Commentaries - March 2011

Sound poetry

A note about teaching Bob Cobbing

If it's true, as Bob Cobbing put it in 1969, that "Sound poetry dances, tastes, has shape," then those of us who have been teaching poetry-as-printed (poetry on the page, unsounded poetry, what have you...) would presumably have to add at least these three dimensions to the realms of approach in the classroom. Which is perhaps too elaborate a way of saying that to have been prepared to teach words on a page, no matter how complex, is not to be prepared to help present a language as a kind of dance, as something to be tasted, as something that has a physical shape.

Cobbing again: "Leonardo da Vinci asked the poet to give him something he might see and touch and not just something he could hear. Sound poetry seems a to me to be achieving this aim."* Same problem here, I'd suggest. See and even hear we can do, with work. But touch? That's difficult. (And although seeing a printed poem - really seeing it as a thing, in William Carlos Williams's sense ("Poems aren't beautiful statements. They're things!") - is something we think we do in a close reading when often it is not what we're really doing.)

Maggie Estep

 When in my quick modern/postmodern American poetry survey course I teach the Beats (in two class sessions!), I briefly follow a few paths forward to see and hear where Beat poetics point. An example of one fairly narrow path leads to the rage for Maggie Estep, whose appearance on MTV (poetry on MTV--remember that?) was pretty much a sensation. Here is a recording of Estep performing "That Stupid Jerk I'm Obsessed With." Note that her final line is: "And I couldn't be happier." Try to figure out if she means that. And, yes, her bootlace is untied.

"Goundhog Day"

A section of Kenneth Goldsmith's "The Weather"

A few years ago, when Kenny Goldsmith's book The Weather was still in draft--or should I say, was still being typewritten--he read the "Groundhog Day" section of it at the Writers House (for our annual "Mind of WinA few years ago, when Kenny Goldsmith's book The Weather was still in draft--or should I say, was still being typewritten--he read the "Groundhog Day" section of it at the Writers House (for our annual "Mind of Winter" event), and here's the audio recording: (mp3)

Listen to the recording and then read Marjorie Perloff's essay on The Weather, called "Moving Information". Here's a passage:

Take up The Weather as you might any other book, and you will soon find that what seems to be boring, straightforward, and incontrovertible fact is largely fiction. The book's division into four chapters, one for each season, is already an artifice, for of course we don't experience the seasons this way. Nothing happens on December 21st that couldn't just as well happen on December 20th, the last day of fall. The seasonal cycle, moreover, is, as David Antin notes in his jacket comment, presented as "a classical narrative," moving from the bitter freeze of Winter 2002 through a moderate New York spring, to the summer season of thunderstorms and hurricanes threatening the coast, to the autumn of World Series weather (fortunately, fairly dry), back to a winter that seems, at least so far, not as cold as the previous one. The larger narrative thus mimes the familiar myth of "in like a lion, out like a lamb."

The snake according to Eileen Myles

In January 1998, during a reading at the Ear Inn in New York, Eileen Myles read a poem called "Snakes." We recently "found" this poem in that reading; it hadn't been segmented and we just didn't know "Snakes" was one of the poems Myles read that day. I for one am glad of the find. It's quite an interesting poem: story-like but defiant about its story-ness, to say the least. A kind of kunstlerroman, a portrait of this particular artist as a young girl. And not surprisingly it plays with and against the powerful gendered associations of snake. Here is a link to the recording of the poem. And here is the text of the poem as it once appeared in The Massachusetts Review (in 1998).

For teachers teaching the New York School

Kenneth Koch, "The Circus"

Kenneth KochA completely gorgeous performance of his poem "The Circus," by Kenneth Koch. He'd already written a poem called "The Circus" years earlier, and now this is a poem about thinking about having written that poem - a memory of writing that poem, its circumstances, and then some digressing thoughts about circumstances. New York School epitomized.

Many thanks to Curtis Fox, who featured this poem--and this terrific recording--in a recent episode of the podcast, "Poetry off the Shelf."