Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Arks & Covenants: The Poet as Aphorist & Essayist



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

Laureate Poets and Heretic Poets in the TLS



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

On Rhyme Out Now!



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.

Poetry Portfolio

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

Revolutions: A Collaboration — Or How to Write in the Age of Trump and Putin


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     


1. Haphazard


            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:



The book can be ordered at the Dos Madres Press site, at Amazon, or at SPD.