, feeling as though I'm paying more for production than for writing.

In light of Chris Lott's post/questions to Ron Silliman the other day and my own brief exchange with Chris, I've been thinking about how easy it is to read criticism of a particular poem/poet as the dismissal of an entire mode, or how easy it is for one who writes criticism to give that impression. Case in point: if you had asked me last November whether I thought Ron was a Wendell Berry fan, I would have guessed no, basing that guess on the kinds of poets Ron usually blogs about and the nature of his own work. I would have been wrong. Perhaps it's a symptom of our tendency to want to categorize and classify artists according to some value-set we can delineate, which makes it easier for us to either align with or stand opposed to them. I take no pleasure in the poetry of Sharon Olds, but I don't hold Sylvia Plath responsible. In the term "school of quietude," the operative word is "school."


To Chris Lott's assertion that I spend an inordinate amount of time picking apart what I don't like: guilty as charged (but not wholly apologetic). His ears must have been burning, or perhaps mine were, because I was thinking the other day that I might do well to spend more of my blog time discussing what I like rather than lobbing grenades, seeing that in the couple weeks I've been doing this blog I've given in to the temptation to criticize more often than not. Part of that is the result of still sorting out just what I want this blog to do, and part of it is, I admit, a taste for polemic - both in writing and reading.

That said, I do not completely renounce negative criticism. When someone publishes an essay proclaiming to tell us what is we should value in poetry, and through that essay and the poems accompanying it succeeds only in reaffirming that poetry which the majority of magazines, English departments, and publishers already privelege - to the exclusion of a lot of other poetries -, I feel that it's worth pointing out, futile as it may be. I will concede, though, a lack of thoroughness and, perhaps, judiciousness on my part yesterday.

Back in 1993 or 1994, when I was a student, I sent poems to a magazine called o-blek, which I selected from Poet's Market having never seen a copy. The poems were from a series (long since shelved) in which a character named TESSITORE finds himself the subject of a lot of rumor-mongering concerning, primarily, his sex life. The basic model was Catullus, with a dash of Rochester and others. I even went so far as to submit the poems under the name TESSITORE (only), having some plan by which I would conflate the writer-self with the character and, were I ever to succeed in seeing the project into print, playing the whole thing to the hilt. I never really fully articulated, even to myself, just what it was I hoped to accomplish with this project, but in hindsight I believe it was a reaction to the endless stream of personal, self-oriented poetry I was reading in nearly every magazine I was familiar with at that time. Ah youth - rebel without a poetics. I chose o-blek almost at random from the magazines listed under "experimental" in PM, and lo and behold, they took three of the poems. With the acceptance came a call for essays, statements, manifestos, etc., that would occupy a companion issue. I had none, but managed to piece together a short selection of notes from journals and sent it in, fully expecting it to be returned. They took that, too. Some months later I got my copy and was surprised to see that the publication (oblek 12, the last one) was more like an anthology than a magazine, and a few years later I began noticing references to it as something of an event. I did get a call from C.D. Wright, who was looking for Arkansas writers to participate in a Lost Roads project, but as I was not a native, I did not qualify, and so the "event" of o-blek 12 did not launch TESSITORE into the avant-garde limelight. Now, in 2003, I realize that my copy of o-blek 12 is gone, both volumes. A web search turned up lots of references, mostly in resumes, but no info on how to get a copy if there are any to be had. While I fully expect to be somewhat embarrassed when and if I see my prose contribution to the magazine, I would still like to track one down. Anyone?


More on the Karr piece:

The fact that Mary Karr can publish a book that’s half run-of-the-mill poems and half ill-conceived criticism is interesting in itself – it is something only a best-selling novelist can get away with. I read the prose piece first and left it feeling, quite frankly, embarrassed.

What Karr believes is wrong with contemporary American poetry is that too much of it is “purely decorative.” Which poets are decorative? Nearly all of them, according to Karr: neo-formalists, John Ashbery, the Language Poets. She spends some time citing the later work of Amy Clampitt and James Merrill, both safely dead.

What we’re left with – once we’ve removed the purely decorative from American letters and get down to what Karr values most, described quite plainly as emotional and linguistic clarity – is a poetry that looks like this:

At the end we prayed for death,
even phoned funeral homes
from his room for the best
cremation deal. But back
when he was tall, he once put
my ailing cat to sleep,
or helped the vet and me
hold it flat to the table
while we felt all muscles
tighten for escape
then freeze that way. Later
in my father’s truck,
I held the heavy shoebox on my lap…

-- from The Patient, by Mary Karr

Cremation deal. Where’s William Logan when you need him? If this is what is right about contemporary American poetry, I’ll take wrong any day.

Near the end of the piece, Karr writes: “Deconstruction has permitted poets to be weak communicators. I’m thinking specifically of the glib meaninglessness in poets like Ashbery and his heirs, the Language Poets.”

First, I don’t believe that many of the poets referred to as the Language Poets would consider themselves “heirs” to Ashbery. Second, the assumption that experimental poetries of the past few decades came into being for no other reason than to prove French theories is a common one and just plain wrong. (If I am mistaken on either of these points, please tell me).

I do not admire the new formalism, nor do I champion every poet labeled Language / Post Avant / Experimental, but Karr accomplishes little more than a widely distributed (she is a "Penguin Poet") refrain of the official verse culture position that difference is suspect, coupled with a call for more dullness please.


Just got Mary Karr's "Viper Rum" from a friend. 29 poems + a 24-page afterword on contemporary poetry. Unfortunately, it's not much of an essay. Still, I like the idea of combining poems with a statement/essay/manifesto.



There (read: dreams, residual images
of documentaries) an elephantine

fish sways, slow, silent, in a pool
of low description. Monks glide, quick,

silent, in fog that glides between sun
and evergreen, rubbing the evergreen blue.

Here (read: here) the fish breaks
the surface all day with its mouth-grope.

The monks talk, take the car to town.
A chaos of leaves cracks, hisses under tires.

A couple with a yellow camera asks
if you would, please. The car pulls up.

The monks step out with plastic sacks.
Pellets for the elephantine fish.

The only Zen publication I subscribe to is Mountain Record. The Summer 2002 issue, the topic of which is creative expression, features the following:

An essay on the designing of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial by Maya Lin.
"Mind Writing Slogans" by Allen Ginsberg.
"The Life of Teresa of Jesus," Chapter XXVII, by St. Teresa of Avila (with drawings by Thomas Merton).
"The Mother Cry of Creation," by Isadora Duncan.
"Letter to a Student," by e.e. cummings
A photo gallery by Leni Sonnenfeld.

Plus the regular "dharma talks" by the teachers at Zen Mountain Monastery, where MR is published. Some of the selections are reprints, of course. Also in this issue are a handful of poems by ZMM teachers and members, among them this one by John Daido Loori, the abbot of ZMM (lines 3, 5, 8 and 10 are indented - for some reason I can't format that).

Memorial Poem to Allen Ginsberg, April 5, 1997

Iridescent words still dust
the countryside
following the endless spring
breeze like pollen
seeding mountains and rivers
The bag of skin is here
but where is the bard to be found?
Aie eee eeeeeee!
Shake O grave
the sound of the raging river
is thy howling voice.


I'm sure there are thousands of poems being furiously scribbled about this...

In case you haven't seen it before, it's a photo of Earth and the Moon from Mars.

My interest in alternatives to mainstream verse since leaving graduate school probably has its roots in my very first experience of poetry as a high school junior. Attending a Catholic school, I was given Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton... and probably a Catholic reading of these (I can't recall a word the nun said). Reading these, I knew that literature was something I would always have around. It was when we got to Blake that I knew poetry was something I would always do. What I do recall clearly is the sense of wonder that stemmed from NOT understanding everything on the page. I imagine the reason I don't recall the lectures is that they went at least part way towards ruining the visceral experience of reading.

Looking back over the Mark Doty passage William Logan singled out for skewering (see yesterday's post) it seems the critic was kind. It is almost as if the poet were suspicious of writing that's interesting - it might get in the way of his feelings. It is the poetic equivalent of a photograph of the spouse and kids on vacation, the shot set up so that the point of interest is left off to the side.

...We drove
to Fred Meyer, a sort of omnistore,
for saline solution, gym shorts, a rake.
In the big store's warmth and open embrace
who could I think of but you?

Any workshop student could tell Doty that either Fred Meyer or the appositive following - a sort of omnistore - should go. Each one sucks the interest out of the other. The temptation to explain, to reduce, to qualify sends a clear message that the detail itself is not what matters but the Self standing at the slide projector, talking. For Doty once is not enough, and so we get "big store," which pushes the location right off the page, leaving only the image of a poet with a (mostly empty) shopping cart.


William Logan:

Reading Jorie Graham’s poems in Never is like watching a slow-motion nature documentary where an anaconda ever so lazily disarticulates its jaw and inch by inch, millimeter by millimeter, swallows a goat.


[Mark] Doty’s giddy immersion in humanity sometimes sounds like a pep talk for American business, like things Stephen Vincent Benet wrote in the thirties. “We drove,” Doty writes,

to Fred Meyer, a sort of omnistore,
for saline solution, gym shorts, a rake.
In the big store’s warmth and open embrace
who could I think of but you? We were
Americans there—working, corporate,
bikers, fancy wives, Hispanic ladies
with seriously loaded shopping carts,
one deftly accessorized crossdresser,

Indian kids in the ruins of their inheritance,
loading up on Easter candy, all of us standing,
khakis to jeans, in the bond of our common needs.

Our common needs! If you want to torture some spy, read him passages like that and you’ll have his state secrets in no time.


It still baffles me that both arch-conservative and [what's the opposite of arch-conservative?] poet-critics can be unanimous in their distaste for such middle-of-the road stuff as Doty's; yet all that pressure from both ends has not managed to squeeze it out.

I've only read a couple of Antin's talk pieces. It's interesting - now that I think about it - that I can't remember a couple of lines from them, which I do not think is a bad thing despite having been thoroughly conditioned to value memorizability. What I really admire is his method, which is to show up at the "reading" with a topic and a few notes, give the talk, which is recorded, transcribe the talk into the poem, then print it, reversing the usual order of the process of making and distributing poetry. The emphasis thus becomes the shared experience of the poem between poet and audience rather than the transfer/reception of the poem as a fixed object.

One Zen attitude towards reading is that it should not be indiscriminate or lazy. It's tempting to compare Antin's method with, say, Hejinian's in My Life (where lifting out sentences or small portions is worthless), and make a "be here now" claim for them, then to contrast that with the official verse culture's insistence on "accessibility" and general ease, which often masquerades as "responsibility to the reader," whose laziness such a poetics encourages.

And now for something completely different:

The Past

I didn’t fully understand the word
IGNITE, RIOTS, and I beat them all
whose lists ended with EAT, EAR, TIN.

You have the artist’s selective memory.
I won a poetry contest in third grade.
See? And fourth. And fifth? I left that school.
The first of many. Now, tell the truth.

I knew IVY (“I told you so.”),
COPPERHEAD (“Get in the house.”),
MOON (“What on earth is the matter
with you, child?”). It’s following me.



Looking over a couple of the Antin quotes, particularly the 3rd and 4th ones (see previous post) on attitudes toward history and attitudes toward metrics, and my post of yesterday on religion/aesthetics, a couple of things seem to "click."

Antin's characterizing certain Modernists' attachment to "the historical sense" as a kind of delusion, an insistence on a particular version of the past required to justify the poet's version of the present, seems to parallel Zen ideas about the human tendency to dwell in the past, either through regret or nostalgia.

I think also of the New Formalists (or any -ists, I suppose) who seem to think of form - as an idea outside of an actual poem - as inherently superior to not-form and ascribe to it all manner of virtues - moral, social, cultural, aesthetic - well in advance of writing the first word. From a Zen point of view (I know, a bad phrase), there is no such thing as "inherent" (alcohol itself is not a problem, only your attachment to it).

"Irony = dualism" (see earlier post)

I suppose what I was going after was the sense that the reduction of complex experience to a "clash of opposites" has always been unsatisfying, though it wasn't until I took an active interest in Zen that I was able to recognize why.

I am not trying to wrest a poetics out of a religion but simply exploring how Zen informs my reading/tastes, or vice versa, or both.

Checking the availability of Silliman's books at Amazon, I came across this under the listing for Demo to Ink:

Customers interested in Demo to Ink may also be interested in:
Sponsored Links (What's this?) Feedback

85% Savings on Ink
Ink Cartridges - Epson, Canon, etc. Free Shipping For US Order > $30

A sad commentary on commodification, evidence of the inability of the machine to do our "thinking" for us, or a hypertextual poetic form ripe for the plucking?

I especially like "eink" in that URL.

When I was in college (1986-1990) I did not know that anyone had ever taken Eliot to task in print or that alternatives to the "major" poets in Al Poulin Jr.'s Contemporary Poetry anthology existed.* I was only dimly aware they existed when I was in graduate school immediately thereafter, and it was a couple more years beyond that when I first read anything like this:

"...whatever is interesting about The Waste Land is only visible and audible as a result of Pound's savage collage cuts. Whatever is interesting and not vulgar -- because it is the speed of the collage-cut narration that rushes you over the heavy-handed parodies and the underlying sensibility, which is the snobbery of a butler."

And this...

"[Robert] Lowell, who always manages to get as much grade school history into a poem as he can, manages to turn the protective red lead paint on the brand new girders [in 'For the Union Dead'] into 'Puritan-pumpkin colored girders.' Only Squanto and the turkeys are missing, but this is probably for the very good reason that they do not immediately lend themselves to the 'dark view' of New England history appropriated from Hawthorne et al. by the Southerners of The Partisan Review."

And this...

"These ['For the Union Dead' and Baudelaire's 'Le Cygne'] are both poems of intense nostalgia, where the city becomes the site of arbitrary historical change. The city as collage is a sort of model of the menace of history viewed as deterioration from some 'anterior state.'"

And last but not least...

"The idea of metrics as a 'moral' or 'ideal' traditional order against which the 'emotional' human impulses of the poet continually struggle in the form of his real speech is a transparently trivial paradigm worthy of a play by Racine and always yields the same small set of cheap musical thrills."**

All from David Antin's essay 'Modernism and Postmodernism.' I remember being near stunned when I checked the acknowledgments page to discover that this essay first appeared in 1972.


*It's amazing to me just how much of a generation's taste and knowledge can be determined by the distribution of a textbook. Nearly every poet I met in college and graduate school owned a "red Poulin."
**I was of course aware of arguments against meter/form, but these were always of the dead-white-male vs. the living-oppressed variety.
I located the Antin essay I referred to a few posts ago. It was a block away, on a friend's shelf, for four years. The book itself is called Early Postmodernism: Foundational Essays, edited by Paul A. Bove (1995, Duke University Press). The essays are culled from boundary 2 and appeared there between 1972 and 1981.

I'm just about to dig back into the Antin essay, but here's a short bit I marked when I first read it: The taste for the ironic, moral poem is a taste for a kind of pornography which offers neither intellectual nor emotional experience but a fantasy of controlled intensity, and like all pornography it is thoroughly mechanical.

Forgive my use of boldface, the italics in this font is difficult to read, and I haven't figured out how to alter the fonts yet.

I might trot out a particular poem for a flogging now and then, but as I get older I find it more difficult to begrudge another writer's success, hard to come by for any writer, and any writer who writes precisely as he or she pleases and manages to find readers, well, good for that writer, even if it is Billy Collins.

What I find curious about the success of Billy Collins is not that his work appeals to a wider, more general audience than perhaps every other living poet's, but that other living poets (in the mainstream lit press anyway) seem to have nothing but good things to say about it. Or, if they have not-so-good things to say about it, they aren't sharing. I think it was David Lehman - in a recent Best American intro - who asserted that Collins' success was good for poetry in general, increasing its audience.* But somehow I doubt that the audience for Collins is also snapping up titles by Ann Carson, Maxine Chernoff, and Clark Coolidge, to name just a few whose works reside in close proximity to his on the shelves.

Back in 97 or 98 I reviewed Collins' "Picnic, Lightning" for Poetry International, and was happy to assert that the book's title - lifted from Lolita - was the most interesting thing about it.** To date, with the exception perhaps of a piece by William Logan (which I cannot find now), I have not seen anything but praise for BC in the mainstream journals. But perhaps this is not to be wondered at, since to do otherwise now might constitute the literary equivalent of saying that kittens are assholes.


*In fairness to Lehman, being in the position of writing an introduction to a best-selling anthology series, he really doesn't have much choice.
**Do not expect to find my review proudly displayed in the archives.


I have not taken jukai (the Zen Buddhist version of Confirmation) and may never, but I have practiced. I say "have practiced" because since leaving Florida for Illinois last August I have not taken the time to go visit the nearest center (an hour away) and place myself under the direction of its teacher, Elihu Gemmyo Smith. Nor has my home practice been very disciplined lately. In Florida I sat - for about a year - with the Southern Palm Zen Group under Mitch Doshin Cantor, himself a monk of Peter Mathiessen's. I've met Mathiessen once - he is tall.

I am not an expert on Zen nor am I qualified to say much of anything useful or original about it. I only mention my having practiced as an introduction to some thoughts - or rather, questions - about the relationship between religion and aesthetics and how spiritual practice can enhance (limit?) reading and writing. My interest in Zen is both personal and intellectual (if you see Doshin, please don't tell him I said that ; - ).

The issue of self is an obvious one that comes up in thinking about Zen and poetry, but in flipping through an old notebook I came across this:

"Irony = dualism."

Apparently at the time I considered this above elaboration, as I can find no trace anywhere else of what I thought I meant by it. Still, something about it seems right, or at least worth considering, and so I've been trying to flesh out what that is. Irony, in general, is a difficult thing to not do, and so I think I was thinking more about irony within the specific context of closure as consciously strived-for.

Rather than subject all three of you to the torture of watching me try to sort this out, I'm going to go away and return later with the results (warning: there may not be any). In the meantime, I welcome correspondence from anyone who's given the subject of religion/aesthetics some thought.

Contemporary University Architecture

On the building is an immense 8.
When the town opens its windows, 8.
When it looks up from its children, 8.

In summer the town loses weight
and in winter makes snowmen
without eyes.

What I appreciate about Ron Silliman is his seemingly endless knowledge of what's been happening in poetry for the past three decades (at least).
Just because the "war" is "over" doesn't mean the protest should be.


A message ending: REPs IN CHARGE AGAIN NOW.
Angry man. Early riser. Illegitimate child. Alarmed nun.
A more ecstatic rage is clear and near.
Alas, most extant records indicate calumny, acedia, nihilism.
All my energy runs in contradiction. All nine
Appalled magazine editors resigned. In cahoots. A never-ending
Angst. More emblems. Regular insurgencies. Cooked apples never appeal.

I'd like to get a copy of an essay written by David Antin, on Robert Lowell, in the early 70's. I had it in an anthology of essays (forget the title) which I have lost or never had returned. I'd appreciate an email from anyone who knows where I can get it.


Just got my hands on the second half of David Alpaugh's article, "The Professionalization of Poetry" (Poets & Writers, March/April 2003). If this is indicative of the state of the art, mainstream literary journalism is in a bad way. A few snippets:

"The profession's idea of poetic revolution is confined to tinkering with the status quo, as in New Formalism (spiffing up a former mode) or Language poetry (a subspecies of nonsense verse that allows exhausted professionals to continue to publish by turning what was once a communicative art into a hermetic game)."

"When you open a literary journal and see what you think is downright prose parading as poetry, write a letter to the editor and ask what it is doing there."

"We cannot disestablish the profession; but we can make it better. If poetry professionals come to recognize that they are part of a wider literary community -- one that expects them to act responsibly when it comes not only to poetics but poethics -- we may, in Dana Gioia's words, be able to make poetry matter again, not only to poets, professional and nonprofessional, but to all intelligent readers."

Alpaugh does what many poet-critics have done when they want to take pot-shots at the academy: settle for easy generalizations about all the awful verse out there, perpetuate the myth of a dissatisfied army of readers with a singular (and superior) aesthetic, and trot out Dana Gioia.


Just a poem:

The Gap

Death is a catalog already on the Formica.
So what do you think, Pumpkin, or Evergreen?

Ended up not sleeping after all.

To me the great achievement "My Life" is that it manages to foreground the experience of language/the language of experience without being opaque, without sacrificing sense (in the broad sense). It is a work that reminds me of the ultimate impossibility of talking about art, since its very subject (and method) seems to demand participation in order for it to exist. I'll end my comments on ML by saying that the two sentences I just wrote were settled for.

In thinking about the Gibb poem again, I think I figured out what really makes me consider such a poem dishonest. The event being presented is plural - "Warm nights we'd park the car" - yet it is presented as having a singular significance. Somehow that can't be true. Perhaps this is the thing that about poems that follow this model that has always gnawed at me.


In my email to Joe Duemer (reading and writing - scroll about halfway down the entry for May 30) I seized on a poem, almost at random, from a 1994 issue of The Missouri Review. It is "Night Moves" by Robert Gibb. My purpose was not to single out Gibb as a poster-poet for bad writing but simply to point out a kind of poem about the past that stands in stark contrast to a work like Lyn Hejinian's "My Life." Here is the first third or so of the Gibb poem:

Night Moves

Warm nights we'd park the car
There across the river where
Saline Street stopped, the boat
Ramp vanished into the black
Lapping oils of those waters.
Stripped clear to our skivvies,
We'd pick our way past beer cans
And wrappers, pale rubbers
Floating at the shoreline like
Small dead fish, and slip into
That body of darkness buoying
Us up...

In my email to Joe I said that I come away from the poem - as I do from thousands of similar poems - with the feeling that it isn't true. Not not-true factually but emotionally, psychically, tonally. I think now that "true" was not the right word. A better word might be "genuine." Everything about these opening lines gives the impression they exist only to lead us to whatever meaning/closure the poet has already wrested from the carefully selected details of the experience. I understand that this way of writing is quite popular, often advocated, and repeatedly rewarded with publication; I find it, in a word, dull.

The things that irk me most about "Night Moves" are the mock-sordidness of "clear to our skivvies," the reliance on demonstrative adjectives (those waters, that darkness), a device that does little more than puff up the tone, and the laziness of "wrappers," a non-detail that tells the reader in advance that it's not the rendering of the experience that matters but the closure that is to come.

I'd much rather have this:

A moment yellow, just as four years later, when my father returned home from the war, the moment of greeting him, as he stood at the bottom of the stairs, younger, thinner than when he had left -- was purple, though moments are no longer so colored. Somewhere, in the background, rooms share a pattern of small roses. Pretty is as pretty does. The better things were gathered in a pen. The windows were narrowed by white gauze curtains that were never loosened. Hence, repetitions, free from all ambition. The shadow of the redwood trees, she said, was oppressive. The plush must be worn away.

These are the opening eight sentences of Hejinian's "My Life," a poem whose subject seems to be the very notion of past experience as re-experienced in the present and as-written. That is perhaps a grossly incomplete take, but I'll have to come back to this tomorrow, as it is late.

Just finished Percival Everett's novel, Erasure. Aside from being a damn good story, it's also a sober (and very funny) take on race and publishing in America.
More on validation and context:

I recall vividly a scene from my first semester as a graduate student in which the visiting poet, a Pulitzer Prize winner, got into a heated argument with another student at the post-reading party over publishing. The visitor asked the student where he was sending his poems. The student named a handful of prominent magazines. At the mention of one magazine in particular, the visitor's face screwed up. Then he said, "Why would you send your poems there? They publish shit." The student responded that, while he agreed, most magazines publish mostly shit, so why not aim for the ones that look best on an acknowledgments page ( = book = job)? The visitor countered with some comments about artistic integrity and suggested a handful of other magazines (no better or worse than the student's list).* The heated argument became a screaming match and nearly came to blows when our host finally intervened.**

I don't think anyone of my generation or younger thinks of Poetry Magazine (not the triggering mag above) as "the premier forum for contemporary poetry" or considers the Yale Younger Poets Series an indicator of what's happening. Ditto a dozen other "prestige markets." But I doubt they have seen a decline in submissions. For those writers - like myself - who enjoy teaching writing and hope to continue to do so (and who have not yet published a book), it is difficult not to consider such venues during envelope-stuffing season. The influence these established publishing organs exert on the reception/perception of a writer's work is such that the alternative of self-publishing - attractive as it is - is nearly unthinkable. I'm not whining (I don't think), just wondering whether writing and publishing outside the context of validation is even possible.


*The fact that the visitor was a tenured professor whose work had appeared in at least a couple of the magazines the student mentioned was not lost on anyone.

**The version of this tale among subsequent classes features the student rushing the visitor at the lectern mid-reading and beating him to a pulp. There's the rumor mill for you.

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