something to read from toward the end of July:


Snow on the sierra in Colca
a decrepit little stall on Commerce Street
where on the spine of a bent ash tree
they nailed the Mammon-sign from Ecuador

leading yokes of oxen into fallow fields
dragging four-man threshers into great
cocks of unthreshed wheat tending
irrigation valves all night long saddling

and unsaddling animals reaping alfalfa and
barley grazing vast drifts of pigs shouldering
litters of foreign personages being punched
in the face and kicked in the kidneys going down

into mineshafts doing time in jail making
rope or peeling huge mounds of potatoes
while manacled and chained constantly
suffering from hunger and thirst almost naked

seeing their wives dragged off as in the murmur-
mirror the antagonist stands in your way
until a wolfram tongue-stone's iron rod
sinks magnetic toward the confusion-room

of rubies heavier than lead and 4 degrees Kelvin
in that oven 10 billionths of a meter away
from your atomic doppelganger the quantum
cubicle or quern-mirage a little horn or clover-

leaf nudging several cobalt atoms
to form the walls of the elliptical
corral 20 billionths of an M-prong
on the surf-face of a copper crystal

I left five cents buried in a corner of the kitchen
and because of them I can't be saved throw in
another 95¢ pay it for mass for my salvation
scan-tunnels toward orchard-narod (neglected)


* The Clearing of the Vaults *

I have a lot of back issues of Nedge. I will send 2 issues of choice to anyone who sends a mailing address, while supplies last. (# 1 is out of stock already; very few copies of # 2 and 3 left.) Email which issues you'd like, and an address, to : Henry_Gould@brown.edu. Please include "clearing vaults" or "hgpoetics" or some such in the subject line of your email. It may take me a little while but I will get them to you.
. . . but the 4th factor, which I left out :

poets just can't help it. We are one of the singing animals.
Thinking this morning about three things that influence poetry-making, yesterday and today:

1. The inherent exploratory quality of every creative effort, whether in art or anything else. The blank page & its first words face the pre-existent world in all its tenured prestige. Thus there will always be an inventive aspect to original creation.

2. The present-day separation between fiction, poetry, and music, which creates challenges and opportunities.

3. The combination of the first two factors, in the context of a limited audience for poetry (compared with that for both fiction and music), generates an intensified self-conscious, or reflexive, quality in poetry. Creativity is at least as much autonomous and self-absorbed, as it is social and "opportunistic"; the isolation of poetry complicates the rhetoric of its address to an audience - leading poets, in poetry, to question the "fiction of fiction" and the authenticity of every literary mode and manner.


Tried a little experiment walking home today : looked at things as if I were in a Bruegel painting. I saw the firm prehistoric charcoal outline marking the integrity of human figures; the fine detail in the distance; the feeling for trees. Missed some of the warm colors. (Used to do this kind of thing after Fellini movies, back in high school.) Some little kids yelled at me from a 2nd-floor window, trying to get my attention : that was Bruegel too.

Could be done with all kinds of artists, I guess. if you do Bosch or Francis Bacon, though, you might want to bring a friend for company.
Another blog-range response to Jonathan :

Lake's outline of the effect of lineation, syntax and meter in poetry in this particular essay is clear, simple to the point of simplistic, bare-bones, basic, unoriginal, and accurate. I don't see anything particularly Victorian about it, maybe because I'm a Victorian?

But what interested me about it was that the analysis of poetry came through a description of fiction & narrative - how the minds of writer & reader "dream" & evoke the mimetic signals in the text. He points out how the mind shapes "wholes" (in a "fractal", recursive expansion) out of these minimal but subtle & delicate language signals. This really is an area which I think you can make the argument has been dealt with mainly through disruption, "dis-figurement", in postmodern poetics.

My own interest has been engaged in the composition of long semi-narrative poems in which story & landscape & character "appear" in surprising ways, which experience makes me think there is more to be discovered through such synthetic rather than disjunctive processes.
Jonathan has a very different take on "Enchanted Loom". But if the Atlanteans are still struggling with the shade of Richard Wilbur, you have to ask what year they're in. I don't buy all the left/right brain biz either; but the point of Lake's article was not to give a balanced assessment of the true meaning of Derrida or a compassionate study of Stein's poetics. It was to argue for a different paradigm for composition and reading, stemming from new discoveries & theories (or are you going to dismiss all that, too?) about language. I also don't buy the determinism implied by a "science" model, but that doesn't mean I'm ready to cancel out all of the descriptions (of the nature of reading & writing) it provides.
I think the remarks in previous blog post (on Mandelstam's Redemption/free-play symbiosis) run parallel to some of WH Auden's discoursing. Also, I think the following excerpt from a poem titled "One Evening (Early Spring)" (which appeared in the Jacket interview) illustrates some of Paul Lake's comments on fractal-recursive order in poetry:


Around the synagogue in the evening light
the houses cluster in their modest drab integrity.
Walking through their vocations (under blight
of a voracious contracting whirlpool city)
the humble continue. . . gathering on holiday
outside the bronze double doors of their temples.
The writer (an unnoticed bystander) crumples
a scrap of crosshatched paper and throws it away.

And the wind lifts a corner of the scribbled page,
not yet finished with the end of the universe.
Over the brilliant dome a small cloud of rage
disguises the sun – cries: I will immerse
in tears – I will burn with fire – I will erase. . .

(– pretending once more deep within heaven
not only to destroy all creation and then
again rebuild the whole cracked edifice

but to do all this in the manner of a scribe
with one hand at his aching brow and one eye
peering at a mossbound, moldy parchment –)
and Lord, we have deserved your diatribe.
The parched earth groans for a comet's finality.

Your mortified heart stretches through space and
swelling spreads (ubiquitous) the fiery ointment
of your love, of your forgiveness, of your peace.

As of today I am renouncing the terms avant-garde, post-avant, progressive, or experimental with reference to poetry, and taking a page from good old Minnesotan Ignatius Donnelly (who makes such a brilliant appearance, along with Thomas "Little Nappy" Dorr and magic-man Bluejay, in Stubborn Grew), I am going to refer to everyone somehow aligned with those terms as "Atlanteans" (also in the Hart Crane-ean sense, I guess).

Anyway, those Atlanteans who have been able to absorb, with some spoonful of composure, the tectonic shocks of the Houlihan squabble, may want to move on to a critique of a different kind - based on a cogent & sweeping argument about the nature of language in poetics : "The Enchanted Loom", by Paul Lake.

I think this is a very elegant and thought-provoking essay, perhaps groundbreaking for some poets. Groundbreaking in that Lake first of all uses contemporary science (chaos theory, artificial intelligence, cognition studies, etc.) as an Archimedean lever against both modern & postmodern orthodoxies regarding the nature of language. He quotes cleverly from Jonathan Swift in the process. Then he shows how these same scientific developments, by changing our understanding of order, meaning & information in nature, have correspondences with the process of literary composition and reception. (His holistic analysis chimes very cutely with the report circulating - which I mentioned here yesterday - about the findings of a British researcher, showing that our minds easily translate sarcbmeld wrdos, as lnog as the fsirt and lsat ltetres are in pclae - we read them holistically in a natural way.)

I think if poets can get past the attack on Language poetry (which, by reading it only as a manifestation of an outmoded philosophy of language & art, is only a partial reading), they might find Lake's ideas very useful for generating new models of writing, reading & teaching poetry (on the relation between text, fiction, and imagination - on "implicate" literary wholes & the relation between writing & reading - on how imaginative-fictional order is paralleled by different techniques in poetry).

I have a few reservations about the essay, after a first reading. First of all, how could anyone not like Tristram Shandy!! Secondly, I think the argument is faintly shaded by the potential for simply a new form of deterministic naturalism. The notion that small particular events are all implicated in larger, determining folds of meaning, could imply merely a new, more sophisticated Newtonian machine-universe. Furthermore, to argue that literature is the transmission between writer & reader of these information-wholes, and good literature refines these transfers, elides an elusive but fundamental element : the notion of incommunicability; that there are things or concepts or realities that are at the edge of or beyond speech & expression. In my view, this aspect is tied very profoundly with the adventure of poetry-making. In fact I might propose a kind of counter-complex to Lake's complex of wholism-information-communication; it would read something like uniqueness-incommensurability/infinity/freedom-silence.

Tristram Shandy's hilarious self-decomposition of the "book", the literary artifact, the embarassing "thingness" of people, novels & books all together, points, in my view, toward the inescapably imperfect and inescapably human fundament underlying all our theories & productions of "reality". But this fundament can be understood in a comic sense. I can only translate this into religious terms, which is my fumbling version of the incommunicable. As I tried to describe it in the interview with Kent Johnson in Jacket (which, by the way, shows all kinds of parallels with Lake's essay), it's for me an "incarnational" poetics, summarized perhaps best in Mandelstam's essay on how western art was set free by the historic event of Redemption (unfortunately I can't recall that essay's title; will try to find it). In Mandelstam's terms, Redemption released art into a realm of free play, without any shadow of determinism or responsibility to anything beyond itself. For me, this symbiosis, redemption/free play, says something about our "existential" experience as human beings. "Death on the cross" corresponds existentially with Everyman's consent to mortality : we suffer and die freely, in order to discover essential or ultimate freedom itself, in order to experience spiritual rebirth & "the freedom of the children of God".

Art as free play - freedom taken to its anarchic, human limit - is an essential aspect, an equal counterpart to the drive to share & communicate information. Tristram Shandy is a glorious representative of this case. & there are many 20th-century examples as well, which cannot easily be dismissed by a new scientific paradigm. But "thought is free", as well - and I think Lake shows very clearly that new perception can and should lead to new and much-needed artistic values in the 21st century.


short story by I.B. Singer in this week's New Yorker. spiritual thought-lives of wild & wacky Hasid rabbis. extraordinary.
As for perception of wholes. . . sometimes I think I get clearest ideas around 4 a.m., when I can't sleep.

Pondering this morning about the contention over styles of poetry, & the proposal for a debate, I thought Gabriel Gudding got it right (on his blog recently) to emphasize the importance of wonder & surprise. A debate format would probably result in fiats & pronunciamentos that the pronouncers have no right to make, a needless taking of sides. More subtle distinctions might be elicited through exploratory conversations. (ps Chris Lott says this better.)

Wonder & surprise, wholeness. From the vantage of 2003 it's possible to look at a numbered span of literary time, say 1950-2000, without a spirit of judgemental contention so much as attention to & appreciation for a vast poetry tundra, a unique efflorescence (maybe not really unique, but certainly unrepeatable); making possible a certain critical response - a distancing of our own - without reductive polemics. Ironically, Ron Silliman's blog is exemplary in presenting a sense of that vastness, side-by-side with the polemical maneuvering which doesn't do justice to the era.

Wonder & surprise. Besides all which above, when I think of poetry as a phenomenon at 4 a.m., its essence becomes only more strange, spectral & mysterious. I begin to sense it as a kind of mana, a word-flesh of a sort, passed from poet to poet, from ghost to ghost. The stylistic & technical discoveries & fireworks of individual poets I see as forms of deflection (or inflection?) - rocketing off the poetic black (w)holes of earlier poets. Thus the emphases of Olson or Niedecker or Ashbery or Lowell or Bishop or Berryman or you-name-um are a kind of verbal clothing, shrouding, hiding of something. . . and you begin to see the variations played by an Olson or an Ashbery or a Zukofsky as filigree overlaid on impulses recognizable in Eliot or Pound or Stevens, & themselves doing the same from previous eras. . .

the unique-intense intelligibility - the verbum ipse - expressed through the individual sensibility - a mana stretching back to the psalmist David, dancing & singing naked around the ark of the covenant, and before that to the shaman or woman muttering oracles beside a version of the pythian tripod.

The process of poetic making seems to involve the individual poet's attempt to find a form for that essential intelligibility; it must be intelligible to themselves & fit like the finest woven coccoon before it will be intelligible eventually to anyone else.
This from an email going auornd tihs mroinng:

Aoccdrnig to a rscheeahcr at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in
waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the
frist and lsat ltteer are in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses
and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm.

Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by it slef but the wrod as a


I spent so much time looking again & again at the Bruegels in the Kunsthistorische Museum, that I missed out, I see, on an apparently unrepeatable Durer exhibit at another museum (which the NY Times told me about this morning). Bruegel has a hypnotic affect on me. (I seem to be susceptible to these mild trances, as with Mandelstam in translation, or the scent of pine needles, or Wanda Landowska playing Mozart; could be a character flaw, or a throwback to a hunter/gatherer instinct, or too much reading in childhood, or dropping acid in the 60s, or all, or none. . .)

I like everything about Bruegel, but especially the warm-mute colors (could be simply an effect of aging, or ripening), and the little details in the distance, people, trees, houses. . . feel like if I keep looking, soon I'll be able to go around the corner of one of those narrow streets (I used to like miniature toy soldiers, too). In one of his Seasons paintings (there were 6 seasons in the Middle Ages), late autumn, with the bringing in of the herd in the foreground - I noticed that the outline/shaping of the cattle closely resemble the prehistoric cave-paintings in France.

Bruegel's Seasons are local-cosmological; he is a realist, whose vision nevertheless plays chords on several emotional-intellectual octaves at once; the mundane-goofy Now harbors a muted background, a vanishing point. Such slow painting gathers Now into "transhuman" time; absorbed in these scenes, I felt that Bruegel's Now was overtaking & replacing my own.

It's like the slow painting of Proust, gathering experience to a point of retrospective epiphany, which sets the immediate & the mundane glowing in a strange way. Joyce, also a natural Bruegelian.

(Bruegel shows up on page 2 of Stubborn Grew, & many times after; in that book I try to be local-cosmological & comic-deep also. The larger poem (Forth of July) tries to ring changes on this concept of a retrospective (or recapitulatory) Now, to link the aesthetic & the cosmological, somewhat in the direction of Crane's Bridge. I wrote more about this early on here in hgpoetics, around January.)
Here's something apropos to literary debates, from Robert Musil's Man Without Qualities:

"Ulrich thought privately that it would be just as easy to agree as to argue. Contempt showed as clearly through the politeness as a tidbit in aspic. He knew that Walter would again be annoyed with what he had just said, but he was beginning to long for a conversation with someone with whom he could agree completely, for once. There had been a time when he and Walter had had such conversations: the words are drawn from the breast by some mysterious power, and not one word misses the mark. But when one talks with antipathy the words rise like fog from an icy plain. He looked at Walter without resentment, certain that Walter also felt that the further the conversation went the more it was deforming his inner convictions, but that he was blaming Ulrich for it. 'Everything we think is either sympathy or antipathy!' Ulrich thought. At this moment he was so vividly struck by the truth of this that he felt it as a physical pressure, like the bodily contact of people swaying in unison when they are jammed together. He looked around for Clarisse."

Jordan Davis wrote something on his blog like this (about sympathy/antipathy) about a month ago.

Maybe a kind of Viennese attention to emotional undertones.

There's a neat "Museum of Sound" in Vienna, with an interactive room devoted to the science of harmonics. At one station you experience how any kind of rhythmic drumming, as it increases in speed, begins to sound first like a car engine revving, and then turns into a musical tone (with an ascending pitch). Another station in the same room illustrates how speech sounds - vowels, consonants - have effective overtones & undertones just like music, which among other things activate "color zones" & other responses in the brain (again, as in music).

Gabriel Gudding posted a remarkable statement on "position-taking" while I was gone. May try to excerpt it here; worth quoting. I agree with him 99.9%; or, in other words, I agree with him completely on a certain level, and on another level am in slight disagreement.

I agree with him on the comic (& sometimes tragic) fallibility of all our assertions.

I agree that the internecine poetry wars have an overall effect similar to the one characterized by the Musil quote, above.

Where I disagree, I guess, is the implication (and perhaps I am mistaken in drawing this conclusion from GG's statements) that all this futility should inevitably enjoin unanimity-through-peacemaking. Sometimes differences are unavoidable. Is peace without unanimity a possibility? I think so, if we recognize & acknowledge the inherent value & the contributions of our antagonists.

So, I see how generous Ron Silliman has been, while I was out of the country, to acknowledge my presence in these poetry issues (and Kent's & Gabriel's) despite that fact that I am in sharp disagreement with his "theoretical position".

On one level, my fulminations against "avant-gardism" fall both within the category of Gabriel's general human foolishness (& aggression), & Ron's category of doomed traditionalism (like King Egbert(?) drawing his sword against the sea).

Still, the other side of the coin holds my basic position, which is as follows:

In Democratic Vistas, Whitman exalted the English language for its supple attention to the matter-of-fact, and glorified it as the language of freedom. This concept does not, in my view, put Whitman among the victorious "crazies", as Ron Silliman would have it (in his blog post of Sept 15). Nor does Emily Dickinson's precision & concision read like craziness either. The binary theory of American poetics simply replaces one illusory orthodoxy with another. Gabriel Gudding's prose & poems show repeatedly (through eclectic quotes from "obscure" old authors) how the Old is actually the New. What would be new, for now, to me anyway, would be a poetics of multivalent directness, communicability : a poetry which absorbs & musicalizes the news we read in the paper & the things that happen to us every day; as I wrote months ago on this blog, the Now, as opposed to the New. I hear the inevitable protest that this is a vague edict, which is unfair to the pioneering, testing, resistant avant-garde. But my general point is that poetry is a difficult art : promoting the "experimental", as if it were something you get for joining some school of literary practice, merely befuddles critical response; and I use the example of a possible communicable-real poetry, a poetry of direct address, because this is a value of poetries that the standard US avant-garde would find inimical (such as some of the poetry of the 18th century : Pope, Goldsmith) merely because it comes out of the past and out of a culture concerned with (those evil) "norms". Ron Silliman's characterization of the Houlihan attack as simply another benighted & doomed journalistic sub-defense of the normative Olde Guard is not quite accurate. Houlihan's example of a valuable poem (by Franz Wright) would have been thrown out of court by traditionalists, New Critics, & Language Poets alike, yet it works, because, as she pointed out, it succeeds in communicating (aesthetically) a difficult and authentic reality.


One last little blast before I head to the airport. I'm accused of binary thinking; also it's implied I've been ungenerous (along with J. Houlihan) to a neophyte poet. (I think "revolving door / of its throat", by the way, a nice line too, only it's spoiled somewhat by the preceding "breath" of "nipple").

It seems to me that as the ruffled progressive wing circles the wagons, there has been no recognition, in a generous or non-binary way, of the positive qualities of the Houlihan critique. "We" know better, apparently. Well, I don't think so, guys. (See, again, the notes recently sent in commentary at Limetree.) There is a continuous process of bankrupting of general literary values, on behalf of parochial, self-serving corner-shaving.


Fine breezy day in Providence. I went at lunchtime across the river to get some shoes for vacation, which starts tomorrow, so HGPoetics will probably be dormant until around Sept. 23.

You have to be a longtime Providence person to understand the impact of the riverfront renovation project. It's as if they discovered this beautiful old city, which had been hiding all along under mountains of gray grunge, melancholy rainy southern New England.

I wrote this about it at the time:


Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.

You walk the freeway bridge
across honking Acheron,
thinking of Antoinette
Downing, angel from out of town,
dusting the tumbled structures
just in time to stave off demolition —

and there they stand, lifted in the palm,
beautiful hand-built buildings,
stilted memory, vivid yet
with carved and colorful invention.

Or you —
among billows of winches,
jackhammers — watch them tear the
concrete off the bridge
and lift the river into view again.

That slow stream will remake these rigid banks,
remind the builders once again — break the mold.

Follow the bronzegold leaves’ free fall;
let go the framework — find your fluent home.

The turbid moiling of the Houlihan hullabaloo subsides as the weekend approaches. Like a "sensitive plant" or touch-me-not, the scene shrinks at the approach of a stolid outsider. The confident poet will find the sedimentary layer, and the insightful critic will attach a prognosis (using proboscis) to something similar, I suppose, as the squabbling deliquesces on down to its point of origin.
I've been enjoying G.Gudding's adventures in conchology. Here's an early poem by Mandelstam, trans. by Clarence Brown. Last line reminds me of the old song from Twelfth Night.


Perhaps I am not necessary to you,
Night; out of the universal gulf
Like a shell without pearls
I am cast up on your shore.

You froth the waves indifferently
And obstinately sing.
But you will love and know the worth
Of the lie of the useless shell.

You will lie down on the sand beside it
Will cover it with your chasuble
You will bind to it inseparably
The enormous bell of the billows.

And the walls of the fragile shell,
Like the house of an empty heart,
You will fill with the whispers of foam,
With fog, wind and the rain. . .


As for obscuritie poetickal, here's a somewhat oblique, Marvellian meditation on the social role of poetry (from Way Stations):


Hammersmith Farm, childhood home of the late Jacqueline
Kennedy Onassis, site of the reception for her wedding to
John F. Kennedy and his summer White House, is for sale.

–Providence Journal-Bulletin (July 4, 1995)


They're selling off the old homestead,
the mansion's on the auction block;
the lawns where Jackie used to walk
burrowed by realtors instead.
Ten million bucks, it can be yours:
the gardens, chandeliers, heirlooms,
John-John and Caroline's bedrooms...
Camelot flickers in the mirrors.


From harbor frontage you can see
four seasons glimmer in the surf,
watch changeless flotsam crash, drift.
Washington seems far away.
There, a bigger sale is on:
the common good, at discount rate,
from state to corporate bureaucrat
(by way of Senator Middleman).


So why mold grief in pewtered rhyme
for simple change, a mansion's fall?
Irish rumrunners, after all –
death by water. A waste of time.
A Yeats might mourn old manners gone,
the shipwrecked dream of Camelot,
and scorn the Newport plutocrat
gnawing mahogany's snuffed grain...


She's in the grave, the early girl,
swan-woman (pillbox hat, pink coat) –
sun-glassed, mysterious, remote,
demure, still point of social whirl,
who tacked astern with hasty Greek
to homeward islands, east of West;
she's gone, the akme of the best,
a dolphin – gilded, guileless, sleek.


But like a man who finds his wife
locked in the arms of a stronger chest,
I'm stung with song's unease, unrest –
a uselessness, usurped by strife.
Trajectories of melting ice;
chaos of shards; an arctic herd
shrinks (absurd equation) toward
Time's backlit Death Row device


and no one knows who killed the King
or the two princes by his side –
the talent that is death to hide
cannot un-Gordian anything.
Times are evil. Redeem the day –
that day he sat at Hammersmith
and merged the Peace Corps with the myth:
a green American sunray.


Another Greek, Simonides
(or so writes Roman Cicero)
wove stories intricate and slow;
his tyrant patron was displeased.
"Lay off those Twins, you dunce"
he cried – "Castor, Pollux –
you're labored, prolix –
recite my noble deeds, for once!"


And tossing the poet only half –
"Let those Gemini pay the rest!" –
the prince expelled the fabulist.
Then, in a glancing lightning shaft,
two spooky boys were seen on high.
Destruction rained down on his head.
The bard survived, to name the dead –
baptizing each guest with a sigh.


Another house is up for sale.
Driftwood clutters down the shore.
No one listens anymore
to songs of Camelot or Grail.
But over the mortgaged property,
over White House, pillar, dome,
I see two ghostly brothers roam.
Let slow strands weave their filigree.

One take on obscurity in poetry. Another forthcoming.

                  To give back to the rain
what was announced on the rooftops
in whispers, at the end of May –
the rain, a drowsy origin
cradled in the huge bronze
and silver of twisted beech.

Your sounding, not like laughter
on dry streets, nor an obituary
reminiscence, give and take
of battering wind – but slight
drumming on rough graves, midway
from the obscure haze of a lamp.
Jonathan generously attempts a refutation of Houlihan's actual arguments. & I accept his position, but only to a degree. There is a difference between the original & Houlihan's parody of it : underlying the disjointed phrases ("breath/of a nipple" [???]) is some kind of rhetorical question, if not statement. My translation of the poem : "Does the process of excavating a 'logocentric grid' (the axle) of reality - which is the inverse mirror of stating axioms - muzzle the 'ventriloquist' breath of the (feminine?) body itself?"

So on a "tree" level, Jonathan has a point. But I think he misses the forest. The forest level of Houlihan's argument is that the poetic obfuscation of this kind of style actively discourages its interpretation. I will take a wild guess & speculate that this poet is a young ephebe currently enthralled with Celan. She's taken a fairly unoriginal postmodern idea (anti-logocentrism) and plumped & feathered it in portentous Celanophane, leading to such wonders of metaphor as "breath of a nipple", etc., its "revolving /throat". Faced with this mannered (wrapped) & imitative baloney, Houlihan's parody is justified, & her critique of both obfuscation and wheedling accessibility is very valuable.
Josh Corey defends the notion that you can counter a critic's criticism by attacking their poetry.

That may be pamphleteering but it's not criticism.


Mr. James Behrle writes (outlining his view of Joan Houlihan's approach):

A poem *must* mean something, something that can be consumed. Like a Big Mac. A poem must be something that can be discussed in a circle, taken apart and put back together. A poem is something that can be taught and understood. There is no rigor to push language, to test sounds, to create dissonance, to make it new.

Knowledge has been identified with food since at least the Genesis story of the Tree of Knowledge.

But food means more than gobbling down protein & vitamins for "survival". The nourishment is often indistinguishable from the pleasure. What I understand Houlihan to be referring to, in her critique, is the pleasure of Pound's logopeia, the "dance of the intellect among words".

Now Mr. Behrle may be correct in saying that the poetry of his "we" often involves no simple transfer of meaning, in fact it may involve a rejection of "meaning" in this sense altogether, and still remain poetry. But it would be too bad if the rigor of his "we" style of consumption denies the pleasures of meaning altogether. Houlihan's quotes from various auto-pilot playfully ambi-meaningless experimental taste-defying word-gumbos simply underlines her argument that certain pleasures of ordered meaning are missing there.
Jonathan Mayhew writes:

But we are all vehement! Henry Gould and Jean Hooligan as much as Jonathan Mayhem. It's called passion! If elegance could be measured it wouldn't be elegant any longer. If poetry were written in "normal" language it wouldn't be poetry at all. All this reminds me of some books my Grandpa had by Robert Hillyer, a guy who used to write a column for the Saturday Review or Saturday Evening Post. He would quote a poem by Cummings or Williams or Auden and sneer at it. Modern poetry was crap. Half the time he was right, but that just shows bad poetry will always be more plentiful than good. The poetry he advocated was worse than crap. That's why the badness of Houlihan's own poetry matters in this debate.

But JM, I'm not against vehemence per se; only struck by it in this context. Houlihan's biting comments seem to stir not engagement but defensive vituperation. & no, the fact that Hillyer advocated crap poems does not justify quoting Houlihan's poems to deny her critical acumen. Houlihan does not present her poems as alternative models within her essays. The one poem (that I found, anyway) which she offered as exemplary, by Franz Wright, was pretty good, though I thought the final line spoiled it (snow like "millions of bees" : seems facile, a kind of well-worn flourish).

I agree that her criticism is satirical & negative, and does not really offer a "way forward" in terms of a new or exemplary poetics. But I find her closet-cleaning a breath of fresh air.
Dale Smith weighs in against Houlihan at Skanky Possum. At least Smith addresses her actual arguments; but he does so in a hectoring, bullying manner. Interesting to me that he opposes Houlihan's strictures with an emphasis on the holistic post- or trans- verbal experience of modernity : parallels the issues I raised in previous post today (ie., can criticism happen at all, in a culture of holistic-autonomous gushtalts?).
With respect to previous post, see somewhat apropos comments on criticism by BK Stefans (9/8/03).
Jonathan weighs in on Joan Houlihan. I'm somewhat bemused by the vehemence of this & other negative takes. Again I see an unwillingness to address her main arguments (obscurity & bad writing among the "progressive", lazy resting-on-laurels among the established, et al.), along with a willingness to belittle her own poetry (which really is not a point against her essays), & to question, very tweedily, her "credentials".

All this vehemence makes me ask: is criticism actually possible with regard to contemporary poetry? Contemporary culture is most adept at creating complete autonomous worlds (poetry movements, football seasons, ghettos, SUV ads, music videos, computer games. . .). These pastimes are so pervasive and all-consuming that, in comparison, perhaps, a general notion of "good writing" seems inconceivably boring. "Progressive" poetry creates its own terms for production & consumption, which have a lot to do with an aura of performance & "liminality" & immediate experience, and little to do with "normal" or even traditionally or measurably elegant syntax or vocabulary.


A p.s. to previous note on "Green Constellation":

the "ecstatic Russian bells" should be seen in context of the many Russian topoi informing the entire Forth of July, which began (in the 1st chapter of Stubborn - "Shakespeare's Head" [a building in Providence]) with brief sketches echoing-mimicking Mandelstam's Voronezh poems. The "path P of the Pushkin-the-cat thread. . . the coccoon/butterfly metamorphoses, central in Nabokov & important in Brodsky. . . the "Letters to Elena". . . not to mention the whole number/dating system, so pervasive. . . (the numbers 28 & 29, dates 5/28 & 5/29. . .

the central book, Grassblade Light, is the most numerically orchestrated. . . each chapter of 28 poems (each containing 7 quatrains or 28 lines : 4/7, or 4th of July), with a central 29th. . . July (1st part) is made of of chapters containing 5 sections of 28 stanzas each. . .

5/28 : burial of Wm. Blackstone, 1st RI settler, the "man who went to live with Indians". . . 5/29 RI Statehood Day, HG/JFK b-day, date of fall of Constantinople, traditional seat of Orthodox Christendom (1453), date (in 1913) of debut performance of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring". Final chapter of Grassblade is titled "Rite of Spring" (in which "Henry" finally addresses "Juliet" plainly, directly).

(Please pardon semi-repetitions here, for those who've read archive from around January.)

Here's a bit from the coda volume, Blackstone's Day-Book : one among many which emphasizes the Rus-Mandelstam threads of the poem (one etymology for "Rus", Russia, is "rowers" - refering to the Vikings who governed the 1st Rus capital, Kiev). The poem refers to Mandelstam's short stark Voronezh poem which begins "Washing up in the winter courtyard" ("mandel" means "almond"):


We are coming to the end of Henry
Navigator's long voyage, Elena –
circling around an elephant ear (Abul
Abaz, or Barnum's Jumbo) – see

how everything grows simpler,
more harsh, more true. Still
the well is always there (and will
be) – like the man standing here

beside it in the dark courtyard
(strange blooming out-of-season
almond branch). A stone,
a star, a well. A cup of water

from a rainbarrel (or Tartar
wine). A circling dragon-boat
or scrap of origami writ
folded to float so lightly. . . there.

You fold Andromeda into a W,
a mountain range back into M.
You cup them in your palm
to make a diamond, or double-

diamond – cat's eyes, Pushkinian.
Delicate Blue Morpho wings
woven with microscopic strings
of quipu thread (gentian-

gentle, violet, and red). A knit
crossroad, then – red, white –
streams into Cassiopeia's
mother-night (at last).

& then you have Ron Silliman describing Alan Dugan as "conservative poet", or the folksy folks in Philly having a "Progressive Poetry" festival. These are political labels, extrabulantly sub-, or eben anti-critical.

Everybody in the Big Tent! C'mon in, the water's dry!
The Joan Houlihan articles getting attention in blogland. Responding to Josh: I'm not sure what the comparison to Wm. Logan, or the quality of her own poems, has to do with the substance of her critiques. Too much defensive carping from the fishpond. That she chose some really bad poems from Fence was supported by the fact that she showed how the mediocre writing of those examples was echoed by the editors' own pronouncements defining their aesthetics.
Here's the "Russian bell" poem from July (incidentally, July was completed on March 5th, the anniversary of the death of both Anna Akhmatova & Stalin):


Maybe it is the belfry of the Church of the Nativity
of the mother of God but it is still cold as Hades
60 feet up a corkscrew staircase shoulders
brush the cobbled walls the stumbling ascent

a blend of dirge, railroad-crossing clanger and
shattering wine goblet a disharmonious sweetness
makes a beeline what they create and give away
no Muzak peal can duplicate It is peace in the soul

said Mr. Dorokhin, 29 cacaphonous and
hypnotic the miracle is that they ring at all
its bells were carted off the vacant building
(gagged) became a holding pen for circus lions

When it's cold like this, it sounds better
Russian bells are stationary the ringer strikes
them by pulling the tongue with a rope carefully
tuned, but harmony is coincidental a tree

of iron droning like a cork within ethereal
and capering fire or an upside-down Higgs
particle afloat in a cup of gegenschein
or a grain of faith profound and whole

lifted overhead into far-off rooftop watercolors
and a basil swell where the turbulence began
where a spiral snakes into interior nègre
like a turnstone wheeling Hamlet's cradle

of inward sin simultaneously out into a hamlet
of fate at the navel of a rippling font of sound
where his father's agenbite incuse nostos
just rest spins the will toward Elsinore

a cue for the angel troubling the water
in a maze of circles with a rod of iron
for restitution at last this diorite
horizon of my clay you turn. . .

A few notes regarding the obscurities of previous post (& other excerpts like it), for anyone interested. July is 3rd penultimate vol. of long long poem Forth of July (4th vol. is brief coda, called Blackstone's Day-Book, published with Island Road). Poem in previous blog entry of today is from 2nd, final section of July, called "The Green Constellation".

"G.C." is kind of ecstatic conclusion to whole poem, following 1st part of July, titled "Upstream, Down", which is kind of an imaginary "journey into the interior", down & up the Ms., paralleling the center of previous vol. Grassblade Light (Grassblade is centered on source of Mississippi; July is centered on the Delta).

Anyway, "G.C." was composed in four equal parts (24 poems each), sort of balancing the 1st 4 chapters of the 1st book (Stubborn Grew). Though the 4 parts are printed consecutively (I-II-III-IV), they were written "across", ie. I wrote them in this order: I.1, II.1, III.1, IV.1, I.2, II.2, III.2... etc. (each poem is dated, so the reader can read it "across or down"). The idea was to create this big sort of echoing square, thinking in part of the effect of Russian bells (cacaphonous-harmonious). As you get toward the end (I.24 etc), 4 letters standing for 4 bell-tones become more pronounced : D, F-sharp, A, E - the simple door-chime tones - except I inverted them to spell "F-A-D-E". You can see that the previous poem is from the "D" section.

The spanish quote in this poem from from Vallejo's "Poemas Humanas". Among other things, the section threads together various motifs from earlier in the work, including the balance of Caesar/Cesar (Vallejo), Julius (Caesar)/Juliet/Jubilee etc, March 15th (Ides of March) and April 15th (Good Friday - death of Vallejo & Abraham Lincoln), e-mpire and e-quality (under the shadow of the "W" &/or the gold doubloon nailed to the mast at the center of the Pequod (in Moby-Dick), from Quito, Ecuador (e-quator). The "Forth of July" figures the emergence of a "jubilee-bee" or butterfly from the husk or cicada shell or military shield of Julius (empire) - basically a sort of magic letter-game. What was an orphic "Romeo" search for a ghostly "Juliet" in Grassblade Light becomes a kind of spiritual image of metamorphosis on a cultural level in July. All this was oddly & shamanistically "predicted" by the Hermes/Orpheus-figure of "Bluejay" in Stubborn Grew.

I'll post another poem from the "Green Constellation" section which points toward the Russian bell phenomena. Incidentally, the penultimate section of the sonnet sequence Island Road (1996) is titled "To the Green Constellation". (The "Green Constellation", among other things, was actually the brand name of simple Sears typewriter, lent to me by Francesca Tagliabue, on which many of my early poems were written.)
More bing-bong from July:


A slow wheel turns the law of the jade mountain
the green J.D. by the running mead of the magna
magma den and life unwinds there a gnomon
month diploid palimpsest from ghetto time

and the shield of d-d-d-domination the doom
of a damnation of the Ides of many marches
a bronze moonship your deep deeper charm
your debt a gravid planet's clayful mood

(the slow boat moving up the river
a pair of calipers in a feral light
when five times twelve tolled
over a shield) is numb and veritable

felix fate from March Ides to midway
cruelfact De qué tronco, el florido
carpintero! De qué perfecta axila, el fragil
Into the maw of an old idea

the green spine of the jade that penetrates
scything (a Scythian) through the fat
of every seedy masquerade the stiff ice
in the cup of masses stirred by the departure

of the mast green cape pivoting
in a punt a cap mossed-over a
Lincolnshire summer's deceased
footbell's footfall furball's pnpt

stirs through leaven 60 loaves
stern to magnetic core's oaken
coracle breakthrough kernel
of frozen kelson ice D-selves

to repay the whole burden of the debt
government of shadowy quintessence
weight of one green little one ascent
of myrrh and pennyroyal Jubilato D



Witty & acerbic evaluations of contemporary poetry by Joan Houlihan. The whole series is worth reading.
What'd I say yesterday? I'm still on the plane.

HGpoetics pyramid has reached its angle of repose.


Josh Corey responds (on 8/28) to my Theorie of Faculties Poetickal.

Josh, I think the idea of choosing a favorite tendency (pleasure-principled, or reflective/establishment, or irascible/engaged) is probably an illusion. Not because there is no free choice, but because tendencies are like symptoms (in a society of infinite & vast solipsism). Symptoms are sub-cultural, sub-aesthetic.

I think of the visionary or contemplative as an active process, not a mechanical reflection of "things as they are" (whatever that is). A work of finding relations & connections across varied & separate ranges of things & experiences. The visionary makes sense of history & contemporary reality through this process.

Whereas the "irascible" or engage tendency moves immediately from the "answer" to the persuasion; the answer is sort of assumed (an unjust state of things, for example). The visionary shows the state of things in their complexity.

On the plane back from Minnesota (seated amidst a beery wisecracking post-Labor Day Fife & Drum Band from Boston, going home), re-reading Carl Schorske's cultural history, Fin-de-Siecle Vienna. Hofmannsthal, poet & playwright, brooding over the relation of artist to society. A paradox : the moment the artist (the poet) arrogates the role of creating, rather than illustrating or ornamenting, culture, he or she becomes irrelevant.
"angle of repose" :

a mining term. means the slope at which a pile of something (sand, coal, rocks) will stop sliding & remain at rest.