PoemTalk

A few good words (PoemTalk #29)

Kit Robinson, 'Return on Word'

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Our poem is Kit Robinson’s “Return on Word,” collected in Robinson’s 2002 book, The Crave, which was published by Lyn Hejinian and Travis Ortiz at Atelos Press. 

Rae Armantrout was in from San Diego and joined Linh DinhTom Devaney and host Al Filreis for our conversation this time. At turns the group interprets the poem as a satirization of the referentially super-confident language of marking; as a critique of Language poetry (an aesthetic gathering with which Robinson has long been identified); as an expression of skepticism about the monetization and militarization of American rhetoric. Linh wishes Robinson had pushed the poem’s anti-marketing tendencies a bit further. Rae, who is a fan of Mad Men and herself knows a thing or two about poetically torquing flattened idiomatic speech, admires the way “all we need is a few good words” plays upon military linguistic merchandizing. Tom is positively devastated by the notion that thought might take “a contract out on” words.

Finally, the group agreed that the poem is about words’ value, seen through the dystopia of their devaluation at the hands of economic sectors in which referential certainty is guaranteed to get carried away – in which a good (profitable) year is anticipated by, maybe even determined by, the right people in the room thinking up just the right dead language for the moment.

Mad cartographer (PoemTalk #28)

Jack Spicer, 'Psychoanalysis: An Elegy'

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Julia BlochCA Conrad, and Rachel Blau DuPlessis joined Al Filreis to talk about Jack Spicer’s early poem of 1949, “Psychoanalysis: An Elegy.” Sections of the poem are framed by what is either meant to be an unironic prompt or a satirized annoyance: What are you thinking about? - What are you thinking? – What are you thinking now? The speaker is the analysand and the poem is the means by which the analysand talks his way through to the poem. Is his major concern – the supposed problem for which the poem is a talking cure – that the poem “could go on forever”? The sexual longing, the pain and the dislocation of the California summer are all – together – topics “I would like to write a poem” about. Increasingly annoyed by the sameness of the analyst’s refrain (“Do you get me, Doctor?”), he pushes his sexual conceits to a hottest point, when summers are seen to “torture California,” when “the damned maps burn” and the “mad cartographer” (whom the PoemTalkers agree is the speaker himself) 

Falls to the ground and possesses
The sweet thick earth from which he has been hiding.


What he has been hiding? The significance of his homosexuality? And why, by the way, might California in 1949 be just the spot, as it were, on the geohistorical map for the psychoanalytic mode of talking about what one is hiding about oneself? We explore a range of possible answers to that question, including biographical and ideological. Julia and Al note in particular that this was the time of anticommunist investigations into “disloyal” faculty teaching in the University of California system, especially at Berkeley – that jobs, but also identities (including secret identities) were at risk. (Spicer was among those who refused to sign the loyalty oath imposed on faculty by the state government.) Whereupon Conrad observes that the witch-hunts almost inexorably targeted gays both open and closeted. Rachel concludes with a cogent interpretation of the gendering in the poem and of the sexual hiding. What remains wide open is the question of whether, in the end, this poem says mockingly and happily goodbye to psychoanalysis as a mode of self-understanding, or affirms analysis as having done its job for the poet in particular. Does the realization that “a poem could go on forever” seem to affirm the talking-through process, the topical wandering, the going wherever thought goes? Or does that just add to the torture of this endless summer? Both, it would seem.

The made place (PoemTalk #27)

Robert Duncan, 'Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow'

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To talk about Robert Duncan’s poem “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow,” we at PoemTalk chose a day when an apt trio of poet-critics would be at the Kelly Writers House in Philly. It was, in fact, a celebration of the new Poems for the Millenium anthology, gathering together a new array of romanticism – a volume edited by Jeffrey Robinson (resides in Colorado) and Jerome Rothenberg (southern California). Charles Bernstein was on hand to help celebrate Jeffrey’s and Jerry’s great new volume, so we all took an hour aside and moved upward to PoemTalk’s garrett studio (which doubles as the office of Al Filreis) and got deeply and happily into this key poem by Duncan. First drafted in 1953, struggled over in the late 50s, and presented as the prologue poem to the important volume of 1960, The Opening of the Field, which in many ways, indeed, opened the field. Along the way, at various points in the discussion, we are privileged to hear of Jerry Rothenberg’s contemporaneous responses to the poem—he who after all published his own first book (of a very different kind) in that turning-point year. (Donald Allen’s gathering together of the somewhat newly emergent avant-garde, of various schools, in The New American Poetry, was published at the same time, as was Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems.)

As Charles points out during our talk, any of the several key words or phrases in the poem (“permission,” “field,” “return,” “made place,” “everlasting omen”) could have occupied us the entire session. It seemed mostly sufficient to wander around this poetic meadow for a while and then bow out as gracefully as we could. We note that Jerry’s interest in Duncan’s mode has increased over the years. We also note that none of us could quite agree with any of the others about the precise relationship between this poem and the Romantic tradition. Al tells of the recurring dream (from Duncan’s childhood) that animates and informs this “return” to the meadow. Charles remarks on the crucial major distinction between writing, on the one hand, and the state of being given permission to write, on the other. Jeffrey speaks helpfully about the possible connection, for Duncan, between “field” and “feel.” Jerry ends by talking briefly about how Duncan has influenced his own work.

Noncanonical Congo (PoemTalk #26)

Vachel Lindsay, 'The Congo'

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Many of us read Vachel Lindsay in school — at least until he was removed from the anthologies. Few of us have heard the recordings of Lindsay performing — not just reading, but truly performing — his poems, “The Congo” most (in)famously. So we PoemTalkers decided to try our hand at the first section of Lindsay’s most well-known poem. Al suggests that readers and listeners must attempt to “get past” the obvious racism (even of the opening lines), but Aldon Nielsen takes exception to that formulation, and off we go, exploring the problem and possibilities of this poet’s foray — Afrophilic but nonetheless stereotype-burdened — into African sound and, more generally, the performativity of a culture.

Charles Bernstein finds this “one of the most interesting poems to teach,” and adds: “[Lindsay] felt there was something deeply wrong with white culture, that it was hung up, ... that it was disembodied, that it was too abstract.” All the problems of the poem, Charles notes, remain present when one reads or hears it. It’s all there. It’s not a “bad example” of something; it makes its own way (or loses its way) in the modern poetic tradition, as it is.

What can Lindsay teach us today? Michelle Taransky is sure that young writers can learn from Lindsay’s experiments, and not just in sound — but also in the way he uses marginal directions, which serve as performance (or production) cues. She commends Lindsay for making available to us the realization “that a poem doesn't have to be read in a monotone way…and that they [young poets today] can read a poem in a way that seems appropriate to them at that time.”

Aldon doesn't want to “get past” the tension between Lindsay’s desire to make a progressive statement and the racist content in the poem; as a whole, this work creates a tension that “absolutely at the core of American culture.” Aldon is hesitant to use the phrase “teachable moment” (which during 2009 has been a phrase that is dulled from facile overuse in “ongoing conversation” about race) but that —teachability — is about the sum of it: to teach this poem is to gain access to a central American discussion.

Democracy at 10th & A (PoemTalk #25)

Alice Notley, 'I the People'

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Joe Milutis came in from Seattle for this session, and met up with Zack Pieper (wandering eastward from Milwaukee), drove down from northeastern Pennsylvania together and joined Al Filreis, our host, and Erica Kaufman (training southwest from New York) at the Writers House, where it was time to consider a poem that is either specifically about a postage-stamp-sized offbeat haven (the lower East Side of New York of a certain era) or generally about the whole America from which indeed our PoemTalkers gathered. Well, probably both.

Joe calls Alice Notley’s “I the People” a poem writing out the “agon in American culture.” Zack speculates on why Notley was embarrassed by the title (a remark she makes in introducing it): it’s “a gentle parody,” Zack offers, “of the way political language abstracts things,” but troubling is the general over-use (especially on the Left) of the term “the people” in particular. Al ponders the possibly unambiguous skeptical politics of the title (overt): the title, he contends, is red meat for those who want to see leftist politics here, but the body of the poem is less obviously in the liberal-left rhetorical tradition of talk about democratic rights.

For Zack this is a poem full of things people think when they are walking around during the day, but the result is not mundane. On the contrary, it has a mystical quality. Later, following from this, Erica offers her ideas on how this poem might be taught under the rubric of the New York School of poetry. But right away Erica says its  “walking around”-ness is an aspect of the poem she particularly likes: a glimpse at routine thoughts while at the same time a political commentary on the possessive and on the subject.

“I the People” is a poem that makes one wonder: Which comes first in American democracy, the “I” or the “we”? Joe notes that while these are “the two ends of the problem,” the vast middle ground between “I” and “we” is both intimate and fraught.