Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Decontextualized Barthes Quote

a x 4
all x 2
and x 2
are x 1
as x 1
be x 1
but x 2
by x 1
drawn x 1
field x 1
from x 1
he x 1
holds x 1
in x 3
is x 9
its x 2
lies x 1
lost x 1
made x 1
make x 1
not x 2
of x 4
on x 1
one x 1
place x 2
said x 1
space x 1
text x 2
text's x 1
that x 3
the x 9
them x 1
there x 1
this x 2
thus x 1
up x 1
was x 1
where x 1
which x 2
who x 1
yet x 1

any x 2
author x 1
being x 1
cannot x 1
cultures x 1
focused x 1
inscribed x 1
into x 1
longer x 1
many x 1
reader x 3
revealed x 1
simply x 1
single x 1
someone x 1
total x 1
traces x 1
without x 2
written x 1
writing x 2
writings x 1

dialogue x 1
entering x 1
existence x 1
history x 1
hitherto x 1
multiple x 1
mutual x 1
origin x 1
parody x 1
personal x 1
quotations x 1
relations x 1
together x 1
unity x 1

biography x 1
constituted x 1
contestation x 1
destination x 2
psychology x 1

multiplicity x 1

--Roland Barthes, "La Mort de l'auteur"

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Does it wake us up?

Over the past few months, I've pretty much fallen away from all things "poetic." I'm trying to get back on track, but I've been immersed in an addictive relationship to political blogs while trying to figure out what the hell is wrong with the American public. As in, why is this country so DYSFUNCTIONAL and downright INSANE?

Or is it only me? In an effort to break out of this funk, I've been catching up with a few poetry blogs. Imagine how happy I was to find this bit of wisdom over at Lemon Hound:
Life is complicated. If you’re looking for doily making, contemporary poetry is no place for you. In order to write poetry one has to be immersed, and then pull back.
Well, okay. I've been immersed in the complications of contemporary life and I'm currently in the process of trying to pull back. Because I need to find a FOCUS if I'm going to make any sense of this world and write some poetry that reflects that sense. But--assuming that I'll be successful (eventually)--what do I want this poetry to look or feel like? Lemon Hound has an answer for that too:
Over on the CBC Canada Reads book talk the other day a poet said that contemporary poetry “terrified” her students. Wow, I thought, what is she reading? I want some of that. Because I don’t think there’s enough poetry out there terrifying us. Or making us feel, or think.
For my part, I guess it comes back to a question of thinking. Is the poem offering us a way to think about something? Does it wake us up? Because it seems to me, that’s one of poetry’s great tasks.
As far as I'm concerned, that just about sums it up.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Who made Grover Norquist President?

As of Thursday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Republican Senate Whip Jon Kyl have abandoned bipartisan negotiations to raise the Federal Debt limit and prevent the United States government from defaulting on its obligations.

Negotiations wouldn't even be necessary except that the House of Representatives, under Republican control, refuses to raise the debt limit unless serious progress is made to reduce long-term deficits. Never mind that a large portion of the national debt arose from Republican legislation passed during the Bush years (two wars, two major tax cuts, Medicare part D), with Cantor and Kyl voting "yea" on each, adding $4.6 trillion of unfunded debt.

Democrats are committed to reducing the deficit via a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, but Republicans refuse to consider revenue as an important part of that equation. Former Reagan official Bruce Bartlett lays out a pretty good case that the current Republican position is just plain ignorant.

Meanwhile, Kyle and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have released a statement that reads in part:
“President Obama needs to decide between his goal of higher taxes, or a bipartisan plan to address our deficit,” Mr. McConnell and Mr. Kyl said in a joint statement. “He can’t have both. But we need to hear from him.”
Steve Benens at the Washington Monthly has a good response to their intransigence here.

Apparently Republican legislators don't know what the word "bipartisan" means, nor do they appear to be interested in 1) reducing the Federal deficit, or 2) preventing the U.S. from defaulting on its obligations. Instead, they've walked out. Quit. Vamoose.

Why? Take a good look at Grover Norquist's "Taxpayer Protection Pledge." Read it closely then look at the list of those who are committed to uphold it. Toward the bottom, you'll notice that only 13 Republican legislators (out of 290) have--so far--refused to sign.

So I ask you, who made Grover Norquist president?

[Update: Apparently Mitt Romney just signed on too. Imagine that!]

[Additional update: Bruce Bartlett weighs in again with an excellent FACT-BASED article: Will Higher Taxes Tank the Economy? ]

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Page, the Spoken Word, and "Presence"

"Poetry does not reside in either page or oracular form"

Joe Weil, writing for The The poetry blog, recently grabbed my attention with that statement, as well as the opening paragraph in which it occurred:
I always think that a poem “off the page” becomes an “act” of language rather than a poem, a thing made out of words. As such, its visual appeal (or lack thereof) is lost, but its actions are magnified—how it moves within the act of being uttered. It is no longer a poem, but an act of language. By this way of thinking, even a modernist or post modernist poem—fully constructed for its visual as well [as] verbal appeal, even a poem as a “made thing” becomes an “act of language” when read aloud. Such poems often suffer when translated from the realm of the page to that of the heard text. They were not meant to be heard. They are of the cognitive brain, and their affective, animal body is absent except as a structure of intelligence. This does not mean they become bad poems, but it does mean they are at least, flawed acts of langauge. They have a paucity of repetition, rhetoric, and tone. They have little or no mimetic force. The page poem is not poetry. Rather it is a construct in which poesis may or may not occur. By the same token, neither is the uttered poem poetry. Poetry does not reside in either page or oracular form; poetry resides in something both caused by and beyond its words and this is true even when the poem is fully on the page as words. I call this something presence.
So, what is he saying? "Poetry" is not contained in either the written or the spoken word? And where then does it "reside"? According to Weil, it resides within an occurrence, which is to say that poetry - when it is successful - does something. More precisely, an effective poem creates an experience that can be conceptual, emotional, affective, paradoxical - or god knows what, or in what combination - but it does something that can't always be neatly summarized or reduced to a product of its technical details.

I agree that a poem on the page is received quite a bit differently than it is as spoken word (and this is where Weil's post eventually heads) but I'm not sure if I can agree that "a poem 'off the page' becomes an 'act' of language rather than a poem." Granted, to speak is a language act, but, in a way, so is the process of composing or reading a poem. The only difference is that the experience of a poem received from the page, i.e. read not heard, is an act that occurs in the radical absence of its author. To my mind, this gets right to the heart of that something that a good poem does: the language act specific to poetry springs from a particular contextualization (of words, sounds, and meanings) that does not require an author's presence to remain effective or dynamic.

And when I say "dynamic" I mean that a poem acts of its own accord, even if this act can only occur in the presence of a consciousness that can understand its words and appreciate the structure in which these words have been contextualized, i.e. a poem always requires someone's presence - a consciousness in which it might act - but it does not require the presence of its author in order to act.

Then again, any good piece of writing is effective in the absence of its author. So, what is this something in which Weil says "poetry" resides? Well, for reasons I'm not entirely sure of, he focuses on the specific nature of hearing a poem rather than reading it silently to oneself; and he notes the affective, animalistic attributes of spoken word poetry as opposed to the presumably more conceptual attributes of works written for the page. So, when he identifies this something as presence, I find it interesting that he focuses on the spoken word - as spoken by a poem's AUTHOR - as a way of exploring his notion of presence.

Much of Weil's post is spent examining one of his own poems in an effort to understand why an audience member who is already familiar with this poem "on the page" would hear it in an entirely new and unfamiliar light at a reading. After an analysis of the sound and semantic details of the poem's opening lines, he concludes that "there is nothing in this poem so far that makes it spoken word friendly."

I couldn't entirely agree. Here are the lines he cites:
The world takes us at its leisure
by increments of infamy
or “virtue.”
Contrary to his own analysis, it appears to me that the strength of these lines build from an integrated pattern of stresses, long and short vowel sounds, regular beats, assonance, near and internal rhymes, and a few strong words placed at emphasized positions within the poem's rhythm. In other words, I find these lines to be anything but unfriendly to a spoken word performance. It's not slam poetry, but it doesn't need to be; these lines are both wonderful to speak (and, presumably, to hear) even though visual elements are necessarily absent in a reading.

Still, this is Weil's take on his own poem. Assuming that there really is nothing here that would stand out at an author's reading - and Weil states quite clearly that he only reads a poem aloud, he does not 'perform' it - he concludes these thoughts by saying (among other things) "If I had to think what makes audiences like this poem, it is probably the presence of a consciousness moving from thing to thing ..."

Yeah, okay. He goes on to say:
So why would my voice, a voice that is reading, not performing, win over an audience. I don’t think the answer lies on either the page or in the performance. I think it lies in presence. Presence is of a body—a form. I become my poem or my poem becomes me, and this thing of the body transcends either entertainment in performance or the sight of the poem on the page. This is the magic of the conversational lyric.
That statement starts out interesting, but, in the end, it sounds like gibberish to me. I think he's missing a more relevant question, i.e. how does "presence" find itself being generated from a well-written poem (whether silently read or heard aloud) even (or especially) in the radical absence of its author? In other words, what is this mysterious something that makes a poem "poetry"? Reading a poem and hearing it read are indeed two entirely different ways of apprehending a text, but many poems manage to draw from different strengths and shine in both situations. They do this for any number of different reasons, but the point is that a poem (not its author) acts within the consciousness of those who apprehend it.

Further, when Weil states that a poem's "visual appeal ... is lost" in the act of reading aloud to an audience, but that in this situation its "actions are magnified," he is referring to the supposed "affective, animal body" of the spoken word or speech act - the sensation of language rather than its intellectual absorption. What I want to know is why he assumes visual elements don't also act on an audience in an affective, animalistic manner during the act of reading? If a person is really concerned about where "poetry resides" (which I'm not even sure is a particularly relevant question, e.g. its like asking where does color reside?) Weil's particular take seems to miss the mark entirely. For me, the question is: why is poetry "poetry" and how does it manage to act even in the absence of a consciousness of its own?

That's a structural question, but it "resides" within a poststructural context - poetry acts within a collective environment that is conditioned to appreciate specific attributes of language within an elaborately structured context that is simultaneously conceptual and affective. It's also a question of semiotics, linguistics, literary theory, aesthetics, and any other relevant field of study you might care to come up with. It's a question that asks how a structured piece of language can exhibit dynamic tendencies in the presence of an activating consciousness that is not its author. I could go on and on.

Still, "Joe Weil is a lecturer at SUNY Binghmaton [sic] and has several collections of poetry out there," while I'm a less-than-marginal poet who happens to write a blog. But I have to wonder: isn't "poetry" something more than a charismatic script that makes a poet shine at a reading?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

This liquid thing

this liquid thing
from adhesion to adhesion
I made for you
feels undetermined
like the way you recline
at an autopsy
distasteful but true

not much is legal
a delicate hole
a sky made from glass
almost like tomorrow
owl cores & flint chips
signs so faint
the pond freezes over

what was it I found
that crushes mountains?

if we were gods
only twice
two lines in the snow
a stark light
an oddity unworshipped
secretly in cahoots
a replacement for / sequence
no matter what anyone says
in public, like this
from giant rock piles
& I'm thinking lump sums
beneath the cushions
if there's an ocean
of theory & diagnostics &
linseed oil
my extraction

eventually someone found it
double double double
(one of us wept there)
as true as Gogol’s name
years passed
just behind his teeth
a werewolf in Moscow
drinking from an inappropriate
silver tankard, no doubt

on account of the weather

it has to do with the sea
these rumors
the troubles to come
I've seen things
if you're in the mood
the sky is getting heavier
with burlap & feathers
the jiggling proletariat
filleted & full of questions

since then I got better
like the reason behind the circumstances

a delicate aroma
wearing a towel
under the couch cushion
the movements / of our feet
the rest of us in the same boat
playing dead
a still life
for which we apologized
& flattered your long, slender legs
standing there on the back step
a laced nostalgia
with no scars or sackcloth
no poems or assets
for speaking lies to power
what does it mean?

not where but how & later
lazy, dripping
wrapped in fly paper
so careless about returning
a bumper crop
too heavy for grief

even though there was no policy
the ocean the ocean
why are you lingering in a churchyard
leaving cities
to your friends fed to fishes


in the middle
uprooted, in haste

fuels of unhappiness

lit up
in the mouth
& brain
a yellow moon
a few pieces of pumpkin
the scent of smoke
narrowed eyes

it was no big secret
shirt tails tucked out
on a trail marked with garbage
tall buildings
our fortunes & our sacred
pea brains / cheap plastic
except of course
when I look back from my counting
to the field full of cats
on the projector screen

I am waiting to discover

soup in a fishbowl
a fresh ballot
a welcome mat
of waste & of waste's god
moving parts

but they don't mix
sexophone orange lace flannel
that follows you
to reunite
in the bathroom
through the turnstile
the mover said
over there
leaving no trail
behind / in the watershed

it's the moment that we're living
with distinction
the wrong kind of dirt
too many cars
shit & a feeling
of wide open speciousness

a wordless / dawn
into a fishy host

their lips in chorus
across the watery plain

two pennies
the everlasting dyad

the jumbotron
of strange commitments

on my hands
& knees
a languid fix, the future

i am more or less susceptible
a nice little locality
science fiction
the load reduced
a handshake
a formal note
cognitive dissonance
the last of the bread crumbs
a more rigid form of reprobation
but that's a whole different story

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Stories of Mr. Keuner (Bertold Brecht)

excerpts from Bertold Brecht's Stories of Mr. Keuner

Serving a purpose

Mr. K. put the following question:

“Every morning my neighbor plays music on a gramophone. Why does he play music? Because he’s doing exercises, I’ve heard. Why is he doing exercises? Because he needs to be strong, I’ve heard. Why does he need to be strong? He says it’s because he must defeat his enemies in the city. Why must he defeat his enemies? Because he wants to eat, I’ve heard.” After Mr. K. had heard that his neighbor played music in order to do exercises, did exercises in order to be strong, wanted to be strong in order to kill his enemies, killed his enemies in order to eat, he put the question: “Why does he eat?”

Hardships of the best

“What are you working on?” Mr. K. was asked. Mr. K. replied: “I’m having a hard time; I’m preparing my next mistake.”


“We can’t go on talking to each other,” said Mr. K. to a man. “Why not?” asked the latter, taken aback. “In your presence I am incapable of saying anything intelligent,” complained Mr. K. “But I really don’t mind,” the other comforted him. “That I can believe,” said Mr. K. angrily, “but I mind.”

Mr. K. in unfamiliar accommodation

Entering unfamiliar accommodation, Mr. K., before he lay down to rest, looked for the exits from the house and nothing else. In reply to a question, he answered uneasily: “It’s a tiresome old habit. I am for justice; so it’s good if the place in which I’m staying has more than one exit.”

If sharks were men

“If sharks were men,” Mr. K. was asked by his landlady’s little girl, “would they be nicer to the little fishes?”

“Certainly,” he said. “If sharks were men, they would build enormous boxes in the ocean for the little fish, with all kinds of food inside, both vegetable and animal. They would take care that the boxes always had fresh water, and in general they would make all kinds of sanitary arrangements. If, for example, a little fish were to injure a fin, it would immediately be bandaged, so that it would not die and be lost to the sharks before its time. So that the little fish would not become melancholy, there would be big water festivals from time to time; because cheerful fish taste better than melancholy ones.

“There would, of course, also be schools in the big boxes. In these schools the little fish would learn how to swim into the sharks’ jaws. They would need to know geography, for example, so that they could find the big sharks, who lie idly around somewhere. The principal subject would, of course, be the moral education of the little fish. They would be taught that it would be the best and most beautiful thing in the world if a little fish sacrificed itself cheerfully and that they all had to believe the sharks, especially when the latter said they were providing for a beautiful future. The little fish would be taught that this future is assured only if they learned obedience. The little fish had to beware of all base, materialist, egotistical and Marxist inclinations, and if one of their number betrayed such inclinations they had to report it to the sharks immediately.

“If sharks were men, they would, of course, also wage wars against one another, in order to conquer other fish boxes and other little fish. The wars would be waged by their own little fish. They would teach their little fish that there was an enormous difference between themselves and the little fish belonging to the other sharks. Little fish, they would announce, are well known to be mute, but they are silent in quite different languages and hence find it impossible to understand one another. Each little fish that, in a war, killed a couple of other little fish, enemy ones, silent in their own language, would have a little order made of seaweed pinned to it and be awarded the title of hero.

“If sharks were men, there would, of course, also be art. There would be beautiful pictures, in which the sharks’ teeth would be portrayed in magnificent colors and their jaws as pure pleasure gardens, in which one could romp about splendidly. The theaters at the bottom of the sea would show heroic little fish swimming enthusiastically into the jaws of sharks, and the music would be so beautiful that to the accompaniment of its sounds, the orchestra leading the way, the little fish would stream dreamily into the sharks’ jaws, lulled by the most agreeable thoughts.

“There would also be a religion, if sharks were men. It would preach that little fish only really begin to live properly in the sharks’ stomachs.

“Furthermore, if sharks were men there would be an end to all little fish being equal, as is the case now. Some would be given important offices and be placed above the others. Those who were a little bigger would even be allowed to eat up the smaller ones. That would be altogether agreeable for the sharks, since they themselves would more often get bigger bites to eat. And the bigger little fish, occupying their posts, would ensure order among the little fish, become teachers, officers, engineers in box construction, etc.

“In short, if sharks were men, they would for the first time bring culture to the ocean.”

Excerpts from Brecht’s Stories of Mr. Keuner, translated by Martin Chalmers (City Lights, 2001). Copyright 2001 by Stefan S. Brecht. [all of the above swiped from the Bureau of Public Secrets]