Monday, August 28, 2006

Another Poet Succumbs To Blogger

Laura Hope-Gill, a fine Asheville poet who's also done scads of things through the years to create opportunities for other poets - she founded the reading series at Malaprops, for example, in what seems to me another lifetime - has taken to blogging. She calls her blog "Fade To Quiet" because ... well, go read it. Especially this post, about the birth of her daughter.

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Sunday, August 27, 2006

Knotty Issues: A Note on Music and Poetry

Bill Knott made a remark in an interview early last year that made me just shake my head when I read it. He said he didn't like music. Wait, let him say it: "I don't like music; I try to listen to as little of it as possible. " Not only does he not like music, he seems to consider it almost evil:
The arrogance of composers and musicians is insufferable. They really believe Pater's dictum that all the other arts are inferior, that all the other arts "aspire towards the condition of music." But every military that ever marched out to murder rape and destroy was led by what art: were those armies fronted by poets extemporizing verse -- by sculptors squeezing clay -- by painters wielding brushes -- actors posing soliloquies? No, the art that led those killers forth, the art whose urgent strident rhythms stirred and spurred their corresponding bloodlust, was the art to which they felt closest, the art that mirrored their evil egos. That's why they have always put music up there at the vanguard of their war-ranks, because not only is it the emblem, the fore-thrust insignia of their purpose, it is their purpose: it is the condition to which they aspire.

Well ... sadly, language also has had some use in the cult of war. "Charge!" "Bombs away!" " Kill them all and let God sort 'em out." "The only good [fill in the blank] is a dead [fill in the blank]." come quickly to mind. Many a poem has been written to celebrate the deeds of men in war. Rejecting music because the agents of empires, nation states, city states, and tribes have used it, use it, to nefarious ends would be like rejecting language for the same reason. The only alternative is silence, because there's no form of human expression that's innocent in the way Knott wants music to be.

Poetry itself, of course, has it's own music. Ole Ezra (quaint as it might now be to mention) famously posited sound as one of the determinative dimensions of poetry: Melopoeia, Pound called it, going back to the Greek for his term, making-of-song, "wherein the words are charged ... with some musical property". The melo of the word, song, is close to mele, that ancient world's word for honey.

Though poetry is "the articulation of sound forms in time," to echo Susan Howe's still useful title, it's not "just" music - and a poetry that moves to the point of convergence with sound itself, it seems to me, loses many possibilities otherwise. Music may have some direct connection to our psyches and their (our) emotional states (most musicians I know believe that it does, and when I'm deep into the composition of a favorite composer or improvisational artist, I'd find it hard to argue otherwise), but language itself has its own deep roots in psyche, in thought and mind: indeed, it's mind's primary instrument of signification, the process of producing signs for - and of - the world. Language is what we use to describe and define the world and the activities of consciousness within it.That's why Pound also spoke of "Logopoeia," the making-of-logos, as one of poetry's other determinations. It's a complex thing, though, the logos. Here's Pound, from 1929:

Logopoeia, ‘the dance of the intellect among words’, that is to say, it employs words not only for their direct meaning, but it takes count in a special way of habits of usage, of the context we expect to find with the word.+ It holds the æsthetic content which is peculiarly the domain of verbal manifestation and can not possibly be contained in plastic or in music. *

Poetry is not just sound, but sound forms, and the difference between poetry and music is defined by the nature of the forms each creates. Poetry's are inextricably, ineluctably, if sometimes playfully, tied to the signifying nature of language. Slippery and problematic as it is (those features of articulation, as Pound implies, are just part of our material), its role in signification makes a crucial difference. Music's are not so tied.

Another part of a poem's meaning, though, is captured in the third of Pound's terms, "Phanopoeia," the-making-of-phanes (the root of our term "fantasy'), images. Often in a poem, the image, revealed in the structures of language available to the poet, is itself the logic of the poem, its logos. It's especially often true in short poems - like this one, from, who else, Bill Knott:


you are an electric,
a magic, field—like the space
between a sleepwalker's outheld arms!

That is an image!

For Howe and others, the word itself often becomes image, and is used as graphic form more than as lexical signifier. Certainly, poetry works to extend language from its lexical ground - or even, sometimes, to sing through contradiction, or self-refuting lexical propositions. Lots of "experimental" (isn't real poetry always experimental?) and post-avant work explores this territory. It's another strategy to get the intellect to dance among words.

Bill's sixty-six this year, 2006; he could be an older brother - one with demons of his own, no doubt, I'll never understand. I do hope some sweet sounds catch his ear before too long, or he might go through the rest of his life without the pleasure, the relief, the release of the spirit that music provides.


* N.Y. Herald-Tribune 20 Jan. xi. 5/4, via the OED.

The image is Lyre Player and Singer, Ur, 4750 BC, from a piece now in the British Museum.

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Friday, August 25, 2006

A Knotty Test

I may write the occasional 'Test of Translation' comparing English versions of texts from other languages, but Bill Knott ... well, no creature of half-measures, he provides every version he can find of Verlaine's "Claire de Lune":


Votre âme est un paysage choisi
Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques,
Jouant du luth, et dansant, et quasi
Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.

Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur
L'amour vainqueur et la vie opportune,
Ils n'ont pas l'air de croire à leur bonheur
Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune,

Au calme clair de lune triste et beau,
Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres
Et sangloter d'extase les jets d'eau,
Les grands jets d'eau sveltes parmi les marbres.

It's worth a look, of course - and his blog, sometimes exasperating, sometimes brilliant and insightful, is often worth more than a look. Knott's one of the true contrarians in the cosmos of poetry, orbitting at his very own unique angle to the ecliptic the work with language that's at the center of it all. (Or not.) And I've gotten so that I check his blog just about every day, in spite of my best intentions otherwise.

If you're not familiar with Knott's work, he's now published most of his poems in the archives of his blog, so you can get to know it right there.

Here's one of my favorites from his first book, published posthumously*, back when he was a virgin and a suicide; I don't believe he's seen fit to post it yet. Perhaps he's decided it's unworthy of further attention since his concerns as a poet have changed :

(Sergey) (Yesenin) Speaking (Isadora) (Duncan)

I love Russia; and Isadora in her dance.
When I put my arms around her, she's like
Wheat that sways in the very midst of a bloody battle,
-Un-hearkened to, but piling up peace for the earth
(Though my self-war juggles no nimbus) Earthquakes; shoulders
A-lit with birthdays of doves; piety of the unwashable
Creases in my mother's gaze and hands. Isadora "becalmed"
Isadora the ray sky one tastes on the skin of justborn babies
(Remember, Isadora
When you took me to America
I went, as one visits a grave, to
The place where Bill Knott would be born 20 years in the future
I embraced: the pastures, the abandoned quarry, where he would play
With children of your aura and my sapling eye
Where bees brought honey to dying flowers I sprinkled
Childhood upon the horizons, the cows
Who licked my heart like a block of salt) Isadora I write this poem
On my shroud, when my home-village walks out to harvest.
Bread weeps as you break it gently into years.
I still like the energy of the language as it shifts through boundaries of its syntax after line four, tumbling into an extraordinary paratactic cascade of images that drives the poem to the shift in the voice's tense at "(Remember, Isadora ..." , where it becomes not only a love poem but an elegy, a complex elegy for the childhood of Yesenin's fellow suicide, the poem's author; for Yesenin; for the love of Sergei Yesenin and Isadora Duncan; for the wheat that perishes into bread that sustains us all.

He has his moments, whatever he says.

See, too, if you're interested, this account of Knott as a teacher and mentor.

* The Naomi Poems/Corpse and Beans, by St. Geraud, 1940-1966 (Chicago, 1968), has on its back cover this author's statement: "Bill Knott (1940-1966) is a virgin and a suicide."

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Friday, August 18, 2006

A Natural History of the Baleen Beasts

Evolution has taken many a curious turn through the millenia, as, a century and a half after Darwin's first work, any student of natural history probably understands. Earlier this week, Carl Zimmer explored the sequence of developments that led to the largest creatures ever on earth over at The Loom, his wonderful science blog. As he notes, these creatures didn't always have baleen; antecedent species within their sequence had teeth, and later species seem to have had both:
Some of these transitional whale fossils not only have teeth but also have marks suggesting they also held baleen. (Baleen plates are not giant teeth. They are made of keratin, the stuff in our hair and fingernails, rather than enamel.) As Fitzgerald's tree shows, the mixed-mouth whales gave rise to new species that kept the baleen and lost the teeth. They had become fully adapted to a new style of filter-feeding, and the results were dramatic: baleen whales proceeded to evolve to much bigger sizes. With the emergence of the blue whale, they became the biggest animals to ever exist on Earth.

It's a fascinating article. I'm endlessly curious about the coming into being of the present world; if that's a curiosity you share in any measure, click on over; you'll enjoy the whole article.

Thanks to Pharyngula and to NOAA for the image, a blue whale.


Sunday, August 13, 2006

Happy 100

If my father, Jefferson Bryan Davis (but known as J. Bryan Davis, probably because the Civil War was still a live cultural memory during his childhood; he'd been named for the president of the confederacy), had been alive as of this past Saturday, he'd have reached the age of 100.

Here are a few photographs of the man at various stages of his life. I don't have precise dates for any but the last of them, but arrange them in rough chronology based on obvious physical factors, family consensus, and, for the later ones, my memories of growing up, watching him change as I did.

The first photograph, one of the earliest I have of him, shows him as a boy or young man sometime between 1918 and 1922, I'd say - between the ages of twelve and sixteen. I'd guess it's toward the later part of that range.

The second image is much later, and most likely after his marriage to my mother, Blanche Landis, in 1938; the photographer was taken on the porch of her parents' home in Dysartsville, North Carolina, where they farmed. It's probably from the mid-forties.

The third photo presents him en famille, with Blanche to his left, my brother Phil to hers, me to his right, and my sister Martha on my right. Given the apparent ages of everyone, this must have been taken in the mid-fifties; Phil was born in 1950, and seems to me to be four or five in this photo. Fifty years laterI don't remember the particular occasion , but do remember other family photos taken at Belk's or Ivey's, then big department stores in downtown Charlotte, that had photo studios. This shot feels like one of those.

This last shot is one I took in the summer of 1971, not long before he turned sixty-six. It's set in the backyard of my parents' house on Chesterfield Avenue, in Charlotte, using the steps from the back porch and the hydrangeas that grew by the basement door as frame.

He died about two years later, in June of 1973.

Here's one of the poems from NatureS, an elegy for him, just a touch surreal, written in the late seventies:


Asanas of Night

(For J. Bryan Davis, 1906-1973)

Salt crystals still the words
Of the mute.
What justice
To you who were
Of the last, of the final
Closed eyelids
Of chrysanthemums?

Just the red spirals,
The blind
Sacrifice, the
Burned kalpas of moss.

Walk on through
Coronations of goldenrod,
Share clover’s bed
Into the dark.

You can dream
The ideologies of leaves,
The intricate taxonomies
Of mist, songs
That echo
In the catacombs
Of the mycelium’s sleep.

Your hands infested still
By gorged rocks,
By the light that burns
In the owl’s eye,
Go far.

Happy Centennial, Pop.

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Saturday, August 12, 2006

"Vocatus atque non vocatus .." A Look at Astrology

Several weeks ago, Digby posed the question on Hullabaloo (one of the best political blogs around, if you haven't become a reader yet) whether astrology was really any wackier than other main-stream beliefs. You can see it here.

Her conclusion was that it probably wasn't, and that, from a political standpoint, it was probably not wise for materialist progressives to make an issue of it:

Let me tell you, it is as big a faux pas to disparage astrology or any of the new age or non-traditional spiritual belief system as it is to put down mainstream religion. I found this out the hard way when I wrote a very snarky and admittedly insulting post one day and got more angry feedback than any post I've ever done. These beliefs in the aggregate may be as widely held as a belief in God and it cuts across all political and cultural lines. Call it kooky if you will, but those who think secular liberals should STFU about traditional religion would be well advised to STFU about this too.
Note to my fellow progressives: I think that's exactly right.

I don't usually participate in comment threads on other blogs, but I couldn't resist that one. It went pretty much as you might expect, with lots of irate posts about how astrology was "bullshit", etc., from folks whose whole acquaintance with it must have consisted of having once or twice read their daily horoscopes on a newspaper's comic page, and lots of others by folks who had real background in it in some form, whether as astrologers or as students of the humanities who realized that astrology's been a rich treasure of lore about the human critter for several millenia. One very interesting fact: that post gathered comments for eight days, long after it had migrated down and off the front page of the blog. Just out curiosity, I copied the comment thread to a Word document; in an 11 point font with 1" margins all around, single spaced, it was 77 pages long. That's a lot of comments, and only eight or nine, most of them short, were mine.

I was introduced to astrology at the end of the nineteen sixties in Buffalo, by some friends, fellow grad students, who were beginning to explore it. I actually began to dig into it in a very specific way (looking beyond the sun sign) on an early trip west, when my car got stuck in a blizzard near Libre, the still-thriving commune in Colorado, where I was headed to visit friends for a few days. Weeks later, car having been towed, recovered, had its electrical system pretty much replaced (it was a '64 Volkswagen, so there wasn't much, thankfully), I headed out again, having by then had my chart done by the commune's resident astrologer. Mercury was retrograde, he had told me, in Scorpio, the sign of my Sun and of my Mercury, the gods' messenger, god of travel; I shouldn't be on the road. It made sense to me, but I was determined to press on, since I'd originally planned to stay there only a few days. And then my car's poor engine blew in the middle of the Mojave desert. I wound up having to have money wired in order to buy there, in that California desert outpost of vultures, the only vehicle I could find affordably for sale, a '48 Jeep wagon. It barely got me to San Francisco, burning oil and pumping exhaust fumes into the cabin (I drove with my head out the window) all the way. When I got to San Francisco, I stopped - and swore to myself that I was going to learn more about astrology.

Finding astrological texts in the Bay area was not a problem. Berekely was full of great bookstores, of course, and I found everything I needed in short order: ephemerides, tables of houses, and a Rosicrucian astrological textbook by one "S. R. Parchment" which I used as a reference for many years.

I also found poetry that I hadn't seen before in Berkeley - lots of Duncan, Spicer's books, some Philip Lamantia, Ebbe Borregaard, Gary Snyder titles other than the New Directions books I'd already found elsewhere. My resolve to learn astrology was strengthened by Snyder's still relevant "What You Should Know To Be a Poet," from Regarding Wave:

all you can about animals as persons.
the names of trees and flowers and weeds.
names of stars, and the movement of the planets and the moon.

your own six senses, with a watchful and elegant mind.

at least one kind of traditional magic:
divination, astrology, the book of changes, the tarot;

the illusory demons and illusory shining gods;

kiss the ass of the devil and eat shit;
fuck his horny barbed cock,
fuck the hag,
and all the celestial angels
and maidens perfum’d and golden –

& then love the human: wives husbands and friends.

childrens’ games, comic books, bubble gum,
the weirdness of television and advertising.

work, long dry hours of dull work swallowed and accepted
and livd with and finally lovd. exhaustion.

hunger, rest.

the wild freedom of the dance, extasy
silent solitary illumination, enstasy

real danger. gambles. and the edge of death.

When I got to the little town of Alert Bay, British Columbia, my destination all those weeks, I began doing charts. Within a few years I'd learned the types of traditional magic Snyder mentions, and much else in his list besides. I still believe that knowledge of these age-old systems and the lessons they impart gives more to young poets than, say, a knowledge of the permutations of the sestina, or the pantoum. Not that there's anything wrong with knowledge of poetics, of course. It helps to have that too. But learning something else as well, something beyond poetics, will stand a poet - or a person - in good stead; if nothing else, it'll give him or her a variety of complex cognitive frameworks for thought, for play, and meditation.

Skeptical materialist friends probably consider me daft, I don't know. Or, by this time, care. It's worth all of us remembering, though, that Carl Jung, one of the last century's foremost psychologists, considered astrology the "summation of all the psychological knowledge of antiquity." He often cast charts for his patients, and considered that they offered valuable insights. In 1929, he puzzled over the relationship in these words:
Our modern science begins with astronomy. Instead of saying that man was led by psychological motives, they formerly said he was led by his stars. ... The puzzling thing is that there is really a curious coincidence between astrological and psychological facts, so that one can isolate time from the characteristics of an individual, and also, one can deduce characteristics from a certain time.

Therefore we have to conclude that what we call psychological motives are in a way identical with star positions. Since we cannot demonstrate this, we must form a peculiar hypothesis. This hypothesis says that the dynamics of our psyche is not just identical with the position of the stars, nor has it to do with vibrations - that is an illegitimate hypothesis. It is better to assume that it is a phenomenon of time. ... The stars are simply used by man to serve as indicators of time.
Later in his work, his study of astrology played a role in the development of the theory of synchronicity; in 1947 he posited that
Astrology is of particular interest to the psychologist, since it contains a sort of psychological experience which we call projected - this means that we find the psychological facts as it were in the constellations. This originally gave rise to the idea that these factors derive from the stars, whereas they are merely in a relation of synchronicity with them. I admit that this is a very curious fact which throws a peculiar light on the structure of the human mind.
In another article, he summed up his understanding of the statement of astrology this way:
We are born at a given moment in a given place and like vintage years of wine we have the qualities of the year and of the season in which we are born. Astrology does not lay claim to anything else.
That's the gist of it, indeed. But it does offer a look a the energies at play in a given moment as related to the chart of the birth, that record of time's imprint, as well. As Jung noted, ".. there is really a curious coincidence between astrological and psychological facts, so that one can isolate time from the characteristics of an individual, and also, one can deduce characteristics from a certain time." There's some link there, between the moment and the formation of character, and later between the moment and our experience within it, between Mercury's movement and our experience in Mercury's domain, a link ancient intelligence began to ken millennia ago, however that curious link be defined.

One contemporary astrological writer likens transits (the passages of planets in relation to earth, like that of Mercury I've related), to visits of the gods in one of Ovid's stories.
The gods were quite concerned that they were being ignored. So Jupiter (the chief ruling god of thunder) and Mercury (the messenger god) visited Earth disguised as poor, beggarly travelers. All the many people who refused Jupiter and Mercury shelter were drowned in a great flood and thus repaid for their godlessness. Conversely, those who openly welcomed the unknown visitors into their home were then honored with the fulfillment of their greatest desires and hopes.
There's an old Latin saying engraved on the gravestone of the great archetypal, depth psychologist, C. G. Jung: Vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit. Translated, this means: "Called or not called, the god will be there." In her book Archetypal Dimensions of the Psyche Jungian author Marie-Louise von Franz tells us: "It seems to me to be one of the greatest contributions of Jung and his work that it taught us to keep our door open to the 'unknown visitor.' He also tried to teach us an approach through which we can avoid the wrath of this visitor, which every frivolous, haughty, or greedy host in the folk tales brought down on himself. For it depends only on ourselves whether this coming of the gods becomes a blessed visit or a fell disaster."
"It depends only on ourselves," after all. Astrological transits are like the weather, setting limits, perhaps, though it's finally up to us whether to venture out in the rain. Or drive, as I did, to California, come hell, as the saying goes, or high water.

But whatever its perceived usefulness, there's finally, as with any belief, the comfort of the complexity and depth of its structure, and the consolation, at least, of being in good company, ancient, modern, and after.


Update August 13, 2006: I added some more links, including two for Snyder - and modified the template to make them more visible.

The rendered image of Mercury is based on Mark S. Robinson mosaics of Mercury and Steve Albers' cylindrical map projection. There are Jung texts on astrology on the web, here (sorry about that background) and here, and elsewhere.

The image is Copyright © by Calvin J. Hamilton. Any commercial/for-profit use of this image needs to be addressed to Calvin J. Hamilton.

Update June 24, 2007: I corrected Digby's gender, and a few spelling errors; Blogger didn't have automatic spell checking at the time of the original post. I can see I needed it!

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Monday, August 07, 2006

Ah, The Political Life ...

There's a great AP story today at the website of the Bradenton, Florida, Herald concerning one of the rituals of Florida politics: the Wausau Possum Festival. Candidates for Florida political office, from Senate candidates on down, marched in the possum parade, dined on succulent possum plates, and bought possums at auction to celebrate the canny marsupial. Reading the story was almost enough to make me reconsider my decision not to write about politics on NatureS. Almost. But do go take a look.

We have barbecues, fishfries, and other feedings here in Western North Carolina that are mandatory for serious office seekers, but our closest local equivalent to the celebration of the possum is probably the spring ramp festivals (held this year in Sylva, Robbinsville, Leicester, Waynesville and Cullasaja), where politicians of all stripes gather to pay homage to the Smokies' wonderful wild member of the onion clan.

Another way in which we're blessed up in the hills, I guess; I'd bet any ambitious would-be legislator would rather eat ramps than possum. In fact, one of the candidates in Florida said he had "had possum before and that's why he didn't want any Saturday.

'It was worse than raccoon,' " he said.

Indeed. I can only imagine.

(via Huffington Post)

Thanks to the 'Possum Pages for the image.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Back to Waynesville

I'll be cruising back to Waynesville tonight for an authors' reception at Windows On Main, in the heart of town. It's a prelude to the Book Fair tomorrow, across the street at the Justice Center. Like many other authors, I'll be there at the Fair, hopefully signing copies of books for interested readers.

The reception starts at 6:00 tonight. "Heavy hors d'oeuvres will be served and door prizes will be given. Tickets are $15.00 and are available at" Osondu Booksellers, according to Osondu's website. Other authors scheduled to be there tonight include Darnell Arnoult, Michael Beadle, Billie Bierer, Regan Black, Marian Coe, Scott Dickson, Sherry Fair, Struan Forbes, Marshall Frank, Alan Gratz, Tommy Hays, James Joyce, Schuyler Kaufman, Vicki Lane, John Malone, Roger Meadows, Clyde Ray, Elva Sieg and Haywood Smith. Hmm, James Joyce? I know just a few of these folks, and am curious to meet others - especially mystery writer Vicki Lane, who sets her stories in Madison County. As it turns out, we have mutual friends.

If you've thought you might eventually get a copy of NatureS, the Book Fair might be a good time to do it; there are other readings coming up, several in and around Asheville in October, but the first printing is almost gone. If you're involved in that side of book collecting, and prize first printings, unique states of publication, and the like (as I confess I do at this stage of my life) you've been advised. Just saying ...


Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Gads! NatureS a "Notable Book"

Kay Byer, North Carolina's fine Poet Laureate, has selected NatureS as one of her "Notable Books" by North Carolina writers for the month of August. She's chosen a few poems that are also featured on the Jargon site, but also a couple of others not to be found there. Tom Meyer provides a kind introductory note, and the Arts Council's site wizards managed to include images of several of Joyce Blunk's magnificent constructions as well.

If you go to the page, though, you'll have to scroll down, because the top of the page features August's other Notable Book, Thomas Rain Crowe's Zoro's Field, which Kay asked me to introduce; I was more than happy to oblige.

Zoro's Field has won other recognition in tha last few months, as well. Thomas was awarded the 2006 Philip D. Reed Award from the Southern Environmental Law Center for it. The award, given annually for "outstanding writing on the southern environment, seeks to enhance public awareness of the richness and vulnerability of the region’s natural heritage."

Earlier this year, he won the Ragan Old State Award given by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association for the best book of nonfiction about North Carolina.

Zoro's Field heads to paperback and, hopefully, even more recognition this fall. Details here.

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