Another Reason to Celebrate Modernism

I had not known the work of the architect Charles Gwathmey until I read his obituary in the NY Times.The photograph of the small house he designed for his parents in 1966 is breathtaking and reminds one of the aesthetic power of the Modernist vision, in architecture, which I know only casually, and in poetry, which I know professionally. Things have changed, of course; Modernism has been replaced by the hodge-podge amalgam of post-modernism. The Times quotes a friend of the architect: “‘A lot of people jumped ship, but Charlie was loyal to Modernism’, said Peter Eisenman, the architect and theorist.” Given my preference for pluralism over any form of authoritarian Tradition, I should be happy about the passing of Modernism, but it produced so much great art that I not so secretly long for a return to the vision quest of the Modernist project, to put something together out of the fragments of the past as it has come down to us, though I have perhaps a more catholic appreciation for and acceptance of the sort of fragments that might be useful than the old Modernists.

What Kind of Poem Would this Be?

I wonder what the poetic equivalent of this art installation would be. Flarf? In the visual arts I find this kind of massive accumulation of detail deeply engaging. Why do I distrust it in poetry? Do I distrust it? I find Allen Ginsberg‘s long catalogs moving and often very finely tuned, intellectually. “Black Acid Co-op” feels like Ginsberg to me — it doesn’t appear to be interested in undercutting its own position with irony, except the irony of putting all this in an art gallery, of course.

Stone Age Flutes

Human beings seem to be inveterate makers of pattern, whether musical, visual, or verbal. The people who hollowed out the bird bones and cut holes at regular intervals were also making stunning pictures on the walls of caves and, I have no doubt, singing songs to their children and telling each other stories. All of these activities have pattern making at the heart. Other animals can recognize patterns in the world around them; human animals seem to be the only ones compelled to consciously create patterns — in the air, on the walls, with their voices.

I’ve just been reading Ellen Bryant Voigt’s delightful little book, The Art of Syntax — another in Graywolf’s really excellent The Art of series* — in which she makes explicit the patterns and variations in several poems serving as exempla.After all these years of writing poetry, Voigt’s little book excites me about what originally excited me — making shapes with words. With James Longenbach’s The Art of the Poetic Line, Voigt’s book would serve the intermediate student of poetry as a fine introduction to the art.

*Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext, another entry in this series, is a rich source of insight about the textures of literary fiction.

Goings On (VN Dairy No. 29)

Lots happening here in HCMC. Toady my friend Lan and I met with two different publishers and we now have two book projects in hand, a collection of short stories by Son Lam and an anthology of younger women poets from the souther half of Vietnam. I couldn’t be more pleased. Tomorrow morning I meet with some of the women who will have poems in the anthology.

Update: This was an odd meeting. I showed up at nine and waited around for half an hour, but no one came. I was just going back to the hotel when Lan arrived and asked if anybody else was there. Nope, I said. So we sat and had coffee for another forty five minutes and were getting ready to leave when the first poet arrived. Now, this had been a casual invitation delivered by email to meet for coffee, but it certainly pushed the usual southern Vietnamese disregard for time about as far as it would go. After another half an hour and a couple of text messages, another poet arrived. Apparently, Lan told me later, they organize via text message and for a meeting to occur, one or two people have to show up and text their friends, We’re here; then others begin arriving. It’s an odd effect of cell phones being utterly ubiqutous in Vietnam — so much so that it appears to be changing the way people organize their social lived. But it’s only people in their thirties or younger: the poets I met with the day before were there waiting for me, though a few showed up later. Most of these were older guys, some my age. My own students probably organize their lives this way and I’m just not aware of it.

So that’s one social principle that was new to me. There was another that come out of this meeting that I didn’t pick up on until Lan explained it to me. Lan had used email to “introduce” me to several poets online, asking them to send me work for translation. (This was before the meeting described above.) I followed up with an email of my own and a few of the poets responded. Apparently, because I did not respond immediately when people wrote me (I’m traveling, with sketchy internet), that was taken as a sign that I was not interested. I find this baffling, especially given the experiences outlined in the previous paragraph. I chalk it up to an ambivilent post-colonial posture on the part of Vietnamese poets. If you don’t like me then to hell with you. It’s understandable, but something I have to internalize for the work I’m doing. I’d be defensive too, I guess. It just occurs to me as I write that the line between the personal and the professional is much more blurry in Vietnamese letters than in the US. So that when I respond in a “professional” mode it is taken as a lack of friendship. It bothers me, I want to work within the social structures of the people whose poems I’m reading, but these experiences demonstrate the perils of even the best-willed attempts at cross-cultural understanding.