Monday, March 30, 2009

Seventh Street

Kit Robinson's "Seventh Street" (from The Messianic Trees) begins with description:

Over and above
old captains' houses
now fallen into
funk, the train

passes. Further, trucks
docked to load
manifest ramps, then
darkness of tunnel

and the passengers reflect
on each other.
Light nicks the
surface of the

globe, even under
water.

On a train, someone describes what he sees (houses, trucks, a tunnel, passengers), then takes a first interpretive step in the third sentence, though still in a very descriptive mode.

But the diction changes in the next sentence, from a description to the word "description":

.... This lazy
description of the
way things are

tells more than
it knows.

A "lazy" description might contrast with a "hard-working" or "serious" description, in which case the descriptive mode of the first 13 1/2 lines of the poem is being criticized. But "lazy" can also mean "relaxed," the opposite of "tense" or "stressed out," in which case the previous mode is not being criticized.

The phrase "tells more than / it knows" is also ambiguous: it might mean the description is more a matter of telling than of knowing (more mimesis than epistemology?). If this is combined with the critical reading of "lazy," then the poem would be arguing against that descriptive mode because description does not generate knowledge.

But "tells more than / it knows" might mean something like "says more than it realizes it is saying," in which case the "lazy description" is being given a positive value because of its suggestiveness.

Further, I also hear a play on "tells more than / it [shows]" here. In many discussions of poetry, "description of the / way things are" is privileged because it shows rather than tells, so this moment in "Seventh Street" could be understood as a counterargument: this "showing" mode "tells" as much as it shows; it "tells more than / it knows [it does]" not in the sense of being suggestive but in the sense of "telling" more than it is intended to, and more than it is aware of in its emphasis on "showing."

Now, the shift in the poem's diction (from "concrete" to "abstract") does suggest, at least at first, that the poem privileges its critique of "lazy / description" and of the mode of "show, don't tell." If that was all it did (without a possible counter-reading), it would be a matter of "lazy abstraction" arguing with "lazy description," and it would hardly be worth talking about at this length.

However, the next sentence begins to make clear that things are not that simple:

.... Say
something about conditions
and you have

that to look
at too.

The diction remains "abstract" while also becoming self-referential: "something about conditions" is what the previous sentence brought into the poem. Such abstraction, this sentence concludes, is also something "to look at," just as the scene described earlier was something to look at. The poem makes "you" "look at" these modes and see them not as a hierarchy but as an interwoven pair that poems have to work with. "Telling" is not being privileged over "showing," in a critique of those who would privilege "showing" over "telling"; rather, the inevitable interaction of the two modes is being acted out, through both modes at the same time.

This interaction becomes completely clear in the poem's final sentence:

.... Your
station stop is
this writing's end.

The "lazy / description" and the mode of saying "something about conditions" have been kept in separate sentences until now (hence my emphasis on sentences), but they meet here in the conclusion, as the train ride stops and the poem ends. The two modes are not opposed; they interact. And they are, the poem argues, both necessary to the making of a poem, and to its interpretation.

(I am enormously grateful to Ron Silliman for his review of The Messianic Trees a few weeks ago, which inspired me to buy Robinson's book.)

[Cross-posted at The Plumbline School.]

Beyond Here Lies Nothin'

There's a free download of "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'" from Bob Dylan's forthcoming CD Together Through Life available at bobdylan.com—today only (Monday, March 30). Check it out: sounds like the recent stuff, but with horns!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Mediocre

A post at Language Log about "private meanings": how individuals may have their own understandings of the meanings of particular words. In my case, the one I can think of offhand is "mediocre," which I long believed to mean "of the lowest possible quality," because of how my father uses the word, with such contempt for something that is "of moderate or low quality."

The Fifth Daily Poem Project, Week 6 call for votes

THE FIFTH DAILY POEM PROJECT, WEEK SIX

Here are the poems to vote for in the sixth week of the fifth Daily Poem Project (the poems on Poetry Daily from Monday, March 23, to Sunday, March 29):

March 29: Stacey Lynn Brown, Cradle Song II (Vote only on the first poem)
March 28: Barbara Maloutas, Saline
March 27: Debra Nystrom, Outer Banks
March 26: Lisa Martin-DeMoor, Durum wheat
March 25: Jesse Lee Kercheval, Italy, October
March 24: Lori Wilson, What Blows Ahead
March 23: Peter Campion, Sparrow

HOW TO VOTE: You can send your vote to me by email or as a comment on the blog. If you want to vote by commenting but do not want your vote to appear on the blog, you just have to say so in your comment (I moderate all comments on my blog). I will post comments as they come in.

Please make a final decision and vote for only one poem (although it is always interesting to see people's lists).

Please VOTE BY FRIDAY, APRIL 3! But I will still accept votes as long as I have not posted the final results. (April 5 at the latest.)

The winner of week one was Sherod Santos, Film Noir.
The winner of week two was Edward Field, Cataract op.
The winner of week three was David Bottoms, A Chat with My Father.
The winner of week four was David Schloss, The Myth.
The co-winners of week five were Jason Gray, Letter to the Unconverted, and David Huerta, Before Saying Any of the Great Words (tr. Mark Schafer).

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Fifth Daily Poem Project, Week Five Results

THE FIFTH DAILY POEM PROJECT, WEEK FIVE RESULTS

The fifth week of my fifth Daily Poem Project has ended in a tie: Jason Gray, Letter to the Unconverted, and David Huerta, Before Saying Any of the Great Words (tr. Mark Schafer), each received 10 votes out of 34 cast.

I could have broken the tie with my vote (which I'd kept in my pocket just for such an eventuality), but I really wanted to vote for the third-place poem, Deborah Warren's Dream with Flowers and Bowl of Fruit, so I did. Warren's poem received five votes, and the other four poems all had two or three votes.

My thanks to everyone who voted, and my special thanks to those of you who posted the call for votes on your blogs. I'll be posting the call for votes for week five on Sunday morning, March 29.

The winner of week one was Sherod Santos, Film Noir.
The winner of week two was Edward Field, Cataract op.
The winner of week three was David Bottoms, A Chat with My Father.
The winner of week four was David Schloss, The Myth.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Waumandee

I can be somewhat finicky about poems that depend on some form of the conceit "Suddenly, I saw ..." (though I'm sure I've used the conceit myself—it is quite seductive, after all). The workshopper in me often just crosses stuff like that out mentally and goes on!

Yet I liked this variant form of the conceit in the first stanza of Mark Wunderlich's "Waumandee" in the March 2009 issue of Poetry:

A man with binoculars
fixed a shape in the field
and we stopped and saw

What the "I suddenly saw" conceit needs is something more to make it more than just a generative moment that need not be present in the final version of a poem. Wunderlich's "more" is that what "we saw" was someone else seeing something, which creates a triangle of gazes: we see him seeing something, so then we see the thing he sees (in this case, an "albino buck").

But maybe it's just that I'm a sucker for geometry.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Jack Gilbert and Leonard Cohen

Two good poems in the March 2, 2009, issue of The New Yorker. Jack Gilbert's "Waiting and Finding" waits patiently in a childhood memory and finds out what to make of it. How what one does becomes what one is.

Then there's Leonard Cohen's "A Street." This poem is proof that a lyric with a chorus can make a beautiful poem—and it also supports my claim that lyrics have little or no enjambment. There is not a single line break in Cohen's poem/lyric where a syntactical unit is split across two lines. (If you want to argue about the expression "syntactical unit," I can analyze every single line break to show exactly what I mean.)

The Fifth Daily Poem Project, Week Five

THE FIFTH DAILY POEM PROJECT, WEEK FIVE

Here are the poems to vote for in the fifth week of the fifth Daily Poem Project (the poems on Poetry Daily from Monday, March 16, to Sunday, March 22):

March 22: Jason Gray, Letter to the Unconverted
March 21: Paul Otremba, Haute Cuisine
March 20: Peter Porter, The Little Fish Have Gone
March 19: David Huerta, Before Saying Any of the Great Words (tr. Mark Schafer)
March 18: H. L. Hix, [If the Lena River courses north...]
March 17: Robert VanderMolen, Sand
March 16: Deborah Warren, Dream with Flowers and Bowl of Fruit

HOW TO VOTE: You can send your vote to me by email or as a comment on the blog. If you want to vote by commenting but do not want your vote to appear on the blog, you just have to say so in your comment (I moderate all comments on my blog). I will post comments as they come in.

Please make a final decision and vote for only one poem (although it is always interesting to see people's lists).

Please VOTE BY FRIDAY, MARCH 27! But I will still accept votes as long as I have not posted the final results. (March 29 at the latest.)

The winner of week one was Sherod Santos, Film Noir.
The winner of week two was Edward Field, Cataract op.
The winner of week three was David Bottoms, A Chat with My Father.
The winner of week four was David Schloss, The Myth.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Houses of Games (Con men, forgers, artists)

I was delighted when I came across a reference to one of my favorite movies in James Surowiecki's column on Bernard Madoff in the January 12, 2009, issue of The New Yorker:

In David Mamet’s movie “House of Games,” the grifter played by Joe Mantegna explains to a former mark, “It’s called a confidence game. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine.”

This description of the scene is not quite right, but that's not a problem. I've always liked the overtones of "House of Games" that have to do with the relationship between artists and audiences: there's a great deal of trust and confidence involved on both sides.

Compare Peter Schjeldahl on art forgers (specifically, on the Dutch forger Han van Meegeren; the article is a review of two biographies of the forger) in The New Yorker from October 27, 2008 (this is the last paragraph; it is on page four of the on-line version):

Art forgery is among the least despised of crimes, except by its victims—the identity of those victims being more than exculpatory, for many people. Art is unique among universally esteemed creative fields in its aloofness from a public audience. Its economic base is a club of the wealthy, who share power to impose or repress value with professional and academic élites. Lopez’s muckraking of van Meegeren scants a fact that Dolnick merrily exploits: the forger gratifies class resentment precisely because he is a pariah. Unlike the subversive gestures of a Marcel Duchamp, say, his outrages will not become educational boilerplate in museums and universities. They are impeccably destructive, tarring not only pretensions to taste but the credibility of taste in general. The spectre of forgery chills the receptiveness—the will to believe—without which the experience of art cannot occur. Faith in authorship matters. We read the qualities of a work as the forthright decisions of a particular mind, wanting to let it commandeer our own minds, and we are disappointed when it doesn’t. If we are disappointed enough, when the named artist is familiar, we get suspicious. But we can never be certain in every case that someone—a veiled mind—isn’t playing us for suckers. Art lovers are people who brave that possible chagrin.

The Fifth Daily Poem Project, Week Four Results

THE FIFTH DAILY POEM PROJECT, WEEK FOUR RESULTS

The winner of the fourth week of my fifth Daily Poem Project is David Schloss, The Myth, which received 9 votes out of 26 cast.

All the other poems received two to four votes, and two voters explicitly abstained. Though the winner was clear, then, it seemed to have been an uninspiring week, as several people mentioned. Second place went to Harry Clifton, Rakestreet.

My thanks to everyone who voted. I'll be posting the call for votes for week four on Sunday morning, March 22.

The winner of week one was Sherod Santos, Film Noir.
The winner of week two was Edward Field, Cataract op.
The winner of week three was David Bottoms, A Chat with My Father.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Poetry or Tags

Rob Mackenzie neatly summarizes and tellingly quotes from a Cleanth Brooks essay here. You need to read Rob's post for the full contextualization of the telling quotation, but here it is anyway (the poem in question is Robert Herrick’s Corinna’s Going a-Maying):

What does this poem communicate? If we are content with the answer that the poem says that we should enjoy youth before youth fades, and if we are willing to write off everything else in the poem as ‘decoration,’ then we can properly censure [modern poets such as] Eliot or Auden or Tate for not making poems so easily tagged. But in that case we are not interested in poetry; we are interested in tags.

This implies that what "modern" poets do is write poetry without such "tags," such simple messages that one can glean from a poem. And note that the three poets Brooks lists as "modern" could not be more different from each other.

What comes to mind for me is something I read sometime last year in which a non-reader of poetry responded to Carol Ann Duffy's poems by calling them "difficult." For readers of contemporary poetry, this is a bit of a shock: one may or may not like Duffy's poems, but they are not difficult (at least not compared to those written by the vast majority of contemporary poets with several books to their names).

But perhaps the difficulty in question is the absence of such "tags."

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Anne Blonstein at the Imprimerie, Basel, March 23



[Click on the image for a larger version.]

The Fifth Daily Poem Project, Week Four Call for Votes

THE FIFTH DAILY POEM PROJECT, WEEK FOUR

Here are the poems to vote for in the fourth week of the fifth Daily Poem Project (the poems on Poetry Daily from Monday, March 9, to Sunday, March 15):

March 15: Joel Brouwer, The Fork
March 14: Zach Savich, On a Pose of Virgil's
March 13: Frannie Lindsay, Old Man Swimming
March 12: David Schloss, The Myth
March 11: John Casteen, Chain Song
March 10: B. H. Fairchild, On the Waterfront
March 9: Harry Clifton, Rakestreet

HOW TO VOTE: You can send your vote to me by email or as a comment on the blog. If you want to vote by commenting but do not want your vote to appear on the blog, you just have to say so in your comment (I moderate all comments on my blog). I will post comments as they come in.

Please make a final decision and vote for only one poem (although it is always interesting to see people's lists).

Please VOTE BY FRIDAY, MARCH 20! But I will still accept votes as long as I have not posted the final results. (March 22 at the latest.)

The winner of week one was Sherod Santos, Film Noir.
The winner of week two was Edward Field, Cataract op.
The winner of week three was David Bottoms, A Chat with My Father.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Neil Young and Poetry

I highly recommend Adam Fieled's thoughts on Neil Young as a role model for poets (and artistic, creative people in general)!

And to all Neil Young fans who read German: if you have not read it already, get yourself a copy of Navid Kermani's brilliant Das Buch der von Neil Young Getöteten.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Fifth Daily Poem Project, Week Three Results

THE FIFTH DAILY POEM PROJECT, WEEK THREE RESULTS

The winner of the third week of my fifth Daily Poem Project is David Bottoms, A Chat with My Father, which received 11 votes out of 31 cast.

That makes "A Chat With My Father" the clearest winner yet in the fifth DPP, as second place went to D. A. Powell, corydon & alexis, with 7 votes. In third was Rae Armantrout, Dark Matter, with five votes. Three other poems had eight votes between them, and for the first time in this DPP, a poem received no votes.

My thanks to everyone who voted. I'll be posting the call for votes for week four on Sunday morning, March 15.

The winner of week one was Sherod Santos, Film Noir.
The winner of week two was Edward Field, Cataract op.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Dark Alley

I know very literate people who see poetry as a dark alley in a deserted neighborhood that they may have glanced into a few times. (Jonathan Mayhew)

Now I understand why some of the voracious readers of novels I know look at me funny when I try to get them to read some: they think I am trying to get them to go down a dark alley with me, where I might try to offer them something that involves needles that may have been places they don't want them to have gone ...

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Fifth Daily Poem Project, Week Three Call for Votes

THE FIFTH DAILY POEM PROJECT, WEEK THREE

Here are the poems to vote for in the third week of the fifth Daily Poem Project (the poems on Poetry Daily from Monday, March 2, to Sunday, March 8):

March 2: Emma Neale, Farewell Do
March 3: Sarah Barber, To a Ring I Lost Planting Bulbs
March 4: D. A. Powell, corydon & alexis (vote only on the first poem)
March 5: Rae Armantrout, Dark Matter
March 6: David Bottoms, A Chat with My Father
March 7: Keith Ratzlaff, The Struggle between Plenty and Thankfulness
March 8: Greg Wrenn, Pontiff

HOW TO VOTE: You can send your vote to me by email or as a comment on the blog. If you want to vote by commenting but do not want your vote to appear on the blog, you just have to say so in your comment (I moderate all comments on my blog). I will post comments as they come in.

Please make a final decision and vote for only one poem (although it is always interesting to see people's lists).

Please VOTE BY FRIDAY, MARCH 13! But I will still accept votes as long as I have not posted the final results. (March 15 at the latest.)

The winner of week one was Sherod Santos, Film Noir.
The winner of week two was Edward Field, Cataract op.

(And one other thing to add: feel free to pass the call for votes on to anyone you know who might be interested!)

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Trying and failing vs. trying to fail

The sentence—as opposed to the fragment ...—the sentence tries and fails. (Joseph Duemer)

When I was in graduate school, I was fully absorbed in literary theory—which is not a surprise, since the program I was in was called "Comparative Literature and Literary Theory." I had a period in which I was quite fascinated by Jacques Derrida—especially by his studies of those writers whose work is especially susceptible to deconstruction because their ambitions for completeness are so especially extreme: Stéphane Mallarmé and Claude Lévi-Strauss, for example, or Edgar Allan Poe (at least as Jacques Lacan read him).

Even then, I was struck by something odd about those postmodernists who held up Derrida as a reason to write fragmentary, incomplete texts. Such writers thought that the lesson of deconstruction was that one should not try to construct anything complete. Even then, that seemed like nonsense to me, even at a simple logical level: works which do not aim at wholeness are not interesting enough to deconstruct. A "fragment" that is intended as a fragment does not "try and fail," as Joseph Duemer puts it; instead, it tries to fail. The fact that attempts at wholeness or completeness will fail in ways that are inevitably invisible to the author but can be spotted by alert analysis is not grounds for fragmentary, incomplete work, be it anthropology, linguistics, fiction, or poetry. (There are, of course, many other putative reasons to be "postmodern," to which this critique does not apply!)

[Cross-posted at The Plumbline School, too.]

Sitting at Home Minding My Own Business

In his "Manifesto of the Flying Mallet" in the Feb. 2009 issue of Poetry, Michael Hofmann writes:

[Poetry's] only cavalry is the reader, and there’s only one of him or her, sitting at home minding his or her own business, without a horse to hand, or a thought of you.

Which reminds me of the end of Kafka's "A Message from the Emperor," as Hofmann calls the story in his translation:

No one can make his way through there, much less with a message from a dead man. — But you, you will sit at your window and dream of it, as evening falls.

[And as I type in this little note I wrote the other day, this comes to mind.]

*

In the "Eight Manifestos" in that issue of Poetry (of which Hofmann's is one), I also particularly enjoyed those by Charles Bernstein, A. E. Stallings, and D. A. Powell. Here are two good bits from Powell's:

But most of what makes a school truly interesting is what others say about it; not what it says about itself.

They [artists] want to belong to the outside, and yet to be recognized by the inside.

The Fifth Daily Poem Project, Week Two Results

THE FIFTH DAILY POEM PROJECT, WEEK TWO RESULTS

The winner of the second week of my fifth Daily Poem Project is Edward Field's "Cataract op," which received 8 votes out of 29 cast.

In second place was John Kinsella's A Meeting of the Birds," with seven votes, while Michael Dickman's "Seeing Whales" came in third with six votes. Those three poems received 21 of the 29 votes; the other four poems split the remaining eight among them (with each poem receiving at least one vote).

My thanks to everyone who voted. I'll be posting the call for votes for week two on Sunday mornin, March 8.

The winner of week one was Sherod Santos, Film Noir.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Belgian Beers

In a post about the alcohol problem in Scotland (which, as a nurse, he sees vividly from the inside), Swiss writes that "retailers can afford to sell alcohol for less than the price of water."

I spent the summer of 1991 in Leuven, Belgium, at a three-week conference on Translation Studies (that still runs every summer, see here). Every day at lunch, I would have a sandwich, and it struck me that it was cheaper to buy beer (even the delicious Trappist beers, like Leffe) than to drink water or juice—and the beers were twice the size of the non-alcoholic beverages! So, as I was on a budget, I had a beer with my lunch every day, and then a coffee. The afternoon sessions went from two to four, and I was often quite groggy, despite the coffee ...

My presentation on Walter Benjamin was terrible, but later I cracked the tough nut of his essay "The Task of the Translator" and wrote a pretty good study of it. I know I wrote more than one poem while I was there, but this is the only I'm sure I wrote there (AJS at 26):

MARKS OF SUCCESS

André Dumont stands in the square
with a bird on his head. His white beard
and collar, distinguished marks
of worldly success, of achievement—
about them no one seems to care.

Except for the birds.
He is another tree, another lamppost
or flagpole on which they sit
and shit. When one flies away,
another comes to sit and shit
on André Dumont, who keeps standing,
with his beard, collar, and other marks
of success, in the middle of the square.

Felonies of Illusion

Mark Wallace's Felonies of Illusion reads like a battle between two kinds of poetry. The first section, "The Long Republican Winter," is, as the title suggests, the work of a poet imposed upon by the world. He's aware of what this entails:

it would be wise to want
nothing from the human world

let my wisdom fail me

In the same section of the sequence (the twelfth of fourteen parts), this "failure of wisdom" leads to some brilliant, uncannily direct writing:

work here long enough
you'd start trading poems for jobs

money doesn't ask
how you'd like to have it

the poet who doesn't need a job
meets a worker who doesn't need poetry

they stare at each other and neither can say
what it takes to live in the world

The impasse of the poet's confrontation with a world of people who "don't need poetry" concludes the section:

show the world's complex
the audience says they don't get it
make it simple
no one hears it that way either
tell people they have eyes
they'll say they can't see you
then one moment deep at night
a body flies awake and stares

*

The second part of Felonies of Illusion is called "Felonies of Illusion," and the poems in it are completely different. These poems resist a common mode of reading that is possible with "The Long Republican Winter": they cannot be attributed to "speakers" whose personae and perspectives the poems develop. There's just enough first-person singular in them to make such readings tempting, but there's so much else going on that they are very hard to realize:

RESURRECTION AT THE CREDIT UNION

Like two idiots in love
coherence and contradiction forgive
the silence everything else has become

when we choose what moves away
because it can't stand to be in the room
with other losses it's invoked

like friends we know we never had. If I promise
never again to see tonight
as part of work as its own reward,

will I be allowed to leave the drama
during the telethon conversion
through telephones that eat me up

when decisions are to be made?
Ask again later? Earn a better place
in the central obfuscation debate?

Put the blank streak on the main
reasons to be poor once more
in the quest of insubstantial poems

raining on a check. I could never
forget to seek forever in a moment
that kills the chance to speak together.

"Coherence and contradiction" are "like two idiots in love": the poems in "Felonies of Illusion" contain many such aphoristic moments; sometimes it seems like the arrival at such lines is the point of the sequence, while at other times they seem all too coherent for the contradictory, absurdist (and often quite funny) waywardness they emerge from. Perhaps such lines are the moments when "a body flies awake and stares," sifting something from dreams and their "felonies of illusion."

So here are some of those wide-awake moments:

I object / that our objections are not the object. ("A Question of Semantics")

Are you talking / to your hand yet? ("Spray Day")

As long as we're having fun, / let's wonder why it's fun we're having.
("Thanks for Having Me Out")

Who's it time to impersonate now? ("Who's There")

Stop looking / through the door to the door on the other side. ("Or That One")

When looking at the problem there's always
a problem to the side of it
("Management Theory")

..... So many lines
to learn so fast, remember the next
one forgetting morning, taking a walk.
("Feeling in Touch with My Gettings") [Love that title!]

We could count the number of flaws
or go on again in the morning.
("You're Around the World, I'm Right Here")

Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting

I love the last quatrain of "Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting," by Kevin C. Powers (from the Feb. 2009 issue of Poetry):

I tell her how Pvt. Bartle says, offhand,
that war is just us
making little pieces of metal
pass through each other.

A more deadpan version of Brian Turner's address to the bullet that might kill him, "Here, Bullet."

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Just Do It

People will play golf, even if they aren’t Tiger Woods, but longevity isn’t sustained in poetry. Poets won’t write for a lifetime if they can’t see themselves as the next Ashbery? Except, poets certainly do write for lifetimes, with or without Orr’s knowledge, and they do so without worrying about winning the gold cup or whatever prize golfers aim for. There is no set goal in the “game” of poetry, though Orr’s comparison sets the terms as such (i.e. John Ashbery’s Library of America collection). How do sports metaphors of the competitive masculine variety so often wiggle their way into measuring poetry and her cultural cache? What team am I playing for again? Where’s the goal line? Who do I have to smear to get there? Are my subjects suitably dainty as I take up the stick?

(Amy King, "On Greatness & Them That Do It")

Back in about 1997, I participated in the Tempolabor, a weekend event organized by the curator and editor Clementine Deliss, with talks, presentations, and discussions attended by a multitude of artists, curators, and art critics (I was there because I had translated for art catalogs, including for Clementine's magazine Metronome).

For me, the most memorable event of that lively weekend came during a discussion after a talk. I don't remember whose talk it was, or what it was about, but it led Nebojsa Vilic, a Macedonian art historian and curator from Skopje, to give an impassioned, extemporaneous comment on the theme of "Just Do It!"

In the international art world in the nineties (which I grazed a bit in my role as a translator for catalogs), a common issue was whether "anything goes." The boundaries of what could be considered art had been pushed back so far that it seemed like there were no longer any boundaries to push back, as if it were really true that anything could be art.

Vilic's comment was an attempt to downplay the sense of crisis that many of the Tempolabor participants associated with this theme. His analogy was the "Just Do It" commercials that Nike was running at the time. Artists (and curators and critics) should stop worrying and "just do it." The issue was not whether "anything goes" but whether each particular work worked. That's the gist of what he said (at least as I remember it).

Vilic's speech was vigorous and passionate, and I might have remembered it just as well even if it had not triggered a further comment by the Basel artist Eric Hattan. Eric liked the simile, but he pointed out an important difference between Michael Jordan and an artist. No matter what route Jordan took in doing what he did, the goals of "just doing it" were always the same: to score baskets; to win games; to win championships. In contrast, the artist who "just does it" must figure out the rules of each new work from scratch; whether the work is process or product, or some combination of the two, the goals are not known from the start, but only realized through the making of the work.

... for even as golfers are folowing their game’s rules, poets are making their own ways, similarly and separately, differently and communally, as multitudes and as individuals, sans a set standard of formulas and rules. Golf goes after stroke counts and a finish line. Poetry goes after life and everything the concept entails. Greatness certainly is not the little box declaring a winner vis a vis book publication or any golden laurel leaf. Poetry is not merely words on a screen/page or how dramaticaly the poet lived her life. (Amy King from the same post)

Or, to quote two of my touchstones:

Nicht um anzukommen, sondern um aufzubrechen, nicht um Erzählung, Roman oder Buch zu werden, sondern um in Bewegung zu sein und möglichst auch zu bewegen.

Not to arrive, but to set out, not to become a story, a novel, or a book, but to be in motion and, if possible, to move. (Anne Duden, my translation)

Das Schreiben ist notwendig, nicht die Literatur.

Writing is necessary, not literature. (W. G. Sebald, my translation)

Between them, Duden and Sebald articulate why one writes: to write. Not to arrive at a goal, not to publish, not to become "literature"—not to be "great."

(Credit for stimulating this memory goes not only to Amy King but also to Adam Fieled and Joseph Hutchison.)

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

New versions of The Aeneid

The Feb. 2009 issue of Poetry begins with a selection from Book Two of the Aeneid, in David Ferry's translation. The passage (Aeneas's escape from Troy, as told to Dido) includes one of my favorite moments in the book, as Aeneas tries to embrace his wife Creüsa's ghost:

Three times I tried to embrace her and to hold her;
Three times the image, clasped in vain, escaped
As if it were a breeze or on the wings
Of a vanishing dream.

The selection implies that Ferry is translating the epic, which is something to look forward to. But there's also a new translation available now (even more recent than the Robert Fagles translation I read last summer): Sarah Ruden's new translation, published by Yale University Press. Garry Wills raves about it in the March 12, 2009, issue of the New York Review of Books (unfortunately, the article is not on-line):

The wonder of [Vergil's] poem is that it has a melancholy melodiousness while retaining a tight aphoristic ring. Fagles often achieved the former, but rarely the latter. Ruden gets both.

(By the way, why do Ferry and Fagles write "Virgil" while Wills and Ruden write "Vergil"?)

Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Fifth Daily Poem Project, Week Two Call for Votes

THE FIFTH DAILY POEM PROJECT, WEEK TWO

Here are the poems to vote for in the second week of the fifth Daily Poem Project (the poems on Poetry Daily from Monday, February 23, to Sunday, March 1):

February 23: Judith Hall, The Crowded Tree
February 24: John Kinsella, A Meeting of the Birds
February 25: Barbara Hamby, Who Do Mambo
February 26: Michael Dickman, Seeing Whales
February 27: Edward Field, Cataract op
February 28: Jennifer Atkinson, Landscape with Mud Turtle
March 1: Kathleen Jesme, Small sphere (vote only on the first poem)

HOW TO VOTE: You can send your vote to me by email or as a comment on the blog. If you want to vote by commenting but do not want your vote to appear on the blog, you just have to say so in your comment (I moderate all comments on my blog). I will post comments as they come in.

Please make a final decision and vote for only one poem (although it is always interesting to see people's lists).

Please VOTE BY FRIDAY, MARCH 6! But I will still accept votes as long as I have not posted the final results. (March 8 at the latest.)

The winner of week one was Sherod Santos, Film Noir.