Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Poet Resigns: Now It's Out—Here's What's In It

Since I've already done an official book signing at the AWP conference in Boston, I imagine it's time to officially announce the publication of The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World, a collection of my essays on poetry, poetics, and related matters.  It's out now, available on Amazon and elsewhere, and weighs in at 323 pages.  And it's on sale right now for a mere fourteen bucks, four dollars off the regular retail price.

Here's a general guide through the table of contents, with the main sections in boldface and the individual essays briefly described:

Instead of an Introduction: Letter of Resignation

In which I discuss my evolution from poet to critic, and the issues—mostly a love of beauty in a world of troubles—that animate both my poetry and my critical writing.

Situations of Poetry

The Discursive Situation of Poetry

In this essay I go through the various arguments people have made about the decline of poetry's readership, and conclude that, despite claims for a mid-century importance of poetry, the conditions most of the people who write about poetry's decline in popularity relative to other genres yearn for are really Victorian conditions.  To restore poetry to that level of popularity, one would have to rebuild a lot of Victorian conditions of literacy, social elitism, primitive science, and expensive publishing—conditions we should be glad we don't have.

Poetry and Politics, or: Why are the Poets on the Left?

Although most of us like to think we hold our views because those views are true, there are some good reasons to believe that the place we hold in society conditions those views—and when we look at where most American poets fit in American society, some pretty solid social theory (Alvin Gouldner, Pierre Bourdieu) give us social reasons for the leftish views of most American poets.  I mean, we're no more immune to politics that go with our jobs than are most Wall Streeters.

The Aesthetic Anxiety: Avant-Garde Poetics and the Idea of Politics

This essay looks at the poetics of Surrealism, and of Language Poetry, in terms of the equation often drawn in both movements between aesthetic and political radicalism.  I suppose you could say that the essay finds the arguments for an inherent relation between these kinds of things wanting.

Public Faces in Private Places: Notes on Cambridge Poetry

This essay kicked up a lot of dust when it came out in the Cambridge Literary Review a few years ago. It argues that the social claims made by some backers of the avant-garde British poets associated with J.H. Prynne don't hold as much water as those backers might wish, and looks for explanations why such large claims get made.

Negative Legislators: Exhibiting the Post-Avant

In which I take a stab at defining the post-avant, and look at the meaning of its politics, which are largely a matter of refusing large claims and totalizing statements.  In the end, I try out a generational explanation for why the post-avant is as it is.

When Poets Dream of Power

A fast survey of the relation between poets and power over the course of several centuries, leading up to the present moment.

Can Poems Communicate?

Not the way they used to!  This essay examines what happens to poetry when there is no shared frame of symbolic reference between poet and readers.  There's a fair bit about Yeats, who worried endlessly over the issue.

The Poet in the University: Charles Bernstein's Academic Anxiety

The essay takes a look at how Bernstein defined poetic thought and academic thought as opposites, and at a huge problem with his argument: all of his poetic thinkers are academics, and big-time, much-cited ones at that.  I seek a psychological/sociological explanation for why Bernstein would make such an argument, and claim that it has to do with joining academe late in his career.

The State of the Art

I examine the meaning of "the state of the art" at various points in the history of British and American poetry, up to the present day, when I make some perhaps dangerous claims about the current state.

To Criticize the Poetry Critic

Seeing the New Criticism Again

In which it turns out that everything we've been told about the New Critics is wrong.

Poetry/Not Poetry

An examination of where the poetry-not poetry line has been drawn since the late 18th century, with reflections on the meaning of our contemporary definition of what makes a poem a poem.

The Death of the Critic

In which I ask what it means to write avant-garde literary criticism.

Marginality and Manifesto

This was a piece commissioned by Poetry as a response to a selection of manifestoes they ran on the 100th anniversary of the Futurist manifesto.  I conclude that the manifesto doesn't have much of a function under current socio-aesthetic conditions.

Poets and Poetry

A Portrait of Reginald Shepherd as Philoctetes

This surveys the entire body of Reginald Shepherd's poetry.  I predicted that he was on the verge of emerging as one of the major poets of his time.  Sadly, we'll never know if I was right: he died a few months after the essay ran in Pleiades

True Wit, False Wit: Harryette Mullen in the Eighteenth Century

Wow, were they mad at me when I first gave a version of this essay as a conference paper down in Louisville.  I think the crowd thought I was saying Mullen was no good.  What I meant was that the kind of wit she plays with, and that we love, is exactly the kind of wit that eighteenth century critics condemned.  I add to this some thoughts about what the difference in taste regarding wit can tell us about the role and situation of poetry in different times and places, and under different institutional conditions.

Emancipation of the Dissonance: The Poetry of C.S. Giscombe

A survey of the whole of his poetic career, in which he evolves from a kind of Black Mountain poet into something else.  I trot out some music theory from Stockhausen, Schoenberg, and Duke Ellington to get at the meaning of avant-garde form and the interrogation of race in Giscombe's poetry.

In the Haze of Pondered Vision: Yvor Winters as Poet

Where Winters is remembered at all as a poet, he's seen as an arch-formalist.  But he started off as an Imagist, publishing alongside Gertrude Stein and the like.  I try understand what happened.

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Poetry

Since Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg, there's been this sense that poets need to break through inhibition into something more open and genuine.  This essay examines a tradition of reticent poets that runs counter to all that.

Power and the Poetics of Play

John Matthias has interrogated the meaning of play, and its relation to a world of power and danger, more than anyone.  It's one of the reasons I've remained drawn to his poetry for decades.  This essay introduces his work from the aspect of power and play.

Neruda's Earth, Heidegger's Earth

It turns out there are strong parallels between Neruda's poetry and poetics and some of Heidegger's darker moments.  I worry the issue a bit here.

The Decadent of Moyvane

The sad fate of the Irish nationalist poetic tradition in post-nationalist times.

Modernist Current: On Michael Anania

James Joyce was born in Omaha in 1939.  At least that's what I say here.  And I'm pretty sure I'm right, despite what you may have read on the internet.

Laforgue/Bolaño: The Poet as Bohemian

What does it mean for poetry when the poet lives as a bohemian, as opposed to a professor of creative writing?  The editor of an earlier version of this essay found the conclusion so irksome he had it changed.  But it's back to its original form here.

Oppen/Rimbaud: The Poet as Quitter

The question of the poet who leaves poetry means something to me.  Looking at Oppen and Rimbaud helped me feel better about the whole issue.

Remembering Robert Kroetsch

Robert Kroetsch was one of the grand old men of Canadian poetry, and one of the progenitors of a movement virtually unknown outside his country.

Myself I Sing

Nothing in this Life

A meditation on Nick Cave, which is really about what it means to come from the provinces and to care about literary culture.

My Laureates

What poets have meant to me, and how they've helped me live.


I'm very glad to see this book come out.  I hope you'll check it out.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The AWP and the Literary Stock Market

I’ve been back from the Boston AWP for more than a day, but I’m still not fully recovered from all that talking, listening, and drinking.  But mostly talking: it was great to get a chance to talk Belgian surrealism and Tom Raworth with Pierre Joris; Romanticism with Mary Biddinger; Canadian poetry with Lea Graham; C.S. Giscombe with Don Bogen; various literary schemes with John Gallaher; people who thank their drug dealers in the acknowledgment pages of their books with Grant Jenkins; ceramics and Montana with Sloan Davis; AWP haters with Steve Halle; poetry politics with Don Share; dumpy hotels with Jacquelyn Pope; book reviewing with Amish Trivedi; taxicab stories with David Caplan; hitchhiking stories with Kevin Prufer; Gnosticism and Judaism with Yehoshua November; small town mayoral campaigns with Fred Cartwright; Malört shots and small press publishing with Jacob Knabb; Charles Bernstein with Keith Tuma, Lee Ann Brown, and Chris Cheek; and so much more with so many others—and to finally shake Charles Bernstein’s hand, to tell Rae Armantrout about not quite recognizing her in the airport, to (literally) bump into Derek Walcott, and to see my former sophomore student Alexandra Diaz on her way to a panel on her writing.  Also, it was good to have a damn good bowl of chowder at Brasserie Jo.  But mostly it was about talk.

So now that I’m back in Chicago, it’s time to give the vocal chords a rest and get back to reading—and I’m in luck in that department.  As if on cure, the new issue of Salmagundi has dropped from the sky, people, loaded with good stuff from William Logan (on Lowell and Heaney), Allan Gurganus (in conversation), Mary Gordon (on enmity), and Tzetvan Todorov (reporting from Paris).  The issue also contains “Cousin Alice Through the Looking Glass,” a wonderful essay on John Matthias by Terence Diggory, which makes mention of my book Laureates and Heretics and its take on the making of poetic reputations.  Here’s a passage:

In an essay on John Berryman, another of his teachers, Matthias observes: “It took me a long time to realize that Berryman’s reputation had been slipping on the literary stock market. As a teacher, I made his work central to my syllabus and continued on my enthusiastic way only half-aware that Elizabeth Bishop had overtaken not only Berryman but even Lowell.’ 
The gender politics implied in this observation can be explained in terms of “the literary stock market.”  Robert Archambeau has attempted to do just that in Laureates and Heretics (2010), a study of [Yvor] Winters and his “sons” (James McMichael and John Peck in addition to Hass, Pinsky and Matthias).  In this account, Matthias, along with the other “sons,” was a straight white male—i.e., heavily invested in “blue chips,” to continue the stock market metaphor, when the market became segmented by the emergence of niche audiences “based on historical grievances”: African-American civil rights, feminism, gay rights.  Under these conditions, the straight white male who could define an alternative “American” identity that transcended identity politics had a chance, like Pinsky, to become poet laureate.

Part of me wants to shout “Wait! It’s all more complicated than that!” but I’d be wrong to do so: Diggory gets the gist of the argument down in just a few sentences.  I do argue in Laureates and Heretics: Six Careers in American Poetry that one way for a straight white guy like Pinsky to make a reputation for himself in the age of identity poetics was to articulate an idea of a common national identity (as he does in An Explanation of America), something that would appeal to people who felt nudged toward the margin by the new challenges to notions of American identity.  I do think it had something to do with Pinsky's multi-term appointment as Poet Laureate, and his comfort in that role.  But my sense of how poetry finds a public (or not) has evolved: I think that's one reason I had to write the essays in the first part of The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World, the book I was signing at the AWP this year.

Anyway:  back to reading Salmagundi, and to soothing the throat.  I’ll need my voice back for whatever bar-room conversation comes up at the next conference.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

The Battersea Review and the Failure of Yeats!

Hot soup, people—the  much-anticipated new issue of the Battersea Review is finally here!

Marjorie Perloff on John Cage!
Adam Kirsch on superfluity and anxiety!
William Logan!
Charles Bernstein!
William Logan and Charles Bernstein together!
Translations of Rilke’s Russian poems!
Saskia Hamilton!
Unearthed poetry by J. Robert Oppenheimer!
More! Much more!

My own contribution begins this way:

It was June in the year 1311 when the people of Siena walked in a great procession bearing Duccio's Maestà—his altarpiece depicting the Virgin Mary in the glorious golden Italo-Byzantine style—to the cathedral that would become its home. It was a momentous occasion for the entire city: Duccio's painting was to replace the fabled "Madonna of the Large Eyes," to which the Sienese had appealed a half-century earlier, when the fate of their soldiers hung in the balance in the war with Siena's bitter rivals, the Florentines. The Madonna, it was said, had worked miracles that assured the Sienese victory, and it was the intercession of Mary on behalf of Siena in that battle that led the Sienese to make her their patron saint. Now they wished to commemorate her in a suitably grand sacred image. The event involved the entire city, from the highest grandees to the lowest beggars. One contemporary describes the procession of the Maestà this way:
And on that day when it was brought into the cathedral, all workshops remained closed, and the bishop commanded a great host of devoted priests and monks to file past in solemn procession. This was accompanied by all the high officers of the Commune and by all the people; all honorable citizens of Siena surrounded said panel with candles held in their hands, and women and children followed humbly behind. They accompanied the panel amidst the glorious pealing of bells after a solemn procession on the Piazza del Campo into the very cathedral; and all this out of reverence for the costly panel… The poor received many alms, and we prayed to the Holy Mother of God, our patron saint, that she might in her infinite mercy preserve this our city of Siena from every misfortune, traitor or enemy. 
The occasion of the installation of the Maestà was an aesthetic event, of course, but it was a religious event too. It was also a civic event, connected to the city's military past and to its prestige in the future. And, as the distribution of alms indicates, it was also an economic event, an opportunity to redistribute wealth so as to maintain the social fabric, legitimate the civic rulers, and perform the religious duty of charity. We could not be further from the way artworks are unveiled in our own time, in the pristine white cube of the gallery space, where artists and art-lovers have gathered for an event far more specialized, and far narrower in appeal and intention, than the Sienese procession of the Maestà.
William Butler Yeats, that most vacillating and self-reinventive of poets, imagined many different roles for art in society—but if there is one dream he dreams most passionately, it is one along the lines of the installation of Duccio's Maestà. That is, he yearned for a world where art was integrated into the culture at large, and where all social institutions were woven into each other, in the manner of medieval Sienese society. But why would he have this dream? The short answer is that he had seen the limits of aesthetic autonomy—of art for its own sake—and felt pinched by the boundaries of the self-exiled minority culture in which so many poets of the fin de siècle lived. Having helped found that bastion of the aesthetes, the Rhymer's Club, he grew disillusioned with the small scope of interests expressed in the group's meetings at the Cheshire Cheese pub, and even more disillusioned at the limited public impact of the group.
All honor to U.S. Dhuga, Ben Mazer, and the Battersea crew for putting together a 300-pound per square inch pressurized tank of literary splendor!

Friday, March 01, 2013

Sharp (Poetic) Turns

Mike Theune and his band of merry pranksters at Voltage Poetry have been publishing a sharp series of short essays, for the most part on individual poems and how they use the traditional poetic volta or turn, since last October.  The essays include Don Share on Yeats' "Politics," Erica Bernheim on Dean Young's "Vacationland," Jason Bredle on John Ashbery's "My Philosophy of Life," Megan Volpert on John Yao's "830 Fireplace Road," and many, many more—including, most recently, my essay "Sharp Turns in Any Direction: John Matthias' 'Friendship.'"  Check it out!