Commentaries - July 2010
Video and Audio Recordings Avaiable
In May we hosted a visit by a class of high school students from Friends' Central School, a second annual gathering co-organized by me and Liza Ewen of the FCS English department. (Liza teaches an elective quarter-long course each spring on poetry.) I invited six poets each to teach a single poem in just 20 minutes. Rivka Fogel taught "This Room" by John Ashbery, a beautiful indirect memorial to Pierre Martory and non-narrative meditation on absence as presence. Sarah Dowling then came in and taught a section of "A Frame of the Book" by Erin Moure. Jessica Lowenthal then taught Harryette Mullen's "Trimmings." Randall Couch taught a very early poem by John Keats before revealing that it was Keats. John Timpane taught an Yvor Winters poem about the emotional complication of saying farewell to an adult child at an airport; Wintersean restraint and emotional distance abound here and strike one (strike me, at least) as a refreshing sort of illiberalism in an age of gobs of conventionally sentimental parent-child verse. Tom Devaney may have taken the pedagogical prize on this day, presenting William Carlos Williams' "The Last Words of My English Grandmother"--a seemingly easy poem for h.s. students to grasp. Yet it also does everything a modern poem does, and makes a remarkably good scene of instruction.
Each of the six 20-minute presentation is now being made available in PennSound as downloadable audio, streaming QuickTime video, and the texts of the poems are available as PDF's (digital copies of photocopies handed out to the students).
It's our hope that by presenting such materials, grouped together and well organized, PennSound will be useful to teachers and others looking for an introduction to poetry and poetics - and also to the phenomenon of the poet teaching poetry.
Charles Olson, "Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 (withheld)"
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.
A new PoemTalk
Today we are releasing episode 34 of PoemTalk. In this one I and three PoemTalkers talk about one of Charles Olson's Maximus poems, "Maximus to Gloucester, letter 27 (withheld)." Go here for much more about the episode and link to the show itself. Below is a YouTube clip of Olson reading (over-reading?) the poem.
PoemTalk episode 22 was a discussion of the twelfth poem in Louis Zukofsky's Anew series. Recently Michael Nardone made a first-pass transcript of the discussion and here is a piece of that (a draft). We pick up just after we've heard a recording (dated 1960) of Zukofsky reading our poem. And then:
Peter Quartermain, who has written a close reading of this poem, says about the beginning that is sounds almost like doggerel. And he was on his way to praise the rhythms, very striking rhythms. Anybody want to say something about how the poem sounds, of course, now that we’ve heard Zukofsky reading it. What does it sound like at the beginning there?
Well, I remember the first time I read this poem, and being delightfully bollixed by the first line, thinking, now wait a minute, what did I just read? And it was because of the punning, and yet it’s about seeing and thinking, but clearly sound is in play as well, and the interplay between all the senses and the trans-sensual waves that he is talking about are all there in a nutshell in that opening line.
And the homonym comes metrically halfway, so you get see-sea that divides a metrically mostly regular line into two bits. It gives way to longer lines, but at the beginning it is almost like doggerel.
[Zukofsky reads first lines of the poem]
For people not having the text of the poem, you can’t tell that the first sea is S-E-E, and the second is S-E-A.
You can’t tell from context?
Yes, you can. It’s hard to understand, it’s hard to see with your eyes.
Nonetheless, you can’t be sure, and there’s a split always in this poem because of its reference to the quantum physics that underlies some of the subject matter between doubleness of different things, so that light can be a particle and can also be a wave. See can be S-E-E, it can be S-E-A. So the interesting thing, in respect to the sound recording, which, I think I only heard recently when we made it available on PennSound, is that what you hear with your ear is not the same as what you see with your eye because the hearing of the poem, even when you hear it yourself, it switches, and what happens over the poem is that many of the words switch in their value from one thing to another—
Like an electric current almost.
Like a sea, right.
Yeah, Wystan, go ahead.
I’m just saying it sounds, it’s less doggerel a line when you hear him read it.
Less doggerel hearing it than seeing it on the page?
Than seeing it on the page.
Does anybody think he’s speaking knowledgably about these, about the world of electromagnetic science and radio?
Well, I connect this poem up with “A”-9, the first half of “A”-9 that he had finished this just a little while before and, as he says, spent two years on, where, among other things, besides using the marks, Capital for the vocabulary, he uses—
--yeah--textbook physics, a physics textbook on light that talks about exactly the same thing: matter and energy transforming back and forth. So, it’s as if a sort of mini-version of “A”-9, and a more discursive relaxed version.