title of two poems from Michael palmer's book of the same name. The Sun poems address political ideas and history through the medium of language poetry. The first poem has the same number of lines as T. S. eliot's the waste land, a poem that scholars consider central to 20th-century modernism. However, Sun liberates modernist notions of collage and subtext from the conservative sensibilities that underscore Eliot's work.
Palmer rejects the overt way that the political often inhabits the subject matter of poetry, where poets are "more than anything else, announcing in stale poetic language, 'Look how much human feeling and fellow-feeling I have,'" in a manner that seems more self-congratulatory than a true expression of empathy or a true representation of a political event or atrocity. Instead Palmer expresses the difficulty of human crises by exploring the limitations of the language used to represent such situations. Therefore the speaker in the second poem states, "I have been writing a book, not in my native language." The language may be foreign, because it refuses to exploit personal experience as a commodity; instead it proliferates inside the multiple possibilities of experience.
These experiences result in an amplified vision of the world. In this world, dust settles on whispers, fields extend outward, and a voice invites the reader to "enter through the curtain / and swallow your words." Language collects the dust of obsolescence, whether in the form of a whisper or in the forms of words consumed by a field. To engage with the poems, readers must pass through a curtain and broaden their field of expectations of how language conveys the reality of human joy and suffering.
As a mediator conveying the experience of human suffering, language cannot be trusted; in fact, it might even be deadly. Early in the first "Sun" a voice says, "You bring death into your mouth—X / we are called —." Palmer's wariness of naming and representation subverts the traditional assumptions about meaning and the authority of the poet's voice. The poems are self-conscious, perhaps even self-critical, of their own artifice: "I now turn to my use of suffixes and punctuation, closing Mr. Circle / with a single stroke." Ultimately the poems challenge readers to define their own constructs of authority and power.
The Sun poems incorporate the aesthetics of Language poetry into a powerful discourse that questions popular notions of meaning. The poems address social concerns through multiple voices that are constantly aware of their presence and place in the world. Resisting the easy allure of the definitive, the poems instead revel in the complications of the abstract.
Palmer, Michael. "'Dear Lexicon': An Interview by Benjamin Hollander and David Levi Strauss." ACTS: A Journal of New Writing 2:1 (1986): 8-36. Yenser, Stephen. "Open House." Review of Sun, by Michael Palmer. Poetry (Aug. 1989): 295-301.
"SUNDAY MORNING" WALLACE STEVENS (1915; 1923) "Sunday Morning" is not only one of Wallace stevens's most brilliant successes as a poet, it also marks a pivotal moment in 20th-century American poetry whereby the philosophical and the poetic are seamlessly blended into a worldview that celebrates the world and poetry's place in that world. When the poem was first published in Poetry in 1915, the editor, Harriet Monroe, cut three of the stanzas and reordered the remaining ones so that the final stanza became the second. In Harmonium (1923), Stevens restored the poem to its original eight stanza sequence, which more clearly presents the gist of the poem as a whole: The myths that have been the mainstay of human civilization—and especially Christianity—have become hollow and empty, and we need to establish a new mode of Being that fixes its attention upon this world (the Earth), not upon the assumptions of the next (the Christian promise of eternal life and heaven). In this respect, "Sunday Morning" announces the poetics of high modernism and Stevens's bold assertion that poetry, in the 20th century, should be regarded as the supreme religion.
The poem presents the tensions between this world and the images of the next through a female persona, who, in the opening stanza of the poem, is contemplating her lush domestic surroundings (instead of the interior of a church) on a Sunday morning. The explicit tension between the Epicurean setting, with its cockatoo, coffee, and oranges, is juxtaposed with the image of death—the realm of "blood and sepulchre," the cornerstones of Christianity. The central thrust of the poem is phrased as the question of whether one should give one's life over to death instead of celebrating one's life in this world. Through its various images, the poem makes an argument in favor of the pursuit of beauty and asserts that life should not be subservient to death but should follow the model of the ring of men in the poem, who announce their devotion to the splendors of the sun in an orgiastic circle.
The poem concludes, brilliantly and with great intellectual poignancy, with the image of a flock of pigeons sinking into darkness "on extended wings," which reinforces the theme of death and reframes the poem as a message to be alive in the poetic splendor of this life. In this light, "Sunday Morning" articulates the high modernist valorization of poetic artifice and the role of the artist as a lens to explore and perceive the nature of being human.
Bloom, Harold. Wallace Stevens: The Poems of our Climate.
Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977. Riddel, Joseph. The Clairvoyant Eye: The Poetry and Prose of Wallace Stevens. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1965.
Vendler, Helen. On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens' Longer Poems. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969.
SURREALISM The term surrealism is an elision of super and realism. Surrealism was a movement combining painting, writing, and other arts, formally beginning as a refinement of another art movement, dada, after World War I. Surrealism cut across national boundaries, languages, and generations. Until recently surrealist art and its techniques were rarely taught in academia. Its influence on 20th-century American poetry was informal and various, but profound. Guillaume Apollinaire and Tristan Tzara founded surrealism. It was defined by André Bretons First Surrealist Manifesto, signed in 1925 by Louis Aragon, Antonin Artaud, Robert Desnos, Paul Élaurd, Max Ernst, and others. Breton wrote a Second Manifesto in 1929, but, by that time, the group had splintered.
Surrealism in poetry is characterized by dreamlike juxtaposition of images, the invitation of chance into composition, and the suspension of many types of intentional discussion of themes. Surrealist techniques are textual and psychological. Surrealist processes include automatic writing, "slippage" and "first thought / best thought" to turn off conscious imposition of reason. Automatic writing, in which the writer simply begins to write or draw words without intentionally controlling those words differs from spirit dictation, such as that used by William Butler Yeats, by source, although occultism shaped surrealist writing. During this type of writing, slippage and error interrupt narrative or transcription while the writer is writing: Words and images resulting from typographical mistakes during drafting, for example, are included in the work and result in a juxtaposition of symbols or words separate from linear logic. Found poetry, advertisements, and other nonpoetic sources recognized as poems and chance operations, such as rolling dice to select words from a preexisting text, remove traditional connotations or denotations of phrases or sampled poems. Surrealism was not welcomed into the academic world, in part, because surrealists used drugs, sleep deprivation, and pain to break down the boundaries of moral structures so as to enable "sight" to aid composition.
Early psychology shaped surrealism, and psychological surrealism has been welcomed into the academic world as domestic surrealism or deep image. Hermetic symbols and their psychological interpretation can establish a unity behind a surreal poem separate from story or form. A reading focusing on establishing relationships between the objects or persons in a surrealist poem, and therefore the relationship of a poem to mythic structures, such as journeys, can lead to an understanding of a surreal poem. Surrealism's grounding in psychological or dream reality separates it from other movements.
Surrealism is also grounded in the more extreme movement dada, which challenged the utility of language to describe reality. Dadaists, including Marcel Du champ, sought refuge after World War I in New York, inspiring separate American surrealistic responses to dada in poetry, such as Mina loy's. A more broadly defined, second-wave surrealism moved to New York with Salvador Dali and Breton himself before World War II. Philip Lamantia deliberately sought out Breton in order to establish an American surrealist lineage. Lamantia, in turn, relocated to San Francisco, where he influenced the san Francisco renaissance, beat, and now neosurrealist poetry. Caribbean francophone surrealist poets Aimé Césaire and Leopold Senghor have influenced American poets (see carribean poetic influences), as did British painter and writer Leonora Car-rington, who relocated to Mexico midcareer. American poets translating surrealist writings into English include new YORK school poets John ashbery and Kenneth koch, Richard Howard, who also has translated Charles Baudelaire and symbolist writers, and Harry mathews, a member of OuLiPo, a largely French and Italian movement dedicated to writing that crossed surrealist textual techniques with mathematics. Bernadette mayer taught surrealist and OuLiPo techniques at the St. Mark's Poetry Project in New York City (see poetry institutions). Because of surrealisms longevity, it has combined with nearly every major movement of 20th-century American poetry, including the objectivist and
Caws, Mary Ann, ed. Surrealist Painters and Poets: An Anthology. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001. Halsall, Paul. "A Surrealist Manifesto," Internet History Sourcebook. Available online. URL: http://www.fordham. edu/halsall/mod/1925surrealism.html. Downloaded May 2001.
SWENSON, MAY (1913-1989) A native westerner who lived her entire adult life in New York and its environs, a self-proclaimed feminist who nonetheless eschewed politicized writing, and a lesbian whose love poetry, almost always sexually neutral, can often be construed as heterosexual, May Swenson wrote poems that radically challenge customary perceptions and stereotypes. Influenced by Emily Dickinson, Swenson is often compared to Marianne moore and Elizabeth bishop for her ability to make us see commonplace objects in a startlingly new way. Extensively published and active as a writer-in-residence at numerous universities and artists' colonies, Swenson was one of the best-known American poets during the decades of the cold war.
Born in Logan, Utah, Swenson grew up in a Swedish immigrant, Mormon family. Upon graduation from Utah State University, she moved to New York City. Swenson's first collection of poems, Another Animal, was published in 1954. Eleven volumes of poetry were published during Swenson's lifetime, including Half Sun Half Asleep (1967), Iconographs (1970), and New and Selected Things Taking Place (1978). She won Rockefeller (1955 and 1967), Guggenheim (1959), Ford (1964), and MacArthur (1987) Fellowships for her poetry, as well as the Bollingen Prize for poetry (1981) and a National Endowment for the Arts grant (1974). Swenson was a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and served as chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
Critics have often called Swenson a nature poet, pointing to her "knowing sympathy with wild creatures" and "poems full of tents and cabins and out-of-doors" (Wilbur 2). Swenson herself remarked, however: "For me, nature includes everything: the entire universe, the city, the country, the human mind, human creatures, and animal creatures" ("Interview" 121). Indeed Swen-son's poems bespeak her wide-ranging fascination with the physical world, from subway riding and space exploration to sports and modern art. Her work is marked by a vigorous playfulness, seen both in her elegant poetic riddles and her famous "shaped poems," wherein the arrangement and spacing of words on a page suggest the contour or movement of the object they describe (see visual poetry). Her understanding of the poem as a concrete, constructed unit characterized her as a formalist. At the same time, however, Swenson often acknowledged that good poetry also depends on the subconscious and a trust in randomness. In a posthumously published essay, "A Poem Happens to Me," she likened the act of writing a poem to "the opening of neuron synapses to the brain after partaking of liquor or a drug" (77). Writing, Swenson said, "is death and birth being brought to within a desperate circumferential hair's breadth of each other—as if two stars of opposite poles swept together and almost grazed!" (79).
Frequently Swenson wrote from an unusual viewpoint, describing a scene upside down or at extremely close range, or by forcing unexpected comparisons. She asks us to see a parallel between "The DNA Molecule" (1970) and Marcel Duchamps's Nude Descending a Staircase: "She is a double helix mounting and dismounting / around the swivel of her imaginary spine." In her riddle poem "Speed" (1975), Swenson depicts an insect-spattered windshield as "a tender painting / . . . a palette, thick impasto." Wedding iconoclastic vision to disciplined aesthetic structure, Swenson compels us to cast off naive ways of perceiving, to see beyond surfaces even as we glory in them.
Swenson, May. "An Interview with May Swenson, July 14, 1978," by Karla Hammond. In Made with Words, edited by Gardner McFall. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998, pp. 121-133.
-. "A Poem Happens to Me." In Made With Words, edited by Gardner McFall. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998, pp. 75-79.
Wilbur, Richard. Foreword to May Swenson: A Poet's Life in Photos, by R. R. Knudson and Suzzanne Bigelow. Logan: Utah State University Press, 1996, pp. 1-6.
Patricia G. King
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