Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Silliman's Blog and Poetic Specialization

In my most recent post on the Irascible Poet I miss spoke- i said that Ron Silliman lives in the non-poetry world- and he corrected me that he lives in the non academic world.

This prompted me to think about the reason that we all read Ron's blog. Ron Silliman and his blog is a phenomenon in poetry. He mentioned a post once here on the Irascible poet and within five hours I had 4000 visits so of course Ron's work has influence.

But why?

There are two reasons I think that Silliman's Blog does well. Ron's blog is in many ways an echo of older ways of doing poetry.

Most of our poets and poetries today are created in academia. This creates in many poets a hot house effect. There is little real risk involved in the work it is written to satisfy an academic discussion rather than an artistic one. Few poets make their living writing poetry. This makes for a narrow discussion in the poetic marketplace.

In the past however poets and poetry were in dialogue with art and artists in general. All one has to do is remember that at the Cedar bar in New York in the 1950's Pollock and Creeley were sitting at the same tables. Frank O' Hara was an art critic, there were many others. This sense that poets were part of a larger artistic movement was important and is lost as most poets specialize to fit into the world as it exists today. We dont see many collaborations anymore film and visual art are not in dialogue with poetry as was the case in the past.

On Silliman's blog this type of dialogue continues. It is interesting because on most blogs you get bits and pieces. Poets put up their own poetry or their own readings but on Ron's blog we get film and art reviews. We get commentary about a very large range of subjects, including Baseball which is appreciated. There are of course criticisms of this blog. Ron tends to favor certain types of poets and his asthetic is not always the most interesting but at least there is the kind of cross pollination that is lacking in other venues.

I think the reason for the success of the Blog is that it is not specialized. I exist as Ron does in two worlds- one poetic and one in business (the publishing events business in my case)- this changes the way one views both worlds since they are so different. But in some ways not being an academic frees one to partake in other artforms and to absorb more of the world without the need to exist in academia for one's bread. This freedom lets Ron be more critical and more open that would normally be possible. I find that this lack of control on his part makes the blog work. I also think that the lack of poet speak makes a difference.

I was told once that the difference between Olson, Duncan, and O'Hara and today's poets is that they were public intellectuals. This, I think is the issue at hand. Most poets today are specialists they do one thing well and they understand how to function in a specific environment. That was not true about Olson or Duncan or O'Hara and it is not true about Silliman's Blog.

My questions about Language Poetry and Flarf and other movements are basically focused on the idea of the public intellectual and this dialogue. I wonder if these movements are simply an easy retreat into the academic bosom as not to be challenged by larger forces? Perhaps that is the critique? Do we retreat into our own epistemological system or do we engage with the world as poets?

Is what we are doing small or is it big? Do we exist among other artists? Or do we exist within the academy?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Magisterium of Poetry

Saturday night talking with poet friends about a conference they just attended in Orono, Maine about the poetry of the 1970's I began to think about the magisterium of poetry. There is in poetry a group of poets who define meaning because they have time to do so. The tell us what to believe and in many ways they function like the Magisterium in Rome.

I have felt for a long time that poetry has been moving away from art and toward a kind of conciliar structure. This of course has always been true in art and poetry but it seems poetry in many ways has become that in spades. Poetry is a rarified world that is not open to market forces or to popular forces. In the past poetry and writing in general was a marginal exercise. Poets were either bon vivants or prophetic figures and they looked for an audience- not just an audience of friends and colleagues.

I remember once in an 19th and 20th century philosophy class I asked this question "Professor after all this Philosophy and all these great thinkers the Germans supported Hitler wasn't all this for naught?" The ideas did not matter that came out of the philosopher's mouths but they had absolutely no effect on the society. All the great philosophy had no impact because power mattered and ideas were crushed.

I often feel this way about poetry.

It is true that in America poetry does not have a strong prophetic history. But I cannot help but ask the question what has Language Poetry or Flarf brought to the essential dialogues? In talking to these friends one thing that comes out is the sense that Langpo with its Marxist roots is a closed system- kind of like a birdcage that the canaries know. My question is does this system do anything more than it pretends to do?

I have always been attracted to poets who want to do big things. Poets who define culture and who walk on a big stage. There are many poets whose work creates a world that is larger than the parameters of the Buffalo list or Barrett Watten's living room. Many of these poets are what would be termed Avant Garde- at least at their times but they are concerned with something more. It is not fashionable to talk about big things but if poetry does not strive for this what are we doing wasting our time?

I realize that in some way I am a heretic.

There is a poetic magisterium which defines-- but perhaps poetry in the American idiom needs to think about a bigger stage? The Flarfists have done some interesting things- but I don't see any of them going to jail for their poetic challenge. The Language Poets are allot like Conservatives- they are harkening back I almost feel like the current langpo progenitors would be really comfortable hanging out with the late William F Buckley.

I think about poets of my generation- Jennifer Moxley, Chris Glomski, Garin Cycholl, Lisa Jarnot, Catherine Daly and others and I get the sense that they are truly post modern in the sense that they conglomerate Langpo with older forms and deep reading to make something new. But I also wonder if something new is possible? Is prophetic possible?

Maybe the sing songy poetry of Charles Bernstein's Girly Man is all we have left? My New York Times keeps shrinking- Chicago might be a NO newspaper town- and books are to be digitized. So maybe poetry is a farce? But then I think about great poetic prophets like Celan, Robert Duncan or Osip Mandelstahm and I am satiated a little bit.

Most conferences are attended by people who dont work for a living in the non-poetry world. Ron Silliman mused about these conferences and cannot attend them since he like many of us lives in the non-poetry world. I think in the end that we can do allot of navel gazing but that poetry should be prophetic- the way St Francis was prophetic- and all too often this is snickered about; but if poetry does not have a prophetic role then what role does it have?

No one reads poetry for entertainment.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Iowa is what a University is to Me

Please Consider donating to the Iowa Red Cross. Eastern Iowa has been devastated particularly Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.
Like most Chicagoans when I arrived in Iowa City in the fall of 1985 I though I knew everything. I did not and I learned that Iowans are a different breed, rural, liberal, open minded and loyal. If any group of people can overcome these flood waters they are Iowa Hawkeyes. Watching the University of Iowa, my Alma mater being engulfed in floodwater's I was overcome by a deep sadness.
For me the University of Iowa will always immediately lead me back to the fall of 1985 when I first arrived there as a freshman. That fall of 1985 so many things that have become central to my life entered my understanding. I first fell in love with Thomas Merton, I learned about him from Professor David Klemm's classes. Merton in the Seven Storey Mountain talks about autumn on a college campus where all the classes look great and all is possible. That was certainly true for me. In my freshman year David Hamilton gave me a love for Ezra Pound, Lane Davis taught me to love politics. A simple art appreciation class taught me to love Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock.
I was very blessed to be a freshman in Iowa City.
Many of my friends went to Ivy league schools and I got into a few of them myself but when I visited Iowa with my parents I fell for the place. There was something about the whole thing- it looked like a University. There was a spirit to the place and this filled everything. In the end I enjoyed every moment at Iowa. The crisp air and the football weekends and the art and the poetry readings all made my life fuller that it might have been otherwise.
I was living in Bolivia in 1995. While walking down the Paseo in Cochabamba on a cold June day in my old Iowa Champion sweatshirt an old man come running out of a cafe. He came up to me and in perfectly inflected Iowa English he said, 'Go Hawks'. Martin, a local Iowa graduate, and I became friends he was a 1937 graduate and he played on the Basketball team. Martin worked as a medical doctor in Bolivia and he never returned to the campus after he moved back to Bolivia. His first question to me was "is the Pentacrest still the same?"
So watching the waters rise made me think about where I have been in the 19 years since I graduated. Taking with me what I learned in that place and remaining always loyal and indebted to the University of Iowa. I also remember all the fun including some great football which is as much a part of Iowa City as the Writers Workshop or the Pentacrest. Iowa for me was what a University should be. Safe and challenging, open and tough, and mind expanding.
I have already sent my donation to her recovery....

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Returning After Retreat

Spending a week with the Monks of Christ in the Desert was a great experience for me as a poet and a person. There is something about silence and simplicity that makes one go to the roots of what is going on inside.

The monks of this very international group live a life that is very old. While they are Benedictines (5th Century) they are also tied to the Egyptian Desert Fathers of the 3rd Century and back to a time when men and women took asceticism very seriously.

Today what is revered is 'success' but to these monks and to others what is revered is practice and being in communion.
It was a pleasure to partake in their live's and to understand how far we live from these ideals. I often think about the great ascetics, John the Baptist, Buddha, Gandhi, Jesus, the Yogiis and Zen masters and wonder what motivates them? And do I possibly have any of their strength?

So as I begin my day at work I think of the Wisdom of the Desert.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

If Barack Obama is Al Smith- Then is John Mc Cain Herbert Hoover?

In the New Republic, John Judis argues that Barack Obama is more like Al Smith than John F Kennedy and that he will lose the presidency. This begs the question if Obama is like Al Smith than is John McCain Herbert Hoover?
Most Americans forget that until John Kennedy's election Catholics were reviled in this country. In fact according to a Gallup Poll Taken in 1955 45% of Americans said they would never vote for a Catholic. In the same poll only 22% said they would never vote for a Jew. In fact today almost 30% of Americans have a negative view of Catholics.
Anti-Catholic Bigotry is in the words of Arthur Schlesinger America's oldest hatred. and Al Smith who was a successful governor of New York and a great leader was nominated in 1928 to be the Democratic Nominee a Catholic and the son of immigrants.
Smith Faced train stations surrounded with Burning Crosses, he suffered from editorials that excoriated not only his Catholicism but the fact that his four grandparents, one Italian, One Irish, One German and One English were all Immigrants and Catholics. Ministers preached against him and he lost the presidency to Hoover.
While Hoover never uttered a bigoted word his supporters did. He was supported by bigots of the first order and he never challenged them.
Is John Mc Cain going to be that man this year?
Is he going to allow the grandchildren of the Klansman, the Reverend Hagee's of the world to use the kind of racist rants and quiet bigotry to destroy Obama so that he can be president?
Republicans have been winking at these people for 40 years and making Abraham Lincoln turn over in his grave.
This is the question.
The Republicans have become masters at the silent ascent. Ronald Reagan began his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Why would you start a campaign in the place where the three civil rights workers were killed in 1962?
Silent ascent.
Republicans have also used other hot button words to separate Urban Catholics from others by using language like "changing neighborhoods" and Busing to win elections where their goal is to simply gain power.
Silent Ascent.
When Republicans talk about "socialized medicine" or other issues what they are say is you are not like "them". Is John McCain going to be like Hoover? Is he going to allow the bigots and bloggers to convince America that Obama is crazy black muslim from Chicago?
This is the only way that Mc Cain can win this year and I am sure he wants to win by any means necessary so get ready to relive 1928 all over again.
Unless America has grown tired of silent ascents?

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Christ in the Desert Day 2

Christ in the Desert Day 2

Well I have survived since three o'clock on Sunday without speaking. I have gotten allot of writing done and I have talked to myself.

I was always attracted as a younger man by the romance of religious life. There was something romantic about people like St Francis or St Francis Xavier or the Jesuit Reductions or Thomas Merton. Something about being so separate and prophetic. It was a romantic notion then as now.

My personal interest in religious life wavered in the face of my own weakness and all of the unfortunate baggage that has been created by scandal and human weakness. But having said that there is still something great about it all.

Being here with the monks I cannot help but think of what monks have given to humanity. Forget about the saints for the moment and think about this fact monks were the ones during the entire period from the fall of Rome until the birth of printing that saved the written word. In the year 600 only 3000 people in Western Europe could read or write according to historian Warren Treadgold of those 1/2 were Monks and Nuns. We owe monks quite allot. The Arabs learned about Western knowledge from Greek and Syrian monks so we all owe monks many of the books we currently read and for our history.

So my stay here is uneventful. The deep quiet is so disturbing. It is a good change though removing oneself from life and stopping. Too much of our lives is spent on chatter and noise and quiet and contemplation are needed. Having said that I will barely make it to Friday.... Peace


Monday, June 2, 2008

Retreat Christ in the Desert Day 1

Christ in the Desert-Abiquiu, New Mexico

Day One

June 2, 2008

When I decided to take a retreat after working long and hard on the event I manage I chose Christ in the Desert by chance. Sure my mom had been here once but I would have much preferred to go to Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky or Mepkin in South Carolina but they were full. So I chose this place.

I have to say to this point that my choice was good one. Christ in the Desert is a Black Benedictine Abbey. That is they are the OSB order as opposed to the Cistercians or Trappists which are also Benedictines but are a later reform. This Abbey is trying to live the rule of St Benedict and in our after post modern world that is a struggle.

This morning I arose at 330 AM (I normally get up at 4 AM so this is no big deal) and I walked in pitch darkness from the guest house to the abbey. The stars here are un blemished by lights and seem larger- I guess being at 6300 feet will do that to you. The weather has all the seasons in one day, 40 at night 95 during the day.

The monks here chant the whole office- this morning was from 400 AM until 830- quite allot of praying but I guess I need it. My life in Chicago is good but it is devoid of contemplation and quiet. There is something always ‘on’ ipod, work, Sox Game, Phone. Here there are no cell phone signals and you area cut off in a fabulous valley of red rocks and an adobe monastery.

I actually wrote this morning for three hours. I have not done that for a long time. Poetry tends to come in bursts for me and rarely in long stretches. It was nice to do that work and not think about other work.

I kind of view these monks like I view my poet friends who lead charmed lives (Simone Muench, Robert Archembeau, Joshua Clover, Peter Gizzi, Jennifer Moxley, are good examples) they sacrificed money and prestige to become poets and teachers and now they have time and perspective to be poets. Those of us who did not make that choice are of course green with envy which is of course deadly sin. They are in some ways like the monks here. These monks gave up the active life but they now live in community focused on what they love the most… I think all artists are in fact the descendants of Monks and their quest for quiet, devotion and focus.

So lets see what happens here.

Can I really make it for 5 days in silence…. Stay tuned