Who Does Poetry Belong To?

Nothing terribly profound to report from my Vietnam sojourn, but I have been thinking about that old question of the relationship between poetry and the society that produces it. In my meetings with poets here, that's an area I'm trying to explore. I've read a fair amount of Vietnamese history and a great deal of Vietnamese literature, both ancient and modern, and the conventional view is that poetry is very important to Vietnamese society. In fact, that is the view with which I began this loose and gangly research project. My thesis -- at least my implied thesis -- would run something like: Vietnamese society values poetry whereas American society does not and that tells us something about the relationship between the arts and society more generally. Underneath that is Henry's agon, of course, the cry of the Americna poet for some sort of recognition, a role to play. But be careful what you wish for.

Vietnamese people will point out to you that many of their statesmen have also been poets, that poetry is taught in school, and that books of poetry are to be found widely distributed in modern Vietnam, but the more I look, the narrower this distribution seems to be. Now days, it often looks like a sentimental social construction maintained as part of an overall Vietnamese self image. Which, I guess you could argue, is more than we have in the US. But in the US there are hundreds if not thousands of literary institutions -- reading series, small presses, etc. -- whereas in VN there is not so much of that, partly because the official Writers Association stands as an official literary institution that is supposed to facilitate such matters, but often doesn't. What you have instead are networks of literary friends who find ways to make a literary life sometimes in and sometimes out of official channels.

At any rate, those are some rough impressions about the comparative sociology of American and Vietnamese poetry scenes. I hope to see a lot more and refine my thoughts over the next month as I travel around. As it happens I'll be having dinner tomorrow evening with the president of the Writers Association and I want to ask him how he sees that institution's role in a modernizing Vietnam.


Plumbline & Broken Middle

Here is my confession : since setting the Plumbline School on its merry airy erring way, I've had unspoken doubts & misgivings about what it all means. It began in a reaction : against what I perceived as a certain exaggerated or parodic or intentionally superficial or "facetious" atmosphere in the contemporary poetry realm (manifested at the time by "flarf" poetry - but this is only one example). But a simple reaction tends toward the reactionary : & I've worried that an emphasis on the "normative" and the "center" in poetry is a recipe for a staid, conventional stance (Joseph Hutchinson made this quite clear in his response to an invitation to join, a while back).

A second problem, for me, hovers around the idea of labels and abstract categories. To claim a poetry of "the middle" seems to homogenize & standardize a great deal of difference and variety; to look at it from another angle, it seems an awfully vague measure - so abstract as to be incapable of actually characterizing much.

I've tried, in various ways, to sharpen the idea, to make it more interesting : exploring such things as the relationship between mediation (the "golden mean") and ancient concepts of aesthetic and natural beauty; the issue of Metaphysical "wit", the yoking of opposites in a pithy metaphor, image, or aphorism; the differences between a poetry of experience and a poetry of discursive knowledge (Eliot's "dissociation of sensibility"); & finally, the notion of "the middle" as an ethical category, and its relation to poetry (Mandelstam's "sense of being right", etc.).

These are indeed some curious facets of the middle : but I don't think they answer either of the problems I've raised. We are still left with the question of how this concept of the plumbline relates to our poetry, and to contemporary poetry generally - if it does, at all! & we are still left with the 1st of my problems - that is, the slippage between the notion of "the middle" and mere, bland, complacent mediocrity (conventional, middle-brow or uncritical art).

Other members of the Plumbline may feel differently about these issues : perhaps I'm exaggerating the dilemma. But recently I've come upon some writings that might help me move forward. I was reading the final essay in Geoffrey Hill's Collected Essays (the essay title escapes me at the moment - something about modernist poetry). There he makes a reference to the late British thinker Gillian Rose, and her concept of "the broken middle". The phrase betook me to her book of that title, from the late 90s.

I'm not very well-read in philosophy & "theory" generally, and I found much of it hard going. So I welcome corrections to the following inadequate paraphrase. But basically Rose's book is a reflection on the status of contemporary philosophical thought, in the post-modern era. With deep readings of Hegel, Kierkegaard, Arendt, Luxemberg, Adorno, Heidegger, Lacan, Levinas, & other modern & postmodern authors, Rose describes the agon of "authorship" in a post-Enlightenment, and post-Holocaust era, when post-structuralist theory has attempted to critique and dismantle "instrumental reason", the ideological underpinnings of Western society and governance, and to replace them with various alternative modes of discourse and social (non)structure.

Rose's very basic countering concept is formulated as "the broken middle" : a term describing the human condition, and the condition of human mediating social institutions, as always both sin-ridden and redemptive; violent and law-ful; and that this "compromised" (my term) condition is not escapable by way of verbal or ideological sleights-of-hand, but must be endured, deeply & critically evaluated, and lived. Surprisingly, she adds a small "lyric" toward the conclusion, which goes :

I am abused and I abuse
I am the victim and I am the perpetrator
I am innocent and I am innocent
I am guilty and I am guilty

(a poem which seems to echo both Whitman and some ancient Sanskrit passage)

I will have to go back to G. Hill's essay to see how he relates Rose's work to poetry in particular. But it occurred to me today that this notion of a "broken middle" - a mediation which is inevitably conflicted, compromised, endangered, guilty, and above all implicated, engaged - might offer another way to think about our "plumbline". The middle, here, is not simply a form of "instrumental" discursive management or technical flair, transposed to the sphere of aesthetics. The middle in this sense doesn't offer a "solution" to anything : it is not necessarily a resolution, or even always "peaceful" : in Rose's terms, it is more like an agonistic arena. Such a concept, in fact, might be applied to an interpretation of the contemporary poetry scene in another way : if the middle is conflicted, unresolved and agonistic, then the poetry scene - full of broken, distorted, and mistaken or incomplete formulae for competing styles - none of which seem to find much favor with an indifferent or uncomprehending public-at-large - the scene itself seems to reflect, to offer some evidence for, that agonistic state of things. Agonistic - yet still offering an elusive promise (or dream, or possibility) of reconciliation.


Hybrids & the Allegory of Poetic Motoring

Mark Wallace & Mike Theune are taking up (again) issues of schools, camps & technique, over at Mark's Thinking Again blog.


Meanwhile, John Latta brackets "Hybrid" hype with the bleak, disillusioned analytic of Adorno (JL's post of Tuesday the 21st).


Life Under Water

Maura Dooley’s new collection, Life Under Water, arrived late last week. I ordered it after I read Ben Wilkinson's review in the TLS a few weeks ago. Ben was a little ambivalent about the collection but his comments, especially the phrase “unreliable histories, human frailties and emotional distortions of memory recur,” led me to an internet search, a live reading and a click here to purchase. He deals at some length with the opening piece, The World Turned Upside Down, and to my taste that poem was worth the price of admission.

Whether consciously or not, Dooley reverses the point of view Auden presents in “Memorial for the City.” Her narrator looks out through a pane of ice, “To break and lift a frozen pane/ And see my city made strange...” instead of seeing the city, as Auden’s narrator does, “from the public side of her mirrors.” Instead of the city’s speeches and statistics, which fail to impress Auden’s speaker, Dooley presents, with what Ben Wilkinson calls “deft specificity,” things that emphasise the traits of Auden attaches, in “The Dyer’s Hand,” to his historian, rather than his poet– ‘an interest in human beings, and their lives, which he believes are not preordained by fate but depend on the choices they make, for which they are fully responsible, an interest in the present only insofar as it relates to the past and to the future, and interest in actions, great or small, which reveal the direction in which the actors are moving. ‘All of the historical moments Dooley presents involve the choices made by individuals and the consequences of those decisions.

She begins by evoking the Frost Fairs held on the Thames when it froze, and the way gazing through a waver of heat distorts the vision as much as looking through a pane of ice-“The way fires at Frost Fair once/ made all that was constant tremble “– a reference to the great fires that burned on the ice during the fairs, to warm the revellers and spit roast whole animals for their suppers. The fairs were well known for the numerous disasters and near disasters caused by the failure of the populace to heed the warnings that the ice was about to break. In Feb of 1814, for instance, the last of the frost fairs, a four day event that featured an elephant walking across the river, ended when the ice began to thaw suddenly and crack. In spite of several obvious warnings and an intermittent drizzle of rain the festivities continued until, on a sudden the ice “floated with the printing presses booths and merry makers, to the no small dismay of publicans, typographers, shopkeepers and sojourners.” The sudden breaking up of the ice had been recorded at least since the thirteenth century, and often enough resulted in loss of life and property, but none of these precedents or warnings seemed to make much of an impression on the crowds.
Halfway through the first stanza the imagery slides quietly into another event. The ‘tremble’ induced by the fires of the frost fair is followed immediately by “a shiver of flame, fire on ice, 1643, the country shook as it watched.” It is unclear where the frost fires end and the events of 1643, as the parliamentarians gain the upper hand over the King, leading eventually to his execution, begin but it does seem clear that Charles’ long series of provocations and ill judged decisions is behind the reference. The “Welsh prophetess” made the connection between fire and these events explicit in the publication of “Wonders foretold by her great prophet of Wales: which shall certainly happen this present year 1643 by strange fires, and great waters.” “That there shall also be many great fires in many parts of the city of London (mark you that now) for her doth very well understand there will be many hot fires.” I don’t mean to say that Dooley is referring directly to an obscure seventeenth century soothsayer, only that images of conflagration and flood were used, even at the time, to express the dire political situation.

The second stanza takes the phrase “fire on ice”, away from the concrete meaning attached to it in the opening lines and utilises its metaphoric aptness to the visual distortions of snow blindness, as in Josphine Johnson’s “As men who once have seen/ White sun on snow,/white fire on ice,/ And in a wide noon, shadowless,/ Gone blind with light, “ to move from the frost fairs and the civil war into the story of Berentz’s expedition to find a northern route to China. “The glint of refraction/ distorts the story handed down” of his winter in Nova Zembla after his ship was caught in the ice. Berentz chose, after their progress was thwarted, to separate from Corneliz, his expedition partner, and to proceed south-easterly, intending to round the northern point of Nova Zembla, a decision that led to his imprisonment in the ice. The details of the crew’s efforts to survive the bitter cold in a driftwood hut, combating polar bears, depression, and the constant darkness became, as Dooley suggests, refracted, over time, until, by the nineteenth century, Dutch nationalist poets promoted the story of the arduous winter in nova Zembla as a legend of national heroism. By the time it was translated into English, the story was already known as an adventure “so strange and wonderful, that the like hath never been heard of before.”

Dooley’s "bitter weeks of past and future/ held in the long cold of the moment,” vividly conjures the disorientation of the men huddled in their hut. The cold had stopped all of their clocks and they had no idea, in the long arctic darkness, whether it was day or night. Eventually they made a twelve hour sand glass to estimate with, but the feeling conveyed by Dooley’s phrasing, with its echo of Eliot’s “time future contained in time past, if all time is eternally present,” and of Auden’s historian with his interest in the present only as it relates to the past and the future, is of the long suspension of time in the cold and dark. Her image of "everything drained, thinned/ to a blankness, pattern that lost all pattern,” not only captures the dense snow falls and the two inches of ice on the walls around the trapped men but it echoes Auden’s vision in Memorial for the City, where “The humor, the cuisine, the rites, the taste, The pattern of the City, are erased.” Dooley, however, turns away from despair. Perhaps she knows that as the ice began to break around Berentz’s men in the spring “the piles resembled the houses of a great city, interspersed with apparent towers, steeples and chimneys,” rebuilding the civilization the cold and dark had torn down. The same “glint of refraction,” that distorted Berentz’s story also caused him to see “the sun at Nova Zembla on the 20th of January, 1597, fifteen days before he was expected,” a point of optimism and hope perhaps alluded to in her phrasing, and certainly in line with her next image. After a lifetime of looking, William Bentley manages to isolate, from the bleakness of snow, its individual flakes, and discover “no two ice flowers are alike,” moving from winter to spring inside a single phrase.

The final stanza turns back to the warming streets of the opening lines, and the anticipated melt, to make apparent the vision of the poem and justify what Wilkinson calls the “ambitious ecological tone” of the work. The attitude of Auden’s historian is important here. He believed that this historical world is a redeemable world. The sleet and slush that confronts Dooley’s narrator when she looks out of her ice window is a “damp longing for silence,” “that might be a city made strange, life under water,” life after the untempered fire of the sun does its worst, life after the flood, but it predicts, as the Welsh prophetess predicted, an impending disaster that the right choices on our part might avert.

Dooley’s imagery is lyrical, concrete and metaphorically apt, at the same time as it is so richly allusive that in twenty-five short lines “it orders into a possible community a crowd of past historic occasions,”* and encapsulates Auden’s idea that “historical foundations are crucial for supporting a contemporary poetry which is itself meant to play a crucial role in the act of living.”**

**Daniel S Holder on Auden’s “Writing.”


The Penny of His Attention

29 May, 1956
Dear Mr. Shakespeare,
I remember promising to send you in writing an account of what I conceive to be the purpose of my poetry, though I think I was possibly over-confident when I did so. Such explanations usually read very heavily. However, put it this way: I have no ideas on what poetry is, in the abstract, but I have sometimes asked myself in the past what exactly I am doing when I write a poem. Most people say that the purpose of poetry is communication: that sounds as if one could be contented simply by telling somebody whatever it is one has noticed, felt or perceived. I feel it is a kind of permanent communication better called preservation, since one’s deepest impulse in writing (or, I must admit, painting or composing) is to my mind not “I must tell everybody about that” (ie. Responsibility to other people) but “I must stop that from being forgotten if I can” (ie. Responsibility towards subject). When writing a poem I am trying to construct a verbal device or machine which will, upon reading, render up the emotion I originally experienced to as many people as possible for as long as possible. You’ll remember I called it a slot machine into which the reader inserts the penny of his attention. Of course, the process of preservation does imply communication, since that is the only way an experience can be preserved . . .the distinction between communication and preservation is one of motive, and I think the latter word gives a very proper emphasis to the language-as–preserver rather than language-as-communication. In other words it makes it sound harder, which it is! I forget if you asked me whether I thought poetry important: I’m afraid my opinion on it would be about as valuable as that of a beaver upon dams. It’s certainly important to me, but I doubt if the world would miss it much. All the same, I can’t imagine how people exist without practicing some form of art...
Yours sincerely,
Philip Larkin

From The Times Literary Supplement, April 3, 2009


Nibbling on Anthologies, Old and New

Hayden Carruth's anthology is a definite "must buy" for me, but I still have ink dribbling down my chin from nibbling on the Norton Anthology's American Hybrid. Yes, I bought a brand spanking new edition, and "no", I am not tearing it up to feed to my Chow Chow pawing at the back door. I actually liked some of the poems in it. Some of these poets would be most welcome amidst us Plumbliners. Some of them are, to use my favorite Midwestern jargon, "damn fine" poets.

For instance, some of Donald Revell's work in this anthology appears relatively transparent, serious, and grounded. Does he use classic turns in his work? No, not all of the time. Does spirit and earthiness disappear into techno talk? No, he actually made sense to me. For example, "My Trip" seemed lucid--even though I must admit I read it while sipping on a Cabernet Sauvignon with Schubert's final symphony echoing in the background.

Here is my challenge to all of us Plumbliners: peruse American Hybrid and find one poem that reflects our Aristotelian/ spiritual/ lucid quest. Let us be tough but fair. Let us use actual examples from poetry to make our points more clear.

I must go, as my Chow Chow is whining, and I am beginning to bore myself.


new to the Plumb

Very pleased to welcome Susan Sonnen to the Plumbline School!

Second thoughts : Hayden Carruth's anthology

I'm still getting started with Voice That Is Great Within Us. & wanted again to express gratitude to Joseph D. for drawing attention to this anthology. Now I think my rather tetchy comments of previous post revealed the typical defensiveness of a somewhat self-educated poet, faced with a Great Voice...

First of all, the Bantam edition is not so hard to read! (& anyway, the nearest library probably owns a hardback version.) More importantly, the poems are nourishing, in a way not suggested by my initial, judgemental remarks.

It was quite astute of JD to juxtapose this anthology to the factional perspective of Ron Silliman & his cohorts. There is a distinction to be made between objectivity and mere abstraction, between impersonality and de-personalization. & in this regard maybe there is more to be said about the Poetry-Industrial Complex as it has developed over the last century. The valorizing of Innovation in the arts seems closely tied to the 19th-century March of Progress, mechanized industrialization, the rise of technocracy. The social revolution idealized by the supposedly activist poetics of the "experimental" wing always requires an antagonist/partner in the struggle : thus poets are shuttled like flocks of geese into various tendencies & movements, and these groupings then provide more grist for the intellectual mills...

Meanwhile - as a result of so much bustle of cognitive & verbal activity - the distinctive, the personal, the subjective, the psychic, the basically artistic, the substantially poetic - along with, ironically, the shared, the ordinary, the everyday, the common, the universal - all these tend to get lost in the shuffle, or slotted into some ideological program or other.

I realize these remarks will sound reactionary in some quarters. A-political. An echo of "Fugitive" anachronism. My answer to that is twofold. First, read Carruth's anthology. It's neither a-political nor reactionary (though it is, understandably, a reflection of its time). One of the things poetry - like science - does, is to bend so lovingly & attentively over its own proper materials (language, ordinary speech, the world of song... the world itself, as an expression of beauty) that a kind of independent objectivity (ie., freedom) arises naturally out of such devotion. This is how poetry attains to something like architecture or sculpture : to the wholeness, quiddity & disinterestedness of natural objects (a measure of Keatsian "negative capability", freed from "irritable reaching"). Stone, sunlight.

Second, I would like to point toward the inevitable subjectivity of human experience. My sensibility is not the same as yours; my background & consciousness & personality & character & fate are my own. This essential difference is something we all share in common, alongside all the general human traits & genetic inheritance & history. & what is poetry, & what is a poet to us? As I see it, a poet is someone who steps forward & makes a song, speaks artfully, out of the depths of both private & shared experience. This takes a certain gift & a certain (brave, vain?) willingness - to stand up & represent reality through words, to evoke & articulate one's individual sensibility & understanding. Because in a way every poem is an end in itself : every poem, in its very practical uselessness, is a summing-up of life. A formulation. So the poet stands at the end of the line, as a summation (every poem says "the buck stops here"). & this aspect of "the end", it seems to me, militates against the submerging of the individual talent into general ideas of historical development, artistic movements, & so on. Every poem is an act of individuation : & I include in this Homer, Shakespeare, Langland, Rilke... all of them, every artist.

Along with this, I would add that I respect Ron Silliman, & believe I understand, somewhat, his impulse to celebrate the energized, the contrary, the unofficial streams in American poetry, as opposed to the staid & the conventional. What I am suggesting is that the idea of the artist at the forefront of history & social change is itself a shackling cliche, because it subordinates the individual mind, heart & spirit of the poet to some kind of program. Very valid & wise endeavors for human improvement lead the way : they are an necessary element of survival & humane civilization : but the artist, qua artist, must approach them on his or her terms. & that involves something distinctly primordial & sui generis - the process of art-making itself - which cannot be managed or harnessed or even explained completely (hard & carefully as Aristotle tried) from the bleachers.

OK, I have rambled on more than I thought I would...

Charles Burchfield - Starlings in the Rain, Wellesville, Ohio 1920

A new member of the Plumbline

I'm pleased to welcome Chris Bays to the Plumbline School!


On First Looking into Carruth's Anthology

Some off-the-cuff reactions...

Have to admit I've never seriously perused The Voice That Is Great Within Us. Came out in 1970, the year I went to college. Already by then I considered myself a bonafide poet, having written many poems (starting around 1965) & having read TWO (two!) NY School anthologies, as well as that fine collection, A Gift of Watermelon Pickle (9th grade).

I'm sure I picked this up & glanced through it more than once. It was the kind of thing that scared me off.

Still in print... but the physical book says something about the state of poetry in the USA. Only $8., from Bantam Books - yet the blurred typeface, the sloppy production, is close to unreadable. You get what you pay for.

Might be interesting to compare Carruth's anthology to American Hybrid. & before compiling a new Voice That Is Great, we might want to linger here a while...

Strengths - clarity, simplicity, elegance. These poems are made things, distinct utterances. A clean austerity. Today we seem to have displaced this discursive independence. Poems are always pointing somewhere else - toward something personal, political, topical, moral (& most often, half-educated academic pseudo-aesthetical). Clever, officious, detached (or all three), they elbow you in the ribs. The fence between art & 24/7 news cycle etc. has been torn down. This makes contemporary poems both more knowing & less solid, somehow. (I'm GENERALIZING.)

Weaknesses - goes back to the same thing. Carruth has an instinct for the well-made poem, long after the demise of "New Criticism". Many of his selections seem to snap neatly shut, with a smug pursing of lips. I'm sure they (the poets) didn't think so : they were comparing themselves to those really neat snuff-boxes (think Frost, Hecht, Wilbur), whose Hippocrene perfection they had avoided (by way of free verse & a touch of Hemingway).

Missing : Richard Hugo, Edwin Honig, John Tagliabue... many more, certainly. Michael Harper (& these are just my personal acquaintances). But that's how it is with anthologies.

I don't mean to emphasize (supposed) weaknesses. Very glad that Joseph pointed this way. & I'm just starting to read it. (With the same old trepidation. Our greatest strength is ignorance.)

p.s. someone recently - a non-poet, but a poetry reader - sent a comment to one of the posts at the Harriet blog (I've looked for it, but haven't been able to find it). He said that in contemporary poetry he sees a lot of technical sophistication, learned in MFA programs - but not a lot of gravitas : that seriousness (of purpose) which we find compelling. There is some of that, however, all through the Carruth anthology : like certain paintings from the 30s & 40s. Clarity, simplicity - terse & direct presentation. Ordinary speech, forged & hammered into elegance.

Fashionable Nonsense

Re. Joseph's comment on the previous post, about the theorising of poetic language as inaccessible to lived experience. Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont's Fashionable Nonsense - Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science discusses the abuse of concepts and terminology in talking, in their case, about philosophy and the natural sciences, but in a way equally applicable, as their examples show, to conversation about poetry, in an attempt to give discourse "a veneer of rigor." It seems to me that much of contemporary poetry - I was looking at polyaesthetics and mathematical poetry yesterday, for example - is incomprehensible, but much of contemporary discussion about poetry is equally opaque, and often, I suspect, for the reasons Bricmont and Sokal give below. I don't mean to say that poetic discourse uses scientific language, but that a clever person could change a few words in their introduction and produce an exactly parallel critique of what Joseph called ' the epistemological dead end of theorized language' about poetry. The common caution - "the opinions expressed in this posting are not necessarily those of the guys in charge" - obviously applies here.

"The goal of this book is to make a limited but original contribution toward the critique of the admittedly nebulous Zeitgeist that we have called "postmodernism". We make no claim to analyze postmodernist thought in general; rather, our aim is to draw attention to a relatively little-known aspect, namely the repeated abuse of concepts and terminology coming from mathematics and physics. We shall also analyze certain confusions of thought that are frequent in postmodernist writings and that bear on either the content or the philosophy of the natural sciences.

The word "abuse" here denotes one or more of the following characteristics:

1) Holding forth at length on scientific theories about which one has, at best, an exceedingly hazy idea. The most common tactic is to use scientific (or pseudo-scientific) terminology without bothering much about what the words actually mean.

2) Importing concepts from the natural sciences into the humanities or social sciences without giving the slightest conceptual or empirical justification. If a biologist wanted to apply, in her research, elementary notions of mathematical topology, set theory or differential geometry, she would be asked to give some explanation. A vague analogy would not be taken very seriously by her colleagues. Here, by contrast, we learn from Lacan that the structure of the neurotic subject is exactly the torus (it is no less than reality itself, cf. p. 20), from Kristeva that poetic language can be theorized in terms of the cardinality of the continuum (p. 40), and from Baudrillard that modern war takes place in a non-Euclidean space (p. 147)--all without explanation.

3) Displaying a superficial erudition by shamelessly throwing around technical terms in a context where they are completely irrelevant. The goal is, no doubt, to impress and, above all, to intimidate the non-scientist reader. Even some academic and media commentators fall into the trap: Roland Barthes is impressed by the precision of Julia Kristeva's work (p. 38) and Le Monde admires the erudition of Paul Virilio (p. 169).

4) Manipulating phrases and sentences that are, in fact, meaningless. Some of these authors exhibit a veritable intoxication with words, combined with a superb indifference to their meaning.

These authors speak with a self-assurance that far outstrips their scientific competence: Lacan boasts of using "the most recent development in topology" (pp. 21-22) and Latour asks whether he has taught anything to Einstein (p. 131). They imagine, perhaps, that they can exploit the prestige of the natural sciences in order to give their own discourse a veneer of rigor. And they seem confident that no one will notice their misuse of scientific concepts. No one is going to cry out that the king is naked.

Our goal is precisely to say that the king is naked (and the queen too). But let us be clear. We are not attacking philosophy, the humanities or the social sciences in general; on the contrary, we feel that these fields are of the utmost importance and we want to warn those who work in them (especially students) against some manifest cases of charlatanism. In particular, we want to "deconstruct" the reputation that certain texts have of being difficult because the ideas in them are so profound. In many cases we shall demonstrate that if the texts seem incomprehensible, it is for the excellent reason that they mean precisely nothing.

There are many different degrees of abuse. At one end, one finds extrapolations of scientific concepts, beyond their domain of validity, that are erroneous but for subtle reasons. At the other end, one finds numerous texts that are full of scientific words but entirely devoid of meaning. And there is, of course, a continuum of discourses that can be situated somewhere between these two extremes. Although we shall concentrate in this book on the most manifest abuses, we shall also briefly address some less obvious confusions concerning chaos theory (Chapter 7).

Let us stress that there is nothing shameful in being ignorant of calculus or quantum mechanics. What we are criticizing is the pretension of some celebrated intellectuals to offer profound thoughts on complicated subjects that they understand, at best, at the level of popularizations.

At this point, the reader may naturally wonder: Do these abuses arise from conscious fraud, self-deception, or perhaps a combination of the two? We are unable to offer any categorical answer to this question, due to the lack of (publicly available) evidence. But, more importantly, we must confess that we do not find this question of great interest. Our aim here is to stimulate a critical attitude, not merely towards certain individuals, but towards a part of the intelligentsia (both in the United States and in Europe) that has tolerated and even encouraged this type of discourse. "


For anyone interested in the recent discussion here and in Joseph's blog about a new Great Voices list, and who missed Mark Wallace's February discussion of Michael Theune's review of The Iowa Anthology of new American Poetries, it's worth taking a look at, especially as a lesson in the fraught business of making a list in the first place. I particulary appreciated Michael's remark, near the top of the long list of comments following the entry, that "While the middle space seems like it is a meeting ground for opposites, and so signals an end to the “poetry wars,” middle space poetry (as I argue in my forthcoming review) in fact very often depends on an other to define itself against. Much middle space theory sets itself up over and against a whole range of “accessible” poetry, from slam to “ultra-talk”/”stand up” poetry. Middle space poetry does not end the poetry wars, but rather wages it by other means." I had naively thought the Plumbline School, by promulgating an avoidance of extremes, would be a non-conflict zone. I begin to see the error of my ways.


A New Anthology?

Picking up from the comments to my previous post about The Voice that is Great Within Us:

If we start in 1914, we lose Eliz. Bishop, who was born in 1911, as well as Chas. Olson (1910) and Th. Roethke (1908). Then there were a bunch of American poets born in 1923 - 1926 who have always seemed to me to form a generational group: W.S. Merwin, Donald Justice, James Dickey, Anthony Hecht, Denise Levertov, Kenneth Koch, Jack Spicer, A.R. Ammons, Robert Bly, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara, David Wagoner, then 1n 1927, John Ashbery. It's remarkable how many of those were born in 1926 alone.

So, many anthologies of modern American poetry begin with Whitman and Dickinson as founding figures, and go on from there. Anthologies of Contemporary American poetry often begin with Pound, Williams, and Eliot, the generation that we'd be cutting off in favor of some new beginning. What would that beginning look like? Lowell and Bishop, even though Bishop comes too early?

The first poet in the Carruth anthology to be born in 1914 is John Berryman, perhaps not an exemplary founding figure, but an interesting one. David Ignatow, Weldon Kees, William Stafford, and Randall Jarrell, are also born in 1914. I lay out all these names and dates in order to discover whetehr there might be some generational logic that would allow us to begin our anthology less arbitrarily than merely picking a date. I'd be inclined to go back and pick up Olson, Bishop and Roethke myself, but I'd be interested to hear what others might do with this chronology.


The Halt

In honour of National Poetry Month I propose, at the risk of exposing the abysmal gaps in my education and hogging the blog, to discover some new poets. New to me, I mean, not new to the rest of the world. The first problem is, how exactly does one go about constructively broadening one’s horizons. I could find a thousand unknown versifiers on the internet if I had worlds enough and time but I haven’t. I’m looking for poets who fill the gaps not just pleasant dalliances. I could just open the updated and expanded version of The Voice That is Great Within Us that’s being bandied about by the erudite guys who run this operation but they’re still debating the table of contents so I’m on my own.
A happy accident led me, this morning, to the Polish writer Zbigniew Herbert. That he’s an honorary Plumbline poet is indisputable. In a talk given at a conference organized by the journal Odra he said: "So not having pretensions to infallibility, but stating only my predilections, I would like to say that in contemporary poetry the poems that appeal to me the most are those in which I discern something I would call a quality of semantic transparency (a term borrowed from Husserl's logic). This semantic transparency is the characteristic of a sign consisting in this: that during the time when the sign is used, attention is directed towards the object denoted, and the sign itself does not hold the attention. The word is a window onto reality."For Herbert “a bird is a bird/slavery slavery/a knife a knife/death is death.”
“Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.
I swear, there is no wizardry of words.”

The first poem I came across was ‘The Halt.’

“We halted in a town the host
ordered the table to be moved to the garden the first star
shone out and faded we were breaking bread
crickets were heard in the twilight loosestrife
a cry but a cry of a child otherwise the bustle
of insects of men a thick scent of earth
those who were sitting with their backs to the wall
saw violet now - the gallows hill
on the wall the dense ivy of executions

we were eating much
as is usual when nobody pays”

Given Herbert’s involvement in the Polish resistance during World War II and in the political situation in Poland as it developed over his lifetime it’s fairly easy to read The Halt as a poem about men in a desperate struggle pausing for awhile in a garden. To begin with there is the word ‘halt’. Not stop, or pause, or rest, but halt, with its harsh middle English/ Germanic sound, its military associations and its sense of a temporary suspension of something ongoing. The piece is full of Christian symbolism - the hortus conclusus, the evening star that calls to Vespers, the breaking of the bread, the echoes of the supper at Emmaus and the gallows hill – that seems to function as a device for gaining or maintaining a broader perspective on the situation at hand. That such overt religious gestures manage to pass almost unnoticed at least in a first reading is probably due to the slightly disorienting effect of no punctuation and the tension immediately induced in the reader by the uneasy combination of peace and menace in the imagery. Garden, star, cricket, loosestrife, the bustle of insects, the smell of earth all suggest an almost pastoral repose disturbed by the host ordering the table moved instead of requesting it, by the cry, which is quickly accounted for by the phrase ‘but a cry of a child’ as if it might be interpreted as something altogether less benign, by the men with their backs to a wall and by the gallows hill and the dense ivy of executions immediately following. It was the phrase ‘ivy of executions’ that first caught my attention and having read the poem several times I’m still not sure what it means but it’s certainly one of those things that communicates before it’s understood. Ivy has long been emblematic of death and resurrection, but is also associated with fidelity and memory. A plaque in the Mehrinplatz, in Berlin, quotes Herbert as saying “The loss of memory by a nation is also its loss of conscience,” and it’s not much of a jump to see how ivy, in that context, might come to be associated with executions, especially by someone involved in political struggle. The last two lines seem to me likely to refer to the necessity of taking of responsibility for one’s actions, on a personal and/or political level. Bogdana and John Carpenter noted that the poems of Pan Cogito “consistently apply ethics not only to action but to the possible, viable action of everyday life, taking human failings into account,” and that observation seems relevant here.
In Herbert’s ‘Still Life with Bridle’ the coming of twilight and the shifting of the ambient light to violet featured in A Halt is paralleled in a paragraph that could stand as its prose prelude - "Dusk is falling, the last acrid, Egyptian yellows go out, cinnabar becomes gray and fragile, the last fireworks of the day grow dark. All of a sudden there is an unexpected pause, a short-lasting interval in the darkness as if somebody in a hurry opened the door from a light room into a dark room." The Halt is that pause or interval in the darkness but the men around the table plainly see that it will descend around them again. The space may temporarily be transformed into a hortus deliciarum, oriented to the pleasures of its owner, the bossy host, and his guests but the Christian symbolism underlying the imagery suggests that Herbert believes the door will open again onto the light.
One little poem is hardly an education in a man’s life work but it’s one poem more than I knew this morning and one poet more that I have at least a nod in the street acquaintance with. If you mention his name over dinner I’ll at least be able to pretend I know who you’re talking about.