The laurel crown (PoemTalk #96)

Allen Grossman, 'My Radiant Eye'

Allen Grossman. Photo courtesy Johns Hopkins University.


Kathryn Hellerstein, Peter Cole, and Ariel Resnikoff joined Al Filreis to talk about Allen Grossman’s poem “My Radiant Eye.” It’s a late poem written in a late style. It appears in Grossman’s last book, Descartes’ Loneliness. The performance of the poem, recorded by Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room, gives us a voice that has “vatic sweep and boost,” as Peter puts it, but also “fragility.” Kathryn, who knew Grossman as her teacher of Humanities 1 at Brandeis decades earlier, will “never forget th[e] voice” of those long-ago lectures. That dramatic intoning is still here, she observes, but “you feel him slipping a little.” There is some improvising in the performance even as it falters. “I like the way he seems to be engaged with the text but not completely committed to it,” Ariel adds. “I love that you get this sense for the poem which is outside of the page, which exists momentarily in his mind but really only exists in this recording.” (We cannot think of a better reason for aural study of audio archives of poet’s readings.)

Our discussion led us to understand this poem as aligned well with Grossman’s overall belief late in his career that there is an ideal of a poem — that there is always an indefectible version that can never be realized in any given poem, an imagined poem that every poet is writing and which stands in a somewhat haunted, mournful relation to the poem that actually gets written.

Kathryn has found the Talmudic passage that seems to be the source, or one of the sources, of the comic didacticism in “My Radiant Eye” — all those detailed rules about what one can and cannot do in a “desolate synagogue.” The ancient source uses the term “ruined” rather that “desolate.” The latter word choice adds an emotional diction. “Ruined” seems external, an encountered given. “Desolate” conveys loneliness as an effect of ruination. The poem seems not to mourn the loss of the Jewish community, which is certainly one plausible reading. It is, rather, an individual pre-elegy. Grossman is mourning himself, in a way — marking the decline of the situation of the individual poet, safely inspired long before in “The Caedmon Room” (see a key poem of that title elsewhere in Descartes’ Loneliness). The productive poet’s space of original (and premodern, Peter notes) inspiration is now an abandoned weedy synagogue. The speaker tosses around regulations and injunctions for the use of “that Jewish study space” (in Ariel’s phrase) as if such rules make sense and could be followed. In fact we cannot imagine following them, so when the speaker claims to “know these things,” the reader is prepared for the absurd comedy of the conferring of the laurel crown by, of all random authorities, the King of Sicily. (When we arrive at Sicily, the poet himself seems a bit amused and surprised that we’ve gotten there.) The crowning is wholly ironic. In the end, the only way the vatic poet can achieve a transcendent experience is through “this baffoonish holy fool impersonation” (in Peter’s phrase). There is something pedantic and Talmudic — and unpoetic — about the repetition of the phrase “desolate synagogue.” But it is also, finally, poetic. Repetition is a form of refrain. As Kathryn observes, Grossman is “making an English poem out of pedantry and Talmudic study that seems to be at odds with the radiance of his eye.”

PoemTalk #96 was engineered and directed by Zach Carduner and Adelaide Powell, and edited by the same talented Zach Carduner. Al Filreis is the producer of the PoemTalk series, begun in 2007, and he looks forward to a special 100th episode. For that, seven poets who have appeared as PoemTalk guests over the years will converge on the Kelly Writers House to reflect on earlier episodes.

PoemTalk is an ongoing collaboration of PennSound, the Kelly Writers House, and the Poetry Foundation. We are grateful to Hillary and Rodger Krouse and David Roberts for their support, and for the generosity of the Wexler family for their support of the Wexler Studio at the Kelly Writers House.

I too received identity (PoemTalk #95)

Robert Fitterman, 'Sprawl'

Photograph by Tim Davis/courtesy Greenberg Van Doren Gallery (c)


Laynie Browne, Rodrigo Toscano, and Michelle Taransky joined Al Filreis to talk about Robert Fitterman’s Sprawl, where (as K. Silem Mohammad once observed) “the mall hasn’t been this scary since Dawn of the Dead.” It’s Dantesque, notes Rodrigo in this conversation. The arrangement of the parts wants its readers to be lost, says Laynie, exactly as mall developers and architects encourage consumer misdirection and dislocation.

We hear and discuss five short sections from the 2010 Make Now Press book: “JC Penney” (page 45 in the book), “Kay Jewelers” (40), “China Buffet” (65), “Sbarro” (also 65), and “Lacoste” (35). The recording we’re using — available on Fitterman’s ample PennSound page — was made at a Segue Series reading at the Bowery Poetry Club on October 27, 2007, a few years before the Make Now Press book was published. Fitterman appropriates demotic speech and writing from various sources (overheard conversations, presumably in stores; Internet bulletin board review-ish commentaries and rants, etc.) and creates for each store and mall design element a collage of voices befitting and/or juxtaposing the putatively branded socio-economy of each retail message. But how are we then to discern the many identities of the many voices? Sprawl, as Michelle Taransky notes, gives us what Whitman calls “the day among crowds of people” where the nascent democratic self “receiv’d identity.” Fitterman’s epigraph consists of these lines from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”:

In the day among crowds of people sometimes they came upon me …
I took had receiv’d identity by my body.
That I was I knew was of my body, and what I should be I knew I should be of my body.

It might be concluded that atonal appropriation produces a virulent irony (a virulence that sometimes starts with mocking social distance), but the PoemTalk group finds little to no irony in Sprawl. Whitman’s true exhilaration in his “day among crowds” comes to us in this project not through authorial or narrative ecstasy but through an unwillingness to create separation from the voices heard and collaged. Even the pro-“preppie” voice encountered in “Lacoste” — he who “only went to college so I could play tennis” — understands the special inverse excitement of retailed mundanity: “Anyone that finds their style to be ‘boring’ and ‘the same old thing’ is perhaps boring themselves.”

PoemTalk episode 95 was directed and engineered by Zach Carduner, and then edited by the very same Zach Carduner. It was recorded in the Wexler Studio of the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia.

Above right: from left to right, Michelle Taransky, Rodrigo Toscano, and Laynie Browne. Above left: Robert Fitterman.

Jerome Rothenberg interviewed

PennSound podcast #52

Jerome Rothenberg at the Kelly Writers House on September 10, 2015


On September 10, 2015, Jerome Rothenberg re-visited the Kelly Writers House to give an evening reading. A few hours earlier, Ariel Resnikoff and Al Filreis met Rothenberg in the Wexler Studio for an extended interview/conversation that ranged across many epochs, poetic modes, and topics. Among them: the new young German poets of the mid- to late 1950s; the world of Jewish mystics Rothenberg discovered as a young poet; his time as a Masters student studying Dickinson and Whitman with Austin Warren at the University of Michigan in the early 1950s; “the four great Jewish objectivist poets”; Armand Schwerner; somewhat sudden access to major commercial presses for his anthologies in the late 1960s; Robert Duncan’s recommendation of Gershom Scholem; Paul Celan; and Rothenberg’s forays into the problem of representing the unsayable of genocide.

No spell broken (PoemTalk #94)

CA Conrad, two poems from '(Soma)tic Midge'


Trace Peterson, erica kaufman, and Gabriel Ojeda-Sague joined Al Filreis at the Renee & Chaim Gross Foundation in New York City to discuss two poems in CA Conrad’s chapbook, (Soma)tic Midge, published by Faux Press in Cambridge, Massachusetts (2008). Each of the seven poems in the series was written while the poet was under the influence of a color — worn, ingested, or otherwise enveloped. We discussed the green poem and the white poem (“Say it with Green paint for the comfort and healing of their wounds” and “From the Womb not the anus White asbestos snowfall on 911” respectively).

In 2007, before Faux Press released the book, Conrad walked into the PennSound studios and made a complete recording of the series, engineered and edited by Michael Hennessey. The recording is carefully segmented on Conrad’s PennSound page. Here is a link to the green poem, and here to the white poem.

As the group discovered during the course of a wide-ranging conversation, (Soma)tic Midge is about hyper-apathy, didacticism despite disempowerment, the relationships between resistance and (physical) occupation as between militarism and the environment, and what it means to be what we eat and to need a lover during wartime. In a review of the book written some years back, Al Filreis offered the following:

“Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside.” Mark Twain wrote that. C. A. Conrad’s book of poems (Soma)tic Midge proves that exactly the opposite (opposite in every element) is probably the truth. Eat what you must, and let the food fight it out on the outside. Fortunately for us, the outside is this writing.

The somatic poetic practice strives to affect that outside.

Special thanks to Susan Fisher and Mimi Gross of the Renee & Chaim Gross Foundation, which we urge PoemTalk listeners to visit and explore at 526 LaGuardia Place in Manhattan. And thanks to Zach Carduner, who traveled to New York to engineer and direct our session and, as always, then assumed his role of editor and made this episiode possible.

Next time on PoemTalk, back in Philly, Al Filreis will be joined by Rodrigo Toscano, Michelle Taransky, and Laynie Browne for a conversation about Rob Fitterman’s project Sprawl.

Above, left to right: Al Filreis, erica kaufman, Gabriel Ojeda-Sague, Trace Peterson.

Dreams not spoiled by roaches (PoemTalk #93)

Helen Adam, 'Cheerless Junkie's Song'

Helen Adam; screenshot courtesy Ron Mann's "Poetry in Motion" (1981/82) (c); republished by The Voyager Company (1992)


Corina Copp, Laura Sims, and Richard Deming joined Al Filreis in the Wexler Studio of the Kelly Writers House to talk about one of Helen Adam’s poem-songs, “Cheerless Junkie’s Song.” PennSound’s Helen Adam page consists (so far) of three items. First, a full recording of the 1977 performance (aired on WBAI radio) of the 1963 lyric play called San Francisco’s Burning. Second, a recording of Adam being interviewed by Susan Howe and Charles Ruas on Pacifica Radio in the late 1970s. And, third, our poem, “Cheerless Junkie’s Song”: Adam performed the piece on film, in Ron Mann’s documentary Poetry in Motion (1981).

The group first tackled the major question of whether and how the ballad form can be integral to Beat poetry and poetics — and/or to politically and aesthetically resistant poetry generally. The answer, we concluded, was certainly yes, but in a manner as eccentric and counter-intuitive as Helen Adam herself.

Then we pondered this junkie’s song. The junkie seems to track the well-trodden course influenced by Manifest Destiny, downtown New York City (after escape from the suburbs) to San Francisco (and perhaps back again). This is the course of the Beat language and lifestyle, and the song-poem follows closely as that movement goes off the road, as its figure becomes the degenerate “poet type” gawked at by passers-by seeking to be freaked out by the freaks. On this point it seemed to the PoemTalkers that Helen Adam was offering a deep formal critique of the formless (or, anyway, anti-formalist) Beat mode, as she attempted to cajole it — via Allen Ginsberg for instance — back to a properly irrational history of the dark ballad. Such carefully perfected irrationalism might have spared the junkie his particular negative directionlessness.

We happily felt the need to recommend Kristin Prevallet’s editorial work on Adam, especially in The Helen Adam Reader. Corina also described her own visit to the Adam manuscripts in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Department of the State University of New York at Buffalo. Adam is one of those poets whose work is often difficult to behold only on the page, and that might be one of several reasons why she is not better known.

This ninety-third episode of PoemTalk was engineered by Zach Carduner and Ivana Kohut and was edited by the very same Zach Carduner.

Cheerless Junkie’s Song

Seeking love upon a day,
A day of summer’s pride,
I left Long Island’s suburbs
For the Lower East Side.
The train it roared and thundered,
And I sang above its scream,
There’s a cockroach coming towards me
But it cannot spoil my dream.
Love! Love! and l.s.d.
It shall not spoil my dream.

Blue moonlight over Tompkins Square.
“Drop out, tune in, turn on.”
The village all around me,
And Long Island’s suburbs gone.
In a pad far down on Fourth Street Soon
I welcomed the approach
Of the rat that loves the twilight,
And the nimble footed roach.
Love! Love! at eventide,
The grey rat and the roach.

I’m always where the action is.
I blow my mind all day.
While on Long Island’s tennis courts
The bland suburbans play.
And I was born suburban!
Who would ever credit that?
No chick who saw me frugging
With the cockroach and the rat.

It’s Ho! for Horse, or methedrine
To spark the swinging mood.
While rats run up my trouser leg
Roaches share my food.

Rats and roaches nuzzle me
When it’s dark and hot.
Love! Love! It’s all the same
Mixing Speed and Pot.
First a rat, and then a roach,
Or both as like as not.
If I can’t find a fix tonight
My marrow bones will rot.

Goodbye transcendent Tompkins Square
I haven’t long to stay.
A double jolt of heroin and I’ll be on my way.
Let rats and roaches bury me.
They’ll bury me in state,
As they march from Verrazano Bridge
Down to the Golden Gate,
Clear across the continent.
Yonder let me lie,
In the gutters of Haight Ashbury,
To freak the passers by,
Till all the tourists gape, and say,
“Brother! He died high!”
Let rat tails write my epitaph.
Brother! He died high!

The above screenshot from Ron Mann’s Poetry in Motion has been reproduced by the Poetry Foundation web site in Daniel Nester’s interview with Ron Mann (2012).