Monday, 17 May 2010
George Ttoouli on Peter Gizzi and Michael Heller at Warwick University
"to open up the sky inside the day"
Not that Peter Gizzi is an entirely self-reflexive meta-poet, but a lot of the poetry he read at the event gravitated towards an awareness of poetry's potential, or more specifically, of the imagination.
"death in the imagination equals life itself"
Many lines stood out for their crafted punch. He's a poet working with pieces, assembling from many jigsaws a coherent collage, the parts often glued together by a semi-philosophical meditation. Conscious of how this can sometimes become self-indulgent, or too alienating, over a stretch, this was often punctuated by onomatopoeic bursts of sound - tings and whumps and crashes that served to jolt the reader back to relevance of the poetry to the real world.
[This same idea as I expressed it raw in my notes: "A deceptive line, a philosophical syntax, on the whole, broken by devices that restore access to the 'self' - the reader's humanity, presence in the room. They [the devices] feel like acts of generosity, not populist concessions, because they don't break the stride or tone of the whole - as he puts it, he writes 'strangely upbeat pieces'." The work had a dark undercurrent, fo'sure, especially when he tackled issues of US politics, such as the war.]
"It is on the tongue the sun abides"
This, literally: the sun shines out of the mouth, out of communication, both for the understanding conveyed by expression, and the delight. Gizzi's work was delightful, in a cerebral way, and though perhaps the balance didn't sit so well through his work consistently at first, perhaps that was my lack of familiarity with his work, except perhaps for a few pieces on PennSound and 'Beginning With a Phrase from Simone Weil' in particular (here as audio).
until the last two poems he read.
'Chateau if' is a masterful piece, a list of potentiality, a subtle paean to the imagination, and all that kind of bombastic over-praise that a great poem deserves. But really what I found myself thinking was, "Simon Turner would be fucking proud to have written a poem as good as this. God knows he tried and failed a few times." [*]
Peter closed with an extract from a similarly constructed list-poem, also built around a 'what if' repetition. This poem capped the whole reading, utterly sold to me the quality he's writing at right now, wiped out any doubts I may have had. He's purported to be on a meteoric rise in US letters, and this piece, from 'A Panic That Can Still Come Upon Me' is all the proof I need (audio here for parts 1 & 3).
(That said, we had a great time in the bar afterwards, swapping recommendations. Peter's a voracious reader, listing a truly diverse set of British tastes - Armitage & Duffy alongside Carol Watts, Tom Raworth, most of Shearsman and work from Rod Mengham's Cambridge outfit, Equipage. In return we threw Luke Kennard, and yes, Simon Turner at him, as well as Elisabeth Bletsoe and the forthcoming Shearsman anthology, The Ground Aslant, ed. Harriet Tarlo. I also ended up with a solid Jack Spicer reading list - Dan Katz, who hosted Peter's visit, is a bit of a specialist and recommended Spicer's After Lorca (extract here) and Poet by Like God, by Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian.)
"the cage he paces like Rilke's panther"
To another beast then, but one not so different. Heller's work shows great 'flow'. I've heard that word bandied about awkwardly in creative writing environments, but for a definition of how to capture 'flow' in poetry, one couldn't do better than turn to Heller.
"the worst thing is to feel only irony"
And so his poems refute pithy summations, epiphanic rising out at the end. Whole poems are built on the idea of the epiphanic moment, as if everything in the poem is a realisation, one long exposition of feeling. Here the idea of the 'spontaneous overflow' feels at work.
"a man eating dictionaries, avidly, passively" [**]
At the same time, Heller shows great learning, great intertextuality. I have to confess to being a bit off about closing circles between books these days; there's a danger that the snake bites its tail and starves too much.
[Or as my notes put it: "Much more immersed in intertextuality, referenced philosophy, rather than captured diction. e.g. Kierkegaard, Rilke, etc. The images feel more occasional, he creates a space in his head as a poem where connections forge."]
But he can do titles, oh yes, there's a lot to be said about Heller's titles:
'Like Prose Bled through a City'
Yes, marvellous. He's less keen on pronouncing words the way I'm used to, which was endearing, if a bit of a trip up:
'niche' pronounced 'nitch'
'irony' pronounced 'iyónny'
'swathe' pronounced 'swoth' (or did I mis-hear this?)
Heller ran with a lot of poems about poetry, and this was also a bit misjudged for my tastes, though all were written with a great weight to the rhythms, a beautifully refined ear for sound.
"In breath, out breath, aria of the rib cage equalling apse" [***]
There was a strong flow to all the poems, but also an imaginative jump-cutting at work, a sense of 'dissolve' to the image overlays. The overall impact far outweighed the precision, in contrast to Gizzi's writing; I had to say I withdrew a little at some of the descriptive language - fish were "silvery", the Thames "flowing", birds "taking flight" and somewhere something was caught "whispering silky words". But these minor gripes shouldn't get in the way of a poetics that's built on decades of practice, of course, a conscious decision to elevate movement and pace over precision. The urge to put out feeling and intent, over image.
When I asked the poets about this afterwards, Heller described working to the "arc" of the idea, playing out a totality, a total expression. He gave out a definite feeling of poetry's worth.
Gizzi, in contrast, worked to precision, through cutting down. He offered a helpful suggestion for his revision process in closing, one I'll be trying: when going over drafts of poems, try reading back just every other line and see what you lose or gain. He works by cutting lots, and this technique allows essentiality to rise out more clearly.
Peter Gizzi's Some Values of Landscape & Weather and The Outernationale are both available from Wesleyan University Press.
Michael Heller's latest collection, Beckmann Variations and other poems is published by Shearsman in the UK, and he has a few titles out with Salt Publishing.
Both poets are on PennSound.
[*] Go ahead, bite me, Turner.
[**] I may have misremembered this phrase, there was a hefty clip to the poem's pace and a large amount of irritating background noise coming through the walls.
[***] I had a question mark by the word 'apse', not sure I'd actually heard it, though it made sense in the context of bone structures, breathing and arches. But I've found the extract online, from 'Eschaton' (last few lines). You also get to look at the real linebreaks. Cool, huh?