I'd like to go back to Big Easy & have some oysters, right now. Jimmy Behrle, I'd like you to come along. I'll show you how to crochet & recite Longfellow's "Evangeline" at the same time.

I can't get over the fact that Longfellow's daughter "laughing Allegra" stayed at my g'parents' house in Minneapolis for a week in the 1920s. & that his great-grand-daughter was my mother's best friend. & that my Mom had her first drink (sherry) when she was 13, in the Longfellow house in Portland, Maine. this is all news to me.

I'm going to go read "Evangeline" now, by the shores of Gitchee Gumee.
I had a long chat about religion & UFOs with this chap. Laissez les bons temps rouler.

Henry's Sermon for Lent 2006

I was never very good at math. It bored me so much my head spun, though I liked geometry.

But I'm intrigued by mathematicians : Godel, Turing, Cantor. Nicolas of Cusa : not exactly a mathematician, but he liked to frame his spiritual insights in math/science language. Simone Weil!!!

I used to do diagrams of God/Word/Man, using sun/moon/earth & a compass, when I was a young Jesus freak. (This was in London, when I was trying to convert the Rolling Stones. Happy Mardi Gras.)

You confront the finite/infinite whenever you draw a circle, or diagonal a square.

Liking Andrew Hodges' bio of Turing.

Lying in the meadow grass, inventing the computing machine.

& I'm thinking of the formal aspects of poetry as algorithms (again). My experience of metrical pattern over long stretches : you let the machine take over, in order to do something more subtle on top of it. (But that doesn't really do justice to the give-&-take.)

Thinking of Poetry World in relation to Math World. Is it possible to master certain traditional knowledge (as a mathematician must) in poetry, & then work on a certain "cutting edge" of the unknown?

(This would inevitably lead to poetry's boundaries : history, ethics, politics, religion, science, linguistics, anthropology, society, art, music, culture in general, comparative literature, comparative culture studies, Brits vs. Yanks vs. N'Orleans Suthuners.... ie., traits...)

Oh, God (says God). That's more boring than math, Hank!!!

g'night, fellow weirdos. tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. see you in Ashcan School.


The Secret Problem : Ersatz Wild & Crazy

What is the Secret Problem of America, which, like a tumbling domino, creates the Secret Problem of American Poetry?

The Secret Problem of America is that Americans try too hard to be wild & crazy.

(Evidence? I mean, check the 2006 Winter Olympics, OK?)

The British, their forefathers, have known this for centuries, but they're too polite & perfidious to say anything. The Brits understand themselves : they are not wild & crazy, not at all. That's why they developed their charming, Japanese-garden-variety eccentricities. (Prince Charles, intently observing the behaviour of an hedgehog, and so forth.)

Because Americans try so hard to be wild & crazy, the slimy money-grubbing culture-creeps have learned how to turn this foible into a fast buck (hence, U.S. pop culture).

How do I know this? I have 1) so much Irish in me; and 2) some certified Whack in the family.

Hence my admiration for the Irish, and my genuine love for the Russians.

They don't have to try so hard; it comes naturally.

I won't get into this here, but this explains most of the serious weaknesses of contemporary American poetry.

It's time we got back to Longfellow : he, at least, had some knowledge of Finnish metrics & French-Canadian history. He was like the best Americans : a cosmopolitan, polyglot oddball.
another scribble in the Jubilee Diary:


The sun shines in the snow, blinding, immaculate.
A vanishing point's the center of each hexagon.
A cardinal's ready whistle stings the spine -
her scream (of red!) skimming over my isolated

hut. And it's hard to speak of a wobbling boat
wheeling around on its buried anchor, indolent;
hard to describe the sameness of the same, what
reverberates in the mirror of itself, absolute

identity. Yet it's there, in the whiteness - cold
as iron, gleaming back at the furnace of the sun.
Out of abysmal history, shivering Everyman
draws temperate lessons from that frigid rod :

the natural law, invisible water, seeps
from its frozen matrix. A day of rest,
a day of rest, an equilibrium of gracefulness

...light promise loitering in reedy deeps.


the signs are pretty clear : it's time for another of those temporary leaves from the blog.

or maybe not, who knows...

I'll probably keep posting the little Jubilee Diary quatrains, if I'm good enough to write any.

I need to work on my prose, or something. On my life.
I don't admire poets. I admire journalists. (I mean the humble ones.)

I suppose this explains "investigative poetics".
reality is a theater controlled by forces we don't understand.

but the interesting thing is : it's a moral theater (tragedy or comedy).
there are a lot of sides to me. & the ones that are not contradictory are incoherent.
There's a problem with blogs : they blur the distinction between poems, essays, & blab.

Why is this a problem? Because anything really interesting requires some discipline, some self-restraint.

Because writing should be subsumed by the disciplines of thought & silence.

Why? Because the most basic problems in the world can be traced to illiteracy, lack of access to education & freedom, the inability to communicate, powerlessness.

& if you, as a writer, feel no sense of responsibility toward the problems of the world, then I don't want to bother reading your superficial productions.


... or take a look at Stephanie Young's long post from Feb. 17th, for another angle on the poem/person conundrum.
I suspect I've gotten myself tangled up in overcomplications today.

& thus mystifying, boring... being overly difficult.

the space where sign & reality merge - that is, where we enjoy "K-2" poetry -

doesn't depend so much, ultimately, on reading or text.

It depends on cognition. the brain. & re-cognition. the heart.

that vanishing point - that fusion - happens in the space of contemplation.

(I'm a-hikin' back to Quietude, it seems...)
sorry to be so garrulous this morning.

& I know I repeat myself many times over.

Certain basic philosophical dilemmas are recurrent, because they're so interesting, so hard to resolve... because they dangle there like keys to the maze.

& these dilemmas spin out a history over time, of different allegiances & emphases, as we try to resolve them again & again.

This history is crystallized in complex responses (composed, struggling, beneath multiple simultaneous pressures & necessities) - which are works of art.

Then these crystallizations become models of resolution, for our own contemporary dilemmas : challenges, mountains to climb, summit views to behold - choices to negate & revise.
Our world is different, our problems are different, our lives are different today. What the classic sources provide, maybe, are not so much literary models as examples of intellectual and artistic confidence. There seem to be no problems - moral, psychological, political, artistic - which, once they became aware of them, Shakespeare & Dante & Homer & Virgil & Ben Jonson & Andrew Marvell & John Donne & "J" et al. were not willing to take on. I know this is an idealization : that's what classics are for.

(& the real hikers learn Greek, Latin, German, Ethiopian, Arabic, Chinese. & Russian, of course.)

(& K-2 poets take on cliff-like problems.)
Maybe I have time to do a little more mental mountain climbing (or digital finger-slalom) this morning.

Continuing with the Turing biography. "turing" makes me think of a lathe; but apparently the family name stemmed from "Turin", Italy. A.T. was certainly an Olympics-class mental climber.

He's in college, & getting into mathematics, & Russell's Paradox ("the set of all sets, which contains itself", etc.). "'Normally,", wrote Russell, 'a class is not a member of itself. Mankind, for example, is not a man.'"

(Aye, there's the rub.)

Georg Cantor's infinity [of infinities] research.

The fractal spiral of self-reflective patterns [the J! the J! the blue J!]. Art's resonant echo-chamber.

But let's get back to poetry. I have a hunch this Russell Paradox can be applied, in some kind of analogy, both to literary style ("what do we do after MODERNISM???"}, and on a more basic level, to the relationship between text (written symbols) and real experience; AND, on a more cryptic level, to certain theological notions.

I won't try to cover all this in one lecture.

On coffee break, I'm reading about Turing, and I'm watching college students go by, umbilically attached to cellphones, I-pods. & I read, "This lack of any simple connection between mathematical symbols and the world of actual objects fascinated Alan." I'm watching the students go by, I'm slurping my coffee, & I'm thinking about the relationship between text and person, and between poetic text and vocal recital, dramatic performance.

I'm thinking about that relationship, because I'm trying to follow up on the previous post, the bit about poetry's serious side opens a space for its aesthetic reception.

This particular intellectual/emotional/spiritual pleasure & value, as we know it anyway, follows specifically from writing & reading, from texts.

But, paradoxically, the benchmarks, the classics, the models which make up the substance of an ongoing tradition in poetry - these originated in periods of revolutionary change : when 1) writing, printing & literacy spread far & wide, and 2) when the vast energies of vernacular languages were absorbed into poetry.

So the classics are packages of newly-grasped forms of energy (reading; new languages).

Our pleasure & learning - through reading & writing - draw on sources which are amalgams of spoken language & new writing tools.

I'm reminded of one of Mandelstam's most striking formulae : "Poetry is a plow which turns up the deep layers of Time, and spreads them on the surface." He's referring to contemporary, Acmeist poetry as he understands it & wants it to be : reaching back into those vital sources, those original amalgams of popular speech and writing technology (Dante, the classic of classic exemplars).

& it's close to Hart Crane's Nietzschean sense of poetry's potential to "reincarnate", to re-capitulate, archaic or eternal times (Marlowe, Pindar...).

"I don't want Ovid in translation; I want the living, breathing Ovid," Mandelstam wrote. (I'm quoting from memory.)

The forms taken suddenly by ancient poetry are springs or sources : fresh, eternal beauty. (This is a sort of classicism, I guess.) Why? Because they embody this symbiosis of text & speech, of symbol & actuality, of poem & person.

Not models or patterns; sources.

Russell's Paradox, which arose in the attempt to conceptualize the basic nature of mathematics, also applies, somehow, every time we read the "imitation of a speech act". It applies, somehow, to our concepts of rationality itself : what is the status of an abstraction, a metaphor, a word? What (if anything) grounds their logical architecture?

& what is "reality", then? Maybe Mankind, for example, is, indeed, a man...

[see, philosophes, the much-debated Aristotelian/Scholastic notion, that there are no universals, only individuals... nominalism loops into Berkeleyan idealism... & back into Peirce's futuristic, "thought-like" realism... & back into poetic quiddity, vivid particularity... ut pictura poiesis... I-am-That-I-Am, I-will-be-what-I-will-be, JHWH...]

and the poem & the person, and the text & the real, and the student & the mp3-player, inhabit this unpredictable borderland, where they flow back & forth...

I'm circling around a holistic conceptualization of art which includes personhood. Getting back to those dilemmas outlined in Carol Christ's book (Victorian & Modernist Poetics).

OK, class dismissed.
On National Public Radio yesterday, a letter was read from a listener in California, who took issue with some attitudes of Poet Laureate Ted Kooser (featured in an earlier show).

The listener questioned Kooser's populist, accessible, Hallmark greeting-card approach, driven by the wish to make everybody comfortable.

He said poetry was still the "K-2" (near Mt. Everest) : the summit of precision in language, thought, feeling. Said something like, "if you take away the mountains, there will be no more mountain-climbers."

Well put, I thought...

The popularizing impulse - whether well-meant or self-serving - is a characteristic of publicists, middlemen, spokespeople, fundraisers, educators everywhere. It's not limited to the "mainstream".

Its opposite, though, is not necessarily "difficulty" (in any simple sense!!!).

Shakespeare usually shows up in debates about difficulty. Precise & expansive; popular & deep.

Yeats really wanted that, too. He wanted it so badly, & maybe he partially achieved it. Irish folksingers still set his poems to music.

And Eliot's polemics, and Pound's. Either the "dissociation of sensibility" (Eliot) or the tyranny of bad empires & economics (Pound) is blamed for poetry's internal dessications & external humiliations.

I was intrigued by a certain moment in Carol Christ's study mentioned here earlier (Victorian and Modern Poetics), when the Victorians felt it necessary to turn away from the "classic" Romantics (Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, etc.) :

because the Romantic mind, shadowed by solipsism & egoism, no longer seemed capable of authenticity in the face of science & industrialism & various intellectual orthodoxies - the Victorians had to find ways of distancing themselves from that Romantic unity. & thus turned to a new poetics of sensation, irony, dramatic masks & personae - foreshadowing the Modernists.

What I'm groping toward here is a relationship between precision & complexity in poetry, and this notion of a "lost unity" of poetic expression (which some found in the Romantics, some found in the Metaphysicals & Shakespeare, some found in Antiquity, etc.).

& it seems that the 20th century experiments with abstraction and self-contained symbolic structures no longer fully satisfy us as a response to this crisis. Postmodernism is the register of that dissatisfaction : but further irony, and further engagements with aleatory, dissociated aesthetic modes, don't seem to resolve anything either (a register of dissatisfaction is not an affirmation).

I don't have the answer(s) at the moment; but anyway, that NPR listener's comments rang some bells for me. Poetry is rare - mountainous - because it seeks both precision and wholeness.

Poetry's serious side opens up a certain space for its aesthetic reception, for real enjoyment with understanding (these are intellectual exercises). Attention, everybody.

Better shut up now & get out the hiking boots.
New book from Spuyten Duyvil by Russia-borne poet Regina Derieva. I'm going to check into it.

Plus I need to start listening to my Russian tapes again. Elena Shvarts has been waiting ten years (in my mind) for me to learn the language.


Reading a bio of Alan Turing : the Enigma (by Andrew Hodges). The guy who broke the Nazi code & invented your computer.

got me wonderin' about the likenesses between:

labyrinths, mazes
encryption (cipherment/decipherment)
the "abba" rhyme scheme

John Irwin wrote about (some of) this with great erudition (The Mystery to a Solution : Poe, Borges and the analytic detective story).

So did Alastair Fowler, in his books on number symbolism & structure in Renaissance poetry.



Washington's Birthday

Wan February light, shy, lingering.
Pale, opalescent... wistful-hopeful.
Over cemetery scrublands (one whole
remainder from the trees' last fling).

We shared the hobo bench, Mr. Brown
and I - near that paradigm for Everyman.
He was a kid once, too - perfect son
of somebody. Some emblematic hand gone cold

(long gone). You turned beneath the trees,
your whisper merging with their rustling - like
one of these tall Baldwins (crowning, exulting
on the ridge). Spring rhymes with breeze.
Went to get some linoleum tested for asbestos at a little lab over on Smith St. Heard some of that old old Providence accent (sort of fusion of Yankee/Irish) from a guy waiting at counter.

But Mairead can tell you more about Providence. A different one. Mairead is my local bloggin' alter ego. There's no Providence without Heaven, & vice versa.
Just ridin' along the on the qua-qua train. Seems like second nature now. The quatrain (for me) = the line.

Sort of like doing origami.

Trying to see how many shapes & objects I can fold into it.
I guess the most authentic and irrevocable poetry is that which had to be written : the writer pushed by something more than ambition, curiosity or boredom. Rather, by need. Stevens' "poverty".

The poem is a resolution. A record of more-than-intellectual engagement.

I liked the Franz Wright poem included in the recent Poets & Writers feature. Wish I could have written it. (In fact I was tempted to think he had borrowed a certain vocabulary & rhythm from one of my poems! But that's very unlikely.)

This despite the fact that I was on the receiving end of one of his unpleasant email attacks. (The funny thing was I had the impression he thought I was someone else. I am someone else.)



The old guy, angular, drowsing on the Terrace -
W.W. Brown, maybe - but you don't know his name.
Sharing your misty bench, contemplating the same
stone profile, our mutual Moses.

Every wilderness deserves its prophet
as every home its closet skeleton
and fevered heart. Here's one
for us - old crusty Roger, obdurate

proclaimer. Independent Man. He's golden
now, with trident, atop the capitol;
he's every candid candidate's surreal
comparison, and paragon, and so on.

But these are only idle riddles for someone
no one knows - not me, not Mr. Brown,
nor that sterling mirror-image of a clown
dressed like a giant bird, traipsing through town...
So let's think for a minute about poetry in its aspect as a kind of effort contributed, along with other kinds of work, toward making civilization.

I imagine sort of a double-edged phenomenon : on the one hand, an aesthetic experience; on the other, a kind of contribution toward understanding.

The poet is a sort of companion presence, offering persuasive summations or interpretations of what everyone is experiencing.

& in order to do that, the poet has to negotiate between poetry and everything else, between poetry and not-poetry.

So there is an internal world of pure poetry, pure artistic experience, and then there is poetry as it acts (verbally, interpretively) on reality.

It's not easy to find that productive boundary-state, between poetry & not-poetry, between the world of poets & poetry-lovers, and the ordinary world, the larger world.

It seems to involve a special dramatic gift : of engagement, of empathy, of expression.

Sometimes it seems there are so many forces, both within & outside the "poetry world", which militate against finding that boundary-state.

The insatiable hunger for words & verbalizing & books - this mania itself can isolate us from the ordinary world of not-poetry. The glut & the over-saturation & the jadedness & finally the tastelessness of it all.

The obsession with poetry as a career, or as a playing field for literary politics, or as an arena for over-subtle internal critiques : these tend to obscure its aspect as a vocation in the midst of all the other civilization-making activities.

It seems to me, today anyway, that precisely how a poet, or a generation of poets, negotiates this paradoxical boundary area, is a key factor in determining the choices which undergird a literary style.


Hope to pull together an essay sometime on affinities between Bachelard, Mandelstam, Wallace Stevens.

M's Acmeism, humanism, "domestic hellenism", "teleological warmth". (Hellenism with a very Jewish warm kitchen feeling.)

The idea that poetry is part of the project to humanize and civilize the earth. Poetry breathing life into stony reality.

Steven's joy in the beautiful "idea" of a thing (or: the idea of Mankind).

Bachelard's lyric phenomenology.

Imago. Imago. Imago.

(I would toss an old Byzantine element into the mix. For me there is just one incandescent idea : imago Dei.)

To "pioneer", wherever you are.

Polish scholar Ryszard Przybylski expounds on some of this quite eloquently, in a book titled An essay on the poetry of Osip Mandelstam : God's grateful guest. (The subtitle an allusion to M's Acmeist credo - in one of his early essays.)

Joseph Brodsky, out of that (Petersburgian) tradition : "Mankind was put on earth for one purpose : to make civilization." [rough quote from memory]



The thought of the king, amid a war of kings.
With his Egyptian thought (a model for a king)
Moses led them through that labyrinth - stealing
away, lifting Egyptian crowns, and other things.

We are all gypsies now, we are all thieves,
the Muslim and the Christian and the Jew;
lispers of a lightweight breeze, that blows on through
and through. The thief takes what he most believes:

his precious ring, his golden ring, his diamond.
Will cherish it beyond his life - above
his wife, beyond his kings, above his love
for everything. Behold its pillared wheel ascend.


Hey ! Finally, the cavalry shows up! A Russian to the rescue!

(Though I think Igor's a little too hard on the late Brodsky. There's interesting stuff going on. See one of his very later poems, published in the New Yorker. A paranoid Mandelstam ode, at the frizzed end of an LSD hair day.)
more from the embryo Jubilee Diary:


Faint leaf-smell from the February ground,
an autumn detritus (beside snow-islands).
Warmed-over, not-yet-burnt - your plans, your
understandings. Waiting for the sound

of the camouflaged joiner, the mumble-bird,
surpasser of the smoke of smoky books,
cigars. Her puffed-up chest locks
in a box of keys. Her wings whirred

over the sleepy sand-pit near the cemetery.
You remember the idle glance, the beak
of sooty bronze, the silence - who could speak
in her presence? It was only adolescence (very

sorry, Sunny). As it was in the beginning
when the dust danced in the street, between
the houses and the grim trees, dark and green:
where hobos congregate beside the ringing iron.


coffee break thoughts:

The difference between poetry and rhetoric : poetry stems from an elusive necessity, which is inherent to, and resolves itself within, the articulation of the poem itself. But that's not all : the poem's language displays the effects of this necessity with a kind of self-reflexive awareness.

Rhetoric applies language toward particular persuasive purposes. The language itself is of value only insofar as it advances those persuasions. This is a form of necessity external to the work of art.

Many well-meaning poets are writing rhetorical texts, unaware that their golden speech contains no inner necessity.
Have been reading Orhan Pamuk's novel, Snow. Very appropriate to the local weather. & watched a beautiful Turkish film, set in Istanbul : "Distant", directed by N.B. Ceylan.

Would like to get back to my essays, which hobby was sort of interrupted by the New Orleans adventure & the Lulu campaign.

In a comment posted over at Kasey's blog, I wrote something like "if only we could distinguish between works of art and intellectual games, between poetry & rhetoric." I see now that these essays made a start in that direction. Sometime I hope to elaborate & apply some of these precepts to reviews.


Happy Valentine's Day. Here's an old poem from Way Stations:

  In a rough-hewn four-poster
the moody Puritan sleeps.
Down the steep dark stair,
slowly, a poor wife creeps.

Under a heavy kitchen box
there's a crust of dry bread;
strong hands undo the locks;
she goes out by the shed.

The old redhead dreams on,
kindly dawn slowly rises –
he sees a fatherly sun,
gleaming strawberry ices,

and a justified Rome –
while his wife, thinly wan,
espousing dear freedom,
succors an orphan swan.



From the gray waters of concrete downtown
fibrillated with buried rivulets and streams
from the base of the basin to the beam
of the ridge-face, looking back now

at the heights of the little terrace, where granite
frames the figure of a man. Like a painting
pierced by air, hollowed by wind, haunting
the hillside - his hand frozen (blind stalactite

shrouded in hoary volumes - local history).
The anemic one wandering around downcity
glances up now and then toward the prettified
petroglyph - as if smoldering leaves might flurry

into flame sometime. The autumn shrubbery
burned out long ago, and solid cold
creases the clouds, and the clouds shed
chilly hexagons (infinitely formal, infinitely

tiny). And soon the ground is shoveled under
white beyond argument, frozen in polemic slabs
of thought. And the hand, still hovering, stabs
toward turgid drifts (manna-plunder).
Brent Cunningham posted this in one of the comment boxes below:

"I wanted to express some doubt that you could support what seems to be a component of your counter-argument to Ron, namely the idea that the Futurists weren't a central influence on the Formalists. Shklovsky anyway never misses a chance to champion Khlebnikov and Mayakovsky especially, & does connect the formalist method of literary analysis to futurist compositional strategies--this is very clear in VS's Mayakovsky & His Circle (where he writes "I was a Futurist at that time," i.e. 1915) and elsewhere. I'd say the Formalists analyze Doestoevsky or Pushkin as application of their method, but the method itself finds much inspiration in Futurist principles: the valuing of science and the mechanical, the sense of the primacy of component parts, the contempt for Symbolist mystification and transcendence, and also just personal friendship with that older generation. Tho he is maybe not a formalist (tho in many ways a formalist-linguist perhaps?), Roman Jakobsen's My Futurist Years also makes clear the personal and intellectual effect Mayakovsky had on his immediate circle.

Certainly, there was more to it than Ron's crib--yes, naturally formalists intervention in lit crit took place in a different field, where there was a different history and different figures and different debates, etc., that's all true--but for a thumbnail it's not far: Futurism, and Mayakovsky looming as its main figure, was really the great tributary into Formalism, and provided much of the social and tactical inspiration.

Ron's sense of connection between Russian Formalism and the New Critics is, as you suggest, much more debatable. But at the same time it is quite striking, as one goes along reading Shklovsky or Tynanov, to run across so many ideas that are deeply resonant with positions held by Brooks or Warren etc. despite the difference in their politics. Ewa Thompson has a whole book on this from 1971 that is worth looking at."

This is a serious challenge, & it got me to go down to the library today & look into the history of Russian Formalism - for which I'm grateful to Brent. And, after looking at some of the scholarly work on this, I have to agree that the Futurist poets, primarily Mayakovsky and Khlebnikov, were closely affiliated with the Russ. Formalists - at least, with some of them - during their early (pre-Soviet) years. The Moscow wing was closer to the Futurists - the circle in Petersburg, however - primarily Boris Eikhenbaum - seem to have been more interested in the Acmeists.

However, these issues are extremely complicated. "Thumbnails" - mine included - easily become reductive distortions. It would be a mistake to project a kind of genetic or domino-theory description of the emergence of Formalism out of Futurism. Many of the ideas which the Futurists & Formalists shared - about the emphasis on the signifier, the autonomy of art from biography or social sentiment etc. - were in the air : one only has to point to the parallel genesis of abstraction in the visual arts during the same period. Moreover, even some of the most "avant-garde" Futurist assertions about the nature of poetry actually echo trends from the fin-de-siecle & decadent-symbolist styles which preceded them. (There's a good monograph on this topic, which I will try to locate.)

In other words, it would be a mistake to look at Mayakovsky as the "father" of the critical movement known as formalism. The poets & the critics shared some common interests and judgements, for a time. Then the critics moved on to refine & apply their theories to literature at large; and both movements traveled toward eventual destruction by Stalinism & soviet realism in the 30s.

So I will have to withdraw, partially, #1 of my proposed list of necessary logical props for Ron's original statement. But #2-4 still stand. First, the New Criticism and Russian Formalism are better described as parallel 20th-century developments, than as a genetic development of the former from the latter. Second, the relation between the New Criticism and Ron's School of Quietude is murky at best : if he's going to argue that the (soi-disant) School of Quietude has "nc roots", then he might as well say that Language Poetry does, too. Thirdly, to label poets like Auden or Lowell as among Brodsky's "School o'Quietude friends" is to misrepresent their work. Auden's neoclassical, social poetry displays the antithesis of New Critical dicta; Lowell's work, after Life Studies, differentiates itself also - toward autobiography, documentary, social chronicle.

All this nit-picking is out of proportion to the sheer nonsense of Ron's "thumbnail" depiction of Brodsky's career, these ersatz ironies. But if it leads myself and others toward a more detailed investigation of Russian poetics & literary history, I have him & Brent to thank. & I find it continually curious to have these debates, with their very faint and distended echoes of the original battles between Symbolist & Acmeist, Acmeist & Futurist, Potebnia-disciples & Formalists. What's ironic to me is that the debate takes place in the context of one of Ron's thumbnail biographical profiles (in which he specializes on his blog) : ie., the topic is molded, not by the literary, philosophical, philological or compositional problems in themselves, but by an author biography. Now this gets back to Kent Johnson's liminal presence in these debates, the way he harks back to ancient quarrels & hurt feelings on a Langpo trip to Leningrad, decades ago... because, considering the emphasis of the Futurists on the "word itself" - Khlebnikov's & Mayakovsky's insistence on the obliteration of the "author biography", the idea that "the poem is the only hero", and the poem itself is just "words as SOUNDS" (zaum) - when you get into this territory, you are getting into Kent Johnson territory : which is to say - away with these "thumbnail" promotion-demotions of individual writers!

So, in an odd & fairly primitive & definitely anachronistic American way, KJ & RS & HG are replaying Futurist/Acmeist debates. The Futurist demotion - in fact their scornful obliteration - of the bourgeois "author principle" & "literary tradition", played (for a while) into the hands of the general Russian-revolutionary zeitgeist - until their time of usefulness to the regime had passed. But the usefulness of such a demotion is still visible in the postmodern poetics coming out of Langpo and some other New American strains - and this usefulness, for his own poetics, is what propels Ron's Futurist-Formalist genealogy. Kent offers a more radical critique, regarding the consequences of such a theoretical move (in poetry). & I still stand with the Acmeists, more or less - unwilling to dispense either with "tradition", or with some purely poetic notion of "personhood", which has yet to be fully articulated.
Interesting op-ed piece in NY Times today about the value of fiction as opposed to (current favorite) memoirs.

I've tried doing that prose stuff, now & then. Started out writing short stories, in 8th grade or so. My first story was a satire on my school, The Blake School (which nomad Maria Damon visited recently). It featured a naive young knight named Miles Blakesley.

But I seem pretty addicted to poetry. It's the mumbling, I guess. Trouble is I'm scattered, numb from work, oldified, uninspired. Cain't make it cohere nohow, lately.

But I ain't given up, not just yet. Them Goulds is a stubborn bunch of mule-headed form farmers.


In case you hadn't noticed (I hadn't, until now) that postcard Providence view from Prospect Terrace, with a WPA Roger Williams extending his hand over the town (his feet are planted in the prow of a canoe) - next to my old photo from Paris, above - is an illustration for the poem I'm supposedly working on.
funny how these lines from the (very different) Brodsky poem, posted earlier, forecast what I'm fiddling with now :

Droning brittle wings, poets take their stations 
At the edge of the cliff – their noise intuitive, innate...
Thinking is one thing, mumbling another.

Panels of memory, superimposed
over the valley and the distant ridge
of the view from the terrace edge.
The land stretching out, a huge

hobo's supine shapelessness
bathed in light of day, insouciant
(an equilibrium, a universality
of possibility... your hopefulness).

I crawl through time there -
cenozoic troglodyte, fossilized.
Survey the incremental waste
regions - map thin air.
"Negative capability : the most lateral of lateral thinking," he mumbled (from the couch).
I fill up notebooks with ideas & plans, & it gets top-heavy. & then I have to start writing out of the side of my mouth.


Here's a new project, maybe, from LP (Lazarus Posthumous):



The view stretches west from the bench
at Prospect Park. The bench on the cliffside,
the statue at its edge, the edge of the wide
sundown horizon. The dense hunch

of dunce Hen whispers : here commence.
Aloft, above roadside habitats,
drab clapboard rats'
establishments, Providence

triple-decker tenements. Wayside
caves for every surrender (your
habitual morsels of remorse - those
broken seals of very spendthrift guys).
Joseph Brodsky has always stuck in the craw of American poetry scenesters. This guy comes in from Russia, becomes the darling of the anti-soviet establishment and literary lionizee, promotes metrical & rhymed "verse", Frost & Auden, writes mediocre poetry in English, and wins the Nobel Prize!

Sam Hamill wrote a long diatribe against Brodsky for APR about 20 yrs ago. Even though Hamill's probably "Quietude" to Ron, they both showed a similar political spin & knee-jerk resentment.
Jonathan on the Brodsky thread.

The comparison O'Hara/Auden/Mayakovsky is fun, but I think their differences outweigh their similarities.

As regards the rest of Jonathan's comments : I am really tired of this kind of criticism by insinuation, based on very slim knowledge, and even less fellow-feeling, with the poet in question. What Ron might have thought about what Brodsky might have thought about Mayakovsky - what is the point of this? A little research in the Brodsky archives might turn up a totally different, and far more interesting and informed, perspective on Mayakovsky/Brodsky. But we'd rather settle for myth, rumor, insinuation, and the other ingredients for the potential cooking up of literary slander.

It's not enough that Brodsky was, in his own country, an almost dissident-by-default (Jewish, somewhat independent) under a dictatorship, and sent into exile; we have to make efforts to "place" him aesthetically and politically with these little filaments of meaningless genealogy (N.C. to SoQ etc.) and these animadversions of political incorrectness (Brodsky, let it be noted, arrived in the U.S., with his suitcase from China & his rudimentary English, in the fall of 1972 - a little late and a little disconnected from the moral responsibilities of the Vietnam War).

Here's a link to some basic biographical information.


Seems fitting, this time of year, to post again my old contribution to the Yeats/Auden/Eliot/Brodsky elegy round-robin. (from Way Stations):


But each grave is the limit of the earth.

You died on a cold night in January.
It was Superbowl Sunday. A supine empire,
Preoccupied with bread and circuses,
Land Rovers, stratagems of muscle-
Bound heroes. Next day, fire
Swallows the famous opera house in Venice.
Not with a bang – with a light rustle
Of red silk, your heart passed the final
Exam, black-sailed, in the science of farewells.

Snow falls on the fleeting moiré of the sea;
It falls on horsemen passing by, on the halfbacks
Of the dolphins' curved smiles (in a mirror
Of alien tribes). Snow falls on night grass
In the trackless pine forest; it falls with the stars
Drifting down from unnumbered, shiftless heaven;
So it fell, and will fall, on those bronze eyelids.
A guarded glance, coiled in frozen hexagons;
Shy cedar voice, immured in pyramids.

Snow mixed with tears signals a hearth somewhere.
Not in the street, not in this Byzantine air
Of columns and cenotaphs – no. Just a home
By a river of marrying streams; a certain Rome
Where tongues descend – ascending voices mingle
In companionable flame. This friendly fire
Eats brotherly dusk, shakes fearful ether
Into evening wine... one hawk's cry
Screams – and melds into the Muse's profile.


Life's flimsy laundry, easily
Unraveled. Transparent butterfly net,
Wing of a moth, how slyly they
Trap the hunter, iced on an alpine sheet.

You fight the droning in your head
With all the cunning you can muster;
Turning its power against itself, you lead
A life Laertes would approve (bluster,

Business laboring for acclaim)
Only to drown the voice above the trees.
Relentless, impervious to shame,
It finds you out, brings you to your knees.

And like the heavy signet ring,
A chieftain's ring, that hidden in hand
Sealed Hamlet's heart (O molten, circling sting) –
The droning issues forth its stark command.

You listened, followed. A shuttling pencil
In a nighthawk's beak – a spear in your side;
And a huge sea-moth with crossbone stencil
Shattered your lamp. Died.

Summer ends, the droning subsides.
The ruthless tango of prose and poetry
Is dead. Cicada shells, butterfly hides...
Some leftover spider's ecstasy.


In the depths of the Soviet winter, in the ponderous cold
Of Siberia, a boy cups an abandoned moth in his hands,
Born – to die a few hours old –

Into a false firewood springtime. Its delicate wings
Are only an affront to the divine benevolence; he understands
Nothing; his hands, like an insect coffin, bear the stings

Of the nails themselves; like a dry cocoon, absently,
They drift to the shack wall, and the fingers fan,
In unison, a camouflaged figure in the pinewood pantry.

This tender sign... a tenderness snuffed out.
This heavy icon, then... true mimic of an action?
Or only the swollen, distorted wings of a parasite?

Or only the screech of broken chalk on slate?
Droning brittle wings, poets take their stations
At the edge of the cliff – their noise intuitive, innate...

The butterfly is gone. Its form was here, immaculate;
The hands tracing its flight, aimless, serpentine,
Mimic its undetermined motion – late, late –

Since that double-woven fountain, afloat with indirection,
Surging, sparkling, translucent, seeks its mate
In a signal heaven – a camouflage beyond dissection.


The final section of this poem alludes to a Brodsky poem about a boy and a moth, which in turn alludes to a Nabokov short story. Oddly enough, the 2nd and 3rd sections of this poem were written before Brodsky died. The original version was not an elegy for Brodsky : the poem had opened with a section about my adolescent infatuation with Nabokov! So, when you consider that this elegy is part of a cycle of elegies - Auden for Yeats, Brodsky, echoing Auden, for TS Eliot - then this Nabokovian reference forms a second loop.

cf. Mandelstam (in a not-so-great, not-terrible translation) :

Sisters - Heaviness and Tenderness - you look the same.
Wasps and bees both suck the heavy rose.
Man dies, and the hot sand cools again.
Carried off on a black stretcher, yesterday’s sun goes.

Oh, honeycombs’ heaviness, nets’ tenderness,
it’s easier to lift a stone than to say your name!
I have one purpose left, a golden purpose,
how, from time’s weight, to free myself again.

I drink the turbid air like a dark water.
The rose was earth; time, ploughed from underneath.
Woven, the heavy, tender roses, in a slow vortex,
the roses, heaviness and tenderness, in a double-wreath.


I've gotten into a tussle over Joseph Brodsky with Ron Silliman. This happens now and then in my life. I wrote a long letter to American Poetry Review back in the 80s, answering a particularly jaundiced attack on Brodsky in that magazine.

Here's the paragraph of Ron's with which I took issue:

"One of the great ironies of this sort of dismissal is that a Joseph Brodsky, whose solution was a return to the formal precision of pre-Soviet poetics & to abstain from collaborating with the aesthetic bureaucrats of his time, easily fell into the hands of the same sort of apparatchiks once he was able to come west. An even greater irony – the new critical roots behind Brodsky’s later School o’ Quietude friends could be traced back¹ to the Russian Formalists & their principle source of inspiration, old “Cloud in Trousers” Mayakovsky himself. Now that the old Soviet Union is no more, of course, they are constructing a monument to Brodsky in St. Petersburg."

(The "dismissal" referred to is Ron's notion that Mayakovsky is not given his critical due because of his affiliation with official Soviet literature.)

Let's have another look at this fascinating paragraph. First, Ron says that Brodsky's "solution" to soviet repression was a "return to the formal precision of pre-Soviet poetics". As I understand this, Ron is applying a familiar template from American poetry - i.e., that there is some sort of parallel between literary experimentalism and political engagement - to the Russian situation. But this does not hold up. The poets responsible for experiments in early 20th-cent. poetry in Russia cover the political spectrum, from Tsvetaeva's White-Russian royalism, to Mandelstam's gradual separation from the regime, to the otherworldliness of Khlebnikov, to Mayakovsky's revolutionary commitment (I don't know enough about Kruchenyk's politics to speak about him). To argue that Brodsky returned to a pre-soviet formalism as a political move, simply does not jibe with the facts. The Brodskian model was neither literary conservatism nor political withdrawal. He did not "abstain" from collaborating : he was sent to a labor camp at the age of 24 for "social parasitism", and his case became a Russian cause celebre when the bizarre transcript of his trial was written down by Nadezhda Mandelstam and published in samizdat. He was eventually released after a storm of public protest, and forced into exile in the West.

Brodsky's poetry developed gradually, and draws on many, many sources. To describe its development as a "return" to pre-soviet aesthetics is a myth. As I wrote earlier in Ron's comment box, Brodsky's most immediate mentors were soviet-era poets (Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva), one of whom (Tsvetaeva) was a tremendous innovator and literary experimentalist.

But let's move on to the next part of Ron's statement : [Brodsky] "easily fell into the hands of the same sort of apparatchiks once he was able to come west". Ron bases the supposed irony at play here on the notion that the established poets who helped him on his arrival in the West (most prominently, Auden) were somehow similar in social position and function to the officials in the Soviet government who deemed him "social parasite" and sent him to prison. Now it helps to have some knowledge of the particulars of Brodsky's trial & conviction in order to understand the full absurdity of Ron's comparison. There are a number of web sources available on that trial : here's one. But what he is implying is that literary figures & publishing organs of the West - those which helped Brodsky find a job, translated his work, helped make it known - were in fact equivalent in some way to the punitive organs of soviet repression : the ministers of propaganda, the censors, the jailers, etc. Without such an equivalence, there is no "irony".

This claim is a reading of literary history and politics which is so extreme, as to represent a kind of absurd, anachronistic soviet propaganda.

But let's move on to the next sentence: "An even greater irony – the new critical roots behind Brodsky’s later School o’ Quietude friends could be traced back¹ to the Russian Formalists & their principle source of inspiration, old “Cloud in Trousers” Mayakovsky himself."

Here we get into some inner workings of Ron's literary genealogy. It goes something like this : Brodsky's new Western friends were part of the School of Quietude camp; the SoQ has its roots in the New Criticism; NC has its roots in Russian Formalism; RF's principle source of "inspiration" was Mayakovsky. QED : the "father" of SoQ is really Mayakovsky! Brodsky's new "apparatchik" pals were really descended from the poet they reject (for his soviet affiliations)! Oh my, how ironic!

This is an example of a sort of idee fixe, which obsessively threads its pseudo-logical needle, without seeing the pattern of facts which contradict it.
What if:
1) Mayakovsky did not "inspire" the literary scholars who called themselves Russian Formalists - but that, rather, he was one among many of their literary objects of study?
2) The New Criticism was not some kind of genetic outgrowth of Russian Formalism, but rather a set of American critical theories & practices, which drew on RF among many other sources?
3) Ron's "School of Quietude" is not descended genetically from NC, but is rather a polemical grab-bag label applied to many kinds of contemporary poetry - including, for example, vast amounts of verse modelled on Lowell and the Confessionals - a poetics developed in direct opposition to the precepts of New Criticism?
4) Brodsky's main friends and mentors - Auden, Lowell, Walcott - practiced various modes and styles deeply at variance with the supposedly a-political, aesthetically self-contained modes promoted by the New Criticism? And, for that matter, deeply at odds with the practices Ron impugns as SoQ?

The fact is, all these "what ifs" are well-founded. There is a lot of evidence to support the historical truth of each one of them. Thus, Ron's interpretation of Brodsky's & Mayakovsky's literary-historical meaning for us seems to be based more on theory than on fact, on fantasy than on history. Thus the rationale for these "ironies" evaporates. We are left with a tendentious, mean-spirited complaint about a new statue for Brodsky, a quintessential Petersburg poet, being erected in his home town - from which he was exiled for life. After his forced removal to the West, he never saw his homeland (or his parents) again.


something mini-medieval from The Grassblade Light :


I built a way-too-delicate
ship-in-a-bottle and threw it
into the sea. Was it Lucky
or Sophie – or only

Titanic ox taught to float
too soon toward no one?
A wheel was borne
down to the delta (a

paddle-wheeler, lazy
catamaroon) into New
Orleans, like an ark of J
or some Degas

Isaac molded for gargoyle
atop Notre Dame. Soil-
heavy, a thrown-back

blue-gill forehead-
figured she-Marie or
Rust & Rosie O'Green
maybe – a Marian, sad-

happy-again at the
cap-tall pen-arcadia
turkey-shoot. A florid,
a rapt – windjimmirror.

Some medieval mother
wounded by arrows. Your
forged seventh to the fourth is
one loft-angle-barn green anchor.

... in the last pages of Stubborn, the "voice" of "Henry's father" suddenly breaks in for the first time. He talks about "going to his chamber" in Jerusalem.

Now this is a nod toward a very famous scene in Shakespeare, which you will have to hunt down for yourself. Happy Candlemas Day.
... bringing me to the diagram with which I began the previous post.

What might a "neo-medieval" reading of Stubborn Grew/The Rose (Forth of July) involve?

ut pictura poiesis. Most of my long poems have paintings all through them. (My mother is an artist - I grew up with the smell of turpentine & canvases.)

Think of poetry as occupying a middle ground between painting and the unrepresentable (God's name, Simone Weil's "decreation"). Ekphrasis : in two directions at once.

Chinese characters/brush strokes.

Stubborn begins and ends with "J". (Bluejay : the bird, the man; Juliet, Jonah ["dove", sister-dove], Julie, July, Jubilee, Jerusalem...)

"J", the letter, comes from "i", iota, jot, yhod : the smallest letter of the Hebrew script, maybe going back to Egyptian/Phoenician pictograph for "hand" or "arm". In Hebrew, it's the 10th letter, the smallest letter (jot or tittle), a little dot or black wing-stroke or swirl. A J-swirl.

The whole poem can be understood as an ekphrasis-expansion from the letter J. (When I was beginning to write it, I was heavily influenced by a particular Melville study, titled Game of Creation, by Viola Sachs, which goes into the scriptorial letter-symbolism deeply encrypted into Moby Dick.) A Book of J.

This practice is maybe a new-old kind of neo-medieval classicism : in which the individual imagination is not stifled by dogma, but tempered by the necessary impossibility of representing the Invisible, the Unspeakable.
some hobo thoughts on "neo-medievalism" :


poetry + painting

natural vision

Nicolas of Cusa, or Nicolas Cusanus, the 15th-cent. philosopher/theologian, is a good psychopomp for neo-medievalism. A liminal figure : both medieval mystic and renaissance humanist, and not quite either. (See poem posted a couple days ago.)

The notion of God's incomprehensibility, un-representability, was curiously empowering, rather than limiting. Like a precursor of Vico, Cusanus imagined a "human universe" : all our conceptions & images of the divine are irrevocably, foolishly human. Thus his doctrine of "Learned Ignorance".

We cannot "represent" God, yet we are (through the Incarnation) God's representatives in human form. Thus God, for both Cusanus & St. Paul, is paradoxical : the "conjunction of opposites" (Paul's "cross").

In neo-medievalism, the confidence of (a somewhat absurd) faith resolves the dilemmas which dogged the poets of Neo-Classicism, Romanticism, Victorianism, Modernism, Postmodernism... how so? Because it's a faith like that of Cusanus : it sanctions, rather than denies, the human imagination.

The Romantic poets tended (on a sort of scale from middling to extreme) to exalt and triumph in the human Imagination and the human Self. The Victorians & the Moderns tended to hedge that triumph in - with irony, doubt, despair, scepticism, science, or dogmatic religion.

The Neo-medievals (I must find a better name for them : perhaps Groundhogs?) recognize that there is no dogmatic (or artistic, or philosophical) formula to resolve the dialectic between the human and the divine, between Self and Other. It is a paradox; a conjunction; a symbiosis; a ping-pong.

The self is always in dialogue : the "son" with the "father", the body with the soul. A Person is a relationship. Candlemas is Groundhog Day. More paradox!

(p.s. : I understand, & I truly sympathise, with those for whom this all seems like meaningless or worse-than-meaningless religious mumbo-jumbo mystification. But ever since my "Shakespeare thing", I have lived not only in a "human" universe, but a universe suffused with Personality.)
somebody at the bookstore told me that today is Candlemas. Midwinter day.

HG Poetics : Candlemas

Groundhog Poetics : Groundhog Day

This is the day that, in prehistoric times, little cave children dressed up as groundhogs and dug little caves for themselves inside the big family cave. Just at sunset, they would hop out and yell "prolegomena!" - which was the origin of both Candlemas and epic poetry.
Groundhog Poetics : the inverse of HG poetics.

HG poetics is about the obsessions & obsessional behavior of verbalist HG.

Groundhog poetics is a projection of these obsessions onto Everybody Poet.

HG Poetics is elitist; Groundhog Poetics is egalitarian. HG Poetics is like Chartres Cathedral; Groundhog Poetics is like the bus terminal.

Will ever the twain meet shall?

Check back in 6 weeks.