Suite of Dances is composed of a series of apparently disconnected statements in verse. A slight detour can help highlight the central formal questions at work in this book. In Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary, Marjorie Perloff describes what Herman Rapaport called “negative serialization”:
Tracie Morris, Danny Snelson, and Marjorie Perloff joined Al Filreis to talk about one of Charles Bernstein’s early poems, “As If the Trees by Their Very Roots Had Hold of Us.” It originally appeared in Senses of Responsibility (1979) and in 2010 was chosen by Bernstein to be included in All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems. We know the writing of the poem dates at least to 1977, which is when he performed it at a reading at the Place Center in New York (on December 18); he read that day with Kathy Acker.
Marjorie Perloff, Danny Snelson, and Nancy Perloff convened with Al Filreis at Marjorie Perloff’s home in Los Angeles to discuss John Cage’s mesostic abridgement of James Joyce, “Writing for a Second Time through Finnegans Wake.” Nothwithstanding its status as an intense selection or condensation of the original text, the resulting “writing through” is too long for PoemTalk’s signature “close but not too close reading,” so the group focuses on the opening pages of the Cage text. “Writing for a Second Time,” including the methodological preface, has been published in Empty Words; the pages we discuss (37–42) have been made available through PennSound here.
Al Filreis and Zach Carduner traveled to Los Angeles to the home of Marjorie Perloff, where they made a sound recording and film of a convesation about a poem by John Ashbery with Susan McCabe, Robert von Hallberg, and Marjorie herself. The poem is “The Short Answer” from a late book, Quick Question (2013). There are, abounding, the usual marooned pronouns, and the typically high “daftness quotient.” Marjorie and Al chose this poem with the goal of exploring of what it means to read closely and talk in detail about a seemingly “minor” poem from a “major” poet — a poem that might strike readers as an effect of Ashbery’s incessant and seemingly easeful poetic fermentation.
When this poem arrived in my mailbox it had a familiar ring, and, sure enough, when I took from the shelf Niedecker’s Collected Works, I saw that the poem was originally published in 1965 in Ian Hamilton Finlay’s magazine Poor.Old.Tired.Horse. Serendipity: I had just come home from the opening of my daughter Nancy’s Concrete Poetry exhibition at the Getty, an exhibit on Finlay and Augusto de Campos. There are all those issues of Poor.Old.Tired.Horse — those tiny ideogrammatic poems where every word counts in the verbivisual construct. Finlay and Niedecker were very close.
Popcorn-can cover screwed to the wall over a hole so the cold can’t mouse in — Lorine Niedecker
Contemporary so-called “innovative” or “experimental” poetry’s fascination and engagement with the theoretical and the critical owes a lot to the Language poets, who, though not the first to approach the composition of poetry as an intellectual enterprise, did offer what Marjorie Perloff characterizes as a “rapprochement between poetry and theory” that could serve as an alternative to the increasingly anti-intellectual creative writing classroom of the 1970s.
In a recent interview with Jon Curley (The Conversant, April 2014), Joseph Donahue calls our attention to two lines from Emily Dickinson’s short poem “The spry Arms of the Wind”:
I have an errand imminent To an adjoining Zone —
“Each of those terms,” says Donahue, “‘errand,’ ‘immanent,’ ‘adjoining,’ and ‘zone,’ have for many, many years deeply engaged me. … the mixture of vocation, of meaning embedded in the material, of boundary, and of expanse, are a clarion call. … Where are those zones? What awaits there? Who would one be were one to go there and come back?”
There’s a revealing error here: Donahue inadvertently reads “imminent” as “immanent,” the latter word designating the manifestation of divine presence inherent in the material world (as opposed to transcendent). But why not read Dickinson’s “errand imminent” — her urgent errand — as a longing to discover the immanent? Donahue has always been concerned with the spiritual dimension of material existence: he is, that rare thing today, a seriously “religious” poet. I want here to look at how this poet’s “errand imminent (immanent)” to those “adjoining zones” works in the opening poem of his new collection, Red Flash on a Black Field (2014).
“Why should I — proud engineer — be ashamed of my machinery?”
In her poem “The Modest Woman,” published in the modernist literary magazine The Little Review in 1920, the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven derides the prude and celebrates the female body and modern form.
Editorial note: This interview took place on the second of two days of visits by the late Robert Creeley to the Kelly Writers House in 2000 as part of the Writers House Fellows program, which brings three writers to the University of Pennsylvania’s campus each spring for close interaction with students, faculty, and other literary aficionados.