BACKLIST (Best poetry books 2000-2010)

Wednesday, January 10, 2018 — A follow-up list of best poetry books from the preceding decade

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Several days ago, I posted a list of books worth looking at if you want to be part of a complicated discussion involving contemporary poetry. A few of the books I listed would probably be regarded as belonging to the category known as “difficult” poetry, which no doubt left some people wondering exactly where I stand. Like some people’s relationship, it’s “complicated.”

I know some poets don’t like “difficult” poetry, but I don’t hold that against them. Some of these poets have written work I truly admire. The late Steve Kowit, for instance, is one of those whose poems I often savor and reread, but he was still haplessly beating a dead horse the last time he read at the Long Beach poetry festival, in mocking the influence of critical theory on contemporary poetry. I had heard it years before, and it really wasn’t that funny then. To lambast the alleged deleterious effects of theory on contemporary poetry in this decade came across like a comedian in 1969 telling jokes about beatniks. Anachronistic humor is so tedious. (Fortunately, the best poems of Steve Kowit will be work that endures, in part because the emotions that these poems summon end up being difficult ones to think about.)

I often wonder how academic poets, especially those whose primary job is training aspiring poets in MFA programs, expect discussions about poetry not to be difficult. I’m not just referring to the acolytes of Billy Collins, by the way, whose anecdotal, mildly humorous verse has worn all too thin, all too quickly. Metrical verse can be “difficult,” too, and poets who espouse avant-garde poetics often flounder when they encounter metrical verse. For that matter, all too many MFA teachers seem to have no idea of what a caesura in a line of metrical verse actually does. I am not, under any circumstances, defer to the massive and inexcusable ignorance that seems to be acceptable at the university level right now. If you can’t hear the poem, then you haven’t read it. Then, too, if you’re one of these purists who has to have it one way or the other, then take your homogeneity elsewhere and clone away, baby, clone yourself away into insipidity. I intend to have the best of both ways.

I’ve been fine-tuning the list for the current decade, and in the process discovered that I had mistakenly assigned one book to the “backlist” of the previous decade’s “Best of.” Ultimately, by 2020, what I aspire to compile is a list of books that will intrigue those who read contemporary poetry enough to make them want to investigate the unfamiliar titles. As a brief installment of books that will certainly be substantial contenders for that final list, and which appeared in the first decade of the century, here goes:

Mean Free Path — Ben Lerner (Copper Canyon, 2010)
(This book owes more than has been generally acknowledged to Barrett Watten’s poetry. Whether Lerner has read him or not, he’s absorbed much of the implications of Watten’s formidable and inspiring writing. The dispersal of a poet’s influence often leads casual commentary into overlooking the commitment required by those who prepared the way.)

Lighthead — Terrance Hayes (Penguin, 2010)

Odalisque — Mark Salerno (Salt, 2009)
(This book deserved a major prize.)

Lucifer at the Starlight — Kim Addonizio (Norton, 2009)

Easy — Marie Ponsot (Knopf. 2009)

TIRESIAS: Collected Poems — Leland Hickman (edited by Stephen Motika; afterword by Bill Mohr) (Nightboat/Seismicity Editions, 2009)

Hilarity — Patty Seyburn (New Issues Pres, 2009)

Indigo — Ron Koertge (Red Hen, 2009)

It’s Go in Horizontal: Selected Poems 1974-2006 — Leslie Scalapino (University of California Pres, 2008)

The White Bride — Sarah Maclay (University of Tampa Press, 2009)

Shadow Ball: New and Selected Poems Charles Harper Webb (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009)

Half the World In Light: New and Selected Poems — Juan Felipe Herrera (University of Arizona Press, 2008)

My Piece of the Puzzle — Doren Robbins (Eastern Washington University, 2008)

God Particles — Tom Lux (Houghton Mifflin, 2008)

Backscatter: New and Selected Poems — John Olson (Black Widow, 2008)

The Alphabet — Ron Silliman (University of Alabama Press, 2008)

The Messianic Trees: Selected Poems — Kit Robinson (Adventures in Poetry, 2008)

187 Reasons Mexicanoes Can’t Cross the Border —Juan Felipe Herrera (City Lights, 2007)

The Age of Huts (Compleat) — Ron Silliman (Futurepoem, 2007)

Murmur — Laura Mullen (Futurepoem, 2007)

Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005 — Robert Hass (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2007)

All that Is Not given Is Lost! — Greg Kozma (Backwaters Press, 2007)

Elegy — Mary Jo Bang (Greywolf, 2007)

Vertigo — Martha Ronk (Coffee House, 2007)

The Wind-Up Gods — Stefi Weisburd (Black Lawrence Press, 2007)

The Pleasures of the Damned — Charles Bukowski (edited by John Martin) (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2007)

DRIVE: The First Quartet (1980-2005) — Lorna Dee Cervantes (Wings, 2006)

Facts About the Moon — Dorianne Laux (Norton, 2006)

The Persistence of Objects — Richard Garcia (Boa Editions, 2006)

Toward the Winter Solstice Timothy Steele. (Ohio University Press/Swallow, 2006)

Red Snow Fence — Harry E. Northup (Cahuenga Press, 2006)

A Wreath for Emmett Till — Marilyn Nelson (Houghton Mifflin, 2005).

A Word Like Fire — Dick Barnes (Handsel, 2005)

Ostinato Vamps — Wanda Coleman (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004)

The Face: A Novella in Verse — David St. John (Harper, 2004)

The Temperature of This Water — Isle Yi Park (Kaya Books, 2004)

Sparrow: Poems — Carol Muske-Dukes (Random House, 2004)

Late — Cecilia Woloch (Boa Editions, 2003)

Collected Works — Lorine Niedecker (edited by Jenny Penberthy) (University of California Press, 2002)

Memoirs of a Street Poet — Frank T. Rios (Sawbone/Temple of Man, 2002)

The Splinter Factory — Jeffrey McDaniel (Manic D Press, 2002)
(It is worth noting that he is one of the few poets on this list to have a substantial number of poems translated into another language and published in a stand-alone volume in that language. Tom Lux is another such poet, as are Ben Lerner, Tracy Smith and Cecilia Woloch.)

Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry — Alan Dugan (Seven Stories, 2002)

walking barefoot in the glassblowers museum — ellyn maybe (manic d press, 2002)
NOTE: One of the best titles for a book of poems since Stephen Keller’s The Nostalgia of the Fortune Teller.)

Hip Logic — Terrance Hayes (Penguin, 2002)

Tsigan, The Gypsy Poem — Cecilia Woloch (Cahuenga Press, 2002)

Embarrassment of Survival: Selected Poems 1970-2000 — Paul Vangelisti (Marsilio/Agincourt, 2001)

The Laugh We Make When We Fall — Susan Firer (The Backwaters Press, 2001)

The Street of Clocks — Tom Lux (Houghton Mifflin, 2001)

Mercurochrome — Wanda Coleman (Black Sparrow, 2001)

Rancho Notorious — Richard Garcia (Boa Editions, 2001)

No one should think, by the way, that having a book just listed means that everything he or she has written deserves equal attention. Past success is not a reliable indicator of future success, at least in art. In sports, past success can be useful in creating gambling odds (for bettors) and WAR (“Win above replacement”) statistics (for coaches). In poetry, past success more typically is a source of bewilderment. How did a poet who wrote many very fine poems (among some of the best of his generation, in fact) in Shadow Ball turn out such a mediocre collection of poems in Brain Camp? One can only hope that it was a temporary lapse, and that his next book will mark him as comeback poet of the decade. This falling off, however, should not efface the level of accomplishment in Shadow Ball. With the exception of a few poets, Webb’s poetry is far better than the bulk of the work published by Tupelo Press, for instance. I will have more to say about that press in a future post. In the meantime, rest assured that the absence of its books from my list is not an accident.

A Lake on the Earth / A Word Like Fire

Tuesday, January 9, 2018 – Robert Mezey and Dick Barnes

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A LAKE ON THE EARTH / A WORD LIKE FIRE

I’ve been keyboarding material in a pamphlet I issued back in late 1982 that served as a catalogue for Momentum Press. I wanted to do a mailing to libraries in hopes of generating more book orders, since surprisingly few libraries were ordering volumes of poetry that certainly deserved a place on the shelf next to the ones that were winning the big book prizes. Indeed, one of the books I had published in 1980 had landed on a list of five finalists for the best book of poetry published that year. I have no doubt that the editors and publicist at Knopf had never heard of Leland Hickman’s Great Slave Lake Suite until the day that title appeared in the finalist list. Many of the other titles I published deserved equal attention, and some had received resoundingly respectful notices. There were enough such reviews, in fact, that I felt I might improve sales if I put together an overview of the press up to that point. About two years earlier, I had done a joint catalogue with Dennis Koran’s Panjandrum Press and Mudborn Press (edited by Judyl Mudfoot and Sasha Newborn) in Santa Barbara, and that had generated some sales, so it made sense to try it again. (Unfortunately, the recession of Reagan’s first term of office had a devastating effect on small presses and bookstores, and Momentum Press never recovered.) In creating computer files of excerpts from two dozen reviews of Momentum Press books the past couple days, I have once again realized how fortunate I was to have so many talented poets entrust me with their work.

Indeed, it is only in recent years that I have fully appreciated what a large percentage of the writers, whose debuts I gave precedence to, proved to be individuals possessing an enduring and substantial talent. The number of novels or books of poems produced since the late 1970s and early eighties by Jim Krusoe, Alicia Ostriker, Kate Braverman, Holly Prado, James Grabill, Jim Moore, and Michael C. Ford far outpaces the production of most authors associated with typical small press of that period. Equally unusual are the instances in which the poets I published achieved some measure of posthumous recognition; Leland Hickman and Dick Barnes most certainly fit that category. Lee Hickman was on the verge of being forgotten as a poet, until I nominated him to Stephen Motika at Poets House in NYC. Stephen’s Nightboat Books collaborated with Seismiscity Editons at the Otis College of Art and Design to published TIRESIAS: The Collected Poems of Leland Hickman at the end of the past decade.

Today, though, I want to point to another poet whose work received some glowing reviews, but only after he died. I hope I don’t end up sounding too aggrieved at this development, but I must admit that it was difficult to repress an internal rant about the tardy praise for Dick Barnes’s poetry that I read online yesterday in venues such as Ploughshares, New Yorker, and the Library of America blog. Donald Hall and Tom Sleigh are full of praise for Dick Barnes in the 21st century, but where were they when I published A Lake on the Earth in 1982? If anyone deserved more attention at that point, it was Dick Barnes, but he was one of the most modest men I ever met, and modesty has rarely helped anyone achieve immodest literary stature.

Is there a lesson for young writers in the survival of Barnes’s poetry? Well, it might be a good idea to find a friend who respects and cares enough about your work to keep speaking up for it. If it weren’t for Robert Mezey, in fact, Dick Barnes would not be visible at all right now, except in the backlist of Momentum Press and a few other even more underground projects. Here are the links to the notices on Barnes’s A Word Like Fire, which was edited by his good friend – and most extraordinary poet himself – Robert Mezey. Let me pause and say it here, since I don’t see it said often enough in places that should know better: Mezey is among the dozen or so poets in the past half-century who have written truly memorable poems. I first heard him read at San Diego State in the spring of 1968, and he has remained a model of devotion to poetry as the supreme art of the imagination ever since. In the course of speaking up for other poets, both as an editor and translator, he has not surprisingly been neglected in terms of appropriate honors for his own poetry. If anyone deserves the George Drury Smith Award, for instance, it is Robert Mezey, but I fear that reading is mainly fashion these days. That Mezey reads and speaks up when the work merits praise, regardless of the writer’s so-called reputation, is one of the traits that Mezey shared with his former colleague at Fresno State, Philip Levine. While Levine is certainly one of the most prominent figures in American poetry, it is Mezey I find myself thinking more of these days, and wishing that I could have studied with him. Indeed, at the very least, I wish I could find the money to have him come and give a reading at CSU Long Beach.

By the way, there are two poets the equal of Dick Barnes who are missing from the list I posted the other day. I know of two other poets who are long-time friends of these two missing poets who would spot each absence right away. I doubt, however, there is anyone who can name them both. And so it goes….

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/08/29/a-word-like-fire-selected-poems

https://www.pshares.org/issues/spring-2005/word-fire-dick-barnes

http://blog.loa.org/2011/10/tom-sleigh-on-dick-barness-word-like.html

Finally, I wish to note that on the Amazon company’s page on which A Word Like Fire is advertised as still available, one can read the comment to the effect that all future anthologies should contain Barnes’s poems. Apparently, no one takes this kind of pronouncement seriously, since as far as I know only Suzanne Lummis, Robert Mezey and myself have included Dick Barnes in their anthologies. Odd, isn’t it, that all three of us live in Southern California, supposedly a place with little capacity for literary discrimination?

Best U.S. Poetry Books of this Decade (A List in Progress)

Friday, January 5, 2018 (updated, Saturday, January 6, 2018) (Updated: January 10, 2018)

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I recently took a look at some lists of poets and their books that were being recommended as worthy of my attention. Well, not just recommended, but in some cases configured in such a manner as to be made “mandatory.” Apparently, Louise Gluck and Jorie Graham each have their advocates as being the “greatest” American living poets. Given a choice of walking three blocks and hearing them read, and staying home to read one of the following books, I’ll be staying home.

I doubt very many people will be familiar with all these books, but I hope the ones you have read will encourage you to investigate the unknown titles. In fact, I also hope that the absence of some well-known poets will underline the contrast that the poets in this list provide to the fashion show of American poetry. The list will top itself off around 100 titles within the next two years.

And, I do have to confess (a week after first posting this) to having failed to offer a disclaimer. Unlike most people who engage in some form of cultural critique, I once was a publisher and editor of an independent press (Momentum Press 1974-1888). In the course of that work, I published the poetry of some of the writers listed below in either my magazine, in one of my anthologies, or as a chapbook or book. I believe that I can still be objective about ranking their work. On the other hand, if you use that excuse not to investigate at least some of the poets whose work you are unfamiliar with, I am not the only reader of contemporary poetry who will doubt your sincerity in making yourself more imaginatively literate.

I Am Flying into Myself: Selected Poems – by Bill Knott (edited by Thomas Lux) (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2017) – NOTE: My choice for the best book of the year. All genres.

Imperfect Pastorals — Gail Wronsky What Books, 2017

Calligraphy / Typewriters: The Selected Poems of Larry Eigner, edited by Curtis Faville and Robert Grenier (University of Alabama Press, 2017)

So Where Are We? — Lawrence Joseph (FSG, 2017)

The Trumpiad — Cody Walker (Waywiser Press, 2017)

Waiting for the Light — Alicia Ostriker University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017

Enter Here — Alexis Rhone Fancher (KYSO Flash, 2017)

The Stars of Earth: New and Selected Poems — Emily Grosholz (Able Muse Press/Word Galaxy, 2017)

Whereas — Layli Longsoldier (Graywolf Press. 2017)

I Will Not Be A Butcher For The Wealthy — Anthony Seidman (Eyewear Publishing, 2017)

Moonglow á Go-Go: New and Selected Poems — Joan Jobe Smith (NYQ Books, 2017)

Quickening Fields – Pattiann Rogers (Penguin Books, 2017)

Star Journal — Christopher Buckley (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017)

Thousand Star Hotel — Bao Phi (Coffeehouse Press. 2017)

The Darkening Trapeze — Larry Levis, edited by David St. John (Graywolf, 2016)
NOTE: One of the extraordinary collections of the decade. A must-read.

Psychosis in the Produce Department — Laurel Ann Bogen (Red Hen Press, 2016)

Olio – Tyehimba Jess (Wave, 2016)

Questions of Poetics: Language Writing and Consequences — Barrett Watten (University of Iowa Press, 2016)
(NOTE: This book should be read simultaneously with any book on this list that you choose to sit down or stretch out with.)

Squander – Elena Karina Byrne (Omnidawn, 2016)

Porridge — Richard Garcia (Press 53, 2016)

Night Sky with Exit Wounds – Ocean Vuong (Copper Canyon, 2016)

Last Train to the Missing Planet — Kim Dower (Red Hen Press, 2016)

Pacific Standard Time: New & Selected Poems — Kevin Opstedal (Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse; 2016)

Wide Road to the Edge of the World — Jack Grapes (Bombshelter Press, 2016; Second Edition, 2017)

The City Keeps: Selected and New Poems 1966-2014 — John Godfrey — 2016

Border Music — Paul Vangelisti (Talisman House, 2016)

The Age of Reasons: Uncollected Poems 1969-1982 — Ted Greenwald; edited by Miles Champion (Wesleyan University Press, 2016)

The Couple Who Fell to Earth — Michelle Bitting. (C&R Press, 2016).

Partly: New & Selected Poems 2001-2015 — Rae Armantrout (Wesleyan University Press, 2016)

Sober Cooking — Lynn McGee (Spuyen Duyvil Press, 2016)

The Missing Museum — Amy King (Tarpaulin Sky, 2016)

A Sleepless Man Sits Up in Bed — Anthony Seidman (Eyewear Publishing. 2016)

In the Empire of the Air: The Poems of Donald Britton — Donald Britton (Nightboat Books, 2016)

Ask Me about My Poetry — Julien Poirier (City Lights, 2016)

The Swimmer — John Koethe (FSG, 2016)

Antidote for Night — Marsha de la O (Boa Editions, 2015)

The Official Language of Yes — Scott Wannberg (Perceval Press, 2015)

What Snakes Want — Kita Shantiris (Mayapple Press, 2015)

Sea-Level Nerve (Book Two) (Prose Poems) — James Grabill (LeGrande, Oregon: Wordcraft, 2015)

The Yellow Door — Amy Uyematsu (Red Hen, 2015)

How to Be Drawn — Terrance Hayes (Penguin, 2015)

As Luck Would Have It — Mark Weiss (Shearsman Books, 2015)

The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven — Brian Teare (Ahsahta Press, 2015)

Earth — Cecilia Woloch (Two Sylvias Press, 2015)

Scattered at Sea — Amy Gerstler (Penguin, 2015)

The Chronicles — Ramon Garcia (What Books, 2015)

All You Ask For Is Longing: New & Selected Poems — Sean Thomas Dougherty (Boa Editions, 2014)

Conraband of Hoopoe — Ewa Chrusciel (Omnidawn, 2014)

Against Conceptual Poetry — Ron Silliman (Counterpath Press, 2014)

Panic Cure: Poetry from Spain for the 21st Century Forrest Gander, Editor & Translator (Otis Books/ Seismicity Editions, 2014)

The Chair — Richard Garcia (Boa Editions, 2014)

The Other Odyssey – Richard Garcia (Dream Horse Press, 2014)

Messenger to the Stars: A Luis Omar Salinas (New Selected Poems & Reader), edited by Christopher Buckley and Jon Veinburg. (Tebot Bach, 2014)

Open 24 Hours — Suzanne Lummis (Lynx House Press, 2014)

Towards the Primeval Lightning Field — Will Alexander (Litmus Press, 2014)

Like a Beggar — Ellen Bass (Copper Canyon, 2014)

I Want a Job — Carol Ellis (Finishing Line Press, 2014)

Ice Children — Edward Harkness (Split Lip Press, 2014)

The Magicians Union — James Cushing (Cahuenga Press, 2014)

Revising the Storm — Geffrey Davis (Boa Editions, 2014)

Patter — Douglas Kearney (Red Hen Press, 2014)

Oh, Salt/Oh Desiring Hand — Holly Prado (Cahuenga Press, 2013)

Lightning Dialogues — Michael Kincaid (Nemesis, 2013)

Imaginary Burdens: Selected Poems — Michael Hannon (Word Temple Press, 2013)

Our Obsidian Tongues — David Shook (Eyewear Publishing; 2013).

A Wild Surmise: New & Selected Poems & Recordinss — Eloise Klein Healy (Red Hen Press, 2013)

Bleed Through: New and Selected Poems — Michael Davidson (Coffeehouse, 2013)

Varieties of Religious Experience — Christopher Buckley (Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2013)

The Story of My Accident Is Ours — Rachel Levitsky (Futurepoem Books, 2013)

Urban Tumbleweed: Notes from a Tanka Diary — Harryette Mullen Greywolf Press, 2013.

Deep Meanings: Selected Poems 2008-2013 — Gerald Locklin (Presa Press, 2013)

Plume — Kathleen Flenniken (University of Washington Press, 2013)

Even So: New and Selected Poems — Gary Young (White Pine, 2012)

Collected Poems — Ron Padgett (Coffeehouse, 2013)

Revelator — Ron Silliman (BookThug, 2013)

Spectrum of Possible Deaths — Lucia Perillo (Copper Canyon, 2013)

This Constellation Is a Name: Collected Poems 1965-2010 — Michael Heller (Nightboat Books, 2012)

Life on Mars — Tracy K. Smith (Greywolf Press, 2012)
(NOTE: This book was translated and published, in its entirety, in Mexico.)

Thrall — Natasha Trethewey (Houghton Mifflin, 2012)

The Naked Eye: New and Selected poems, 1987-2012 — Jack Grapes (Bombshelter Press, 2012)

Gaze — Christopher Howell (Milkweed Editions, 2012)

Olives — A.E. Stallings (Triquarterly, 2012)

Walking Across a Field We Are Focused on at This Time Now — Sara Wintz (ugly duckling press (2012)

notes from irrelevance — Anselm Kerrigan (Wave, 2011)

Music for the Black Room – Sarah Maclay (What Books, 2011)

Invisible Strings — James Moore (Graywolf, 2011)

Of Indigo and Saffron: New and Selected Poems — Michael McClure (edited, and with an introduction by Leslie Scalapino) (University of California Press, 2011)

THE GRAND PIANO: An Experiment in Collective Autobiography (Parts 1 – 10) — Rae Armantrout; Steve Benson; Carla Harryman; Lyn Hejinian; Tom Mandel; Ted Pearson; Bob Perelman; Kit Robinson; Ron Silliman; Barrett Watten (Mode A/This Press, 2010)

NOTE: I can’t think of a better way to “end” this list than with a ten-book volume project that was primarily written in the final years of the previous decade. The first book in the serial publication of The Grant Piano appeared in November, 2006; and the final installment was published in 2010. As with Watten’s book listed elsewhere in this provisional sketch of Current American poetry, The Grand Piano provides a context of exuberant causerie for anything else that might be picked up.

An homage to William Gass — Happy New Year

December 31, 2017

I can’t pretend it’s been an easy year. The second half of the previous year was a truculent wayfaring in which I barely managed to extract my mother from the dire circumstances in which she had voluntarily committed herself. Salvaging her meager estate was no small challenge, and I found myself last January on my hands and knees, shoving into garbage bags the detritus left behind by a sibling. The year ended with my sister-in-law’s belabored passing, and then the sudden death of a much admired colleague.

Yesterday evening, though, I received a link to an article that has just been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, a publication which I supported with monthly donations for quite some time, but which I no longer have the luxury of doing. I assume that others who are prospering more in this so-called “boom” economy will pick up the slack. Any publication that carries articles such as Chuck Rosenthal’s homage of William Gass deserves to survive without having to hold constant fundraisers.

If you wish to pour yourself a nostalgic libation, and savor some fine writing, here is a link that will give you a glimpse at how writers manage to find each other when they most need that abutment.

Models of the Universe:  In Memory of William Gass

Happy new year!

Larry Eigner — “calligraphy / typewriters”

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

ENDLESS SONG RETURNING: Selecting the “Selected Poems of Larry Eigner”

In the second half of the 1970s, several poets I talked to mentioned at some point how the Selected Poems of Frank O’Hara (first published in 1974) did not include many of the poems they had grown fond of through their extended reading of O’Hara’s Collected Poems, which had appeared three years before the condensed version. When I conducted an interview by mail with Donald Allen, I deliberately kept away from any question that might have irked him, and yet I wish he had been willing to talk, in the mid-1990s, on record about his editing of O’Hara. He was notoriously reluctant to answer autobiographical questions, however, and I felt fortunate to get any substantial information from him about his childhood and youth. There has been a subsequent Selected Poems of O’Hara, though I don’t expect to have spent much time with it until I get around to writing an essay on FOH.

I suspect that sometime in the mid-2040s there will be another “Selected Poems of Larry Eigner,” whose four-volume set of Collected Poems will provide much to choose from. I was recently given an early Christmas present by my esteemed colleague at CSULB, George Hart, in the form of a copy of Calligraphy / Typewriters: The Selected Poems of Larry Eigner. Geroge knew of my interest in Eigner’s work because I hauled back, from some academic conference at the start of this decade, all four volumes that Stanford University Press had published, at a considerable discount, I am happy to report. Professor Hart has been working on a project involving Eigner’s letters, some of which have been published in Poetry magazine, and at one point I volunteered to let him borrow my set of Eigner’s volumes so that he could refer to it in his school office and keep his own personal copy to work with at home.

Calligraphy / Typewriters will no doubt be the primary source for Eigner’s poems for the rest of this decade and all of the next one, and it certainly accomplishes one of its major purposes: to make more of Eigner’s poems part of the postmodern canon that is taught in colleges and universities. (Less and less poetry is taught at the high school level, and it is highly unlikely that Eigner’s poems will be read by anyone but a very precocious epebe at the second level.) For those who first became acquainted with Eigner’s poetry through Donald Allen’s classic anthology, it might come as a slight surprise to realize that the first poem by Eigner in that volume, “A Fete” (dated by Allen as written in July, 1951) is not included by Curtis Faville and Robert Grenier in the Selected. Nor are three other poems favored by Allen included in Eigner’s Selected: “A Gone”; “Passages”; and “Keep Me Still for I Do Not Want to Dream.” In a similar pruning, Allen’s sequel to NAP, The Postmoderns, included nine poems by Eigner, at least three of which are not in calligraphy typewriters.

I don’t have the time right now to do what is the most obvious piece of research: what other anthologized poems by Eigner are not included in this Selected? This is not necessarily meant to be a criticism of Faville and Grenier’s editorial choices. If anything, it is meant to call attention to the considerable challenge they faced in assembling this collection for the University of Alabama Press. It is, in fact, the mark of a major poet that no one can agree on a list of their best poems or be amicable about which ones serve as most representative of the poet’s major themes. I am always dismayed at how many of my favorite poems by Emily Dickinson are not included in anthology selections.

If I were to draw upon this collection as a source for an anthology of postmodern poetry, and limit myself only to this volume, here is a list of the poems that would make my short list of Larry Eigner’s representative work:

“a poem is a” – page 123 (September 4, 1967)
“p o e t r y” (for Jane Creighton) – page 235 (November 26, 1974)
“the reality behind” – page 183 (June 23, 1971)
“how it works” – page 188 (July 26, 1971)
“shadowy / gesticulations” – page 189 (August 30, 1971)
“space space space space” – pages 306-307 (February 5-13, 1986)
“the snow / bank / melts” – page 120 (March 14-24, 1967)
“head full / of birds the languages / of the world” – page 121 (March 30 – April 23, 1967)
“the flock / on the ground” – page 241 (9/12/75)
“the street / plastered with leaves” – page 132 (November 3, 1967)
“many how a” (for Clark Coolidge) – page 232 (July 2, 1974)
w i n t e r – page 196 (December 23, 1971)
“finishing” – page 212 (October 24, 1972)
“a full life” – page 195 (December 19-21, 1971)
“far” – page 233 (October 10, 1974)
“the / frosted car” – page 245 (12/24/75)
“hills” – page 261 (September 24, 1978)
“earth slopes and” – page 264 (March 7, 1979)
“anything” – page 200 (March 24, 1972)
“morning / again” – page 321 (June 4, 1991)

The poem dated September 24, 1978 is the initial one in the “Berkeley” section of calligraphy typewriters. I remember first seeing that poem in Ron Silliman’s blog, on September 18, 2007. Silliman described the poem as consisting of “five nouns” and insisted that the poem “can’t really be read any other way.” I remain skeptical of that claim, since my first internal embodiment and registration of that poem was to hear “clouds” as a verb. The shift and merge of noun and verb in that poem is precisely the “readiness” called in the title of the book in which that poem was first collected. As a parallel demonstration of blending, the same emphatic nominative repetition occurs in the middle of the poem “the reality behind,” in which a poetics that intertwines subject and predicate reveals an image worth depending on.

Anyone intrigued by Eigner’s poetry would be well advised to scour anthologies of the past half-century to see what other poems have been nominated as worthy of repeated readings. Most certainly the ones chosen by Allen deserve to be set alongside those in Calligraphy / Typewriters, and I hope that an expanded version of this volume includes Allen’s choices. For that matter, so does a compressed version of this volume need Allen’s choices, too.

All this aside, however, it cannot be emphasized enough what a fine job Curtis Faville and Robert Grenier have done in conveying the incremental wisdom to be found Eigner’s poems through a successive arrangement faithful to his development as a poet. Grenier, who is one of least appreciated and most intriguing poets in the United States, and Faville have made their task look easy. I would like to add that it was gratifying to see a continuity in the contributors to this project. The late Leslie Scalapino’s O Books Fund supported this book’s wherewithal, and George Mattingly, the legendary publisher of Blue Wind books, chipped in with cover design. My congratulations to both of them for an outstanding job.

Charles Bernstein, one of the Modern and Contemporary Poetry series editors at the University of Alabama Press (along with Hank Lazar), makes an astute decision to write a concise introduction. My only quibble with that self-imposed limitation is that he doesn’t remind the reader sufficiently of Eigner’s debt to Williams. The use of “again,” for instance, as a pivotal enfolding most probably derives its impetus in Eigner’s poetry from the end of Williams’s reductive version of his own poem:

come
white
sweet
May

again

And while all of the poets named by Bernstein are indeed part of the conversation to/from/in which Eigner scoured his faceted diction, so too we find other unexpected voices enlarging Eigner’s context, for Eigner indeed was a poet with “a mind of winter,” wo most certainly saw the nothing that was is there, and the nothing that is. Once again, however, I would not want my own idiosyncratic engagement with this book to distract readers from what truly deserves our applause. The paragraph by Bernstein that flows from page x to page xi, the one that begins “Eigner’s work offers,” is an absolutely brilliant piece of insightful recognition.

Finally, I would note that the blurbs on the first inside page are all by men. Is there no other woman poet-critic other than Lyn Hejinian who is willing to speak up for Eigner’s poetry? In asking this question, I am not so much referring to commentary before the book’s publication, but serious writing about it in the decade to come. If a young female critic wants to become the next Marjorie Perloff, a chapter-length article on Eigner would be a good place to start.

(Note on Eigner’s poems in The New American Poetry: Of his nine poems, perhaps it is just a coincidence that both the first one and the last one feature automobile imagery in their opening lines: “Now they have two cars to clean” is the opening line of “Do It Yrself”; and “A Fete” begins “The children were frightened by crescendos / cars coming forward in the movies.” On the other hand, perhaps Allen was (unconsciously?) responding to Eigner’s physical limitations and embellishing his “image” of mobility’s kinship by invoking a car culture that was certainly a major trope for many of the poets featured in this anthology.)

POEMS SELECTED FOR THE FOLLOWING PAIR OF ANTHOLOGIES

The New American Poetry

A Fete
Noise grimaced
B
Environ s
O p e n
A Gone
Passages
Keep me still, for I do not want to dream
Do it yrself

THE POSTMODERNS

“from the sustaining air” (February, 1953; SP 8)
Do it yrself
“the dark swimmers” (July, 1954; CT: Selected Poems, 10)
“the wind like an ocean” (“the wind an ocean”; August, 1965; CT: Selected Poems, 101)
Letter for Duncan (August 31, 1959; CT: Selected Poems, 35)
“flake diamond of / the sea” (May 14,1960; CT: Selected Poems, 59)
“That the neighborhood might be covered”
“I have felt it as they’ve said” (September,1954; CT: Selected Poems, 54)
“don’t go”
“the bare tree / alternate”

Domenic Cretara — Masterful Artist and Extraordinary Teacher — R.I.P.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Domenic Cretara (March 29, 1946 – December 22, 2017)

When Linda and I got home from Thousand Oaks last evening, we learned through social media that one of the professors I most admire at CSULB, Domenic Cretara, had died on Friday, December 22nd. The news put a very somber glow on the day’s festivities, for Domenic still had much more drawing and painting awaiting his pencils and brushes, and I am very sorry that his studio will no longer hear the quiet shifting of the models’ bodies.

I met Domenic when Linda was taking classes at CSULB to get her BFA. I would occasionally find myself in a Fine Arts building when he had his students’ work spread out along a hallway, and I always felt compelled to stand at the edge and watch him praise, cajole, and verbally nudge his students to aspire to the highest degree of their potential. He always made useful suggestions as to what the student should think about in continuing to work on a particular painting or drawing. There was nothing vague about his critique. He got right to the point, and it was specific advice that even I as a non-artist could see was exactly what the painting needed. Quite simply, he was one of the best teachers I ever saw, and I never left his presence without feeling rededicated in my profession as a teacher of literature.

Truly fine teachers are often at a disadvantage in having their work admired as much as it deserves. While Domenic was an internationally recognized and admired artist, he carried none of egregious aura of “success” as he went about his daily life. He was a rare human being, and I feel very fortunate to have known him.

If anyone who reads this knows of someone who studied art at CSULB, you might pass on the word that Domenic Cretara’s memorial service will be on Friday, Dec. 29 at 10:30 AM, at the Luyben Dilday Mortuary Chapel, 5161 Arbor Road, Long Beach, CA 90808.

Here are some links to learn more about his art and skill as a teacher:

http://www.cretaraart.com

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domenic_Cretara

https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/485022

Happy 96th Birthday, Sylvia Mohr

December 25, 2017

My mother turns 96 years old today. Since her last birthday, she has lost the ability to remember my name, though she does still recognize me as part of her family. “At first I thought you were my father,” she said to me yesterday afternoon. She was by herself in the living room space of the facility she lives at; “Miracle n 34th Street” was on the television set. “I’ve never seen this movie before,” she said.

She seemed more vulnerable and grateful than I am used to encountering. Lately she has been enjoying her afternoon naps as if they were a recent invention whose popularity has ensnared her in its enveloping familiarity. May you rest well on your birthday, Sylvia Mohr.

The Typesetter in “The Post”: “The Hand of Labor”

December 23, 2017

Yesterday, Linda and I took Laurel Ann Bogen out to a movie and dinner as a Christmas present. She wanted to see “The Post,” which turned out to be a surprisingly good film for its category. The main driving point is the publication of “The Pentagon Papers” by the New York Times and the Washington Post. The latter paper is facing a financial bind, and the hopes of providing some relief on that pressure depend on a successful stock sale, which is up for grabs at the very time that its publisher (Kay Graham) and its editor (Ben Brantley) must decide whether to challenge a court injunction that blocked the New York Times from further publication of this material.

Rather than add to the commentary of the typical aspects of a review, I have decided to concentrate on two very, very minor moments in “The Post.” This idiosyncratic preference for minuscule meaning drove my English teachers crazy when I was a freshman in college. Obviously, this is one other feature of a blog that I truly love. I get to do what I want.

Laurel, Linda, and I all worked at newspapers at various times in our lives, and each of us at dinner expressed the pleasure we got from the film during its moments when it displayed the production process of the paper itself. Bringing a newspaper into a reader’s hands, each of us knew, was not some magical process, but involved considerable physical labor, effort, and concentration. Towards the end of the film, the publisher stands behind a typesetter. Not a word is spoken, but the body itself of the typesetter was remarkably full of history. A Korean War veteran, most likely, whose son had forestalled being drafted by going to college. This typesetter was not a combat veteran like the protagonist of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” In fact, he had learned to be a typesetter in the military. Did he vote for Humphrey or Nixon in 1968? Or did he vote at all? To a certain extent, he is a more representative character than anyone else in the film of the pressures that have faced the American electorate the past half-century. Yet he does not have a voice, only the nimble fingers that reflect “The Hand of Labor.”

The second moment in the film that I want to comment on involves a scene where the publisher, played surprisingly well by Meryl Streep, is sitting on the edge of a bed. The left third of the screen is taken up by a lamp on a small table. The camera does not move for quite some time. No doubt it was less than 90 seconds, but it seemed more like three minutes. I had an odd “Fluxus” moment: I wanted the whole screen to fill up with the image of the lamp and for the soundtrack of John Williams’s fine understated music to play without any human voice, and then for the people who worked at the factory that made the lamp to appear and for them to begin to speak, out of history to history. If a newspaper is the “first rough draft” of history, it is their words that need to be recorded in its opening paragraphs and in the intonement of its final pronouncements.

Note: It was hard to resist making the headline of my blog post today about a milestone in my blog: 1,000,000 total hits. At some point in the next few hours, my blog will surpass that symbolic figure. When I woke up and checked this morning, the official number was 999,751, so it won’t be long before my blog’s dispersal over the past year and a half reflects a wider audience than it was getting in its first two and a half years. I am not under any illusion that this mean my blog has some kind of wide readership. That is hardly the case. To a large extent, I write this as a version of an intermittent diary, albeit one that is available for others to read. To those of you who read it, and have on occasion written me, thank you for your attention and care.

“Lady Bird”: Winesburg, Ohio Palimpsest

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Note: For some inexplicable reason that I cannot fully account for (other than end of the semester exhaustion), an earlier version of this post entitled itself as “Lady Day” instead “Lady Bird.” Perhaps it reflected an aversion to the name chosen by the lead character. I have to confess that the entire time I was watching the film I kept asking myself why a young woman would choose a name that evokes a presidency mired in one of the saddest chapters in U.S. history. Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson (1912-2007) stood by and watched her husband and his political cronies empower Pentagon bureaucrats to go forth and drop more tonnage of bombs on Vietnam than were dropped in Europe in World War II. Ironically, in terms of the film, when “Lady Bird” visits the grandmother of another character, she sees a poster of Ronald Reagan in the old woman’s home, and says, “You’re kidding?” I feel the same way about the protagonist’s name.

A.J. Urquidi, the fine young poet who wrote to point out my gaffe, responded to the above comment with the following observation: “I sensed a political dread underpinning quite a few scenes. Ultimately, the film’s protagonist wants to be called Lady Bird as she fetishizes objects and concepts that sound “cool” even though she doesn’t know their true meaning or history. Since she begins every interaction/moral lesson in a state of ignorance/complicity, maybe her abandonment of the “Lady Bird” moniker by the time she starts her new adult life symbolizes the fulfillment of emotional maturity needed to move beyond the connotations of First Lady Johnson’s bad name (much like the maturity reached by the protagonist of Winesburg).”

And now for the main event:

The Art Theater on Fourth Street in Long Beach is a throwback to the days before the television industry and its successors caused the average cinema outlet to shrink to the size of the average vintage clothing store. I’m not sure how the place manages to stay open, other than its owners enjoy having an expensive hobby. Quite frequently, there are less than a half-dozen people at a screening, which makes it slightly awkward when something is laugh out loud funny and you end up hearing your amusement going for a roller coaster ride in hundreds of unmuffled cubic feet.

Lady Bird certainly has its funny moments, and enough poignancy to make it appeal to those who vote for the culture industry’s annual awards. No one, though, on the critical side seems to have noticed one of the most obvious debts the story owes: Sherwood Anderson’s one-hit wonder, Winesburg, Ohio. I teach the book as frequently as I can at CSU Long Beach, especially since it is no longer required reading in high school. The switch from a male protagonist in Winesburg to a female protagonist in Lady Bird is matched by a parallel switch in the parental figures: in Winesburg, the father is strong and the mother is weak. In Lady Bird, the mother upbraids the daughter relentlessly; the father is the one who wants his offspring to escape.

The desire to leave a “small” town is an old device for a bildungsroman. In fact, one wants to hand the heroine of Lady Bird a copy of Lucian’s autobiographical sketch, “My Dream,” in which he portrays himself as a youngster who regards the pragmatic approach of parental guidance as dead-end futility. Attuned to such a classic impulse as the desire to want more than others believe you are capable of, the lead actress does a fine job of oscillating between her revulsion at other’s self-imposed limits and a slightly incredulous naivete in terms of romance. It’s a layered role, since it involves more than a touch of the picaresque. As one critic observed, the picaro all too often succumbs to the temptation to lie, and “Lady Bird” as a young woman learns its consequences. Finally, I would note that one slight problem with the film is that the actress seems too old for her role, although her adamant commitment to her part overcomes that disparity.

It is harder for the setting to make up for its supposed deficiency. Sacramento, in 2002, hardly seems like “the sticks.” Granted, it undoubtedly has its class divisions. “Lady Bird,” as the heroine calls herself (in the manner that a very young girl bestows the name of “Tandy” on herself in Winesburg), chafes under the humiliations of coming from “the wrong side of the tracks.” But is coming from the wrong side of the tracks in Sacramento really as much a disadvantage as coming from a similar standing in Bakersfield or Hanford, California? Or Imperial Beach, in 1965?

I can empathize with “Lady Bird,” though she seemed not to be aware of how lucky she was to have a counselor at school to talk to about going to college. Maybe the counselor was condescending, but at least someone thought she was capable of going to college. No one said a word to me about applying to a college when I was in high school. When I got my high school diploma, my name was not on the list of graduates who had received a scholarship to go to college. I had not applied for one. No one at my high school thought that I merited such assistance. If I had to describe myself as someone in Lady Birdy, I was much closer to “Lady Bird”‘s overweight sidekick, who of course is not invited to the prom.

Instead of a community college, though, I ended up at a small Catholic college in Moraga, California. How I ended up going to St. Mary’s College for a year and a half is one of those inexplicable somersaults in a life for which fate and free will alone cannot account. In retrospect, both “Lady Bird” and I had a prophet at work in a writer whose masterpiece deserves far more attention than it gets these days.

Photograph from 30 years ago

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

POET TRIO - circa mid-1980s

I have no idea of who the people in this photograph might be, other than myself. I have a feeling that I might have been waiting outside some place where I was about to give a reading, circa 1984 or 1985. If you recognize yourself, or somebody else, in this photograph, please write me: William.BillMohr@gmail.com.