Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Minor Threat show, 6/26/83

 Minor Threat at Great Gildersleeves, New York City, June 26, 1983. Ian MacKaye on right, back to the camera. I am in this photo, center of the stage in leather jacket, my face partly obscured by the headstock of Brian Bakers bass. YDI and the Mob opened up. What a great show. I briefly chatted with Henry Rollins of Black Flag, who was in the audience. Years fly by.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

George Oppen’s “if it all went up in smoke”

To continue with George Oppen: His poetry seems to get even more obscure, or perhaps oblique is the better word, by the time of later collections such as Primitive (1978).  “If it all went up in smoke” is a case in point.  It is a poem which conveys its meaning through association and resonance, in which Oppen comments on the origin of poetry, especially as it relates to the American scene.  Poetry, for Oppen, remains tied to nature, though it exists not merely in the placid contemplation of the natural world, but in the “savage” energy it embodies.  Thus, for Oppen the poem is akin to the kind of wild energy that is inherent in uncultivated nature.  This is a force so vital that it cannot be completely dissipated, but only transformed.  Despite the fact that the American landscape has been conquered and tamed, our perception of that landscape as “savage” remains (having long been cast as such in the literature of early English and European explorers and settlers, for example), and can still be tapped into as poetic inspiration.  Yet Oppen moves against the easy Romantic idea of the poet “communing” with nature, where humans and nature are supposed to be able to harmoniously merge.  He suggests that poetry springs not particularly from such a communing, but from the juxtaposition of wildness and civilization, where humans must approach nature from the vantage point of human society.  (In this, he presages some of the thinking of contemporary eco-criticism in regard to the supposed split between nature and society.)

Oppen begins the poem with a statement, or proposition: “if it all went up in smoke // that smoke / would remain” – suggesting the idea that energy cannot be destroyed, but only transformed.  These opening lines (which incorporate the poem’s title, a technique Oppen uses in many of the poems in this collection) are set off by their being put in italics, as if to highlight their importance as an underlying theme.  If America is Oppen’s “forever savage country,” then he is suggesting in this statement that although the American wilderness may now have largely been conquered, its “savageness” still remains in some way.  In this case it takes the form of poetry.  After the initial offering of the italicized theme, Oppen says that “the forever / savage country poem’s light [is] borrowed // light of the landscape…”  This is what first clues us in that the poem is about poetry itself, and that poetry is being connected to nature.  The poem’s “light” – its energy or essence perhaps – is for Oppen still rooted in nature.  “Savage country” specifically implies the sense of nature as being distinct from civilization (the etymology of the word “savage” is ultimately the Latin silvāticus: silva, “woods,” plus the adjectival suffix -āticus).  Thus, poetry for Oppen “borrows” something of this untamed, natural, wild energy found in the forest or the wilderness. 

However, Oppen complicates what could have been a rather simplistic or even Romantic vision of the relation of poetry to nature.  As we have seen, the poem borrows, but transforms for its own purposes.  Oppen as poet consciously co-opts the energy of nature and transforms it into something else (poetry).  They are not equivalent, though they are connected.  That natural energy no longer exists in its original state but has become something else (the “smoke” “remains”).  After describing poetry as “borrowed light of the landscape,” Oppen continues: “and one’s footprints praise” – which explicitly introduces humankind.  We see the human sense of awe or reverence before nature, an early or almost primitive reverence (as in the collection’s title, Primitive).  Humans praise from within “the close / crowd” (society), and they praise “all / that is strange.”  Nature is perceived as strange from within society – still “forever savage” – and Oppen is making no effort to become mystically united with it.  This strangeness, however, remains “the sources / the wells” of poetry.  In this way, the perceived savageness of nature is brought into society, having been transmuted to poetry, which is also inevitably imbued with a touch of that very savageness.

For Oppen, as he continues in this poem, poetry begins “neither in word / nor meaning but the small / selves haunting // us in the stones…”  It is nothing more than that, but “is less / always than that…”  This “less” seems to deliberately undercut the mystique of the poetic process – it is not the grandiose, hieratic conception of the “Poet” put forth by the Romantics.  Poetry is something enacted within human society.  At the same time, there is certainly a relationship between man and the natural world, which we get in the ensuing words: “help me I am / of that people the grass // blades touch…”  Here there is a sense of the fragility of human life in the face of uncivilized nature, but also of a connection in that touching of the grass blades.  For Oppen, there is a dynamism in this relationship, a vitality important not only for life itself but which can also be a catalyst for poetry.  The conclusion of this piece – “and touch in their small // distances the poem / begins” – again implies this connection however “distant.”  So, poetry for Oppen is not simply inspired by the Romantic contemplation of nature, but arises from the particular relationship of the poet (existing within society) to nature, and in the way he engages nature’s “savage” aspect from the vantage point of “society” – and especially their interpenetration.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Two Poems in Coal City Review

I have two new poems in the latest issue of Coal City Review, number 43, 2019. CCR (ISSN 10062-5011), based in Lawrence, Kansas, is a print-only literary journal in the old-school mode, which you have to order through the mail. Nice to get this the other day, and my thanks to editor Brian Daldorph.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

On George Oppen’s “Part of the Forest”

My analysis of George Oppen’s poem “Part of the Forest” came out of my graduate course-work with Professor Jon Thompson.

“Part of the Forest,” from Oppen’s 1962 collection The Materials, offers a particular vision of masculinity.  It is a negative kind of masculinity, however, which Oppen portrays as both alienating to the individuals it affects and damaging to what he sees as the important communal values of human society – love and family.  Furthermore, it is a way of being that diminishes one’s very humanity.  The male figure in the poem has not only lost his ability to use language, but as a denizen of the forest (as in the poem’s title) he becomes something more akin to an animal than a man.  In presenting this vision of maleness, Oppen is inherently critiquing the America from which it springs.  Its expression – the beer-drinking, car-driving loner – can be seen to echo the image of the cowboy, for example, the rugged frontiersman who seemingly has little need for human fellowship, an image central to the American myth.  For Oppen in “Part of the Forest,” however, this is an image which is ultimately destructive both to the sense of community which any society requires in order to thrive, as well as to the individuals within that society.

The poem is constructed as a series of images, separate vignettes that contrast and play off each other.  It begins with a vision of lovers “who recall that / Moment of moonlight. . . .”  The second stanza, though, presents the reader with a sudden shift: someone (male, we glean slightly later) alone with a tree, and thus presumably in the forest of the poem’s title.  “To be alone,” Oppen writes, “is to be lost. . . .”  The third stanza lets us know that the tree in question “is an oak.” The oak is traditionally associated with strength, impassivity, and this resonates with the willful isolation of the male figure here.  Following the word oak there is a colon: “It is an oak: the word / Terrifying spoken to the oak—”  These lines are obscure, but the word that Oppen is apparently referring to is the word “oak” itself, as if speaking it in isolation, alone in the forest and devoid of human interaction – addressing the word only to the tree which it signifies – it is as if this act strips the word of its meaning, thus alienating its speaker from the comforts of society, and from language itself. So I wrote in 2007. Rereading the poem, it appears to me that the oak is not meant to accord so much with the masculinist narrative of America, but instead represents a kind of equanimity of being in nature that is foreclosed to the lone male figure for whom the word “oak” means something vastly different from that which is the oak itself. The oak’s “roots / Are there” – but not so for the male figure who we soon see must always speed around in his car.

“Young men therefore are determined to be men,” begins the following stanza, and to be men in the almost stereotypical ways of being a man in America: “Beer bottle and a closed door / . . . Or car.”  At this point, about halfway through the poem, a sort of narrative takes shape.  The reader is now with the young man in a car, as if taking flight.  A town is approached, and the car, the man, must slow down for a woman: “kids / In hand. She is // A family.”  The woman and the family are here presented as something undesirable, an impediment to the car’s progress along the road, or merely a brief dalliance.  What seems to be Oppen’s voice then interjects, suddenly presenting a differing viewpoint: “Isn’t tenderness, God knows, / This long boned girl—”  But for the man all this “is a kind of war. . . .”  He is at odds with the idea of the woman and a family.  In the setting of the family, the man is likened to “A tower // In the suburb” – in other words he is isolate and stands aloof.  The poem then ends with “the road again. The car’s / Companion.”  And unlike with the romanticism of, say, Kerouac, Oppen is certainly not suggesting that this is a good thing.

“Part of the Forest,” then, is a meditation on male alienation, an alienation that Oppen implies is unhealthy.  He is critical of this version of maleness, which springs from a particular type of American myth – a cool reserve, beer bottle, a car, the road, a tower of one, the “strong silent type” – which we often see in older male film leads, for example, or which in fact permeates most of American society, what we might now call toxic masculinity.  The man who allows himself to be inculcated with these qualities, Oppen is saying, cuts himself off from love.  His opening vision of lovers recalling a moment of moonlight is not what is in store for that man alone and lost on the road.  The moment of moonlight is a “lit instant,” which suggests the light and the enlightenment of love, while the forest suggests darkness, a lack of clarity, confusion for the man, though perhaps its mystery could have offered its own kind of enlightenment if the man were attuned to it.  Likewise, the tenderness of the “long boned girl” is out of reach, along with the satisfaction of genuine relationships (yes, it is a hetero-normative framework, but perhaps there is a latent critique of this in the poem as well).  For this sort of man, at least, the tower in the suburb is a kind of prison, from which he is impelled to escape in order to get back out on the road, doomed to wander forever in his car.  It is not so much that the suburb itself is desirable, but the man has trapped himself in a set of untenable choices: the suburb, the road, the forest?  He can be happy nowhere now.

So Oppen doesn’t just give us a meditation on a particular kind of masculinity, but a critique of it as well.  He enumerates certain masculine values in this poem – silence, isolation, the classic cowboy almost (but with the automobile in place of the horse) – all of these being male images which for Oppen are negative values damaging one’s ability to achieve fulfillment.  The male figure seems to have lost control over his destiny.  He is identified with the car, and it is the car which now seems to dictate what the man will do.  In the fifth stanza, when they approach the town, it is the car, “the big machine,” which does the “negotiat[ing],” not the man.  Or rather, the town is approached by the car – the passive voice further diminishing the idea of either the car or the man as having the freedom of will that his investment in masculinity promised.

The male figure here is unable to carry on a successful relationship with the woman, and thus, Oppen implies, unable to play a real part in the human community (“lost”).  In this regard it should also be remembered that early on in the poem he has metaphorically lost his capacity for language; he cannot communicate.  Next to the oak, the idea of speaking becomes something terrifying.  And because the man is in this way mute, he is forever, as the title says, “part of the forest,” yet even there denied the camaraderie of the oak.  Contrasted with all of this are Oppen’s brief visions of lovers under moonlight, a tender woman, a family, all of which are unavailable to a man who cannot express feeling.  This alienation is not, Oppen argues, in any way desirable, but is instead a kind of warping straitjacket, which makes the man something less than human.

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Bill Hughes, The Electric Compartments & The Burning Buildings at Dawn

I did the layout (cover and text) for Bill Hughes’s new poetry collection, The Electric Compartments & The Burning Buildings at Dawn, out now from Six Gallery Press.  His poems are surrealistic, visionary, and as André Breton would say, marvelous. The cover paintings are by John Menesini.

Order the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Electric-Compartments-Burning-Buildings-Dawn/dp/1989305083/

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Poem in The Indianapolis Review

My poem “Palindrome: A Torrent / A Torpor” appears in Issue 10 (Fall 2019) of The Indianapolis Review and can be read here:

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Poem in ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment

My poem “A Trans-Historical Interview between Poets (after the Irish text Immacallam an Dá Thuarad)” appears in the Autumn 2019 issue of ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, vol. 26, no. 4. ISLE is the peer-reviewed journal of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE). The poem is open-access archived online and can be read here.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Poem at Silver Pinion

Horace Pippin, Holy Mountain IV (unfinished, oil on canvas, 26×36", 1946)
My ekphrastic poem in homage to the painter Horace Pippin is now up at Silver Pinion. Thank you to Silver Pinion and to Horace Pippin. Read the poem here:

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Gabriel Rosenstock Poem as Song

I once translated a poem by Gabriel Rosenstock, “Conair an Cheoil” (from Irish to English, collected online here), which has now been set to music by Garth Baxter and sung by mezzo-soprano Christine Thomas, with Andrew Stewart on piano. See/listen here:

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Review in Poetry Ireland - Trumpet

My review of Ailbhe Darcy & SJ Fowler, Ciarán O’Driscoll, and Anatoly Kudryavitsky — titled “Fission/Fusion: Surrealism Now” — appears in the latest issue (no. 8, July 2019) of Poetry Ireland / Éigse Éireann’s magazine Trumpet, pp. 6-9.  Info here: https://www.poetryireland.ie/publications/trumpet/current-issue/

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Review-Essay in American Literary History

My review-essay “Poetry and the War(s)” is published in the latest issue of American Literary History, vol. 31, no. 3, Fall, 2019, pp. 540-49, DOI: 10.1093/alh/ajz022. In it, I engage with three recent books of criticism on war poetry — American Poetry and the First World War by Tim Dayton, Cambridge University Press, 2018; News of War: Civilian Poetry 1936-1945 by Rachel Galvin, Oxford University Press, 2018; and A Shadow on Our Hearts: Soldier-Poetry, Morality, and the American War in Vietnam by Adam Gilbert, University of Massachusetts Press, 2018. ALH has made the essay available to read for free online, here: https://academic.oup.com/alh/article/31/3/540/5537178?guestAccessKey=4371697d-6d32-474b-93db-30bbb13cf87a

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Baseball Poem in Aethlon

My poem “Baseball” in Aethlon XXXV:1 / Fall 2017 - Winter 2018 (which is the current issue, just out now). Thanks to the editor Ron Smith and all involved.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

On A. R. Ammons, “Corson’s Inlet” & “Poetics”

Thinking again about the nature of “nature” poetry, I recently reread a poem by A. R. Ammons, “Corson’s Inlet.” I cannot say that I have studied Ammons’s complete oeuvre in depth, and only own the 2006 Library of America Selected Poems (ed. Lehman).  (Incidentally, this was a quite well-done series of books, with covers designed by the great graphic artists Mark Melnick and Chip Kidd.)

“Corson’s Inlet” (pp. 18-22) has always seemed to me a kind of ars poetica, not just a nature poem per se.  It opens with the speaker walking the dunes and shore at Corson’s Inlet, NJ, meditating on connections between the natural world, poetry, and thought.  The speaker, presumably a version of Ammons himself, almost immediately begins to draw comparisons between the course of his walk and his poetics.  In line 13, for example, he describes the walk as “liberating,” releasing him from “forms,” and in lines 15-16 from “straight lines” and “binds / of thought.”  The parallel with poetic form and with lines of poetry will not be lost.  Thus Ammons is making a statement — his poetry will not rely on regular line lengths, syllable counts, on predetermined forms or the like, as these are restrictive “boxes” and “binds.”

Instead, his form will be unpredictable like nature.  The poem will unfold organically.  What meaning there is in the poem will run “like a stream” (he says in line 22).  While there is certainly metaphor in this, Ammons lets nature itself be the metaphor for his poetics.  The world, and wild nature, is “irregular” (he says in line 38) and does not lend itself to tidy conclusions.  Nor can the poet realistically expect to arrive at any sense of certainty, as he alludes to in lines 41+:

I have reached no conclusions, have erected no boundaries,
shutting out and shutting in, separating inside
      from outside: I have drawn no lines…
Lying behind this what might be described as a Heraclitean view of the world, and just as we “cannot step into the same river twice,” so in lines 46-48,
manifold events of sand
change the dune’s shape that will not be the same shape
Ammons’ response is to accept this indeterminacy in his own writing.  As he says in lines 49-52,
so I am willing to go along, to accept
the becoming
thought, to stake off no beginnings or ends, establish
       no walls…
His poetry will reflect the organic flow of thought, as well as the constantly changing nature of the world.  Like the natural environment, “Corson’s Inlet” is “irregular,” using free verse with no discernible pattern.  Another example of how this stance is reflected in his poetry can be seen in the section from lines 55 onward:
     change in that transition is clear
     as any sharpness: but “sharpness” spread out,
allowed to occur over a wider range
than mental lines can keep…
He is talking about “transitions” of thought as it responds to the material world, I think, but also about “transitions” in poetry — in other words, how the poem will be constructed, how it will flow together as a piece of writing.  There are no “lines” in nature, no hard and fast borders denoting where one thing leaves off and another begins — no “beginnings or ends” or “walls,” Ammons writes in line 51.  For him, there is only a constant state of flux.

Nonetheless, one way the poem hopes to reflect these transitions is through Ammons’s technique of using a colon to mark a separation between one image and the next (as seen in lines 59-69, where a series of images follow each other, with the colon marking each succession in the text) — but the colon also marks the connection of these images to each other in the flow of natural events and the speaker’s thought.  In lines 79-82, he uses the colon to juxtapose the image of the swallows with what they might suggest on another, more abstract level (“an order held / in constant change”).  The swallows can be viewed either as a collection of individual swallows, or “as one event” (lines 82-84).

A poem might aspire, as Ammons puts it in line 92, to “the possibility of rule as the sum of rulelessness,” but he also realizes that this is only a tentative position, that “outcomes of actions” cannot be predictable (he says in lines 107-08).  Indeed, the universe embodies infinite possibilities (lines 109-13), and thus, as he goes on to say in lines 114-16, there can be

     no forcing of image, plan
or thought:
no propaganda, no humbling of reality to precept…
Ammons’s poetry is a poetry of open-endedness, rather than of closed forms.  In line 121, he eschews the “easy victory” of traditional formal poetry (identified in the “narrow orders, limited tightness” of line 120), knowing that the deeper nature of the world is anything other than such “narrowness” of form might imply.

In some sense, poetry, of course, is inescapably form.  So Ammons admits in his conclusion to “Corson’s Inlet” that he has no choice but to try

     to fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder, widening
scope, but enjoying the freedom that
Scope eludes my grasp, that there is no finality of vision,
that I have perceived nothing completely,
     that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.
This statement suggests that, at least in Ammons’ view, a new poem must also create poetry itself anew, that a poet cannot simply rely on the predictable patterns of form but must allow the poem to find its own form in response to nature and the changing world it grapples with.  Ammons asserts that that world is necessarily disordered and in a state of ongoing change and that, therefore, instead of trying to show one’s poetic mastery by imposing a predetermined form over it, the poet must listen to nature, must listen to language itself, and allow him- or herself to “go with the flow” of that flux: “I have perceived nothing completely” — a nor can one ever, for all is mediated by the particular dynamics of the mind.

It is interesting to compare this poem with another Ammons piece, which is overtly an ars poetica, being titled “Poetics” (pp. 26-27).  It does very similar things.  Where, in “Corson’s Inlet,” the poem runs “like a stream,” here it is “spiralling from a center” (line 3).  Ammons opens himself to “the shape / things will take to come forth in” (4-5), yet when they do, as the birch tree in lines 6-10, it is merely or even “totally its apparent self.”  The poem, for Ammons, is not only the shape of the poem as written down, “but the / uninterfering means on paper” (17-18) — and more important is that the poet be

to any shape that may be
summoning itself
through me
from the self not mine but ours. (20-24)
In other words, it is not about the individual poet, the supposedly autonomous individual artist (as “great,” or what have you) but in fact more about forgetting the self, the ego, and opening up outwardly to — let’s call it the “cosmos,” at the risk of sounding over-serious and for lack of a less grandiose word.

NB: This essay incorporates thoughts of mine going as far back as 2008, and I thank Peter Makuck for first turning me on to “Corson’s Inlet” as a particular Ammons poem to look at.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Review of Kate Behrens, Penumbra

My review of Kate Behrens’s latest collection Penumbra (Two Rivers Press, 2019) is up at Empty Mirror. Here is a brief snippet:
Numerous birds appear in this collection. What are they? Messengers, transmigrating spirits perhaps, and/or real birds. One particular bird poem that I like a lot here is “Thrush.” The thrush in this poem is perhaps the thrush in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Spring,” only now the “same just older thrush, / thrust upwards from sheer. . . / sheerer. . .” (Behrens’s deployment of ellipses is perhaps a revival of a usage that seemed to have gone out of fashion). There is a similar kind of intense soundplay to Hopkins (“thrush”/“thrust”) and a similar attempt to grasp a fleeting joy—Behrens’s poem ends with the thrush’s return, provoking “Ebullience. It wipes us out.”
The full review can be read here:


Monday, May 13, 2019

Poem at Scoundrel Time

My poem “Elegy for the Republic” appears at Scoundrel Time. Many thanks to poetry editor Daisy Fried for publishing it.

Read it here:

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Fun House Recording Began 49 Years Ago Today

Photo: Ed Caraeff
On this date 49 years ago, May 11, 1970, the Stooges entered a recording studio in Los Angeles to begin recording their greatest album, Fun House, which would be pressed onto vinyl by Elektra Records and released that August. The critical theorist Theodor Adorno wrote in his 1938 essay “The Form of the Phonograph Record” that “Ultimately the phonograph records are not artworks but the black seals on the missives that are rushing towards us from all sides in the traffic with technology, missives whose formulations capture the sounds of creation, the first and the last sounds, judgment upon life and message about that which may come thereafter” (Essays on Music 280). In other words, vinyl records are not only the actual recorded moments in time but their medium beyond that moment, embodying a potential of deep importance to our lives now and in the future — perhaps even, as the last part of Adorno’s sentence suggests, in an almost mystical way.

What missive or message did the Stooges send us from 1970 in the form of the Fun House LP? That could take a whole book to elaborate, but in recording this music, this album, I would argue that the Stooges are not so much concerned with the “thereafter,” such as it may be, as they are with the immanence of the moment. It is through its unique particulars that life is imbued with whatever meaning it may have. Such unique particulars may take the form of an improvised Ron Asheton guitar lead, a screech of feedback, a drum roll, a vocal whoop, which may never be repeated again in exactly the same way. We listen to the record, knowing it is but one moment, each track one particular take, yet we can play it again and again, each time hearing it anew.

Or it may take the form of the imagistic poetry of Iggy Pop’s lyrics: “Down on the street where the faces shine / floating around on a real O-Mind / see a pretty thing, ain’t no wall. . . No wall!” (“Down on the Street”). To be in the “O-Mind” state means to overcome the limits of the self as part of the collective group in the act of creating music and art. It can be reached by other efficacious means as well, depending on what is at hand (e.g., drugs): “Out of my mind on Saturday night / 1970 rolling in sight / radio burning up above. . . All night till I blow away” (“1970”). The lyrics themselves developed during the recording process, rather than being fully written out in advance.

There is no better way to listen to Fun House in regard to its sound than on vinyl, though many years ago a friend told me he preferred to listen to it taped onto a cassette so that he didn’t have to turn it over, and so it played as one long set, one complete work. This makes sense, and a few years later the CD rose as the predominant medium, accomplishing the same thing. But now, many have returned to the vinyl album as the preferred means of delivery of those “missives whose formulations capture the sounds of creation” — and the tapes which would eventually be transformed into the “black seals” of this crucial LP began rolling 49 years ago today.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Suíomh Nua Eolaire na Scríbhneoirí Gaeilge

 Aontas na Scríbhneoirí Gaeilge 

Táim liostaithe ar shuíomh nua Eolaire na Scríbhneoirí Gaeilge (cruthaithe ag Aontas na Scríbhneoirí Gaeilge), ag an nasc seo.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Heart of Darkness Demos

A long time ago (late 80s to early 90s), I was in a band called Heart of Darkness. Some tracks from our first couple of demo tapes are now on YouTube (embedded below). We also put out a blue-vinyl 7” (now rare/collectible), a copy or two of which is for sale on Discogs: https://www.discogs.com/Heart-of-Darkness-Busted/release/8141938

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Two Poems in Anti-Heroin Chic

I have two new poems in the February 2019 issue of Anti-Heroin Chic. They are titled “Spun” and “Crimson Clouds”; read them here:


Tuesday, January 22, 2019

On Li Shangyin

One thing that is interesting about reading some of the lesser-known or recently translated Tang poets (e.g. Meng Chiao, Li He, Li Shangyin) is the realization that, beyond the Li Po–Tu Fu–Wang Wei axis, not all of the Chinese poets were as focused on the clarity of the image the way these (and some others) often were.  From the standpoint of English-language poetics, we tend to see Li Po, through Ezra Pound’s translations, as the avatar of imagism, though he also wrote poems of mystic journeys that veer into the surreal and dreamlike.  In the early modernist period, Witter Bynner’s translation of the standard Tang anthology also formed an alternative to Poundian imagism, but Bynner’s work has sadly fallen out of the conversation over time (a situation that in my view ought to be revisited).  Imagism is extremely important, and, sure, despite his racist and fascist views, Pound himself still cannot be completely dismissed as a formal innovator.  But the emphasis on the imagist “thing” has until recently tended to leave a lot of other Tang-era poets out of picture.  A. C. Graham began to remedy that somewhat in his Poems of the Late T’ang (1965), and in recent years, further translations of individual poets have been more frequently published.

The latest of these is the work of Li Shangyin (813-858), translated by Chloe Garcia Roberts (New York Review Books, 2018).  This volume includes not only Roberts’s translation of approximately 50 pages of Li’s poetry (with facing original Chinese), but also the versions by Graham and some by Lucas Klein (most of which are duplicate poems, making for interesting comparisons).  Li’s style is at times naturalistic and imagistic, but more often allusive, metaphorical, and, like Li He
’s, surreal.  His work has historically been considered extremely obscure or, as Roberts puts it in her introduction, “unknowable and elusive . . . almost baroque, opulently layered with distinct mythological, historical, personal, and symbolist imagery” (xi).  This, of course, makes him difficult to translate.

Thankfully, Roberts has chosen to take an almost literal approach, leaving intact the weird accretion of incongruous shifts and juxtapositions.  Graham, on the other hand, took certain liberties in order to make Li’s poems make sense.  In reality, their versions are not that far apart, but, if we are going to use a Western analogy, Graham’s sometimes come across as pleasant if melancholy lyrics, while Roberts’s tend toward a slightly more staccato rhythm, with brighter diction. For example, here’s Graham in 1965 rendering lines from “The Patterned Lute”: “The moon is full on the vast sea, a tear on the pearl. / On Blue Mountain the sun warms, a smoke issues from the jade” (in Roberts 145).  And here is Roberts in 2018:

Seablue, moonbeam,
Pearls hold tears.
Indigo fields, sun-warmth,
Jade begets smoke. (39)
Klein’s recent version falls somewhere in between but is perhaps closer to the syntax of Graham: “When the moon shines by the green sea there are tears on pearls, / and when the sun is warm on Mount Bluefield steam rises off jade” (116).  Each has their merits, but speaking subjectively, the clipped, at times paratactic, versions that Roberts creates resonate with me more, and at least visually seem closer to the Chinese form.  But it is a funny thing about translation; the more versions you read, the better the picture you seem to get.

Whatever the case, there is the sheer beauty of Li Shangyin’s poetry itself, if you can tune in through language and time.  Perhaps of use is an ars poetica, which begins,

At dawn, use clouds
To conceive the lines.
In winter, hold snow
To divine the poem. (33)
The poem “Spring Wind” is emotional in a way that differs from the work of other Tang poets (it seems to me, though others may be more expert).  Often in Tang poetry, there is an evocation of emotion through the image, like Li Po going to visit a Taoist monk only to find him gone, nothing but pine trees, and the scene or the season usually accords with the speaker’s feelings.  In Li Shangyin’s “Spring Wind,” there is a reversal of this.  First, there is a brief meditation on the coming of spring and the exuberance of it.  Then, there is this odd and unexpected move where Li imagines spring as a sentient or even bodily creature:
If I could force spring
Into sentience
It would only send forth
A single fragrant branch. (47)
Huh?  This seems to say that if spring were indeed human it would lack the exuberance it emits in its guise as a natural force, further suggesting Li’s real mood is not so lush and energetic.  In the third part of the poem, Li suddenly reveals that, actually, “my own sentiments differ / From the sentiments of spring” because “When spring begins, / I am already broken inside” (47).  It is almost a kind of “meta-” use of the season, a commentary on common poetic tropes, punctuated by the bizarre image of spring’s “single fragrant branch,” set up to create a contrast with and to emphasize a sense of inner crisis.

“Chamber Music” is a poem of loss, a lament for the ephemerality of human connection.  With the person to whom the poem is addressed now gone, and their “tender skin” now absent from the jade mattress, “All I see, / Silken emerald surface” (73) and not the person who would have lain upon it, and certainly this is intended to seem tyrannical.  Likewise, if not its music, then still “The brocade zither / Outlasts the person” (73).  Even in the otherworld (or when, say, we return to the state of primordial energy) there is little hope for a reunion, for without bodily form,

Agony: when heaven, earth,
Are overturned,
We will see each other,
We will not know each other. (75)
This is purely abstract, and not concrete or imagistic, but there is a poignancy here that rivals anything Li Po ever produced (please note that I love Li Po).

There are many other poems here that elucidate a sadness imparted by death and loss, and even the realization, “I know while the body exists / Emotion profoundly persists” (101) — that is, perhaps the realization is something like the Taoist and Chan understanding of the emotions as an inextricable part of life, which we can begin to see in context as one of the many parts of being human as we increasingly understand the way the mind and its complexes work.  At the same time, as in Li Po there are indeed many moments of joy.  Some are sparked by poetry itself:

On good days
The self is often moved.
Though it’s impossible
The writer could always be so. (31)
Perhaps the message here is that the poet ought not to wait on the “spontaneous overflow of emotion” in pursuit of their work.  Other times, as in Li Shangyin’s “Spring Night, Cheering Myself Up,” where we see him delighting in the wind in the bamboo, the moonglow on the flowers, and the “rampant moss,” there is also the knowledge that “My happiness and contentment / Depend only on music and wine” (105).  There are so many other great poems and lines here, and I personally don’t care if (in fact I like that) it doesn’t always all make sensethough it usually more or less does.  Incidentally, there is a wonderfully minimalist cover design (by Emily Singer) with smart use of color for this volume (somewhat bolder in real life than the jpeg included above).  It is of a piece with the NYRB Poets series, but it especially complements Roberts’s excellent work.