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AS WE'RE TOLD
At the start, something must be arbitrarily excluded.
The saline solution. Call it an apple. Call this a test or a joke. From now on, apple will mean arbitrary choice or "at random." Any fence maintains the other side is "without form." When we're thrown out, it's onto the lap of our parent. Later, though, Mother puts the apple into Snow White's hand,
and then it's poison!
"Who told you you were visible?"
meaning naked or powerless.
* * *
We had planned this meeting in advance,
how we'd address each other,
how we'd stand or kneel.
Thus our intentions are different
from our bodies,
though transparent like a negligee.
* * *
Though a bit sketchy,
like this palm's impression of a tree —
on the point of retraction.
You don't understand!
Like a lariat made of scalloped bricks
circling a patch of grass
Not the city lights. We want
— the moon —
The Moon none of our own doing!
UP TO SPEED
Streamline to instantaneous voucher in/voucher out system.
The plot winnows.
The Sphinx wants me to guess.
Does a road run its whole length at once?
Does a creature curve to meet itself?
* * *
Covered or cupboard breast? Real
housekeeping's kinesthesiac. Cans
held high to counterbalance "won't."
Is it such agendas
which survive as souls?
* * *
Vagueness is personal!
A wall of concrete bricks,
while sun surveys its grooves
and I try
"instantly" then "forever."
But the word is way back,
Light is "with God"
(light, the traveler).
* * *
Are you the come-on and the egress?
One who hobbles by determinedly?
A career in vestige management.
A dream job back-engineering shifts in salience.
I'm so far behind the curve on this.
must connect with so-called
to manufacture the present.
Ubiquity's the new in-joke
a catch-phrase in every segment.
The eye asks if the green,
frilled geranium puckers,
clustered at angles
on each stem,
are similar enough
to stop time.
It has asked this question already.
How much present tense can any resemblance make?
What if one catch-phrase appears in every episode?
Does the language go rigid?
The new in-joke is a pun pretending to be a bridge.
MY STATEMENT of poetics is going to be a personal narrative of sorts. I spent my twenties (during the 1970s) in the Bay Area at one of the origin points for what came to be known as "language poetry," and I am, of course, one of the people associated with that group. Most of you know that, but when you know that, what do you know? This group is as diverse as any poetic school you can think of, so I want to look farther back — at what first drew me to poetry. When I was a teenager, I was given an anthology and the poets I most loved there were William Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson. I was drawn to poems that seemed as if they were either going to vanish or explode — in other words, to extremes, to radical poetries. But how do we define "radical"? Perhaps by how much is put at risk in the text, how far the arc of implication can reach and still seem apt. But so much rides, as always, on that word "seems." Is a writing radical when it risks being wrong, when it acknowledges our wrongness? I think my poetry involves an equal counterweight of assertion and doubt. It's a Cheshire poetics, one that points two ways then vanishes in the blur of what is seen and what is seeing, what can be known and what it is to know. That double bind. But where was I?
I was saying that I discovered Williams (and the other Imagists) early on and was very much moved by them. By what though? I would say now it was by their attempt to make the object speak, to put things in dialogue with mind and somehow make them hold up their end of the conversation. This is both an important project and a doomed one. The world enters the poem only through a kind of ventriloquy. Thing and idea don't really merge, as the poets themselves knew. Williams's red wheelbarrow (from Spring and All) is essentially separate from the "so much" that depends upon it. But there is so much poignancy in that gap! It is as if the Imagist poet wants to spin around suddenly and catch the world unaware, in dishevelment, see it as it is when we're not looking. And how can we not want that?
One of my favorite poems by Williams is "The Attic Which Is Desire." This poem does an amazing balancing act; it is simultaneously a realist depiction of an urban scene and an apotheosis of projected desire. I encountered it when I was quite young and discovering sexuality. I understood the poem's narrow, vaginal column of text, transfixed by the ejaculatory soda, as an amazing embodiment. I loved the way the poem was both about orgasm and about seeing the lights of a sign reflected in a dark window. In other words, I liked its doubleness. That's not a term usually associated with Imagism, perhaps. As Bob Perelman has pointed out, Pound praised H.D.'s writing by saying that it was "straight as the Greek" and with no "slither." It took me awhile to see the gynophobia behind such rhetoric. I wanted my Imagism and my slither, too. My precision and my doubleness.
My earliest published poems were minimalist and neo-Imagist. A good example would be "View," a poem from my first book, Extremities. Looking back on it now, I see in "View" an exacerbated form of the doubleness that interested me in Williams's "Attic." "View" has not only two meanings, but two dissonant meanings. On the one hand, "we" (an already suspect first-person plural) want to see the moon as separate from our own activity (a bit of the world caught unawares). On the other hand, our yearning is framed by deflating clichés. To want the moon is to want the impossible. Our thrust toward the nonhuman moon can't escape the gravity of received language. The purportedly single voice of the nature lover and the words of a somewhat cynical crowd seem to collide. So this is a poetics of collisions and overlaps, of contested spaces. The border of the public and private is just such a contested space. To use dream imagery in a poem, for instance, is to expose something private, but what if a recent film inspired the dream? As I have become increasingly conscious of such contested spaces and the voices that articulate them, my poems have become somewhat longer and more complicated.
The concept of voice has long been associated with poetry. We all hear voices — on the radio, in the newspaper, in memory. As Whitman says, "I contain multitudes." As Satan says, "My name is legion." Various voices speak in my poems. I code-shift. I am many things: a white person, a working-class person with roots in the South, a woman, an academic of sorts, a '60s person who still likes rock and roll, someone who was raised on the Bible, a skeptic, etc. My voices manifest their own social unrest. In the last decade or so, academics have been raising the question of who speaks in literary works, and for whom. There is a contemporary poetry that enacts these same questions, a poetics of the crossroads.
As I looked over my poems, trying to extract a "poetics" for this talk, I noticed how often my poems parody and undermine some voice of social control. My poem "A Story" (from Made To Seem) might be an example of that. In "A Story" the characters of the Good Mother and the Doctor try to keep things in their proper places. They want pleasure postponed, categories upheld. The Child who pinches her nipples and the Stubborn Old Woman who thinks a name is a fiction are skeptics and dissidents. There is a way in which I am all of these characters — the doctor and the mother as well as the rebellious old woman and the child. These power struggles begin in the public sphere and are reenacted in private. The mother is charged with reproducing the social (linguistic) body within the single body of the child. (Clearly, gender has a lot to do with the power struggles in my poems. Increasingly so, perhaps.)
Would Pound have seen such confusion as a kind of distasteful "slither"? Let me appropriate an ally by invoking a Dickinson poem I love, the one commonly known as "A Narrow Fellow In The Grass." Pound called for "direct treatment of the thing," and "Narrow Fellow" certainly isn't that. Dickinson never identifies what she's seen as a snake. She first personifies it, rather comically, as a fellow. (Note the mock casualness, the mock intimacy there. Dickinson is mistress/master of sinister humor.) The snake is then Him, capitalized like God. Subsequently it appears as a comb, a rather phallic shaft, and a whiplash. It is gendered male, but then so is Dickinson — she presents herself as a boy. The gender dynamic is thus complex. There is more going on than a virginal fear of penetration. The last two lines evoke vividly the fear the snake arouses — but, like Satan in Paradise Lost, the snake is the real hero of the poem. Dickinson's persona, the barefoot boy, is just too cordial with "Nature's People." There's something almost Norman Rockwell-esque about this boy, reaching to "secure" whatever he sees. He deserves the unsecurable, eerie snake who "occasionally rides." Dickinson, I would argue, is at least as much the snake as the boy. Her poems reveal the fissures in identity and ideology.
And now back to me. There's no good segue back from Dickinson. But, in their own way, I think, my poems enact such fissures. They are composed of conflicting voices. Formally, too, they are often disjunctive. The relation between stanza and stanza or section and section is often oblique, multiple, or partial. This isn't an accident. It's a way to explore the relation of part to whole. This relation is a vexed one. Does the part represent the whole? Is metaphor fair to the matter it represents? Does representative democracy work? I think of my poetry as inherently political (though it is not a poetry of opinion). In an optimistic mood, one might see the multiple, optional relations of parts in such work as a kind of anarchic cooperation.
Finally, poetry, at least the poetry I value, can reproduce our conflicts and fractures and yet be held together in the ghost embrace of assonance and consonance, in the echoed and echoing body of language.
LYRICISM OF THE SWERVE
The Poetry of Rae Armantrout
... but clarity need not be equivalent to readability. How readable is the world? — Rae Armantrout, "Feminist Poetics and the Meaning of Clarity"
Rae Armantrout begins "Cheshire Poetics" by giving us a simple narrative that she then calls into question:
I spent my twenties (during the 1970s) in the Bay Area at one of the origin points for what came to be known as "language poetry," and I am, of course, one of the people associated with that group. Most of you know that, but when you know that, what do you know?
Such doubleness, in this case assertion and critique, done with brevity and humor, characterizes Armantrout's poetry. Her poetry is of special importance because of the particular nature of her commitment to precision and to new possibilities within lyricism. These commitments mark Armantrout's poetry as unusual within the writings known as language poetry; they also mark her work as a noteworthy extension of an innovative lyric tradition from Dickinson to the present. The movement in Armantrout's poetry is idiosyncratic — what I think of as a peculiar mode of swerving that, for me, characterizes a kind of lyric poetry that Armantrout has been pursuing for quite some time. In reading her poetry with some care, yes, it is possible to differentiate her writing from various other modes of swerving such as we find, for example, in the poetry of Robert Creeley, bpNichol, and Emily Dickinson. Attuning our hearing/reading constitutes a beginning.
* * *
Is there a describable lyricism of swerving? For those poems for which the swerve, the turn, the sudden change in direction are integral, can we begin to articulate a precise appreciation? Is there a describable and individualistic lyricism of swerving?
I have heard Rae Armantrout spoken of as the most lyrical of all language poets. And, I have heard her work described as an important instance of contemporary innovative lyricism. As a poet, my own recent work (particularly Days and "Well Yes Then") explores such current possibilities. As a critic, I have written about new lyricisms. But the termsthemselves — lyric, lyrical, lyricism — at present mean so many different things. Of my particular current favorites in such modes — Larry Eigner, Robert Creeley, bpNichol, Theodore Enslin, John Taggart, Harryette Mullen, John Ashbery, Nathaniel Mackey, Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe — none is a (precise or identical) twin to Armantrout. Initially, I offer descriptions and readings of several different kinds of contemporary lyricisms as a means of situating Armantrout's particular contribution.
Perhaps one task of critical writing (and of intensive reading) is to attend to, in George Oppen's words, "the thing and its distinction." A most important recent "thing" by Armantrout is her Chax book, writing/the plot/about/sets (1998). Oppen's complete observation is of "the thing and its distinction/(which of course reveals actually the human/subjectivity: human meanings)," and it is with an eye toward those particularities of subjectivity that I wish to attend to Armantrout's poetry.
* * *
I am tempted to think toward a brief taxonomy of swerving. I begin with what for me is a touchstone for a particular kind of musical/sound swerving in an energetic passage of perpetual modulation and transformation from bpNichol's Martyrology:
an infinite statement. a finite statement. a statement of infancy. a fine line state line. a finger of stalemate. a feeling a saint meant ointment. tremble.
a region religion reigns in. a returning. turning return the lover. the retrospect of relationships always returning. the burning of the urge. the surge forward in animal being inside us. the catatosis van del reeba rebus suburbs of our imagination. last church of the lurching word worked weird in our heads.
Such a category of swerving could and would be found elsewhere, for example, in many passages of Louis Zukofsky's work, most notably in "Songs of Degrees," which begins "Hear, her/Clear/Mirror,/Care/His error./In her/Care/Is clear." Another category would highlight instances where the swerving occurred much more gradually, and my examples would come from extended quotation from the poetry of John Taggart or Theodore Enslin. For example, Enslin's "Autumnal Rime" begins:
Mindful mindful only of quality the quality of moritura of need of the need to die that all dying dying out of the need the need to die the quality the moritura of quality moritura in dying need to of need in the mores that all is mortal is mortally wounded the mind is a wound mindful
In Taggart's poetry, the swerving transformations take shape a bit more gradually. Perhaps if we were to imagine a topology of swerving, we would locate Enslin's musical turns somewhere between the quick, precise syllabic turns of Zukofsky's "Songs of Degrees" and Taggart's more extended modulations in "The Rothko Chapel Poem," Taggart's musical turns taking place not so much at the level of the syllable- or word-transformed but at the level of the phrase slowly modified:
Really only one has been moving us only one within itself moving us one scream within itself moving us screams within the one move us away away from the weddings wedding rooms from those to this this black room to our wandering in this black room moving in this room means wandering wandering's moving without meaning no end to moving in this black room it is like moving in a writhing sea we are wandering in a writhing sea seething and writhing in this room.
Perhaps one might make analogies to minimalist music, or one might call this swerving a kind of gradual modulation (and link it to the studies of gradual changes in time in Stein's The Making of Americans, completed in 1911 and first published in 1925, and in her Lectures in America, first presented in 1934 and first published in 1935). The particular sound-swervings of Zukofsky, Taggart, and Enslin seem to me to be fundamentally musical in nature.
Then, there are the more tentative, tenuous, miraculous, mystical turns in a Larry Eigner poem. In many of Eigner's poems, as in the beginning of "Letter to Duncan," those shifts occur not at the musical level of the syllable or word but at the level of the phrase, reenforced by the shifting but precise location of the phrase on the page:
just because I forget to perch different ways the fish go monotonous the sudden hulks of the trees in a glorious summer you don't realize how mature you get at 21
but you look back
wherever a summer continue 70 seasons
this one has been so various
was the spring hot?
As in much of Creeley's poetry, the exact tension between the phrase — its seeming autonomy — and the sentence (which may attempt to subordinate and coordinate the various phrases) constitutes a drama of the poem's lineation and spatial arrangement. Thus, such poems enact an important ambivalence — one that is central as well to Armantrout's poetry: the tension, humor, play, and desire of what- goes-with-what.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "American Women Poets in the 21st Century"
Copyright © 2002 Wesleyan University Press.
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Table of Contents<P>ACKNOWLEDGMENTS<BR>INTRODUCTION<BR>RAE ARMANTROUT<BR>Poems: "As We're Told" — "The Plan" — "View" — "Up to Speed" — "Manufacturing"<BR>Poetic Statement: Cheshire Poetics<BR>Critical Essay: Lyricism of the Swerve: The Poetry of Rae Armantrout, by Hank Lazer<BR>MEI-MEI BRUSSENBRUGE<BR>Poems: From "Four Year Old Girl" — From "Kali" — From "The Retired Architect"<BR>Poetic Statement: By Correspondence<BR>Critical Essay: A "Sensitive Empiricism": Berssenbrugge's Phenomenological Investigations, by Linda Voris<BR>LUCIE BROCK-BROIDO<BR>Poems: "The One Thousand Days" — "Soul Keeping Company" — "Periodic Table of Ethereal Elements" — "Am Moor" — "Carrowmore"<BR>Poetic Statement: Myself a Kangaroo Among the Beauties<BR>Critical Essay: "Subject, Subjugate, Inthralled": The Selves of Lucie Brock-Broido, by Stephen Burt<BR>JORIE GRAHAM<BR>Poems: "Exit Wound" — "Covenant" — "Prayer" — "Gulls" — "The Complex Mechanism of the Break" — "In/Silence" — "Philosopher's Stone"<BR>Poetic Statement: At the Border<BR>Critical Essay: Jorie Graham and Emily Dickinson: Singing to Use the Waiting, by Thomas Gardner<BR>BARBARA GUEST<BR>Poems: "Valorous Time" — "If So, Tell Me" — "Confession of My Images" — "Defensive Rapture" — "An Emphasis Falls on Reality" — "The Farewell Stairway" — "Words"<BR>Poetic Statement: The Forces of the Imagination<BR>Critical Essay: Implacable Poet, Purple Birds: The Work of Barbara Guest, by Sara Lundquist<BR>LYN HEJINIAN<BR>Poems: From "Writing Is an Aid to Memory" — From "Happily"<BR>Poetic Statement: Some Notes toward a Poetics – Critical Essay: Parting with Description, by Craig Dworkin<BR>BRENDA HILLMAN<BR>Poems: "A Geology"<BR>Poetic Statement: Twelve Writings toward a Poetics of Alchemy, Dread, Inconsistency, Betweenness, and California's Geological Syntax<BR>Critical Essay: "Needing Syntax to Love": Expressive Experientialism in the Work of Brenda Hillman, by Lisa Sewell<BR>SUSAN HOWE<BR>Poems: "From Chair"<BR>Poetic Statement: The Leaves Are Not Enough to Crown to Cover to Crown to Cover<BR>Critical Essay: Articulating the Inarticulate: Singularities and the Countermethod in Susan Howe, by Ming-Qian Ma<BR>ANN LAUTERBACH<BR>Poems: "In the Museum of the Word (Henri Matisse)" — "S T O N E S (Istanbul, Robert Smithson)"<BR>Poetic Statement: As (It) Is: Toward a Poetics of the Whole Fragment – Critical Essay: "Enlarging the Last Lexicon of Perception" in Ann Lauterbach's Framed Fragments, by Christine Hume<BR>HARRYETTE MULLEN<BR>Poems: "Wino Rhino" — "Fancy Cortex" — "Music for Homemade Instruments" — "The Anthropic Principle" — "Sleeping with the Dictionary"<BR>Poetic Statement: Imagining the Unimagined Reader<BR>Critical Essay: "Sleeping with the Dictionary": Harryette Mullen's "Recylopedia," by Elizabeth A. Frost<BR>CONTRIBUTORS<BR>INDEX</P>
What People are Saying About This
"Any serious poet or lover of poetry will welcome this anthology, which shows the rich diversity of perspectives in which women poets expand and contest the current state of the art."
Ira Sadoff, Dana Professor of Poetry, Colby College
"Any serious poet or lover of poetry will welcome this anthology, which shows the rich diversity of perspectives in which women poets expand and contest the current state of the art."Ira Sadoff, Dana Professor of Poetry, Colby College