Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Poem: Nick Masesso Jr.

Iconoclast Direct from Hollywood Heaven

Robert Altman is dead,
but Francis Coppola is still alive.
“They hit him with six shots
and he’s still alive.
Well that’s bad luck for me,
and bad luck for you,
If you don’t make that deal
with Sonny”.

Marty Scorsese is running down Mulberry Street
with a knife in his back. Death is chasing him
like a freight train
and he’s still dreaming of Italian Cinema.

Stanley Kubrick is floating in a space odyssey
with naked women like Norman Mailer’s somnambulist.
He sports an orange clock around his neck,
Public Enemy style.

Sam Pekinpaugh is riddling
Alfred Hitchcock’s bloated corpse
with silver bullets
while Sam whistles over
John Ford’s grave.

Robert Altman is dead
He’s hunting deer
with Michael Cimino and Dino de Laurentis,
unconventionally subverting the genre.

Robert Altman is dead.
He’s whispering
“suicide is painless”
while Arthur Penn
Is turning the crank
of a vintage Model-T
for Clyde Barrow.

Robert Altman is dead.
He’s stopping the bleeding in Korea,
singing on stage in Nashville
and slowing slipping away
chest deep in the western snows.

He deconstructs and demythologizes
our romantic visions
in non-heroic, breathtaking, masterpiece
while Leonard Cohen wails.

He watches as Oliver Stone
shows Jack Kennedy
what happened in Vietnam,
how the bullet
made his head
go back
and to the right,
made us all go back
and to the right.

* * *

~ Born August 12, 1948, Nick Masesso Jr. grew up in the 1950's of suburban Chicago. In the late 1960's he co-founded a commune. He traveled throughout North America in the 1970's and made treks to South America, Southern and South Central Africa also in the 1970's. His Book “Walking the Midway in Purgatory, a Journal” is available on-line and through bookstore.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Ron Silliman on the History of Poetry

While education tends to stress the great works, Ron Silliman feels that the real history of poetry is in the unpolished, not-perfect works.

I know I’m repeating myself, but this seems to be a point that a lot of people get stuck on. Plus this is my 2,000th post to the blog, and I’m feeling feisty. The history of poetry, like the history of any art form, is not a procession of its “best works.” Indeed, the well-wrought urn is, if anything, the deservedly forgotten one. Having codified and smoothed out the rough edges of any given tendency in poetry, such works are monuments to triviality and soon ignored.

In the 1960s, there were dozens of young poets who wrote “just like” Robert Creeley or any of a number of other, first-generation Projectivists. John Sinclair was a terrific approximation of Charles Olson transplanted to Detroit. Ross Feld had Jack Spicer down cold. More than a few poets during that same period “did” John Ashbery almost better than Ashbery himself. And there quite a few Allen Ginsbergs & Gary Snyders as well. Where are they now? Those that persevered – many did not – have changed, sometimes quite radically. There were a hundred Ted Berrigans, but it is worth noting that Alice Notley has not been one of them. Last I heard, John Sinclair was a DJ down in New Orleans – his great magazine Work has had its title appropriated by some folks out in Oakland – I wonder if they even know the literary heritage of that name.

In The New American Poetry, Ron Loewinsohn – just 23 when the book was first published – demonstrated an uncanny ability to channel the style of William Carlos Williams. A look at his professor emeritus page at UC Berkeley shows no publication of new poetry since 1976, no new writing of any kind in over twenty years. Yet Against the Silences to Come, Loewinsohn’s 1965 chapbook from Four Seasons Foundation, arguably is the best work ever written “in the Williams mode” of stepped free verse. Who (but me) celebrates that?

That’s the phenomenon in micro- form. It has a macro- variation as well. Articulating the possibilities of the prose poem, say, or dramatic monologue, or free verse – the three great formal innovations of the 19th century – has meant dramatically transforming what those genre mean. Charles Olson’s Maximus is possibly the only innovation in dramatic monolog in the 20th century even worth discussing. But look at how Pessoa’s heteronyms carry the underlying dynamics of dissociating author from speaker in a completely different direction. Now, a few decades hence, heteronyms are a dime a dozen as well.

The history of poetry is the history of change in poetry, an account not of best works, but of shifts in direction, new devices, new forms, as Williams once put it, “as additions to nature.” The cruder writing & rougher edges of the first to do X, whatever it might be, invariably are preferable. Better Spicer than Ross Feld. Better Howl than _________ – you can fill in that blank yourself.

There are of course poets and readers who hate change, sometimes hate it intensely. There are, for example, those who claim that Pound’s “good” writing stops basically at “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly,” avant The Cantos. Pound in those years was something of a stylistic gigolo, plagiarizing all that was interesting in Victorian poetics. Had he stopped there, he would have been the Ron Loewinsohn of his generation. And you would never have read him.

This may be why, actually, the School of Quietude generally does such a poor job of celebrating, preserving and carrying forward the work of its own stalwarts. Does anyone think you could fill up an auditorium at Columbia for a weekend, for example, to celebrate the centenary of Yvor Winters, Allen Tate, Robert Francis or Richard Eberhart, the SoQ poets closest in age to Louis Zukofsky? Why is it that the London Review of Books still thinks it necessary to order a hit piece of Zukofsky when all these contemporaries of his have long since disappeared from view? Or that Charlie Simic does the same to Robert Creeley (or William Logan ditto to Frank O’Hara)? It’s not that the SoQ poets, then and now, were bad writers – I think you can demonstrate that it’s objectively not the case. But they didn’t create change for poetry in their poetry (and, indeed, the most interesting of that earlier quartet are the two who helped to create institutional change in the academy through their critical writing, tho they did so precisely to thwart a modernism that was already threatening our shores). The assaults on Zukofsky, Creeley & O’Hara are little more than tantrums on the part of writers who understand that they’re the Robert Francises & Richard Eberharts of today, and are doomed to be just as widely read. They’d love to be able to curb the influence Zukofsky et al are having and will continue to have on younger writers, but they know already that this is impossible. Their pain is real.

Each art form has its own dynamic around issues such as form and change.

Go read the rest of the article -- and if you have some thoughts, please come back and share them here.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Denis Darzacq - The Fall (2006) - Photos

In 2006, Denis Darzacq asked dancers and athletes to perform jumps against background that he had found and prepared. Wearing ordinary clothes chosen in agreement with the photographer, the performers executed their leaps in these precisely defined settings.

Everything had been prepared in advance. Everything was ready. The models launched themselves into space. There is nothing false in these scenes . These moments really occurred. There is no fiction, no retouching or special effects. Photographed in the courtyards of buildings or in streets in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, in Nanterre and in Biarritz, these young people were just being themselves, simply performing jumps in a modern urban setting. And the photographer shot the images, intervening only to give a few guidelines as to their movement. However, at the moment of the leap, chance and gravity also intervened. (Text by Virginie Chardin)

* * * *

The Fall

* * * *

* * * *

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Two Poems: Tim J Brennan

Other Woman

she says whisper
the words, kisses
my cheek

it is so cold
this day her lip
imprint freezes
on my skin

i rub it
for luck

* * *

The Poet Reads

the poet speaks
to them from behind
his invisible moon

they become
to his prayers

* * *

~ Tim Brennan lives in Austin, MN. He is a frequent contributor to Elegant Thorn Review.

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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Jay Parini - Why Poetry Matters

From Jay Parini at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Why Poetry Matters

Poetry doesn't matter to most people. They go about their business as usual, rarely consulting their Shakespeare, Wordsworth, or Frost. One has to wonder if poetry has any place in the 21st century, when music videos and satellite television offer daunting competition for poems, which demand a good deal of attention and considerable analytic skills, as well as some knowledge of the traditions of poetry.

In the 19th century, poets like Scott, Byron, and Longfellow had huge audiences around the world. Their works were best sellers, and they were cultural heroes as well. But readers had few choices in those days. One imagines, perhaps falsely, that people actually liked poetry. It provided them with narratives that entertained and inspired. It gave them words to attach to their feelings. They enjoyed folk ballads, too. In a sense, music and poetry joined hands.

In the 20th century, something went amiss. Poetry became "difficult." That is, poets began to reflect the complexities of modern culture, its fierce disjunctions. The poems of Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, and Wallace Stevens asked a lot of the reader, including a range of cultural references to topics that even in the early 1900s had become little known. To read Pound and Eliot with ease, for instance, one needed some knowledge of Greek and Latin poetry. That kind of learning had been fairly common among educated readers in the past, when the classics were the bedrock of any upper-middle-class education. The same could not be said for most readers in the 20th century — or today, when education has become more democratized and the study of the classics has been relegated to a small number of enthusiasts. The poems of the canonical poets of high modernism require heavy footnotes.

Yet poetry can make a difference in the lives of readers. I've always known that myself, having read and written poems for at least four decades. Every morning I begin the day with a book of poems open at the breakfast table. I read a poem, perhaps two. I think about the poetry. I often make notes in my journal. The reading of the poem informs my day, adds brightness to my step, creates shades of feeling that formerly had been unavailable to me. In many cases, I remember lines, whole passages, that float in my head all day — snatches of song, as it were. I firmly believe my life would be infinitely poorer without poetry, its music, its deep wisdom.

One tends to forget that poetry is wisdom. I was in Morocco recently, and a devout Muslim mentioned to me that the Prophet Muhammad, in his book of sayings, the Hadith, had said as much. But the Koran also teaches, I was told, that poets are dangerous, and that decent people should avoid them. That reminded me of Plato, who wished to ban all poets from his ideal republic because he thought they were liars. Reality, for Plato, was an intense, perfect world of ideas. The material world represents reflections of that ideal, always imperfect. Artistic representations of nature were thus at several removes from the ideal, hence suspicious.

But Plato also had other worries about poets. In the Republic, he complained that they tend to whip up the emotions of readers in unhelpful ways. They stir feelings of "lust and anger and all the other affections, of desire and pain and pleasure." Poetry "feeds and waters the passions instead of drying them up," he said, while only the "hymns of the gods and praises of famous men" are worthy of readers. The law and reason are far better.

Although Plato didn't quite sink the art of poetry, he cast suspicion on the craft, and poets since then have rarely been comfortable with their place in society. Even the popular Romantic poets — Byron, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, and others — lived on the edge of the social whirl, not quite respectable. More recently figures like Allen Ginsberg have derided their country. Poets have an unruly streak in them, and have not been the most welcome guests at the table of society.

Teachers and professors have long considered poetry a useful part of the curriculum, and one of the last places where poetry remains a central part of the culture is the classroom. To a degree, poets have been "domesticated" by the academic village, welcomed into its grove. Frost was among the first poets to get a big welcome on the campus, and he taught at Amherst College for much of his life, with stints elsewhere. He spent his last decades crisscrossing the country, appearing at colleges, reading and lecturing to large audiences. He believed firmly in poetry as a means of shaping minds in important ways.

In "Education by Poetry," one of his finest essays, Frost argued that an understanding of how poetry works is essential to the developing intellect. He went so far as to suggest that unless you are at home in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values, "you don't know how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you." Those are very large claims.

Poets do make large claims, and they are usually a bit exaggerated. In his "Defense of Poetry," Shelley famously wrote: "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." I prefer the twist on that offered by a later poet, George Oppen, who wrote: "Poets are the legislators of the unacknowledged world."

I don't especially want poets to make laws or rule the world. For the most part, they would perform very badly in those public ways. The world of the poet is largely an interior world of the intellect and the emotions — where we mostly live, in fact. And poetry bolsters that interior realm. In a talk at Princeton University in 1942, when the world was aflame, Stevens reflected on the fact that the 20th century had become "so violent," both physically and spiritually. He succinctly defined poetry as "a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pushing back against the pressure of reality. It seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of poetry, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives."

The pressure of reality is indeed fierce, and yet poetry supplies a kind of counterpressure, pushing back against external forces that would overwhelm and obliterate the individual. Poets give a voice to the world in ways previously unacknowledged. We listen to the still, small voice of poetry when we read a poem, and that voice stands in ferocious contrast to the clamor in the culture at large and, often, to the sound of society's explosions.

I always define poetry for my students as a language adequate to our experience — to our full experience, taking into account the interior valleys, the peaks, the broad plains. It gives voice to tiny thoughts, to what the Scottish poet and scholar Alastair Reid, in a lovely poem, calls "Oddments Inklings Omens Moments." One does not hope for poetry to change the world. Auden noted when he wrote in his elegy for Yeats that "poetry makes nothing happen." That is, it doesn't shift the stock market or persuade dictators to stand down. It doesn't usually send masses into the streets to protest a war or petition for economic justice. It works in quieter ways, shaping the interior space of readers, adding a range of subtlety to their thoughts, complicating the world for them.

Language defines us as human beings. We speak, therefore we exist. We have the miraculous ability to gesture in words, to make statements and requests, to express our feelings, to construct arguments, to draw conclusions. Poetic language matters because it is precise and concrete, and draws us closer to the material world. In Nature, Emerson argues that the sheer physicality of words points us in directions that might be called "spiritual." He puts forward three principles worth considering:

"Words are signs of natural facts."

"Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts."

"Nature is the symbol of the spirit."

Those statements formed a platform of sorts for the Transcendental movement, which studied nature closely for signs of spiritual life. The principles remain worthy of reflection. At some level, words suggest natural facts: "rock," "river," "bird," "cloud." The leap comes in the second statement, which posits a spiritual world. One can, I think, leap beyond conventional notions of spirituality here and acknowledge a deep interior world wherein each of us lives, no matter what our religious persuasion. I think of a line from Gerard Manley Hopkins: "O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall/Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed." The mind has those heights and depths, and few have not sensed them, stood in awe of their terrifying majesty. That is the spiritual realm, which one can extend in any direction. Nature becomes, at last, Emerson's "symbol of the spirit," and poetry itself embodies that nature. It is part of it. It mirrors the vast interior world, populates it with images and phrases, provides a basis for the reality of individual lives.

I could not live without poetry, which has helped me to live my existence more concretely, more deeply. It has shaped my thinking. It has enlivened my spirit. It has offered me ways to endure my life (I'm rephrasing Dr. Johnson here), even to enjoy it.

Jay Parini is a novelist, poet, and professor of English at Middlebury College. His latest book, Why Poetry Matters, was published in April by Yale University Press.