The argument between lyric poetry (that is poetry that arises from the poet’s voice (the “I”) or what Robert Grenier characterized as “SPEECH”) and text (the primacy of the written or printed word) is becoming an increasingly obsolete opposition. Globalism and immigration (or migration) – in the form of pidgin, mispronunciation, graffiti, and encoded signs – have overrun the various geographical boundaries as well as upended the rules defining areas of fixed vocabulary, grammar and spelling. The English language – particularly in America — is a field in which decay and replenishment are ongoing, unpredictable ruptures.
Susan Wheeler: God knows, as my mother would have said. I’m beginning to get an inkling, as I’ve been writing a series of poems that use her idiomatic expressions — she grew up in Topeka, and had a strong portion of Pennsylvania Dutch as well, but who knows where she got phrases like “busier than a cranberry bog merchant.” Other things, of course: a soft spot for “colorful speech,” attempts to “read” idioms in order to fit into a group or out of one, an awe of good talkers, especially those who use highly idiomatic speech, Catullus — (laughter) What does Armand Schwerner say? “Extension of the dramatic monologue into plurilogue.”
We know that the equation between word and thing can no longer be taken for granted, and that words are made up of both syllables and sounds. Does this mean a poet — one who uses transparent language and writes in an autobiographical mode — is incapable of exploring the conditions of meaning? By transparent, I mean a plain language that can be used to reach the largest audience possible without losing any relevant information. Or must the language the poet uses be opaque and resistant, like reality itself?
Sun Tzu’s Sixth Century treatise, The Art of War, is one of the precursors to Gertrude Stein’s How to Write (1931). Written in different epochs, under different dark clouds, war either in progress or just around the fork in the road, these manuals are invaluable to an understanding of writing and the written, but in dissimilar ways. The primary difference is that Sun Tzu believed in narrative, with its carefully constructed beginning, middle, and end. It was an arc, though not a rainbow.
Today we take it for granted that we have photographs of pretty much everyone: famous or not, smartphone-owning or not, Instagram-using or not. It’s hard to imagine anyone becoming famous without an attendant cache of images to identify them.
I want to begin with a few salient facts and personal observations about the poet and filmmaker Frank Kuenstler. He is part of the same generation as John Ashbery, Robert Bly, Robert Creeley, Philip Lamantia, Denise Levertov, Frank O’Hara, and Adrienne Rich, and, to my mind, belongs in their company. Between 1964 and 1996 he published nine books. If we take his word for it, and I see no reason why we shouldn’t, he began working on LENS in 1952 but waited more than a decade before he began publishing his work. Partly this had to do with the twelve years it took Kuenstler to complete LENS, but I imagine other factors were also involved.
Out of the amazing trifecta of early modernist French poets, Stéphane Mallarmé is probably the least read and least translated. That’s partly down to the genuine difficulty of his writing, but then the language of Baudelaire or Rimbaud is hardly of the most transparent either; the real difference may be that their lives have spun off an aura of myth that helps guide the reader through or past the enigmatic character of their verse.
Considered through Deleuze and Guattari’s somewhat idiosyncratic interpretive lenses, Ghérasim Luca is a minor writer — minor in the sense that he relentlessly pushes language toward its limits, that he deterritorializes it, that he transmutes it from a mere instrument of representation into an extreme style of intensities. This is to say that Luca should not be deemed “minor” in any canonical sense — quite the opposite in fact — for within Deleuze and Guattari’s system of thought, to be called minor is an honorific of the highest order. This is also to say that Luca should be recognized, once and for all, as a figure on par with the other so-called “minor” auteurs within Deleuze and Guattari’s pantheon: Kafka, Beckett, Joyce, Pasolini, and Godard.
Not only fragments and filaments, but also liturgies and litanies embed themselves in Joseph Donahue’s Terra Lucida, a chain of poetic assemblage that both embodies and breaks free of given notions of the long poem. While the formal designs of that thematic behemoth can be ascribed to his project, Donahue’s abrupt transitions, radical breaks, and vertiginous frames disrupt the cohesion and narrative continuity on which the genre depends. Rarely in contemporary poetry has the couplet served so astonishingly as a centrifugal mechanism, as bonding agent to the lines, serving to contain and unite its pressurized contents — “all those/tatters of the creation” mediated “in this aberrant rendition” — which seem at any moment threaten to break apart.
Poems often groan beneath their encumbrances: weighty metaphors, top-heavy conceits. Which is why I like it when Michael O’Brien, in his most recent book Avenue (FloodEditions), writes of a poem being merely “certain words in / a certain order.” This stripped-down formulation courts a charge of banality or even absurdity — after all, even email spam is made up of words in a specific arrangement — but here it evokes O’Brien’s abiding concern with verbal exactness, even out of the depths of dreaming.
The program for Rashaun Mitchell’s Nox contains a lone explanatory note: “When my brother died I made an epitaph for him in the form of a book. This is a replica of it, as close as we could get.” The words belong to the poet Anne Carson, and they come from the back cover of her eponymous book, published in 2010. They make you wonder: Is what we’re about to see a replica of that book, in the form of a dance, as close as the artists could get? A replica of a replica?
Although Kathleen Fraser has long divided her time between San Francisco and Rome, her most recent collection, movable TYYPE (Nightboat Books), reminds us of her poetry’s New York roots. She glosses the title of the volume’s first poem, “Orologic,” as proposing “a particular time frame for entering memory-life, NYC mid ‘60s / Lower East Side,” and recalls the intoxication of “new push-back urban energies delivered via paint, dance and music specifically American-made as in John Coltrane, John Cage, Yvonne Rainer, Joe Brainard, Joan Mitchell…. Sentences dangled in one’s ear of such surprise you could only seek the solitude of your journal and try to break the code.” What Fraser has taken to transcribing in her poetry is not emotion recollected in tranquility but rather a particular fluttering of the nerves, carried over into the act of writing.