Poetry on the Brink: Reinventing The Lyric
brief fast has made me dangerously thirsty for juice.
— Craig Dworkin, Motes (2011)[i]
1. Dejà vu?
What happens to poetry when Everybody is a Poet? In a recent lecture that poses this question, Jed Rasula notes:
The colleges and universities that offer graduate degrees in poetry employ about 1,800 faculty members to support the cause. But these are only 177 of the 458 institutions that teach creative writing. Taking those into account, the faculty dedicated to creative writing swells to more than 200,000. All these people must comply with the norms for faculty in those institutions, filing annual reports of their activities, in which the most important component is publication. With that in mind, I don’t need to spell out the truly exorbitant numbers involved. In a positive light, it has sanctioned a surfeit of small presses . . . to say nothing of all the web-zines (the distinction between paper and pixels is quickly evaporating). From another perspective, it has remade poetry on the model of scholarship.[ii]
What makes Rasula’s cautionary tale so sobering is that the sheer number of poets now plying their craft inevitably ensures moderation and safety. The national (or even transnational) demand for a certain kind of prize-winning “well crafted” poem—a poem that the New Yorker would see fit to print and that would help its author get one of the “good jobs” advertised by the Association of Writers and Poets (AWP) in a given year, has produced an extraordinary uniformity. Whatever the poet’s ostensible subject—and here identity politics has produced a degree of variation, so that we have Latina poetry, Asian-American poetry, Queer poetry, the poetry of the disabled, and so on—the poems you will read in American Poetry Review or similar publications will, with rare exceptions, exhibit the following characteristics: (1) irregular lines of free verse, with little or no emphasis on the construction of the line itself or on what the Russian Formalists called “the word as such,” (2) prose syntax with lots of prepositional and parenthetical phrases, laced with graphic imagery or even extravagant metaphor (the sign of “poeticity”), (3) the expression of a profound thought or small epiphany, usually based on a particular memory, designating the lyric speaker as a particularly sensitive person—one who really feels the pain, whether of our Imperialist wars in the Middle East or of late capitalism or of some personal tragedy like the death of a loved one.
Ironically, even this formula is not a guarantee of continuing success. “Poets and scholars alike are specialists,” says Rasula, but in one important respect the two factions are rather different. Whereas scholars do gain cultural capital as they move up the academic ladder and can—by the time they become full professors—feel relatively comfortable in their careers, poets are always being displaced by younger poets. Whenever I sort out the hundreds of poetry books that come across my desk and rearrange my bookcases, I notice a curious phenomenon. Poet X has produced two or three successful books: s/he keeps on writing in the same vein, but somehow the fourth book, no better or worse than the previous ones, gets much less attention for the simple reason that, in the interim, so many new poets have come on the scene. The newcomers are not necessarily better than their elders, nor do they write in an appreciably different mode, but the spotlight in now on them. Indeed, Ezra Pound’s “Make it New” has come to refer, not to a set of poems, but to the poet who is known to have written them.
It was not always thus. The famous poetry wars of the 1960s—raw versus cooked, open versus closed, Donald Allen’s New American Poetry (1960) verses the Donald Hall-Robert Pack anthology New Poets of England and America (1962)–produced lively and engaging debates about the very nature of poetry and poetics. What made a lineated text a poem? Did poems require some sort of closure, a circular structure with beginning, middle, and end? Should the poet speak in his or her own person, divulging
intimate autobiographical details? And so on. In the 1980s, when Language poetry came on the scene, the poetry wars were renewed, although the context for the debate had become more specialized than it was in the ’60s. Language poetry provided a serious challenge to the delicate lyric of self-expression and direct speech: it demanded an end to transparency and straightforward referentiality in favor of ellipsis, indirection, and intellectual-political engagement. It was closely allied to French poststructuralist theory, later to the Frankfurt School, and hence it was, by definition, a high culture movement. By the late nineties, when Language poetry felt compelled to be more inclusive with respect to gender, race, and ethnic diversity, it soon became difficult to tell what was or was not a “Language poem.”
American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary Poetry (2009) exemplifies the precarious rapprochement that followed. The editors, Cole Swensen and David St. John tried their best to fuse mainstream and experimental tendencies. Thus the Introduction optimistically claims:
Today’s hybrid poem might engage such conventional approaches as narrative that presumes a stable first person, yet complicate it by disrupting the linear temporal path or by scrambling the normal syntactical sequence. Or it might foreground recognizably experimental modes such as illogicality or fragmentation, yet follow the strict formal rules of a sonnet or a villanelle. . . . Hybrid poems often honor the avant-garde mandate to renew the forms and expand the boundaries of poetry—thereby increasing the expressive potential of language itself—while also remaining committed to the emotional spectra of lived experience. (p. xxi)
Well-meaning as such statements are, they don’t quite carry conviction. For by definition, an “avant-garde mandate” is one that defies the status quo and hence cannot incorporate it. Indeed, the implication of rapprochement is that poetic choice is arbitrary, that it has nothing to do with the historical moment or the cultural context, much less one’s own philosophical perspective. The “commitment to the emotional spectra of lived experience,” for example— the commitment, that is, of poets like Whitman, Williams, or Ginsberg—goes hand in hand with the refusal of the sonnet’s or villanelle’s restrictions on open form, even as, conversely, Yeats declared that the collage mode of the Cantos, made it impossible for Pound to get “all the wine into the bowl.” Indeed, from the perspective of Yeats and most Modernist readers, these seemingly unstructured poems were no more than beautiful “fragments.”
A plus B, in other words, can’t simply be combined so as to constitute a new C (the hybrid). Formal choices are never without political implications. Still, Swensen and St. John were at least making the effort to forge an aesthetic consonant with the moment. With the publication of Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry (2011), the very idea of such a project has disappeared. In her Introduction, aptly subtitled “My Twentieth Century of American Poetry,” Dove quite candidly admits that “Although I have tried to be objective, the contents are, of course, a reflection of my sensibilities; I leave it to the reader to detect those subconscious obsessions and quirks as well as the inevitable lacunae resulting from buried antipathies and inadvertent ignorance” (p. l). One surmises from the table of contents of this chronological survey that Dove, from her perspective as a woman of color, has included many more minority poets than is usually the case, but even in the case of poets of color, her choices strike me as oddly arbitrary: Harryette Mullen, one of the finest African-American poets writing today, gets less than a page, while other experimental black poets like Will Alexander and C. L. Giscombe are not included, and, more surprisingly, neither is the prominent Asian-American poet John Yau. The Objectivists, themselves outsider poets of the midcentury– primarily Jewish immigrants (Zukofsky, Oppen, Reznikoff, Rakosi) or, in the case of Lorine Niedecker, a working-class Midwestern woman– are simply written out the canon, as are such West Coast outsider poets as Kenneth Rexroth and Jack Spicer.
If we grant Rita Dove her donnée—“a reflection of my sensibilities”– we need not quarrel with these omissions, but what about the copyright issue Dove raises at the close of her Introduction? Evidently, she wanted to include both Allen Ginsberg (Howl gets a prominent mention on p. xliv) and Sylvia Plath, but the permission costs were evidently prohibitive. The “one [publisher] who insisted on unaffordable fees” is obviously Harper Collins; the paperback edition of Ginsberg’s Collected Poems, a Harper Perennial Classic, is an Amazon bestseller as are Plath’s Collected Poems and autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. Clearly concerned about the omission of these important poets, Dove asks her readers to “cut me some slack” and reminds us that Ginsberg and Plath are readily available “in your local public library” (p. li)
But if the anthology is to have any sort of validity as a textbook or a selection for the general reader, this copyright caveat strikes me as simply unacceptable, and the fault is primarily the publisher’s. How could a leading publisher like Penguin fail to get publication rights for materials so central to a given book’s purpose? Imagine an anthology of twentieth-century drama that omitted Beckett on the grounds that Grove Press and Faber charge too much? Would such an “anthology” be worth anything? True, as Dove points out, “Ginsberg and Plath are widely available,” but, in that case, why produce an anthology in the first place? Most of the poetry in this anthology is available on the Internet anyway.
Indeed, what Penguin’s editorial team seems to be saying is that the value of Dove’s anthology’s depends, not on its overall plan or on the wisdom of its selections, but on the personal prestige of its editor. How else to account for the folksy informality of the Introduction, peppered as it is by homely analogies and what is evidently designed to be “straight talk”:
The beginning of the twentieth century was still partially populated by those who had crawled out of the wreckage of the Civil War thirty-five years earlier. . . . .
Into this disquieting age strode Wallace Stevens, a man with a mind of his own.
Along came Ezra Pound and wooed an entire generation. Who could resist his
vitality, his brilliant outrageousness, his infectious visionary zeal?
After World War II, the view shifted: Pound’s antiquities had lost their luster, Eliot’s England grown stale, the call of Crane’s Brooklyn Bridge faded to an echo. West of the Hudson lay a brave new world.
Almost all serious artists were, at least initially, deeply affected by modernism, even if what in youth might have seemed like a revolt would in later life often deterioriate into surrendering to one’s own quirks. . . . Eliot’s attempts at hiding his squeamishness vis-à-vis the vox populi behind a mask of world-weary condescension led him to repudiate his American roots by concurrently becoming a British subject and embracing Anglicanism, a sour-puss retreating behind the weathered marble of the Church.
Every soup gets cold, however, and by the time the Beat poets were losing verbal steam, their take-no-prisoners approach had cleared a trail for the Confessionals, who were dedicated to uncovering a more intimate post-Beat self.
During the seventies, while America was licking its self-inflicted Vietnam War wounds and most of her citizens were shaking their heads over the Nixon nightmare, more and more of her poets fell under the spell of higher education.
Accuracy is not this editor’s strong suit: the “serious artists” of the early twentieth century were not “affected by” modernism; they created it. The Beats did not ”clear a trail” for the Confessionals: they coexisted from the late ‘50s through the sixties, sometimes overlapping. And higher education may be credited with many things but perhaps not with casting a “spell” over fledgling poets. Indeed, as I was reading these curious assertions, it occurred to me that perhaps this Penguin Anthology was designed for Junior High School students—kids forced to study something called poetry, who would find those references to “crawling out of the wreckage of the Civil War” or to the “take-no-prisoners approach” of the Beats both accessible and colorful. “Into this disquieting age strode Wallace Stevens”: it sounds like a sentence in a Victorian childrens’ book. And since the editor is an undisputable star, the recipient of just about every prize and award there is, a former Poet Laureate, and currently the Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia, one evidently wants to read her anthology to learn, not about American poetry of the twentieth century but about Rita Dove’s likes and dislikes. The next step is to make it the blueprint for a PBS video series.
“Poetry,” Dove herself concludes, “has become a business albeit a small one; the laws of supply and demand have taken on an urgency similar to the pressures in the wider world of commerce, though in a quirky Chaplinesque fashion” (pp. l-li). Quirky, in that, as in the case of pop stars, it is not readily apparent how and why Dove became a celebrity. But also quirky—and here is the paradox we might all ponder– is that, however individual and intuitive Dove’s judgments on contemporary poetry, her Modernist canon—Frost, Gertrude Stein, Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Williams, Hart Crane, Marianne Moore, Langston Hughes, H.D.—is more or less everybody’s Modernist canon; indeed it was already in place when I graduated from Oberlin College in the mid-fifties, even if Moore and H.D. now get more attention than they did back then. When it comes to the great poets of the early century it seems that there really is consensus: who, for example, would claim that Eliot was not a major poet?
World War II was the watershed. After that war, there has never again been a fixed American poetry canon. What Irving Ehrenpreis
pronounced “The Age of Lowell,”[iii] was known to others as the Age of Charles Olson. Or again the Age of Frank O’Hara, who was known to have remarked “I think Lowell has . . . a confessional manner which [lets him] get away with things that are really just plain bad but you’re supposed to be interested because he’s supposed to be so upset.”[iv] To this day, acolytes of James Merrill have little to say to those of Robert Duncan, even though Merrill and Duncan were among the first openly gay poets writing in the U.S. Even Elizabeth Bishop, revered as she is by the American and British literary Establishment, was never taken up by the Language poets or more recent experimentalists, nor is she popular in the Brazil where she lived for so many years: just recently, the famous composer-founder of Tropicalismo, Caetano Veloso, who has worked closely with the Concrete poets Haroldo and Augusto de Campos, told me that he could not fathom the Bishop cult. Again, John Ashbery, surely—and, to my mind, deservedly– the most universally admired of living American poets, gets curiously short shrift from the French avant-garde, which has been strongly influenced by the Objectivist poets Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen,and Charles Reznikoff, all of whom have been the subject of a recent doctoral dissertations in Paris.
The paradox is that by the turn of the twenty-first century, the lack of consensus about the poetry of the postwar decades has led, not, as one might have hoped, to a cheerful pluralism, animated by noisy critical debate about the nature of lyric, but to the curious closure exemplified by the Dove anthology. Today’s Poetry Establishment—Robert Pinsky and Robert Hass, Louise Gluck and Mark Strand, all of them former Poets Laureate—command a polite respect but hardly the enthusiasm and excitement that greeted—and, interestingly, continues to greet– such counterparts of the previous generation as Frank O’Hara. In the current climate, with literally thousands of poets jostling for their place in the sun, a tepid tolerance rules: even the Academy of American Poets now lets in a few—but not too many– outsiders at a time, provided such outsiders behave themselves and don’t challenge the current designer label. Here is a poem in the Dove anthology called “Hot Combs”:
At the junk shop, I find an old pair,
black with grease, the teeth still pungent
as burning hair. One is small,
fine toothed as if for a child. Holding it,
I think of my mother’s slender wrist,
The curve of her neck as she leaned
over the stove, her eyes shut as she pulled
the wooden handle and laid flat the wisps
at her temples. The heat in our kitchen
made her glow that morning I watched her
wincing, the hot comb singeing her brow,
sweat glistening above her lips,
her face made strangely beautiful
as only suffering can do. (558)
This is an all but classic re-enactment of the paradigm I described at the beginning of this essay: (1) the present-time stimulus (the fortuitous find in a junk job of old hot combs), (2) the memory of the painful hair straightening ritual the poet’s African-American mother evidently felt obliged to perform, and finally (3) the epiphany that her mother’s face was “made strangely beautiful / as only suffering can do.” The poem’s enjambed free verse, its prose syntax, its transparent language peppered by what passes for “literary” phrasing—“pungent / as burning hair,” “slender wrist.” “wisps / at her temples,” “sweat glistening”– and the emotional crescendo, dubious in its easy conclusion that beauty is born of suffering– would seem to place this poem somewhere in the 1960s or 70s. But “Hot Combs,” written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey, was published in 2000.
So far I have been talking about the dominant poetry culture of our time—the culture of poetry prizes, professorships, and political correctness. To dislodge the dominant paradigm is never easy, but in recent years we have witnessed a lively reaction from a growing group of poets who are rejecting the status quo. If “Creative Writing” has become as formulaic as I have been suggesting, perhaps it is time to turn to what Kenneth Goldsmith calls, in his new book by that title, Uncreative Writing.[v] Tongue-in-cheek as that term is, increasingly poets of the digital age have chosen to avoid those slender wrists and wisps of hair, the light which is always “blinding” and the hands that are “fidgety” and “damp,” those “fingers interlocked under my cheekbones” or “my huge breasts oozing mucus,”[vi] by turning to those practices adopted in the visual arts and in music as long ago as the 1960s–namely forms of appropriation. Composition as transcription, citation, writing-through, recycling, reframing, grafting, mistranslating, and mashing—such forms of what is now called Conceptualism on the model of Conceptual art, are now raising hard questions about the role, if any, poetry can play in the new world of instant and hyper-information.[vii]
The main charge against conceptual writing is that the reliance on other people’s words negates the very essence of lyric poetry. Appropriation, its detractors insist, produces at best a bloodless poetry—one that, however interesting at the intellectual level, allows for no unique emotional input. Indeed, if the words used are not even my own, how can I convey the true voice of feeling unique to lyric? This is hardly a new complaint: it was lodged as early as the 1970s against John Cage’s “writings-though”—texts, usually lineated, composed entirely in the words of the poet-composer’s source text, ranging from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake to the notebooks of Jasper Johns. Here, for example, is a passage from “Writing for the first time through Howl,” produced by “writing-through” Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem on the occasion of the poet’s sixtieth birthday (1986):
in thE mind
liGht of zoo[viii]
The source of these minimalist stanzas is the following set of strophes, whose erasure, based on what Cage has called the “50% mesostic” rule [ix] uncovers the thirteen letters ALLENGINSBERG required for the vertical mesostic string. I have highlighted Cage’s chosen words, here beginning with the “B” for “–BERG.”
incomparable blind streets of shuddering cloud and lightning in the mind leaping
toward poles of Canada & Paterson, illuminating all the motionless world of Time between,
Peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery dawns, wine drunkenness
over the rooftops, storefront boroughs of teahead joyride neon blinking traffic light, sun and moon and tree vibrations in the roaring winter dusks of Brooklyn, ashcan rantings and kind king light of mind,
who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy
Bronx on benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought them down shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance in the drear light of Zoo … [x]
Cage’s elliptical lyric functions as both homage and critique, subtly interjecting his own values into the exuberant, hyperbolic Beat poem which is Howl. As hushed and muted as Ginsberg’s baroque “ashcan rantings” are wild and expansive, Cage’s is a rhyming nightsong, whose referents are elusive, with only the movement toward the “broNx” transforming the “linking” of the “blinking / light” to one that is “wRacked” with “light of Zoo.” Without deploying a single word of his own, Cage subtly turns the language of Howl against itself so as to make a plea for restraint and quietude as alternatives to the violence at the heart of Ginsberg’s poem.
There is further dialogue between the two poems. For Ginsberg, sound and visual configuration act to support the poet’s exclamatory particulars, the urgent things he wishes to say, whereas for Cage poetry is, by definition, first and foremost a visual and sound structure. Poetry is not poetry, as he put it, “by reason of its content or ambiguity but by reason of its allowing musical elements (time, sound) to be introduced into the world of words.”[xi]
It is this attention to musical elements that is absent in most contemporary poetry. Open the Dove anthology at random, and you find writing like this:
My father once broke a man’s hand
Over the exhaust pipe of a John Deere tractor. The man,
Rubén Vásquez, wanted to kill his own father
With a sharpened fruit knife[xii]
When I transpose this into normal prose– “My father once broke a man’s hand over the exhaust pipe of a John Deere tractor. The man, Rubén Vásquez, wanted to kill his own father with a sharpened fruit knife”—I find it actually more interesting than the lineated version. Indeed, why lineate this account at all? Cage’s mesostic poem, on the other hand, cannot be turned into prose at all. Its very formatting, as in “Blind /in thE mind” or “BroNx / wheeLs,” produces a sense of Buddhist abnegation quite distinct from Ginsberg’s own ready-to-burst, action-filled anaphoric strophes. Francis Scott Key’s “dawn’s early light,” for example, here becomes the less glorious “dawns / bLinking / Light,” a sly comment on our National Anthem, not present in the source at all.
A related–indeed perhaps the most sustained—example in recent poetry of the power of Other People’s Words to generate profound emotion– is Susan Howe’s book That This (1910), her tripartite elegy for her husband Peter Hare, who was found to have died in his sleep suddenly and without a known disease one night in January 2008. Howe would not call herself a conceptualist poet, and she regularly combines cited material with her own prose and verse. Still, she has always avoided the free-verse lyric paradigm (observation-triggering-memory-triggering insight) so ubiquitous in the Dove anthology in which, incidentally, she is not included.
The first section of That This, whose very title, with its two deictic pronouns whose referents remain indeterminate, suggests that we cannot really know the things we claim to be pointing to, begins with what looks like simple reportage:
It was too quiet on the morning of January 3d when I got up at eight after a good night’s sleep. Too quiet. I showered, dressed, then came downstairs and put some water on the boil for instant oatmeal. Peter always woke up very early, he would have been at work in his study, but there was no sign of his having breakfasted. I looked out the window and saw The New York Times still on the driveway in its bright blue plastic wrapper.[xiii]
It takes a few more moments (recorded minutely in Howe’s narrative) for the poet to realize what has transpired, but with the shock of discovery—ironically, she finds her dead husband in his bed, “with the CPAP mask [used for sleep apnea] over his mouth and nose,” making a “whooshing sound of air blowing air”—comes the recognition that no words of the poet’s own can measure the horror and grief of this wholly unanticipated death. At this point, the poem abruptly shifts gears:
“O My Very Dear Child. What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud.” On April 3, 1758, Sarah Edwards wrote this in a letter to her daughter Esther Burr when she heard of Jonathan’s sudden death in Princeton. For Sarah all works of God are a kind of language or voice to instruct us in things pertaining to calling and confusion. I love to read her husband’s analogies, metaphors, and similes. (11-12)
Here is the donnée of the unfolding elegy. For Sarah Edwards, the wife of the great New England theologian of the mid-eighteenth century, language, with its “analogies, metaphors, and similes,” is the Word of God and hence a source of comfort at a time and in a place where death is always imminent. But Howe’s consolation here is not their spiritual one: “For Jonathan and Sarah all rivers run into the sea yet the sea is not full, so in general there is always progress as in the revolution of a wheel and each soul comes upon the call of God in his word. I read words but don’t hear God in them.” Herself not a believer, Howe can nevertheless mine the Edwards material for a series of ghost poems that alternately echo and question the religious faith of the Great Awakening as well as the poet’s own belief system.
In the poem’s long middle section, “Frolic Architecture” (the title comes from the last line of Emerson’s “Snow Storm”: “The frolic architecture of the snow”), photocopied fragments from the diary of Jonathan’s sister Hannah Edwards Wetmore are cut, taped, merged, overwritten, inverted, realigned, and collaged with the abstract photographs of the artist James Welling,[xiv] so as to dramatize the conviction that, in Hannah’s words, “our lives are all exceeding brittle and uncertain.“ The resulting poems become constellations designed for both the eye and the ear [see figure 1]: now and again, we recognize bits of Scripture like “Oh had I the wings of a dove. . .” or narrative fragments like “walking just below my father’s orchard.” But no sooner are such phrases articulated than they dissolve into clashing elements in the larger soundscape of Howe’s own highly charged present—a soundscape that tests the very limits of readability. To further “thicken the plot,” as Cage would put it, in 2011, Howe, working with the composer David Grubbs created a musical environment for “Frolic Architecture,[xv] a performance piece in which Howe’s voice, partly live, partly digitally recorded, is combined with multi-track electronic sound (organ, cicadas, dry leaves underfoot) to create a mesmerizing sound poem, each morpheme (e.g. nent, trt, mys, fin) given special emphasis by this poet’s superb speaking voice, whether live or digitally reproduced and treated as an echo.[xvi]
Strictly speaking, there is not an original word in “Frolic Architecture”: it is all recycled text, the poet functioning as arranger, framer, reconstructor, visual and sound artist, and, above all, as the maker of pivotal choices. If you set these fragments against their sources, you will see how much has been made of relatively little material, Howe’s method being to repeat, delete, juxtapose differently, all in the interest of sound, rhythm, and the look of the poetry on the page. And although Howe’s pages were composed by what are now old-fashioned methods of photo-copying, works like Frolic Architecture could not exist except in the digital age, where reproduction as well as instrumentation play a crucial role. As Howe herself asks in her final lyric response to her own “frolic architecture”:
Is light anything like this
stray pencil commonplace
copy as to one aberrant
onward-gliding mystery (101)
The verbivocovisual—we might call it Joycean–mode of That This is one of the directions appropriation has taken in contemporary poetry: from Steve McCaffery and Christian Bök, to Christian Hawkey and Uljana Wolf, such poems are designed to exceed their dimensions as print blocks, moving outward both aurally and visually to encompass the larger field.
The opposite move—and this is what we find in the work of Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place, Caroline Bergvall and Craig Dworkin, leading conceptual poets whose work I have discussed elsewhere[xvii]– is to foreground the meaning and values of the source text itself, the very selection of that text and its context generating the methods that determine its “copy.” An interesting example—this time from a poet who is not primarily a Conceptualist– is Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011). In a website accompanying his book, named for the famous first spacecraft launched into interstellar space in 1977, [xviii] Reddy tells us that “I began to delete words from Kurt Waldheim’s memoirs [In the Eye of the Storm, 1985] in the autumn of 2003, hoping, for reasons beyond me, to discover something like poetry hidden within his book.” In a series of erasures, the same material from the memoir figuring again and again, Reddy produced a series of propositions, then a narrative made of short print blocks, then a long verse sequence using the three-step line made famous by William Carlos Williams in late poems like “Of Asphodel that Greeny Flower,” and finally an epilogue in which Waldheim’s encomium to a brave “neutral” Austria is almost wholly crossed out, leaving in just a few words that belie its author’s self-justifying account.
But why In the Eye of the Storm? And what kind of “voyager” was Kurt Waldheim? Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1972-1981 and President of Austria from 1986 to 1992, Waldheim was exposed, in the mid-eighties, as having served in the Nazi Wehrmacht during World War II and quite possibly having committed major war crimes. The President, who had carefully covered his tracks for years, continued to claim he was innocent and many of his fellow Austrians defended him, even when the evidence became overwhelming. His political and diplomatic success—he was allowed to finish out his term as President– has become a symbol for the hypocrisy and mendacity of the postwar era in an Austria that had strongly supported Hitler in the war years before it received occupied-nation status in 1945. Avoiding the fate of its Iron Curtain neighbors Hungary and Czechoslovakia, Austria quickly became a prosperous nation.
Srikanth Reddy’s sequence of erasures or writings-through makes for a brilliant political poem—one of the few really notable political poems of recent years. By using only Waldheim’s own words but transforming his sentences so as to create absurd propositions and triads like the following:
I avoided speaking
In my unhappy state,
Overcome by glory—
Whereupon Silence leant across
And asked whether I would be good
enough to man the wheel.
(I consider him my maker,
and thus was disposed
to maintain good relations).
With the utmost courtesy.
I Kurt Waldheim
frowned at the view
–the river sparkling outside,
a man delivering a sofa,
the high echelons of the saved (110)
Writing through the memoir, joining unrelated phrases to one another, creates a devastating image of smarmy self-justification and self-congratulation on the part of a ”cultured” but shameless liar. Waldheim seems to have never felt remorse. In the Epilogue, the crossing out of whole phrases is used to isolate and heighten inadvertent revelations, for example:
“It was allegiance to democracy, tempered by the experience of fascism, which taught me that in the final analysis nothing is weaker than dictatorship.
Just what did experience in the final analysis teach this protagonist? In turning Waldheim’s own words against him, Reddy’s poem is a powerful critique, not only of “Waldheim’s disease” (forgetting one is a Nazi) but of political mendacity in general. And yet Voyager’s fabric, generated, as the charts show, by the digital ”voyage” through source texts, is curiously free of all moralizing or invective on the poet’s part.
Like Susan Howe’s That This, Voyager has to be understood as a poetic book rather than a book of individual poems. In recent years–and here is a third direction the language of appropriation has taken– we have witnessed a return to the short lyric, but now a lyric that depends for its effect on the recycling of earlier poetic material. In Charles Bernstein’s All The Whiskey in Heaven (2009), for example, we find a pseudo-folk ballad, originally the concluding section of the long poem “Today’s Not Opposite Day” in With Strings (2001), where the ballad follows hard upon a list of absurd newsflashes like “An unresponsive person was found lying in a boat on Half Mile Road.”[xix] The song’s question-and-answer structure weaves together various folk and lyrical ballad motifs from Shakespeare’s “Sigh no more” (“Converting all your sounds of woe/ Into hey, nonny, nonny’) to Goethe’s “Erl Koenig” (“Elf King”)– “Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?”; “Who rides so late through night and wind?”– to the pop song “Every time you see me, what do you see?”
What do you see, Nonny?
What do you see?
A tune & a stain
Waiting for me
Will you go there, Nonny?
Will you go there?
It’s just by the corner
Right over the bend
Who’ll you see there, Nonny?
Who’ll you see there?
A monkey, a merchant, a pixelated man
What will you say, Nonny?
What will you say?
I’m just a nobody making my way (249)
Who is this Nonny (nanny)? And how can a stain be said to be “waiting for someone? “There” (lines 5-6) is a meaningless specifier for “right over the bend,” there may be many corners; then too “bend” doesn’t rhyme with “there,” so that something isn’t working. In the next stanza, “there” is the realm of children’s story, what with monkey and merchant, but the pixelated man who takes up so much syllable space, has no real existence beyond the computer screen. Indeed, he seems to function only as mirror image for both Nonny and the questioner, the name Nonny finally expanding into the bathos of pop song-speak: “I’m just a nobody making my way.”
Now consider the title, “Today’s Not Opposite Day”. The sentence sounds almost right—like “Today’s not Armistice Day” or “Today’s not laundry day” or again. today’s the opposite of tomorrow or today’s not an oppositional day. With all these intertexts, the title remains elusive, for no day of the week, not even a holiday, has its opposite; it only has a series of alternatives. The little pseudo-ballad, in any case, tells us nothing about this poet’s particular situation, but it communicates a sharp sense of anxiety especially when Bernstein recites it.[xx] On each reading, this ballad, like “Doggy Bag” (All the Whiskey, 241-42) and “Castor Oil” (with its play on Robert Frost’s “The Minor Bird,” 277) becomes more elusive.
It has been argued that Bernstein’s poetry has become “easier,” that in recent years, it has lost some of the edge that defined the “non-sensical” language poems in such earlier books as Controlling Interests or The Sophist. But the ballads may be even more elliptical than the earlier satires and parodies because their tone is so difficult to assess. The title poem of All the Whiskey in Heaven, for example, opens on a note of absurd hyperbole—“Not for all the whiskey in heaven / Not for all the flies in Vermont / Not for all the tears in the basement. . .” and before we have got our bearings and remind ourselves that the last thing we want is flies in Vermont or tears flowing in the basements of our world, the poem turns dead serious—
No, never, I’ll never stop loving you
Not till my heart beats its last
And even then in my words and my songs
I will love you all over again. (297)
How to come to terms with this embarrassing bathos? That is precisely the question the poem asks, poised as it is-on the edge of irony as it takes on all those Tin Pan Alley love songs that flood the air waves. “Echo,” as Craig Dworkin reminds us, “literally, always has the last word.”[xxi] Let me give that last word to a poet whose recent lyric has made intriguing—and surprising—use of the déjà dit. Here is Peter Gizzi’s “Gray Sail,” from Threshold Songs (2011):
If I were a boat
I would probably roll over
If I were a prayer
If I were a beech stave
If I were a book
I would sing in streets
Alone in traffic
If I had a gown
I could be heroic
With a flowering mane
If I had a boat
I would eat a sandwich
In broad dazed light
I would come visit
As a holy book
If I were a boat
If I had a prayer[xxii]
Various pop songs may have served as intertexts here but the one that comes to my mind most keenly (whether or not it was Gizzi’s actual source), is the song “If I were a bell!,” sung by the Salvation Army ingénue (Sarah) on the consummation of her romance in the 1950 Damon Runyon-based musical Guys and Dolls:
Ask me how do I feel
Ask me now that we’re cosy and clinging
Well sir, all I can say, is if I were a bell I’d be ringing!
From the moment we kissed tonight
That’s the way I’ve just gotta behave
Boy, if I were a lamp I’d light
And If I were a banner I’d wave! [xxiii]
So it goes for four more stanzas: “If I were a gate I’d be swinging,” “If I were a watch I’d start popping my springs,” “If I were a bridge I’d be burning,” “If I were a duck I’d quack.” “If I were a goose I’d be cooked,” “If I were a salad I know I’d be splashing my dressing.”
“Gray Sail” and Gizzi’s other “Threshhold Songs” were written in response to a series of deaths—his mother’s, his brother’s, one of his closest friends—so overwhelming they could hardly be processed. Like Susan Howe’s “Frolic Architecture,” the poem avoids the unsayable by its appropriation of other voices—here as unstated echo. Gizzi inverts “If I were a Bell” in a series of similes that take the common sense of the pop song to absurd limits: “if I were a boat” immediately brings to mind Rimbaud’s “Bateau ivre,” but here the metaphor of the poet as drunken boat can hardly be sustained. For “if I were a prayer” confutes being and having, the final understated “If I had a prayer,” implying that no, in this moment of desolation, the poet doesn’t have one. Indeed, “Gray Sail” ends in a limbo where bells don’t ring, lamps don’t light—and yes, the poet must burn his bridges. Then again, he knows very well that somehow life continues, and so the prayer of the final line resurfaces in the title of the very next poem “On Prayer Rugs and a Small History of Portraiture,” which picks up the “If” motif and gives it a new twist: “If water were to boy as boy is to bird then swim in air / the folktale might go” (24).
But how did the folktale go? And what was that pop song? In the poetry of the digital age, “othertextual” echoes inevitably play a primary role. “Echo,” as Dworkin puts it, “becomes a model of Oulipean ingenuity: continuing to communicate in her restricted state with far more personal purpose than her earlier gossiping, turning constraint to her advantage, appropriating others’ language to her own ends, ‘making do’ as a verbal bricoleuse” (xlvii). Increasingly, the “true voice of feeling” is the one you might discover with an inspired, if sometimes accidental, click.
Figure 1, Susan Howe, That This, p. 49
Figure 2, Susan Howe, That This, p. 53.
[iii] See Irving Ehrenpreis, “The Age of Lowell,” (1965), in Robert Lowell: A Portrait of the Artist in his Time, ed. Michael London and Robert Boyers New York: David Lewis, 1970), pp. 155-86;
[iv]Edward Lucie-Smith, “An Interview with Frank O’Hara,” Standing Still and Walking in New York, ed. Donald Allen (Bolinas: Grey Fox, 1975), 13.
[v]Kenneth Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).
[vi] In order of appearance, as taken from the Dove anthology, Stephen Dunn, “Allegory of the Cave,” 369-70, Larry Levis, “Childhood Ideogram,” 423; Sharon Olds, “The Language of the Brag,” 405.
[viii] John Cage, “Writing through Howl” (1986), in Richard Kostelanetz (ed.), John Cage Writer: Previously Uncollected Pieces (New York: Limelight Editions, 1993), 165-76; see p. 165. The mesostic letters are not usually given in bold face; I use boldface here for the sake of clarity.
[ix]In I-VI, The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 1, Cage defines a mesostic as “a string which spells a word or name, not necessarily connected
with what is being written, though it may be. This vertical rule is lettristic and in my practice the letters are capitalized. Between two capitals in a perfect or 100% mesostic neither letter may appear in lower case. In an imperfect or 50% mesostic the first letter may reappear but the second is not permitted until its appearance on the second line as a capital in the string.”
In Writing through Howl, the vertical string is ALLEN GINSBERG and the mesostic is not even 50% since chance operations have been further used to reduce the source material.
[x] Allen Ginsberg, “Howl”
[xi] John Cage, “Foreword,” Silence (1961; Miiddletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2011), xxx.
[xii] Larry Levis, “Winter Star,” in Dove, 424.
[xiii]Susan Howe, That This (New York: New Directions, 1910), 11.
[xv] Susan Howe and David Grubbs,
[xvi]For an excellent discussion of the Grubbs-Howe performance itself, see Ben Lerner, “Letter from New York,” Lana Turner, 4 (2011), 202-205.
[xvii] I am thinking of Goldsmith’s
Day and the Trilogy ; Dworkin’s “Legion” and The Perverse Library , Caroline Bergvall, Meddle English
[xix] “Today’s not Opposite Day,” With Strings (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 72-77. The ballad is reproduced in All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2010), 249.
[xx] To hear Bernstein read the ballad, go to http://media.sas.upenn.edu/pennsound/authors/Bernstein/3-28-10/Bernstein-Charles_17_from-Todays-not-Opposite-Day_Zinc-Bar_NY_3-28-10.mp3./