Commentaries - July 2012
The wonderful Vancouver poet Daphne Marlatt was recently the recipient of the 19th annual George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award (administered by the City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Public Library). It was also Woodcock’s centenary, and I was asked to say a few words about him.
I imagine that there are fewer and fewer people who remember George Woodcock, who died some 17 years ago. He was a highly influential Canadian “man of letters” (as they used to say) — a poet, critic, travel writer, and author of biographies and other popular works of non-fiction. The founding editor of the journal Canadian Literature in 1959, Woodcock was also an influential political thinker, whose books on anarchist philosophy perhaps did more to popularize that ideology than any other publications in the decades immediately after the Second World War.
What interests me about Woodcock is the fact that these spheres of activity — the literary and the political — appear to have remained fairly distinct and discrete for him, throughout much of his career. Indeed, in the preface to Notes on Visitations, Poems 1936-1975, he writes:
“When I assembled my Selected Poems in 1967, I adopted a principle of choice which I now realize was too exclusively aesthetic, with the result that many poems inspired by political or moral passion were left out.”
There are no doubt many factors pressuring a poet to make such a decision — not the least of which would be the long shadow of Modernism and T.S. Eliot (Woodcock grew up in England and began writing poetry in the 1930s). However that may be, much of the best political poetry (and I do think Woodcock’s is good political poetry) is written by poets living through times of intense social turmoil (think of the poetry of Latin and South America through much of the twentieth century), and these poets rarely see hard and fast lines, let alone feel a need to choose between, the aesthetic and the political.
I think, for many poets today, we are more and more living in such times, where the urgency of the growing divide between rich and poor, global economic and environmental crisis and collapse, and increasingly oppressive governments intent on austerity programs, fuels the sense that to pursue “purely aesthetic” ends now is to fiddle while Rome burns.
Our aesthetics are never completely separate from our social contexts. The more interesting question to me these days is not whether or not a poem makes direct, explicit political/social reference, but the context in which poetry is written and read, the communities it presumes, instantiates, and participates in, and the solidarity it produces — both within that community, and between potentially allied communities. If I introduce a poem by saying that I employed such and such a procedure or constraint, or if I say that a poem was written in solidarity with such and such a political struggle, what is actually on the page will in some ways take a back seat to the invocation of a community present in these “external” contexts.
I neither believe in one political tactic for all times and places nor in one aesthetic practice or technique for all times and places. I think, so long as we are working through communities, and towards solidarity between communities, from the bottom up, then a certain degree of political and aesthetic profligacy is healthy.
In other words, if we can speak of a “diversity of activist tactics,” can we also imagine a “diversity of aesthetic tactics”? I am increasingly drawn towards such an idea.
Here are the closing stanzas of one of the poems Woodcock withheld on aesthetic grounds — “Sunday on Hampstead Heath”:
And in the broken slums see the benign lay down
Their empty useless loves, and the stunted creep
Ungainly and ugly, towards a world more great
Than the moneyed hopes of masters can ever shape.
In the dead, grey streets I hear the women complain
And their voices are the sparks to burn the myth of the state.
And here where my friends talk, and the green leaves spurt
Quietly from waterlogged earth, and the dry leaves bud,
I see a world may rise as golden as Blake
Knew in his winged dreams, and the leaves of good
Burst out on branches dead from winter’s hurt.
Then the lame may rise and the silent voices speak.
Finally, here is a poem I wrote for (and read at) the Woodcock centenary (note that Woodcock was a friend of Orwell’s, and wrote a full-length study of him as well). I will note as well — in terms of context and community — that a number of activists with whom I currently organize were arrested and roughly treated by the Vancouver police shortly after I wrote this poem, and that I subsequently read it at a rally in their support. I wrote the poem with Woodcock’s “aesthetic” “choice” in the forefront of my mind, with every intention of being as blatantly “political” as I could be. Let it stand as a foray into my own “diversity of aesthetic tactics.” Context, community, solidarity, and struggle do, in the end, make a difference.
Orwell on Facebook
It’s when we wake up
To realize we are not free —
Endless links to YouTube videos
Of the police beating people
Some banker types claiming
They are representative, elect
Throwing everything — rivers
Lakes every animal on land
And sea and love itself on the fire
Of their endlessly accumulating wealth —
It’s only then that we at last face
The real threshold of our lives:
Will we “Like” what’s actually on offer
Or bite down hard on the boot in our face?
at The Memorial Library, 58 East 79th St., second floor (between Park Ave. and Madison Ave.), New York, NY
Reception for the show: Sunday, July 15th, from noon to 3pm.
This is the only time the show will be open to the public.
This show features nine etchings from Sigmund Laufer's series "The Holocaust" from 1960-1964. The series has not been shown together in New York City since Laufer's solo show at the AFI Gallery, 1067 Madison Ave., in 1965.
Sigmund Laufer (1920-2007) grew up in Berlin until age sixteen, when he emigrated to a northern Palestinian Kibbutz as part of the Youth Aliyah of European Jews threatened by the rise of Nazism in Germany. He then moved to Jerusalem where he met his future wife, Miriam Laufer, also an artist and a refugee from Berlin. After the war in June 1947, they emigrated together to New York City, where they had two children, Abigail Laufer and Susan Bee (Laufer). Laufer began working for the Board of Jewish Education as a book designer, calligrapher, and art director of the children's publication, World Over. He was employed by the BJE for 44 years from 1948 to 1992. Upon moving to New York, Laufer simultaneously began his career as a printmaker and artist, and created black and white and color etchings and lithographs. His first exhibition was just two years after arriving in New York, as part of a group show at the Jewish Museum in New York City in 1949. He had solo shows in New York and was included in many group shows. His work was widely reviewed. Laufer’s prints are part of many collections, private and public, in the United States and abroad, including the Metropolitan Museum and the Brooklyn Museum in New York, the National Library in Paris, and the National Museum in Jerusalem. Visit his website here.
This show is sponsored by The Memorial Library: www.thememoriallibrary.org
A question of faith
Michele Leggott’s poem “shore space, ” from her 2009 book Mirabile Dictu, imagines 1930s New Zealand writer Robin Hyde taking a bus trip through Auckland’s North Shore, and running into various groups of local writers as she does so:
she would be pleased
this spring afternoon above the bays
where gorse and mangroves present
a united front and choko vines run wild
she would be pleased to see Jack Ross
and friends rolling in with a box of books
and a sausage sizzle to do a fundraiser
for a poet who has run out of cornflakes
on the other side of the world Robin Hyde
is living on baked beans and disprins
soon she will leave the places we can see
and walk the seaward road that glistens
It’s a pleasant pastoral vision of friends and collaborators falling over each other to help out, be supportive, advance the art of poetry in an atmosphere of mutual good will.
Would it were so indeed! At first reading, Michele’s poem seems to ignore the actual antagonisms, jealousies, pettinesses etc. that so distinguish our writing lives. Or does it? Robin Hyde — whose collected poems Michele has edited as Young Knowledge (AUP, 2003) — was anything but a tranquil character, in lifestyle, friendships, or literary opinionatedness.
The “seaward road” that she’s about to walk, in fact, will lead her to the frontlines of the Sino-Japanese war in Manchuria (the subject-matter of her 1939 travel book Dragon Rampant) and thence to London and her eventual suicide later in the year, partially — we’re told — as the result of depression at the thought of the oncoming European war.
Michele’s poem may sound superficially lighthearted, then, but it masks a deeper zone of avoidance, fending off the darkness that so besets the souls of the inhabitants of our fortunate isles (or so one is forced to conclude from the pronounced tendency towards the Gothic in our literary sensibilities).
How, then, should I conclude this series of notes on NZ poetry? Well, first of all by acknowledging freely that they’re bound to irritate a great many of my compatriots — the mere fact that I come from Auckland, our largest city, being enough to damn me in the eyes of some.
The (alleged) metropolitan bias that’s bound to give me will be sufficient to explain my faulty choice of writers to celebrate, poems to discuss, and genres to cover. One can’t, in fact, win — which is a pretty good reason for just going ahead and asserting some loud and shameless opinions, I think.
But I know in advance that my views will be met with the usual response to be expected in our islands (“interesting failure to adapt on islands,” as Curnow puts it inhis sonnet about the Moa), that is — silence.
If you don’t want to discuss something here in New Zealand — simple: just stay silent. If some inconvenient points have been raised — ignore them, and they may well go away. If there’s a book / poem / novel that doesn’t fit the approved guidelines — don’t review or notice it at all. Our tendency to emulate the ostrich's response to possible trouble on the horizon is possibly the most irritating aspect of cultural life in this country.
Not that there’s any need for unpleasantness, mind you. Most New Zealanders (myself included) detest unpleasantness. We don’t like strongly held opinions, since it verges on rudeness here to argue too passionately for any point of view (rather analogous to Jane Austen's strictures on the dangers of unbridled “enthusiasm” ... )
Which is not to say that we’re not strongly opinionated and prejudiced in our deeper selves. Refusing to acknowledge that fact does, however, absolve us from having to take any responsibility for the institutionalized racism, sexism and anti-intellectualism so characteristic of the mainstream thought of our nation (check out the “comments” or opinion section on any of our major news websites if you doubt me).
All of which is beginning to sound like a bit of a rant (another unpopular genre in these parts). And I really don’t mean to be unpleasant about it. What I do want to do is celebrate those writers, thinkers, public figures who so passionately combat this conspiracy of silence, of refusal to examine our subconscious motivations, year after year, in article after article, gab-fest after gab-fest, and (yes) poem after poem.
Take David Eggleton, for example, self-styled "Kiwi ranter" and magnificently combative poet and writer, whose new role as editor of our longest running literary magazine, Landfall, places him right at the centre of our cultural life. Has that muzzled him or toned him down in any way? No. Instead, he’s recently set up an online reviews site for the magazine to cover some of the many important books there’s no space to write about within the pages of the print publication.
Now that’s a real contribution to our cultural life. David doesn’t want to ignore inconvenient books and publications, he wants to review them and drag our questions and (possible) reservations about them out into the light.
It may seem invidious to single out a few people from so many, but Michele Leggott, too, with her ethos of “everything for free” and “everything publically available online” — exemplified in the whole nzepc website, its author pages, and (particularly) its feature section — has quite simply refused to shut up about her tastes and preferences. And, rather than try to shut up others, she’s offered them a forum to present their work in its most elaborated and technologically innovative form.
So many heroes, so many editors of online magazines, print magazines, reviews sections of newspapers and academic journals. We’re a talkative bunch, we New Zealanders, for all we cultivate a reputation as taciturn, tongue-tied, inchoate. No, given a chance, we’re as eloquent and unstoppably garrulous as a clutch of Dubliners.
You get the idea, anyway. My agreement with Jacket2 gave me three months to run this column, and I’ve tried to employ that time to best advantage, trying to see things through an outsider’s eyes, trying to manage a cook’s tour of the last fifty years of our poetry while (of course) being conscious of the impossibility of the task.
In that ongoing spirit of audacity and hybris, then, I thought I’d conclude with one of my own poems, “A Question of Faith,” from a little chapbook called The Return of the Vanishing New Zealander, published by the (now unfortunately defunct) Dunedin-based indie publisher Kilmog Press in 2009.
It is, I suppose, in its way, my own attempt at a “state of the nation” message, though I was (of course) unconscious of that when I first wrote it in 2003. The original version of the poem, interestingly enough, was dedicated to my friend and colleague Mary Paul, whose edition of Robin Hyde's hitherto unpublished autobiographical writings, Your Unselfish Kindness, has just appeared from the University of Otago Press:
Things don’t always
stay with you
because they’re good
when the needle
in heavy traffic
with a phone
in one hand
talking to the air
boy wearing BOOM
the concrete parapet
the evening draws in
under the Protection
let the children pass
Under the Protection — a phrase I borrowed from the late great Charles Williams — to you all, then. Let the children pass.
In honor of Anne Waldman & "outrider" pedagogies
This is Week Four of the 2012 Summer Writing Program at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University. I’ve participated in the incredible summer writing program as both student and teacher and perpetually struck by what a unique pedagogical model Anne Waldman continues to create there. I’m always thinking about this particular model of rotating themes and instructors during the regular academic year when I am writing and working with my own students.
In “Outrider: The Pedagogy,” Anne Waldman defines her concept of the outrider as stemming from “a need to define the lineage, pedagogy and view of a burgeoning poetics program that was increasingly seeing itself outside the official verse literati culture academic mainstream” (Outrider 39). The Kerouac School (founded in 1974) is an accredited degree-granting institution, founded out of a desire to create a space for “non-competitive education…building a community of active readers and writers who carry the lineage in their genes” (Interview with Anne Waldman, 2007). It is interesting to me that the term community also plays a central role in the lexicon of composition studies, Elbow and Belanoff’s seminal textbook A Community of Writers is a perfect example, yet can the physical act of writing form community? And, within a required composition course, is it possible to foster a “non-competitive” atmosphere when all students are driven by the desire to pass the “required” class?
In his essay, “Poetry as Prose,” Kenneth Koch writes, “language makes one aware not only of what it describes, but also of language itself—of the word among words.” Ideally, this sentiment is what should be the foundation for teaching both composition and literature—the notion that language in itself is eye opening, empowering, necessary, and beautiful. This kind of classroom is a “community,” one that keeps this flair for language in mind while creating a classroom atmosphere that embraces writing as well as student deep and critical thinking. As Peter Elbow explains, “the culture of composition carries a concern not just for teaching but also for students: attention, interest, and care for them, their lives, and what’s on their minds” (Everyone Can Write 469). In order to teach a student how to write, one needs to first overcome the fears and resentment that often come hand in hand with required courses. Nowadays, few students read voluntarily, and even fewer students write on their own. So, the real challenge lies in gauging the interests of the class and how to spark them. We need to teach students not only how to read and how to write, but how to engage with language itself.
Waldman describes the “rhizomatic impulse” behind the pedagogy that Naropa was founded upon as “in response and as an alternative to poetry as a career…the composition by rhizome field—that way, as if poetry is an excursion and a necessity” (Outrider 18). In his “Introduction” to the first volume of the Talking Poetics from Naropa Institute: Annals of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics series, Allen Ginsberg elaborates on the process of the creation of that writing program. He asserts, “all the teachers are inventive active poets rather than learned scholars observing others of the art” (xi). What both Waldman and Ginsberg allude to is that central to Naropa’s inception was the idea that this would be a site where writing would be prioritized instead of “taught” (in the traditional definition of the term which emphasizes “instruction” and “training”). This desire is no different than that of scholars in both process pedagogy and critical pedagogy, who advocate for a composition classroom that returns to the word, as its center. Geoffrey Sirc’s fluxus-infused volume, Composition as a Happening, urges us to see “composition as a site where radical explorations are appreciated, where aesthetic criteria still come into play, but criteria not merely cribbed off an endless, formulist tape-loop” (32).
Sirc’s “tape-loop” echoes Waldman’s “rhizome”—both envision a writing pedagogy that prioritizes growth, unpredictability, risk-taking, and invites an unlimited number of forms, influences, and connections.
When I bring Waldman’s work into my classroom, students tend to be instantly taken by the way she reclaims what students often dub “traditional forms of poetry” (chant, litany, epic, etc.). Last semester I brought in sections of Iovis (Book One) and Manatee/Humanity for my students to work with. I’m not sure what I thought would happen, but I was surprised by how much Waldman’s innovations encouraged my students to perform their own experiments—I try to think of the composition classroom as a place where discovery and questioning happens, but my students did not really experience this until they had Waldman’s words in their hands. An example, one student took the opening pages of Manatee/Humanity and began by thinking of an animal that she was similarly taken with and worried about. She then did research, developed a thesis based on this topic, created a stop-motion hand-drawn animated film, and finally wrote a solid thesis-driven research paper on the real work that ecopoetry can do.
The thirtieth and final poem of the renshi event fell to me as “visitor” and gave me a chance to consider or reconsider the entire process – the experimental side of it at least, as a test of poetry under special circumstances. The moves up to then had been easy enough, a cool kind of writing that I didn’t find at all displeasing, and a chance, as Robert Duncan had once put it, “to exercise my faculties at large.” On top of that – and not to be ignored – I was doing it out in the open and immersed in a language that I barely understood. It seemed to me too that Kaku, writing in the slot before me, had been pushing toward some kind of conclusion, to which I felt an affinity, but had to consider it, along with a specific request from Tanikawa, as an invitation to formulate my own coda here, a kind of capsule poetics as I conceived it. The conclusion of her short poem ran like this:
... We put logic to rest
We celebrate the outrageous
The last song remaining
Is our offering
To the world
And mine, as an alternative conclusion, was a reference both to my present predicament and to that other, distant world in which I lived and wrote:
people speak at me
& I don’t understand
except my name & yours
& little words like koko & asoko
& those that aren’t words at all
but sounds remembered
first as sounds
the small nouns
crying faith (he wrote)
what poets always knew
what still astounds
If the work we composed was communal, as I thought it was, then what I wrote here as a final “offering” would hold for all of us, bound by the renshi process itself to what the others had presented. What I was doing from my own perspective was calling up certain elemental terms for poetry – the sounds that change as we move from language to language and the crucial but easily neglected words like koko and asoko (“here” and “there”) or the “small nouns” in the quote above from George Oppen. The rhyme – almost terminal rhyme – came pretty much on its own and with a sense of its probable untranslatability into Japanese, where rhyme has always been beside the point. I realized too that were these thirty poems to be published, my preference would be for mine to remain in English, however crucial translation may have been to the renshi event as such. The distance or otherness of the English would show, as I conceive it, a further willingness to abide by the principles of something-like-collage.
While my poem brought the renshi part of it to a close, the poetics of the event continued outside and beyond the actual writing. The discussion at the public performance concentrated on the individual linkages at the heart of renshi, but also got into questions of appropriation, orality and writing, collaboration, even the way in which my presence as guest changed the nature of the renshi itself. For me it was enough to see the renshi event as an experiment in writing, and as such I thought of it as raising several distinctive but related questions.
Collaboration was the key word here, not in any easy sense but as a way – not for the first time nor the last – to put the self or self-as-author into question. The result wasn’t, as it surely has been elsewhere, a collaboration by consensus, two or more authors working together on a single text. Rather each poem within the total renshi was written individually and juxtaposed with what had come before, while bringing still others (by quotation or appropriation) into the field of the poem. (This last was done consistently in Itō’s case, sporadically by all the others.) And sometimes, writing in the same space and needing to translate, to work between languages or even between idiolects, a series of small changes and reconsiderations (modifications) might come up for discussion but never dilute the mystery and the force of what the larger work had brought together. In this way renshi as collaboration could also be taken as a form of collage – not the clear and consistent product of one mind but “a juxtaposition of disparate materials without commitment to explicit [syntactic] relations between elements” (D. Antin), or in the present instance, isolated and quasi-independent poems brought together by the principle of collage and the rules of distant linkage in the renshi.
A FOURTH DIGRESSION. Another set of renshi – the fifth of the present session – gives a sense of how the poems come together “without commitment to specific [syntactic] relations.” Even in Angles’s off-the-cuff translations, below, the sense of disparate sources and idioms comes across, the degree of fusion as much in the minds of the beholders as in those of the authors:
Oh, my beloved, darling husband!
If this is what you insist upon doing
Every day I will strangle to death
One thousand people from your land!
Pandemonium seeping from an article on the page of the morning news containing all the
Women’s sobbing leaking between the lines of the story
War cries filling the table of events
Voices packed tightly within the letters
In the voices, there is only breath
Only emptiness discreetly returned to silence
Hiragana, katakana, kanji, and western letters
Moving back and forth between the synapses
Of the left hemisphere of my brain
Meanwhile my hand and fingers go on strike
A raptor draws a circle over the satellite dish
Will sweep all illness away, they say
Will change one into infinite blue—
The body whole
840 million thoughts
the sutra says
come every night
& overwhelm the sleeper
looking for a place
for which he writes
his death poem
as a perfect circle
The sequence of poets here is Itō, Yotsumoto, Tanikawa, Kaku, and Rothenberg --
a detail of authorship that may or may not be needed in the final publication.
Also tied to collaboration was the act of writing in public as performance, first around a small table in the Orange cafe and bookstore, then in a room upstairs where the poets wrote out their poems calligraphically, and finally in the large auditorium of the Literature Museum. The effect of all that had a curious resemblance to those traditional rituals through which I had sat for hours and days in the Allegany Seneca longhouse and elsewhere – including the welcome breaks for meals and conversation (those also, as Richard Schechner once reminded us, a part of the ritual). And still more crucial here – as there – was how the deep past, theirs and mine, came into it – myth and poetry (or myth as poetry) with a suggestion of the sacred or numinous, the trace of gods and goddesses in whom we no longer believe but whose presence is still felt in the words that evoke them. All of these come into the poems here and elsewhere by processes of appropriation or othering, another aspect of collage applied to both the past and present, from ancient sutras and creation myths to satellite dish and morning news, to the sound and feel of David Antin’s hiccups, accompanying my accounting here, if it should come to that.
With Antin in mind too, I’m aware of how close the renshi event comes to the practice of improvisation, or if not improvisation, a form of accelerated writing, with any persisting constraints or turns imposed here by the interplay with others. For this, my presence may have had a contrary effect, introducing a series of short breaks or pauses while Angles translated each poem of mine into Japanese and theirs more loosely into English. Yet it was the translation, exactly, that was the key to the most far-reaching experiment of all – the renshi as an exercise in transcultural writing and a test, for me at least, of the degree to which I could think of myself and them as international poets – at least for the moment – or could think of poetry as a bridge rather than a wall or, like language itself, both a wall and a bridge. What made it easier for us of course was that the differences of language and culture had already been weakened, so that we shared a contemporaneity and with it a by now similar sense of poetry. (That we had English – in varying degrees – as a kind of lingua franca might also be noted.)
Still renshi is not primarily an experiment but very much a game, and treating it as an experiment in writing and poetics – a chance to test the possibilities of poetry under circumstances different from any I had known before – is a willful act on my part but one I had in mind throughout the four-day session. My own work as a poet, like that of most poets I know, is largely carried on in private, yet not without a sense even so of other voices, other poets, who constitute for me an often cited “visionary company” or, as I have it elsewhere, a paradise of poets. Treating authorship as collaboration, then, and performance as ritual puts into question that other side of poetry – our separation from each other by the realities, if left unchallenged, of cultural and individual identity. The further step would be to treat all acts of poetry as collaborative at heart, a great collective and collaborative enterprise – like language itself. In the critical divide between an oedipal view of poetic kinship and an absorptive and universal one, a conflict to which some attention has been paid by Harold Bloom and others, I and other poets of my company stand firmly with the latter view.