Recent American Poetry

Additional notes to accompany your reading

Notes on fragments & erasure

Notes on Mullen

Notes on Mehmedinovic 

Here's a review of Mehmedinovic's first book translated into English, Sarajevo Blues. It includes several poems from the book.

Here's an informal account by Mile Stojic, another Bosnian writer, of a few of his meetings with Mehmedinovic. Among other things, it provides a Bosnian's point of view on the title and content of Nine Alexandrias. They speak of "the greatest sage of the new Egyptian Alexandria," the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (1893-1933) of Alexandria. Here are two translations of his most famous poem, "Waiting for the Barbarians."

And here's a quotation from a 1998 interview conducted in New York City by his translator, Amniel Alcalay. It is perhaps the most optimistic statement  Mehmedinovic has made, at least among those available to us in English.

"[I]n the case of America, there has been a positive change in which the American model now wants to include all the world's cultures in it. The way New York is constructed, for example, there is this ambition to demonstrate a plurality of everything, from food and ethnic neighborhoods to the fact that you have writers here from everywhere, many of whom write in their own language while still maintaining a sense of presence here... The reason I find this so valuable is that I see a process taking place here that is diametrically opposed to what happened in Sarajevo. We have to remember that Sarajevo was one of the few European cities that would be hard to categorize in terms of "national" literature... [Y]ou simply could not say that the literature written in Sarajevo Bosnia-Hercegovina was Bosnian or Croatian or Serbian. But this is precisely what has happened as a result of the war, that on the borders of culture all kinds of divisions and separations have been made. When you force these kinds of sharp divisions--in this case within the same language--the results are bloody. The best of what I see here demonstrates a model that can only benefit all cultures.

This interview appears at the end of Sarajevo Blues in the American edition, from City Lights Books, 2004.

In art there are two kinds of fragments.

The first is a surviving fragment of an artwork that once was whole and complete. Examples include broken Greek statuary, damaged Khmer temples, and a partial set of chess pieces from a Viking tomb in Scotland. Uncompleted artworks may also be considered fragments -- unfinished poems, paintings found underneath other paintings. In literature, the archetype of fragmentation is the poetry of Sappho, preserved primarily in the form of quotations among the papers of other writers. (There are also a few lines found on paper used to wrap a corpse.)

The aesthetic and emotional power of such fragments can be strong. We admire their beauty and the skill of their makers; we long to see the work whole, and, by extension, we long for the whole lost age in which the art was created. The latter affect can be particularly strong if the art belongs to a culture we regard as aesthetically superior to our own, or to a culture irretrievably lost -- such as ancient Greece, Buddhist Afghanistan, or pre-Columbian Mexico.

The second kind of fragmentary art is deliberately created as a fragment, or as an arrangement of fragments, with no expectation that it will or should be made more complete. This second kind of fragment has been around at least since Romanticism (late 18th-early 19th c.), when artists from poets to architects wanted not only to evoke the sense of a lost cultural past but to express a feeling of permanent loss and incompleteness. (You may recall Jane Austen's spoof of rich people who fancied themselves cultured, declaring they will build a new ruin in the garden.)

In Modernism (early 20th c.) the fragment became an emblem for modern life, in which shards of the cultural past were swept aside or stumbled over in the midst of a suddenly fast-paced, transitory, urbanized life. The overwhelming destruction and displacement of World War I accelerated this feeling, and composition by collage, montage, cut-up, and interruption spread through all the arts.

In Postmodernism (late 20th c. & now) the fragment is everywhere: in advertising, channel surfing, and sampling, as well as in the throw-away values of consumerism.

So what does canceled text have to do with all this? By creating deliberate fragments from a preexisting whole text, it takes part in both kinds of fragmentation. Tom Phillips created A Humument out of an otherwise obscure Victorian novel. Ronald Johnson and Jen Bervin worked on two of the most revered texts of the literary canon: John Milton's Paradise Lost and Shakespeare's sonnets.

As you read for this week, consider these questions.

1) Johnson printed Radi Os without Milton's text. Bervin printed Nets with the sonnets still present, in a rather ghostly gray ink. How do you respond to seeing the sonnets there behind the new poems? What is the visual affect? Do the new poems seem to rise out of or float over the old? Does one dominate the other? Why do you think those line numbers are preserved in black ink in the margins?

2) Reading a fragmentary text like Bervin's is an extreme exercise in close reading. Once you take an interest in an individual poem, take time to free-associate on each of its words and phrases, and to consider different grammatical functions for each word. In #116, for example, does "shaken" describe the speaker or some other unnamed person? or does it describe "wand'ring", which thus becomes a noun? Is "compass" a noun or a verb? Is the compass even? or does something compass even the edge of error?

3) Exploring sound relationships can also open up meanings. Some poems (26, for example) seem designed to retain and exploit Shakespeare's rich texture of full rhyme, consonance, assonance, and alliteration, while others do not. In #116, sound seems to structure the poem: compare the sounds before the word "compass" to the sounds after that word. How does "compass" work as a pivot in the poem?

4) Try reading all of Bervin's poems out loud, from start to finish. What do you notice, in theme and form, that you don't find by reading silently?

5) Read at least a few of Bervin's poems in conjunction with the sonnets they arise from. Make notes about how you read the Bervin poem, then make notes about the sonnet, and then go back to the Bervin poem. Does its meaning change once you've read the sonnet? Does the sonnet's meaning change when you consider it in relation to Bevin's poem? (Good choices might be 3, 18, 29, 35, 55, 63, 116, 129, 130, 134; we read 29 and 130 last week.)

6) What are the larger implications of making one's own poems out of the text of an authoritative piece of literature? Is it homage? critique? both? What kind of statement does it make about the whole idea of literary inheritance? Another way to ask this question might be: why not just write your own short fragmentary poems and leave Shakespeare out of it?

7) And what about the sonnet form? Do Bervin's poems retain any ghost of a sonnet's structure? If not, how do they relate to that structure? Are they antithetical to a sonnet's tight construction and wrapped-up meanings?

Harryette Mullen

As you can see, Muse & Drudge is composed entirely in quatrains, four quatrains to each page. With few exceptions, there is no punctuation or capitalization, except for proper nouns, hyphenated words, and possessives. When she reads from this book, Mullen moves the order of the pages around, first reading pages from the back, perhaps, then a few from the middle, or wherever. She reads quickly and at a fairly uniform pace. In an interview she has said: "I tried to think about ways that things could go together, so there could be rhythm or flow or some kind of dynamic movement.... In some cases, there's a local order that may continue for a page but usually no longer than a page." (Calvin Bedient: "The Solo Mysterioso Blues: An Interview with Harryette Mullen. Callaloo Summer 1996.)

Meaning is organized tangentially, rather than by linear development. It is layered and entirely relational in that meaning in any single line, phrase, or quatrain is created only in relation to other lines, phrases, and quatrains -- or in relation to things outside the poem, which the poem alludes to. This goes on right at the level of sound -- punning,  word play, messing with familiar phrases or famous quotations, rhyming or withholding a rhyme where you expect one.

This leaves a reader with multiple reading possibilities, some of which will build on each other and some of which may seem to contradict each other. Starting from a single phrase, you might pursue meanings in several directions at once. This kind of structure is a kind of metonymy (things associated together) rather than synecdoche (where a part can stand for the whole).

African American experience is chief among her subjects. More precisely, the experiences of African American women. As Australian scholar Kate Pearcy puts it:

One of the primary cultural categorisations Mullen is interested in decoding and recoding is that of race. There is a distinctly recognisable black and African diasporan word choice, with references to the West African language Fula, from which the term mojo is derived and the god Osiris from Egyptian mythology. Of course Mullen also works with a specific African American heritage variously dropping words like cornbread, gumbo, bottle tree, beats and breaks, and making reference to practices such as double dutch, rag time, hip hop, and rap. These citations, however, are satirically played out within Mullen's poetic, primarily through allusion to the emergence of black cultural practice as capital within the American market, the music and film industries receive particular attention in Muse & Drudge in this respect, but also more generally through the crossed circuits of economic and cultural exchange in which modes of misrecognition play a primary function for black and white consumers/readers alike. Quatrains like 'slave made artefact, salt glazed poetry, mammy manufacture, jig-rig nitty gritty, make this explicit but do, in addition, highlight a desire for her work to be circulated in relation with African American communities. Patterns of reception and participation self reflexively inform the thematic content of her poetry. For instance, a black audience is figured as producing a specific and comparative canniness: colored hearing colored, sounds darker, back vowels lower, down there deeper. ("A Poetics of Opposition?:Race and the Avant-Garde". Poetry and the Public Sphere: A Conference on Contemporary Poetry. Rutgers University. December 8, 1997.

Writers and readers have always been interested in the authenticity of "the black voice" in literature. Mullen crosses this concern with a postmodern interest in language itself. Where white "language" writers tend to set up an opposition between poems composed around language experiment and poems composed around the self and a personal voice, Mullen is specifically interested in the intersections of speech, voice, and authenticity with with questions of how language determines who we are and how we think. Hence her interest in clichés, aphorisms, advertising, quotation and allusion, as well as nursery rhyme, tall tale, popular literature, ballad, and -- of course -- the blues.

Another specifically African American verbal tradition that provides an entry into Mullen's work is the practice of signifying. The Oxford Companion to African American Literature (1997) defines signifying as:

a form of verbal play -- centering primarily on the insult... a verbal mechanism by which anger an aggression may be channeled into relatively harmless form. This form of play offers speakers the opportunity to demonstrate their improvisational mastery of rhyme and rhythm, as well as their capacity to improvise on the verbal play of others. Signifying implies the art of expressing ideas, opinions, feelings, and so forth, by indirection and is, therefore, a culturally specific form of irony. One who signifies says without explicitly saying, criticizes without actually criticizing, insults without really insulting. (665-666)

Some writers have interpreted signifying as a specifically male practice, a ritual whereby African American men reassert their manhood in the face of emasculating racist culture. Others have emphasized its humor and its ability to create community, rather than individual identity. In The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literature (1988),
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., developed signifying into a comprehensive theory of how literary texts establish their relation to other texts, and authors to other authors. He was particularly interested in establishing signifying as a means by which Black authors recontextualize white authors and white cultural practices into an African American frame of reference.

All these ideas of signifying seem relevant in reading Mullen. Her work is nothing if not a form of verbal play. It is heavily gendered (though female, of course, which would reverse the original gender typing of signifying). It's funny, and, according to her own statements, it presents not an individual speaking "I" but the collective "I" of tradition. Her work recontextualizes everything it touches into an African American (and female) frame of reference. And, finally, her work seeks to create community among disparate readers, as well as re-create an idea of African American verbal community.



George Mason University

English 390:001
Spring 2008

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Susan Tichy 

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