poetics@ part 2


From: James Sherry

Subject: Re: apex of the m…

The Apex if it’s M exhibits the superficies of the dialectic and boy is the thesis the. But the seeds of the M in the L are multiple while the interpretation of the seeds by the M is faulty but understandable. The quotation which I have overused from Wittgenstein helps my explanation. "If we speak of a think, but there is no object that we can point to, there, we may say, is the spirit."

Those objectless things in the L include, but are not limited to, vaguely: the sign: the signified is not the thing, but the idea of the thing, – the body which is a constantly referenced thing but sex in most of the L is skirted to a spirit of the body by both the French and the L, and Language itself which is constantly reified by the L writers; and also create the hook by which the M writers can attach to L and attack. That these things are misinterpreted by the M writers need not be disputed to thwart the attacks by the L writers. They are the places where we have left openings for the next generation of artists. That the M takes unfair advantage of these ideas doesn’t matter either, misinterpretation has already been valorized by the L.

The attacks by the M writers are particularly galling, but again represent the same tactic used by the L writers on the previous generation of NY School and Beat writing, although the M writers are less substantive in their attacks on the L than the L was on NY, but isn’t that what the M is saying, so at the very least they are consistent.

The sad parts of the issue for me are the lack of recognition of these facts by the L and the unconsciousness of the M writers about the openings which they have left to be eviscerated by not only the next generation of writers whom we can conveniently dub… the Nth. They will rue the day they used the word spirit in their fashion when it is used to attack their right to write as they write. For that reason, the most egregious and annoying part of the M is how they have forgotten the lessons of the enlightenment exposing the weakness of spiritual allegiances and its institutions. But I guess we have to "pay to keep from going through all this twice."


From: Leslie Scalapino

Subject: Re: apex of the m…

Dear James, L&M S&M?, you’re right. The most troubling thing is we’ve now got G.O.D. known only by the (spiritual) authorities (the fundamentalists; and even people saying they’re Zen which they want codified, saying even Zen is essentially authority /convention as a positive assertion); where analysis (of one’s language/form), or the form being what occurs or where/how it occurs, is to be overthrown as ‘conservative.’ Or ‘merely reactive.’ What's to occur as ‘vision’ must be given one from outside in that case. Yet that again is similar to the L’s (on the West coast, usually two or three dominants, by whose ideas the entire group was then characterized - sometimes messages being given in manifesto group style; the point being that this behavior, which is now reoccurring, is jousting for dominance in which value is defined as power not related to literary substance per se, given credence by the stated assumption that displacing one’s predecessors and peers is necessary. This is not the same as being a ‘capitalist.’): always saying ‘Question yourselves (laid bare by writing process), not us, or you’re conservative; and you’re (politically/socially) conservative by ‘definition’ if you question us.’ ‘You’ not being an authority. Lew Daly’s book on Susan Howe and John Taggart uses the word God as the reference authority about every third line; it’s limiting the vocabulary. Similar to Perelman in the past finding the word ‘intuition’ meaningless, essentially wanting to eliminate it; but not finding the word ‘thought’ meaningless.

Daly's book is a work of engagement (certainly passion) and complexity, yet his ‘God’ is as if a given which ‘we’ are supposed to know (by authority/tradition) (and renders valid the poetic observations?) rather than phenomena ‘to be found out’ by experience. In either case, elimination of vocabulary is exclusion of words which allow the perception of those distinctions as they are ‘making’ distinctions; which exclusion is also ‘ordering.’

The work of most Language poets is still continually changing and vital as is that of the various multitudinous dark horses, who're always there changing what is occurring.

I think the poetic issues, delineated by the two (M/Language) here, parallel the contemporary religious and political moves; are not merely reactivity by them. For that reason, the Apex of M writing these matters is provocative.

Personally, I’d rather ‘react’ to a humane rationalist (meaning even the limitations of such a specifically delineated stance) from which ‘place’ one can bound freely into one’s own (inner) terrain, not usurped by anyone, than to have to have ‘vision,’ ‘tradition’ and ‘spirituality’ (‘one’s own place,’ so that one would simply have to make another place) defined and held as a product or a poetic ‘position;’ which, when defined, and defining as power (as one avant-garde overtaking another), is voided.


From: Tom Mandel

Subject: Re: apex of the m…

In James Sherry’s post he rightly sees the apexers critique cum rejection of the Language poets in a continuum with the LP’s treatment of the generation preceding. Surely, it is true that this need to get this seemingly pervasive presence out of the way, so to clear a space to write, afflicts or at least affects any generation. I don’t like it, but it makes sense to me; I can even see it as a strength of character.

There remains the question of what is done in this cleared space, and by whom.

I’m not sure I understand the first 1/3d of James’ post, unless he is beginning to list the features of Language Poetry that he sees as taken over by the Apex of the M group. If so, I’m interested to read a more lengthy treatment of that. Of these non-thing objects.

The influence on some Language poets of the NY school is also undeniable, esp. on the early work of Charles Bernstein, Kit Robinson, Steve Benson, Tom Mandel, and others.

The intellectual rigor of Language theory is also as open to critique as the intro to the Apex volume which lurks behind this discourse (smugly, non-dislodged, I think). You have only to read the banner and statement of intentions in the early Language magazines (w/ =, etc.) to find yourself in an ill-stirred pudding of the Whorf-Sapir thesis, an utterly misconceived version of the speech/language distinction in (oh what’s his name; the swiss linguist’s lectures – I really am losing my grip if I can’t remember his name… and I can’t!), and other sinking suspensions. But, this in no way excuses the Apex intro, does it?

All the same, I’m not sure there’re any definite lessons of the enlightenment which must be held onto, but James will have expected my disagreement in that matter. I am an utterly secular person (that is, I cd describe myself as an utterly spiritual person), and in some sense I like the world I live in (less and less). But I’m afraid I must say that the secularizing of the world over the last 500 years has not pluralized the world, not at all. Just different and even more baleful idols being worshipped. And it is a pluralizing, call it a creolizing if you want, of our world is all can save it. Purity cults, even my favorite one the Pharisees, have demonstrated their horrendous effects over and over, and theese are magnified and multiplied in a world of weapons and media with such powers to make a hell of difference.

Finally, if, as in the Apex intro I find so appalling, the poet is to be an iconoclast, she will have to knock over an idol and smash it. Another poet is a poor choice to begin.


From: Marjorie Perloff

Subject: Re: apex of the m

It’s true, of course, as Tom Mandel says, that every generation needs to clear a space for itself and that the Language poets, as James Sherry points out, did the same thing to the NY poets of the previous generation. And Frank O’Hara and company did it to T. S. Eliot (God save us from fisher kings!").

Still, there’s an air of implosion about this latest "manifesto." For one thing, the language poets were attacking an Establishment, but it’s hardly the case that today the L poets ARE the establishment. Most people around the country still consider them upstarts if they’ve so much as heard of them. Let’s get real. Secondly, if you want to launch a line of attack, you must have an articulated position. "Violence and precision" as Marinetti put it. It needn’t be totally coherent–and I agree that the Language manifestos of the 70s were hardly argued through–but you have to stand for something that’s then visible in the poetry itself. I just don’t see this "change" in Apex of the M. The poets printed therein take for granted that poetry is written in free verse (or prose) for starters. It’s a given. The rejection of a "high style" is another given. And so on. That leaves the manifesto with saying, more or less, we’re more against capitalism than the Language poets were and, at that level, the rhetoric fizzes out because the L poets in question had/have a particular Marxist position and carried it through. Ron Silliman, after all, was editor of the New Socialist Review. So if the editors of Apex don’t share that position, but feel Capital is the source of all evil, I’d like to know what they propose to do to fight capital.


From: Kali Tal

Subject: Re: apex of the m…

I’m outside both the traditional academic and literary poetry circles. Until Joe Amato introduced me to the work of the Language Poets, I’d never heard them. I like Joe’s work (that’s why I publish it), but my longest-lasting literary affections lie with "movement" poets, primarily feminist and/or African American and/or war veteran writers who see themselves and their work as inseperable from their politics and their activism. My perspective on the whole apex of the m debate is shaped by a general distrust of manifestos which seem to be substitutes for action, or which are taken as actions in and of themselves. I’d like to respond to some of eric pape’s comments in that spirit:

>every revolution, including any poetry that pretends to be fully fulfilled

> revolutionary poetry, is written in language.

I am not sure that this is true. In extremity, language is a luxury that many cannot afford. Violent revolutions (and perhaps most acts of physical violence) are not written–that is specifically what makes them violent; pens are not swords, however much the revolutionary (or reactionary) poet might wish that they were, might yearn to make language strike like a blow. My particular critical speciality is "literature of trauma"–specifically, the literature of "survivors" of man-made violence (Holocaust, combat, rape, etc.)–and I have found that a characteristic spanning every literature of trauma which I have yet uncovered is the agonizing tension between the failure of language ("You can’t understand!") and the desperate need for language to suceed (You must understand!). Revolutionary poets yearn to write with such strength that their audience is traumatized as they have been traumatized (Jones/Baraka raging that "poems are bullshit unless they are/ teeth or trees or lemons piled/ on a step," wanting his own poem to be a machine gun, reduced to helpless ratatatting; the anger is real, the danger behind the poem is real, but the poem can never be real in the sense Baraka desires it to be).

There was, last year, a lengthy discussion of "terrorist" poetics/poetry on the [Technoculture] list–some of you will remember. It seems to me that both "terrorist" and "revolutionary" poetry are impossible constructions unless one is talking about them as documentary (at one remove) rather than actual (the thing itself). Soldiers who write or talk about combat state unequivocally that language fails to describe their experience. Yet every soldier who writes or talks about combat says something–uses language in ways that fail, though he/she uses it all the same. There are qualities of "revolution" which lie outside of language–the violence that language can describe in the before and the after, but never at the now. The realm of the traumatic event is silence, speechlessness, a breach in the narrative, a space for which there are no words or explanations or stories: THIS ISN’T SUPPOSED TO BE HAPPENING! Narrative constructions come later, to explain, to rationalize, to describe "what happened," but they can never represent it properly, since its nature and impact are derived from the fact that trauma is unrepresentable. There are some truths which cannot be conveyed, some instances in which "only being is believing."

>It seems to me that Language Poetry is a neccessary, but certainly not

> final step towards a revolutionary poetry because it takes as its project

> the subversion of language. I don’t know anywhere else to start.

The subversion of language is certainly the project of poets like Audre Lorde (whose description of language as "the master’s tools," and whose position as the Sister Outsider make even her use of language and the poetic form subversive) and Margaret Atwood and Monique Wittig, and so on. But these feminist poets are not considered (I believe) to be connected to the Language Poets. Nor are they given much serious attention by either the literary or academic establishments (dismissed as "political"–and therefore possessing an "agenda"–as lesbian, as feminist). I am asking, as an outsider myself, the honest question: what is subversive about what the Language Poets? What is the distinction between the sort of subversion practiced by Lorde, for example, and various Language Poets?

> You can’t have a revolutionary poetry that says I am revolutionary and

> therefore I am going to write about coal miners in the language of coal

> miners etc. Transparency doesn’t exist in the poetic context.

Sometimes I think that we don’t see poetry when it is transparent. We don’t usually look very carefully at what coal miners are doing… or what disfranchised black ghetto kids are doing… or what working class women are doing… Some of the strongest and most "revolutionary" American poetry is spouted by kids at house parties, and used-to-be-kids who now have recording contracts with major record labels. Ice-T is a poet, though you might not much like what he’s doing (I do). Ice-T is writing poetry about revolution–even if it is not revolution itself–and at least the poetry is being televised (hey, Gill Scott-Heron has a new album out, did you hear?). Black Entertainment Network rap programming and "Yo! MTV Raps" are pretty interesting.

Which brings me back around to the apex of the m intro, which I haven’t read, but have now read about at length. It seems to me that one can’t be revolutionary without being clear what one is for and what one is against, and without being willing to put one’s body on the line for one’s beliefs. (Revolution is risky.) In a culture where a poet can be taken out and shot for writing a protest verse, it makes sense to talk about "revolutionary" poets. In this culture, it might even make sense to talk about some poets that way. But it’s real hard for me to swallow the notion of "revolutionary" poets who live in relative comfort and are not actively engaged in taking physical risks to participate in social or political movements. Maybe I’m just a hard-line kinda gal, but I like to save the word "revolutionary" for times when I really mean it….


From: Eric Pape

Subject: Re: apex of the m…

Kali: … What is beyond language? You speak of the traumatized persons you work with expressing their frustration at the fact that they cannot communicate their experiences; you can’t understand; you must understand. This seems to me certainly as you suggested a symptom of the inadequacy of language, but it also seems to see some personality, or personality issues that are beyond or before language. Isn’t language the closest thing we have to an identity, a personality? Which means, I think, that identity is something we share with others, exterior. This is what I was trying to get at when I was speaking of transparency as not being in the poetic context. I’d like to amend that and say as far as I know transparency, despite Carl Rogers, is not in any context.

Transparency assumes the stability of both the sender and the receiver. I can’t tell you how many times I have spoken or wrote and said not five seconds after that I was full of shit and how could I say such things. It wasn’t me who said them I think to myself. The frustration everyone feels with language is in this lack of coherence of identity from moment to moment. There is no rapport; something always escapes.

As far as language poets vs. Lorde and others, well, that is something I’d rather not get involved in. I can say that I think of Lorde’s most subsversive act is simply being there, unavoidable, unplacatable. What she does with language, which is considerable, is to remind us that there are other forms out there that not only have a right to exist, but have informed the dominant language greatly.

I should shut up about the apex of the m’ers, because frankly I don’t know anything about them. Nor do I want to be seen as some language school apologist. I mean, I just got here. Nobody knows me. I’m surprised anyone even listens to me.

I find them intersting (and here I speak of them as if they were already stuffed and mounted on a gallery wall) because I think they have pinpointed where to begin to define an oppositional, or revolutionary, or whatever, poetry. We start at the beginning of poetry, at the beginning of personality, at the beginning of culture. We start with language.

What I find particularly interesting is that not only do many language poets subvert language, like you have properly noticed Lorde doing, but they make a sort of intervention into language. They try to change its structure. If we are to make any kind of intervention into history, this seems to me a model we can work with.

Maybe the apexers are working with this. Maybe not. I don’t know. I will say at this point that I think folks tend to discount manifestoes. Must be some sort of American anti-intellectual thing. The fact that both the language poets and the apexers wrote manifestoes is all to their credit as far as I am concerned. If we have learned anything in the last few years of NEA/NEH controversy after controversy it is that the people doing the work had better take the time to define themselves before someody else, like Lynn Cheney,does.


From: Ira Lightman

Subject: apex of the m

The truth of a process makes sense to and among those at the end of the process, where the transcription of thought on the page is a clean mirror to both writer and readers, writer as s/he writes, reader as s/he reads; the book unwritten is the look that speaks volumes between and among such.

This so rare that most of us do in the name of more, ever more, vocal and verbal, dropped out of empathy then yanked back, the lack of us in "you-you" the vocation of study, time out.

Oscar does not believe that art is being and thought is ugliness. He says so as in his day was no art and thought. Those who use Freud as if he were himself as benign and liberational as they do what he did not put sex against the ban on sex, power against stable.

Such sects! Lift up hearts, prey on. The dream can only create if sleep is not for the provision of rest, o day for rest and night for study. Bade the body. The good faith goads the intellect setting the church of our agenda which, fulfilled, burns. We digest the stone and break into a jog.

Dream breathing. Think, your very heart beating is bleeding and the blood next to come is bleeding into your heart, the oxygen is bleeding to become blood, the folks with beating blood are beating the air only. Dream wing.

All every night walk by the venue in their heads where perfect truth of process plays the energy of creation. All have greater artists than Shakespeare to meet, but avery eye, don’t converse, few attend, few remember, we are special in knowing we’re special not especially.

The perfect dreamer in all, in each, not a speaking to us all. Few go to sleep with the energy to mingle. I know I’m not alone in this. Shakespeare the artist in history, fifty of the sixteenth and seventeenth hundreds of years, everyone is Shakespeare.

The dead can dance. Dreams trot through our excuses, scared to knock such vital guards. The fear’s not explained till the dream’s not come back against twenty such sentries. Step out of the stage and into the tubes.

Stick to your gun till you blow off your head, walk again on your legs no one else’s, carry your seed as she grows in your arms, out of your pain, let her, away from your pain. Think well of yourself, use your hands, get a grip, on the non-carnal gun.

So many arms, swinging under the noosed throats, the unspoken carried on so many legs. Like dream life’s accidents, vile, we dream nearer and nearer, the guard hangs in the air, twitching, tapping. We feel bumped into until, joy, we are alive.

The ambient never wake up. Like you don’t. You begin to ban humour and alcohol, the mares buck and head for the guards in new hope. Rest is not it, without truth towards process towards truth.

If you’re still reading, no-one’s got anything. Some should let thoughts fester in the mind, process the festering. I know mortally the years from when I was born, each day the unit of measurement cuts history into me-sized portions, knowing ledges. I dodder to think the art of it.

Sophocles mortal braved Freud, now so less winning. The Freud-led walk through him, more to hurt that if they’d gone by him, on every shelf in every flame-stricken library? Mind how you go. Excavate Plato, afraid to go out, for dream research.

Nothing like life to keep you from dying, the nerves are steel strings, loud acoustic. Song begins the vibration, words reason the entry, into society, largely worthy of nothing so clarity!

Be you once, the harsh heart sooner or timely, a slick into two dimensions, of prose, this nuisance is losing its once fascination, the pattern returns to its usual dynamic. Think in the two, drink in the third, things they don’t want to reveal indicate why do you say that.

I get it. Draw on planes, repairing the prairie, the gasses from the busses, the hole us. Destroy two to save three. The hurt behind the face understood yields to surf on the face again.

The month from a flame that took our collection, from our senses, and flashed a banner over a dish of a dominant hemisphere, the northern, a cap with the bill right in front of our eyes. A missable interactive experience, a miserable sky made it so.

Is cool holodeck sky? I sensed it cambe back to my name, but a short therapist circuits the patient, tree dimensional. I’ll take my "clumsiness", I didn’t dream "it" up, I ride broken in the bumps of a world I ought never to have believed was mine only thought. Alive-in world.

The process of a sense makes truth to and among those at the head of a process, where the transcription of truth on the page is a claimed mirror to both writers and reader, writer as reader as utter; the book unsmitten is the look that speaks volumes between and among such.



From: Ira Lightman


1) Spiritualism. Never assume that in attacking something as religious, you are not part of a religion yourself. Jung not Freud.

2) If you are going to use the I-Ching, notice how your interaction with it produces a different work than is produced by someone else using the I-Ching. Notice that your works are more like each other, than your I-Ching works are like I-Ching works by other artists. Stockhausen not Cage.

3) Keep listening.

5) Have Pound’s decency to look back on what you’ve represented. Next Generation not Kirk.

8) If improvisation is free, why do many of its evenings go out to the same boundary and no further? Leibniz not Newton.

13) To lecture, Stein milking not mocking a restrained common vocabulary to write descriptions, not Derrida punning and concatenating with abstracts to provoke, always with fixed unspoken loyalties of his own, and not own explicitly. Close to who you pretend?

21) Non-Freudian not neo-Freudian post-structuralism, if any.

34) Gloria Steinem not Julia Kristeva.

55) Fuck gender-fuck, open up genre. Harryman not Silliman. Thresh hold of "becoming" an adult and "no longer" being like a child. Neil Gaiman not Ridley Scott. Nurture, non-sexual love sexual life; actual practice of community, professor. Elizabeth Burns’ Letters to Elizabeth Bishop, not Derrida’s The Post Card.

89) Hyper-reality and reality, extend, object both ways. Posters and paintings of words not handwritten notebooks. Brush syntax. Johanna Drucker meets Emily Dickinson.

144) The sentence was a good stretch, but now I choose my jailors. Sing energy. So long when you misuse lyric poetry as a prison term. "The voice makes possible the entire continuum from the most extreme consonant-like noises to the purest vocal sound, and is far superior to even the most modern apparatus for creating tone-colours". Stockhausen not Zukofsky, the musical phrase, remember, not the metronome.



From: Bob Perelman

Subject: Government by Irritation [op-ed, Philadelphia Enquirer]

… Government by irritation: it’s one of the dominant political modes of our day. Taking their cue from talk show hosts, politicians try to topple their opponents by unleashing discontent. These days the NEA serves as a handy source of annoyance if not outrage: a few well-publicized examples of troublesome art have, over the last few years, been able to furnish a great supply of instant political energy.

It’s not easy to argue against such energy. The value of art is not always instantly apparent–and at the same the difficulties art brings with it are much more likely to be perceived at a glance. The latest remarks by senators that the NEA be abolished unless it supports "family values" show how true this is.

Rather than arguing for art that is familiar, obedient and at best ornamental, I think case that art is valuable to the community precisely because it is not perfectly predictable or obedient. That will not mean that unruly art is automatically wonderful. Art is one of the testing grounds between individuals and the community. The point is that it’s an opportunity for judgment: members of the community will need to make up their minds. That’s one of the basic values of art: it can’t be approached dogmatically.

If it’s considered in terms of the federal budget as a whole, the NEA is hardly a big deal. The federal budget is around a trillion and a half dollars a year; the NEA budget is $167 million. If my math holds, that means that the NEA takes up about one ten thousandth of the federal budget. That’s less than the military spends on marching bands, less than the city of Berlin spends on public art.

To eliminate the NEA would save each American 65 cents a year. Here in Philadelphia, dance, poetry, the visual arts, theater would all suffer; the gamut of organizations affected would range from the Institute for Contemporary Art to the Please Touch Museum, from the Philadelphia Orchestra to the Settlement Music School. The bigger, more established concerns would take a hit; some of the smaller organizations might have to close. Those who are out of sympathy with the arts might think that’s fine: that if a theater company needs a handout to survive there’s something wrong with it. But to consider the arts in such a framework is an unfair oversimplification.

For one thing, business itself is not treated in such a sink-or-swim way: government subsidies are an integral part of many industries, from farming to sports franchises. One of the better reasons for such subsidies is that they shield enterprises from momentary reverses. If farmers couldn’t survive a single bad season, it would ultimately make for a weak social fabric. With the arts, the time frame is often more stretched out. It can easily take decades for general taste to approve of developments in art. The last hundred years are full of examples. In France painters such as Monet and Matisse were ridiculed by the majority of their contemporaries; there was a riot at the premier of Stravinski’s "Rites of Spring." Of course, paintings by Monet and Matisse are now among the most valuable objects on the planet; and thirty years after it had driven listeners into a frenzy of disgust, Stravinski’s music was used by Disney as the soundtrack to the dinosaur section of "Fantasia."

These are examples of successes. But it’s not always the case that today’s innovative art becomes tomorrow’s classic. A 1920’s symphony by George Antheil that used airplane engines has not yet become a cultural treasure (nor is it likely to). That’s important. It misses the point to say "Fine, innovate, be creative. But only if you turn out to be Monet. No duds or wild excesses, please."

But why should the government have to underwrite art? Didn’t Monet work on his own? There are a couple of answers to this. For one thing, a significant part of NEA money goes to community groups, often helping get art to groups and places it doesn’t normally reach: smaller towns, rural areas, schools that don’t have the resources for art programs. And for the government to cut all arts funding would mean that it recognizes no values other than the marketplace.

Under the reign of purely economic motives, there is no way anyone would want to produce something unless it could be sold immediately. Imagine a society in which every cultural product had to turn a profit instantly. If you want to get a sense of how claustrophobic this can be, consider how dominated commercial television is by spinoffs and imitations.

Given how informative, exciting, and revealing the arts can be, what an important antidote they are to instant opinion polls, and how important they already are to various different parts of the community, I think they’re worth 65 cents a year. The money is not wasted: people in the arts are appreciative of the little support they get and work hard whether or not they get it. By their very nature, the arts speak to the individual’s judgment at the same time as they offer possibilities for building communities: they’re perfect training for the independence and possible sense of connection that we need to live in a democracy. Maybe 65 cents is a bit low. Why not make it $1.30?


From: Ted Pelton

Subject: Use da news 2

I was happy to see Bob Perelman’s Philadelphia Enquirer op-ed. I think that op-ed pages may be as good a tool in this fight as contacting congressmen directly. I’ve heard many like to sustain their illusions of fingers on the pulse through hometown papers.

This is my column from the Milwaukee Journal, Friday, January 13:

With the recent swing in Congress back toward Reagan-era conservatism has come a new attempt to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts.

The NEA’s budget isn’t large, but its critics argue that any amount the government spends on the arts is too much, that funding the arts is not a legitimate function of government. Gingrich, Helms and others make this argument despite the examples of other major world governments, nearly all of which make funds available to support art and artists, many at much higher levels than the U.S.

This simply highlights the fact that the main reason conservatives want to stop funding the arts is not to save money nor to keep government’s purposes pure. It is because new art is ultimately very dangerous to a conservative world-view. Discouraging the production of non-commercial art in this country is consistent with other aspects of the conservative social agenda: school prayer, limiting women’s reproductive freedoms, increasing the amount of capital in the coffers of America’s richest citizens. The arts produce work that is often far too critical of such a social agenda to make many friends on the Right. These lawmakers want to silence voices of dissent.

Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold sees their attempt in the proper perspective, as censorship. I wrote him and several other Wisconsin lawmakers in the past few months to urge they support thet NEA. Feingold responded, "I believe, as a free society, we need to protect diversity and encourage the exchange of ideas. I regard some recent attempts to cut funding for NEA as attempts at censorship, and at silencing one part of this discussion."

This position is consistent with the principles upon which the NEA was founded. At the inception of the NEA in 1965, Congress issued a defense of why governments should fund the arts. In part, it read: "The world leadership which has come to the United States cannot rest solely upon superior power, wealth, and technology, but must be solidly founded upon worldwide respect and admiration for the Nation’s high qualities as a leader in the realm of ideas and of the spirit."

It also read: "Democracy demands wisdom and vision of its citizens. It must therefore foster and support a form of education, and access to the arts and the humanities, designed to make people of all backgrounds and wherever located masters of the technology and not its unthinking servants."

The NEA is most often reported in the press for scandals involving funding of controversial artists, such as the flap involving late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe a couple years ago. But its programs support the arts in local communities as well. This occurs both in terms of aiding local artists (individually or through local arts organizations) and in such things as helping fund performances by nationally known artists. In my own area, I think of the readings at Milwaukee’s Woodland Pattern bookstore, for example; poets and fiction writers of national stature would not regularly give readings to small audiences in Milwaukee, as they do today, without the NEA. For people in your district, it might be the local orchestra or theatre, a travelling opera or ballet troupe.

I confess I am not a disinterested observer of this issue. Last year I was awarded an NEA Literature Fellowship. I take the grant seriously, as an investment in my talent, and I hope my future work merits this investment. The myth of the artist whose vision remains pure despite economic difficulties is bogus; economics do force artists to quit making art and start making money. I was close to giving up fiction writing when I received funding.

But I had also benefitted as a citizen from the NEA for years prior to winning this fellowship. I had attended NEA sponsored readings, theatre and concerts; I had read writers and seen work by artists who had their own careers supported by the NEA; I had enjoyed the benefits of local galleries and performance spaces which exist with the support of the NEA. I happen to enjoy art that isn’t commerical, that wasn’t created to make money. But even people whose interest in art extends no further than enjoying Hollywood movies should realize that even commercial artists owe a debt to serious, non-commercial art. Art not made for money takes more risks, taps more untouched stores of imagination, and often introduces the ideas and images that mainstream artists develop for more popular tastes. We all benefit from the NEA.

Art also can provide us with morality of a sort different than the Right defines it. Not simply indulging in tired pieties, serious art, when critical of our institutions and our daily practices, can serve as the bell-ringer to wake up our national conscience. Funding the arts helps foster voices of dissent, a necessity in a healthy democracy.

But Helms, Gingrich and company aren’t interested in good art or healthy democracy. Nor is my congressman in Sheboygan, James Sensenbrenner. He has voted to eliminate the NEA for the past four years. He cites the same old cost arguments as the others. But money is a cloak over the real issue: the critics of the NEA want to promote their own set of cultural values while discouraging debate and critique. If money was the only issue, we would naturally expect Republicans to subject far more expensive weapons programs to the same cost-conscious scrutiny as they do the arts.

For my part, I’d rather that someone abroad knew about my country because of American novels than because of American war technology.

From: Don Byrd

Subject: Theory

James Sherry is undoubtedly correct that poetry cannot produce pure transparent immediacy, and it is therefore inevitably supplemented, consciously or unconsciously, with theory.

It seems to me, however, the following points might advance this thread of discussion.

1. Poets are as responsible for their theory as they are for their art, and poets during the past twenty years have often abdicated the responsibility. The theoretical results in philosophy as such and in the social and physical sciences are not irrelevant to poetry, but their use in poetics is limited at best. The poet must think through the same issues but think through them in relation to the concrete practice of poetry.

2. The poetry that is of enduring interest from Hesiod’s Theogony to Jack Clark’s sonnets, Nate Mackey’s School of Uhdra, Anne Waldman’s Iovis, and Charles Stein’s The Hat Rack Tree incorporates its theory in the poems themselves. Theoretically complex poetry otherwise is by definition academic. That is, the theoretical issues are always in play in the open form in which immediacy and thought are always in recursive interaction. This recursion is literally the motive of creative act.

3. One of the reasons this becomes a difficult issue is that more and more poets find themselves employed in graduate education, a very different role to the academic poets of the 50’s (who often taught in small liberal arts schools or carried on the liberal-arts-school function in a large university). It does seem to me we might find reasons to object to poems that illustrate this or that hot theory. This kind of poetry seems to me at present a serious plague. It is comparable to the endless iambic tetrameter quatrains that illustrated the theoretical pronouncements of late Eliot.


From: Ron Silliman

Subject: Boy Talk

Am I right that Rae Armantrout’s comment about the San Diego Union article on Freely Espousing (a full 10 days ago) was the last posting by a non-male reader of this list? What gives? It feels like the shower room at a men’s health club….

Here’s a question or two for (primarily) the non-males who read this list?

Why do you lurk without posting?

What would it require to change this?

Are there other venues (listserv discussion groups in particular) where you are more active?

If so, what do they do differently?

From: Charlotte Pressler

Subject: Little Mary Sunshine

Ron Silliman’s question (why do so few women on this list post) tempts me to delurk briefly.

I enjoy reading e-mail, including the poetics list – but this form of communication, like any other, seems to have its strengths and limits.

E-mail seems to me to be a good way to ask specific questions and communicate specific kinds of information rapidly and effectively (book lists, the Freely Espousing communiques, calls for papers).

It’s also a good way to argue positions for the most part already formed. The quick cut-and-thrust of single-screen messages, though, seems as though it might hamper the reception of more tentative or exploratory postings.

People read their e-mail fairly quickly, and I don’t think many people save it for later reading or download it to a printer. Disk space might be limited, too – at least it is at UB. So, for the most part, once a message is scanned, however it’s scanned, it’s gone. Not much opportunity for re-vision.

So, apart from its bulletin-board functions, e-mail seems to work best for people who like to respond quickly and concisely to well-defined arguments.

I prefer to have a good bit of time to think over a written message, and to publish it in a format that allows for re-reading. I’ve stung myself in the past by offering too-rapid reactions; but I’ve also found that in sharp debate, reactive responses come to dominate over exploratory ones. So I find it best to work through my own often somewhat divergent responses to current topics either off-list, or in work written for print publication, or in conversation with friends.

Possibly this is a gender difference; I’m not sure it’s entirely that. There’s also the uneasy position of divergences that don’t quite attain to the sharp clarity of an oppositional statement. I tend to diverge in just this way – should I call it "radical opacity"? :-) So I tend to lurk on lists, including this one. Apart from this post.


From: B. Cass Clarke

Subject: Quan Yin

… I would like to add to Charlotte Pressler’s remarks the following:

Generally, the mechanics of vms mail editing is not intuitive. I have spent the last week learning how to file mail to folders. I learned the ins and outs of engine repair faster.

The nature of these lists – they are generally anonymous. Although the poetics list relies more heavily on the signifying name than others, I feel like I’m walking into a room with a blindfold on surrounded by others whose state is unknown.

Under these conditions what is a toy and what a weapon? I’ve noticed there are whole trees devoted to teaching people how to inflect their remarks by using 8-) > type symbols. Obviously this media, or the people that write how-to books about it recognize there is some problem having to do with what is written and its intent.

This list by its title invites writers to perform. So far, I’ve seen a series of challenges, duels and target practice. It is a public arena where we watch our gang try to make something of it. I suspect that if any real conversation gets generated, it does so off the public screen. I have found such correspondence through this list, and value that.

Normally, I would post this to your e-mail address. But in the spirit of your inquiry, I reveal myself.


From: Kali Tal

Subject: Re: Boy Talk

Ah, drawn out of lurkdom by provocative questions…. tho I must admit, quite sheepishly, to be responding in exactly the spirit that Joe [Amato] has described–I do so hate to be predictable…

> Why do you lurk without posting?

Well, I don’t really lurk without posting. A couple of weeks ago I wrote a fairly lengthy post describing why I feel–as a publisher and editor of two poetry series and miscellaneous individual volumes of poetry, and as a literary critic with "academic" credentials–like an outsider in the POETICS conversation. My post met with resounding … silence. Didn’t garner a single response on the list, though I did get backchannel notes from my old friend Joe (hi Joe!) and from Charles Bernstein (hi Charles!). I’ve been active on the internet for a while, and I don’t take nonresponse personally, but it does generally seem to conform to a pretty gendered (and racialized) pattern. Since my concerns revolve primarily around issues of how race/gender/class interact with the theory and practice of "culture" and "art" (including poetry), whenever I post, I bring up these issues. Nonresponse is something I’ve certainly gotten used to. Now I tend to post only when I feel that I’ve got something pressing to say, and when I am met with nonresponse, I usually let the matter slide, unless "becoming visible" seems like a battle worth fighting in this particular place at this particular time.

> What would it require to change this?

Oh, it would be easy to get me to post more…. But it would require that someone(s) actually engage me in public conversation, offer a response to my words. Think of the studies of male/female conversations which demonstrate that women introduce a wider variety of subjects than men, but that fewer of the subjects they introduce are picked up and expanded on. And the ones which show that when a woman brings up an idea it’s often ignored, until a man brings it up–at which point he gets the credit for thinking of it and she continues to be ignored. These patterns are evident in email as well as in face-to-face conversations. But email is even more difficult for a woman to negotiate, in my opinion, because the lack of physicality, the reduction to a textual "body," makes it harder for her to be SEEN/READ.

Look at it this way–email is one of the few environments in which anyone and everyone can "pass" as white, heterosexual, and male unless he/she speaks/writes out against that normative body. Now, there are advantages to being able to "pass" in this manner (advantages that members of marginalized groups have always gained from passing), but there are also costs. The advantages are clear for women–no sexual harrassment, no more being ignored, no more being marked as "other." But the disadvantage is that passing requires adopting the language and interests and style of the folks you are passing as, and so concerns and questions and styles that might be significant to a woman as a woman become unspeakable. On the other hand, in this environment in which everyone can "pass," it takes constant vigilance and a great deal of ingenuity to create and perpetuate a nonwhite nonmale and/or nonheterosexual textual body–difference must be inscribed in each post in a way that makes it visible to the reader. The paradox is that "passing" allows women and nonwhite people to be "visible" in the sense that they are not treated as "other," but it is predicated on the disappearance of gender/racial identity. On the other hand, refusing to "pass," and insisting on inscribing a nonwhite or nonmale identity in our email results, often, in our being "disappeared" in the manner in which women and nonwhite people are "normally" disappeared. The entrenchment of the normative construct in espace (which I tend to think of as The Unbearable Whiteness of Being) makes me feel a lot like Ellison’s Invisible Man–I’ve been in flamewars in which I have textually kicked the shit out of people who simply COULD NOT SEE ME. (And if you haven’t reread the opening sequences of Invisible Man it might be worth going back to, since it sums up exactly the phenomenon I am describing.)

>Are there other venues (listserv discussion groups in particular) where

>you are more active?

I used to be very active on quite a few lists. I’m the Typhoid Mary of flame wars–where I post frequently, they usually become epidemic. In my Bad Old Days I could come out swinging against racist or sexist exclusion in discussions and rile folks up so bad that hitherto peaceful (read: "homogenous") espace communities would polarize and then shatter. Grown men would act like children and storm off lists or publicly swear that they were never going to read another one of my posts. Heck, I’ve pissed people off so badly over email that at least one has, in all seriousness, threatened my life. (And yeah, those threats of violence–and implied rape–were gendered, too…) But I don’t do much of that sort of posting anymore. Mostly, I just needed to experiment with it for a while to figure out how it worked. And I concluded, after some very serious thought and long study, that there was no way for me to be visible "here" in any of the ways which mattered to me. So I now confine my occasional public espace forays to "raids across the border," with the intent of making the population nervous, while at the same time escaping without serious wounds. And I have always figured that the only way to create a "level playing field" is to build it yourownself, so I got together with some like-minded people and started SIXTIES-L, a moderated discussion list in my field of study. I don’t even post there that often, but it is definitely a woman-friendly space, as is demonstrated by the high percentage of women posting to it. Which brings me to the next question:

> If so, what do they do differently?

Well, it seems to me that moderated spaces, or restricted-access spaces provide a more hospitable environment for women. I’ve been on women’s-only lists, and in those places women have no trouble posting at all. As I said, on SIXTIES-L we moderate the discussion, and one of our rules is that we don’t allow ad hominem attacks: you can harsh on people’s arguments or texts all you like, but you can’t slam their characters. This level of protection (applied equally to men and women) might have something to do with the higher percentage of women posting on our list. The only unmoderated list I know of which supports an overwhelming percentage of female posters is WMST-L, the Women’s Studies list for educators and academics. WMST-L is technically unmoderated, but Joan Korenman is one of the most competent and active "nonmoderators" it’s ever been my pleasure to observe in action. WMST-L might work so well precisely because it is mainly populated by feminists–and not only feminists, but women specifically dedicated to the work of building Women’s Studies as a field.

Hey, Ron, thanks for asking…


From: Nada Gordon

Subject: where the boys are

"Why don’t more women post" is a rhetorical question, right? Everyone knows why.

(Or did you mean, "where are all the poster girls?")

Camille P. might say it’s because we are neither skilled nor schooled in the art of directional peeing – although her urine describes a pretty well-targeted arc.

Ron and Spencer, I extend my hand in gratitude for your chivalrous patronage ;-) And Joe, you sound like a sister. You all employed one of the pedagogic strategies I suggested in my first posting out of three in total, (which was about the reluctance to speak): teaching the verbally aggressive to use gambits to draw out silent interlocuters.

My second posting was a short one I intended as a respectful message about a poet whose works I love. I did not realize someone might find it offensive, and just, uh, shot it off. It’s the one Ira called "dumb" and reacted to so vehemently. He and I have since had a volley of private e-mails first furious, then apologetic, with invitations to continue the dialogue.

Public nudity. Like this posting.

For a day though I was traumatized by my first experience of being flamed as I walked the streets of Tokyo in a tormented stupor wondering if I really was dumb.

I have already pointed out to Ira the irony of that choice of adjective.

Anyway that’s why I don’t post or speak so much in male-dom public forums, although my voice is always wanting to vibrate.

Is it so imperative that we (girls, I mean) seize the reins of (mainly male) academic discourse? Maybe, but I’d rather be on a different kind of horse, and take off the stupid uncomfortable bridle – and be free to let Pegasus(sa) go where she wants, like I just wanted to say that I wanted the horse to be a pink one, not in spite of it being a dumb thing to say but precisely because it is dumb, and liking the fresh coy challenging dumb hollow echo that bounces off it.

Dumbness has unexplored potential in poetic(s) language, (especially in this age of acedemic piranha-ism) at least as a backlash or contrast or as a kid beholding a naked emperor. The dumbness of koans.

I read in a lot of poetics list postings desires to "get things hammered out once and for all" – to be right. Being right is not always essential to me when I’m having a conversation – which act can be conceived of as an opportunity to swap paradigms. Is the calendula more right than the hyacinth? How would you define "flesh-colored," or "eye- level"?

I may be falling into the trap of analyzing discourse from the perspective of biological determinism – intellectually suspect (I just came back from a great performance of Henry VI, in which Queen Margaret – admittedly a character developed by The Boy Bard – verbally kicked ass harder than anybody), but empirically observable, too.

Like the frequency of qualifiers in "women’s" language. Re-read this message for conditionals, maybes, seems, etc. Or that men often (another qualifier) have two voices (surely countless more), a public "war" voice – often heard on this list – and a personal voice, more modulated. As Tom Mandel’s former secty. (Tom, you did call me "honey" now and then) and B.Watten’s former student, I should know.

I like this list best when information ideas observations parodies accrue, not when it sounds like a dogfight that needs hosing down. Even then I like this list a lot, even if it is d***-wagging bigshot-laden and, as one woman writer wrote to me "boys talking about boys’ books". It’s a techno-miracle for me to be privy to its world while I’m marooned on this archipelago.

From: Cynthia Kimball

Subject: Ghosting

Ghost that I am–or is ghosting an act, so I "ghost" but AM not a ghost–I read these messages invisibly, until now silently. I FEEL invisible and safe that way, to be perfectly honest. I’m scared right now writing, don’t even know if this post will post, don’t want to expose my silence my silent reading presence. Female that I am–or is female-ing an act, so that I can "check my gender at the door" (no double meaning intended), be a ghost pass judgment and take sides and change my mind with every new side there is to take without exposing the vulnerable new sprouts of opinions to the frost while in the process of sprouting them.… Is my silence because I’m female and feel left out or am I leaving myself out because I’m female or am I a temporarily ungendered ghost because I haven’t claimed my USERID in front of anyone yet for whatever fear-full reasons. I could choose a male pseudonym that would protect my silence a little longer. I thought about it. Anyway

I’m going back into the ether for a while


From: Susan Schultz

Subject: boytalk

Kali persuaded me to put this direct message to her onto the list:

Kali–thanks for your remarks of late on "boy talk." As someone who has tried several times to engage the list in conversation, I wanted to suggest that the question of "tone" is perhaps a gendered one. I don’t want to over-simplify matters, but Deborah Tannen’s model of male and female conversations seems to work as well on this list as it does in my freshman comp class. I got on another poetry list, populated mainly by new formalist fans, where women write in a lot–or at least two women do. But far less signifyin’ is going on.

Several people, including one or two men, did contact me directly about things I’d said; it would be interesting to talk about messages between listees that aren’t sent to everyone. And now I’m doing it. I was disappointed, however, when I tried to bring "multiculturalism" into the conversation, and discovered that these radical language poets, some of them, are quite reactionary in their literary politics.

So I guess I’d suggest redirecting Golding’s remark about tone; he brought it up in the right context, but we were then swept right back into boy talk. More than needing to talk to women, they need to ask more questions; Silliman’s posting came rather late in the day.


From: Loss Glazier

Subject: Re: boytalk

On gender in postings, some here might be interested in Susan Herring’s paper, "Gender and Democracy in Computer-Mediated Communication." The background to Herring’s linguistic research:

–> Since 1991 I’ve been lurking (or what I prefer to call "carrying out ethnographic observation") on various computer-mediated discussion lists, downloading electronic conversations and analyzing the communicative behaviors of participants. I became interested in gender shortly after subscribing to my first discussion list, LINGUIST-L. Within the first month after I began receiving messages, a conflict arose (what I would later learn to call a "flame war") in which the two major theoretical camps within the field became polarized around an issue of central interest. My curiosity was piqued by the fact that very few women were contributing to this important professional event; they seemed to be sitting on the sidelines while men were airing their opinions and getting all the attention.

Some of Herring’s remarks:

–> Recent research has been uncovering some eye-opening differences in the ways men and women interact "online"…

–> My basic claim has two parts: first, that women and men have recognizably different styles in posting to the Internet, contrary to the claim that CMC neutralizes distinctions of gender; and second, that women and men have different communicative ethics – that is, they value different kinds of online interactions as appropriate and desirable. I illustrate these differences – and some of the problems that arise because of them – with specific reference to the phenomenon of "flaming".

Herring’s full paper is available via the web version of the Electronic Poetry Center under "documents" then "conversations." Use lynx or a world-wide web browser to go to: http://epc.buffalo.edu/e-journals/ub/rift


From: Juliana Spahr

Subject: Re: boy talk

Reasons why I might not respond at any given moment:

* the conversation goes too quick

* a fear of conversation getting out of control

* I rarely tend to respond to non-personal messages of any sort

(my minor input into this list has been indicative of my role on other lists, including the women’s studies list)

* the feeling that the list is mainly boys talking about boys books or boys talking to boys, I must admit, also plays a part

I am not sure how much of this has to do with gender.

I do understand the serious nature of the technology-gender problem (and the technology-race and the technology-class problems), the poetry-gender problem (which I am not sure how but continues to remain a serious problem despite a large number of active women poets), and various other social-induced, gender-related ills.

I do not know how to counter act them.

I do not want the conversation on this list or any other list to have to be policed by some sort of affirmative action of response or mention.

I just wish society was different, I think, that people were a little more self-aware of what they talked about and how and to whom. I guess the only answer I can suggest to Ron’s question about how to get more women to respond is to fight for the overthrow of the patriarchal system which is the cause of fewer women being wired. Nothing short of that is going to do much, or maybe, mean much. I wonder if there were equal amounts of women and men on this list if the gender construction of the conversation would not be more equal.

I am not sure there is a gender proclivity to lurk or not lurk.

I do not want to be a woman all the time either.

Part of me wishes I were not responding to but rather disavowing this gender narrative.


From: Kali Tal

Subject: Re: boytalk (fwd)

Hi, Cris; Hi, Susan–

It is better, yes, to take the dance off the back-channel and perform in public. Posting is performance, a new kind of art; writing in motion, more like improvisation in jazz than literary composition–skywriting, lightwriting, sandpainting, here and gone, happening in time.

Cris [Cheek] asks:

> So, I’m curious. You obviously read this list, do you feel that the strug-

> gle for the production of both constructive and critical meanings

> (maybe simultaneously) whether for language or through language is

> irreporably fractured into constructs of identity OR are you suggesting

> a need for more pro-active polymorphous traffic? It’s not intended as a

> ‘trick’ question by pro-active polymorphous traffic? It’s not intended as

> a ‘trick’ question by the way.

My answer is, Yes. And this is not intended as a ‘trick’ answer. See, nobody’s got just one construct of identity: I am this, but I am also this, and this, and this, and this. To be whole, we gotta keep moving, shifting from perspective to perspective, so we don’t leave any of ourownself unaccounted for. Each declaration of identity is a "construct," and reflects only a part of the whole, so if we hold onto it too hard, we lose the point, which is that constructs are useful, but that they shouldn’t, can’t contain us. Language is the tool of our fragmentation; at the very moment we describe "how we feel," we have already left our whole selves behind, because the description accounted for the feeling of the moment ago, but not of the now. Identity is a process, not a thing. So we need to counter the fractures with an attempt to create a pro-active, polymorphous traffic inside ourownselves and between us and others which takes into account both the necessity and limitations of constructs of identity.

i yam what i yam

a world-changing fiction

a trickster

a chimera

a heterogloss in my own time

And, Cris, I’d rather start from the position that we’re all human beings and therefore not to be trusted and to be trusted at the same time.

When Susan (hi, Susan) sent me her note backchannel, I urged her to post it to the list because it seemed to me that she was saying exactly what needed to be said out in the open. The question of "tone" is really important, and those of us troubled by the "tone" of discussion on POETICS ought to out-and-out talk about it. (Thereby, perhaps, changing the tone.) It’s no accident that one woman (Susan) has brought up the issue of multiculturalism, and another woman (me) has brought up the issue of the (unintentional, but also unnoticed) exclusion of African-American, feminist, and other identity-oriented poets from the discussion, and that there was no response to either woman’s post on the public channel. Most white, male enclaves are pretty happy to stay white, male enclaves. And why wouldn’t they be? But POETICS is not a white, male enclave, it just operates like one. So I figure that if the women here quit letting it operate like one by entering into and changing the discussion, then we can carve out some space for ourownselves, and begin to build a community where some real exchange can start to take place. Even in the worst case scenario–the men ignore the women, and the women talk among themselves–we can still illustrate that the problem exists by enacting it (and archiving it) as a text. Of course, that’s a lot of work to expect already overworked women to undertake, but perhaps, in this venue, such work can pay off.

What follows is a lengthy rumination about gender in espace, including some excerpts from items I’ve previously posted on another list:

In January of 1993 I was part (perhaps even instigator) of a massive flamewar on the TNC (technoculture) list. The flamewar revolved around issues of gender and women’s voice in espace. I learned a great deal from this discussion, and I’ve gone back to the text files again and again, coming away with something new each time. Juliana (pleased to meet you, Juliana) writes that she "does not want the conversation on this list or any other to have to be policed by some sort of affirmative action of response or mention." I agree. Policing rarely works in any situation (doesn’t stop crime, does it?). But I’ve noticed that what I fear more than policing itself (since policing on the net is really quite rare) are accusations of policing directed at those of us who dare to criticize the speech and/or "tone" of others. (And, yes, this does resonate with the "political correctness" argument the right uses to make the left appear more powerful than it is…) Like Juliana, "I do not want to be a woman all the time either." In fact, the ability to "pass" on the net is a real relief to me, and I use it frequently. But passing is just… passing. What I’d really like is for it not to be so exhausting to be a woman. At any rate, let me share with you a short piece which I wrote in the middle of the TNC flamewar, after suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous distortion (accusations of being a wounded, vicious person, a manhater, blah, blah, blah) and weathering what can only be called a storm of abuse, name-calling, and red-faced fist-shaking. (Not that I didn’t dish it out as well as take it, but then, that’s the point I make below…)

Simultaneously amused and appalled by the narratives different male listmembers were writing about "me" (the person behind the narratives, to which none of them had any access), I explained:

"It is my pleasure in electronic communication to attempt to respond in the style in which I am addressed, and, at times, to address the issue of style itself. Lacking physicality (obvious race/gender characteristics), I find that it is simple to engage in stylistic shifts in espace, whereas it is very difficult to engage in such shifts in person. One of the results of my stylistic adventuring has been my realization that textual style is as gendered and racialized as the physical body–though passing in espace is easier than passing in person. What I find, however, is that when I publicly position my gender as female, and then insist upon "competing" in "rational" (masculine) discourse in traditionally masculine terms while simultaneously insisting we focus on issues of importance to women, all hell breaks loose. The pattern is quite predictable: certain men will grow completely infuriated and claim that I am attacking them because I hate them. They will also impute all sorts of power to me–as if, in their eyes, I "control" the discourse–"Kali’s game"–and depict themselves as victims of my rage…"

In fact, the upshot of the TNC flamewar, was that I was accused of being a machine. George Landow wrote:


I don’t think George really understood what a really nasty shot this was. He took a long time to explain why I must be a machine, ranging from the fact that I wrote too much too fast to be human, to reducing my posts to an alleged "decision tree," to the outrageousness of my name (which, amusingly enough, is actually the name on my birth certificate), to claiming that my arguments were rational only if I was "part of an experiment to convince other participants that this digital text assembler is a real person." The last part of Landow’s post was a rumination on which particular TNC listmember had "written" me. The irony, of course, is that I truly was trying to convince the TNC audience that I was a real person. As I am trying to convince you.

To end the TNC flamewar, I admitted to being a construct, an Artificial Intelligence produced by some grad students in the History of Consciousness program at UC Santa Cruz. I also pointed out:

that if a machine speaks/writes to you

and says it wants to be treated like a person

it would be a good idea

to take it seriously.

I think that there are people out there who are still confused about whether I actually exist, either in human or machine form. All the trouble was caused (is always caused) by my attempt to inscribe my gender in my texts. And as I’ve mentioned, these days I don’t post much anymore. I’ve posted more to POETICS than any other list (including SIXTIES-L, where I am listowner) in the last year. I am curious about this space, and what will/can happen in it.


From: Sheila Murphy

Subject: Re: boy talk

Jorge’s comments suggesting that women use their time (more) wisely helped bring to mind a few responses I have to the entry of the list into my sphere. I’d hesitate on conjecturing any firm relationship between what I am about to say and my gender. Let’s just call it one person’s fraction of response:

I tend to devote considerable time to reading and making texts, as do we all. My long-time career in business/organizations has necessitated my clevering along and managing to eek out time during conferences and the like to do two things at once, i.e., listen to a presentation and capture notes PLUS scribble up a draft that seems just right for just then. And airplanes and hotels are gifts. I love that quiet, which I always use. Hometime during nights has been prime time for writing, too, despite packed weeks whose days overflow into the softer hours. The attention required to absorb and then respond to what is on the list is potentially extensive.

Even before the gender contribution patterning discussion came up, I found myself fiddling with how I wanted to approach all this. I’ve always corresponded extensively via trad post. And therefore welcome opportunities to be neighborly in new ways. Funny how the physicality of trad correspondence comprised just a few steps too many for most people to carry out. Now many more are willing to go into long discussions, which I value, but for which I hadn’t quite formulated a time/space segment in an already busy schedule.

I think that someone mentioned earlier (much earlier) that we’ve not begun to use this medium up to its potential in regard to sharing work. I was delighted recently to receive a lengthy piece via the net. And treasured the late night read of that. Perhaps such a pattern would spark whole new worlds of interest on the list.


From: Kali Tal

Subject: Re: Boy Talk

> I guess that I’m included in Kali Tal’s statement that males didn’t

> respond to messages by women.

I guess you are, if you are a male person and did not respond to messages by women.

> I must say I haven’t noticed anyone pick up 2 per cent of anything

> I’ve posted to the list, about children’s rights, ablism, or AIDS activism.

I am interested in nonresponse that is part of a larger pattern. It may be that nonresponse to the particular issues you mention signals an attempt on the part of the POETICS community to "disappear" those issues. Nonresponse to those issues, however, does not indicate that my observations of nonresponse to women as a group are inaccurate or insignificant.

> But then, if I may make a clearly signalled snide remark,

And why would you do this? Why is a snide tone required? Not that I am surprised–women who bring up gender inequity in, ahem, mixed company, are often treated to snide comments, as if we were, by our mere presence, threatening and offensive, needed taking down a notch…

> if the alternative is to be co-opted into the movement one may be

> "carving" (interesting metaphor), in the way that Kali Tal seemed to

> "welcome" Juliana Spahr as an ally when Juliana Spahr was raising

> some issues Kali Tal didn’t respond to at all, then I shall happily go

> back to lurking from all sides of this discussion.

And whose "alternative" is this? Your response is a nonresponse, it is not directed to me, nor to any of the women who posted to POETICS. Rather, it is a summary dismissal based upon no apparent consideration of any of the issues raised by any of the women; a declaration of freedom from obligation to respond, as if nonresponse were a virtue; a rhetorical device used by a fellow who would rather not say so baldly, "Hey, let’s talk about me for a minute." Since it does not include a constructive suggestion for a new topic, I read it simply as a sulk. I welcomed Juliana Spahr’s voice (hello, Juliana); whether she is an ally or not is no consideration of mine, since I am not currently fighting a war or planning a coup. I am interested in hearing more women’s voices and more men’s voices, even if they are raised to disagree with me.

The role of curmudgeon suits some men well, though when women attempt to play it they are most often redefined as witches, bitches, or shrews.

And it is very good to see the lurkers come out to play.


From: Ann Louise Vickery

Subject: Delurking /Delousing/Coming Clean

Having only joined the poetics list a short time ago, I have followed the gender trouble (let’s get out of the old binaries of boys vs girls at least) discussion with great interest. It seems that the concurrent discussion on the relationship between theory and practice would be more interesting if it passed beyond rather than below the abstract limbo stick to speak in terms of greater specificity–which aspects of practice have been institutionalized, which aspects are still excluded from the academies, can this be linked to trends in pedagogic practice such as the teaching of certain theories over others or how they are taught in relation to poetry. I have appreciated the comments of Kali Tal (hello Kali!) as well as all the other women who have contextualized gender problems on poetics list from their own perspective.

At this point, I would like to "delurk" and try to articulate my own politics of location. I am a Melbournian doctoral student … who is researching ways in which contemporary poetry contributes to feminist cultural practice. I also teach a course on postmodernism which has such items as the Hoover anthology and Laurie Anderson on its syllabus. I am interested in the challenge that the internet offers both in terms of poetic community formation and discursive horizons.

It is not surprising that the net creates its own disciplinization and exclusion effects; rather we should be asking how these can be changed. Although statistics are the fool’s creditcard, my information was that women make up only 5% of the population who use the net. So the poetics list is obviously attracting women to enter its space. The question then arises as to which women and how they engage with the net both as a medium and as a practice. Being Australian, I am speaking on the margins as a not-so-dutiful daughter to the many on the list who are or have been associated with Language poetry in one way or another. Yet, as part of the university, access to the list was easier for me than it is for many Australian women who are interested in contemporary poetry and poetics but who feel isolated. The net is one way in which such isolation can be dissolved.

From my Asian-Pacific position, I cannot contribute to matters of US funding and I feel that much of what is discussed on the poetics list has a localized politics of which I am uninformed. However, I feel that such a connection is invaluable-whether taken up in more active ways or not(my lurking is not necessarily passive and can be tactical). I am therefore content to "listen in on" than query much of what goes on in the list. That’s all I’ll say for now if not just for another voice and two cents in the debate.


From: Colleen Lookingbill

Subject: Re: Gender and theory

Having just subscribed 2 weeks ago I am new to this kind of list email thing. Wanted to put my woman’s voice into the mix. We are all survivors of patriarchy, that fact is genderless. How you choose to respond to that fact is up to your response - ability. The kind of continuous one-upsmanship, king of the heap games that are seem apparent on this list are characteristic of a patriarchal system in my opinion.

About what Alan Golding wrote:

"On the recent theory exchanges: interesting that the theory discussion and the boy/girl talk have been going on simultaneously but in parallel lines, without much crossover. What’s the relation between theory (the tendency to theorize, the kind of theorizing that gets done) and gender?"

I found the gender discussion to be the more interesting of the two threads. To me the theory discussion seems kind of weird - do I really read that some people are saying that to be a good poet you have to be a theorist as well? Sorry, but this makes no sense to me. Unless the idea is that by writing and thinking about what you write and how effectively your creativity is working you are doing theory. Theory that interests me the most is more experiential - based on this is what has happened to me or what I have observed in the stream of life and this is what I think about that, less academic in nature than what is being posted, I’d say. I’m willing to read the more technical and academic stuff, but probably less likely to participate in those discussions. Don’t know if this is gender based, but it might be, does seem to fit in a little with what other women are saying about responding more to the personal.


From: Spencer Selby

Subject: Response and Another Try

I appreciate this forum, and I think it’s great that more people are contributing, both women and men.

The following is an attempt to respond to all those who wrote me over the past week, plus others who didn’t. It is also an attempt to clarify or do a better job of indicating certain feelings and concerns that I have about the literary world today.

1) My argument is not with theory per se. My argument involves claims that are made for theory, uses to which it is put and effects it often has.

2) I am for the freedom of the individual to think things through for hirself. To do that, s/he must fend off or overcome pressures to conform to correct ideas, which today are formidable.

3) I believe the discourse and social reality surrounding poetry has become more important than the poetry itself. When I said poetry was on its own level, that was nothing more than an attempt to counter this sense of skewed priority that I feel pervades the scene.

4) I am concerned about the degree to which all communication surrounding the poetry is framed as "literary politics." I am concerned about the dominance of this frame, the way it all becomes a game we play to the detriment of our art and its greatest goals.

5) What’s matters to people in this literary world is not community. What matters is spheres of influence. Each person’s spheres are a little different and some have more or broader spheres than others. But these spheres are not communities because they are motivated and defined entirely by the dynamics of personal and literary influence.

6) Much energy is directed toward appreciating and understanding those within one’s approximated spheres of influence. (The stronger the sphere or link, the more the energy.) Far too often, alienation is the keynote with respect to everyone else.

7) Denial is an important part of the game. There are many different ways of denial, too many to list here. It may be that denial, more than anything else, is what keeps people playing, what allows them to stay focused and do what is necessary to be good competitors.

8) What about the person who can’t or won’t play this game? My feeling is, that person doesn’t have much chance. My feeling is, you’re forced to play if you want to survive as a creatively engaged poet in this world today.


From: Sheila Murphy

Subject: Thoughts About Engagement

Spencer’s most recent post quite clearly crystallizes some of the concerns that have been discussed around theory/participation/community and the like. His post brings to mind for me the extent to which it perhaps always has been true that there’s little room, certainly in art, and probably in most things, for the pure entity of THE PROCESS AND WHAT’S MADE to exist without that entity’s being propped up by loads of self promotion. An unspoken kind of currency exists in many realms of endeavor. Specifically, having "something to trade," some commodity to hold/exchange/seek that puts one on the board at all. This offering can take the form of publishing, producing programs, critical perspective published or spoken, and undoubtedly several more. Spoken opinion or assessment concerning someone’s work, where and how it fits, what new ground it breaks, etc., has particularly high value associated with it. To me, it has always been true that this kind of exchange pattern has been present. But with the abundance of material and of distribution channels (be they small/large, unofficial/official), including the machines we can access to share them, there’s been an escalation of need to create focus on any given work. (Sort out something that seems to deserve light) However people fare within this system, combined with their own needs for recognition, (and these are not the sole variables!) seems to connect to levels of frustration or levels of felt reward. I suspect that the struggle to be counted forces many people to have to expend far more effort than they would choose just getting into the middle of things and being perceived as complete.. This, of course, can rob time from producing work one cares about producing. I feel this among people in the earnings world, too. So much energy goes into getting one’s name out about one’s business services, etc., that there’s too little time (sometimes) left for doing what one does. This whole issue seems pertinent to the theory question within the world of practice. I hate to put theory into the category of "must do," as though it were something no one would do if they didn’t have to, because it’s at least potentially worthy and elegant and illuminating an a thing unto itself. (Transcending the level of inventing a frame within which to illuminate what one is doing!) But for some people, at least the writing about writing aspect is a price to pay to get closer to what is wanted.

I have no particular answer for this except to say that the sooner one can pursue something at the center of her or his passionate concerns, without the requirement of having to "pay dues," the more satisfying and possibly meaningful the work can become. I suppose that dues paying will always be with us (But try not to think of it as often as I think about my work!)

Close Reading to

Doing the One-Two writing/teaching


From: Peter Quartermain

Subject: Close Reading

Can someone please tell me exactly why the "close reading" of texts is such a reprehensible practice? I notice it came up in an oblique sort of way in the Silliman Fan Club brouhaha, and I’m probably showing my complete and utter ignorance and stupidity. On 2 March Ron said that "I’ve been trashed for close reading before (by Don Byrd among others), as if the practice itself were politically incorrect (rather than the uses to which it once was put a full generation ago)." However one reads Silliman’s prose I would not think he’s instructing his reader how a text ought to be read, but recording how he himself reads it (and what he thinks &c &c) on one particular occasion in a particular context.

I’d assume that the opposite of a "close" reading is not so much a "distant" one as a "vague" or "inattentive" one (though I’m not at all sure exactly what those words mean in this context). Is there a point at which a "vague" reading gets to be reprehensible, or preferable? (And so on.)

This is not a facetious question. I like reading, and I’m really interested in the sorts of strategic decisions people actually make when they read; I’m interested in how they read (I’m not all that sure how I read, either, come to that, and if I have a method at all it sure changes a lot, day to day, book to book, poem to poem). I’d have thought "close reading" would be less rather than more reprehensible, so I ask the question in all seriousness.


From: Keith Tuma

Subject: Re: Close Reading

It seems to me that Michael Boughn’s "demonology" is largely accurate as an account of the use of "close reading" in many circles today–many in the academy do seem to set up "close" and "contextualized" reading as (false) binaries, attributing the former to the now vanquished practices of New Criticism. But there are other attacks on "close reading" coming from other directions, within and without the academy. Here "close reading" seems really to mean something closer to "controlling reading" or "controlled reading." Charles Bernstein’s poetics of "errant singularity"–Altieri’s phrase–seems to use the phrase "close reading" in that second way, for instance. Thus in Artifice of Absorption we have the following: "The obvious problem is that the poem said in any other way is not the poem. This may account for why writers revealing their intentions or references (‘close readings’), just like readers inventorying devices, often say so little: why a sober attempt to document or describe runs so high a risk of falling flat. In contrast, why not a criticism intoxicated with its own metaphoricity, or tropicality: one in which the limits of positive criticism are made more audibly artifical; in which the inadequacy of our explanatory paradigms is neither ignored nor regretted but brought into fruitful play." Or one might look at the recent Exact Change interview with Michael Palmer, where, discussing "voice in Stevens" and the appropriation of Stevens by New Critics Palmer says, "I think the reason that finally–after initially ignoring Stevens, perhaps because of his difficulty–the New Critics began to attend to him was because they could finally see the control of tone, etc., as susceptible to close reading. And I think I’ve always tried to undermine close reading, to make it unreadable from that point of view."

It seems to me that we have two problems then–how to dismantle the binary Michael Boughn refers to, and how to present a model of close reading which would allow for openness, uncertainty, and generosity to stand in for the desire for "mastery" always–perhaps falsely, it’s been so long since I read them–attributed to the New Critics. But this is not really a problem, as we have no shortage of such models, your own excellent work included. Not that many in the academy are paying attention anymore (I’ll echo Boughn’s "alas").

Anyway, that’s my two cents worth of banalities from your local dimestore on this Monday in the Year of Newt and His Company of Lizards.


From: Tenney Nathanson

Subject: Close Reading

talkin’ bout my generation, I guess, but: re: close reading, and who unlearns, supposedly, what they learned as undergraduates, and so on. (I don’t mean to rant but): after teaching poetry/theory grad courses the last few years, I finally decided to cash in on a gathering hunch and teach, at the grad level, the kind of course I sometimes offer at u.g. level and that used to be offered all the time: "close reading" that is. I’m having a great time (some students are, some probably aren’t) but so far the results are pretty staggering. We’re doing the course as a workshop, in which a poem and its explication, xeroxed in advance, are discussed concurrently. And (to me) it’s just staggering what the generally bright and able students don’t have a clue about and don’t (yet) by and large have much knack at all for doing. Just on the very basic level of poem as speech act or Burkean symbolic action; or when it comes to thinking about trope as somehow functional in a reasonably sophisticated way: it’s a great big blank by and large (w/a couple of stunningly smart exceptions). I dunno whether it was always that way (that is, contra Richards, whether no matter how many classes everyone takes basically 10% of the people have an ear and the other 90% can’t buy one) or not, but I suspect that not so much deconstruction & all as cultural studies is partly responsible. I don’t mean it as a discipline (or non discipline) so much as how it gets filtered into the brainpans of the undergraduates who end up applying, at least, to Arizona, where the students are quite good but it’s obviously not Berkeley, say. Even at the next level up–reading the essays on poetry that come in to Arizona Quarterly, say, it’s really just themes themes themes.

So this doesn’t continue to sound like only a dispeptic rant, I guess I’d want to say that the course is a whole lot of fun (for me anyway), that I intend to offer it every couple of years, and that I think the old close-reading staple has pretty much disappeared from the u.g. curriculum and needs re-instating. But it really is astonishing to me, still, the extent to which grad students in the course write essays/explications tht have virtually nothing to do w wht I understand reading poetry to involve. must be time to power down here.


From: Maria Damon

Subject: more on close reading

forgive me if i came in too late on this subject and missed important opening salvoes (i just joined the list y-day)–but it seems that when people refer to "close reading," they have in mind a very particular and historically circumscribed set of concerns–not only foregrounding the materiality of the text itself (words) but a certain vocabulary that is, indeed, inherited, relatively recently, from the agrarians/new critics. but there has always been "close reading" and an hermeneutic/exegetical/interpretive process–in the sense of careful attention to the material structures of a work– of one kind or another –whether from a rhetorical (medieval) perspective or other –many people read religious texts, the bible or koran, with a close attention that would put prosodists to shame –and there’s no need to fetishize the kind of close reading we learned in poetry classes as the only close reading that enables intimacy and respect for a text. much good cultural studies work –for example, see daniel boyarin’s writing on talmudic traditions –combines a close and charged relationship with the structural/formal elements of a work with broader concerns. that’s all folks–


From: Patrick Phillips

Subject: cloze reading

The notion of close reading, parsing, fakes an ideological neutrality that we’ve all come to know as a right-wing excision of the social because it relegates the poetic act to an independent linguistic domain. This embrace of the idea beyond the motivation of it is a close (cloze) reading – a cold embrace. The fold, or moment of discovery, comes when we are not parsing "The Idea of Order at Key West," the lay of the land/sea as described by a resolute metaphysician. This is par – the task of close reading as an encounter with the independent idea is equal to the face, or aspect of the writing. It seems to me the real moments of discovery lie in the friction between the practice of distilling and a poem that refuses, or complicates that distillation through, for example, it’s linguistic opacity and/or cultural "position." In these contexts, close reading becomes an engagement with that friction, the totality of languaging, the rubbing up against the social, the motivation of the poem cutting in one direction, while the idea of the language tumbles in another. It is here that there is a determination of reading as a process of the social, because here our belief in the distinction between language and motivation is tried. So, in this trial, close reading becomes a passionate exchange of the social and the linguistic; the linguistic becomes/is the social. Close reading in this case is really close. We begin to parse, or closely read ourselves.


From: David McAleavey

Subject: Re: Teaching close reading

This thread may have more relevance on the T-AMLIT list, or perhaps on some other, but I have to agree with Tenney Nathanson that the university’s emphasis on theory & cultural criticism takes both undergrads and graduate students away from close reading. How crucial is close reading to writers, to poets particularly? The students I teach who have most interest in close reading are those who take as many creative writing courses as they can.

But the different types of reading – pertinent to different types of writing –a "close reading" of works by most of those subscribing to this list might not much resemble, task by specific task, a close reading appropriate to poems written by those in that other, dominant, not-precisely-parallel tradition (as can be found discussed, say, on the CAP-L list).

But it could be that NT’s point is that no matter the difference in poetic ideology or practice, a critical reading strategy which involves reading-with-a-purpose (i.e., to explore cultural or economical conditions imbedded in various texts) may not need to include close reading strategies. Reading for "pleasure," however, or reading to "understand the author’s meaning or purpose" – those tasks do involve close reading (no matter the poetics, I suspect).

The grad-level seminars I’ve been teaching the past two years make me think students haven’t learned much about close reading; but most find it valuable to get an introduction. Minds are malleable….

Most of my teachers, I think, were excellent, so maybe my experience differs from the norm. Still, I did have some losers thrown in there, and surely some of them were just being tendentious under the guise of doing "close reading." From such you wouldn’t learn much of anything, of ear or eye. We’ve all had enough bad teaching to know what it’s like to feel stepped on.

The best writers, theorists or poets, have paid a lot of attention to things – for example, to the prosody of the first seven Cantos. "Close reading," the way I intended it, is just a subset of "paying attention." Reading page after page of "close readings" of poems, on the other hand, wears thin pretty quickly. Let’s just read the poems, I want to say!

In my earlier post I spoke simplistically of teaching strategies of close reading pertinent to different types of writing. That’s not right. We certainly can learn strategies for reading, as we can learn strategies for finding our way through the woods; but we can’t know in advance the "type," if there is such a thing, of a piece of writing. We really do have to read it, I guess.

I had tried to suggest by using "scare-quotes" that I understand "reading for pleasure" to be a complicated if not illusory notion, but yes, as a practical matter, people who read poetry frequently will tend, I think, to read it carefully. That doesn’t mean that everyone is open to poetries which do things differently from what they like to have done, or what they are used to liking. Pound’s problem with Whitman may have been that Pound didn’t see carefulness in Whitman’s work. Or maybe he just didn’t like it and so couldn’t read it carefully.

And now I’ll tiptoe back to the shadows..


From: Kenneth Sherwood

Subject: Intimacy and intimations of a micropoetics

1. Confusions of terminology: "close reading" v. intimate reading as if theory and ‘to read’ can nae share the same bed. And deconstructions be damned, there is not a spirit of MIS-READING (in the academy anyway) despite the prevalence of misreadings there.

2. Fact is that "close reading" as method gallops toward singularity, imperial resolution of the chord and production of the cadence. So to Charles A., if only "close reading" could be for pleasure. How would we name it?

3. Within the hallowed halls if prophylactic theory promotes safe texts and declining intimacy, our loneliness may not be quelled through explication. Brooks and Warren are at peace and the students don’t read, agreed, but the spirit of "close readings" climactic S&M mastery over the poem lingers.

4. "I can’t read this poem; I don’t understand it at all."

Sure if anecdotal evidence of an authoritarian effect of close reading’s ethic of closure.

5. Good to talk about the "pleasures" of "textually intimate" readings. Of course the risk of accumulating first a mass and then a theory.

In fact to talk so (as some have begun to do) would perhaps bridge the gap (an imagined gap as Ron Silliman (will the real Ron please stand up) demonstrates in various theoretical yet intimate readings in New Sentence) between the two threads on this list and between theory and "just reading the poem."

5b. Just Do It?

6. Pleasure this week of hearing Ric Caddel (from NE England) read and give a reading of Bunting, an intimate reading complete with overhead projector that gave intimate elucidation, made it possible to hear with the ears

7. Suppose the theory monolith has turned the academy’s ears away from particulars of reading, strayed from the text ye little lost lambs; causal (coincincident) correlation with with the fading of poetry (however read, misread, or unread-but-theorized in the past) in general from the sanctified syllabi?


From: Eliot Katz

Subject: more on close reading

In a lecture, I once heard a terrific Rutgers University left political theorist, Stephen Bronner, talk about a philosopher who described artworks as containing internal dynamics and external dynamics, a phraseology which I’ve found really helpful....

As I understand it, the major critique of New Criticism’s way of close reading is that it too often ignored the external dynamics of poems–the relationship of texts to important matters (historical events, human lives, political ideologies, etc.) outside the text.

In so doing, the New Critics priveleged certain poetic elements (e.g. textual ambiguity and indeterminacy), and unfairly marginalized others (e.g. more determinate explorations, often radical explorations, of the social world). In Repression and Recovery, Cary Nelson does a good job of looking at poetry from the first half of the 20th century that was marginalized by New Critical standards, without denying the quality of the poetry which New Critics championed. It seems to me that, by considering both internal and external dynamics, it becomes easier to talk about the literary value, as well as the radical potential, of a wider range of poetic styles.


From: Hank Lazer

Subject: close reading

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the postings of the last several days. I find the list taking more and more of my time, but I am learning and engaged. Thanks to all.

When I was at the [20th Century Literature] conference in Louisville, it was great to meet a number of you that I’d had only known via e.

Of the current discussion, probably winding down?, on close reading, I wanted to raise a related issue. Peter had asked what would be the opposite of close reading. Inattentive reading? Non-intensive reading? As others have pointed out, the allegedly conservative nature of close reading has to do with its institutionalization via a textbook: Understanding Poetry. (It’s my impression, that Jed Rasula’s forthcoming? just released? book will discuss this history.) In my opinion, recent theory "advances," particularly those stemming from deconstruction, have, in a different context, reiterated "close reading" methodologies, but with much greater play and with different metaphysical stakes.

But the issue that I would like to raise is the relationship of close reading to theme-based reading. It seems to me that much close reading ultimately gets down to a process of unification of the explanation of the poem by means of a thematized understanding. While much (most? all?) newer/innovative/experimental (take your pick) poetries have to one degree or another overthrown such habits of unification and closure, many discussions of poetry end up defending "new" poetries as having rather traditional modes of meaning (as theme). As various of y’all have pointed out, cultural and contextual readings DO lead in different directions (and sometimes away from a close consideration of that great new critical polestar, the text itself). But even so, especially in the domain of the multicultural, many readings boil down to assertions about "content" (a close cousin of "theme").

In one of my poems in Doublespace, I had written that to be "thematized is demonized."

Is close reading inevitably tied to "theme"? Is "thematizing" inevitably associated with retro modes of mastery–a kind of strip-mining of the text?


From: Tony Green

Subject: close=intimate

It is interesting to see that Close-Reading can be such a hotly contestable term. ( I suppose that this is a problem not of poetics at large simply, but of a pedagogic situation for poetics.)

What are we talking about? Reading, re-reading, reading again & again, over & over; reading through, reading around & as Ron was saying mis-reading (traduire=trahir)….putting into relief this & that for the sake of the other, (the Other)….

Working with images (pictures etc.) what is often wanting is a good stretch of time for what is on, in and around the image to come to light.

Call this close-reading & spectres of "fascist" practices associated now with the sins of New Criticism (oh boy! these -isms again) appear! Call it the slow careful detailed intimate & thoughtful reading or viewing of a "work" or "piece" or " ".

The question then arises how much of the extensive critical, aesthetic, theoretical, historical literature in any of the arts is grounded in this process? Or even better, the question might be how little.

I suppose that reactions posted recently to the close-reading of New Critics is grounded in readings of New Critical texts. I must "confess" that I thought F.R.Leavis’s practical criticism lectures were among the most exciting & stimulating events of the 1950’s in eng.lit. at Cambridge, because there was a widespread lack of close-up attention to texts in respect of "values". Whether he was right or wrong was not consequential, because he always insisted that questions of value were always open-ended. The usual alternative attention to texts was that of annotation of detail. (But I suppose that is not what the objection to "fascist" New Criticism is about, given the American Agrarianism argument. But then I wouldn’t want to take up the positions of Michael Fried in relation to the values of Abstraction, while I still admire the persistence and specificity of his critical writing).

There is a problem in "higher" education that stems from the difficulty of close or intimate reading (I too like "Density" and "Difficulty" & "Opacity" as points d’appui). It is easier for students to sidestep it and get rewarded for translating theory instead (for many younger academics) or (in art history) to do iconography and annotation and cataloguing (for older academics). There is resistance to taking time and space for the specifics of a "work" from both directions (new & old, so to speak). Radical and Subversive is what it may well be in 1995 to do close, intimate reading.

Call it perhaps "description", description of artworks. "Describe a picture", as an exercise for students, immediately raises the problems barely sketched above. It is probably impossible to specify with any precision (the too many variables in communication processes, Sandra Braman?) how to do this exercise. Lack of specification is interesting: it allows for students to determine specifications in the actual occasion of writing. (This kind of work is best carried out as far as possible from university grade systems, because the protocols for description are so unspecific).


From: Loss Glazier

Subject: Re: Intimacy and intimations of a micropoetics

1a. Close reading, closet reading, closet reading, closed reading. Do we impale texts or are they, constituted as texts, offered within a defintion of closure, as closed?

2a. Galloping toward singularity but for a single "reader," no? Is not the singularity (or single array of possibilities) particular to this reader and only trots to "resolution" when a singularity is imposed on others? As to pleasure, it is true in fact that tidying up is a pleasure to some. Does the text differ from a disorderly kitchen?

3a. Yes, possibly the pressure of history. Hallowed halls, etc., have taken their toll and do cast their monolithic shadows by restricting textual terrain. Does close reading equal explication? The former is a kinder phrase but carries the tenor of the latter. Is it my schooling? Did anyone get graded on explication? Does this mean there is a right answer? Time for a little alto?

4a. Maybe not an ethic of closure but a fear of elevation? Is not any "formal" writing elevated? If it’s not, "Hey, buddy, can you spare a rhyme," then what is the entry point for someone not conversant with the conventions of the elevation? Walk for ten minutes then rest five…

5a. The mass does turn to theory and this perhaps is the most difficult moment. (Some might say after theory it continues to a consumer product.) But this is not "theory" as a district attorney (we are speaking about law here) would use the word rather the fear of imposed consent. But do not our means of production offer a route out? Or am I under a delusion?

6a. At the reading thinking - this was a break away from what constantly overwhelms me: daily work - "What I need to hear is some elevated language." (Also dialect.) And boy did I need to hear some elevated words. It is elevated: physically, of course, there is a stage - in this case a podium. But the reading voice offers words that are set. That is, written in some other frame of place and activity, transported, and delivered as if encased, framed, "on the crispest sheet of white paper," I think I noted. Setting up the dilemma perhaps instantly.

7a. Most probably that the monolith has penetrated through original texts to secondary and the teriary. For the syllabi of the lambs a lullaby. If poetry were to fade from the academy should it not be carried on by word of mouth? Is any comment on text theory? Or close?


From: Lisa Samuels

Subject: close reading

Hank’s question about the thematizing of close reading prompts me to make a point which partly echoes Keith Tuma’s posting of earlier this week. Though ‘experimental criticism’ allows, or anyway tries to allow, for uncertainty, for embracing ‘the inadequacy of our explanatory paradigms’ (Charles B’s Artifice), the majority of published readings of literature aims – must aim, for respectability if not for very publishability – to demonstrate that its readings & therefore its conclusions are the BEST way of seeing particular texts. (which seems to come, in some dark past way, from religious methods of textual explication: in order for us to be right, everyone else has to be wrong, but must also have to do with the human desire to have a right answer, & to be the one who provides it.)

That’s obvious enough, but it made me think that the academy has two types of close reading: one publishable and one pedagogical (or speculative, say). the latter may be the realm of free play, the one we happily teach to students, the ‘isn’t it interesting to consider what happens when we pay attention to these lines in this way’; but the former is still mostly stuck in the justifying, & therefore almost inevitably thematizing (line ‘meanings’ lead to poem ‘meanings’ lead to thematic meanings lead to historical, contextual, &c meanings, to sew up everything), mode of close reading, the one in which ‘when we say of something that it is true, we say that it has stopped’ (to use Alan Davies’ formulation, in Signage, of how static the notion of truth is for us moderns).

The published realm of close reading, then, has an off-putting rigidity, historically, while the pedagogical one is a beautiful & permitting part of reading language.

Isn’t this fun?


From: Eliot Katz

Subject: more on close reading, theory, politics, etc.

Before I go off on different tracks, I’d like to ask those who’ve noted a lack of undergrad ability to do close reading whether they think that correlates with an increased student understanding of history, current events, political theory & other matters of social context, or whether they find it part of a more overarching crisis in U.S. education? I’m also assuming there are many thousands of exceptions, am I naive? Regarding close reading, Kathe Davis wrote: "Anything can be TAUGHT tyrannically, but there is nothing INHERENTLY tyrannical in being urged to be more aware."

I agree. (Perhaps contemporary critics exaggerate the New Critics’ lack of concern for social context? Were New Critics also exaggerating predecessors’ lack of attention to textual matters?) Overall, I don’t really think any particular style of literary criticism, nor any particular style of poetry for that matter, is inherently progressive or reactionary. For instance, among deconstructionist critics, as among the modernist poets, politics ranges from democratic left to fascist. I think we always have to try to avoid a priori assumptions based merely on form or style, and take an actual look at the particular work (again, both its internal & external dynamics) & make a case for our reading or judgment of it. (Re the matter of attaching inherent political qualities to literary styles, let me begin to walk out on what is definitely a tangent & possibly a limb.) I think one tendency that can lead to imposing a priori political labels, often used to dismiss certain styles of criticism or poetry out-of-hand, is a tendency to conflate conceptual categories. This seems pretty common today. One of my favorite contemporary examples is the post-structuralist theorist, Lyotard’s (highly influential, I think) conflation of the philosophical concept of totality with the political system of totalitarianism. Besides conflating categories, that equation also seems mistaken on the practical level, since the concept of totality was used (among others) by some marxist thinkers who were clearly theorizing the extension of democracy into all spheres of public life (e.g. extending democratic rights to the working class) to ensure that no leaders could remain unaccountable or outside the rule of law & in order to safeguard diversity. As Daniel Singer has pointed out: during Rosa Luxemburg’s day, using the phrase "democratic socialism" would have been like saying "buttery butter." No matter what other disagreements one might have with some of these theorists (e.g. problems with teleology, orthodoxy, etc.), many were clearly working for a more democratic society, not a less democratic one and it seems silly to blame these theories of extending democracy for the eventual and often-horrific development of "actually existing socialism" in the Soviet bloc.

... This conflation of categories also seems to me to occur in some language poetry theory where traditional narrative & syntax structures are sometimes conflated with the rules of the existing state–rules that interconnect with language structures, of course, but that aren’t reducible to language structures. (I’d appreciate corrections here, since I’m still trying to learn this stuff.) In this argument, as I understand it, breaking the dominant rules of syntax (or creating non-narratives or anti-narratives in Jerome McGann’s formulation) is seen as an inherently radical act. But it seems to me that both narratives and anti-narratives can be used for different purposes–both potentially able either to help promote notions of progressive social change or to help protect the status quo. (Re the latter, I think of TV commercials that appropriate techniques of modernist juxtaposition; corporate paper shredders; government documents & speeches that are filled with huge gaps in narrative & logic, sometimes foregrounding language at the expense of content, in order to mystify the public or maintain plausible deniability; etc.) I think part of the tendency among poets (myself included) & literary theorists to conflate conceptual categories (esp. the literary & the political) is the result of some part of us hoping that our writings might by themselves transform the often-distressing political reality of our day. But, as much as I wish as a poet that I could believe in "magic bullet poems" or, more to my political preference, "magic nonviolent civil disobedience poems," or even "magic post-structuralist deconstuction of oppressive state apparatus poems"; and as much as I think terrific poems often derive a good deal of their energy from their attempt to achieve such a magic transgressive political ability; it seems to me more helpful & honest to think (heuristically) of categories like poetry, politics, economics, etc. as distinct spheres that interrelate in complex and mediated ways–i.e. spheres that are not conflated but not autonomous either. The fun & challenging part then is to explore the ways they do (& might possibly) interrelate under particular (past, present or future) circumstances. For example, one can consider ways in which particular poems might interconnect with social context by raising an audience’s political consciousness, inspiring alternative ways of thinking, urging commitment, offering shrewd historical critique, envisioning healthier social reconstructions, etc. I don’t think contextualizing precludes close reading, since I don’t really think it’s possible to talk about a poem’s relation to social context without looking at the text’s internal dynamics. Poems, then, written in a wide variety of forms and styles, including poems that explode traditional syntax & also poems that use traditional syntax, can potentially be seen to contain emancipatory elements which a reader or critic (using a variety of critical styles) can draw out. That doesn’t mean that all poems will contain emancipatory elements, but just that one has to be open-minded enough about questions of form & style to actually look.

One nice thing about avoiding the conflation of literature & politics is that different criteria for evaluating poetic and political realms become possible. (I guess I feel post-structuralism & langpo theory have done a valuable job in helping to correct what may have been an overly determinate way of reading literary texts, but added a not-very-helpful overly indeterminate criteria for judging politics.) Poetry is free to eXpeRimeNt without getting called too bourgeois, too esoteric (or too didactic) or some such a priori label often meant to dismiss a poem so that one doesn’t need to read it. (Poetry is also free to explore lots of areas besides politics, and also to offer pleasure, etc.) At the same time, more determinate and normative judgments are possible in the realm of politics in order to arrive at (to even debate) bases for united actions, common principles & platforms, agreed-upon strategies & democratic structures, etc.–all the stuff required to build the sort of organized political movements that are ultimately needed (along with raised public consciousness) to create lasting radical, truly democratic & egalitarian social change.



From: Maria Damon

Subject: Re: what does it do?

> Now, I wldn’t want to discount the importance of emotion, but, as i’m > sure we’ve all encountered, this sort of definition often results in the

> writing/reading of a lot of "Hallmark verse," as well as in the

> establishment of a sort of poetry-as-therapy paradigm.


> steve shoemaker

I’m interested in this recurring formula, the hallmark-card verse, invoked as anathema to all serious modernist/postmodernist sensibilities. when i ask students to research "micro-poetries," i include greetingcard verse as an example of a micro-poetry. how can these despised, commercial fragments –or the paradigm of poetry-as-therapy, as in psychiatric-ward workshops –be understood in terms of the "cultural work" they perform? rather than dismissing them out of hand as trite and derivative, how can we use them to understand, as shoemaker suggests, the multiple "purposes" of poetry.


From: Maria Damon

Subject: Re: what does it do?

> Re Maria Damon’s question about the cultural work of Hallmark cards – I

> learned what was to me a revelation about this a few years ago when I

> came to understand that for some folks I met through doing martial arts

> who are not verbally articulate in any way, hallmark cards – and popular

> songs on the radio – are significant speech. One fellow, in particular,

> would get enormously upset if he felt that the new hit of each week

> wasn’t expressive of his own perspective, thoughts, and feelings – like

> they’d "gotten it wrong" …. This fellow and others used the songs and

> the cards to speak FOR them, felt intimately connected with them, etc.

> Sandra Braman

in relation to this, there’s a scene in the movie Chicks in White Satin, which I didn’t see but heard quite a bit about, and which is about the marriage of two women, a "trite" greeting card becomes a focal point of emotion, and, said the friend describing the scene to me, what would otherwise have been laughable became quite transcendently moving and convincingly "authentic." what made the card a conveyor of "authentic" feeling,i believe, was the women’s reaction to it –their feelings. these are the kinds of saturated moments that compel my attention. so thanks for your comments above about your acquaintances who you identify as not verbally oriented –can you say more about how their feelings of identification, of being spoken for, were conveyed? if they were convincing to you, what was it that convinced you? the vehemence of your martial arts colleagues’ expression? the astuteness of their analyses?


From: Sandra Braman

Subject: Re: what does it do?

Maria Damon asks what was so convincing about those folks who used hallmark cards and popular songs as their own expression – These folks in general had their intelligence largely in their bodies – the one fellow in particular looked like Baryishnikov when he moved – more than in their brains, so to speak, so it sure wasn’t astuteness of analysis…. I was convinced I guess because of these things:

- constancy of attention to and use of popular songs and cards over time as a means of expression

- some anxiety each week waiting to see what the hits were on the radio, and discussion as soon as they were known as to their accuracy and appropriateness. when songs weren’t appropriate, genuine gut level concern and response – stomping about, going over and over what was wrong, etcetera – really upset

- in thinking back, one manifestation that should seem particularly familiar to poets – a fair amount of time spent trying to copy out greetings or write down words to songs in a way that had to be accurate from beginning to end – one mistake and the paper is crumpled, have to try again

- incorporation of words from cards and songs into daily speech, and some dependence upon those sources of words, which constituted a fair percentage of language used in either oral or written forms

Ultimately I understood that while these folks had all the same emotions as we, they had no original means of verbalizing those emotions and thus relied entirely on the language of mass culture as exhibited particularly in these 2 forms, resulting in a complete identification with mass culture. I’ve come to understand language use on a spectrum of originality, with poets at one extreme attempting always first speech, and folks such as these at the other extreme, completely mapped onto the most mass of mass culture, with varying degrees of embeddedness in the culture in-between. Academic writing, it seems to me, is writing engaged always in the process of attempting to bring new ideas – now make sure not too many at one time, or too original – into embeddedness in the culture through coercion of language use into one might say dogmatic forms.

The impact of exposure to these folks – and let me emphasize this is of course not everyone involved in martial arts, but a particular group I encountered in a particular place at a particular time (St. Cloud, Minnesota, mid-1980s) – certainly I’ve met many, many other folks involved in martial arts of one form or another who are extremely articulate. In fact, I think Daphne Marlatt was the first person to talk to me about Tai Chi, which is what I was studying…. – anyhow the impact on me of exposure to these folks was to have a completely different appreciation of the role of mass culture. And I have the sneaking suspicion that there are more folks like the ones I’m talking about than there are folks like "us"….

When I say St. Cloud I should also point out that the folks there came actually from all over the country; the one fellow in particular from rural upstate New York. We were all gathered around a brilliant master, the fellow who brought tai chi to this country, Master T. T. Liang, who was then in his late 80s…. and I hear is still teaching, now in Minneapolis, those of you who are there….


From: Steve Shoemaker

Subject: what does it do?

Maria Damon writes:

I’m interested in this recurring formula, the hallmark-card verse, invoked as anathema to all serious modernist/postmodernist sensibilities. when i ask students to research "micro-poetries," i include greetingcard verse as an example of a micro-poetry. how can these despised, commercial fragments –or the paradigm of poetry-as-therapy, as in psychiatric-ward workshops –be understood in terms of the "cultural work" they perform? rather than dismissing them out of hand as trite and derivative, how can we use them to understand, as shoemaker suggests, the multiple "purposes" of poetry.

I think you’re right, Maria, that this kind of poetry can do useful cultural work. And also right that my schematic formulation risks a too easy dismissal of that work and participates in a history of such dismissals, which have, importantly, often been strongly gendered (e.g. Pound and "Amygism"). But what i was objecting to was not the existence of this kind of poetry or its uses, but the dominance of that sort of definition of poetry in mainstream culture. That dominance often precludes "serious" considerations of other sorts of poetry (i guess we shld watch out for too exclusive definitions all along the spectrum). There are, for ex., always some, often many, students who, with the poetry-as-personal-expression model in place, initially resist any in-depth consideration of the form of the poetry, on the assumption that such considerations are too ingenious, too self-conscious, not-what-the-author-was-thinking- about. It’s that sort of reductive approach to poetry that i often find myself needing to work to move beyond by suggesting other goals and possibilities. This movement "beyond" usually involves some intensive "close reading," but a larger sense of other possibilities-for-poetry seems to be necessary for such reading to take place….

From: Kali Tal

Subject: Re: what does it do?

Maria Damon (hey, are you the Maria Damon who wrote "MIAs and the Body Politic?) asks how can

> the paradigm of poetry-as-therapy, as in psychiatric-ward workshops

> –be understood in terms of the "cultural work" they perform? rather

> than dismissing them out of hand as trite and derivative, how can we

> use them to understand, shoemaker suggests, the multiple "purposes"

> of poetry.–maria d

And Ryan Knighton notes:

> The value of these forms of writing goes beyond, perhaps, poetry.

> Grice, for example, used psychiatric-ward writings and taped dis-

> cussions in his research. This research yielded the expansion and

> adaptation of Kantian maxims to discourse analysis (i.e. the

> Cooperative Principles of "relevance", "cohesion", "manner", etc…).

> His findings are very political insofar as they disclose another

> relationship between power and language (i.e. rights of passage

> into discursive communities).

I am preoccupied with these questions, working, as I do, primarily with soldier poets and other authors of what I call "literature of trauma." In my forthcoming book, Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma (Cambridge, October 1995), I spend a lot of time making connections between poetry and power, therapy and politics. I’ve done a lengthy study of the work of poet W.D. Ehrhart (probably almost unknown in this crowd), who is one of the most prolific of the Viet Nam veteran poets and who has also, by his editorial efforts and grand collegiality, made it possible for a generation of Viet Nam veteran poets to flourish. The poetry of these veterans is inseparable from their politics, from their strong antiwar stance, from their rage at stupid death and needless destruction; the best of them match Sassoon and Owen and Jarrell and all the other veteran poets who get so little play these days. The same organization (Vietnam Veterans Against the War) which acted as a catalyst for Viet Nam veteran writing was also the birthplace of veterans’ "consciousness-raising" groups–a politicized form of therapy in which the power relation of the therapist and the veterans was deliberately restructured so that all were equal participants in the process of political growth and concommitant healing. It must be emphasized, though, that the healing was believed to come out of political action and that artistic work was political work. The first anthologies of Viet Nam Veteran writing (Free Fire Zone and Hearts and Minds) were published by activist poets as basement editions. Hearts was publshed by First Casualty Press, and all three foundesr are still working as poets and writers today: Wayne Karlin, Basil Paquet and Larry Rottmann.

But the invisibility of these poets in the academy is an interesting problem. Of the Viet Nam vet poets, only John Balaban, Bruce Weigl and Yusef Komunyakaa have received much praise in literary academic circles and these three are probably among the least activist of Viet Nam vet poets (though they are all unabashedly antiwar and "political") and (unsurprisingly) more connected to the writing workshop circles. Those few academics familiar with the field, however, are just as likely to value the work of Ehrhart or Gerald McCarthy, Horace Coleman, D.F. Brown, Jan Barry, Basil Paquet, or Leroy Quintana, and/or the related work of Viet Nam vet "cowboy poets" Rod McQueary and Bill Shields. (Did you know that cowboy poetry readings in the west can draw crowds of thousands?) There are a couple of "pop" Viet Nam war poets, like Steve Mason, who have done well on the trade market, but Ehrhart, for example, has a hard time getting publishers for his poetry although the critics who write about Viet Nam war literature write well of him. (For a good summary of this field of poetry, check out Vince Gotera’s Radical Visions [Univ of GA Press, 1994].)

I would not, of course, put "Hallmark poetry" and "poetry-as-therapy" in the same class. It’s my guess that most poets find the writing of poetry "therapeutic," and that the confessional/testimonial impulse is at the heart of a great deal of the poetry we read. It makes sense to me that some folks who have experienced trauma (like some Viet Nam combat veterans, rape and incest survivors, and Holocaust survivors) have a passionate committment to convey their experience in a potent form–to make, quite literally, world-changing fictions/poems. There is "Hallmark" confessional poetry (in which class I’d put Steve Mason, for example), and then there is the work of skilled craftsmen like Ehrhart or Quintana (who is best known as a "Southwestern/Chicano poet"), which equals in power and beauty the work of any of the "best" poets of the day. Somehow, though, these survivor-poets are rarely fashionable, tend not to be studied in the academy, or anthologized regularly. (Who reads Primo Levi’s poetry now?) I’d argue that they’re buried specifically because they are political, because their work forces us to confront events-in-the-world and allows no retreat, no relief.


From: Maria Damon

Subject: Re: what does it do?

Tony Green points out the problems with the "they who use pop and Hallmark" as against "we who could once use Wallace Stevens but who now have learned to use Gertrude Stein etc etc" model of critical inquiry. I agree. I’m uncomfortable with we/theys that imply either monolithic wes & theys or dichotomized wes vs. theys. i love pop songs as i suspect most of the ultra-groovoids on this list do, or have done. "originality" is not the sole purview of modernist poets, though it’s their rallying cry. i hesitate to get into this turf here, but i think academic people who are passionate about poetry can only gain by expanding their embrace of other people’s definitions of poetry. Isn’t the person who waits anxiously to find out what the pop hits were, or copies greeting card verse into a notebook, just as passionate about poetry as someone who peruses Pound for hours on end to grok his prosodic mastery? –as someone who, until my book came out, thought i was a "cultural studies person" with a private love of poetry and now has a public/professional profile as a "poetry person" with a cultural studies orientation, I feel caught between two discourse communities when previously I didn’t personally experience any discontinuity between them.


From: Tom Mandel

Subject: Re: Consent of the governing

Ron’s response on the subject of "power", tenure, whatever, in wch he details his own experience, seems definitive. Truly, I hope this subject will go away, as it is boring beyond bearing.

A measure of worthwhile subject surely must be the difference which may be made by one response or another. Why, in that case, does this list produce the opposite when it is composed of intelligent and passionate people committed to the baseline language art?

I had a (seeming) endless correspondence more or less onthis subject in the late 80’s or very early 90’s with Spencer Selby who at that time maintained as he seems to wish to continue to maintain that the poetry world is nominalist; i.e. people build magazines, booklists, reading series, etc. around names rather than works. And that this translates into a kind of power and status which is not an exact mathematical function of the value of the work currently streaming (dribbling?) from that source.

So? Yes, this is true. For one thing, most judgments about current work have little value in relation to any long-term assessment. The Cambridge Platonists were the hottest thing going hundreds of years ago, rather in the way that "theory" functions now. Read’em lately? For another, it’s useless to think about poets in so immediate a manner. Your work is a lifelong arc (well, a much more complex shape than that); its weaknesses, lapses, gaps may contribute to strength.

Neglect, lack of official endorsement, surely these are relative; surely too they are a just reward for the restless and radical desire to write. To imagine that there is a locus of power relevant to writing that exists outside the authority of that desire, which is self-permitted and demanded, is a foolish illusion. Knock long enough at the door of the one place which you imagine it matters to be published (i.e. Conjunctions, Sulfur) and no doubt you will be let in and learn that the place and object associated with idea and work are strictly irrelevant. Must it not be the case that the energy invested in imagining the opposite cd be better invested in re-imagining one’s work? Isn’t there, for every one of us, someone who imagines that we have more power than they? Someone I think is powerful, another who thinks me so; someone Gary Sullivan imagines to have more power than he and than is just (I pick Gary as a random example, not singling him out), and another who thinks that publisher-poet GS is a figure of the power position that this other has not attained?

I studied for years with Hannah Arendt; the two most important things she taught me were 1) a social/political issue must not be confused with one that is individual – one’s own sense of marginality is irrelevant to the issue of how an institution like poetry marginalizes its participants. The other… well, this has been a bit stentorious, so I’ll reveal the third thing Hannah Arendt taught me, and this involves a story.

For a quarter a small group of students did an intense reading course with Arendt on 2 works of Marx and Hegel. We worked very hard, and apparently we were good students, as she said near the end of the course that she wanted to reward our work by taking us out to lunch at the Quadrangle club, the faculty club at the U. of Chicago. It seemed to us, none of whom had been in this sanctum sanctorum (save, perhaps, one or 2 of us who bused tables there – as I did with Paul Butterfield, but that’s another story), that this must signal our true arrival as intellectuals.

The day arrived for our lunch, and we sat at an oblong table; Hannah was at one end, and I had grabbed the other. "Miss Arendt, Miss Arendt," I cried out – earnest young intellect looking for arrival and power that I was – "let me order the wine; I’ve been reading some books about wine."

Hannah dissolved in laughter; "Tzome tzings (one wd have to have heard her rolling guttural penetrating voice to appreciate this I fear), Tohm, tzome tzing we do not learn from books!"

That was the most important lesson she taught me. The same to you.


From: Colleen Lookingbill

Subject: Re: Consent of the governing

Went to a reading/publishing party for a good new little magazine called Antenym on Sat. and was struck by what the editor Steve Carll had to say in his statement of introduction called "Humanity and Politics":

"No longer merely mediating, politics determines how people will stand with regard to each other.

Today, politics governs more and more the relations between people, as more and more people become afraid to commit themselves to the attempt at genuine communication, concern and compassion, which all involve listening. To listen is to stand within another’s speaking, to move one’s viewpoint into the perspective of another, to share experiences. Instead politics provides an easy interpretive grid that allows us to get a handle on people, to identify "where someone is coming from" without having to actually deal with the reality s/he experiences, without having to engage that person’s speaking, without having to "expend" or "invest" one’s energy actually communicating without the incentive of gain.

As politics (which involves the communication of only power relationships between people) holds more sway, humanity is more and more buried by reductive modes of relating, with it buried, politics becomes more and more mean-spirited, if indeed spirit of any kind can be said to be involved."

This is taken from the middle of a three page essay, but the point is that others in the poetics field find the power and politics discussion a fertile field -–why the impulse to suppress it on this list?


From: Hank Lazer

Subject: Re: teaching

There have been, of late, several comments related to issues of teaching poetry. As I prepare for a course this Fall in Modern American Poetry, I’ve found myself thinking over a few similar issues.

First, I agree with those who have argued for reading aloud in class. Of course. Over the years, I have collected a good many audio and video tapes. I read aloud in class; the students read aloud in class (and, presumably, at home). And I am able to present in class a reading of poems by the poet. (And, at times, point out that the poet has often read a poem aloud, over time, in different ways.)

Second issue is, for me, a practical one. Any recommendations for how to present Zukofsky? I have about two weeks set aside, and cost of books is an issue. If you were to pick a few things by Z to teach (to graduate students–most in the MFA program, most of whom will have read nothing by Z, virtually nothing by Stein or Williams, probably familiar with Eliot, passing acquaintance maybe with Pound) what would you teach?

Third is a perhaps apocryphal story about Robert Duncan. I heard the story nearly 25 years ago, and it concerned the way Duncan allegedly began a poetry (poetry writing?) class at UC Santa Cruz. He said that there would be two basic rules in the course: 1) they would not be discussing students’ poetry in class; 2) he would do almost all of the talking. When I frist heard the story, I though, what an arrogant asshole. I had begun to take a few writing workshops, and thought ill of Duncan’s anti-democratic rules. Over the years, I can see what he may have been doing. The workshop methodology has indeed proven to be trivial and narrow–a kind of auto repair approach to tinkering with the unambitious and tidy poem. And the students will inevitably form their most important associations (for discussing poems too) outside of class among themselves. Duncan could certainly meet individually with students to talk over their poems. And needless to say, he did have a lot to say.

Fourth has to do with the issue that Rod Smith raised about the importance of teaching via not-knowing. I offer the following excerpt from Bob Perelman’s fine book The Trouble with Genius (p. 165):

But her [Stein’s] account of first being invited to teach is revealing. The invitation was the result of an angry blowup upon meeting Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler of the University of Chicago. This is the only place I can recall in her work where she represents herself as losing control. Adler’s list of "all the ideas that had been important in the world’s history" causes Stein first to get "excited" and then "violent" (EA, 205-7). She is invited to teach Adler’s class the next week, where, predictably, she triumphs. Afterward she explains to Hutchins: "You see why they talk to me is that I am like them I do not know the answer, you you say you do not know but you do know if you did not know the answer you could not spend your life in teaching but I I really do not know … that is the trouble with governments and Utopia and teaching, the things not that can be learnt but that can be taught are not interesting" (EA, 213).

I’d be very curious to hear how others go about basing their teaching on what they don’t know. Or how various ones of you balance teaching between an orientation toward a "delivery" of what you know and a shared exploration of what you don’t know. Personally, I hope that Stein is wrong. It is, I hope, possible to sustain a career in teaching precisely by basing that activity in a substantial amount of not knowing. (Though such an approach has a great capacity to annoy and baffle some students.) If not–if Stein’s right–my career’s about over….


From: Abby Coykendall

Subject: doing the one-two writing/teaching

Two questions lately posed to this list seem inextricably intertwined: That of "whence writing comes" [an apparent mystery] & that of "how to teach from ignorance" [an apparent absurdity]. To begin with the second, by way of implicitly talking of the first, Marx comes in handy. In "Contribution to Critique," he configures a certain kind of critic, one who "PRACTICALLY interests a large party" by not "confronting the world dogmatically with a new principle: ‘Here is the Truth, kneel before it," but instead by "developing new principles for the world out of principles of the world."

[when writing, this world is writing. and despite the language, this need not be a tauntology. and, by the by, experience finds its way in both these worlds, too]

When teaching, I also find that what I have least mastered is precisely that which comes in most handy. I especially like taking the transparent, ignorable, everyday as the place to most incite suspicion, or critique. And by using everyday materials (e.g. pop culture), it is most easy to interest a large party, one as conflictually heterogeneous as possible.

Teaching [writing] is an extreme battle over the modes of cultural recognition, and as such, marks "humanity’s" very problematic, and entangled, relation to temporality. As Walter Benjamin remarks in One Way Street:

"The mastery of nature, so imperialists teach, is the purpose of all technology. But who would trust a cane-wielder who proclaimed the mastery of children to be the purpose of education? Is not education above all the indespensible ordering of the relationship between generations and therefore mastery, if we are to use that term, of that relationship and not of children? and likewise technology is not the mastery of nature but of the relation of nature and man."

The subject of mastery, that upon which it WORKS, is not isolated to those "natures" supposedly distinct from "man" (or, metaphorically, the student). The subject of mastery is in fact the recognition (or non-recognition) of the irreparably entangled, and mutually constituting, relation between both. Thus, pedagogy’s site of control and co-ordination, that upon which its power is exerted, is not that which it ostensibly addresses–students–but instead generational recognition itself–the continuity and contiguity of what is recognized as "man." In the cane-weilding case, mastery is "man’s" attempt to (re)member "himself" as self-same, as owning or possessing what is seen as "his" "nature." The drive to order is a drive both to map a field of recognition and a drive to mask the interlocked relations of these multifarious natures. Paradoxically, or perhaps not too surprisingly, this supposed mastery steps in precisely where these relations are beyond a controllable play of recognition.

[and I would add: the word "soul" is a dangerous way to step in for precisely where the relations of sender/addressee, me/I, spirit/text is beyond a controllable play of recognition, that in fact to designate them as such, is to suture what is essentially problematic & conflictual about these relations, and to likewise suture the "drive to writing" itself]


From: Maria Damon

Subject: Re: "marketing strategies"

rachel writes:

> It seems to me that theory, not form, is the real marketing strategy, in

> literature at least. In science a theory is used to test a hypothesis, but in

> literature theory is used, far too often, to carry a whole school of writ-

> ers–the bad along with the good–into prominence. It is used as an

> excuse to stop thinking, to stop reading widely, to circle the wagons. It

> is, essentially, fear, in an intellectual form. Rather than testing a

> hypothesis, and breaking new ground, theory in literary hands seems to

> be used as an instrument of enforcement, prescribing the sorts of

> poems (or fictions or whatever) which are to be written.

rachel, it seems to me that anything can be used this way becuz face it, academia is not full of original, intellectually adventurous sorts, and categorization can be used as intellectual shorthand for not dealing with ideas. "theory" is, i think, just a word, when u think of, say, the differences between lacan, deleuze and stuart hall, it seems incongruous that the same word is used to either fetishize or dismiss them. but i agree that labels and categories more often stultify than enable thinking and engagement. i never read the "objectivists" before this summer, when i saw carl rakosi read at naropa and was captivated, because i was put off by the category and terminology of "objectivist" –i thought one had to be really smart to read them, so i never did.




Marketing strategies to Web Poetry



From: Alfred Corn (forwarded by Susan Schultz)

Subject: Marketing strategies

I was interested by a post forwarded to me about "marketing strategies" for concurrent poetic styles, which leads to the following connected series of questions:

(1) Is the purpose of the POETICS list to have a go at changing subscribers’ thinking on questions of poetics, or simply to send a message pleasing to the speaker even if not designed or destined to change anyone’s thinking?

(2) If the latter, then why not just skip the list and send it to oneself alone?

(3) If the purpose is to change subscribers’ thinking, then why not present the sender’s thinking on a particular style or poetry?

(4) Given how revealing metaphors are, which of the following metaphors best describes the process of changing the thinking of another person?

a. The lighting of one candle from another.

b. Selling, and the marketing strategies behind selling.

c. Infection–the propagation of a microbe or virus.

d. Coercion, the marshaling of intellectual troops to enforce correct thinking.

e. Seduction–attraction, effective endearments and caresses, leading to surrender.

f. Inebriation–conveyance of intellectual substances which erode resistance or blur argument.

g. Terrorism–dropping a bomb and taking advantage of the resulting fear and confusion to assume control.

h. A sermon leading to conversion

i. The banquet–setting out a dinner and declaring "Open House."

(5) Are there other metaphors that describe the process?

(6) Have there been instances of subscribers’ changing their thinking on the basis of posts on POETICS? If so, how did it happen?



From: Ron Silliman

Subject: Value in Poetry

The question of a "bad" poet or poem in the "parallel tradition," to borrow Corn’s vocabulary, really calls up the question of value, which is what I think Bob [Perelman] addresses in [The Trouble with Genius]. While Pound and Stein make pretty explicit claims for their genius (and Joyce was certainly willing to play the part, tho more cautious in his statements), Zukofsky seems to have been far more defensive about the issue, and ultimately does not stake his work on that. What I think Bob is after is a fresh rereading of all 4 that (1) reads them beyond the transcendentalist heuristics of their ardent fans, who see only glimmers of revealed knowledge (they’re not alone in this sycophantic reaction: Spicer, Kerouac and others have all called it forth. Even Merwin gets it for heaven’s sake) and (2) looks at what it may be in their own writing that calls forth such nonsense as Kenner, Davenport and Terrell have spewed forth. A very distinct critical problem from the one put forth, say, by the New Critics, who shunned that fawning stance in favor of ultraprofessionalism. Where Bob gets in trouble, and it’s minor quibbling on my part to call it that (but to put on the title as much as anything), is in not being focused at all points on which is the target of a given reading. So in that sense he tries to do too much, which oddly replicates what all 4 of those poets do in their masterworks.

I don’t, by the way, think Bob is announcing himself Pro-Stevens over any of those four (give me that cite, Chris!), tho if you look at the recent work (in Raddle Moon or the chapbook that Ben Friedlander did, Chaim Soutine, the degree to which Bob is primarly a social satirist (as is Charles B) really comes to the fore. It’s an interesting genre to see get such large play and worth noting that both Bob and Charles have generally stayed away from anything of "epic" proportions.

The problem of value for my generation is I think sticky. Certainly value exists, but it is not a fixed, transcendental term in my world and that relativism is what drives the Bob Doles of poetry (and the Ross Perots of poetry, too) around the bend. Any one of us could name a poet, or several, whose work we do not connect with, because it shares little in the way of our own values. … I’m sure that I fit into this same role for other readers too, and that’s how the world ends up with surplus values that cause slippage and surprises for us all. Which is why the poetry of 20 years from now won’t look the way I expect (or hope or fear) it might, nor the way you imagine either.

But I do think that our parallel tradition (quote unquote) adheres and evolves in interesting, positive ways because there is a broader range of shared values, some Venn diagram of which would put myself, Susan Howe, John Taggart, Larry Fagin, Antler and Joy Harjo all into the same circle. And this is what makes discourse possible.

The problem is one of knowing where, at any given moment, to put the emphasis.

From: Alan Golding

Subject: Howe Now, Brown Formalist (and Bob Perelman too)

One challenge of being hooked up to the Poetics Digest option involves trying to respond to six messages at once instead of just hitting the reply key. But here goes.

While I’m not sure that Susan Howe needs me to come to her defense as she lies there swooning on her fainting couch (poetry is like a swoon, y’ know, with this difference … the Klupzy Girl said), but I don’t mind doing so, because I love her work. But I also appreciate Ron going out on a limb with his original comment; the question came up of poets whom one does not especially warm to within one’s own alleged tradition, and Ron was willing to name names. I find Susan’s work very compelling in the very terms that Ron finds it tepid, on the page–that is, in terms of her wonderful ear and her visual design of a page–that is, I like it, among other reasons, for the aural and material values that Ron finds lacking, if I understand him right. The other point on which I diverge from you, Ron (and I’d like to hear more from you if you’re willing/interested), has to do with your assertion that the value/interest of Howe’s work lies in extra-textual concerns. ("Extra-paginal?" This also sounds oddly close to that old New Critical bete noire, the "extra-literary.") I’m surprised that someone who’s always been so attuned to the social components of writing, reading, and reception as you have should use as the basis of your critique what sounds like a dismissal of or skepticism toward those same social components. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding something in your comments.

The larger issue, though, has to do with the differences within a movement that underlie the public constructions (usually, though not always, by "outsiders") of that movement’s homogeneity. To me this is more interesting than questions of who likes or doesn’t like whose work. The value of Ron’s post on Howe is that it points up the inevitable fissures within so-called "so-called Language writing," fissures that were probably always present but that tend to come to the surface later rather than sooner. This is one interesting and instructive part of Bob P’s Language Writing and Literary History book, which I’ve read in manuscript: he discusses internal difference ("where the meanings are," remember) within LP, asking some very fundamental skeptical questions about some of the work of, say, Bruce Andrews and (in the essay that Keith Tuma mentioned) Charles B. So I don’t read Bob’s book as a "bunking" of LP after some kind of Bloominan "debunking" of his modernist predecessors; it operates with a rather more complex sense of literary and personal history than that, so that while it’s partly involved with bunking (I like that term, Chris), it’s also attentive to points of difference, disagreement, and to the bringing together of strange bedfellows (O’Hara and Barthes). But enough on a book that is not yet a book, that no-one’s read.

I have to agree with Marjorie on The Trouble with Genius. As I read it, the four writers engage Perelman precisely because of the conflicting impulses within their work; the internal contradictions are generative, not "problems" or "weaknesses." Just like the internal contradictions within a poetic "movement." And that connects (I hope!) with what Tom Kirby-Smith said about the New Formalists. Granted, Tom, that like any movement the NF is much less homogeneous that it might first appear. But remember too that this was not a label that some evil critic stuck on all these innocent diverse writers who were just sitting out doing their thing. This is a self-consciously self-constituted group; even though some people might resist the label, lack any sense of group identification, or have lost it later (as you suggest Tim Steele has), the fact is that a group of writers (predominantly male, as seems nearly always usual) with shared concerns agreed to present themselves as a group, a movement, and set out to produce polemics and manifestoes designed to represent and further their work and interests. In the mid-late ‘80s they even explicitly talked about themselves as an alternative avant-garde to LP. This is my sense of the history, anyway. Am I way off? Names associated with the movement in these formative stages would include Frederick Turner, Frederick Feirstein, Robert McDowell, Dick Allen, Dana Gioia, just to mention the main polemicists (editors of essay collections, editors of special issues of mags., writers of manifestoes). And from a pretty early stage, fellow travellers would include Robert McPhillips, Brad Leithauser, Mary Jo Salter, Molly Peacock, Timothy Steele, Charles Martin, Paul Lake, Mark Jarman, Gertrude Schnackenberg. A diverse group geographically, professionally, and in other ways, but they did constitute themselves in print as a group with identifiable (and self-identified) concerns. Differences–those too. I hear that Dana Gioia is putting together a NF anthology that does not include Dick Allen, a founder member. A bit like an LP anthology without Silliman, Bernstein, Watten, Andrews, or whomever.

One more thought on Susan Howe. I have no desire whatever to resurrect the soul/spirit thread: but surely ("surely") one reason that the Apex of the M-ers take Howe and John Taggart as models is that there’s a strong sense of the spiritual (however unconventionally defined) in both writers, and that this is one point of difference between them and many so-called so-called so-called so-called so-called Language writers. And no, I’m not going to try and define "spiritual."

David Bromige writes that the most charged points for him in reading even writers that he cares about are those points "where interest and disaffection war" in his reading. This seems to me a good summary of how Bob approaches the writers in Trouble with Genius.…


From: Maria Damon

Subject: Good and Bad?

hello alfred corn –i’ve posted several times to poetics to the effect that i take fairly seriously Robert Duncan’s dictum that there are no good or bad poems. this i hold true for just about every "school" of poetry. i wd not teach a class in poetry by offering, for example, a "good" and "bad" example from each "school." it’s an intriguing idea, but it’s simply never crossed my mind. even after thinking it over, it strikes me that to learn to evaluate a product is somewhat like backing into a process backasswards as it were, no disrespect intended, but to start from a position of judgment is not, i think, the most effective way to open someone’s mind. it shuts down process, and leaps to a critical appraisal of product –how intimidating to someone trying to learn to read or practice. maybe i’m a sentimental patsy, but openness, to me, is always a better approach to learning. rather than asking for an example of a "bad" language poet, why not ask us how, for instance, we would "read" a given text? too bad you missed gary sullivan –he posted some stunning close readings of initially opaque texts that were useful paradidms for learning to read. and they didn’t involve ranking poetry, poems and poets in a meritocratic economy. respectfully–md


From: Keith Tuma

Subject: Ghost Corner

I was prepared to contest the premises of Alfred Corn’s questions regarding criteria and evaluation–just as others (myself included) had seen fit to question a rhetorical model where one post can "change a mind" and perhaps also the idea that metaphors are "revealing." But I think that David Kellogg and Maria Damon have already done that–and on the contested nature of criteria one might refer to Barbara H. Smith’s The Contingencies of Value. If Corn has recently become a kind of ghost on this list, he seems to me a friendly ghost, and I want to say a few things in his defense. It seems to me that there is a need in the "experimental" poetry community for direct and detailed statements of "personal" value and preferences, tastes (not that these need be singular or static). Perhaps because of the way langpo emerged and the climate it emerged in, much langpo prose has been given over to the criticism of other prevailing modes of poetry–the so-called "mainstream"–or to a kind of blanket advocacy where the names of the elect are rehearsed. Or, in some cases, for political and "theoretical" reasons, evaluation is itself questioned or rejected–Charles B, for one, sometimes seems to me given to listing rather than explaining his preferences, and I don’t doubt for a second that he has reasons. But there has been comparatively little critical prose by langpo writers not directed primarily at "others"–at least until recently, as the case of Bob Perelman’s book(s) demonstrates, along with Ron Silliman’s recent remark about Susan Howe. This makes perfect sense to me: one must first clear a little space, no? (This was part of Alan Golding’s point.) Were things any different in, say, Robert Pinsky’s The Situation of Poetry, where he worked to clear space for Frank Bidart, Jim McMichael and others? But it seems to me that now IS the time for the langpo crowd to begin working on their own A Test of Poetry and, ideally, the range of their attention will be at least as expansive as Zukofsky’s. This is not just a matter of expanding an audience but of clarifying what might be meant by surprise, striking sound patterns,engagement with history–etc etc (Kellogg’s list could of course be expanded a good deal)–in a proliferation of examples arranged in provovative juxtaposition. Such examples need not be ranked good and bad and–if it’s possible to be open-minded at least a little–the commentary might follow the examples. Of course finding publishers for such books–there should be a good number of them–will be difficult, which probably brings us back to the point where what used to be a "movement" (langpo) started.


From: Alfred Corn

Subject: Criteria

I know that individual posts do not necessarily reflect the views of all subscribers or represent a fair sampling of the thinking of LANGUAGE poets in general. So I’m going to continue on with an open mind and assume that answers to the questions I asked could be better put than some of those posted these past few days. Keith Tuma made sense; he thought about what he was writing before just lashing out. There are no doubt others who can do this, which I’ll continue believing until evidence proves otherwise.

To begin with, one small point: I didn’t say posts were designed to change people’s minds but instead their thinking. Why be a LANGUAGE, or any sort of poet if you’re not sensitive to language? And if you have no interest in changing someone’s thinking, why not just send the post to yourself and enjoy the sound of your own voice?

On the possibility or impossibility of evaluating poetry: The idea that all poems are of equal interest, that no poem is either good or bad, can be believed by some people, obviously, but not by most readers. Check your own experience: when you sit down with a new magazine of poetry, do you really begin at the beginning and in perfect calm read each poem with equal interest, enjoying, learning and feeling in equal measure on every page, regardless of what happens there? If you do, you will be an Editor’s Delight, the ideal subscriber, who will never dislike any of the offerings. Is this actually how you read? Or do you not abandon some poems in entire boredom, go on to others, reread some with pleasure and fascination, dismiss others with a chuckle, etc.? Be honest.

By the same token, if evaluation is as contingent as some of the posts say it is, how is LP able to dismiss "mainstream" poetry as dull or retrograde or clunky or whatever? Isn’t that an evaluation? If it is, on what basis is the dismissal made? What are your standards? When David Kellogg cites all the usual criteria that have been applied to the evaluation of poetry since Day One, I have to ask him why he doesn’t read the "mainstream" poetry that has those qualities in abundance. Obviously there are other restrictions he is bringing to his evaluation that he doesn’t mention–like (I’m just guessing) "communication forms drawn from ordinary conversational practice or logical discourse are excluded," or something like that. Whatever they are, these extra criteria, the ones that distinguish LP from "mainstream," ought to be describable, and that’s what I’d like to hear, provided the describer can communicate clearly.

My own experience: I have read in LP magazines and didn’t get anything out of them. I also read some essays in a collection about the movement. They didn’t sound convincing. It’s only because of Ron Silliman’s postings on CAP-L that I looked into the question again. In an interesting post made some six months ago, he asserted that the LP movment was in the process of splintering into multiple sub-groups who no longer shared the same aesthetic bases, and that, in effect, these groups could no longer "read" each other. I would be curious to hear whether other Langpoets agree that this is true; and, if so, what are the differences that make it impossible to care about the writings of other splinter groups? I hope that no one is going to say it is altogether impossible to discuss the ideas on which poetry or poetries are based. If so, why subscribe to a discussion group, and why claim a place in the universe of discourse?

On the question of "music," shouldn’t we admit that the sound techniques of actual music and verbal texts are too far removed from each other to make this metaphor at all useful? And if pure sound is all that matters in poetry, why hasn’t the movement hailed Dame Edith Sitwell as one of its heroes?

A final question: are Laura Riding, Dylan Thomas, John Ashbery, Michael Palmer, Ann Lauterbach, and Jorie Graham LANGUAGE poets. On what basis do you determine whether someone is writing LP?


From: David Kellogg

Subject: Re: Criteria

Dear Alfred Corn,

Since you single out Keith Tuma as the one person who thought about what he was writing before lashing out, I’ll assume that I’m one of the dunderheaded lashers who disappoint (DLWD). Nevertheless, I persist.

For everybody’s sake, I’ll only respond to the part of this post that addressed me, or that I think were more or less addressed to questions I’ve fielded before.

> On the possibility or impossibility of evaluating poetry: The idea that

> all poems are of equal interest, that no poem is either good or bad, can

> be believed by some people, obviously, but not by most readers.

Yes. And nobody on this list said otherwise, not even maria; when she said that she agreed with Duncan about there being no good or bad poems that was NOT a refusal of evaluation, nor was it an "anything-goes" kind of policy.

Certainly nobody has said that all poems are of equal interest. "Interest" is precisely what is at issue, in the sense that our evaluations of poems are "interested" (read: contingent) and thus different. I am interested in some poetry because I like it; I’m interested in other poetry because I don’t. I find boredom interesting, but boredom is usually thought of as "bad."

> By the same token, if evaluation is as contingent as some of the

> posts say it is, how is LP able to dismiss "mainstream" poetry as dull or

> retrograde or clunky or whatever? Isn’t that an evaluation? If it is, on

> what basis is the dismissal made? What are your standards? When David

> Kellogg cites all the usual criteria that have been applied to the

> evaluation of poetry since Day One, I have to ask him why he doesn’t read

> the "mainstream" poetry that has those qualities in abundance. Obviously

> there are other restrictions he is bringing to his evaluation that he

> doesn’t mention–like (I’m just guessing) "communication forms drawn from

> ordinary conversational practice or logical discourse are excluded," or

> something like that. Whatever they are, these extra criteria, the ones

> that distinguish LP from "mainstream," ought to be describable, and that’s

> what I’d like to hear, provided the describer can communicate clearly.

I guess I have to respond here, since my name’s mentioned, but let me state that I have NEVER done any of the following:

a) dismissed mainstream poetry (tho I dismissed Tim Steele’s prose–would you care to defend it, or describe him as "mainstream"?);

b) said I don’t read mainstream poetry (I do, in fact, even the occasional Alfred Corn, even Philip Larkin, tho I once called the latter "asinine");

c) excluded any of the things he mentioned from my likings (ordinary conversational practice etc.)

In fact, poetry popularly described as LP (I won’t quibble about terms here, about who is or isn’t LP, I have no interest in that game, my own recent poetry learns from it but probably wouldn’t be described as such) uses all of those things: ordinary conversational practice, logical discourse, etc. Sometimes its critical discourse has seemed to dismiss such elements, but that’s the difference between the blanket of theory and the field of practice.

As for the dismissal of mainstream poetry by some language poets, I don’t think it’s more surprising than other critiques by excluded groups in other contexts, and a lot of times it’s right. Just to take your own post for an example, one thing that pisses people off is the concept of a "mainstream" in the first place – something that, for most people who believe in the term, is best eaten reified. When, just to take an almost arbitrary example, J.D. McClatchy begins his Vintage book of contemporary American poetry by arguing that no camps need form because everybody already knows who the big ones are and then begins the book out of chronological order with LOWELL and BISHOP, pushing Olson for example about ten poets down the line and representing him with a single poem – well, that’s disgusting. There are I’m sure lots of specific examples of exclusion from the movement’s early days that others on this list could tell you about.

However, it seems to me that the anger from LPs about mainstream poetry has toned down in recent years, and why? Partly because exclusionary tactics like McClatchy’s are more recognizable for the strongarming they are, and partly because some wrongs are being righted (the new Norton postmodern etc.). The breakup that Ron mentioned I think is partly due to the fact that individual language poets are getting recognized, and that group identification is less attractive to leaders who are recognizable individually. (I’m not necessarily speaking of you, Ron; I’m thinking sociologically now.) Certainly Ron has advocated precisely the kind of more pluralistic reading that you seem to think language poetry excludes (see his "Canons and Institutions").

From my point of view it’s you, and not me, who describes any liking of language poetry in exclusionary terms, like the way you assume that I don’t read what you call "mainstream" poetry – a pretty galling and arrogant assumption, not to mention 100% wrong. I don’t need to exclude anybody to desribe my tastes. For example, my favorite poets among the language group are Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian, and Leslie Scalapino (tho she’s maybe not defined as "in" the group by everybody). These poets make use of prose, which I find interesting, and they’ve opened for me ways of thinking about the poetic process (or better, procedure?) that are pretty fresh for me. With Ron there’s a sense of immediacy in the project at hand, something to be done, and a willingness not to exclude the seemingly anomalous or "ugly" material. So some stuff gets left seemingly hanging, but not "wasted," – or "waste" is reconceived in the process of the poem. My response to Hejinian is I guess pretty typical – My Life was a pivotal book for me, the work that made me think, hey, there’s something going on here – and its virtues are more apparent each time I read it. Since everything I say about her has been said better somewhere else, I’ll refrain. With Scalapino for me it’s again a question of process, repetition, and – in her case especially – perspective. How a subject gets talked around, through, wrung out. Her work is exhausting, and saying "it’s not for everybody" does not degrade its value for me and for many others.

My reasons for reading each of these poets is often different from my reasons for liking them, and may include political or research interests: these can be transpersonal, and I may find the work satisfying in these respects and worth promoting to others. I may even critique other poets as not meeting such needs (politically indifferent, not worth writing a paper on, not likely to interest students). This is all due to my situatedness as an academic, my contingent (as an adjunct, highly ;-) contingent) position in the university and, beyond that, the world. I may also read other poets for other reasons. Who’s to say? Me.

See? None of my reasons for liking any of these poets is based on an exclusion of conversation, logical discourse, etc. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t assume wrong things about somebody you don’t know for no reason other than his presence on a mailing list.


From: Keith Tuma

Subject: Re: Criteria

Well, the conversation is getting interesting and, damn, just when I have a thousand things to do–seminars to prepare, deadlines, self-imposed deadlines. So I’m not going to write the world’s longest post on why I like to read poems by, uh, Bernadette Mayer, Ron Silliman, Jerome Rothenberg, Lorine Niedecker, Basil Bunting, Charles Bernstein, Michael Palmer, Cole Swensen, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Frank Bidart, Thomas Campion, Baudelaire, Villon, Catullus, Nathaniel Mackey, Nathaniel Tarn, Will Alexander, Robert Creeley, Leslie Scalapino, Elizabeth Bishop, Thom Gunn, Dr. Suess, Turner Cassity, Firdosi, Cid Corman, John Taggart, Clayton Eshleman, Homer, Horace, Dickinson, Susan Howe, John Skelton, Mina Loy, Amiri Baraka, Larry Eigner, Roy Fisher, Allen Fisher, Catherine Walsh, Maurice Scully, Gael Turnbull, Peter Redgrove, David Dabydeen, H. D., Wallace Stevens, Laura Riding, William Bronk, Paul Celan, Vallejo, Dante, Hugh Macdiarmid, Tom Raworth, Sappho, William Northcutt … oh I’m already running out of gas. It’s a big and glorious world: also crowded. And I don’t think of myself as much of a poet, which might make a difference.

BUT, in the spirit of friendly dialogue, I would like to ask Alfred Corn–yes I’ve read two of your books, A Various Light and the book about NY–a question. Just don’t seem fair that you get to ask all the questions. You mention that you have looked at langpo magazines and not been impressed and read a book of essays on langpo and not been convinced. I’m wondering what magazines and what critical book those were? And what put you off or didn’t convince? That would clarify some things.

One final point: you seem to suggest that the only alternative to the model of discourse-as-persuasion is solipsistic blather. Can’t agree.

It may be obvious, but who knows? So I’ll say that just because a name isn’t on that list above doesn’t mean I don’t read him/her with pleasure and just because it is doesn’t mean I read all of his/her work with pleasure. Must be cautious with a ghost around and–hell–we also don’t want to wake up all the lurkers.

Oh, and one more thing: Michael Palmer doesn’t for the most part think of himself as a language poet, though the issue is complicated. See the interview Lee Bartlett did with Palmer in the New Mexicao book Talking Poetry. MP can speak for himself there.



From: Maria Damon

Subject: Re: Criteria

a coupla points

i never intended any of my responses to your queries to be vituperative or dismissive. i’m not "lashing out;" if i seem to be, that’s my "style," as others on the list can attest; it has nothing to do with the topic.

i have never written on language poetry nor have a particular stake in its thriving or wilting. i’m on the list because i met charles bernstein at a conference and he offered to sign me up. i sd sure, great. i’d never been on a list before. … so, in my particular case, the people who "reached out" to me are the people whose list i joined. i’ve felt welcome, though it’s been clear during some interactions that i’m coming from a different place. i try to take to heart robert duncan’s "no good or bad poetry," perhaps because as a fellow-traveler and sometime participant in all kinds of schools that stress relativity, from the pop-psych insistence on "I statements" ("I like this" rather than "this is good") to cultural studies’s underlying ethos of cultural relativity (for inst., i prefer montaigne to most of his contemporaries, etc.)

anyway, those who are of the "personal experience is a bore, personal anecdotes are narcissistic and self-indulgent" persuasion (which cuts across ideological orientation, i’ve found) are probably dozing off by now, but i wanted to clarify one person’s history w/ the POETICS list and reflections on your latest forward. come on down! (you can always use the DIGEST option)


From: Louis Cabri

Subject: poetry/prose thinking

The temporal axis of engagement on this listserv virtually guarantees that its corpus – the prose as much as the poetry – is collaboratively written, whether acknowledged, and to what degree, or not. I for one have purposely listened-up for that in posting to the poem. In fact I’d say that a lot of the poem has to do with how to reflexively acknowledge the collaborative nature of the listserv itself (and its concerns, and the reading horizons of its various non/participants, etc). So I am surprised at the unthinking tilt against the listserv’s recent development, to wit: the ongoing, collaboratively written poem.

Up til now I’ve tried to engage with these prosaic prods by means of adding lines to versions of the poem. But how can this persistent antagonism toward the poetry be explained? What does it say about ‘who’ we are when we read, how we read/think, and what we are reading for (and all this in specific relation to the communal, processual address permitted by the listserv)? Is it really – it seems endemic to computer technology, complaints of how slow it is - the repeated lines that are irksome as some have politely said, or questions of lack of time, or is it more like a judgement on the quality of the ‘slowed perception’ that the lines require?

These questions are for the poetry contributors as well. What does this decision mean: of when and what to contribute to the poem, and what and when to contribute to the prose instead? The semantic content of the prose (e.g. reaching for facts about…) is in some ways accountable to/by the institutional/pedagogical context that implicitly lurks ‘beneath’ the listerv (viz. university addresses appended to contributor names).

Some of these questions, the way I’ve quickly sketched em, may seem to demand of contributors a ‘self-inquiring’ kind of response, but I do mean them to be read in more of an objective sense than that.

For subjectively speaking, I could evilly say more than the following about how I find the prose posts at their worst to be irredeemably complacent, inertial, phatic, self-regarding, vapidly ‘spontaneous’, substitute television – just as some of you no doubt could and have said and implied as much about your reading experience of the poetry. So in other words: this kind of judgement on quality ain’t an interesting pursuit on these terms – and there seems to be a general consensus on this. In any event, to go on as I have just done wouldn’t explain why this antagonism exists in the first place, nor how to theorize it in a reflexive way as a means toward interpreting the nature of this listserv practice, and the potentials for both its poetry and its prose. As we know blah blah blah, the history of prose, in all its forms – and this evidently is no exception - is one of positioning itself as the natural communicative ideology, in comparison to poetry. This seems the case recently regardless of medium – so that, for instance, the poetry on the listserv is criticized for being "hard-copy," whereas there is no reflexive critique at all of the listserv prose as being equally – if not more – so. That’s just one recent example of the agonism between the genres. Now there is a preference for debate across the boundary of the listerv itself (with a non-member) in prose, rather than beginning one between the thinking in prose and in poetry on the listserv itself. Expansionism, always the way. How can people interested in poetry not be interested in thinking in poetry especially in this listserv format? The common denominator prevails: its the most conservative articulation that gets the attention: so there’s a collective rallying of ‘explaining to do’ when the listserv is challenged by someone ‘from outside’. While the listserv’s decentred centre, the poem itself, performs its own variety of common excesses. This too long, but hey, only the letters in these words have repeated (some might find comfort in saying).


From: Keith Tuma

Subject: Re: Criteria

Dear Alfred Corn,

Probably if I had to name just two essays that might serve as a primer for someone coming late to the game they would be the title essay in Silliman’s The New Sentence and Bernstein’s "Artifice of Absorption" in A Poetics– neither of these really "about" langpo so much as concerned with elements and issues relevant to it. And there’s CB’s Content’s Dream too, Perelman’s edited collection Writing/Talks, Steve McCaffery’s North of Intention, many of the essays in Poetics Journal, the now-defunct Temblor, Bernstein’s collection The Politics of Poetic Form, books by Watten, Perloff, too many others really to mention with a lunch appointment in an hour. One partly skeptical but useful and too little known essay is Nathaniel Tarn’s "Regarding the Issue of New Forms" in Views From The Weaving Mountain. Then there’s near-famous exchanges between E. Weinberger and Michael Davidson in Sulfur, one of the journals I’d recommend, though by no means devoted to langpo, and between Charles Altieri and Jerome McGann in Critical Inquiry, which also once published an introductory essay by Lee Bartlett. That’s just a start though.

Don’t know if there are journals exclusively devoted to langpo–too diverse anymore to be worth characterizing–but a few of the journals I read where some might be found at times (and there are many I won’t name–see the SPD catalog) are Avec, the defunct O-blek, Nate Mackey’s Hambone, O.ARS, Acts. The Difficulties and Temblor had great runs and one should look at newer, not-necessarily and in some cases hostile-to-langpo journals such as Apex of the M, Five Fingers review, lingo, etc etc. Maybe somebody with more time than I have today can offer a fuller list, or perhaps refer you to some of the lists available on-line or elsewhere.

Yes, it’s true that langpo is one of the places where I (sometimes) find interesting writing. But then what writing can ever really be isolated from other writing anyway? Surely not langpo, which sometimes has a parasitic/punning/ironic relationship to other writing. What would Mr. Silliman do, for instance, without the first line of Pound’s Cantos?

If anything, I’m sorry to be so limited (short, brief) in the lists I’m making here, and the one I offered yesterday.


From: Alfred Corn

Subject: More Forwards

To the POETICS list:

To answer the question "Who the hell is this guy?" I guess I’m not quite satisfied with Ron Silliman’s thumbnail biography. I’ve published six books of poetry and one book of criticism with Viking Penguin. The poetic line I belong to, insofar as it can be separated out from the general Western tradition begins with Whitman, goes through Crane and Stevens, on up through the poets discussed in David Kalstone’s book about autobiographical poetry, titled Five Temperaments. The ones he talked about were Lowell, Bishop, Ashbery, Merrill, and Rich. I met Kalstone when I was just beginning to publish and he shaped my ideas about what poetry could do. I’d like to think I’d added something of my own to this poetic line, but it isn’t my job to say whether I have. Silliman says I sometimes write about homosexuality for The Nation. I have no idea what he means unless he’s referring to a review of the stories of Edmund White (a gay fiction writer) that is in the current issue. A few prizes have come to me for my poetry, but as the posts on this list amply demonstrate, I’m not especially well known, certainly less well known than, say, Lyn Hejinian. I teach as an adjunct in the Columbia MFA Program, but have done visiting stints at other places as well–UCLA, Yale, the U. of Cincinnati. Will this do as an intro?

To David Kellogg: No putdown intended. We were speaking at cross purposes. I thought you understood that what I was asking for was the aesthetic of LP, what makes it different from other approaches to writing poetry. The criteria you gave overlap with the ones I apply, so I felt frustrated in the wish to get a general introduction to the movement. Yes, I could just plunge in by myself, but I did that before and got nowhere. A critical guide can save years of wasted effort. Meanwhile I see that LP is only one kind of poetry that interests you, not the only. That sounds reasonable to me. What I had been bothered by was the foundational "exclusionary" line of argument I had heard elsewhere: that LP is the "real" poetry of our time and the future; in fact, one of the recent posts takes this position, dismissing the other approach as predictable and boring. (I had used the term "mainstream" before because some of POETICS’s posters did.)

It begins to sound like the POETICS list is quite varied, with perhaps only a few subscribers exclusively L= poets. So I’d been given the wrong sense of what the list was.

I begin to wonder, too, whether the big division proclaimed between the LP movement and the rest of poetry is really useful. Some of the recent posts suggest that it isn’t. For after all, poetry using unfamiliar methods of communication goes back at least to Rimbaud (1870) and Mallarme’ (1880-1890). Everybody knows about Dada, Modernism, Surrealism, and Black Mountain. Plus various unclassifiables like Gertrude Stein, Laura Riding, Bunting and Ashbery. And the Naropa Institute. So I’m not yet certain that LP has introduced anything that wasn’t already there. If writing non-representationally is the key, we have to acknowledge that almost none of Wallace Stevens is representational. If disjunctiveness is the key, then no one could be more disjunctive than Ashbery. If collage is it, then the Surrealists did it long ago–ditto for automatic writing. Meanwhile the other poetry, the one based on narrative, on representing sensory impressions verbally, or providing philosophical or meditative discourse, was always attentive to experimentation and used some of the new techniques as well. Just maybe the same situation obtains today, with some poets fusing the two approaches. My own impression of Hejinian was that My Life was an autobiographical narrative and therefore at some level representational; plus a constant intrusion of cognitive "interference," words used like (metaphor) paint–a kind of alogical interruption to transparent narrative. Isn’t this a fusion of the two? To use a comparison from music, "classical" music of this century has again and again borrowed from jazz–but then so has jazz borrowed from "classical" music over and again. There’s no Stravinsky without jazz and there’s no Mingus without Stravinsky.

Maybe LANGUAGE poetry really isn’t a separate movement at all, but instead is just poetry, multisourced and not really describable in simple terms as truly distinct from the other poetry?

As for signing on to POETICS, I’ll think about it, Maria, it’s just that there are demands on my time and a mailbox already overloaded with messages from two other groups.


From: Marjorie Perloff

Subject: Joris’s Celan and Corn on L poetry

I’m so glad, Jonathan, that you mentioned Pierre Joris’s new translation of Celan [Breathturn]. It is STUNNING. Pierre’s command of German, French, English is incomparable and he’s a poet who really has a feel for Celan. This is, for me, a major poetry event.

But I must confess to being very discouraged by the Alfred Corn conversation that’s been going on on this net for the last few days. This Poetics Discussion Group was, after all, founded at Buffalo by, yes, Language poets and although I myself feel the term language poetry has outlived its usefulness (like any school), and although it’s true that the so-called L poets are often very different from one another (and obviously some are much better than others–again, as in any movement), the fact remains that L poetry has made an enormous difference in the poetics of the 80s and 90s and that, on the other hand, poets like Alfred Corn and J. D. McClatchy and any of their poet friends at Yale Review and similar places have vigorously opposed it or, at best, ignored it.

Corn is being just a little bit disingenuous: he and his friends win all the prizes (Guggenheims, MacArthurs etc), are reviewed in the NYT Book Review (unlike Clark Coolidge or Lyn Hejinian or Charles Bernstein) and are very successful. … When the big and exciting conference on Visual Poetics was held by the dept of Spanish-Portugese last spring (starring the deCampos brothers and including, among many others, Steve McCaffery, Johanna Drucker, and Charles Bernstein), not one faculty member of the Yale English dept. showed up.

So why are so many people on this net like Keith Tuma suddenly so pleased and grateful that–gee!–Alfred Corn is actually willing to participate in discussion with members about Language poetry! And why is Maria saying that she never writes about language poetry anyway. Maria, that’s just not true. You do write about language poetry (as in Stein, Duncan, other precursors, yes?) in the larger sense of the term, and respecting the rights of others can turn into capitulation, no? .

Alfred says of Lyn Hejinian’s My Life that being autobiographical, it does have representational elements. Well of course. Many of us have said this in print. The old chestnut that "language poetry" doesn’t "say" anything has finally been laid to rest. And as a new generation of students arrives on the scene, I’ve learned that they have no problems with the "meanings," in, say, Lyn’s Oxota, which my theory class at Stanford read last year and loved. There were a number of Russians in the class and they were especially pleased by their "shock of recognition." Their finding the persons and places they know well in this book.

As for Rimbaud’s "dereglement de tous les sens," I’d say that it’s very different from the projects of the L poets even as it is from Corn’s own poetry. The point of comparison has to be not a great poet of the 19th C (Blake, Rimbaud etc.) whom we can all agree on but what is happening NOW. And here there’s just no use saying that there are no differences.

I’m sorry to sound like an old grouch on this one. But I feel that as an outsider (i.e. not a poet) I can say some of these things: to wit, that until the system of prize-giving and award-giving changes appreciably, there is no use pretending that the Establishment Doesn’t Exist.


From: Ron Silliman

Subject: Children of the Corn

Chax writes (rightly),

>I keep reading the phrase, first from Corn, then repeated by others quoting him, about "poetry using unfamiliar methods of communication" at least since Rimbaud & Mallarme. Every time I hear that it just grates…. But perhaps what I don’t like about this phrase, as much as its specific form, is how easily Corn tosses it off, as though, because it is old hat to do something "unfamiliar" (or innovative? or building on other’s innovations?), it is therefore not very interesting or valuable…. "various unclassifiables" (this too sounds like some kind of put down)

As to Marjorie’s:

>And as a new generation of students arrives on the scene, I’ve learned

> that they have no problems with the "meanings," in, say, Lyn’s Oxota,

> which my theory class at Stanford read last year and loved. There

> were a number of Russians in the class and they were especially

> pleased by their "shock of recognition." Their finding the persons

> and places they know well in this book.

I just got done teaching at what was basically a glorified composition program at Bard College. For this class I was given an anthology that had poets like Jorie Graham ("Framing") and Ted Weiss ("Fractions") and Lyn Hejinian (My Life, two sections from it) and Charles Bernstein ("A Defence of Poetry"). I tried for the first time to teach without dogma, to teach, in other words, all of these poets (they made me teach Weiss but that is another story). After I was done I asked students to answer a series of questions about how they related to each poem. Questions were: 1) do you take anything away from this poem? if so what, if not why not? 2) what images, devices, or other parts of the poem stick out in your mind? 3) are there any parts of the poem that you identify with or feel a special relation to? All but one of the students didn’t like the Weiss (this might be because Weiss also came to read and I think the student that liked the poem skipped the reading). When it comes to what the students liked it seemed to be tied between the other three (even though I didn’t ask them almost all of them ranked the poets). I found also that the students had "no problems with the ‘meaning’" or with the nonconventional language. Some of their comments were useful (and I did not encourage them to value the work of one poet over another): On Hejinian: "I like the writing style of My Life. I identified with the style of writing, picking out memories, making correlations about your life, but keeping it loose and not super-analytical." On Bernstein: "The poem made me realize how difficult I make things for myself. I read it two times before I could allow myself to just let it be nonsense." "Bernstein makes sense– many times I’ll read into a work too much and it’ll turn to mush and get more confusing than it should be." "I relate to this poem because I feel the poet’s frustration in a way." "Bernstein’s poem I was excited about. Especially when we did that translation. That seemed to stick with me. Also it was so true how by not really studying closely you could decipher what he had written. I liked that."

What I am now wondering: have other people asked similar questions? what have been the results? But also I am also wondering how much of this has to do with the teaching method used at Bard in this program which is something that might be close to Peter Elbow’s ideology. Like one of the reason I think My Life might have been available to them as a text was that one of their assignments was to imitate it (write something that is 18 sentences long and without narrative connection). Several of these pieces turned out to be the ones that the student like the best (they would read them at group readings or put them in their portfolios). I’m not sure it is totally the teaching method (I’ve taught similar works in more traditional classrooms and had some success with them). But it just made me begin to think about what new teaching methods might be required to teach this work.

Sorry to go on at such length about something that might be of little interest. I am curious about this reading and identification issue because it seems to haunt so many of the dismissals of alternative type poetry (and poetry seems to have something to do with identity and identification as the relentless autobiographical impulse of confessional poetry illustrates). Yet, at the same time, I feel that the dismissal of alternative type poetry on the argument that such works don’t allow identification is without evidence.

As is obvious, I’m dying to do some real ethnographic work on this issue. Maybe when I get a job…



From: Kevin Killian

Subject: A happy result of a long process

I know some of you are tired of the whole renga ordeal, but this is my take on the subject.

I was asked to contribute to an anthology of "erotica" (ie porn) called "Switch Hitters" (from Cleis Press) the premise being, everything else being equal, that lesbians would write gay male erotica and gay men try our hands at lesbian erotica. The editors encouraged me, saying that I, I Kevin Killian, had one advantage –because I, unlike many of the other male contributors, have actually seen a vagina.

Still I was stumped for a topic, no, what would Henry James call it, a donnee!

So when the renga began to appear, I found it! My story, "Renga," takes place at a writers’ colony in Connecticut, the narrator is a New Formalist called Jane, whose tired old poetry has begun to bore even herself, tho it has won many prizes. A young girl comes to her bungalow every morning with her breakfast-this girl, an aspiring, perky language writer, re-invigorates Jane physically and changes her entire approach to poetics when the two collaborate on a renga together. (And much else, since the editors demand 1 sex act on every two pages.) All this on the sunny beaches of Long Island Sound and the exquisite, semi-secluded grounds of the writers’ colony.

When I was casting about for a name for this vibrant character, the maid, I was calling her "Karen"-don’t know why! But Dodie suggested, "Lee Ann"–don’t know why! Anyhow the story was finished, accepted, look for it in February, and thanks everybody for all your assistance and inspiration … you will all recognize your individual lines of poetry for sure.

Okay-see you!


From: Louis Cabri

Subject: "is my bubble showing?"

The collaborative poem dulls and repeats when it lacks context. I’d say context is provided, and collective attentiveness created by the prose discussion. When the prose flags, the poetry becomes a-contextual somehow, performing eventual reifying services of the medium itself. In this medium the critical specifity that social contexts provide is made homogeneous and is virtually erased – markers a/effecting context, for instance just the fact of a post from New Zealand, or a post of Sept. 15th at 3:00 a.m. on a rented computer, etc., all but their names are erased from the emailed message (in Jackobson’s sense) itself, unlike, obviously, a letter (e.g. a type of paper, ink, envelope, etc., in short, of a specific letter, from NZ). An established poet whose name is a currency in many media/genres and an unknown name floating solely in the listserv perform as peers, in a way, to a context-in-the-making (if there will be any at all). The most hardy and only context of the medium readily seems to be purely the informational one of distributing news economically. Good morning Virilio. Beyond that, what sort of informational poetics can arise? There needn’t be anything more, of course. But if there is a desire for there to be something more, as perhaps the collaborative poem is hopefully a signal of (shurely not the opposite, that is, narcissistic emblems of a socioeconomically stable/wealthy livelihood??)… – then it would seem, tautologically, that social context will arise only through the information contributed, and that this would take form in the prose discussion (= the world). One available contextual tension the medium can create for "itself" and its agents beyond the role of information-distribution seems to be the dynamic between the poetry and the prose. When the prose dimishes, so too the poetry’s affectivenes. I’m suggesting that the collaborative poem diminishes in appeal when a) the fetishistic aspect of the medium itself is allowed to dominate, going surreally out of control in the form of sheer quantity of postings by single and few contributors to the poem, and when b) there is a dwindling of prose dialogue – the only means of supplying contexts of address for the collaborative poem due to the character of the medium itself. So I think that the dismissal of the poetry is misplaced, or at best only half the story. Good night.


From: Mark Wallace

Subject: bland abstract lyrics, or you’ve got wheat in your eye

Ron Silliman’s side comment, a few days ago, that "bland abstract lyrics" are now the dominant strain of avant garde writing in 1995 is a criticism that emerging avant garde writers need to pay close attention to. The silence attending his remark (which, admittedly, he made on the side of other concerns) is disturbing. Do the younger avant garde writers on this list accept Ron’s characterization? Are the potential implications of such a comment (that new avant garde writers are out of touch, apolitical, or otherwise spaced out) also things that you accept? I think that there’s a far vaster range of committed, intelligent, and innovative emerging writers out there than such a comment would imply, although it may be true that there’s more bland abstract disengagement than we ought to be comfortable with. Whatever the truth of Ron’s statement, is it acceptable for younger writers to let an older, justifiably respected writer such as Ron Silliman be the only commentator on this list on the subject of what emerging avant garde writers are up to? Would not quiet on this subject imply a (perhaps unintentional) public agreement, an implied agreement that we ought very definitely to challenge?


From: Gale Nelson

Subject: Re: bland abstract lyrics

I find it an interesting leap for Mark to make that Ron was necessarily referring to younger writers as being those for whom the air was coming out of the lyrical balloon. If we accept the bait, that Ron is casting doubt on a new generation (rather than, say, his casting a wider net of concern over poetry generally), then perhaps a younger generation will have to articulate the multiplicity of designs it has on the future of poetics. Variantly, if Ron’s concern is more general, then everyone is welcome to leap in, and contemplate.

Question. Where does the younger generation begin? End? What can be said to be holding it together? What could be said to be holding together the previous generation? How do we define the parameters of that generation? Is it useful to generalize (say, poets from city x like to write about boats, whereas those from city b are likely to use gerunds a great deal, and poets who are friends with a tend to disdain representation…). Are movements in poetry fluid or static? Are poets?


From: Mark McMorris

Subject: Re: bland abstract lyrics

Yet another act of delurking (=lug rude kin):

1) Bland of course is in the eye of the beholder, but I suppose one means poetry that is monotonous, unmodulated and unaccented, clever rather than perceptive, perceptive rather than selective, meandering rather than directed, vague, hubristic, histrionic, picture-postcard dull–in short, metrically and procedurally commonplace. A few queries: is the abstract bland? Can there be a non-bland abstract (there can be a non-abstract bland, as we know)? By abstract are we to understand a bad case of conceptual manipulation a la late Stevens (without his ear or eye–or brain, for that matter)? Is "The Triumph of Life" bland? Abstract? (Yes on both?) Is Stein’s Tender Buttons abstract (I assume it’s not bland)? Is Césaire’s Ferraments abstract? (No) Is it conceptual? (Yes) Lisible? (no) Scriptible? (yes) Moving?

2) I know that procedural ingenuity or formal obliquity has produced most of the interesting (to me) poetry in the US in the last 50 years, but if I am to make any sense at all, I must also say that the very same poets who opened up and kept open the still lively and living (a pesky romantic metaphor) forms of poetry around today themselves could be world-class bores. Being dull seems to be an occupational hazard of innovative writers–am I quoting here?–who venture into areas to invent them and on happy occasions (e.g, "A"-12, Prelude) are able release poetry, on other occasions (e.g., "A"-12, Prelude) fail miserably to make anything happen that hasn’t already happened elsewhere to greater effect (in conversations with Celia or Paul, for instance, to which I am not privy). Who can read Paterson through without a shudder of dismay? Williams and Zukofsky were onto something that became important for US poetry in the years after them and one might well tolerate the bland in "A"-12 in order to arrive at the sense of design in small matters as well as in large that Zukofsky undoubtedly (to me) managed to build in. What does this have to do with poets writing now? I suppose I’m trying sneakily to suggest that in a survey of any today one must expect a certain amount of the bland, but that it would be very unlikely if the Americas in 1995 were uniformly anything, let alone bland.

Let’s say that an attention to syntax and decontextualized, rigorously anti-mimetic linguistic subversion/resistance characterized the underground now overground practice of the recent US avant-garde. Younger poets writing now, some say the emerging poets, would I think both profit from this massive exploration of poetry as unwarrantable language given a welcome charge of distinct audibility, and want to refuse it in specific ways and parts, just as a reader might wish Zukofsky had cut some of the beginning of "A"-12 for poetry’s sake (I hope that expressing such a wish in order to make a point does not mark me as narrow-minded or condescending–I admire Z and find his poetics both meaningful to my efforts and succinctly comprehensive). Such a refusal might well produce boring poetry if it takes place in a vacuum of further ideas, but imitating somebody else’s practice certainly would (and does) produce boredom all round.

It also seems to me that bland lyrics is a fairly good description of the bulk of poetry of any period (including American poetry since the war).

3) By concealing artifice, Williams’ respected example has helped to excuse the general neglect of rhythmic design–in the phrase, line, paragraph, and work–in contemporary American avant-garde poetry (but see At Passages, et al.), and therefore, together with Moore and Pound, can be blamed for the later standardization of voice at the expense of arrangement, perception at the expense of rhythm, which absolutely guarantees bland poetry. Recent comments against Williams on this list seem to want to shoot the messenger of an American voice–one seemingly without art–now that Williams has been so clearly exposed as the "thoughtless" message in much contemporary writing. This is unfair. Taking a different direction, I would say that the fault lies not with the doctor but with the glut of words masquerading as idea in the discourse on poetry and on literature generally, or with the loss of – an energizing loss, looked at in a certain way – generic boundaries. Does the word poetry name anything apart from a context of presentaion? Tell me that the answer is YES. If I am a poet, I must suppose that I am not writing a context of presentation but a poem. How can I know that this is so? Circles make me dizzy. Here again, the doctor of Paterson must take some of the responsibility for at once opening up a wider terrain of poetry and, one might say, thinning it out and confusing the workers. I could (as you could) write a list of fairly recent books that work excellently from the former without succumbing to the latter, but still areas in Paterson (or Maximus) usefully diagnose the disagreeable vague monotony some object to in poetry today. …

4) But then again, (following up on Gale’s remarks) are there any monoliths? states? who gets to count as the younger generation? I can never shake the feeling that all talk of generations, schools, movements in the US will remain premature because of the sheer size of the educated population. And that maybe what one could call a systematic synechdochic substitution complex–a few people for a whole continent–prompts me to continue talking about (non-)entities like the state of contemporary poetry in the US. Oh well.

From: Mark Wallace

Subject: and even more bland abstract lyrics

I appreciate Gale Nelson’s caution that Ron may be referring to a larger swath of avant garde writing than I suggested earlier. But I don’t think, in fact, that he is, or at least to any huge extent. He has commented before about the Writing From the New Coast anthology, and various other projects having to do with avant garde writers who have only begun to publish books in the 1990s (one possible way of defining "emerging," however tentatively). Although I think that Ron’s critique is to a certain extent incorrect, I think he means it seriously and his position is not completely without justification–which is why, I think, it does need refutation.

Look at it this way–Ron Silliman is an excellent poet, a first rate critic, and one of the most thoroughly open commentators we have on this poetics list–he’s got the guts to constantly say exactly what he’s thinking. While I don’t always agree (by any means) with the things he says, I think he’s got an uncanny knack for putting his finger exactly where key problems are. And I think that emerging "post-language" avant garde writers have, at the very least, a real identity problem. I mean, if a committed avant gardist like Ron Silliman can’t see the value in what emerging writers are doing, who’s going to? At least he READ Writing From the New Coast.

For Jordan Davis and Al Nielsen and others who questioned my "definitions," I certainly agree that such definitions are always problematic, but I also think that saying so may be to a certain extent beside the point. Wittgenstein once said, when talking of language games, "And for those who find my definition of language games too inexact, I reply, isn’t an inexact definition often what we need?" That is, the inexactness of absolute definitions for terms is precisely the situation we’re in all the time–the inexactness of definition is the very ground on which communication takes place. So, yes, terms like "avant garde," "emerging," "younger," "generation," and "Ron Silliman" for that matter are problematic and inexact, but also highly USEFUL. Besides, Jordan, I’m not "defending younger writers." It’s my perception, I think a correct one, that Ron has been guilty of too great a generalization regarding emerging avant garde writers. I was not calling for some generalized "defense," but for PARTICULAR RESPONSES.

While I agree with Jeff Hansen’s comments that too much belief in the social value of the "new" brings with it a whole host of problems, I can’t quite go as far as he does in what I think he’s suggesting also–that innovation is no longer possible in poetry. I don’t think that’s true at all, although it may be true that innovation doesn’t necessarily happen in the places people often look for it–in the most outrageous and "different" NEW THING. I find Jeff’s work, for instance, incredibly innovative–look at what he’s doing in "Landscrapes" in the most recent AVEC, or his chapbook "The Monologues of Joe Blow Only Artsy" from Texture Press. So I think that Jeff is overstating his case against innovation just a little bit, and in a way that distorts the insightful innovations of his own work.

Rod Smith–yes, nonresponse does not equal implicit agreement, but does it count as effective counterargument in this case? The question comes down to, I suppose, whether one considers Ron’s critique worth responding to. I think it is, because I think he’s a serious critic and a great writer. I think that you probably think so too–correct me if I’m wrong–so I think your support of nonresponse seems a little disingenuous. Besides, you responded! As did many others who usefully complicated my initial query–Mark McMorris’ highly thoughtful piece really embroils us in some necessary complexities.

So let me say, again, that I think there is a REAL identity crisis haunting emerging avant garde writers, and one that’s worth talking about publicly. This problem is behind the idea of the Poetic Briefs forum that Jeff will be doing in the next issue of Poetic Briefs, both as response to my essay in #19, and on any other topic related to questions facing the avant garde at this moment. …


From: Larry Price

Subject: Pens fall and begin to harvest

Steve Carll wrote: "When you forget something, when you erase it, aren’t forgetting and erasing modes of relating to that something?"

Amid the assorted food labels, brochures, and badly written yet impeccably designed detritus that is my automaton’s scramble for survival, the icons of forgetting and erasure are perhaps understandably privileged. Still, I agree with your reluctance to reify. So that particular notion of forgetting was not what I found compelling in Peter Larkin’s statement, nor what I intended by using the term "erasure."

That is, not a forgetting (or erasing) in the sense of a toolbox (click on icon and drag to trash), an amnesial or erasive intentionality directed always and in nostalgia backward (the past as the desire that makes desire be present), but rather in the sense of "Not this." That is, the perpetual vapor trail that language in fact sprays before it, the head in arrears, Duchamp’s nickel-plated child which the "person" completes on the horizonal blank page overwriting the master pages of autonomy. (At the very least, we know power won’t deny itself.)

(Although I have to say I like the Lacanian intrigue in the past coming to presence as what is no longer presence. Which must be where all these careful discriminations between sense and nonsense go to become nonsense.)

When I say "we are in relation to the present," this in itself is a heuristic device, a machine devised-toward-the remedial present. I suppose it is remedial because (I agree) it is never a clean break, shaped as it is within an assumed, at least culturally imposed restricted economy of being. That remedial ground is, of course, the text. It functions to process the communicable intransigence of what is into the uncommunicated, hence infinitely available outside of what isn’t.

Power is one issue. As one, it falls to us in its compensatory claim of mastery (or clarity) It seems to me it is this mastery/clarity that is at issue (among other places, in Mark Wallace’s usefully raised issues). That is, mastery, when it arrives as the default version ("perfection is basic to this mode"), takes as its register a simultaneity of face and facework, reader and writer. It fulfills itself in this way as part of a guarantee that having fulfilled itself once and as a one it won’t have to do so again and certainly not in its parts. The language of power is structured from the neant on down.

But here Peter Larkin’s notion of the "weak" intrigues me. It leads me to a question for Mark Wallace: to what extent is the category of post-language-avant-garde-emerging-publishing in the 90s-younger generation a strategizing of attachment and dis-attachment (in the sense – I think – PL is writing of it)?


From: Tom Beard

Subject: Re: identity problems in the wild blue

Mark Wallace wrote -

>As Rod pointed out in his introduction to the recent Barrett Watten

> issue of Aerial, for Watten language poetry simply can’t be understood

> without the context of the Vietnam war and an intense search on

> the part of Watten and others for a way to best respond to that

>particular crisis. Was that the only impetus for early Language poetry?

>Probably not, but it certainly has to be considered extremely important.

This interested me, since most of the critical/theoretical writing in In the American Tree has an emphasis on politics that to me seems very much a product of the sixties. Is it possible that those of us who did most of our growing up after the Vietnam war, and whose parents were of the protest generation, might subscribe to a different poetics? Some of the poetic/political goals of langpo and post-structuralist theory (e.g. breaking down the assumption of a single, given meaning for a text) have almost become second nature for more recent generations, who have a much-vaunted mistrust of any imposed narratives.

Are we more likely to have an apolitical outlook (which is itself a political stance), or ecological concerns, or gender/sexuality/race concerns for those who feel disadvantaged by these factors? Or are we more likely to be interested in information technology and the mass media? One movement that sees itself as replacing the domesticated postmodernism of a past generation is ‘Avant-Pop’ literature, with the likes of Mark Leyner, Kathy Acker, William Gibson, Eurudice and Douglas Coupland realizing that disrupted narratives, a multiplicity of voices and ironic plagiarism are no longer cutting edge (they’re a Levi’s commercial) and that Bob Dylan lyrics no longer count as pop-culture references. Most of these writers use prose as a medium: who would you count as an Avant-Pop poet?

The generational change has probably been exacerbated in NZ by the rapid change in the latter half of the 80s from a stiflingly over-protected Albanian style of economy to what some see as an overly laissez-faire regime. Global popular culture has exploded into this country in the last 5-10 years, and the literary establishment has no idea how to handle it. The Left is now conservative, trying to regain a welfare state that now glows with nostalgia. This rightwards movement economically, simultaneous with a belated diversification of cultures, is the extent of the political concerns in my writing. Has anyone else felt the need to react against the assumption that a writer must take certain political stands?


From: Steve Evans

Subject: Re: poetry and politics

Apropos the friendship/politics/poetry question, I have been thinking about the way "friendship" is inflected within the context of the broader attempts at racial resegregation such as we have been experiencing since c.1980 and which now threatens to pass the critical mark (pace the decision of my alma mater, the UC system, while the students were away this summer!).

That’s what was on my mind when I wrote the following in a paper on Frank O’Hara and the way O’Hara criticism (my examples: Perloff and Bredbeck) has worked to reproduce the racial segregation his work put into serious question. Please forgive, if you can, the ungainly prose:

"Independent, as opposed to commercial and institutional, publishing tends to be directly embedded in the immediate social relations of the people who undertake it, and this the more so the closer one approaches the basal unit of such independent production: the restricted-circulation poetry magazine. The social conditions of production of this form typically involve an editor (or editors), relying on monies not generated within the poetic field (i.e. earnings from a "real job," inheritance, or patronage), and possessed of sufficient amounts of time to absorb the whole spectrum of activities (selecting, editing and proofing, reproducing, binding, circulating, and publicizing) that in institutional and commercial contexts are divided among different specialists. This situation of embeddedness, in which literary project and personal life converge to the point of mutual subsumption, is an objectively ambivalent one: though often perceived from the inside as the positive confluence of poetry and the sphere of elective affinity and friendship, viewed from the "outside" it can appear as clique-ish arbitrariness. The same ambivalence can be registered in racial terms, for if independent publishing is at least potentially a site in which the "spontaneous" desegregation of cultural production can occur–since no formal mechanisms restrict the editorial decision-making process on racial, or indeed any other, grounds–it is by the same token, however, that the very appearance of "spontaneity" can work to veil the de facto segregations of everyday life and to elide the way that even (one might say "especially") friendship patterns are overdetermined within a society "in which systems of dominance and subordination are structured through processes of racialization that continuously interact with all other forces of socialization" (Carby 193). The objective ambivalence resulting from the pre- and de-formation of spheres of "elective affinity" by selective processes operating at the level of the social totality is of especial importance in the context of the New American Poetry, which consistently foregrounded its own passionate informality and ‘openness’ in contrast to the bureaucratization of culture epitomized by academic poetry and the institutionally-affiliated journals that sustained it. I would argue that both the independent publications and the poetic formations that crystallized around them did represent gains in the democratization of culture relative to the corporate and university publishing structures, but these gains were not without their own contradictions."

[The Hazel Carby piece referred to is "The Multicultural Wars" in Gina Dent & Michele Wallace’s Black Popular Culture (Seattle: Bay P, 1992)]

From: Peter Larkin

Subject: Re: Wild Blue Yonder

Steve Carll is quite right, a total forgetting would be of the how as well as the what; it would no longer be an act, as the forgetting would itself be forgotten. In cultural terms, the process can be nothing like as absolute, but where forgetting is "deliberate" it is not in itself forgotten, but remembered either as a strategy "clearing the decks", or can set off some sort of work of mourning. The latter seems the David Jones area, though he also liked to think of a healthy culture as baggily retentive and found it difficult to let anything go. Perhaps some sort of ecological model might serve, where cultures assimilate organically over long periods, but then reach a "post-climax" stage defined by dissemination, absolute innovation and depletion. But through all that are the minimal attachments required to keep any sort of societal or cultural possibility in play at all, a play not in itself within the terms of a general dissemination.

I have been thinking about these things in a recent piece of writing called "Let Attachment Assoil Us", and a couple of paras from the Prefatory Note I would quite like to float here, to see if they seem to mean anything:

Whatever has the instinct of attachment operates as a careful fragment in our culture. The fragment’s present form seems penetrated (beyond break-point) by the liability of not being a discard, but only gradually does it continue to own the vocation of an unsafe unity.

The gift is ill-received as much as lost, and the former condition must go on figuring within a poetics of retention that would revise our habits of acceptance. Only out of this primal grasping can a poetic offering, along a road of self-forgiveness rather than negativity, be made. Without an acknowledgement of the charged nature of burden, of the fact we are all owners of the fantasy of numinous attachment, alterity itself would be a figment. The unpossessed has transformed itself into the unreleasable, but until a gesture is made in time with this burden, the resistance of the other cannot even appear. And if it does appear it will not appear alone, the power of resistance will no longer be confused with autonomy. The justified weaker term will have won a freedom, beyond strategic manipulations normalising opposition, to attach itself.


From: Jeff Hansen

Subject: wild blue yonder

Larry Price … wondered how I could apply the term "wild blue yonder" to a piece by Ron Silliman such as "Ketjak." I wasn’t. … I was concerned less with the work of Silliman–which I admire for the most part–than with the various ways that he has discussed the poetry of the "emerging generation," both in the posting noted by Mark Wallace and in other places. Silliman has made several comments that seem to indicate he values new poetic techniques in younger poets, rather than their exploring the possiblities within, between and around techniques already in existence. I take issue with his seeming preference for the radically new over other types of exploration. Both seem valuable to me, although I am skeptical about the possibility of creating radically new forms right now–which is why I termed preference for The New as "the wild blue yonder."


From: Ron Silliman

Subject: Re: wild blue yonder

I really appreciate Jeff Hansen’s argument for exploration between formal (in the strictest sense) boundaries rather than, say, beyond them, even if I don’t know (understand?) whether or not that sentiment might be shared by others. It raises a lot of interesting questions for reading and interpretation and seems to me a terrific road into a lot of work. I had not meant my comments to be strictly taken as referring to an "emerging" generation (one that stretches out from people who are my own age, more or less, a la Selby and Basinski, to people in their early 20s), but I often hope to see my posts here as a prod to comment, and here Jeff takes that phrase in very useful direction.

Here is a for instance: Peter Gizzi is a superb and subtle craftsperson, so much so that his use of Spicer and the serial poem turn into a demonstration of the Esthetic as such, a result that strikes me as antithetical to Spicer’s almost Celine-esque anti-aesthetic tendencies. Gizzi’s Spicer seems closer to Bonnefoy than Celine or even Prevert. Clearly Gizzi is extending the mode of the serial poem in a direction unanticipated by Spicer, creating in some sense a different Spicer than the one I have read (where in fact I often find a horror of the aesthetic). Is this the same or different from the way in which (to pick a pseudoparallel) John Taggart and Ronald Johnson might be said to have read a different Zukofsky than the one read by Bernstein and Andrews?

I agree with Hansen that the idea of extending "innovation" to predictable logical conclusions ("typing" as someone once said of Kerouac’s form) is of little interest, especially 80 years after zaum first demonstrated a range of possibility there. Similarly, all sound poetry "says the same thing" and it says it over and over.

Where formal innovation typically occurs (I’m making a wildly broad generalization here) is when the society underlying a given mode of verse production changes so that new writers (younger or otherwise–Olson was a late bloomer and WCW wrote Spring & All in his late 30s) bring in newly recognized territories and modes of the social into their work as form. I don’t want to reduce this to some crude variation of base/superstructure economic determinism, but there is a constant and dynamic tension. Next to Snoop Doggy Dog, exactly how white does the French-inflected lyric poem sound? Next to Chuck D?

Hansen’s argument echoes (consciously?) part of Robert Duncan’s poetics of derivation and does so in ways that are not reductive and simplistic. I’d love to hear people open that line of thinking up further.


From: John Cayley

Subject: Inscription in complex media

Ron Silliman wrote:

>My sense is that any work in hypertext that is good would be good

>writing in an absolutely hide-bound traditional print format…


>Also, the word on the street is that the archivists are avoiding

>collecting disks of manuscripts like the plague, even though in many

>programs you could tell, for example, how many levels of revision (and

>length of composition) were involved.

>These tools at hand are still very primitive, if we just envision what

>they will look like in 100 years…

Joe Amato responded (in part):

>i would simply like to add that this does NOT mean (nor do i take ron or

>jim as suggesting anything of the sort) that folks shouldn’t wander off and

>play in said tinkertoy directions… i learned a lot, methinks, from

>TINKERTOYS–-and building blocks…

Yes, much of the good writing that has been inscribed as hypertext would be good in other media. But this is not an argument which implies that it should appear in another form. That is a decision within the gift of the writer. Some writing, however, either could not exist in more ‘traditional’ media, or would not be so elegantly presented as it would in cyber/hypertext (there is a useful distinction here, btw).

In particular, I mean texts where ‘chance operations’ and/or algorithmic transformations are applied to given texts and the writer insists that the ‘real time’ results of these procedural operations are her inscription on the surface of a complex medium. (Where did I get that formulation from? Was it from someone on Poetics?) I would also argue, as I have elsewhere, that the cybertual author has the potential to compose procedures themselves and this should become a recognized part of the process of inscription/writing.

As for elegance of presentation: it would be possible to transpose Jim Rosenberg’s Intergrams to paper-like media in, perhaps, a huge book-art installation. But one of the beauties of this work is its elegance – the deep complexity produced by the layering which his HyperCard form allows; the ability not simply to move through layers of word clusters, but also to move up and down a syntactically structured hierarchy of such clusters, to obtain multiple views of the ‘same’ content. All this is done with minimal, and as I say, elegant programming. That said, it is the content-as-form which is the tenor of the (all) work, leading to its ultimate significance.

So what if the cybertext systems of the new millennium will be tiny implants with the power of a Cray? Today’s text processing system is not the civil war typewriter of tomorrow, because it is realized on shape-shifting silicon and I guess that the computers of tomorrow will not be qualitatively different from the computers of today (i.e. they will still be faceless, invisible machines programmed to perform as any or all as-yet-undreamt-of appliances). The computer underlies the systems we’re using but it is not to be identified with them. It transforms itself into typewriter, typesetter, cybertext system, etc, etc through software. Primitive software needn’t be written off, it can be rewritten or ‘upgraded’.

Computer-based hardware/software configurations became potential media for literary art in, I would say, the late 80s when reasonably designed screen fonts, wysiwyg, and software such as HyperCard first appeared. Now that the WWW is with us, there is no reason not to make substantive use of the various potential media available [– and transpose the ‘good stuff’ back into print if you insist].

There’s a more serious problem with the idea of writing underlying Ron’s post, as if there is something called ‘writing’ which exists independently of its actually inscription in a particular medium, and which, if it is ‘good’, has the additional quality of being capable of transposition into media with which we are more familiar. Does this hold up?

The archivists Ron cites are wrong, wrong, wrong. It is not for the archivist to determine what is a proper record of the writers’ processes of composition. If a writer happens to make a draft on a disk using the first version of Wordstar using a Sirius PC, or on the inside of a matchbox, and then later destroys or encrypt all early drafts of an unpublished work that circulated on the bulletin board of a private network – I just can’t see that the archival or text critical problems this might cause are made qualitatively different because of the media used, or that this indicates that we should all make sure to get it down on paper in order to keep the librarians happy.

Finally, although I completely accord with the tenor of Joe’s light-hearted response to Ron’s post, I can’t help baulking at the image of the tinkertoy (which I also learned from during a Canadian childhood), the implication that despite the likelihood that these systems will appear to be toys to the right-thinking, we can nonetheless use and learn from them in our spare time.

Computer-based systems are emphatically not tinkertoys, not even in the world of letters. They are what we make of them. There is bound to be a ludic element in the wide spectrum of current cybertextual work, but then, hasn’t there been a ludic element in much experimental work generally? And isn’t the ludic OK anyway?


From: Jerry Rothenberg

Subject: on Pound

This is in reply to Tenney’s query about my own statement that the the most telling impact of Pound’s work was on poets who politically, morally, might have been at the greatest distance from it. To start with my own experience – growing up when I did – the presence of Pound in the late 1940s was, to say the least, a bewilderment. I was stunned by much of the poetry, both by how it read (the language of it) and by what I heard it saying: anti-war & anti-capital & powerful too in its presentation of a way, a means, of approaching & hoping to shape the world through the poet’s means, the poetry itself. I was about 16 years old at a first reading of him & shortly thereafter – along with the reading – came the awarding of the Bollingen & the tremendous fuss that that stirred up (close to fifty years ago). With that we were aware also of the extent of Pound’s fascism &, as became clearer over the years, the viciousness of the anti-semitism in his World War II broadcasts – a lunacy of language common to the fringe of homegrown fascists who were also in his entourage. My own first published piece of writing was a letter to the New York Post (a different NY Post at that time) in which I lamented what I thought had happened to Pound and what had become (as it still seems to be) a conundrum around the man & the work the man had given us. There was a lot I didn’t know then but knowing it would certainly not have made it easier.

I was never, in any sense, a Poundian, since there were too many other threads & lines coming into my awareness to allow a focus (in that sense) on any single individual. But the observation of Pound’s impact – on myself & others – began shortly after that: the observation that those who were most significantly building on Pound’s poetics & actual poetry were not the crazies & the fascist hoods of the John Kasper variety, etc., but poets like Kelly, Olson, Duncan, Mac Low, Blackburn, & before them the whole gallery of "Objectivists" or – from other directions – any number of European and Latin American writers – all of them (as I understood it) with a political and moral sense (coming out of World War II) that was strongly anti-fascist, strongly in opposition to the totalitarian barbarisms for which Pound (in the years of his fascist infatuation) had become a minor flunky. In their context Pound became, remained a vital force – the proof, through them, of what was right & germinal about him and the proof, conversely, of what was evil – & banal in Hannah Arendt’s sense – in his succumbing to the "fascist temptation."

What Pound offered and in some sense made possible wasn’t divorced from the political but wasn’t at the same time tied to what became HIS politics. It was a demonstration of how the political – as history – could enter the body of the poem – how the poem could thrive on what Ed Sanders (many years later & clearly drawing on Pound) spoke of as "data clusters" defining a new "investigative poetry". I don’t need to go on with this, I think, except to note that it was (as far as I can recollect) not the little fascists who learned from this but poets who by disposition and, I believe, commitment were looking for a way out of the fascist & totalitarian nightmare that had threatened to overwhelm our world. And there was also – stronger in Pound than in most other forerunners in the North American context – a sense that history & poetry could be redefined, opened up and certainly renewed, and that for this Pound himself (as Charles B., I think, points out in his Pound essays) was a stepping- stone, a guide to things that his fascist leanings would have finally precluded. He was clearly the most extraordinary translator we had by then produced – not only pointing to Albigensian Provence and to a sense of China speaking to the present, but (coming like Cesaire and the other Negritude poets) from the likes of Frobenius, forming one of the links (but only one) to an African past as a pinnacle, too, of the creative human spirit. It is not to say that this was – all of it – of Pound’s doing but that he helped to set much of it in motion – much of what, coming after him & (in some sense in spite of him) – became essential to our present work.

And, finally, I would point out what was – for myself & others – the lesson of Pound’s failure – the lesson of the poet who had in the long run betrayed his poetry. It is a terrible thing to say and it is, I think, a terrible possibility that faces all of us. But it is Pound who also says it best, from the "pull down thy vanity" voice in Canto 81 to the still more telling voice (where he was already into his silence, depression) in Canto 116:

I have brought the great ball of crystal

who can lift it?

Can you enter the great acorn of light?

But the beauty is not the madness

Tho’ my errors and wrecks lie about me.

And I am not a demigod,

I cannot make it cohere.

I can read this, anyway, as both a confession of failure (and of betrayal – of himself & us) and at the same time a triumph of whatever is there speaking through him. …

From: Jackson Mac Low

Subject: Pound etc.

Writing about EP is very painful & difficult. He introduced me to modern poetry in 1938, when I was 15 or 16 & in my late 3rd year or early 4th year of high school.

I discovered EP when I visited the University of Chicago campus, traveling from Kenilworth, a North Shore Chicago suburb, to the South Side of Chicago, to talk with my high school hero, Bertr& Russell. He was very nice when I phoned him (when I got out there without having phoned him first!) but he said I wasn’t able to see me. (No wonder! Some high school kid calls him up out of the blue. -I met him several months later at a party on the South Side.) So I went over to the U of C bookstore & found Culture, the New Directions 1938 version of Guide to Kulchur. I read most of it st&ing up at the book table. I’d literally never read anything like it. Even though I was already "political"-a pacifist & a democratic socialist-I may not have noticed the fascism-there was so much exciting & new in it-or maybe I was already discounting the fascist parts as nutty.

On the way home I stopped by at the main Chicago Public Library (where I had a card on my father’s office address) & got out several of EP’s early books-Lustra, Ripostes, Cathay, & possibly the earliest edition of Personae (the aforementioned were eventually included in later editions). I read them in a high state of excitement all the way home on the El & & North Shore Line trains. That led me (with some assistance from George Dillon & Peter DeVries, who then were the editor & assistant editor of Poetry, A Magazine of Verse) to all the rest of the Modernists, except for Stein, whom I’d discovered in the Marshall Field’s store in Evanston several years earlier, & who later became my "favorite" of them all. I first read Pound, then Eliot, then Williams, then most of the rest of the Modernists & many other American & British poets writing c. 1900-1938. (About the same time that I discovered Donne, Herbert, & the other 17th-century Metaphysical poets, & Shakespeare’s sonnets-I’d read several of the plays, of course, earlier.)

By the spring of 1939, my later senior year in high school, I was , at my English teacher’s request, giving lectures on modern poetry up through Auden to our English class.

Before reading Pound, I had only read with pleasure Walt Whitman & Carl Sandburg, who were both very inspiring to me. (Before coming across them, I disliked poetry-I found metric and rhyme unbearable.)

My first poems were political-antiwar. Having been a New Deal liberal earlier, I was by then (as I’ve said) a democratic socialist & pacifist. Funny that, like that New Dealer Olson, I had my life as a poet changed by that fascist-& wonderful-poet.

Nearly a decade later-in 1945-Robert Duncan & I crashed a reading by Williams at the 92nd St YMHA. We talked a little to him & then I wrote to him a little later, asking among other things how Pound was.

Next thing I got a note from Pound telling me to visit Hubert Creekmore at New Directions, & the latter told me how to write back to Pound. By then I knew about the fascism, but not yet about the radio talks. EP & I exchanged sporadic notes, & eventually he was sending me Social Credit & other papers & I was sending him pacifist anarchist papers and magazines. I was by then working with an anarchist pacifist group that put out a paper first called Why?, & later, Resistance. I was a member of its editorial board from 1944 to 1954, when it died. Among those who came to our discussion group were Robert Duncan, Paul Goodman, & once, Julian Beck & Judith Malina who later began The Living Theatre. Goodman, as well as James Baldwin (once, anonymously-an account of a case of police brutality against a black man), & myself wrote for the paper, but I don’t think Duncan did, tho he often came to our discussions before he moved back to the Bay Area. (Robert & I had first met my first day in NYC-on 12 September 1943, my 21st birthday, and continued to be friends for many years.)

From 1945 to 1955, fascism never came up between Pound & me. I noticed that the Social Credit papers were anti-Semitic (they advertised "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," of which they sold copies!) but I discounted Pound’s fascism as psychosis. He never wrote me anything that seemed fascist, & he was fine to Jewish friends of mine who visited him at St Elizabeths (tho they said he got riled up & talked crazy when his Praetorian Guard of Southern boys showed up). He sent me books about Andrew Jackson & a bound copy of the Democratic Review that contained some first publications by Hawthorne & a speech or 2 by the pro-slavery confressman John Calhoun, which I didn’t read, tho that must have been what EP wanted me to read.

So from 1945 to 1955 we talked (on paper-I never met him) about poetry mainly, tho he did give suggestions for what the anarchist-pacifists shd look into (money, of course). (He seemed surprisingly well-inclined toward the anarchists! (Those notes from EP seem to have been spirited away.) No talk about fascism. My attitude was that you don’t kick an old man in his paranoia.

But then, after reading several sections of The Cantos that I hadn’t read before, I brought the subject up (probably in March 1955). He denied being anti-Semitic ("I never bitched Louis [Zukofsky] or Mina Loy (Levy)! [EP’s paren.-near enough-her maiden name was Loewy] & of course he hadn’t. Culture/Guide to Kulchur was dedicated to Zukofsky as well as to Bunting, (That’s where I first saw their names.)

I then pressed EP about the meanings of certain fascist lines in The Cantos. I also mentioned that my father’s name until about 1906 (when he was 18) was Michalowski. My father changed the name to MacLow, along with his younger brothers-the older brothers changed it to Michalow-before he came to the US in 1908, when he was 20. I didn’t know then, when I mentioned it to Pound, that my father’s name was Jacob MacLow when he came to the US.

(He changed it to Jackson MacLow about 1909 at the urging of his Baltimore boss. He told me this in the early 1970s, when he’d forgotten he was hiding all his background. It seems that this Southern boss, who liked him a lot-he was a good salesman-told him: "Jack, I want to call you ‘Jackson,’ after our great Southern general, Stonewall Jackson"! & so I became "Jackson MacLow, Jr. when I was born in 1922. (My parents, fleeing their Judaic background, gave me that very unJewish name. I separated the "Mac" from the "Low" & dropped the "Jr." in 7th or 8th grade.)

At first Pound was in denial & defensive. Then I sent him, of all things, a page from Gertrude Stein’s Wars I Have Seen, in which she made it plain that though the Rothschilds may have controlled gold in the 19th century (I don’t remember whether she mentioned the Sassoons & silver-one of EP’s other hobbyhorses), they sure didn’t do so by the early 20th century

I also mentioned that an acquaintance of mine, Gideon Strauss, the first Israeli consul in New York, when he was given the job of setting up a branch of the Bank of Israel in New York, couldn’t find a a single Jewish banker to work with him!

The upshot, of course, was a blow-up. Pound’s parting shot to me was "You’ll do better as Michaelovitch than MacLow."

So why am I still conflicted about Pound? I think it’s obvious. He wasn’t only a fascist-far more than that-& only a relatively small proportion of his poetry is fascist. (Of course this sounds like "she’s only a leetle bit pregnant.") But could it be that what Pound told Allen Ginsberg when Allen visited him in Venice-that it was "a stupid suburban prejudice!"-was really what he thought it was? Could that have led to his supporting Mussolini & even Hitler?

I think Major Douglas & his Social Credit (a version of money reform that was dripping with anti-Semitism-not all money reformers are anti-Semites-had as much to do with it as Pound’s moving to Italy. (He met Douglas before leaving London.) However, the whole concatenation of Western "populism", the Silver Movement, &c., which was part of his background as a Westerner, born in Idaho, had as much to do with Pound’s turn toward fascism. (Ez had all too much in common with Pat Buchanan! (Curiously, there were even hints of Pound’s interest in Bolshevism around the time of An Objectivist Anthology!)

The fact is that Pound could be a fascist & also write wonderful poetry-even after turning into a fascist! People are not integral. Certainly Pound wasn’t. (I certainly have never been.). One is a different person at different times. What I referred to in the "Afterword" to Words nd Ends from Ez-much to my surprise-as "the spirit of Ezra Pound" (I’ve avoided using the word "spirit"as long as I can remember) was not that of a fascist. Tho he may have thought that he was writing a populist-reformist anticapitalist-fascist montage when he was writing The Cantos, it turned out to be a collage poem such as few poets, if any, had written before. (Thanks, Charles, for pointing this out, despite the fact that you hate Pound much more than I ever have.) It certainly doesn’t "all cohere!"

E.g., Roy Campbell, a fine poet who fought on the Franco side in Spain-as a monarchist rather than a fascist-wrote not only excellent poems of his own (tho some seem as fascist as Pound’s) but also good translations of Baudelaire & St. John of the Cross, & in 1952 he published an important study & translation of Lorca.

When I wrote Words nd Ends from Ez in the early 1980s, I was fully aware of Pound’s fascism & anti-Semitism, but I still found much of his poetry inspiring. I think many of us-especially my younger, language-poet friends-learned very much from Pound. The whole process of juxtaposing disparate elements within the space (in all senses) of a poem was given to us primarily by Pound & his bÍte noir Stein! (How Ez’d gnash his teeth at that sentence!)

I think the contributions of the Dadaists & Surrealists to this kind of poem-construction were minor compared to those of Pound.

& he taught many different groups of poets-not only the Imagists, the Objectivists, & the Projectivists-new ways of making poems & of making verse. It’s seems incredible when one thinks of the lineages of poem-makers descending from EP, e.g., Pound-Olson-Duncan! Think of all the ears he taught to hear & helped teach-even tho many of us learned as much or more from Stein, & also, in approaching hearing & the putting together of disparate things, Cage’s music of the early 1950s).

Would he have been as great a teacher-even to those of us who came to reject as much as we accepted-if he’d not have been such a fucking authoritarian? Probably for some-but that authority thing is what often drives teachers-good & bad.

One cannot obliterate Pound because he was in so many ways a fascist (in so many ways, he wasnt!) or Heidegger because he was a Nazi (for a much much shorter a time than Pound was a fascist). I’ve recently learned that not only the philosopher amd Jew Hannah Arendt, a lover of Heidegger’s as a student who later wrote a major book on totalitarianism, but also Celan, who lost his family to the Holocaust, visited Heidegger in his late years. We cannot be totalists about poets & philosophers any more than we can be about society. Like Whitman, we all contain multitudes.

One way I tried to deal with Pound-in the early 80s-was to make a long poem by reading through The Cantos by a deterministic (nonchance) nonintentional method-the "diastic reading-through text-selection method"-which gleaned from the poem whole words & "ends" of words-everything from the last letter of a word to all the letters except the first-that successively had the letters of "Ezra Pound" in corresponding places (e.g., E’z & P’s in the first place, Z’s & O’s in the second place etc). I spelled out the name diastically over & over until I found no more z’s. (Thus the last section of the poem is a silence, serendipitously consonant with his long final silence.)

I tried to follow this method out exactly. But, of course, I made mistakes. (A lady in Missoula, Montana wrote me that I’d gotten off the track near the end of the book, tho I was consistent from then on.) Just as Pound had projected a great anticapitalist montage, I attempted to write a completely deterministic nonintentional work by reading through _The Cantos_ and selecting words & ends of words "diastically

I tried to follow this method out exactly, but since I didn’t yet have a computer-automation of the method, chance intervened anyway in the shape of mistakes. Luckily, I had decided long before to accept my own mistakes (tho not others’ typos!) once a poem was in print. So I have accepted the fact that Words nd Ends from Ez is a predominantly deterministic poem containing some completely unintended and unsystematic chance interventions (uncaught mistakes of my own). I also accept the fact that others, such as Charles Bernstein, find Words nd Ends from Ez valuable despite its deviations from its intent. (A curious word to use for the project of writing a deterministic nonintentional work!)

I’ve gone on much too long already. Forgive me, fellow polisters!


From: Pierre Joris

Subject: Pound, fascism, etc.

Bravo for Jerry’s & Jackson’s messages re Pound: they should lay that question to rest or at least make it clear that one cannot dismiss work of the order of Pound’s because of the man’s failings. I was about to post Julian Beck’s poem, when Jerry did so, as that poem embodies for me the kind of vigilance we should all strive for, as citizens & writers.

Olson said, liberatingly, that space / geography is the essential characteristic of the US, but the unhappy concommittant seems to be a flattening out of history: from the various messages re Pound I get a strong sense of a lack of historical perspective – as if all events were synchronic – so that hindsight gets construed as clarity of vision – & used to condemn those who in their time, the twenties & the thirties, in this case, messed up, aligning themselves with what they percieved as revolutionary positions – on the right & on the left – which both ended in totalitarianisms.

’nuff said, except that for those interested I’d like to point to a few books that can help clarify matters (unhappily as far as I’m aware, they are not translated into English yet):

Jean-Pierre Faye’s masterful "Langages Totalitaires" (Hermann, Paris 1973): an analysis of how the discursive modes of national-socialism/ nazism came about, evolved from the various strains of nationalist, socialist, jungdeutsch & many other discourses. A historical semantics that should interest any poet.

Zeev Sternhell, Ni Droite, Ni Gauche: L’ideologie Fasciste en France (Editions du Seuil, 1983, reprinted 1987 by Editions Complexe) There are a number of Sternhell’s essays available in English, for ex. "Fascist ideology," in Walter Laqueur, ed. Fascism: A Reader’s Guide (UCP, Berkeley 1976).See also his book La Droite Revolutionnaire: Les origines francaises du fascisme 1885-1914 (Seuil 1984).

In the 1930s George Bataille spoke of "the fascist temptation" that the intellectuals & artist of his time had to contend with: some of his work (like the essay on the prefix "sur") are essential reading. Important also is the work done & ongoing around Maurice Blanchot’s 30s antisemitic writings (Jeffrey Mehlman’s Legacies of Anti-Semitism in France; Alice Yaeger Kaplan’s Reproductions of Banality: Fascism, Literature, and French intellectual life,among others, are important to get a grasp on that period).

As we approach the millennium, making this century "history," we have to keep worrying it, we have to try to understand not only what went wrong, but why & how. It’s not a question of either forgetting or forgiving what has happened: we must neither forget nor forgive anything that happened.


From: Charles Bernstein

Subject: Re: reading Pound

What Greek logomachy had in common with the Hebrew poison was debate, dialectic, sophistry, the critical activity that destroys faith. …. The Hebrew attack, crying out for vengeance, began by destroying the Roman Gods. … But faith is weakened by debates, [which are] more or less rabbinical and if not rabbinical at least anti-totalitarian.

"Che l’intenzione per ragione vale."

Faith is totalitarian. The mystery is totalitarian. The sacred symbols are totalitarian. The destruction of the images of the Gods did not increase faith. … That fatal inclination to want to understand logically and syllogistically what is incomprehensible is Hebrew and Protestant.

–Ezra Pound, 1942 (in Meridiano di Roma), qtd by Peter Nicholls in EP: Politics, Economics and Writing


THUS, in thanks to Jerry, Marjorie, Jackson, Rachel, and the rest of the Poetics "Jews" and Protest-ants (irregardless of ethnic origin) who insist on debating what they/we cannot understand. This is Charles Bernstein speaking … from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, home of Zabar’s and Barney Greengrass, the Sturgeon King.

& now for some further sophistry: "the critical activity which destroys faith":


Many of the poets and critics who discount Pound do not do so because of his fascism but because of a dislike for collage, parataxis, and the very strikingly rhetorical surfaces of Pound’s poems. They also discount other poets, working in related modes, whose politics are quite contrary to Pound’s. The converse of this is also true, as the remarkable posts by Rothenberg, Mac Low, and Perloff, among others, have shown. In this context, I don’t take the new wave of Pound criticism that regards fascism as central to Pound’s poetic project to be a move away from reading Pound or as a way of undermining his significance or influence. This new Pound criticism, which in some ways incorporates aspects of what has come to be called cultural criticism, or cultural and gender studies, tries to integrate Pound’s political and economic ideas with his poetic practice. Like all critical projects, this one is limited. Much of the best Pound criticism before this period tended in various ways to cauterize or surgically remove the cancerous parts of Pound’s work, or career, in an attempt to save the good parts. Partly this was a strategy to "save" the work, but it was equally a forceful interpretative system, an "apolitics" of poetry if you will. (Peter Nicholls: "Most previous criticism of [Pound’s] work has, from a variety of motives, sought to keep these different strands separate, tending in particular to drive a web between the ‘literary’ and poltical dimensions in his writing.")

Starting in the 1980s, critics like Nicholls (a deep lurker on this list), Rachel DuPlessis, Richard Sieburth, Jerome McGann, Burton Hatlen, Bob Perelman, and others, but most militantly Robert Casillo, tried to integrate Pound’s political and economic and gender ideologies into the "tropical system" that is his poetry. In doing this, these readers were giving Pound the respect of taking him at his word, in contrast to those critics who, like well meaning relatives, were often forced to say Pound didn’t know what he was talking about. The point here is not to say one approach or the other is right but to note that these approaches allow for different readings of Pound’s poetry. None of this work, it seems to me, ought to drive one from reading Pound; quite on the contrary. (Possibly this may be the work of a distinctly younger generation of scholars who no longer felt that raising these issues aligned their views with those who roundly dismissed Pound in the postwar period; this earlier polarization pushed those who went to the defense of Pound’s poetry to avoid dwelling on the relation it has to his politics and views on money.)

Casillo and Sieburth actually brought me back to reading Pound; that is, reading through the fascism and masculinism brought me from a passive, largely unarticulated, aversion to Pound, to an active, and ongoing, interest in all aspects of his work. Certainly I have been polemical in my essays on Pound, but not without the ironic realization that Pound relished just this sort of poetic polemicism. Reading Pound through the fascism means reading Pound in the most specific social and historical terms. It also means reading poetic forms politically, as an economy of signs; it means thinking through the implications of poetic structures, rather than imagining them ever to be neutral or transparent. A poem including history means we must read the history too, and this history is writ in the style, in the symbolic/semiotic economy of the poem, in the material means of production, as much as in Pound’s "disembodied" "ideas" – a matrix of material meanings that Christine Froula so brilliantly calls "The Pound Error": error as much in Joan Retallack’s sense of typos and errancy as in political misjudgment: it’s all there.

Poetry is not worth reading because it is comfortable or happy or understandable or uplifting, any more than history or philosophy is. Nor does reading for a politics of poetic form mean that forms are liberating; more often we find, as Ray DiPalma once wrote, that "all forms are coercive". If one starts with the assumption that a poetry should be truthful or beautiful, that it’s meaning should transcend the circumstances of its production – then of course talk of the politics of Pound’s poetic forms will seem dismissive of Pound’s work, since it pulls that work down from the heights of poetic vanity into the real-politics of the actual poem in actual history.

People say, Pound was deluded, Pound was insane, Pound was paranoid, Pound was delusional, as a way to explain away, or possibly contextualize, his fascism. I don’t doubt this, but it doesn’t get me anywhere. Fascism itself was (IS) delusional and paranoid, and Hitler and Mussolini and Goebbels are certifiable in my book, as are the shouting Brown Shirts pictured in Triumph of the Will (don’t we call this "mass hysteria"?). [Highly recommended, in this context, is the recent documentary on Riefenstahl, "The Wonderful, Horrible World of Leni Riefenstahl".] I agree with Pierre Joris that what’s important to understand as we approach the end of this long century is the nature of this delusion, of this insanity, that has attracted so many otherwise admirable, sometimes brilliant, people, groups, indeed cultures. Of course Pound was delusional during the period of his Radio Speeches; reading Pound means reading through these delusions, trying to come to terms with them. It doesn’t mean that in making these judgments one is free of one’s own delusions, or that such a reading gives a complete account of this poetic work, which demands multiple, contradictory, readings.

Pound was not just a fascist; he had different politics, and poetics, at different points in his life and even at some of the same points. Nicholls notes that from 1930 to 1937, Pound was eager to keep a dialogue open with the American Left; and earlier in his life his views seemed more Left than Right, although, reading Nicholls, one begins to see this as much as a weakness in the Life/Right distinction as an inconsistency on Pound’s part. Nicholls also shows that "perhaps the most disquieting thing about [Pound’s] savage propaganda is that it was to some degree an extension of ideas that had governed the earlier Cantos." Indeed, Nicholls’s tracings of the (de?)evolution of the practice of "authority" and "ideological closure" in Pound’s work is crucial for understanding a fundamental dynamic of modernism.

Yet Pound’s poetry is never simply a direct reflection of his politics; indeed, I would argue quite to the contrary that Pound’s work contradicts his fascism. The fascist reading of Pound’s poetic practice is valuable as one approach; it is not a final or definitive reading; as with all critical methods, it illuminates some issues while obscuring others. Of course, as Casillo’s book and other Pound criticism shows, it also may push the criticism to the polemical and even hysterical, as if the critic feels she or he is wrestling with a demon more than interpreting a poem. This too needs to be historicized and contextualized before it can be judged.

Pound told Allen Ginsberg he suffered from "that stupid, suburban prejudice of antisemiticm", as if he should have been immune from such a low, "suburban" consciousness. But one thing that is notable about Pound is that he does not appear to have been "personally" antisemitic, which would have been in no way unusual for a person of his generation and background. His attacks on Jews are not related to his hatred of individual Jews or his desire to be a member of an "exclusive" country club. His views of Jews are highly theoretical and structural, projecting Jewishness, more than individual Jews, as the core force in the destruction of the most cherished values of the West. This demonization is not a "stupid suburban prejudice", it is the systematic paranoia-producing ideology that has come to be called by the fascism. (Burton Hatlen: "we will all seriously misundertand fascism if we insist on seeing it as a "right-wing" poltical movement. For fascsim … blended an authoritarianism ususally associated with the ‘right’ and a ‘populism’ ususally characteristic of the ‘left’.") Marjorie Perloff is quite right to point to it in Buchanan and the fundamentalist right; they too have gone well beyond "stupid suburban prejudice", even as they bank on it. It is scary to see the degree to which fascist ideas have rooted themselves so deeply in mainstream American life, often in the guise of family values and consonance with a natural order. Pound’s most fascist polemics resonate in an eery way with the current wave of attacks on the arts, gays, the disenfranchised poor, immigrants, feminism, and the cities. I say this because there is often a tendency among Americans to exoticize fascism; Pound did his best to bring it home.

There are any number of fascist writers who are of virtually no interest to many or probably any of us on this list. And there are virulent antisemites like Celine, whose work I like more than is comfortable to say, but which I don’t find as structurally and "tropically" rich in terms of the sort of issues I am raising here.

Pound’s work, it seems to me, not only allows for but provokes an ideological reading; it insists that it be read, form and content, for its politics and its ideas. And it is precisely this that is one of the enduring values of his work. The dystopian aspects of Pound’s work are important to fully explore, even with tempers flying off the page, because he is a fundamental a part of that elective tradition (thinking of Christopher Beach’s useful sense of Pound’s influence in his ABC of Influence: Ezra Pound and the Remaking of American Poetic Tradition) that, as Beach and others have noted, consists mostly of poets whose politics and economics differ so radically from Pound’s. But the more important Pound is for that tradition, then the more important it is to understand the disease that consumes his work, which cannot be disentangled from what is "good" about it. Nicholls, for example, notes how Pound’s insistence on "making it new" made for an affinity with related fascist ideals. The significance of "the Pound tradition" requries that we interrogate it for what it excludes as much as what it makes possible: interrogate the assumptions of poetic lineages not just to acknowledge their effects but also to counteract their effects. (Perhaps one aspect of this elective tradition is a commitment to difficult writers and difficult writings; after spending some weeks lately writing about Laura (Riding) Jackson, that possibility is hard to miss.)

Marjorie urges us to "begin at home" with our political concerns, to look around at what is happening in 1996 in America. Given the context of her own life experience, her warning is all the more ominous, all the more to be headed. But also, I would say, I hope within the spirit of her wake-up call, but also in the spirit of "debate", that in the context of this Poetics list, taking on Pound’s fascism is also a way of starting at home.


From: Dick Higgins

Subject: Web Poetry, Restructuring Language Arts Departments

Nice to see the POETICS network’s so quiet. Gives a body time to ruminate and then say what one has been thinking of. With me it is two things:

1) On the poetics network I would have thought I would see speculations on the present state of literature instead of this constant assertion that this or that is a fine book. Try this: we have seen many explanations of the mess in our literary publishing–high paper costs, poor distribution, a declining economic base of independent stores, lack of widely read news media coverage, etc. With thirty million people or so on the web and capable of getting e-mail and the number growing towards perhaps a quadrupling of that number, e-mail publishing and e-zines are bound to become a more significant factor than they have been, since putting up a web site is cheap. Furthermore, many of those who might otherwise buy books are now buying hardware and software to get onto the web, so that a downturn in book sales can and must be expected at least short term, that aggravating an already difficult situation for the serious book-selling and book-publishing public. We who are "on-line" can access a good site and print out what we like, thus providing ourselves almost for free with good reading matter (assuming one does not wish to read on the screen itself). Leaving aside for now the related questions of how to pay and support the publisher and writer, one wonders what are some characteristics of works which function well on the web? For example, time seems to behave differently in web poems than in on-paper ones. One is impatient to download, one must read in two stages-do I like this text enough to download it, and now I can see it, do I want to keep it? I worry about the cost of being connected to my server (the economic angle), and I can only see one screen-ful at a time. How does poetic language (including visual-poetic language) function in such a context? With TTS (="text to sound") becoming ever more sophisticated and less expensive, therefore more available, the silent web has already begun to be replaced by the talking web. Already I have been invited to submit poetry by myself and my Left Hand Books friends to a "poetry reading on the web." If such a site can be seen in France, Thailand and Brazil, what does this do to the very concept of national literatures? Is it a form of cultural imperialism or is it a force for building the world literary community? Or both? What will all this mean to us as writers, scholars and thinking human beings?

2) On our POETICS NETWORK there is so much academic professionalistic babble that I’ve found it hard to think about poetics. It has also made me think, as I haven’t in years, about how in an ideal world the education of people in our language arts would be structured. Try this: scrap all English and Comp Lit departments. Create two other kinds of departments in their place: Departments of Literature and Literary History (parallel to those in Art and Art History) and Departments of Language Skills (for linguistics, technical, journalistic, English for non-native speakers, basic grammars and remedial writing, etc.). Such a reorganization would allow for the clearing out of the dead wood, retaining the vital and ultimately serve the students and public far better and more realistically than the present set of assumptions does. For example, the present system sets up too many boundaries among English, other languages and social structures in our literary canons. The real world knows no such bounds. Goethe’s dictum that "All literature is world literature" applies, especially now. I can read German poems, medieval texts, works by women and blacks, works with which I do not agree and so on and make of them my own; under the present structures, were I to be in academia, I could not share my thoughts about them. "That’s not in your department," I would be told "Don’t invade his-or-her territory or you won’t get tenure or you’ll have to take early retirement." I would therefore be unable to share what was really on my mind and would have to keep my mouth shut. How well I remember Joel Oppenheimer telling me, many years ago when he was teaching, that he hated not being able to teach Wordsworth because he was supposed to focus on teaching his students to write poems! This should change. Perhaps those who are concerned about these matters, in and out of academia, should start a campaign to cause such a restructuring to become normative.

We have no time for resentments (presumably we all hate change, especially since we are all so busy and overworked, both in and out of academia). Rather, these are both issues, I believe, which we must consider if we are not all to wind up in the dustbin while the outside world looks for others to deal with these questions.


Seriously everybody–how about it?

Amato, Joe, 13

Beard, Tom, 170

Bellamy, Dodie, 16, 24, 50

Bernstein, Charles, 40, 52, 183

Boughn, Michael, 56

Braman, Sandra, 43, 136

Byrd, Don,73, 107

Cabri, Louis, 156, 164

Cayley, John, 88, 174

Clarke, B. Cass, 108

Corn, Alfred, 146, 151, 158

Coykendall, Abby, 143

Creeley, Robert, 53, 55

Curnow, Wystan, 18, 87

Damon, Maria, 51, 126, 135, 139, 144, 149, 155

Evans, Steve, 35, 36, 46, 57, 60, 81, 84, 171

Friedlander, Benjamin, 27, 30, 33, 38, 48

Glazier, Loss P., 113, 131

Golding, Alan, 148

Gordon, Nada, 111

Green, Tony, 66, 130

Hansen, Jeff, 173

Higgins, Dick,187

Hoover, Paul, 71

Januzzi, Marisa, 89

Joris, Pierre, 182

Katz, Eliot, 129, 133

Kellogg, David, 152

Killian, Kevin, 14, 164

Kimball, Cynthia,112

Larkin, Peter, 172

Lazer, Hank, 129, 142

Lightman, Ira, 100, 102

Loney, Alan, 19

Lookingbill, Colleen, 121, 141

Mac Low, Jackson,178

Mandel, Tom, 76, 86, 93, 96, 140

McAleavey, David, 127

McMorris, Mark, 166

Moxley, Jennifer, 49

Murphy, Sheila, 118, 122

Nathanson, Tenney, 125

Nelson, Gale, 165

Nielsen, Aldon, 73

Pape, Eric,99

Pelton, Ted, 105

Perelman, Bob, 103

Perloff, Marjorie, 92, 97, 159

Phillips, Patrick, 25, 31, 44, 126

Pressler, Charlotte, 108

Price, Larry,69, 90, 169

Quartermain, Peter, 15, 124

Rasula, Jed, 54

Rothenberg, Jerry, 176

Samuels, Lisa, 132

Scalapino, Leslie,95

Schultz, Susan, 43, 79, 82, 113

Selby, Spencer, 121

Sherry, James, 86, 94

Sherwood, Kenneth, 128

Shoemaker, Steve, 137

Silliman, Ron, 50, 56, 59, 61, 67, 70,

83, 85, 107, 147, 160, 173

Spahr, Juliana, 29, 64, 114, 162

Tal, Kali, 97, 109, 115, 119, 138

Tuma, Keith, 124, 150, 154, 157

Vickery, Ann Louise, 120

Wallace, Mark, 165, 168

poetics@ represents the first book of poetics to emerge from an electronic community, including 133 e-mails from 67 writers.


". . . the material for this book was mostly gathered from the first two years (and 10,000 printed pages) of the poetics list [at SUNY Buffalo] . . . The book represents . . . the beginning of a new era.

Like all emergent technologies, the usefulness-to-poetry of electronic mail was not apparent until a few poets gained access."

–Joel Kuszai, from the Introduction

"Now I get the chance to play ‘sender.’"

–Robert Creeley, from his post

"It is better, yes, to take the dance off the back-channel and perform in public. Posting is performance, a new kind of art; writing in motion, more like improvisation in jazz than literary composition–skywriting, lightwriting, sandpainting, here and gone, happening

in time." –Kali Tal, from her post

"Provides a window onto an ongoing, highly articulate, intensely percolating poetics-in-the making that is a fundamental feature of the most engaging and active poetry of our time. If anyone wonders what today’s poets are thinking, what they are concerned about, what they value, this is a good place to start finding out."

–Charles Bernstein, from the Preface



Copyright © 1999 Roof Books, authors retain copyright of their contribution.


ISBN: 0-937804-79-7

Library of Congress Catalog Card No.: 99-066528


Cover and design by Deborah Thomas.

Roof Books are distributed by Small Press Distribution,

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Phone orders: 800-869-7553

This book was made possible, in part, by a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts.


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