'It Wasn't a Dream, It Was a Flood'

Approaching realness in Frank Stanford

Frank Stanford is an anachronism in late twentieth-century poetry. Like many of his southern contemporaries, much of his work is driven by a narrative impulse — his poems nearly always have stable, embodied speakers; they tend to use fairly normative syntax; they generally feel grounded in a particular geographic location; and they’re concerned with identity, memory, and depicting external action. However, Stanford also seems to have internalized many of the ideas of his postmodern contemporaries: most significantly, his work is characterized by an attention to the artifice of language, exhibiting an understanding that linearity seeks to project a false order on human experience.

Previous reviews and articles have been quick to typify Stanford’s work as surreal — for example, Lorenzo Thomas refers to Stanford as a “swamprat Rimbaud […] [a] redneck surrealist.”[1] This distinction is unsurprising, given that his poems utilize disjunctive, associative leaps, and they do seem to concern themselves with repressed violence and sexual desire. However, to refer to Stanford as a surrealist — to relegate his work entirely to the world of the imagination — is to overlook its ontological uncertainty, which is ultimately what makes his poems distinctive. Stanford’s work doesn’t seamlessly fit into easy distinctions of realism or surrealism; rather, it blurs the lines between lived experience and the imagination, seeking to complicate the binary between “real” and “unreal.”[2] Stanford adheres to narrative tropes while simultaneously questioning this fundamental tenant of narrative — a sense of dominant realness. This is precisely what makes his work subversive, and it also distinguishes him from many other significant narrative poets in the second half of the twentieth century — such as Philip Levine, for example, who claimed that in his ideal poem, language transparently represents reality: “no words are noticed. You look through them […] just see the people, the place.”[3]

For Stanford, form is never a static container for content. Through his formal choices, his narrative poems project a refracted vision of existence; like Schrödinger’s cat, they permit multiple visions of reality to simultaneously exist. By defying a singular depiction of narrative “realness,” Stanford’s work functions as what Lyn Hejinian refers to as an “open text”: it resists the hierarchy of poet over reader, undoing the text’s status as a monolithic object, and ultimately, encourages reader engagement.[4] By examining Stanford’s work — both in terms of his specific formal choices, as well as the macrostructures which inform his epic poem, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You — I hope to explore the ways in which Stanford simultaneously subverts and adheres to notions of narrative realism.

Metaphor and refracted narrative

When Stanford compares one object to another, the purpose is not to make the original object more emphatic, or cement its status as real; rather, his metaphors tend to follow the Miltonic tradition of the epic simile, in which “the local action or scene is extended cosmically.”[5] That is, they push the reader in a different direction entirely, expanding outward. But unlike Milton, Stanford often does not return to the original tenor, and thus destabilizes our sense of a singular reality. For example, in the opening lines of “The Singing Knives”: 

Jimmy ran down the road
With the knife in his mouth
He was naked
And the moon
Was a dead man floating down the river[6]

In this passage, it’s nearly impossible to make the leap from tenor to vehicle that metaphors typically demand. Since the moon is in the sky, the narrator is presumably describing a reflection of the moon in the water. However, a reflection of the moon would be stationary, not floating downriver. Whereas metaphors typically make the vehicle subordinate to the tenor, Stanford doesn’t place importance on one image over the other. The metaphor doesn’t seek to help us more fully visualize the image of the moon, but rather, invites us to imagine a dead man literally floating — thus gesturing towards a different narrative thread, and a different vision of reality altogether. In effect, the “real” (i.e., the moon that the narrator initially observes) is given no more primacy than the imagined object (the dead man in the river). Later on in the poem, Stanford compares the moon to dead fish, further destabilizing our sense of realness. It’s as though the artistic act of comparison — the imaginative work of invention, of dreaming — is more significant than unpacking the meaning of the comparison itself. 

When Stanford’s metaphors function most effectively, they echo his tendency to resist a singular narrative route. That is, they gesture towards a fragmented reality wherein separate narratives can occur simultaneously. In one particularly climactic scene in The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, an undertaker forces Francis, the young narrator, to lie down inside a coffin. In this moment, Stanford enacts a tapestry of metaphor and dream sequence where it’s impossible to distinguish the vehicle from the tenor:

the coffin was like a boat in the pocket of the watery harbor of sleep

 I saw what was left of the light and their fingers crawl

 from under the lid of the boat

 the lame negro had bored out two holes for the plaque

 and I looked out into the night from my portals

 and I heard the harbor master death call lad overboard

 dead wings crisp as the biscuits in the pockets of a man on the run

 I dreamed I was wading in deep water

 I kept reaching down in the mud

 until I found something heavy

 it was the black tennis shoe of the drowned child

 the moonlight was coming through both portals

 I had to shut my eyes[7]


Here, Stanford introduces at least three different overlapping narratives: 1) the scene where Francis is placed inside the coffin, 2) the metaphor of the coffin as a boat in a harbor, and 3) the dream where Francis finds a shoe in the water. Interestingly, we don’t merely shift from one scene to the next, but rather, the instances blur into each other. For example, when the narrator tells us, “I looked out into the night from my portals,” we imagine Francis on a metaphoric ship (with “portals” being read as a pun on “portholes”), but we can just as easily imagine him looking through the holes in the coffin. Two narratives are seemingly occurring simultaneously, and neither of them are given ontological primacy. This is further complicated when the third narrative emerges: “I dreamed I was wading in deep water.” The initial scene with Francis lying in the coffin doesn’t last long enough for him to fall asleep, so perhaps “I dreamed” is merely meant to be a rhetorical gesture. But it’s also possible that this line is meant to occur within the boat scene — and if Francis is in fact dreaming while he lies on the metaphoric boat, the scene where he wades in the water is operating at two levels of remove from the initial “reality” of the coffin scene that Stanford presents. When the narrator tells us that “the moonlight was coming through both portals,” we are again invited to imagine both the coffin and the metaphoric ship. The “porthole”/“portal” pun is significant: it embodies Stanford’s tendency to foreground form, revealing the materiality and malleability of language. Like the pun itself, which refracts into multiple meanings, Stanford effectively creates a portal for the reader, establishing narrative as a mode of transit between disparate visions of reality.

The scene in the coffin is, ultimately, a continuous metaphor. Francis symbolically enters a liminal space — he’s in the void of death while maintaining his status as a living body, and the separate narratives of dream and reality are permitted to blur and intermingle. However, Stanford’s willingness to mix metaphors — to force the reader to question what is literal and what is symbolic — sets him apart from the vast majority of American narrative poets in the second half of the twentieth century. For the most part, many post-WWII narrative poets use continuous metaphor in a relatively predictable way: the poem serves to depicts an external scene — one which is narrative, which is quasi-cinematic in its attempt to visually render reality — and at a certain point, the narrative becomes symbolically evocative, gesturing towards some kind of internal development or revelation. In James Dickey’s “Cherrylog Road,” the narrator waits to meet a woman in a junkyard of abandoned cars. Over the course of the poem, the external thread — what actually happens, in a literal sense — runs parallel to the internal, figurative thread. But in several moments of poetic affect, it gestures towards “deeper” symbolic meaning, and the two threads begin to veer towards each other. The junkyard becomes “more” than just a junkyard — it becomes evocative of death and decay, of the eventual ruin of youthful energy and independence. However, the literal action never fully collapses into the figurative meaning; after all, this would threaten the sense of “realness” that the narrative action establishes, revealing the artifice of language. Thus, Dickey — whose early work is often oriented around these notions of narrative realism — establishes a clear hierarchy between the internal and external, the real and unreal.[8] Indeed, Dickey argued that the quality of a poem was in direct accordance to its sense of realness:

A great deal of poetry has nothing whatever to do with reality: that is, anybody’s reality. It is a verbal construct merely. The good or great poetry, though, has something to do with reality […] The poem should come of reality and go back into it. But it should impose itself on fact.[9]

Dickey’s claim rests on a singular conception of reality, and he establishes a clear binary between reality and the “verbal construct.” Thus, it’s the job of language — and narrative — to define what is real. At least by this definition, narrative creates ontological hierarchies, establishing closure. Stanford’s willingness to dismantle these hierarchies is what distinguishes his poetry from more traditional narrative approaches. By questioning the definition of “realness,” Stanford is effectively shaking the foundation that allows most narrative poetry to conceive a sense of order. Rather than seeking closure, his writing is closer to the vein of Hejinian’s “open text.” It is generative, “unfinished,” demanding reader engagement; rather than reaffirming a singular narrative or establishing a hierarchy, Stanford creates a narrative that challenges a dominant sense of realness, sprawling outward. 

Anaphoric violence

One of the most recognizable formal features of Stanford’s work is his strong use of anaphoric, end-stopped lines. Though this strategy can be found throughout the body of Stanford’s work, it is most prominent in The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, as well as in his collection The Singing Knives. Typically, these lines are comprised of declarative statements with a simple subject/verb construction (e.g., “I rode the hog / I hugged his neck / I stabbed him seven times”).[10] On a surface level, these anaphoric lines provide a rhythmic pulse and a sense of sonic cohesion, pulling the reader down the page. But more significantly, they serve to “stall” the momentum — the repeated pronoun interrupts the narrative flow as we begin each new line, our focus returning to the subject. From “The Snake Doctors”:

I knelt in the prow with the knife in my mouth

 I looked at myself in the water

 I heard someone singing on the levee


 I was buried in a boat

 I woke up

 I set it afire with the taper

 I watched myself burn

 I reached in the ashes and found a red knife[11]


On one hand, the content of these lines is suggestive of action — of drama and violence. But at the same time, the repetition of “I” induces a sense of stasis, establishing the speaker as a stationary subject; the narrative seems to simultaneously move and sit at a standstill. This tension is further enhanced by the lack of narrative linearity between some of the lines. If traditional narrative movement progresses cinematically, then Stanford’s anaphoric constructions evoke a kind of montage: each line briefly depicts a different startling image, and though we can find some continuity between them, the narrative action doesn’t necessarily play out in a seamlessly linear way.

Distinct from Philip Levine’s vision of a narrative poem that transparently depicts reality, Stanford foregrounds his formal gestures. After all, these lines are not cloaked in complicated syntax, but rather, are stripped down to the basic elements of narrative (character and action), and of a sentence itself (subject and verb). The use of anaphora is, ultimately, a rhetorical tool, and Stanford does not attempt to convince us otherwise. The repetition of “I” can either function as an exaltation of the subject, or as an obliteration. In one sense, it serves as a constant reminder of the poet’s individual agency to perceive, to describe. But through the act of repetition, the anaphora also enacts an evisceration of the author’s ego — it strips the “I” of its meaning, reducing it to a rhetorical stand-in, or perhaps establishing an open medium for experience into which the reader can project the self. (In an anaphoric list near the end of The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, Stanford seems to gesture in this direction when the narrator tells us, “I forgot I was I” [307]). In either case, Stanford’s anaphoric repetition creates an open text by drawing our attention to the materiality of language—we’re reminded of how it functions not only as a signifier, but as a sonic utterance. In effect, Stanford returns us to the act of making. Rather than presenting a “closed” narrative, Stanford depicts the artistic process in flux.


Stanford’s tendency to resist a dominant narrative plays itself out on a larger scale in his epic poem, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. The poem is narrated entirely by a twelve-year-old white boy, Francis Gildart (a kind of alter-ego for Stanford himself), and for the most part, it can be divided into lyric and narrative sections. The narrative elements of this poem — where the external action primarily occurs — mostly take place around the Mississippi Delta, and are often concerned with Francis’ interactions with African American laborers. By virtue of specificity — being rooted in a specific time and place, with a recurring set of characters — these episodes approximate a kind of “realness” relative to the rest of the poem. However, the narrative scenes frequently descend into dream and memory, and it is often difficult to determine what is and is not “real.” More significantly, since the digressions are given as much narrative weight as the seemingly “real” scenes, it is sometimes difficult to decide what’s thematically important.

For example, in one of the earliest episodes of the poem, Francis spends several hundred lines describing his past encounter with Count Hugo Pantagruel, a sideshow performer that Francis met at the circus. The two engage in a pastoral call-and-response singing contest, and the performer shares stories of his revenge against two high school boys who taunted him. The scene is fairly typical of the line that Stanford continually walks between real and unreal: the scene is odd, certainly, but as readers, we don’t yet have a reason to believe that the episode is necessarily imagined or untrue. The narrative then cuts to a scene where Charlie B., the Francis’ family driver, gives Francis a letter from the circus performer. Upon reading the words, Francis enters a mythic, stream-of-consciousness digression:

I thought my eyes would burn holes through the paper Charlie B.
asked me if I let a fart there was that smell I didn’t I closed my eyes I
heard that music I was a dead lion I was a black stallion I disappeared
under the water I was made sure of death the icebergs the wagging tongues (18)

At some point in this lyrical run, Francis remembers that he needs to go to school the next day, and then recalls an instance on a school field trip where he engages in a pseudoerotic encounter with a schoolteacher while swimming in a lake. The two participate in a brief call-and-response passage (not unlike the prior interaction with the circus performer), and the scene suddenly takes a mythic turn — Francis describes her as “a mermaid but with legs / instead of fins,” and it’s revealed that the teacher won’t be returning back to school with Francis and the other students:

she said it’s time to go she wouldn’t be going back on the bus

 she kissed me on the lips it was a french one like falling underwater her lips

 and all the time the moon was behind her hair when she left

 that summer I sent her the drawings of the ships they called me teacher’s pet

 we got a letter and a clipping that summer she drowned in Mississippi

 Charlie B. threw some cold water on me he fanned me with the letter from the freak (21)


In this moment, Stanford breaks some of the most basic rules of cause and effect in narrative: the memory of the encounter with the schoolteacher has very little narrative consequence, the scene isn’t intrinsically necessary to the development of the poem’s “plot,” and the schoolteacher never returns for the rest of the poem. The entire moment is quickly undercut when we return to “reality” — Charlie B. wakes Francis up, and we’re brought back to the primary narrative that Stanford previously established (Francis’ friendship with the sideshow performer). But despite the fact that the scene with the schoolteacher seemingly comes out of nowhere, it amounts to a reimagining of a familiar epic trope: the moment when an otherworldly external force imparts wisdom to the hero. It feels like a pivotal scene in the early stages of The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, but it doesn’t fit seamlessly into the progression of the narrative.

For more traditional narrative poets, the discursive signal — i.e., the descent into dream or memory — often sets up an expectation that the digression will have some kind of narrative consequence, directly affecting the narrator in the present. The dream sequence is not meant to truly convey an alternate reality; by momentarily deviating from the “real” and then returning to it, the poet is in fact enforcing a singular, dominant depiction of “realness” that exists in stark contrast to the dream. Stanford uses familiar digressive narrative cues — he tells us “I closed my eyes” (18) right before he descends into the dream sequence — but the dream does not reaffirm a singular realist narrative. (In fact, most of the seemingly “real” scenes in The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You are just as unusual as the flights into dream and memory.) Stanford does not present a “completed,” commodified representation of reality, but rather, an open text that denies ontological primacy to any singular narrative thread. We, as the readers, are expected to determine what is and is not important.

The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You defies narrative causal relationships in other ways, as well. For example, a narrative scene will often reach a moment that triggers a digression, leading the narrator into a dream sequence, and the dream sequence will funnel out into a different narrative scene that isn’t necessarily related to the first one. In one passage, early on in the poem, several hundred lines are devoted to describing Francis’ friendship with Mr. Rufus, an elderly farmer. The scene develops some important tensions that remain constant throughout the book (in particular, the greedy, exploitative tendencies of white characters), but the episode ends abruptly with Mr. Rufus’ death. Francis describes burying Mr. Rufus, and respecting his final wish that he fly his flag at half-mast:

I done it right just like he said he wanted the flag flowed at half mast

 down by the river so I done that too he would a really liked that when the

fishermens all took off they hats when they come in of a evening he’d a really

got a kick out of that I can tell you I bet you never even heard of Abraham’s knife

there was only one guy worth a shit who worked in the orphanage

he had an oboe and when this boy put hisself outen his misery the guy

had the decency at least to play Kindertotenlieder on the gramophone (44–45)


The death of Mr. Rufus feels like a climactic moment in the narrative, but instead of reaching some kind of resolution, Stanford quickly digresses into a memory that is only tangentially related. Shortly after these lines, Francis tells us, “I beheld death with my own / eyes there passed the night” (45), and then rapidly shifts into a fairly long list in which he describes his dreams. Some of the statements seem purposefully symbolic or hypothetical (e.g., “[my dreams] like a stolen car coasting down the road with its lights off” [45]), and others statements briefly segue into micronarratives that feel comparatively “real” — for example, “my dreams like red dice you can’t throw down / like somebody’s older sister in Memphis who leaves a crack / in her bedroom door and lets you watch her undress” (46). However, the dream sequence doesn’t mention Mr. Rufus, and refuses any obvious ruminations about the significance of his death. Francis spends several lines personifying his dreams as “dogs” — “with their howling like splices of rope with muddy feet tracking things up / they kill everybody’s chickens they run up side of the big house” (47) — and then the dream sequence eventually funnels out into an 800-line episode wherein a character named BoBo tells a long story about trying to catch a catfish, but is bitten on the leg by a vicious dog. The only obvious sense of continuity between this episode and the dream sequence is the reference to a dog, and by this point, the narrator seems to have entirely forgotten Mr. Rufus. As is often the case in Stanford’s work, associative logic — that is, internal logic, dream logic — takes precedence over the logic of an external narrative.

It’s worth noting that despite the fact that The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You abandons traditional narrative logic, much of the poem is oriented around the act of storytelling itself. Stanford continually alludes to a variety of other epics (particularly Beowulf), and the episode with BoBo is an obvious parody of Moby Dick, evocative of Stanford’s clear desire to simultaneously adopt and reinvent narrative archetypes. If the “traditional” narrative poem presents a singular pathway, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You presents a web that moves outward in all directions. Not only does Stanford encourage reader engagement, forcing us to triangulate his ruptured narrative logic with our own experiences, he gestures towards the interconnected fabric of literary tradition. In the same way that his use of metaphor pushes towards a refracted, multiplex narrative, each allusion provides an opportunity for the reader to spiral down a disparate narrative pathway. Furthermore, the BoBo episode is a metanarrative — initially, BoBo is the one telling the story, sitting in a store while Francis listens. (Again, with storytelling itself as the subject matter.) Interestingly, towards the end of the passage, the episode ceases to be a “nested” narrative, and the initial narrative frame is abandoned; Francis becomes the narrator, and appears as an active character in BoBo’s story. The episode becomes part of the dominant narrative of The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, and we never return to the scene in the store where BoBo originally began telling the story. The significance of this development is clear: in Stanford’s work, narrative can never be confined to a frame, but rather, is a mythic entity that always becomes larger than the singular storyteller.

An open narrative

At its best, Stanford’s work is capable of serving as a conduit between disparate aesthetic camps. While his poetry is clearly influenced by modes of postmodern thinking (e.g., it seeks to enable the reader, it rejects binaries, it challenges the notion that language can transparently depict reality, etc.), it isn’t intransitive in the fashion of many of Stanford’s aesthetically radical contemporaries. Additionally, it still achieves Dickey’s claim that poetry should “have something to do with reality.” Stanford’s poetry does not abandon narrative altogether — it only seeks to disrupt the hierarchies that prioritize one narrative over another. As a result, his work has the ability to reveal narrative poetry’s potential within a contemporary context — a context which has been permanently altered by the rise of mass media and the legacy of postmodernism, which can no longer abide by the notion of a “universal” cultural narrative.

In calculus, one can approach infinity, but never reach it. Stanford approaches realness in a similar way. Unlike “traditional” narrative poets who view realness as a static, accessible concept, Stanford’s poetry pushes in a narrative direction, gesturing towards the real, while simultaneously acknowledging that reality is limitless.



1. Lorenzo Thomas, “Finders, Losers: Frank Stanford’s Song of the South.”

2. Stanford himself refuted the “surrealist” label. In an interview, he describes these allegations of surrealism as “miscarriages of imagination, misconceptions of reality — due to the lack of perception of it.” Matthew Henriksen, “‘Keep an Eye on the Moon, Your Poetry’: Towards a Biography of the Poet Frank Stanford,” Fulcrum 7 (2007): 366.

3. Marjorie Perloff, Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 43.

4. Lyn Hejinian, The Language of Inquiry (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000), 43.

5. Philip Hobsbaum, “The Criticism of Milton’s Epic Similes,” Studia Neophilologica 36, no. 2 (1964): 220.

6. Frank Stanford, The Light the Dead See (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1991), 3.

7. Frank Stanford, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You (Barrington: Lost Roads Press, 2000), 102. All subsequent references to this work are cited by page numbers in the text.

8. Interestingly, Dickey and Stanford mutually appreciated each other’s work. Stanford claimed that “some of [Dickey’s] poems are among the best written” (See interview with Irving Broughton, reprinted from The Alsop Review). In a blurb, Dickey described Stanford’s work as “rough-cut, vital, primitive in the best sense, the poetry of Frank Stanford forces us to make essential encounters. There are few poets who can do this, but I challenge anyone to read Stanford’s work and remain unchanged.”

9. James Dickey, Sorties (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971), 98.

10. Stanford, The Light the Dead See, 26.

11. Ibid., 27.

The severity and sympathy of Ezra Pound

A newly translated 1928 letter to René Taupin

Blustering, condescending shorthand. Unflinching, self-righteous conviction. These hallmarks of poet Ezra Pound’s prose can be found throughout the seemingly impossible volume of his private correspondence. His jumbled and effusive style can be daunting to would-be readers. One such letter, written in 1928 to academic and critic René Taupin, had until now been even more elusive to English-speaking readers, as Pound wrote it in Taupin’s native French. The letter has been previously published, in its original French, in Letters of Ezra Pound: 1907–1941.

This author’s new translation, which follows this essay, illuminates the poet’s views on modernism, the general concept of intellectual influence, and other curiosities from his early twentieth-century vie litteraire. The letter was prompted by Taupin’s analysis of Imagism, the avant-gardemovement Pound, an American expatriate, had helped found in London after the dawn of the new century. Taupin, then chairman of romance languages at Hunter College, asserted that Imagism was almost inseparable from earlier French Symbolists (an argument which would culminate in his 1929 book, The Influence of French Symbolism on Modern American Poetry). For Pound, Taupin’s assertions belittled what he believed to be the unique accomplishments of his own literary movement.

Pound’s letter to Taupin serves as his rebuttal. Due to Pound’s scattered, almost stream-of-conscious writing style, passages of the letter are dissected here to better follow his logic, beginning with his opening:

Of course, if you permit an inversion of time, in some Einsteinian relativity, it would seem likely to you that I’d received the idea of the image from the poems of Hilda Doolittle, written after that idea was received. See the dates of the various books.

To lay the base for his argument, Pound painstakingly makes a case for a less direct influence on Imagism from modern French writers, asserting that he and his cohorts arrived at their conclusions more or less independently. He describes trademarks of his own style as “[v]ery severe self-examination  —  and intolerance for all the mistakes and stupidities of French poets.”

Pound goes on to trace the general flow of poetic innovation from French writers of the late nineteenth century through Symons, Baudelaire, and Verlaine. “Certainly progress in the poetic technique,” he admits. But it is from Arthur Rimbaud that Pound traced the origin of modernist writing, a fact in general consensus today.

That which Rimbaud reached by intuition (genius) in some poems, created via (perhaps?) conscious aesthetic  —  I do not want to ascribe him any unjust achievement  —  but for all that I know. I’m doing an aesthetic more or less systematic  —  and could have named certain poems of Rimbaud as example. (Yet also some poems of Catullus.)

And it is certain that apart from some methods of expression  —  Rimbaud and I have but a point of resemblance. But almost all of the experimentation, poetic technique of 1830-up to me  —  was made in France.

Experimentation perhaps, but not progress, continues Pound in signature frankness.

Since Rimbaud, no poet in France has invented anything fundamental. There were interesting modifications, almost-inventions, mere applications.

Pound pointedly disassociates himself from direct French influence, positing instead shared influence from earlier achievements, going all the way back to the ancients. Here he begins to question the theoretical limits of poetic influence between the two languages.

With all modesty, I think I was already oriented before being familiar with the modern French poets. That I took advantage of their technical inventions (Like Edison or any other man of science benefits from discoveries). There’s also the ancients: Villon, the Troubadours.

It is likely that France has learned from Italy and Spain. England from France but that France cannot absorb anything or learn from the English.

Does one English language exist to express the lines of Rimbaud? I’m not saying a translator capable of this, but if this language exists? (As a means)  —  and since when?

Of that balance, you must find the right relationship  —  at least on the technical side.

Not to completely dismay the reader with an endless list of indictments, Pound does at points rein in his rhetoric. He concedes that the seed of the French modernists must be somewhere present, albeit faintly, in his own work and that of the Imagists. To punctuate, he makes reference to an idiom from Taupin’s native French.

But indeed: the idea of the image must be “some thing” of the French symbolists via T. E. Hulme, via Yeats, via Symons, via Mallarmé. As bread owes something to the wheat winnower, etc. So much happening in between.

I believe that the influence of Laforgue (from Eliot) or Maupassant on America often came second, third, fifteenth hand.

Justifying any blatant offence at his bald treatment of French literature, Pound inserts a postscript mid-message, as though he thought perhaps at that point to give it a rest before continuing.

P.S. I think that my severity toward the reputation of French literature is preferable to the effusions of Francophiles or parasites who seek to pass of bad French poets as top rung. We build a more stable glory by aspiring to introduce solid authors (as many as the number they ram in, thrown there into puddles, swells, etc.).

Thus Pound finds, or perhaps seeks, common cause for a higher caliber of contemporary letters. For all Pound’s pains to set the record straight, a reader risks losing sight of his more benevolent excuse for anything borrowed, consciously or otherwise, from other writers. At these points, the poet reveals himself in a manner often lost in his blunt tirades: as an American genuinely concerned by the state of arts and letters in his homeland.

Sometimes we pick up, or are suddenly “influenced” by an idea  —  other times fighting against barbarism, we seek support  —  arming ourselves with the prestige of a civilized man, and recognized, to fight American imbecility.

I have quoted Gourmont, and I just gave a new version of Confucius’ Ta Hio, because I find there formulations of ideas that appear to me (potentially) useful for civilizing America.

Finally, the poet transcends the argument in question, pontificating more universal truths regarding intellectual influence and the spread of ideas. It would take someone like Pound, who in fact saw himself on a sort of literary crusade against decadence, to distinguish deliberate association with just cause as being nobler than even unconscious imitation. As he explains to Taupin, “I rather revere good sense over originality.”

Full translated text: A letter from Ezra Pound to René Taupin

Vienna, May 1928.

Dear Sir: Of course, if you permit an inversion of time, in an Einsteinian relativity, it would seem likely to you that I’ve received the idea of the image from the poems of H.D., written after that idea was received. See the dates of the various books.

I have written and published so much on the subject — and I cannot write without a typewriter.

In 1908–9 in London (before the debut of H.D.): circle T. E. Hulme, Flint, D. Fitzgerald, me, etc. Flint, much French-ified, never arriving at condensation.
 {concentration/ having center} French Symbolists > the “90’s” in London.

Contemporary meaning ~ equivalence

Technique of T. Gautier in “Albertus.”

Beside all that, I have printed material. See Pavannes et Divisions and Instigations. Can one be the cause? — here now or in Rapallo in July?

English poetry (the same language < French roots Consider elements of the language: “Anglo-Saxon”
 Latin (church  —  law) Prin.

2nd French 1400

Scientific Latin
 greek. . “
 French influence on me  —  relatively late.

Reports French > English. via Arthur Symons etc. 1890. Baudelaire, Verlaine, etc.

F. S. Flint special number Poetry Review, London in 1911 or 1912. Strong difference between Flint: (tolerance for all the mistakes and stupidities of French poets.) Me  —  Very severe self-examination  —  and intolerance.

Would-be “Imagists”  —  “bunch of groups” too lazy to support severity of my first “Do not’s” and of the 2nd clause of the manifesto “Use no superfluous word”

Certainly progress in the poetic technique. — France leading the way. Gautier “Albertus” England 1890–1908. That which Rimbaud reached by intuition (genius) in some poems, built in (?? maybe) conscious aesthetic — I do not want to claim an unfair glory — but for all that I know. I’m doing an aesthetic more or less systematic — and I could have named certain poems of Rimbaud as example. (But also some poems of Catullus.)

And it is certain that apart from some methods of expression — Rimbaud and I have but a point of resemblance. But almost all of the experimentation, poetic technique of 1830-up to me  —  was made in France.

Actually “poets,” that’s another matter. There was Browning (even Swinburne), Rosetti, E. Fitzgerald, who interested themselves more in topics on the matter of new expression than in the processes of expression.

You have in Poetry, Chicago, (1912, I believe) my first citation of contemporary French. The era of unanimism.

With all modesty, I think I was oriented before being familiar with the modern French poets. That I took advantage of their technical inventions (Like Edison or any other man of science benefits from discoveries). There’s also the ancients: Villon, the Troubadours.

You will find in my The Spirit of Romance, published 1910, that which I Knew before addressing French moderns.

It is likely that France has learned from Italy and Spain. England from France and that France cannot absorb anything or learn from the English. (? Problem —  not dogma.)

Another dissociation to make: sometimes we learn, or suddenly “influence”
 an idea  —  other times fighting against barbarism, we seek support — arming ourselves with the prestige of a civilized man, and recognized, to fight American imbecility.

I have quoted Gourmont, and I just gave a new version of Confucius’ Ta Hio, because I find there formulations of ideas that appear to me useful for civilizing America (tentative). I rather revere good sense over originality (that of Rémy de G., that of Confucius).

To return to the subject: I hardly believe the French poetry must have been rooted by a good English or American poetry, but the technique of French poets was certainly in a state to serve in the education of poets of my tongue  —  from the time of Gautier until 1912.

Of the essential poets, having this preparation, it occurs time and again in Gautier, Corbiere, Laforgue, Rimbaud. Since Rimbaud, no poet in France has invented anything fundamental.

There were interesting modifications, almost-inventions, applications. (See Instigations or my number of Little Review on French Poets.)

I think Cocteau, who you glorify as metteur-en-scene and neglect as very good minor poet, did something to free the French language of its cuffs (Poésies 1920). That’s for the French language —  utterly useless for us who write in American —  Meaning: invention of local utility.

Perhaps you will be an instrument of thought. If you ask yourself the question.

Does one English language exist to express the lines of Rimbaud? I’m not saying a translator capable of this, but if this language exists? (As a means)  —  and since when?

Of this balance, you must find the right relationship — at least on the technical side.

If you’d like, you can send me your study before printing it and then I could indicate the differences of view, or the errors (if any would be there) of fact, minor chronology, etc.

P.S. I think that my severity toward the reputation of French literature is preferable to the effusions of Francophiles or parasites who seek to pass of bad French poets as top rung. We build a more secure glory, by wanting to introduce solid authors (as many as the number they ram in, thrown there into puddles, swells, etc.)

I think Eliot, whose first poems showed influence of Laforgue, has less respect for Laforgue than the respect I have for Laforgue.

Gautier I have studied and revere. What you take as influence of Corbiere is probably directly influenced by Villon.

[Villon] by Tailhade superficially

[Tailhade] by Jammes !! I hope not.

As for the sonnets? Catullus, Villon, Guido Cavalcanti, some Greeks who were not Pindar, some Chinese.

Und ich überhaupt stamm aus Browning. Why deny his father?

Symbol?? I have never read “the ideas of symbolists” on that subject.

In my youth I had maybe received some idea received from the Middle Ages. Dante, St. Victor, God knows who, revisions via Yeats (the latter full of unknown symbolism  —  via Boète, French symbolism, etc.)  —  but I do not how to uncover the traces.

I recall nothing of Gourmont’s on the subject of the “symbol.”

My reformation:
 1. Browning  —  devoid of superfluous words
 2. Flaubert  —  the precisely correct word, presentation or observation
Metric reform more profound  —  as of 1905 we began, before knowing French moderns.

I “launched” the Imagistes (anthology Des Imagistes; but I must be dissociated from the decadence of Imagistes, beginning with their subsequent anthologies (even the first of these anthologies)).

But indeed: the idea of the image must be “some thing” of the French symbolists via T. E. Hulme, via Yeats, via Symons, via Mallarmé. As bread owes something to the wheat winnower, etc. So much happening in between.

But also to Catullus (not Mendès)  —  Q. V. Catullus  —  who had a strong concept net from the preceding several thousand years.

But my knowledge of French modern poets and my propaganda for these poets in America (1912–17–23) came in a general sense after the inception of Imagism in London (1908–13–14). I believe that the influence of Laforgue (from Eliot) or Maupassant on America often came second, third, fifteenth hand.

Rhetoric of the everyday

Lorine Niedecker's 'Lake Superior'

“Looking Out to the River,” Lorine Niedecker, Blackhawk Island, WI, March 1966 (image courtesy of the Fort Atkinson Historical Society).

In “Lake Superior,” a poem of historical rumination on the Great Lakes region, derived by Lorine Niedecker from a 1966 vacation journal, there is a brief critical turn amidst appreciations of the landscape and compact accounts of seventeenth-century explorer Pierre-Esprit Radisson, who called Lake Superior “a laborinth of pleasure.” Niedecker draws the reader’s attention to “Iron the common element of earth” as well as “basalt the common dark / in all the Earth.” She features the commonwealth as a geologically coherent reality: “In every living thing,” she writes, “is stuff that once was rock // In blood the minerals / of the rock.” But her salvo, a judgment of human actions on the wild depiction of that landscape, darkens the mood of the poem, and shifts the scale from natural processes of land formation, observed in vivid descriptions of retreating glaciers and “peaks of volcanic thrust,” to that of moral consternation. The brief segment I refer to is simply called “Wild Pigeon,” and it goes like this:

Did not man
       maimed by no
mash the cobalt
       and carnelian
                            of that bird[1

“That bird,” the now-extinct passenger pigeon, enters the poem as an attitude of explicit irony, judging the features of what Niedecker called a commonwealth next to shared mineral distinctions of the region. The mood, more precisely, indicates a morose acknowledgement of human intrusion on natural processes that include millions of years of earthy, geological compression.

I want to discuss this poem because I’m interested in how mood and emotion so often inform or prepare judgments, offering stances toward the world. The language game of Niedecker’s poetry, to borrow Ludwig Wittgenstein’s term for the uses of language in ordinary contexts, takes the experience of the everyday as ground for attention. The Objectivist tradition of writing inspired by William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky, and others, along with contemporary authors like Lyn Hejinian and Joanne Kyger, continues this use of poetry as a “language of inquiry” into the everyday experiences that compose society. The mundane and our many moods in it sustain frameworks of attention in rhetorical encounters that underlie values, or that challenge us to amend certain attitudes or worldviews. Rhetoric, far from being a mere use of figures and tropes as it is often assumed, shapes inquiry and determines modes of truth seeking. By truth I mean the dynamic actions that make the world known. Poetry, similarly, in this Objectivist mode, and in Niedecker’s exemplary “Lake Superior,” shows how individual values and beliefs can be contained within the larger criteria of history and natural science.

Niedecker delivers an enthusiastic concentration of language on objects of everyday experience. Her work suggests not only the temporal and spatial scales that defined the geographic regions of her investigation; it also shows how attitudes, enthusiasms, values, beliefs, and worldviews can be conveyed in everyday language. So much of our communication is informed by phatic utterances, gestures, confirmations or denials of feeling, and occasions to disclose worldviews by way of specific attitudes. Poetry, as Walter Jost argues, “makes evident a way of life.”[2] And a way of life often can be messy, unstable, careless, even as in some of the best poetry we find evidence of persuasion, challenge, and acknowledgement of new positions toward the world. A kind of critical flexibility is required to purchase a hold on any given poem. An author like Niedecker challenges us to measure our personal interests and concerns within what Douglas Crase calls the “evolutional sublime,”[3] a temporal scale that is vast, and in which the meaning of our beliefs and values remains to be discovered.

Niedecker also affords an opportunity to consider the guiding force of mood in everyday experience. I take mood as an extensive presence of an attitude, or conveyance of a belief system or worldview that connects more largely to pathos. From neuroscientific studies we discover that emotion, broadly, can be defined as “episodic, relatively short-term, biologically-based patterns of perception, experience, physiology, action, and communication that occur in response to specific physical and social challenges and opportunities.”[4] Martha Nussbaum in her recent work on political emotions refers to “cognitive appraisals” as important disclosures of emotive capacities, and she considers how they are shaped, invited into participation through the emotional experiences of public life.[5] Nussbaum looks closely at literature and other arts to understand political emotions because poetry is especially important as a mode of inquiry; it accepts the necessity of mood to make sense of experience. Mood establishes a particular kind of bond between author and reader. It conveys how we accept more dominant attitudes or worldviews, or how we deny their influence on our lives. Emerson, as far back as 1832, observed how moods “attend me through every sentence of my writing, & determine the form of every clause.”[6] If, as Jeffrey Walker argues, “rhetorical transactions are immanent in the way things are,” it is often our feelings that first inform how we respond to, and give body to, the various worldviews we encounter.[7]

In his essay “Thinking of Emerson,” Stanley Cavell describes how “moods must be taken as having at least as sound a role in advising us of reality as sense experience has.” Mood negotiates “the ways in which human experience is always already mediated by interest, value, and physical embodiment.”[8] The significant presence of mood in the physicality of experience shifts attention from metaphysical ideals to “everyday life, and the medium of its appearance in ordinary language.”[9] Whether we use terms like Wittgenstein’s “language games” or Kenneth Burk’s dramatistic notion of situated discourse, ordinary uses of language often are shaped by compelling moods that can determine spontaneous forms of judgment expressed in the many facets of the everyday.[10] Quotidian experience, moreover, consists of concepts, arguments, evaluations, and decisions that are negotiated in a practical discourse (phronesis) that often “shows forth,” Jost’s translation of “epi-deixis.”[11] Such showing forth in poetry can instruct attitudes and guide judgments in the condensed play of intellect and mood that heightens understanding of rhetoric’s practical uses.

So how does Lorine Niedecker discover a particular kind of language game in her poem “Lake Superior”? Her interest in geology, history, and geography enables a “showing forth” of Lake Superior that does more than merely document a vacation: it examines cultural and regional history, reflects on relationships between human perspective and geologic time, and enacts judgments that clarify positions established by guiding moods of travel. Such moods are established through objective encounters with “great granite / gneiss and the schists,”[12] and by her reading of Pierre-Esprit Radisson (“long hair, long gun // Fingernails pulled out / by Mohawks”).[13] Niedecker’s relation of the road trip detours from the high modernist investment in “epiphanic events”: instead, her writing compels curiosity, deepening a reader’s capacity for observing the “the centrality of ‘attunement’ and ‘voice’” in an experience of the ordinary.[14] This shift from the modernist notion of epiphansis, a unique and personal manifestation, toward epideixis indicates Niedecker’s rhetorical appreciation for the persuasive and tactile delivery of poetry: the focus is not located in the profound experience of the individual, but on the persuasive social presentation and invitation to a community of readers who encounter the domain of individuality established through poetry.

In this attunement, Niedecker uses what Kenneth Burke called a “qualitative formal progression.”[15] That is, her writing proceeds by way of echo, compression, foreshadowing, and densely refined sequences of linguistic exchange. Lake Superior and its environs mediate a profound discovery between the poet and her words, and between the industrial stresses of 1966 with the abundance of life forms that had proliferated throughout the region. She writes:

Iron the common element of earth
in rocks and freighters

Sault Sainte Marie — big boats
coal-black and iron-ore-red
topped with what white castlework

The waters working together
Gulls playing both sides[16]

Niedecker’s language, like the mineral world, shifts, hardens, transforms. A sense of the impermanence and constantly changing features of landscape pervade “Lake Superior” with what Lyn Hejinian describes as “the measure of felt thought.”[17] A sense of fluidity navigates Niedecker’s attention to land as well as words, and human activity moves through the larger duration of this geologic time. The Canadian Shield on the north side of Lake Superior reveals some of the most ancient rock to be seen in the world. Three-million-year-old granite is exposed there. On this the French traders and Friars established European ways of plunder and prayer. Niedecker does not praise these acts as heroic deeds; nor does she critically revise the ventures of France in the New World: instead, she observes the features of religion and statecraft as they absorb into these geological realities. She writes:

Through all this granite land
the sign of the cross

Beauty: impurities in the rock


And at the blue ice superior spot
priest-robed Marquette grazed
azoic rock, hornblende granite
basalt the common dark
in all the Earth

And his bones of such is coral
raised up out of his grave
were sunned and birch bark-floated
to the straits[18]

Later in the poem, Niedecker moves attention from historical activity to the action of language use, following etymological next to geological nomenclatures. She writes

Ruby of corundum
lapis lazuli
from changing limestone
glow-apricot red-brown
carnelian sard

Greek named
kicked up in America’s
you have been in my mind
between my toes

Niedecker’s love of rock is evident in the accompanying journal she kept of her 1966 vacation. The mood is more matter-of-fact, and conveys the curiosity and liveliness of travel. “The agate,” she says in an early entry, “was first found on the shores of a river in Sicily and named by the Greeks. In the Bible (Exodus), this semiprecious stone was seen on the priest’s breastplate.”[20] Between her poem and the accompanying journal, we can see how Niedecker’s communicative practice cohered as if it were a kind of sedimentation: her everyday is absorbed with history, science, literature, and language. In her enthusiasms for place and words we encounter judgments and attitudes that inform our own relationships to notions of commonwealth, and what we value in our personal holdings as well as our public surroundings.

Let me conclude with Davida Charney’s observation of how poetry conducts relationships and performs personal crises in public.[21] If, as Jost argues, there is “an ‘epideictic’ rhetorical disclosure that underlies all argument and that invites us to identification in the first place,”[22] then poets like Niedicker, and the authors of the Psalms Charney discusses, perform strategies of discovery and embody relationships between persons and the environments that give them shape. The strength of the persuasive appeal is carried through dominant moods and attitudes that orient language to worldviews that may instruct future actions in the world. If nothing else, we are readied by our attunement to poetry to bear words and judgments that enhance our capacities with what Burke called “equipment for living.”[23] Niedecker’s exemplary poem to a regional landscape provides insight into the importance of epideictic discourse that gives shape and shows forth “truths” and values that distinguish our convictions and enlarge our abilities to experience the possibilities of discovery belonging to the everyday.



1. Lorine Niedecker, Collected Works (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 232–35.

2. This statement is from notes taken during a presentation by Walter Jost (Sixteenth Biennial Rhetoric Society of America Conference, San Antonio, TX, May 23, 2014).

3. Douglas Crase, “Niedecker and the Evolutional Sublime,” in Niedecker, Lake Superior (Seattle/New York: Wave Books, 2013), 28.

4. Dacher Keltner and James. J. Gross, “Functional Accounts of Emotions,” in Cognition and Emotion 13, No. 5 (1999): 468.

5. Martha C. Nussbaum, Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 17.

6. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Journals and Letters,” in Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: Signet Classics, 2003), 17.

7. This statement is from notes taken during a presentation by Jeffrey Walker (Sixteenth Biennial Rhetoric Society of America Conference, San Antonio, TX, May 23, 2014).

8. Stanley Cavell, “Thinking of Emerson,” in Emerson’s Transcendental Etudes (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2003), 11.

9. Walter Jost, Rhetorical Investigations: Studies in Ordinary Language Criticism (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2004), 101.

10. For more on Burke’s notion of dramatism and its significance for rhetorical studies, see Grammar of Motives (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960 [1945]). 

11. Jost, Rhetorical Investigations, 167.

12. Niedecker, Collected Works, 236.

13. Ibid., 232.

14. Jost, Rhetorical Investigations, 101.

15. Kenneth Burke, Counter-Statement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968 [1931]), 124–25.

16. Niedecker, Collected Works, 232.

17. Lyn Hejinian, The Language of Inquiry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 133.

18. Niedecker, Collected Works, 233.

19. Ibid., 234.

20. Lorine Niedecker, “Lake Superior Country, a Journal,” in Lake Superior, 7.

21. I take this insight from statements presented by Davida Charney (Sixteenth Biennial Rhetoric Society of America Conference, San Antonio, TX, May 23, 2014). See also Charney’s book chapter “Taking a Stance toward God: Rhetoric in the Book of Psalms” in Jewish Rhetorics: History, Theory, Practice,ed. Michael Bernard-Donals and Janice W. Fernheimer (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2014), 1–15.  

22. Jost, Rhetorical Investigations, 110.

23. Kenneth Burke, “Literature as Equipment for Living,” in Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 293–304.

Introducing PennSound Italiana

Curated by Jennifer Scappettone

The twenty-one poets represented on PennSound Italiana.

After many months of planning and labor, we are delighted to launch a new sector of PennSound: PennSound Italiana, devoted to contemporary Italian poetry. We seek over the course of this ongoing project to offer a broad sense of the field, filling in the substantive gaps in global access to Italian poetry (as both written and sonic text — even within Italian borders), and expanding awareness of its range of practitioners, with an emphasis on marginalized and experimental voices of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It is an effort — a unique one, in our reckoning — to “liberate” the spectrum of Italian poetry for as broad a public as possible through audio and video recordings, given that the publishing industry and the translation market are endangered and/or blinkered enough to condemn a significant swath of both historical and contemporary innovation to oblivion. As such, this live archive extends the task of PennSound writ large.

Some highlights of the first edition, to whet the curiosity of listeners:

Five episodes of “Con l’ascia dietro le spalle: 10 anni senza Amelia Rosselli” (“With the hatchet at our backs: Ten years without Amelia Rosselli”), produced by Andrea Cortellessa, and containing rare interviews with Rosselli and with other poets and critics, including Antonella Anedda, Biancamaria Frabotta, Emmanuela Tandello, and Lucia Re;

Salnitro(Saltpeter), a historic 1976 sound poem produced in the studios of RAI by Milli Graffi, member of the Tam Tam group and current editor-in-chief of the experimental literary journal Il verri. Of this piece, Graffi writes, “I understood what my sound poem could be when I listened to Schwitters’ Ursonate recited by Giuliano Zosi: half an hour of uninterrupted pressurized vocalizations, strongly rhythmical, and exemplary. For me, it was the path of the first avant-garde, and one had to depart from there. An absurd tercet of hendecasyllables came to my mind in a flash, and I prepared a rigorous plan of fragmentation, defined on every page of the score with tempos and directions for vocal execution … Invited to take part in the Audiobox broadcast directed by Pinotto Fava, I realized the eighteen minutes of Saltpeter in the RAI studios of Rome in three days of rehearsal with the technologies of that time. From that point, using the cassette that RAI gave me, I composed Saltpeter by improvising with my live voice and redoubling the effect by overlaying it onto the voice recorded on cassette. With the lights out, I had an animated play of liquids that Giovanni Anceschi had given me, and which made for a good “saltpeter” effect, projected onto a screen at my back. I dressed all in white to become an integral part of the imaginary grotto.” 

Soundscapes by Tommaso Ottonieri and electronic musician Martux-M that were published with Le strade che portano al Fùcino, a 2007 collection of prose poetry charting the plains of Telespazio, a multinational satellite services company based outside of Rome that “covers the whole space market value chain,” in acts of code-twisting between globalized standard Italian and dialect;

Di colpo la parola smarrimento” (“Suddenly the word disorientation”), from Sicilian poet and historical novelist Maria Attanasio’s Amnesia del movimento delle nuvole (Amnesia of the Movement of Clouds), with “en-face” recordings from Carla Billitteri’s translation published by Litmus Press in 2014;

book,” a poem composed in English from Marco Giovenale’s Anachromisms, winner of the 2013 Ahsahta Press Chapbook Prize;

Sonata n. 2 per Graphemium, a video composition by Laura Cingolani, poet, musician, singer, performer, and gutsy heir of the neo-avant-garde (executed with the help of Daniele Salvati, electronic musician and sound researcher): Laura writes that “Each grapheme typed in on the keyboard of the PC is associated with a note: the text is literally played, and each execution can be carried out with a different sound, timbre and instrument”;


Lettere alla reinserzione culturale del disoccupato(with a pun on Letters toward and Letters to the cultural reinsertion of the unemployed), based on the 2013 book by Paris-based author/editor Andrea Inglese: “field recordings” made in various cities, and mixed by Stefano Delle Monache.

We hope that providing the sounds of these texts to a greater public — including a public that is not conversant in Italian — will enable an altered state of listening for what exceeds the contours of understanding defined by national languages — and seduce listeners into the concord (or discord) of tuning. Such states are made possible in a space between bodies that Antena founders Jen Hofer and John Pluecker ask us to inhabit critically and expansively in their “Manifesto for Ultratranslation”: “Moments of untranslatability lead directly to untranslation, undertranslation, overtranslation, an excess, extranslation, a lack, a limit, an excrescence, an impropriety, distranslation, retranslation, multitranslation, a mistake, a conflict, dystranslation. An understanding of the potential in not understanding.”

Subsequent editions of PennSound Italiana, already underway, will include historic recording sessions by Giulia Niccolai and Paul Vangelisti; work by contemporary poets Antonella Doria, Angela Passarello, Laura Pugno, Giovanna Frene, and Michele Zaffarano; and new unpublished poems by Milo De Angelis, with translations by Susan Stewart and Patrizio Ceccagnoli. Stay on the line for these and other exciting developments!

The time of the poet-scholar

I have an autobiographical relation to the poet-scholar category. I wanted to be a poet. I went and got a PhD in English with the idea that even the TA line would be a sort of day job, and at the time they felt not quite related. My first job was as a scholar. My second, and current, job is as a creative writer. There is nothing unique about this story, so I will present it as an anecdotal example. I will in these notes just quickly attempt to enumerate the terrain which I think might explain how we have found ourselves at a panel on the poet-scholar at the MLA in 2012. I will draw no conclusions from it. 

When I was applying for that first job, I thought I was entering the job market in its decline. Casual or adjunct appointments were at around thirty percent. This felt catastrophic. The general thinking was that that there was no way it could get worse. “Who would do the service?” it was often said; it would be unsustainable to go lower. But then adjunct labor was teaching fifty percent of the classes when I got this second job in 2003 as a poet, in what Mark Nowak calls the American neoliberal MFA industry. What I realize now that I couldn’t see then was that despite the massive casualization of academic labor, I was at the same time getting a job in what is looking like it might very well be an MFA bubble. When I got my first job in 1995, there were somewhere maybe around sixty-five MFA programs. In 2014, Poets and Writers had 214 programs in their database. Many of these MFA programs are clustered at tuition-dependent universities (although some state universities have begun to see these programs as good ideas because they can provide that casual labor pool). But there are next to no employment prospects for these graduates, which wouldn’t necessarily have to be a problem if not for how so many have funded their degrees through large amounts of student loans. This is why the MFA numbers look unsustainable.

Parallel to what is looking like an unsustainable MFA bubble is what I might call the “possible creative writing-ization” of the English major. The Department of Education did not introduce Classification of Instructional Program codes for degree completions data until 1987. But data collected since 1987 clearly shows a dramatic increase in creative writing degrees. In 1987, 468 undergraduate and 413 masters degrees were awarded in creative writing. In 2011, those numbers are over 2,500 undergraduate and 2,782 graduate degrees. This is a fairly significant rise. And these numbers probably underreport, as many undergraduate programs only offer a BA in English with a concentration in creative writing, so the undergraduate data in particular is probably only reliable as a growth trend.

When I was an undergraduate way back in the ’80s, colleges and universities tended to treat creative writing classes like candy; too many would make you sick and weak. The small liberal arts college that I attended taught two poetry workshops a year: a beginning and an advanced one. You had to apply to take them. Twelve students were admitted. The rest, it was felt, did not deserve such a pleasure. Other schools, if they even had a creative writing major, tended to limit the creative writing majors. They had a gateway admissions process and only a certain number were allowed to be majors. Some schools, especially big state universities, still use this model. But in general, as the university system has begun to see students less as children whose candy intake should be regulated and more as consumers whose candy tuition money they want, they tend not to regulate but to provide. Anecdote again: the small liberal arts college where I now teach used the limited class offerings model to regulate creative writing majors when I began teaching there. Each semester there was a beginning and an advanced, waiting lists and demand be damned. At a certain point, the department began to receive more and more pressure from the administration to enroll whatever would enroll however it would enroll. So the department began to offer more and more undergraduate workshops. Now the department’s unregulated undergraduate creative writing majors tend to double undergraduate English majors.

There are numerous reasons for this: the grades in creative writing classes are obviously higher; the reading is less; the writing has a lower word count; etc. But not all of them are necessarily negative or lazily assumptive. I’d like to think that students might also be looking at the five-page seminar paper, the continued tendency to teach mainly the literatures of only two nations, and the strict century-coverage model that begins in the early modern period, and think to themselves, well at least the novel, say, has the possibility of being read by someone outside of the classroom.

Beyond anecdote, there is a fairly obvious piece of evidence to support this “possible creative writing-ization” of English departments. Although the AWP started in 1967, it did not feel compelled to hold a conference until 2005. It started small, with 3,000 attendees. In 2014, 13,000 people registered (probably more went and did not register). The MLA at its peak in the mid-1990s maxed out with around 12,000 people attending its conference. Last year it had around 7,000.

I doubt this “possible creative writing-ization” is in any way a permanent change to English departments. And that is how it should be. However, it definitely has had a major impact on the hiring patterns of English departments, and English departments will be changed by this for years to come. And while whatever happens next remains to be seen, I doubt it will look like a retreat to what English departments looked like in what we might now want to begin to call the glory days of the 1990s. The profession is obviously in the middle of a profound metamorphosis of some sort, from the fairly dramatic funding cuts that are privatizing the state university systems to the increasing evidence that the private system might have reached peak tuition a few years ago and might now be massively overpriced in relation to student ability and/or willingness to pay or borrow in a fairly stagnant employment market. And then English departments have their own narratives within these large-scale changes. I’m not sure, in short, that the profession could pay its composition and intro class instructors so little if it were not for the current large numbers of MFA graduates. It is also worth remembering that when Bennington fired all its tenured-line faculty, under the advice of John Barr — the recently retired president of the Poetry Foundation — they justified this by saying that they wanted to hire working artists and writers rather than scholars. But that is another talk for another panel, the one on the role of creative writing programs in the privatization of education or the one on the role of MFA programs in the casualization of the labor of English departments.

That said, I don’t really have a profound conclusion here. Except as much as it might be the time of the “possible creative writing-ization” of English departments, it might also be the time of the poet-scholar. And what it means to be a poet-scholar is full of these issues. I’ve been a bit grumpy about it all. But one of the potentially productive things that could happen out of this “possible creative-writing-ization” of English departments is that this old standoff between creative writing and scholarship might dissolve. One thing that I’ve noticed where I now teach is that as the number of creative writing majors has grown, more and more students are writing a creative thesis that is basically a form of scholarship. In recent years, in addition to the usual retellings of Jane Austen novels, I’ve read an elucidation of a queer subtext of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, a feminist reworking of a series of classic male performance art pieces, a detournment of a Hemingway short story with the genders reversed, etc. I am, in short, watching undergraduate students attempt to write what I might call “more interesting to me literary scholarship”; they are reading and thinking and arguing with the informed critiques and discussions of the field. Although I should admit that graduate students are still doing what they tend to do. They are still writing, with a few lovely and notable exceptions, and god bless these, the mainly confessional, even when experimental, observations about their lives and their loves and sometimes the weather and the land and the suburban animals.