The seat of the soul is where the inner world and the outer world meet. Where they overlap, it is in every point of the overlap. - Novalis

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Dialects of the Heart

The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart 

How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
get it all wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind's labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not laguage but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses, and birds.

 - Jack Gilbert 

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Jack Gilbert

From the Paris Review Interview with Jack Gilbert:

How do you know when you’ve finished [a poem]?

If I’m writing well it comes to an end with an almost-audible click. When I started out I wouldn’t write a poem until I knew the first line and the last line and what it was about and what would make it a success. I was a tyrant and I was good at it. But the most important day in my career as a writer was when Linda said, Did you ever think of listening to your poems? And my poetry changed. I didn’t give up making precreated poetry, but you have to write a poem the way you ride a horse—you have to know what to do with it. You have to be in charge of a horse or it will eat all day—you’ll never get back to the barn. But if you tell the horse how to be a horse, if you force it, the horse will probably break a leg. The horse and rider have to be together. 


You once wrote, “Poetry is a bit like cows who must be freshened if the farmer wants to keep getting milk.”
Yes, every seven years. 
What do you mean by “freshened”?
You have to have achieved something inside. You can’t make a poem out of something that’s not there. And it won’t be there unless you want it to be there. And if you don’t want it to be there, you’re in trouble. I’ll stop there.
No, go on.
Why do so many poets settle for so little? I don’t understand why they’re not greedy for what’s inside them. The heart has the ability to experience so much—and we don’t have much time. 
You taught in universities very rarely, only when you had to—just enough so that you could travel and write. Do you think writing poetry can be taught?
I can teach people how to write poetry, but I can’t teach people how to have poetry, which is more than just technique. You have to feel it—to experience it, whether in a daze or brightly. Often you don’t know what you have. I once worked on a poem for twelve years before I found it.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Apparitions of the Self

In a 2001 interview with Sarah Rosenthal in Jacket Magazine Leslie Scalapino discussed the idea behind Dahlia's Iris:

"The book that I’m working on now is called Dahlia’s Iris — Secret Autobiography and Fiction. And I got the idea to do this based on a Tibetan written form, the Secret Autobiography, which is not one’s outside chronological events, but has to do with seeing, that is, interior seeing. I traveled in Tibet. I then read a terrific Tibetan Secret Autobiography written in the 18th century, in a book called Apparitions of the Self. I thought that the Tibetan Secret Autobiography was much like some contemporary American poetry. The person who did the translation and wrote about the form of the Tibetan Secret Autobiography said that various Tibetans told her, ‘Don’t choose this to translate because Americans will not understand this.’ I thought, They’re not familiar with contemporary American poetry, which uses similar non-narrative tactics."

The book Apparitions of the Self (Princeton, 1998) is by Janet Gyatso. Here is the publisher's description:

"Apparitions of the Self is a groundbreaking investigation into what is known in Tibet as "secret autobiography," an exceptional, rarely studied literary genre that presents a personal exploration of intimate religious experiences. In this volume, Janet Gyatso translates and studies the outstanding pair of secret autobiographies by the famed Tibetan Buddhist visionary, Jigme Lingpa (1730-1798), whose poetic and self-conscious writings are as much about the nature of his own identity, memory, and the undecidabilities of autobiographical truth as they are narrations of the actual content of his experiences. Their translation in this book marks the first time that works of this sort have been translated in a Western language.
Gyatso is among the first to consider Tibetan literature from a comparative perspective, examining the surprising fit--as well as the misfit--of Western literary theory with Tibetan autobiography. She examines the intriguing questions of why Tibetan Buddhists produced so many autobiographies (far more than other Asian Buddhists) and how autobiographical self-assertion is possible even while Buddhists believe that the self is ultimately an illusion. Also explored are Jigme Lingpa's historical milieu, his revelatory visions of the ancient Tibetan dynasty, and his meditative practices of personal cultivation. The book concludes with a study of the subversive female figure of the "Dakini" in Jigme Lingpa's writings, and the implications of her gender, her sexuality, and her unsettling discourse for the autobiographical subject in Tibet."

Gyatso is now at Harvard Divinity School (Faculty Page here ) where, among many other things, she teaches The Self Writing the Self: Autobiography and Religion. The course description is as follows:

This course explores the nature of selfhood as it is constituted in the writing of autobiography. Our questions include: What do autobiographies tell us about the relationship of personal identity, individuality, subjectivity, and alienation to religious truth? What can we say about the relationship of the lived life, and the self, to what is remembered and written in autobiography? To whom are autobiographers telling their self-stories, and why? What constitutes such critical experiences as moments of conversion, enlightenment, or self-consciousness? Our interpretive methodology will draw from literary theory on autobiographical writing. Students will also keep autobiographical journals for the course, as an exercise in the practice of this genre of writing. Autobiographical writings to be studied include those by Augustine, Teresa of Avila, a Tibetan Buddhist hermitess, a Jewish Kaballist mystic, a contemporary Chinese-American novelist, a 17th century Venetian Rabbi, an American freed slave, a Japanese pilgrim poet, and James Joyce.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

At the Edge of Chaos

I have long been somewhat irrationally allergic to attempts to link ideas from abstract physics and complex systems science to practices in the humanities. Deepak Chopra annoys me; as do recent attempts to describe Jung's "archetypes" in terms of strange attractors and the like. But the fact is that the metaphoric power of much modern science is undeniable and the connections are there to be explored. I do fear the uncritical acceptance of the metaphors as in some way literal descriptions of things outside the original frame of reference. People in the humanities risk acting as merely vague and uncritical mimics of difficult and subtle ideas that have their applications elsewhere, or they risk being co-opted by the real totalizing power of the scientific world view.  (Robert Bringhurst and George Steiner are both examples of powerful thinkers in the literary world who do know something about mathematics and science and whose musings on these matters I trust.)

Nonetheless I was struck by a quick reading of Jeroen Nieuwland's post on Monika Cichon:  Sutured to Chaos. Struck by her art, and by his use of the notions of the edge of chaos and  self-organized criticality. I think it was Stu Kauffman who coined the edge of chaos phrase (though he may have borrowed it from someone) -  and the second notion is from the brilliant but combative physicist Per Bak.  I think I recall that the idea of a neural network application of Bak's idea was being discussed in 1990 at the Santa Fe Institute but there wasn't any actual data at the time. At any rate Nieuwland's blog post is worth looking at for a variety of reasons. Also Cichon's website and blog. [why do people insist on using black backgrounds? am i the only person who can't read the words?] Painting: Cichon's The Heart: here for larger version

Applied Entomology

I serve this up without comment:

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The World is Made of Stories

I just noticed this title and it caught my attention for two reasons. First, because it is part of a phrase from Muriel Rukeyser that I've used a couple of times in my writings, and I discuss the idea in some recent essays. And second, the name of the author seemed familiar. I think I've run across his work elsewhere, but what comes to mind is the fact that he wrote the Afterword to D.T. Suzuki's Swedenborg: Buddha of the North. That book is of interest for several reasons including the fact that it helps link Henry Corbin and Suzuki in a way that was most unexpected when I first discovered it. It's been a while, but I remember Loy's essay was extremely helpful and interesting. David R. Loy is now a zen teacher with a very interesting list of publications and holds an appointment at Xavier University.

From the first chapter:

"If the world is made of stories, stories are not just stories. They teach us what is real, what is valuable, and what is possible. Without stories there is no way to engage with the world because there is no world, and no one to engage with it because there is no self.

The world is made of our accounts of it because we never grasp the world as it is in itself, apart from stories about it. We do not experience a world and then make up stories to understand it. Whenever we try to peel them all away, to discover the reality behind, whatever becomes exposed immediately transforms into story, like excavated artifacts that disintegrate as soon as uncovered.

The same is true of ourselves, but that is getting ahead of the story.

This is not to deny (or assert) that there is a world apart from our stories, only that we cannot understand anything without storying it. To understand is to story."

I find this completely admirable and suggests the way in which I have increasingly been reading Corbin's interpretation of the prophetic tradition. I think this may be a book worth reading and am willing to bet the $10 bucks that I'm right. Here is the publishers link: The World Is Made of Stories.

While I'm on the subject let me plug one of James Hillman's minor masterpieces, Healing Fiction, which makes the same kinds of argument in a different style.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

More on Philip Whalen

Memorial Page of links from EMPTY MIRROR

[which contains among many many other things
On The Occasion of the Publication of Philip Whalen's Collected Poems
Compiled and Edited by Dale Smith]

Photo: Whalen leading the Zen ceremony for Allen Ginsberg, San Francisco 1998. Jacket Magazine here.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Wave ... and The Grey Seas Under

THE WAVE: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean By Susan Casey. Illustrated. 326 pp. Doubleday. Reviewed here in the NYTimes.

I suppose I'll never get to reading it but I can't resist pointing it out. In fact what it reminds me of is what seems to me the greatest book of seafaring adventure ever written, Farley Mowat's The Grey Seas Under (1958), which I am happy to see is still in print and reissued in 2001. It chronicles the activities of the salvage tug Foundation Franklin out of Halifax, Nova Scotia from 1930-1948 and simply must be read by anyone with the slightest interest in adventure stories - you won't believe what you read.

Friday, September 17, 2010

John Taggart - Is Music

Is Music "the first major retrospective of an American original—gathers the best poems from John Taggart's fourteen volumes, ranging from early Objectivist experiments and jazz-influenced, improvisational pieces to longer, breathtaking compositions regarded as underground masterpieces." from Copper Canyon Press.

I first heard of John Taggart just a few months ago in Peter O'Leary's excellent Gnostic Contagion and I knew I wanted to see his work. Coincidentally this new collection is just published and I have it hot off the presses. I will not pretend to be a critic - maybe twenty more years reading & writing poetry before I try that - but this is a book for the ages. Or so it seems to me. These are poems as beautiful, musical and haunting as any I know. I'm particularly struck by the fact that the collection includes two pieces concerning the paintings of Mark Rothko whose work has been much on my mind the last few years. (See for instance Schama's Power of Art.) Read some poems first - but here is a lovely interview from Flash Point. In this interview I discover that not only did Taggart teach at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania for many years, which I already knew, but that George Butterick, the great scholar of Charles Olson, taught at nearby Wilson College in Chambersburg - where some time later I spent 9 years teaching biology and environmental studies. It is a small world indeed. And there is also this: LRL #4 Special Issue on Taggart

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Annals of the Former World

I have been a fan of John McPhee since I read The Curve of Binding Energy many years ago. If you haven't read anything by him, then you should, and anything will do - just choose from the long list of his works according to your favorite subject - he has written about almost everything it seems. But his Pulitzer Prize winner Annals of the Former World is so good that for me it stands apart from the many other books of his I've read.

A little knowledge of geology should be part of everybody's general education. Some basic familiarity with any of the natural sciences opens your eyes and let's you see things that you simply would not be able to notice otherwise. The world is a complex and marvelous place and most people see only a tiny fraction of it. To learn even a little of what the world looks like to a botanist, a microbiologist, a physicist, an entomologist - this opens up your imagination and your senses in ways that most people can't envision. There is such joy to be had in seeing the landscape like a geologist - it opens up the underground, the mountains and rivers... it changes the way you see and feel and the way that you think. And McPhee's book is simply the best non-technical introduction to the phenomenology of geology that I know. It's an immense book in many senses, but reads like a novel. It is so well written it almost makes you weep. If you know no geology to begin with, this can be a mind-altering and exciting book. I can't praise it highly enough. Here is some of the publisher's description:

"Twenty years ago, when John McPhee began his journeys back and forth across the United States, he planned to describe a cross-section of North America at about the fortieth parallel and, in the process, come to an understanding not only of the science but of the style of the geologists he traveled with. The structural arrangement of the work never changed, but its breadth caused him to complete it in stages, under the overall title Annals of the Former World.

In Basin and Range, McPhee traverses the Basin and Range province, from Utah to eastern California, accompanied by Kenneth S. Deffeyes, a professor of geology who has done extensive field work in Nevada. In Suspect Terrain follows McPhee from the outwash plains of Brooklyn to Indiana's drifted diamonds and gold, in the company of the United States Geological Survey's Anita Harris, a Brooklyn native. In Rising from the Plains, he rides across Wyoming with David Love, a field geologist with a family history on the frontier and an unsurpassed understanding of Western geology. Assembling California takes McPhee across the Sierra Nevada and the Great Central Valley to the wine country of the Coast Ranges, the rock of San Francisco, and the San Andreas family of faults, with tectonicist Eldridge Moores as guide. In Crossing the Craton, a new and final essay and the last link in the cross-country chain, he and Randy Van Schmus, a geochronologist, explore the midcontinent's Precambrian basement.

Like the terrain it covers, Annals of the Former World tells a many-layered tale, and the reader may choose one of many paths through it, guided by twenty-five new maps and the "Narrative Table of Contents" (an essay outlining the history and structure of the project). Read sequentially, the book is an organic succession of set pieces, flashbacks, biographical sketches, and histories of the human and lithic kind; approached systematically, it can be a North American geology primer, an exploration of plate tectonics, or a study of geologic time and the development of the time scale. As clearly and succinctly written as it is profoundly informed, this is our finest popular survey of geology, and a masterpiece of modern nonfiction writing."

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

When Languages Die

The following is from Alex Rose's review of Robert McCrumb's Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language:

"Take Urarina, a language spoken in a remote Amazonian jungle in Peru. Before its discovery, linguists had never encountered a dialect with an object-verb-subject word order. Had its speakers died out before it was documented, linguists might have come to the mistaken conclusion that the human brain was simply not wired to learn such an odd structure naturally. The same could be said for the extremely bizarre language of Pirahã, which is said to possess no relative clauses, no words for individual numbers and the smallest repertoire of phonemes of any language in the world (though Hawaiian comes close). Dialects such as these provide scientists with a virtual map of the limits and possibilities of human cognition; the opportunity to learn what we can before it’s too late is rapidly slipping away. Consider the Bororo people of old Brazil, who tell time by gesturing to different parts of the body, each of which correspond to a different position of the sun in the sky. Would we have imagined such a thing possible if we hadn’t been there to witness it?

...[K]nowledge is often embedded in language itself. When a culture abandons its native tongue for a monolithic, multi-national language like Spanish, English or French, centuries worth of biological and environmental observations are suddenly and permanently erased. The Kayapo people, for instance, have developed 85 different words for “bee,” each specifying minute differences in flight patterns, mating rituals, habitat, nest structures, and quality of wax. Were their language to die, their rich, apian knowledge would die with it. Similarly, the word for “yak” in Tuvan can indicate any number of a yak’s qualities, including color, size, sex, age, and fertility, simply through the inflection of vowels. A dialect of the North-East Ambae island people called Lolovoli is grammatically embedded with information about their geography, such the relative size, elevation, distance and preferred means of transport to and from the island’s various sites, much of which is communicated through suffixes alone. If we look carefully at the way information is built into a language, we learn not only about the speakers and their unique view of the world, we also learn about the world itself." ...

 The book to read seems to be K. David Harrison, When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge 2007.

Also see this review of  One Thousand Languages: Living, Endangered, Lost.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Current Trends in Ecopoetics

Not Nature Poems: Current Trends in Ecopoetics

A Panel Discussion with painter Rackstraw Downes, poet Brenda Iijima, critic/scholar Joan Richardson & poet Jonathan Skinner

Thursday, September 16 at 6:30 PM
The School of Visual Arts, 133/141 West 21 Street, room 101C  
New York City  Admission: Free and open to the public.

Ecopoetics : how are artists reconceiving their work in respect to nature? Poets Brenda Ijima and Jonathan Skinner join painter Rackstraw Downes and critic/scholar Joan Richardson to discuss recent developments in their work regarding how to make art in relation to devastating human-engendered changes in the natural environment. As more artists respond to the condition of climate change, ecopoetics asks how we can begin to have a new understanding of our volatile world. How can and should we reimagine the way we conceive our relationship to nature? Is language "just talk" in the face of the current environmental crisis? Have our traditional ways of articulating ecological awareness - through either elegy or Chicken Little pronouncements that the sky is falling - become outdated ideas that rely upon problematic assumptions? What can our active roles be, given the increasingly unstable world in which we live and participate?

Two of the jumping-off points for the discussion will be recent publications by panel participants, including Jonathan Skinner's ongoing journal, titled ecopoetics [an ENORMOUS resource - tc] and Brenda Iijima's eco language reader.

Monday, September 13, 2010

More Notes on Poetry

"I think we live so totally in an acculturated time that the reason why we're all here that care and write is to put an end to that whole thing. Put an end to nation, put an end to culture, put an end to divisions of all sorts. And to do this you have to put establishment out of business. ... The radical of action lies in finding out how organized things are genuine, are initial ... [that the Imago Mundi] is initial in any of us. We have our picture of the world and that's the creation." - Charles Olson at Berkeley, 1965, quoted by Jerome Rothenberg in an essay not to be missed: “Je Est Un Autre”: Ethnopoetics & The Poet As Other

I have been teaching poetry (the craft, the literature) for a decade now, and it often turns out that students want to know what poetry is. Not what it is building down there, or who has the most, or which is the greatest, but actually what it consists of. One of the things I think poetry is, I say, is a set of strategies. These strategies make art happen in the plastic of language. They deliver ideas that aren't easily articulated in prose. They administer emotional cocktails. They help you hurt your reader in just the way he or she is looking for. They complicate our systems of representation so that when we speak our speech is as fucked up as our lived experience deserves... If you cannot find what you are longing to read, then you have stumbled upon an excellent opportunity! Now you may write what you are longing to read...  - Danielle Pafunda, in one of three interviews in an ongoing series on the State of American Poetry at the Huffington Post. READ THEM ALL.

Friday, September 10, 2010

a piece of paper, some words

"In my civilization it's customary to describe poetry as discarded, almost moribund, an all-too-exclusive art form, without power to break through. And the poets try to push themselves upon the world of the mass media, to get a few crumbs of attention. I think it is time to emphasize that poetry--in spite of all the bad poets and bad readers -- starts from an advantageous position. A piece of paper, some words: it's simple and practical. It gives independence. Poetry requires no heavy, vulnerable apparatus that has to be lugged around, it isn't dependent on temperamental performers, dictatorial directors, bright producers with irresistible ideas. No big money is at stake. A poem doesn't come in one copy that somebody buys and locks up in a storeroom waiting for its market value to go up; it can't be stolen from a museum or become currency in the buying and selling of narcotics, or get burned up by a vandal.
When I started writing, at 16, I had a couple of like-minded school friends. Sometimes, when the lessons seemed more than usually trying, we would pass notes to each other between our desks--poems and aphorisms, which would come back with the more or less enthusiastic comments of the recipient. What an impression those scribblings would make! There is the fundamental situation of poetry. The lesson of official life goes rumbling on. We send inspired notes to one another."   

 Tomas Tranströmer. Translated by Judith Moffett.   
from "Answer to Uj Iras."  Ironwood 13 (1979):  38-9. 
Borrowed from this fine collection: Why Poetry Exists.

I should perhaps add that Tranströmer is one of my favorite poets - his New Collected Poems in English is a marvel.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Mark Weiss - As Landscape

Don't miss this post from Rothenberg's blog on Mark Weiss


I never set out to write a poem. I will jot things down in my notebook, sometimes ideational, sometimes not, sometimes from the environment, or misheard, or from a dream, and occasionally a phrase will have a rhythmic urgency that compels me to jot something further, and then I'm lost in process and have no idea where I or the poem is going. This is a liminal state fraught with both joy and terror, and it is processual. The process may extend over few or many lines and take a few moments or days and months. It lasts until one emerges at the other end, back into the everyday, arrival signaled by the loss of urgency... Read more.

 [The preceding is from Mark Weiss’s collection, As Landscape, published earlier this year by Chax Press. A substantive review by M.G. Stephens appeared in Jacket 40, available on-line at]

Food Democracy & Chickens

Below is a link to the story of a local Maine farm turned industrial, and a powerful argument for owning chickens - or at least knowing your local farmer. We have 7 laying hens at the moment and they make me happy every day. They are the first Black Sex-linked we've had and are good birds, in spite of the unromantic name. They don't seem to peck each other as much as some others. They get scraps from the kitchen and odd bits of vegetation as well as layer pellets. We often run them in an open-bottom pen, a "chicken tractor," to fertilize the grounds but the one I built several years ago needs some work so they have been in a 10'X25' yard most of the year - and of course they have a coop. We had 10 birds last fall but through my own stupidity we lost three (!) to a hawk - I still feel guilty. We can't possibly eat all the eggs 7 birds produce so I sell a some every few day to folks at work for $2 a dozen and have more customers than I can serve. Our area of the state is littered with an abundance of large abandoned chicken barns. Poultry was once a major industry here but about 30 years ago the local farmers were driven out of business by the huge industrial operations elsewhere - one of which, as the article explains, was spawned right here.

Read Mark Winne, How Do You Like Your Eggs? Industrial or Local?

He writes,

"Holding aside the anti-government nonsense of the Tea Party, it is now possible to imagine food production being so remote and so beyond our understanding that we have no choice but to place all control and authority in the hands of a few food corporations."

"While there is always room to improve government efficiency—ending the divide between USDA and FDA food safety oversight is one obvious choice—I’m not confident that government can protect the consumer in an age of industrial agriculture. Our faith in science, technology, and regulatory oversight can be as misplaced as our trust in mega food and farm corporations. With tremendous resources at their disposal, our industrial food players are more than able to game the system. And in what could be the ultimate irony, the biggest violators often have the deepest pockets which positions them nicely to comply, at least on paper, with ever increasing (and costly) regulatory requirements. The little guy—the small farmer, the ones who are local and whom we know and genuinely trust—could be put out of business if a one-size-fits-all approach to regulation is implemented." 

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

On Wilson Harris

Ammiel Alcalay asked in a recent email if I had ever met Wilson Harris (1921 - ) during my trips to the Temenos Academy. The answer is that I had never heard of him. It's actually Sir Theodore Wilson Harris, and now I am hooked & will have to read what I can find the time for. He has published several pieces in the Temenos Review over the years and was admired by Kathleen Raine, as we are told in an extremely interesting appreciation by Maya Jaggi published in The Guardian in 2006 on the occasion of the release of The Ghost of Memory, which he said would be his last novel. Jaggi writes,

"...despite a steady output of novels, essays and international honours, he remains little known to a wider public. His fiction, dense with symbolism and sensuous imagery, has little in the way of conventional plot or character. Drawing on dream, myth and archetype, it can be dazzling yet enigmatic.

The Guyanese-born novelist and poet David Dabydeen sees him as heir to a "tradition of mystical and visionary writing, from the Gnostics to William Blake". Wordsworth, says Dabydeen, "thought Blake 'mad, obscure and incoherent'. Harris is trying to explore the language of the unconscious - dream states and parallel universes that are only partially glimpsed." Others regard him as a South American novelist more akin to Gabriel García Márquez or Alejo Carpentier than to writers of the anglophone West Indies." - From Redemption Song by Maya Jaggi (Read the essay).

A complete bibliography of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, interviews and more can be had here: The Wilson Harris Bibliography.

Alcalay suggests this piece for a starter: 'Quetzalcoatl and the Smoking Mirror', Wasafiri 20 (Autumn 1994), pp. 38-43. Also in Review: Latin American Literature and Arts 50 (Spring 1995), pp. 76-83; see also 'Quetzalcoatl and the Smoking Mirror (Reflections on Originality and Tradition)', The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 17, 1 (Summer 1997), pp. 12-23; also in Sisyphus and Eldorado: Magical and Other Realisms in Caribbean Literature, ed. Timothy J.Reiss (Africa World Press, 2002) , pp. 1-13.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Under the Beat Surface

I asked Ron Silliman a while back what I might read as a prelude to Leslie Scalapino (no, I don't communicate with Silliman very often but he is a very kind and helpful man). He suggested, among other things, that I look at Philip Whalen (1923-2002). I am doing that, and it leads to good places. First, Scalapino wrote the introduction the Whalen's Collected Poems. And for those as ignorant of the history of American poetry as I have (scandalously) been until quite recently, placing Whalen is very helpful. Whalen was one of the principals at the famous Six Gallery reading in 1955 where Ginsberg first read Howl. His early  friendship with Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder and their summers in the Cascades in the 1950's are beautifully chronicled by John Suiter in Poets on the Peaks. And Michael McClure's fascinating Scratching the Beat Surface (which I mentioned in an earlier post) gives us, among other things, a first person account of the Six Gallery event and what it was like to live through those crucial years. Though I claim no special authority in these matters (and maybe for that reason my word has some weight) I find Whalen's poetry liberating and exciting - whether I know what he's up to or not - maybe especially when NOT.

Monday, September 6, 2010

In Memoriam


c.1994 - September 3, 2010

"So - what kinda dog is that?"
"She's the best dog in all the world."

Saturday, September 4, 2010

On Philip Glass

I first heard parts of Einstein On the Beach in the back seat of a car heading into the mountains of northern New Mexico. That was the summer of 1990. I'd never heard anything by Philip Glass or any other "minimalist." It seemed very odd, but I was interested. I let it drop for a very long time - until about a year ago. I forget what prompted me but I got a CD of "Einstein" and gave it my attention. I didn't care much for it really, though something about it took hold of me and I thought I should try some of his other pieces. I've since acquired a modest collection of his truly enormous output. I spent at least three months, maybe longer, listening to nothing but Philip Glass. I'll not pretend to be a critic, but I would like to provide an enthusiastic recommendation of his work to anyone who has been initially put off by some of his early music. Glass is not a minimalist - he prefers to say that his music is based on repetitive structures. And it is true that this music may take some getting used to. If you can manage to enter the time, space and moods of his earlier, more "monochrome" works, as I did, then the later work takes on a power and complexity that is really stunning in its effects. I wouldn't necessarily recommend starting with it, but his opera Akhnaten (1987) is truly magnificent and moves me as much as any music I've ever heard.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Henri Lefebvre - Love & the City

I have been reading Charles Olson lately - for lots of reasons, including the fact of his late enthusiasm for Corbin's work.  I mentioned in an email to Ron Silliman that I was reading Olson's "Propriopception" in the context of my excitement over Leslie Scalapino's use of the idea of he "cognitive/physiological." Ron responded in part with this nugget:

"You could do a lot worse than Proprioception (I always recommend reading it alongside Henri Lefebvre's [1901-1991] Dialectial Materialism, as it is Olson's statement of same as channeled through Jung)."

So that sent me on a little tour - some traces of which I record here. See Henri Lefebvre A Critical Introduction, A. Merrifield, 2006. Lefebvre's most influential work is The Production of Space widely read and admired by urban theorists among others.

“He is perhaps the only Communist – certainly the only political economist – to have dared assert that all he had ever written about was love,” writes Rob Shields in Lefebvre, Love & Struggle: Spatial Dialectics. New York: Routledge, 1999, pg. 7 (Reviewed here and here)

Here is a snippet from an interview with Lefebvre conducted by Kristin Ross in 1983, on the Situationists: (prominently, Guy Debord). I found it particularly striking given Henry Corbin's concerns:

K.R:.: Did the Situationist theory of constructing situations have a direct relationship with your theory of "moments"?
H.L.: Yes, that was the basis of our understanding. They more or less said to me during discussions -- discussions that lasted whole nights -- "What you call 'moments,' we call 'situations,' but we're taking it farther than you. You accept as 'moments' everything that has occurred in the course of history (love, poetry, thought). We want to create new moments."
K.R.: How did they propose to make the transition from a "moment" to a conscious construction?
H.L.: The idea of a new moment, of a new situation, was already there in Constant's text from 1953 [Constant Nieuwenhuys (1920-2005)]. Because the architecture of situation is a Utopian architecture that supposes a new society, Constant's idea was that society must be transformed not in order to continue a boring, uneventful life, but in order to create something absolutely new: situations.
K.R.: And how did the city figure into this?
H.L.: Well, "new situations" was never very clear. When we talked about it, I always gave as an example -- and they would have nothing to do with my example -- love. I said to them: in antiquity, passionate love was known, but not individual ove, love for an individual. The poets of antiquity write of a kind of cosmic, physical, physiological passion. But love for an individual only appears in the Middle Ages within a mixture of Christian and Islamic traditions, especially in the south of France [...] (Entire interview here)

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Zen of Labor?

As a follow-up to Bernstein's poem...

Revalorizing the Trades - by Camille Paglia

"Jobs, and the preparation of students for them, should be front and center in the thinking of educators. The idea that college is a contemplative realm of humanistic inquiry, removed from vulgar material needs, is nonsense. The humanities have been gutted by four decades of pretentious postmodernist theory and insular identity politics. They bear little relationship to the liberal arts of broad perspective and profound erudition that I was lucky enough to experience in college in the 1960s.

Having taught in art schools for most of my four decades in the classroom, I am used to having students who work with their hands—ceramicists, weavers, woodworkers, metal smiths, jazz drummers. There is a calm, centered, Zen-like engagement with the physical world in their lives. In contrast, I see glib, cynical, neurotic elite-school graduates roiling everywhere in journalism and the media. They have been ill-served by their trendy, word-centered educations." Read the essay.

Paglia is characteristically blunt & provocative - there's plenty to argue with, but that's the point. And I do like the image of Harvard in a "reciprocal relationship" with a regional trade school. I have to agree with (one of) her basic premise(s) - after my first (failed) attempt at graduate school in philosophy I spent several years learning construction trades and I have been grateful for it ever since.  (Photo by Charles Ebbets, 1932 - here.)

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

If this doesn't make you love Charles Berstein...

a poem by Charles Bernstein, presented at the In(ter)ventions conference in Banff, February 2010, and first published in West Coast LINE.

You Never Looked So Simulating

The next stop was Edmonton
where I got lost in the Fantasyland
Mall on the way to one of the demi–
keynotes at the International Association
for Philosophy and Literature
“Thinking Between Poetry &
Philosophy” con­ven­tion & so missed
most of the lec­ture on the “The Ineluctable
Split of Poetry’s Unsayable Name: Reading
Derrida through Nietzsche’s Unknowable
Answer to Celan’s Joyce (A Response to
Benjamin).” Many of the con­ven­tion­eers
noted that the “Bourbon Street” food
mall was a per­fect exam­ple of “sim­u­la­tion” —
a view I have trou­ble under­stand­ing
(not unusual for me)
since the patrons of the food court
seem to enjoy the fact that
“Bourbon Street” is ineluctably in
the West Edmonton Mall & the design­ers
of the street seemed to go
out of their way to empha­size this fact,
mak­ing it look like a plas­ter cast
sketch of a pic­ture of a New Orleans street
& not like the “real thing” at
all; the only ones fooled were
we con­ven­tion­eers hav­ing our
din­ner as we chat­ted about the
break­down of real­ity and sim­u­lacra
(or simu­soy for the lac­tose
intol­er­ant). & talk about authen­ti­cally
local as you might, the Buffalo
wings on Bourbon Street
in the West Edmonton Mall
never tasted so real
or would have. I had trout.

I have wanted to get a copy of All the Whiskey in Heaven - now I guess I'll have to.
Thanks to Ron Silliman for the link here. Photo and an interview with Bernstein here.