Wednesday, September 15, 2010

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

 [This post is a continuation of two earlier ones on Jessica Smith's book
Organic Furniture Cellar.]
Part III: The Poems
It would be difficult to imagine a trade edition poetry book--particularly a first book--published before 2000, which included a long, dense, somewhat apprehensive essay by the poet herself, documenting her sources, her influences, her intentions, and the proper manner in which to read the contents, following a 7000 word Forward. Yet Jessica Smith decided to present her work, self-published, in just this way, taking the opportunity to declare her aesthetic principles and methodology, much in the manner a serious graduate student might approach her graduate degree thesis. Indeed, Ms. Smith's essay, or Forward, to Organic Furniture Cellar [2004] seems very much a kind of professional academic obligation, a proof and application to the world of poetry at large, that she had arrived, was prepared to be recognized, honored, and rewarded with praise, and perhaps a handsome assistantship at a comfortable Eastern Ivy League edifice. Organic Furniture Cellar was the tender, but the essay was the clincher, the very definition of a proposed entitlement, the passport to the avant garde poetry scene. Without the official approval implicit in the acceptance of the manuscript by a major New York or University Press publisher, Smith's first self-published book was intended to serve as an efficient short-cut to the game, by-passing the turnstiles of taste and orderly recognition, the benighted reading public's oblivious irrelevance. 
As the generations of structuralist and post-structuralist waves break over the shore of post-War American culture, the text itself has become increasingly irrelevant as well. Cultural criticism, which purports to trump mere aesthetic objects, taunting their probable audiences, dissecting their assumed deficiencies, and weaving ever more complex webs of ratiocination and dialectical machination, now bids to become the repository of a dissolving fabric of meaning itself, in a grand end-game of multiple interpretations, incestuous cross-fertilizations of mediated, relativist exchange. As the text recedes into impertinence, exegesis replaces art; and justifications and analyses of content and form supersede composition as the very aim of literary enterprise.
Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, Jessica Smith graduated from SUNY Buffalo in English and Language Theory (studying under Charles Bernstein), then spending time in Northern Europe for two years, ultimately earning a Master's Degree with a thesis entitled Sonic Territories: Deleuze and the Politics of Sound in Kafka and Duras. Currently she is studying library science while teaching writing at her Alma Mater. 
Smith's whole orientation, then, has been inside the academic sphere, where the meanings and functions of texts derive primarily from what can be expressed about them--their commodity-existence, their value as objects for description and de-construction--rather than through their use as texts for consumption as pure art; under the decadent sophistication of the contemporary graduate workshop system, where budding writers and artists are taught to master models of performance and style, honing their careerist skills in an increasingly crowded and competitive professional market-place. These twin trends--the hyper-critical inflation of textual assessment, and the alienation of the writer from her probable audience--has created a hybrid artist-type, committed to a narrowly defined profile of avant garde textual eccentricity completely divorced from a probable audience, with a relentless dedication to self-promotion along purely theoretical lines. In other words, a writer devoted to the production of a text whose only purpose is its potential for the parasitism of analytic regard--its only raison d'etre
Ms. Smith is the quintessential expression of this role model. Still only 31, she is anxious that we should know that she has won two poetry prizes, has had her work published in a number of obscure literary periodicals, that she has editied a poetry journal herself, has had some of her work set to music, runs a blog, twitters, has had her work "exhibited" in America and Europe, has had work translated into foreign languages, and edits a series of pamphlets and monographs, and assisted in the editing of a woman's broadzine. The resolute emphasis on a curriculum vitae, fraught with honors and deeds and recognitions, various and eclectic, is indicative not, however, of a precocious proficiency of talent, but of a naked ambition, to be seen and noticed, to impress and brag. 
All of which serves to put one on immediate guard as to the actual nature of Smith's accomplishments as a writer. It is certainly one thing to build an academic career out of textual analysis and critical skill; but quite another to demonstrate a lyrical or formal genius in the production of specific, original works. There's an ironic disconnect between what she puts on the page, and the hemorrhage of explanation that flows down over the poetry, obscuring it, diluting it, and ultimately replacing it with extravagant claims for its formal achievement. After 7000 words of Forward, in which Plastic poetry is promulgated as the latest incarnation of High Late Modernism's marching procession of Greats, one might be forgiven for having exaggeratedly high expectations, for anticipating nothing less than a masterpiece, from its self-proclaimed Priestess of Liberation.                                                      
*Before addressing the poems proper, I should point out one error. In her Forward, Smith says "If you turn to the glossary of Swedish words in the back of Organic Furniture Cellar," --but there is no such glossary that I could find. Perhaps she originally intended to include one, but either forgot, or decided not to have one. Given that only a handful of the poems is written in foreign language (Swedish), my first impulse was to wonder why she included them at all--with or without a glossary. Why not simply translate them into English, instead of leaving them in, unreadable and untranslated? It seems like an obvious oversight.            
In order to talk about the poems, it will be necessary to resort to an expanded display link, since Smith's pages are 1) too large [with small type face] to reproduce, 2) use parallel conflicted half-spacing of lineation, and 3) use a font (Garamond) which is not available on Google Blogger (and even if it were, the poem are too large spatially to fit into the blogger window). Hence the reader will need to link on each of the two URL under each displayed text page image to see the expanded version in a separate users window (which may then be viewed concurrently with the commentary). As I noted previously, the font size in the book is much too small, barely readable, but there is no immediate remedy I could think of to display the text.
It may be that on a theoretical level, no reading of any text is the ultimate, uniquely correct one, but Smith carries this notion to an extreme limit in insisting (in her Forward) that there is no proper entry point into her separate poems. Spatially, they may, for instance, be read traditionally from left to right, or they may be read right to left, or bottom to top, or in any order one might choose. However, this is only a ruse, since she declares that she intends to disarm the reader by thwarting his reading progress (from memory, the "old-fashioned" way). In effect, what this means is that a reader will begin to read each poem from the upper left-hand corner and proceed by means of the usual left-to-right progress, encountering various road-blocks and unexplained hazards and non-sequiturs along the way, until he either exhausts his patience, or arrives at the bottom of the page (in a state of advanced confusion). 
Each of Smith's poems is like a scattered, unorganized outline of fragments, all of which might have been intended for inclusion into an organized sequence of language (paragraphs, stanzas, constellations of words...). The reader is given no clue as to how these fragments might be organized, nor what--in many instances--they refer to. If the poem is meant, as Smith claims, to refer to something out "in the world" then that something must first be filtered through Smith's deliberately disorganized arrangements or unorganized impressions (or as she says, her "memory" of experience). In the poem "Passage," below, there are a series of numbers--74, 400, 14, 15, 615, 101, 910, and 830--which are not explained. Are these the numbers of roads, the times of day, or some other increment which the reader is supposed to "invent" for his own amusement? Mountains, traffic, crickets, flowers, kisses, fingers, sunsets, dandelions, bulbs, a city, sugar/cotton/snow, cultures and shoulders--all of which occur as proximal fragments of a greater whole, whose inter-relationships are unspecified, remaining docilely inert and disconnected. There are the colors red, and white. The mountain is red; the snow and sugar and cotton are white--this is important information. There is humming, and undulating, and clicking, and cropping up, a covering. Something is magnetized, something is littered, something is unreclaimed, something is inescapable, something remains. We have no idea what the underlying circuit-board for all these things is, because it is hidden beneath the surface of the poem's display. 
Perhaps, like a child, we could be allowed to move the separate parts of the poem around--as with a puzzle or a scrabble board--into probable relationships, that could actually make some kind of expedient sense. But Smith has already thought of this, no doubt. We can't ask of her that she perform this function, because that might serve to confirm our expectations about how to "read" her work, and that's just old-fashioned nonsense. The "mnemonic mapping" which she is striving to make could never be attained by organizing these constituent fragments into a meaningful whole. If we try to put lines together, we may have some limited success: "distances/are magnetized, they/push us away, they/repel." "Bulbs like cotton bolls like/white flowers/they crop up/never/the same." "Distances sadly/inanimate/unreclaimed/whiteness." "White over everything as if it fell from the sky/like sugar like cotton like snow like dandelions/the undulating/complex of/insensitive whiteness." "Rhizomatic network of memory." Etc. 
What a reader is faced with here is a mess. The vague, disorganized flock of words, the reader might suspect, could be rearranged in any of several approximate formations, none of which would be any more instructive, or syntactically informative, than the one chosen. The potential generative, dynamic propulsion of syntax is ignored, in favor of a mobile of mildly suggestive parts, none of which is compelling in itself, to tilt our attention towards a determined effect. Since none of the fragments tells us enough about the experience to which they seem to refer, we have no way of interpreting them, and so they lie, elusive, unrecognized, categorically flat.                                       

In flores para los muertos ["flowers for the dead"], we get pretty much the same kind of thing. Except that here, individual words are broken up into separate letters which may be re-combined in various possible ways, but to what purpose? "Con" might combine with "viv" and "i" and "al" to form convivial; or does con combine with stant to form constant? What does the possible discrepancy between alphabetical parts tell us about anything? "Cannot be a poem" certainly tells us something concrete! There is some kind of jeopardy going on--fear, could be lethal, fear again, violence, fear again, and again fear. What the impetus or etiology of this fear might be, we are not told. Perhaps it's the Day of the Dead. Then, again, perhaps it's the day I got drunk (clinking glasses) and missed you. The refusal to specify what the hints and pointers imply, gives rise in the reader, either to a suspicion of a kind of hesitancy on the part of the speaker (what Katherine Anne Porter called "the look of the runaway in her eye") or a kind of petulance, a reluctance to acknowledge that the speaker (the poet) has no resonant response to experience, that her experience finds no medium, no analogue in her sensibility which could inspire her to memorable utterance. Or, perhaps, faced with the materials of her craft, she is simply clueless about how these might be shaped into a mental narrative or a diverting design. Who can say? 
One of the advantages of removing lyricism--any semblance of a sequential logic or development--from the poem--is that there is no gradient for comparing the relative success or failure of any rhetorical flourish. If Ms. Smith lacks the lyrical inspiration to write interesting poetry, the simplest solution is to posit a style that is utterly without music, without plot, without formal organization. Offered up as latter-day quasi "concrete" experiments in "visual" arrangement, and buttressed by a complex series of analytical definitions, such exercises can mask an initial incompetence by throwing out a blizzard of dogma and speculation. This is a potentially devastating indictment, but one I find myself reluctantly sensing here. 
                                                                                  floras para los muertos

I think that much of what Smith discusses in her excessively long Forward could be said about any of several different examples of post-Modern verse. It might be applicable, for instance, to the work of Clark Coolidge. But the comparison would stop right there in its tracks; because in the work of Coolidge one has, despite the departure from denotation and referentiality, considerable demonstration of skill with language, of the joining and organization of parts, and of whole regions of lavish, connotative blurring, tortuously involved association, varied resonance and expansive internal landscapes. 
In Smith's work, no reading is correct, because nothing in the poem has been deliberately formed. Randomness replaces deliberation, and meaning escapes down the drain. In addition, all readings are non-reflexive, and hence impersonal, autonomous, and indeterminate. Language is exploded into atomized bombs, scattering meaningless fragments of matter. Trying to read her poems is like wandering across a scene of devastation following a detonation; the material, once constituted into use and shape and coherence, is blown apart. We have to start from scratch, picking up the pieces, piling up the rubble, building everything from the ground up, by hand, scraping together fragments, starting over. Practical knowledge at a premium, know-how and energy required. Careful planning. Hope.       
I think Smith is ultimately fooling herself, if not her readers. Compositional experiments--such as choosing words from matrices of pre-existing text, or yoking discrepant segments of language into new arrangements--can be mildly diverting. Ronald Johnson's R A D I O S, for example, or the work of Dick Higgins, or John Cage's experiments with indeterminate performance. But poetry which opts out of the lyrical mode to explore synthetic applications exterior to the medium will inevitably lack substance. Words can be separated from their function, but without that function, they're just things. The trick is in putting them together. Organic Furniture Cellar is an embarrassment, perhaps most astonishingly because its author is an acutely intelligent woman. Alas, she's been mining fool's gold.  



Conrad DiDiodato said...


tough stuff here.

"These twin trends--the hyper-critical inflation of textual assessment, and the alienation of the writer from her probable audience--has created a hybrid artist-type, committed to a narrowly defined profile of avant garde textual eccentricity completely divorced from a probable audience, with a relentless dedication to self-promotion along purely theoretical lines. In other words, a writer devoted to the production of a text whose only purpose is its potential for the parasitism of analytic regard--its only raison d'etre."

Are there any good things to say about her poetry? How about some credit, at least, for trying to accomodate some pretty sophisticated poststructuralist (Deleuze) theory to her work?

Poor Jessica.

Anonymous said...

As of a bit after 11 p.m., the images of the poem pages weren't opening into separate windows. Those words on the page look interestingly arranged, and if possible I'd like to see them. Perhaps the problem is not yours, but please double-check and re-embed, if possible.

Curtis Faville said...


It works for me.

Just copy and paste the URL's into the space above the window and hit the Return button.

If you can't see them that way, you can go here--

for samples of her work. It's all pretty much the same, i.e., suffers from the same faults.

J said...

Koeln Dom. whoa.

That wouldve been right after the phunn---word is the yanks considered blasting the cathedral as well---the fly boys were taking pot shots--p-51s weaving through the spires etc---and they did a lot of damage, but ....the british prevailed and the allies spared that massive tho somewhat scenic warehouse. Had Zhukov & his posse beaten the brits/US to westphalia/rhineland...the Cologne altstadt would have been reduced to complete rubble, and Zhukovgrad or something.

ah Miss Smith's poesy...well at least she includes Mountains, traffic, crickets, flowers, kisses, fingers, sunsets, dandelions., etc. rather than mission street toilet-visions ala s-man

Kirby Olson said...

The LANGUAGE police spread a general fear of being politically incorrect, since they derive from Maoism. The obvious ruse would be therefore to hide in a thicket of the unreadable, in order to escape any given accusations, and this seems to be the dodge that they themselves, as well as their students, have chosen, to escape the dance of indictment that they themselves set in motion.

Even the 6 pt. type seems intended to discourage readers the pointed finger.

Bernstein is responsible for this, if he passed her diss. So the pointed finger belongs equally in his as well as her direction.

I was hoping you'd find something of merit in the collection, but there's no way I'm going to bother with 6 pt. type, even if you had.

Ian Keenan said...

Since you are proposing a theory of what creates the “hybrid-artist type,” your essays of recent weeks illustrate another possible origin of hybridization: the damned if you do, damned if you don't muddle that comes from people who have an emotional motivation to break people down and build them up, subjecting them to the confusion of arbitrary criteria. Writers so targeted can be producers, like Massey, of “apprentice-work” modeled after an “aesthetic he has pretty much adopted, lock, stock and barrel” or alternatively can be deemed “pretentious” by proposing their own model in the form of an essay and then transgressively carrying those original ideas to “an extreme limit.” Most of the time when negative reviews are inspired by an emotional agenda, the reviewers can at least wait until the book arrives to start expressing their “embarrassment” on behalf of the writer. Perhaps you had a teacher when you were at Iowa who behaved like this.

Just so I'm clear on this, what's the difference between a “mess” and a reviewer's description of Coolidge's “psychedelic word salads?” OFC has everything that you associate with Coolidge, with the possible theoretical distinction of “involved association,” whatever that means, the nature of the involvement being different. If it wasn't different, you would call it “apprentice-work” modeled after an “aesthetic he has pretty much adopted, lock, stock and barrel.”

Curtis Faville said...


I very much appreciate both your comments on the Smith posts.

It would take more space than I have to explain my disagreements with what you have said, but I will attempt to do so in fewer words than the argument demands.

Despite what you might have assumed, I had no prejudices against her work before I'd had a chance to see it. I had no recollection of what my remarks may have been way back five years ago when Silliman reviewed it. Was I critical? I have no idea. I didn't receive her book until the day before I did the third part of my review of her and her work.

On the other hand, I have the distinct impression from your two comments, that you're primarily interested in deconstructing my critical remarks, without in any way committing to a judgment of the work under consideration. Do you think Smith is on a par with Coolidge? My point was that what Smith said in her introduction was so much "student" regurgitation, it could easily have been marshaled to defend the technique of any one of a half dozen post-Modern writers, and does nothing to illuminate her own compositional approach; in fact, in my view, it complicates the process of reading her work, insisting that there's no "correct" way, and that it's up to the reader to make a poem out of the raw matter distributed across the field of the page. I categorically reject this notion that it's up to the reader to "make the poem"--that the writer's only task is to set up a probably matrix of seemingly random "fragments" which must then be "composed" by the reader. This is advanced writing???

It's possible not to like either Massey or Smith (or Jorie Graham or Anne Carson, for that matter) for different reasons. There needn't be a single formula which all good writers must follow. There is originality, but then there may be "new" ideas or experiments which are just dead-ends. (I happen to believe that much of the poetry of canonical doctrinaire French surrealism is a dead-end, predictable, painfully absurd, and often unimaginative.

I have no "emotional agenda" with either Massey or Smith. I know neither of these people, though with Smith, I found her casual remarks on her website to be quite naive, defensive, and rude. When I discovered the kind of work she thought entitled her to this haughty, condescending disdain, I realized she had either been misled by her teachers, or had persuaded herself that she was a much better writer than she was (based on what she had published). And I wasn't convinced by any of her "eclectic" elaborations, either, all of which seemed fake applications and easily dismissible.

I don't think I said "psychedelic word salads"--did I? I'm not a great admirer of Coolidge's middle or more recent period work, but the rhetorical command he shows is just so much better than what she's so far shown. The irony, for me, was that the CRITICAL applications she had in mind as the context for her own attempts could as easily apply to other, more successful writing, even though she herself displays no lyrical or formal command in her own poems. She sounds like a brilliant--somewhat complacent--English graduate student who'd written a few "visual" poems and called them masterpieces. But a published work must meet the same level of criteria that any trade edition must. I won't cut her slack because she's still an "apprentice" as we both seem to believe.

continued next post--

Curtis Faville said...

Part II--

It may sound ironic, but Massey lacks a full sense of the potentials of his medium, whereas Smith is almost a polymath by comparison. Massey has some talent, but he may never realize his potential because he sets his sights so low. Rather than Zukofsky and Creeley and Blackburn, he's chosen to emulate Corman and Samperi and Tagliabue--at least as far as I can tell. Why shoot for second-rate? Smith, on the other hand, shows NO talent, but can talk endlessly about its "implications" and "contexts" and analogies. This critical faculty could be a real stumbling block for her. Rather than writing out of desire and fascination and curiosity, she's playing chinese checkers with words. It's a kind of self-delusion: "I'm really making fascinating structures!" But they're not. They're just pointless, weak arrangements with no pressure or compulsion. You could argue, I suppose, that this is a deliberate strategy, but I'm not aware of any serious poetry that doesn't confront problems at a higher compositional level than mere "mosaics."

Smith might become a brilliant writer someday, whereas Massey probably will never be better than he is right now. But she'll need to stop kidding herself about "alternative" readings, and bear down and show what she can do with syntactical or non-syntactical rhetorics. Someone reading Coolidge, even someone wholly unsympathetic to his mode, would still apprehend its intricate and tortuous compulsions. There is nothing of that in Smith's poems.

Ian Keenan said...

Jessica's essay gave credit to Cage's influence on writing that was not seeking rhetorical qualities nor a reader's preoccupation with authorial intention, a method that brings the principles of interpretation in Hegel's lectures on aesthetics to their full extension. Your view that the poem should be judged based on whether it includes rhetoric and lyricism, and that later Coolidge and Cage has evaded this criteria has been made before. What I haven't heard before is that John Cage could have been more like Larry Eigner, why can't John be Larry. It's never occurred to me to compare Jessica with Eigner and Coolidge, both, unlike Jessica, who have been immensely prolific as opposed to Jessica's book which was self-published and promoted with great effort and then got the brushback from workshop poets that complained that she wasn't writing poetry properly, a spectacle that has been followed by a relative poetic silence on her part. Saying that a book of poems should be judged based on what it tries intentionally not to contain is both a critical strategy which I obviously perceive to be founded in your desire to criticize her, clearly stated in advance (and I appreciate this, as many can mask at least partially the intentions that they bring to their criticism), and your own theoretical views on poetry, which you are maintaining while sharing your views on the artistry and talent of the writer, which again are incoherent: you can't restrain yourself from the “Massey is no Smith” and “Smith is no Massey” scoldings in the same paragraph.

Anonymous said...

Do I get this right --

"I didn't receive her book until the day before I did the third part of my review of her and her work."

That means the book was first seen on September 13th. On September 14th, you wrote about the book and the poetics, followed less than 24 hours later by the post on the poems.

Two days, basically, with the book and its poems, including the writing of the posts. I take it you don't ever barbecue using the slow-cook method, eh?

Curtis Faville said...

Dear Anon:

Yes, I read her whole book in one day (I think) and then wrote the review. I found the poems "thin" and insubstantial, a feeling, now, after another week or so, I see no reason to revise. Her introductory essay is a reworking of an earlier draft which Silliman referenced in his original review, and which I read several days earlier.

It is arguable that one should "live with" the poems for a while, but I had been kept waiting an additional 10 days by Amazon which took two whole weeks to deliver it to me. The delay made the last part of the review late, so I got right to it. Smith's poems didn't seem to me to be "about" an enriching experience, where feelings and impressions might undergo a slow fermentation. Her poems are very "flat" for me on the page. I don't see that reading them in or out of "order" (on the page) has made any difference to my comprehension of them.

When I first read Jack Gilbert, back in March and April--I was deeply moved. Gilbert writes in a straightforward "narrative" style (not really telling stories, but with a narrative undertone). His intuitive leaps seemed very fresh and genuinely fatalistic, qualities which I'm sure will thin out over time. Nevertheless, he was talking about deep feelings in a way I sensed a writer like Smith is/was incapable of. I'm perfectly willing to let a writer play with spatial and sequential expectation, but there has to be some kind of pay-off along the way. It's like poets who work in riddles and gnomic deception--sooner or later you want them to tell you something you didn't know, or hadn't heard said, in just this way, before. Gilbert's very non-experimental, but he does amazing things, which no one else (except perhaps James Wright, at his best) ever tried to do before. I don't want other poets to write this way, but I tip my hat to him.

Curtis Faville said...


Cage may or may not be a guide to comprehension or composition in other media.

I've listened to hours and hours of Cage's music--I have about a dozen CD's, but he wears thin. Years ago I read all the essays and speculations, and got really tired of his hackneyed "avant"--he's a little like Alan Watts--"ooh, aah, wink-wink, the universe is listening!" Attempts have been made to build chance operations into poetry, but they're pretty pathetic. Smith's attempt to suggest variant reading "entries" into her poems is unconvincing. Whatever she says, her poems still use conventional pages, conventional type, conventional everything. Splitting words, doing silly acrostics, playing with lineation--all that stuff is both very tiresomely old-fashioned and cute. It did nothing for me.

Michael Palmer speculates (in his poetry) about all this in a much more interesting manner, and without any of the pretense of precautionary explanation.

I've found Coolidge, since Quartz Hearts, to be intensely lyrical, just as Ashbery's Tennis Court Oath and Rivers and Mountains were for me. Smith deliberately excludes all lyrical qualities from her work. Does this suggest that she has no lyrical ability, or has no compulsion to express her feeling for life? It all seems very dry. As much as you might denigrate Joyce, for instance, you could hardly say he wasn't lyrical.

Smith reached a dead end. I suspect she'll either give up poetry altogether and become something else, like an installation artist, or she'll dive back into writing poems in a more straightforward style (if she can).

Saying that I'm expecting her to do something other than she's attempting is quite apt. I think she's beating her head against a wall. I wouldn't encourage anyone to do that. Comparing Smith and Massey as different kinds of artists is a standard approach, wouldn't you say? One is vastly intelligent and lost. The other is mildly talented and standing pat with a kind of mediocrity. Neither choice seems one I could credit. And I said so.

I'm sorry that I find both Smith's prose statements and poetry to be suspect, and inadequate, that's just my view. But I do wish that you would say what you think about her. Her poetry is the subject of my piece. I'm not the subject. As much as you presume that I'm "against" Smith for reasons that have nothing to do with her poetry, your criticisms suggest you're attacking me for the same reason--you just don't like her being "treated" this way. I looked at her work honestly, with an open mind. If I'd liked it, if it spoke to me, I'd have responded positively. But then, she'd have been a different writer than the one she is. I'd have great difficulty explaining to anyone how her poems work, and why anyone should like them.

There's a difference between good, difficult abstract poetry, and meretricious trash. IMHO Jorie Graham and Anne Carson are Queens wearing no clothes whatever. It doesn't matter to me that they're women. They're just bad writers, plain and simple.

Armantrout is a great writer. Graham Foust is a great writer. Smith is a pretender. It all sifts out in the end.

Ian Keenan said...

I see that statement a lot.. not allowing for the possibility of a method and then turning around saying it's 'dated,' like what you affirm from the past isn't dated, or that there is a fashion to be followed. Ideas are disproved or they aren't. They become unfashionable, which matters only to those who blindly follow fashions.

As for the 'she's hybrid, therefore she's not as good as Palmer, Armantrout, and Foust' contradiction: where does Palmer use mesostics, where does he use syntactical nodes, where does he structure the poem around a map? I can see where those three use puns to redirect meaning in different ways, but they are attempting something different in a different form.

Cage is a poet (as well as a composer and a painter), and one that has created openings and possibilities for many artists, such as what Smith set forward, which is a new way of thinking of the structure of poetry. It is a dead end only for those who are stalled.

Anonymous said...

Here's a radio interview / reading with/by Smith I found of interest (and maybe anyone who hasn't heard it, might):

"I'm not the subject"

Well: Is it not fair to say that if a reader of your review suspects some insincerity behind your "take" on the book (and Massey's), that you do/can become part of the subject?

I'm ambivalent about Smith's poetry myself, but thought (as I said) that interview of some interest (if for no other reason than to get how SHE reads the poems, the timbre of her voice, etc.). The academic "tone" less present there, at least.

Kirby Olson said...


I'm glad you're getting some heat here. It's fun.

I have to remember that you think that Corso is pretty thin soup, too.

Curtis Faville said...


I'll try not to be tedious, but answer your points one by one--we may be talking in circles--

I'm not arguing "for tradition" or "for fashion" or "for datedness"--and I don't think we share the same understanding of the word hybridization. I think of it as being a descendant who shares certain but not all traits of forebears. It may have positive or negative connotations, depending on how it's used.

How is a preference therefore a "contradiction"? Using your logic, every writer--no matter how skilled or accomplished--would be "judged on the terms on which they themselves set" without regard to any objective standard whatsoever. We stand "outside" the work of any artist, and react to it as observers and critics--we didn't make it, we're not responsible for it, and we're not privy to the mental processes that generated its consistencies and contradictions. We apply the standard, which may in turn incrementally adjust that standard to the degree the work is successfully innovative or new. Zukofsky isn't "old-fashioned" any more than John Clare is. Dickinson sounds very "old-fashioned" but what amazing things she gets said! Palmer isn't side-tracked by trivial "arrangements"--he's a philosophical thinker who uses verse to get at kinds of perceptual and cognitive disconnects, in a way which is similar to Armantrout's deconstruction of popular cultural tropes. Palmer thinks about how we think (like Wittgenstein), whereas Armantrout tries to locate her jeopardized sense of self "inside" the verbal matrix of our speech. Smith is toying in a not very interesting way with disconnected arrangements, clusters of data most of which doesn't stick together, doesn't cohere. I see no reason to labor over such clusters when she herself has done nothing to draw me in, or--once inside--to keep me questioning.

Cage, on the other hand, seems now extraordinarily dated. Mushrooms and Leftist politics, dimestore Zen and bridge hands. It all seemed very entertaining, his weirdly asymmetrical linear notations. But the ideas he was discovering in those years were a critic's notebook jottings. Fun, but ephemeral. I don't really intend to put down Cage, here, but only to point out that as a model of performance (of art) he can lead people astray. Smith's "use" of him does her no justice, and ultimately wastes her powers. Cage is the kind of thinker who is very useful when one is 17 and just discovering things. Reading him at 35 or 60 is a different experience--at least it was for me.

Curtis Faville said...
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Curtis Faville said...
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Curtis Faville said...

"Well: Is it not fair to say that if a reader of your review suspects some insincerity behind your "take" on the book (and Massey's), that you do/can become part of the subject?"

Why should my review be insincere? Is negativity a symptom of insincerity? I can dislike a poet, but admire the poetry--that's a quite common phenomenon. Some poets are prickly and unpleasant, but write great poems. The social embarrassments which she generated through her casual remarks may be a symptom of psychological or personality issues, but lots of poets have terrific, terrible problems which make their verse interesting, or fascinating. Smith appears to take poetry very seriously. But it's also possible to be completely fucked-up, or be a very shrewd critic, without in any way being an interesting "creative" artist. She has an extraordinarily large sense of her self and her place in the community of literature, through the recognition and misplaced encouragements she's received, which is not earned, and not justified by her efforts. --IMHO, obviously. I don't think anyone needs to "apologize" for not liking a poem. There is a critical responsibility to consider work on its own terms, as well as on terms one applies to it. In neither case--on the terms Smith lays out in her own long Foreword, or on the terms I would apply, given my whole prior reading experience and knowledge--do I find things to admire.

The reading/recording/interview does nothing for me to clarify what deeper levels she may allegedly be pursuing. She's actually a poor reader. What she says about "memory" as an active generator of the "missing" parts of her texts is for me a useless excuse. It clarifies nothing about IS LEFT there, AFTER the supposed mental disintegrations.

And, ultimately, anyone's incomplete memory doesn't seem like a very compelling pretext, in itself, for the reader's interest.

Curtis Faville said...

She talks in the interview about how "white" has different connotations in Birmingham (AL) and Buffalo (NY)--then goes dully silent. This is the kind of meaning and content she thinks she can simply name, without telling us anything about how they relate, differ, impress, involve, etc. Just mentioning snow and thistles gets nothing done. What's metaphorized?

Curtis Faville said...


There are a lot of negative things I could say about Corso's verse, but he's not guilty of any of the things Smith is. If anything, it's his "wretched excess" which turns me off, whereas with Smith, there's no THERE there.

Curtis Faville said...


It might be helpful to note that Smith's emphasis upon the "architectural" metaphor for verbal structures is what limits her approach. Architecture is conceived as a static structure, through which human procession experiences controlled space. But poetry must be both the structure AND the sensibility moving through it--it's kinetic, not static, like fixed structural form. It may be that Smith confuses the "architecture" of her work for a kind of active passage, though she provides almost no actual description or sense of movement (the feeling body) on the page. Perhaps she needs to explore the musical metaphor a bit more. Messian or Dutilleux might be better models than Arakawa.

This would also underscore my surmise that she's really more of a spatial planning mind (geometric) than a writer of poetry. She doesn't seem to have any lyrical impulse at all. Or if she does, it isn't expressed through her writing, which is stilted and dry.

Curtis Faville said...


And, finally, there's the metaphorical implication of my perception of Smith's work as an architectural "ruin" or site of devastation. Again, that's an exterior take on what is clearly an "internal" process (conception), but beyond the obvious (and not very flattering implication), probably a very telling connotation.

"These fragments I have shored against my ruins." But Eliot's phrase suggests a tidal flat, perhaps, as well as the ruins of an ancient (or devastated) city.

But the idea of imputing a "devastation" as a metaphor for civilization's demise THROUGH a poorly structured verbal edifice, is, again, a gratuitously opportunistic ploy.

Curtis Faville said...


Does that kind of technique really hold any interest for you?

Ian Keenan said...

"(Eigner's) stripped down works have a sculptural—one wants to say "architectural"—logic that can escape a casual reader."

- Ron Silliman, back of the Collected Eigner you edited

"Smith's works have an architectural logic that can escape a reader with contempt for Cage that is royally ticked off at the author and reviews the book as soon as it comes in the mail"

- Me

Anonymous said...

When Ron Silliman reviewed Property Line, a chapbook by the "mildly talented" Massey, you commented and said the work is "brilliant" and then asked me, the publisher, for several special edition copies. Go figure.

In that same review Ron mentions Rae Armantrout's essay about Massey's work that appeared in American Poet: The Journal of the Academy of American Poets. If anyone is interested in another take on Massey's work, check that issue out.

Curtis Faville said...

Silliman's comment in no way elicits a difference here.

Eigner's poems do indeed have an architectural, perhaps a sculptural, quality (shape), but he also writes a mostly easy-to-decipher kind of adamant sense-filled poem. His arrangements are primarily musical in implication--directed timing, shifting emphases, facilitating surprise etc.--whereas Smith's have no such other dimensions of consequence.

I'm not contemptuous of Cage. Those are your words. Cage is optimized for a naive general reader for whom he (Cage) is the "turned-on" guide. He's a proselytizer of the wide-eyed acolyte. "Gosh, Mr. Cage, the world is certainly a fascinating place. I'd never have guessed until you started showing me all these hidden connections." (I.e., that guy Burke who did the "Connections" science mini-series on PBS a few years ago.)

I'm not "ticked off" at Smith. She's apparently a very sweet, relentlessly ambitious, credulous academic who has the same kind of fascination for her own poems as a child may have for its own poop. It's a little unseemly to exhibit so little doubt about and care for the detail of your own work.

Most reviewers--professional ones--review work in precisely this way. There are poets I've read for years whom I talked about in earlier posts (check them out), but this one I did quickly. First impressions may be false, but I don't think this one is. Full disclosure. Should I have lied about it, saying I'd read the work when it first came out? Would that have made you happier?

You thrust, I parry.

Curtis Faville said...

Dear Anon:

I have no record of my comments on Massey. They apparently were lost in the Google "Cache" back-up file archiving. I naturally assumed, since I was referenced online as having been one of those who had "insulted" Massey at Silliman's Blog, that my reaction had been negative. Do you have a link to my comments from that entry? I'd be fascinated to read my earlier words. I do have e.mail records of an exchange with Massey requesting copies of his pamphlet(s), which apparently came to naught.

In a larger sense, my commentaries on Massey and Smith are part of a larger debate I have with Ron about the value of younger writers of a certain persuasion. I'd like to see more balance in his presentations. I like to think it's possible to see some value in poets of differing approaches. Not everyone should be expected to emulate Pound and Williams instead of Eliot and Stevens. I think there's room to enjoy multiple streams. As I've said, praising the right people for the wrong reasons is as bad as condemning the wrong people for the right reasons. Silliman refuses to accept that Jack Gilbert merits praise--for the simple reason that Gilbert "chose" to write in a straightforward traditional style. That's quite narrow. Why not Gilbert AND Jackson Mac Low? Why not Galway Kinnell AND John Ashbery?

Kirby Olson said...

Cage's 4" is the best music I've heard in my life, and have listened to it over and over. He makes a mistake when he starts to suggest actual notes. Music is itself a mistake although Nietzche noted, "Life without music would be a mistake." The music that makes life perfect for me is silence.

I liked some of the white stuff Smith notes in an inventory -- it sent me quite a bit.

I'd need a microscope to read 6 pt. print. I don't have a microscope, so the gadgetry needed to read this stuff is prohibitive.

I'm not surprised that a huge theoretical context is necessary to read her work, or so she thinks. Isn't that Bernstein and Silliman in a nutshell, in which the theoretical context is the huge framing device needed to read the work?

Nothing like that is needed with Corso, but it does help to understand the Catholic tradition from hence he sprang. Most don't have that background, so what he's saying (Ginsberg said famously who cares?) is missing.

A neat new article just came out in Holland:

The article cites my Corso book rather a lot, which of course I enjoyed. I wish Corso's work would be reread by everyone through the lens I have built for it.

It isn't a microscope so much as a theological framework.

GC: Doubting Thomist (SIUP, 2002).

One thing (back to Smith) that I like too is that at least she apparently learned Swedish. In grad school the blathering multiculturalists were barely familiar with English, and almost none of them could read any other language, or had ever lived anywhere but places like Cleveland.

Their conversation was whether or not Camille Paglia was on to something, and whether what she said about Madonna had merit.

Smith is a snarky elbowing creep that makes even us look like amateurs, but at least she has a smattering of theoretical background, and can read one other language. She's practically cosmopolitan compared to many provincials in the poetry world.

Even Silliman can't read any other language but English.

Anonymous said...

What do you mean by "lyrical impulse"?

As in, "[Smith] doesn't seem to have any lyrical impulse at all."

Your assertion is abstract here: what specifically is not there, in Smith's poems?

Curtis Faville said...


Smith comes off as a very conceited, devoted English graduate student. But that only goes so far in my view. People whose only experience of life is sitting in workshops making polite conversation, don't have much to tell us. Unless they had bad childhoods, or nutty parents. To paraphrase Tolstoy: All dysfunctional families are different!

I took Latin in junior high, then four years of French, then four terms of German in college. I can navigate in Paris, but not in Berlin.

I'm not sure Smith really knows Swedish. She might just be quoting a few keywords.

Knowing foreign languages doesn't prove that one has an open mind. Most professional translators aren't particularly good poets themselves. I like translations that take liberties, like Pound's and Lowell's. Eshleman does very nicely with Vallejo, but then I don't know the Spanish models. Maybe he's destroying it!

Curtis Faville said...

Dear Anon:

From Wikipedia:

"Lyric may refer to:

Lyric poetry is a form of poetry that expresses a subjective, personal point of view
Lyric, from the Greek language, a song sung with a lyre
Lyrics, the composition in verse which is sung to a melody to constitute a song"

That's a good starting point. Hopkins is lyrical. Stevens is lyrical. Ginsberg is lyrical. Hughes is lyrical. Get the picture?

Anonymous said...

"I'm not "ticked off" at Smith."


J said...

As in, "[Smith] doesn't seem to have any lyrical impulse at all."

I agree Sir F. Then, the lyrical impulse died with like Billy Yeats for some of us, begob (and even WBY was mostly hit n miss). Or was it Rilke.

Poesy apres beatniks, WCWilliams and confessionalchiks has become mainly a matter of decoration (cute, or not so cute, depending). Rilke's most expendable city-nocturne reduces a few crates of yankee-hipster decoration to nadaness, or something (ah'd say same for the best latin american writers, such as Neruda, however....Rouge they may have been). Better like attempting some effective sportswriting pulp, kiddos--someday y'all will pen like a few paragraphs worth a Ring Lardner sentence, or Dash Hammett thought

Kirby Olson said...

Curtis, would you say as per Cage's 4", that Smith's book would be better if the pages were left blank, so that at least someone else could write in them?

Kenneth Rieman's white canvases come to mind, too.

It's funny, but I had lunch with her once, and she was pleasant. Neither one of us was trying to impress the other, and we probably both came off as bland as turnips.

Knowing other languages is a good thing, and fun, especially if you can read them a bit. I am very very good in French, and mediocre in German and Dutch and can read some Finnish (I wish I was better at Finnish, since I hear it all day since my kids and wife speak Finnish).

But there has never been a single great poet from another language in English. The two closest in our current culture are probably Codrescu and Hollo. Part of the problem is the poetry they are responding to is back home in their own languages, which no one knows, or next to noone. When I wrote my book on Codrescu he told me that he is still in fact a Romanian poet, and that you have to read fifty Romanian poets to get what he's doing in English.

But the Romanians don't get him either because you have to have read 424 American poets to get what he's doing, too. So they're both stuck between languages, the only people who can understand their respective idiolect.

That's true to some degree for any poet. It takes years to understand Corso, for instance.

Billy Collins is easier, which makes him more popular.

Ginsberg at least had the common currency of leftism, and its gripes.

Corso is very idiosyncratic, and speaking in his own language, about his own concerns. To open it requires tons of work, and pattern finding.

When you said you thought he was too excessive did you mean in his life, or in his poetry? they are two separate things.

His poetry, at least at one level, is fairly accessible, and plus it is in 12 pt. type, so even the robins can read it.

Reading is difficult, and for most of us it's a disaster, like thinking itself. The subjective personal point of view means that one has to get to know the poet, their background, their friends. This helps a lot with Marianne Moore, for instance.

It takes time to penetrate an idiolect.

No one, of course, can ever really fully understand another person. We are like albino catfish with eyes the size of cueballs stumbling along in the dark.

Curtis Faville said...


Believe what you like. It would be difficult to be angry at anyone as vulnerable as Smith is.

Curtis Faville said...


Conrad and Nabokov offer interesting examples.

Hollo's father was an academic who had a wide reading and familiarity--presumably with English culture and language too. Anselm spent time in America as a teenager in the student exchange program--I think, in Iowa City, of all places. Then he lived for a time in Germany, then England, before finally emigrating to America permanently. Anselm shows little trace accent of his Scandinavian tongue, and writes with the greatest naturalness in English.

Nabokov, on the other hand, often wrote a kind of English that seemed slightly "synthetic," employing obscure and antiquated words and constructions at times, which I think his readers allowed him. In Pnin and Lolita, the effect is perfectly natural since he's writing from inside the minds of Russian emigres. VN's whole early career was inside the Russian emigre community of Central Europe (Germany).

In my work, I had the opportunity to meet a lot of displaced Russians from the Manchurian colony (Harbin). They were very worldly and easy-going.

Conrad's English can seem a little dogged, at times. But he's so methodical, it fits.

Kirby Olson said...

But Conrad and Nabokov aren't poets, so they don't count. We're talking about effective poetry, right?

There are a number of good story writers and novelists who came from elsewhere and got reasonably famous in English, and there continue to be.

Poetry is a more difficult nut to crack because you need to have a feeling for all the nuances of words and you can't have that in more than one language.

The only poet who maybe did it was Pessoa (I don't like his English poems, but some people shriek that they're excellent).

The mother tongue is the only language a poet has access to, for whatever reason.

Mere logic can animate prose, and does animate Conrad or Nabokov.

Neither one writes effective poems.

I think that Nabokov thought that he did, but he didn't.

I don't know if Conrad even tried. If he did, I'm not aware of them.

Hemingway tried to write poems. They've very bad.

Melville's poems aren't terrible, but they are nothing compared to Whitman's.

Let's keep our genres distinct here.

Ginsberg never wrote any good stories or novels, and Corso (although he tried) never did either.

Burroughs thought he could write poems, but he couldn't.

Kerouac's poems are fairly good, and his prose is fairly good, and yet he was a French speaker in childhood, so maybe he counts for something here.

We'd ahve to ask a few Swedish speakers about Smith's Swedish.

Curtis Faville said...

"The mother tongue is the only language a poet has access to, for whatever reason."

You took the words right out of my mouth. The senses of language which permit the creation of true poetry are imprinted in our earliest childhood and youth. It can't be faked. It's impossible to "learn" a language after age 10 and write true poetry in it. The result lacks a crucial element of authenticity.

J said...

Usually it's only poets--or poetasters--who insist on some great divide between good prose and verse. And we should simply ignore anyone who would rank Whitman above Melville (really Whitman might be the real culprit for shoddy pseudo-bohemian writing of all types....see Ambrose Bierce's bon mots for the real score on WW.)

Conrad's English may at times have a slight accent yet close to perfection, in sound, theme, organization.

Nabakov's Amero-English however is all accent, sort of a cartoon Peter Lorre trying Voltaire or somethin'. Exhausting and not even really entertaining as soft-porno. Nabakov was the murderer (then sort of de rigeur for Steinford faculty).

poetry, and the lit. biz ripped off the US for the last 50 years or so. Smith's a victim. Even Silliman and Kirby O, however shabby are. Youd done better trying to imitate the noir dudes that beatnuts couldn't quite get (Hammett, Chandler, Jim Thompson),,,or EA Poe for dat matter

jh said...

for the life of me i could't access a page that was readable
so i can only trust your critique curtis for what it is
and express a modicum of agreement

i don't pretend to be versed in the theory of poetix
so i don't know much of what's being discussed
i like poems because they strike me as good poems with interesting things to say

i find it very tedious to deal with people who are insisting that post modernism is the context for writing anything

yet i think kirby is a little over the top when he says she's a creep
he too has a right to say what he wants to say
in one sense

that is a very poetic line

perhaps she's an innocent victim of the predilections of feminism which more or less state that any effort to express oneself if it is supported by at least one feminist is a credible effort and needs some recognition

this whole radical vagina thing is getting pretty tedious

the girl must be sort of clever
she got you to buy a copy
she's getting some controversial mishmash literary blather cred on your blog
nobody can access anything she's ever written
she's making sure that people buy it
she hand sewed 10,000 copies of the cover and put them on the texts
so she's into this "making" thing taking the greek word seriously at one level

girls get all the breaks these days
and that's just the way it's supposed to be i guess
and if you criticize them well you're a mysogynistyk pyg

life is more complicated than poetry
but i tend to agree with you curtis
people should at least try to have a tune in the heart or a sense of the inherent meaning radiating through something that sits on the page and in the ear with some sense of delight

m so surprized
at no wombmen
are blithering about all this

i'm sure not going to buy a copy of the poems
if i ever have a chance i may
shoplift one

mining fool's gold

golddiggers in the 21 st century schizoid tune

raba raba doo


jh said...

is pretty damn good poetry
i don't care what you say man
you can call the girls creeps
but you can't just go and say
vladimir shoulda kept to prose

the fact that he wrote english
with russian in his heart
in his inner ear
makes the poem all the more fascinating to me

i'd like to write a good long poem like that
someone should try to
put lolita to rhymed
rhymed quatrains quatrains

there hasn't really been a decent
woman poet in america since emily dickinson
perhaps denise levertov
ok marianne moore
(whose poems are being set to music
by elliott carter by the way)
but that's about it isn't it
i mean
what do i know
i'm just sayin
can we talk about some of this stuff
or not???


J said...

Nabakov was an arch-heretic, jh (of course, many catholics, or nominal catholics, don't mind a few de-sadean kicks at times) --

His writing's overrated me thinks. Granted, Lolita-speak was sort of sophisticated and complex, even slightly humorous at times--then Liberace musick is as well--chintzy, vegas virtuoso --c'est Nabakov. Czarist aesthetics.

You're mostly correct about poesy and las femmes however. They go together about like potassium and h20 do. Actually Edna St Vincent Millay is a fem. poet I once admired (quite superior to Emily D's jangles)

Kirby Olson said...

Well, Jessica Smith said that all the contributors to Ron's comment box were "narcissistic sociopaths," JH. I may be a "narcissist," (sniff sniff), but I am reasonably certain I am not a sociopath.

Sociopaths are characterized by antisocial behavior (behavior unconducive to the formation of a good community?).

Although I grant that one individual or maybe two were not very nice at all in Ron's comment box, just to order the box shut down because of a few comments that put her in a bad light, I would say that this was certainly "narcisstic," and also, in its own way, unconducive to the formation of a community (if you can only say nice things about a poet, why say anything at all, since comments have been reduced to what the dictator-poet has permitted?).

I would say that THAT is narcissistic sociopathology, which I simply reduced in this instance to the word, "creep."

I think condensation is part of poetry, and to reduce two big words to one shorter and more telling word, is just poetry in practice!

So there!

I was only RESPONDING to her initial allegations, and to her initial bad names that she was calling all of us.

I do think her name might fit one or two people, but I object to it being used toward you, Curtis, or me.

We are narcissistic, but not sociopaths.

At least in my humble opinion.