Saturday, September 29, 2012

Starting points: miscellany

The name

"Marooned Off Vesta" is the title of Isaac Asimov's first published story, which appeared in the March 1939 Amazing. I must admit that I have not actually read it, and from descriptions I have seen it seems rather uninteresting. So why name the blog after it?

My analysis of sf is, I hope and flatter myself, radical--in the sense of going to the roots so as to do things differently. One of my major arguments is (or will be) that, despite its problems, classic sf needs to be not just re-evaluated but re-explored in order for contemporary sf to fulfill its promise. In light of this, naming the blog after a seemingly insignificant story which nevertheless launched what is perhaps the genre's single most seminal career seemed appropriate.

Beyond that, and regardless of the likelihood that the story itself is a boring triviality, the title is great. And it strikes me as very accurately describing the way I feel as I embark on this endeavor: marooned off an asteroid, trying to figure out what's going on with this stuff, lost and flailing and almost panicked but also trying to think clearly and on top of it all really excited because look where I am!

(Also, I had originally come up with the name for an earlier, abandoned-before-it-started blog idea, where I had planned to write about every single one of Asimov's books, in publication order. I quickly realized, however, how extraordinarily tedious and life-consuming this would be: even doing one book a week it would take over ten years to do them all, and many of them are now-obsolete science books. Even so, the idea is still somehow tempting; I think I just wish someone else would do it.)

Sf fandom

Though I have loved sf my whole life, I am not and never have been a fan in the sense in which the word is used in the world of sf. I do not say this in order to distance myself from fandom as something distasteful. Quite the opposite, in fact: I say it so as not to appear to be claiming for myself a status to which I have no right. I have never participated in the social aspect of sf, never attended a con, never corresponded with fans or writers or publishers.* As such, despite my lifelong devotion to the genre, my perspective is somewhat of an outsider's, with all of the attendant weaknesses, and I hope at least some of the corresponding strengths.

*The closest I have come is sporadic reading of and very occasional participation on fannish blogs (and recently I have begun scouring the internet for scanned archives of fanzines), through which I have become aware of such things as RaceFail and the recent Readercon sexual harassment scandal, as well as more pleasant things from time to time--but this is all secondhand at best, and does not impact me as personally or as emotionally as it does for the people truly involved. Again, to be clear, I emphatically do not mean this as a negative judgment on fans and fandom; if anything, it is, again again, just the opposite.

One very important effect this has on my writing and on my thinking is that when I discuss a writer, I am discussing their writing only.* If, as for instance in my previous post, I describe a certain writer as misogynist, I am not implying anything about their interpersonal behavior, because in most cases I know nothing about it. My intention in pointing this out is not to mitigate the claim or to "go easy" on people, but rather simply to remind those who might otherwise be confused that I am not pretending to have some insight into anyone's innermost being, but rather am examining the texts with which I have been presented. I know nothing of how Larry Niven treats women in his real life, and I know nothing of how he feels about them in his secret heart, but I do know that they do not fare well as characters in his fiction.

*I hope it is obvious that this is a simplification for the sake of discussion. I am not of the belief that a text exists in a vacuum, and when discussing a text I bring to it all of the experiences I have ever had, to varying degrees of relevance, and these naturally include any knowledge I may have of the writer beyond the given text in front of me.

Literary criticism

The world of literary criticism is still relatively new to me, and I am acquainting myself with it gradually and rather piecemeal. I am not at all up-to-date, and you may find me arguing for or against ideas that have been considered settled for decades. In a way I might consider this a strength, as I like to try to keep a historical perspective, like to keep ideas alive rather than considering them over and done with, obsolete, move on to the next. Far more than this, though, I certainly acknowledge it as a weakness. I will always welcome recommendations for areas of study, always welcome being educated, so long as I am not talked down to. For example, if you try to use Harold Bloom to argue that feminism is just a "school of resentment" and a load of nonsense, I will ask you to stop being an asshole or go away.

What it boils down to, and this is true of many things aside from literary criticism itself, is that I was not given a tradition and so am trying to put one together for myself. I do not have the education, despite having some of the credentials, and so have been trying to find a direction on my own.

My "politics"

The two philosophies that have impacted me most strongly, and to which I aspire, are anarchism and feminism. I am not comfortable, however, describing myself as either an anarchist or a feminist, for a variety of reasons.

When Margaret Killjoy asked Ursula K. Le Guin (in Killjoy's delightful book of interviews, Mythmakers & Lawbreakers: Anarchist Writers on Fiction) if she considered herself an anarchist, Le Guin answered, "I don't, because I entirely lack the activist element, and so it seems phony or too easy." (A moment later, Killjoy asks if she minds that many anarchists "claim" her anyway, to which Le Guin replies, "Of course I don't mind! I am touched and feel unworthy.") With my accomplishments far less than Le Guin's, this is approximately how I feel about taking on the label "anarchist" or "feminist" for myself. As Chumbawamba said to Bob Dylan, I just haven't earned it yet.

Beyond that, though, both terms have become highly problematic in that they mean drastically different things to different people. I am not afraid of being misidentified with the caricatures of either philosophy; if anyone can manage to view me as a mad bomber or the elusive "feminazi," they have a better imagination than I, and are welcome to it. No, unfortunately, it is the very real problems I am uncomfortable with. If I say I am an anarchist to someone who subscribes to the views of Max Stirner, or to the extraordinarily misogynist and macho tendencies which are so common in anarchist circles, they will come away thinking something very different of me than I intended (this has, to my horror, happened, and gone on for a very long time before I realized it). If I say I am a feminist to someone whose idea of a feminist is Janice Raymond (or, going another way, Camille Paglia), or to someone who endorses the racist aspects of the so-called "second wave"* or the naïve liberal and consumerist aspects of the "third wave," I have similarly misrepresented myself.**

*"So-called" because there has been feminism for as long as there has been oppression of women; given the systematic erasure of women's history in a patriarchy the ahistoricism of calling certain types of post-mid-century feminism the "second" wave is understandable but not pleasant, and the problem is of course only exacerbated by the name of the "third" wave.
**Note please that I am not condemning these movements! Much, indeed most, of both "waves" are immensely important and humbling. Recognizing flaws in them, even severe ones such as radical feminism's brutal transphobia (to which the word "flaw" is inadequate), is not to throw them out entire.

Elements of my politics will probably become clearer as the blog progresses, because although my view of literature is not purely political, neither can it escape politics--the personal is the political, and both are the critical. As an anti-centralist with a skeptical attitude towards the capitalist notion of endless technological progress and a feminist-influenced outlook, my view of, say, Asimov, or Adrienne Rich, is going to be very different from that of someone who does not share those views.

On my influences

Since it is very difficult to sum up my outlook on life, the universe, and everything briefly and lucidly, I have decided that (at the risk of being a name-dropper) giving a brief list of some writers and thinkers who have had the biggest influence on me will help fill in the gaps. Some people who have in some ways had perhaps even greater influence have been left off--say for example George Orwell and Howard Zinn, whose Homage to Catalonia and People's History of the United States, respectively, along with Le Guin's The Dispossessed, were my gateway into radicalism in my teen years--because I don't intend this list to represent everything I think and feel and my whole historical path to getting there, and neither do I want it to just be a list of Facebook-style "likes" to show off my aesthetic taste. Rather I want it to give a sense of the main points of how I'm thinking now on a variety of topics (which, to use the same examples, Orwell and Zinn no longer would, quite, though I do still find them valuable). I do not necessarily endorse everything these people have said, of course, but all have been and are key to my current understanding of how to make and interpret works of art, of how the world works, of how to be in it. In alphabetical order:

  • Angela Y. Davis
  • Samuel R. Delany
  • Marcel Duchamp
  • Brian Eno
  • Silvia Federici
  • Derrick Jensen
  • Gabriel Josipovici
  • Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Maria Mies
  • Yoko Ono
  • Joanna Russ
  • Julia Serano
  • Assata Shakur
  • Susan Stryker
  • Joss Whedon
And now, onward...

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The sf field today

I have one more "starting points" post I want to write, and then I want to dive right in to talking about specific works and specific points of theory, but real quick:

This list of new sf book releases for October is a perfect representation of why I say I'm concerned about the current state of the field...and why I don't think I'm repeating the misogyny of the men of the 1980s when I say so.

Eighteen titles. Between them there are twenty-one authors, only four of whom are women. Twelve of the books--twelve, two thirds--are parts of series, six of which are past "#3" and seem to be "ongoing sagas," several being media tie-ins. Of the remaining....

  • " military science are the tough heroes who throughout time master their own fears and face the very real terrors that haunt existence..."
  • A book by a man that seems to be about a woman who has tragically lost her woman lover, falling in love with a man.
  • Mega-misogynists Larry Niven and Gregory Benford collaborating on a book that sounds like it snoozily repeats what Niven did in his very-good-but-of-course-deeply-problematic Ringworld, but probably not nearly as well.
  • A superhero police squad in space.
  • A young adult novel that seems fairly innocuous, but still...far too high a proportion of new sf is young adult.
  • And a book about a clone military.
Science fiction, my god, is capable of so much more than this. It is not supposed to be this literature of severe curtailment.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Starting points: science fiction

The last post was about my current relationship to poetry as I begin the investigations of this blog. This one will be about my relationship to science fiction.

Unlike with poetry, my relationship with science fiction goes back quite literally as long as I remember. In fact one of my earliest memories is (perhaps a bit embarrassingly) of seeing a television commercial announcing that there was going to be a new TV series called Star Trek: The Next Generation and being thrilled because I had already seen every episode of the original series more than once and couldn't wait to see new ones. TNG started in 1987; I was born in 1982.

But that's media sf; I'm more concerned with written sf.* My history with this goes back just as far: I was an early and ambitious reader, and as soon as I was able to choose my own material I typically chose sf (and to a certain extent before, as my mother did not shy away from reading me sf).

*Though I will no doubt be discussing sf on television or in movies from time to time, the overwhelming focus on media sf even in many of the better outlets for the public discussion of the genre is a matter of deep concern for me. I thought about changing my lead-in to focus on written sf but I decided to leave it as is partly to point out how pervasive this focus is, and how easy it is to slip into it.

I grew up on an odd mish-mash of styles and periods. I loved Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, making no distinction between their different periods (as far as content goes this makes sense in retrospect for Clarke but not for Asimov; as far as quality it makes sense for Asimov but not for Clarke). If you're wondering about the other member of the trinity, I attempted Heinlein only once or twice in my childhood and found him dreadfully dull. (I still tend to dislike him to a degree far out of proportion to my political disagreements with him--the reasons for this, which currently elude me, may be a matter for exploration.) Skipping over the "new wave" (or when I did occasionally read works from it, not recognizing them as any different from anything else) I also read extensively in the hard sf "revival" of the 1980s and 90s, David Brin and so forth, and I remember at some point during the mid-90s discovering the Mirrorshades anthology and thinking cyberpunk was new and exciting.* For many years I had a subscription to Asimov's--during Gardner Dozois's editorship--and always read it cover to cover. In general, I would read anything with a rocketship on the spine at the library or in the science fiction section at the book store. I would be lying if I said I didn't devour Star Trek tie-in novels.

*Both of these movements, while containing much of value, I now find to be highly problematic. To begin a refrain that will have become very tiresome by the end of this essay: I hope to discuss this in detail in future posts.

Etc. The point is, I've loved sf my whole life. And just as I cannot remember a time that I did not love reading (and watching) sf, I do not remember a time when I did not want to write it.

Actually, both of those statements are technically untrue--late in my high school years, a friend with a personality and tastes that were dangerously overwhelming for me* convinced me that I should not and did not like sf. This lasted for several years--essentially my terribly, terribly wasted college years, when I went for a creative writing degree at Oberlin...during the only period of my life where I thought I was uninterested in science, science fiction, radical politics, "experimental" art, and classical music (all under the influence of this same friend). Oh, retrospect. A year or two after college I came back to science fiction, but it took about six years to really want to write again, and it's still an open question if I'm able to.

*Through no fault of his own; it was just that the "strong" portions of his personality corresponded catastrophically with the "weak" portions of mine. Years later this would lead to a crisis where I had to permanently cut contact with him in order to preserve my self. It was necessary but I still regret the unpleasant way I did it, not having understood what I was doing or why at the time. You'll never read this, but: I am sorry.

But anyway, I've been reading and thinking about sf for most of my life, and recently (the past two or three years) the "thinking about" part has escalated dramatically. I've been working at getting a systematic knowledge both of the genre and of its associated criticism. As I do so, I've been coming to understand the complex things that sf does to me, and trying to figure out how it does these things.

Whereas with my "starting points" post for poetry I had a hard time discussing anything really theoretical or critical because the ground is so unfamiliar to me, here I find myself having difficulty because I have too many thoughts to be able to introduce them briefly. I am tempted to leave it all for later posts, but at the same time I worry that if I dive right in to discussing individual works without laying out some of the basics of my evolving poetics I would just confuse any potential readers, not to mention myself. (Admittedly, too, much of my theory has been kind of swirling around in my brain, bits and pieces settling from time to time but all in flux and still sorting itself out.)

I suppose a good place to start is the traditional game of definition. What is sf? It is a complicated question, and very difficult to answer, as most attempted definitions either include works that everyone would agree are not sf or exclude works everyone would agree are.* It is tempting to go to the famous definition given by Damon Knight: "science fiction is what we point to when we say it." Frederik Pohl gave a similar definition when he reportedly said that sf was what he bought as an sf editor, and this more practical version hints at a very important aspect of what sf is: a marketing category. As this blog progresses, we will likely see how inseparable economic concerns are from the nature of sf, in this and countless other ways.

*Not that this is always bad in individual cases--I recently read a very good argument that the remade Battlestar Galactica series is not sf, and at some point I may attempt an essay on why I feel that Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus is (and no, it has nothing to do with the overtly fantastical elements of the story). And of course the whole issue helps to illuminate the general problem with any attempt at defining anything.

Important as it is to remember that sf it as least as much a publisher's contrivance and a bookseller's convenience as a genre, however, it is equally important to recognize that sf is and does something very different from other forms of literature. After all, Asimov's The Gods Themselves did not cease being sf when its publisher refused to label it thus because doing so would limit its potential sales figures; and we can recognize (if not always uncontroversially) that works such as Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow and P.D. James's The Children of Men, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time, George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, are all sf despite rarely being sold as such.*

*This is not to say that many or all of them may not be other things as well.

(The nature of the majority of the examples just listed--the last four particularly--raises the question of utopian and dystopian literature's relationship to sf. The fact that a similar majority--the first four this time--are written by women raises the question of the relationship of women to sf, particularly at these fringes. These are extremely complicated questions, which I will certainly be addressing as this blog progresses, but for now I leave them as far too huge for an introductory post.)

So what is sf? It is likely a contentious claim, one which I hope to defend in coming posts, but I believe (after Samuel R. Delany) that sf is not a "genre" in the sense that the western or the detective story are genres of prose, but rather in the sense that poetry or drama are genres of literature; that it is no more (or less) similar to non-sf prose fiction than that fiction is to poetry or drama.* To be sure, a given work may belong to more than one of these genres: a novel may be non-sf prose fiction and sf simultaneously just as verse drama is drama and poetry simultaneously; there is also sf poetry, which belongs to both genres.

*In fact, following Delany again and Rosalie Moore (whose poetry I have not read), I tend to think that sf and poetry may have more in common than do sf and non-sf prose fiction.

Most definitions of sf are "content" based--trying to explain what sf stories are "about." Take for example the working definition proposed by Joseph F. Patrouch, Jr., in the introduction to his The Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov, which is fairly typical of these attempts:

My own personal description of what I mean when I use the term is "science fiction is that fiction which examines scientifically plausible alternate settings for human consciousness."
If you have not yet detected the clunkiness and wishy-washiness, I should inform you that he immediately spends the next several pages qualifying what he means by "scientific," "plausible," "setting," "human," and "consciousness" until each term is essentially meaningless. While perhaps interesting as a sort of naïve self-deconstruction, this is hardly useful.

Perhaps the best content-based definition of sf which I have come across is that of Robert H. Canary, which he gives in his intermittently useful essay "Science Fiction as Fictive History" (in Extrapolation 16.1, 1974). Sf, he says, is "a fictive history laid outside what we accept as historical reality but operating by the same essential rules as that reality." We can see that, aside from the interesting move of defining sf in relation to generally agreed-upon history, this definition achieves its neat functionality largely through the same method by which Patrouch's achieves its lack of functionality: vagueness. Just who is included in his "we" is left unstated in the definition itself, though Canary does explore this question in his essay. Also unstated in the definition, perhaps more importantly, is the nature of the "essential rules," which allows Canary to take in sf's concerns with science itself as well as, perhaps, those elements of sf which are similar to literary realism; and it allows him to include those works of sf which are not particularly concerned with science or technology per se while at least nominally excluding fantasy.* His use of the unspecific word "outside," too, allows him to take in works laid in the future, the "real" present, or alternative presents and histories (these last are often a stumbling block for definitions of sf; everyone seems to understand almost instinctively that they belong to the genre, but it can be very difficult to explain why).

*There will surely be more to come on the elusive difference between sf and fantasy.

But if sf truly is a distinct literary genre in the same sense that poetry is, something more than a content-based definition is needed. Poetry, after all, can theoretically be "about" anything; it is its structure (speaking broadly) that defines it as poetry. Delany, from whom we will likely be hearing a great deal, has provided interesting speculations on what the defining structures of sf are in his many essays on the subject; in "About Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Fifty Words" (collected in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction) he introduces his concept of sf's "subjunctivity,"

the tension on the thread of meaning that runs between word and object. [For] a piece of reportage, a blanket indicative tension informs the whole series: this happened. . . . The subjunctivity for a series of words labeled naturalistic fiction is defined by: could have happened. . . . Fantasy takes the subjunctivity of naturalistic fiction and throws it in reverse . . . could not have happened. And immediately [this level of subjunctivity] informs all the words in the series. . . . [In] SF the subjunctivity level is changed once more . . . have not happened.

Events that have not happened are very different from fictional events that could have happened, or the fantastic events that could not have happened. . . .

Events that have not happened include those events that might happen: these are your . . . predictive tales. They include events that will not happen: these are your science-fantasy stories. They include events that have not happened yet. . . . These are your cautionary dystopias. . . . [They] include past events as well as future ones. Events that have not happened in the past compose that SF specialty, the parallel-world story.

The original passage is much longer and full of fascinating and essential observations, but this elision of it, which I actually take from "Speculations: The Subjunctivity of Science Fiction," an absolutely essential essay by Joanna Russ (from whom we will also be hearing a great deal), collected in her To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction, contains the fundamentals.* It is clear that this "definition," if it is that, is to a certain extent still "content"-based, but we are beginning to move beyond that to something more fundamental. As Russ comments, "Delany has here gone beyond the usual concept of science fiction as predictive; and what is more useful, he has uncovered a distinction between fantasy and science fiction that does not depend on estimates of the author's intentions or his scientific accuracy." She might just as well have said that he uncovered such a distinction between sf and non-sf.

*Incidentally, the brackets and ellipses are all Russ's, and the emphases are all Delany's.

The implications of all this are much too much to explore here, and will likely form a great deal of the subject matter of this blog.

There is much more introductory ground that I feel I should cover: my notion of sf's disjunctions; the centrality of modes of exposition to my sense of what makes sf so powerful; the usefulness of even very white male technocratic sf to marginalized people; what I call sf's "problem of the reader"; didacticism; the use of highly schematic symbolism and characterization in highly chaotic story structure. Much more. However, again, it is all too huge and unsettled for an introductory post which has already gone on too long, and hopefully as this blog continues, as I discuss specific works and general theories, my ability to convey these thoughts--and my own understanding of them--will evolve.

Some closing notes:

I think space and space travel are very important to sf, and that contemporary sf when it hasn't abandoned space tends to treat it very poorly--partly by misunderstanding the importance of it in older sf.

For reasons related to that and for many, many others, I think the current state of the field is very, very bad. I worry, however, about saying this, because I recognize that people said very similar things at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s as part of a backlash against the expansion of sf to new perspectives, particularly that of women, at the beginning of a movement towards closing the genre off again to these perspectives. I don't think I am doing that, but it is a concern.

Despite its limitations and its vagueness, I am comfortable with the term science fiction to cover the ground I am interested in. However, it is very difficult, though vital for the kind of discussion I wish to have here, to come up with a name for that prose fiction which is not sf. Mainstream fiction? Contains notes of elitist dismissal, as well as not applying to other forms of non-mainstream fiction such as modernism or so-called "genre" fiction. Realistic fiction? Suggests a limitation to realism. Mundane fiction? Tempting, but insulting. For the time being, I may stick with non-sf. Additionally, as I go on it will become clear that I see modernist fiction and sf, though very distinct, as possessing certain similarities that make it valuable at times to discuss them together, which makes a term containing both of them desirable. I am at the moment drawn to "heightened fiction" for this, but have a feeling that I will come to regret it. All of this, too, will probably be a matter for quite a lot of discussion as the blog goes on.

And finally, on my area of study: I will be focussing primarily on anglophone sf, partly because I, alas, can read only in English and there is very little sf available in translation, but also because anglophone sf is very much its own tradition, which overlaps in some ways with sf in other languages but in many other ways does not. To the extent that this is chauvinism, I regret it; to the extent that it is me examining my own literature, my own tradition, rather than that of others, I do not. At times I may stray into sf from other languages--I'm interested in Stanislaw Lem, Michel Houellebecq, and Haruki Murakami, among others--but it will not likely be a focus. As for the temporal rather than spacial area, I am interested in the influence of earlier writing on what we now consider sf--Mary Shelley in particular is a literary hero to me--but for the most part what I call "sf" is that literature that began in April of 1926 when Hugo Gernsback published the first issue of Amazing Stories.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Starting points: poetry

The focus of this blog, at least as I presently envision it, will be on my efforts to develop my own personal poetics of science fiction and of poetry--an effort not so much to figure out what goes on in writers' minds as they create their works but to figure out what goes on in mine as I read them (though of course the two events are related!), and perhaps as well to work out what I think should happen as I attempt to write them.

This post is about where I'm at with poetry right now, as I start this blog.

Reading poetry is extremely new to me. For most of my life I found myself completely unable to do it; I could and did (and do) read prose, fiction or non-, all day long, productively, but for some reason the instant I was faced with a line break, I would freeze up.* Even when poetry was quoted or otherwise included in prose works, I would end up glazing over and skipping it, hoping that it would be interpreted for me or maybe wasn't very important.

*The sole exception, for some reason I've never been able to understand, was Emily Dickinson, whom I have always loved, though even with her the bulk of her work goes over my head. When she's writing about love or death explicitly I'm right there with her, but then once she starts talking about gentian and bobolinks I'm lost.

This started to change about a year ago, following (not coincidentally, I suspect) an extremely rapid series of linked personal catastrophes that changed my life dramatically, irreversibly, and immeasurably for the worse. Most likely I will not be going into that subject in any detail here, and I mention it now only because I find it painfully fascinating that such horrible changes in my life helped to produce such a fruitful change in my aesthetics. I do not hesitate for a moment when I say that it was not worth it.

Anyway, my conversion to poetry started with the Greeks, whom I began reading (in translation; how I wish I could read them in the original!) after being fascinated by Gabriel Josipovici's discussion of them in What Ever Happened to Modernism?, which among other things tied in surprisingly well with some thoughts I had been having about science fiction (and sparked many new sfnal thoughts as well). I started with Sophocles, in the Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald translations (and the others that tend to be included in the same books as theirs, David Grene and so forth), and then moved on to Richmond Lattimore's Homer, and to various translations of Aeschylus and Euripides. I enjoyed it all,* but none hit me the way Sophocles did, particularly Ajax and the last works: Philoctetes and above all Oedipus at Colonus.** And then there was Sappho, my god, there was Sappho, in translations by Willis Barstone and by Mary Barnard, both gorgeous, so different from one another, so frustratingly fragmentary.

*With the exception of Euripides, whom I found tedious in Paul Roche's translation. I really should go back to him in different translation and see if that helps.
**If I knew how to write opera, and I wish I did as much as I wish I could read Greek,
Oedipus at Colonus would be my second--after an adaptation of Joanna Russ's We Who Are About To...

I say poetry began there for me, but that's a retrospective judgment. At the time, I apprehended these works primarily as prose--just with an unusually large and ragged right margin.* On some level, though, it seems that they were priming me for other poetry, because shortly afterwards I decided, seemingly out of the blue, that it was time to start seriously attempting more modern poetry. When I did, I suspect that experience with the Greeks did in fact help overcome some of my previous difficulties.

*Sappho, admittedly, is impossible to read this way and I did take her in, right from the beginning, as nothing other than poetry. With me, there are always exceptions, always equivocations.

(It is important to note somewhere, and it may as well be here, that reading poetry still does not come easily for me; I still struggle, even with "easy" poems, even ones I enjoy. It's just that now [SPOILERS] I find the struggle worth it, where before I did not. The struggle now is not always in vain, and indeed can often be enjoyed in and of itself.)

It didn't work immediately, of course. My first attempt, massively overambitious, was Wallace Stevens, whom I chose because of his central importance to my brother. I gave up quickly--and I still feel that I am not in a position to appreciate Stevens, though I consider the failing to be entirely mine, and plan to reattempt him, hopefully more fruitfully, in the near(ish) future.

After this failure, I decided that it would be a good idea to try to "break in" to poetry with the work of someone whose prose I knew I enjoyed. I happened to be in the process of reacquainting myself with Muriel Spark (again partly inspired by Josipovici), most of whose novels I had read as a teenager but not since, and was finding that I still enjoyed her I turned to her poetry. Much of it went well over my head; some of it seemed surprisingly trivial; but some of it hit me powerfully: "Elementary," with its "But knowing little of natural law/I can't describe what happens after/You weigh a body such as I saw,/First in air and then in water"; "Chrysalis," with its last line ("But it was a bad business, our being surprised") in context so simultaneously comic and damning; "Canaan," with its "No year is twice the same, nor has occurred/Before. We bandy by the name of grief,/Grief which is like no other. Not a leaf/Repeats itself, we only repeat the word."

This was making sense to me. Not only the words themselves, but their form, their positioning as poetry rather than anything else.

After that, the main problem was that I was lost as to directions. It is exciting to enter a world one knows nothing about, but also puzzling, paralyzing. I returned to Emily Dickinson, happily, but this still gave me nowhere to go. I recalled the names of a handful of feminist poets, mostly from mentions in various works of Joanna Russ.* Luckily for me, I started with Adrienne Rich's Diving Into the Wreck, which completely knocked me flat and remains one of the key poetic texts in my life. Many of the poems there left me physically shaken, quite literally, and I frequently found myself having to put the book down and take long walks between the poems. To be clear: this sort of reaction, to any work in any genre of art, is not remotely common for me.

*Russ's How to Suppress Women's Writing, incidentally, explains very well why Emily Dickinson gave me nowhere to go.

I've attempted other of her work, but aside from a few of the poems in the (I think) generally better-liked Dream of a Common Language nothing has struck me with anywhere near the same force; as yet, I have no idea why. I've tried some of the other feminist poets roughly contemporary with her: Marge Piercy’s The Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing and My Mother’s Body did little for me, though I've recently read her novel Woman on the Edge of Time and found it near-perfect; Audre Lorde’s Coal did little for me, though I suspect her essays may be for me a better introduction; Marilyn Hacker’s Separations did little for me, though (and I recognize that this is silly) after reading Samuel R. Delany's autobiographical The Motion of Light in Water and thus getting a glimpse of what some of her poems are "really about," I find myself appreciating them more. I don’t know why I’ve struck out so comprehensively with them, though I suspect my male socialization is involved; I will continue to try.

Gradually, looking into influences and schools and various critical writings* has given me some direction. Science fiction writers frequently help: Delany and James Tiptree, Jr., both pointed me in the direction of Hart Crane, who has been pivotal. I cannot overstate the impact reading his The Bridge and White Buildings has had on me; they have been intensely provocative and moving, though I would not say that I "understand" them, per se.

*Unfortunately mostly male, a problem I am aware of and am trying, with difficulty, to rectify in all areas of my reading.

Throughout my personal difficulties over the past year, I've been writing therapeutic poetry, never with any illusion that any of it was Art, or that anyone besides myself would find any value in any of it. We're talking bad high school poetry caliber, or perhaps a little worse. After reading Hart Crane, though, that began to change, and my poetry in recent months, no longer purely therapeutic, has been improving to the point where I'd almost think it was worth making public. I'm not quite there, but maybe someday. If I ever do get there, I'll owe it largely to him. He has taught me more than I could ever begin to express.

My goal in writing poetry began to be somehow to synthesize the lessons of Crane and of Rich, particularly as their very different approaches to queerness both resonated so strongly with me. Coincidentally, shortly after developing this goal, a brief mention in a Richard Eberhart essay (I have not read his poetry) led me to pick up Denise Levertov's Collected Earlier Poems 1940-1960. I quickly found that in many ways her work strikes me as (admittedly minus the queerness) almost exactly that synthesis of Crane and Rich that I was looking for in my own work. This description is of course reductive and in many ways utterly false, but nevertheless Levertov quickly joined Crane as co-holder of the title of "my favorite poet."

Some others who have been important to me: Elizabeth Bishop (for some reason primarily only her first book, North and South, and very little of her later work; add hers to the litany of works I want to reattempt at some point), Walt Whitman (whom thus far I have read only in the original version of Leaves of Grass and not in the more canonical revisions and expansions), a bit of Allen Ginsberg, much to my surprise (some of the non-"Howl" poems in Howl, particularly: "A Supermarket in California," "Transcription of Organ Music"), and the prose poems of Arthur Rimbaud (in Louise Varèse's translations).

Dickinson, Whitman, Rimbaud, and the Greeks aside, I have had very little success with pre-20th century poetry. I've attempted some of the English Romantics et al., John Keats, Percy Shelley, Emily Brontë, William Blake, Christina Rossetti, and bounced off each time, completely mystified as to what I was supposed to get out of them.* The same has happened with the earlier poets I've peeked at, Donne and Milton and so forth.

*The lines quoted by Russ that led me to Rossetti, "All my walls are lost in mirrors, whereupon I trace/Self to right hand, self to left hand, self in every place,/Self-same solitary figure, self-same seeking face," do fascinate--but even here, would I have noticed them if not for Russ's help?

Apart from Rimbaud and the Greeks, I've read no poetry in translation. Oh wait, there was also Baudelaire, from whom I gleaned absolutely nothing apart from a particularly vicious misogyny.

My very limited familiarity with poetry, in addition to largely starting around 1920, essentially ends somewhere in the late 1970s. By far the most recent poetry I've read is Tina Darragh's Striking Resemblance, from the mid-80s. I have absolutely no concept of what has happened since then, or of how to find out. I would love to know of some good poetry periodicals to read, but am afraid somehow to explore.

I have no idea what my philosophy of poetry is or should be, or whether I should have one. I have no idea what schools or practices or styles I do or do not approve of.

Something you may have noticed in this post is a near-absolute lack of any discussion of why I like or don't like the poets I do like. Partly that's because this is really just an introduction, but mostly it's because I have not as yet figured out how to talk about poetry. Having a place to try to work that out is, indeed, one of the primary purposes of this blog.