Edge and Fold

Edge and Fold (Berkeley: Apogee Press, 2006) is available from the Small Press Distribution website at www.spdbooks.org. Type "Hoover, Paul" in the "Search for Books" box and all of his books currently available will appear, as well as issues of New American Writing, which he edits with Maxine Chernoff. The beautiful cover art is a photograph, Ball on Water (Pelota en agua), 1994, is by Gabriel Orozco, courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

"In Edge and Fold, Paul Hoover dearly and diligently avows that Vision now is a steadfast transparency at peace with circumstance. Here are poems keeping perfect time because our time flows through them--beloved, attended with eloquent humility, unimpeded by any imperium save its own. This book is pure!"

-Donald Revell

"Edge and Fold comes in short couplets that have the pith or aphorisms, but dismantle any expectation of closure. They push thinking over the edge into the folds of all my minds. In this amazing plural space (tenuously tethered to the white of the page) subtle, discriminating intelligences unfold lyric intensity into question, wonder, mystery.

the sound is in the wood
writing its disturbance
as deeply as it can
this is called music

Edge and Fold confirms Paul Hoover as one of our important poets."

-Rosmarie Waldrop

The book contains two long poems, "Edge and Fold" and "The Reading." The first consists of 49 numbered sections:


what you don’t know
doesn’t enter in

the paragraph is a mutt
and the comma goes away

reality’s proposition
is problematic, no?

gentlemen, start cognition
conception is a whole

she knew about peaches
she would make decisions

a curtain if there is one
all true things are song

"The Reading" is one of four poems to have been to have been handwritten in small Marble Memo pads using the day as the book's limit; that is, when all of the pages were filled, an entire book will have been written in a 24 hour period. Each asterisked section in the poem acknowledges a page of the memo pad:

Someone was
speaking of

“the infinite resources
of the thickness

of things.”
I had wanted

so thick
a vessel

it contained
nothing at all.


For example,
Francis Ponge

touching with
his nouns

the texture
of objects,

as if they
had windows

and desire
were all about.


What are the names
for the opposite of pencil,

engineer, and dowel?
What is not cloud

and what is not mouse?
You can’t create nothing,

and you can’t destroy it.


Nulla, nulla,
the world

keeps weeping,
filling the holes

keeps creating.

The other "books" written by this means will eventually appear as At the Sound.

Splay Anthem

We were delighted to learn that Nathaniel Mackey's latest poetry volume, Splay Anthem, won the National Book Award for 2006. It's much deserved. Anyone interested in a quick Nathaniel Mackey course should take a look at New American Writing 24 (2006), which is available in bookstores. It contains an extensive interview with the poet by Sarah Rosenthal, the poems "Outer Egypt," "Poem for Don Cherry," "Sound and Sentience," and "Song of the Andoumboulou: 52," and "The Atmosphere is Alive," an excerpt from Bass Cathedral, volume four of From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, a series of letters written by composer/multi-instrumentalist N., founding member of a band known as the Molimo m'Atet. The other volumes are, in sequence, Bedouin Hornbook, Djbot Bahhostus's Run, and Atet A.D.

Here's an excerpt from an essay I wrote about Bedouin Hornbook for an issue of Callaloo (23.2, 2000) focusing on Nate's work. Titled "Pair of Figures for Eshu: Doubling of Consciousness in the Work of Kerry James Marshall and Nathaniel Mackey," it also appears in Fables of Representation (University of Michigan Press, 2004):

In his book of essays, Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing, Nathaniel Mackey (1993, 19), coined the term discrepant engagement in reference to "practices that, in the interest of opening presumably closed orders of identity and signification, accent fissure, fracture, incongruity, the rickety, imperfect fit between word and world." The word discrepant has it derivation from the root meaning, "to rattle" or "creak" and relates to a weaving block used by the Dogon of West Africa. The base on which the loom sits, the weaving block is called "the creaking of the word" by Dogon weavers. Discrepant engagement is therefore the joining of things that don't fit, a concept that contemporary theory gives the name of aporia, or rift. The term also relates to the dynamics of cross-culturality: the cry of the social "misfit."

As a black poet, scholar, and novelist who draws inspiration from black cultural sources such as vodun as well as from postwar avant-garde writings of Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, and Amiri Baraka, Mackey is twice an outsider, by birth and by choice. The "creaking of the word" therefore has great potency for him. Discrepancy becomes moral value, a reminder that "not fitting" is morally preferable to a too-easy creolization; it also reminds us that truly creative work tends to be done at the artistic and cultural margin, where "the new" offers resistance to received notions of meaning. It is the point at which Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk offer "noise" rather than music, where the language poets offer dispersive strategies rather than traditional syntax, where Marcel Duchamp offers found objects rather than the artisanship of art. Mackey (1993, 20) writes:

Open form (itself a discrepant, oxymoronic formulation, not unlike William's "variable foot,") is a gesture in the direction of noise. Baraka's valorization of "honking" by rhythm and blues (R&B) saxophonists, [Clarence] Major's "remarkable verb of / things," Duncan's invocation of "disturbance," Creeley's bebop-influenced deviation from expected narrative accents, Olson's insistence that things "keep their proper confusions," his advocacy of "shout" as a corrective to discourse, [Edward Kamau] Braithwaite's "calibanisms," and [Wilson] Harris's "language as omen" all in their distinctive ways validate noise (20).

Quoting Leonard Barrett on the music of the black Caribbean, Mackey reveals a theme central to his thought, that "we detect in the lower beats deep structural dissonance which mirrors the social conflicts within the society" (20). Dissonance is therefore inevitable and even necessary to the advancement of a culture. It is open to the honk and the shout, to processual composition as seen in jazz and experimental poetry, and to the "obliquity and angularity" of Baraka's poetry and the music of Thelonious Monk and Eric Dolphy (43).

Those who express this "deep structural dissonance" are its musicians, poets, and priests. Mackey writes that "Baraka hears a spirit of interrogation and discontent in the most moving of black music, especially that of John Coltrane, whom he calls 'the heaviest spirit'" (43). In Black Music, Baraka notes another heavy spirit: "The hard, driving shouting of James Brown identifies a place and image in America. A people and an energy, harnessed and not harnessed by America. JB is straight out, open, and speaking from the most deeply religious people on this continent" (Jones 1968, 185) John Coltrane and James Brown are described, in effect, as members of a priesthood, their sacred status prefigured by the ring shout ritual. In The Power of Black Music, Samuel A. Floyd, Jr. credits the ring shout (which involved song, dance, and aspects of African ancestor worship) with:

helping to preserve the elements we have come to know as the characterizing and foundational elements of African-American music: calls, cries, and hollers; call-and-response devices; additive rhythms, and polyrhythms; heterophony, pendular thirds, blue notes, bent notes, and elisions; hums, moans, grunts, vocables, and other rhythmic-oral declamations; interjections, and punctuations; off-beat melodic phrasings and parallel intervals and chords; constant repetitions of rhythmic and melodic phrases (from which riffs and vamps would be derived); timbral distortions of various kinds; musical individuality within collectivity; game rivalry; hand clapping, foot patting, and approximations thereof; apart-playing; and the metronomic pulse that underlies all African-American music (6).

Because music has a powerful place in black culture, because drums and other instruments are often heard to speak as voices, and because of the communal nature of the ring shout, the musician, singer, poet, and priest are joined as messengers of spirit possession.

This is exactly the multidisciplinary approach of Mackey's comic epistolary jazz novel-of-ideas, Bedouin Hornbook, which tells the story of a contemporary jazz group that calls itself the "Deconstructive Woodwind Chorus," the "East Bay Dread Ensemble," the "Mystic Horn Society," and finally "Flaunted Fifth." Changes in the group's name represent the discrepancy, or creakiness, that occurs when two cultural influences, the European and African-American, are joined. "N.," the novel's narrator, says, "We thought 'Deconstructive Woodwind Chorus' sounded a little stilted, Euro-cerebral, or (the word Penguin, our oboe player uses) 'deracinated,' so we called ourselves the East Bay Dread Ensemble. We also didn't want people [in Oakland, where they were playing] to know that we were from L.A." (Mackey 1986, 4). Like the many names of Eshu-Elegbara, multiplicity is a feature of the group, nowhere more evident than in the character of Heidi, also known as Aunt Nancy, who plays violin, congas, and tuba. The name Heidi is perhaps the ultimate in Northern European signifiers. Aunt Nancy is a pun on anansi, which means spider in Ghana, as well as the Anancy stories popular in Jamaica known for "introducing a snatch of song at crucial moments" (Roberts 1972, 121). Aunt Nancy even plays the violin like a spider:

The horns . . .conceded the lead voice to the violin throughout the piece. As Aunt Nancy's bow stroked the air (possessed of a bizarre, brooding assurance that it was only a myth one lamented, nothing more), I was struck by the spiderlike dexterity with which she manueuvered its avoidance of the strings. What she did, one might say, is emphasize the dance in the word "avoidance," wrapping all who would listen in the progressive windings of an eventual cocoon . . . .My back stiffened as I sat there, more than slightly alarmed at Aunt Nancy's transformation from buzzing, airborne fly to enticing, equally airborne spider. (Mackey 1986, 121)

Like most of the other instruments the group plays, the violin is of European origin. But Aunt Nancy plays it in a way that transports the music and herself to the realm of African myth. In this, she mirrors the history of African-American music, which has had to negotiate between European instrumentation and scores and African cultural intentions. The song that Aunt Nancy wraps the audience in is, appropriately, "Embraceable You."

The narrator's identity also shifts. Addressing each chapter of the epistolary novel to "Dear Angel of Dust" (a name suggesting the angel of death; the muse; the band's North African singer, Djamilaa, whose voice is haunted by wind and dust; and possibly Ifa divination, an Eshu observation in which dust is employed), the narrator signs each chapter as "N." (narrator) but is also identified as Jarred Bottle, JB (James Brown and a brand of Scotch), Djarred Bottle (a name which pairs him with his lover, Djamilaa), DB, and Flaunted Fifth, also the final name of the band. The name Jarred Bottle relates to the Kongo-derived tradition of the bottle tree, used to protect households by invoking the dead (Thompson 1984, 142). The acronym DB links the narrator to Damballah, the Haitian creole name of the Dahomean "good serpent of the skies" known by the Fon as Da, Dan, and Dan Bada (Thompson 184, 176). Flaunted Fifth, a pun on flatted fifths, or blue notes characteristic of blues and jazz, is one of the book's many significant word pairings, which Mackey calls homologies. The flatted fifth calls attention to itself, flaunts its discrepancy as a product of cultural difference. I will show the thematic importance and extent of these homologies later.

The plot of Mackey's novel is simple, but its thematic patterning and use of motifs are as thick as Aunt Nancy's musical cocoon. Briefly, the plot concerns the travels of a newly formed band that, through practice, finally learns to speak as one, or communally, in an ecstatic, literally earth-shaking performance of the song "Bottomed Out." Following this climax is a denouement describing a lecture, "The Creaking of the Word," delivered by Jarred Bottle, DB's European name, at an academic conference. But this denouement also contains its own climax in which DB mystically and erotically joins Djamilaa, albeit at a physical distance from her. "The Creaking of the Word" is therefore part lecture and part erotic mystical experience. As academic discourse containing expressions like "adequation" and "ventriloquistic truth," the final chapter is Euro-cerebral; as the joining of the twined male and female snakes that comprise Damballah, it depicts the resurrection of one of the "heavy spirits" of Dahomean mythology.

The two main structural patterns in the novel are circularity and coaxiality, the Ouroboric circle and the crossroads. Laid over one another, the circle and the Greek cross create the Kongo cruciform sign of the cosmos called Yowa that signifies "the circular motion of human souls about the circumference of its intersecting lines" as well as "the everlasting continuity of all righteous men and women" (Thompson 1984, 108). The crossroads, or "turn of the path," is "an indelible concept in the Kongo-Atlantic world, as the point of interersection between the ancestors and the living" (109). In the Abakua script known as anaforuana, a modified crossed circle of this kind is the signature of God (Thomson 1989, 113).

DB plays saxello and contrabass bassoon; Penguin, also known as Peixinho, plays oboe; Lambert plays alto and tenor saxophone; and Djamilaa sings in a "sand-anointed voice." However, the instruments they play, like their identities, are constantly subject to change and are described as undergoing rotation. Rotation also describes the pattern in which the band plays DB's series of "Compressed Accompaniments":

I've provided five of them, one for each member of the band, though the assignment of pieces to specific individuals is by no means fixed. The way it works, in fact, makes it so each player gets to recite all five of the Accompaniments in the course of the composition. We've developed a modular approach to improvisation which we call Modular Rotation, an approach which makes use of a number of stations (five in this case) marked off at various points around the playing area. . . .In the course of the performance each player moves from station to station, at each of which he or she recites the particular Accompaniment which "defines" that station. (Mackey 1986, 29-30)

The stations may suggest the stations of the cross in Roman Catholic observance. More importantly, Mackey has established a motif of circularity that joins the rainbow god Damballah, by which Djamilaa and Djarred Bottle are erotically joined; Ouroboros, the worm of death and time that eats its own tail; the group's song "Opposable Thumb at the Water's Edge," associated with primate dexterity and the making of the figa fist by black slaves in Brazil to ward off spells cast against them (48); and a primeval Egyptian creation myth surrounding Temu, known as "The Father of the Gods," who creates the world through an act of masturbation. In the following passage, several of these motifs are conjoined:

Throughout his solo he made abundant use of circular breathing, which in a self-reflected aside he called "an old snake-charmer's trick" at one point, making mention of one K. Gopalakrishna Ouroboros, a nagaswaram player of some repute. (The nagaswaram, he noted, is a South Indian oboe, a double-reed horn just short of three feet long. Its name, translated literarally, means "snakepipe"). (45)

Circularity also joins with creation myth when the narrator recalls a seven-day romance he'd had with a woman in a distant part of the world. He recalls the romance while playing an old standard, "Body and Soul," on a bass clarinet with a group called The Crossroads Choir, whom he is instructed to meet in a secret location. Informed by sorrow and at an emotional crossroads, his playing is especially fruitful:

the last day we'd seen one another now returned, but with a new sense of lingering access--once a day of parting, now a day of repose. I relaxed into such a sense of it, deepening its consolation with a meditation on the number eight. "Upright infinity," I whispered into the horn. It occurred to me now, as though I'd never seen it before, that the eighth note of every octave is a return to the first, both end and beginning. It made me think of Lebe, the last of the eight Dogon ancestors, also said to be the oldest, which would make him the first. I reflected on his having died and become a snake, a fact I referred to with his circular breathing in a run which also brought Ouroboros to mind. (106)

It is through music and memory that the mystical is achieved in the novel's complex thematic figuration. In joining with Djamilaa through sexual fantasy as he holds his "middle leg" or "fifth limb" (193) in the final chapter, DB brings the story full circle by completing the myth of Damballah and recreating the masturbatory, Ouroboric circle by which Temu created the world. Such meditative circularity is parallel to the trance of possession into which lovers, vodun priests, and musicians enter. As she stands at her window, Djamilaa can feel the incestuous touch of her father's hand on her hip. Thus, DB's desire for Djamilaa is received in terms of Djamilaa's own projections, and a "rainbow bridge" suggestive of twined serpents is constructed. As Thompson (1984, 176) observes:

Another animal present in Dahomean art--Da or Dan, the good serpent of the skies--appears not only in Haiti but also in Cuba, and, in mixture with the Yoruba rainbow deity, Oshumare, in Brazil, that is, wherever the Fon and their neighbors arrived as captives . . . .Da combines male and female aspects, and is sometimes represented as a pair of twins. Many are his avatars, but principle among them is Da Ayido Hwedo, the rainbow-serpent . . . In one Dahomean myth. . .Da Ayido Hwedo set up four pillars cast in iron at the four cardinal points of the earth. He did this to hold aloft the sky. And then he twisted around these columns in brilliant spirals of crimson, black, and white to keep the pillars upright in their places.

Damballah, the Haitian word for the serpent of the sky, corresponds with "the Ki-Kongo word for flatheaded rainbow-serpent, ndamba" (177). Ndamba is a word for sleep that puns on the ecstatic love-making of a pair of male and female serpents, "who wrap themselves around a palm tree to carnally unite" (178). It is characteristic of Mackey's irony that DB is arrested for public exposure despite the fact that his erotic dream relates to a sacred cosmology.

Coaxiality in Bedouin Hornbook also occurs as a series of linguistic events (homonyms, puns, and homologies) in which one word is crossed with another like the snakes of Dahomean myth, as follows:

Ascent and assent. "What I'm proposing is that we hear into what has up to now only been overheard (if I can put it that way), that we can awaken resources whereby, for example, assent can be heard to carry undertones or echoes of ascent (accents of assent)" (Mackey 1986, 19). The word assent concerns social agreement in this context, both on the broader social level and among the players of the Mystic Horn Society. Ascent in the context of their music alludes to ecstasy, possession, and flight. Ascent therefore tends to result from a degree of assent among the band's members, their unity in difference. To this dialectic is added the word accent, which applies equally to speech, musical texture, and Mackey's own prose emphases.

Lifted and lofty. This homology emphasizes the potential elitism of the band's "nouveau" music and sources of spiritual inspiration such as "the widespread age-old stilt-dancing traditions of West Africa, where mask-wearing, dancing figures mount a pair of stilts as much as fifteen feet high" (67). The band's "lift-off" or flight into the ethereal has a double nature, one in lofty intellectualism and the other in folk tradition.
'Ni tan and n'itan. The Yoruba words 'ni tan and n'itan, mean, respectively, "related to each other" and "at the thigh." The band has been playing a song called "Meat of My Brother's Thigh," which reminds the narrator of a Yoruba proverb meaning "Kinship does not mean that, because we are entwined, we can thereby rip off each other's thigh" (92). The word entwined and its relation to Damballah iconography is later echoed in an analysis of Rastafarian drumming, in which it is argued that the sound from a particular drum is related "to the noise made by the animal from whose hide the drum's head is made" (113). One drum of a pair, called the repeater, is made from the skin of a female goat; the accompanying bass drum is made from male goatskin. This dialectic extends to African polyrhythmic drumming, which according Roberts (1972, 186), tends to weave (like Aunt Nancy / Anansi the spider) duple and triple rhythms: "Another fundamental aspect of West African music-making, also widespread in Afro-America, is . . . present in the blues and in jazz. This is the tendency to use triple and duple rhythms at the same time, which is arguably the reason for the extensive use of triplets in both blues and jazz."

Desert and dessert. Of the band's playing of "Bottomed Out," their climactic song, N. writes, "It was a pregnant, polysemous triad we three had enacted, compounded of a technical-ecstatic appetite for drought (pronounced 'dez-ert'), a technical-ecstatic blending of abandonment and merit (pronounced 'de-zurt') and a technical-ecstatic jellyroll sense of an ending (pronounced 'di-zurt')" (Mackey 1986, 167). The dialectic is at full triangulation. Desertion is echoed in the book's frequent references to orphans (Djamilaa is one), as well as Mackey's essay "Sound and Sentiment, Sound and Symbol":

Poetic language is language owning up to being an orphan, to its tenuous relationship with the things it ostensibly refers to. This is why in the Kaluli myth [of Papua New Guinea] the origin of music is also the origin of poetic language (Mackey 1993, 234).

The desert is associated with Djamilaa as a native of Mauritania, but it also relates to the quality of her voice: "She dug deep into her desert roots to come up with a desolate, forlorn yet fiercely devotional sound" (Mackey 1986,173). But when she opens her mouth to sing, there is no sound. It is as if "her voice were now anointed in sand" and "she'd been deserted by the future she proposed" (174). The word dessert is in antithesis to the other parts of the dialectic; it suggests the pleasures of hearing Djamilaa's pain-haunted voice. The words technical and ecstatic occupy their own dialectic.

Could and cud. In playing "Aggravated Assent," the left side of Penguin's face bulges at the beginning of each run: "Tied to it as by an umbilical cord of obsession, one stared at the bulge and saw it was made not by Penguin's tongue but by a certain cud his Bedouin 'someone' had left him with. Though one saw this one heard it more as 'could' than as 'cud,' rocked or swayed by the enabling proportion of one's umbilical stare" (171). Later, the audience and band alike chew a "collective 'could'" as they share the music's possibilities.
Thrown and throne. The crossroads of this homonym is that of postmodern dispersion, which Mackey practices as a poet, and erotic authority. Mackey would argue for the necessity of dispersion and difference in attempting juncture; indeed, this is the basis of his theory of discrepant engagement. The distance of DB from Djamilaa in the final chapter, "The Creaking of the Word," make his connection with her all the more desirable:

It was as though Djamilaa, even while playing the horn, threw her voice by way of a boomerang trickster thread. This trickster thread, moreover, was a telepathic tether which tied the two of us to one another, a roundabout, circulatory "soul serenade" . . . .She was my flung partner it seemed, made to fly away from me only to be pulled back once she'd gone as far as our stretched arms would allow. This dance, the mimed ingestion of seperation we enacted, made for a thrown, dislocated intervention . . . .a punning sense of far-flung investiture: thrown = throne. Djamilaa was clearly my Bedouin Queen. (187)

The New American Writing website is www.newamericanwriting.com.

Ian Monk: Family Archaeology

Ian Monk is a brilliant Oulipian born near London in 1960. He's included in The Oulipo Compendium (Atlas Press, 1998), edited by Harry Mathews and Alistair Brotchie. Method as genial madness is part of Oulipo's claim. It has traditionally valued the production of writing forms rather than the systematic employment of its established forms for the creation of Literature.

Monk's 2004 book, Family Archaeology, is an amazing piece of work, not only as method but also for its thetic purposiveness. The lengthy title poem consists of squared incremental counted verse (2 words to the line x 2 lines to the stanza x 2 stanzas; 3 words to the line x 3 lines x 3 stanzas, and so on until the poem ends at 10 x 10). At the same time, the poem's typesize decreases from 24 point to 18 to 14, concluding with something like 6 point). You have to read it to believe it. Refences to family are threaded through but are not systematic, accretionary, or cross-referential. One of my favorite works in the book is "A Ladder with Butterflies" (A Pananagrammatoum)." It consists of three formal systems: the pangram (a work containing all the letters of the alphabet), a pantoum, and an anagram. The first stanza is: Wild bite art flashed true. / What fired us, created lilt? / If salt tide laughter drew / Hearts judder we fail, tilt.

Kenneth Goldsmith writes of the book, "Once upon a time there was potential literature; now, thankfully, it's been realized. Ian Monk's concrete language hits you like a ton a bricks. As visual as it is verbal, Monk's quantification of the contemporary churns the mundane into the exotic. Charting the unknown turf of the normal, once again gab is new."

Harry Mathews: "The engagement with experience that these poems discover reveal a character of fire, a razor-sharp intellect, and a heart as big as Harrod's." Fire, as in the Heraclitean tradition of change, process, and indeterminacy that holds sway over the Other Tradition, even in its formalisms.

The book is published by Make Now Press, Los Angeles, edited by Ara Shirinyan.

Field Trip Cancelled

From Signs of the Times by Paul Hoover. Just published by The Alternative Press, 1207 Henry Street, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48104. Letter press on durable card stock. Strictly 4" by 6".

Where's the 757?

I like pictures, don't you? They're more immediate than poetry, which is often so hard to understand.

The first is a photo of the Pentagon after an American Airlines 757 struck the building on 9/11/01, causing damage mainly to the outer ring. The original rift in the building was comparatively small but the resulting fire caused the roof to fall roughly 40 minutes later. The outline of the airplane indicates the size of a 757. Some commentators find it interesting that there isn't more lateral damage, such as the wings might have caused. Some of the materials on the ground outside the building are wooden telecommunications spools, which remained undamaged.

The second photo, taken by James Ingersoll, shows the same area of the Pentagon from the other side. You can see debris at the top and a charred rift where this enormous airplane, full of fresh airplane fuel, struck the Pentagon. You can see smoke stains on the third ring but not the second ring. How is this possible? How can the same amount of gasoline cause the fall of the World Trade Towers and not more damage here? Hey, physics are beyond me. I'm a poet!

So that it might not appear that this blog is supporting conspiracy theories such as are found on numerous "Where's the 757?" sites, I am attaching a painting by Titian of Mary Magdalene and Jesus following his resurrection. This famous "noli me tangere" scene has been depicted by many painters, from Hans Holbein to Fra Angelico. It's also a theme of Cole Swensen's poetry book TRY (University of Iowa Press, 1999). Mary Magdalene tried to touch Jesus, but he said, "Don't touch me." Likewise, the terrorists tried to strike the Pentagon, but their effort was half-hearted, as only a minor section, then unoccupied except for construction workers, suffered injury. The Pentagon must have been declaring "noli me tangere"!

Art and politics are interesting subjects. I don't know much about them, but I know what I like. And the Titian is great. If I didn't know better, I'd comment on erotic overtones arising from the comparative state of undress of Our Savior.

There is no beauty in the Pentagon photos. Terror doesn't inspire beauty; it creates only ugly things.

My Kind of Town: Local Literary Community

Presented at panel on The Academy and Local Literary Culture, Associated Writing Programs Conference, March 27, 2004. Panelists: Mary Margaret Sloan, Devin Johnston, Alan Golding, and Paul Hoover. Published in Chicago Review 51.3 (Autumn 2005): 173-177.

I moved from rural Indiana to Chicago in 1968 and lived in Uptown, South Shore, Lincoln Park, East Rogers Park, and West Rogers Park for 26 years, long enough to feel a part of its various local conditions. In 1971, based on the 15 poems I’d written, I was accepted into the first class of the Program for Writers at University of Illinois Chicago, founded by Paul Carroll. Up to that point, my reading in poetry was what I could find in the Chicago Public Library: Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke, Galway Kinnell, William Carlos Williams, and the Irish poet Thomas Kinsella. Paul Carroll and my classmates immediately expanded my reading but it didn’t reflect the local condition; that is, I was not led to reading local poets except for Paul himself and his recent discovery Bill Knott (first published as St. Giraud, “a virgin and a suicide”). The most important turn in my reading may have come when a classmate dropped Ron Padgett’s Great Balls of Fire on a conference table in Adams Hall. The work was so different from that of Roethke and Plath that it reordered my experience of poetry. I didn’t plunge completely into the New York School, nor did I remain where I was. I’m thankfully still in passage, within and among a number of heavy planets: Deep Image, surrealist, the English Metaphysicals as well as the American (Dickinson), Williams and Stevens, Vallejo and Neruda, language poetry, Ashbery and Schuyler, Lorine Niedecker, Thomas Traherne, Robert Creeley, Zukofsky’s “A-14,” Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore’s “The Fish,” Oulipo procedures, and Gwendolyn Brooks’amazing vocalizations and close rhymes, as seen in “I Love Those Little Booths at Benevuti’s.” None of the above, including the “local” poet Brooks, were of my place. She lived on the South Side, and I lived on the North Side, which are virtually different cities. But I came to possess them. Was Williams important to Rutherford in his own time, except as a doctor of medicine? Did his next-door neighbors care? But the arrival of spring in his back yard was important to poetry. Were Dickinson and Traherne necessarily of their place? Do we read the poet for the place? Or does the poet read the place for the essential?

In 1971, with Dean Faulwell and Jim Leonard, I founded the poetry magazine OINK! Maxine Chernoff joined as an editor with issue five; by number seven she and I were alone in the effort. The magazine ran for 19 issues before tranforming into New American Writing, now in its 21st issue. To what extent were they, are they, Chicago magazines? Most of its editors were from elsewhere and all were to wind up elsewhere. The editorial policy contained no recognizable influence of Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, Vachel Lindsay, Eugene Field, The Cliff Dwellers Club, Richard Wright or The Masses. Was Richard Wright a Chicago author? Nelson Algren was a Chicago writer, until he grew sick at heart, sold his belongings at a yard sale (one of our friends bought his radio), and moved to New Jersey. Why New Jersey? Because it’s more like Chicago than Manhattan? Kenneth Rexroth left Chicago. Even Saul Bellow packed his bags. Gwendolyn Brooks was a great Chicago poet, and she wrote of its places, like the Mecca. Who are the Chicago poets today? Bin Ramke of Denver, Mark Strand of New York City, Li-Young Lee of China and Malaysia, Marvin Bell of Iowa City, Albert Goldbarth of Wichita, Stuart Dybek of Kalamazoo, Elaine Equi and Jerome Sala of New York City, Paul Hoover and Maxine Chernoff of San Francisco, Andrew Zawacki of Warren, Pennyslvania, Luis Rodriguez of East Los Angeles, Sandra Cisneros of San Antonio, Devin Johnston of St. Louis, and Maureen Seaton of Miami Beach, to name a few. The leading Chicago poet is Mark Strand, that’s that. Who will butcher the hogs and stack the wheat? When Algren left town, the Chicago media suggested that Algren, like Keats, had been killed by a review, the lack of one in the Chicago media. But the Chicago reviewers have always treated me very respectfully.

Since 1994, my primary residence has been in San Francisco. From that time until this fall, I commuted to teach in Chicago, where I taught a double load in the fall semester of each year (5 classes), ran a reading series with 8-10 annual events, took responsibility for two poetry magazines, and coordinated a growing undergraduate poetry program. The resulting distance from both Chicago and San Francisco created uncertainty about my place and hurt me politically, especially in my workplace.

For years, Chicago was a fly-over city. The real world of literature existed on the coasts. Chicago’s main poetry event used to be Poetry Day sponsored by Poetry. In 1972, at the suggestion of Paul Carroll, a few of us including Lisel Mueller, Mark Perlberg, and Martha Friedberg founded The Poetry Center at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The idea was to bring poets to Chicago to read their work. For the same reason, to leap high enough to connect with what was not local, Maxine and I published New American Writing, sponsored a reading series at Links Hall, and served on the board of The Poetry Center. San Francisco comes ready-made. Someone else did the work of building (Kenneth Rexroth, the Duncan and Spicer circles, and so on). Chicago remained to be built.

Are San Francisco authors more sophisticated than those from Chicago? Are they really French; that is, French Communists? All my neighbors are Buddhist including the poet Jane Hirshfield, the personal injury lawyer Milt Weiss, who owned Fantasy Records when Ginsberg recorded “Howl” on that label, and his wife Joan, who has backed her car into our car four times and once into the house. That’s my local condition, like fog in the evening, crane flies cruising the wall, and Stellar Jays in the yard terrorizing the cat. In Chicago, it’s walking to Pizano’s for deep dish pizza, hot and cold air that strikes you a blow, and a surprisingly good poetry section at the Borders on Michigan. D.T. Suzuki writes that Buddhism and the mysticism of Meister Eckhart are related. My upbringing in Midwestern German Pietism may have been relevant after all, preparing me for life in San Francisco. When Maxine and I invited our first Mill Valley friends for dinner, we served pork loin. Our guests stared at the dish in amazement. This was food from another climate. The work of the Spanish poets, Robert Bly tells us, is fleshed and blooded. Do I admire the Spanish poets because I’m German? The history of poetry includes pork loin, watercress soup, and starvation. Can I sprinkle a little realism over that dish?

For many years in Chicago, my role as a teacher, editor, organizer of poetry readings, and poet was to encourage openness to the “new.” I was free to do what I wanted with New American Writing, as a poet, and in the classroom. But I was made conscious of my limitations when it came to the English Department’s reading series. The warning shot came from the former Chair of the English Department when he stated his dislike of a presentation by language poet Bob Perelman. It was elitist, he said with anger. The Chair had been doing some stand-up comedy on the weekends and had an idea of the popular taste. Are the Marxists now the elitists, even the vulgar ones? I was careful thereafter to put a balanced face on the reading series, with a reading by Gerald Stern and Li-Young Lee next to one by Michael Palmer and Ann Lauterbach. My best students were sometimes puzzled. They liked the Palmer and Lauterbach better, and so did I. But I had to be fair.

When I won an NEA Fellowship in poetry in 1980, the literary director of the Illinois Arts Council said that I’d won because I didn’t write like a Chicagoan. How exactly does a Chicagoan write? Is it different from the Pittsburgh style?

Which brings us to the academy. For many years, I taught at an open-admissions arts and communications college in the South Loop that had a large enrollment of first-generation college students. In Auden’s terms, we were throwing the little streets upon the great, and it was working. My poetry students were being accepted into the country’s leading MFA programs—Brown, Bard, Columbia University, University of Iowa, Bennington—and were becoming known in the world (Elaine Equi and Mary Jo Bang). At the same time, the poetry I had supported, a mélange of New York School and language poetry, was coming into its own. Charles Bernstein held a chair at SUNY/Buffalo, Bob Perelman was an Associate Professor at Penn, Ann Lauterbach joined Ashbery at Bard, and Mary Jo Bang was tenure-track at Washington University. Even the avant-garde of the 1950s—Creeley, Ginsberg, Baraka, Ashbery, Levertov, and Snyder—held academic positions. By the mid-90s, notable poets of the former mainstream like Jorie Graham and Brenda Hillman were being impacted by the new style. This hybrid approach was becoming dominant even at the most sacrosanct of MFA programs, The Iowa Program for Writers. Had the little streets defeated the great? Or had the great assimilated what they needed to hold sway? Perhaps the usual thing had happened, a revolution of the word for the post-1975 and post-1989 generations.

How does this shift in poetics relate to locality? Aren’t New York and San Francisco supposed to be the places for experiment? Ghettos of the avant-garde? Palaces of innuendo and vivacity? Would the Chicago Adam eat of it, and who is the Eve of postmodern seduction? Michael Palmer or Marc Smith, the founder of Poetry Slams? A former student attending the Penn State MFA program reported that her poetry instructor returned from a San Francisco vacation three years ago with the news that something called language poetry was going on there. “Do you think it will come here, too?” the instructor asked with fear in her voice.

I have a print-out from a Chicago poetry website that shows the incredible growth of experimental poetry in Chicago in recent years: The Discrete Series, the Danny's Tavern series, the Chicago Poetry Project, the Myopic Poetry Series, Chicago Review and Conundrum. To that list, I would add Flood Editions, edited by Devin Johnston and Michael O’Leary, Peter O’Leary’s magazine LVNG, Columbia Poetry Review as formerly constituted, Another Chicago Magazine at its most progressive, the recent arrivals of Margy Sloan and Bin Ramke, among others, and a new openness to such writing at School of the Art Institute and University of Chicago. There’s nearly as much experimental activity in Chicago as in San Francisco, and that’s saying something. One can now say, “Lisa Jarnot is in town” or “Ron Silliman’s reading at Chicago Poetry Project.” In this respect, the city has finally grown up.

The ironies of the bohemian versus the academic, the outsider and the insider, are a little tired. Poetry is practiced by all and in every social place. In the long run, at least, the best comes forward. The independent or non-academic position is charming—Lorine Niedecker on Lake Koshkoning, Carl Rakosi doing social work, the good Dr. Williams forcing a throat—but it is not necessarily a moral high ground. Jeremy Prynne teaches at Cambridge University, and his stuff is pretty weird. Modern poetry going back as far as Whitman and Dickinson has the pattern of the obscure, strange, and marginal rising to classic status. The classic I was taught in school was “Thanatopsis” by William Cullen Bryant. What was that about?

Community is complicated. Poetry rises from local conditions—the local universals of sun, seed, bed, and fire. The reader appears and disappears in a second. The mind sways in its own wind. Now and then the body remembers.

As a young poet in Chicago, my community consisted of several communities: The Yellow Press/Milk Quarterly group, the Stone Wind group (one of whom, Al Simmons, created the prototype of the Slam), the OINK! trio, the Ted Berrigan influence, the Paul Carroll influence, Gwendolyn Brooks and the Nommo Workshop, Michael Anania’s students at UIC, David Hernandez and Street Sounds, and so on. Everyone knew everyone else and would often read together. It felt cozy enough, but sometimes there was animosity. It was nothing like the impact of language poetry on the Bay Area, when Robert Duncan dragged Barrett Watten from the stage during his lecture on Louis Zukofsky. But my Chicago had its moments: the Surrealist attack on Robert Bly that ended in a fistfight and the arrival of police or the obscene Gregory Corso reading to a crowd of four hundred. His “Fuck you, you cocksuckers” rings down through the ages. One of my favorite scenes was when Jerome Sala, who was then drinking, crawled down an aisle of the Yves Bonnefoy reading at The Poetry Center and pulled on my sleeve for rescue. The guards stationed at each end of the aisle were waiting to throw him out. He and Elaine had been misbehaving in the cloakroom, shielded from the opaque intonations of our visiting French poet by a rack of heavy winter coats. Forgive me, Jerome, I failed to save you.

Each poet has his or her visionary company. It may or may not be local. It may begin in the local, like the youthful friendships at Penn of Ezra Pound, H.D., and William Carlos Williams. But it eventually must take to the greater stage. Recently my company has included Larry Eigner’s flowering distances. His work is suddenly dear to me, but not because he lived in San Francisco in his final years. It’s because I found one of his books in a store, opened to just the right poem, and entered silence and space. This is what Pound meant by the quality of a poem’s emotion. All else fades: the stipend for your magazine, the local influence you thought you wanted, and how many reviews your last book received. If with a clear eye, a future student carries as a loved object the magazine you edited or one good poem you would also admire, your company is expanded.
PH: March 23,2004

Good Morning, Mrs. Garcia

Good Morning, Mrs. Garcia

Your son just died in Iraq.
He was a loyal soldier,
And it’s such a beautiful day.
We’re sorry for your loss,
But tell us, if you will,
How does it make you feel?
Look into the camera.
This is a microphone.
Please tell us about his death.
Maybe you’d feel better
If you cried into the camera.
That’s it, let it go. Project
Your feelings as naturally
As you can. Now stand
A little closer, lift your chin.
You’re doing very well.
Your son died in Iraq.
He was a Boy Scout once.
He liked to sing at school.
Describe in your own words
How it feels to lose a son
In the dust and rubble
Of a foreign country.
Lots of good men die
preserving our freedoms.
I know you must be proud.
This great nation of ours
Is the reason we go to war.
It’s men like Fernando who
Go that extra mile, so tell us,
Please, exactly how you feel.


This poem also appears on the website www.nthposition.com.

Nguyen Trai

Nguyen Trai (1380-1442) is one of the great poets of Vietnamese history. He is a national hero not only for his poetry but also for contributing to the ouster of the Chinese Ming Dynasty, which had ruled over the country for centuries. He was chief advisor and strategist for Le Loi, who was to become Vietnam's first emperor, but his political fortunes were uneven. Fearful of Nguyen Trai's influence because his maternal grandfather had been an important minister at court, Le Loi would name him to positions lower than he deserved and sometimes drive him from court altogether. At such times, Nguyen Trai would seek solace in a mountain retreat. After the death of Le Loi, Nguyen Trai retired from public life, but he still had enemies at the court. When Le Loi's son, the new emperor, suddenly died while visiting the estate of Nguyen Trai, the great poet was wrongly accused of poisoning him. As a result, he and three entire generations of his family were beheaded. The only person in his bloodline to survive was a son with whom one of his concubines was pregnant.

The Vietnamese poet Nguyen Do and I have translated over 50 of Nguyen Trai's poems from Han (ancient Chinese). Our plan is to translate 200 of his poems altogether, roughly 75 of which were written in Vietnamese Chinese, or Nom. Nom is now largely unused due to French colonial interference. See today's New York Times, page A4, for a description of John Balaban's translations from Nom of the two other classic poets of Vietnam, Nguyen Du and Ho Xuan Huong.

Here are two Nguyen Trai poems, written in traditional form. They are among nine of his poems to appear in the forthcoming New American Writing 24.

Closing the Seaport

All at the same level, wooden poles are driven into the waves;
Ironically, the river is safest in its net of chains.
Like a king deposed by his people, a boat spins as it sinks beneath the water’s power.
It’s not right to depend on a particular place; our fates are up to the creator.
Less than a day’s work results in both the fortunate and the hapless.
Even a hero’s faults and sorrows will live for thousands of years.
From the past to the present, the creator’s philosophy varies as much
As the color in eternity of water and smoke.

To a Friend

My fate naturally has many twists and sharp turns,
So in everything I trust in the wisdom of God.
I still have my tongue—believe me, I am able to talk,
Even though I’m still poor and, as we know, pathetic.
Never to return, the past flies too quickly and the time is short,
But, wandering in this cold room, the night is far too long.
I’ve been reading books for ten years, but I’m poor from clothes to bone
From eating only vegetables and sitting without a cushion.

Karl Rove's Election Game Plan

Not to be a pessimist, but here's what the Republicans are setting up for the November election:
(1) They have created two red herrings to divert attention from the country's real problems and to arouse, as before, nativist fears and prejudices. On the international level, it's the supposed Iran nuclear threat. On the domestic scene, the play is for nativist resentment against immigrants. The Hispanic version of "The Star Spangled Banner" becomes the conservative rallying point, just as gay marriage and racism did in previous elections. This is the perverse Zen of Karl Rove; he knows how to create reactions in liberal quarters that show them to be everything that red state consciousness had feared. No expensive ad space is required, since the news stations willingly seize on such imagined controversies as the "real," and liberals do most of the work of their self-destruction.
(2) A Bin Laden tape appears one week before election day. This happened in the last election. Now ask yourself, why would Bin Laden be so unsophisticated as to release a tape at such a crucial time, knowing that it can only benefit the Republican election campaign?
(3) Bush makes the appearance of being reasonable on Iraq by withdrawing some troops a month before the election.
(4) Oil prices go down in July and August to $2.50 a gallon and remain there until after the election. By the following April they are be back at $3.50 or higher. Republican poll numbers start quickly climbing.
(5) The coup de grace: Diebold goes into action wherever the congressional race is close.
"Winter (From a Dream)": Yosa Buson, 1716-1783
Two villages,
with one pawnshop between them--
in a winter grove.
Translated by Steven D. Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford UP, 1991)
Note of interest from Anne Carson's Economy of the Unlost (Princeton UP, 1999) on the fifth century B.C. poet Simonides of Keos (the first poet to professionalize his art), Paul Celan, and gift economies:
"Phidias the sculptor worked on the chryselephantine sculpture of Athena in Athens for 5,000 drachmas per year, out of which he had to pay himself, his workmen and his production costs. And Herodotos tells us of a successful doctor whose annual salary was 6,000 drachmas when he lived in Aegina, 12,000 drachmas when he lived on Samos, and 10,000 drachmas when he lived in Athens. This same amount, 10,000 drachmas, was the fee commanded by Pindar for a single dithyramb compose in honor of the Athenians. Meanwhile, Gorgias the sophist required his students to pay him 10,000 drachmas apiece for a single course in rhetoric and made enough money this way to erect a solid gold statue of himself in the precinct of Apollo at Delphi." Later Carson notes, "It has been estimated that 10,000 drachmas would have been equivalent to about twenty-eight years of work for a laborer at one drachma per diem."

Sylvia Plath and Tuna Salad

There has been a dedicated campaign from the right and center of poetry to impact the modernist canon. The first goal is accessibility, as opposed to the "difficulties" of modernism; the second, I fear, is cultural change. The major players are Dana Gioia of the NEA, John Barr of The Poetry Foundation (with funding from Ruth Lilly), Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry, and Garrison Keillor of NPR. Here is a quotation from Keillor's introduction to his anthology, Good Poems:

"When you compare Bishop to, say, her friend and mentor Marianne Moore, the mentor pales severely. Marianne Moore was a dotty old aunt whose poems are quite replicable for anyone with a thesaurus. A nice lady, but definitely a plodder, and it would be cruel punishment to have to write a book about her. Her contemporary, Edna St. Vincent Millay, who played the glamorous broad and taxi dancer to Moore's bunhead librarian, wrote more that is still of interest, whereas Moore's reputation must be due to the fact that, in the republic of letters, there are many more Moores than Millays. From Millay it's a straight shot to Anne Sexton, a writer of profound exuberance and wit and a hot number, and her cohort, the beautiful horsekeeper, Maxine Kumin, two women who, forgive me, make St. Sylvia Plath look like a tuna salad."

This passage is as rich in sexist stereotypes as Where's Waldo? is in Waldo. Moore's "The Fish" is filled with sensual and linguistic detail. Sensual, as in "of the senses" not as in "glamorous broad." The poem begins:

The Fish

through black jade.
Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
adjusting the ash-heaps;
opening and shutting itself like

injured fan.

Where's the difficulty? It's one fierce, attentive, sympathetic seeing after another. The fish are underwater, of course, in an aquarium. In their slow swimming, they seem to "wade "through decorative black jade placed by an aquarium designer. A crow-blue (nice!) mussel opens and shuts like an injured fan, the force of which adjusts the grey sand (poetic license: ash) at the bottom of the tank. The poem's eye is public. Its music is evident but has a secret--the lines of each stanza are measured as follows: first line, one syllable; second line, three; third line, nine; fourth line, six; fifth line, eight. Moore is, yes, something of a formalist, but an eccentric and inventive one. Moore's talent does not exclude that of Bishop. As their biographies reveal, Millay and Sexton were actively, almost frenetically sexual, therefore what, easy to understand as poets? The erotic comes in many forms including the sublimated, and eroticism is not, at any rate, a reasonable standard for a poem.

As for the more beautiful woman poet, Sylvia Plath or the "horsekeeper" Maxine Kumin (there's nothing like the odor of the stables to get your D. H. Lawrence up), we must judge for ourselves.

Performance and Silence

“Another use for silence: furnishing or aiding speech to attain its maximum integrity or seriousness. Everyone has experienced how, when punctuated by long silences, words weigh more; they become almost palpable. Or how, when one talks less, one begins feeling more fully one's physical presence in a given space.” -Susan Sontag, “The Aesthetics of Silence”

Performance poetry values the performance of a work over its composition, presentation over substance. It’s poetry of the sound bite, photo op, and talking head presidency.


Performance poetry is as “composed” as any other literary work, but it’s created as a script for performance rather than an isolated text, its voice muffled in dusty libraries. As for the sound bite, the soul of poetry has always been compression. It’s true that performance poetry has a large audience, the better to distribute pleasure and instruction.


In the 1980s America not only produced shoddy products but also came to prefer them. Performance poems represent the institutionalization of inferior products. In this respect, they resemble what Donald Hall calls "McPoems," tasteless and bland pseudo-poems that mainly communicate their urgency to be poetic.

There are good performance poems and bad ones, like any other mode. In fact, poetry slams have a better way of establishing poetry’s value, by means of applause, judges from the audience, and a scoring system.

The purpose of performance art was to challenge the preciousness of the art object, to decommodify it. But in the United States, the more an art form opposes commodity, the more likely it is to gain commodity status. This happened with rock and roll, outsider poetry including the Beats, and hip hop and rap music. In its emphasis on what will play with the audience, performance poetry makes an unashamed appeal to poetry’s commodity potential.

To communicate a poem isn’t to “commodify” it, your favorite word. Performance poetry simply heightens the vocalism inherent in poetry generally, as seen in traditional lyrics like “Ding dong bell, pussy's in the well.” Those who attack performance poetry are afraid of confronting the awesome power of words when they are properly communicated.

With the dominance of marketing motives over philosophical and moral purpose comes the risk of audience manipulation and even demagoguery. The author of Mein Kampf understood the secret of political speech-making:

“The receptivity of the great masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan.”

You’re reading Mein Kampf now?

Research only. I hide it in the closet.

It’s true that the voice has power and must be used to moral ends. One of the reasons that spoken word poetry is popular with multicultural audiences is that they can see themselves, for once, being heard. Jessica Hagedorn writes that the poetry reading is “detached and academic to me, visions of young women wearing tweed suits and tortoise-shell glasses, clearing their throats and ‘reading’ about their animas rising and libidos pulsating in trembling, Sarah Lawrence-type voices.” In other words, the placid reading is political, too, promoting the values of a culturally dominant class. Only by piercing the veil of decorum with her voice can the marginalized poet be heard.

Performance poetry reflects American culture’s love of instant gratification. It demands total ease of consumption, with little work on the part of the consumer. One hollow moment of entertainment follows another. In this, performance poetry resembles television.

As a mass medium of great power, television lends itself to the spoken word. Why not put it to use? Only in a Puritan country like the United States could a complaint be lodged against gratification. If poetry gratifies, all the better! The pleasure of poetry is not the amount of work required for understanding it, but the directness and immediacy of its report. Performance poetry provides that pleasure by means of the most traditional and beautiful of instruments, the voice.

Performance poetry emphasizes spectacle over other aspects of literature. Aristotle wrote, “The Spectacle has, indeed, an emotional attraction of its own, but, of all the parts (of the tragedy), it is the least artistic, and connected least with the art of poetry.” When a poet goes onstage as an actor, in personae and using costumes, he or she creates spectacle but not necessarily poetry.

Most performance poetry doesn’t require costumes, lights shows, and the other technologies of stagecraft. It is, quite simply, a poet filling space with mind and voice. An auditory spectacle, poetry has always related to the breath of a speaker, and it is only by means of performance that the oracular and musical properties of poetry are revealed. As Charles Olson wrote, “Breath allows all the speech-force of language back in (speech is the ‘solid’ of verse, is the secret of the poem’s energy).” By presenting no verbal spectacle, the poem as text gives poetry its well-earned reputation for dullness.

Like America in general, performance poetry is proudly anti-intellectual. Even the most bohemian poets of the previous generation—for example, Allen Ginsberg—saw themselves as part of an intellectual tradition, albeit against the grain. The current emphasis on performance is far more dismissive of text and satisfied with a low literacy level.

If the nation is sinking into illiteracy, it’s the fault of society as a whole, not performance poetry. Spoken word awakens the senses and cleanses the soul through song. The real problem is the refusal of poetry-as-text to accept its public role.

With its need to be understood in one listening, performance poetry works against complexity, reducing the poem to what can be declaimed. But much excellent poetry, from Marianne Moore to Hart Crane, doesn’t lend itself to oral recitation despite being ingeniously verbal. Why should complexity be valued? Because it is the only means of capturing the contradictions of experience.

Much performance poetry also has complexity—for instance, “the chapped lips of void kissing aureola’s perception” by Edwin Torres. It requires “close listening,” to use Charles Bernstein's title. But you must first acquire the ears to hear it. Roland Barthes writes on the “granularity” of the spoken word: “It is not the ‘clarity of the messages,’ but the blissful search for ‘pulsional incidents,’ the language lined with flesh, a text where we can hear the grain of the throat, the patina of consonants, the voluptuousness of vowels, a whole carnal stereophony: the articulation of the body, of the tongue, not that of meaning, of language.” Torres’ poetry is far from a simple declaratory oral poetics. It is complex and “abstract” in a manner reminiscent of dada sound poetry.

Performance poetry encourages amateurism. Literary expertise, even if innovative, is disdained as elitist. Such a low standard would be laughable in disciplines such as music, mathematics, philosophy, dance, and engineering. Why encourage it in poetry?


Performance poets read poetry all the time, but to a different purpose than poets who write for the page. Their words are seeking an immediate audience reaction, which has its own high standard of professionalism. You imply that the performance audience has limited intelligence. In fact, the audience is savvy about quality and, like fans of Italian opera, quick to disparage a poor performance.

Performance poetry is poetically conservative. This is an unexpected criticism, since slam poetry is strongly populated with multicultural figures. Nevertheless, slam poetry represents traditional values such as orality, narrative, clarity, closure, directness, and popular lyric sentiment, as well as the bardic and heroic stance of the poet. Also, much performance poetry is written in the middle or “Iowa School” style but performed in a more insistent and vocal manner.

It’s true that some slam poetry has mainstream values aesthetically. It’s easier to communicate with a narrative or dramatic base, using time, place, characters, and incident. But it is also forceful and convincing. At the same time, performance poets like Jackson Mac Low create work that’s innovative both as text and presentation.

Performance poetry misunderstands its own poetics. The first generation of postwar poets to emphasize performance—Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, and Jerome Rothenberg, among others—had a political rationale for their works. The difference between the first and second generations of the spoken word is that the latter can’t distinguish the poetics of Robert Creeley from that Maxine Kumin.

If the poem is to be served and not the ego of the poet, if we strictly judge a poem on its own merits rather than by the biography and group loyalties of the poet, poems by James Dickey and Maxine Kumin are as good as those by Ginsberg and Baraka. It’s not the kind of poem that matters; it’s how it impacts the wider audience. In this respect, performance poetry is far more democratic than the poem-as-text.

It has little impact if it’s lost on the air. The poem as text has far wider distribution over the long run.

That’s changing. Text is momentary, too, because communicated increasingly through websites and blogs.

Performance poetry participates in intellectual “downsizing.” In the 60s, there were numerous new aesthetics to ponder, from the Deep Image and Confessionalism to Surrealism and The New York School. Now there are only two vanguards: performance poetry, which delights in the spoken word, and language poetry, which emphasizes the written and theoretical. Poetry is reduced to its most extreme characteristics, and the radical center is lost.

What you call “the radical center” has no program except the lyric poem. Performance poetry and language poetry have simply reacted to poetry as they found it: directionless, boring, and rule-bound. Just listen to yourself—“radical center,” “innovative traditions,” what’s that all about?

Created largely for entertainment value, performance poetry often fails on the deeper, metaphysical level of enjoyment. In other words, it’s boring. Film director Andrej Tarkovsky commented that directors can be divided into two categories:

“those who strive to imitate the world they live in—to recreate the world that surrounds them—and the directors who create their own worlds. Those who create their own worlds are generally the poets. They are Bresson… Bergman... Bunuel...Kurosawa. They have trouble getting their films out because the audience is used to a symbolic non-existent film world—the result of the audience’s own interests and tastes. The directors I named are opposed to all this—that the taste of the audience should be the deciding factor—not because they want to be obscure, but because they want to listen secretly; to give expression to what is deep inside those we call the audience.”

The best poetry is exciting and challenging. Retaining its freshness on a second reading, it requires this secret listening on the part of the reader. But because of mass media, the culture increasingly lacks the reflection and silence necessary to secret listening.

The concept of “secret listening” is appealing, but limits itself to readers, and it values only the prayerful hermetic mode, which collaborates with power. Tarkovsky’s films were made by and for an elite, who study them like a text. Some spoken word poetry is difficult to comprehend as text, too, but when it’s performed everything is clarified by the speaker’s voice, which announces intention, timbre, and emotional scale. In other words, voice gives us meaning’s boundaries. This is true even when the performed poem contains what Nick Piombino calls “aural ellipsis” or gaps in meaning.

Poems have their most important performance at the moment of composition, not in recitation. Even improvisation is a form of writing. The best poetry is voiced as a silence. When the voice is in excess of the poem, when it’s theatrical, disbelief sets in, and the audience feels the hollowness of the communication. Written or performed, poetry takes place on the stage of the mind, where the lighting and stagecraft are unmatched.

I know you write the histories. But you’ll never have the last word on this. The shamanist / showmanist aspect of language, the spoken word, is being practiced all around you, by cab drivers, stand-up comedians, and waitresses. It comes in living color and demands to be heard. Why do you think Kerouac is still a best-seller, while the mid-list author goes quickly out of print? Because it’s spoken word disguised as a novel!

[long pause]

Are you there?

Silence: [silence]

Performance: Hey! [bangs phone on table]

Silence: [more silence]

Performance: Damn it! [hangs up]

Silence: [very long silence]

Works Cited

Bernstein, Charles. “Introduction.” Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word. Ed. Charles Bernstein. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Flood, Charles Bracelen. Hitler: The Path to Power. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1989.

Hagedorn, Jessica. “Makebelieve Music.” The Poetry Reading. Ed. Stephen Vincent. San Francisco: Momo's Press, 1981.

McCaffery, Steve. “The Aural Ellipsis and the Nature of Listening in Contemporary Poetry.” Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word. Ed. Charles Bernstein. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Olson, Charles. “Projective Verse.” Selected Writings, Ed. by Robert Creeley. New York: New Directions, 1966.

Tarkovsky, Andrej. Sculpting in Time. Trans. Kitty Hunter-Blair. Austin: University of Texas
Press, 1989.

Torres, Edwin. “Dig on the Decade.” Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Ed. Bob Holman. New York: Henry Holt, 1994.

The Fate of Poetry

Presented at the annual poetry meeting of the Chinese Writers Association in Da Li, Yunnan Province, China, on May 16, 2005. Translated into Chinese by Baolin Cheng.

We are here to discuss the “plight of poetry” and what is to be done about it. Our theme suggests that poetry is in trouble and perhaps losing its authority to communicate. This is a common theme in our time of mass media.

I don't believe that poetry is in any more trouble now than it was in 1798, when Coleridge and Wordsworth created English Romanticism with a single volume, The Lyrical Ballads, or the 12th century, when Ibn Sara wrote the beautiful poem “Eggplant” in the shape of an eggplant, or 1955, when Allen Ginsberg produced “A Supermarket in California.” Poetry is here to stay, and I see no social condition or historical upheaval that is likely to diminish it. Great wars come and go and poetry survives, acquiring new idioms along the way. Yeats made the point beautifully in “Lapis Lazuli”: “All things fall and are built again, / and those that build them again are gay.” The maker’s delight transcends the wrath of its time.

“Lapis Lazuli” was written one year before Yeats’ death in 1939, the year that World War II began in Europe. He knew the war was coming and looked straight through it, into time and the human personality.

The poet’s business is everything that exists. It’s a big job. He is no god and rarely a prophet, but he can trace the gods’ passing. Maxine Chernoff and I have been translating the work of Hölderlin, who desired contact with the gods and whose legend claims the gods destroyed him:

And let me confess

I approached to see the gods,
And they themselves threw me down beneath the living,
False priest that I am, into the dark, that I
Sing my warning song to those who can be taught.

(From “As When on Holiday . . .”)

The closest that most of us get to the gods is our experience of time: birth, love, aging, and death. We can feel the movement of time in the mirror, in the passing of seasons, and in the cadences of our poems. The poet’s business is sound engineering, time management, and painting in words.

I recently wrote that poetry resists experience, meaning that experience is transformed in poetry to something like fate. Something occurs in language that seems suddenly inevitable or “necessary.” Even in accounts of the everyday like Frank O’Hara’s famous Lunch Poems, poems are closer to myth than they are to experience.

We keep hearing that language is inadequate to the world. This is a sentimental notion. As Shakespeare, among others, shows so magnificently, language is perfectly capable of saying anything. Language doesn’t fail poets; poets too often fail the language. I read that the U.S. diplomat George Kennan was such an elegant writer that his boss, John Foster Dulles, asked a dull-minded diplomat to rewrite his memos so Dulles would not be too persuaded by them. Language, especially poetry, can capture worlds the world didn’t know it had. Wallace Stevens wrote that poetry “freshens experience.” It clarifies, elucidates, and unveils. Ironically, it can unveil by means of opacity and paradox.

In our country, perhaps in yours, there is a perceived struggle between traditional or folk values and commodity culture. Commodity culture is winning, and one reason is its manipulative use of language. The advertising culture persuades us to desire, and to possess things that we do not need. This is not news. The genius of our current administration has been to convince the average citizen that commodity culture is traditional value. The television news carries stories on how well the stores are doing during the Christmas sales season, as if that were important for us to know. The American avant-garde may be perceived as decadent—the excesses of the Beat writers like Ginsberg and Burroughs, for instance—but there’s a strong moral strain in such writing that opposes war, commodity culture, and the manipulations of mass media. The genius of the Beats is that they understood how to use the mass media to do so.

You can write a poem about anything. Every surface has its depth, for, as Emerson wrote, “Under every deep a lower deep opens.” In Gennady Aygi’s snowy fields, the wind ticks in a seedpod. We hear the experience across two or three languages, and we know what to feel. Even loss is a gain for poetry, because the “all” counts. There is no plight, no shortage of life. Despite the triumph of existentialism and the conditionality of truth, poetry always stirs back toward those essences where the indefinable lurks, and we have an intimation of that place and condition Hölderlin called “Abgrund.” Abgrund is the Ur-ground, or soil, from which everything else is generated. In English, we use the word “abyss,” which is misleading in suggesting a vast hole in the ground. Abgrund is the place of necessity and fate, and it is not to be toyed with. It is significance itself. Now and then poetry needs a fresh blast from it.

A Dante or Li Po doesn’t show up every day, and when they do we often don’t know they are among us. The plight of Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins was belatedness and invisibility—they died before their work was known. But today any serious reader of poetry in English knows them well enough. It’s the poets of smaller vision who are forgotten. William Carlos Williams’ influential volume Spring and All (1923) was published in an edition of only 300 copies. Only a handful of William Blake’s illuminated books were produced because, at the time, few people had any interest in them. Now they are among the great books of the world.

The fate of the poet is to exist both in and out of his own world. Keats felt a loss of identity when he watched some sparrows pecking about in the gravel. Imagination takes us out of ourselves. It layers and deepens experience. That’s the happiness of language, which gives us words as shadows of the things they represent, real things in their shapeliness, and finally the real shadows cast by the sun that inspire the word “shadow.”