Saturday, December 24, 2016
Those photos from Ankara, with the Russian ambassador lying dead on the floor? They're haunting, and not just because they depict an atrocity. They're haunting because they are more beautiful than they should be. They are so beautiful they seem wrong. I wrote a little about it for Hyperalleric—you can find it here. It's about seeing things as aesthetic objects, and the inhumanity of that under certain circumstances. Or maybe it's better to say that it's about how beauty can be a scandal.
If you'd prefer to read it in Turkish, try this translation by Yorum Yapin.
Sunday, December 18, 2016
Whatever the reason—his insightful writing on Polish literature for the TLS, his poems, or the kind of courtesy he showed when we both tried to get into the same taxi on a cold Belgian morning 20 years ago—I've long admired Piotr Gwiazda. And now he's said some kind things about my book of poems and literary oddities, The Kafka Sutra. He's said them in the latest issue of The Chicago Review. His piece begins this way:
Robert Archambeau’s new book of poems The Kafka Sutra differs from
his previous book Home and Variations (2004) in the degree to which it
explores the possibilities of appropriation as a literary device. Appropriation,
moreover, becomes a hermeneutic tool in Archambeau’s hands. A poet and a
critic—the author of Laureates and Heretics (2010), The Poet Resigns (2013),
and the forthcoming Making Nothing Happen—he employs it to compose
his poems and to perform criticism on his textual sources. Entertaining and
intelligent, The Kafka Sutra shows Archambeau’s in-depth engagement with
this widespread, increasingly dominant poetic practice.
The title sequence at first quite implausibly grafts several of Kafka’s
enigmatic parables onto the subject matter of the Hindu classic Kama
Sutra. Describing it elsewhere as “one of the odder things [he’s] done,”
Archambeau promises, at least in theory, a merging of existential anxiety,
sensual fulfillment, and didactic intent. The result is indeed odd, but not
entirely foreign to anyone who has ever had the experience of reading
creatively more than one book at a time. The sequence is also disarmingly
playful and funny, as are the accompanying illustrations by Sarah Conner.
The full text is available here.
If you can't get enough commentary on The Kafka Sutra, have a look at Stu Watson's "Reflections on Recent Poetry" over at Queen Mob's Teahouse.
Friday, December 02, 2016
The sixth issue of The Battersea Review (proud Associate Editor: me) is a special Spanish number, edited by Mario Murgia and Flamminia Ocampo. The contents are almost too substantial for the internet to bear:
"Introduction" by Mario Murgia and Flaminia Ocampo"Three Poems" by Héctor Abad, translated by Zachary Bos"Poems in Translation" by Samuel Beckett, translated by Juan Carlos Calvillo"Six Poems" by León Felipe, translated by Walter Smelt"Five Poems" by Andrés García Cerdán, translated by Jorge Rodríguez-Miralles"Three Poems" by David Huerta, translated by Mario Murgia"En Tren (“By Train”)" by Antonio Machado, translated by Walter Smelt"Three Poems" by Fernando Noy, translated by Geoffrey O’Brien
"Spain on the Horizon: Some Notes on Astronomy and Medieval England" by Raúl Ariza-Barile"Juan Rodolfo Wilcock’s Two Phases" by Horacio Armani"Clarice: Woman, Body, and Voice" by Gabriella Burnham"Ferdinand’s Renunciation" (from The Constant Prince) by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, translated by Geoffrey O’Brien"An Appreciation of Pedro Páramo" by Nicholas Christopher"Milton in Puebla, Mexico" by Angelica Duran"Xavier Icaza’s Untimely Avant-Garde" by Christian Gerzso"Writing and Translation" by Alejandro Manara"Remembering Alejandra Pizarnik" by Flaminia Ocampo"The Goddess Coatlicue: Environmental Renewal and Femicide in Homero Aridjis’ La leyenda de los soles" by Adela Ramos"Polyphony and Portable Identities: The niuyorriqueña poetry of Tato Laviera" by Salvador San Juan"The Slingshot (A Parable)" by Luisa Valenzuela, translated by Geoffrey O'Brien"When Borges was Director of the National Library" by María Esther Vázquez"Erotica in the Rio Grande: Thoughts on Sandra Cisneros’s Loose Woman" by Gwendolyn Díaz-Ridgeway"Pilgrim Tales: Luisa Josefina Hernández’s Medieval Fiction" by Ana Elena González-Treviño"Cernuda" by Gabriel Linares"Survey: Fifteen Favorite Latin American Writers" by Flaminia Ocampo"Black Surrealism and Rooting in the Literature of the Antilles" by Salvador San Juan"From the Feather to the Poncho: A New Yorker Vicuña" by Lila Zemborain
In the "Essays and Comments" section I edit for Plume, you'll find "Confessions of a Contest Junkie," in which Amish Trivedi takes us through his travails and triumphs as a recidivist participant in the world of poetry contests. It begins like this:
If you have any vice or addiction in your life – and we all have something – you probably already know that what you are hooked on is bad for you. You already know how you justify your fix. You know how you feed your high. And yet, you cling to your degeneracy, denying it is a problem. Your enablers support your actions and claims.My vice? Poetry contests. And the system itself is my enabler— a system which has encouraged me and so many others through the hope that maybe something will workIn the poetry contest system there are winners. Judges whittle submissions down to a select few, a single one of whom sees a poem, a chapbook, or an entire book lauded. The winners add another publication to their record. The press or journal heralds the winner and their own selection skills. The win takes on a life of its own, serving as the launch pad for a career or a stepping stone on the path to tenure. Pierre Bourdieu points out that perhaps this initial social capital gain is accidental before it leads to other things, but that’s for another time.
The rest is available here.
Monday, November 21, 2016
Tuesday, November 15, 2016
In one of Aesop's fables, "The Frogs Who Desired a King," the frogs of the local pond grew disillusioned with the king Zeus had given them. Fair enough: the capricious deity had, after all, sent them a log to serve as king, and under the log's reign, nothing was done to help the frogs. The original Greek text says nothing about growing economic inequality among the frogs, or pond deindustrialization, or some of the less open-minded frogs being uneasy at the arrival of newts from the other pond behind the reeds, or some of the male frogs feeling somehow diminished by the increasing equality of the female frogs, but I'm just going to assume that those portions of the text are lost, and will come to light in due time. Anyway, some of the frogs grew tired of the complacency of their political establishment, the log king, and cried out to Zeus for another king, a new one who would bust things up and get things done. Not all of the frogs did this: many stayed home, skeptical of what any king might do. Indeed, more frogs opposed the petition to Zeus than supported it but, the electoral map of the pond being what it was, Zeus granted the wish, and sent them a heron to rule over them. The heron arrived, looking a little surprised at having been chosen to rule, and promptly ate the frogs.
Friday, November 11, 2016
If you're like me, you're probably thinking that this is not a good year to sit down to Thanksgiving dinner with extended family, that it'd be in everybody's best interest to step back from what threatens to be a relationship damaging political confrontation. Me, I'm stepping all the way back to the eighteenth century, which has stood me in good stead as a haven in times of crisis. It was, the savage indignation of Jonathan Swift notwithstanding, a literary century of great urbanity and exemplary civility. But Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, one of my usual safe havens, failed me this time around—accounts of the destruction of a once great polity by human folly turned out to cut a little too close to the bone. My emergency back-up plan—to read Addison and Steele's Coverley Papers from The Spectator—seemed like a sure cure, but when I came upon passages about Whigs and Tories refusing to dine together, and footnotes about the violent hatred between these parties, I had to set the book aside. So I turned, at last, to the pages of The Mirror, a lesser-known imitator of The Spectator from the other end of the century. Here, in an essay on Hamlet, I ran across the following words:
No author, perhaps ever existed, of whom opinion has been so various as Shakespeare. Endowed with all the sublimity and subject to all the irregularities of genius, his advocates have room for unbounded praise, and their opponents for frequent blame. His departure from all common rules which criticism, somewhat arbitrarily, perhaps, has imposed, leaves no legal code by which the decision can be regulated, and in the feelings of different readers, the same passage may appear simple or mean, natural or preposterous, may execute admiration, or create disgust.This is fascinating. Right away, we see that the late eighteenth century was a period with a richer variety of opinion regarding Shakespeare than is our own, in which no figure in all of English literature, and few in all of world literature, receives such a universal praise as does Shakespeare. Indeed, Shakespeare's name and image have become shorthand for the idea of literary greatness, the broad collar and high dome of the Droeshout portrait of him from the First Folio becoming for literature what Einstein's crazed white mop of hair has become for science: a universal signifier of genius.
It is precisely the status of genius that matters in understanding the difference between our era's estimate of Shakespeare and his rating under the late eighteenth century's regime of taste. "Genius," in our common parlance, is an unmitigated term of praise. But when the article on Hamlet appeared in The Mirror in 1781, "genius" was still very much a descriptive term, rather than a purely laudatory one. The article on genius from Diderot's Encyclopédie describes works of genius not simply as works of excellence, but as works of a particular kind, whose virtues did not include beauty:
For something to be beautiful in accordance with the rules of taste, that thing must be elegant and polished, highly finished but with the appearance of effortlessness. But to be a work of genius it should seem careless, appear irregular, rough, and wild. Sublimity and genius flash in Shakespeare like lightening at night, but Racine is always beautiful: Homer is filled with genius, while Virgil is filled with elegance.The Mirror, then, speaks from the consensus position of its time, in which rule-breaking genius wasn't necessarily a sign of greatness, but a matter of trading off one sort of excellence for another. The excellence of Shakespeare comes at the expense of another kind of excellence, the excellence of a purely Aristotelian tragedy, a tragedy of the sort written in accord with the unities of time, place, and action supported by the Académie française.
It's not hard for most of us to understand the division between an aesthetic of beauty and an aesthetic of genius—but I imagine it is difficult for us to enter into a state of mind in which we truly empathize with the eighteenth century, and find at least some fault in Shakespeare for not following the classical rules. Most of us are inclined to look at that as a needlessly arbitrary and uptight position. We live, after all, in the considerable wake of Romanticism, and that greatest of English Romantic thinkers, Coleridge, solved the matter of Shakespeare's irregularities for us—arguing, in "Shakespeare's Judgement Equal to His Genius" that no work of genius could truly be without rules, because such works generated their own rules. Anything that seems weird or incorrect in a play of genius only appears that way because we are imposing rules from without, rather than understanding the new game the playwright has asked us to play.
Whatever historical and theoretical knowledge I may have been able to bring to bear on the passage from The Mirror, I couldn't find my way to an emotional place where I could feel for the kind of eighteenth century critic who could fault Shakespeare for insufficient conformity—until, that is, I talked it out with my wife, Valerie. "I just don't feel that way about anything," I said, over a late evening drink at home. "Sure you do," she replied, "you feel that way all the time, when people say something you approve of, but fail to use correct grammar." She was, as usual, entirely right. "We need less of these crude quantitative assessments in academic administration" is a statement of which I'm quite likely to approve, but I'm also likely to mutter "fewer, not less—fewer" even as the statement is made.
One understands that grammar is ultimately descriptive more than prescriptive, that speech acts can convey meaning despite breaking rules, and that some kinds of statements can only be made, or are made most effectively, with grammatical rules in abeyance. But for many of us, there's a high regard for the rules that make most communications intelligible and precise, and we hesitate to relinquish them. Like many eighteenth century critics of Shakespeare, we may admire the rough forcefulness and originality of a verbal construct, even while tut-tutting a little about the bending of the rules of grammar, style, and usage. I mean, perhaps you admire the following bit of verbiage from our own time, even as you find the repetitiousness, the sentence fragment, the loose use of the second person, the clumsy attempt at parallelism, and the bizarre deployment of the words "with us" offenses against rules of usage we instinctively honor:
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.Of course you don't admire the rough forcefulness of this verbal construct, because you are a decent human being and neither the type to tar whole categories of humanity with the same brush nor the type to slyly incite violence against people based on their apparent origin and ethnicity.
I see that my attempt to hide in the eighteenth century has done me no good whatsoever. This cannot be a postcard from another time, after all. It is inevitably a statement made from the present, a time of the most grave concern and most foreboding darkness.
Wednesday, November 09, 2016
Utter silence on the train platform among the normally talkative commuters.
An old woman in a coffee shop crying quietly, alone.
A man in the parking lot dropping the keys from his shaking hand.
I saw this.
There are the people who understand what we have done.
Wednesday, November 02, 2016
Tuesday, October 11, 2016
Inventions of a Barbarous Age: Poetry from Conceptualism to Rhyme—Now It's Out! Here's What's in It!
Inventions of a Barbarous Age: Poetry from Conceptualism to Rhyme—my latest book of essays—has just rolled hot off the presses at MadHat Press. What's it all about? Well, the jacket copy gives you an overview (and a few complimentary blurbs):
What is the community for poetry? What is its fate, its future? Poet and critic Robert Archambeau begins Inventions of a Barbarous Age with these questions before ranging over the ridges and valleys of the contemporary poetry scene, pausing on the way to investigate mystic and Gnostic poetry, the norms of criticism, and the poetics of camp and the sublime. Taking in poets from W. H. Auden to Kenneth Goldsmith, and topics from poetic comedy to poetic tribalism, Archambeau is one of poetry’s great omnivores, and numbers among the leading poetry critics of his generation.
Robert Archambeau is fascinated by the place poets stake out for their art, the claims they make about the relationship of poetry and power; and he is (sometimes uncomfortably) shrewd in ferreting out the motivations for such claims. His essays have the advantage of the best occasional writing—immediacy, a sense of responsiveness, conversationality—but Archambeau is also a “big ideas” critic, spinning his momentary interpretations of texts into penetrating insights about the place of poetry in the world.
Archambeau writes prose that’s consistently welcoming, curious, and free of the anxiety that marks so much criticism.
—Jonathan Farmer, Slate Magazine
A notable poet/critic, Archambeau’s a perfect example of how one person can take on both roles.
—Barry Schwabsky, The Nation
Archambeau is one of our smartest poetic sociologists, and he tackles the biggest problems facing poetry in our time.
—Norman Finkelstein, Contemporary Literature
If you want to see someone having fun while thinking provocatively about contemporary poetry, try Archambeau. I always do.
Archambeau has perfect pitch.
If you really want to know about the book, though, here's the table of contents, along with a few notes on each essay: