Carlo Parcelli

He Didn’t Really Mean It:
Donald Hall’s “Poetry and Ambition”

“All poets are mad,” Robert Burton wrote in The Anatomy of Melancholy. Well, not anymore, Bob. Maybe heavily medicated but not ‘mad.’ At least that’s the word, or more accurately not the word, one would use to describe the ‘perfesser poets’ and their look alikes on the Buffalo Poetics list and elsewhere in jabberspace.

Its been over two years since a short piece I wrote called "House Nigga/Field Nigga" appeared in FlashPøint #8. Maria Damon called "House Nigga/Field Nigga" “the work of a deranged mind.” Wow, Maria Daimon. That’s like being called out by the post-modernist Aunt ‘Bee’. It doesn’t take much to be declared ‘mad’ in provincial Mayberry---or Buffalo.

I know what all of you Charlie of Mayberry fans are thinking. You’re thinking isn’t the ‘Aunt Bee’ of postmodernism Marjorie Perloff. But in reality poetry chat lists, Buffalo in particular, are rife with scolding school marmish harpies. And, refreshingly, most of the responses to "House Nigga/Field Nigga" didn’t reflect Maria’s buttoned down, provincial titillation. Many readers, apparently also ‘mad’, enthusiastically embraced the piece.

One must assume that in Maria’s tiny, repressed, retro-bourgeois universe poets like Blake, Holderlin, Christopher Smart, Baudelaire, Pound, Plath, Coleridge, Shelley, Jarry, Clare, Poe, James Dickey, Sexton, Lowell, Berryman and, yes Herr Nielson, Amira Baraka if you believe that Maria-Damon-with-an-audience, Bill O’Reilly, are to be discounted because in one form of another they too were or are ‘deranged.’ I’ve read some tortured snippets of Damon’s attempts at poetry. Maria should be so deranged.

To this day "House/Nigga/Field Nigga" has received the highest number of hits of any piece in the last 2 years on FP. The total is in the neighborhood of 30,000. Only the long poem, Deconstructing the Demiurge: Tale of the Tribe, has received more hits over a more prolonged period of time, long ago topping 80,000 and counting.

However, no one to date, as far as I can tell, has seemed to notice that "House Nigga/Field Nigga" is based on an article by Donald Hall written in those salad days of poetry, 1983; an article called "Poetry and Ambition." Hall’s piece is in turn a reworking of a lecture from the early 1980's by the same name. It is divided into 16 sections. Section 1 begins:

“1. I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems.”

Well, he won’t get an argument from this quarter.

The author continues “...[I]t seems to me that contemporary American poetry is afflicted by modesty of ambition.”

He ends the paragraph with, “I think we fail in part because we lack serious ambition.”

“We” indeed. A paradigmatic and often quoted poem by Donald Hall goes like this:

  	To grow old is to lose everything.
Aging, everybody knows it.
Even when we are young,
we glimpse it sometimes, and nod our heads
when a grandfather dies.
Then we row for years on the midsummer
pond, ignorant and content. But a marriage,
that began without harm, scatters
into debris on the shore,
and a friend from school drops
cold on a rocky strand.
If a new love carries us
past middle age, our wife will die
at her strongest and most beautiful.
New women come and go. All go.
The pretty lover who announces
that she is temporary
is temporary. The bold woman,
middle_aged against our old age,
sinks under an anxiety she cannot withstand.
Another friend of decades estranges himself
in words that pollute thirty years.
Let us stifle under mud at the pond's edge
and affirm that it is fitting
and delicious to lose everything.

In "Poetry and Ambition" the author continues “...[I]t seems to me that contemporary America poetry is afflicted by a modesty of ambition—a modesty, alas, genuine ... if sometimes accompanied by vast pretense.”

After reading this, one is cast back upon the poem above, "The Affirmation," clearly nothing more than a modest effort in its own right yet pretentious enough to stretch from empty horizon to empty horizon, from blank page margin to blank page margin. Hall doesn’t seem to be a poet of his word.

One could defend Hall by simply saying he does not intend to include himself when he speaks of this ‘ambition’ for the poetry itself. Perhaps he early on gave up striving to be a great poet, seeing nothing in it for him in this poetic age of ‘afflicted modesty’ full of afflicted, timid editors and modest publishers countered by a few flashy sensationalists. But one suspects that his legion of readers do consider many of Hall’s poems to be ‘great’ poems and by extension Hall a great poet and that his promise of pure imaginative ambition has been realized.

But Hall’s essay itself makes such notions regarding the greatness of his poetry difficult to square. Again, on the first page Hall lists examples of the kind of great poetic ambition he’s talking about and the list is indeed impressive including The Canterbury Tales, Spenser’s now little read Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost, or Wordsworth’s The Prelude, “Epithalamion”, "Lycidas," and “Ode: Intimations of Immortality”, which he says are sufficiently extended. One can assume with Hall’s use of the phrase “sufficiently extended” he is also saying his poetry which is invariably not "extended" further, betrays his intent in “Ambition and Poetry."

It's Hall who says contemporary poems do not "extend themselves." It's Hall who criticizes much of contemporary poetry by calling the poems “often readable, charming, funny, touching, sometimes even intelligent. But they are usually brief, they resemble each other, they are anecdotal, they do not extend themselves, they make no great claims, they connect small things to other small things,” in other words a typical Hall collection of poems.

For example, this from “An old life”:

  	Snow fell in the night.
At five-fifteen I woke to a bluish
mounded softness where
the Honda was. Cat fed and coffee made,
I broomed snow off the car
and drove to the Kearsarge Mini-Mart
before Amy opened 
to yank my Globe out of the bundle.
Back, I set my cup of coffee
beside Jane, still half-asleep,...[etc., etc.]

Eh! “[C]onnect[ing] small things to small things”? No? Que?

Section 3 of Hall’s piece begins: “...[F]or some people it seems ambitious merely to write and to publish.” Once again this is a point made in "House Nigga/Field Nigga," but more importantly it seems an accurate description of Hall’s own early enterprise.

Who knows? Maybe Hall intended his early essay as a kind of retrograde Augustine’s Confessions where the life of a virtuous poet is laid out a priori so that Donald’s personal path of sin and redemption is more clearly drawn into focus.

Maybe he’s just confused about what he means, the way a first year philosophy student might repeatedly confuse a layman’s meaning of "intention" or "intentionality" for that of scholastic philosophy’s more specialized meaning of "aboutness."

Some would say, now hold on there; you’re confusing ambition with lack of success. But I would ask my critics to point out the equivalent in Hall’s work to a Paradise Lost or Canterbury Tales, or even the somewhat less "extended" "Lycidas," benchmarks he sets forth in his "Confessions."

Section 5 begins: “True ambition in a poet seeks fame in the old sense, to make words that live forever.”

Realizing how pretentious this sounds Hall quickly elaborates:

“If even to entertain such ambition reveals monstrous egotism, let me argue that the common alternative is petty egotism that spends itself in small competitiveness, that measures its success by quantity of publication, by blurbs on jackets, by small achievement: to be the best poet in the workshop, to be published by Knopf, to win the Pulitzer or Nobel... The grander goal is to be as good as Dante.”

All of my exhortations in FlashPoint and elsewhere have merely amounted to an echo of what Donald Hall is calling for here in Section 5 of his lecture. We may not agree on who best represents the positive qualities of ambition Hall puts forth, but after judging one’s work, meaning the poetry, such judgements of other poets, both of the past and contemporary, spring from the intensity and commitment the "authentically ambitious" poet has for his own work.

Section 6 of Hall’s lecture deals with poets finding their models. One of the most astounding things to me is how low most contemporary poets shoot when picking models to emulate.

Section 6 begins: “We find our models of ambition from reading.”

Hall’s premise is a variation on “you are what you eat” and it has considerable merit, arguments over what constitutes ‘the canon’ notwithstanding. He laments that today’s poets do not take as their models the great poets of the past, at least not the past of their own culture, ignoring Whorfian caveats. He makes the claim that poets don’t read and that poets who teach creative writing workshops spend their days reading the poetry of “children” instead of the masters.

Hall’s premise is as good as it goes. But I would contend that the situation is a bit more complex than this. Certainly, there are a fair share of poets who have a “lack of respect for learning,” at least what would be considered learning of a serious nature. Often this supposed hatred of tradition, which is more akin to fear of comparison, is a scruffy, outcast bohemian pose like you find among the Dadaists or the Beats, who ironically were anything but unlettered. Maybe, autodidactic and ecumenical, but not unlettered. Hall’s approach here is too conservative.

There is also a fear that in such an apoetic time as this one where poetry has virtually no authority, they are working in an imaginative environment inherently inferior to their predecessors.

But what I find interesting is what these poets, especially the academic poets, do with their learning. From my experience they are certainly familiar with the language of critical discourse and well read in many areas, including poetry. But their poetry itself is another matter. Before accepting a recent poem from David Kaufmann, I asked him this: “...[A]nswer one thing for me. Why do so many academics [who aspire to write poetry], especially someone like you who is steeped in everything from the Romantics to the Frankfurt School, feel compelled to write about your personal affairs [in your poetry], which is precisely what is not unique about your experience?” Why leave it to Pound, Olson, Brennan, and Parcelli to eschew theory and take on history, the scientific method, psychoanalysis, philosophy, economics, U.S. foreign policy etc.--- the culture at large?

Hall fails to make a distinction between poets like Homer, Keats, Shakespeare, and Milton who are not only deserving of some study but actually require it, and more parochial yet practical “models of ambition” that current poets choose to emulate. It might be a laudable enterprise to write your own Divine Comedy (I’ve written a few thousand lines of crude parody of my own). But it's quite another matter to take Dante as a model, which would amount to adopting and adapting the entire culture of his time, which informs his work, to your own. I’m not saying it can’t be done. I’m simply saying it need not be done, nor do I wish to give the impression this is what Hall means. Hall simply means today’s poets should emulate the scope and ambition of the greatest poets of the past. However, then no clearer example of not adopting the ambition of a great model is Hall himself whose influences are of a far more modest nature when one puts aside his rhetoric and takes his product at face value.

‘Remembering Poets’, Ignoring Their Poetry

What can a young poet learn about poetry from Donald Hall’s book Remembering Poets? Virtually nothing. Hall has a piece on Pound in Remembering Poets; it might be a reissue of a Paris Review interview Hall did with Pound.

My poetic mentor, Ezra Pound, did attempt in a very different fashion an updated version of the Divine Comedy. We can argue Pound’s degree of success or failure in the Cantos. But what can’t be argued is the epic scope of the poem. This is not simply a matter of length. Pound and his Cantos fulfill virtually all of Hall’s 16 criteria for great poetry and, given the industry that has grown up around Pound, it seems that the general consensus is that Pound is a great poet.

So, given Hall’s argument, this would make Pound a near perfect model for ambitious emulation, his fascist predilections notwithstanding.

Of course, there is no terza rima in the Cantos because it would be inappropriate for the poems' material as well as the time it was written. Who could write so elegantly of World War I when bodies could be mutilated in Ypres or the Alsace far more graphically than they could in the plain of Hell? So, the war section of "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" is chopped and shrill, unrhymed, desperate and builds into rage, a rage not unlike Dante’s in sections of the Inferno, but at those Major General Smedley Darlington Butler called The Racketeers of Capitalism.

As I’ve stated before, it is difficult to make musical a dialectic often formed from quoted material. But as one sees all too frequently in New Formalist writing, the reconfiguration of complex ideas to form a dialectic is virtually always rendered stilted and simplistic in the process. I can’t pretend to know the reason for this. Certainly historical models of all levels of ambition abound. But now its seems better for Formalist poetry, perhaps most poetry, to back off the complexities of its surrounding cultural contexts and focus on generalized sentiments. Otherwise, poets just seem in over their heads. Hall included. The best example I can think of is Dana Gioia, whose work seems a rush to banality even as he remains the main exemplar of the idiom.

Paraphrasing Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, another high modernist with epic poetic ambitions nearly equal to Pound’s, succinctly put it: “FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT” securing the poem for the natural world. Pound’s and Olson’s ambitious projects have spawned emulators but most flag at the study and energy required to eke out their own epic voice. It's harder than it looks.

And that’s why I think career-minded academic poets, and indeed poets of all stripes, choose less ambitious poets to emulate and less ambitious themes to express. They often choose poets whose temperaments were or are antithetical to their own, indeed antithetical to an academic career and a middle class life style. It's always seemed to me to be a dangerous business mimicking the personal behavior of poets that you admire and seek to write out of. Certainly, no one would or could adopt the pathologies of an Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, or Robert Lowell. But one through emulation may drift into their own pathology around measuring the relative success or failure of adopting such a literary personae.

And the personal nature of the most publicized poetry contributes to the poetrics of mimicked pathology. After all, everyone has an “I.” It’s a ready-made topic that requires no study. No study whatsoever. In fact, study can degrade the energy or so the theory goes. This leads to what Hall calls “a lack of respect for learning.”

But, of course, it's not only a pseudo-pathological obsession with the “I” that can inform a mediocre poetry. The mediocrity of the culture itself can perform the same task. Poetry’s vain attempt to become entertainment, not in the Dadaist sense, but in the Pop Culture sense, runs utterly counter to Hall’s conception of poetic ambition, not to mention the enduring nature of its product.

Take an example. Rod Smith in his recent collection, Deeds, has a line which goes: “Of course I want you for your mind/body problem.” Clever as far as it goes. But wouldn’t it be refreshing if the poet actually displayed some knowledge or understanding of the "mind/body" problem instead of falling back on a trivial bit of humor with the poet yet again acting the buffoon? It's like saying the philosophy of the mind and various sciences, such as sociobiology, computer science, evolutionary psychology, and the various neurosciences, including cognition, have cultural weight while poetry is reduced to using petty irony to take empty swipes at stealing a bit of thunder from more profound and authoritative disciplines.

Of course, because stand-up comedy is first and foremost entertainment, a readily recognized cultural and economic artifact, it has been raised up. I can understand the impulse to wrest back poetry’s place in the culture by taking what is occasionally entertaining and clown it up like entertainment. But this whole 40-year endeavor beginning with Gregory Corso and the Beats to find poetry’s next stand-up Ogden Nash has gotten pretty sad. Stand up comics get larger audiences precisely because they don’t do poetry. George Carlin is at his worst when he dribbles along in iambs.

Men Are From Mars.  And Chicks Dig Anything That's Angry And Red.

Even the occasional pieces of humorous and endearing poetic genius, like Drew Gardner’s “Chicks Dig War,” simply point poetry in the direction of entertainment, where it certainly can exist, but only as the least among many forms and where it stands to lose the most. Wedged between stand-up comedy and popular music, poetry, the foundation for both, no longer stands a chance.

I found confirmation for Gardner’s contention that "Chicks Dig War" just this afternoon as I read Jeremy Scahill’s Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. During an interview, an ex-Navy Seal and Blackwater employee, told Scahill that there was an added bonus to being in a combat zone beyond the great pay. He told Scahill: “Let’s face it. Chicks dig it,” e.g. war. There you have it. Perhaps this is where Gardner got his title, which for the parameters of this piece would set up a mere tautology. Then again the Blackwater employee might be a virgin for all we know. Then again Gardner’s proposition might be truer than he and his howling audience imagined, which bodes more exclusion for them since such poetry in this regard might be as out of touch as it seems, which is precisely where it belongs. I know it's probably hard for performance-minded poets to accept this. But you don’t need an audience to be at the center of things, especially not the audience now available if they are as half as ignorant as the scouting reports indicate. In fact, if you do have an audience, it's probably time to take stock.

By simple transposition you can see how closely poetry has come to conform as a diminutive to mass culture while garnering few if any of its perceived benefits of celebrity or influence. Take Jere Paul Surber’s synopsis of sitcoms, as diagnosed by Theodore Adorno in his 1954 essay, “How to Look at Television.” Surber writes:

“By introducing a comic dimension into otherwise painful social issues such as unemployment, racial prejudice, sexism, or exploitation in the workplace, [Adorno shows that] television [e.g. the sitcom] sublimates any potentially liberational thought or action which we might otherwise engage through the defense mechanism of laughter.”

One could easily add "war" as Gardner does to Adorno’s/Surber’s litany of social ills. And it’s no stretch at all to substitute "poetry" for "television" in the statement above. What remains is the listener’s raw hilarity at the poets' thinking they can or even desire to assume the agitprop functions of mass media and why such a person would choose to call his product poetry in the first place. Jordan Davis’ YouTube/cable show "Live at the Bowery Poetry Club," patterned after the David Letterman Show, is a perfect example of poetry trying to break into the celebrity industry. The self-parody notwithstanding, such attempts as Jordan’s confirm a frustration about the current status of poetry and an abandonment of patient focus on the act of creating poetry itself.

Most poets are resigned to the current situation and, befitting poetry’s station, are content to latch onto a current poetic mediocrity or a mediocrity of the recent past as their mentor. The recent idolatry of Jack Spicer comes to mind, a poet whose sex life is far more interesting than his poetry, and makes for a far better read. One might build a case for a brief, romantic, cultural interlude around Spicer, but not a poetics.

Indeed Hall is right. Most poets pick small, unambitious poets like themselves, usually close to hand as their models, whether they be Gerald Stern, Maxine Kumin, Jorie Graham, Dana Gioia, Phil Levine, Louis Simpson, Louise Gluck, or Hall himself. Often it’s a faculty member teaching in an MFA program with a little reputation that the younger poet will latch onto. But not Dante or Pound.

The Mocking of an Epic: Putting the Piddle to the Middle

Section 9 begins with a caveat from Horace’s "Ars Poetica" that a poet keep his poem under wraps for ten years until it “stopped moving on you,” as Hall put it. This would have been good advice for Gabe Gudding and his Rhode Island Notebook, a "rush job" or "rush hour job" if there ever was one. From a long section available online, the poem appears to be a work in warm taffy dragged out for hundreds of pages with ad hoc middle class, liberal observations, and ad hominem attacks on reactionary politicians. The sustained yet unforced permutations required, the kind that propel Gardner’s "Chicks Dig War," are completely lost upon Gudding, who seems compelled to say something even when he has little or literally nothing to say. I thought that was the well-patrolled preserve of the constabulary of the Langpo Po Po. Jerome Rothenberg’s blurb of the poem even goes so far as to mention Gudding’s poem’s “excesses.”

I had all but forgotten about Gudding until Anastasios Kozaitis pointed out that he had taken to calling myself and my friends names on chat lists we did subscribe to, behind our electronic backs, not to our electronic faces. This was about the time Gabe was currying favor, actually kissing ass, with the Buffalo po po so as to be allowed back onto the Buffalo Poetics list.

Years before, in a happier time, Gabe had contacted me expressing an interest in what elements we at FlashPoint had dubbed High Modernism. He wrote me and said he had begun reading Paul Metcalf but was bored. I told him to start with Pound. Metcalf can indeed be stultifying.

Now, he’s publishing poems as stultifying as Metcalf’s. Some want to call all this on my part sour grapes because I have no publications, teaching position, etc. But it’s the electronic age and I’ll stack the long Modernist pieces in FlashPoint up against anything Gudding has produced. Gudding isn’t worthy to touch the "a-hem" of John Ryskamp’s "21st Century" or Joe Brennan’s Work in Progress. And he can forget about matching my work, too.

In years past, Mark Weiss seemed to find every comment I made on the any chat list absurd and ridiculous. Ditto with Joe Brennan’s comments, so much so that we took to calling him ‘Grumps’ Weiss. He described my very first post about the inherently destructive nature of quantitative methods in science, as expressed in Edmund Husserl’s Critique of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, “a pile of shit,” but it was my 200-word response that was dubbed ad hominem. The only kind word he ever had toward me was for a piece of an unpublished poem of mine I posted. I was stunned not only because he admired it but because it purposely expressed ideas that he had rudely dismissed just days before.

Imagine my surprise when I received a signed chapbook from Mark. It contained a long poem a lot like Gudding’s. It seemed to describe a road trip or series of road trips, though it appeared Mark, unlike Gudding, was reflective enough to pull over to the side of the road every now and then to stretch and take a leak and jot down his thoughts. But the jottings were ad hoc, dull and rambling and full of Mark’s trademark "reasonableness." So many reasonable poets. Why bother?

Curiously, another ad hominem critic of mine, Aldon Nielson, also has a similar long poem, and if I remember correctly he too is on the road. And again it's rambling and tedious in the extreme, simply not tight, written like Gudding’s simply for length.

Aldon once apparently paid me an unsatisfying visit at my workplace. Though my employers were usually my friends, they used to complain that having me as an employee was like running a salon. I used to get a constant stream of visitors and was expected to discuss Heidegger, Husserl, Kant, Heisenberg or Pound while buying and pricing mountains of books and otherwise doing my job. Then Rosalie and I opened our own store and the situation got even more dialectically congested. Some days I’d have a dozen or more visitors.

A typical day might begin with a visit from Bill Blum, author of Killing Hope and Rogue State, Osama bin Laden’s number one book club selection, who lived in an apartment just two blocks from the store. Then Joe Brennan might pop in. Joe and Bill got along famously and a vigorous conversation about the lies and murders of the kleptocracy being hatched literally all around us would ensue. Too rarely FlashPoint co-editor Jack Foley would come by. The map and print scout Eric Sakarow might stop in and join in the conversation especially if it involved U.S. foreign policy. This is DC after all. The classicist and leftist John Garcia was in town for years dropping by the store. Maybe, Lou Wolf, the co-founder of Covert Action Quarterly (originally The Covert Action Information Bulletin), would make an appearance. If John Judge, director of the Assassination Archives, came by the conversation might turn to the Kennedy assassination, everyone mentioned above steeped in the details of the assassination, or some new information on the murders of Diem, Trujillo, Olaf Palme, or Zia al-Haq.

There was the poet and artist, David Hickman, whom Joe would bring by to visit. David Kaufmann, Romantics professor at George Mason, might stop by and chat about his first love, the Frankfurt School. Harvey Arden, who wote books about Native American culture and is a devoted friend and defender of Leonard Peltier, was in and out often. Bill Clark, the jazz dj and “the first black anchor[man] in Cleveland,” was a fixture in the shop until his death. Jazz avant-afficionado Jim Angelo often dropped by. Ditto jazz reed player Duke Amir. Lucio Benedetti was there with his “panic culture.” There was the Aristotelean from Catholic U., Mike Gossman, who insisted my poetry owed more to David Hume and British empiricism than to Husserl, Heidegger, and phenomenology. There was the largely pro bono lawyer, Jeff Lieb, who defended janitors and clerks wrongly fired by the Architect of the Capitol, and who read constantly and widely. There was intellectually curious Tom Hopper. There was the military historian and strip club bouncer, Rick Marsh. There was the Israeli professor of history at AU Amos Perlmutter, whose insider’s knowledge of the Middle East and book collection were perhaps both unrivaled in the DC area. There was the exceedingly kind and generous novelist Howard Norman. There was the obnoxious Heideggerian whose name I mercifully forget.

There was the retired CIA analyst who was a protege of Lyman Kirkpatrick, who insisted on bringing me declassified documents he wrote on Soviet weapons systems, I guess, to validate his role in the canard called the Cold War to an avowed skeptic. Then there was the retired spook who was with Frank Carlucci in the Congo when Lumumba was assassinated, who later, seemingly out of guilt, lobbied Congress to have the entire CIA archives declassified. And there was the bike-riding CIA analyst who came by several times a week to interrogate me on things like Central America, the October Surprise, Angola, and Iran-Contra, and I guess just to creep me out. Jack Foley stopped by to collect material for his plays. And there was Brad Haas, who was first a customer before we enlisted him for FlashPoint, and his friend Jim who read and collected the Beats. And, of course, there were the other book dealers from all over the country and Europe who came by to compare notes and scout.

Every day there was this wide swath of intellect freely bandied about and much of it emerges in our High Modernist poetics. Don’t worry, Aldon. I wasn’t lonely without you.

Not so surprisingly, it was only usually poets that could take only one visit: Nielsen, Tom Orange. Or didn’t know enough about anything to engage in meaningful conversation: Merrill Leffler, Karen Alenier, Roland Flint, Rod Jellema, and the benign, inoffensive Jacqueline Potter. Or simply only wanted to hear what they wanted to hear, e.g. themselves: Joan Retallack, Fred Pollock, Carolyn Forchée;. Hall’s caveat number 3 is in operation here: “[F]or some people it seems ambitious means merely to set up as a poet to write and publish.” "Why should I waste my time talking to you? You are neither published or a publisher. You don’t organize readings, dispense grants, judge poetry contests, teach workshops etc. All you do is think, discuss, read and write. It's clear you can’t help me with my career. So fuck you, Parcelli."

I’m always on the lookout for long poems I can pigeon hole into my definition of High Modernism. Of course, to date John Ryskamp is a discovery so monumental I could hardly have anticipated finding him. Ryskamp worked for years on his poem and Joe Brennan and I have collaborated on poetic technique for four decades. We handily qualify for Hall’s Ambition category and amply address Weinberger’s poetic criteria in his preface in Sulfur magazine some years back. And our poetry does not depend on theory as a justification for what can’t stand on its own.

Dale Smith of Skanky Possum once forwarded to me a chapbook of slight palimpsests he had written. The subject was Cabeza de Vaca, a subject that interested me. I had addressed de Vaca’s tale in two earlier poems of mine, briefly in Fernparallelismus and more extensively in the much longer and unpublished Empiricism in the Glossomorph. But Dale’s effort over all amounted to perhaps 300 words and it felt as I read that he had strained to produce even that. Dale seems a nice young man, but he’s no poet. Now, Dale, aren’t you glad I didn’t write a review?

This calls up subject matter as central. To parallel some of Hall’s comments, it's not enough to have the desire to write but you have to have something to write about. And you have to feel the subject passionately. Most poets feel themselves most passionately. Seems obvious but a glance around the oblivious and myriad poetry scenes confirms that it obviously bears repeating every few nano-seconds.

The poet I knew who most epitomized putting the cart before the horse, style before substance, was Ron a/k/a Liam Rector. As some of you may know Liam took his own life in September of 2007 after long bouts with heart disease and cancer.

I had only one contact with Liam in the last 20 years that I can recall. Anastasios Kozaitis had gone through Liam’s program at Bennington and told Liam in conversation that we had met up in Baltimore. Liam emailed me in his usual smartalecky, insecure tone. People who knew Liam will immediately know what I’m talking about. I didn’t turn the other cheek in my reply, so Liam never responded.

Liam was first a dandy, and secondly a poet. He purposely patterned himself after one of the subjects of Donald Hall’s 8th caveat, John Berryman. But Liam was Berryman without the scholarship, without the Shakespeare. Where Berryman wrote about Shakespeare, Liam administered the Folger Shakespeare poetry program. In conversation, Liam postured like a 30's movie character with his Berryman beard holding his cigarette in an affected way, glib and feigning drunkenness until he actually, I guess, schooled himself into becoming a drunk.

He occasionally attempted to draw me into the bureaucratic end of poetry. Years ago he sat on some Washington poetry committee. But at the time he was preparing to relocate to New York. He convinced me to come with him to a meeting with an eye toward me taking his seat on the committee. The conversation at the meeting consisted of ways Washington poets might get coverage in the Washington Post. My suggestion was we all just disband and go home and write poetry with poetic "ambition" of the kind Hall flogs in his essay and tell the Washington Post to go fuck itself. Needless to say, I did not sit on that committee. But more importantly to my mind, Liam did.

“An Atheist in the Fox Hole”

It's both tragic and remarkable that he saved his best work for his last. He did his best work facing down death. The posturing by then had become too ingrained and could not be expunged from his work. But he managed to see the ironic emptiness of his lifelong persona, even with his limited poetic vocabulary, to create two poems to my mind, and three if you judge from their iteration on the net, that are true and resound. It’s a terrible price to pay, but few poets can say as much.

to be continued...

Installments of the long poem

Deconstructing the Demiurge

"Crimes of Passion"
"Work in Regress"
"Onionrings: Adding machines_Crisco"
"Collateral Damage, or The Death of Classics in America"
"How Dead Industrialists Dance, or Swing Time"
"Tale of the Tribe"
"Millennium Mathematics: The Centos"
Eschatology of Reason: The South Tower
Eschatology of Reason: The North Tower
Eschatology of Reason: De Rerum Natura
Eschatology of Reason: The South Tower (revised)
De Rerum Natura: Hearing Voices
Eschatology of Reason: Shaping the Noise

The poet's comments on his growing poem:
"Is Everyday Language Sufficient to Embody Everyday Experience?"