Third Factory/Notes to Poetry

art is autonomous

Attention Span – Benjamin Friedlander

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Anne Boyer | Art Is War | Mitzvah | 2008

I’m not a believer in the Holy Spirit, but the fact that some poets make every sentence flutter with life while others merely kill brain cells does give me pause.

Peter Cole, ed. and trans. | The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492 | Princeton | 2007

A half-millennium of poetry sifted with patient labor from the sand of history, then weighed and melted and wrought anew. To appreciate the wonder of this labor, imagine the David Shields anthology listed below rewritten in contemporary idiom, with tonal differences flattened out, but with a corresponding gain of coherence. A book to set beside Pound’s Provencal, which is only fitting since the poets involved were writing at roughly the same time.

Peter Culley | The Age of Briggs & Stratton | New Star | 2008

Momentum, ease, and a gift for gab are never sufficient for a book to be as enjoyable as this one. But when the poet is also a collector and historian of minor experience, these qualities begin to seem pretty foolproof. “A walk / on gilded splinters / in terrycloth / slippers,” with birdsong loud and clear when the TV is turned off.

Tony Harrison | Collected Poems | Penguin | 2007

Modernism scarcely registers here, but in Harrison’s case that’s not a defensive posture. His poems are episodes from a class war in which language is the battlefield: those who know it best are best favored to strike with impunity, and deadly surprise, and live to strike again.

Susan Howe | Souls of the Labadie Tract | New Directions | 2007

She makes other poets sound forced who strive to say one-quarter as much. Her secret? If you work your material until it’s in tatters, until it stains your thoughts and permeates your dreams, any stray word can be Sibylline.

Andrea Lauterwein | Anselm Kiefer/Paul Celan: Myth, Mourning and Memory | Thames & Hudson | 2007

A handsomely illustrated book about Kiefer, whose encounter with Celan’s work triggered a profound change, but not, it seems, a profound reading. Which makes this a fascinating study of reception, surprisingly close to another book I admired last year—Christoph Irmscher’s Longfellow Redux (U of Illinois P, 2008).

Sharon Mesmer | Annoying Diabetic Bitch | Combo | 2008

It’s impossible to read these poems without wanting to share the lines out loud. Silence is helpless here: even when I’m alone with this book, I break the silence, laughing. Is there anything more poignantly utopian than that? If ideology is the presence of society in our heads, then laughing out loud when we’re alone is the very summoning of that society, an involuntary assertion of communion.

George Oppen | Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers | ed. Stephen Cope | California | 2008

The pensive poet at his vanity (where beautiful poems were so often made up), appealingly deshabille.

Mark Scroggins | The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofksy | Shoemaker & Hoard | 2007

Sometimes, all you need is a firm grip from a friend to make it across slippery ground. With Zukofsky, Scroggins is that friend.

Frank Sherlock and Brett Evans | Ready to Eat Individual | Lavender Ink | 2008

The black bars framing each page reproduce the characteristic look of an empty food pouch, of the sort distributed in New Orleans after Katrina—marking this poem as a kind of shared meal, each portion of which once filled the empty space between need and excrement. Sustenance temporarily, debris for posterity.

David S. Shields, ed. | American Poetry: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries | Library of America | 2007

The new edition of the Oxford anthology of American verse gives a mere twenty-seven pages to poets born before Emerson—clearly, the earlier years are due for a reappraisal. Here, the editor’s particular interest lies in the emergence of literary culture, so popular culture is actually less evident than in John Hollander’s companion volume of the nineteenth century, which surprised me. Surprising too is the canon that slowly emerges. Measured in pages, the top five poets are all familiar names: Michael Wigglesworth, Edward Taylor, Philip Freneau, Anne Bradstreet, Timothy Dwight. But after Dwight the discoveries come fast and furious, pushing Ebenezer Cook (of “The Sot-Weed Factor”) down to ninth place, and Phillis Wheatley all the way down to fourteenth. Whether these new rankings create new reputations remains to be seen (the Scottish-born West Indian James Grainger is already gaining ground among scholars), but since the test of a book like this one rests ultimately on the poems, one reads more for choice moments than careers. And here I’ve found more than enough to justify a reapportionment of pages in the next Oxford. I’m especially fond of the following lines by Hannah Griffitts:

My Sense, or the Want of it—free you may jest
And censure, despise, or impeach,
But the Happiness center’d within my own Breast,
Is luckily out of your reach.

(From a short poem against marriage, written around the time of the Revolution—found in a commonplace book.)

*

More Benjamin Friedlander here.

4 Responses

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  1. [...] It’s impossible to read these poems without wanting to share the lines out loud. Silence is helpless here: even when I’m alone with this book, I break the silence, laughing. Is there anything more poignantly utopian than that? If ideology is the presence of society in our heads, then laughing out loud when we’re alone is the very summoning of that society, an involuntary assertion of communion. (Benjamin Friedlander) [...]

  2. [...] Sometimes, all you need is a firm grip from a friend to make it across slippery ground. With Zukofsky, Scroggins is that friend. (Benjamin Friedlander) [...]

  3. [...] Momentum, ease, and a gift for gab are never sufficient for a book to be as enjoyable as this one. But when the poet is also a collector and historian of minor experience, these qualities begin to seem pretty foolproof. “A walk / on gilded splinters / in terrycloth / slippers,” with birdsong loud and clear when the TV is turned off. (Benjamin Friedlander) [...]

  4. [...] Benjamin Friedlander here. His Attention Span for 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003. Back to [...]


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