Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Is for Atkins; Everything Else Comes After - E. Ethelbert Miller: The Aldon Nielsen Project #11

Q. Russell Atkins was an experimental poet. What's so experimental about Atkins?

Experimental” is always a vexed term in discussions of poetry and poetics, but I suspect virtually all readers would agree that whatever “experimental” may denote in the world of poetry, Russell Atkins is an instance of it. The grammar of the question is interesting, though. “What’s so experimental about Atkins?” Striking, because the experimentalism of the mid-twentieth century has worked its way so deeply into the core of American poetry that much of it doesn’t seem so experimental to us today, much as the Bop music of the 40s that sounded so strange to ears raised on swing, or the Free Jazz of the sixties that sounded strange to some ears tuned to Bop, never sounded strange to me, and yet Atkins remains an outlier, someone whose work can still confound as it compels.

I’ve written before about the problem of people construing the term “experimental” too narrowly, of thinking of experiment in the arts within the parameters of scientific experiment. Zola spoke of his “experimental” novels and described his approach as very nearly akin to science. Having constructed a social situation and placed his characters within it, he would have readers believe, he then saw what would happen. I’m not the only one to harbor doubts, but I also don’t read French and may overstate the case. Clearly, though, few poets work that way. You could think of some poets who use aleatoric methods, Cage and Mac Low come to mind, as truly conducting experiments. The composition itself is not really all that indeterminate, in the sense that once the poet has set his algorithm to work, the outcome is in fact determined, no matter how indeterminate the outcome of that reading may prove, but the poet himself does not know at the outset what words will be thrown onto the page by the process.

But that is not Atkins’s way. In his instance, as I’ve argued over the years, we need to think of “experimental” in its earlier sense of experiential. The poem is not a verbal window opening onto a vista beyond. The poem is not a communicative channel through which content gets transmitted. The poem is a thing made of words (and other markings!), an event in space/time, a field in which poet and reader enter and create and interact.

Russell Atkins has expressed some pride over the years in being an early Black experimentalist, and has staked a claim to being the first African American concrete poet. He has experimented in music (as in his composition “Objects for Piano”) and in prose (essays like his works on phenomenologies of sound and poetry) as well as in poetry. To this day, few critics have written on the topic of African American visual poetics, or, for that matter, even the visual elements in Black verse. Readers often don’t know what to do with the opening lines of an Atkins poem sometimes called “The Long Place,” which, in addition to scattering letters across the page, includes scored lines and an Arabic numeral among its features. How are we to read those angular lines. Are they signs of division? Representations of a hilly slope? Just lines? And how are we to read their relationships to the dispersed words on the page?

Another category of experimentation in Atkins’s work is the syntactic. Modernist fragmentation is one thing. Quite another is an Atkins poem that opens: “the across and rain of away. I took shred of an umbrella” – This is not “the proper word in the proper place” in any customary sense, but that is hardly Atkins’s interest as an artist. In an age when condensare was the watchword of good poets and prose writers alike, when the poem was to operate as cleanly and efficiently as a machine, Atkins went a different direction, engaging in, to use his terminology, conspicuous technique. This was to make of him an experimentalist among the experimenters. Rather than the hard, clean surface of a Williams or a Hughes, Atkins, Poe-like in this respect, sought writing that would never let you forget that it was writing, writing that made no pretense of delivering its audience to a predigested meaning. We are meant, if we can speak of intentions in a case like this, to stay with the writing on the page, the sounds in the ear, even as our minds seek to make connections outside the poem. Many cultures, the Japanese being a prime example, have held the view that the great work of poetry is one which is completed in the mind of the reader. An Atkins poem is a made object with which we contend, remaking it in our readings. When we encounter lines like “ambition yores behind–“ our work of meaning making is seemingly unending, which is the point. “Familiarity / coins more commonplaces” – but there will never be anything commonplace about this steadfastly unfamiliar poetry, a poetry that cannot be reduced to a singular message, that cannot be satisfied with the sighs of satisfaction from a catered-to audience.

I don’t need a poet to tell me what I already think, the thought dressed up in pleasant rhythms. I don’t really want a poet to tell me how she feels, the telling garbed in overwrought imagery. I want poetry that makes me think something new, and then does it again upon rereading. That’s what I find in Atkins. With Norman Jordan, he created the Muntu poets of Cleveland. During the Black Arts Movement, he wrote of a phenomenological nationalism, which had a close cousin in the Dasein poets of Washington, D.C. These, too, were experiments of a sort, as much as was his poetry and music.

Atkins may well have been, as he claims, the first African American to create truly concrete verse. What is of such interest to me is that, much the way Modernists said poetry was news that stays news, Atkins’s work remains an unassimilated experiment to this day. Since I wrote long chapters on his work in the books Black Chant and Integral Music we’ve begun to see stirrings of renewed interest in his work. Craig Dworkin’s wonderful ECLIPSE web site has made downloadable copies of many Atkins chapbooks available, and I strongly encourage people to get those texts, volumes you’re not likely to find in the library. Also, Kevin Prufer and Michael Dumanis have recently edited a superb volume titled Russell Atkins: On the Life & Work of an American Master, which includes a healthy sampling of Atkins’s work along with several new essays on his career.

Friday, June 12, 2015


(As explained in the headnote to the blog posted earlier today, I shared Benjamin Hollander's response to CA Conrad's essay because it appeared the HARRIET blog was not going to provide him space and because it invoked some of my own work. I heard from Conrad immediately, and the following exchange ensued.)


To Aldon Lynn Nielsen, Benjamin Hollander, and Joseph Thomas, this is in the end a conversation about preference. And preference evolves out of experiences, often, whether those experiences were learned as a younger person, etc. To not like genocide, nor those who espouse it as Whitman so openly did is something I PREFER to not have in my life. Yes, when reading Whitman’s poems ever after reading his psychopathic racist prose I was YES filtering the poems through the prose. Why? Because the prose was straightforward accounts of the man’s thinking out loud. And Whitman DID WRITE POEMS THAT WANTED TO APPEAR ENLIGHTENED! So to accuse me of being Victorian is rather laughable since it was not ME who wanted Whitman to write enlightened poems, it was WHITMAN who wanted to write them. But they were lies. I am NOT Art Macho. I am NOT someone who says, “I don’t care if there is racism in my art!” “I don’t care if there is homophobia in my art!” I care. We are different, obviously.


Yes, we are different, though probably not in the way your final sentences suggest. Nobody here has said anything remotely like "I don't care if there is racism in my art." You may prefer to pretend that is the issue. I prefer not to.


You telling me that I PRETEND is stupid. Plain stupid. There is a show of masculinity to this whole bullshit of you publishing this. You and Hollander are the kinds of men who act like poetry is too feminine, too WEAK, and that we need to be rigorous and separate men from their poems. It's tedious. It's centuries of tedium, that kind of behavior. Aldon Lynn Nielsen


By the way I LIKE that we differ. I prefer it if you are the kinds of men you are showing yourselves to be.


Wow -- so now I am stupid, engaging in masculine display, a bullshitter who acts like poetry is too weak, that men are to be separated from their poems, AND I'm tedious. I'll leave it to people who read my work to decide if your description of me matches their own estimation. I guess I do prefer to be the kind of person I show myself to be. Even when answering you.



I'm not taking shit from asshole men!

(It appears that Conrad has been invited to the reconstituted Berkeley conference on poetry to share his wisdom on matters of race and poetry. Wish I could be there. For the interesting grammar if nothing else ["To not like genocide, nor those who espouse it as Whitman so openly did is something I PREFER to not have in my life." Somebody please explain to him.])

Thursday, June 11, 2015


Dear CA Conrad,
a response from Benjamin Hollander to CA Conrad’s “From Whitman to Walmart,”

[note: Benjamin Hollander sent me this because he cited material from my book, Reading Race, and he wanted my perspective on his point of view.  He has tried first having a private dialogue with CA Conrad and Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog by sending both a version of this email, but it seems no response is forthcoming from either. It also seems that Conrad's words will be part of discussion at the new iteration of the Berkeley Poetry Conference, starting June 15, Conrad's piece is cited here:
 Go to Monday]

What most people I agree with politically and whose politics are considered progressive  don't even realize is that, when it comes to poetry or education, in terms of their values and roles, these people are curiously looking in the rear view mirror, acting a bit like the Victorians—for whom the aim of the poem was to edify or enlighten--which is fine if you want to remain a Victorian and attach that era's ethos to the social purpose for the poem: if, that is, you need the poem to have a social purpose.  You should know: so-called progressive educators and poets in North America are replicating Victorian values when they suggest an education (or a poem) should build moral character and civic identity or, even worse, be the engine for an economy.
As some naive readers of Whitman need him to be in service to American moral values and unexamined national ideologies, some critics who say "fuck his racist poems" need the poem to be representative of an unimpeachable moral character. Both needs seem reductive.
(Please be clear: I am not defending Whitman. Perhaps it has to do with my not being born in this country and thus into a particular kind of American English and rhetoric, but I have never been drawn to his poetry. I’m still figuring out why this is the case.)

 Which brings me to your piece, "From Whitman to Walmart." To your desire to "fuck these (Whitman) poems." To your desire to expose and uncover the underbelly of the populist yet (we should know because you enlighten us) racist Whitman. But you may not want to stop there.

Have you read--well, it was written many years ago-- the scholar A.L. Nielsen's book., Reading Race. When it came out in 1988, I remember how illuminating it was in its exposure of racist white discourse at the heart of the most so called liberal poets’ poems which use charged details of black life to represent that life as "natural" to the race. For Nielsen, no modern and contemporary white North American poet gets off "clean" when it comes to replicating racist discourse--they all do it-- except, perhaps, for Oppen and Olson.

This is particularly the case in the chapter where Nielsen addresses Duncan, O'Hara and John Wieners, and how Wieners, in his Hotel Wentley Poems, as an outsider, as gay, feels he can appropriate blackness as outsiderness, or as "the exotic and primitive, " but always in relation to morbidity and death--see his “Poem for Cocksuckers"--which reproduces certain assumptions about black life as "natural".  Nielsen writes:

Even while identifying himself with blackness, Wieners will follow white tradition in identifying that same blackness with morbidity. He writes in another poem:  

Some black man looms in my life, larger than life. 
Some white man hovers there too, but I am through with him
Some wild man dreams through my day, smelling of heroin.
 Some dead man dies in my arms every night

The black man who looms in Wieners' life is clearly the same one that loomed in the earlier poetry of Tate and Warren….

The presence of such images in contemporary verse attests to the tenacity of discursive formations. The racial stereotype persists as a functioning sememe in the speech acts of white people.

I hear you are editing Wieners' poems. Will you say, in the afterword to your edition of Wiener's poems, (as you said of Whitman) "I see you much clearer now old man, and you are just like the other [white neo-liberal closet] racists where I grew up. Fuck your poems!” My guess is you will not.  Is Wieners--and I could list dozens of white poets—also, as you write, "the underside of the rock that America has so beautifully constructed to fool the world." There are many ways "to confront ,” as you write, “the fictions we find ourselves walking inside," to confront the poets we create fictions about, but what does that mean, really?

Don’t’ mistake me: I love Wieners’ poems, but under your watch, well, should I talk about "The lies we call his (Wieners') poems?" because of the white “discursive formations” about African-Americans he replicates and of which he might be unaware (I am reminded of Baldwin’s statement: “It is [their] innocence which constitutes the crime”)? More than me, will you be talking about it in your afterword to the Selected Poems of John Wieners, since your awakening to the racism in Whitman’s writing should not stop there, when it can be brought much closer to the present, to the work of poets who, like Whitman, we admire, but whose poetry is not averse to the variations on the racist discourse you condemn?

Further, what are the implications of your point of view for my reading and teaching of other poets, when the subject is other than race, but just as heated?   Do I stop, for example, reading or teaching Frank O' Hara's “Ave Maria” to some of my aspiring lower working class community college student poets from all ethnicities who at times compose their own moral borders around a poem?
O'Hara's poem is powerful because it is disturbing on multiple levels, but he would be open to the charge of pedophilia based on that poem and on how you evaluate poetry. I was almost raked over the coals by some students when I read it:

And then I took them to Catullus.

Yes, as a Jew,  in 1970, when I was reading with admiration Hugh Kenner's The Pound Era, and recognizing both Kenner's and Pound's and my professor's arrogance about the heralded elder poet, I could also have "fucked Pound's poems," the anti-Semitic lies which are his poems, or I could have stopped this reflex and actually learned something by reading  Olson's "This is Yeats Speaking," where he addresses North American readers about their self-righteous rage at Pound's treason and, by implication, his anti-Semitism, as he does in his letters to Pound. What Olson as Yeats says bears hearing:

We have not yet shaped, because we have denied this civil war, a justice with sanctions, strong and deep enough to measure the crime. Our own case remains unexamined. How then shall we try men (Pound) who have examined us more than we have ourselves? They know what they fight against. We do not yet know what we fight for…. 

Olson as Yeats defends Pound. Why were the details of United States sponsorship of and links with fascist activities after the War something which Olson alone, among the poets, uncovered, and which Pound was onto? “Our own case remains unexamined,” Olson wrote, his knowledge of the “deep politics” involved in U.S. fascist activities no doubt a result of his position in The Office of War Information’s Foreign Language Section, from which he resigned. And so, though he knew Pound was crazy and had these half-baked racist and anti-Semitic and economic views, he also knew Pound was onto something about the deeper politics in America, despite his lunacy.

To play on Ginsberg, I fear a generation of poets NOT destroyed by madness who are so wonderfully aware and socially conscious of a poet's and poem's morals that they have forfeited anything but the decorative poem or the poem they feel comfortable with: a generation quick to pull the policing trigger on the gunslingers who are more than a bit mad in their views but the urgency of whose poetry and prose needs to be read...., for all sorts of reasons, including their lies  and what they might reveal to us.
“Our own case remains unexamined.”(Olson as Yeats)
Fuck poems/and they are useful (Amiri Baraka)

"The poet is a radio. The poet is a liar. The poet is a counterpunching radio." (Spicer)

one poetry cannot be
more true than another
it can only be more convenient
Edward Dorn)

In this ancient coastal town
the men have turned into Victorian young ladies
They work their samplers of acid
and do their poetry and polish their bootees

With your logic, would you “fuck the poems” of Baraka, whose poems some see as diatribes of lies, as quickly as you would Whitman's? You have some kind of demanding truth telling litmus test there, for the poem.

Benjamin Hollander