"When you spoke of the utility of suffering, I knew it was because you heard your death up on the roof like Santa's sleigh and now you wanted me to give it to you as a present."
Thus begins Rachel Loden's prose poem "Carnal Acknowledgments," from her book Hotel Imperium (U of Georgia P, 1999). I'm ashamed to say I haven't read these poems in this collected form until now, but glad I did. Makes me look forward to the next installment, Dick of the Dead (!), forthcoming from Ahsahta. Many of the poems are indeed Nixonesque, e.g., "Bride of Tricky D.," which begins with a news item about the dog Checkers being reinterred near his former owner, and ends thusly:
" . . . 'Let's slip the Constitution, Richard,
cut red ribbon on the virgin century. Teach me tonight . . . .' I find
his fierce beard lovely and the shadows long. Asleep with Pat & Checkers by his side . . . 'We could do it,' he'll say, 'but it would be wrong.'"
Checkers. You know, as in the Checkers Speech? Illegal campaign contributions? Red scare? Well, kids, once upon a time, there was this thing called Watergate . . . Actually, many of the poems do come with endnotes, but this one doesn't. The quote at the end, of course, is what Nixon's former Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman, tells the Senate Select Committee investigating the Watergate break-in that he (Nixon) said after agreeing to pay hush money to the burglars, now in prison, but that he never really said. Got it?
Anyway, I like these poems b/c they are a kind of shadow image or muscle memory of politics and pop culture of mid-20th c.-America, and since I already feel like an embalmed relic of that era, I like reading them. Indeed, a lot of these poems seem to be spoken from beyond the grave, or from the political unconscious (a fine distinction, nowadays). I dig the combination of gravitas and wackiness in tone - & elegance and total surprise, in terms of form. The tone and form of some poems reminds me a little of the poetry of the era they're about, but the content has a lot more in common with Peter Gizzi than Randal Jarrell. Or Underworld in verse. Only shorter.
"To look to the artwork for care, or gift or piety or, most simply, love, is to project a structure and an effect beyond the horizon of the artwork itself. It is to imagine an impossibly ongoing transgression of the circle - polis, oikos, both and at once - in order that those shapes remain, are preserved, to be tested. Social agency or amative connection only appear in the negative space cast by the jointed figure of work and life, and while this projects the artwork into space, it suggests a fugitive frame and directs us by saying 'Not here, not what you hold in your hands.' . . .
"This self-canceling void out of which the artwork impossibly proceeds (which is never available in the artwork itself) suggests that the act of art-making be read as the inverse, and not the expression, of the original urge."
- thus Andrew Rippeon, in P-Queue 5. I'm reading this thinking about the commemorative impulse in history-including art. And poetry shards.
An object - an "exhibit" - presented as evidence is always overdetermined, despite the parties' attempt to narrativize it. It is the focus of a narrative that points to another narrative. Stonehenge. It's just there. But even a text is an object. That text is going its own way. It doesn't necessarily want to be part of your party.
All of which applies to any evidence. But in art, unlike law or science, rules of evidence are less codified. The gap between the thing and the narrative it is supposed to represent can open a creative (imaginative) space.
That title is kind of deceptive - it's really what I want to write about. But I'm bushed, so I'll just write about what I'm going to write about. That way I'll continue my pledge to post every day for a month.
Anyway: the status of evidence is vexed enough in a courtroom or laboratory, places where the status and narrative placement of evidence is set according to fairly inflexible rules. What, then, can one prove in a work of literature, using evidence - i.e., quotation, fact, photograph, etc. I'm very interested in those places where evidence as intractable, obdurate thing resists the narrative - or points in a different direction.
JforJames commented on the Dec. 1 post (which see) and directed me to one of his own: "A poem lurks in every list." I agree - tho it takes a certain eye or ear to detect it. The corollary is that a lot of poems nowadays are really lists that won't admit it. We call it "metonymy" instead. Or the "New Sentence." But it's just one damn thing after another.
I like that sort of thing, personally. But when I actually put sequential numbers next to my lines or sentences, people get weird. Like, hey - it's only a list - what's with that. But the items are only loosely related to one another. If I numbered them 1.2.3 or 3.4 like a tractatus, then it would be cool. Or at least numbered them out of sequence, like Gertrude Stein (and millions since then).
But some people dig it. Here is an example of what I mean. Click me.
Blogs are lists, too, of course. And there are many lists running in the background.
Dale Smith's blog turned me on to an article in the NYT about "slow blogging." There's slow everything now - it's the newest craze. But now that everyone is going to be unemployed, we can all do slow everything!
Which brings me to this article. One "slow blogger," who writes about her "walks in the Vermont countryside" has "recently left her job as a writing instructor at Middlebury College." She writes about "the icy impressions left in the snow by sleeping deer." Now, the unemployed writing instructors I know would be much more likely to shoot the damn deer for venison than blog about it. The subtext I read here is "someone else is bringing home the bacon [or already has] - enough of it to afford a place in the Vermont countryside." Well, why not do things slowly, in that case?
If you work for, say, UPS, your every movement is timed. I'm sure the same is true in most factories, bulk mail facilities, etc. And most of the employed writing instructors I know work 60-hour weeks. To be employed in this country (US) is to be fast, by necessity.
Another slow blogger gave up his blog due to lack of readership: "I called it the Robinson Crusoe feeling of blogging, and I think it's common." This guy just doesn't get it. That's the point - I call it the SETI phenomenon - broadcasting radio waves into outer space, hoping intelligent life will pick it up, perhaps, but not having any real sense that it will happen. It's a way of relating yourself to the dark energy between here and the edge of the universe.
But I've been posting LONG posts lately, and, according to this article, that makes me a SLOW blogger.
The deer lady says that slow blogging ("slogging"?) is about "not having what you write be the first thing that comes out of your head." There is certainly a danger of that, and I've skewered myself on the shit-end of that particular stick before. But I like the blog genre b/c one of the generic conventions is precisely that you do try out half-baked ideas that you'd never publish in a "real" magazine with an editor other than yourself (I'm talking blogs kept by individuals, here, of course - cf. the title, above). And even being too quick on the draw can have its benefits. Isn't the character for "danger" also the character for "creativity"? Well, not really - I just made that up. But maybe it ought to be.
I have vowed to post daily to this blog through Xmas (or the solstice, anyway). Today I'm going to cheat slightly, and refer you to the comments from Henry G. on yesterday's post - re: Mandelstam, etc.
I want to know more re: Vico's conception of "poetic." I think it may not be that far from the way M. M. Kim is thinking about poetry as labor - "work" in the physics sense of the term - moving objects (phonemes, lines) through physical space (the page, the brain), in order to see the relations between them (rather than to arrange them). At least I think that's where she's coming from.
Poetry does make something happen. So does driving a cab.
Is a quotation a thing? A foreign object in the poem (or essay or whatever)?
"There is nothing I would not put in this poem if I could." [Me, too!] or "Something is rather cruel about this reusing of things without regard for their original life, just as Hermes is cold-hearted to talk to the tortoise as if it were already a lyre. Inside the frame is cold. . . . It is the coolness of making the material yours, and never sparing a thought for the original owner. Is this history? I can't much care abou the Samothracians, losing their sanctuary status and falling into a lull of stones burning for lime, bleating sheep, punctuated by pirate attacks. I can only summon real passion for how I can use what they left. . . ."
- Amy England, Victory and Her Opposites: A Guide (Tupelo 2007) - a book that anyone interested in this stuff should read immediately.
Henry Gould made the following comment on the post of two days ago, and I'm going to take the liberty of moving it (lifting it?) to visibility in the "main page" of this blog, b/c it raises an important point of view: "Poet's [sic] aren't putting history into poems because they have a special perspective on events (the underside, the inside, or...). They put history in poems because the medium, the style, the form of poetry charges the history-telling with its own kinds of intensity. The effort to seek a powerful or beautiful language-in-its-own-right, or dramatic form (plot), is a way of underlining - adding force & interest - to whatever the speaker is trying to convey."
My post of yesterday may have already responded to this, in a roundabout way. I'm not willing to say poets do or should treat history all in one way or another. Ed Sanders seems to me like the sort of poet Henry describes (as I tried lamely to indicate below). There's also an interesting long poem by Daniel Hoffman, Brotherly Love, re: the founding of Pennsylvania, that assumes a rather positivist view of historical fact, and presents it in interesting language. And a lot of the "poetry of witness" does the same thing - and often lifts things into visibility that the reporters, historians, etc. wouldn't touch.
But I guess it really matters how you think about history per se. Is "it" something written in the history books already - is the "history" separable from the "telling" - so that, say, writing a poem about William Penn is an artistic presentation of something that already exists elsewhere? Or does the making of the poem change the status of the tale? When Longfellow predicts the disapperance of the natives in "Song of Hiawatha," or Cullen, in "The Prairies," the idea becomes - well, poetic. Elevated. True.
Is "Book of the Dead" or "Mediterranean" simply a different treatment of the same material Rukeyser presented in her reportage? I think that poetry can create a different point of view than that of the historian or reporter - one with a different set of effects and implications; that in other words, form/content is a false dichotomy. Or, said another way, that genres (and media) presume their own epistemologies.
Video, for instance, is truer than words nowadays. Poetry isn't true unless it tells you what you think it's reminding you that you already know.
But Henry might be getting to the heart of my idea of historical poetry as elegy, that I've mentioned before. Maybe it's only an elegy if you're not postivistic about it - that is, if you think you can never really "convey" it (or own it, perhaps). Sanders thinks that you can, and he is a happy warrior. And by the same token, maybe those other poets I mention below are just as despairing or nihilistic as the most radical dadaiste - for the opposite reason. Or just sad.
"The point is not to interpret history, the point is ----"
" . . . thought may be ejaculated as Logos, or Word," writes Emerson, in his "seminal" essay, "The Poet." And that's what poetry is for him: spiritualized logocentric ejaculate. "Milton is too literary," he says, "and Homer too literal and historical." There you have the two poles: the literary and the literal; the historical and transhistorical Logos (poetry). More either or's.
There are a lot of poets who are writing "poems including history" - not in the sense of containing history (which resonates in Pound's description, IMO), but as the opposite of occluding history - which is to say, not dealing with it at all.
Ed Sanders is clearly trying to teach us, in his verse history of the US (and in his amazing 1968) - he's thinking about the form - the line, in particular - and letting the content take care of itself. But a lot of people are experimenting with form in order to question the content "history." I've mentioned a few of these in previous posts. I take "history" broadly to include any narrative of past events that the writer did not make up herself - that is, that are built around memory, testimony, evidence. Obviously there's a problem in this (what are we remembering, testifying to, or presenting evidence of except other people's memories, testimonies and texts? And what are the status of these? Me's on a beam - and about the fall off).
But that's Why Poetry. I think of Paterson as being a kind of unhistory or shadow (under- or interstitial) history. Or the first few sections of Dictee. Or Brenda Coultas' long poem at the beginning of Marvellous Bones of Time (re: her childhood and Abraham Lincoln) is an example - first person, where the speaker may or may not know the first thing about the first person, let alone the historical personage - but feels compelled to the attempt.
Ditto Mahmoud Darwish's Memory for Forgetting; Silliman's Under Albany; as well as books like Susan M. Schultz' Dementia Blog or Gabriel Gudding's Rhode Island Notebook, where "current events" in the individual life and the global life intertwine.
I said in a previous post that perhaps all historical poetry today is really a form of elegy. I should have qualified that statement by adding "in North America." Clearly, if there is tear gas wafting through your neighborhood on a regular basis, then history takes on a different valence, whether in a textbook or a literary work. It can get you killed (and has). By the same token, the question of the role of historical or "documentary" literature within authoritarian regimes has a fairly obvious answer - that history doesn't seem so far from current events as it is in the USA, for instance. Still, that gives the whole thing a rather functional cast - history as a means to make a ("moving"?) statement about the present, rather than about the past per se.
If our (N.A.) historical poetry is elegy (monody might be a better term, since we don't really have any collective mourning - or anything), maybe it's b/c we (literati) have given up on any possibility of actually affecting history (or even of knowing whether or not we have). And of course we want to distance ourselves from celebratory accounts of history from Homer to the Benet brothers.
There is also a certain memorial impulse - that someone must speak for the dead. This is legit, albeit a bit grandiose. Better if you're just curious about someone who was as obscure as oneself. But those folks don't leave as many records to write about.
The reason for writing history per se (as in "history books") is a no-brainer, for me. It obviously doesn't prevent "us" from making the same mistakes over and over again. But it does make one a bit more at home in the world - gives one perspective. That still doesn't explain why historical poetry in an era of prose.
The answer may be that poets can present the underside of history - the bits of evidence and testimony that don't necessarily add up - or the ones that add up without anyone's having to be told (or needing paraphrase or superfluous analysis). Myung Mi Kim and Mark Nowak, perhaps - the one writing through the gaps and perplexing (and temporary) relations that defy speech, the other, presenting (in a fairly coherent manner) multiple narratives, and letting us decide how they relate to one another. (Nowak's editorial collaborator, David Michalski, does this latter brilliantly in the piece "Africa," in Cosmos & Damian - no author pontification inserted, and none needed or desired - check it out).
The way history feels. The way time feels.
The story + the monody for the loss of the (our) story. Hence, the prose narratives at the front of Susan Howe's books, followed by her fractured lyrics. Or that beautiful lyric elegy/eulogy at the end of "Book of the Dead."
Or, more recently, Raymond McDaniel's book Saltwater Empire. Most of the book is rather lush, neo-symboliste lyric. But running throughout are multiple poems, all with the same title: "Convention Centers of the New World." These seem to be snippets of speech, of testimony, from people trapped at the New Orleans Convention Center at the time of Katrina. So, the disorienting, impressionistic, or inward-looking lyrics find their counterpoint in a radically found poem. So, in the poem "Zombi Phenotypes": "Only flesh can masquerade mechanical./Timorous, shopworn glamour, we walkaround./ We hold hands, embrace prettily./ Amazers, all gone down, a drowned township./ Unfleshed, enchanted skeletons." Then, the first "Convention Centers of the New World" begins: "I come from all over New Orleans. What I feel needs to be said/about this is that everything was done wrong.// From what I can see, the police could not control the crime/ in New Orleans. Before the floods and the hurricane."
It really is just one damn thing after another. And if you're not writing paeans in exchange for money or gold goblets, you either get the people into the streets, or you bawl.
"Bare lists of words are found suggestive to an imaginative and excited mind, as it is related of Lord Chatham that he was accustomed to read in Bailey's Dictionary when he was preparing to speak in Parliament." (Emerson, "The Poet")
the English carrier; the short-faced tumbler; the runt; the barb; the pouter; the turbit; the Jacobin; the trumpeter; the laugher; the fantail (some of the pigeon breeds mentioned by Darwin in The Origin of Species. "The runt is a bird of great size," he reports)
Author of Things Come On: (an amneoir) (Wesleyan University Press’ poetry series, 2011), earth day suite (Beard of Bees Press, Dec. 2010), Of Some Sky (Bedouin, forthcoming), and Poetry and the Public (Wesleyan 2002).