Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Wallace Stevens and Otherness

In his very interesting and deeply flawed essay “Stevens Without Epistemology” (in Gelpi), Gerald Bruns attempts (and, finally, fails) to read Stevens against the grain, in Walter Benjamin’s phrase. Bruns attempts to read Stevens “deconstructively,” attentive to the rifts and fissures in his discourse. I have undertaken to do the same for Bruns, while preserving a sense of the value of his intervention.

Most of Stevens’ critics have read him from within the ideology of the text, sharing its foundational assumptions: i.e., the posing of questions of epistemology as its fundamental problematic. They have engaged in what Theodor Adorno calls immanent critique. The question Bruns poses is “What happens to our reading of Stevens’ poetry when the problem of how the mind links up with reality [i.e., epistemology] is no longer of any concern to us?” (24). Bruns is quite careful (sometimes to the point of condescending to the reader) to situate Stevens’ work within an intellectual framework. At times, he seems more interested in the framework, and in particular in debates with Geoffrey Hartman and Jacques Derrida, than in Stevens’ work. This is hardly rare among literary critics.

Bruns defines “the ‘epistemological turn’ in Western thinking’” (24), initiated by René Descartes, as the point when “questions about nature, reality, or the world began to be reformulated as questions about...Mind or Spirit” rather than about Being (24). The linguistic turn, seemingly simultaneous with the incipience of the twentieth century, and implicitly identifiable with the unmentioned Ludwig Wittgenstein, in turn reformulated these questions about mind into questions about language. Finally (but at no specified point), “there came a time when questions about language (and also therefore questions about mind and reality) began to be reformulated as questions about social practice” (24). This was the hermeneutical turn, concerned “with the historical and dialogical nature of understanding” (25).

Both the vagueness of Bruns’ periodization and its absences strike me as rather odd. Wouldn’t Karl Marx be rather crucial to any account of a soi disant “hermeneutic turn,” if such a “turn” is indeed a matter of attendance to “social practice?” And wouldn’t this hermeneutic turn predate the “linguistic turn,” which can be seen as a reaction against the hermeneutic turn as so defined? (I don’t think this is an idiosyncratic view of logical positivism, for example.) After all, in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Marx did write that while philosophers have traditionally attempted to interpret the world, whereas our true duty is to change it.

This absence reveals a certain anxiety of influence on Bruns’ part, in its implicit insistence on the priority and originality of his discourse. He makes an explicit claim to be doing what has not been done before, and his implicit positioning of himself as a pioneer of the new, original, “hermeneutic turn” seems crucial to that claim. Nor is the erasure of Marxism and the specificity of “social practice” it stands in for irrelevant to the emptied-out, idealist categories of “otherness” Bruns deploys. Bruns claims a social and even potentially political engagement that his conceptual apparatus rules out from the start.

Bruns contends that Stevens cannot be accurately read in terms of the linguistic turn, because “language [as just another mental product] just didn’t have much reality for Stevens” (25). To the extent that this is true, this is a source of Stevens’ indifference to problematics of form and of the poetic tradition. For Stevens “language” and “mind” are finally interchangeable terms. Bruns further asserts that Stevens has generally been read in idealist (i.e., epistemological) terms, and that he shall read him in hermeneutical terms, in terms not of the mind’s relation to reality but of the problem of other people: a problem not “of knowledge or of language...but of dialogue” (26), of people in society. This is a problem, Bruns asserts, that Stevens does not explicitly address. If we look at “Owl’s Clover,” an argument with the socialist view of the place and function of art, but also at shorter poems like “Mozart, 1935,” which judges Mozart and his music, “that lucid souvenir of the past,” to be inadequate to the fear, pain, and sorrow of the present moment (the moment of the Depression and gathering war clouds in Europe)—"We may return to Mozart./He was young and we, we are old,” but now the poet must play the present—it is clear that Bruns underestimates (privileging his critical knowledge over Stevens’ self-knowledge) the degree to which Stevens addresses, directly and indirectly, the problem of “people in society.”

Stevens’ poetry, as Bruns characterizes it, is that of the spectator, seeing or constructing something in order to make it intelligible and therefore his (the spectator is always male in Stevens’ poetry) own. It is a peopled poetry, but “people in Stevens’ poetry never answer back” (26). Bruns sees much of Stevens' poetry’s problematic as issuing from the attempt to silence or assimilate other voices when they do emerge, often from night or darkness: this is, not coincidentally, the ideological realm connoted as that of women and of “the coons and the snakes” of Italian-invaded Ethiopia, on whose side Stevens said himself to be against the Italians. It is the attempt “to keep...otherness from happening” (27), by converting dialogue into private meditation and “people into pure emotion” (29), or by denying a human source to a voice, e.g., the cry (a common index of otherness in Stevens, according to Bruns [35]) in “The Course of a Particular” that is not finally a “human cry,” that “concerns [or rather, need concern] no one at all.” “For Stevens, success in experience means hearing no one’s voice but your own. One can then enter into a new world without any loss of self-possession” (27-28). But Bruns, in making “otherness” completely abstract, formal, indeed, epistemological, repeats the same error of which he accuses Stevens, succumbing to the terms of Stevens’ discourse in the same way he accuses others of doing, and making that discourse more simplistic and univocal than it is.

Bruns very interestingly, and very problematically, characterizes Stevens as a European poet by Mikhail Bakhtin’s definition of poetry as a monological discourse (as against the heteroglossia of the novel), in contrast to much of Williams’, Pound’s, and Eliot’s work, which is more polyvocal. If Bruns means this as more than a technical observation (Pound, Williams, and Eliot incorporate quotations and employ linguistic montage, Stevens generally does not, though “Sunday Morning” is a kind of dialogue between the young woman in her peignoir and the poem’s narrator), it is simply wrong. Bruns seems to think that, because The Cantos or Paterson or The Waste Land contain quotations, other voices exist autonomously in these works, not subsumed by Pound’s or Williams’ master discourse. Bakhtin links heteroglossia and dialogue (not just several voices, but voices in discourse with one another), whereas clearly The Cantos, as a foremost example, incorporates all the cited voices into Pound’s monologue, the “victory of one reigning language (dialect) over the other” (to cite Bruns’ quotation of Bakhtin). Both The Waste Land and Paterson have a greater sense of dialogue, the interplay of voices and discourses, than do The Cantos (The Waste Land, at least, has no anchored or consistent viewpoint “I” at all), but it is the dialogue of a play whose shape and outcome have already been determined.

Given Stevens’ biographical position as, with Marianne Moore, one of the only two “stay at homes” among the major American modernists (even New Jersey-wedded Williams studied medicine in Germany), it’s odd that Bruns asserts that he “does not, it appears [to whom?], compose American texts” (34). Perhaps Stevens’ position as one of the only non-exiles, and his seemingly comfortable identification with America as it was rather as it should or could be (in contrast to his friend Williams, who also spent most of his life in America, and wrote that “the pure products of America go crazy” because of the distortions and injustices of American life), made the articulation of a rhetorical “Americanness” less of an issue for him. What would the definition of an “American text” be, and who has the authority to hand down such a definition?

Bruns proposes, as have several other commentators, most notably Hugh Kenner, that Stevens is the closest thing in English to Mallarmé, a poet whose texts “repress the phenomenon of voice in favor of” writing (34). This is an intriguing and suggestive characterization, but while Mallarmé represses “voice” into the (written) word, Stevens privileges voice (the singing voice and the crying voice), both thematically and formally. Mallarmé’s “writerliness” is very much a matter of his being the most syntactical of poets, an involvement with syntax as a constitutive and productive force that Stevens does not share. Stevens tends instead to supply given syntactical structures, those of oratory or of philosophical discourse, for example, with unexpected contents, maintaining what Mutlu Blasing calls the “gestures” of meaningful discourse. That many of those unexpected words are French or French-derived, that Stevens’ vocabulary is heavily Francophilic—in short, that, for Stevens, “French and English constitute a single language”—does not mean his poetry is “French” in Bruns’ sense. To appropriate Paul De Man’s dichotomy, Stevens is a poet of rhetoric, not of semiology (which De Man equates with grammar).

Nor does Stevens share Mallarmé’s conviction that poems are made up of words and not ideas, for to Stevens poetry is defined as the supreme fiction, not the supreme language. As he writes in his “Adagia,” “Poetry and materia poetica are interchangeable terms.” While Mallarmé seeks to dissolve content into form, much of Stevens’ appeal to the criticism industry resides in the foregrounding of conceptual content, of the “ideas” Mallarmé scorned or at least subordinated, in his poetry. Mallarmé is a poet inspired and tormented by the difference between words and the Word, books (which have all been read, alas) and the Book. For Stevens, to whom language and being are mutualities, their relationship “a consistent proportion of analogies” (Blasing 206), this is not an issue. As Stevens writes in “Adagia,” “Poetry is a poetic conception, however expressed. A poem is poetry expressed in words.” But he goes to write that “in a poem there is a poetry of words. Obviously, a poem may consist of several poetries.” If analogous figures to Mallarmé in American poetry are required (I’m not certain they are, at least not if one’s concern is “American texts”), I would nominate, in the nineteenth century, Emily Dickinson, and in the twentieth, Louis Zukofsky, both poets who write word by word, who foreground the written nature of their discourse, and for whom both syntax and the relationship of logic and Logos are central concerns.

To return to Bruns’ argument, for Bakhtin “The poet is a poet insofar as he accepts the idea of a unitary and singular language and a unitary, monologically sealed-off utterance” (The Dialogic Imagination, quoted 31). The poem, unlike the novel, is univocal. “The world of poetry, no matter how many contradictions and insoluble conflicts the poet develops within it, is always illumined by one unitary and indisputable discourse. Contradictions, conflicts, and doubts remain in the subject, in thoughts, in living experience—in short, in the subject matter—but they do not enter the language itself. In poetry, even discourse about doubts must be cast in a discourse that cannot be doubted” (op. cit., quoted 31-32). Taking this not as prescription, but as a description of a particular poetic mode, Bruns asserts that “[s]ound in such a text [the ideal type of which would be the Book to which Mallarmé’s texts aspire] aspires not to the illusion of someone speaking but to the formal conditions of music” (34). Here Bruns alludes to Walter Pater’s famous formulation that all art aspires to the condition of music, an art whose form and whose content are indissoluble and which is thus impervious to interpretation, an aesthetic ding an sich.

Bruns thus reads sound in Stevens’ poetry, which is frequently foregrounded (though to a much greater degree in the early work than in the late, a distinction of which Bruns would do well to take greater note), as a strategy by which Stevens “plays out...the drama of the fear and repression of alien voices.” One presumes that Bruns means by this that the insistence on the noise his own voice can make is a means for Stevens to drown out other (or Other) voices thematically present or implied. This would explain why Stevens’s most exoticist poems are often his most sonically insistent. Content is sublimated into form: a potentially threatening otherness is emptied out and rendered harmless by being translated into the glamour of an “exotic” language. Aestheticization is thus a mode of the appropriation of alterity, a repression or erasure in which epistemological readings collude.

This paranoiac drama of repression and appropriation is, in Bruns’ words, Stevens’ “strange, difficult way of being an American poet” (35). This is so because, as should be apparent from the discussion of Bakhtin above, for Bruns American poetry is characterized by heteroglossia. Thus much of Stevens’ interest is that “he is a poet troubled by the sort of poetry he is not writing and perhaps can’t bring himself to think of as poetic—the poetry of the other.” which might disturb the “monumental slumber” of a European tradition Bruns, tellingly, describes as “ours” (35). As some version of Tonto once said to the Lone Ranger, What you mean “we,” white man? Bruns does not give Stevens enough credit for being aware of what he is not writing, for deliberately and consciously not writing in certain modes or of certain contents, and for explicitly staging and dramatizing (perhaps I should write, thematizing) that awareness and that exclusion in many of his poems.

The question of who is or is not a properly “American” poet, of the definition of “American poetry” (and what and who gets to be included or excluded under that rubric), like the rhetorical jousting among Hugh Kenner, Marjorie Perloff, and Harold Bloom over whether the modern period in poetry is “the Pound Era” or “the Age of Stevens,” is wholly imaginary, a “problem” of critics and their will to taxonomy (one of the expressions of the critical will to power), not of poets or of poems. It is produced by the critic’s insistence on his or her own capacity to classify and account for the poem or the body or work, his or her “object,” and to thus assimilate this “object’s” discourse into his or her own, to silence the poets he or she purports to explain to themselves. And given Bruns’s insistence on the absence of a founding authority for American poetic discourse, there can be no other but a “strange” and “difficult” way of being an American poet.

I would have liked to see more specificity on Bruns’ part about the “othernesses” silenced in Stevens’ work, which are in Bruns’ text wholly abstract. In the words of John Carlos Rowe, “The slippage from the ‘otherness’ of what is repressed in ordinary acts of communication to the ‘other’ obscures the specificity of actual social ‘others.’ The very generality of the ‘other’ suggests a totalizing system likely to disregard differences of race, gender, class, culture, and history” (191). By choosing as his two main examples “Evening Refrain” and “The Course of a Particular,” poems in which the “othernesses” erased or silenced are non-human, and by these choices making otherness epistemological, not social, Bruns' discussion of “otherness,” again by some strange mimicry of the drama of fear and repression he describes in Stevens, erases the actual “others” in Stevens’ work. These others tend to be women (Bruns obliquely notes this in his discussion of “Apostrophe to Vincentine” [28], in which Vincentine steadily transforms from a purely imaginary figure into a real human presence that the poet must then transform back into “heavenly, heavenly Vincentine,” as if warding off the woman, without incorporating the fact into his argument) and exoticized racial others, usually black people.

An example would be the “nigger mystics” of “Prelude to Objects,” representatives of “the guerilla I” who “should change/Foolscap for wigs,” abandoning poetry for academic scholarship. This is an ambivalent presentation, in which the “nigger mystics” are noble savages, both primitive in the negative sense and primal in the way that poetry, “patting more nonsense foamed/From the sea,” is primal. The apparent recommendation of “Academies/As of a tragic science” seems ironic, since the poem concludes by saying “We are conceived in your [that is, the poet’s] conceits. Thus the “nigger mystics” are both denigrated by their description and presented as poetic ideals.

In a poem like “The Virgin Carrying a Lantern.” the two threatening othernesses that must be neutralized are (rather economically) combined into the “negress,” the black female other implicitly compared to a bear (emphasizing her animal nature), “who supposes/Things false and wrong” about the lantern (the light of wisdom?) carried by the implicitly white female other, who is split off and enshrined as the eponymous (and unthreatening) virgin. The poem enacts a version of the Madonna/whore dichotomy, in which the white woman, while a “beauty,” represents light and purity, while the black woman is filled “with heat so strong” by the lantern, her sexuality presumably having overcome her, in contrast to the virgin who walks only “as a farewell duty” before “her pious egress.”

Cornel West has noted that the discourse of postmodernism (a construction I adopt precisely because it conflates “postmodernist discourse” and “discourse about postmodernism” and thus leaves open the amorphous status of the entity “postmodernism”) “highlight[s] notions of difference, marginality, and otherness in such a way that it further marginalizes actual people of difference and otherness,” most particularly black people and women of all races (“Black Culture and Postmodernism.” in Kruger and Mariani 91-92). Bruns’ essay is very much part of that discourse of postmodernism, a repetition of the same (in)difference. Bruns tentatively approaches a social or even political reading, but stops far short. He translates his “hermeneutic” (read “political”) reading into exactly the “formalist,” “epistemological” terms he criticizes in others. The anxiety in the face of alterity Bruns diagnoses in Stevens is an anxiety equally at work in his own discourse, if not more. Stevens at least admits those others into his poems, however problematic and even contradictory his treatment of them. Bruns simply erases them altogether.

Works Cited

Blasing, Mutlu Konek. American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987.

Gelpi, Albert, Ed. Wallace Stevens: The Poetics of Modernism. Cambridgeshire: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Kruger, Barbara, and Phil Marian, Eds. Remaking History: Dia Art Foundation Discussions in Contemporary Culture No. 4. Seattle, WA: Bay Press, 1989.

Rowe, John Carlos. “Postmodernist Studies.” In Stephen Greenblatt and Giles Gunn, eds., Redrawing the Boundaries: The Transformation of English and American Literary Studies. New York: The Modern Language Association, 1992.

Stevens, Wallace. Complete Poetry and Prose. New York: Library of America, 1997.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Fascination of What's Difficult

The question of difficulty is one with which I wrestle constantly. I want to communicate in my poems—I can’t imagine writing without the desire to reach someone (nor could Paul Celan, a very “difficult” poet)--but at the same time I don't want to pander, and I don't want to do or say things in the conventional or expected ways. No one should set out to write difficult poetry (that’s just to provoke), any more than one should set out to write easy poetry (that’s just to pander). One should follow the lead and the needs of the poem at hand.

I don't think that any good poet intends to be difficult (or that any good poet intends to be "easy"), but I also think that difficulty is sometimes both unavoidable and necessary when one is trying to get at something complex, to say something that doesn't already have an already available vocabulary (it's usually a bad thing when something does have that conveniently at-hand language), or just when one tries to approach something in a unique and distinctive way, which good poems always try to do. T.S. Eliot said that genuine poetry can communicate before it's understood, and that's certainly been my experience. If one feels the poem, the conviction of its language and its emotions, as I felt “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” when I first read it, that can lead to understanding—at least, that's the only reason one would want to understand it, the only reason one would care. It's like the experience of listening to music: we don't necessarily "understand" it, but we immerse ourselves in it and it affects us.

Much of what people say about "accessibility" is very condescending, as if "ordinary people" (whoever they are—certainly not us) are incapable of grasping or appreciating something complex, as if they're too dumb to connect with anything that has any nuance. I don’t think that poetry should be difficult, but I do think that it should be as complex as the world is. Poetry should live up to, enrich and illuminate the world, not simplify or flatten it out, which too many poems of all camps do (and probably always have—despite the perennial narratives of cultural decline, good poetry, real poetry, is a rare thing and always has been).

These days there is too often a cultural leveling, in which the notion of "equality" means that everything must be "equivalent," and all cultural products must appeal to the lowest common denominator—which is also highly patronizing, assuming that "the masses" can neither be interested in nor understand anything complex or challenging. This kind of thinking seems to function largely to displace desires for equality and democracy from the social realm to the aesthetic: a bracketing not everyone can afford. I have heard people assert that writing complex poetry is equivalent to writing in Chaucerian English (as if complexity were something obsolete which we must move past), and that difficult poetry is "unfair to the mental capacities of non-poets." Such condescending attitudes would discourage anyone from trying to read poetry—no one wants to be looked down upon.

The popularity of crossword puzzles, sudoku, video and computer games, and even convoluted television programs like 24 and The Sopranos indicates that people do in fact enjoy mental challenges. But, when people think about poetry (which is not often), and when they think of it as other than Hallmark card verse, there is the assumption that poetry is more difficult than other things (though many television commercials are more difficult to "read" than most poems), that only egghead intellectuals can enjoy or understand it, and that it has no "relevance" to "real life." That "relevance" (or "life," for that matter) could be a much broader category than simple and immediate identification is rarely considered.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Robert Duncan and Me

I have always had a fondness for verbal extravagance in poetry, for rhetorical splendor and a fine excess. One should be suspicious of such excess to a certain extent (Eliot wrote that a poet should always be suspicious of language), lest it descend into mere self-indulgence. But ours is, in French novelist Nathalie Sarraute’s phrase, an age of suspicion, in which intensity of feeling and expression is an embarrassment, at best an admission of lack of discipline and self-control, at worst an invalidation of whatever one may have to say. “You’re being so emotional,” people say, as if to feel strongly cancels out the worth of one’s thoughts, arguments, or positions.

As Lani Guinier, Clinton’s failed nominee for attorney general, said in a 1994 interview in the magazine Vibe, “if you show too much emotion of whatever kind, that then defines you forever, and you don’t have the opportunity to present yourself in any nuanced or multifaceted way.” It sometimes seems that to express emotion, let alone passion, is to be marked as de trop by definition. Emotion is only allowed vicarious (and stereotyped) emotional expression by means of music, movies, and television, which offer up reified, commodified (and sterilized) versions of feeling. As Roland Barthes, as quoted in the Financial Times, of all places, once said, “What the public wants is not passion but the appearance of passion.”

Robert Duncan is a passionate poet and a poet of passion, verbal, emotional, and intellectual. His work is sometimes dismissed as sentimental. Critic M.L. Rosenthal so dismissed the opening lines of “A Sequence of Poems for H.D.’s 73rd Birthday,” from Roots and Branches [Rosenthal mis-cites the poem’s title], in his 1967 book The New Poets:

The young Japanese son was in love with a servant boy.
To be in love! Dont you remember how the whole world is governed
by a fact that embraces
everything that happens?

The passage goes in this vein for several more lines, concluding with “And youth in love with youth!” before veering off in a more mystical direction. Rosenthal’s discussion, in which “I will not say that such a passage is an imposition on the heterosexual reader” (as if homosexual readers have not been imposed upon for centuries), and in which he denigrates the passage’s emotional exuberance as a “girlish outcry,” has more than a whiff of homophobia—the expression of homosexual passion or desire is by definition “too much,” “excessive.” Rosenthal is more approving when Duncan writes of the pain and shame of homosexual desire, as in “Sonnet 1”:

Now there is a Love of which Dante does not speak unkindly,
Tho it grieves his heart to think upon men
who lust after men and run.

Sometimes Duncan’s poetry is sentimental. That is to say, sometimes the excess feels gross rather than fine, willful rather than felt, like a performance. As Wallace Stevens noted, sentimentality is not a surplus of feeling but a failure of feeling. But that is not Duncan at his best.

I am impressed by the unabashed and unembarrassed lyrical and emotional exuberance of Duncan’s poetry, the utter absence of irony or defensive self-consciousness. Not that Duncan is unself-consciousness (far from it), but self-awareness is not used as a shield or a weapon. As poet Brian Teare writes in his essay “A Drama of Truth”, “it’s Duncan’s lack of irony about his vocation, as well as [about] the possibilities and functions of both imagination and language, that makes him most vulnerable to our postmodern distrust.” On his web log, The Rest Is Noise, music critic Alex Ross writes in similar terms about Italian opera composer Giacomo Puccini that, “despite his popularity, [Puccini] creates discomfort in this hyper-stylized, ironic age, because he deals in direct emotion, [and] avoids ideology and moralism.”

Long ago an undergraduate poetry professor told us not to let irony become a pet, which too many poets these days have done: that is, when they haven’t in fact become irony’s pets. Irony is too often used as an evasion, a way to disclaim responsibility for one’s statements and one’s feelings, or even for pretending one doesn’t have feelings, which can be so disruptive, even disturbing, so messy and uncool. As Louise Glück has written from a more generous-minded viewpoint, “Too often distaste for sentiment, anxiety at the limitations of the self, create contempt for feeling, as though feeling were what was left over after the great work of the mind was finished” (“Foreword” to Frail-Craft by Jessica Fisher, xv).

While Eliot wrote that “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion,” he also pointed out that “only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things” (Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, 43). Too many younger American poets want not just to escape from emotions but to have none. Flippancy and sarcasm can be a way of dealing with emotional pain, of distancing it and making it easier to handle, in the way that one dons protective gear to handle volatile materials. They’re very popular in American poetry today. But there are more challenging and interesting ways to engage emotion while avoiding sentimentality. Being cool doesn’t leave much room for depth or exploration, for risk or for surprising oneself. As Marianne Moore writes in her essay “Idiosyncrasy and Technique,” “We are suffering from too much sarcasm, I feel. Any touch of unfeigned gusto in our smart press is accompanied by an arch word implying, ‘Now to me, of course, this is a bit asinine.’... Blessed is the man who does not sit in the seat of the scoffer.” Irony and sarcasm aren’t the same thing, though they’re often confused. Irony always takes what it addresses seriously.

In Duncan’s poetry, one affected not so much by the feeling per se (anyone can feel, or almost anyone), but by the willingness to be seen to feel, the open performance of feeling (the poem, after all, is not a person—it feels nothing, though at its best it embodies and enacts emotion and thought and their interactions), a feeling that may appear excessive or inappropriate from a less sympathetic point of view. But Duncan, at his best, makes his excesses artful, his inappropriateness movingly defiant rather than embarrassing, as it so easily could be.

When I wrote “You, Therefore,” which I reproduce below, and which is included in my book Fata Morgana, I was reading a great deal of early Duncan, specifically The Years as Catches: First Poems (1939-1946), published in 1966 by Oyez and now out of print, and The First Decade: Selected Poems 1940-1950, published by Fulcrum Press in 1968 and now also out of print. Duncan always remains open to the immediacy of the moment of composition—“I sought to liberate in language natural powers of the poem itself…in the excitement of the music, I was transported beyond the model into the presence of the poetic intention itself”—even if that transport sometimes leads him astray, into what could be considered poetic error: “It is all wrong my intelligence protests, but it is a commanding confession of my true state.”

The “crisis of truth and permission” of which Duncan writes is one with which I have struggled all my life as a writer, though I have usually taken care (perhaps too much care) not to let permission permit error. But nonetheless, reading these early poems of Duncan’s gave me a permission, allowed me (in poet John Gallaher’s phrase) to write “You, Therefore,” a more open, less careful, and less guarded poem than I usually allowed myself:

Often I am permitted to return to a meadow

that is a place of first permission,
everlasting omen of what is.

That, and the security of a real-life interlocutor to my words, the knowledge that I was no longer speaking to and into an absence, or at best a phantom presence I had myself to conjure up. I was no longer writing simulacra of feelings I imagined having about men I’d never met or men who never existed, mourning lost loves I’d never had. This real presence provides the possibility of the poetic projection of male homoeroticism as a mode of transcendence and even salvation in the company of a beloved other rather than of abjection and self-abnegation before unattainable figures of a real but too highly figured, and always blocked, desire.

You, Therefore

For Robert Philen

You are like me, you will die too, but not today:
you, incommensurate, therefore the hours shine:
if I say to you “To you I say,” you have not been
set to music, or broadcast live on the ghost
radio, may never be an oil painting or
Old Master’s charcoal sketch: you are
a concordance of person, number, voice,
and place, strawberries spread through your name
as if it were budding shrubs, how you remind me
of some spring, the waters as cool and clear
(late rain clings to your leaves, shaken by light wind),
which is where you occur in grassy moonlight:
and you are a lily, an aster, white trillium
or viburnum, by all rights mine, white star
in the meadow sky, the snow still arriving
from its earthwards journeys, here where there is
no snow (I dreamed the snow was you,
when there was snow), you are my right,
have come to be my night (your body takes on
the dimensions of sleep, the shape of sleep
becomes you): and you fall from the sky
with several flowers, words spill from your mouth
in waves, your lips taste like the sea, salt-sweet (trees
and seas have flown away, I call it
loving you): home is nowhere, therefore you,
a kind of dwell and welcome, song after all,
and free of any eden we can name

Thursday, March 6, 2008

My New Anthology

My new new book (after my recent essay collection, Orpheus in the Bronx), Lyric Postmodernisms: An Anthology of Contemporary Innovative Poetries, has recently been published by the new and small but quite excellent Counterpath Press, who have published books by Laynie Browne, Brian Henry, and Andrew Joron, among others.

Marjorie Perloff writes of the book that "Like the best of museum curators, Reginald Shepherd has trusted his own poet’s eye and ear in assembling poems by twenty-three of our best (mostly younger) poets—poets not usually linked, belonging, as they do, to different schools and movements. From Rosmarie Waldrop’s ironic prose poems ('I gave up stress for distress') to Cole Swensen’s elegant ekphrastic prose, from C. S. Giscombe’s minimalist geographies to Susan Stewart’s resonant mythic landscapes, the dominant impression—rare today—produced by this lyric assemblage is that of quality—the sure hand of those who have mastered their craft and can therefore Make It New. This is a truly exciting and memorable anthology!"

Charles Altieri writes that “All the anthologies of contemporary poetry I know are far too generous. They seem incapable of excluding almost anyone who has gained any reputation, and then they have to compensate for their breadth by such scanty selections there is no possibility of depth. Not so with Reginald Shepherd’s Lyric Postmodernisms. Shepherd had the courage to select 23 poets—spanning two generations—then offer them enough space to provide statements on their aesthetics, display their range (including selections from long poems and uncollected texts). This anthology treats poets not just as makers of objects but as thinkers with visible and engaging projects, who bring lyric consciousness into almost every domain of active life. . . . Here 'lyric' can have its fullest meaning only if there are many more than one postmodernism, as Shepherd elaborates in his brilliant and concise introduction.”

I am grateful to them both for these generous and eloquent endorsements.

Lyric Postmodernisms gathers twenty-three established poets whose work crosses and transcends the boundaries between traditional lyric and avant-garde experimentation. Some have been publishing since the 1960s, some have emerged more recently, but all have been influential on newer generations of American poets. Many of these poets are usually not thought of together, being considered as members of different poetic camps, but they nonetheless participate in a common project of expanding the boundaries of what can be said and done in poetry. This anthology sheds new light on their work, creating a new constellation of contemporary American poetry.

These poets explore and discover new territories in the intersections between lyric enchantment and experimental investigation: they innovate and interrogate while still drawing upon and incorporating the lyric past and present; their critical art is also a celebration and renewal of the riches of the lyric tradition.

The book includes generous selections from each poet, so that a reader can get a sense of the writer’s work as a whole, and wherever possible I also include uncollected work that, even if published, might be difficult to track down. It is important to include a substantial representation of each poet’s work, rather than a cursory sampling, since it's often a poet’s other work that teaches us how to read any given poem of hers or his. I also include aesthetic statements from each contributor. Such statements, in which contributors discuss their work, their influences, their aims, and their poetics, situate and provide points of entry for these diverse and complex poetries.

The book includes work by Bruce Beasley, Martine Bellen, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Gillian Conoley, Kathleen Fraser, Forrest Gander, C. S. Giscombe, Peter Gizzi, Brenda Hillman, Claudia Keelan, Timothy Liu, Nathaniel Mackey, Suzanne Paola, Bin Ramke, Donald Revell, Martha Ronk, Aaron Shurin, Carol Snow, Susan Stewart, Cole Swensen, Rosmarie Waldrop, Marjorie Welish, and Elizabeth Willis.

I encourage anyone interested in "that kind of poetry" (whatever labels one chooses or refuses for it) to take a look at this book.