Rachel Galvin on “Lyric Shame” and Modern Poetics

by on Feb.18, 2014, under Uncategorized

I think Ravel Galvin’s response to Cal Bedient’s essay “Against Conceptualism” is very thought-provoking. In particular, I am interested in her depiction of “lyric shame” in modern and contemporary poetics:

I’d like to add to Yankelvich’s observation by arguing that casting authorial intent as an “embarrassing indulgence” is symptomatic of the very dynamic that Gillian White identifies inLyric Shame: Producing the “Lyric” Subject of Contemporary American Poetry. This embarrassment congregates around poems seen as offering abstracted, “personal” expression—particularly Romantic, Confessional, and “mainstream” poetry—belonging to what is assumed to be the transhistorical genre of lyric poetry. From the twentieth century onward, such poems have been criticized by scholars, critics, publishers, and writers for their “expressivity,” which is understood as narcissistic and often politically conservative. White tracks how being associated with lyric poetry has become a source of shame in many literary circles. It is disparaged for being monological and oppressive, for relying on a lyric first-person speaker (a coherent “I”) to guide the reader and articulate the perspective of her single subjectivity, or for offering closure. The lyric poem is accused of being so directive as to put the “author” back into “authoritarian.” White argues, however, that such lyric poetry doesn’t actually exist as a form or a genre, but rather is called into being through reading practices. She persuasively explains that the dynamics of shame, and lyric-expressive reading (nineteenth-century constructions of lyric codified as reading methods by twentieth-century critics), have combined to denigrate some poetry as “retrograde, politically conservative, self-indulgent.”

While affect studies have become fashionable across several disciplines (anthropology, psychology, literary theory), “lyric shame” has continued to thrive, and Goldsmith has brought Conceptual poetry to the White House and to The Colbert Report. At the same time, in academia, the question of whether the lyric may be considered a transhistorical genre is producing influential reflections (such as in the work of Virginia Jackson, Yopie Prins, Jonathan Culler, Meredith Martin, White). The entry for “lyric” in the new Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, written by Jackson, specifies thatsince the eighteenth century, “brevity, subjectivity, passion, and sensuality” have been associated with lyric poetry, but that “lyric” has not always named the same thing throughout history. She writes, “The story of the lyric charts the history of poetics.” The current conversation about conceptualism is part of this larger-scale history of poetics. It has struck a nerve with poets and critics alike, because we are at a moment of category fracture, when it is clear that the old terms won’t do, but we don’t have any new terms yet. Where are we to go after Hegel’s assertion that lyric poetry expresses personal feeling, and John Stuart Mill’s idea that poetry is an utterance overheard? And should poets also be activists? Commentators? Outsiders? Visionaries? Media mavens or PR wizards?

Today’s conceptualism debate is not really about constraint or procedure and their relative merits for writing poems, although that is the way Bedient’s piece leans. It is about the fraught notion of the lyric, the “lyric I,” and the possibility of emotional sincerity in art. It is predicated on polemical distinctions between sources of poetry (rational and planned, or “method” poetries versusirrational and “inspired” poetries), which all derive from a metaphysics of origin. Today’s debate once more asks the fundamental, mystifying questions, Where does poetry come from? How is it made?

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New Books from Action Books!

by on Feb.10, 2014, under Uncategorized

We have four new books from Action Books for sale now at www.actionbooks.org: Wet Land by Lucas de Lima, Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream by Kim Hyesoon, Rain of the Future by Valerie Mejer and Only Jesus Could Icefish in Summer by Abe Smith:

Wet Land by Lucas de Lima:

“Lucas de Lima’s stunning book affected me so profoundly at all the stages of reading it, encountering it—before it was a book and afterwards, when it was. In the work of this extraordinary writer, the fragment is not an activity of form. It’s an activity of evisceration.”
- Bhanu Kapil

Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream by Kim Hyesoon (trans. Don Mee Choi):
“Her poems are not ironic. They are direct, deliberately grotesque, theatrical, unsettling, excessive, visceral and somatic. This is feminist surrealism loaded with shifting, playful linguistics that both defile and defy traditional roles for women.”
- Pam Brown

Rain of the Future by Valerie Mejer (various translators):
“Valerie Mejer keeps writing poems that, in their disconsolate perplexity, disclose a sweeping prospect in which biography, landscape, memory and dream erase their respective margins, making clear to us that what we come to call existence is simply a modality in which we claim our right to weakness, defeat, hemorrhage, because only through radical vulnerably can the urgency of love arise.”
- Raúl Zurita

Only Jesus Could Icefish in Summer by Abraham Smith

“Abraham Smith carries greatness like a splinter in the lining of the heart. He carries it like a poison drunk up in infancy, a bone shard that traveled from a smashed rib or a flint of exploitation that was planted there by a bad friend or a wasted economic system. Yet music pours from Smith like blood, cheap wine, car-radio and bird song. Abe is an ecstatic, standing outside himself and singing to himself, the whole pulling-apart yet encapsulated pageant of Keats’ Nightingale played out in the person of one poet.”
- Joyelle McSweeney

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The Most Poetical Topic in the World, According to Mario Bellatin, is No Longer the Death of a Beautiful Woman

by on Feb.07, 2014, under Uncategorized

as Poe once declared, but instead the death of her sidekick and counterfeit, the hairstylist in drag, now a shiny prosthesis to beauty’s phantom limb.


Ready for a new do: the Peruvian-Mexican writer Mario Bellatin

This is what Bellatin’s slim novella Beauty Salon (City Lights, trans. by Kurt Hollander) proposes in its revision of the decadent tradition, a call-to-arms much like Joyelle’s “We Must Be Decadent, Again” post against the ‘forward-thinking’  moves trending in our midst.  The book’s indulgence in dystopian-utopian artifice, in fact, moves backward on multiple levels.  Not only does it transplant the muse of beauty onto anonymous cross-dressing queers in an unnamed city, but it turns our RuPaul-friendly clock back to the beginning of the AIDS epidemic by any other name:  the disease afflicting gay men in the book is likewise blacked-out, unidentifiable as in its early years.  After the narrator describes having transformed his salon into a hospice for the HIV+, he unflinchingly refers to it as “the Terminal” or “Moridero” in Spanish, a word whose medieval source recalls those dark ages of the bubonic plague:

The increasing number of people who come to die in the beauty salon is no form of entertainment at all. (continue reading…)

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Publishers Weekly on Valerie Mejer, Rain of the Future

by on Feb.06, 2014, under Uncategorized

Publisher’s Weekly on the new Action Books book, Rain of the Future by Valerie Mejer:

“Things brought together by violent chance/ that could be stitched-up with a word” astutely describes the latest from Mexico City–born Mejer. In this collection of translations edited by Wright, reality and dream are carefully stitched to form a different fabric of sense: “I have a chest broken as a broken bone/ I have a home broken as a broken hand/ I have a bird broken as a broken chest/ I have a girl broken like a broken pencil// And no one gives me assurances because no one can.” These dreamscapes, infused with nightmare throughout the book’s four sections, subvert symbol and sign to reestablish new meaning—some in tight lyrics (“Today the roofs wear water./ Tomorrow I will have died:/ This is the rain of the future,/ humidity that returns to the country of eyes”), others in short prose (“But a nightmare is a single mare in the night or the night turned mare. Here they breed and a giant trembles in all of his leaves. The next day was as tall. The next day was like a son, even taller”). Andre Breton famously wrote “Beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all”—Mejer convulses steady as a beating heart. (Feb.)

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The Emancipated Spectator and the Plague Ground

by on Feb.06, 2014, under Uncategorized

As most readers of this blog know, one of my pet peeves about contemporary poetry discussions is the “too much argument”: some critic or poet (usually with a strong reputation that allows him or her to address the rest of poetry from an elevated position) denounces contemporary poetry for being “too much.” We have heard this critique from Kenny Goldsmith and Marjorie Perloff, but also from Tony Hoagland and countless conservative types.
As Joyelle described it in her reframing of this debate, “The “Future” of “American” Poetry:

“Too many books are being written, too many books are being published by ‘inconsequential’ presses, there’s no way to know what to read anymore, people are publishing too young, it’s immature, it’s unmemorable, the Internet is run amok with bad writing and half formed opinions, there’s no way to get a comprehensive picture”. Exactly. You just have to wade through the plague ground of the present, give up and lie down in it, as the floodwaters rise from the reversed drains, sewage-riven, bearing tissue and garbage, the present tense resembles you in all its spumey and spectacolor 3-D.”

Right now I’m reading Jacques Ranciere’s wonderful book The Emancipated Spectator, in which he takes issue with the idea – very prevalent in American poetry and leftism – of people “passive” spectators in a society of the spectacle, the idea that they have to be made active, that the images have to be overcome.

In one section he gives a kind of historical background to this kind of thinking, a background that links the “too much” criticism to the “society of spectacle” rhetoric, and links them both to a very old-fashioned form of elitism. He find the root of both of these rhetorical tropes in the second half of the 19th century – with science’s discovery that the brain worked by nervous stiumuli, not through a soul, and also with the simultaneous proliferation of mass produced images.

Notice how the criticism Ranciere calls attention to seems to be almost the same as the one heard in today’s poetry discussions:

“It was in this context that a rumour began to be heard: too many stimuli have been unleashed on all sides; too many thoughts and images are invading brains that have not been prepared for mastering this abundance; too many images of possible pleasures are held out to the sight of the poor in big towns; (continue reading…)

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“I’m Talking From My Tomb”: The Only Televised Interview With Clarice Lispector Ever

by on Jan.28, 2014, under Uncategorized

Previously discussed in my second Montevidayo post ever, this incredible interview with Clarice Lispector is now available in English subtitles!!!

Mystic creatures of the Montevidayan night, please watch and listen for Lispector’s awe-inspiring yet devastating ash-laden delivery.  Even today her thoughts on writing and the writer’s role, including her refusal to identify as anything but an amateur, point to a path away from the control of the imaginary to which the best of us succumb.

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The Violence and Invisibility of Translations

by on Jan.25, 2014, under Uncategorized

I just wrote this on my facebook update:

Seems like a lot of issues of translation has come up recently: Don Mee Choi’s not that she – the translator – wasn’t mentioned in the review of Kim Hyesoon’s All the Garbage; the Lucas Klein post I linked to below; C. Dale Young discussion about the claim that American writers are insular and don’t read work in translation (judging from the commentary to that link, they’re not only not reading works in translation but also totally unwilling to have a discussion about them not reading things in translation); and Coldfront Magazine’s “top 40 poetry books of 2014″ which didn’t include a *single* work in translation (there’s no ethical responsibility to read works in translation, but lets think about what it means that you think all 40 best books of 2013 were by Americans!). I guess I’ll have to write something about this… Just when I thought Lawrence Venuti was outdated…

Where to go from there? I’ve been writing about translation so long now that I don’t even know what to say anymore… To begin with, I don’t think all Americans want to ignore things in translation. America has a really rich history of engaging with works in translation (Pound etc). As I noted in this post I wrote for the Poetry Foundation, there is quite a bit of interest in translation, but it’s mostly in the small-press universe. Kim Hyesoon’s All the Garbage of the World Unite! (in Don Mee’s translation!) has received an incredibly amount of positive feedback. Overall, the two Kim Hyesoon books have probably received some 20 substantial write-ups and her work is not being translated into a whole bunch of languages. So not all people hate works in translation…

So who does hate translation? (continue reading…)

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Pageant Reviewed at Make Magazine

by on Jan.24, 2014, under Uncategorized

Erin Becker has written an insightful (at least to me, the author, and that’s pretty good!) review of my book Entrance to a colonial pageant in which we all begin to intricate in Make Magazine.


Like a mad scientist throwing together unexpected chemicals, Göransson delights in coupling divergent concepts, seeing which combinations smoke, sizzle, or explode. Just a few examples: “luxuriant pupils,” a “soundproof pose,” a “molested parade,” a “garbled hand,” “authenticity kitsch.” Entrance is an experiment in syntax; synesthesia is the rule rather than the exception. Its characters speak in simple thoughts and grammar, like children: “I had trouble eating the food”; “Foreign bodies must be studied”; “I cannot do the Twist”; “Passengers cannot be trusted”; “I am not here”; “We want to teach him how to speak.” The relentless subject-verb-subject-verb progressions make the book a simultaneously difficult and easy read. Beneath the words there is an undulating rhythm, at first comforting, then unnerving, then both simultaneously. Layered over familiar syntax, startling images are made more startling still.

It’s not only these pattern-shattering juxtapositions and relentless syntax that create this effect of strangeness. It’s also the way the trite phrasing, basic grammar, and clichés come down with a clank against the backdrop of linguistic madness. As Göransson’s characters soliloquize on their diseases and infestations, they forefront the diseased and infested nature of the clichés and banality that infects all communication. Tried-and-maybe-not-so-true combinations like “barely legal,” “murderous instinct,” and “kiss and tell” suddenly ring false against other, less customary language. The contrast between the unfamiliar and the familiar exposes the familiar in the unfamiliar and vice versa. Göransson asks: Where do we get our lines, the words that go into our ears and come out of our mouths? And to what degree do they get us?

- See more at: http://makemag.com/review-entrance-to-a-colonial-pageant/#sthash.45RalGhu.vJBJSRLR.dpuf

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An afternoon of surrealist writing… featuring conceptualist poets?

by on Jan.22, 2014, under Uncategorized

This Sunday the Philadelphia Museum of Art is hosting Kenneth Goldsmith and Tracie Morris not for a presentation of conceptual poetry but, unexpectedly enough, a celebration of surrealist writing and music.


I’m puzzled about this lineup of poets for a couple of reasons.  For one, I can think of at least a handful of other US poets (some of whom write for this blog) whose relationship to surrealism is, how can I put this, actually conceivable?  I can’t speak for Morris’ work–though I loved watching her perform recently here in Philly–but I’m not sure how Goldsmith’s project is nothing less than a negation of how this ad describes the surrealist ideal:  the “unconscious mind … let loose” and “put in the service of radical conviction.” (continue reading…)

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Stephen Crane, The Black Riders and Other Lines

by on Jan.20, 2014, under Uncategorized

Stephen Crane is one of my all time favorite poets. He’s better known as a journalist (he’s said to have written Black Riders and Other Lines on little scraps while out reporting) and a prose writer, the naturalist author of Maggie: A Girl of the Street and Red Badge of Courage (the poems might suggest some interesting revision of Realism). But for me the poem are very evocative – at times his free verse seems so lazy that they’re about to fall apart (and this is also part of their amazing radicalness when you consider that they first poems were published in 1895); they are “lines” according to Crane, barely even poems. They are little parables or allegories. In many ways they remind me of Henry Parland’s poems from thirty years later and across the Atlantic (I suspect the connection is French poetry).
According to one legend, Crane was inspired to write them by hearing William Dean Howells read Emily Dickinson’s poetry. And there’s definitely something to that story, but Crane’s poems are quite distinct from Dickinson, they never seem loaded but instead on the verge of collapse.(Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Dickinson’s editor, wrote a negative review of the Black Riders when it was first published, claiming it was mere “novelty” and, stunted, would never grow into real poetry.).

One more thing: I went to a talk about Crane’s articles attacking the treatment of Native Americans, and his descriptions of the genocide of Native Americans, and one thing that struck me was how a lot of the same words and phrases re-occur in the poems. So whether or not this is true (probably no) or some fancy daydream on my part, I see the poems as kind of “cut-outs” or erasures of polemics against genocide.
Here are some poems from Black Riders and Other Lines:

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.”

Yes, I have a thousand tongues,
And nine and ninety-nine lie.
Though I strive to use the one,
It will make no melody at my will,
But is dead in my mouth.

Once there came a man
Who said,
“Range me all men of the world in rows.”
And instantly
There was terrific clamour among the people
Against being ranged in rows.
There was a loud quarrel, world-wide.
It endured for ages;
And blood was shed
By those who would not stand in rows,
And by those who pined to stand in rows.
Eventually, the man went to death, weeping.
And those who staid in bloody scuffle
Knew not the great simplicity.

I stood upon a high place,
And saw, below, many devils
Running, leaping,
and carousing in sin.
One looked up, grinning,
And said, “Comrade! Brother!”

A god in wrath
Was beating a man;
He cuffed him loudly
With thunderous blows
That rang and rolled over the earth.
All people came running.
The man screamed and struggled,
And bit madly at the feet of the god.
The people cried,
“Ah, what a wicked man!”
And “Ah, what a redoubtable god!”

Many red devils ran from my heart
And out upon the page,
They were so tiny
The pen could mash them.
And many struggled in the ink.
It was strange
To write in this red muck
Of things from my heart.

“It was wrong to do this,” said the angel.
“You should live like a flower,
Holding malice like a puppy,
Waging war like a lambkin.”
“Not so,” quoth the man
Who had no fear of spirits;
“It is only wrong for angels
Who can live like the flowers,
Holding malice like the puppies,
Waging war like the lambkins.”

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