Wednesday, September 02, 2020

On WCW’s Paterson, Book Six

William Carlos Williams’s brief notes for Book Six of Paterson have fascinated me, with that feeling of “what if” — what would he have done here had he lived to write it?  Someone must have analyzed this material more extensively.  But to me, it lends a sense of the tragic to the poem, yet then how could such a poem not be tragic (loosely speaking) if it could only be ended by death, the long poem that could go on and on until, to paraphrase Paul Valéry, something puts a stop to it?  The life-work that becomes a death-stopped work.

WCW ended Book Five with this passage:
We know nothing and can know nothing    .
the dance, to dance to a measure
                 Satyrically, the tragic foot.
                      (p. 239 of the 1963 New Directions paperback edition)

Contrapuntally means, obviously, using the counterpoint, or specifically in music using numerous voices that are independent of each other but related through the harmony, which is also a good metaphor for at least some of his technique in Paterson, where disparate types of materials are juxtaposed within the bigger poem.  That is a technical explanation, but it is the fact of the dance that is elevated to the highest importance; it is finally all we can know, moving our bodies in rhythm (or contrapuntally to the rhythm, or to each other?) until we can no longer.  And it is a wild satyr’s dance at that, out of Greek tragedy.  Or tragic like the Native Americans dancing the Kinte Kaye in the face of imminent death (Book Three), or like Vercingetorix taking on the Roman Legions (also Book Three).

Or tragic like Williams himself in old age beginning Book Six, typing out fragments and notes even though he was half-paralyzed by stroke — still taking upon himself the task of wrangling with language: “Words are the burden of poems, poems are made of words” (243).  Thinking of the actual effects of his prescribed medication, he writes in Book Six, “Dance, dance! loosen your limbs from that art which holds you faster than the drugs which hold you faster — dandelion on my bedroom wall” (244).  And there suddenly is as imagist an image as you could ever find.  It’s no accident, no random detail, that Li Po also appears — Li Po, the original imagist (for all intents and purposes), “a Chinese poet who / drowned embracing the reflection of the moon in the river” (244).  Another poet of the tragic foot.

There is more historical material, the concern with American history, a lost America that obviously never existed in its “wondrous” form (Hamilton . . . “founding the country which was  to / increase to be the wonder of the world / in its day” [245] — but not in ours, not in ours, sadly, if even then).  The very last lines (and these in WCW’s triadic line form) make up a troubling and harsh portrait of two women, Irish immigrants, one who has been abused and sold by her father into the sex trade, and her friend Mrs. Carmody “who could tell a story / when she’d a bit taken” (246).  The old Irish stereotype perhaps of drinking and talk, but what is the gift of the gab if not poetry?  WCW was fascinated with these people, the desperate immigrants, despite his own sexism, racism, you name it.  Somehow they were still America for him.  And they are tragic too.

So Williams dies and only then is there an end to Paterson.  But even this statement is provisional in a way.  The unfinished character of the Book Six notes creates the appearance that the poem is moving ever on, as if it is still being worked on in the very moment.  It is stopped, or suspended, in an instant of continuation (like a line enjambed, but with nothing following) — in the midst of the dance and then someone presses pause, and

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Blackbird 14

Blackbird 14 cover art by Cheryl Penn

I have three poems in the latest issue of Blackbird (number 14), edited by David Stone of the Blackbird Institute.  The move to the perfect-bound book format opens up opportunities for additional color art pieces — mail-art and collage has always been a big part of Blackbird, along with poetry, and it has always been internationalist in ethos.  Includes some standout work from Cheryl Penn, Wolfgang Gunther (in Esperanto), Harry Burrus, Stone himself, and posthumous poems from Eric Basso — and others.  Order a copy here.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Review of Maurice Scully, ‘Play Book’ (Coracle, 2019)

Previously (here) I wrote about excerpts from this book (Plays, 2016) published by the now lamentably defunct Smithereens Press.  However, Coracle have put out Maurice Scully’s complete Play Book as a thick blue hardback.  

The pieces from the previous short chapbook are interspersed throughout the longer volume, though at least one or two have not made the cut.  Interestingly, one other piece (“Pattern”) has also been removed from its place in the collection and is relegated to an appendix, where it nonetheless appears in full.  We get the sense almost of a work still in progress, with moving parts, though on the other hand each printed text of course becomes fixed in its current form, well, until the next printing.  For example, the upcoming complete version of Scully’s Things That Happen (Shearsman Books) is advertised as including the author’s recent revisions.

But all of this is complementary to Scully’s work, which itself often reads like a graph of a mind in motion in the moment, observing the world around it/him, but getting underneath the representations of what it presents.  The poem titled “Pop” begins with a series of seemingly innocent images: “an apple / on a / windowledge”; “its skin – light – // flecks of blood”; “gold-green / beer cans” — but these also become strangely complex and abstract.  Around halfway through, the piece takes a turn, jumping off from the image of “the / carefully / tussled / hair of // an artist’s / head in full / career” to a critique of the publishing industry and the “street-fantasy / of realism.”

One of the major themes of the book (which I also wrote about a few years ago in relation to the shorter Plays) is Scully’s relation to or grappling with the modernist poets.  Previously I mentioned his signifying on Yeats and possibly Pound, but in the new book there are more overt references to Dickinson (often seen as a proto-modernist), Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Mina Loy, Lorine Niedecker, and others.  Some, like Niedecker and Stevens, would seem to accord well with Scully’s overarching approach, but sometimes he is clearly satirizing the tradition of twentieth-century poetry.  The book, after all, does have “play” in its title.

There are other *big* ideas here.  In “Panning,” there is the notion of debate and argument and its futility: “in the heat where you pile the arguments for / a to one side & b to another / . . . beliefs without bases solidly founded beliefs. . . .”  Finally, Scully questions the efficacy of logic itself as a means of knowing the world or arriving at truth/reality: “compare the flying pieces of the jigsaw / that each claims to be The One True Picture.”  But that is not actually the end of the poem.  Having dispensed with the tyranny of logic, of Enlightenment values, Scully counterpoints a radically different second section, a vision of the sap system of trees, their “conducting / vessels” — but almost bizarrely imagined through “x-ray eyes / a forest without its / supporting timber. . . / a colony of glinting ghosts / each tree a spectral sheath / of rising liquid in countless / millions of slim threads.”  And it goes on.  It’s an amazing image that combines lyricism and biology, both art and materialism, into a whole other kind of epistemology.

More than one piece is titled “Poetry” (NB: all titles begin with ‘P’), and it is the poetry itself that strikes me here and the more I read Scully.  Yes, his work is rich with philosophical questioning, and/or focused on the seemingly mundane details of life (which with Scully are never mundane) — but the more I read him the more and more I become amazed at his use of language, the ebb and flow of a long poem, its sudden turns and veers in thought, its delight.  Sometimes I feel as a “reviewer” I’m obligated to get to the big ideas, often this is agreeable to me, and at the same time I sometimes want just to enjoy the process of engaging with the poetry on the page, the sounds of the words, the alliteration, and yes even the word-*play*, which is perhaps even more salient in this collection than ever before.  Or, maybe it just seems that way.

Some of the “Poetry”s are satiric, but some seem truly to posit poetry as the preferred episteme: “the / core of shape, the blood of poetry – may be so for / you too; but I know it and, breathe in again! Money / honour, power – same old pancake.”  Is Scully using the phrase “the blood of poetry” straight-facedly here (this is the “Poetry” that appears on page 171)?  It seems likely.  The following piece, “Props,” confronts the possibility of good work being ignored or even “erased” by changing literary fashions, but nonetheless poetry remains for the poet in the writing of it, “the shadow-image of a pen descending,” finally here becomes a metaphor/image of an illumined plum, “from seed to tree to / flower to this. Taste it. It’s yours. Taste it now.”  “This” is the *thing itself* (the plum, oblique allusion to WCW? “no ideas but in things”?), but it is also the poem or poetry, and now it becomes clear that there is deep sincerity along with the parody.

There is so much more that could be said — Play Book is 176 pp. long (though titles get their own separate pages) — so many more startling, dazzling phrases, sounds, insights, but I will leave it here and simply suggest that the real joy of this book is in the actual reading of it.  Scully is perhaps seen by some as a “difficult” poet, but I don’t think that’s true.  You can just read the words on the page and follow them where they lead.

And: Soon to come (this autumn) is an edited collection, A Line of Tiny Zeros in the Fabric: Essays on the Poetry of Maurice Scully (ed. Ken Keating, Shearsman Books), which should do much to make Scully’s work less prone to “erasure.”  (Disclosure: I have an essay in this volume.)

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

The Big Thing demo tape, 1984

The Big Thing was a band I formed with Jim from Wasted Talent, in State College, PA, right after WT broke up in January 1984.  The singer was Andy Redman and the bassist was Greg Loop.  When I moved to Philly in fall ’84, Jim quit too, but the band continued with a new drummer and bassist (Greg switched to guitar), eventually themselves moving to Philly (in 1986). They recorded a couple more demos, a couple 7”s and an LP, and toured a lot.

However, this is the original band with myself on drums.  This is our July 1984 demo tape, recorded on a 4-track machine.  I wrote or co-wrote a lot of these songs.  Further info given with the video itself, and pics, etc.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Watching '1991: The Year Punk Broke' (1992) in 2020

I finally watched the Dave Markey-directed 1991: The Year Punk Broke, which was released in 1992 (never actually saw it back then).  Coming out of the L.A. hardcore (punk) scene in the early 1980s, Markey was the drummer in the bands Sin 34 and Painted Willie, co-edited the We Got Power fanzine, and has made numerous documentary and other films.  As a documentarian, Markey does a stellar job in filming this tour.  I like all the little touches Markey throws in and dig his style of filmmaking, the pastiche style, and the aesthetic of the occasionally deliberately low-budget visual effects.  This essay originated as a post I made in a social-media group dedicated to SST Records bands and related topics.  Out of my original post and my own responses to comments on the thread, I realized I had over a thousand words.  But in that regard, I also happily acknowledge that there’s a kind of collaborative dynamic to this as well.  First my response to Markey’s film, then the online comments that ensued, and my further thoughts that these sparked, now formed into some kind of semblance of an essay.

It should go without saying that I’m not criticizing Markey here per se; he documents what was going on at the time, 1991, as punk /hardcore had already moved on to become the beginnings of “indie-rock” or “alternative,” as well as some of the major bands on this tour — Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., et al.  So, this is a kind of retrospective look at that time, which now seems very much of its time; thus, it is really quite strange to watch it now and see it from such a distance.  Primarily, then, I am questioning/analyzing the stances taken and arguments made by the musician themselves in the film.  That said, of course nothing is ever truly that random (“just” documented, or just “what really happened”), and the fact that it is put forward as a film inherently means it is making some kind of argument about all of this stuff.

It might also go without saying that I think the music in this is still great, and there are some amazing versions of the bands’ songs.  Really almost all the music is spectacular (a surprise to me was how good Babes in Toyland were live).  But the strange thing to see the film now is, these people (primarily band members themselves) mostly act like a bunch of idiots (to be blunt). Yes, it’s a rock’n’roll tour and these are primarily young people (except for Sonic Youth, who were already in their thirties at the time), and I guess they are mugging for the camera, and there were probably intoxicating substances involved (e.g. Nirvana do virtually nothing but horse around, jump on each other, and fall down).  But as I watched, I couldn’t help seeing this as all pretty shallow and ridiculous.  Thurston Moore especially — apparently, we were supposed to buy into his “cool,” but his cool is based on a combination of inane drivel and arrogance (it appears to me, in this film), and he’s actually extremely annoying here. (J. Mascis and Murph are exceptions to the off-putting personalities of most and come across well.)

Secondly, they are supposedly attacking/critiquing pop culture, with the Madonna parodies and so on, yet what is actually documented is really what the title says — it is the moment in time where what was formerly underground/challenging/or just weird is suddenly becoming subsumed into the mainstream (“broke” big, i.e. crossed over), becoming just another signifier of hip taste and faux individuality.  Adorno was right; the culture industry wins.  While the figures here think they are ironically subverting mainstream pop culture, they are really only a part of it.  If anything, this film demonstrates the ways that neoliberal capitalism by the late 80s/early 90s had suddenly found a way to subsume what was formerly an underground, unassimilated scene (hardcore punk), as bands brought in pop hooks and got major-label record contracts.  As Steven Shaviro writes in his essay “Accelerationist Aesthetics” (2013), “In today’s capitalism everything is aestheticized, and all values are ultimately aesthetic ones. . . . Aesthetic sensations and feelings are no longer disinterested, because they have been recast as markers of personal identity: revealed preferences, brands, lifestyle markers, objects of adoration by fans.”  The “cool” tastes and ironic humor that the participants in the film think shield them from the mainstream no longer do that job.

In the social-media thread, a couple of commenters charged that I was taking the film too seriously or “overthinking it,” suggesting that it was all just a bunch of fun, which only happened to be caught on camera, nothing more.  However, if you’re going to put this (or anything) into a film, and put the film forward and ask everyone to watch it, then inherently it is making some kind of argument or statement.  Additionally, the participants know they are on camera and act accordingly, for the wider audience it affords.  In that sense, (yes I repeat myself) nothing is ever “just” without some kind of intent.

Others in the thread said that Moore’s seeming pretentiousness was all just a joke, that he wasn’t in any way making any kind of serious point through his comments or his mode of communication.  Yet, tellingly there is at least one pretentious attempt at a serious message, when Moore says that their doing the tour is a challenge to “your parents,” (okay, he may have been hyperbolic and silly about the “parents” part), the Bush administration, and the KGB.  He seems seriously concerned about the arrest of Gorbachev, which had just happened at that time.  It’s one brief moment where he seems like he’s trying to make a serious point, which suggests that underneath all the irony, he does take himself somewhat seriously. I.e. he wasn’t pro-Bush etc., so that was not actually ironic, one of the few non-ironic moments.  However, it is unclear (at least in this documentary) how rock bands on tour, aside from offering a momentary good time, presents a challenge to the political order.

Undeniably, though, there is then a certain intent in what is going on in this film, and it captures the way that subcultural figures rather consciously attempt to project coolness: again, by attempting to satirize pop culture while also becoming inescapably part of pop culture.  The Madonna parodies, for example, are not just random happenings, but an ongoing skit that tries to make a deliberate point.  Then there is the attempt to be seen as ironic, disengaged, which is itself a particular social stance that, being in their twenties and thirties, i.e. adults, the people enacting this knew they were taking.

For another example, there is a scene where Moore makes fun of Iggy Pop (who doesn’t actually appear in the film, though he was on the tour).  The scene is noteworthy because on the one hand he’s satirizing Iggy for being “outrageous,” but then it’s also just another ironic way for him to show how cool he (Moore) is, that he’s incorporated the influence of the Stooges even as he also seems to suggest that that it’s now become oh-so-cliché.  More of an attack on those not as disengaged/cool, then, than an attack on Iggy/ Stooges themselves.  There’s a similar moment where Lee Ranaldo acts silly and dismissive in front of the Ramones, and right before that (in a car out of earshot) Moore says something like, “Where’s Dee Dee,” when obviously Dee Dee was out of the band at that point.  Again, not really an attack on the Ramones — it’s well-known that SY were Ramones and Stooges fans — more a means of showing how passé respecting your influences is.  Or something like that.

It is an odd feeling, in retrospect, to realize/confront to whom and how much we once accorded credibility or cultural capital.  I imagine that if I had seen this in 1992, I too probably would’ve thought most of it was pretty “cool.”  The early 90s seem like such a different time now.  The music was (largely) better, but the narrative of cool kind of uncool.

As of this writing, the thread in the SST group is still there:

Friday, June 12, 2020

Silver Pinion Anthology

I have a poem in a new anthology titled Silver Pinion: To Affirm the Marvelous (Word Studio, 2020, ISBN: 978-0-9987678-1-9). This book is of the type you don’t often see anymore, offset-printed (and not POD), perfect-bound. It contains some excellent fellow-contributors as well, such as Tongo Eisen-Martin, CA Conrad, and Adeena Karasick. Many thanks to editor D.C. Wojciech and all who put it together.

Sunday, May 03, 2020

The Stooges “Cale Mix” [sic]

It is great that Elektra/Rhino have finally released the complete version of the rejected first mix of The Stooges (1969) on vinyl, corrected to the proper speed.  Previously, these tracks were only available piecemeal on various rerelease packages of the album on CD, with only a random one or two on vinyl.  This new album is quite well rendered on red/black-splatter vinyl, tip-on cover, and insert.

The sound is good, clear, coming from the original reel of the initial mix-down.  As the story goes, the band were not happy with this mix, and you can see why.  Producer John Cale was trying to be fancy with the dials and does some weird things with fade-ins and fade-outs, and just generally has Ron Asheton’s guitar mixed down way too low.  I like it as an alternative, a kind of “what if” — but thankfully it was not to be released as the official album in 1969.  The version as released is far rawer and noisier and more guitar-centric than this one.

Something that should be cleared up and is not, however, in the new liner notes by Sean L. Maloney (who has previously written an illuminating 33-1/3 Series book on Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers), is that Cale mixed both versions of the album, not only the initial, rejected mix.  It is purely a myth (albeit one propagated until recently by Iggy Pop himself) that Iggy and Jac Holzman mixed the released version of the album.  That is not true, and did not happen, but sadly it is repeated in the liner notes of this new release.  What happened, as delineated in Paul Trynka’s definitive Iggy biography Open Up and Bleed (which was published in 2007), is that Cale remixed it with a producer named Lewis Merenstein, who worked the controls under Cale’s direction.  Iggy finally acknowledged that he did not take part in the remix in Jeff Gold’s Total Chaos (2016).  Thus, this new album should not be called “John Cale Mix,” because both mixes are John Cale mixes, and I’m not sure why, with the correct information freely available, it is still being portrayed in this manner.

I also find it really strange that this version is being touted as “even gnarlier, more antagonistic” or “too abrasive,” when as noted, it is the released version that is far noisier and more aggressive.  This first mix really tamped down the guitar sound, which is just plainly obvious.  Yes, there is a kind of rawness to it in the sense that it was just a rough mix, without a lot of finishing touches (aside from extensive use of the faders), and in that sense it is the direct sound of the instruments from the room to the tape.  But it doesn’t have the energy or loudness of the version that was ultimately released.  Again, it’s great to have as a weird alt-version, but it ultimately confirms that Cale and Merenstein (again, not Pop and Holzman!) subsequently remixing it was for the best.  “But what if [the second version] was the tame version?” Maloney asks.  No, it’s really not.

I wish that labels would stop trying to market the Stooges with the usual hyperbolic “they were the original punks” kind of language that is now so cliché as to be cringe-inducing.  The spine-covering hype card that comes with the Vinyl Me Please package takes this to new heights by claiming, “The original punk album, The Stooges is a Molotov cocktail delivered straight to the faces of the hippies of 1969, an album made by Michigan goons. . .”  In fact, neither were the Stooges goons nor were they against hippies.  In a 2005 interview by Simon Reynolds in Uncut, Ron Asheton went so far as to say, “we didn’t have any great animosity towards hippies. We certainly had a lot of sex with hippie women! And we listened to the San Francisco bands. It could get a little too earthy and pious. But there was a great divide in America and we were on the same side as the hippies. You don’t shit on an ally!”  Further, the image of the Stooges as a bunch of dumb guys really does them a disservice.  They knew exactly what they were doing and pursued their art very deliberately and with a musical intelligence that was the equal of anyone’s.  Their “musical ineptitude” (to quote Maloney) mistakes a stripped-down approach to rock’n’roll for a lack of artistic consciousness.  The Stooges were not stupid.

Of course, there is something to the Stooges being situated at the beginning of punk, if we see it as a continuum, but the punk of 1969-70 existed mostly in the minds and writing of certain music critics and did not quite yet compose a genre with wider recognition, which it accrued later.  Yes, there’s a connection, but to throw around the term “punk rock” as if it meant the same thing in 1969 as it did in 1976, or indeed in 1982, is to elide the evolution it went through.  I wish that those in charge of commissioning this kind of “Stooges are punk” copy would realize that most of the people who are going to be buying this already know something about the band and don’t need to be presented with the same-old-same-old sensationalism in order to want to have this record.

And perhaps it would have been more appropriate if the inner sleeve had not used a photo by Tom Copi from the spring of 1970, when the Stooges were no longer playing the songs from the first album.  There are plenty of good shots of, say, the NYC Pavilion engagement in September 1969, which would have been more relevant to the time period that is involved here.  I’m glad this came out.  I have wanted to have this mix all on one vinyl record, and the look and feel and sound reproduction of it are great.  Of course I was going to buy this.  But is it too much to ask that copywriters and project producers bring a bit more scholarship to these ventures?

Photos from Discogs

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Rosenstock Translation in Poetry Ireland Review

My translations of Gabriel Rosenstock’s “Six Tankas to Her” appear in the latest issue of Poetry Ireland Review, number 130.  Happy to have made some small connection with Gabriels great work. Go raibh maith agaibh.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Reading Thomas MacGreevy’s “Homage to Vercingetorix”

For what it’s worth, here is an audio file of me reading Thomas MacGreevy’s poem “Homage to Vercingetorix” on the BSU English Dept.’s YouTube channel:

Monday, March 23, 2020

Old Poem at The Stinging Fly

Here is an old poem of mine, “Beautiful People,” published in The Stinging Fly in 2000, then in my collection Ancestor Worship (Salmon Poetry, 2007). I believe I wrote this in 1999 or so, during the time of the Galway Film Fleadh, to an old friend. Posting it now, as The Stinging Fly has just electronically archived their old issues...

Friday, March 20, 2020

Four Poems at Live Encounters

I have four new(ish) poems up at Live Encounters journal, online here and images here:

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Chapbook Forthcoming from Adjunct Press

My poem chapbook manuscript Tropospheric Clouds was accepted by the great Milwaukee-based Adjunct Press and is forthcoming this summer.  Many thanks.

This is the manuscript I referred to at the end of my interview at California Journal of Poetics, where I was asked about my latest writing projects, and replied “At the moment, I’m writing an ongoing, I suppose weird surrealistic poem, in which I try to compose without a lot of conscious control, actually not always easy. Whereas some of my more recent poetry is concerned with form (albeit, I would say, in an oblique way), this is more free-form.”

Look for Tropospheric Clouds later this summer.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Reading at Louisville Conference

I am reading poems as part of a creative panel at this year’s Louisville Conference on Literature & Culture since 1900. It takes place on 2/21, Friday morning, 9:00am.  If you are at the conference by then, I hope to see you there.

Friday, January 31, 2020

William Carlos Williams’s “The Farmer”

William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All (1923) is oft commented-upon and analyzed, the long poem and prose text producing a number of his most famous poems (e.g. “Spring and All,” “To Elsie,” “The Red Wheelbarrow,” “At the Ballgame”) – though of course none of these were so titled in the collection itself, except being numbered by Roman numerals.  Less often discussed (this being relative, as what WCW poem has been left unanalyzed?) is number III, “The Farmer.”  Immediately preceding the poem, a prose chapter ends with the sentence, “I myself seek to enter the lists with these few notes jotted down in the midst of the action, under distracting circumstances  —to remind myself (see p. 177, par. 6 [so rendered in the Collected Poems]) of the truth.”  The reference produces the earlier sentences, “The reader knows himself as he was twenty years ago and he has also in a mind a vision of what he would be, some day.  Oh, some day!  But the thing he never knows and never dares to know is what he is at the exact moment that he is.”  Having dropped this only slightly mysterious wisdom on the reader, which seems appropriate to mention as a preamble, the poem begins.  (BTW, my analysis of WCW’s “The Farmer”originally came out of my graduate course-work with Professor Jon Thompson; I present it here with some more recent editing and writing, coming back to the poem anew.)

In “The Farmer,” Williams offers nothing less than a vision of the nature of art.  For Williams, the farmer is not a figure representing any supposed harmony between man and nature (as, for example, a traditional pastoral poem might assert), but rather he is more akin to an artist – a painter, a composer, or especially a poet.  Though Williams utilizes images of the natural world, in doing so he is not attempting to symbolically integrate the farmer with nature, but rather to show him at odds with it.  Here, the farmer and the natural world are in a sense hostile to each other.  The farmer must physically sow the earth, just as the poet must score their pages with words, or the painter their canvas with paint.  Williams expresses this in the violence and harshness of his images, and in the parallels he draws between the farmer and the artist.  The farmer/artist is an “antagonist,” as he wrangles with his medium and surroundings, and Williams suggests that there is an aspect of violence or antagonism in the creative process as well as in the agricultural.  Yet despite the violence inherent in such enterprises, both the farmer and the artist ultimately produce something valuable – art, crops – which, with this poem, Williams implies are both necessary sustenance for human life.

“The Farmer” opens with the image of the farmer himself, “in deep thought.”  The farmer in deep thought “is pacing through the rain.”  So far Williams has offered us nothing to make us suspect he’s going to do anything other than present a quaint image of country life.  However, the farmer here is not just “in deep thought,” but is also pacing “among his blank fields,” considering them – not unlike an artist before his blank canvas, or a poet before a blank sheet of paper, on the verge of creative action.  In fact, as Williams lets us know just a couple of lines later, he has “in his head / the harvest already planted.”  The farmer is a visionary; he sees the fields planted (planned) in his mind before he actually goes about it.  He looks on the fields as a medium, waiting to be acted upon, as an artist also interacts with their medium.

Williams goes on to delineate the natural world in which the farmer is situated, with this heavy-duty imagist passage: “A cold wind ruffles the water / among the browned weeds.”  Something, an active force (a cold wind), is acting upon something else (the water), which like the fields lies there passively.  The “browned weeds” add a vague sexual element.  “On all sides,” he then continues, “the world rolls coldly away: / black orchards / darkened by March clouds— / leaving room for thought.”  The surrounding world now takes on a hostile, menacing aspect – cold, black, and dark.  And it “rolls away,” in the sense of “away from.”  There is a disjuncture between the figure of the farmer and the natural world, humankind and nature at odds.  But this disjuncture provides the opportunity for thought.  Indeed it is human beings’ consciousness which in many respects sets them apart from the natural world, and it is also what gives them the capacity for art (suppposedly, anyway – we now know that other animals are capable of art as well).  Along with this, however, comes an awareness, and an enactment, of a sort of Heraclitean strife.  This is not a picture of harmony, or of the farmer at one with the cosmos.  Rather, the farmer must mold the materials, the earth, the fields, and make them into something other than what they are in their natural state, and doing so often seems to requires violent means.

The image of “the brushwood / bristling by / the rainsluiced wagonroad” echoes the earlier image of the “cold wind ruffl[ing] the water / among the browned weeds.”  The “wagonroad,” presumably a muddy dirt road, is “rainsluiced” – in other words cut into by the running liquid – thus deepening the impression of the violent nature of the poem’s subject matter.  The brushwood is “bristling,” adding a further charge of strife and dissension.  Williams specifically contextualizes the farmer in relation to all of this – the passage actually reads, “Down past the brushwood/ bristling by / the rainsluiced wagonroad / looms the artist figure of / the farmer…”  The farmer is not a disinterested personage.  He is intimately involved (he “looms” over the whole scene), and, for Williams, cannot pretend otherwise.  But it is not enough for Williams to say something as simple as, “A farmer is like an artist…”  No, the poem is also about the nature of art itself.  What Williams is actually saying, then, is that there is a certain aspect of violence in poetry as well.  The poet not only marks up the blank pages with ink and words is asserting theirself in the world, and actively inserting the poem into the world.

Having established that the farmer is an “artist figure,” Williams concludes the poem with two more words: “…looms the artist figure of / the farmer—composing / —antagonist”.  (The words being “composing” and “antagonist.”)  The meaning of “composing” should now be obvious.  Williams drives home the idea of the farmer as a poet – both figures needing to take action in order to accomplish their intentions in the material world.  The more important word, though, is “antagonist.”  Both words are set apart by the use of the long dash, but it is “antagonist” which closes the poem, and which earns the distinction of owning a line unto itself.  As an “antagonist,” the farmer, again, is neither disinterested, nor is he part of a harmony between nature and man.  The farmer does violence to the earth in his sowing, just as – Williams is clearly saying here – the artistic act is also a violent act.  He has agency, and he uses it – the poet marking paper with pen, the painter marking a canvas with particular strokes of paint, the wind ruffling the water, the rain sluicing the dirt road, the farmer sowing and planting the earth.  The artist is not neutral, the poet is not neutral, and the farmer is not neutral.  Each takes what they need through violent action.  The world of this poem is nothing other than a world of forces at odds with each other, endlessly clashing, yet, in this respect, productive.

Though it is not stated (it doesn’t need to be), the farmer in his wrangle with the earth ultimately produces food.  The poet of course produces poetry, and as a poet himself, Williams suggests poetry is on the level of food.  For Williams, poetry is just as much a necessary product of his artistic labor as edible crops are of a farmer’s sowing.  In this sense, “The Farmer” can be seen to anticipate WCW’s own more famous lines in the much later “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” (1955): “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”

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: