PoemTalk

Back to geography (PoemTalk #34)

Charles Olson, 'Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 (withheld)'

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Bob Perelman, Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Charles Bernstein converged on Al’s office-studio to attempt what Al in his intro dubs a “daunting” task — to talk somehow about one of Charles Olson’s Maximus poems in such a way that would make the poem make sense and might serve as a good introduction to The Maximus Poems more generally. We don’t know if we succeeded but we certainly had fun trying. We chose a poem for which PennSound has two recordings, one made at the August 1963 Vancouver Poetry Festival and another made in Boston in 1962. As listeners will learn from episode 34 here, we also discovered that someone has made a YouTube video clip from a segment of the film about Olson, Polis Is This. In this segment, Olson reads the poem with what Rachel calls choreographic gestures, motions that continually point up the forward/backward, in-body/away planes or zones of geographic understanding. We happily add, below, a link to this remarkable but probably — most of us would agree — overdone performance.

The title of that film comes from the memorable final line of our poem, “Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 (withheld),” the last parenthetic term here referring to the fact that it was excluded from the first major collection of Maximus Poems, The Maximus Poems of 1960. Excluded but then apparently much in demand and/or much admired by Olson himself.

The poem, especially at the start (in which a family anecdote is told), seems personal and almost (in the term then popular) “confessional.” But, as the PoemTalkers put it, it soon begins to do the usual Maximus thing, engaging a vortexical historical method line by line, and gesturing hugely at the convergences of geography and culture across eras and the (at turns) triumphant and lamentable westwardness of everything.

Is Flarf corrosive? (PoemTalk #33)

Sharon Mesmer, 'I Accidentally Ate Some Chicken and Now I'm in Love with Harry Whittington'

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Kenneth Goldsmith, Nada Gordon and Steve McLaughlin gathered in Al’s office/recording studio at the Kelly Writers House to talk about Sharon Mesmer’s flarfy gem, “I Accidentally Ate Some Chicken and Now I'm in Love with Harry Whittington.”

The recording we used was made at the Writers House in February of 2007, at a mini Flarf Poetry Festival organized by our own Steve McLaughlin. We’re pretty sure that the poem was first posted to the flarflist – a listserv of flarf practitioners (and a few nonpracticing advocates) that serves as a medium for trying out all sorts of improvisational and quasi-improvisational poetic “bottom-feeding” (to use Kenny G.’s positive phrase). Is flarf poetic, non-poetic or anti-poetic, or, anyway, what combination is it of those three? That turns out to be the crux of our discussion. What “poetic” elements and devices does Mesmer retain and employ, and to what effect? Gary Sullivan originally defined flarf writing as, among other things, “corrosive,” and when Al asks the group whether Mesmer’s poem is corrosive, a fascinating discussion ensues: in part, we seem to move away from Sullivan’s notion. And since this is a poem, at least at first (at least superficially [superficially?!]) about Harry Whittington, the man Dick Cheney shot during a boondoggling hunting trip in Texas, it seems reasonable to ask about the political meaning or import of the piece.

The answer is hardly straightforward. At one point Steve pulls out the smoking gun (as it were), proving that Sharon Mesmer took most of the poem verbatim from Internet sources. And what about taste? Al puts it straight to Kenny, who has sometimes argued that one conceptual work is effective, while another work is not--the key being, the quality of choice of of concept. So what, Al asks, is the role of aesthetic distinction and valuation? Nada adds some possibly quite relevant biographical information, so we are led to ponder: What does Mesmer’s family of blood-on-apron butchers and her own principled vegetarianism have to do with the politics of the poem – its critique of a culture in which everything, actually and figuratively, tastes like chicken? It is, of course, a culture that includes this poem and makes it entirely (and specifically) possible.Here is Sharon Mesmer's PennSound author page, and here is a direct link to a recording of the poem. Here is a link to one of Mesmer's internet sources.

Art and power (PoemTalk #32)

Emily Dickinson's 'My Life had stood … ' and Susan Howe's 'My Emily Dickinson'

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Outside the box (PoemTalk #31)

Robert Grenier's 'Sentences'

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Five hundred cards in a box: on each is typewritten a few words or phrases of poetic writing. This is Robert Grenier’s Sentences. Al gathered Joseph Yearous-Algozin, Jena Osman, and Bob Perelman to talk about this complex work. As Jena notes several times, there’s something odd about producing an audio discussion about a oral reading or performance by Grenier from a work that was and is so closely associated with a material text-object. A text-object that indeed has become famously central to people’s response to the writing in it. So one question immediately is on that count: by performing the work (and by doing so with such comic pleasure, and even, at times, with such schtickiness), is Grenier signaling to us that our focus on the object is misleading — that Sentences is meant to be always somewhat and variously unmoored from the codex book and the normally printed-on-page poem? All the PoemTalkers, led by Bob, want to discuss in some way how and why Robert Grenier always forces us to think about the most fundamental qualities and definitions of poetry. And surely this is good in itself.

In October 2006 Charles Bernstein interviewed Grenier for the “Close Listening” program. During that discussion Grenier reads from and discusses a few of the cards from Sentences, including “Bird / I wonder if I do,” a representation of birdsong that occupies the PoemTalkers for a few minutes and causes Bob Perelman to look back on his own critical effort to comprehend Grenier. In the second of a two-part interview with Grenier, Al, Charles, and Michael Waltuch discuss the actual construction of Sentences, a project in which Waltuch played a role. If you listen to the interview you’ll get to hear Waltuch and Grenier talk together about that moment.

The remarkable performance of a selection of cards from Sentences that serves as the basis of our PoemTalk discussion was given at the Poetry Project, at St. Mark’s Church, in New York, in April 1981. PennSound’s Grenier author page includes a full recording of that reading. One of the two excerpts featured in PoemTalk, the one beginning “CONCEPTS / they see us,” has been made available as an excerpt also on Grenier’s PennSound page.<--break- />

The poem is remembering me (PoemTalk #30)

William Carlos Williams

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Two tried-and-trues among the short poems of William Carlos Williams, as chosen for our 30th PoemTalk by Robert Grenier, who has been thinking about his WCW for many decades. First the metaphorical anti-metaphor of ocean and plant in “Flowers by the Sea”:

When over the flowery, sharp pasture's
edge, unseen, the salt ocean

lifts its form—chicory and daisies
tied, released, seem hardly flowers alone

but color and the movement—or the shape
perhaps—of restlessness, whereas

the sea is circled and sways
peacefully upon its plantlike stem

And then, seemingly quite different but just as classic an instance of early modern condensation, “so much depends” (“The Red Wheelbarrow”):

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.


Charles Bernstein and Bob Perelman (Grenier once taught the latter poet at Berkeley, by the way) joined Al Filreis to speak with Robert Grenier about why and how he is always in the act of remembering these poems – or, as he puts it near the start of our talk, how the poems are remembering him. “Those words return,” says Grenier.

Al asks Bob P. and Charles to comment on the poetic relationship(s) between Grenier and Williams. Bob P. remembers Bob G. on Williams as fundamentally as Bob G. remembers his WCW. Grenier has always dwelled on the short vowel sounds emanating outward from “chickens.” It’s about farming and the social aesthetic and other big topics, but it’s also, says Bob P., about the patterning of words’ sounds. This was what Grenier had already taught us, years ago.

The group, prompted by Al, discusses the autotelism of “Flowers by the Sea,” and, for Charles, both poems have a “specific autonomy.” When Charles admiringly isolates the line “edge, unseen, the salt ocean,” he is put in mind of a Larry Eigner and of a possible lineage running through WCW to Eigner. He is implying there a place for Robert Grenier in that line, of course, since Grenier, at the time this session was recorded, was just then anticipating the publication of his four-volume edition of Eigner’s poems.

We discuss what WCW meant when he said of the more famous of our two poems that it was “the same as a thing of beauty.” The red wheelbarrow as locating a rewriting of Keats’ “Endymion”! “It an injunction,” says Grenier, “to pay attention to something because of its moral value. And it directs you to what is in the fact an image, in itself, as an image…. Words being composed as letters, as a composition of successive shapes. It only happens because of the conjured quality of the form.”