It's like a new reality, man (PoemTalk #14)

Wallace Stevens, 'Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself'


PoemTalk listeners will want to stick around for the end of this show in particular, when Nada Gordon, a first-time PoemTalker, recites her flarfistic rewriting of Wallace Stevens’ late poem, “Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself.” Meantime, of course, we give the poem a good going-through. The talkers this time, beside Nada, are Lawrence Joseph and Charles Bernstein, and we were (for the first time in PoemTalk’s short history) on the road, at Studio 92 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Anyone who deals with this poem has to understand the rhetorical gist of Stevens's “like”: the cry he thinks he hears seemed “like” a sound in his mind; it was “like” a new knowledge of reality. Charles half-jokes that it’s anachronistically (and uncharacteristically) a 1960s like: a cool “very,” an intensifer, a pause. Al tries to stipulate that this is a Keats-at-the-casement poem: he’s inside, looking out and hearing minimal late-winter birdsong. But Larry believes firmly in the radical open-ness of this poem: we are neither inside nor out. There is no conventional place of standing. “Three times in the poem,” Nada has written elsewhere, “he says the sound was coming ‘from outside.’ But I don’t believe him. How can I believe this from a poet whose ‘actual candle blazed with artifice’?”

This was certainly the threesome, too, to say interesting things about the alphabetical “c” that precedes the choir.

Our recording comes from the wonderful collection of recordings at the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard, and we wish to thank Don Share, Christina Davis, Peter Steinberg, and others who have taken such good care of that material. Stevens traveled to Harvard to record this poem on October 8, 1954 (he died in 1955).

Can't stop the cars (PoemTalk #13)

Kathleen Fraser, 'The Cars'


PoemTalk is back after a bit of a holiday hiatus. Happy to be back with episode 13 on Kathleen Fraser’s disorienting prose-poem “The Cars.” The piece appears in two paragraphs on a single page in Fraser’s great book Discrete Categories Forced into Coupling. At some point during our discussion we ask ourselves if there are any such mergings going on in “The Cars” and we agree that there are, certainly. For one thing, two categories so literarily basic as subject and object: the poet’s subject position (the p.o.v. of the passenger in a car on an interstate highway) and the object of her gaze — a “dusky”-necked body, a dark or light-darkened man, dangerously crossing the highway at dawn, barely visible to the swiftly passing cars, looking for something he’s lost. The person in the car, the narrative seer, sees him, but then she’s past him. Did he make it? Did others see him? Does one want to see or to help, and are these categories discrete?

The PoemTalkers this time were Kristen Gallagher, CAConrad (both on our program for the first time) and a wonderful regular, Jessica Lowenthal. Conrad identifies strongly with the woman in the car and expresses real doubts about the man crossing the road. Kristen is, in the end, concerned about the gendered poetic ethics of observing danger for the sake of the poem, which, to be sure, is a problem she feels Fraser raises in the writing (and thus it is a poem about this very “journalistic” problem). Jessica, aided by informal commentary from Kathleen Fraser herself (delivered by surprise, somewhat unfairly, by Al), comes to believe that at the center of the poem’s concerns is the disoriented body. Al agrees: it is a body in space, dislocated by interstate highwayness, with no place to stand, no light to define, no there to be there.

PoemTalk #13’s engineer and director was James LaMarre and our editor as always is Steve McLaughlin. We at PoemTalk wish to express thanks to Kathleen Fraser (pictured above) for her generosity and assistance.

Troubled sleep (PoemTalk #12)

Ezra Pound, 'Cantico del Sole'


Ezra Pound integrates — or, rather, doesn’t quite integrate — a response to a stupid contemporary judicial ruling on censorship and a fragment from the Canticle of Simeon (Luke, 2:29-32) to make a powerful, comic (even schticky) satire on American culture of his time and perhaps of ours. How this works, variously (and depending too on which recording of Pound reading the poem you hear), is the topic of our twelfth PoemTalk. Talkers this time: Charles Bernstein, Joshua Schuster, Rachel Levitsky.

How broad is the satire? Is the figure whose sleep is troubled by Americans reading classics widely the anxious, sensorious judge, relieved that no one really reads the indecent classics? Or is he the modernist poet, aiming for whatever would strike such a man as indecent? (Is this just another early-Pound personae? Is it the performance of a subject position Pound would never quite occupy? Does the speaker's elitist animosity toward America confirm the judge’s disquietude?

PennSound’s Pound collection (it’s complete — everything recorded by Pound that we know of) includes several readings of “Cantico del Sole.” PoemTalk plays two of them, one from the 1930s, the other from the late 50s.

The thought of what America would be like
If the Classics had a wide circulation
Troubles my sleep,
The thought of what America,
The thought of what America,
The thought of what America would be like
If the Classics had a wide circulation
Troubles my sleep.
Nunc dimittis, now lettest thou thy servant,
Now lettest thou thy servant
Depart in peace.
The thought of what America,
The thought of what America,
The thought of what America would be like
If the Classics had a wide circulation...
Oh well!
It troubles my sleep.

PoemTalk’s director, engineer and editor is Steve McLaughlin, who, by the way, has recently taken a turn at selecting his 12 favorite PennSound recordings.

This episode of PoemTalk was recorded in the Arts Café of the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia. Next time, PoemTalk goes on the road - to our Broadway studios in New York, for a discussion of a late poem by Wallace Stevens and the talkers are Nada Gordon, Lawrence Joseph, and Charles Bernstein. Stay tuned.

Paddling ladders (PoemTalk #11)

Erica Hunt, 'voice of no'


When a poet asserts she has the voice of no, does that mean she has it — has got that voice down, can do that voice — and wants to know it from the inside in order to get past it, or wants to doubt it, so that she and we can get on to the positive change we seek? Or is, finally, that voice her voice? A withering critique of present conditions (21st-century-style hyper-mediation; disorientation and alienation; natural disasters in response to which there are human-made failures): is that what this voice of no voices?

Well, you can imagine that our PoemTalkers, talking Erica Hunt’s poem “the voice of no” from her magnificent illustrated book of poems Arcade, came to no simple conclusion to the above-posed questions. One reason is that the poem starts in a comically self-aware yet censorious maternal voice and then gives way, from a longer view and somewhat more omniscient p.o.v., to geopolitical social ills that indirectly but devastatingly follow (the personal is political for Hunt, for damned sure).

Elizabeth Willis joined us this time, as did Julia Bloch — for both, first appearances on PoemTalk. And an insightful regular, Jessica Lowenthal, formed up our foursome.

Portrait, but of whom? (PoemTalk #10)

Gertrude Stein, 'Christian Bérard'


“Stein leaves no doubt…that she’s doing portraits in the same way that Picasso and Braque are doing portraits.” So says Jerome Rothenberg — very helpfully — in the first minute of our discussion of Gertrude Stein’s “Christian Bérard.” PennSound’s Stein page includes a recording made in New York during the winter of 1934-35 of the first page of the poem as it appeared in Portraits & Prayers, the Random House volume that had just been published. The portrait of Bérard — a friend of Stein’s, a painter and set designer and frequenter of her salon — had been written in 1928.

But back to Jerry’s statement, meant to get us to talk about non-representational depictions, for (the first line of the poem), “Eating is her subject. / While eating is her subject. / Where eating is her subject” certainly does suggest, emphatically, that neither Bérard nor anyone else is the subject of the poem.