Podcasts

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Juan Gris-style cubism circa 1912 (in his own “Roses”), about William Carlos Williams’ famous celebration in “The rose is obsolete” of a new kind of rose – the metal rose, the sharp-edged rose, the lovely unlovely rose – and also about a memory from the age of eight that Gertrude Stein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Williams saw Juan Gris’ “Roses” (also called “Flowers”) and it is widely considered to be the source of “The rose is obsolete.”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."

Totally indivisible (PoemTalk #21)

Charles Bernstein, 'In a Restless World Like This Is'

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In PT #21 we talk about a poem by Charles Bernstein written in 2002, published in World on Fire and eventually collected in Girly Man: “In a Restless World Like This Is.” As Marcella Durand informs the PoemTalkers, the title is taken from the lyrics of a sweet 1940s song, sung later by Nat King Cole, Doris Day, et alia. Why derive the title from so sentimental a source? Hank Lazer and Marcella each speculate: it’s the postwar thing, bitter-sweet, looking simultaneously forward and back, done with it but still needing the balm. Okay, but why now, here — why in this poem?

It’s a post-9/11 poem. Eli Goldblatt describes for us Bernstein’s initial written responses to 9/11, providing us a context for this poem's unstraightforward all-preamble going-nowhere-ness. Al asserts the obvious: the poem enacts the restlessness the speaker feels: linguistically, tonally, idiomatically. The “no” of the fourth line is one of those staring-over words, as is, of course, “well” in line 8. The poem gives us an alternative “way” or path from the (non)start of its opening to the (non)finish of its ending. It is the opposite of an A to Z poem. There is not a single direction, not a point, and, needless to say — ah, but we at PoemTalk say it! — that is its point.

Where are we going? What is going to happen next? Is it narratively possible to discern (“Not long ago” is story-telling phrasing)? Ah, but “maybe I dreamt it / Or made it up, or have suddenly lost / Track of its train.” If you decide you need to go “In one direction” only, you'll find — note the contorted, merged idiomatic language — that “you’ll / Have to go on before the way back has / Become totally indivisible.’ The final word, the PoemTalkers agree, is a national word — a term from the pledge of allegiance to the United States of America, yet a notion that counters rather than abets the concept of discrete parts, clear paths, moving along the road from regress to progress.

In a Restless World Like This Is

Not long ago, or maybe I dreamt it
Or made it up, or have suddenly lost
Track of its train in the hocus pocus
Of the dissolving days; no, if I bend
The turn around the corner, come at it
From all three sides at once, or bounce the ball
Against all manner of bleary-eyed fortune
Tellers--well, you can see for yourselves there's
Nothing up my sleeves, or notice even
Rocks occasionally break if enough
Pressure is applied. As far as you go
In one direction, all the further you'll
Have to go on before the way back has
Become totally indivisible.<--break- />

Our recording of the poem was made during a moving outdoor reading in September 2003 at the Kelly Writers House. It and all PoemTalk poems are available through PennSound.

We note that the phrase “World on Fire” is also taken from a popular song — of 1941. Here’s more.

As always, at the end, we gather some paradise. Marcella’s suggestion, which was omitted from the final edit, was one we are happy to pass along nonetheless: Tisa Bryant’s new book.

We at PoemTalk are grateful as ever to James LaMarre for his expert engineering and directing, and to Steve McLaughlin, our masterful sound editor.

Choice and style (PoemTalk #20)

LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), 'Kenyatta Listening to Mozart'

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“Kenyatta Listening to Mozart” is an early poem of Amiri Baraka, then known as LeRoi Jones. It was published in a periodical in late 1963 and we’re assuming — for the sake of our discussion, which gets into some political history — that it was written earlier that year. Our recording was made at the Asilomar Negro Writers Conference held in the summer of 1964.

Mecca Sullivan, Herman Beavers and Alan Loney were our PoemTalkers for this quietly provocative — and perhaps brutally self-critical — poem. All four of us saw two political and aesthetic scenes, at least in the opening: “the back trails” of pre-Independence Kenya, and “American poets in San Francisco,” certainly standing in, at least momentarily, for Baraka’s two somewhat distinct concerns at the time: post-colonial radicalism, and the Beat aesthetic. One could say, not quite accurately — but helpful for starters — that this was a time when Baraka was making the move from his Beat nexus to world-conscious political heterodoxy.

Mecca and Alan discuss the apparently ironic juxtaposition of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Jomo Kenyatta, the Euro-trained anthropologist Kikuyu tribesman who helped lead the Kenyan negotiations with the British. Mecca wonders if, as elsewhere in his writing, Baraka is making Mozart as a cultural symbol susceptible to criticism in light of non-European struggles for basic freedoms. Is the “zoo of consciousness” the situation one finds oneself after one has separated and lost (“Separate / and lose”) or is it indeed endemic to the decision to cross aesthetics, share “in- / formation” (formalisms), and assimilate apparent opposites? Do we need to figure Kenyatta walking on the back trails, in sun glasses (a marker of “cool,” one of us says), wearing spats, in order to shake into being a real postcolonial anthropological notion? It’s not just “choice, and / style.” Well, it's that, but also more--for the “beautiful / categories” with which we discern what gets to be called beautiful are not necessarily things we should “go for.”<--break- />

We’re grateful to Alan Loney for sidetripping during his U.S. visit from Australia. And as always we’re happy that Steve McLaughlin is our crackerjack editor and that James LaMarre does our engineering and recording.

Visit PennSounds Baraka page here. Our poem is here. Click on the image of the text below and you’ll see a larger, readable copy.