PoemTalk

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.

Air for roses (PoemTalk #24)

Barbara Guest, 'Roses'

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Listening to this show, this discussion of Barbara Guest’s casually and yet densely allusive poem “Roses,” you will hear about Juan Gris-style cubism circa 1912 (in his own “Roses”), about William Carlos Williams’ famous celebration in “The rose is obsolete” of a new kind of rose – the metal rose, the sharp-edged rose, the lovely unlovely rose – and also about a memory from the age of eight that Gertrude Stein often retold as a way of explaining her views on the difference between art and nature. Is that difference a problem – an anxiety, a cause for reluctance - for the modernism-conscious poet who comes after modernism, such as indeed Guest, who has an instinct to make room in her writing for the ill person requiring real air to breathe?

Al and sometimes the other PoemTalkers felt that this is a rebuke of modernist airlessness. Natalie Gerber (at right) and sometimes the others felt that this is more likely an expression of skepticism about postmodern art and perhaps a fresh return to the moment of 1912 – the thrilling New Era of collage-y paintings such as Gris’ “Roses,” which is (arguably) dated 1912 and which was a canvas Gertrude Stein herself owned. Randall Couch points out that the poem looks at a fork or divergence in the modernist evolution or modernist family tree, a turning point Guest feels is worth going back to. Michelle Taransky (at left) notes that the art in the poem is an art already encountered even as the poem itself imagines the possibilities of a fresh encounter.

As Natalie aptly puts it, we are discussing a poem that is testing out its stance in response to the modernist approach to representation.

Here’s one version of Gertrude Stein's telling of her early encounter with painting:

It was an oil painting a continuous oil painting, one was surrounded by an oil painting and I how lived continuously out of doors and felt air and sunshine and things to see felt that this was all different and very exciting. There it all was the things to see but there was no air just was an oil painting. I remember standing on the little platform in the center and almost consciously knowing that there was no air. There was no air, there was no feeling of air, it just was an oil painting and it had a life of its own.

Living with terror (PoemTalk #23)

Cid Corman, 'Enuresis'

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Back in 2001 the people of the Kelly Writers House wanted to bring Cid Corman — long by then a resident of Kyoto, Japan — to Philadelphia to be with us, give a reading, meet some of his readers. But one thing or another — cost, Cid’s health — made this impossible. So we set up a combination of a phone link to Cid in Kyoto and a live audiocast feed; in this way, the fifty of us in the Arts Café of the Writers House and another 75 or so listening on their computers around the world were able to enjoy a reading by Cid, ask him questions, and make at least that limited sort of contact with the founder of Origin, crusty prolific exile, author of tens of thousands of poems. The November 2001 event was moderated by PoemTalk’s producer and host, Al Filreis, along with Frank SherlockFran Ryan and Tom Devaney.

Fast forward. Cid Corman died in 2004. Bob Arnold, Philip Rowland, Jack Kimball, Joe Massey and others have worked hard to keep Cid’s poems within the view of readers — especially Bob Arnold whose Longhouse Press published The Next One Thousand Years, the Selected Poems of Cid Corman. And then, as part of the PoemTalk series, we staged a mini-reunion of the November 2001 Cormanite moderators, Fran, Tom, Frank and Al, to talk about one of our favorite poems, “Enuresis.”

It means bed-wetting. The poem puts forward this audacious claim to understanding: I know the terror you’ve experienced in the midst of war because as a child I held my urine close to me for fear of my parents’ terrifying enmity. The claim is made with such poetic consciousness (at the level of word choice and meter - and in the spoken performance) that one hardly doubts the power of the homefront psychic terror being remembered.

Just begun to learn (PoemTalk #22)

Louis Zukofsky, 'Anew' 12

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One of the signal steps forward in the PennSound project — the gathering of recordings of modern and contemporary poets reading their own poems — was the release of the recordings of Louis Zukofsky, thanks to the generosity and cooperation of Paul Zukofsky. The recordings on PennSound’s Zukofsky author page are being made available for non-commerical and educational use only (in line with PennSound’s mission), and any other use can only be done by permission of Paul. (If you need to contact him, just write us and we’ll put you in touch: poemtalk [AT] writing [DOT] upenn [DOT] edu.)

The Zukofsky recordings are remarkable! One of them was made in 1960 by Zukofsky at home, on a reel-to-reel tape machine. It was meant for the Library of Congress. It includes readings of some sections of the long poem Anew. PoemTalk 22 is a discussion of the gorgeous twelfth poem in the Anew series, which is untitled and gets mentioned by its first line, “It’s hard to see but think of a sea.” One gets a sense of its worked-at density from this first-line sentence alone.

The Anew poems were written between 1935 and 1944 and published in March 1946 at James Decker’s press in the small-format “Pocket Poetry” series. Marcella Booth has dated the writing of our poem precisely: January 16-17, 1944, a week before the poet’s 40th birthday. Several critics have contended that Anew was Zukofsky’s attempt at a fresh start. William Carlos Williams, a great supporter of Z and an admirer of these poems, called the writing in this work “adult poetry.” Perhaps he meant that Zukofsky was growing up, taking on seasoned topics. Certainly, at least, the end of our poem is quite personal, words coming from the poet’s contemplation of his 40th birthday, of mortality’s challenge to and provocation of open-ness. As Bob Perelman puts it (asked to compare this poem to others), “The poem is almost conversational. ‘Gee, I’m 40. I’m thinking about my entire life.’” Much of our conversation — with PoemTalkers Perelman, Wystan Curnow (visiting us from New Zealand), and Charles Bernstein — is devoted to integrating the first part (full of the language of science) with the second (the personal retrospective).

Wystan, facing a vocabulary of science he didn’t understand, wanted to look up the term “condenser” (what, after all, is a condenser really?), but then worried about his impulse to look it up. Is that a productive way of coming to understand Zukofsky’s use in verse of electro-magnetism and wireless sound? “Condensed,” after all, is an ordinary word — and a term of modernist poetry. (Bob points out Lorine Niedecker’s contemporaneous use ofcondenser to refer to poetry itself, the act of writing in the modern way, in a famous poem that technically imagines the site of the poet-maker as a “condensery”: “no layoff / from this / condensery.”) “The poem,” Charles says in praising its use of the referential language of science, “is not incomprehensible in that it will restore you to the knowledge you already had of what the word means.”

Totally indivisible (PoemTalk #21)

Charles Bernstein, 'In a Restless World Like This Is'

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In PT #21 we talk about a poem by Charles Bernstein written in 2002, published in World on Fire and eventually collected in Girly Man: “In a Restless World Like This Is.” As Marcella Durand informs the PoemTalkers, the title is taken from the lyrics of a sweet 1940s song, sung later by Nat King Cole, Doris Day, et alia. Why derive the title from so sentimental a source? Hank Lazer and Marcella each speculate: it’s the postwar thing, bitter-sweet, looking simultaneously forward and back, done with it but still needing the balm. Okay, but why now, here — why in this poem?

It’s a post-9/11 poem. Eli Goldblatt describes for us Bernstein’s initial written responses to 9/11, providing us a context for this poem's unstraightforward all-preamble going-nowhere-ness. Al asserts the obvious: the poem enacts the restlessness the speaker feels: linguistically, tonally, idiomatically. The “no” of the fourth line is one of those staring-over words, as is, of course, “well” in line 8. The poem gives us an alternative “way” or path from the (non)start of its opening to the (non)finish of its ending. It is the opposite of an A to Z poem. There is not a single direction, not a point, and, needless to say — ah, but we at PoemTalk say it! — that is its point.

Where are we going? What is going to happen next? Is it narratively possible to discern (“Not long ago” is story-telling phrasing)? Ah, but “maybe I dreamt it / Or made it up, or have suddenly lost / Track of its train.” If you decide you need to go “In one direction” only, you'll find — note the contorted, merged idiomatic language — that “you’ll / Have to go on before the way back has / Become totally indivisible.’ The final word, the PoemTalkers agree, is a national word — a term from the pledge of allegiance to the United States of America, yet a notion that counters rather than abets the concept of discrete parts, clear paths, moving along the road from regress to progress.

In a Restless World Like This Is

Not long ago, or maybe I dreamt it
Or made it up, or have suddenly lost
Track of its train in the hocus pocus
Of the dissolving days; no, if I bend
The turn around the corner, come at it
From all three sides at once, or bounce the ball
Against all manner of bleary-eyed fortune
Tellers--well, you can see for yourselves there's
Nothing up my sleeves, or notice even
Rocks occasionally break if enough
Pressure is applied. As far as you go
In one direction, all the further you'll
Have to go on before the way back has
Become totally indivisible.<--break- />