last evening in August.
See Robert Archambeau remarks on poetry criticism. I agree, I agree, I agree. But what do you think of William Logan? Doesn't he fulfill, to some extent, Bob's demand for a positively negative criticism (or is he too sarcastic for you)? Some of the recent reviewing in Poetry seems fairly even-handed too.

There ought to be much more of same. Criticism is an art in its own right. The old binary models of the (American) 20th century no longer correspond to reality. Not that big new abstract models should be rushed forward.

Sharp criticism raises the literary stakes : it brings forward the complexity of rival styles and theories. It can be a school for writers.
Occurred to me last night while washing dishes that oftentimes I just try too hard with poetry. I push it, I push myself, when it's one of those things you can't push - it's too close, it's near, it's in your backyard or the palm of your hand... just stop striving in certain ways (or strive in a different way).

The overcompensations of seeming-failure, the inability to recognize what I really want to do. Familiar dilemma. (People who've been "following" on the web have probably known this about me for a long time!)

I want to enter a new phase. I had my NY School Era (60s-early 70s), my Jesus Freak Era (late 70s), my Mandelstam Apprenticeship (early 80s), my Formalist Period (early 90s), my Long Poem Era (mid-80s to recent times...), my Self-Publishing Era (seems like forever), my Internet-Wallowing Era (late-90s to present)... Now I want to enter a Short-Poems-In-Print Era.

Since I have the habit of getting whatever I want, this might actually happen... if I can manage to write a few poems...

Re-reading some essays in WH Auden's The Dyer's Hand.


Back from north woods, near Canadian border. Phoebe saw Bigfoot-like bear on hind legs, running. The rest of us heard it. We went the other way.

Have been back since Monday, swamped with office work.

By the perfect in poetry, I don't mean the slick, the mandarin, the pretentious, the complacent, the facile, the superficial, the remote, the archaicizing, the dull, the pedantic, the amateurish, the slack, the obfuscatory, the fake, the bathetic, the saccharine, the pontificatory, the self-righteous, the imitative, the sloppy, the portentous, the glib, the ingratiating, the garrulous, the drab, the mediocre, the demagogic, the ponderous, the vulgar (nor the "dead" either, pace Jordan).

The cultural authority of poetry (as with other art forms) depends on some original synthesis of:

- intellectual penetration (knowledge)
- empathy, humane engagement (feeling)
- beauty, style, precision (art)
- moral insight (ethics)

(their synthesis : evidence of genius, inspiration, Muse)

A critic should evaluate all these elements, and how they combine. The whole equals the poem's specific gravity - a judgement regarding its cultural value.


Jordan is happy today. And when he says, "our ugly NY/slam/beat performativity", I'm thinking, the worm has turned.

But the question of "surplus" is not resolved simply by positive attitude (though that is always appealing in itself).

My theory (for today) is that the surplus problem is resolved by a critical approach : ie., a new critical taste for perfection. By which I don't mean a license for more negative reviews, but rather a challenge to be careful & discriminating enough (and independent enough) to find the perfect.

(p.s. isn't that an old Zukofsky criterion? "the objectively perfect")
Received in trade : new book by Elizabeth Treadwell, along with an interesting chapbook by Susana Gardner. Seems to be a lot going on in Switzerland. (See also the links for Dusie book reviews.) I'm grateful to Susana for the friendly note.
I want an immaculate, difficult, Pushkinian poetry : smooth, refined, powerful, serene, limpid... and rhythmically, syntactically, lexically, rhetorically, thematically, conceptually perfect. Capable of absorbing and reflecting and refining every other social discourse. Utterly School of Quietude, certainly.

Fascinating article in New Yorker this week about the art of the conductor. (In "Conversation About Dante" Mandelstam relates poetic composition to conducting.)

I'm going to Minnesota this afternoon, until the 27th. See you all when I get back.


Haven't read much further in Riffaterre yet. But this morning his framework seems both too narrow & yet close to something... I've always been interested in the differences between prose & poetry.

Of course their regions overlap... yet generally prose (fiction) creates a "scene", a world, a time - and the narrator hides behind a curtain... whereas poetry emphasizes the presence of a speaker and the time of Now... not so much a mimesis of reality as the actuality of a speaking person, edging or counterbalancing the autonomous quality of the art werke...

Pushkin famously addressed poets as "Sons of Harmony". The poet brings music & measure to the various & contrary discourses of the social world. The poet stands in the middle of it all & transmutes it into a song... this can be dangerous, too (the poet puts him or herself on the line - the prophetic stance).

(The self-consciousness of poetry : first humanity in general created, or came to the consciousness of, language, with which to shape and define reality. Then the poet came along, to bring self-consciousness (reflective awareness) to the shaping of language itself. The word turns on a pivot - revolves there, motionless. Poets and prose writers both do this - but in very different ways.)

Such generalities might have consequences for what passes for the canon of style and aesthetic value. Perhaps it comes down to the question : what is this poet - as "speaker" - actually saying? What is the logos within the melos and the phanos?


Searching abent-mindedly today for a theory of poetry that will narrow down the focus, shut out so much extraneous para-poetic noise.

Is it only me that hears this? Is it because I'm over 50 & no longer open to new experiences (ala the NPR program on this yesterday)?

My new experiences happen in the process of improvisation within my own way of writing. Pretty narrow, I guess.

My theory may go back to Michael Riffaterre's book, Semiotics of Poetry. By defining poetry as "that which means something other than what it says" (my paraphrase), the theory allows for both 1) a serious motivation to communicate something particular, and 2) a very roundabout and various way of doing it.

Riffaterre opens his book by explaining that this is how poetry achieves its unity : by emphasizing the distinction between significance (the underlying singular communication being made) and meaning (the various mimetic representations the poem provides).

Poetry, for Riffaterre, differs from prose etc. by not trying to be mimetic - in fact "threatening" mimesis. & yet it remains a very intense form of communication : like a code.

This seems like an appropriately narrow "definition" of poetry. & suits my Rest Note Read-Alongs...
I should just try to apply some of the general propositions in my earlier (much unread) essays over there.


I know my crabby essay posted over there last week has some problems. I know. I know.

Poetry is not as messed up as I pictured it. Nor is a dismissive shrug the right attitude to take toward partisan politics. Nor is everyone going to understand society through a lense of vice, virtue and penitence.

I know, I know. But it's been a while since the po-blogworldlings listened to me, anyway. There's something wild & liberating about rejection.


Have been reading Ernst Cassirer, Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy.

Big focus on Nicholas of Cusa. Have been getting into his work a lot lately myself. He's not medieval, he's not modern... he's... amazing. Cassirer sees him as the prime "focal point" between medieval & modern eras. I'm going through him back toward the medieval myself (but not all the way back. I'd like to hang around on Cusa's farm).

Also reading a French novel, By a Slow Stream, by Philippe Claudel (trying to read the original, too - Les Ames Grises). Couldn't put it down last night. Certain things remind me of Edgar Allan Poe (very sad twisty mouse-trap plot, women with exotic names, haunting paintings...). But great characters, out of Bruegel or something. Takes place in village near trench-lines during WW I.


New proto-essay over here called The Value of Quietude and the Need for Roots.


A few quick thoughts on Mark Scroggins' comments on the Breeze review:

It's true that matching up a book of poems with its antecedent influences & echoes is not enough, does not account for originality or the unique qualities of said book. It's not enough simply to "place" a book in "tradition".

However, a couple things occur to me : first, a review - even a thorough reading - can never express or replicate the "quiddity" of its subject. That's asking too much. The reviewer is not capable of transmitting seraphically the author's "own terms" - each of us works within our own frame of reference to some extent. And some freedom of response should be allowed to the reviewer, too - within limits of fairness & truth & accuracy, that is.

Second, it seems to me that one of the roles of the reviewer is to "introduce" the new work into the literary world which already exists : and a key part of doing that is to find reference points for the new within that world.

In the Breeze review, it seems to me, I noted differences as well as similarities between John Latta's book, and the general poetic trend from which in my view it emerged - the trend for which Stevens, for me anyway, is exemplary. You can argue with the idea of singling out Stevens. But then I think you'd have to deny several of the Stevens affinities in Latta's work which I pointed out.


Future prose projects (maybe):

1. an essay on how American poetry can recover some social import & relevance... by way of Quietude. (cf. Geoffrey Chaucer)

2. an examination of another Geoffrey - Geoffrey Hill.

(I liked this phrase in a rather tendentious America-the-great-satan screed by Peter Riley, in another book review in the same Jacket issue : "New-Yorky persiflage".

"Persiflage" - wonderful word.)
Mark Scroggins writes an interesting response to the review here.

My statement that Breeze was modeled "deliberately" on Harmonium appears to have been a case of "creative misreading", as they say. But I'd like to defend myself by saying that there's more to it than simply questions of lineage & influence, as Mark puts it.

"Modern" poets chose distinct approaches to the very central crux of self-consciousness, reflexivity, "art-for-art's-sake". The styles & attitudes of "engaged" or political poets, of epic-historical poets, of confessional poets, of traditionalists, etc. have differed quite a bit.

One of the things that interested me about Latta's book is that he seems to have extended a line from Stevens' general approach - but not in the same direction taken by the New York School, or that of other more florid or "elliptical" poets.

Latta has a gene of the homespun philosopher & nature boy about him (like Stevens' verbal duelist in the anecdote - Frost!). (But I don't think I'll write my next review on How John Latta Sounds Like that Farmer from New Hampshire...)
John Latta, with some kindly remarks about the review, at his blog today. Confirmed my concern that I hadn't got it quite right. Seeing through my own goggles, I probably gave too much weight to Stevens as in the background.

Or perhaps it's that Stevens' concepts of what poetry is for & about, & his approach to language, have just pervaded the atmosphere, at least in some dimensions of the literary world.

Had been thinking I would try to do a "re-reading" (part 2) in a few weeks or so. Maybe will do that, we'll see.


Jacket accepted my review of John Latta's Breeze - it's posted here. That's good news, though I don't think I did it justice. Latta's poetry in this book is conversational rather than show-offy. Or rather the balance between conversation and literariness is pleasing.


Read-Along with Rest Note

Poem # 15 :

15.1 : "Hobo on a promontory" - Prospect Park, Providence (overlooking city). ..."the chestnut" - an actual little chestnut tree (featured also in concluding passage of Stubborn Grew).

15.2 : "He mumbles toward her" - the poem repeatedly emphasizes various notions of reciprocity or love as integral to reality itself. Part of cosmic "ontology".

15.3 : "We was surrounded..." etc. - and the poem also repeatedly emphasizes acts, commitment, sacrifice - consequences of same reciprocity.

15.4 : "Providence...tree-murmur...wilderness" etc. - the future is obscure, but is entwined somehow with language ("magnetic susurrus").

15.5 : "shorn calibrations" - speech as measurement sheared from (ie. both distinct from and emanating from) common sense or common understanding ("ex-commonwealth"). "vectors... reproof" - speech as ordering or presenting both our sense of future possibilities ("prescience") and our acts of judgement ("gabled reproof"). "9-storied...tithe" - speech is an exploration (a sortie) toward a "tenth" (tithe) - an offering or commitment from one to the community - the offering which relates to the "sacrifice" noted earlier. "9-storied" : ie. part of the ninefold puzzle-game-maze-quest which crops up in various images through the poem - imaged in the 9-10 structure of the poem's sections, etc.

15.6 : "honey...locust" - John the Baptist subsisted on locusts & honey in the wilderness. "Kingfisher / ...jay" - Jesus ("J") was dunked (became "naval" like a diving jay) in the Jordan at baptism before the Spirit of God descended "in the form of a dove" ("jonah" in Hebrew). "sober stillness" - image of the perfect "rest" (cf. "Rest Note") to come. The stanza miniaturizes a whole pattern of sacred history, just as the previous stanza miniaturized a sort of sacrificial pilgrimage toward it.

15.7 : "Hobo turns his face..." etc. - a sort of paradoxical image. Hobo is ineluctably united with the "spirit" represented here ("the breeze in his mind"), yet he turns his own spirit, as if to free himself from himself, or shake loose from his own limits. Nevertheless, the rooted presence of the "chestnut" - an image binding heaven and earth, self and spirit - "anchoring, remains". Anchored in the heart : the "tears in the blind" are both the tears wept by the blind, and tears in the visual or mental "blinds" which separate us from reality.


Bored with my own comments lately. Must be the weather.