Podcasts

Noncanonical Congo (PoemTalk #26)

Vachel Lindsay, 'The Congo'

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Many of us read Vachel Lindsay in school — at least until he was removed from the anthologies. Few of us have heard the recordings of Lindsay performing — not just reading, but truly performing — his poems, “The Congo” most (in)famously. So we PoemTalkers decided to try our hand at the first section of Lindsay’s most well-known poem. Al suggests that readers and listeners must attempt to “get past” the obvious racism (even of the opening lines), but Aldon Nielsen takes exception to that formulation, and off we go, exploring the problem and possibilities of this poet’s foray — Afrophilic but nonetheless stereotype-burdened — into African sound and, more generally, the performativity of a culture.

Charles Bernstein finds this “one of the most interesting poems to teach,” and adds: “[Lindsay] felt there was something deeply wrong with white culture, that it was hung up, ... that it was disembodied, that it was too abstract.” All the problems of the poem, Charles notes, remain present when one reads or hears it. It’s all there. It’s not a “bad example” of something; it makes its own way (or loses its way) in the modern poetic tradition, as it is.

What can Lindsay teach us today? Michelle Taransky is sure that young writers can learn from Lindsay’s experiments, and not just in sound — but also in the way he uses marginal directions, which serve as performance (or production) cues. She commends Lindsay for making available to us the realization “that a poem doesn't have to be read in a monotone way…and that they [young poets today] can read a poem in a way that seems appropriate to them at that time.”

Aldon doesn't want to “get past” the tension between Lindsay’s desire to make a progressive statement and the racist content in the poem; as a whole, this work creates a tension that “absolutely at the core of American culture.” Aldon is hesitant to use the phrase “teachable moment” (which during 2009 has been a phrase that is dulled from facile overuse in “ongoing conversation” about race) but that —teachability — is about the sum of it: to teach this poem is to gain access to a central American discussion.

Aldon cues up for us an excerpt from Dead Poets Society in which the boarding school boys under the spell of their charismatic English teacher perform “The Congo.” We play audio from that moment in the film and discuss it, so be sure to listen all the way to the end.

Lindsay’s 1931 reading of “The Congo” — all three parts — is available on our Vachel Lindsay PennSound page. Be sure to have a listen to them, and also to one of our favorites, “The Mysterious Cat”. It’s 57 seconds of vintage Vachel performance — very nearly a sound poem. Here’s a link to the text of the first section of “The Congo.”

We at PoemTalk and PennSound are grateful to Nicholas Cave Lindsay, who has, through the Estate of Vachel Lindsay, given us permission to make recordings of the poet available to everyone for free.

Democracy at 10th & A (PoemTalk #25)

Alice Notley, 'I the People'

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Joe Milutis came in from Seattle for this session, and met up with Zack Pieper (wandering eastward from Milwaukee), drove down from northeastern Pennsylvania together and joined Al Filreis, our host, and Erica Kaufman (training southwest from New York) at the Writers House, where it was time to consider a poem that is either specifically about a postage-stamp-sized offbeat haven (the lower East Side of New York of a certain era) or generally about the whole America from which indeed our PoemTalkers gathered. Well, probably both.

Joe calls Alice Notley’s “I the People” a poem writing out the “agon in American culture.” Zack speculates on why Notley was embarrassed by the title (a remark she makes in introducing it): it’s “a gentle parody,” Zack offers, “of the way political language abstracts things,” but troubling is the general over-use (especially on the Left) of the term “the people” in particular. Al ponders the possibly unambiguous skeptical politics of the title (overt): the title, he contends, is red meat for those who want to see leftist politics here, but the body of the poem is less obviously in the liberal-left rhetorical tradition of talk about democratic rights.

For Zack this is a poem full of things people think when they are walking around during the day, but the result is not mundane. On the contrary, it has a mystical quality. Later, following from this, Erica offers her ideas on how this poem might be taught under the rubric of the New York School of poetry. But right away Erica says its  “walking around”-ness is an aspect of the poem she particularly likes: a glimpse at routine thoughts while at the same time a political commentary on the possessive and on the subject.

“I the People” is a poem that makes one wonder: Which comes first in American democracy, the “I” or the “we”? Joe notes that while these are “the two ends of the problem,” the vast middle ground between “I” and “we” is both intimate and fraught.

The book in which this poem was collected is titled Parts of a Wedding and the PoemTalkers appropriately consider the mentioned wedding. Joe tries out a (as it were) pedestrian psycho-geographical reading of the spot the poem seems to occupy at 10th & A. There’s a church there. A wedding is letting out? Erica is asked if this specific geography makes the poem more or less alluring to you, and observes that it could be read of a satire of what you gain when you’re married. The certain rights and certain status. And thus we are back to the rights-stipulating Preamble. 10th & A, in one sense, is an exception to the way America has interpreted the Constitution’s opening words. It is perhaps where democracy “gets really realized” at the level of the body. Zack is sure that in the “personal vision and its realization will out-ride any mode of political abstraction.” It’s a poem about feeling the democratic power of the personal while not shirking the ideological imperative.

Our recording of the poem is from Alice Notley’s reading at Buffalo in 1987. Notley’s PennSound author page includes four full readings and dozens of individual poems. And here is the text of the poem.

Our director and engineer for PT#25 is James LaMarre and our editor, as always, is Steve McLaughlin. Above, from left to right: Joe Milutis, Zack Pieper, Erica Kaufman.

Air for roses (PoemTalk #24)

Barbara Guest, 'Roses'

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Listening to this show, this discussion of Barbara Guest’s casually and yet densely allusive poem “Roses,” you will hear about Juan Gris-style cubism circa 1912 (in his own “Roses”), about William Carlos Williams’ famous celebration in “The rose is obsolete” of a new kind of rose – the metal rose, the sharp-edged rose, the lovely unlovely rose – and also about a memory from the age of eight that Gertrude Stein often retold as a way of explaining her views on the difference between art and nature. Is that difference a problem – an anxiety, a cause for reluctance - for the modernism-conscious poet who comes after modernism, such as indeed Guest, who has an instinct to make room in her writing for the ill person requiring real air to breathe?

Al and sometimes the other PoemTalkers felt that this is a rebuke of modernist airlessness. Natalie Gerber (at right) and sometimes the others felt that this is more likely an expression of skepticism about postmodern art and perhaps a fresh return to the moment of 1912 – the thrilling New Era of collage-y paintings such as Gris’ “Roses,” which is (arguably) dated 1912 and which was a canvas Gertrude Stein herself owned. Randall Couch points out that the poem looks at a fork or divergence in the modernist evolution or modernist family tree, a turning point Guest feels is worth going back to. Michelle Taransky (at left) notes that the art in the poem is an art already encountered even as the poem itself imagines the possibilities of a fresh encounter.

As Natalie aptly puts it, we are discussing a poem that is testing out its stance in response to the modernist approach to representation.

Here’s one version of Gertrude Stein's telling of her early encounter with painting:

It was an oil painting a continuous oil painting, one was surrounded by an oil painting and I how lived continuously out of doors and felt air and sunshine and things to see felt that this was all different and very exciting. There it all was the things to see but there was no air just was an oil painting. I remember standing on the little platform in the center and almost consciously knowing that there was no air. There was no air, there was no feeling of air, it just was an oil painting and it had a life of its own.

Williams saw Juan Gris’ “Roses” (also called “Flowers”) and it is widely considered to be the source of “The rose is obsolete.”

This phrase in Guest's poem — “shoe which never floats / and is stationary” — refers, as Randall reminds us, to the painting by Fragonard whose famous short title is “The Swing”: the young lady swinging upward lets fly her slipper, which the painter catches in mid-air. And what kind of air is that? (Here again this was a scene Williams pondered, in his anti-descriptive poem “Portrait of a Lady.” What kind of man is Fragonard, asks WCW there.)

Roses

“painting has no air . . .”
—Gertrude Stein

That there should never be air
in a picture surprises me.
It would seem to be only a picture
of a certain kind, a portrait in paper
or glue, somewhere a stickiness
as opposed to a stick-to-it-ness
of another genre. It might be
quite new to do without
that air, or to find oxygen
on the landscape line
like a boat which is an object
or a shoe which never floats
and is stationary.

Still there
are certain illnesses that require
air, lots of it. And there are nervous
people who cannot manufacture
enough air and must seek
for it when they don’t have plants,
in pictures. There is the mysterious
traveling that one does outside
the cube and this takes place
in air.

It is why one develops
an attitude toward roses picked
in the morning air, even roses
without sun shining on them.
The roses of Juan Gris from which
we learn the selflessness of roses
existing perpetually without air,
the lid being down, so to speak,
a 1912 fragrance sifting
to the left corner where we read
“La Merveille” and escape.

“Roses” was included in Guest's book Moscow Manions (1973). The Barbara Guest PennSound page is here, and of course it includes a recording of Guest reading “Roses”. The recording was made at Artist’s Access Studio, New York, New York, May, 1984. The producer was Anne Becker, and the recording engineer was Peter Darmi. Our PoemTalk engineer was James LaMarre and our editor was, as always, Steve McLaughlin.

Living with terror (PoemTalk #23)

Cid Corman, 'Enuresis'

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Back in 2001 the people of the Kelly Writers House wanted to bring Cid Corman — long by then a resident of Kyoto, Japan — to Philadelphia to be with us, give a reading, meet some of his readers. But one thing or another — cost, Cid’s health — made this impossible. So we set up a combination of a phone link to Cid in Kyoto and a live audiocast feed; in this way, the fifty of us in the Arts Café of the Writers House and another 75 or so listening on their computers around the world were able to enjoy a reading by Cid, ask him questions, and make at least that limited sort of contact with the founder of Origin, crusty prolific exile, author of tens of thousands of poems. The November 2001 event was moderated by PoemTalk’s producer and host, Al Filreis, along with Frank Sherlock, Fran Ryan, and Tom Devaney.

Fast forward. Cid Corman died in 2004. Bob Arnold, Philip Rowland, Jack Kimball, Joe Massey and others have worked hard to keep Cid’s poems within the view of readers — especially Bob Arnold whose Longhouse Press published The Next One Thousand Years, the Selected Poems of Cid Corman. And then, as part of the PoemTalk series, we staged a mini-reunion of the November 2001 Cormanite moderators, Fran, Tom, Frank and Al, to talk about one of our favorite poems, “Enuresis.”

It means bed-wetting. The poem puts forward this audacious claim to understanding: I know the terror you’ve experienced in the midst of war because as a child I held my urine close to me for fear of my parents’ terrifying enmity. The claim is made with such poetic consciousness (at the level of word choice and meter - and in the spoken performance) that one hardly doubts the power of the homefront psychic terror being remembered.

Enuresis

Terror — Ed — is not
Sitting in one’s piss.
I know — I’ve sat there —

I’ve slept there and did
Most of my childhood.
That was warmth — in fact —

And comfort — in spite
Of the unconcealed
Unconcealable

Smell. Terror? That was
And always will be
Mother cursing Dad

And there there I am
Alone in that night
Hearing that door slam.

Just begun to learn (PoemTalk #22)

Louis Zukofsky, 'Anew' 12

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One of the signal steps forward in the PennSound project — the gathering of recordings of modern and contemporary poets reading their own poems — was the release of the recordings of Louis Zukofsky, thanks to the generosity and cooperation of Paul Zukofsky. The recordings on PennSound’s Zukofsky author page are being made available for non-commerical and educational use only (in line with PennSound’s mission), and any other use can only be done by permission of Paul. (If you need to contact him, just write us and we’ll put you in touch: poemtalk [AT] writing [DOT] upenn [DOT] edu.)

The Zukofsky recordings are remarkable! One of them was made in 1960 by Zukofsky at home, on a reel-to-reel tape machine. It was meant for the Library of Congress. It includes readings of some sections of the long poem Anew. PoemTalk 22 is a discussion of the gorgeous twelfth poem in the Anew series, which is untitled and gets mentioned by its first line, “It’s hard to see but think of a sea.” One gets a sense of its worked-at density from this first-line sentence alone.

The Anew poems were written between 1935 and 1944 and published in March 1946 at James Decker’s press in the small-format “Pocket Poetry” series. Marcella Booth has dated the writing of our poem precisely: January 16-17, 1944, a week before the poet’s 40th birthday. Several critics have contended that Anew was Zukofsky’s attempt at a fresh start. William Carlos Williams, a great supporter of Z and an admirer of these poems, called the writing in this work “adult poetry.” Perhaps he meant that Zukofsky was growing up, taking on seasoned topics. Certainly, at least, the end of our poem is quite personal, words coming from the poet’s contemplation of his 40th birthday, of mortality’s challenge to and provocation of open-ness. As Bob Perelman puts it (asked to compare this poem to others), “The poem is almost conversational. ‘Gee, I’m 40. I’m thinking about my entire life.’” Much of our conversation — with PoemTalkers Perelman, Wystan Curnow (visiting us from New Zealand), and Charles Bernstein — is devoted to integrating the first part (full of the language of science) with the second (the personal retrospective).

Wystan, facing a vocabulary of science he didn’t understand, wanted to look up the term “condenser” (what, after all, is a condenser really?), but then worried about his impulse to look it up. Is that a productive way of coming to understand Zukofsky’s use in verse of electro-magnetism and wireless sound? “Condensed,” after all, is an ordinary word — and a term of modernist poetry. (Bob points out Lorine Niedecker’s contemporaneous use ofcondenser to refer to poetry itself, the act of writing in the modern way, in a famous poem that technically imagines the site of the poet-maker as a “condensery”: “no layoff / from this / condensery.”) “The poem,” Charles says in praising its use of the referential language of science, “is not incomprehensible in that it will restore you to the knowledge you already had of what the word means.”

Al asks, “What is the connection between the vocabulary of physics here and Zukofsky’s wonderful stuff at the end about seeing many things at once?” “By the end,” observes Bob, “I’m reminded more and more of the Romantics. It’s Wordsworthian, from the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. ‘Wherever science goes the poet will go.’* Which leads us to a discussion again of the personal elements in the poem: the specific romanticism of the child, causing double (and really: multiple) seeings.” 

“The poetics quote from this,” adds Charles, “would be: ‘I see many things at one time.’” Which is to say: it is an apt way of conceiving Zukofsky’s poetics generally. 

PoemTalk 22 ends with a discussion of why Zukofsky is not better known. No conspiracy theories here, but a perhaps useful conversation about why writing not easily (quickly) read gives such pleasure. Wystan makes this point most clearly — movingly. There is, alas, little Zukofsky in print, but Charles himself has done something to correct that sorry state of affairs: the new condensed (as it were) Selected Poems, which he edited for Library of America. In that volume you will find this poem, the twelfth of Anew, which Charles was happy to include (as somewhat representative) and which Bob, summing up, simply calls a “great" poem,” one of the “greatest hits.”

PoemTalk’s engineer and director is James LaMarre and our editor, as always, is Steve McLaughlin. PoemTalk is conceived, produced and hosted by Al Filreis. Administrative support is provided by the amazing Mingo Reynolds. The series is co-sponsored by the Kelly Writers House, the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing — both at the University of Pennsylvania — and by the Poetry Foundation, where Anne Halsey is a great supporter. Wystan Curnow’s extended visit to Penn was made possible by a generous grant from the office of the provost at Penn. His readings and talks at the Writers House were sponsored by the Writers without Borders series, funded by a gift from Seth Ginns. For links to audio and video recordings of these events, click here. Permission to use the recordings of Louis Zukofsky has been granted to PennSound by Paul Zukofsky. Photo credit, above: (c) Elsa Dorfman.

* Wordsworth: "The man of science seeks truth as a remote and unknown benefactor; he cherishes and loves it in his solitude; the poet, singing a song in which all human beings join with him, rejoices in the presence of truth as our visible friend and hourly companion. Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science."