Stephen Ratcliffe: Reading the Unseen

Stephen Ratcliffe has published a Shakespeare study with Counterpath Press of Denver, which will issue Beyond the Court Gate: Selected Poems of Nguyen Trai, edited and translated by Nguyen Do and me, in Spring 2010.

Reading the Unseen: (Offstage) Hamlet is now out from Counterpath Press. 216 pages. ISBN 978-1933996141. $17.95. Order from Counterpath ( or Small Press Distribution (

"Stephen Ratcliffe’s beautiful meditation on what does not happen in Hamlet offers a fascinating view of the play, focusing on the unperformable but nevertheless essential action, recounted events, the actions that words create and that remain words, but that also enable and explain the business of the drama. This book will be compulsive reading for anyone who cares about Shakespeare." — Stephen Orgel

"Stephen Ratcliffe’s new study of Hamlet is nothing short of a small miracle. A poet’s 'language book’ . . . for all seasons and all readers.” — Marjorie Perloff

"What's unseen but said's as consequent as what's apparent but unspoken, as Stephen Ratcliffe shows in this beguilingly original study. Shakespeare's words perform for an inner eye we overlook at pleasure's peril." — Charles Bernstein

“This book does the best job I have seen at showing just how Shakespeare gave shape to what we now know as the modern imagination. Written by a poet, and a very powerful one, it will benefit anyone who has ever looked at the Prince of Denmark and wondered Who’s there?” — Ron Silliman

Reading with Norman Fischer at Moe's

I'll be reading from Sonnet 56 at Moe's in Berkeley on Tuesday, October 20th, 7:30 p.m. This is the official Bay Area event for the book, which consists of 56 versions of Shakespeare's sonnet 56. Only a couple of the versions are sonnets, "Noun Plus Seven" and "Homosyntactic Translation," for instance. Included are "Haikuisation," "Chat Group," "Course Description," "Qasida," "Digression," and "Villanelle."

Moe's Books
2476 Telegraph Avenue
Berkeley (510) 849-2087

Tuesday, October 20th 7:30:
Paul Hoover and Norman Fischer
Paul Hoover is the author of twelve books of poetry including Sonnet 56 (Les Figues Press, 2009), Edge and Fold (Apogee Press, 2006), and Poems in Spanish (Omnidawn, 2005), which was nominated for the Bay Area Book Award. With Maxine Chernoff, he edited and translated Selected Poems of Friedrich Hölderlin (Omnidawn Publishers, 2008). With Nguyen Do, he edited and translated the anthology Black Dog, Black Night: Contemporary Vietnamese Poetry (Milkweed Editions, 2008). Beyond the Court Gate: Poems of Nguyen Trai, edited and translated with Nguyen Do, will be published by Counterpath Press in 2010.

Norman Fischer is a poet, essayist, writer, and senior Zen Buddhist priest from the San Francisco Bay Area. His latest poetry collection is Questions/Places/Voices/ Seasons, just out from Singing Horse Press in San Diego, and his latest prose work is Sailing Home: Using the Wisdom of Homer's Odyssey to Navigate Life's Perils and Pitfalls (Simon and Schuster, 2008). Norman lived at the San Francisco Zen Center temples for twenty-five years, and served as an abbot of the Center from 1995-2000. In 2000 he founded the Everyday Zen Foundation. He lives with his wife Kathie on a cliff in Muir Beach.

Hoang Hung Protests Violence Against Buddhists

Left to Right: Hoang Hung, Paul Hoover, Bei Dao (2003)

Please take a look at the New York Times article of yesterday regarding the petition of Vietnamese poet Hoang Hung for an investigation of violence against 400 young monks at a renowned Vietnamese monastery, as described below.

"Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese-born Zen master who popularized Buddhism in the West, wrote a letter last week to President Nguyen Minh Triet in which he criticized the police who evicted nearly 400 of his followers from a monastery -- the first time the teacher has spoken out about the incident. His followers say a mob including undercover police descended on the Bat Nha monastery in Lam Dong province on Sept. 27, damaged buildings and forced the monastics out, beating some with sticks" (NY Times, 10/9/09).

The full article is at:

Hoang Hung is a leading Vietnamese poet and translator. With Nguyen Do, he has translated the work of Allen Ginsberg for publication in Vietnam. His poetry is included in Black Dog, Black Night: Contemporary Vietnamese Poetry (Milkweed Editions, 2008), which I edited with Nguyen Do.

The following has a link to the petition, for those who wish to sign.
Author: Hoàng Hưng

RE: Bát Nhã Incident

Respectfully addressing all those who care for the fate of 400 young monks, nuns and aspirants living in Bát Nhã Monastery, Lâm Đồng, Vietnam.

On the initiative of a number of friends, on the 5th October 2009, a petition addressing the incident of the attack on Bát Nhã Monastery has just been sent to the office of the Chairman of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the office of the Prime Minister of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and the office of the Parliament of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. This petition has the first 67 signatures, amongst them many leading scholars, artists and authors, from well known newspapers inside and outside of the country.

In order to ensure the quick passing of the content of the letter to the President, the Prime Minister, and the Chairman of the Parliament, in addition to following official channels, we have respectfully asked Bauxitevietnam website, Talawas blog, Diễn Đàn forum, and news channels BBC, RFI, RFA to broadcast it.

We are still continuing to receive additional signatures for this petition to add on to the petition we have already sent to the leaders of Vietnam. We may be contacted at this e-mail:

thinhnguyenbatnha@gmail.comHYPERLINK ""

We respectfully thank each and everyone for your attention to this petition and eagerly await your support.

On behalf of all those who signed first,
Hoàng Hưng

Poetry Reading on Mt. Tamalpais

I'll be reading with poets Kay Ryan (current U.S. Poet Laureate), Jane Hirshfield, and Joanne Kyger, in a benefit for the California Poetry in the Schools, Saturday, October 10, 1-4 p.m., at the Cushing Ampitheater on Mt. Tamalpais. Tickets are $22. The event is hosted by Albert Flynn DeSilver and introduced with the help of Dana Teen Lomax.

Sonnet 56 (Los Angeles: Les Figues Press)

Here's the Small Press Distribution description of my new book, Sonnet 56, parts of which I've placed on this blog over the last year. What a beautiful book Les Figues Press created; I'm delighted with it. The image above includes the front and back cover. Many thanks to Ian Monk for his introduction to the work. The official book party will be at Moe's Books of Berkeley on October 20, 7 p.m. (with Norman Fischer). The book contains only a handful of sonnets, such as "Noun Plus Seven" and "Homosyntactic Translation." The rest are in other forms, including the villanelle, tanka, haiku, blues, qasida, and crossword puzzle.
The Small Press Distribution order page is:
The Les Figues order page is

Poetry. Paul Hoover's SONNET 56 mixes Love, Poetry and Shakespeare in a marvelous grab bag of form, wit and playfulness. Starting with Shakespeare's sonnet 56--"Sweet love, renew thy force, be it not said / Thy edge should blunter be than appetite"--Hoover writes 56 poetic variations, turning Shakespeare's sonnet into a series of new (and traditional) forms, including: "Villanelle," "Noun Plus Seven," "Limerick," "Blues," "Course Description," "Flarf," "Imagist," "Tanka," "Answering Machine," "Rilke," "Morse Code" and "Bad Writing." The result is tender portrayal of love and an excellent survey of the possibilities within contemporary poetry. SONNET 56 is published as part of the TrenchArt: Maneuvers Series, with an Introduction by Ian Monk and visual art by VD Collective.

Author Hometown: MILL VALLEY, CA USA

About the author: Paul Hoover is the author of eleven books of poetry. He is the editor of the anthology Postmodern American Poetry (W. W. Norton, 1994) and, with Maxine Chernoff, the annual literary magazine NEW AMERICAN WRITING. His collection of literary essays, Fables of Representation, was published in the Poets on Poetry series of University of Michigan Press in 2004. He teaches at San Francisco State University.

The New Talkies: Neo-Benshi at the deYoung

You are invited to a unique program of narration and film art in the poetry series I curate at the de Young Museum of Fine Art.

Friday, September 11, 2009, 7 p.m.
The deYoung Poetry Series
de Young Museum of Fine Art
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive
San Francisco, CA 94118
Free to museum members; $5 at the door for all others
Parking is available in the museum garage; enter on Fulton

An Evening of The New Talkies (neo-benshi): live film narration introduced by Konrad Steiner

In the past six years a new application of live poetic art has emerged in the San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. This event will include poet-performers who have written scripts to re-narrate scenes from well-known films. With the sound muted, the images from the films are freed to reveal hidden subtexts and meanings which these writers draw to the surface or forge anew through the simplest means: a text, a commentary, a ventriloquist's dream to re-voice the silver screen and tell you what might have been really going on in those films we've all long checked off our Netflix queue.

From Jay Ward's 1960s TV show Fractured Flickers to Situationist Ren Vinet's 1973 film Can Dialectics Break Bricks?to Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the 1990s, the latter-day art of re-narrating a film has always been in the shadow of the original benshi (Japan) and pyonsa (Korea), the film-tellers who were stars in their own right during the silent era, explaining and voicing the action on screen from just off stage to huge admiring crowds.

The recent re-emergence of this live form is due in part to Korean scholar Walter Lew, and Japanese benshi, Midori Sawato, who herself continues to tour and educate audiences in this lost art. Poets appearing tonight who have taken up the challenge to reinvigorate the form for a new era include Andrew Choate, Jen Hofer, Douglas Kearney & Nicole McJamerson from Los Angeles; Rodney Koeneke from Portland; and Jaime Cortez from San Francisco. Local filmmaker, curator and writer Konrad Steiner will introduce the program.

Neo-Benshi text by Konrad Steiner; photo by PAH.

Letras Libres Agosto 2009

My poem, "The Mill," which appeared in Poems in Spanish (Omnidawn 2005), is one of several works translated by the Mexican poet María Baranda. The August issue of Letras Libres, published in Mexico City, features the poem, along with poems by the distinguished Mexican poet Eduardo Lizalde. It was also an honor to read my work in August with Eduardo Lizalde and Ana García Bergua of Mexico, Amalia Bautista of Spain, Enrique Hernandez D' Jesus of Venezuela, and Rae Armantrout of San Diego at the international poetry festival "Letras en San Luis" in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. Enrique Hernandez D' Jesus is also a wonderful photographer. San Luis has a beautiful new art institute established on the grounds and in the redesigned cell blocks of a huge prison of the 18th century. One of its most fascinating features is the guard tower, or panopticon, set at the center. And the willow trees and light sculptures that stripe the prison walls are beautiful in the evening. I'll add a photo of it later.

El molino

Esta es la tarde cuando un pájaro anida en un sombrero
dejado en la calle por un hombre que vuela, un hombre de mundos y pasión, de niebla y vitela
y de esculturas que acechan cuando no estamos mirando, esta es la tarde.

Este es el momento cuando pasa el tráfico tal y como he pensado que pase,
porque he aprendido la manera, este es el momento.

Este es el sitio donde fue inventada la nieve.
Este es el pueblo sobre el que cae, hay tres casas
con luces de plástico a la entrada, un hombre que toca a su mujer
como a ella le gusta ser tocada –no importa qué cálido, siempre neva–
y la mano que hace girar el mundo, este es el sitio.

Esta es la vida que me mantiene despierto por la noche,
su piel y sus distancias, y este es el tiempo con su pie en la grieta,
incapaz de moverse aunque esté pasando, esta es la vida.

Esta es la hora en que el crimen fue cometido:
este es el primer motivo que observa. Este es el río que ahoga
y esta una sombra corrupta que lava sus manos, esta es la hora.

Este es el pez pequeño que se come al grande. Este es el hombre
que vive junto a las vías del tren; y este es el tren pasando.

Este es el molino donde el grano era convertido, este es el grano
inacabado, y este es el lecho vacío del arroyo
que antes hacía girar la rueda del molino, este es el molino de la ausencia.

Traducción de María Baranda

The Mill

This is the evening when a bird nests in a hat
left in the street by a flying man, a man of worlds and heat, of vellum and fog
and sculptures that lurk when we're not looking, this is the evening.

This is the moment when traffic passes as I have taught it to pass,
as I have learned the way, this is the moment.

This is the place where snow was invented.
This is the town it falls on, consisting of three houses
with plastic lights in the doorway, a man who touches his woman
as she likes to be touched--no matter how warm, always snow--
and the hand that turns the world, this is the place.

This is the life that keeps me awake at night,
its distances and skin, and this is time with its foot in a crack,
unable to move yet passing, this is the life.

This is the hour when the crime was committed;
this is the first cause watching. This is the river drowning
and a filthy shadow washing its hands, this is the hour.

This is the little fish eating the big one. This is the man
who lives by the railroad tracks; this is the train passing.

This is the mill where grain was turned, this is the grain
unfinished, and this is the empty bed of the stream
that used to turn the wheel, this is the mill of absence.

Two Uncertainties (Rehearsal in Black)

Two Uncertainties

"There is eternity to blush in," Djuna Barnes

Around the attic bird, the century is silent:
gathers utter ghosts in scattered dust displays.
Afloat in that window, not even a star approaches like a dog.
Nothing is left to desire: rain in open cars,
gasolines fires. History is ending.

We are not, however, among those voices off.
We are the ones in prose whose form
is finally shapeless, except for these constraints.
With the labor of planets turning,
please bind us to a version of ourselves.

Easy to love the short poem, so undemanding of space, so ready to give up its ghost. This work was selected by Elise Paschen to appear on Chicago buses and trains, in a poetry poster program sponsored by the Poetry Society of America. A faculty member at my former institution of higher learning asked her Introduction to Literature class to write a paper about it. One cogent response was that the poet was in error; history is not ending. But something did come to an end, didn't it, with the administration of George W. Bush, and there's a very real sense, with the death of Edward Kennedy, that we'll never see our own likes again. Remember when people spoke out with certainty on issues that really mattered, got red / read in the face? When exactly did Obama remove the troops from Afghanistan and Iraq? Like, never? All that said, it's not a political poem; rather, it shares with political poetry the mode of the prayer.

American Gestures: Cento

The poem "American Gestures" also appeared in Rehearsal in Black, 2001. It's a cento, one hundred lines of poetry, all of them taken from the work of another poet. Some are purposefully well-known, like the two lines from Gilbert and Sullivan, or "I know why the caged bird sings." When the Norton Anthology of Poetry ran out of inspiration for me, I turned to Volume I of Rothenberg and Joris' Poetry for the Millennium, which gave me lines like "toco tico tocati." My axiom: all stolen lines are original, especially in this form.

American Gestures

"Poetry is the memory of language."
-Jacques Roubaud

There is one story and one story only,
one luminary clock against the sky.
I remember it was in the bleak December.
I wandered in a forest thoughtlessly,
where love is a word, another kind of open,
and innocence is a weapon.
I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights
black at their centers. They have come along nicely
under the separated leaves of shade,
near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields,
and then to awake, like a wanderer white.
I wish that I had spoken only of it all
and put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
I know why the caged bird sings
back in the human mind again,
and thereupon my heart is driven wild
with noise of winds and many rivers.
When it comes, the landscape listens
and we are here as on a darkling plain
fantastic with mythic trophies:
a green thought in a green shade,
a Chippendale in a dominoes etude,
mute, insensate things.
They are all gone into the world of light.
All things within this fading world hath end.
Tell her that wastes her time and me
your mouth opens neat as a cat's. The window square
raises a remote confessing head
rich with entropy; nevertheless, separable, noticeable.
"It was too much," Mike says,
who enticed my father from my mother's bed.
Too late now, I make out in his blue gaze,
in the quite ordinary heat of the day,
a neurotic mixture of self-denial and fear.
Though it is not yet evening,
the trees are coming into leaf;
the eyes open to a cry of pulleys;
and yesterday's garbage ripens in the hall.
The high meridian of the day is past,
in a different form beyond any meaning.
Clay is the word and clay is the flesh.
Oh, for a bowl of fat Canary,
nature's true riches in sweet beauties showing,
where all's accustomed, ceremonious,
and I left my necktie god knows where.
Then I can write a washing bill in Babylonic cuneiform,
from Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical.
To wash the spot, to burn the snare
and the full moon, and the white evening star
is pure acceptance, sprouting alike
in broad zones and in narrow zones
like the distant Latin chanting of a train.
Because there is a literal shore, a letter that's blood-red,
draped with material turning white in the sun,
the wounds are terrible; the paint is old.
Then a house disappears and a man in his yard
counts the stars and those of plum-color.
This drizzle that falls now is American rain,
in which the woman I left was sleeping.
Behind closed windows blankening with steam,
the rooms and days we wandered through,
into that dark permanence of ancient forms.
A minute holds them, who have come to go--
the night watchman in a perfume factory,
the old man hammering in a doll shop
whose thoughts are summer lightning,
It is only in isolate flecks that something is given off.
When a kid puts on a wedding dress
in the darkness of a closet,
his beauty defies all kisses, seasons,
and moves with an uncertain violence
among the tentative haunters.
Children, if you dare to think,
in converse with sweet women long since dead,
know that the mind of man creates no ideas.
I think of you as I descend the stair
where the lower and higher have ending,
and I shall stand here like a shadow.
The imagination that we spurned and crave,
a mound of refuse of the sweeping of a street,
shows only when the daylight falls,
but in the flesh it is immortal.
With witness I speak this. But where I say
dark house, by which once more I stand,
I mean a lonely impulse of delight
between Muskogee and Tulsa
and the bamboo that speaks as if weeping:
toco tico tocati, toco tico tocati.
This is the valley's work, the white, the shining,
horseman of the wild party
at the Elk's Club Lounge.
I am slow, thinking in broken images,
but often I am allowed these messages,
like wrinkles on some mad forehead,
the thousand eyelids of the sleeping water.
Under the poinciana, of a noon or afternoon,
where the great pattern dozes,
trinket apotheosis and mollusk.
This is a dead scene forever now.
I am because my little dog knows me.

Rehearsal in Black

Rehearsal in Black, the book, was published by Salt Publications, Cambridge, in 2001. Several poems in were in traditional forms, like the title poem's terza rima. The cover art is a detail of Joe Brainard's Still Life, c. 1967. Goache on paper. Used by permission of the Estate of Joe Brainard.

Rehearsal in Black

The science of the irrational,
poetry knows what time is feeling
in the language we speak. Casual

as a crow above the pealing
tower, it circles our point of view
with applied indifference. The ceiling

is the limit only in the room;
love is torn between two sheets;
animals eat each other. Truth

is another order, beyond the heat
of sense. The memory of language
is a blind cold wall, a sweet

old man carrying a doll, pages
of silence framed by the chase.
What is love's name in an age

of skin? Everything you face
is just as it happened, minus all
the details. You write a line a day,

whether bad or good, then fall
into a stupor. A line of black cars
arrives at the horizon. In the fall,

you've noticed, the fattest stars
get even fatter. Maybe it's the air,
sodden with nostalgia. We are

what we are, a kind of rare
poison steeped in a kiss. Roots,
reeds, fish, the broken river--

everything is perfectly suited
for a local drowning. Here's a shot
of the water surface, with its mute

tensions and the struggle not
to fold. The world, dispersing,
turns. Here's the face of a god

no one remembers, in the church
of words. The American laugh,
said Jung, is urgent as a thirst.

It bowls you over with its raffish
humor and grabs you by the balls.
You can see the diver's glove, half-

filled with blood, in the halls
of that museum, where nothing
finally matters but stands as tall

as it can. Life is always touching
the edges of a net. Light enters water,
and that is called perspective. Such ends

are met when language and space, neither
quite sufficient, negotiate a realm.
It's cold inside, children have no fathers,

and mothers are desperate to tell
of love. It's a landfill country, strewn
with cast-off things, where stone bells

ring and drowned boats rise. The truth
is confused but strikes for the prize:
the stone floor of the sea, red tooth

of existence, and what the eyes deny.
You descend the stairs to hell, walk
its plazas and parks, and manage to find

a date for the evening. She talks
of her desires, but this is not desire;
it's the tender mercy of a leaf's awkward

falling. At what firm margin, the fires
in the mirror or in your eyes, is love
to be found? Does the sea aspire

to be just water? In the weave of
your intentions, the air plays the air.
Nothing is nothing. In a coven

of mechanics, in the scariest
Hollywood mansion, love is the prize
and a touch of the fever. Rare

as existence, it has seen the mind
change the most desolate landscapes
into quiet rooms. It always finds

the world in absence, doors taped
shut. This is like the movies, a black
room filled with murmurs. As the drapes

are pulled, you see from the back
life's enormous figures falling in
and out of focus, a final slackness

of being we later enjoy enduring.
The story is stained with its own
rehearsal. A handsome bed is burning.

Serious and alluring, a long dial tone
passes for conversation. No one's
there but you, talking into the phone

like a younger father to an older son.

Notes on Conceptualisms

Notes on Conceptualisms is a very likeable and shrewd collaboration by Robert Fitterman and Vanessa Place (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009). I haven't finished the book yet, but the first half is already packed with my handwritten notes. Its chief theme so far is the allegorical nature of conceptual art:

Allegorical writing is necessarily inconsistent, containing elaborations, recursions, sub-metaphors, fictive conceits, projections, and guisings that combine and recombine both to create the allegorical whole, and to discursively threaten this wholeness. In this sense, allegory implicates Godel's First Incompleteness Theorem: if it is consistent, it is incomplete; if complete, inconsistent.

All conceptual writing is allegorical writing.
(p. 15)

And here's an interesting excerpt from pp. 24-25:

One might argue that devaluation is now a traditional / canonical aim of contemporary art. Thus there is now great value in devaluation.

Adorno and Horkheimer: "Culture is a paradoxical commodity. So completely is it subject to the law of exchange that is is no longer exchanged; it is so blindly consumed in use that it can no longer be used" (The Culture Industry: Enlightenment in Mass Deception).

Conceptual writing proposes two end-point responses to this paradox by way of radical mimesis: pure conceptualism and the baroque. Pure conceptualism negates the need for reading in the traditional textual sense--one does not need to "read" the work as much as think about the idea of the work. In this sense, pure conceptualism's readymade properties capitulate to and mirror the easy consumption / generation of text and the devaluation of reading in the larger culture. Impure conceptualism, manifest in the extreme by the baroque, exaggerates reading in the traditional textual sense. In this sense, its excessive textual properties refuse, and are defeated by, the easy consumption / generation of text and the rejection of reading in the larger culture.

Note: these are strategies of failure.

Note: failure in this sense acts as an assassination of mastery.

Note: failure in this sense serves to irrupt the work, violating it from within.

Note: this invites the reader to redress failure, hallucinate repair.

Success in any event, from the work of Yeats to the Poetry Slams to Kenny Goldsmith, comes with the proper framing and volatility of the SIGN. In conceptual poetry, the entire work is a sign requiring one instantaneous reading (and perhaps later study, such as "Hmm, what was that?"). Goldsmith's The Weather consists entirely of transcribed weather reports from the Northeast U.S. Nothing is written, as such; it is copied from life and transported to the printed page (the art frame). Simplicity is a virtue in such works. On closer look, the editing in The Weather allows for the elegiac in following the fullness and exhaustion of the seasons.

Baroque writing offers a simple sign also, that it intends to be complex, or at least very busy. The first reading warns to be alert and roll with the artifice.

The nice thing about conceptual art is not having to elaborate on it. A one-sentence description will suffice and on to the next conversation piece on your literary mantel. To legitimize the work, you have to actually DO the work of transcription. The power of its simplicity depends on the exhaustiveness of the found details: the literal weight of the book in your hands. Goldsmith's Soliloquy, consisting of every word he spoke during a week of 1996, is 500 pages in length and weighs 1.73 pounds. Like performance poetry, the conceptual work must be understood on the first reading or hearing. In that sense, it is "easy." Difficulty comes at the level of theory, when the art audience begins to question why John Cage simply sat at the piano, rather than played it, in his composition, 4'33". In this respect, conceptual art is always philosophical. The distinction between pure and baroque conceptualism is that between Marcel Duchamp and Wallace Stevens. Both are tongue-in-cheek and pose riddles, but Stevens, who recognizes the power of death, allows for lyricism.

Denver Quarterly 43.4 (2009)

The following concludes a long interview of me by Joshua Marie Wilkinson that appears in the new issue of Denver Quarterly.

JMW: There’s a lot to navigate for a novice poet/reader these days with so many books, journals, reading series, poets, blogs, presses, anthologies, etc. What’s your advice for somebody starting out in poetry writing?

This is the most difficult question of all, because it calls me out on the essential question, “Why write?” Since it is apparently not to make money, it must be for some other satisfaction, such as fame or a spiritual and/or political calling. I often heard the word “calling” while growing up. One was “called” to service in the church, a profession, or the arts. Having translated Hölderlin, I must have some interest in Transcendental Idealism and the motives of Romanticism, which lead toward inwardness and spirit. I should therefore counsel young poets, in allowing for spirit, to value language as incantation and magic.

I do believe that one’s ambitions in poetry should begin in innocence; that is, in the belief that one may see, know, and transform through words. Innocence includes irony. This perspective holds that communication is possible even in mysterious circumstances, like a Hart Crane or Gerard Manley Hopkins poem. Because it is textured and dynamic, the world speaks. Because we come with certain moods and intentions, it speaks through us differently. The weight of a word varies by its use. It’s not simply what a stone weighs when laid on a scale. Why write? Because life is short, bitter, and sweet.

Spiritual ambition counsels poets to ignore the depredations of the poetry biz. All the getting and spending should be related to the investigations of sensation, memory, and language, not crafting one’s style in order to gain publication in the New Yorker, Paris Review, or Fence.

On the other side of this calculation lies the socioeconomics of poetry, for example, the assigning of value to one poet over another, based on: (1) the perceived importance of their works (2) their position in society, in other words, social class and (3) the good or ill they can do to you as poetry politicians. A young poet would rather have the respect and admiration of an important senior figure, who might further his or her aims by the giving of prizes, blurbs, and publishing contracts. The fiendish plan of the flatterer is to curry favor for as long as it takes to gain advantage over the generous patron; whereupon he withdraws his flattery and seeks to steal all that the patron possesses. See Goneril and Regan. Ancient and abiding, this kind of behavior has its counterpart in the selfish patron, who influences the novice to write in his manner and publicize his importance, but in the end creates an empty entourage. Not one among them is strong enough to surpass the patron, as the patron has arranged.

A true master instructs the student to surpass his own achievement, but no true master is ever surpassed. Think of Plato and Aristotle, Joyce and Beckett, Freud and Jung.

The language I am using is of the courtly era. Most of the politics and social structure of poetry are still medieval. That’s not a bad thing in itself. But many of us lack the graces of court.

On the side of innocence is the long-honored practice of gift exchange. I write the poem as a gift to you, on your wedding, death, or coronation. It is freely written and freely given. This is the world of samizdat and the manuscripts of court and church. Have you read the poems of Donne? Yes, I’ll hand you the tattered manuscript at dinner. It is also the world of the poetry workshop.

Most of the poetry economy is gift-based. But it is not free of self-serving behavior. For example, it is generous of an editor to publish his or her magazine of high standard. The loathing and melancholy appear when one editor publishes another in order to be published in return. Because the great majority of poets have something like a magazine, reading series, or website to offer in exchange, a lot of negotiation and politesse is required. The fact that so many poets are entrepreneurial says something about poetry’s artisanal economic base.

My advice to the student is to aim brilliantly, ridiculously high, which means not playing it cheap; to make friends of other poets they admire, as they are a comfort and help along the way; and, in addition to writing well, to found a magazine and reading series, not for the purpose of gift exchange, but because the poetry you believe in can only be served by you. You are putting your queer shoulder to the wheel. Found only what you can eventually drop by the wayside. The nomadic nature of poetry, as well as history, prefers it that way.

Lance Phillips: These Indicium Tales

I just wrote the following blurb for Lance Phillips' third book, to be published, like the first two, by Ahsahta Press. A blurb is also a review, so I'm issuing this one two or three months in advance of the book's publication:

Lance Phillips’ poetry takes us immediately into a carnal theater where the word and its thing stagger under the weight of their attraction for each other. Thus actions which are rational and understandable in real life, like having sex and then touching your ear, take on enthralling intensity. The drama of representation is also heightened because the visual frame is a series of quickly changing keyholes; each foreshortened view has immediacy. This is not conventional poetry, in which voluptuous intentions are pursued by means of poetic rhetoric. Lance Phillips’ poetry models consciousness itself. So description won’t do; it’s too removed and slow. Rather than reconstitute, the poet enacts: “Desire and perception meld: moist crease, sun / Wasp, it filled his mouth.” We are first witnesses as now, and again now, worlds interact: “On lips here her body in birds of the air.” To read this book is to experience a series of transformations; in effect, to learn to read all over again.

Inner Time (Adorno 126)

Adorno (page 126): What appears in the work of art is its inner time . . . . The link between art and real history is the fact that works of art are structured like monads.

This is beautiful thinking. But does time really pass in a work of art, even in works of duration like music and literature? Can a work of art refuse to be a unity and still be structured like a monad? Answer: It can only be a monad by refusing unison. Is a monad’s sense of time eternity? Yes. The monad in art has nothing to do with history and sociology; it is prophetic and hard to comprehend, like prime numbers. Which is more monadic, the nomad or the townsman; the boulder or the butterfly that lands on it?

The Windows (The XYZs of Reason)

Here are three items of 24 (so far) abecedarian works; also an example of rolling liponymy (no word may repeat). The Windows series seems at this point to contain eccentric and/or formalistic "one-up" works. It grows as a sidebar to other recent work which seems largely to consist of lyric proceduralism. Surface and depth are aspects of intention, but which yearns more? The surface.


American boys can distribute equidistant forks,
grant hieratic inflow, jack Klansmen, labor
many noons. Oases parody queasiness
rarely; smitten teenagers understand vacuous waiters,
xenophobic Yankees, zealots.


A babysitter, capacious, droll, eats fatigue,
glares. Hackneyed icons jostle knockwurst, lacerate
Machiavellian nannies. Oblivious parents question
reactionary sinners’ taboos. Ugly vulvas wince, while
x-rated ying-yangs zigzag.


Alone, bathysmal, certainty doubts each feeling,
gives heart its jasmine kiss, loves
madness, narcissism. Often people quit
reading sad tales until violent wastelands,
xenial, yikker zazzily.

Nomad, Meet Your Monad

Image by Enrique Chagoya: When Paradise Arrived, 1998.

This talk was presented as part of Los pies en otra tierra: Poetas exiliados y transterrados, a literary conference sponsored by Benémerita Autonomous University of Puebla, Mexico, October 28-31, 2008.

Paul Hoover
San Francisco State University

When I was born, in 1946, a majority of people in the U.S. lived on farms, and a subsistence farm could be purchased for the astonishing sum of $400, which was also the price of a new car. Before World War II, the percentage of Gross National Product that went to the military was small, and our army was the size of Sweden’s. There was no such thing as a credit card. My parents never bought anything on interest. They paid cash, as did most people. My mother established a large garden wherever we lived. We subsisted all summer on its produce of green beans, sweet corn, cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes, and fresh strawberries. When we briefly lived in town, where she could not longer raise her own chickens, my mother purchased live chickens and killed them herself using an axe and a tree stump. One day, the dying bird’s gymnastics left flowerets of blood all over the garden. After that, she covered the thrashing birds with a bushel basket. We ate in a restaurant once a year, on Mother’s Day. It was always the same restaurant. I always ordered the same thing, turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy. We did not eat steaks at home or away, because, I believe, we could not afford them. For religious reasons, we didn’t drink alcohol, smoke, dance, gamble, or curse.

The situation has changed dramatically, but not because I migrated to another country. The country migrated beneath my feet, becoming a land of strip malls, fast food restaurants, corporatism, massive credit card debt, celebrity culture, wars for profit and world control, loss of individual rights, a compromised U. S. constitution, a diminishing number of union jobs, falling wages for average workers, and 50 million citizens without health insurance—you name it, the change has been for the worse. Because the military-industrial complex runs the country, we spend more money for our military than the rest of the world put together. Consumers rather than citizens, we have become reified (sadly, not deified) products of capitalism’s eternal happiness machine. It’s a form of internal exile.

How different would your writing be if you killed your own chickens and dug your own family graves? Would the word “postmodern” still make any sense? Would your writing be just a little closer to fate? You can’t imagine your way out of culture; it is what it is. The sorrow or joy you feel in it will become a part of your work, just as the scent of pine is part of the tree. No matter how far-reaching our knowledge of new technologies, we are still the ones who witnessed and ritualized in family, rooted in unique personal mythologies. Native culture offers comfort; commodity culture offers desire and fear. Because it’s commodity-based, U. S. popular culture lacks the silence and reverence of ceremony; noise and speed wins our attention. This is why poetry is so necessary.

My poetry collection, Poems in Spanish (2005), contains poems written in English as if in Spanish. I had long admired the great poetry of Ibero-Hispanic modernism, from Pessoa and Drummond de Andrade to Lorca, Vallejo, Neruda, and Sabines. Their work had sweep, dance, humor, and depth. For some reason, as a German Protestant idealist norteamericano raised in the Midwest, I felt at home with them. There’s nothing puzzling about it. Poetry is nomadic and seeks a universal condition. It would be nice, but too easy, to say that we all share the native culture of spirit, imagination, and words well used. But queso is not the same thing as cheese. It doesn’t sound, look, or taste the same. And simpatía isn’t the same as sympathy. Nevertheless, poetry’s aesthetic is one of errancy and discovery. We slip and slide through our words until finally we put meaning at rest in the form of the poem. A few days later, it starts to slip again. It has just read Don Quixote and wants to travel the roads of Spain with a joisting lance in hand. Of all the literary genres, poetry most enjoys a migrant condition. It revels in metaphor; its motives are transformational. The sonnet originated in Sicily, the pantoum in Malaysia.

Here are two of the works in Poems in Spanish:

The World as Found

“All these things the creator told me in Alabama.”
—Sun Ra

Mariposa, what a clean word is that!
It can fly around all day
and never get mud on its wings.
It makes a clean sound as it passes right through me—
almost nothing really.

Mud sprawls on the ground, completely helpless.
Who can ever respect it?

Mariposa, butterfly,
so pretty and maybe crazy,
like Blanche Dubois as a girl.
Even Schmetterling
has a cadence true to its ideal.

Words in my mouth
are preparing for summer,
giving birth to themselves again.

It isn’t rocket science.
Everyone knows their names:
barranco and embankment,
noises and ruidos—
get down on your knees and pray!
A beautiful woman is passing,
and, if you insist, a man.
Words of skin and bone.

Where’s my refuge and my trap,
Where do they go when I think them?
All day the words are at me,
coming and going and meaning,
and in the evening also.
It’s the traffic of the world.

But at night, if it happens
that I sink into her body,
there is no word, not even silk,
to tell you what I'm thinking.
Sound spills from my mouth,
shapeless all around us.

Driver’s Song

I shall never reach Danville, Ohio,
Danville distant and lonely.

Black car, small moon,
in the back seat beer.
Because I’ve forgotten the roads
I shall never reach Danville, Ohio.

Over the plains, through Indiana,
where I was lonely also.
Black car, yellow moon.
My dead father keeps watch over me
from an upstairs window.

What a long way from California
and in what a fast car—
invisible to the soul.

Ahead I see death moving slowly on the road.
I know I will touch her clothing
before I ever reach Danville, Ohio.

Danville, distant and lonely.

“Driver’s Song” is a direct appropriation of Lorca’s “Rider’s Song.” The works are parodic but highly serious, nomadic but close to home.

The poet and translator, Pierre Joris, writes in Nomad Poetics: “What is needed now is a nomadic poetics. Its method will be rhizomatic: which is different from collage, i.e., a rhizomatics is not an aesthetics of the fragment, which has dominated poetics since the romantics even as transmogrified by modernism, high and low. . . . A nomadic poetic will cross languages, not just translate, but write in all or any of them.” (5)

Following Deleuze and Guattari, Joris wants a wandering rather than rooted system, a search for nutrients by the poet as desiring-machine. The poet is her/himself multiplicity in a system in which “any multiplicity connected to other multiplicities by superficial underground stems in such a way as to form or extend a rhizome” (Deleuze and Guattari 1606).

Adorno offers a more compact model: “What appears in the work of art is its inner time. . . . The link between art and real history is the fact that works of art are structured like monads” (126). In Pythagoras, the monad is God; in music, it is a single note; in Gnosticism, the beginning or source of All; in The Four Quartets, “the still point of the turning world.” A nomadic trek begins with a dot on the map. The monad exists before the concept of unison, because in the monad there is no difference. First, there’s the monad (everything), then the many, then desire (the nomad) creates the work of art, which is structured like a monad. The monad speeds but at a standstill.

Poems in Spanish are translations of a kind. I have also recently produced a manuscript called Sonnet 56, which consists of 56 versions (traducciónes) of Shakespeare’s sonnet of that number. I would like to present the original and two translations. Noun Plus Seven (N + 7) is a writing game invented by Jean Lescure of Oulipo, acronym in French for Bureau of Potential Literature. It involves replacing every noun in the original with the seventh to follow in the dictionary. Haikuisation is the making of the original into a haiku. For instance, you could “haikuise” the novel War and Peace.


Sweet love, renew thy force, be it not said
Thy edge should blunter be than appetite,
Which but today by feeding is allayed,
Tomorrow sharp’ned in his former might.

So love be thou, although today thou fill
Thy hungry eyes, ev’n till they wink with fullness.
Tomorrow see again, and do not kill
The spirit of love with a perpetual dullness.

Let this sad interim like the oceans be
Which parts the shore, where two contracted new
Come daily to the banks, that when they see
Return of love, more blest may be the view;

As call it winter, which being full of care,
Makes summer’s welcome, thrice more wished, more rare.

Noun Plus Seven

Sweet love game, renew thy forecaster, be it not said
Thy editor should blunter be than apple-jack,
Which but today by feeling is allayed,
Tonality sharp’ned in his former mildew.

So love game be thou, although today thou fill
Thy hungry eyebright, ev’n till they wink with fullery.
Tomorrow see again, and do not kill
The spirochete of love with a perpetual dumbbell.

Let this sad interleaf like the ocotillo be
Which parts the shortcake, where two contracted new
Come daily to the banker, that when they see
Revelation of love game, more blest may be the vigilante;

As call it winter melon, which being full of carfare,
Makes sumpweed’s wellcurb, thrice more wished, more rare.


Love, renew thy force.
Thy edge should blunter be than


Adorno, T. W. Aesthetic Theory. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970.

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. “A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.” In The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. William E. Cain, et al (W. W. Norton, 2001): 1601-1609.

Joris, Pierre. Nomad Poetics. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003.

Aesthetic Theory: Adorno 23

Adorno (23): "Schonberg noted what an easy time Chopin had composing something beautiful because all he needed to do was choose the then little used key of F-sharp major."

PH response: Our definition of beauty changes along with the culture’s tolerance for off-notes and dissonance. In our time, agreement of figure and ground is considered corny. We desire groundless figures and figureless ground. A contemporary guitar site refers to the Hendrix chord, the “7 sharp 9,” to be found on the song “Purple Haze” (E7#9). When struck, it jangled and satisfied the ears of its time. The dissonance in language poetry comes from the long-established device of parataxis, in which images or fragments, often dissimilar, are placed together without a clear purpose. The dissonance to be tolerated in Flarf is the less-than-heroic choice of the Google search engine as a compositional device; with Newlipo, dissonance appears in attention to formal play over seriousness and lyricism. No gravitas, no beauty? But Kenneth Koch's playfulness wasn't without weight. For example:


Aged in the fire.

Every age has its note. Grunge's blend of dissonant chords and "sludge" with Nirvana's "soft verse, hard chorus," supposedly borrowed from the Pixies, expressed the 90s prescient anxiety about a lost future. In the movie Hype! (1996), a Seattle musician explains that the plaintive Seattle sound resulted from a specific chord structure, but I don't know enough about music to recall how it worked.

Expressing, among other things, the comedy/pathos of the instrument's limitations, John Cage’s Composition for Toy Piano is a dignified and lovely work of art, but initially it may have seemed silly. Because Flarf and Newlipo present their carnivalesque and conceptual qualities first, their dissonance lies in a seeming lack of dignity. But poetry is capable of maintaining carnival and gravitas at the same time: the Beckett in Keaton and the Keaton in Beckett. The clown that never smiles (Keaton), the one that never speaks (Harpo Marx), and the reeling drunk who breaks into gorgeous song are stock types of pathos, just as pathos is a stock mode of comedy, and the ridiculous readily fledges with the sublime. Someone quite late to a performance of Hamlet might suppose, upon seeing the bodies lying all about, that the presentation had been farce.

The return to lyricism in our period arrives just in time for the greatest financial crisis in U.S. history. But that doesn't mean that irony is out of a job, with all the cognitive dissonance in need of words.

Thomas Traherne, 1637-1674

Thomas Traherne was born in Hereford, England, to a shoemaker’s family but was most likely orphaned, along with his brother Philip, at an early age. Adopted by the family Traherne, he received his B.A. from Oxford University in 1656 and was appointed Rector of Credenhill the following year. Unknown in his own time except for the politically motivated Roman Forgeries. Traherne produced, among other works, Centuries of Meditations, Meditations on the Six Days of Creation, the Ficino notebook, the Dobell sequence of poems, and Poems of Felicity. His literary estate was so carelessly managed by his brother, who also conventionalized the language and spelling of some works, that his poems were first published as the work of Susanna Hopton, a religious leader who had been Traherne's friend. It was not until 1903 that his Dobell poems and meditations began to appear under his own name (Dobell being the scholar who identified their true author). In 1910, Poems of Felicity was published. James Osborne discovered the Select Meditations in an archive in 1964. In 1967 a manuscript of Traherne’s Commentaries of Heaven was plucked from a heap of burning rubbish in Lancashire. It was not until 1982 that the work was identified as Traherne’s at the University of Toronto.

Traherne was an ecstatic neo-Platonist and devotional visionary whose work is consistent both with the English Metaphysical and Romantic styles. Blake and Wordsworth explore similar themes, but they could not have read Traherne’s poetry.

The following excerpt (first two stanzas) of the poem "Sight" is taken from Thomas Traherne: Selected Poems and Prose, edited by Alan Bradford (Penguin Classics, 1991). In the original the poem and title are centered on the page.


Mine infant-eye
Above the sky
Discerning endless space,
Did make me see
Two sights in me;
Three eyes adorn’d my face:
Two luminaries in my flesh
Did me refresh;
But one did lurk within,
Beneath my skin.
That was of greater worth than both the other;
For those were twins, but this had ne’er a brother.

Those eyes of sense
That did dispense
Their beams to natural things,
I quickly found
Of narrow bound
To know but earthly springs.
But that which through the heavens went
Was excellent,
And endless; for the ball
Was spiritual:
A visive eye things visible doth see;
But with th’ invisible, invisibles agree.

"The Crisis Was a Heist"

See Jim Jubak's journal on MSN for an eye-popping opinion about the current financial crisis. I'll quote from the lead paragraph:

Fluke? Credit Crisis Was a Heist

Thanks to a complicit Congress, the reins were systematically loosened on the looters of the financial industry. And they're still at it, looking for new plunder.

It was no accident.

The folks in power in Washington and on Wall Street want to pretend that the current global financial crisis -- you know, the one that reduced household net worth in the United States by $11.2 trillion in 2008, according to the Federal Reserve -- was an accident caused by some unfortunate confluence of greed and asleep-at-the-switch regulators.

What we're now living through, though, is the result of a conscious, planned looting of the world economy. Its roots stretch back decades. And it wouldn't have been possible without the contrivances of the bought-and-paid-for folks who sit in Congress.

Of course, just because the plan blew up on the looters, taking off a financial finger here and a portfolio hand there, you shouldn't have any illusion that they've retired. In fact, in the "solutions" now being proposed -- by Congress -- to fix the global and U.S. financial systems, you can see the looters at work as hard as ever.

Full article at:

Desolation : Souvenir

The new issue of Colorado Review (36.1, Spring 2009), edited by Stephanie G'Schwind, Donald Revell, Sasha Steensen, and Matthew Cooperman, just arrived in the mail. I have five poems in it from "Desolation : Souvenir," a fifty page work of three stanzas to the page. Here are two:

the window shakes like water

at the center of sensation
>>>>>which has no edge
the sand mechanic stands
>>>>>nothing windswept sleeps

you can't wear a hat
>>>>>too far inside your head
after the guillotine
>>>>>the impercipient feels
much larger than he is

man is born to die
>>>>>the fold holds him well
life is past time
>>>>>'words are not the word'
memory's a savant
>>>>>shining from its well

goodbye to all the bees

hands joined how?
>>>>>as if in thought dying
as if a song roared
>>>>>the rain forgot to pour
what point in space divides us
>>>>>which one holds us close?

sheerest of walls
>>>>>almost transparent
to feel is to fail
>>>>>venus envy, filial wail

water and bell
>>>>>ringing with each wave
a work of vastness
>>>>>too lucid for the mind
behind what wall
>>>>>is the private sacrifice?

My Favorite Fragment (Hölderlin)

In the readings that Maxine and I have been giving of our Hölderlin translations, most recently at Boise State University, we always like to present "Tinian," from the Fragments of Hymns section. It displays the intensity of his phrasing and imagery ("And drink at the wolf teats / Of the waters. . ." and "for the gods / Hazard us a falcon's glance"), his sweetness of character, and his intellectual and mythic scope (". . .the gods / Decree these outward signs to be birthmarks / Of whose child / The West must be"). The falcon figure reminds me of an image from our Boise trip, glimpsed as we were driving through the mountains on our way to a natural hot spring: a bald eagle feeding in the ribcage of a deer, its head feathers blood-spotted. At the spring with Martin Corless-Smith and his graduate student Stephen, snow fell onto our shoulders and into the pool as we soaked. I've added spacing indicators because the blog's format collapses all type to the left margin without them.


It’s sweet to get lost
In the holy wilderness,

-- -- -- --

And drink at the wolf teats
Of the waters that wander
Through my native land
To me,

>>>>>>>>>>>>>,wilder once,
But now, like orphans, accustomed to the taste;
In spring, when unfamiliar wings
Return to the warmth of the woods

>>>>>>>>>>>>>resting in solitude,
Among the willow trees
Full of fragrance
Where butterflies
Mingle with bees
And your Alps

Divided from God

The divided world,

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>indeed they stand


And wander as they wish, timelessly

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>for the gods
Hazard us a falcon’s glance, or
Like gladiators, the gods decree
These outward signs to be birthmarks
Of whose child
The West must be;

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>Some flowers
Don’t grow from the earth, but sprout
In loose soil of their own will,
Counter-light of our days, nor should
One pick them.
For they stand golden,
Prepared only for what they are,
Leafless even
As thoughts,

Translated by Maxine Chernoff and Paul Hoover

We've Decided (Homophonic Series)

[The poem "We've decided" was published in Nervous Songs, 1986. Fifteen years later I wrote four homophonic translations of the work; likewise, of two other poems in the book.] Photo by Philip Hoover.


I can be myself today, tall space ape
in a garden where other space apes play.
What a nice time this will be! and I
can roll on the sides of my balled feet
like a hairy barrel loaded, swinging arms
that scratch the ground like leaves. I’m
an ape today, headed for my pulpit of joy
in sunshine by the window. Daughter laughs.

That’s good. We can hear her mother dressing:
conspicuous absent rustle, dry nylon and hair.
Oh, lord of the spinal cord, what stone
repose do I feel when high heels spike
the spilled roast beef? I do not play
no rock and roll. I am an ape today.


Spies can be themselves and pray, space shapes
like wardens where other space shapes pray.
What bright signs lists can be! and I
can play goalie on gliding robo-feet
like an aery feral gnosis, thinking of alms
that match the sound of waves. I'm
a shape that prays, shedding all culpable joys
in an undying window. Laughter laughs.

That’s new. We can fear its other lessons:
continuous absent hustle, tight nylons and tears.
Ode bored with final form, what bone
composure do I feel when ideals strike
the still moist leaf? I do not spray
no phlox with oil. I am a shape today.


I can see the shelf OK, call space a grape
in jargon since tender fresh grapes change.
What a crime scene this will be! and I
can roll on my bowling ball feet
like a scary bear exploded, singing of charms
that catch the sound of the sea. I’m
a grape, OK, headed for my gulp of joy
in an unshining window. Laughter gasps.

What’s food? We can bear our brother fressing:
despicable absent bustle, cry of lions and bears.
Oh, lord of the penal code, what stoned
exposure do I feel when the spine feels like
chilled ice tea? Nor do I ever say
no lox and bagels. I am a grape, OK?


The eye can be itself today, space tape
in a garden where other space tapes play.
What a fine slime this will be! An eye
call roll on the side of its raw seeing
like a tarrying arrow slowing, singing words
that flinch like ounce and please. The eye is
itself today, shedding all its Tupelo joy
in gun-shine at the window. Daughter’s black

in mood. She can fear the other mission:
continuous ashen tussle of high pylons and air.
Restored like the final chord, what tonal
closure do I feel when spiked tea kills
a thrilled ghost cleanly? The eye won’t pay
the landscape’s toll. The eye is space today.


The shy can be themselves today—pace and gape
in a dungeon where others gape and pace.
What a fine shyness this will be! and shyness
can stroll the length of its long street
like a hairy chairman bloated, singing harms
that smash the proud like fleas. The shy
have faith today, headed for their populist joy
in the blind sign of a window. Father brags,

“I'm stewed.” He can hear grandmother’s lessons:
ubiquitous passion, dust, fine dye jobs, and prayer.
Torn like the final word, what prone
disposal do I seek when high steel strikes
a West Coast priest? The shy don’t play
with no damned fool. The shy are afraid today.

Aesthetic Theory: Adorno 156

Adorno (156): "As long as art takes the form of works, it is essentially things, objectified in accordance with a law of form." Art work by Robert Smithson.

Response of PH:

Some laws of form are:
(1) To abide by one form only, remaining consistent throughout: monostich, haiku, imagist poem, blank verse.
(2) To marry several forms in one object: sonnet, masque.
(3) To seek the form of dissolution, from fragment to smaller fragment to photon.
(4) To establish duration: granite and epic rather than paper and lyric.
(5) To shift from one form to another (masque, modernist long poem).
(6) To seek intensity through volume (slam poetry, D.H. Lawrence) or lack of volume (Aram Saroyan, John Cage).
(7) New forms through new technologies (poetry machines, Flarf, Oulipo).
(8) New forms through new ideologies (Marxism : Constructivism = Freud : Surrealist collage).
(9) To express sincerity and belief (Romanticism).
(10) To express insincerity, disbelief, and even scorn (Swift and Nietzsche).
(11) To express lyrically by means of disbelief and a series of valuable emptinesses(Beckett).
(12) To seek form through formlessness (Mallarmé, free verse).
(13) To be monadic and nomadic (Mallarmé, Postmodernism).
(14) To be a solid, sensual fact, thus monumental (Rodin, Whitman, Milton).
(15) To be a chip off the old shard (early Clark Coolidge, appropriation and collage, minimalism)
(16) To contract what was large (bathos, parody, satire)
(17) To greatly enhance what was small (Niedecker, Williams, Moore)
(16) To seek unison and find difference (bad poetry, bad singing).
(17) To seek difference and find unison (good poetry, jazz).
(18) To suggest that it's all just a game (Oulipo, high artifice, collage).
(19) To repeat yourself endlessly (Gertrude Stein)
(20) Never to repeat yourself endlessly (Gertude Stein)

The Mirror and the Encyclopedia

Orbis Tertius: The Mirror and the Encyclopedia
Paper presented at Druskininkai Poetic Fall, Vilnius, Lithuania
October 3-6, 2008

Paul Hoover
San Francisco State University

Orbis Primus is the world as is; it’s the rock that Samuel Johnson kicked to refute the Idealism of Berkeley. This first world of nature, civilization, and other physical matter (including ourselves) makes imagination possible. Orbis Secundus is the world of imagination, memory, representation, and art. Here we also find accidents of perception, such as mishearing, an uncanny poetry of the everyday. Philosophy is keen on this second world, for example the famous relation of word to thing. It is also an area of dispute regarding the illusion-making faculty of poetry, without which Coleridge’s “Christabel” and Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan” would have little force. By joining the visual potency of language, ekphrasis, with movement, such poetry creates a mental cinema that seems almost real, therefore believable. The film semiotician Christian Metz refers to the experience of the real in art as diegesis, a narrative that creates a reality but also admits to its status as a telling. The American phenomenon of language poetry shows its puritanical side in opposing, as illusory, both narrative and the image-icon. Ironically, it makes a claim for the erotics of its oblique and intermittent phrasing, a la Roland Barthes in his comments on zero-degree writing. But a large part of poetry’s power is its ability to “world,” to borrow from Heidegger, through seeing. Common sense and experience tell us that readers aren’t fooled by literary apparitions; they know what they are and delight in them. Adorno writes, “Now, just before the curtain rises there is an instant of expectation: everybody is waiting for an apparition.” (Adorno121) We go to writing for information and pleasure. Why deny the sensual world of objects and their shadows? Do I have to hold a brick in my hand every time I want to use the word brick?

If Orbis Primus is the thing, and Orbis Secundus is the words for the thing, Orbis Tertius is the resulting complex of meaning (poem, city, civilization, dream world, English garden, not as reality but as idea). As a mental construction of seemingly little permanence, it’s a world far in, rather than far out. Borges’ 1940 story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” begins, “I owe the discovery of Uqbar to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia.” (Borges 3) Like the lost mountain in René Daumal’s novel, Mount Analogue, Uqbar exists only metaphysically and metaphorically, not in material reality. Orbis Tertius is the icebound Arctic ship on which Victor Frankenstein meets his creation eye to eye, a monster who, out of revenge for his grotesqueness and lost bride, has destroyed all that is dear to his maker. It’s Zeus descending as a swan to ravish Leda. In the Borges story, four pages are missing from Volume XLVI of the fictional Anglo-American Dictionary; it is those pages, of 921, that describe the conditions of Uqbar. Thus, imaginary pages describe an imaginary land of imaginary conditions. As readers, we trust that Jorge Luis Borges was a man of real flesh who lived in Buenos Aires and wrote: “For one of those gnostics, the visible universe was an illusion or (more precisely) a sophism. Mirrors and fatherhood are abominable because they multiply and disseminate that universe.” (Borges 4)

Ancient Greek sophists could win any side of an argument through verbal skill and false reasoning. They had no particular commitment to truth and would sell their services in the agora. According to Borges, “The metaphysicians of Tlön do not seek for truth or even verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding.” (Borges 10) For instance, Tlön has a transparent tiger and a tower of blood. In Tlön, the only science is psychology, even though there are no people. Tlönian literature “abounds in ideal objects, which are convoked and dissolved in a moment, according to poetic needs.” (9)

Borges’ story is a burlesque on Idealism. What we experience is an airy copy, like shadows cast on a cave wall. Half of western thought is built upon such an assumption, in other words, upon a poetic image. According to an online article, in Plato’s myth of Er, the cosmos consists not of bands of light and darkness (Parmenides), or spheres, “but of the ‘lips’ of concentric whorls fitted into one another like a nest of boxes.” (Burnet, section 93, “The Stephanae”) Compared to the story of Er, Uqbar suddenly doesn’t seem so outlandish. Cosmologists are inevitably poets.

Given the tone of our own time, it’s important to note the story’s political resonance. The directors of the Orbis Tertius have leaked news of its existence into the real world, with the result that ideal objects have been disseminated throughout it:

“Almost immediately, reality yielded on more than one account. The truth is that it longed to yield. Ten years ago any symmetry with a resemblance of order—dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism—was sufficient to entrance the minds of men. How could one do other than submit to Tlön, to the minute and vast evidence of an orderly plant?” (Borges 17)

Today, we have our own orderly plant, the spread of global capitalism and corporate power. Following the fall of the Trade Towers in 2001, the U. S. has abandoned any pretense that it is not a ruthless world power. Under Bush-Cheney, it has suspended habeas corpus, tortured prisoners, damaged the constitution, seized power in all three branches of government, ignored the needs of its citizens (excuse me, consumers), refused to execute laws passed by Congress, and opened the treasury to corporate looters through lax regulations and war profiteering. All these developments were licensed by the images of 911. If to any degree, they were manipulated to give an impression of reality, we do indeed live in a repressive Wag the Dog world (compare Bela Tarr’s Werkmeister Harmonies, a chilling fable of demagoguery). A false image can send people racing through the streets with farm implements in hand.

Poetry is expected to be in good faith. We trust that it is unencumbered in its pursuit of truth and beauty, old and new. Why should poetry be anything but sincere? When a poem is true, even its artifice is surpassing.

Things themselves are true; they could not be truer. A stone is always stone, and a wall is eine Mauer. They are ancient and faithful markers of the world as found. You can try to lie in poetry about the stone, but we won’t believe you. We know it too well. If someone writes that wind and stars sweep through a stone, we test the truth of it on our nerves; that is, on poetry’s terms as well as those of science. This particular proposition may be true even to science. Some stones have fallen from space in flame; they’ve rested underground for thousands of years, in the dark.

Can art be true in one way, for instance technically, but assert something untrue? In Heidegger’s clearing, or Open, the truth is unconcealed, something so deeply familiar that it seems true for the first time. We enter the journey with the hope, or even expectation, that a clearing lies ahead. But when that journey is entirely mapped, the recognition is puny and the art impoverished. A carpenter or a professor may know what is plumb, right, and true, see beauty in it, and go home to beat his wife. There is beauty in right angles and parallel lines that never meet. The right angle is rational and objective; Rodchenko and Tatlin, who avoided the curved line as lyrical and bourgeois, would have seen its beauty. Parallel lines are mystical and whimsical, because the axiom that they will never meet can only be proved by imagination. This sort of brave, laughable, metaphysical puzzle, on a hopeful traipse after its forever-to-be-unproved proof, is my idea of a good time in poetry. Farewell, parallel lines, immortal train tracks, emblem of the soul’s destination, that seem to meet just as they disappear, but not really!

Charles Simic, author of Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk, employs such whimsical and intellectual imagery. The world is full of real things, such as milk, that poets can’t stop investigating. The more scrupulous the research of object as object, the greater the metaphysical investment, the more intense the drama, and the closer it is to silence and mythology. Simic’s poem “The Wall” contains this stanza:

The fly I was watching,
The details of its wings
Glowing like turquoise,
Its feet, to my amusement
Following a minute crack—
An eternity
Around that simple event.

(Cosmology 28)

The metaphysical is rarely warm and cozy. It’s the recognition of the solitude of things. Simic’s poetry reminds us that poetry, indeed all literature, creates allegorical worlds. The literary modes of the fable and dream underlie much of his work, both fictional in their “worlding.”

Borrowing from Martin Buber, Jerome Rothenberg wrote that the truth of a thing is like a kernel of grain; the husk is its outward appearance. But the gleaming kernel shouldn’t get all the attention; the husk, in its pale overcoat, also has metaphysical character. What matters to poetry is the true fiction that such things make possible. In the work I most enjoy, the representation is as real as the thing. I suspect this makes me an idealist.

Without the thing, there is no representation and no poem. Without representation, the thing is unrecognizable. In one sense, truth is an imaginary, which doesn’t mean it’s not true. It sounds like an old science fiction movie, but all of these worlds collide, intersect, and coincide, which is largely the point of Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”: “A man and a woman / Are one. / A man and a woman and a blackbird / Are one.” (Stevens 93)

Laura Riding eventually abandoned poetry in the belief that it is a “lying art.” She was uncomfortable in the Orbis Secundus of suggestion, representation, and shadow play. Obviously, she had no sense of humor.

In the postmodern period, much doubt has been cast on lyricism, but the same scholars who condemn it probably love mournful songs and the changing color of wheat as wind presses it down on a field. In poetry, the accuracy of the fiction does the singing. It’s what the mirror told the encyclopedia, and the other way around.


Adorno, Theodore. Aesthetic Theory. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970/1984.

Borges, Jorge Luis. “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writing, Ed. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby. New York: New Directions, 1964.

Burnet, John. “Early Greek Philosophy, Chapter IV, Parmenides of Elea.”

Simic, Charles. “A Wall.” Charon’s Cosmology. New York: George Braziller, 1977.

Stevens, Wallace. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” The Collected Poems. New York: Vintage, 1982.

Poetry Machines

Two years ago, I created a course at SFSU called Poetry Machines that began with the Futurisms, Italian and Russian, and concluded with Kenny Goldsmith, Caroline Bergvall, and Christian Bök. I had expected that Constructivism and a strict compliance with materialist philosophy might dominate the discussion, and for some students that was the case. Every week for three hours they removed their prosthetic devices of expression, lyricism, transcendence, depth, and "creativity" and allowed the machine / procedure / concept to have its way. The final class project was to present a poetry machine of their own. Along the way, I realized that my sympathies were with Khlebnikov's numerological prophecies, Jarry's math-driven Pataphysics, and Malevich's Suprematist period--art, in other words, that has a mystical and spiritual element. There's nothing wrong with machines; what matters is how they are designed and put to use. Ted Berrigan's sonnets were so alluring, because they put a 'new' machine, the cut-up, inside a worn-out but reliable old one. It's the same with contemporary musicians, who, through sampling techniques, offer an old song a new rhythm and cultural context. Think of Hal the computer from 2000: A Space Odyssey, down on his luck and drunk in a tavern, singing "Fly Me to the Moon" and "My Funny Valentine."

Here are two excerpts from a machine-driven poem of my own, joined for brevity and counterpoint (machines are often prolix and repetitive). Otherwise, I've not smoothed out the burrs and misfits. The fuel for the machine consisted of my own words (previous poems), placed into a word randomization program that allows the machine to be "tuned" before singing. I'm a little jealous of this work, because it is more radically lyrical than my other works and uses words like "adenose" and "cometits" I would never have considered.


All you’re indeed.inhumanity, god’s prettier movings
adenose willseeing, and rice, creation’s motherland,
and melodious cometits have their time. So of Oedipus
he painted ten sentences from enduring space,
the young under-familiar fence, songs its mouth-sign
and plain bad luck. Our shadow misbehaves, as if it couldn’t.

Beyond belfry, something crying. clearly mind.

Tragic. hair.
Myrtles. Calm Ricardo magic. Them, should plotwear.
Lyric reason imitates season, earthbrook distraction, has contradiction than poetic double Portuguese hole that lines pain. Will feeling, along beyond itself.
Consciousness still plays. For sharpeningdogs may aloud clearly,
cries merely being,
to demand a beautiful breakway, all.

26 Instant Reviews

Reviewing poetry is increasingly a lost art, and it's so much work! I've created 26 instant reviews of no more than one line. The idea is match all the poets, critics, or school of poetry with their review. Match all of them and you may win a valuable prize.

1. Emily Dickinson
2. Ted Berrigan
3. Hart Crane
4. John Ashbery
5. Allen Ginsberg
6. Donald Justice
7. Marjorie Welish
8. Language Poetry
9. Marianne Moore
10. Galway Kinnell
11. Laura Riding
12. The New Formalism
13. August Kleinzahler
14. Jack Spicer
15. Gertrude Stein
16. Ezra Pound
17. Lawrence Ferlinghetti
18. Helen Vendler
19. Sharon Olds
20. Charles Olson
21. Dana Gioia
22. Anne Waldman
23. Frank O'Hara
24. Jack Kerouac
25. Gary Snyder
26. Paul Blackburn

A. Badda bing, badda boom.
B. Does a bear shit in the woods?
C. And if not, not.
D. My typewriter is bigger than your typewriter.
E. Big man, small town.
F. A little more uncertainty, please.
G. The well-hung muse.
H. Rebel angels, measured heaven.
I. I think I'll write a dictionary.
J. Stiff shirt in a sad closet.
K. There's no such thing as post-publication.
L. Unsettled by the name Oil Can Boyd.
M. I do not think it will signify to me.
N. Shyness unrequited
O. Nearing the non-ending.
P. Daring as never before.
Q. What price salience?
R. Not waving but drowning
S. Admiral and existentialist.
T. Let me recite you a ballad.
U. Is there sex in this class?
V. I've stopped being Theirs -
W. The emperor's old clothes.
X. Accidents are not itineraries.
Y. Spare hanger in a bone closet.
Z. How strange to be gone in a minute.

Apples and Oranges

Does a book of theory written in 1987 have anything to say today? Here's a call and response from Baudrillard's The Ecstasy of Communication (Semiotexte, 1987), consisting of the title essay, "Rituals of Transparency," "Metamorphoses, Metaphors, Mestasases," "From the System of Objects to the Destiny of Objects," and "Seduction, or, The Superficial Abyss":

Baudrillard: "Everything began with objects, yet there is no longer a system of objects. The critique of objects was based on signs saturated with meaning, along with their phantasies and unconscious logic as well as their prestigious differential logic. Behind this dual logic lies the anthropological dream: the dream of the object as existing beyond and above exchange and use, above and beyond equivalence; the dream of a sacrificial logic, of gift, expenditure, potlatch, 'devil's share' consumption, symbolic, exchange.

"All this still exists, and simultaneously it is disappearing. The description of this projective imaginary and symbolic universe was still the one of the object as the mirror of the subject. The opposition of the subject and the object was still significant, as was the profound imaginary of the mirror and the scene. . . . Today the scene and the mirror have given way to a screen and a network. There is no longer any transcendence or depth, but only the immanent surface of operations unfolding, the smooth and functional surface of communication. In the image of television, the most beatiful prototypical object of this new era, the surrounding universe and our very bodies are becoming monitoring screens."

Baudrillard uses a favorite word of theoretical & philosophical persuasion, "all." Having claimed the full wasting of perception, art, and culture, he can begin his elegy for the loss of depth, profundity, object and its shadow: "We no longer invest our objects with the same emotions, the same dreams of possession, loss, mourning, jealousy; the psychological dimension has been blurred, even if one can retrieve it in the particular."

We live in other words in a field of shadowless identities that have been flattened by their status as electronic imaginaries. Imagine then a field of identical oranges, each in its frame a la Magritte's "This is not a pipe" series, along with its non-identical caption: the alienated orange, the starving orange, the green orange, the defiant orange, the actual orange, and orange of the past. We are aware of the actuality of oranges; we have eaten them all of our lives. Do they taste flatter now because of the depth-lack of television or because they are boxed and shipped green? Is the orange in the mirror deeper metaphysically (and of more authentic character) than the orange on HD television? Or does the orange on a grainy color television, ca. 1987, hold greater status because of its interruptive, lay-bare-the-device means of presentation, so close to our imaginary of mind?

The Platonic orange, the one we hold in our hands, peel, and eat, poses under light in the produce section of the grocery store. It has been sprayed orange with food dyes and genetically altered to be the best orange it can be. It's the orange of desire, expression, seduction, appetite, and first thinking. This is the orange you dare take home to mother.