Sunday, December 5, 2010


This is how I use (waste) my time on the bus when I am not sleeping: I was reading the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze on the German philosopher Leibniz, a book called The Fold Leibniz and the Baroque. It is a difficult book, and my mind wandered to what I remembered of Leibniz' Monadology, where, famously, "monads have no windows--" a cryptic remark about the absolute isolation of each thing from every other thing. So, thinking about these things, I composed in my head a short, rather Celanesque poem:

what is

mirrored only
reflected folds
of velvet curtains
silken cushions

your hut
on endless plains


light snow
the south sides
of furrows
& ruts

to the cold


When I arrived at the bus stop at Westlake, I rushed into Pacific Place, which I knew was open even if the shops weren't, sat at a table, and wrote it down so that it wouldn't disappear like a dream as I became involved in the business of the day. This reminded me of Derrida talking about Socrates' distrust of writing because it weakened the mind by removing the necessity of remembering . . .

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Sentence

I have let this blog lapse. I have been so busy writing the instructor materials for my database book, that I have had little time or energy for anything else. At last, I am nearing the end of that task. My web site keeps getting redesigned in my mind, but, for it too, I have had little time.

I am going to return to this blog, but for now I am going to abandon any larger plans about its purpose and topics. I will just write.

Currently, this late November evening, with small patches of white hiding in the shadows from rains that have melted all the other pre-thanksgiving snows, I have a desire to write a sentence, a complex sentence, a labyrinth, really, of phrases and clauses in which the unwary reader can wander lost in a sea of particulars,the night rain rattling on the black of the window panes, any trace of the subject and verb long lost, hidden away like the orphan snow under a dripping eve; a sentence written, that is to say, in the manner of the late Henry James, in novels like the Wings of the Dove, in which any hint of an idea, any taint, any stain of a philosophical nature, dissolves into the mystery of the immediate; a sentence, furthermore, which will not fit into a tweet, which any editor would cut with an indignant stroke of a pen, and which most modern readers, if the term can be applied, will find unreadable.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Inger Christensen

Inger Christensen has what I would call a "structural imagination." She--like a few others such as Louis Zukofsky and Ronald Johnson--likes to create elaborate structures, complex verbal cathedrals or temples within which she can place her quiet hymns.

Christensen is a Danish poet, famous in Europe for her experimentations, but like most European poets, unknown here. She died in 2009.

I came across her through a translation of part of her Alphabet in Volume two of Poems for the Millennium edited by Rothenberg and Joris. It struck me as an incredibly beautiful hymn to existence. I went to Amazon and purchased a copy. This is the beginning of the section for the letter L:

life, the air we inhale exists
a lightness in it all, a likeness in it all
an equation, an open and transferable expression
in it all, and as tree after tree foams up in
early summer, a passion, passion in it all

[this from the translation by Susanna Nied, New Directions, 2000]

Each section of Alphabet keys on a letter A through N. The length of each section is determined by the Fibonacci sequence in which each number is the sum of the two previous numbers. The poem is not only a great hymn to existence, but a plea for existence. As she notes not only trees and kingfishers but, "The atom bomb exists," "the hydrogen bomb exists" as do war and pollution and poverty.

I have also read her it, another massive and complex architecture within which swells a hymn to creation.

It. That's it. That started it. It is. Goes on. Moves. Beyond

[Also translated by Susanna Nied, with an introduction by Anne Carson--in interesting poet and translator in her own right]

I love the "structural imagination" of her poems, the creation of new forms and verbal games. I actually believe such structures enhance and enrich poetry, but that is a discussion for another day. Even more I love the depth of her humanity and her sense of the beauty and mystery in the world around her.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Paul Celan

A poem should resist meaning. It should stand immutable and irreducible, impossible to decompose into a series of propositions and statements. Nobody writes poems that resist meaning more than the German Poet Paul Celan, and yet for all that, they convey depth and power that is unmatched by other poets.

For the last two or three years I have been studying the poetry of Celan, particularly his later poetry. Paul Celan was born to Jewish parents in Romaina. During World War Two he was detained in a Nazi labor camp. His parents died in another camp. After the war he found his way to Paris, where, though fluent in many languages, he continued to write poems in German--the language of his mother, but also the language of the Nazi's that killed her. His early poetry fit into the European surrealist movement. His most popular poem, "Todesfuge--Death Fugue" is in this vein. But in his later years, he started stripping away artifice. His poetry became more compressed and impenetrable, but still conveyed some essential emotion just beyond articulation. It is the later poetry that interests me most.

Here is a complete poem (my translation, though heavily dependent on various cribs):

in the rivers north of the future
I cast out that net, which you,
hesitantly, weight
with stone written shadows

Although it resists meaning, one could still write volumes on this. The poem conflates time and space. What is it that the I is fishing for? Who is the "I", and who is the you? What do the stone shadows write?

Here are a couple of more passages that stir me--not complete poems:

something rushes through us
the first
of the world's last wings


Island meadow
fogged in
with hope

Celan fought depression and paranoia most of his life. He committed suicide by drowning himself in Seine in 1970.

Note: the photo comes from Wikipedia

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Louis Zukofsky

The web site is in stasis while I rethink my design. But I decided I will try to make this blog more active. I intend to post brief reviews of some of my favorite and lesser known poets. I will start with a major influence, Louis Zukofsky.

I wrote my master's thesis on Louis Zukofsky's "A", or more precisely I wrote my master's thesis on "A"-21, an eccentric translation of Plautus's Rudens that incorporates a certain echolalia with the original Latin and manages to blend in a fair amount of Shakespeare as well. When I wrote my thesis very few knew of Zukofsky outside of a few poets. I came across him following a quote from Ezra Pound who dedicated his "Guide to Kulture" to him and Basil Bunting, "two voices struggling in the wilderness."

I found his book "ALL the shorter Poems" and skimmed through it. At first I wasn't impressed, but a few days later I had a dream in which I had opened the book and found beauties. The next day I opened the book again and there were indeed beauties there. Later that week I went to the local bookstore and ordered a copy of his newly printed epic called "A".

Zukofsky is often called a poet's poet, or sometimes even the poet's poet's poet. I would argue that there is no in the twentieth century--not even Ezra Pound--from whom one can learn more about the craft and structure of verse. In his poems you will find both masterful traditional verse forms and radical experimentation. I especially learned from his experiments with counting words per line rather than syllabi or feet. "A"-22 and "A"-23 are still breathtaking in their subtle audacity.

If Zukofsky's poetry was only about structure and form, it would not deserve any wider audience. But there is a deep humanity and compassion there. "A" at 800 plus pages in 24 sections, took a lifetime to complete. In the beginning the poet is brash, a progressive who explores the possibilities of social justice through communism. But, as time progresses, through world war two, Korea and Vietnam, as the world armed itself with nuclear weapons, Zukofsky increasingly countered with a nuclear deterrent of his own--the nuclear family, his wife Celia and his son Paul. In the end love may not triumph, but it does preserve what is still of value in the world.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Book Stores

I hate bookstores. I say this as someone whose palms sweat whenever he encounters a new bookstore, someone who has spent thousands of hours and thousands of dollars in bookstores all across the country. What I hate about bookstores is the sense of futility they give me. So many books that are on shelves for a couple of months and then disappear forever into overstock warehouses or landfills. Any really good work is likely to be overwhelmed and lost in the sheer volume of what is published.

I also hate how authors I have followed for decades increasingly fall off the shelves to be replaced by newer, flashier books. (I am not talking about literary greats here, just good solid authors, who consistently wrote good stories . The situation is even worse with poets. Even excellent or great poets have very little shelf life.) I hate that I want to add my own books to that mass of print, and can't imagine that they would suffer any better fate.

I realize that almost everything that has been printed is available at Amazon or somewhere on-line. But it is not the same experience. When I go into a bookstore I don't know what I want. I browse, opening books, touching them, looking at the typeface, reading random passages. I go the poetry sections looking for old friends and new. I go to the philosophy section to see what they have (usually not much), then I browse the fiction and science fiction areas. My selections are tactile and visual as much as intellectual.

I hate bookstores. The Elliot Bay bookstore that used to be in Pioneer square downtown has just reopened on Capital Hill near where I work. I will show my hatred by not spending more than 2 or 3 hours there next week.


Philosophical speculations from reading Heidegger's 1934 lectures on logic:
A tree--
why is it always a tree? Are trees hard wired into us as symbols of nature? Would that be true of people who live in a mostly treeless region? And what tree? I usually imagine a maple with broad limbs and green fluttering leaves, but sometimes I imagine a pine with blue clusters of needles. Would someone in the tropics imagine a palm tree or a mahogany? --

All part of the point, really. A tree, any tree, does not exist for our purposes. It is not there to provide us shade (though it may do so on an August day). It is not there to scrub carbon dioxide from the air, though we may be grateful that it does. It is not there to provide us lumber for our patios, though, sadly, only then do we value it by assigning it a price.

Its only purpose is to be itself, a tree, separate from any of our purposes. That is the root--pun intended-- of what Heidegger means by Alethe, the Greek word for truth which means "unhidden" or "not forgotten." Truth is the unconcealed. When we allow the tree, the broad flat leaves of the maple filtering sunlight, to present itself as itself, to stand, as it were, in the clearing, only then do we see the truth of it, the mystery. Only then do we encounter it in its "uncanny" otherness. Only then do we experience the sacred.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Ancient Greek Poetry

The web site is progressing, but still not ready to upload. It is one of the more complex things I have tried to encode. All the data--news, poems, path information, stories, etc. are stored in xml files and use xslt for the display. Anyway, I hope to post it someday in the near future.

I checked out a new library book The Greek Poets Homer to the Present. It is new this year 2010 from Norton Press. It is edited by Peter Constantine, Rachel Hadas, Edmund Keely, and Karen Van Dyke. As the cover flap says it contains over 1000 poems by 185 poets with 120 different translators. It starts with Homer and ends with contemporary living poets. It is really a massive and wonderful collection.

Reading it, started me thinking about what is it that I like so much in especially ancient Greek poetry. I have been attracted to it since high school. (Part of what first attracted me to the Cantos was Pound's use of classical myths and texts). I took Greek in college and continued it in graduate school. I still dabble at translating today.

It is important when talking about Greek poetry--even just ancient Greek poetry--to realize one is talking about hundreds of poets over a couple thousand years. And that, in itself, may be part of it. The vastness of it, the distance in time, the fragility. So much was lost, so much survives only in tantalizing fragments, scattered coins that suggest a larger treasure. Modern poetry has been in love with the fragment every since it rediscovered the Greek. And Greek is, essentially, a modern discovery--the middle ages the Renaissance, the 18th century were almost entirely devoted to Latin poetry. Much of what we know of Greek Literature only came to light in the 19th and 20th century.)

That still begs the question of why it attracts me so. I hazard one thought: I like it because of its directness and essential naiveté. By naiveté I am not suggesting that the art was unsophisticated. Greek poetry sports many complex metrics and sophisticated structures. Nor do I mean to suggest that Greek poets were simple or somehow socially or humanly innocent. Rather, I mean that they dealt with the basic human condition directly: War, death, love, hatred, anger, competition, sex, old age, they dealt with these thing without embarrassment, without subterfuge. Yes, they often used myth when writing of these things, but myth for them was not a symbol or a metaphor to decorate a thought; myth itself was the way they thought. It was how they experienced the world. The Greeks never second guessed their poetry. They had no need to justify it to the world. Poetry was a natural and sacred act. Finally, their poetry often has a simply transcendent beauty. Here is the beginning of the Theogany (my Translation)

Of the Helicon Muses, let us begin to sing
who possess the great & sacred mount Helicon
who dance around the violet fountain on soft feet
& around the altar of Kronos’ mighty son
who, afterwards, bathe their flawless skin in Permissos
or in the horse’s fountain or in sacred Olemios--
so beautiful, their feet flowing like water.

There is so much to say about this topic, it cannot possibly fit in a single blog entry. Though in the future I might focus on individual poets. Anyway check out the book The Greek Poets, not just for the ancient poets. The Greeks have been writing great poetry for almost 3000 years.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Ezra Pound

I am going restart my blog with a few reflections on Ezra Pound.

For many years, as my weary friends would attest, I was obsessed with Ezra Pound. I read everything that Pound had written and most of what had been written about him. Especially I read and re-read the Cantos. I mined Pound for secrets of technique and
structure. I saw him as a veritable bible for modern poetry. I ignored other people's reservations that he was too inaccessible, elitist and deliberately obscure. I also ignored other more serious concerns that Pound was a Fascist and a racist.

I remember in a graduate class on Ezra Pound a woman who dropped the class after a couple of weeks because she was so repelled by his antisemitism. I thought she was being over sensitive, but now, after many years, I have greater sympathy for her
position. I tended to dismiss the racism and fascism as aberrations in an otherwise good man, as historical accidents that could be mostly ignored. But now I find them more troubling and less easily forgiven.

Of the two issues, I find Fascism the less troubling. It is a part of the historical context. After the the optimism and confidence of the 19th century was shattered by world war one, after the excesses of the 1920's followed by the world wide depression of the 1930s, there was an almost desperate desire in many for order. Fascism offered this order, even if at a cost. Also, anyone who has read Pound's "Jefferson and/or Mussolini" knows he seriously misunderstood Fascism.

The racism is harder to swallow. One could argue that it too was of the time. In his last years he reportedly apologized to Alan Ginsberg for having fallen prey to "that stupid suburban prejudice, antisemitism." But I am not so sure this is sufficient.
Pound always claimed to be apart from and above the times. And, his racism was not just passive. In the Cantos he writes "the Goyim are cattle" and his radio broadcasts from Italy during the war are vile with racist epithets and stereotypes. If attacked he could always use the age old diversion, "see I have a Jewish friend, Louis Zukofsky." But it was poetry that made them friends.

One of enduring complaints about Pound is that he and his poetry are too intellectual. I think this arises from his use of multiple languages and obscure historical texts throughout the Cantos. But I think Pound was, if anything, not intellectual enough. He was not a scholar; he was an enthusiast. He found things that struck him and pasted them whole cloth into the Cantos. He didn't do the depth research to understand the contexts and sources better. He didn't analyse relationships; he felt them. This may be one reason that the Cantos never quite "cohere." The poem is obsessed by structure and contains threads of many possible structures, but never actually settles into any one of them, or any coherent combination of them. Pound never had the discipline to be called an intellectual, but I suspect if he had the Cantos would never have existed.

Nowhere is Pound's lack of intellectual prowess more evident than in his economics. His ideas are crackpot in the best American tradition. When he is talking economics he reminds me of some of great uncles who were convinced there were simple answers to
everything and that the only reason they weren't being implemented was because of a vast conspiracy of industry and government to hide them from the people. I believe this is essentially American. It represents American optimism and pragmatism, the belief that every problem can be solved and that the solution is, in some way, essentially simple if you are smart enough to see it. The problem is this belief is everywhere frustrated by reality. But, rather then surrender the belief, they prefer to see outside agencies, particularly the government and big business as forming vast conspiracies to hide the simple solutions from the people in order to protect their power and profits.

Exra Pound was remarkably un-self reflective. Some biographers have suggested he was a shy person who compensated by focusing everything outward. He sustained his energy by finding enemies to rail against, and causes to support. But I have the impression
that he very seldom paused to reflect on what he was doing in any serious way. There two times in his life when he was forced to turn inward. In the prison cells of Piza, and in dispair of his old age. I don't think it is an accident that those are the most moving and popular parts of the Cantos.

So, where am I now with Ezra Pound? The umbridled enthusiasm is gone. There are parts of the poetry and parts of the man that repell me. On the other hand, there are poems and parts of poems that I still find as moving as anything in 20th century Literature--Canto 100, for instance, and the drafts and fragments. One could do worse than to remember the last words of the Cantos: "To be men not destroyers." If only Pound had adhered to that more in his life.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


I hope to have the new site up and at least partially functional by next weekend. It has been taking much longer to do than I thought it would. Partially this is because I am overly ambitious, and partially because I have so many other responsibilities and claims on my time.

However, I intend to post it soon, even if there are parts that will still say "under construction."

I don't really think anyone is reading this blog, but if you are stay tuned. Once the web site is up, I will start putting real posts here, posts on literature and philosphy and poetry.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

A New Start

I have not written anything much in this blog for a while. I have returned to work and most of my school related entries have moved to . I have renamed this blog from "Sabbatical notes" to just "Steve Conger." I may change that again later, if I get some clever idea.

I am in the process of creating a new web site. The site will showcase my own writings, but also I hope, become a portal to other writings on the web. This blog will be for the discussion of writing, poetry and philosophy and for reviewing books and sites that I find interesting.

The web site is taking shape. I will announce its URL when it is ready to be viewed.