Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Tricycle - Just One Breath: The Practice of Poetry and Meditation

Excellent article by one of my favorite Buddhist poets.

Just One Breath: The Practice of Poetry and Meditation

By Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder photographed by Allen Ginsberg

IN THIS WORLD of onrushing events the act of meditation—even just a "one-breath" meditation—straightening the back, clearing the mind for a moment—is a refreshing island in the stream. Although the term meditation has mystical and religious connotations for many people, it is a simple and plain activity. Attention: deliberate stillness and silence. As anyone who has practiced sitting knows, the quieted mind has many paths, most of them tedious and ordinary. Then, right in the midst of meditation, totally unexpected images or feelings may sometimes erupt, and there is a way into a vivid transparency. But whatever comes up, sitting is always instructive. There is ample testimony that a practice of meditation pursued over months and years brings some degree of self-understanding, serenity, focus, and self-confidence to the person who stays with it. There is also a deep gratitude that one comes to feel for this world of beings, teachers, and teachings.

No one—guru or roshi or priest—can program for long what a person might think or feel in private reflection. We learn that we cannot in any literal sense control our mind. Meditation cannot serve an ideology. A meditation teacher can only help a student understand the phenomena that rise from his or her own inner world—after the fact—and give tips on directions to go. A meditation teacher can be a check or guide for the wayfarer to measure herself against, and like any experienced guide can give good warning of brushy paths and dead-end canyons from personal experience. The teacher provides questions, not answers. Within a traditional Buddhist framework of ethical values and psychological insight, the mind essentially reveals itself.

Meditation is not just a rest or retreat from the turmoil of the stream or the impurity of the world. It is a way of being the stream, so that one can be at home in both the white water and the eddies. Meditation may take one out of the world, but it also puts one totally into it. Poems are a bit like this too. The experience of a poem gives both distance and involvement: one is closer and farther at the same time.

TRADITIONS OF DELIBERATE ATTENTION to consciousness, and of making poems, are as old as humankind. Meditation looks inward, poetry holds forth. One is private, the other is out in the world. One enters the moment, the other shares it. But in practice it is never entirely clear which is doing which. In any case, we do know that in spite of the contemporary public perception of meditation and poetry as special, exotic, and difficult, they are both as old and as common as grass. The one goes back to essential moments of stillness and deep inwardness, and the other to the fundamental impulse of expression and presentation.

People often confuse meditation with prayer, devotion, or vision. They are not the same. Meditation as a practice does not address itself to a deity or present itself as an opportunity for revelation. This is not to say that people who are meditating do not occasionally think they have received a revelation or experienced visions. They do. But to those for whom meditation is their central practice, a vision or a revelation is seen as just another phenomenon of consciousness and as such is not to be taken as exceptional. The meditator would simply experience the ground of consciousness, and in doing so avoid excluding or excessively elevating any thought or feeling. To do this one must release all sense of the "I" as experiencer, even the "I" that might think it is privileged to communicate with the divine. It is in sensitive areas such as these that a teacher can be a great help. This is mostly a description of the Buddhist meditation tradition, which has hewed consistently to a nontheistic practice over the centuries.

Poetry has also been part of Buddhism from early on. From the 2,500-year-old songs of forest-dwelling monks and nuns of India to the vivid colloquial poems of Kenji Miyazawa in 1930s Japan, there is a continuous thread. Poetry has had a primary place of respect in Chinese literary culture, and many of the best-known poems of the Chinese canon are touched with Ch'an and Taoist insight. Some of the finest poets of China were even acknowledged Ch'an adepts—Bai Juyi and Su Dungpo, to name just two.

Although the Chinese Ch'an masters liked to say "The lowest class of monk is the one who indulges in literature," we have to remember that blame is often praise in the Ch'an world. The Ch'an training halls, with their unconventional dharma discourses and vivid mimed exchanges, and the tradition of the Chinese lyric poems, shih, with their lucid and allusive brevity, were clearly shaping each other by the early Tang dynasty.

Ch'an teachers and students have always written their own sort of in-house poems as well. In formal gung-an (koan) study, a student is often called upon to present a few lines of poetry from the Chinese canon as a proof of the completeness of his or her understanding—an exercise called zho-yu, "capping verses" (jakugo in Japanese). Such exchanges have been described in the book A Zen Forest by Soiku Shigematsu, a Japanese Rinzai Zen priest. Shigematsu Osho has handily translated hundreds of the couplets as borrowed from Chinese poetry and proverb. They are intense:

Words, words, words—fluttering drizzle and snow.
Silence, silence, silence—a roaring thunderbolt.
Bring back the dead!
Kill the living!
This tune, another tune—no one understands.
Rain has passed, leaving the pond brimming in the autumn light.
The fire of catastrophe has burned out all
Millions of miles no mist, not a grain of dust!
One phrase after another
Each moment refreshing.

These bits of poems are not simply bandied about between Zen students as some kind of in-group wisdom or slangy shorthand for larger meanings. They are used sparingly, in interviews with the teacher, as a mode of reaching even deeper than a "personal" answer to a problem, as a way of confirming that one has touched base with a larger Mind. They are valued not for the literary metaphor but for the challenge presented by the exercise of physically actualizing the metaphor in the present. They help the student bring symbols and abstractions back to earth, into the body. Zen exquisitely develops this possibility—yet it's not far from the natural work of poems and proverbs anyway.

The Buddhist world has produced numerous poets and singers of the dharma whose works are still admired and loved. Milarepa, whose songs are known by heart among Tibetans, and Basho, whose haiku are read worldwide, are perhaps the most famous.

I STARTED WRITING POETRY in my adolescence, to give voice to some powerful experiences that I had while doing snowpeak mountaineering in the Pacific Northwest. At first I wrote "directly as I felt." Then I discovered the work of Robinson Jeffers and D.H. Lawrence. Aha, I thought, there is more to poetry. I became aware of poetry as a craft—a matter of working with materials and tools—that has a history, with different applications and strategies all over the world over tens of thousands of years. I came to understand poetry as a furthering of language. (Language is not something you learn in school, it is a world you're born into. It is part of the wildness of Mind. You master your home tongue without conscious effort by the age of five. Language with its sinuous syntax is not unlike the thermal dynamics of weather systems, or energy exchanges in the food chain—completely natural and vital, part of what and who we are. Poetry is the leap off of [or into] that.)

I ran into a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins with the lines,

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep

This helped me realize that literal mountains were not the only place to climb. I was recovering at the time from a little frostbite suffered on a winter ascent of Mt. Hood. (It should be said that mountaineering is not simply some sort of challenging quest. It has that aspect, but for dedicated climbers the strategy, the companionship, and the cooperation is what makes climbing the game it is.) Climbing also opened me up to the impermanence, the total scariness, the literal voidness under my feet, the exposure, as we say, of consciousness itself. What deep and soulful thoughts that witnessing the gulf below can give you.

Read the rest of the article.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Aram Saroyan - Beat America

Nice article on the Beats posted over at The Poetry Foundation site.

Beat America

What did we learn from Ted Berrigan, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg?

by Aram Saroyan

Berrigan and Ginsberg by Paul Killebrew
Original artwork by Paul Killebrew

It's been more than a decade since the death of Allen Ginsberg, but in the interim I've found that he's stayed with me as an informing, tempering, guardian-like presence of a stature equaled only by my late father. Allen and I were never really friends, but having said that I feel an urgency to qualify and emend it. He meant as much as or more than any friend I can think of, and in the years since his death it's come to me that he was one of the two or three great teachers of my life. He looked me up and down, and looked me in the face, taking my measure for good or ill, and then informed me, on several critical occasions, where I had gotten it right or wrong. I bridled at the negative assessments but then quickly or slowly realized the generosity implicit in them and, more to the point, their correctness.

I also realize that with his passing there is simply no one to fill his shoes. He had the energy and curiosity and hunger for the crowd to be seemingly everywhere, and that is something we could do with more of in our poets. Our great ghosts of the outer limits, from Emily Dickinson to Robinson Jeffers, are all well and good, but we need more of the shambling, love-besotted Whitman, Allen's great exemplar, of whom he was the finest avatar we've yet had. That he was Jewish is also, to me, half-Jewish and much in colloquy with that side of myself, a wonder and a blessing. He was a Jew who rejected and defied the worst, and at the same time typified the best, of our tribe. He left the inbred zealots and the mammon-obsessed equally behind and demonstrated, into the bargain, the native practicality of my grandmother's putting a bowl of chicken soup down on the table and commanding one to eat. He paid the rent and the utility bill and only then sat down to write poesy. He was a mensch.

The Jews, like the Armenians wronged by history on the scale of genocide, are obsessed by morality, and this can swiftly segue into self-righteousness. Allen, the brilliant pied piper of the hippies during the '60s, had the insight to see in Kerouac's disgruntled redneck—"Blow me, Ginsberg," he reports being commanded more than once when Kerouac had grown fat and old—to see in this drunken misanthrope a golden teaching. When all of us were caught up in being right, so to speak, Kerouac bedeviled everyone by being heartbreakingly wrong. He kept the other side in human perspective, perhaps in a way similar to Allen's later teacher Chogyam Trungpa, the Tibetan Buddhist with whom Allen and Anne Waldman collaborated to create Naropa's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder.

Trungpa came from the Crazy Wisdom lineage in Buddhism. Before his early death, he scandalized the American spiritual community with his drunkenness, his promiscuity, and, most notably, a confrontation with W.S. Merwin in which his devotees at a retreat violently terrorized the poet and his girlfriend. Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism is perhaps the most famous of Trungpa's books, and the title summarizes his approach. The story goes that when Allen first met him, he was surprised and put off by Trungpa's drinking.

"You should stop drinking," Allen told him. "You can't be a drunk when you're a spiritual leader."

Trungpa told Ginsberg fine, he would stop drinking if Allen would cut off his long hair and shave his beard. Allen, always up for a cosmic joust, went off and did that, then returned clean and shorn to Trungpa, presumably still at the bar.

"Okay," Allen said. "Now it's your turn."

Trungpa reportedly told Allen that he liked drinking too much to give it up—which sounds a lot like that Catholic Buddhist, Allen's other guru, Kerouac.

As a teenager in Manhattan, I turned to poetry because I couldn't understand what life was about and thought I might uncover some clues in such writing, which, according to Louis Zukofsky, finds an order "that can speak to all men." Howl, which I found during high school, was like an encyclopedia of the emotional and psychic life that had been driven under in me, with the result that I felt restless and bored a lot of the time. It was like finding a deep neural and psychic autobiography in the middle of the snow job of late-1950s/early-1960s America. Life is big, it said. It has a lot of colors. It's serious. It's funny. It's full of suffering that is also like bread, nurture, on a journey of the soul. I could say that reading it broke me open, so that I could discover myself in the deeper history of our time and kind.

Which was quite a favor to render a screwed-up adolescent.

Allen called me from Naropa one year, trying to track down a photograph of Kerouac that I'd used in Genesis Angels: The Saga of Lew Welch and the Beat Generation. It was a head shot of Jack wearing a crucifix, which had appeared originally in Mademoiselle. The crucifix had been airbrushed out of most of the reprints of the photograph, which may have been why Allen was looking to find the photographer, a man named William Eichel, whom I never located. After going over these details, we got on to other things. My father had died recently, and Allen told me a story about his father, the late poet Louis Ginsberg, who had been a high school teacher in New Jersey. When he'd visited his father in the hospital during his last illness, Allen said Louis told him that as a little boy he'd lived near a magnificent building, a great tower with chimneys from which, at certain hours of the day, huge plumes of smoke billowed. Louis had dreamed of this building and wondered what went on inside it. He promised himself that when he grew up he would go there and find out. Years later, as an older man, Louis made his pilgrimage.

"Do you know what it was, Allen? That great tower that set me dreaming?"

"What, Pop?"

"It was a glue factory."

During the same call Allen lightened my spirits by telling me how much he liked Genesis Angels, which had received mixed reviews. We talked a while longer and then he said he was getting worried about the phone bill, and I let him go. The part about the phone bill is pure Allen Ginsberg to me, the great poet of his time with one eye on the utility company.

During the '60s, in my minimalist phase as a poet, I ran into Allen one afternoon on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Eighth Street. I'd just purchased some bell-bottoms and a hippie shirt, thinking I'd take the plunge into my generation's attire, and Allen looked me over seriously.

"What's going on?" he said.

"Well, I think the clothes are beautiful, so why not wear them?" I said, trying to keep my inflections relaxed, though I felt caught out by him in an experimental exercise.

He nodded and made no further comment about it, and we got to discussing my one-word poems.

"Are you lazy, or what?" It was the sort of comment that could have come only from Allen or from my father.

"No," I said.

Ten years later, when I'd abandoned postmodernism and become a writer in an older tradition, Allen attended a reading I gave with Bill Knott at St. Mark's Church. Afterward, he commented to me that a poem I'd read took an "us-and-them" stance that he considered incorrect. This was priceless information, not about the quality of the poem so much as about how it is one continues to write. It was, as I see it today, part of the higher literary physics that he and Kerouac reinstated, so to speak. The reason you didn't take an us-and-them stance I heard explicitly echoed later in my reading of William Hazlitt and Henry James, among others. The moral example of literature wasn't judgment, that is, but empathy, which is why Shakespeare is our greatest exemplar. Allen was telling me, in his way, that I had turned down a cul-de-sac.

* * *

The Paris Review interview with Jack Kerouac was the brainchild of Ted Berrigan at a time when, hard as it is to believe, Kerouac was an almost forgotten man. Thank God Ted didn't forget him. It was a few months before the fabled Summer of Love, 1967, and Ted stopped in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I was living at the time. He brought along fellow poets Ron Padgett and Tom Clark, as well as Larry Bensky, who went on to become a mainstay of Pacifica Public Radio's political reporting. For everyone but Ted, the Cambridge trip was a spur-of-the-moment lark. For several lovely spring days, people variously drifted in and out of, snacked and rapped in, napped and slept at the Central Square two-story house I was renting with a couple of roommates—everyone enjoying the atmosphere of the town at the height of the '60s—and then all of the impromptu visitors but Ted drove back to New York. Ted invited me to accompany him up to Lowell to interview Kerouac, and the poet Duncan McNaughton showed up with a big late-model car to drive us all there. I accepted the invitation on impulse—at that moment of the '60s I'd very nearly forgotten Kerouac myself.

Ted's impromptu choreography: Jack had loved my dad's work, Ted knew, and he also knew I'd be reluctant to come as the Ambassador of William Saroyan, as it were, and made his invitation spontaneously casual—and off we went.

Kerouac, a bull-like ruin in his dark Lowell ranch-house living room, was the last of the Beat triumvirate I met (Allen was first, then Burroughs), and I saw him only that single afternoon and evening, but it proved to be a strange rite of passage, a goofy but enduring literary baptism.

Ted, a red-haired Irishman in his early 30s who liked to pop pills, gave Jack a handful of Obitrols almost as soon as we stepped into the living room, and Jack gulped them and never looked back. Ted knew Jack's work comprehensively, minutely, and with intimate biographical details in the bargain. He was a great interviewer because he was also ready, willing, and able to run the full gamut of Jack's demotic vocabulary, which like Shakespeare's was a great repository, from the idiomatic to the high literary.

"God, man, I rode around this country free as a bee." Kerouac told us about his time with Neal Cassady. "We had more fun than five thousand Socony Gasoline Station attendants can have." I sat in the dark living room—the afternoon had turned to evening, but no one had bothered to turn on the lights—thinking this doesn't sound like the Paris Review interview I read with Truman Capote.

I had a signal Edward R. Murrow moment, but it came up a little too late for me to deliver a non-Murrow-like smart-ass punch line I had in mind. I asked Jack what the difference was between Buddha and Jesus. He looked up at me quickly, nodded seriously, and said, "That's a very good question. There is none."

This response, not unexpected, nevertheless kept me quiet, for which I thank both deities. My planned answer: "Buddha knew karate."

During the interview Jack, perhaps intrigued that the son of one of his first literary influences was now looking to him, asked me to repeat after him, line by line, the words of a poem of his from Mexico City Blues:

KEROUAC: Delicate conceptions of kneecaps. Say that, Saroyan.

SAROYAN: Delicate conceptions of kneecaps.


KEROUAC: Like kissing my kitten in the belly

SAROYAN: Like kissing my kitten in the belly

KEROUAC: The softness of our reward

SAROYAN: The softness of our reward

I stumbled once or twice—there were some complicated lines—but a thick-skinned, hardheaded 23-year-old writer was getting some basic training, not in literature per se, but in repeating the words of a master. That is the correct existential posture in the lineage of mystery—surrendering to it—that the Beats revived. So, my young friend, it was as if Kerouac was saying, Let's appreciate it together; even though I wrote it, it's both of ours now. When I'd completed this exercise, Jack rewarded me with a modest encomium that has traveled with me down the years and that I've tried my best to be worthy of. "You'll do, Saroyan," he said.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

David Orr Reviews Thom Gunn: Selected Poems

A nice review from the New York Times of Thom Gunn's new Selected Poems.

Too Close to Touch

Published: July 10, 2009

Christopher Felver/Corbis -

Thom Gunn

All poets, if they are any good,” Charles Simic has said, “tend to stand apart from their literary age.” The key phrase here, of course, is “if they are any good”; average poets don’t just stand within their age, they compose it. But we sometimes talk as if ­poets are exceptions not simply when they write well, but because they write at all. According to this way of thinking, the art form demands such devotion to one’s individuality that every poet, no matter how lowly, is a kind of outsider — a Cheese Who Stands Alone. This perception frequently finds its way into depictions of poets in popular culture; it also emerges in the vehemence with which poets themselves regularly declare their opposition to labels, categories, schools, allegiances, booster clubs, car pools, intramural softball teams and so on. Yet when everyone is busy standing apart, how is it possible to stand out? What does real independence look like?

Possibly something like the work of Thom Gunn, whose new Selected ­Poems (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, paper, $14) is edited by August Kleinzahler. Gunn, who died in 2004, began his career as a hot young poet in England (he published his first book, “Fighting Terms,” when he was only 25) and was generally associated with the taut, plainspoken aesthetic favored by writers like Philip Larkin and Donald Davie. In 1954, he left England for San Francisco, where he eventually settled after studying with Yvor Winters at Stanford. Gunn embraced the city’s bohemian lifestyle — Edmund White called him “the last of the commune dwellers . . . serious and intellectual by day and druggy and sexual by night” — and he grew increasingly interested in syllabics and free verse even as he continued to hone the metrical forms that distinguished his early career. He’s possibly the only poet to have written a halfway decent quintain while on LSD, and he’s certainly one of the few to profess genuine admiration for both Winters (the archformalist) and Allen Ginsberg (the arch . . . well, Allen Ginsberg). This is, even for the poetry world, a pretty odd ­background.

It’s also the kind of background that leads to misleading career narratives. Like most people, poets rarely undergo multiple metamorphoses in their lives and art over a short period. In time, they might shift their style; they might take up different subject matter; they might buy a duplex in Miami. But generally speaking, their existence is reasonably consistent, and they stick fairly close to what they know. Gunn, however, not only moved from England to America, he exchanged the rarefied air of Cambridge for the hothouse of 1960s-era San Francisco, became openly gay, started dabbling in drugs, began writing about the urban underbelly and set about tinkering with the verse techniques that had made him (relatively) famous — all in the space of about 10 years. Critics often attribute changes in a poet’s style to changes in his life; this much change in both arenas threw some readers into what could be described as a tizzy of questionable causation. British reviewers who opposed Gunn’s technical shifts blamed California, just as American critics would, later on, connect his adventurous lifestyle with his more “relaxed” versification. (You can still see this dynamic at work today, whenever critics contrast Gunn’s libido with his tight metrics — as if no one had ever written quatrains about having sex before.) In any case, all of the talk about Gunn’s life and style, and style and life, almost makes one wish the poet had stayed in England; at least then no one could say he wrote seven-syllable lines because of Jefferson Airplane.

Kleinzahler believes that Gunn’s development was steadier and, in some ways, more conventional. He’s right. Gunn began to come into his own with the publication of “My Sad Captains” in 1961, when he was 32, and his work steadily strengthened for the next four decades. In his best, most characteristic writing, Gunn is what you might call a poet of friction: he’s interested in the ways in which surfaces push off, against or into each other. Consider his description of surfing in “From the Wave”:

The mindless heave of which they rode
A fluid shelf
Breaks as they leave it, falls and, slowed,
Loses itself.

Clear, the sheathed bodies slick as seals
Loosen and tingle;
And by the board the bare foot feels
The suck of shingle.

There are many ways to write about surfing — one could focus on the danger, the grace, the speed and so forth. But it’s typical of Gunn that while he gives us a sense of all these elements, he’s drawn to instances of contact: the point at which “the bare foot feels / The suck of shingle”; the moment in which “marbling bodies have become / Half wave, half men, / Grafted it seems by feet of foam.” Feel and touch and pressure are constants throughout this selection, whether it’s the longing of a hawk for “the feel . . . / Of catcher and of caught / Upon your wrist”; the swimmer who remembers “the pull and risk / Of the Pacific’s touch . . . Its cold live sinews tugging at each limb”; or simply the “secure firm dry embrace” of longtime domestic affection.

Even in the AIDS-related elegies that dominate his most famous book, “The Man With Night Sweats,” Gunn is drawn to comparisons involving substance brought to bear on substance. “Still Life,” a poem about a terminal patient, concludes with the image of “the tube his mouth enclosed / In an astonished O.” “The Missing” imagines the vast web of friendships, now vanishing, as a “supple entwinement through the living mass / Which for all that I knew might have no end, / Image of an unlimited embrace.” But the poem that gives “The Man With Night Sweats” its title is perhaps Gunn’s most arresting use of this sort of metaphor. The poem begins with a man waking at night (“I wake up cold, I who / Prospered through dreams of heat”) and recognizing the rising weakness in his once-powerful body. It concludes:

I have to change the bed,
But catch myself instead

Stopped upright where I am
Hugging my body to me
As if to shield it from
The pains that will go through me,

As if hands were enough
To hold an avalanche off.

The delicate suggestion of alienation, or at least separation, between self and body (“Hugging my body to me”) pre­sages the even greater disruption that occurs in the final couplet. We think of the earth as being our foundation: we’re “on solid ground.” The image of an avalanche is especially disturbing, then, because it suggests that what had supported our bodies is now bent on destroying them. The touch has become a blow; the heat of friction has become a conflagration. Here, Gunn is (consciously or not) rewriting the great American poem of unity between body and earth, Robert Frost’s “To Earthward.” That poem ends: “When stiff and sore and scarred / I take away my hand / From leaning on it hard / In grass and sand, / The hurt is not enough: / I long for weight and strength / To feel the earth as rough / To all my length.” Oh no, says Gunn, you don’t.

One can quibble with some of the ­choices in this volume. Kleinzahler’s version of Gunn is a little more austere than some might like, even when the poems themselves are bent on advertising their ­counter​cultural bona fides. It’s puzzling, for instance, that space was made for a druggy yet prim couplet about, yes, Jefferson Airplane (“The music comes and goes on the wind, / Comes and goes on the brain”), but not for any of Gunn’s epigrams; for instance, the superb “Barren Leaves,” which reads in its entirety: “Spontaneous overflows of powerful feeling: / Wet dreams, wet dreams, in libraries congealing.” Gunn was a very funny poet, and it would have been good to see more of that. But of course, his total output ran well over 500 pages, almost all of which are well worth reading, and any selection was bound to have holes critics would cry over. It’s to the credit of this remarkable writer that those absences seem unimportant beside what is so rousingly present.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Two Poems: Ray Succre

Apartment 208

I find the remnants of
his seasonal praise of a highness,
or of some god,
in the dumpster
by the parking lot.

Feathers and blood, a beak
that's been engraved with
a woodburner,
engraved with some haggard letters
in a pictogrammatical language
in a box
in the garbage.

That chicken-killing man
down the hall
makes animal sounds
in recreation, practices them,
nails money in envelopes to his
own front door,
makes me nervous and wary.

Either of us is made absurd
by the other.

* * * * *

A Nova Rests on the Briar

Red dot—why, because the dizzying stab
snapped apart the center of my thumb,
an accuracy of point;
every pore could be a torn open hole.
The grimy thumb was desert. The nail, sky.
The point? Impermanence.

I was pulling brambles to drink four p.m.,
as they were playful to me,
and had the look of freedom where they grew,
having spread wherever they pleased
like petrol on the surface of an eye.

If my own eye should quetch and leak,
for the human brambles I've seen vanish,
until my very skull were dry,
I would not, in a torte of grief,
rewind or blink, rub or drift my focus loose.

The red nova on my thumb is tasted and forgotten.
In the seconds between stab, red, and suck,
men and women had left the Earth forever,
red novas swollen over by cold, hands, clutched
and then dismissed.

I grasp the brambles and drag them out of life.
I can kill them all by five.

~ Ray Succre currently lives on the southern Oregon coast with his wife and son. He has been published in Aesthetica, BlazeVOX, and Pank, as well as in numerous others across as many countries. His novel Tatterdemalion (Cauliay) was recently released in print and is available most places. A second novel, Amphisbaena, is forthcoming in Summer 2009. He tries hard.

Poem: Gina Goldblatt

Broome St.

lungs are full of smoke down on Broome Street
foamy voices babble out a cacophony of sounds
a flagrant boisterous symphony

plucked from the fingertips of late nights in melody
neither tendon nor freckle
out of sync

the children of a wise discussion on visionaries
urchins of the night
garlanding their balconies with carrot flowers

the men and women in the apartments above
dreaming brilliant dreams of puppy dogs and string instruments
seduced to hugging their bedposts with upturned sleepy smiles

~ Gina Goldblatt is an aspiring writer who attended Suny Purchase College in New York, where she earned her Bachelors in Literature. This is her first appearance in Elegant Thorn Review.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Flarf is Dionysus. Conceptual Writing is Apollo.

A cool article from The Poetry Foundation.

Flarf is Dionysus. Conceptual Writing is Apollo.

An introduction to the 21st Century's most controversial poetry movements.

by Kenneth Goldsmith

Start making sense. Disjunction is dead. The fragment, which ruled poetry for the past one hundred years, has left the building. Subjectivity, emotion, the body, and desire, as expressed in whole units of plain English with normative syntax, has returned. But not in ways you would imagine. This new poetry wears its sincerity on its sleeve . . . yet no one means a word of it. Come to think of it, no one’s really written a word of it. It’s been grabbed, cut, pasted, processed, machined, honed, flattened, repurposed, regurgitated, and reframed from the great mass of free-floating language out there just begging to be turned into poetry. Why atomize, shatter, and splay language into nonsensical shards when you can hoard, store, mold, squeeze, shovel, soil, scrub, package, and cram the stuff into towers of words and castles of language with a stroke of the keyboard? And what fun to wreck it: knock it down, hit delete, and start all over again. There’s a sense of gluttony, of joy, and of fun. Like kids at a touch table, we’re delighted to feel language again, to roll in it, to get our hands dirty. With so much available language, does anyone really need to write more? Instead, let’s just process what exists. Language as matter; language as material. How much did you say that paragraph weighed?

Our immersive digital environment demands new responses from writers. What does it mean to be a poet in the Internet age? These two movements, Flarf and Conceptual Writing, each formed over the past five years, are direct investigations to that end. And as different as they are, they have surprisingly come up with a set of similar solutions. Identity, for one, is up for grabs. Why use your own words when you can express yourself just as well by using someone else’s? And if your identity is not your own, then sincerity must be tossed out as well. Materiality, too, comes to the fore: the quantity of words seems to have more bearing on a poem than what they mean. Disposability, fluidity, and recycling: there’s a sense that these words aren’t meant for forever. Today they’re glued to a page but tomorrow they could re-emerge as a Facebook meme. Fusing the avant-garde impulses of the last century with the technologies of the present, these strategies propose an expanded field for twenty-first-century poetry. This new writing is not bound exclusively between pages of a book; it continually morphs from printed page to web page, from gallery space to science lab, from social spaces of poetry readings to social spaces of blogs. It is a poetics of flux, celebrating instability and uncertainty.

Yet for as much as the two movements have in common, they are very different. Unlike Conceptual Writing, where procedure may have as much to do with meaning as the form and content, Flarf is quasi-procedural and improvisatory. Many of the poems are “sculpted” from the results of Internet searches, often using words and phrases that the poet has gleaned from poems posted by other poets to the Flarflist e-mail listserv. By contrast Conceptual Writers try to emulate the workings and processes of the machine, feeling that the results will be good if the concept and execution of the poetic machine are good; there is no tolerance for improvisation or spontaneity.

Flarf plays Dionysus to Conceptual Writing’s Apollo. Flarf uses traditional poetic tropes (“taste” and “subjectivity”) and forms (stanza and verse) to turn these conventions inside out. Conceptual Writing rarely “looks” like poetry and uses its own subjectivity to construct a linguistic machine that words may be poured into; it cares little for the outcome. Flarf is hilarious. Conceptual Writing is dry. Flarf is the Land O’Lakes butter squaw; Conceptual Writing is the government’s nutritional label on the box. Flarf is Larry Rivers. Conceptual Writing is Andy Warhol. No matter. They’re two sides of the same coin. Choose your poison and embrace your guilty pleasure.—KG

Jordan Davis Three Poems on Demand
Mel Nichols I Google Myself
Sharon Mesmer The Swiss Just Do Whatever
K. Silem Mohammad Poems About Trees
Nada Gordon Unicorn Believers Don’t Declare Fatwas
Drew Gardner Why do I hate Flarf so much?
Gary Sullivan Am I Emo?
A poetry comic.
Caroline Bergvall The Not Tale (Funeral)
Christian Bök The Great Order of the Universe
Robert Fitterman Directory
Kenneth Goldsmith Two Poems from “The Day”
Craig Dworkin Fact
Vanessa Place Miss Scarlett