Saturday, June 16, 2007

Tate, Zach, Hawkey, Tall Tales ec

Because of her tendency to write the best reviews around, Joyelle gets copies of just about every book published in this country, from small small presses to Graywolf and Copper Canyon etc. I actually tend to at least glance through most of them - read the backcover (notoriously), read a few poems, look at the design etc.

From this superficial practice, I've learned quite a bit - for example trends in blurbs, or how obviously publishing is about what Kasey and Anne termed "competence" a while back on Kasey’s Lime Tree blogsite.

And, that the most interesting poetry is that which wreaks havoc on our expectance of competence in some way. One of the best examples from literary history is the way Sylvia Plath wreaked havoc on the (still) dominant strain of Stevens-esque use of nonsense - in Stevens silly figures of otherness say kooky little things (Muslims, Swedes, Aztec types), in Plath, the speaker speaks from the point of view of the silly figures, speaking horrifically in her nonsense. Totally tasteless. And more recently, I've skipped through a whole bunch of books that turn Plath into a kind of competence (Cate Marvin, Erin Belieu), and also quite a few that - more interestingly - wreak havoc on that competence (Arian Reines's bored and belligerent Plath, Danielle Pafunda's Donna-Haraway-Plath). No doubt, people who establish competence are much more likely to be hired to teach in CW programs because hiring committees look for competence, not originality.

Anyway, this is a long way of getting to what I was really going to write about: the influence of James Tate on contemporary poetry. His poetics crop up with quite a bit of frequency, and I am thinking about him this morning. In part this is because a couple of days ago, while putting up books from boxes, I came across "Distance from Loved Ones" and sat down and read it. I hadn't read it before, and I was struck by how much of it seemed familiar from reading works by my contemporaries. And this coinciding with me thinking about a couple of books recently received that are very much part of this tradition: Zach Schomburg's "The Man Suit" and Christian Hawkey's "Citizen Of." These books had recently led me to reread my favorite book in this tradition - Cort Day's "The Chime" (which was published a few years ago).

Here are some lines”

I was standing in the lobby,
some irritant in my eye,
thinking back on a soloist
I once heard in Venezuela,
and then, for some reason,
on a crate of oranges recently
arrived from a friend in Florida…

(James Tate, “Bewitched”)

We exchanged looks – all three of us –
& mine was totally better: it had rose-colored sequins
glued along the hemline & the word sneezeweed
in one pocket…”

(Christian Hawkey)

On the Monster Hour, there was this monster that used to come out and try to kill everybody in the audience. No one expected it, not even the producers.


A large part of this poetics is a slackening of effect, an undoing of the conventional poetic need to “put pressure on language.” So you have these vague kinds of colloquial markers: “some irritant,” “for some reason,” “this monster,” “totally better” etc.

But I think it also has to do with another big influence, and that it the tradition of the American tall tale- Have you heard the one about the guy who was so tall he had use a ladder to shave in the morning? Or the one about the guy who was so poor he had to take the place of the bait in the mousetrap?

Constance Rourke discusses this strain of American culture in his seminal book “American Humor.” And of course DH Lawrence writes about “weird old America.” And Greil Marcus writes about both of these books in his book about Bob Dylan’s “Basement Tapes.”

[If there’s a soundtrack to these poems, it’s definitely the casual, throwaway songs of the Basement Tapes. The most relevant example is probably “Quinn the Eskimo” and its blend of casual tone and weird imagery. But “The Clothesline Saga” seems to foretell Tate’s more recent poetry in its total deferral of everything. And Dylan has repeatedly claimed (in one of his myriad of autobiographical revisionisms) that his surrealistic imagery comes solely out of the American folk idiom (not a chance, but that’s another entry).]

The tall-tale influence also accounts for some aspects on what is often termed “surreal” in these kinds of poems. Seems to me it has just as much to do with tall-tales as European Surrealism Proper. In one of his memoirs, Simic writes that he spent a lot of time reading tall tales and books of American folklore. That’s interesting because of his ties to European Surrealism.

Another thing they get from tall tales is the persona, what Rourke calls “the mask” – the very American narrator who says funny/horrible things without showing any emotion.

[Part of what makes Cort’s book great is because he doesn’t get this right – his speaker often falters into a kind of confusion mask – “I only get ten minutes in this mask” – a brilliant lapse in competence.]

Another element of the tradition is its relationship to 19th century photography. These days we tend to think of photography as a figure of objectivity, but with its invention in the 19th century the whole idea of objectivity in perception is in a state of flux (See Jonathan Crary’s books for example, or Michael North’s recent “Camera Works”). For one thing, people looked very odd and artificial in their poses. Secondly photographs take in an enormous amount of detail, which made them very “noisy” to people back then (or even in the early 20th century) who were not quite literate in looking at photographs. But most importantly, photography (and early film) is immediately tied to tricks of various kinds – not to mention spiritualism and ghost photographs.

The best part of “The Man Suit” is the long poem called “Abraham Lincoln Death Scene” (though it could have been called AL’s Death Suite, or AL’s Man Suite) – because it’s less Tate-ish and more like trick photography. The piece consists of a series of variations of Lincoln’s death scene. The photographic feeling coming form the lack of verbs: “The sexy right leg of one of Booth’s accomplices in fishnet stockings… A blood-splattered St. Bernard.”

At its best, this feels a little like Cindy Sherman’s costume-playing photography. Or Muybridge’s galloping horse. Or like the photographs are bullets. Of course I can’t help but think of Suzan Lori Parks’ “America Play” with the guy who works as Abe Lincoln at an amusement park – people paying to be Booth. This also makes me think about the role of race in photography/visual culture (North discusses this as it related to the dubious racial politics of Bob Brown’s readies)

Somewhere in the Tate Tradition there must be a poem about the Civil War photographer who sold the glass plates of his photographs to some guy who used them in his greenhouse.

Another interesting take on the Pate tradition is Ben Lerner’s Benjamin-inflected “Angle of Yaw.” As that collection makes very clear, there’s also a connection to Stevens and his use of nonsense (see above).

Well, those are just some random ideas.


Blogger UCOP Killer said...

What seems marked about the post-Tate work (and I agree with you %100 about the prevalence of this mode, maybe less pronounced now than four or five years ago, but still important)is the kind of tone of unruffled, imperturbable calm in the face of the weird or strange. It's a distinctly non-ecstatic, cool kind of Surrealism. Obviously, I think Kafka's flat, clinical language in the face of the absurd is the real strong influence here, but in Kafka that flatness, and the subsequent attempts at rationalization, conveyed a real pulsing anxiety. None of that here, just that doe-eyed lack of curiosity about a curious world. Or something about keeping up appearances despite everything. Decorum meets derepression.

Hiphop, though, is where the American tall tale really lives.

9:27 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

The affectless tone may be from Michaux via Edson, but in both of those the blankness is very unsettling.

Also, you may want to check out the latest issue of Soft Targets; it seems our current moment has pushed even James Tate to want to write about politics. These poems are fascinating because he wants to write about politics but that's opposed to his entire schtick so the restult wonderfully at odds with itself. Probably the best Tate poems I've ever read. And one stars a character named, yes, "Jasper."

9:01 AM  
Blogger François Luong said...

Equally strange is the influence of Charles Simic on certain younger American poets. But this might be more of a Houston thing.

10:47 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Why is that strange?

Personally I got a lot from Simic's translations of Vasko Popa.

And his book The World Doesn't End is a good book.

I can think of many worse influences.

2:57 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I also don't think James Tate is as bad as Jasper thinks. I enjoyed all of the books I mentioned in this entry. I do think they are best when they break away from the Tate convention of the calm and cool mask. When I criticized Revell's blurb on Zach's book a while back, Tony Tost said that what he liked about Zach's book was that it was scarier than Tate allows himself to be, and that's a good quality, that's when the book works for me.

3:53 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

You might be right that Tate is a bit of an "insular" version of Edson (I think you mentioned this in an email, not in the blog entry). He's certainly less violent and dark and doesn't seem to tap into our underlying paranoia’s, anxieties, and fears the way Edson does. But, with that said, I'm still a big fan of Tate, and think his particular brand of surrealism could be brilliant and funnier in a more subtle (and perhaps diverse) way than Edson. Though, I must admit, I've been really disappointed in his more recent work; I haven't dug anything since Worshipful Company of Fletchers. Memoir of a Hawk was a real disappointment for me, even though a lot of people I tend to agree with about poetry keep trying to send me back to it. In terms of Tate’s influence on the current scene, I think it is pretty significant. But I'm not sure I agree with Jasper that the effect is a cool kind of surrealism. Unfortunately, I think a lot of contemporary poets pick-up on Tate's brand of pomo-surrealism (I use the pomo label favorably, not as a pejorative like most people), but fail to push his use of surreal juxtaposition and the oneiric image any further. A lot of the current Tate influenced stuff has become what Greenfield and I affectionately call, "green monkey scratching his balls poetry." That is, the poet throws a bizarre image in the poem, then another, then another, then another and calls it surrealism. And, the affectless tone is meant to pull it off – as though “I’m too cool for my own images.” Since there’s no investment in the images from the poet or speaker of the poem, I have a hard time getting invested in it as a reader. I like having the expectations dismantled, but I’m not sure a list of bizarre images with a comic subtext is enough to hold my attention. You mention Wallace Stevens earlier in the entry and I think a Tate/Stevens (maybe Ashbery) comparison is a good one. There’s an erosive quality in Stevens and Ashbery that makes me want to continue reading them. Kind of like fucking without the climax in some ways. Yeah, ultimately unsatisfying, but it still feels good. But the green monkey poetry, with no investment in the image conjures up a metaphor of a little kid in a playground doing something stupid and shouting to his mother, “mommy, mommy, look at me!” We can look, but that doesn’t mean we’ll be impressed. And, I’m definitely not suggesting Zach’s book is like this. I quite like The Man Suit. But there are certainly a lot of poets doing the green monkey thing . . . taking Tate and making him banal.

7:45 PM  
Blogger Ana Božičević said...

I wonder if you could say a bit more about what you mean when you liken this small batch of (some of them self-described post-confessional) poets to Plath -- Marvin, Beliu etc.? Is it perceived "poetic competence"/play on competence, or a certain tone of articulation that binds them in your mind? I wonder. Both the Plaths and the Tates (if there was any such thing) essentially express anxiety but at different emotional pitches. Artful or artless, they all practice competence even when it manifests as anti-competence. Re: emotional pitch, Vasko Popa is an effective case of warmly lyrical surrealism, as opposed to the poker-faced kind. But Zach's, say, is both -- amazingly and wonderfully.

8:57 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I don't think competence is the same as artful or artless. Though it's certainly related. Somethign very important about Plath is that she didn't only break with decorum - her poems are very artful afterall - but that she found the ridiculous in poets like Stevens and Lowell and inflated it. Didn't simply reject it.

Mostly Plath seems to have been reduced to emotional poetry, something that is tasteless, something to be avoided. It seems when I see Plath-influenced poetry, what they take on is the emotionally fierce speaker (usually in opposition to cool Herr Doktor types). I have heaps to say about this so I may save that for another entry.

I don't think Popa is a warm surrealist. Like with Edson it's this calm veneer beneath which all this violence is taking place. That tension - which is almost like the tension when you read euphemistic official documents and you can sense beneath that calm veneer there is civil war etc going on.

You don't really get that tension with Tate. Like Jasper said, Tate assumes a kind of insular vacuity. However, I disagree with Mark in that I think Tate is probably writing his most interesting poetry of his career right now due to its startling emptiness. It's so incredibly vacuous.

Most Tate-influenced poets (including Zach and Hawkey) I think take mostly after "Distance from Loved Ones." (Well, Hawkey also has Ashbery Rising in his work, which there is absolutely no trace of in Zach's book.)

Tate's new poems are so oddly empty. They also seem empty the way performance pieces seem empty on the page (and indeed he's quite a performer) - and that's somewhat interesting to me - it's a revelling in absence, in distraction, in what comes at you as if it's already lost/past/over.

I agree with Ana (and this was really the thesis of my entry) that Tate-influenced poets seem at their best when they challenge the competence - as you say, when the Man Suit is not calm, but contains a tension there. I don't think this happens in all of the poems, but when it does, I think the book is at its best.

10:31 AM  
Blogger Ana Božičević said...

I think I object to "drama queen" as much to "Herr Doktor" when the stance becomes a pose -- they're sort of the inverse of each other, so in my mind they're very similar. Hm, I wonder if the tone of Popa changes in translation -- in the original he often has a really warm "Slavic" pathos -- well actually it could be the pathos of Eluard. Think

Give me back my rags
My rags of pure dreaming
Of smiles all silk of striped foreboding
Of my lacy cloth
My rags of polka-dot hope
Of burnished desire of checquered glances
Of the skin from my face
Give me back my rags
Give them I'm telling you nicely

12:32 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


My comment on Popa was a bit off. I don't know why I got official document from. But certainly it has the cool of folklore, inofficial histories, riddles etc. That's the connection for Simic between blues and Popa.

However the "rags" poem is a bit more like Eluard and Co (but it is more insistant on shoddy materiality). I was thinking of the Games poem or the poem about the little pebble. I'll post an example on the blog.

Yes, I agree about Plath.

2:55 PM  

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