Saturday, September 01, 2007

Jim Lewis is a Hack

I don't know anything about how the New York Times chooses their book reviewers. I suspect that they must have some kind of system, because randomly choosing people couldn't possibly result in the kind ineptness they consistently display.

Take for example Jim Lewis. In today's edition, he reviews Denis Johnson's somewhat anticipated new novel. I say "somewhat" because everything Johnson has written since Jesus's Son has been disappointing to greater or lesser degrees, and many of us who love that collection have nearly given up on him. I haven't read Tree of Smoke yet, but this over-the-top piece of hack reviewing doesn't make me want to.

Take for example this little gem of a comparison by Lewis. Discussing Johnson's typical characters, he notes "But unlike most books about the dispossessed, they’re original (how strange it feels to use that word these days, but it fits), and what’s more, deliriously beautiful — ravishing, painful; as desolate as Dostoyevsky, as passionate and terrifying as Edgar Allan Poe." That sentence tells you all you need to know about Jim Lewis's capabilities as a reader. First of all, comparing Johnson to Dostoyevsky is gratuitous, to say the least, but worse is the fact that his comparison equates one of the greatest novelists of all time with the author of "The Raven." Poe's stories are good for frightening children (and NYT book reviewers), but they are not remotely in the league of the big D. Anything else this reviewer says is automatically discredited after this statement.

His review has other gems, including his announcement that "I spent a long time reading “Tree of Smoke,” and as I neared the end I found myself wishing it were longer."

Such dazzling prose! What wit! What insight!

There is no point in reading this review unless, like me, you take a perverse pleasure in the writers for "America's newspaper" sucking so badly. We expect this kind of palaver in the toothless world of poetry reviews. Apparently, fiction suffers a similar malady.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

R.I.P. Max Roach

Max Roach is dead. Simply put, he was the most accomplished and important jazz drummer in the world. He cut his teeth as a teenager playing with Charlie Parker, where he advanced upon the work of the first jazz be-bop drummer Kenny Clarke and became widely known as the most imaginative and influential drummer in the world.

He deserved the title. Roach's most famous performance is probably on Miles Davis' seminal Birth of the Cool, but Roach played with all of the greats of his day, cutting albums with the likes of Dizzy, Cecil Tayler, Eric Dolphy, Thelonious Monk, Stanley Turrentine, and George Coleman, to name a few. Perhaps his greatest collaboration was his short lived quintet with trumpet virtuoso Clifford Brown. Anything by these two is a must have. Their studio album, Brown and Roach, Inc, is a classic.

When Brown died in a car wreck in June 1956, Roach was plunged into depression and nearly drank himself to death. Thankfully, he recovered and went on to record dozens of uncompromising and relentlessly inventive albums. Some of the best work in this part of his career was with Sonny Rollins, with whom he cut many unforgettable tracks.

My personal favorite album of Roach's is his own Members, Don't Get Weary. Written partially in response to the Civil Rights movement, this diverse collection represents Roach at his most vulnerable and passionate. Ranging from lowdown grooves of "Abstrutions," to the gospel-inflected title track, to the modern post-bop feel of "Absolutions," Roach's versatility is outpaced only by religious/emotional lucidity in this unforgettable human triumph.

Do yourself a favor and go listen to some Roach today in honor of the man. It was only a few years ago that we lost Elvin Jones. Now, with the death of Roach, we have lost the last of the legendary drummers who defined rhythm for generations to come.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


Some clever soul with plenty of free time has decided to start spamming the comments sections of various posts with links to porn and white supremacist sites. Lovely. And oh so inventive.

I've turned off the comments until I have time to pay attention to this site and moderate the posts.

Thursday, June 14, 2007


A short update on why I've been slacking so long on the posts.

Basically, I looked up one day, and a book-length writing project that I had committed myself to had fallen desperately by the wayside. So I decided no writing anything else until it's finished. That included Poetry Snark.

I'm getting pretty close to putting this project out of it's misery, and when I do, I'll be back.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Poetry Foundation and the New Yorker

The NYT offers a misguided defense of Poetry magazine's 200 million dollar endowed Poetry Foundation, coupled with a devastating and well deserved attack on the poetry publishing practices of The New Yorker. Check it out.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

R.I.P. Alice Coltrane

Alice Coltrane died at age 69 today of respiratory failure. In addition to her work replacing McCoy Tyner in her husband's band, she also released numerous, underrated albums of her own, including projects with Pharaoh Sanders, Joe Henderson, and Carlos Santana. I love her harp work the most, though Alice was an accomplished pianist of course, as well as an organist and composer.

Some consider her a kind of Yoko One-like figure in her husband's life, turning John Coltrane away from more more accessible and melodic jazz toward increasingly spiritual and abstract projects. But that's bullshit, as he was already moving toward more and more progressive music already before she joined the group in 1965 (Impressions came out in '63, and A Love Supreme and Crescent came out in '64).

Her solo work is as much influenced by devotional music as it it is jazz. Alice Coltrane, or Turiyasangitananda, to use her Sanskrit name, was a devotee of the Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba. Her latter years were devoted meditation and study, as well as preserving her husband's legacy. She released no new music between '87 and 2004, when Translinear Light came out, her final project, one completed with her son, Ravi Coltrane, on tenor.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Ron Silliman Needs a New Name for His Site

Bill Blood suggests "Cave of the Fiberoptic Octopus."

Anyone have any better ideas?

Friday, December 22, 2006

Tupelo Press and Ann Rabinowitz Sell Souls to Satan

So I just got this email that seems like a perfect symbol of where poetry is at as an institution. So desperate are publishers for a return to some mythic time when poetry was a mainstream art form that (formerly) respectable presses will crap themselves at the slightest hint of mass market acknowledgment. Just a whiff of the stench of mainstream media sends them quivering away. It doesn't matter if such acknowledgment comes from the most despicable source of American "journalism." It doesn't matter if the editors themselves would never watch the program pimping their book. The slightest nod from corporate-sponsored bobble heads equals "a coup" for poetry--and those are their words, not mine.

So Fox News is trying to bring a highbrow touch to their nut-job pandering, faith-based news by trotting out a real live poet! Hmmm ... let's see, what type of contemporary poetry would be acceptable? I know (Gretchen Carlson scratches head) ... something Christmasy! Let's see, a book of Haiku about Rudolf? Santa sonnets? Maybe a book about the birth of baby Jesus?

Well, they couldn't find any contemporary poets writing those poems, so they got the next best thing--a book about the Virgin Mary! That's right, Fox News Channel's "Fox & Friends" has invited poet Anna Rabinowitz to come on their show and talk about her new tome, The Wanton Sublime. I wonder if Gretchen will be able to restrain herself from asking what it's like for a Jew to write about Jesus's mom.

Tupelo Press, breathless with joy, dashes off an email that reads like a press release, informing us of the news, citing blurbs, and concluding with this statement:

"What a coup for Anna, for poetry."

Uh, Yeah. Poetry is big time now, baby ... Fox News big! Maybe Laura Bush will invite Ms. Rabinowitz to the White House to give a reading! Then we'll know that poetry is truly right with the world.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

A Donald Rumsfeld Moment

"Death has a tendency to encourage a depressing view of war." --Donald Rumsfeld

Ah, that Rummy, always looking on the bright side of things. What does death have to do with war, anyway?

By the way, did you know that Rumsfeld lives in the former plantation home of Edward Covey? Yes, I mean the same Edward Covey that Frederick Douglass beat the shit out of in his famous autobiography--described as the cruelest "slavebreaker" in the area.

Sometimes reality is just too ironic to be believed.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Guess the Poet. Win a Prize.

I know a game. It's called "guess who said these things at last night's reading." Wanna play?

The rules are simple. Read this post and then tell me in the thread who you think Poetry Snark heard read last night. First one to get it right gets, um, gets...

The poetry snark secret lame-ass-poet decoder ring!

With it, you can secretly occupy the imaginative position of someone who actually likes this shit. OK, not really. My ring actually exploded last night in a frenzied effort to translate the reading into something that resembles art. C'est la vie.

Let's play anyway, shall we? Anyone who was at the reading is asked to refrain from posting in this thread--that is, unless you once thought that you liked this writer and want to repent now before the muses smite you down. Then it's OK.

Alright then, here goes:

Clue number 1: Mystery poet needed to explain what a word in one of his/her poems meant because the poet assigned to introduce him/her didn't know how to pronounce it. It turned out to be made up.

Clue number 2: Mystery poet interrupted the reading to imitate the sound of the wind (I don't mean farting--actual imitation).

Clue number 3: Mystery poet felt compelled to explain every single "poem" he/she read with an introduction that exceeded the length of the poem.

Clue number 4: Mystery poet felt compelled to explain to the audience who Oliver North is. I'm not kidding.

Clue number 5: Mystery poet felt compelled to offer his/her philosophy of teaching. This is what mystery poet said, word for word (yes, I took notes): "There is a state between trance and logic where teachers rest."

Still baffled? Let's see if a few excerpts from the reading will help. All of these are verbatim quotes, without any alteration or exaggeration. Some of these are things said between poems, others are lines from poems. I'll let you try to figure out which are which:

"Caliban, besides being a character in Shakespeare, is also the name of my convertible."

"Coastal pine trees must wonder why it isn't enough just to be good pine trees."

"Rocks are like consciousness."

"At some point, I am going to turn the poem sideways, because that's what they did to the mountain."

"Teaching the epic is difficult for me because there is a lot of murder and violence in it. And I'm a pacifist."

"Be what orange? Be what orange?"

OK, gentle readers, who is the mystery poet?

Monday, December 04, 2006

On the Thirteenth Anniversary of Frank Zappa's Death

I promise to get some new content up soon (yes, I read your emails).

Meanwhile, tip a glass for one of the great geniuses of the twentieth century and go watch this classic video of Frank Zappa on Crossfire. Zappa going at it with Robert Novak is a sight to behold.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

On the Twentieth Anniversary of the Publication of "Howl"

Who, after I had crashed a dinner party for local Buddhists who shamelessly referred to themselves as "Jewel Hearts" & shouldered pointedly through circle after circle of syncophantic xanax-eyed celery nibblers, leered with benevolent grandfatherly eyes, & hit on me.

Who refused to read good goddamn poem but singing chanting squealing mashed a ditty on his miniature accordion to avuncular iambs of topical protest doggerel, finally relenting with Wichita Vortex Sutra, interrupted to remind us referred to our own “O Street” (“zero street”), only to conclude with his wretched rhyming “Capitol Air,” later loitered in the lobby, enmeshed in cheerful boy-English majors & listened to them enthuse & hit on them.

Who comfortable & robed & horny-eyed and sober sat up chewing macrobiotic rice with mentor Galek Rinpoche that evening at local restaurant “Crane River,” was accosted by boy-English major later known as Poetry Snark, received him gracious & genially, advised “breathing exercises,” & forgetting he had met him night before at Buddhist party, again hit on him.

Who stayed & stayed, coalescing bad local poets appearing magically as if cell-phoned in that pre-cell phone world, & drank only water & waved arms majestically reliving hormonal hippy shivers with the drunks & doters & ditzes until the generous hours dwindled, a memorable court holder, quixotically erotic at 64.

(Use this thread to talk about the times when Ginsberg hit on you ... or whatever. But do check out this worthwhile piece on him in today's New York Times.)

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Ka-Boom! Joshua Clover Implodes in a Fury of Theoretical Jargon!

During the 2000 election cycle, I was once accosted by a Republican who, knowing a little about my politics, said to me something along these lines:

"So, I once heard you say that your politics are 'somewhere to the left of Castro.' I assume that you aren't selling out by voting for Al Gore, are you? I'm a conservative," he told me, "but I have respect for people on the left who really follow their ideals and support Ralph Nader."

I told him where he could stuff his "respect."

I later heard he had been saying similar things to others on campus who had been outspoken at one point or another with their political leanings. His intention was obvious: he was trying to elect George Bush by encouraging people with politics to the left of Bill Clinton to "follow their ideals" and not support Al Gore.

Joshua Clover, who judging from his blog knows nothing about either politics or Walter Benjamin, operates from the same playbook. From his blog:

"It is with mounting nausea that we watch poets race to cast their liberal votes for candidates more conservative than the Republicans they found beyond revulsion twenty years ago - and indeed race not just to feed at this trough but serve the slop." He goes on to chastise people for voting, which he likes to do, and equate Nancy Pelosi with Condoleezza Rice.

What a tool.

Clover has been chugging the po mo Kool Aid for so long that his brain has atrophied into a crispy little device that spouts phrases like "the endless circulation of used signs" in refence to political appointees and "open signifying chains" when discussing changes in administration. I'm not kidding. Get a load of this...

"To suggest that the staffing habits of the current administration are postmodern in their open signifying chains, unable to mean much while spastically invoking the hollowed-out quasi-meanings of past years, is only to say that we find ourselves not simply within 'postmodernism,' or 'late capitalism,' but the decline of empire."

You can't make that kind of shit up. In fact, I tried to write some snark in parody of this, but nothing I could produce came out as facile, pretentious, and intellectually bankrupt as that little nugget. With this statement, Clover epitomizes the "New Academicism" I posted about earlier--someone "whose idea of resistance to middle class values is reading Deleuze and turning over in their minds the idea that they are 'nomads.'" I've teased Cole Swenson a fair amount at this web site, including in the post I just mentioned, but Swenson, I'm told, worked her ass off knocking on doors and getting out the vote in 2004. Respect.

Clover goes on to sniff:

"If our disgust seems magnified, it's because we cherish the possibility that poetry allows forms of thought, of consciousness, which might imagine some retort other than celebrating the chance to eat shit as long as it's only the second-worst shit available."

I guess it never occurred to Clover that one can be politically active and still hold poetry to a higher standard than politics.

I don't have a lot of patience for lefties blind enough to believe that Democrats and Republicans really are interchangeable--or theory-addled enough to feel content to watch the "decline of empire" from their academic perch. But I'll give Clover his due. He has produced something I've found amusing. No, not his poetry, silly. I'm talking about this jacket photo from his first book.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Gives Good Blurb

The short, unpleasant history of blurbs began on an appropriately bogus note. The first literary blurb in history was when Walt Whitman extracted a sentence from a private letter from Emerson and emblazoned the sage of Concord's words on the spine of the second edition of Leaves of Grass: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career." Emerson, of course, didn't mean an academic career, but his choice of words seems rather telling in retrospect.

Whitman made this move without even asking Emerson, embarassing his benefactor before his friends. It wasn't so much the actual words that caused chagrin, but the fact that Emerson's uncouth Brooklyn friend would even make the move in the first place. Those days, Americans still had some sense of rightful shame in the face of shameless self-promotion. And publishers didn't assume that readers needed to be told what what to read by a stranger.

Well, we all know what's happened since. Blurbs are now considered universally necessary as promotional moves, even though poetry doesn't sell. The blurbs themselves have evolved. Until the last couple of decades, their role was essentially to praise and describe. Now they seem more about the blurb's authors than the book they purport to promote.

Blurbing poets seem engaged in a continually intensifying contest to see who can come up with the most outrageous act of hyperbole. And where only a short time ago, poets seemed resigned to blurbs as a kind of disagreeable fact of the publishing world, poets now actually seek out the opportunity to blurb other people's books. To have your name attached to a blurb is a sign that you've hit the big time.

And now the fun part. I have before me the single most egregious example of blurbaholism ever to grace the art--the often mentioned but seldom seen blurb Jorie Graham gave to her student, Mark Levine, after picking his book for the National Poetry Series (and yes, I know the story). Anyway, without further ado, here it is, word for word:

"Every now and then, in the eventful, dramatically self-reinventing history of poetry, a new voice comes along which startles by its stunning appropriation of the music, energy, diction, and obsessions of its own immediate moment, yet which is imbued, simultaneously, with a deep knowing connection to the questions and beliefs of the tradition. A poetry filled with that energy of revolution which is born, precisely, of its tense apprenticeship to the voices of previous masters. Debt is such a book. With its brilliant play on all forms of that titular notion--from the spiritual indebtedness we call original sin, to the cultureless greed of our 'national debt'--it moves with torqued grace between the savings-and-loan fiascos of each of our crucial currencies--personal, metaphysical, scientific, historical, political, psychological, cultural, ethnic--(and enacts, at reckless and resounding speed, a holocaust upon political and intellectual and personal correctness by its stark, self-implicating dramatization of the culture of blame). Beginning with the problem of identity--self-creation? soul? the blank space known as citizenship? the number assigned to one's camp card? one's credit card? one's wrist? do we deconstruct? can we?--all the anxious terms of post-romanticism and post-modernism are acted out with astonishing precision and candor by a speaker part Jew, part Palestinian, part intellectual, part consumer, part victim, part terrorist--owner, lover, slave, child--one complex, supple, scary, moving, self-contradicting voice as much the creation of the media, circumstance, history, factuality, as--is it possible?--the creation of some late and inconceivable God."
--Jorie Graham

"I greet you at the beginning of a great career" seems rather quaint and modest now, doesn't it?

I could snark this one until the end of time, but let's do that together, shall we? Join me in the comments section with your snark, and please, if you think you can top this blurb for sheer awfulness, please post your candidate in this thread.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Check Out the Threads

A friend who reads this site just told me that he wasn't aware that there was anything going on in the comments sections, and so he just reads the posts, not the threads. The comments sections at this site rock, and if you're not reading them, you're missing out. Check out the conversation going on in the post below, for example. The conversation there blows away my original post.

The traffic here has skyrocketed lately, even though I don't post that much anymore. Anyone know why? It's kind of surprising.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Poetry is for Rich Kids

It's no secret that poetry is among the most "elite" of art forms, right up there with contemporary classical music. When people say "ordinary people don't read poetry," what they mean is "working class people don't read poetry." Nor do they write it (not stuff that sees the light of day anyway).

Yeah, yeah, every ten years or so, the poetry world throws up its sacrificial "workingman's poet." Philip Levine is the biggest name. But within a few years, these poets inevitably lose touch with whatever roots they may have had and start writing in one of the available neo-Romantic trends in post-W.C. Williams free verse, start writing poems of "ekphrasis" (the most snobbish and exclusive of all sub-genres)--or start writing historical poems or suburban meditationals. You get the idea.

Recently, we've seen the emergence of the supposedly "avant-garde" working class. Armed with Deleuze and Gramsci, these jokers eschew representational value altogether, promoting a poetry of theory and gesture. Nearly all have the same job teaching creative writing somewhere. Which reminds me--Ron Silliman takes a lot of shit. but say what you will, he still works a job outside of academia. As people, Silliman (and Rae Armantrout) deserves props for keeping it real, regardless of one's estimation of their work (and I admit I like Rae's work).

But back to my rant.

It seems good to remind one's self every now and then that M.F.A. programs are mostly baby-sitting limbo zones for upper and upper-middle class kids who aren't ready for a "real career" and don't have the focus to do a Ph.D. Does this go without saying? Maybe I'm wasting my time here. Is there anything wrong with it? Not from an individual point of view, I suppose. It's hard to see something wrong with young people wanting to write instead of work a 9 to 5 office job, and why not give people the chance to "find themselves" for a few more years (um, never mind that they are in their mid-twenties at that point--vive le American adolescence!)

Is there a single "major" American working-class poet? I used to think Walt Whitman is the only one. But now this new book comes out--Andrew Lawson's Walt Whitman and the Class Struggle--that convincingly demonstrates Whitman was really a member of the lower-middle class artisanal culture of New England at the time. Bummer. Where oh where / is America's John Claire?

Don't ask me. I'm a part of the problem, not the solution. Though I lived in a trailer much of my life and my dad didn't make squat, my favorite living poet is John Ashbery. What does that say about me? I like to think that I am just "reverse-slumming."

Who is the Howard Zinn of American Poetry? Do we need one? Does it matter?

If there is something productive to be done, I would think it would have to start with the M.F.A. programs. We have minority fellowships. Why don't we have class-based ones?

Friday, September 15, 2006

Lost Diary from Wave Book's Poetry Bus Tour 2006

Poetry Snark recently attended a reading at a local pub called the Sanctuary. The reading sucked, but I found this diary outside the bar, just laying there on the sidewalk. It seems to chronicle the adventures of one of the organizers of Wave Book's Poetry Bus Tour 2006. Anyway, it seems like something that might be of interest to readers of the Snark, so I've included a few excerpts below:


Our poetry bus tour starts tomorrow night, and I'm really pumped. It's rare that poets get the opportunity to bring their poems directly to the People. In a way, you could say that this bus tour completes the mission started by Walt Whitman: democratizing poetry for ordinary folk. Our first reading is at Galapagos in Williamsburg.


This tour is going to be amazing. I'm told last night there were several people in the crowd who weren't poets. At one point, some guy came in off the street to ask for change, and he stayed, presumably to hear a poem or two. There he was--just this ordinary Joe--absorbing poetry. Eileen Myles read from her "Alembic Isotopes" series.


NYC was relatively safe, but now we're off to some real hinterlands: Amherst, Mass. This could get a little hairy. You could tell pulling into town that this wasn't your usual mandarin crowd. The gas station we filled up at didn't have cappuccinos! Later, I quoted Donne to our receptionist at the Hilton, and the guy didn't even recognize it (and it wasn't obscure Donne at all, either). This is strange ground we're treading...


I'm not sure we were connecting last night at the "Reading Room." Matthea was reading some of those poems of hers with no punctuation, and I myself had a hard time following. I can only imagine what the undergraduate English majors thought! I know this is a Quixotic quest, but it really feels special being on the road with such amazing poets.

We did have one spot of friction, though, as one of our lesser poets took umbrage at being referred to as my "opening act."


Last night was pretty disturbing. I was just around the corner from two of the poets on the Poetry Bus, and I couldn't help but overhear them talking about the Tour. One doubted the authenticity of our mission, and the other responded, "yeah, it's bullshit, but maybe if I flirt with Matthew, Wave Books will publish my second collection." Needless to say, I kicked them both off the bus. Tomorrow, though, Janet Holmes is reading. She edits Ahsahta press, and with my third MSS still without a publisher, this should be really exciting. All said, we've had seventeen book editors read on this tour, which is probably the surest sign that we're breaking through.


I'm a little worried about our reading tonight. It's in Iowa! I mean, we're really getting "out there." We wanted to fit in, so the whole bus stopped at a local thrift store called "Impressions." We bought some old clothes and stuff. Anselm found a John Deer farmer hat that really looks authentic. We're not "dressing down," though. We really like this stuff!

I've decided to feature Anselm more prominently in what Joshua calls our "backwoods reading positions." Anselm's poems have cuss words in them, so I think they will appeal to a non-literary crowd.


Last night was astonishing. We were worried about reaching out to the masses, so we lined up a very accessible local poet--Cole Swenson. And it was everything we could have hoped. Cole read from her new series based on the life of a 12th-century scribe named Arduous the Worthy, who used white space in his early notes. You could tell the locals were really digging it--almost like a beat poetry event from the 60s. Cole finished with a poem that uses "fractured algorithms" to chart the migratory patterns of an extinct species of seal.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Linky Open Thread

Well, we haven't had one of these in a while, so why not? These kinds of posts are easy, and I'm lazy.

Here are some blogs that you should check out:

Johannes has a good blog with a lot of provocative content. This guy is probably the craziest poet I know who also has his shit together enough to publish translations and co-edit a small press. I don't agree with everything he says, but I certainly like it more than most:


This blog is pretty funny. It's a mixed bag of whacked out cultural / literary commentary:

Porky's Garden of Eloquence

And lest we forget, the funniest blogs on the web. How about some new posts from these guys?

Henry Dagger's Adventures at Sea


R. C. Bald's Hong Kong Journals

Use this post as an open thread for anything on your mind. Who's really sucking right now? Any major stinkers published recently? Recommendations for things that I should Snark?

Monday, July 31, 2006

Responding to Johannes Göransson

Johannes Göransson -- poet, translator, and co-editor of Action Books -- offered a response to my post on the "New Academicism." I replied. Here's the exchange. If you haven't done so, you should check out the post just below this one before reading further. First Johannes:

"I think you're partially right, but it would help to bring some more specificity to your argument. Otherwise it sounds too much like the reactionary foetry jokers who are opposed to anything other than BishopLowell.

For example, what does it really mean to not get out much? These people travel quite a bit, so I assume something about pristineness, isolation etc. How is this manifested in their poetry? What's wrong with writing about the 14th century? Is it not, the way one writes about the 14 century?

What's the difference between the contemporary love of 'the silence of the white space' and the groundbreaking visual-poetic work of Mallarme and, later Appolinaire (totally different form of experimentation, but also using the visuality of the page)?

Along the same line, what's wrong with their obscurity? What's the purpose of their obscurity?

I don't think Susan Howe belongs in the same crowd as Revell. I don't think Revell is really at all influenced by Stein or Duchamp. He seems to be working on some kind of religious, watered-down objectivism.

My problem with a lot of these folks is that they propose a blatant kind of retro-Keatsian subjectivity and in the process make poetry function in a reactionary way as the keeping of pure language, pure experience (almost always classist, exclusionary, hierarchical) and the way it smothers conflict. This seems to be the core of 'academic' poetry. Whether Revell or the New Critics.

At its core I think avant-garde poetry from the 10s and 20s (Duchamp, Stein, Dada etc) is joyful, populist, anti-hierarchical and (most of all) activating (ie it is poetry that invites the reader to participate in the art, rather than asks the reader to passively admire)."

My reply:

"it sounds too much like the reactionary foetry jokers who are opposed to anything other than BishopLowell."

Is that what they like? I can't help it if we share a certain aversion to some poets. As they say, even a stuck clock is right twice a day. But I doubt the Foetry crowd would praise Duchamp/Stein for instance, so I think you're a little off here.

"For example, what does it really mean to not get out much? These people travel quite a bit, so I assume something about pristineness, isolation, etc. How is this manifested in their poetry?"

One can be pristine and isolated even when on vacation in Paris. My objection is with a lack of engagement with the violence and boredom and kitsch and excrement outside the window. Even though these poets travel during their academic breaks, they never really leave their writing desks. It is manifested in their poetry by meta-musings, navel-gazing, art about art, and art of comfort and privilege.

"What's wrong with writing about the 14th century?"

It's boring. There are more pressing concerns.

"What's the difference between the contemporary love of 'the silence of the white space' and the groundbreaking visual-poetic work of Mallarme and, later Appolinaire (totally different form of experimentation, but also using the visuality of the page)?"

You already know the answer to this question, I'm sure. First of all, it's derivative and hasn't advanced much on the influences you cite. Second, Mallarme was motivated by more than aestheticism: "figuring forth the void," while a lofty goal, is more interesting than spoon-feeding audiences big dollops of faux-reverberant "silence."

"Along the same line, what's wrong with their obscurity? What's the purpose of their obscurity?"

Obscurity is the ugly step-sister of ambiguity. It's purpose is to radiate an inpenetrable sense of the authority. Stein, for example, is never obscure, but she is often ambiguous.

"I don't think Susan Howe belongs in the same crowd as Revell."

Susan Howe is a generous intellect. Her critical writings are far less odious than Revell's. But her own poetry epitomizes what I'm talking about perfectly. She is certainly a part of the new academicism -- she's the darling of the smart establishment. As a person, she's wonderful, but that's not what I'm talking about.

"I don't think Revell is really at all influenced by Stein or Duchamp. He seems to be working on some kind of religious, watered-down objectivism."

Agreed. Though he himself claims to be a big reader of Stein.

"My problem with a lot of these folks is that they propose a blatant kind of retro-Keatsian subjectivity ..."

I think most of these poets would be better off if they were LESS fearful of their own subjectivity and negative capability.

" ... and in the process make poetry function in a reactionary way as the keeping of pure language, pure experience (almost always classist, exclusionary, hierarchical) and the way it smothers conflict."

We agree on the effect but not the cause.

"This seems to be the core of 'academic' poetry. Whether Revell or the New Critics."

Sure, maybe not THE core, but part of the core, yes...

"I think avant-garde poetry from the 10s and 20s (Duchamp, Stein, Dada etc) is joyful, populist, anti-hierarchical and (most of all) activating (ie it is poetry that invites the reader to participate in the art, rather than asks the reader to passively admire)."

I mostly agree, although Stein, for all her dazzling destructions, remained hierarchical in many ways. Of course, the current academic avant-garde often supposes an interactive approach too, but audiences must be charmed before they're going to want to dance.


Your thoughts, oh gentle readers of Poetry Snark?

Sunday, July 30, 2006

The New Academicism

(re-posted from May, 2005 at the request of a friend)

The old academicism was about old white guys defending the values of New Criticism and old formalism. We're talking poets like Howard Moss, Richard Howard, Anthony Hecht, W.D. Snodgrass, etc. These poets were academic more for how they wrote than what they wrote about. Their poems emitted the stench of bourgeois comfort. They didn’t seem to get out of the house much, and when they did, they usually walked around in their backyards and had epiphanies while studying their birdfeeders. Sometimes they wrote poems about how righteous they were for not fucking their undergrads. They were poets proud of their anapests. Many of them were foundational in setting up institutions like journal Poetry and the Academy of American Poets, crony machines that continue to this day to pass around the bucks to the same handful of aesthetic clones. They were opposed by the Beats and, more wittily, the early New York School. The academics, in turn, groused at these poets, who, influenced by poor readings of Whitman, Blake, and Henry Miller (Beats) or avant-garde continental European poetry (N.Y.S.), were--so the old academics thought--kneeling before the incorrect totem pole. This generation of academic poets did at least have one virtue: they knew they were essentially academic. They were often narrow, lame, and dull, but they were not hypocrites.

The new academicism is about tenured, middle-aged, neo-bohemians. They don’t do drugs or break laws, but they think of themselves as outside the mainstream: smart rebels whose idea of resistance to middle class values is reading Deleuze and turning over in their minds the idea that they are “nomads.” We’re talking poets like Donald Revell, Cole Swenson, Mary Jo Bang, and Susan Howe. These poets are academic more for what they write about than how they write. Like their predecessors, their poems tend to reflect very comfortable lives, and they too don’t seem to get out of the house much, however when they do, it’s not for a meditative stroll in the garden, but for a meditative stroll at M.O.M.A. They are poets proud of their “experimentalism,” however unlike really experimental artists like Gertrude Stein and Marcel Duchamp, their poems are derivative (often of Gertrude Stein and Marcel Duchamp). They too are associated with various crony machines (Swenson, for example, is permanent faculty at Iowa). They are big on “ecphrasis,” “white space,” and obscurity—marveling in poetry about topics like 14th century clerics, early American captivity narratives, and minimalist painters. Sense of humor is not their strong suit. These academic poets do not regard themselves as academic—anything but! They are rebels! (Theoretically speaking of course.) They do however have one virtue over the previous generation of academic poets: they tend to be somewhat snappier dressers.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Dana Gioia's D.C. Tryst: A Photo Essay

In January of 2003, Dana Gioia was made chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts...

He took what many regarded as an unorthodox attitude toward his job...

"Fuck this literature shit, got me?"

Everything was going fine, but then the rumour got out that Dana liked older women... much older women.

So Lynn "Dick Did Not" Cheney invited him to D.C. for some fun and games. Gioia was surprised when Lynn fondled him right behind her nearly comatose Uncle Larry. The aroused Gioia responded with an impish grin.

But their affair didn't last. The wives of vice-presidents can't very well leave their husbands while in office, can they? A heartbroken Gioia later mailed Lynn this sketch done by a street artist on their first tryst in Paris. She keeps it stashed beneath her undies in a bedroom drawer to this day.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

"Long Gone"--A Tribute to Syd Barrett (1946-2006)

Syd Barrett died last Friday, though it wasn't announced until today. Why am I posting about a rock icon on Poetry Snark? Because Syd Barrett was the true mad poet-genius of the 60s, and I have to say something. His music has meant too much to me to remain silent. If you care about Syd Barrett, please read on.

Syd Barrett was born in 1946 in Cambridge, the son of a famous pathologist who encouraged young Roger's musical inclinations. He acquired the nickname "Syd" at age 15 and kept it until his retirement as a recluse, when he reverted back to Roger to avoid publicity. Barrett's Pink Floyd was a different and far more interesting thing than Roger Waters's. The original Floyd was conceptual and truly experimental, sometimes edging into Duchamp-like challenges to what the art form was and could be. In one infamous session, for example, he brought in a new song called "Have You Got It, Yet?" and asked the band to learn it. Here's what happened (from Wikipedia) :

"The song seemed simple enough when he first presented it to his bandmates, but it soon became impossibly difficult to learn: as they were practicing it, Barrett kept changing the arrangement. He would then play it again, with the arbitrary changes, and sing "Have you got it yet?" After more than an hour of trying to "get it," they realized they never would."

Syd was also a stunningly original guitar player, though few today would know it, because according to those who heard it, his best performances were live (luckily, we hear hints on the albums). According to many, his sonic experiments exceeded even Hendrix's in pure strangeness, as Barrett explored the possibilities of dissonance, distortion, feedback, and the echo machine against the backdrop of light shows that set the standard for psychedelia in their day.

Syd Barrett's passing is currently being memorialized by countless repetitions of "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" on classic rock FM stations across the country, but it is in Barrett's own music--not Pink Floyd's--that we find the most fitting tribute to this great artist. Of course, Barrett did found Pink Floyd and wrote most of the songs on their first album, 1967's Piper at the Gates of Dawn (along with a song on Saucerful of Secrets). Some of these tunes are classics such as the terrific, funny, and ultimately pretty scary song, "Bike." But his greatest achievements were the songs on his two independent releases, Barrett and The Madcap Laughs.

Barrett created these two masterpieces shortly after his first major mental breakdown and subsequent departure from Floyd in 1968. People who are familiar only with Floyd's grandiose post-Meddle era work will be shocked to hear Syd's own music--it's the opposite of the over-produced often pretentious late Floyd. These songs--lyrical, raw, sparsely arranged, and incredibly vulnerable sounding--are immediately recognizable as genius, and have influenced musicians and bands as diverse as David Bowie, Blur, Peter Townsend, This Mortal Coil, Phish, R.E.M., and the Flaming Lips. The songs were recorded in scattershot sessions from '68 to '71, and Barrett--whether through intent or mental illness--never played a song the same way twice. Each version was a completely new experience for him, and this spontaneity surely helps account for the tunes' immediacy and freshness.

His lyrics are among my favorites by any artist ever. Alternately tragic and playful, heavy and childish, Barrett wrote songs of intense nuance and allusiveness. What appears to be a generally happy number like "Wined and Dined" reveals depths of profound sadness and futility upon repeated listening. Some songs, like "Birdy Hop" and "Effervescing Elephant" are pure whimsy, while others, like "Late Night," are heartbreaking in their immediate simplicity:

Inside me I feel
alone and unreal,
and the way you kiss will always be
a very special thing to me...

Although it's never fair to force song lyrics to stand on their own without accompaniment, Barrett's are among the few that hold poetic interest irrespective of melody or sound. I suppose this shouldn't be a surprise, since Barrett was a serious reader, and once even set to music a poem by James Joyce ("Golden Hair").

From "Baby Lemonade":

You're nice to me like ice
in the clock they sent through a washing machine.

Or from the astonishing song, "Dark Globe":

Please lift the hand.
I'm only a person.
With Eskimo chain,
I tattooed my brain all the way...

Won't you miss me?
Wouldn't you miss me at all?

I could go on. Or you can go read all of his lyrics at this site.

Like many artists so ahead of their times, Barrett suffered from mental illness. Although never professionally diagnosed (Barrett shunned psychiatrists), it has been speculated that he suffered from schizophrenia and/or Asperger Syndrome (a form of autism). Others have speculated that the sudden death of his father when Syd was eleven left indelible scars. Many have assumed his excessive use of LSD caused his insanity, but most who knew him agree that the problems with Syd went deeper. David Gilmour said in a 2006 interview: "In my opinion, his breakdown would have happened anyway. It was a deep-rooted thing. But I'll say the psychedelic experience might well have acted as a catalyst."

It's unclear at the time of this writing what caused Barrett's death. I've read that it was due to his diabetes and also that it was cancer-related. Since Barrett has been a complete recluse for over 30 years, living with his mother and spending his time gardening and painting, many have believed he died long ago. A mystery until the end, there is no one who influenced recent music so much about whom we know so little.

Although he has been mythologized by countless fans, there was nothing glamorous about his retreat. It was not a "statement" or a plea for help. According to his own statements, Barrett was someone who couldn't cope with the world as it is and felt incapable of communication with other individuals--someone who both enjoyed and was tortured by his necessary solitude. His madness may have led to some of his artistic triumphs, but it also robbed us of his talent far too soon. He left this world in 2006, but he left his fans in 1971, taking his mystery and genius first to his bedroom--and now to his grave.

(The photograph is of Barrett in 2002.)

Sunday, June 18, 2006


I had to turn that "Word Verification" feature on again for the comments. I don't like it either, but the site has been getting hit by those "Great site! Check out this link!" robo-spammers lately. If anyone has an idea for a better solution, I'm all ears.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The 10 Most Overrated Poets

Everybody loves a top-ten list. Here, in reverse order, are Poetry Snark's ten most overrated poets.

I'm limiting these to Anglophones (living or dead), as I don't trust translations, and the only other language I can read is French. Obviously, this list is biased toward the living, as time has a way of doing its own job on puffed-up hacks. Also, these are overrated poets, not the worst ones. For example, I actually think that Bukowski could be pretty funny at times, but the fact that in Europe he is often considered America's best of the 20th-century requires that he be on this list.

Oh, and this is based on how I perceive their stature from today's point-of-view, so it doesn't include poets like Longfellow, Southey, or Amy Lowell, who were overrated during their time, but aren't taken seriously today. So without further ado, the most overrated English-language poets of all time:

10. Ted Kooser

He's only here because he's Poet Laureate. He's really just a blandly inoffensive barns and farms poet, suitable for use in seducing blue-haired old ladies. His inclusion here is certainly contestable, as I’m not sure that he’s held in high enough esteem to be considered “overrated.”

9. Charles Bukowski

This is the poet boys love when they are in high school. I'll say this for him--he wasn't a fake (I met him once briefly). I wouldn't even put him here if he wasn't the all-time favorite of so many, even when they should have outgrown him and should know better.

8. Bob Perelman

Does anyone really like his poems?

7. Billy Collins

Who would argue with this choice? Well, not too many from the States, anyway. Has anyone heard of this guy in the U.K.? Canada?

6. Derek Walcott

Derek Walcott won both the Nobel and the McArthur “genius” grant. It's not that he's that awful, but he is profoundly overrated.

5. Robert Pinsky

Another poet here primarily because he was a Laureate, but unlike Kooser, who is rejected by the intelligentsia, Pinsky has fans in high places. He has detractors too. I love what Jim Galvin once said about him: "Pinsky wants to dance with his poems. The problem is, he has a lead ass."

4. Mary Oliver

She may be the worst poet on the list, but her reputation has suffered as the fad for ultra-flat "prose-like" lines has waned as of late, and her most recent book, has been roundly panned, even by mainstream reviewers, who usually don't have the guts to go negative. Still, she is worshipped by many, and she is so very awful

3. Ted Hughes

I could care less what he did to Sylvia Plath. Maybe we should be grateful to him, since I suspect his infidelity resulted in some of her finest work. But Hughes was the U.K.'s Poet Laureate for fourteen years, despite the fact that the only reason he was appointed in the first place is because a far superior poet, Philip Larkin, turned it down (as any self-respecting poet should). Surrealism and being a Brit don't mix, and it's hard to say what's worse, his milquetoast attempts at "the uncanny" in his profoundly overrated "crow" poems, or his tepid early nature poems. Brother should have stuck to children's books. At least The Iron Man made for a decent children's animated film (“The Iron Giant”).

2. Lord Alfred Tennyson

Another mildly competent versifier who is here primarily because of his puffed rep. But oh how puffed it is. Tennyson is still the most widely taught Victorian poet (the fact he is still more read than Browning is one of poetry's great scandals). And yes, it's easy--and fun--to pick on Poet Laureates, but this guy's most famous poem is "The Lady of Shallot," which rivals even "The Raven" as most overrated poem of all time. One of my former teachers in Nebraska said it best: "Tennyson is like the Platte River, a mile wide and an inch deep."

1. Edgar Allen Poe

You probably saw this coming. The jingle-jangle man was always a hack with a tin ear, yet even today, he is considered the most influential American poet on the French, and he is the third most studied American poet of the 19th century. His sense of “music” makes Tennyson look like Keats, and his verse is best suited to frightening six year olds. It should have been forgotten long ago.


So what do you think? These kinds of lists almost always create arguments, and I'm sure you have your own nominees who you would put on this list if you were making it yourself. Use this thread to call me on my bullshit or add your own hacks to the pile.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Get yer Whitman love jelly right here folks!

Walt Whitman sells shit.

Monday, June 05, 2006

On Stanley Kunitz and Michael Riffaterre

In the last few weeks, we've lost two major voices in their respective fields, Stanley Kunitz, poet, and Michael Riffaterre, critic.

Now I'm going to break one of the rules I set for myself at this site--I'm going to say something nice about a poet. Stanley Kunitz was the real deal. His poems were more stylistically conservative than I usually like, but it didn't matter because he had a pitch-perfect ear, an eye for detail that rivaled Elizabeth Bishop's, and, most importantly, a vision of the world that was inspiring and rare. He was one of those few poets who saw the world in a way that was utterly different than the way I do, and who convinced me that his way of seeing the world was something I needed to learn from--something that improved my life by occupying it for the brief but intense time spent reading his poems. His poems of sympathy for the natural world--such as "The Wellfleet Whale" and the two silkworm poems he wrote late in his life--are imprinted in my mind and always will be.

From everything I've heard and read, Michael Riffaterre was an admirable man, who fought with the French Resistance in World War II, but his attitude toward literature was deeply misguided. Often associated with French Structuralism, he was one of those critics that worked to detach the human element of writing from the writing itself, arguing that authors themselves have nothing to do with the meaning created by their art (except Riffaterre would have used the clinical term, "text"). As a scholar and critic, he expressed no desire to perform the useful work that critics can do: help other readers. Rather, he wanted to tell us that the way we read is wrong and that we needed to justify meaning against a pseudo-scientific model, based on a newly-invented and highly suspect discipline: semiotics.

Riffaterre hardly started this type of thinking, but as university professor emeritus at Columbia, where he had spent his entire academic career and exerted considerable influence on American attitudes, he was one of the movement's prime enablers. We've seen the results of structuralism: a jealous search for a kind of scientific model for reading, an even more odious movement toward "post-structuralism," and ultimately a disengagement of literary scholarship from literature itself. Luckily for us, that wave has long since shored itself against these ruins, as has its post-structuralist afterthought, and only po-mo apologists and "Language Poets" find this stuff in any way relevant.

Riffaterre and his cohorts' approach denied everything that's valuable about a poet like Stanley Kunitz--or, for that matter, like Blake, Whitman, Yeats, or even Stevens... any poet for whom individual vision was important. Let's hope this kind of thinking can finally be put to rest.

Monday, May 22, 2006

A Little Present

So, I'm going to let the gentle readers of Poetry Snark decide for themselves what's going on at this blog. It does have a rather fetching title: The Iowa Writers' Workshop is Totally Corrupt

Me? I think it smells like ginger...

(Thread. Discuss.)

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

R.I.P. Stanley Kunitz

Brother made it to 100. Let's hope Billy Collins doesn't.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

But seriously folks...

Look, by now you've all heard about governmental efforts to allow internet service providers to regulate what content their subscribers can view... right? Well, if you haven't heard about it, you should. In a nutshell, here's what's happening: if the bill in question goes through, then all internet service providers will be able to legally guide you toward web sites that pay them enough money. Right now, we have "net neutrality," meaning, for one, that popular sites naturally rise to the top of search engine results.

The coolest thing about the web is that it is--for the most part--a true meritocracy, where sites are successful only because people actually want to go there (as opposed to almost all other media, whose popularity is determined primarily by marketing). If this bill goes through, then this aspect of the net will largely vanish, creating a "pay to play" system, where sites like this one could never have gotten popular (I know, I know, some of you probably think that in this case, that wouldn't have been so bad).

Anyway, there is still a chance to defeat this heinous bill. I've included a link toward the bottom of the left sidebar that says "Save the Internet." If you click on that, it will take you to a website showing you how to easily take action to sign their petition and contact your representatives at the same time in about 30 seconds. You can also get the code to insert the "Save the Internet" image and link into your own blog or website. Scroll down and look on the left. Then click on the link, and check it out.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Poetry Snark Starts a New Journal

Announcing the formation of a new brand-spankin' new literary journal:

Crony: A Journal of Friends

Inspired by the recent "Legitimate Dangers" anthology, Poetry Snark has decided to follow suit with a similarly-organized literary journal -- Crony: A Journal of Friends. Crony will be instigating a new publishing schedule; we will be the world's first "quarterly quarterly." That is to say, we will be publishing a new issue one out of every four quarterly periods. To those who say, why not just call it an annual then, we say, poo! "Quarterly quarterly" sounds way cooler.

We will also be instigating an innovative new way of dealing with submissions. Everyone knows that wading through ever-renewed slush piles of hopelessly inept submissions sucks. Big time. That's why journals foist the job off on starry-eyed undergrads who think that if they read enough of that shit, someday the journal will reward them by publishing one of their own incompetent versifications. But we don't have any undegrads, and there's no way we'd publish their shit anyway, so we've devised a new method: we're going to charge you to submit!

That's right, just send Crony: A Journal of Friends your submission with a $25 check made out to "Poetry Snark," and I promise that one of our crack staff will at least skim the first line or two. This is a whole new deal, man, and we've found a way to beat the system! I mean, even photocopies get expensive, you know, and we've got like no money whatsoever! All of our contributors can be assured that any money in excess of publication costs will be spent on good causes: beer, pornography, and online gambling, mainly.

Also credit card debt. And unpaid parking tickets. And carmel-covered long johns. Also we'd really like to have enough money to buy a 21-inch flat screen monitor to play Civilization IV on. And if there's any left over, I'll use it for submissions checks to poetry contests for underprivileged writers (us). We're all just in it for the art.

You might think that this "pay to play" system itself stinks of corrupt poetry contests, but we've got a new twist: tiered submission fees. If you send the minimum $25, we'll read a line or two. If you send $50, we'll read an entire poem (40 lines or less). If you send a hundred, we'll read up to three pages of poetry. If you send $200, we will mail you a complementary back issue of Crony: A Journal Friends. $400 gets you a subscription and we'll add you to our masthead page, as one of the "Friends of Crony: A Journal of Friends." $600 gets you all this and an inflatable raft. And if you send us a thousand dollars, we'll actually be your friend and publish you in our journal. Can you beat that? With poetry contests, you can send them as much money as you want, and there's no guarantee you'll get published. Crony is changing all that. If you send enough money, you WILL get published, and we WILL be your "friend."

To keep costs down, we're going to be an e-journal. In fact, our journal is going to be the first e-mail journal. Basically, I'm going to cut and paste all the poems into an email and hit "send all" to our list of subscribers. A regular subscription, without us having to read your poems, costs $300. Just send me your email address and, like I said before, a check made out to "Poetry Snark." Our first issue is nearly finished. Contributors include Poetry Snark, his girlfriend, Ginger Pennebacker, his girlfriend, Agent Trochee, Bill Blood, my mom, my mom's friend Yolanda, and Bill Blood's little brother "Scratch."

So get ready poetry world, the winds of change are huff, puff, puffing, and we're going to bring this whole house of syncophancy and back-scratching down. Get ready for Crony: A Journal of Friends.