Thursday, January 29, 2009

Denise Levertov

Links and More for Denise Levertov:

Kevin Gallagher: "Templum, Introduction to Denise Levertov Feature"

John Felstiner: "'that witnessing presence': Life Illumined Around Denise Levertov"

Tino Villanueva "Poet in the World: A Tribute to Denise Levertov"

Rachelle K. Lerner: "Ecstasy of Attention, Denise Levertov and Kenneth Rexroth"

Kenneth Rexroth played an important role in the development of Levertov's writing career.
He admiringly wrote about Levertov's writing:

clear, sparse, immediate and vibrant with a very special sensibility and completely feminine insight. She is not only the most subtly skillful poet of her generation, she is far and away the most profound, and what may be more important, the most modest and the most moving. She can communicate the same vertiginous rapture as the great imagist poet H.D. [Hilda Doolittle]. (“The New American Poetry” originally appeared in the New York Times Book Review (12 February 1961) and was reprinted in Assays (New Directions, 1961). Copyright 1961. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.)

In 1969, Denise Levertov dedicated “3 a.m., September 1” to Kenneth Rexroth:

Warm wind, the leaves
rustling without dryness,
hills dissolved into silver.

It could be any age,
four hundred years ago or a time
of post-revolutionary peace,
the rivers clean again, birth rate and crops
somehow in balance…

In heavy dew
under the moon the blond grasses
lean in swathes on the field slope. Fervently
the crickets practice their religion of ecstasy.

(Denise Levertov, Summer Poems/1969. oyez/Berkeley, 1970)

Critics have also been very interested in the spiritual components of Levertov's work and life...

Here are two articles focusing on this vein:

Dougherty, James. "PRESENCE, SILENCE AND THE HOLY IN DENISE LEVERTOV'S POEMS." Renascence 58.4 (Summer2006 2006): 304-326. "Denise Levertov claimed that from the age of about ten she knew she was 'an artist person and had a destiny'."

Greene, Dana. "A poet's pilgrimage." National Catholic Reporter 43.25 (27 Apr. 2007): 14-15.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

“Parachutes, My Love, Could Carry Us Higher” and “The Precarious Architecture of Barbara Guest's Spatial Imagination"

Parachutes, My Love, Could Carry Us Higher

I just said I didn't know
And now you are holding me
In your arms,
How kind.
Parachutes, my love, could carry us higher.
Yet around the net I am floating
Pink and pale blue fish are caught in it,
They are beautiful,
But they are not good for eating.
Parachutes, my love, could carry us higher
Than this mid-air in which we tremble,
Having exercised our arms in swimming,
Now the suspension, you say,
Is exquisite. I do not know.
There is coral below the surface,
There is sand, and berries
Like pomegranates grow.
This wide net, I am treading water
Near it, bubbles are rising and salt
Drying on my lashes, yet I am no nearer
Air than water. I am closer to you
Than land and I am in a stranger ocean
Than I wished.

While women seem to have been tokenized within The New American Poetry 1945-1960, Barbara Guest’s presence is a relatively substantial one – with four poems included in the anthology. Guest was closely tied with the New York School of poets (including John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, etc.). She graduated from UC Berkeley in 1943 and remained, primarily, in the Berkeley area throughout her life. Also a lover of the art world, Guest wrote for Art News Magazine during the 1950s – the heyday of William de Koonig and Jackson Pollock.

Her ability to use poetry as a way of cutting into (and creating) something that is sensual and moves outside the bounds of the time-space continuum is what draws me to her work. In the above poem – “Parachutes, My Love, Could Carry Us Higher” – the reader can be simultaneously suspended in a love affair, the ocean, the air… and most certainly become submerged in feeling. Yet, while there is this ambiguity, and room for the reader to move, she does not fully depart into abstraction. We are able to cling to coral, pomegranates, parachutes, as well as the repetitions of phrasings. For me, this is a delightful, and yes, perhaps, “characteristically female” play-space for my mind, feeling, and viscera.

Furthermore, despite the delicately beautiful imagery and feeling, Guest employs a very direct diction: “How kind,” “They are beautiful” etc. So, there is a sweetly balanced dichotomy -- she speaks in a matter of fact manner, drawing the reader into a familiar space of language, yet, then leaving the reader hanging in the surreal space of parachutes and pomegranates.

Also, reading "'Literature as Destruction of Space': The Precarious Architecture of Barbara Guest's Spatial Imagination" by Robert Bennett, I am interested to note how this delicacy of her work is held up to the horrors – primarily those of WWII – inherent to her time, and how, the beauty of her work and its disconnection from political and social referents had its own intrinsic value, a value that has been sustained through time. So, this, too, leads me to think about the constant debate about poetry – “Should it be politically engaged?” “Should it be purely an act of aesthetic rebellion (against practicality and politics)?”etc… I feel both sides of the equation can certainly be of value (and, indeed, even a poem intent upon being disconnected from politics can be a political statement in and of itself). However, Guest’s work is a testament to the power of beauty (perhaps even comfort) within a world that can be challenging to all of the senses.

From “Literature as Destruction of Space': The Precarious Architecture of Barbara Guest's Spatial Imagination.":

"In opposition to... rigid social structures and architectural and urban spaces, Guest's writing attempts to imagine more complex literary spaces or "chamber[s] of ambiguity/where two equals may meet before disappearing" (Collected Poems 35). Even though Guest's writing infrequently raises these social and political issues, at least in any explicitly political manner, the "precarious architecture" of her spatial imagination extends far beyond mimetic representations of the "physical reality of place" to encompass not only a more complex exploration of the aesthetic and philosophical "metaphysics of space" but also a critical awareness of how spatial practices reflect, encode, engage, and imagine alternatives to various social and political antagonisms. In the "square" context of post-WWII America, the "precarious architecture" of Guest's "cubist angles," "extraordinary disorders," "chamber[s] of ambiguity," and other "destruction[s] of space" did indeed forsake the "topical nature of realist art in favor of the more `abstract' project of transforming the viewer's awareness" (Belgrad 21). The enduring legacy of Guest's writing proves, however, that such "abstract" transformations are not without significant aesthetic, intellectual, psychological, social, political, cultural, and material consequences."

Bennett, Robert. "'Literature as Destruction of Space: The Precarious Architecture of Barbara Guest's Spatial Imagination." Women's Studies 30.1 (Mar. 2001): 43.
(This article is available in Full PDF format via the MLA database for SOU students in the Hannon Library.)

I am also looking into the life and work of Denise Levertov… so that post is impending…

(The above image is of Jackson Pollock's "Number 7," which hangs at The National Art Gallery.)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Dada and our "Postmodern Society"

Dada was emerging at a similar time as Futurism. However, I have a bit more respect for it!

Dada, in a sense, was a bridge between the movements of Modernism and Postmodernism. It stripped Modernism of its roots. It valued an even more collage-like and free-for-all/freeform approach to art and life. A poem could be drawn at random from a hat. A work of art could be a signed urinal.

Appropriation was key, was alive and kicking.

Meaning could be found in meaninglessness. And, indeed, Hugo Ball, who wrote the Dada Manifesto, believed that Truth resided in its lack; meaning was to be found in chaos, randomness, etc..

We see much of this in our western world today – "what is meaning?" Life seems to be a bit of a rootless free-for-all for many people in today's society – just floating out in one's own created or chosen meaning. We are often flippant, irreverent towards ideas about meaning, purpose, rootedness. And, again, unlike many of the Modernists (and even Dadaists) who were directly responding to events and forms of their time -- who were often consciously rebelling -- much of the Postmodern movement seems not to know where to turn. It is not rebelling against anything. It is often just standing there, screaming.

Linked to these sentiments of Postmodernism (which were issued in by the ideas and practices of Dada) was nihilistic thought. The popularity of nihilism and existential thought was on the rise during the time of the Dada movement, and Fredrich Nietzche was an influential figure of the time. Nietzche’s existentialism and nihilism informed and often spurred Dadaists. Ideas of “meaning/purpose” were on their way out, and to refer back to Nietzche, God had died. And again, for better or worse, we see this in our society today – “What and where is God? What structures do we cling to? Is it all random?”

All history informs all history.

Short distillations of Nihilism and Existentialism:

Nihilism: Existence is void of meaning.

Existentialism: Existence precedes essence; meaning is created and not inherent.

Happy happy thoughts!


Well, talk about the anti-Goddess movement!

And, yes, as Lacey so aptly said "I blame the Futurists for WALMART" !

This was an anti-woman, anti organic movement sort of movement.

"Praise to short shelf-lives and the machine of capitalism. Praise war!" yelped F.T. Marinetti and his Futurist cohorts.

Oh. I don't want to write about it. It makes me sick.

Sure, maybe there's good in Futurism somewhere, but I am not in the mood to find it.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Modernism: Perception, Perception, Perception, Change, Change, Change....

OK. Yes.

WWI struck. The planet was broken open. Western civilizations were no longer navigated by the horse and carriage. And, out popped modernism!

Well, it wasn't that simple, but…

The world was irrevocably changed. Perceptions about the safety and even, perhaps, the innocence within the world were shattered. And, in turn, artists began to express their perceptions of the world in new, frequently more fractured, forms.

Visual and Textual Interrelated Veins of Modernism:

Like Imagism, Cubism was concerned with perception (particularly visual perception), structures, and the breaking of rote artistic traditions/forms. Cubism caught something in flux; it reminded the viewer that there is motion/dynamism in anything we view.

Cubism’s concern with structures was, in part, the concern with scrutinizing the underlying shapes of a subject, as well as examining the form from several angles – looking at the form as it exists dynamically in space, not just as an object viewed from one vantage point. The perceptions of these structures, angles, and planes of an object were then relayed onto the canvas. This created what often seemed to the viewer to be a scrambled image. Yet, beneath this apparently "scrambled image" lay an intensely studied awareness visual planes and of structure. So, cubism looked at the world intensely, then projected this vision back out into the world in a way that was, for the time period, a shattering and shifting of former modes of visual perception…

Particularly in her poetic work within Tender Buttons, Gertrude Stein -- much like a Cubist -- took elements and images from the world around her and scrambled them. She took words and images out of their familiar and seemingly logical everyday contexts, defamiliarizing them. She intently examined life, turned it around inside her and brought it out again in forms of writing that tipped our previous understanding of what poetry, images, words, and sounds were within the writing world. Also, like the Cubists, Stein had an intense awareness of structure, yet the structures she wished to break down and recreate not only included images of the world around her, but included grammatical structures. She intentionally deconstructed and played with nearly every aspect of grammatical structure, twisting the reader's mind into new shapes, often forcing the reader to let go of preconceived notions of language and images.

Imagism was "fathered" by Ezra pound and fostered by a larger community of poets (including and not limited to Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, and H.D.). Also concerned with structure, this writing movement set out to strip poetry of its "excess." The purpose of this type of writing was that the concisely presented words/image(s) within the poem would be so strong, so direct as to carry an inherent power, a power that could have a transformative effect upon the reader. This writing was not so much about the ideas or feelings of the writer, but rather, sharpened experiences/perceptions and how these "translations of life" as we might call them, could affect the reader. The movement was more concerned with the (reader and writer's) experience of the present moment and the potentially transformative power in this direct quality. Pound, like the Cubists, wanted to move away from stasis. He looked for a liberation from the confines of a single perspective. And, it was often intended that this type of writing would shock/challenge the reader more than it would pacify.

Ezra Pound on Imagism:
"An 'Image' is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time...
It is the presentation of such a 'complex' instantaneously which gives the sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the greatest works of art.
It is better to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works...
Use no superfluous word, no adjective which does not reveal something.
Don't use such an expression as 'dim lands of peace.' It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer's not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol...
Don't be descriptive; remember that the painter can describe a landscape much better than you can, and that he has to know a good deal more about it.
When Shakespeare talks of the 'Dawn in russet mantle clad' he presents something which does not present. There is in the line nothing which can be called description; he presents... "