What follows is a response to PoemTalk #52 written by Cole Swensen, whose poem “If a Garden of Numbers” is discussed by Al Filreis, Ann Seaton, Gregory Djanikian and Michelle Taransky in that show.
I wanted to respond to the reading given to one of my poems in a recent number of PoemTalk. I was thrilled to hear that it was on the program because it’s such a wonderful series, but then I was disappointed to hear the actual discussion. It seemed dominated by Ann Seaton’s very particular agenda, which is an extremely important one, but not the only lens through which to look at 17th-century French gardens.
As Seaton herself stated, she was interested in “everything that wasn’t in the poem,” but because of that, what is in the poem never got addressed. Even its basic subject — the construction of the concept of nature by the sciences, which characterizes the modern world — wasn't discussed, nor was the dominant image in the poem, the golden section. And by extension, geometry as a whole, and with it, perspective, subject positioning, and the constitution of collective subjectivity were all left out. Discussing these, which are the agenda of the poem, might have opened the talk up to the critique attempted by many parts of the book.
Cole Swensen’s book Ours is a sequence of poems — or is perhaps best described as a poetic project. André Le Nôtre (1613-1700) was the principal gardener of King Louis XIV; he designed and led the construction of the park of the Palace of Versailles. The poems in Swensen’s book indicate a range of interests in Le Nôtre’s work and beyond, but his Gardens of the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte are of special interest, and they are the topic of the poem we chose to discuss, “If a Garden of Numbers.” The poem, and our talk about it, raised a number of compelling questions. Are historical research and the lyric compatible?
Ann Seaton of Bard College speaks about pastoral and race during a Q&A session after her presentation on "Pastoral Origins" at the Kelly Writers House on September 26, 2011. Here is a link to more information, including links to both the full audio and video recordings of the program.