Monday, December 31, 2007


In William Jay Smith's Poems, 1947-57 (Little Brown, 1957) there are three satirical epigrams. One of them, called "'Poet,'" mocks typographical avant-gardism not generally, as it might seem, but specifically. A young Filipino writer by the name of Jose Garcia Villa once published a book of poems in which commas were inserted between words. Smith repeats the effect to ridicule it, placing the odd, halting device in a regularly metered and rhymed quatrain. Nothing really "remarkable" about this "effect," Smith contends. Thus:



Funny, yes. But I want to ask: why is it said that a poet "places" a comma between words - placing implying force, artificiality, conscious construction - while the traditional quatrain itself doesn't entail placement. Aren't they both placings? They achieve effects, one disruptive of flow and the other sustaining it.

Long live consciousness on both sides of this argument. Forms are no more or less natural. Up with smooth satire! Up with jitters and hiccoughs! Make it (all of it, so much as is possible) n-n-n-n-ew-ew-ew,(eep,oop). I want my art to make me at least a little jittery. I want my art to make me swallow the air (the air we breathe = the forgotten-about, the natural) the wrong way.

at right, Jose Garcia Villa

Sunday, December 30, 2007

no meta- for Margalit

I've complained here before of journalists' apparent inability to show any awareness of form. Perhaps it's absurd to whinge about such a thing. After all (I hear a detractor teling me), what's really so surprising that writing in a daily newspaper never conveys its meaning formally as well as by way of the denotative meaning of the words? A resolution for '08: I'll try to stop barking about this.

But it's still '07 and today, Woof woof, once again. Hugh Massingberd, the brilliant, blunt and often bizarre obituary writer for the London Telegraph, has died and so it's time for other papers to run obituaries of him.

An obituary of an obituarist who is remembered for changing the form of the obit itself. A perfect opportunity for something at least a little bit unusual. I mean, really.

How can any self-respecting writer not do something at least a bit self-referential with an obit about a great writer of obits?

The New York Times obit, the work of Margalit Fox, is almost entirely about Massingberd's sardonic, warts-and-all style - the work of the most unusual obit writer of our time, as a matter of the writing - and yet Fox never once does honor to Massingberd's memory by doing a little of this in this writing. And it would have been honor. And it's in my view a dishonor not to do it. Do what? Write the writing so that it's (at least to some small degree) about the writing.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

welcome to the alumverse universe

At the beginning of 1996 I put out the word, by email and word of mouth, to Penn alumni that I was ready to convene a group of university alumni to discuss modern poetry by email. No fee, no credit, just talk. About a hundred people wrote me to say they wanted to try this. I made a huge listserv and we called our project "Alumverse." We were supposed to begin on some even date, January 15 or February 1, but on January 7 the entire east coast was hit by an enormous snowstorm and for several days everyone was stuck at home. And for the first time in the relatively new internet age (by which I mean, the moment in the 90s when a bare majority, but nonetheless a majority, had email accounts and checked for messages regularly. On January 7 everyone logged on - many to try to do work even though away from the office. And, going a big stir-crazy, they began writing me, Why don't we begin talking about the poetry now? Why wait? So we began.

Hundreds of emails were sent and received in those first few snowed-in days.

We began by talking about Emily Dickinson, and soon moved to William Carlos Williams, Lorene Niedecker, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, and so on.

Within a few weeks the group of 100 had grown to about 160. By the end of February, when we were supposed to stop, the Alumversers refused to do so. They would go on without me if they must. They wanted to maintain the listserv. They wanted to pick their own poems for discussion. I stayed on and we talked for the entire year of 1996, and even a little into 1997.

By August 7, 1996, USA Today had caught wind of this and ran a story. The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote about us too:

Elsie Sterling Howard said she was fascinated last fall when University of Pennsylvania English professor Al Filreis told her about his use of e-mail to stimulate out-of-the-classroom discussions among the students in his introducto ry poetry class.

Howard, a 1968 graduate who heads Penn's General Alumni Association, had only one question: Had he ever considered trying it with alumni?

``Absolutely,'' Filreis replied. ``We can do it.''

Now, 159 Penn grads from across the country and even abroad are taking a virtual version of Filreis' popular poetry seminar.

They're logging on to read, ruminate and post their thoughts on works by everyone from Emily Dickinson to Allen Ginsberg.

``This is not a course,'' said Filreis. ``It's a conversation.''

The class roster includes psychiatrists, teachers, fund-raisers and graduate students in forestry. It has attracted some who spent their days at Penn in the 1950s, and some who received their diplomas last year. The only thing they have in common is that they once attended Penn. Filreis addresses them all as: ``Dear Alumversers."

The discussion was always at a high level, and always chaotic, and absolutely characterized by good will. There were many disagreements but they became part of the personality of the group. You'd think that among 149 others individuals would not easily distinguish themselves (being just an email address to those on the other end). But there emerged at least 50 or 60 very clearly defined characters.

Over the years since Alumverse, I've met most of these people. Many have visited me at the Kelly Writers House. Some merely stop by when they are on campus. Others make special visits. The children of several have become my regularly matriculated undergraduate students. A few have become donors (yes, the Writers House needs donated funds to keep going). How gratifying that the basis of this virtual community (don't love the phrase but that's what this was) was an interest in modern verse. Most hadn't any idea about poetry and poetics but they were looking for a challenge. I did some work keeping it all going, focusing everyone on the poems themselves, but not as much work as you might think. Alumverse ran itself after a while. And of course long digressions are possible in email. Those who didn't want to follow a digression simply deleted said digressions. (At one point there was a month-long digression on campus radicalism circa 1968. This was so compelling that Penn's alumni magazine, the Gazette, ran an article just about this part of the discussion.)

When we finally disbanded, almost everyone wrote long farewells. Here I quote from that of Joe the dentist from Atlantic City:

So the alumverse arrived at a proper time for me as, in retrospect, most things do. Though I've long had an interest in poetry (God knows there's enough books of poetry around here), I've never felt I "understood" it very well. So I appreciated this opportunity to have a renewed and revamped sense for it and of it. I'm still not sure how well I understand it, but I'm not sure of a lot of things; I try not to let it get in my way. You may have noticed. I am sure there is no mention of the words "poet" or "poetry" in the entire 26 volumes of the Warren Commission Report (I've done the search), but let's face it, poetry's tough. Consider this statement of Faulkner's:

"I'm a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can't and then tries the short story which is the most demanding form after poetry. And failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing."

So I send a virtual hug to all the versers who filled my mailbox, assuaging the ultimate loneliness of the long distance scholar, from Adam, who showed he belongs at a think tank, to Zumbro, who'll let me call her Susanne, and all the ones in between, Evan who's taken to hanging around bookstores where you can usually find me, and Peter who spammed us in the only netiquettally appropriate way, and Robin who has maybe had that baby by now, and John Kim for whom I established a folder in my hard drive, and Marc who drove me crazy by always quoting the entire text he was responding to but I always scrolled down to get to his words because they were worth it, and TheSteven never judging us harshly as he invented poet bytes and happened upon a cyber rent in Adam's heart, and John Norton a real poet whose anthology I own, and Doc Gonzo the night the graphic arrived I knew he has poetry in his soul than he hasn't dreamt of, yet, and Andrea who like me wants it both ways, and Carole sweet and shy came to the union took my phone number and never called story of my life, and Ron who probably now fondly remembers the blizzards we began with, and Edward who wore a suit just to be around us go figure, and Marguerite who....

You can read Joe's entire valediction here. A general Alumverse web page, although old, describes the project and provides links to the newspaper articles mentioned above and some other materials. Pardon a few dead links. The photo above was taken during an alumni reunion on campus, at a little tent marked "Alumversers." There a few of us met and we had a "union," as someone dubbed it. It couldn't have been a reunion since none of us had yet met when we met there. "Long live the union!" shouted Conni Bille.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

two radicalisms redux

“Muriel Rukeyser came from a specific line of privileged New York German Jews. Her own mission was to criticize, according to leftist and feminist politics deeply rooted in the Eastern European Socialist tradition, economic and social exploitation. Her poems, as I see it, are the beginning of a startling, deeply important movement, or series of movements, that involve fields as diverse as poetry, art, dancing, economics, and politics.”--Gerald Stern in Nextbook. MORE>>>

Yes, okay, but not "the beginning." She came of age poetically and politically at the end of the 1930s, and she took advantage of movements of the 1920s and of the '30s (distinctly and also converged) that set collage (in the Juan Gris but also the John Dos Passos sense) side by side with the documentary urge. Not to press the point too hard, for Stern here seems to be an ally of this important modern combination: yet this assumption--"her poems...are the beginning"--is one of remnants of the campaign in the postwar period to deny or forget that the two radicalisms--aesthetic and political--ever consorted. But they did, and Muriel Rukeyser appeared on the scene when that merge had already been made possible.

best of '07

At Third Factory, Steve Evans is hosting a year-end round-up of the best poetry books of 2007. The lists he's collected are those of Jerrold Shiroma, Bill Berkson, Pam Brown, Simon DeDeo, John Palattella, James Wagner, Jordan Stempleman, Tom Orange, Allyssa Wolf, Laura Carter, Patrick F. Durgin, Michael Scharf, Meredith Quartermain, Simone dos Anjos, Craig Dworkin, Annie Finch, David Dowker, Joshua Clover, Kevin Killian, Graham Foust, Christopher Nealon, John Hyland, Nancy Kuhl, Matvei Yankelevich, Jennifer Scappettone, Chris Pusateri, K. Silem Mohammad, Dana Ward, Anne Boyer, Robert Kelly, Rick Snyder, Jessica Smith, Pierre Joris, John Latta, Amy King, Joshua Edwards, Franklin Bruno, Catherine Taylor, Benjamin Friedlander, Michael Cross, Stephanie Young, Erin Mouré, Susana Gardner, John Sakkis, Michael Gizzi, Anselm Berrigan, and Sina Queyras.

On James Wagner's list is Dodie Bellamy's Academonia, published by Krupskaya in 2006. "Yes, disturbing," Wagner writes. "Yes, funny. Yes, experimenting. But it’s really the fearless drive for opening herself up/into various areas that keeps one reading these great essays."

In this lively, entertaining collection of essays, Dodie Bellamy has written not only a helpful pedagogical tool, but an epic narrative of survival against institutional deadening and the proscriptiveness that shoots the young writer like poison darts from all sides. By the 90s funding for the arts had dwindled and graduate writing programs—“cash cows”—had risen to fill the slack. Simultaneously, literary production moved from an unstable, at times frightening street culture where experiment was privileged beyond all else, to an institutionalized realm—Academonia!—that enforces, or tends to enforce, conservative aesthetic values.

Among the questions Bellamy raises: how does the writer figure out how to write? How will she claim her content among censorious voices? Can the avant-garde create forms that speak to political and spiritual crisis? Can desire exist in a world of networking structures? [link]

One of Pam Brown's choices is the new issue of Tinfish, a magazine edited by Susan Schultz in Hawaii. The cover image for number 17 is here, above left.

What are some things you will find in this issue?

--definitions to words like “skin,” “rock,” “bangungot,” “mynah litatur,” “Guam”;
--American epics (undone)
--13 ways and 14 lines
--poems of exile and estrangement, a prayer
--politics and love, together and apart

beat journalism, just (barely) enough bop

I love reading early beat journalism about the beat phenomenon. It seeks to make sentences Time can publish with yet just enough rhythmic lingo, idiomatic verve, and phrasal nihilism to certify itself as beat. Beat-written mainstream journalism is a real art, a subgenre that had to be mastered.

Here are phrases pulled from an article by Clellon Holmes, then 26 years old, that appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 1952.

the wild boys of today are not lost

it is precisely at this point that the copywriter and the hot-rod driver meet

a disturbing illustration of Voltaire's reliable old joke

there is no desire to shatter the "square" society, only to elude it

the valueless abyss of modern life is unbearable

their flushed, often scoffing, always intent faces

A fuller excerpt is here in my 1950s site.

modernism? no thanks

This 1926 Leger was owned by a collector in Pittsburgh from 1953 until 1966. The collector wanted to give this and hundreds of other modern objects to the city of Pittsburgh, no strings attached.

Pittsburgh said no thanks.


Wednesday, December 26, 2007

can't be for or against narrative

In "Toy Boats" Carla Harryman argues that narrative is not something to believe in but something that is there. So we do things with it. In a way this was a rejoinder to all the anti-narrative posturing of her colleagues and contemporaries, but it is at the same time a piece written in the revolutionary-manifesto spirit of those who thus postured.

Here's the opening of "Toy Boats":

The enemies of narrative are those who believe in it and those who deny it. Both belief and denial throw existence into question. Narrative exists, and arguments either for or against it are false. Narrative is a ping-pong ball among blind spots when considered in the light of its advantages and defects.

Narrative holds within its boundaries both its advantages and defects. It can demonstrate its own development as it mutates throughout history. This is its great advantage. I.e., in accomplishing its mutability, it achieves an ongoing existence.

Narrative might be thought to be a character and its defects lie in his "potential to observe his own practice of making falsehoods." If this narrative is imitating anything, its intention is to convince the audience to enjoy the imitation, whatever its lack of truth or reasonableness.


Tuesday, December 25, 2007

shopdropping as art

News from the world of interventionist art:

"Otherwise known as reverse shoplifting, shopdropping involves surreptitiously putting things in stores, rather than illegally taking them out, and the motivations vary. Anti-consumerist artists slip replica products packaged with political messages onto shelves while religious proselytizers insert pamphlets between the pages of gay-and-lesbian readings at book stores. Self-published authors sneak their works into the “new releases” section, while personal trainers put their business cards into weight-loss books, and aspiring professional photographers make homemade cards — their Web site address included, of course — and covertly plant them into stationery-store racks."

The photo here shows, at a Whole Foods in New York, Jen Armstrong and Ryan Watkins-Hughes stocking a shelf with cans carrying art-infused labels.

Somewhat related is the droplift project.


Yali at yuletide

Did some victims of genocide bring it on themselves? (To be sure, I think not. But the question is being raised--once again; it's socio-biological logic I find troubling.)

In today's "Science Times" section of the Times there's a long story about the ecocide end of the genocide spectrum - and about other ways in which societies have historically led to their own demise. Reading along, the piece seems innocuous, another collage of curious is-that-so? socio-biological factoids. But at heart it's an account of the reactions for, and mostly against, the Guns, Germs and Steel theses in Jared Diamond's best-selling book. A chart offered alongside the text shows that of five examples of societies that went extinct, all five "failed to solve social problems." And we are reminded that in a section of his book called "Collapse," Diamond argued that a "precipitating" cause of the genocide in Rwanda was Malthusian. The country had let its population outstrip its food supply. This is controversial stuff, to be sure.

Along the way we are reminded of "Yali's question" and fortunately get two opposing interpretations, that of Diamond and that of his detractors. Among the latter are anthropologists who have written a book length rejoinder all about "Yali's question."

Yali was a political leader of an ethnic group in Papua New Guinea, a people who had gotten used to the bounty of supplies delivered from the air by the Allies during World War II. In the immediate postwar years a cult arose among this people, a "cargo cult." They built ritualistic landing strips and control towers and wore faux headsets carved from wood, trying to summon back the packaged food, medicine and weapons that Yanks, Brits and Aussies had flown in during the early to mid-1940s. Yali asked Diamond this question: "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?" I urge readers to consult the Times for a good summary of Diamond's interpretation of Yali's question and of his critics', but I'll say here that everything depends on what you think Yali meant. That there could be a connection between understanding Yali's question and contending the alleged socio-biological causes of Hutus killing Tutsis is, to me, earth-shattering. I'm glad the counterargument against Diamond gets such play here. Quite a Christmas Day feature for the Times.

If fifteen conditions must or do exist that led to genocide, fourteen of them are matters of conscious political will combined with conscious political neglect or avoidance and conscious political failure of will (to negotitate, to compromise, to re-arrange borders, etc.). We focus on the fifteenth - the climatic, the evolutionary, the catastrophic [e.g. drought] - at the peril of letting social will and action (those taken and those we fail to take) off the hook.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Hoover planned mass arrests

The AP wire is running a story today that is both unsurprising and also shocking. It begins this way:

Former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had a plan to suspend the rules against illegal detention and arrest up to 12,000 Americans he suspected of being disloyal, according to a newly declassified document.

Hoover sent his plan to the White House on July 7, 1950, less than two weeks after the Korean War began. But there is no evidence to suggest that President Truman or any subsequent president approved any part of Hoover's proposal to house suspect Americans in military and federal prisons.

For more, go here.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

from Sunday morning to Tuesday evening

The year '07 brought us a "selected later poems" from John Ashbery, a gorgeously designed volume (a large pastel-color-surrounded lower case mod-yet-serif "a" on the jacket) called Notes from the Air. First thought about the subtitle: a person must be and feel really old to consent--not sure how readily John did--to the phrase "late poems," although at least it's not "last poems" (that's in truth for later). Nonetheless, it's accurate. In the sense Edward Said meant it, as he himself, toward the end, was a later-filled person, these poems have the style and rhetoric of later. Someone might or has already argued that poetically JA was always already an old guy. His Harvard poems seem the work of a 50 year old - e.g. "Some Trees" with its "as far this morning from the world as agreeing with it." But in these poems one hears the lateness and untight-lined-ness of Wallace Stevens' long poems of the late 1940s and early 50s, e.g. "The Auroras of Autumn" and "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven."

How far Stevens had come from "Sunday Morning" to an "Ordinary Evening"--the latter surely a weekday. (When you're old and still working, it matters less than it once did that you're writing your poem desperately on a Sunday, knowing Monday morning's "dirty light"** is coming along with other matters to which to attend. Tuesday will do just fine.)

The best example of the late Ashbery style in the new selected is toward the very end of a poem called "Tuesday Evening," Ashbery's version of an ordinary evening, to be sure. Here are some lines:

...And in a funny kind of way, the nifty
feeling of those years has returned. I can't explain it,
but perhaps it means that once you're over fifty
you're rid of a lot of decibels. You've got a tiger; so unchain it

and then see what explanations they give.

The thought does not end with the simple or easy unchaining of the tiger inside the sleepy-wakeful old poet. Things have quieted down, or you've successfully drawn away from the noise, and that's why the tiger--you'd think it'd be associated with the noise of early and mid-life wildness--can or will be liberated in you now. But then - well enough never left alone in Ashberyian rhetoric - we realize that once the tiger in you is free we are (yet again) waiting, waiting for something the arrival of which is not clear. Who is the "they" that will given the explanations? Not the tiger, which would be "it" or "he." Not the poet, the "I" who can't explain why old age brings back those earlier years, but a plural external authority or corrective agency. So the liberation of the wild inside - in the poem itself? - never gets realized in the poem, as there's always one more qualification before such freedom can ever be attained. Which is to say: never.

Yet one tries, and tries. And that's what the poems are, at this point. Gorgeous.

** See the very end of Stevens' "The Man with the Blue Guitar."

one-eyed poetry

The poets who founded the Berkeley Review were deliberate moderates. They admitted that they were one-eyed poets, although the ideal is the poet with both eyes open. Political poets had been one eyed, too, but it's the other eye, so the two - the Berkeley moderates and the old rads - share the fate of the half-done not-great, and yet they can be said to be opposites. Such a classic (and typically confused) metaphor of the post-political moment.

more than political

They felt that the artist's encounter "with the cosmos" was a real thing and shouldn't be avoided or ridiculed in poetry. It was real and so "is our desire for its expression--not to create another conformity but to encourage those who feel the discomfort of our modern existences [sic] in more than topical, political and material terms."

poetry is going to be okay

The editorial statement--I've quoted from it just above--launching this poetry magazine in the late 1950s made these points:

[] poetry is alive and well; don't worry so much about its fate or future;
[] the political periods are over and no longer affect poetics;
[] we need a verse that is more subtle - an accepting and tolerant verse
[] nature poetry is okay;
[] "partisans of the pure" are okay but there are many kinds and all are fine.

pure politicoes, pure lovers...what's the diff?

Here are a portion of this centrist manifesto:

"We do not contemn the pure nature poets; we greet them as compatriots of another eye, as, too, with pure politicoes and pure lovers--or any other partisans of the pure--but we have chosen to close the one eye, and they the other. Yet, in our half-blindness, we still search for a two-eyed king; we pray for a three-eyed god.

"We welcome the nihilist and the zealot equally, and those struggling to account for themselves at points between. We open to those who celebrate man's existence and man's end: to those who, either having or lacking it, pursue a faith and a meaning; to those who, under the dipolar pull of the scientist and the ad man, have seen the bottoms bared and, torn away, find themselves lost - or have found themselves.

"We feel that this is a need, too clearly marked in our society today, and that many of the one-eye poets have fixed their single beams upon this point. If this magazine can become a rallying point for these, then our major function is served."

shock and irresponsibility

In his review** of The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology (1952), the modern art critic Thomas B. Hess posed these questions as the ones he felt we should be asking about dada:

[] What has the idea of a collective avant-garde become a matter of such sensitive importance?

[] What makes artists turn so readily to public statements of private positions?

[] How have the elementary strategies of shock and irresponsibility become such elaborate intellectual games?

Below: a portrait of Hess painted by Elaine de Kooning in 1956.

** Saturday Review of Lit,. March 1, 1952, p. 53.

down with 1937

Poetry Review of London was for many years a magazine that specialized in publishing poems that were not only conservative but were indeed themselves about the campaign that would have to be waged in order to save poetry from both the modern sensibility and poetry's entanglements with leftism.

In a 1950 issue of the magazine**, we find a two-line ditty by one P.E.B. Canny. It's title is "Nineteen Thirty-Seven." This is 1950 so we already have a sense of its skepticism or distaste. 1937: yuck. Can't be good. Indeed, the poem's two lines run as follows:

Can there be worse
Than this extra-Auden-airy verse?

** vol 41, no. 2, p. 64

my bookmarks, your bookmarks

I use to preserve my bookmarks. I recommend it. Since they are on the web, I can review them anywhere, from any machine. Of course I can also share them. If you don't have the time for blogging but want others to get your recommendations for sites, documents, pages, photos, etc., set yourself up with and then create an RSS feed, so that people can receive notifications of your new bookmarks, just as RSS notifies people of new blog entries. Web 2.0 at its best, I think.

[] my links page LINK
[] RSS feed for my links LINK
[] Stazz's Stuff talks about LINK

need more memory, fewer memorials

Still gets to me, the unfairness
and waste of survival; a nation
with so many memorials but no memory.


Thursday, December 20, 2007

PoemTalk in top 25

On ITunes' "literature" page, PoemTalk has made it into the top 25 programs. Currently, we're number 24. You can go directly to ITunes and subscribe.

Ike ad 1956

If TV ads for presidential campaigns today were as simple and as silly as those put on by Dwight Eisenhower's people in 1956, I wonder if we would all think the politicians had gone insane, or if we would be relieved. Has this business (marketing, really, is what it is) changed so much since '56? Our first and possibly second answers will be yes, but then watch this Ike ad a third time and think about it. Maybe only the quality of the production (and of animation) has improved.

Here's that ad (a .MOV file). Don't those marching figures, stepping to the repetitive intoning of the man with the open-vowel-starting one-syllable nickname just make you want to get up out of your chair and march along too?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

PennSound in Scandinavia

Paal Bjelke Andersen this past summer organized a poetry/poetics festival associated with nypoesi. Paal wanted to feature various projects in digital poetry, sound poetry and digital archiving - and asked that PennSound be represented in the catalogue or proceedings. I wrote a piece which was translated into Norwegian. Here you can get a sense of the contributors. In January the nypoesi people will put up a sound archive of Scandinavian poets reading their work, using PennSound as a model. Eventually both sound files and many of the essays will be published and presented in a book/CD set. Here is a link to the essay in English.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

the emails that still sit in your bin

I look at Beth Kephart's blog because every entry includes a photograph that is placid or tentatively terrestrial or fragmented yet spiritually whole or purely tonal (and often moody) or mildly ominous or lonely yet sanguine about it or artifactual (is that a word?) or having a quality of being a piece of this world or natural yet slightly obscure or still-lifeish - and sometimes indeed all of the above. Beth's sentences (in her books and on her blog) cast a dream over the page. Typical (of the blog): "I have been thinking about how long people live, even after they're gone. In the songs that bring them back. In the gifts they'd given, long ago. In the emails that still sit in your bin, all full of nobody but them." Notice how the word "nobody" feels empty and negative and yet in the meaning of the line becomes the sign of somebody, of presence.

Anyway, it's such a darned I-centered world: on the day I'm plugging Beth's blog, she's already plugged me. Her entry today is about me and PoemTalk. I cherish especially this outrageous compliment: "[H]e's so ridiculously inventive and innovative that it is frankly difficult to keep up with all that he gives straight back to the world."

Monday, December 17, 2007

into the arms of the beatniks

It's Jenny and her friends, hanging out at The Off Beat. Jenny rebels because...well...because her father is a modernist. Look what you modernist fathers have wrought: girls that run into the arms of the beatniks. MORE >>>

take that, Ayn Rand

I'm not entirely sure what the blog Push the Key is really all about, but it says it's meant to "improve the book industry, while improving YOU" - and "written and published by experts in the book industry - contains refreshingly irreverent, bull's-eye insights for book industry professionals."

Anyway, Andrew Grabois, one of the book-industry folks who contributes to this blog saw the Times piece about the Writers House and decide that what we are doing is a blow against Ayn Rand's rational individualism and laissez-faire creativity. Or perhaps he was (merely) referring to the Wharton School (which, he says somewhat accurately, dominates Penn) as Randian, with, thus, the Writers House set against it.

"Some good news from the University of Pennsylvania.

"The New York Times reports that in the midst of this huge research institution anchored by the famed Wharton School of Business, a fragile and unlikely flower has bloomed.

"The Kelly Writers House, a three-story Tudor that used to be home to the university chaplain, has become a community and oasis for aspiring writers and those who care about writing. Kelly House hosts readings, workshops, seminars, conferences, high-school clinics, and other events. A number of noted writers have given readings at Kelly House, including Richard Ford, John Updike, and Cynthia Ozick.

"Al Filreis, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is the faculty director of Writers House, and the one responsible for its success. Dr. Filreis not only acts as a den mother, mentor, and advocate, he also aggressively recruits literary souls for Writers House."

Here's your link.

on another blog

"So, what kind of ideas/initiatives can we adapt for our own purposes here? We'll probably never have the level of funding they have, but why not be creative and think about how we can learn from what Dr. Filreis has accomplished?" MORE >>>

PoemTalk on ITunes

The podcast series "PoemTalk" is now available on ITunes. Just go into your ITunes music store and, in the search box, type "PoemTalk." Then click "subscribe" and each new episode will automatically load.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

linguist goes gnomic

At the time he lambasted the behaviorialist theories of B. F. Skinner, Noam Chomsky liked to chalk gnomic verse-like ambiguities on the blackboard. MORE>>>

Saturday, December 15, 2007

when Warhol had trouble getting a gallery

This is Andy Warhol's picture of stamped shoes, 1959. In '60 he began to do some very different things, but even when Leo Castelli came visiting in early '61 Warhol still had to endure doubts -- for one thing, that what he was doing (e.g. his large canvases of Coke bottles) was too much like Roy Lichtenstein. For more about Andy in '60, go here.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

liberation: hide the Worker inside the Times

Maurice Diamont survived the holocaust and, after liberation from the camps, came to the U.S.

When Diamont was ten he was frightened by a Nazi parade. He had grown up in Frankfurt, Germany, in a completely Jewish world. His family fled to Italy where he was safe until the Germans came in 1943. After that, it was a nightmare. But he survived the camps, as I say, and made his way to New York.

Here are his recollections about arriving in New York:

New York . . . looked to us like a madhouse. On the one hand we were exhilarated by the freedom of going around without carrying papers, without worrying about being stopped and asked for working permits. On the other hand there were things that frightened and disappointed me. I was an avid reader of newspapers and went through the New York Times on my way to work. I quickly found out about McCarthy and was really horrified because I saw overtones of the things I thought I had left behind. I remember one morning noticing that the man sitting next to me had hidden his Daily Worker [the communist daily] in[side] the pages of a New York Times. Coming from Italy, where everything was out in the open and there was freedom to discuss every philosophy and political possibility, I was not prepared to see people in free America scared of believing in some things.


he dropped Coltrane on Moscow

Willis Conover, the Voice of America disc jockey who fought the Cold War with cool music, captured the hearts and liberated the spirits of millions of listeners behind the Iron Curtain beginning in 1955 when his show first when on the air.

"Conover would bombard Budapest with Billy Taylor, strafe Poland with Oscar Peterson and drop John Coltrane on Moscow." So reports his obituary.

He was unknown in the U.S. because by law the radio shows of the Voice of American were not permitted to be broadcast in or to this country.

to read

The folks who hang out at the Writers House have book recommendations for the holidays. Yesterday I walked around the house--room to room--talking to people about new books. Listen to our "holiday books" podcast by going here and clicking on podcast #11.

Above left, Max Apple, who recommends the new biography of Marc Chagall. Apple's own new collection of stories, The Jew of Home Depot, is just out and is recommended by Jessica Lowenthal.

By the way, David Kaufmann's review of The Jew of Home Depot in the December 5 issue of The Jewish Daily Forward is called "Even Zhlubs Can Turn Lemons Into Lemonade." Check it out. "When it comes to Max Apple, what’s not to like? Over the past three decades, in six books and two screenplays, he has shown himself to be a funny guy. And he has always been — and remains — a capable and generous satirist. This is no small accomplishment. Satirists usually cannot stop themselves from being ferocious at best or crabby and sentimental at worst. Apple is never ferocious, never crabby and rarely sentimental. He does not dislike his characters, and he refuses to condescend to them."

Friday, December 07, 2007

from the annals of gender difference

This time of year: what to get mom, what to get dad. Books, book preferences--where gender differences aren't as stark as, say, in sports equipment. Yes.

Ah, but be sure, folks, when you buy books "FOR MOM" that you don't get anything that solves the world's problems--rather only the problems of one family in a way that will make you chuckle. On the other hand, "FOR DAD" buy a book about mavericks who've made important contributions to history! Yes, shop with two very separate lists. Well, I suppose this sort of booklist division by gender is a thing of the past. The following is an advertisement that appeared in the December 1946 issue of Harper's Magazine. In this special context, I love the phrase "the most gossamer of synthetics."

A Checklist of Christmas Books for the Family

Lost Men of American History by Stewart H. Holbrook. A fascinating parade of obscure or forgotten people - mavericks, unorthodox thinkers, inventors, business men - who made important contributions to America's history. "As exciting as any detective moves skillfully through the kaleidoscopic pageant of our past."--Bernard DeVoto. $3.50

Land of Promise by Walter Havighurst. Filled with legends, anecdotes, and colorful episodes, this is the history of the Old Northwest Territory, from wilderness days to the teeming present. Told by the author of The Long Ships Passing. $3.00

The Wall Between by Elsie Oakes Barber. Christy adored her husband, a handsome young minister. But her romantic dreams came tumbling down when she moved into an ugly parsonage at the edge of the city slums. This warm, human novel tells how she finally scaled the wall that religion seemed to erect between her and her husband. $2.75

Uneasy Spring by Robert Molloy. This book is guaranteed not to solve any world problems, but it does solve the problems of one American family in a way that will make you chuckle. It is about a lonely widower, a pretty young singer, a motherly widow, a pretty young singer, a motherly widow, an unhappy little boy, and a pert bobby-soxer. $2.75

America's Fabrics by Zelma Bendure and Gladys Pfieffer. This beautiful book, with more than 800 illustrations, tells the whole story of modern fabrics. It covers well over a thousand different fabrics, from heavy asbestos fire curtains to the most gossamer of synthetics. $10.00.


PoemTalk officially starts today

PoemTalk, a new podcast series that I host, is now officially launched. It's a collaboration of the Kelly Writers House, PennSound, and the Poetry Foundation. Four colleagues in the world of poetry collaborate on a close (but not too close) reading of a single poem.

[] the PoemTalk site: link
[] find us on the Poetry Foundation site: link
[] get the RSS feed and keep up with all the new episodes: link

Thursday, December 06, 2007

home sweet

A nice blog response to the New York Times piece than ran yesterday: "The [Writers] House reminds me of everything I love about universities -- that in addition to being places to work and to learn, they can also be a home. Not just to the students who live on campus, but to anyone who can find support and friendship and make themselves at home there." MORE>>>

A former Writers House regular wrote: "The notion of the KWH as a little piece of Swarthmore, Reed or Bard in a large Ivy was spot on...yet, as someone who originally fled Williams for its lack of intellectual opportunity, I would have to add that the real magic in the House was/is the critical mass of devoted faculty, students and other fellow travelers may available by the shear size of Penn. It is unfortunate that the modest size of the liberal arts college often stymies their becoming fertile ground for such innovation. And what they do have to offer isn't always a substitute."

An alumnus (lawyer turned writer-thinker) whom I've met once or twice but has participated in various online discussion groups we host: "Yes, your acceptance and encouragement of even a person like me is what makes The Writers' House and its staff bar none the best place for a writer to grow. I hope over the years ahead to be able to be a better supporter. Al(l) best..."

A former undergrad: "I feel honored to have been a part starting so many years ago. I've been thinking about it more and more as I do law school applications since I remember KWH being a huge reason I applied to Penn. That was almost 10 years ago!"

Nick Spitzer, host of radio's American Roots, wrote in part: "You have created at once a a center of artistic and personal social power, a non-bureacratic, unconventional power in one spot without being marginalized in the process. Brilliant."

Someone working deep inside the research projects of the Annenberg School for Communications at Penn: "I've been a secret admirer since I've come to Annenberg and love Kelly as an artifact of a different time and theory of education. Amazing to see this wonderful recognition in the Times."

A former student, now a professor at a midsized public midwestern university: "My warmest congratulations for this well-deserved national recognition. I just sent the link to the president and academic dean of my institution, along with a statement about how we can draw inspiration from what you've accomplished. We'll never have the funding or the elite students, but we can steal some of your ideas and methods. Honestly, a couple of us have already begun. We've set up blogs and wikis, invited students to gather for informal literary events, planned an open mic night and trips to Prairie Lights bookstore in Iowa City to hear big time writer's read. I'm also trying to get the campus radio station out of mothballs and operating again---hopefully with a more creative mix of student-produced programming."

sliding accumulation

I've briefly mentioned Tony Green here before (scroll down the sidebar at right until you see the image of a cone-like object). Tony, of New Zealand, makes poem-objects of various kinds. Or: sculptured poems. Or: three-dimensional linguistic accumulations. "Accumulations" is in fact a term he sometimes uses. The above object is called a "sliding accumulation" and it really does "work" just as you think it does from the way it looks here. It's made like one of those little palm-sized games you played when you were a kid. One space is open and you slide the little tiles around until you are able to put things in the right order--letters or numbers or colors. Here of course it's a poem--a poem that can't really be wrongly arranged. What you have instead of options for reading.

I'm pleased to say that I own one of these. In a latter entry I might attempt to show you how some of the patterns mean.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

apprenticeship, mentorship, internship

There's a nice article about the Kelly Writers House in today's New York Times by Alan Finder, the reporter who covers higher education for the paper. This link should work (it might not if you don't have a subscription): LINK. In the paper itself, the story seems to be in section B, page 7 (at least in the edition I get delivered to my house here in Philly).

So what is the point? “Apprenticeship, mentorship, internship,” Dr. Filreis said. The goal, he added, “is to enrich the undergraduates’ lives outside the classroom.”

“For me, this is Swarthmore, Reed or Bard, here in the middle of a big research university,” said Dr. Filreis, a bearded, often beaming professor of modern and contemporary poetry whose enthusiasm and avuncular demeanor seem to permeate the Writers House. “This is a little bit of Bard. You can come in and people know who you are.”


Tuesday, December 04, 2007

failing to till the Israeli ground

When Israeli novelist and essayist and activist Amos Oz visited the Writers House in October 2004, his memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, was just then begin published in English--in a beautiful translation by Nicholas DeLange. DeLange visited the Writers House too as part of a 4-day Oz conference. I had read the proof copy of the memoir in the weeks prior to the visit, and had fallen under its spell. Then I had the honor of reading a chapter from the book in English, with its famous author sitting there in the front row. Fortunately he liked the way I read the chapter very much.

I chose to read the chapter about attempts by the young Amos and his father to grow vegetables in the Israeli soil. Not a success. It's easy to think of the story as an allegory for living life in Israel from Oz' political point of view, but Oz himself resists this interpretation, preferring to think of the tale as a literal remembrance. You can judge for yourself. The reading of the chapter takes 26 minutes, so perhaps you'll download the mp3 of my reading of it and listen to it on your IPod.

nature poem for a nasty day

When the weather starts to get a bit nasty, and just going out for a stroll in nature seems the last thing I'd want to do, I make "Let's Go Out" as recited by Jaap Blonk my poem of the day. Oh, let's go out, let's go out. Let's go out into nature, nature, nature, the natural word along with natural language, the most natural language there is....

Jaap Blonk read at the Writers House on November 11, 2004, and this performance was stunningly good. Woke me up, completely, to the sound of words as sounds.

So, dear reader, it's my poem of the day: so start it off with a good listen, please, to "Let's Go Out".

[] Jaap Blonk's reading: LINK
[] brief bio on Blonk: LINK
[] Blonk's web site: LINK

Monday, December 03, 2007

napkin surrounded by bottles is an angel surrounded by peasants

Wallace Stevens loved to buy paintings from Paris, especially in the late 1940s. And yet he never traveled to Paris and in those pre-internet, pre-fax days, he typically could not see the painting he was about to purchase. In several instances, he depended entirely on the descriptions in words provided by the daughter of his long-term Parisian agent (who died during the war); her name was Paule Vidal. Through long letters back and forth, Stevens came to know her well and could tell what he wanted in a painting from the way she described it. In one case, she sketched the painting that interested him and mailed the sketch to him along with yet another letter of descriptive language. The sketch is reproduced here above right.

I found this whole process fascinating: a modern poet imagining his paintings for weeks and months before he saw it. And of course this wouldn't be nearly as interesting is Stevens didn't write poems about some of these paintings. I should say poems "about" the paintings, because it's not entirely clear whether Stevens could properly be said to have written "about" the painting or about the description of the painting or indeed about the interanimations entailed in the process of slowly apprehending or viewing the painting. After all, their representations slowly emerged for him.

So I wrote a long essay about this, and chose the story of one painting and one poem to tell--that of Stevens' "Angel Surrounded by Paysans" (first published in 1950) and Still Life by Pierre Tal Coat. The painting depicts some items on a table: a napkin surrounded by a tureen and some vases and bottles. The angel-like quality of the napkin is something Stevens "saw" in the letters from Paule Vidal. Back in the late 1980s my colleague Wendy Steiner was editing a special issue of Poetics Today and invited me to write this story for that. It appeared in the summer 1989 issue. Here is the article as a PDF. The full citation: "Still Life without Substance: Wallace Stevens and the Language of Agency," Poetics Today, "Art and Literature II," vol. 10, no. 2 (Summer 1989), pp. 345-72.

I once visited Stevens' daughter, Holly Stevens, at her ocean's-edge home in Guilford, CT, and spent the afternoon with her and my friend and co-editor Beverly Coyle. I had a chance to see many of Stevens' paintings right there on the walls of this small house. I was struck by the Tal Coat. There it was. I either took a color photograph of it then, or later had Holly or Bev take a shot of it, but in any case somewhere in my files I have a color photo of it. The black-and-white reproduction of the painting done for the Poetics Today article was taken during a 1963 exhibit of Stevens' paintings at Trinity College in Hartford.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

illustrated Burning Babe now available

The Penn Electronic Poetry Center (PEPC) recently secured permission from Susan Bee and Jerome Rothenberg to reproduce, as a PDF file, the Granary Press 2005 special illustrated edition of The Burning Babe, which is also now the third section of his Triptych. Here the link.

Rothenberg will be at the Writers House in April 28-29, 2008, as a Writers House Fellow.

what's here worth seeing?

If you're fed up with antiquity, and feel that even the automobiles are antiques, and that religion alone remains an entirely new religion, which is to say it remains as simple as an airport hangar, then get thee to Paris and look at this spot under the chestnut trees, backed by the walls of the old monastery, surrounded by children at play. MORE>>>

proof of concept

"The guy who invented the wheel was an idiot. The guy who invented the other three, he was a genius."--Sid Caesar

In response to this, Tim Carmody wrote: "Who am I to argue with Sid Caesar? But as William Carlos Williams knew, the wheelbarrow is a pretty genius invention. Sometimes one wheel is enough."

To which I repled: "The flaw in Sid's thinking is in the assumption of the precise number of wheels that take a concept beyond its invention. (He was such an automobile-age sachem.) But the thought about thinking is still good to me: Invention is a thing done to a concept."

To which, in turn, Tim responds as follows:

I agree. I'm also reminded of Pound's quote of Leger quoting Hegel in the ABC of Reading: "Man should be prouder of having invented the hammer and nail than of having created masterpieces of imitation." Then Pound goes on to quote Spinoza: "The intellectual love of a thing consists in understanding its perfections." And to write: "You don't sleep on a hammer or lawn-mower, you don't drive nails with a mattress. Why should people go on applying the SAME critical standards to writings as different in purpose and effect as a lawn mower and a sofa cushion?" Given that Pound refers to the latter kind of writing as an "REPOSE, dope, opiates, mental beds," and later attacks Shakespeare for having "upholstered" language, Pound does seem to be positioning himself on the hammer/lawnmower end of the spectrum. [LINK]. The Pound/Williams generation didn't just say "no ideas but in things" -- they really did seem to try to use things to think.