Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Dim Sum: Tonya Foster & Evie Shockley
March 30, 2008



The following excerpts are taken from “Dim Sum: Tonya Foster & Evie Shockley — Braiding: ConVERSations: To, Against, For”

It would be one thing if poetry were made of words alone,
but it is not–no more than words themselves are.

 –Paolo Friere via James Scully (Linebreak 133)
…If essentialism means being able to name the rubrics within which we (women of color, African Americans, women, etc., etc.) may simultaneously be constrained, limited, subjugated by more powerful others and be nurtured, engaged, empowered by ourselves and our allies, then essentialism still has useful work to do in the struggle for social justice. I recognize the dangers it poses. I’ll stop identifying as an African American woman when most people in this society have stopped understanding me in terms of my proximity to those categories (and all the others that may be relevant to my subjectivity)–you first. Meanwhile, “networks of communities and…relationships” seems to be a productive model for describing my own activities in the world (of poetry). The focus on multiplicity potentially opens our eyes to connections that are predictable and unpredictable.
 …This move turns on the significance to BAM “black aesthetics” of asserting a (“black”) “self” in the face of the oppressive and dismissive aesthetic standards that have been imposed upon the writing of African Americans since the era of Phillis Wheatley. An important point related to the foregoing is how critical it is for us to recognize that sexism is racism, at times, without losing the specificity of either category in our analyses.

…Whether one believes that poetry can affect or change what readers believe, can articulate ways of seeing the world that could circulate in and shape popular culture, can mobilize people for political action, etc., or not, poetry represents an economy of ideas (political, social, aesthetic, cultural) in which the currency is more valuable than it is often given credit for being.

“I have become a lot more aware over the past year or two
how often gender dynamics operate in really screwed-up ways
within a community I had complacently assumed was a lot more
progressive and enlightened than it sometimes reveals itself to be.
Just at the level, for example, of how much men outnumber women
on tables of contents, or how women’s comments are ignored in blog
conversations, or how men get threatened and aggressive when women
speak up about these things.”

  –K. Silem Mohammad

…I’ll just add that the variety of forms that sexism takes is part of what gives it such reverberating impact: outright dismissals of women and women’s poetry; silence regarding the influence of women poets upon poetic traditions; lip service to the importance of poetry by women that doesn’t lead to structural change in the systems that construct and reflect what we value in poetry (the canon)–these are just a few of the forms in which sexism operates in the context of poetry. And, Tonya, of course, I deeply appreciate your extension of Spahr and Young’s observation about sexism to encompass racism and other structures of exclusion.

…If Audre Lorde is correct in saying that “poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought” (in her indispensable essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury”), then it can be argued that envisioning and articulating what is desired but does not yet exist is one of the primary tasks–or, less prescriptively, primary opportunities–of the poet’s work.

…The very instance of thinking through the systemic reasons that result in or contribute to the inequitable representation of poets who are not white and/or not male will necessitate the consideration of factors that cannot be reduced to aesthetics, but have everything to do with aesthetics.

…I am arguing that avant-garde poetics need not be defined in opposition to either a discernable engagement with politics in the work or an interest in audience(s). Where did this avant-garde poetry/political poetry divide come from anyway? What motivated the surrealists? What motivated Dada? The high modernists? The Beats? The Language poets? Or should I be asking what distinguishes these politically motivated aesthetic movements from the New Negro Renaissance, the Black Arts Movement, the Nuyorican arts movement? And how does the most obvious answer to this last question relate to the notion of “a more radical feminism” and the intervention it could make in the world (of poetry)?

….I love Retallack’s concept of “pragmatically hybrid poetry communities” both because it seems grounded in immediate action and because it suggests the importance of seeking and forming alliances that don’t rely upon a mandated (false) unity around every possible issue of politics and aesthetics that might be raised.
…Can we accept and act on the idea that “transform[ing] the circumstances or conditions of others” may deeply involve transforming who we are and how we occupy the world (of poetry)?
–CONTINUED in “Dim Sum: Tonya Foster & Evie Shockley — Braiding: ConVERSations: To, Against, For”


3 Responses to “Dim Sum: Tonya Foster & Evie Shockley”

  1. Jim K. Says:
    March 2nd, 2008 at 5:12 pm eEver notice how Evie takes the foreground of
    pictures and the sound of readings? There is
    a direct presence. No other.
  2. Jim K. Says:
    March 2nd, 2008 at 7:43 pm eLooking over wrongs, I’ve noticed
    over the years that oafishness and
    subconscious deflection are often
    the cause than intention and aggression.
    Which is to say, maybe things are less
    deliberate, more subtle, but paradoxically
    harder to dig up. Just a thought from mulling
    the comments I’ve seen by editors of both
    genders for years. True Anthropology might
    find more natural things than the old wounding
    paradigms presupposed. If it could ever escape
    the hothouse of likely well over 100,000 trawlers
    trapped in an inland sea, and all the political
    3rd rails, that is.
  3. Jim K Says:
    March 2nd, 2008 at 10:05 pm eOops…I am out of sync with the
    aggressiveness thing that happened..
    sorry bout the babbling.

Benjamin on Baudelaire
March 30, 2008


 The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire


Yes the ragpicker is also a figure for Baudelaire, for the poet who draws on the detritus of the society through which he moves, seizing that which seems useful in part because society has found it useless. And finally, the ragpicker is a figure for Baudelaire himself, for the critic who assembles his critical montage from inconspicuous images wrested forcefully from the seeming coherence of Baudelaire’s poems. Here and throughout Benjamin’s writings on Baudelaire, we find a powerful identification with the poet: with his social isolation, with the relative failure of his work, and in particular with the fathomless melancholy that suffuses every page.

Benjamin concludes this first constellation by contrasting Baudelaire with Pierre Dupont, an avowed social poet, whose work strives for a direct, indeed simple tendentious engagement with the political events of the day. In contrasting Baudelaire with Dupont, Benjamin reveals a “profound duplicity” at the heart of Baudelaire’s poetry–which, he contends, is less a statement of support for the cause of the oppressed, than a violent unveiling of their illusions. As Benjamin wrote in his notes to the essay, “It would be an almost complete waste of time to attempt to draw the position of a Baudelaire into the network of the most advanced positions in the struggle for human liberation. From the outset, it seems more promising to investigate his machinations where he was undoubtedly at home: in the enemy camp … Baudelaire was a secret agent–an agent of the secret discontent of his class with its own rule.” … By the late 1930s Benjamin was convinced that traditional historiography, with its reliance upon the kind of storytelling that suggests the inevitable process and outcome of historical change, “is meant to cover up the revolutionary moments in the occurrence of history … The places where tradition breaks off–hence its peaks and crags, which offer footing to one who would cross over them–it misses.” … Benjamin thus seeks to create a textual space in which a speculative, intuitive, and analytical intelligence can move, reading images and the relays between them in such a way that the present meaning of “what has been comes together in a flash.” This is what Benjamin calls the dialectical image.

In the central section of “Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire,” titled “The Flaneur,” Benjamin turns to an extended consideration of the reciprocally generative relations between certain artistic genres and societal forms. In the crowded streets of the urban metropolis, the individual is not merely absorbed into the masses: all traces of individual existence are in fact effaced. And popular literary and artistic forms such as physiologies (literary and artistic exemplifications of physiognomic types) and panoramas (representations of “typical” tableaux in Paris) arose, Benjamin argues, precisely in order to quell the deep-seated unease that characterized this situation: through their “harmlessness” they suggested a “perfect bonhomie” devoid of all resistance to the social order of the day, and in so doing contributed to the “phantasmagoria of Parisian life.”

…Physiologies are in this sense deeply complicit with phantasmagoria, in that they fraudulently suggest we are in possession of a knowledge that we do not in fact have. As Benjamin says, physiologies “assured people that everyone could — unencumbered by any factual knowledge — make out the profession, character, background, and lifestyle of passers-by.” …

If Baudelaire’s poetry is neither symptomatic of social conditions (as were the physiologies) nor capable of providing procedures for dealing with them (as did the detective story), what exactly is the relationship of that poetry to modernity? Benjamin champions Baudelaire precisely because his work claims a particular historical responsibility: in allowing itself to be marked by the ruptures and aporias of modern life, it reveals the brokenness and falseness of modern experience. At the heart of Benjamin’s reading is thus a theory of shock, developed on the basis of a now-famous reading of the poem “A une passante” (To a Passer-By). The speaker of the poem, moving through the “deafening” street amid the crowd, suddenly spies a woman walking along and “with imposing hand / Gathering up a scalloped hem.” The speaker is transfixed, his body twitches, wholly overcome by the power of the image. Yet, Benjamin argues, the spasms that run through the body are not caused by “the excitement of a man in whom an image has taken possession of every fiber of his being”; their cause is instead the powerful, isolated shock “with which an imperious desire suddenly overcomes a lonely man.”

This notion of a shock-driven poetic capability as a significant departure from the understanding of artistic creation prevalent in Benjamin’s day and in fact still powerfully present today. The poet is, in this view, not a genius who “rises above” his age and distills its essence for posterity. For Benjamin, the greatness of Baudelaire consists instead in his absolute susceptibility to the worst excrescences of modern life: Baudelaire was in possession not of genius, but of an extraordinarily “sensitive disposition” that enable him to perceive, through a painful empathy, the character of an age. And for Benjamin, the “character of the age” consisted in its thoroughgoing commodification. Baudelaire was not simply aware of the processes of commodification from which the phantasmagoria constructs itself; he in fact embodied those processes in an emphatic manner. When he takes his work to market, the poet surrenders himself as a commodity to the “intoxification of the commodity immersed in a surging stream of customers.” The poet’s role as a producer and purveyor of commodities opens him to a special “empathy with inorganic things.” And this, in turn, “was one of his sources of inspiration.” Baudelaire’s poetry is thus riven by its images o a history that is nothing less than a “permanent catastrophe.” This is the sense in which Baudelaire was the “secret agent” of the destruction of his own class.

…Baudelaire’s spleen–that is, his profound disgust at things as they were–is only the most evident emotional sign of this state of affairs.



Not Thinking Alike
March 29, 2008


“It is not best that we all should think alike, it is differences of opinion that make horse races.”

–Mark Twain


A few new poems written by my non-pseudonym in Jacket Magazine:

* The Arm of Eden
* Where Bullfinches Go to Defy
* Two if by Land, I Do
* A Martyrdom Should Behave Us All

This is an early appearance as Jacket #35 is still under construction though you’ll find a little action there already.

Please enjoy!


4 Responses to “Not Thinking Alike”

  1. Jim K. Says:
    January 31st, 2008 at 5:55 pm eLooks like Mark Twain has anxiety…
    …but wait, that’s correct.
    Love those, esp. the last two.
    The face is bold, looking in and out. -)
  2. Amy King Says:
    February 3rd, 2008 at 4:05 am eYay! I’m glad you liked them, Jim! It’s funny – Ana also said she liked the last two best too.
  3. ashok Says:
    February 4th, 2008 at 8:12 am eAll your poems are amazing, but “Two if by Land, I Do” has me reading and rereading and wondering. It’s probably no stretch to say it is an important poem, where you’ve gotten at the cosmic through the personal, all by one little twist – changing “do you want” to “do you believe.”It is really astounding to me how nuanced your political views are, how they comprehend so many issues most of us would abstract from the realm of politics.I sound nuts, don’t I.
  4. Jim K. Says:
    February 4th, 2008 at 9:08 pm eheh…not at all, Ashok. There are political, personal, and
    philosophical nuances swimming in that ocean. Your
    language and cultural tuning is astute.

Let’s Go Out Past the Party Lights
March 29, 2008

If I had a woman, I’d play this Tom Waits’ re-make for her.

If I had to live in the suburbs, I’d pick North Massapequa, former home of Christine Jorgensen, who was the world’s first publicized sex change star.

If I had to live in North Massapequa, originally settled by the Native Americans of the Algonquain language group, I’d choose a house ten minutes from the ocean and the Wantagh nature trail.

If I had to live ten minutes from the ocean, I’d explore the vineyards of Long Island and take the LIRR into Manhattan every other weekend.

If I had to read up on such “surburban” living, I might go here:

This fascinating study of the suburbs of Long Island, New York (and by analogy, those across America) arose from the authors’ daily commute from Manhattan to SUNY Old Westbury, which is near Levittown, one of the earliest and perhaps the most famous of American suburbs. Initially they had imagined suburbia “as an anaesthetized state of mind, a no place dominated by a culture of conformity and consumption.” Their research quickly taught them otherwise. While Picture Windows does document a growing obsession with middle-class consumer goods, like the televisions that came with 1950 houses at Levittown, it disrupts the myth of suburban serenity to reveal “a rich and stormy history” of political and social conflict. The planners and visionaries of suburbia, as the authors attest, tried to create a place “where ordinary people, not just the elite, would have access to affordable, attractive modern housing in communities with parks, gardens, recreation, stores, and cooperative town meeting places.” Shunning the “snobbery” of cultural critics who deplored the “neat little toy houses on their neat little patches of lawn,” Baxandall and Ewen find much to celebrate in the burgeoning suburbs. Most of those who flocked to the new towns had been crowded into city slums during the depression and war; they never questioned the architectural conformity of the suburbs, but only rejoiced in the chance of owning their own brand-new homes, places empty of anyone else’s memories and rich with potential. Picture Windows is a quintessentially American story, told with skill and conviction. –Regina Marler

Or here:

Le Corbusier’s vision of the future had come true: “The cities shall be part of the country; I shall live 30 miles from my office in one direction, under a pine tree; my secretary will live 30 miles away from it too, in the other direction, under another pine tree.” What that vision omits, of course, is the 5 or 6 million people in between, each with his or her own pine tree.

“…you are brilliant and subtle if you come from Iowa and really strange and you live as you live and you are always well taken care of if you come from Iowa.” Gertrude Stein, Everybody’s Autobiography

Or Brooklyn, or Baltimore, or Buffalo, or Stone Mountain, or Massapequa, or, or, if.


3 Responses to “Let’s Go Out Past the Party Lights”

  1. Gary Says:
    January 7th, 2008 at 9:37 pm eWhile you’re on the topic, don’t forget Candy Darling, who lived for a while in Massapequa Park.
  2. Jim K. Says:
    January 8th, 2008 at 5:41 pm eThe move made. Hopefully a lot of
    commute drag is gone from life.
    Seems a bit like Cape Cod, at least
    the low, gradual part. Been for a shufti or two,
    looks like. Nice place!
  3. Amy King Says:
    January 11th, 2008 at 7:07 pm eCandy Darling! I didn’t know!

    It’s a lovely area, though not as busy to the naked eye as Brooklyn…

“Why Poetry?”
March 28, 2008


An excerpt from James Baldwin’s essay, “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” (1979):

People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances, or in order not to be submerged by a reality that they cannot articulate. …

What joins all languages, and all men, is the necessity to confront life, in order, not inconceivably, to outwit death: The price for this is the acceptance, and achievement, of one’s temporal identity. So that, for example, thought it is not taught in the schools (and this has the potential of becoming a political issue) the south of France still clings to its ancient and musical Proven�al, which resists being described as a “dialect.” And much of the tension in the Basque countries, and in Wales, is due to the Basque and Welsh determination not to allow their languages to be destroyed. This determination also feeds the flames in Ireland for many indignities the Irish have been forced to undergo at English hands is the English contempt for their language.

It goes without saying, then, that language is also a political instrument, means, and proof of power. It is the most vivid and crucial key to identify: It reveals the private identity, and connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger, public, or communal identity. There have been, and are, times, and places, when to speak a certain language could be dangerous, even fatal. Or, one may speak the same language, but in such a way that one’s antecedents are revealed, or (one hopes) hidden.

–from James Baldwin’s “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” (1979).



An excerpt from Paule Marshall’s essay, “The Making of a Writer: From the Poets in the Kitchen” (1983):

‘’If you say what’s on your mind in the language that comes to you from your parents and your street and friends you’ll probably say something beautiful.’’ Grace Paley tells this, she says, to her students at the beginning of every writing course. …

I grew up among poets. Now they didn’t look like poets – whatever that breed is supposed to look like. Nothing about them suggested that poetry was their calling. They were just a group of ordinary housewives and mothers, my mother included, who dressed in a way (shapeless housedresses, dowdy felt hats and long, dark, solemn coats) that made it impossible for me to imagine they had ever been young. …

Later, armed with the few dollars they had earned, which in their vocabulary became ‘’a few raw-mouth pennies,’’ they made their way back to our neighborhood, where they would sometimes stop off to have a cup of tea or cocoa together before going home to cook dinner for their husbands and children. …

The basement kitchen of the brownstone house where my family lived was the usual gathering place. Once inside the warm safety of its walls the women threw off the drab coats and hats, seated themselves at the large center table, drank their cups of tea or cocoa, and talked. While my sister and I sat at a smaller table over in a corner doing our homework, they talked – endlessly, passionately, poetically, and with impressive range. No subject was beyond them.

True, they would indulge in the usual gossip: whose husband was running with whom, whose daughter looked slightly ‘’in the way’’ (pregnant) under her bridal gown as she walked down the aisle. That sort of thing. But they also tackled the great issues of the time. They were always, for example, discussing the state of the economy. It was the mid and late 30’s then, and the aftershock of the Depression, with its soup lines and suicides on Wall Street, was still being felt.

Some people, they declared, didn’t know how to deal with adversity. They didn’t know that you had to ‘’tie up your belly’’ (hold in the pain, that is) when things got rough and go on with life. They took their image from the bellyband that is tied around the stomach of a newborn baby to keep the navel pressed in.

They talked politics. Roosevelt was their hero. He had come along and rescued the country with relief and jobs, and in gratitude they christened their sons Franklin and Delano and hoped they would live up to the names. …

THERE was no way for me to understand it at the time, but the talk that filled the kitchen those afternoons was highly functional. It served as therapy, the cheapest kind available to my mother and her friends. Not only did it help them recover from the long wait on the corner that morning and the bargaining over their labor, it restored them to a sense of themselves and reaffirmed their self-worth. Through language they were able to overcome the humiliations of the work-day. …

But more than therapy, that freewheeling, wide-ranging, exuberant talk functioned as an outlet for the tremendous creative energy they possessed. They were women in whom the need for self-expression was strong, and since language was the only vehicle readily available to them they made of it an art form that – in keeping with the African tradition in which art and life are one – was an integral part of their lives.

And their talk was a refuge. They never really ceased being baffled and overwhelmed by America – its vastness, complexity and power. Its strange customs and laws. At a level beyond words they remained fearful and in awe. Their uneasiness and fear were even reflected in their attitude toward the children they had given birth to in this country. They referred to those like myself, the little Brooklynborn Bajans (Barbadians), as ‘’these New York children’’ and complained that they couldn’t discipline us properly because of the laws here. ‘’You can’t beat these children as you would like, you know, because the authorities in this place will dash you in jail for them. After all, these is New York children.’’ Not only were we different, American, we had, as they saw it, escaped their ultimate authority.

Confronted therefore by a world they could not encompass, which even limited their rights as parents, and at the same time finding themselves permanently separated from the world they had known, they took refuge in language. ‘’Language is the only homeland,’’ Czeslaw Milosz, the emigre Polish writer and Nobel Laureate, has said. This is what it became for the women at the kitchen table.

It served another purpose also, I suspect. My mother and her friends were after all the female counterpart of Ralph Ellison’s invisible man. Indeed, you might say they suffered a triple invisibility, being black, female and foreigners. They really didn’t count in American society except as a source of cheap labor. But given the kind of women they were, they couldn’t tolerate the fact of their invisibility, their powerlessness. And they fought back, using the only weapon at their command: the spoken word.

Those late afternoon conversations on a wide range of topics were a way for them to feel they exercised some measure of control over their lives and the events that shaped them. ‘’Soully-gal, talk yuh talk!’’ they were always exhorting each other. ‘’In this man world you got to take yuh mouth and make a gun!’’ They were in control, if only verbally and if only for the two hours or so that they remained in our house.

–from Paule Marshall’s essay, “The Making of a Writer: From the Poets in the Kitchen” (1983).


3 Responses to ““Why Poetry?””

  1. Jim K. Says:
    August 27th, 2007 at 1:15 am eA couple brilliant essays.
  2. Sara Says:
    September 3rd, 2007 at 1:11 am eHey Amy,

    ‘One of the best posts around, with something actually important to say — how refreshing when so many poets’ blogs, including mine, have really been diluted down to a kind-of just-to-stay-networked “game-ery,” ‘you know? You chose some brilliant essays that together are even greater than the sum of their parts. So per usual, Bravo!

    ‘Hope all is well,


  3. Amy King Says:
    September 4th, 2007 at 3:32 pm eThank you both, Jim and Sara — I’m very glad you appreciated these. I love these essays and wish I had time to post from more …


Hot Afternoons Have Been In Montana
March 28, 2008


I post with no authority but with the enthusiasm of a person eager to know more. A certain someone lent me HOT AFTERNOONS HAVE BEEN IN MONTANA — Poems by Eli Siegel, complete with a letter by William Carlos Williams written November 3, 1951, which I quote from now:

“We are not up to Siegel, even yet. The basic criteria have not been laid bare. It’s a long had road to travel with only starvation fare for us on the way. Almost everyone wants to run back to the old practices. You can’t blame him. He wants assurance, security, the approval that comes to him from established practices. He wants to be united with his fellows. He wants the “beautiful,” that is to say … the past. It is a very simple and powerful urge. It puts the hardest burdens on the pioneer who while recognizing the virtues and glories of the past sees its restricting and malevolent fixations. Siegel knows this in his own person. He must be tough and supremely gifted.”

Williams also goes on to discuss the implications of Siegel’s founding “Aesthetic Realism”, which I don’t presume to speak about. But I will say there seem to be many adherents, including Ken Kimmelman, who made a film inspired by Siegel’s book and quotes Siegel on his site. If you’re interested in ordering the film, contact Kimmelman through his film company, Imagery Film, Ltd.

Alas, allow me to present a few poems from HOT AFTERNOONS HAVE BEEN IN MONTANA for your edification and pleasure:



There is a city,
With white in its center,
And white in its edges.
Somewhere in the southwest,
Across several creeks, several hills, several valleys,
This city’s to be got to.
Seventy autumns this city’s had,
(Not counting this year).
At any one moment in the afternoon
Two women are walking south and north,
Two men north and east,
Two men west.
The river near it has been noticed.
And a warm boat is on it now;
Southwest, southwest of reposing tracks,
And houses near railroad stations.
Hail, American development.

Eli Siegel



Are waiting
So that you
(Or anyone)
Can get
Into them.

–Eli Siegel



Education consists in instilling into them the universal mind.
–W.T. Stace after Hegel

Fly, birds, over all grieving mothers.
Tell them, if they know more,
They will grieve less.
Tell them that the children they grieve for
Are as mysterious as the God they pray to;
For God’s way is in them.
Tell them that the children who came from their bodies
Have come from so far away,
And from so much;
And that these children
Are going for so much
Of Hell and Heaven, dark and light—
That mothers can be as away from them
As lost lines in the early poetry of France.
Find the lost lines in
The writing that is your child, mothers
(Dear birds, tell them),
And you will not grieve;
You will stand up
In sweet universality.
You will be God’s mothers,
Not just your own.

–Eli Siegel



Philadelphia sky,
Seen by Jane,
Not by Alfred,
In Omaha.
Philadelphia sky:
Maybe Alfred
Will see you.
For, Philadelphia sky,
You are an Alfred-seeable sky.

–Eli Siegel


All poems from HOT AFTERNOONS HAVE BEEN IN MONTANA — Poems by Eli Siegel. Order the book here.


4 Responses to “Hot Afternoons Have Been In Montana”

  1. Dan C Says:
    August 17th, 2007 at 12:25 am eI’ve read about Aesthetic Realism before (something in a story about the aftermath of H. Katrina led me to it) but I didn’t realize Siegel was such a good poet. Thanks!
  2. ashok Says:
    August 17th, 2007 at 8:27 am eThat is magnificent poetry. Wow is it forcing me to focus and think. Thank you so much for introducing me to it!
  3. Belz Says:
    August 18th, 2007 at 4:15 am eAmy- Amazing poems here. I especially love “Contemporary History. ” What a title!

Why the Poetic Leap?
March 26, 2008


What follows is a nice juxtaposition of excerpts from two books I am currently tuned to. Take that mainstream logic!


“Einstein also recognized that science could not advance without free invention. As he stated, ‘We now know that science cannot grow out of empiricism alone, that in the constructions of science we need to use free invention which only a posteriori can be confronted with experience as to its usefulness. This fact could elude earlier generations, to whom theoretical creation seemed to grow inductively out of empiricism without the creative influence of a free construction of concepts.’ Because of this, Einstein concluded that the more a culture recognizes that its current picture of the universe is an invention, the more advanced the status of its science.

… As he stated, ‘The fictitious character of the principles is made quite obvious by the fact that it is possible to exhibit two essentially different bases, each of which in its consequences leads to a large measure of agreement with experience.’ For example, Newton’s view that the planets move around the Sun in neat elliptical orbits is borne out accurately in experiments, as is Einstein’s theory of relativity, in spite of the fact that both are based on completely different geometrical understandings of space.”



[Wittgenstein] is concerned with a technique that by its very nature makes language open to new signifying chains, chains that are connected with old uses but that vary away from them. The new uses may be strikingly different from the old ones; the only question is whether we can find the intermediate links, the continuous transition along contiguous terms, that will connect the new use with the old ones. There is no formal criterion that constitutes continuousness; this is where the nose for small differences comes in. And when he can find the connecting links, Wittgenstein is willing to allow meanings other people might not. For example, he ponders these sentences:

A new-born child has no teeth.
A goose has no teeth.
A rose has no teeth.

The last example, he says, ‘one would like to say,’ is ‘obviously true.’ ‘It is even surer than that a goose has none. –And yet none so clear. For where should a rose’s teeth have been? The goose has none in its jaw. And neither, of course, has it any in its wings; but no one means that when he says it has no teeth.’ But Wittgenstein does not reject the last sentence as nonsense; what he wants is the connective tissue that will weave it into the language. For one could say that a rose has teeth: ‘Why, suppose one were to say: the cow chews its food and then dungs the rose with it, so the rose has teeth in the mouth of a beast. This would not be absurd, because one has no notion in advance where to look for teeth in a rose.’

The ability to feel the intertwining of the threads of language is sharpened by a tactical yielding to temptation or inclination. Stanley Cavell, noting the frequency with which Wittgenstein uses phrases like ‘I want to say’ and ‘Here the urge is strong’ (and also, though Cavell, oddly does not mention them, ‘We are tempted [versucht] to say’ or ‘I am inclined [geneigt] to say’), concludes that ‘the voice of temptation and the voice of correctness are the antagonists in Wittgenstein’s dialogues.’ In fact, though, it is only by continually exposing ourselves to the temptations of language that we can make our own way in these investigations. That is, we do not know in advance what the accidence of a word’s applications will be. ‘Let the use of words teach you there meaning’, Wittgenstein writes: we must use a word first, and then see where it has led us. Frequently, the temptations of language will, as Cavell notes, lead to the unities of philosophy which Wittgenstein wants to fracture and scatter, but even these are an essential part of the investigations. The investigations are oriented to these unities; their tactics are guided by the aim of undoing them. But the analogies and fictions and suggestive new forms of expression which open up the possibilities of syntax Wittgenstein is after also come from yielding to inclination …”

And later:

“I have tried to show how such weaving is done, how one must feel for the material of the fibers and threads. When doing philosophy, Wittgenstein writes, we feel as though we are pursuing the most extreme subtleties, as though we were trying to repair a torn spider’s web with our fingers. The web of language is not subtle beyond experience, but it is as subtle as experience. And we are not called upon to repair it, but only to continue to weave it–which always means to reweave it. We cannot do this with our fingers; we must learn the spider’s touch. There is a certain automatism or mechanism (we could call it instinct, though this word too needs to be rewritten), but also play in the joints of this mechanism (PI 194), and endless games with its instruments and pieces.



“I really do think with my pen, because my head often knows nothing about what my hand is writing.” — Ludwig Wittgenstein


5 Responses to “Why the Poetic Leap?”

  1. Ana Says:
    June 4th, 2007 at 9:54 pm eGeese HAVE teeth.
  2. Ana Says:
    June 4th, 2007 at 9:55 pm eKinda.
  3. Amy King Says:
    June 4th, 2007 at 11:39 pm eYou have felt them. Ana.
  4. sq Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 3:58 pm enice post. great shot.
  5. Gary Says:
    June 13th, 2007 at 4:22 am eTwo things.

    1. Geese don’t have teeth (they’re birds, right?) but that doesn’t make any difference to W’s argument, because, in the relevant sense of “have”, roses don’t have teeth either. Of course, there may be a sense of “have” in which roses can be said to have teeth (I take it that this is the point of the claim that “the rose has teeth in the mouth of a beast”) but was that ever the issue? The question, it seems to me, is whether a rose can be said to have (lack) teeth in the way that a person can be said to have (lack) teeth. The example simply doesn’t speak to that.

    2. On Derrida. Here’s a fun game for anyone who still thinks that Derrida is worth taking seriously:

How To Tell A Masterpiece
March 26, 2008


Not long ago while viewing the Société Anonyme: Modernism for America show at The Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., Ron Padgett stood before a painting and said something favorable, which in turn prompted me to ask, “What makes this a good painting?” Now mind you, I was asking a man who has viewed thousands of paintings and whose hunger for the visual only seems to grow. Ron replied (or so I approximately recall), “I could point out all sorts of reasons, technical or aesthetic, that make this is a good painting, but to do so would just limit your experience. You just know a good painting when you see it, and no single aspect makes it so.” And I did just know, without trying to pinpoint exactly which combination of elements made it stand out from rest on that wall.

This conversation reminded me of one with another friend, noted a few posts ago, who, in an ongoing basis, tried to explain singularity to me. To poorly paraphrase one particular discussion (sorry again, Isa), Isabella ‘defined’ what makes a masterpiece: its singularity. Basically, the singularity of a literary work is something people recognize but can’t define (though critics may try) — and it’s what makes it last; people continue to recognize and return to it over time.

Anyway, these little stories are leading to an excerpt from Bruns’ book, but I was sidetracked checking out Jane Hirshfield’s Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry today at a local bookstore. In an essay called, “The Question of Originality,” she asks, “A question, then, is how does a poet enfold into language the singularity that marks each living creature and object of the world and also those works of art we most admire?” Yes, how, dear public?

Later, Hirshfield quotes Picasso, from which I excerpt for the frivolity of it, “Nobody drew up a program of action, and though our friends the poets followed our efforts attentively, they never dictated to us. … The painter passes through states of fullness and emptying. That is the whole secret of art.”

But even better, her full Walt Whitman quote, “The greatest poet has less a marked style and is more the free channel of himself. He swears to his art, I will not be meddlesome, I will not have in my writing any elegance or effect or originality to hang in the way between me and the rest like curtains. I will have nothing hang in the way, not the richest curtains. What I tell I tell for precisely what it is.” Ha!

And now for la piece de resistance, one that resists the recipes, we encounter a kind of pointing at of singularity, including one revealing footnote, to wrap the above notes together, however loosely, direct from Gerald L. Bruns’ book, On the Anarchy of Poetry and Philosophy – A Guide for the Unruly:

“In Intimations of Postmodernity, the social theorist Zygmunt Bauman says that what postmodernists know is that we are all of us inhabitants of complex systems. A complex system, unlike logical, mechanical, or cybernetic systems, is temporal, not so much in time as made of it. This means that it is turbulent and unpredictable in its workings and effects (structured, as they say, like the weather). A complex system is not governed by factors of any statistical significance, which is why a single imperceptible event can produce massive changes in the system. It follows that a complex system cannot be described by laws, rules, paradigms, causal chains, deep structures, or even a five-foot shelf of canonical narratives. It is beneath the reach of universal norms and so it forces us to apply what Hans Blumenberg calls the principium rationiis insufficientis: the principle of insufficient reason–which is, however, not the absence of reason but rather, given the lack of self-evidence in a finite situation, a reliance on practical experience, discussion, improvisation, and the capacity for midstream corrections. In certain philosophical circles this is called ‘pragmatism’; in others, ‘ anarchism’ (meaning–the way I mean it in this book — not an embrace of chaos, but a search for alternatives to principles and rules [an-arche], on the belief that what matters is absolutely singular and irreducible to concepts, categories, and assigned models of behavior).” 8 [emphasis mine]

Footnote #8 — On singularity, see Gilles Deleuze, Logique du sens (Paris: Editions du Minuit, 1969), p. 67 (The Logique of Sense, trans. Constantin V. Boundas [New York: Columbia University Press, 1990], p. 52): “The singularity belongs to another dimension than that of denotation, manifestation, or signification. It is essentially pre-individual, non-personal, and a-conceptual. It is quite indifferent to the individual and the collective, the personal and the impersonal, the particular and the general–and to their oppositions. Singularity is neutral.” For a slightly different view, where the singular is not an isolate and is also a person, see Jean-Luc Nancy, Etre singulier pluriel (Paris: Editions Galilee, 1996), pp. 1 – 131 (Being Singular Plural [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000], pp. 1 – 100). The notion of the singular can be traced to Emmanuel Levinas’s conception of ethical alterity, where the other is irreducible to the same, that is, refractory to categories. …


4 Responses to “How To Tell A Masterpiece”

  1. derek Says:
    April 5th, 2007 at 10:39 am eseems a lot of poems (maybe paintings too) are organic, & isolating a certain aspect that illuminates the quality may irrevocably diminish one’s appreciation of the work. or something. i think so anyway.
  2. Jim K. Says:
    April 5th, 2007 at 7:19 pm eMany things [early] post-modern tend to demonstrate the inability of
    static modernist analysis to really model or predict what’s going on.
    But there is a late post-modernism, built on the intense
    (if difficult to completely grasp) theory of Deleuze. Manuel Delanda
    bases most of his stuff on Deleuze, and is my best bet for a way forward
    to a constructive post-modernism. The patterns in the semi-chaos,
    the meshworks instead of old stratification, intensive processes causing
    the articulation of instances, here and now. I’ve enjoyed working with
    that a lot in art. Now…how that might might play out in poetry..
    ..that I haven’t figured out yet.
    But one common theme in constructively moving from modern to post-modern:
    static needs to be replaced by dynamic imagination, and simplified surroundings
    need to be replaced by thinking of everything moving together with everything
    else….an ‘environmental’ view, in the much broader sense of environmental.
    Relationships as environmental, etc.. Things as verb-based, not noun-based:
    properties that are not static. Semi-random writing might be an analog of one
    intensive method: jumping from perspective to perspective, even while those
    perspectives are reacting to each other and changing. Not sure..
  3. Sam Rasnake Says:
    April 5th, 2007 at 8:52 pm eNine Gates is one of the most impacting studies that I’ve read. Very helpful. I like this Hirshfield quote from “Poetry and the Mind of Indirection”: “Art, by its very existence, undoes the idea that there can be only one description of the real, some single and simple truth on whose surface we may thoughtlessly walk. The intelligence that simmers in stories, paintings, and poems warns us: if the mind of art cannot entirely be trusted, nor can the ground.”

    Thanks for the post Amy.

  4. Robert Says:
    April 9th, 2007 at 5:24 am e“irreducible to concepts, categories, and assigned models of behavior” – one of the better distinctions between prose and poetry I’ve heard in awhile.

Random Displays of Affection
March 26, 2008


I like Gerald L. Bruns already. First, he’s got the dog, who looks quite comfortable, which means his empathy bone is strong. His author photo isn’t some pompous monstrosity; he looks like a human who reads and might garden too. I bet he even has a bathroom in that house. Next, he’s currently at work on a book about the poets, Susan Howe and Lyn Hejinian – hurrah! Also, he wrote this interesting review that has tweaked my mind already this morning.

Finally, I picked up his latest book, ON THE ANARCHY OF POETRY AND PHILOSOPHY: A GUIDE FOR THE UNRULY, the other night. Even if I don’t agree with his points ultimately (don’t know yet!), I applaud the draw for those of us who fancy ourselves rule breakers, poets of another sort, etc.

Now I don’t wouldn’t call myself an attendant of modernism, or rather, a scholar of modern or postmodern action, but the back of the book certainly drew me in,

“… the difficulty of much modern and contemporary poem can be summarized in the idea that a poem is made of words, not of any of the things that we use words to produce: meanings, concepts, propositions, narratives, or expressions of feeling. Many modernist poets have argued that in poetry language is no longer a form of mediation but a reality to be explored and experienced in its own right. But what sort of experience, philosophically, might this be?

In this provocative study, Bruns answers that the culture of modernism is a kind of anarchist community, where the work of art is apt to be as much an event or experience–or, indeed, an alternative form of life–as a formal object. In modern writing, philosophy and poetry fold into one another. In this book, Bruns helps us to see how.”

Now my plan is, as I read from this new book, to provide snippets to whet your appetite, but before I provide today’s news brief, I just wanted to draw attention to the last detail that sealed the deal for the book’s purchase. My very smart friend, Isabella Winkler, has been revising her dissertation for a few years now. She lived here in Brooklyn for some of those years, working hard at perfecting the thing. Luckily (for me), my naivete played a role in this editing work — I became a sort of sounding board for her ideas because our interests overlap, though they’re not the same. Her book is related to gender and a few branches of theory that befuddle me. Over many wonderful sushi dinners and bites in the backyard at Relish, my job was to ask whatever questions led me wherever my interests dictated and hers was to answer, dumbing down as necessary (sometimes ad nauseum – sorry, Isa!).

One point of recurring interest was on Derrida’s concept of singularity. I won’t go into it here, but in my very cursory research away from Isabella, I have had trouble finding much on the concept at all, though apparently it’s integral to understanding much of the work he does (& has much bearing on the work of poetry). Anyway, jump ahead to me flipping through Bruns’ book the other night at St. Mark’s Books. I did a quick read-through of the chapter on “Poetic Communities” and never have I seen anyone, outside of Isabella, wield the word “singularity” as much as this author does. A superficial cause for purchase? Perhaps. But after reading the preface and noting the theorists and poets Bruns speaks on, I’m certain now that I’ve invested well. And I’m really looking forward to spring break next week digging deeply in.

Now, for you, an excerpt from the Preface,

“Modernity also gave us the concept of art as such–art that is not in the service of the court, or the school. But unlike other of modernity’s innovations, art proved to be an anomaly. The fact is that particular works of art appeared to lose definition when transported outside the context of these legitimating institutions. As Hegel and the German romantics saw, art cannot be brought under the rule of a universal. Its mode of existence is open-ended self-questioning and self-alteration. The history of art as something self-evident has come to an end. Arguably this condition of indeterminacy (or, better, complexity) is the beginning of modernism, the consequences of which (in terms of particular artworks) would only appear later in the nineteenth century, starting perhaps with Baudelaire, who gave us our first definition of modernism as that which is no longer concerned with the universal, the eternal, or transcendent beauty but rather with the local, the transient, the everyday.

What I try to do in this book is to give fairly detailed accounts of the writings of European thinkers that bear upon the problem of modernism, including (to start with) the problem of how to cope with a work of art in the absence of criteria handed down in tradition or developed by comprehensive aesthetic theories such as one finds in Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason. A recurring argument in the chapters of this book is that what counts as art or poetry is internal to the social spaces in which the art is created, which means that there are multiple and heterogeneous conceptions of art and poetry, a condition that gives rise to the phenomenon of conceptual art, which argues that in order to experience a thing as art, we need to have developed or have in hand a conceptual context–theories, arguments, appeals to or rejections of what is happening elsewhere–in which the thing before us ‘fits,’ that is, as the conceptual artists say, in which the work itself exhibits the theory that enables it ‘to come up for the count’ as art. My book is essentially a defense of nominalism in the sense that it proposes that criteria for determining whether a thing counts as a work of art are not universal but are local and contingent, social and historical, and therefore the source of often intense (and sometimes fruitful) disagreements among and within different communities of the artworld. Hence what I am proposing in this book is an anarchist aesthetics or poetics: anything goes, nothing is forbidden, since anything is possible within the historical limits of the particular situations in which modern and contemporary art and poetry have been created. It is as if freedom rather than truth, beauty, or goodness had become the end of art.”



Okay, one last thing. If you knew me in the nineties, you might remember that I was a photographer for awhile in Buffalo. I even hung some work in a few cafes. One of my first favorite photographers whose work I researched, explored, and emulated was Mr. Robert Frank’s. So I was pleasantly surprised today to find he did this collaboration with Patti Smith on her song, “Summer Cannibals.”

Even more, I was excited to find Robert Frank’s short film, “Pull My Daisy,” complete with narration by Jack Kerouac and acting by Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Pablo Frank, Larry Rivers, Peter Orlovsky, Alice Neel, and a few others I don’t recall.

May you enjoy this New York City and the explorations these poets and filmmaker provide!


I Agree In Security
March 26, 2008


Except when I don’t. During a discussion about Jackson MacLow on the Poetics listserv the other day, Nick Piombino posted the following, “I had the feeling he [MacLow] was talking about going to museums and art galleries or even movies and overhearing conversations where reactions often seem to neglect time for fully absorbing and encompassing an experience. This leads into my recent preoccupation with the positive side of ambivalence. The ability to tolerate ambivalence, or ambiguity, can create an opportunity to wonder, to wander, daydream, to think, to puzzle or figure things out. Full circle: isn’t this often what is wanted from artistic experience in the first place?”

This predilection for ambivalence and the ambiguous (what’s the word for more than two optional reads?) holds special significance for me. I feel like I’m regularly ambivalent, that it may be my most “stable” or steady underlying condition; in fact, I’m fairly sure I seek the condition out and inhabit it, in my head at least, intentionally. Of course, I’m speaking in the abstract; ask me if I want the war to end… there can be certainty too.

Anyway, surely I’m not alone. Security is so desperately and regularly fashioned in our culture; hell, it’s the false-bottom premise of the fast-fading American Dream! Maybe we should consider other options? Why not start identifying & acknowledging the ambivalences, embrace and inhabit them? But I rarely hear someone actually celebrate the condition of ambivalence aloud, except through poetry, and even there, it’s often resisted. The poetry that pulls me is the poetry of the former, not that I can’t appreciate the latter!

Coincidentally enough, last night I was looking through a few issues of Court Green that David Trinidad gave me at AWP recently. I came across this very lovely poem that isn’t “lovely” in the traditional sense, but certainly is for me because it plays with those ambivalences, adjusting, measuring, contradicting, searching, and ultimately, enjoying. Of course, those who know my work will appreciate that the subject matter(s) bowl right up my alley. May you find some new pleasure therein.


In a bathroom with little girls,

I sewed thick black ribbon into my skin,
a corset from the middle of my breasts down
to my belly button. Cuts like stitches.
When I pulled it–it burned it felt
like erotic pain–I couldn’t remove
the entire thing before I had to leave.
I put my dress back on and went to a town
municipal meeting about money.
When everyone began joking around,
I slipped out and went to another bathroom.
A homeless woman walked out whistling–
all gray hair and dirty gray sweatshirt–
saying she was happy and I thought
because she had access to a bathroom.
I had a “date” and had to hurry.
I didn’t want the bathroom after
the homeless woman because I was afraid
of catching disease. I tried to use the toilet,
but it was too high. I couldn’t reach it.
The homeless woman came back
and I let her in. I pulled my dress off
to get the rest of the ribbon out.
She looked at me with disgust. I said,
“Don’t judge me. I didn’t judge you.”
I left my shoes outside
of the bathroom while I changed
and they got stolen. The woman who ran
the building gave me two mismatched blue
shoes: one too big and one too small.
I put them on to meet my “date.”
He asked about the shoes and I lied,
afraid that he would think
I was poor. I pulled him
into vintage shops to look for my old shoes.
I never found them.

Carla Conforto


One Response to “I Agree In Security”

  1. Jim K. Says:
    March 22nd, 2007 at 5:23 am eA lot going on there, on top of a surface ambivalence, so it’s hard
    to connect it all. There is the familiar project-out vs act-in
    difference (a natural hypocrisy, confessed), some masochism in
    response (perhaps) dissociation/numbness,
    and the overall narrative seems
    to have the switchings of a dream. Sort of an internal discussion.
    There are ambiguously placed words in poems too, although they
    trigger things more randomly than the known feeling there.

    If someone wants a certain waking ambivalence, there could be a desire
    not to be trapped into commiting to a line of action, or some
    presumed tactical advantage, or even a desire to
    “surprise myself” in people who are actually capable of that
    (that’s not common), which could be a thrill thing, or a desire
    to make oneself more original through more rare combinations
    of actions. That last one is interesting from the POV of art
    or poetry, but from your poetry style I hunch that you just are
    randomized and capable of multiple outcomes naturally,
    and just playing out that. Most people are stuck in a ‘groove’,
    a mode that it’s hard to switch to others, like quantum states.
    Perhaps others have a lower jump theshold and can switch.
    At some point, one might become addicted to the fun of it.
    Non-shifting people may develop issues, since they aren’t
    sure who they are dealing with. But that’s if they do not know the
    core, the motivations that don’t change. Unless those change..
    (just a babble)