Commentaries - September 2012
"Poetry in the Age of Digital Reproduction: Marjorie Perloff’s Unoriginal Genius, and Charles Bernstein’s Attack of the Difficult Poems"
Jourrnal of Modern Literature
"A Hazard of New Fortunes"
Los Angeles Review of Books
(Sept. 19, 2012)
The ordinariness of the uncanny in the paratactician's dream: Attention, drift, perception, modulation, citation, repetition, speculation, description, reflection, observation, insinuation. In Stephen Ratcliffe's Selected Days, each day is much like the next. The difference is poetry.
Craig Dworkin on Selected Days
Stephen Ratcliffe has long been my hero: fearlessly writing essays on the most restive texts of contemporary poetry as if it were a matter of course and quietly conducting some of the most radical experiments himself, with a humility rare for an avant-garde accustomed to grandstanding braggadocio. In the poems collected here, conceptual and grammatical grids serve as screens with which to capture the fragile phenomenology at the intersection of perception and thought. In the process, Ratcliffe has performed quotidian observation as a sort of devotional practice. The books from which these present selections have been made are extensive — hundreds and thousands of pages each — but they are all built from minute particulars projected through perceptible forms, so that even excerpted they retain their capaciousness. Parts here contain the whole, and the whole extends beyond the book to be coincident with each and every day. For readers, these poems will alter the details of the world around them with the same precision and wonder with which they were recorded.
My fortieth college reunion is coming up next week. I will be in the Fall Convergence poetics conference in Bothell (near Seattle). Asylum's Press recently published my college senior thesis on Stein and Wittgenstein. The picture here is from Spring of my freshman year, during the occupation of Harvard's University Hall on April 9, 1969. Next to me is Richard Hyland.
A poem I wrote last year called "Strike!," published in the March issue of The Baffler, reflects, in part, on the language of the Harvard strike. Here's my 1996 account of my college days from My Way: Speeches and Poems, from an interview with Loss Pequeno Glazier. The full interview, with more pictures, is here: Of course, now I've come around to "Rain Drops Keeping Falling on My Head" as a crucial work in the Burt Bacharach and Hal David songbook. For my class's 40th reuntion, I suppose the Boston Pops would do a symphonic version of "Sympathy for the Devil," which is what played in my dorm room those years.
LPG: Then you attended Harvard, correct? This must have been quite a change from the cultural and social excitement of Manhattan. Was this a satisfying experience?
CB: I found Harvard a rather unpleasant place and was shocked by the snobbism and arrogance. It was unbelievable to me that the “men” at the Freshman Commons would clink their glasses when a woman walked into the hall. If Katie Roiphe and other post-feminists would like to go back to this time, they can have it. This was the last year that you had to wear a tie and jacket to dinner; there were parietals in effect in the still all-male dorms. I found the environment suffocating and depressing. And living in Harvard Yard was like living in a zoo—with all the tourists taking pictures of you and your environs when you poked your head out the door.
I have to say, it was an eye-opener to realize how few of my classmates actually cared about the arts, literature, history; though after a while it was possible to find like-minded souls. Still, Harvard students, on the whole, seemed contemptuous of the arts and of learning in a way I never encountered at Bronx Science; I soon came to realize that the enhanced admission for students from elite prep schools pulled down the intellectual, cultural, and moral level of the school, just as it does the country. Talk about affirmative action. In my year only one student from all the public schools of Chicago got into Harvard, while 40 percent of the classes at the elite schools were admitted. I got a real sense of where this was all going when I had a job doing child care at a 25th reunion. At the Boston Pops concert, the middle-aged Harvard grads gave a standing ovation to an orchestral version of “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” I keep that image in mind when I think of our “elite” institutions and what they are doing for our culture.
I was not alone in my distress. In my freshman year I became involved in the anti-war movement, even if my somewhat anarchic and pacifist politics did not sit well with some factions of SDS. I was impressed by many of the ideas of the New Left, and especially by the Port Huron statement and the concept of participatory democracy. And I certainly thought something had to be done to stop the war. I was in and out of University Hall during the 1969 occupation, but when the police were called I was in bed, right next door to the occupied building. I quickly slipped into the building and was arrested for trespassing in a case that was ultimately dismissed. Despite the dismissal in a court of law, I was put under indefinite “Warning” by Harvard’s Committee of Rights and Responsibilities (“We’re right, you’re responsible”). I have been amused and appalled to see how in the intervening years some of my classmates who did not take a stand of principle against the war have parlayed their own failure of political judgment into a source of pundit power: I am thinking here of James Fallows and Michael Kinsley.
The photo is from The Harvard Crimson: A Year in Pictures, Photo Annual 1968-69, ed. Thomas R. Ittelson and Stephen J. Potter (1969). Photo by Timothy G. Carlson. P. 70.
On the Way: Poems for the Millennium, volume 4, The University of California Book of North African Literature
[Edging toward two decades since the first publication of Poems for the Millennium in 1995, the University of California Press will shortly be publishing volume 4, both expanding & concentrating the focus into a 2000-year (two-millennium) mapping of Maghrebian (North African) literature with a range similar to what Pierre Joris and I were able to give to modern & postmodern poetry in volumes 1 and 2, and Jeffrey Robinson and I to romantic & postromantic poetry in volume 3. In any event the goal of the series remains to promote an open-ended gathering that will hopefully continue to develop & change over time. Joris’s collaboration here with Habib Tengour is nothing short of masterful; together they have composed a true Diwan Afrikiya. (J.R.)]
The University of California Press announces the book as follows:
In this fourth volume of the landmark Poems for the Millennium series, Pierre Joris and Habib Tengour present a comprehensive anthology of the written and oral literatures of the Maghreb, the region of North Africa that spans the modern nation states of Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Mauritania, and including a section on the influential Arabo-Berber and Jewish literary culture of Al-Andalus, which flourished in Spain between the ninth and fifteenth centuries. Beginning with the earliest pictograms and rock drawings and ending with the work of the current generation of post-independence and diasporic writers, this volume takes in a range of cultures and voices, including Berber, Phoenician, Jewish, Roman, Vandal, Arab, Ottoman, and French. Though concentrating on oral and written poetry and narratives, the book also draws on historical and geographical treatises, philosophical and esoteric traditions, song lyrics, and current prose experiments. These selections are arranged in five chronological “diwans” or chapters, which are interrupted by a series of “books” that supply extra detail, giving context or covering specific cultural areas in concentrated fashion. The selections are contextualized by a general introduction that situates the importance of this little-known culture area and individual commentaries for nearly each author.
[Scheduled publication date: November 2012.]
Our first week on Williams’s Paterson we began by constructing a question gallery. First, come up with a question about some key detail of the poem. Second, come up with a quesion about some formal element of the poem. Third, come up with a question about a larger question raised by the poem. Once the questions have been pinned to the wall, used colored post-its to annotate, respond to, and further question the questions. Spend a good twenty minutes doing this until the wall is covered with slips of paper. Then, rip off the post-its you like. Then, write a found poem using only the language in those post-its. Tape your poem to the wall. Return the post-its to their original homes — or to the place you think they fit best. (This activity once again borrowed from erica kaufman at the Institute for Writing Thinking.)
Graduate students don’t often get to play with big sheets of papers and colored markers. I did not instruct them to draw pictures. But here’s what they came up with without even asking.