Wednesday, December 26, 2007


On Christmas night, my brothers and I went to see "No Country For Old Men." The Coen brothers' use of close-ups in it, as in their other movies, had the effect of throwing the tone a little off-kilter, by not entirely serving the narrative, but abstracting or meditating on an image to give it the resonance of a photo or portrait--the toes of a dead man's cowboy boots in the foreground, with the Texas landscape white and heat-blasted behind them, or the silver cylinder of an air gun shining in a shotgun seat, without the viewer knowing what it's for. It plays a role in the plot, but, before that, it sits there, glowing with the need to be made sense of. The Coen play with narrative, in these stretched-out moments, dovetails with Tony Hoagland's description of Elliptical poetry, with its "relentless dodging or obstruction of expectation," and the part of Stephen Burt's essay that he excerpts, that they "violate decorum."

Recently, I asked Julie Buchsbaum, wonderful poet and friend, what she thought were the primary qualities of an Elliptical poem, and she said (and I may be misquoting her in memory :) that it may show a lyricism characterized by density. Thinking about it now, I'm wondering if, with a dense kind of lyricism, the language comes to seem more tactile, to hybridize a Languagey materiality with a narrative transparency of the medium, so that they meet. I may be taking this thought, analogously, from the other one that Julie shared, that an Elliptical poem exists on the line between meaningful and meaningless. Rodney Jones, in workshop, used to share Stevens's thought, that a poem should resist meaning almost successfully, and that thought seems like a precursor to this one. Does Elliptical poetry resist meaning, and its lack, with equal success? With complete success?

Julie was also kind enough to sit down with me during fall semester, and watch "The Lady From Shanghai." Nancy West, awesome cinema teacher and scholar, had mentioned it as an Orson Welles film that's not discussed as much as his others, so I'm working on what may become an article about it, thanks to the scholarship of James Naremore, Tom Conley, and others. Welles uses close-ups in it with what may be an Elliptical touch--Rita Hayworth's face is shot up close for so much of the film that it, like the title, seems to preserve, more than anything, a version of her that doesn't quite fit either the film's narrative or that of her stardom. He cut her hair and dyed it blond for the film, taking away the long red hair that may have, by then, been the most famous hair in the country, or the world. His close-ups show her face, most often, in a light bright enough to give what Julie, and the criticism, have likened to a mask. Other of the close-ups are similarly jarring--the dachsund barking at the camera, the papier-mache dragon in the funhouse, whose head swallows Welles, to deliver him into the mirror maze. This part of the film may have been the main target of the man that RKO hired to cut it; almost an hour of Welles's version ended up being edited out, in an attempt to make it more palatable.

What I'm wondering is, given the criteria presented by Burt, and Orson Welles' statement that his films aimed to be poems, whether The Lady From Shanghai can be considered an Elliptical poem. That thought leads back to the question of Ellipticism's main qualities, and I hope to discuss those more on another blog, more exclusively dedicated to Ellipticism and our upcoming symposium. Happy new year, until then.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Now that an awesome, busy semester in MU's Ph.D. program is done, I have some time to think about the symposium on Elliptical poetry that everyone's been so helpful with--Joan Houlihan has been phenomenal in contacting people and providing ideas, and Josh Kryah, Kazim Ali, Carolina Ebeid, Lucie Brock-Broido, and others have been tremendously helpful. Thanks to all of you, and the many more who are helping out with it--John Tranter has kindly agreed to post one of the symposia on Jacket, and he and Reginald Shepherd have both volunteered to participate.

All of the above have helped me to think about what currently constitutes Elliptical poetry, and that thinking, in true, Elliptical fashion, has generated more questions than answers. Does Ellipticism still describe the poetics that fit Steve Burt's criteria? Does it more closely fit the particular styles of poets he described as Elliptical, since Cole Swensen, Lynn Hejinian, in ways that may not be identified as Elliptical? Has the term become conflated with the adjective that describes punctuation marks, galaxies, and workout machines? It feels like a descriptor with an exact set of coordinates, but that sense may operate the way Elliptical poems may--hinting at infinity through the cracks made by their fragmentation, and what light plays across their surfaces, with their deeper specificities kept at that depth.

Any thoughts that you have about Ellipticism will be so welcome. One of the questions I'm looking at is whether there can be said to be a divide between two primary viewpoints, 1) that Ellipticism is a distinct poetic practice, and 2) that it's a term without a fixed set of criteria. But being so binary with it may not be very Elliptical of me. I do know that the snow and sunshine in Columbia, MO right now are combining to make a kind of shine that hint at their intermingling, and I hope that you're experiencing an equally dazzling holiday.