Tuesday, November 29, 2005


I want to put two things side by side. I just finished Swann's Way, and I'm reading Lorine Niedecker's Collected Works. A sort of literary double-take.

"But when a belief vanishes, there survives it--more and more ardently, so as to cloak the absence of power, now lost to us, of imparting reality to new phenomena--an idolatrous attachment to the old things which our belief in them did once animate, as if it was in that belief and not in ourselves that the divine spark resided, and as if our present incredulity had a contingent cause--the death of the gods."

"The death of my poor father
leaves debts
and two small houses.

To settle this estate
a thousand fees arise--
I enrich the law.

Before my own death is certified,
recorded, final judgement

taxes taxed
I shall own a book
of old Chinese poems

and binoculars
to probe the river

That two such writings can exist in the same world is, I suppose, cause for celebration. The long driven accuracy of the mourning Proust, trying to hold onto a dream. The short, uniflected, down-to-earth "poverty" of Niedecker. No superstructure of belief for her, things that can't be held still. Instead, glimpses of the natural world and poetry. One would have thought Proust would be the greater champion of art, which of course he does become, but it's all in the past, made out of memory. The world of the present has no value, is, with its automobiles, debased.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

review of Michael Heller's new book

This review will appear in an upcoming issue of American Book Review.


Michael Heller’s Uncertain Poetries (Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2005) concludes with two statements on poetics, but these being a poet’s essays, it is really the search for a poetics which drives them all, however much they might be investigations of individual poets. As he says in the preface, "These essays ought to be read as something of an intellectual biography of a working poet." Farther from being ancillary to a poet’s needs, this search among the chosen monuments of the past for a place from which to speak as a poet is central to the tradition out of which he writes, namely Modernism. Pound and Eliot insisted in their different ways that the poet’s first task was to increase one’s learning, mostly through a study of the past. Heller’s allegiance belongs to the Pound/ Zukofsky/ Olson side of Modernism, which demanded a radically shuffled tradition in which history was a mega-store where one could pick and choose at will, often from sources at great remove from those typical of literary practice of the times. On the other hand, the Eliot/ Auden side of Modernism called for a deep steeping in existing systems and traditions, the chief of which came to be known, disparagingly, as the canon.

As such, Heller is a fish on land. The time he lives in has seen the giants of his tradition discredited or ignored as elitists or fascists, where they weren’t, like Lorine Niedecker, unseen and unknown. Kinds of Romanticism came to displace Modernism as cultural authority passed from the old elites to the masses themselves, or, to put it differently, from the authority of a tradition to that of the feeling self. Heller relates an interesting encounter between the products of these two cultures when he describes a question put to him by a young poet after one of his (Heller’s) lectures on poetics. The young poet had said that "plenty of poets do not write a poetics, but only write poems." This gave Heller the chance to say, in the essay if not to the poet that night, "I don’t believe we can say with any surety that poets "only write poems," for such a notion of innocent composition flies in the face of what we do know: that each of us...[is a] product of traditions, of wars with traditions, impulses and hopes, and that we are informed, inhabited, guided, even unconsciously, by such traditions and psychologies."

As tempting as it is to call Heller the last of the Modernists, two obstacles stand in the way. The first is his familiarity with a broad array of postmodernist thinking, including language theory, and, in certain carefully-chosen instances, particularly in the work of Benjamin and Bakhtin, his acceptance of it. He also opens the Modernist cabinet wide enough to make room in it for some elements of Surrealism (I’m thinking of his essay on Lorca and "deep song," as well as "Avant Garde Propellents of the Machine Made of Words"), which early Modernists like Pound and Eliot had little or no interest in. Eliot’s flirtation with that medium in "Rhapsody on a Windy Night" and The Waste Land was the exception. Also, as his previous writings on the Objectivists make clear, Heller’s view of Modernism, even the Pound side of it, insists that Zukofsky and the others clearly departed from their Imagist beginnings. Where the Imagist branch of Modernism stressed the image as metaphor or symbol, thereby subsuming the thing seen to the poet’s imaginative power (the act of seeing), the Objectivists insisted first that the thing be seen and not blurred by too aggressive or enlarged an act of seeing on the part of an ego-driven poet or one subscribing to, as Heller calls it, a "missionary poetics." "Words are real, in the Objectivist formulation," says Heller, "because they instate an existence beyond the words." One can hear in this comment, I think," a veiled criticism of language poetry, perhaps also of contemporary forms of surrealism. Hence, the dogged insistence on the real we find in the work of Niedecker, Oppen, and others he admires. The Objectivists also were less interested in history, literal or literary, and insisted always on looking at the world as given them, in a manner that distantly echoes Emerson in "The American Scholar."
The title of Heller’s book gives us the word "uncertain" to consider in relationship to contemporary poetry. This, too, is a note sounded in his study of the Objectivists where he says in the concluding chapter that "The Objectivists, and this is a critical if not poetic difficulty, lean into uncertainty." A larger understanding of this term emerges in the new book in his review of Henry Weinfield’s translations of Mallarme. Weinfield sees Mallarme as facing "the crisis of modernity," which lies in the difficulty of establishing "meaning in a meaningless universe–that is, in a universe from which the gods have disappeared, with the result that meaning cannot be transcendentally conferred." In the essay on Ignatow, in fact, Heller says that we live in "a period of powerful secularization in all walks of life." This is the central dilemma in Stevens’ poetry as well, which he solves by the simple insistence that humans must invent their own gods, or as his adage ("The gods of China are always Chinese") strongly suggests, they always have. Heller and others see the problem as more than theological; they see it in ontological and epistemological terms as well, where the poet wrestles, to use Eliot’s word, to know the self and, for that matter, anything at all with something approaching, but falling short of, certainty. The supreme achievement in a world so described comes to be the act of clear description, of a thing that first of all exists outside language. In such an act the poet does not lull us into thinking that his or her descriptive skill, metaphoric extravagance, compulsive self-involvement, need for placation and assurance, and other platforms on which contemporary poetry rests, hides the fact that the thing at the center of the poetic act can be seen only with difficulty and fragmentarily.

Heller’s ideal poet, then, would be one who made little display of the self and took on, as principle task, the effort to know in a world where, not only is that difficult to impossible, but one in which the knowing or knowledge must be achieved on one’s own. Homemade worlds, as Hugh Kenner called them. Most of the poets discussed in the book are poets of microscopic realism and/or philosophical speculation: Moore, Niedecker, Ignatow, Bronk, Schwerner, Oppen, etc. The two essays on diasporic poetics, of course, have as their central problem the extreme need for accurate witnessing of events that very nearly defies language itself. Such kinds of poetry call for modesty and a quality he finds central to the Objectivists, sincerity, at least as much as it does individuality.

It is never Heller’s intention in these essays to survey the poetic scene, but phrases and terms unavoidably drop from his pen from time to time which reveal his dismay at one or another trend in our poetry. His chief concern is that the world not be locked up in some sort of fixed ideological view, that certainty or pre-judgment about matters not shut down perception and thinking. Very nearly the greatest praise he can give a poet is, as he says of Rilke, that he forswore "intellectual or psychological certainty." Against this openness to uncertainty, Heller ranks "the icy constructs of the language centered schools or the halls of the totally aleatory," by which I think he means contemporary surrealisms, and "the overplowed farmlands of academia." The essay on Oppen describes his poetry as being "at odds not only with the gelid wastes of official literary culture but also with the programmed experimentalisms of much of the avant-garde," a comment, the first part of which, that echoes Charles Bernstein’s denigration, "official verse culture." In a totalizing gesture, Heller speaks in the essay on Mallarme of "the progressivist climate of contemporary poetry." This must be what he means by "missionary poetics," poetry written to improve our condition or at least our understanding of our condition or poetry written out of a programmatic or technique-driven notion of what poetry should be. Very different is the "constant" aim he describes in Lorine Niedecker’s poetry: "to disabuse herself of the sin of self-regard by maintaining an attitude toward the world...where ‘external’ things have a more objective truth value than ‘internal’ things," a condition whereby the eye wars against "the erring brain."

As much as I am taken with Heller’s zeal, his taste, his "high seriousness," as much as I agree with many of his observations and conclusions, I am left with questions, in large part because of the not-so-vague outline of a missionary behind them. That figure is most visible to me in the essay "Poetry Without Credentials," where he says the poem "shakes up and disrupts our certainties. We could say it introduces uncertainty where perhaps there was none before....What is actually true is not the certainty but the uncertainty." As the passage continues, the tone becomes increasingly spiritual. "If we are willing to recognize that moment, to live thoroughly in that understanding, we recognize that it is just as we give up our views and our values, give up ourselves and our credentials that poetry takes place." It is a similar sort of giving up of the self that most religions ask of us, which is the exact opposite of what a progressive politics, as well, I presume, as a progressive esthetics, asks. I, too, would like to see a poetry that saw what could be seen clearly (and no more) and that did not see the physical universe subsumed by language, but I would not want, in making such a bargain, to give up my certainty that the world we live is threatened and the need for that to be known and expressed in poetry invalidated. We need to remember, as Charles Bernstein has said, that "Poetry, like war, is the pursuit of politics by other means." The danger here is that an esthetics of "uncertainty" can, in trying to avoid ideology, become ideological and, as John B. Thompson has said, help "sustain relations of domination" by implying that certainty is impossible or inconsequential.


I have to confess that Proust begins to drag heavily on the mind. Am I a Philistine? Deep down, perhaps. But the whole social scene among those who live by its rules gets to be wearisome. Better to have a neurotic child acting out his own neuroses while observing those of others. But, as they say, I will try to stay the course.

When I get into this sort of funk, I start picking up other books to read. Chase Twichell's fine new book, Dog Language. And I'm finally getting to Jenny Penberty's edition of Lorine Niedecker's complete poems. As noted earlier, too, Lyn Hejinian's The Fatalist. I tend to put the big ones off till I get my mind into some sort of focus. It did help that I just reviewed Michael Heller's Uncertain Poetries, he being the author and champion of the Objectivists. I've been looking into Ron Silliman's blog every day, as well. A very good, "encyclopedic" might be the better word, critic of what you might still be able to call the alternative poetries of the last century.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Lyn Hejinian's THE FATALIST

Finally got to The Fatalist by Lyn Hejinian (Omnidawn, 2003), where I found the word "merriment," which is darn near a word that can't come out of the mouth of an American anymore, and indicates what is the greatest shift in this work over her previous, i.e., a willingness to accept that "Happiness is possible in unhappy times." No giddy hippy, she, esp. as she is looking into (I want to use quotes around many words when I talk about her work) fate, which at one point she equates with uncertainty (""). Inside the deeply soliloquistic structures of her mind and art is, in fact, a sense of exuberant, shared delight in the day-to-day. "A sense of the uniqueness/ and interrelatedness of things is fundamental here."
It's about time
that we got to someplace that we don't know
anything about knowing that we don't
and if we do we should leave it
Sounds like the Sierra Club urging us all to tread lightly in the woods. Leave it as you found it, not quite wild. But what the passage and the whole poem urges itself toward is the unknown (read, among other things: death). Whatever is fated, I suppose, along with "the desperately ungraspable vastness of meaning."

But, all this is to try to extract a point, or a central thrust, in the work, and that I feel certain I've not done. And, if I had, it would have missed the point. What is most felt at the end and throughout is a stabilizing playfulness of intellect, a "merry" investigation (not a good word), insertion would be better, into something like the flow all things find themselves in.

Try this:
Sure modernism
claimed authority on the grounds of certainty and genius,
but Lorine Niedecker often asserted powerlessness
from folklore that's devoid of pathos. She was specific
and being specific is one of the things that is required
of a poem as it is of Santa's elves who quite properly go about
namelessly nonetheless to us and to each other since naming
is impossible -- there is, properly speaking, nothing to name
except your "tiny riot of contiguity and separation"
capable of taking its chance (and its chances)
to produce its own contingency, necessity, suspense. Many nouns fail
to remind us of the ideas they were intended to prompt. It wasn't "fate"
nor "memory," "the live oak tree," "Pythagoras," nor "this" I meant
the other day but there we were, "in and of" the moment
that related us to each other, bringing us face to face
like the "if" that arrives with its "when" or the "once"
that occurs in "awhile."

Needless to say (said he saying it), she does not "believe" in either certainty or genius.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Swann Song

Proust is wearing me down. It's a real seat-squirmer to watch poor old Swann disintegrate, but then his love, if that's the word, is so mixed up with vanity and status, being seen, etc. Still, he suffers, and I do want to see how he comes out of it. Odette? We may never learn much about her. She seems to be a kind of social parasite of the sort that women in the nineteenth century might well have had to be in order to keep head above water. An entrepeneur of flirtation. But, I must wait and see. Swann is no better, of course. He merely has money. Odette has some, we are told, but nothing to match Swann.

The big difference between the first two chapters and "Swann in Love" (no.3) is that the latter seems to be entirely given over to the third person. Certainly the narrator is not Swann, and certainly he knows Swann's inmost thought. That's omniscience. But about 100 pages into the chapter comes an aside using the word "I." Suddenly, we have what I've been calling Marcel speaking, not a figure of true omniscience. So, having moved from the mode of memoir in chs. 1 and 2, he seemed to have moved into fictional narrative. That illusion shatters when "I" speaks up.


I can't watch Swann too long,
except out of the side of my eye.
Even now I want not to be
cantilevering down this line
to see the scales come off a fish.
I'm sure I have some email
I'd much rather complain about
having to read than watching
this rickety construction bleed
through the pores of his abject
but deeply manipulative need--
to what? Screw some equally
infantile member of the tribe
in hopes that love might emerge,
full-formed, out of the froth
of his fevered member? He would
shudder to hear such talk. I do myself,
watching him fumble, not only
with Odette's diaphanous bodice,
but with the language of stammer
and sweated confusion (how can
it be so terrifying unclear which
emotion is real or comes first,
ardor or the narcotic of needing
to dine at a fashionable address?).
I don't yet know how it will turn out,
but I know from the movies the yowl
of hounds that have caught the scent,
the scrambling for cover under a bush,
and from a moment or two in the past,
the smell of there being nothing
inside my shirt, not even me,
just that stuttering muskrat, the heart.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

A few quotes, a few comments. From SWANN'S WAY.

"I had been thinking all the time, while I was asleep, of what I had just been reading, but my thoughts had run into a channel of their own, until I myself seemed actually to have become the subject of my book." Thinking while asleep would seem to be in dream, and while the sentence has its cloying, self-regarding aspect, it has a dream aspect as well. Dream, despite what Freud and others have said, does have a kind of curious objectivity to it. You're there, if only as observer, but the world of dream has little or no interest in the dreamer, drags the dreamer by the scruff of his fears over a rough road often.

"the vast structure of recollection." Not willy-nilly and, of course, not complete. A structure, which implies a builder. At the moment, we might think of Proust as the structurer, but maybe there's another.

"an unceasing monologue which was her [Aunt Leonie's] sole form of activity." No comment. Well, maybe this is the other structure.

Another moment where I think we get a glimpse of the author in one of his characters: "My grandmother alone found fault with him [M. Legrandin] for speaking a little too well, a little too much like a book."

In praise of the novelist, he says: "for the space of an hour he sets free within us all the joys and sorrows in the world, a few of which, only, we should have to spend years of our actual life in getting to know, and the keenest, the most intense of which would never have been revealed to us because the slow course of their development stops our perception of them." What he doesn't say is the same holds true for the novelist, or any good writer. He/she, too, has to wait AND to pursue the joys and sorrows for a long time to be able to write well of them.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

proust encore

Hard to imagine Proust as a gripping read, but so far his strategies intrigue me for being stagey and loose. Plot? Not very much in that area. This may be the way memoir works, but when he gives you 100 plus pages of "Combray," the small provincial town the family retires to in the summer, we get a succesion of observations on what life consists of when they spend time there. They seem to be in no compelling order, or none that a good thumping plot would demand. Great social satire. Few are spared the barb of little Marcel's eye, while he of course pursues his impossible pre-adolescent needs and dreams of holding everything as still as possible so that it will not slip off the map of being and into the past. No luck, of course. Everyone is on the treadmill of life, ignoring Marcel's need for eternal incipience, that is, a life always about to be because it is a life forever in the tall shadow of his parents' life.

And the sentences! Never start one that you can't qualify at least four times with parenthetical insertions. Life, after all, is infinitely perceptible. Or, what can be perceived of life knows no end. Is that good? Wrong question, perhaps.

More later on the tight claustrophobia of French middle-class life, the thing that creates Marcel's jail, a jail he and others would not leave if they could. Or so it seems.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


Once again, I embark on Proust. This time, though, I hope to finish it. Why? As Louis Armstrong is said to have replied to someone who asked, what is jazz: If you have to ask, I can't explain. I guess that's really two questions. Why read Proust, and why finish it? In my youth, of course, it would have been only one, since I always (almost) finished everything I started to read. It's why I know so little today. But, there it sits like a doorway to the twentieth century which I never passed through. (I came in through an upstairs window.) Reading it seems like reviewing my life or checking to see what parts of it I missed. Little Marcel is a precious soul, to the point of annoyance, but then he can report that about himself, too. The quest embarked on seems almost heroic, to see how much can be remembered, sparing no detail. For that, however, there must be long hours, months and years of elegant boredom, spaces in a large house to which one can retreat and to which one is sent when one is an annoyance (which is often). Ah well, life has no single platform. But can I live the next few months tangled in the convoluted sentences of a narcissist, even one who knows he is one? Winter is coming on. It will help.

Monday, November 14, 2005

who reads sholokhov today?

I just finished reading Sholokhov's Quiet Flows the Don (1929). Why, you might ask. Because I bought it 30 years ago and thought at the time I should read it. It seemed like it might be informative to find out, if I could, why I bought it. The answer wasn't hard to find. Here was the first great attempt at Soviet epic in the novel. It only took us up to the moment when the Bolsheviks were about to take over, but it tried manfully to suggest that the Bolshevizing of Russia was also going to coincide with and preserve the cossack tradition of the Don River area. Sholokhov was at least honest in portraying the easy violence which that old form of life was given to slipping into, and he was not very flattering to the early revolutionary Reds who, in more than one incident, massacred their prisoners. But, the book does finally do its social realist duty and portray a coming heroic nation rising out of the abuses of czarism and the massive slaughter that was World War I. The most "real" thing in the book for me was Sholokhov's grasp of the old life of the Don River area where cossacks and peasants acted out the roles assigned for them under czarist rule. A rough life, a rough read.

Monday, November 14, 2005

related matters
Poetry being as wide as it is, matters that relate to it would seem to be similarly wide. Winter's coming on. Clouds are crossing at a good clip, going east. It's morning. Here in the Adirondacks, we have to have everything nailed down this time of year or else find it rotted and twisted under the snow when spring arrives. To that effect, I built a woodshed this summer. No more blue tarp shredded by the wind. No more soggy logs. Building a woodshed turned out to be something like a practice, one I've been aimed at most of my life. Not unlike the practice of writing poems, one could say. Certainly as satisfying. Stabilizing. I look at it from time to time.
posted by roger mitchell @ 7:55 AM 0 comments
Friday, November 11, 2005

Bear with me, world. I'm still figuring out the ways and means of getting about in this vast system, though I have already decided that the name of the blog needs to be changed, and one of the things I have to learn is how to change a blog's name. Yes, I live near the Ausable River, but I'm not, I think, here to sing its beauties or mine its ores. "Crusherrun" appeals to me more because it's what I put on my road to keep it from sinking into the mud. My first thoughts are to see if I can organize thoughts around the issue of voice in literature, particularly poetry. Then, it's on to a reading of Gertrude Stein.
posted by roger mitchell @ 4:30 PM 0 comments
Thursday, November 10, 2005

world-altering phrases for all time
I did this on a whim, after reading a friend's interview on a blogsite. Do I want to do email, you might say, one-way email every day in the manner of Ron Silliman? I guess we'll have to see. There seems to be no rule which says you have to post every day, and there certainly seems to be no limit to subject, length, degree of gravity, etc. So, this is the tentative gesture of someone who writes poetry and who learned to do it before the ditto machine was invented and is still a little afraid of his computer. More to come, as they used to say when they interrupted the Johnny Carson Show for commercials. The world-altering phrases will come later.
posted by roger mitchell @ 7:23 PM 1 comments