Charles Reznikoff, 'Salmon and red wine' & 'During the Second World War, I was going home one night'
Peter Cole, Michelle Taransky, and Henry Steinberg join Al Filreis in this episode of PoemTalk to discuss two poems by Charles Reznikoff. One poem is something of an ars poetica, even though, as Peter points out, its status as metapoetry makes it an unusual effort at statement for Reznikoff, who wrote more often as he did in our second poem, which tells of — and apparently means — only what it is and tends to resist larger conclusion.
The first poem is known as “Salmon and red wine” and it appears as section 23 of Inscriptions. The second poem is known also by its first line, “During the Second World War, I was going home one night,” and it is section 28 of part 2 of a series called By the Well of Living and Seeing — a work published in 1969 in a book that brought together that series along with The Fifth Book of the Maccabees. The recording we discuss of the first poem was made at the Poetry Center of San Francisco State University in 1974, although it was written sometime between 1944 and 1956. The recording of the second poem was made when Reznikoff appeared as a guest on Susan Howe’s radio program in 1975. It is a memory of the 1940s.
“Salmon and red wine” appears in Inscriptions (p. 233) with an epigraph the four PoemTalkers discuss but which in our recording Reznikoff omitted for some reason. Here is the text of the epigraph: Thou shalt eat bread with salt and thou shalt drink water by measure, and on the ground shalt thou sleep and thou shalt live a life of trouble … — and the reference Reznikoff then gives is: Mishnah, Aboth 6:4.
The obviously important term “ground” here (and its reappearance in a different context in the poem itself) gives us plenty to discuss. “Those of us without house and ground”: who indeed are they? Are they people of the diaspora? Because “a writer of verse” is said here to require a diet of fasting and measures of water, Al — and to some extent, Michelle and Henry — wonders if the poem affirms dispossession (“without ground”) and wandering (“keep our baggage light”) as a status of necessary suffering for the sake of the modern poetic imagination. Al asks if such an understanding of the poem is “crazy” and Peter takes him up on the suggestion — it is “crazy,” says Peter — whereupon he proceeds to lead us through a discussion of how Reznikoff “is introducing poetry to a place where other people didn’t see poetry” as a function of the Mishnah’s hypergenerous offering of rules and laws and formal guidance on every quotidian act and contingency. “There’s a frame,” observes Peter of Reznikoff’s almost “conceptualist” approach. “The frame is called poetry. Everybody’s looking for it over here where ‘outlast’ and ‘blast’ rhyme. But [Reznikoff]’s saying, ‘No, no, no. Just move the frame,’ as he does in ‘the Second World War.’ And suddenly [poetry is] just ordered in a certain way.”
Al does not disagree but continues to push, seeing the Second World War poem as having something of an unconscious — a hidden or modestly suppressed knowledge of that which is not being said about loss when a Jewish poet in wartime New York City finds himself wandering into an Italian neighborhood and encounters a shopkeeper whose son has been sent to the front and who worries he’ll never return. What comparatively horrific losses are not being worried over? “We’re left to want to understand the gesture,” contends Al — when, later, the son is home safe and the shopkeeper gifts the poet a large apple in response to his plainly kind inquiry about the family. Should we read the gesture of the apple as ironic or insufficient or innocently generous? In answer to this, Michelle Taransky brought forth her teaching (from that very afternoon) of Kenneth Goldsmith’s Soliloquy, and tells us: “I would assume that Reznikoff is not turning the apple-giving into a metaphor or a moment. He’s just saying it happened. It happened just as this other thing that I didn’t write about happened.” And further: “This is just an overheard bit of conversation in the snow of conversation in New York, and Reznikoff, though he is asserting the ‘I’ here, is not saying that I’m the important ‘I’ or that I’m the only ‘I’ but that I’m an ‘I’ and this is another ‘I,’ and we’re talking.”
Al Filreis draws poetic connections
When Al Filreis and Charles Bernstein founded PennSound in 2003, one of their impetuses was purely pedagogical. They wanted to make a digital audio archive of free, downloadable files of poets reading their own work and of discussions about poetics available to teachers and learners looking to parse out poetic lineages and differences.
As Al Filreis explains in this 2007 podcast, PennSound is an archive for those seeking to make aesthetic connections between different poetic trends: a site of convergence for the reader (in this case, listener) and the poetic tradition. This makes PennSound a particularly useful resourse for teachers who are looking to demonstrate to their students the relationships between contemporary poetry and earlier poetic movements.
If a teacher were seeking to explain how Emily Dickinson’s nonsequential, fragmentary poetics is palpable in the work of Language poet Rae Armantrout, he or she need look no further than Armantrout’s PennSound author page. There, the teacher would find a recording of Armantrout reading her stunning poem of found language “The Way,” as well as a Close Listening conversation between Armantrout and Charles Bernstein in which Armantrout explicates the poem’s lingusitic origins, pronoun problems, and line breaks.
Both of these recordings are featured at the end of this podcast, which Al Filreis uses to remind PennSound listeners, new and old, of the archive’s mission and breadth. Indeed, at the time this podcast was recorded, PennSound was host to some 8,000 recordings, including a number of first-generation American modernists (Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams) reading their work; Allen Ginsberg reading from Howl at San Francisco State University in 1956; and David Wallace reading Geoffrey Chaucer’s poetry. PennSound was then working towards a goal of comprehensiveness that it continues to strive for now, as it acquires more recordings that elucidate lineages and serve as pedagogical tools.
Jennifer Moxley, 'The Atrophy of Private Life'
On the chance that PoemTalk’s listeners are ever tempted to stop listening after the main conversation and before we “gather Paradise” (make recommendations), we urge you to stay through to the end of this episode in particular — at which point you will hear Cathy Eisenhower’s short list of Washington, DC, venues for readings and gatherings. And we’ll add, here, belatedly, our intention to travel soon down to DC for an on-the-road PoemTalk.
Yes, so Cathy Eisenhower joined us from DC, and Christopher Schmidt from New York, and Katie Price from just down the campus Walk – to talk about one of the prose poems in Jennifer Moxley’s 2007 book The Line. Moxley had previously authored Imagination Verses (Salt, 2003), The Sense Record and other poems (Salt, 2003), and Often Capital (Flood Editions, 2005) among other works. We took up The Line because it would seem to enable us to talk about the situation or state of the poetic line — the poetic unit of language, the aesthetic or politico-aesthetic lineage – and we chose “The Atrophy of Private Life” within that book because the meta-poetic sense of “the line” would have to be at best implicit and we wanted to push ourselves to consider a possible critique of the sorry or depressed state of contemporary private life as itself a kind of line (as in ideological line) in such a way that the three senses of “line” — (1) poetic unit, (2) aesthetic lineage, where a poet fits or doesn’t fit, and (3) political stance — might converge unevenly and uneasily yet revealingly.
Private life is becoming emaciated and “the sets of relations are very limited” (notes Cathy), and so aptly we are in “a house strewn with fashion magazines.” The piece contends, seemingly straight out, that the destruction of the poetical has been mostly caused by the fabulously rich. The poet unmasks American bounty as actual impoverishment. Is Moxley really suggesting these things directly? Cathy says yes – and also no. “There’s a lot of switching going on — with ‘meaning’ and ‘money.’” If those two terms were “flipped,” adds Cathy, “I’m not sure it would matter that much.” [Below, from left to right: Cathy Eisenhower, Christopher Schmidt, Katie Price in PoemTalk’s garret studio.]
Chris is interested in the mask in the poem. In Marx, the commodity masks real relationships. So that is the leftist line (another “line”) Moxley nods at, and possibly contends, but she’s also troubled with the notion and trend of masking in poetry: the languaged or non-transparent selfhood of the writer apparently never discernible. Doubt that much-accepted concept, Moxley explores didacticism as an alternative to and resistance to a certain dominant “fashion” in the world of poetry itself, not merely, in other words, in the world of the fabulously rich. In this way, say Chris and Katie both, the mask represents the poetics of surface at which Moxley clearly excels (through her own excellent training as a writer) but which she also regrets. (Is that regret the source of the “depression” we all sensed — as did reviewers — in The Line?) Katie adds that Moxley is suspicious of the image and the language becoming “almost too pleasurable.” A line can be pleasurable and through the pleasure derived from it seem to say one thing, and then (here’s the resistance) it can be seen as saying the opposite.
The Atrophy of Private LIfe
In the heavy fashion magazines strewn here and there around the house the photos of objects and people mouth the word “money,” but you, assuming no one wants you anymore, mishear the message as “meaning.” Arousal follows. The lives of the rich are so fabulous! The destruction of the poetical lies heavily on their hands, as on their swollen notion that we are always watching. There is nothing behind the mask. Nothing suffocating under its pressure, no human essence trying to get out.
Awareness, always awareness. Don’t you see how these elaborate masks are turning you into a zombie? The private life is not for the eye but for the endless interior. It is trying to push all this crap aside and find the missing line. Nobody, least of all the future, cares about the outcome of this quest.
It is easy to lose, through meddling or neglect, an entire aspect of existence. And sometimes, to cultivate a single new thought, you need not only silence but an entirely new life.
Ron Silliman, 'You'
It’s 1995. January 1. Ron Silliman, who had carefully planned this daily yearlong writing project, begins to write the first of what will be fifty-two sections of a series going under the title “You.” He worries about the war in Chechnya, and writes a sentence on that, and about acid rain, and that gets a sentence. He remembers his dreams. He overhears intellectual coffeeshop talk. It’s cold outside.
This would be the twenty-fifth book of The Alphabet; in the Alabama edition of that major assemblage, twenty-five years in the making, “You” begins on page 903, a long way in. Fifty-two sections, one for every week of 1995, each consisting of seven daily prose paragraphs, typically one, two, or three sentences each day. You write what you see, what you overhear, what news local (floods) or world (wars) occurs to you or impresses you, what you remember, what you know or think you know during these days. In one “You” is the diary in New Sentences of a year. And it happens to have been a crucial annum for Silliman, who in ’95 made a big move from San Francisco to Philadelphia. In section XVII (by our count, this would have been early May), “You” marks the poet’s final week as a resident of the Bay Area. Certain birds (will you miss them?) wake him. Floppy disks might need to be copied (to secure files?) but aren’t. Would Philly be a haven for you, such a bookish person? “Last chance to buy books.” (Are there no good bookstores where you’re going?) “To the question, ‘Is your house lined with books,’ I reply. ‘No — stacked.’” Would the move from a region and a community that had productively tolerated — and also specifically encouraged — the emergence of a poetic style thwart or disorient the maker of these sentences? Section XVIII, dedicated to “Bob and Francie” (that would be Bob Perelman and Francie Shaw), locates Bay Area friends who’d gone East ahead of you. Despite such indications of continuity and familiarity — and despite the yearlong project that must go on, despite the chaos of relocation — you find a new landscape (“A cloudless sky but for the power plant. An old small town at the center of this development.”) and a certain new anxiety over aesthetic belonging. Can a so-called “Language poet” thrive in “P=H=I=L=A=D=E=L=P=H=I=A”?
The same Bob Perelman, the Language compatriot who had awaited you at that site almost at the other end of the continent, joined us, these years later, for an episode of PoemTalk about “You.” So did Rachel Blau DuPlessis, another longtime Philadelphia mainstay (to say the least). As did Frank Sherlock, a third Philadelphia poet, associated with the new PhillySound and someone who, with his local comrades, have welcomed Silliman — and whose work has been commended by Silliman on his eponymous blog. And the conversation was moderated this time by Michelle Taransky (a fourth Philly poet in the room), generous guest host, who sat in for Al Filreis while he was away.
The discussion considers in particular sections I and XII of the poem, but almost immediately sets out to offer general commentary on Silliman’s politics of form. In the myriad separate non-syllogistically arranged observations of “You” there is always apparent “a strong urgency of the anti-hierarchical,” as Rachel puts it. Parts are never gathered into a platonic whole, and this in itself can have a “social” and indeed “liberatory” aspect. Consider the second paragraph in section I, a paragraph presumably written on the second day of the year. January 2, 1995: “the idea of history shudders” as you absorb news of possibly genocidal convulsions “[i]n Grozny, in Bihac.” Here “You” “records” “world events” diary-like — ripped, as they say, from the daily newspaper. But then you seem to know of a thorny rose, laid upon a mass grave. And then, but not of course sequentially, you see and overhear, in a café, two young men arguing “the value of a pronoun” over their strong coffee. The pronoun — is it the poem’s titular second person? the poet’s Recording Angel self? an abstract way of talking language without political consciousness, like a linguist? — does not separate from, nor subordinate to, history’s shudderings. No more or less relevant. You are not there to judge (nor to subjectivize — other than to be the one on that day to observe it) the café argument about language just because it occurs in a time of war engaged elsewhere. After all, who knows but that in the non-transparent concept of “you” — not the selfhood of I but the difference of Other — lies an effective understanding of the world’s crises?
At a PhillyTalks event, just a few years after Silliman became a Philadelphian, he read sections 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 12, 17, 19, and 23 of “You.” Here is a complete recording of that January 1998 event at the Kelly Writers House. Later, in 2000, at a Segue Series reading, he read sections 17, 18, 26, 38, and 52. (Here is that recording; the reading from “You” starts at around three minutes in.) Here is our recording of section I: MP3. And here is section XII: MP3. All of this audio, and more, is available at Silliman’s vast PennSound page.
1. This is prescient, indicating what a sensitive close reader of the newspaper Silliman is. It was not until June 2008 that a grave containing the remains of 800 people was found in Grozny and publicized by human rights organizations. Witnesses then were able to specify that the mass burial of civilians had begun on January 1 and 2, 1995.
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Steve Evans is a critic and scholar of poetry and poetics, and a professor at the University of Maine in Orono. He helps run the National Poetry Foundation and directs the UMaine New Writing Series, for which he’s hosted numerous visiting writers and scholars. Steve’s research often focuses on recorded poetry readings, and he’s posted many of his personal favorites on his blog The Lipstick of Noise. His in-progress Jacket2 commentary series on related issues is titled The Phonotextual Braid. You can find more of Steve’s work — including his famed Attention Span survey series — at ThirdFactory.net. I recorded Steve at his home in Orono in August 2010.