Friday, February 26, 2010

The Bears in Yosemite Park

The issue of "evidence" that I have been posting about in my recent posts on Simon Armitage is one I began to identify while reading his first book, Zoom! (the subject of those posts). An issue I have been interested in for a long time that I first noticed elsewhere in Armitage's work (in Tyrannosaurus Rex versus the Corduroy Kid, to be precise) is that of the "moment" that becomes the focus of a poem. In "The Bears in Yosemite Park," from Zoom!, the moment that "lyric poetry" as such is interested in is described precisely:

this moment is one which will separate some part
of our lives from another

What Armitage adds to this theme in the Tyrannosaurus Rex book is a significant complication: such decisive moments may not actually change anything—and they may even change things for the worse.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Blog for My Simon Armitage Seminar

I've started a blog for my course on Simon Armitage that is starting next week. The students will be posting there; I'll continue with more posts on Armitage here. (May the discussions in the seminar be as interesting as the discussion of my post on "Night Shift"!)

Ode to My Sharona

You can read Sherman Alexie's wonderful "Ode to My Sharona" here (hat tip to Ron Silliman). It's get that awesome opening into your head!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Rule of Law at work

Here's how Glenn Greenwald summarizes this case:

Najibullah Zazi was charged in a civilian court with plotting to blow up subways in New York City, was given a lawyer, was Mirandized, was not sent to Guantanamo, was not subject to "enhanced interrogation techniques," and was not put before a military commission. Today, he pled guilty, ensuring he will spend much of the rest of his life in prison, and is fully cooperating in an attempt to secure leniency in sentencing.

Too bad about all those guys who can't be tried because the rule of law was NOT followed.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Night Shift

Looking for Simon Armitage's "Night Shift" (another poem from Zoom!), I found two postings of it in essays by Jeffrey Side that decry Armitage's poem from two very different perspectives. In one, Armitage's poem is used an example of how weak contemporary poetry is in contrast with Bob Dylan's lyrics ("Ambiguity and Abstraction in the Lyrics of Bob Dylan", from The Argotist). In the other, Armitage's poem is used an example of weak "empiricist" poetry ("Empirical and Non-Empirical Identifiers", from Jacket). In both cases, Side argues that the poem "leaves nothing to the reader's imagination" and is hence weak. But just because the scene described in the poem is clear does not mean the poem does not do anything, and just because the scene is free of abstractions does not mean that the poem does not make abstract interpretation possible. (I'm going out on a bit of a limb in saying this because I have not read the whole essay in either case.)

So here's the poem (I feel free to quote the whole thing since it's already on-line in two places, thanks to Side's interest in it; in fact, I'm grateful to him that I don't have to type it all up but can cut and paste!):

Once again I have missed you by moments;
steam hugs the rim of the just-boiled kettle,

water in the pipes finds its own level.
In another room there are other signs

of someone having left: dust, unsettled
by the sweep of the curtains; the clockwork

contractions of the paraffin heater.
For weeks now we have come and gone, woken

in acres of empty bedding, written
lipstick love-notes on the bathroom mirror

and in this space we have worked and paid for
we have found ourselves, but lost each other.

Upstairs, at least, there is understanding
in things more telling than lipstick kisses:

the air, still hung with spores of your hairspray;
body-heat stowed in the crumpled duvet.

Given my interest in the issue of "evidence" in Armitage's poems, it's not surprising that I noticed the ways in which identifying evidence plays a role here: the poem is about all the "signs" that "you" have left behind, signs that make it clear that the speaker has "missed you by moments." As in "Snow Joke," each detail is something that first has to be identified as more than just a detail; only then can it be "read" (or "misread") as evidence, as a sign.

That is at the level of the poem's story (that paraphrasable thing that Side identifies), but, as with my point about evidence in "On Miles Platting Station," every feature of the poem could be read as "evidence" of something else, by the very fact of its being in a poem. I am reading the details of the poem as evidence of how evidence works, so I pick out the details that are evidence of that, but a different reading could be developed about the role of "heat" in the poem, or perhaps the repetition of the word "lipstick."


It's striking that Side holds up songwriters (Dylan, Cohen) as better poets than Armitage. I wonder what he would make of Armitage's lyrics? On his Scaremongers CD, or in the musical documentaries that he has written lyrics for (see the Century Films website).

Monday, February 15, 2010


Still working my way through Simon Armitage's first book Zoom! and discovering other passages that have to do with evidence in one way or another (as in my previous posts on "Snow Joke", "On Miles Platting Station", and "All We Can Do"). In "Greenhouse," the speaker recalls building a greenhouse with his father and later watching for him to come home after a night out and go out to check the greenhouse:

I'd wait, straining for the sound of the hasp
or guessing your distance by the sparkle
of a cufflink.

Again, it's a matter of evidence, of both perceiving something and distinguishing it from something else. And beyond that, there's the beautiful line break "sparkle / of a cufflink," the move from general to specific, and in this case, to a very surprising specificity.

Berlin Poetry Hearings, Nov. 2009

This is no longer news; instead, it's history. That's Alistair Noon, who did the first reading at the Berlin Poetry Hearings 2009, back on November 20.
Then came Mary Noonan.
And Maurice Scully.
And to close the first night, Matthew Sweeney.
Tom Chivers opened the readings on Saturday, November 21.
Donna Stonecipher was up next.

Then I read (and I have no photos of myself). My setlist:


Ars Conjectandi

Certain Restrictions Apply

Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

Stand Clear of the Closing Doors




September Rain

Then Hannah Silva.
And Tim Turnbull closed out the evening—well, then there was a Johnny Cash cover band, but that was not part of the Poetry Hearings. Tim was gettin' down with Johnny!

True Art

What struck me when I saw this ad a few months ago was that the "true art of fine desserts" barely comes through when the Vermeer is there. I was so captivated by seeing the painting that I barely noticed the poster. The "true art" overwhelmed its use in the advertisement. The experience made me feel good about the power of something that is really "true" art: the real work cannot be put to use for purposes beyond itself. An optimistic view of art, but that was how I experienced this ad.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Conversation (The Art Student's War)

I was moved by this passage from Brad Leithauser's The Art Student's War:

Bea had never known anyone so easy to talk to about nothing—although none of this felt like nothing, their rapid-fire chatter: oh, it felt like something, it felt like life itself.

Bea is falling in love, of course, and she's eighteen, and the sentence captures the breathlessness of falling in love at that age.

The passage also struck me in linguistic terms: "chatter" is a type of speaking that is often disparaged, but from a linguistic perspective, "chatter" is just as important as conversation that is full of "important content." And the passage captures its importance: "chatter" creates bonds between people, even when they are "talking about nothing."

A vague version of the above crossed my mind when I marked that passage, so I was pleased to find the following two pages later, as a kind of summary of what I had been thinking:

It was as though their remarks were gifts to each other—conversation as an exercise in gift giving.

Friday, February 05, 2010

All We Can Do

In my two recent posts on Simon Armitage poems ("Snow Joke" and "On Miles Platting Station"), I discussed how the poems raised the issue of what evidence is. The next poem in Armitage's Zoom! is called "All We Can Do," and it brings up a related issue: reading and misreading. After all, in order to determine which things are evidence, you have to read them correctly, and the danger of misreading always looms. Here's the beginning of the poem:

The engine has less bite 
than a baby's cough
so you nurse it into
the all-night forecourt.
David will come,
the cordage 
of his half converted skip truck
clanging from streets away,
his bush-baby eyes
picking us out
in the battered kiosk.

This David who comes to take care of the speaker's car trouble has to perform an act of reading to find "us," "picking us out" in the dark. But not only does he have to read the scene, he also has to read the car, as it were, to determine the source of the problem:

He cleans the dip-stick
under his armpit
and tells us the car
has more faults
than he could shake a stick at.

As David tows the car away, a misreading is explicitly mentioned:

I steer and brake 
in the car behind,
misreading the tangents
of the pavements and corners
as the gold 
of each streetlight
through your hairstyle.

The poem ends up identifying David as someone who reads things correctly and the speaker as someone who misreads things; the larger issue is how reading and misreading function in the determination of what is evidence and what is not. Or in the case of the speaker, not what is evidence, but where he should steer the broken-down car, and he gets the geometry of it wrong.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The Art Student's War

I picked up Brad Leithauser's new novel The Art Student's War the other day and have read the first chapter and a half. The first chapter is a tour de force, even if it begins in the present tense, something I often find irritating in fiction. But Leithauser makes a brilliant transition to the past tense:

Everything changes—as it so often does—the moment she climbs down from the enclosure of the streetcar; time itself shifts, shifted. When, in the open air, she spoke the words once more, Bea felt a renewed sense of wistful impoverishment: "He didn't even hear me thank him." This time the phrase sounded dry and matter-of-fact, as though the soldier really did belong to the past tense and their story were over.

I did not notice the shift of "shifts, shifted" until the reference to the past tense at the end of the paragraph.

Here's a whole nother point: in the second chapter, a character says, "I have a whole nother thermos." Is that use of "a whole nother" old enough to have been used in 1943? (Which is when the opening scenes take place.) As my friend Dan once said, "What is the status of the word 'nother'?"

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

On Miles Platting Station

Simon Armitage's "Snow Joke" raises the issue of how something becomes a sign of something else, of how something becomes evidence. "On Miles Platting Station," the next poem in Armitage's Zoom!, concludes with an explicit mention of a different kind of evidence:

Somewhere beyond that the water in Shiny Brook

spills like a broken necklace into our village.
The police are there again: boxhauling the traffic,
adjusting the arc-lights. They have new evidence tonight
and they lift it from behind the windbreak, cradle it
along their human chain and lower it carefully down

into Manchester.

This makes me wonder about evidence: when is something evidence, and when is it not? How does something that is not evidence turn into evidence? I assume there are theoretical discussions of this in criminology, the philosophy of science, and philosophy in general (not to mention medicine and psychology, where the issue is what a symptom is).

But in the reading of poetry, and in the reception of art in general, everything in the work is evidence; that is, everything is ready to be understood as a sign of something else, as a symptom. Every feature of a work of art is always both itself and, by virtue of being in a work of art, something more—if nothing else, it is evidence of that surplus, that excess, an excess created by the identification of art as art, by the recipient's readiness to understand the object at hand as art.