Lydia Davis, 'A Position at the University'
PoemTalk finally goes squarely at the question of authenticity, and — wouldn’t you know it? — we do so through a piece that is not in any conventional sense a poem. Lydia Davis’ “A Position at the University” (published with other similar short prose pieces in Almost No Memory) suggests to Jessica Lowenthal that on this day our show was “PoemProseTalk.” Fair enough. Is it a very short story – in the mode of what we call “fiction”? Not really. Is it a poetic parable in prose? (It struck Al at one point as very much like a pondering paragraph from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.) Thank goodness we brought sociologist David Grazian along. David observes that this piece is like an ethnographic field note. A field note that observes the following: In daily life, authenticity functions the way imagination does. What advantage is derived by writing about authenticity in this linguistically circular manner, in the grammar of mild-seeming discontent? Well, for one thing, it stipulates a poetics; the language of the piece makes us acutely aware as we read or listen that anxiety is the close kin of identity, because identity-naming is always partial whereas the named/identified subject is always hoping for wholeness. That discrepancy – that difference – creates a weird aura, and perhaps this is why Adrian Khactu senses that this piece belongs in the category of mundane SF, the newish sci fi mode in which there are no monsters, scientific abnormalities, cruel transformations. Perhaps the cruelest transformation is what happens every day when a person who thinks of herself in one way is assumed to have a “position” otherwise.
Here is a link to PennSound’s Lydia Davis page, and here is a link to the recording of her reading “A Position at the University” at the Kelly Writers House in 1999. And here is a link to the text. At left, left to right: David Grazian, Jessica Lowenthal, Adrian Khactu.
The director and engineer for this episode of PoemTalk was James LaMarre, and our editor, as always, is Steve McLaughlin. We’re always grateful to Mark Lindsay, too, who on this occasion bailed us out of some sort of technical difficulty, major for us, minor for him.
Rodrigo Toscano, 'Poetics'
We know one poet who can bring Kim Jong-il, Montezuma and Maggie Thatcher — and us — together to the table. It’s Rodrigo Toscano, and more specifically the Rodrigo Toscano who wrote the poems collected in the book Platform. The word “platform,” Al notes in this newest PoemTalk episode, suggests something programmatic, something being contended overall. And one plank, as it were, of this platform is — for Toscano — the relatively light (comic, playful, quick) poem “Poetics,” suggesting an aesthetic program, maybe even an ars poetica. Taking this titular cue, the PoemTalkers this time, Randall Couch, Linh Dinh, and Emily Abendroth, sought to piece together the ranging geo-political references, heard the many different registers, tried to place them in a musical idiom, and either concluded that the “Psycho-Acoustic[…] / Jangling” makes a beautiful sound and has a special political force or that the jangling, while beautiful, puts the platform’s meaning just out of reach. Al, Emily, and Randall take the former view of the poem, while Linh, in a dissenting mood, takes the latter.
That musical idiom is jazz. The political import of “Pyongyang” — the jarring disharmonious pesty capital of North Korea, an uncooperative element in any poem — leads us in one direction. But its sheer sound sounds more like jazz than communism.
But it does...
flips the whooole session
on its head
and dash out
“In Walked Bud” is a Thelonious Monk piece (made into a soundy poem by jazz-minded Amiri Baraka). The session is what we call a gathering of jazz musicians somewhat improvisationally making their special noise, always a greater aural whole than the parts alone. The poem is a geopolitical session. The lexicals brought within range “clash,” yes, but they also “dash out”: appearing off the scale, as Pyongyang does in almost any so-called postcommunist discussion, and yet crazy musical 14ths can be worked just right to produce “perfect fifths / effects.”
If you like this poem, it’s because Toscano helps you imagine that the improvised postcommunist joint can start hoppin’ and that a poem is just about the only place, for now, where such a “real summit meeting” (jazzworld phrase for bringing together just the right [blues] elements) can take place.
Really? Does Rodrigo Toscano really want Margaret Thatcher to join in — “as guest / jew-harp / soloist?” Sounds like a good deal of mockery there. But if she does join this performance of a Postmodernity Rag, notwithstanding the “formative / contradictions” of the European Union remaining “unresolved,” we are left in the end with a reminder that we are all implicated. Postmodern political life makes a “ho’” of itself, just as Maggie does, just as we do. Emily Abendroth comments on this: can we like or accept one aspect of postmodern life but keep clear of and unimplicated in the rest?
You got the microphone now, so…let’s hear it. From the platform, your oration might begin: “A specter is haunting poetic discourse…”
Here’s our PennSound recording of the poem, made in Buffalo in November of 2001.
Robert Creeley, 'I Know a Man'
Robert Creeley’s “I Know a Man” is in many ways a signature poem. Few poems we choose to discuss on PoemTalk are such. Many are downright unrepresentative. This one might indeed be unrepresentative but if a person knows just one Creeley poem this is probably it.
It’s been much written about. In The San Francisco Renaissance Michael Davidson explores the “Beat ethos” with a detailed reading of “I Know a Man.” Similarly, PoemTalkers Randall Couch, Jessica Lowenthal and Bob Perelman find beat here — but also its counterargument, and/or a rejoinder to its dark depth and to the beat propensity for driving nowhere (or somewhere) fast. Robert Kern in boundary 2 — a 1978 essay — finds postmodern poetics in the Creeleyite anthem: in a nutshell, composition as recognition. Cid Corman (himself the topic of an upcoming PoemTalk) finds and commends the “basic English” of the poem, comparing it with a “more refined” and less effective poem on a similar topic by Louis MacNeice. Walter Sutton back in ‘73 drew a line of influence from Charles Olson’s poetics to Creeley’s “laconic” and “spasmodic” lineation and rhetoric.
The PoemTalkers talk about this remarkable instance of eloquent stammering. The stammer is perhaps the apt way — since form is never more than an extension of content, and vice versa, after all! — of heading into the surrounding mid-1950s darkness, only to be brought up short by the actual needs of the actual American road. It is not a resolution and not a capitulation, but an assertive and possibly ironic (funny, anyway) means of bringing up short. Or, in short: more stammering.
I Know a Man
As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking,—John, I
sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what
can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,
drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.
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There are, at last count, eight different recordings of Creeley reading this poem — all to be found, along with much more, on PennSound’s Creeley author page. Not long after his father’s death, Will Creeley brought to us boxes of reel-to-reel tapes, which we have gone through carefully, digitizing, segmenting, identifying poem by poem.
Lyn Hejinian, 'constant change figures'
Above is Lyn Hejinian’s typescript of an untitled poem we’ve taken to calling “constant change figures.”
It is one poem in a series Hejinian has been writing, a project she currently calls The Book of a Thousand Eyes. If it is finished (perhaps, she tells us, in the summer of 2009?), it might consist of 1,000 poems; more likely of 310 or a few more of them (the number she had completed at the time this episode was recorded). Some poems in the series appeared in The Little Book of a Thousand Eyes, published by Smoke-Proof Press — although, please note, our poem, “constant change figures,” does not appear in that gathering. When Hejinian visited the Writers House a few years ago, she read 19 of these gorgeous little eyes, including ours. And it‘s the audio recording made during that reading that we use in our show.
To what extent does our notion of nature’s picture — a picture of the many things we name “out there” — surprass the things we already know? We seem to deem memory nature’s picture. So to what extent is experience the result of our living in time, a state producing senses that are familiar and yet move us forward toward new and different effects?
So, truly, constant change figures the time we sense. “Figures” there — a transitive verb at that point — enacts things: change makes things, shapes them, renders them, gets things just so.
As you can tell from the recording, we were astonished that these words could accomplish all that thinking about words? Can you imagine writing a poem of nine triads, 27 lines in all, each line this carefully rendered — a poem that in all uses far fewer unique words than the total number of words in the poem, far fewer than conventional utterances would need to employ. Fewer, let’s say, than required by the language of philosophy telling of the same phenomena.
During our lively Hejinian PoemTalk, Tom Mandel in particular works out for us the way the shifting yet repeating triads are enacted. Bob Perelman focuses on Steinian memory (forgetting something himself along the way), Thomas Devaney on the power of turned-every-which-way phrasal variations, Al Filreis on the Steinian mode (again) and the poem as a possible critique of the ideology of experience.
We agree that from the time of her great Stein talks* and of Writing Is an Aid to Memory Lyn Hejinian has conceived of writing itself, an act that is at once a matter of forgetting and remembering, as a definition (or an “aid” to the redefinition) of the past.
Is this poem itself — its very manner and form — an instance of what Hejinian famously observed in My Life — “the disquieting runs of life slipping by”? Yes. The four PoemTalkers seemed to agree on that at least. As Bob Perelman notes, the poem itself seems to slip by one. Succinct as it is, one can’t seem to hold it all in one’s mind at once.
* Click here for a PennSound recording of Hejinian talking about and reading her own writings through Gertrude Stein.
Wallace Stevens, 'Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself'
PoemTalk listeners will want to stick around for the end of this show in particular, when Nada Gordon, a first-time PoemTalker, recites her flarfistic rewriting of Wallace Stevens’ late poem, “Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself.” Meantime, of course, we give the poem a good going-through. The talkers this time, beside Nada, are Lawrence Joseph and Charles Bernstein, and we were (for the first time in PoemTalk’s short history) on the road, at Studio 92 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Anyone who deals with this poem has to understand the rhetorical gist of Stevens's “like”: the cry he thinks he hears seemed “like” a sound in his mind; it was “like” a new knowledge of reality. Charles half-jokes that it’s anachronistically (and uncharacteristically) a 1960s like: a cool “very,” an intensifer, a pause. Al tries to stipulate that this is a Keats-at-the-casement poem: he’s inside, looking out and hearing minimal late-winter birdsong. But Larry believes firmly in the radical open-ness of this poem: we are neither inside nor out. There is no conventional place of standing. “Three times in the poem,” Nada has written elsewhere, “he says the sound was coming ‘from outside.’ But I don’t believe him. How can I believe this from a poet whose ‘actual candle blazed with artifice’?”
This was certainly the threesome, too, to say interesting things about the alphabetical “c” that precedes the choir.
Our recording comes from the wonderful collection of recordings at the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard, and we wish to thank Don Share, Christina Davis, Peter Steinberg, and others who have taken such good care of that material. Stevens traveled to Harvard to record this poem on October 8, 1954 (he died in 1955).
Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself
At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.
He knew that he heard it,
A bird's cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.
The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow...
It would have been outside.
It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep's faded papier-mache...
The sun was coming from the outside.
That scrawny cry--It was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,
Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.