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Journal, Day One

By Joshua Weiner

Wondering about the apparent appetite for the endless voluminous discourse around poetry. Poems are difficult, but what is called poetics seems easy. I’m sympathetic to the commenter on Beckman’s blog (on this site) who asked why real politics drops away in the concerns of contemporary poetry, eclipsed by interest in the politics of poetics. Real politics, like poems, are difficult. . . .

. . . Subject positions (yawn), qualities of reference, and the like—all the received concerns ground to flour in the poetry mill—the age has taught us to parse these in our sleep. Zombie-yammering. Sawdust in the mouth. Has there ever been a time when young writers were more hip to the rhetoric of forms than now? And to less effect overall? And what would be the measure? My sense of feeling exhausted by it? Poems lead to themselves, even, especially, as they recognize, invent a world; poetics lead to making such statements, of questionable worth. Worth acknowledging, however, how both Beckman and Turner present a larger world to confront, beyond our poems, our kids, our projects; and that we’re responsible for some serious shit, even as some of us struggle with the bewildering problem of how to influence the policies that drop the shit down.

What I’m going to do here this week is less ambitious than Beckman’s meditation on war through the Romantics, and less compelling than Turner’s journal entries made on tour in Iraq; but I hope it will be of at least passing interest. The blog is not a form or format I’ve worked in before, and it strikes me that it’s a new form, neither diary nor column, Op-Ed piece nor essay; neither soliloquy nor public announcement, party line, confession booth, shrink’s couch. I’m going to treat it like a working journal about poetry, a place to make a record of one week thinking about what’s in front of me in the poetry world. Is that entertainment?

Recent books I’ve been taken with. Richard Siken, Crush; Juliana Spahr, This Connection of Everyone with Lungs; Dan Chiasson, Natural History; David Rivard, Sugartown; Arthur Sze, Quipu; Catharine Barnett, Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced; Gail Mazur, Zeppo’s First Wife; Peter Campion, Other People; David Antin, I Never Knew What Time It Was; Anne Winters, The Displaced of Capital; Claudia Rankine, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely; Daisy Fried, My Brother is Getting Arrested Again; Frank Bidart, Star Dust; Anne Carson, Decreation; Susan Stewart, Columbarium; Anne Porter, Living Things; John Peck, Red Strawberry Leaf; Kenneth Koch, The Art of the Possible and Collected Poems.

Thinking a lot about Koch. The quality of presence so consistent in his work, regardless of his mode, which shifts around, at times accessible-sounding, social, available; at other times opaque, thickly built-up. Always slipping around, changing keys, putting his fingers on all the pads, blowing something like bebop in its velocity and exuberance, its quick-changing, its instant formal mutations, quotation, invention, exhilaration. A virtuoso, capable one senses of playing the tune like Charlie Parker, inside out or backwards, so firmly in control yet exhibiting such freedom. And yet how grounded Koch’s poetry is in direct statement, regardless of how crazy-sounding; direct statement expressing a kind of condition of mind, a condition of health. Direct statement as speech-act of the sun.

Listening to the music of I.B. Singer’s prose; the muscular flexing of the sentence that coils and strikes like a boxer’s jab; the epic movement of the paragraph—who else traveled such distances with such compression? Pound, who loved Hardy and Conrad. Few others. Bunting.

Leonard Michaels, in his short stories and diaries, which are really experiments in story form; why has the New York publishing world pushed him into a corner, so that his readers are stigmatized as cultists? The bizarre world of literary New York, its fickle crowning, its capricious appetite, its myopic self-regard. Michaels’ ferocity as a stylist so paramount that when he reviewed a book, the review itself became the superior story, viz. his review in the NYTBR of Ahron Applefled’s The Immortal Bartfuss. Will the Collected Stories ever appear, only to be dismissed again? One can learn more about poetic language and poetic form from his stories than from most of the poetry lauded in New York.

Reading Bob Dylan’s Chronicles last week, I came across these passages, that seemed transmitted at a high frequency. He’s talking about Daniel Lanois, the producer of Oh, Mercy—a kind of comeback album—wishing that Dylan might have delivered songs such as “Masters of War” and “Hard Rain” for the new album that they had just finished recording in New Orleans. Dylan writes, “I couldn’t get those kinds of songs for him or anyone else. To do it, you’ve got to have power and dominion over the spirits. I had done it once, and once was enough. Someone would come along eventually who would have it again—someone who could see into things, the truth of things—not metaphorically, either—but really see, like seeing into metal and making it melt, see it for what it was and reveal it for what it was with hard words and vicious insight.”

But will he or she have the instincts to survive what an industry demands of its performers? Dylan points to Ice-T and Public Enemy . . . Yes, one thinks, yes, but . . . The culture devours, turns emerging figures into dolls. Something to aim for, though, worth failing at.

And this passage, that seems fitting end to a first entry here. “The songs were written to the glory of man and not to his defeat, but all of these songs added together doesn’t even come close to my whole vision of life. Sometimes the things that you liked the best and that have meant the most to you are the things that meant nothing at all to you when you first heard or saw them. Some of these songs [from Oh, Mercy] fit into that category. I suppose all of these things are simple, matter of fact enough.”

Simple, but hard to see, perhaps. Memories of listening to a tape of Oh, Mercy over and over again as I drove with a friend from Chicago to San Francisco, winter of 1989, through midnight stormy Rockies, passing trucks blinding us in wakes of snow, murderously cold long nights of driving, and that voice keeping us company. How it’s cut a groove in me, how thankful I am to have it.


Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, March 13th, 2006 by Joshua Weiner.