Saturday, May 31, 2008

when Paik TV goes on the fritz

How do we preserve art that wasn't created to be preserved? Such a category would include, let's say, an artwork made partly or wholly of organic materials such as chocolate or beeswax. Or an artwork constructed of a then-old or a now-old form of technology that is difficult now to replace or even repair.

I began by asking how we preserve such art, but the apter question might be should we? What becomes of art consciously ephemeral if years later we decide it must be preserved (because of its sheer dollar value; because of its canonicity)?

Starting with the problem presented in Los Angeles by the failure of some old television sets, an article in the Christian Science Monitor reports on this difficulty.

Above at right: a Nam June Paik piece dated 1965. This is not the L.A. failure mentioned above and so far as I know this Paik piece still works.

I'm ready for new Readies

The remarkable Craig Saper has created some 21st-century-style "Readies", modeled on the modernist Readies of Bob Brown (1930), about which I have a huge personal interest.

"The reading machine," Craig writes, "is a toy that will appeal to a handful of modernist and media scholars, Bob Brown's heirs, and a few others. This project includes a few of the iterations; one can appreciate either of the last two iterations as the culmination of the project. The scholars and those interested in the particular writers in the Readies anthology will find iteration 3 particularly useful, but not yet complete. Iteration 4 is more for those seeking a futurist-thrill-poetry-ride-background-noise."

(Apparently at this point the machine only works with Windows/Firefox. It will also work with a Mac running Firefox but not with Safari.)

Craig is Professor of Texts and Technology in the English Department at the University of Central Florida. He is the author of Networked Art (2001) and Artificial Mythologies (1997), both published by the University of Minnesota Press. He taught at Penn and has presented (on Fluxus) at the Writers House.

ideas one thing, acts another

In a summer 1951 editorial, Ray B. West argued against political writers - writesr who chose the active life. "What...has happened to the artist who has blushed into the open?" He mentions Picasso (joined the Communist Party and ipso facto, says West, botched both the politics and the art), and Malraux (foolishly attaching himself to a political leader). His examples are all on the left.

But then the clincher. "Would the cause of art or our political causes be better served if T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and William Faulkner were to be forced into immediate political activity?" I do know what West, who was a sympathetic liberal, was trying to do here: he wanted to give us three reactionary writers and make us thank our lucky stars that they didn't get involved in politics.

But, wait! It's 1951 and he's asking us to be happy Ezra Pound never engaged in immediate political activity? Had he forgotten or suppressed the fact that Pound had gone on fascist radio in Italy, bespoken Mussolini's cause and railed against Roosevelt and the Jews? Or is possible West didn't count this as immediate political activity?

"The fact is," West's "The Act versus the Idea"* concludes, "most intellectuals have little talent or taste for action."

* in the magazine he edited, the Western Review, published in Iowa City.

Friday, May 30, 2008

no longer adapted to its purpose

In May '68, during the student uprisings that began at Nanterre and spread (when Nanterre was closed) to the Sorbonne and thus to the streets of Paris, Charles DeGaulle, French president by then for a decade, made two speeches intended to quell the youth revolt. The first was a total flop, looked at from any party's point of view, including that of the closest Gaullist aides. The second is considered by Gaullist chroniclers, by anticommunists, by doubters of the New Left's efficacy, by nationalist centrists and conservatives, to have been a success in restoring "order."

The first speech was made on May 24. To read it today as pure text, one believes it is a conservative yet accommodating gesture, prepared for reforms:

I am going to tell you what I think of the situation. The country is in the midst of a transformation. There is fear neither of war nor of misery. When the French are no longer afraid, they challenge the authority of the State. The country is caught up in a movement that it cannot understand, that of mechanical, technological civilization. If it is young people who are expressing their disturbed reactions first, it is because the University is no longer adapted to its purpose.... There are many indications of the need for a transformation in our society and it seems clear that such a transformation must involve a more extensive participation by everybody in the running and the results of whatever activity directly concerns him.... There is also a need to alter structures.

At moments this speech seems downright progressive - reformist. Can one imagine a conservative American president - or a U.S. president of any ideological stripe - in a speech to the entire nation, speaking with such apparent directness about the "need to alter structures"?

And yet in context of the May '68 uprisings, what was just then going on in the streets of the very city where DeGaulle spoke - and every witness agrees with this - this speech seemed and felt like that of a man who'd completely lost touch with reality. Its every gesture toward concession, its 1960s rhetoric - transformation is needed, the problems are structural, people should help decide things that will affect them - struck his listeners the way a soft-spoken old segregationist might have sounded at a meeting of SNCC: untenable, ridiculous, oblivious, and thus incendiary.

There's a lot about May '68 that interests me. For the moment I'm pondering the Gaullist attempt to reckon with the idea of the university.

I've read accounts of what was done and said inside the French government and military that month, and there's a surprising lack of discussion about higher education. But de Gaulle does refer to it briefly in his May 24 speech: "If it is young people who are expressing their disturbed reactions first, it is because the University is no longer adapted to its purpose."

I don't know the original French, but let's assume this is translated well: it's a classic Gaullist sentence, complex, elegant logically, disarming, and actually (as rhetoric) democratic rather than authoritarian in style. But disarming, yes.

If the students were the leading edge in expressing what must be a nation-wide dissatisfaction with French life as it is being lived in the 1960s (there's the reference to "mechanical, technological civilization" - thus he means alienation), then...then what? What is the conclusion? What liberal shoe must drop in the sentence's grammar?

If the students are just the first to express widespread national alienation, the nascent voicings of a new French political unconscious, our free children bespeaking our suppressed adult longings, then....then the leaders and faculties of the universities aren't doing their jobs! There's something wrong with the university. It is no longer adapted to its purpose. (Its purpose being, as Clark Kerr put it rather brutally a few years earlier, to prepare young people of the nation to be effective participants in the progressive, [post]modern knowledge-oriented technical economy.)

It's almost as if the first half of the sentence implies a first-draft but finally left implicit if-then "then": if students are first to express a general feeling, then we can't locate the problem in them but must address a truly national situation. Or: if students are the first to express their alienation, then we must "alter structures" that can accommodate the problems. But these thens get lost in the president's rush to conclude what he instinctively must conclude about what education must ideally do in a democracy: keep the lesser human instincts toward radical liberty and social experiment at bay between childhood and post-adolescent work. Thus when he gets to the most conservative parts of the speech ("We must both re-establish public order and negotiate with compromising...the security of the nation") what he really means, it's obvious, is that the universities must be shut down and forced to adapt to their purposes.

Want to start your May 1968 summer reading and viewing list? Try these:

[] Rene Vienet's 1973 film, Can dialectics break bricks?
[] Guy DuBord's 1973 film The Society of the Spectacle
[] Gilbert Adair's novel The Holy Innocents
[] Alain Touraine, The May Movement: Revolt and Reform
[] (for the ears) the Rolling Stones' song "Street Fighting Man"

language, period style of the 80s

Lots of people I know are currently in Tucson at the Conceptual Poetry Conference. Kenneth Goldsmith is blogging for Harriet (at the Poetry Foundation) and gives us fresh accounts of papers and other doings in Tucson. Today he writes about Marjorie Perloff's keynote speech in which 21st-century century avant-garde poetics is shaped by and of course itself evinces the new transnational and global culture of the internet. Along the way she describes Language Poetry as the "period style of the 1980s" - not meaning anything particularly negative about the phrase, I assume from what Goldsmith writes.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


Charles Bernstein has published an essay on second-wave modernism defined in such a way as to include song lyrics from blues to Tin Pan Alley: "Objectivist Blues: Scoring Speech in Second-Wave Modernist Poetry and Lyrics," American Literary History (Spring 2008). The key sentence is this: "We might be able to consider, under the sign of sound poetry,... Cab Calloway's scat 'Hi-De-Ho' as an ideolectical descendent of Velimir Khlebnikov's zaum, Kurt Schwitters's 'Ur Sonata,' and Hugo Ball's Dadaist 'Karawane.'"

Saturday, May 24, 2008

the fin in a time of compacts


Thursday, May 22, 2008

the roller of big cigars has brain cancer

Two days ago (May 20) Chris Matthews on his nightly TV show Hardball likened Ted Kennedy to the "man in the poem" - the poem being Wallace Stevens's "The Emperor of Ice Cream." Click here and listen to a brief excerpt of the show. For Chris, the poem is about the life-force, the one guy who's completely alive in the atmosphere of death. Maybe he's put his finger on the poem's essential antic quality. Well, maybe not. But it's certainly an illuminating way to think about this particular Kennedy. Death all around, so there's got to be someone whom we can call who will constantly remind us of life's ongoing fecundity, the wenches dawdling in their usual dresses; the boys, oogling; the creamy messes prepared in the kitchen; as many drinking joking jaunts in one's boat in the bay as one has time left for.

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

the Roth-Obama presidency

"I always joke," Barack Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg for Goldberg's new piece in the Atlantic, "that my intellectual formation was through Jewish scholars and writers, even though I didn’t know it at the time. Whether it was theologians or Philip Roth who helped shape my sensibility...."

Philip Roth helped shape Barack Obama's sensibility.

In yesterday's Slate Cultural Gabfest the three hyper-articulate gabbers noted, half-jokingly, that if Bill Clinton was our first black president, perhaps Barack Obama will be our first Jewish president.

Goldberg has written this: "Obama told me that his sensibility was partially shaped by the books of Philip Roth. This obviously has profound implications for American foreign policy, and for shiksas, as well. And so, a reader contest. In a couple of pithy sentences, tell us what the first 100 days of a Roth-influenced Obama presidency would look like."

Andrew Sullivan in "The Daily Dish" blog creates an entry called "The Obama-Roth Presidency."

Back in February here's what Roth had to say about Obama:

Roth: I’m interested in the fact that he’s black. I feel the race issue in this country is more important than the feminist issue. I think that the importance to blacks would be tremendous. He’s an attractive man, he’s smart, he happens to be tremendously articulate. His position in the Democratic Party is more or less okay with me. And I think it would be important to American blacks if he became president.

SPIEGEL: Is Barack Obama black enough?

Roth: I know this discussion goes on, but I think it will disappear if he gets the nomination. The reality of his running will wash that away. Anybody who’s half white and half black is considered black anyway. That’s one drop of blood.

...and takes sides

Jason Schneiderman has written a review of my new book, Counter-Revolution of the Word. Here is an excerpt:

"His method is painstakingly thorough, and the sheer amount of research is stunning. His ability to put the period in context is remarkable, and he’s often able to show the way that what might look like a purely aesthetic disagreement is often grounded in a larger political conflict. The attention of the book is often minute in scope, tracing the smallest capillaries of the organs of attack, telling individual stories and slowly building up the story through a steady accretion of quotations. While most of the book presents archival research, Filreis takes sides when the modernist toolbox is under attack, and passionately defends the right of writers to work in non-traditional modes...."


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

seeing with 1,000 eyes

"Discord when it's true has the conspiracy pinned." It surely does.

That's my favorite line in Lyn Hejinian's sequence called The Little Book of a Thousand Eyes. The chapbook itself is rare. It was published in Boulder by Smoke-Proof Press in 1996. The typescript of the book, presumably a draft, is already in her archive of papers at UCSD (here's the register for that growing collection). If you go to Amazon you'll find it "currently unavailable." Lyn herself has just one copy. And the Thousand Eyes poems haven't been collected elsewhere, although probably some of them were published individually in various places.

But in 2005, when Lyn Hejinian last read at the Writers House here, she read 19 of the little "eyes" from this work. Fantastic stuff. My favorite at the moment is a piece full of grammatical switches and misplacements, the first line of which is "Here in a sudden of this to Caesar." The line quoted at the top of this entry is from it. Click here and listen to the 41-second recording of this poem.

Monday, May 19, 2008

connecting the dots

Babies and bombs. When a famous progressive baby doctor ponders an anti-nuclear position.... Click here for more.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

teaching and doing

"Leonardo da Vinci,” sound poet Bob Cobbing liked to say, “asked the poet to give him something he might see and touch and not just something he could hear. Sound poetry seems to me to be achieving this aim." Seeing and even hearing we (teachers of modern and contemporary poetry) can manage, albeit the latter with special new effort. But touch? Enabling such an engagement is next to impossible in traditional poetry pedagogy. And although seeing a printed poem—really seeing it as a thing, in William Carlos Williams's sense (poems aren't beautiful statements; they're things)—is a feat we believe is effected in a close reading, yet looking at a poem, even staring hard at it, is of course not the same as comprehending it. All this strikes me as relatively easy to discuss in theory, but actually doing it, making out of poetics a consistent practice, is daunting.

But I'll say this: taking any next step in this necessitates accepting the distinction, first and foremost, between teaching and doing--between teaching poetry and doing poetry. I want, at least, to teach poetry in a place where it is being done, and to derive a practice from that doing.

loved his reel-to-reel

During a recent visit to Orono, Maine, poet Robert Kelly recalled Paul Blackburn's reel-to-reel tape recorder and his commitment to recording poetry's sound. Steven Evans's Lipstick of Noise in turn captured Kelly's remarks. Here is the link to Steve's site, and here is a link directly to the 5-minute recording of Kelly's reminiscence.

At right: Robert Kelly

Monday, May 12, 2008

Cage scores game show

John Cage as a guest on a TV game show. For more, click here.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

censory impulse

Here are some links to poems by erica kaufman available variously on the web. I've added, also, a PDF copy of her chapbook excerpt from the longer poem, censory impulse.

[] "to the zoo" (in MiPOesias) LINK

[] 5 poems (in Gowanus) LINK

[] poems from censory impulse (in EOAGH) LINK

[] chapbook censory impulse LINK (PDF, 3.6MB)

Friday, May 09, 2008

chanting the body: a pedagogy

I've already commented here on Jerome Rothenberg's compelling skepticism about the efficacy of the classroom. "As for poetry 'belonging' in the classroom," he wrote, "it's like the way they taught us sex in those old hygiene classes: not performance but semiotics. If I had taken Hygiene 71 seriously, I would have become a monk; & if I had taken college English seriously, I would have become an accountant." Hilarious and devastating critique! Of course Rothenberg taught in classrooms for many years, but "realize[d] that the classroom becomes a substitute for those places (coffee shop or kiva) where poetry actually happens & where it can be 'learned' (not 'taught') in action." In a short prose piece from Shaking the Pumpkin, called "An Academic Proposal" (1972), Rothenberg advocated the point thus: "Teach courses with a rattle & a drum."

During the semester just now ending, the students in the Writers House Fellows seminar and I grappled with this problem. Every fine session of analysis we effected produced an irony: in our classroom, together, we were getting good at understanding Rothenberg's doubts about the relevance of classroom understanding. We had no rattle and drum. We even tried to chant but it was always already too well framed within the institution: the counter-institutional urge was too well made by the thing we wanted to repress or forget.

Finally, though, many of us did chant.

We gathered at the Writers House and make recordings of archaic poems drawn from Rothenberg's Technicians of the Sacred. We presented a CD of these recordings to Rothenberg when he visited. Here's a link to one of them: it's a Polynesian poem called "The Body Song of Kio." It gets a bit sexy (and frank) so don't play this with your kids around. Our main chanter is Simone Blaser.

This particular song - the very fact of our singing it after understanding but not doing anything about the pedagogy of rattle-and-drum - nicely connected us back to Jerry's hilarious line about Hygiene 71. We could study the body and sexuality and become monks; chanting this song made us vocal bodies and seemed to augur a better, fuller future for the students. But analogy between Hygiene and Poetry Class holds the day: "English" class might geniuinely lead to a love of the poem--of doing it.

what do Newton Minow & T.S. Eliot have in common?

This is really a quiz question. What indeed do Newton Minow (JFK's then-young FCC chairman) and T. S. Eliot have in common? You really should know the answer to this. Here's a hint: if you click here you will go to my 1960 blog, where I've written something about the state of television in that year. A few months after the year ended, Minow made a speech in which a single phrase will always be remembered.

PoemTalk #6

PoemTalk episode #6 is now officially released on the Poetry Foundation site.

[] PF site episode page LINK
[] PoemTalk blog entry LINK
[] all shows on PF site LINK

Thursday, May 08, 2008

the leaded word

A few years back we bought three letterpresses along with friends in Fine Arts and Rare Books. (The basics-minded founders of the Writers House back in '95 originally hoped to have a letterpress in the house itself--but we couldn't find the right space and went on for ten years before finally establishing it elsewhere on campus: in the old old Morgan Building on 34th Street.)

With our partners, collectively, we call it the Common Press. Our own imprint is called "The 15th Room Press" (the old 1851 cottage at 3805 Locust Walk has its 14 rooms).

Recently the Pennsylvania Gazette ran an article about our project called "The Leaded Word" (good title). Here's a link directly to the Gazette, and here is how the piece opens:

"In an era when publishing a poem or a political tirade takes little more than a mouse click, the basement of the Morgan Building is an incongruous place. The printed word is everywhere—draped over worktables and festooned on the white cinderblock walls—but it doesn’t flow from keyboards or toner cartridges. Indeed a quick glance at the posted list of commandments suggests that flow isn’t the right verb at all.


"Hanging from a nearby coat rack, next to a line of heavy aprons, an AOSafety brand gas mask promises protection against “organic vapors” and sulfur dioxide. Peek around the corner and the heart of the operation comes into view. Standing amidst cabinets filled with movable lead type are three letterpresses that weigh into the tons and have a combined age exceeding 250 years."

The Common Press site includes some examples of the good work done on the presses, as does the 15th Room Press site. Matt Neff (a painter now addicted to printing) and Erin Gautsche (the KWH Program Coordinator) will be together teaching an undergraduate seminar in the fall semester called "Grotesque Forms: Writing/Printing/Bookmaking." So far as I know this is the first time Penn has ever offered a course like this - a combination writing and printing/bookmaking seminar. Very exciting.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

beware the art student at war for wrong reasons

Oh conventional, well-adjusted American students of art, thwart your attraction to Gauguin, don't sign up for a Pacific troop transport and fight World War II for the wrong (namely, aesthetic) reasons. There can be only one right, well-adjusted reason to fight in the Pacific circa 1944. Aesthetic obsession ain't it. To me, this is the gist of Raditzer, Peter Matthiessen's third novel (1961). Click here to go to my 1960 blog, and read a bit more about the American named Stark who drift inexorably into his aesthetic heart of darkness.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

new PoemTalk now available

We've released PoemTalk #6, featuring Kenny Goldsmith, Tracie Morris and Joshua Schuster talking with me about Jaap Blonk's performance of a titular line from Madeline Gins. For more, go to the PoemTalk blog.

on imagism

"The metaphor and the adjective are nuisance stumbling blocks to perception."

--Edward Dahlberg, writing about Ezra Pound in a review of The Letters of Ezra Pound for Tomorrow magazine in 1951; reprinted in Samuel Beckett's Wake and Other Uncollected Prose, ed. Steven Moore

Monday, May 05, 2008

makes you so sick at heart

My earlier entry on Mario Savio's great speech delivered impromptu on the steps of Sproul Hall received such a positive response that I decided to link a YouTube video here. Send me your thoughts: afilreis [at] writing [dot] upenn [dot] edu.

leads us into a communal space

Cecilia Vicuña at the Writers House on April 15. Cecilia was our first "Writers without Borders" featured visitor. She chanted and recited for 40 minutes (and 8 seconds)--and that recording is now available on her PennSound page. The Writers House web calendar entry introduces her as follows: "Cecilia Vicuña, acclaimed Chilean poet, filmmaker and performance artist weaves time, space and sound to evoke ancient sensory memories. Through playful improvisations, stories and chants she leads her audience into a communal space where poetry unfolds. In her work indigenous word-play interfaces the contemporary realities of ecological disaster. Cecilia Vicuña is the author of sixteen poetry books published in Europe, Latin America and the US. Born and raised in Santiago de Chile, she has been an exile since the Pinochet coup in the early 1970s, and since 1980 has resided in New York, spending several months a year in Latin America. Currently she is co-editing the Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry, forthcoming 2008."

John Carroll took some great photographs of this event.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

even ecstasy is a made thing

The first "lesson" people seem to learn about Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" is that it is spontaneous, follows the rule of "first thought, best thought," and all this talk about its natural language leaves one with the impression (intentionally enhanced by the poem's own rhetoric) that it was composed in a white heat, a burst, and then left to be its now-canonical self.

When I teach the poem I use the first (mis)impression to my advantage (I mean, as a teacher who wants to convey, among other things, that there is no such thing as a poem consisting of natural language--that poems are made things). A lesson simple enough. After a while--after a discussion of the students' sense that the poem was composed in a flash of "inspiration" and ecstasy--I show them the marked-up typescript. You see a page below. If you click on the image, it will enlarge just enough for you to be able to see some of the careful revisions Ginsberg made as he worked this poem toward perfection--toward the impression of natural speech he wanted to create.

[inserted between lines 1 and 2] who sat all nite rocking & rolling over lofty incantations which in the yellow morning were stanzas of gibberish

[inserted in the left margin near line 9] * Meat truck egg

[inserted by line 10] lunged out of subway windows, jumped in the filthy Passaic, leaped on negroes, Cried al over the street, danced on broken wineglasses barefoot smashed their phonograph records of European 1930's German jazz finished the whisky &

[inserted in line 11] groaning

[inserted in line 15] got hi [canceled]

[inserted in left margin by lines 20-21] See p 1 [Ginsberg is proposing a shift here to page 1]

[inserted in left margin by lines 23-26] After free Beer [Ginsberg is proposing to move this so that it follows "not ever one free beer" above]

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Nuremberg and Vietnam

"If I was asked to name the person of my generation whom I most admired, I would promptly answer Telford Taylor. .. [W]ise counselor, persuasive advocate, careful scholar, all the qualities that signify distinction... were his in high degree." So wrote Herbert Wechsler, who worked with Taylor at Nuremberg.

I once met Telford Taylor - briefly but at least I met him. It was at a conference on the Nuremberg Trials. Well, I should say the series of sessions, hosted by a nonprofit holocaust education group, featured discussions of what is generally called "judgment." The only panel I attended which I remember in any detail included Taylor and a wonderful energetic man named Benny Ferenz. Ferenz had been one of Taylor's assistants in the prosecutions at Nuremberg.

Iniitally Taylor was assistant to the U.S. chief counsel at the long postwar trials, second fiddle to Robert H. Jackson (later a Supreme Court justice). But Jackson left to go back to the States and Taylor himself became chief counsel. Taylor was critical of many aspects of the Nuremberg proceedings. He felt that the prosecutions were undermined by the cold war, which forced the focus to shift from the Nazis to the Soviets as enemies. Denazification was not just an apt thing in itself; it was driven by anticommunist policy: make the Germans our friends quickly and we will have a central European bulwark against the Russians. Taylor felt implicit and explicit pressure to ease up.

After the trials were done, he went home, into private practice, but McCarthy's rise forced him into public positions. He worked hard as a detractor of McCarthy, at a time when this could make one seem a subversive. David Rudenstine has written: "Telford gave a speech at West Point in which he attacked McCarthy as a "dangerous adventurer" and described the then ongoing congressional investigations of the political left as 'a vicious weapon of the extreme right against their political opponents.'" In the same speech, Telford criticized President Eisenhower and the Secretary of the Army, Robert T. Stevens, for not standing up "against the shameful abuse of Congressional investigatory power."

To me the most impressive thing about Telford Taylor's life and work is the way in which his opposition to the American involvement in Vietnam was related to lessons we did not learn from the Holocaust. His book, Nuremberg and Vietnam, puts such a war into the context of genocide and postwar judgment. I urge everyone reading this to pick up a copy of Nuremberg and Vietnam: a short brilliant book. You will not think of the Vietnam War the same way again.

It's possible to say that the international human rights movement was begun by Telford Taylor.

"The laws of war," Taylor wrote in his memoir of Nuremberg, "do not apply only to the suspected criminals of vanquished nations. There is no moral or legal basis for immunizing victorious nations from scrutiny. The laws of war are not a one-way street."

At the end of the year Taylor died, the Times included him in its year-end round-up of short essayistic obituaries. Here's a link (PDF) to Taylor's.

Friday, May 02, 2008

HUAC: now let us go into poetry

Mr. [Arthur] Miller [recently author of The Crucible]: I am opposed to the Smith Act and I am still opposed to anyone being penalized for advocating anything.... It is the nature of life, and it is in the nature of literature, that the passions of an author congeal around issues. You can go from War and Peace through all the great novels of time and they are all advocating something.... l am not here defending Communists, I am here defending the right of the author to advocate.

Mr. Sherer: Even to advocate the overthrow of the Government by force and violence?

Mr. Miller: I am now speaking, sir, of creative literature. The[r]e are risks and balances of risks.

We tend to read Arthur Miller's stand against the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities ("HCUA" or more commonly--but mistakenly--"HUAC") as bold because, on the face of it, we know that he came to oppose the odious Smith Act, which permitted the government to prosecute Americans for "intending" to advocate something, and because he seemed admirably unwilling to back off from the idea that "the passions of the author" and his "issues" constituted evidence of benevolent intentionality, that is, evidence which Miller would argue indeed suggested a beneficial, not dangerous, relation to the world. In order to save the liberal-left conception of writing as invariably related to a world-made-better, Miller was in effect willing to argue with HUAC not the nature of interpretation but the interpretation of specific texts themselves.

Fortunately that hearing never really came down to a text-by-text interpretation. But the committee did succeed in forcing Miller to concede the harmlessness of certain genres. The committee could get him to admit that, say, poetic writing could be about anything and then at the same time to concede that there had to be limits on what could be said. If literary language congeals around life's action, then it fell into the government's widening net of established subversives and subversive material. The only alternative was to make a substantial retreat and concede that some literary genres--poetry: harmless, it would commonly seem--entail less absolutely than other genres a responsibility for what the writer says about the world. Thus the "absolute" right specifically of the poet to write anything he or she wants about, say, bloody revolution, implies for the writer the evaluation of more or less dangerous genres.

Mr. Scherer: Let us go into literature. Do you believe that, today, a Communist who is a poet should have the right to advocate the overthrow of this Government by force and violence? In his literature, his poetry, or in newspapers or anything else? (The witness confers with his counsel.)

Mr. Miller: I tell you frankly, sir, I think, if you are talking about a poem, I would say that a man should have the right to write a poem [on] just about anything.

Mr. Scherer: All right.

Mr. Jackson: Then I understand your position is that freedom in literature is absolute?

Mr. Miller: Well I recognize that these things, sir, are not: the absolutes are not absolute.

Mr. Jackson: My interpretation of your position is that it is absolute that a writer must have, in order to express his heart, absolute freedom of action.

So rather than making Cold War hermeneutics a more exact business, the shift in the government's idea about what is a subversive text - the shift in and caused by the Dennis Supreme Court case, the move to the subversive text itself and the more (or less) subversive genre - only made the government's readings more arbitrary.

That is, now that the court had put itself and the government's investigating agencies in the business of interpreting intent, the normal hard work of gathering external evidence could be dispensed with. So the prosecution could use the rhetoric of a text-centered interpretation (with its usual claims to objectivity, close attention, and exactitude) while actually focussing once again imprecisely on the author, the radical absolutist seeming to "express his heart." "The crime," noted Justice William O. Douglas wisely in his Dennis dissent, "then depends not on what is taught but on who the teacher is. That is to make freedom of speech turn not on what is said, but on the intent with which it is said." When Douglas wrote later about his disgust for the Dennis majority, he spoke again of the issue in terms of academic freedom, eloquently suggesting in general what historians such as Ellen Schrecker have recovered in great specificity--that the notion of "objectivity" in American scholarship and teaching became increasingly valued in the 195Os. While objectivity was put forth even in the humanities as an absolute value, it was in a very important way a practical response to the invitation from government and universities to come to the end of ideology. "Thus those who believed in Communism and hoped it would take hold here and taught the creed became criminals," Douglas wrote about the Dennis case and intentionality, "while those who were more detached--that is, did not believe in Communism--could teach it with impunity. Yet from the academic viewpoint, the deeper a person was immersed in a subject and the more passionately he felt about it, the better teacher he usually was--whether the course be one on Wordsworth, Henry George or Karl Marx."

Douglas was alluding to the case of university professor Paul Sweezy, who taught Marxist theory at the University of New Hampshire at the time the state gave its attorney general a very broad definition of subversive language and suggested that he go find it at the local U. Here are two of the questions Sweezy declined to answer:

"Did you tell the class at the University of New Hampshire on Monday, March 22, 1954, that Socialism was inevitable in this country?"

"Did you in [that] or in any of the other former lectures espouse the theory of dialectical materialism?"

One wonders, of course, how a teacher can clearly explain dialectical materialism without even momentarily seeming to espouse it? And how was it concluded that Professor Sweezy said socialism is inevitable in this country if, in interpreting the Marxist text for his students that day in class, he said Marx himself would have argued that socialism is inevitable in countries like the United States in which certain conditions manifest themselves? The unequivocal "is" was made more central to the state's analysis of subversive language than the conditionally speculative "would have" and the relationally speculative "like." Even such simplification of scholarly hypothesis assumes the teacher's language would be accurately in question during the course of the investigation; in fact, paraphrases in students' notes, subpoenaed or volunteered, would be the basis of the state's interpretation of espousal:

"I have in the file here a statement from a person who attended your class, and I will read it in part because I don't want you to think I am just fishing. 'His talk. . .was a glossed-over interpretation of the materialistic dialectic.' Now, again, I ask you the original question."

Thursday, May 01, 2008

from the gut, not its queasy contents

Paul Blackburn, at right, attempts to lift a boulder.

Poet Robert Sward (in California) sent us a question during Tuesday morning's live interactive webcast featuring Jerome Rothenberg (see below). Robert asked us to ask Jerry about Paul Blackburn. Here's part of Robert's blog entry on Jerry's response:

Invited to email question(s) for Jerry Rothenberg April 29 webcast, I think of my old friend Paul Blackburn, poet and translator who died in 1971 at age 44. Given Rothenberg's work with Ethnopoetics, I recall Blackburn introducing, opening up a whole new world of poetry... reading aloud for me his translations from Spanish of the medieval epic Poema del Mio Cid, of the poetry of Frederico Garcia Lorca, Octavio Paz and the short stories of Julio Cortazar. Paul at the time (mid-1960s) was Cortazar's literary agent in the U.S.

Question: "Paul Blackburn was a dear and valued friend. I knew him in New York in the 1960s and it was Paul who introduced me and other writers to Julio Cortazar, Garcia Lorca, Octavio Paz... and Provençal poetry. To what extent did Paul Blackburn influence you and your work with Ethnopoetics?"

Rothenberg's moving response is now online--one can tap into the Writers House archives for his reply--but two points in particular stand out: 1) that Paul Blackburn, born the same year as Robert Creeley, "is the equal of Creeley as a poet," 2) and that Paul is something of a "lost poet," one who died young and did not put himself forward as Creeley had done, commenting and serving as spokesman for the Black Mountain School, for example. Paul chose not to align himself, or to allow others to align him with, the Black Mountain School or any other school.

Here is Sward's blog entry in full.

The sensibility shared by Blackburn and Rothenberg can be seen easily in this statement about poetics (in verse) by Blackburn:

I do not claim that a greater frequency of rhyme than is now made use of
in American poetry will, in time, set things right.

Only that if a man could sing the poems his poets write

- and could understand them - and if

the poets would sing something from their guts, rather than
the queasy contents of same,
then that man would stand a better
chance, of being a whole man, than
him who stands or sits and says but 'Yes' all day.