Commentaries - August 2012


Poetry doesn’t make anything happen

I’m not interested in a revolution you can’t dance to

This machine kills fascists

Things happen, and poetry is a thing, a making, and sometimes a happening

Where “thing” (ding) once meant “meeting place”—“assembly”—so we are such “things” as revolutionary dreams are made of

Mayakovsky: “the presence of a problem in society, the solution of which is only conceivable in poetic terms”



In the mid-1980s I rode in a zodiac up an inlet in Clayoquot sound with a man who had been a student activist in Chicago in 1968, and had helped organize the protests at the Democratic National Convention. We were going to tend his oyster farm, and we talked about Neruda (his favourite poet), Chile (where he’d lived after fleeing charges in Chicago), and Neruda’s Memoirs (which I was then reading). The only thing I recall about that book is Neruda’s insistence that the poet always wear black, a rule I follow to this day

Mayakovsky: “Hey you! Heaven! Off with your cap!”

This roof that you call the sky, will it hold? Acrobats string lines between what we see and what we say. These barricades, they didn’t change anything, did they? The loose combatants now herd together on hills very near here. Are you aware that “a few men gather in caverns in SILENCE?” Tristan Tzara was a made-up name. “You twilight cloud, be Goya”

Adrienne Rich: “A revolutionary poem will not tell you who or when to kill, what or when to burn, or even how to theorize. It reminds you…where and when and how you are living and might live, it is a wick of desire”



In a poem “I” can lift my voice—dark clouds fall to either side—it is a voice of everyone and in the poem everyone is listening. “I” say we are free or a force and we are saying this and we are a force and we are free. “I” say we are broken but whole and equally so and we are all broken but whole and equally so. “I” say I am with you and we are rising and “I” say this in the form of a poem and we are saying this and we are together and rising in the form of a poem. The dark clouds have gone into of us—and out of us—and everywhere come hands reaching into the sky

Rimbaud: “Poetry will no longer give rhythm to action; it will be in advance of action

Kirstin Ross: “To produce poetry that would be an agent as well as an effect of cultural and political change” (The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune)

When I joined the occupation there was some expectation of laurels. Instead, silent years passed in black and white. I was a privileged white male writing verse libre, LOL. Then—a furious wind, a roaring of tense colours. I put my pen down

It’s in the poem that we can propose alternatives—alternative demands, alternative desires, alternative senses of the social, the collective, and the soundings of the impossible totality of change—the saying of the unsayable the poem holds forth, a small flame in a political night to gather our voices round



I have written parodies of prime ministers and read them at rallies. I have received letters from lawyers threatening libel suits for what I have written about the corporations they represent (c.f., Goldcorp Inc.). I have been followed by the police, my apartment bugged, detained at borders, questioned and searched. I have been shot and dumped in a ditch or unmarked grave. I have been airbrushed from historical photographs

Poetry transforms its materials, whether social or textual

That reminds me of a story that did not happen one time

Call and response

Just as every struggle “engenders new forms of organization of its own,” every poem defines its poetics anew

Subcommandante Marcos: “Welcome to this territory in struggle for humanity. / Welcome to this territory in rebellion against neoliberalism. / Welcome to the search for life and the struggle against death”

Shit is fucked up and bullshit

Go ask Egypt: “This poetry is not an ornament to the uprising—it is its soundtrack and also composes a significant part of the action itself”

Is what democracy looks like. A poem?

Show me



When I joined the occupation I couldn’t at first find the poem. All hands on deck / all hands on Brecht. Then it seemed it wasn’t the poem I was looking for. Cri di Pueple.  Later, the poem found me, in the midst of a vast crowd. It asked, “whose streets?”

Frederic Jameson: “What is the ratio within revolutionary action of ego to id, prose to poetry?”

Is poetry not an aspect of daily life? Is revolution? I take out the garbage. Someone is in the ally. An orange tree appears set against the sky. A raccoon. We are all here together. Make a poem, or a revolution? Must we choose?

Jameson: “Barricades involve a kind of bricolage, a provisional cobbling together of whatever bits and pieces come usefully to hand…this may also serve as a perceptive account of the poetic techniques of a Rimbaud, indeed of the revolutionary avant-garde in general”

The question—how to break that “most time honored and inflexible of barriers: the one separating those who carry out useful labor from those who ponder aesthetics”

When I joined the occupation it was as writer’s black block that I lifted pallets and held a sign that said “down with that sort of thing” and you too my aesthetic adversary. A cadre collapsed on a couch. What I picked up was not a virus but a resonance, echoing in my heart

Annharte: “Don’t say anything out loud / to Mr Mrs Ms Authority Person in Charge”



Cluseret: “It is…not necessary for these barricades to be perfectly constructed; they can very well be made of overturned carriages, doors torn off their hinges, furniture thrown out of windows, cobblestones where these are available, beams, barrels, etc.”

Badiou suggests that May 1968 is now “a sort of historical poem”

Rimbaud: “The inventions of the unknown demand new forms”

And then we got weird and normal and boring—went out in our clothes to movies or marches—slept in tents in public—called out toma la calle! and stormed off to our creative writing classes—slapped babies and cooked the books—it’s all work if you can get it—but who wrote the regulations, who wrote the laws

Rich: “this is the oppressor’s language / yet I need it to talk to you”—which is why “a language is a map of our failures”—redrawn each time we resist

Dear Common—“The poem distributes itself according to the necessity of subjects to begin, to begin speaking to anybody, simply because of the perception of continuous co-embodiment as the condition of language. This shaped speaking carries the breath of multiple temporalities into the present, not to protect or to sanctify the edifice of tradition, but to vulnerably figure historicity as an embodied stance, an address, the poem’s most important gift to politics” (Lisa Robertson)



I am fond of the unbound, the sabotage of synecdoche, the use of familiar parts to invent new functions, CBC interviews where the elderly caller says she would like to slap me, squarely in the red, dense forests you look at from without, wondering, the Greek word meaning to arrange in order to do battle, boundaries

To plunder somewhat indiscriminately in the stock pile of revolutionary images and representations—sometimes with attribution, sometimes without

Rimbaud: “Changer la vie”

Some words are actions and some actions words. A great deal depends upon context. “To grasp poetry as the product of a historical imagination” (Ross).  Which is a contextual imagination—in and of a world—through which our being together is spoken

“demonstrations, watchwords, bluffs, forgeries”

When I joined the occupation it was in the hope that there were ideas that could not be evicted and because the drunken boat doubles as a working-class cabaret and poets, after all, are also part of the rabble

Reading a poem isn’t much like storming a bank. Unless you are reading a poem to a group of people with whom you then storm a bank


The 1923 edition, left; and the 1970 edition, right, courtesy of Silliman's Blog
The 1923 edition, left; and the 1970 edition, right, courtesy of Silliman's Blog.

I take this commentary post title from Robert Duncan, but I write this as I reread William Carlos Williams’s 1923 long poem Spring and All for class tomorrow. Since I am teaching Williams within a teacher training program this summer, we tend to pay special attention to what Williams has to say about education and the academy. Spring and All’s attack on the “age of copying” is of interest this week. Near the end of the poem, the rules of standard punctuation and capitalization break down as Williams considers how knowledge is transmitted to the student in what he calls a “dead state”:

The whole field of education is affected — There is no end of detail that is without significance.
     Education would begin by placing in the mind of the student the nature of knowledge — in the dead state and the nature of the force which may energize it.
     This would clarify his field at once — He would then see the use of data
     But at present knowledge is placed before a man as if it were a stair at the top of which a DEGREE is obtained which is superlative.
     nothing could be more ridiculous. To data there is no end. There is proficiency in dissection and a knowledge of parts but in the use of knowledge — 
     It is the imagination that — 

That lower-case “nothing” coming at the beginning of the paragraph, followed by that trailing off “It is the imagination that —,” opens the field of the page but also what Williams calls the “field” of education. Without formal innovation, without opening the page, there is no reimagining the academy.

I also have a PDF open on my computer titled “Relationships of Knowledge and Practice: Teacher Learning in Communities,” a piece by Marilyn Cochran-Smith and Susan L. Lytle from Review of Research in Education. The piece discusses the different kinds of knowledge teachers bring to and cultivate in the classroom and suggests how we might rethink our assumptions about the relationship between knowledge and good teaching practice. The article doesn’t take the radical stance of the Williams poem, but there’s a similar point here about upending dead ideas about knowledge. From the opening pages:

It has been more or less assumed that teachers who know more teach better. This “simple” idea has governed multiple efforts to improve education in the arenas of policy, research, and practice by focusing on what teachers know or need to know. […] [T]eachers learn when they generate local knowledge of practice by working within the contexts of inquiry communities to theorize and construct their work and to connect it to larger social, cultural, and political issues.

Cochran-Smith and Lytle suggest different kinds of knowledge are produced not only before but when we teach: knowledge as not just research but practice, knowledge as something that gets constantly renewed and cultivated in context. In this way the data Williams refers to is always moving. As Williams writes: “And what is the fourth dimension? It is the endlessness of knowledge — It is the imagination on which reality rides —”

new at PennSound


video by Kush / Cloud House. thanks to Kush and Bill Berkson for making this available.
50 minutes, introduced by Robert Gluck, interview with Kevin Killian follows.
I believe, as with the James Schuyler video PennSound released last week, that this is the only video of Wieners currently available on the web.

John Wieners on PennSound




•Olympic Poetry Octathlon rules laid bare
•4th issue of S/N: NewWorldPoeticcs and free pdfs of earlier issues

•Jerome Bruns on Attack of the Difficult Poems and David Antin's Radical Coherency
•Three Compositions on Philosophy and Literature (1972):

A reading of Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans through Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations

[EDITOR’S NOTE. Starting to write as the Cultural Revolution was taking shape, Shi Zhi (born in 1949) appears today as an early forerunner to the changes in Chinese poetry that began to emerge during that time of repression and that have now come to represent the Chinese present. His life has been marked by periods of suppression and by recurrent and ongoing confinements for mental illness, but he is now widely recognized as a major influence on better-known groups such as the Misty Poets of the 1970s and 1980s, with whom he was later associated. Winter Sun, a selection of his poems translated into English by Jonathan Stalling, appeared this year as the first title in the Chinese Literature Today book series from the University of Oklahoma Press. (J.R.)]

Beneath layers of indifferent ice, a fish flows with the current
Its bitter sighs cannot be heard
Since it cannot find any warm sunlight
Why would it greet and send off the glorious day?

If there are no waves in reality
Why does it bathe in the blood of struggle?
If its future is distant beyond measure
How can it take refuge in hope?

Fish can only find spiritual solace
In sweet memory
Let its bittersweet tears
Again hold up the pale stories of the past

It is not the time for chasing blooms in spring winds
Or resting peacefully beneath the summer sun
Nor is it the time for feeling the chill of early spring winds
Or seeing the rippling green water of midsummer

But it's when nature is covered in white bandages
And the bleeding wounds have just healed
There are no more withered leaves lingering on the ground
Or cold rain endlessly falling from the sky

How fiercely it leaps from the water
To not lose the freedom of breath
How wildly it strikes back
To not lose what advantages it still may possess

Though every leap ends in failure
Every jump falls short
Yet the steely fish still has the nerve
To hold back for the final push

At last finding a patch of thin ice
Yes, it bends back like a bow and springs
With head down and tail extended, it soars into the air
So nimble, so strong

Faint sunlight ripples through the water
Gently stroking its bleeding fins
My child, I'm afraid this may be our last encounter
Until we meet next spring

Facing the sun, it joyously jumps again
Able to breathe above the water now and then
Its wisps of crimson blood disperse into the stream
Waving like red flags upon the battlefield

Suddenly, with a spasm of sharp pain,
It sinks unconscious into the depths
Oh my fish, you are still young
How can this be your end?!

Stop sinking, stop sinking
My heart babbles in its hushed voice
Finally snapping awake
Desperate, it flashes toward the sunlight

When it emerges from the water again
It has given its all
Cold lips opening and closing without a sound
From the undulating water rises a noble voice

“Never fear the callous wind and snow
Never surrender to the bitter winter's breath”
Voice fading, it plunges back into the water
Without looking back, it swims onward

Beneath layers of indifferent ice, a fish slides with the current
Its suffering moans cannot be heard
Since it cannot find any warm sunlight
Why should it meet and send off the glorious day?


Cutting a hole in the ice beneath the cover of night
A fisherman quickly sets his nets
Provisions of food and tobacco stacked on the shore
Enveloped in clouds, he waits for the blue-gray dawn

Why do the suspended stars glitter like translucent tears?
Can there be true friendship in the dark?
Why has the fish not yet discovered
That the fingers of dawn have already plucked the cold, rattling stars?

A brilliant ray of sunlight flashes
And the fish can barely open its eyes
It thaws dreams frozen in the ice
And gently wakes the fish from its deep sleep

“Oh my child, do you still remember me?
Can you call out my name?
Are you still searching for the destiny I have written for you?
Are you still searching for freedom and the light?”

Hearing the sun’s questions
The fish opens its baffled eyes
It attempts to shake its numb tail
A pair of fins gently patting its breast

“Sunshine of freedom, please tell me the truth
Is this the spring of hope?
Is there inedible bait lying off the shore?
Are there any traces of returning geese in the sky?”

Silence, silence, awful silence
It can't create even the faintest echo
The fish’s heart quivers in a jolt
It hears branches screaming in pain

Vigilance urges the fish directly forward
Infatuated with the sun’s glow
It wants to cast the sun’s radiance down across
The vague road of its future . . .

Only when all hope is lost
Does the fish see the ferocious nets closing in
“Where is spring?” tears pooling in its eyes
Again it begins its journey beneath the ice

Like the fisherman chewing food
The sun tears his insatiable nets
In the rising cloud of his tobacco
The fisherman dreams of a bountiful harvest


So long desired, spring’s revival finally arrives
The sun’s long, sharp blade reveals its power
And callously severs the icebound river
As sheets of struggling ice crash together

Beneath layers of ice, a python has slept the year through
Barely emerging, it swiftly withdraws to the river bottom
The frogs, wearing the banners of battlefield singers,
Are frightened and scurry in all directions to hide

My fish, my fish
Where are you, where have you gone?
Have you yearned for winter, and if you did die
Your body should float up to the surface!

It’s true, the fish did die
Its dull eyes are as pale as the moon
Just now, its gills moved so faintly
Only to retreat like quiet waves

It was still so young, so headstrong
Because it so fervently sought the sun and its freedom
It leapt from the water without fear of the consequences
Only to fall upon the ice, which will melt in time

As death arrived, the fish struggled upon the ice
The sun quickly hid its light behind the clouds
Unwilling to watch her child
Such a young fish to share this fate

But the fish was ready to give his life
“Sun, I am your child
Please pull out your sharp sword
Let me dissolve together with the ice

It’s true, the fish really did die
Its dull eyes are as pale as the indifferent moon
Just now, its gills moved so faintly
Falling back like quiet waves

One newborn leaf after another
Falls without wind, scattering through the air
With a faint tear-like rain
To cover the dead fish in silence

Is it a heap of sharp white bones
Or a rich storehouse of spirit?
My soul, its green tomb,
Will it provoke deep, wandering thoughts?

When the ice has dissolved
And the river relaxes its waves
Frogs leap from the grass
Pythons swim out from the algae

After a full meal, the pythons listen quietly
To the frogs’ elegiac songs
And weep piteous tears
When the frogs sing of the fish’s death

Translation from Chinese by Jonathan Stalling

Excerpted from Winter Sun: Poems by Shi Zhi (University of Oklahoma Press, 2012) with permission from the Chinese Literature Today Book Series.

TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: The “Fish Trilogy” (1967-1968) represents one of Shi Zhi’s most well-known early poems. Composed when the poet was nineteen at the start of the cultural revolution, the poem uses allegorical language to not only comment on the complex relationship between the red guard generation and Chairman Mao at the start of the rustication/reeducation period. Note also the delicate notes of lyric expressive subjectivity which had, until Shi Zhi (penname of Guo Lusheng), been deemed rightist-bourgeois and thus had become taboo, making “Fish Trilogy,” even with its conservative folk idiom, an underground poem springing from a complex subjective poetics which paved the way for the “Misty Poets” over a decade later.

Richard Baker showed his paintings of book covers at a show that opened tonight in Provincetown at the Albert Merola Gallery. Gertrude Stein covers were featured, including four different editions of the Autobiography and the cover to the LP (hear the recordings on the Stein PennSound page).