Third Factory/Notes to Poetry

art is autonomous

Attention Span 2009 – Benjamin Friedlander

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Ludovico Ariosto, trans. Barbara Reynolds | Orlando Furioso, Parts One and Two | Penguin | 1975 and 1977

Lit up by rare flashes of gunfire, a hundred characters fly every which way in the twilight of the middle ages, in stories as ragged as the back of a tapestry. It’s ridiculous fun—The Faerie Queene as told by Rabelais—made perfect for bedtime by the rhymed translation, which aims to be as rubbery as Don Juan. Making me wish Byron had been born in the Renaissance.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Harold Bloom and Paul Kane | Collected Poems and Translations | Library of America | 1994

What finally won me over is the pulse of composition: an engendering rhythm urged forward by rhyme, lifting the flower out of its seed, delivering into consciousness what gets delivered into script. No other poet of the nineteenth century gives me the same sense of scribble as bioproduct. To be sure, the poems I like best are much more than that, but it’s the bioproduction that defines the overall experience, a fitting expression of Emerson’s commitment to nature.

Flarf and Conceptual Poetry | various websites and presses | 2008-2009

Perhaps the one indisputable achievement of conceptual poetry is its radicalizing of the old truism that being is inferior to becoming, that one should prize thoughts less highly than thinking. In works like Kenneth Goldsmith’s Fidget (a list of every body movement made over thirteen hours), it’s the completeness with which the initial inspiration is carried out that matters, not the result. The heft of the book matters more than anything said in it. Even a project as magnificently crafted as Christian Bok’s Eunoia (a set of lipograms, each highlighting a different vowel) is of little interest in what it says; what we admire, finally, is the fact that anything gets said at all. The being of such projects is not simply inferior to becoming; it makes us yearn for a dissipation of being, for a conceptual project that would free us from the burdens of consumption altogether; a project that could marshal all the obsessiveness of Fidget, all the ingenuity of Eunoia, but in pursuit of nothing tangible…of nothing at all. Wait. I think I just discovered the death drive.

Flarf is the opposite. It cares not a whit for becoming, though it responds to change, and reproduces. Like an amoeba, growing and splitting, splitting and growing. Except that flarf is hardly single-celled. It’s a whole culture, decaying matter newly charged with life, responding to stimulus. In flarf, any stray word or phrase can become an organ of feeling, obeying the pleasure principle, luxuriating in its being. Which is why consciousness ripples through it so confusingly: with consciousness comes intention, reflection, concern for becoming. Ripples, however, are unavoidable: consciousness, or its influence, is irrepressible, except through the rigorous application of a method. Which is really a conceptual thing.

Rob Halpern | Disaster Suites | Palm | 2009

In which the lyric I is a materialist project and language the flood setting the wreckage adrift. Flood, however, is not the disaster, only its means of becoming manifest. Transcendance? A survey of the wreckage from above.

Rachel Loden | Dick of the Dead | Asahta | 2009

Pleasure and disgust are modes of understanding. Humor, a pedagogy that relies on them. Which is why Rachel Loden’s history is so effective. Its lesson? A reawakening of sensation. Call it proprioception, but of the mind.

Mel Nichols | Catalytic Exteriorization Phenomenon | Edge | 2009

Flickers of happiness like red lights from tapped brakes, driving into northern Virginia, immersed in music and the passing view. It all made so much sense when I learned that Mel Nichols used to live on the same road toward which I careened nearly every day. A historic city split open by highways, bandaged with strip malls, unexpectedly hospitable to foreign substances. “I kiss you city // and melt into your dangerous tongue.” Or drip into you, as through a feeding tube. However evoked, a very particular experience of place. Which these poems reproduce, in calming flashes.

Kit Robinson | The Messianic Trees: Selected Poems 1976-2003 | Adventures in Poetry | 2008

If craft, poetics, and experience form a triangle, the area they enclose is ruled by artifice. And no poet has succumbed to that rule as winningly or knowingly as Robinson, who appreciates with cheerful horror the larger mandate: to remake the world in our own image.

Susan Schultz | Dementia Blog | Singing Horse | 2008

Family and caretakers, bent by love or duty toward the ultimate abjection: cognition after twilight. According to Susan Schultz, all of us are likewise bent relative to authority, making this six-month report essential reading.

Jonathan Skinner | With Naked Foot | Little Scratch Pad | 2009

It’s waaaay better than slow poetry. It’s Skinner! (With apologies to Wendy’s.)

Peter Weiss | Auschwitz auf der Bühne: “Die Ermittlung” in Ost und West [Auschwitz on Stage: “The Investigation” East and West] | Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung | 2008 | DVD and DVD-ROM

Like Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust, The Investigation is based on trial transcripts. In this case, the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials of 1963-65, which Weiss briefly attended, breaking away from the rehearsals of Marat/Sade to hear the testimony of the victims and perpetrators. Subtitled “an oratorio in eleven cantos,” the resulting text is an exhumation of the past, not a reconstruction of the trial; it moves didactically from ramp to camp to gas chamber and ovens. Overshadowed now by other exhumations, most notably the film Shoah, Weiss’s play deserves to be remembered. On October 19, 1965, it was performed simultaneously in fifteen German cities, including both parts of Berlin, no small feat in the Cold War. Coming twenty years after Hitler’s defeat, and twenty years before the West German president pronounced that defeat a liberation, the performances marked a turning point in Germany’s coming to terms with its National Socialist past. Really, one of the great moments in political art ever, documented on these DVDs.

Philip Whalen, ed. Michael Rothenberg | The Collected Poems | Wesleyan | 2007

The skills needed to read a poem are specialized enough that acquiring them was at one time what people meant by acquiring an education. In the twentieth century, the old skills became curiously inapt; what was needed instead was a reeducation. The modernists approached this problem with a ruler-to-knuckles kind of fanaticism. With Philip Whalen, we arrive at the public schools of my childhood: the ruler is used to make straight lines, and there are penmanship classes, and sleepy moments in the afternoon when we study ancient dynasties. And recess, and lunch, and doodles, and the joy of the bell, and dispersal home.

More Benjamin Friedlander here.

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


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