Monday, February 27, 2017

The Poetry of Dread in Our Time of Dread



These are dreadful times, for which we need a poetry of dread.  Ernest Hilbert's got us covered, in his new book Caligulan.  I wrote a little something about it for Literary Matters. It begins like this:
“Little Boots” might strike us as an appropriate name for something small and cute—a kitten, say. But for Romans in a certain phase of the Empire’s history, it was a name at which one trembled. The man born Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus grew up among the legions protecting the Empire’s northern frontier, and as a child wore a smaller version of the caliga, or military boot, so the soldiers called him by the diminutive of that word, “Caligula,” and it stuck. Not long after he came to power as Emperor, he became notorious for the widespread and apparently random nature of his vindictive murderousness. His form of state terror wasn’t like Hitler’s, in which only certain categories of people—Jews, Communists, homosexuals, gypsies—were destined for massacre, and others could feel themselves safe, so long as they kept their heads down. Under Caligula, no one could breathe easy, least of all the powerful and well-connected, who dreaded the daily possibility of the garrote, or worse. “Oderint, dum metuant,” Suetonius reports the Emperor as saying: “Let them hate me, so long as they fear me.” Anxiety became ambient, fear the atmosphere one breathed. 
Ernest Hilbert’s Caligulan begins with an unusual preface by way of definition. “Caligulan,” he writes, emulating the style of a dictionary “Illogical fear that disaster, especially of a gruesome kind, might befall one at any time.” After giving several variations and examples of usage, he adds: “From the Latin appellation Caligula. First known use 2015, USA.” The word, as a term for general dread, is Hilbert’s own invention. And it is this sense of general dread, along with a series of failed attempts to escape it, that dominates his imagination in the poems collected in his third book.

The whole piece can be read here.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

His Swords and Armor: Remembering Michael Donaghy

Left to right: Michael Donaghy, Richard Pettengill, Robert Archambeau, at Donaghy's last American reading, 2004

Talk to anyone about the late poet Michael Donaghy and you realize something immediately: everybody loved him.  Whether they knew him well, or met him briefly, the sentiment is the same. His charisma was supernatural. I loved him, too, and it broke me up when he died. I read his poem "The Classics" to a small gathering of people, and it shook them all to the core. Now, years after his death, I've written an appreciation of him for The Hopkins Review. It begins like this.

*

The beginning of “The Classics,” a poem by Michael Donaghy, has stayed with me for a long time:

I remember it like it was last night,
Chicago, the back room of Flanagan’s
Malignant with accordions and cigarettes,
Joe Cooley bent above his Paolo Soprani,
Its asthmatic bellows pumping as if to revive
The half-corpse strapped about it.
It’s five a.m. Everyone’s packed up.
His brother Seamus grabs Joe’s elbow mid-arpeggio.
“Wake up, man. We have to catch a train.”
His eyelids fluttering, opening. The astonishment . . .

It’s quintessential Donaghy, invoking as it does his great theme, memory, and his love of performances of all kinds—especially those involving Irish music in dingy bars. It brings the two things together in that image of a hunched Joe Cooley, still playing his accordion even as he nods off, the music so thoroughly internalized that he needn’t be fully awake to play it. The true performer, Donaghy implies, gets lost in the performance—something that can only happen when the music has been so completely absorbed into the musician that it becomes his second nature.

Donaghy was famous for reciting his own poems from memory at readings that were fully realized performances in a way too few poetry readings are. At a Donaghy reading there was never any of the mumbling, [End Page 33] page-flipping, or nervous self-explanation with which poetry audiences are all too familiar. He was entirely present to the poem and to the audience, not hovering a little above himself, wondering just how he ought to manifest. Once, when Yeats’s famous question “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” came up, Donaghy gave an answer that underlined his commitment to losing himself in performance: “Who cares?” Better for the two to be so intermingled they can’t be torn asunder.

“The Classics” ends like this:

I saw this happen. Or heard it told so well
I’ve staged the whole drunk memory:
What does it matter now? It’s ancient history.
Who can name them? Where lie their bones and armor?

Perhaps, given Donaghy’s fascination with memory (accurate or otherwise), there’s a small irony in how the version of this poem I’ve carried in my head for years turns out to be a bit distorted. When I came back to the poem on the page recently, I was surprised to find it ending with the question “Where lie their bones and armor?” For ages I’d been saying “Where lie their swords and armor?”—an inferior ending, to be sure. But I want to keep my distorted version, for now, and use it as a way to talk about Donaghy’s poetry because his poems—or perhaps I should say his performed poems—were both his swords and his armor.

*

The rest is in the current issue of The Hopkins Review. Online access for those with access to Project Muse is here.  Open access forthcoming.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

When Buffalo Became Buffalo



When did Buffalo become Buffalo? If you're at all interested in the little demimonde of American poetry, you know that the unlikely city of Buffalo, New York has long been a kind of Emerald City of experimental poetry. But how did it all begin? Michael Anania knows: he was there. And he tells all in the latest installment in the "Essays & Comment" section I edit for Plume. Here's the beginning of his essay:
There are several issues embedded in my title, I suppose, not only when Buffalo, the private University (after 1962 the State University of New York at Buffalo), became Buffalo but how and why Buffalo became a center, perhaps the center, of American poetry. For me, “when” is easy. Buffalo became Buffalo on August 5, 1963. That afternoon, the poet David Posner, then the Director of the Lockwood Library Poetry Collection, gave a party in his apartment on Main Street, just across from the old campus, one floor above the Chicken Delight take-out shop, for the incoming chair of the Buffalo English Department, Albert S. Cook. Posner was a collector, and his shotgun-style apartment, with windows on Main Street at one end and above the rear alley at the other, was a dense clutter of camelback couches, old, velvet-seated chairs and a soft, forest-floor matting of oriental rugs. The effect was a kind of worn luridness, aged Persian reds and Victorian blues. Books were stuffed into glass-fronted oak cases, and there were paintings and prints, mostly 19th century English landscapes, though above the weighty dining room table, there was a small Derain, nude dancers in a circle. 
I don’t remember everyone at the party. Al Cook was there, of course, so were Mac Hammond, who had followed Cook from Western Reserve in Cleveland, Aaron Rosen, who had been on the Buffalo English faculty for some time, the poet Saul Touster, who taught in the law school, Charles Doria, Irving Feldman perhaps, and towering above everyone, Charles Olson. Al introduced me. “Michael is writing on William Carlos Williams.” Charles took my hand, pulled me toward him and draped his left arm over my shoulder. “Bill Williams,” he said in what started out and ended as a rumbling kind of laugh. “He got us part way there. We’ll manage the rest.” Us. We’ll. A part of Olson’s genius was pure politics, LBJ or Tip O’Neill rounding up votes. 

The rest, including a remarkable account of Olson's seminar, is available here. 

Friday, February 03, 2017

Henry King Gets It: On the Kafka Sutra



Poetry wars? What poetry wars? Henry King has written a very insightful review of my book The Kafka Sutra in which he gets at my sense of poetic pluralism better than anyone else I've seen.  Here's a bit from the middle:

*

The poems are formally varied, with fixed forms such as the sonnet and sestina alongside varieties of free verse. In both, Archambeau frequently uses repetition: the necessary repetitions and recombinations in “Sestina: What Chester Kallman Did to Poor Old Auden” are echoed in the free verse of “La Bandera” and “Hieratic Perspective:

I went into the cathedral that was for me alone,
where the guide who was also for me alone,
and of me alone, spoke to me alone.

A century ago, these forms—fixed and free—were red lines within the poetry world, dividing it into antagonistic groups; but they have since been assimilated and ranged against later developments of the avant-garde, from L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E to Conceptualism. Archambeau experiments with the latter aesthetic in the collection’s third section, “Two Procedures”. The first of these, “Manifest Destinies, Black Rains,” rings changes on an 1852 description of Washington D.C. from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine and a passage from Masuji Ibuse’s 1965 novel of the Hiroshima bombing, Black Rain, in nine unmetered quatrains:

A magnificent country, whose commerce whitens every sea,
whose most majestic railroads and canals, like great arteries, hang down,
broken, in tangled profusion—
I had a terrifying feeling that one or another of them must be live, fierce.

Here, it seemed, the human mind was destined to develop its highest powers.
Here, it seemed, in the inexhaustible country they inhabit.
Magnetic nerves, with the rapidity of thought, bore intelligence to distant
extremities. I had a terrifying feeling
the mind was destined to spark and tangle: fierce and white.

The difference between this kind of poesis and the Audenesque sestina is less a matter of kind than degree, and brings into question the supposed antitheses between this one and “the other kind of poetry.”
Another review of The Kafka Sutra, by Piotr Gwiazda's in the Chicago Review is here.
And if that's still not enough for you, here's Stu Watson's review in Queen Mob's Teahouse.


Wednesday, February 01, 2017

With Trump, a New Case for Why the Humanities Still Matter



The age of "alternative facts" demands an alternative approach to the humanities.  Or so I argue in a short essay called "With Trump, a New Case foe Why the Humanities Still Matter," now up at The Walrus.  Here's how it starts:


Back in 1990, when I began pursuing a doctorate in English, I and my fellow graduate students spent an inordinate amount of time hunched over our dim, monochrome computer screens reading the newsgroups devoted to then-hot strains of thought called postmodernism, postcolonialism, and poststructuralism.
“Theory,” as we called it, was still a fresh enough arrival on the shores of English departments to inspire a backlash. To speak the dialect of theory was to risk the ire of the tenured faculty, many of whom would gladly have seen all of the theories deported back across the Atlantic to the lands from whence they’d come. That the departmental elders wrote and read in a manner informed by theory rarely seemed to cross their minds, as their theory—New Criticism—had long become naturalized and so ceased to register as theory—at least until those meddling Frenchies, Deleuze and Foucault and Derrida, came along, forcing one to reconsider assumptions one could once have taken for granted. Much of what mattered about theory, back then, was the way it suddenly made everyone self-conscious and self-questioning.

Department lounges are today rather less troubled by the presence of theory. Instead, as the current topics of so many faculty discussions indicate, we seem to be entering a period of professional crisis when we will be asked—by provosts, deans, and presidents, and behind them our funders, both state and private—to justify what we do and why we’re taking up valuable space off the campus quadrangle. When a bastion of the liberal arts such as Colby-Sawyer College eliminates its English department, as it recently announced was its plan, the writing is there on the ivied walls.
The rest can be read here. 
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Saturday, January 28, 2017

Because Our President Turns Away Those Seeking Shelter...



"When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt." (Leviticus 19:33-34)

We are—all of us—better than this president. We have to be.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Reading Robert Kroetsch: New Essays on His Work!



Rejoice! There's a new collection of essays just now out on that great Canadian poet, novelist, and raconteur Robert Kroetsch.  A founder of boundary 2, a disruptor of established forms, a godfather to a literary movement in the Canadian west—he's a figure you'd love to get to know, and Nicole Markotic's book is a good way to get to know him.  I've contributed a little something, and not just because Kroetsch and I tipped a glass or two together in my student days.  Here's a bit of what I had to say:

*

There’s another reason to think of Kroetsch as a postmodern poet, rather than a modern one, a reason having to do with tone.  While the generalization I’m about to make has the flaw of all generalizations (i.e., that it is full of holes and therefore untrue), I’m still making it: modernism is more serious and less funny than postmodernism.  I grant all your objections regarding specific texts, and yet I return to the generalization.  Wry as he can be, T.S. Eliot is more grave and less funny than Frank O’Hara.  While he’s not above jokes, Ezra Pound is more often dead serious than is John Ashbery.  And when Robert Kroetsch is meditating on the perspectival nature of truth, he’s less sublime, and funnier, than Wallace Stevens when Stevens does something similar.  I’m sure the model for Kroetsch’s “Sketches of a Lemon” is Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” but the tone is entirely different.  Here’s Stevens’ opening stanza:

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Is the eye of a blackbird. (58)

This is straight-up Kantian sublimity: the little living eye comprehends the huge, rugged world that so exceeds it in scale and in grandeur that it renders the bird’s eye insignificant—except for the fact that the little eye comprehends the vastness.  Here, by contrast, is the opening of Kroetsch’s series of lemon sketches:

A lemon is almost round.
Some lemons are almost round.
A lemon is not round.

So much for that. (76)

There’s a skepticism about our ability to intellectually frame the world here—it’s The Stone Hammer Poems again, or The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge—but there’s also a kind of philosophical pratfall.  The poem is full of this sort of thing: it's a self-deflating comic text that also has something serious to say about how intellectual frames fail, or about how narratives and descriptions end up mutating into something other than what they were initially meant to be.  Something like that happens in the following passage (“Smaro” is the name of the poet’s wife):

Sketches, I reminded myself,
not of a pear,
nor of an apple,
nor of a peach,
nor of a banana
(though the colour
raises questions)
nor of a nectarine,
nor, for that matter,
of a pomegranate,
nor of three cherries,
their stems joined,
nor of a plum,
nor of an apricot,
nor of the usual
bunch of grapes,
fresh from the vine,
just harvested,
glistening with dew—

Smaro, I called,
I’m hungry. (76)

What began as a kind of attempt at negative definition, doomed to a seemingly infinite series of specifications, suddenly warps, and we see that all along, without our knowledge, the list or catalog had been functioning in ways we hadn’t suspected, inciting the appetites rather than providing definition.  A hidden subordinate function unexpectedly becomes the dominant function of the list, and the sentence lurches jarringly in a new direction.  I remember reading this poem to the woman who would become my wife, and how much she liked it.  But it wasn’t her favorite section of the poem.  This was:

poem for a child who has just bit into
a halved lemon that has just been squeezed

see, what did I tell you, see,
what did I tell you, see, what
did I tell you, see, what did
I tell you, see, what did I
tell you, see, what did I tell
you, see, what did I tell you,
see, what did I tell you, see,
what did I tell you, see, what
did I tell you, see, what did
I tell you, see, what did I
tell you, see, what did I tell
you, see, what did I tell you

One could, of course, go on. (80)


If straight-up sublimity lies a bit beyond Kroetsch’s range, something like this lies a bit beyond Wallace Stevens, and I think the difference is generational, the modern vs. the postmodern poet.

*


Sunday, January 22, 2017

Hey Trump: We'll See You In Court



So Trump is now in the White House—what are we going to do about it? For starters, we can realize that he comes in as a weak and unpopular president, with an approval rating marginally lower that what Paul Blart, Mall Cop gets on the Rotten Tomatoes site.

The best reports put Trump's inaugural crowd (which he baselessly claimed was "a million, a million and a half") at 160,000—about 1/3 of the size of the Women's March, and a fraction of the size of Obama's inaugural.

He's weak. We're strong. And it all makes one thing of those lines Shelley wrote in another time of despised tyrants:

‘Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number.
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.

But as good as it was to get out in the streets and show the world that America is better than its leader, resistance needs to be a long game. There are many ways to keep up the fight.  I like this one—the ACLU's plan to drag Trump to court and hold his feet to the fire.  You can be a part of it.


Friday, January 06, 2017

What's Your Poem Worth?



What's your poetry worth? And who's to say?

Ernest Hilbert is a good guy to ask when it comes to these questions. Not only is he a poet of distinction, he's also been running America's premiere rare book establishment for years. He talks about it in "The Muse and the Auctioneer’s Gavel: Learning About Poetry from First Editions," the latest installment in the "Essays and Comments" section I edit for Plume magazine. Here's how Hilbert's essay begins:
For a decade and a half I have worked more or less contentedly as a rare book dealer, roughly half the number of years I’ve devoted to being a poet, an equally eccentric pursuit. In that time I’ve had the pleasure of placing quite a number of extraordinary first editions of poetry into my clients’ collections. I am often asked what precisely makes a book “rare.” Why, for instance will one volume of poetry sell for $5 (a used copy of a recent title, something I would buy for myself), $50 (a first edition of Diane Wakoski’s 1966 Discrepencies and Apparitions signed by her along with a drawing in her hand), $500 (poet and translator Richmond Lattimore’s copy of the 1955 first edition of Elizabeth Bishop’s second book Poems: North & South and A Cold Spring), $5,000 (an inscribed 1926 first edition of Langston Hughes’ The Weary Blues), while another might sell for $50,000 (a 1633 first edition of John Donne’s Poems by J.D. with Elegies on the Author’s Death), and yet another for well over $500,000 (Edgar Allan Poe’s impossibly rare 1827 first book of poetry, Tamerlane, authored by “A Bostonian,” which hammered at $662,500 at a 2009 Christie’s sale, a tattered and rather stained copy at that, but one of only 12 thought to remain from a print run of 50). While no easy answer concerning this sort of marketplace value will fully suffice, there are a few measures upon which one may fairly rely.
The rest is online here. Check it out!

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Find Your Protest



Remember that guy in the big London scene in Wordsworth’s Prelude—the battered old veteran begging on the streets, holding a sign that tells his story? His image haunted Wordsworth for many years, mostly because unlike us (and oh, this speaks terribly of what we have become) he didn’t see this sort of thing all the time.  It shocked Wordsworth to see that, among all those people, there was so little community that no one knew this man’s name, let alone his journey, his struggle, and his pain. It shocked him that the man couldn’t count on the community to know him—in the ever-growing metropolis, the man who needed his story told was reduced to holding it on a sheet before him, hoping someone would pause.

I thought of that guy when, some years ago, I stood at a train platform outside Chicago. An older man walked by, wearing that mix of odd bits of cammo and discarded workout clothing that we’ve come to associate with homeless veterans.  His war would have been Vietnam, and he walked back and forth in an exaggeratedly slow pace, looking at the ground, speaking to himself. Or, rather, not to himself, but to—well, I was the only other one around. But it wasn’t an address to me, either—it was something I was meant to overhear.  He spoke in an affected voice, as if he were trying to sound like a voice-over announcer in a documentary, commenting on footage.  And the footage was of a protest rally of some kind.  “Students and veterans alike gathered,” he said, to some imagined television audience, “and when the man on the platform said how the president lied the crowd shouted I actually understand this” he continued, “it was in Carbondale, a cold fall day…” he continued this way, and I began to see that here, in a dirty army cap, was Wordsworth’s veteran—telling the story he needed to tell, but at such a terrible distance, so far from being able to connect. One sensed he had been alone a long time. One sensed he had been sent to war young, and that he had never really come back.

I mention this today because I have known many veterans of that war. I’ve worked with them, or lived near them, or found them in my family.  These are the lucky ones, the ones who came home. And I don’t know a single one of them who hadn’t, like the man at the train station, left some part of himself back there.  And today we find out, beyond any reasonable doubt, that Richard Nixon, after he’d won the election but before he took office, worked behind the scenes to scuttle the peace talks between north and south Vietnam.  He didn’t want the Democrats to take credit for peace. And so the war continued for years. One could look up the dates and count the number of people who died for Nixon’s vanity, but those numbers always lie. Those numbers always leave out the dead or half-dead who came home and walked like ghosts in the streets. 


But this isn’t about Nixon, for whose sake one wishes Dante’s Hell were real. This is about the danger of having a president so mad with the thirst for adulation that nothing will be enough, not even the presidency itself. This is about any reckless and fragile president who talks tough, encourages violence, and cares nothing about breaking the lives of others on the anvil of his own vanity. This is about where we are now, and what we’re going to do about it.

There are inauguration day protests scheduled throughout the country.  Find yours.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

In Hyperallegic Now: "Aesthetic Interference—On Those Photos from Ankara"



Those photos from Ankara, with the Russian ambassador lying dead on the floor? They're haunting, and not just because they depict an atrocity. They're haunting because they are more beautiful than they should be. They are so beautiful they seem wrong.  I wrote a little about it for Hyperalleric—you can find it here. It's about seeing things as aesthetic objects, and the inhumanity of that under certain circumstances. Or maybe it's better to say that it's about how beauty can be a scandal.

If you'd prefer to read it in Turkish, try this translation by Yorum Yapin.