Commentaries - September 2010
My Note on William Carlos Williams's Little Baseball Poem
The Poetry Society of America's web site is featuring short pieces on favorite poems. Spring and All is perhaps my favorite poetic sequence, for what it's worth, so when asked by PSA to write about a short poem, I chose the "At the ball game" section of the sequence. I was at the time writing an essay for the Cambridge University Press companion to baseball (my first time ever publishing something in print on the beloved game) so WCW's take on the crowd struck me particularly. (My essay for the Cambridge book is on "the baseball fan," a topic I'd written about several times in this blog.) Here is your link to the little essay on the PSA site.
Leonard Schwartz and Susan Schultz
Several times recently I've mentioned Susan Schultz' Dementia Blog here, so I won't repeat the basic information about the project; rather I'll direct you back here. Michael Nardone recent completed transcribing the conversation between Leonard Schwartz and Susan recorded for one of Leonard's "Cross Cultural Poetics" shows. We hope to publish it some day in Jacket2 but meantime here's a preview - an unedited transcription of one portion of the interview.
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So, it's a really rich and complicated weave of things, and so beautifully juxtaposed. You know, you have that section: my empathy is memory, is a container into which your experience sometimes fits, shallow grave or swimming pool, death by water. The mind is a memory of overpasses, not to pass over but under by way of air. The air is human. I am the limbless woman.
Can you say a little bit—-I know this is a, you know, vast and grave question—-but a little bit about your take on memory having moved through this experience with dementia, and on the personal level, your mother's dementia, and the political level, with the Bush administration now reaching its end?
Could you ask me a bigger question, Leonard?
Were one to ask Proust the question about memory, I know what we would get. It would take several volumes. It's a big question. He's got quite a few books that are devoted to that, but what would be the thumbnail sketch of Susan Schultz's vision of memory?
Well, I've always been quite obsessed with memory, and I think most of my work comes out of the way in which my memory—which I think in many ways is simply an echo chamber of the larger cultural and social memory—works, if that's the right word. So, I think memory is not just a solitary activity, it's very much a communal activity. It's what joins us to other people once we take our memories and offer them to others. So, perhaps one of the most striking effects of memory-loss is that return to a kind of profound solitude that I certainly saw in my mother for a long time. Now that she's in a better place—she's in an Alzheimer's home and she is very well taken care of—there is a sense that she's back in community. But she doesn't speak of her memories. I'm not sure she has them anymore, and so, in that sense, I think there's a kind of profound solitude that has to do with living exclusively in the present.
There's also a strong ethical sense to memory. There's a wonderful book about the ethics of memory by an Israeli philosopher whose name, of course, I can't call to mind at the moment, but the sense in which if you have a memory and you use it correctly, it's an ethical act. If you fail to remember certain important things, that's an unethical act. And yet, if you lose your memory to illness, it's something else again. So the difference between that loss of memory to illness and the loss of memory that the Bush administration tried to create for all of us, I think, is very telling that there are different uses of the erasure of memory, and in my book I was trying to negotiate a place from which I was encountering both at the same time. So, I don't know if that answers your question—
It's a wonderful response to the question. I'm so glad I insisted even though you tried to laugh the question off at first, because it's a great—and there's so much to think about in what you just said, the way in which, in fact, memory is communal, we think of memory at some level as a deep form of introspection, and it is, but at the same time certain kinds of memory, certain forms of memory would not be possible without a conversation, or without the wider conversation that is sometimes called community. So, that complexity, that complicated tissue of discourse and language that makes memory possible, you speak to so tellingly in what you just said, and in the book itself, Dementia Blog, which is really quite extraordinary.
Leonard Schwartz spent the day with us at the Writers House. We recorded an episode of PoemTalk at 3:30 and then later gathered in the Arts Cafe for a reading. The first set of poems he read - relatively new work - went under the series title "Apples Anyone?" Here (in the YouTube video above) he reads "Apples Anyone? #6." This and the other poems in the series of made almost entirely of English words derived from the Arabic. This was his constraint, and when he felt that the constraint was leading him to too much unbalanced didacticism about the importance of cross-cultural poetics, he layered in phrases and diction from "conservative" Shakespeare. This poem, like the others, ends with a list of English words from the Arabic.
Which Side Are You On?
I listened to the current Poetry Magazine podcast - a monthly show hosted by Don Share and Christian Wiman, editors of Poetry. They feature readings from and discussions of poems, reviews and essays appearing in that month's issue. Tony Hoagland talks with them by phone about his essay ("Recognition, Vertigo, and Passionate Worldliness") dividing contemporary poetry into two tribes or camps, one (in short) sincere and the other (in short) disoriented. The very terms I find misleading and troubling. Have a listen to the podcast (you can also find it on iTunes). And see, below, my exchange with Don Share on Facebook.
The web site for the magazine offers this "discussion guide" on the Hoagland piece:
The September issue of Poetry includes an essay on poetics by Tony Hoagland, who considers two kinds of poetic meaning. Hoagland, a poet and professor at the University of Houston, distinguishes between poems that familiarize and those that confuse, “the gong of recognition versus the bong of disorientation.” His piece focuses on the latter sort, the “poetry of derangement.” Hoagland suggests that vertigo (which he defines as “a sensation of whirling and loss of balance, associated with looking down from a great height . . . dizziness”) “is the preeminent topic of contemporary poetry” and “may be the dominant stylistic inclination as well.” Hoagland points to various techniques of imitating and inducing vertigo: non sequitur, fragmentation, disassociation, truncation. (For further reading on this general topic, see his 2006 Poetry essay “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment” and Stephen Burt’s 1998 Boston Review exposition on Elliptical poetry.) Do you agree with him that vertigo helps define contemporary poetry? If so, does it play other roles than the ones Hoagland discusses? Further, why would a poet employ such a tactic in the first place?
If you want me to post a response, please email me at afilreis[at]gmail[dot]com.
Magazine Troubles, Yes, But What's the Story?
Yesterday's Times ran a story on the Arts page - something of a lead story - that struck me as oddly reported and unfinished, and it bothered me quite a bit that they'd even run it. Where was the story? At the University of Virginia, the venerable and, until recently, rather sleepy old quarterly, Virginia Quarterly Review, is having some problems. Its editor, whom almost everyone praises for having revived the journal, seems to be a bad manager and supervisor. There have been complaints to the university from the staff. The editor was turned town for a faculty appointment in the English department. The managing editor, who had suffered from depression, recently committed suicide. The article implies a cause-and-effect connection between and among these factors but--unless we're not being told some crucial fact--it just doesn't add up. Bad relations between a university-affiliated journal and the English department? No news there. A talented editor is bad at running his office? University staff complain about poor management? No news there either. A person suffering from depression takes his own life? Sadly, no news there. So where's the story? I missed any sort of narrative smoking gun here. Presented with this story, as written, the Times editors should have killed the article or asked that the evidence of something newsworthy be made clear. Otherwise, it's commonplace innuendo. As an attentive reader I kept thinking this: Is there something else I need to know to understand this? Is the Times being tasteful in leaving out something salacious? At its worst, the story vaguely implies that the editor drove his managing editor to suicide. But no one quoted in the article comes even close to saying that, so running a fairly major article implying it is, I think, reprehensible as journalism.
(Full disclosure: I got my PhD from UVa; I slightly knew VQR's old longtime editor, Staige Blackford, and wrote perhaps one short review for the journal 25 years ago.)