Friday, August 31, 2007

counter-revolution of the word

Here is a short description of my new book (a draft of the jacket copy):

During the Cold War an unlikely coalition of poets, editors, and politicians converged in an attempt to discredit—if not destroy—the American modernist avant-garde. Ideologically diverse yet willing to bespeak their hatred of modern poetry through the rhetoric of anticommunism, these “anticommunist antimodernists,” as Alan Filreis dubs them, joined associations such as the League for Sanity in Poetry to decry the modernist “conspiracy” against form and language. In Counter-revolution of the Word Filreis narrates the story of this movement and assesses its effect on American poetry and poetics.

Although the anticommunist antimodernists expressed their disapproval through ideological language, their hatred of experimental poetry was finally not political but aesthetic, Filreis argues. By analyzing correspondence, decoding pseudonyms, drawing new connections through the archives, and conducting interviews, Filreis shows that an informal network of antimodernists was effective in suppressing or distorting the postwar careers of many poets whose work had appeared regularly in the 1930s. Insofar as modernism had consorted with radicalism in the Red Decade, antimodernists in the 1950s worked to sever those connections, fantasized a formal and unpolitical pre-Depression High Modern moment, and assiduously sought to deradicalize the remnant avant-garde. Filreis’s analysis provides new insight into why experimental poetry has aroused such fear and alarm among American conservatives.

The illustration above will appear in the book. It was drawn by Howard Sparber for a conservative antimodernist diatribe written by Stanton Coblentz and published in the New York Times Magazine in 1946.

Jack was language

"Time being of the essence in the purity of speech, sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-words, blowing (as per jazz musician) on subject of image." That's Jack Kerouac.

My Jack is the writer and voicer of babbleflow, e.g.

Aw rust rust rust rust die die die pipe pipe ash ash die die ding dong ding ding ding rust cob die pipe ass rust die words-- I'd as rather be permiganted in Rusty's moonlight Rork as be perderated in this bile arta panataler where ack the orshy rosh crowshes my tired idiot hand 0 Lawd I is coming to you'd soon's you's ready's as can readies by Mazatlan heroes point out Mexicos & all ye rhythmic bay fishermen don't hang fish eye soppy in my Ramadam give--dgarette Sop of Arab Squat

--not the novelist of themes (wanderlust, national anti-identity, discovery of the true self). So it baffles me a little, or anyway bores me, when celebrations or indeed criticism of Kerouac focus on the new teen generation's response or indifference to On the Road.

This past year was the 50th anniversary of the publication of that book. We at the Writers House staged a marathon reading of the novel from start to finish. I participated, reading a passage for a half hour or so. As I read myself, and listened to others, I could hear how right I and others have been to conceive of this project as most interestingly a wordy, languagy thing.

What's important about this half-century is the scroll Jack used in composition--a single flow of paper, a means of thwarting the stop that coming to the end of 11 inches of dried pulp encourages.

What's important is language's own performance--its thingness.

But then there are the journalists, "covering" this 50th. And of course form doesn't sell newspapers.

I'm sure that when the Philadelphia Inquirer's reporter interviewed Erin Gautsche, our amazing Program Coordinator, she told him all kinds of things about the sound of the language, about the experience of reading the novel aloud as a community. But the reporter's angle was the usual topical thing, and in this passage he's writing about how and why today the book doesn't quite have the grip it once did. Here's a passage (and here's the whole article):

These days, though, kids don't react the same way. "They're more detached from the book and its message than students before," [Hilary] Holladay [director of the Kerouac Center for American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell] said. They are not gripped by the romantic notions that fevered Kerouac's brain. Could that spell an end to On the Road's relevance?

Certainly, the political incorrectness of the writing seems dated to today's young readers. For others critical of the book, there is a sense that it has been overrated through the years, and that there are better novels with better stories to tell.

To today's readers, parts of the book seem immature, even ridiculous, said Erin Gautsche, program coordinator of Kelly Writers House, a literary arts organization housed at the University of Pennsylvania.

The group did its own celebration of the book's 50th anniversary earlier this year.

"When you read Kerouac's descriptions of sharecroppers in the South and people in Mexico, he has an old-fashioned idea of race: that of the noble savage."

Kerouac saw poor minorities and other impoverished types as holy innocents untouched by the "dirtiness" of capitalist culture, Gautsche said. "They were shown as peaceful, happy, simple people," she added.

Also, as some readers have learned in dismaying second reads, a good deal of the book is simply about boorish guys looking for sex from disturbingly young, poor girls.

Here's Clark Coolidge on the topic of Kerouac's babbleflow.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

poetry online

In 2001 I was interviewed for the NPR show, "The Best of Our Knowledge." It was recorded at Bard College and aired on WAMC 90.3 FM in Albany and a number of other NPR stations that February. The questions asked of me were very basic but I think I described my online poetry course fairly accurately. Here is a link to an mp3 audio file of the interview as it aired.

Alan Cranston's anti-fascism

An instance of veracious editing as a form of political activism.

The late U.S. Senator Alan Cranston was born in 1914, studied journalism at Stanford and then became a foreign correspondent in order to warn Americans about the rise of fascism. He traveled Europe and North Africa, covering Mussolini and Hitler and Ethiopia for the International News Service, but found himself frustrated with his role as a journalist, as he later recalled in an interview: "I became very concerned about American isolationism, the fact that there were many Americans wanting to have nothing to do with what was happening in the rest of the world," he said. "I didn't want to spend my life writing about such evil people and their terrible deeds; I'd rather be involved in the action."

When he returned to the United States, he saw a translation of Hitler's Mein Kampf for sale and, having read the original, recognized that it had been watered down to make it less worrisome to Americans, he said. So he quickly brought out an unauthorized, fuller translation and sold half a million copies of it for 10 cents apiece until the Third Reich sued him for copyright violation.

A full obiturary of Cranston is available on my Holocaust site.

Monday, August 27, 2007

atomic anxieties

A few years ago I was asked to write a few pages that would help students and faculty prepare for discussions of Michael Frayn's Copenhagen. Specifically I was asked to describe the cultural aspects of atomic anxiety. The short piece I wrote is here, and the opening paragraph ran as follows:

Some culture-watchers doubted that Americans were as anxious about the prospects of nuclear annihilation as everyone said they were. Was it really the "Age of Anxiety" specifically because of the bomb? The poet Rolfe Humphries, in his introduction to a 1953 anthology of New Poems by American Poets, noticed a distinct lack of such anxiety in the hundreds of poems by young writers he considered including in his book. "In the profession of anxiousness, there is an element of fashion," he noted, "of chichi: how many, I wonder, who feel sure that the Atom Bomb is going to get us all tomorrow, ever dream about bombs, instead of their father chasing their mother with a knife, or vice versa." Leaving aside his apparent naivete about how in dreams we substitute one set of fearful symbols for another, Humphries seems to have missed the point about the larger cultural effects of the nuclear age. People feared the bomb itself, yes - and probably such fears were indeed overstated by officials who wanted every new home to be built with fall-out shelters; and perhaps poets, among others, did not abide what seemed to them hysteria. But it seems also true that the bomb generally made midcentury Americans fear more acutely what they always already feared: that things that had been whole in their lives would now split, and that such splitting could not be controlled.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

pre-publication praise

My new book, Counter-revolution of the Word: The Conservative Attack on Modern Poetry, 1945-60 is being published by the University of North Carolina Press in November or December. Here's an early response from Alan Wald, author of The New York Intellectuals and many other books:

Counter-revolution of the Word is a magnificent feat of archival research, sensitive to ironic and contrary strains within adversarial political and cultural camps. Alan Filreis brilliantly troubles all previous narratives of the fate of modern U.S. poetry in the Cold War era by vivifying forgotten poems, reviews, and scholarly books, as well as scrutinizing literary debates, correspondence, and thwarted careers. This is a rare, distinctive and landmark model of original scholarship that dialogically addresses major as well as minor writers with wit and a personal voice.

Grace Paley

I've been away (in the mountains) without newspapers and with little in the way of internet connectivity, so the sad news of Grace Paley's passing came to me late and indirectly. Very sad, indeed. She wrote her stories very slowly but those of us who awaited them learned to be patient. The new one almost inevitably seemed a part of a whole relevant fiction--a world. The Little Disturbances of Man in the late 50s, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute in the early 70s, and finally Later the Same Day in '85. There were other stories--and poems--after that but these three formed the whole I mean. Each story rewarded separate interest but together they were a life of love, personal flaws and self-criticism, and passionate ethical commitments.

I had taught Grace's stories since the early 80s when in 1999 I created "the Writers House Fellows"--a program whereby, each spring, I've hosted visits of eminent writers at the Writers House. For the year 2000, I invited John Edgar Wideman, Robert Creeley, as well as Grace. What a line-up.

Grace's visit was perfect. The students loved her and she loved the Writers House. Well, nearly perfect. There was one problem.

As Grace and I walked through the garden (such as it was then) into the back door of the House, she missed the step up and fell - hitting her forehead on the ground. She immediately cried out as one of her characters would: "I'm dead! I've died! Where am I?" and turned to me: "Are you real? I'm dead, aren't I? Oh my, oh my, oh my, my head hurts!" I brought her into office 109 and we sat there with Kerry and that year's Fellows coordinator, Adam Kaufman. We asked her what she needed. She said, "Do you have a bag of frozen peas?" We did! She put that bag on the bruised forehead and sat some more. We had maybe 20 minutes before the interview/discussion/live webcast was to start. She and I had gotten along beautifully the day before--during the class and the dinner. But now she suspected I was a dangerous official, pushing his guest to embrace his "show must go on" ideology, and she began to like Adam more and more. If
Adam left the room, Grace would call out, "Adam? Adam? Where's Adam?" Finally Adam persuaded her to let him escort her through the kitchen, dining room, living room and into the Arts Cafe. I went ahead and was waiting for her when she arrived and sat down in the comfy chair we had waiting for her, whereupon she turned to me and whispered: "Okay. I'm ready."

If you watch the video recording of the Tuesday morning interview, you'll notice two things: first, that Grace was superb--witty, ascerbic, political and completely responsive to my questions; second, that she spends some of the time holding a bag of peas to her forehead:

A member of the Writers House community--who in those days was our chef for Fellows visits--remembers Grace this way:

her visit coincided with valentines day. the house was warm and cozy. i was in the kitchen, tucked out of sight as i liked to be, but with the doors wide open for those who would venture in, and for the occasion cooking by roses and candlelight. she ventured in, stirred the soup, and said something small and sweet that i now forget, but i took to be a blessing on the meal and the event. i was struck by how tiny she was and this gesture of inclusive kindness to someone whom i think she took to be a servant of sorts.

lots of people stopped into the kitchen during my years as house cook--students/house staff to talk out their ideas and sometimes to chop or (usually) to be fed, and fellow professors would sometimes come by after a meal to swap recipes/talk cooking shop, but no guest ever did what grace paley did--come to be alone with me for a
moment in the midst of an event to commune as two women, two caretakers, cooks, unspoken but understood friends.

Monday, August 20, 2007

verse makes comeback on campus circa '95

I love teaching English 88, my modern & contemporary American poetry course, in part because the thing has evolved in such a way that it is something of a three-ring circus. It's created a life of its own, and certainly the vitality of the poetry hasn't hurt any. As the century ended and a new one began, of course I added new contemporary materials; as online technology improved, I added more e-features; as my disinclination to lecture deepened I abandoned even the 5-minute set-piece, no matter how instructive. So unlike my Holocaust course, which is, alas, inert in several respects, this course is dynamic, a moving target, as digressive as some of my favorite verse.

Anyway, the first time I really felt I was in the sway of this course, it was 1995 and I was teaching it to 90 students in a large cavernous space in unrenovated Bennett Hall on Penn's Campus, and the thing just went wildly off the rails, which of course was just what made it so terrific. The Philadelphia Inquirer somehow got word of this, and sent Lily Eng, who was then covering higher ed for them, to see what was going on. She made a "trend piece" of it, consulting with others about how and why poetry was "making a comeback." But the article nonetheless gives a sense of what fun we were having.

And anyway, how often does one read about the Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven in your local daily newspaper?


Penn has opened a channel at ITunes as part of a project called "ITunesU," which is really just a part of the ITunes Music Store where a selection of universities' audio and video materials are gathered. Both the Writers House podcasts and the PENNsound podcasts--and a few other series, such as Charles Bernstein's "Close Listening"/"Studio 111" interviews--are or will soon be available. Go here and click on "Take me to Penn on ITunesU" and, if you have ITunes, you'll be directly to the Penn site.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

playing The Grand Piano

The Grand Piano is an on-going, multi-authored account of the San Francisco poetics community in the 1970s. If you're trying to get a sense of this project before, let's say, you buy and read copies of the volumes so far published, I suggest that you read a comment on and excerpt from it offered by Barrett Watten on his terrific blog. The focus is on the "turn to language" in that era, an excellent way in. And here's another.

I also recommend Watten's "The Secret History of the Equal Sign: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Between Discourse and Text," published in Poetics Today in 1999. "Avant-gardes, in breaking down the boundaries of the autonomous author in favor of both the work and its immediate reception within its community, frequently employ strategies of 'multiple authorship,' in which the work is positioned between two or more authors, toward a horizon of collective practice or politics. Any theory of the avant-garde must take into account, not only the poetics of its devices of defamiliarization and their relation to the construction of new meaning, but its stakes in the discursive community defined by means of its literary practices."

Here's the archive of Watten's blog posts.

the "Goundhog Day" section of Kenneth Goldsmith's The Weather

A few years ago, when Kenny Goldsmith's book The Weather was still in draft--or should I say, was still being typewritten--he read the "Groundhog Day" section of it at the Writers House (for our annual "Mind of Winter" event), and here's the audio recording: (mp3)

Listen to the recording and then read Marjorie Perloff's essay on The Weather, called "Moving Information". Here's a passage:

Take up The Weather as you might any other book, and you will soon find that what seems to be boring, straightforward, and incontrovertible fact is largely fiction. The book's division into four chapters, one for each season, is already an artifice, for of course we don't experience the seasons this way. Nothing happens on December 21st that couldn't just as well happen on December 20th, the last day of fall. The seasonal cycle, moreover, is, as David Antin notes in his jacket comment, presented as "a classical narrative," moving from the bitter freeze of Winter 2002 through a moderate New York spring, to the summer season of thunderstorms and hurricanes threatening the coast, to the autumn of World Series weather (fortunately, fairly dry), back to a winter that seems, at least so far, not as cold as the previous one. The larger narrative thus mimes the familiar myth of "in like a lion, out like a lamb."

And here's the "Winter" section of the book.

I used to be an artist, then I became a poet; then a writer. Now when asked, I simply refer to myself as a word processor.--Kenneth Goldsmith

Friday, August 17, 2007

Moe Fishman is dead

The New York Times reported the death of Moe Fishman recently. The obit began: "Moe Fishman, who as a 21-year-old from Astoria, Queens, fought Fascists in Spain with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and was severely wounded, then led veterans of that unit in fighting efforts to brand them as Communist subversives, died on Aug. 6 in Manhattan. He was 92." And: "[Peter] Carroll said that about 40 of about 3,000 American veterans of the Spanish Civil War volunteers are living. It had been the job of Mr. Fishman, as executive secretary-treasurer of the veterans, to announce deaths. At times he was almost alone in keeping the group going, Mr. Carroll said, particularly during the long, ultimately successful legal battle to remove the group’s subversive label. Mr. Fishman put out a newsletter, kept scrupulous books, ran the office daily and spoke widely."

So there are 40 Lincolns left.

Jane and Ben and I saw Moe a few years back at one of the annual gatherings of the Lincolns in New York. Moe was, as always, the master of ceremonies. That afternoon the Lincolns were honoring Pete Seeger, who of course didn't fight in Spain but has taken a great interest in their songs and generally their legacy in all the years since.

The 1996 obit of Dwight MacDonald's wife Nancy is relevant and interesting in itself. So is this 1998 article about Joan Miro's art as it was shaped by his experience of the civil war. A piece in Miro's "Black and Red Series" (1938) is shown below. MOMA exhibited these in early 1999.

that impossible object, New Jersey

I'm a reader of Joe Milutis' blog called "New Jersey as an Impossible Object", which roughly works in and around William Carlos Williams's Paterson and his sense of the postindustrial city. Visit Joe's blog. Meantime here's a sample of the text:

If you go to Paterson, you may now happen upon a secret shrine to William Carlos Williams' poem. Although, it might not be there anymore. Composed of trash the Education Department leaves in the abandoned Hinchliffe Stadium (e.g. busted file cabinets, waterlogged textbooks, wobbly bookcarts), the shrine is itself subject to the vagaries of what constitutes trash and what art . . . and what, for that matter, desirable furniture. After the first day, the "library" aspect of the shrine--a small bench facing a bookshelf under a tree sprouting from the concrete and stocked with English textbooks and xeroxes of Paterson in baggies--was disrupted when someone must have realized that the bookshelf was indeed still a good book shelf, and took it away (even though it may have been there for years.) It must have been a critic, because they also let their dog "have their way" in the shrine as well.

gone is the word as word

Bob Cobbing (1920-2002) was so cool that he embodied a post-word-as-such aesthetic, which enabled him to reach through language to sound and material (concreteness) and also an alphabeticality (the letter as letter). Ruth & Marvin Sackner's amazing archive in Miami includes a good deal of Cobbing's work, and our Matt Abess spent the summer of '06 and a good bit of time since then digitizing some of it and preparing for an exhibit that is opening now at the University of Pennsylvania library's gallery. This activity culminates in an event at the Kelly Writers House on October 11. For more: 1 2 3 4.

modernism from right to left

Below is an excerpt from a review Michael Coyle (author of Ezra Pound, Popular Genres, and the Discourse of Culture) wrote several years ago about my book Modernism from Right to Left. The full text of the review is here.

[Filreis] has secured an eminent place not only among the arbiters of Stevens's reputation, but also among historians of 20th century American culture.

Modernism from Right to Left will probably turn away casual browsers, but it authoritatively documents Stevens's full and particular involvement with the political troubles of Depression - Era America. Filreis proceeds by taking on much of what we have always "known" to be true, and one of his chief staging grounds is a long poem Stevens published in 1936 called "Owl's Clover." "Owl's Clover," which is not even included in Stevens's Collected Poems, has long been thought either an anomaly in the poet's work or an aesthetic, reactionary rejection of the leftist politics that for many marked the '30s as the "red decade." In fact, "Owl's Clover" is, as Filreis documents, neither a rejection nor a straightforward acceptance of the left. As the title of his book indicates, Filreis charts a gradual shift in the poet's orientation. Stevens never became a "leftist" poet, but his poetry performs a conscientious self - examination that in its own terms perceptibly turns poetic response to responsibility.

To follow the process by which Filreis develops the evidence for this kind of historical revisionism is to understand something important about literary study in our time. For a literary scholar, the ultimate evidence is always textual. But, because Filreis asks different kinds of questions than did his own teachers at Colgate, he contextualizes textual evidence, and regards individual poems not in isolation but in their contemporaneous relations to other poems, and other kinds of writing.

The research that informs Modernism from Right to Left is both impressive and impressively marshaled. The author ranges among the works of Stevens and his "modernist" cohorts, lesser known political poets of the period, and the historical records of the Hartford Insurance Company � in some ways proving that literary scholarship can still be dusty work. Of course, such contextualizing activity can be deadly if readers care nothing for context, and Filreis's project draws much of its vitality from the old - left writers whom he has exhaustively interviewed and studied. The cultural changes of our last half - century have occasioned the general dismissal of '30s radicals as being anti - art, and Filreis endeavors to save their place in a more broadly conceived American heritage.

Painstakingly careful while analyzing sometimes inflammatory issues, deeply committed to his subject, Professor Filreis offers new ways of conceiving one of our finest poets. When students in the next century look back on 20th century poetry, we can hope again that they will rediscover Stevens, but they're likely to do so in ways that develop from the work Professor Filreis has started here.

And here is the preface to the book itself (and a little more about the study generally).

courses using our stuff

University of Pennsylvania: PENNsound, pennsound and Kelly Writers House webcasts. A stellar project at Penn, PENNsound is “committed to producing new audio recordings and preserving existing audio archives.” Here you can listen to readings from 1950s to today and often find great extras and links to other exciting websites. You can also link through to the Kelly Writers House webcasts at and watch readings and craft talks with major contemporary poets and writers.

The above is from a course syllabus for a seminar on contemporary American poetry being offered this fall at SUNY Fredonia - taught by Natalie Gerber who is in her own right a wonderful scholar-critic of modern poetic prosody. (Here's a short bio.)

PENNsound pedagogy podcast

This afternoon I produced a new PENNsound podcast - the sixth in the series - that gives an overview of PENNsound, its mission and its pedagogical assumptions and implications. In discussing how students, teachers and readers can use PENNsound's materials, I use as an example Rae Armatrout's poem "The Way," about which I've written in an earlier entry here.

After we put up the Ezra Pound recordings, we got a raving fan note from poet Peter Gizzi (who has his own PENNsound author page), and here is what Peter wrote:

I LOVE, I mean LOVE that Pennsound has put up all the Pound material. I have it all in bootlegs and tapes of course but it is wonderful to have it there, finally, I mean it is THE MOST OUT there of anything on that site or ubu web! EP is the best. I used to listen to those tapes over and over in my car in the late 70’s when I was a teenager. To me it was Punk. And hearing it now it brings back summer and my youth! Listening to the Spoleto recording, maybe my fav for its restrained intensity, I am taken aback just how his late syntax has totally effected me. Liz and I were listening and we could hear my poem Homer’s Anger loud and clear for instance. Amazing. And Richard’s head note makes me want to listen further.

There's plenty more praise where that came from. I'm giddy about Gizzi and he has been mentioned here before.

remembering Jerre Mangione

In 1998 Jerre Mangione passed away. Jerre had been on the faculty of English at Penn since the early sixties, and retired perhaps a year or two after I arrived in '85. Because of his involvement in the 1930s as a young administrator in the Federal Writers' Project, I sought him out, lunched with him, interviewed him, and came to admire him. I read his novels and of course studied his history of the FWP, The Dream and the Deal. Soon after his passing the Pennsylvania Gazette asked me to write a short piece memorializing him. The whole essay is here. Here is a paragraph toward the end:

One afternoon in 1987 I interviewed my emeritus colleague at length. I asked him what things might have been like, for him and other FWP writers, had Congress not cut short the life of New Deal-era federal support of public arts projects. Jerre joked modestly that The Dream and the Deal would have been a longer book. But then as my tape ran he went silent for a long time, and bore a pained look. He might have been remembering, for instance, that at the height of the Cold War, when the New England American Studies Association gathered at Amherst College to discuss the New Deal arts projects, an academic critic of American literature named Barry Marks read a paper in which he argued that "the most impressive single feature of the WPA Arts Program was its lack of respect for creativity." For Jerre, on the contrary, "the writers and nonwriters on the project somehow managed to play their role well, so that in spite of all the administrative blunders, the political imbroglios, and the Congressional salvos, [we] produced more good books than anyone dreamed [we] could." I remember Jerre Mangione as a writer who wrote his own "good books," yes, but also as one who made others' literally possible -- which, contra Barry Marks, was and is the highest praise.

Readers of this blog who have trouble finding copies of The Dream and the Deal should feel free to contact me (use the little envelope icon below). I have a box of copies Jerre himself gave me and would be delighted to mail you one.

electronic pedagogy

In late spring/summer 2001 Jim O'Neil, then the higher education beat reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, interviewed me at length for a story about my electronic pedagogy. The essay would appear in the (now defunct) Inquirer Sunday Magazine in August of '01. In '99 and '00 I had taught three all-online versions of my modern & contemporary American poetry course, English 88. And I had for years been using chat rooms (the earliest was a MOO called PennMOO) and listservs to enable the students' discussion to be the central activity of the course. The six-year-old piece seems a bit quaint to me now, and Jim's focus (in several middle paragraphs) on my life and "development" as a teacher is a bit embarrassing, but the narrative is more or less right. Here's a passage from the essay, starting with the end of the biographical stuff:

In the early 1980s, while pursuing his doctorate in English at the University of Virginia, Filreis began to teach. At the time, the university purchased early-version desktop computers. "They were big white machines, in the shape of a huge space helmet," Filreis said. "They ran a word processor program called Magic Wand."

Filreis stored set pieces on computer, each describing a common student writing mistake. He gave each set piece a number. Then, marking student papers by hand, he put a number in the margin near each mistake, and attached the appropriate computer-generated commentary.

"This changed my relationship with the students," Filreis said. "I wanted to engage the students in a conversation." In effect, he had created a low-tech prototype of the teaching style he would later refine. He calls it "dialogic pedagogy."

When e-mail and the Internet appeared, Filreis, who arrived at Penn in 1985, easily integrated these new tools.

The core of that teaching philosophy mirrors the course material of English 88.

Postmodernist poets focused on the process of their poetry, rather than on what the words in their poems actually said. The purpose was to make poetry and language new again.

There's no better way to describe Filreis' teaching style. He uses technology to free class time for discussion, which to Filreis is more important than the course material itself. The point is to develop his students' ability to think critically, not to have memorized every last fact about Gertrude Stein. And yet, he said, through that active engagement with the material, students end up remembering more of the content.

Here's Filreis' teaching style in action: By late April, the students in English 88 are studying the postmodern poets.

Shortly after class gets out one day, the English 88 listserv starts to hum. Some students like the postmodernist message. Others think a poem whose words made no conventional sense was ridiculous. At one point during the raging debate, Filreis e-mails everyone a brief message to guide the discussion along. He cites a quote from one student, who chafed at the postmodernist experiment: "I disagree with the idea that effective poetry can consistently be made by imposing an arbitrary set of rules on some subject and following them rigorously," wrote the student, Jacob Kraft.

Filreis' seven-word reply reads: "Is this not what a sonnet is?"

The online jousting plants the seeds for an equally charged debate in class a few days later over an elegy performed in 1975 by postmodernist Jackson Mac Low, called "A Vocabulary for Peter Innisfree Moore". Mac Low took his friend's name, used a computer to churn out every word that could be constructed from reshuffling the letters of the name, and then got friends to read those 960 words aloud in a staged performance. The work generates intense give-and-take among the students on whether old-fashioned elegies did justice to the dead.

"Who's to say words can capture the essence of a human being?" says Laine McDonnell. "Who's to say these words of Mac Low's don't capture his friend more?"

"Aesthetically, it leaves a lot to be desired," pipes up Jake Kraft. "The postmodernists are only interested in the process. They throw aesthetics out the window."

Now that Filreis has broken down the walls of the classroom, he wants to break through all other confines of the university setting. "I want to start recruiting 'teachers' from the extended Penn community," he said, clearly thinking back to Carl Peterson's influence on him at Colgate. "I want more electronic mentoring. I want to deepen the experiment. I'd love to be liberated from the semester so I could teach whomever, wherever, whenever."

Thanks to technology, he has already liberated himself. He has created a program through which faculty can mentor incoming freshmen over the Internet before they even get to campus. He has cajoled some faculty to participate in online book groups for Penn alumni. And his own Web site - which registered more than 2.6 million hits in the last six months and includes extensive resources on modern poetry, the 1950s and the Holocaust - has become a helpful tool for high-school teachers nationwide.

Filreis is one of a small but growing cadre of professors across the country who are changing classroom pedagogy - and not merely by turning the old-fashioned lecture into a glitzy PowerPoint presentation. Many colleges provide grants and training for professors interested in using the new technology, and on every college campus there's at least one professor harnessing the basic technology of the Internet to free class time for richer, student-driven discussion.

The whole essay can be found here.

For my all online poetry course I prepared a series of short video clips (in RealVideo format). I put links to all the clips into a simple introductory web page with a paragraph-long statement that begins: "It's my view that simple email (asynchronous communication as a forum for group discussion) works well in combination with real-time ("live") formats such as 'chat rooms' and 'webcasts.'" And here's the link to the video clip about my preference for ascynchronous discussion.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

commies taking over tomorrow

The first postwar "Imagine if..." dramatizations of the Russians conquering and enslaving America, Is This Tomorrow? was published in 1947 by the Catechetical Guild Educational Society of St. Paul, Minnesota. At ten cents a copy, this fifty-two page, full-color comic book was a smashing success. It enjoyed several reprintings, and was used as a giveaway, presumably distributed to church groups. Some four million copies were printed.

Feverish Commie-takeover scenarios emerged in the mass media in the years to come, including Life magazine's "The Reds Have a Standard Plan for Taking over a New Country" (1948), the M-G-M cartoon "Make Mine Freedom" (1948), Columbia Pictures' 1952 film Invasion USA, the 1962 TV special Red Nightmare ("presented by the Department of Defense"), and such comic books as "The Sneak Attack" in the first issue of Atomic War (1952). But none of them could quite match Is This Tomorrow? for pure holy terror.

For more materials of this sort, see my 1950s site.

the end of the lecture as we know it

At a conference sponsored by the SEI Center for Advanced Studies in Management on "The Virtual University" (January 12, 1995), Martin Meyerson said:

The best lectures have always been those that deal with "tentative materials" that result from the professor's research. If they cease to be tentative, don't include them in the lecture; print them. The main teaching function has to be interactive.

Imagine a university in which all teaching is based on "tentative materials" in this sense, and all the informational and conceptual fixities to be taught are available to students outside of class, any hour of the day or night.

According to Boswell, Sam Johnson said this:

Lectures were once useful; but now, when all can read, and books are so numerous, lectures are unnecessary. If your attention fails, and you miss a part of a lecture, it is lost; you cannot go back as you do upon a book... People have nowadays got a strange opinion that everything should be taught by lectures. Now, I cannot see that lectures can do as much good as reading the books from which the lectures are taken. I know nothing that can be best taught by lectures, except where experiments are to be shown. You may teach chymistry by lectures. You might teach making shoes by lectures!

Here again is a link to my 60-second lecture on the end of the lecture (1999).

Thanks to Jack Lynch, here's the bibliography on Sam Johnson's remarks about the lecture. First, this from Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed. G. B. Hill, rev. L. F. Powell, 6 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934-64), vol. 4, p. 92: "We talked of the difference between the mode of education at Oxford, and that in those Colleges where instruction is chiefly conveyed by lectures. JOHNSON. 'Lectures were once useful; but not, when all can read, and books are so numerous, lectures are unnecessary. If your attention fails, and you miss part of the lecture, it is lost; you cannot go back as you do upon a book.' Dr. Scott agreed with him. 'But yet (said I) Dr. Scott, you yourself gave lectures at Oxford.' He smiled. 'You laughed (then said I) at those who came to you.'" Then in the same book, volume 2, pages 7-8: "Talking of education, 'People have now a-days, (said he,) got a strange opinion that every thing should be taught by lectures. Now, I cannot see that lectures can do so much good as reading the books from which the lectures are taken. I know nothing that can be best taught by lectures, except where experiments [p. 8] are to be shewn. You may teach chymistry by lectures. -- You might teach making of shoes by lectures!"

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

don't smoke

After a while, Allen Ginsberg enjoyed doing just about everything else but cigarette smoking. And he had the politics to support this one eventual self-prohibition, best expressed in his song called "Don't Smoke (Put Down Your Cigarette Rag)." Here is a RealAudio version of the recording. It's a 9 billion dollar capitalist joke.

"Doctor," Ginsberg said to his very first psychiatrist in San Francisco, "I don't think you're going to find this very healthy and clear, but I really would like to stop working forever--never work again, never do anything like the kind of work I'm doing now--and do nothing but write poetry and have leisure to spend the day outdoors and go to museums and see friends. And I'd like to keep living with someone -- maybe even a man -- and explore relationships that way. And cultivate my perceptions, cultivate the visionary thing in me. Just a literary and quiet city-hermit existence."

For me the most enjoyable aspect of understanding Ginsberg's writing is to deal straight on, feeling no need to reconcile them, with the two tendencies: stern (however hilarious otherwise) warnings against unethical or politically unconscious acts and ecstatic exploration of life-living resisting custom and normative behavior. In a sense this is the one biggest issue for experimental poetry from the dawn of modernism in the first 20th-century decade--the everyday politics of avant-gardism, how we can be liberated from ugly unbeautiful constraint while living with a new whole notion of communal and even personal rightness.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

at 99, it's a long way looking back

Many poets who lived to old age have registered in verse what it must be like to see or sense an "I" so old, so long ago, so outmoded, that such a version of the self is unrecognizable, other. Stevens' "Long and Sluggish Lines" is just one of several poems he wrote in his seventies in this vein. But Stevens died at a merely 76. Carl Rakosi died at 100. To celebrate his 99th birthday, we at the Writers House invited him to read. He wasn't able to make the trip from San Francisco so we set up a live audiocast. It was great fun and Carl was in wonderful form. The event was noted by a web page and recordings of the whole conversation as well as the individual poems Carl read are available. Carl that night read "In What Sense I Am I," which to me captures more precisely and interestingly than any other poem I know what it's like to outlive oneself, "a minor observer / as in a dream." The text of the poem is here and the recording of Carl reading that one poem is here. That night in 2002 Tom Devaney gave a good introduction to the occasion and to his friend Carl.

"Carl Rakosi's determined honesty and reductive rhetoric with its ungainsayable plainsong," Bob Creeley wrote, "have made a measure for all conduct of words in the attempt to find an active poetry in the fact of lives without power."

I, the people

In her 1986 book Parts of a Wedding, Alice Notley published a poem I especially admire, called "I the People." (It was republished in Grave of Light: New & Selected Poems, 1970-2005.) The text of the poem is here. When Notley came to the Writers House to read in the fall of '06, she read this poem and we have a recording of it (mp3). In its sense of political-is-personal, it is very much like John Ashbery's poem, "The One Thing That Can Save America": a lyrical digressive response, in its very meandering and promotion of urban specificity, to the fundamental democratic idea of the people. Somewhat predictably the poem turns the phrase "we, the people" every which way so that the republic seems to depend on modest and shifting as opposed to hyper-confident presumptuous first-person statements. Notley's "I" is one that becomes "we" by way of (actual) love experience, an actual sense of place. There are broad but only momentarily hints of satire here, e.g. at/against Frost's "The Gift Outright," with its notion of what America "was" and "would become." Notley: "I the people / to the things that are were & come to be. / We were once what we know when we / make love...."

Monday, August 06, 2007

PoemTalk starts talkin'

I am the host of a new podcast series called "PoemTalk." At least we think it'll be a new series. On August 2, we recorded a pilot show and now friends and colleagues are having a listen. Once we've heard their responses, we'll decide whether we will go ahead. The plan is to produce a new show every two weeks, beginning in September. In each show I introduce and play a PENNsound recording of one poem, and then I, with three guest poet-critics, discuss it, its influences and manifestations, for about 30 minutes. For the pilot show I chose William Carlos Williams' 1930s poem "Between Walls" and here is a link to the podcast. Have a listen and let me know what you think.