5.31.2006

"The giant race of American poets between the two world wars agreed that the great, the permanent, subject of poetry is the ennobling transformation of common existence by the imagination. Their axiom was old enough, in a sense, for they believed also that wherever art rises beyond the motives of religion, politics and vanity, it accomplishes the great purpose."

- Irvin Ehrenpreis, in a review of Donald Justice & others, published anonymously in TLS # 3760 (March 30, 1974). Quoted in Certain Solitudes : on the poetry of Donald Justice (Univ. of AK Press, 1997).

(This seems to me like one of the best, most accurate formulations of "what it's all about" I've ever come across. Even though it reminds me that my own poetry, most of the time, is a murky obscure mixture of religion, politics & vanity - my own private Amazon jungle.)

p.s. Happy Birthday, Walt.

5.30.2006

8


for John Tagliabue


Hobo drifts through rusted railroad world.
His tongue rasps out the iron flavor
of refusals, privy contretemps. Over
cautious caravans, his pet raven hurls


exacting retribution - narrow gauge
thrown down to a thin red line of lips.
That curved plum of silence, where ships
descend... the promise of their tutelage


a concord at the vanishing point. Stout keys
of shared reality. Not disenchantment,
now, but hopefulness - ninefold reconcilement
(sweet reunions, recognition's ecstasies).


*


Edith, I slept across the roots of the jade tree,
hopelessly. Above me, the driftwood
(strung from slow parallels) rocked quietly,
back, forth... drawing a pattern (see-


saw) out of suspended gravity.
It was the inclusive arch, spread tenderly
between obdurate stones, above the turmoil
of indifferent waves. A lambency


of recursions, curled toward equanimity;
an almond shadow-lens (cornerstone
of coronations) twirled into one
untutored sport - light spirit-ditty.
I went to visit the poet John Tagliabue in the hospital today. He's my ex-father-in-law, my children's grandfather. He dedicated his collected poems to them, along with his wife & daughters.

He's dying of cancer, in a great deal of pain. Tomorrow (probably) he goes into a "hospice" room in the hospital. It's a block down the street from where my children grew up.

You probably haven't heard of him. He's a very fine & dedicated American poet. He went to Columbia with Allen Ginsberg : he sort of lived out a parallel version of Ginsberg's dedication to Whitman's example.

He traveled all over the world & brought things back, in Whitman fashion, in his poems.

He's written many thousands of poems. A "Collected", published by the National Poetry Foundation, probably only skims the surface. He's written even more letters. He used to get up in the morning & write, & walk, & teach, & write. This short, excitable, Chaplinesque person (born in northern Italy, grew up in Jersey City) is a real spiritual & literary athlete. He comes from a talented & energetic clan - his cousin (another) John Tagliabue writes for the NY Times; his other cousin Paul is the retiring head of the NFL.

I will have more to say about this unusual poet. He asked me today if I remembered the poem he had written about his mother & father. I couldn't, but I'm looking for it now.

5.29.2006

Today's helpful hint re previous post : this is Memorial Day in USA; Oak Tree Day or Restoration Day in UK; Rhode Island Statehood Day; (& my b-day).
7


May day, memorious. The old soldier
processing to the podium, a bullet-
wound to remind him. Roosevelt
in Milwaukee, Bull Moose in Madison Square.


Progressive. Rich men and ruffians,
lean-to prophets, kings of snow –
the brittle glory of the Medicine Show,
the Big Tent, windy with quotations...


Stern was the sterling word, stirring
the crowd. The veteran tasted the rust
of blooded lavender. It was a test
for metal filings – it was Vulcan, simmering.


Lines of poplars point past the chateau.
Beyond the mansard and the glinting fields,
there, off in the distance (among some weeds)
an oak tree squirrels her bantering manteau.


A sheltering ripe post. Ancient annuity.
The octave muted in the squire's arpeggio,
the hand's St. Vitus' dance. And it was so.
Silence appends its rest note; the incongruous


miracle-ditty (quarrelsome cowpoke's vine
and trumpet) grew. Hid from fresh alarums
and Goliath gloss - wrapped in films
of a young seal's frozen frame (its spine).


Begin, then, with the perilous retort
of speechless limbs. What marks the man
from the also-ran. The game in Yucatan,
the racing heart – iris of the jungle (smart).


5.29.06

5.27.2006

Have been correcting that troublesome little piece posted yesterday. It may be a keeper, or not.

A replica of Empress Anna of Russia's elaborate "House of Ice", constructed in St. Petersburg around 1740, was built there last winter - article about it in last New Yorker.

Some think the House of Ice was partly responsible for some of Coleridge's images in his dream-poem "Kublai Khan". & that was the poem Teddy Roosevelt kept obsessively reciting as he was near death from fever in the Amazon jungle.

I'm trying to pull together various distant seasonal & weather & political threads into this poem which is focused for the moment around a sort of Lazarus figure emerging at springtime.

Regret the obscurities of this particular section. The line about the "table among enemies" is from Psalm 23. The bit about the promissory seal etc. is from Hamlet.

5.26.2006

6


It must be cool inside the House of Ice
(stalactite pleasantry, in Petersburg).
We were married there, on a barge,
by decree. The Empress flung the rice


herself. The Patriarch was very nice.
We were as Swedes in Sweden (washed
and plush). - "Dreams are hash!"
jabbed Hamlet suddenly, at minstrel mice –


thus endeth our parade. A table set
amidst mine enemies
(in Courland, wee duchy).
A cup and a signet seal. Promissory,
sped across nimble floes (writ from the heart).


*


We hushed ourselves, behind a hedge of speech.
The Empress collected dwarves, antiquities,
eunuchs, slaves (she loved the country
ditties, too), everything within reach


was reached for. Tall toy soldiers
tumbled out of tumultuous versets –
uniform figures, in pungent vermilion
and puce, new-fangled armor... curious!


Along the brooding river, wayward light
dangled from a drowning sun. So
the earth (formed long ago for everyone)
stoked her furnace for a rainy night.
Finished Winesburg, Ohio. I love that book.

Still reading Eleanor Cook's great book on Wallace Stevens (Wallace Stevens : Poetry, Word-Play and Word-War). On "The Man with the Blue Guitar", she quotes the final canto:

XXXIII


That generation's dream, aviled
In the mud, in Monday's dirty light,


That's it, the only dream they knew,
Time in its final block, not time


To come, a wrangling of two dreams.
Here is the bread of time to come,


Here is its actual stone. The bread
Will be our bread, the stone will be


Our bed and we shall sleep by night.
We shall forget by day, except


The moments when we choose to play
The imagined pine, the imagined jay.

"The imagined jay" - jumped out at me. I've been imagining J-jay in many a way, for a while.

5.25.2006

One of the things I'm trying to do in this new "LONG POEM" experiment (Rest Note) is correct my previous mistakes in that area.

Good luck, Hen.

There are spas & rest areas exclusively for poets & poetry. Did you know that? Dante wrote about them - they're in a section called "Limbo", someplace right under Italy.

Most colleges have direct entrance exams for these regions. (I've been waiting here in the library for a response to my application. Waiting for the last 30 years or so.)

One of the things which the G. Hill essays is impressing on me is the moral flavor (or smell) of literature - both its "successes" & its "failures".

The fact that some poetry begins to resonate with & actually nourish the culture at large is a wonder & a miracle. The good poetry, I mean. This is an ethical challenge to the artist as craftsperson.

Hill in his latest book opens with a terrific epigraph from Kafka.
Article in this week's New Yorker on the House of Ice (actually, a palace) built by Empress Anna in the 1700s & replicated last winter in St. Petersburg. Ochin interesnye.

Story of Pushkin, his poem The Bronze Horseman, & the Petersburg flood of 1824. How can I relate this to Katrina? Maybe I can't.


messing around with my mask today.

that's a piano in New Orleans (still in tune).
Reading a book of Geoffrey Hill's more recent essays, The Enemy's Country.

He has a fine way (by way of examples of Skelton, Dryden, Pound, many others) of getting at the nub of some impassable writerly dilemmas, challenges.
The slow poem creeps along. I'm calling it Rest Note for the time being. "My circuit is circumference." The said "cliffside park" is the one featured in colored postcard on HG Poetics masthead. Hobo has a plan, sort of.

5


May-time wakes the cliffside park to the wind
and light. The craggy oaks dance stiffly.
The slouched hobo wonders if, wonders if,
and wonders if again – a drunk on the mend


from winter blanks. If it were possible
to shape a wordy backbone for himself –
mumble a model of the heavens, formative
and homely – as it was back in Bramble


Tennessee, one time, once upon a time...
He can't recall his name. But he prefers
romance, mysteries, puzzlers –
the leading-on and -on (Clementine,


whose shoes were number 9, at the edge
of the melting ledge) – voluble rambler
across dusty vacancies (brain-chambers,
solitaire). Earth was lonesome stage-


stop. Slumped, torpid, in the park,
he glances toward the little chestnut tree
that clings to the cliff itself (some free
spirit, given to stubborn staying-put) –


she was the pinion of his wandering,
he reckoned, once. As every living being
trembles to climb beyond its cloistering
drawn by a magnet into rosy figuring


so, his muttering stretched absent limb.
And the oaks, shading that urbane plateau,
seemed to nod in agreement – go, go.
His echo lengthened toward the western rim.

5.24.2006

Forwarding :

CORNELIA STREET CAFE 


June 7, Wednesday, 6-8 pm.

INTERCULTURAL POETRY SERIES

hosted by Andrey Gritsman
(www.interpoezia.net)


AN OSIP MANDELSTAM CELEBRATION

Celebrate the release of an anthology of translations of
Mandelstam edited by Ilya Bernstein for Ugly Duckling
Presse. (http://www.uglyducklingpresse.org)

Come hear translations of the Russian twentieth-century
poet Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) read by many translators.


Cornelia Street, off Bleecker (in NYC)
(www.corneliastreetcafe.com)

Hope I can make it.

5.22.2006

Have been reading Lords of Limit, G. Hill book of essays.

Much focus on 16th- and 19th-century English poetry & philosophy. Held together throughout by the notion of writing as an engagement which is ineluctably rendered up to moral judgement. Poetry's grounding - its entanglement - in both words and experience - its human particularity - is its weakness & its strength. It is implicated in, as it informs, the moral reality of persons, times & nations.

Hill's manner is extremely ruminative, somewhat oblique. He'll take up a single moral paradox or literary-historical impasse, and slowly ravel into his progress these very acute & nuanced evaluations of the chorus of poets & thinkers who have weighed in on that particular issue over the span of a century or so.

It's as if there's an unspoken assertion serving as the pillar for the whole baroque architecture : the sense of poetry as a culture's necessary redemptive presence (because of that very rooted & particular moral implication in its speech & history). Not exactly in Stevens' sense ("poetry is the sanction of life"). Hill points out that Stevens was following in Arnold's footsteps, seeking to offer poetry as a substitute for religion. For Hill, it seems, the ultimate judgement & sanction lie elsewhere, outside literature - but literature, when it approaches the beautiful & the true, bears witness to that judgement - or bears the marks of it.
Famous Reporter has picked up a section of the whatchya-mccallit I'm working on.

Thank you, Tasmania! (H-mania, brought to you by T-mania)

5.19.2006

Eleanor Cook's deeply-learned book (Wallace Stevens : Poetry, Word-Play and Word-War) shows just how much someone with wide reading and a talent for hearing echos & constructions can discover.

& she shows that Helen Vendler & other critics were right to see Stevens as the central American answer to, & inheritor of, the main stream of English poetry.

America's "colonial" status, the long literary rivalry between England & "these states", has meant that Americans are in the (adolescent) position of having both to re-invent the wheel, and to follow their (English) forebears, at the same time. This causes all kinds of Oedipal exaggerations & generational nightmares.

Cook shows just how steeped in Milton & Keats & Shakespeare et al. Stevens is; how they inform the elegant subtleties of poem after poem. But was he a neo-Anglican epigone? I don't think so, Jack.
..."radicality" is not a justification, though. It may be a sign of fortitude.

Time to read the Federalist Papers?

"Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried." - Churchill (funny - but not a ringing endorsement)

Time to read up on republicanism in ancient Rome? Cicero...

James Madison. Visited his beautiful plantation in Montpelier - Piedmont region of Virginia. A passionate, brilliant prophet of the Union. But never freed his slaves. (Neither did Dolly.)

MLK (Martin Luther King Melchizedek).
Reading Geoffrey Hill's Without Title. Airport reading (my daughter Phoebe returned from 4 months in Bangladesh yesterday).

May try to write a review of this fascinating book. Dedicated in homage to E. Montale, I seem to see influence of Montale's late style (in Satura). He also translates M's famous poem La bufera ("The Storm"). Some great "Pindarics", one of the high points of the volume. A poem about Hart Crane. Several allusions here & there to Mandelstam.

Still trying to fathom something of the political stance (not that that's the most important thing, but Hill sometimes speaks very gnomically & obscurely - hard for me, anyway, to follow). There are references to politics & democracy, but the outlook seems bleak, disillusioned. As though democracy suits his heart but seems unrealistic to his mind (politics is done by "the elect", in an ironic sense).

I'm sure I'm misunderstanding, though - too early to comment.

But the question got me thinking. Perhaps democracy is only realistic as a radical commitment. By that I mean one must be - thoroughly - a committed believer in popular sovereignty and the intelligence of the common person and ordinary opinion - radically so, despite the debilitating processes & events so conducive to despair & cynicism. Because only such a commitment is strong enough to say nay to the centuries - millennia - of elite thinking on politics (from before Plato, to Plato, to Macchiavelli, etc. & beyond). One has to be radical enough - & sceptical enough of intellectual pretension - to regard the elite discourse on politics - no matter how intelligent, informed by hard experience, and persuasive - as wrong-headed and out-of-date.

Novus ordo seclorum.

5.17.2006

I've posted a couple parts of current poem project. Started it on April 26th - anniversary of both Hart Crane's death and Teddy Roosevelt's emergence from harrowing trip down the "River of Doubt", an Amazon tributary.

The long poem of a few years ago ended up (in part) in the Amazon, so I'm trying to emerge again myself.

The juxtaposition of these 2 anniversaries has some thematic interest for me. (aspects of "national epic".)

(sometimes poetry-making feels like a scramble through personal caves & swamps, toward some kind of clearing)

5.16.2006

4


Some old gaunt John sleeps in the quatrefoil,
his gaping mouth emitting tendrils – visible
glyphs, obscure and untranslatable.
A bronze rain falls, and fades into the jungle.


Providence all crumbling concrete.
Dogwoods flourish on the dripping ridge;
the old man stares into their foliage,
so multifarious, so implicate...


yet one vine short. (One like an infant cedar,
that, with wavy bowing, flecked the edge
of undulating flocks – uncoiled his rage.)
The shade arched like an echo of its brow.


I am a stranger here in Gloucestershire,
he thought. The cave roared water and light.
Was he the king? A boy lost in the night?
A shrouded sun shed May-gold everywhere.


Well-worn, he remembered the deep waves,
his forsakenness. A spiraling vireo
climbed above the fanning palm-tornado,
fluting a pathway only the far wing cleaves.


Up there, Lazarus seeks your countenance.
Dr. Saturno interprets the age to come.
The maize-god in the arroyo, the slate plum
sail into his hand; and in a trance


Lazarus climbs from a log-strewn stream
and frozen moldering. Maundering
to the cave-door, he blinks, ponderous.
Tendrils clasp his feet. He shods his dream.
... but it's not about dusty pedantry, but play, play - rambling around the old themes, riddles & heartaches.

Some intellectual rigor, some recognition that (some) poetry has a part in that too, can help free us from the stale air of immediate predecessors, contemporaries, their (unintentionally, perhaps) overbearing drone.

I think ever since I got over the French polio (Guillaume Barre), when I was 4 or 5 yrs old - after spending about a month paralyzed & in a respirator - I've been unconsciously greedy for wind & air. Clean sharp mountain air is what I would stumble toward, blundering & mumbling.
Po-biz, sho-biz... I'm a show-off myself. But we have to step back sometimes, away from the ego-trips, the easy, automatic, uncritical reactions to this n' that (sentiment, bombast, fakery, cliche), if we want to grasp even the tail of the firecat.
Reading : Poetry, word-play and word-war in Wallace Stevens, by Eleanor Cook. "Poetry is the scholar's art," he sd. Some of the semantic/rhetorical complexity she uncovers is astonishing, daunting.

Riddles, proverbs, charms. Poetry, in part, a burning-off, a paring-down, an escape from casual speech, cliches. "the firecat bristles in the way".

(Whereas po-biz acts like a miniscule sub-category of sho-biz.)

btw, interesting articles on Mayan glyphs in Times science section today.

5.14.2006

from something I'm working on these days.

3


Walk with me through the jungle, whispered the voice.
The silence seethed with malice. Bluebirds fled
to the Appalachians. It seemed he was quite dead
to the world (asleep, perhaps). He had no choice


but to rise to the occasion - otherwise.
There were jays in the trees, and twirling
vireos; there were empty sounds, hurling
hurly-burly Death into his eyes;


and the hollow tock-tock of the woodpecker
presaged a resolution at the crossroad
(if he could find that mysterious crossroad).
Nature was judgement. Truth - very particular


(you might say). In other words, the jungle
was a torture chamber of misunderstanding -
everything got everything else. Wrong
(suffering the sum of all that wrangling).


Back, forth, back, forth... the old swingset
swung so calmly in the morning green.
Do you remember how it whispered, then?
Creaked and whispered, like a crooning pet


or paradisal tourniquet. Sound was sound :
what more is there to say? or might be said,
she murmured (in an undertone) - and led
you down the inarticulate and droning


trail. And so it was. The jungle thunderclouds
boomed and passed - the sky grew grey, grew light.
Symphonic morning (slow Sibelius) : from night
to day, processional (with cloud-parades).

5.12.2006

I didn't post the previous G. Hill excerpt in order to illustrate a "best poet" argument. I was noting what was for me a moment of curious relevance or synchronicity to a contemporary headline - an interesting occurrence in political poetry.

The GH poems in Poetry are distinct & various. There's a beautiful short poem called "On Seeing the Wind at Hope Mansell". There are others that reminded me (slightly) of R. Lowell's blank-verse "fourteeners".

5.11.2006

Discovered my (belated) interest in Geoffrey Hill echoed in this month's Poetry. Five strong poems. A review by Brian Phillips. He closes with:

"If you have been in need of a reason to despair over the culture of poetry in America, here is one. In years to come contest winner after contest winner will be forgotten with their galleries of blurbs. And we will be the generation that neglected Geoffrey Hill, and our loss will be our embarrassment."

These lines from a stringent sequence ("A Precis or Memorandum of Civil Power") made me think of the recent Moussaoui trial:

Civil power now smuggles more retractions
than hitherto;
public apology ad libs its charter,
well-misjudged villainy gets compensated.
I still can't tell you what that power is.
The statute books
suffer us here and there to lift a voice,
judge calls prosecutor to brief account,
juries may be stubborn to work good
like a brave child
standing its ground knowing it's in the right.

5.09.2006

Ars Interpres, online. Lots of curious fine things in there.
I see what I posted last night sounds very negative & judgemental. Not about Jim, but about po-biz.

Oh po-biz, don't take it personally. What do I know.

I endorse all good-will efforts.

I am'nt the judge of nobody's Writing Career. Having enough trouble with my own.

I reserve the right to like only what I like, though.

5.08.2006

I like Jim Behrle. I've said that before, in many places. He organized the first reading I've had in many a year. He's wrong about various things, but then, so am I. I did give a few readings before he was born (this is fact, not hyperbole), & edited some magazines before he was born (TALISMAN - & not that NJ rag), & won some awards, before he was born (all 3 they offered at Brown U. - in 1971). I have organized some readings for other people - for Keith Waldrop, & Ange Mlinko (his heroine), & the guy who edits The Poker, he's so cool, I forget his name at the moment, & various other poets. & I have been invited to read by people other than Jim, occasionally (once every decade or so). & I published various people, & edited their books, & did anthologies, & stuff.

But I don't care if Jim gets his facts wrong, I really don't. Jim hates & despises po-biz almost as much as I do. God forbid, maybe he was influenced by my sour grapes! Poor guy. The clown's laugh, the sufferer's grimace, all the same.

The trouble is, satire & mockery are so dependent on the things they mock. It's a co-dependency situation. Jim's a trawler on the bottomland of Verse World. Dante & Pound & tons of turgid theologians wrote about the problem - "words about words", "poesie der poesie", po-biz about po-biz...

after a while the laughs seem febrile & hollow, because everybody's gone home & the clown takes off his smile mask & the bass player has no girlfriend & blah blah blah...

Verse World is a very layered & phony world, even more bizarre & fishy than Hollywood - & that's saying a lot!!!! All those career minded people, striving for academic credentials & tenure & all that business. Like the people in Canterbury Tales, really. People.

Meanwhile we have no safety net in this country. We have no public speech to speak of, not from poets anyway. This is because the symbolistes & the New York Fish and the Langpo Fish and the SF Fish and the Olson Fish are too busy schooling about, semi-gleefully, in their patterns of yesteryear...

& Jim understands this!! That's why I like him. But satire will only go so far in the echo chamber of words about words, in the sub of sub-subcultures of sub-sub-librarians.

Poetry is the spark that ignites those words and your reality.

Too bad if your reality is... just more words.
I had the nerve to post a mild criticism of "flarf", and to posit a distinction between flarf and poetry, on a poetry blog. Jim Behrle, a would-be defender of flarf, took it upon himself to do so by insulting me personally, several times over.

I know I'm not supposed to take Jim Behrle's mannerisms seriously - "all in fun", etc. But I'm taking his attacks seriously, anyway. I think Jim needs to find some new routines.

When someone intentionally blurs the distinction between criticism and personal insult, it means there's some kind of agenda at work. When someone intentionally blurs the distinction between a person, on the one hand, and their creative work offered to the public, on the other, then there's an agenda in play there, too - maybe the same one.

In my view there's a necessary, a substantial distance between the person and the work of art, which has its origin in the process of making poems or art works : a process which involves some kinds of self-surrender, and work, and openness to learning and chance and many other things.

We all share this, whether we're readers or students or makers - and it should be a free activity. And I don't think the freedom of poetry is understood or advanced by people who consider poetry as some means an end.

I'm not bragging or being "holier than thou", as Jim Behrle says, when I emphasize this. My outlook is just a consequence of my own experience of the creative process. I feel a conflict between literary and extra-literary phenomena.

So, when I criticize flarf, for example, and Jim Behrle responds with personal insults - in order, in his view, I suppose, to defend his friends and fellow flarfers - then the feeling I get is that he's not so much defending flarf as defending the social self-interests of his group. Because if he disagreed with my criticisms, he could address my criticisms; however, his first impulse is to jump to the defense of his friends.

Jim Behrle himself loves to satirize the social phenomena of po-biz, in its many spheres : but he also tries to have it both ways. He's got his own social sphere to defend, while attacking others. In this he participates in the same in-group phenomena, the same utilitarian literary politicking, the same self-serving po-biz, that he likes to mock.

This is the po-biz world which, on all its levels, seems like a sideline or a distraction from the basic contract between 1) the poet and the poem, and 2) the poet and the reading public. It's the world of the middle-men and -women, of talk and gossip and jabber and amateur theatrics.

I had a nice vacation in the Shenandoah National Forest. Crossed paths with a bear. It's kind of depressing to come back to this po-biz world of ours.