Saturday, January 29, 2011

Drug/Alcohol Detox Pharmacology

i. Date [ptolemaic]

(concerning methods of visualizing human
dissociative reactions, as well as various ways
of enhancing distraction) this poem is intended
to answer as many questions as it typically fails
to deliver. Generally speaking

ii. Patient's name [archaic]

iii. Name of medication [prosaic]

as an uptake inhibitor, it consists of seven
titled five-line stanzas. These can be read
in any voice whatsoever. Four of the stanzas
use language and syntax, three of them
are invisible. The purely invisible stanzas

iv. Strength of medication [cyrenaic]

v. Dosage [apotropaic]

are the active ingredients of this poem
and contain no information about the psychogenic
functions they depict because it seems
to the committee of pharmacologists through whom
the poem originated that such information might

vi. Route of delivery [faradaic]

vii. Duration [paradisaic]

distract from the affect being delivered.
In all instances, however, this information
can be found in the gist of what is being inferred
(located in an undisclosed location.) At no time
should anything be read into this inference.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Revolt of the Elites?

Today I read an essay from the editors of n+1 called “Revolt of the Elites” What I found interesting – aside from its compelling and balanced analysis of the anti-intellectual climate in America today – was its mention of the practice of articulate language and analysis as a marker for those who are most often dismissed by the political right as being out of touch with the “real world.”

You know the story: liberal universities under the control of elitist, intellectual professors are not only indoctrinating our young people into a culture of politically correct ideology, they are also corrupting government policy, the constitution, and nearly every other traditional American institution in their quest for a one world socialist government. Or something to that effect.

As if a life of intense study, competitive discourse, intellectual discipline, and the ability to express insightful, hard-earned perspectives on relevant issues specific to a field of academic study somehow disqualifies a person when it comes to debating serious political issues. Or, from a different angle, as if people of immense wealth, power, or economic influence were more in tune with the daily lives of ordinary people.

In other words, the boogey man is not the guy who outsourced your place of employment, started a war, or received a multi-million dollar bonus after collapsing the economy. Instead, s/he has a PhD in the social sciences and s/he’s out to get you.

But, all sarcasm aside, here’s a few excerpts and a link to the article:
“Has any concept more completely defined and disfigured public life over the last generation than so-called elitism? Ever since Richard Nixon’s speechwriters pitted a silent majority (later sometimes “the real America”) against the nattering nabobs of negativism (later “tenured radicals,” the “cultural elite,” and so on), American political, aesthetic, and intellectual experience can only be glimpsed through a thickening fog of culture war. And the fog, very often, has swirled around a single disreputable term.
“The first thing to note is the migration of the word elite and its cognates away from politics proper and into culture …”
“… Certain varieties of culture — and politics — are much more likely to get branded elitist than others. It’s striking, for instance, how few complaints one hears about the elitism of movie, TV, or pop music production, when these usually require millions of dollars to get off the ground. Equally few protests are uttered about the barriers to entry in running political advertisements. In fact it seems to be especially with reference to basically verbal spheres — spoken or written words addressed to a general audience, and politics as a matter of public debate rather than practical state coercion — that elitism most often comes up …”
 [Click here to read the whole article]

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A case of the missing article

Over the years, I've noticed a tendency for grammatical articles to go missing in poems that I would otherwise consider well-written. Sometimes the omission seems perfectly fine – it creates a nuanced effect that demonstrates an awareness of both sound and grammar in the structure of a compelling poem. Sometimes this practice might even create a sense of dissonance, working to develop a poem's mood, voice, or submerged problematic in a way that enhances the conceptual structure of what's being advanced in a poem's complicated sense of meaning.

Too frequently, however, the omission seems like a fad, a pretense toward style  as if this purposeful violation of English grammar were only an excuse to demonstrate an edgy sort of experimentation with language. In other words, a superficial emphasis that distracts from a poem's over all effect rather than integrating with its structural, semantic, or aesthetic substance.

Almost as often, though, I suspect that I might not be reading some poems closely enough, thus allowing my biases to interfere with a genuine appreciation of what's really going on. For instance, I'm about to embark on a long sentence-by-sentence conversation with an essay by Adam Fieled ("The Conspiracy against Poems," published in The Argotist Online) and thought I should at least look at a few examples of his poetry first. Which led me to "Concentrate!" – found here (among other poems by this writer) at Moria Poetry.

Because I felt that Fieled's essay was rather biased, I suspect I let my own biases and irritation bleed over into an initial reading of his poetry, particularly when I detected an example of my own pet peeve in these lines:

streets surreal w/ coffee-shops (open at eleven),
      so we go, get coffee, a brownie, sit
on curb / baltimore ave. near clark park--

Despite this poem's consistent deployment of minimalist grammar, notation, and abbreviation – which I found interesting and effective, by the way – the result of "sit / on curb" (and a few other similar examples that were softened by context and the addition of modifiers) was, for me, an immediate sense of irritation. As in, "Oh Christ, here we go again with the trendy stand-alone nouns."

But in this case, I was moved to re-think my bias against the missing article. Is it really such a trendy pretense toward style, or is there something else going on that I need to evaluate? Looking at the poem as a whole, I notice that I tripped over its grammatical dissonance in just the right place. With my attention settled on this curb, I now get a very effective sense of perspective in which the poem's earlier images are allowed to coalesce, as well as a contextualized position that heightens the verbal imagery of the poem's later observations. In other words, the omission of an article serves this poem by directing me to sit down and "experience" a poetic environment of efficiently sketched imagery and human involvement.

And it's a very pleasant experience, I might add.

So, what's the point of this post? I really haven't changed my opinion on the trendy omission of articles before singular-tense nouns, but I might think twice when encountering this device, especially when I recognize my own knee-jerk tendency to prematurely dismiss a poem for reasons that can sometimes be attributed to aesthetic or intellectual bias.

Which is to say, if we really care about poetry, we need to be aware of the blinders we sometimes wear while reading it. And then we need to take them off.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Five tanka

between a violent
storm and sunset
the fish beneath my knife
stares, unblinking

on a beach
of receding tides
draws its line
so gracefully

this nameless passion
in the autumn wind
unlike fate
escapes me

in the shadow of reeds
a mud bank
the rhythm of rain
hitting water

with his silver coin
an old man scowls
at his stooped reflection
in the wishing well

Thursday, January 20, 2011

"Crazy doesn't need a motive"

The quote that titles this blog post comes from Michelle Malkin, prominent writer for the conservative spin machine known as The National Review. She is, of course, referring to the recent killings in Tucson and the follow-up debate concerning the current state of American political discourse.

The immediate facts of this tragedy are undisputed: a solitary man with a semi-automatic weapon attempted to assassinate his own congressional representative at a public event and, in the process, also shot 18 others, killing six. The follow-up debate concerns allegations of 1) the complicity of violent and inflammatory rhetoric from the right in recent years (with Arizona being a particular hot spot) and 2) inappropriate efforts by the left to capitalize politically from this tragic event by asserting the previous allegation – particularly as it applies to the graphical gun sights on Sarah Palin's controversial get-out-the-vote map.

I know this topic doesn't necessarily belong in a poetry blog, but last Monday I wrote a letter to the editor of my local paper (in reply to another) and, as of today, I'm pretty sure it isn't going to be published. Which seems like a terrible waste of the time I spent writing it. So, I thought I'd post it here, preceded by the letter that instigated it.

After all, this is MY blog, and hardly anyone ever reads it anyway.


Minneapolis Star Tribune
Monday, January 17, 2011
I've finally figured out why Democrats and the media have such disdain -- even hatred -- for Sarah Palin. To the left, she is what the Soviet Union was to the United States during the Cold War and what terrorists are to the U.S. now -- a common enemy, someone to fear.
By making people fearful of the Soviet Union and terrorists, the U.S. government has been able to accomplish its goals. By demonizing Palin, the Democrats are attempting to convince their masses that Republicans are simply evil.
The anti-Palin sentiment goes much farther than simple disagreement with her political views, which, by the way, mirror those of many other high-profile Republicans. It has become frighteningly personal.
Democrats, Sarah Palin is one woman. Your energy would be better spent on more constructive efforts than making her a symbolic enemy. It accomplishes nothing.

My response, written that same Monday (as yet unpublished):
Apparently, liberals are obsessed with hating Sarah Palin. So, to the writer of Monday's letter, I'll say yes, Sarah Palin is only one woman - but she also has a very large and influential megaphone. From accusations of government "death panels" to the sarcasm of "How's that hopey changey thing working out for ya?" Sarah Palin has made a lucrative career out of her ability to generate contempt for government and liberal politicians.
But she doesn't work alone. Consider Rush Limbaugh ("Liberalism is an ideology built on lies"), Glenn Beck ("[Obama] has a deep-seated hatred for white people") or the title of Ann Coulter's 2003 book: Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism. In tandem with these pundits and like-minded others, Palin actively works to incite hatred against liberals. Even former Republican Rep. Robin Hayes of North Carolina got in on the action in 2008 when he proclaimed "liberals hate real Americans that work and accomplish and achieve and believe in God." But do they really, or is this just part of the conservative game plan?
Were liberals out of line for taking offense when Palin trained rhetorical gun sights on congressional seats held by Democrats, then revisiting that offense when a gun finally went off? We all know the name of Jared Loughner now, but do we also remember the names of Joshua Cartwright, John Bedell, James von Brunn, or Jim Adkisson? Not likely. Each of them are mentally disturbed extemists who have opened fire on liberal targets in the last two years. How about Byron Williams, a Beck devotee who sought to assasinate wokers at two liberal institutions last July? Is this form of hatred somehow less significant than a liberal's vocal disdain for Palin and her ilk?
When conservative pundits grow wealthy by routinely throwing gasoline on the fire of their listeners' rage, fears of violence can (and do) become reality. Perhaps Sarah Palin and her posse could "man up" to the consequences of their reckless rhetoric while also acknowledging that liberals are indeed "real Americans" who take the responsibilities of politics and government very seriously. Until then, I don't see things changing much.

Frankly, this kind of stuff drives me crazy – and I don't need a "motive," at least not for the purpose of formulating an intelligent, well-informed opinion. But when I think about the kind of rhetoric being passed off as "truth" by well-paid pundits on the right, I don't have any trouble discerning motive. In fact, I think it's downright crazy when people like Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck pretend they have no ulterior or ideological motive in making the kind of fraudulent statements they frequently make – and then expect us to believe them.

Partisan ideology, you see, is the province of the left. On the right they are concerned only with "reality," "truth" and "common sense."

Concerning the so-called "crazies," I've heard it said that people who suffer from schizophrenia are not illogical so much as they are people who apply an intense logic built from increasingly faulty assumptions at odds with objective reality. Attending a similar public event several years before this tragedy, Jared Loughner reportedly asked Gabrielle Giffords, "What is government if words have no meaning?" For Michelle Malkin and her like-minded associates, apparently words don't have meaning – at least not when someone tries to hold right-wing ideologues accountable for what they have said.

Even so, it's pretty clear that Jared Loughner was an unstable individual who may very well have done what he did regardless of the inflammatory rhetoric that has embroiled our political environment. In other words, political pundits don't kill people, people do. Which is to say other people – as in "crazies."

But it seems kind of funny that the same political faction that connects Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf to al Queda (remember "the ground zero mosque"?) is now sensitive to liberal critiques that zero in on a right-wing political call to arms that is accompanied by regular occurrences of "patriots" brandishing their weaponry (both physically and rhetorically) while shouting, "we're not afraid to use them, either!"

So, perhaps as a nation we could at least agree to stop slandering the opposition and instead commit ourselves to engaging in meaningful debate that sticks to the issues and works toward serious solutions for the problems we face as a nation – or would that be too radical, even crazy? But seriously, the political right is currently asserting that "hate" has no legitimate place in the political arena. My question is, can they live up to that sentiment?

[In the meantime, please pardon my rhetorical flourishes.]

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Ways of Seeing

A number of years ago, I read a brilliant book by John Berger called Ways of Seeing. Originally produced as a series of visual essays for BBC television, the book raises serious questions about the power of visual imagery to instill ideological norms and behaviors into our collective mindset. Tracing these patterns through the traditions of Western art, Ways of Seeing demonstrates the ways in which these 'normalizing' traditions continue to act through the barage of marketing imagery we encounter every day.

In other words, it's a very interesting book - a favorite I revisit often.

Yesterday, while scanning the contents at UbuWeb, I stumbled across some video links to the BBC production (which I've never seen before) and thought a link would be worth sharing. So, if anyone else is interested, here it is: Ways of Seeing

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

69, 70

When writing my last post, I completely forgot about a novel I needed to read - 69, 70 by Natalija Grgorinic and Ognjen Raden, available from Brown Paper Publishing. It arrived in the mail last Saturday, and I'm only about a quarter of the way through, but the story of how the book came to me, and how it was written, is almost as interesting as the book itself. So I thought I'd write a little bit about it.

Late in December, while browsing through the forums at a writers networking site (The Sphere), I found an announcement for a book club in which the publisher (Brown Paper Publishing) would send out a free edition from its catalog in exchange for a reader's feedback to the book's author(s). Even though I have a stack of unread books that every week grows increasingly taller on my bedside table, I thought it was an interesting concept and something I'd enjoy participating in. So I sent an email to the publisher, Pablo D'Stair, who promptly replied that I'd made it into the first group of readers.

Prior to receiving the book, I did a brief internet search of its authors, reading a blurb for an earlier book, Mr. & Mrs. Hyde, in which I noted the unusual concept at the heart of this duo's practice: "Having sworn to always write as a team, the authors are completing a dissertation at Case Western Reserve on the history and practice of collaborative writing." While I've read collaborative poems, and even participated in a few, I don't recall ever coming across a novel written in this fashion.

Though such a practice doesn't appeal much to a writer like me, the results are intriguing. Thus far, 69, 70 interweaves Grgorinic's and Raden's two voices almost seamlessly into a rather distinct voice of its own. Though the book routinely alternates between the perspective of its primary (and seemingly biographical) male and female characters, I can't help but wonder if its authors alternate between writing the gendered roles in an effort to further explore the intimate, combined "self" at the book's core.

Beyond these thoughts - which are not at all a distraction from the book's occasionally self-referential narrative - 69, 70 is an almost mad rush of interrelational streams of consciousness that redeem its purposeful excess by rewarding a reader with the regular occurrence of well-stated, sometimes hilarious moments of social observation and postmodern reflection.

It's a difficult book to describe - one in which readers of traditional narrative might easily become lost, bored, or maybe even derisive - but it's also a book that makes me laugh out loud at least once on every page. Not because it is necessarily all that funny, or a comedic novel, but because some of the clauses in the frequently long and rambling sentences that make up the novel's structure are so well-formed and insightful that I take absolute delight in their reading. I don't know if this book is for everyone - and I seriously doubt it is intended to be - but if you enjoy novels that aren't afraid to experiment and take bold chances on narrative structure, it's worth a look.

As for the collaborative practice of writing, I'm fairly impressed. If such an idea strikes your fancy as a writer, check out the authors' website for Admit Two. You may find a potential publishing home for your own collaborative ventures.

Friday, January 14, 2011

What I've been reading lately

I've come to an impasse in my discussion on Paul Fry's theory of "the ostensive moment." Not because I've encountered dead ends or run out of ways to look at it, but because I've stumbled across too many pertinent lines of thought and am being drawn into theoretical areas where my own knowledge is severely lacking. In other words, I'm overwhelmed by all the things I want to write about.

For instance, in my last post on this subject, I briefly related Fry's ostension to Zbigniew Herbert's preference for a poetry of "semantic transparency." Subsequently, I wanted to contrast those thoughts with Roman Jakobson's ideas on the poetic function of communicative language as detailed in his essay "Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics" (pdf).

In Jakobson's line of reasoning, the poetic function serves as dominant within an act of communication when the intentional focus (and play) of language turns toward the structural attributes of the message itself  - a sort of self-referentiality from which the message derives both form and force of meaning. To deepen my understanding of that concept, I've also been studying excerpts from Jakobson's "Poetry of Grammar and Grammar of Poetry", an essay that clarifies the realities of an aesthetic logic that builds from the interrelation of grammatical patterns at the structural core of a poem. What interests me here is the way in which these patterns frequently work in an almost unconscious manner - we perceive and take pleasure in their effect even if we aren't fully cognizant of their structural origins.

Since beginning this project, I've also wanted to explore "the ostensive moment" through the lens of Maurice Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology of language - a topic that I am still unable to articulate clearly. Toward the end of improving my understanding, I've been reading an excellent summary of Mereau-Ponty's philosophy by Lawrence Hass entitled, aptly enough, Merleau-Ponty's Philosophy. Following this line of thought, I'm interested in the manner by which a poetic utterance can be sublimated through a poet's efforts to solve aesthetic problems encountered in the creation of a poem - or, more simply, what it is within the practice of language that makes a particularly effective poem "speak beyond its words."

In the meantime, of course, I still haven't obtained an actual copy of Paul Fry's book, A Defense of Poetry: Reflections on the Occasions of WritingThus far, I've relied on isolated quotes obtained from a partial reading on Google Books, as well as a number of different book reviews. Though I found some affordable used copies online, I think I'll probably wait a bit because, well, I've got a lot of other stuff I'm reading right now. And I'm a very slow reader.

Beyond that, I'm in a neighborhood book club and need to read The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning (by James Lovelock) as soon as possible. And I've been doing a semi-regular reading of conservative philosophers and thinkers that I normally find obnoxious, e.g. Ayn Rand, Leo Strauss, and various writers at The National Review. Why? Because I want to know what fuels the current reactionary trends in American politics. And I want to know how to argue effectively against it.

Not that anybody will be listening, of course, but that's beside the point.

[I say "I" an awful lot in this post. I'm sure Ayn Rand would approve.]

Beyond all this, I want to begin writing some poetry reviews. Currently, I'm looking at the latest issues of Gutter Eloquence, Right Hand Pointing, and  DIAGRAM, as well as Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth: Poems 2004–2006 by Adrienne Rich. One of the major reasons I started this blog was that it would force me to learn how to write effective and intelligent prose. And, because I'm most involved in poetry, I want to apply that skill (when it eventually emerges) toward reviewing contemporary poetry. Toward that end, I've been reading an awful lot of reviews by Marjorie Perloff - which is intimidating as hell.

But seriously - if you don't set your sights high, what's the point?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Discovered at Silliman's blog ...

... an audio recording of Allen Ginsberg reading "Howl" at Reed College in 1956.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

"Semantic transparency"

Some time ago, over Thanksgiving, I met a friend of my son (Piotr, from Poland) who had an avid interest in poetry and was enthusiastic about the poet Zbigniew Herbert. One of the poems he shared with us that evening was “Report from the Besieged City” – a remarkable poem, even in translation.

Later, I read the Wikipedia article on Herbert and came across a quote that stuck in the back of my head:

"So not having pretensions to infallibility, but stating only my predilections, I would like to say that in contemporary poetry the poems that appeal to me the most are those in which I discern something I would call a quality of semantic transparency (a term borrowed from Husserl's logic). This semantic transparency is the characteristic of a sign consisting in this: that during the time when the sign is used, attention is directed towards the object denoted, and the sign itself does not hold the attention. The word is a window onto reality."

As a concept, this seems to fit right in with Paul Fry’s reasoning about “the ostensive moment,” in which he states that ostension “"is that indicative gesture toward reality which precedes and underlies the construction of meaning. It is ... the deferral of knowledge by the disclosure, as a possibility, that existence can be meaning free."

At the time I read the Herbert quote, my reaction was somewhat skeptical – I don’t entirely believe in the concept of “semantic transparency.” Why? Because there are so many unconscious layers of socialized meanings that infiltrate every word and image we encounter. Still, I get the drift of what he is saying and don't entirely disagree either.

In terms of poetry, Herbert is basically talking about an aesthetic choice to let the words mean what they say while eschewing historicized (and esoteric) modes of symbolic intent as a method of creating meaningful poetry. But it’s only a matter of emphasis:

we look in the face of hunger the face of fire face of death
worst of all - the face of betrayal
and only our dreams have not been humiliated

In Herbert’s case, as exemplified by this final stanza of the poem referred to earlier, historic events are inferred through a contextualization of signs that emphasizes human experience as being more meaningful than the events themselves. This practice does not seek the “universal truths” of romanticized philosophy (and ideology) but rather focuses on forms of experience endemic to the human condition.

How does this relate to my discussion of Paul Fry and literary ostension? According to Herbert, “The word is a window onto reality,” while according to Fry, ostension is an “indicative gesture toward reality which precedes and underlies the construction of meaning.” In other words, they are both saying the same thing: by denoting real objects in a context that refuses to layer second order significations onto the sign, a poet attempts to create a text which draws its force of meaning from objective reality.

I don’t necessarily disagree, but in paraphrasing these thoughts, I can’t help but think of possible objections. For instance, “poetry” is in itself a meaning-laden context that acts on the signs of its own creation. Further, the subjective position of a poet, in choosing both sign and context, also plays a significant role in the unacknowledged creation of connotative meaning. Further yet, the subjective position of poets can never be entirely free from their own inherited position within a society, i.e. this is an issue of habitus: an ingrained, socialized disposition toward ideas and beliefs about reality.

None of this, however, delegitimizes ideas about ostension or “semantic transparency”  at least not in my mind. As argued by Paul Fry and exemplified by Zbigniew Herbert (and others) in the practice of poetry, words may indeed be used in a contextualized, denotative manner that allows human experience to be simulated in a significant way via language. And, further, the apprehension of these contextualized words allows us, as readers, to construct meaning in a manner similar to everyday experience, i.e. the poem demonstrates what it signifies: human experience.

When Fry writes about “the ostensive moment,” I believe he is speaking of an effect of poetry that gives us pause. We "feel" (or perceive) something that is not fully conveyed by words alone. The particular way in which a poet solves the aesthetic problem of creating verbal images  and how this solution is expressed  works to sublimate the utterance in which the image is signified, i.e. the words add up to more than the sum of their denotations. They create an experience.

Personally, I believe this "experience" is due more to the intricacies of context than it is to the supposedly non-connotative use of words, but I can't deny that the practice of ostension plays a significant role in the development of an effective structure that spawns "the ostensive moment" of Fry's "preconceptual" experience.

Frequently, we take experiences of language for granted. What both Fry and Herbert seem to indicate is that the discernible experience generated from imagistic poetry is not confined to language or concept, but instead  through a play of human consciousness, perhaps?  it moves beyond these confines into a near-objective experience of the world that is only instigated by language.

Interesting thoughts, to say the least. But I can't help but have some reservations.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

aesthetic Canons

Aesthetic canons:
An unusual production
A painstaking theory
Arborized with the development
A simultaneous pull
A two-fold pressure
Bound to everyday life
Concrete work with materials and media
Deformed, atrophied
Foregrounding the process itself
Hung on the Wall
Modes of sensory perception
Privilege the signifier
Relinquishing political commitment
Spoiled of its purpose
The avant-garde tradition
The spectator's attention
Visual pleasures and the subject position
What is being expressed in the decoration


What is being expressed in the decoration
Visual pleasures and the subject position
The spectator's attention
The avant-garde tradition
Spoiled of its purpose
Relinquishes political commitment
Privileging the signified
Modes of sensory perception
Hung on the Wall
Foregrounding the process itself
Deformed, atrophied
Concrete work with materials and media
Bound to everyday life
A two-fold pressure
A simultaneous pull
Arborized with the development
A painstaking theory
An unusual production:
Aesthetic canons