PoemTalk

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.

Psycho-acoustics (PoemTalk #17)

Rodrigo Toscano, 'Poetics'

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We know one poet who can bring Kim Jong-il, Montezuma and Maggie Thatcher — and us — together to the table. It’s Rodrigo Toscano, and more specifically the Rodrigo Toscano who wrote the poems collected in the book Platform. The word “platform,” Al notes in this newest PoemTalk episode, suggests something programmatic, something being contended overall. And one plank, as it were, of this platform is — for Toscano — the relatively light (comic, playful, quick) poem “Poetics,” suggesting an aesthetic program, maybe even an ars poetica. Taking this titular cue, the PoemTalkers this time, Randall Couch, Linh Dinh, and Emily Abendroth, sought to piece together the ranging geo-political references, heard the many different registers, tried to place them in a musical idiom, and either concluded that the “Psycho-Acoustic[…] / Jangling” makes a beautiful sound and has a special political force or that the jangling, while beautiful, puts the platform’s meaning just out of reach. Al, Emily, and Randall take the former view of the poem, while Linh, in a dissenting mood, takes the latter.

That musical idiom is jazz. The political import of “Pyongyang” — the jarring disharmonious pesty capital of North Korea, an uncooperative element in any poem — leads us in one direction. But its sheer sound sounds more like jazz than communism.

Because I am always talking (PoemTalk #16)

Robert Creeley, 'I Know a Man'

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Robert Creeley’s “I Know a Man” is in many ways a signature poem. Few poems we choose to discuss on PoemTalk are such. Many are downright unrepresentative. This one might indeed be unrepresentative but if a person knows just one Creeley poem this is probably it.

It’s been much written about. In The San Francisco Renaissance Michael Davidson explores the “Beat ethos” with a detailed reading of “I Know a Man.” Similarly, PoemTalkers Randall Couch, Jessica Lowenthal and Bob Perelman find beat here — but also its counterargument, and/or a rejoinder to its dark depth and to the beat propensity for driving nowhere (or somewhere) fast. Robert Kern in boundary 2 — a 1978 essay — finds postmodern poetics in the Creeleyite anthem: in a nutshell, composition as recognition. Cid Corman (himself the topic of an upcoming PoemTalk) finds and commends the “basic English” of the poem, comparing it with a “more refined” and less effective poem on a similar topic by Louis MacNeice. Walter Sutton back in ‘73 drew a line of influence from Charles Olson’s poetics to Creeley’s “laconic” and “spasmodic” lineation and rhetoric.

The PoemTalkers talk about this remarkable instance of eloquent stammering. The stammer is perhaps the apt way — since form is never more than an extension of content, and vice versa, after all! — of heading into the surrounding mid-1950s darkness, only to be brought up short by the actual needs of the actual American road. It is not a resolution and not a capitulation, but an assertive and possibly ironic (funny, anyway) means of bringing up short. Or, in short: more stammering.

Surpassing things we've known before (PoemTalk #15)

Lyn Hejinian, 'constant change figures'

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Above is Lyn Hejinian’s typescript of an untitled poem we’ve taken to calling “constant change figures.”

It is one poem in a series Hejinian has been writing, a project she currently calls The Book of a Thousand Eyes. If it is finished (perhaps, she tells us, in the summer of 2009?), it might consist of 1,000 poems; more likely of 310 or a few more of them (the number she had completed at the time this episode was recorded). Some poems in the series appeared in The Little Book of a Thousand Eyes, published by Smoke-Proof Press — although, please note, our poem, “constant change figures,” does not appear in that gathering. When Hejinian visited the Writers House a few years ago, she read 19 of these gorgeous little eyes, including ours. And it‘s the audio recording made during that reading that we use in our show.

To what extent does our notion of nature’s picture — a picture of the many things we name “out there” — surprass the things we already know? We seem to deem memory nature’s picture. So to what extent is experience the result of our living in time, a state producing senses that are familiar and yet move us forward toward new and different effects?

So, truly, constant change figures the time we sense. “Figures” there — a transitive verb at that point — enacts things: change makes things, shapes them, renders them, gets things just so.

As you can tell from the recording, we were astonished that these words could accomplish all that thinking about words? Can you imagine writing a poem of nine triads, 27 lines in all, each line this carefully rendered — a poem that in all uses far fewer unique words than the total number of words in the poem, far fewer than conventional utterances would need to employ. Fewer, let’s say, than required by the language of philosophy telling of the same phenomena.

During our lively Hejinian PoemTalk, Tom Mandel in particular works out for us the way the shifting yet repeating triads are enacted. Bob Perelman focuses on Steinian memory (forgetting something himself along the way), Thomas Devaney on the power of turned-every-which-way phrasal variations, Al Filreis on the Steinian mode (again) and the poem as a possible critique of the ideology of experience.