Articles

Poems from '6x6' vis-a-vis a poem by Joe Ceravolo

Joe Ceravolo (seated) with Rosemary Ceravolo and Ira Joel Haber, early 1970s. Photo by by John Perreault.

Why would it make sense to analyze select poems by a disparate group of younger poets working today via one particular poem by Joe Ceravolo? Wouldn’t it be better, if one wanted to make the case that Ceravolo is newly relevant, to take his entire oeuvre as a reference field? And even if his poetry might presage formally (through its informality) some things some poets today are doing, surely there are many other ways they are writing that have nothing or little to do with Ceravolo, or have much more to do with a wide range of poets from diverse periods.

The fact is that there is something in the poetry of both Barbara Guest and Joe Ceravolo that is distinct from other poets of their time or later and which is becoming increasingly recognized and influential among poets working today.[1] Let’s call it musicality. It is a way of communicating that has little to do with logic, except as the logical mind extrapolates from given signposts. It is poetry that is nonlinear; stories are not told. Settings, if anything, are intimated, not specified. The poems do not rely on humor, irony, or surrealist surprise of detail.

And yet the poetry of neither of these poets is fragmentary. I believe that has to do with the time in which both Guest and Ceravolo grew up. In a pre-media, pre-multi-tasking, age, their poetics, aware though they were of tragedy, aspired to wholeness. I don’t mean their poems have pat endings, quite the contrary, but their poems have completeness. You can think of them as musical pieces. They begin with motifs, which are elaborated, and ultimately conclusions — musical conclusions — are reached.

It occurs to me I have been trying for some time to find a way out of the fragmentary. The more the fragmentary has been praised as the signal artistic achievement of the past century, the more I have realized I am uncomfortable with its ascendancy.[2] Ceravolo and Guest are excellent guides to poetry that is thoroughly modern without being fragmented. In their poetry, there is no desire to turn back to an earlier conception of poetry’s limits.

A poem by Joe Ceravolo, then, provides the springboard for thinking about a group of young poets, who have been published in recent issues of 6x6. Let’s take a look at a poem by Joe Ceravolo, “Stars of the Trees and Ponds,” and then bring it back with us to 6x6.

Stars of the Trees

      and    Ponds

O blue and nerveless

stars. The night and the

distance of the lake.

The lake: mosquitoes, the

uni-inter air — the pond of

towering mosquitoes we float

through. Float:

the tents as we use

the lumpy earth under a

blanket. Cars: the

blanket of cars facing your

vision of stars and thoughts

never concealed to the lake.

Conceal: Thoughts are never

hidden, the mosquito cries to

the lake. And brings the

lake’s invisible man

Invisible: a woman rises into

the lake and out of the lake

Pond: you are left in the tent

and see the beige pond.

Leak: a woman stands over you.

Woman: the pond leaks.

You hear it.

(The Paris Review 38 [Summer 1966])


This poem by Joe Ceravolo accrues power through repetition. Not a description of a scene, nonetheless a setting emerges; the title hints at that setting, although the force of the possessive “of” is ambiguous, and the graphic separation of the word “Ponds” from the rest of the title seems to set it almost as counterbalance to the other terms.

We are in the realm of pastoral. The following words alert us: lake, mosquitoes, pond, earth, stars, tent. But this is no narrative of a camping trip, no occasion for a meditation on nature. Our first impression is that this is an occasion for the senses, and the trained ear may hear echoes of Mallarmé here, that is, of a poet who could write seemingly for sound only (or color, an Impressionist like his colleague Debussy), who created dreamlike passages of sound, in which desire is fomented and disappointment and attainment take turns as the tonic chord.

Ceravolo’s pacing is masterful: unexpected and precise. There are pick-ups: the third line ends with “lake.” The fourth begins, “The lake …” The sixth ends, “we float …” The seventh continues, “… through. Float.” “Blanket” rhymes with itself at the beginning of the tenth line (the last of the first stanza) and the beginning of the eleventh (first of the second stanza). And so on: “concealed to the lake. / Conceal:”; “invisible man / Invisible:”

The colons have a specific function, almost like a musical notation of repetition of an idea, a pause for reiteration. They initiate clarification of meaning but not by providing equivalents. Ceravolo’s insistent mode is a lyrical breaking of syntax. There is a progression as the poem moves through its stanzas. Although the lines are short, the poem moves by pauses, not flow, creating an expanded sense of time. This short poem can take a long time to read.

Cars are introduced at the end of the first stanza, grounding the poem in the mundane, as much as “the lumpy earth” grounds its physical experience. The cars threaten to “blanket” that experience, but, the poem tells us, thoughts, associated by proximity to the cars, are “never concealed,” “never / hidden.” Whose thoughts? At this point, the poet’s — perhaps only his. One interpretation could be that imagination is able to resist the onslaught of commercial culture. Reading this way, one would be tempted to identify imagination (or intellect) with the natural elements in the poem. Another interpretation could be that cars are transportation, and therefore imagination.

At the transition from the second to the third (and final) stanza, first a “man” and then “a woman” are introduced, albeit “invisible.” In the poem’s final three lines, the drama of the scene coalesces, as, “Leak: a woman stands over you.” This is the first use of the generalizing “you” in the poem. There is a human opening, literally and emotionally, here. The word “leak,” set apart by a colon from the phrase that follows, implies the woman, standing over “you,” is leaking. The tension created between a physical and emotional leak is powerful. But in the next line, the poet inverts the tension, clarifies it, or has the woman clarify it, speak it perhaps: “Woman: the pond leaks.”

Another idea makes itself felt: the identification of woman with nature. This ancient male conception has been discredited by feminists, but some women have sought to rescue an element of power in the identification.[3] Perhaps Ceravolo’s poem partakes of this more tentative identification. Perhaps woman in this poem is nature, in all its hovering evanescence, while man is identified with the car and tent not as progress and domination but as intrusion, pollution.

In the final line of the poem, three short words quickly focus the reverie. Everything we have become aware of is part of the sensual experience of nature in a modern context, an ambiguous relationship between a man and a woman: “You hear it.” Humans are invisible, apart from, through somehow identified with, nature.

I would like to keep the experience of reading this poem by Ceravolo in mind as paradigmatic while examining some poems by much younger poets, published in 6x6.

Published by Ugly Duckling Presse in editions of 1,000, 6x6, as its name implies, presents in each issue six pages of poetry by six poets. (The Rolling Stones’ second album, 12x5, presented twelve tracks by five musicians). I have access to issues 15, 16, 17, 18, and 19, and it is these I will consider here. In these, all the contributors are contemporary, except for Mikhail Lermontov (1814–1841), whose poems appear in translations by Jerome Rothenberg and Milos Sovak. No information is provided in the magazine as to who edits it. No bios of the authors are given. The magazine has a distinctive format, seven by seven inches square with the upper right corner cut out, bound by a fat rubber band. The first line of poetry from the first poem in the magazine is printed on the cover along with the issue number but without the magazine title.

One of the pleasures of reading 6x6 is having one’s horizons broadened by the editorial policy of promoting experimental work. There are, in 6x6, poems composed of prose, and there are poems in stanzas. There are poems written in complete sentences, easy or difficult to comprehend, and there are poems whose syntax is interrupted. There are humorous poems and despairing poems, also angry poems, and sexy poems. I am combing the pages of 6x6, looking for poetry that works by subterfuge — in ways not readily apparent to logical analysis.

In 6x6 no. 18, Guy Bennett presents a suite of conceptual poems. Here is “Poem Wholly Lacking In Ideas” in its entirety: “Intriguing as the thought may be, / it is simply not possible / to write a poem wholly lacking / in ideas.” This is very well done, as are his other poems in the set. They are witty, and they keep to their intellectual premise of complete self-referentiality. More importantly, they are poems. They are very far, however, from what Ceravolo was trying to achieve. There is no urgent feeling that syntax needs to be fractured while retaining with difficulty a melodic result.

Lawrence Giffin’s poems in 6x6 no. 15 bears a superficial resemblance to Ceravolo’s in their use of exclamation, repetition, and spatial separation within normally laid-out lines. Here is his opening section:

The Sea

 

was at my feet.

The Sea.

I too,     knew,

it was    immense!

awful!

I knew the word that

named the process

going on inside my head,

was restrained    The Sea

and made              in fact

herself to point.

My first conscious perception

of an abstract idea.   Part I:

Helen’s Genius She touched

my head and said

with decided emphasis,

“The Sea.”


This is well-paced, and the word choices are very tasteful. There is a subtle mixture of ideas from classical poetry, philosophy, psychology, and politics, without the poem’s seeming overly referential. The ideas are subsumed into the poet’s own intervention in the English language. But there is still here a reverence for the completeness of the sentence. This is an important separating point, that determines whether a poet will be able to find his or her path of linguistic innovation, or will be under the sway of previous modes of connecting ideas. And lest anyone think I only favor poetry of The Tennis Court Oath lineage, let me add that innovation can take place too on the level of the syllable, or in punctuation, or in the space between words. Frank O’Hara does it in “The Day Lady Died” as much as he does in “Easter.”

Here is a poem that approaches what I am getting at. It is by Ossian Foley, from 6x6 no. 16. I can’t tell if it is a poem or a section of a poem. It appears on its own page without a title:

Souse with spray

— yet awash in rimless floods

the boundless touch

hand in hand without halt

the sail spans the bay —

time at bay.

 

What attracts me here is the use of the word “souse,” leading off with that, and yet — apart from the suggestive word “rimless” — relying on commonly used words, and resisting the temptation to pile words next to one another. The use of alliteration, assonance and rhyme here is sophisticated — “hand in hand without halt / the sail spans the bay” is particularly successful — but what really hooks, and seems particularly Ceravolean, is the way Foley uses the word “bay” differently in the last two lines. This gets inside the skin of poetry, to do something only a poet can do. “[T]ime at bay” is both “time spent at the bay” and “time kept at bay.” In the latter sense, the time — that is to say, the music — of the poem exemplifies what it suggests: it keeps rational clock-time at bay, at least for as long as we are reading.

Megan Kaminski, in 6x6 no. 17, presents untitled poems from a longer sequence, “Favored Daughter.” Dispensing with punctuation, she creates blocks of text, whose meanings hover and migrate, as in this section:

Fingers search into clay damp earth

make way for deeper roots horizontal

creepings below those top two leaves

there is still darkness even this time

of year     beneath the sunshine and lawn

parties bequeathed longings croquet

around tulips sprout nasturtiums

lain dormant underground for years


As with all her poems in this selection, the first word only is capitalized, making them function like stanzas. They are breath-blasts — a tiny pause, or caesura, thrown in the middle — the amount the poet can speak in one burst, getting it all down in time. Getting it all done at once means that meanings wend their own way. You could consider this description, if you are really hung up on syntax, but it would not get you too far: hands probing under the earth run into roots, which they courteously make way for, prompting the narrator to remember croquet games and other happy summer activities. Even that, as description, is fairly odd, but what takes on much deep weight (“deeper roots”) is the way the sense of memory is leavened in, or rather how sensation (and here I get a twinkling of Ceravolo) unexpectedly prompts memory. As in Foley’s work, Kaminski does not tell the reader this; her words enact it.

It happens here: “there is still darkness even this time / of year” (italics mine). She (the fingers) has found the darkness — under the literal ground of earth and underground in the subconscious — which kicks up lawn parties and croquet and shockingly interspersed among them “bequeathed longings.” By the last line of the poem, we know for sure that it is not only the tulips and nasturtiums that now sprout, but these precise longings, which have “lain dormant underground for years” (italics mine). In this short, unassuming poem, there is a stark depth of emotion, all the more powerful for remaining unexplicit. We inevitably fill in the blanks. What remains is that strange word “bequeathed.” Archaic-sounding, almost out of place, it keys in the poem, making the connection from one person to another and making that connection somehow uncomfortable.

Paul Hoover in 6x6 no. 18 is something of an anomaly. I imagine most of the poets in 6x6 are in their thirties, maybe some in their twenties, some in their forties. Hoover is of an earlier generation, a revered figure both as a sophisticated experimenter with poetic forms and, with Maxine Chernoff, as a significant publisher of other poets. His work in 6x6 is not, therefore, surprising, but it does fit with the editorial stance. Here is the second stanza of Hoover’s “Night Is Spoken Here”:

clouds over miami

            and clouds over time

it’s always the future somewhere

            we all remember it well

a violent time has great ideas

            peace is full of holes


One is aware reading this stanza of a poetics balanced by years of practice and freighted with an ability to handle the big questions. Yet the musical carries the burden, much as in Ossian Foley’s “the sail spans the bay — / time at bay.” Here, it is the repetition of “clouds” in the first two lines, the way the word alters its function by what it is connected with: first, the direct and nondescript; then, by pacing and substitution, Hoover shifts the game into the metaphysical.

Dan Rosenberg in 6x6 no. 19 presents prosy poetry in which syntactic connections are ambiguous, as in this opening stanza to “sight cracks open my shell tight flesh sloughs off”:

overripe I’m a white peach placed next to

the refrigerator humming unkind

odes to splitting open I have felt this

rippling in the colors inside me

have bled hot through the breached walls helplessly

The placement of words here is muscular, spreading energy through the text. “Humming” at first seems to describe the refrigerator, but later attaches to the “I” of the poem, as “splitting open” seems to go with the peach that is standing for that I. “Rippling in the colors” is still playing with the person/fruit metaphor, but the last line of this stanza takes an abrupt turn with the phrases “bled hot” and “breached walls helplessly.” Significant, in my opinion, is the rhyme of “breach” in the last line with “peach” in the first. The fruit is broken here, in the poem’s logic, although it is “walls” that are broken in the literal text. Another rhyme happens too, this one a semantic one, as “helplessly” recalls an unexplained “placed next to” from the first line. At whose mercy does this peach-person feel her- or himself to be? That is not explained, but the feeling, the “helplessly” of it, is very clear.

What have I found in my stays in 6x6’s pages? I realize that there is substantial diversity in the poets published by 6x6 in terms of style and attitude. What I am personally drawn to, what I began this discussion with, is what I find in Ceravolo’s “Stars of the Trees and Ponds.” I find reflections of that in 6x6 as well. It just occurred to me that “stars” in Ceravolo’s title can take on the meaning of movie or theater stars. The poem’s woman and man are the stars of the trees and ponds. I recognize that my reading in 6x6 has allowed me this perception. It is not a case of some poets published in 6x6 being influenced by Joe Ceravolo’s poetry. It does not even matter if they are aware of Ceravolo. There is something in the traffic — the taxis, and yes, of course, the subway — that travels in both directions. I become aware that paying close attention to what the poets in 6x6 are doing has helped me understand Joe Ceravolo better.


Previously published at poetryproject.org February 2, 2010.

 


 

1. Guest has become widely acknowledged as an innovator, especially since the publication in 2008 of her Collected Poems by Wesleyan University Press; Ceravolo is still largely terra incognita. Only The Green Lake Is Awake, a selected poems published in 1994 by Coffee House Press, is available. Ceravolo, who was born in 1934, died in 1988.

2. Now, one might say the inert has replaced the fragmentary as the Zeitgeist.

3. The visual artist Kiki Smith created a work, My Blue Lake (1995), which depicts the artist as submerged into the ground, covering the entire expanse of lake and shore.

Poetry as music

A different way of thinking

Joseph Ceravolo, 1967. Photo by Vito Giacalone.

What follows are excerpts from Poetry as Music: A Different Way of Thinking, a panel discussion organized by Vincent Katz and Tim Peterson as part of their Quips and Cranks series on poetry and poetics. This discussion took place at The School of Visual Arts, New York, March 17, 2011. The panelists were poet and critic Kimberly Lyons, poet and critic Anselm Berrigan, and painter and publisher of The Brooklyn Rail Phong Bui. Katz and Peterson were the moderators.


Vincent Katz:
Our topic today is poetry as music. We were thinking about a number of poets whose work is difficult to categorize, either in terms of political point of view, let’s say, or even formally, or through a relationship to the subject matter. In particular, we were thinking about the poetry of Joseph Ceravolo and Barbara Guest. Guest has received quite a bit of attention since the publication of her Collected Poems [Wesleyan, 2008]. Ceravolo remains a more fugitive figure whose work is hard to find, although there is a collected Ceravolo in the works, which is exciting.

 Ezra Pound usefully divided poetry into logopoeia, phanopoeia, and melopoeia. According to him — and I think he was right in this — all poetry has some percentage of these three elements, and it varies from poet to poet. Logopoeia is the meaning, or logos, in the poem; phanopoeia is making an image appear, the visual quality that the poem evokes; and melopoeia is the sound and the music. So if we’re thinking of these two poets as poets whose work is hard to discuss in traditional critical ways, and we’re trying to develop a new language, we thought to ask what would it mean to use music as an analog by which to look at their work? And then, we realized we need to ask what is music? I’m just going to read some notes before we turn it over to our panelists.

What is music? Sounds and rhythms, sounds and sequences, sounds and phrases like talking. Repetitions, different registers, timbres, harmony, counterpoint, large-scale forms, motifs, embellishments. And as we all know, there has been a long-standing historic connection between poetry and music. Much poetry was performed to music. The Roman word for poem is carmen, meaning song, and our word sonnet means a little sound, a little bit of music. Lyric enters into this; ballads, odes, other terms that we use for poems that come from song. But we’re talking about musical forms, so here are just a few: canon, motet, song, sonata, are elements of music, and these can be useful when talking about ways of talking about these poets. An introduction, a theme, a development, a crescendo, a climax, a denouement, or a coda, but also composition by phrase. Here are a couple of quotes that may be useful: “All arts approach the conditions of music” — Pater. “If we want pure sound, we want music” — Ezra Pound, from “Vorticism” (1915). “For me, poetry has its beginning and ending outside thought” — John Ashbery, writing on John Clare. Timing in art, the timing of a career, timing within a work, an idea of lyric. Is Ceravolo lyric? The passing of time, poetry as a temporal art, as a measurement of time and music.

I’d like to read a short poem by Joseph Ceravolo to get us started thinking about this topic. This is a poem called “Fly”:

The lights are on;
flesh is next to the body.
Drinking out of the glass
and the tide sways
you in my arms.
A membrane of wisdom
or the lips. I spit.
Nothing is changed.
The lights are on.
The sound of the waves
     through the traffic. I rub your body.
Hold me:   the waves.
A fly alights
     on the glass.
It sings a song
with a nerve impulse.
And the tide
        noticed by
the birds——fit to eat
comes back in
the dream of a metropolis.
The flies full of
energy, full of light    alight.

Tim Peterson: One aspect of this topic that interests me is how the meaning of language gets obscured when sound is foregrounded, when the musical qualities outweigh meaning qualities […]. That they’ve taken precedence in some way. I find that happening a lot in Joe Ceravolo’s work in the confounding way that he puts words together. He puts words together like a weird adjective with a weird noun. I can open a random page in this book, say, “A small listen.” You know. “The gang sponge.” “The beach of wingy feet.” That one makes a little more sense. “Algebraic breeze.” These things are everywhere, and that’s interesting. So, what are we saying in a case like that? Is that music or nonsense? What do you guys think about that?

Anselm Berrigan: I would start by saying it’s not nonsense, because nonsense is too tight a sense to have a purchase inside of the conversation, right? It has a musical quality to it because it’s existing in time, and it has this sound as an inherent part of it, but it’s inside of the larger work. Maybe one of the interesting things about Ceravolo and Guest, though in a different way, is that the duration of each line is part of, but also distinct within, the duration of the whole poem. The line is functioning on this sound and material level, and it’s going to hold in a certain way, and meaning on the literal or logical level is something that’s not unimportant, but it’s traveling alongside these other components. What comes up to the surface depending on your particular experience inside that poem is going to really vary. The emphasis is going to shift constantly, and that has to happen if you’re functioning off of some kind of musical performance inside of the poem.

Kimberly Lyons: I totally agree with you. Taking off from that point, in Ceravolo’s wildest, most abstract poems, the shifts are very instantaneous; they happen within the line. It’s almost pointillist. Yet he does have these sequential poems that have some sense of a narrative. With Guest, the lines are usually more sensibly intact, but then the meaning seems to shift from line to line. But there are exceptions to that, and as her work progressed […] she became very spatialized, and you start to see the radicalism that you see in Ceravolo also. It’s just a different process and a very different effect. The music is very different in those two poets.

Berrigan: Ceravolo’s music I think of as jangly, or jittery, almost like there’s a tree following him.

Katz: At first Ceravolo’s music is a little bit jarring and disturbing for some of the reasons Tim was mentioning, two words that don’t ordinarily go together, but I find that after reading a lot of it, it starts to have a very deep tone, and I’m wondering if any of you would consider that lyric. I mean, to me it has something that’s very eternal, it’s “about the eternal issues,” although it’s totally nonlinear and not literal, but I’m wondering if we could bring the term lyric into this conversation at all.

Berrigan: I would say I think Ceravolo and Guest’s particular dictions are fairly different […] They both have this kind of mad word-love […] although one change with Ceravolo I think is that his vocabulary gets a little more spare towards the end of his life, which wasn’t meant necessarily to be an end. But in the early poems, especially “Fits of Dawn,” the vocabulary and diction are wide-ranging. Guest and Ceravolo’s [uses of] syntax […] are really different, but you can hear the consonants, the full use of the alphabet just ringing across the poems. That’s part of how you get those funky word combinations you get in Ceravolo.

Lyons: You know, I hadn’t thought about that poem, “Fits of Dawn,” and I wonder if this might not have been some kind of systematic mistranslation from the Latin or the Italian? Because if you read it, to me it has that sort of surface resonance with Italian, with all the o’s. So I brought some Petrarch, and I was hoping you would read it and you would hear the sound. There’s a resonance, there’s a conversation going on. “O gong of wept / O unviolet” — let me start again, because I’m starting to project into it my own intensities, and I think he would read much more evenly.

O gong of wept

O unviolet 
     furious cozy the rain 
O dam of soul

to chase look! am poor. 
     dimanche poor.

O cheat of beg o cat 
gist o am   Walk

elysium tool a sun day    Broke 
revel lasso to 
Yes, wolf of songs, O muse 
O mixed Enemy!     Invent

 of dwell       So voyage      So end mercy 
earth         Usurp violets

O visible gym of flowered

Katz: Let’s see. You have Petrarch in Italian? It’s all with those funny letters. If there’s an f it’s supposed to be an s. Okay. It looks different. I’m going to try to read this one.

Una candida cerva sopra l’erba
Verde m’apparve, con duo corna d’oro,
Fra due riviere, all’ombra d’un alloro,
Levando ’l sole a la stagione acerba.

Era sua vista si dolce superba, 
Ch’i’ lasciai per seguirla ogni lavoro: 
Come l’avaro, che ‘n cercar Tesoro 
Con diletto l’affanno disacerba.

Lyons: It gives you a sense of the sound. I’m just wondering if some of the wildness of that poem might not come from [a sense of sound in other languages, apart from the meaning] —

Katz: When you were reading the Ceravolo something struck me. These poets all get lumped together as New York School poets, and then we often try to think, well what is the relationship, really, of Barbara Guest’s poetry to John Ashbery’s, or Frank O’Hara’s, and the same with Ceravolo. But when you were reading that poem, as disjunct and abstract as it is, I was getting the sense, and what made me think, oh that’s why it’s New York School, because it was a personal poem, and partially because of his use of the word “am,” which was thrown together with some other words in a non-syntactic way. Also through his use of the O, the apostrophe, which is not only very Kenneth Koch-ian but it’s also very, to me, personal. I don’t know if you’d call it lyric, but it’s this kind of desiring or outpouring of emotion that I saw there for a minute as New York School.

Joel Lewis (audience): I don’t know if this is useful or not, but I remember once asking Joe if he could recommend a poet I should be reading, and he said [Giacomo] Leopardi, who was someone whose work he felt a lot of affinity with. Like Barbara Guest, Joe did make a definite connection in his poetry to the visual arts. Joe was married to an artist, Rosemary Ceravolo, who practiced her art for many years under the name Mona da Vinci and was a feminist artist in the 1970s. She was involved with people like Hannah Wilke, who performed at Joe’s memorial at the Poetry Project. Together, Joe and Rosemary did early versions of performance art in the ’70s at the Project. So visual art really does play a strong part in his work, although it rarely seems to come up in discussions of his work.

Peterson: That Leopardi thing is interesting to me, because — it’s related to what Vincent is saying — you have a texture of sounds which are not English sounds, and you’re putting them together, and so part of what that might do is create an experience that’s more intimate, both more estranging and more intimate. You’re hearing something that’s not a language you know or a place that you know or you recognize immediately; it’s this weird pattern of sound. But when I think of this as an issue of translation, that makes these issues seem new in a way. When I think of other poets where the sound overwhelms the sense as in Mac Low, people who have a texture that’s consistent, they have a consistent way of not making sense in the way that you normally would understand.

Katz: Yeah, but there’s more of a logic there that you can follow. It can be sometimes a limitation. I would go so far as to say that you could make a polemic about this kind of poetry, Ceravolo and some of Barbara Guest’s poetry, that it doesn’t have that kind of underpinning of a logical procedural system. I appreciate Mac Low, I’m just saying something that could be like — I think this kind of poetry, Ceravolo’s, often gets left behind in discussions, because you can’t really pin it to a certain kind of philosophy or movement.

Lyons: That’s a good point, I agree with that.

Berrigan: I’d like to jump in on that, actually. Because looking at this book, The Green Lake is Awake, which came out in 1994, brings me back […] I was reading through Fits of Dawn, and there’s a line on page 76, the line is, “Shoulder are the vines,” and it goes on. I’ll read the page.

Mounting! 
  O dive! 
song song restay fairness of 
dawn. That cry of 
booze that sparrow 
of soul “miradel” 
unique justly lotus 
nothingless char of sunday. 
Vicious of moon for the actual. 
Live digress

 Old like the praise cast 
still at day    Assuage 
of rose of eye 
lovingly sun 
    O sun with the dreadful 
of kind      Man! full! of the organ 
                     of move 
Shoulder are the vines 
are the plus are the 
autumn of found are the fallen 
blank are the aussi 
     the loping soon 
           the wet

This is towards the end of Fits of Dawn, and so a lot of those heavy o’s have been happening already in the poem, and then on that page he’s working in the o’s, and he’s working in the r’s, and he’s using the apostrophe, but also the little connective bits of language as repetition, not just to hinge the lines but actually to repeat within the music and flip the time back, to flip it into a circle.

Anyway, I was reading that poem last night, and the line “Shoulder are the vines” rang a bell, and I remembered I found a galley of this book in a bookstore in San Francisco, right around the time it came out in 1994, when I was living there. It was impossible to find his work, and I’d only been writing for a couple of years at that point, and I was instantly attracted to that poem in particular. I actually stole that line and made it the title of a poem. But at the time I was interested in translating or transferring aspects of music I was interested in and loving into a way to approach writing and thinking about sound. The terms that I was thinking of though were not so much the classical terms, like a counterpoint and things like that, which are quite interesting to me now, but I was listening to Sonic Youth really heavily, and I wanted to figure out how I could get distortion and feedback into the work, and the way to do it was through running words together as I discovered, and through the diction and through the clanging of sounds set up formal structures that would dissolve and fall apart midway through and then come back together again. At least, that’s what I was thinking, and to me Ceravolo was doing that in this way, and so it was completely useful.

That gets me back to this idea that lyricism, now, in twenty-first-century America, is beaten down as something coming out of Romanticism, which is sort of ahistorical, or that there’s experimentation, and there’s the lyric, and the experimental is against the lyrical. But then actually in a wider, popular sense, for one who doesn’t read poetry much I think there’s some almost unconscious or implicit conflation of the lyric with narrative. If it makes sense it’s lyrical, so therefore anybody that makes sense is being lyrical. You know, just a lot of bullshit. But I’m interested in the idea of the lyric as actually containing noise, and being noisy and being messy, and that’s where Coolidge comes into play.

Katz: Well today’s lyre could be the distorted guitar of Sonic Youth.

Berrigan: Possibly, yeah. Except that they need more words, which is not a criticism, but I wanted to read this little bit from an interview with Clark Coolidge that’s in Jacket magazine, and he’s being asked about, the guy’s asking “I was wondering too about that whole sense of the blend or the fudge or the blur that comes through in a lot of your work, versus say the somewhat more static visual image that you get in somebody like Ron Silliman, who’s often giving you a very clear da da da,” and Coolidge says, “The idea, probably out of Cage, but also free-jazz, that you can have those blurs, you can have stuff that’s in-between the pitches, that’s more like what they used to call noise than music, if the work lacks that, I find it misses some, it feels like it’s missing something to me. That would be one thing I’d be critical I guess of with Silliman in that it’s a little too clean for me, it’s a little too demarcated and has that kind of evenness to it. Sometimes it looks like a whole page of that is the same color. You can write a certain kind of poetry where it seems like there’s a gap, there’s a slot every thirty, well I don’t know, every few seconds, that’s going to be filled with a certain image, word, or color, and when it becomes too even I lose purchase on that surface. I just can’t stay with it. To me it has to be more full of dirt.”

And I [think], actually on the flip side of that, poetry that is basically prose put into line breaks, where the breaks fall where the clause ends and another one begins is essentially the same thing as that. There’s a system and things fall in these gaps.

Phong Bui: Anselm — and this maybe can apply to everyone else here — let’s turn it back to the tradition of poets who happen to play an instrument, who somehow are able to mix even their singing to their reading repertoire. I’m thinking about that specific tradition of people as such. We also know that Kenneth Rexroth too thought of the voyage, regarded the instrument that can trick back to the audience, the poetry that could take back audience, and that’s what I’m thinking in that tradition too, how one can re-access. There’s a whole perpetual history of those people doing, expanding the voyage into instrumental and vice versa, and it’s very important to place that in the context of New York School poetry too. I think they may have done it before elsewhere. A little bit less here because the painting culture was so beyond predominant, it was so strong.

Franklin Bruno (audience): I don’t know how to formulate this as a question. I’ll try to make this short, but I hope to be slightly provocative. No one has said this explicitly, but there are gestures when you talk about poetry and music toward making music this kind of catch-all site of the ineffable, the irrational, the non-semantic, the alogical. I think this is troubling, and I want to problematize it in a couple of ways. One, for many figures and for many periods, what music has symbolized for people has been rationality, order, system, and in fact the literally rational in that harmonies are caused by the ratios of vibrations, like between strings. Someone like Pater had a notion like that in mind. When he says, “All arts aspire to the condition of music,” he means something abstract but also something wonderfully and perfectly ordered. He’s not thinking about noise by any means, right? It’s a very classicist conception. So one thing that I think has to be kept in mind when we cite a line like that is the context, what he meant by music. He certainly wouldn’t have meant Sonic Youth. When we’re saying all arts aspire to the condition of Sonic Youth, we’re getting something rather different. The second thing is that there’s also a tendency to make this anti-semantic, arational, alogical thing a place where music’s sound gets to be a place of non-meaning, of a sort of aestheticized purity, as though music were not understood cognitively, as though it did not have history, as if its forms came to us innocently or without generic or stylistic baggage. I’d just like to hear people say what they want to say about what music means socially, or how the sound of something has a bearing on what it is as sense as well.

Katz: I’d just like to thank you for pointing that out and making that statement, because it’s very true, and I don’t think any of us were trying to say that music was irrational, or —

Bruno: No, no, I just think we drift that way. I don’t mean to accuse anyone.

Katz: No you’re right, and I’m glad you pointed that out, because that’s really true, and poetry of course has those elements as well. But these particular poets I think are still a little bit off if you’re trying to find a rational, ordered approach to explain their work.

Peterson: I think you’re going to have that problem with the drift if you’re dealing with something that’s potential — it’s going to seem irrational if there’s no language for it. You’re dealing with a system other than language, so that’s why that drift is happening, but that’s not to imply that it’s not a system.

Berrigan: To me a key term here in terms of thinking about music and poetry is prosody, and because prosody is a very specific thing, and it’s typically linked towards strict metrics, but actually by my way of thinking about it strict metrics are a subset of prosody, and prosody is about how you handle sound and emphasis in time, moving forward. When I’m thinking about music, I’m trying to think about it in those particular terms. Ceravolo and Guest have their difficulties in certain ways, but their work can also be read prosodically. Part of the laziness that happens, at least on the poetic side of things, is that if you aren’t dealing in meter, then [you] ignore the fact that words have stresses, that those stresses are affected by accents, that languages are constantly being changed and added to and transformed. To ignore those things is to ignore this gigantic portion of your bag of tools. Where that maybe comes in in a different way to a social context is simply the fact that part of the reason that poetry may be hard to teach after a certain point is that you could teach certain metrics, maybe not necessarily well, but you’re talking about organizing a system, teaching a system — it’s like the thing that O’Hara said about a poem that he was being very critical of. He said he didn’t like the content of the poem, and that it doesn’t matter that you can put it in metrics, because any student in the country studying this kind of thing can put it into metrics. Poetry gets more difficult to teach if you don’t have an orderly system to work within from a certain point of view, which comes back to my idea that if students at very early ages, like seven, were talked to about how to break a line, to think of words going and stopping at a certain point on the page, instead of extending across into a sentence and into paragraphs, then that might stay with some of them and open it up, and then poetry is actually natural and easy to read. It doesn’t really matter if it makes sense, so to speak, because sense is this other thing that’s being imposed half the time.

Lyons: We were asked by Vincent and Tim to bring in some work of people we think have a relationship to Ceravolo and Barbara Guest. So I grabbed Douglas Rothschild’s Theogony, I feel like that’s somewhere in this practice; Julian Brolaski, who’s very much about sound, using archaic sound, very radical; and also Brenda Ijima, I feel like there’s this funny resonance between her and Barbara Guest, I mean completely different content, and of course Brenda has this huge sense of the social, and activism and poetry, but there’s something about the way that she isolates lines and the thickness that somehow made me think of Barbara Guest; Elizabeth Robinson, also working off of a certain tangent of Barbara Guest; Susie Timmons, who’s a wonderful New York School writer; and John Coletti I thought of in relation to Joe Ceravolo, especially the poem “Fly,” the poem of Ceravolo’s we started out with. Hearing that poem made me think of Coletti’s work. So Vincent’s encouraging me to read a John Coletti poem:

Prepackaged Beef

Want big toughness 
Wax flowers bending 
Neon blue plucks open flat B 
Rabbit snails quack house 
Caught in some apse 
Of Truman dust straightening 
Oak leaves west of here

Katz: So as strange as it might seem, this is actually a tradition continuing until today. Thank you all for coming! It’s been a great conversation.

Some notes on Lisa Jarnot's 'Sea Lyrics'

Lisa Jarnot. Photo on left by Joan Beard Photography, 2012.

Through my exploration of the poetic sentence and the prose poem, I have become fascinated by the work of American poet Lisa Jarnot, author of the trade poetry collections Some Other Kind of Mission (Burning Deck, 1996), Ring of Fire (Zoland Books, 2001/Salt Publishing, 2003), Black Dog Songs (Flood Editions, 2003), and Night Scenes (Flood Editions, 2008). A New York City poet born in Buffalo, Jarnot is also the author of chapbooks that include Fall of Orpheus (Shuffaloff Books, 1993), Heliopolis (rem press, 1998), Nine Songs (Belladonna, 1999), The New Mannerist Tricycle (with Bill Luoma and Rod Smith; Beautiful Swimmer Press, 2000), The Eightfold Path (a+bend Press, 2000), One’s Own Language (Institute of Further Studies, 2002), Reptile House (BookThug, 2005), Iliad XXII (ATTICUS/FINCH, 2006), Amedellin Nosegay Cooperative (Song Cave, 2010) and Joie de Vivre (Dirty Swan Projects, 2011), as well as the new biography of the poet Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus (University of California Press, 2012).

Opening Jarnot’s collection Ring of Fire, I became struck by the thirty-page prose poem sequence “Sea Lyrics,” previously produced as a chapbook by Situation Press in New York in 1996. Jarnot favors the long sentence, it would seem: each poem but the first is made up of a single, staggered line, and I’d be interested to hear how she managed to read these publicly, whether a combination of quick-pause inhalations at commas or somewhat breathless, or slow enough that her breath becomes more subtle, measured:

I am a partially submerged boat on the waterfront of
Jack London Square on a Sunday morning buying jam.
I am flesh-colored and pale, in an Indian head dress
cracking chestnuts and eating roots, in the fissure
between the bus lines, with the smell of burnt toast in
the can-crushing lot, in the inside-out tomato yards,
where I am riding all the bicycles through tunnels to see
lawn, where I am on a downtown bus, partially
submerged, I am krill and various large birds, the color
grey on the sidewalk, a small opossum, in the breaking
glass in isolation in the sun, I am waiting for the
swamps and smoke of eucalyptus in the breeze, I am
stuck in traffic near the mudflats on the bay, I am
aimless and have several new tattoos.

In an interview in VERSE magazine (issue 16, no. 3/issue 17, no. 1 [2000]), she says:

Sea Lyrics was written after Some Other Kind of Mission, though I drew it from information (memories) previous to Some Other Kind of Mission. I lived in California for three and a half years (from 1989 through 1992) and Sea Lyrics sorts out all of that. It has some Whitmanisms, but it also has some Ferlinghetti-isms (“I am waiting”) in it. Sea Lyrics was very much a response to living in New York in two ways. Firstly, I had just enough distance on the terrain of California to start to understand how shell-shocked I had been by its culture (in a good way, for the most part). Secondly, I had moved to New York early in 1994 and found myself in the midst of a community of young people who had come into poetry primarily through Language writing, and that also seemed very foreign to me. I realized at readings that it was entirely shocking if someone used the word “I” in a poem, so I decided to run with that, to exhaust the “I” and to bounce it off the particulars of Oakland and San Francisco.

Jarnot plays with the movement of the “I,” and in her “Sea Lyrics,” interplays the narrative “I” with what is seen, “I/eye” echoing a similar binary in Vancouver poet Meredith Quartermain’s equally small work The Eye-Shift of Surface (Greenboathouse Books, 2003). In her chapbook, Quartermain composes shifts such as “Can one ever cease to invent one’s self? Apart from death?” and “Deliberate I am fixed. You are flickering — a light. Him to have slain beside / the haystack the gazers strike. Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid — I, an epic.” It’s interesting to note that Jarnot studied with Robert Creeley, who himself wrote poems replete with the narrative “I” as domestic patter, but with a stripped-down language of point and counterpoint, as opposed to Jarnot’s own collage of point, scatter, and repetition, often looping back to meet itself. The poem pushes forward, in part, through referencing and reworking what has already come. Writing of Ring of Fire in Boston Review (February/March 2002), Andrew Zawacki describes the book as being “replete with poems that move within closed circuits, indulging in the so-called pleasures of merely circulating, of scouting ahead and then doubling back.” He goes on to say:

This issue of the self’s permeable, continually gerrymandered boundaries is revolved and left unresolved in the book’s middle section, “Sea Lyrics.” The epigraph, taken from an eighteenth-century Encyclopedia Brittanica, notes that it is “uncertain” whether California “be a peninsula or an island,” as Jarnot begins inquiring tangentially into the dynamism of the self, which dreams of independence and apartness, but is realized only in locked relation to the landfall of others. Conjuring Donne’s admonition that no man is an island, “Sea Lyrics” equally recalls his “Metempsychosis,” about the transmigration of the soul. The objects, ideas, and atmospheres that this speaker inhabits are seemingly endless, rendering the “self” not lone but legion. Sometimes these temporary incarnations disturb the distinctions between surface and depth: “I am the waterfront and I cover the waterfront.” Sometimes they offer a plea, by admitting incapacity: “I am not quite yet the harmony of spheres.” Sometimes these ulterior, alter egos deploy paradox or solicit contradiction, in the service of estrangement or difficulty: “I am dangerous and undangerous also.” Often they figure the self as the sum of its complex itineraries, as in the remark, “I am almost to Japan”; the convoluted admission, “I am not sure where I am and I am travelling to edges made of night, I am not sure where I am and I am travelling to edges made of rock in avocado night”; and the observation, structured like an ouroboros, “this is from where I came and to which I came.”

Who was it that said the coast is but a line? In responses to “Sea Lyrics,” there seems to be much fixation on Jarnot’s “I,” as David Kaufmann writes in “Repetition, Noise and Pleasure, or Why I like John Yau and Lisa Jarnot,” that “Sea Lyrics plays with the words that people use to make up identities. It shows how identities are fabricated at the same time that it renders that process of linguistic self-creation rather comic, in that it is susceptible to grammatical fun, if not absurdity.” Earlier on in the same essay, Kaufmann goes further, specifically targeting the “I”:

What saves this from being oppressively narcissistic is the equally obvious point that these pieces are not biographical in any conventional way (“I am underwater buying jam”). The identities of this “I” range from the whimsical (“I am all the hot dogs and the roof of city hall”) to the almost incomprehensible (“I am of the new year sober now”). What is more, this poem can in no way be construed as a report on the whereabouts of its supposed speaker. Unlike the artist in “830 Fireplace Road,” Jarnot’s “I” is here, there and everywhere and all at once.

Part of the wit of this series lies in the way it plays the verb “to be” (I am) off the present continuous (I am writing, I am dancing, etc). It shows quite clearly how the same words can have quite different uses, at the same time that it raises the question of the relation between identity (I am) and action (I am doing). To what extent, then, is the poem actually about the bits of language it puts into action?

Why is there such a fixation on her narrative “I”? It nearly distracts from what else the poem is doing. Another perspective on Jarnot’s “I” comes from Patrick Pritchett, who reviewed Ring of Fire in Jacket 15 (December 2001), writing:

Yet another of the great pleasures afforded by Ring of Fire is the poet’s anaphoric “I,” that acts like a fractal integer, the secret number divisible by everything it is not. Divide this “I” by any object you choose and come up with a mise-en-abyme, an infinite regress of the same figure — the figure of the Other — across a landscape of mirrors. To say “I am this,” or “I am that,” with such repeated, hungry insistence, is not to say “I” at all. Or if it is, it is to say the little “i.”  The I that has been emptied out, that stands as the sign for its own erasure. The “I” of Sea Lyrics, then, is the kenotic I. Evacuating itself, it permits everything to occur, and all at once.

It is as if the poem opens with uncertainty, citing uncertain placement and impossible grounding. The “I” might be there, but floating, unreliable. It’s as though part of the point of the collage included a lack of interest in any one particular, fixed point of view, which is about as far away from narcissism as one could imagine. What is the purpose of referencing Oakland’s Jack London Square, and then, London himself (who grew up in Oakland)? Throughout the poem, Jarnot repeats and twists references to Jack London, tides, San Francisco’s Cliff House, avocados, waterfront, and tattoos (the latter three mentioned nine times each), turning this poem of the Bay Area back in on itself with some of the same language, in some of the same ways Toronto’s Margaret Christakos resequences her own language. As the fifth poem in Jarnot’s “Sea Lyrics” reads:

I am the waterfront and I cover the waterfront and all
the boats all know me, I am the foreignest of birds and
the shadows of sails upon martinis, I am underwater
buying jam and drinking stolen coffee, I am pelagic now
and sober, having recently discovered all the birds.

In a review posted in 2009 on Gently Read Literature, Gwyn McVay refers to the sequence as “terse prose poems” that “meditate on dislocation and violence.” Dislocation, perhaps, but less a violence than a layering of perspectives, overlapping and even overwhelming in places. The twenty-first poem in the sequence reads:

I have been a long time in this story on the bridge inside
tattoos and wearing avocados, and I can think only of
myself, and I can steal the books in bookstores, and I
can collect cans at all the can and crushing lots, and I
am here to wait in line with others near the lawns, and I
am being shot at on the sidestreet, and I am hording all
the plastic pigs, and I am practicing with others for the
dawn, from rooftops where the hills are all on fire with
the most usual of circumstances, where the fish are kept
in large tanks and a black smoke settles on the roof,
where the neighbor harbor pitbulls between the cars,
where the strange small apples bounce across the tar
upon the roof, where opossums cross against the flow of
traffic, where the streetlights blink and flicker on, where
the plastic and the airplanes fill the sky, where we live
beside the most chinese of oceans, where I gamble in the
empty and where winterless I am.

Not a dislocation, but a collage of perspectives, kaleidoscopic and almost allowing the reader to pick and choose which thread to follow. Kevin Varrone ends his review of Ring of Fire in ixnay 6 (summer 2001) with:

Ring of Fire seems to me a testament to rhetoric, to the varied powerfulness of language, to all that is said and is meaningless and that which is said and is not. The matter here, a la Hamlet, is words. And things. There is some sense of Hemingway in Jarnot’s poems for me: Stein, perhaps (the Stein in Hemingway, that is) — something beautiful, conjunctive, repetitive, childlike, intelligent. The things themselves become less themselves as they more become words in a highly wrought rhetoric. In the first poem of Sea Lyrics, the speaker says, “I am aimless and have several new tattoos.” That aimless speaker becomes, in the sequence’s sixth poem, “the foam of / obstruction in the foam of obstruction I am,” then “… how lost I am” in the eighth poem, then “I am not sure where I am” in the final poem of the sequence. But it is just such aimlessness and lack of surety that make Jarnot’s poems so engaging — her willingness and ability to leave readers in a labyrinth or city, in the ocean or the sky. And the fact that there is no real progression toward anything — a speaker is aimless at the start of a thirty-poem sequence and not sure where it is at the end. And so the wandering is both means and end, and the landmarks signal existence, not direction. This is the pervasive sensibility of this book: a writer overwhelmingly involved in the world and the things of the world yet somehow lost in them, in the experience of them, in the saying of them, so that the things become just things and the I’s just I’s: apparitions reminding themselves to identify the things the[y] are seeing: “This is a jumbo prawn,” and “This is the sound of my television.”

Jarnot composes her “Sea Lyrics” as an accumulation, a collage-aspect, with the informative, deceptive “I” stretching less a narrative impulse than a lens that captures a variety of perspectives and reports them, overlapping and contradicting, one by one. “Sea Lyrics” exists as a song that remains firmly on the land, stepping out only as far as the waterfront, barely stepping foot in the water. Even as the narrator becomes submerged, the land is unbearingly close, leaving the threat of open water both an absence and a psychological presence. Is it something in the air? The poem opens with a passage as epigraph from Encyclopedia Brittanica 1768 that reads:

California, a large country of the West Indies, lying between 116º and 138º W. long. and between 23º ad 46º N. lat. It is uncertain whether it be a peninsula or an island.

We might know, as readers, the geography of California well enough to know the difference, but the poem doesn’t stray far enough from shore to know, from the openings of the “partially submerged boat” to “I won’t go to the waterfront anymore,” and closing in on the end of the sequence, writing “I am bludgeoned by this most exotic ocean, currently,” to “I am getting better like / the oceans on the sidestreet, I am surrounded by water,” and “down the surge of waterways in dark,” to “the pier with all / the sink hones on the edge,” and “I am at the ocean from the tops of / towers.” With so many references to surf, moisture, fog, rain, water and hottubs, but for the single reference to the actual ocean, these lyrics are more often for an abstract sea, or is she at the waterfront, staring out? Should these, instead, be waterfront or even bay lyrics? The poem stands, but can’t it also swim? Jarnot repeats, rewrites and alters, and her California, it would seem, includes references to San Francisco’s Grateful Dead, Carol Burnett, Huey Newton (the Black Panther cofounder shot in West Oakland in 1989), Huey Lewis (stepson of San Francisco poet Lew Welsh), Lucretius, “the church of Thelonius Monk,” “Lammas Tide” (the tide that comes up on Lammas Day, August 1, referenced also in Romeo and Juliet), “this Saint Ana wind” (a wind that comes up the southern California coast), and Atlantis. Is this “Sea” or “See” lyrics?

Part of this is reminiscent of Sommer Browning’s 2011 sequence “Vale Tudo,” from her first trade poetry collection Either Way I’m Celebrating (Birds, LLC), a twenty-two-page prose poem sequence that explores a geography not her own (but from a much shorter stay), mixed in with the locale of a late writer who, on the surface, has little to do with the author. More narrative than Jarnot’s piece, Browning’s sequence blends hotels with mixed-martial arts with Walt Whitman, the Walt Whitman Mall, and the Walt Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site:

Some of you will never go to Long Island. Some of you will but will never go to Walt Whitman Mall. Some of you will enter Walt Whitman Mall and head straight for Foot Locker. So let me tell you about the façade of Walt Whitman Mall, how it’s carved with passages from Leaves of Grass, how the block Emigrant Savings Bank sign is bolted to the poem.

A child said what is the grass? Fetching
Emigrant Savings Bank it to me with
full hands How could I answer Get more
money for your money the child?…I do
not know what it is any more than he.

But the best line of Jarnot’s sequence has to be on Susan Gibb’s site, in her 2004 piece “Writing: As One Reads,” where she quotes a source I can’t find:

Katey at One Good Bumblebee says, “And if I write out Lisa Jarnot’s complete Sea Lyrics longhand because mere reading isn’t good enough dammit, it’s okay.”

Book history and the poetry reading

Susan Howe reads at Kelly Writers House in 2010.

Over the past decade, it has become increasingly common to hear poetry scholars devoting more attention to the phenomenon of the poetry reading in both its live and recorded formats. Depending on the interests of the particular critic, these discussions usually fall into one of two categories: viewing the reading as an extension of the textual history of the work being performed or viewing the event itself as a site of collective agency, as the audience participates in giving meaning to the work being performed.

In Distant Reading: Performance, Readership, and Consumption in Contemporary Poetry, Peter Middleton asks, “What is the point of ordinary poetry readings in contemporary culture? What accounts for their popularity even when poets read material of such verbal complexity that only the cumulative intensities of silent reading would seem likely to do the texts justice?”[1] For Middleton, the answer lies in a combination of the spectacle of witnessing the performance of authorship and the allure of experiencing what he calls “collective events,” by which he means that an intersubjectivity between audience and poet is created in the act of performance. That intersubjectivity subsequently becomes a fundamental element of the textual history of the performed work.[2]

Surprisingly, however, critics like Middleton rarely analyze actual poetry readings, and they even less frequently include the experience of audience members to provide a glimpse of what the experience means to them. For these reasons, I propose that scholars of contemporary poetry would be well served by adopting methodologies from the field of book history and performing ethnographic studies of actual poetry reading audiences.

A September 13, 2007, reading by the poets Bernadette Mayer and Lee Ann Brown at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House illustrates the sort of cultural work that poetry readings can do, pointing out just how complex the relationship between poet and audience can be to the degree that in this case it temporarily breaks down and audience members become part of the performance itself. Eschewing the traditional format in which the younger poet reads first — usually for a shorter period of time, much like the opening act at a concert — Mayer and Brown trade off, each reading one poem at a time. This structure resembles the way poets Clark Coolidge and Michael Gizzi would often stage joint readings, a structure Coolidge and Gizzi acknowledged stemmed from the concept of jazz musicians stepping forth to trade solos. Mayer was good friends with both Coolidge and Gizzi and had staged innovative readings with Coolidge in the past. During an event at the Poetry Project in New York on February 24, 1971, for example, which was billed as a reading featuring Mayer and Coolidge, audience members were treated to a film of Mayer and Coolidge chasing one another around Coolidge’s house while reading from the work of Gertrude Stein, with both poets often off camera. A few turns into the their 2007 reading, Mayer and Brown deviate from their established structure when Mayer reads a poem requested by audience member CAConrad. The poem is Mayer’s “Sonnet (You jerk you didn’t call me up),” and she dedicates the poem to Conrad, to whom she refers by first name. After reading the poem, Mayer playfully notes, “We also have the jerk here,” and asks if Conrad wants to read the poem as well. Before launching into a relatively inspired reading of the poem, Conrad says, “You have to imagine twelve — not two or three — twelve electric guitars. There’s this whole thing I have planned for this one day.” Initially an audience member, Conrad becomes part of the performance itself in much the same way that an audience member might sit in with a jazz band for a particular number. In doing so, he takes the nontraditional reading format a step further in reimagining the piece as a sort of performance art rock opera.

The intertexts are thick in this brief interlude. First, there is the nod to Coolidge and Gizzi and their roots in jazz performance. There is the undoing of the standard format in which the older, more established poet serves as a headlining act, a move that highlights the symbiotic aspect of Mayer and Brown’s working relationship. Then there is the sense of poetic lineage on display, Mayer’s feminist critique of the sonnet tradition expanded in this case to include Conrad as an audience member and serving as a nod to the overtly queer content of many of his own poems. My interpretation of the event is informed by personal knowledge of all three parties involved and my own experience as an audience member, but the performance can be taken as a microcosm of what generally happens at poetry readings. The reality of poetry readings is that the majority of audience members are simultaneously producers and consumers of poetic texts, even if they consider themselves amateur rather than professional producers. The moment during Mayer and Brown’s reading in which the barriers between audience, performer, and text breaks down exemplifies the sort of generative community that is formed at such events. The dense intertexts in this moment also suggest the need to pay closer critical attention to these communities.


The sociology of reading

The fields of book history and poetry studies have rarely been paired, largely because their respective trajectories have led them in opposing directions. In its early years, the field of book history was primarily concerned with the evolution of dominant literary forms, relegating poetry to the fringes of literary activity. Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel (1957) traces the relationship between the rise of a general reading public and the emergence of the novel in eighteenth-century England. According to Watt, the novel’s “formal realism” was the primary reason for its ascent. Watt argues that “the novel is a full and authentic report of human experience,” giving the genre “an obligation to satisfy its reader with such details of the story […] which are presented through a more largely referential use of language than is common in other literary forms.”[3] This generic feature, which could alternatively be defined as the process through which the language of popular culture became increasingly transparent, both supplied and shaped the demands of an emerging reading public.

The Rise of the Novel is important not only because it was one of the most thorough early studies of this phenomenon, but also — and perhaps more importantly for my purposes here — because its title symbolically fixed the novel as the dominant literary form. If the novel has “risen,” it seems logical to surmise that it has done so at the expense of other literary forms and genres. The “verbal complexity” that Middleton notes in much contemporary poetry seems to have no place amid the “more largely referential use of language” that Watt claims characterizes the dominance of the novel. Watt, of course, has not been the only scholar to tell this story, but this is neither the time nor the place to give a complete account of the novel’s ascent to near ubiquity. Rather, I bring up the rise of the novel in order to turn to a genre that seems to have been all but forgotten in the wake of that rise: lyric poetry. My concern here could be rephrased as a modified version of the Peter Middleton question with which I opened this essay: what is the point of poetry in contemporary society? The answer might be found in looking more closely at poetry’s reception.

The most interesting recent scholarship in the history of the book has been oriented around what is generally called the sociology of reading, on the sociological factors that contribute to the selection of specific leisure reading subjects or genres or on excavating the reading habits of various subaltern social groups. Often, these studies pair a singular group with an equally singular genre, such as Michael Denning’s Mechanic Accents: Dime-Novels and Working-Class Culture in America (1998), or Janice Radway’s study of the female readers of romance novels in Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (1991). In almost every case, however, the reading material focused on is prose fiction, and most often it is some form of popular fiction. What these scholars often find is that “conservative texts [can] make plebian readers militant and articulate.”[4] While not discounting the immense import of this work, I cannot help but ask one question: why are scholars who are interested in the sociology of reading not focusing on radical readings of radical texts, namely, audience receptions of contemporary poetry?

To sketch an answer this question, it is worth looking at a useful corrective to another burgeoning field in literary criticism: cultural studies. In “What’s Art Got to Do with It? The Status of the Subject of Humanities in an Age of Cultural Studies,” Charles Bernstein interrogates the role of aesthetics in the changing face of the academy in the mid-1990s. Bernstein does not oppose the practice of cultural studies; in fact, he claims, “The gradual shift from literary studies to cultural and multicultural studies is probably the most useful change within the American academy in the past decade.”[5] At the same time, however, he critiques the limitations of this shift, particularly the sense that the works themselves often play second fiddle to the critic’s particular methodology:

My point is not to relegate criticism or literary theory to secondary status. […] Rather, I am insisting that art not be reduced to secondary status, the “object” of critical projection, but understood as an irreplaceable method of interpreting culture, including other artworks — “poetry as discourse” in Antony Easthope’s useful formation.[6]

My concerns here are very similar to Bernstein’s. I am not against the study of the sociology of reading; as I hinted at before, I consider it to be one of the most fruitful recent developments in the field of literary studies. At the same time, however, the fact that book history and poetry studies have tended to ignore one another is a huge loss to both fields. My goal here is to take a small step toward uniting the two.


Poetry and the public sphere

Both conservative and radical critics alike have written on the decline of poetry, but their work often sounds more like lament than serious critical engagement with the social forces behind that decline. The archetypal works from the conservative side of the field are Vernon Shetley’s After the Death of Poetry: Poet and Audience in Contemporary America (1993) and Dana Gioia’s Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture (1992). These two works, especially Shetley’s, treat the “difficulty” of contemporary poetry as an abhorrent symptom of modernity that can only be treated by a return to lucidity, which would in turn make poetry more relevant to contemporary society. Conservative critics like Shetley and Gioia are not the only ones who fall into the general trap of lamenting poetry’s decline. In The Point Is to Change It: Poetry and Criticism in the Continuing Present, for example, Jerome McGann, who generally champions a much more aesthetically radical group of poets than both Shetley and Gioia, criticizes what he sees as “a poetic deficit in contemporary culture, where values of politics and morality are judged prima facie more important than aesthetic values.”[7] In short, critics from both sides of the aesthetic divide end up sounding very similar — and similarly limited — on this issue.


Adrienne Rich (left) and Tomomi Adachi (right) in performance at Kelly Writers House (in 2005 and 2010, respectively).

Most poets and readers of poetry are not only well aware of the marginal status of their shared activity, but also romanticize that very marginality. The late Lorenzo Thomas makes a very similar suggestion in his discussion of the importance of poetry readings in African American literary traditions:

Thousands of people may, in fact, participate in weekly reading circles or in poetry workshops that meet weekly at branch libraries or in members’ homes, but none of them thinks that their chosen leisure activity carries the same level of societal acceptance as, say, bowling. Most of these people, of course, would be disappointed if it did.[8]

The truth is, however, that people do listen to poetry, even if the group that does so makes up a very small minority of the general reading public. These listeners view poetry as an alternative-space, a space in which they can — if only for a brief period of time — exist outside the confines of dominant popular culture. An interest in poetry gives those who hold that interest access to a sort of imaginary community, a community that often extends beyond geographical bounds and that — for its members, if not for the culture at large — carries an immense amount of cultural capital.

As the antithesis of lamenting poetry’s continued marginalization, Hank Lazer’s “The People’s Poetry” (2004) views the contemporary scene as an “era of radically democratized poetry,” which Lazer claims opens the door to a large number of subversive reading and writing practices. He gives a relatively lengthy list of the various communities in which these practices take place:

the slam scene (which now includes a very popular Broadway show, Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam), the many open-microphone events in nearly every American city, the therapy groups that rely on journals and poems as essential modes of self-expression and healing, the hundreds of creative-writing programs in American colleges and universities, poetry programs in numerous elementary, middle, and secondary schools, poetry programs in prisons, poetry connected to various religious practices (whether the new translation of core religious texts or new devotional writings), poetry for senior citizens, poetry as part of the process of recovering from abuse, and so on.[9]

I have quoted Lazer’s list in its entirety to show both the breadth of poetry’s reach in contemporary society and to show that its reach transcends barriers of class, race, gender, and age. Maria Damon refers to these occasions as “micropoetries,” a term that encapsulates both their marginality and self-sufficiency.[10]

A brief anecdote from my own experience might help illustrate the effect that poetry can have within these various communities. When I was in graduate school, I helped found a Writers in the Schools program whose mission was to bring innovative writing curricula to inner city schools. A group of local poets and writers went into community and educational centers, taught classes on creative reading and writing, hosted public readings, and organized publications of student writing. I worked at a GED prep site for teenage mothers, most of whom were Puerto Rican immigrants. A few years after I left the area, one of my former students sent me an email saying that ever since my class she had been active on the local spoken word scene, that she was recently working in a recording studio on a CD of her work, and that she wanted to know my new address so she could send me a copy of the CD. This was a student who had never written a poem prior to my sessions. She claims that reading the poetry of African American and Latino women, work by people with as difficult and marginalized lives as hers, gave her the tremendous feeling that she too could produce something that would have an equivalent effect on another reader. I have related this particular incident not to brag about the successes of my former students, but rather to show that for many marginalized members of society the discovery of poetry gives them a great sense of agency, so much that consumers of poetic texts often transform into producers of poetic texts.

The problem, Lazer claims, is that “[a]esthetic-differences often splinter these groups into reader-writer islands that have very little to do with one another. […] Such a diversity of practice makes it almost impossible to say what poetry is good or bad without first asking such questions as, for whom? for what uses?”[11] While Lazer’s emphasis on the democratization of poetry is commendable, his stance is compromised by its emphasis on aesthetic value and preference for more elite forms of poetry. He praises the film 8 Mile (2002) for giving “young listeners a visceral experience of the vitality of poetry,” but it is clear that he has little knowledge of — or experience with — the sort of work portrayed in the film.[12] Instead, Lazer presents the “poetry-rap” (Lazer’s term) on display in the film as a starter kit for more academic forms of performance-based poetry, particularly the “important Socratic inquiry” of David Antin’s work, most of which pre-dates that featured in 8 Mile.[13] In short, even the most well-meaning poetry critics tend to be out of touch with the times and dogged by personal preferences. Lazer’s analysis would have been well served if he had sat down with the young listeners of 8 Mile to gain an understanding of the uses to which they are putting that visceral experience. The very fact that people do listen to poetry, and that they consider the act of doing so to be an alternative to participating in dominant cultural forms, means that these groups should be seriously studied. We should not only be asking what are they reading or listening to, but how are they reading or listening to it. What role does poetry play in shaping or giving meaning to their experiences?


Bibliography and the poetry reading

Poets have long been aware of the languishing importance of their practice to popular culture at large. In a 1949 symposium at the University of California–Berkeley, for example, Jack Spicer begins with the question, “Why is no one here? Who is listening to us? […] If we were actors or singers or cartoonists of the same relative talent, a sizable number of the students at this University would recognize our names and be familiar with our work.”[14] His answer: “Live poetry is a kind of singing. It differs from prose, as song does, in its complexity of stress and intonation. Poetry demands a human voice to sing it and an audience to hear it. Without these it is naked […] and incomplete — a bore.”[15] A year later, the poet Charles Olson wrote, “What we have suffered from, is manuscript, press, the removal of verse from its producer and its reproducer, the voice, a removal by one, by two removes from its place of origin and its destination.”[16] These comments came only a few years before Watt’s The Rise of the Novel, as if both poets anticipated its concerns and saw the need to emphasize the performative aspects of poetry in order to ensure its survival.

Most poetry readings take place in locations that are temporarily removed from their everyday function: bars, lecture halls, art galleries, coffee shops, bookstores, and so on. The auditor’s experience of the reading is dependent upon a number of contingent factors: PA system quality, background noise, and other various interruptions. A particularly salient example of this comes in Daniel Kane’s description of a reading that Kenneth Koch gave on January 10, 1968, at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in New York.[17] Koch began the reading with a poem called “To My Audience,” which he had composed specifically for the occasion and which begins with the line “My audience of camel dung and fig newtons.”[18] Not long into the poem, however, Koch was interrupted by a younger poet, Allen Van Newkirk, who entered the church from the rear, pulled out a pistol, and fired two blanks at Koch. After a few moments of general confusion, it became clear from the slogans Newkirk was shouting that he was staging a protest in honor of the poet Amiri Baraka, who had recently been convicted of unlawful possession of firearms during the Newark, New Jersey race riots of 1967. Visibly shaken, Koch resumed the reading at the place where he had left off, but one of the audience members suggested that he start again, to which Koch replied, “I never should have said ‘my audience of camel dung,’”[19] which elicited uproarious laughter and clapping. Koch then went on to say, “I think I better read ‘The Pleasures of Peace’ [his long, anti–Vietnam War poem], I was going to read it later (laughter, clapping). Well, yeah I’m changing the order of readings.”[20] Koch then went on to give a rather animated reading of “Pleasures of Peace.” If one considers Koch’s reading as a “collective event,” to borrow Middleton’s term, one can see how Van Newkirk’s interruption reverberated both forward and backward, altering the way “To My Audience” and “Pleasures of Peace” might be initially characterized in terms of tone or content, perhaps even affecting the way audience members — or those who have heard the recording — read the poems on the page.


Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz and Stan Mir at Kelly Writers House in 2011.

Middleton claims that in studying the poetry reading as a text itself, “The different senses of the word ‘reading’ turn out to be more than superficially related.”[21] This claim has fundamental implications for the way in which we think about the materiality of texts. In the contemporary poetry reading, elements of both oral and written cultures exist simultaneously, often in a radically unstable manner. In his description of the reading practices of the sixteenth-century miller Menocchio, Carlo Ginzburg asks the following somewhat rhetorical question: “To what extent did the prevalently oral culture of [the reader’s of Menocchio’s time] interject itself in the use of the text, modifying it, reworking it, perhaps to the point of changing its very essence?”[22] The situation of the poetry reading reverses this question: to what extent does the text-based culture of a contemporary listener interject itself in the use of a reading, modifying it, reworking it, perhaps to the point of changing its very essence? The fundamental problem that this question introduces is the fact that the most complex models we have for thinking about literature are text-based. An aural form, like the poetry reading, requires the formulation of an entirely new critical vocabulary, one that scholars trained in the art of close reading — and even many who come from a cultural studies perspective — are ill-equipped to develop.


Distant reading

The poet John Giorno is fond of telling a story about attending a poetry reading with Andy Warhol in the early 1960s during which Warhol remarked, “It’s so boring. Why does it have to be so boring?” Anyone who has been to more than a handful of poetry readings has probably felt the same way at some point in his or her life. Giorno’s point is that the average poetry reading — where a lone reader stands in front of a podium reading his or her poems in a fairly monotone delivery — fails to create a spectacle capable of captivating contemporary audiences. Nonetheless, poetry readings survive, like genetically modified soybeans resilient to all manner of pesticides. I would argue that this resilience comes from the fact that poetry readings create — to adapt Benedict Anderson’s term — “imagined communities.” Anderson coins the term in his discussion of the role that literature plays in the development of nation-states. These communities, Anderson argues, are “imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.”[23] The members of the communities created by poetry readings may know a higher percentage of their peers than the members of small nations, but the mental union is still very much the same. These imagined communities are different from Middleton’s “collective events” in the sense that the intersubjectivity between audience and performer is not necessarily the main reason audience members attend the readings, as audiences often attend poetry readings simply to participate in a given community. The featured performers — whose work is occasionally unknown to many audience members — and their performance itself are sometimes secondary to the events surrounding the performance: milling around and chatting before and after the reading, heading to a bar after the event’s organizers shoo everyone out of the original venue, and so on. I am not saying that the performers are not sometimes a big draw, but even in those cases the performance itself is often secondary.

My intention here is not to discredit Middleton’s notion of the poetry reading as a “collective event.” Quite the contrary. But I also think he overstates the importance of performer-audience intersubjectivity at the expense of some of the more external social aspects of the poetry reading. In order to understand what I mean when I say that readings create communities, spend a weekend in any major city hopping from poetry venue to poetry venue and observe how different the various audiences are. The poet Harryette Mullen once categorized this separation as “aesthetic apartheid” and noted that despite the “shared aspirations of social and aesthetic movements that envision a better world,” audiences from one side of the tracks rarely drift over to events on the other side.[24] As a result, we are left with critics like Lazer who seem much more at home discussing the work of David Antin than more popular forms of poetry.

Of course, some interesting work has been done on poetry readings: Maria Damon has given much attention to poetry slams, for example, and Daniel Kane discusses the importance of reading series at Les Deux Mégots and Le Metro in the formation of the literary scene in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Much of this work, however, is devoted to the creation of writing communities, not listening communities, and some of the most interesting work stands to be done in the latter direction. Similarly, recent developments in technology have allowed greater access to historical poetry readings — the University of Pennsylvania’s PennSound site, for example, offers a large number of poetry readings available to anyone with an Internet connection — but it would be nice to know to what use people were putting these recordings. Are they being used primarily for pedagogical purposes, or are people putting them on their iPods and listening to them on their morning commutes? These are the sorts of questions critics need to begin asking if we hope to understand the role of the poetry reading in a digital era.

Middleton’s notion of the poetry reading as a “collective event” is part of a reading strategy he calls “distant reading,” which essentially means acknowledging the distance that a contemporary critic has from the text, something which traditional close reading tends to abolish, and paying greater attention to both the textual and reception histories of a work. In this way, Middleton argues, criticism does “not represent itself as the fulfillment of the poem but as a partner in the poem’s continuance.”[25] As much as I may agree with Middleton here, his conclusion is not exactly news, as it relies heavily on models of textual scholarship handed down from critics like McGann. Ultimately, Middleton shies away from some of the more interesting aspects of distant reading, particularly its emphasis on reception. To supplement Middleton’s approach, I propose adopting the very different concept of “distant reading” developed by Franco Moretti in his essay “Conjectures on World Literature.” In this essay, Moretti, drawing on Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems approach and its characterization of global capitalism as a set of mechanisms that unevenly distributes resources between the periphery and the core, advocates the importation of quantitative methods drawn from the social sciences to the study of literature. In order to map the global evolution of the novel, which is Moretti’s field of expertise, he suggests a synthesis of preexisting work on the development of national literatures, a “second hand” approach that he describes as “a patchwork of other people’s research, without a single direct textual reading.”[26] This approach eschews discussions of individual authors and works in favor of charting large-scale shifts and trends in the development of world literature.

Poetry studies can benefit from a similar attention to what poetry readings have meant to different audiences in different places and times that scholars in the history and sociology of reading have given to the reading practices of other subaltern cultures. It is time that critics of modern and contemporary poetry stop producing criticism as we know it and start sitting down with audiences the way that Janice Radway sat down with the members of a book club in Ohio. These studies should cut as wide a swath as possible in order to account for socioeconomic, educational, and geographic factors. Then some ambitious scholars need to start putting the pieces of these various histories together to build a more complete understanding of poetry’s place amid the changing face of contemporary culture, allowing a much wider swath of literary work to be considered at once and shifting the conversation away from the fracturing that inevitably mars even the most well-meaning literary histories.

 


 

1. Peter Middleton, Distant Reading: Performance, Readership, and Consumption in Contemporary Poetry (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005), 62.

2. Ibid., 93.

3. Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding, 2nd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 32.

4. Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 39.

5. Charles Bernstein, “What’s Art Got to Do with It? The Status of the Subject of Humanities in an Age of Cultural Studies,” in Beauty and the Critic: Aesthetics in an Age of Cultural Studies, ed. James Soderholm (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997), 21.

6. Ibid., 31.

7. Jerome McGann, The Point Is to Change It: Poetry and Criticism in the Continuing Present (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007), xii.

8. Lorenzo Thomas, “Neon Griot: The Functional Role of Poetry Readings,” in Extraordinary Measures: Afrocentric Modernism and Twentieth-Century American Poetry (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005), 189.

9. Hank Lazer, “The People’s Poetry,” Boston Review 29, no. 2 (2004).

10. Maria Damon, Postliterary America: From Bagel Shop Jazz to Micropoetries (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2011), 123. Of all current poetry scholarship, Damon’s sense of “micropoetries” is perhaps closest to my own concerns in this essay, especially the section “Elegaic Visitations” (195–202), in which Damon discusses the online writings of a Boston bicycle subculture.

11. Lazer, “The People’s Poetry.”

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Jack Spicer, “The Poet and Poetry — A Symposium,” in The House that Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer, ed. Peter Gizzi (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1998), 229.

15. Ibid., 230.

16. Charles Olson, “Projective Verse,” in Human Universe and Other Essays, ed. Donald Allen (New York: Grove, 1967), 57.

17. Daniel Kane, All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 171–73. The Poetry Project itself is a salient example of a way in which a group that exists outside the dominant culture has taken a space defined by that dominant culture and, in Michel de Certeau’s words, has “diverted it without leaving it,” a space where a certain blurring between secular and nonsecular events takes place: poets have been married there or had funeral services or memorial readings held there, but they have also taken LSD there and had sex in the balcony during readings. Often, the fact that the Project’s readings take place in a church affects the actual readings themselves, either through jokes or asides by the poet or audience members, or through poems written specifically for the occasion. At the same time, St. Mark’s Church remains a fully functional site of religious devotion. The Poetry Project only diverts that function temporarily, a fact that is made clear when such events as the annual New Year’s Day Marathon Reading must be moved to a different time because New Year’s Day falls on a Sunday. See Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 32.

18. Kane, All Poets Welcome, 172.

19. Ibid., 173.

20. Ibid.

21. Middleton, Distant Reading, 59.

22. Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, trans. John and Anne Tedeschi (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), xxii.

23. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (London: Verso, 1991), 6.

24. Harryette Mullen, interview by Daniel Kane, in What Is Poetry: Conversations with the American Avant-Garde, ed. Kane (New York: Teachers & Writers, 2003), 134.

25. Middleton, Distant Reading, 24.

26. Franco Moretti, “Conjectures on World Literature,” New Left Review 1 (2000): 57.

Lena and Lena

Elena Fanailova. Photo by Stanislav Lvovsky.

On Elena Fanailova’s “Lena and Lena” [read the poem in English and in Russian]

How do poets write themselves into their work? It would seem a question with a predictable answer. Either they do, following a Byronic model of controlled image-making and seductive self-fashioning, or they don’t, keeping confession or self-advertising carefully at bay. The latter model of studied impersonality, while not dominant in the twentieth century, had powerful proponents, from Eliot and Pound onward, and it still strikes some as more intellectual, more philosophical, more serious. Not to mention more masculine.

Which is where Elena Fanailova and a host of women poets before her come in. The expectation of intimacy from women poets, which was played to perfection by Russian poets from Anna Akhmatova onwards, makes all self-revelation or even its absence marked. Some women poets play to these expectations with wit and considerable charm (Vera Pavlova), others protect themselves with pseudonyms and extreme forms of anonymity (Nika Skandiaka). Still others have devoted immense energies to translation and scholarship (Olga Sedakova, Anna Glazova), giving their poetry an intellectual heft also usually denied women. 

Fanailova repudiates these choices altogether, nowhere more powerfully than in her latest long poem, “Lena and Lena.” By putting her own name into the poem’s title, but doubling it, she returns to the reader our desires to know the poet’s life, confronting us directly in the poem’s sex scenes. She implies that wanting to know how the poet writes is strangely similar to wanting to know how she has sex: in what positions, with what degree of pleasure, and always, always, with whom. But the poem is more deeply about relationships and friendship, about the ways in which we connect to others who seem similar — who have our same name, or share our interests — but are in their experiences, their ethical choices, and their desires, utterly other.

Fanailova has raised these paradoxical issues in “Lena, or The Poet and the People”  (“Lena i liudi,” translated into English in Aufgabe, 2009). The earlier poem, like the one published here, features two women named Lena: the speaker, a poet, and another Lena, a night-store clerk, from whom the poet Lena buys her late-night supplies of food and alcohol. The clerk finds the poetry by Lena hard to understand, written, as she says, for an insider group. But in the new poem, translated here, “Lena and Lena,” the antipode is a more idealized other, indeed in some ways a person from that inner circle, although she is from Belgrade, where the poem takes place. The international purview of “Lena and Lena” marks it as a poem of post-Soviet Russian experience as well.

The conversational, easy tone of “Lena and Lena” is a trademark in Fanailova’s later work. She has worked as a journalist, including more than a decade with Radio Liberty, and conveys well the unusual details of all these women's lives. She presents the individual cases as typical of contemporary life. We meet a Russian woman who lives and travels in the post-Soviet world of greater freedoms and greater stress; we hear stories cancer and treatment, of life’s prosaic insults and its occasional pleasures. The human-rights worker / lover subtly brings out a whole host of ethical issues that define twenty-first-century public life, but not in a way that recalls the clearly defined notions of good and evil that were the hallmark of twentieth-century Russian and Soviet literature. We are all more complicated in our behavior, judgments, desires, and disappointments, the poet suggests.  In these characterizations, Fanailova challenges the expectations we bring to poetry, as opposed to prose, and yet she never loses sight of the ways in which her readers come to poems expecting the “truth” about women’s lives, and about her life in particular.


— Stephanie Sandler

 

 

Lena and Lena
Elena Fanailova


1

Lena is going to Belgrade
To see her lover,
The one she met in Sarajevo
Right in the airport.
They walk around in Kalemegdan
Look at a photo exhibit
Eat in a fish restaurant
On the banks of the Danube
They don’t get as far as Zemun
And end up a little irritated, waiting:
The taxi doesn’t come right away

The center is good for long walks in September
You can’t see the effects of the bombings
But you can see the hope of joining the EU

The lightweight boats on the Danube and the Sava
The lightweight T-shirts on young people
Nights in the Balkans are hotter than in Paris,
Or so sing the musicians on Skadarlija.
People are out all night.

The neighbors hear their lovemaking at night.
They’re secretly proud of themselves,
Of their boldness, of this dalliance
They’re not children after all

She holds on to the radiator
And sees the courtyard outside
From the bedroom window

She holds on to the armchair
And sees Petr Král Street
From the hotel window
As she climaxes again and again
(He takes her from the rear)

He works at the Red Cross
She’s at an international human rights organization
They met in Customs
While waiting for their passports
They listen to Gainsbourg and Birkin
And have sex to Je t’aime

They talk a lot about work
But that doesn’t mean much
They talk a lot about childhood
But this doesn’t mean much, either
They talk a lot about the past:
Why didn’t she have children? Why isn’t she married?
Why did her husband die?
Why was he homosexual?
Who was his first woman?
How he lost his middle child on a Tel Aviv beach
Then found him with the police, nearly losing his mind in that half hour.
How he lived in Kiev when he was eighteen
In a dormitory for foreign students
Sent to the Soviet Union
As one of the best students in Palestine
How he finished graduate school in Leningrad
Who was his first woman in Russia
And how his parents later married him off at home.

How they had separate education at his school
Meeting up with girls only in the upper classes
How his father corresponded with an Englishwoman
Right up until the end of his life
He died three years ago

Sometimes she cries.
Once in that week he got drunk.
She had brought him a tiny bottle of Russian vodka.
His alcohol-induced erection was beyond belief.

He holds on to her knees
When they ride in from the airport
To the house where they are staying
He signs the receipt in the taxi
It will come in handy when it’s time to report back
They can’t get the key into the doors
It’s someone else’s entryway, a rented apartment
They had discussed the place on e-mail:
Center of Belgrade, as noisy as it is convenient
And he says: I’m sorry, my hands are shaking, you really get to me

He runs out for roses at the corner,
Forgot to buy them last night,
While she unpacks, looks around
A spacious, sunny two-room apartment
It’s the beginning of September
There’s an entryway and a kitchen
She takes off her delicate earrings
Puts on her light beige silk
Goes off to the shower

The roses smell painlessly and from afar
They don’t last long
They fade quickly enough,
Even before she departs

She gives him a quick kiss on the shoulder
He’s just barely taller
When he meets her plane
When he doesn’t quite snap her picture with his phone
When she is going through customs

He is starting to learn French
He needs it for his job
But mostly they speak English
A foreign language to both.

A couple of time she regrets being here:
When he refuses to use a condom
When he comes too fast the first time
When he confesses that he has a wife and three children
When she learns that this is his last trip to the Balkans

He’s very smart
He has military experience
And the experience of international negotiations
He’s a children’s doctor
He worked in Israel, England, Georgia
He’s very diplomatic
And very tender
That shape of personality and behavior
That she longed for in the dark

But his face wrenches out of shape
When he hears people speaking Hebrew
And hears their self-confident laughter 
At the next table
Also he has pretty terrible taste
She didn’t want to bring this up
But just to give him some advice

He brought her a completely whorish red dress
And kisses her through the slit in the breast
When they dance
In the room
To Lady in Red
And leads her into the bedroom
And undoes the zipper down her back

Fucking, pure fucking until you see stars
As an instrument of cognition

They act like a couple of tourists
They buy him some shirts, her a cute summer outfit
A few souvenirs
They eat in good restaurants
Make each other breakfast
Drink coffee in bed
Listen to music
Watch a DVD of Lady Hamilton
They settle into good, smooth sex.
They laugh
If something isn’t quite right.
She says:
We’re not actors in a porn flick
So let’s rest a little
And let’s have you do that a little more gently

He goes with her to the airport
The taxi driver is listening to Bésame mucho
On the way she gets her period
He buys her pads in the airport shop

And when she crosses the first security gate
And turns around
She sees
That he
Is pointing her out proudly
To some man he just met
This is understandable:
She’s ten years younger
And not at all bad-looking
Especially at a distance


2

Lena is going to Hungary
For chemotherapy treatments.
In Moscow she found
A small lump in her armpit.
It turned out to be more serious than she thought.

She was working as a producer
In an international communications company in Iraq

Lena’s husband
Is a hotel and restaurant manager
A modest guy, knows a little Russian
Studied it in school.

He was working in Dubai
She came to visit, had a look, but said no:
There’s nothing to do there, just work,
Nothing for a Slavist or reporter,
She didn’t want a woman’s life by Islam’s rules
He went back to Belgrade
With that resume, they were glad to hire him
She was received like a queen
In any restaurant in Skadarlija
Everywhere, all deference and respect
For her, like the boss’s wife
But she carried herself modestly

Lena and Lena are going to the exhibit
Of gifts bestowed on Comrade Tito
In the former Palace of Youth
This was Boris’s suggestion.
It was laughable beyond all words.
Lena remembers
How at the last parade
When she was a Pioneer in Yugoslavia
She was wearing purple Keds with a Batman emblem

When a bomb fell right next to her
She thought: this cannot be.
Bombs were falling in Belgrade,
And then I knew why, and wherefore.
But now in this strange country
With this arrogant American woman
A reporter
With this fool
Who understands nothing
It would be stupid to die right here

She went back to Belgrade, returned to her work as a Slavist
She was translating the Oberiu writers
Kandinsky’s diary

When it dawned on her
That she needed a real man
She met him
In a movie club.
Friends introduced them.

Our wedding, Lena said, was on the Danube and Sava Rivers,
Completely as we wanted it:
Lots of flowers, we were both in white
My brother came, the one Andrei worked with,

But you know, when I got sick
And had to have chemo
My brother couldn’t speak to me
He works in Sarajevo now, in the government

Lena is telling this story
To her lover from the Red Cross
He has no comment.
But he says: she looks wonderful now
Her hair has grown back
Lena herself sees this

Lena returned from Hungary
Chemotherapy is cheaper there
The Belgrade doctors’ assessment:
Complete remission, have no fear
Lena looks a lot better than six months ago:
Her hair has grown back, she’s almost
The same brunette beauty as before.

His daughter in Canada has lymphoma
And is taking a course of steroids
He shows a picture:
A young beauty
At a Muslim wedding

Lena and Lena meet at the corner,
One of the busiest in Belgrade
They have coffee.
They text Andrei about the weather, send love
And go to the university to see Nelly.
Belgrade women
Dress beautifully.
They wear earrings and rings and bracelets
And little black dresses
And little black heels,
Even when they’re going to see the oncologist

Her lover is expecting Lena
Her husband is expecting Lena
They say good-bye on the corner with a strange feeling:
Hope? Friendship? Good will?
Unspoken love,
That catches in the throat?

In former Yugo there was a lot of oncology
After the war
Everyone drinks coffee together
In Sarajevo and Belgrade
And they don’t remember
How it was.
Not long ago a train
Started to run between the two capitals.

That’s why they still don’t like Kusturica in Sarajevo:
It’s shameful to leave the city you love.
Doesn’t matter what nationality
Your mama and papa are.
And his first screenwriter,
The biggest poet in Bosnia,
Old, proud, panting
From emphysema, thin mountain air, cigarettes, and coffee
An uncompromising anti-Soviet
Puffy old Abdullah Sidran,
He won’t speak about him
But he’s eager to talk about the camp
Where they sent his father.

In Russia it’s snowing
Slowly, as in an aquarium.
I can’t sleep, I look out the window
At the bare white trees

I remember this story
So vividly, like in a movie
Like it happened to someone else.

2010


Translator’s note:
“Lena and Lena” appeared in Russian in an earlier version in the journal Zerkalo in 2010. This translation is based on a revised text provided by the poet. I take this occasion to thank her as well for comments and corrections of the translation as it evolved. For a translation of the long poem that is a predecessor to this one, see “Lena, or The Poet and the People,” in Aufgabe (Fall 2009).

 

 

ЛЕНА И ЛЕНА


1

Лена едет в Белград
На свидание к любовнику,
С которым познакомилась в Сараево
Прямо в аэропорту.
Они гуляют по Калимегдану
Смотрят фотовыставку
Обедают на Дунае
В рыбном ресторане
Не доезжая Земуна
Немного раздражаются:
Такси не сразу приходит

Город хорош в сентябре в центре для прогулок
Не видно следов бомбардировок
Видно стремление в Евросоюз

Легкие лодки на Саве и Дунае
Легкие футболки на молодежи
Балканские ночи горячее парижских,
Как поют музыканты Скадарлии.
Народ до утра гуляет.

Ночью соседи слушают их любовные крики.
Они втайне гордятся собой,
Своей смелостью, этим приключением
Они ведь уже не дети

Она держится за батарею
И видит внутренний дворик
Из окна спальной

Она держится за подлокотники кресла
И видит улицу Краля Петра
Из окна гостиной
Пока многократно кончает
(Он берет ее сзади)

Он работает в Красном Кресте
Она в международной правозащитной организации
Познакомились на таможне
Пока паспорта задержали
Они слушают Генсбура и Биркин
И трахаются под Je t’amme

Они довольно много говорят о работе
Но это мало что значит
Они довольно много говорят о детстве
Но и это мало что значит
Они много говорят о прошлом:
Почему у нее нет детей? Почему она не замужем?
Почему она похоронила мужа?
Почему он был гомосексуалистом?
Кто была его первая женщина?
Как он потерял среднего ребенка на пляже в Тель-Авиве
И потом нашел его с полицейскими и чуть не сошел с ума в эти полчаса?
Как он жил в восемнадцать лет
В Киеве в общежитии для иностранных студентов
Отправленный в Советский Союз,
Как один из лучших учеников своей Палестины?
Как он заканчивал аспирантуру в Питере
Кто была его первая женщина в России
И как его потом женили дома родители?

Как у них было раздельное обучение в школе
И с девушками они встретились только в старших классах
Как его отец-торговец до конца жизни переписывался с англичанкой
Три года назад он умер

Иногда она плачет.
Один раз за неделю он напился.
Из Шереметьево она привезла ему маленькую русскую водку.
Его алкогольная эрекция была лучше не бывает.

Он держит ее за коленки
Пока они едут из аэропорта
До чуждого дома
Расписывается за чек у таксиста
Пригодится для отчета в конторе
Не может попасть ключом в двери
Чужого подъезда, съемной  квартиры
Обсуждали место по мейлу
И говорит: прости, руки трясутся, так ты меня волнуешь

Бегает за розами на перекресток,
Забыл купить накануне,
Пока она распаковывается, оглядывается
В просторной солнечной двухкомнатной
Начала сентября
С прихожей и кухней
Снимает сложные свои сережки
Надевает для жары шелковое бежевое
Отправляется в душ

Эти розы пахнут далеко и небольно
Стоят недолго
Довольно быстро увядают,
Раньше, чем она успевает уехать

Она его сразу в плечо быстро целует
Он ненамного выше
Когда встречает
Когда он не успевает снять ее на мобильник
Когда она проходит таможню

Он начинает учить французский
Он нужен ему для карьеры
Но вообще они говорят по-английски
На неродном языке для обоих.

Несколько раз она жалеет, что приехала:
Когда он отказывается от презерватива
Когда в первый раз слишком быстро кончает
Когда признается, что у него жена и трое детей
Когда выясняется, что это его последняя командировка на Балканы

Он очень умен
У него военный опыт
И опыт международных переговоров
Он детский врач
Работал в Израиле, Англии, Грузии
Он очень дипломатичен
И очень нежен
Тот рисунок личности и поведения,
Что она как-то во тьме захотела

Только лицо его перекашивает
Когда он слышит иврит
И самоуверенный смех носителей языка
За соседним столиком
И еще у него довольно плохой вкус
Она не хочет это обсуждать
Просто кое-что ему советует

Он привез ей блядское красное платье
И целует ее в вырез груди
Когда с ней танцует
В гостиной
Под Lady in read
И ведет ее в спальню
И расстегивает молнию на спине

Ебля, чистая ебля до синих огней
Как инструмент познания

Они ведут себя как пара туристов
Покупают ему рубашки, ей прелестный летний костюмчик
Несколько сувениров
Обедают в хороших ресторанах
Готовят друг другу завтраки
Пьют кофе в постели
Слушают музыку
Смотрят Леди Гамильтон на дивиди
У них устанавливается хороший ровный секс.
Они смеются,
Если что-то не получается.
Она говорит:
Мы не герои порнофильмов
Давай немного отдохнем
И давай ты будешь делать это немного нежнее

Он едет провожать ее в аэропорт
У таксиста звучит Besa me mucho
По дороге у нее начинаются месячные
Он покупает ей прокладки в аптеке аэропорта

И когда она пересекает первую линию контроля
И оборачивается
То видит,
Что он
С гордостью показывает ее какому-то
Случайному человеку
Это объяснимо:
Она на десять лет моложе
И совсем неплохо выглядит
Особенно издалека


2

Лена едет в Венгрию
Принимать химиотерапию.
В Москве она обнаружила
Маленький узел подмышкой.
Оказалось, это серьезнее, чем она думала.

Она работала продюсером
Международной телекомпании в Ираке

Муж Лены
Менеджер гостиниц и ресторанов
Скромный парень, немного знает русский,
Учил в школе.

Он работал в Дубае
Она съездила, посмотрела и отказалась:
Там нечего делать, только работать,
Но не слависту и репортеру,
А мусульманской женой она быть не хотела.
Он вернулся в Белград
Его с удовольствием взяли с таким резюме
Ее принимают как королеву
В любом ресторане Скадарлии
Везде ей почет и уваженье,
Как хозяйке
Но она держится очень скромно

Лена и Лена идут на выставку
Подарков товарищу Тито
В бывшем Дворце молодежи
По совету Бориса.
Невероятно смеются.
Лена вспоминает,
Что на последней демонстрации,
Когда она была югославской пионеркой,
На ней были фиолетовые кеды с Бэтменом

Когда рядом с нею упала бомба
Она подумала: не может быть
Бомбы падали в Белграде,
И тогда я знала их промысел.
А в этой чужой стране
С этой высокомерной американкой
Репортершей 
С этой дурой
Которая ничего не понимает
Глупо было бы умереть

Она вернулась в Белград, вернулась к профессии слависта
Переводила обериутов
Дневник Кандинского

Когда она поняла,
Что ей нужен настоящий мужчина,
Она его встретила
В киноклубе.
Их познакомили друзья.

Наша свадьба, Лена говорит, на Дунае и Саве
Была совсем в нашем вкусе:
Много цветов, и оба мы были в белом
Приехал мой брат, с которым Андрей работал

Но знаешь, когда я заболела
И проходила химиотерапию
Брат совсем не мог со мной говорить
Он сейчас работает в Сараево, в правительстве

Лена рассказывает
Эту историю своему любовнику
Из Красного Креста.
Он не комментирует.
Просто говорит: она сейчас прекрасно выглядит
У нее чудесно отросли волосы
Лена и сама это видит

Лена вернулась из Венгрии
Химиотерапия там дешевле
Врачи говорят в Белграде:
Стойкая ремиссия, не сомневайтесь
Лена выглядит много лучше, чем полгода назад:
Волосы отросли, почти такая
Красотка-брюнетка, как раньше.

У его дочки в Канаде лимфома
Принимает кортикостероиды
Показывает фото:
Юная красавица
На мусульманской свадьбе

Лена и Лена встречаются на перекрестке,
Одном из самых оживленных в Белграде.
Пьют кофе.
Быстро посылают смс о любви и погоде Андрею
И идут на кафедру к Нелли.
Белградские девушки
Прекрасно одеты.
У них серьги и кольца и браслеты
И маленькие черные платья
И маленькие черные каблучки,
Даже когда у них визит к онкологу

Лену ждет любовник
Лену ждет муж
Они прощаются на углу с каким-то странным чувством:
Надежды? Приязни?
Любви, у которой нет голоса,
Он перехвачен?

В бывшей Юге много онкологии
После войны
Все пьют кофе вместе
В Сараево и Белграде
И не вспоминают,
Что оно было.
И недавно пошел поезд
Между обеих столиц.

За что в Сараево до сих пор не любят Кустурицу:
Стыдно покинуть город, который любишь.
И неважно, кто по национальности
Твои мама и папа.
И его первый сценарист,
Главный поэт Боснии
Старый, надменный и задыхающийся
От эмфиземы, горного воздуха, от сигарет и кофе
Бескомпромиссный антисоветчик
Одутловатый Абдула Сидран,
Вообще не хочет о нем говорить
Но с удовольствием рассказывает о лагере,
В котором сидел его отец.

В России идет снег
Медленно, как в аквариуме.
Я не сплю, смотрю за окно
На голые белые деревья

Я помню эту историю
Так отчетливо, как кино
Как если бы она была не со мною