Commentaries - January 2014
I recently re-read Helen Vendler’s 1986 review of Milton Bates’s A Mythology of Self (1985) and Albert Gelpi’s collection of essays (The Poetics of Modernism, 1985) which included Marjorie Perloff on Stevens experience (or inexperience) during World War 2, Michael Davidson’s critique of Stevens as not a prosodic innovator, and Alan Golding on Stevens and Zukofsky. (I have insufficient space here to deal with Vendler’s complex reaction to Perloff’s piece – a topic that should surely occasion another foray into the matter.)
Vendler was in general not fond of the essays collected by Gelpi, but she did admire Milton Bates — whose meticulous book was the first full-length biographical/intellectual/historical reading of Stevens. Toward the end of her review, Vendler commended Bates as follows:
Milton Bates’s learned book is the one to recommend henceforth as the first critical book for the novice reader of Stevens. It sets Stevens firmly, as other books do not, in the personal, literary, political, and philosophic context of her era and of his reading. It sees Stevens as a fallible human being, subject to the errors of his sex, his class, his education, and his historical moment, and yet it treats him chiefly as a heroically experimental artist, daring a terrain where few could, then as now, follow him.
The key here is to discern whether affirmation of experimentalism is meant as a rejoinder — maybe even, indeed, a sop — to those who would focus on the “fallible” Stevens committing “errors” of sex, class and ideology — or if, on the other hand, heroic commitment to linguistic and formal experiment could or should stand as a poetic value whether one rejects or accepts concerns such as those raised by Davidson and Perloff.
Helen Vendler of course has been never so formalist as to not welcome the biographical reading of Stevens, and this review helped launch Bates and other similar work of similar methodology, and helped bring about a rapprochement among formalist and historicist modes.
I should here report that this affirmation gave heart to me as I was working then on two full-length historical and political readings of Stevens.
That’s how I remembered this review until I went back and re-read it. On re-reading I of course noticed that alongside the mediation of formalist and historicist – or poem-centered and intellectual/social-context-centered — modes of approaching Stevens, there is a brief but energetic foray into the other main schism among Stevens’s readers, critics, scholars and fellow poets at the time.
Golding’s essay in the Gelpi book brought Zukofsky and Stevens together significantly for the first time, and it was itself a gesture intended partly to entice the word-as-such/objectivist/Spring and All-loving/New American Poetry-influenced critics of modernism and postmodernism in Stevens’s direction. Not only wasn’t Helen Vendler having it — saying that “the feeble lines of Zukofsky seem to have nothing in common with Stevens’s brilliant atmospheres (debating content and form).” But, moreover, she reads Golding’s attempt to create détente in the lyric/post-lyric critical wars as in fact arguing that Zukofsky “condemns by exclusion Stevens’s epistemological meanderings,” thus reinforcing rather than lessening the Stevens/Zukofsky split.
Turning then to Davidson, she identifies him as someone then writing about the San Francisco poetry renaissance and puts that phrase – “San Francisco Renaissance” — in distancing or doubtful or ironic quotes — and then stresses how much Davidson dislikes Stevens. Davidson does not believe that Stevens was a prosodic innovator, and Vendler points out his preference for Ashbery: Ashbery’s poems, unlike Stevens’s, reflect “the kind of personal insecurity and crisis that one finds in Ashbery.” Vendler then, correctly in my view, identifies Esthetique du Mal, The Auroras of Autumn (she might have added An Ordinary Evening in New Haven) — later long poems — as reflecting insecurity and crisis, in the writing and the open non-narrative form of the poems, in just such a way. Her tone here in this review is one of frustration: “Can Davidson have read ‘Esthetique du Mal’, ‘The Auroras of Autumn’” etc.?
Actually, as Vendler notes, Davidson’s argument embraces the long poems as marking a transition from modern to postmodern – open-ended rather than evincing “modernist closure”; self-reflexive and self-critical.
There’s little getting around Vendler’s distaste for Davidson’s (and Golding’s and Perloff’s) variously founded distastes for Stevens in the mid-1980s, nor can one misunderstand her sense of the damage being done by what she calls Davidson’s “uniform misunderstanding of Stevens.”
Yet despite the pleasure (is that the word?) of looking back on the world of Stevens’s critics and readers in 1986, it seems that the lines of distinction and disagreement were and are not so clearly drawn — and that even then they crossed and got productively confused.
Vendler’s gesture of recommending Bates and thus the historical, biographical, intellectual and even the political reading — in the same review where she lambasted Davidson’s “Marxist diction” as governing his view that “Stevens’s critical function stops at the border of institutions and ideologies” — actually signified something of an opening of the field, as did, too, the carefully worded yet ringing endorsement of experimentalism, so that what we would still have to do, in the second half of the ‘80s and in the ‘90s, was begin to define “experiment” in Stevens’s complicated case and discern how experiment stood with or against postmodernity and the ideology of the modernist lyric.
And of course Vendler would come to take up a real interest in Ashbery, and to write affirmatively about him in certain modes, contending that his rendering of American speech “has surpassed [that of] most of his contemporaries” and at the same time crediting his consistent reach back into the poetic tradition.
And Davidson’s affirmation of the long poems as instances of postmodern seriality and self-criticism had in the first instance depended on the brilliant rhetorical readings (the first available) of Vendler’s On Extended Wings (1969), as is pretty evident in the essay he prepared for the Gelpi book. Of Davidson’s own 1997 book, Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material World — while it even more emphatically sets Stevens’s ideas about words' sound in the postmodern context — it cannot be said that Davidson dislikes Stevens at that major point in his career.
And what we’ve learned since about Zukofsky’s special way of revering and depending on Stevens — on the crucial role of Stevens in the development of Zukofsky’s modern/postmodern long poem “A” — connects the two both aesthetically and literary-historically in a way that takes us beyond Golding’s first intervention and Vendler’s initial impatience with its implicit claim that the two can be read together.
As I re-read I am struck by the importance of Helen Vendler’s conclusion to this carefully constructed review — praise of a critical work that, despite its integration of non-poetic and even political materials, finally identifies a “heroically experimental artist.” This has been a consistent value for her from On Extended Wings to Last Looks, Last Books (2010). It puts me in mind of her affirmation of the experimental modernist form of “The Man with the Blue Guitar” in On Extended Wings — experimental writing almost for its own sake, an experiment “daring a terrain” so experimentally that the linguistic constraint chosen for the making of the poem could not be kept up for very long. Ultimately a failed poem because its radical cubism and surrealism, its extremes of language-centeredness and anti-mimetic repetitions, could not be sustained, but Vendler teaches us, in readings of the later long poems, that it was worth the effort. Sounds pretty heroic to me.
* * *
At the excellent Poetry and/or Revolution conference a few months back, one salient but perhaps muddy point of discussion concerned the relationship between poetry and capitalism (or class society more broadly). A couple of us here at Commune Editions wrote on this point in our statements for the conference, with Joshua Clover averring that a successful revolution would spell the end of the poet as a distinct social role, while Tim Kreiner and Jasper Bernes seemed to take an even more maximalist position, suggesting that the revolutionary formation of a free and equal society would mean not only the end of poets but also poems, allowing for some new and for us inconceivable form of aesthetic expression that might still deserve the name poetry.
In context, these are trivial speculations. It’s not as if the fate of revolutions will hang on the successful resolution of these theoretical niceties. That people should continue to call themselves poets or write poems — however defined — seems unlikely to bring much harm to anyone or anything. Of course, these remarks were not intended as normative claims — telling people what they should or shouldn’t do — but claims about historical processes and historical effects. The stakes of such speculation are entirely in the present. How we conceive of the relationship between poetry and revolution – and, conversely, the relationship between poetry and capitalism – matters (as the argument goes) because such conceptions are, implicitly, a thought about what poetry is.
What is poetry, then? One definition might be: a literate dissatisfaction with poems and poets. The dissatisfaction is often some variant (or deformation) of the following syllogism: poems are products (if not servants) of this world; this world is mostly awful and must be destroyed; therefore poems and poets must also be destroyed. But who, pleads the poet, is better suited to vanquish the poet than another poet? And what possible weapon could be better suited to the task than the poem itself, intimately familiar as it is with the poet’s frailty, naïveté, and hubris? You see where this is going.
The coronation of kings, the praise of nations, the vindication of the ways of god (or the gods) to man, the counting and administration of the wealth of the rulers. These were the original tasks of the poem. The poet emerges alongside the warrior class, the priestly class. The poem emerges as one expenditure of the newfound surpluses of the grain-cultivating civilizations of the Nile and the Tigris and Euphrates. Without peasants, no poets. Poets really are the unacknowledged legislators of the world because, from the start, the poem was a tool for the administration of the affairs of state: written business records and legal codes enabled by the measurement and patterning of speech provided by the poetic technique.
Dickinson’s attic, Rimbaud’s departure, Oppen’s silence. Though such dissidence is not unique to the modern poet, the legendary refusals and decompositions of the modern poets emerge largely as the consequence of the dawning awareness of this legacy. Once poetry is defined as an explicit antagonism to this legacy — and to the official, sanctifying role that the poem might play in bourgeois society — the categories of poet and poem and poetry are animated by curious contradictions, like so many of the categories in capitalism. The vocation of the poet becomes self-destruction; the vocation of the poem, self-abolition. The realization of poetry can only be had through the destruction of its specific instances. In this way, poetry enters into alliance with that class whose historical mission is the abolition of all classes, itself included, and the production of communism therefrom.
[NOTE. Soon to be published by Station Hill of Barrytown, Alana Siegel’s Archipelago adds a new presence & intelligence to a major subset of postmodern American poetry with traceable connections to Duncan’s “grand collage” & Olson’s “composition by field.” In her own way, which is “a completely different way” (G. Stein), she approaches the poem, in her own words, as “‘world-making,’ weaving & challenging the discourses of philosophy, history, science, and religion – with poetry as primary.” And further: “Through the material of dreams, etymologies, immediacies of the phenomenal – works of artists, poets, mystics, past and present – [she] recovers lost knowledge so as to hear the poem-as-epic not in length but feeling: a cry from beyond and inside the heart of time.” Writes Robert Kelly, who knows about such matters: “There’s something Wagnerian about Siegel’s work: a sense of ‘endless melody’ undistracted by conventions of closure and easy formal strategies. Instead, her poetry strives into openness, lives up to the deepest challenge of the past century, creating not artifacts but processes, long dances for agile readers.” The proof, as always, is in the work itself. (J.R.)]
COMMUNION (A PRELUDIUM)
I do not want to be romanced. I want to be known as water in a glass is seen, taken in. A stranger is sheltered. The stranger is honored, by the blue and black tribe in the desert.
Hearts of wandering men walking in the burning sand become each other. They long for each other as they wander.
A parakeet strings its feathers across a laundry line, leaving to dry what covered its fragile bird heart.
The language it doesn’t know, it leaves for the sun to landscape—it lays out, to anyone or anything that may see, glimpse, the yearning of its feathers to feel.
He said, “The Dharma cannot be known but it can be experienced.”
A chord is struck, momentarily, a note is played. A color overtakes the signal of the bird—cellular—a color, a cell, a promise for how it coats what was once a call.
“If you know how to supplicate, do so.”
He said when he was young, traveling in a foreign country, he saw people wasting away with flies on their faces. He wanted to brush the flies away, say to them in simple words,
“You can live. I promise I will not heave the word heaven upon you, or any word like it. But I can tell you there are worlds different from the world you live in. I know, I have come from one.”
Bound to the seemingly inescapable, they were letting life trespass permission.
At a point you must return to arguing with the angels, demanding new angles to rearrange your self-created eidolon of who you are to be and are—
Highest image of my heart break forth from me!
Momentarily reveal how I am to see you or any other form
Me is a word we gave to our pain
For the life that longs to hear between two shells
Just this passing, this sorrow I see scale up the side of the building
He bound his heart to the front of his brain
This is what the box is for—
A prayer is what our third eye asks for
The shout with no meaning except
Love me with all your heart, with all your might
With everything you have
Not because I want
Or need anything from you
I want you to feel I am everything you are
Matchbox you can’t find, number you haven’t called yet
Thought about your next thought
And one day awaken
Alone in the forest
This he says
Is the silence I meant
It has no meaning
It is not silent
What do you think from one moment to the next?
How do you know the name of what is in front of you?
Someone must have told me once—this is called a fork—and this, a knife. Or maybe, after so many restaurants, hearing the names said, I came to know the names. Or maybe I knew the names not by hearing them. I knew them before I grew into them. Maybe I knew the names before I knew my life, these vestiges of language. Maybe the names know me more than me, are great vessels I am granted to enter only when I say them.
My prayer is not asking the world to be any way. My prayer is not asking to be given a thing. You asked me, “What can I do for you?” But you are one whose gift to me is giving me nothing, sitting inside, opening the doors of your mind. A door flings open to an Italian villa, rolling green Tuscan hills. An old eye is the key. Sorrow is the door.
Watch as the lips taste one more time—animal pull that makes me feel medieval, causes me to resort to drastic measures, abstain from the sweetness that is life’s tip.
What I mean feels only wrong because it is more, less than, beyond being ensconced in the subjects of your thinking, your baseline dramas that scourge divinity, plague sense with boring please.
I sue the random, echo gravity, twist for existence a new name.
My life is my words, are my names, they are yours
Her skirt is not a grass skirt
It is a skirt of sky
She left but left the sky with me
A piece of cloth I make my word
Every word I speak is a word flesh needs
Life taking life from life
Are you ready to read The Book of Life?
Ready means read
The adverb of books
The moments that have passed us by
Books make stronger moments
Demand a deeper bond with time
Do not rise up to me, fly away as the little wisps of dandelion
I admire the flowers but I am not a flower
I am an old woman who wants to be older than words
Older than time
Older than what stone invokes
Youth arrests me, photographs my fingers
Roots receiving sounds from an inhuman center
Core, I care
Ache of sky
My face a beach
Cloud words fall and say I love you
She kept on thinking she was wrong. Then, she thought she was right. Then the rug said, “I am the nature of the universe.” The wicker stool said, “I am the nature of the universe.” The white orchid said, “I am the nature of the universe.” They all laughed together, as laughter was the nature of the universe too—but in buckets of being casting an underbelly for each one to embark into a light of uprightness; they would tomorrow sleep inside the witness of their names.
But what if tomorrow is a name too and tomorrow sleeps as we do? Is it still possible to meet inside a place that is asleep?
Yes, lulled tomorrow, even more so than the day. The door knob that is a cobra, the paper blowing on the sidewalk that is a dragon, the boy’s squinting eyes that are the words he can’t see in you, the dark woman who drives a great boat through small streets, the girls laughing, punching digits with their pinkies, the old man who comes with bags full of little books and gives one to everyone except you, and then he gives you one, a different one, a nomad eyelash one that blinks only when it has reached its place of pilgrimage—the nerves inside your body that are strings on her father’s old guitar, scarred—she smiles—and beautiful, she walks down the stairs, and then she says her name.
Writing in the absolute present (which fades away as I write), I am looking down on a field that was once a stretch of the Berlin Wall, now restored to native grasses. It had been storming last night, but this morning I see someone just waking up who had slept in the middle of the field, under a white blanket. His or her hair also appears to be white. To what degree were trust or terror a factor in selecting that site, from an "open field" of possibility? — “Reverse Maps,” Grand Piano 4:67
Every presentism is a historicism, and vice versa. I have been writing, over the past several years, on the concept of the historical “date” — neither narrative nor nonnarrative, but the index of a punctual unit of calendar time. This date, for instance, is marked as the first of the New Year, and I am looking forward to the present as it unfolds over the year. Without question, what we think of “the present” has changed — and I will be charting this over the next three months on this site. I will also be leading a graduate seminar at Wayne State University on "forms of the present," and naturally will bring our investigation into "the present" to this discussion. I also imagine that I will use the writing on this site as a contribution to our discussion. My seminar will explore an open and reflexive pedagogy, the third term of my focus over this project. How does poetics construct a present, and how is it understood in present terms? What are the political values of this constructed present; what kind of pedagogy can be extended from understanding the present in constructivist terms? My task will be to write, at intervals, on my understanding of poetics as a "presentism" in as many ways as I can.
To begin, I refer to the passage from The Grand Piano cited above, which I see as an argument against the view of time in a lyric poem by Robert Creeley. Could poetry—especially lyric poetry, especially Creeley's work — be understood as a kind of datable event? Imagine before you the cover of A Day Book (1972). What Creeley wanted at the time was a poetics of occasion, in which the temporal register of the poem coincided with the event of living, for as long a duration as possible. It is a standard for poetry that is worth much respect. When I came to rethink the poetics of the date in the passage from The Grand Piano, I realized, on the one hand, that I often kept Saturdays free as a day for writing, and that Saturdays in general had a particular association with that freedom and its duration. Whether I wrote this on a Saturday, however, is not now clear. It was early morning, and the scene that I described adds to the moment of writing an account of the present of a storm, with its duration; a homeless person, and his or her life history and prospects; and half a block of empty urban space (probably long since built in) where the Berlin Wall once stood. I wrote on the passage in an academic essay, published in the Journal of Narrative Theory (and available here). It is not the last time I will return to that passage, I am sure.
David Caplan’s first reading of Rae Armantrout’s poem “Spin” is the fourth of five we will publish in this new series. Others by Jennifer Ashton, Katie Price, and Dee Morris are available at the First Readings series page. The next set of first readings will describe encounters with NourbeSe Philips’s Zong #6. — Brian Reed, Craig Dworkin, and Al Filreis
* * *
When first reading a poem, I focus on particularly evocative or puzzling moments — a phrase or two, some technical gestures, a flourish, a stylistic oddity, an apparent redundancy. I am searching for points of orientation and disorientation. I also often consider the poem’s structure; I want to know how it organizes language. My questions are rudimentary. Like Auden, I ask of the poem, “How does it work?” At this point I am not trying to sound smart. I am trying to clarify what the poem is doing and my reaction to it. Because my first readings are typically private, I suffer little embarrassment if my initial ideas prove to be simplistic or just plain wrong (as in fact they often do). (Of course, this method only applies to a poem that interests me; otherwise I quickly set it aside). My methods are hit or miss. For instance, I might look up an unusual word in the OED or search for it in Google Books. Google Books is particularly helpful to see if the word has a particular association or importance to the author.
Two aspects of “Spin” quickly catch my attention. First, the title. The title apparently performs a rather old-fashioned function; it introduces the poem’s subject. Anne Ferry has described how such titles “simplify the reader’s act of interpretation by telling ahead of time in summary form what would otherwise be found out from the poem.” “Spin” both simplifies and complicates; it encourages the reader to consider the word’s multiple meanings: a quick turning, a verbal manipulation especially for political purposes, and, as in a term from physics that the OED introduces me to, “[a]n intrinsic property of certain elementary particles which is a form of angular momentum.” In one sense, “Spin” is a very plain title: it consists of one short, familiar word. The apparently straightforward title, though, turns in several directions.
When asked to contribute to this forum, I am also rereading G. H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology. In the introduction, C. P. Snow notes:
[Hardy’s] friends had to pass some of his private tests: they needed to possess a quality which he called “spin” (this is a cricket term, and untranslatable: it implies a certain obliquity or irony of approach: of recent public figures, Macmillan and Kennedy would get high marks for spin, Churchill and Eisenhower not).
This coincidence does not directly inform the poem. Hardy and Armantrout use “spin” quite differently. A first reading gathers idiosyncratic associations; later readings evaluate their relevance. In this respect, the passage might usefully serve as a point of contrast.
I also consider the poem’s structure. The poem consists of three sections, each comprised of a single sentence. (The first section may be a sentence fragment punctuated as a sentence.) The first section consists of four stanzas. With the exception of the first stanza, all start with “which.” Each stanza pivots around the word, introducing four perspectives on who “we are.” The second section quotes four clichés of partisan analysis. Instead of “which,” the second section features three instances of the word “hit.” Like “which,” “hit” is placed at the start of the line. Two other formal devices emphasize “hit.” It forms a partial rhyme with “bitter.” More conspicuously, the short word claims an entire line. The last gesture strikes me as particularly important because it departs from the rest of the poem; “hit” is the only word set alone in a line. Such repetitions and emphases add a menacing tone, an air of violence to the candidate’s speech and the pundit’s praise of it.
The final section notably differs from the first two. It is briefer and lacks repeated words. The poem’s last line resembles its first; in both, “we” is the second word. However, the description is plainer and apparently less troubled.
My first reading poses a series of questions, which, to understand the poem, I would need to address. The last stanza differs from the first two. How does the brief moment it describes relate to the earlier stanzas? In other words, how do the three versions of “spin” relate? To better understand the first stanza, I would need to better grasp the scientific language it employs. At this point, my understanding is sketchy. Is the poem arguing that everything is “spin”? (It would seem so.) A Google Books search reveals that Armantrout favors the unusual word; it appears in several poems in different collections. “Arrivals” in Just Saying, for instance, describes the “Clear Channel // where even the spin / gets spun”; “Provenance” in Versed asserts, “What interests me now / are spin-offs / of spin-offs.” Other poems in Versed, Money Shot, and Just Saying also use “spin.” Why is Armantrout so drawn to this word? How does her use of “spin” in the poem under discussion compare to her use of the word elsewhere? Does the word reward the importance she places on it? To develop a first reading into something more informed and substantial, to turn speculation into grounded analysis, I would need to answer questions, not just raise them.
* * *
David Caplan is the Charles M. Weis Chair in English and the Benjamin T. Spencer Professor of Literature at Ohio Wesleyan University. His books include Questions of Possibility: Contemporary Poetry and Poetic Form (Oxford University Press, 2004; paperback edition, 2006) and In the World He Created According to His Will (poems; University of Georgia Press, 2010). In February 2014, Oxford University Press will publish Rhyme’s Challenge: Hip Hop, Poetry, and Contemporary Rhyming Culture. He received the 2012 Emily Clark Balch Prize for Poetry, given by the Virginia Quarterly Review, for his “Observances” sequence.