Monday, November 03, 2003

I missed William Fuller reading up in Winnetka, but when I saw he was reading down here at the University of Chicago I hardly had any excuse. Of course, I always think that 20-minute walk to campus will take about 5, so I left late and spent the whole walk saying to myself, "No poetry reading ever starts on time..."

The reading was on the first floor of Classics, in a longish lecture hall with just enough vintage woodwork to make me remember I wasn't in California anymore. (The equivalent reading space at the Stanford English department has a big plate-glass window with a view of red tile roofs and the foothills behind them. I suppose this is just a sign that I spend too much time during readings staring off into space.) A solid turnout--I'm guessing at least 30 people--though I have no idea how that ranks for Chicago poetry crowds.

I must say that I knew nothing of Fuller's work before the reading, apart from a piece or two I'd looked up online. I'd seen a lot of mentions, locally and on the Poetics list, of his new book, Sadly, enough to pique my curiosity but not enough to really tell me about his work. In short, I was a pretty clean slate.

In a lot of cases, it may be that attending a reading is absolutely the worst way to be introduced to a poet's work. Listen to a tape of Wallace Stevens reading sometime and you'll know what I mean. I guess this is particularly true of experimental writers whose work is dense, textual, very much on the page--there are obviously some who are consummate performers (Bernstein, Silliman) but it often doesn't seem to come naturally. Maybe this is true of Fuller, and on the page I would find his work deeply engaging. From where I was sitting, though, it was difficult to get in.

One of the first things we were told about Fuller is that he's worked for Northern Trust for twenty years. But this wasn't just a "poet day job" thing: it came up repeatedly, as it became evident that Fuller's poetry is very much of the workplace. While that may conjure up the spectres of Philip Levine or Dana Gioia, Fuller's project is a lot closer to that of somebody like Bernstein (and, to a somewhat lesser degree, Silliman): an interest in the discourse and language of the contemporary workplace, particularly in its more extreme forms of jargon. In Bernstein this is often played for laughs or parody, but there's also a cutting sense of the ideology of that language, the way in which it veils, justifies, numbs.

I think Fuller represents the next step in engaging that language--a kind of surrender to, even embrace of, its headlong rush. Beginning a poem called "Profitability Death Spiral," Fuller noted that his co-workers (who are apparently aware of his poetic vocation) will occasionally bring him particularly prime examples of finance jargon. "If you have enough of these sources," Fuller remarked sardonically, "you don't even have to write the poem."

I think anyone who's worked with any kind of linguistic material that seems to be endlessly self-proliferating and mechanized--whether it be computer-generated text, pop media, Google poetry--gets that feeling sometimes, and doesn't quite know how to feel about it. To my mind the most successful poetry of this sort manages somehow to hack out a critical position within or against the discourse it grows out of. Bernstein or Ashbery may occasionally read like a technical manual, but there's a zaniness and verve that both makes it possible to keep moving forward and allows one, possibly, to laugh oneself outside of ideology for a moment.

Seen in this light, Fuller's poetry seemed too, well, earnest, even didactic. In mining business language for poetry, Fuller takes its poetic quality too much for granted. In this sense maybe the apt comparison isn't Charles Bernstein but Susan Howe--more specifically, Howe's faith (following Pound and Olson) that the fragments of the historical record, its language, may yield up some transcendent quality if put under enough pressure. Fuller mixes in a fair amount of Howean historical material, 16th- and 17th-century primarily, but rather than fragmenting it remains discursive, fusing into a single stream of language--an effect heighted by Fuller's headlong reading style, with little space between words and sentences. "Basic objects leap into the sea, which revives them with doctrine."

I can't help but contrast the title of Fuller's Sadly with that of Lyn Hejinian's Happily. In reading, at least, Fuller does seem to use language sadly, carried along on the flow of information, earnestly trying to make sense of it all, but capsized on each successive wave. I don't see Hejinian's happiness, the pleasure of engagement and play, those brief moments of freedom before being carried under again.