Podcasts

Ill, angelic poetics (PoemTalk #48)

Edgar Allan Poe, 'Dream-Land'

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Read Edgar Allan Poe's “Dream-Land” even just once and discover that it’s not at all clear if this land of dreams is the place from which the speaker has come, or is, rather, his longed-for destination — or if indeed it is the very mode and means and route endured along the way. Subject and object, both; content and form likewise; it is the process that demonstrates the importance of desired ends. “Thule,” a northerly, arctic/Scandinavian sort of zone,[1] is apparently an origin "from" which the speaker has traveled, but it is also apparently “it” — a “wild clime” neither geographical nor temporal, Out of SPACE— out of TIME.”  And “it” is also a space through which one passes.

Thomas Devaney, John Timpane, and Jerome McGann greatly admire what Poe achieved here. For them it is a matter of a sort of wild control. The poem seems to go where it will (and that’s its point) but the speed — as matter of tongue, teeth and lips saying its words — is managed at the level of the line. The poem is intensely languaged, as is the selfhood of the “I” whose journey is always already the poem. And so this work, as an act of writing, far transcends its Gothic conventions.<--break->

Jerry McGann visited the Kelly Writers House to give a talk on Poe, decentered culture and critical method, and also to record a session of “Close Listening.” We at PoemTalk took advantage of his proximity to our studios, as well as of Philadelphia’s Poe-centricity, and (unusually for PoemTalk) gave our fair city’s visitor his choice of which Poe poem to feature. He selected — as he explains briefly during our talk — a typical but less well-known piece. Emerging from the urban corners of the Poe-known world were John Timpane of the Philadelphia Inquirer, where poetry actually continues to have something of a foothold among daily journalism, and, from further south and west, Tom Devaney, who ventured in from Haverford College where he teaches his share of Poe along with a great deal else. It should be noted here that Tom wasn’t always at the bucolic edge of William Penn's town. In 2004, for instance, he spent several afternoons at the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site (Poe’s house, in other words) performing “The Empty House Tour” as part of the ICA’s series called “The Big Nothing.”[2]

Of course we have no recordings of Poe reading this poem, and we’re not even certain he ever performed it in public, although Jerry and Tom assure us that Poe did give readings and was even, for a time, avid about it. PoemTalk’s featured poems are always drawn from PennSound’s vast archive, but in this case, fortunately, we were able to make use of PennSound Classics, a page featuring links to guest performances of Blake, Chaucer, Wyatt, Spencer, Homer, Sappho, Langland, Milton, Pope, Swift, Dryden, Shakespeare, Whitman, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats, as well as from among archaic Greek poems and Scottish ballads. “Classics” also include Poe, as selected and performed by our own Jerome McGann. Here is his recording of “Dream-Land.”

Our director and engineer for this show was James LaMarre, and our editor this time, and indeed for all 48 shows, has been Steve McLaughlin. We note with pride that Steve is now also the Director of PennSound Radio. If you tune in you will occasionally hear Steve’s voice announcing the playlist, but know, in any case, that he’s the DJ behind the selections.

“Dream-Land”

By a route obscure and lonely,
Haunted by ill angels only,
Where an Eidolon, named NIGHT,
On a black throne reigns upright,
I have reached these lands but newly
From an ultimate dim Thule—
From a wild clime that lieth, sublime,
Out of SPACE— out of TIME.

Bottomless vales and boundless floods,
And chasms, and caves, and Titan woods,
With forms that no man can discover
For the tears that drip all over;
Mountains toppling evermore
Into seas without a shore;
Seas that restlessly aspire,
Surging, unto skies of fire;
Lakes that endlessly outspread
Their lone waters— lone and dead,—
Their still waters— still and chilly
With the snows of the lolling lily.

By the lakes that thus outspread
Their lone waters, lone and dead,—
Their sad waters, sad and chilly
With the snows of the lolling lily,—
By the mountains— near the river
Murmuring lowly, murmuring ever,—
By the grey woods,— by the swamp
Where the toad and the newt encamp—
By the dismal tarns and pools
Where dwell the Ghouls,—
By each spot the most unholy—
In each nook most melancholy—
There the traveller meets aghast
Sheeted Memories of the Past-—
Shrouded forms that start and sigh
As they pass the wanderer by—
White-robed forms of friends long given,
In agony, to the Earth— and Heaven.

For the heart whose woes are legion
'Tis a peaceful, soothing region—
For the spirit that walks in shadow
'Tis— oh, 'tis an Eldorado!
But the traveller, travelling through it,
May not— dare not openly view it!
Never its mysteries are exposed
To the weak human eye unclosed;
So wills its King, who hath forbid
The uplifting of the fringed lid;
And thus the sad Soul that here passes
Beholds it but through darkened glasses.

By a route obscure and lonely,
Haunted by ill angels only,
Where an Eidolon, named NIGHT,
On a black throne reigns upright,
I have wandered home but newly
From this ultimate dim Thule.

Above, left to right: John Timpane, Jerome McGann, Thomas Devaney.

NOTES
. The term “ultima Thule” in medieval geographies indicates any distant place located beyond the borders of the known world.
2. For links to essays, articles and more information about Devaney’s work on Poe, click here.

Into the Field: Sean Cole

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Sean Cole is a poet and radio producer currently based in New York City. I spoke with him last summer in Toronto, where he was living at the time. Sean’s chapbook Itty City (Pressed Wafer) was published in 2003, and The December Project (Boog Literature), a collection of postcard poems, came out in 2005. Sean has contributed to numerous public radio programs, including This American Life, All Things Considered, Marketplace, and Weekend America. He produced a memorable piece on Flarf poetry for Studio 360 in 2009, and his story “Death Mask” appeared as a Radiolab podcast last month.

Inalienable writes (PoemTalk #47)

Rosmarie Waldrop, 'Shorter American Memory of the Declaration of Independence'

Rosmarie Waldrop. Photo by Steve Evans.

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Rosmarie Waldrop’s book Shorter American Memory consists of prose poems collaged from documents collected in Henry Beston’s American Memory, a book of the late 1930s evincing an Americanist zeal for early documents. Beston's historicism seemed a liberal effort to restore and include in the American story, as it was being retold during the Depression, a wide range of Native American as well as both obscure and classic “founding” or “first encounter” Euro-American writings. By appying various constraints to these documents, Waldrop rewrites Beston by “taking liberties” — an intentional pun on her part — with the gist of the anthology and its very length. In doing so, (to quote her publishers at Paradigm Press) she “unearths compelling clues into America's perception of its own past, developing a vision of America vital for its intelligence, wit & compassion.”

We at PoemTalk decided to take a close look at one of these prose poems, “Shorter American Memory of the Declaration of Independence.” A performance of this poem, preceded by a short introduction, was recorded at Buffalo in 1992. The main work of that reading was to present many chapters from Key into the Language of America, a project related to that of Shorter American Memory in several ways we mention in our discussion. As a warm-up to Key, she read three of her writings-through Beston: ours on the Declaration, a second on Salem, and a third on “the American Character According to [George] Santayana.”  Here is a link to Waldrop's PennSound page, where these and many other recordings are linked.<--break- />

Al felt especially pleased to be joined on this occasion by Jessica Lowenthal (the poet, Director of the Writers House, and former student of Waldrop at Brown), Julia Bloch (co-editor of Jacket2), and Johanna Drucker, who was visiting us from Los Angeles that day for a talk on materiality and aesthetics, which turned out, unsurprisingly, to be stunningly suggestive and exciting.

This episode of PoemTalk was, we think, masterfully edited and sound-adjusted by our long-time editor, Steve McLaughlin. Thanks to the digitorial work of Danny Snelson, Shorter American Memory has been made available in its entirety as a PDF downloadable from Ubu Editions.

Into the Field: Dale Smith and Hoa Nguyen

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I interviewed Dale Smith and Hoa Nguyen at their home in Austin last August. The two studied poetry at the New University of California, and they started the Skanky Possum imprint together in the late ’90s. Hoa’s book Hecate Lochia came out in 2009, and her new collection As Long as Trees Last will be published by Wave Books in 2012. Dale’s most recent book of poetry is Susquehanna, published in 2008, and his book Poets Beyond the Barricade: Rhetoric, Citizenship, and Dissent after 1960 will come out early next year. For more writing by Hoa Nguyen and information on her independent poetry workshops, visit Hoa-Nguyen.com. Dale Smith’s blog is Possum Ego, and his anthology Slow Poetry: An Introduction nicely encapsulates his aesthetic interests. The couple and their two sons moved to Toronto this past summer, where Dale has taken a position in the English department at Ryerson University.

Writing through Ezra (PoemTalk #46)

Jackson Mac Low, 'Words nd Ends from Ez'

Jackson Mac Low, Ezra Pound

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PoemTalk travelled to Bard College, where we gathered with Charles Bernstein, Pierre Joris, and Bard’s own Joan Retallack to talk about Jackson Mac Low's Words nd Ends from Ez (1989). The project was composed in ten parts, one part each for sections (sometimes called “decades”) of Ezra Pound’s lifework, The Cantos. We chose to discuss the penultimate part of Mac Low's diastic written-through work, a poem based on phrases, words, and letters drawn from — and in some sense about — Pound's near-final cantos, Drafts & Fragments of Cantos CX-CXVII.  Mac Low’s constraint, for which he preferred the term “quasi-intentional” to the term “chance,” involved the letters forming the name E Z R A  P O U N D.  Words, phrases, and letters were extracted from the original cantos based on those letters and on their placement within words. Charles, Pierre, Joan, and Al Filreis explain this in detail, although we cannot quite agree as to whether Mac Low was being absolutely strict in the application of the diastic method. As Bernstein notes several times, this particular procedure is one of the more complex Mac Low used. Nonetheless, it’s the sense of the group that when semantic meaning seems to be created, it has about it, as Pierre Joris happily notes, the special pleasure of serendipity, and means all the more. <--break- />

Thus the poem’s commentary on Pound, its both aesthetic and ethical positioning with respect to Pound, is profounder than it might have been otherwise, had the poem been a “sincerely felt” subjective lyric response to the final Poundian ethos — an oscillation between stubborn repetition of earlier modes and mea culpa.

We couldn’t help thinking about John Cage’s writings through Pound in connection with this work. During this part of the discussion Joan Retallack said the following:

Mac Low admired Pound more than Cage did. One of the things that was, to me, so always intersting about the way Cage worked was that he thought out his procedures very carefully in advance, not so that he would know what was going to happen in the parts of the structure that would allow chance operations to choose the points, as he would put it, in the text, but because he knew the way you choose your procedure has a lot to do with extremely formal elements ultimately. He chose to let more of Pound in [more, that is, than Mac Low does based on his procedure in our poem] and this was ultimately more unpleasant for Cage because he didn't like the Pound. I think the reason to continue reading Pound and to continue the agonistic relationship we all have to have with Pound when we read [him] is that it is such a presentation of the complexities and the horrifying things that can happen to a mind that is going in directions that are passionate without empathy, without contact with others.

Notwithstanding the agonism, and a non-Freudian/non-Bloomian version of anxiety of influence, Pierre Joris takes us back to the great pleasure we derive from the performance of this poem, with its multilinguistic melodrama, its playfully exaggerated accents — perhaps part of the rejoinder to Pound as a matter of sense but perhaps, too, a result of the joy of bespeaking words extracted from the languages of The Cantos, mostly liberated from its topical tyrannies. “This is sound work that frees the poem from a heavy logos,” says Charles. “I think the important thing,” says Pierre, “is that it has to be heard first. And it has to be read aloud. ‘Hey read that. Get your mouth around it.’” And we agreed on the primacy of Mac Low’s performance as a somatic experience.

We are grateful to Joan Retallack and her colleagues at Bard College for arranging our recording session, and to the audience of some 40 students, faculty, and others who made up a positively responsive live audience for only the second time in PoemTalk’s run (the other was PoemTalk #10 on Stein). We also wish to thank James LaMarre, our longtime director-engineer, who travelled from Philadelphia to Annandale-on-Hudson to help us with the recording; and, as always, Steve McLaughlin, PoemTalk's original editor.