Montana bound

I’m looking forward to going to Missoula this week as part of the President’s Writers-in-Residence series at the University of Montana. I’ve heard such good things about the MFA there.

My associations with Montana are few. When I was about seven years old my family drove to Helena, Montana to visit my great aunt Hetty, widow of Dow Moxley. It was said that I resembled Hetty, which is strange now that I realize she wasn’t a blood relative. Did this journey to Helena predispose me toward Helena Bennett? My other association with Montana is that chilling scene in Twin Peaks when Leland suggests Mattie “go back to Missoula.” Did he punch a painting?

There are so many interesting poets teaching in Missoula: I know fellow Brown alum Prageeta Sharma, and Karen Volkman a bit, and I’ll be meeting Joanna Klink for the first time. And then there’s Professor Robert Baker, author of books on modernism and philosophy, and on Oppen and Char. His pedagogical influence is pervasive. Or at least that’s the way it seems. When poet Josh Corey came to the University of Maine, the subject of Prof. Baker arose. Josh had been as impressed with him as had a new colleague of mine, Sarah Harlan-Haughey. She’s a Medievalist who studied at Montana and Cornell before joining the faculty here in Maine a few years ago. It turns out she’d taken multiple courses with Baker, and gone to Cornell at his encouragement. Last spring I read at Case Western University. While there I met yet another person who had been transformed by Baker’s classroom, poet Sarah Gridley.

Could this be the same Bob Baker Steve and I met in the early 90s? Indeed, it is! Up in the Archive I have a letter from him dated September 21, 1993. He was a Cornell graduate student at the time, and he had come to Providence with poet Ted Pearson to stay the weekend in our small ramshackle apartment the last weekend of July. According to my journal, the talk was “literally non-stop.” Steve and I both liked Baker extremely well. I noted that he was “very smart” and “interested in Vallejo.” One night the discussion went on until 4:30AM.

Apparently, Cary Nelson’s book Repression and Recovery came up several times during our weekend of furious chat, for Baker’s follow up letter spends several pages refuting Nelson’s argument, under the sway of which Steve and I were much held at the time. These days I’m more inclined toward Baker’s position, and see in my early embrace of Nelson’s book a wishful (wistful?) desire to reconcile leftist politics and formally complex poetry. Alas. Baker suggests Nelson should have written more about George Oppen, which Baker has now gone on to do in his book In Dark Again in Wonder: The Poetry of René Char and George Oppen.

Letter_to_Cary_NelsonThe funny thing is, about a year before meeting Baker, in March of 1992, I had written a fan letter to Cary Nelson. In it I say of Oppen, “Although you only mention him once I think he is an interesting figure in the whole poetical/political discussion. . . .” I included my poem for Oppen, “Underlying Assumptions.” Nelson did not reply.

I’ll be interested to read how Baker connects Char to Oppen. It was Char’s work that inspired my Fragments of a Broken Poetics. In the prefatory note I included in Chicago Review I wrote, “[I]t was René Char’s Fureur et mystère—particularly his writing on the architecture of the poem, Partage formel (The Formal Share)—that sparked some new thinking in me. Char’s use of aphorism, as well as his delightfully fanciful logic, suggested a refreshing way to avoid the line-in-the-sand rigidity of writing a contractual poetics—those manifestos of orthodoxy that, in laying down the poetic law, always manage to spontaneously recruit an army of cops to enforce it.”

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