Tuesday, May 29, 2007

How the News Travels

I just turned on my cell phone. Instead of "Cingular," the top of its little screen says "AT&T."
The most hurtful, thoughtless and brutal language around politics today might be that found in the world of political blogs (particularly in their comment boxes) and online discussion boards.

Today I made the mistake of reading msnbc's story on Cindy Sheehan's retirement from the Camp Casey project. Unsurprisingly, the story conflates the peace movement with the Democratic party, and blurs the boundaries between disenchantment with petty bickering among activists, revulsion at party politics, and a deeply pessimistic assessment of U.S. culture. One glance at Sheehan's blog shows that these distinctions are quite present in her thought.

Things get worse if you read the comments on the msn story. I only got through a few of them before realizing that I'd better stop.

Sheehan's retirement is not a disaster. Activists burn out.

The real, ongoing disaster is bigger, more multifaceted. The war in Iraq is made possible to a significant extent by the brutalization of language that characterizes discourse in the U.S., which is at its worst in many of those online discussions that give people the illusion that they're engaging in democratic exchange instead of one-upmanship, bullying and rallying of masses to say "yeah, dude!" in support of their opinions. The inability--or refusal--to make fine distinctions, the thoughtlessness of what's written and said, hurts all life in this culture. It's not just the gleefully vicious attacks and smug assessments the right-wing media and the so-called "liberal press" uses to destroy attempts to dismantle oppressive social structures; this linguistic sickness works from the inside as well, when activists (and other collaborators) don't speak or listen carefully to one another, and when they can't think of roles, methods and terminologies outside those established as signifying activism.

My question here: what can a poet do about this? I don't just mean by writing poems. In everyday life as well as in poetry, I try to care for language as the medium of thought and social life. It seems like that care should be applied to some portion of this problem. I know where the solutions cannot lie: this problem can't be solved on the comments boards themselves, in the style of the comments boards. You can't make a careful argument whose particulars are well-thought-out in an environment so saturated with the opposite. Parodic critique of the available modes of public discourse won't solve the problem either, if it adopts the forms of the latter without breaking them open and making something different happen. No solution to the violence of language is sufficient if it reproduces that violence with a different goal.

So I know what won't work. The positive side of the question is harder to answer. I'm sure the possibilities are many. They need to be extracted from a very tight place.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Laura Elrick and Rodrigo Toscano read at Woodland Pattern today, with an appearance by Toscano's "Collapsable Poetics Theater" (the two poets plus guests from the WP gang). A fine reading at a fine place on a lovely day.

I'd read Toscano's Partisans and much of The Disparities, seen him read in San Diego, and paged around in his other work, and it's heartening to hear a poet whose aesthetic prevents settling on a "voice." The work in The Disparities seems like a critical mimicry of the channels of information we're surrounded by--dense and chaotic writing. The newer work retains some of that quality in its vocabulary, but seems more talky, if the talk of people "on the street" involved the direct juxtaposition of slang, internet jargon and the vocabulary of cultural theory. Often funny stuff that, when it's hip, outdoes hipness by quoting it--the ironic distancing of ironic distance. Toscano's poetics theater pieces (ranging from pieces that are basically poems for multiple voices to vaguely Beckett-esque radio plays) take this a step further in their polyvocal rendering of scrambled vocabularies.

I'd leafed through Laura Elrick's Fantasies in Permeable Structures a number of times as I contemplated whether to immediately buy everything published by Factory School (which, with Krupskaya, is the press I most universally trust to put out work I have to read). I hadn't been able to decide what I thought about it, but Elrick's reading certainly convinced me that I needed to read more. It's sonically rich and lovely to hear (especially given her clear diction and her thoughtfulness regarding tempo and pitch). Where Toscano's work is concerned with talk and multiple voices, Elrick's inhabits a fascinating set of blurred regions--between speech and language for which the category of "voice" makes no sense, between description and enactment... this is hard to describe without becoming vague, and what's wonderful about her work is this blurring that's always quite precise; when I don't know where I am as a listener, it's a very definite way of being lost ("I don't know where I'm going, but I know I haven't been here before").

And I hope I'm not blowing a secret by saying that both these poets are lovely people and great to talk to, and that everyone around Woodland Pattern (Roberto, Chuck, plenty of others whose names have characteristically slipped my mind) also seems enthusiastic and friendly--something I don't expect from art scenes, which are too often jaded, protective, and suspicious. I need to make it over to Milwaukee more often.

(Incidentally, I'll go back soon, since the Nonsense Company will perform "Great Hymn of Thanksgiving" and "Conversation Storm" at Darling Hall next Sunday).

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

scan the ads for help

the night recoils

black hills thrust

I can't say
thrush I'm not

can't assay
not said today

it wouldn't leave


Also: today's murder mystery title, found at the library, is:

Sunday, May 20, 2007


Late light mercurial, it's fine
to wash the feet
Then gold greens them
and it isn't.

We are in this
house or
in its possibilities. Lying

taught over one end
of true chamomile
brown squirrel still
grayer nothing

can be called what
it is, not ever the
unseen uh
chomping at the bit

to be mice. the present
no. now
they tell us to concur
but not how. Hoarse

day of images,
flooding out the wash
of a single "moon." You
said it. This sound is done.

a nut
rattles its shell

how far will this get
before the hand shuts down?

tufts wane

laughingly rhymed

okay I'm drowned
in "the green drunk
slightly spring" dawn

and stop no bullet
or anti-immigrant
bumper sticker
ruins the fucking poem

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Ron Silliman's comment on the sitting (or the walk) as a unit of writing. Very useful. Part of the history of ways to separate poetry from "the poem" as the fundamental determining unit?

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Just finished reading the Odyssey, which I hadn't gone all the way through before. Oh, my, it's good writing indeed (both in the Fitzgerald translation, which I read, and in the Lattimore, which my friend Ryan has been reading). "Crisp" and "clean" are adjectives the two of us have repeatedly used to describe it.

This love of crispness is something of a novelty for me, a writer with a general attraction to sudden messes, disruptions of the ongoing tone, instances of clownish performed ineptitude, places where structural flaws are so profound that the edifice nearly collapses and, in the face of that near-disaster, we have to look at the whole work in a radically different way (perhaps discarding the idea of a "whole work," or seeing the work as acting out a double life, as a totality made up of unstable and widely differentiated elements that, in their interactions, set off energetic events that call the totality into question, disrupt its thing(noun)ness).

And Homer does have this, too, in his way. The casual anecdote, the dramatic tale, the brag, the catalog, the elaborate lie can slide into each other at an instant. Mournful tragedy or gory and detached depictions of slaughter (reminding me at times of Sade) are suddenly interrupted by/mixed with mischievous humor or moralizing. Disruption of tone, sudden shift in mode of speech, the artifice of repeated motifs (often entire speeches), the explicit appearance of the third-person narrator in the form of declarations ("O swineherd!") and injunctions to his audience to participate imaginatively in the upcoming simile--Homer's text is full of devices and lopsided structures that give the whole work a great deal of air.

As I write this I'm making bread. I've never done it before, and am
excited to find that the dough is actually rising. I hope for a coherent
loaf with no significant structural flaws, but don't expect it this time.
I'm mostly looking forward to the smell of the baking.

The range of Homer's similes is enormous, the connections and comparisons often quite odd. Here's Odysseus, disguised as an old man, sleeping in the entryway of his house:
His rage
held hard in leash, submitted to his mind,
while he himself rocked, rolling from side to side,
as a cook turns a sausage, big with blood
and fat, at a scorching blaze, without a pause,
to broil it quick: so he turned left and right [...]
Odyssey, bk. 20, lines 23-28

And here he's hanging onto a tree limb above Kharybdis, waiting for his mast and keel to be vomited back up:

And ah! how long, with what desire, I waited!
till, at the twilight hour, when one who hears
and judges pleas in the marketplace all day
between contentious men, goes home to supper,
the long poles at last reared from the sea.
bk. 12, lines 42-46

Such elaborate comparisons could be employed as attempts to describe something that can't be described directly, but I don't think that's what happens in the Odyssey; the things described by comparison are often quite mundane. It's instead Homer's way of weaving society into the poem without subordinating it to the narrative of individuals. The similes have a life of their own and a much wider range than that encompassed by the plot(s) of Odysseus' adventures. Comparisons are made to farming, legal debate, medicine, cooking, politics, wild nature, the domestic scene... chosen to contrast sharply with the region of human existence the main story inhabits at that time. This contrast, and the development of each simile into a vivid and detailed image, ensures the self-sufficiency, the independence of the metaphor from that which it's supposed to represent. Comparison not to explain or make a point, but to allow unordered elements of the outside into the form.

It's in these similes that some of the most "crisp" writing occurs. I'm mostly thinking of Homer's descriptions when I use that word ("descrisptions?").

Actually, I should replace the word with "presentations." Here's a bit of Pound:
When Shakespeare talks of the "Dawn in russet mantle clad" he presents something which the painter does not present. There is in this line of his nothing one can call description; he presents.
(Literary Essays, p.6)
Similarly (as Mark Enslin pointed out on reading the first draft of this post), it's a lot easier to imagine the dawn than to imagine "rosy fingers;" Homer's figure doesn't employ a more immediate or familiar term to illustrate a less immediate one. He presents the dawn in a certain light.

Minimal and direct depiction of a staggering range of phenomena. Here I'll restrict myself to modifiers, particularly as used to present characters. A Homeric device: one adjective or adjectival phrase at most in any instance of characterization ("grey-eyed Athena" is a famous motif). When the adjective varies from one presentation of the character to another, Homer's economy has a complex effect. The restriction of adjectives puts the focus on activity, process and context (what the character does in a particular situation) rather than on psychology (what or how the character is). At the same time, the singularity of the adjective gives it a strong role in the sentence, and since the people in the Odyssey are far from what we'd call "fleshed-out," the modifier can often take over our image of the individual entirely, making for a vivid characterization, but one without a character, or whose character is less vivid than the aspect highlighted.
A display of a way of behaving, a "comportment" in relation to circumstances that's detachable from the individual.

This is the general way I'm thinking about Homer's devices: ways of setting a chunk of the poem free from the (anti?)heroic individual and his plots, allowing modes of behavior, aspects of persons, roles, economic activities, and ethical contexts to leak in from outside the realm of the story proper. The Odyssey's ways of opening out into a larger overall scale (the "world" of the Greeks as Homer and his listeners knew it), more than its presentation of the spatial and temporal scale of Odysseus' journey, are what make it an "epic."

the bread turned out just fine; improvements to come. funny shapes, good crust.
I'll try to come back and add more quotations later.

& more on Pound soon, I think... perhaps the vile politics in Homer, if I can find anything interesting to say about that... and I may take up the thread of "presentation through an aspect" again, fiddling with the lens of Heidegger's earlier phenomenology.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

When line length is equated with breath, does anyone ever muse over the implication of speed (rate might be better) that carries with it? Is Whitman, or Ginsberg at his most Whitmanian, a poet with relatively healthy lungs who wants to get as much said as possible, all the time? Is his speech one without pauses, a speech whose listener is never an individual respondent, but rather a collective entity, inarticulate and unable to fill the silences that flash for a moment between lines whilst Walt inhaleth?

Since I've never found the line/breath equation that compelling, this is written with tongue somewhat in cheek. Which would pose a problem, were this breathed speech and not post bike-ride, sore-hands typing.


Tuesday, May 01, 2007

A bit of context for the last post:

1) The Nonsense Company has, on its tour of the last five weeks, been performing Rick Burkhardt's play Conversation Storm, which I think shows debate (in this case, about current US policy on torture) to be a dead end when the basic gulf between the opponents is as great as it is between, say, me and someone who thinks that torture is justifiable and necessary.

2) While in Olympia the Company saw a production of My Name is Rachel Corrie. I was a bit worried about it, and was surprised (I can't say "pleasantly," since the play largely left me shaken and distressed), mostly by Corrie's quite excellent writing.

The play (which was first produced in England and then later staged in NYC after the original New York production had voluntarily censored itself, shutting down the production after many complaints from the people arrogant enough to call themselves "the Jewish community") is being produced in Seattle, and the staging in Olympia was a satellite performance (Oly being Corrie's home town). Like the other performers who've played the part, this actress has been getting death threats. I don't think I need to rant about this here. The juxtaposition of the critical but explicitly pacifist play with the psychosis of the attacks on it should be enough. Or one could add to the juxtaposition the fact that in Israel, where the majority of citizens oppose their government's methodical destruction of Palestine, one can discuss the matter, while in the United States one who isn't threatened with death will at least be accused of condoning murder and ethnic cleansing, shouted down until they shut up.