Book Review: Reading Error

reading error

Reading Error: The lyric and contemporary poetry.
Nerys Williams.
Modern Poetry Vol. 1.
Peter Lang, 2007. 265 pp.

First, a quiz:
Poetry and theory are different. Yes or No.
Language Writing attempted to enact the considerations of theory within the writing of poetry and poetics. Yes or No.
Language Writing dispensed with any notions of the Lyric ‘I’. Yes or No.

In this challenging and richly written book Nerys Williams argues that the poetry of Charles Bernstein, Michael Palmer, and Lyn Hejinian demonstrate that the lyric retains an important focus to writers affiliated with early Language Writing.

Nerys Williams lectures in American Literature at the English Department in University College Dublin. She is the recipient of an Irish Fullbright Award.

In this apparently counterintuitive take, Reading Error illustrates how the reader can approach Language Writing as a form of wandering, or errancy. Throughout Reading Error, Williams shows that the lens of an ‘erring poetics’ enables readers to revise the role that lyricism establishes in the work of the three poets.

Their poetry illustrates how “an initial dissatisfaction with the ‘workshop model’ has evolved into a compendium of complex strategies for refiguring the lyric within an experimental praxis,” Williams says. She provides different strategies for understanding the ways error may surface, for example, via humor, mistakes, malapropisms, polyphony.

Charles Bernstein’s work, Williams argues, promotes error as a context of instruction, or even education. The aesthetic premises of Bernstein’s early poetry can be aligned to Language Writing’s interest in strategies of defamiliarization. Retracing Bernstein’s early poetics reveals how his aesthetic of error must be read not only as a challenge to the conventions of grammar and syntax, but as an ambitious claim for the practice of what he calls a ‘socious’ language.

The subject in Palmer’s poetry is often evoked through an aphasic stuttering, Williams says. Broaching his poetry through accounts of schizophrenic language “guides us in an understanding of the violent rupturing of the single speaking voice in Palmer’s work.”

The often violent rupture of the lyric in Palmer’s poetry can be read in tandem with Gilles Deleuze’s analysis of schizophrenic writing, bringing to a focus the problematized subject-object dichotomy of Palmer’s lyric.

An understanding of erring focuses on the intentional inconsistencies and the aphoristic texture of Lyn Hejinian’s poetry, Williams argues. Aphorisms in Hejinian’s poetry are often sabotaged by the substitution of a word or phrase. Hejinian’s aesthetic of erring avoids a central locus of authority, with the aim of opening the text to broader implications of political responsibility and a devolution of mastery.

Jennifer Moxley’s poetry renegotiates central issues raised in Bernstein, Hejinian and Palmer’s relationship to lyricism, Williams argues. Moxley “has been given the somewhat dubious honor of reinventing, rereading, or reconfiguring lyric practices in recent american poetry.” She places a focus on lyricism as a dissenting practice with a social conscience. Moxley makes a claim for the ‘social lyric’ as a voice that ‘has been excluded from the political power of dominant narratives.’

In Reading Error, Williams aims to indicate how a configuraion of error allows readers to consider the broader relationship between aesthetics, ethics, and politics in poetry. “The most viable and important possibility that this poetry work offers the reader,” she says, “is the necessity of seeing those structures of power deemed to represent us, as necessarily provisional and ultimately answerable to our criticisms.”

Experimental poetry, in contexts

Book Review: Differentials: poetry, poetics, pedagogy
Marjorie Perloff
University of Alabama press
2004. 307 p.

How does one tell a good “experimental” poem from a bad one? And what is an experimental poem anyway?

Readers, writers, teachers, and theorists alike ponder these things. One person wearing all four hats is Marjorie Perloff, who offers Differentials with her usual erudition, humor, and interdisciplinary insight. These essays, written between 1999 and 2004, address performance poetry, concrete poetry, multimedia poetry, constricted writing, and how teachers might help their students make sense of it all.

Perloff’s prodigious knowledge of twentieth century artistic movements allows her to relate the work of Ezra Pound to Marcel Duchamp, to explain “differential poetry” that varies according to the medium of presentation, to compare the performance poetry of Laurie Anderson, Joan Retallack and Caroline Bergvall, and to elaborate on distinctions between Kenneth Goldsmith’s rule-generated writing and Ronald Johnson’s verbivocovisuals.

I particularly enjoy her discussion of the French Oulipo movement, a group of writers and theorists who created structures for generating language. She discusses its U.S. counterpart in the works of John Cage, Jackson Mac Low, the Fluxus poets and, more recently, the work of Christian Bo:k and Caroline Bergvall.

“Before we decide who is writing what claims to be the truly innovative poetry and how we teach it,” Perloff says, “the more closely we weigh the various alternatives before us.”

And how to teach “experimental” poetry? Take nothing for granted. Insist on close readings. And a close reading must account for all the elements in a given text, not just the ones that support a particular interpretation, she reminds us.

What matters is not what a poem may ‘say’ about old age or mother-daughter relationships, but how it says it and why. The reader places the poem in a number of frames: the book in which it appears, the writer’s oeuvre as a whole, then its genre and stylistic conventions, and then its cultural and historical markers in the context of other comparable poems of the period.

Eden lost, regeneration possible


Book Review
Grace, Fallen from
Marianne Boruch
Wesleyan U Press, 2008. 94 p.

Appropriate for a spring time reading, this collection of poems from Marianne Boruch ponders themes of regeneration. Taken as a whole, her poems suggest the human need to, and ability to, escape from, or to transcend, day-to-day life. The avenues available to us include dreams, sleep, memory, and the traditions of religion. Boruch draws ideas and images from the Judeo-Christian tradition and, more specifically, the Catholic faith.

The book’s sequence subtly follows the seasonal cycle from summer through winter to spring, hinting at death and rebirth, and its three-part structure suggests the theological doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The whole and its parts are distinct, yet one.

Marianne Boruch has written five previous collections of poetry and two books of essays. She teachers in Purdue University’s MFA program.

Counter-revolution of the Word

counter revolution

Counter-revolution of the Word:
The conservative attack on modern poetry, 1945-1960.
Alan Filreis. U of NC Press, 2008. 422 p.

Those who lived through the Red Scare of the 1950s bitterly recall how careers were ruined because someone was branded a ‘communist.’ The subject is now taught in schools as an example of political hysteria enabled by false accusations and abuse of language. What’s less well known is that many writers and poets who adopted experimental styles were tagged by literary conservatives as dangerous: probably in league with communists, and certainly conspiring to rot American civilization.

Counter-revolution of the Word explores in great depth the antimodernist literary movement of the mid 20th century. Alan Filreis, author of Modernism from Right to Left: Wallace Stevens, the Thirties, & Literary Radicalism, here investigates the question: Why did American conservatives react so strongly against modernism?

In preparing for this book Filreis dug deeply into archives across the country, sifting through original documents and correspondence, to examine how the anticommunist witch hunt of the mid 20th century combined with, and helped fuel, antimodernist attacks on new poetry and experimental writing.

To conservatives, the language of modernism was a “linguistically heretical” mode that sought to “destroy the designed order.” Conservative poet Robert Hillyer and others considered linguistic “difficulty” part of a grand design to reduce Americans to a state of helpless confusion.

Conservative antimodernists pointed to writers ranging from Gertrude Stein to Ezra Pound to e. e. cummings, calling their zigzagging disarrangement of words a “vice” and a “camouflage” for aiding the communist movement. The Southern regional writer Ben Lucien Burman likened Gertrude Stein’s influence to “the lurking germs of a yellow fever” which “must be constantly fought and sprayed with violent chemicals lest the microbes develop again and start a new infection.”

Colonel Cullen Jones claimed that Hart Crane had been driven to homosexuality and “insanity” after being infected by the “ratty-minded sophistication and psychosis” of modernism. And believe it or not, there was a League for Sanity in Poetry. Its adherents sent letters of protest to editorial offices demanding they stop printing “insane poetry.”

Anticommunism provided the rhetoric and the political agency, Filreis says, that could be used effectively against ‘antipoetic’ language. Antimodernists claimed to tell a writer’s Redness by their ‘mutant wording.’

All this seems surreal, almost unbelievable. Yet look around and see how some people even today brand others as “unAmerican” simply because they prefer to think for themselves and draw their conclusions independently of what the power structure would have them believe. The term “liberal” has been stripped of all positive connotations. The abuse of language continues, but not by writers and poets. The abuse continues by those in power who wish to deceive.

Book review: The Bad Wife Handbook

bad wife handbook

The Bad Wife Handbook
Rachel Zucker
Wesleyan U Press, 2007. 114 p.

“A woman with young children is not a woman but a mammal, salve, croon, water carrier…”

Don’t be misled by the title. ‘The Bad Wife Handbook’ is not a coffee table book. It’s not about light entertainment or titillation. Chests are cracked open, hearts are removed and packed in ice.

“Truth is: / I want to ruin your life.”

Zucker’s challenging and erudite work demands many readings. Motherhood, marriage, and writing are described in terms of astronomy, genetics, and organic chemistry. Zucker writes in aphorisms, proverbs, and oxymorons. A page of wispy short lines couplets faces a page of solid block run-on sentences. Like Marcel Duchamp, she’s not afraid to crack a pane of glass, forcing the reader to squint through fragments and disjunctions and to adapt multiple points of view. One might hear echoes of Lyn Hejinian or Leslie Scalapino.

‘The Bad Wife Handbook’ is largely autobiographical. It’s ‘about’ the conflicts and ambiguities within three roles—wife, mother, and writer—and about the pressures each places on the others.

At times she hates writing. She hates her steel-trap mind, so “I gnaw my leg off to escape mine.”

The first section collects shorter poems, the remainder contains four sequences. One sequence addresses the necessity, and impossibility, of getting away from it all for some solitude and writing time; another enters the world of Italian Renaissance paintings. ‘The Rise and Fall of the Central Dogma’ expresses itself in terms of HTML code, DNA sequences, proteins, and helixes. The 20-poem sequence ‘Autographies’ is not surprisingly confessional, and simmers with anger and defiance. She responds to requests that she not write about the death of a young child, or about money, or about group therapy, by writing poem addressing all three. All in all, though, the Handbook documents the workings of a unique mind making its way in a world that’s all too often indifferent.

Zucker is also author of The Last Clear Narrative (2004) and Eating in the Underworld (2003).

Transcending the limits of print


Anthology of Modern American Poetry
Cary Nelson, editor
Oxford U Press, 2000
1247 p.

I’m reading through Oxford’s massive Anthology of Modern American Poetry. I’m interested in the literature, of course, but interested equally in the questions that drove the selection process. I was struck by how often a biographical sketch mentioned that a poet was a socialist or communist or blacklisted as such. Then I began wondering about the mix of gender, of people of color, well-known writers vs. newcomers, and so forth.

Should an anthology argue for a major reassessment? Yes, says Cary Nelson, who edited this one. And this is the first comprehensive anthology to give so much coverage to Langston Hughes, for example, besides including poets who will be unknown to many readers.

Cary Nelson teaches modern poetry and literary theory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Professor of English, and author of Manifesto of a Tenured Radical.

On to other editorial questions: Does an editor choose representative poems from a poet’s entire career? Or focus on one decisive moment? Nelson decided that for each writer individually.

No matter the size and scope, any printed anthology has physical limits. Can, or should, an anthology provide space for long poems and poem sequences? Nelson chose to do so in many cases, including extended pieces by Stein, Eliot, Rexroth, Rukeyser, Ginsberg, and Rich, for example. Book length poem sequences like Ezra Pound’s Cantos and Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony receive substantial selections.

How much room to devote to specific genres: poems about love, about the political 1930s, about religion, about the holocaust? About race relations?

Nelson had to juggle all the above. Anyone could quibble about any of the thousands of decisions he had to make. One thing that I really like, though, is Nelson decided to produce an accompanying online journal and multimedia site, called MAPS.

MAPS is part archive, part living project, intended as a resource for teaching modern American poetry. (Its editorial board includes Alan Filreis, who helps mastermind the PennSound site and its rich audio media.) Nelson says MAPS was designed to help all readers of modern poetry, not just readers of the Oxford anthology.

That was an editorial decision of sheer generosity.

Book review: Jackson Mac Low’s ‘Doings’


Doings: Assorted performance pieces, 1955-2002
Jackson Mac Low
Granary Books, 2005
266 pages plus audio CD

Was Jackson Mac Low a poet, a composer, or a visual artist?

Yes he was.

No surprise then that Mac Low’s compositions took inspiration from a staggering variety of sources: Buddhist sutras, dancers he knew, other composers, Zen, instrumentalists, poets, and the Bible.

Granary Books publisher Steve Clay writes that Mac Low wanted this book to facilitate further performances of the compositions. Performance instructions and explanatory notes detail Mac Low’s thinking and his compositional methods. One sees clearly the influence of John Cage throughout. Indeed, Mac Low and Cage collaborated for quite some time.

Mac Low’s compositional techniques take a multitude of approaches: he sometimes created verbal scores based on anagrams of the dedicatee’s name. He threw dice, chose numbers chosen from the Rand Corporation’s table A Million Random Digits, and even placed an IBM punch card on a piece of paper and rubbed a pencil over the holes.

Doings presents 3 dozen-plus scores, arranged chronologically. Many are suitable for framing. They take an array of forms: Word drawings, typescripts, letters and digits written on 3×5 cards, and columns and rows of words written on graphing paper.

This book and companion audio CD allow the reader to see and hear these compositions as they are realized. In effect, the reader becomes part of the performance. The pieces reward repeated listening: One realizes how skillfully the performers navigate through the many options Mac Low’s scores present to them. Like jazz and improv musicians, the speakers must create, on the spot, while listening to and responding to each other.

While some compositions require voices, others call for instruments, and many require both. Most of the recordings include Mac Low as a performer and a number include his longtime collaborator and companion Anne Tardos, who helped produce this book.

Doings is several books at once, Steve Clay writes. “Literary theorists and historians will find a key to understanding the work of ‘the principal experimental poet of his time’ (in the words of Jerome Rothenberg). Verbal/visual literary materialists will discover a remarkable collection of graphic texts and scores that reward close looking. Young poets will find a sourcebook for creating and performing new language arts—determining for themselves what can be done.”

Book review: Artifice and Indeterminacy


Artifice and Indeterminacy: An anthology of new poetics
Christopher Beach, editor
U of Alabama Press. 1998. 354 pp.
Modern and contemporary poetics series
Charles Bernstein and Hank Lazer, editors

Anthologies devoted to experimental poetry, avant-garde poetry, postmodern poetry, innovative poetry, and outside poetry have increased recognition of marginalized poets. This volume extends that work while taking a different approach, offering an anthology not of their poems, but of their poetics.

Editor Christopher Beach gathered these essays to demonstrate the range of thinking about poetry in the last two decades of the 20th century, from writers as diverse as Barrett Watten, Bob Perelman, Charles Bernstein, David Antin, Hank Lazer, James Sherry, John Taggart, Leslie Scalapino, Lyn Hejinian, Maria Damon, Marjorie Perloff, Michael Davidson, Nathaniel Mackey, Rachel Blau Duplessis, Rae Armantrout, Ron Silliman, Steve Mccaffery, and Susan Howe.

These poets have produced texts that can be read in dialogue with varied disciplines, Beach says, including critical theory, cultural studies, feminism and gender studies, aesthetics, literary history, and media studies.

The book’s four sections represent issues that relate to the practice of contemporary avant-garde poets.
Section one brings together a group of essays concerned with form, language, and the communicative potential of poetry.Section two articulates these expanded possibilities through a set of concerns that is less directly formal or linguistic.
Section three demonstrates the extent to which poetry and poetics can engage in a project of political critique, or serve as an arena for exploring basic questions about political thought and action.
Section four presents essays that offer models for a feminist or gender-inflected poetics and that ask complex questions about the intersection of poetics and gender.

Book review: Contemporary Poetics

contemporary poetics

Contemporary Poetics.
Edited by Louis Armand.
Northwestern University Press.
Avant Garde and Modernism Studies
Rainer Rumold and Marjorie Perloff, series editors
2007. 396 p.

This challenging and engaging book does not claim to be ‘about’ poetics or about a systematic theory or doctrine of poetry. Rather, it offers a collection of critical essays that aim to broadly delineate a possible ‘poetics of the contemporary.’
Editor Louis Armand is himself a poet, and directs the InterCultural Studies program at the Philosophy Faculty of Charles University, Prague. Armand’s books include The Garden, Malice in Underland, Strange Attractors, and various critical works.

A ‘poetics of the contemporary,’ Arman writes, both “responds to and seeks to account for the contemporary (and consequently technological) emplacement of language and the material basis of this emplacement as an ‘object’ of poetic investigation, practice, and technique—from the historical advent of concrete poetry to the current technopoetics of cyberspace.”

The international and interdisciplinary set of contributors includes Alan Sondheim, Allen Fisher, Augusto De Campos, Bob Perelman, Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, Darren Tofts, Donald F. Theall, Gregory L. Ulmer, J. Hillis Miller, Keston Sutherland, Kevin Nolan, Louis Armand, Marjorie Perloff, Mckenzie Wark, Michel Delville and Andrew Norris, Ricardo L. Nirenberg, Simon Critchley, D.J. Huppatz, and Steve Mccaffery.

The sense of the term ‘contemporary poetics’ as it is used in this volume, Armand writes, “rests neither in the delineation of a specific period or epoch nor in a ‘present’ conceived in terms of it, but rather of a ‘condition’ of writing—of the poetic enterprise—which is both historical and attuned to the radical co-implication of poetics and the ‘present time of writing.’”

‘Contemporary poetics’ is not thereby constituted by any particular style or aesthetic but by a particular regard for those conditions under which language happens, Armand continues. “For this reason, the present volume focuses both on poetics as critique and in terms of the historical record … while primarily concerning itself with addressing the notion of ‘a poetics of the contemporary’ in which so-called theory is not divorced from praxis but rather hybrid forms provide contours of emergence of a ‘time of writing’ – in other words, of a ‘contemporary poetics.’”

“Computerized hypertext and the increasingly mobile, wireless interface allow us to envisage in concrete terms the structural contours of a fourth linguistic dimension, between the quasi-infinite and the infinitesimal, as a network of instantaneity between all signifying ‘moments,’ Armand writes. “The awareness of such possibilities leads the concerns of poetics to broaden far beyond the task of elaborating poetic technique to the much more considerable task of accounting for the generative technics of language per se.”

Book review. Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word

close listening

Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word.
Edited by Charles Bernstein
Oxford U Press, 1998. 390 pp.

What do poetry slams have in common with traditional poetry readings?
More than one may think.

Close Listening, edited by Charles Bernstein, offers 17 perspectives on how contemporary poetry has been practiced as a performance art. Nearly ten years after its initial publication, this book remains fresh and stimulating.

Much literary criticism has neglected the auditory and performance aspects of the poem, Bernstein writes. But a poem’s sound and its meaning are aspects of each other, neither prior, neither independent.

This collection of essays argues against the assumption that a poem’s text is primary, while a poet’s performance of the poem is secondary, and fundamentally inconsequential to the “poem itself.” Bernstein observes that, in a poetry performance, explicit value is placed almost exclusively on the acoustic production of a single unaccompanied speaking voice.

Steve McCaffery writes about the ‘sound poem’ as an uncompromising effort at abstraction. Its primary goal is “the liberation and promotion of the phonetic and subphonetic features of language.”

Maria Damon notes that contemporary ‘open mic’ readings trace their origins back at least as far as the 1950s. At a San Francisco club called The Place, anyone could take the floor one night a week, but had to “withstand the heckling and other spontaneous, unpolished feedback from the audience.”

Johanna Drucker discusses the concept of orchestrating verbal language through visual means. She reproduces pages of work by the likes of Kurt Schwitters, Henri Chopin, John Cage, and Jackson Mac Low. Their graphical poems sometimes worked as a record of a performed piece, sometimes as its point of departure.

Contributors include Bruce Andrews, Marjorie Perloff, Ron Silliman, Susan Howe, and others; some performers in their own right.