Monday, July 30, 2007

"Foxes Fall to St. Francis"

My housemate's dog sits at my feet; she watches me, seeking my attention. Her silence, I tell myself, is beyond me... her unfathomable otherness..

And then I hear what I have said without speaking--wakened by an association that accompanied this thought, the recollection of a poem by Nancy Willard.

Her unfathomable silence, I tell myself.

It is not what I have seen, but what I have told myself.

Does this mean I was wrong about the silence of the woman pouring milk? HERE

Yes and no. It is true, the silence belongs to the painting, but how is it that I recognize this--? ...having no experience of such silence, my head full of words, a never ending stream of language pouring out of me--to caress, to corrode, to seduce reality to conform to what I need from her? ... needs both acknowledged, and unacknowledged?

I look at this dog... and now at the cat who curls up on my desk, head brushing against hands engaged in turning what is happening before me into words.

And there it is again...

turning what I have already turned into words into words that others can see. Is there no escape from the deceit?

What was it about this poem that so disrupted my unacknowledged account of my perceptions? It occurs to me that what I saw, and see and experience again and again when I open myself to animals, to their presence, to listen and contemplate--that the silence I find so alien, mysterious and not theirs... it is not the animals I am seeing, but a reflection turned back on...

...I cannot say, on my self, for everything of self is fraught with language, and this is what is beyond or beneath or prior to language... it is the self as other. A convergence of my animal being, my species being, by collective, genetic biological material efflorescence into this unique moment of entropic dissolution--a convergence with an illusion whose entire reality is language bound--the illusion of a unique, conscious engagement with...


Silence... again.

That is what I found in Willard's poem. That the silence is never ours, always subverted and betrayed by language... ("he ate only his words") ... and yet, language is the guide. If not our only guide, one we cannot do without, even as it betrays, leading us, drawing us on. Is this what Blanchot was getting at? Our animal lives, ours alone in deepest sleep and death?

Let me work out the connection to these thoughts and the poem in another post.

For now, here is her poem... keep in mind, the title is a play on sports news headlines. From her book, Water Walker, Knoph, 1989

"Foxes Fall to St. Francis"

"Religion," said the foxes,
"is for the birds.

And that man in the brown gown
is a hunter. Watch out."

The sparrows watched him
bake bread and sow crumbs

and the snow kept falling.
He seemed too weak

to make a meal of sparrows
and too dumb.

No claws, no beak
a nest without young.

He trapped roots, berries,

and the snow kept faling
(also the sun).

Many birds drew near
and admired his peculiar singing,

and he kept scattering seeds,
and badgers and hares drew

themselves up
to his stone table.

He ate only his words.
The snow kept falling

on the food,
on the far-off dead,

on paths paved
with mercy.

The foxes said,
"What's good enough for birds

is good enough."
And they fell on the feast

and were saved.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

My take on Hilton Kramer: Journal Entry1982


Hilton Kramer has resigned as art critic for the NYT and announced the appearance of a new review: The "New Criterion." In reading the publisher's introduction, I detected a familiar tone. When I came to names from "Commentary" and the "National Review", the source was plain.
There have been several articles and reviews on music in "Commentary" recently. They have taken a critical tack I've found odd and unsettling. Not criticism of individual works, but generic criticism. Attacks on jazz, on popular music, on the dilution of the teaching of "serious" (European concert) music in the curricula of American conservatories and schools of music. This seems to be a pose of writers and intellectuals, politically right-wing, with an active agenda to "correct" modern culture, which they are sure has gone miserably astray.

They are "anti-... ": anti-communist, anti-populist, anti-democratic, anti-soviet, anti-liberal (the last of whom, by design or unconsciously, are cast as the handmaidens of Marxism).

They are authoritarian elitists.

The new thing here is this emphasis on controlling culture. The arts, literature, music, theater; all are seen through a kind of backwards Marxist lens, busily purveying hidden social programs. The real purpose of criticism, it seems, is to expose the hidden social agenda, which, by their lights, is the matrix and context of the work, then to demonstrate the political/economic wrong-headedness of that context. The work itself is but a means or foil for the serious business of promoting political and social orthodoxy. Art is taken seriously, the way Marxist criticism takes it seriously--not for its own sake (whatever that may mean), not for the meaning or importance inherent in any particular work, but for the place a work occupies in the social-political matrix of which it is both example and creator-advocate.

This new-conservative, neo-classical-authoritarian criticism begins with its own dogmatic orthodoxy, but an orthodoxy that is clear and formally articulated only on the political-social level.

In other words, it's not about art, it's about politics. Art held up to political ideology.

Their problem is, they can't deal with art. It's too slippery. Like a guerrilla army in the hills. So the New Authoritarian eliminates the enemy by a master stroke; it transforms by magic thinking, art, artists, and all their supporters, into pure ideological terms. For ideological battles the Authoritarian's rhetorical weapons are well honed.

It's characteristic of the these guys to be more eager to attack the supporters of the arts than the artists or their work. They're realists. They know where the money is. And in the White House, having not the slightest idea what any of this is about, they have no mere sympathizer, but a crusading general.

... and that was 1982. Twenty-five years. A quarter of a century they've had to dig in, when anyone who was paying attention could damn well read the writing on the wall.

What I didn't see then... was how they would come to attack science with the same ideological chain saws.

Science and the arts are, as long as each remain committed to their very different callings, bedfellows, co-conspiriters--equally at risk in an authoritarian world.

Ron Silliman on Lindsay Waters/ book reviews

Ron Silliman on Lindsay Waters (executive editor at Harvard University Press and board of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC).

Go to Silliman's blog for the whole piece (click post Title above), but two quotes for a taste. The first, because any shot at Hilton Kramer is worth spreading, the second because it's such a damn good point, vis a vis the wrong headed bottom line excision of newspaper book reviews.

"As one might anticipate from somebody in his position, his argument is reasoned, well-crafted, a pleasure to read. Waters makes a defense for criticism as such without sinking to the reactionary “gate keeper” mythology that a Hilton Kramer might use – that argument is simply that the masses won’t know what to think without being told how do so by the enlightened few, so that critics are all that protect us from such barbarians as Jack Kerouac or Ron Silliman."

And here's the second. Yet one illustration of how blind the utilitarian bottom liners are to the Obvious:
"The great irony, as I see it, is that publishers – it’s seldom the editors – who slash their review sections are being penny wise & pound foolish at a moment in history when that constitutes suicidal behavior. Their rationale is that the review sections no longer are profitable per se because fewer ads are bringing in revenue. That in turn has a lot to do with consolidation among the major trade publishers and the decline of independent booksellers. But immediate ad revenue is only one facet of the contribution a review section makes to a daily paper – driving sustainable readership is even more important.

Regardless of how good or bad a particular review section might be – and some of them, like that of the San Francisco Chronicle, are almost shockingly bad – reviews are a phenomenon directed at a particular fraction of the newspaper audience: serious readers. Driving off that portion of your audience that is most committed to writing in print format would seem to be openly self-destructive behavior. If newspapers actually think that they can generate loyalty and circulation amongst, say, the fans of Lindsay Lohan by focusing more attention on celebrity DUIs than they can get by actually reaching out to readers who already have a commitment to print formats, well, do I even have to finish this sentence? It’s like trying to lose weight by cutting open an artery – it sorta works, but the collateral damage is severe. What this trend really shows is that publishers don’t understand their product or their audience.

Dog Barking in the Back Yard

From the Belly of the Beast

After this, what is left to say?

... time for another reading of Simone Weil on the Iliad (Link on Post Title)

In my dreams, Hannah Arendt and Simone Weil have convened a perpetual and eternally unresolved seminar...

Paul Valéry

César, calme César, le pied sur toute chose,
Les points durs dans la barbe, et l'œil sombre peuplé
D'aigles et de combats du couchant contemplé,
Ton cœur s'enfle, et se sent toute-puissante cause.

Le lac en vain palpite et lèche son lit rose;
En vain d'or précieux brille le jeune blé;
Tu durcis dans les nœuds de ton corps rassemblé
L'ordre, qui doit enfin fendre ta bouche aurore.

L'ample monde, au delà de l'immense horizon,
L'Empire attend l'éclair, le décret, le tison
Qui changeront le soir en furieuse aurore.

Heureux là-bas sur l'onde, et bercé du hasard,
Un pêcheur indolent qui flotte et chante, ignore
Quelle foudre s'amasse au centre de César.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


Quoting a recent post from Spurious (link in Post Title)

"A new voice: the young Miles Davis tells his father he's dropping out of Julliard to play in jazz clubs. That's okay so long as you find your own style, says his father, or at least this is what's recounted in the autobiography. Your own style, your voice: then is style to be conceived in terms of individuality, as the mark of an original artist? Is it the result of deliberate effort, to be worked at or improved?

For Deleuze, style is to be thought as a way an idiom (language, music, painting ...) might be inhabited, and not in terms of the activity of a particular person. As Lecercle puts it in his account of Deleuze's thought, 'the subject is not the origin, but the effect of her style: the author does not have style, it is style that has an author, that is inscribed, and in a way embodied, in an author's name'. The subject can be understood as an individual, to be sure - as this author, this musician - but it is also a collective, an assemblage that speaks through her. 'If there is a subject, it is a subject without identity', Deleuze writes."

Friday, July 20, 2007

Politics and Literature

Since reading the collection of essays by Camus in Resistance, Rebellion and Death, more than 40 years ago, I've never been able to resolve the question of the place of politics in literature.

The segment published in the NYRB, from J.M. Coetzee's latest novel (Diary of a Bad Year: due to appear in January) raises the question anew.

If you have any views on this, please do comment below.

Click the Post Title for link

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Precise Meaning: Journal Entry, 1988

Good writing is precise. It is not precise in the same way throughout. The same word or image may be used in many precise ways in a single poem, each way precisely different. The ambiguity does not obscure, but draws forth the several possible readings rather than a single one. A good reader will know which meaning fits each particular context.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Aesthetic Distance

What most rouses our passions we are least able to write about in the moment.

I have the summer to write. Finish this novel by August. Spend a month working on poems.

Reading Roberto Bolaño's Savage Detectives. A cat who responds to the name "Murphy" is asleep on my desk. I named him Morphy after the great American chess master, but he knows nothing about chess and thought I was saying Murphy. He is a devoted reader of Becket.

Narrative Voice

I remember an exchange with Chris Offut and Sherman Alexie on Salon's Table Talk a few years ago, a conversation about story and voice. For Offut, it was story that came first. For me, it was the voice, and still is. When I was a child, I heard a voice as I read--an almost physical reality; reading was a kind of hallucination. Writing for me is a venture to recover that voice.
I may begin with an idea, a story line, a character, but I've never been able to complete a work of fiction or a poem until I hear in the words some distant echo of that experience. It's not a matter of waiting for inspiration; the voice doesn't just come on its own. I work over a passage or a scene, or a single line--writing and revising and re-writing, draft after draft until I hear it, and until I do hear it--I'm lost, cannot find my way to the end. Sometimes it will be there from the opening lines, as in my story, Theology of Anorexia (Salmagundi, Winter-Spring 2003). Sometimes I will labor for weeks or months before I find it. For
Godzilla's Eye (Laurel Review, Summer 06), a story of some 5,000 words, I went through more than 500 pages of drafts.
Nearing completion of my second novel, almost ten years after that conversation, I would describe what happens in less mystical terms, but narrative voice is still the central aesthetic problem in my writing. I have to know--deeply know, who or what is telling the story, voicing the poem. It's what holds everything else together. This would be less difficult if it were possible to select and apply a conventional device (more or less what I did in my first short stories), but in my novels, I have to force the issue, push beyond the conventions--or find new combinations. In the last year or so, I began to see emerging both in my recent poems and in the novels, the idea of divestiture, an erasure of identity. We fill the room with furniture, and say--this is what we are, this is who I am. To hear once more the echoes of the voice, you must empty the room.