Monday, June 30, 2008

American Century intellect

There’s much one can say about the iconoclastic philosopher Mortimer Adler - the complex, driven brilliant co-creator of Great Books and of the all-knowledge totalizing ultra-simplifying encyclopedia (The Synopticon) that was a child or grandchild of Great Books that Adler edited with the support of the president of the University of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins. I won’t say even a fraction of what I could about Adler, who has long fascinated me.

For now I will just repeat the wonderful (and mean-spirited but perhaps accurate) phrase James T. Farrell once used to describe Adler: “a provincial Torquemada.”

quoted by Leo Gurko in “The Angry Decade,” p. 127.

new New comes after New quieted

Robert Creeley wrote the preface to Paul Blackburn’s Against the Silences. Creeley there counted Blackburn as among those who starting in the late 1940s had hopes for poetry and felt “the same anger at what we considered its slack misuses.” Thus Creeley implicitly interprets Blackburn’s title phrase: this is a new poetry written against the quietude (to use that apt Sillimanian phrase) that Creeley and Blackburn, among others, associated with poetics that we can now describe as between modernism and postmodernism. I especially like the dating of Creeley’s realization: the late 1940s. In the view of some, that would be a bit early. After all, the anthology that certified that there was a new American poetry to supercede the old-New was published in 1960.

In an email here is what Creeley once wrote me when I asked him about the scene in the late 40s and early 50s: “Everyone of my authenticity or political definition was laying low.” The use of “authenticity” here C. did not mean as boast; he meant those who shared his version of authenticity – which is to say, not the then-usual sincere.

abstract art = socialst realism

Henry Kissinger in the early 1950s edited a magazine out of Harvard called Confluence, and (presumably with help from some friends in the humanities) he published there a number of influential center-Right literary intellectuals, and a few in the category once known as "anticommunist liberals." In the latter camp was Richard Rovere; some say Daniel Bell too. Alberto Moravia’s “Communism and Art,” a series of anitcommunist aphorisms, is fascinating.

“A painter like Titian would see abstract art and Socialist Reaism as one. To the former he would say: 'Paint me a hand that is a hand,' to the latter: 'Endow your portraits of generals and politicians with a sense of power, of greatness, of poetry, as I did mine.'”

Another problem of the day was that communist poets know “instead of poetry only artifice.” And “instead of spontaneous creativity only the will to produce.” And this: “Art is memory, propaganda is prophecy.”

So: abstract art and constraint-driven poetry and poems that eschew personal remembrance are worse than bad; they’re subversive.

Okay, so at least we know where Moravia stands. But wait, how will we apply his standards against poetry that has these awful qualities? This is a problem, for, according also to Moravia, “The first requirement of party art should be that it not look like party art.” Ah, so the art that has been described as bad will not seem to have such qualities, which means it might indeed not at all have such qualities, since it might well have been disguised as creative, unabstract, highly personal writing.

Confluence vol 2, no. 2, June 1953.

Friday, June 27, 2008

abecedarianism as body memory

The other day several of us were remembering high-school typing classes. Sit at old desk. Clang away at old worn manual typewriter. Type lines your teacher tells you will enhance your fingers' sense of the full range of QWERTY. Such as "Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party."

I never knew what party this was, but the article "the" made me suspect that it was the G.O.P., a hunch seemingly confirmed by a glance up at my extremely prim typing teacher. Once in a while, in a resistant mood, I would type this: "Now is the time for all good men to come to." "Mr. Filreis," Miss Prim would say, "please complete the assignment." "I didn't have time to finish" was my retort, whereupon I swung my bookbag over my shoulder, and was off, down the hall among the party-minded teenagers who wandered there during class.

To type this entry, which I did with great efficiency as always, I had once again to poke the letters forming that expression of classic American get-alongism. And I could strongly feel the body-memory, an adolescent sensory shadow.

a Zelig of modern poetry

Very soon we at PennSound will be announcing a new page of recordings: those of the poet Walter Lowenfels. We've been working with WL's daughter Judy to preserve readings and interviews that have been stored on reel-to-reel and cassette tapes. First they were digitized and put onto CDs. Then we've been selecting batches to upload, tag, name and organize on the new Lowenfels author page: here. We'll be adding more soon, but check it out now. Rare stuff there.

Lowenfels is, in a way, the Zelig of modern American poetry--part of nearly every aesthetic and political movement of his time. In the 20s he was an expatriate avant-gardist living, writing, experimenting, publishing, frolicking in Paris; toward and in the 1930s he became a political activist, and a member of the Communist Party; in the 1950s he actually went to jail after having been convicted under the anticommunist Smith Act, and wrote sonnets to love and liberty while in jail; re-emerging in the early and mid-1960s, he was taken up avidly by a new generation of readers and became a leader among the poet-activists who opposed the war in Vietnam.

For my book on the poetry of the 1950s and the way it responded to modernism in the 1930s, I spend a good deal of time tracking down Lowenfels' publications and reading among his unpublished letters and other archival materials. So this new Lowenfels PennSound gives me special pleasure.

Armand Schwerner: "Way before the sixties, Walter Lowenfels perceived the lopsided canon of our poetry; he did a great deal to change the climate, in which, as he writes, the country needed to include 'the vast emotional resources and insights that Indian, Black and Chicano people express in their poetry."

Thursday, June 26, 2008

owning the epoch

From Robert Stone’s June 2004 remembrance of Ken Kesey:

“More than the inhabitants of any other decade before us, we believed ourselves in a time of our own making.”

And: “I knew that the future lay before us and I was certain that we owned it.”

From “The Prince of Possibility,” June 14/21, 2004, p. 71.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

as if it needed to be invented

Misha Defonseca's best-selling Holocaust memoir, a tale of a petite Jewish lass wandering around Europe and cohabitating with wolves, turns out to have been a hoax. Her confession came just yesterday. The online Boston Globe has the story.

I have mixed feelings. Oh, let me say my disgust is unambiguous. My indecision is this: do I care much about it (just another fake of our time) or do I work hard at the problem, countering such things, teaching verity as the only alternative, etc.? The latter impulse is to counter the way in which this sort of thing seems to give credence to "Holocaust revisionists" (deniers), the fabricators about an alleged fabrication who use "history" to (a) doubt the efficacy of fictive forms of representation of the genocide, and to (b) cast doubt on survivor testimony generally.

Thanks to Leslie Onkenhout, once a student in my Holocaust course, for pointing out the Globe story.

more on paradise

At right, El Paso-based poet Bobby Byrd, co-editor of Puro Border: Dispatches, Snapshots & Graffiti from the US/Mexico Border.

Byrd's blog is subtitled "It’s a good time to be a poet, I think, although the pay is shitty," and recently paid tribute to Keith Wilson (in poor health, at 80) and invited us to come to Placitas, New Mexico, for a tribute reading. "Welcome,"Byrd said in his talk this past Sunday, "as Jerome Rothenberg would say, to the Paradise of Poets. Welcome, as Gertrude Stein might say, to the continuous now of poetry. We are here today to honor poet Keith Wilson, and by our presence, the radiant beast of poetry survives."

Pondering further in his blog on the phrase he used from Rothenberg, "paradise of poets," Byrd writes about his connection to that generous poet about whom I've also written here a few times in recent months. Along the way, Byrd kindly mentions our recent PoemTalk show about the poem from which the generative phrase is taken.

'70s in Orono

Quaint downtown Orono, without the snow. I've eaten several times at this restaurant. Once the confab, which went on happily for hours, was highlighted by a delightful conversation with Harvey Shapiro. Harvey's company was ten times finer than the food.

The National Poetry Foundation - its home has been Orono for many years - hosts a series of conferences on poetic decades. I've attended several of these, mostly notably the gatherings on the 1930s and 1940s. Alan Wald and I drove up (what a long drive!) from New Haven to Orono for the '30s conference. A highlight there was a talk by M. L. ("Mac") Rosenthal reflecting (for the first time in public, so far as I know) on his late-'40s NYU dissertation on '30s poets Rukeyser, Fearing and Horace Gregory.

That MLR had been somewhat ashamed of his choice of topic was obvious even at that late date (it was 1994 or so--which would be 2 years before Mac died); to choose 3 communist-affiliated "social" poets for a dissertation topic--not to mention such contemporary writers--at the beginning of the cold war did not seem to augur well at the time for Mac's career. And indeed he never published the dissertation as a book. (I own a clumsily bound copy printed from microfilm by that dissertation service in Ann Arbor.) He went on just fine at NYU, editing anthologies, publishing his own poems, teaching some of the great younger poets (Paul Blackburn was his student), becoming poetry editor of The Nation in the late 50s.

Now the tribe is back at Orono again (not I this time, though) to talk about the 70s. I'm somewhat following the proceedings because "LJS," the Britain-born NYC-based student of Anglo-Saxon and poetics who authors the blog called "The All-Purpose Magical Text," is and will be blogging summaries of readings and talks.

An Orono alphabet: here.

Some photos and a few videos: here

And from the blog called "glamor levels hi," this here entry that enchants me with its surprising phrases: "I imagine a world in which all objects retain the the political essence of previous use: I am me because my second-hand anarchist scarf knows me." "[A]nd when will the 70s end? and haven’t we quite eerily at this conference recreated social conditions?" "Everybody has to eat breakfast and then drive an hour to a museum to hear Bernadette Mayer and Clark Coolidge. This is why I am in Orono at all."

Here's the conference schedule.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

podcast of vibe guy

Rock journalist Alan Light visited the Writers House in September 2007 and gave a talk about his book The Skills to Pay the Bills, The Story of the Beastie Boys. Light is former editor in chief of Vibe, Spin, and Tracks magazines, and a former senior writer for Rolling Stone. He is also the editor of Tupac Shakur and The Vibe History of Hip Hop.

I just completed a Kelly Writers House podcast which features a 20-minute excerpt from Light's talk. Here's a link to the podcast mp3. And here's a summary of the event, and other links, from the Writers House web calendar.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

walking around New York in a red aura

Pepi Ginsberg, the 24-year-old Brooklyn (via Philadelphia) singer-songwriter, has a new video out - a song, "On the Waterline," that's on her new album, Red. Albert Birney directed the video and it's a fine one: Pepi's evocative warbly voice, ruminative and Dylanesque through phrasal repetitions, is matched by what the Stereogum note-writer calls the "vintage, analog-drenched feel" of the video. Her lyrics are poems for sure. Bias disclosure: Pepi (aka Jessy) was a student of mine many times over, and a close affiliate of the Writers House, and one of my favorite people in the world.

Monday, June 16, 2008

cover without a record

A new publication, Cover without a Record, was created by students and faculty who were part of a second-time experimental seminar co-sponsored by the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing (CPCW) and the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) here at Penn.

Cover without a Record works with--plays off, as it were--the fall 2006 Christian Marclay exhibit at the ICA. In Marclay's work, the artworks are based on the idea of and artifacts of sound, LPs, album covers, the shape of records, the material of cassette tape, etc. The students, many of them writers, and their teacher, our pal Kenny Goldsmith, created a catalogue-length response in this publication that transfers or extracts sound and/or sound-based art into language of some kind.

So in Cover without a Record, whose cover is white yet somewhat faintly embossed with concentric ridges in the shape and size of a 45 rpm single, includes the following, among others:

[] a piece of writing that consists of descriptions of sounds in twenty-seven books extracted from their sources;

[] sounds from various books extracted from their sources and rendered into concentric circles of text, mimicking a 45 rpm record -- thus a series of concrete poems;

[] the titles of every track from The White Album removed from their corresponding song lyrics;

[] a piece called Mobius Thunderclaps which is described by its creator, Steve McLaughlin, as follows: "When cut out, twisted, and joined at the ends, the shapes on the following pages form small Mobius strips. Each bears a looped version of one of James Joyce's thunderclaps: ten 100-letter words scattered through the novel Finnegan's Wake."

[] sound effects extracted from a series of comic books, placed on top of musical staves;

[] gunshot scenes from various films, transcribed and collaged into a unified screenplay;

and more.

The whole work can be found at

Here is certainly the place (one of several) to thank the dean of the School of Arts & Sciences, Rebecca Bushnell, and Penn's provost, Ron Daniels, for providing grants to enable this innovative year-long seminar to happen.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

oh, so you're that kind

At a party last night, Upper West Side-y gathering. Great fun, nice people, lots of interesting folks to talk to. But one of those scenes where once you find out what someone does you can't help but think that you know a good deal about who he or she is. The architect who really turned out to be very much the kind of person who is an architect. A photographer with, in other ways too, a very good eye. A guy who, when he gives you his email address, you realize has his own domain name ([his-last-name].org) who turns out of course to be a technology entrepreneur. And I the Ivy League professor? The others, this morning upon arising, if they think of me at all, will think, That guy surely was the Ivy League professor he told us he was.

In part this is obvious, this is tautology. A photographer is, after all, a photographer. And is likely to seem so generally.

No sooner do I decide that there is nothing profound about any of this, I happen to re-read Lydia Davis's fabulous prose-poem or short-short short story titled "A Position at the University." It was published in a book of such pieces, called Almost No Memory in 1997. The text is below, and the recording of Davis herself reading the piece is in PennSound.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

audio Stevens

When Don Share was an archivist at Harvard, he worked with audio recordings that were and are in the collection of the Woodberry Poetry Room, and (getting grants and whatnot) started to put together "The Poet's Voice" - subtitled "a digital poetry collection." Harvard has a recording of the 1952 poetry reading Stevens gave there, introduced by Richard Wilbur. And also the more well known 1954 reading which became the basis of a cassette Stevens distributed by Random House Audio. Click here to see the Poet's Voice entry for these two recordings. Here is a perhaps more helpful listing of all the poems Stevens read aloud - with links to RealAudio streaming (not downloadable) digital recordings of some of them.

With thanks to Ben Wiebracht who helped me conduct this search, here is a list of other recordings of Wallace Stevens poems:

(1) A poetry blog where someone who calls himself "Hoon" quotes, comments on and reads aloud some poems by Stevens:


(2) Early poems read aloud by Alan Davis Drake. Many of these readings were made for and Cloud Mountain Studios.


(3) "Peter Quince at the Clavier" read by Walter Rufus Eagles.


(4) An old, not-maintained HarperAudio site that includes old-format digital audio files in three formats of Stevens himself reading "The Idea of Order at Key West," "The Poem that Took the Place of a Mountain," and "Vacancy in the Park," and "To An Old Philosopher in Rome."


(5) Wesleyan University hosts the site of the Hartford Friends and Enemies of Wallace Stevens. Here there is a link to a single poem read by Stevens from the recording made at Harvard in 1954, "Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself." The audio file is stored on a Wesleyan media server, but did not work the last time I attempted it.


(6) hosts recordings of Stevens reading "To the One of Fictive Music" and "Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself."


Friday, June 13, 2008

Bhopal, still

Novelist Indra Sinha, author of Animal's People, has begun a hunger strike in New Delhi to protest the neglect of Bhopal disaster survivors. The Guardian (U.K.) has the story.

riffing on Afro-Shakespearean

At the recent gathering on conceptual poetry in Tucson, Tracie Morris performed a piece based on a single sentence she heard spoken in a stentorian, didactic-pedagogical "Afro-Shakespearean voice" - "It all started when we were brought here as slaves from Africa." She creates a sound poem of the line in her unique way of singing-uttering. You can watch a video of the whole reading at which this piece is the final performance. Better yet, listen to the audio-only mp3 I created from the video, which is now linked to Tracie Morris's PennSound page.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

poems for sale

Spring and early summer in particular have always been the season for poets setting themselves up outdoors among the other buskers of the city.

Max Bodenheim in the late 1940s and early 50s, destitute and always looking for the next whiskey, sold poems for drinks. To be specific, he set himself up on (let's say) Hudson Street right outside the White Horse Tavern, would in some way indicate to passersby or ingoing White Horse patrons that he was indeed the once-famous freewheeling Roaring Twenties novelist and poet Maxwell Bodenheim, a glimmer of those days of High Modernist Hilarity past, and you'd make an arrangement with him: he'd write you a "sonnet to order." People would pay to help out (and thus touch the life of) a broken-down old boho with bona fide modernist and radical lineage. If one ever gets to read the Bodenheim sonnets of this period, they have to be read, it seems to me, as made by the market for aesthetic-ideological nostalgia.

Back in the late 70s I spent some time reading the manuscripts of Bodenheim in the special collections department of Alderman Library at the University of Virginia. I was taking a graduate course in bibliography, textual criticism, philology, books and bookmaking, and manuscripts, taught by the eccentric and wonderful bibliographer, Lester A. Beaurline, whose love of setting type by hand was the one thing that made me realize doctoral study in English could well connect to my life as I'd already been living it. (In high school I'd been the one A-student who took "print shop" all four years. Print shop was deemed then to be a haven for guys we rather liberally called "greasers.")

One of the assignments Beaurline gave us: find a cache of unpublished manuscripts and make something of them. I think he was hoping students would read around in Arnold, Tennyson, Chaucer (there are 4 Chaucer manuscripts there), Poe, even Thomas Jeffrerson (patron saint at UVa), Faulkner (junior patron saint there). The other students went in canonical directions. I went for Max Bodenheim - and specifically Bodenheim's final post-communist post-modernist years on the streets of New York. He lived not just symbolically but literally on the Bowery. He was murdered in 1954 by a man who in court later said he was proud to have killed a commie poet. I read a pile of these sonnets, composed by a bad shaky hand. (Somewhere I have the notes from this - and possibly some photocopies. I'll look.)

Yesterday photographer Lawrence Schwartzwald happened upon a 21-year-old poet, one Robert Samel Snyderman, who sets himself up in Central Park to write on a portable typewriter: he will sell you a poem for $5. He told Lawrence that he "writes all the time" and prefers to write on his typewriter in the park "rather than in an academic environment." Of course there are many places to write poems in the large space between on one hand the "academic environment" and, on the other, Central Park, but never mind. The photo, I think, captures the early-summer post-communist post-modernist Bodenheimian sensibility perfectly.

There--see?--I used the term "post-modernist" to mean something much more specific (I mean it as ex- something) than the dead-metaphor term that gets deployed to indicate vaguely any 1945-present or 1960-present art that either continues out of modernism or reacts against it. Bodenheim's fate is thus finally instructive. He went through his modernist phase (Replenishing Jessica and other flapperistic fictions) and went through his communist phase (in the 30s and early 40s, as actually an activist member of CPUSA), and by the time we meet him selling sonnets for, shall we say, a flow of cash, beyond those aesthetic -isms and (back to? on to? down to?) the poem as a vital (desperate) function of the quavering body in need, setting itself up (through poetry!) to be needy. As you can see I'm still thinking about the possible import of C. A. Conrad's (Soma)tic Midge (see "Poems under the Influence" below). Not advocating it as an end to the coherent movement, just being sure I remember that not everyone befits such. It's possible that Lawrence's photo romanticizes this not-fitting; quite likely that Mr. Snyderman would join the first aesthetic category that would have him. And that's my point: Bodenheim would have done the same in a flash, if it would have saved him from the extremity that wrote those sonnets, some of which someone saved and which later I saw at Alderman. I'm glad I saw them. I've never known until now (blogs are fine things) how or when I could ever mention them.

Credit: Lawrence Schwartzwald/Splashnews

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Prada deathcamp, etc.

Pieces at the 2002 show at the Jewish Museum, "Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art":

[] "Giftgas Giftset," three replicas of Zyklon B gas canisters in the colors, and bearing the logos, of Chanel, Hermes and Tiffany's.

[] "Prada Deathcamp" is a model of a concentration camp on cardboard from a Prada hatbox. The exhibit catalog on this: the artist "dares to observe Holocaust museums and their visitors from the position of a critique of consumption."

[] "LEGO Concentration Camp Set" consists of replicas of boxes of the children's building blocks, but the boxes bear photographs of models of barracks and crematoria. The catalog: this work shows "how such seemingly harmless items may pose serious psychological and philosophical questions about gender, sexuality, and childhood."

[] In "It's the Real Thing -- Self-Portrait at Buchenwald," the artist digitally inserts a photograph of himself, holding a Diet Coke, into the foreground of a famous photograph of emaciated Jews in their bunks shortly after the liberation of Buchenwald. The catalogue: this work "draws parallels between brainwashing tactics of the Nazis and commodification. Just as much of Europe succumbed to Nazi culture because it was the dominant paradigm, so does our contemporary culture succumb to consumerism."

Conservative columnist-pundit George Will was among those who hated this show, and in his column called "Exploiting the Holocaust, intellectually" he wrote: "A wit once said that everything changes except the avant-garde. But it does change. It gets worse." Be sure to read the rest of his essay.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

poems under the influence

"Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside." Mark Twain wrote that. C. A. Conrad's book of poems (Soma)tic Midge proves that exactly the opposite (opposite in every element) is probably the truth. Eat what you must, and let the food fight it out on the outside. Fortunately for us, the outside is this writing.

The Faux Press of Cambridge, Mass., has published Conrad's chapbook, the first work in a series Conrad is writing under the general rubric "somatic poetics." Poetry of the body, by the body, maybe even for the body--although while the first two effects can be discerned in the writing, the latter of course can only be guessed from it. But I'm guessing this work has felt to the poet to be for the body also. Work that is done to the body.

In this sequence, Conrad writes whatever he wants under the vague (that is to say, only generally defined) somatic influence of foods of a certain color. To write the poem partly titled "distorted torque of FLORA'S red," he ate only "red foods for a day"--and in that instance subjected himself to the additional rule or compositional constraint of being "under the influence of" a red wig, worn a certain way.

So these poems are rule-bound - procedural poetry - but the effect is left to the reader to understand according to his or her belief (if "belief" be the word) in the idea that we are what we eat. To exactly the extent one believes we are what we eat these poems will seem specifically somatic.

The poems don't at all participate in the traditional symbolism of colors. The red (red food day) poem is not about love; the yellow poem is not about cowardice; the green poem is not any more verdant or natural than any of the others.

I dig rule-based verse at the level of the series/project, though sometimes less so at the level of the stanza and line in such a poem. But in (Soma)tic Midge I dig it sometimes at the level of the line as well. My mind is working all the time: this or that never-quite-explicable stanza always stands in some kind of relation to the poem's color, the food I'm imagining Conrad had to eat that day to write it. The juxtaposition doesn't keep the poem from going where it will go but commands alertness to juxtaposition--not juxtaposition of poetic elements set side by side and operating on same plane, but rather this: (1) words in front of you, "under the influence of" (2) the body consuming food of a certain resonant-but-not-symbolic color. The effect is hard to describe and I'm sure I have failed here. In the yellow poem, is the "something" in

might hinder this
emphasis of

all that yellow food--grits with butter, wax beans, bananas? Is "this" the poem that tries to stand against what yellow typically means? We ain't foolin' around. The poet who wrote those lines spent the day eating yellow food (enough to make me feel a loose bowel movement coming on) and, I should add, "while under the influence" of a yellow condom tucked into his left sock. Anyone who met C. A. Conrad that day wouldn't have known of the latter "influence"--it's between us, shall we say; we are let in on a close-by secret and I for one find myself under its strange influence too. I too "look under / pain and / find me."

As we move through these drastically colored days, the conditions seem to increase in extremity. For his blue day he subjects himself to the continuously looping sound of Bobby Vinton's "Blue Velet." For white, the final poem, the food is at its most awful blandness (although I love turnips if they are pureed) and the ultimate bodily white--semen--is written on the poet's forehead. A life-embracing somatic twist on Kafka's notion of penal punishment. This final poem is devastating:
Dear Admiral White Pants
thanks for
the field
guide to

you make me the
belly who
birds push
through at last

White is war. It's also the color of the truce flag, announcing the withdrawal from the agonistic field. In C. A. Conrad's white (white food day) poem, the speaker is rebuked by a martial uncle who thinks his nephew would make a bad soldier, and we have no doubt by that point that he is right. But then again, think of the discipline required. That he's got aplenty. He takes over white--takes it over from the militarizers. Finally, in the end, in the final lines, white is in fact peace, as "a dove / lands but / I say nothing" and "no spell [is] / broken." We are back to the great traditions of poetry: the end of the poem is the coming down softly of language, swerving but with surprising grace, upon extended wings.

- - - -

C. A. Conrad's PennSound author page includes links to free downloadable mp3's of many of the poems this chapbook, as well as from his more recent book, published by Chax, called The Book of Frank."

Thursday, June 05, 2008

make sour notes

George Lichty (1905–1983) was an American cartoonist, creator of the daily and Sunday cartoon series Grin and Bear It (starting in 1932). His drawings skewered both excessive capitalism and Soviet bureaucracy. Scenes in his cartoons were often set in the offices of Soviet Russian commissars, who typically wear medals and five-point stars labelled "HERO." He collected these under the title Is Party Line, Comrade! and published a book of them in the 1950s, which I read a few years ago.

My favorite in the Is Party Line, Comrade! series is the cartoon I've reproduced above. The sign at upper left reads: "Commissar of Music Culture (People's Div.)" Another sign reads: "Musicians of the World Arise! / Make Sour Notes."

A composer has entered the office, giving the commissar his latest composition. The caption reads:

"Is symphony I am composing from glorious sounds of Soviet industry, comrade commissar...the din of hammers, the clash of machinery, the roar of furnaces, the groans of the populace..."

Let's leave aside the final phrase - which is over-the-top hilarious. But short of that: when I first looked at this cartoon and read the caption I felt that something was not quite ideologically clear about its satirical base. The sort of Russian artists who would have created an assemblage of hammer noises, machine crashes, furnace roars, etc., had long been run out of the party, silenced, sent away or indeed killed. The finger-wagging composer here is a gone-to-seed, latter-day constructivist or Russian Futurist - gone from the scene of the 1950s Lichty believed he was satirizing, or had never yet seen the light of day in Soviet Russia (a musical collagist, a John Cage figure). The closest Lichty might have come to the music of industrial ambience would have been indeed...right here in the U.S.

Of course I said all this, above, having ignored the final phrase - which after all is the punchline. So Lichty did know what he was doing politically. My point is merely, I suppose, that Is Party Line, Comrade! is full of lines that were far, by then, from the Party.

And, anyway, the sound of the groaning populace could be heard at nearly any performance by John Cage in the same period.

arranging poetry on your shelf

Robert Hillyer, known now (if at all) because he led the attack against Ezra Pound in 1949, was more generally an enemy of modernism. He wrote a regular column called "Speaking of Books." In the August 3, 1958 piece he noted the revival of interest in Alexander Pope in the 50s. From there he went on (for the nth time) to celebrate the timelessness of poetry. He observed--as if this were evidence rather than an effect of such a belief--that on his on bookshelves he arranges his poetry books in alphabetical rather than chronological order. All his other books are arranged chronologically. The alphabetical arrangement of poetry permits him to see and derive pleasure from the ahistorical juxtaposition of poets such as Matthew Arnold and Conrad Aiken, such as William Plomer and Ezra Pound. William Plomer and Ezra Pound!? Say what?

There it is again: the bright line separating poetry from everything else.

Yet there's a glint of arbitrariness in Hillyer's otherwise natural history of poetics. Plomer and Pound share in common nothing but a first initial. Now that's language, not meant as Hillyer would normally like, but there only on his shelf at home. In the hard-fought poetry wars (Hillyer was a battalion chief on the "we mean what we mean" and "great poetry is timeless" side), this is one of those moments of ideological crossing I cherish. The Plomer-Pound connection, made of a personal alphabetical fiction, is more something I imagine someone like Bern Porter would find on his shelves.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

eros, c'est la vie

Anne d'Harnoncourt died suddenly last weekend (after coming home from minor surgery). She'd been the director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1982 and was admired by pretty much everyone.

Many readers of this blog will know of the great, great Arensberg collection of early 20th-century modernist work (sculpture in particular) and thus of the amazing Marcel Duchamp pieces in those rooms at the PMA. Anne d'Harnoncourt was an expert on Duchamp and a tireless promoter of his work and centrality to modernism's strong (and postmodernism's obsessive) anti-art impulse.

NPR has made available a 9-minute interview with d'Harnoncourt conducted by Terry Gross for Fresh Air. Here it is.

Monday, June 02, 2008

your rhymed 14-line fly is open

From the notebooks of poet Winfield Townley Scott:

"A man may write a poem with his fly blatantly open--but the blatancy must not be in the poem."

And: "Oh, it appears too that there are those who maintain that the typewriter influences--or should influence--the length of the poetic line. God knows in what way or why."

Source: "a dirty hand": The Literary Notebooks of Winfield Townley Scott (Texas, 1969), p. 157.

Dylan bored by Warhol

This weekend I read Suze Rotolo's memoir of Greenwich Village in the early sixties and (of course, prominently) her relationship with Bob Dylan. The jacket includes a blurb/puff from Joyce Johnson, whose Minor Characters is about life as a woman among the male Beats. Rotolo's editors knew what they were doing when they asked Johnson to write (and when they put her blurb first): this book, A Freewheelin' Time, is of a piece with other remembrances by women who were "there" (as we say) for the young manic/inattentive male genius on the rise. As a reader of this narrator's writing, I was sad to see the inevitable leaving-behind, and I was very consciously annoyed at myself for skimming past the Suze-only/Bob-not-there materials waiting for the next appearance of that magnetic minstrel. For downtowners of that certain era, and their fans, followers and chroniclers, Suze Rotolo was a sufficiently important and interesting and creative member of that community and deserves our attention with or without Dylan. Then again this book almost surely would not have come to us without Dylan's centrality (however eccentric) to it.

Suze and Bob went to see Pull My Daisy and here is her response:

There was something familiar about the way it was off-balance, unknown and freewheeling. It was oddly discombobuating to see a movie that made you feel you were in the next room. / I identified with the men in the film, not the women, who seemed insigificant in the midst of these wild, funny, and offbeat guys. I wanted to be them but didn't know how. I envied their freedom. / Many years later when I saw the film again, I was shaken by that memory. This time I was cognizant of the women and their role in the story. They were inconsquential and extraneous in the way a prop is part of a set.

Suze moved out of Dylan's apartment before she became too obviously or too painfully peripheral to the scene that was forming around him. (Earlier, at the best moment of their connection, she spent a year in Italy living with her mother. Bob wrote adoring Dylanesque letters, which are amply quoted in this new book and constitute a reason for paying the money to buy it.) She managed to escape, sad as it was (for a while Dylan himself seemed to share this sadness).

By the way, Suze and Bob went to someone's loft at one point and watched one of Andy Warhol's films, a work in progress. "Bob didn't think much of the film or of Warhol. His taste in movies could be quite conventional. Storytelling was important."

It's clear that Bob's main introduction--in the months and first two years after his arrival in NY--to poetry and to politics was provided by Suze Rotolo. She was connected to the left (her parents were Communists and she, while no Stalinist, understood the radical variants) and generally to political theory - and to matters such as the Cuban revolution and civil rights. She was passionately interested in the experimental downtown theater scene and dragged Dylan along to various performances and happenings.

The book has no index but ought to. Rotolo's references to the avant-garde world of that time and place constitute a new reference guide to Dylan's formative months - a chatty guide, an often clumsily written guide, but a guide nonetheless.

Democrat woes redux

"I've always said that in politics, your enemies can't hurt you, but your friends will kill you." - Ann Richards