Segue at Bowery Poetry Club, New York, NY
When pushed to consider what I value in Ben Friedlander’s work (which is what introductions are good for) one thing that comes to mind is the historical depth of Ben’s engagement with poetry, which has kept him attentive to the present moment in poetry-to several presents in fact, beginning around the early 1980s-but has also freed him from narrow allegiances in favor of an overriding inquisitiveness about the modes of human expression and how they get fixed-“pinned and wriggling,” even-in the vicissitudes of history.
As he says in a recent manuscript:
“The meaning of history is something anyone can understand
from the ‘inside,’ except that there aren’t any sides
in poetry, just folds of sound”
-which expresses the thought perfectly (and it’s worth noting that Ben’s work is capable of expressing complex thought) laying “poetry” out side by side against “history” so that words tussle in the line-“meaning,” “inside,” “sides,” “sound.” History has “meaning,” but poetry is “just folds of sound,” which is reductive and demeaning-until you realize that the idea of history having “sides” is already reductive in a way that is far more demeaning. (One may think of domestic politics in the era of globalization and reflect that Ambrose Bierce defined politics as “n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles.” One may think of 11th century metaphysics and Roscelin de Compiègne’s assertion that universal qualities are flatus vocis, mere words, just puffs of air.) In this way, by a sort of reverse contrast, the line catapults poetry into a position of (not power exactly) but metaphysical possibility, hope, ethics, Adornian resistance, Benjaminian shards of messianic time-an exception in any case, as the line states, finally bringing the word “except” to the fore. Poetry is historical and it is the exception to history, lifting our anguished words into a chorus of mere sound.
Of course this reading doesn’t arrive at the fullness of Ben’s work, not least because “folds of sound” sounds so easy-going, and the other thing that comes to mind (which is the same thing) on being asked to introduce Ben’s work is that it moves in a series of larger contraries, expanding the scope of its tensions beyond individual words through its engagement with poetic style-again, history-
and so for example produces
the quick attentiveness
of Joanne Kyger
but also Larry Eigner’s use of the line
as the minute record of attention
and also Robert Duncan’s sensitivity
to the historical and even the pre-historical
depth of the word
and also Duncan’s permission for the rhetorical mode
and also the hard torque of Rae Armantrout,
immediate in its grasp of the word
as an expression of impersonal power
or the fraught subjectivity of Bob Perelman,
the person place shifting line by line
or the spring-loaded, aphoristic density of Karl Kraus
or the obduracy of Emily Dickinson
or the obduracy of Paul Celan
or the hammy pratfalls and loose flaccid lines of Flarf
And the way his work “folds” these sounds together isn’t at all comfortable. Instead it bristles against itself, badgers and cuts against itself-exposes itself-in a way that is completely unheroic and totally admirable.
This morning I reversed a line from A Winter’s Notebook — an early, early book of Ben’s from 1983-and what came out was “weak words subside into cross praise”
-which seems like how Ben’s work would describe Ben’s work.
Or you could take the title of his 2007 book:
The Missing Occasion of Saying Yes
“It’s on my ‘read soon’ pile,” says Andy at Goodreads.com