Al Filreis undertook two tasks: to be a good “archive rat” (a term he has borrowed from historian Richard Hofstadter, who used it dismissively) and to explain a complex movement that blended politics and aesthetics. As a rat, Filreis has few peers. He sifted through special collections, private letters, and other unpublished material in venues from Syracuse to Austin and beyond (even Truchas, New Mexico); thanks to these labors, he has seen through pseudonyms, traced connections unknown to previous scholars, and rescued from oblivion both unjustly neglected poets and their cranky detractors.
The final impression left by this book, however, is a sense of wonder. How seriously everyone—conservatives and liberals alike—seems to have taken poetry a mere half-century ago!
This fall I'm teaching my favorite course - a crazily fast-paced survey of modern and contemporary American poetry. We start with Dickinson and Whitman and finish with poetry written yesterday. The schedule is arranged as a series of chapters proceeding from pre-modernism through modernism (Williams and Stein in particular) and then a short sequence of three doubts about modernism, versions of antimodernisms. After that we consider a fourth antimodernism - the new formalism of the 1950s. Then the Beats as a reaction against the new formlist reaction. Then the New York School as another form of the same reaction against antimodernist reaction. Then an introduction to the languagy side of post-1975 avant-garde verse. Finally a look at what might be called documentary postmodernism.
Geez, I love the roughness of the story I just told of the course and the course of poetry from modernism through postmodernism - am always intrigued, but never more so than here, by the furious learning provoked by the self-consciously binaristic narrative the course proposes. For, you see, the students are asked to destroy that narrative. And the model for that student-centered pedagogy is much of the poetry itself. For example, the give-and-take-away quality of William Carlos Williams's "Portrait of a Lady". Or the anti-binaristic series-not-essence quality of Silliman's "Albany". Silliman there tells a story that might have been sequential (before it became language) but which if told in order would impoverish real understanding of the order of things.
Similarly, I'm happy with the course as a survey - not normally, these days, a positive term - because the idea of survey, with its assumption of causes and effects, is pretty much constantly itself the topic of discussion.
In poets' response to poets, heuristic oppositions give way to interanimations - cross-influences, the sometimes surprising sharing of aesthetic lineages. And, when the course is going well, the structure of discussion - and of the writing of "position papers" - operate just the same way. This is a course about itself as a way - an alternative to the usual survey approach - of teaching not just content (a particular history) but a mode of structuring thought.
Ceptuetics Radio is hosted by Kareem Estefan: avant-garde poetry readings and interviews airing Wednesday nights from 7:30-8:00 on WNYU 89.1FM in the NYC tri-state area and also through www.wnyu.org, or through iTunes. PennSound features 25 of these shows here.
I think my favorite of these episodes is number 5, recorded in December '07, in which Rodrigo Toscano shares technical, social, and theoretical aspects of his Collapsible Poetics Theater (CPT), generally discusses performance in poetry, and performs a radio work called "Eco-Strato-Static." Be sure to check out the Ceptuetics blog.
More on Toscano's project: The Collapsible Poetics Theater is an all volunteer effort, one that assembles itself within a given 48-72 hour period of each performance. Each locale (with its resident poets, experienced actors, experienced non-actors) brings an entirely new set of possibilities. It is reminiscent of Commedia Dell'Arte in its traveling, portable, rapid-set up qualities. To be sure, Poetics Theater fits into the poetry scene as a baby does in itchy burlap; it fits into the drama scene as does a little crown, little scepter, little gown, all neatly stored in a metal suitcase (quite literally!). The dings are just dings. The persistent question is: can the poem be tested any further?
The full text of "Eco-Strato-Static" can be found on Toscano's Electronic Poetry Center site. At the bottom of this entry see a photo of the performance. That's Rodrigo on the right.
Here is September's Ceptuetics line-up: Sep 10 Tan Lin, Sep 17 Tracie Morris, Sep 24 Juliana Spahr.
There's constantly something new at Ubu. I watch for it pretty much daily. Now it's the 1970 Yoko Ono experimental film short, Apotheosis, completely mesmerizing. Up we go in a hot-air balloon, wintertime, and a single continuous shot (with sound) gets the scene. (Actually, Kenny Goldsmith's notes indicate that somewhere in there Yoko spliced in some images from a second camera she had with her.)
I like intuiting and knowing of the thrill behind the scenes: John and Yoko going up, up, up in '70. They--or at least John--are apotheosized in our watching this film now. The slow rising up, along with the ambient sounds capturing the extraordinarily silence of leaving terra firma: that's a heavenly gesture too. This thing is really intentioned.
The William Carlos Williams that motivated a young Robert Creeley was The Wedge of 1944. For Ron Silliman and--he suspects--others among those who "became known as Language Poet[s]"--the key Williams was to be found in Spring & All (1923). They found it in the 1970 Frontier Press edition.
Silliman believes that one of the important distinctions between the Language Poets and earlier avant-garde generations was their "different reading" of Williams - their Spring & All-centered reading of him.
As Ron prepared to participate in a 1999 symposium I hosted at the Writers House on contemporary poetry, I asked him about his WCW, and this is how he responded:
[S]omething Robert Creeley said at his reading in Camden recently [November 1999] made me conscious once again of how radically different the different generations will read certain poets. For Creeley, the important Williams was his 1944 book, The Wedge, and what mattered to Creeley was seeing how much the work was driven by (his word) "anger."
Now Williams had a huge impact on me -- it was discovering The Desert Music when I was 16 that made me realize that poetry was the form/genre/tradition that would allow me to do what I wanted to as a writer. But it was Spring & All that would be for me (and I suspect for many others of "my" generation) become the defining WCW text, coming as it did into print for us only with the 1970 Frontier Press edition. Similarly, I have always been struck by how there seems to be one Louis Zukofsky who exists for poets only a few years my senior (John Taggart or the late Ronald Johnson, say) and another for "my generation." One of the real distinctions of what became known as Language Poetry would be this different reading of these two writers.
In George Hartley's book about the development of the so-called language poetry, he has a chapter on modernist influences. "Williams writes words and sentences that continually drift between materiality and transparency," notes Hartley. In WCW Hartley finds "the 'torquing' of sentences that Silliman values," and he quotes from that early Williams:
Will you bring her here? Perhaps---and when we meet on the stair, shall we speak, say it is some acquaintance---or pass silent? Well, a jest's a jest but how poor this tea is. Think of a life in this place, here in these hills by these truck farms. Whose life? Why there, back of you. if a woman laughs a little loudly one always thinks that way of her. But how she bedizens the country-side. Quite an old world glamour. if it were not for-but one cannot have everything. What poor tea it was. How cold it's grown.