Commentaries - January 2014

A same time speed

Moyra Davey's 'The Problem of Reading'

MOYRA DAVEY Dictionaries, 1996 C-Print, 24 x 20 inches

Recently, on a frigid winter day, she found herself in her studio surrounded by layers of books and papers. From this mass of paper strewn all over the sunlit floor, she began to conjure up an image of it all coming together, the parts knitting themselves into a web or net capable of holding her in a sort of blissful suspension.

When Robert Duncan was writing 'An Alternate Life'

From Jacket #28 (October 2005)

Robert Duncan, with cat, San Francisco, 1985 (photo by John Tranter).

On a morning of slow grey drizzle in the southern spring of 1976, at Robert and Cheryl Adamson’s living room table at Lane Cove, Sydney, between bites of a late breakfast and occasional snatches of quiet conversation, Robert Duncan began writing “An Alternate Life,” a poem that evolved from and partly recounts his experiences whilst visiting Australia. He was here on a reading and lecture tour. He’d brought with him the booklets and manuscripts that later became Ground Work: Before the War, his first major collection since Bending the Bow, though it didn’t yet have that title (he referred to its contents generically as “ground work”) and wouldn’t be published until 1984.

Baraka / the divide

Baraka w/ microphone
Baraka w/ microphone

At the first poetry conference I ever attended, war broke out. It was the National Poetry Foundation’s  North American Poetry in the 1960s, in 2000. Barrett Watten, fortuitously also providing Commentaries for Jacket2 just now, gave a plenary on “The Turn to Language after the 1960s,” which in my memory charted a two-way street between campus radicalism at UC Berkeley (both the Free Speech and anti-war movements) and a politics of form foundational to what would be “language writing.” In Watten's own words, “In my multimedia presentation, I tried to reconstruct a context for the poetry’s “turn to language” in the conditions of public discourse of the period, focusing on Berkeley as a site and Allen Ginsberg’s Indian Journals as a text, using Ernesto Laclau as theorist.”

From the back of the hall, Amiri Baraka wasn't having it.

Entry 2


There is a cunning of reason in the deployment of the negative, in that sooner or later it's going to all work out (or not). Having invested my '50s contribution in the spectral image of Bettie Page, I was able to recoup when offered a plenary role at the Poets of the 60s conference (2000) — and I decided to make maximal use of the occasion. Stopping off to visit Maria Damon on the road up to Orono, I remember telling her — as I previewed the documentary Berkeley in the 60s and Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point — that I wanted to restage the '60s, as part of the conference. . . . I thought an immediate return to the politics of the '60s, in actual practice, was more than required (doubly so in the face of persistent demands by neoconservatives that it be eradicated from our history). In my multimedia presentation, I tried to reconstruct a context for the poetry's "turn to language" in the conditions of of public discourse of the period, focusing on Berkeley as a site and Allen Ginsberg's Indian Journals as a text, using Ernesto Laclau as theorist.
          From the back row, Amiri Baraka launched an impassioned attack on my claim that the politics of the student movement was any kind of politics at all, and that went as well for the antiwar movement (which Baraka associated with his own debate with Allen Ginsberg). And the rest is history — Baraka and I agreed that we would hold an impromptu debate in a student cafeteria, which we located for an unauthorized event . . . . As it happened, the discussion turned into a high-volume, low-content wrangle, so that the tape recording my son Asa made of it is destined straight for the archival vault — there will be no transcription or circulating of that! In defense of this misfire, I can only say that I am sure Baraka and I had the same goal in mind — to encourage debate and to decrease fear of confronting, particularly, race as a public issue. Was I prepared to do so, at that level? Yes and no. I learned a great deal of what I did not know of the '60s and about race from the encounter.
          — from "Thinking Through Orono," Sagetrieb 20/Paideuma 40 (2013): 99-100

The first mail of the New Year brought the special double issue of Sagetrieb/Paideuma, a well-edited and moving festschrift in honor of Burton Hatlen, whose contributions to poetry are well known to readers. What is less recognized about Hatlen are his populist/Left sympathies, which helped overturn (or at least substantially rethink) the author-centered modernism of the Pound tradition, and that is not nothing for poetics.

A few thoughts on Vendler's Stevens

I recently re-read Helen Vendler’s 1986 review of Milton Bates’s A Mythology of Self (1985) and Albert Gelpi’s collection of essays (The Poetics of Modernism, 1985) which included Marjorie Perloff on Stevens experience (or inexperience) during World War 2, Michael Davidson’s critique of Stevens as not a prosodic innovator, and Alan Golding on Stevens and Zukofsky. (I have insufficient space here to deal with Vendler’s complex reaction to Perloff’s piece – a topic that should surely occasion another foray into the matter.)[1]

Vendler was in general not fond of the essays collected by Gelpi, but she did admire Milton Bates — whose meticulous book was the first full-length biographical/intellectual/historical reading of Stevens.