Archive for the ‘poetry criticism’ Tag

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.

Patrick Lane 1939 - 2019

 

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.

 

“The poetry wars never ended.”

DftPWChicago Review has just posted a lively, provocative conversation with Kent Johnson and Michael Boughn about the motivations driving that equally lively web-journal Dispatches from the Poetry Wars.

At a time when Instapoets are lionized as The Big New Thing (because of their sales numbers) and the art is otherwise domesticated (in the MFA program and English class), I know of few more vital, critical, and necessary sites of resistance than Dispatches.

What’s on my desk / what I’m working on

In a conversation I was lucky enough to have had this week with a long-standing, younger poet-friend, I was asked, half out of curiosity and half in challenge, just what contemporary poets I’m reading these days.

In answer, I append the bibliography below, which lists all the books on my desk that I’mIMG_2890 presently reading, either as part of larger projects (a talk on Peter Dale Scott and the post-secular I’m giving at the end of the month, or research into modes of poetic political engagement, or the ways poetry brings itself into relation with philosophy), or toward writing notices and reviews, or just for the sake of maintaining some small idea of what’s going on in contemporary world poetry.

Of course, which writers might be said to alive is more a matter of their art than their pulse.

 

What I’m reading

Angles, Jeffrey, trans. Poems of Hiromi Itō, Toshiko Hirata, & Takako Arai. Newtown:  Vagabond Press, 2016.

Armantrout, Rae. Versed. Middletown:  Weseleyan University Press. 2009.

Arsenev, Pavel. Spasm of Accommodation. Oakland:  Commune Editions, 2017.

Badiou, Alain. Being and Event, trans. Feltham, Oliver. London:  Continuum, 2007.

Philosophy for Militants, trans. Bosteels, Bruno. London:  Verso, 2015.

The Age of the Poets And Other Writings on Twentieth-Century Poetry and Prose, ed. and trans. Bosteels, Bruno. London:  Verso, 2014.

The Communist Hypothesis, trans. Macey and Corcoran. Bosteels, Bruno. London:  Verso, 2015.

Balestrini, Nanni. Blackout, trans. Valente, Peter. Oakland:  Commune Editions, 2017.

Berg, Aase. With Deer, trans. Johannes Göransson. Boston:  Black Ocean, 2008.

Blandiana, Ana. My Native Land A4, trans. Derrick and Patea. Hexham:  Bloodaxe Books, 2014.

Bohinc, Katy. Dear Alain. New York:  Tender Buttons Press, 2014.

Borzutsky, Daniel. The Book of Interfering Bodies. Callicoon:  Nightboat Books, 2011.

Bradford, David. A Star is Boring. Montreal:  Self-published, 2016.

Call Out. Toronto:  Knife Fork Books, 2017.

Clover, Joshua. Red Epic.  Oakland:  Commune Editions, 2015.

Collis, Stephen. Once in Blockadia. Vancouver:  Talonbooks, 2016.

Copi, Irving M. Symbolic Logic, Fifth ed. New York:  Macmillan, 1979.

Derrida, Jacques and Vattimo, Gianni, eds. Religion. Standford:  Standford University Press, 1998.

Dick, Mina Pam. Delinquent. New York:  Futurepoems Books, 2009.

Eckerlin, Jesse. Thrush. Windsor:  Biblioasis, 2016.

We Are Not The Bereaved. Victoria:  Frog Hollow Press, 2012.

Gewanter, David.  The Sleep of Reason. Chicago:  University Press of Chicago, 2003.

Gilbert, Sandra M. Kissing the Bread:  New and Selected Poems 1969-1999. New York:  Norton, 2000.

Gleize, Jean-Marie. Tarnac, A Preparatory Act, trans. Clover, et al. Chicago:  Kenning Editions, 2014.

Golynko, Dmitry. As It Turned Out, ed. Ostashevsky, Eugene, trans. Ostashevsky, et al. New York:  Ugly Duckling Presse, 2008.

Goyette, Sue ed. The Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology 2017. Toronto:  House of Anansi Press, 2017.

Graham, Jorie. Fast. New York:  Harper Collins, 2017.

Habermas, Jürgen. Between Naturalism and Religion, trans. Ciaran Cronin. Cambridge:  Polity, 2008.

Postmetaphysical Thinking:  Philosophical Essays, trans. William Mark Hohengarten. Cambridge:  MIT, 1992.

Postmetaphysical Thinking II:  Essays and Replies, trans. Ciaran Cronin. Cambridge:  Polity, 2017.

—Religion and Rationality:  Essays on Reason, God, and Modernity, ed. Eduardo Mandieta. Cambridge:  MIT, 2002.

The Future of Human Nature. Cambridge:  Polity, 2003.

—et al. The Awareness of What is Missing. Cambridge:  Polity, 2010.

Hall, Phil. The Small Nouns Crying Faith. Toronto:  BookThug, 2013.

Hartnett, Stephen John. Incarceration Nation:  Investigative Prison Poems of Hope and Terror. Walnut Creek:  Altamira, 2003.

Hecht, Jamey. Limousine Midnight Blue. Los Angeles:  Red Hen Press, 2009.

Heighton, Steven. The Walking Comes Late. Toronto:  House of Anansi, 2016.

Heller, Michael. Dianoia. New York:  Nightboat Books, 2016.

Itō, Hiromi. Killing Kanoko:  Selected Poems of Hiromi Itō, trans. Angles, Jeffrey. Notre Dame:  Action Books, 2009.

Wild Grass on the Riverbank, trans. Angles, Jeffrey. Notre Dame:  Action Books, 2014.

Jäderlund, Ann. Which had once been a meadow, trans. Johannes Göransson. New York:  Black Square Press, 2017.

Johnson, Ronald. Ark. Chicago:  Flood Editions, 2013.

Jönson, Johan. Collobert Orbital, trans, Göransson, Johannes. Displaced Press, 2009.

Lachman, Gary. Lost Knowledge of the Imagination. Edinburgh:  Floris Books, 2017.

Lau, David. Still Dirty:  Poems 2009-15. Oakland:  Commune Editions, 2016.

Mackey, Nathaniel. School of Udhra. San Francisco:  City Lights Books, 1993.

McKinnon, Barry. I Wanted to Say Something. Red Deer:  Red Deer College Press, 1990.

Medvedev, Kirill. It’s No Good, trans. Gessen et al. New York:  n + 1 and Ugly Duckling Presse, 2012.

Mendieta and Vanantwerfepen, eds. The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere. New York:  Columbia University Press, 2011.

Mancini, Donato. SAME DIFF. Vancouver:  Talonbooks, 2017.

Moure, Erin. O Cadoiro. Toronto:  House of Anansi Press, 2007.

Neveau, Chantal. A Spectactular Influence, trans. Nathanaël. Toronto:  BookThug, 2015.

Parra, Nicanor. Antipoems:  How to look better & feel great, trans. Werner, Liz. New York:  New Directions Press, 2004.

Ed. Ray, David. From the Hungarian Revolution. Ithaca:  Cornell UP, 1966.

Rilke, Rainer Maria.  The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, ed. & trans. Mitchell, Stephen. New York:  Vintage, 1984.

Eds. Rothenberg and Bloomberg-Rissman. Barbaric Vast & Wild:  A Gathering of Outside and Subterranean Poetry from Origins to the Present. Boston:  Black Widow Press, 2015.

Sartre, Jean Paul. What is Literature? Trans. Frechtman, Bernard. New York:  Routledge, 2001.

Scott, Peter Dale. Coming to Jakarta. Toronto:  M&S, 1988.

Coming to Jakarta. New York, New Directions Press, 1988.

Listening to the Candle. Toronto:  M&S, 1992.

Listening to the Candle. New York, New Directions Press, 1992.

Minding the Darkness. New York, New Directions Press, 2000.

Mosaic Orpheus. Montreal:  McGill-Queen’s UP, 2009.

Silliman, Ron. Revelator. Toronto:  BookThug, 2013.

The Alphabet. Tuscaloosa:  U of Alabama Press, 2008.

Smith, Dale. Sons. Toronto:  Knife Fork Books, 2017.

Sommer, Richard. Cancer Songs. Winnipeg:  Signature Editions, 2011.

Tremblay, Bill. Magician’s Hat:  Poems on the Life and Work of David Alfonso Siqueiros. Spokane:  Lynx House Press, 2013.

Vogelweide, Walther von. Gedichte, ed. Wapnewski, Peter. Frankfurt:  Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 2006.

Walsøe-Engel, Ingrid. German Poetry From The Beginnings to 1750. New York:  Continuum, 1992.

Wilderson III, Frank B. Sideways Between Stories. Oakland:  Commune Editions, 2016.

Williamson, Alan. Res Publica.  University Press of Chicago, 1998.

Xiaoyu, Qin. Iron Moon:  An Anthology of Chinese Migrant Worker Poetry, trans. Goodman, Eleanor. Buffalo:  White Pine Press, 2016.

Yépez, Heriberto. Transnational Battle Field. Oakland:  Commune Editions, 2017.

 

 

“Ahi, quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura…”: a note on the postmodern Dante

Any visitor curious enough to view the reading that launched March End Prill might have selva oscurabeen in equal parts mystified and amused by my describing Cervantes and Homer as “avant garde, reflexive, or postmodern”. If so, then they’d be equally quizzical  of my describing Dante as postmodern.

I’ve made it a ritual to read through Dante’s Commedia every Easter Week “in real time”, The Inferno Good Friday and Holy Saturday, The Purgatorio Easter Sunday through to Wednesday, and The Paradiso as I will, as, having left the earth, terrestrial time no longer applies to the Pilgrim Dante or, in this case, his reader.

One of the things that makes Dante’s epic a classic is that even returning to it annually in this way, even the most familiar passages give up hitherto unnoticed features and meanings. Such was my experience this year, rereading the opening lines of The Inferno:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!
Tant’ è amara che poco è più morte;
ma per trattar del ben ch’i’ vi trovai,
dirò de l’altre cose ch’i’ v’ho scorte.

Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.
Ah, how hard it is to tell
the nature of that wood, savage, dense and harsh —
the very thought of it renews my fear!
It is so bitter death is hardly more so.
But to set forth the good I found
I will recount the other things I saw.

A simpler, more literal rendering of line four would be “Ah, how to say what was is a hard thing…”.

Arguably the most immediate way to take this line is that the Pilgrim-Poet Dante, recounting his experience relives the fear he felt lost in that wild wood (delightfully, in the Italian, esta selva selvaggia), which causes a moment of reflection wherein he (reflexively) writes, not about the wood or his fear, but about his writing about the wood and his fear. That is, “it is difficult to write about so fearful an experience, because writing about it requires I in a way relive that fear”.

But, of course, the persona of the Pilgrim is a mask worn by the poet Dante. Considered from this angle, the poet is writing about writing his poem. This admission of the challenge of the epic task the poet has set for himself and the demands that this project place upon the poet’s talent is a pattern that recurs throughout the Commedia, most immediately and movingly in the next canto, where the Pilgrim questions his worthiness to follow Virgil through Hell and Purgatory and receives so tremendously a moving, eloquent pep talk in reply that, in all sincerity, it never fails to move me to tears. However much such an admission of humility is a rhetorical ornament common in Latin literature, it is no less moving, such is Dante’s genius. It is as if, then, the poet were admitting, “Ah, how hard it is to write this epic poem in this noble style I invented just for this purpose.”

The rich complexity of this line, however, is hardly exhausted in this near cliché example of the “postmodern” text’s referring to itself in however a sly, metapoetic manner. A quick glance back at the English translation of this line and its tercet reveals a curious pattern:  as the tercet progresses the translation becomes more literal. The Italian grammar of the line is, or so I have it on relatively good authority, somewhat counter intuitive to an English speaker, for ‘qual‘ that I translate as ‘what’ is a word that can function as either a relative pronoun or an interrogative, closer to English ‘which’. Moreover, the line conjugates the copula in both the past and present tenses:  “era è“, “was is”. Why various English versions of the line depart from the Italian as the syntactic demands of the remainder of the tercet demand is understandable. But it strikes me, perhaps only because of my depending on English translations and a casual commentary on the Italian grammar, that the line, describing difficulty, is, itself, linguistically difficult, a stylistic device that recurs in The Inferno. Here, then, the artistic awareness of the poet extends into the very syntax of his language.

Nevertheless, there is no small irony in the progression of the tercet. On the one hand, the Pilgrim-Poet admits to the emotional and poetic difficulty of presenting what he wants to present, but that “hard thing” (cosa dura) is, in a sense, dispensed rather too easily with three conjoined adjectives selvaggia e aspra e forte, savage and dense and harsh, followed by the simple, frank admission that remembering it renews his fear. For something so dura, hard, it is performed with a strikingly easy fluency. On the other hand, though, it could be that the remainder of the canto that deals with the Pilgrim’s encounter with its famous three beasts, the Leopard, Lion, and Wolf, and his being forced by them into darkness and despair is just that “hard thing” whose memory so frightens him (and fear is an important theme in these two cantos and throughout the Inferno), or it might be the Pilgrim-Poet rushes over that memory to pass through it and leave it behind to get to that more heartening good his being lost and finding his way through Hell and Purgatory to Paradise provides.

That Dante’s poem should display such deft and complex linguistic self-consciousness, a metapoetic dimension literary scholars have pegged as characteristic of postmodern literature, really shouldn’t be a surprise, for the work of literature that is at the same time about itself and literature was first theorized and intentionally explored over two centuries ago by the German Early Romantics, die Frühromantiker, in their journal The Athenaeum (1798-1800) and in their criticism, letters, poems and novels. Indeed, the three characteristically “modern” writers for the Jena romantics were Goethe, Shakespeare, and Dante.

“…where lives the virtue of poetry…”

Yesterday, Canada’s Chris Banks baldly posed the question to his Facebook friends “What is authentic poetry?”. I (mis)remembered, after my own initial contributions to winding or snarling the ensuing thread, I had written a poem that addressed at least “the virtue of all authentic thinking” (and I’m hardly the first to imagine or suggest that poetry can be a kind of thinking). I post that poem, below.

It was written at the same time as the poem that opens Ladonian Magnitudes, “topos tropos typos’ (a confession”, itself composed before even my first trade edition, Grand Gnostic Central. It’s title is a quotation from Charles Olson. Whether it is possessed of any qualities that might be construed as “authentic” I leave to the judgement of the reader. For my part, I cite again, as I did first in yesterday’s thread, Novalis, from his Fragments and Studies 1799-1800, #671:  Schwer schon ist zu entscheiden, doch einzig mögliche Entscheidung, ob etwas Poesie sei oder nicht”:  It’s already difficult to decide, but it’s the only decision possible, whether something is poetry or not.

 

“Unreal, that is, to the real itself”

 

where lives the virtue of poetry

and all thinking free

of the tyranny of the real

 

in perceiving the real

flow, elementally

fluid, hence watery

 

form forms

breath

seen in Winter

 

as slippery

hard and cold

as ice to the head

cracked

 

as the sea, unfathomable

God as Melville says

pondering

from the masthead

 

a shriek above

the water

 

a shriek

above the water

 

the same

News that stays news: On the Verbal Art of the Plain-spoken Poem

IMG_2521Recently, I’ve found myself caught up in a couple of on-line discussions where the topic turned to the reception of the “accessible” poem, one whose language is self-effacing and limpid.

One of my interlocutors, Chris Banks, put the matter quite well:

People are either terrified of being accessible, or terrified of meaning itself, leaving nothing for critics to puzzle out, or else are more interested in the surprise, the bizarre, the magic trick ahhhhh….

Problem is we need more perceptive readers of poetry who can establish what a poem is trying to do without equating sincerity with shortcomings, accessibility with simplicity, etc. I long for a day when we don’t have to announce a book has formalist elements on the jacket copy of books in this country. However, if you don’t, no one looks for such elements.

At a time in English-language poetry in North America when the poem that draws attention to its artfulness in various ways for various reasons is arguably in the ascendant, perhaps it’s time reconsider à rebours the innate and intricate artfulness of the poem that doesn’t parade its poeticity in “a coat / Covered with embroideries” but that takes up the challenge that “there’s more enterprise / In walking naked.”

To wit, I direct the interested reader to an intentionally perverse close analysis of the prosody of a brief poem by Elaine Equi, “Prescription”.