Monday, January 02, 2006

I suspect ...

... that Joan Houlihan is going to get a lot of grief for Three Invitations to a Far Reading (linked to at Arts & Letters Daily). I found this paragraph especially interesting:

I was recently amazed to discover from one of my students (who claimed I did not share his aesthetics) that he much preferred my edited versions of his apparently random lines. Why? Because they coalesced by means of re-ordering. The coalescing was still elliptical, certainly not a story in any traditional sense, but clearly there were connections between and among the lines. It seemed that this student’s “aesthetics” consisted of simple ignorance about how to create a seemingly whole poem from a series of disparate lines, even though it was his own poem. Not knowing how to do so provoked in him the idea that it was a matter of aesthetics rather than craft.

What struck me, while reading this piece, was that all of the poems cited are remarkably similar in their lack of affect. The seeming randomness of the lines in fact underscores this.


  1. Hi Frank,

    When I read a review such as Joan Houlihan's, I feel like Jake or Elwood Blues at Bob's Country Bunker, where they have both kinds of music, country AND western. Everything comes back to how Houlihan would have written the poem she's reading, so that it can be closer to a type of poetry that Houlihan likes best, the particular genre she teaches, the particular poetry she writes. She is appreciating another artist's craft in terms of how she would have done it to her mind better. Picasso would not have wanted her looking over his shoulder.

    I enjoyed each of the poems Houlihan cited, so much so that I may buy the book, and not as much with her revisions. A lot of preparation, skill, and care came from the poets who penned them. Houlihan enters their poems, then takes a reader-expectation detour, developing what seems to be a personality conflict with the poem, and a poetically correct disagreement with the poet. She leaves the poem, and writes as if her distraction from the poem is a valid continuation of her reading. She is a good reader, but wants Language poets to approach poetry writing as she would, to not do Language poetry unless on her terms, the terms being less of the Language part, more of her linear part.

    Some Language poets use patterns, some computers, formulas of all sorts. It springs from the modern age, both in terms of computer technology, but also in terms of such things as nuclear physics and modern philosophies of existence. That is their craft, whether with lifelong developed computer algorithms or not. I love Jackson Mac Low, for instance. I love visiting UBuffalo's ubuweb too. It is up to us readers to appreciate the poet's work for what it is, or put it down--and not rearrange the lines, unless in doing so, we are playfully appreciating it, maybe trying to find something within the poem that isn't apparent to us first read through. Next we'll all revert to criticizing poems that do not rhyme because they don't rhyme, and calling for an end to poems that rhyme because they do.

    On one edge, poetry is deeply shamanistic, with foundation-shattering messages, if only the so-gifted poet can express it on paper, be his own priest, whether understanding the inspiration fully, or even being fully conscious of it. On another edge, poetry is word play, with all the musicality and meaning play that the language can muster. My politics is to accept all of it in all combinations that it can come. Poetry is small enough as it is, without lopping it off in genres, until all that's left is what Houlihan and maybe Ted Kooser and a couple others who won out enjoy. By the way, I have been meaning to get down to the Joan Houlihan's Concord Poetry Center ( It looks like a great place.

    Houlihan mentioned Reader Response, and of course this is vital to the Language poets, but in a sense no less important to any poetry. It represents nearly all the difference on the meaning side between poetry and technical writing. When a 911 operator is reading instructions for CPR over the phone, there is no room for reader response differences. Yet, in many a good poem, every time we read it, we can get something else out of it. This is my experience with the poems Houlihan cited. Indeed, she helped me have some of those different responses.


  2. Hi Rus,
    I largely agree with what you say. After all, I'm on record as saying that "poetry is what poets do and there are a lot of different poets doing a lot of different things." I reluct at prescriptive definitions of poetry. On the other hand, going strictly by what little is cited in Houlihan's review, I am still struck by the lack of affect. I can see that being useful for a given poem in a given context, but as a consistent, unvarying tone it seems a blind alley.

  3. Hi again, Frank,

    I appreciate what you say about the affect in Houlihan's selections. Part of the genius of Gertrude Stein, and Mac Low's computer-sourced Stein-like verse, is the affect. When we take another step into pure L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry (as I have often seen it written), there is little to nothing in the meaning being communicated. The poet is not communicating thoughts, contructs, or memes to the reader; but writing in such a way that the reader can bring his or her own meanings, and, I would dare say, own affect.

    The more I read the poems that Houlihan selected, the more I see them as quite different--and enjoyable. She starts with the long-lined, channel-surfing poem of prose-like fragments, moves into a poem that asks us to consider it a sonnet with all the off-form variations making it a near non-sonnet, and ends with prose in irregular line lengths, neo-free verse.

    There are, though, similarities in what meanings are shared. They each seem to be relections, they have body parts or mirror fragments, each written by a different broken Narcissus. The last one seems to be about the poet or poem not having affect, the invitation or warning being not to look in the basket. It is peculiar that three such as these would be selected as if representative. I'd need to re-delve to see if this is now typical across the spectrum for Language poetry.

    I appreciated, though, that Houlihan did not use bad Language poetry, as some bash-Language articles do. She opted for pretty well-crafted, or maybe I should say well-considered, verse. Oddly enough in doing so, she attracted me to her selections.

    Here's another article out this week on Language poetry, maybe you've seen it:

    Zeek: The Other Jews: Secularism, Kabbalah and Radical Poetics.

    If we are going to appreciate this genre of poetry, or cast it off as Houlihan tries to conclude, we are beholden to have an appreciative come-from, a vaild argument. To cast off a genre of poetry, without addressing the genre on its terms, is a disservice to the art. There is no argument, then, to keep it or throw it away in Houlihan's essay.

    It's like you have said, and I have too, that poetry is what a poet does. Surely, we have very talented poets writing Language poetry. It cannot, therefore, be all bad, although it might be very challenging to create.

    Thanks this blog entry.


  4. Hi Rus,
    I defintely agree that there's plenty of room in the world for as many different schools of poetry that we can come up with. And I think people should be allowed to choose the ones they like and be left to enjoy them in peace.
    But let me explain a bit further about my uneasiness regarding lack of affect. When I was in college, T.S. Eliot was (a) still alive and (b) still very influential. One would sometimes encounter poems written under that influence. The influence spoiled whatever was good in them. It wasn't so much that they read like bad Eliot -- which they did -- but rather that the emotion came off as inauthentic. The poets did not in fact feel as Eliot had; they were affecting to feel that way. I would have a hard time reading a lot of poems in succession that all had the same flat emotionless tone to them. Do you see what I mean?
    (BTW, I notice that you know that there is a difference between country and western! So many peole don't.)
    It's exchanges like this that make blogging so much fun -- and so rewarding.

  5. Hi Frank,

    I see what you mean. In fact, I think I've seen what you've meant all along, but I am glad you have gone into it.

    In writing poetry, I dabble in different things, under the philosophy that the more I internalize, the more tools will be at my disposal to put down on paper whatever idea or inspirational happens to come. I don't submit much and therefore don't publish much, and these past couple years, I haven't written enough poetry either. Much of my work is experimental, some edging into Language poetry. My approach would be to write language poetry, for example, and see what it does and how I can do it, then integrate such effect into any future poem, even poems apparently non-experimental.

    Here's one at LSUS's Journal of Ideology from 3-4 years ago now: in sideout side (pdf). The poem runs onto a second page, btw. As the poet, it frustrates me when a reader says I need to make a poem such as that clearer. Without analyzing my own poem, just let me say that it doesn't seem right that the speaker should be grounded firmly into the center of culture, but thrown for a loop.

    It doesn't seem to me that everyone doing Language poetry or post-language poetry must take on a dull copy-cat affect. If it is the case now, then it's not the genre that needs to change, but more likely the poets.

    I should probably send Ron Henry something else, but one of my favorite places I have been published is in his Aught Magazine. The poem is more experimental in form than language, but a little bit in the language department also here: quest quirky quiet.

    FYI, this is from Aught's main page:

    AUGHT hopes to provide a forum for poetry and prose poems exploring the use of innovative language and imagery, including (but not limited to) "language-oriented" formal experimentation. Since 1997 it has given a home to poetry from nearly 200 new and established writers.

    That's a climate and landscape for poets like me. Indeed after being hammered by Houlihans, it's a poetic holiday.


  6. Your very first sentence about the grief Joan Houlihan would get is coming true here: Ron Silliman's blog. Click on his entry for Jan 1st.

  7. Hi Ron,
    Well, none of your poems strikes me as lacking affect at all. in sideout side creates a very intriguing world of its own (it instantly transported me back to the world of Yasmina Khadra's novel The Swallows of Kabul) and all the poems have music -- quirky quest quiet, in fact, is verbal music.
    Nice work.

  8. Unfortunately this very same thing seem to be happening in the very site that posted the article and the link to your blog, The League of American Poets. It is surprising who a lot of poets that have been published or are in some way related to the administrative processes of the site, are constantly telling young poets that the lose lines are abstractions that are crippling and destroying a poem, and I think that what your saying is absolutely true. We find teachers, poets and critics that would rather rewrite the poem some of these participants post them find the beauty and the strength in them. One has to wonder if this is not some sort of a disease.....

  9. .

    Here's another blog entry with discussion on Houlihan's article:

    Choriamb: Poetry News and Reviews


  10. woow
    Rus thanks for posting the discussion over at the Block. It's making my head spin reading all this. In fact it's making me feel quite ill so I shall stop I think. I'm feeling like blimey oh riley should I or shouldn't I write in a certain way or (slightly less productive if that makes any sense) should I or shouldn't I read poems in a certain way...
    This is like deciding not to watch the news on TV. If I don't switch it on there are far less rapists, murderers etc in the world.
    I'm terrified there are now Schools of Poetry out there and overwhelmed.
    All a bit too intellectual for me although I can follow, I can follow the drift. It's being able to follow the drift which is also damn spooky. Now I feel I should follow the argument too - that it makes me a more worthy reader.
    My honest opinion?
    My kids go to school - they're not School of Kids. I love them and I can love them even when they make no sense or do stuff I don't like. Poems too.
    I'm switching off.
    It's about as useful to me as football.