Friday, September 19, 2008

New American Writing 26

Edited by Paul Hoover & Maxine Chernoff

Paul Hoover’s 1994 anthology, “Postmodern American Poetry,” remains one of the better broad overviews of progressive American poetry currently available. Hoover goes to great pains to bridge the gap between East and West Coast poetries, from Black Mountain to the Language poets to the numerous waves of the New York School. He does a nice job of presenting a breadth of ideological and poetic movements, while not ostentatiously pandering to any one in particular. Experimental poetry isn’t a uniform tradition, and his anthology does a good job illustrating that. It’s a wonderful book, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in experimental poetry, but uncertain where to start.

I was pleased, then, to learn Hoover edits an annual poetry journal, “New American Writing,” with his wife, the wonderful poet Maxine Chernoff. The fair-mindedness that exemplifies Hoover’s “Postmodern American Poetry” is also on display throughout the 2008 issue of “New American Writing.” It’s a generous collection of different poets, each confronting the dilemma of contemporary poetics through their own personal aesthetics. Hoover and Chernoff do a reasonably good job spanning the diversity of poetry that falls outside the rubric of formalism. A good amount of the work on display could be classified as proudly difficult writing, taking great joy in its own complexity. As with “Postmodern American Poetry,” there does not seem to be an overriding political or aesthetic motive to the selections other than a promotion of the progressive spirit. Reading through the book, I couldn’t help think of the poetic plurality I discussed in my post about the poet Michael Palmer, who despite being absent from the volume, would have fit in very well.

The book is front-listed with its more prominent “name” poets – Karen Volkman, Steve McCaffery, Clayton Eshleman, Ron Padgett and the Waldrops. The established poets featured in the book provide a good indication of its aesthetic trajectory. For the most part, this is a collection of progressive poetry that grapples with, but does not reject or antagonize conceptions of beauty of the lyrical. These are rather new investigations into such concepts, more reminiscent of the “Third Way” poetry Ron Silliman often discusses. Padgett’s inclusion “What Happens to Conflicts of Interest,” orients the book’s scope – the writing is discursive and dialectic, while not moving into incomprehensibility or strenuous opacity. As always, Padgett is wickedly clever, as he writes “It is as if/ a felt object/ were tugged at/ on one end/ by four men/ each exerting a pull of five pounds/ and on the other end by five men/ tugging with a force/ of four pounds each/ What do you have? / Forty pounds of wasted force…” I wish Padgett were better represented in this volume, as he only gets the one poem, yet it is one of my favorites in the book.

The book opens with a graceful poetry sequence, “As in Ambush,” by Keith Waldrop. It is a wonderful lead-in to the volume. Waldrop, he recently published a new English translation of “The Flowers of Evil” through Wesleyan Press, is an ecstatically open poet who often manages to push the lyrical voice beyond the formalism and excessive lushness it often suffers from. The poem develops with a sparse grace over the course of seven pages. Words and phrases are suggested, providing the silhouette of a form and trusting the reader to connect the thought. Clichés are on the verge of appearing, but ultimately go undelivered, as Waldrop writes, “Clothes make… Well no, they/ don’t really. They dis-/ guise. / Or, say… they can be/ slung, images…” There is no obligation here to complete a statement. Language is constantly reappraised through the open flow of thought, with the emphasis more on thinking itself than a sculpted product.

And look at that syntax! We see Waldrop’s trust in what the great poet George Oppen calls “small nouns.” Waldrop brings luminosity to the everyday through the use of plain words. The surprising lineation and a lyrical abstraction combine to meditate on an ecstatic reality. Look at how sentences such as “Say nothing, my Soul, and maybe/ nothing/ will come to mind” offer such friction simply on the weight of the final word, which manages to engage both metaphysics and linguistic tropes. The poem is in a constant state of materializing, but attempts to pin it down continually fail. I appreciated the evident trust Waldrop displays – trust in himself as poet, in the poem, and most importantly, in the reader. Waldrop’s poem interacts with the reader, instead of assumed them to be an impartial spectator.

The best work throughout the volume displays this same trust; versions of Waldrop’s confidence that the little turns of a language can contain giant discursive potential. The book does occasionally falter. I found some contributors had a tendency to submerge themselves in the gaudy accoutrements of beauty and “poetic” image. I enjoyed poems, like Bill Berkson’s “Landscape with Calm” that contained wonderful and hilarious lines like “Say ‘’Ah’/ Or ‘Errgh.” This is clear and unpretentious work. On the other hand, I had difficulty with lines like “This is the way we scrape the marble into a woman weeping. The small girl speaks of turquoise water, amber clay…” from a poem by Karla Kelsey. Courting such poetic beauty just falls flat with me, I guess.

I hate to pick on anyone, as the pedigree of poets in the journal is estimable, but I felt a closer look at one of the more problematic poets in the volume might help articulate my problems with this volume. A writer like Jordan Windholz is an excellent example of what I found uncomfortable with some of the selections. His language is often thorny, which I see as a clear strength, but the emphasis leans towards sensuality and linguistic flash. Please remember I’m not speaking out against difficulty, anything but. I am instead speaking against language too concerned with pleasure on a purely syntactical level. We can see this Windholz’s “psalm 22.” There is a lot to appreciate in this poem. It’s easy to analyze because Windholz is indeed a good writer. I enjoyed the horizontal centering which necessitated that I turn the book on its side to read the text. This allows for some great use of the long line. Flipping the axis of the book generates more white space, as otherwise the long lines would scrap against the edge of the page, and become constricted. Here they are allowed to stretch out and truly breath. The writing is also deliberate and clearly well crafted. It’s not a bad poem.

But then again, the poem overuses the predictable stock elements of poetic craft. How many of the poems in “New American Writing” utilize the well-worn image of a bird – here we see “ Salvation: as in the sparrow’s flight unfolding a terrestrial/ soteriology’s mechanics. Its arc of ascension determined by hinge…” The ornateness of the language does not allow enough reflection upon language outside of itself. There are wonderful bits and pieces throughout the poem, such as “In this, the psalmist recalls that…the ears remain/ poised…” I just kept on wishing Windholz would trust the above statement, but note the needlessly poetic imagery contained within the ellipses, where the “…body is a vaulted pock of earth…” or a moment where we find “…the eyes still saccade beneath their lids.” Maybe my criticism betrays a personal distrust of poetic beauty and of language itself as an instrument of sensuality. Sarah Gridley writes to similar effect in “Bad Infinity,” where I found myself unmoved by the overbearing sensuality of language, lines like “Sugary, so sugary to the eye the marble under acid rain. / Limestone, the open dossier. / Sea lily stems. Sutures in the arch-/ angel Michael.” The text almost seems preoccupied with its own image making potential, as if it were more concerned with itself than with the discursive possibilities in open, incremental interaction with its readership.

My favorite moments in this issue of “New American Writing” were those engaging language as less of a lover and more of a double-edged tool. Look at how Keith and his wife, the great Rosmarie Waldrop, utilize cliché to break language down, to service the poem and provide the reader an interactive confrontation with linguistics. Steve McCaffery does this else where, echoing and twisting both plains-peak and jargon in passages such as “…crests as the waves do/ looking for winds to repair/ the umpire’s part/ in the error of the final score/ the dark side/ of the entire who-dunnit.” McCaffery’s contributions may be my favorite in the entire book. Perhaps this is on account of the clear skepticism he exhibits towards poetry. The title of the first of the two poems he includes is “A Few Donuts From an Hommagiste or: Bad Modernism.” Aside from its many other pleasures, the poem displays a wonderful turning towards and simultaneously away from modernism’s influence. Look at how McCaffery sends up Ezra Pound with his bracketed asides of “[Insert Chinese ideogram then a passage in Italian]” and latter “[Insert very large Chinese ideogram]” McCaffery dissects and takes to task Pound, and the Cantos in particular, for all its worth. It’s a wonderful poem on its own terms as well.

Like McCaffery’s simultaneous turning towards and away from modernism’s aegis, I found myself attracted to and pulled out of the volume as I was reading it. I would be discouraged by a poet like Sylvia Legris, and then completely invigorated by one like Nguyen Quoc Chanh, who is translated here from the Vietnamese by Nguyen Huong. His use of the New Sentence and of biographical reminiscence is muscular and provocative. I’m eager to find more by this writer I was previously unaware of. Elsewhere, Clayton Eshleman predictably impressed me; he is a writer who consistently uses the transcendental image to serve of the poem, instead of the other way around. John Tranter includes a playful rearrangement of an interview between himself and John Ashbery. I alternately found myself laughing out loud and circling the fantastic lines littered throughout.

Unfortunately the book wasn’t so consistently rewarding, as good amount of the material, like Debora Kuon’s “Glacier,” left me unmoved with their emphasis on image and poeticisms. But really, more than usual on this blog, take my considerations with a grain of salt. This written response to the volume under discussion is colored by my own aesthetic preference, one that may be different than your own. Look at it this way -I wanted less “Protean forests/ Super-sized ones, spectacular spectacles/ Of colossal filigreed forests” and more “You are/ Strong very/ Strong very/ And words/ And lost/ And found/ And blue/ And Green,” courtesy of Joseph Lease’s wonderful “Torn and Frayed.” Maybe you feel the opposite way.

Still, personal complaints aside, the 26th issue of “New American Writing” warrants a good, thorough read. There is a surprising variety of different poetry here. Find what poets herein engage you, and reread their work– there is a lot here to provide inspiration.

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