Tag Archives: The New Yorker

“Origin” and “Bees”: The Latest (New Yorker) Installment of Official Verse Culture

Preface: Because people don’t tend to read blogs for contextualizing entries, a fair number of readers might assume that the following article reflects an all-out hostility to poetry that appears in The New Yorker. Before any reader makes that assumption, I would urge her or him to read my blog post (November 9, 2014) on Suzanne Lummis’s poem about Ophelia, which also was published in The New Yorker.

* * * * * *

“shall i uncover honey / where maggots are” – “The Kingfishers,” Charles Olson

In a recent issue of The New Yorker (Sept. 3rd), a poem entitled “Origin” (pages 52-53) begins:

“I was born inside a mourning dove.”

The poem poses a riddle, initially, since birth is a process by which a living creature separates from its gestating entity. It doesn’t prove to be an interesting riddle; rather, its pathos at the poem’s conclusion only serves to underline how far short its opening falls from matching even the effort of a popular song. “Jumping’ Jack Flash”‘s use of figurative language in its first line is far more intriguing. providing the reader with enough complexity to move with accelerating interest to the second line. (Though Keith Richards is credited with the music, it is Bill Wyman’s primary riff that underscores this impetuous metaphor of the British generation born during World War II.)

Katie Condon’s trope plays with the long-standing obsession of poets with dead animals, as well as the constant proximity of death to animal life. One could take this subject and turn it into a compelling poem, but it would require an artist who pays more attention to the use of her pronouns. “I” and “us” and “you” are sprinkled around this poem like garnishes on a plate of microwaved frozen food that do nothing to hide its high salt content. Did no reader of this poem before it was published suggest to Ms. Condon that she needs to review the relationship between these pronouns?

While fans of this kind of poem might view my comments are overly harsh, I want to remind them that far more strident attitudes towards Condon’s poetics are at work in contemporary verse. I can imagine many avant-garde poets (and their significant affiliates) sneering “Quietude” and viewing the sentiment of the poem as a kind of maggot that the Fly of Limited Imagination has graced the carcass of Tradition with. I’ll leave it to other blogs to argue that case, but I will say that if “Origin” is an example of what Ph.D. candidates in Literature and Creative Writing are producing these days, then academic poetry is truly taking a turn towards the banal.

In fairness to Ms. Condon, I am cutting and pasting the link to her website, which appears to provide links to other poems she’s had published. I am not in any rush to read them, but perhaps those who yearn for “success” as poets might want to hurry to her site to see what they should emulate.

http://www.katiecondonpoetry.com/poetry-1/

I myself find Condon’s poem most useful as a reminder to visit William Blake’s “The Fly.”

“The Fly”

Little Fly
Thy summer’s play,
My thoughtless hand
Has brush’d away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink & sing;
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength & breath;
And the want
Of thought is death;

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

In Condon’s poem, what is conspicuously missing is the “blind hand.”

As for the ending of Condon’s poem (“I am // as afraid as you.”, I jotted down a quatrain shortly after reading her poem:

THE MAGGOT

No maggot is afraid.
The tiny egg, when laid,
Knows thickened, sated Fate
Will never make him wait.

Turning this critique on myself, I hope that anyone who finds my rejoinder as insufficient as I do quickly turns to someone who could have done a far better job: J.V. Cunningham. Just as I suggest that readers would be better off reading Blake than Condon, I do not pretend that my work is more deserving of sustained attention than those who have far surpassed my efforts.

Post-Script: Oddly enough, there is also a poem about “Bees” in the same issue, and the juxtaposition recalled a poet who would have viewed this pair of poems with utter disdain. As such, I have just now gone back to the beginning and inserted an epigraph.

A Petition to Restore Dennis Cooper’s Blog

Sunday, July 24, 2016

A Petition on Behalf of Dennis Cooper’s Blog and E-Mail Account

Thanks to a notice posted by Brian Kim Stefans, I became aware yesterday of a major literary crisis. Dennis Cooper’s blog and e-mail accounts have been summarily deleted by Google. He was not given any prior notification or warning about this public dismemberment of his creative and cultural work, nor has he received a single sentence from Google explaining their actions.

Mark Doten has started a petition to demand the restoration of Dennis Cooper’s writing to a domain of his own control. You can join me in signing this petition at:
https://www.change.org/p/google-restore-dennis-cooper-s-blog-and-email/u/17375624?tk=BQ7EC_yqjQ5JU3WsELxKKMVO0pMDJkdX5wonCb2tAGQ&utm_source=petition_update&utm_medium=email

As Mark Doten pointed out in a post on his July 21st Facebook page, “….surely the blog contained 10,000 hours or more of Dennis’s labor.” I myself can testify to the longstanding work ethic that Dennis possesses. No one, including me, worked as hard as Dennis did back in the late 1970s and early 1980s to make poetry more visible in Los Angeles. It seemed as if every time I stopped by Beyond Baroque’s New Comp Graphics to do some typesetting for my own Momentum press, there was Dennis at the Compugraphic keyboard, pounding out page after page for some issue of his magazine, Little Caesar or a book for his press. What part of work does Google not understand? It takes substantial work to accomplish the body of work produced by Dennis Cooper. In contrast, anybody in a state slightly more alert than torpor can sit at a machine and with a couple dozen keystrokes, gleaned from an operations manual, obliterate another person’s thoughtful cultural work. It doesn’t take much effort to figure out who is more admirable.

I suspect, by the way, that the hand of a censor is at work in this instance. Many of us might think that the trial of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” in the mid-1950s settled once and for all the rights of serious writers to have their work protected from censorship. I am afraid that the battle to keep the censoring hand from the writer’s keyboard is never completely won. The situation is rather like that of abortion rights and the issue of a woman’s control over her own body. Roe versus Wade was just an important turning point; so, too, was Ferlinghetti’s victory in a San Francisco court. I certainly hope that Dennis Cooper does not have to take this case to court. Doten’s petition, if it receives the vigorous support it deserves, might well help resolve this crisis before it reaches that point.

Fortunately, in promoting this petition, Dennis is not without friends and allies who are willing to speak up on his behalf. If you want to find out more about this crisis of imagination and censorship, please read Jennifer Krasinski’s article at the “Culture Desk” at The New Yorker:
http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/why-did-google-erase-dennis-coopers-beloved-literary-blog

And once again, I urge you to join me and over 3,000 other people in signing Mark Doten’s petition to Google.

Suzanne Lummis in “The New Yorker”

The first time I had any contact with Suzanne Lummis was a short letter passed on to me by Lenny Durso, the last of the three original owners of Intellectuals & Liars Bookstore to be holding out against the onslaught of Crown Books. Suzanne was looking for venues to give a poetry reading; unfortunately, I & L was on its last legs and so she never read there. At that time, she was collaborating with a songwriter, as well as working on plays and doing some acting. Her versatility and talent intrigued me and I was pleased to include her in my second anthology of Los Angeles poets, “Poetry Loves Poetry” (1985). Suzanne has gone on to become one of the major literary activists in Los Angeles during the past thirty years. She has edited or co-edited a series of anthologies, including the first thin volume of “Stand Up” poetry as well as a subsequent collection, “Grand Passion.” In addition, she is co-editing a new anthology of Los Angeles poets to be published with the Beyond Baroque imprint in 2015.

As a poet, she has not gotten anywhere near the attention that she deserves. Her first full-length collection, “In Danger,” was more than strong enough to expect that other presses would have solicited the next manuscript. Instead, her work has languished in that peculiar zone of incomprehensible marginality that frequently seems to be the birthright of many poets working in Los Angeles. Nevertheless, her writing has continued to gain widespread respect; in fact, as a successor to the wonderful poet, Eloise Klein Healy, Suzanne Lummis would have been my choice for the second poet laureate of Los Angeles.

Finally, though, 15 years after “In Danger” was published, her second substantial collection has been published. “Open 24 Hours” won a contest sponsored by Blue Lynx Books and the book is now available at Beyond Baroque Bookstore as well as the on-line outlets. Suzanne has just had another break-through occasion, too, in having a poem appear in “The New Yorker.” On one level, of course, such a standardized level of accomplishment is not something that changes my opinion of her writing, which I would respect no matter if she collected 184 rejection letters in a lifetime of submitting to that magazine. On the other hand, she should be justifiably proud of getting printed there. If Rae Armantrout feels comfortable about having a poem in “The New Yorker,” then why shouldn’t the rest of us lounge by its poolside, too? Rae’s poem, “Before,” which appeared in a mid-December, 2013 issue, is worth looking up.

Suzanne’s poem, “How I Didn’t Get Myself to a Nunnery,” which appears in the November 3rd issue, is probably the best “response” poem to one of my favorite poems of all time, “Dimanches,” by Jules LaForgue. The poem comes close to being an ekphrastic rendition of a teenage wasteland, and I suppose part of its appeal to me was how the landscape caught all the dreariness of Imperial Beach, the border city I had the misfortune to spend my adolescence in. LaForgue’s poem opens with an epigraph from “Hamlet” that points to the invocation of Ophelia’s fate that his poem makes use of. “Let her not walk in the sun,” Hamlet advises Polonius. As for walking in the rain, LaForgue picks up an impressionist paintbrush for his nine couplet poem, which begins and concludes with the same line, “Le ciel pleut sans but, sans que rien l’émeuve.” In between, yet one more frail young woman joins what Lummis calls “the season of self-drowned maids”:

Une qui n’a ni manchon, ni fourrures
Fait, tout en gris, une pauvre figure.

Et la voilà qui s’échappe des rangs,
Et court ! Ô mon Dieu, qu’est-ce qu’il lui prend

Et elle va se jeter dans le fleuve.
Pas un batelier, pas un chien Terr’ Neuve.

In contrast with the melancholy despair of LaForgue anonymous suicide, Lummis’s protagonist is a survivor. Her poem opens:

That girl they found ensconced in mud and loam,
she wasn’t me. Small wonder, though, they jumped.

A number of things happen here that have the touch of a chess master handling the opening gambit and its and counter-moves, not the least of which is how the diction and colloquial syntax pull the reader close for a moment of sneaky intimacy. The voice is more reflective than one might find on a dramatic stage, and yet what’s at stake is equally compelling. The use of blank verse in a nine-line stanza (but without any Spenserian rhyme scheme) is impressive. I particularly admire the spondee of the third foot of the second line and would argue that this accentual nuance (SMALL WONder) is exactly what underscores the irony trembling throughout the poem. That spondee, in turn, can only be fully appreciated if one notes that the placement of the caesura in the poem’s first line is not necessarily in the “obvious” place (after “found”). The fact that there is not a comma after “found” is a clue that the caesura’s placement is more open to interpretation than the naive reader might think.

That girl they found ensconced in mud and loam,

she wasn’t me. Small wonder, though, they jumped.

If the caesura is placed after “ensconced,” one magnifies the sense of a fateful anticipation being fixed in certainty, as opposed to the counterpunch of the opening of the second line: “she wasn’t me.” In other words, the sense of displacement in the narrative gets underscored by the spot, in the first line, where the hemidemisemiquaver of an internal pause gazes inward at itself.

I have my doubts that anybody who wrote to Suzanne to congratulate her on the poem commented on her metrical tactics, but if Suzanne has brought her knowledge and skill to the task, then it deserves some measure of specific commentary. As is often the case, I wish I had more time to extend my analysis. This is merely a start on her poem’s subtle effects. I urge all of you to turn to it with ears wide open.

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/11/03/didnt-get-nunnery

— Bill Mohr