Now I need somebody to resurrect me.

The "eye-in-hand" is one of the most ancient visual symbols in North America, from the mound-builder peoples of the Mississippi bottomlands. Here's the opening of "Palm Sunday":


Limping, climbing like a Lazarus
from the well of amor, you wave goodby.
Stigmatized and astigmatic, she.
Passing beyond alarums, carnivals

in the distance, Mardi Gras
in the bent mirror, marvelous,
far-off now, larmes
des choses

your worn shoes.
Hand waves.

A valentine arrives from prison:
a feather; a blue iris
enveloped in glass;
a tiny lead pellet. Anon.

The thickness of the lens slows light:
ask Lena how it's done, Einstein.
Absolute zero, swimming, sun.
Blackstone here - was all for nought.

Like an arrow like a grain of sand
through your heart, you carry it
and live (livid, limpid, lit,
littoral, ghost). Like a wave

in your hand, the eye turns inward,
a wave diving into itself; and a gnomon
recedes toward noon, toward
everyone. You keep your word.
I feel like I took a small conceptual leap of my own yesterday, with the remarks on Harriet, responding to Reginald Shepherd. The idea that the poem is only fully actualized in the "big outside" of the public stage (not necessarily a literal stage, but a performance nonetheless), in the "gray area" between art & politics.

Of course a poem can have a perennial life as a text, and be reborn every time it's read, and appear re-shaped again & again... Mandelstam's idea of the "letter in the bottle" to an unknown reader. But maybe the normative aim or trajectory of the poem is directly into the social Now of its time and place. It might be a combination of these two aspects, ie. a renovation or rebirth of a former crystallization; but I think this idea of poetic actualization on the "stage" of the present is important, as it relates to to another idea which I 've followed at various times on this blog, ie. to emphasize a distinction between prose literature, and poetry's embodiment, the human performance of language in the Now of the present, time's "pleroma". The poem's (Aristotelian) form achieves its ontological telos - it flowers - in this shared "gray area", the common verbal/social/political space of its time.

"Time flowers on the lips of whispered clay." Opening line of Forth of July.

& with what kind of "Now" might my own writing have to do? I'm thinking of the "gray area" of the great Jasper Johns show at the Met in NY, which I saw last weekend. Johns often gestures toward poets, especially Hart Crane. There are the images of the hand-print on a kind of pendulum or radius, as if reaching up from deep under water. I've thought of my own long poems as partly an attempt to perform a kind of ghost dance or resurrection ceremony, for Crane in particular - to play Hart Crane redivivus. (& did something parallel with the "Henry" of John Berryman, in the Island Road sonnets.) An illustration to one of the chapters of Grassblade Light, "Palm Sunday" (which is set in the New Orleans/Gulf area), unwittingly echoes Johns's image in this respect.

Here's an article by Thomas Epstein about Alexander Vvedensky, one of the OBERIU poets. Turns out he was interested in Nicholas Cusanus.
Happy Leap Day


...another contribution to the Harriet comment-burble...

"Dear Reginald,

In the course of your argument here, you assert three points which are pretty close to truisms, but which I also agree with : 1) the NAP anthology has been credited with a political "progressivism" which was not really so advanced; 2) politics and aesthetics are not equatable, even in one & the same artist; 3) negativity for its own sake is pointless, & worse.

Nevertheless, these points don't seem to really address the crux of the position laid out by A. Mlinko and others in previous posts etc. In order to grasp what this position is, one has to be willing to acknowledge a gray area, between art and politics. Let's provisionally designate this as "cultural politics". Keeping in mind the tradiitonal notions of the role of poetry as not only an art form but also a didactic act, a form of education (cf. Milton, Dante, Sidney, etc. etc. - let's compare this role loosely to the idea of "applied science". Whenever scientific theory & discovery are applied in the real world, there are consequences in the realm of "cultural politics" (the forms of action and interaction in which a cultural engages). This same function applies, perhaps to a lesser extent, in the realm of the arts. Artistic creation has social consequences.

Here is Wallace Stevens ("Of Modern Poetry"):

It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice. It has
To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage. . .

If we take Stevens seriously, we have to think of poetry as in some respect an embodied, performative, and rhetorical art form. The aesthetic form of the poem does not, contra the New Critics, reside in a self-contained textual receptacle. The form of the poem achieves its realization, its actuality, in some form of social (& perhaps actual) "stage".

I would call this gray area, generally, the sphere of cultural politics. The space of social dialogue and shared language, where, in Stevens' words, "the imagination's latin" is compounded with "the lingua franca et jocundissima".

Using this concept of the "gray area" as context, let's look again at A. Mlinko's argument, which was, at least in part, to point up a historical contrast between the social-professional matrix of poetry today and that of 50 years ago, with the NAP anthology as emblematic of that difference.

I would, again, support that general perspective - since I think the aesthetic choices of the NAP poets did indeed put them "outside" the sphere of what was considered the normative discourse of traditional poetry at that time; and that one of the signal motives for this direction lay in the poets' desire to "learn the speech of the place", to "face the men" and "meet the women" of the time, to "construct a new stage".

And I think this does have to be contrasted with the contemporary situation, of which perhaps your own position is a pretty good exemple : the assumption is that poetry is self-sufficient and somewhat detached from politics, simply because the high level of professionalism supposedly structuring the field allows its practitioners to absorb and comprehend both social theory and all forms of technical innovation - so that such notions as "outside" or "avant-garde" become irrelevant. Stevens' position, in contrast, emphasizes a very high level of contingency in the poetic process, since the poem does not actually achieve its form, its aesthetic actuality, until it has been in some sense "enacted" in the public sphere. And we are not talking about the public sphere of the university or the profession, here, but of the sphere of "the people" of "the time". Outside, in the big outside."
In the realm of poetry (& maybe other realms) I find it difficult to balance and reconcile truth & beauty, the didactic & the aesthetic, the legislative/executive & the playful/imaginative, the prophetic & the poetic...

Look at people like Pound, Olson... ambitious-serious "alpha male" epic types. Avatars of the will-to-order, the will to govern, to dominate, to rule. (Yeats's "king of cats".) Though I don't consider myself very alpha, I feel I've muddled along in some similar deep swamps. Hence my affection for figures closer to the "artist" side of this line (Hart Crane, Stevens). Forth of July is really a playful jab toward the crystallization of a "national epic", drawing on contrary models (like Crane, Berryman, Mandelstam, etc.). [ (Will anybody ever notice what I've been doing here?) ]

from one perspective, the sane & ethical approach, as an artist, would be to maintain a strict detachment, to offer an impersonal mirror... from another perspective this seems impossible, an illusion : we are already caught up and involved emotionally & intellectually with the "materials"...

the whole issue of the poet as "unacknowledged legislator" stems from the fact that all our communal social constructs are rooted, at least to some degree, in the imagination itself... or is this an attitude (for an artist anyway) of foolish, over-reaching pride? Is the substance of reality firm & structured & prior to our conceptions about it?

(Another aspect of this is that much social, didactic, political poetry is not really very poetic. It's prose dressed up as poetry. Of course it can be very effective just like that. But it doesn't re-imagine, re-create the cosmos, the way the great epics do. It lacks the orphic fictional-poetic power of Virgil, Dante, Milton, Shakespeare... - the regal sceptre of the imagination - Mandelstam's "baton". I suppose the sceptre has been passed to the novelists, the scientists, the philosophers, the "critical theorists"...)

Old puzzles... this crux perhaps marks the difference between the medieval, the Renaissance & the modern mentalities...

Maybe that's one reason I like the philosophical writings of Nicholas of Cusa so much. For Cusanus, our knowledge reaches its limit in puzzles & paradoxes. God is "the conjunction of opposites". He acknowledges the source of all order & creation in God; at the same time he asserts that all our concepts of God are just that, human constructs, "conjectures", that in fact our whole sensible, knowable reality is a conjectural human construct, an artifice of the mind...

I thought this morning that the resolution of this puzzle or paradox lies in an understanding of the nature of divine love. If "God is Love", as the epistle of John has it, and if Love is a kind of binding embrace of the Other which is at the same time a renunciation, a self-giving to the other, a state of service or servanthood - then it's in the light of this kind of Love that we can imagine another Biblical concept, ie. "perfect freedom".

Imagine a divine nature which wants to create a cosmos of "perfect freedom", because this desire is rooted in love, and love's deepest motive is to "set free". Then this divine nature would of necessity have to withdraw, relinquish control and dominion on some level. Of course this does not necessarily entail indifference (the remote, the clockwork God). "Selfless-love-without-indifference", then, is in itself a kind of incomprehensible paradox. Incomprehensibility, even absurdity, of a kind we meet with in ordinary life (cf. the parable of the Good Samaritan).

I guess I'm simply recycling some old, old via negativa notions going back to Pseudo-Dionysius & Byzantine theology & long before (Plato on love, etc.).

But these notions seem to be essential to any integration of order & freedom, of cosmos & chance, of medieval and renaissance, of theology & humanism. A figure of paradox like Cusanus appears at the cusp of this historic shift (between medieval & modern). He has a mind fascinated with invention and creative freedom. His writings are playful intellectual-philosophical games, conceptual inventions.

But it seems to me the crux of it all is this fusion of the will-to-love ("good will") with the idea of "perfect freedom". Maybe this is the nexus where the gift of artistic detachment & inner freedom rhymes with a more "sober" concept of necessity, reality, history, fact, the moral law, governance, political & juris-prudence, etc.


Poetry is embodied speech, language brought close to ordinary conversation and then spun wildly around it. Embodied, embodied, not simply collected, collated, sorted through mandarin effete distortion-filters... thus these readings/performances last night offer a kind of test - a sort of partial & preliminary measure (& not the only one, by far) - of the poetry's substance, reality... (the real test residing in the hidden performance, maybe never actually heard out loud, of the poem's composition).

Mikhail Aizenberg an architect by profession, and you see in his critical writings this constant tension between poetry and rhetoric, between poetry and mechanical, learned, imitation-discourse (the "Leningrad School" his emblem for the false turn toward the latter) - poetry having some kind of inner form, the creative/intellectual/emotional/sensible gesture - a shape, an architecture, in-forming the language.

(Thus the interest in Vvedensky & the OBERIU poets' demolition of everyday speech & literary language etc. Maybe that all goes back to the Byzantine theological crisis-complex, the tense ambivalence between iconophilia & iconoclasm, between the symbol (word) and what it represents.)

"The body is the temple of the Spirit."

For Aizenberg, it seems, ordinary speech & ordinary experience offer the paradoxical, counter-intuitive substance or acid test for the authenticity of the inner unspoken architecture of the gesture... this shared communal language-space being the place where all the human motives for composition are integrated & achieve actuality.
A lot of energy down at Tazza last night, big poetry reading (10 poets in an hour & a half) presented by Mairead Byrne. Some real talent, youngsters for the most part. John Cayley, visiting Brit, read interesting translations from contemporary Chinese. One kid read a translation of Kharms, and then his own remarkababble OBERIU-style stuff. Ran into Forrest Gander again, & spoke to Michael Magee. Told Mairead my maternal gr-gr-grandfather came from Dublin, which is true. She made a note of it. Played harmonica again with blues-guy RISD prof Mark Miloff.

Thoroughly enjoyed getting off the machine & out of the library.


I'm something of a musician. I've played various instruments since age 5. I'm alert, somewhat, to the physical texture of sound, the quality of sound, and to music as physical gesture (hands & feet playing keyboards, strings).

This filters into my sense of what poetry is or should be. Not noise, not the banal, oppressive, complacent discourse, verbiage. In fact, the opposite of all that.

The dramatic moment, the entrance of measured sound. (Yeats : "Speech after long silence...") Part of the rhetoric of poetry's specific power & difference.

(responding to JL's post of today)
Also reading this great anthology of the OBERIU poets (Russia, 1920s & 30s) - which is giving me a clearer sense of what Aleksandr Skidan is up to. I will have to write some more about Skidan here.

From the little I've read so far, the OBERIU poets - Vvedensky, Kharms - are much more than comic absurdists. Vvedensky displays a near-mystical skepticism about language, which seems to have roots way back in early Byzantine-Orthodox theology (though there's nothing overtly Christian or religious about it - he's conceptually, philosophically radical - a kind of extreme iconoclast).
(the section of Fontegaia posted yesterday is in part a response to a particular poem in Mikhail Aizenberg's book, Say Thank You.)
I suppose I was being foolish (again), over at Reginald Shepherd's Harriet post announcing his new anthology (Lyric Postmodernisms). Maybe even rude, to intrude on his publication announcement. The discussion (for me) was leaching over from other posts - one by Shepherd on the term "post-avant", another by Christian Bok on contemporary experiment (in response to Shepherd). Actually it was Bok's (re)formulation of some discussion by Shepherd & Paul Hoover - in which Bok summarizes Hoover's idea of a compromise, in current poetry, between postmodern experiment & tradition - that I was criticizing. Shepherd's new anthology seems (from its title & brief descriptions) to represent or illustrate some such compromise. (Bok himself suggests the limitations of such an idea - this compromise - & proposes something else, along the lines of multifarious simultaneous experiment - the "pan-avant".)

Anyway, I was being silly & provocative, using Shepherd's post the way I did. But I get irascible when I hear the term "postmodernism" too often.

& I was registering a protest of my own against this notion that today's cutting-edge & influential poets have found a way to blend postmodern concepts of language & subjectivity etc., with more traditional modes of lyric poetry.

Because actually I think the real new & radical step right now would be a rejection of the recent compositional & stylistic formulae - those which fixate on
20th-cent. notions of language, on language per se as the sole formal, structural material of poetry. I'm saying we go back to the Cranes : R.S. Crane's (& the Chicago School's) Aristotelian concepts of poetic form; Hart Crane's sense of the poem as a mute or silent gesture toward the unsayable.

But I've already explained all this. & the attack dogs are lurking. & the machinery of professional poetry prestige (in which, for the time being, I am not a player) must roll on.

It was gauche of me to add all this to the comment thread at Shepherd's publication announcement. & I owe it to him to actually read the new anthology, which I will do.

& yet I have to be silly, stupid & out-of-sync sometimes; that's part of this loser's game I'm playing.


Fontegaia moves on...


A tiny hunchback snail
inches forward, cased
in a spiral spinal house.
A full retreat, and final.

Simple curve, mushroom
cap, camouflaged ravine
of rugged oak. Hidden in
eye-plane, like throaty gloom

of turtle dove (grey
breast against gray evening
stone). Gradual leavening
of steady rain. Bend in the sky.

Rustle of Indian foot in forest.
Breeze, or winding flute-path.
Blurred cascade or purple casket-
flower; spectrum-honeycomb (at rest).

The bow drawn taut, a beaded
level creaks in rain. Almond
houseboat croons -
crowns - swoons (ceded

to sword). A unison
of ewe and eye, oui, one Friday
- all in a pre-dawn naval play,
a little ark of lincoln-logos. Done.

And carried on her back, a moon
gone down. Beneath the earth.
Emancipation lips come forth,
sing like humpback whale, soon, soon.


I'm going to be away from the computer for a couple days. See you when.
Another comment sent into Harriet today (at Reginald Shepherd's Lyric Postmodernisms post):

"Such "comment-box interventions" as mine, here on Reginald's patient long-suffering Harriet post, are easy to dismiss.

Nevertheless I hope some poets will consider the implications of what I'm saying.

The big trends in 20th-century linguistic theory and philosophy have assumed as axiomatic that language is not only a system (either a system of order, as with the structuralists, or, as with the post-structuralists, a system of chaos or "difference"), but a system (either a logos or an a-logos) which is the actual substance & ratio of reality, identity, and literature.

And the prevailing currents in what is known as postmodernist, innovative, post-avant, and language poetries have taken up these theories and assumptions, and have made their literary consequences a hallmark of their style - that which differentiates them from the common herd of traditional poets.

Now if it's possible to think of language in a completely different way - as primarily a human creation, a tool of communication which we invented - akin to other forms of non-verbal (& non-human) gesture, signals and communication - then we have a problem with the theoretical obsession with language as self-regulating system. And we have a problem with a trend in poetics which emphasizes the dispossession of human invention, will & intent, in favor of the aleatory workings of socially- or internally-generated verbal materials.

It also strikes me as curious that 50 years ago, a group of influential literary scholars, poets & critics - the so-called Chicago School (R.S. Crane, Elder Olson & others) - had already analyzed the basic problems involved with the 20th-century fixation on language, and the concomitant notion of the poem as primarily a verbal artifact. And they outlined an Aristotelian counter-proposal to this dominant New Critical trend (which was, in effect, turned inside-out & re-applied by the Language Poets) - one which focuses on the poem as an aesthetic whole, an intellectual-emotional gesture or form, which is not reducible to its literal text, but is primarily an (aesthetic) ACTION, for which the text provides a kind of score.

I see the contemporary state of affairs (when poets & groups of poets glibly gather up such identifying markers at "postmodernist", "innovative", etc.) as somewhat similar to the situation which existed at the turn of the previous century, when Pound surveyed the landscape of versifying post-Victorians, and commented something to the effect that "they have no ground under 'em". "
Some very interesting essays by Mikhail Aizenberg, on (relatively) recent history of poetry in Russia, translated in a special issue of Russian Studies in Literature (vol. 32, spring 1996). Moscow has a special perspective on the Petersburg poets. Aizenberg has some very acute things to say about a poetry of "direct response" - really new poetry - as opposed to a poetry of Poetry (contemporaries so overshadowed and awed by the "four horsemen" - Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Pasternak, Mandelstam - & Brodsky). He writes how the latter actually becomes a kind of "narrative" of the Tradition itself, which differs in kind from the immediate roots of lyric poetry (no matter how impoverished, banal, ordinary). Emphasizes that the zone where everything really important happens is in the interaction between everyday experience, ordinary speech, & the lyric impulse.

I'm paraphrasing mightily. Aizenberg (unlike myself) does not go in for windy discoursing, either - he talks very specifically about the poets around him & immediately before (most of them unknown to American readers).


Fontegaia, again... getting fairly wacky.


A ring of lakes, each lake
like a ring. Frigid, with a few
frigates. Sails full of airy
dew. What it was like.

The bond of a moon in eclipse
was guaranteed by magnets
according to the majestic
juryman (a Mr. Chips) -

like you or me, or more like
you, actually - like a ewe
or a vestryman, a vraie
, like Eweryman - well

liked (at least until last
Friday, as far as I know).
She sobbed into the micro
after they drug him to the hill

(a friggin' no-frill spiel
or spelling bee, sez).
And a tear, a few tears...
wells from the commonweal.

So the adventures of little Frisbee
followed a rapid ripple down
to Mirror Lake, sometime round
sundoom. And for you and me

what did it mean? You-me.
Like a hybridized horseshoe,
a lonely-pastured Disk-a-Do.
Awhish, a rue, awry, awhee...

(p.s. it appears JL was also writing about the moon last night (or this morning). The eclipse brought it so close, so 3-dimensional - rounding it out, a smooth little pearly pebble or old-fashioned clasp-button in the sky. Cold silver radiance, taking earth on board, the shadow of earth. Going underground. Hanging up there, not far away, a sort of aloof tear-drop, a sort of Frigga-Pieta of close-lipped mournful restraint, looking on.)
OK, have been tweaking the set-up... comment moderation should be in place... we'll see. I won't allow abusive ad hominem comments here. It's a waste of everybody's time.
Fontegaia, again...


Spindly oak, feet buried in grass.
Branches tense. Elbows drawn in.
Giacometti in rustling iron.
History's hinge-bolt (rasping hasp).

The grain grows out of lightning.
Downward, jaggedly careening
leaves like leather. Evening
parting of the ways, my

, they're whispering.
You don't know what it's like,
because mostly it's a weak
signal, mostly, you know.

Like a weak heartbeat. Erratic.
How we dreamed those days!
Just dream were we
. Frail
spooks, spectators, folk-

art mammals. It seeps
into the profile - the wind
mutters across its own
eye (lone cyclone). Clasps,

folded-under. Feathery flame
a-brimful of yearning -
remember how light it felt?
Like the rim of a balloon

about to burst...
and you were inside there,
a landed squire of oak and air.
Frisbee. King Whammo the First.


... excerpt from a further comment, sent as addendum to Reginald Shepherd's Lyric Postmodernism post at Harriet:

"For the Chicago critics, a poem is an aesthetic SHAPE, organized primarily by plot and dramatic action, for which the language is only one of several contributing factors. I want to transpose this notion to apply to poetry in general, by positing this notion of the poet's mute GESTURE as the organizing principle of the poem's aesthetic form. Everything involved in this gesture works toward the integrity and fulfillment of Crane's "impossible" new word (which again, is not so much a verbal word, as the sum total of the aesthetic-communicative gesture).

I would say that Ashbery is the great American exemplar of the poet as de-centered self offering poetry as unaccountable discourse. This kind of practice fuses seamlessly with postmodern theoretical concepts of the status of the subject, the power of language-as-system (or language-as-differance), etc. It is this whole approach I am calling into question, with these two notions of 1) language as primarily a human invention, a tool of human agency; and 2) poetry as rooted in mime and mute communicative gesture."


Robert Archambeau writes a thoughtful extended response to the blither-blather on "post-avant" over at the Harriet site (Reginald Shepherd's posts).

I tend to see the negative side of what Robert's calling "negative legislation" (the contemporary poet's refusal to judge and emphasis on the ambivalence & waywardness of language). To me it often feels like a cop-out, to the extent of denying human agency in the creation and use of language. That's one reason I'm being provocative myself (see the comment on Shepherd's anthology Lyric Postmodernisms).

But I'm not merely being negative about the negative. I'd like to replace the ubiquitous 20th-cent. fixation on "language" (as system : as the currency, the substance, the organizing matrix, of poetry) with an emphasis on silence, gesture, mime. Hart Crane's statement should be its motto: the poem is

"a single, new word, never before spoken, and impossible to actually enunciate".

A poem is, in this sense, the sum of the poet's strategic gestures toward something never-before-said or -sayable. It is absolutely uncategorizable according to any prior linguistic grid, and the poet bears complete responsibility for - is the human agent of - the final & efficient cause of - all its meanings and reverberations.


JL on the Harriet Blog Lot, where I have been squawking. Get ready for the sea-change, sez St. George HG.

Reading Mikhail Aizenberg's Say Thank You. Like it a lot. Intriguing Mandelstamian under-overtones.

A great American exemplar of the sense of poetry I tried to outline in previous post is, of course, that valentine friend of George Henry Gould - whom Crane apostrophizes here as the "Silencer":

To Emily Dickinson

You who desired so much - in vain to ask -
Yet fed you hunger like an endless task,
Dared dignify the labor, bless the quest -
Achieved that stillness ultimately best,

Being, of all, least sought for: Emily, hear!
O sweet, dead Silencer, most suddenly clear
When singing that Eternity possessed
And plundered momently in every breast;

- Truly no flower yet withers in your hand.
The harvest you descried and understand
Needs more than wit to gather, love to bind.
Some reconcilement of remotest mind -

Leaves Ormus rubyless, and Ophir chill.
Else tears heap all within one clay-cold hill.
Here's another comment sent to Harriet (this one to Reginald Shepherd's post on his new anthology):

"Postmodernism is over.

It's time to move on.

The era of the de-centered self, of the self as a function of language, of reality as a product of language, of the poem as an intervention or crossing of language processes, of the poem as a compromise between lyric and alterity, of language as objective material substance, of the poem as language experiment, etc. ....... - all these things are over and done with.

The low-brow opposition to these formations - ie. the movement for poetry as oral expression, the poem as performance, the poem as rebellion & anarchy against language & culture, the poem as joke, scandal, obscenity, debasement, etc ...... - these phenomena will always be with us, among young people who aren't very much interested in learning how to read or write.

The future of poetry is represented by something happening in between these two tendencies. This something occurs wherever poets remove themselves from the grid of 20th-century philosophy and linguistic theory and poetics. Neither human identity and subjectivity, nor the art of poetry, are simply equatable with language or discourse. The new poetic humanism insists that language is a product of a human creative act - language is a tool invented by human beings. Rather than being mysterious functions of language itself, humans are the makers of language. Language itself is part of the larger realm of gesture and communication. Art is the mute human gesture toward reality and feeling. Poetry is grounded in mime - muteness - mimesis. This muteness envelops the substance of both human subjectivity and objective actuality. Art and poetry are not a swerve away from identity and actuality, not a confession of language's inability to mean anything; instead poetry and art are a human gesture toward the substance of actuality and meaning and feeling. The best poets are focused very intently on the details of this situation (actuality), rather than eliding and sliding away from it based on deluded 20th-cent. notions of language."
Another bit from the comment stream over at Harriet. This one sent to Christian Bok's recent entry ("Late Past the Post").

"R.S. Crane's re-presentation of Aristotle argues that the 20th-cent. critical focus on poem-as-linguistic-discourse is misplaced. Christian Bok's emphasis, on the poem as linguistic research and language game, seems to be an example of that focus carried to a logical conclusion.

I am suggesting, to the contrary, that the language of the poem is always the shadow or carapace of a larger, unspoken (because literally unspeakable) aesthetic form or impression - something like the conceptual/affective impression harbored by people returning home from the theater. We receive a similar impression, an image of completeness, from lyric poems, albeit on a smaller scale. The lasting effect of the work of art is not simply the experimental result of the language per se, but is an effect of this unspoken gesture - toward or away from meaning, toward or away from feeling, toward or away from the reader in person.

It seems to me that poetic language, curiously, makes an inward turn toward this state of muteness or mime (mimesis), toward the inexplicable - and this turning itself is what radiates poetry's uncanny magnetism."


Have been inching my way through Nabokov's short novel, The Eye, in Russian & English.

There is an Alp of yelping scholarship on Nabokov's pyrotechnical high-lit brew-haha. But I'd bet there are more layers to be uncovered. Like his political side. You note how, in his various introductions, he'll assert vociferously how disinterested he is in social & political problems; then, often in the same paragraph if not sentence, he'll make some acid comment about the Soviet regime, or about Freudianism, which he considers the Grand Poohbah of Western narcissism. Methinks he doth protest too much - usually a sign there's something going on.

He spent 15-20 years in the little exile-emigre communities in Germany etc. The Eye & other novels portray that milieu, mixing starry-eyed idealists with low Gogolesque comic schemers and cads. Much is made of ghosts, Ouija boards, spiritualism, life-in-death, death-in-life, dreams & reality... the stuff of frustrated culture cut off from its roots. Someone could do a curious cross-cultural comparison between Nabokov & the Native American Ghost Dance societies. There is a suffocating atmosphere, in Nabokov, of a mirror-world, drained of its vital connection to reality. It's possible that the reality Nabokov is representing as missing, is the dream of a reborn Russia. Both his spooky fictions, and the Ghost Dance ceremonies, are haunted vigils - full of spiritual hangings-about, possible (messianic) return.

(Don't forget : VN's birthday was April 23rd. St. George's Day. St. George, the slayer of red dragons - patron saint of both England and Russia. His own father was a prominent liberal politician, assassinated while giving a speech.)
Happy V-Day in Byzantium. & again I say, Happy V-Day. V-Nd.


The silent sleepy giant (Oblomov?) shifts in his dream. Outline, profile, silhouette (missing cut-out cut-up?). A sculptural form. Mime, drama. Mute gesture (incised on mossy vernal tomb).

Paul Fry's "ostensive" art - only with a trick ending.
Written in a comment string over at Harriet (under Christian Bok's post of today):

"I have a problem with the substitution of "experiment", to designate what a poet is up to, for the more modest "art" or "craft" (or "goofing around").

Also, I disagree with what seems to be a very classic Modern/Saussurian objectification and fetishization of "language" as both the means and end of the poet's task. To follow this road - as both the New Critics and the Language Poets did - tends to lead poetry into a sort of Russian-doll labyrinth of solipsism.

Aristotle - and the Chicago Critics - suggest, on the other hand, that poetry is an art of affective/intellectual GESTURE : and that the verbal texture itself is only one part of a larger, & more (critically) elusive, aesthetic whole."

& this was written in the comment string of another recent post (by Reginald Shepherd) :

"I see the "battle" in contemporary poetry as primarily a theoretical dispute among poets, not really political. This is MY battle, anyway.

I think poets took a wrong turn when they bought into the whole stream of philological theory, beginning with Saussure, I guess, down through Deconstruction - which posits language as a kind of objective phenomenon, entity, thing, ambience, system of differences, etc. etc. & what have you - rather than primarily a tool with which human beings do specific things (like pointing & communicating & describing).

The trend to identify poetry itself with language-as-system or -entity is the basic wrong turn, taken by New Critics, Postmods & Language Poets. Poetry, as I see it, is a human art, primarily involving intellectual/affective GESTURE (as I posted over on C. Bok's latest entry on this site). Language per se is only one element of a larger aesthetic whole, as Aristotle and the Chicago Critics, among others, have emphasized. I've written essays about this.

I've been "battling" for a long time in favor of a sense of poetry which underlines PARTICULARITY, SPECIFICITY, HISTORICAL ACTUALITY, HUMANISM, EMBODIMENT, PERSONAL IDENTITY, REALISM, REFERENTIALITY, DEFINITIVE ACCOUNTABILITY.... all those actual consequences of an art of indication and gesture - which tend to be "elided" when art is subsumed to some framing epistemological-linguistic "system"."
Thinking a little more about encounter with Petersburg poet A. Skidan.

As we were walking to the car that would take him to read at Wesleyan, he was limping. Had stubbed his toe badly at guest house here in Prov. WC Williams' "the tragic foot" - the goat-limp of the ancient Dionysians. Poet descends into depths - catabasis, or kenosis. Skidan seems like a strong poet who will come up for air.

His poetry is more sublime than beautiful. Violent contrasts, absurd moments, visions of squalor & estrangement.

From a theoretical perspective, Skidan strikes me as a young poet somewhat crippled by postmodern critique. The very fashionable cultural zeitgeist of the day is a fusion of literary theory and left politics. Post-structuralism emphasizes relativism, the dispersal of the subject, the deconstruction of traditional social (power) structures. In personal terms, this position facilitates either the eliding of a privileged background (what got you into college to read those theorists in the first place), or the dismantling of established power relations, in favor of previously-marginalized social groups.

Poetry under this theoretical aegis cannot assert any kind of normative social relations, but only point to their possibility through contrast. Thus Skidan's angst-tinged sublimity (ironically, quite influenced stylistically by Eliot). His poetry is akin to his political perspective - at least based upon the superficial glimpse of it I received during his visit. He displayed a firm rejection of the current Russian power elite, and a demand for human rights and social justice; but his mode of achieving these goals also includes an antagonism toward capitalism and a kind of communitarian impulse, which would unite networks of progressive artists & poets in a kind of renovation of the "samizdat" underground - based in part on the new media & publishing technologies. A kind of New Left new wave.

This is heroic, but seems to me somewhat of an illusion. From the perspective of this non-Russian outsider, anyway (certainly nowhere near the same league of informed participants as is Skidan!) - human rights in Russian society depend more than anything else upon a re-orientation and reform of their justice system. This will clearly only happen along with parallel democratic reforms of their politics. And I don't see this happening based on another wave of collectivism, sponsored by culture workers and the theoretical left. More than anything, Russia needs, I would think, a re-orientation toward protection of the rights of individuals, including propery rights.

I admit this is just the uninformed off-the-cuff reaction of an American - one who would be, I suppose, in American poetry circles, considered pretty reactionary himself.


Reading Skidan's Red Shifting, now. Very interesting. Kind of existentialist adventure poems, edgy. Poet as peripatetic screw-up. Lots of sharp scenes, acid wit. Cerebral, but the opposite of "meditative".

He told me the other day he's focused lately on different kinds of rhyme & parallelism - but this volume seems pretty much free verse. We talked about the element of improv in composition.

And want to look at the OBERIU anthology published a couple years ago.
Sensing the contrast in stance & method between Skidan & myself... wonder what listeners in audience last night made of that, if anything.

My older-fellow, genial, maybe complacent "be of good cheer" attitude. A poetics obsessed with pleroma, fulfillment, the poetry as sufficient unto the day and unto itself, the poem as an adequate response to experience, reality.... my cerebral Hart-Cranian vowel-sounding... the voracious hunger for completion, wholeness, unity, affirmation in danger (paradoxically) of draining the drama out of poetry...

In contrast to the younger-man Skidan's poetry of angst, pain & struggle. Literature's absurdity, its wrongness, its in-adequacy... by which & in which it reflects actuality (of suffering, violence, stupidity, futility & struggle) perhaps more accurately... interesting how (in talking to him over the weekend) TS Eliot was major influence. Eliot, the anti-Crane.

This irresolvable binary, an oscillation. Poetry that remains above or unmoved by suffering & experience is really cold & dead, mummified. But then, the poem itself always has the last word.... the subtle poison of long-livingness. We aim to please... and if you don't find pleasure in the poem itself, what's the point? The question is, is it really alive, or just cryogenically maintained (in the library...)

Of course another factor in all this (with respect to me, anyway) is the messianic, Holy-Roller element. I say "be of good cheer" in a metaphysical, maybe apocalyptic sense. & that utopian fire really is in all these Russians, including Skidan - even as it's deflected through hopeless phase shifters. Russians, maybe especially Petersburgers, are very prone to the messianic/apocalyptic mentality. Another thing that links me with the Russians (beside Minnesota birch trees). I'm something of an (enervated, tired) yurodivy (holy fool).
Winding down from last night's reading with Aleksandr Skidan, held at Brown's Slavic Dept. Good turnout. Forrest Gander brought his translation class. Mairead Byrne was there, too. Various intriguing Slavists listened in.

A. Skidan a serious writer, well-spoken about his aims & interests. (Looks much younger than his 42 yrs. His features bear a striking resemblance to a young (& healthy) Marsden Hartley, if you can imagine that.) Out of the absurdist/avant-garde/activist wing of Russian poetry - Arkadii Dragomoschenko a mentor & influence, the Mandelstam of "Verses on the Unknown Soldier", OBERIU... he mentioned some other figures who are important to him, but I didn't catch the names. He likes to play with "theory", deconstruction, disassemblng & reconfiguring famous works (Pushkin's poem "The Prophet", for ex.). But there is a strong emotional intensity & emotional/dramatic connection with real people & events underneath the games. Ferocious, ironic; awareness of pain & squalor. Hardship edge of life in Russia. Strong antagonism to Putin & oligarchy/mafia - he is politically active, sees need to revive some of the Samizdat spirit & networks, in a new form.


s'more Fontegaia...


Ash Wednesday came soon this year -
not long after St. Bridget's Day,
when surly serpents lurking in iced clay
peer out (green channels in the rusted

drear). Hobo tippling his jug of Ripple
leans into his memories athwart
antitheses - his Hippocrene descant -
gold and silver, Danae and Diana, supple

blood and water, water and oil, oil
for anointed blood
... all in a sunny
stream from Mendelssohn (O cheerful
well) where Frisbee hovers over soil

(a wee vain Finn) and a dove dives in
between hostile armies (haughty cavalry
awash up to the crest in hawkish rivalry).
Where'd she come from? Dunno, Jonah.

Weird. Where sheets of magpies laid
in mid-USA are made, unmade under
the rumble of a vagrant iron roadstead -
some dream-horse's mercurial-curial

cascade - fiery bath of negatives
(forsaken, ill-starred refugees
of twenty frigid centuries).
Here is where the serpent lives

(bronze trickle of Gorgon hair)
and rises quivering like early sun
reflected from that glancing song's
(grey-eyed Athenian) strange lyre.
The (ancient) idea mentioned a couple days ago, ie. Love = Cosmic Constant (ground of all trust & good will - unchanging principle of steadfast devotion) - this is certainly reflected in Shakespeare's sonnet. It's also reflected in the numerical center of Forth of July :


As the whirring shape of a hummingbird
like a miniature bluejay overhead or
bee suspended over the clover

Love is our North Star high up above

I heard and
(as the rustling of that honey-mover
swelled across a grass-clay sheep-door)
lay in the sweet soil listening for your word.

The most radical attitude may be the most traditional : to see reality as a work of art. It's all a matter of how you approach the details (like mortality). Nicolas Cusanus was absolutely fascinated with this issue, and wrote some fascinating things about it (On Learned Ignorance; Game of Spheres...)

The aesthetic hobo drifts around the edges of life & the world, a eunuch for vision "in the round". A contemplative. & the detached drifter-poet is set upon as a mark and a scapegoat - because the process of giving birth to poems burns away all the literalism in texts, stories & rhetoric. Dogmas are recognized as metaphors : icons (painted or acted out) are understood as images (figures for Everyperson) : History is seen as Play.

The Nabokovian. Inherited her mother's sharp eye for detail (who noticed the tiny wildflowers everyone else missed). Used to do "forest floors" (small oil paintings of square foot of North Woods ground).


... thinking along these lines in prep for reading with Aleksandr Skidan next week, & also just finished Nabokov's 30s novel, Glory, in English, & trying to read along in it in Russian, now...

- typical Nabokovian elliptic puzzle-writing (sometimes so annoying - his precise description like a snobbish effete 19th-cent. botanist-dilettante, noting everything he sees through his magnifier-monocle - but then Nabokov turns weakness into strength, as all the quaint details & byways cluster around some plot-labyrinth of tragicomic pathos - sparkling vision) - about a dreamy very young "untalented" Russian emigre fellow, star-crossed in love, at loose ends after college, & venturing incognito across the border into Soviet territory (to his doom) - what he & his would-be girlfriend call "Zoorland"... (ie. Rusland, turned upside-down by the Bolsheviks)
Paper I would work on if I had time, energy & presence of mind...

something about Russian-Petersburg cultural history - 18th & 19th century currents of liberal democracy & republicanism - Pushkinian background in Nabokov, Mandelstam - and certain aspects of Acmeism & early 20th-cent. Petersburg poetry (as developed mostly by Mandelstam, Gumilev, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva) which assimilate these liberal trends, and try to blend them with older (medieval, Muskovite, Orthodox) traditions - thinking here of M's essay "Pushkin and Scriabin", where he sketches (very briefly) ideas about the "inner freedom" of Christian art in the West as being rooted in the historical fact of the Redemption - also the allegiance of the Acmeists to earthly, historical actuality & beauty (as opposed to the otherworldliness and spiritual detachment of Symbolism) - there is an analogy or kinship suggested there (in Acmeism) between spiritual, artistic and political freedom - & these impulses are evident (if often highly camouflaged) also in much of Nabokov -

- then about how my own development as a writer seems to find its historical ground & actuality, paradoxically, in these Petersburg writers, with whom I've been engaged off & on now for 40 years or so - ever since I got infected by my mother's enthusiasm for Nabokov (she tried to read everything he wrote) back in high school - the last short story I wrote in high school was a kind of proto-Nabokovian elegy for high school (which included a section in which the narrator & friends "re-enact" scenes from War & Peace in a snowy Minneapolis city park) - & probably beginning even earlier, with the affinities between Russian & northern Minnesotan & Ontario landscapes, where I spent so much time back then -


Often the serious thoughts seem to arrive early in the morning, when I'm still half-asleep. I was in such a state recently, half-thinking about Erica Dorf, a dear lady of 88 (John Tagliabue's sister), who died on New Year's eve, and about what I would say at her memorial service, and these lines from Shakespeare's sonnet 116 came to me : "Love is not love/Which alters when it alteration finds,/Or bends with the remover to remove."

Here's the whole sonnet :

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand'ring bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.

Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom:

If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

- certainly one of the greatest love poems.

It got me pondering (lying there half-awake) in a vague way about several different things... first, about a distinction between modern & ancient, or romantic & classical, notions of love - which seems related, in turn, to very basic aspects of design - ie., form & movement, crystal & fluid...

The modern romantic (Aristotelian?) conceives of love as involving change, growth, transformation. The ancient classic (Platonist?) sees it, on the contrary, as beyond change : steadfast, firm, constant, right & true, eternal.

It's the ancient notion which seems less familiar to us. (& of course there are moral/social attitudes which follow from how we conceptualize love.)

I started thinking about all this in terms of theology & cosmology. When we read in the Bible that "God is Love" (letter of John), do we envision that as an attribute of the "unchanging Father of Lights" (letter of James)?

If you try to reconcile this older concept of Love with notions of creation & making, what do you arrive at? A notion of the Universe as finished, complete (even if that completion involves freedom, chance, perpetual changes). A crystallization, an end-in-itself.

& I guess these vague notions also have consequences for the artist. If you think of inspiration/creation/artwork less in terms of a sort of expansive Romantic afflatus, and more in terms of a sudden coalescence of disparate materials - a fusion of chaos into cosmos - the formation of an integral whole... - well, maybe this tends toward a sort of "classicism".

Again we come to this (traditional, Byzantine) analogy between nature-as-creation, and artist-as-maker.

But all this was triggered as I lay there thinking about Erica, who throughout her life, in her small apt. in New York City, was an ever-fixed mark - a small harbor of light & joy, for strangers confronting that vast, proud & sometimes intimidating metropolis.

What if reality, cosmos, life-in-general - what if this whole is a crystallization out of an infinitely-deep well of creative Love? & that Dante's notion of the proper direction of the human will-to-love - repentance, in other words - involves not so much a change or transformation, as a re-alignment of one's own small reservoir of love, with that vast infinite source?


I just noticed that Emily Dickinson's valentine to George Henry Gould, and my verse letter to her from Arizona, both conclude with "alpha & omega".

(Get ahold of vol. 1 of her collected letters, & read the whole valentine (from Feb. 1850). It's a laugh riot.)
It's better to grow up in a land where poets & writers are pretty much low-class, invisible, neglected, ignored.

Why so, O Henry?

Because that first taste of writing something original, something your own... that indelible experience of inner freedom... maybe it's powerful to the extent that it contrasts with the dullness & repression of the milieu out of which it has emerged.

& when writing is celebrated & glorified & adulated & popularized & becomes hip & funded & organized & careerified... maybe hordes of so-called writers emerge who don't really recognize that moment of freedom - or value it much... writing becomes a sort of social game, reflecting complacency rather than that original, primordial thirst...

(thoughts of an old-timer from the mysterious 1950s)
Addressed to Emily (from July) :

 And if nine muses in July slipped
downstream toward a swollen, stolen
summa... it were a felix loss
for Caesar's breastplate - broken jewel,

cool dove, stone sister - moosed-over
mossy garnet in a woodland of
autumnal jasper. Duels
of August - golden - over now -

are nevermore. Veteran stone,
an Inca sacrifice - a frozen child,
limed over, liminal (ditched
first-born son, whose knot

entwines the ceremonial sword
like twine around a strong man's
house - holds it for a host
of Jacobean thieves) turned

gypsy roost now, camel-humped,
bull-dragged and wobbly, a
knife-line violin, the last bow
of your father's father's ho-hum

poem... finished. Built. Where
the river flows both ways around
your coracle's felt node (or
upside-dome). So row

some more, toward summer -
toward hurtling chords of warmer
wind. For the grasslands of your
mini-Rome are no more rusted

than busted us (trust me on this).
Understand, we stand in good here
for the minor coppers who dug
her out of the lincoln logs - Scythians

with charlie horses carved into their
knobby, needy, bowlegged errors -
still, they hit the bell's aye - rose. And
this is a drawing-out of thundering wraiths.


(full excerpt here)
Emily Dickinson's 1850 valentine, which scholars presume was addressed to (George) Henry Gould, opens like this :

"Magnum bonum, 'harum scarum', zounds et zounds, et war alarum, man reformam, life perfectum, mundum changum, all things flarum?
Sir, I desire an interview; meet me at sunrise, or sunset, or the new moon - the place is immaterial..."

& so it goes, a goofy take-off on high-flown oratory ("This is strong language sir, but none the less true. So hurrah for North Carolina, since we are on this point.") With a sidelong panegyric for her dog, Carlo... & ending :

"But the world is sleeping in ignorance and error, sir, and we must be crowing cocks, and singing larks, and a rising sun to awake her; or else we'll pull society up by the roots, and plant it in a different place. We'll build Alms-houses, and transcendental State prisons, and scaffolds - we will blow out the sun, and the moon, and encourage invention. Alpha shall kiss Omega - we will ride upon the hill of glory - Hallelujah, all hail!

Yours, truly -"
Come to think of it, I am going to delete some posts from yesterday.

Endemic problem here at HG Poetics : posting disorganized and flaky meanderings about complicated things. Some topics need more deliberation, consideration, care.

Nevertheless, I'm going to leave up the "feminism" post, despite its awkwardness.

(Because if you actually read my poetry, & especially of late, you'll note how so much of it is a weird spin on the sacred-uncanny-androgynous-feminine... an oblique take on (tautological-Narcissy) cosmic oneness, Virgin Birth, Incarnation, Poetry, saintly San Fran hoboishness, scapegoating, etc. etc....)
Tempted to delete all my blatherings of yesterday. But not this time.

In prep for upcoming reading, Tom Epstein gave me a copy of 1999 issue of Essays in Poetics : Journal of the British Neo-Formalist School, which has some translations of Alexander Skadin's poetry, along with a great little essay by Elena Shvarts, about Nabokov's art of hide-&-seek. How he conceals what is most important & meaningful to himself under layers of false trails. Explores the false-bottom box of Invitation to a Beheading - its buried (& profound) inscription of Pushkin's debt to, & elegy for, Andre Chenier, poet executed in the (French) Revolution...