ambient poetics

What is poetry?

A response to a request for 500 words on this small topic

Whenever poetry becomes a topic movingly discussed by many people for whom it is not a daily—indeed, not even a monthly—thing, I realize once again what draws me to it ever and always. In a poem, how you say what you say is as important as, sometimes more important than, what you say. Is that a radical view? After all, content is central to communicating. But what about times when communication has broken down? If Allen Ginsberg in writing and performing “Howl” did not in the poem itself emit such a howl—if he did not himself evince the “mad” non-conformity he saw in the best minds of his generation—we would no more remember his poem today than we do the many smart and interesting books of sociological nonfiction written during the 1950s about the supposedly disaffected (but actually, hyper-affective) postwar generation. PennSound (the archive of recordings of poets, the largest in the world) includes the riveting performance Ginsberg gave before a huge, engaged, at times ecstatic audience in Chicago in 1959. How Ginsberg says “Howl” is as important as what he says, for sure. Words about crying out can themselves cry out.

Someone at my university who edits and publishes a newsletter asked me if I would write 500 words on what makes poetry distinctive  I balked at such a task. But then decided to produce the statement. For better or worse, here it is.


Further explorations of found poems in card catalogues

Or: fighting against fear

photograph by Meredith Bergmann

Ever since I saw the photographs associated with Erica Baum's book of photographed juxtapositional found poems, Card Catalogue (1997), I've been rather obsessed with the project. I've taught it to my students many times. I can't think of a better way of extending forward the lessons they and I learn when encountering imagism and other radically condensed juxtapositional language at the beginning of poetic modernism. Baum of course has often photographed the language she finds out there and is especially attracted to categorizing systems, such as the codex (Dog Ear) or the catalogue. This conceptualist consciousness — and devotion to words in the ambience (as in: who needs to create them? they're there) — I find extraordinarily teachable and infectious. One of my students is a young autistic man, Dan Bergmann. Readers of this ongoing commentary will surely have heard of Dan’s feats of talking (writing, really — or, still better: spelling). What is even more remarkable is the way in which Dan becomes aware of categories and meaning-systems.

Celebrate Tan Lin with us

TAN LIN is coming to to the Writers House. On Wednesday, April 21st, the EDIT series (Danny Snelson) will host this poet, whose work, says Charles Bernstein, “sparkles with unoriginality and falsification.” Join us for a live publication event entitled “Handmade book, PDF, Appendix, Powerpoint, Kanban Board/Post-Its, Blurbs, Dual Language (Chinese/English) Edition, micro lecture, Selectric II interview, wine/cheese reception, Q&A; (xerox) and a film.” A reception will open at 6PM, to be followed by Q&A;, printing, and micro-lectures beginning at 7PM. For more information call 215-746 POEM or email

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