Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Kasey weighs in on intention, arguing that "If we don't know something about [the author], her education, her politics, her personal relationships, her intentions, the text doesn't mean as fully or successfully what it's 'supposed' to mean."

Absolutely. My skepticism about intention as a category isn't a ploy to lock the author up in some kind of New Critical black box. It was mostly a reaction to the weird way intention seemed to be popping up as a trump card in political and legal debates--in particular, as a trump card meant to shut down interpretation. The New Critical critique of intention as a category is ingrained and undergraduate-basic enough that it seems like an easy piece of ammunition to use in response. But it's obviously full of problems itself, especially if it's taken to mean that there's nothing but the "text itself" floating in a vacuum.

Kasey's Frankenstein example is a fascinating one, and a good case where appealing to authorial intention might provide a more radical, rather than a more conservative, interpretation. But I do wonder whether intention helps us determine which kinds of readings "co-opt" a text and which don't, or if co-optive readings are in general a bad thing. Much contemporary literary criticism, particularly that which sees itself as politically radical, relies on what might fairly be called co-optive readings of older texts; take, for example, readings and appropriations of Shakespeare's Tempest as an anti-colonial or even postcolonial text. We could hardly justify these in terms of any intention of Shakespeare's; yet there is something in Shakespeare's text that makes such readings plausible, even compelling.

Or take Pound's Cantos. In seeing--as many do--the Cantos as the forerunner of contemporary radical and deconstructive (and left-wing) poetics, one obviously has to read against Pound's very clearly stated (and right-wing) intentions, especially his totalitarian demand to make it all "cohere." It could well be argued that insofar as the Cantos remain a vital, rather than discredited, text for us, they do so because of the extent to which Pound failed to fulfill his intentions.

It could simply be that the idea of "intention" I'm comfortable with is a weak rather than a strong one. The strong idea of intention in reading is, I'd wager, the more collquially accepted one: intention is something behind the words, what the author really meant to say, something that extends beyond the mere text on the page. It's obvious why this is a compelling idea both in literary study and in the law, which are all about trying to figure out what the heck is meant by language that's often ambiguous. But it's also fatally flawed. For example: I talked a while back about my conscious attempt to write an "Asian American" poem, which I fully intended to be a parody of the genre. But I failed in my execution, producing a poem that could only sporadically be read as parody and often just looked "straight," sincere. I'll grant that knowing my intention would illuminate the parodic element of the poem; but reading the poem itself would produce an implied "intention" that would be much more complex; one could even argue, perhaps more plausibly, that at various points I didn't even know what my own intention was.

This implied intention is, I think, what I mean by a weak version of intention, and maybe the only reliable one. What I said my intention was is surely a useful piece of evidence for the literary scholar, who could use it to bolster an argument. But ultimately what I said is just another text to read. I could have been wrong; I could have been lying or deceiving myself; I could be a kind of idiot savant who writes brilliant poems in spite of the fact that I have no idea what I'm doing. My weaker version of intention is, admittedly, largely a textual construct, an artifact of reading; but I'm not really sure there could be another kind.

Since this all started as an admittedly amateur discussion of constitutional law, let's take a current example: the anti-gay marriage amendment to the U.S. Constitution now being supported by President Bush. While it's by no means clear what form this amendment will eventually take, a version, H.J. Res. 56, has been introduced in the House of Representatives, and consists of just two sentences:

Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution or the constitution of any State, nor state or federal law, shall be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups.

If we were to inquire into the intentions behind this text, what would we find? Most of the national politicans who say they support this amendment, including the resolution's sponsor and the President, publicly deny that it is intended as a piece of anti-gay discrimination. Indeed, they would probably deny that it has anything to do with gays at all; it is simply what it seems to be, a mere, common-sense definition ("Marriage...shall consist only of...") that serves to "defend" an already existing institution. Some supporters of the amendment are even saying that they don't mean it to ban something like civil unions, which are nowhere explicitly mentioned.

I'm guessing that very few people on either side of the debate would really believe such statements. But we also obviously can't probe the minds of the speakers and see what their "true" intentions are. So there we have it: explicit statements of intention (this amendment is not meant to discriminate), and a text. And in this case, it's only the text that can reveal, to a limited degree, what I suspect would be a more accurate reading of the authors' intentions.

The text posits a legal status--"marriage"--and states that it is something that can only be attained by "a man and a woman." Am I correct in thinking that this would be the only place in the Constitution where the word "woman" appears? I wonder if this might be one of the most dangerous distinctions in the amendment: rather than the spirit of other federal laws, which ban discrimination based on sex, this enshrines in the Constitution the idea that there are two separate kinds of legal person--a man and a woman--raising the idea that the federal government has to have some criteria for telling the difference. I'm not being facetious; this would imply that the federal government would have to develop a legal, not biological or social, framework of gender difference. Of course, the authors of the amendment would likely dismiss my objection as silly; "of course," they would say, "we know the difference between a man and a woman." But I'd argue that the "a man and a woman" phraseology reveals one broader assumption--even, intention--behind the amendment: that the gender binary is fundamental to our social and legal system (indeed, to our civilization) and must be shored up and defended in a way that it never has before. Since it hardly seems plausible that we have suddenly ceased to be able to tell the difference between men and women, the only explanation can be that same-sex relationships are seen as so threatening to the social order that we must suddenly be told that our society now consists of men and women, as two separate categories--an entire new legal structure of discrimination, implemented just so "marriage" can have a fixed definition.

Having defined marriage, the amendment goes on to offer what seems like a simple corollary: the benefits of marriage won't be extended to those who aren't married. But of course what the second sentence does is create--negatively, of course--a whole new legal class of people: the "unmarried," those who cannot enter into the legal state of marriage and and are formally excluded from "the legal incidents thereof." By failing to observe the terms of "a man and a woman," gays and lesbians--an entire and definable class of persons--have been placed outside the benefits and protections of a particular legal status. This is no accident; this is exactly the intended effect, but it's an intention that's legible not in the explicit statements of the authors but in (egads) the text, and the broader context from which it emerges.

Finally, I'd note that one of the strangest things about this amendment is that it is explicitly designed to forestall interpretation. It's not telling the government what it can and can't do; it's telling us (and, presumably, the courts) how we can and can't read or even think: it's a chilling assertion that things are as they are now, and cannot ever change, even in imagination.

P.S. It looks like I was giving a bit too much credit to the intentions of the amendment's congressional sponsor, Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, whose scary remarks on her proposal do raise the specter of the "gay and lesbian lobby" (just as well funded, I'm sure, as those energy and oil companies) destroying our society. Guess all my effort at close reading wasn't really necessary. But believe it or not, she does use the word "deconstruct."
From the comment box: Reen suggests that without the appeal to intention, the Constitution (or, I guess, any other document) is just "accordionlike." I'll admit I actually like--or at least don't mind--the image of the Constitution as accordion, each article and amendment opening out in possibly infinite ways. But that's me being a naughty lit-crit type.

I'm still a little puzzled, though, by the assumption that both Reen and Tim Peterson make: that it is only an appeal to authorial intention that can constrain meaning. The idea is that without an idea of intention, a text could just mean anything.

I guess that just strikes me as strange. Thanks to the lingering legacy of New Criticism, "intention" is about as dirty a word in academic literary circles as you can get; yet the rejection of intention doesn't just allow a critic to say whatever he or she wants. Saying that we can't know precisely what Shakespeare really intended by writing, say, Romeo and Juliet (or that we can't know with absolutely certainty that Shakespeare even existed) doesn't mean that we're then free to read R&J as an allegory of the development of the airplane.

Literary criticism has largely replaced intention with the more flexible idea of historical context, which does try to understand things like what a certain phrase or word might have signified to the author's peers. But the larger point is that this is only one of innumerable factors that go into a claim about what a text means; to interpret is to negotiate among these factors, not to adopt one of them as an absolute limit.

And interpretation itself has a history--as I think our legal system recognizes. In interpreting a law, especially one more than a few decades old, I'm guessing that very few judges are going to look directly to the intent of the legislators of the original bill. Instead, they likely rely on precedent--the history of how that law has been used and interpreted by other courts--because that is probably more useful in understanding the interface between the text of a law and reality than the idealizations of the person who conceived the law. It's also a notion that acknowledges the possibility of change and development, rather than a meaning fixed for all time--yet still constrained with the framework that the text of a law lays out.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

I'm sorry, too, that I didn't get a chance to meet the man I'll now fondly think of as The More Emphatic Wallace Stevens.
Whoops. In all the, um, excitement I missed this blog's birthday: tympan went online just over a year ago, on March 23, 2003, with--what else--some musings on blogging. So make a wish, everybody. The war still isn't over.
POEM PRESENT at the University of Chicago is pleased to announce a reading and lecture this week by:

*************** ROBERT CREELEY ***************

Thursday, April 1, 5:30 p.m. (Social Sciences 122): Poetry reading

Friday, April 2, 1:00 p.m. (Classics 10): An open conversation

A reception will follow the reading on Thursday.


Since 1962, when he published For Love: Poems 1950-1960, Robert Creeley has been recognized as one of the most important voices in American poetry. He is the author of numerous collections of poetry and prose, including the Collected Poems, 1945-1975; So There, Poems 1976-1984; Just There, Poems 1984-1994; and the Collected Prose. Honors include a Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, the Bollingen Prize, and the Beyond Columbus Foundation's Lifetime Achievement Award, as well as Guggenheim, Rockefeller, Fulbright and N.E.A Fellowships. He was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1987, and served as the New York State Poet from 1989-1991. At present, he teaches in the Graduate Program in Literary Arts at Brown University.

Monday, March 29, 2004

Yesterday I asked whether the appeal to intention in reading is always conservative. I didn't note that there's obviously a difference between a reading based on intention and a "literal" reading. In the case of the Chinese government's reading of Hong Kong's Basic Law, the appeal to intention is designed to "look beyond" the literal. In the case of "strict constructionist" interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, the appeal to the intentions of the founders is supposed to have quite the opposite effect: to support the Constitution's "literal" meaning. The larger point, though, is that inquiring into the authors' intentions is designed to restrict interpretation, to close these founding documents to expansive readings that might grant more, rather than fewer, civil rights and liberties.

Not being a legal scholar, I can't say that I understand why intentionalist readings of the Constitution have become associated with the right wing. The only amendment in the Bill of Rights on which liberals tend to appeal to intention is, of course, the Second, with heavy leaning on the phrase "a well-regulated militia" in order to demonstrate that the Founding Fathers didn't expect every citizen to be carrying a concealed semiautomatic pistol when they went to the store.
Bill Allegrezza bought one of the five sold-out copies of Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole at AWP. And he liked it.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Robin looked out the window this afternoon and saw our neighbor's dog lying on the front walk with two women bent over her. It appeared that the dog had fallen out of an open third-story window--it was extraordinarily warm today, in the mid-70s; we could see that the screen had broken and the dog must have fallen through it, and the two passers-by had found her, lying still on her side and panting. Our neighbor wasn't home, and it being a Sunday the animal clinic a few blocks away was closed. So with help from several people we managed to get the dog into the back seat of our car and drove up to an emergency animal clinic up on the North Side--with Sunday afternoon traffic this took at least thirty minutes, although it felt like hours, with me weaving in and out of traffic and hoping in some bizarre way that we'd get pulled over and get a police escort. They took her in right away and did some X-rays, which showed what I guess everyone but me had already known: her back was broken, and there was nothing they could do for her.

We'd left a note but our neighbor still hadn't called, so there was nothing we could do but leave the dog at the clinic (where they at least had her sedated and on pain medication) and go home and wait. An hour later our neighbor finally got home and we all got in our car to return to the clinic; as we left the building our neighbor picked up what looked like one of the dog's nails from the ground and put it in her pocket. The trip was almost unconscionably fast this time, and massive gray thunderclouds were beginning to appear. When we arrived our neighbor went in to be with the dog as they put her to sleep, and as we waited the rain started, and our neighbor came out and signed some papers and we drove home in a downpour.
Is the turn toward "intention" in reading always a conservative one?

I read an article this morning on Hong Kong's Basic Law, the mini-constitution put into place with the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997. The Basic Law was designed to preserve some semblance of democracy (or, rather, to create it, since Hong Kong was never self-governing under the Brits) and, most importantly, Hong Kong's capitalist system, even as it became a territory of communist China: the famous "one country, two systems" formula. However, the Chinese government has become increasingly uncomfortable with even the limited freedoms the Basic Law grants; yesterday's article reports that Chinese officials are arguing for a new interpretation of the Basic Law that " look[s] beyond the exact language of the law to the intentions of the negotiators, especially the Chinese negotiators, who drafted it"--an appeal to "intention" that's obviously intended to curtail civil liberties.

I couldn't help but think as I read this of George W. Bush's assertion that he supports (as does his judicial hero, Justice Scalia) a "strict construction" of the Constitution, an allegedly "literal" reading that often relies heavily on appeals to the intentions of the Founding Fathers; or, indeed, of the very idea of "fundamentalist" Christianity, with its image of the Bible as the "literal" and intended word of God.

Friday, March 26, 2004

I'm sure I'll regret it, but I've added commenting. Fire away.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

I seem to have become the kind of person who writes letters to the editor. Or maybe the Trib just makes me do it.

There was an article yesterday about the Supreme Court challenge to the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. It included a quote from a lawyer named Steven Aden, who claimed that the decision amounted to deciding the question "Does God exist or not?" and that in removing the words, the court would be declaring "that we can't know if God exists." Aden was identified with something called the "Center for Law and Religious Freedom," which sounds like some kind of innocuous think tank but, like most such entities these days, is just a cover for a group called the Christian Legal Society. I guess the Trib thought that if they used the group's real name their "expert" might seem a tad, oh, biased.

I found some interesting stuff on the history of the pledge--including that it was originally written by a socialist minister and used to spearhead a marketing campaign for American flags--and then fired off this missive to the Trib:

Dear Editor:

Some have argued that the Supreme Court, in ruling on whether the words "under God" should remain in the Pledge of Allegiance, is deciding whether or not God exists. This is simply absurd. Did God suddenly come into being in 1954, when the words "under God" were added to the pledge? Do Jehovah's Witnesses, who refuse to say the pledge, thus deny God's existence?

Dropping "under God" from the pledge would not be a statement of atheism. It would simply acknowledge that in America, religious belief is a matter of individual conscience, not official mandate. Far more corrosive to religious belief is the bizarre position of the federal government, which argues that the pledge does not violate the separation of church and state because the words "under God" are completely meaningless--mere expressions of history and tradition, completely devoid of any religious significance.
Yikes. The AWP has descended on Chicago and even just thinking about it is a little exhausting. It doesn't look likely that I'll actually go to any of the official conference events; I should probably take a hint from the fact that most of the panelists I'm interested in seeing (Peter Gizzi, Elizabeth Willis, Samuel Delany, Bob Perelman) are grouped together in a single session called "Inside Oustiders (How do you like it?)"

I'm more likely to attend one of the readings orbiting the conference, which are themselves overwhelming and which Ray Bianchi has done a heroic job of cataloging. The Discrete Series readings Friday and Saturday night look like a winner (Chris Stroffolino, Paul Hoover, Maxine Chernoff, Chuck Stebelton, Cole Swensen, Pierre Joris, and others); plus tonight Jesse Seldess and Kerri Sonnenberg will be reading with the deliciously named Dissociated Writers Project at Bar Louie in Wicker Park, 1704 N. Damen.

One fashion tip: whatever others may have told you, please, for the love of God, do not wear long underwear. It was in the 60s today and will likely reach the 70s by the weekend. Anyone caught wearing long johns will be mercilessly humiliated. By me.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Mike Snider has graciously drawn this discussion of formalism and modernism to a close, but I thought I'd offer up a coda: two sonnets, composed (at least in part) by me.

I wrote these probably in 1996 or '97 with my friend J. Eric Marler (Eric, where art thou?); I'm pretty sure that we wrote them sitting at a table in Caffe Paradiso in Harvard Square, which was always my favorite cafe despite the fact that all of my friends loathed it. Eric and I composed the poems using the venerable methodology of the exquisite corpse: I wrote one line, then passed the paper to Eric, who wrote the next line, then returned it to me. We seem to have made an effort to make the language as baroquely Shakespearean (and formally correct) as possible, while skirting the edge of sense.

The sonnets made a guest appearance in an absurdist play Eric and I authored called # [read "Pound"], or, Twenty-One Simple Techniques for More Effective Communication, which included a convoluted espionage plot, alien abductions, Eric playing the role of Charles Bernstein and me as Ezra Pound emerging, Oscar-the-Grouch-like, from a plastic trash bin. Its modestly successful two-weekend run at the Leverett House Old Library in April 1998 was hailed as "brilliant" by the Harvard Independent--I think.

In the play, each sonnet was meant to be spoken by an anonymous man, the first in front of an American flag, the second in front of a huge red banner emblazoned with the "#" symbol.

The kernels of science in loaves of truth
Can scarcely nourish my fallow, hungry mind,
Which walks and welters in the loam of youth,
The moss its peel, the peat its spongy rind.
The soil is beauty's scaffold, wherein surmise
Gives rise, like yeast, to an expansive frame
That kills the creature it was pledged to prize,
Mounts and classifies it with a Latin name.
But the root of knowledge, clumsy-coward pale,
Flushes pink as it consults its gain,
Turns tyrant shape to fury's sweet detail,
And, forked, studies how to subdivide the main.
So buried gold shall flower for eating's sake
Till coin, like bread, my furrowed cortex sate.

When I am west, the cold and briny north
Sighs, timbers creaking. In the shrouds and stays
Green creepers trace the figures of thy worth
Along the cables where they eke their slow ways.
They cannot know the paraphilic stitch
With which the seaman mends a tarpaulin;
The filling sail is that sacrilege
Wherein enterprise exploits a disinterested wind.
Wind gains the wheel from the weaver's hand
Then dies--and in the neutral calm I find
Five-fingered fevers, whose reign and cure demand
The hot evasions of an equatorial mind.
In Ocean's sickness there is salt for chains
Dragging heedless in the shallows over coraled brains.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Mike Snider sent me a kind email in response to my last post, which among other things clarified something I'd been fumbling towards yesterday: that this discussion really centers around modernism and what one thinks of it. Here's what I emailed Mike in response:

"Post-rhetorical" is a weird phrase I came up with on the fly, and is probably a little confusing; what I meant by it was not the absence of all rhetorical techniques, but something like a refusal of capital-R Rhetoric, of grand statement even in folksy Frostian form. Far from seeing the post-rhetorical as a distinctive trait of new formalism, I'm thinking of it as something like a contemporary condition.

You also made me realize how much this debate really is about modernism and what one thinks of it. I love modernism and hence can't imagine living without it, nor can I read contemporary poetry without having modernism on the brain. I of course recognize that others might not share that opinion, and that indeed anti-modernism has a long and proud history; being at Stanford I can tell you that the ghost of Yvor Winters still lurks there unapologetically. It's just that I wonder if anti-modernism can really remain unmarked by modernism, or if one can really expect a reader of poetry to be free of modernism's spell; schoolkids these days tend to read haiku and Cummings and even Plath long before they get to Shakespeare's poetry.

I haven't read Steele's book, so I can't respond to his arguments; but the modernism that's important to me doesn't reject history. As to whether it was wrong about human nature, probably; but I'm not sure how much that matters: I imagine we will all turn out to have been wrong about human nature. A professor I know is fond of dismissing Virginia Woolf by saying that she didn't understand how the mind worked; that may be so, but I just don't see how that's relevant to whether her novels are good or worth reading. I don't think the truths that literature pursues are quite that simple.


I should also note Henry Gould's contribution to the discussion, where he notes--can it be?--that he largely agrees with me. In fact, I think we agree even more than Henry might think. My point about Lowell wasn't that Lowell showed how formal verse is "always an expression of high culture," but that in fact Lowell's work helped create that idea for us in a very particular way (compare that to Frost, whose adherence to meter seems consciously and even flamboyantly provincial and "low" in comparison to the free-verse stylings of transatlantic modernism). Henry's right that the future use of any form is completely unpredictable; what isn't unpredictable is the past use of that form, its history, which guarantees that if a form does "make a comeback," it will never be precisely the same as it was before.

Monday, March 22, 2004

I'm rather sorry that Mike Snider hasn't yet had the chance to write the "rather long essay" he'd intended in response to my post on formalism; I was actually looking forward to Mike's account of why he found my position "frankly incredible"--an anticipation that was only to a very minor degree gladiatorial.

So maybe it isn't entirely fair to respond to what may be a very partial statement of Mike's position--but one works with the tools at hand.

I do want to say that I'm not really intervening in the corollary debate between Josh Corey and Chris Lott on, among other things, what Chris is calling "New Cult." I don't believe (and neither, I think, does Josh) in the pursuit of "new" poetic forms just for their own sake; that would be a formal fetish just as silly as insisting that all poems for all time had to be sonnets. Rather, the impulse to "make it new" comes from the simple idea that a poem's form should have some correlation with what it says; and since what we have to say may change from time to time, it may be that we need to find different forms in which to say it, just as a language changes to accommodate our changing ways of life. "Make it new," in short, is less a formal than a historical gesture; and any new (or old) form comes with some argument, implicit or explicit, about why it is best suited to saying what needs to be said at a particular moment. (And this need not lead to an idea of aesthetic "progress"--the newer always better than the older--any more than a historical narrative does.) The horizon of "experiment"--not just what kinds of new poetic gestures might be widely accepted, but what it would even occur to anyone to do--is always delimited by literary and historical conditions.

Mike actually tackles this question of historical context head-on in his post, but in a way that I must say turned my ideas about "avant-garde" and "new formalism" upside-down. In my Cartoon History of Poetry, I'd pictured new formalists as bewigged traditionalists, with a rich sense of the literary tradition and a haughty conviction that the classic forms were the best. In the next panel, there'd be wild-eyed avant-gardists shredding anthologies, streaking through classrooms, and taking sledgehammers to busts of Shakespeare. In this caricature, it would be formalists who concerned themselves with social and literary history, while avant-gardists shouted "burn the museum" and embarked on wacky projects in willed ignorance of tradition.

But Mike's post convinces me that I had it all wrong. In his account, it's contemporary formalism that seems ahistorical, that doesn't see why we can't write a sonnet as Frost, or Wordsworth, or Milton did--that, indeed, understands "the sonnet" itself as a relatively unchanging form. And it's the avant-garde that has a sense of history--that can respond to Mike's question, "What happened, and when?" with its own map of the seismic shocks of the twentieth century.

To be fair, Mike does acknowledge, in an addendum to his post, that in fact quite a lot has happened over the past hundred years (in a narrative that's surprisingly, well, progressive for someone who's highly critical of the idea of literary progress). But even if we decided that history in the larger sense has no bearing on the forms that poetry takes, we'd only need to look at literary history to understand "what happened" that might make the sonnet seem a remote form today.

Well, for starters, free verse happened. Frostian grumbles about "playing tennis with the net down" only serve to demonstrate the very changed context in which Frost himself was writing; and Frost thus found himself in the historically unique position of writing metrical verse as a choice, one that to him must have spoken volumes about order, decorum, and sensibility--but that also made his practice of "the sonnet," or of blank verse, rather different than anything Wordsworth or Elizabeth Barrett Browning could have imagined.

And modernism happened. Pound's assault on writing "in sequence of a metronome" was so persuasive that it continues to be workshop gospel today; but more important was Pound's cranky historical consciousness, his sense that modernity simply couldn't be expressed in Victorian rhetoric. And Eliot's notion of "tradition" was one that demanded that the poet calibrate his or her means to the complexity of modern civilization; Eliot's own "return" to meter and form in some of his later work is an agonistic and, yes, even ironic one, hopeful that such traditional forms can restore some semblance of order to his materials, yet equally convinced that such efforts are futile. One can certainly argue that these writers were wrong or misguided; but their understandings of form, history, and modernity can't just be dismissed, as they've become part of the history of form as much as Shakespeare or Wordsworth.

Finally, there's Robert Lowell. For Lowell's readers, one of the main questions was whether Lowell's confessional and embarassing materials were elevated and ordered by his (sometimes) formalist style, or whether that high style was dragged down into the mud by its content. But it's precisely that ironic edge that gives Lowell his distinctive voice: a massive and ponderous rhetoric that probably isn't earned by Lowell's occasionally whiny introspection, but perhaps at times is. Perhaps more importantly, Lowell provided a model for how formal verse could re-enter American poetry: as a kind of high ground of value from which the muck of our "savage servility" could be regarded with a withering, ironic eye.

That's why, as Mike puts it, Milton's and Wordsworth's readers could read their sonnets without irony, while we can't read our own that way--although I think this statement is only supportable if we understand "irony" in a narrow sense, as a kind of sneering detachment or ridicule. Mike also takes this irony to be a product of reading, whereas I meant it more as something that would have to go into the process of writing. Mike's of course right to say that poets have always used irony as a rhetorical technique; but that isn't really the kind of irony I mean. What I mean is more like a kind of formal irony, one that might even be constitutive of sonnetry: the sonnet's consciousness of itself as a sonnet; or more precisely, the poet's awareness of the sonnet as a form that is historical, even dated, even dead. "My mistress's eyes are nothing like the sun" is precisely this kind of irony; it's Shakespeare's acknowledgment that the sonnet is a received form even for him, one weighted down with Petrarchan baggage and probably a bastard form in English anyway. That same irony is evident in the fact that every great sonnet-writing poet has to write a sonnet about sonnets; historical self-consciousness is a paradigm of the form.

So I actually thought I was giving Rhina Espaillat a lot of credit for those moments of self-consciousness in her poem, as those could be read as exactly those moments where the sonnet tradition is asserting itself the most. I'm by no means claiming, as Mike suggests, that the barriers to writing a sonnet today are simply insurmountable, and I'm honestly not so mean a reader that I start any poem hoping for the writer to be "crushed" in his or her aspirations. I do wonder why, though, there's so much emphasis being placed on what Mike calls the "traditionally constructed" sonnet, a phrase that I think obscures how narrow a definition Mike really wants to put on the sonnet; this phrasing really does make a fetish of form, limiting the sonnet to a poem in iambic pentameter that rhymes ababcdcdefefgg, regardless of content.

But the fact that all manner of poets over the past century have wanted to slap the label "Sonnet" on poems that often don't obey these rules suggests that there are other ways of signaling continuity with the sonnet tradition: focusing on its tropes, such as that of romantic love (Mayer) or the blazon, or seeing the sonnet as ground zero for lyricism itself (Berrigan). If the sonnet's always been about examining its own history, such non-sonnet sonnets may be more sonnets than a poem that just happens to have fourteen lines and rhymes in the right way.

Mike says that in introducing Mayer and Berrigan into the conversation, I'm asking, "why doesn't Snider do it that way?" Not at all. I'm just trying to point to a different possible lineage for the contemporary sonnet, one that speaks more not only to my interest in the sonnet tradition but to what I value in contemporary poetry too. I'm not going to back off of my claim that new formalism is post-rhetorical, or that it plays off of mainstream free-verse lyric, because if it weren't we simply wouldn't recognize it as contemporary poetry at all; if I wrote a sonnet in pure Miltonic rhetoric, were such a thing possible, it would simply seem weird and anachronistic rather than being recognized as a contemporary sonnet (a category that Mike insists exists).

The Rosanna Warren poem Mike quotes illustrates this perfectly: my judgment that this poem is post-rhetorical has nothing to do with its meter or lack thereof, and everything to do with its sensibility, imagery, and syntax. The opening--"High Summer. Plentitude"--is less rhetorical than telegraphic, signaling an entire tradition that no longer needs to be spoken. But the image "I crouch on the warm skull / of New Hampshire" couldn't have been written anywhere but in the United States of the last three or four decades; it unglamorously places the lyric speaker and her body ("crouch") in a flat sentence unadorned with flourishes, save the shock image of "warm skull," which appears and then is absorbed back into a mere location.

But the line that opens the sestet is, to my ear, pure formal irony: "From the valley rises the interstate's purr..." For the first time in the poem, Warren employs a syntactical inversion to set up a moment of drama--"From the valley rises"--that is deflated and made banal--"the interstate's purr." Again, here's the sonnet signalling its awareness of itself as a sonnet, and indeed of the precise historical moment in which it exists. The contemporary gesture that gets made here is precisely that of the disconnect between the high form and the banality of what's being seen.

Were it not for this line, this poem would be a perfect illustration of precisely that free-verse, post-confessional style I was talking about--personally grounded, vaguely reaching toward the metaphysical without stating any particular position or belief, ending with a striking, bodily, epiphanic image. I'd like to think that the sonnet form forced Warren into the inversion, "From the valley rises..." because in that moment the work of the poem--of making an ordinary experience transcendent--gets shifted onto the sonnet form itself, and the sonnet doesn't quite want to cooperate, or will do so only with a nudge and wink. That irony is there; it just can't help itself.

Friday, March 19, 2004

I've tuned in a little late to the discussion of formalism, new or otherwise, between Kasey, Jonathan, and Mike Snider, and am not sure how much I have to add; it's kind of a no-brainer for me to jump onto the Kasey/Jonathan side of the seesaw, and I don't find much at all compelling about the Rhina Espaillat poem that's under discussion.

But I don't think it's at all the case, as Snider suggests, that his antagonists are "offended that anyone would want to write a sonnet at all." As Kasey points out--and is brave enough to demonstrate--darn near everyone tries to write sonnets at one time or another, and contemporary poetry would be utterly impoverished if Ted Berrigan or Bernadette Mayer hadn't given us their versions. But, of course, Berrigan's and Mayer's sonnets don't sound anything like New Formalist work.

The real issue, to my mind, in using a form like the sonnet is belatedness, and how one deals with it. Everyone agrees that Espaillat's poem doesn't sound anything like, say, Shakespeare or Wordsworth; for Mike Snider this is a sign of its contemporaneity and strength, while for Jonathan and Kasey it is likely a sign of its vacuousness. For the most part, I'd probably say that what Espaillat does is take the low-key, free-verse contemporary style and "set" it into pentameter; in this sense, no one would mistake a "new" formalist poem for an old one, since new formalism is emphatically post-rhetorical, in its own way just as shy of grandiose statement as the most militantly deconstructive avant-garde writing.

But that this setting is not quite a perfect fit--that the form carries something of its own history embedded within it--is evident in some of the funny, anachronistic phrases Espaillat finds herself pushed into: "he feels like such a dunce," "dead these eighteen years." While a critical reader might fairly reject such lines as padding, I'm going to make a leap of good faith and understand these as moments of self-consciousness in the poem, places where the sonnet understands itself as a sonnet, as a form that is emphatically not contemporary--signaling, in effect, that a "new formalism" is always going to be a paradox. (I think this is why it's so hard to write contemporary formal verse that isn't at some level humorous or, well, just plain goofy; an intelligent formalist poet has to approach the task of adapting [or opposing] the slack, free-verse, post-confessional style with a healthy dose of irony.)

Sonnets like Berrigan's and Mayer's register this kind of belatedness much more directly--and maybe, I'd even venture to say, honestly--by using a pastiche of anachronistic language, "thee" and "thou" and the whole nine yards, but juxtaposing that very sharply with quotidian detail and frank, funny eroticism. In fact, the contemporary "formalist" verse that interests me most is less adaptive than frankly imitative, reveling baroquely in the charged and worked-up language of a writer like Shakespeare while consciously acknowledging how distant that language is from us.

Thus I don't find Mike Snider's argument that Jonathan "doesn't know how to read contemporary metrical verse" convincing, because it suggests that such a mode of reading contemporary formalism exists in isolation from the methods we would use to read older formal verse. In other words, you can't defend Rhina Espaillat--or, for that matter, Ted Berrigan--by saying that reading their sonnets is just different than reading Shakespeare's. No one can write a sonnet in English without having that weight on their shoulders; Milton and Wordsworth knew it too.

Since Kasey's stuck his own neck out on this one--and Mike does it weekly--I suppose I'll now have to offer my own venture into sonnet-writing. I wrote this poem about two and a half years ago; like so many of my good ideas, it's really Bernadette Mayer's: "Type out a Shakespeare sonnet or other poem you would like to learn about/imitate double-spaced on a page. Rewrite it in between the lines." I chose Shakespeare's Sonnet 113, one of my favorites, honestly, because of its sheer incomprehensibility, which I thought maybe gave me a little wiggle room, but also because no line was familiar enough to be immediately recognizable by a casual reader, providing at least (so I was arrogant enough to think) even a half-second of doubt as to whether a given line was mine or Shakespeare's. My attempts at Shakespearean rhetoric seem at most points to be fairly cringeworthy, but maybe not in a totally uninteresting way.

Shakespeare: Sonnet 113

Since I left you, mine eye is in my mind,
That ravish'd word which, memorized, is thought;
And that which governs me to go about
Moves mildly, like a horse who, rudely taught,
Doth part his function, and is partly blind.
The cut string in its fraying to the eyes
Seems seeing, but effectually is out-
Side showing, which in thrusting, signifies.
For it no form delivers to the heart,
Holding hard blazon to its foundered breast.
Of bird, or flow'r, or shape which it doth latch,
It finds no purpose. Yet in speaking's test
Of his quick objects hath the mind no part?
His wit exchang'd for a current wrong.
Nor his own vision holds what it doth catch:
Gulled fire flashing in the voice's long.
For if it see the rud'st or gentlest sight,
The fevered brim shall hardly hold, despite
The most sweet favour or deformed'st creature,
Whose empty hand shall soon find force to right
The mountain, or the sea, or day, or night,
Mocking motive. And if by chance it grasp
The crow, or dove, it shapes them to your feature,
Redeeming bone to leveler and hasp.
Incapable of more, replete with you,
Washed in the wane of periodic light,
My most true mind thus maketh mine untrue
Words live again, in the flood of hearing's height.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

I could be wrong, but I think Jonathan Mayhew's new tagline indicates that he is my uncle, or maybe a distant New York second cousin.

Any other family members out there? I'm waiting to see who claims the title of "The Asian American Jim Behrle."

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Since I neglected to change my registration, I had to trek up to my parents' house in the suburbs to vote. The polling place was a middle school that had been derelict during my childhood--a demographic trough, apparently--but that has since been reclaimed to service a newly booming population. We arrived just as classes were changing; apparently this is just one of many schools where the traditional class-changing bell has been replaced by an electronic tone, which mostly sounded like a cell phone ringing. I was shocked to recognize a very distinctive middle-school odor, like that of a distant locker room, which obviously couldn't have been seeping out of the pores of the gutted and renovated building but could only be attributed to sweaty adolescent hormones. I felt very tall.

I suppose at some point they'll really do away with punch-card balloting, but until they do there's something uniquely satisfying about using the little plastic tool to punch decisively through the unseen ballot beneath. Plus it gave me the opportunity to check carefully for hanging chads; I did indeed discover one and removed it with great care, lest my vote for the O'Malley vacancy on the Cook County Circuit Court go awry. I was disappointed, however, not to be offered one of those little "I Voted" lapel stickers; I only saw one person wearing one all day, and he was a TV reporter, so it was probably made in the prop studio.

The U.S. Senate race in Illinois is probably one of the most important of the 2004 season; Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald chose not to seek a second term, leaving the seat wide open in a period of Democratic resurgence in Illinois. I was pleased to see Barack Obama, a state senator and U of Chicago law professor, trouncing the competition in the Democratic primary; Obama seems smart and effective on the right issues (including civil rights and death-penalty reform in Illinois), and by all accounts has something like rock-star charm in person. In a crowded field with some serious mudslinging it was pretty impressive that Obama's only obvious weakness seemed to be his name, which, of course, led an overzealous Republican activist to put up a website featuring an image of "Obama" bin Laden--thankfully taken down after a quick public outcry.

It was somewhat agonizing to have my major source of information on the campaign be the Chicago Tribune, which I read every morning despite its profoundly conservative slant--though it's less a gleeful, swaggering neoconservatism than the embittered, middle-aged Midwestern type that masquerades as "common sense" and still thinks political correctness is the source of all evil. The Trib spent most of the weeks leading up to the election wringing its hands about how the campaign had "devolved" into mudslinging, while at the same time being the primary force behind such smear tactics; it broke and then relentlessly pounded away at a story about multimillionaire Democrat Blair Hull's messy divorce, suggesting that Hull--one of whose major credentials had been as a women's-rights activist--was a violent abuser of women. But Hull, who sank more than $20 million of his own money into the campaign (the latest in a recent string of people who've tried to buy Senate seats), humiliated himself with an awful counteroffensive, which included parading his two grown daughters in front of TV cameras to defend him, but also included defensive full-page ads that accused his ex-wife of being motivated by greed and insisted (as if this proved anything) that they had just been to see a movie together last week.

Hull had been the front-runner, but the controversy (and the Trib) pretty much took care of that, and Hull's response to the whole thing showed that he obviously didn't get it. Meanwhile, the best the Republicans can offer up is a guy whose major achievement is being the ex-husband of Seven of Nine.
Choke poetry returns: Stephanie reports that Steven Vincent's choke poem appears in the latest issue of MIRAGE #4/PERIOD(ICAL). Where do I get my copy?

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Ron Silliman posts the answers to his quiz, along with the vast array of responses. Check your work.

Well, it turns out I obviously should have recognized poem A, having read Black Dog Songs just a few weeks ago, but apparently my memory isn't what it used to be. Or--more likely--that I actively resisted trying to think about who had written the poem (not that I would have necessarily gotten it if I tried), because I was too busy questioning the terms of the game. But it is kind of interesting, I guess, that in original post I took what was correctly identified as a characteristic Jarnot gesture--the repetitive structure of "as if..."--as mimicry of Rumsfeldian discourse; this makes me feel a little weird about the usual genealogy (Whitman, Stein) that's usually given to anaphora in Jarnot's work.
All that said, what I really find kind of touching is that no one chose to ruin Ron's game by identifying any of the poets, even when they obviously knew who the poets were.
Kasey, Jonathan Mayhew, Chris Murray, and Shanna Compton, among others, take Ron Silliman's test of poetry.

Kasey joins me in challenging the terms of the test, arguing that artificially stripping a poem of its author "is counterproductive to one of the main goals of any sustained reading of poets and poetry: to establish connections between social relations and practice, community and production, culture and cultural artifacts." But he then goes ahead and gives the test the ol' college try anyway--with a twist: noting in each case how his reading is inevitably driven toward speculation about the specific identity of the author (and away from "the text itself"), to the extent that he wants to "go have pizza and beer with the person who wrote them" (how Personist, Kasey).

But what actually interests me most--both in Kasey's response and in others--is how totally Ron's test failed in presenting texts that could remain anonymous; most readers already knew the identities of at least two of the four authors. Even better was Shanna Compton's comment over at Ron's blog (later qualified) that "i am pretty sure that almost every poetry blogger reads the online journal in which poem A appeared"--although apparently I don't, since I didn't recognize it. Best of all--and something that hadn't even occurred to me--was that of course, poets A, B, C, and D were quite likely to be in the audience for the test itself, watching as bloggers tried to figure out who they were. Indeed, Shanna's blog contains this surreal comment by none other than "Poet B" her/himself:

Well, poet A was extremely important to me, mostly in the freedom I felt when first reading poet A. But I don’t think I really got the anaphora thing so much from poet A, more the freedom to have real things in the poem and to twist those real thing inside of other real things, the sort of rapid deployment of nouns which is pretty much consistently present in poet A’s second book.

At this point we seem to have entered a Borgesian state of increasingly conspiratorial relations between quanities alleged to be hypothetical: the poet B's deep debt to the works of poet A, which may not even exist in the first place...

Was this Ron's point in the first place? Because the result of the test has not been, as I might have expected, an exercise in close reading, but rather an exposure of the networks that do surround the free-floating texts on Ron's blog. What Ron showed was that it is in fact impossible to find a text that will be only "itself," and in fact that the question of identifying the authors of the texts in question proved to be much more a marker of insider/outsider (who reads which journals, who knows poets A and B) than a test of one's interpretative skills.
Mme Chatelaine on bubble-head Chang-Rae Lee.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004


Hairy, fat saggy body
with scalpels and staplers

connects riverboat services

a treatable cause of "failed"
lower back syndrome

a series of six cases (abstract)

Dry needling
with inability to heel walk. It’s
not a real penis.

The pressure on the other gluteus
medius: inter-rater

agreement, effect of treatment as
a cause of shoulder pain

versus high velocity low amplitude
muscle motor points

Monday, March 08, 2004

I sometimes wonder about the purpose of "test of poetry" games like the one Ron Silliman is currently running. Ron says he's not interested in what one commenter called the "gotcha" element of showing, say, how a lousy poem might be written by a poet we call "great" and an oustanding poem could be written by an unknown; or, to put it in a more nuanced fashion, how elements we regard as characteristic and distinctive in a certain poet's work may be equally present in a second poet who we'd never associate with the first. But that element of the game seems too much like an undergraduate, neo-New Critical exercise--exercises precisely because they deny the reality of how work circulates in the literary marketplace, as Josh Corey's take on the test suggests.

I'm more intersted in one of Ron's other assertions: "Every element of time, place, gender, all manner of basic dimensions now have to be inferred entirely from the text itself." That this is a central concern is evident from Ron's later question about the poets "lurking" behind these texts: "what gender are they?"

I'm guessing (though I'm not sure) that Ron's position would be that all of these sociohistorical markers can be inferred "entirely from the text itself," and that indeed part of the challenge of the "test" is that an ideally sensitive (which means not just formally sensitive but politically and historically sensitive) reader would be able to identify one text as the product of a 30-year-old white male New York academic, another as the writing of a mid-50s Asian American female artist living in New Mexico. This, I think, is the flipside of the contemporary idea of the "politics of form," in which a poem's political location and relevance can be read not through its explicit statements but through its formal choices; the corollary would be that one ought to be able to read, back through a poem's form, the historical and political position from which it emerges.

If this task is difficult, it's not exactly because Ron has stacked the deck, but because such questions are particularly challenging for the contemporary, experimental modes of poetry that interest Ron and many of those participating in the discussion. Poem A, for instance, does position itself in contemporary political discourse ("for Donald Rumsfeld"), but doesn't otherwise articulate a specific position on, say, Rumsfeld's policies (although I have a very hard time imagining this poem emerging from a poet who was pro-Rumsfeld). Instead, the poet has chosen to structure the poem as a parody/critique of Rumsfeld's own anaphoric speech structures--a technique, I must confess, I'm also guilty of using in a poem of my own. But part of that critique is that the poem declines to stake out a position that is the mirror image of Rumsfeld's militaristic, swaggering clarity; and in declining to become another talking head of punditry, it also declines to use any obvious markers to signal its own social or political identity.

It just so happens that I have on my left Elisabeth Frost's The Feminist Avant-Garde in American Poetry, open to the third chapter on Sonia Sanchez. Ron's game would have been a very different one if, say, lines like these had appeared:

my brown
bamboo / colored
blk / berry / face
will spread itself over
this western hemisphere and
be remembered.
be sunnnnnNNGG.
for i will be called

In this work from the early 1970s, Sanchez--in keeping with the tenets of the Black Arts movement--does use explicit markers of black and female identity, in a manner designed to erase any doubt about who is speaking. The "test of poetry" guessing game works only if it draws on a body of work that refuses content that gives this particularity of social location.

I don't say this as a criticism of Ron or of any of the work he's presenting. I dare say that it would be hard to read a lot of my poetry and immediately identify it as coming from an Asian American writer, and some of my work very explicitly plays with expectations about what Asian American writing ought to sound like. But I do think it raises some questions about what it means to choose four contemporary experimental poems and they ask readers to guess the gender of their authors. Ron mentions Araki Yasusada in his post; if the Yasusada affair demonstrates anything, it should demonstrate that work always circulates in a state that is heavily charged by nationality, race, gender, history--a charge that is given, first and foremost, by naming. (Indeed, this is very much the case for Asian American writers, whose ethnically marked names rarely afford them the opportunity to "pass" as non-Asian poets on a book spine.) It would be nice to believe that we can read poetry in the absence of such markers--on some rarefied idea of pure "merit"--but (as Ron is good enough to suggest in his post) any "test of poetry" already has certain ground rules set up before it begins.

A final anecdote: when I was in college I was on the poetry board of the college literary journal. Poems were meant to be considered anonymously by the board; only the poetry editor was supposed to know the identity of the writer. Despite this allegedly meritorious system, I couldn't help but notice that the same half-dozen poets were published again and again in the journal.

At one meeting, a poem came up for discussion that I found quite boring--flat in its language, reliant on esoteric pop-culture references that didn't really interest me. I began to argue strongly against the poem, but was surprised to find some of the most senior members of the board opposing me. One member--one of the best-known campus poets--was particularly vehement in her defense of the poem; as fatigue set in and others dropped out, the debate came down to a heated confrontation between the two of us. Finally, she looked directly at me and said: "I know who wrote this poem. This poem was written by--" and proceeded to name another well-known campus writer, now a well-known poet and critic. "And he is a genius."

I don't honestly know whether this story should be read as supporting or opposing Ron's test of poetry. At the time I thought it was a terrible miscarriage of justice. But in retrospect I realize it was a rending of the veil, a demonstration of how real literary institutions functioned in their establishment of insiders and outsiders, and how no amount of earnest anonymity could really overcome that. Far from making me more cynical, that revelation is refreshing: it suggests the need not simply to mount an assault on the temples of high culture in the hope that they will recognize your inherent merit, but to find other avenues of getting things done.
Why don't my permalinks work anymore?
An incertain plume visits Lee Bontecou at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
Gabe Gudding reports on his reading at Myopic Books on Sunday night, and on how he is not a barbarian. Bill Allegrezza found it funny, except for the dolphin-killing part.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

Farewell, old illegible template; hello, garish but marginally more readable template.

Making the transfer was terrifying, like an Easter egg race or disarming a bomb.

At least I no longer look like I'm stuck in mid-2003. But the blog no longer looks like "me." For one thing, I'm wider.
Blogs v. lists, chez Shanna Compton: "here we may edit, revise, repost, while there once you hit send you're screwed."

And even more interesting:

And I would just never email a poem I wrote to a bunch of strangers. I don't particularly like it when I get them, especially when the sender asks two days later: Why didn't anyone comment? I want feedback! I feel on the spot. Put upon. Can't I direct my own reading? Can't you by choosing to visit me here? Just like I choose you?

But you, you aren't strangers.

Saturday, March 06, 2004

Chris Murray responds to my post on "the Asian American Updike" with a denunciation of "Updike-Hegemony":

The only salvagable thing in his cultural wrecks might be some talent for thick description, but even that is so overburdened with nostalgic hearkenings and heaps of WASPishness, that it isn't worth shoveling through...Ayyyye, mi, poor Lee!

Friday, March 05, 2004

A lovely illusion: Returning to blogging actually means that I am doing more work, since it means that I'm spending more time sitting in front of my computer.
One last salvo: Chris Murray points to Tom Beckett on why he prefers blogs to listservs.

And some of Chris's students have found Wil Wheaton's blog, looking at which gives me a weird kind of high-school geek nostalgic frisson.
John Latta tours Chicago, seeing Rembrandt and buying books in my own backyard.
So I pick up this week's New York Times Magazine and see, above Bill Murray's head, a startling headline: "An Asian-American Updike." Here I thought that Asian American writing was a young, vital literature, full of growth and innovation; and now it's gone and produced, of all things, an Updike. Sheesh.

Then I thought: Who on earth could this "Updike" be? It couldn't be anyone I'd ever heard of. And what would an "Asian American Updike" sound like, anyway? Was it really possible to imagine Updike's aggrieved voice of WASP male privilege--now mostly heard in crotchety and misogynist New Yorker reviews--transposed to an Asian American? (Imagine, for comparison, labeling some author "the black Updike" or, better yet, "the female Updike.")

And then I thought: Oh no. I know who this is going to be about. And I open the magazine and sure enough, there it is--a profile of Chang-Rae Lee.

Now, I'll confess to being at least a moderate fan of Lee's work. Native Speaker is, for my money, one of the smartest and most readable Asian American novels, and the high-gloss accomplishment of Lee's surfaces is generally earned by the often shocking hollowness beneath--a condition that Lee links obliquely, though never, to his credit, deterministically, to the experience of Asian Americans. Native Speaker is, in a lot of ways, an extended riff on Ellison's Invisible Man; Lee's Asian American protagonist is a private investigator capable of "passing," invisibly, in a wide range of social situtations (and ethnic categories).

But the Updike comparison gave me pause. Charles McGrath's profile is called "Deep in Suburbia," and I quickly realized that the idea of the Asian American Updike was really a corollary of the idea of Asian Americans as model minority--whiter than white, as it were--so that Lee's disappearance into the privileged suburbs of New Jersey could be made an analogue for Updike's own New England pedigree. (Much is made of Lee's education at Exeter and Yale.)

And, of course, it helps explain how the stiff-upper-lip New England patrician could be replaced by the Asian American; McGrath spares no stereotype in accounting for Lee's apparently "emotionless" personality:

Those who doubt his untroubled existence can point to the obvious: Lee is, to start with, a Korean-American, and Korean-Americans of his generation are known for concealing their feelings.

Since Lee is only about nine years older than I am, and immigrated to the U.S. when he was 3, I just have no idea where this statement is coming from, if not from the same idea of Oriental reserve that I got so worked up about (generationally inappropriate, it would seem) last April. Lee's own remarks in the essay show that he knows better, remarking of his mother, "how interesting and smart, and sometimes aggressive, she could be, but it was always in Korean. She could never be that person in English."

McGrath's profile is littered with these kinds of tidbits; at the same time that he's holding up Lee as a model of perfect assimilation, he presents it with a kind of disbelief, as if it were a mystery how any white community could simply accept Asians in their midst: " not to have had a problem fitting in or making firends at school, even though after the Lees moved to the suburbs he was usually the only Asian in his class." Hey, I've been there too. My own experience of it was that it wasn't until years later that I was able to think about the difference between usual childhood teasing and meaner stuff that might have come out of racism, precisely because of my isolation from other Asian Americans. As Lee puts it: "The funny thing about growing up in a town where you're one of a few Asian kids or minorities is you don't really see yourself. Everyone else sees you, and you get a kind of vibe, but you don't really see yourself."

It turns out Lee has a new book coming out. But the book I'd really like to see is Lee's abandoned first book, allegedly titled Agnew Belittlehead, which is described as "heavily influenced by Thomas Pynchon," with "both Byronic verse and fantastical or science-fiction elements," and "completely intellectualized" with "nothing to do with people, nothing to do with humanity." Robot Tim says: bring it on.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

Right on. Catherine says:

the Buffalo List reads like 30 people all talking at once in a voice of utter entitlement & self-assurance about things I can rarely relate to 'cause I haven't slept in 2 days because I'm trying to figure out how to pay my rent that is already a week over due


the blogs I love best are the ones whose authors struggle in one way or another & allow the reader to observe (& comment in some instances) that struggle & possible solution.
MYOPIC POETRY SERIES -- a weekly series of readings and poets' talks

Myopic Books in Chicago -- Sundays at 7:00 / 1564 N. Milwaukee Avenue


Sunday March 7 - Gabriel Gudding and John Beer

Gabriel Gudding's first book, A Defense of Poetry was published by the University of Pittsburgh press as part of their Pitt Poetry Series in November, 2002. His work has appeared in journals like American Poetry Review, LiBourgeoizine, Fence, VeRT, etc. He is currently an assistant professor of English at Illinois State University where he teaches quote experimental unquote poetry. He has started 2 creative writing programs in prisons and is looking to start some trouble in the maximum security facility in Pontiac (downstate) this semester. He was born in Minnesota, and has lived in San Francisco, LA, Seattle, Port Townsend Washington, Olympia, Indiana, New York, and Mississippi. He is very glad to be out of Mississippi.

John Beer lives in Chicago. His poems and essays have appeared in periodicals including Chicago Review, Chicago Tribune, Crowd, Verse, Colorado Review, Barrow Street, and the Review of Contemporary Fiction.

Sunday March 14 - William Allegrezza

William Allegrezza teaches and writes from his base in Chicago. His poems, translations, essays, and reviews have been published in several countries, including the U.S., Holland, Finland, and Australia, and are available in many online journals. His chapbook lingo was published by subontic press and his e-book Temporal Nomads can be downloaded from xPress(ed) Also, he is the editor of moria , a journal dedicated to experimental poetry and poetics.

Sunday March 21 - Srikanth Reddy

Srikanth (Chicu) Reddy's first collection of poetry, "Facts for Visitors," is coming out with the New California Poetry Series on the University of California Press this Spring. His poems have appeared in various journals, including APR, Fence, Grand Street, Ploughshares, and Verse. He is currently the Poet-in-Residence at the University of Chicago."

Sunday March 28 - Jackie Lalley and Richard Fox

Jackie Lalley's work has been published or is forthcoming in Bridge, the Harvard Review, the Nebraska Review, and other publications. She programs the Discovery Reading Series at the Poetry Center of Chicago and is organizing a local chapter of the Independent Press Association. She provides publishing and nonprofit development services as a consultant, mostly to nonprofits.

Richard Fox lives and works in Chicago. He has contributed poems to TriQuarterly, The Diagram, Spinning Jenny, Folio, Painted Bride Quarterly, Rhino and other journals. Work is forthcoming in the journal, Paper Street. He recorded a CD in 2001. One of his poems has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2004. He was awarded a project grant from the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs in 2001, a Full Fellowship in Poetry from the Illinois Arts Council in 2000, and a residency at the Millay Colony for the Arts in 2000. He holds a BFA in Photography from Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia.
Trolling through ye olde archives, I came across another study in blog ecology that looks a lot like the back-and-forth between list and blog that we've been talking about this week.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

More on blogs & lists: the blogosphere strikes back, sort of.

Stephanie and Jonathan both remark on the way Poetics list discussions get filtered to them largely through blogs (well, through this one in particular). Jonathan goes so far as to say: "I officially call for [the list's] abolition!"

Ptarmigan minces no words: the list is a display of "ziploc-sealed clubbiness" and "public show-ponying."

Meanwhile, the discussion on the list itself meanders on; remarkably, the posts there have taken on an increasingly elegiac tone, with Joe Amato returning to declare "the passing of the Age of Lists" and saying of blogs: "i may start one myself."
But maybe the funniest riposte--and a testament to the fact that the blog, above all else, is a monster that needs to be constantly fed--comes from Bill Marsh, who responds to Joe Amato's long post (which is interesting for claiming blogs as a site of "interiority," even if I don't agree with the still implicitly negative contrast with the list as a site of "dialogue and exchange") with a single line: "Can I post this on my blog?"
And Mark Lamoureux explains why the Poetics list is "a little alarm clock telling me it's 12:15 AM and time to go to bed and not much else."
Well: I must pronounce myself stunned by the way the whole "start an argument" argument over at the Poetics list--with its "blogs are sucking the listerv dry" corollary--has gone. After my post yesterday, I was expecting the thread to go the way it usually does, with a flood of blogophobia.

But this time, for whatever reason, the bloggers spoke up--Chris Murray, Nick Piombino, Stephen Vincent, and others--and something like a coherent defense of poetry blogs started happening, on the Poetics list itself. Maybe it's just a matter of critical mass; even most of those voicing critiques of blogs had to admit (somewhat sheepishly) that they, too, had blogs of their own.

Even more surprising, though, was the result. Not the old-style, all-out flame war that folks like Ray Bianchi and Alan Sondheim seemed, at various moments, to be hoping for; but a series of lengthy, thoughtful posts and responses to posts, adding up to a discussion that was sustained, interesting, and possibly even productive, without anyone having to get the "once-over."

I can't help thinking that blogging actually did change the very form of the discussion. The posts by folks like Chris, Nick, Stephen, and Tim Peterson felt more like, well, blog entries than listserv posts: longer and more essayistic, more rigorously critical than reactive. But it was also fascinating to see those entries appear in the "head-on" format of the listserv; the encounter of the two forms was, I think, to the benefit of both.

And how does discussion move between blogs and the list, if at all? This seems like a perfect opportunity to think about that. There was one post on the list that railed against "meters" and "counters" as antithetical to "direct communication," but in fact these are a means of communication, a way of seeing who's reading you and responding to you.

So how was blogland responding to and continuing the discussion?

Nick Piombino reproduced his Poetics list posting under the heading "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Blogger."

Chris Murray reminds us: "there's more to blogs than lists," and reflects on her own practice.

Those Umbrists declare themselves part of the blog counter-assault on list-servs.

Jim Behrle goes toe-to-toe with Tim Peterson.

And Mme Chatelaine says: "Get Real": the blog is a form.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

A notice of Sunday's reading, courtesy of Li Bloom, who was first on the scene with a gift of flowers:

A Hit of Tim
Myopic Bookstore
Chicago, Ill
Sunday, Feb. 29, 2004

First tease of spring weather,
(Joan Rivers was interviewing on the
red carpet at the Oscars as I was leaving)
brisk drive downtown...(hellos to Chuck,
Tim, Tim's mom, grandma, various poets, et al.)

Tim's performing persona was sheer delight.
The dank basement promptly filled with the
wit and wisdom of his diverse and deftly crafted
poems. Selections from two chapbook collabor-
ations, recent poems, The Stanford Library
index card poems -(loved them), concluding
with the "Elephant & Castle" series.

Tim has impeccable enunciation and a mercurial
intellect which breezes through sound and meaning.
He uses crisp, authentic phrasings; deliberate
intent & humor; a technical wiz. 45 minutes of
fresh spirit & intellect .... adrenaline on my drive

Monday, March 01, 2004

The assault on blogs goes on over at the Poetics list.

Ray Bianchi--himself a blogger--wrote in yesterday bemoaning the "decline of this listserv", and suggesting that blogs were in part to blame for drawing away a lot of poets so that "we do not have the kinds of fights that existed before."

This prompted, of course, one of the periodic bouts of blogophobia that seizes the list; even the old line about "the list is the forum, blogs are boutiques" got hauled out again. (I already had my say on that one back in December.)

But anyway. As someone who's only posted to the list about three or four times in the past five years, I can't say I'm that nostalgic for knock-down, drag-out fights on the Poetics list--in fact, I've always found them profoundly alienating. I'm bothered by the fetish of "starting an argument" for its own sake, especially when it gets confused with dialogue or community.

So maybe there's a reason that some of the "brightest lights" have taken up blogging. I've been blogging for about a year now, and I've found it to be (for me) a much more amenable form in which to think and talk about poetics. And contrary to what often gets said about blogs on this list--that they're "boutiques" where poets get to "listen to the sound of their own voices"--I've always thought of blogging as a much more humble mode of communication. If you want to tune in to my random musings, you can, but they don't land in the inboxes of several hundred people each day. More overheard than heard, I guess.

I also like what Chris Murray said about the slower pace of blog discussion--which gives me time to think about what I want to say, and to explain myself at some length; the list tends to make me just react.

Contrary to what Ray Bianchi suggested, I think blogs make discussions about poetry more accessible, less "ghettoized," than before. Non-poet friends and colleagues who would never have access to the Poetics list can and do look at blogs, and the odd mix of the public and the private that tends to animate a blog can be more appealing to a general reader.

And I have found that blogs can build poetry communities just as effectively as a listserv. I recently moved from the Bay Area to Chicago, and felt like I was able to make contact with poets here right away largely because we were reading each other's blogs. I'm not sure whether Tim Peterson meant his comment that blogs were "re-regionalizing" poetry as a criticism; to the extent that it's true, I don't think it's a bad thing--maybe, like politics, all poetry is local--but if it's giving certain places (San Francisco, Chicago, Boston) a clearer sense of themselves, it's also connecting them to other communities elsewhere.

So has the Poetics list changed? Sure, but I don't think blogs are to blame. If anything, the list is kind of a victim of its own success. As it's gotten larger and larger, and become something like an official organ of experimental poetry--become, in short, an institution--it's inevitably become more public and impersonal, more like a bulletin board than a coffee-table conversation. That's an important role, and maybe it's a sign of the strength of a community rather than its weakness. Conversations take all kinds of forms, and they don't all have to involve screaming.