Commentaries - April 2011

What the Europeans like about Wallace Stevens; or, Stevens "in" Europe?

Give me in any day.

A few years ago I read a collection of essays given the title Wallace Stevens across the Atlantic, edited by Bart Eeckhout and Edward Ragg, published by Palgrave Macmillan. The many pleasures I derived from this book do not always have to do with its topic, which seems capacious but is in fact fairly well and even narrowly defined: Wallace Stevens in Europe.

The connection is rich but in several ways it’s a not-so-supreme fiction, since of course Stevens never visited Europe, never went further abroad than Cuba. Once Europe must be identified as the Europe of Stevens’ imagination, anything goes. To be sure, I’m mostly glad of this. My favorite passages generally explore the terra incognita of the subject. Frank Kermode claims, doubtless a fact, that it was he who introduced Stevens to the Swiss. George Lensing elegantly rehearses the old but nonetheless accurate generalization that Stevens “survived on postcards,” and offers a brief but good reading of “A Dish of Peaches in Russia,” an under-read poem. Robert Rehder describes “mastery of the syntax of doubt” in “Description without Place,” making one doubt the relevance of “Place” beyond the many name-dropped references in that end-of-war poem, such that “without” (does it indicate dislocation or evacuation?) becomes the key term. J. Hillis Miller gives, along the way, a personal recollection of Stevens’s important reading at Harvard in 1950, and, as a bonus, a quite moving evocation of the “Danes in Denmark” passage testifying to Stevens’s unironic sense of the power of the indigene truly living the local life (“And knew each other well”).

Yet as we read this book about Stevens’s Europe, Stevens in Europe, the Europeans’ Stevens, we must remember that the “Danes in Denmark” notion was never about Denmark, nor even about Europe at large. It’s about fully occupying any place but one’s own place, and Europe is a site chosen by way of analogy rather than a cultural or geographic context. Miller, for instance, is right to wonder why Stevens landed on Denmark to make this fabulous place-unspecific point about place.

What does it mean to speak of this particular poet “in” Europe? His actual readership there? His effect on the poetics community? His relationships with individual contacts and correspondents there? Stevens in Europe; Stevens and Europe. “In” is critically a more effective term than “and,” in this regard, but it also requires higher standards of evidence and scholarship. “And” has always produced in Stevens criticism pairings suggestive at best, indulgent at worst: “Stevens and Zukofsky” (a real connection, and generative in terms of contemporary poetics); “Stevens and Heidegger” (a connection made by Stevens through a tiny bit of reading; otherwise a theoretical parallelism, and perhaps a troubling one and too dependent on the acuity of the critic). Miller’s essay here is titled “Stevens in Connecticut (and Denmark),” but the locatedness of the preposition is more persuasive than the collection-befitting conjunction.

Once the subordinating, situating in of the first section of essays gives way to the parallelistic and of part two—a portion of the book titled “transatlantic conversation”—the critical essayist is untethered, for both ill and good. Here we get the delightful piece of Krzysztof Ziarek once again considering, indeed, Stevens and Heidegger. Yes, Heidegger was definitively German, but the essay’s large concept, the “foreignness of poetry,” turns out to have only tangential connection to Stevens’s sense of Europe, a limitation that fortunately does not thwart Ziarek’s revisionist reading of an important late poem, “Of Mere Being.” Again, though, “mere being” is an existential condition more fundamental, more culturally unspecific, than can be obtained by the category “European.”

Across the Atlantic for Stevens were Anatole and Paule Vidal, his French art dealers (father and daughter), their aesthetic-mercantile eyes on the depressed and then war-torn republics; alas, the Vidals are seen only glancingly here. Barbara Church is briefly mentioned (her postcards from a postwar driving trip are sources for several cantos in “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven”), but she and her husband were crucial to the development of Stevens’s view of twentieth-century Europe: Henry and Barbara Church, exiled in Princeton, gave him his clearest sense of the failure of the interwar modernist small press and salon.The Churches introduced Stevens to Jean Wahl, a French poet, detained by the Nazis in a Vichy camp; Wahl corresponded with Stevens and sent him a sheaf of poems in typescript, which we know Stevens read. Pitts Sanborn, Stevens’ Harvard classmate who was a writer and art critic and (as it turns out) fascist fellow traveler living in Germany through the 1930s, was another significant contact in the heart of Europe. Hardly did I lament the particular absence of Sanborn in Wallace Stevens across the Atlantic (he is a character perhaps best forgotten), nor rue the merely brief mention of Wahl by Edward Ragg in his otherwise good essay on Picasso and Cezanne. But I did generally miss a solid touching down upon the European ground of Stevens’s time. (I hasten to note that Mark Ford’s telling of Stevens’s connection to Nicholas Moore of the Fortune Press presents a plausible counter to my qualm.)

Above at right: Jean Wahl presents at a 1943 conference at Mount Holyoke College, where Stevens also gave a paper.

Through Paule Vidal, Stevens came in contact with the life and work of the Breton painter Pierre Tal Coat, a lyrical abstractionist, from whom the poet came to a particular understanding of the fate of the European artist at the moment, as Serge Guilbaut has put it, when New York stole the idea of modern art from Paris. Because he continued stubbornly to buy French works of art—in part out of a fetishizing of the Postcard Imagination—our American poet was working against the trend, the “American Century,” flowing mightily toward him rather than away. These were the sort of actual European forms and movements and Stevens knowledge of which tends to undermine the now infamously dislocated and oblivious but always powerfully contradictory notion of poetry as a description without (a sense of) place.

Feeling somewhat bereft of delineative particulars, I was greeted with the super-confident gesture implicit in Massimo Bacigalupo’s perfectly relevant and useful account of carrying Stevens’s American English over into Italian. Nothing could be more circumstantial or illuminative. Renato Poggioli, to translate the poems in 1954, queries the poet by mail word by word, seeking a culturally specific sense-making for a nation quite unlike the poet’s, balancing that with the untranslatable Americanness upon which Stevens, or at any rate the verse, insists. Bacigalupo (seen at right), a translator of Stevens himself, gives us essentially a memoiristic account of linguistic reckoning across the Atlantic. This, to me, is Stevens in Europe truly—at the level of the word.

The art and practice of the ordinary

from "Attack of the Difficult Poems" [published in Poetry Daily]

The ordinary is always elusive—"near is / and difficult to grasp"—even as it is the most present actuality. And my sense, when talking about the ordinary, is always how extraordinary it is. Paradoxically, any attempt to fix the ordinary pulls it out of the everydayness in which it is situated, from which it seems to derive its power.    . . .

read more at Poetry Daily

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"Web Log" archives (2006-April 2011) @ EPC 

Creeley near the end

A beautiful late reading given by Robert Creeley, CUE Art Foundation, January 18, 2005. We at PennSound provide the video and also the audio-only recording of this event.

"When I think of where I come from....of what a life is, or was...," begins the first poem in the reading. Creeley died in March of '05, just a few months later.

Poetry on the web! It's a revolution!

Reading it now, the article seems a yawn - obvious, innocuous. Was it only eight years ago that the availability of poetry on the web was deemed innovative? (My own poetry site was created in '94. It's a grandpa.) Zoe Ingalls wrote a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education on the Electronic Poetry Center, with glancing looks at the digital poetry archives of the Writers House (including webcasts) and my online poetry course materials at Penn, and several other repositories of the time. I found a copy of this article yesterday while rooting through old files, and am pleased to make it available here.

Language-oriented poetry in Myanmar

by Zeyar Lynn

To many people outside Myanmar (Burma), it might come as a surprise that there is such a thing as Language-oriented Poetry in contemporary Myanmar poetry scene. As I happen to be the person responsible (‘the instigator’ / ‘the culprit’) of so-called Language-oriented Poetry in Myanmar, I feel that I should have my say on how this has come about in Myanmar, a country that has been under a military regime for the past 20 years or so.

To give the reader a background of contemporary (a loaded term here in Myanmar, too) Myanmar poetry, I would have to take the reader back to the thirties when the first Experimental Poetry Movement started in Yangon, specifically by some literature students of Yangon University. They started to write a new kind of poetry that had never existed before in form or content. Their poetry broke away from the traditional/classical style of writing about the old Burmese monarchy and the old Burmese way of life before the British annexation of Burma in 1886. No doubt, there was a much venerated elderly poet, Thakhin Ko Daw Hmaing, who wrote poems that stirred the latent patriotism of the people, but he was writing in the traditional way. The ‘Khit San’ or the ‘Experimental’ Poets invented a new poetic form by writing in lines and stanzas for the first time in the history of Myanmar Poetry. This new form was based on a rigid rhyme scheme, called ‘4-3-2 rhyme’, i.e., there were 4 syllables per line with the last or 4th syllable of the 1st line rhyming with the 3rd syllable of the 2nd line and the 2nd syllable of the 3rd line, and starting again with another 4-3-2 rhyming lines, more often than not, ending with a line of 7 syllables. The contents dealt with mundane, daily life topics, but with a strong flavour of Myanmar cultural icons. Min Thu Wun and Zaw Gyi were the two leading Experimental poets who influenced Myanmar poetry for the next 30 years or so.

If Experimental Poetry was the 1st poetry movement of the 20th century, the 2nd was the New Writing Movement, started and led by Dagon Tayar (who is in his 90s now and blind), after the end of the 2nd World War. Influenced by the leftist ideology of the historical period, he introduced People’s Poetry, a Marxist-oriented realism, during the late 40s. There was at that time an ideological struggle between the so-called ‘art for art’s sake’ bourgeois poetry and ‘art for people’s sake’ leftist poetry. Those who did not support New Writing were branded ‘bourgeois’ and severely attacked by the ‘progressives’. Although New Writing carried on Experimental Poetry’s 4-3-2 rhyme scheme with some changes in the number of syllables per line making the rhyme scheme more flexible, its aim, intention, and content were revolutionary. Art was for the masses, and poetry was the weapon of the masses against the national landowners and capitalists. It was unfortunate that New Writing, while winning over the hearts and minds of a whole generation of younger poets, sometimes became mere propaganda, as the dictum was that poetry must be less aesthetic and more utilitarian so that even the common person of low education would ‘appreciate’ the poem with ease. Compared to New Writing poems, Experimental poetry became pale and anaemic, bereft of ‘reality’, of the daily ‘heroic’ struggles of the masses for a socialist democratic state.

Then came Modern Poetry, the third wave of 20th century Myanmar poetry, around 1968. A noted writer-translator of Western poetry, Maung Tha Noe wrote in his preface to a collection of translations of Western poetry (mostly Romantic but also including some modernist poets, such as Eliot) that “there was no modern poetry at all for one so dizzy and sick to inhale.” His was a call for Modern Poetry in Myanmar, and he was supported by Mya Zin , a Harvard scholar, and Nyunt Kyuu, a well-known poet. The trio then came to be notoriously called the ‘Zin-Noe-Kyuu’ gang, notorious because ‘modern’ in poetry implied Western, bourgeois poetry. Mya Zin introduced the term ‘modern sensibility’ to Myanmar poetry, but without the modernist sense of Western poetry. The idea it espoused was more ‘contemporaneous’, i.e, ‘of the times’, than Modernist a la Modernism. The trio, sensing the danger of poetry degenerating into propagandistic verse, called for a revival of poetry more skillfully crafted, rather than New Writing poetry that emphasized ideological edge over ‘artistic/poetic’ techniques. This started a poetry war between the ‘decadent, bourgeois, Western-longing’ moderns with ‘revolutionary’,’progressive’, ‘people’s’ poets, but with the intervention of the highly-respected New Writing leader Dagon Tayar, a compromise was made with the result that a new kind of poetry was born, the ‘modern’ or (in Myanmar) the ‘Khit Por’ poetry. Even to this day, some scholar poets lament that the road to (Myanmar) modernism was lost to ‘Khit Por’ poetry, which carried on New Writing’s leftist orientation in content but written in free verse, another revolutionary aspect of form in the history of Myanmar poetry. However, till today, many old guard poets consider free verse as ‘chopped up prose rather than poetry’.

The end of the Soviet empire and the coming down of the Berlin Wall had direct repercussions on remnants of New Writing poets. With the demise of Communism, their ideological basis for poetry was gone, but soon it was replaced by ‘individualism’, ‘liberalism’, and ‘democracy’. Some New Writing poets joined the ranks of Khit Por, which was basically Lyric poetry, not unlike the ‘official verse’/ ‘Workshop’ poetry kind attacked by the LANGUAGE Poets in the US. It had/has a confessional tone expressing the self’s agony in the face of the unfair powers that be controlling and manipulating the lives of the people. The people’s poet now/then became an individual suffering the atrocities of society and this self-expression was supposed to reflect the people’s suffering. Indeed, the poet’s individual suffering ‘represented’ that of the masses. During the 90s, there was a surge of Khit Por poetry and poets to the point that it became mainstream poetry. For every ten poems published in magazines at least eight were Khit Por with the remaining two of ‘old’ experimental type or a much watered down version of ‘a reflection of people’s lives’ type. Khit Por poetry was the modern, the new, the up-to-the-moment contemporary poetry based on the poet’s ego-psychology or his/her ‘true, honest, original, and authentic’ emotions. Poetry soon became the art of expressing the poet’s emotions.

This was the situation in Myanmar poetry till the beginning of the 21st century when cracks began to show through. One was the result of an interest in Postmodernism, which was and is still being ‘imported’ (i.e., ‘yet another move to bring in Western decadent ideas into pristine traditional Myanmar culture, especially the culture of the mind and the intellect, with the aim of poisoning the pure minds of the youth’) by a noted scholar, Zaw Zaw Aung. Although he had been explaining the many and complex theories of Postmodernism/Post-structuralism to the local reading public, Postmodern Poetry was still something vague hovering over the horizon. Young and budding poets who could not find an identity or a platform for their voice started looking for something new, anything non-Khit Por. They wanted to know about and to write ‘Postmodern Poetry’ without actually having any idea of what it was. Another crack was seen in Khit Por itself. Though it had achieved the prestigious status of being mainstream, the focus on the poet’s emotion started to take its toll to the point that poets were reproducing the same emotions in the same ways so much so that an editor of a magazine wrote that poems were becoming almost identical. Except for the different pen names of the different poets, the poems had the same tone, color, content, and expression. In other words, Khit Por had come to a stand still instead of evolving or ‘progressing’. Myanmar poetry had reached an impasse!

This was where I came in. I, too, had been writing Khit Por poems but had become disillusioned with what I was doing, which was what everyone who called him/herself a Khit Por poet was doing, churning out the same emotions of personal pain and suffering in startling images. It soon reached the point when the whole idea of writing a poem rested on the discovery of a suitable image on which to hang the poem. As an attempt to find something ‘new’, I first translated some Post-Soviet Russian poetry and later introduced John Ashbery and the New York school poets. I received some flak from old school poets for ‘importing’ decadent American poets. Then around 2004 when I started writing articles on LANGUAGE Poetry/Writing in the US, followed by publishing a book of my own poems titled ‘Distinguishing Features’, I came to be labeled as ‘LP’, Language poet, and a group of poets who were close to me and who also started ‘experimenting’ with LANGUAGE Writing were promptly labeled LP gang with me as the gang leader. For the next few years, there were heated debates in magazines between myself and (it seemed) the whole of Khit Por poetry. It was a battle between KP (Khit Por) and LP (Language Poetry). I defended the poetics of LANGUAGE Writing and our group’s attempts to invent that kind of poetry in Myanmar. Zaw Zaw Aung supported me all the way, explaining to readers that this was what they had been wanting, Postmodern poetry, but what they said was interesting in a way : ‘We want Postmodern poetry but not Language poetry.’

The heat has somewhat died down with my loudest critics reluctantly accepting our (Myanmar) brand of Language (-oriented) poetry since younger poets are copying this kind of writing en masse and magazines are publishing them. Some editors are even saying that LP is showing signs of becoming ‘mainstream’. God forbid! Have these younger writers pretended to overlook Bernadette Mayer’s last point to ‘work your ass off and don’t ever get famous’, which I translated in 2004? Now, this (Myanmar version) of Language-oriented poetry has also appeared online, with the example of Pem skool, a group of Myanmar online poets who are also fiercely into Flarf (again introduced by me).

Provided I get some space, I would like to go into more detail concerning this phenomenon of Myanmar version of Language-oriented Poetry sometime in the near future, hopefully with some translations.


Zeyar Lynn is poet, critic, writer, translator, language instructor, living in Yangon (Rangoon). With James Byrne and Ko Ko Thett, he is currently editing the first anthology of Burmese poetry in English. See also a related essay on contemporary Burmese poetry by Htein Lin and Vicky Bowman, published in Byrne's The Wolf. Lynn trasnalted and edited Charles Bernstein: Interviews and Writings (Yangon: The Eras' Publishing House, July 2009). [Edn 500. Inverviews: Manuel Brito, Eric Denut, Hannah Mockel-Rieke, and Tom Beckett; extracts of 'The Value of  Sulfur,' 'The Revenge of the Poet-Critic,' and 'Three or Four Things I Know About Him.'