Fail better and revolt (PoemTalk #80)

Tom Leonard, 'Three Texts for Tape: The Revolt of Islam'

Left to right: Al Filreis, Jenn McCreary, Leonard Schwartz, Joe Milutis


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.

Revolutionary vibe (PoemTalk #79)

Joanne Kyger, 'It's Been a Long Time: Notes from the Revolution'

Joanne Kyger with Jack Boyce on the Bolinas mesa in 1969.


Julia Bloch, Stephen Ratcliffe, and Pattie McCarthy joined Al Filreis for a discussion of a poem by Joanne Kyger called “It’s Been a Long Time: Notes from the Revolution.” Readers can find the text of the poem in Kyger’s volume of selected poems, As Ever (2002). The poem was written in the early 1970s. PennSound’s recording of Kyger’s performance of the poem is an audio segment extracted from the video-and-audio recording made of the television show — the March 28, 1978, episode of Public Access Poetry. It’s a poem that is part of — and also a collage of voices from — the Bolinas (California) poetic counterculture of the early 1970s. Steve Ratcliffe, who spoke at length with Joanne Kyger before traveling east to join us for this conversation, is able to confirm some of those details, as it is apparent that the poet was listening intently to the “company” or community of — and the very rhythms of — the “other beats” around her. And so the poem carries forward the ambivalence of this poetic community about the machine and its relation to the making of the poem, and about the efficacy of chanting, and about the importance, or possible irony, of “the vibe” as a empyrean, communitarian, and anti-imperial source of a new music. The girl at the end, a singer and poem-maker, might present the prospect of an alternative beat, a “sweet little tone” that is not the least bit diminished in range or imaginary power.

This episode of PoemTalk was engineered by Zach Carduner and edited by Allison Harris.

How can they write and believe? (PoemTalk #78)

Muriel Rukeyser, 'Ballad of Orange and Grape'


Amy King, David Abel, and Mytili Jagannathan joined Al Filreis for this 78th episode of PoemTalk to discuss a poem by Muriel Rukeyser about urban activism. “Ballad of Orange and Grape” [link to text] appeared in Rukeyser’s 1973 book Breaking Open, and is perhaps the best known poem from the end of her career. The recording we feature here is from a 1977 LP release of a recording produced with the 92nd Street Y in New York. But we make reference to a recording of the poem performed after a long discursive introduction by the poet for students and teachers at the University of Warwick, England, in 1971. The introduction provides us with a full context for the narrative: the speaker is the poet (initially self-addressed in the second person, later “I”), having finished her day’s work as a teacher of writing in East Harlem; she ponders returning home (thus we know she does not live locally — comes to teach in Harlem as an outsider), but delays her departure by stopping at a streetside hot dog stand, where she observes a vendor pouring orange soda into the container marked “grape” and grape soda into “orange.” This, as Amy King notes, is an arbitrary binarism, so what is wrong with the vendor’s indifference to the labels? This disjunction prompts the poet to consider a litany of binarism about which it has seemed difficult to be indifferent. Finally, Rukeyser wonders whether the resistance to such binaristic thinking has the power to alter her writing pedagogy. “How are we going to believe what we read and what we write and we / hear and we say and we do?”

Rukeyser had come of age poetically in the 1930s, aligned with the communist movement at a time when many poets of the radical Left (Genevieve Taggard, Ruth Lechlitner, Max Eastman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Claude McKay, and others) engaged traditional poetic forms for the purpose, they variously contended, of eschewing aesthetic insularity and reaching a prospective mass audience. But Rukeyser began her career writing documentary poems (in U.S. 1 of 1938). She rarely if ever wrote in a ballad stanza, yet that’s what we hear in “Ballad of Orange and Grape.” It’s surely a significant choice. Are we to associate the choice of ballad stanza with the theory of representation that enables — and indeed, in a certain kind of liberal teaching, reproduces — the binarisms of white/black, love/hate, enemy/friend, etc.?  The vendor’s indifference to correct signifying stimulates the opposite in the poet-teacher-speaker, whose list of binarisms in the penultimate stanza gives way to an unordered, atypological list in the final stanza: “garbage, reading, a deep smile, rape, / forgetfulness, a hot street of murder, / misery, withered hope,” lines in which “rape” and “hope” are a near-rhyme at best, an obviously significant dissonance. The non-binaristic list coincides with the partial demise of the ballad form and the poem’s apparent overall emphasis on what “could be” as an alternative means of teaching writing in a mode that undoes the writing/doing opposition rather than creates yet another choiceless choice between expression and social problem-solving. As Al notes in his summary comment: “It’s a meta-pedagogical poem.”

For just the second time since we began producing PoemTalk as a monthly podcast in 2009, we have made a video recording of the discussion in addition to the edited audio. The video is embedded below. The audio, as always, can be found here at PoemTalk’s home within the Jacket2 site, on iTunes (search PoemTalk in your Music Store), and at the site of the Poetry FoundationPennSound’s Rukeyser page includes both recordings of “Ballad of Orange and Grape” as cited above, and many other recordings, beginning with our earliest Rukeyser, dated 1944.  PoemTalk #78 was recorded at the Kelly Writers House and was engineered (and filmed) by Zach Carduner and Chris Martin, and it has been edited by Allison Harris.

Into the Field: Ara Shirinyan

Photo by Harold Abramowitz.
Photo by Harold Abramowitz.

Ara Shirinyan is a poet and publisher living in Los Angeles. He runs Make Now Press and is a co-founder of the Poetic Research Bureau with Joseph Mosconi and Andrew Maxell. The PRB hosts a long-running reading series, publishes books, puts on exhibits, and generally advocates for experimental writing culture. Ara is also a co-founder of The Smell, a legendary L.A. punk venue. Ara’s books include Syria Is in the World (Palm Press, 2007), Your Country Is Great: Afghanistan-Guyana (Futurepoem Books, 2008), and Julia's Wilderness (Poetic Research Bureau, 2014). You should check out Eric Rettbergs recent essay on Shirinyan in Jacket2"Laughing at Your Country is Great."

My other country (PoemTalk #77)

Lorine Niedecker, 'Foreclosure' and 'Wilderness'

The cottage where Lorine Niedecker and Al Millen lived on Blackhawk Island. Photo courtesy of Friends of Lorine Niedecker, Inc.


Jessica Lowenthal, Michelle Taransky, and Dee Morris joined Al Filreis to talk about two short poems by Lorine Niedecker, “Foreclosure” and “Wilderness.” The recording of these poems was made by Cid Corman during his visit to Niedecker’s home in Wisconsin in November of 1970. All the poems Corman recorded were posthumously published in Harpsichord & Salt Fish by Pig Press in 1991.

As a house is being foreclosed in “Foreclosure” the speaker resists by turning the bankers’ legal language around and by mocking it (“their parties thereof /and clause of claws”). She then concedes the house but wants to keep the land, demanding that “the land” be “scratch[ed] out” from the agreement, and finally delivers an edgy benediction, cursing property and also prose with elimination. Only then will the speaker of this poem find peace. The ending suggests that prose is to property as poetry is to the concept of land defying ownership. The ratio reminded the group of Dickinson (“I dwell in Possibility” with its house fairer than prose).  The floating wounded doe at the end of “Wilderness” also reminded us of Dickinson (“My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun”) and not surprisingly we read it several ways. Michelle recalls being a student in one of Dee’s classes, where they confronted William Stafford's “Traveling through the Dark” with its own wounded doe seen from a masculine vantage at “the top of the mountain.” Niedecker is not seeing the doe as a metaphor necessarily, notes Michelle. “She's trying to figure out the Other.” Dee observes that the poet is “making this non-formulaic in terms of gender.” Still, “the man” and “my other country” are one, and both make it “hard going” for the speaker. In each poem, as Dee notes, Niedecker shows “incredible tonal nuance.” She begins with toughness (the very word “abutment”!) and then she “gets cute” (puns on the legal language), and finally she becomes quite serious, ending with a kind of lyric prayer. Both of these poems are “incredibly nimble” — indeed, says Dee, “like a deer.”  Jessica described amazement at the smallness of the voice we hear in the Corman recording. “It matches the work and yet it doesn’t, because I think of her as so large.”

This episode of PoemTalk was engineered by Steve McLaughlin and edited by Allison Harris. It was a happy (and, we like to think, very productive) teacher-student reunion: Michelle and Jessica, at different times, had both taken courses with Dee at the University of Iowa.

We are grateful to Linda Falkenstein, who has contributed the following comment: “I was recently listening to the discussion about ‘Wilderness/Wild Man’ on Poem Talk #77 and wanted to comment on the line, ‘you are the prickly pear.’ The discussion seemed to take the direction of this being an indication that Niedecker had to be referring to the desert here, but, prickly pear cactus are native to Wisconsin. You'll find them in sandy soils on south-facing slopes.”