Monday, August 2, 2010

Foust N'est pas Foutu

What's that old adage that goes something like--"I'll know it when I see it"? It's often difficult to say exactly why some poetry works, while brand X doesn't. 
Ansel Adams said once that he thought he could tell how good a photographic exhibition was going to be within a half-second of entering a gallery--just the sense of what that immediate impression would be--that he was usually right. 
I mention these two things at the outset because I don't have the time or the energy--right this second--to go into the requisite/exquisite detail to explain why I think Graham Foust is such an important new voice in American poetry. But I think it's necessary to record my receipt of his new book--To Anacreon in Heaven--just now published in a limited edition by Minus A Press in Berkeley [March 2010]--and to register my satisfaction--I think that's an apt use here--with what he has done--is doing--probably as I speak.      
To Anacreon in Heaven is a kind of long prose-poem in sections; or a collection of sentences which don't--for the most part--quite coagulate into paragraphs or any kind of narrative thread, though the increments are regular, and consistent, with the sentences gathered into approximately 14-24 line sections. Rather, they're sentences of a certain kind, in an order that may be gratuitous, but may well have an analogous shape to which I'm blind. There are repeated phrases, and certain co-tangent assertions.  
Ved Mehta once described his ability to "see" objects in space, though he's totally blind. Apparently, when he was in junior high school or some place, they devised a test--bags hanging from approximate (or proximate???) places in a big gymnasium. Ved walked across this space, and managed to "sense" these barriers--stopping as he approached each--to "feel" their presence. This ability has a name--I think, which I don't know--but I mention it only to provide an instance of how my own apprehension of Foust's metaphors and surreal statements seems always just a little beyond my comprehension, though not beyond my intuition. What is intuition, anyway?
If most of a long work is a parenthesis, then it functions largely as a qualification to an initial statement. An enormous truncation leveraging a simple assertion.
Stay figure. 
Which is the last sentence in the book. Instead of go figure
Most every statement in To Anacreon makes no initial, quotidian sense. You have to go behind the initial rhythm of the phrases--which are constructed out of natural sentence rhythms--to get at the deep ironies, the flippant, indignant, mischievous, curious mind that has coined them. There are a number of reflexive place-markers--which I guess we've all come to accept in our post-post-post-Modern milieu:
I've come straight into the room in which the poem was to be for me.   
Is that too easy? Sometimes a phrase lets the air out, sometimes it inflates it to painful limit. One evidence of wit is the outwitting of expectation; or the elegant defeat of expectation through surprise. Irony may be expressed as the degree of im/propriety of the acceptable. The mind's rhyme is irony unfurled. 
Foust is like Pope seen through the eyes of Breton. Each improbability is proof of the extremity of the disguise. We all wear masks. But some of us wear them so completely, that we become them. We become ourselves. That's easy.
But to do it right--to defeat expectation and supply the telling disjunction, the cutting observation--is a greater feat. It's cunning--what I'm after--here--the sweet confirmation of the unexpected--a reality that is greater than our dreams (Sommer)--which reveals his special gift.

Does the desire to twist language into shapes that deny its referents, turning signifiers into expedient operatives in a metaphysical espionage, suggest a disaffection from the real? Is my secret self a casualty of the witness protection program?
The more I think about this, the harder it gets.   


Ian Keenan said...

It took me three tries before I realized you meant Alexander and not The Pope.

Chad Scheel said...

Curtis, I agree. Foust is as intriguing as one finds in the current landscape. I must admit, my first reaction in finding that he'd gone to a long poem was 1) seeing him on a Silliman-like trajectory from "Crow" to something like "Albany" and 2) that those Beckettesque inside-out (with the seams showing) stanzas had become easy. I remember once reading a mock review of Ashbery written narrative that accused him of allowing a machine to write his poems. The intent, it seemed, was the work had become too easy. With Foust, my fear is that there can be too much of a good thing. My fear is that a long-form "Necessary Stranger" would seem easy; Foust works best when strained.

Curtis Faville said...


Very incisive comment here.

I don't know Foust's work well enough to know when he's "straining" and when not. But I'll give you the benefit of the doubt. Anacreon seems just a bit more polished than the earlier works of his I've read. It may be difficult to imagine, but Foust may already be in his "middle" phase--as Ashbery was after Houseboat Days.

I'm so old, these questions of development begin to seem irrelevant. But they're not.

Ashbery is rumored to have used "automated" methods to compose some of his early poems (in Tennis Court Oath, if not elsewhere), and that may be a problem we've yet to work out critically. I still find nearly everything in Tennis Court to be work of genius, so if some of it is robotic, then the joke's on me. The language is so juicy! Could this be the result of "planned" accident? Hard to imagine.

Do I see Wittgenstein in Anacreon?

Steven Fama said...

Hi Curtis,

What a weird concept, a comment box.

All I'd like to do -- because you mention twice I think it is the use here of "sentences" -- that many other Foust poems are in sentences.

The difference is

that the others



Interesting to think about why the switch-up here to prose. And how it changes things, not just generally, but particularly with Foust. Or rather, it may be interesting for you to think about, and report here to us some of your thoughts.

I'd do it, but I haven't seen the book. As you know -- and I think should have said -- it's not just a limited edition, but not even for sale (I've e-mailed my request).

Chad Scheel said...

Thanks Curtis:

I was aware of Ashbery using those methods...and in no way do I think it was easy! I think my concern is one of polish. Foust has mentioned Barry Hannah as an influence and think both are best when a little dirty.

..."I'm so old"- a blessing to this blog. I'm young enough that evolving is a concern--your observations of the ways in which Creeley and Grenier were able to continue a method without it growing stale are why I return here.