Thursday, July 26, 2007


Been thinking about those Tostian Aesthetics for a few days, & it’s quite helpful to have it developed at greater length. I think a lot comes out of this piece which clarifies what you were objecting to and really helps deepen your critique.

At the same time it also opens, as always, more questions and places for examination. To use a Wittgenstein quote from Remarks on Colour I just ran across: “In every serious philosophical question uncertainty extends to the very roots of the problem.”

(To which he tacks on, in his endearingly pedantic way: “ We must always be prepared to learn something new.”)

What struck me the most was how pedagogy in the immediate sense—teaching kids in a classroom—really buttresses a lot of your thinking here. There seems to be an uneasy relationship, almost a fusion, between close reading and the problem of social context and the historical, both being of simultaneous importance to you. But you do see the latent contradictions there too, I think: “further work could be done…” etc.

Even while I wouldn’t deny there’s at least a pedagogical attitude in Silliman’s blog, it’s perhaps relevant that he’s not a teacher or even a student in the sense you are. Regardless, if relation to pedagogy is one way to consider poetry, it raises the question of what the other way(s) would be. What is poetry to those who needn’t and don’t teach it? When or why would poetry be read as something other than an instance of its own “aesthetic strategies”? Is poetry always properly read and unpacked that way, through close reading and analysis of successful vs unsuccessful approaches? If it is, what is poetry before that unpacking? Or is all poetry in whatever circumstances ongoingly a matter of teaching & learning (see Wittgenstein again, above)?

This is maybe a way of circling around to something that’s really my own concern, something that you (or Ron) would likely have a mixed response to—it’s certainly not intended to be diametrically opposed to what you’re saying, and I imagine you’ll find much of it agreeable.

This is tricky to articulate, but in so many words I have a strong sense that close reading can--at the very least--be misleading. The reason I need to say this carefully is because I very much respect people who are passionate about close reading, and I value the attention and powers of observation it requires. I don’t want to mistakenly imply it’s ok to just make sweeping generalizations about poetry or whatever the hell you like without doing some attentive reading & looking, and I do believe in the value of focus & concentration upon the object.

But--trying to be specific in my own way--let’s take an example like Jack Spicer. To me Spicer has a tremendous lot of bad lines & what could be called poor writing when you closely read those poems. I could pull out fifty or sixty lines I think just don’t work, and as many poems. At the same time those lines are the result of a method he outlines pretty clearly in the lectures, wherein he’s trying to elude what for shorthand we might call his subjective interference, the conditions of being a particular self, his interior editor, and so forth. As I think of it he’s trying to open a space where he’s free to fail, and as a result of that approach he achieves some really surprising & amazing things in other poems. But, complexly, without the failures you couldn’t have the method that leads to the successes, and this disintegrates a sharp distinction between failure & success & leads to a difficult philosophical conundrum—if bad lines are an ingredient in good lines how can anybody aim at either or judge the difference? Some of Kasey Mohammad’s recent discussions about “competence” as primary poetic characteristic has had to step carefully around this conundrum, for instance.

By looking past competence, Spicer is exploring the possibility of change—he’s wondering if there’s any way to not forever be himself, whch seems to me a profound & haunting problem. I guess I’m talking here about method in the widest sense—not a line by line method or a technique, but a sensibility or approach the art that will, for a serious poet engaged in a lifetime of aesthetic thought, become the entire horizon of what he or she lives within, and which therefore can’t really be taken in isolation and in a sense isn’t really up for the kind of (Kantian) judgment “close reading” presumes. Of course I say this from the perspective of a writer-reader concerned with how to actually practice this maddening art, but even considering only the pure readers (if such exist) it seems to me that the only valid aesthetic judgments are two: first, is the work serious about what its doing (given that it’s quite possible to be “serious” about subversion or humor or irony), and second do you, whoever you are, want to read that book or writer. The first is the only thing I can accept as a sort of successful/unsuccessful distinction—if the poet is approaching their work with, uh, integrity, effort, refection & in active awareness of their motivations, they’re writing good & successful poetry even when it doesn’t succeed in the close reading sense. The second (“do I want to read it?”) is just what one does with their time & life: lots of serious & good poetry doesn’t interest me, even bores me, but that’s for reasons of my own obsessions & tastes & doesn’t warrant a particular value judgment against it.

Spicer’s almost an unfair example in this context because he’s also someone who really labored to get the attention off close reading of individual poems, and he did this in myriad ways: insisting on the unit of his writing being the whole book; submitted the poems in Book of Magazine Verse to magazines sure to reject them (& titling them after the magazine that rejected them) so that the imaginary context and real background “life” of each poem in its particular magazine is foregrounded as a necessary part of reading each poem; leaving misspelt lines (oft intentionally) in many of his poems; even restricting the circulation of his work; etc. While much of this might have been a kind of paranoia and part of a complicated personal psychology, I’d hold he did it all towards to what could be vaguely called a purpose--which is that the pedagogical and its value-categories must be recognized as having its own dialogic impact on what poems are valued, on the lives of poets, and even quite deeply on what poems are supposed to be in the first place. This is analogous to the way observation of an experiment morphs the conclusions—if close reading is your critical stance, close writing is what you’ll see & value. In turn this sometimes comes into direct conflict with a poet’s attempt to uncover that wider field you term the trans-rational, and very much with the poet’s attempt to use poetry as a means of engaging the world itself. Instead poets start to think their job is to build better machines, when it might as easily be to (re)learn how to live a life.

Spicer’s not the only one in this category. I mean: what’s the least successful poem in Tender Buttons? What’s the worst chapter in the Making of Americans? To me these are nonsensical questions, and maybe to you too. Plenty of other examples abound: how do read Blake for success and effect? Certainly you could say these lines are effective, and these lines accomplish such and such, but I think you’re about to run off the rails with such an approach and miss Blake as visionary prophet with transcendent belief in what he’s saying. There’s a Blaser line that goes: “your path is poetry, your goal is beyond / poetry” and that’s the spirit of my point here.

You may find all this a perfectly acceptable, and even an aspect of what you were trying to say, but for some reason it leads me to a different conclusion than you seem to have come to. If close reading and “successful” poetry is of secondary importance, the SoQ/Avant binary (despite or because of its inadequacy as truth) at least has the use of taking attention off that level of detail and redirecting it to broader questions than perfect lines and craftable aesthetic effects. I actually find it pretty easy to imagine the person out there busy with the crafting of lines who is so destabilized and provoked by that binary distinction (and the awareness that they can’t refine their way out of such categories) that they begin to ask some harder questions about the fundamental nature of the art. Meanwhile I find it much harder to really picture a serious writer using such a broad & cartoonish divisions to avoid asking those hard questions about the art. So SoQ is an unsubstantial generality, yes, but that’s not to say especially dangerous one, or even without use in imaginable contexts.

Yrs, fondly,

Brent Cunningham

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

My alma mater, College of the Ozarks, is featured in the NY Times. A few quotes from the article:

“The work ethic is not what it used to be,” [President Jerry] Davis said in his Georgia drawl. “When you go out into the real world, they don’t care where you went to school. They care if you show up on time, if you don’t do the job right, if you’ve got a good attitude. Employers will tell you that graduates of College of the Ozarks have qualities they like.”


Colleges like Columbia pay high salaries to attract top scholars and offer students a smorgasbord of electives as well as amenities like Olympic-scale
gyms. College of the Ozarks is run on a lean staff — it has only four deans — and pays full professors under $70,000 a year for teaching more hours per semester, 12. English majors can avail themselves of a bare-bones survey course like 20th-century British literature but not of a course just in James Joyce.

And the "big city" paper gets a bit weepy here:

College of the Ozarks also gets students to do its maintenance and office jobs; student labor accounts for 7.5 percent of the $51 million budget, said Rick Hughes, the business manager. And the college has a $362.8 million endowment, 173rd among the nation’s colleges, which allows it to hand out $11.5 million in scholarships. Three of four students have family incomes low enough to qualify for Federal Pell grants of up to $4,310.

Avoiding debt is a powerful force in a region where the anguish of the Depression has been whispered down the generations. A Thomas Hart Benton painting of the embattled Joad family that used to advertise the movie “The Grapes of Wrath” is in the college’s museum.

Whispered down the generations! Lordy Granny, you don't say. Anyway, this gets at the heart of C of O:

Students of less-than-steely discipline admit that work sometimes cuts into study time and social life. Joe McCloud, 17, who was working with a student crew dragging lawnmowers when the heat index stood at 105, said that while the college mattered more because “you worked for it,” he didn’t get much down time.

“You’re so tired,” he said, “you go to your room and sleep.”

For some, the jobs are steppingstones toward a career. Annette Sain, a 1986 alumna, got interested as an undergraduate in work at the college’s museum. Now she manages it.

It amazes me how easily the mainstream media is seduced by College of the Ozarks' sales pitch; the Wall Street Journal ran a similar feature fifteen or so years ago, which is the source of that "Hard Work U" tag.

The 7.5 percent of the budget paid for by the student workforce that the article cites surely underestimates things, unless it factors in the PR work that is accomplished by having bus-loads of white senior citizens bussed through the campus in order to see a bunch of mostly white (a few 'international' students are sprinkled in, mostly working in the restaurant that serves as the public face of the university), clean cut kids working off their tuition.

College of the Ozarks in a nutshell: the entire enterprise is geared towards maintaining and increasing that endowment. For instance,

The construction of the faculty: the current administration had begun successfully weeding out the less ideological faculty members of previous decades while I was there, and by my last year the quality of the instruction in the English Department had quite fairly plummeted, as the main criterion for new hires was not publication, aptitude or experience, but a professed devotion to Christ (one of the new hires my last year was teaching the class that Freudian analysis wasn't possible for a writer like Faulkner because he didn't think Faulkner ever read Freud). While I was there, an English professor who had been there for decades was fired for showing "In the Name of the Rose" in class. The general idea is for the entire campus apparatus to be composed of true believers, as each non-believer is a hole in that facade, and it is the appealing facade that motivates donations.

The curriculum: for instance, instead of philosophy or Western civ classes, you take Old and New Testament courses that are basically indistinguishable from an extended Sunday school course. The most contemporary text I encountered in a classroom was either As I Lay Dying or "The Red Wheelbarrow." I thankfully never took a C of O sex ed course (having finished an AA degree at a community college beforehand, I could jump into major, plus take the required C of O courses like Old and New Testament), but a professor was fired for utilizing visuals in class that depicted actual anatomies and intercourse. The key to maintaining your position at C of O, for a professor, was to maintain the illusion of the Five Fold Mission (see below) in the curriculum while avoiding any material that may have a hint of controversy.

The impressive detail work in maintaining the appealing facade: when I was on the summer mowing crew, we were not allowed to mow the large sloping hill that serves as the entrance (no shade) until noon, because that was the highest-traffic point for visitors. The majority of my fellow students, I'm sure, could enumerate a list of similar instances where, somewhat like the Truman Show, their behavior was geared solely towards the maintenance of an appealing fiction for their audience. Students were routinely kicked out of school for having non-traditional piercings (ie, other than ear piercings for girls), long hair (for boys, touching the collar), unusual facial hair (my intensely devout roommate had to shave off his beard or else he would have been expelled), or wearing any clothing that received a "second look" from administrators. Two of my friends were kicked out in their last semester for being in possession of alcohol, off campus, even though they were over 21. A student who felt he was gay went to the campus pastor for counsel and was told that what he was feeling was unnatural and that he wasn't welcome at C of O; that student shortly thereafter committed suicide on the property of one of the deans.

A strange, twisted place. A couple years ago, it was discovered that the dean of students had forged his Ph.D. at a fake university; the professor who reported this was fired, but the dean was not.

This said, the place had its function for me. After two years of paying for community college, working the 15 hours a week on campus was a relief. And, while I was there at least, the college drew a small group of intelligent, creative people who utilized the place to get a degree before venturing off to post-grad work at reputable universities. And there were at least three professors in the English department (Paul Gianoli, Bradford Crain, Patsy Watts) who were trustworthy, capable, even inspiring presences.

But, mostly, as a C of O student, you receive a faint shadow of an education but learn how to behave.

Students have been a necessary element for the C of O business model, but I assume if the administration can find a way of securing their endowment without students, they will. But that's unlikely as a whole mass of clean-cut, hard-working, no-questions-asking white youths does make a nostalgic, pastoral scene out there in the hardscrabble Ozark plains, and lots of elderly people and lots of conservative groups are willing to shell out a lot of money in order to prop up this particular daydream of beholding a never-ending stream of grateful, docile, quasi-educated young folks able to show up to work on time. The New York Times also, it appears, finds this pastoral dreamscape to be appealing.

To the right is the Five Fold Mission, plastered throughout the campus and on the college's home page, which also mentions C of O's "character trait for July": Patriotism: showing love for one's country. The Five Fold Mission, the "trait of the month," the geographic names on the campus (the gates that lock you in at night are called "The Gates of Opportunity," the small pond that is furnished with swans that have had their wings clipped is called "Lake Honor," the streets on campus are "Opportunity Ave.," "Patriotic Pl.," "Spiritual St.," etc) are all like parodies of a kind of bumper sticker value system that would be sad and touching if they weren't so cynically and effectively employed by the administration.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Over at Silliman's Blog, I found myself again unable to avoid snapping at one of Ron's posts. Here's my comment to this post of Ron's:

The obnoxious thing about the School of Quietude label is not that it is a baseless term without a history (Poe, etc etc), or that it is wildly inaccurate for a sweeping generalization of American poetry (if you have to give a ten second history of the distribution and legitimization of poetry inside the US for the last century, SoQ/Post-Avant is a blunt enough tool); the obnoxious thing is not even that when it is overheard as a self-congratulatory gesture (as in this old warhorse blog) one's first reaction is to quote Big Lebowski (“You’re not wrong, Walter. You’re just an asshole.”)

The obnoxious things about the S of Q label are 1) its reiteration of a blindly Americanized view of poetry, and 2) that it isn’t useful any more.

Wouldn’t it be easy if all we had to do as poets/readers/editors/etc to make a positive impact on things is to choose correctly from the two immanent options available to anyone drawn to poetry. Pretty neat! We just have to pick the winning side and truck along, happily knowing we’re part of the solution.

It’s a false dichotomy not in that it is baseless, but that it glosses over most of the interesting questions. It takes a lot of work to insist at this moment, right now, there is a direct relation between writing within a certain tradition and access to institutional privilege. I can get insider status just as easily referencing Hejinian or Bernstein as I can referencing Donald Hall or Rita Dove; I may be more likely to get an NEA by referencing Hall, but I’m more likely to get a tenure track position taking the Language bypass.

Propping up the major question as being "SoQ or Post-Avant" is a similar logic as saying that the major question concerning political efficacy and responsibility is to choose correctly between Republican and Democrat. That doesn’t mean that the two choices are indistinguishable, but that the insistence on that binary as the focal point glosses over a whole hell of a lot. I think one of the least inspiring tendencies I see in myself and my contemporaries is the seemingly unquestioned notion that as long as we avoid writing poetry or talking about poetry like Dana Gioia or Tony Hoagland or Louise Gluck or whatever boogey-person that can be propped up, or that our magazine doesn’t have the same crap as Poetry, then that means we’re writing or editing interesting, worthwhile things; contributing to this, I think, is the sort of false, American-centric, outdated mindset that SoQ terminology is symptomatic of.

It’s almost as if the SoQ didn’t exist we’d have to invent it so we could keep patting ourselves on the back and not ask ourselves any hard questions about how we go about things.

It _is_ fun to point out the blunders of a Dana Gioia or John Barr, but avoiding their moves isn’t the same as contributing; to be honest, I don’t really like the way Kenneth Goldsmith or Charles Bernstein or Marjorie Perloff talk about or frame poetry either, and reading/criticizing them is useful for reminding of me of a lot of the things I don’t want to do, but unless I couple that with some kind of action that can help illustrate that their assumptions are poorly grounded and/or untimely, then I’m basically just soaking in my own resentment.

In short: hey, poetry kids, when a bearded man comes up to you and asks, “School of Quietude or Post-Avant?”, the correct answer is, “that is a profoundly uninteresting question.”

My Fascicle compadre Brent Cunningham responded with a thoughtful challenge for me to extend and think-through my initial objections:


In many ways I appreciate your passionate anger at Ron's reductive terminology & categorical habits, and at times I share the emotional frustration that it seems to spring from. But at the same time such a rant really cries out for some much lengthier articulation of what you DO see as the way forward. This kind of critique of Ron's concepts is to me far less useful than even a faltering attempt to create new concepts, poetics &/or new works illuminating of such. If it's a matter of disliking the reductionistic nature of Ron's two camps, why not identify features of six trends in current poetry, or twelve, or seventy? What Ron's reductions should call for is just a better poetics, or if you prefer an articulation of why "poetics" itself is the problem--but actually doing it, making it, and saying it in a way that you pretty much have to do at length and with tremendous reflection.

As I think you sense even here, your objections to Goldsmith or Bernstein or Perloff are not only meaningless until you lay out exactly what you "don't like" about them, they actually reproduce the dynamic you're objecting to. By warning us not be seduced by categorizations and binaries of the SoQ/post-avant sort, you've set up a binary all its own: on the one hand a repudiation of aesthetic classifications, and on the other hand an approach that (one can only presume, and in absense of a fuller articulation) takes each poet and poem as individual to themselves and their own terms. But that second approach is, in its own way, caught up in an ideology that denies that writers (& people generally) are group-influenced creatures whose beliefs are both conditioned and borrowed, and whose supposed artistic "originality" somehow manages to manifest itself in the most limited, shared & inheirited system available, namely language? And doesn't such a position--call it individualized humanism if you like--have its own deep & problematic connections to America and the Americanized? How exactly do you prevent "take each poem and poet complexly on its own merits" from becoming "because everyone is an individual" from becoming "and therefore rich people are individuals" from becoming "we can't really say anything broadly critical about the wealthy because they're all different individual people"? I'm serious. Such slippery slopes do exists.

While I don't mean to be Ron's apologist & hope I'm avoiding that spectre, one thing I rather appreciated about this particular post was that he did actually bring forth actual poems and actual lines. It seemed to me he was speaking relatively directly about bad prosody and cliched concepts, and making some decent points on that level even if he fell back to his creaky terminology. What if Ron used the term "conventional" or even "cliched" instead of calling it a school? Would that remove some of your objections? If so why, since those are also reductionistic binaries? So many questions here, which I really would like to see you wrestle with in a fuller setting...

So, here's my attempt at a response:


Thanks for the call for a fuller articulation.

My frustration stemmed mostly from the repeated SoQ category not as a binary per se, but as a symptom of a thought-approach that I see as stalled, and as an end-point to thought about poetry. When I find myself trying to explain what sorts of poets I’m most attracted to when discussing the topic with people in my department who aren’t really into poetry (probably 90 percent of the folks), I do use a vocabulary similar to Ron’s, with me maybe focusing on the split between Allen’s New American Poetry and the Hall-Pack-Simpson New Poets of US/England as an instance of a particular schism, and that my own sympathies usually run towards poetries that seem to feed into/feed out of the Allen anthology. So, it has its uses as a shorthand for a more complex picture, especially as regarding the history of American poetry.

I don’t think I’m against binaries in general, especially when they’re used heuristically as a device for thinking through complexities; I like following a good dialectician as much as the next nerd. The SoQ/Post-Avant thing seems much less open to re-iterations: it doesn’t seem to go anywhere: it’s settled as a pair of antinomies, and all that needs to be done is to figure what poet goes where. (Part of my repulsion here has to do with my MFA education, where a professor or two used different terms but the precise same logic, and it helped paralyze a lot of my peers.)

My first reaction in answer to a call for aesthetic categories of my own is to turn to my own pet binary for individual works, which is my own spin on Kant’s notion of aesthetic cognition as a harmony between the faculties of one’s understanding and one’s imagination (Kant asserts a harmony, while I embrace imagination/understanding as two appeals that can be harmonized, juxtaposed, syncopated, synthesized, speculative, etc).

Teaching creative writing this summer, I’ve utilized this binary along with Pound’s notion that a poem should have a constant and a variable as two short-hands that allow me and my students to look at how poets work language to try and achieve certain effects.

A third notion I repeat when talking about individual poems is the implied social situation of the poem/implied reader of the text. I also try, to the extent I can in the context of a workshop, to assert that what is taken to be “the imagination” or “the understanding” is always in negotiation, and try to historicize glancingly whenever the chance arises. These three general frameworks (understanding/imagination; constant/variable; implied social situation) allow for a multiplicity of pairings: what seems geared towards the imagination in one poem may also be its constant, and this can help us read the implied social situation. (I’ve actually used pages from Ron’s “Sunset Debris” in juxtaposition with a self-contained lyric poem as a way of having the students look at the different logics going on, especially in regards to implied social dynamic that develops across Ron’s piece.)

Anyway, using these above possible categories, my students and I end up looking at say how John Ashbery’s “Into the Dusk-Charged Air” strikes a half-camp/half-serious sustained note that I think spills over into something quite beautiful as the cataloging of the names of the world’s rivers accumulates as something that both appeals to one’s understanding both as a formal device and as an inventory, but with this sense of the poem becoming tempered by Ashbery’s modulating the way that these rivers are catalogued, often refusing an overtly heroic/romantic/lyric appeal in individual lines, but that this sustained modulation itself accumulates and spills-over as a sustained and successful aesthetic strategy.

Also, we look at very miniature poems, like Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” or some untitled Lorine Niedecker pieces or Charles Simic’s “Watermelons,” in terms of writing strategies, how both Pound’s and Simic’s poems for instance both utilize similar logics that we can think of in cinematic terms: the titles as flat establishing shots, almost a kind of flat exposition to frame things for the understanding; the first lines (“The apparition of these faces in the crowd” “Green Buddhas/On the fruit stand.”) working as kind of middle-points between exposition and imagination, with Pound suggesting an otherworldliness to his rather common scene, while Simic more overtly framing his common objects with a religious overtone; then the closing lines (“petals on a wet, black bough” “We eat the smile/And spit out the teeth”) both functioning as surprising juxtapositions, Pound’s finding a visually appealing comparison that creates a visual echo between an urban and a pastoral image repertory (which I think creates a haunting displacement effect), while Simic startles with his sudden move from a serene external image to a menacing/humorous movement inside the object, fully pursuing the metaphorical logic hinted at in the opening lines.

I think both poems are successful, and are also useful models for writing, especially in how they move between “shots.” Pound’s is historically more notable as an iconic instance of a new aesthetic, and is also a better poem in that it achieves more (in terms of its resonance) in half as many lines as Simic’s poem.

Unhistoricized, there’s not much in the poems themselves to hint at their post-avantness or quietudinous, and I’m not sure SoQ or P-A (as they signify currently) would be of much pedagogical use in discussing how the poems work, though Pound’s can be discussed as an aesthetic intervention (BTW: I take Ron’s blog to be pedagogical, which is partly why I’m more likely to critique his categories than others) (I also think the overtness of Ron’s pedagogical thrust is among the strong points of his blog).

Ron takes Paula Bohince’s poem to task for its subject matter of revisiting childhood; I also don’t think it’s a particularly strong poem, but it’s not because of the subject matter (Lyn Hejinian, Clayton Eshleman and many others have written amazing things in this trope).

Part of Bohince’s poem, quoted by Ron:

Stiff as a fish
in a boat, I lie in the grove
of crabapples,
inhaling dirt’s pepper, my cheek
wet against stubble,
eye to mineral eye,

tracing the bodies of fish
onto wood’s floor – infinity in mud,
curves of hourglass
repeating –

until I cannot hear
my breathing….

Part of the slackness in the writing is its ease of literariness; the “fish” trope seems pre-determined and decorative, without betraying any particular psychological energy in the speaker; as writing, it is nestled comfortably within a certain contemporary tendency, reaffirming an uncomplicated relation of self and environment and decorating that relation imagistically.

A better poem, perhaps, would revise the last quoted lines as

until my breathing
cannot hear me

and maybe take this inversion of Cartesian logic as the occasion for revisiting a cherished childhood scene and pushing it with maybe some of the thrilling/terrifying self-transformation that a sudden or accumulated cognition of self can perpetuate.

As it stands, there is nothing in the quoted lines from Bohince’s poem that appeals to one’s imagination: I would guess that the metaphors and similes are attempts to do so, but they register so easily and comfortably that the sudden unease/joy of Pound or even Simic’s poems does not occur. Very little appeals to one’s understanding as well, as the scene seems both general (in presentation) and personal (in resonance), with all the interest of someone writing about a dream in expectedly literary language.

The poem by Graham Foust that Ron quotes in full is much stronger:

Poem Windy and Continued

very cold. My small
and panicked last
kiss was like making
a noise to make sure
I was there.

Your quiet
mouth was only
space – a kiss
reversed and kept
inside to bite.

Its lines unfold with more urgency, each unit modulating the emotional tenor of the piece, and the mouth as a reversed kiss “kept/inside to bite” actually reminds me somewhat of Simic’s move, but done so here with much more emotional force and self-implication, capturing not only a complex sentiment but dramatizing a terrifying distance pulsing through a supposedly affectionate act: it also achieves this in a manner that I don’t think language performing a more easily pictorial and cinematic logic could manage. The implosion of the metaphor is imaginatively evocative and resonates movingly with the rest of the poem, which unfolds with a precision and intensity and immediacy that appeals to the understanding.

Anyway, so this is me doing a fairly quick pass through the kind of aesthetic categories I find myself using. Whatever deficiencies or merits of my above readings, I’m not sure how a SoQ/P-A type of binary would strengthen it.

Now, further work could be done analyzing how what I present as near-universals (“the understanding” “the imagination”) are actually institutionally sanctioned and highly contingent, or whether how my asserting a certain ideal relationship between reader and text may perpetuate complacent consumerist norms, etc. And such analysis would be extremely useful and revealing I think, but I don’t think falling back on SoQ/P-A would be of great help here either, as I don’t think we can assume a relation between what Ron would call a SoQ aesthetic and institutional legitimacy these days.

That is, I don’t know how much aligning Foust as either SoQ or P-A would point at the conditions that allow him to write more successfully than Bohince (or allow his poem to link up with my expectations more readily than Bohince’s).

Graham has contributed terrific, brief mini-essays to each issue of my journal Fascicle so far, which I hope will continue (in fact, the most recent essay of his seems to share a lot of concerns with this particular poem). The essays are on Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Willie Nelson, among others, including Michele Glazer (winner of the 1996 AWP award in poetry), a cast which doesn’t scream Post-Avant.

Both Ron and I can point to the setting and use of metaphor in Bohince’s lines as conventional, and I think it’s understood within the context of this blog what conventions are being referred to, since they have long been in circulation. There are also, of course, newer, more contemporary conventions and clichés in circulation that are less readily apparent; for instance, the prevalence of a kind of faux-naïve, adolescent speech and syntax in poems, where there is always “a boy” and/or “a girl” present, along with some kind of sad longing, and some animals (I myself have bathed in this particular aesthetic spring); this particular convention I find troubling as it seems to be a way for poets to present a self prior to adult concerns and responsibilities, basically a kind of poetic hand-washing. Evoking SoQ or P-A as aesthetic or institutional category I don’t find useful in thinking about this tendency in American poetry either, but the specter of comparatively reading this tendency with poets of a similar age group outside the US would, I bet, be of interest.

Another thought:

Would Charles Bernstein and Billy Collins categorize either “the imagination” or “the understanding” differently, or would they discuss poems in such a way that their working sense of the above could be elucidated? Bernstein would certainly draw upon a much more eclectic critical apparatus than Collins, but my own sense is that the largest difference between the two is the difference between their positions within the current American poetry economy. My sense is that they are the flip side of the same rationalized coin, Collins as the affirmation, Bernstein as the negation, but both, it seems, in agreement about the contours of what’s at play.

I have a definite draw towards poetry which includes the rational within its own representation but does not limit itself to it. When I read Collins, my sense is of an occasionally humorous but bitter and limiting sensibility, almost claustrophobic in its affirmation of the same norms that pervade a majority of sitcoms, advertisements, etc. When I read Bernstein, my sense is usually “ok, so this is what it looks like if you apply Derrida/Foucault/Deleuze directly upon poetic norms.” There’s a similar claustrophobia for me, as the sensibility makes sense to me mostly as the persistent negation of the Collins one, and therefore limited in the same manner.

So, if I were to generalize wildly about what strain I find myself resisting in the poetry and/or poetics and/or aesthetics of Bernstein, Goldsmith and Perloff, it would have to be that rationalizing self-containment. Complicating this is the fact that Bernstein (PennSound) and Goldsmith (Ubu) are the purveyors of two of my most beloved web sites, and that Perloff is the champion of many of my beloved poets. Also complicating this, for me right now, is my total wonderment at Laura Riding’s writing, which seems hyper-rational, but I think part of what appeals to me is the rigor and persistence of her thinking and writing, which extends its pleasures and uses in a way that I don’t find in either Bernstein or Goldsmith. (Also, I met Bernstein briefly in DC, and he struck me as tremendously generous and sane, but also found myself stewing over his reading and thinking over it for a good while afterwards.)

I would contrast Collins and Bernstein to the poets I am most fond of, including Gertrude Stein, Charles Olson, Clayton Eshleman, Allen Grossman, and Aime Cesaire, or filmmakers I am fond of, such as Stan Brakhage and Maya Deren, each of whose work includes the rational but also exceeds it, expanding and revising my sense of personal faculties and psychologies, enlarging and/or refining sites and paths of inquiry.

Anyhow, I’ve tried to give a sketch of how SoQ doesn’t work for me as an aesthetic category even for American poetry, which hasn’t yet touched upon the American-ness of the category, but part of the reason for that is my relative lack of knowledge on non-American poetries, a lack which is maybe the main motivation behind my editing approach to Fascicle. Here, again, a reliance on SoQ/P-A would be of little to no use in negotiating poetries outside the US, I think.

Finally, if forced to “choose sides” on a binary, I would I guess set up a logos/mythos binary, between poets whose concerns are within a discourse network that tends to a rational limit to language and use (logos), and those poets whose concerns are within a discourse network that tends to a mythic/ecstatic/religious impulse (mythos). In a literary-historical context, most poets who pursue the mythos strain would likely not be found either leading/taking workshops or winning first book awards; also, it would be fairly unlikely to find a poet pursuing a demystifying approach to poetic conventions and tropes (a la Language writers) to also pursue a mythos strain (though many of my favorite poets do de-struct poetic conventions in order to pursue a mythos strain). But the logos/mythos binary does not overlap cleanly with a workshop/non-workshop binary, just as in my opinion a New Critical/New American binary does not overlap cleanly with a workshop/non-workshop binary.

Sunday, July 01, 2007


Complex Sleep, Kuhl House Poets, University of Iowa Press.

122 pages . 5¾ x 9¼ inches
$16.00 paper original . 1-58729-621-7, 978-1-58729-621-5

Available October 2007

“These hypnotic modulations of form and feeling are, in the end, a kind of phenomenological trance music, an Orphic drowse, a dream where we are shown ‘our shape as waves.’ Reading this extraordinary book, we crest and topple and dissolve. Earthly shocks and space rays pass through us, much like the hidden forces that shuffle, here, the sentences, rework the words, proving, poem to poem, line to line, the presence of love in the world.”—Joseph Donahue

“Like none other, Tony Tost conceals himself above the page (‘a bird over the battlefield’ of poetry) and watches as the poem unfolds on its own terms, like a tree contained in its seed. Tost also planted the seed, of course, and what’s inside is ‘a balance in the realism’ that contains the bird’s song, about to turn into the poet’s magisterial recitation. And in Tost’s revolutionary title poem, ‘Complex Sleep,’ the revolving of day and night becomes the inevitable ‘dear repetition’ of all we know: the alphabet sings, literally a to z.”—David Rosenberg, coauthor, The Book of J (with Harold Bloom) and See What You Think: Critical Essays for the Next Avant-Garde

Complex Sleep, Tony Tost’s ambitious second book of poems, leaps upward with an astounding multiplicity of voices, utterances, and bursts. Each leap marks a sure and precise entry into a world of images, ideas, and sensations that is brand new—the true accomplishment of any poetic work.

The octet of poems that compose Complex Sleep comprises a complex organism, audacious in scope, swiping at meaning via language as fragmented music. Tost takes on the problem of physical shape, reorchestrates phrases according to the alphabet, and writes himself into the hypnagogic state between waking and dreaming. Informed by their own procedural constraints, these poems invent forms that tap the unconscious poetic, the very complexity embodied in sleep. All the while, Tost reforms utterance beyond the mere epistemology of much contemporary poetry.

Devising an innovative formalism rather than concerning itself with discovering the what, Complex Sleep is about discovering how to say what needs to be said. Skip the opera, this book performs.


from "1001 Sentences," Wildlife 2

from "Elephant & Obelisk," Typo 10 (this summer)


"Poetry Criticism After the Narrative Turn," American Literature, Winter 07