Commentaries - June 2012

Laurie Duggan, mid-1980s (drawing by Ken Bolton)

Laurie Duggan is a prominent Australian poet who has been living in Kent, England for the past six years. At the end of last year Fewer & Further published Laurie's chapbook Allotments (with a cover by Basil King) and Shearsman Books, in the UK,  has recently published his sixteenth collection of poetry called The Pursuit of Happiness.

In 1983 Laurie's poetry writing took a new direction from his earlier work and he began an epic project. The Ash Range is a long documentary poem that mixes prose, poetry, reportage and illustrations. It narrates a history of the settlers' engagement with Gippsland, a southerly region of the state of Victoria. Like William Carlos Williams' Paterson, which concerns itself with small-town New Jersey, The Ash Range is not constrained by its locality, but instead finds the universal in its extended examination of the local. While the work is enormously ambitious in its mix of materials, the whole is welded into a solid structure that facilitates communication of the theme, even to an audience that is unaware of the territory it describes. It was originally published by Pan Picador in 1987 and there was a second edition from Shearsman in 2005.

  The Ash Range, original version, 1987

Matt Simpson, writing in Stride magazine, said; "What The Ash Range offers is an elegiac three-dimensional portrait of an area of south-eastern Australia, the region of Victoria called Gippsland. The work is epic, not just in scale nor simply in being divided into twelve parts, but in the sense that at heart it constitutes a search for roots, a journey home. That said however, and despite the fact that Duggan's forbears come from Gippsland, it is in no way a 'family' poem, what Geoffrey Hill once disparagingly called a 'home-movie'. The hero of the poem is Gippsland itself, which Duggan has described elsewhere as 'a larger than life place.' This larger-than-life quality is attained by means of collage, a judicious artistic manipulating of extracts from diaries, journals, newspapers, which cumulatively recreate, as it were, the collective unconscious of the place. The effect is kaleidoscopic and haunting—haunting in the sense that ghosts as firsthand witnesses are let loose to make play with your imagination, to describe the shape of the land as it was first seen by explorers and settlers, to document the trials and tribulations of colonising, 'civilising', digging for gold, living through storms, floods, bush-fires. The poem makes its way, with one or two skips in time, chronologically, from the second half of the eighteenth century and Captain Cook to a point not long after Duggan's birth in 1949. We experience Gippsland as something growing almost organically, as cumulative history, a kind of reverse archaeology. Whatever the research procedures of Duggan's 'map and history project' may have been, the achieved poem is not a digging-down but a piling up, its effect is voice-over filmic (the poet has written scripts and taught media courses). Despite its deliberate exclusion of the solipsistic, it is still a Romantic poem in that it stunningly evokes the spirit of place with an implied nostalgia, and explores the question who am I in terms of the history I have emerged from. And that is part of its universality, how, in words from the back cover, it 'transcends locality'. . . . It is an important work—and not just of Australian literature."

In the year 2000 Laurie Duggan made his first appearance in Jacket when the magazine reprinted his article on Paul Blackburn that had been first published in Scripsi magazine in Melbourne in 1986. It was called "Mister P.B."

In 2001 Laurie published a work of cultural criticism,   Ghost Nation: Imagined Space and Australian Visual Culture, 1901-1939 (UQP, St Lucia), that looked at early twentieth-century Australian modernism via the work of photographers, painters and architects. The plurality of images ghost each other within time to give an understanding of interdependence and discontinuity in the construction of twentieth-century visual culture.

In 2002 Jacket editor John Tranter invited me to compile a feature in collaboration with the literary quarterly Overland magazine where I was the poetry editor.  I included ten of Laurie's poems.

Laurie Duggan contributed work to Jacket on various occasions, including a short poem for Carl Rakosi's 100th birthday and an anecdotal narrative on meeting Gael Turnbull in memoriam on his death in July 2004.  His own work was reviewed in issue 27 by Tasmanian poet, Angela Rockel and a selection of his long, intermittent yet serial, project  Blue Hills was published in the same issue.

Three years later, in Jacket 34 Laurie wrote a review article on Gael Turnbull’s Collected Poems,   "with a digression on his aleatory, kinetic and other off-the-page practices" and we published two extracts from his long poem 'The skies over Thanet' in the same issue.

In 2010, on his blog 'Graveney Marsh',  Laurie Duggan commented on the lack of financial support in Australia for ventures like Jacket magazine . This note also expressed the mild apprehension of the magazine's editorial change held by many of the poets and writers who had contributed to the original Jacket magazine. I agreed with Laurie's remarks then and I can report that  Australian magazines that include international work alongside local material still can't attract local state funding for their pursuits.  Though now, I'm pleased to say that the transition from Jacket-the-first to Jacket2 seems to have been a successful venture and that the Commentary columns, co-ordinated by Jessica Lowenthal, continue to canvass opinion and information on poetics from a broad, global range of English language writing and translation.

Close Listening program #1:
complete program  (27:44): MP3
Singles: Matvei Yankelevich reads
from Alpha Donut (United Artists, 2012) (8:33): MP3
from a new poem "Some Worlds for Dr. Vogt" (16:36): MP3

Close Listening program #2, a conversation with Charles Bernstein
(58:51): MP3
Matvei Yankelevich talks about "Some Words for Dr. Vogt," his grandmother Yelenna Bonner and growing up in an American center of Soviet dissidence, the relation of Soviet samizdat and small press publishing in North America, the formation and operation of Ugly Duckling Presse, the importance of book design, Russian poets of the modernist period and of the 1920s, and 1930, wih special reference to Daniel Kharms and Alexander Vvedensky, and the translation into English of contemporary Russian poets, including Dmitri Prigov and Lev Rubinstein.

Yankelevich's most recent book is Alpha Donut from United Artists. His other books and chapbooks include Boris by the Sea (Octopus Books), The Present Work (Palm Press), and Writing in the Margin (Loudmouth Collective).  Yankelevich‘s translations of Daniil Kharms were collected in Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms (Ardis/Overlook). He edited a portfolio of Contemporary Russian Poetry and Poetics for the magazine Aufgabe (No. 8, Fall 2009) and has written essays on Russian-American poetry for Octopus magazine online. He teaches at Hunter College, Columbia University School of the Arts (Writing Division), and the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College. He is a co-founder of Ugly Duckling Presse, where he designs and/or edits many and various books, is the editor of the Eastern European Poets Series, and a co-editor of 6×6. He lives in Brooklyn. For recordings at his PennSound page.

These two Close Listening programs were produced and recorded by Charles Bernstein for the Radio Station of the Clocktower Gallery, operating at, and PennSound. Photo of Yankelevich by Bernstein.

Ian Wedde, ‘Barbary Coast’ (1993)

Auckland Skyline - photograph: Michael Dean

1946 was a good year for poets. Along the fruits of that bumper crop were Alan Brunton, peripatetic troubadour and (co-) founder of radical theatre troupe Red Mole; Bill Manhire, Dean of the Wellington school and unquestioned Top Bard of the country; Sam Hunt, restless road warrior and heart-sore lyricist – and Ian Wedde, New Zealand Poet Laureate for 2011-13.

It’s Wedde [pronounced Wed-dee, not Wed, in case you were wondering] I’d like to talk about here. He’s far harder to characterize in a couple of gimcrack phrases than most other local poets. That’s if he really is a local poet. There’s always been something of an air of the largeness of outside in Wedde’s work from the very beginning.

He’s written six novels (most recently The Catastrophe, 2011) as well as fourteen books of poetry (to date), starting with Homage to Matisse in 1971 and continuing with Good Business in 2009. He’s also written essays, art catalogues, and – perhaps most famously – a combative and polemical introduction to his 1985 anthology The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (co-edited with Harvey McQueen).

Wedde’s was the first substantial anthology to sample poetry beyond the monoglot field of New Zealand Verse in English, the first real attempt to represent the growing cultural complexity of our society in the 1970s and 80s. That’s not the extent of his innovations in this groundbreaking volume, but that will give you some idea of where he started from.

ian wedde

For the next entry in our state-of-the-nation poems, then, the one looking back over the mind-blowing (in retrospect) culture shock of the 1980s in New Zealand – the age of Privatisation, neo-liberalism; the end of ANZUS, our defense treaty with Australia and the US (as a result of our anti-nuclear stance); the beginnings of mass migration to New Zealand from East Asia and the Pacific rim – I offer Ian Wedde’s poem “Barbary Coast” (available, in full, here), from his 1993 volume The Drummer:

When the people emerge from the water
who can tell if it’s brine or tears
that streams from them, purple sea
or the bruises of their long immersion?

They seem to weep for the dreams they had
which now the light slices into buildings
of blinding concrete along the Corniche.
Is it music or news the dark windows utter?

Who are these people emerging from the water? Boat-people fleeing the dark realities of Pol Pot and Suharto? Europeans awaking from their long Pacific swoom? Whoever they are:

The diners are cheap and the food is bad
but you’d sail a long way to find anything
as convenient. Pretty soon, sailor boy,
you’ll lose your bearings on language.

Why “Barbary Coast,” in the first place? A pirate port, does he mean? Some kind of Freetown, the local equivalent to Burroughs’ Interzone / Tangiers? Or Kororareka, hellhole of the Pacific = the shores of North Africa, lair of the Barbary corsairs?

That crack about the diners being cheap and the food bad certainly rings true enough. Was that not the universal cry through the land through the late 80s? “At least there are more restaurants and the coffee’s better; at least the whole city doesn’t close at 5 on Fridays and open again at nine on Monday morning? Surely that’s worth a few tears, a few more bodies in the gutter?”

What’s that he says about losing “your bearings on language”, though?

Takes more than one nice green kawakawa
leaf, chewed, to freshen the mouth
that’s kissed the wooden lips of the figurehead
above history’s cut-water

That’s certainly true. We can redefine ourselves all we want, go out whoring after the Queen of the Night, but these harbour waters are brackish, slimed with the flotsam and jetsam of the past.

Trailing blood across the moon’s wake
the ship bore out of Boka Bay.

Trailing sharks, she sailed
for Port Destruction. In Saint Van le Mar,
Jamaica, Bligh’s breadfruit trees grew tall.
In Callao on the coast of Peru

geraniums bloomed like sores
against whitewashed walls.
The dock tarts’ parrots jabbering
cut-rates in six tongues.

Where’s Boka Bay? A port on the Adriatic, in the tiny country of Montenegro. It’s a long haul from there to Jamaica, but not quite so long as Bligh's trip from Tahiti, where the breadfruit grow, to the West Indies, where they can be used to feed slaves.

Boca is also Spanish for “mouth” – Italian bocca, French bouche, Latin bucca, Portuguese and Catalan boca (both). It’s the safe haven of the mouth that this barque of language seems to be leaving from, bound for all points west, across the ocean:

‘I would tell you if I could --  if I could
remember, I would tell you.
All around us the horizons
are turning air into water

and I can’t remember
where the silence ended and speech began,
where vision ended and tears began.
All our promises vanish into thin air.

So says the “voyager”, as his “briny eyes / flood with chimerical horizons”:

What I remember are the beaches of that city
whose golden children dance
on broken glass. I remember cold beer
trickling between her breasts as she drank.

But my paper money burned
when she touched it. The ship
clanked up to its bower, the glass towers
of the city burned back there in the sunset glow.’

There’s a great passage in Alan Brunton’s last long poem Fq (shorthand for Faerie Queene -- or does it, rather, stand for F**k you?), published posthumously in 2002, where he talks of the future he foresees for his daughter Ruby, the “bright locofocos over Ocean City”:

leaving me in my old age growing up again in 
the fuzzy town of my childhood where nothing 
was original, not even our peccadillos, where I 
promised with my hand stuck to a tree by a 
knife I’d eat the wind all my life and ramble

Is that where Wedde’s poem is going at this point? From the very outset of his poetic career he seems to have shared his friend’s need to “eat the wind … and ramble” – his second book, way back in 1973, was the Selected Poems of Mahmoud Darwish, translated from the Arabic with Fawwaz Tuqan – even before those groundbreaking longer works Pathway to the Sea and Earthly – Sonnets to Carlos.

Cool star foundering in the west.
Coast the dusty colour of lions.
The story navigates by vectors
whose only connection is the story.

The story is told in words
whose only language is the story.
All night the fo’c’s’le lamp smokes above the words.
All day the sun counts the hours of the story.

It’s all very fine. Like all of us lost in the impenetrable seas of poststructuralist 80s – “no context / nothing outside the text” – the story was “told in words / whose only language is the story.” Heady stuff, to be sure – nothing to guide us but narrative logic, nothing but language flexing itself.

But then:

Heave of dark water where something
else turns -- the castaway’s tongue
clappers like a mission bell.
Unheard his end, and the story’s.

Raconteurs in smoky dives
recall his phosphorescent arm
waving in the ship’s wake.
Almost gaily. The ship sailed on.

That castaway makes the poem, I guess.

The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.

I fear we were all a bit beguiled by those “glass towers” of the city, the “beaches of that city / whose golden children dance / on broken glass” in that headiest, most hedonistic of times: Auckland, Sydney, Melbourne, as much as Eliot’s own “unreal cities” from The Waste Land.

Jerusalem Athens Alexandria   
Vienna London

Another avatar springs to mind, though, Cowper’s own “Castaway,” set in the Atlantic Ocean during a storm, who “bitter felt it still to die / Deserted, and his friends so nigh.” In the end, though, the poet has little mercy on him:

We perish'd, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm'd in deeper gulphs than he.

Like Eliot’s, Ian Wedde’s is poem about history – or possibly the end of history. He sees the beguiling gleam of that will-o’-the-wisp in the distance, that “Cool star foundering in the west. / Coast the dusty colour of lions,” but also sees that it’s an illusion. Raconteurs may tell the tale of your “phosphorescent arm  / waving in the ship’s wake” but time, tide. language and history wait for no man:

The ship sailed on.

torpedo bay

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Volume Two 2012 (1)


EPSI (English Poetry Studies Institute), Sun Yat-sen University
Sponsored by
School of Foreign Languages, Sun Yat-sen University
March 2012

ISSN 1925-573
Co-Publisher: EPSI
(English Poetry Studies Institute of Sun Yat-sen University, PR. China); Office One: School of Foreign Languages, Sun Yat-sen University, PR. China (Contact: Dr. Lei Yanni); Office Two: Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University, England (Contact: Mr. J. H. Prynne).

 Editor-in-Chief:    Ou Hong
Honorary Editors
(in alphabetical order):
R. D. Gooder
Marjorie Perloff

J. H. Prynne
Executive Editor:  
Li Zhimin
Board of Editors
(in alphabetical order by family names):
Daniel Albright                                Harvard University, USA
Charles Altieri                                             UC Berkeley, USA
Charles Bernstein                             University of Pennsylvania, USA
Craig Dworkin                                 University of Utah
R. D. Gooder                                               University of Cambridge, England
Daniel Jernigan                                Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
Li Zhimin                                       Guangzhou University, China
Julia Lovell                                     University of London, England
Joyelle McSweeney               University of Notre Dame, USA
Ou Hong                                         Sun Yat-sen University, China
Marjorie Perloff                                Stanford University, USA
J. H. Prynne                                                University of Cambridge, England
Claude Rawson                                Yale University
Joshua Scodel                                              University of Chicago, USA
John Wilkinson                                University of Chicago, USA
Xie Ming                                                    University of Toronto, Canada
Zhang Yuejun                                              Central South University, China
Zheng Jie                                                    Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

 Associate Editors (in alphabetical order by family names):
Li Zeng                  Northeast Normal University, China
           Yang Xiuling             The University of Macau, China
Cover Designer:
Lin Panpan


Marjorie Perloff
Becoming a Critic: An Academic Memoir /1

 Daniel Jernigan
Cloud Nine
: Caryl Churchill’s Pre-emptive Response to Her Critics /25

 Xu Sha
The Speaking Silence of Ghosts and Dreamers: Dead Women in Christina Rossetti’s Death Lyrics/45

 Zeng Daxing
Climate, Phenophase and Regionalism of Classical Chinese Poetry /57

 Ou Hong
Literature Teaching Overseas: A Culture-Loaded Process /75

 Charles Bernstein
In Unum Pluribus
: Toward a More Perfect Invention /83

J. H. Prynne
Poetry and Sympathy: An Example from Coleridge /99

 Li Zhimin
Editorial Memoir: In Company with Poetry /137


Becoming a Critic: An Academic Memoir
Marjorie Perloff
Stanford University (Emerita)
bstract: In this essay, originally written as a lecture for Sun-Yat-Sen University, in which I tried to explain the trajectory of my career as a literary critic, I detail my critical education from the heyday of the “New Criticism,” studied, along with Formalist criticism at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. and go on to explain how I moved from this work to Russian Formalism and the Frankfurt School, and then beyond these to a specific concern for the avant-garde—both the avant-garde of the early twentieth century and our current avant-garde.  I argue that in all these cases, my conviction was and still is that one must read closely, paying attention to language, syntax, imagery, tone so as to understand what is really happening in an individual poem as well as in the larger period style. 

Cloud Nine: Caryl Churchill’s Pre-emptive Response to Her CriticsDaniel
Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
Caryl Churchill is well known for writing plays which engage feminist, Marxist, and gender issues in ways that have drawn the attention of literary critics interested in these same concerns, not all of it favorable. However, Churchill’s concurrent interest in critiquing traditional epistemological and ontological commitments by exploring how truth is invested in power is perhaps less well known, except, perhaps, for those who see it as an inevitable component of her political concerns. The primary objective of this essay, however, is to explain that Churchill doesn’t simply engage such issues as a byproduct of her investment in political issues, but, rather, quite the opposite, as I finally argue that her primary impulse is epistemological – and that all her other concerns stem from that first concern.

The Speaking Silence of Ghosts and Dreamers:Dead Women in Christina Rossetti’s Death Lyrics
Xu Sha
, Sun Yat-sen University, China
The speaker in most of Christina Rossetti’s death lyrics is a dead woman who, under the guise of ghost or dreamer, vacillates between keeping silence and speaking. Through this process, the speaker arrives at her final state of “muteness,” a muteness in which the speaker nevertheless still talks and prays calmly and optimistically in her heart, a Silence saturated with hope, faith, and belief. This pattern in Rossetti’s work may be described by the paradigm “silence-voice-Silence”.

Climate, Phenophase and Regionalism of Classical Chinese Poetry
Zeng Daxing, Guangzhou University, China
This paper is based on an essential premise of literary geography, that is, there is a close relationship between the regionalism of literature and the diversity of climate and phenophase. Through discussing the climates and phenophase as recorded in the classical Chinese poetry of Tang dynasty and Song dynasty, this study aims to illustrate that the diversity of climate and phenophase as affected by latitude, longitude, altitude and periodicity enables Chinese poets to offer localized experience in their unique language.

Literature Teaching Overseas: A Culture-loaded Process
Ou Hong, Sun Yat-sen University, China
Literature teaching overseas involves a context and perspective other than that of the native land. Influenced by the alien cultural elements, the canon is modified, and the focus of emphasis shifted. Allowances should be made for these changes since literature teaching overseas is a culture-loaded process.

In Unum Pluribus: Toward a More Perfect Invention
Charles Bernstein,
University of Pennsylvania, USA
Emerson's moral perfectionism, as interpreted by American philosopher Stanley Cavell, emphasized that we don't achieve perfection but move toward it in an unending process. President Obama invokes this idea in discussing the racial divide in America, by speaking of "more perfect." Emersonian pragmatism might also be a model in considering the difficulties of translation between American English and Chinese. Translating contemporary poetry is model for possible cultural exchange.

Poetry and Sympathy: An Example from Coleridge
J. H. Prynne
, University of Cambridge, England
This paper presents analysis and commentary focussed on a 'conversation poem' by S.T. Coleridge, 'This Lime Tree Bower My Prison', in the context of a specific episode in his personal and social life, examining the poem's style as an experimental hybrid between informal reflection and the more elevated manner of the pindaric ode. Each stage of the poem's composition, its language and state of consciousness, is discussed in close detail, against a theoretical background of “sympathy”, a current idea at the time, as a framework for projective thought and emotion in the poet's inner life.

Editorial Memoir: In Company with Poetry
Li Zhimin

Free pdf of this issue here.

What follows is a response to PoemTalk #52 written by Cole Swensen, whose poem “If a Garden of Numbers” is discussed by Al Filreis, Ann Seaton, Gregory Djanikian and Michelle Taransky in that show.

I wanted to respond to the reading given to one of my poems in a recent number of PoemTalk. I was thrilled to hear that it was on the program because it’s such a wonderful series, but then I was disappointed to hear the actual discussion. It seemed dominated by Ann Seaton’s very particular agenda, which is an extremely important one, but not the only lens through which to look at 17th-century French gardens.

As Seaton herself stated, she was interested in “everything that wasn’t in the poem,” but because of that, what is in the poem never got addressed. Even its basic subject — the construction of the concept of nature by the sciences, which characterizes the modern world — wasn't discussed, nor was the dominant image in the poem, the golden section. And by extension, geometry as a whole, and with it, perspective, subject positioning, and the constitution of collective subjectivity were all left out. Discussing these, which are the agenda of the poem, might have opened the talk up to the critique attempted by many parts of the book.

My second point concerns Seaton’s reading of the last three lines, and particularly the “we” at its center (“There is nothing that controls our thoughts / more than what we think we see, / which we label “we.”). That she could have missed the irony there astonished me! Yes, the “we” is narrow, and yes, that’s a problem. I intended to criticize such practices, not recommend them.

And third, in saying that “Spaces like this are not open,” Seaton is actually not correct. Contemporary French society has profound problems with racism and equal access to higher education, employment, and political participation, but — again with painful irony — the former pleasure grounds of the aristocracy, with the exceptions of the few that are still in private hands, are open to everyone. There is sometimes a fee, and they are not all accessible by public transport, but no one asks your name at the gate, and no one is denied access.

That said, my over all goal was not to address the social conditions of the age, but to draw the portrait of a man, to write a poetic biography that dealt in part with the way in which he (as does everyone) constructed himself through selective seeing. But perhaps there is no legitimate subject for poetry, indeed any art, other than social conditions, and perhaps we are at a moment in which this is particularly true.

One last note, about kindness — I didn’t mean it frivolously; I think kindness is an extremely important social force, though it’s necessarily intimate, which means not only that it’s rarely noticeable by a society as a whole, but also that it almost never leaves an historical trace. I was struck by the fact that in André Le Nôtre’s case it did.

My thanks to the four who engaged with my poem in early May, and many thanks especially to Al Filreis, PennSound, and Jacket2 for the excellent series.