Archive for January, 2011|Monthly archive page

Turning the table on Bernstein’s spin on Reznikoff

Recently, Jerome Rothenberg posted Charles Bernstein’s liner notes to a CD recording of Charles Reznikoff reading from his Holocaust. As much as I am very much in favour of Reznikoff and his work receiving praise and a wider readership, I must take exception to how Bernstein at points seems to characterize Reznikoff’s Holocaust and Testimony in a sectarian way, one exemplary of much of our contemporary avant-garde.

Both Testimony and Holocaust take up documentary material, court documents from turn-of-the-century America and the Nuremberg Trials respectively, and present it in a powerfully understated manner Bernstein quite illuminatingly compares to the style of Italian neorealist cinema. However, regarding this manner, Bernstein claims

What’s most radical about Testimony is the kind of reading his method makes possible, because this work … can’t be read in traditional literary or aesthetic ways. At first reading Testimony is numbing, but this experience of being numbed is the place not where aesthetic experience ends but where it begins. Reznikoff’s refusal to aestheticize or sentimentalize (some would say humanize) the legal cases presented is exemplary of Testimony’s ethical grounding…

The deployment of the notion of the aesthetic here is simply too blasé and, morever, subtly spun to position Reznikoff and his work on one side of North America’s poetic, ideological struggles. Who reads Testimony will, yes, likely be “numbed”, overwhelmed by the relentlessness of its material, “numbed” by an exhausting over-stimulation. I cannot count how many times I have used Reznikoff’s poetry as an example of the power of sheer presentation, unsettling classes of college-level English students by reading them the poem from Testimony that begins “Amelia was just fourteen…“. Such  poetry is indeed neither “literary” nor “aesthetic” in a “traditional” way in its resolute refusal to metaphorically develop, embellish, or otherwise “cook up” its material, boiling it down, rather, to the plainest, factual presentation, a refusal of a certain kind of (poetically mainstream) “artistry” or “technique” that would make of the poem an “aesthetic” object possessed of artistic beauty, a beauty that would be at odds with the moral repulsiveness of what the poems present. But the squinting limitation of the notion of the “aesthetic” here is betrayed by a contradiction. Bernstein observes Reznikoff refuses to aestheticize his material while at the same time the reading “experience of being numbed is the place not where aesthetic experience ends but where it begins.” Bernstein, at best, seems to be playing two senses of “the aesthetic” off each other, claiming that the manner of Testimony and Holocaust divides one sense of the aesthetic from another, the traditional (derived originally from Alexander Baumgarten and referring strictly to theories of only artistic beauty) from the more radical, wherein “the aesthetic” denotes how something is or is made sensuously present (derived from Kant, related but not restricted to the experience of the beautiful whether in nature or art, a sense most recently and powerfully developed by Jacques Rancière). Arguably, though, a concept whose effective history can be traced back to Kant is “traditional” however much it differs from that concept found more locally ready-to-hand. It seems truer to say that Reznikoff quite literally re-presents the material that makes up Testimony and Holocaust by the mediation of his editorial labour that produces a striking, marked effect or response, which is precisely the index of its aesthetic power. Bernstein’s point here seems intended to serve interests other than to praise or illuminate Reznikoff’s accomplishment.

Regardless of exactly how Bernstein’s deployment(s) of “the aesthetic” might be taken, I find more troubling his apparent attempt to recruit Reznikoff as a “conceptual” writer. Bernstein remarks

…Reznikoff pose[s] a challenge to how we read and where we find meaning, creating conceptual works that make our initial inability to read an aesthetic challenge to read differently, read anew. As Kenneth Goldsmith remarks about conceptual poetry: it requires not a “readership” but a “thinkership.”

The argument here seems to turn on a too-easy distinction between what Barthes termed works and texts or what Bernstein himself has called in a similar vein absorptive and antiabsorptive. The absorptive work demands little conscious labour on the side of the reader, adhering to literary-aesthetic conventions whose familiarity enables them to function unconsciously and therefore ideologically; the antiabsorptive text, on the other hand, that breaks with or otherwise problematizes these conventions demands an engaged reading, whether playful or laboured, thereby inculcating an awareness of the conventionality of all discourse and the inescapable activity, and thereby collusion or power, of the reader. On the one hand, exactly how Reznikoff’s method demands more than a familiarity with the workings of metonymy to be understood and appreciated eludes me. On the other hand, the distinction apparently deployed here between the readerly and the thinkerly was one roundly and rigorously deconstructed by Barthes himself in S/Z that demonstrates in numbing detail that the readerly absorptive work is always already a writerly antiabsorptive text. More seriously, though, is the way Goldsmith’s distinction characterizes the reader of a conventional work as mindlessly passive, a characterization at odds with the de facto reception of literary and other texts. One need be no connoisseur of reader response theory or devotee of deconstruction to know that even the most prima facie literal texts are subject to an uncontrollable range of interpretation. How different (and humane) is this remark from Friedrich Schlegel’s Critical Fragments that addresses a similar distinction over two centuries ago:

112.  The analytic writer observes the reader as he is; he calculates accordingly and develops his machines in order to have the desired effect upon him. The synthetic writer constructs and creates a reader as he should be; he does not conceive of the reader as still and dead, but rather as lively and counteractive. He allows what he has invented gradually to come into being before his eyes, or he entices the reader to invent it himself. He does not want it to have a specific effect on the reader, but enters with him into the holy relationship of the tenderest symphilosophy or sympoesy.

Reznikoff, it seems to me, is precisely a “synthetic” writer, one who understands and assumes that his readers are “lively and counteractive”, thoughtful and sensitive enough to judge for themselves the facts of the case laid before them. His work doesn’t need to be ranked with an avant-garde or legitimated by its participating in the latest thing; it, like the matter it presents, might well be said to speak for itself.

Poems and Poetics: Charles Bernstein: Reznikoff’s Voices

Remarks on two important and too-little-known and -read works.

Poems and Poetics: Charles Bernstein: Reznikoff’s Voices.

The Doomsday Project, Deep Events, and the Shrinking of American Democracy

Peter Dale Scott’s latest on-line article:

“In recent years I have become more and more concerned with the interactions between three important and alarming trends in recent American history. The first is America’s increasing militarization, and above all its inclination, even obsession, to involve itself in needless and pernicious wars. The second, closely related, is the progressive shrinking of public politics and the rule of law as they are subordinated, even domestically, to the requirements of covert U.S. operations abroad.

“The third, also closely related, is the important and increasingly deleterious impact on American history and the global extension of American power, of what I have called deep events. These events, like the JFK assassination, the Watergate break-in, or 9/11, which repeatedly involve law-breaking or violence, are mysterious to begin with, are embedded in ongoing covert processes, have consequences that enlarge covert government, and are subsequently covered up by systematic falsifications in media and internal government records….”

Read more here JapanFocus.

Green Economics: TEEB, GNH, GPI, and GDP

It is fortuitous if not synchronicitous that as Canada’s finance minister plans the next federal budget that this article The Guardian posted on its website October 2010 should resurface. It reports on the UN-sponsored research of London-based economist Pavan Sukhdev, who “was ordered to look at the value of nature in the same way British economist Nicholas Stern’s famous 2006 report looked at the financial implications of climate change.” Unsurprisingly, Sukhdev concluded that “ecosystem goods and services” — bees’ pollination of plants, trees’ filtration of the atmosphere and production of oxygen, for example — need to be taken into account at the level of economic policy decision making. Sukhdev’s research has led consequently to The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) initiative, which seeks “to sharpen awareness of the value of biodiversity and ecosystem services and facilitate the development of effective policy, as well as engaged business and citizen responses.” The push to green political economy does not begin with TEEB, however. Indeed, there has been movement afoot to replace or at least complement GDP as the sole indicator of economic well-being for some time, with what has come to be called the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) that takes into account not only the amount of money that changes hands but free time, air and water quality, and access to education, culture, and healthcare.

I first heard about the GPI watching The Other Final, a film about a soccer match between the world’s two lowest-ranked teams, Monserrat and Bhutan. In the course of this documentary, H. E. Lyonpo Jigme Y. Thinley, Bhutan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, explains in an eminently educated English his country’s political philosophy, one focussed on “Gross National Happiness” (GNH), a focus turning on the insight, as he explains, that, since the ultimate goal of every human is happiness, the happiness of the nation’s citizens is therefore the responsibility of government. At these words, I clapped my hands and yelled out, “We’re moving to BHUTAN!”, never had I heard anything so plainly sane. As naive, belatedly Utilitarian, or even silly as the expression “Gross National Happiness” must sound to Western ears, it is inspired by very real concerns. In 1972, as Bhutan opened itself to modernization, its Buddhist monarch, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, was eager to avoid the social and environmental damage too often occasioned by “development” and so sought an alternative to GDP as the sole instrument of economic performance, a tool insensitive to precisely the woes development brings. Instead, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Bhutan developed a GNH index to measure time use, living standards, good governance, psychological well-being, community vitality, culture, health, education, and ecology, alongside the developed world’s more mainstream economic markers. The Bhutanese search for a more balanced economics was not without influence or collaborators. In 1994 the economic think tank Redefining Progress was established and the GPI was first articulated there by Clifford Cobb, Ted Halstead, and Jonathan Rowe.

The flipside to the work of institutions like TEEB, Redefining Progress, or Canada’s Pembina Institute is the continuing perversely exclusive reliance on Gross National Product (GNP) or Gross Domestic Product (GDP) figures by, among others, the Canadian government. This reliance is mystifying and frustrating in equal measure given the consistent criticism of just such a reliance by the architects of GDP themselves. Simon Kuznets, the inventor of the concept, famously declared to the American Congress that “the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income as defined by the GDP…goals for ‘more’ growth should specify of what and for what.” The progressive economist Mark Anielski explains the problem vividly:

The GDP is simply a gross tally of the monetary transactions in the nation. The more people spend, the more the GDP goes up. If the result is greater than the year before then we say the economy has “grown” and that we are better off. The word “growth,” which pervades economic reportage and debate, means simply this: Americans and Canadians spent more money than they did the year before. The ideal economic or GDP hero is a chain-smoking terminal cancer patient going through an expensive divorce whose car is totalled in a 20-car pileup, while munching on fast-take-out-food and chatting on a cell phone. All add to GDP growth. The GDP villain is non-smoking, eats home-cooked wholesome meals and cycles to work.

Perhaps Robert Kennedy summed it up best:  “(GNP/GDP) measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Despite such consistent, long-term criticism of the GDP fixation and even debate in the Canadian Parliament concerning the GPI, I’m pessimistic Canada’s ministers of finance, federal and provincial, will change their thinking. Of all the national political parties, only the Green Party has the implementation of the GPI as part of its official platform. But a deeper problematic encompasses all these instruments. The GPI and TEEB were developed to measure increasingly — sometimes acutely — scarce resources to enable us to manage them better;  however, their scarcity is the result of precisely our perceiving nature as merely a resource to be exploited and thereby needing to be managed. A truly green economics would need to be a branch of ecology rather than a field of the social sciences. And that would be a revolution in thinking even more utopian than one that could imagine implementing policies conducive to Gross National Happiness.

Poems and Poetics: Reconfiguring Romanticism (46): Michael Palmer on “Robert Duncan and Romantic Synthesis”

“Duncan’s project can be seen in part as an effort to make place once again for the artifice, affect, and lore modernism had repressed. However, this was achieved not in reaction against modernism (and certainly not for the sake of decor), but as an extension of its exploratory impulse and a reading or revealing of its progressive, Romantic philosophical and aesthetic origins.”

Poems and Poetics: Reconfiguring Romanticism (46): Michael Palmer on “Robert Duncan and Romantic Synthesis”.

On the Poetry of George Slobodzian

This past New Year’s Eve I pulled down a couple of poetry books from our host’s bookshelves and shared two favourite poems with the collected company:  William Carlos Williams’ “The Sparrow” and George Slobodzian’s “Woodlawn Excursion” from his Clinical Studies. As I flipped through this collection from 2001, I was struck by how much difficulty I was having choosing just one poem to read, every one was so different and so accomplished. I was moved, then, to try to rectify how unjustifiably unknown and undervalued Slobodzian’s poetry is. To that end, I post here a very slightly emended version of a review I wrote that appeared first in Vallum shortly after Clinical Studies was published and in answer to the dismissal, remarked below:

Gertrude Stein writes somewhere that one writes for oneself and strangers. However much today’s poet might feel he or she writes for that audience of one, the reviewer — or this reviewer, anyway — finds himself as isolated. Our literary culture is so atomized, the reviewer needs to don a pedagogical, before a critical, role to avoid being merely partisan or indulging the amateurish ad-copy that passes for so much of our critical discourse. This pedagogical demand is acutely apparent in the case of George Slobodzian’s Clinical Studies. Its publication met with a singular critical attention: one relatively immediate derisive dismissal, and belated inclusion in an omnibus review. This reception is understandable. Slobodzian’s lyrics are difficult and challenging, not because they toy with the intentional obfuscations of our latter-day avant-gardistes, but because of their hyperbolic understatement. They are so conversational, so unassuming, their wit, irony, and music are too subtle for most. Their classical clarity and lyrical euphony are balanced by their being often quite literally obscene, presenting what is conventionally “off-stage.”

A reader with time to reflect might well note this thematic harmony in the volume’s title, that of the first poem, and its subject matter. Clinical Studies and “Clinical Studies” both begin

Upstairs   among photographs

so hideous

we were not allowed

to view them…

These photographs are medical, documenting “…the single / and half-breasted women / of medical science” and “human genitalia / eaten beyond recognition”. The poem’s persona, who takes “such pleasure turning / neighborhood stomachs / with” his father’s stash of forbidden pictures, dreams of becoming a surgeon himself to lift away the photographed anonymous subjects’ censor-strips and to “give them back their eyes”. The collection’s title-track suggests an approach to the volume as a whole. The book is an album, shown us, yes, with an impish delight in our squeamish shock, but one bound by at least two sensibilities, one clinically objective, the other humane and caring, imaginably even empathetic.

This attention to the body is often itself bawdy, in the best tradition that stretches from the outrageousness of Catullus, through the scatological hilarity of Dante, Chaucer, and Rabelais, to Joyce, Gottfried Benn, and others. This ubiquitous reference to the body and its functions reminds us corporeality is the inescapable condition of human experience in the first place, regardless of the  repressive resentment against incarnation like that of Calvin “contemplating hell-stench on the shitter”. A topic as respectable as History is presented in the forms of the last Passenger Pigeon reflecting over Doughboys who “…sink deep / into their own shit / in the trenches” and a tour guide repeating his memorized spiel about a Classical “unguent basin, carved / out of solid excrement”.  Howard Hughes appears with his “bottled urine”, “fingernails / beginning to curl”, and “bedsores”, watching for the umpteenth time his favorite Cold War thriller Ice Station Zebra. Even biotechnicians make an appearance, culturing “[h]uman skin. / From the foreskins // of newborn men”.

Slobodzian’s physicality is as sanely salutary as it is satirical: twenty-three of the book’s forty-five poems concern that extended body made up of family and lovers. Slobodzian is at his funny, gentle, tender best here. The three elegies for his mother, the poem for his father’s wedding (he, an “…old bull / in his winter meadow, / balls hanging low and blue”), and Slobodzian’s trademark “Zoëms” (poems for his daughter Zoë) are at the heart of the volume. The “Prayer for Zoë” is a tour de force whose rhythms echo the Hail Mary and whose invocations reincarnate Her as the literal mother she sublimates and hypostasizes. She becomes

Our lady of excrement,

of multiple comings

and goings, generation

and decay, perpetual

motion, wholly cloacal,

mother and father of slime,

the glistening slime

rimming the fetal pool…

Of course, there would be neither mothers, fathers, family, or lyric poetry without desire, and Slobodzian’s love lyrics are as full frontal and technically adroit as those addressed to relatives. They range over the delightful play of courtship (“If I Were Your Papuan Suitor”), warm sensuality (“Nuca”), the bitter ashes of burnt-out love (“Cold Fusion”), and the softening tints of nostalgia (“À la Recherche du Temps Perdu” and most notably “Sustain”).

Of course, despite many protestations to the contrary, poetry is not merely some special subject matter, but what the German Romantics called “the mother-tongue of the race”, that — as Carlyle reminds us — whereby we “sing what we have to say”. An appreciation of the sheer linguistic craft in Slobodzian’s poetry demands an excursus all its own. Suffice to say here, it both revels in its own lithe sinewy power and in its delicious sensuousness. The former might be best exemplified by an example I do not even have to read to transcribe, it has stayed with me so over the many years I first heard Slobodzian recite it. His early poem “Suffrage” is about overhearing two young women in the bus seat ahead discussing the Cosmo they are reading. The poem’s last lines are a judgment on the debasement of the Human Form Divine and a justification of the persisting need for lyric poetry:

And listening

it occurs to me

that love must be

a stalwart beast

to haul such crap

and remain intact

The tongue of that beast that hauls the delights of love and sheer human being into the present is capable of delicate musical delight, too, such as the reflective pleasures of “Credo Tropicanum”, the first lines of which I leave with you:

Spooning papaya uterine rind

onto genital tongue

and holding it there


For those whose taste has been whetted by this review, the latest and densest sample of Slobodzian’s poetry can be found in the recently published Show Thieves 2010 anthology.

On the Poetry of Peter Dale Scott

If there’s one topic that calls out to be addressed in the first post on this blog, it’s my appreciation for the poetry of Peter Dale Scott. And the time is auspicious, as today, 11 January 2011, is his eighty-second birthday.

My familiarity with Scott’s poetry goes back more than ten years. I’d been reading Conjunctions for some time, when I picked up #33, mainly for the complete translation of Thomas Bernhard’s Heldenplatz (though the work of Yoko Tawada and Eduardo Galeano turned out delightful surprises, too). But what stood out for me were the four sections excerpted from Scott’s forthcoming Minding the Darkness (2000). Here was a poetry prima facie reminiscent of the late tercets of William Carlos Williams, but whose nearly prosaic plainness was underwritten by a complex, suggestive syntax (“language escaping / the rules of syntax // and prosody and aesthetics” as the poem itself put it, in the best reflexive, “postmodern” manner) whose difficulty, tracing the imaginative, emotional and intellectual struggle with what Dante called mala condotta, evil governance, and its relation to tradition and imagination, I found bracing, both in its challenge and its sincerity (“technique is the test of sincerity” Pound observed). As well, the poem employed that Modernist and most modern of techniques, what is loosely termed “intertextuality”, deftly weaving in italicized passages from a veritable library of culturally and historically global sources, emphasizing, with a humble honesty, the way every voice, especially a written, poetic one, is a polyphony of many voices. But what I found most compelling was how the poetry engaged the political and social world, in a way the best canonical poetry does (think of Dante, Wordsworth, Shelley, Whitman, Yeats) and the way the writing most important to me did, that of Pound, Ginsberg, and William Burroughs, learnedly and in specific, concrete luminous detail. At the time, Spoken Word poets ranted and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets wrestled with Capitalism in the arena of the Sign, but here was an engagement grounded in facts, yet everywhere acutely, and sometimes painfully, aware of its own contingency.

When I learned that Scott would be reading in Montreal in the Rare Books Room of McGill University’s McClennan Library, I ordered in and read through the complete trilogy of which Minding the Darkness was the culmination. Here, my initial intuitions were confirmed. Indeed, those four excerpted sections could have served as a holograph for the virtues of the trilogy as a whole. However, the full scope of Scott’s achievement could only be apprehended within the context of the entire work. With its culmination in Minding the Darkness, the trilogy becomes one, epic work, Seculum, which brings to fruition the poetic developments of poetic Modernism in English and the poet’s formidable learning and ground-breaking research to investigate the present world order within the context of no less than much of the earth’s cultural tradition. The opening sections of Coming to Jakarta (1988) , the first volume, relate the poet’s returning home to Montreal and being reminded of boyhood days spent on the shores of Lake Massawippi, realizing now that some of his friends from those days grew up, took their place in “the CIA or perhaps / some heavier unnamed agency”, and were responsible for the installation of murderous regimes in Indonesia and, later, Chile. Scott, an ex-diplomat and member of the Free Speech and antiwar movements in Berkeley in the ‘Sixties, thereby inserts the personal into the political, grasping and following the threads that tie each of us into the social web. Nevertheless, however inextricably we might be caught up in society-at-large, we are also connected most immediately to other individual human beings. Such intimacies run as threads through the next two volumes. Listening to the Candle (1992) focuses its attention on the poet’s relationship to his father F. R. Scott (the eminent Modernist poet, politician, and constitutional lawyer) and mother Marion Dale Scott (a no-less prominent painter), each canto dedicated to a friend, acquaintance, or interlocutor, while the final volume takes as its occasion Scott’s marrying his second wife, Ronna Kabatznick. Throughout, such present, living connections are expanded to include the voices of tradition:  as Scott himself observes in Minding the Darkness, “[t]o deal with the living / we must talk more bravely with the dead”. Scott, the humble poet-hero of his own epic, is no Whitmanian simple, separate person, but a complex, connected individual, at the intersection of the personal and political, present and past, and, most germane to the present world crisis, the secular and spiritual. As he writes in Minding the Darkness, “the poet must develop / the consciousness of the past / giving depth to ecology // economics politics / and of course religion”. Uncannily, in advance of the so-called War on Terror and/or Clash of Civilizations, before the vitriol of fundamentalists of all stripes, Abrahamic or atheistic, Scott’s epic develops a syncretistic spiritual sensibility that embraces, among other traditions, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Taoism, and Buddhism, especially in their ecumenical, pacifistic, and, most importantly, compassionate forms.  As Scott writes in the Afterword to the final volume, “both outer enlightenment (the current word is development) and inner enlightenment are damned, even murderous, if they do not honour each other.” Scott’s work is epic, a poem including history (or, in this case, using the term Scott himself has coined, “deep history”), a periplum of our age and predicament mapped via the course of one engaged, intensely-lived and thoughtful life. When Scott solicited questions after his reading, mine touched on this epic reach. I asked something like: “You have three books: the first that begins by invoking three desks, at one Virgil’s Nekyia, an Inferno; then Listening to the Candle, a Purgatorio; now an old man’s Paradiso: all weaving historical, luminous details, personages modern and historical, autobiography, taking up the Tradition, all written in tercets: is there a Dantescan intertext?”

Since that initial reading, I’ve had the good luck to meet and hear Scott again, and I had the honour of introducing him reading at the New York Open Center 17 March 2010, an introduction that condenses the impression his work has made on me since that fateful chancing on his poetry, before the beginning of this first, dark century of a new millennium:

“In one of the last poems from his latest book, Peter writes ‘I would go with the Tao te Ching / and aspire // to the condition of water.’ Even though this thought appears in his most recent work, it is not new to his poetry, for he writes in Coming to Jakarta, the first volume of his monumental Seculum trilogy, that it is ‘a poem of water’.

“This reference to water not only draws on the oldest sources of Chinese thought, but also refers to the beginnings of Western philosophy, for Thales, the first philosopher, is said to have said ‘All is water.’ So, just as water covers most of the surface of our planet, so Peter’s poetry might be said to be as broad and deep. It references a vast reservoir of learning:  the poetic and philosophical tradition of the West — Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Pound, Eliot,… as well as the spiritual traditions of the world — Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

“In English, we speak of salt and fresh water. But, since we’re talking about the poetry of Peter Dale Scott, it is not unfitting, I think, to go back to the Sumerian and Babylonian, that spoke of bitter and sweet water. And Peter’s work, likewise, is bitter and sweet. Bitter, because, as those of you who are familiar with his work will know, his poetry deals with the dark bitterness of death, slaughter, torture, and oppression. However, there are sweet moments, too, of love, sympathy, and tender caring.

“Over the ten years I have been reading Peter’s poetry, I have seen it begin to flow a little more clearer, given more to a few surface sparkles, though no less broad or profound.

“As many of us here will know, the coming age is the Age of Aquarius, the Age of the Water Bearer. And I hope that the coming age will belong to Peter’s poetry, as he bears us the water of his poetry.

“Aside from such a grandiose and hyperbolic image, I would draw our attention to one more important feature of water:   that it is essential, it is necessary to life. And Peter’s work, I would argue, is, likewise, as necessary to our mental and spiritual lives.

“Now, it gives me great pleasure to extend an invitation, which is a favorite among poets:  ‘Let’s have a drink!’ Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Peter Dale Scott.”