Sunday, August 29, 2010

Kenneth Koch's "Sleeping With Women" [1969]

Kenneth Koch about as he looked circa 1970 (perhaps a bit darker) 

I remember when Kenneth Koch [1925-2002] came to read at the Iowa Workshop--this would have been in 1970 or '71--invited by, I assume, Anselm Hollo, as neither George Starbuck (the Workshop head at that point), nor Marvin Bell (who had the most influence among the regular faculty of poets) would have been likely to choose someone with Koch's credentials. In a cultural sense, this was still the "Sixties" and the strict partisan divisions which had characterized the poetry community since the late 1950's were alive and well. The competing camps seldom trespassed on each other's turf, and when they did, things could seem tense. 
Anselm introduced Koch that night, and went on at some length about how Koch had injected a breath of fresh air ("Fresh Air" being a poem Koch had published in 1956, not the title of Terry Gross's NPR radio program) into the American poetry mainstream. Whether or not anyone but a handful of us in that audience believed that to be true, is an imponderable, but Anselm clearly did, and wasn't afraid of saying so. The impression Koch made that night was of a wholly sophisticated New Yorker, quick on his feet, with a subtle wit and ready smile. Wearing a dark blazer, and bow-tie (as I recall), horn-rimmed glasses, with dark curly hair just beginning to grey, he cut a neat figure. 
Among the poems he read that night was "Sleeping with Women." The poem had been published in Poetry (Chicago), and issued in a limited edition by Black Sparrow Press [1969], before being included in his second collection of separate poems, The Pleasures of Peace and Other Poems [Grove Press, 1969], shown below. It was hailed at the time as a breakthrough piece for Koch, and continued for several years to be considered as among his best poems. Now, 40 years on, I suspect it's lost some of its luster for subsequent generations, but it still rings true for me. 
As expected, Koch read it as slapstick, though by the end, the repetitions had overcome his intention, and he, and they (the audience) were melancholy and joyous, the way people often are at a particularly moving opera performance. Clearly, this was at least partly what Koch was trying for, and the way people responded to it was a confirmation of his success.             

   The cover design of The Pleasures of Peace by Alex Katz
The poem has no stanza breaks, and should be read straight through, without stopping to ponder or weigh its assertions or inter-relationships and (in-)consistencies. The images, names and concepts are meant to be taken lightly, as if riding easily on a motorcycle through a mental countryside of familiar sights and ruins. It's the classical world--a kind of vaguely literary travel-logue with the usual suspects making quick bows, as we hover in a membrane between sleep and waking, always in the presence of women....      

                Sleeping With Women
Caruso: a voice.
Naples: sleeping with women.
Women: sleeping in the dark.
Voices: a music.
Pompeii: a ruin.
Pompeii: sleeping with women.
Men sleeping with women, women sleeping with women, sheep sleeping
    with women, everything sleeping with women.
The guard: asking you for a light.
Women: asleep.
Yourself: asleep.
Everything south of Naples: asleep and sleeping with them.
Sleeping with women: as in the poems of Pascoli.
Sleeping with women: as in the rain, as in the snow.
Sleeping with women: by starlight, as if we were angels, sleeping on the train,
On the starry foam, asleep and sleeping with them — sleeping with women.
Mediterranean: a voice.
Mediterranean: a sea. Asleep and sleeping.
Streetcar in Oslo, sleeping with women, Toonerville Trolley
In Stockholm asleep and sleeping with them, in Skansen
Alone, alone with women,
The rain sleeping with women, the brain of the dog-eyed genius
Alone, sleeping with women, all he has wanted,
The dog-eyed fearless man.
Sleeping with them: as in 
The Perils of Pauline
Asleep with them: as in Tosca
Sleeping with women and causing all that trouble
As in Roumania, as in Yugoslavia
Asleep and sleeping with them
Anti-Semitic, and sleeping with women,
Pro-canary, Rashomon, Shakespeare, tonight, sleeping with women
A big guy sleeping with women
A black seacoast's sleeve, asleep with them
And sleeping with women, and sleeping with them
The Greek islands sleeping with women
The muddy sky, asleep and sleeping with them.
Sleeping with women, as in a scholarly design
Sleeping with women, as if green polarity were a line
Into the sea, sleeping with women
As if wolverines, in a street line, as if sheep harbors
Could come alive from sleeping with women, wolverines
Greek islands sleeping with women, Nassos, Naxos, Kos,
Asleep with women, Mykonos, miotis,
And myositis, sleeping with women, blue-eyed
Red-eyed, green-eyed, yellow reputed, white-eyed women
Asleep and sleeping with them, blue, sleeping with women
As in love, as at sea, the rabbi, asleep and sleeping with them
As if that could be, the stones, the restaurant, asleep and sleeping with them,
Sleeping with women, as if they were knee
Arm and thigh asleep and sleeping with them, sleeping with women.
And the iris peg of the sea
Sleeping with women
And the diet pill of the tree
Sleeping with women
And the apology the goon the candlelight
The groan: asking you for the night, sleeping with women
Asleep and sleeping with them, the green tree
The iris, the swan: the building with its mouth open
Asleep with women, awake with man,
The sunlight, asleep and sleeping with them, the moving gong
The abacus, the crab, asleep and sleeping with them
And moving, and the moving van, in London, asleep with women
And intentions, inventions for sleeping with them
Lands sleeping with women, ants sleeping with women, Italo-Greek or 
   Anglo-French orchestras
Asleep with women, asleep and sleeping with them,
The foam and the sleet, asleep and sleeping with them,
The schoolboy's poem, the crippled leg
Asleep and sleeping with them, sleeping with women
Sleeping with women, as if you were a purist
Asleep and sleeping with them.
Sleeping with women: there is no known form for the future
Of this undreamed-of view: sleeping with a chorus
Of highly tuned women, asleep and sleeping with them.
Bees, sleeping with women
And tourists, sleeping with them
Soap, sleeping with women; beds, sleeping with women
The universe: a choice
The headline: a voice, sleeping with women
At dawn, sleeping with women, asleep and sleeping with them.
Sleeping with women: a choice, as of a mule
As of an island, asleep or sleeping with them, as of a Russia,
As of an island, as of a drum: a choice of views: asleep and sleeping with
    them, as of high noon, as of a choice, as of variety, as of the sunlight, red
    student, asleep and sleeping with them,
As with an orchid, as with an oriole, at school, sleeping with women, and you
    are the one
The one sleeping with women, in Mexico, sleeping with women
The ghost land, the vectors, sleeping with women
The motel man, the viaduct, the sun
The universe: a question
The moat: a cathexis
What have we done? On Rhodes, man
On Samos, dog
Sleeping with women
In the rain and in the sun
The dog has a red eye, it is November
Asleep and sleeping with them, sleeping with women
This June: a boy
October: sleeping with women
The motto: a sign; the bridge: a definition.
To the goat: destroy; to the rain: be a settee.
O rain of joy: sleeping with women, asleep and sleeping with them.
Volcano, Naples, Caruso, asleep and sleeping, asleep and sleeping with them
The window, the windrow, the hedgerow, irretrievable blue,
Sleeping with women, the haymow, asleep and sleeping with them, the canal
Asleep and sleeping with them, the eagle's feather, the dock's weather, and the
Sleeping with you; asleep and sleeping with you: sleeping with women.
Sleeping with women, charming aspirin, as in the rain, as in the snow,
Asleep and sleeping with you: as if the crossbow, as of the moonlight
Sleeping with women: as if the tractate, as if d'Annunzio
Asleep and sleeping with you, asleep with women
Asleep and sleeping with you, asleep with women, asleep and sleeping with
    you, sleeping with women
As if the sun, as of Venice and the Middle Ages' "true
Renaissance had just barely walked by the yucca
Forest" asleep and sleeping with you
In China, on parade, sleeping with women
And in the sun, asleep and sleeping with you, sleeping with women,
Asleep with women, the docks, the alley, and the prude
Sleeping with women, asleep with them.
The dune god: sleeping with women
The dove: asleep and sleeping with them
Dials sleeping with women; cybernetic tiles asleep and sleeping with them
Naples: sleeping with women; the short of breath
Asleep and sleeping with you, sleeping with women
As if I were you — moon idealism
Sleeping with women, pieces of stageboard, sleeping with women
The silent bus ride, sleeping with you.
The chore: sleeping with women
The force of a disaster: sleeping with you
The organ grinder's daughter: asleep with bitumen, sunshine, sleeping with
Sleeping with women: in Greece, in China, in Italy, sleeping with blue
Red green orange and white women, sleeping with two
Three four and five women, sleeping on the outside
And on the inside of women, a violin, like a vista, women, sleeping with
In the month of May, in June, in July
Sleeping with women, "I watched my life go by" sleeping with women
A door of pine, a stormfilled valentine asleep and sleeping with them
"This Sunday heart of mine" profoundly dormoozed with them
They running and laughing, asleep and sleeping with them
"This idle heart of mine" insanely "shlamoozed" asleep and sleeping with them,
They running in laughter
To the nearest time, oh doors of eternity
Oh young women's doors of my own time! sleeping with women
Asleep and sleeping with them, all Naples asleep and sleeping with them,
Venice sleeping with women, Burgos sleeping with women, Lausanne sleeping
    with women, hail depth-divers
Sleeping with women, and there is the bonfire of Crete
Catching divorce in its fingers, purple sleeping with women
And the red lights of dawn, have you ever seen them, green ports sleeping with
    women, acrobats and pawns,
You had not known it ere I told it you asleep with women
The Via Appia Antica asleep with women, asleep and sleeping with them
All beautiful objects, each ugly object, the intelligent world,
The arena of the spirits, the dietetic whisky, the storms
Sleeping with women, asleep and sleeping with them,
Sleeping with women. And the churches in Antigua, sleeping with women
The stone: a vow
The Nereid: a promise — to sleep with women
The cold — a convention: sleeping with women
The carriage: sleeping with women
The time: sometimes
The certainty: now
The soapbox: sleeping with women
The time and again nubile and time, sleeping with women, and the time now
Asleep and sleeping with them, asleep and asleep, sleeping with women, sleep
    and sleeping with them, sleeping with women.
There's always a problem in talking seriously about Koch's verse, because it resists serious discussion, in my view. Koch was an educated scholar, and spent his life in college teaching. He was surrounded by intellects, in an environment of study and research and careful attention. How someone of his effusive and comedic nature should have chosen this life is a mystery. The poetry, and the world to which this poetry connected him, functioned, one senses, not as an academic duty, but as a kind of serious recreation. If Koch is at bottom a comic poet, his most direct models were the classical poets and playwrights of ancient Greece, and Rome, whose example and artifacts were both an inspiration, and a subject for blissful burlesque and parody. 
If contemporary audiences have trouble hearing Sophocles or Euripides as "straight" narrative or utterance, Koch's special combination of pop goofiness and wide-eyed credulity insists upon a purification of regard which persuades one that life is really simpler and easier than it seems. Koch's percolating poems, and nonsense plays, often exist in a kind of limbo of silliness and faux naivité, in which anything is possible, and care and anxiety and tragedy are kept at bay, in favor of clean fun and absurdity and cheerful color. This elevated sense of amusement is something he shared with O'Hara and others of the New York School, whose work and life-style--the hilarity and 'deep gossip'--prefigured the uncorked liberation and free spirit of the Sixties, Pop Art, Happenings, etc. Koch's poems often seem like cartoons, big two-dimensional canvases (perhaps like Alex Katz's paintings) peopled by the famous and the historical archetypes and monuments which preoccupied his professorial imagination. 
Koch suffered from a severe stutter, which improved over time; and also underwent years of psycho-analysis, partly to master the stutter. He was monogamous, and had family obligations, though his aesthetic persona suggested a camp life-style which was anything but traditional. His teaching style, augmented by several ground-breaking works detailing his theories and experience teaching poetry to children and the geriatric set, was unorthodox and demonstrative. 
The turmoils in Koch's life, which are only hinted at in his bio, suggest that the poetic persona he adopted was designed to compensate for problems in other spheres. Poetry may seem almost a kind of "art" therapy. (Denny Zeitlan--the great jazz pianist and composer--is also a full psychiatric professional, though he doesn't permit any cross-fertilization between the two roles.) Koch's "experimental" writing takes a unique form, and is most in evidence in his long, pop nonsense epic When The Sun Tries To Go On [Black Sparrow Press, 1969--though the poem is dated from the 1950's]. It's probably the most irrepressibly "wacky" piece of writing anyone has ever published.
Koch's comic long poems, e.g., Ko, or A Season on Earch [Grove, 1959], or The Duplications [Knopf, 1977] and so forth, are parodic mock epics using uniform stanzaic forms. Koch's natural inclination towards farce and childish affectation are expressed as spontaneity and deadpan, but irony is never far below the pastel surface. Which is how I see "Sleeping With Women"--a comic-romantic farcical performance which is always on the verge of becoming serious.     
"Sleeping With Women" is a free-verse variation, constructed out of a repeated phrase (sleeping with women), around which are cobbled a series of declamations and evocations which derive a certain sustenance and moment from the annunciatory character of the repeated phrases, sleeping with women, asleep and sleeping with them, etc. The phrase carries a dream-like dimension, as well as a sexual one, suggesting a semi-dream-like state not unlike that of Italian opera; and the initial associations--
Caruso: a voice.
Naples: sleeping with women.
Women: sleeping in the dark.
Voices: a music.
Pompeii: a ruin.
Pompeii: sleeping with women.
--set the tone and context for the rest of the poem. The poem's free-wheeling, rhapsodic caricature of a Mediterranean world is both a light-hearted imaginative tour through Koch's casual mental geography, and a metaphorization of a certain state of mind. For me, it's reminiscent of Crane, Vachel Lindsey, Whitman, continuing in a long line backwards in time to the ancient poets, for whom mere enumeration, or catalogues, or simple lists of things, or places, or names, constitutes the whole "subject" of a discursive poem. In our time, Ginsberg and Ashbery, for instance, have written poems in this same style. 
Koch's romantic inclination--an indulgence in hyperbole and giddiness--is balanced by his comfort inside classical structures. The inspiration for this, which appears again and again in his work, is a youthful "grand tour" nostalgia, perhaps for the period when he and his wife lived in Europe (France and Italy) during the mid-1950's. The tension between the mixed diction--often combining slang with elegant turns--and the ostensible air of formality, usually keeps his work from tipping over into stodginess. Enthusiasm and mystery, slapstick and dirge. 
Koch always keeps things sparking and twinkling with unexpectedly weird or pompous images or references. Toonerville Trolley, the dog-eyed genius, pro-canary, the black seacoast's sleeve, green polarity, 'true Renaissance had just barely walked by the yucca forest' [??], and so forth, balance the elevated references to Venice, Naples, Caruso, Crete, orchids. The poem satirizes the cosmopolitan mood it sets up while floating along on it own rollicking buoyant rhythm. 
It's a truism that being funny is ten times more difficult than being serious. Any fourth-rate preacher can conduct hand-wringing sermons, but every stand-up comic knows how demanding the podium can be. It often feels as if the ideal frame of mind for a Koch poem is mild inebriation, where the suspension of disbelief is helped along by a little dose of predisposition. I don't read Koch often, and when I do, I sometimes feel he's counting a little too heavily on my indulgence. But occasionally, as with this poem, where he seems to combine Walt Disney with Walt Whitman, all the frolic and froth seems worth it. 
There are probably some women out there who regard this poem as a sexist travesty. Pity them.      

Friday, August 27, 2010

Looky-Touchy-Feely - The Atomized Bombs of Jessica Smith [Part I]

As readers of Silliman's Blog know, he shut down his Comment Stream on July 31st, 2010, citing the harm this venue allegedly had caused to certain named subjects of reviews he had written over the preceding 3 years. He mentioned the reviews of books by Joseph Massey, Jessica Smith, and Barbara Jane Reyes. He specifically mentioned comments he had previously made on Jessica Smith's blog, "looktouchblog," and went on to say the following:

"One thing should be clear: many of the new entrants to the scene have no interest in old conflicts or in the idea of conflict in poetry under any terms. One might see this as an ordinary enough result of the gender rebalancing of the scene over the past five decades. But it’s also part of a deeper critique of society that no longer valorizes the self-destructive credo of the poet-as-addict. Or envisions the poet as warrior in a world in which real warriors leave so much devastation in their wake. It’s a different world. Dysfunctional male behavior is not glorious. It is in fact pathetic."
I really enjoy that "rebalancing" remark. It's sort of like the Thurber cartoon about the war between the sexes. I'm thinking of a huge plain peopled by men and women, strays running back and forth between competing groups in order to keep the plain from tipping too far in one direction or the other--"Come back here, Jessica! You're upsetting the balance! Hurry, or we'll all fall off the edge!" Seriously (well, maybe not completely seriously), attempting to characterize all differences of opinion, or perhaps the entire history of literary criticism as a form of "dysfunctional male behavior" is just the sort of tripe you'd expect of a fuddle-headed French culture critic suffering from cabin- (or condominium-) fever between academic appointments. On a completely straight level, I'd be inclined to characterize Silliman himself as a true poet-addict, or poetry-addict, even when, or if, his maleness is factored into the equation. My personal opinion would be that poets--especially those who broadcast their opinions and agendas as vociferously as Silliman does--who attempt to appear to be immune from the partisanship of taste are themselves, in fact, entirely pathetic and disingenuous.       
"I don’t mind debate, even vigorous debate, over fundamental issues. But it does seem clear to me that some people make a point of verbally attacking writers I praise on this blog simply because I’ve praised them. Reading that responses to a positive review on my blog seriously discouraged Jessica Smith about poetry & writing is as depressing a consequence as I can imagine. I want to apologize to her for not doing a better job policing the comments stream, and I want to apologize to Joseph Massey more recently for the same. And to Barbara Jane Reyes and any other poets who feel they may have been unfairly treated in the comments stream."  
If the sentiment expressed here is to be believed--and I for one don't believe a single word of it--Silliman thinks that people disagree with his literary views simply out of a desire to attack him. That, in effect, the books and writers he reviews are simply whipping-boys in a larger dialectic between himself and his literary opponents. This is a grand conceit of megalomaniacal proportions, which places the subjects of his reviews--their value, their meaning, their significance--in a subsidiary position, well below himself and his program. And it allows him the privilege (the audacity!) of apologizing to them for his failure to protect them from these hoards of crass, pathetic, vile, male commentators. And, finally, he mourns the damage, the discouragement, which such streams of vinegar and vituperation have already inflicted upon the sensibilities and careers of several young poets! Goodness!
Well, intrigued by all this stuff and circumstance over the comment box, I went over and visited Jessica Smith's looktouchblog, to see what all the fuss was about. On July 28, 2010, Ms. Smith posted an extended ("I want to comment briefly"--but not too briefly, I note) entry, "The Silenced Generation" about "a special phenomenon [she's] seen and experienced with regard to Ron Silliman‘s blog. It seems that to some degree, poetry’s youth is being trampled, discouraged and undermined with a potential long-term detrimental effect on Poetry."
There is really something quite touching about the vision of America's youthful poets being "trampled, discouraged and undermined," but we know the situation is really big news when it may have a "potential long-term detrimental effect on Poetry" [with a capital P!--italics mine]. This really shows that Ms. Smith is aware of much wider implications than her own reputation and feelings, and it shows a degree of responsibility and duty impressive in one so young, if, indeed, she is to be believed. 
The problem, as Ms. Smith states, is not with Silliman himself, whose "blog is undeniably a major and constant source of information about experimental poetry," but "with Silliman’s...comment boxes. Now, as we all know, comment boxes are notorious for being a place where a few self-appointed 'experts' on any subject can whack off listening to their own voices. Comment boxes are more often frequented by men, and they’re usually angry, aggressive men looking for an argument. This is true everywhere on the internet, not just on poetry blogs. A few years ago, Silliman’s comment boxes were especially poisonous; I’m not entirely sure what changed, but they seem to be less active now. However, when active, they are still poisonous." 
Just as an aside here, I might observe that sexist remarks about the masturbatory habits of male commentators constitute a repugnant sexist swipe. Are women to be denied the same right and privacy of self-abuse as men? Sexism! Are women who comment in comment-boxes not also potentially "angry, aggressive, looking for an argument"? Is literary commentary a form of male masturbation? Is literary discussion, commentary and critical regard a function of purely male aggression? These wild notions disturb my equanimity, and send me quickly back to Ms. Smith's essay for clarification(s)!
"I experienced this when Silliman reviewed Organic Furniture Cellar [her self-published first collection of poems]. On the one hand, Silliman was probably single-handedly responsible for selling about 200 copies of the book in a short period after the review came out. On the other hand, in both his comment stream and in other reviews, people seemed irrationally angry about Silliman’s review and turned their fury on me instead of on the book.  I know it sounds wimpy and whiny to say this [yes, it does], but the experience has made me disengage with the poetry community (not write, not publish, not participate actively in a wider conversation)."
Ms. Smith believes that in publishing a book of her own poetry, she has "unwittingly set [her]self up as an object of cruelty." Between attempts to stifle guffaws, and a seizure of sad condescension, for so much pathetic self-pity and special pleading, it occurred to me that all Ms. Smith really wanted was to be loved, for the tender, sensitive soul she is, and not the snotty, conceited little twit she sounds like. "It’s like the cyber-bullying...but in the case of poetry and Silliman’s blog specifically, the bullies are grown people who, through some lack of ability to empathize will lash out at anyone." 
It's true, Jessica, the bullies are "grown people," and, as you will find as you traverse the long road towards literary fame and fortune, they may indeed fail to empathize with you and your work. Whether you continue to believe, over time, that anyone who rejects you or your work--as being anything less than the evidence of the abiding native genius of which you now believe yourself to be possessed--is a de-facto "socio-path," will largely depend on the degree to which you mature, both as a person and as a writer. 
Ms. Smith goes on in an attempt to defend a publisher, and another poet (Joseph Massey), whom she feels have been unfairly (mortally!) damaged by harsh critical remarks in Silliman's Blog Comment Box. "Let's keep in mind," she goes on to say, "that most of Silliman's usual suspects are simply (and possibly clinically) narcissistic sociopaths and that there's no real point in engaging with them or acknowledging their (usually insipid and underinformed) claims." 
These are harsh words, harsher, I'd wager, than 97% of all the commentary that ever appeared in Silliman's Comment Box. On a scale of intensity, I'd rate them just about at the top of the bitchy-meter. Lumping people together this way--let's estimate how many different people have commented on Silliman's Blog over the last five years--there're certainly hundreds--is an impulsive and ill-considered smear. Ms. Smith is really out of control, here, and probably is doing real harm to the feelings and reputations of those people who made serious, friendly, or helpful comments over the years. But they're not like Ms. Smith, not like the good young poet she believes herself to be: "Good poets are a sensitive, melancholic people– not to reinforce a stereotype, but we have to be sensitive in order to be observant in new, interesting ways [italics mine]. To be the object of unmerited scorn and immature but hurtful comments (that are evidently made by those with little experience with the work itself) is psychologically detrimental to a poet, as it would be to anyone with a modicum of respect for other human beings." 
Here I think I have a clear disagreement with Ms. Smith about the function of criticism, but I'll throw her a bone, first. It is true that many of those who comment on the internet are incompletely "informed" about the subjects they discuss. And you could even go so far as to assert that many of those who post blog essays are inadequately "informed" about the subjects they discuss. Is it adequate simply to praise someone, or something? My guess is that Ms. Smith believes that anyone who doesn't praise her work is "uninformed" and "disrespectful" and anyone who does is by definition mature, respectful and correct. The tendency to demonize your opponents by accusing them of being rude, inhumane and uninformed is as desperately naive and juvenile, as it is futile. 
Trying to "defend" your work against criticism is probably the biggest waste of time any writer can engage in. Unless you try to claim immunity because you're too sensitive and vulnerable to endure it, which is incredibly egotistical and silly. Attempting to characterize hundreds of commentators on the internet as "robotic-hearted cyberbullies" is a pathetic generality that carries no sting, because it's a misapprehension of what it means to participate in the public sphere of debate and discussion. Writing isn't a sort of organic secretion which must be stored in a test-tube and kept away from the light and air and infection. Once you publish a poem, that poem goes naked into the world, and must suffer all the slings and arrows the world can throw at it. All the self-pity and half-baked indignation doesn't change that.  
"Something that Massey, Cannibal* and I have in common is that we are all fairly young, relatively unknown operatives in the poetry world. Like all young poets, we need and deserve the occasional positive or constructive feedback, and we are discouraged from doing our work by such floods of negative feedback. Although an apocalyptic statement such as 'Silliman’s comment boxes may silence an otherwise important group of upcoming young poets' may seem hyperbolic, I worry that it isn’t."
Ah, Ms. Smith, time flies. Soon you will no longer be young, but the same fears and misgivings you have about being criticized and under-appreciated will trouble you then as they do now. The very best "occasional positive or constructive feedback" you'll get will be the negative criticism you receive. The more august and authoritative the source, the more uncomfortable it will make you feel. Out of that embarrassment and frustration, you will grow and learn. Unless you simply ignore what people say about your work. Relying on what people say they think and feel about your work carries risks. If you make the critical reception a basis for your personal sense of satisfaction, or the value you yourself place on it, you'll almost certainly end up being injured. 
But, as I note above, a fairer estimation is better than a quick look, so I'm going to read your work, and consider whether it merits the kind of praise you believe it's due. That'll be Part II of this discussion.                                                 


* Cannibal Books, a publisher. It should be noted that the plight of Cannibal Books was not directly tied in any way to criticisms appearing in Silliman's Blog. As Ms. Smith herself admits, the financial problems associated with running a small press, rather than any over-whelming negative critical avalanche, was the cause of its demise. Still, the "whiny self-indulgent bullshit" to which Ms. Smith refers, almost certainly would stand, perhaps ironically, as a description of what she herself has engaged in with her July 28th blog.   

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Here's a little free advertising. I've drunk a fair amount of beer in my life, but when it comes to meals, I tend to like good wine. Cocktails are fun, and I've mixed about 1500 variations, restlessly trying different combinations. But beer aficionados have new tastes all the time, just as wine connoisseurs do.     

I'm not up to date on the beer business, but at some point the Baltika Beer brand began appearing in the local Bev-Mo stores [otherwise known as Beverages & More]. American boutique breweries have been popping up all over, especially in the Northwest and Northeast. Lots of variations, something for every taste. I've drunk beers from all over the world, and have a fair idea of the range of possible flavors. 
Surprisingly enough, Baltika Beers are made in Russia. In the West, we were never exposed to Russian brews during the Cold War years. Occasionally, we got Polish and Czech beers, along with the German, English and French-Belgian brews. But Russian beers were a novelty until recently. Bev-Mo rates products by the professional tasters and tasting contests. Whenever a rating exceeds 90, and the price is reasonable, generally that product will fly off the shelves. But most 90+ rated wines, beers or spirits cost more, and there's a clear correlation between the quality (measured by ratings) of a product, and its retail price.  
Baltika, unlike most popular American beer products, produces a distinct sequence of types of beer, and numbers them. At the present moment, I'm sipping a bottle of No. 4, a Dark Amber at 5.6% alcohol, in a slightly larger than typical size bottle. It's slightly sweet, with a big malty character, and a soft, dry finish--it goes down easily and is wonderful with hot beef dishes.
Baltika began production in 1990, and it's owned by the Carlsberg Group--with 18 breweries scattered around, 11 of which are located in Russia proper. When I think about the awful stuff my parents drank in the 1950's and 1960's...Budweiser, Millers, Schlitz, Pabst...that was terrible! According to Wikipedia, Baltika presently markets 10 beers, as follows:
  • Baltika 1 (Light) at 4.4% is characterized by "light colour and…malt and hops taste."
  • Baltika 2 (Pale Beer) is a lager brewed from pale barley malt, rice, and "exclusive varieties of hops."
  • Baltika 3 is a 4.8% pale lager. This is also known as Klassicheskoe (Classic).
  • Baltika 4 is a 5.6% amber coloured lager brewed from caramel and rye malts. Such coloured lagers are often termed dark American lagers. This is also known as Originalnoe (Original).
  • Baltika 5 (Gold Beer) is a 5.3% lager brewed with both pale and caramel malts.
  • Baltika 6 is a bottom-fermented 7% dark beer that the brewery classes as a porter "brewed according to traditional English recipes." Such strong dark lagers are often termed Baltic porters.
  • Baltika 7 (Export Beer) is a 5.4% pale lager.
  • Baltika 8 (Pshenichnoe) is an unfiltered wheat ale (Alc. 5,0% vol.).
  • Baltika 9 (Krepkoe) is a strong lager (8% alcohol).
  • Baltika 10 (Jubilee) is a 5.2% alcohol beer.
I haven't seen Baltika offered in taverns or restaurants---yet. But the rich flavors and variations offered are hard to beat. American breweries--both the mass market ones and the smaller, regional boutique producers have been offered a big challenge. Russia may be corrupt and inefficient, but their Baltika beers are better than 9/10's of the product on the American market. And, perhaps most surprisingly, Russians don't even get to drink it. The beer distributed in Russia is not as well-made as that marketed in the West. So we're blessed.
If you haven't tried one of the Baltika brews, give yourself a treat. They aren't cheap, but what Continental quality brew is these days?   


Sitting in a streetside café in Berkeley, I watch a man go by who has a large silver ring in his nose.  Also, he is slightly cross-eyed.  For a fraction of a second, my mind associates these two aspects, and for an even tinier fraction of a second, speculates whether the ring and the cross-eyedness somehow “fit together” to make a whole fact.  Is it somehow more likely that a slightly cross-eyed man will choose to get a nose-ring, or is this not true?  At a higher level of rationality, I reject the association as fallacious, then, with an anxiety which is the watchdog of presumption, I ponder for a moment the possible relationship between genetic variation and wayward acts.  Is cross-eyedness associated with any other mental traits?  Would a cross-eyed person, by virtue of the way he sees the world, be more likely to challenge authority, and/or the conventions of appearance?  Are such thoughts an embarrassment?  Is to admit having had them unacceptable?  Are they a waste of time?  Is life a waste of time?  Is it scientific, or unscientific, to question an apparent coincidence, which may be nothing more than the chaotic variation of experience?  This half-hearted train of thought begins to decay as a slight wind blows, moving the maple leaves just above the café awning, the afternoon declines.  In the time I wrote this, at least 25 more people have passed by, I have noticed them all.  The numbers of different individuals is not infinite, but the constant mutations to which the code is subject, insures that—twinning aside—we will never have the opportunity of grasping the breadth of human variation, no matter how sophisticated our instruments become. Thought itself seems subject to a similar kind of mutation, too, and seems to possess an equivalent, though less precise, degree of variation.  Given the relative brevity of a single life, each momentary meditation seems grandiose, and baffling in its implications.  Would it be possible to live a life in which one never saw the same person twice?—a life of inexhaustible ennui.   

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Minimalism Part VII - Joseph Massey & the Collateral Tradition

Ron Silliman recently shut down his blog comment stream, because, as he says, "some people make a point of verbally attacking writers I praise on this blog simply because I’ve praised them" and that another poet "reading responses to a positive review on my blog [was] seriously discouraged...about poetry & writing."

Now I consider myself as sensitive as the next person when commenting about poetry. Poetry is something I care about, in an objective sense, probably as much as Silliman claims to. But I don't think anyone who weighs and examines and considers poetry critically, has a right to confuse that process with the promotion of the work of certain writers, because of the possible affect such critical regard might have, either on the reputations or lives of the writers being considered, or on the poetry community at large. Based on the commentary that flowered on various sites around the web following Silliman's announcement, it was clear that many shared his sentiment.

I had frequently posted critical responses to reviews Silliman had done on his blog site, at least partly to balance what I took to be opportunistic instances of excessive peer promotion there. As I've said earlier, "If [Silliman] chose to promote the work of someone for purely political reasons, I [argued] that, in effect, liking bad work for the right reason, was worse than acknowledging good work for the wrong reasons," especially when, "in Ron's case, the 'wrong reasons' would include giving aid and comfort to the enemy, even if the enemy was a very talented (and innocently non-partisan) writer. "

Well, now that Ron has closed down his comment stream, there's no way anyone can openly disagree with him without taking the matter elsewhere. Reviewing books online is a perfectly acceptable practice, one I've exercised before, and will do again. While I don't receive the steady stream of free review copies Ron does, I do have access to a broad range of new work in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In a recent post, Ron reviewed the work of Joseph Massey, a young poet living in Northern California. Massey's work is seen as an inheritor of a tradition of writing--a style--which begins with the Imagists (Pound), and proceeds through the Objectivists (both early and late), Williams, H.D., and culminates in the work of Creeley, Eigner and, finally, Kay Ryan (present Poet Laureate of the United States). Massey's work is seen in the context of an ongoing tradition of minimalism--tightly controlled, sharply seen, keenly felt and observed. Positive reviews of Massey's work have appeared in Jacket 38, and in two blogs, by Steven Fama [April 5, 2009], and Jack Boettcher [April 8, 2009].

In reviewing Massey's work--which I have now read [Areas of Fog, Lavergne, Tennessee: Shearsman Press, 2009], and having heard Silliman's (and others') admiring take on Massey--I want to offer a contrary reaction, of why I think his work has been led astray. I do so not to inflict harm on Mr. Massey, who seems, on the basis of this book, to be a well-intentioned man, devoted to his craft, modest, careful and decent, but to try to point out how compromised aspirations lead ultimately to mediocrity and dullness. In doing so, I obviously don't hold myself up as an example of success in this regard. In the late 1960's, I was in a very similar position, aesthetically, to Massey, subject to the same influences, and possessed of a similar tendency to recreate effects and approaches which I had seen others perform.

If I call Massey's poems "apprentice-work" it is because what his poems appear to me to be doing, had already been done--no better and no worse--by secondary writers of secondary talent, decades earlier--writers whom Massey obviously values and whose aesthetic he has pretty much adopted, lock, stock and barrel. It is my assertion that it is his adoption of these models, rather than any native lack of ability or insight, which has ultimately led Massey to limit his own efforts, by closing his poems off at an historical point, at which the fruits of the Imagists, Objectivists and later practitioners (Creeley, Eigner, Grenier) were incompletely digested by writers of lesser talent and insight, who offered inferior reinterpretations of what had been bequeathed to them in their own language, in their own country.

In order to understand how this occurs, it's necessary to distinguish among threads of descent in the post-War period. As a short-hand, let's just say those avant writers "associated" with the post-Modern period (the later 1940's, 1950's, 1960's) are connected historically with the work of Pound, Williams, and the Objectivists. As a matter of taste, a young poet might choose to emulate and imitate the work of Black Mountain, the first generation of New York School, the Beats, the Deep Image group, or even the academic Confessionalists. There are excellent reasons and justifications for admiring the work of all the writers, to whom these so-called schools or movements or associations, are meant to refer, or to describe. One might, for instance, attempt to learn from and to improve upon (or re-cycle) the work of Olson, Creeley, Blackburn, Levertov, Duncan and Eigner; or of O'Hara, Ashbery, Koch and Schuyler; or of Kerouac, Snyder, Whalen, Welch and Spicer; of Bly, Wright, Simpson, Kinnell and Stafford; and even of Plath, Lowell, Seidel, Berryman and Jarrell. You could make a case for any of these figures, as legitimate models of style and approach, given the range and power of their work.

But there is the danger of adopting inferior work, work associated with, influenced by, and even intimately involved with, the life and work of important writers. That danger is in thinking that such work, because of its shortcomings, its modesty of design, its anemic lack of high aspiration, is "easier" to follow and imitate, or to speak to. In Areas of Fog, Massey deliberately allies himself with a collection of writers who constitute a sort of second-tier of early- or middle-post-War vers libre. These writers are Cid Corman, William Bronk, Frank Samperi. One could, merely in aesthetic terms, include the work of John Tagliabue, A.R. Ammons, and Theodore Enslin. Perhaps it is no surprise that, at least in one sense, certain of these writers were associated with Corman's magazine Origin, with the publishing concern of James Weil's Elizabeth Press. Both Corman and Weil were important figures in the underground literary and publishing scene in this country. Like Jonathan Williams (of Jargon), they were loners, with their own taste, and an aesthetic position. Judging from the kind of work they liked, and published, their critical sense was derived from the early post-Modern period, and they identified with early Pound, middle-William Carlos Williams, the Thirties period work of the Objectivists, and several of the Black Mountain group. Both Corman's and Weil's historical sense tended to be limited. Corman, for instance, was among the first to recognize the work of Gary Snyder, a writer whose sense of form derives from the middle Cantos of Pound. Weil courageously published the work of Bronk and Enslin (and Taggart and Eigner and others) when major publishing houses probably wouldn't have considered doing so. Stylistically, the kind of work they liked felt like middle and late Carlos Williams. Narrow, stingy poems, clipped, relentlessly enjambed; and occasionally heavily influenced by Oriental forms (such as Haiku)--whose subject-matter was usually restricted to the modicum, every day, or classically safe objects, impressions, or situations.

In one sense, reading Massey's poems, I have the feeling that I'm reading Corman and Bronk and Samperi all over again. The trouble is, that this wasn't important, or impressive work in the 1960's. In hindsight, forty and fifty years on, it appears to have been a kind of diversion from the main stream efforts of better writers. Corman's and Weil's sense of the modern lyric was still-born when they conceived of it, and feels as old-fashioned and threadbare as it did then.

Anyone seeking to adopt an aesthetic based on Corman's or Weil's taste, and the sort of writing which tends to coalesce around that taste, is doomed, I'm afraid, to a very limited sense of poetry. As far as I can tell, this is very much what Massey has done.

Why Silliman, for instance, should choose to privilege Massey's work with a very careful and evasive praise, perhaps says more about Silliman's literary politics and literary agenda(s), than it does about his underlying critical principles or taste. I think the lady doth complain too much.

The Modernist interest in the purely descriptive mode, derives partly from the Precisionists (Schamberg, Demuth, Murphy, Ault and especially Sheeler); from Cubism, Picabia, and the photographic work of Strand, Weston, Moholy-Nagy, Evans, etc. It may have seemed, beginning in the 1930's, as if simply describing a factory roof-line and foul-air stacks was in itself an aesthetically pure and admirable act. The pre-emptive preference for the new, artificial, synthetic environment, created out of the Industrial Age, tended to trump the old landscape, nature-based descriptive tradition, both in Western Europe, and in the East. Following the War, this (mostly American) descriptive tendency was taken up by poets whose orientations were either Eastern--following Chinese and Japanese traditions--or more towards a Thoreavian ideal of a return to and identification with the land (ecology, the nobility of farming--Snyder/Berry/et al).

What this led to, in effect, was the adoption of a generic "objectivist" line--a narrow poem with heavy reliance upon enjambment and clipped diction (a "Zen" self-effacement) meant to convey in the fewest possible words, a "small" instance of observation, a report of something seen, materially immanent, immediate, physical, "raw," detailed, laconic, pithy. Its concision was seen as a badge of honor, honesty and homely virtue. Waste not, want not. Little poems, little books. Little ideas.

What is it that distinguishes truly inspired minimalism work--like that of Creeley's Words and Pieces, Grenier's Series or Sentences, or the work, say, of Geof Huth--from secondary work like this? It isn't an idle question for me, since I'm interested in the form myself, and I share Massey's preoccupation with its potentials. Ultimately, we can judge the success or failure of a work either through its dominant intentions, or the particulars of its means; unfortunately, I think Massey's work fails on both counts.

Areas of Fog is divided into five sections, each of which could be (was) conceived as a separate chap-book of poems. As a strategic practice, almost every Massey poem begins and ends in descriptive objectivity. The authorial voice has no identity, and there is seldom any hint of the circumstances of a life to which any of the events or observations in the poems can be referred. This kind of narrative autonomy can be useful; often, in reading Asian poetry, for example, which is usually based upon specific poet-roles or situations, Westerners will read this as non-specific utterance, whereas its original undertones are narrational, tangent to a real human condition. Pound, for instance, who did understand, early on confronted this issue, and adopted the use of classical "personae" in replicating the techniques and rhetorical devices that he wished to reintroduce to the modern audiences. The Cantos employs a voice which is unmistakably Pound's, and in many of the best parts of his epic, he used objectified imagery and metaphor to summarize or characterize a feeling or point--but Pound understood that "naked" description, shorn of its context and human implication, is aesthetically limiting. He could have gone on writing little Imagist poems for decades. Williams, too, understood that mere observation, mere description had to occur within a setting, a social and historical place and time (Paterson, New Jersey), and that the "voice" of his poems should have an identity, a function and a relation to his community and the artistic life of his age.

The second section of Areas of Fog is titled Bramble a gathering of lunes. Lunes, as you will perhaps not be surprised to learn, is the invention of Robert Kelly. Lunes are composed of three lines with a 5/3/5 syllabic order/count. Massey's use of the lune strikes me as an entirely predictable approach, affording him the use of a quasi-Asian perspective, fraught with all the usual cliches of classical Chinese and Japanese poetic conventions, and providing an entirely trouble-free form to exploit. Of 43 poems, here are 9 selections--

on the page, a stain
of an ant
crushed in the margin

television light
lies on the
American lawn

what's between us--this
chasm of

pretended to write
waited for
her to walk past me

remembering, as
a snail-streaked
calla lily sways

crescent moon cuts low
in cloudless
black--scent of wet grass

staring at water
in a glass
you felt the earthquake

last week's news: a pile
of rain-soaked
pulp on the sidewalk

company tonight--
cricket-warped surface

As an instance here of a "strict" form, there's a certain level of monotony, unrelieved (for me) by the dimension or ingenuity of any of the statements. I'm attracted to "television light/lies on the/American lawn" because it seems to connect a pure physical impression with a larger cultural implication ("American"--I'm thinking here of the photographer Robert Adams's Summer Nights [Aperture, 2009]). It doesn't really express anything, but leaves a strong impression of something seen, noticed. The thought--if there was one--is excluded by the form. What I also find troubling here, is the adoption of the hackneyed cliches of the typical haiku-like format. It's difficult not to sound as if you're imitating Basho. There's nothing wrong with imitating Basho, but the self-consciousness necessary to exceed the limitations laid down by the form (which include the set of conditions which previous Asian writers established inside the genre) require considerably more ingenuity than Massey demonstrates here. The daily newspaper has been rained on, is now pulp; "last week's news" has been returned to pulp; okay, the material text is eaten or transformed by the natural world (rain). This is so predictable as to be a tired cliché, not only of the kind of assertion typical of haiku, but of the potential of the form. You could say, with perfect justice, that the poem isn't short enough, because the sentiment it conveys is actually smaller than the poem is! Is water in a tumbler an adequate objective correlative for an earthquake? In the movie Jurassic Park, the device is used to report the impact of a dinosaur's footfall--a terrifying tremor in a cheesy American sci-fi adventure-movie. Is its use here any more profound, or moving?
Let's look at Massey's technique within the straight vers libre lyric form. A typical example is--


Sun's thud
these bees
a shadowed
plot's white
out from
shrubs piled
beside a
sheet of
rusted metal.

A typical Massey poem begins with a noun and varies between a modifier and a verb to arrive at enjambed contrasts, or obvious onomatopoeic convergences. I'm frequently confused by what Massey seems to think are effective combinations, but really seem kind of clunky. "Sun's thud" ? Thud/overhead, leaves/bees, thumbed/threshed--it's hard to know what this concatenation of aggressive syllabic constructions is meant to accomplish. What is thumbed out supposed to mean? What, really, are we to deduce about the proximity of the shrubs beside rusted metal? What does the poem do about this fact, other than to describe it, and not very well? There seems so little connection between the form the poem describes, and the content it's meant to convey, that the choices and decisions appear wholly gratuitous to a probable desired end.
From the section entitled Property Line:

by a garbage
cracks the
silence in

These interruptions
of color
in the undergrowth.

A gap
in the
the sun-
set clots.

I find myself asking just what is it that is gained by setting these sentences in linear alignments? Crushed/cracks seems no more pointed or effective by occurring in vertical order than in simple time and prose setting. Sun-set clots sounds very tinny to my ear; these are subjective considerations, I know, but in the analysis of these kinds of effects, they aren't objections I find myself making with poets who are in full command of their means. "Cracks the/room's/silence in/half" is the kind of overbearing violence of effect which exceeds its putative purpose. Intended as a dramatic gesture, it comes off instead as mishap, an Emmett Kelly malapropism--and this is how many of the poems in this collection seem to me. In the work of more experimental writers, such as Coolidge, the use of non-referential language can have fortuitous consequences, in spite of, or perhaps occasionally as a result of, unintended meanings. But in a writer of straightforward, avowed application to coherence, cohesion and fidelity (like Massey) such energetic potential is often mishandled.

Minor Alley

In day's diffusion
an afterthought
I drink to this
abiding emptiness.
On the corner
a neon palm tree
through fog.

Poetry like this asks us to accept the accuracy of the subtle gestures which the word choice and placement are intended to establish. We're supposed to be impressed by the surprise of the word "thaws" in the third line--and the crudely alliterative thought/thaws--but its heaviness doesn't seem to reflect a real impetus. A neon palm tree stammers through fog." Stammers? Even if this refers to a sign, say, of an image of a palm tree, is stammers meant to signify a steadily blinking, or an irregular blinking, or any blinking at all? An abiding emptiness? It all seems terribly vague, but the authorial voice's intention to inject a kind of ersatz conviction into the word choice isn't effective. Thaws, stammers--they're like abjectival insertions meant to convince us that there's a poem here, folks, just in case you missed it!


Night rakes the landscape,
empties the room.
To speak
without speaking
through a gradual lack
of light--
a certain silence
rain dims to breath.

This ostensible simplicity of these descriptions belies a sense of confusion behind their conception--or, at the very least, a failure to attain the clarity necessary to a useful apprehension. Night "rakes" the landscape? "Rakes" ? "Empties the room" ? Does darkness "empty" a space, can the poem "speak without speaking" ? So it starts raining, and all we can hear is one's breathing in the darkness. In what way is the poem--its words, word choices, ordered impressions--actually constellated to convey more than what a prose crib of the same experience could, with no unnecessary fuss, tell us?

Drunken Spring

April's protrusions
puncture my
vision, my resolve
not to remember
through that which
floods us forgetful.
One season to the
next, and still
the same light lingers.

A construction like "protrusions/puncture my/vision" makes my teeth ache. Then there's that "floods us forgetful" which is about as awkward a phrase as I've read in a long while. I must admit to not being particularly interested in poems like Kay Ryan's, which yearn inward to solicit the most elusive and delicate tendrils of surprise and mystery from the unconscious. But reading her, I can see how much more effective her straightforward, grammatical level of statement is than someone, like Massey, who has mistakenly subscribed to the half-realized, third-rate work of Corman and Bronk and Samperi--believing that such crudely imagined and incompletely thought-out attempts like those above, constitute a useful set of inventions.

All of which is not to say that Massey--still young, still unformed--is unlikely ever to produce work of merit. He does understand the intuitive ticklish flicker of mystery that hides in ordinary things, how just watching and waiting will sometimes yield important insights. But he's invested himself in an inferior style (or technique) which, if taken to a limit, may lead nowhere. Archy Ammons built a whole career out of pathetic little descriptive poems, talking about sand and rock and mud and bark and grass and rubber and window-glass. A poet of insufficient means may mistake this for a full explication of experience. At some point, a young poet must confront more complex problems; his poetry must be forced to address phenomena and mortal issues at a higher level than the merely descriptive. What Massey has told me about his life in these poems constitutes so tiny a part of the actual matter the poems occupy, he's completely effaced himself. He could be a mildly observant land surveyor or plant counter, for all I know. Thoreau, after all, worked briefly in his family's pencil factory for a while. But the poems he wrote are sadly inert; he had a thoroughly prosaic mind.

Is it permissible to find value in the work of a writer with whom one senses a shared purpose and approach, merely on account of this fact? My sense is that this is precisely what motivates Silliman to offer his unqualified encouragement to Massey. Ron and I have had this discussion about Corman and the inferior version of the Williams style which tended to dominate the poetry scene during the 1950's and 1960's. But that's not the kind of thing Ron would consider appropos of a young aspirant circa 2010, even if the mistakes evident in this later incarnation are identical to those which plagued us 40 years ago. But I'm not politically correct, and don't have a reputation to preserve. That's the kind of freedom you can really cherish.

Note to Mr. Massey: The best cure for a wounded ego is a good laugh. Have one on me at your local tavern. On the other hand, if you show up drunk at my door, I won't hesitate to have you arrested. Be cool, dude.