Saturday, September 29, 2007

playing tennis in the Pittsburgh wilderness

Robert Frost dismisses modern poetry in Newsweek (January 30, 1956, p. 56):

Match Point: In Pittsburgh, 81-year-old poet ROBERT FROST strolled into educational station WQED for a televised chat and poetry reading with a group of fifteen high-school students, told them "Pittsburgh is still a kind of wilderness city . . . There are places where rocks stick out... Lots of places where you can't run a lawn mower...," got so interested that he ignored off-camera cues and overshot his scheduled hour of air time by a full 55 minutes. Four-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Frost's tart dismissal of 'free' verse: I'd just as soon play tennis with the net down.

citizen of the university

To celebrate the life and work of David DeLaura, we gathered at the Writers House for an event that David and I had planned just two days before he died suddenly. David was an eminent scholar and teacher of Victorian poetry and one of the most passionate citizens of the university. (He was the incoming Chair of the English department here at Penn when I was hired in December 1984, a wise and super-sympathetic person to whom I went for counsel on various matters over the years.)

After he retired I saw him maybe three or four times a year. One day I had seen David on the street. We had chatted in our usual animated way. Then I suggested that we work together on creating a program at the Writers House to celebrate Victorian poetry. Readings from the verse, some informal commentary, and a reception. Pure fun. He loved the idea and agreed. A few months later we met at KWH and planned the program. He had begun to write something that he himself would deliver that night - a mini-talk on the Victorian poets he loved. He and Ann flew off the next day to Portugal (his beloved ancestral homeland) and he died in his sleep the next night.

On November 17, 2005 - the very day we'd planned to have our program - we memorialized David. Wendy Steiner read from Lord Tennyson's In Memoriam sec. 5 and Gerard Manley Hopkins's "The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo" and told some DeLaura stories in relation to both poets. Rebecca Bushnell reading from Algernon Swinburne's "Sapphics." Vicki Mahaffey (who had been David's student as an undergrad at Texas as well as a long-time colleague at Penn) read from Robert Browning's "Fra Lippo Lippi." We recorded the event and each of the readings/reminiscences is available as downloadable mp3 audio files here. If you have time to listen to only one, I recommend Roger Abrahams. Roger was a dear, dear friend of David's, and read that night Hugh Clough's "Qua Cursum Ventus" and gave a moving talk.

“David was perhaps more interested and open with other people than any academician I ever knew," Bob Lucid remembered at the time of David's death. "His friendliness was so irrepressible that he automatically fell into conversation with anyone standing next to him in line or sitting with him on planes, trains or buses, especially if he perceived the person to be in need of any sort.”

Friday, September 28, 2007

speaking of Stein

Here's Janet Malcolm, dismissing an early biographer of Gertrude Stein:

“[Elizabeth] Sprigge was a woman of her time, which may not have been the best time to be a woman. ... She is flirtatious, pleased with herself and given to exclaiming over the beauty of Paris and writing down everything she ate (‘a very chic sandwich with soft black bread and veal on the terrasse at Webers’). ... She refuses the role of the quietly treacherous interviewer, preferring to remain the spunky heroine of her own drama.”

The passage is quoted from Malcolm's new book about Stein and Alice B. Toklas (it's called Two Lives) as reviewed by Katie Roiphe in this week's New York Times Book Review. Roiphe opens this way: "One would not naturally pair Janet Malcolm, a clear, analytic writer, with Gertrude Stein and her modernist shenanigans."

William Carlos Williams was right in 1951 to wonder "Why...have we not heard more generally from American scholars upon the writings of Miss Stein? Is it lack of heart or ability or just that theirs is an enthusiasm which fades rapidly of its own nature before the risks of today?" Williams was probably referring to Louise Bogan's selectively antimodernist Achievement in American Poetry, 1900-1950, that comprehensive book in which Stein is given one paragraph. A little later, in 1954, in Grant Knight's 229-page survey of literature in the century's first fifteen years, Stein is mentioned in just one sentence.

In the book-length attack on Stein published in this period by a man named B. L. Reid, Stein's problems were reduced to the neurotic and the unAmerican. Her talk of war as a dance evinces signs of insanity--of "monumental detachment." Because she liked to arrange buttons, she could be said, like lunatics, to have "enormous patience with triviality."

In 1956, reviewing the Yale edition of Stanzas in Meditation, Karl Shapiro concluded that Stein was not properly understood as the obscure poet; the better Stein--the Stein now to be preferred--was the poet who "turned to writing about historical relations." He actually said: "[Stein] was on bad terms with the Imagination."

Then there's Stephen Spender, in a typically standoffish, skeptical review of Elizabeth Sprigge's 1957 biography--the same biography Roiphe is pleased to say Janet Malcolm mocks. Spender had much to criticize in Sprigge, yet at least he praised Stein in a way that stressed the possible, the local, the unabstract, the bodily: she was no longer to be deemed "a genius of invention" but rather a figure of "a good deal of inertia" whose talent lay in "her ability to stay put and hang on" - language that all but undoes newness (and expatriation). Spender wrote: "She had a certain massive, weighted-down greatness."

Beginning in the early 50s and continuing more or less to the present day, mainstream reviewers have tended to look away from the problem of language, focusing rather on domestic particulars. Roiphe seems delighted now that Janet Malcolm’s "concern isn’t so much Stein’s stylistic innovation as the construction of her life and reputation."

Rumsfield as Stein

The narration of The Writing on the Wall, Lynne Sharon Schwartz's novel about 9/11, includes bits and pieces of mid-September speechfiying, as a kind of background blather. At one point the two main characters see and hear Donald Rumsfield on TV saying this:

What this war is about is our way of life, and our way of live is worth losing lives for.

After hearing this, Schwartz's narrator, Renata, thinks: "The secretary of defense, channeling Gertrude Stein."

Not fair to Stein, but very funny nevertheless.

to write is to score

I've been thinking about how we can learn to understand poetry and poetics through sound, as distinct from - or in addition to - the text versions of the poem. Not a new topic, but I want to keep myself to basics. I want to start again in thinking about this. Build the story a piece (or measure) at a time.

The first thing I observe, again thinking in the simplest way about all this, is that the English word for writing is unlike the word in most other European languages; most derive their word for "write" from the Latin "scrib" root (scribere). We in English have "scribe," of course, which came over from secular Latin scriba meaning the keeper of accounts or secretary. And "script," etc. But "write" derives from a Germanic root writanen meaning tear, scratch at, but also to outline, to draw, to design, to sketch. See the German "reissen." Or, in other words, to score.

Writing as scoring.**

When we write language on a page, is it just alphabetical? It is that perhaps secondarily and more recently. But primarily it was and could still be artisanal: make marks on a surface to indicate a design by indentation or to indicate the way sounds are to be said altogether.

Our word for writing - for whatever reason - has come to us with a visual sense and an aural sense.

It doesn't surprise me that so many concrete poets are also interested in sound. Both are alternatives to the meaning-driven tradition of writing.

** Score as a noun (printed piece of music) is a late entry, coming in around 1700. But the verb score to indicate setting out how sounds should be sung or played is older. Of course the verb meaning to cut with incisions or notches is older, first in evidence around 1400.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

poetry leader to Joe McCarthy: good job

There's a story on the front page of the arts section of today's New York Times that begins by the usual condescending reference to "[t]he cloistered community of American poetry." After that, the lead is:

The board of the 97-year-old Poetry Society of America, whose members have included many of the most august names in verse, has been rocked by a string of resignations and accusations of McCarthyism, conservatism and simple bad management.

(And there's "august": is that word ever used unironically any more? Made more ironic here by its being rocked by "rocked.")

The story is: the conservative orientation - conservative in the sense of aesthetically cautious, and conservative (here and there) in the sense of right-of-center political views - of the PSA led to an award given to John Hollander, which led to resignations, which led to interest at the Times. Here's the whole article.

I've looked into the PSA's politics (or non-politics, which at certain moments amounts to a very definite politics), especially in the 1930s, '40s, and 50s. As usual with daily journalism, there's no long context, no sense of whether this sort of thing is a hiccup or part of a continuity. The continuity (what in journalism is unfortunately called "trend" - as in "a trend story," as in "let's make this a trend story") tells us that PSA has always been more or less like this, and that in turn would lead us to reject the opening-gambit assumption about poetry being usually "cloistered."

There was, for instance, the position expressed in 1947 by the poet A. M. Sullivan, President of the Poetry Society of America, who confidently told a New York Times reporter that good American poets are simply “not whimpering about social problems or ideologies which belong to the field of journalism.”

Sullivan, the self-consciously Catholic poet and beloved president of the PSA, who in 1953 had to “admit” his view “that [Joseph McCarthy] was doing a good job and behaving himself,”** knowingly participated in a redefinition of contemporary writing that would successfully pass the anticommunist test. In staking out his anticommunist position, that is, he went around announcing that good, beautiful poetry is never political – never has anything to say about the political situation.

The damage done by the Hollander flap (even the Times reckoned it was not nearly as big as the Ezra Pound/Bollingen fracas) is minor if you think of it as a blip. But why must such "events" always be thought of in such a way? The answer is, partly: journalistic ignorance about culture--and I should say, what they think of as high culture.

** Although Sullivan had once “wandered a trifle left of center,” voting for socialist Norman Thomas despite registration as a Democrat, by 1954 he “certainly applaud[ed] [Joseph] McCarthy’s clean-up of the U.S. Printing Office.” The quoted words and phrases are his (in an unpublished letter).

I don't like what you, what you read

Years ago I wrote a review-essay on a book about the Cold War-era prosecutions of leaders of the Communist Party of the U.S. - the so-called Foley Square Trials which began in 1949 (Dennis v. U.S.). What interested me was the theory of language implicit in the way the prosecution presented--or felt they had to present--their case. They went after these American communists for acts they didn't do but said they would do; but they didn't even have evidence for such saying, so they proved that illegal acts would occur in the future based on what the communists read and said about what they read.

Here are two paragraphs from the beginning of the review and part of a third paragraph from a little later on - and here is the whole review (published in the summer 1987 issue of
American Quarterly):

Peter Steinberg's The Great "Red Menace" tells the story of the 1949 Smith Act trial of leaders of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA), which culminated in the 1951 Dennis v. United States decision. In that decision the Supreme Court upheld Judge Harold Medina's ruling that the First Amendment certainly does not extend to those who conspire to advocate the violent overthrow of the American government. The exposition is brilliant: Steinberg alternates between groups of chapters written from the perspective of the government and its prosecutors on the one hand, and the beleaguered CPUSA on the other. Telling the story of the prosecution of a small and by-then uninfluential political group may not seem to require the time and space it has taken, but if we focus on a shift in the conception of American language marked by the trial and the Dennis decision, we will find plenty to go on.

The shift will seem as dramatic to "new" American literary historians as to a new, skeptical generation of legal theorists, and that is perhaps why, with the two disciplines now sharing much the same ground, Steinberg's good work is so timely. In the 1919 Schenck decision, the Supreme Court ruled that to decide if subversive language was not protected by the right to free speech the courts would have to test the direct relation between the writing and the prohibit able action. One could not shout fire in a theater if there were no fire, Justice Holmes wrote in the famous metaphor; if one did falsely shout, the falsity would be clear enough (where was the fire?), and the connection of the language shouted to the ensuing harm was present (for example, theatergoers trampling one another to get out). A court could expect the prosecution to demonstrate both clarity and presence. The high court thus used an abstract notion of proximity--that is, of language to action; of language intended to lead to action to the action itself--but tried to look away from the intention in the language and as exclusively as possible at the action, and in this way demanded the relevance of external evidence to the interpretation of language. Investigators and attorneys working on behalf of the American government in 1951 had no choice but to reshape the doctrine of clear and present danger if they wanted to define American communist language as suggesting illegality; and, as Steinberg demonstrates, they wanted this very badly.

...When Harold Medina instructed the jury that "words may be the instruments by which crimes are committed" as Steinberg quotes him (Steinberg has performed the heroic task of reading the entire million-plus-word transcript of the trial), the judge was making sure the jury understood that it was their duty to interpret intention. He was "instructing" them to read the texts of subversion thus: punishable advocacy was that which would incite illegal action "by language reasonably and ordinarily calculated to do so." At this rate--and in a moment I will turn to the Congressional hearings of writers to show this specifically--Holmes' falsely shouted "Fire!" in the theater may as well have been uttered by a player in the play for all the attention actually paid to text in context. In order to shift attention away from the expectation that some evidence, any evidence, would be brought into the court establishing that any one of the twelve communist defendants had themselves acted illegally at a certain time, or had proposed to act illegally, or had taught others the specific duty to act illegally--no such evidence was ever introduced--the prosecution began with the witness Louis Budenz whose testimony is undoubtedly the oddest ever admitted in an American criminal trial. The strategy was to ask the judge to allow as evidence readings from "classic texts," works by or about communists, which would establish what all communists do by suggesting what one of them once intended. Anticipating that the defense, conducted by Eugene Dennis himself, would offer counter examples of classic texts arguing for change through peaceful means, Budenz then stunned the defendants by introducing the notion of "the Aesopian language thesis." According to the Aesopian language thesis, communist language was hardly ever meant literally. CPUSA communicated in codes of metaphors, synecdoches, and antitheses. If Dennis produced a text which claimed "peace" as the communists' objective, it was to be read as intending "war." The trick was to catch the communist-influenced writer off his guard, saying what he really meant.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

poetry gets a second life?

Call me crazy or call me a digital anthropologist, but here you see me (well, my avatar, "Alf Fullstop") entering a poetry cafe in Second Life. Pretty nice looking place, a bit more upscale and cozy than the Bowery Poetry Club. I'm sure the coffee is better, though. I teleported to about a dozen poetry cafes, writers' hangouts, museums, digital schools, just to have a look around. It did this at 3 PM on a weekday, and there wasn't much poetry going on, but I found one reading space that was clearly set-up for an open mic. But again for now, nothing happening in the "arts & culture" areas. Nicely set up spaces but few people. Is this one of those new media solutions that turns out to be all talk and no serious action?

If I ever attend a poetry reading, I'll report on it in a future entry. Some reading this will be way ahead of me--already denizens of such readings and writers' communities in SL, but for me it's new and I hardly know yet how to talk about it. I'll get there. (I'm exploring possible virtual venues for Kelly Writers House-hosted readings and seminars. SL might not be it. I know there a dozen other easily accessible virtual communities, but this one seems to be catching on quickly. At least the software is not difficult to download.)

Interested enough in SL to read more about it? Go here and see that I've made links to eight articles about it.

guide me to his classroom

In 1967 Mark Van Doren recorded his poems for the Smithsonian Folkways archive (founded in 1948 and led for many years by the remarkable Moses Asch). Mark's son Charles gave me a copy of the CD version of this recording and we at PENNsound had it made into downloadable mp3's, which you can get here on PENNsound. I especially recommend that you listen to the final poem, "When the World Ends."

Mark Van Doren was a legend at Columbia University and around much of Manhattan. Dan Wakefield, when he wrote his memoir of the 1950s, remembered encountering an urbane yet at bottom quite radical essay, an essay that made the young man feel "a quiet excitement of the kind that comes when you discover something...that speaks directly to you, that seems to be a response to questions you didn't even know you were asking until the answers appeared with such clarity and power, as if they were waiting for you all the time." The author of the essay was Mark Van Doren, "identified as a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who was also a professor of English at Columbia."

"Mark Van Doren," Wakefield continues to remember. "His name seemed to rise up off the page like an Indian smoke signal of the intellect or a Jack Armstrong secret code from the unconscious to guide me to his classroom. I knew without further explanation that somehow I was going to go to Columbia to study with Mark Van Doren."

Leaving hyperbole aside--there must be some of it here--I find in my large Van Doren file a dozen similar encomia. Van Doren was a magnet.

A few years ago I read The Autobiography of Mark Van Doren (Greeenwood, 1968) and was much moved by his beautiful evocation of his beloved farmhouse (which he built with his famous brother Carl) in rural Connecticut - and the sense of the shuttle between Bleecker Street, teaching classes, returning to "the country," summering, sabbaticalizing, writing belle lettristic critical books and introductions, and poetry. I can't say the latter speaks much to me, not often anyway (although I am always of open mind reading it), but the figure, the position, the intellectual passion, the style of life...has always been an allure.

When the 100th anniversary of Whitman's Leaves of Grass was celebrated in Washington in 1955, it was Mark Van Doren who was asked to speak (among just a few others).

He contribued to the upstart Chicago Review in the late 40s and early 50s--quite a reaching-out from such an eminence.

He was the son of Charles Lucius Van Doren, a country doctor in Hope, Illinois. (Thus not, most definitely not, a descendent of priveleged Dutch-stock Yankee/New Yorkers as some people think.)

He was on the liberal-left during the McCarthy period, and there's no mistake about that. At NYU's Tamiment Library one can look through the archives of "Counterattack," one of the anticommunist red-baiting "research" groups. They would gather damning info and materials and clippings about the supposed communist activities of people--actors, intellectuals, writers--and sell the info to others who could smear, blacklist, etc. Well, Mark Van Doren has a sizable file in the Counterattack papers. Here's an example: "Mark Van Doren was listed as a sponsor of the Children's Unity Festival, which was sponsored by the CITIZEN'S COMMITTEE OF THE UPPER WEST SIDE. This festival took place in approximately 1945. This COMMITTEE was cited as a subversive organization in New York City which is among the affiliates and committees of the Community Party, USA, by Attorney General Tom Clark in December 1947.... Mark Van Doren...was listed as a host to a dinner honoring the Spanish Government-in-Exile [this was during Franco's Spain!], to be held in the Grand Ballroom of the Hotel Roosevelt, November 26, 1946....According to the DAILY WORKER of December 10, 1947 a "Free the Movies" rally was held in Manhattan Center. Speakers at this meeting included MARK VAN DOREN." And so on. It goes on for 8 pages like this.

(Ah, if only there were a Citizens Committee of the Upper West Side today running children's unity festivals.)

And Eugene Lyons, in The Red Decade, a book that listed communist intellectuals and was a bible for red-baiters for 15 years, lists Mark Van Doren (p. 318). Being a Red Decade Red meant some serious smearing, boycotting, letters of complaint, concern if not fear among publishers, etc.

He was Old School, but he was sane and would not tolerate idiocy of the Counterattack sort, and, by all accounts, he was an alluring important teacher and devoted mentor.

Ben Friedlander, the poet, critic and editor, will not be attending the 30th reunion of his Bronx Science High School class this year. He's not the reunion type. So here, in lieu of that, is his high-school-memory offering, a response to the above entry:

The first assignment in my AP English class (at Bronx Science) was to write an "explication du texte" of Robert Hayden's "A Ballad of Remembrance," which concludes with a loving apostrophe to Mark Van Doren, as I'm sure you recall. So researching who this "Mark Van Doren" was, was my first act as a literary scholar! Not that I learned much of anything about him. In those days before Google, my only real option was to call the reference desk at the New York Public Library, and the person who answered the phone had him confused with the quiz show Van Doren. My paper was a bit of a mess.

your daily Al

I've created what's called a "gadget" which you can add to your personalized Google page (called "iGoogle"). If you already have a personalized Google page, just click on this link and you'll now see "your daily Al" every time you go to Google. If you don't have an iGoogle page (your customized look at the Google home page), just go to and see how to get started. It's easy and a good way of organize web links you frequently use.

And no I don't own shares in Google and am not usually a proponent of proprietary software (although of course I'm using Google's blogger to enable what you're now reading, so I suppose I've become something of a Google Guy).

Click on the photo above and you'll get a sense of what a personalized home or starting Google page can look like. Every time I change "your daily Al" you'll see it there. It will almost always consist of links to new entries here. A more succinct way of receiving updates is to use the RSS feed. Go to the top of this page and click on "RSS."

Here's a sample daily Al.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

enjambment generation

This is Edwin Morgan's "Archives." It's my favorite of the "simple" typewritten concrete poems in the anthology of concretism edited by Eugene Wildman, published by Swallow Press in 1969. My paperback of this is nothing special, but I cherish it. I could talk about this poem for a long time and not nearly be done saying what I want to say about it: generation as proliferation of meaning and also the same thing over and over, the archive as something that forestalls decay, enjambment and its relation to generation, the irony of progress, the future of the machine, and more more. Form here adds a great deal of the meaning (as in all good concrete poetry, of course). This has so much more to offer than properly lineated syntactical descriptive language pseudo-transparently running left to right in lines telling us what we should think and feel about the generations' decline. But this, it seems to me, is art - so much more of an art. At least it's what excites me about art (form doing the hard work with seeming ease).

More Morgan:

- Crawford, Robert, and Hamish Whyte, eds. About Edwin Morgan. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990.

- "Edwin Morgan: A Celebration." Chapman 64 (1991): 1-45.

Born in Glasgow, Edwin Morgan was expected to join the family shipping business, but began writing love poems instead. He served in the second world war, taught himself Russian and drew inspiration from the Beats. Acknowledged as Scotland's foremost living writer, he was in 2004 named the country's first poet laureate.

For Morgan early on a powerful force from the US was William Carlos Williams: the poet with an instinct to explore his own locality. Morgan understood, as he himself put it, that "Williams was doing something with the place where he lived that I could apply to the place where I lived. He influenced me in being able to write about very ordinary things in Glasgow. I had never thought of that kind of approach before. At school, poetry was mostly Romantic poetry, it was exalted, it was about love and nature and great subjects - not about the slums of Glasgow." There's more here.

sacred technician 1: quietly have with love

We underestimate what a big breakthrough it was when Jerome Rothenberg in 1972 (one could say this was the height of the American Indian Movement--just to take that cut on the times) decided to say outright that we can "cross[...] the boundaries that separate people of different races & cultures" and indeed set about not only understand but translate American Indian poetic expressions. This is not mild stuff, given the context of that moment: In the face of whatever objections he would meet, he declared that unfortunately "it has become fashionable today to deny the possibility of crossing the boundaries..." etc. But he did just that.

In putting together Shaking the Pumpkin (above I'm quoting from the preface), Rothenberg knew that as an editor, translator and indeed promoter of ethnopoetics, he was "attempt[ing] to restore what has been torn apart." Presumptuous. He could do the mending.

"Come not thus with your gunnes & swords," he quotes Powhatan (speaking to John Smith) in his epigraph, "to invade as foes... What will availe you to take that perforce you may quietly have with love." (Powhatan serves Rothenberg as a Christ figure here.)

Rothenberg was a peacemaker not just in the whites-Native American colloquy. He was making peace (or maybe it's killing with kindness) also with those who would angrily deny the boundary-crossers. Ethnopoetics in this form might seem moderate and even truistic now, but it mapped out (and then made pacific) a real battleground then.

big postmodern but

Robert Grenier (in Phantom Anthems, 1986) wrote what I think is an absolutely brilliant response to and satire of William Carlos Williams. Here it is:

for William Carlos Williams

the young plum tree
like a martini
with new green
leaves how metrical

likely & con-
versant it would
have been today to
write a true imagist poem

I just love the loaded skeptical sense of "conversant." How conversant it would be of us today, of a poet today, to write one of those spare, seemingly descriptive or "objective" poems in Williams's manner. How metrical, how likely, how conversant. Its title "But" hangs up there like a large and general turner-around of the rhetoric and logic. I find all this hilarious. But - there I go myself - I don't have the sense of this as a rejection of Williams especially. There's a hint of lament can't say it that way any more (to borrow a line from John Ashbery). The use of the word "today" points toward this tone.

Monday, September 24, 2007

teaching consensus through dissensus

In the early 90s I taught my class on the literature and culture of the 1950s. The course was about consensus and these young brilliant doubters decided that the form the seminar should take should be dissensus--in itself a resistance to the material. They went hog wild and I let them do so. These were heady early days of the web and we put a summary of the (non)final exam essays on a web page here.

The photo at right (created by the students in a then-new program called Photoshop) morphs me onto a singing/dancing/chanting it's-no-longer-the-1950s Allen Ginsberg.

At the end of the course, one of the students wrote: "We thrive upon cognitive dissonance; we never shrink from conflict, understanding that 'the disagreements themselves can be the point of connection' (to quote Gerald Graff's book on teaching the conflicts). There have been times that we have yearned for consensus, for closure, but we all agree that the most engaging, the most thought-provoking, sessions have been those left unresolved, both sides of the room ruddy-faced and hot under the collar as we collect our materials for our next class."

"I am indeed still muddling, sifting, figuring, reconfiguring, and getting a more firm grip on what I think," wrote Michelle, "but that effort no longer constitutes my position on anything. Even those 'who claim to be so straight as to the way they view the world,' of whom I had been suspect but also admired, are also still in a process of thinking and rethinking."

"This is what happens," writes Ellona, "to the undergraduate who is rejected by intellectual community: when students are assuaged into believing that they take nothing relevant from a course other than a letter on their transcript, they build an ideology of test scores and essay grades, and grow to love being judged solely by others for the intellectual content of their thought, rather than testing the limits of their own intellects against another person."

"A university," Christy writes, "should be a safe place for students to experiment with ideas and to challenge our perceptions of the world...." Alas, she writes, in the current climate the student "quickly learns to keep his mouth shut about an issue until the professor has told him what to think about it. THIS IS NOT AN EDUCATION; IT IS CLASSICAL CONDITIONING AT ITS BEST." So "What needs to happen for such an environment to occur? Student-faculty interaction is undoubtedly a place to start. Students need to be able to discuss their ideas and beliefs with people who are more experienced at questioning such issues. Students need to learn to defend their beliefs against someone who knows more about the subject; this will force us to think critically about the issues with which we are working, and ultimately will teach us how to construct and deconstruct an argument. We will begin to understand the world around us in a very real way, and this understanding will provide us with ways to interact with the world."

The above-mentioned Ellona wrote up an "Undergraduate's Bill of Rights and Responsibilities." These included:

You have the right to conduct undergraduate research, and have its intellectual content taken seriously.

You have the right to prioritize teaching in the tenure process. You have a right to protest that lack. You have a right to expect that your concerns matter.

You have the right to organize class dinners and parties, and to invite the professor to attend without feeling you've overstepped the boundaries of propriety by mingling social and academic pursuits.

Under "Responsibilities":

This contract is in danger of being dissolved by the "University" at all times. You have not just a right, but a responsibility, to see that the academic community includes you at all times, and a responsibility to fight like hell when a Provost or Undergraduate Chair or tenured professor defines that community without you in it.

Finally she added: "In my ideal academic community, everyone would know this by heart, would recite it word for word and then follow it up with a Shakespeare sonnet."

[] See this comment on the above.

coming soon: the American night

I've written a brief review of Alan Wald's new book Trinity of Passion: The Literary Left and the Antifascist Crusade. Trinity of Passion is the second of three linked books that track a generation of left-wing American writers from the 1920s through the early 1960s.

The earlier study, Exiles from a Future Time, took us from the concurrent emergence of aesthetic modernism and of post-1917 forms of radical politics to the first months and years of the Depression. (The story of that concurrence takes Wald and us to the brink of understanding how and when modernism and communism could and could not converge—-a big, important topic that Wald himself has played a major role in raising in other books and essays over the years.) The new work, focusing more on novelists (poets were the emphasis of Exiles), takes us through the Popular Front period. The third book, already researched and in states of draft, is to be called The American Night: The Literary Left in the Era of the Cold War. Wald is right to claim that each of the three “stands alone as a self-contained book” (to quite the new book's preface) but, when taken together, the three will have coherently introduced dozens of fascinating heretical writers most readers will not have known before, and will have reworked—sometimes with the addition of stunning new information about their political views and affiliations—a number of writers we thought we knew.

Here is a passage from my review:

"Judging only from the many books in which Alan Wald is thanked—-typically for sharing his personal archive, providing leads, and teaching his method—-we know that he is among those who believe that the survival of such research has a political and ethical efficacy. And if he has conveyed the sense of this style to a few young scholars, he is also aware of his debt to predecessors: Walter Rideout for his 1956 book on the radical U.S. novel (daring for its time), Daniel Aaron for Writers on the Left of 1961, and James Gilbert for Writers and Partisans of 1968. Wald’s work stands in a literary-historical tradition. But his trilogy is already better and more coherent than the three just named. Why? Because the archives are open wider than they were during the cold war, and because veterans of American literary communism were ready to talk at least somewhat honestly by the time Wald (especially in the 1980s and 1990s) traveled to them with his tape recorder."

And here is the whole review - I should say draft of it, since it's bound to be edited a bit.

not bearded barbarians, per Rexroth

Kenneth Rexroth in the New York Times Book Review in 1961 on the new poets: Denise Levertov was tops, with Robert Creeley a close second, Charles Olson third (oh C.O. must have loved that), then three San Francisco-based poets, and then a few others. Creeley's poems: "Each is an excruciating spams of guilt." This is a 1960 story so naturally it's on my 1960 blog, here. (Speaking of Olson, I find our Olson PENNsound author page to be a goldmine. Have a good listen.)

words as they come to hand

Tony Green of New Zealand makes 3-dimensional word-things.I'm happy to list Tony's blog among my links and also here in this entry: A must read/see. Tony is a "former academic, now freelance art historian,art critic,curator,poet, twice married, father of a homeopath, an accountant, a schizophrenic, a ballroom/latin dancer, a gymnast, & a university arts student."

I believe I first "met" Tony during Robert Creeley's visit to the Kelly Writers House in 2000. During two-day visits by Writers House Fellows. And Tony - who had heard Bob Creeley read in Auckland in 1976 and got to know him in Albuquerque in 1983 and in Buffalo and elsewhere in the 90s - participated in the live webcast of the interview/discussion with the poet which I led. I recall that Tony phoned us from New Zealand to speak with Bob. Here's a link to the mp3 audio-only recording of that discussion. Somewhere in this hour-long recording should be the conversation between the two.

I even - and proudly - own one of the Tony's pieces. I "teach" it when I teach my course on modern & contemporary poetry.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

nothing inspirational

In Understanding Poetry: An Anthology for College Students, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1938) dictated the order in which a poem of historical or political significance should be treated in the classroom. What was "prior" was the poem as a poem; then and only then could it "offer illumination" as a "document." Such illumination was possible, at least in the abstract, but literary significance must be comprehended first (and never mind the notion--which was in fact just then of interest to a number of poets ranging from Reznikoff to Rukeyser to Pound to Norman Rosten--that a poem could consist of documents or be a kind of document itself.)

Notwithstanding this statement of priority, the anthology is full of poems (Andrew Marvell's, for instance) that at least initially draw our attention to them because of their compelling historical subject matter; our sense of the beauty of the poem as a poem could follow secondarily. Really. Why not? The order in which these two sorts of value are ascertained does not affirm or refute the New Critical ban on historical readings, for, at least here, the interpretation of historical significance is permitted right from the start.

Here's a passage from the prefatory "Letter to the Teacher," written in 1938:

This book has been conceived on the assumption that if poetry is worth teaching at all it is worth teaching as poetry. The temptation to make a substitute for the poem as the object of study is usually overpowering. The substitutes are various, but the most common ones are:
1.  Paraphrase of logical and narrative content;
2. Study of biographical and historical materials;
3. Inspirational and didactic interpretation.
Of course, paraphrase may be necessary as a preliminary step in the reading of a poem, and a study of the biographical and historical background may do much to clarify interpretation; but these things should be considered as means and not as ends. And though one may consider a poem as an instance of historical or ethical documentation, the poem in itself, if literature is to be studied as literature, remains finally the object for study. Moreover, even if the interest is in the poem as a historical or ethical document, there is a prior consideration: one must grasp the poem as a literary construct before it can offer any real illumination as a document.

don't sign petitions

Harry Truman, in a speech at Detroit's 250th anniversary celebration, as quoted in the New York Times on July 29, 1951:

Now listen to this one. This malicious propaganda has gone so far that on the Fourth of July, over in Madison, Wisconsin, people were afraid to say they believed in the Declaration of Independence. A hundred and twelve people were asked to sign a petition that contained nothing except quotations from the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. One hundred and eleven of these people refused to sign that paper--many of them because they were afraid that it was some kind of subversive document and that they would lose their jobs or be called Communists. Can you imagine finding 111 people in the capital of Wisconsin that didn't know what the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights provided? I can't imagine it. Think of that, in the home state of two of America's greatest liberal and progressive senators, Robert M. LaFollette and Robert Jr.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

the class that taught itself

In the spring of '96 I taught a course called "The Literature of Community", a seminar in which all the members of the class, including me, lived in the same building. This was Van Pelt College House, here at Penn.

We viewed and discussed - heatedly debated - the film On the Waterfront. I asked the students to summarize the film pithily by email (we used a listserv, one that hummed with incoming messages night and day, mostly night).

Here is a super-succinct summary of the film written by Alex Platt in the middle of the night on January 18, 1996:

So, we're all a bunch of squabs looking over our shoulders for the hawks that live on top of the hotel, with the occasional longshoreman to throw us a handfull of feed? Is that why ideally "everybody should care about everybody," cause we're all in the same pile of sh+t?

When students walked into class the next day, I wordlessly handed them a sheet with this on it:

Read the comment carefully - it's pithy and suggestive rather than explanatory (typical Alex, I think) - but if you take time to comprehend it you will be able to discover a general criticism of the film we watched last night. So read it and work out in your mind what Alex's position on the film is.

If you agree - more or less, on the whole - with Alex's position, sit on the side of the room nearest the windows.

If you disagree - more or less, on the whole - with Alex's position, sit on the side of the room nearest the door - across from the windows.

If you don't know, don't care, prefer not to take a position one way or the other, side along the back wall, between the windows and door walls.

Then they began to discuss - passionately. I experimented that day, deciding not to say a single word until at least 30 minutes into the class. It worked. They did it all themselves and the discussion covered pretty much all the points and topics and approaches I would have wanted to raise myself.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Drucker, Atget, Boltanski, et alia

For Lingua Franca's "Breakthrough Books" feature back in January of 2000, I wrote this paragraph on Marjorie Perloff's Poetry on & off the Page: Essays for Emergent Occasions (Northwestern University Press). What can one do in a paragraph? Not much. It's a bare summary, but I hope a suggestive one:

This fine collection of occasional essays is concerned with the way supposedly ordinary language becomes poetic. From The Poetics of Indeterminacy (1981) forward, Marjorie Perloff has confidently, helpfully mapped contemporary poetics during a period of almost constant change. (She herself is one of the few constant features on that landscape.) Wary, as always, of holistic paradigms for the literary history of poetry, in Poetry on & off the Page she describes not the replacement of hip canon for square canon, "political" for "formal" poetries. Rather she shows shifts within (usually coinciding with the growth of) aesthetic movements that range across interests, forms and social formulations. Although a number of the essays have less to say about poetry per se than about, for example, Johanna Drucker's bookworks, the video art of Bill Viola, the photographs of Eugene Atget, and Christian Boltanski's simulated documentaries, I cannot think of a better introduction to contemporary poetry and poetics. Such commendation tells much about the special mode of Perloff's writings as well as the dynamic, interactive condition of experimental poetry today.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

pattern recognition circa 2003

By the age of 28, Ray Kurzweil had invented a print-to-speech reading machine for the blind that caught the attention of Stevie Wonder.

In November 2003, Kurzweil and John Keklak, an engineer, received patent No. 6,647,395, covering what Mr. Kurzweil calls a cybernetic poet. Essentially, it is software that allows a computer to create poetry by imitating but not plagiarizing the styles and vocabularies of human poets.

It works something like a cyberblender.

Here is a poem the cybernetic poet wrote after "reading" poems by Wendy Dennis, a poet employed by Mr. Kurzweil:

Sashay down the page
through the lioness
nestled in my soul.

While other poetry-generating software exists, Mr. Kurzweil said, it is less sophisticated than his. "Those are fixed, fill-in-the-blank approaches that resemble the Mad Libs game," he said. "They are not really trying to create new patterns based on a more flexible pattern structure."

"The real power of human thinking is based on recognizing patterns."

From a New York Times article.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Writers House in SoHo

Our annual "Writers House New York" evening will take place this year on November 7, as always at Meisel Gallery in SoHo, 141 Prince. If you want to join us, write to rsvp [at] writing [dot] upenn [dot] edu. Among this year’s readers are LEE EISENBERG (Penn ’68) former Esquire editor and author of several books including the New York Times bestseller The Number; MAX APPLE, beloved fiction and nonfiction writing professor at Penn and author of seven books, including The Oranging of America, Roommates, and most recently The Jew of Home Depot; KRISTEN GALLAGHER (C’91, CGS’99), a poet, publisher and longtime Writers House Hub member whose work has appeared in Antennae, Ecopoetics and elsewhere; PIA ALIPERTI (C’07), whose poetry has been published in Peregrine, The F-Word
and The Penn Review and who has received multiple awards from Penn’s College Alumni Society; and GABE CRANE, a current Penn senior who paddled down the Mississippi River by canoe this past summer and blogged the whole way. You can find profiles of all our featured readers and more information about the event here:

Ashbery: demotic grace

It is surprisingly difficult to find a very good brief summary and introduction to the writing of John Ashbery. Harold Bloom once described a single poem ("The Instruction Manual"--not typical, though) as "a rueful adieu to experience." Perfectly right, I think. But of the whole? Not much in the way of coherent overview, elegant primer. Well, Ann Lauterbach recently introduced Ashbery at a weekend-long celebration of the poet at 80 - at Bard. Here is part of what she said in her brief welcome:

At nearly every page along the way, we have been invited to re-imagine what a poem is, to listen in a new way. This newness shifted the ground on which a poem might be resting. Indeed, the separation of figure from ground in an Ashbery poem is all but dissolved; things seem to happen in a fluid solution, as if always on the way to or from a destination that is itself simultaneously approaching and receding. Observations, revelations, ideas, encounters, and objects course through in such a way as to suggest there is nothing to know outside of the poem. This replete, mutating experience is carried along on the most elastic yet taut syntax; and, because nothing stays in focus for long, the notion of a poem as high-resolution picture, or story, or memo to live by, gives way to the poem as a condition, a habitat, a surround.

Between the high detail of the foreground and the abstract distance of the horizon, the reader is invited in. One can take one’s stuff; it is quite roomy. It is the space, say, of a city square, an open market, a corner bodega, a hotel lobby. Here we greet each other, exchange information and opinion, but because we are on our way elsewhere, a certain civility prevails; we do not intrude, or impose. The diction is one of mild, good-natured inquiry and response; a demotic grace and graciousness prevails, invariably punctuated by mishearings, odd juxtapositions, the marvelous, sometimes sad and often funny enjambments and eruptions of actual life.

The full intro is here on Charles Bernstein's blog.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

neither us nor them

I've re-read an essay John Yau published in American Poetry Review back in 1994 (vol. 23, no. 2, p. 45). He begins by quoting and playing off of someone else's assertion that we are all of us "an us of others." It is a claim that Yau finds "deeply disturbing," a claim about what he calls this "utopian vision"--that we're all on the outside. He discerns this mode--really an aesthetic-rhetorical trick, a having of cake and eating it--as Poundian and it for him is the key to what's wrong with Poundian critics.

Let me explain.

The critic Yau quoted--Eliot Weinberger, whom Yau otherwise admires--had been writing about the modernist interest in Chinese poetry. From this interest modernism got its preoccupation "with the detailed observation of the world around: an epic of particulars." And once Weinberger uses the phrase "an epic of particulars," most readers familiar with modern poetry will know he is thinking about Ezra Pound's poetry especially.

This leads Yau to Pound's Chinese-influenced book of poems, Cathay, and much of the rest of Yau's essay for APR is implicitly a criticism of Pound's orientalist premises and practice. Here is his point in a nutshell: "Pound's aesthetics are based on the idea that anything and anyone can be appropriated."

Now at the time of Yau's essay Weinberger had edited and published an anthology of American poetry since 1950, with a subtitle "Innovators & Outsiders." Yau is very critical of its contents. He lists, for example, a great many poets born between 1943 and January 1946 who should have been included. Yau is blunt. Of the 35 poets in all, five are women and two are African American. "As to other Others," Yau says, "forget it." "The demographic complexity of the United States," Weinberger had written, "is reflected in the work itself, rather than the police-blotter profiles of the poets." To which Yau acidly replies: "I suppose 'police-blotter' is supposed to throw a scare into anyone who might wish to look deeper."

The main causes of Weinberger's blindness are indeed the nexus of assumptions that form the Pound-Williams-H.D. critical tradition, and this takes us back to the problems Yau sees in the Poundian appropriative mode of Cathay which he sees Poundian critics like Weinberger--among others--have adopted, to some extent unconsciously. "The Other, it seems, has not become enough like Us (Weinberger and his compatriots) to be acceptable."

In short, Pound's brash orientalism has become an anthologist's manner.

What's interesting, too, is that this is not a Left-Right argument, nor is it a Modernist-Antimodernist argument. While this debate took place during, or to be precise just after, the PC or "culture" wars, it is not quite part of that contentiousness either, although perhaps at moments Yau's counterdicta resemble the multi-culturalist rejoinder to the Right in that fracas. One might say that this fight is being waged at or for the heart of modernism's liberalism.

The rest of Yau's essay is a (pretty thoroughly negative) review of Weinberger's anthology, but what interests me is this framing idea--that Pound's chinoiserie is itself a model for the critical method advocates of Poundian modernism have used to desire and claim poetic Others while at the same time being blind to their existence.

I should note that Marjorie Perloff has written about the Yau-Weinberger disagreement in her "Whose New American Poetry?" in Diacritics 26, 3/4, 1996, p. 109.

instead of implying, the poem ranted

In an essay on modernism and postmodernism in American poetry, David Antin quoted a passage from Allen Ginsberg's "America" and then pondered the contemporary response among "'establishment' critics" of the 1950s. How did Ginsberg's antic style strike them? From the later vantage (Antin was writing in the late 1970s) it is hard for us to remember that Ginsberg's writing seemed unliterary. The fact is that when we read Ginsberg today we assume that, whatever else his language is, it is at least literary. "America the plum blossoms are falling"--indeed!
America stop pushing I know what I'm doing
America the plum blossoms are falling
I haven't read the newspapers for months everyday some-
body goes on trial for murder.
America I feel sentimental about the Wobblies
America I used to be a communist when I was a kid I'm
not sorry
I smoke marijuana every chance I get.
I sit in my house for days on end and star at roses in
the closet
When I go to Chinatown I get drunk and never get laid
Here's Antin: "The success of the style can be measured by the degree to which the 'establishment' critics responded to this poetry as anti-poetry, anti-literature, and as sociopolitical tract. While there may have been contributory factors in the political climate of the Cold War and [Ginsberg's] own mania, it is still hard to believe that this alternately prophetic, rhapsodic, comic, and nostalgic style could appear unliterary. But it did appear unliterary, primarily because the appropriate devices for framing 'Modern' poetry and literature in general were nowhere in sight. Instead of 'irony,' it had broad parody and sarcasm; instead of implying, the poem ranted and bawled and laughed; learned as it was in the strategies of European poetry it was seen as the poetry of the gutter."

(The essay's title is "Modernism and Postmodernism: Approaching the Present in American Poetry.")

Monday, September 17, 2007

Belsen Hatikva

Here is a rare recording: the Hatikva sung by Jewish inmates of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp on April 20, 1945. The recording, originally made by the BBC, had been lost until around 2000. It was aired in 2007 by NPR.

Thanks to Charles Bernstein for sending me this link.

Belsen prisoners shortly after liberation in '45.

privacies behind the mask

When Tom Devaney interviewed Carl Rakosi, he asked this question: "I wanted to ask about the effect Stevens had upon your writing. In your poem 'Homage to Wallace Stevens' (later renamed in the Collected as the 'Domination of Wallace Stevens'), there is both a music of the language and direct use of musical terms and language. You write:

These are privacies behind the mask
but they are not the manners of a boy
who blows his French horn, smiles at twelve o’clock
and sips the old port from the hostess’s shoe."

Laughing, Rakosi, answered this way: "You know, there I almost translated Stevens, it’s so close. Well, it was a catastrophe when I started to read Stevens because he just enveloped me, he was a seducer. I didn’t at first object to that, but then I thought it was going to put an end to me. So it took me a long time to finally shake him off. He greatly influenced my early work, but then my own poem is also a bit of a parody of Stevens. You notice the character in the poem is Levy, not an Anglo-Saxon."

Tom described the scene of the interview this way: "What most strikes you in Mr. Rakosi’s living room, where we recorded the interview and listened to music at length on both days, is a large three-paneled front window, which fills the room with a clean, generous light (in the aptly named Inner Sunset district). The front window faces west toward the Pacific ocean, which can be felt more than seen. The window looks out upon the sloping 17th Avenue, where telephone wires criss-cross with a uniform sag between the area’s signature staggered and stacked duplexes. In the living room, you also cannot miss the impressive twin four-feet-tall black Polk audio speakers and high-end stereo system. Carl is well known to sit for hours enjoying his extensive collection of classical and modern CDs and records."

This interview was published in Jacket in February 2004.

teach the conflicts

When I reviewed Gerald Graff's book on "teaching the conflicts," I had as much space as I needed (I was writing for Review and its editor Jay Hoge gave me no limit). In part because Graff's idea had already received a great deal of attention, I decided to set his argument in the context of the Cold War-era political correctness debates. It was an odd gesture, because nowhere in the book does Graff refer to anticommunism or to pedagogy in the 1950s.

Here are the first two paragraphs of my piece:

Saul Bellow was surely right when in May of 1994 he noted for a New Yorker writer that the culture wars of the nineties have their rhetorical and logical origins in the fifties--in the "super-charged battles between anti-Communists and anti-anti-Communists." I take this cue (though little else, I'm afraid) from Mr. Bellow. He is right to imply that while so much has been said and written about political correctness in the eighties and nineties, little has been done to put the debates in the context of anticommunism. Though Bellow believes anti-anticommunists were largely influenced by Stalinism--here's where, unsurprisingly, he parts with the left--he does concede that what little anti-anticommunist resistance there was in the 1950s arose because some liberals didn't enjoy "being forced to line up" in the rush to consensus. To Bellow those who in the late forties and fifties fashioned liberal anticommunism (those who did "line up"--Bellow scornfully says many indulged in "opinion- consumerism") had earlier been the not-altogether happy participants in the Popular Front, New Deal Democrats among them. More interesting is Bellow's notion that those who formed anti- anticommunism had been either outright communists earlier, or liberals whose liberalism became "liberal fanaticism" when in the 1950s they refused to participate in McCarthyism. These anti- anticommunists, Bellow suggests, are the principal forerunners of advocates of "political correctness" forty years later. Bellow sees in contemporary liberalism a radicalism of people stuck on slogans, labels and rigidified positions ("mindless...medallion- wearing...placard-bearing" folks), and evidently he deems this group more properly the inheritors of anti-anticommunist Stalinism than of anticommunist liberalism--as if the latter ideology did not have an ideology, had no slogans, bore no placards. This PC genealogy is the key, I think, to discerning the positions taken in the newest outbreak of culture wars. PC bashers inherit from the fifties the anticommunists' assumption that the most powerful anti-anticommunists are Stalinists-become-"liberal fanatics," while anti-PC bashers inherit from the fifties the anti-anticommunists' assumption that the most powerful anticommunists are liberals become more truly themselves. At issue, primarily, is which group gets to claim as its rightful heritage from the cold-war era the notion that intellectual and social culture benefit from radical dissensus, disagreement, and difference. Yet in the fifties almost every anticommunist at one point or other argued *against* dissensus for the sake of the necessarily greater disagreement with Soviet (or "world") communism (e.g. limits on the right of American communists to teach in the universities, for the sake of national security), while, even if only for strategic reasons, the anti-anticommunists were the ones incessantly arguing for the right (indeed the usefulness) of radical dissent, including that of communists.

Although Gerald Graff, as he wrote Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education, was surely aware of a cold-war context for his contention that, for instance, intellectual extreme opposites "need" each other to make their positions meaningful, it was never his purpose to make his argument depend on such awareness. Yet Beyond the Culture Wars would benefit from this focus, and since, moreover, so much has been written about Graff's book since its publication in 1992 in relation to the political correctness, canon revision and multiculturalism controversies, I intend here to concentrate on restoring what I take to be the crucial though perhaps necessarily unspoken cold-war background to Graff's proposal. The 1950s' relevance to what Graff nicely calls "teaching the conflicts" reveals both the value of Graff's insights about the cultural resistance to intellectual many-sidedness and the limitations of a liberal pedagogical idealism that is trying too hard to avoid the old communist-anticommunist contest. Despite what I take to be implicitly his acuity about the effects of cold-war consensus on the universities, and of red-baiting on intellectual culture at large, his promotion of an argument-counterargument structure to literary education too often neglects the fact that equal-time liberalism has a cultural precondition rendering free and open colloquy not so easily made free and open. Graff would say (rightly, I think) that the precondition must itself be taught, but the resulting meta-pedagogical involution, however boldly self-conscious, is not without its own politics.

Here is the text of the whole review.

Up, slumlord, and waste not life

For Ben Franklin's 300th birthday, my son wrote an N+8 poem, thus systematically deranging a list of Franklin's pragmatic adages. Here is a paragraph from a Pennsylvania Gazette article that covered this event:

At Kelly Writers House, “Seven-Up on Ben” presented seven speakers each talking for seven minutes (more or less) about Franklin. Among the speakers was another Ben—Ben Filreis, 14, son of Kelly Writers House Faculty Director Al Filreis — who read a poem he’d written adapting 24 famous sayings from Poor Richard’s Almanac. To “freshen up” the familiar adages, he replaced nouns with words appearing eight entries down in a dictionary (eight being the number of letters in Benjamin). “Sometimes the result is nonsense,” he said. “Sometimes it makes a Ben Franklin kind of sense for our time.”

And here is Ben's poem, entitled "Poor Richard in 2006":

An empty Baghdad cannot stand upright.
Be always ashamed to catch Tibet idle.
Chekhov and salty mechanics should be sparingly eaten.
The doornails of wisdom are never shut.
Early to Bedemen and early to risus makes a manakin healthy, wealthy, and wise.
Full of courtroom, full of cramming.
The godfather helps them that helps themselves.
A hunter never saw bad breadstuff.
If you’d have a serviceman that you like, serve yourself.
If Jack’s in a love potion, he’s no judge of Jill’s Beaver.
Keep thy shop-talk and thy shop-talk will keep thee.
Your Lieutenant stands on one legal separation, your T-shirt on two.
A manikin without a wiggler is but half a manikin.
Nothing but Mongolia is sweeter than honeydew.
One toe is worth two tones.
A Quarrelsome manikin has no good nemesis.
The rotten apple seed spoils his compass.
Three may keep security, if two of them are dead.
Up, slumlord, and waste not life; in the graveyard we’ll be slurping enough.
Visualities should be short, like a wiper’s daytime.
A good exchange is the best serpent.
You may delay, but Times Square will not.
There are lazy mine fields as well as lazy bogs.

There is a recording of Ben reading this piece.

confusing justice & vengeance

"We cannot bear to face our knowledge that the satisfaction of our desire for justice, which we confuse with our desire for vengeance, is impossible. And so we invent as a victim the most comprehensive image which our reason, however deranged, will permit us: the whole of a people and the descendants of that people; and count ourselves incomparably their superior because we stop short of the idea of annihilation."

This was James Agee, on American public reaction to Nazi atrocity films (May 19, 1945, in the Nation magazine).

Friday, September 14, 2007

mining, memory & Microsoft

Yes, that's Bill Gates at right, tossing a floppy disk into the air.

On Tuesday, September 18, at 7:30 PM, the Writers House will feature film-maker Sarah J. Christman and her film Dear Bill Gates.

The 16 mm film is 17 minutes long and was made in 2006. It's described this way: "A simple correspondence evolves into a poetic visual essay exploring the ownership of our visual history and culture. Combining original and archival film, video and images from the internet, Dear Bill Gates draws unexpected connections among mining, memory and Microsoft." More here.

Sarah Christman is a Philadelphia based independent media producer whose films have screened internationally. She has edited for both television and independent film, including the High Definition media arts channel Moovlab. Sarah received her MFA in Film & Media Arts at Temple University. She is the co-founder of Memory Bank Media, a post-production studio that specializes in the digital preservation of home movies and photographs.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

ideas elude one in a poem

My interview/conversation with John Ashbery, which took place on March 26, 2002, is available as a RealVideo recording. It was delightful - utterly - although I wouldn't say that J.A. answered my questions about his poems with any sort of directness. Not that I was expecting that.

"When one goes at ideas directly," he once said, "with hammer and tongs as it were, ideas tend to elude one in a poem. I think they only come back in when one pretends not to be paying any attention to them, like a cat that will rub against your leg." There he's circling around, but I'll note that (a) his topic is the circling-around of good writing, and (b) it's about as precise a way of describing his poem's relation to ideas as he could give.

Someone once said to him, "I remember having writing teachers insist, 'Write what you know!'" Ashbery's response: "But one doesn't know anything! That's the problem." What does it mean to know something? Still more tentatively: What does it mean to learn something?

As he put it once in a poem, in school all the thought gets combed out. In "What Is Poetry" - the title is not a question but the phrasal description of a category (and categorical problem) - he wonders if poetry is

Trying to avoid

Ideas, as in this poem? But we
Go back to them as to a wife, leaving

The mistress we desire? Now they
Will have to believe it

As we believed it. In school
All the thought got combed out:

What was left was like a field.

Erica Baum photographs the card catalogue

When I saw what Erica Baum was doing with photography a few years ago, I knew that it was closely related to what I was trying to teach my students about modern and contemporary poetry, so I invited Erica to visit us at the Writers House. It was a great visit.

Her photographic art captures only alphabetically related terms and puts them into new context. Her photographs are archaic storage systems of knowledge yielding randomly found commentaries, creating landscapes of words, as "subject headings" appear over the vistas of information sheets formed by unexposed cards in card catalogue drawers. How much a particular set of words is revealed, by the angle of the shot, is the essence of Baum's humor. "The self-consciousness" entailed in the act of cataloguing the catalogue, wrote Christopher Chamgers in NY Arts (9/13/97), "intimates the transcience and fragility of human accomplishments. It is our learning that makes the endless concatenation of teaching ironic."

In Baum's art, "the act of information retrieval is turned into a journey," writes Josefine Raab, "--of seemingly unknown destination." Baum will produce a picture of related terms (words and phrases) in alphabetical order, so that for instance the term "Subversive Activities" will appear next to "Suburban Homes" (from Untitled [Suburban], 1997, gelatin silver print, 20x24 inches, shown at Clementine Gallery, New York). The result is what Alice Thorson sees as "a form of found minimalist poetry." Words photographed from an index are lineated like poetry, for example:

cause of, 59-63
what to do when lost in, 185-186

Baum's photographs of such index fragments appear to have been taken from grainy and enlarged photocopies, a setp that engages them in a dialogue with abstract painting while also invoking the pervasiveness of technology.

Baum exposes a Dadaist absurdity perhaps closer to Fluxus puns than to Duchampian metaphysics. Textual without becoming didactic, Baum's linguistic play is informed by the poetics of our era.

"Fragments of an index," Baum writes (in a statement dated April 2000), "reveal the unexpected fictions, rhythms and poetry hidden with a book's internal system of reference... A tension is created between what is absent, the book, and what is present, the concatenation of sounds and meanings wrenched from their source...."

Here's more.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

poetry (n) the public spear

Back to Maria Damon's critical essays for a moment. I've just read "Was That 'Different,' 'Dissident' or 'Dissonant'? Poetry (n) the Public Spear: Slams, Open Readings, and Dissident Traditions."

Charles Bernstein’s breakthrough book called Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word (Oxford, 1998) is full of good essays on the aural ellipsis, the poet’s voice, speech effects, and a history of the contemporary poetry reading, but only Damon’s essay, for better or worse (I say mostly better), really engages the irony and dissonance and difference in the writerly critic’s act of setting into print the problem presented by oral/performance poets such as Benjamin Zaphaniah, whose line “But dis is de stuff I like” becomes Damon’s own intrepid critical refrain (“I’ve tried Shakespeare, respect due dere / But dis is de stuff I like”). When Damon sets the line

But dis is de stuff I like

into roman type, outside quotation marks, the phrase becomes consciously her own. After that, her brief summaries of open readings and the slam movement have about them the intimacy she hopes to achieve, not an easy feat in a fancy book published by Oxford University Press.

Maggie O'Sullivan

Maggie O'Sullivan will be reading at the Writers House on October 11. She will be joined by cris cheek and, after their reading, Charles Bernstein will moderate a discussion that will include the great collector and curator of concrete, visual and sound poetry Marvin Sacker, and Matthew Abess. It is Matt who has put all of this together--the culmination of two years' work on Bob Cobbing.

At left is a page from Maggie O'Sullivan's online work, "murmur", which is subtitled "tasks of mourning" and was created between 1999 and 2004.

O'Sullivan's PENNsound page features a 1993 reading at Buffalo, broken into individual mp3 file for each passage read, as well as a 34-minute interview with Charles Bernstein of the same date.

"has not adopted a minority tone"

Saul Bellow's review of Invisible Man praised Ralph Ellison for his independence from what was then called Negro writing. What he meant, among other things, was that Ellison was consciously not Richard Wright and that he would resist whatever ideological training had been (as Bellow imagined it, partly from his reading of the novel's narrator's experience) forced upon him.

I've made the entire review available in my 1950s site. Here are two salient passages:

Negro Harlem is at once primitive and sophisticated; it exhibits the extremes of instinct and civilization as few other American communities do. If a writer dwells on the peculiarity of this, he ends with an exotic effect. And Mr. Ellison is not exotic.

I was keenly aware, as I read this book, of a very significant kind of independence in the writing. For there is a way for Negro novelists to go at their problems, just as there are Jewish or Italian ways. Mr. Ellison has not adopted a minority tone. If he had done so, he would have failed to establish a true middle-of-consciousness for everyone.

Monday, September 10, 2007

George Oppen

"Things explain each other, not themselves." How true....of all of us, but especially of Oppen.

I love the late reading style - the voice weak but well suited to the run-on digressive, seemingly narrative (but not), lazy-toned yet ethically sharp poetics. Listen to the 23-minute reading he gave at the 92nd Street Y in 1967. Dazzling - moving and beautiful. He reads "Of Being Numerous."

Perhaps the most moving of Oppen's statements or readings is his introduction to Charles Reznikoff, before a reading by "Rezzi" in 1974:

[Reznikoff] had bought a letterpress, and everyday, every evening after work, Reznikoff set two lines of verse, teaching himself to set verse, as he worked at it. And this way he printed all of his first books by himself. We, Mary and I that is, have carried these poems in our minds through everything that has happened to us since we were nineteen or twenty years old. I don't know of any poems more pure, or more purely spoken, or more revelatory. I professed before, I think the young of my generation were luckier than the youngest in this audience, in that we had to go searching for our own tradition and our own poets. What we found was Reznikoff, and he's played — I cannot say how important he has been to us, as I think he will be to you, and this is what I wanted to say to Charles Reznikoff when he said to me, 'George, I think we all do the best we can.'

(The whole text of the introduction is here.)

poetry goes with conservatism, prose with liberalism

Peter Viereck energetically contended that prose was inherently associated with liberalism and poetry with conservatism. Hardly anything could irk a conservative anti-modernism of the postwar period more than the brazen way in which radical and avant-garde poets ignored the distinction between the proper stations and functions of poetry and prose. Eve Merriam, for instance, in a poem called "Said Prose to Verse":

Listen, my insinuating poem,
stop poking your grinning face into every anywhere.
I have trouble enough keeping my house in order
without a free-loading moon-swigging boarder around
making like a solid ground.

For Viereck, conservatism "embodies" rather than "argues," and whereas poetry in the 1930s argued exactly as if it were prose, conservatism could claim a closer connection to poetry than did the liberal-left. The liberals of Viereck's time could have prose; poetry--real poetry that did not poke its face into every empirical anywhere--would best be realized by conservatives.

Following Yeats's distinction between embodying truth and knowing it, Viereck wrote, "Poetry tends to embody truth, prose to know it. Conservatism tends to embody truth, liberalism to know it."