Sunday, July 11, 2010

Dorothea Lasky’s Project

Dorothea Lasky
Poetry Is Not a Project

(Brooklyn: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010)

This pamphlet is small (5" x 6"), short (24 unpaginated pages, including six entirely given over to title or section headings), and beautiful to behold. Its blue covers with embossed (yes, embossed!) title, author and press names (the latter on the rear), and illustration, are gorgeous. And the book’s hand-sewn too. The folks at Ugly Duckling sure can make a damn good-looking book.

The purpose of Dorothea Lasky’s pamphlet is to convince you that poems are intuited, and that poems that are projects – those in which “everything is set out before [the writer gets] gets started” – are (and here I condense a bit) “pretty boring, at best,” have “nothing to do with poetry” and “may actually be very toxic to the very notion of poetry.” She explains her views in a four-part essay. Each section is between a page and one-half to four pages long. There’s generous spacing between the lines, so it’s a relatively quick read.

Lasky I think deliberately keeps her text short and the presentation airy, so as to more effectively present her didactic prose. Not a bad strategy, but here what she writes, the criticism she levels at poem-projects, is absolutely and entirely unconvincing. As in stop, do not pass go unconvincing.

But you knew I was going to conclude that, didn’t you? I just celebrated Joan Retallack’s new book, which focuses on poems largely made from methods, methods determined in advance. I’ve celebrated plenty else that has a similar generative heritage, including Kenneth Goldsmith’s Sports, Nathan Austin’s Survey Says, Susan Howe’s Poems Found in A Pioneer Museum (scroll a third of the way down the page there), and Clayton Eshleman’s “Tavern of the Scarlet Bagpipe,” his poem-project concerning The Garden of Earthly Delights.

And I could go on (I must go on). Someday I need to rave – long and loud and clear – about Jackson Mac Low’s French Sonnets (Tucson: Black Mesa Press, 1984; 2nd edition Milwaukee: Membrane Press, 1989), a book – forever young – of pre-determined method poetry. Mac Low’s project systematically substitutes, for the words of certain Shakespeare’s sonnets, the words found at the tops of pages in the English section of a French-English dictionary. And so,
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
the opening line of Sonnet XVIII, becomes:
Shamefulness Hymn companionableness thanksgiver tissue a summer-wheat’s dead?
and reading that I just laugh, and hard, and think too, and then think and laugh again and every time I re-read it (and the lines that follow, of course) Mac Low’s poem renews itself. There’s always more or something else to “see.” And that's how it is with every poem in the poetry-project, the poetry-project for the ages, that is French Sonnets.


Lasky’s pamphlet, her critique of poem-projects, would be unconvincing I think even if you do not share my enthusiasm for method-poems. Her discussion of her views just doesn’t make it.

The weakness of Lasky’s explication is perhaps most profound in the second section of Poetry Is Not A Project. That section’s titled “An Example,” and Lasky heralds its arrival by putting the sub-head all by itself on a separate page:

Lasky then begins the section with two sentences that I found very, very promising:
Reading this, you are probably looking for an example right now of what the difference is between a person who is conducting a project and a person who is writing a poem. That’s fair – to want an example.
After some elaboration, Lasky repeats her point in a stand-alone, single-sentence paragraph:
But perhaps a real example would be good.
And by this point I was excited as heck. I really was, and I think any reader would be. Lasky sets it up, repeatedly, to really get into it. Three times she says she will make her point about poem-projects using a real poem, an actual poet. A specific, particular, on-the-page example, to provide in prose, in support of her views, an object lesson of Dr. Williams’ “no ideas but in things.”

But nope, and what a let-down. Lasky’s “example” is as sharp as a deflated balloon. She names no names. There’s no poem or poems, no specifically identified poet(s).

Instead she refers to “an acquaintance” who “happened to be a poet” and was “working on a project where his goal was to go to “the local art museum every day for a month and write a poem about a different piece of art each day.” As it turned out, Lasky “did not like” the poems. It seemed to her that “everything that mattered was in the idea” of the project.

This is not okay by me, not in the least. ¿Dónde está la carne de vaca? Lasky provides only an airy nothing, a thing unknown. Her double-vague “example” – no poem, no poet – doesn’t convince me, and I can’t imagine it convincing anyone, of much of anything. No saxifrage splits the rocks here.

Lasky in this same section then hedges, big-time, on her dismissiveness of poem-projects, and it really gets confusing. She writes that many of her idols in poetry “used projects as generative forces” in their poems. She mentions her love of, among others, the “experiments and exercises” of Language, surrealist and Flarf writers. She insists that in these projects, “the poems were the most important parts of the whole thing. If a project does not get to a real poem, then it is not important to your work because it generates nothing. The problem I’m pointing out in this pamphlet is that just because you have constructed a project does not mean you have written a poem.”

This all leaves my head spinning. In failing to get specific, then backtracking on her critique by saying that a poem-project’s okay if it results in something she calls “a real poem,” Lasky’s already deflated balloon sinks to the bottom of a muddy puddle. It makes me want to drop her a short note.
Dear Dorothea Lasky:

Name names. Say which poem-projects have “nothing to do with poetry”, and which are, to again use your term, “real.” Argue with particulars to show which poem-projects are “pretty boring.” Illuminate via details your view that poem-projects are “very toxic.” Wake up, please, and smell the saxifrage.


Steve Fama
Until these or similar suggestions are followed, dear readers of the glade, I must advise that you just move along. There’s nothing much to read in Poetry Is Not A Project.


But there’s one more thing, and it’s important. I think Lasky herself writes poetry that is a project, and that her project – which happens to be one of the oldest in the poetry-book – sets out about as much before she starts writing (is just about as restrictive, in other words) as any other project that she criticizes.

Do you know what I mean? I’ve read Lasky’s two large collections, plus one of her chaps, and her project is undeniable. Take a look at Black Life, published earlier this year by Wave Books. In the poems of that book, the pronouns “I” and “my” and “me” dominate. Dominate.

“Ars Poetica,” one of poems in the book, may be particularly (though not especially) spectacular with regard to personal pronouns, but wow is it telling (especially given its subject matter). Its 30 lines include 29 personal pronouns. Similar is “Tornado,” another in the book and which The New Yorker published in February. In its 30 lines, “I,” “my,” or “me” appear 23 times. Here are the first-person pronouns from these two poems, lifted from the text and arrayed as prose:
I me I I my me my me I I m my I I I I my my my I my I my me I I I I I.
I I I my I My I I I I I I I I I my me I I I I I me I.
Get the idea? (Extra credit if you answer with the homophonically appropriate “Aye, aye.”) The first person in these poems, by the way, is not the slippery sort sometimes (often) encountered in, say, John Ashbery’s verse. This “I” channels, reflects, is, the (quoting now from Poetry Is Not a Project) “internal world” of Lasky, her “self” trying to connect with, the universal.

Some might say this kind of personal lyric has been done to death over the last how many centuries, but no, I think such poems can still burn, if done right (and I’ve written enthusiastically about such poetry). But regardless of that, these “I, me, my” poems are a project, make that a Project, and Lasky couldn’t be more devoted to it.

It puzzles me to no end that Lasky refuses to acknowledge that she has a poetry-project. She instead insists that hers is an intuited “wild party” poetry that arises from the “realm of chance.”

Say what?!! Hold on! Let me say it again. The personal lyrics that Lasky writes are the oldest poetry-project going. This poetry-project constrains and limits her verse no less, and some might say even more than, any pre-determined procedure. It restricts the energy and voice to a certain pitch and focus and requires, in poem after poem, all those personal pronouns, which anchor everything within their self-centric radii (and dig how that plural form reflects the subject here!).

Acknowledged or not by Lasky, her personal “I, me, my” lyric approach pretty much means that pretty much “everything is set out before [she] gets started,” very similar to the way it is in the poem-projects she criticizes. As such, she ought to be careful when she suggests that poetry-projects might be “very toxic to the very notion of poetry.” Compare or consult here the pot and kettle, the goose and gander.


The colophon of Poetry Is Not a Project states that Ben Fama guests edits
the Ugly Duckling Dossier series in which the pamphlet appears.
Although we share the same relatively uncommon surname,
Ben and I, so far as I know, are not related.

Not that there’d be anything wrong with that!



Curtis Faville said...


I did a blog along these lines some months back, comparing the formalist experiments of Moore, to the synthetic formal poems The Alphabet and Progress (Watten).

Canonical post-Modernism (if I may use that phrase) is expressed through two fairly contradictory thematic streams:

1) The idea that form should never be more than an extension of content (from Olson's Projective Verse). This idea privileges subject and narrative and content over form, which must stretch and mutate to accommodate content.

2) The imposition of an artificial formal structure, antecedent to content. As post-Modernism's answer to the constriction of traditional forms, it merely replaces them with new ones.

What is more artificial than setting arbitrary limits and constraints, using "content" to "fill" in the blanks?

Williams's great contribution to literature was the demonstration of making expedient, invented form follow the demands of each unique poetic instance. Crucially, Silliman references his reading of late Williams--the Williams of The Desert Music, Journey to Love and Pictures From Brueghel--in which Williams sought to codify the spread tercet as something he called the "shifting American foot"--a reduction of the poetic process to a formal limitation as confining as anything he'd ever done since his earliest experiments with the sonnet.

The idea that you could say anything meaningful about anything, by starting out before-hand with, say, a requirement that every sentence be unrelated to every other sentence, or that every fourth line should end in three dots (ellipsis), etc., is manifestly absurd.

Perec's attempt to write a novel without using the letter 'a'--

These kinds of feats mean nothing in terms of the world. They're parlor games.

Yet Moore was able to show how an arbitrary form could be responsibly adapted to express meaningful relationships between the world, knowledge, experience, language, and perception. I see very little evidence of this labor-intensive work in the Language School. Rae Armantrout, however, seems to be doing it.

If I understand the "poetry project" issue you're discussing here, it may be Lasky's point is related to this problem.

Steven Fama said...

Curtis, you've much stuff in your comment, which I thank you for sharing, but I disagree with your claim about "parlor games." You seem there to be stuck in a rationalist, positivist world-view. But no matter the view that gives rise to it, I can't agree. Lunacy and chance and nonsense and the absurd and the rigorously pre-planned (see the Mac Low mentioned in the post) speak and point to truths too.

P.S. Perec's novel (in English, A Void) was written (in French, and then again -- miracle!) in the English translation -- with the letter "e".

the coffee phillosopher said...

Also, I think one risks a slippery slope.

I don't write poetry that rhymes, myself, but have quite a fondness for "Childe Harold" - but isn't all rhymes a "project?" Poetry confined by artificial limits? And what about poetry whose "project" is a narrative?

And is all ekphrastic poetry to be dismissed as "project" poetry?

Obviously, I am responding only to a summary - but where does she draw the line?

Steven Fama said...

Hi Coffee Philosopher:

Your questions and the like are in sync with mine. Such questions and concerns are just about exactly why I wish, and double-wish, Lasky had used some (or even just one) real example to illustrate her views.

Meg said...

You are so very right about this.

An insistence on no project at all is a project. A trajectory of chaos proceeding towards a new order in and of itself.

Perhaps she should have thought it over a bit more...the instant and disposable culture of modern poetry...produced in a matter of seconds and then published (guilty) within a few manifested here.

If it were me...and I had decided to talk this issue over with myself with or without an audience, I'd have chosen the necessity of veiling the project, making it invisible. That's what poems should do in my estimation but in that, I give all my secrets away...or at least some of them. Heh.

xenopoeta said...

I've always had the same problem with the Language poets, but haven't the mental acuity or, perhaps, intellectualism to identify where they bother me. Curtis' comment comes very close to the mark. If I don't have some kind of emotional / cognitive response, it is like observing a building which architects say is very significant but for whatever reason, I have no gut level reaction to it. I guess that I assume that it's the architects/poets responsibility to try to communicate on the gut level rather than the intellectual level. Not to say that the form of the poem isn't important, but more important than the form is the meaning.

For example, Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment" has a lot of philosophical implications related to Nietzsche, modern ethics, and so on. Yet it would not be the great novel that it is if its narrative suspense and intensity were absent. It is the combination of all these elements that make it a great novel. Likewise, poetry that tries through structural and poetic theory to communicate to a narrow intellectual group doesn't appeal to me, though it may be "great poetry" it is lacking what I enjoy in poetry.

Curtis Faville said...

The relation between the subject-matter of a poem, its form, and how we respond to that combination, is what constitutes the poetic experience. The intersection of these three things involves the appropriation of some kind of structure--

structure of the medium--page, recording, etc.

structure of the language--grammar, word-choice

structure of the context--private experience, audience, culture, temporality

Assigning an artificial form, a priori, to a given experience, severely limits the degree of appropriation of the poet's intimate reaction to and apprehension of that experience, through the form.

This is why The Alphabet and Progress seem so constrained and limiting in their application. They're worse than sonnet-sequences, in this respect. Everything the form can say is accomplished within a couple of pages. Because the mediation between form and content has been set aside, in favor of a formula. That formula can be verified--proven, replicated--but it has no flexibility. The law of unintended consequences is denied.

jon said...

Lasky is trying to differentiate herself from 'post-avant' or Language Poetry without being buttonholed as 'conservative' (politically conservative). The experimental wing of american poetry is now institutionalized and dogmatic, so every poet bored by these now old-fashioned projects is faced with the same difficulties. I would rather find a person in a poem than a theory or a philosophy, much less an ideology or a politics. In finding a person I may encounter all of these, but I want to hear a voice, not an argument that a voice does not exist, etc.

Curtis Faville said...


This is kind of a paradox.

When I was at Iowa, I complained often to Marvin Bell that my chief difficulty as an aspiring poet was in finding (constructing) a voice, a characteristic, familiar "sound" or style through which I could define myself.

He would respond, "Look, that's just a by-product of the struggle to make poems that work. You can't avoid sounding like yourself. You may even start out in slavish imitation, but eventually you can't help but create a unique style, so don't worry about it."

Of course, when I wrote poems of the kind that Bell liked, he'd say I was "finding my voice" but when I wrote other kinds he'd say I was getting distracted, off the track.

Jon said...


Voice is a vexed thing I suppose, but I know the exact moment when I started to write in my voice, and it was a discovery. I don't know whether it's constructed or not, but it is the sound i hear speaking when I write poetry, and my best poetry is in that voice. I'm a novelist too, but my experience with voice in fiction is a little different. I know artists have different experiences of themselves, different explanations, and also different agendas (not in a negative sense). The problem would be insisting that what is an individual experience is universal, or necessary. I think there are purposes and strategies, and aside from voice, as an artist you challenge and destroy and alter, engage with tradition, to make a space for yourself. Now, that procedure is much criticized as being romantic and bourgeois etc to the extant that involves a belief in a true entity called the self, the voice. That stance is useful as a way of challenging convention, but the challenge is ongoing, and art is a moving target. I guess i half agree with you. And the paradox of self or the paradoxes of consciousness, provoke and fuel the process of creation. It should not be mere ego and navel gazing, and the constant bleat of 'me, mine, my and I' can be infantile and infuriating. Still, we live in an time of extreme alienation and lack of individuality. I would like there to be a genuine 'we' that 'I' can speak of, and i want to know and be known. The self has been thoroughly deconstructed, and it's still there. i like your post by the by, and like Dorothea Lasky too. She read in Ithaca and I was fortunate to see her. I felt she was challenging in a powerful way avant-garde conventions. she's unafraid of lyrical beauty, of invoking god, of passion. she's also funny as hell. thanks for replying to my reply.

D Hadbawnik said...


great post. i've recently picked up anathemata by david jones and can't wait to dig in. talk about a project!

any project can become stale if there's no flexibility, creativity, willingness to deviate as you go along... the anonymous project that lasky describes just sounds like ekphrasis with no real plan. no surprise it turned out badly.

the bottom line is that no project, lack of project, adherence to this or that 'ism' can save you from the disease of simply not being a good poet!

D Hadbawnik said...


great post, i like what you're doing here, i agree with much of what you say about projects and the value of them... just checked out david jones' anathemata -- talk about a project -- can't wait to dig in.

please backchannel to me and i'd be happy to get you my own title on sardines press, as well as current issues of kadar koli and habenicht press stuff. cheers.