Wallace Stevens, 'The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain'
Among the last things Wallace Stevens wrote was a metapoem, a poem in which a man — a reader and presumably a poet too — does not write a poem but picks his way among the aspects of an old poem, the poem that had once helped him by standing in for a mountain. He composes (or rather “recompos[s]”) the objects and perspectives of the way or path up the mountain. It had been a “direction.” Was it now again? This late effort is called “The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain,” and it was published with other new poems in a section of Collected Poems (1954) under the heading “The Rock.” And as Susan Howe, Dee Morris, Nancy Kuhl and Al Filreis variously observe, the precision and yet imprecision (both) of the rock are crucial elements of this retrospective on life (he never visited Europe), career (forty years of poems) and poetic influences (Walt Whitman, William James, Henry Vaughan).
Our recording of Stevens reading this poem was made during his May 1, 1952, reading at Harvard University, in the New Lecture Hall there (now called the Lowell Lecture Hall). The original is in two reel-to-reel tapes housed at the Woodberry Poetry Room, Lamont Library, at Harvard. We at PennSound and PoemTalk are grateful to Don Share and Christina Davis, successive directors at the Woodberry, for working with us at PennSound to bring the Harvard Stevens recordings to our achive and thus to make them available for everyone everywhere. We produced this special episode of PoemTalk with the hope that readers of Stevens who have not yet encountered the poet’s voice in these recordings will return to the poem with a new perspective, looking back, let us say, on the "unique and solitary home" of the poems as they were.
During PoemTalk’s usual “gathering paradise” segment, at which point participants and host recommend “something going on in the poetry world,” we got carried away after Al’s praise of Nancy Kuhl’s stewardship as poet-archivist of the Beinecke Library’s collection of poetry manuscripts. Once Al asked Nancy to cite poets whose unpublished materials are among the Beinecke's collections, and Nancy mentioned the relatively recent acquisition of Susan Howe's drafts, notebooks, clippings and letters, the tone of the group became ecstatic in their urgings of scholars, poets, students and readers to consult the archives as part of — not separate from — the work of the poems.
This 83rd episode of PoemTalk was recorded and engineered by Zach Carduner and edited by Allison Harris.
The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain
There it was, word for word,
The poem that took the place of a mountain.
He breathed its oxygen,
Even when the book lay turned in the dust of his table.
It reminded him how he had needed
A place to go to in his own direction,
How he had recomposed the pines,
Shifted the rocks and picked his way among clouds,
For the outlook that would be right,
Where he would be complete in an unexplained completion:
The exact rock where his inexactnesses
Would discover, at last, the view toward which they had edged,
Where he could lie and, gazing down at the sea,
Recognize his unique and solitary home.
On canons, anthologies, Language writing, academia and the long poem
For episode #45 of PennSound podcasts, Al Filreis convened an hourlong conversation with Alan Golding, Orchid Tierney, Bob Perelman and Ron Silliman. They began by reflecting on Golding’s 1995 book From Outlaw to Classic: Canons in American Poetry twenty years later, beginning with a discussion about anthologies in the digital era. Soon talk shifted to Golding's assessment then of opposition to Language poets' anti-academic stance. Finally the group discussed Golding’s distinction between the Poundian long poem — mytho-informational — and Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts.
Carl Rakosi, 'In What Sense I Am I'
Anthony Madrid, Laura Goldstein, and Don Share joined Al Filreis at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago for a special on-the-road PoemTalk episode, a discussion of Carl Rakosi’s poem “In What Sense I Am I.” The poem appeared in Rakosi’s Collected Poems in the mid-1980s, but otherwise the group was not able to date the poem except through internal evidence — and there’s plenty of that — although taken all together such evidence leaves things open — for instance, the reference to Eliot’s Prufrock. Led by Anthony in particular (who worked out lineation and grammar in an experimental way) the group also pondered the style of line and stanza to guess at whether the poem is early or late. Al insisted on late, influenced not just by the theme of remoteness from self but also by the event in which our recording of Rakosi performing this poem was made. It was a day or two after Rakosi had turned ninety-nine years of age, an audiocast bringing Rakosi’s voice into the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia and thence out to the world of live Internet listeners. We hear the voice of a very elderly poet remembering how the self gets membered in the writing, “barely discernible” (both Prufrock and himself) and “seemingly ageless.”
Because — and the group admires this about the poem — the distinct scenes and references do not cohere, it was difficult to say with any certainty what the poem is “about.” But Al asked anyway. Is it about the way in which the question about what constitutes a written self can only be answered “as in a dream” and is thus dream-like? Is it about how such a question consistently “escapes me”? Or is about the way posing such a question about the self leads one inexorably back to thoughts about poets’ “original impulse / to sing” — the originary (“neolithic,” Al suggests) bodying of breathing and voice? Is that what explains the “intentionally naive” (Don’s phrase) presentation of the woman as muse or interior paramour, trapped with the poem-in-the-making inside the voice or breath of poem?
Rakosi was born in Berlin, lived in Hungary until he was seven, but then commenced some Chicago connections that make it perhaps apt that PoemTalk set up camp in this windy city to talk about him: he lived in Chicago for a while, where his father was a watchmaker, and despite the family’s meager means his parents contrived to send him to the University of Chicago; and later it was in Chicago, in Poetry magazine, that Rakosi’s poems were published as part of the famous Objectivist issue of the magazine in 1931.
For the first time in the PoemTalk series, we also offer a bonus track. Laura, Don, and Al were mesmerized by Anthony’s description of his unusual critical metrical practice and asked him to describe it in what turn out to be not just analytical but also pedagogical terms. Listen here to hear that extra talk!
This special episode of PoemTalk was engineered by Ed Hermann and edited once again by Allison Harris. And we wish to thank the staff of the Poetry Foundation for helping us organizing this Chicago trip and the recording session. The text of Rakosi’s poem can be found here.
Fanny Howe, 'The Descent' & 'The Source'
Laynie Browne, Rae Armantrout, and Kerry Sherin Wright joined Al Filreis at the Kelly Writers House to discuss two short poems by Fanny Howe, “The Descent” and “The Source.” These are, respectively, the first and last poems in a series called “The Descent,” published together with other series in a book titled Gone (California, 2003). Our recordings of Howe performing these two poems come from two different occasions: she read “The Descent” in a Segue reading at the Bowery Poetry Club in 2010, years after the book appeared; and she had read “The Source” here at the Kelly Writers House in a reading with Norman Fischer in March of 2000, before its publication in Gone.
Starting with “The Descent” and the moving to “The Source,” the PoemTalkers took the poems literally and figuratively, in turns. “The Descent” might mark the descending arrival of an airplane, perhaps bound for a site of meditation. For “The Source” they even worked to imagine a tall, Babel-like pole with wet film at the top. Nothing about these poems inhibits such efforts to set scenes. Ultimately, though, “The Descent” seems also to be about a means of measuring depths sounded by inner exploration, while “The Source” has its source in the poem itself as a site for searching for the source, a holy atheism, an illumination we might have once thought was bracingly Arctic (as in a source of fresh, redefining air) but turns out to be in the very letter of this writing.
PoemTalk this time was engineered by Steve McLaughlin and was edited by Allison Harris. At the University of Pennsylvania, the PoemTalk series has from the start been a collaboration of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, PennSound, and the Kelly Writers House — and now, too, Jacket2 magazine, where each installment is published along with brief commentary such as you’ve seen here. The series has from the start been cosponsored by the Poetry Foundation. Each episode is published simultaneously in Jacket2 and at the Poetry Foundation website. Listeners can stream and download from these sites, or can go to iTunes and subscribe. (Above at right, from left to right: Kerry Sherin Wright, Rae Armantrout, Laynie Browne.)
Tom Leonard, 'Three Texts for Tape: The Revolt of Islam'
Jenn McCreary, Joe Milutis, and Leonard Schwartz (the latter two traveling from the state of Washington) joined Al Filreis at the Kelly Writers House to discuss a poem/audiotext created by the radical Scottish poet Tom Leonard. The piece is part of a work called “Three Texts for Tape,” which was recorded by Leonard at his home in Glasgow in 1978 on the poet’s TEAC A-3340S reel-to-reel tape deck. The part of the project discussed in this episode of PoemTalk is “Shelley’s ‘Revolt of Islam.’” In this piece, Leonard repeatedly — although in voices ranging across class, age, and elocutionary mode — performs stanza 22 of canto 8 of Percy Shelley’s twelve-canto, 5000-line poem.
In Shelley’s “The Revolt of Islam” Laon and Cythna incite a revolution to topple the despotic ruler of the fictional nation of Argolis, who seems to stand in for the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. It's generally agreed that the poem's narrative has nothing apparently to do with Islam in particular, but it has been read as a parable on revolutionary idealism. The PoemTalkers faced the job of trying to discern the significance of Leonard’s choice of this odd, out-of-the-way poem — and this particular stanza of such a poem — but in the course of the conversation we realized that the main issue is what Tom Leonard elsewhere has called “the diction of governance.”* The voices on the tape imply that the achievement of self-determination depends on struggling against received linguistic standards. Leonard, says Jenn McCreary, is here “looking for a way to find a voice for revolution,” in a situation where the certain sounds of certain voices remain culturally marginalized and literarily uncanonized. The stanza can be heard alternately as a prayer, an angry invocation, a vocal fumble or stutter, or the perfect incantation of an imperializing elocutioner. Thus it is far more interpretively open than would be apparent from the Shelley text without the benefit of “provincial” vocal performance. The audiowork seems in part to stand as a refusal of the effect in Scotland of formal education on the perceived value of literature. Leonard's radicalism is often — and we rather think is here, too — about the suppressions of pedagogy. He has argued, for instance, that exams have the effect of penalizing traditions of poetry for which a gradeable vocabulary of criticism has yet to be worked out. This, the PoemTalkers felt, partly or mostly explains the choice of Shelley’s distended, literarily far-flung, and narratively confusing poem — the minor work that seems directly political but turns out to be stubbornly and diffusely allegorical in its politics. But its linguistic politics seem somewhat clearer, at least to Leonard: he seems interested in affirming the connection between the Oxford English of the Oxford that expelled Shelley for refusing to repudiate authorship of writing deemed scurrilous and the Shelley who then immediately wrote a long, strident anti-monarchical poem and then eloped to Scotland.
Here’s the stanza of Shelley performed variously by Leonard:
“‘Reproach not thine own soul, but know thyself,
Nor hate another's crime, nor loathe thine own.
It is the dark idolatry of self,
Which, when our thoughts and actions once are gone,
Demands that man should weep, and bleed, and groan;
Oh, vacant expiation! Be at rest.—
The past is Death's, the future is thine own;
And love and joy can make the foulest breast
A paradise of flowers, where peace might build her nest.’”
Leonard’s PennSound page includes a sampling of his multi-track tape settings recorded at home in the 1970s. For this one the PennSound staff are grateful to the Archive of the Now. Our engineer for this episode of PoemTalk was Steve McLaughlin and our editor was Allison Harris.
*Quoted in Richard Blaustein, The Thistle and the Brier: Historical Links and Parallels between Scotland and Appalachia (2003), 142.