The American Ruin and the C&O Canal

The Monocacy Aqueduct

My review of Francis Raven’s The C&O Canal (Publishing Genius, 2009) has just been published in the August issue of The Chapbook Review.  Here’s the penultimate paragraph:

In many ways, Raven’s text displays attributes of what Stephen Burt has recently called the “New Thing” (his May/June 2009 Boston Review essay has sparked much lively discussion throughout the blogosphere), a recent tendency in contemporary poetry that represents, unlike the elliptical poetry of the 90s, a turn to reference, a focused attention on facts and things. New Thing poetry is restrained, unornamented, and concise—as is The C&O Canal. But according to Burt, the New Thing poem “finds, and emulates, some permanence” and aspires to the state of durable inscription. Raven’s poem, however, is more complicated as it assumes its own ephemerality even as it strives for a New Thing-like accuracy; the prefatory note ends with the claim that “[t]hese poems are a bit like those ruins, falling apart, but factually accurate.” And the poem proper begins with this compressed, assonantal rhyming couplet:

     by the time the words reached
     they were obsolete //

Raven reminds us of the noncoincidence between sign and referent—that his words will always be falling away from the object which they are supposed to represent. Yet, in a curious twist, this recognition of obsolescence, in fact, reinforces a correspondence between obsolete thing and obsolete text, between the C&O Canal and The C&O Canal.

For the whole shebang, visit here.

~ by Michael Leong on August 2, 2009.

4 Responses to “The American Ruin and the C&O Canal”

  1. Is this New Thing poetry something like less is more? I do prefer more than less; I tend to miss the manifold textures that only the more can provide. Enlighten me.
    Nice to see you are taking some time out of your vacation to provide us with smart stuff.

  2. Thanks again Michael! Looking forward to more from you.

  3. Hi Atena–yeah, the New Thing poetry is a bit like less is more (a reaction against the neo-baroque) and Burt mentions in his essay that New Thing poetry is often termed “minimilist.” Johannes Göransson has written some thoughtful responses to Burt’s essay on his blog Exoskeleton and he brings up the fact that there is an undertheorized notion of excess in blanket dismissals of “soft-surrealist cotton candy” (Jon Woodward’s phrase), so you definitely make a good point about “the more.”

    This review doesn’t really tackle Burt’s ideas head-on, but I do plan to present an extensive reply to Burt in one of my dissertation chapters, since, like him, I want to analyze and assess the poetry of this century’s first decade now that it is 2009. Burt does have a knack for grouping poets together in heuristic categories but the notion of New Thing poetry seems to me very superficial and considers only surface similarities. Take for instance the way Burt uses the figure of William Carlos Williams as the New Thing’s inspirational source. In an unpublished paper that I’ve momentarily lost I argue that Williams is not a “minimalist” poet as many presume but he is actually a maximalist. We might want to look at such a beloved anthology piece such as “To a Poor Old Woman”:

    To a Poor Old Woman

    munching a plum on
    the street a paper bag
    of them in her hand

    They taste good to her
    They taste good
    to her. They taste
    good to her

    You can see it by
    the way she gives herself
    to the one half
    sucked out in her hand

    a solace of ripe plums
    seeming to fill the air
    They taste good to her

    On the surface this resembles a proto-new thing poem. It is–to use Burt’s words–“small enough to hold in the hand”; there is an “insistence on reference” and attention “to concrete, real things.” But one of Burt’s criteria doesn’t fit: “self-restraint.” This is obvious in the phrase “They taste good to her” and in the way it is permutated with varying enjambments. This is nothing other than excess and in Williams’ poem there is a dialectical tension between the short clipped lines and the insistent repetitions, between the poverty of the woman and the richness of sensual enjoyment. In a sense, issues of “more” or “less” become red herrings. Simple, unadorned diction, yes, but the repetition and line breaks here represent nothing less than the jouissance of poetry.

    More to come…

  4. I am definitely enlightened by your answer and will be waiting for MORE! Keep us posted on more translations
    ps: Cacao took great pictures in Chile!

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