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Tuesday, October 17, 2017
Tuesday, September 19, 2017
Rejoice! The new issue of Copper Nickel is out. It includes an essay of mine called "Reggie Watts and Karl Pilkington Wrestle in Heaven," about comedy, populism, globalism, and, of course, Karl Pilkington and Reggie Watts. It starts like this:
They don’t wrestle, and they aren’t in Heaven, but it’s a better title than “The Wind and the Lion, or: Reggie Watts and Karl Pilkington, an Essay That Gets a Little Dark and Political at the End.The issue can be ordered here.
At the end of The Wind and the Lion, a mid-seventies orientalist extravaganza of a film, a Barbary pirate king played by Sean Connery writes to a distant Teddy Roosevelt, whose warships and Marines—representatives of modernity and the budding American empire—threaten to destroy him and his people. “I, like the lion, must stay in my place,” intones Connery in voiceover, not quite managing to get the Scotland out of his voice, “while you, like the wind, will never know yours.”
There are many ways to understand comedy. There’s Hobbes’ way, which is all about feeling superior to the schmuck who took a pie to the face; Kant’s way, which is about the unexpectedness of using a pie as a projectile; and Freud’s, which says we’re just giggling with relief when we stop suppressing our forbidden aggressions and smash a pie into some fool’s face. But if you want to understand two of the most striking figures of contemporary comedy, Reggie Watts and Karl Pilkington, you could do worse than to start with the words of a fictional Barbary pirate.
To be clear: Pilkington’s the lion in this scenario. The bald, Mancunian lion. And Reggie Watts, whose voluminous afro differentiates him from Pilkington as much as his apparent cosmopolitan placelessness, is the wind. Let’s start with the lion.
Everyone who stumbled through graduate school in the humanities knows Kant credited David Hume with awakening him from his dogmatic slumber, but few know that he cribbed from another Scottish philosopher, James Beattie, when he put together his theory of the comic as the incongruous. Laughter, Beattie says, arises when things that don’t belong together unite—and Kant said much the same, more prominently and with far less clarity. And incongruity does explain a great deal of comedy, from Steve Martin wearing an arrow through his head while playing banjo in old Saturday Night Live episodes, to any solemn cleric or public speaker letting loose with a burst of surprisingly audible flatulence. It would seem to explain much of the comic effect of watching Karl Pilkington travel the world in the Sky TV series An Idiot Abroad. When, for example, Karl Pilkington stands on the Great Wall of China, looking out over the vast, venerable, and sublime fortification as it snakes away over the mountains of the Chinese north, we’d expect something like awe from him. He even seems, for a moment, to provide it, saying “It goes on for miles, over hills and such,” before deflating it all: “but so does the M6” (a perpetually traffic-clogged British motorway). The reaction is incongruous in a way Beattie and Kant would understand. And it involves something like the special kind of incongruity Mikhail Bakhtin saw as central to comedy—the “transcoding” in which something grand or sacred is juxtaposed to something banal or (in the most powerful cases) obscene. But if we understand Karl Pilkington merely as a producer of incongruous comments, we miss what’s special to him. We miss what makes him a lion.
You want to understand Karl Pilkington? Then you want to understand the power of narrowness. You want to understand the brilliance of narrowness....
Another essay of mine on comic poetry is here.
Saturday, September 09, 2017
The laws of logic may well maintain that something cannot be simultaneously wrong and right—but the laws of poetry beg to differ. The laws of Anthony Madrid's poetry certainly do. I talk a little bit about why and how in "When a Poem's Wrongness is Right," just out in Hyperallergic. It begins like this:
“There was an old man of Toulouse,” Edward Lear once wrote, “Who purchased a new pair of shoes.” He continues his limerick this way: “When they asked, ‘Are they pleasant?’ he said, ‘Not at present!’/That turbid old man of Toulouse.” Anthony Madrid, a lover of limericks (along with ghazals, and more or less any kind of formal verse), says this about the Lear’s poem:
Someone could say it’s clever. To which I shrug. It is clever; there’s a technical ingenuity involved, OK. But the beauty of the thing has everything to do with the slight incongruities of asking a person if his new shoes are “pleasant,” and of that person’s responding that they currently are not. This is a very choice example of the “right wrong thing.” The wrongness is right.
If we were looking for a pocket-sized synopsis of Madrid’s poetics — his answer to Pound’s “Make it new” or Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow of feelings recollected in tranquility” — we could do worse than to go with “the wrongness is right.” At the very least, it’s a good clue as to how we might read his latest collection, Try Never (Canarium, 2017).The rest is available here.
Sunday, July 23, 2017
Years ago, Ron Silliman wrote an essay called "Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World," where he claimed that popular fiction sought to make language disappear, putting words together so innocuously that they disappeared, letting a kind of movie play in the head of the viewer (his example for this, if I recall correctly, was a novelization of the movie Jaws). There's something to this line of thinking, and I tried to push it a bit further in an essay on the use of letters (alphabetical letters, not epistolary ones) in poetry. It's called "Immigrants and Kings: The Letter in the Empire of Poetry." Here's how it starts:
The whole essay is in the Ilanot Review, and you can read it online here.
Wednesday, June 28, 2017
The always-interesting journal Galatea Resurrects has been kind enough to run a review of my recent book written with John Matthias and Jean Dibble, Revolutions: A Collaboration. Ralph La Charity says some kind things. He understands the relationship between the historical source in Mandalstam's poetry, Matthias' reworking and riffing on those poems, Dibble's prints reaction to Matthias, and my own commentary, and concludes by saying:
Throughout REVOLUTIONS the beholder is treated to a many-angled banquet of effects. As elusive as any one effect might be, it is in the mixing of all those effects that the book achieves itself. The poet achieves grace for his terrorized forebear, the visual artist achieves a poetics of sighted sound, and the critic takes us into an orientation we receive as grandly utile in its breadth and particularity both. And yes, the book manifestly rewards re-reading and re-apprehending, since I have managed to give but a teasing hint as to how its complexities meld into a variegated whole that is, truly, sublime.La Charity also calls me a "a speculative unraveler par excellence," which may be my favorite epithet ever.
The review can be read online here.
Wednesday, May 31, 2017
In the last years of his life, Pierre Bourdieu turned with increasing urgency to political questions. Seeing in globalization an ever-greater concentration of all forms of capital—financial, educational, symbolic, and so forth—he called for a true internationalism, a set of reforms at the European and, ultimately, global level to rein in the forces that would reduce everything to a commodity, and render up all commodities into the hands of the few. Speaking to an audience of students in Berlin in June of 2000, he said a few words about the nature of the emerging global elite that resonate particularly well with today’s grim political picture. Those words go a long way toward explaining the nature of the kind of resentful populism—and in some cases, fascism—that we see rising around us.
He speaks of the unequal distribution of cultural capital, including the kinds of capital (advanced educational degrees, international travel, familiarity with the keywords of prestige fields like economics or the sciences, readership of intellectually challenging books and media, etc.) amassed by the elites of the emerging global economy. To be clear: this is an elite broadly conceived—not merely the 1% we railed against at Occupy, but the professional and managerial classes. I, and most of those reading likely to be reading this, are members of that class, whether we care to admit it or not.
The ruling class no doubt owes its extraordinary arrogance to the fact that, being endowed with very high cultural capital (most obviously of academic origin, but also nonacademic), it feels perfectly justified in existing as it currently exists… The educational diploma is not merely a mark of academic distinction: it is perceived as a warrant of natural intelligence, of giftedness. Thus the “new economy” has all the characteristics to appear as the “brave new world.” It is global and those who dominate it are often international, polyglot, and polycultural (by opposition to the locals, the “national” or “parochial”). It is immaterial or “weightless”: it produces and circulates weightless objects such as information and cultural products. As a consequence, it can appear as an economy of intelligence, reserved for “intelligent” people (which earns it the sympathy of “hip” journalists and executives). Sociodicy [the means by which a society justifies itself] here takes the form of a racism of intelligence: today’s poor are not poor, as they were thought to be in the nineteenth century, because they are improvident, spendthrift, intemperate, etc.—by opposition to the “deserving poor”—but because they are dumb, intellectually incapable, idiotic. In short, in academic terms “they got their just deserts”…There’s a kind of smugness, Bourdieu says, to the widely-held belief among elites that we got here because we’re smart, and others ended up where they are because they’re stupid—a smugness based on an almost willful blindness to the barriers to the development of human capital faced by the majority of the population, and a on a discrediting of forms of knowledge other than those held in esteem by elites. But so what? Well, there’s this, when Bourdieu continues:
The victims of such a powerful mode of domination… are very deeply damaged in their self-image. And it is no doubt through this mediation that a relationship—most often unnoticed or misunderstood—can be traced between neoliberal politics [the deregulated, financialized, and internationalized world of globalization] and certain fascistoid forms of revolt among those who, feeling excluded from access to intelligence and modernity, are driven to take refuge in the national and nationalism.Tell people they're stupid—even if it's not spoken except through a thousand micro-aggressions—and they won't forget it. “America first,” they'll say, or “France for the French,” or "Build the wall!" or “Brexit!” They'll simmer with resentment, feeling that they are looked down on by a worldly elite as nothing more than idiots, or a basket of deplorables. And here they are, angry to the point of violence, giving us (as Michael Moore put it) "the biggest fuck you in human history." They've been had, of course—preyed on and manipulated by the cynical people who have taken power and seek only their own personal ends. We are right to oppose them, but we would be wrong to say we did not, to some degree, provoke their rage.
Tuesday, May 09, 2017
Poussin's paintings, Shakespeare's epitaph, Thom Gunn's existentialism, and many other things animate the elegantly written essays in Alfred Corn's new collection of prose, Arks & Covenants. As fascinating as the essays are, though, my favorite part of the book is its collection of aphorisms. There have been times and places when collections of maxims and bon mots have been expected from writers—but our time and place is not one of them. This makes me love them all the more. Here's what I said about Corn's aphorisms in an essay called "Without Trumpets" that serves as an afterword to the book:
Corn’s own eccentricities include his commitment to the aphorism as a literary form. The aphorism, of course, has an ancient and distinguished tradition: for centuries, any French writer without a book of maxims would have to make excuses for the omission. But, as Corn points out in the introduction to the collection of his own aphorisms included here, the form has passed from fashion, and has difficulty finding a publisher and an audience. Corn’s aphorisms certainly deserve an audience for their exemplary mondanité. For the present context, though, it is interesting to note how many of his aphorisms turn upon observations on the same themes around which his criticism revolves. When, for example, Corn writes this observation about dogs, we are back in the realm of cultural influence and transformation: “Dogs outside their masters’ houses at night inspire each other to ‘speak.’ One bark sets off another, and so on until all within earshot wake up and join in. The same with literary folk.” Similarly, when Corn writes ““Insofar as the author’s task is to find speech capable of communicating what can’t be said, writing resembles the Incarnation, in which ineffable deity becomes visible flesh and audible word” we are returning to his obsession with Christian forms of the sacred. And how can we read “Humility is not the same thing as humiliation, but if you’ve never been humiliated you probably won’t attain it” without feeling Corn’s compassion for the social outsider?Arks & Covenants is available here.
Monday, May 08, 2017
I've always romanticized the Grand Old Literary Newsprint Journals—the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books and, best of all, the Times Literary Supplement. It's not often I've encountered references to my own work when flipping through the TLS (three times, not that I'm counting), so I was delighted to run across Stephen Burt's "Laureates and Heretics" in the May 3 issue—an article that takes its name from a book of mine that came out several years ago.
Burt's essay isn't about my book: it's a review of two books of essays by contemporary poets, Alan Shapiro's The Self-Forgetful Perfectly Useless Concentration and John Matthias' At Large. But—noting that both Shapiro and Matthias studied in the considerable shadow Yvor Winters cast at Stanford (Matthias under the man himself, Shapiro under his disciples)—Burt chose to use Laureates and Heretics as a means of understanding the two poets. My book, after all, was about Winters' last generation of students, and the poetic careers they went on to have. Burt gives a good, quick sense of the book in his introductory paragraph:
In 2010 the Illinois-based poet and critic Robert Archambeau published Laureates and Heretics, about “six careers in American poetry”: those of Yvor Winters (1900–68) and five of Winters’s last graduate students at Stanford University. Of those, Robert Pinsky and Robert Hass became US Poet Laureates, while John Peck, John Matthias and James McMichael (the heretics) found small, loyal, contrarian audiences for their drier and more obviously learned poetry. Archambeau showed that Winters’s astringent yet charismatic pedagogy, his early modernist experiments and the severe doctrines of his later years – against raw emotion and modernist uncertainty, in favour of reason, control and inherited rules – could generate sharply divergent poetic programmes. He also showed how a particular way of reading, indebted to Winters’s poetic tastes and touchstones (including Ben Jonson, J. V. Cunningham and George Herbert’s “Church Monuments”), could persist for generations, even as its acolytes diverged.
Burt goes on to use the notion of "laureate" and "heretic" poetics to describe Shapiro and Matthias, respectively:
Shapiro’s fourth volume of prose. Most of its nine essays recommend, persuasively and movingly, what Archambeau might call a laureate programme: personal but guarded, never opaque, fiercely committed to the double notion that poetry can be read by everyone, and that it requires hard work to write. Shapiro may never become US Poet Laureate, but his moderate, democratic, inviting prescriptions fit Archambeau’s laureate frame.... John Matthias remains one of Archambeau’s heretics, and he writes for readers who have already read a great deal, or in some cases for readers who have read every issue of Notre Dame Review, the literary journal that Matthias co-edited in the 1990s and 2000s.There's something in that critical distinction. And there's something special in it for me: it's always good to encounter one's own paradigm put to use.
The article is available in print, and online, here, to subscribers.
Sunday, May 07, 2017
Rejoice! David Caplan has edited a collection of essays called On Rhyme, with contributions from a host of interesting people. Here's the table of contents:
Rhyme in Modern and Contemporary American Poetry
Stephen Burt – Cornucopia, or, Contemporary American Rhyme
Robert Archambeau – Inventions of a Barbarous Age: Rhyme in Contemporary American Poetry
Maureen N. McLane – Divigations on Rhyme: For Rhyme, or Rhyme
Roi Tartakovsky – Rhyme Random: Robert Creeley's Sporadic Rhymes.
Rhyme Across Time Periods
Simon Jarvis – Why Rhyme Pleases
Anthony Madrid – Seventeen Quotations with Commentary.
Rhyme in Earlier Poetry
Christina Pugh – Emily Dickinson, Rhyme, and Sonic Ambivalence
Michael C. Clody – The Matter of Rhyme in Tudor Poetics
Peter McDonald – Boundaries and Ways between: Rhyme and the Hermetic
David Scott Wilson-Okamura – Spenser's Drone.
Charles Bernstein – "Fare Thee Well" and "What Makes a Poem a Poem?"
Maureen N. McLane – "On Not Being Elizabethan"
Jennifer Moxley – "The Bittersweet Echo" and "The Poetry Lesson"
Albert Goldbarth – "Migration Song"
Michael Robbins – “Sonnets to Edward Snowden”
Hip Hop and Rhyme
Natalie Gerber – Stress vs. Syllable Timing: Global Englishes, Rhyme, and Rap
David Caplan – The Inheritors of Hip Hop: Reclaiming Rhyme
Rhyme in Other Texts
H.L. Hix – Identical Rhyme and Multiplicity of Identity
Marjorie Perloff – Afterward: What the Ear Demands.
Wednesday, May 03, 2017
How to write in the time of Trump and Putin? In words and images, John Matthias, Jean Dibble, and Robert Archambeau give you an answer to consider: find the muse of amusement and the reality of facts and twin them: you will arrive at "Revolutions," which instructs us on the possible meanings and uses of poetry in an Age of Emergency. These collaborators sing of methods of representation and ways to make new. Visually stimulating, linguistically innovative, this is work of invention and innovation to help us survive. From eidolon to Eisenhower, from Eiffel to Eichmann, the leaps keep us on our toes. There is much consolation in the anxiety of forms.—Maxine Chernoff
That's the jacket copy got Revolutions: A Collaboration, a book I co-wrote with John Matthias, with images by Jean Dibble. It's just out from Dos Madres Press and looks great. But what's it about? There's no easy way to say, but I'd start with this: it takes scenes from the life and works of the great Russian poet Mandelstam, crosses them with events from the life of John Matthias, and bends everything toward a fictive realm, all the while commenting on the nature of cognition, memory, and the (possibly redemptive) imagination. Here's an example of one of John's poems with my commentary (the "HIJ" is a fictive character based on the three consecutive letters of the alphabet H, I and J, and the poem uses words from the entry for those letters in the dictionary based on a kind of Oulipo-derived formula):
From THE HIJOFIT
Poems by John Matthias, commenatry by Robert Archambeau
is the method of the new hussars;
the tsar’s unhappy; bless him
and applause aplenty bring to his tsarina.
All bells toll this inauspicious hour.
Peasant absentee shuns orthodoxy of
the Bishop of Pah. It reigns down from clouds
O hallelujah crowd and ever after: Winds blow
across the steppe, the messenger
caught up in mass and mission
fails in the individual soul: Everything’s for sale,
especially oil, soil. Ahph! Our brother’s pipeline
sabotaged by cabbage claims. Borsht!
Poetics is no longer worth a pension
even for a splaygirl in from Budapest. Anapests –
the three red accents on her breasts.
Hazard me a guess, dauntless guest of hap-
penstance drinking vodka at our happy hour.
That was the moment. That was the power.
Hapax Legoman was his love, who
drove a nine and twenty for her dower.
H is for Haslam’s History
Who are they, then, these new hussars? And who’s the windblown messenger caught up in mass and mission? Who, also, is our brother, and who the splaygirl come from Budapest? “Hazard me a guess,” we hear. I’ll hazard this: they’re all from Haslam’s History, or close enough. Dull critic that I am, I won’t mimic Matthias, no. No, I’ll explain.
Silas Haslam’s History of the Land Called Uqbar exists only in one place—or three, depending how you count the reality of immaterial things. For the most puritanical of enumerators, it exists only in a story by Jorge Luis Borges, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” The hero of that story comes across a mention of Haslam’s History in the bibliography appended to the last article of a stray volume of the fictitious 1917 Anglo-American Encyclopedia, an imaginary illegal reprint of the eminently real Encyclopedia Brittanica of 1903. This imagined version of a real book is, in fact, the second place, other than Borges’ story itself, where Haslam’s book stakes its tenuous claim to reality. But the encyclopedia article that mentions Haslam faces great challenges in its claim to existence: besides being a construct of Borges’ imagination, it is apocryphal even within the story born of that imagination. There, it exists only in the possibly unreliable testimony of a secondary character—some copies of the encyclopedia lack the article, and we have only the testimony of this character to indicate that at least one copy does indeed contain four extra pages describing Uqbar.
Strangely, Haslam’s History has a greater claim to existence than the encyclopedia article in which it is mentioned, as characters in the story discover it mentioned in the catalog (the third place of its existence) of a bookshop. To be precise, they discover it in the catalog of Bernard Quartich’s bookshop—a real shop, opened in London in 1847 and open there still. Whether Haslam’s book ever existed in the catalog of the venerable Quartich’s, I cannot say. Doubts abound, but scholars have yet to assemble the catalogs of Quartich, dispersed as they have been over the globe for a hundred and sixty years and more. So we just don’t know for sure.
But H is not just for Haslam’s History, nor for “Haphazard,” or “Hij,” or “Hijofit.” H is also for “Hermeneutic code.” Of the five communicative codes described in Roland Barthes’ S/Z, this is the one that most frustrates and satisfies readers. It refers to those elements of narrative that are not explained, that raise enigmas and set us hunting for answers. Sometimes, as in the detective story, we find those answers, our hermeneutic hunger satisfied with a great “aha!” But sometimes an author—wily, sly, or incompetent—frustrates us in our search. Sometimes they make us fall into what Barthes calls a “snare”—an enigma refusing to be resolved.
We might say that the reality of Haslam’s History in Borges’ story is a snare. Except that Borges is more wily still. His story isn’t just about the dubious existence of things–it is about the influence of nonexistent things, their propensity to multiply and become real. Through machinations too arcane to articulate here, artifacts not of Uqbar, but of Tlön—a fictitious realm from the literature of Uqbar—begin to manifest as actual objects in the real world of Borges’ story. What was caught in the hermeneutic snare is unleashed in the world itself. If you don’t believe it, try Googling “Uqbar” or “Haslam’s History.” You’ll find they’re mentioned, now, not in one place, or three, but many thousands. Borges sent them from the narrow valley of the unsubstantial to the broad fields of ubiquity.
Who, then, are Matthias’ hussars? And who’s the windblown messenger? We don’t know who they are. But we know where they are: they’re in three places. They’re caught in the poet’s snare–from which none of them shall escape to make a horseman’s charge, or deliver a messenger’s missive. And they’re in an artist’s image, in colors they never knew or wore. And they’re in this commentary, now. They are snared and stuck forever, and they begin to travel.
Here are some of Jean's images:
Saturday, April 15, 2017
Here’s a poem called “Shawl Dance.” It’s by Eric Elshtain, from his 2015 book This Thin Memory A-Ha.
The sky of it causes
harmony in the bending
as a bird maneuver
creates a flash of up—
she starts to sing—the young
Lakota in a high school gym—
to reverse the history
of the crowd’s shout—.
And since, no sky is like
the kind that caused us
under the act
of a single dance
to be all too created
The referent is a very particular thing—the shawl dance, something performed by tribal groups of the Great Plains and the Canadian prairies. In its way, it is an adaptation to humiliation and defeat.
Starting in the 1920s, it became illegal for Native Americans to perform traditional religious and ceremonial dancing. In response, they developed new dances and costumes, a collection of movements and sartorial signifiers that went under the name of “the fancy dance.” It was a way to get around the laws that were meant to stamp out Native American cultural identity, to mutate old forms and let them survive, shorn of much of their old significance. The dances, while not religious, became rituals of identity, and so gained a different kind of dignity—even when they were commodified, and performed for tourists during the Depression, when plains tribes were harder pressed even than the homesteaders of the dustbowl.
The shawl dance was a particularly female element of the fancy dance, and represented a butterfly coming out of a cocoon. Rebirth, a perennial theme in all human cultures, takes on a particular resonance in the context of the fancy dance, born from the murder of old religious forms, and born as art, and beauty.
I like that in Elshtain’s representation of it, the shawl dance forms a harmony that is also a sky: it is the rebirth of a universe, of a cultural world that might have disappeared.
I like, too, that it takes place in a high school gym—that it is a moment within a larger, encompassing culture that speaks back against the history that brought that encompassing culture to dominance on the plains (Elshtain adds a note, “South Dakota, 1998” indicating the location of the depicted events).
And speaking of larger cultures, there’s an elegant, if oblique, reference to Christianity at the end of the poem: there is no sky, we read, like the kind under which we were all created—or, more specifically, under which we were “all too created.” That’s the fall we’re talking about—how we came into being with the potential to sin, to be expelled from the Edenic harmony prepared for us into a world of suffering and (oh Cain, oh Abel) violence. Eden only exists for us now in dreams and artifice, in the harmony to which we can feel we ascend, just momentarily, in the “flash of up” flights of art.
The referent is compelling, but it is presented somewhat obscurely, a little sideways, a little odd of angle. When we hit the first line, it takes just a moment to be sure the “it” is the shawl dance of the title. And we don’t read “The Lakota girl, in the traditional dance, casts her shawl up in a birdlike motion to create a kind of artificial shawl-sky above her.” We read something that asks us to make a bit of a leap. And I’m still not quite sure how to take the part of the second stanza about the crowd’s shout. I mean, I understand, or think I understand, about the dance reversing history, given what I know about the history and meaning of the fancy dance tradition of which the shawl dance is a part. But in this scene, is what we see a call-and-response from a crowd that is on the girl’s side? Or are they somehow hostile? I can guess, but that’s really all I can do, given the way things are depicted here, with such economy and obliquity.
Even the notion of human falleness is handled with utmost economy—take the words “all too” out of the last line and it vanishes. That’s compression. Or maybe it’s better to say “that’s a light touch.”
It’s not an abstract poetry at all—no more than certain types of Cubism are abstractt art. Think of “Shawl Dance” as a verbal equivalent of something like Braque’s “Violin and Candlesticks.” It depicts something, but what it depicts comes to us less immediately than it would in a traditionally perspectival painting. It takes a moment to emerge from all those chiseled planes. And it isn’t really more important than the planes from which it emerges: the planes are as much the point, or more so, than the referents. That’s true of Braque’s painting, and of Elshtain’s poem, too.
Elsthtain pushes form forward in front of his referents, just as Braque does. But why? On the one hand, I don’t think this requires an explanation any more than does any other convention, including the poetic convention of anecdotal realism. On the other hand, I love explanations, especially when they forego any claim to exhausting their subjects, and I have neither the intention of exhausting, nor the ability to exhaust, Elshtain’s poem. And I think one explanation for the way he presents his referents obliquely comes in the title of the book in which the poem is to be found. This Thin Memory A-Ha is, after all, not just a title but a poetics. It declares something about what a poem can be: a thin little thing, surrounded by white space on the page; a memory of an experience (perhaps of a shawl dance in South Dakota back in 1998); and a quick, delighted moment when delayed understanding becomes realized understanding.
That is: the oblique presentation allows for a moment of delay before the perception snaps into focus. It allows for an a-ha.
The shawl dance, like the Cubist poem, allows for the sudden creation of its own world, where there might have been none. The sky of it suddenly becomes real in a flash of up.
Saturday, April 08, 2017
The good people at the Huffington Post have interviewed me about what’s going on in the poetry world. Here’s a snippet:
I’ve always thought the most uninteresting thing a critic can do is say “thumbs up!” or “thumbs down!”—at least if its just a matter of holding a book up to one’s pre-existing set of critical standards and seeing if it conforms. I’m always most excited when I encounter a book that either leaves me baffled or seems entirely at odds with what my instincts tell me poetry ought to be. This can be avant-garde work, of course, but it can also be things that are the poetic equivalents of mammoths unfrozen from the polar ice—as if they’d dropped in from another time.The rest is available here.