Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Poetry Controversy, “Free Speech” Debates, and the Power of Poetry

The recent controversy in the poetry world, centered around Barren Magazine firing an unpaid editor (Danielle Rose), is interesting and thought-provoking in a number of ways.  To briefly recap, Rose tweeted this on Sept. 3, 2021:

This led to widespread Twitter contention over whether or not poetry can be “powerful.”  Many replied that poetry was indeed quite powerful for them, in various different ways.  Barren came down on the “poetry is powerful” side of things and fired Rose, issuing the following statement on Sept. 4:

Before I get into what I think is noteworthy and thought-provoking about all of this, I want to firstly say what is not.  This is not some kind of “free speech” issue, and it is not a question of whether Rose was being “censored” or “canceled” by Barren.  The magazine has every right to put forward its own particular literary vision, and they have no obligation to continue to work with someone who doesn’t share it.  Rose’s position was unremunerated, and she does not appear to have been harmed by the parting of ways (aside from receiving a few not-especially-nice internet comments).  If anything, as she herself has pointed out, her profile and stature may even have been increased:

Whether or not she actually now has “power” is of course open to question, but to frame this as a “cancellation” or some similar silliness is, in my opinion, absolutely the wrong way to look at it.  Not only that, but doing so gives succor to right-wing trolls who want to say that “politically correct” “liberals” wield some kind of undue, despotic influence in the cultural realm — and indeed in the wake of this recent brouhaha, some commentators have tried to claim just that.  This reveals the flawed thinking behind many contemporary “free-speech” or anti-“political correctness” arguments.  Ostensibly, they defend the principle of free speech against supposed attacks “on both sides,” and assert the primacy of the Western values of debate and democracy, but in reality the argument more often than not becomes a stick with which the right attempts to undermine the credibility of progressives or of the left.  Even certain well-meaning people have been duped into avouching the bogeyman of “cancel culture,” but you have to ask what does their investment in “the principles of Western democracy” really signify in our current moment?  Note that the Prøud Bøys (for example) define themselves as “Western chauvinists.”  (Of course I believe in free speech and democracy; I’m simply pointing out that to frame the Rose/Barren rift as a free-speech issue is a massive red herring, which has wider, perhaps unintended consequences.)  (For further discussion of the spurious argument against so-called “political correctness,” see here.)

All of that said, the degree of uproar over Rose’s tweet was surprising, and I do think that Barren’s response was overblown, even if it falls well within their rights to fire her.  Rose’s initial statement, as many pointed out, was not very dissimilar from W. H. Auden’s oft-quoted line (from his poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”) that “poetry makes nothing happen,” and as such was a relatively uncontroversial notion that poets have been debating in some form or another for decades (even centuries).  Certainly, to my mind, this is hardly a fire-able offense.

But at the same time, others began pointing out the ways in which poetry can be, indeed is, powerful, and I agree that poetry is powerful both personally (many would say it’s given their lives meaning, perhaps even saved their lives in one way or another) and in building community.  I think what Rose was talking about was the way that some poets might impute to themselves, or to poetry generally, a level of importance that it doesn’t have outside of their own perhaps insular poetry circle (and of course there are numerous different poetry circles out there), and I think she was trying to puncture that inflated sense of self in the broader context of the society at large.  Poetry does often seem to be completely ignored by what Rose termed “the general population,” and so it is always a good reminder to check ourselves and our egos, especially in the face of the relative lack of attention to poetry “out there” in the wider world.

It is also, however, good to be reminded of how powerful poetry really is for the minority of us who practice and read it, and I affirm all of the various expressions of that that ensued.  Moving away from such eminently valid individual attestations of the importance of poetry, two particular texts come to me that further articulate the power that poetry can have.  One is Audre Lorde’s essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” (1977), which I return to frequently.  While I realize that I am not Lorde’s primary audience in that essay, with my own position(ality) in mind I am nonetheless always struck when she writes,

Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives.  It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.
The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am.  The Black mother within each of us — the poet — whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.  Poetry coins the language to express and charter this revolutionary demand, the implementation of that freedom. (38)

Here, not only does Lorde delineate the power of poetry as personal, political, and beyond, she also critiques those very same Enlightenment values that the Western chauvinists invoke in their quest to uphold white supremacy — the notion that “logical” debate is an inherently positive value (i.e. rather than one that historically tends to benefit white, male, privileged property-holders).  Actually, while Lorde skillfully exposes the tyranny of rationality (here expressed in the Cartesian mind/body split of “white father” thinking), she goes on to identify the fusion of thought and feeling as the best framework for approaching both poetry and political action, and her essay is one of the best I can think of that expresses why, as her title argues, poetry is not a luxury but a necessity in the lives of many.  (Even Auden, in his poem, went on to assert that poetry is “a way of happening, a mouth.”)

The other text is Gary Snyder’s The Real Work: Interviews & Talks, 1964-79 (1980).  In a 1977 interview, Snyder responds to the Auden line by pointing out that poets “are out at the very edge of the unraveling cause-and-effect network of a society in time” (71).  For Snyder, poets do have a social and political function (and what is “power” if not the function of politics?), though it might be out of the mainstream discourse and thus unrecognized as powerful.  Snyder goes on to elaborate that poets are also
tuned into other voices than simply the social or human voice.  So they are like an early warning system that hears the trees and the air and the clouds and the watersheds beginning to groan and complain a little bit. . . . They also can hear stresses and the fault block slippage creaking in the social batholith and also begin to give out warnings. . . . Poetry effects change by fiddling with the archetypes and getting at people’s dreams about a century before it actually effects historical change.  A poet would be, in terms of the ecology of symbols, noting the main structural connections and seeing which parts of the symbol system are no longer useful or applicable, though everyone is giving them credence. (71)

For Synder, poets are (or can be) a kind of advance platoon (even a century in advance) of cultural experimenters who critique existing certainties and in their work register the limitations of dominant narratives.  Both Snyder and Lorde see poetry as existing at least partly in the realm of the dream, and thus point to non-Cartesian, non-rational means of making meaning and even making arguments.

In a way, this is the true sense of the term “avant-garde” — to make that new meaning through new forms of art and modes of living (rather than avant-garde in the mere sense of now-recognized stylistic departures) — Lorde’s “dream and vision” and “skeleton architecture.”  What is becoming increasingly clear, wherever you stand in the recent Rose/Barren-related exchanges (and again, I don’t think it’s an either/or situation), is that political systems and social values, no matter how much “everyone [supposedly] is giving them credence” (per Snyder), which privilege a dominant class and thus inherently oppress others (whether classes of people or even non-human animals and nature), should no longer be given such credence — in poetry or elsewhere in the social discourse.

Friday, July 02, 2021

Wasted Talent - 3 Songs from The Master Tape Vol. 2 LP (1983)

Wasted Talent was a hardcore/punk band I co-founded in 1981.  These songs were recorded on Sept. 15, 1982, at Red Dog Studios (Filmspace), State College, Pennsylvania, as part of our demo tape (cassette album) titled Self Rule (released late 1982).  In spring or summer of 1983, we remixed these three songs for The Master Tape Vol. 2 compilation (Affirmation Records, 1983).  When we were asked to be on that compilation by Paul Mahern of the Zero Boys and Affirmation Records, we decided to go back to the studio and remix the three songs because we had felt that the guitar on the demo tape was too low in the mix (and we had mastered it with the Dolby on!).  These are the remixed versions, which only appeared on that vinyl album, and what you hear in this video file is a vinyl rip.  The studio tape of the remix has since disappeared, and so these versions only exist on the vinyl compilation album and the digital transfer.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Recap of May IAWA Salon Reading

Here is a recap of the May 11, 2021, Irish American Writers and Artists “Salon” reading. Along with my couple of poems, and other readers and performers, was Malachy McCourt. The linked post says some nice things.

I chose this photo because the IAWA’s mission states that “IAW&A is committed both to bringing together the Irish American creative community in new self-awareness and to being a force for inter-ethnic and interracial solidarity, understanding and active cooperation.”

Monday, May 24, 2021

Tropospheric Clouds Reviewed at Elliptical Movements

My chapbook Tropospheric Clouds (Adjunct Press, 2020) is reviewed by Billy Mills at his poetry blog, Elliptical Movements. Mills writes, among other things, that “This expansive economy is typical of Begnal at his best, and he is at his best here.”
Read the review: https://ellipticalmovements.wordpress.com/2021/05/24/recent-reading-may-2021/

Get the book: https://adjunctpress.com/chapbooks/tropospheric-clouds-by-michael-begnal-2020/

Thursday, May 20, 2021

John Goodby’s The Ars

John Goodby’s short collection The Ars (Red Ceilings Press, 2020) does double-duty as a serious statement (an ars poetica) and as ludic undertaking (is it all a big joke, ars = arse?).  As such (as both), its central theme is the artifice of language and thus the artifice of poetry.  It is very earnest as a project that foregrounds language as a construct (very Language Poetry), but this seriousness is constantly undermined by the double-entendres and plays on words that proliferate throughout.  To steal something of Goodby’s modus operandi for a moment, just now I accidentally typed “undermind” in place of “undermined,” and I suppose I could end the review right there, because that may be his real aim, to show through poetry the workings of the mind as constructed by language, the workings of the mind underneath our perception of a stable world.  All throughout these poems we think we are on the verge of true meaning, only to find that it eludes our grasp, exposed as a metaphor or resonance of sound.

For example, the poem “N” ends with the lines:
Time hip-hops the resent tense
With counter winds as walls
Face off flow, coasts lose face.
And, facing the head-on seas,
The lowly feel like winning.
The soundplay here is so dense that it wants to take over from the attempt to parse meaning out of this.  Additionally, there are multiple meanings, of “resent[ment]/recent/present,” something about the nature of time and verb-tense, then the various senses of “face” and “facing,
losing face versus “winning,” even an oblique gesture to the verbal jousting of hip-hop performance.  Similarly, the poem “Ultras” has a “flash / like morning // flesh,” and then the imperative “Plough on black fur / till the broken / star turns and grows // a first dropping in think.”  It’s the soundplay again that drives the poem — “flash/flesh,” the assonance of “fur/turns” and “broken/grows” — and which creates the illusion of a kind of symmetry. Only, we find that it doesn’t finally add up, and the summative phrase “dropping in think,” which suggest an idea, is deferred by the just-slightly-off-kilter syntax.  But that is the point, that it graphs the mind’s attempts to make sense from the nuts and bolts of language that don’t necessarily compose a finished object.

Reading these poems is something like being in the midst of a dream, where we feel we’ve just about grasped something, only to find that it is vanishing right in front of us.  One would be tempted to say that Goodby’s work creates its own dream-like world of the mind.  Of course, as soon as one says “dream-like,” the immediate association is James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, or even more likely surrealism.  These poems do employ some of the strategies of surrealism — e.g. in images and metaphors such as “feathered crazy footage / Of statues, hydrants, the gas beach / Unleashed in spurts” (“Day in the New” vii) and “We distorted torsos of foam into sand, / Matter-energy of the insurgents of air” (“Surgical”).  Here, on the surface at least, the methodology seems to correspond with André Breton’s.  However, it is not so much a question of dragging the unconscious or illogical into the light of the conscious or logical, as it is of exposing the sand of logic itself as made of foam or air.  But then, my analogy here assumes that sand is hard and concrete as opposed to the abstractness of foam or air — yet, sand is also metaphorically “shifting sand,” “castles made of sand,” etc.  It is all matter-energy.

Like the protagonist of Jorge Luis Borges’s story “The Circular Ruins,” who seeks to dream into existence a man “with minute integrity,” Goodby dreams these poems onto the page only to reveal that we are all part of the dream, reader and poet alike.  As he writes in “The Ars” (the title poem), at first “he cannot imagine yet / ripped space”; finally, however, “his dream inscrutably feeds / on itself wrings pain bodies dry.”  The body “dry,” the table-soccer player of The Ars’s cover photo (taken by the author himself), a simulacrum, the seam of the mold visible from the crown of the head on down.  As the concluding poem, “Llu” (meaning “power” in Welsh), reminds, “To happen is finished and about to.”  That is, it is “finished” by fashioning hands, or in the case of the figure in the photo, not so finished; indeed, these poems are always about to be, but never quite, and in this manner, are.

Sunday, May 09, 2021

Reading at IAWA Salon, May 11

I’ll be reading a couple/few poems at the Irish American Writers and Artists (IAWA) virtual salon, on Tuesday, May 11, at 7pm Eastern (midnight Irish time, 4pm Pacific time).  Aside from myself, the event includes Patricia Brody, Brendan Costello Jr., Derek Dempsey, Alexandra Williamson of the Darrah Carr Dance Company, and others.

Register for the Zoom link here: https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZYrc--srD0sHdfWJYRRhHldBKC75pR-KlIG


Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Punk/Hardcore and (Political) “Authenticity”

Anyone who knows me knows that I was in the hardcore (punk) scene in the early to mid-1980s, and that punk still informs my worldview to a very significant degree.  It should also be said that punk is not just historical, and though I personally haven’t been seriously involved in a punk scene since about 1987, there are many good new young bands out there now, and I know many people from the old days who are still in bands, and who are doing some really good stuff.  And I also know that there never was any one specific political (or otherwise) meaning of punk, that there has always been a spectrum of viewpoints within punk, many of which have claimed, sometimes even contradictorily, to be authentically punk.

In that regard, though, punk emerges as limited as a philosophy unto itself, because there’s always the reductio ad absurdum of arguing about what punk truly means.  (Adam Arola has a really good article about this called “The Tyranny of Authenticity: Rebellion and the Question of ‘Right Life’.”)  Is punk really conservative Johnny Ramone, or is it liberal Joey Ramone?  Is it left-wing Maximum Rocknroll, or is it libertarian, anti-public-welfare Agnostic Front?  Is it the politically involved DKs or is it the personal focus of Minor Threat?  Is it the shock-rock of the Meatmen, or is it the earnestness of Articles of Faith?  No matter how much evidence you might assert to show that punk is “this,” there’s always some way to show that “this” can’t be true punk, because true punk is “that.”  Maybe that’s the point, that it’s all things and nothing.  Maybe there’s some value to that in a way — if it pushes a person to think critically — but it’s also not much to go on in another.  It means anyone can invoke their “punk rock” authenticity to bolster whatever silly claim they want to, and so ultimately punk has no inherent definition. Maybe punk is about having “no values,” but then “no values” is a specific kind of value itself.  And so on, and so on.

What often happens, then, is that punk becomes a field where all kinds of arguments about other things (i.e. besides music), especially politics and the “culture wars,” are elaborated.  Thus, it’s no surprise that recently there has come into focus a segment of what passes for the contemporary hardcore scene that is politically right-wing, prone to conspiracy theories (e.g. about covid vaccinations and social distancing during the pandemic) and phony persecution complexes about supposed oppression from the imaginary forces of “cancel culture” or “political correctness.” Those who put forward these views claim that they are “neither right nor left,” and that they embody the “real” spirit of punk in their anti-government or anti-institutional views (even when a policy is simply common sense for protecting people’s health, such as the longstanding CDC recommendation that you wear a mask in a pandemic).  Instead of expressing a genuine form of rebellion, however, such stances merely play into a reactionary libertarianism that ultimately aligns those asserting them with the January 6th seditionists and conservative political figures like Mike Pence.  While they may claim merely to be upholding “punk” values, they are also aligning themselves, purposely or not, with the extreme right.

(Hope not...)

This was recently demonstrated in the debacle of the April 24th show in Tompkins Square Park, Manhattan, that was supposed to have a socially distanced crowd capped at 500, but admitted 3,000 mostly unmasked, unvaccinated people, moshing and stage-diving in direct physical contact, thus creating a potential super-spreader event. The production company defended itself with obfuscations, gestures to punk rebellion, and in one instance by making an absurd comparison with Black Lives Matter protests. The social-media feeds of the production company and some involved with it promote various anti-vax conspiracy theories and on at least one occasion a retweet from the likes of Ron Johnson.

This comes from a particular, revisionist segment of New York Hardcore (NYHC) who have attempted to control the narrative of and set themselves up as spokespeople for what was originally a diverse and multifarious scene that began in the early 1980s.  While there has been a certain strand of libertarian conservatism in NYHC and hardcore more broadly, it is revisionist to claim that this was the one true or only version of hardcore all along.  Again, punk, including hardcore, always comprised a broad spectrum of different stances and worldviews, and to say it was really instead their one particular thing (which is now being tacitly expressed as right-wing libertarianism) is ignorant at best and hypocritical at worst.  You can’t have it both ways — you can’t say “But punk was never really only _____” when someone’s discussing it in ways you disagree with, but then say “Punk is really _____” when it suits your argument or involves your ability to put on shows.

Clearly, my own stance is coming through in this writing, but as I said at the start, I realize punk is limited as an epistemology, and I don’t care if you want to try to say that therefore I’m “not punk.”  Yet, I am struck by how there’s a group of people in punk nowadays, who in their old age (or whatever it is) have gotten really wacko with the anti-government conspiracy theories and fake victimhood, weird political flexes (again, usually under the guise of it being somehow “neither right nor left”) that put them in the same camp as the kind of people who stormed the Capitol on 1/6.  It is really galling to see how some of these people take the rhetoric of punk and use it as justification for their quite fanciful views, as if this were truly punk and you’re not.  But, no, it’s actually not a good idea to admit 3,000 people in close physical proximity while we’re still trying to overcome a pandemic; we just aren’t there yet (and won’t be if not enough people get vaccinated) — and that’s not some “government bullshit” that we need to question because it’s “punk” to “question everything” (as one latter-day NYHC band’s singer exhorted from the stage). It’s just a reality, and some people don’t seem to be in touch with reality anymore.

A similar confusion was recently expressed by Glenn Danzig in his Rolling Stone interview of April 29. In it, Danzig claimed that

everything’s so cancel-culture, woke bullshit nowadays, but you could never have the punk explosion nowadays, because of cancel culture and woke bullshit. You could never have it. It would never have happened. We’re lucky it happened when it did, because it’ll never happen again. You won’t have any of those kinds of bands ever again. Everyone’s so uptight and P.C.
Leaving aside the more obvious fallacies about punk rock here, the notion that there’s some actual “cancel culture” or “political correctness” regime that is somehow able to stop people from thinking or saying whatever it is they want to think or say, is ridiculous.  Yeah, there might be pushback, but that’s part of free speech too (and for that matter, as a punk in the 80s, I got plenty of resistance and outright harassment from mainstream society back then — there certainly was no great welcome for punk in the 80s).  But, the fact is nobody can stop anyone from being punk, and nobody can stop anyone from expressing themselves, as Danzig’s widely read interview, available on one of the world’s biggest music media platforms, clearly demonstrates.

Instead of striking a blow against some oppressive (but in fact nonexistent) “cancel culture,” what Danzig’s comments actually accomplish is to align him with the former Vice President Mike Pence, who on the same day as Danzig’s interview was published was also railing against “cancel culture” on Twitter:

I have no idea whether or not Danzig would explicitly support Pence, or if he has any particular political philosophy at all.  Again, though, it’s a situation where whatever the intent is, the result is that Danzig is using punk rock as a justification for what are in essence right-wing talking points.  It’s remarkable how similar Pence’s rhetoric is to Danzig’s and to that of the anti-vax/anti-mask segment of NYHC. They all situate themselves as rebellious individuals, but the effect of their talk is to reify a kind of individualist essentialism that has always been part and parcel of bootstrap capitalism, the “fuck-you” egotism that justifies those in power exploiting the rest, the kind of ideology that the right has always promulgated in American politics. Pence’s tweet says it all — he’s against “cancel culture,” except when he wants to cancel modes of thinking that threaten his sense of himself or his own power.

And so it seems to have become for certain sections of punk rock: It’s “punk” if it supports your own bizarre conspiracy theory, but if on the other hand you think that, hey, maybe it’s not such a great idea to have a moshpit while we’re still in the midst of a pandemic, or that maybe that Dame Vivienne Westwood swastika shirt just wouldn’t have the same desired meaning anymore, then you’re just a “sheep.”  Let’s at least call that what it is — another political/culture-war argument dressed up as punk authenticity.


[Addendum: Hilariously, and right on cue, John Joseph of NYHC fame, who was involved in staging the above-mentioned show, was quoted by conspiracy-theory news website Breitbart (May 6, 2021) saying Cancel culture can go fuck themselves.” Im not going to link it because I don’t want to give them clicks, but heres a screen-grab of a share:

You couldn’t make this stuff up!  It almost like they’re reading from a script. . . .]

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Lá na Féile

Cnoc na Teamhrach
Ar an lá seo, seasaim le heisimircigh agus le himircigh ar fud an domhain. Seasaim freisin le cultúir dúchasacha agus teangacha dúchasacha ar fud an domhain. Cé raibh Pádraig ina himirceach, agus cé go dtuigim an meas atá ag daoine air mar naomh, ba chóir a lua gur teacht an mhisnéire seo ab chúis le lagú cultúr dúchasach na hÉireann. Mar sin, seasaim freisin lena draoithe, lena hÉireannaigh pagánacha, lena filí srl. a chaill a gcultúr nuair a chuir an Eaglais deireadh lena seanghnásanna agus cuid mhór an seanchais de réir a chéile.

Sunday, March 07, 2021

17-Word Poem


Many thanks to IAWA (Irish American Writers & Artists, of which I am a member) for sharing my 17-word poem “Tree Ogham” as part of their #Salon17 initiative.

Monday, February 01, 2021

Poem: The Ewes at Imbolc

It being Imbolc today, here is an Imbolc poem of mine, for Brighid (the Gaelic goddess of poetry et al., whose day it is). The poem was originally published in an anthology that is apparently now out of print (The Poet's Quest for God, 2016, pp. 59-60).

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Review: The Edge of Necessary: An Anthology of Welsh Innovative Poetry, 1966-2018

I first became aware of John Goodby’s scholarly work through his monograph on innovative Irish poets, Irish Poetry since 1950: From Stillness into History (Manchester UP, 2000).  Co-edited by Goodby and the Welsh poet Lyndon Davies, The Edge of Necessary: An Anthology of Welsh Innovative Poetry, 1966-2018 (Aquifer/Boiled String, 2018) brings a similar focus to the Welsh scene.  Goodby and Davies’s introduction elaborates a two-pronged attack on the Welsh literary and cultural establishment, critiquing both the narrow form of Welsh nationalism and its related, traditionalist poetics.  The editors, for example, contend that Meic Stephens’s signal 1967 Poetry Wales editorial “propound[ed] an essentialist poetics of belonging which shades into blood and soil atavism” (19) and that Ian Gregson’s 2007 The New Poetry in Wales anthology “bizarrely” (but purposely) overlooks major figures who do not fit his lyrical vision of what he wishes Welsh poetry to be (23).  Goodby and Davies, however, do not merely argue that an experimental minority deserve their place in the sun, which was the thrust of Goodby’s critical writing on Irish poetry — where the Irish Celtic Twilight model did indeed overshadow its more innovative wing for many decades.  Instead, the editors of this anthology point out that Wales’s avant-garde or modernist poetry was in fact up until recently the predominant mode, but that it has been subverted by the reactionary impulses of those whose agenda it is to make Welsh poetry companionable to the English mainstream.  As the twenty-first century has rolled along, the editors write, the phony “establishment routine still maunders on, whereby a few personable but reliably undemanding practitioners are puffed and buffed up to be the face of poetry for the nation” (31).  This introductory essay is spirited reading, appropriately setting the tone for the poets whose work then appears in relief to such “undemanding practitioners.”

One way that Goodby and Davies counter the Welsh version of narrow Celtic Twilight nationalism is to broaden the parameters of what qualifies one as a Welsh poet in the first place, including a number of those born in England (for example) who came to Wales later in life, or some who have family connections to Wales but were raised or have long resided elsewhere.  Some of these end up being among the most interesting — such as Heather Dohollau (born and raised in Wales but moved to Brittany and wrote in French).  Dohollau’s “Thomas Jones” combines the philosophical or abstract with concrete, imagistic detail to make comment on the nature of art and perception.  Chris Torrance (born in Edinburgh, raised in London, moved to Wales in his late 20s) combines an American Beat sensibility with gestures toward Welsh history and mythology to produce poems awash in energy.  Angela Gardner, who grew up in Cardiff, now lives in Australia but seems to identify more as an international migrant; her interest in visual art and visuality, however, means she has much in common with Wales-resident poets like Tilla Brading, Peter Finch, and Zoe Skoulding.  The inclusion of poets Niall Quinn, Nick Macias, Elisabeth Bletsoe, et al. testifies to the sense of new possibility that “blow-ins” sometimes offer to a local or national poetry scene, potentially becoming catalysts at key centres or moments.

There is, still, a Welsh nationalism of other sorts that inheres in the work of some of the poets included in The Edge of Necessary, but these are quite different from that of the “blood and soil” variety mentioned above, or from the less dramatic but still useless, parochial version of nationalism that the editors also decry.  Wendy Mulford’s “The A.B.C. of Writing” affirms but complicates a Welsh identity, engaging with the ways in which such conceptions are constructed: “Wales. / backwards. / is a writing of the self a writing of writing?” (79).  In this section of the poem, the Welsh valleys are “ours” but also peopled by “nobody at all” (79).  Mulford thus critiques nationalism itself as illusory, foregrounding instead gender and class.  One thing that Irish Celtic Twilight poetry has the distinction of, though, is that it provided the intellectual framework for a successful national independence movement, which Wales has not yet been able to effect.  In that regard, for its time, it worked.  The problem was that the Irish revolution, like the Welsh non-revolution, was coopted by a conservative counter-movement that the Twilight hangover continued to provide succor for.  In Wales, this kind of poetry cannot even be said to be the intellectual backdrop for the country’s devolution.  As Goodby and Davies point out, the mainstream poets whom a number of recent anthologies vaunt as the voices of devolution “had [in fact] all found their voices before devolution” (23).  In contrast, the political work that the innovative poetry favored here is capable of doing is to embody the “linguistic radicalism necessary to offer [a] serious challenge to the settled language of power” (20), and this is what poets like Mulford and even Finch offer. Skoulding, originally from England, embraces the complexity of writing in “English in a bilingual country, and I know that this context makes me see English as a provisional circumstance . . . my national identity as a writer is therefore a set of negotiations rather than a fixed point within clearly defined national boundaries” (255).

Though Welsh-language poetry falls outside of the scope of The Edge of Necessary, a number of recent poets mix English and Welsh in their work, occasionally creating a kind of macaronic language that floats back and forth between the two (e.g. Rhys Trimble) or transliterates the phonemes of Welsh into some new version of sound poetry (shades of Zukofsky’s transliterations of Catullus, perhaps).  In the latter mode is Steven Hitchins, whose “Gododdin Versions” go in more for sound than literal sense, while Rhea Seren Phillips utilizes Welsh prosodic forms and metres for her English-language poems, resulting in for example such evocative cyhydedd-naw-ban-style lines as, “muttering the language in shadows, / psyche swept in its vitriolic storm / of British patriotism-bird / cage of the clover, the daffodil” (317).  David Annwn’s “Bela Fawr’s Cabaret” is a Joycean (Wakean) wordscape that mixes languages (including Welsh) and personae in order to (among other things) analogize native Welsh and Native American histories.  “I see you in that mirror out of me / far out dancing in your druid shirt” (183), Annwn concludes.

Also radical in their own way are some of the more recent poets, like Chris Paul, whose bio points out that he is “a believer in Welsh independence for socialist reasons” and who has stood for election as a Plaid Cymru candidate (290).  Paul’s work is seemingly Language Poetry-influenced and plays around with typography to produce poetic comment on commodity culture and the commodification of human relationships.  Nerys Williams is something of a personal favorite (I’ve read and written about her 2017 collection Cabaret), and including her “Capel Celyn Telyneg” (among others) was a good choice.  That poem takes up the deliberate destruction of the Welsh-speaking village Capel Celyn and surrounding area of Bala in 1965 to create a reservoir which supplied industry in the English city of Liverpool.  “Is language here?” Williams asks, “In the water? / Under the bridge? // Does it seep through space?” (270).

The term “innovative,” in this anthology anyway, includes a tremendous amount of variety of different poetries, not all of which easily connect to the questions about Welsh poetic (and political) nationalism that the editors centralize; but one does not have to do so in order to realize their own brilliant poetic work.  In closing, I will say that John James’s poetry was a happy revelation to me, verging between the conversational and the surreal, always making the unexpected move, as in “The Conversation,” which not only also references the flooding of Bala but, despite such discouraging blows, focuses in on a “strange radiance” that flows “through my floating head the sky & motion of the cloud / no light above the level of the mist & biting hail. . . . / I see the millions I catch the language / which is this world of all of us” (77).  Numerous other such finds are included in this book, and I’m sorry that I have not the wherewithal to discuss all of them in a review such as this.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Saturday, October 10, 2020

New Chapbook: Tropospheric Clouds

My new chapbook, Tropospheric Clouds is now out from Adjunct Press, of Milwaukee (who have done a wonderful job of it).

Info: Tropospheric Clouds gives fragmented images that seem to be dispatched from a larger and elaborate narrative world. The poet is a multiplied character separated from the world. Rather than being presented in the Romantic cringe mysticism, here the separation of the poet is seen as a cloistering or perhaps a sense of imprisonment by vocation. The poet-as-seer image is cut again when the legitimacy-creating obscurity is saved only by publication. Tropospheric Clouds uses the unseen narrative to show the idea of the poet vocation within the reality of profession.

This book is hand-bound with a pamphlet stitch using a light-rose waxed Irish linen thread. The text pages are laser printed on 24-lb. recycled paper. The cover is printed by robot arm using a pink Gelly Roll pen on a 90-lb. smooth spruce card stock. This book was made in Milwaukee in an edition of 50.

Order here:


Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Essay in A Line of Tiny Zeros in the Fabric

I have an essay in the edited collection A Line of Tiny Zeros in the Fabric: Essays on the Poetry of Maurice Scully (Shearsman Books).  My thanks to editor Ken Keating, Shearsman publisher Tony Frazer, and of course the subject of the volume, Maurice Scully.  My essay is on Scully’s book-length poem Humming.  Order direct from the Shearsman Books site, here.  Or at all the usual outlets. . . .

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.)