MARJORIE PERLOFF, ADAM KIRSCH, AND PHILIP NIKOLAYEV AT THE GROLIER

The Hong Kong.  Is there where Concrete Poetry finally met its end?

So the trouble with the contemporary poetry scene is it lacks focus, while at the same time a single thought throws its shadow over all: why don’t non-poets read poetry anymore?

We should focus on the single thought, since surely it is telling us something, while none of us are able to focus.

This demands an analysis, not haphazard, but of exactly what we seek: popularity.  Our scientific investigation needs to ask precisely: what causes/what has caused strangers to read poetry?

Do we know this? Can we list reasons?

The first reason which usually comes up in discussion is: poetry has more competition from other media, from other forms of communication and entertainment than ever, but what we notice immediately is first, this is a reason people don’t read poetry; we must be careful to list reasons why strangers do read poetry. And secondly, poetry will always have competition: any activity that doesn’t involve reading poetry, and this is a rabbit hole we need to avoid, rather than blame other media. Let us dismiss this “reason” at once.

Before we list the reasons why a poem is of interest to a roomful of strangers, we should define what we mean by stranger: Two friends are having a conversation in a public place and a stranger advances upon them, eager to join the conversation. The resistance to this intrusion indicates the issue involved; work needs to be done to effect intercourse between strangers—and this work needs to be done with poetry as the medium; the poetic might not be doing the work, but the poem must nonetheless be at the center of the process.

When talking of popularity or fame, we mean a lasting impact upon a number of people, not a furtive reading of a poem on a sudden in the presence of a couple of strangers—why should humanity at large want to know your poem? This is the important question, that single question which dogs every poet and critic today.

You write of a street in your poem—strangers, being strangers, will not be interested in your street, unless there is something very special about your street—and then it becomes interesting because it is a street, not your street—the street, of course, is not poetry and we should not confuse the two;—describing their street would interest them, but you cannot do that, because you don’t know them or their street—for they are strangers. We have exhausted all the options, then, and a poem about a street cannot then, be popular. Imitate discourse between friends having a conversation about the streets where they happen to live and you will not produce a popular poem: you cannot know their streets; your street is not interesting if it is not theirs, and “a street,” if it have a special interesting feature does not require this feature to be conveyed by anything we might call poetry. Here is the challenge.

How do we write a popular poem, then?

There are questions—such as what is a poem?—that seem to have no answer because of the scope of the question. But if we eschew detail and use the scope of the question to our advantage, we can define the definition as one which excludes all that pertains to the definition itself, so that if the question remain unanswered as it pertains to anything, we can assume whatever this is, it is not a poem, and we can be satisfied that leaving all these objects aside that instill themselves before us as they are, whatever escapes the definition’s “not,” is then, poetry, as much as it satisfies our general idea informed by those elusive predicates which combine to portray what we believe (without knowing) is the essence of our search. Poetry is the essence of an essence, the former “essence” the result of our searching (as failure) and the latter what we mean by the question (whose conscious act of questioning is, by that act, a “success”).

To define poetry simply: Poetry is language which elevates any subject—now, this definition apparently rejects the subject as vital, and would seem to include form or language onlyalways troubling to those who want poetry to be “important” and not simply about “style;” it is a definition too narrow and Victorian for our modernist pride. But the pride of the modernist is the ignorance of chronology, which peoples the 20th century with amazing things—things which inevitably bury not only poetry but any inquiry about it:—we are left with pedantry, half-theory and laughter.

To “elevate a subject” is not an action which ignores the subject; quite the contrary—there are subjects which will not be elevated and poetry is necessarily involved in best selecting the best subjects to elevate.

Further, poetry is not a text, but an action, for “to elevate” is an action—and so “subject” has a triplicate identity in the poem as

1. A generic vehicle: “any subject to be elevated”

2. A selective vehicle: “any subject worthy to be elevated”

3. A specific action: the “elevation” as subject

It is not only about style or form.

To return to the original subject: Here are reasons for a poem being interesting to strangers:

1. Mastery of that speech which elevates subjects worthy to be elevated in such a manner that strangers are convinced that that speech is poetry—of an excellent sort. Combined, of course, with all the usual notices which brings this poetry to their attention.

2. The textbook taught in the university for prisoner-strangers, i.e. Students

3. Legal issues which make news—Obscenity Trials, Freedom of Speech… Baudelaire, Joyce, Ginsberg

4. The poet famous or notorious as a person—Plath, suicide; Keats, young death

To return to our two friends having a conversation (emotion plus fact expressed) in a public space—cafe, bar, or restaurant—What notice from “a stranger” would they allow and even relish invading their private space that would have some kind of impact?

What if the TV flashed a news headline: Lana Turner Has Collapsed?

And with this, it is time to review our evening with Philip Nikolayev, Adam Kirsch, and Marjorie Perloff—the latter, best known, but all brilliant, well-known critics in poetry circles today.

These illustrious personages of the poetry world, in a panel at the Grolier bookshop in Harvard Square, pondered these ideas in public, perhaps in a more sophisticated manner than we are evincing here, but “sophistication” by now has become the poetry world’s undoing, and Perloff, et al, were refreshingly blunt and plain in their attempts to repair the present and point to the future.

The lack of focus in poetry today propelled the usual anxiety, expressed by the panel, and Scarriet crowned it with a question about popularity and fame, that evening at the Grolier, which launched in our mind the essay you are reading now.

As an example of “lack of focus,” Kirsch despaired that poets don’t seek “greatness” any longer; Perloff said no critic agrees on who the important poets of our time are, in contrast, for instance, to the wide concensus on the Eliot/Pound/Williams/Stevens/Crane/Moore  modernist canon; Nikolayev scorned the tendency to forget “the perfection of the art” while focusing endlessly on the nuances of “poetics.” Some specific likes and dislikes were expressed: Kirsch (yea) and Perloff (nay) disagreed on the worth of Derek Walcott; Perloff confessed she found Elizabeth Bishop’s output too small to mark her as terribly important.

I had the good fortune to speak with Perloff after the panel presentation, and found, to my delight, a lively intelligence combined with common sense, even a love of the hoary, informing her person; she is not the avant-garde besotted figure she is reputed to be. She agreed with our judgement that Ron Silliman is far too narrow in his approach to poetry, and that a Coleridge revival would be a good thing. And Auden, the young don’t read Auden anymore, she said. This was refreshing, indeed.

In my question at the Grolier, a rant more than a question,(what do you expect from Scarriet?) but which nevertheless elicited some positive response, I briefly made the often-argued Scarriet point that Modernism/New Criticism/CreativeWriting as a joint venture relied on Reasons 2 and 3 above while eliminating 1 and 4; it is hard to argue this in 15 seconds; Perloff agreed with me the Modernists hated the Romantics but felt it was merely a rhetorical flourish in a forward-looking movement. But Eliot was a skilled versifier in the lyric Romantic tradition even as he publicly reviled Poe and the Romantics—and it was this Critical gesture, widely followed as the 20th century proceeded, far more than Eliot’s skilled yet tiny poetic output, as small as Bishop’s, even if we include that one oddball/dead end poem, “The Waste Land,” which has led to the current waste land of poetry today which Perloff, Kirsch, Nikolayev, and others decry.

Nikolayev responded to my question with the common sense ‘how can popularity be a standard when so much that is popular is bad?’ I pointed out that Poe, in “The Philosophy of Composition” (which if you read you don’t need an MFA) mentions the standard sought for “The Raven” is both critical and popular; critics are still needed, even as popularity is seen as a good; and to stay focused on our goal we mustn’t give in to the false notion that popularity in itself is somehow bad (a similar error is to assume “difficulty” is a good) for we mean ‘the popular is good’ in the simplest manner possible, as in ‘sunshine is popular’ or ‘love is popular’ even as we, of course, need critics to remind us to use sunscreen, or philosophy and manners to temper the lust of our love.

Perloff, in her response to the Scarriet question of whether it might not be useful to focus not so much on poetry but poetry which appeals to strangers (Kirsch: “today only poets read poets”—imagine if only football players watched football) was pleasantly open to fame as a criterion; she had made O’Hara’s Lunch Poems and “Lana Turner Has Collapsed” the focus of her talk: “Lunch Poems sells briskly,” Perloff said.

At the Chinese restaurant around the corner from the Grolier, I was between Nikolayev and Perloff, and after some preliminary talk of the Digital Humanities, an industry useful but philosophically overrated according to the nimble tongued Perloff, (exceedingly youthful for someone in her 80s) we got down to a discussion, powered by the questioning of Perloff by a healthily skeptical Nikolayev, which was right up Scarriet’s alley: Concrete Poetry. Perloff has the highest respect for it, but for Scarriet, it represents all that is overrated and crippling in the ‘white spaces’ fame of the mediocre modernist William Carlos Williams, who attempted to be a rhyming Romantic in his early work, and failed, and whose final worth was inflated by the influential New Critic’s textbook, Understanding Poetry.

What follows is an argument against Concrete Poetry formulated with the help of the discussion at the Hong Kong:

It is the critic’s duty not to confuse concrete existence with the art itself; if a performer has a bad cold and performs a piece of music differently as a result, this has nothing to do with the music as the composer has written it; if an orchestra plays the same piece of music, first printed in blue, and then printed in black ink, and performs the latter more vigorously, this has nothing to do with the music, nor does it alter music’s temporal nature. Poetry is a temporal art, as well—not partly temporal, not 99% temporal, but 100% temporal—duration manifests its beginning, middle, and end; poetry has no existence, no beginning, middle, and end without duration. White spaces on the page do not matter in terms of poetry’s temporal nature—despite the white spaces’ concrete existence. The white spaces do not belong to a poem in any significant or meaningful way, just as musical notes printed in blue or black ink do not contribute to music.

Temporality, it may be argued, springs from written (concrete) words in poetry and written (concrete) notes in music, so that in the very temporality exists the concrete: words and notes as they appear on a page—true. However, the manifestation of duration, in each case, is the resultcolor strikes our eye; painting has no temporal existence, even though it takes a certain time for the eye to traverse a painting; the painting qua painting does not exist as a temporal object, despite the fact that different viewers spend different amounts of time looking at various aspects of a painting. These “looking” differences equal a “concrete fact,” but this “fact” has nothing to do with the painting’s spatial existence—the duration of the viewer’s looking and the painting itself are indifferent to each other, just as the look of a poem and its temporal existence as an art form are separated, distinct and absolutely indifferent to each other.

A person—with a speech impediment—reads aloud a poem—and can do so in as much as it is a poem and not a picture. The same poem is then read aloud by Sir Laurence Olivier. This concrete experiment is absolutely null and void as it pertains to the poem as composed by the poet.

Further, let us assume there is a certain amount of white space, a very specific shape of white space, on the page. How is the white space “heard” in the person-with-the-speech-impediment’s reading? Or in Olivier’s reading? It is not. How could it be? How could a person with a speech impediment “misread” white space?

Or, take a poem which a critic dislikes. If one added, or subtracted, white space, and white space alone, to that poem, it would be absurd to say this act could make the critic now like the poem.

Or let us say the critic hears Olivier read the poem aloud. It is possible that if the performance is outstanding, the critic might enjoy the poem upon hearing it: but this change would be effected entirely by Olivier’s temporal performance.

It could not possibly have anything to do with Olivier “reading” the white spaces of the poem—which, in this experiment, of course, in both instances: the poem first disliked, and then liked because of Olivier’s reading, we keep the same.

At one point, over the spicy shrimp, Philip Nikolayev asked Marjorie Perloff to name the first Concrete Poet. An unfair question, perhaps? She couldn’t. The first Concrete Poet was a publisher, I imagine.

But we’ll discuss this another time.

That is, if Lana Turner ever gets up.

WHAT’S ALL THIS FUSS ABOUT TRANSLATION?

Hence the vanity of translation; it were as wise to cast a violet into a crucible that you might discover the formal principle of its color and odor, as seek to transfuse from one language into another the creations of a poet. The plant must spring again from its seed, or it will bear no flower—and this is the burden of the curse of Babel.”  — Shelley, A Defense of Poetry

We caught the Adam and Ilya show over on the Poetry Foundation site: the critic and former-Seamus-Heaney-student-at-Harvard critic and the Russian-transfer-student-professor poet were debating the finer points of translation—points, thankfully, which are easily translatable.

Ilya Kaminsky was for it, Adam Kirsch was wary of it.  Ilya was climbing the tower as fast as he could while Adam was standing on the ground, looking up, saying…I don’t know…

Ilya Kaminsky was selling his book (The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry) and Adam Kirsch was selling valid notions of translation.

Then Sam Hamill commented on the discussion:  

“I’ve grown very weary of these arguments, especially when they are relentlessly Eurocentric. Not a single mention of a Chinese poet, or Japanese or Vietnamese, no poem from Tamil, from Sanskrit, from Thai; no thought of Native American languages and traditions.” 

We’re getting ahead of ourselves, obviously, reprinting a remark which followed the debate by two young titans, but grouchy Hamill helps us to see how problematic the whole issue is: Fail! no poem from Tamil.  The tower is big, baby.

The tower is big, so big, it’s probably best to stay on the ground and hang out with Philip Larkin, who, when asked about Jorge Luis Borges, retorted, “Who’s Jorge Luis Borges?”   Just congratulate yourself that you speak English, which practically the whole educated world speaks, and note that English is a language both Romance and Germanic, as close to an Ur-language as ancient Latin, Greek, or Sanskrit.

Fluency in English is enough.  Who needs to learn other languages when you’ve got Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Byron, Shelley and Keats?   If studying Latin and Greek made those old English poets better, it was because English is fed by Latin and Greek, on a purely practical, mechanical, nuts-and-bolts level; it makes as much sense, then, to study Latin today, as it did then.  (Are MFA poetry students studying Latin, today?  Nope.)   Or, to study Pope, because he knew French, Italian, Latin and Greek.   A reader not fluent in English, unable to appreciate Pope, what can they defend?  

We think it richly, funny, then, this whole silly debate, for one either knows a language fluently, or one learns another one, but if neither the poet, nor the reader, nor the translator, is an Alexander Pope, it is a hypocritical farce, all this blather about ‘translation’ and ‘international poetry.’

Translation from what, to what, for whom, and to what end? 

That is the question. 

Poetry must ask this question all the time, whether it involves translation, or not.  Translation is the last of our worries, really.   Study French or Italian or German or Latin or Greek or Chinese or Shakespeare or Pope to make your English better and shut up.  Don’t tell me I need to read some comtemporary Russian poet or some contemporary Greek poet or some contemporary Vietnamese poet translated into contemporary English. 

Now, I could read the mumblings of WC Williams or the rantings of Ezra Pound, or the kickapoo of Jorie Graham.   Would that make me more internationalist, or just hopelessly pretentious?  I suppose it depends on which American academic dialect one speaks.  It doesn’t take a linguist to warp and bend my native tongue into something new and strange.  It doesn’t take a Russian to mangle English; a speaker who only knows English can do that just fine.  Neither does it take a Russian to teach me facts about Russia; the human is universal enough that I can ‘get’ Russia through English reporting.  Personalities vary enough within one language, differences are profound in one country, even within one family, that it’s not necessary to seek difference in another tongue.   What seek I in another tongue, then?   Only an advantage to myself, only an advantage to my language, or, if I were going to resettle in another land with another tongue, but now we are in a practical realm far from poetry, or, close to poetry, depending on who my new neighbors are. 

If I could snap my fingers and know all languages, of course I would.  Duh.  But poetry is any language that is good; Pope in English is better than WC Williams in 600 languages.   Let us come right out and say it: poetry is the cream of language, by its very definition, and those who peddle ‘international poetry’ because the product happens to be ‘international,’ when it turns out the poetry itself is pedestrian, are doing good work as a matter of course, but let’s be really honest: in terms of poetry and pedagogy, in terms of real interest in language, contemporary translations of contemporary international poetry is important only in terms of polite diplomacy and in nothing else; in terms of real learning and real poetry it probably does more harm than good, ultimately.   Let these MFA poets who feather their nest with ‘translation’ creds take note: before you vacation in Italy, why not spend some time learning Vietnamese?

Professor Kaminsky struck what seemed to be a mortal blow against his opponent when he said politely, responding to Adam (“wouldn’t you agree there is no such thing as an international poem?”) Kirsch’s wary approach to translation:

“I’m assuming that when you speak about your “persistent doubts about poetry in translation” you aren’t speaking about the classics, from Chapman’s Homer to the King James Bible to Pound’s Cathay.”

I thought, at that point, Kirsch will never get up from that mat.  But he did.  Kirsch said that well-known examples of successful translations are really not so much translations as “reinventions.”  Kirsch delivered a knock-out blow of his own with: “the foreign poem is made to serve the translator, not vice versa.”

The question then comes back to what I said earlier:  Translation from what, to what, for whom, and to what end?

Translation is heated lovemaking, and both lovers, in every successful case of translation, transcend ‘the heated babble’ of the ‘translation debate’ itself.  The rest is a mere lover’s spat by mediocre translators.

RON SILLIMAN: AN APPRECIATION

Who rocks poetry on the web every day?
Over the hills and far away?
Selflessly and without pay?
For the good of poetry alway?

.

BARD OR LARD?

Seamus HeaneyLiterary Lion or Mr. Potato-Head?

In a flattering  Harvard magazine cover story on Seamus Heaney published three years ago, ‘Seamus Heaney, Digging with the Pen: On rhymes and responsibilites,’ Adam Kirsch, Heaney’s former workshop student at Harvard, obediently strives to glorify his old prof and Nobel Prize winner.  

Kirsch, after making introductory remarks on poets’ “responsibility” to the “ideal reader,” turns to Heaney’s most famous poem (unfortunately for Heaney) “Digging:”

The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

There’s nothing wrong with honoring labor and one’s digging ancestors, as Kirsch hails Heaney for doing here.

The problem begins when the poet—as poet—attempts to own the ‘digging’ legacy—in his poem

In a heavy-handed manner, at odds with all that is poetical, the poet feels impelled to inform us that his pen, which rests “between” his “finger” and his “thumb” (as if anyone needed to be informed how to hold a pen) is “squat,” (like the gun in line 2, like the digging spade, like the poet’s fist?) and, since he has “no spade” he will “dig” with his “pen/gun.”   The metaphorical contraption of Heaney’s poem is rudely forced in a ham-fisted manner as would invite derision were such a thing handed in by a writing student to a writing class, and an example would surely be made: this is the kind of  forced metaphorical writing which should be avoided at all costs.

It’s not a smooth metaphor.  Pens don’t dig. 

Not only is Heaney going to dig with his snug, squat pen, but his “head” breathes in the inspiration of potato-smell from cut “roots.”  

If we ask how an ivory tower icon like Seamus Heaney, with his Harvard Chair, his T.S. Eliot Prize, and his Nobel could  have such a wretched poem (wretched even for a schoolboy) as his best-known poem, it might be well to remember that before he was an ivory tower icon he was the humble, Derry, Peat-moss, poet, and this very identity of a potato-digging, poor Irish Catholic, an Irishman from the fields, a genuine salt-of-the-earth, may have allowed his work to circumvent those close-reading strictures that would have otherwise condemned such bathetic, metaphorical excess.   

The “squat,” sweaty laborer was allowed his excesses as the token Irish Poet.  

The excessive gutterality of his poetry (the passage quoted from “Digging” is a pretty good example)  blends in with the excessive nature of Heaney’s metaphors, combining to produce a style which is not so much poetic as thick—the triumph of which is a sly joke played in the snobby, puritan halls of Harvard as Heaney attempts to chase down the ghost of T.S. Eliot.

When Heaney is not slathering on the metaphors, he’s often amassing sharp, primitive objects.  Kirsch quotes Heaney from his book District and Circle:

In an age of bare hands
and cast iron,

the clamp-on meat-mincer,
the double flywheeled water-pump,

it dug its heels in among wooden tubs
and troughs of slops,

hotter than body heat
in summertime, cold in winter

as winters body armour,
a barrel-chested breast-plate

standing guard
on four braced greaves.

 “The lip-smacking assonance of clamp and pump,” Kirsch writes, anxious to make Heaney’s work not only “responsible,” but a pleasure and a delight.

These lines, however, feel like a torturer’s inventory from the Saw films.  

They are hardly “lip-smacking.”  

Heaney is no grinning Irish jester at the Blueblood court of Harvard.

This tied-up bear will tear you to pieces if you get too close.  

Kirsch is merely heaping on praise when he says: “Heaney is also, and primarily, a poet of pleasure… What makes Heaney a lovable poet, rather than just an admirable one, is that his sense of responsibility extends to pleasure itself…”  

Heaney is not a “lovable poet” or a poet of “pleasure.”  

Heaney loves assonance, but assonance which slobbers all over the reader is not necessarily a pleasing effect—especially when it seems to have a mind of its own.

Heaney is best when he writes dramatically.    His style of metaphor and thing-ism tends to be self-indulgent and is mostly painful to read.  I could list little excellences in Heaney’s poetry all day, but I am concerned here with the true picture of Heaney’s reputation. 

Heaney looks hard at the world.   It’s time a critic looked hard back.

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