. . . Hannah Weiner

. . .

I like reading Hannah Weiner because spirits dictated her poetry to her, and her spirits seem a lot more believable to me than occult blarneyers like Mrs. Yeats's or the brunchtime natterers of James Merrill. Her spirits are petty, obsessional, cranky, dull, and mean -- just like dead people should be.

It's hard to find many people who've read any Weiner, and this, by Mara Damon, is the longest essay I've found about her. Unfortunately, it spends most of its time arguing with its own navel, which seems a waste of the perfectly argumentative navel built into Weiner's work....

. . .


Spectators huddle closely ("otherwise you won't see anything but a blur") around a rickety flickering contraption tended by a woman with an odd accent. We bob and weave so's not to miss a single tawdry apparition, strain our ears to catch the wavering, trite, obscure, and thrilling message. The images shimmer like silver, or silverfish.

Effects were made the old-fashioned way: directly in the camera and shaken back out. The exaggerated planes of depth simulate, remarkably closely, late 19th century accounts and photographs of spiritualist triumphs: things appear at you -- ridiculously clunky handmades and hand-me-downs, what thrills in their appearance is precisely their undeniably transient appearance. (Yes, that's probably why polarized 3-D's used mostly for sex, but the match to spiritualism's even more uncanny.)

"Its light roupagem allowed that the beautiful azeitonada color of its neck, the shoulders, the arms and the ankles was seen very well. The long black and wavy hair went down for the shoulders until below of the chest and were tied by a species of teeny turban. Its feições were small, correct and gracious; the eyes were black, great and livings creature; all its movements were full of those infantile favours or as of a young gazela, when vi, shy and the determined one, among the curtains."

"The most convincing bio-pic since Man Ray, Man Ray!"


Narratologist Juliet Clark points out that statements like "The mystery is solved" are a wonderful way to end an autobiography, or any other story, especially if the explanation is incomprehensible. I liked Jim Thompson's "This World, Then the Fireworks" better when I was mystified by its undeniably conclusive final sentence than when I understood it.

Other suggestions for further reading:

  • Zoe Beloff's introductory remarks about the alarming concentration of spiritualist power in feminine hands and the extent to which the Victorian séance served as a outlet for bad behavior put me in mind, of course, of our dear friend Pooter.

  • The querulous tone of Elizabeth d'Espérance's voices from the other side -- like mean-spirited senile relatives -- was replicated a century later by Hannah Weiner's transcriptions. We don't cling to our dead because they have much to offer in the way of wisdom or personality. We cling to them because they're blood.

. . .

I've written before (and will again) about the urge to substitute narrative for lyric.

Poetic diction is one manifestation. For most contemporary poets and readers, what defines and justifies poetry is a rhetorical tone: the sound of someone being a poet, rather than the sound of a poem. Instead of listening to a work, we enact a poetry listener and set our afflatus adrift with the imagined author.

People really cling to those chicken-wire-and-terrycloth mothers, too. How often do John Cage or Jackson Mac Low get talked about without bringing their Eastern (Long Island, anyway) wisdom into it? What the literary reader finds difficult to handle isn't incoherence but distance.

Thus Eliot Weinberger attacked Language Poetry's reliance on "the non-sequitur (which is quite different... from Cubist simultaneity, Surrealist collage, or the Poundian ideogrammatic method)."

Yes, the non-sequitur is quite different: It doesn't reek of pomposity. Patchouli-soaked shamans don't always make sense either, but with them you can tell it's A Poet talking. From a block away.

Me, I no more like everything called "Language Poetry" than I like everything called "Hong Kong movies." It's just where I find a part I like.

And the part I like has little enough in common. In fact, only nothing. Where do Susan Howe and Bob Perelman and Stephen Ratcliffe and Hannah Weiner overlap? Only in what's missing. From a writerly standpoint, Zukofsky's late-night amateur watchmaking, tweezers in shaking hand and jeweler's in blearing eye, and Mac Low's crank-handle sausage machine are opposed. But in their mutual discarding of the poetic voice, their works appeal to the same reader.

Or, more accurately, they put off one class of readers and make room for another. That doesn't mean we always enjoy ourselves once we get in. The obscure redolence of a dive bar welcomes without guarantee. Barrett Watten and Bruce Andrews prove that when taken as an assignment, "depersonalization" becomes as dull as any other assignment.

It's just a beneficial side-effect. An assurance of sorts. Of "sincerity," as Zukofsky put it: the baggage of personality discarded because one's truly intent on some other goal, some point outside oneself.

. . .

Nothing Personal, 7

It's not true that only poets read poetry. It is true that keeping up with poetry comes close to a full time job, like keeping up with international cinema or popular music or genre fiction.

Job markets vary by geography even avocational job markets. Taking similar land routes, I and Joshua Corey traced similar reading histories, and the ten years between us made comparatively little difference. Although a quirk of publishing history had led to Zukofsky being stocked by the Chillecothe, Missouri, library, and although the Black Mountain lost-leaders were widely available, there was no collected Niedecker or Spicer in my youth, and what I could find in Philadelphia and NYC led me, like Corey, to posit a post-1940 decline into the poetics of lithium. (Things are better in Brooklyn now.)

When I moved to Cambridge, Mass., I lost access to international cinema but gained access to WordsWorth Books and the Grolier. (I also gained a three-hour daily commute, and I also lost my lover and my mind.) At one of those shops, I bought Sal Salasin's first book because it reminded me of Ed Bluestone in the National Lampoon. And I bought Bloomsday by Jackson Mac Low because it was Bloomsday. And then I bought Sulfur 24 because Jackson Mac Low was in it.

I can't find that issue must've lent it to someone and never gotten it back. The web tells me it included one of my favorite Ron Padgett poems, and something by the incomparable David Bromige. But what struck hardest was a long excerpt from Ron Silliman's Toner.

"It spoke to me."

Diction is about shared assumptions, and diction varies because what's "universal" varies. For example, pace Berryman and Hacker, not all of us have had the universal experience of sleeping with our students. So it's possible that you just need to have been a commuter to really get Silliman's poetry. But I got it, and got it bad: here was someone who'd experienced this previously unsung, astonishingly stupid side of life, and found redemptive lyric possibilities in its suspended-yet-mobile state of consciousness. A suspension so extended that it became epic: Kinda-Ron kinda-Endures.

One Age of Huts later, I walked away with the ugly mossy block of In the American Tree. I wouldn't say it changed my life I haven't led that sort of life but it certainly changed my buying habits.

What the anthologized pieces shared was an absence of recognizable names (other than the dedicatee, Larry Eigner) and anything resembling well-established subjective lyric stances. The range of alternatives seemed even wider than what Donald Allen had come up with. And yet Silliman didn't present himself as an outside arbiter or professional event organizer; apparently this range belonged to something he thought of as one group, his own.

The nearest thing to a new norm here was parataxis, which seemed to account for many of the precursors paid tribute in the essays at the back of the book: Ashbery (although not Allen's Ashbery), Stein, Spicer.... Still, there wasn't a "standard Language Poet poem" as far as I could see at least not among the ones I liked. Lyn Hejinian's My Life and Bob Perelman's a.k.a. were both beautiful little books of paratactic prose paragraphs, but you couldn't mistake Hejinian's VistaVision montages of Northern California for Perelman's grim resignation to "cleverness", young Beckett pressed into an old Beckett role:

He heard the music and stood up. Played at appropriate speed, incurable motion out the window. The names are maintained to prevent the accumulations of self-esteem from crashing too harmlessly into private abysses. As if hearing were a perfection of air perpetrated among rivals, sets of teeth, synonyms, sentence structure, ruptured blood vessels. He held on, in advance. Night fell, and I lived through that, too, expressing the expressible in terms of the expressed. On good terms with neighbors, dependable, daily, there, smiles, and is currently writing and reading this sentence.

Susan Howe suffered megalomania of the archive in a way I found much more congenial than Charles Olson's: high on dust mites and the glare of wide margins, the texture of the paper, the impress of the type, a whited-out thought balloon of imminent immanent insight tugging gently at our scalps....

And sure, lots of us have words appearing on our foreheads, but Hannah Weiner was the first to accurately transcribe them.

Depersonalized? No, just respecified: new specs in front of the eyes, less heavily tinted, and, in some cases, less smudged.

I moved to San Francisco in 1991, when Small Press Distribution and Small Press Traffic both had storefronts, and my binging intensified. Like Corey, I learned to browse bookshelves by publisher name. Some of Silliman's also-rans were as good as he'd implied: Rosemarie Waldrop, Robert Glück (who turned out to be a very different sort of writer indeed), Beverley Dahlen, Alice "Notely", Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. Some of the included gained importance: speaking of Campion, Stephen Ratcliffe's spaces in the light said to be where one / comes from is subvocalized MDMA. Some seemed to drop out: Stephen Rodefer's Four Lectures were primo, and his Villon translation was a pungent pinch of Spiceresquerie, but then what happened?

Most were uneven. There was such a thing as The Charles Bernstein Poem, and I didn't think much of it, but just often enough he'd come up with something unexpected like "Artifice of Absorption" or "I and The", and even The Charles Bernstein Poems had their place. On the other hand, Susan Howe, always worth reading, was worth surprisingly less in dowdy paperbacks than in her expansive expensive smaller press editions. Silliman's Tjanting played to his weaknesses, despite the conceptual catchiness of its form.

But they continued to be more uneven sometimes than others, and they led other places, like Jackson Mac Low had, and so the binging goes.

Here ends my happy consumer conversion narrative. "Or like stout whosits when with eagle eyes," "Nirvana made me a better student," "I can't believe it's not butter," and so on.

Happily, I wasn't a participant.

Next: I finally get back to where I was more than a year ago!


Joseph Duemer has some questions.


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Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.