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Archive for the ‘Criticism’ Category

“Accidental” Composition in Poetry

In Criticism, Poetry on November 22, 2004 at 3:53 am

Language is neither a wheel barrow nor a playground for theorists. It is not a sterile system nor common sense. It is the moment of transformation, from one thing into another, like the surface of a lake becoming mist, which floats away to tangle in the grass, turn to water, run down the blades, drain into the lake to become mist again, float into a cloud which grounds ashore on a mountaintop and turns into hard ice. Life is movement. Stop movement and life, the cell itself, dies. Language is the movement of meaning in the consciousness, therefore, the “life” of consciousness. Meaning, though ever-shifting, is ever there, so language is rigid and ephemeral, monumental and sliding, at the same time.

Roussel and Ashbery hinge things together on meaning, just not common denotative meaning. There’s a willingness to let the meaning form on non-intentional levels via rhyme, homonyms, puns. But, once done, meaning rises up from the surface of the poem’s lake into mist, breathed in by the reader. The meaning, that is, may not be authorial, but it always is.

These poems may not be “about” anything, but that does not mean they are not meaningful, that they do not “mean” anything. Part of meaning is the feeling of words crashing or meshing together, that ever-shifting feeling that means our clichéd perceptions of the world, our concepts, are dissolving and for a brief instance (C.S. Lewis’ “joy”) we can feel the raw authentic being of the world, our lives, the universe, of being itself, of which The Universe is merely one iteration. This is the alchemic, incantatory part of poetry. The most intentional, formally perfect, traditional, representational poem has it, in varying degrees. In fact fixed form’s demands act as linguistic generators in the same way as Laforgue’s homonyms and puns. They can create meaning in themselves as long as the author does not insist on the fiction of pure intent.

When writing formal poetry the writer has two options when his intention is at odds with the formal demands or internal insistence of a poem. The first is convention, to use those words and phrases with the rhyme and meter that fill the spot that come most readily to mind due to overexposure (poetic clichés, that which used to be elements of oral formulaic composition, kennings and so on; the difference being that they do not have power in the modern written context). The other option is to trust the poem itself, to yield, at least momentarily, to the currents of language within that poem, to release intent, to not be afraid of losing control. The more often the poet heaves the oars, has his share of successes and failures, the better judge he’ll become of when to let go, knowing he’ll be able to reassert control (if he chooses) by using linguistic elements in the poems as stars to steer by, picking up a thread, reorienting himself by relating some unexpected new element introduced into the poem through the intentionless process both to what came in the previous intentional process and as a path on which to drive the poem forward. Of course, the poet can let go completely, but that is often as exhilarating as it is disappointing and one winds up with a handful of clichéd nonsense (as opposed to clichéd figuration).

The poem whose intent, as it were, or whose author’s intent in writing it, is intentionlessness itself may do this more intensely. In this respect, this intentionless intent is useful most in the service of that alienating moment (derangement of the senses) of cosmic weirdness, that Zen, the “from outside” (H.P. Lovecraft) moment, the feeling rolling like smoke from incense off the lines. It is hard to say whether one can will the poem into that service, or whether it comes merely when no other agenda is present. A willingness to let the words exist for their own sake, for the sounds and associations, and not in thrall to some philosophy (like Surrealism), is paramount, or else the poem is sidetracked, and authorial meaning is reimposed.

The Internationalist Manifesto

In Criticism on November 20, 2004 at 5:29 am

The Internationalist is a group of poets, painters, novelists, historians, sculptors, scholars, designers, stylists, trade-paper sub-editors, interior decorators, wolves, fairies, millionaire patrons of art, sadists, nymphomaniacs, bridge sharks, anarchists, women living on alimony, tire formers, educational cranks, economists, hopheads, dipsomaniac playwrights, nudists, restaurant keepers, stockbrokers and dentists who have banded together in a loose confederation for the purposes of pissing on the door-handles of what passes for art and society in this sub-human rookery of modern life.

We are not by nature joiners so we made our own engine of commerce and malfeasance. We are the cast iron weathercock loose in the snowstorm of the andiron.

We are materialists. We believe in G)d, we just believe he is akin to a green crystal flickering in the world’s cave. We believe in consciousness, but we think it is made of chocolate bark. We have faith in love, which we think is a kind of ham – occasionally slimy when too tightly wrapped but delicious and nourishing most of the time. Tube Forging is hiring.


We believe realism is a dreadful convention that needs to be beaten to death with a bowling trophy and we’re just the creeps for the job. We’re not going to be nice to a world that has allowed “creative non-fiction” to exist. A room full of rocks is not art. Neo-classicism is the poetic equivalent of Civil War reenactment. It’s just embarrassing.


America is a whirlwind of greedy little troglodytes, dreamy-eyed natural food peddlers and professional victims eating each others’ babies. The third world is a roar of blood and fire in the midst of which barbarians chop each other to pieces with hatchets at the point of melting. The countries of Europe take turns sodomizing barbeques in public toilets. The Internationalist is the smell of unease.

The Internationalist is international and multilingual. We have knocked all the Fatherlands into the culvert together and are busy emptying our enormous acidic bladders into their squeaking eyes. The Internationalist is a pea-brained reptile in a day-caked sock, knee smashed, bleeding, near an artificial rock. It does, therefore, issue invitations. Perhaps you will be so lucky as to receive one. And perhaps ice cream socials will come back into fashion. The Internationalist will only invite to join those people certain to decline.


We are indifferent to your sincerity. We are unmoved by your plight. Your outrage is a paperback novel we read on the toilet.

The Internationalist is based on the realization that we’re all going to die. This is not a concept, it’s a terrible fact and it governs everything The Internationalist does and doesn’t do. We’re sorry we’re going to die and we’re sorry you’re going to die too. We will do what we can to make the best of our time. We hope you will do the same.

Twice a year Internationalist members in the literary, artistic, musical and scholarly world will get together, wrap themselves in tinfoil and scream at the top of their lungs till everyone else leaves. Oh, how we’ll laugh. Then we’ll turn to the serious business, the business at hand. New ideas in cellos, woodcuts, assonance. An essay on the concept of ‘ens rationis’, a poem about Iceland, a story set in Paraguay, the schematic for a machine to kill Daniel Boorstein, photos of a cactus, an article on the Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo.


The Internationalist is a celebration of sensationalism, hero-worship and victorious criminality.

May we humbly suggest that you cease consulting your muse?

The Internationalist opposes:

Ø Identity

Ø “Caring about” things

Ø Listening sympathetically

Ø Nodding thoughtfully

Ø Picking on people littler than you

Ø Sincere fakery of every species

Ø Awards

Gardens belong in the back yard – NEVER in poetry!

The Internationalist supports:

Ø The fucked up geometry

Ø Horseradish

Ø Compassion without attribution

Ø The magnificent spray of sparks visible over the top of the Pyrenees

Ø Columbia nocturne of embedded diamonds and the great force of water moving

Ø The fact of the soul made of planks of crystal joined together with big pig iron hinges

Every poem should be about GARDENS!

[Between a little bit of sense and sense itself, it makes sense, it’s sensible.]


An Introduction to the Poetry of a Non-Existent Magazine

In Criticism, Poetry on November 20, 2004 at 4:55 am

One time, not long ago, as an exercise, I wrote a biography for a fictional poet, Roberto Butterick. A few of us had created Roberto, and had written a handful of poems to be attributed to him, as an exemplar of everything unappealing to us about contemporary poets and published poetry. He was unfamiliar with the history of his art and with poets of other countries and cultures, he had not mastered any of the technical tools of prosody, he was academic, uninventive and obsessed with the niceties of his own life. He proclaimed a vague political radicalism and was intoxicated by the notion of ethnicity, which he claimed rather unconvincingly for himself. When I wrote up this biography, I sent it to Roberto’s co-creators, explaining the intent of the joke and suggesting we attempt to get Roberto published, which I asserted would be a far easier task than getting ourselves published had proven to be. All those I sent the bio to responded with the same objection: It was so unrealistic, so over the top, that no editor, not even of the predominant university-sponsored journal, would fall for it. One friend said I had, in “making up” the biography, obviously also made up the awards and journals he claimed to have won and been published in. I had not. Aside from the publishing house, every thing I wrote about Roberto existed.

Here is the biography in question.

Roberto Butterick teaches creative writing at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon, where he lives with his life partner and two dogs, Cody and Topaz. He received his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was awarded a Teaching-Writing Fellowship. He has published poems in New England Review, Colorado Review, Sewanee Review, Double Take and Ploughshares, among other journals. His first book-length collection of poems, Lumpia, devoted to poems about his Pilipina heritage, is scheduled to be published in 2003 by Oak Tree Press. He is also a winner of the New Millennium Poetry Award, and was named to the George Starbuck Fellowship at Boston University. He has attended the Breadloaf Writers Conference, Southwestern Writers Conference and the Squaw Valley Writers Conference.

In fact, I had cribbed his bio from a half dozen people who had their biographies published in conjunction with winning the Agnes Starett Lynch Prize at Pittsburg, the Walt Whitman Award from the American Academy of Poets and other prizes or had otherwise recently published their first book of poetry. I had noticed that each and every bio I looked at was identical. They had gotten the same degrees at the same places, published the same poems in the same journals in the same order, had attended the same conferences and been awarded the same fellowships.

Through the primacy of the creative writing programs, poetry in America has become so identical it could have been produced in a factory or generated by a computer program. When every poet has done the same things in the same order it is foolish to expect differences. Poetry is the application of the technology of verse to the drama of individual lives. Technology has not been taught in decades and the life experiences vary only in ethnic seasoning.

Additionally, the overwhelming majority of literary journals are published by the same universities whose creative writing departments produce the above-mentioned poets. If you are a student of poetry who wishes to receive good grades and letters of recommendation you must do as the teachers in charge wish for you to do, that is, you must write the kind of poems, about the kind of things, in the same way, that they themselves do. If you hope to become a teacher yourself, you must do as those in the hiring committees expect you to do. If you wish to get those positions you must serve your time as an assistant editor at those journals. If you wish to get published, you must provide writing that is appealing to those in charge of approving publication in those journals. If you wish to receive tenure you must win the awards administrated by the creative writing teachers that run them. If you wish to benefit from this system, you must produce poetry that the participants in this system approve of and you, in your turn, must require the same from your students, applicants and candidates.

It is no wonder, given the institutionalization of an activity once considered too anarchic for systemization, that American poetry in the early 21st century is unrelentingly same and hopelessly uncreative. Here are the strictures I have determined must be obeyed in poetic composition in order for poetry to be considered for publication in the United States in 2004. They have been drawn based on my review of the products of the journals, fellowships, residencies, contests and creative writing departments that currently hold poetry hostage.

The poems must:

Ø Be lyric

Ø Be written in the first-person

Ø Treat subject matter restricted to the personal experience of the poet

Ø Have no discernible rhyme

Ø Have no discernible rhythm

Ø Use no poetic effects except simile and metaphor

Ø Use current, quotidian vocabulary

Ø Employ no poetic forms

Ø Possess a politically and socially liberal tone

Ø Contain no allusions (neither in form nor content)

If a poet defies these rules, that poet simply does not get published, does not win the award, receive the fellowship or residency, get the job, get tenure.

In the past decade there have been a few journals that have risen up in reaction to this situation or gained greater prominence because of it. The now-defunct Reaper, the now-defunct Hellas, the Formalist, the Hudson Review and others attempted to offer a possible alternative, focused on form and narrative. The problem with these predictably feuding publications was that while one group decried rhetorical effects and heightened language as being artificially poetic, the other decried modern language and subject matter as being not poetic enough.

Despite their petty feuding and fetishistic theorizing, these journals drew attention to the problems of contemporary poetry. Along with essayists like Dana Gioia and small publishing houses like Story Line Press, the questions of poetry were raised again, for a time, in the public consciousness. Journals that had always gotten the majority of their materials from outside creative writing departments, like New Criterion and the Paris Review, were getting more attention. Generally, the cry for formal merit in poetry was slandered by the professionals of the creative writing industry as elitist and exclusivist. But at least the issue had been dragged kicking and screaming out of the locked cells of the creative writing priesthood. But as much as new creative writing students may have been inspired for the first time to attempt a sonnet or terza rima, the overall structure of contemporary poetry in America was never seriously challenged. All but a handful of the vehicles for poetry – journals, conferences, fellowships – were, and still are, controlled by the same cabal that walled them off in the first place.

So where does that leave us? Well, there is no us. If there were an us, there would be a place to publish, a public to listen. There are none.

When I first recognized the possibilities of poetry and wrote my first blank verse and amphibrachic tetrameter to the bafflement of the future award winners around me, I felt the elevation and clarity that powerful, formally-focused utterances gave my life, a life which, in so many ways, was at the mercy of forces bigger than myself. I lived through the momentary celebrity of formal writing and watched it find its little niche, as the careerists reestablished their firm control over the public’s awareness and unconcern for poetry. I watched my compatriots try and succeed in finding something else to do with their precious time. I continued to try to find journals and publishing houses and committees that would recognize the worth of what I was doing, regardless of its odd shape and excessive volume. Finally, as I too became an adult and developed a capacity to differentiate between fantasy and reality, I accepted that I was not likely to share what I wrote with the greater public. I accepted that any writing I did from that point on would be done without the hope of public recognition and that I too had neglected too many other areas of my life to pursue a dream that has not been possible, not in the way I wished it to be, since long before I were born.

I kept telling myself, there must be people out there who wish to read poetry that is equally unafraid of greatness and contemporaneity. There must be people who wish to read writing that attempts to explain the elemental challenges of the world, that acknowledges the need for learning, for the research that allows it to consciously take its place in the literature of the world, that is less concerned with programs and theories and camps and schools than with technical achievement and renewal, that is dedicated to wrestling with birth, love, sex, death, war, brotherhood, nature, justice and the structure and purpose of the world and our place within it. And there probably are. But they too have made peace with the impossibility of doing so in the world of contemporary poetry.

That world is largely one of dull people who have practiced poetry as a profession instead of a calling, frightened careerists who scaled back their expectations and did what they were told to do by the people who man the gates at journals, sit on hiring committees and judge poetry contests. All the magazines and prizes and small presses are in the hands of wan little hinterlandish sweater-wearers who teach and care about the poor. The few alternatives to them have staked out their small plots of land, where they tend their gardens, nurse their grudges and refine their programs. The few large houses that still publish poetry are either fed by these journals and small presses, using them as farm teams and filters, or prefer to publish the fortieth edition of another dead Modernist rather than to try to find those few new voices that have half a chance at making the reading of a book something newsworthy again.

But the poetry bosses have become victims of their own success. They have succeeded so thoroughly in walling off and claiming complete control over the world of American poetry that it is not simply the would-be usurper who cannot get in. It is also the educated layman, the searching reader, the audience.

What can I do, faced with these realizations? No doubt, I should take my leave of it completely. But Juvenal captures something of the truth when he says:

No use to try to give it up; the noose of a hopeless infection,

Writer’s itch, has us all by the neck till we’re old and sick-hearted.

Perhaps I will continue to attempt to write poetry that combines technical accomplishment, intellectual honesty and emotional depth, that treats frankly the struggles of human beings to live a full and meaningful life in the world we share; perhaps I will do so because it is one of the small true actions left to a man who wanted to be a poet in an age that has left them behind.

Poetry in the Victorian Era

In Criticism, Poetry on November 20, 2004 at 4:50 am

We must stop talking about poetry. We must start regarding and treating poetry as the children of the Victorian age regarded and treated the insane aunt locked in the attic. Think about her, thrill to the perverted feelings of sickness she creates in us, listen and sniff at the crack in the door she rattles her chains behind and, when a particularly opulent dinner party is in full flower, one on whom the favor, wealth, success and future of the family is dependent, surreptitiously steal the key from the kitchen drawer, unlock the attic door, unfasten the chains, and let her, naked and streaked with filth, etiolated from the darkness, blind-eyed and unshorn, shriek down the stairs and into the midst of the party, screaming and spitting and smashing and gouging, to bolt into the night streets, leaving behind an enraged, horrified and sickened crowd and a broken and shunned family.

In Defense of Irresponsible Journalism

In Criticism, Journalism on November 20, 2004 at 4:38 am

Irresponsible Journalism is any journalism that is not “responsible,” that is, it does not merely lie passively until it responds or reacts to outside stimuli, and it is not stroke mag material for a “demographic”; it does not preach to the choir.

To write contrary to accepted conventions is the very marrow of ‘crazy talk,’ whether that’s indicting the consolidation of media companies and the goose-stepping commandants in Congress that have made it possible, dunning liberals for employment of empty rhetoric in the service of self-aggrandizement, writing a 23,000 word article on avocados that only uses no other noun but “lozenge,” freely mixing made-up quotes and manufactured statistics with “real” reporting, mixing satire and eulogy without “proper” attribution, taking poetry seriously and publishing it alongside political analysis, fiction, news articles and so on, or whatever else defies the conventions that put random facts and predetermined “truths” before the discovery of what actually is or what is most likely given a sincere attempt by smart people to understand, regardless of how the conclusion might clash with their cherished fictions.

Picture the new New Criterion. You’re soaking in it. (Now With More Homosexual Communism!)

In other words, the time has come again to pick up that old adolescent hammer and enrage the adults. With irresponsibility. People cherish their fictions and the only fictions they have are those that make them feel good about how they have yielded to their fears. Let’s take a hammer to these fictions. And this time, because we are adults and the hammer is bigger, we can swing it harder.

All during this terrorism at the towers and the wars, I have had a growing feeling that art has had some role to play but no one was filling it. They were all being responsible and thinking deep thoughts and finding politics relevant. Look at the “art” that responds to the current state of things: Those jaw-flappin’ Muppets with their anti-war poetry? Shit, that didn’t hurt anyone’s feelings. Without indulging in self-aggrandizement myself, perhaps I can assert that Crazy Talk, because it is, in essence, ‘art’ and not politics, has a chance at least of denting a helmet or two. Match up insightful, clean analysis with subversive potty-mouth gibberish and present it as a mainstream publication, with no concessions to clarity, and, voila!… Well, probably nothing. But it sounds like fun.

When responsible journalism to the center and right, which gives lip service to objectivity and accuracy and then produces the NYT’s coverage of the Sandanistas in the 80s and Jayson Blair in the 90s/00s, when responsible journalism to the left produces alarmist conspiracy screeds crediting right-wing think tanks with omnipotence and omniscience, when the responsible research that responsible journalists rely on to do their work produce two identical sets of economists none of which are capable of definitively proving that FTAs are good or bad, when responsible journalism responds to the dictates of the boardroom, the business office or the politburo, instead of the bordello, then it is the duty of any thinking person to take up irresponsible journalism and use it to tell lies, make light of serious matters, rebuke, sedately consider and make fart noises in the church where everyone worships and no one believes; for the sake of Almighty God, amen.

To wit:

With friends like responsible journalism, who needs enemies?

If responsible journalism ‘tells it like it is’ how can we ignore our responsibility to lie?

When the entire context in which responsible journalists in the center, responsible journalists on the left and responsible journalists on right ply their trade is a faulty presumption, how can we continue to operate within that context?

I’m not talking about just ‘news’, I’m also talking about ‘analysis’ — from Kagan to Nye.

They’ve all agreed to disagree. I have agreed to no such thing.

“I have learned nothing but that something remains.”

My responsibility is to that which remains. Not to professional standards — shorthand for legerdemain — not to the truth — code for whatever my prejudices, fears, weaknesses, preconceptions, conventions and bosses allow me to think.

The most important journalist alive is not Kristol and not Cockburn, it is Steiger, the same Rod Steiger who heretofore has written only quote-copy for Bob Folder. Steiger is the future, Steiger is salvation and we are his midwives.