“IN A RICH MAN’S HOUSE THE ONLY PLACE TO SIT
is in his face”
—Sara Larsen, from “2 Poems from The Hallucinations,” Mrs. Maybe 3 (except with SPIT for SIT)
3 hours ago
It’s tempting to read Aijaz Ahmad’s translations of Mirza Ghalib, giant of the modern Urdu-language ghazal, against his later Marxist criticism. Ahmad’s intro lays stress on Ghalib’s role as witness to a declining Mughal world being steamrolled by the British, and lends a postcolonial shading to the poet’s special brand of wistfulness. But his politics is really in the book’s approach to translation. Other translators have only interpreted the poems; Ahmad’s point is to change them. His apparatus for each ghazal (or the portion of each he’s selected to translate) includes a prose-y, open-ended “literal translation,” often better than the poetic renderings that follow; a section explaining the key Urdu vocabulary he’s brought over into English; a General Explanation of puzzling couplets, detailing the philosophy and theology behind Ghalib’s imagery, or admitting his failure to grasp it; and two or three different translations for each poem provided by a pool of seven English-language poets.
The poets aren’t ones I’d think of for an exploratory project like this: W.S. Merwin, William Stafford, Mark Strand, and Adrienne Rich don’t conjure up visions of radical advances in poetics. The beauty of Ahmad’s structure though is that you can call them out for their complacencies and distortions, since you’re privy to the same text they worked from. By the same token, you end up giving credit where credit is due—Rich stands out as especially deft at catching the subtle thought at work behind the rainbows and wine cups and flowers. The book’s interest finally extends beyond Ghalib to the possibilities of translation in general, though the ghazals appear here with a beauty and accuracy that’s hard to best anywhere else.
“To express the passions and spontaneous reactions of the characters by means of stereotyped melodic and harmonic figures, however freshly and virtuousically recombined, makes exactly the same point Pushkin makes in his novel: feelings are never truly spontaneous but always mediated by the conventions and constraints, as often learned from literature as from “life,” to which we have adapted. Therein lie both the tragedy (the constraints) and the salvation (the adaptation) of human society.”
—from Richard Taruskin, “Chaikovsky and the Literary Folk: A Study in Misplaced Derision”
Mark: I appreciate these two excellent thoughts, Rodney.
Here in San Diego County where I live, there’s essentially no poetry scene at all that isn’t not simply university-related, but literally university-housed. The only regular reading series that takes place off campus, the Agitprop Series, has been run by a series of people (Lorraine Graham currently) who likely wouldn’t be in San Diego at all if it wasn’t for their connection to university employment. In La Jolla, D. G. Wills Books, a non-university affiliated bookstore, hosts a few literary readings every year, at which about 12-20 people, most of them retired, will listen to a reading. San Diego has almost no other beyond university context for literature, besides a few yearly slam events.
Not sure where I’m going with this—maybe it’s that with so much financial trouble in California, and so much debate about limiting and shutting down university access, I wonder that while poets are so often fretting, and maybe rightly so, about being swallowed up by the academic world, maybe they also ought to be thinking about what might happen when the university-context for literature, however slight, also disappears. Would that make things better in some places? I’m not sure, but in San Diego it would more or less mean the entire end of literature as a public activity.
Me: Hi Mark,
Thanks for this! Chris Piuma and I exchanged a couple comments on my earlier “Shadow Poetics” post, talking about similar questions in the Portland context. What you say about San Diego here gives some helpful perspective.
My snap response is to wonder how certain strands of poetry—let’s be bold & say “our” strand (call it, what, maybe “non-Mary Oliver” poetry?)—would fare outside of academia, especially in “second-tier” cities like Portland or San Diego, if it got more attention in the wider culture. Imagine if the weeklies reviewed small press poetry the way they review independent movies, local bands, or offbeat graphic novels. Then again, the po biz would probably grow even more balkan and fractious with that kind of publicity on the line. And publicity like that only comes where there’s merch to move—tickets, beer, meals, CDs. I don’t think contemporary poetry fits any more comfortably into that system than it does in the world of professional scholarship.
But I agree (to a point) with Chris’s point that poetry’s not really a numbers game. And while the art’s in no danger of vanishing anytime soon, its chief enabling institution right now is the university, just as surely as classical music’s institutional enabler has become the civic orchestra. Salon music, amateur quartets, accomplished bourgeois children tickling the ivories—they’re more or less gone, and I don’t hear anyone grousing too loudly that they’re gone (tho’ they do complain, in almost exactly the same terms as poets, that classical music’s become marginal to the culture at large).
Still, in places like Portland—and San Diego too, it sounds like—seems to me you need a critical mass of audience to make certain kinds of events, and a certain level of discussion, happen. Whether that mass comes from inside the university or outside of it seems less relevant at that level than just getting momentum at all.
I like your description of literature as a “public activity.”
P.S. You know, it just occurred to me to mention this massive reading road trip Zachary Schomburg’s on—9,895 miles so far, according his blog. I don’t know much about it beyond the photos he posts, but seems like it opens a window on this “academia/local scene” paradigm my mind tends to get stuck on. Blogs help, too.
Chris: So I saw her giving this talk, and it is nice to read it, rather than have to make it out from the horrible acoustics of Philosophy 301 at Columbia.
I think it’s something almost symptomatic of, well, something, something that kept cropping up at the conference, not only in her talk but also in, say, Stephanie Young’s and also in the conference as a whole—that her solution to the problem of an ineffective institution is to try to recreate the institution outside of the institution. A “shadow” institution. Rather than look outside of the institution for success stories.
(Young’s talk was about the possibilities of the reading series, by which she meant the institutional (academic) reading series. And while they were, perhaps, interesting or at least better possibilities than what is currently happening, it seemed to insist on the primacy and importance of academic institutions in a way that seemed alien to this semi-former-Portlander.)
Mark Nowak gave a talk on that same panel, about organizing in factories and how poetry workshops played a part in that, which I thought was very interesting (although/in that I would have liked to have seen it developed more, both theoretically and pragmatically).
But anyway. I’m not even sure what benefit the academy has for poetry, other than supplying poets with a certain amount of money, and providing a certain type of scholarship which can help archive poetry and poetics. I’m not sure a shadow academy is the best way of getting money into the hands of the poets in need.
Me: Hi Chris,
Thanks for weighing in. I’m all for alternatives to the poetic status quo, and appreciate Juliana’s effort to work out the details of a “third way.” I think she’s actually tried something like this with Joshua Clover and others … wasn’t there something posted about that a while back? [NB: It’s the 95 Cent Skool, the 6-day seminar happening in Oakland next month. Rebecca Wolff responds to its statement of purpose (and others respond to her response) here.]
I shared your question about whether the distinction between poetry readings inside and outside academia is really as thin as Juliana makes out in her paper. Here in Portland, as you know, the readings that go on at Reed and Lewis & Clark are almost totally sealed off from the unfunded action in the galleries, bars, house readings, and cafés, often for the reasons Juliana describes, right down to the transport. While you can hear “national” poets in the mismatched chairs of a bar or coffeehouse with just a few bucks dropped in a hat.
Still, I see her point about how negligible the difference can be. Many of us in that café-and-a-mike scene hold various degrees, teach at or attend local schools, and aren’t so entirely cut off from the poetry economy that happens inside the university walls. (Think, say, of how the “right” poets—Lyn Hejinian, Joan Retallack, a Philip Whalen memorial—draw us into the university setting quite comfortably, while “they” come to our stuff sometimes for the same reasons.) I should point out, too, that a lot of the churn in the poetry community in the time I’ve been here is due to people leaving for academic programs elsewhere. On the other side, the new arrivals are often freshly minted MFAs looking for a cheap place to live while they adjunct locally. So university everywhere you turn!
Also, despite the low price and easy access, Juliana’s right I think that the audience at the “pass the hat” end of the poetry spectrum can be just as insular and same-y as their academic counterparts. I don’t know that more ears turn out for free poetry at a coffeehouse than they do at a college seminar room. And if they do, I’m not convinced it’s because of the different community values (love and the after-party, as Juliana puts it) on offer outside the university setting.
I wonder, though, if audience size/composition is the right measure of the “permeability” Juliana’s interested in. If you have to “pay to play” the academic poetry game, then the grassroots pass-the-hat stuff wins hands-down on the permeability front, where the only cost of entry is the effort of showing up. The bigger challenge I think is getting people to show up, even when it’s free and parking’s simple. This is especially frustrating when you consider how readily folks tend to shell out for MFAs (even budget-strapped Portland State offers one now, partly because they’re such cash cows). Why pay for all that cow when the milk’s already here for free?
My hunch is that the problem’s not exactly the “permeability” or “exclusivity” Juliana takes on in her paper so much as a general indifference to poetry when it’s not branded in a professional degree package. It’s a cultural change as much as an institutional/structural one. Balkanization plays a role, too—it’s rare, even in a town as small as Portland, that all the non-academic poetry goers (the slammers, the open mikers, the journalers, the bridge walkers, the soul catchers, the experimentalists, etc.) feel any kind of affinity or need to unite. And, like Kasey points out in his post today, maybe there’s no good reason they should.
What galls, I guess, is finally the money, which you point out in your comment is the one place where academia beats the grassroots up and down. Why all this hustle to pay a visiting poet’s bar bill when two miles away, in a scene that’s not all that distinguishable from ours in terms of commitment, passion, knowledge about poetry, ability to “do poetics,” etc., there’s budget to house, fly, feed, and fete? Like so much in the culture right now, the really meaningful distinction seems to come down to cash money. In the meantime, we’ve got our free labor to expend on hats and blogs.
Chris: (I would like to excuse the following burst of incoherence on cold medicine.)
I suppose I just want to add that, personally, I’m not all that interested in “getting people to show up” or possibly even “exclusivity”.
(Steve Evans, I think it was, made a good point about how, basically, all decisions (who’s reading, where the reading is held, etc.) are decisions of exclusion, and the task is to understand and accept that you’re excluding who you’re excluding for a good reason.)
I’m not too worried if people don’t go to poetry readings. If people don’t need poetry, I don’t feel any urge to force it upon them. I don’t think poetry necessarily improves people’s lives—or, rather, that if it does, there are lots of other things that can do that as well, and there’s not necessarily anything an engaged connection to poetry can do which an engaged connection to, say, baking can’t.
I do care about people being able to find out about readings and having access to them. We made a lot of decisions in Spare Room to try to maximize accessibility to our potential audience. But we weren’t necessarily interested in creating that audience.
And if there is some sense of insularity or exclusivity to Spare Room events, I hope it is a welcoming one—that is, if you “fit in” with the interests and aims of the group, that you’d feel welcomed to the reading—but that it would still be exclusive/insular enough to be well-defined and meaningful. (And we had various events where we tried to relax those exclusionary practices anyway.)
While there might be some level of balkanization in the poetry scene in Portland (although not so severe—we had connections and events with other groups, and kept tabs on one another, even if we rarely attended each others’ readings—plus, of course, there was already Dan Raphael doing a lot of the leg work for inter-scene connections), what I always found interesting in Spare Room is how many people from other “experimental” disciplines ended up taking an interest in what we were doing, and how much we got exposed to what they were doing. I helped run a poetry reading series that led to me doing experimental dance to an audience of a thousand or so people! It seemed less balkanized along those lines than many other cities’ poetry/arts scenes.
“Why all this hustle to pay a visiting poet’s bar bill when two miles away, in a scene that’s not all that distinguishable from ours in terms of commitment, passion, knowledge about poetry, ability to “do poetics,” etc., there’s budget to house, fly, feed, and fete?”
Well, because that “hustling” is meaningful in a way that having money handed down mysteriously from above isn’t. It’s like eating vegetables from your garden rather than ones of mysterious provenance that you buy at Safeway. It’s handy and convenient to get the vegetables at Safeway—but perhaps what keeps me interested in the possibilities of a poetry scene isn’t necessarily its handy convenience.
This scholarly clutch of “Chicago School” essays on classical Arabic poetry gives the non-specialist a chance to listen in on the stars and peek at their working translations. The real fun though is in watching the poetry they cover operate in an entirely different way than it does in our parochial here and now. Taking Arabic into English gives you a glimpse of the software, but it’s their knack for explaining the socio-cultural hardware that makes these brainy pieces shine.
A pre-Islamic genre with roots in the myths and harvest rituals of the ancient Near East, the Arabic qasidah, with its desert imagery and largely Bedouin social context, first gets written down, then Islamicized, then exported to regions far distant in time, tongue, and place. In the process, fixed images and rhetorical conventions assume new, often highly original meanings. A celebration of drunkenness or sexual love can become a trope for spiritual union, or praise for an absent lover an expression of the seeker’s desire for the divine, while each preserves its function in meeting the generic requirements of the classical ode. To twist a line from Olson, as the qasidah moves over the mountains what does not change is the will to make it look like nothing’s changed, until even the requisite camel dung left at the abandoned campsite gets itself stretched and metaphor’d into the princely ghazals of India.
The result is a poetry that’s highly aware of its status as a set of (increasingly artificial) rules and conventions, but one that shrewdly deploys allusion, intertextual chest bumping, and nimble ambiguities (is it wine or “wine”?) to leave a personal imprint on otherwise generic material. The closest comparison in our own culture might be to comics or opera, two forms with a clearly articulated code of conventions which their fans appreciate primarily as conventions, but which artists keep managing to turn to their own purpose all the time anyway without necessarily feeling the need to throw over the genre completely. (Brandon Brown’s amazing parsings of contemporary pop music come to mind here, too.)
I wonder if more contemporary poetry works like the qasidah—or like Brandon’s pop ballads—than we’re often ready to acknowledge, and if we might gain a more sophisticated appreciation of our literary resources if we talked about that more. I liked this book for making me wonder that.
“Teenage Bernini tried to sculpt living flames in marble. That his failure resulted in a near-parodic representation of martyrdom by fire in no way diminishes the beauty of his rejection of impossibility. I realized fairly recently that this has always mirrored my rejection of the grand social impossibilities trumpeted by demagogues. What I do is tiny. But I wouldn’t want to be without it. Language, our million-year collective endeavor.”The same piece ends with a description of one of Lippi’s (pre-Baroque) paintings of the Nativity,
“... which forces my eye stage left, where a peasant, at play with his dog, is missing the whole millenary event. Sometimes I imagine that peasant to be Remedios Varo or Franz Marc, Lygia Clark or John Heartfield, among others, especially you—is that strange, do you think?—it’s just that we love to experience beauty together. It’s for our sake: the realest beauty is always among others.”Trim Frommer’s to an alternate but still possible hemisphere, porous, nomadic is the third book available from Portland’s own Airfoil Chapbooks.