Monday, February 27, 2017

The Poetry of Dread in Our Time of Dread



These are dreadful times, for which we need a poetry of dread.  Ernest Hilbert's got us covered, in his new book Caligulan.  I wrote a little something about it for Literary Matters. It begins like this:
“Little Boots” might strike us as an appropriate name for something small and cute—a kitten, say. But for Romans in a certain phase of the Empire’s history, it was a name at which one trembled. The man born Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus grew up among the legions protecting the Empire’s northern frontier, and as a child wore a smaller version of the caliga, or military boot, so the soldiers called him by the diminutive of that word, “Caligula,” and it stuck. Not long after he came to power as Emperor, he became notorious for the widespread and apparently random nature of his vindictive murderousness. His form of state terror wasn’t like Hitler’s, in which only certain categories of people—Jews, Communists, homosexuals, gypsies—were destined for massacre, and others could feel themselves safe, so long as they kept their heads down. Under Caligula, no one could breathe easy, least of all the powerful and well-connected, who dreaded the daily possibility of the garrote, or worse. “Oderint, dum metuant,” Suetonius reports the Emperor as saying: “Let them hate me, so long as they fear me.” Anxiety became ambient, fear the atmosphere one breathed. 
Ernest Hilbert’s Caligulan begins with an unusual preface by way of definition. “Caligulan,” he writes, emulating the style of a dictionary “Illogical fear that disaster, especially of a gruesome kind, might befall one at any time.” After giving several variations and examples of usage, he adds: “From the Latin appellation Caligula. First known use 2015, USA.” The word, as a term for general dread, is Hilbert’s own invention. And it is this sense of general dread, along with a series of failed attempts to escape it, that dominates his imagination in the poems collected in his third book.

The whole piece can be read here.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

His Swords and Armor: Remembering Michael Donaghy

Left to right: Michael Donaghy, Richard Pettengill, Robert Archambeau, at Donaghy's last American reading, 2004

Talk to anyone about the late poet Michael Donaghy and you realize something immediately: everybody loved him.  Whether they knew him well, or met him briefly, the sentiment is the same. His charisma was supernatural. I loved him, too, and it broke me up when he died. I read his poem "The Classics" to a small gathering of people, and it shook them all to the core. Now, years after his death, I've written an appreciation of him for The Hopkins Review. It begins like this.

*

The beginning of “The Classics,” a poem by Michael Donaghy, has stayed with me for a long time:

I remember it like it was last night,
Chicago, the back room of Flanagan’s
Malignant with accordions and cigarettes,
Joe Cooley bent above his Paolo Soprani,
Its asthmatic bellows pumping as if to revive
The half-corpse strapped about it.
It’s five a.m. Everyone’s packed up.
His brother Seamus grabs Joe’s elbow mid-arpeggio.
“Wake up, man. We have to catch a train.”
His eyelids fluttering, opening. The astonishment . . .

It’s quintessential Donaghy, invoking as it does his great theme, memory, and his love of performances of all kinds—especially those involving Irish music in dingy bars. It brings the two things together in that image of a hunched Joe Cooley, still playing his accordion even as he nods off, the music so thoroughly internalized that he needn’t be fully awake to play it. The true performer, Donaghy implies, gets lost in the performance—something that can only happen when the music has been so completely absorbed into the musician that it becomes his second nature.

Donaghy was famous for reciting his own poems from memory at readings that were fully realized performances in a way too few poetry readings are. At a Donaghy reading there was never any of the mumbling, [End Page 33] page-flipping, or nervous self-explanation with which poetry audiences are all too familiar. He was entirely present to the poem and to the audience, not hovering a little above himself, wondering just how he ought to manifest. Once, when Yeats’s famous question “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” came up, Donaghy gave an answer that underlined his commitment to losing himself in performance: “Who cares?” Better for the two to be so intermingled they can’t be torn asunder.

“The Classics” ends like this:

I saw this happen. Or heard it told so well
I’ve staged the whole drunk memory:
What does it matter now? It’s ancient history.
Who can name them? Where lie their bones and armor?

Perhaps, given Donaghy’s fascination with memory (accurate or otherwise), there’s a small irony in how the version of this poem I’ve carried in my head for years turns out to be a bit distorted. When I came back to the poem on the page recently, I was surprised to find it ending with the question “Where lie their bones and armor?” For ages I’d been saying “Where lie their swords and armor?”—an inferior ending, to be sure. But I want to keep my distorted version, for now, and use it as a way to talk about Donaghy’s poetry because his poems—or perhaps I should say his performed poems—were both his swords and his armor.

*

The rest is in the current issue of The Hopkins Review. Online access for those with access to Project Muse is here.  Open access forthcoming.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

When Buffalo Became Buffalo



When did Buffalo become Buffalo? If you're at all interested in the little demimonde of American poetry, you know that the unlikely city of Buffalo, New York has long been a kind of Emerald City of experimental poetry. But how did it all begin? Michael Anania knows: he was there. And he tells all in the latest installment in the "Essays & Comment" section I edit for Plume. Here's the beginning of his essay:
There are several issues embedded in my title, I suppose, not only when Buffalo, the private University (after 1962 the State University of New York at Buffalo), became Buffalo but how and why Buffalo became a center, perhaps the center, of American poetry. For me, “when” is easy. Buffalo became Buffalo on August 5, 1963. That afternoon, the poet David Posner, then the Director of the Lockwood Library Poetry Collection, gave a party in his apartment on Main Street, just across from the old campus, one floor above the Chicken Delight take-out shop, for the incoming chair of the Buffalo English Department, Albert S. Cook. Posner was a collector, and his shotgun-style apartment, with windows on Main Street at one end and above the rear alley at the other, was a dense clutter of camelback couches, old, velvet-seated chairs and a soft, forest-floor matting of oriental rugs. The effect was a kind of worn luridness, aged Persian reds and Victorian blues. Books were stuffed into glass-fronted oak cases, and there were paintings and prints, mostly 19th century English landscapes, though above the weighty dining room table, there was a small Derain, nude dancers in a circle. 
I don’t remember everyone at the party. Al Cook was there, of course, so were Mac Hammond, who had followed Cook from Western Reserve in Cleveland, Aaron Rosen, who had been on the Buffalo English faculty for some time, the poet Saul Touster, who taught in the law school, Charles Doria, Irving Feldman perhaps, and towering above everyone, Charles Olson. Al introduced me. “Michael is writing on William Carlos Williams.” Charles took my hand, pulled me toward him and draped his left arm over my shoulder. “Bill Williams,” he said in what started out and ended as a rumbling kind of laugh. “He got us part way there. We’ll manage the rest.” Us. We’ll. A part of Olson’s genius was pure politics, LBJ or Tip O’Neill rounding up votes. 

The rest, including a remarkable account of Olson's seminar, is available here. 

Friday, February 03, 2017

Henry King Gets It: On the Kafka Sutra



Poetry wars? What poetry wars? Henry King has written a very insightful review of my book The Kafka Sutra in which he gets at my sense of poetic pluralism better than anyone else I've seen.  Here's a bit from the middle:

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The poems are formally varied, with fixed forms such as the sonnet and sestina alongside varieties of free verse. In both, Archambeau frequently uses repetition: the necessary repetitions and recombinations in “Sestina: What Chester Kallman Did to Poor Old Auden” are echoed in the free verse of “La Bandera” and “Hieratic Perspective:

I went into the cathedral that was for me alone,
where the guide who was also for me alone,
and of me alone, spoke to me alone.

A century ago, these forms—fixed and free—were red lines within the poetry world, dividing it into antagonistic groups; but they have since been assimilated and ranged against later developments of the avant-garde, from L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E to Conceptualism. Archambeau experiments with the latter aesthetic in the collection’s third section, “Two Procedures”. The first of these, “Manifest Destinies, Black Rains,” rings changes on an 1852 description of Washington D.C. from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine and a passage from Masuji Ibuse’s 1965 novel of the Hiroshima bombing, Black Rain, in nine unmetered quatrains:

A magnificent country, whose commerce whitens every sea,
whose most majestic railroads and canals, like great arteries, hang down,
broken, in tangled profusion—
I had a terrifying feeling that one or another of them must be live, fierce.

Here, it seemed, the human mind was destined to develop its highest powers.
Here, it seemed, in the inexhaustible country they inhabit.
Magnetic nerves, with the rapidity of thought, bore intelligence to distant
extremities. I had a terrifying feeling
the mind was destined to spark and tangle: fierce and white.

The difference between this kind of poesis and the Audenesque sestina is less a matter of kind than degree, and brings into question the supposed antitheses between this one and “the other kind of poetry.”
Another review of The Kafka Sutra, by Piotr Gwiazda's in the Chicago Review is here.
And if that's still not enough for you, here's Stu Watson's review in Queen Mob's Teahouse.


Wednesday, February 01, 2017

With Trump, a New Case for Why the Humanities Still Matter



The age of "alternative facts" demands an alternative approach to the humanities.  Or so I argue in a short essay called "With Trump, a New Case foe Why the Humanities Still Matter," now up at The Walrus.  Here's how it starts:


Back in 1990, when I began pursuing a doctorate in English, I and my fellow graduate students spent an inordinate amount of time hunched over our dim, monochrome computer screens reading the newsgroups devoted to then-hot strains of thought called postmodernism, postcolonialism, and poststructuralism.
“Theory,” as we called it, was still a fresh enough arrival on the shores of English departments to inspire a backlash. To speak the dialect of theory was to risk the ire of the tenured faculty, many of whom would gladly have seen all of the theories deported back across the Atlantic to the lands from whence they’d come. That the departmental elders wrote and read in a manner informed by theory rarely seemed to cross their minds, as their theory—New Criticism—had long become naturalized and so ceased to register as theory—at least until those meddling Frenchies, Deleuze and Foucault and Derrida, came along, forcing one to reconsider assumptions one could once have taken for granted. Much of what mattered about theory, back then, was the way it suddenly made everyone self-conscious and self-questioning.

Department lounges are today rather less troubled by the presence of theory. Instead, as the current topics of so many faculty discussions indicate, we seem to be entering a period of professional crisis when we will be asked—by provosts, deans, and presidents, and behind them our funders, both state and private—to justify what we do and why we’re taking up valuable space off the campus quadrangle. When a bastion of the liberal arts such as Colby-Sawyer College eliminates its English department, as it recently announced was its plan, the writing is there on the ivied walls.
The rest can be read here. 
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