Written Before I Started to Read Rhode Island Notebook, Which is Brilliant

A Defense of Poetry / Gabriel Gudding / Response Paper / Jeff T. Johnson


I’d like to say I’d never encountered the word butt in a poem before I read Gabriel Gudding’s A Defense of Poetry. I hope that’s true. And maybe there’s something refreshing about a poet who for the most part meticulously crafts his poems, while peppering them with scatological references, some sophisticated[1] and some puerile[2]. But I hope I never see the word butt in a poem again. Yes but, as John Ashbery wrote in “No Way of Knowing,” there are no ‘yes, buts.’

This is to say I appreciate Gudding’s obvious skill (see the deep slant rhyme and surprise/killer closing lines of “Bosun” (p. 28, 29)), and I can dig his irreverence (as when he interrupts the sentimental journey of “Wish” (p. 35) in the second line, “back into my fucking childhood”), but Gudding's compulsion to intentionally shoot himself in the foot (the line “Then I will dismount my heart-car” is such a clunker it dispels the pleasure of “Wish”[3]) heavy bores and bums me. (To be fair, “BOSUN” does not stoop to take aim at its shoe; it’s one of the few uncompromised successes of the book.)

            Importantly, the book is called A Defense of Poetry, not The Defense of Poetry. That’s modesty for you. It also says, There are many defenses of poetry, and here’s one of them. It also sounds like A Defensive Poetry. Hmm. Gudding loves to take the piss out of serious poetry, right? Why can’t we say butt in our poems? he asks again and again (not in so many words, of course—in more words, and different ones, but mostly the same one, butt, but also in its proper synonyms, like anus and rectum and asshole). Look, he says at the top of “My Buttocks,” Wallace Stevens says your buttocks! He’s talking about my buttocks (and yours!), and so am I, because poetry does in fact talk about butts! You think it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) but it does! It does! But his ploys sound kind of defensive. Gudding's strategy of undermining his well-crafted poems with scatological references and butt-talk is actually a critique of poetry, which is to say a critique of his own poetry.[4] It’s self-conscious. This is not uninteresting, but it is kind of annoying. What would happen if Gudding dropped the potty talk[5] and just went for it with his poems? Would he be just as tiresome, but in a more conventional way? I suspect this to be his concern: Poetry is a contrivance, and poetic sentiment can be a yawner. “Bosun” could come off as sentimental, but Gudding does a lot of work to earn his surprise ending. At the same time, maybe the harsh, fantastic imagery that precedes the last two lines is a defense mechanism to preempt criticism of the potentially sentimental ending. Maybe the defense mechanism is over-elaborated to demolish potential criticism: The end of the poem can’t be sentimental if it sits next to this giant, forbidding ship. Hey, did you notice that Gudding talks about parts of the ship (anchor, bows, deck, etc.) but never mentions the ship as a whole? It’s a good poem, even if it’s an elaborate defense mechanism.


Gudding's endnote on “The OED” is revealing: acknowledging a factual error in the poem, he says “I would rather change history than change the meter” (p. 88). It’s a stubborn, winning sentiment that makes you want to root for him, but it’s also defensive.

“A Defense of Poetry” carries the Charles Bernstein epigraph, “The test of such poetry / is that it discomfits,” which applies to the book as a whole. More than “Statement” (p. 83), which suggests that “I” is lodged up a butt (which is perhaps to say that the lyric I is indrawn, self-involved, stuck up its own asshole), the epigraph of “A Defense of Poetry” is the book’s statement. Or perhaps it is the book’s warning: this poetry is such poetry, a poetry that discomfits; that discomfiture is an aesthetic, and a polemic. This poetry aligns itself, in evoking Bernstein, with Language Poetry, which (among other things) seeks to counteract seriousness in poetry. Gudding defends poetry by seeking to offend purists who don’t want to see butts in poetry. Again, it’s easy to root for Gudding in his battle against clenched butt cheeks. But the cheering is interrupted by a wince at a throwaway insult like



Yes the greatest of your sister’s

facial pimples did outweigh a

Turkey. (p. 1)


Hooray for poetry that doesn’t take itself too seriously; boo to poetry that plays the clever fool or the sake of provocation.

            Even still, the project is intriguing. A Defense of Poetry was published in 2002, and its final poem, “Requiem Cadenza,” reminds us of the stultifying U.S. atmosphere at the time. “I shall never blame America” (p. 84) recalls the clampdown on free speech, and even free thought, that we put on ourselves immediately after 9/11, as we tried to figure out who to blame for the attack (answer: anyone but US). In this context, Gudding bravely defends the right to be irreverent in a time when we weren’t sure it was appropriate to be funny or silly, when we were busy licking our wounds and disappearing up our own assholes. After spending the book showing his ass, Gudding shows his hand in “Requiem Cadenza”: He’s pissed.

            Theodor Adorno said to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. Lyn Hejinian argued, in “Barbarism,” that after Auschwitz, poetry itself must be barbarian, “taking a creative, analytic, and often oppositional stance, occupying (and being occupied by)  foreignness—by the barbarism of strangeness.” After 9/11, Gudding took a similar approach, opposing self-repression with his own lack of restraint. This is admirable, even if, in practice, the poetry regresses to childish, self-amused declarations like “For you are a buttock.”[6]


[1] “The anus is a kind of larynx of the nether region: it is the only cord unattached to the lungs” (“On the Rectum of Peacocks p. 17) recalls William S. Burroughs’ talking anus (the one he described in Naked Lunch; I can’t say whether WSB was able to converse with his own asshole), and seems to do more, in terms of language and sense, than take the piss (or shit, as it were) out of the poem.

[2] “Poem Imploring the Return of My Butt” (p. 12), with its “Dear Sir—I have lost my butt,” is silly and flat-assed, a joke with a sub-Silversteinian punch line.

[3] Yesterday during a conversation about good and bad gratuitous profanity in poetry, I presented “Wish” as an example of good gratuitous profanity. Unfortunately, my friend’s eyes fell to “heart-car” and my point was lost. As 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon might say, if a poem contains the phrase “heart-car,” it’s a deal breaker. Even if the poem has a nice fucking ass.

[4] Gudding's poems may sometimes seem like doggerel, but he’s no hack; he can be lazy and self-defeating, but he is usually cunning and ambitious.

[5] “Bird” brags “I am the King of my potty” (p. 79).

[6] The ambiguous you of “A Defense of Poetry” first appears in the statement “you have the mental capacity of the Anchovy” (p. 1). Among other possibilities detailed in sections 16-19 of this appealingly laid out poem, you might be:

a)     poetry

b)    readers of poetry

c)     people who don’t read poetry

d)    a buttock

e)     poets

f)     Gabriel Gudding

We might sympathize with the I of the poem and project Gudding into the you when we read: “Thus with you I am fed up” (p. 4). But we are also aware of the other possible yous, and sure, we’re fed up with them too.

circa 2009 albums

(compiled for Desolation Row)


I moved twice and have been underemployed in the past couple years, so I seldom anymore tempt/torture myself with record store visits, which swell my vinyl mass and shrink my wallet. Some day I’ll have so much wax to catch up on. Meanwhile, I’ve mostly gone digital for new stuff, while the old platters keep spinning.


In the order they come to me:


Morrissey, Years of Refusal

The Moz still has it, and his muscular band is working for him. “It’s Not Your Birthday Anymore” is among his best songs ever. Also, Morrissey is on a tear with three fantastic album cover images in a row (Moz as natty gangster; Moz as dapper violinist; Moz as weird dad—put them side by side and you’ve got an epic storyboard). This album has been tainted ever so slightly for me by a strange live show I saw this year at a casino in Connecticut (?!). My friends and I wandered the casino with stars, whizzes, pops and glows around our heads, then found out too late that there was no opening act and we’d already missed half an hour of the show. We got inside the theater, pissed off and bummed, to catch a handful of songs, after which Morrissey moaned something about a lack of electricity and the destruction of his golden voice. Exeunt Moz, without so much as an encore.


Woods, Songs of Shame

Mili-tree madness! Is killin the cun-tree-ee-ee! This album, full of languorous then frantic then just plain strunken jams over and under strangled vocals takes me back to that mid-90s feeling. Rad cover image gives me another reason to want this on vinyl.


Flaming Lips, Embryonic

A breath of post/kraut-rocking fresh air, some welcome staticky weather & dark clouds in the sometimes too-clear skies of recent Lips outings. The stupid song “I Can Be A Frog” tries its damnedest to fuck up the whole album. Happily, digital listening affords me the option of deleting the odious track.


Built to Spill, There Is No Enemy

What about Canadaaaah... Instant classic sounds from BTS, marred by a single line about being so sweet you’re covered with ants. C’mon, Martsch—get it together instead of showing off!


St. Vincent, Actor

Probably my favorite album of the year. Annie Clark is my guitar god of choice at the moment, mostly because of her fierce restraint. She stands there blank-faced, thunderbolt in hand, about to fuck you up.


Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest

It’s just good, man.


Polvo, In Prism

Polvo goes metallish!


Tim Hecker, An Imaginary Country

Every time I listen to anything by Hecker, I think: I should listen to this more often. And: This is way better than M83.


Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career

The Cemetery Gates video for “James” will hurt your feelings. I have a feeling this album is going to age well.


The Sundays

All I want to do is listen to the Sundays.


Dinosaur Jr., Farm

Even better than Beyond.


Daniel Johnston, As and Ever Will Be

Johnston + full band done right. Beautiful guitar tone! (Nice tone, dog, as we used to say back in the practice room, back in the day.) “Queenie the Doggie” is “Walking the Cow” on anti-depressants (i.e., pure pop bliss). A consistently good set of songs, and a marvelous cover drawing from Mr. Johnston, to boot.


Jason Lytle, Yours Truly, the Commuter

Last thing I heard I was left for dead

Well I can give two shits about what they said

I may be limping

But I’m coming home

The blissfully sweet nothings of “It’s the Weekend” and its gone-simple recollection of “Summer Here Kids” is enough to clear the air of the intrusive echoes of Edie Brickell (“Ghost of a Dog”) in “Ghost of My Old Dog.”


Circulatory System, Signal Morning

Holy Shit! Has it really been 8 years since the last/first Circulatory System record? This one gives me a dreamies feel, and that’s a welcome thing.


Pink Mountaintops, Outside Love

Another candidate for best/trippiest cover image of the year. I hope this dude keeps singing about vampires and demons. The lyric/delivery of “Everyone I love deserves a holiday/in the sun/almost every day/til the lions are off their backs” chokes me up every time I hear it. Fucken so-called economy!


Jarvis Cocker, Further Complications

Rockin good tunes, masterful sequencing, and some seriously funny lyrics (“Leftovers,” “I Never Said I Was Deep,” “Caucasian Blues”). “Slush” is fucking gorgeous.


The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, s/t

I thought it was a piece of candy, but it doesn’t go away.



of a bird less cold

Selected Poems / James Schuyler / Response Paper / Jeff T. Johnson

“After learning all their names­— / ... / it is important to forget them.”

James Schuyler, Hymn to Life (Selected Poems, p. 151)

We talk to poems as we talk to each other—not always having the same conversation, not always on the same page. When we read James Schuyler’s poems, we get the voyeuristic thrill of listening in on gossip, sharing recollections, picking up dropped names; we would love to be part of the conversation, but we are really just listening in. Like Schuyler’s absent (dead, lost or other) friends, we cannot talk back—not so he can hear us. At any rate, if we are listening in on Schuyler’s speaker,[1] he does look our way and smile; he knows we’re there.

In truth, we are and are not there. We have this in common with Schuyler, and the absent friends he addresses have it in common with us all.

“Most things, like the sky, / are always changing, always the same,” writes[2] Schuyler in “Greenwich Avenue” (p. 118). “They are always different; they are always the same,” John Peel[3] said (at least) once about his favorite band, the Fall. The next selected poem after “Greenwich Avenue” is “Just Before the Fall.” Hymn to Life, which includes these two poems, was published in 1974, just before the Fall was formed (1977). The Fall still exists, but singer Mark E. Smith is the only consistent member of the group. The Fall is, like spring, always different and always the same, and so are we. Or maybe the differences we perceive in spring correspond to the change in season from fall, rather than marking a distinction from previous springs. Or perhaps it is we who have changed, gotten older, while spring returns to another youth, though it carries the memory of winter (old age) with it: “It / Is spring. It is also still really winter” (“Hymn to Life,” p. 147). On Saturday, October 25, it will be five years since John Peel died. How can that be possible?

We talk to many poems this way, but when we read Schuyler’s poems we think we’re talking to him. We’re wrong, of course, but it doesn’t matter.

Schuyler, too, is always willfully confusing himself for someone else:

galaxies and you my

bright particular,

my star, my sun, my

other self, my bet-

ter half, my one

That’s how “Letter Poem #3” (p. 100) ends[4]. Schuyler perceives the oneness we move toward and fall away from in our relationships with others, with our ideas about love, with nature, with ourselves and with poems. He gleefully (if with melancholy because it can’t last) collapses the I and the you, which is further permission for us to sneak into (or up to) his poems. “Is it too much to ask your car to understand you?” he asks in “The Crystal Lithium,” which reads like a dry run for the more successful long, discursive, irreducible meditations he will write later on (“Hymn to Life,” “Morning of the Poem”). It probably is too much to ask, but ask anyway. Oh but isn’t “Letter Poem #3” a funny title? How many letter poems has he written in The Crystal Lithium? Certainly more than three—not that the late placement of this poem in the book is an indication of sequence; it’s just funny in its understatement, which comes off as self-awareness.

Indeed, Shuyler’s chatty, catty knowingness is vital to his poetry’s charm, and it is enriched by extending to self-awareness:

the temptation

to show off—to

make a show

of knowing more,

than, in fact, I

know, is very real:

(“Our Father,” p. 109)

Let’s skip to page 126, so I can talk about Schuyler’s broken lyricism. “In Wiry Winter” shows off the following broken lyric:

of ice. The shadow

of a bird less cold.

This is what Schuyler does best in his skinny poems—breaks up lyrics into fragments that retain their prosody and cohesion while simultaneously going their own way.[5] Sometimes Schuyler’s gift for lineation has less to do with disrupting (or distracting) lyricism than with performing (and sculpting) his meaning, as in one of his better-known poems, “To Frank O’Hara”[6] (p. 112):

so you: even your lines have

a broken nose. And in the crash

And here we expect an explicit reference to O’Hara’s fatal encounter with a buggy on Fire Island, but we are happily rescued by the following:

of certain chewed up words

I see you again dive

into breakers! How you scared

us, no, dazzled us swimming

in an electric storm

which is what you were

Well, OK, this too is broken lyricism.

I can’t end without mentioning two more astonishing passages. The first returns us to “Hymn to Life,” which opens with a sort of reverse simile in which the wind is personified, then compared to a “you” who rises from the beach to brush away the sand.[7] Later, on page 150, Schuyler writes, “I would like [/][8] to stroke you”

As one strokes a cat and feels the ridgy skull beneath the fur

and tickles

It behind its ears. The cat twists its head and moves it

toward your fingers

Like the lifting thighs of someone fucked, moving up

to meet the stroke.

Schuyler’s movement from an arresting observation about the way we absentmindedly fondle a cat’s skull as we stroke its head (which subconsciously makes us think of our own mortality), to a frank and startling comparison of the cat’s pleasure and that of someone pushing into the stroke of a lover’s thrust, well, thrills.[9]

Finally, I want to draw attention to another virtuosic moment of broken lyricism, from “Dining out with Doug and Frank.” On page 173, Schuyler tells us, “Take my word for it, don’t” then playfully interrupts his ambiguous advice with an eight-plus-line aside in which he shamelessly flirts with the reader by pretending to withhold a comi-tragic story of a friend who “effectively threw / himself under a train,” after which Schuyler re-boards his train of thought to double back on “Take my word for it, don’t” (which seems to tell us to take his word not to take his word) to conclude “listen to anyone else.”

We will!

[1] I’m going to acknowledge here that the reader can’t assume Schuyler is the speaker in his poems, and then I’ll likely forget that counter-assumption (unless it suits my argument to recall it), because it doesn’t matter, as Schuyler reminds us—I don’t remember where—about memory.

[2] We want to use “writes” and “says” interchangeably when we talk about Schuyler’s poetry.

[3] BBC Radio 1 DJ

[4] Though I am excerpting from the poem, I can’t help leaving the front of the first excerpted line unclipped. Schuyler’s lines are as delightfully cut as a rose in full blush, cut from its bush, and I can’t bring myself to cut the stem again, even if it will make the bloom last longer in its vase.

[5] Matthea Harvey’s hinged lines in several of her Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form poems owe Shuyler’s broken lyricism a few drinks.

[6] Below the title is the dedication “For Don Allen,” which is a delightful compression of reference, an economy of namedropping that qualifies the poem’s apostrophe. Schuyler is addressing the late (but also present as subject and influence) O’Hara via Donald Allen, who edited The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. Of course, Schuyler is also addressing O’Hara’s poems, and/or the Frank O’Hara of Frank O’Hara’s poems.

[7] We wish Schuyler could be addressing an actual Frank O’Hara getting up to dust himself off after being hit by the buggy that (un)kindly stopped for him.

[8] I use this to denote a soft line break, as will be illustrated in the following passage, where there is room for a line to continue but it is broken and indented as though there were not room for it on the page. Perhaps there isn’t room for a line, but the point at which it is broken so it may conclude its run seems judiciously designated.

[9] to borrow from the end of an earlier poem, “Freely Espousing,” a more modest evocation of intercourse

Inside Outside

Plainwater / Anne Carson / Response Paper / Jeff T. Johnson


“I know how to fool your mind so that your eye accepts what it did not see” (p. 234). So warns (or boasts) the writer (or videographer) of a travelogue documenting (the end of) a love affair on a cross-country drive. It’s one of many moments that illustrate Anne Carson’s preoccupation with perspective. She approaches her subject from many ways.[1] Where was I? Carson, like the lovers she trails in Part V, insists on both the emic and itic point of view in her writing. Just as lovers tend to anthropologize themselves, both from within the relationship (emic perspective) and from an imaginary objective standpoint (an approximation of the etic, or outsider, point of view), Carson, in her fabulations, insists on being here and there, just as she creates the text and its commentary. She insists on being both, all.

            In Part I, Carson (re)creates the poetry fragments of Mimnermos, who “originated in the city of Kolophon in Asia Minor, or else in the city of Smyrna somewhat northwest of Kolophon, or else...” etc. (p. 14). I am quoting now from the essay on Mimnermos that follows the fragments. And follow them it does, providing a reader’s guide to their (possible) references, origins and destinations. We have also been provided short paraphrases (“He is troubled by words” heads fragment 15, p. 10) and study questions (“Why does motion sadden him?” looms over fragment 23, p. 11). Carson’s subject is Mimnermos, and her Subject is perspectives on Mimnermos (or, as she has it, “Mimnermos and the Motions of Hedonism,” or also “Mimnermos: The Brainsex Paintings”). Anyway, she (as the creator of the text) is both here and there, both Mimnermos and critic of Mimnermos, and in a few pages, she will be both M: and I: in “The Mimnermos Interviews,” which take place both here/now and there/then:


            I: Moss is the name of my analyst

            M: In New York

            I: Yes

            M: Is he smart

            I: She yes very smart sees right through me

            M: In my day we valued blindness rather more (p. 19)


Well then. Very well. Carson is all about it. Perspective.

            Let’s move on to “The Life of Towns” (Part IV). “A scholar is someone who takes a position” (p. 93). This takes the reader back to Part II, page 34, a place called “On the Rules of Perspective,” where we learn that “Braque rejected perspective.” Boo, Braque! Well, actually, he seems to have rejected static perspective (if we spend our lives drawing profiles, we’ll think man has one eye, natch). “Braque wanted to take full possession of objects.” Carson knows how he feels. So do we; we’re all about it. On our way back to Part IV, we stop by page 77 (Part III) to walk the lines “In perspective / he applied / the novel rule / of two centers of vision.” We like that very much, because we can see with our own two eyes that we see with our own two eyes. Returning to page 93, we repeat, “I merely know where to stand to see the lines that are there.” This orients us to understand: “Matter which has painted itself within lines constitutes a town.” We are in towns because we are in the book, we are in the book’s lines, the book’s lines—especially from page 95 to 111—are towns. On those pages we come upon towns laid down in lines. They are the names of places we would like to visit, or places with names we’d like to visit, to paraphrase John Ashbery. We would especially like to visit “Town of the Dragon Vein” (p. 98; because it’s named after a dragon and a vein, we hope), “Town of Spring Once Again” (p. 96; for it’s getting colder), “Wolf Town” (p. 99; cuz fuck it!), and maybe we’d like a night of guilty pleasure in “Memory Town” (p. 101), but we’re gonna try to avoid “Death Town” (located on the same page as Memory Town; we can see it like Sarah Palin sees Russia, holla!). Against better advice (“You are mad to mourn alone”), we’d like to visit “Hölderlin Town,” where “props hurtle past you,” which is us, or me, I’m you, I’m alone, though there are footprints all over the place, leading to the tower, leading to the river, but not leading from the river. At some point Carson (and/or her speaker) says the rule of travel is to come back a different way than you came. She also says “Clothe yourself, the water is deep” (p. 118). Though the water in Hölderlin Town is not so deep, it’s deep enough to drown you, Scardanelli, and I, your joiner.[2]

[1] The concept of intentionality, which is important to the philosophical method of phenomenology as Edmund Husserl derived it, refers to aboutness, which is to say that consciousness is always conscious of something. (I am paraphrasing from the Wikipedia entry for Phenomenology (philosophy), which I read over many times with minimal comprehension as I tried to figure out how phenomenology relates to Part III of Plainwater, where phenomenologists scamper about (and within) a giant, hollowed-out rock (and the long poem that comprises most of Part III), “telling us what Heidegger thought during the winter term of 1935” (p. 56), interrogating the ontology of mosquito abatement, etc.) Wikipedia describes the intentional object, or object of consciousness, enumerating aspects of consciousness (perception, memory, signification, etc.), then notes: “Throughout these different intentionalities, though they have different structures and different ways of being ‘about’ the object, an object is still constituted as the same identical object.” The sentence to which this note adheres is grammatically awkward, but it says what I want it to: Carson has a number of apparent subjects in this book, but her Subject, in my reading, is perspective. Perspective is also her method of approaching her subjects. Though they have different structures and different ways of being “about” the object, an object is still constituted as the same identical object. First reference to that passage was cut and pasted, presented in quotes. For a closer look, I typed it in italics. I am fascinated with concrete use of the word about. To talk about something is to move about it, to take many views, to adjust one’s perspective, to approach it from many ways. By it I mean both the subject and the Subject; that is, something and perspective.

[2] I prefer Paul Celan’s perspective (via “Tübingen, Jänner”) on the death of Friedrich Hölderlin to other accounts of what might have happened in 1843.

Row Row Row Your Boat

Selected Poems of Anne Sexton / Response Paper / Jeff T. Johnson


Anne Sexton is a sentimental blender. Wait—that’s not right at all. What interests me most about this collection is witnessing Sexton’s wrestling match with poetic form, particularly the way she uses (and then stops using) rhyme. By the time she gets to The Awful Rowing Toward God, she seems to have left rhyme schemes behind. However, she brings along her bold tendency to end multiple lines in a poem with the same word. Consider “Rowing,” in which four lines terminate with “grew” and three with “rowing”; and “The Rowing Endeth,” in which three lines end with “laughs” and one with “laugh” in a span of eight-lines in which appear two iterations of “laughter” one “laughing,” one “laugh,” and one “laughs.” This tic has its origin in earlier poems like To Bedlam and Partway Back’s “The Lost Ingredient,” in which “lost” appears at the end of five lines, while its homonym “last” ends two lines and the latter’s anagram “salt” appears twice.[1]

            All of this play suggests a restlessness with form, but a facility within its confines. Sexton sets an elaborate rhyme scheme in the first part of “The Double Image,” which also appears in her first book. All four stanzas in part one have a methodical but creatively engineered ABBCABCDEED rhyme scheme. In their introduction to the volume, Diane Wood Middlebrook and Diana Hume George[2] note that Sexton tends in her early work to “[set] up a grid of rhymes through which to sift her associations” (p. xiv), and this habit is certainly evident in “The Double Image.” Also remarkable is the way Sexton adjusts her line breaks to make the rhymes work. Her dedication to her schemes and her gift for mixing plain speech with heightened registers pushes her to interrupt what might otherwise be conventional line phrasing while also masking her devices. One is aware of the play of sounds, but mapping out the rhyme scheme reveals an almost horrifying intricacy.

            The eccentricities of end rhyme in part two of “The Double Image” bear this out. The first stanza goes AABBCBC, and displays some fascinating linebreaks. Line two begins in a thrillingly awkward and ambiguous manner (“of you and I made moccasins”). Line three is deftly cut to sculpt line four (“myself, I lived with my mother. Too late,”), which isolates and bifurcates the speaker (“myself, I”), then comments back, at the end of the line, on her status. Line five copies the end of line four and elaborates on the theme, via more copying and pronoun shifting, as the self-reflective I becomes the condemnatory you, the source of which is “witches” which might originate in the speaker’s head (just as the poem comes from the poet’s head). In short, AAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

            Lines six and seven, which end-rhyme with lines four and five, introduce part two’s slippery refrain. Each of the four stanzas ends with a variation on this two-line refrain, composed of two sentences, the first a negation or limit, and the second an objectification at a greater remove. The two sentences work in tandem, whether or not they agree with each other in terms of subject and object. In stanza one, “I” is the subject of sentence one and the object of sentence two (which estranges the object from herself; rather than leaving her mother’s house, as she knows she should, she has her portrait done, which puts a representation of herself more permanently in the house, though it does more to alienate her from herself than to root her in her mother’s home). Stanza two further explicates the situation and the dilemma—the speaker is “[p]art way back from Bedlam,” returning to her mother’s house from a mental hospital after a suicide attempt for which her mother cannot forgive her. Accordingly, in its last two lines, “she” replaces the “I” of the first stanza in the first sentence (and “she” refers ostensibly to the mother, but carries the echo of “I”), and “she” remains the subject in the second sentence, maintaining agency lost by the “I” in stanza one. The object remains the estranged self captured in the portrait. The third stanza hammers home the trap of similarity between mother and daughter, courtesy of the artist who captures the daughter in the painting (making her smile like her mother’s), in collusion with the patronizing mother, who takes control of her daughter’s hairstyle. The stanza ends in resignation, with a deceptive “I” as subject in the last two lines. “I didn’t seem to care” embodies the objectification of the speaker while also disembodying her to the extent that she can only speculate on her attitude at a remove. Instead of caring, she apparently had her portrait done. Well then.

The final stanza of part two relates a memory that presages institutionalization, as the speaker recalls being locked in a cupboard at a church “where [she] grew up.” Here the father appears, complicitly passing the plate. It is unclear if he passes a donation plate (and if so, it is unclear if he makes a deposit), or if he passes a dinner plate (if so, is it an empty plate, and is he being served, or has he already eaten, and does he want seconds, and is he being served from the cupboards full of children?). In this stanza’s fifth line, the witches suggest, borrowing language from their appearance in the fifth line of part two’s first stanza, that it’s too late to be forgiven, which suggests that the father was passing a communion plate, and whether or not he ate whatever body was on the plate is irrelevant. Too late! Subject slippage in the concluding lines replaces the speaker’s “I” with the father (just as she swaps places earlier with the mother), recontextualizing the theme of forgiveness withheld (and the sharing of that withholding) in part two’s second stanza. Instead of forgiveness, “they” (which could emcompass the mother, the father, the witches, and hell, everyone else, including the unnamed wardens at the church) offer passive-aggressive portraiture.

Let’s take a moment to consider the rhyme scheme of part two. After the first stanza, which is fairly straightforward, Sexton abandons her new scheme with ABCDEFE. Considering the revelation in this stanza (the speaker has been sent away, and has only come partway back), the destabilizing lack of scheme is suitably troubling. The third stanza begins to rebuild the scheme (ABABCDC), and the fourth restores the first stanza’s scheme (AABBCBC). All better then! Well well.

Before I lost[3] my mind, I want to return to The Awful Rowing Toward God, the galleys of which Sexton reportedly corrected the day she had her last smoke.[4] I find this to be her most powerful work, in large part because it is comprised of relatively plainspoken, sparse lyric. According to Middlebrook and George, at the end of her life, Sexton was afraid she was “losing her creativity” (xii), which they claim as the reason for her suicide. Anyway, that’s the way they make it sound in the sentence I just referenced. Setting aside the fatuousness of presuming a particular motive for suicide, particularly such a mythologizing motive, I have to take issue with the suggestion that Sexton was (or was fearful of) losing her gift. At the end of the introduction, Middlebrook and George mention “the fairly lax standards [of completion] Sexton allowed herself in The Awful Rowing Toward God” (xxiii). Ew. Thankfully, I didn’t begin reading the introduction until I’d made headway into the collection, and then read it sporadically when I needed a break from the poems. And fortunately, I didn’t finish the introduction until I finished reading selections from The Awful Rowing Toward God, because the editors’ bias might have adversely affected my pleasure. I think Sexton was onto something (maybe even onto some future shit) with her last book. The fact that she might have spent time on her last day going over the proofs is a sign of her dedication to craft, rather than an indication that the book was less than finished. I suspect (and here’s more mythologization) that if she felt the book was in any way not up to her standards, she would have stuck around to finish it to her satisfaction. I believe her statement that poetry kept her alive, and The Awful Rowing Toward God suggests that if she was afraid of anything with regard to her poetry, she was afraid of what she could never say, or what she might falsely say. She identified with her Jesus, the Actor when she wrote, at the conclusion of “Jesus, the Actor, Plays the Holy Ghost”


I have been born many times, a false Messiah,

but let me be born again

into something true.


After all, she had committed suicide before, and risen after great rest. That is, she was drawn in life and in her poetry toward the thing she feared most, the thing she could not explain: death.[5]


[1] “Salt” first appears at the end of the third line as a combination of “lost” and “sat,” the end-words on surrounding lines, and line two’s “lost” is an anagram of line one’s “stole” in which the letter e has gone missing. “Steal” ends three lines and is an anagram of “stale,” which ends line six. OK, so maybe Anne Sexton is a terminal word blender—not as catchy as sentimental blender, but way scarier.

[2] Two editors, six names, four of which have the same number of letters, two of which differ only in the last letter—one notices these things when one has been counting and schematizing end-rhymes.

[3] Freudian slip!

[4] I apologize for what might come off as an insensitive crack; considering the precious few videos I’ve seen of Sexton, in which she’s smoking cigarettes with a gallows wink, and the line in “For Eleanor Boylan Talking with God,” where she writes “and I am breathing in my cigarettes like poison,” it strikes me as darkly funny that Sexton killed herself by carbon monoxide poisoning. This makes the laughter toward the end of presumably the last poem she looked over especially poignant. I can’t help picturing her cackling in the smoke-filled garage, wrapped in her mother’s fur coat, as she prepares to conclude her awful rowing.

[5] In one of the videos I found online, she says, “I can explain sex in a minute, but death, I can’t explain.”

—Sir Bones: is stuffed,

77 Dream Songs / John Berryman / Response Paper / Jeff T. Johnson


Henry is accused of being me and I am accused of being Henry and I deny it and nobody believes me.

—John Berryman, Paris Review, Issue 53, Winter 1972

Henry both is and is not me, obviously.

—John Berryman, Paris Review, Issue 53, Winter 1972


Who’s the speaker? Readers of poetry, and particularly college workshoppers of poetry, are well-acquainted with this question. In the case of John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, the question cannot entirely be resolved, nor can it be dismissed as irrelevant. It seems, in fact, vital to the poem that the question lingers. In his introductory note to the complete The Dream Songs (1969), Berryman drops some thematic hints and throws the reader a Mr Bones, the nickname a nameless friend uses for Henry.

I’ve read 77 Dream Songs before, along with the introduction to the complete volume, and still I remembered Mr Bones as a shadowy companion and foil to Henry. Considering the dislocations of personality suffered by Henry throughout The Dream Songs, perhaps this reading is not entirely inaccurate. After all[1], it’s easy as a reader to sympathize with the Henry of Song 2, lines 4 and 5: “Henry are / baffled.” However, Berryman’s disclosure about his characters clarifies a stylistic strategy he employs in the first entrance of Henry’s ostensible pseudonym. Line 7 and 8 of Song 2 read “—Sir Bones, or Galahad: astonishin / yo legal & yo good. Is you feel well?” One is accustomed to the m-dash serving as an indication of dialogue. One is also familiar with the dramatic convention of identifying a speaker by name, followed by a colon, then the speech. In this case, the reader is confounded by what appears to be a double-indication of speech (the m-dash and colon). It’s tempting to overlook this detail and read the line as though one is reading a play, which is to say that Sir Bones is speaking. Or is it Galahad? Perhaps the imprecision is another clue for how to read the line, i.e., You can’t be sure you know the speaker. Perhaps, also, imprecision is not the right word for the methodical character play going on before the reader’s eyes. The proceedings are further complicated by the exaggerated black vernacular that makes up the speech on these two lines. The reader has been warned in the introduction that Henry will appear in blackface, and that he will refer to himself in the first, second and third person.[2] So what to make of the speech on lines 7 and 8? One has been prompted to take it as the words of Henry’s nameless friend, so that the speech includes the address to Sir Bones, or Galahad[3]. And here’s this friend of Henry’s, speaking as though he or she is in blackface. Wasn’t it Henry who was supposed to wear the cork?

Clearly, Berryman is not interested in absolutely distinguishing the players, among whom he counts himself. This is a work presented under the rubric of Dream, and the logic or illogic of dreams is of course in effect. It is no surprise, then, that before Mr Bones appears as billed, he first reappears, in Song 4, as Sir Bones. Actually, it’s more like this: “—Sir Bones: is stuffed, / de world, wif feeding girls” (lines 11, 12). Via the structural play introduced in Song 2,  a rich ambiguity is presented, in which Sir Bones is described as being stuffed (like a doll, like a taxidermied cat), while simultaneously being the agent of action, stuffing the world with (stuffed?) girls. Whew boy! Also, if Berryman’s introduction is reliable, the reader should think of this line (including “Sir Bones”) as the words of Henry’s nameless friend[4]. OK, but when Mr Bones finally shows up, in the last line of the song, he’s wearing a period Berryman hasn’t warned us about: “—Mr. Bones: there is.” In addition to being typographically disorienting, the arrival of grammatical correctness suggests an aspect of language that is not apparent in spoken language (which the line is supposed to be). Not only does one say “Mister” when one reads “Mr.,” but there is no aural distinction between “Mr” and “Mr.” though the two are distinctive on the page, the former suggesting an informality at odds with the formulation (one doesn’t use “Mister” in casual conversation, except in an exaggerated, jocular way).

No wonder “Henry sats in de bar & was odd, /.../ at odds wif de world” (Song 5, lines 1 and 3). Or, as the guy at the end of the bar puts it, “You have to excuse me, but I’m seven people away from myself at the moment.”[5] Incidentally, The Dream Songs make excellent mid-afternoon happy-hours company at the back of a shady bar in Autumn. One doesn’t mind the low bar light, which seems sufficient for such ambiguities of speaker and song. One doesn’t even mind losing the light of late summer, which is the best light of the year. Furthermore, a few draughts relax one into the peculiar discourse of The Dream Songs. Lines like “You licking your own old hurt, / what?” (Song 20, lines 11, 12) slur into a lick of the old heart, or a lick in the old heart, or liquor for the old hurt, what?, which all seem fine. When in Song 21, “a heart” appears in the third to last line, one is pleased to have seen it coming.

End scene.

There is considerable invention in Berryman’s use of m-dashes. In addition to their employment, coupled with colons, in amorphous dialogue, he sculpts them into his lines in surprising ways. Song 3 concludes with the astounding “Rilke’s. As I said,—” which mixes two kinds of pause at the end of a line that already contains a hard caesura and the beautiful interlocking curves of “e’s.” Later, in song 25, Berryman ups the ante in line 4:

all the bright heals he tamped— —Euphoria,

Euphoria indeed. Not only is the double-m-dash punctuated by a space a lovely sight, but it sutures (almost) “tamped” and “Euphoria,” suggesting both the action of tamping and a sense of euphoria. All one can say, it seems, is what the song’s last line says: “Thank you for everything.”

            One would love to stop there, for the sake of lingering, but it would be a shame not to mention two other remarkable typographical intricacies. Line 11 of Song 29 goes

            All the bells say: too late. This is not for tears;

Notice the winking dots: a colon, a period, a semicolon. For Chrissake(s), there’s a colon and a semicolon in the same line! And all of this punctuation is doing work without looking put out; Berryman controls the pace of the line, slowing it down so no sensual detail is missed, though it is too late. Ah, ouch, the sublime!

            Then there is line 7 of Song 49:

            How come he sleeps & sleeps and sleeps, waking like death:

It’s not a question, it’s a colon. One might be so transported by the sheer-curtained beauty of the line that the use of both & and and to separate the sleeps gets slept on. But no, it’s far too intriguing to pass over. As one recalls from Gertrude Stein, the repetition of a word or phrase articulates nuances of each iteration. Berryman underscores this by changing & to and around the central pivot of sleeps, at the same time creating a mechanism that pivots on & and and, so that the sleeps rotate around each other, flip-flopping and swapping positions, a mobile sculpture in the center of the line (bracketed by three-word sets). And the movement is generated by the lopsidedness of & and and.

            One could go on and on.



[1] and after less than all

[2] And why, one wonders, might not Henry also appear as a nameless friend addressing himself with other names?

[3] And let’s not forget that we were on the lookout for Mr Bones, and instead we find Sir Bones (or Galahad). Or we find a nameless character finding them.

[4] who is again stealing Henry’s burnt cork

[5] Actually, this comes from an interview with Don Van Vliet, who has a history of confusing himself for Captain Beefheart. I first found the line in Mike Barnes’ terrific 2000 book, Captain Beefheart: The Biography, which I loaned to Chris Stroffolino, who used the quote as an epigraph to his book, Speculative Primitive. Sadly, I have since loaned Captain Beefheart to an unnamed friend, so my only access to the quote is Chris’ epigraph.

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    The Flaming Lips, Embryonic

Cummings via Nirvana & Pavement

1 x 1 / E. E. CUMMINGS[1] / Response Paper / Jeff T. Johnson


1 x 1[2] is a sentimental blender. Recognizable romantic effusions are reconfigured without losing their flavor, while E. E. Cummings attempts to elevated elevated language to a sublime word game. Rough-cut lines and images muddy syntax without blurring song. The result is giddy experimentation, a smoothy spiked with giggle juice.

            One is tempted to describe the mixture as easy like Sunday morning, but one sees a darkness. A survey of concluding lines reveals Cummings’ ear for turning his poems on their sides. Poem I[3] deposits a pun on on earth in its last line, unsettling the reader after apparently turning the second stanza’s birds to a “leaf of ghosts” (line 9) some of which rematerialize to “creep there / here” (lines 10, 11). The “there / here” line break is especially, well, creepy because of how suddenly its terms (and the end of the poem) draw near.

            In short time one will be startled by a “big sound on the ground” (poem III, line 30), taunted with the punning “‘loyaltea’” (poem VI, line 16), threatened by knuckle-dragging caricature (a promise “duhSIVILEYEzum”, (poem VII, line 16)), made to watch (while being addressed/undressed/re-dressed as “fell / ow / sit / isn’ts”) “applaws)” (applause) morph into “(a paw s” (ominous pause and/or a pair of paws closing in, poem VIII), and invited to go to “a hell / of a good universe” (poem XIV, lines 14, 15) at the tail end of an exhortation to not “pity this busy monster,manunkind” (line 1).

            Nor does Cummings necessarily wait for the last bite to turn sour. Poem IX is a merciless bit of invective that transcends its frantic fingerpointing with an alarming, compressed list of commodities: “hate condoms education snakeoil vac / uumcleaners terror strawberries” (lines 11, 12). This colorful rant trails off over the next couple pages, until “mr u” is introduced. Poem XI begins “mr u will not be missed”, and takes four lines to carry the weight of a later generation’s anxiety about the commodification of art and life. Compare its opening to the first line of Nirvana’s 1993 song, “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle”: “It’s so relieving to know that you’re leaving as soon as you get paid.” Nirvana lyricist Kurt Cobain turns Cummings’ sarcasm into sneering irony, but the “fuck off and die, sellout” sentiment, which might be partially self-directed, is present in both versions of this song.[4] This concern is also voiced in the deceptively sunny 1994 Pavement song “Cut Your Hair.” Compare the last two lines of Cummings’ poem (“sold the many on the few / not excluding mr u”) to Pavement singer Stephen Malkmus’ sucker-punch lines: “Songs mean a lot / When songs are bought / And so are you”. The buyer, seller and product become interchangable, and the only comfort in being sad about it comes from the self-conscious pleasure one takes in consumption. That is, the song (as is the case with the poem) is implicated, but it is also the relief to its own depression.

            At any rate, maybe the first part 1 of 1 x 1 is not so shiny and happy after all, despite its playfulness.

            Part x might then settle one by allowing a “(Floatingly)” (poem XVII, line 1) arrival to arrive in its opening line. However, it’s easy to feel constricted by the line’s extreme compression: three words without spaces between them, the middle word encased in a bubble of parentheses. Though “one” appears outside the parentheses in the first line, the reader (who might identify with “one”) finds herself described in parentheses throughout the poem. Her arrival is chillingly “(silent)”, though she is reassured to arrive “(alive)” (line 2), only to “disappear / and perfectly” (lines 3, 4) in the next set of parentheses. The following set is the disorienting “and / here who there who” (lines 7, 8), and a moment of “mercifully” (line 9) is captured among an unparenthesised descent to “deathful earth” (line 10). The next parenthetical approaches darkness (“on twilight”, line 12) which in the final parentheses “dull[s] all nouns” (lines 12, 13). Yikes. Should one feel any relief when the “verbal adventure” is allowed to “illimitably Grow” (lines 13, 14)? At this point, even the initial-capital treatment on that dangling verb seems darkly insinuating.

            Please pass the giggle juice.

            The sinister playfulness continues throughout part x, as when a mischeivous linguistic wind blows through poem XX, carrying away the letter r from “friend” in line 6. Odd rhymes keep the poem off-kilter: the assonance cum internal slant rhyme of “queen to seem” in line 5, the linked slant end rhyme of “seem” and “time” (lines 5, 6), the hard end rhyme of “blind” and “mind” (lines 13, 14), the superslanted end rhymes “trees”, “spring” and “dream” (lines 15-17).  In poem XXII, the fiend from poem XX emerges from the shadows. He (or she) could be a bystander or a god or a man, he could be an angel, “coward,clown,traitor,idiot,dreamer,beast” (line 9), and he might be a poet (and/or any of those other figures) with miraculous powers elaborated in the final stanza of the poem (including the ability to locate and hold a mountain’s heartbeat).

            The thinly delineated and lightly scrambled poem XXXI seems to serve as a transition to a sequence of poems that come out of the aforementioned sentimental blender. Poem XXXV offers, in lines 8-17, “a / procession of / wonders / huger than prove / our fears // were hopes:the moon / open / for you and close / will shy / wings of because;” but language itself is on diplay here. Cummings seems to be interested in an emotional comprehension of language (cf lines 25-29, “so is your heart / alert, / of languages / there’s none / but well she knows;”). Yet, no matter how many sunbeams, snowflakes and rainbows are dropped into the mix, one is alert for dark clouds, which puts an edge on the procedings.

            Part x winds down with another remarkable moment of clairvoyance. Poem XXXIX concludes: “tomorrow is our permanent address // and there they’ll scarcely find us(if they do, / we’ll move away still further:into now”. These lines anticipate more lyrics from Pavement’s 1994 album Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, in this case the song “Gold Soundz”: “I keep your address to myself ’cause we need secrets / ... back right now”. Perhaps Pavement resides in Cummings’ tomorrow, but Malkmus starts the song “Go back to those gold soundz.” He also pinky swears that “if I go there, I won’t stay there / Because I’m sitting here too long”, and as his song too has slipped into the past, it has also moved away still further into now, where those from whom secret addresses are kept can scarcely find us.

            The second part 1 continues to blend the lighter tone with bleak passages (as in poem XLVI, which begins “open your heart:” but eventually proceeds “through / musical shadows while hunted / by daemons” (lines 12-14). This vacilation is revealed, in poem XLVIII, to be closely related to the title and scheme of the book. The poem is made up of 8 lines tied together by quirky rhymes. The first 4 lines end “why”, “the”, “sea” and “me”, a set of simple words with a complex, shifting phonetic relationship. The last two are a hard rhyme that does not look so hard (apparently softened by the distinguishing letter “a”). “The” and “sea” have the same visual relationship, but only faintly rhyme. “Why” is a slant rhyme for “the” and “me” that does not visually rhyme, while “the” and “me” visually rhyme but, like the less similar-looking “the” and “sea”, this pair (“the” and “me”) is phonetically slant rhymed. The second stanza has a similar rhyme scheme, and both stanzas end with suitable codas for the book. Line 4 articulates the multiple moods of the book (“here’s more than room for three of me”) while line 8 captures the shadows passing over nearly every page (“every because is murdered twice”). Also, both of these humdingers participate in the counting that has haunted the book cover to cover (and part by part, and one by one, and “one times one”, as the final line of poem LIV has it).



[1] Though he has a reputation as a writer of lower-case poems (and in some circles as a lower-case poet), E. E. CUMMINGS is often presented in all-caps typography, as on the title page of the 1972 HARBRACE PAPERBOUND LIBRARY edition of 1 x 1. The poet also signed off in all-caps on his introduction to COLLECTED POEMS 1922-1938. I will nonetheless use the conventional E. E. Cummings from here on out.

[2] The spine of the 1972 edition lists the title as 1 X 1, but the cover art and title pages represent it as 1 x 1, which gives greater weight to the 1s. The letter x, multiplication symbol (one times one or the juxtaposing one by one), kiss, or minuscule Roman numeral x then functions as a fulcrum, amplifier, hinge, hourglass, or mirrored funnel between primaries.

[3] The book opens with an INDEX OF FIRST LINES, and each poem is given a Roman numeral. There are no page numbers (a two page poem is associated with one Roman numeral), so I will refer to poems by numeral.

[4] Here one might also hear echos of “loyaltea” (poem VI) and “Pennyroyal Tea” (another song from Nirvana’s 1993 album In Utero).

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    birds and edgers

no there there

I'm enjoying my first semester in The New School's MFA poetry program, in particular (at the moment) the response paper assignments in Mark Bibbins' "Myself and Strangers" seminar. When he passed out the syllabus during the first class and announced that we'd be expected to bring 2-to-4-page responses to the books of the week, I'll admit, I got excited. After years of feeling like I couldn't watch a movie or read a book without thinking of how I'd write about it, I was a little surprised at my enthusiasm for the response papers. I suppose I'm happy to be encouraged to arrange my thoughts about a book of poems on short notice (and to concentrate on one book each week). Hell, I'm happy to be around people who want to talk in depth about poetry (like the old days with Ted and Kaya at Jupiter, and the older days with Ted and Jonathan and Sam and Jack and Lisa et al at Bison).

So far, I've written papers on Stein, Cummings, Berryman and Sexton. I had varying degrees of enthusiasm about the books going into each week's assignment, but I've had fun with each paper, and each has gotten me deeper into the poetry (and into general poetic considerations, particularly formal and semi-formal ones). The best thing about all of this is remembering that with the best poetry, the more time you spend with it, and the greater your level of concentration, the greater are the rewards of reading.

I'm having such a good time writing these papers that I want to share them with more than one or two readers. Over the next week, I'll post the papers I've written so far, and once I'm caught up, I'll post them each week as I write them. The first one is on Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons, making reference also to Everybody's Autobiography, which was a prerequisite for the class. I hope you can dig it.

Tender Buttons / Getrude Stein / Response Paper / Jeff T. Johnson


After reading Everybody’s Autobiography, prose that avails itself of poetic strategies (parataxis, ellipsis, word play, figurative language, prosody and lyricism), I read Tender Buttons with an eye to the way it blends prosaic elements with poetic language. Allow me one Steinian paraphrase: Prose poetry, what is prose poetry. Stein might try something different with the punctuation, and such a statement would be more at home in Everybody’s Autobiography, but its consideration applies to Tender Buttons. The concise answer, that prose poetry uses the sentence instead of the line as its  syntactical unit, is alluring but unsatisfying. At any rate, it is unclear how valuable are considerations of genre to literary comprehension, though close attention to formal eccentricity casts the reader deeper into the text, particularly with a non-narrative work like Tender Buttons.

            However, Tender Buttons does have an evocative tri-part structure, which leads one to seek at least a relationship between the parts. “Objects” (and/or “OBJECTS”) is distinguished by the prevalence (and objectification) of color, as well as the use of the transitive verb “makes” in a way that suggests transformation and active metaphor (a metaphoring on Stein’s part). These tendencies often appear in conjunction, as in the following sentence from “A SUBSTANCE IN A CUSHION”: “Light blue and the same red with purple makes a change” (p. 10, Sun & Moon Classics 8 edition). This might suggest the changing coloration of a bruise, especially after the urging of the preceding paragraph, “be reckless be reckless.” Such an interpretation occurs to me only as I revisit the text; as I read, I notice the colors and “makes” construction (I also notice that the subject of this verb is as likely to be an indeterminate “it” as a color or named object[1]), but the language is so immediate and self-contained that I do not think much about what Stein’s speaker might mean.  The language seems to point to itself, is its own event, occupies the reading mind, and it does so without abandoning recognizable sentence structure.

            “FOOD” develops and elongates the structure of “OBJECTS,” providing a roadmap of headings, which reads like its own prose list poem stilted (or hinged) by semicolons. The entries that make up “FOOD,” which sure enough are related to the section title, are at the outset noticeably expanded, compared to those of “OBJECTS” (and it should be noted that “FOOD” is made up of food-related objects). This expansion requires an extended, or less abbreviated, attention span. At least superficially, it also marks the transition between sections. However, after the first four entries, smaller pieces, as appear in “OBJECTS,” conclude part two. At the same time that a familiar fragmented page structure returns, a new heading strategy emerges: repetition. Perhaps too much is made of repetition in Stein’s work, or perhaps it is too often considered in a reductive manner (e.g., OMG, she is SO autistic!). Certainly there is great complexity in Stein’s reiterations (as with avant-jazz structures, there is a generative repetition with a difference). The repeated headings in “FOOD” come as a surprise, a disruption of the sequence[2] promised by the roadmap (which does not, for example, indicate that “MILK” will be followed by “MILK,” or that “POTATOES” will lead to more “POTATOES,” and then “ROAST POTATOES”; perhaps the speaker really likes milk and potatoes, more than s/he will admit at the outset). This reiteration of headings corresponds to an gathering preoccupation with repetition (with a difference).[3] Heading into “POTATOES” is “CUSTARD,” which echoes “aches, aches” with “lakes whole lakes” (p. 51). The preceding entry (“CAKE”) concludes with the lovely, plaintive “Why white.”[4] The pages look like prose (however broken up), but they are singing.

            So this is prose poetry.

            Before I get carried away, I should linger in section three, “ROOMS.” One ought not be shocked to find this last part wholly uninterrupted by headings. “ROOMS” is in that sense a single room. If language is objectified in section one, and the words of “FOODS” are on occasion concretized in song, it is appropriate that “ROOMS” be considered as a place. It is an open place that invites free wandering; it is also the quickest read of the three sections. Perhaps by this point the reader is accustomed to the prose, or maybe just unencumbered by all-caps subtitles, but there seems to be an acceleration toward the exit[5] that is bittersweet as any goodbye. Indeed, there is a valedictory tone one might suspect to be the reader’s projection. I do, anyway. I feel a not unpleasant uncertainty about any attempt to interpret this book. I would rather see it speak than hear what it means. Fortunately, in this case it seems Tender Buttons will comply.

[1] Consider the opening sentences of “DIRT AND NOT COPPER” (p. 13): “Dirt and not copper makes a color darker.   It makes the shape so heavy and makes no melody harder.” “It” might refer to “dirt” or “color,” though the parallel sentence structure suggests the former (and but “it” could also refer to the unit “dirt and not copper”). Notice also the movement (facilitated by “makes”) (or: Notice the transformation (catalyzed by “makes”)) from object (dirt) to object/color (copper) to relative color (darker color) to shape (with weight) to sound/song (melody, with degree of hardness).

[2] Though terms in a mathematical sequence may be repeated, I will stick with this word choice, presuming that most readers would be equally surprised to find that a mathematical concept might be applied to a literary work circa 1914.

[3] This also corresponds to the impression that there is an equivalency of sections, but also a sense of progression, in Tender Buttons.

[4] One notices this tightly packed sentence is a homophone for “Why Write,” though the difference makes all the difference. Based on this sentence, one could also divert oneself interminably with a thesis about diversity, or about Stein’s tendency to replace the question mark with the period.

[5] and away from a recognizable prose-poetry block form

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from today's merriam-webster's word of the day, "gadzookery":

"Gadzooks . . . you astonish me!" cries Mr. Lenville in Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby. We won't accuse Dickens of gadzookery ("the bane of historical fiction," as historical novelist John Vernon called it in Newsday), because we assume people actually said "gadzooks" back in the 1830s. That mild oath is an old-fashioned euphemism, so it is thought, for "God's hooks" (a reference, supposedly, to the nails of the Crucifixion). Today's historical novelists must toe a fine line, avoiding expressions like "zounds" and "pshaw" and "tush" ("tushery" is a synonym of the newer "gadzookery," which first cropped up in the 1950s), as well as "gadzooks," while at the same time rejecting modern expressions such as "okay" and "nice."

which makes me wonder: where would thomas pynchon be if any of this were true (or always true)? also, get a load of that lack of context in the final clause!

ray gonne

finally a final decision

After getting a deadline extension and grinding out research on and visits to Columbia, Brooklyn College and the New School, I accepted tNS' offer. Then I found out that a wait list space opened up at Brown. I was number two on the list. This bonus round of grad school admissions anxiety extended from 4/16 until today, when I received a curt email from Brown with the subject line: no more spaces. So there you have it. Incidentally, I tabbed over to gmail to receive the message right after finishing this poem, which is addressed to David Lehman (who teaches at the New School and wrote a book called The Last Avant-Garde, which is about the so-called New York School of poets). That must be some kind of sign. Cheers.

The Last Avant-Garde


I’m rereading The Last Avant-Garde which I first read

In 1998 the year it came out I was working in a New Age

Bookstore where I tried to send people to Fiction & Poetry

When they asked for Self Help & I want to tell you

About teaching K-5 children at Alice M Waddington School

To write poems or I mean writing poems with children

At Alice M Waddington School “My Third Eye” which I started

My Third eye can see the molecules in the air

& the hands went up & the children took it from there &

Claire wrote it all down starting most lines My third eye can see

When we filled the page I asked someone to read it & gave the

Oversized page to the first small girl who raised her hand

She took it to her parents & pointed to molecules

They helped her read molecules she read the rest by herself

We wrote My Secret Power together we wrote When I Am the Rain

On index cards we wrote I Wish which was materialistic we wrote

Things That Aren’t True on index cards there were four groups

Fifteen minutes each we did one index card poem to warm up

One line on each index card & the children would bring them

To the front of the classroom then go back & write more

While Claire & I taped cards to an oversized sheet of paper

After five minutes sometimes three if we forgot to start the timer

Our station was The Poetry Race after all it was family poetry night

At Alice M Waddington School after five or three minutes C & I would

Read the index card poem trading lines or each reading a few lines

Then we would do collaborative poems where they would raise

Their hands when they had a line & collaborative poems where

They would call out lines when they thought of them & C would write

Everything she could & some of them always raised their hands & when each

Oversized page was full we’d ask who wanted to read it & hands would dart

Up & we’d pick two or three poets to trade off lines until the next group lined up at

The library door we were in the library with short tables & chairs with

Giant parents next to proportional children we sat up front on the radiator

Taping oversized sheets to the whiteboard missing the blackboards of our

Youth You had blackboards, right Claire?   What?   You had blackboards when

You were a kid, right?   Yeah   Things That Aren’t true probably turned out best

We didn’t want to call it Lies & freak out the parents but it was a Lie poem

& I made sure to use the word Lies which Kenneth Koch prefers over Pretend

or Suppose & especially Make Believe or Imaginary Things but he does also suggest

Things That Aren’t True as the next best thing to Lies & that was in 1970

In Wishes, Lies and Dreams where he taught teachers to teach children to write

Poetry which still works, his teaching by example, most examples coming from

Poems written by Koch’s students it still works but kids are maybe more likely to

Be materialistic in Wish poems & maybe parents are a little more squeamish about

Lies though maybe they are more willing to tell lies to their kids these days


& I also want to tell you about The Circus because you mention in The Last

Avant-Garde that when you teach Koch you like to ask students to read both

Poems called The Circus in On the Great Atlantic Rainway & say which one is better

& you know the right answer but your lips are sealed & I know the right answer

Which is both poems are better because of each other the dream & the sentiment

Need each other to be ecstatic & complete


& Frank O’Hara said instead of writing a poem he could pick up the phone I think

That’s the way he said it when he also said you just go on your nerve which is always

Worth repeating you just go on your nerve I kept thinking when I sat in on Lucie Brock-

Broido’s “yearlings” workshop & everyone read lyrical poems dripping with duende after

She told them about feral poetry feral meaning not dripping with duende but salivating on

The foliage gnawing its fingernails touching itself inappropriately like Frank Stanford

Discarding his greasy jeans jumping in a lake wearing only a cock ring under another name

As Forrest Gander under another name imagines it well instead of writing you email I can

Just write a poem


& you quote Koch from your sophomore year at Columbia saying Ashbery is a happy Sisy

phus who keeps approaching the nonexistent subject, the mystery that will never be revealed


& this poem is a thank you though not as good as Kenneth Koch but who cares hopefully

Someone does.

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