Alec Soth's Archived Blog

September 30, 2007

The mystical moist night-air

Filed under: poetry,psa — alecsothblog @ 10:33 pm

I’m hitting the road and hanging up the blog. Join me for a non-virtual visit in Memphis (Oct. 5th) and Atlanta (Oct. 11th). Otherwise, send me a letter – I’m sick of email.

I’ll leave with a poem:

When I Heard the Learned Astronomer
by Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide,
and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with
much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

September 28, 2007

Friday Poem

Filed under: poetry — alecsothblog @ 4:24 am

Last week while I was traveling my wife had to put down our sweet dog Charley. Charley wasn’t named after the Steinbeck book, Travels with Charley (he came with that name from the Humane Society), but he was as worthy of adoration as Steinbeck’s poodle.

Though Charley usually came to the studio with me, I never took him on the road. I probably wasn’t as good of a companion as Steinbeck. One of Steinbeck’s previous dogs, an Irish Setter named Toby, chewed up half of the only existing manuscript of Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck wrote to his agent, “The poor little fellow may have been acting critically.”

I’ve spent a lot of time this last week looking for the perfect dead dog poem. Most of them are pretty terrible. (I’ve posted eight here). But this one by Gerald Stern feels about right:

By Gerald Stern

What I was doing with my white teeth exposed
like that on the side of the road I don’t know,
and I don’t know why I lay beside the sewer
so that the lover of dead things could come back
with his pencil sharpened and his piece of white paper.
I was there for a good two hours whistling
dirges, shrieking a little, terrifying
hearts with my whimpering cries before I died
by pulling the one leg up and stiffening.
There is a look we have with the hair of the chin
curled in mid-air, there is a look with the belly
stopped in the midst of its greed. The lover of dead things
stoops to feel me, his hand is shaking. I know
his mouth is open and his glasses are slipping.
I think his pencil must be jerking and the terror
of smell—and sight—is overtaking him;
I know he has that terrified faraway look
that death brings—he is contemplating. I want him
to touch my forehead once again and rub my muzzle
before he lifts me up and throws me into
that little valley. I hope he doesn’t use
his shoe for fear of touching me; I know,
or used to know, the grasses down there; I think
I knew a hundred smells. I hope the dog’s way
doesn’t overtake him, one quick push,
barely that, and the mind freed, something else,
some other, thing to take its place. Great heart,
great human heart, keep loving me as you lift me,
give me your tears, great loving stranger, remember,
the death of dogs, forgive the yapping, forgive
the shitting, let there be pity, give me your pity.
How could there be enough? I have given
my life for this, emotion has ruined me, oh lover,
I have exchanged my wildness—little tricks
with the mouth and feet, with the tail, my tongue is a parrot’s,
I am a rampant horse, I am a lion,
I wait for the cookie, I snap my teeth—
as you have taught me, oh distant and brilliant and lonely.

September 21, 2007

Friday Poem

Filed under: poetry — alecsothblog @ 1:43 am

The Flooded Grave 1998–2000 by Jeff Wall. See details here

In an interview with ChicagoPostmodernPoetry.Com, Graham Foust is asked to name his poetic influences. I love his answer:

More often than not, these lists get boring rather quickly, perhaps more for the maker than for the reader. I don’t know. Am I moved by someone or something that someone might assume wouldn’t move me? I’ve always found Louise Glück to be a fine poet. I love Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” and Rick Springfield’s “Jesse’s Girl.” I collect found photographs and the limbs of action figures that have seemed to litter the streets of the places I’ve lived. But maybe this is all old news.

I emailed Graham and asked him if photograpy has ever influenced his writing. He sent me the following poem from his first book, As in Every Deafness:

THE FLOODED GRAVE (after a photograph by Jeff Wall)
by Graham Foust

In what’s become this room
we are hostless
for the most part.

There is infinite glitter.
There is earth.

An open grave,
let’s say–not automatically
the not saying “raining”
in what is now this room.

We tune and we fade,
not undetermined upon bloom.

We shatter that way.
We don’t and then we do.

Here is another of Graham Foust’s excellent poems:

Retarded Artifact
by Graham Foust

Give me reasons not to be
oblivion, irony.
Like something in Wisconsin,
I am all the dirt I know.
Having come to in someone
else’s boredom, I’m alive—
and it’s an all-new boredom,
a boredom of cathedral
proportion. Empty as folk,
I just make up, make over
everything. Lately, I don’t
even want a piece of me.

September 14, 2007

Friday Poem

Filed under: poetry — alecsothblog @ 1:31 am

I’m currently in Germany working on a book. Next door to Steid’s press he has several apartments (aka The Halftone Hotel) for visiting artists.

Today in my room I read an essay by C.K. Williams called ‘A Letter to a Workshop‘. Williams says that poets should grant themselves “the right to vacillate, to wobble, to shillyshally, be indecisive in one’s labors, and still not suffer from a sense of being irresponsible, indolent, or weak.”

“Another, related, right,” he says, “is to be wrong, about anything and everything, and to know that even when your line of reflection or imagining might be viewed as absurdly illogical, you should be able to go on to its however provisional conclusion.”

Staying in the adjoining room is Jock Sturges (info, images). Only two weeks ago I had a lengthy discussion with a friend about my problems with Sturges’ work. After a couple days sharing meals (and a bathroom) with Jock, I’m not sure what to think anymore. But I paid close attention when Williams discussed another right:

We should be able to regard our inner existence, the part anyway that’s raw material for poetry, as a laboratory, in which mental and emotional phenomena are valued according to their potential usefulness, and considered harmless unless they demand to be concretized in malignant actions. (It should probably be kept in mind that the ultimate purpose of this sort of reflection isn’t action, but self-knowledge. Action—creation—comes later.)

From this follows the right of the mind to be able to remark in itself and not repress, or at least not too quickly, anything that comes to it, even such ostensibly inadmissible emotions as, to mention just a few, lust, greed, envy, anger, even rancor, even genres of otherwise unutterable prejudice. We should be able to entertain anything the mind casts up as potentially useful for a poem, while at the same time forgiving ourselves for such after all private matters, and this should be a forgiveness that arrives in a short enough time so that any shame or guilt arising from such scary glimpses within will be productive rather than debilitating for the germination of poems. We have, for poetry, to have as accurate an awareness as we can of the quality of our ethical consciousness, but we also need a firm sense of the difference between sins of the heart and sins of the hand: the mind has a life of its own which cares little for the parameters culture and society propose for it, and it is often this inner awareness which is most potentially interesting as aspects of a poem.

Should photographers be as free as poets? Or is photography itself a “sin of the hand.” I’m not sure. But I’m pretty sure Jock would appreciate this poem:

On the Metro
by C. K. Williams

On the metro, I have to ask a young woman to move the packages beside her to make room for me;
she’s reading, her foot propped on the seat in front of her, and barely looks up as she pulls them to her.
I sit, take out my own book—Cioran, The Temptation to Exist—and notice her glancing up from hers
to take in the title of mine, and then, as Gombrowicz puts it, she “affirms herself physically,” that is,
becomes present in a way she hadn’t been before: though she hasn’t moved, she’s allowed herself
to come more sharply into focus, be more accessible to my sensual perception, so I can’t help but remark
her strong figure and very tan skin—(how literally golden young women can look at the end of summer.)
She leans back now, and as the train rocks and her arm brushes mine she doesn’t pull it away;
she seems to be allowing our surfaces to unite: the fine hairs on both our forearms, sensitive, alive,
achingly alive, bring news of someone touched, someone sensed, and thus acknowledged, known.

I understand that in no way is she offering more than this, and in truth I have no desire for more,
but it’s still enough for me to be taken by a surge, first of warmth then of something like its opposite:
a memory—a girl I’d mooned for from afar, across the table from me in the library in school now,
our feet I thought touching, touching even again, and then, with all I craved that touch to mean,
my having to realize it wasn’t her flesh my flesh for that gleaming time had pressed, but a table leg.
The young woman today removes her arm now, stands, swaying against the lurch of the slowing train,
and crossing before me brushes my knee and does that thing again, asserts her bodily being again,
(Gombrowicz again), then quickly moves to the door of the car and descends, not once looking back,
(to my relief not looking back), and I allow myself the thought that though I must be to her again
as senseless as that table of my youth, as wooden, as unfeeling, perhaps there was a moment I was not.

September 7, 2007

Friday Poem

Filed under: education,poetry — alecsothblog @ 9:11 am

The Correspondence-School Instructor Says Goodbye to His Poetry Students
by Galway Kinnell

Goodbye, lady in Bangor, who sent me
snapshots of yourself, after definitely hinting
you were beautiful; goodbye,
Miami Beach urologist, who enclosed plain
brown envelopes for the return of your very
“Clinical Sonnets”; goodbye, manufacturer
of brassieres on the Coast, whose eclogues
give the fullest treatment in literature yet
to the sagging breast motif; goodbye, you in San Quentin,
who wrote, “Being German my hero is Hitler,”
instead of “Sincerely yours,” at the end of long,
neat-scripted letters extolling the Pre-Raphaelites:

I swear to you, it was just my way
of cheering myself up, as I licked
the stamped, self-addressed envelopes,
the game I had of trying to guess
which one of you, this time,
had poisoned his glue. I did care.
I did read each poem entire.
I did say everything I thought
in the mildest words I knew. And now,
in this poem, or chopped prose, no better,
I realize, than those troubled lines
I kept sending back to you,
I have to say I am relieved it is over:
at the end I could feel only pity
for that urge toward more life
your poems kept smothering in words, the smell
of which, days later, tingled in your nostrils
as new, God-given impulses
to write.

you who are, for me, the postmarks again
of imaginary towns—Xenia, Burnt Cabins, Hornell—
their solitude given away in poems, only their loneliness kept.

August 31, 2007

Friday Poem

Filed under: poetry — alecsothblog @ 12:12 am

In A Motel Parking Lot, Thinking Of Dr. Williams

By Wendell Berry


The poem is important, but
not more than the people
whose survival it serves,

one of the necessities, so they may
speak what is true, and have
the patience for beauty: the weighted

grainfield, the shady street,
the well-laid stone and the changing tree
whose branches spread above.

For want of songs and stories
they have dug away the soil,
paved over what is left,

set up their perfunctory walls
in tribute to no god,
for the love of no man or woman,

so that the good that was here
cannot be called back
except by long waiting, by great

sorrows remembered and to come
by invoking the thunderstones
of the world, and the vivid air.


The poem is important,
as the want of it
proves. It is the stewardship

of its own possibility,
the past remembering itself
in the presence of

the present, the power learned
and handed down to see
what is present

and what is not: the pavement
laid down and walked over
regardlessly–by exiles, here

only because they are passing.
Oh, remember the oaks that were
here, the leaves, purple and brown,

falling, the nuthatches walking
headfirst down the trunks,
crying “onc! onc!” in the brightness

as they are doing now
in the cemetery across the street
where the past and the dead

keep each other. To remember,
to hear and remember, is to stop
and walk on again

to a livelier, surer measure.
It is dangerous
to remember the past only

for its own sake, dangerous
to deliver a message
you did not get.

August 24, 2007

Friday Poem

Filed under: poetry — alecsothblog @ 1:23 am

In yesterday’s obituary for Grace Paley on NPR, Neda Ulaby wrote:

Paley told her students at Sarah Lawrence College that writers need two ears: One ear, she said, for the literary canon, the stories and poems you study in school, and another for “family and childhood and specifically the ordinary language of your time — which, though I use the word ‘ordinary,’ is always extraordinary, I think.”

House: Some Instructions
by Grace Paley

If you have a house
you must think about it all the time
as you reside in the house so
it must be a home in your mind

you must ask yourself (wherever you are)
have I closed the front door

and the back door is often forgotten
not against thieves necessarily

but the wind oh if it blows
either door open then the heat

the heat you’ve carefully nurtured
with layers of dry hardwood

and a couple of opposing green
brought in to slow the fire

as well as the little pilot light
in the convenient gas backup

all of that care will be mocked because
you have not kept the house on your mind

but these may actually be among
the smallest concerns for instance

the house could be settling you may
notice the thin slanting line of light

above the doors you have to think about that
luckily you have been paying attention

the house’s dryness can be humidified
with vaporizers in each room and pots

of water on the woodstove should you leave
for the movies after dinner ask yourself

have I turned down the thermometer
and moved all wood paper away from the stove

the fiery result of excited distraction
could be too horrible to describe

now we should talk especially to Northerners
of the freezing of the pipe this can often

be prevented by pumping water continuously
through the baseboard heating system

allowing the faucet to drip drip continuously
day and night you must think about the drains

separately in fact you should have established
their essential contribution to the ordinary

kitchen and toilet life of the house
digging these drains deep into warm earth

if it hasn’t snowed by mid-December you
must cover them with hay sometimes rugs

and blankets have been used do not be
troubled by their monetary value

as this is a regionally appreciated emergency
you may tell your friends to consider

your house as their own that is
if they do not wear outdoor shoes

when thumping across the gleam of their poly-
urethaned floors they must bring socks or slippers

to your house as well you must think
of your house when you’re in it and

when you’re visiting the superior cabinets
and closets of others when you approach

your house in the late afternoon
in any weather green or white you will catch

sight first of its new aluminum snow-resistant
roof and the reflections in the cracked windows

its need in the last twenty-five years for paint
which has created a lovely design

in russet pink and brown the colors of un-
intentioned neglect you must admire the way it does not

(because of someone’s excellent decision
sixty years ago) stand on the high ridge deforming

the green profile of the hill but rests in the modesty
of late middle age under the brow of the hill with

its back to the dark hemlock forest looking steadily
out for miles toward the cloud refiguring meadows and

mountains of the next state coming up the road
by foot or auto the house can be addressed personally

House! in the excitement of work and travel to
other people’s houses with their interesting improvements

we thought of you often and spoke of your coziness
in winter your courage in wind and fire your small

airy rooms in humid summer how you nestle in spring
into the leaves and flowers of the hawthorn and the sage green

leaves of the Russian olive tree House! you were not forgotten

August 17, 2007

Friday Poem

Filed under: poetry — alecsothblog @ 10:21 am

Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album
by Philip Larkin

At last you yielded up the album, which,
Once open, sent me distracted. All your ages
Matt and glossy on the thick black pages!
Too much confectionery, too rich:
I choke on such nutritious images.

My swivel eye hungers from pose to pose –
In pigtails, clutching a reluctant cat;
Or furred yourself, a sweet girl-graduate;
Or lifting a heavy-headed rose
Beneath a trellis, or in a trilby hat

(Faintly disturbing, that, in several ways) –
From every side you strike at my control,
Not least through these disquieting chaps who loll
At ease about your early days:
Not quite your class, I’d say, dear, on the whole.

But o, photography! as no art is,
Faithful and disappointing! that records
Dull days as dull, and hold-it smiles as frauds,
And will not censor blemishes
Like washing-lines, and Halls’-Distemper boards,

But shows the cat as disinclined, and shades
A chin as doubled when it is, what grace
Your candour thus confers upon her face!
How overwhelmingly persuades
That this is a real girl in a real place,

In every sense empirically true!
Or is it just the past ? Those flowers, that gate,
These misty parks and motors, lacerate
Simply by being over; you
Contract my heart by looking out of date.

Yes, true; but in the end, surely, we cry
Not only at exclusion, but because
It leaves us free to cry. We know what was
Won’t call on us to justify
Our grief, however hard we yowl across

The gap from page to page. So I am left
To mourn (without a chance of consequence)
You, balanced on a bike against a fence;
To wonder if you’d spot the theft
Of this one of you bathing; to condense,

In short, a past that no one now can share,
No matter whose your future; calm and dry,
It holds you like a heaven, and you lie
Unvariably lovely there,
Smaller and clearer the years go by.

August 10, 2007

Friday Poem

Filed under: poetry — alecsothblog @ 5:57 am

from “The Congressional Library”
by Amy Lowell

Where else in all America are we so symbolized

As in this hall?

White columns polished like glass,

A dome and a dome,

A balcony and a balcony,

Stairs and the balustrades to them,

Yellow marble and red slabs of it,

All mounting, spearing, flying into color.

Color round the dome and up to it,

Color curving, kite-flying, to the second dome,

Light, dropping, pitching down upon the color,

Arrow-falling upon the glass-bright pillars,

Mingled colors spinning into a shape of white pillars,

Fusing, cooling, into balanced shafts of shrill and interthronging light.

This is America,

This vast, confused beauty,

This staring, restless speed of loveliness,

Mighty, overwhelming, crude, of all forms,

Making grandeur out of profusion,

Afraid of no incongruities,

Sublime in its audacity,

Bizarre breaker of moulds,

Laughing with strength,

Charging down on the past,

Glorious and conquering,

Destroyer, builder,

Invincible pith and marrow of the world,

An old world remaking,

Whirling into the no-world of all-colored light.

August 3, 2007

Friday Poem

Filed under: poetry — alecsothblog @ 12:09 am

Weegee: Coney Island Beach After Midnight
by Joshua Weiner

No moon is good. I take off my shoes
And go silently so as not to lose
The shot I know is lurking there—
…………American made
…………Is my stock-in-trade,
As whatever’s in the frame I choose,
I chose, though it’s like I wasn’t there.

What’s out there? Why, sweethearts in love
Making love out where it’s dark enough.
I wouldn’t disturb them for the world.
…………Each kiss, what’s left
…………Between each breath—
Hard work, but the kind that makes you laugh.
There goes a match. What’s that I heard?

There, in the lifeguard station lookout,
Lovers exhausting each other’s doubt.
I’ll catch them fast without a flash:
…………To make it clear
…………How they appear
Like drags inhaling their way to ash,
Or a mouth getting ready to shout…

Too dark to have used the range finder there,
It’s like scooping yourself, your feeling, where
Trying to find the way, you’re caught
…………(The frame in which
…………Your subjects twitch)
Alive, exposed, and as if too near:
The lens opens and you take the shot.

Why they were up there near the sky
I thought I’d see as the fluid primed
The image into a final shape;
…………But all I found
…………Was a kind of sound,
A woman up there like a lie,
Alone and bewildered after the rape.

You can read the “Lifeguard Only” sign
She leans against. There’s no clear line
Between her hair and where the night
…………Begins to fan
…………Out in a plan
Expanding further than stars can shine,
And outside my frame to make it right.

What did she choose, which choice was deferred
As she waited for the bus without a word
No matter where she sat to wait?
…………All that is there:
…………The apparent stare
Out to the wave that can’t be heard
That she readies herself to contemplate.

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