(sections 4-20 via "Read More" below)
Iconic Words: When Text is Visual Art
This is the text and accompanying images of a presentation I gave last night at the RSC meetings in Quebec City. -- FD
1. In my recent biography of Canadian poet and lay psychotherapist bpNichol I outlined the arguments he developed around 1964 for writing visual poems. Unaware of the international concrete poem movement, he was calling his proposed new poems “ideopomes.”
2. These “ideopomes” would help him, he believed, avoid didacticism and self-pitying emotional expression, which he saw as the main weaknesses of his conventional poetry. He also believed that self-pity and narcissism were serious limits on the Freudian psychotherapy he was undergoing, and limits to the success of any psychoanalysis.
3. He would later call his visual poetry a means of resisting “arrogance.” In these arguments one can perceive the shadow of high modernist arguments against Victorian moralism and sentimentality, and in favor of imagism and impersonality; collage and “objective correlative” in early Eliot, and of Pound’s “ideogrammic method.”
(sections 4-20 via "Read More" below)
Cinema of the Present by Lisa Robertson. Toronto: Coach House Press, 2014. 112 pp. $17.95.
“Cinema of the Present” would be an appropriate title for many recent conceptual poetry books, including Fitterman’s No, Wait. Yep. Definitely Still Hate Myself, with its assemblage of approximate 1000 on-line expressions of self-doubt, which I looked at here last week. Would Fitterman’s be an adequate title for the Robertson? – not quite, but close. But change his “hate” to “doubt” and we’d be there. Robertson’s title, however, makes a much larger claim to profundity and cultural relevance than does Fitterman’s, or than, say, Peter Jaeger’s also similar subjectivity-mapping long conceptual poem The Persons.
In a generally helpful discussion of Cinema of the Present, reviewer Alex Crowley in Publishers Weekly writes, rather paradoxically, that it “defies review,” – that it “instead demand[s] engagement, conversation, and multiple rereads,” and that [i]t may not be a great place to start for newcomers to Robertson’s work.” That her poetry is pleasurably incomprehensible seems to be becoming a standard view of Robertson – most of the online bookstores offering the book quote a New York Times review of her 2009 Magenta Soul Whip that “Robertson proves hard to explain but easy to enjoy” – a quotation that also appears on her publisher’s website. Though to some it may recall Swinburne, it’s probably a powerful marketing tag, since most readers of traditional poetry by far prefer enjoyment to explanation. Moreover Cinema of the Present isn’t all that far from traditional poetry (while still far from Swinburne) – much of it can be read as disguised lyricism or confessionalism, or even as forming a disguised romantic ode. In such a reading it may be not at all difficult for newcomers.
Crowley also describes Robertson not as Canadian but as “Canadian-born” and “living in France.” Perhaps being Canadian is not an especially attractive attribute to Publishers Weekly readers, who tend to be connected to US publishing and bookselling – better to have that citizenship in doubt. Perhaps he hopes that “Canadian-born”
No, Wait. Yep. Definitely Still Hate Myself by Robert Fitterman. Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2014. 78 pp. $16.00.
Rob Fitterman’s latest book comes without any jacket burbs or prefatory material except for an epigraph from the late New York School poet James Schuyler (1926-91) – from the title poem of his 1980 Pulitzer-prize-winning collection, The Morning of the Poem. An alert reader will likely notice that the line structure of the six-line excerpt is similar to the line structure of each two-line unit of the Fitterman.
However, in the publisher’s on-line catalogue, and reprinted from there by Amazon and other on-line booksellers, is this note:
Robert Fitterman's new book-length poem borrows its poetic form, loosely, from James
Schuyler's The Morning of the Poem, to orchestrate hundreds of found articulations of sadness
and loneliness from blogs and online posts. A collective subjectivity composed through the
avatar of a singular speaker emerges. But the real protagonist of No Wait, Yep. Definitely Still
Hate Myself is subjectivity as a mediated construct-the steady steam [sic] of personal articula-
tions that we have access to are personal articulations themselves already mediated via song
lyrics, advertising, or even broadcasters. No, Wait ... blurs the boundary between collective
articulation and personal speech, while underscoring the ways in which poetic form participates
in the mediation of intimate expression.
Fitterman is of course a well-known writer of conceptual and flarf poems, so perhaps his publisher was assuming that anyone who picked up the book in a bookstore or library would recognize that this was a book of “found articulations” – or perhaps they were assuming that all copies would be marketed on-line and that the purchaser would encounter the catalogue blurb.
No, Wait helps map the wide range of conceptual/flarf ‘transparency’ practices, with Kenneth Goldmith’s 2005 The Weather at one end, unabashedly acknowledging its source as a transcription of the the hourly weather bulletins on 1010 WINS, New York City’s all-news radio station, and Lisa Robertson’s 2001 The Weather at the other, with only a remark she made to surprised interviewer Kai Fierle-Hedrick that it was “all lifted” (Chicago Review 51/52:4/1 [Spring 2006]: 40) to reveal that it has been constructed of “found articulations.” In one sense it shouldn’t matter whether
Reading the Difficulties: Dialogues with Contemporary American Innovative Poetry, ed. Thomas Fink and Judith Halden-Sullivan. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama Press, 2014. 230 pp. $34.95.
Reading the Difficulties is another spring 2014 release in the Modern/Contemporary Poetics series co-edited by Charles Bernstein and Hank Lazer. It is less a book about how to read ‘difficult’ contemporary poetry than one that presents examples of readers doing that. The subtitle, “dialogues with contemporary American innovative poetry,” suggests that “reading” can involve having “dialogues” with poems, and is a fair description of most of the contents. Two of the twelve essays are on Canadian poets, bpNichol and Lisa Robertson, who appear to have become honorary Americans for this occasion. Or perhaps “American” has been unconsciously redefined here as referencing North America – the rapid globalization of literary distribution and creation has complications for everyone. Also frequently cited here is a third Canadian, Steve McCaffery.
Difficult not to notice is the sometimes awkwardly close connection between the book and series co-editor Bernstein, who rather famously linked the word ‘difficulty’ to his own writing in his 2011 collection The Attack of the Difficult Poems. Much of the first third of this book reads like a tribute that important book. The lead-off contribution is his 2006 poem “Thank You for Saying Thank You,” which begins “This is a totally / accessible poem.” The fourth essay is a comparison by Stephen Paul Miller of Bernstein and Walter Benjamin as radical secular Jewish poets. Thirty-three mentions of Bernstein are listed in the index (mostly in the first 50 pages), more than double those of any other writer except for fellow Language poet Ron Silliman who receives 23.
The arguments of most of the contributors indeed have their roots in Bernstein’s assertions over the years in work such as The Artifice of Absorption (1987) and Content’s Dream: Essays 1975-84 (2001) against the reduction by readers and teachers of literary works to their “content” – a scandalizing argument that has paralleled in the US poetry scene the one which I introduced to the Canadian Literature criticism scene in 1974 with my (“vastly influential” according to the Oxford Companion [one hopes!]) essay “Surviving the Paraphrase.” Paralleled with rather more panache, disruptive force and literary consequence, I would say. Here is some of Bernstein’s “artifice of absorption” argument against paraphrase, i.e. against throwing away a text’s materiality while “absorbing” its imagined/abstracted “meaning”:
Recessional Sonnet Concerning Cost-cutting Poetries
To cut costs Canadian poets
have used fewer letters in words (B. Bissett)
smaller letters (b. bissett), fewer
vowels (C. Bok), fewer changes
in pitch (M. Atwood), fewer words
taken from dictionaries (A. Karasick), fewer letterspaces
and smaller letters (bpNichol). They have re-cycled found lines
or sentences (L. Robertson, J.R. Colombo),
or once-abandoned poems (D. Marlatt)
or have re-used and re-used earlier concepts
(I. Layton, R. Souster, A. Purdy inter alios).
Some have used their own alphabets (P. Coupey, bpNichol)
or even made their poems go bare (P. Webb).