Commentaries - September 2007

Back to Maria Damon's critical essays for a moment. I've just read "Was That 'Different,' 'Dissident' or 'Dissonant'?Poetry (n) the Public Spear: Slams, Open Readings, and Dissident Traditions."

Charles Bernstein’s breakthrough book called Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word (Oxford, 1998) is full of good essays on the aural ellipsis, the poet’s voice, speech effects, and a history of the contemporary poetry reading, but only Damon’s essay, for better or worse (I say mostly better), really engages the irony and dissonance and difference in the writerly critic’s act of setting into print the problem presented by oral/performance poets such as Benjamin Zaphaniah, whose line “But dis is de stuff I like” becomes Damon’s own intrepid critical refrain (“I’ve tried Shakespeare, respect due dere / But dis is de stuff I like”). When Damon sets the line

But dis is de stuff I like


into roman type, outside quotation marks, the phrase becomes consciously her own. After that, her brief summaries of open readings and the slam movement have about them the intimacy she hopes to achieve, not an easy feat in a fancy book published by Oxford University Press.

Maggie O'Sullivan will be reading at the Writers House on October 11Maggie O'Sullivan will be reading at the Writers House on October 11. She will be joined by cris cheek and, after their reading, Charles Bernstein will moderate a discussion that will include the great collector and curator of concrete, visual and sound poetry Marvin Sacker, and Matthew Abess. It is Matt who has put all of this together — the culmination of two years' work on Bob Cobbing.

At left is a page from Maggie O'Sullivan's online work, "murmur", which is subtitled "tasks of mourning" and was created between 1999 and 2004.

O'Sullivan's PENNsound page features a 1993 reading at Buffalo, broken into individual mp3 file for each passage read, as well as a 34-minute interview with Charles Bernstein of the same date.

Saul Bellow's review of Invisible Man praised Ralph Ellison for his independence from what was then called Negro writing. What he meant, among other things, was that Ellison was consciously not Richard Wright and that he would resist whatever ideological training had been (as Bellow imagined it, partly from his reading of the novel's narrator's experience) forced upon him.

I've made the entire review available in my 1950s site. Here are two salient passages:

Negro Harlem is at once primitive and sophisticated; it exhibits the extremes of instinct and civilization as few other American communities do. If a writer dwells on the peculiarity of this, he ends with an exotic effect. And Mr. Ellison is not exotic.

I was keenly aware, as I read this book, of a very significant kind of independence in the writing. For there is a way for Negro novelists to go at their problems, just as there are Jewish or Italian ways. Mr. Ellison has not adopted a minority tone. If he had done so, he would have failed to establish a true middle-of-consciousness for everyone.

"Things explain each other, not themselves." How true....of all of us, but especially of Oppen.
"Things explain each other, not themselves." How true....of all of us, but especially of Oppen.

I love the late reading style — the voice weak but well suited to the run-on digressive, seemingly narrative (but not), lazy-toned yet ethically sharp poetics. Listen to the 23-minute reading he gave at the 92nd Street Y in 1967. Dazzling - moving and beautiful. He reads "Of Being Numerous."

Perhaps the most moving of Oppen's statements or readings is his introduction to Charles Reznikoff, before a reading by "Rezzi" in 1974:

[Reznikoff] had bought a letterpress, and everyday, every evening after work, Reznikoff set two lines of verse, teaching himself to set verse, as he worked at it. And this way he printed all of his first books by himself. We, Mary and I that is, have carried these poems in our minds through everything that has happened to us since we were nineteen or twenty years old. I don't know of any poems more pure, or more purely spoken, or more revelatory. I professed before, I think the young of my generation were luckier than the youngest in this audience, in that we had to go searching for our own tradition and our own poets. What we found was Reznikoff, and he's played — I cannot say how important he has been to us, as I think he will be to you, and this is what I wanted to say to Charles Reznikoff when he said to me, 'George, I think we all do the best we can.'


(The whole text of the introduction is here.)

So said Peter Viereck in the 1950s

Peter Viereck

Peter Viereck energetically contended that prose was inherently associated with liberalism and poetry with conservatism. Hardly anything could irk a conservative anti-modernist of the postwar period more than the brazen way in which radical and avant-garde poets ignored the distinction between the proper stations and functions of poetry and prose. Eve Merriam, for instance, in a poem called “Said Prose to Verse”:

Listen, my insinuating poem,
stop poking your grinning face into every anywhere.
I have trouble enough keeping my house in order
without a free-loading moon-swigging boarder around
making like a solid ground.


For Viereck, conservatism “embodies” rather than “argues,” and whereas poetry in the 1930s argued exactly as if it were prose, conservatism could claim a closer connection to poetry than did the liberal-left. The liberals of Viereck's time could have prose; poetry — real poetry that did not poke its face into every empirical anywhere — would best be realized by conservatives.

Following Yeats's distinction between embodying truth and knowing it, Viereck wrote, “Poetry tends to embody truth, prose to know it. Conservatism tends to embody truth, liberalism to know it.”