Poetry

Mind, Body, Spirit, Whatever: The New Poetics of the Metaphysical

Adam Fieled has published a very interesting essay at Word For/Word about what he sees as a needed resurgence of metaphysical concerns in contemporary poetics. I largely agree with his thesis that the poetics of previous generations, in particular those of the American avant-garde of the latter half of the twentieth century, have been overly enmeshed in a variety of materialisms. There are notable exceptions, of course, chief among them I think would be poets of the Beat generation like Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg and a few others from the New York School, most notably Joseph Ceravolo. But in surveying the poetics of the major movements of the last 50 years of poetry, it's clear that in particular the obsessions of post-structuralism and the new criticism with the text as material object have infected a great deal of the late poetries with a pervasive materialism that has created the problems that Fieled notes. I don't want to quibble with the problematization as Fieled conceives it, but I do see a flaw in his historical analysis that I'd like to reformulate because I think it will make clearer those problems as well as help to point out possible approaches to solutions in the search for a way forward.

Happy, In Fact: Amy King's Slaves to Do These Things

Time is a funny thing. It's only really there when you aren't paying any attention to it. Take notice of the passage of time, and it freezes in place, neither future nor past but rather the oppressive weight of a nowness that is paradoxically both never ending and impossibly fragile. There is a sense of this troubling temporality that shoots through all of Amy King's Slaves to Do These Things, which obsesses about temporal passage and what it does to us in a continual iteration of images. This "caughtness" by time is captured in lines like:

Buried by Midnight
I am a warm
fly in amber.

from "Miracle on the Hudson"

or

Usually no one goes
close enough to notice
the noise of biding time,
a vastly off-white habit
from patience.

from "Anarchy's Tiptoe"

What matters in these images, and others, recurring throughout the poems in this book, is that they establish time as a framework within which the entirety of the poet's concerns are found. This temporality is compounded by the sectioning of the book into the usual five acts of stage drama, forcing the rhythm and expectation of a linear dramatic narrative onto the inherently nonlinear scraps of theater contained within each Act. Here then, are the slaves, the characters and persons collected within King's poems bearing under the weight of the master time, and also the master of the poet who is never far from the page. Because these poems are in no way about time, but they are within time and the concerns of lust and love, sex and death, growth and evolution are all made heavy by the burden of time's whip upon them.

Remembering a Poet Who Packed Stadiums: Andrei Voznesensky

in

On June 1st great Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky passed away at the age of 77. Voznesensky lived in a country and time when a popular poet could fill up stadiums, which he did in the 50s and 60s. In 1962, Khrushchev called him a "capitalist agent" and publicly denounced him as a pervert, which caused him to have a nervous breakdown.

I had a poem by Voznesensky read at my wedding. Here it is reproduced in its entirety,

"Dead Still" by Andrei Voznesensky translated from the Russian by Richard Wilber

Now, with your palms on the blades of my shoulders,
Let us embrace:
Let there be only your lips' breath on my face,
Only, behind our backs, the plunge of rollers.

Our backs, which like two shells in moonlight shine,
Are shut behind us now;
We lie here huddled, listening brow to brow,
Like life's twin formula or double sign.

In folly's world-wide wind
Our shoulders shield from the weather
The calm we now beget together,
Like a flame held between hand and hand.

Does each cell have a soul within it?
If so, fling open all your little doors,
And all your souls shall flutter like the linnet
In the cages of my pores.

Nothing is hidden that shall not be known.
Yet by no storm of scorn shall we
Be pried from this embrace, and left alone
Like muted shells forgetful of the sea.

Meanwhile, O load of stress and bother,
Lie on the shells of our backs in a great heap:
It will but press us closer, one to the other.

We are asleep.

Stuff I wrote

in

Folks who are interested, I have some new work up at Blue & Yellow Dog along with some other very cool poets like Adam Fieled and Arkava Das among others.

Oh Amber...

Thank god for google alerts. Without it, I never would have learned that my name, and my real name at that and not the initials I use when I publish, is like ash on Amber Tamblyn's tongue.

She is apparently unaware of the various six degrees connections between us that make me something more to her than just some random dude on the internet.

Some background: because I'm a poet that means I'm generally tapped into the poetry world at large. Dear reader, you may be shocked to discover that the poetry world at large is actually extremely small.

I first became aware of Amber Tamblyn qua poet when my friend Rachel McKibbens pointed me to a pretty ridiculous interview of Amber Tamblyn by Sage Francis. Sage Francis is most famous as a backpack rapper, and by most accounts is quite the gifted MC. Unbeknownst to many people who are vaguely aware of his records, he first made his name as a Slam poet in Massachusetts before he got "sick of waiting tables" and went into the music biz. It's this fact that made the interview particularly ridiculous. Tamblyn, who was dating Sage at the time, was represented as an authority on poetry slam in the interview in which Sage Francis fronted complete ignorance of the form. This of course presented a sort of cognitive dissonance to those of us who know that Sage Francis has been a member of slam teams representing his local slam at nationals, and that Tamblyn traded in her B list celebrity for D list poetry fame by first embarking on a career as a poetry slam dilettante.

"I lit a cigarette and walked free/beyond the red light of the exit."

The title of this brief essay quotes from Louis Zukofsky's poem "A". It is the couplet early in the poem that hooked me.

I was moved to make this quotation as a means of using the quotation within the fair use doctrine. I found that I had this particular motivation after discovering that Paul Zukofsky had posted a cranky letter of "copyright notice" on the website he runs dedicated to "making money" off his parents' copyrights.

Initially I found the tenor and attitude of the notice to be extremely annoying. First because Paul Zukofsky clearly doesn't understand what copyright is or how it works and that this lack of understanding seems to persist in the face of the extreme simplicity of learning more about the subject. I find such willful ignorance a sort of personal affront as it is contrary to the requirements of a free and open society, a form of civilization that I am very much in favor of and in which I would like to continue to live.

From that point, however, I came to the conclusion that such extreme crankiness must in fact be evidence of something else and I was instead moved to pity for Paul Zukofsky. The tenor of his notice, found here, sounds to me in the voice of someone deeply alienated from humanity, a condition that, were it my own, I would find extremely painful. In the end, "I lit a cigarette and walked free beyond the red light of the exit."

Mr. Zukofsky, if you can find an attorney that is willing file a valid suit against me for this use, which I fully admit is a use contrary to your wishes as expressed in the copyright notice, I will remove the quotation. I do not expect that I shall have to live up to this comment.

I suggest you lighten up a touch and consult with an attorney familiar with US copyright law about what your rights as a copyright owner actually are. Also, your father is an obscure objectivist poet mostly remembered because he was seen as a major influence by the Language poets. I wouldn't hold your breath waiting for the royalty checks.

Greenpoint Brooklyn, 1999

Greenpoint Brooklyn, 1999

Czech rebel I remember not so much the rest dear
America what pieces of me will you keep?

It was 99 cents and yeasty and so good cold
and I don't know that anybody paid rent there

but there we were and what love I did not yet think
I knew. Dear America, do you have in small cedar boxes

my pieces of the East River that have kept me rapt
where wrapped I have held summers like that.

Dear America, do you remember that the dope
was dry shake all stems and seeds all cut with

ephedrine in glycerine capsules melting micro
dots under our tongues. What is still dear, America

this place that I come back to, sweating now in
recollection the collected plaster crumbles like snow

field raptures like me like we have never been called
dear, America. Still. Still in with the cheap stuff distilled

from the meltwater in summer, maybe tho but for
but for the condensation, the sweat on the bottle

and sweltering like we do. Dear America, we've had our
differential equations, our earthquake laser targetting

systems like eye beams the railing we have railed
our Laotian season, we tho quiet, a Graham Greene

quiet of us dear, America I have questions. I have a list
of requirements. I have unmet demands and tattoos

on the skin inside my mouth where ink like burnt skin
hangs down and scrapes against my tongue so slainte

we like our arm chair irish famine anarchists drink our own health and wonder
yet at another year dear America, we have got at least one more.

The Open Sentence: A Statement Masquerading as a Manifesto

I say this now because as I'm continuing to write my extended, in depth criticism of Atlas Shrugged, there are going to be times when the close reading will require the engagement of aesthetic rather than political or philosophical concerns. As I'm trying to show that it is the worst book ever written, it is necessary to take on not only the bad ideas in the book and the quality of the storytelling, but also the quality of the craftsmanship at the level of the language. In order that people know where I'm coming from, I figured it would be better to lay it all out here in a brief abstract rather than have to constantly re-state things about what I think makes for good and bad writing within each individual piece.

In writing, where the content is not primarily concerned with the communications of facts or criticism of some form whether it be literal or cultural—that is to say, where it is not political/philosophical treatise, some sort of non-fiction, or the interpretation of other work—I take to be primitive several statements by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Among them:

"Philosophy ought to be written only as a form of poetry."

"What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."

"What can be shewn cannot be said."

"There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical."

"We have got onto slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense conditions are ideal, but also, because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk, therefore we need friction. Back to the rough ground."

"If a lion could speak, we could not understand him."

"In a large number of cases, though not for all, the meaning of a word is it's use in a language-game."

Elizabeth Alexander?

While many have maybe come to the conclusion that the history book is closed on the Obama administration and the narrative went something like this: "Progressive Ideals Betrayed, Politics as Usual, Banal Centrism, What a Phony," I for one am of the opinion that we ought to actually wait for there to BE an Obama administration before we start passing judgement on what an abysmal failure it was.

That having been said there is one decision made by the president to date that I think does bear some pretty harsh criticism, and that's the selection of Elizabeth Alexander as the author of the inaugural poem.

Now, if you're like me you aren't super accustomed to hear the naming of a poet for a major job like that and thinking to yourself "who the fuck is that?" So imagine my surprise as I was reading various op ed pieces on the selection of Rick Warren as the Invoker of the ceremony (whose counterbalance in Joseph Lowery chronologically later in the series of events I read as a subtle idictment of Warren's cro magnon ideas), when I discovered that none other than eminent scholar Elizabeth Alexander who I've never heard of is going to be writing and reading a poem to commemorate the occasion.

Now if, like me, you've never heard of Elizabeth Alexander, that's not really surprising. After all, her biggest laurel to date is a nomination for the Pulitzer. Which, as poetry laurels go, practically guarantees that she's not of any real note. Of course, it's clear to me at this point that her selection probably has more to do with the fact that she's reportedly a "close family friend" of the Obamas than her books. Never the less, given that she's now stepping into the footsteps of such luminaries as Robert Frost and Maya Angelou, both of whom I have no patience for, I'd like to take a moment to reflect on just what it means to be a good poet in America today.

Take the moment.

Have you come up with anything?

Me neither.

Night Swim

This poem originally appeared in The New England Review

Stranger, the bats fly low tonight,
the moon’s cloaked in cloud. Three strokes
and I’ve lost you, too. In a cold ripple,
I’m water-logged, unwound—

I want a shadow of a shadow,
a homeless floater. Give me a word
that lights the lake and makes you
less strange. My silence palm-slaps

the surface, my body fishes
for yours. I’ll swim to you all night
and not find you. Or I’ll find you
and never stop swimming.

Jennifer Chang's first book of poems, The History of Anonymity, is forthcoming in Spring 2008 from University of Georgia Press