Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Selected Essays and Talks
By Michael Palmer
Robert Creeley once said we are not so much concerned with an American poetry as we are with the reality of American poetries. Note the plural. Ron Silliman frequently mentions on his blog the explosion in the number of publishing poets in the United States within the past generation. The plurality of American poetry is undeniable. An encompassing, centralized poetics is not possible, or even desirable. The two volumes of Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris’ “Poems for the Millennium” extend this; the anthology pushes beyond the boundaries of American poetry to show us the wide diversity of traditions within international 20th century poetry – highlighting both continuity and difference. In the wake of this ensuing density, much has been made of poetry’s need to address the incessant noise of contemporary voice. How does this density, the deep persistence of information in our lives, destabilize the center of the poem as an object itself? That is, can a poem be defined as an enclosed space in the wake of such information spillage? Is a personalized voice possible? Even if it is a possibility, does the lyrical self have any relevance to contemporary poetics?
Let us celebrate this spillage. Let us praise this plurality. But how?
Michael Palmer argues in “Active Boundaries,” his new collection of essays, that lyrical voice has not lost its urgency, but has rather shifted its contingencies. Song and self, the traditional concerns of lyric poetry, have inverted as a consequence of modernism and of 20th century cataclysms of holocaust and genocide. Palmer explores how contemporary lyric poetry grapples with silence and erasure.
“Active Boundaries” comprises essays spanning 1981 up to 2007. These essays cover a lot of ground, but note the consistency in Palmer’s sources – his frequent return to German poet Paul Celan and Egyptian novelist Edmond Jabes, to painter Irving Petlin and the Objectivists. In the collection’s preface, “What,” he writes he has “…not attempted to impose an artificial consistency after the fact, but instead [has] tried to allow the errancies, the impasses, the turns and returns of the process to reveal themselves…” Form rises out of formlessness – vast pluralities. The means by which process can become for is a reoccurring concern of Palmers, as seen in the travel meditations of “The Danish Notebook” and the Emersonian circling of “Poetic Obligations.” Palmer’s modest allowance in his introduction to the collection’s lack of consistency betrays a distinct Emersonian spirit, with both writers we observe a circling of a thematic core. There is an unavoidable consistency born of process and investigation. For Emerson, this is a spiritual unity and optimism of confluence, for Palmer, this is the lyric voice and its transformations throughout the twentieth century.
I personally have difficulty incorporating the lyric into my own work; I’m not a lyric poet and what I do could almost be seen as an exploration away from the lyric towards new modes. After finishing “Active Boundaries” I maintained my polite skepticism, but Palmer does convincingly argue for lyric poetry’s pertinence. He refers us to Jerome Rothenberg’s “Poems for the Millennium,” and wonders “How perverse it might seem to think of it as a century, that is a poetic century, also bracketed, if approximately and imperfectly, by works on, of all schools, that of the troubadours.” The lyric’s continuance into the 20th century only becomes perverse, Palmer argues, when one ignores the manner in which poets like Paul Celan have reworked its elements in the face of modernism.
We must remember Michael Palmer was initially grouped in with the Language Poets, due either to his geographic proximity to them on the West Coast or to his own expansive and open poetics. Palmer eventually distanced himself from this affiliation, finding himself restricted by such classification. There are definite similarities, but Palmer rightly exists apart from any codified movement. Compare Language poet Ron Silliman’s “…mistrust of the lyric and his attempt to remain entirely outside anything that might smack of the lyrical” to Palmer’s insistence on the lyrical poem’s ability to become “…a form of encounter, of conversation.” This leads us to one of Palmer’s most inspired observations on the poem, as less of “…an isolate cultural artifact than a diachronic and synchronic cultural echo chamber.” The lyric here gains relevance as a form of conversation existing within the boundaries of time, but somehow stretching such finite limits and therefore moving both backwards and forward.
Conversation also includes silences. Poetry, Palmer reminds us, is a silence of sorts, or at the very least includes silences. In the face of such historical atrocity as the Holocaust, these silences can be vast, almost all-annihilating. Palmer is inspired, again and again, by the German poet Paul Celan’s ability to write poetry in the ashes, or more appropriately out of the ashes. Paul Celan is, of course, the great poet of silence, which Palmer reminds us “takes myriad forms. There is the silence of complicity and complacency, and the imposed silence of tyranny. There is the alternation of silence and stress in our measures, from which poetics rhythms of recurrence and difference emerge. There is the silence of the act of listening…” This listening that is necessary for the poem to arise may be what primarily concerns Palmer. This returns to our earlier discussion of the poem as conversation, alternating between speech and silence. A conversation, we should also remember, is an ongoing act before any concept of form. The conversation does not exist as an artifact, but only as the process of talking – a noun that is a verb of act. The ongoing conversation is what concerns Palmer, it is what he sees as the particular strength of lyric voice, and he stresses how “…listening and attending take primacy over systematized artistic construction…A goal then: to project lyric interiority itself into a shared world, a world of exchange between the singular, the singularity of the poem, and the plural.” Michael Palmer is a poet of the plural.
The plurality of Palmer’s vision is visible even in the earliest essays included in “Active Boundaries.” The book is organized with the more recent writing at the front-end and the oldest pieces towards the back. These last and earliest essays, the title piece, “On Objectivism” and especially “Counter-Poetics and Current Practice,” combine a plurality of poetics with a focused attention to the margins of practice - what Palmer calls the active boundaries. Palmer exhibits an openness towards world poetics combined with an awareness of his own particularly place in a specific tradition, or even specific traditions. He introduces the French concept of “…ecriture, writing and speech and authorial absence, ultimately beyond the bald fact that the author, the small author, is not in the book…[as well as discussing that the]…problematics of bringing the French model of absence and ecriture over into American writing is that American writers have been so eager to presence themselves, in whatever complex and ambiguous ways, at least since the time of Whitman, in the book.” This early quote on the schematics of influence highlights what draws me more to the earlier essays in the book than to the later. We see a generous openness, combined with an awareness of particularity. Michael Palmer mentions Jack Spicer’s criticism of Robert Bly and James Wright’s misuse of Spanish “Deep Image” as “…the appropriation of something that is emergent over time in an entire cultural tradition, that you cannot simply pluck from that context and bring over as a compositional mechanism. All you’ll end up with is contrivance.” Yes! Here we see Palmer as an ecstatically open poet, while also being a poet acutely aware of poetic and cultural difference. This is the difference between the American misappropriation of Surrealism of Eugene Jolas and the American integration of Surrealism of Frank O’Hara and the early New York School poets.
The earlier essays promote a praxis over an appreciation of world poetics. That is not to say that Palmer does not actively engage poetry as a site of happening in the later essays, I’m just making the case that he does so more convincingly in the earlier pieces. Much of the international poetry Palmer investigates is poetry written under tyranny, “In the face of Stalinism, Hitler, endless slaughter and failed utopias, thinking toward if not exactly truth, but a poetic relationship to what remains true, or truly possible, in language…” Palmer translates such a sentiment in his own writing on politics in 2007, “…the years of a present administration that I will not name here, since it is not, if we honor the name and the naming, deserving of any name.” Ah, and here we return to Celan’s silences. But look at Palmer’s commendable, but neutered indictment of the Bush administration in “Dear Walt,” which he calls “…a dungheap of pious hypocrites and liars…” which doesn’t strike me as particularly vatic language. The word “dungheap” throws me off, as it exists in the middle ground between polite language and obscenity. Why doesn’t Palmer use the obscenity? It would have the same articulate rage of Jack Spicer’s “Shit,” which is discussed towards the back of the collection. Palmer has written some very valiant poetics against our own stymied and repressive American reality, Palmer’s early “…refusal, also, of the reader as passive consumer…” may say the same thing he says in the later essays, but it does so with more vitality.
Palmer wryly notes how he is often decried as formalist by the more stringent avant-garde and dismissed as formless by actual formalists. It is a tough position for a poet, and it puts him in the crossfire of just about everyone, since he in some ways can appeal to a larger spectrum of readers. There are some Michael Palmer poems I absolutely love, where he successfully navigates both the lyric and the progressive impulse, and makes a good case that they are not polarities, but are actually compatible. At other times, I find myself rankled by Palmer’s investigations toward beauty and the lyrical (instead of just the lyric). This is fitting though, as Michael Palmer is indeed a poet of plurality, just as Jess the collagist and long-time partner of poet Robert Duncan was also an artist of plurality. Note that Palmer does not talk about a fixed boundary, but the pluralized and intransient boundaries. Where the boundary is, of course, shifts due to investigations regarded its position. Michael Palmer is just as engaged with this ecstatic process as any contemporary poet currently writing.