PoemTalk

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- />

Choice and style (PoemTalk #20)

LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), 'Kenyatta Listening to Mozart'

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“Kenyatta Listening to Mozart” is an early poem of Amiri Baraka, then known as LeRoi Jones. It was published in a periodical in late 1963 and we’re assuming — for the sake of our discussion, which gets into some political history — that it was written earlier that year. Our recording was made at the Asilomar Negro Writers Conference held in the summer of 1964.

Mecca Sullivan, Herman Beavers and Alan Loney were our PoemTalkers for this quietly provocative — and perhaps brutally self-critical — poem. All four of us saw two political and aesthetic scenes, at least in the opening: “the back trails” of pre-Independence Kenya, and “American poets in San Francisco,” certainly standing in, at least momentarily, for Baraka’s two somewhat distinct concerns at the time: post-colonial radicalism, and the Beat aesthetic. One could say, not quite accurately — but helpful for starters — that this was a time when Baraka was making the move from his Beat nexus to world-conscious political heterodoxy.

Mecca and Alan discuss the apparently ironic juxtaposition of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Jomo Kenyatta, the Euro-trained anthropologist Kikuyu tribesman who helped lead the Kenyan negotiations with the British. Mecca wonders if, as elsewhere in his writing, Baraka is making Mozart as a cultural symbol susceptible to criticism in light of non-European struggles for basic freedoms. Is the “zoo of consciousness” the situation one finds oneself after one has separated and lost (“Separate / and lose”) or is it indeed endemic to the decision to cross aesthetics, share “in- / formation” (formalisms), and assimilate apparent opposites? Do we need to figure Kenyatta walking on the back trails, in sun glasses (a marker of “cool,” one of us says), wearing spats, in order to shake into being a real postcolonial anthropological notion? It’s not just “choice, and / style.” Well, it's that, but also more--for the “beautiful / categories” with which we discern what gets to be called beautiful are not necessarily things we should “go for.”<--break- />

Learn the language (PoemTalk #19)

Bob Perelman, 'The Unruly Child'

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At right, left to right, PoemTalkers Tom Mandel, Sarah Dowling, Rodrigo Toscano.

Bob Perelman began to write “The Unruly Child” using as a pattern Cesar Vallejo’s “The Right Meaning”. Vallejo: “Mother, you know there is a place somewhere called Paris. It’s a huge place and a long way off and it really is huge.” The Peruvian’s own mother had been dead many years at the time her son wrote the prose-poem, and it is a sad call back from late 1930s Paris (with all its politics, both fascist and antifascist — a tense scene in which Vallejo participated) to a lost Peruvian motherness — pre-self-exilic, pre-political.

The gesture creates a distance and a desperate emotion at once. “I want both modes of address to resonate,” Perelman wrote to us at PoemTalk before our discussion. “Vallejo’s heartfelt/estranged address to his mother is further estranged by my detourned quoting, but it’s heartfelt, too. Kind of a chiastic structure: heartfelt/estranged: estranged/heartfelt.”

Tom Mandel, a second-time PoemTalker and an old colleague of Perelman, wanted (at least at first) to stave off theoretically sophisticated readings and to talk of the poem’s speaker as Perelman himself: Bob the witty talented impatient poet, Bob the literally unruly son. In its late-70s/early-80s political context, the poem risked being deemed mere bourgeoisified radicalism; but on second much-later thought, it seems to succeed in tracing the deformed social development of the political son of the American mother who learns the language by refusing to learn its “right” meaning.

Thus the term “unruly” is crucial to all this poet's pajama play: a certain energetic conception of language has a politics. Sarah Dowling helpfully discusses the word “desirable” in connection with Marathon Oil. “If you’re the unruly child,” Sarah notes, “you have to ask questions as to why it [Marathan Oil] is not desirable.” What values inhere in that skepticism? What do they do to the nostalgically summoned mother? “The unruly child,” adds Rodrigo Toscano, “is a place for language to shake out in periods of instability, a transition from one historical moment to the next. And it seems to want to reset the terms under which he is willing to talk politically. He’s trying to renegotiate how he’s going to be a hostage to representation.” Tom Mandel heartily agrees with that. In the poem, we have this directive: “Learn the language. / That beautiful tongue-in-cheek hostage situation.” (It’s a 1979/80-ish poem and the situation is of course the American Embassy hostage-taking in Teheran.)

“The Unruly Child” was published in To the Reader (1984), an early Perelman book, and then reprinted in Ten to One, his book of selected poems. He recorded this poem for PennSound’s Studio 111 series in 2004, offering a brief comment on each poem recited. Before reading our poem, he mentions that To the Reader was the first book in which he regularly “used the present political landscape for subject matter.” <--break- />

The sort of person you imagine (PoemTalk #18)

Lydia Davis, 'A Position at the University'

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PoemTalk finally goes squarely at the question of authenticity, and — wouldn’t you know it? — we do so through a piece that is not in any conventional sense a poem. Lydia Davis’ “A Position at the University” (published with other similar short prose pieces in Almost No Memory) suggests to Jessica Lowenthal that on this day our show was “PoemProseTalk.” Fair enough. Is it a very short story – in the mode of what we call “fiction”? Not really. Is it a poetic parable in prose? (It struck Al at one point as very much like a pondering paragraph from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.) Thank goodness we brought sociologist David Grazian along. David observes that this piece is like an ethnographic field note. A field note that observes the following: In daily life, authenticity functions the way imagination does. What advantage is derived by writing about authenticity in this linguistically circular manner, in the grammar of mild-seeming discontent? Well, for one thing, it stipulates a poetics; the language of the piece makes us acutely aware as we read or listen that anxiety is the close kin of identity, because identity-naming is always partial whereas the named/identified subject is always hoping for wholeness. That discrepancy – that difference – creates a weird aura, and perhaps this is why Adrian Khactu senses that this piece belongs in the category of mundane SF, the newish sci fi mode in which there are no monsters, scientific abnormalities, cruel transformations. Perhaps the cruelest transformation is what happens every day when a person who thinks of herself in one way is assumed to have a “position” otherwise.