Saturday, January 31, 2009

the rest of it's there too

Jon Pareles has gotten some great quotes from Bruce Springsteen for his big piece in today's New York Times. Pareles knows it's big, that his claim is big. The piece is called "The Rock Laureate."

I, for one, accept the claim (happily as well as logically).

Others have seen Springsteen in the Whitman/proletarian Guthrie/folk American tradition (the best writer about Bruce in this mode is David Wyatt in Out of the Sixties--and Greil Marcus gets it too), but I still can't help feeling as a fresh wind in my face the vague faux-rough visionary romanticism of Springsteen's spoken rhetoric. Below are two quotes from Pareles' essay. In the first, the phrase "eight years" obviously refers to the two terms of George Bush. The oracular ("swimming in the current of history") is flattened and made humble really really nicely by "your music is doing the same thing."

The second quote begins unpromisingly with yet another Where were you when Obama was elected? anecdote but then indulges gorgeously, I think, in the vaguest American pronoun referent - the it of liberationist folk spirit. This is the same "it" that Steinbeck uses clumsily at various points in--and at the end of--The Grapes of Wrath. But Henry Miller, when he really got going, used it well. Dreiser, too, in rare upbeat passages. And, at several crucial moments, William Carlos Williams. And early in Kerouac. And Ashbery in several poems about America, most movingly in "The One Thing That Can Save America" (ironic title--but the sentiment about "it" is true). And, in his hyperdemocratic WWII newspaper pieces, Ira Wolfert. And in times of crisis, Eric Severeid (he of Upper Midwest labor-populism), spoken on the air in the endless insistent sentence. And Whitman, often.

At its least interesting, all this takes us merely to a cheap, easy spot where, because of some momentary alliance, Kate Smith meets Woody Guthrie. At its best, though, it's the great provocative American cultural confluence.

"[E]ight years go by, and that’s where you find yourself. You’re in there, you’re swimming in the current of history and your music is doing the same thing.”

"[O]n election night it showed its face, for maybe, probably, one of the first times in my adult life,” he said. “I sat there on the couch, and my jaw dropped, and I went, ‘Oh my God, it exists.’ Not just dreaming it. It exists, it’s there, and if this much of it is there, the rest of it’s there. Let’s go get that. Let’s go get it. Just that is enough to keep you going for the rest of your life. All the songs you wrote are a little truer today than they were a month or two ago.”

Well, this is a circular and probably self-serving final statement. Of course the songs are "truer" now that you're on the inside--you're in and so you can sing them as part of the bona fide (but, alas, temporary) language of the nation. No, the songs being truer now than before is not what's remarkable about Bruce. What's remarkable is his strong antipoetic (and thus very poetic) sense of the big "it," and he enacts this sense out of two great talents simultaneously: first, a resistance to narrowing or clarifying it and an ability to flow fast with it and yet not infuriate listeners; second, his sense that new songs will come from the place where the rest of it is to be found. He's on a roll, no doubt. Listen for some of the rest of it in the new album.

needed: curator with sandwich-board

Have you been following the financial troubles at MOCA? Combination of woes: the endowment has taken a big hit (as all endowments have) in the current recession; major mismanagement from the top; allegedly, boring curatorial choices ("Everyone i know just go to shop at the stores anyways. The shows have been either really good or really bad, but the store is always worth the trip and the hassle to park"); and, the presence already in LA of LACMA, which isn't supposed to cause overlap or redundancy, but perhaps does. The inner workings of this crisis are of course much more complex than I've just now conveyed. I recommend KCRW's "The Politics of Culture" (radio show that is also an audio podcast available on KCRW's web site and through iTunes), which hosted a fascinating discussion on the topic among several long-time LA art people.

Well, yesterday MOCA announced that 20% of the staff will be laid off. And they will cut other operating expenses. It will reduce expenses by $4.4M annually, but when I last understood the math here, I think they were $12M in the red annually even after a pledge of a major endowment gift by Eli Broad.

Here's the L. A. Times story on the lay-offs. One commentator snarks as follows: "Anyway, what I don't understand about the cuts is why they are aiming them at the marketing department. After all, they are the ones who actually put together the programs meant to lure people into the museum, and therefore bring in the money. What they going to do now? Have the prints assistant curator stand at Union Station with a clapboard [sandwich board] around their neck??"

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

true meaning of giving

Behold! I do not give lectures or a little charity,
When I give I give myself.

- Walt Whitman [source]

alt-poetry, alt-pedagogy

In June '99 I and a hundred or so others (teachers, poets, poet-teachers) gathered at Bard College for a conference on the possible connection between experimental poetry and experimental pedagogy, hosted by Joan Retallack among others.

There must have been about six or seven of us from the Writers House at the conference and on the last morning of the three-day confab (there on the slopes leading down to the eastern side of the Catskills-region Hudson, it did at times feel like summer camp) we presented about the Writers House itself as an alternative learning community focused on poetics.

We promised ourselves we'd do some kind of followup at KWH, and did in early 2001. Joan Retallack came down from Bard, reading some of her own poetry that seemed more relevant to the them (alt-poetry, alt-pedagogy), and then Kerry Sherin, then the KWH Director, described a transition to the next and longer part of the program: a discussion, as a follow-up to Bard, about actual pedagogical issues and practices. There were about forty of us in the room there at the Writers House, in addition to about thirty who were tuning in by live webcast. Louis Cabri, for instance, was in Calgary - and participated by posing some questions.

Just yesterday Jenny Lesser converted the old RealVideo format into audio-only mp3, which of course these days is a much more usable, portable mode.

Here's Kerry Sherin setting up the discussion, by, in part, remembering the Bard conference.

Here's 9 minutes or so on experiential learning.

Here's a discussion of what makes it hard to teach experimental writing.

And here's a link to the whole 2-hour audio mp3, and, for your video fans and users, still, of the Real player, here's a link to the streaming video.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

not as good as pro wrestling

From Stanley Fish's ridiculous, broad-brush dismissal of biographical writing (1999):

My criticism of biography does not hold for autobiography. It makes none of the claims made for biography and is therefore not subject to any of the criticisms. You cannot fault the author of an autobiography for failing to be objective, or for substituting his story for the story of his subject.

He is his subject, and his performance, complete with the quirks and blindnesses of his personality, is not a distraction or deviation from the story of his life but an extension of it. Autobiographers cannot lie because anything they say, however mendacious, is the truth about themselves, whether they know it or not. Autobiographers are authentic necessarily and without effort.

Biographers, on the other hand, can only be inauthentic, can only get it wrong, can only lie, can only substitute their own story for the story of their announced subject. (Biographers are all autobiographers, although the pretensions of their enterprise won't allow them to admit it or even see it.)

Biography, in short, is a bad game, and the wonder is that so many are playing it and that so many others are watching it and spending time that might be better spent on more edifying spectacles like politics and professional wrestling.

Monday, January 26, 2009

so it's so, Joe

At the blog Last Exit Joe Milutis gives Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural poem a positive review. To start, he quotes William Carlos Williams as follows: “You’re not putting sugar on cake. You’re building!”

Sunday, January 25, 2009

loopy, almost

As I've noted here before, Tony Green (of New Zealand) makes poetry objects. His latest is called "loopy almost." In a Facebook video (2 minutes in length) posted yesterday, he shows the object, describes it, and reads it/reads off of it. Here's your link to the Facebook video. And here are some other related videos by Green.

what makes a poem a poem

Charles Bernstein once gave a 60-second lecture on what makes a poem a poem. Set your watch, and watch.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

McCarthy, the good guy patrolling the neighborhood

This ad begins, "Open up... it's the police!" Terrifying words.

For years, preparing to write my book Counter-revolution of the Word, I spent a lot of time trawling through newspapers and magazines of the 1950s. At one point I found this ad for Republic Steel. Usually nutsy about jotting down precise bibliographic info, I apparently slipped this time, perhaps so elated at having found it, and alas never made a note about date or source. (I think it's from the Saturday Evening Post, but that's a guess.)

Two dark almost noir-ish vertical panels, lots of words (tons--far more than usual even for a full-page ad) in the central panel. Left panel: the neighborhood cop, standing at the suburban-neoGreek front door of the home owned by the frightened couple in bed in the right panel, is knocking loudly in the middle of the night. The husband narrates the middle panel.

You see, they'd listened to a radio show before going to bed - a program about "secret police dragg[ing] a family off to a concentration camp." (Not the Nazis - you can be sure the reference is to the Soviet gulags. Hubby was certain, when he first heard the loud knocking, that they were on their "way to some Siberian salt mine.")

But at the door it was indeed only the friendly night cop, McCarthy. The cop's name is McCarthy. McCarthy was there to save the day, or night: It was only a little easily extinguished wiring fire in the kitchen.

"I couldn't get back to sleep for a couple of hours. Kept thinking suppose it was the secret police! But that was nonsense. Here in American the police help us... not hound us like they do in countries where folks have forgotten what the word 'Freedom' means." Then, new paragraph: "Ah-h-h....Freedom! Pick your own church [oh you have a choice of churches; I suppose synagogues and mosques are beyond the choices freedom bestows, but never mind...], your own newspaper, your own candidates. Pay your taxes but do what you want with the rest.... Loaf or pick out a good job like I have with Republic. Help produce steel or autos or tanks...or work in a store or a bank, as you please." And so on.... [We have the option to "loaf"! If only I'd known...]

And then finally--almost too late--comes the pitch for Republic Steel. America is strong and needs strength. Republic makes strong steel. America is freedom and Republic is like America in its strength so it's freedom too.

Thank God for McCarthy! He woke us up to the risks of losing our freedoms!

After all, that little fire in the kitchen could have spread. Were it not for McCarthy's frightening, fascistic middle-of-the-night intrusion into your private suburban life, it might have consumed the Whole House. Be thankful for that 2 AM banging at the door. Be thankful for McCarthy's vigilance. Someone has to watch out while we're all asleep.

your daily Al

Get your daily Al daily. (The link to my entry on conservatives' sense of conservatism as poetry is here, an entry from the other day.)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

room for poets

My office on the third floor of the Writers House is small, but look how many poets were there this afternoon after the recording of a new episode of PoemTalk: from left to right, Julia Bloch (white sweater, back to us), Sarah Dowling, Rodrigo Toscano, Bob Perelman, Tom Mandel, Rachel Levitsky.

segment, segment

Ben Friedlander is teaching a seminar on Robert Creeley this semester. Yes, just Creeley! For it, he's put together his own web edition of the Selected Poems. Although it is a work in progress, he has linked many of the poems to recordings we have on our PennSound Creeley page. Of course he can only link a recording of Creeley reading the poem when we on our end have segmented--into single poems--the many whole recordings of entire readings that we've so far added to our Creeley page. Ben's project has spurred us on to do more segmenting. He has identified some unsegmented whole readings by Creeley that he believes include the poet performing poems that haven't much been performed elsewhere; thus when we segment these sooner rather than later, Ben and his students--and everyone--will be able to hear more on the selected list. To say the least, I like this iterative process. Here's Ben's site (in progress).

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

vestiges against which the spirit can breathe

Sueyuen Juliette Lee reads her poem, "A Simple Fact of Memory," at the Kelly Writers House.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

change starts with... (us?!)

We're honored to be appearing today on the blog called "Family Favs," in an entry called "Change Starts with You." Here's your link.

when the right thought of itself as poetry & of the left as prose

"No, he's not writing a book. He's holding up his end of a literary feud that began in 1903." (Saturday Review of Literature, August 14, 1943, p. 13. Reprinted in 1949 during the Ezra Pound/Bollingen Prize controversy.)

The choice of year seems intended to suggest both that the "feud" has something to do with the first shocks of the modern era - incited among critics by, for instance, Kandinsky's first exhibitions - and that the message seems in part to be, c'est la guerre. The scene at first seems settled, well-off, bourgeois and perhaps suburban, the home of the culturally mature. But the writer's wife hints at the domestic dystopia of nonlyricism. The poet-figure has become the critic-figure, the letter-to-editor writer, entrenched in back-'n-forth prose. Conservatives such as Peter Viereck were at the time explicit in associating prose with liberalism, poetry with conservatism, and hardly anything could irk an antimodernist more than the brazen way in which the communist poet ignored the distinction between the proper stations and functions of prose and poetry. Eve Merriam for instance in a poem called "Said Prose to Verse":

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

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

illegible? must be modern

"Well, offhand, I'd say it was something by Ezra Pound." (Published in Laughs from the Saturday Review of Literature and reprinted in the August 6, 1949 issue of SRL.)

Creeley on Dylan

During my conversation with Robert Creeley in April 2000, he described his appreciation for Bob Dylan. Here's his 3-minute response: MP3.

Thanks to Jenny Lesser, the hour-long interview has been segmented topically. Go here for the recordings and see below for the list of topics.

Monday, January 19, 2009

the sign didn't say nothin' on the other side

Pete Seeger (born 1919) hasn't been singing much the last few years. He's lost his voice. We saw him about three years ago at an annual gathering of the veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion of the Spanish Civil War and there he for the most part played banjo, joining in a few choruses.

But yesterday Pete sang loudly and joyfully.

Pete and Bruce Springsteen and Tao Rodriguez-Seeger led the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial yesterday afternoon in a full rendition of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," and--perhaps as a herald of the moment--added the radical verses often left out. Here's one:

As I was walkin' - I saw a sign there
And that sign said - no tress passin'
But on the other side .... it didn't say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!

And here's one about economic hard times:

In the squares of the city - In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office - I see my people
And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin'
If this land's still made for you and me.

It is, Pete, it is.

beware: hodgepodge of learning omits great books

Harvard's President Charles Norton Eliot introduced "the elective system" in the undergraduate curriculum in the late 19th century. Taking non-required non-sequential courses! Take courses you want! Explore topics freely! It was a revolution.

In 1952 (yes that many years later - but of course it was the politically paranoid 50s) George Boas was writing in the AAUP Bulletin* that the elective system was "devised for a society of free men who knew what they wanted to study and who could be tested for the aptitude in making their choices."

But, he adds - and here comes a particular kind of conservative backlash - but... "it did not take long for some people to point out that this might lead to a hodgepodge of learning which would omit the greatest that had been thought and said." Great Books, in other words - the very practice of Great Books, following from the conservative argument Boas cites against academic liberalism. But not the Great Books curriculum fully deployed.

For if we really did Great Books fully, we'd notice that "each later author has been a rebel against the dominant traditions of his time. But of course such lists usually stop at a date well before our own times and we are not usually aware of precisely what harm to tradition was done by the men who figure on them." And finally, to clinch this argument: "If you were living in the early days of Christianity, you would have seen the same kind of confusion and intellectual anarchy as you hear about today. But what is called confusion is the outspokenness of recalcitrant individuals. When they are dead, they are spoken of as heroes and prophets. But while they are alive, they are noncooperative, radical, and heretical."

The Elective System did not create the confusion and anarchy that conservative arguments against it feared. The true study of "required" Great Books discloses the same confusion and radicalism. Finally this is not about radicalism and heresy. It's about apparent control. Boas' essay for AAUP was called "The New Authoritarianism."

The image above and at right is taken from a defense of the Elective System that President Eliot wrote for the 'New York Times' in 1885.

* vol 38, no 3; Autumn 1952.

remember 1988?

1988. Hard to remember how deeply into the PC (Political Correctness) wars we had fallen. Very deeply. This was of course moments before the Soviet bloc fell and yet anticommunism was still very much an animating force behind attacks on multiculturalists and scholars of race/class/gender.

"[E]ven though we are nowadays closer to the naivete of the 30's that saw Communism as '20th-century Americanism' than to the 50's view of it as absolute evil, there is still a taboo against mentioning [ties between a liberal and a radical]."

So complained Peter Collier and David Horowitz in an essay for Commentary in the January 1988 issue of that conservative magazine on McCarthyism as "the last refuge of the left."

Get struck, and struck hard again and again - only to find oneself accused of striking out in the first place. By 1988, McCarthyism is the last refuge of the left. Ponder it.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Poe at 200

Tom Devaney hosted "A Murder of Ravens" at the Writers House last night - a celebration of Poe's 200th. Tom decided to invite lots of people to read and talk about "The Raven" and related topics. Both video (.mov, QuickTime) and audio (mp3) are available:

[] video
[] audio

Daniel Hoffman came and read from his classic critical book, Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

on love & reading

I started teaching at the university level in '79 - that's 30 years ago. In that time I've received thousands of student evaluations through the institutional bubble forms. Sometimes the response I can discern from the forms helps me to make a course better the next time. Sometimes I can merely enjoy the positives. Sometimes I glance quickly and move on. I'm a huge supporter of students' response (I try to make it part of the course itself, to be sure--but that's another story) but not a fan of the bubble forms. Anyway, I got one recently for the fall '08 version of my modern & contemporary American poetry course (my favorite of those I teach), English 88, that positively stunned me. I like it. The comment says merely: "LOVE" (underscored three times) and to the right of that: "this class taught me how to read." Not literally, of course, but "to read" as in: really, really to read thoughtfully, well, freshly. Makes me happy and proud. That someone would associate love with learning truly to read and a college course. These are not normally three peas in the same pod.

dial-a-poem in P&W

The piece is called "Pause the Podcast and Dial-a-Poem": here. "The dial-a-poem concept dates back to 1969, when poet and performance artist John Giorno and his organization Giorno Poetry Systems set up a call-in recorded poetry project with ten phone lines in New York City. 'Using an existing communications system,' Giorno wrote in an introduction to a collection of featured dial-a-poem recordings, now available online, 'we established a new poet-audience relationship.' According to Al Filreis, one of the Kelly Writers House founders and the director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at Penn, comments on 6-POEM have been positive. 'The responses I've received so far typically say, 'Geez, this is so retro it's cool,'' Filreis wrote on his blog, 'and 'Everything seems to be converging on the phone,' and 'Telephony rocks.'"

once again, the case against political poetry

David Yezzi of the New Criterion opined on Obama's choice of Elizabeth Alexander to give the inaugural poem, in the Wall Street Journal, Friday, January 9, 2009. It's been linked variously. Most of what he says seems apt, reasonable and in fact obviously true about the situation and the choice. But at moments the tone and diction of the piece reveal what Yezzi's real concerns are: that Alexander is lefty-multicultural lite, that her inevitably bad inaugural poem will do further damage to the reputation of good nonpolitical poetry. And his tone discloses some joy in all this as proof yet again that political poetry (poetry that "tells you what to do") is ipso facto aesthetically bad. In the first 'graph E.A. is identified as an AfAm prof who "writes extensively about that academic trifecta -- race, class and gender." What's the diction of word choices that and trifecta? Her major concerns or topics of interest are.... But trifecta? Well that's a bet on a clean sweep, a gamble, a game; no truth and beauty within sight. If Alexander doesn't recite a poemthat "add[s] to the language, claiming for it a new richness," then it will be "politics as usual," and political poetry. Those are the choices. A synonymous binarism: wideness and depth on one hand, narrowness on the other. "The stumbling block for most political poetry is narrowness. As soon as poetry espouses an interest group [there it is, equation of political poetry with an "interest group," "single-issue politics" etc.], it ceases to speak to the widest audience and fails in its bid for universality." So, let's see where we are. We need an occasional poem, honoring a particular president in a particular national context (and of course one nation of many) yet it's also got to be universal. I suppose the great American poem can be considered universal. Right? To clinch the point, we are treated to (you guessed it) the post-communist Auden, he of post-9/11 fame: "Poetry is not concerned with telling people what to do." "Poetry, it turns out [diction trans.: in case you didn't know; duh!), is unwieldy stuff, intricately layered and resistant to bald sloganeering." Those last two words, in this newest brief against political poetry, cannot be separated. What if there's a sloganeering that is not "bald"? Are there no slogans that have as their "guiding and truth"? Is there never, ever beauty and truth in "incitement and hectoring"? As for sloganeering, I suggest we all go back to Frost's "successful" inauguration poem. There was nothing here before we (immigrants from Europe) got here; the land was cultureless, without its own history, and we brought culture and history; what history and culture we make of the continent was always foreseen if currently unfinished. But now maybe here's a new leader to finish the job.

I have/you want, I give/you take, I am/you aren't

The lecture: a 19th-century pedagogical mode that lived past its time into the 20th century, an inefficient method by which the notes of the teacher become the notes of the student without passing through the heads of either. (So sorry. Here I am, on my high horse again.)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

cell phone in the garden of exile

Alicia Oltuski, a fabulous writer (usually comic, in the Max Apple vein), tells a story about losing her father in the axis of death. Go to "Berlin Stories" - specifically here and listen to the audio.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

end of the lecture

Happily I join MIT science in calling for the end of the lecture as we know it. Here's today's New York Times on what MIT is doing. Back in March '08 I waxed rhetorical on this topic in "end of the lecture (redux)".

Yvor the Counter-Revolutionist

By all accounts, the Stanford-based critic-poet Yvor Winters was prickly. His views on what modernism was good and what bad (usually, the earlier and the more "precise"/imagistic the better). His view on Stevens (the early modernist, detached, comic ironic short stuff of Harmonium was good, the later rhetorically blown-up long-lined essayistic poems, poems made of philosophical propositions, were bad) had a huge effect on a generation of teachers who thought that to teach Stevens one had to teach only "Sunday Morning" or "Ploughing on Sunday." His view on William Carlos Williams: early short stuff good, late stuff sloppy and imprecise.

Winters could be brutal. As I write this now I'm looking at an unpublished letter from the Poetry Magazine archives - from William Pillin (a poet known as a left-winger in the 1930s) to then-editor Hayden Carruth: "Dear Mr. Carruth: / Will someone tell Mr. Winters to get off my toes? / His rude designation of my craft as a refuge to 'fairies and fantasists' is insulting and untrue."

Carruth turned to Winters in 1949 and asked Winters to help him revive Poetry, which Carruth felt was falling into an after-modernism-now-what? stupor. Winters was a symbol of some kind of pure pre-1930s modernism, so it made sense for Carruth to turn to him. On April 14, 1949 Winters replied to this request, and here is part of what he wrote to Carruth: "You say that your job is to rehabilitate the reputation and hence the usefulness of Poetry. It is a big job. Poetry has had every advantage save one, for years: it has had money, or at least enough money; it has had circulation and established reputation; but it has lacked editorial brains and has lacked them absolutely. I don't know whether or not you are the answer, but maybe you are."

He then recalled that he'd tried to get Harriet Monroe (P's founding editor) to print Hart Crane, "and she wouldn't do it till he was famous in spite of her and past the point where he could write decently." He'd fought with her for years to get Allen Tate into the magazine. He wanted his protege J.V. Cunningham there; Monroe printed just one JVC poem. "Other people of talent whom I have recommended have been turned down cold, including Howard Baker."

Howard Baker. I've read the poems (and criticism) of Howard Baker (believe it or not). Baker, he ain't no Williams or Pound. (Of course I don't mean the Senator from Tennesee, he of "what did he know and when did he know it" fame.)

Winters goes on to recommend that Carruth publish these:

[] Edgar Bowers ("on his way to being a great poet")
[] Donald Drummond (brilliant although uneven)
[] L. F. Gerlach
[] C.R. Holmes
[] Wesley Trimpi (anothner Stanford guy who went on to a distinguished academic career but not much as a poet)

Okay? Got it?

Now you know what Poetry would have been like if Winters had gotten his way.

In his memoir of 1992 (Their Ancient Glittering Eyes: Remembering Poets and More Poets), Donald Hall describes Winters as poetically conservative but politically a liberal democrat. "On the other hand," Hall wrote, "if we use political labels seriously, not as in American party politics but as indices of intellect and spirit, Winters was high Tory, with a Tory's respect for personal liberty and reverence for precedent and durability."

Durability. Well, maybe in the hopeful sense Hall means. But when I think of Winters as standing for durability I also have to think of Winters the Stanford mentor who pushed forward Edgar Bowers because he was a poet who would last.

Hall also wrote that "In my time, graduate students in English at Stanford were either for Winters or against him" (p. 132).

John Felstiner, the great translator and promoter of Paul Celan, joined Stanford English as an Assistant Professor in 1965. He loved Williams' poetry and wanted to teach the stuff to the Stanford freshmen. So he put together a little mimeographed anthology of WCW poems and then went down to the office of his senior colleague, Yvor Winters, to ask the elder what he thought of this collection of WCW's poems. It was Felstiner's very first interaction with Winters. To find out what happened next, listen to an excerpt from a talk Felstiner gave to Stanford alumni in 2008 (link below).

So while we're on the topic of Yvor Winters' contribution to the counter-revolution of the word - the rolling back of the messy, rhetorical, post-imagist, political modernism after the '30s (the era in which Winters went poetically to the Right) - ponder the moral of Felstiner's surprisingly angry anecdote. It took him years, he said, to discover that Williams had written a kind of poetry other than what Winters abruptly deemed worthy of the attentions of this junior colleague. You can hear the bitterness in Felstiner's voice about this, even all these years later. Listen to it. It's there.

Here's your link to John Felstiner on Yvor Winters on William Carlos Williams.

the people in cars, do they see? do they care?

Kathleen Fraser's ominous, disorienting prose-poem "The Cars" is the topic of the 13th episode of PoemTalk. We released this new show yesterday. Go here for a brief description, for a link to the audio and links also to various ways of getting every new PoemTalk show automatically. PoemTalk is a collaboration of the Kelly Writers House, the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, PennSound, and the Poetry Foundation.

For PoemTalk 13 one of the talkers was CAConrad, a regular at the Writers House but a first-time on the program. That's Conrad at right.

Monday, January 12, 2009

with a bag of frozen peas on her head

Today we launched a new Kelly Writers House podcast. It features a 20-minute excerpt from the longer interview I conducted with Grace Paley as a Writers House Fellow in the spring of 2000. Here's your link to the audio. You can also subscribe to KWH podcasts by going to your iTunes Music Store; just search for "Kelly Writers House" in the searchbox. Bag of frozen peas? Yes, listen to the podcast and you'll hear about that.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

poetry news

Our Dial-a-Poem project is listed among items of poetry news on the Poetry Foundation's web site.

Friday, January 09, 2009

working artist

This is a little Depression story. (When I mentioned it to my teenaged kids this morning over breakfast, one of them asked, "Which depression?" Okay. It's January 2009, folks.)

Toward the beginning of the first era of big government ("The era of big government...has just begun!"), Eudora Welty was a fairly good but untried writer of short stories and a very fine and relatively experienced photographer. As a junior publicity agent for the Works Progress Administration (WPA - putting artists to work during a depression) she took some great pictures of the depressed Deep South but also of New York City.

But she wanted to write.

Given how hard it was to succeed as an artist generally, making the choice of short fiction over photography was counter-rational if not also counter-intuitive.

She wrote, although continued to love photography. But Welty was determined and tough. Later she left her camera on a bench in the Paris Metro and never replaced it - "never allowed herself to replace it." I've heard of determination for the sake of an artist's doing art, but this is such for the art of one medium over another. It's an impressive, although not necessarily hopeful, anecdote.

I'd heard the story before. But today it's also in Karen Rosenberg's alluring review of the show of Welty's documentary-style early '30s photos now at the Musem of the City of New York. In today's Times.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

America's spatial incompetence

We at PennSound are pleased to release our newest author page - that of Marcella Durand. The earliest recording we have is her Segue series reading at Double Happiness, dated February 12, 2000 - when she read with John Yau. Among the others is "A Night of New Translations" at the Writers House in 2003. The most recent recording is from the benefit reading for Will Alexander at the Bowery Poetry Club in November '07.

Here's Marcella Durand speaking with Anselm Berrigan: Well, the most basic root of America's spatial incompetence is that they/we stole the land in the most brutal, unfair, low-down ways possible. But the U.S. also has a tradition of ecological awareness and appreciation of "encounters with the wilderness" that definitely comes from both the overwhelming physicality of the land and influence of the native tribes. Cabeza de Vaca, Willa Cather, Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, Sarah Orne Jewett, Black Elk, Aldo Leopold are some earlier American writers who wrote with a particularly interesting spatial consciousness. I just finished Cape Cod by Thoreau where he experiences nature in a full-frontal (literally at times!) way that I just don’t think is possible anymore, at least, not where I live! Douglas gave me this book about the Grand Canyon which talks about how the early Spanish conquistadors who first saw it were unable to perceive it; their previous experience did not allow them to really see the magnificence and enormity of it. We’ve become able to perceive nature — Thoreau looks and looks into the darkness until his pupil becomes large enough to see — and what’s happened after that moment of perception? I’m being rather retro in my poetical aims by trying to drag back a sense of unpredictability, but I’m also trying to encompass, or maybe perceive, the industrial, genetic, and silicon revolutions.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Wallace Stevens, motivational speaker

A web site called PinoyBusiness.ORG, for "Global Filipino Business and Investing Community," has a daily feature that provides motivational sayings, a link to "free motivational quotes," another link to "Harness Your Own Power," and finally a link to "Depression Quotes" (presumably meaning an emotional rather than financial crisis). Today's motivational saying is from Wallace Stevens: "The summer night is like a perfection of thought." I suppose in January this does motivate daydream of a better moment.

The line is from "The House is Quiet and the World is Calm," a late poem that actually celebrates, if anything, the final rest of the old reader-poet. No blazing artifice there.

A little further googling and I realize that the line has been passed around from web hand to web hand, obviously further and further from its context, until it is simply axiomatic that it's a "motivational saying." It is, for instance, "Quotation #31277 from Laura Moncur's Motivational Quotations." This is one of those rare moments when I wish Stevens was still around to respond to such "use" of his poetry. He would surely fire off a quip that would be memorable in itself. The world is not calm.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Doctorow on Whitman and other topics

E. L. Doctorow was here visiting in March of 2005, and I moderated a discussion with him for about an hour one Tuesday morning late that month. Now I've edited a 20-minute excerpt of that longer interview - as the 20th episode in the Kelly Writers House podcast series. You can subscribe to these through iTunes and you can download the Doctorow podcast now just by clicking here.

fast becoming

Gosh, thank you Alex Davies at Openned! (Here's the entry to which he refers.)

don't know butkus about football

Get your daily Al.

Monday, January 05, 2009


Dial now: 215 746-7636, or: 215 746-POEM.

Happy '09 from all of us at 3805 Locust Walk in Philadelphia. With the new year we launch another new project. Call the phone number above any day, at any time, and hear

1) what's happening tonight or very soon at the Writers House
2) highlights of upcoming events
3) a featured poem read at the Writers House, from our archives
4) a featured recording of Writers House-affiliated students

We urge all friends and fans of the Writers House to add this number - which we call "6-POEM" - to their contacts list, speed dial, and address book.

"What's happening" will be updated almost every day. The other features will be updated frequently.

- - -

The responses I've received so far typically say: "Geez, this is so retro it's cool," and "Everything seems to be converging on the phone," and "Telephony rocks."

war inaugural

The blog "Change in the Wind" does more with the choice of Elizabeth Alexander to give the inaugural poem, and refers to my earlier entry on this topic.

poetry happens between speakers

Pierre Joris is working on a super-translation of Paul Celan's Meridian Speech, and he's releasing pieces of it on his blog, Nomadics. The speech is full of important ideas. One of them is the "site of poetry" (Ort der Dichtung). And he began there to outline what he called the "In-Between" (das Inzwischen) that happens between speakers in talk. The "site of poetry" and "In-Between" are related concepts. Knowingly or not, many contemporary poets assume the centrality of these notions: a second space outside the poetic subject, made through intersubjectivity. A poem is as much Other Minds as it is the writerly self out of which the words are written.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

two favorite characters

The Times City Room has a blog and the January 2 entry was a piece about the recent donation of the books and papers of the famed bookstore, the Gotham Book Mart, to the special collections department of Penn's Van Pelt Library. Actually, a donor paid the bookstore a sum for its contents, whereupon the donor anonymously donated them to Penn. Penn announced this major acquisition back in mid-December, but now the City Room blog takes a broader look at this once-important literary watering hole and the context of its demise. And they run a great photo of some denizens, including writers who have long interested me, such as Horace Gregory and his wife Marya Zaturenska. Below is that photo. Here I want to point out two characters I find especially fascinating. One is Jose Garcia Villa, a Flipino-American poet who did some writing but also some editing in the modernist milieu. Some time ago I had something to say about his experiment with poems in which all words were separated by commas; see "why,can't,traditional,meter,be,an,effect,too?" Garcia Villa is the slight dark-haired fellow standing under the man on the ladder (who happens to be W. H. Auden). Another favorite of mine is the fellow sitting cross-legged on the floor: Charles Henri Ford, a novelist, poet, editor, photographer, collage artist and driving force behind the surrealist magazine View. He was born in Mississippi and I'm guessing he picked up the handle "Henri" in Paris. He had escaped to France pretty early, and ran his first periodical there, titled Blues and subtitled "A Bisexual Bimonthly." Returned to NYC in '34 and lived there with his long-time partner, the quasi-exiled neo-romantic painter Pavel Tchelitchew. My favorite Ford story: he typed Djuna Barnes' novel Nightwood for her, while visiting Morocco in 1932 at the suggestion of Paul Bowles.

sound at an impasse

The forthcoming spring '09 issue of The Wallace Stevens Journal collects articles written about Stevens and the sound of poetry. I have a piece here, based on a talk I gave at MLA a few Decembers ago. The papers and other contributions have been expertly edited by Natalie Gerber.

the perfect gift

This bag is plated with solar cells. It generates enough power to charge a cell phone, iPod, or camera. It's the creation of Joe Hynek, a doctoral student in electrical engineering. It was his project in a class on experimental garment design. (Joe, if you're reading this, will you send me your prototype?)

Coover - Didion - Gordon

Kelly Writers House Fellows 2009 is both a seminar and a public program featuring three eminent writers. This spring we'll be visited by Robert Coover, Joan Didion, and Mary Gordon. I've put up the beginnings of the seminar site. Choosing four or five works by Coover and Didion each was very difficult, and I only hope I made good choices. Are my Coover selections too basic/easy? I just re-read The Universal Baseball Association of J. Henry Waugh, Esq. and realized once again what a fine introduction to experimental narrative it is. And Didion's The Book of Common Prayer! What sentences! And Miami, with its watery paragraphs. Florida itself! We'll read both of Mary Gordon's recent memoirs - her early '90s grappling with her father, he who wasn't really anything he had told her he was, a turn that threatens her own writing, the very writing we are reading. And, instead of reaching back to the well-known early novels (e.g. The Company of Women) I've decided that we should read Pearl, the novel that comes between the memoir of the father and the very recent memoir of the mother, Circling My Mother. The programs are free and open to the public. Check out the schedule and let us know if you want to attend: 215 573-9749.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

poems are little machines made out of words

One of Tony Green's word sculptures. If you're intrigued, be sure to visit accumulations, a site I check often. Lately Tony's been adding "words that come to hand" more than his word-machines, but scroll back to earlier entries for various media. I happily own one of Tony's "sliding accumulations." I also recommend this flickr page with its nice photos of Tony's work. Below are some of Tony's word-smokes, which certainly confuse Jacques Lipshitz' famous dictum about why he makes sculptures - to avoid or deny death.

Friday, January 02, 2009

what is non-commercial?

Our friends at Creative Commons conducted a study on the meaning of the term "noncommercial" with respect to copyright, the dissemination of copyrighted material easily or indeed for free, etc. I wish I had come across this a month ago. I would have urged all my poet friends to fill out the questionnaire. I dare say that in the world of poetry and poetics, for the purposes of making the work as widely available as possible, a rather limited definition of noncommercial suffices.

And yet at the same time we should all want the term defined widely for general general purposes. If music and film can break the logjam, definitively less commercial realms such as poetry will be in good company as makers of online intellectual property. The more public the domain, the better. And I wonder, now** that capitalism is less adamantly said to be ipso facto self-correcting, if that economic system will continue to be used as the main reason for keeping art and creative work out of the public domain.

Noncommerical. Is the key quality (number 1 in the attributes list in dictionary definition, e.g.) that a work be unremunerative? Or that it be out of the mainstream? (These are more difficult questions than they at first seem.)

** I mean, since September or so, the many discussions about how perhaps capitalism itself is not the natural incentive-providing machine we had thought.