Thursday, January 23, 2014

Aiming High, Aiming Low, and Landing in Jail: Poetry and Risk

“We are all Tunisia in the face of the repressive,” wrote the Qatari poet Muhammad ibn al-Dheed al-Ajami, in a poem praising the uprisings of the Arab spring.  He wrote in praise of those who put their lives at risk for freedom, and must have known he was taking a great risk himself: his poem landed him in a Qatari jail, where he remains.  He’s a poet who knows about the kind of risk it is hard to imagine an American poet running—protected as our poets are by freedom of speech and widespread public indifference.  It’s not that American poets can’t run risks; rather, it’s a matter of much lower stakes.  The most common thing our poets put at risk is the sympathy of their readers and editors, and they may do so by aiming too high or too low.

That's the opening paragraph of my contribution to a symposium on poetry & risk in the latest issue of Pleiades, now appearing in bookstores and in the mailboxes of subscribers.  The essay goes on to discuss Peter O'Leary's poetry as aiming high, and Michael Robbins' poetry as aiming low—in both cases it's a matter of diction, and of alienating potential audiences.  

The poetry and risk feature includes a lot of fine things, including Rae Armantrout writing on Ben Lerner; Carl Dennis writing on David Wojahn; Joan Houlihan writing on Brenda Shaughnessy, John Gallaher writing on Michael Benedikt, and much more.  It's not available online, but on this strange alternative medium called "paper."

***UPDATE FEB. 4, 2014: My contribution to the symposium is now available online.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

In Which I Opine: An Interview in Critical Margins

There's an interview with me up over at the Critical Margins site.  The occasion is my book The Poet Resigns, but the discussion ranges over a lot of territory: the career of the poet-critic, the effect of academe on poetry, poetry and politics, whether "identity politics" is a pejorative term, what it means to read works by people other than ourselves, why I was bushwhacked by a pack of professors after I spoke about Harryette Mullen's poetry, and much more.  Thanks to Hope Leman for patiently asking the questions!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Who's the Man? — Poetry, Gender, and Authority

"Who's the man?"—the question itself contains something like an answer, since it presupposes an overlap between authority and masculinity.  I suppose that's why I chose it as the title for an essay just now out on the Poetry Foundation site.  The essay reviews Peter Quartermain's collection of essays Stubborn Poetries and Among Friends, a collection of essays about women, poetry, and friendship edited by Anne Dewey and Libbie Rifkin.  What unites these books is a concern with the way a poet establishes authority.  Quartermain's collection has a lot to say on the issue, but it hinges on the difference between an appeal to tradition as the basis of authority (as in T.S. Eliot) and an appeal to the immediacy of experience (as in William Carlos Williams and the Objectivists, for whom Quartermain has warm feelings).  The essays collected by Dewey & Rifkin take on a range of topics, but the ones I pick up on are Joanne Kyger's complex position as a woman in the boy's club of North Beach poets that assembled around Jack Spicer, and the fascinating position of Patti Smith as a woman who decides to appropriate specifically masculine forms of literary mystique.  Here's a bit from that part of the essay:

Daniel Kane’s contribution to Among Friends takes on a case fascinatingly atypical: Patti Smith’s engagement with the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in the East Village of the early 1970s. Community-oriented, fond of collaborative authorship and performance, the Poetry Project was deeply critical of the notion of the poet as a lone visionary genius, isolated from everyone but his muse. Frank O’Hara’s comment on Dylan Thomas’s stage (and, for that matter, barroom) persona catches the nature of the critique: “I can’t stand all that Welsh spit.” But when Patti Smith gave her first performance at St. Mark’s in February of 1971, embodied the role of the privileged poet-seer. While most poets began their readings at St. Mark’s by thanking the organizers and the community, Smith began with a grand invocation of a whole lineage of outlaw heroes, from James Dean and Mayakovski to Blaise Cendrars and Sam Shephard—and went on to add boxing, crime, and the electric guitar to her list of dedicatees. Her authority as a poet wasn’t going to come from joining a community of poets in the East Village: it was going to come through an affiliation with an imagined bloodline of rebels, from Blake to Rimbaud to Gregory Corso. That this was a very masculine pantheon was no coincidence: what Smith yearned for was status of the kind accorded to Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison. “I like people who’re bigger than me,” she claimed in an interview, “I’m not interested in meeting poets or a bunch of writers who I don’t think are bigger than life.” And being bigger than life meant claiming for herself the solitary swaggering mojo of a certain kind of masculine figure. A Village Voice reviewer from the early 1970s got it right when he wrote, “Patti Smith is the poet as macho woman.” Smith herself could be quite explicit about wanting to appropriate, rather than challenge, masculine forms of identity and authority—consider these lines from her poem “female”:

I ran around with a pack of wolves. I puked on every
pinafore. Growing breasts was a nightmare. In anger
I cut off all my hair and knelt glassy eyed before
God. I begged him to place me in my own barbaric race.
The male race. The race of my choice.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Wound and the Self: Notes on Rousseau, Individualism, and Mystical Experience

So the new semester has begun, and I find I'm teaching the Romantic poets again.  I'm always struck by the strange contradictions of the group: reactionary yet revolutionary, nature-loving but with a strong contingent of city-bound cockneys, obsessed with the past yet driven to invent new forms and new ways of living.  One of the more striking of these contradictions comes in the confluence of individualism and mysticism.  It makes for a strange pairing because it involves both an emphasis on the self and a drive to lose the self in something larger.  We see it in many places. It's there, for example, in William Blake.  He was such an insistent individualist that he felt he must create his own system of religion, lest he be "enslaved" by that of another man.  But he also wrote, in The Book of Thel, of how clinging to our little, temporary selfhood was a kind of failure, and that we should embrace the way we dissolve into the living universe after we cease to be.  The combination of an intense preoccupation with individuality and an emphasis on a mystical loss of identity lies at the core of Wordsworth's sensibility, too.  The Prelude sets out to rival the great epics of the past, but instead of dealing with the fate of civilizations (think The Iliad) or with the scheme of the cosmos (think The Divine Comedy or Paradise Lost), it will be a record of "the growth of the poet's mind" in all its individual particularity.  At the same time, though, it's also a poem about the dissolving boundary between the self and the natural world, and its most powerful moments depict the loss of self-identity in a sublime and pulsating fusion of spirit and nature.

Maybe I shouldn't be surprised at the combination of individualism and mystical self-loss.  They might just have something to do with one another.  One certainly gets that sense when reading that greatest of proto-Romantics, Rousseau.  Rousseau was certainly a believer in the individual.  Although he never actually wrote of the "noble savage," he did argue, in his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, that humanity in the state of nature was solitary; and his Confessions constituted a tremendous innovation in literature because of their candor and specificity in giving the details, including the unflattering and trivial details, of a life.  What is more, his famous Of the Social Contract argues that the individual precedes society: collective life doesn't precede the individual and form him, but comes about when individuals agree a collective interest and a social formation.  The pioneering sociologist Émile Durkheim takes issue with this kind of thinking (as embodied in the Utilitarian philosophers who emerged in the wake of Rousseau) when, in The Division of Labor in Society, he objects to “deducing society from the individual” because, in his view, “collective life is not born from individual life, but it is, on the contrary, the second which is born from the first. It is on this condition alone that one can explain how the personal individuality of social units has been able to be formed and enlarged.”  It is wrong, writes Durkheim, to suppose that there ever were " “isolated and independent individuals who… could enter into relationships with one another in order to co-operate, for they had no other reason to bridge the empty gas surrounding them, and to associate together… this theory, which is so widely held, postulates a veritable creation ex nihilo.  But this is the voice of the systems-obsessed late nineteenth century objecting to the Romantic individualism that came before.  Rousseau is the full-throated prophet of that Romantic individualism.

With that individualism, though, there comes a certain melancholy loneliness.  Consider the following passage, from Rousseau's posthumously published Reveries of the Solitary Walker.  Rousseau has been wandering in the hills after harvest season has passed, gathering botanical samples.  The fields, once crowded with peasants taking in the crops and reveling townsfolk, has emptied out:

The country was still green and pleasant, but it was deserted and many of the leaves had fallen; everything gave an impression of solitude and impending winter.  This picture evoked mixed feelings of gentle sadness that were too closely akin to my age and experience for me not to make the comparison.  I saw myself at the close of an innocent and unhappy life, with a soul still full of intense feelings and a mind still adorned with a few flowers, even if they were already blighted by sadness and withered by care.  Alone and neglected, I could feel the approach of the first frosts and my failing imagination no longer filled my solitude with beings formed after the desires of my heart.  Sighing I said to myself: What have I done in this world?  I was created to live, and I am dying without having lived.  At least I am not to blame; even if I cannot offer up to my maker the good works which I was prevented from accomplishing, I can at least pay him my tribute of frustrated good intentions, of sound sentiments that were rendered ineffectual, and of a patience which was proof against the scorn of mankind.  Touched by these thoughts, I retraced the history of my soul from youth to the years of maturity and then during the long period in which I have lived cut off from the society of men, the solitude in which I shall no doubt end my days.  I looked back fondly on all the affections of my heart, its loving yet blind attachments, and on the ideas which had nourished my mind for the last few years...

The lonely, dying scene seems to Rousseau like a parallel to his own wandering life as it comes to its final years—and this is important.  He looks at the world and sees himself.  Indeed, he's unlike most thinkers who came before him in the degree to which he obsesses over himself: he plays a kind of symphony of his own soul's journey, with that individual soul's desires and regrets and self-pity, its sense of solitude, and its consolations.  This is a huge affirmation of the importance of the individual life and its little journey, and even presents a fall and redemption story of sorts: he failed to live as he ought, but discovered that this was inevitable, and came in the end to a kind of mild wisdom and gratitude.  But this story doesn't start in Eden, at the dawn of history, with Adam and Eve, and end with the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ: it takes place in the individual life.  We, as individuals, are where all the real action takes place.  This kind of thinking makes each of us very important, but it also traps us in our own little stories, rather than uniting us in a larger story and set of symbols relevant to a whole community of faith.

Along with this deep investment in individuality, though, Rousseau tells us about a release from that individuality, one bordering upon a kind of mystical experience.  After making his way back into town, he sees a Great Dane loping towards him, followed by a carriage careering around, dangerously out of control.  He braces himself to leap to safety, but too late: he is struck, and lies unconscious for a time.  When he wakes in the arms of townsmen, he describes the following experience:

Night was coming on.  I saw the sky, , some stars, and a few leaves.  This sensation was a moment of delight.  I was conscious of nothing else.  In this instant I was being born again, and it seemed as if all I perceived was filled with my frail existence.  Entirely taken up by the present, I could remember nothing; I had no distinct notion of myself as a person, nor had I the least idea of what had just happened to me.  I did not know who I was, nor where I was; I felt neither pain, fear, nor anxiety.  I watched my blood flowing as I might have watched a stream, without even thinking that the blood had anything to do with me.  I felt throughout my whole being such a wonderful calm, that whenever I recall this feeling I can find nothing to compare with it in all the pleasures that stir our lives.

I'm sure neuroscientists could describe what happened to Rousseau's brain after the impact, and explain his perceptions in terms of the effects of physical trauma on brain function.  But what's important isn't the physiognomy, but Rousseau's experience, and his depiction of that experience.  The very thing into which he'd been drawn by his reflections on nature—his selfhood, his identity—has vanished.  He is born anew, without any of the particulars of the long journey of the soul he'd been recounting.  For this one brief moment he has no past, and no sense of belonging to his own body: the blood could be anyone's, and is of no concern to him.  He's been released from the burdens of selfhood and sees the world as if he were no one at all, as if it flowed through him without the filtering resistance of identity.  It's much like the state of religious bliss and selflessness achieved by many religious mystics.  But it is intimately linked to the idea of individualism, because the pleasure Rousseau feels is the bliss of release from the burdens of his lonely self.  The solitary Romantic implies the mystic Romantic the way a wound implies a cure.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Women's Afro-Caribbean Surrealism Hits the New York Times

Being a fan of Afro-Caribbean surrealist poetry can be a sort of lonely business: if you hang out in poetry circles, you'll sometimes run into people who admire Aimé Césaire, but otherwise you tend to be on your own with your enthusiasm.  You can imagine my surprise, then, when the New York Times got in touch and asked if they could use my translation of "Sarabande," a wonderful poem by Lucie Thésée, a mid-century poet from Martinique (the translation originally appeared in Poetry, along with some other Thésée things).  My reaction was something like "What?  Yes!  What?"  Anyway, they've now paired the poem up with a little prose piece about meeting Césaire called "Beneath Martinique's Beauty, Guided by a Poet," and you can check it out at the New York Times learning network.

Thanks to the people at the Times (and, before them, at Poetry) for believing in this kind of off-the-beaten-path poetry.  "Sarabande" is smoking hot stuff—erotic, political, and a good way to warm up in cold weather.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Poets, Community, and the New Gnosticism

Rejoice!  The January issues of the literary magazines are hitting the shelves and going live online!  If you look hard enough into the avalanche of new stories, essays, poems, and reviews, you'll find two modest pieces of my own.  One is "Twenty Poets Talking," a review of Tony Leuzzi's Passwords Primeval, a collection of interviews with poets.  My review starts like this:

Dont tell me what the poets are doing, dont tell me that theyre talking tough,” sang the Tragically Hip back in 1998, don’t tell me that theyre anti-social, somehow not anti-social enough. Editor and interviewer Tony Leuzzi has certainly managed to get the poets talking in Passwords Primeval: the transcripts of his interviews with twenty very different poets, taken together, run to close to 350 pages.  The book is most likely to be dipped into rather than read straight through: one imagines its destiny involving resting on library shelves until people interested in the work of a particular poet pluck it down to read that poet’s contribution.  But one of the most interesting things to emerge when one does read all twenty interviews back-to-back is the lack of anti-social attitudes among the poets.  Most of them seem to speak out of, and to, defined communities, the sum of which make up the varied, fragmented, and (despite reports to the contrary) extensive readership of contemporary American poetry.
It goes on to talk about Kevin Killian and the post-AIDS San Francisco literary scene, about Billy Collins as that rarest of creatures, a poet unalienated from American suburbia, and about Karen Volkman and the world of the poet as creative writing professor.  The review appears in Gently Read Literature.  Information about subscriptions is available here.

The second essay appears in the latest issue of Talisman as part of a fantastic feature on the New Gnosticism in poetry, including pieces by Norman Finkelstein, Mark Scroggins, Patrick Pritchett, Ed Foster, and others.  My contribution is called "The Open Word: A Letter to Peter O'Leary."  It begins like this:
Dear Peter, 
What has your vocabulary done to you? To me?  To us? Or, to narrow it down a bit, to John Latta, who wrote, a propos your book Depth Theology:

Dysthymia: thymos being Greek mind, and dys- ascending out of Sanskrit dus- meaning bad, difficult, &c. O’Leary’s an inveterate neologist: in notes to Depth Theology he points to various “coinages from taxonomic roots: an apiologist (a word Emerson once used) is one who studies bees; a parulidologist is one who studies warblers.”

Your vocabulary also staggered Broc Rossell, who said in the Colorado Review that the lexical “register of Luminous Epinoia might be the most elevated in American poetry since Hart Crane.” You make up a fair number of words, Peter, and revive many more from the realm of the hapax legomenon, or the deeply buried Greco-cum-Latin-cum-Sanskrit & Aramaic lexicon. Of course there are strange words and there are strange words.  I once wrote something about the difference, and it went more or less like this:

Consider “kuboaa,” a word invented by the great modern Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, and put into the mouth of the starving hero of his masterwork, the novel Hunger. For Hamsun's delirious hero, the word was a pure sound, something outside, even above, the realm of signifying language. Always aware of the absurd, and with a longing after purity that led him into some dark corners of the psyche, Hamsun meant for his “kuboaa” to be a word free from reference. To encounter it was to encounter something alien, something of untainted otherness. You could say “kuboaa” was to be the verbal equivalent of one of Kazimir Malevich's paintings of a red square on a white background: everything familiar was to be left behind in the encounter with the unassimilated and elemental. Kuboaa was the word of the modern primitive, he word of regrounding, of beginning again, outside existing language and away from the freight of civilization.

The rest of the essay can be found here.