Rachel Blau DuPlessis

Know what is happening in your heart

Why Robert Penn Warren irks me

Here is a poem by Robert Penn Warren called “Tell Me a Story”:

Long ago, in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood
By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard
The great geese hoot northward.

I could not see them, there being no moon
And the stars sparse. I heard them.

I did not know what was happening in my heart.

It was the season before the elderberry blooms,
Therefore they were going north.

The sound was passing northward.

This poem, which was required reading somewhere along the line, always irked me and I never bothered to think about why. (By the way, I saw and heard Warren read in person in maybe 1979 or 1980, at the University of Virginia, although I don't think he read the irksome poem. He did read “Bearded Oaks” as an encore and received a prolonged standing ovation.)

Why am I irked? I listened to a discussion of the evolution of Warren's racism (see below) and then I knew a little more about why.  It’s the absolute way in which northward movement is naturalized. It happens, the young southerner doesn’t see it, can’t see it, won’t see it, and the logic (it’s a certain season and “therefore” they go north) is fixed. Sure, in the poem he's a young boy and so “I do not know what was happening in my heart” we ascribe to innocence and inexperience. And yet this is not the kind of northern migration that one will ever actually come to know by experience; it’s a priori true. There's a dishonesty here in the slight implication that later one will know what is in one's heart.

Later Robert Penn Warren, who had been a racist, thought of himself as a reformed racist.

Charles Bernstein, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, 2005

In this episode of Close Listening, Rachel Blau DuPlessis discusses her long poem Drafts, the relation between poetry and politics, and the contemporary state of gender issues in writing with host Charles Bernstein, and reads a selection from Drafts.

Rachel Blau DuPlessis
Close Listening recording session, University of Pennsylvania, April 27, 2005
Conversation with Charles Bernstein
Draft 20: Incipit (Drafts 1-38: Toll, 2001)
Draft 25: Segno (Drafts 1-38: Toll, 2001)
Draft 63: Dialogue of Self & Soul (Torques: Drafts 58-76, 2007)
Draft 46: Edge (Drafts 39-57, Pledge, with Draft, unnumbered: Précis, 2004)
Draft 64: Forward Slash (Torques: Drafts 58-76, 2007)
from Draft 51: Clay Songs (sections 4, 5, 10, and 12; Drafts 39-57, Pledge, with Draft, unnumbered: Précis, 2004)
Draft 61: Pyx (Torques: Drafts 58-76, 2007)

Unraveling readings

Image by Noah Saterstrom

My final commentary focuses on writers reading the work of other writers. I was interested in recordings that did more than simply pay homage or celebrate an influence. The experience of listening to the following recordings was often one of hearing some aspect of the text come loose through the reader's voice instead of hearing the text being inscribed into a fixed state.

In a 1998 recording at the Kelly Writers House, Rachel Blau DuPless reads an excerpt from T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land during a celebration of the Poems for the Millenium anthologies. DuPlessis explains: "The Waste Land isn't in this anthology. [. . .] Because of the price the Eliot estate charges." Instead of reprinting The Waste Land, Poems for the Millenium: Volume One includes a brief commentary contextualizing the poem's relationship to a range of modernist literary movements. DuPlessis continues: "I also wanted to note that there are always people missing whenever there are writers. There are people who aren't writing or can't write or don't write. And sometimes they get absorbed into the writers. And this is a section of The Waste Land that was basically spoken by Eliot's maid, named Ellen Kellend." By reading this passage from the poem, DuPlessis foregrounds the material conditions under which literature is created (or not created) and disseminated (or not disseminated).

'Back of'

Index, bibliography, catalog, list

Image by Noah Saterstrom
Image by Noah Saterstrom

This post explores the poem as index, bibliography, catalog, or otherwise arranged list. I want to consider the ways each piece overflows, suggesting threads that the listener might follow or complicating the idea of order under the guise of an ordering structure. I want to pay attention to the ways these recordings open up into the works of other writers and artists in addition to reflecting back upon the concerns of their respective authors.

On Frank O'Hara, 'Second Avenue'

Dated 1953. Published 1960. Picked up by moi in 1964 and purchased, not for ninety-five cents as priced on back (Totem Press), but for five francs twenty-five centimes, in Paris at Shakespeare and Company, which was almost the same as one dollar considering it had to fly the Atlantic, which it probably did on sheer exuberant sexual and lexical energy and gay will to power, which was clearly not masculinist will to power but impressive and powerful in a different “we are sissies” way, thereupon to be confronted by an immediate me who immediately couldn’t understand one word, but got the energy and the comedy and the insouciance and the verve and the nerve — and stored it up.

Ezra in Venice (PoemTalk #41)

Ezra Pound, Canto III

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This time PoemTalk took on Canto III of Ezra Pound’s epic, The Cantos. For such a daunting task we gathered Kaplan Harris (who came from far-western New York State for the occasion), Richard Sieburth (the brilliant NYU Poundian, who interrupted a sabbatical to lend a hand), and Philadelphia’s own (and, originally, Brooklyn’s own) Rachel Blau DuPlessis.

We began by considering what Al – for lack (at the moment) of a better word – calls the four or five “blocks” of topical segments that Pound typically brings together in a collage of historical materials and genres. We work through these, explore the associations, and find our way back to Pound himself (presented in the first “I” of The Cantos), remembering himself young, penniless, ambitious, shut out of rightful civic entry – like The Cid, a hero of this poem; and perhaps, too, like (but also unlike) Robert Browning (who makes a slant appearance).

The third canto was drafted around 1917 and published between hard covers in 1924-25. Although Pound recorded several performances of other cantos through the years, he did not record this poem until the summer of 1967, when he was 81. The voice you hear in the PennSound recording is frail, although Kaplan and Richard both remind us that Pound is, even here, putting on the performance of weak retrospection (a specialty, as a matter of tone and also content, of the final cantos which he had been writing not long before this). What is remarkable is that the poem contains a memory already (when it was written) of a very early moment for the poet (1908), and now, nearly sixty years later, we hear the old poet remembering the memory. There are moments – words re-uttered – when he certainly comes alive through emphasis and what one might call “deep memory.”

We urge you to listen hard for Rachel's terrific riff on the importance of Pound's deployment of the "genre circus," and of Pound's late "my notes do not cohere" problem. "Notes," in themselves, are one of the many genres deployed, says Rachel.

And listen all the way to the end here, folks. In his “final word,” Richard treats us to a marvelous description of the role played in Pound’s complex conception of the poem by the hyper-desired figure of Inez de Castro, lover and posthumously exhumed and declared wife of King Pedro I of Portugal (in the 1350s). At left: Inez de Castro.

Richard Sieburth is also the author of “The Sound of Pound: A Listener’s Guide,” which is the most authoritative account of the recorded voice of the important modernist. The essay was written for PennSound and is linked from PennSound’s Pound page. Just to be clear: PennSound’s Pound page includes every recording of Pound reading his poetry that we know exists. As you will see from the credit lines and acknowledgments on that page, we depended on the kindness of many people to produce such a collection.

Ezra in Venice (PoemTalk #41)

Ezra Pound, Canto III

LISTEN TO THE SHOW

This time PoemTalk took on Canto III of Ezra Pound’s epic, The Cantos. For such a daunting task we gathered Kaplan Harris (who came from far-western New York State for the occasion), Richard Sieburth (the brilliant NYU Poundian, who interrupted a sabbatical to lend a hand), and Philadelphia’s own (and, originally, Brooklyn’s own) Rachel Blau DuPlessis.

We began by considering what Al – for lack (at the moment) of a better word – calls the four or five “blocks” of topical segments that Pound typically brings together in a collage of historical materials and genres. We work through these, explore the associations, and find our way back to Pound himself (presented in the first “I” of The Cantos), remembering himself young, penniless, ambitious, shut out of rightful civic entry – like The Cid, a hero of this poem; and perhaps, too, like (but also unlike) Robert Browning (who makes a slant appearance).

The third canto was drafted around 1917 and published between hard covers in 1924-25. Although Pound recorded several performances of other cantos through the years, he did not record this poem until the summer of 1967, when he was 81. The voice you hear in the PennSound recording is frail, although Kaplan and Richard both remind us that Pound is, even here, putting on the performance of weak retrospection (a specialty, as a matter of tone and also content, of the final cantos which he had been writing not long before this). What is remarkable is that the poem contains a memory already (when it was written) of a very early moment for the poet (1908), and now, nearly sixty years later, we hear the old poet remembering the memory. There are moments – words re-uttered – when he certainly comes alive through emphasis and what one might call “deep memory.”

We urge you to listen hard for Rachel’s terrific riff on the importance of Pound’s deployment of the “genre circus,” and of Pound’s late “my notes do not cohere” problem. “Notes” in themselves, are one of the many genres deployed, says Rachel.

And listen all the way to the end here, folks. In his “final word,” Richard treats us to a marvelous description of the role played in Pound’s complex conception of the poem by the hyper-desired figure of Inez de Castro, lover and posthumously exhumed and declared wife of King Pedro I of Portugal (in the 1350s). At left: Inez de Castro.

Richard Sieburth is also the author of “The Sound of Pound: A Listener’s Guide,” which is the most authoritative account of the recorded voice of the important modernist. The essay was written for PennSound and is linked from PennSound’s Pound page. Just to be clear: PennSound’s Pound page includes every recording of Pound reading his poetry that we know exists. As you will see from the credit lines and acknowledgments on that page, we depended on the kindness of many people to produce such a collection.<--break- />

Romantic & Neo-Romantic Poems

New Audio Available

William Blake, Ancient of DaysAt left: William Blake, "The Ancient of Days," 1794.

On October 7, 2009, Jerome Rothenberg and Jeffrey Robinson, editors of the third volume of Poems for the Millenium, came to the Writers House, gathering some friends and colleagues - and we all put on a show: readings from the anthology of romantic and post- and neo-romantic poems. The readings ranged from Black to Heine to Whitman to Perelman.

Now we (thanks to the talented Anna Zalokostas) present a fully segmented set of recordings from this event.

Download some romantic poems to your iPod this holiday and listen while you shop or while you drop.

Here is a link to the PennSound page, and here, below, are the segments described:

Jerome Rothenberg and Jeffery Robinson reading "The Ancient Poets" and "The Voice of the Devil" from William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell; "Athenaeum Fragment 116" from Friedrich Karl Vilhelm von Schlegel; "To Richard Woodhouse, 27 October 1818" from John Keats; an excerpt from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh, Fifth Book; and "An Archaic Torso of Apollo" from Rainer Maria Rilke (11:51)

Charles Bernstein reading a poem after Edward Lear's "The Old Man of Whitehaven"; CB tr. of an 1847 poem from Victor Hugo's Les Contemplations; "The Ballad of Burdens" from Algernon Charles Swinburne; CB tr. of Heinrich Heine's "Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht" followed by poem after "Der Tod" from Shadowtime; his own "The Introvert," after William Wordsworth's "The Hermit"; excerpt from Walt Whitman's "RESPONDEZ!"; CB tr. of Charles Baudelaire's "Enivrez-vous": "Be Drunken"; William Blake's "The Sick Rose" from Song of Experience (12:12)

Back to geography (PoemTalk #34)

Charles Olson, "Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 (withheld)"

LISTEN TO THE SHOW

Bob Perelman, Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Charles Bernstein converged on Al's office-studio to attempt what Al in his intro dubs a "daunting" task - to talk somehow about one of Charles Olson's Maximus poems in such a way that would make the poem make sense and might serve as a good introduction to The Maximus Poems more generally. We don't know if we succeeded but we certainly had fun trying. We chose a poem for which PennSound has two recordings, one made at the August 1963 Vancouver Poetry Festival and another made in Boston in 1962. As listeners will learn from episode 34 here, we also discovered that someone has made a YouTube video clip from a segment of the film about Olson, Polis Is This. In this segment, Olson reads the poem with what Rachel calls choreographic gestures, motions that continually point up the forward/backward, in-body/away planes or zones of geographic understanding. We happily add, below, a link to this remarkable but probably--most of us would agree--overdone performance.

The title of that film comes from the memorable final line of our poem, "Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 (withheld)," the last parenthetic term here referring to the fact that it was excluded from the first major collection of Maximus Poems, The Maximus Poems of 1960. Excluded but then apparently much in demand and/or much admired by Olson himself.

The poem, especially at the start (in which a family anecdote is told), seems personal and almost (in the term then popular) "confessional." But, as the PoemTalkers put it, it soon begins to do the usual Maximus thing, engaging a vortexical historical method line by line, and gesturing hugely at the convergences of geography and culture across eras and the (at turns) triumphant and lamentable westwardness of everything.

Here is the text of the poem. Here is the PennSound recording of the poem from a reading given in Boston in 1962.

Our episode was edited as usual by Steve McLaughlin, and, as always, PoemTalk was produced and hosted by Al Filreis in collaboration with the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, the Kelly Writers House, and the Poetry Foundation.

Back to geography (PoemTalk #34)

Charles Olson, 'Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 (withheld)'

LISTEN TO THE SHOW

Bob Perelman, Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Charles Bernstein converged on Al’s office-studio to attempt what Al in his intro dubs a “daunting” task — to talk somehow about one of Charles Olson’s Maximus poems in such a way that would make the poem make sense and might serve as a good introduction to The Maximus Poems more generally. We don’t know if we succeeded but we certainly had fun trying. We chose a poem for which PennSound has two recordings, one made at the August 1963 Vancouver Poetry Festival and another made in Boston in 1962. As listeners will learn from episode 34 here, we also discovered that someone has made a YouTube video clip from a segment of the film about Olson, Polis Is This. In this segment, Olson reads the poem with what Rachel calls choreographic gestures, motions that continually point up the forward/backward, in-body/away planes or zones of geographic understanding. We happily add, below, a link to this remarkable but probably — most of us would agree — overdone performance.

The title of that film comes from the memorable final line of our poem, “Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 (withheld),” the last parenthetic term here referring to the fact that it was excluded from the first major collection of Maximus Poems, The Maximus Poems of 1960. Excluded but then apparently much in demand and/or much admired by Olson himself.

The poem, especially at the start (in which a family anecdote is told), seems personal and almost (in the term then popular) “confessional.” But, as the PoemTalkers put it, it soon begins to do the usual Maximus thing, engaging a vortexical historical method line by line, and gesturing hugely at the convergences of geography and culture across eras and the (at turns) triumphant and lamentable westwardness of everything.

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