Commentaries - December 2007
In William Jay Smith's Poems, 1947-57 (Little Brown, 1957) there are three satirical epigrams. One of them, called "'Poet,'" mocks typographical avant-gardism not generally, as it might seem, but specifically. A young Filipino writer by the name of Jose Garcia Villa once published a book of poems in which commas were inserted between words. Smith repeats the effect to ridicule it, placing the odd, halting device in a regularly metered and rhymed quatrain. Nothing really "remarkable" about this "effect," Smith contends. Thus:
Funny, yes. But I want to ask: why is it said that a poet "places" a comma between words - placing implying force, artificiality, conscious construction - while the traditional quatrain itself doesn't entail placement. Aren't they both placings? They achieve effects, one disruptive of flow and the other sustaining it.
Long live consciousness on both sides of this argument. Forms are no more or less natural. Up with smooth satire! Up with jitters and hiccoughs! Make it (all of it, so much as is possible) n-n-n-n-ew-ew-ew,(eep,oop). I want my art to make me at least a little jittery. I want my art to make me swallow the air (the air we breathe = the forgotten-about, the natural) the wrong way.
at right, Jose Garcia Villa
I've complained here before of journalists' apparent inability to show any awareness of form. Perhaps it's absurd to whinge about such a thing. After all (I hear a detractor teling me), what's really so surprising that writing in a daily newspaper never conveys its meaning formally as well as by way of the denotative meaning of the words? A resolution for '08: I'll try to stop barking about this.
But it's still '07 and today, Woof woof, once again. Hugh Massingberd, the brilliant, blunt and often bizarre obituary writer for the London Telegraph, has died and so it's time for other papers to run obituaries of him.
How can any self-respecting writer not do something at least a bit self-referential with an obit about a great writer of obits?
The New York Times obit, the work of Margalit Fox, is almost entirely about Massingberd's sardonic, warts-and-all style - the work of the most unusual obit writer of our time, as a matter of the writing - and yet Fox never once does honor to Massingberd's memory by doing a little of this in this writing. And it would have been honor. And it's in my view a dishonor not to do it. Do what? Write the writing so that it's (at least to some small degree) about the writing.
At the beginning of 1996 I put out the word, by email and word of mouth, to Penn alumni that I was ready to convene a group of university alumni to discuss modern poetry by email. No fee, no credit, just talk. About a hundred people wrote me to say they wanted to try this. I made a huge listserv and we called our project "Alumverse." We were supposed to begin on some even date, January 15 or February 1, but on January 7 the entire east coast was hit by an enormous snowstorm and for several days everyone was stuck at home. And for the first time in the relatively new internet age (by which I mean, the moment in the 90s when a bare majority, but nonetheless a majority, had email accounts and checked for messages regularly. On January 7 everyone logged on - many to try to do work even though away from the office. And, going a big stir-crazy, they began writing me, Why don't we begin talking about the poetry now? Why wait? So we began.
Hundreds of emails were sent and received in those first few snowed-in days.
We began by talking about Emily Dickinson, and soon moved to William Carlos Williams, Lorene Niedecker, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, and so on.
Within a few weeks the group of 100 had grown to about 160. By the end of February, when we were supposed to stop, the Alumversers refused to do so. They would go on without me if they must. They wanted to maintain the listserv. They wanted to pick their own poems for discussion. I stayed on and we talked for the entire year of 1996, and even a little into 1997.
By August 7, 1996, USA Today had caught wind of this and ran a story. The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote about us too:
Elsie Sterling Howard said she was fascinated last fall when University of Pennsylvania English professor Al Filreis told her about his use of e-mail to stimulate out-of-the-classroom discussions among the students in his introducto ry poetry class.
Howard, a 1968 graduate who heads Penn's General Alumni Association, had only one question: Had he ever considered trying it with alumni?
``Absolutely,'' Filreis replied. ``We can do it.''
Now, 159 Penn grads from across the country and even abroad are taking a virtual version of Filreis' popular poetry seminar.
They're logging on to read, ruminate and post their thoughts on works by everyone from Emily Dickinson to Allen Ginsberg.
``This is not a course,'' said Filreis. ``It's a conversation.''
The class roster includes psychiatrists, teachers, fund-raisers and graduate students in forestry. It has attracted some who spent their days at Penn in the 1950s, and some who received their diplomas last year. The only thing they have in common is that they once attended Penn. Filreis addresses them all as: ``Dear Alumversers."
The discussion was always at a high level, and always chaotic, and absolutely characterized by good will. There were many disagreements but they became part of the personality of the group. You'd think that among 149 others individuals would not easily distinguish themselves (being just an email address to those on the other end). But there emerged at least 50 or 60 very clearly defined characters.
Over the years since Alumverse, I've met most of these people. Many have visited me at the Kelly Writers House. Some merely stop by when they are on campus. Others make special visits. The children of several have become my regularly matriculated undergraduate students. A few have become donors (yes, the Writers House needs donated funds to keep going). How gratifying that the basis of this virtual community (don't love the phrase but that's what this was) was an interest in modern verse. Most hadn't any idea about poetry and poetics but they were looking for a challenge. I did some work keeping it all going, focusing everyone on the poems themselves, but not as much work as you might think. Alumverse ran itself after a while. And of course long digressions are possible in email. Those who didn't want to follow a digression simply deleted said digressions. (At one point there was a month-long digression on campus radicalism circa 1968. This was so compelling that Penn's alumni magazine, the Gazette, ran an article just about this part of the discussion.)
When we finally disbanded, almost everyone wrote long farewells. Here I quote from that of Joe the dentist from Atlantic City:
So the alumverse arrived at a proper time for me as, in retrospect, most things do. Though I've long had an interest in poetry (God knows there's enough books of poetry around here), I've never felt I "understood" it very well. So I appreciated this opportunity to have a renewed and revamped sense for it and of it. I'm still not sure how well I understand it, but I'm not sure of a lot of things; I try not to let it get in my way. You may have noticed. I am sure there is no mention of the words "poet" or "poetry" in the entire 26 volumes of the Warren Commission Report (I've done the search), but let's face it, poetry's tough. Consider this statement of Faulkner's:
"I'm a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can't and then tries the short story which is the most demanding form after poetry. And failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing."
So I send a virtual hug to all the versers who filled my mailbox, assuaging the ultimate loneliness of the long distance scholar, from Adam, who showed he belongs at a think tank, to Zumbro, who'll let me call her Susanne, and all the ones in between, Evan who's taken to hanging around bookstores where you can usually find me, and Peter who spammed us in the only netiquettally appropriate way, and Robin who has maybe had that baby by now, and John Kim for whom I established a folder in my hard drive, and Marc who drove me crazy by always quoting the entire text he was responding to but I always scrolled down to get to his words because they were worth it, and TheSteven never judging us harshly as he invented poet bytes and happened upon a cyber rent in Adam's heart, and John Norton a real poet whose anthology I own, and Doc Gonzo the night the graphic arrived I knew he has poetry in his soul than he hasn't dreamt of, yet, and Andrea who like me wants it both ways, and Carole sweet and shy came to the union took my phone number and never called story of my life, and Ron who probably now fondly remembers the blizzards we began with, and Edward who wore a suit just to be around us go figure, and Marguerite who....
You can read Joe's entire valediction here. A general Alumverse web page, although old, describes the project and provides links to the newspaper articles mentioned above and some other materials. Pardon a few dead links. The photo above was taken during an alumni reunion on campus, at a little tent marked "Alumversers." There a few of us met and we had a "union," as someone dubbed it. It couldn't have been a reunion since none of us had yet met when we met there. "Long live the union!" shouted Conni Bille.
“Muriel Rukeyser came from a specific line of privileged New York German Jews. Her own mission was to criticize, according to leftist and feminist politics deeply rooted in the Eastern European Socialist tradition, economic and social exploitation. Her poems, as I see it, are the beginning of a startling, deeply important movement, or series of movements, that involve fields as diverse as poetry, art, dancing, economics, and politics.”--Gerald Stern in Nextbook. MORE>>>
Yes, okay, but not "the beginning." She came of age poetically and politically at the end of the 1930s, and she took advantage of movements of the 1920s and of the '30s (distinctly and also converged) that set collage (in the Juan Gris but also the John Dos Passos sense) side by side with the documentary urge. Not to press the point too hard, for Stern here seems to be an ally of this important modern combination: yet this assumption--"her poems...are the beginning"--is one of remnants of the campaign in the postwar period to deny or forget that the two radicalisms--aesthetic and political--ever consorted. But they did, and Muriel Rukeyser appeared on the scene when that merge had already been made possible.
At Third Factory, Steve Evans is hosting a year-end round-up of the best poetry books of 2007. The lists he's collected are those of Jerrold Shiroma, Bill Berkson, Pam Brown, Simon DeDeo, John Palattella, James Wagner, Jordan Stempleman, Tom Orange, Allyssa Wolf, Laura Carter, Patrick F. Durgin, Michael Scharf, Meredith Quartermain, Simone dos Anjos, Craig Dworkin, Annie Finch, David Dowker, Joshua Clover, Kevin Killian, Graham Foust, Christopher Nealon, John Hyland, Nancy Kuhl, Matvei Yankelevich, Jennifer Scappettone, Chris Pusateri, K. Silem Mohammad, Dana Ward, Anne Boyer, Robert Kelly, Rick Snyder, Jessica Smith, Pierre Joris, John Latta, Amy King, Joshua Edwards, Franklin Bruno, Catherine Taylor, Benjamin Friedlander, Michael Cross, Stephanie Young, Erin Mouré, Susana Gardner, John Sakkis, Michael Gizzi, Anselm Berrigan, and Sina Queyras.
On James Wagner's list is Dodie Bellamy's Academonia, published by Krupskaya in 2006. "Yes, disturbing," Wagner writes. "Yes, funny. Yes, experimenting. But it’s really the fearless drive for opening herself up/into various areas that keeps one reading these great essays."
In this lively, entertaining collection of essays, Dodie Bellamy has written not only a helpful pedagogical tool, but an epic narrative of survival against institutional deadening and the proscriptiveness that shoots the young writer like poison darts from all sides. By the 90s funding for the arts had dwindled and graduate writing programs—“cash cows”—had risen to fill the slack. Simultaneously, literary production moved from an unstable, at times frightening street culture where experiment was privileged beyond all else, to an institutionalized realm—Academonia!—that enforces, or tends to enforce, conservative aesthetic values.
Among the questions Bellamy raises: how does the writer figure out how to write? How will she claim her content among censorious voices? Can the avant-garde create forms that speak to political and spiritual crisis? Can desire exist in a world of networking structures? [link]
One of Pam Brown's choices is the new issue of Tinfish, a magazine edited by Susan Schultz in Hawaii. The cover image for number 17 is here, above left.
What are some things you will find in this issue?
--definitions to words like “skin,” “rock,” “bangungot,” “mynah litatur,” “Guam”;
--American epics (undone)
--13 ways and 14 lines
--poems of exile and estrangement, a prayer
--politics and love, together and apart