Monday, August 21, 2006

Spent the weekend mostly hanging out with B and working on this piece I'm writing about Paul Muldoon. Also reading Lynda Hull's Star Ledger, which takes a bit of work to get into, but is really something once you're in. She's a kind of mix of Bishop, Rick Moody, Deborah Eisenberg, Amy Hempell, and I can't think of who else, though these are just the writers who come to mind right now, and they're probably not the right ones to describe her work. Also reading The Aeniad. Yup, that's what I'm doing with my weekend. Crazy.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

B and I have been listening to music tonight and having a wonderful extended conversation about how music shapes and fosters the identity of its listeners. A strange thing, music—a song is an aesthetic object, but it also exists in time, must be listened to, or at least rehearsed in the mind to have its effect. One can’t simply take away from a song one’s interpretation and be done with it; one needs to experience it, in the moment, to have any sense of what it is. If one is being a purist, the same is true of poems—they don’t mean anything, they are things. But we have so much trouble with that idea. In schools, poems are taught like puzzles, depriving would-be readers of poems’ true powers, which are to be things, to create experiences out of language, a medium we otherwise think of in terms of what it means. I’ve been having a little discussion with Andrea Baker on her new blog about this very issue in the poems of Kay Ryan. It took me years after high school to overcome the idea of “interpreting” poems. Now that I’m no longer anxious about understand what poems “mean,” I’d hate to go back to that other way of thinking about them. Which, of course, is not to say I want poems to simply be musical. I just never want to worry about paraphrasing them again. At their best, poems bring us back to a purer experience of language, to the place just before it means anything, to where words reach out to the things they refer to, but don’t quite grasp them, because once they grasp them, they’re dead.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Trying to take a break from always writing/ worrying about writing. Certainly for me it takes on many of the characteristics of an unhealthy addiction all too often. Anyone else know the feeling?

So, I’m devoting myself to loafing around with B, playing my new ukulele (one of the spoils of my honeymoon), and reading a novel purely for pleasure, which I shall not write a word about.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Cool! This is a word cloud that shows the most common words used on my blog. Got the idea from C.Dale Young's blog. Try it. Weird:
My album purchases this week: BRIAN ENO: TAKING TIGER MOUNTAIN (BY STRATEGY) and PATTI SMITH; HORSES. guess which one is better…

Ok, so I’m drunk now…

Pattie Smith is better, of course. Because she’s unafraid of her passion, no matter where it directs her. While Eno has very clear plans for where his passion, at least on this album, should go, though on later albums (like MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS) it’s less constricted.

Friday, August 04, 2006

“…If poetry is knowledge, it is a forbidden one. These are not the kind of thoughts Mommy and Daddy are thinking as they sit in the parlor. The clearheaded are lonely. As for torments of self-doubt, could there be Art without it? Well, yes, surely, but not the kind that would have any meaning to Emily Dickinson and Louise Glück.”

The above passage is from Charles Simic’s review of Glück’s latest book, Averno— which, if you happen to have been reading my blog around the time of its release, you’ll remember I went on about quite a bit—published in the 6/22 issue of The New York Review of Books. It’s a very, very fine review, really Simic’s take on Glück’s whole career. He likes the early books and, of course, The Wild Iris, and, rightly, has some reservations about the books between that book and the new one. But he portrays Glück as nothing less than the very great and utterly powerful writer that she is.

As taken as I always am with Glück, I’m also very moved by Simic’s clarity and emotion as a critical writer. I wish I wish I could write lovely sentences like those quoted above, which not only say something deft and moving about the work, but, at the same time, leaping off the work, about what it is like to be human. Criticism should justify itself beyond its function as a window into particular works of literature by being compelling literature in it’s own right. That’s not a new idea, I know, but reading this wonderful essay on a writer I love by a writer who has also been very important to me—seeing what a good critic Simic can be—reminds me what good criticism can do.
I’ve been listening, sort of obsessively, to Talking Heads for the past month or so, especially to three albums produced by Brian Eno: MORE SONGS ABOUT BUILDINGS AND FOOD, FEAR OF MUSIC, and REMAIN IN LIGHT (which I think is one of the best albums I know of). David Byrne was on hand to speak for—and from within—the ambivalent moment when late 70’s and early 80’s culture was reacting to, even clamping down on, the irresponsible ethos of the late 60’s and early 70’s. It was, I think, a confused moment, and Byrne understood the earnest desire to seek stability—through stable jobs, houses, committed relationships—as well as the undercurrent that came with that desire, which knew that that kind of stability was precarious, even a lie.

Tomorrow, I will endeavor to purchase Eno’s TAKING THE TIGER BY STRATEGY. I’m always late (two decades) on these things, but I find my way to them.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

So, a day later, I still think that BR piece is a hell of an interesting review, and a good example of the kind of skepticism in criticism that I think is much needed in the current poetry climate. It’s the kind of skepticism I aspire to when I review, but which I still feel like I am too timid to attain. Which is not to say that skepticism is my idea of the highest good in criticism. Compelling characterization of the work, and interesting prose are as important. I’m going to be participating in a NBCC panel at this year’s AWP (representing bloggers—for which I feel somewhat unqualified—and as a PW editor) on the current state of poetry reviewing. It’s months away, but I’m eager to see what we come up with. Topics want to discuss now include the kind of puff-piece review (of which I must admit I’ve written several) that has become common in many literary mags, what impact—if any—a review of a poetry book has on its sales/ renown, poets as critics, the abundance of (often similar) first books, and, of course, poetry and the internet. I wish AWP were sooner. I could use another vacaiont.

and miles to read before I sleep.
and miles to read before I sleep.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

I Surfed—I’ve just returned from Hawaii, remember--my way today to the newest issue of Boston Review, in which there is, at least to my way of thinking, an extremely incisive review of LEGITIMATE DANGERS by Katie Peterson. In her assessment of what she perceives as some of the major trends, and ticks, in the poems collected here, Peterson makes a number of winning characterizations of aspects of many young poets’ work that turn me off to their poems, that see like easy ways out of difficult problems. This passage grabs me particularly:

“Even though poems like these say they’re about us, the readers, they’re not really. They are performance scripts that demand our presence, but not our personhood. That is, we are not asked into the poem to react to a specific event or set of identifiable feelings; as Marvin and Dumanis write, “Neither of us feels that a poem needs to hold the reader’s hand or be ‘about’ something, especially about a specific event, thought, or experience.” Poems like Smith’s and Davis’s also seem to value our anonymity. They speak from little context and immerse us in an ambiguous emotional condition, one whose drama is most possible on the page or in the imagination.”

In the rest of the review—which I highly recommend reading—Peterson puts this paragraph in the context of a larger explication of a frustrating weakness in many poems. She goes on to say that most of these poets have demonstrated a capacity for more powerful work elsewhere. I think part of what she’s arguing against is the easy leap—for a writer of poems—into a poetic world that has little implication off the page, meaning that there is a tendency today, a trend, toward poems that are closed systems. The kinds of tragedies they describe are enacted solely in the language, not in the lives of those who use the language. The selves in the poems don’t come into focus because they do not refer to selves outside the poems, but to selves which only exist, in a piecemeal fashion, in the individual poems. This is more or less the problem I had—described yesterday—with the Peter Carey novel. Once the book is closed, the writing ceases to affect my life, because the world in which it’s set is only habitable within the narrow confines of the individual novel or poem. It’s as haunting as a game of checkers is the day after it’s played. Perhaps that’s too general and harsh a statement—and I’m aware that I’m not backing myself up here with specific examples—but I’m finding myself more and more drawn to writing that has an implication—and there are many ways of connecting sufficiently with a reader to foster a real implication—for my own sense of selfhood. I don’t mean I want all poems to be about me, but I do want a poem to elucidate, create, point out, a sinkhole that I’m capable of falling into, a risk that I take by reading the poem, rather than one that I could only take were I to live in a hazily shaded fictional world that exists only in the poem. I hate to close a book and never feel forced back to it, simply because I know I have no fear of encountering the same vulnerabilities in my real world.