Distribution Automatique

Tuesday, May 24

A Blogland Vogue For Questions

Who knows how fads get started.
When I was a kid there was
always a season for an activity,
but it was hard to tell which
kid ushered in the fad.
There was a skating season where
every kid showed up outside on skates,
there was a bike
season, a handball season,
a stickball season,
a coin collecting season,
a card playing season, a carry around
your new transistor radio
and lean against the cars and
listen to them together season.
Once I even
started a fad in my set for wearing
jackets with bird decals sewed
onto them; it got around further
and lasted longer than I expected.
Anyway, you always did
what the others did, though
some activities might interest
you more than others.
Of course, your favorite
thing would always come back
into vogue eventually.

Well, as you must have noticed,
the same tendency takes place here
in Blogland. We have the take
a test online season (my least
favorite), we will no doubt have
a write a few words on Star Wars
season, we have a write in the
comments section season
(going on right now), and also,
right now, thanks to Sullivan and Gordon
we are noticing a tendency towards
comics (boys) (Gary's and the ever-
popular poetry comic blog of Jim Behrle)
and fashions (girls)-no doubt Nada's
interest in fashion will trigger quite a buzz!
At the present moment in literary
Blogland there is a fad for asking and
answering questions in poetics.
I'm not sure who started it,
but of course it is Ron Silliman's answers to
some set of questions floating around
that bloggers took notice of.
At the moment on *Bemsha Swing*
you will find a set of questions I dare
you to read, if you are a blogger,
and not find at least one
you want to answer on your blog right now.
I read them very late last night, and was
even tempted to get started right
then and there, though I had
just gone through an intensive
grilling of my own, as it happens,
for separate reasons, from a
couple of poet friends. But more
on that later.

Jonathan Mayhew's questions,

(for R.S. and anyone else):
Bemsha Swing {click here}

when looked at together as a group,
probably have a thread. But I
am right now too excited about one of them
to stop and think about that.
More than likely, I have to admit, I am
picking one at random.
My hunch is that, at least
around here, the
fad will continue for days,
and more than likely on many other
blogs, but who knows.
Like kids' seasons, Blogland’s are ephemeral.

Here is the question I picked:

5. Is "total absorption in poetry" benign?
How about "poetry as a way of life"?

After falling asleep last night,
I woke up this morning thinking about things
that go best with this question,
though I have to admit, all of Jonathan's
questions I find intriguing. He is
quite the blog poetics
provocateur, in his own quiet
and unassuming way!

I have a feeling that total absorption in
poetry is not so benign in the (very) long run,
but exhilarating and generative in the short run.
By short run I mean, maybe
a decade. By long run I mean a lifetime.
In my observation, total absorption
in poetry in the long run leads, as
Shakespeare put it, to an early "anecdotage."
One of the reasons I avoided becoming
a poetry professor when I was in
an English honors program in college
is that it seemed to me that even my
most brilliant and favorite professors
appeared to be in a kind of zombie state of
automatic recitation of things they had said
before countless times. In a friend
or lover this state of consciousness
might be boring and difficult to tolerate; but
for a poet, it seemed to my young perception,
this might be deadly, or even lethal.
At least in this one way my insight was prescient.
The tendency to bore other people is a trait
that each and every poet is obliged to
track with the persistence of a terrier. Or
else. Or else, what? You know!

Again: 5. Is "total absorption in poetry" benign?
How about "poetry as a way of life"?

I've noticed that (again, in the long run,
the long run being a lifetime) poets fall
into two types. The first type
writes-and publishes- book
after book without cease, and gives
regular readings the same way.
They never do anything else, and revel in their
total absorption in poetry. The second type
eventually finds other outlets as well for their
energy. On the whole, a distinguishing
characteristic of most (lifetime) poets is
an outstanding access to energy.
Here's where I find it necessary to offer a second
speculation that many other poets
might not agree with. In my opinion:
the inspiration
to write poetry is sporadic.
I think the intuitive inspiration to write a poem, for this
reason, should not be forced.
I found early on that if I forced myself to write poetry,
the result was wooden. The best analogy
that I can think of to writing poems
(never thing of writing "poetry" a sure
danger sign; only write "poems") is creating
melodies. Sit down at your piano or
take out your guitar right now. Try to create
a new melody and you will see what I mean.
Ninety-nine percent or more of your
production will be of two types: the first type
might be usable: a derivative offshoot
of another melody. Actually, this type is
fairly interesting. But most of your production
will be of the second type, the type I call
"noodling around." Listen to a lot of the
classical music literature and be honest:
even among many famous works, there is
tons and tons of noodling around. You will
find this even in such stellar composers as Schubert,
Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn. Haydn is
amazing in this regard; an incredible number
of melodies that are identifiable and distinctive.
The same for incredible Chopin. But
most composers noodle around for a
lot of the time; they noodle
around in an interesting
way, but a lot of what they write
is just kind of, well, noodling around!

You see what I'm getting at;
The same is true for poets.
Most poets who produce book
after book without cease
(I do greatly admire this,
nevertheless, and hugely enjoy
the work of a number of poets
who work this way-including Jordan
Davis' endlessly absorbing blog project

Million Poems {click here}

, where he
has published well over a thousand poems
and extends the genial and impressive offer to write
a poem to order for anyone who emails him!)
do not consistently write
works of the same caliber and intensity
of engagement. What some ambitious poets
do to sustain their engagement with an audience
is - something else! They go "elsewhere" as
Gary Sullivan puts it. Ever noticed how often
interviewers ask well known poets:
"Have you been writing any poetry lately?" Since,
as I said, the majority of poets have abundant
amounts of energy, and since, as I believe to be the case,
actual poetic inspiration is, at best, sporadic, what many do is
try to transfer their unstoppable energy
into another, related medium.
As Emerson put it, "Write one poem and lean on
your oars forever..." Meaning,
writing a poem releases
more energy than can be put
into writing other poems.
Emerson is a fine example
of a poet who found a
way to express the
ingenious products of his mind
in other forms: through essays.
Another example
is the great Italian poet
Cesare Pavese who wrote
novels and a great diary,
as any reader of this
blog will attest, noticing
the many quotes of this literary
journal that have been posted here.
Paul Valery famously
took a twenty year break
from writing poetry to work
on poetics in his journals.
One of the best known example of this
tendency historically is, of course,
Thomas Hardy, whose poetry is read today
only by few scholars. But who among us hasn't
read at least one novel by Thomas Hardy?
*Jude the Obscure*! *The Mayor of Casterbridge*!
Hardy thought of these works as his minor interest.
Only his poems meant anything special to him.
Still today, few can stop with only one!
If you haven't read any you have a major treat in store.
How about Gertrude Stein's many prose works?
More recent examples include:
Allen Ginsberg's photography,
Bernadette Mayer's conceptual
art works and prose poetry, John Ashbery's
and David Shapiro's art criticism (he also makes collages),
Charles Bernstein''s opera
librettos (his *Shadowtime*, an opera about
Walter Benjamin, is being produced at
Lincoln Center this summer) and essays;
David Antin's talks;
Lewis Warsh's novels, Elaine Equi's collaborations
with artists, Bruce Andews' music and
collaborations with dancer Sally Silvers,
Jackson Mac Low's works for dancers,
and his sound and visual poems,
David Bromige's collaborations with David Denner,
the "novels" of Kathy Acker,
the playwriting and genre bending
creations of Carla Harryman;
There is, of course, best known to us, Ron Silliman's blog.
Think of the visual poetry of bloggers Geof Huth and Crag Hill,
Harry Stammer and Jukka-Pekka Kervenin
that offers another fertile and growing
field for poets' exploration and production.
Some poets abandon formal poetry altogether:
notably Marshall Reese and Vito Acconci.
These two became pioneers in video art and
Acconci went on to focus on outdoor sculptural installations.
Question: have they actually
abandoned the field of poetry or have they transmuted it?
Visual poetry is surely coming
to the fore as an acceptable poetic field of investigation.
(The great-grandparent of this work was, of course, Blake,
whose astoundingly beautiful,
brilliant and heroic creations of his own hand printed
illustrated and self-published books was a financial failure).
I was astonished when Ron Silliman recently
complimented Geof Huth's blog
dbqp visualizing poetics {click here}
and made the comment that he might be opening
the most novel new field of endeavor for poetry.
because I can remember a time-long ago- when Ron seemed
somewhat dubious about my interest in making collages
(although I surely could have been reading
in to a comment he made back then).

I have the sense that with poets who
are unable to at least occasionally
transmute their talents and
energies into other media-and even some
who have been able to do this- tend to
become obsessively interested in
cataloguing the data of contemporary poetry.
Poetry as a "way of life", it seems
to me, is a uniquely challenging, difficult proposition,
for the simple reason that there are
so few available public functions to perform.
There is publishing and editing:
Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino,
Tom Beckett's classic single poet issues
of the journal, *The Difficulties*
Barrett Watten, James Sherry, Douglas Messerli,
Matvei Yankelvich, Peter Ganick,
Juliana Spahr and Jena Osman's excellent
visual/verbal magazine *Chain*
to name but a few; then, of course,
there are the many excellent webzines.
*Sidereality*, *Shampoo*, *Poetic
Inhalation*, all created and posted by poets,
to mention but a handful.
There is running poetry series, witness
the recent energetic efforts of Bob Holman
at his own creation, the Bowery Poetry Club
and the countless coordinators throughout the years..
There is arts administration:
Ed Friedman, Anne Waldman
and coordinating and assisting at
the Poetry Project, right now Anselm Berrigan,
Cori Copp and Miles Champion,
of course many others throughout the years.
And this is only the people who have worked
in New York.
There is cultural and political
transformation through political acts
and organizing- Allen Ginsberg
and Leroi Jones;
essay writing and teaching: Bob Perelman,
Robert Creeley, who also worked on
many great collaborations with artists
such as Archie Rand and Susan Rothenberg;
drawing-Robert Grenier;
Jerome Sala, in additiion to publishing
his poetry, lately his witty ,social/politically insightful
*Look Slimmer Instantly* (Softskull, 2005)
has worked forever at a full time job in marketing/advertising
and is now completing, at the same time, a
Ph D at NYU in Cultural Studies,
the program created and administered by Andrew Ross.
Let me say that it is easier
to make a loving at
poetry than it is to make a
living at it, to say the least!
As a "way of life" people interested
in this field are well advised to find
additional avenues thorugh which to
connect with others that utilizes their
proclivity for aesthetic inspiration,
their "lust for life" you might say, in an allied field.
The growing cultural phenomenon of
poetry creation is, in a sense,
a form of momentum tending to
mount vertically, so to speak,
with little horizontal expansion
into the culture at large.
What scholars, cultural commentators
like Walter Benjamin and poets realize, looking back
historically, however,
is that it remains a powerful, crucial, albeit,
largely subliminal cultural intervention.
If you examine history you will see that
there is a clear tendency for poets, as they
age, to become discouraged about the
possibilities for career in poetry.
Not so long ago I read the
Journals of Stephen Spender
(beautiful book, by the way).
Now here was a famous
("I think continually of those/
who were truly great")
who, having written in addition to his many
volumes of poetry,
countless books including a critical study of
TS Eliot and a book about the cultural phenomena of the Sixties,
who was an editor of a magazine (*Horizon*),
and a teacher with immensely wide and varied interests.
Yet Spender's final years were an
emotional misery. He was constantly trying
to find adjunct teaching jobs wherever he
could and spent much of his later
years apparently quite depressed.
I don't want to dwell on this topic,
but history abounds with similar episodes.

In dealing with the ebb and flow of
poetic inspiration, as in all things, there
is a Scylla and Charybdis.
There is the Scylla of neglecting one's muse
and a Charybdis of becoming her slave.
A poet is well advised to
remain alert in guiding the
ship of life among the reefs and seductions
and quick sands that plague the currents
of a poetry "career": if, indeed, there is such a thing,
per se.