Raptive vex me a merge eneral guistic

Book review: Designated Heartbeat.
Bruce Andrews.
Salt Publishing, 2006.

Designated Heartbeat collects a decade of Bruce Andrews’s shorter poems, which explode language and invite us to sift through the rubble, almost daring us to construct meaning.

Andrews loves wordplay and supplies lots of neologisms and neo-phrasisms. If, for example, you deminimaleyes the overword you’ll find phasized servo-machinists unchassising their surreptitular simulants. But such rope-a-dotage and contaminatal flagrance may cause rigor mantis if allowed to deliriumvirate circumnugatory loinwords. So besideswipe the anti-oxidintal desdemonad.

His poem “Definition” is a troubling and hysterically dysfunctional dictionary.

Andrews delights in fracturing folklorisms and twisting truisms, at times nearly measuring distance out in time spoons. After all, no disappointment without proportional representation, at least on this planet of the napes. I’m a testcase, you’re a testcase, thus the center cannot bleed for whom the plate rises. So let those without skin cast the first rip-up.

His poem “Danger risk hazard jeopardy peril” presents blocks of text made of apparently random sequences of words. But random they are not. The poem is “a translation and rearranging from Spanish of the piece PELIGRO which ‘translates’ by rearrangement of word by word materials, an earlier piece JEOPARDY into Spanish.”

To sum up, the more you know about pop music, in your own sweet way, the more you’ll want to do the mobile popcorn, at least until the end of the beguining. I have indeed listened to the mother inattention, honey honey, so I’ll lie if I want to.


Hummingbird’s tumbling!

A Voweller’s Bestiary: From aardvark to guineafowl (and H)
JonArno Lawson
Porcupine’s Quill, 2008. 90 p.

Taking cues from Dr. Seuss, Richard Wilbur, bp Nichol, Christian Bo:k and others, JonArno Lawson offers a book for children (and their adults) based on a love of wordplay and the self-imposed restrictions of the lipogram—words and sentences using only a limited set of vowels.

A Voweller’s Bestiary is an alphabet book based on vowel combinatiuons, rather than initial letters.

Iguana burial rituals
Causing iguanas
Spiritual anguish.


Aloof racoons gambol across woodlands
Accost stoats, goad toads
Loaf among oaks, swallow acorns,
Also oats.
Wanton racoon oafs, amok
Adopt gloam’s cloak:
Roam along
Afloat almost.

Add to these lighthearted poems Lawson’s charming illustrations and you have a book that will delight children as it teaches them about the sounds of language.

Distant reading

Book Review
Distant Reading: Performance, readership, and consumption in contemporary poetry.
Peter Middleton.
U of Alabama Press. 2005. 241 pages.

Here in Madison Wisconsin I read a book that was written by someone who lives and teaches in the United Kingdom and that was published by the University of Alabama Press in Tuscaloosa.

Peter Middleton would argue that these geographical distances shape my reading of the text, and that they compose part of the book’s textual memory. They are part of its ‘long biography.’

More to the point of this book: Poems, too, have long biographies. And they have distances. A poem’s biography, and its distance, are shaped not only by geography but also by the venues in which it is performed, by the number of its of readers, and by all its publications and critical responses.

Middleton proposes the concept of ‘distant reading’ as an antidote to the practice of ‘close reading’ which, he argues, is far out of date. Why? Because close readings involve narrowly conceived literary political debates and restricted canons of examples. Close readings limit the available languages and concepts for discussing how a poem’s meaning may appear.

In addition, the concept of ‘close reading’ is misguided because one cannot locate the meaning of a contemporary poem in a singular, solitary encounter between one printed manifestation of the text and one sensitive reader. Rather, a contemporary poem produces its meaning across networks of readers, performance, intertexts, and visual presentation.

Middleton’s challenging book, Distant Reading, makes this point over a series of chapters that, in various ways, emphasize the sonic quality of language and the importance of performance in poetry.

In fact, he argues a poem is never “finished.” A poem is the totality of its ongoing historical activity. Much of that activity will never be recorded in writing and could not be known in its entirety.

The ‘work’ of a poem, Middleton argues, is not some meaning or assertion contained in the uttered text. Rather, a poem’s work is the entire field of interaction in which performance occurs. Performance extends, complicates, and sometimes transforms a poem’s meaning. Oral performance makes possible an ‘extended semantic repertoire’ in which poetry fulfills more of its potentialities. “Each poetry reading represents a collective effort to create something out of written texts that is still unarticulated,” he says.

In fact, Middleton argues, the audience and the poet collaborate in the performance. An audience is not simply a collection of autonomous individuals with independent experiences of the spoken poem. Rather, the performance event forms the audience. The performance creates an intersubjective network, which then becomes an element in the poem itself.

Were I to publish this book in a second edition, I would include an audio CD of contemporary poets reading their recent work. Given the book’s emphasis on performance, the inclusion of audio material would be logical and helpful.

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.