Etheridge Knight's 'The Sun Came' and Gwendolyn Brooks' 'Truth'
On PennSound’s Etheridge Knight page we offer single downloadable MP3 recordings of every poem Knight read at a memorable February 25, 1986 reading. The introduction to the reading was given by Gwendolyn Brooks herself — she who had long been an encourager of Knight. “Don’t let us lack hard rock,” she says at one point in this intro, addressing herself directly to Knight. She reminded her audience of a poem Knight had written in response to her very early poem, “truth,” in which she (as she reminded us in ‘86) had equated truth with sunshine. And Brooks read the opening lines of Knight’s “The Sun Came,” and then invited Knight up to the podium with the command to “open your mouth.” Open it he did, Etheridge Knight did, and along the way performed “The Sun Came” himself.
Is Knight’s poem a rejoinder or counterargument to Brooks’ “truth” in any sense? There is no easy answer to this question. For this episode of PoemTalk Al Filreis gathered Tracie Morris, Josephine Park, and Herman Beavers to talk through the relationship between the two poems and between these two poets. Enabled by Tracie’s sense of the lived authority of Knight’s voice (“the Joe Williams of modern poetry”), by Jo’s close reading of his performed meter, and by Herman’s attention to the jailed figure of Knight, we soon realize that Brooks invites a dialogue by way of a key religious trope, and that Knight has responded by figuring Malcolm X as Jesus Christ. Summoned by Brooks to testify about Jesus, Knight associates Malcolm with the end of darkness. Christian regret (we did not sufficiently know him until after death) sparks Knight’s angry, sad, sorrowful expression of our having “goofed the whole thing” — that our ears should have been, but weren’t, equipped to hear the “fierce hammering.” The sun comes. So Malcolm comes. Did the light of each or either reach the cell of the speaker? It seems that it did not (although the poem itself is our only evidence otherwise). Who comes? Mal (evil, danger, etc.) comes. (The way Knight emphasizes the repeated “MALcolm” makes this double sense clear.)
But back to the question of possible rebuke. Herman hears some counterargument in Knight, Tracie less so. One of those rare disagreements on PoemTalk. The discussion among all four is at its most interesting here, and there’s some good talk about Brooks’ sheer power and pull as a poetic personage. Finally, Herman summarizes this segment of the discussion as follows, speaking in Knight's voice: “I’m honoring your influence by taking it in a direction that you would not take it.” It = the problem of the instance of the sun; the possibility of radical opportunities.
Here is the recording of Knight reading his poem. And here is Brooks’ introduction. And here is a PDF of the text of the Knight poem provided by the University of Pittsburgh Press, and also here below:
Norman Fischer, 'I'd Like to See It'
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Linh Dinh, Julia Bloch, and Frank Sherlock joined Al to talk about a poem published in Norman Fischer’s book Turn Left in Order to Turn Right (O Books, 1989). The poem is “I’d Like to See It” (text; audio). When Fischer was interviewed by Charles Bernstein for a Close Listening program in 2006, he read six poems from that 1989 book, including our poem. These six readings, and a great many more, are available on Fischer’s PennSound author page. His own website also includes other recordings of poetry, and also talks.
Fischer is the former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, and is the founder of and a teacher for the Everyday Zen Foundation, a network of communities and projects. He began publishing poetry in the late 1970s and in those early years especially his writing was associated with that of the Bay Area Language Poets.
Fischer wrote the following prefatory statement to Turn Left in Order to Go Right: “Occasionally when people ask me about Zen practice I say it’s not the usual kind of activity in that you can’t really try to do it. If you try to move toward it it always seems to be somewhere else. The harder you try the worse it gets. But you can’t not make any effort either; in fact you have to make a mighty effort, but in another direction. It’s a little like turning left in order to go right.”
This sense of quasi-nonintentional misdirection, our Talkers felt, is a key to understanding the way Fischer in “I’d Like to See It” deploys the refrain “I’d like to see it that way.” Does it demand or expect the seer to see a certain way? Does it express desire? And how variously? Does it imply a program for a better future? Ah, but — as Linh Dinh points out — it seeks an end to war but wonders if wanting war to end would ever end it: “[W]ould my wanting / To end it ever end if nothing ever ended / I’d like to see it that way.” Julia Bloch observes that the refrain both “swerves away from the intention” going on in any line preceding it “and also modifies it.” At one point, grappling with the poem’s refrain, Al puts it this way: “What I have now is not the way I’d like to see it. Or it could mean: the way I’m seeing it is the way I’d like the world to be, which happens to be the way it is because I observed it. One way or other, there is a difference between the way the world is and the way the world is if he is able to see it the way he’d like ”
Frank Sherlock reminds us that Zen practice and jazz, cognate fields and modes of (non)thought especially in the US, produce a series of variations that focus our attention on modes of thought rather than on the subject matter of the poem (war, air pressure, one’s “daily objects,” a chimney). Frank reminds us of Fischer’s “To be without content, but full of ” where light equals (in this case) compositional process, the proceedings of a thought variously through unanticipated contexts.
Steve McLaughlin engineered this episode of PoemTalk, and, as always, edited it. Next time on PoemTalk, Tracie Morris, Herman Beavers, and Josephine Park talk with Al about a poem Etheridge Knight wrote as a direct response to Gwendolyn Brooks, and we’ll treat our listeners to a recording of a poetry reading in which Brooks introduced Knight and mentions (and quotes from) his rejoinder-poem.
Jena Osman, 'Dropping Leaflets'
For an event held at the Writers House on November 7, 2001, Jena Osman composed a new poem — one might say thus that it’s an occasional poem. The occasion was given the overall title “Finding the Words” (as in: how can writers find words to bespeak a response to 9/11?) and Osman’s poem was “Dropping Leaflets.”
Here is verbatim what Osman said as she introduced the poem at the Writers House: “The title of this program is ‘Finding the Words.’ Every day I look in the newspapers. I keep sensing the presence of what's not being told... ‘Help me come up with a strategy to get through this white noise.’ I don't have that strategy, except to call attention to components of that white noise so we can hear it for what it is. In the spirit of Marianne Moore, who often incorporated what she was reading into her poems, I’m going to read a piece made of words I found when I read transcripts of press conferences given by Bush, Ridge, Rumsfeld, and Cheney in the last few days. I read the transcripts, printed them out, I tore them up, and then I stood on a chair, and then I bombed my office floor with them as if they were leaflets and the leaflets told me what to do. So this piece is called ‘Dropping Leaflets.’”
The text of the poem is given here. It was published subsequently in a book, An Essay in Asterisks (Roof Books, 2004). The recording made on November 7, 2001, is available on Osman’s PennSound author page and linked here.
Al Filreis convened Mark Nowak, Emily Abendroth and Jessica Lowenthal to talk about this poem and more generally some aspects of documentary poetics. They considered, among other things, what happens to such a historically specific writing when some of the context fades as a memory — and whether the aesthetic qualities of the poem become a primary impression. And yet the poem’s rhetoric — if that's the right term for a poem constructed of found phrases — speaks to the very question of how we can make ourselves heard in all the centralizing, nationalistic white noise at such a moment.
Jennifer Scappettone's 'Vase Poppies' and H.D.'s 'Sea Poppies'
For this episode of PoemTalk, we took the show on the road — to Chicago — where David Pavelich hosted us at the Regenstein Library of the University of Chicago, a favorite haunt of an archive-obsessed Al Filreis over many years. (The Modern Poetry collection includes, of course, the papers of Poetry magazine up until 1962 or so, among other gems.) Thanks to David for hosting us! We were joined by Don Share and Judith Goldman and we talked about two poems, one written through the other: H.D.’s “Sea Poppies” and Jennifer Scappettone’s “Vase Poppies.” Here’s H.D.’s “Sea Poppies” (1916):
fluted with gold,
fruit on the sand
marked with a rich grain,
spilled near the shrub-pines
to bleach on the boulders:
your stalk has caught root
among wet pebbles
and drift flung by the sea
and grated shells
and split conch-shells.
fire upon leaf,
what meadow yields
so fragrant a leaf
as your bright leaf?
And here is Jennifer Scappettone’s “Vase Poppies” (2002):
strapped for stays,
pomegranates under the rubberband
chucked for a glass Oz,
splayed by the pillar-shelves
to page upon the ottoman:
his talk has wrought suit
amid citrus gapes
and pall dunked in the bowl
and grated sage
or cleaved clear paleo-pines.
California upon weed,
what banker yields
so fragrant a cant
as this vagrant cant?
Scappettone wrote through H.D.’s poem, substituting words but always keeping to parts of speech. She echoes the original at certain moments, creating some rhymes and in a few cases what amounts to a homonymic (“husk”/“dusk”) and quasi-synonymic translation (“sought root”/“wrought suit”). The poem is a meta-commentary on imagism, a way of decorating or over-elaborating H.D. whose imagistic lines convey a “piety that veers into preciosity” (the poet’s phrase).** Conch-shells become paleo-pines. “Fire on leaf” becomes “California upon weed.” “Vase” can rhyme with “maze” or with “Oz,” depending on your class. (Scappettone has introduced the poem at readings sometimes by mentioning this valence, seeming to contribute to the notion that it is a commentary on imagism's social preciousness.)
Photo above and at left: Don Share and Al Filreis taking questions after presentations on the work of Poetry editor Henry Rago — in Chicago at a conference hosted by David Pavelich held after we recorded this episode of PoemTalk.
** Quoting from an email sent to Al Filreis by Jennifer Scappettone.
Bruce Andrews, 'Center'
The range of Bruce Andrews’s work is fairly well represented by the recordings available on his PennSound page. The earliest recorded reading we have dates from late 1977, the most recent (as of this writing) is from 2008. Generally it is true that PoemTalk’s format – the choice of a single short poem for which a recording exists – will tend to misrepresent the whole of the poet’s work. Fortunately it’s not the aim of PoemTalk to represent the whole, but to have a good and earnest listen and look at the single instance along the way, Having done this 35 times in this series, we find, mostly to our surprise, that tenable general statements of a poet’s mode and aesthetic disposition do come through the back door of low conceptual expectations. Surely that’s what happened here, when Tan Lin, Chris Funkhouser, Sarah Dowling and Al Filreis took on a single poem from Andrews’ sequence called Moebius. Moebius was written in the late 1970s but not published until 1993, when a chapbook appeared from the Generator Press in Ohio. On November 10, 1977 Andrews came to the Ear Inn in New York, performed at a reading alongside Ray DiPalma and Michael Lally, and gave us fine readings of many of the Moebius poems, including “Center,” which is the piece we discuss in PT35.
First we found something we took to be unusual in Andrews: the emphasis on distancing goes along with a tone of softness and wistfulness (as Sarah suggests), perhaps even vulnerability notwithstanding the aggressive idiom (“I make the rules here”). But soon we sensed we were seeing the Bruce Andrews we would know from later works. Naturally one asks if the speaker of these masculine phrases--all this deliberate 70s guy talk--is an individual, a single subject. No, Tan Lin suggests, the poem’s phrases comprise not those of an individual speaker but identify the language production we associate with a particular kind of speaker. So the poem is a meta-statement on how language is generated and that, in turn, constructs a kind of identity, although that identity is never really offered. As Chris points out, the poem feels like an aggressive encroachment on the white space of the page. The poem, spiraling down the page, forces one to think of a moebius shape which claims centrality (has a center but yet doesn’t quite). Such a claim, because of the moebius, will seem repeatedly arbitrary, and so does the normative standard for the discernment, by socio-linguistic cues, of a fixable speaking identity, and so that (the emptiness of that effort) is your center. (Which is to say: what center? why are you looking here for one?)
“Center” might be an internalized monologue; such self-formed speaking permits the non-sequitur. At the same time, though, the poem’s eschewing of beginning, middle and end reminds Chris of the permutation work that the digital poets have been doing in recent years. “It reminds me of certain works I’ve seen on my screen rather than on a page.” Chris wants to think of this poem as pre-digital. It certainly helped us to conceive of it this way for the purposes of discussion.