On reading & teaching the modern long poem, with reference to Williams's 'Paterson' & two passages from Eliot's 'The Waste Land'
Eric Alan Weinstein and Al Filreis spent some time in the Wexler Studio of the Kelly Writers House talking about the problematics of the modern long poem. Can it be taught? Why is it so challenging, despite its central importance? The discussion is intentionally general at first, but soon Eric and Al turn to Eliot's The Waste Land, and in particular to two modally quite distinct passages from the poem.
Eric Alan Weinstein is the academic coordinator of the Unbinding Prometheus Project. He hosts the Penn Shelley Seminars, is co-director of the Prometheus Collaborative Digital Initiative, and director of Open Learning’s “The Great Poems Series.” Eric has recently begun a project entitled "Singing 'Myself' Together: 52 Collaborative Close Readings of Walt Whitman’s Song Of Myself" in which he will close read each section of Song of Myself in collaboration with 52 poets, critics, artists, and other people from around the world who appreciate Whitman’s poetry.
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.)