Archive for the ‘poetry criticism’ Tag

Absolutely Modern Compositional Praxis (a title sure to make this post go viral!)

The indefatigable Kent Johnson continues his running battle with any and all complacencies, real or apparent, in (at least) the American anglophone poetry community. As is often the case, he’s been carrying on a running battle with various L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, recently with Bruce Andrews. Interested parties can visit Johnson’s FB page where these threads unwind, but I share here a latest back and forth to pin the point I want to make on:


Bruce Andrews wrote:

>No grudges about a peer [Eliot Weinberger] who I never found to be “brilliant” & who made what I considered many uninformed “categorical polemics” about a range of experimental (&, yes, intransigent) writing; it was a comment about the thread of responses you’ve mobilized here (& tend, for whatever personal reasons, to mobilize/trigger) into sweeping disavowals of a very large range of poetry that I’ve cared very deeply about — so are we talking about Peter Seaton or Hannah Weiner or Tina Darragh or P. Inman or Diane Ward or Michael Gottlieb or Alan Davies or Steve Benson or Abigail Child or Lynne Dreyer or WHO; this visceral attack/dismissal mode [not duplicated, by my reckoning, in my own published responses to poets I don’t get enthusiastic about] is what I find to be … SAD ~


I replied:

Bruce, sorry, but you’ve got it wrong. I’m on record as having a conflicted stance in regard the Language formation.

Sure, I’ve had my strong critiques (that’s part of poetry, right?). And I’ve engaged in satire, as well (that used to be part of poetry, too, no?). But I’ve never turned that into a sweeping dismissal of the tendency. To the contrary: I’ve written more than anyone, so far as I can see, about how you folks quickly capitulated on your original, stated ideals–one of the most rapid “avant-garde” recuperations ever, and one that has had far-reaching consequences in the sociology of U.S. poetry. That’s a good kind of critique, even a comradely one…

All in all, compared to some of the outright character assassination directed against me by a few of the top reps of the Language group and its junior satellites, I’ve been pretty damn reasonable.

The moderately-attentive reader will understand, I wager, that the dispute is, vaguely, critical, invoking as it does “polemics,” “disavowals,” “attack,” and “dismissal”. Johnson has, in recent days, been advocating for a poetry criticism that doesn’t shirk from being “negative”, whether witty or downright mean (interested parties can scroll back on Johnson’s FB page to see numerous examples…). Those of us in (anglophone) Canada who suffered the Reign of Terror of the Axis of Cavil at Books in Canada and the “negative reviewing” it practiced and advocated will likely sigh, roll their eyes, and thank their lucky stars those days are over. A generation later, and it’s hard to discern just what beneficial effect all the bile and venom spit those days might be said to have had on our poetry….

Johnson’s critical polemic isn’t merely aesthetic, however. Many poets associated with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, especially Andrews, Charles Bernstein, Steve McCaffery, and Ron Silliman (among others) adopted an overt, specific, political stance, which Johnson never tires of taking to task (“how you folks quickly capitulated on your original, stated ideals—one of the most rapid “avant-garde” recuperations ever”). One can, however, prise the poetic from the political, here; Johnson’s critique is aimed not so much at the poet-as-poet but the poet-as-citizen, a not unimportant distinction. Not that poetry is not inextricably social (however much the aesthetic arguably is not reducible to the ideological), but Johnson’s dogged persecution of the poets’ hypocrisy diverts attention from strictly poetic concerns, including the question of poetry’s being political.

More urgently for the practicing poet and interested reader (critic or otherwise) is the aesthetic-compositional significance and legacy of the poem or poetry in question. In the case of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (if one can even grasp the “school” as a unified totality, which Andrews calls into question supra), what’s at stake for the poetry is the success and failure (it’s always both) of its intended effect, the articulation of the linguistic medium to achieve that end, and the uncontrollable subsequent reception of the work, aesthetic and otherwise. Of even greater importance is what resources for compositional praxis does the work have for today (a day that is always new).

This question looks both backward and forward. The poetics of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E is no longer novel, (however much every reading always differs from the previous), so any estimation of its remaining compositional resources needs contrast the horizon or social matrix of its emergence from that or those in place today, however ephemeral. Moreover, any deployment of its compositional potential that puts it into play today sets the resulting text free into the future; the poem will be received in unpredictable ways. In this sense, “all poetry is experimental” (if that adjective, first used in English by Wordsworth and Whitman, can be said to still be of much use). It should be pointed out, further, the potential of any given compositional technique is never given once and for all; its pertinence and promise is always local.

The ironic (or dialectical…) consequence of this insight is that “the absolutely modern” in terms of what compositional examples might be drawn on is in harmony with Blake’s dictum that “The Authors are in Eternity,” i.e., from the point of view of the pragmatics of composition the poetic inheritance is free of the conditions that determined the moment of its composition and immediate reception. At the same time, however, no practice can anymore claim to be sanctioned by Tradition: every inherited technique, every articulation of the linguistic medium is subject to interrogation: how does it work now? Such an absolutely modern sensibility works with/in a temporality wherein “all ages are contemporaneous” but the moment of composition and the immediately foreseeable moments to follow (insofar as they are foreseeable) is grasped by its relative singularity.

Much, much more, of course, could (and probably should) be said. Moreover, the cognoscenti will detect the position I adopt here doesn’t move much past the notions of poetic development or evolution developed by the Russian Formalists a century back and even draws on Matthew Arnold’s criticism in some respects. Nevertheless, the point I want to make here is a simple one, if all too often forgotten: if you’re going to kick the poetic ball, ya gotta keep your eye on it.

To praise, that’s the thing

A while back, I ventured a few words on James Dunnigan’s The Stained Glass Sequence. As chance would have it, another set of notes, appreciative of the chapbook’s virtues, has turned up, which can be read, here. The anonymous reviewer (who seems to hail from Ireland) shares my appreciation for the sequence’s reflexive dimension:

Stained glass itself is like a decoration hung on perception, one that refracts the light and shadow of the reality behind, transforming it into a more ornate version. Poet James Dunnigan leverages that quality as the foundational conceit for The Stained Glass Sequence, a chapbook plunged in reflection on another primordial creative force: language. But it’s not for the sake of an academic lesson so much as a means to show how poetry transfigures society into civilization.

High, and well-deserved, praise.

Readers whose interest has been piqued can follow up on The Stained Glass Sequence by getting a hold of Dunnigan’s markedly uncanny and no less accomplished follow-up, Wine and Fire (Cactus Press, 2020), whose launch can be viewed, here.

Now the only question is which acquisitions editor will be canny enough to grab the manuscript of Dunnigan’s first, full-length collection…

Synchronicity-invoked Dangerous Supplement

By “meaningful coincidence,” the day I downloaded and taught myself the software I needed to make the raw Zoom footage of the launch for my latest chapbook at least a little more presentable, a Canadian poet-critic shared he’d just published an essay on “‘counterfactual’ poetry anthologies, ” a topic essayed by one of the poems from that chapbook‘s Toronto Suite: “Literary Life in the Capital””

“Literary Life in the Capital” from Toronto Suite

Praise the algorithm! Plunging into the silliness: Andrew Lloyd’s career as an Instagram poet

Thanks to real poet Michael Boughn for sharing Andrew Lloyd’s article from Vice “I Faked My Way as an Instagram Poet, and It Went Bizarrely Well”—a fortuitous addendum to my last post, “Synchronicitious Critique”.

Synchronicitious Critique

Bookninja‘s back, and worth keeping an eye on.

Yesterday, George Murray posted an article on Instagram poetry, with the commentary, “I work hard to be progressive. I work hard to be forward-thinking. I work hard to find joy and worth in as much of life’s silliness as possible.” As much as I share Murray’s estimation of the literary-media (media-literary?) phenomenon, the article, by scholar Seth Perlow, teaches an important lesson by example.

In the article’s introduction, Perlow sets out his purpose:

In what follows, I’ll nonetheless try to learn something from the Insta-poets, something about the technological scene of contemporary poetry, without advancing a judgment about their work. The complex intersections of Insta-poetry’s political, commercial, and literary significance have frustrated literary critics’ efforts to evaluate it. So for now, I want to suspend questions of value in order to ask how Instagram structures poetic forms and participatory reading practices.

By suspending “questions of value” what comes into view are not only otherwise overlooked aspects of the verbal art of poetry in general, but no less pressing questions concerning media, composition, reception, and various blindnesses that inevitably accompany whatever insights poets and critics might otherwise have. Canonical figures, such as Emily Dickinson and Charles Olson, come into play; the no less urgent and perspicacious studies of Byung-Chul Han on digital media and society might as well have been included. The point is that the critical (judgemental) sensibility all-too-often obscures the reality of what it judges. And however much I agree with Murray’s and Perlow’s low estimation of Insta-poetry, Perlow’s example is instructive as to what resolute, clear-eyed, and informed study can reveal, revelations of no little pertinence or consequence to “serious” poetry.

blakes newton

By lucky happenstance, just this morning, a review of the William Blake show at the Tate Gallery came up in the newsfeed. What struck me about this chance juxtaposition is what Blake, weirdly, shares with the Insta-poetry Perlow investigates. Both are, in a sense, cottage industries; in both, text and image are inseparable (regardless of Blake’s stripping the text from some paintings and engravings to sell them independently), and both present themselves via the handwritten as opposed to schematized typography. And who, reading the Songs of Innocence for the first time, has not been initially perplexed by the high critical regard they now receive?

The theme, as Whitman (that other great self-published self-promoter) wrote, has vista, even when what is scrutinized is silly.


Why the title, “Bread & Pearls”?

It has some pleasant affinities with the title of Roland Barthes’ magisterial study S/Z.

The conjoined substantives are, first, singular and plural. The initial phonemes of each are in opposition:  /b/ voiced, /p/ unvoiced. Orthographically, the consonant-vowel pattern ‘r-ea’ in ‘bread’ is reversed in ‘pearls’, ‘ea-r’. Like the initial consonants, the more-or-less terminal consonants of the pair seem to me again in phonological opposition: both /d/ and /l/ are formed by placing the tongue-tip to the palate, but the former releases the flow of breath, removing the tongue from the palate, while the latter does not.

Semantically, in one regard, the first substantive denotes something edible, while the latter does not; bread is artificial, while pearls are natural (if susceptible to being cultured); however, one sense of ‘bread’ (money) makes both terms media of exchange. The substantives allude, too, to two bible verses not without a certain rhetorical significance.

Much more, of course, could be said….

Reflections on James Dunnigan’s ‘The Stained Glass Sequence’

I had the chance recently to discuss how James Dunnigan’s The Stained Glass Sequence sequence-thumbjust out from Frog Hollow Press might be received. It’s a weird poem in the context of present-day English-language poetry, with gestures and stances more reminiscent of High Modernism, intricate and allusive, than anything you might read on a visit to, say, the Poetry website….

It was the refractory complexities of just the suite’s title that made me think “How someone who reads poetry can review it is just beyond me….” which I posted on social media, which, in turn, received (among others) a telling reply:  “It is a form of reading, at best.”

Taken by itself (the thread did wind on…), this response can be taken to be representative in several ways. First, it assumes the spontaneous authority of the vulgar usage of the verb ‘to read’, an authority that in certain regards is beyond reproach but which is also constantly in danger of asymptoting to the thoughtless. More significantly it enacts precisely what my original post found problematic, since it seems either to refuse or fail to register the stress on ‘reads‘ indicated by the italics (to suggest the word twists in some way from the ordinary sense) and the claim made in the predicate (which further torques the notion of reading from its accepted sense); that is, it doesn’t read or try to understand the original post, seeming more concerned to leave everything the way it is, its complacency disturbed just enough to defend the status quo and defer reflection.

In the same way, many readers will no doubt pass over the implications of the title. If there’s one dogged misperception that has persisted since the late Eighteenth Century it’s the Baconian idea that the word is or should function as a transparent medium, a window onto the world, a notion the title troubles doubly, for stained, unlike transparent, glass, though translucent, colours what might be viewed through it, and, more importantly, its pieces are a medium to compose a design or picture the window frames rather than a view through it. To borrow a two centuries’ old terminology, the title suggests the sequence’s language not so much represents but presents. Any reading, let alone evaluation, of the sequence that fails to assiduously and consistently treat the language as refractory rather than transparent will fail to appreciate it in the first place.

Of course, such reflexivity, a gesture that goes back to Homer, is only a start to the title’s formal sophistication. Its grammar, likewise, throws light on the poem: it is composed of a substantive (‘sequence’) preceded by three modifiers (‘The Stained Glass’…). If one considers the middle two words in themselves, in the etymology that roots their adjectival function, they, too, possess the same syntax, a substantive ‘glass’ modified by ‘stained’. This is to say, the syntax of the title, in a way, is nested, or, better, framed, the way the implications of the title arguably frame, or should, the reception of the poem.

And reading the sequence, the attentive reader will remark how little stained glass or stained-glass windows actually appear in the poem. The sequence opens ekphrastically, describing a painting by Chagall, stained glass is mentioned as such in the second part, the fourth section is in four “panels”, and Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel are remarked in the fifth. That the poem makes far more consistent reference to painting than stained glass suggests all the more the formal reflexivity of the title than its naming “an important theme” that the sequence takes up and develops.

A careful, thoughtful reader may well mark, too, another complication. The title is, in a way, paradoxical, modifying a temporal noun (‘sequence’, a pattern than unfolds linearly in time) with a spatial modifier (‘stained glass’, a translucent medium that either colours light or is itself used in the composition of a design or picture, a work of art perceived spatially). There is then a tension, as the sequence is, perhaps, a series of spaces arranged in time, though the title names the sequence as a sequence, as a temporal form, as language itself is.

Any reading of Dunnigan’s book that fails to read (in the most emphatic sense) even the title will likewise falter in understanding the sequence the title frames and thereby governs. And if so much is at work even before the first word of the poem is read, let alone on every line, if this reader is a reviewer, how little weight will their judgement carry if they fail to register these first—preliminary, guiding, essential—aspects of the poem?

“To praise–that’s it!”

Canadian poet Patrick Lane passed away today at the relatively young age of 79.

Though I never knew him personally, he was an eminent figure in Saskatchewan during my years as an apprentice poet, along with his partner Lorna Crozier, John Newlove, Andrew Suknaski (all three of whom I was lucky enough to learn from personally), Barbara Sapergia, and Geoff Ursell, among others, and I heard him read on a number of occasions.

What strikes me now is how quickly many have expressed their shock, grief, and appreciation for the man and his writing, which is as it should be. However, it seems to me that such praise shouldn’t have waited until it was too late for him to have heard or read it and appreciated it (though he did receive many accolades during his lifetime).

If you read a poem that knocks your socks off, or a book of poems, or a book-length poem, these days you can tell the poet how much you appreciate their work at the speed of light (depending on your data package). I’d encourage you to do so. The poet will appreciate it more, now, than wreaths of belated praise heaped upon their legacy once they’re gone.



A Further Serendipity: Concerning Having Nothing to Write

DH readingI doubt there’s a writer who doesn’t experience times when there seems to be nothing to write. I’d wager, though, that that block or absence of inspiration often isn’t so much a lack of some subject as much as the result of some paralyzing judgement by that tyrannical Inner Editor every writer has that this or that matter isn’t worth writing about or that the writer, for whatever reason, just isn’t up to doing it justice.

Yesterday, the late Donald Hall‘s last poem in his notebook popped up in my newsfeed:

DH The Last Poem

Here, Hall turns the Inner Critic’s answer to the question of what’s worth writing about around, a witty if somewhat bitter solution to the problem.

Then, today, I chanced to read these remarks of Allen Ginsberg on William Carlos wcw15Williams facing the same void:

He’s almost dying, he’s got one foot in the grave (at that time, actually, he was saying, “I’ve got one foot in the grave”). And he thought he had cancer of the anus, actually, at that point. He was very sick, and he was also morbidly fantasizing, and he thought he didn’t have much to write about. (Around that time, I went to see him and he said he had nothing to write about – what can he write about? the cancer of his behind? – I think I mentioned this before). And I said, “Oh, there’s hundreds of young poets in America who would be interested in your behind! – Yes, of course, write about cancer in your behind, anything you can”.

Here, I’d argue, is a different response to the Inner Critic, one that tosses out its conventional, aesthetic criteria for some that are more radical, more ontological:  what’s there to write about? Whatever there is to write about.


Poeticritical Serendipity

Gloria_Graham_Lyn_HejinianDonald Wellman reviews Lyn Hejinian’s The Unfollowing, describing it as follows:

Fourteen lines on each page, that’s sonnet length. Little rhyme [or] syllogism employed. No tidy conclusions. Each line as long as it needs to be. Most discontinuous with one another but not necessarily so. It seems there may not be a logic other than method in the construction of Lyn Hejinian’s The Unfollowing (Omnidawn 2016). Nothing follows, no conclusions, the title says it all.

The well-read might be circumspect about a book composed in this manner, sections riming with a sonnet’s length, parataxis the lines’ principle of arrangement, by a poet long-associated with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry (Hejinian is included in both Silliman’s In the American Tree (1986) and Messerli’s “Language” Poetries (1987)), published in 2016.

Such readers might be prompted to further reflection over the implications of these guendercompositional characteristics of Hejinian’s book when they read in Alice A. Kuzniar’s Delayed Endings: Nonclosure in Novalis and Hölderlin about Karoline von Günderrode’s fifteen-verse “Ein apokalyptisches Fragment” (published in 1804), that “…each verse appears as a disjointed fragment in an unconnected, nonteleological series”.

I leave this juxtaposition to speak for itself, for readers with ears to hear and hearts that care to.