Commentaries - June 2011

Finding havens in the sonnet

Richie Havens on Greenwich Street in Tribeca today, reading The Cambridge Companion to the Sonnet. [Photograph by Lawrence Schwartzwald.]

Maggie's Pen

Maggie O'Sullivan: Video portrait

Maggie had just arrived in New York and came by my place after visiting Steve Clay. She was in the U.S. for the Bob Cobbing festival at Penn. We talked about Bob's generous spirit but also how generally inhospitable she found England, which often has greeted artists like her with a colossally cold shoulder. Maggie remembered that I always wrote my poems by hand and with a fountain pen, if possible. Or used to anyway. I gave her my favorite current pen, the Impact Gel writer.

October 5, 2007

Portraits page 1 : Regis Bonvicino, George Lakoff, Heny Hills, Mimi Gross, Loss Pequeno Glazier, Caroline Bervgvall
Portraits page 2
: Pierre Joris, Wysten Curnow, Levhi Lehto, Robert Grenier, James Sherry, Johanna Drucker
Portraits page 3
: Ann Lauterbach, Karen Mac Cormack, Steve McCaffery, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Nick Piombino, Richard Tuttle
Portraits page 4
: Rd Smith, Nicole Brossard, Douglad Messerli, Peter Middleton, Norman Fischer, Tina Darragh
Portraits page 5
: Myung Mi Kim, Charles Alexander, Alan Davies, P. Inman, Phong Bui, Bob Perelman
Portraits page 6:
Kennth Goldsmith, John Yau, Peter Gizzi,  Dubravka Djuric,  Elizabeth Willis, Tan Lin
Portraits page 7
: John Ashbery, Rae Armantrout, Emma Bee Bernstein, Susan Howe, Sigmund Laufer

Wieners by night (PoemTalk #43)

John Wieners, "The Acts of Youth"

John Wieners at the Odessa Restaurant, New York City, November 1993. Photo by Allen Ginsberg.


Ammiel Alcalay, Gary Barwin, and Danny Snelson joined Al Filreis to talk about a poem by John Wieners for which we at PennSound have two recordings. The version used as the basis of this PoemTalk discussion was part of a brief two-poem performance at the Poetry Project in New York, in 1990. (He also read "Confidence" that day.) “The Acts of Youth” was written in the early 1960s and published in Wieners's second book, Ace of Pentacles, in 1964. So here was a late performance of an early poem — a poem, it turns out, that Wieners constantly revised.

What of the second recording of the poem? Well, it had been somewhat buried — if that's the apt term — inside a long recording made by Robert Creeley and given to the PennSound staff by Will Creeley in a box of many reel-to-reel tapes. Wieners had visited Creeley's ENG 1670 course at Harvard in 1972; the fabulous instructor, sensing the rarity of the occasion, had the characteristic presence of mind to make a recording. The sound quality isn’t perfect, even after digital conversion and enhancement, but one can clearly hear Creeley and Wieners as they try to remember the poem Wieners had earlier mentioned he'd want to recite for the students. This was, of course, “The Acts of Youth.”[1] As Danny Snelson remarks during the PoemTalk discussion, the two readings, that of 1972 and that of 1990, are just about as distinct as could be. In '72 Wieners held to the lineation as indicated on the printed page. By '90 he was running through every stop sign in a literally breathless performance.

Gary Barwin took the broken meter of the second performance quite seriously, and as a musical exercise — to help him discern the actually quite consistent beat of what must have seemed at St. Mark's that day an improvisation based on the end-of-tether-ish way Wieners was feeling — Gary put some persistent sound behind the Poetry Project recording. In the PoemTalk show you can hear an excerpt from this, but Al promised that we would give access to the whole thing, so here it is.

Listeners will readily grasp Ammiel Alaclay's special attachment to the life and work of John Wieners. Which is to say (among other things), Ammiel knew Wieners for many years and his various comments on this remarkable personage provide surely one of the highlights of the PoemTalk series.

PoemTalk was engineered and directed by James LaMarre and edited, as always, by Steve McLaughlin.

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1.  The visit to Creeley's Harvard class produced a conversation worthy of close study. There's an 8-minute discussion of the poetry of affect and its relation to the impetus for writing. Then there's a 3-and-half-minute discussion of Amiri Baraka. and 17 minutes on "homosexuality in poems" and related matters.

Jerome McGann on Poe's publishing scene

Here's an excerpt from a talk Jerome McGann gave at the Kelly Writers House on April 4, 2011. You can watch the video recording of the entire talk here — and, while you're at it, grab the code that will enable you to embed the video on your blog and web page. Go to the Kelly Writers House web calendar for more information about the event and for links to the audio recording. While McGann was with us at the Writers House, he joined me and two others to record a PoemTalk episode about a poem by Poe — an episode to be released later.


The Chomskybot, which I've been using for years, recently located to a new server. So I've changed my links variously and found a renewed fascination for what it does to and with the language of Noam Chomsky. Chomskybot takes sentence parts from Chomsky's linguistics writings and organizes them into randomly formed paragraphs.

It works by what its programmer and others call the “American Chinese Menu” principle, viz. One from Column A, One from Column B. There are four sets of phrases: Initiating Phrases, Subject Phrases, Verbal Phrases, and Terminating Phrases The program, called ”Foggy,” simply selects one of each, at (pseudo-)random, and then strings them together into a sentence. Five sentences make a paragraph. Foggy never even gets down to the word level; everything is phrases, and most of the phrases don't mean much. “In this,” says the programmer, ”foggy resembles a large proportion of real language.”

Here's the Chomskyian paragraph I just read:

Comparing these examples with their parasitic gap counterparts in (96) and (97), we see that this selectionally introduced contextual feature is not quite equivalent to irrelevant intervening contexts in selectional rules. It may be, then, that a subset of English sentences interesting on quite independent grounds is unspecified with respect to an important distinction in language use. Let us continue to suppose that any associated supporting element is rather different from a general convention regarding the forms of the grammar. To characterize a linguistic level L, the descriptive power of the base component does not affect the structure of a parasitic gap construction. Suppose, for instance, that an important property of these three types of EC is to be regarded as the requirement that branching is not tolerated within the dominance scope of a complex symbol.

Now here's another:

By combining adjunctions and certain deformations, any associated supporting element is not to be considered in determining irrelevant intervening contexts in selectional rules. Nevertheless, the descriptive power of the base component appears to correlate rather closely with the requirement that branching is not tolerated within the dominance scope of a complex symbol. For any transformation which is sufficiently diversified in application to be of any interest, the fundamental error of regarding functional notions as categorial does not affect the structure of problems of phonemic and morphological analysis. I suggested that these results would follow from the assumption that an important property of these three types of EC does not readily tolerate an abstract underlying order. Comparing these examples with their parasitic gap counterparts in (96) and (97), we see that the appearance of parasitic gaps in domains relatively inaccessible to ordinary extraction cannot be arbitrary in a descriptive fact.