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Brevity is the soul of 'The Honest Pint,' a broadside on poetics

Brevity is the soul of 'The Honest Pint,' a broadside on poetics
Walt Whitma (Associated Press)

"The Honest Pint" No. 22 arrived in the mail this past weekend, the latest issue of a monthly series of broadsides on poetics, published by Tavern Books in Portland, Ore. and edited by the poet Matthew Dickman. This month's issue features two items: a "one-question interview" between Ed Skoog and Ben Lerner on the subject of Walt Whitman, and an essay by Matthew Zapruder on Barbara Guest and her poem "Parachutes, My Love, Could Carry Us Higher."

Let me just say off the top: I love projects such as this. They represent one of the best things about contemporary culture, the ability of anyone, anywhere, to create beautiful and thought-provoking presentations of literary art. Since its debut in January 2013, The Honest Pint has published work by Albert Goldbarth, Diane Wakoski, Bianca Stone and Matthew Lippman, in the form of essays, comic strips, even written notes.

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The effect is that of a heightened version of The Rumpus' "Letters in the Mail" series, in which a writer corresponds with subscribers; there is something ephemeral about it, off the cuff. And yet, as Zapruder (who, full disclosure, is a friend) observes in his essay, that's the whole idea, to set aside our expectations and journey into unexpected territory. "It's so thrilling," he writes, "with all the boring certainty in poetry, to read someone who allows the most powerful poetic engine, not knowing, to push the imagination in the poem forward."

A similar ethos inhabits the interview between Skoog and Lerner, although I hesitate to call it an interview exactly, because it consists of exactly one long question and one long response. Call it a snippet, then, a bit of overheard conversation, a fragment of a longer dialogue.

Skoog uses a moment in Lerner's recent novel "10:04" to open up some thoughts on the relationship between Whitman as human being and Whitman as a kind of avatar, his memories "general enough to be anyone's memory: how he took his ease under a flowering tree or whatever." In response, Lerner goes back and forth on Whitman's ambiguities -- his "belief in american exceptionalism" and his abiding individualism, his "utopian corporate vision" and his "secular radicalism," the two sides of one rhetorical self.

"[A]nd of course," Lerner concludes, "all this feeds back into his comfort with contradicting himself, of thinking of the self as a social tissue of contradictions. i don't know, maybe he's also a figure that to me mediates between prose and poetry, haunting them both and troubling the stability of their difference."

The same might be said about "The Honest Pint," which positions itself somewhere between magazine and one-sheet, even print and digital, like a blog post composed on a letter press. Brevity, it insists, is not necessarily fleeting; we can make something beautiful out of transience.

Or, as Zapruder observes of Guest's poem: "Each time I read it I feel there is so much I do not understand, and also much I do. It seems to glitter privately but also generously."

Twitter: @davidulin

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