Commentaries - March 2011
Charles Bernstein commissioned me to write a piece that would bring Wallace Stevens' reputation among contemporary poets up to date - from 1975 to the present. The essay I wrote, as has been noted here before, was published in the fall 2009 issue of Boundary 2. Here is a PDF version of the entire article, called "The Stevens Wars."
In it I discuss the varying responsiveness to Stevens in the writings of (in order of appearance) Susan Howe, Ann Lauterbach, Michael Palmer, Charles Bernstein ("Loneliness in Linden" is a rejoinder to "Loneliness in Jersey City"), Lytle Shaw, Robert Creeley, Jack Spicer, Peter Gizzi, John Ashbery, John Hollander, and again Susan Howe as a very different sort of response than that of Hollander.
Here is the passage of the essay on Peter Gizzi:
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Gizzi is one of our most important contemporary Stevensean poets, yet he is adamantly non-ideological about it. Periplum and other poems gathers early work from 1987 to 1992 and Stevens is everywhere, although in the background. Epigraphs from Dickinson, Spicer, James Schuyler, Oppen, Ashbery, Rilke, Rosmarie Waldrop and Keith Waldrop assert the preferred literary company and don’t so much suppress the presence of Stevens as express a remnant of outmoded embarrassment (Stevens and Dickinson? Stevens and Oppen?) and a debt more pervasive than dedications can allow. The great sequence “Music for Films,” written in Provincetown in August 1990, looks and sometimes reads like the Oppen of Discrete Series but is more interestingly Gizzi’s attempt at his own “Variations on a Summer Day” (1940), floating, chartless, using weather as device for directionlessness and (momentary) lack of poetic ambition.
Some Values of Landscape and Weather (2003) is Gizzi’s most Stevensean volume. Again the landscape-and-weather trope provides a means of laconic improvisation, a going which way the wind blows, a subject as a cloud, “imitation[s] of life” that can use terrestrial being as an excuse for impersonality and dislocation. Gizzi here is in Stevens’ floating middle period: “Landscape with Boat,” “Of Bright & Blue Birds & the Gala Sun,” “The Search for Sound Free from Motion,” “Forces, the Will & the Weather,” “Debris of Life & Mind,” even the dour “Yellow Afternoon.” The ironic word-level sonority of “A History of the Lyric” has Harmonium in it, however—
There are beetles and boojum
Specimen jars decorated
With walkingsticks, water striders
And luna moths
A treatise on rotating spheres.
Gizzi’s whole project might be captured in that phrase: “a treatise on rotating spheres”—what Jordan Davis calls a “shorthand sublimity” at the level of the line combined with a knowing engagement with the pathetic fallacy for the purpose of pushing the human to the top of abstraction and thus away from sentiment.
In Artificial Heart (1998), the book in which Gizzi came into his own poetically, the pronominal address is often generalized—points to the poet (even in the first-person plural “we”), an unidentified she (as in “The Idea of Order at Key West,” a muse or paramour a bit damaged over time but still ready for verse, a version of the subject: “She sang unwrapping her bandages”)—articles refer to general impersonal states of being (“the body remembers joy”; “The day static with stuck weeds”), and a communal, funereally functioning “they” who arrive at the end of poems—Ashberyian in this sense—to bring stories that were not told in this poem but might have been told had we not done our work of telling about something else. Gizzi’s “Will Call” ends:
It was an average day
An arrangement of place. A state of report
or a state of grace. For centuries weeds have hidden it.
Now autumn. Silence is what we make
of eyes, trees and growing vine. It pierces.
And these are the stories they will bring in boxes.
The ut pictura poesis of “Utopia Parkway,” dedicated to New York School-affiliated poet-painter Trevor Winkfield, is written out of Stevens’s poems about paintings (especially in Parts of a World) and the 1951 MoMA talk, “The Relations Between Poetry and Painting,” which in its turn had influenced O’Hara, Ashbery, Koch, and Schuyler from the start.
at the Oulipolooza
Jean-Michel Rabaté describes Oulipo at an event called "the Oulipolooza"--at the Kelly Writers House on March 15, 2011. The organizers of the event wrote the following:
Come help us celebrate the continuing potential of literatures by attending the Oulipolooza, a Kelly Writers House-style celebration of all things Oulipo. The OuLiPo, or "Ouvroir de littérature potentielle" (workshop of potential literature), is a group of experimental French poets founded in 1960, devoted to exploring the potential of literature, language and freedom through the lenses of different constraints. Oulipolooza will include readings about the Oulipo by Penn's own Jean-Michel Rabaté and Katie Price, a reception full of Oulipo-inspired foods, and the launch of "An Oulipolooza": a collection of oulipian texts.
A novel, implementation (2006), was published as a series of stickers. It was written (and stuck around) by Nick Montfort and Scott Rettberg.A novel, implementation (2006), was published as a series of stickers. It was written (and stuck around) by Nick Montfort and Scott Rettberg. This site tells you all about it. Now Montfort and Rettberg are planning a coffee-table photo book version. Really. Here are two of their instructions for this new version: "2) Choose interesting places to put the stickers up in public environments and stick them there. 3) Photograph the sticker, attempting to get photos of the sticker both at a close/legible view and from some distance, showing the placement of the sticker in its environment." Here are photos of a sticker stuck in Berkeley.
More from the Public Discourse
When Jesse V. Drury tweeted one recent early morning (before 7 am) and "at"-ed me (hailed me with an "@afilreis," I mean), I followed the link. Jesse wrote: "Poetry needs form to be relevant" and "Anti-leftist anti-postmodernists?" and "Go get 'em @afilreis." I don't know, at the moment at least, about going to get 'em, but I did follow the link and found myself at the Poetry Foundation's Harriet blog (which is now a commentary space) and found this summary of and quotation from a conservative web site. Here is the Harriet comment in full:
It’s not everyday the website for a right-wing think tank publishes an article on Flarf. Micah Mattix’s article, in The Public Discourse, the blog of Princeton’s Witherspoon Institute, argues for a rejection of the modernist / postmodernist tendency to experiment with form for the sake of new models of reading and readership, and a return to the “natural order” of “formal” poetry. Flarf receives special scorn because it does not reflect such a natural order—is that because of its formal properties, or because of its content, which is gleaned from that most seemingly unnatural of all spaces, the web? Mattix points out (which everyone admits anyway) that all poetry is formal, and there is no such thing as an unformed poem. But which forms, precisely, are “natural?” Which are not? And where (geographically, historically) do these “natural” forms come from? Well, there’s no history in the article, so who knows. But Mattix, who seemingly hasn’t read anything ever written about poetry or aesthetics, does have some major advice for poets:
What is needed now is not more ideological poetry but a new discovery of the “fundamental and perennial rules” of poetry. Without rules, there is no order and, therefore, no recognition. In the end, it is this recognition that makes experiencing art worthwhile. Via complex forms, we recognize the paradoxes of our present existence, or our fractured, conflicting selves, our yearning for coherence, transcendence, and closure, and the infinite beauty of the Creator. If poetry is ever to regain an audience, it must stop resisting—because of dubious egalitarian, ideological reasons—the hierarchies of complex form. Only then can it again become relevant.