PoemTalk

Doing not enough every day (PoemTalk #5)

Ted Berrigan, '3 Pages'

A list of Bohemian pleasures. Ted Berrigan’s “3 Pages” is a list poem, surely. He mentions ten things he does every day (including “read lunch poems,” surely a reference to Frank O’Hara’s book of that title) but the PoemTalkers — Randall Couch, Linh Dinh and special guest erica kaufman — had trouble counting them. We got to nine, and pondered. erica then suggested that she “would count ‘NOT ENOUGH’ as being ten.” The last line of the poem. Those American things (heart attack, Congressional medal, second home) that immediately precede the last line…well, for Berrigan, they don’t add up.

So our PoemTalk poem this time is a summing-up poem (Berrigan hinted as such a quality) that sums up by affixing “not enough” to the total. We four liked this sort of life, were turned on by it. Oh, set us down by the waters of Manhattan.

Aside from O’Hara there are further literary references here in this poem about leading the literary life. By the Waters of Manhattan is the novel of another important New Yorker poet, Charles Reznikoff. Al says: “‘NO HELP WANTED’ as a placard turns around the usual, ‘You’re an American boy, get a job.’” Ahabian resistance to progress and accumulation and reason, in a world of Starbucks. We found the rhetoric of folk song here, and we saw indeed deep traces of Moby Dick’s irrational-rational aestheticism. “Hunting for the Whale” is one of the “ten” things a Berrigan poem does for us every single day.

For the purposes of introducing the idea of the list poem to people not used to seriatic ways of modern and contemporary poetry, we agree that this poem is the perfect instance with which to start. “Teachable” in that sense.

Bard goes country (PoemTalk #4)

Allen Ginsberg sings Blake's 'The Garden of Love'

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Hear the voice of the bard…

Which bard? Well, we’re not quite sure how bardic Charles Bernstein is, but he certainly loves the idea of poem as song; he jouned some by-now regular PoemTalkers (Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Jessica Lowenthal) and chanted for us that very line. We’ve worn the grooves on an old LP of Allen Ginsberg signing William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience and for the fourth PoemTalk chose Ginsberg’s countrified (crossover?) rendition of “The Garden of Love.” Does the snappy, twangy (and relatively tuneful) setting create an irony? Jessica thinks yes; Charles thinks no.

But perhaps the tune should be in conflict with the poem’s sense, and thus perhaps Ginsberg was not so much pushing a song of experience into a popular (and thus single-direction-tending) mode so much as making it still more Blakean.

The binary of innocence and experience, Rachel says, is broken by the way the song is sung. Blake wanted the binary to be broken; Ginsberg only breaks it further. And seems to be having fun along the way.

Listen for the happy out-take at the end. We had some fun ourselves, albeit somewhat atonally and quite arhythmically.

Don't know how to say (PoemTalk #3)

George Oppen, 'Ballad'

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Joined this time by Rachel Blau DuPlessis, the PoemTalkers wasted no time grappling with George Oppen’s grappling with the real. The rock of the island he’s visiting — its locatedness to be cherished — “outlived the classicists.” Is this anti-academic? Yes, we agreed. On an island in Maine, he meets a lobsterman and his wife and finds them super-articulate and at the same time admirably, wonderfully halting in their speech (like Oppen himself here). Oppen: “Difficult to know what one means.” The lobsterman’s wife: “I don't know how to say.” We are all in this real together. Jessica was just back from Vegas, Linh from Iceland, Rachel from teaching a class on the other side of town. Which instruments — archaic and etymologically historical or local, broken-toothed and ready-at-hand — are the tools that will help us understand where exactly we are? “Geo-positioning” seemed to be the word of the day.

No place for little lyric (PoemTalk #2)

Adrienne Rich, 'Wait'

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When Adrienne Rich wrote the poem “Wait” she and many Americans and others were awaiting the start of what seemed an inevitable war in Iraq, in March 2003. The PoemTalk crew — Jessica Lowenthal, Linh Dinh, Randall Couch and your convener-host Al Filreis — couldn't wait (as it were) to get going on this terrestrial poem. Is it a personal is political poem? The soldier, after all, looks at his or her wedding ring and thinks about why s/he wasn’t told...but not told what? Is it a make love, not war poem? Is it a political poem at all? The Iraqi desert is “no place for the little lyric.” The gang variously wonders if the poem had something large to contend about lyric’s talent for reminding us of reasons why war is inhuman? Randall thinks it isn’t much of a war (or antiwar) poem; its strengths diminish as it gets more clearly into its political subject; in the end it closes off “with a click.” Linh prefers a less formalistic approach. Jessica and Al riff on the 1930s-style “hobos in a breadline” genre: its reputation for conservative form carrying radical content. Is this a formally conservative poem? If so, there’s an irony, for sure. The PoemTalkers can only agree that such a question is open, making the poem all the more interesting (and in that sense it’s a meta-poem, a poem about the problems of political poems).

Broken Pieces (PoemTalk #1)

William Carlos Williams, 'Between Walls'

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Can such a brief bit of writing — William Carlos Williams’s “Between Walls” — be a “campaign poem,” as host Al Filries at one point in PoemTalk#1 suggests? Saigon-born poet Linh Dinh (Jam Alerts) insists that it is a garbage poem and prefers not to claim for it such large literary-political territory. Williams is “flirting” with the poetic, but never quite gets there. Teacher, editor, poet, translator, college administrator Randall Couch sees greater awareness of the poetic line in the poem as printed on the page than in the way Williams read the poem at public readings. Linh and poet Jessica Lowenthal (As If In Turning) see and hear two different poems. Al keeps wondering if the poem can be negative (be about nothing) and yet at the same time produce something and point toward this bit of shining broken modern shard to discover, or re-discover, life. To Al and Jessica it is positive (“lie / cinders / in which shine”) but Linh insists with pleasure that Williams is being neutral — just a snapshot of an urban scene. As such, the poem has had a huge influence on poetry and photography since its first publication in 1934. Yet can any artist today get away with so straightfoward and seemingly objective a mere observation?