I don’t quite know how to respond to this torrid review by Alan Davies of two of my books. He’s got a bug up his ass about something:
Here’s a choice bit:
I will note that these passages I’m quoting have been pulled from masses of not-dissimilar-verbiage / but verbiage that only rarely shows awareness of what it is doing.
This is his way of informing the reader, as if it were no small matter, that he will not in fact be quoting from my poems and analyzing them, but that he will merely collage a bunch of poems together as seemingly self-evident support of his claims. This, I guess, is the “luminous detail” method of Pound’s, but with no sense of integrity concerning representing that which he chooses to judge.
Here are a few scattered notes on the rest of the review:
I am accused of “hinting at” things that are “deadly serious,” but apparently have no idea how serious they are — “nor do they [the poems] make an effort to come even somewhat close to doing so.” We never find out what these serious things are, however, or how I’ve hinted at them (in fact, close reading of any nature is entirely absent, here).
I am referred to as “Brian” throughout the piece, which is telling, I think, of the fact that he is writing here mostly about what he thinks of me, not the poems.
My “structures” apparently “insist upon the dissolution of the fragments.” A paragraph later, however, he states that in fact my forms are “conservative,” and that “there is nothing on a formal level to parallel what I take to be a willed break-down of the meaningful.” Huh?
As I stated above, when he quotes from the poems, he prefers taking small bits of 2-5 lines from a number of poems and throwing them together as if they were one. This is, of course, ironic considering that he claims to be so concerned with form in relation to meaning, that he accuses of me of lack of coherence, and that he chooses to lecture (you? me?) about the issue of “caring”:
Brian asks Does it pay to care about things? Yes. Because any action without feeling is empty. Because any-action-with-feeling changes things / and because we can be aware of that and learn from it and further it. Because caring is why we’re here — there’s nothing before it / and nothing comes after it / without caring’s being there. Because argument is empty without caring / because a story is / because a sequence is / because a stack of phrases is / because a lyric (a song) is / because history is / because what-might-happen is / because what-will-happen is / because it all is / because we are. It’s pretty much obvious that it’s caring that binds us together / and without it we (and I) fall apart.
It’s paragraphs like these, the soapboxing ones where we are shown the great humanitarian vision of Alan Davies, that really makes me question what he is in fact trying to do in this review. One thing he is not doing is evaluating (or “caring” about) poems.
Next, he writes of one sequence that there is “more grammar than elsewhere,” but that “this grammar is heavily bolstered by loads of punctuation (which tells us that the grammar is either impacted or scattered (or (quite possibly) both).” I have no idea what he’s saying here. How is grammar “bolstered” by punctuation? How is grammar “impacted”? What is too much punctuation — is that like too many notes?
Again, the irony is that his review, or screed, is, if anything, overloaded with punctuation, i.e. the silly excessive parentheses (to demonstrate the “active” nature of his thinking, I guess), the use of forward slashes to denote, I guess, the line by breath of Olson. He reminds the reader that so much of what I have done in my poems has already been done — by the Absurdist playwrights “sixty years ago”, by Joe Brainard “half a century ago”, etc. — and yet here he is pretending he’s Robert Creeley circa 1957.
Davies is so furious with me, he can’t give an entire sentence over to actually saying something nice about the poems. If there is a moment of approval, it’s immediately qualified by another pointless parenthetical. Here’s a typical example: “The unexpected sequencing of phrases causes one to think (sometimes).” Ho ho ho.
The royal “we” makes it into the essay as well — he really wants to win your vote: “We finish reading this sequence feeling that we have been told that we don’t know where we are and that we’ve been told that we don’t know for how long / and that we’ve been told that (in all probability (maybe)) we never will know those things (or not-know them (for that matter)).” I don’t “tell” people anything in my poems; they are not lectures for moral edification (I am not a Victorian), and if he’s reading them that way, it’s his folly.
Brian Eno is taken to task for his ideas: “the real poverty of the idea is that it is limited to the same old Western dichotomous way of thinking that has soiled all our ideas (and quite possibly all of our actions) since thinking that way was inculcated.” I think Davies’ Olsonian hang-up is really coming to the fore here — he can see way back in time to before “dichotomous ways of thinking” were “inculcated.” When this was, and what it was like, he doesn’t say, but it must feel pretty good to write about it.
Based on one piece of mine, he makes the claim that “(if these texts are to be taken as example) it is a form of embarrassment that plays today as prime substance of humor.” I don’t know how the content of one of my poems (which, indeed, is predicated on embarrassing moments) reflects the nature of humor in all of my poems, nor how it is meant to comment on humor today as a whole. I guess I’m just a tool.
Davies then lectures “us” on what makes a poem endure:
I can’t say that there’s anything about the writing that demands a rereading. Works that have survived have survived because they’ve kept people alive. This work seems to be written in invisible ink (only temporarily apprehensible) on cellophane — not a bad thing / but finally all that there is (here).
This is another cop from Pound — “only emotion endures” (from the “Dos and Donts of an Imagist”) and “What thou lovest well remains / the rest is dross.” In fact, much of Davies’ essay is cliched in this manner — once substantial ideas, or once nobly expressed sentiments, devolved into breathless emoting.
Here’s another choice bit of ad hominem attack:
This writing (in Kluge now) seems to parallel what’s happening in the world nowadays rather than to be in it (ie it’s at the world / not of it). It doesn’t exactly touch the world — (is it because the fear is that deep? (note the use of parentheses here)).
I don’t need to by psychoanalyzed by some crackpot poet from New York; if I have fear, it is mine and mine to know. And why, in this particular instance, are we to “note the use of parentheses”? This is comical, actually.
He then writes, of another piece:
I would like to meet anyone who read this text word-for-word — (actually) I take that back / I would not (not (would not)) like to meet anyone who read it word-for-word.
This is just strange. Later, he comments about another poem, “Sehnsucht,” that he has “not read the whole thing.” It’s quite obvious to me that he hasn’t finished most of the pieces, as in the next paragraph he describes my poem “Kluge” as the following:
These texts are addressed to someone (presumably someone other than the author / possibly more than one such someone) / and purport in a way to deal with a complex of feelings the author has for that someone (or that have been aroused by that person’s existence) / although the feelings are routinely made light of / and the prose is used to not allow them to develop (or even to remain the same). The pieces are dramatic monologues / although it would probably be much more accurate to say that they are monologues.
This is totally inaccurate. The first twelves sections could mistaken for such (clearly, though, they are fictions, as the addresser is occasionally female). The second section doesn’t address anyone at all, but is a revision/copping of a Robert Coover short story called “The Golden Poker.” The third is based on the letters of H.P. Lovecraft to his wife of one year, Sonia Greene. This is just a more salient example of the fraudulence of this review.
Davies’ nastiness comes clear in the end of the essay, when he writes of the two short essays I included at the end of Kluge about electronic literature: “These are informative enough / although they perhaps-more-tellingly serve the function of alerting us to the fact that the author feels a need to himself begin the proliferation of secondary-texts which he might imagine his work engendering.”
Where does he come up with this shit?
In a short coda, Davies writes: “These poems of Brian’s remind me in some ways of German Expressionist poems (which I’ve been reading lately).” Good of you to inform us that you are actually reading the poems that my work reminds you of, Alan; I’ve just been reading your review of my books.
He then notes that David Constantine’s introduction to the anthology he is reading is “slightly more historical” than whatever drivel he, Davies, was just writing about the Germans giving up the “baggage of their myth-laden pasts.” Yes, anything’s more historical than ethnic stereotyping.
We are then treated to a chunky paragraph from the introduction that more or less rehearses the Modernist response to industrialization and urbanization, as if it had anything to do with the review that preceded it (talk about coherence). In fact, it was only to place another soapbox under his feet so that he can lament about the lack of care in this world, etc.
In our own present moment (if we can speak of it as our own) many of us can only wonder if the world will end in economic ruin / political ruin / ruination by war(s) / or ecological ruin / (and there are undoubtedly some ruinations that the moment has conspired to insist that I forget (or (indeed) that I do not come to know)).
The insight this man has into the “present moment”! Someone dial Lionel Trilling, fast!
Anyway, I seem angrier than I am. I actually am just really disappointed. I’ve known Alan for many years, have had him read in my series at Segue, even used a photograph of him for my redesign of the Segue site. We’ve never been close, but acquaintances, and I’ve enjoyed much of his work.
I had no idea he had such antipathy toward me; if he doesn’t like my poems, fine, but the raging contradictions of his review, this marshalling of the forces from Horace to Wittgenstein to William Empson to state unequivocally that there is simply nothing going on in the poems, I find — to use one of his words — “willed.” It’s a sort of useful blindness to give him a platform to vent, if not about the world, about me (unless, of course, his thinking is this bankrupt all the time, which I find hard to believe).
Compassionate conservatism, anyone?