Tuesday, September 7, 2010

"So Ardently Contested..."

Two weeks ago I wrote a review of another young poet's first trade collection [Minimalism Part VII]. I took that book to task for not aspiring to a high enough model of practice, and suggested that a compromised version of writing, could lead to a compromised, short-circuited fulfillment. The poet contacted me and suggested that I must be "angry" at him or his writing, else how could I not find the worthy aspects of his poetry? The idea that a negative reaction to any poetry, could only be explained by a kind of premonitory disaffection, is probably a natural enough reaction to rejection. 
The idea of a standard of value as applied to poetry is one that is always on the table, even when--even though--we may not express that in so many words. People will often say that the only worthwhile pastime is promoting and expressing pleasure at what we like and admire, but if we (or everyone we think belongs to our sphere) spend all our energy praising each others' work, in the end we can't have any standards at all, save for friendship and good cheer. Friendship is a wonderful thing, as are loyalty and admiration, emulation and gratitude. But these qualities, as necessary as they are to a happy existence, can't be the basis for an aesthetics, or a poetics.
It is perfectly possible to be trapped inside a provincial mediocrity, buttressed by the wholesome encouragement of friends and close associates. And this mediocrity may not even be geographical. In the modern age--especially now in the age of the internet--one's circle or coterie of attachments or contacts may be built out of a casual series of electronic communications, which defines a certain attitude or set of shared tendencies. There's a very real desire, sometimes, to believe that acceptance and approbation are a spontaneous phenomenon, that praise is a confirmation of the value and quality of one's enterprise. 
Lately, I've noticed a tendency amongst younger writers to think of criticism--all criticism--as an old-fashioned parlor-game, in which outdated or outmoded theories of critical regard are applied, as a kind of throttle to youthful inspiration. Perhaps this has always been the case, but there never was an opportunity for people to respond, so immediately, to negative critical appraisals. Again, the notion that negative reviews could only be the result of some kind of pathological, predatory motivation, designed (fabricated) to inflict undeserved and unwanted pain, is not a new idea, but one which seems more in evidence, with the explosion of literary interactivity on the web.
The notion that any writing--all writing--that one might do, or have published--could be considered a personal, or social, or literary good, despite whatever qualities it might possess, is a ridiculous idea. I noticed the other day that a young poet who happens to have some resources, has only been writing for about 15 years, but has over 30 titles, many self-published. This kind of profligacy does not in itself prove anything, perhaps, except that ambition and energy can generate the illusion of accomplishment. 
There is a movement abroad in the land of poetry, a belief that in order to succeed in the nation of Andrew Carnegie and Donald Trump, one must promote one's work, and that of one's friends--that all symptoms of withholding, of subtraction of support and approbation, are dangerous, nefarious threats, which must be resisted, discredited, stamped out. 
What I suggested in my review of August 25 2010 was that the young poet in question had chosen a set of literary models which were insufficient to his talent--a tradition of bad imitation of Eastern poetic forms, as well as of the superficial characteristics of certain American writers (William Carlos Williams). Reactions to this assertion suggested that not only was it permissible to engage in third-hand, watered down emulation, it was actually preferable to do this, rather than exhibit any true original talent; indeed, that the evidence of derivation of formal properties, of apprenticeship, was the best possible aspect of this work, because it showed respect, obedience and devotion (all good virtues). Another way of saying this is that William Carlos Williams is a great model, as is Classical Chinese poetry, but Williams or Basho through the eyes of Corman, or Rexroth, may not be an entirely propitious transmission. If Joseph Massey wishes to rise above the level of mere politeness, he should set his sights higher than Cid Corman and Frank Samperi.                                           
All of which leads me, by circuitous animadversion, back to the work of another poet, one long dead, whose promise was cut short at the very beginning of his career. Max Douglas was a poet, born in 1949 (two years after me), who showed great promise. His Collected Poems [published by White Dot Press, Washington, D.C., edited by Christopher Wienert and Andrea Wyatt] which runs to some 150 pages, is precocious, since Max died at 21 of a heroin overdose. What is immediately apparent upon a first reading of this collection is that Douglas had already, by the tender age of 20, absorbed and digested the formal lessons of Black Mountain (Olson, Dorn, Blackburn, Creeley), and was poised to embark on what almost certainly would be impressive and important work. 
Spring Again
old barns and houses
are falling down
sheds lurch filled with limp hay
sour smell of dung
sharp smell of burning fields
far off columns of smoke
angry dogs defending
country store
This is simple writing, whose skill is accomplished through subtraction and suggestion, not through performance and showing off. Immediate impressions, regionally founded, with clear acknowledgments to forebears.  
Second-rate imitations of estimable work is almost always better than first-rate imitations of inferior work (the point I attempted to raise in the work of Massey). You can hear Dorn and Creeley underneath these lines--
School Zone
small girls
jumping rope
air lifting hair
boys skipping
in a long line
at the end
a little blond
in stripes
his arms going
like a brakeman's
I watch
from another world
theirs beginning
where the shadow
of the overpass
and the sun and
screaming takes up
the overpass itself
winding away
on its stilts
trucks sighing
east pigeons
flying under
leaves paper
dust blowing
across the asphalt
on which the last
baseball game
of a few children
is shattered
by the bell
that brings now
older boys
--but there's a maturity, not just of concision of use, but of revelations of life experience, astonishing in one so young. Compassion, self-consciousness ("I watch/from another world"), vivid observation ("the overpass itself/winding away/on its stilts"). The line-breaks and enjambments aren't violent and overdone, but are natural, and flow, connected, in an ordered sequence that is as determinative as the movements of the head or eye. 
In October
my soul is dim
as the sky settled
over the fields
of our fearful isolation.
Twelve bare trees.
At Northville the cemetery
above corn
to the south &
east, to a wind not kindly
by any season
to exposure so severe.
Atchison, her
massive granaries...
O it is a land of plenty It is
a time
of harvest...
And we have attained
that critical Missourian shore/
without welcome, finally.
The single white
elevator of Rushville.
It is a fine rain haltingly falls.        
This is an unashamed adaptation of Dorn's "Geography" style, and I wouldn't make any claims for its originality, but I believe in its honesty. Douglas was a Missouri kid, and a budding regionalist (a quality his teacher Dorn would undoubtedly have fostered in him, following from Olson's insistent example). Wienert, in his perceptive Introduction to the poems, refers to Max's "vocal hesitancy...sparing in his measure of the line...this compressive turning and halting syntax...marks discovery in the poem...the minimal phrase which most clearly articulates his poetic eye." Emotion driving formal structure, rather than the amusing coincidence of novelty which so often diverts the untrained mind. 
These poems aren't mature, finished efforts which stand alone as things in themselves, but they address concerns which incorporate feeling--a feeling for one's place, in a place, on its terms--and open those feelings out into things, rather than simply describing inert matter and phenomena as diverting, mechanized contraptions. 
Northwest Missouri
whipping in
under eaves
to touch their shadows
in the spaces
between boards
the Coca-Cola ad
the entire east face
is peeling badly
dated by its slogan
the sun, shining between
boards, stripes hay bales
shaded in
The small barn
giving them the appearance
of sleeping tigers
upward from the creek
bed except the yellow
leaves which are falling
down black cattle
Angus on above the other
on the grassy slope
which continues to rise
above them all
on top there is a young tree
dark perpendicular fence
post against a white sky
all this rising so ardently
contested by the horizontals
of the fencing      
beside clear running
water dry leaves and
rocks lie down
in the same bed
the tracks of small
animals in the mud
a tree upright still
by virtue of what roots
the bank has not abandoned
leans over the water
which mirrors it
nestling a beer can
in a crotch 
of its roots
the moon above
the hills barer
each day
is like a
slice of ham fat
in alfalfa
on the hill
overlooking the valley
a spider
scurries across
my shoe
a patch 
of dead grass
is an island
of grasshoppers
I am overtaken
with a sense of
not decline flight
crickets ticking
rime running out
a freight train
rumbling through
the valley
The quality of feeling--the emotion, which Pound always insisted upon as a measure of the fidelity of any poem--runs like a clear stream of intention through the described events. "All this rising so ardently contested" could stand as a definition of the principle--"by virtue of what roots the bank has not abandoned" a delicate turn of phrase clean out of nowhere--"I am overtaken by a sense of...flight...a freight train rumbling through the valley." The arc of the poem's movement from moment to moment, image to image, is deliberate and confident, not accidental, gratuitous or wasted. "Birds...perching...to touch their shadows in the spaces" towards the "flight" at the end.
The sense of loss we feel in the work of one so young, on the threshold of discovery and achievement, is like a stillborn birth. In this instance, it wasn't a lack of conviction, or a passionate intensity that was lacking, just the fickle needle of chance. I commented earlier on the career of my late friend, Patrick Schnoor [I, II, III]  whose promise was similarly cut short by a drug problem. Whether Max Douglas realized the jeopardy in which he placed his fate by injecting himself with a heroin overdose, would never be known. Certainly he wasn't suicidal, or there's no evidence of that in the work. 
If we could undo the past and open a door into possibility, we would never "know" what mightn't have happened. We can't not know what we think actually did happen. And so the Max Douglases and Patrick Schnoors of the world spin endlessly in a sort of limbo of possibility, half in the world of make-believe, half in the actual world of reality. But they should remind us of the duty we bear as survivors, we carry the burden of their promise as talismans of inspiration into the future.    


Conrad DiDiodato said...


in the initial stages imitation may be a necessary evil, especially in poetry which by nature (as Aristotle says)is a pure mimesis. French critic René Girard's views on mimetic theory is also instructive here. In Eastern writing especially where originality is seen as ridiculous wilfulness, there's really no advancing beyond the Master's influence.

I believe the young need 'models' that inspire and give them a sort of 'blueprint' from which to begin in those crucial formative years. And if contemporary young poets don't take to well to criticism, that may be because they espouse a very different notion of literacy (a predominantly media literacy)from the one we've been raised on.

As Eliot said, the critic's role is to elucidate; the informed reader will make his/her own judgments in the end. The young writers you review need really the gift of elucidation that only a seasoned reader can give. If they take criticism a little too petulantly, perhaps a little patience & compassion are also in order.

Anonymous said...


Curtis, is that a joke?

those poems are awful.
what "tier" would you place them on,

"whirring above the wimpling

ha ha ha

yr an awful poet no wonder you stopped writing no wonder yr so bitter and irrele-

J said...

... clear acknowledgments to forbears

forbearers, medinx. forebear is the verb. For bears, like...well yr bay area...so...

poet Im not but some of Dorn's manga entertains ein bitchin'---tho' he sort of relied upon the shall we say "cokehead-wanderjahr-pastoral." this kid's stuff doesn't seem nearly as fleshed out and evocative as yall say as Dorn's writing.

That said Dorn could be an asshole, especially when drinkin'...or ...flyin' air peru, wearing his country gent. get-up-- vest, boots, even stetson at times--you'd hear his voice echo in hellems on occasion....british accent at times (sounded a bit...bogus). He hustled any and all coeds whilst per-fessorin' at CU as well (and was not liked by like the rightist-techies and/or marxistas for that matter...). Tried to add his class once but he was hot propertay at the time and only the hippest of the granola mafia got in.

Curtis Faville said...


A review is not an "elucidation"--that's the function of critical essays.

A review is to make a Yay or Nay with some signal examples.

My point was somewhat tangential here. I felt that Massey's work lacks an essential ingredient which Max Douglas possessed when he was still in his teens. I believe Massey's failings are traceable to the examples he seems to have chosen to emulate. I think he could learn a lot more from Wallace Stevens, Michael Palmer, and Graham Foust than those I mentioned. That's a suggestion, nothing more.

Curtis Faville said...


Again, this would mean more if I knew who you were. Faceless commentary is kind of pointless, but I'll respond out of courtesy, which is more than you deserve.

The works cited were furnished at the request of another blogger, about 5-6 years ago. I'm no longer attached to them, and I'd agree that they're unworthy, and not just of me. I like "windswept cylinder of flux" which captures for me the mating swarms of mayflies over a spring creek in high Summer.

But posting anonymously is pathetic and cowardly. No matter how good you may think you are, taking sniper shots is just chicken-shit.

Ultimately, how good my own work is has nothing to do with the quality of my criticism. Your attempt to attack my authority as a critic-blogger by attacking my own work is impertinent.

Come out of the closet, ninny, and defend yourself.

Curtis Faville said...


Thanks for the spell-check. My bad. I know how to spell it, but missed it in copy-read.

I didn't suggest that Douglas was the equal of Dorn, only that Dorn, who was his teacher, is a transparent influence on his work. I think in a good way, too. But then I love Dorn's early work--through Geography (Fulcrum Press). And his sarcastic and insufferable mien was frequently noted. I don't think that matters to his writing. Assholes can be great poets. Nice guys maybe not so often--just a casual surmise.

J said...

I agree. Not really objecting to his character...

The poetic-critic Tom Clark was another in that scene, tho' Dorn was sort of a Dr. Johnson to Clarkski's Boswell-lite. And I believe Dorn partied with the one and only...Hunter S Thompson. Or....once at the Boulderado...Dorn yelling, people shouting, swilling gin and tonics, sniffing in the loo, jazz, deadheads, some of the nagropa freaks, and the good Dr. was like 3 hours late to his rant. You had to be there....

I wasn't around B. until mid 80s so missed out on all the nagropa scandalizing...that one K-O turned knows all aboout...ooo la la la la la-lah. .

jh said...

i've seen the needle and the damage done - NY

of course we all know that
the 60s and 70s were not particulaly elegant times
lots of people ODd
it was the surreal beginning of a culture managed by drugs
which we seem to be now

i admire your ability to praise dead poets curtis
i had never heard of max douglas and for that alone i am grateful

i think he writes just as you say he does with conscientious steps and a classical hankering for lines finely rendered
i'd like to read the book

keats blew out the flame youngish

i've sometimes wondered who the shimmering stand above the crowd voices were in the mid 70s...i was into berryman richard hugo rilke and frost and wendell berry
and roethke

i was also reading a lot of fernando sor and heitor villa-lobos not to mention mauro giuliani and paganinni and bach always bach
so i wonder who the greats were at that time
creeley was still alive and he'd made it to the top of the black mountain a time or two - rexroth

we looked to bob dylan jim morrison the byrds leonard cohen kris kristofferson johnny cash even shall is say john denver and james taylor and later in my late teens the blues poets lemon jefferson gary davis john hurt buddy guy bob marley jerry garcia and the lot
poetry went over the airwaves like electric dust through a drug deal gone bad

adrienne rich and sexston and plathe were bebop bandied about

rockjazz fusion was the rage in music art i thought it all a bit wierd

i must say silliman turned me on to the hot scene of oddballs and circus word entertainers of berkely and east coast things

i spent a few years getting intimate with rivers guitar music romance and heartbreak
just like those damn old lutenists of old william byrd et al

is anonymous a girl
is anonymous a noun
a pro noun
does anonymous gno
i think gnot

anonymous be nice


Craig said...

Does anyone remember Dave Fosbury? He came along at a time when the only approved method of high jumping was known as the western roll. The flop was devised by a guy who simply couldn't master the timing involved in kicking his lead leg over the bar so that the rest of his body could follow after it in a smooth rounded arc. Fosbury had so much spring in his take-off and so much glide that it was easier for him to go over the bar backwards off his back foot, lifting his feet once his butt had cleared the bar, than it was to master the technique and precise timing required for the western roll leg kick. He was a freak. The experts were sure it would never catch on, in part because there was nobody who could possibly teach it. Watch a track and field meet sometime. Is there anybody doing the western roll? Valery Brummel used to clear seven feet doing the roll. As a technique it's still competitive at the high school level, but anyone with serious aspirations learns to flop.

Conrad DiDiodato said...

Here's something I just saw in the online "New York Times" (op.ed), which makes the point (in more contemporary language) about the necessity of imitation as a vital first step to successful adapation. The relevance of this "Universal Darwinism" to writing is tempting, of course:

"Let’s go back to 1976 and the origin of the term “meme” in Richard Dawkins’s “The Selfish Gene.” He says this: “I think we have got to start again and go right back to first principles. … . The gene will enter my thesis as an analogy, nothing more.” (Dawkins, 1976. p. 191). Those first principles are what he calls “Universal Darwinism” ─ that when anything is copied with variation and selection then evolution must occur. He looks at human culture, argues that songs, words, ideas, technologies and habits are all copied from person to person with added variations and heavy selection and so concludes that there must be a new evolutionary process going on. He calls the replicator involved in that new process the meme."

jh said...

mothers raising children have understood mimetics since the dawn of time since the caves at least

darwin and thus dawkins both get a "D" theys boths describes things theys does not have the mental subtelty to understands
theys both reads too fews bookses

in a world where god is not necessary but darwins observations are
i feel extremely vulnerable to various forms of violent sodomy

we likes likes and learn likes
rabbis understood the power of mimetics before the time of jesus
christians imitated the jews

people use doofus darwin as a gospel text
the good news -- why am i horrified

i scoff at those who manifest the arrogance of (presumed) understanding the "design" they see the surface they do not grasp the depths

the psalms indeed much of the bible was written with continuation in mind thus
rhyme and mimesis

darwin has nothing to offer the world of 21st century nothing but birth control and screaming vaginaz and crude management of humanity and nature
it looks like freedom but it's spiritual imprisonment of the worst kind
we do well to resist any and all of it

genetic engineering is based on a faulty and incomplete knowledge of nature
they did not consult wendell berry or wes jackson
shame on those people

either we aspire to divine intelligence
or we impose a faulty and pathetic substitute
on everyone else

trying to get over a hurdle
do the fosbury flop

poetix is a continuum
leaving any part of the continuum out
provides for little but verbalized abstraction
the kids are learning to speak off of twitter
ignorant of the continuum

bio diversity and sincere wonder
the sort that tends toward the unspeakable -- this might save the world

everything from cave paintings to
21st century love poetry
(of which there is paltry little sad to say)
must be in the equation

phuq the atheist positivists
that's what i say
i will not embrace their world view
not for all the tea in china
or the coffee in columbia
phuq them but make them reproduce for gawdz sake -- no birth control

as for max douglas he betrays his age and his time but it would be ignorance of the worst kind if we ignored the uniqueness of his voice
that seems to be curtis' point
not so much a mutation but the curious mystery of someone willing and able to pen out a few insights
in a pleasant way

"the last baseball game of a few children is shattered by the bell"

( a clear description of the last game of the world series every year)

one has to say

in downunderish
good on ya


Anonymous said...

Anyone who believes "the young poet in question" writes bad imitations of the work of second-rate writers, or that Corman and Rexroth's translations are "not entirely propitious transmission[s]" --

no doubt has his head stuck deep below some "wimpling stream."

J said...

the necessity of imitation as a vital first step to successful adapation.

Gradus ad Parnassum, anyone? Yet one might ask if they should start with WC Williams and Basho or beats(or Dorn's colorful anti-imperialist cowboy-anarchist poetix), instead of Pound or PB Shelley...or Plato perhaps.

To say students should begin with WCW suggests they may dispense with poetic form, meter/verse...tropes, rhyme, romantic languages even. Perhaps ultimately they will reject any and all traditional forms--yet they should know what they are rejecting. Doesn't a serious pianist like learn Bach and Chopin before he moves on to Bartok or jazz or other modern muzak? Similarly for those who would aspire to poetics---

Dawkins & Co aren't of much assistence either, really--Their granddaddy reductionist TH Huxley in fact wanted the classics--including latin-greek, Plato, and belle-lettres-- eliminated (see Smackdown).

Curtis Faville said...


It really would be better just to come as you are, without disguises. Arguing with people about the value of your work is always a big waste of time. Sort of like arguing with the proctor about your low test scores--he isn't going to change the grade, no matter what the extenuating circumstances are.

The best you can hope for is that a negative opinion may be buried under an avalanche of positives.

"I am I because my little dog loves me." --Gertrude Stein.

wimpling: To cause to appear as if laid in folds or plaits; to cause to ripple or undulate; as, the wind wimples the surface of water. [1913 Webster]

I do have friends who have snorkled to document fish behavior, but in my own case all my adventures with fish have been above the surface membrane.

JM: You need better models. Or some better airplane glue. The best revenge is neglect: Be advised.

You were a hostage in a war. Get over it.

jh said...

i thrive on benign neglect
like mold


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Curtis, for saying this:

"But posting anonymously is pathetic and cowardly. No matter how good you may think you are, taking sniper shots is just chicken-shit."

I'm glad you came out against it, and him, by extension. We've all been tired of J's anonymity game for a long time.

Conrad DiDiodato said...


I see where you're going with this but I'd like to think of the meme (and its more computerized equivalent, the 'teme')as a sort of inevitable evolutionary course that's beyond refuting (not if we're to continue adapting with success). In fact,Dawkins has injected a hard-to-resist DNA component into the darwinian thesis that we can't deny without losing credibility.

To put it in terms I've recently encountered in a different (but related)discussion, the darwinism you're taking aim at is an outmoded "client-server"type, subject to all the usual religious objections, while the meme is a case for a more interesting & universal "virtualization or cloud computing" model of human-world interactivity.The sort of adaptation I'm suggesting is the basis of all successful learning may well have to go beyond the traditional ways of thinking about the workings of mind, language & the nature of reality. Genetics & contemporary computing has added an almost unbeatable dimension to the discussion.

J said...

I link to a blog Anny, with a few years of content--and have a name--"J". People online can get a sense of what Im about. You don't link to squat but just whine and take potshots. Maybe yr Kirby O!

Actually I would agree with jh (in part) that Dawkins' memetics theory does not apply to, or fit literature easily, and it's nearly social darwinism to insist it does (not to say...reductionism). Writers do not merely adapt to the environment, or advancing the gene pool. Human knowledge including literature, mathematics, science et al is not something shared with animals. Words like equations or musical scores don't grow on trees--the Dawkins or Darwinist generally overlooks all the philosophical implications of language .

jh said...

who ever sees DNA
some scientists
to me it's a myth
some acid that may or may not exist
i don't know

if the genome is the state of the art
i've rejected it

if what dawkins points to has any credibility at all it has nothing to do with his observation(s)

evolution is little more than an interesting theory to me
same category as black holes and big bangs
speculations proposed as modern myth
sort of true
like the gods of antiquity
helpful in explaining some things

analogy is well and good
the basis of all thought i guess
but a meme is like a weird stage prop invented by a desperate director

if a person starts with evolution
they're already 10 degrees off at the beginning and the trajectory looks more and more like an endless mobius strip in a purely imagined world

the scientists are presuming to know a world that was explored by philosophers and philosophers have been toppled to make room for this pretension

science is to knowledge what janitors are to society

when any evolutionary scientist begins to make social analogies to what he has come to understand by way of darwin immediately i am in revolt

there are no scientists
only scientific behaviour
that's where i stand on the whole mess

darwin dawkins have done absolutely nothing for me
i'm very dissappointed in both of them
i would have thought there'd be more to it
whereas jacques maritain feeds my mind as does raissa

gm hopkins was more important to the
19th century than was dadadadarwinniepooh

give me charles dodgson
before the other overrated charles

i stake my claim with the incredible

back to the cellars
clamouring seekers of physica
your reasons are short and

all this aside

points well taken


jh said...

the NY times quote of the day is

"we want to make google the third half of your brain"

is that what you mean by the new meme
the kind of thing we ignore at our peril?


Anonymous said...

J-Anny, there are 9.8 million people in Los Angeles County. Not really stepping out from a crowd there, are you?

But that's the way you like it, and want it, like most cowards. You like to mistakenly talk like you're not anonymous, when that's EXACTLY what you are. The empty signifier "J" may as well be "The Moon" or "Spackle".

Furthermore, what person here, or at Silliman's blog, or at Scarriet, or at Jessica's blog, would actually want you to know where they are, or who they are? You've proven yourself over and over again to be a an aggressive, violent person, capable, most recently, of wanting to hit someone in the mouth who disagrees with you? I would think most people would want to remain anonymous because most people don't want to be hit in the mouth by someone who can't control themselves. Most males past 16 years of age are able to gain a foothold on their emotions, and reconcile them. This is what is referred to as becoming a man. Best wishes on that pursuit.

michael reidy said...

Hi Curtis
'forbear' or 'forebear' is o.k. according to the S.O.D.(ancestor more remote than a grandfather) I am enjoying your posts here in Ireland particularly about poets who would be unknown to all but the specialist. Koch's litany was splendid.

J said...

Why, Anny, you're Miss Anny--thus a coward (not to say obsessed--I have an idea who this is, Sir F-ville, and he's been following me around for a few weeks, after the S-man BS). Step over to my blog tough literary dude. And use a real name. Ill tell who I am, and where you can find me, and be knocked down, or mo' likely just byatch slapped like the comma corrector you izzz