Free Speech Movement sign under Sather Gate University Archives photo, courtesy of Bancroft Library. 1964.Apologies to all five of my readers for the eight-month silence. I was actually writing (instead of writing about writing). As a result, however, I am late to the recent brouhahas in Po-Land.

Item! Vanessa Place was removed from an AWP subcommittee after protests over her latest project based on Gone With the Wind. The issue is alleged racism. The pressure came from but may have been helped along by something called the The Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo. In the wake of AWP’s decision, the organizers of the annual Berkeley Poetry Conference didn’t just remove Place from this year’s roster, they did so by canceling the conference entirely and replacing it with this.  According to her comments here, the goal of the project was to see if the owners of the copyright to GWTW would force her to stop, thus insisting on their ownership of the racism. That (rare) explanation from Place did not satisfy her critics, who insisted that a white woman had no business appropriating another white woman’s novel to protest racism. But that’s not the funniest part of the story: This year’s Berkeley Poetry Conference was going to mark the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Free Speech Movement.

At Berkeley.

Item! Nearly two years ago, I wrote that Kenneth Goldsmith’s Printing Out the Internet should be the final nail in the Conceptualist coffin. I was wrong. Back in March, Kenny G took the stage at Brown University and, beneath a projected image of Michael Brown, spent thirty minutes reading the barely altered text of Brown’s (Michael’s, not the university’s) autopsy report and called it a poem. The backlash was swift, and Goldsmith’s attempt at an explanation didn’t do much to change his detractors’ minds. In the end, he asked that Brown University not make public the video of his reading.

You can read some of the responses, and Kenny G’s response to the responses, here. Again, the criticism centers mostly on race, which is perhaps as it should be because there is no poetry to criticize. That’s the whole Conceptualist aesthetic — the appropriation of existing texts, presented as “un-creatively” as possible.

Goldsmith, who doesn’t write any of his books and proudly says so, is fully employed by an Ivy League university, was named the first poet laureate of MoMA, has read at the White House, and has appeared on The Colbert Report. Last week he made headlines again, when reviews came in of his spring “English” course, Wasting Time on the Internet (during one meeting, the class was made to sit in a circle and watch porn, at full volume). Kenny G published a defense of the course in advance, perhaps knowing that, when it was all said and done, someone would call him out on his bullshit.

I do not begrudge his success personally. In any creative endeavor, success is difficult to come by, so good for him. No, really. But every year, many fine books of poetry are published, written by many fine poets who actually write their own work. Many of these poets teach actual literature, writing, and critical thinking. And what gets the attention? The ridiculous stunts of a literary Andy Kaufmann, minus the funny. It should be no wonder that the larger public sees poetry as irrelevant, an indulgence of the over-educated, and/or just another battleground in the (yawn) “culture wars.”

As I was finishing this post, I received an email from Constant Critic, informing me of their latest poetry book review. This is the opening paragraph of that review:

The contemporary moment of critique manifests, among other ways, in a pressing call for artwork that overtly raises consciousness of the racism, classism, sexism, and environment-gutting anthropocentrism permeating our culture. Answering this call, many poetic projects such as Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Brenda Hillman’s Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire confront the deeply-entrenched narrative and rhetorical frames serving power structures—frames that secure relationships between self and other in a perpetual network of damage and exploitation.

“…anthropocentrism permeating our culture.” Really. God forbid humans should value themselves.

Someone once said that all poetry is politics. It sure seems that way, lately. Perhaps that’s why no one reads it.


Meme Machine

Now that the mid-term elections are behind us, the dust has begun to settle, and Americans nationwide are hunkering down for a) continued liberal tyranny, or b) new conservative oppression, a few thoughts and observations on political messaging, social media, and the use and abuse of language in the days prior to November 4th…

First, conservatives and liberals propagandize differently, in both style and method of delivery. Most conservative political messages come my way via email, usually forwarded by a family member. The format is most often a lengthy list, seemingly innocuous at first, such as “Little Known Facts About American History.” By the midway point, though, the real message becomes clear, and by the end, I’m being told Obama is the Antichrist. At least half of the historical “facts” are wrong. It makes sense that email would be the delivery method of choice for the right-wingiest among us, since some of the content would get a Twitter account suspended for “hate speech.”

Liberals, on the other hand, prefer social media, and use short, image-based memes to convey their equally fact-free assertions — for example, a picture of the Dos Equis beer guy embossed with, “I Don’t Always Pay Taxes, But When I Do… Oh That’s Right I Don’t Because I’m Rich.” The most popular liberal meme in the days leading up to the elections was the Rush Limbaugh “no means yes if you can spot it” quote. I’m no ditto-head, but the complete quote makes it clear he was asserting the opposite. That didn’t stop armies of Facebook and Twitter users, who obviously didn’t take ten seconds to verify this, from bombarding everyone with it for days on end.

I’m not one to get easily offended by much, but in the days before November 4th, when the deluge was so overwhelming it practically poured off the screen, it was hard not to feel a bit beat up by it all. Whatever people’s intentions may be, the message of any political meme feels the same: Click Like, Or You’re Wrong.

But the main reason I’m writing about this subject (on what is usually a blog about literature) is this: As an English instructor who spends his days trying to convince students of the importance of clear communication, the power of language, the proper use of sources, etc., I get a bit miffed seeing how easily all that is undermined, daily, with a keystroke. The political meme in particular is especially pernicious because it’s not an argument or appeal, and often it’s not even factual. It is the visual equivalent of a sound-bite.

I know, there have always been propagandists: TV mouth-pieces, bloviating radio hosts, holier-than-thou Hollywood celebrities and musicians, and politicians themselves. But that’s them, out there. With social media, we now get it from our family and friends (and well before the cranberry sauce). Big Brother is sooo 20th century. We do it to each other now.

Meme Machine

Hey, You Kids…!

Apparently the reading-tour diary is a thing, at least over at the mysteriously respected HTML GIANT. Why these young authors thought recording every banal detail of a reading tour would interest people in their literary works is beyond me. Personally, I have filed all parties involved under NOT TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY as a result. Here’s a sample passage:

Brooklyn: We stayed with my sister, Bridget, who showed us around Bed-Sty. We went day drinking at a place called Pearl’s because I told her that I wanted to do whatever she would normally do on a day off. I had two greyhounds and got a little tipsy, wanting to rap Plastic Little songs, so Bridget made me a chicken sandwich before we headed over to Mellow Pages, which is a really cute space. Eric Nelson, our host, wore a Tupac durag, and played ‘We Fly High’ by Jim Jones, and then I asked him to play the remix with Juelz Santana. I was super happy to read again with Jess Dutschmann, and to meet Laura Marie Marciano. Beach Sloth phoned-in on Laura’s phone a set about snowballs and the solar system. Got to meet Elizabeth Foster, Tiffany Wines, Alice Atlas, and Stephen Tully Dierks and they are all really rad. We went out after the show because we wanted to dance and Bridget took us to a noisy, crowded club where every song sounded like 2 Chainz. Elizabeth told me he wanted to come down to Philly and I told him bus tickets were cheap so he bought a cheap bus ticket.

If that’s not torturous (or “rad”) enough you can watch the author (Alexandra Naughton) roll her eyes in world-weariness while she inflects every other sentence like it’s a question here. Have fun?

In other news, here are two writer bios that I came across recently at another online publication (I left the names out, but otherwise they are verbatim):

[writer x] is a mestíza born and raised in the California Central Valley.

[writer Y] is a Pinay poet, writer and educator born and raised in San Jose, CA.

Question: When did we convince a younger generation of writers that their race/gender was their most valuable asset, so much so that it’s the first detail offered in their bios? I try to keep my posts here in the realm of the literary rather than the political (yeah yeah all art is politics, etc. — yawn), so I’ll spare you my rant about how I think this sort of thing is emblematic of a broader political failure. But I’m curious to know if others have noticed this trend and what you think of it.










Hey, You Kids…!

Seth Abramson’s Chief Offense Is Not Being Offensive, It’s Being Boring

Recently there’s been something of a kerfuffle over a poem, Last Words for Elliot Rodger by Seth Abramson, which the writer published at The Huffington Post. Predictably, the Twitter-sphere has taken Abramson to task for his decision to publish such a thing just days after Rodger killed six people and himself in California. Here is the statement by Abramson that precedes the piece:

The aim of this metamodern poem is to turn on their heads those words of hatred Elliot Rodger left behind him as he exited this world. A remix of the words Rodger used in his final YouTube video, the poem uses each and every word Rodger spoke in that hateful oration–and no more. The author condemns in the strongest terms both the words and the actions of Elliot Rodger; the aim here is to rescue language from a perversion of language, not to glorify an individual whose actions were incontrovertibly evil. Please note that this poem is an address to, not an address from, Elliot Rodger.

Not knowing Abramson personally, I can only take him at his word. Still, he had to have known that publishing such a thing on the heels of a tragedy would win him few, if any, accolades. This leads me to agree that it is — at the very least — in questionable taste and to wonder if Abramson isn’t a bit of a narcissist.

But my chief objection has less to do with ethics than aesthetics. As I’ve said in a previous post, such conceptualist approaches to writing are occasionally interesting or clever, but the effect quickly wears off. As the conceptualist darling Kenneth Goldsmith has himself noted, the concept is often more interesting than the resultant work, and we need look no further than Last Words for Elliot Roger for proof.

But let’s.

Recently, while following poetry links into the depths of the literary internet, I came across this title by CA Conrad:

ca-conrad-philip-seymour-hoffman-web (1)

“Adaptation” in this case means that Conrad inserted, after every bit of Capote’s dialog, the parenthetical “(were you high when you said this?).” Nine dollars. Really.

Whatever -ism applies to these works doesn’t matter to me. The trait they share is the devaluing of the individual imagination in favor of process. Such works are the textual equivalent of YouTube “documentaries” that are nothing more than mash-ups of photos, clips, music, and quotes, none of which their creators actually created.

In a word, yawn.



Seth Abramson’s Chief Offense Is Not Being Offensive, It’s Being Boring

Raymond P. Hammond’s Poetic Assumptions

Let us put to rest all those huffy complaints about the proliferation of MFA programs, as if courses of study that offer support and allowance to people for the exploration of their inner lives, for the respected regard of their imaginations, their harmless madnesses and idiosyncratic musics and wild surmises, somehow lead to a great homogeneity as well as a great dilution of the high principles of art.
–Dean Young, The Art of Recklessness

2Late to another MFA Bashing Party, I just recently read Raymond P. Hammond’s Poetic Amusement, published in 2010 but, according to its jacket, “…passed around underground as a digital file for ten years among those associated with The New York Quarterly” prior to its publication (that word underground is interesting, but more on that in a bit). I wouldn’t write anything about this book at all, especially four years later, but in poking around for reviews, I found very few that weren’t supportive, and the notion that writing programs are ruining poetry has hardly waned.

Despite disagreeing with other critics of workshops that they should be abolished, or that poetry in America is “dead,” Poetic Amusement is nevertheless chock-full of the same misguided complaints against writing programs:

…sameness infects the MFA students for several reasons. First, conformity is the name of the game if one wants to excel within the poetry industry.

And, quoting John Hollander:

…the resultant poetry is a “deadly sameness of verse.”

And my personal favorite:

The responsibility of agonizing revisions and decisions are left to a committee’s caucus rather than to the gut tendencies of an artist who is willing to sacrifice for his art. The resultant work is left gang raped and abandoned in a dumpster, barely recognizable.

I have no idea what was in the window next to the one Hammond typed that in, but I hope he’s since closed it and gotten out more.

I joke. But Hammond makes the same mistake nearly every other critic of writing programs makes: he conflates a valid criticism with a wrong one. The valid criticism is that the proliferation of MFA programs makes it possible (necessary, in fact, given the numbers) for poets who are not Giants of the Art to have careers. The wrong criticism is that MFA programs create mediocre poetry or “sameness.”

First, the idea that 20-somethings who want to be poets are that malleable is ridiculous. Have you met any of them? They’re nothing if not stubborn prima donnas who reject more advice than they accept, as do most young people in almost any creative endeavor.

I know. I was one.

I can only speak from my own experience, of course, so here’s a short list of poets I went to school with who have had at least one book published in recent years: Alison Apotheker, Michael Catherwood, Beth Ann Fennelly, John Hennessy, Graham Lewis, Katrina Vandenberg, Cody Walker, Bob Zordani. I challenge anyone to read a page of each and find “sameness.”

Another claim common to these criticisms is that MFA students only read their teachers and peers, and that teachers actively try to get students to write like themselves. Maybe there are teachers like that, but I have yet to meet one. Again my own experience contradicts this. I don’t recall exact numbers, but we were required to take nearly as many hours of pre-1900 literature (most often taught by MA rather than MFA faculty) as 20th-century, and the only up-to-the-minute poetry course I took was one in which the students had to provide the work to be read, rather than have it assigned. Our teacher, Jim Whitehead, made us “bring it and defend it,” and he challenged us at every turn. No other course I can recall featured much that was more recent than Lowell, Bishop, or Berryman, and this was in the early 90’s. I think a visiting poet’s recent book made it onto a reading list exactly once in four years.

The central claim in Poetic Amusement, that the Muse has been abandoned in favor of an emphasis on craft, seems reasonable at first glance. Anyone who reads scores of literary journals and new books (Hammond spent years reading submissions for the NYQ) might come away from the experience feeling that contemporary poetry is long on technical skill but short on inspiration. Fair enough, but when was it not thus? Again, Hammond assumes an obedient, pliable army of the uninspired, students who have no inner lives or sense of “the mystery.” Nonsense. They’re humans, right? OK. Let’s not confuse youth or inability to execute with lack of inspiration or desire.

The most accurate thing we can say about this, and Hammond does, is that too many poets publish too much too early (or at least try) in the mad rush to build a resume. I’ve written reams of merely OK verse, and even allowed some of it into print with my name attached. But how does this ruin Poetry itself? To quote Dean Young again, “POETRY CAN’T BE HARMED BY PEOPLE TRYING TO WRITE IT!” [caps his].

Oh, that underground thing. This is another common thread in the writing-program-hate genre: that of the anti-/non-MFA writer as “outsider artist.” It smacks of posturing, an attempt at strategic positioning. The NYQ may not be The New Yorker, but for those who write and read contemporary literature, it is hardly underground. Hammond is an “outsider” only in the sense that, having never attended an MFA program, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.



Raymond P. Hammond’s Poetic Assumptions

Resistance is Fashionable

borg cubeFor many moons now, I have been making and taking notes for essays about American poetry (please try to contain your excitement). As of now those notes are a jumble of loosely connected observations, snippets of recent poetry offerings, copy-pastes of reviews and criticism. In other words, a mess. But looking over these notes — particularly the reviews and criticism — I’ve noticed a pattern in how a lot of new poetry is described. It’s a thing that, for lack of a better term right now, I can only call negative definition, wherein books of poetry are described (and, usually, praised) not for what they are and do, but for what they aren’t and don’t do. Some examples:

[X’s] second book…resists genre containment…

[In X’s work], our structural expectations are upended…

The struggle in reviewing [X’s book] is the collection rejects traditional modes of defining.

And in a hundred other reviews and commentaries, new poetry is “subverting expectations,” “challenging received norms,” etc.

Which is fine. I’m all for making it new. But what good is new if the it can’t be discerned even by an enthusiastic reviewer? And when they try, it often comes out like this:

Much like the theme of the collection the text is an exploration of codes which as untranslatable and esoteric reject the closure that is traditionally sought via the lyric. It is within this this space the I wants meaning, hopes to find and place contours about the self and the separation between internal and external. The boundaries of selfhood verse what acts to remove said individuality becomes a sight [sic] of fragmentation. Mirroring this, the poems are not linear and with the trajectory and focus splintering towards new subjects and possibilities. The result is a constant evasion of conclusion.

Judging by the sheer number of books and their attendant reviews in this vein (one site I follow posts at least three or four a week), it seems an entire generation of poets just discovered L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E in the past couple years and made “Resist and Reject” its mantra.

There’s no accounting for taste, and poets should write as they please, but I wonder if it really is a pleasure working overtime to make sure your poems thwart any attempt at understanding. There’s certainly not much pleasure in reading them.

Resistance is Fashionable

Bill Knott (1940-2014)



What do the following poets have in common:

Maggie Anderson, Dorothy Barresi, Quan Berry, Jan Beatty, Robin Becker, Richard Blanco, Christopher Bursk, Anthony Butts, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Wanda Coleman, Billy Collins, Mark Cox, Jim Daniels, Chard DeNiord, Toi Derricotte, Denise Duhamel, Russell Edson, Lynn Emmanuel, Peter Everwine, Edward Field, Daisy Fried, Barbara Hamby, C.G. Hanzlicek, Bob Hickok, Grey Jacobik, Julia Kasdorf, Jesse Lee Kercheval, Etheridge Knight, Sanda Kohler, Ted Kooser, Larry Levis, Shara McCallum, Peter Meinke, Malena Morling, Kathleen Norris, Sharon Olds, Alicia Suskin Ostriker, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Paisley Rekdal, Muriel Rukeyser, Richard Shelton, Reginald Shepherd, Cathy Song, Virgil Suarez, Ronald Wallace, Afaa Michael Weaver, David Wojahn, and Dean Young.

If pretty early in reading the list you answered, “Well, one thing they have in common is that they’re all better poets than Bill Knott,” you’d be right.

They are all better poets than me, and if you don’t believe me, take the word of editor Ed Ochester, who put the poets listed above into his new anthology, “American Poetry Now / Pitt Poetry Series Anthology.”

To quote from the catalog, “American Poetry Now is a comprehensive collection of the best work from the renowned Pitt Poetry Series.”

The best work, mind you, not the worst. If Ochester was doing the worst, he would have reprinted poems from my Pitt book, “Poems 1960-1987” (published in 1989).



Bill Knott (1940-2014)