Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Blue Aero Zeppelins Rush Metallically into Steely Pink Heart!

I'm glad all is well, Maggie. I was wondering!

From Syracuse to Potsdam, the hills of upstate choir amongst themselves with classic rock radio stations. One of the questions keeping my brain alive through endless renditions of Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, Ted Nugent, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, et al., was: how many bands can you identify by a word? E.g. "sassafrass" -- definitely Aerosmith.

But that's what a genre is all about: every band competing with the *same* vocabulary.  Was that what I was getting at with my New York School reverie? my pout? my huff? Whatev. I have only three words for you today:


-- Dropped into the poet-critic's fireworks bag this year.

Monday, December 27, 2004


Dear Readers and Friends,

Sorry about the lack of communication. Phone lines and email connections have been torn up over the last few weeks but should be reconnected soon. I am alive and mostly well and arrive back home on Wednesday night. I hope to get the email working then and answer all those unanswered messages. Aaron, yes to Canada. More info to follow.


Monday, December 13, 2004

I wish it were art instead of life (for Steve Evans)

“That Various Field for James Schuyler” is a pamphlet from The Figures; it contains the rare published Frank O’Hara letter, to Schuyler, dated 11 February 1956. Here are some samples, culled from between bits of gossip:

“I have been having a terribly spiritual morning bathing in Poulenc songs, 2 piano concertos and Les Secheresses which I found here. (It is greater than Tristan, so there!)”

“Lyon has a recording of the Goyescas of Granados which is enough to make the whole six months worth while. The only one of them I knew before is ‘The Maiden and the Nightingale.’ They are as beautiful as a black lace scarf lying beside a gleaming white toilet bowl. Or, as Rimbaud says in ‘Memoire,’
Eau claire;”

“George and I went to see Helen of Troy last night and liked it lots.”

“George loaned me his Art News...”

“The current production of the theatre up here is a verse drama by Hugh Armory called The Bandeirantes (bahn der ahn cheese)...”

“I’ve been reading Tennessee’s stories...”

Steve rightly points out that our own irreproducible historical moment has its portion of brilliant poets, kind poets, generous poets, and I would be churlish to disagree; with the disclaimer of course that New York City makes one churlish or at best is such a distorting lens with which to view the world that perhaps I am in no position to comment on “the world” at all.

Steve understands my nostalgia for the world Schuyler inhabited, but he doesn’t think it entirely lost; I would point out some of the things that are lost: O’Hara’s references, and his social circle, aren’t entirely literary, whereas ours are. Yes, we all go to the movies and listen to new music and immerse ourselves in culture, but 1) it’s popular culture for the most part and 2) we don’t mingle with the producers of those arts. It has to do with economics, I’m sure. Producers of popular arts are less artists than rich people; conversely, ballet seats aren’t as cheap as they used to be.

But why go to the ballet? In my case, I went this year to see some Balanchine ballets on his centenary. But it doesn’t carry the same frisson as it did back in 1956. Not only are ticket prices astronomical, but there’s no contemporary Balanchine ANYWAY. (And there’s no Denby. Is there an O'Hara....) All this to say, not only has literary culture been pushed to the margins, but all high art has, and pushed into our individual cells struggling to pay rent and get grants has made us all a little less hedonistic, a little less socially curious, and a little less great.

Actually, I do think there’s a lot of high quality poetry being written (I’ll hold my tongue on qualifications). But

1) I miss the aura of high art and the sense that music and theatre could influence one’s poetry and one’s friends.
2) I’m sad that political discourse serves as the kind of passport to alliances and friendships that aestheticism used to.
3) If I read another defense of mass culture entertainment as equivalent to art, I am going to go mad.

By the way, those Balanchine ballets I saw—Jewels, Agon, Apollo, and Orpheus—were, to use a dilapidated word, transcendent. And don’t tell me the postwar years didn’t have their share of political urgency. The political simply didn’t take up the same amount of psychic space in their artists.

Well, Steve’s valentine to San Francisco makes me wonder if Maggie agrees with him about social/artistic life there; even if it is as expensive as NYC, does the sum total of natural beauty tip the balance? Are people happier? and as a result, are their relations with one another freer?

Thursday, December 09, 2004

After putting the lights around the window

Oh Maggie! Kantian after my own heart! I never did read the Critique of Judgment (“The Third Critique” seems to me to elide the controversial word, while evaluative criticism remains unfashionable...). But I do get it secondhand through my favorite critic Susan Stewart, whose Poetry and the Fate of the Senses you have had ample time to finish since I gave it to you for your birthday last July, yes? You probably finished it on the flight home. You probably read it all the way through after the barbecue, burning the midnight oil to get to this poignant passage near the end:

I have emphasized that the face-to-face encounter we have
with an artwork is deeply embedded in the meanings and
conventions we bring to face-to-face encounters with persons.
All art is a kind of figuration in this sense, yet specifically
this meeting with an artwork that is in itself and for itself is
analogous to the free ethical stance in which persons are
encountered in themselves and for themselves—without prior
determination of outcome or goal. (PATFOTS, p. 328).

That’s how I get my Kant. It’s also relevant to your reading of Bernini, especially at the point where you’re moved by the hand on the stomach; the point of contact between persons, their inescapable flesh; and yet we do escape it at the moment of ceasing to be ourselves. The other necessary component, the point of transformation, the doubleness of being both Daphne and tree—I think this would fall into the category of a new “sense” as when Stewart cites Marx on the history of human senses; normally we don’t think of senses as being a product of history, but there it is. Great art makes or reflects breakthroughs in apprehension. Like Ashbery: “Perhaps we should feel with more imagination.”

And now I must find my battered photocopy of 22 Light Poems and read it in memorium. Do you know that in ten years of looking I have never come across the original Black Sparrow edition? I suppose I could get it on the Internet, but it doesn’t have the same feeling of ... well, chance, which I think Jackson would appreciate.

Sad News

I just learned that Jackson Mac Low died this morning at the age of 82.

Friday, December 03, 2004



I think you are picking up on an important difference in the way I am applying "entertaining." I think what I am trying to say is that an art work that is truly entertaining engages your sensibility -- your cognition on all its levels -- connecting the intellectual to the sensual to the emotional etc. That's what you are arguing for in Midwinter Day, if I understand you correctly. And I'd argue that Cho in that one piece does the same. It's beyond funny. The humor leads you to imagine a full and different and painful way of being a person in the world. Just like a good poem invites you to comtemplate more than just words. I remember us watching that video of her performance and us both declaring her a genius. Maybe that's what genius is. I used to think it was just persuing a singular idea to the nth degree your entire life, but maybe now I think it's being able to create something truly engaging. Creating something that will keep all a person's faculties in "motion," if I wanted to get Kantian about it. I've never recovered from the Third Critique. Its vocabulary haunts me. Everything about the beautiful and the sublime revolves around putting the subject's faculties into "play." And the play is a kind of impractical movement. The only aim of it is for you to realize and to feel all the levels at which you can know. I am interpreting the text here slightly, but I think I'm right in terms of what a succesful aesthetic should do.

I guess this is just as good a lead-in to part 2. My favorite piece of art is Bernini's "Apollo & Daphne." Would you have guessed? I've been haunted in the most delicious way by this piece ever since I saw it in Rome a few years back. It's become my touchstone for the question "is it enough?," a personal ultimate standard for a piece of art. I hope I can explain the magic of this piece with the same intensity of feeling that it instills in me.

The piece is a marble sculpture. The base of it, if I remember correctly, is rectangular, the longside of it is probably no more than 6-8ft long. The two figures in it are human or near-human scale. You can circle it in a few seconds. I just remembered that I wrote about this piece in a paper. I can reprint it here. I've also been working on adapting this section below for a part of my novel, so don't nobody steal it:

"Because Bernini's sculpture is of a single moment in the larger narrative sequence of the myth, Apollo and Daphne, because it is of the moment in which Daphne's metamorphosis begins to take place, the moment in which she is not yet a tree, but not quite a woman anymore, the viewer is confronted with a presentation that suggests much more than it concretely depicts. Here, because Daphne is neither a woman nor a tree, she is both a woman and a tree. The viewer still sees enough of her flesh to know that in the moment before this one that the sculpture presents, a moment the viewer hasn't seen, Daphne was a woman. But now leaves are growing from her fingers, and her arms are stretching toward the sky, as if they, too, will, in the next moment that the viewer will also not see, they, too, like the fingers, which are now leaves, will become something else, branches, perhaps. But they are only arms now, and Apollo'w hand is upon Daphne's stomach, but the viewer knows (because her stomach extends liker her arms towards the sky) that despite Apollo's hand, the stomach will, in the next moment that the viewer will also not see, become a trunk, perhaps. But, now her stomach, with Apollo's hand upon it, is just a stomach, so, Daphne who is also not a woman, is also not a tree. But because leaves grow from her fingers while Apollo's hand wraps itself around her stomach, the viewer also knows that Daphne will be in the next moment, a tree, and in the moment just before this one, she was a woman. And so she is also a tree and also a woman. The sculpture by suggesting in its presentation an image of Daphne in the midst of metamorphosis as partial woman and partial tree suggests to the viewer's imagination the idea of Daphne as a complete woman, as well as a complete tree.

And if the viewer doubts the possibility of such a transformation while viewing this sculpture of a woman becoming a tree, the viewer still must acknowledge Apollo's cloak that billows in the breeze that isn't there, and the viewer must think to herself how soft and light the cloak is, the cloak that is made of stone. And then the viewer must think how impossible it must be to transform a stone into a cloak that is soft and bends and billows in a breeze that isn't even there. And although it seems impossible for a woman to become a tree, here is a cloak that is made of stone, and the impossibility of turning a piece of stone into a cloak is not unlike the impossibility of turning a woman into a tree. But the sculpture shows the viewer that a stone can be turned into a cloak and this is like showing the viewer that a woman can become a tree. And suddenly all transformations are possible through this analogy that has done nothing except transform the terms of transformation from tree to cloak, from woman to stone. And although the sculpture cannot turn the woman into the tree before the viewer's eyes, the sculpture is enough to move the mind of the viewer to think to make a woman into a tree."

What is so amazing here is how the technical skill on display in the piece works with the presentation, is inextricably a part of the idea of the piece. When you stand before this sculpture and see this piece of stone literally look like a piece of cloth floating in air you are filled with the awe of transformation. How can you not believe the story of Daphne? It's like witnessing a miracle. The way the fingers of Apollo press into Daphne and the skin of Daphne bends underneath the digits, it's difficult to not believe it is real flesh that is indenting under the pressure. And after seeing such a technical wonder, it's difficult not to believe in the possibility of transformation. It's the best self-help seminar I can think of. How can you not believe that you can walk on water after seeing this? The letter of the piece is an argument for its spirit. The power this piece has makes me realize that the technical skill of an artist has to be directly related to the "content" of a piece, has to be inextricable from any idea a piece posits. That's the standard I hope to be able to uphold in my work. Tall order.

-- M.

Shades of Bakhtin...

While I wait for you, Maggie, to post part 2...

Well, we agree. But I do want to post a disclaimer. The trouble with my making pronouncements is that 1) they sound like everyone else’s pronouncements; 2) the number of qualifications start multiplying before the ink on the period’s dry. Especially if I’ve just used the word “entertainment” in connection to poetry. We have all seen poems that strive to entertain in a manner not consistent with what poetry can do, but what stand-up can do, or what short stories can do, and it isn’t satisfying. But what Midwinter Day did was equidistant, I think, from what Sedaris does and what, say, (and here I pause: “Stay out of trouble, Ange, and pick on a poet you love”) Flow Chart does, if what we mean by Flow Chart is a non-narrative experimental epic-length poem that is somehow about the thinking of such a poem into being, hermetically sealed behind the forehead. Both Mayer and Ashbery are writing a long poem that mimes the passage of time. Mayer happens to include, rather than leave out, the actual specifics of a woman named Bernadette Mayer living on December 22, 1978 with a husband named Lewis and children named Marie and Sophia. The pleasure of being let inside, not only someone’s head, but (perhaps more transgressively?) the hermetic world of someone’s private family makes it a whole lot of other things besides intelligent: it makes it human or (dread word) humanistic; it makes it entertaining and it makes it gift-like: we are getting a gift we would love, as opposed to many many avant-garde poets who give us what they perceive (in light of Hegelian-historical-dialectic-ness ‘n all) we need. Mayer is the least Puritanical of all intellectual poets (after O'Hara). This is not to say she isn’t flawed. But she is what I mean by “entertaining” in the best sense.

The best defense of Flow Chart is to be found in Ashbery’s own defense of Stanzas in Meditation, which kicks off Selected Prose. My point is not that such works should not be attempted, but that poems should not be valorized in inverse proportion to their human appeal.