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?


The Editors said...

George, that's a nice post. I'm sorry not to have been there, but sadly was working. I don't take it as an insult that my poems don't come close to Peter Gizzi's: far from it, it's an honour to be within stone-throwing distance of the poems of his that you linked to.

As to Heller's pronunciation, I think 'nitch' is pretty common Stateside for 'niche' - just to bring the tone down a little, Chino Moreno of Deftones sings/screams 'nitch' on 'Korea' from the band's third album. 'Like Prose Bled Through the City' is a fantastic title, too. ASre you planning any longer articles on their respective books, at all?


Nicholas Liu said...

George: 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.

I can't quite make sense of this. For one thing, what you're describing isn't a matter of imprecision at all, but of cliche. "Silvery fish" and "silky words" are quite precise; accuracy is not the problem with them. For another, would the "movement and pace" of Heller's work suffer if such cliches were avoided? Would it give less of a sense of "intent and feeling" if it were (as you have it) more precise? Why?

The Editors said...

Nicholas, I'm partly in agreement on this. The literary tradition that Heller's writing out of - 'open field' poetics and Black Mountain practice being of particular value to his aesthetic decisions - values a kind of plurality of languages and voices: whatever comes the poet's way beocmes embroiled in the poem's web of energies. What matters is not finish in the strictest sense, but the transmission of those same interconnected energies from page to reader. Cliche is without a doubt of the myriad tools available to the poet: to include them, whilst also producing the astonishing phrases that George singled out is simply to acknowledge the full range that the language is capable of. It goes back to Whitman containing multitudes: in this instance, we might read cliche as one of the multitudes, which cannot be excluded on the grounds of imprecision or indelicacy of expression, but must be accepted and reintegrated into a poetic field built around essentially democratic principles. Any thoughts, George?

Simon, G&P

The Editors said...

Simon - Peter wasn't actually selling any books, so going to have to order them. Michael's launching his new Shearsman title in London this Friday, reading with Elaine Randell and Robert Vas Dias. I wasn't so tempted, to be honest...

Nicholas - ...because of the couched criticism I posted. Yes, perhaps I misphrased slightly, but I was in two minds about it.

The examples I gave were all from one particular long(ish) poem, but in other poems it's clear Heller is capable of pitching language with great precision. I didn't want to give the impression that I thought he was towing the line in places; it was clear that he's in full control of what he writes.

So yes, I'd agree with what Simon said - the particular poem showed a conscious decision to reach for a degree of colloquiality in the diction, incorporating idiomatic cliché alongside some higher-falutin' diction.

I pointed to it to illustrate the speed and verve of his poetics as a whole, but to some extent it jarred a little for me to hear moments glossed in that way.

George, G&P

Nicholas said...

Simon, I think the idea that excluding cliche compromises plurality is to sell plurality short. Substitute fresher (dare I say better?) phrases for the clunkers George quoted and you'd still have plurality. Every word is its own word.

Of course, I'm not saying cliche is never useful or necessary (Hill and Ashbery are only the most famous counter-examples), but I don't buy its justification on grounds of mere inclusivity. It ought to do more than stand as an example of a certain sort of language, I think. Maybe it does here; I don't after all know the context of those phrases.

George, is anyone ever in full control of what they write? But I take your point (which you've expressed better here than in the original blog post). Do you know where I might find the poem to judge for myself?

The Editors said...

Hi Nicholas,

I think the poem was actually 'Like Prose Bled Through a City', but honestly can't remember. I'd assume it's in his new Shearsman - Beckmann Variations and other poems.