Thursday, January 31, 2008

Sonnet 56: Lounge Singer

Come home, baby, come back again.
You’ve been gone too long;
It’s a world of pain you put me in.
Please bring back your song!

You’re so sweet, you’re my appetite.
Fly back tonight and sing.
Just a nibble, honey, to get us going.
A bite from you’s the thing!

Give me a little then give me more,
Eat me with your hungry eyes.
Close them when you’ve had enough
You’re my heart and my surprise.

Let’s have a party, tonight no dullness
Love’s the ocean in which we’ll drown.
Come on, let’s put our hearts together.
Love’s a fool and I’m its clown.

Bring it back! Shake it down south.
Burn away my winter weather.
If you don’t care, I don’t either.
Let it fall, light as a feather,
Yes, let it fall, light as a feather.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Sonnet 56: Celan

Sweet not-said blunt-edge
appetite sharpened.
Sharp hungry eyes have it,
swing low through stone,
temporal weather.

No fullness in the interim-ocean.
Pricked dullness, contracted shore.
Winter’s half-said, summer over.
When love returns, the dark is ready.

Cahiers de Corey / 2

To briefly examine the terminology, there is such a state as "postmodern," and we are using it as a word of praise. It means being of one's time, however jittery and out of sorts it may feel; a postmodern poetry presumably takes its energies from our neither-nor place in history, our post-postness. Being post-post doesn't mean your work is without substance or grounding; it's quite the opposite. We have always wanted the magazine to represent the best of the new, which for us tended toward New York School and language poetry, as well as much beyond. We have always been tolerant of difficulty and are sometimes shocked when perfectly accessible writing is condemned for its difficulty. We have never been programmatic. We publish work of so-called opacity and transparency.

For much of our lives as editors, the inside in American poetry was utterly distinct from the outside. You were "experimental" or you were not. At my first AWP meeting, in San Antonio, in the 80s, I heard Donald Justice stir up a roomful of Iowa School poets by attacking the "charlatan" Beats, "juvenile" New York School, and the "fascist" Black Mountain poets. Before he began to speak, he asked that the ballroom doors of the hotel be closed and guarded. I had known there were oppositions, but I hadn't realized how keenly the insiders felt the threat of change. At that time, outsiders had no role in the academy, so they congregated at places like St. Mark's Church, Beyond Baroque, The Poetry Center at SFSU, and Chicago's Body Politic. This was true throughout the 70s, 80s, and much of the 90s. Everyone knew what it meant to cross the boundary into academic territory, which unfailingly relied on the received mainstream dominant--for example, the free verse poem of personal epiphany. Those differences have been blurred by the tremendous growth of creative writing programs, the desire for many of the so-called Iowa school poets to join the innovative camp, and the marginalization of independent boheman sites. Whether you call it the mainstreaming of the avant-garde or the vanguarding of the academy, the result is a compromise, or mutual collapse, in which the avant-garde risks losing its signal powers of opposition and originality. At the Palm Springs AWP, 2001, Maxine Chernoff and I walked around looking for someone to talk to and found only Aaron Shurin, who was equally alienated by the Carolyn Kizer / Yusef Komunyakaa program dominant. Now all of that is changed. If you want to locate the avant-garde, you can find it the Nassau Suite at the Hilton, second floor. I don't exclude myself. I'm on two panels at the forthcoming meeting in NYC, one of which I proposed on contemporary Vietnamese poetry. The other is Newlipo: Proceduralism and Chance Poetics in the 21st Century. I'd like to be persuaded that literary professionalism is not dulling innovation's oppositional edge, or, worse yet, subsuming marginal practices in order to make them seem its own. Are Newlipo and Flarf the unrepentant, indigestible poetics of the new? Would it matter if Christian Bök and Kasey Mohammad had tenure-track positions?

I agree with Josh that New American Writing has always convened the "austerities of Language poetry and the ironic 'personal' characteristic of the New York School(s)." In an recent email, I wrote, only half in jest, that Maxine and I have been attracted to the personal characteristics of the language poets, Bernstein's wit and Hejinian's memoirist tendencies in My Life, as well as the abstract obliqueness of the New York School, as seen especially in Ashbery and Guest. As time goes by, the two camps seem all the more of a blend. There are postmodern lyric motives in Palmer, Robinson, and Armantrout, among others, but I don't believe they're specifically Californian. That late Barbara Guest look of the page, suggestive of Mallarmé, is practiced by tons of postmodern coconuts; she was born in Florida and lived most of her life in the Northeast. Our magazine, which publishes all of the above and has been described as "New York School," was published for much of its history in Chicago.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Cahiers de Corey

I've asked Josh Corey, whose blog Cahiers de Corey is so illuminating and on-the-mark, to enter into blog conversation about an important issue he raises in his remarks of July 5, 2007, on the current issue of New American Writing (2007). For context, I've pasted in most of the entry below. The issue I would like to address is that of a postmodern American mainstream, and not just because Josh presents the magazine as a centerpiece of it. Is the postmodern mainstream also the mainstream, and, if so, did something go wrong or right? We would welcome comments from others.

There are a lot of things I ought to be doing right now other than curling up with the twenty-fifth issue of New American Writing—a magazine I actually had to pay for at the local Borders rather than part of the mail pile. But I started browsing through it yesterday afternoon before a matinee (the ludicrous, forgettable, rather enjoyable new Die Hard movie—it stirred my nostalgia for big, noisy films that don't overdo the digital effects) and it was too good not to take with me. Maybe I've just been disconnected for a while, but I find it a highly stimulating reintroduction into the energies of the contemporary.

NAW is a centerpiece of what you might call the postmodern establishment of American poetry, as stewarded by Paul Hoover (editor of the still-useful 1994 institutional doorstopper Postmodern American Poetry) and Maxine Chernoff (who has two terrific pieces in this issue, a play of sorts featuring the lovers Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt, and a kind of Dickinsonian ballad in twelve quatrains called "The Commons"—a subject near my heart—"No one goes there now / There is not a place— / our commons but a song / lost as it is sung"). Hoover and Chernoff's magazine constitutes an establishment insofar as it palpably conserves the tradition of postmodern lyric that occupies, I think, the capacious middle ground between the austerities of Language poetry and the ironic "personal" characteristic of the New York School(s). It's a mode I often associate with California, perhaps because that's where I first became aware of it in its various manifestations hard (or abstract, or minimalist: Michael Palmer, Elizabeth Robinson, Rae Armantrout) and soft (more narrative, expansive, "hooked": Robert Hass, Donald Revell, Jeff Clark). But I think it's now accurate to characterize such poetry as the new American mainstream, retaining whatever oppositional force it still possesses only through institutional memory—though it still stands strongly enough as a bulwark against the laziness and anti-intellectualism of the genuine mainstream of American cultural life. Or as Brenda Hillman puts it in an essay I comment on below, "Current aesthetic quarrels and conversations between poets are real enough, and the aesthetically abstract or non-referential lyric poetry may have a different readership from poetry that announces its purposes in more narrative styles, but these issues should concern poets far less than keeping poetry alive in a culture of appalling greed, a culture that doesn't read much of anything, a culture that does business as usual in a time of Enron and retributionist wars."

The issue opens with new translations of some haunting sonnets of Borges, includes a telltale poem by Cal Bedient (one of the most passionate advocates of a return to lyric modernism in contemporary poetry), and includes an essay, "On Song, Lyric, and Strings," by Brenda Hillman, who is as close to the center of the postmodern lyric assemblage (I hesitate to call it a "movement") as anyone, as witnessed by the rather remarkable collaborative review of her most recent book, Pieces of Air in the Epic, published in the latest issue of Jacket. In her essay, Hillman makes a case for the lyric as exceeding and preceding whatever aesthetico-ideological program you want to assign to it:

It's hard to know what lyric means for post-romantics, post-symbolists, post-modernists and post-postmodernists. Lyric is an element in poetry, not a type, rendering human emotion in language; attention to subjective experience in a songlike fashion seems to be key in all definitions of lyric, and when "lyric" has been pitted against "epic" and "dramatic" forms, it has mostly been thought of as short, though it isn't always. Once lyric meant unbroken music, but since the nineteenth century, it may be broken. It cries out in singular, dialogic or in polyphonic protest. There is the question of the individual "singer," not to mention the individual lyre or the famous problem of the solitary self—can't live with it and can't live without it. Since the twentieth century unseated all certainty, the lyric is rendered on torn, damaged or twisted strings. A lyric poet sings boldly and bluntly to the general populace or is visited quietly and obliquely by the distressed hero who needs an oracle.

You can hear a bit of Hillman's own post-romantic commitments in that last sentence; elsewhere in the essay she writes, "Robert Duncan uses the word 'romantic' to recall a process-oriented seeking of original song," and then goes on to discuss the quest for originary "poetization" found in modernist commentaries on Romantic poetry (Benjamin on Hölderlin being the primary example). She shows her hand further, claiming "almost all lyric poets are beauty-mongers in some way," and I think of my own attachments to and discomfort with beauty. Ultimately the essay makes a stand for the necessary messiness and fragmentation of postmodern beauty, which Hillman deliberately opposes to the newspeak of our time, wondering "how the outlaw poetic sentence can address itself to the meandering sentence of official bad faith, and so makes again the large claim that poetry, audibility, synesthesia, are weapons with which to oppose the culture that our politics produces, if not the politics themselves. It's a claim I subscribe to provided we detach it from grandness and rhetoric: I think poetry does constitute a form of resistance but only on a micro, cellular level, perhaps only on the most basic level by which life opposes death.

I find less beauty in the poetry in this issue of NAW than I do adrenaline, a jazzing and jangling of the nerves, pleasurable but also anxiety-inducing, like a coffee mug filled to the brim with espresso. I get the high of contact with reality as it's being processed through clever, linguistically attuned minds all seeking for it in idiosyncratic ways. Their language vibrates with a dual awareness of history—the history of now, what I think of as "nap of the earth" historicizing, an aerial view necessarily and perilously close to the surface, under the radar of the large dumb arguments that constitute our everyday comportment—and history's impact on that subjective kernel that each writer proudly or shamefacedly or matter-of-factly carries with him- or herself, the energetic and continual collision of the unconscious with our intolerable Real. Some poets, like Andrew Joron, make the collisions and elisions explicit in their play, as words transform themselves to translate their nervous seeking into the reader's own nerve network.

Note: This post continues. See Cahiers de Corey for the rest.

Sonnet 56: Course Description

Shakespeare: Non-dramatic Verse (ENG 619). In this senior seminar emphasizing Shakespeare’s lyric production, we’ll focus exclusively and intensively on Sonnet 56, which perfectly displays the great poet’s vulnerability and craft. Using a variety of critical approaches, from the Marxist and Feminist to Deconstruction, Gender Studies, and Queer Theory, we will examine the poem’s palimpsestic structures of meaning. Was Shakespeare intimate with the reckless Lord Southampton, who funded construction of the Globe Theater? When love’s summer comes to winter, what season of love renews it? Course requirements include a fifty-page seminar paper employing at least two of the above critical schemes. Formalist readings are not allowed. All papers and class discussions must relate to the historic collapse of dominant systems of sense making in the post-Soviet period. Prerequisites: English Composition 1 and II or concurrent enrollment in those classes.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Sonnet 56: Prose Poem

The prose poem is said to have been invented by the French poet Aloysius Bertrand, author of the collection of night songs, Gaspard de la nuit, 1842. The work was popular and influenced Baudelaire to write Paris Spleen, who influenced Rimbaud to write A Season in Hell and Illuminations, who influenced William Carlos Williams to write Kora in Hell. The mode of night meditations / songs, which began with Edward Young, was popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. While it appears that Hölderlin, who wrote his own nine "Nacht Gesänge" as early as 1798-1800, also wrote a prose poem, "In lieblicher Bläue," the work is of uncertain origin because copied, according to his friend Waiblinger, from Hölderlin's conversation into a Waiblinger novel.

Sonnet 56: Prose Poem

I said to my love, since Julie is her name, “Let’s make our love even stronger than it is. No one can ever say our love has lost its edge, when just today love’s hunger was sharpened by fucking in the car, once down by the river, under the cottonwood trees, and once behind the cannery, with the smell of fish in our ears. Your eyes were full of me, and I could feel my eyes heavy with your smile. When we’re together, it’s a million starry stars. But when we’re not together, it’s a big bunch of nothing. We stand on opposite banks of the river, wanting to be us again, and when we drown in our love, the world drowns, too. It’s like winter and summer. Summer is warmer.” Julie didn’t say much. She pushed her lips at me. I could feel the heat of her skin from two seconds away.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Sonnet 56: Interruptive

Sweet interruptive love, renew thy force, be it not said
Thy interruptive edge should blunter be than appetite,
Which but today, interruptive, by feeding is allayed,
Tomorrow sharp’ned in his former might interruptive.

So love be thou interruptive, although today thou fill
Thy hungry interruptive eyes, ev’n till they wink with fullness.
Tomorrow see again, and interruptive do not kill
The spirit of interruptive love with a perpetual dullness.

Interruptive, let this sad interim like the oceans be
Which parts the interruptive shore, where two contracted new
Come interruptive daily to the banks, that when they see
Return of interruptive love, more blest may be the interruptive view;

As call it interruptive winter, which being full of care,
Makes summer’s welcome interruptive, thrice more wished, more rare.

Black Dog, Black Night

With the Vietnamese poet Nguyen Do, I’ve edited and translated the anthology, Black Dog, Black Night: Contemporary Vietnamese Poetry, which will be published by Milkweed Editions on January 28 and launched on Saturday, February 2, 1:30-2:45, at the New York City meeting of AWP (Hilton Clinton Suite, 2nd Floor). The event is a poetry reading by contributors Mong-Lan, Truong Tran, Hoa Nguyen, and Nguyen Do. The book will be available at the Milkweed table in the book exhibit. You can also order it online from

The book contains the work of seventeen contemporary poets from Vietnam including Dang Dinh Hung, Van Cao, Hoàng Cam, Nguyen Khoa Diem, Xuan Quynh, Thanh Thao, Hoàng Hung, Nguyen Duy, Nguyen Quang Thieu, and the younger poets Nhat Le and Vi Thuy Linh. In addition to those appearing at the AWP event, a generous selection of work by the Vietnamese-American poet Linh Dinh appears in the anthology.

The publication of our anthology will change the U.S. view of Vietnamese poetry, especially relating to the range of expression practiced since the “Nhan Van” development of the 1950s, when members of the Writers Association demanded freedom of expression, for which they were punished with loss of their jobs, loss of publication privileges, and, in some cases, prison. In the early 1980s, the poet Hoàng Hung, whose poem 'Black Dog, Black Night' provides our title, was placed in prison and reform camps for three and a half years simply on the suspicion that he had passed a manuscript of the banned poet Hoàng Cam to someone at the French Embassy. Banned from publication for 51 years, the surviving Nhan Van writers were officially forgiven in 2007 in a highly publicized ceremony; they were also awarded the nation's highest literary award. Three of the leading Nhan Van poets, Tran Dan, and the highly experimental Dang Dinh Hung, are featured in our anthology.

Vietnamese poetry has the same range of writing practice as the United States, from modernist experiment to the use of Quan Ho folk songs. This variety includes Te Hanh’s touching lyric, “The Old Garden,” the expansive modernism of Dang Dinh Hung’s “The New Horizon,” and the bold personal poetry of younger women such as Nhat Le and Vi Thuy Linh. Also included are two major long poems, Thanh Thao’s “A Soldier Speaks of His Generation” and Nguyen Duy’s “Looking Home from Far Away.”

Please also come to the Omnidawn (hosted bar) Reception on Friday, February 1, 7 p.m., Hilton Nassau Suite, 2nd Floor. There will be brief readings by Chris Arigo, Justin Courter, Paul Hoover, Laura Moriarty, Bin Ramke, Donald Revell, Randall Silvis, and Tyrone Williams.

I will also be participating in the panel, Newlipo: Proceduralism and Chance-Poetics in the 21st Century, Thursday, January 30, 10:30-11:45, Hilton Nassau Suite, 2nd Floor. The other panelists are Christian Bok, Jena Osman, Patricia Carlin, and Joan Retallack. Moderator: Sharon Dolin.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Sonnet 56: Word Ladder

summer love
hummer love
hammer love
hamper love
pamper love
tamper love
damper love
dumper love
dumber love
number love
lumber love
limber love
limper love
simper love
simmer love
sinner love
winner love
winter love
winder love
wander love
sander love
sunder love
sender love
tender love
bender love
fender love
fonder love
wonder love
wander love
wanker love
winker love
winner love
sinner love
simmer love
summer love

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Sonnet 56: Haikuisation

Haikuisation is to make haiku of any chosen text. You could make haiku of War and Peace , the Book of Job, or your driver's license.


Love, renew thy force.
Thy edge should blunter be than

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Sonnet 56: Homosyntactic Translation

Here's the third of 56 versions of Shakespeare's sonnet. The constraint is to replace all the major parts of speech, nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, with other words of the same kind, leaving only the syntax as the architecture upon which to rebuild. In this case, part of the artifice is not to take a playful tone but rather a serious one. This is one of my favorite works in the series, especially the tone shift it offers after Noun Plus Seven.

Homosyntactic Translation

Bright winter, withhold your warmth; even though
Your grass is often greener than summer,
Which recently the snow made cold,
Today it’s frozen in a lovely whiteness.

And when love cuts us, tomorrow heals
Our frantic wounds, and love darkens with kindness.
Yesterday lives today and won’t exchange
Its gift of life for a lasting strangeness.

Make our dark words, like oceans breaking,
Avoid that world, where hearts freshly broken
Slowly leave their beds. For when love senses
The turning of desire, the cold is everlasting.

Or blame the summer. While sleeping under ground,
It forgives winter’s seizure, three times named and forgotten.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Sonnet 56

Sonnet 56 is a manuscript containing 56 versions of Shakespeare's sonnet. I'm going to display the first two of them today, "End Words" and "Noun Plus Seven," as well as the original. Each day I'll put up another in the series . This project began when I gave a writing assignment based on Aaron Shurin's Involuntary Lyrics; he retained the end words of Shakespeare's sonnets and replaced the rest. I chose Sonnet 56 because it has comparatively modern end words, no thous or thees, but replaced "allayed" with "red." The students were further instructed that they were not to imagine they were writing a sonnet; doing so might constrain the tone. An absurd bit of advice on the surface, but helpful if followed. The resulting student poems were brilliant, but I didn't save them. Then I wrote a work of my own using the same instructions, except for restoring "allayed." Sonnet 56 was also of interest because it's not notable, perhaps even a bit average, Shakespeare the plodder or what Kenneth Koch called "fellow paddler." It is therefore more susceptible to imitation and trifling. Then I realized that I could write other versions, as Raymond Queneau had done in Exercises de Style, published by Gallimard in 1947. His original is "Notation," which begins with the sentence, "In the S bus, in the rush hour. A chap of 26, felt hat with a cord instead of a ribbon, neck too long, as if someone's been having a tug of war with it." (Translated by Barbara Wright. New York: New Directions, 1981). Queneau then provides versions of the same: Double Entry, Litotes, Metaphorically, Retrograde, and so on. With the exception of "Haiku" and "Free Verse," they are prose forms. It didn't occur to me that there would be 56 versions until I had written roughly that many. I counted and, sure enough, I was at the perfect conclusion for the series. Many items in the series, like "Villanelle," are traditional poetry forms; some, like "Blues," "Jingle," and "Lounge Singer," are from popular culture; some, like "Noun Plus Seven" below, are of Oulipo origin; and others, like "Chat Group" and "Answering Machine" are forms of communication from daily life. The rule of "Noun Plus Seven" is that all the nouns of the original are replaced by the nouns seven forward in your dictionary of choice.


Sweet love, renew thy force, be it not said
Thy edge should blunter be than appetite,
Which but today by feeding is allayed,
Tomorrow sharp’ned in his former might.

So love be thou, although today thou fill
Thy hungry eyes, ev’n till they wink with fullness.
Tomorrow see again, and do not kill
The spirit of love with a perpetual dullness.

Let this sad interim like the oceans be
Which parts the shore, where two contracted new
Come daily to the banks, that when they see
Return of love, more blest may be the view;

As call it winter, which being full of care,
Makes summer’s welcome, thrice more wished, more rare.

End Words

The way she spoke was not to say but be said,
In a voice of yellow silk more peevish than appetite.
It is possible (all is) that her sad blood was allayed,
Her tall hair blonde. Bleed an orange that we might

See, hold, and eat it when we’re ready. No sponge can fill
With ocean, no blue with its sky, an ancient fullness
Older than water and stone. Beneath dim neon we kill
Two bottles, begin a third, with a tinge of modern dullness

Singing in our eyes. Be everything you’ll never be,
My father said and did, when the world was new.
It is new now, each time I think it. Words swallow me; they see
And feel for me. I want to place my eye where the view

Is what I came for, dropping from my mind. We care
About the ground we happen to walk on, when sun is rare.

Noun Plus Seven

Sweet love game, renew thy forecaster, be it not said
Thy editor should blunter be than apple-jack,
Which but today by feeling is allayed,
Tonality sharp’ned in his former mildew.

So love game be thou, although today thou fill
Thy hungry eyebright, ev’n till they wink with fullery.
Tomorrow see again, and do not kill
The spirochete of love with a perpetual dumbbell.

Let this sad interleaf like the ocotillo be
Which parts the shortcake, where two contracted new
Come daily to the banker, that when they see
Revelation of love game, more blest may be the vigilante;

As call it winter melon, which being full of carfare,
Makes sumpweed’s wellcurb, thrice more wished, more rare.