Wednesday, October 31, 2007

four cheers for literary history

Blogroll please: Mark Scroggins' "Culture Industry". Mark has recently published his long-awaited critical biography of Louis Zukofsky. MORE...

Up with literary history!

A while back, Mark wrote this: "Maybe I’m just expressing my hankering for informative literary history that is able to synthesize large amounts of data, and to draw the sorts of connections that one doesn’t get merely from reading the poets’ books and the poets’ biographies – Alan Filreis’s book on Stevens in the 1930s, for instance, which not merely changes one’s view of WS, but rewrites the entire landscape of 1930s American poetry. There has been no even half-way decent overview of post-war American innovative poetry that can compare with the various histories of modernism out there."

And here's a paragraph from Mark's paper, "Blood to the Ghosts: Biography and the New Modernist Studies" - delivered at Cornell in October 2002. Thank you, Mark!

The ideological bases of "high" modernist poetics, poetics which for so long were taken as self-evidently heroic ruptures with fin-de-si├Ęcle stasis, have been examined in unprecedented detail and sometimes subjected to withering critique, as in Gilbert and Gubar's No-Man's Land, Peter Nicholls's Modernisms: A Literary Guide, and Raymond Williams's posthumous The Politics of Modernism. And the writings and ideological commitments of the canonical modernist poets have finally begun to receive adequate historical contextualization. Literary scholars have rarely written about "The Waste Land", The Pisan Cantos, or Auden's "Spain, 1939," without at least nodding towards historical context, but those nods were often exceedingly perfunctory. Far more detailed, careful, and revelatory are Alan Filreis's work on Wallace Stevens, for instance, or Lawrence Rainey's on Ezra Pound. Filreis's two books, which examine Stevens's career during the 1950s and the 1930s, have demolished once and for all the image of that poet as an ideologically detached contemplator of reality and the imagination. Rainey's Ezra Pound and the Monument of Culture has demonstrated not only the idiosyncratic, ad hoc, and ideologically motivated routes and methods of Pound's appropriations of Italian Renaissance culture, but how Pound criticism has in its turn largely overlooked or ignored those idiosyncracies and ideological motivations, implying instead that Pound simply drew upon some monumental, homogeneous archive of "true" history. MORE...

Monday, October 29, 2007

what they didn't tell you before you went to war

What exactly was it that they didn't tell him? And how would he know the answer to this question? By looking at the glint of the sun off his weddding band. Is this another instance of Make love, not war?

The second show in my new podcast series, "PoemTalk," features a lively discussion about Adrienne Rich's poem about the Iraq War, called "Wait." The recording of that show is now available. Please have a listen and let me know what you think.

Friday, October 19, 2007

we want Wystan

We are hoping to bring Wystan Curnow to Penn in the fall of '08: poet, art critic, curator, maker of beautiful exhibit catalogues, editor of the most important anthology of essays on New Zealand literature.

Wystan Curnow was born in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1939, the son of the noted New Zealand poet, Allen Curnow. Wystan studied English and History at the University of Auckland, and took his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Back in the USA, Cancer Daybook, Castor Bay, and, most recently, Modern Colours.

Of Cancer Daybook he wrote: "I should say the first of these poems had at the time of their composition a peculiar purpose: that of distracting a disease. On a day to day basis, it seemed best to delay their publication as a volume until such time as that purpose had been well and truly served."

In 1998 Curnow brought out a stunningly beautiful retrospective catalogue of the life and work of Imants Tillers, the Australian visual artist, curator and writer. Tillers has exhibited widely since the late 1960s, and has represented Australia at important international exhbitions such as the Sao Paulo Bienal in 1975, Documenta 7 in 1982, and the 42nd Venice Biennale in 1986. Since 1981 Tillers has used his signature canvasboards to explore themes relevant to contemporary culture, from the centre/periphery debates of the 1980s, to the effects of migration, displacement and diaspora. Most recently, his paintings have been concerned with place, locality and evocations of the landscape. For his catalogue of Tillers' work, Curnow wrote substantive new art-critical prose, focusing on Tillers' great work, The Book of Power.

Curnow is also a writer of short stories, and in 1971 won the Katherine Mansfield Award for fiction.

At the time Essays on New Zealand Literature was published (1973), as we learned from the dustjacket: "Dr. Curnow is married with four children. He lives in Birkenhead and has a good view of the sea."

If we are able to bring him to Penn during the fall term of '08, Curnow would be given workspace at and use as a home base the Kelly Writers House. Students in Al Filreis' and Charles Bernstein's courses on modern and contemporary poetic and poetics would study Curnow's work, meet with him both in and out of the classroom. Students in poetry writing workshops (through the Creative Writing Program) would receive from Dr. Curnow commentary and guidance on their own poems. The students in Kenneth Goldsmith's experimental writing workshop, called "UnCreative Writing," would work closely with Curnow on their projects. All the while, events - a grand public reading, informal lunchtime workshop, recordings of Curnow's poems for PennSound (in front of a live audience) - would be on the Writers House events schedule. Students in Fine Arts and Art History will participate in any and all of these events, as woudl faculty, staff and students associated with the ICA. Finally, Curnow would be featured on two episodes of the ongoing poetry podcast, "PoemTalk," which is a collaboration of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing and the Poetry Foundation of Chicago.

[] Wystan Curnow PennSound page
[] review of 2001 Venice Biennale
[] Writing History on the Margins: New Zealand
[] three poems in Jacket 2006
[] bibliography
[] "Matisee Asleep"
[] "High Culture Now! A Manifesto
[] Best New Zealand Poems
[] "Max"
[] review of Curnow's Imants Tillers and the Book of Power

get your daily PennSound

New! Get your daily PennSound update. Click on and then choose where (for instance, Google or Yahoo) you want to be able to see the latest additions to PennSound every time you log on.

beware those ecdysiasts on campus

Time magazine, December 1947*: in its "Education" section there's a squib (a little more than one column) under the title "Unwelcome Guests," and it begins thus:

"In less dogmatic days, most U.S. colleges were places were all sides of many questions were heard. Student groups sponsored after-hours speeches by Republicans, Democrats, Communists, Buchmanites, Zoroastrians and ecdysiasts. But times have changed. Last week, six colleges barred their doors to speakers who were Communists or fellow travelers." And it goes on to say that one of those barred was novelist Howard Fast (shown above), and we have a photo of Fast set into the piece above the phrase "No one-syllable refusals."

I've read an awful lot of news articles like this from the period 1946 or so through around 1962, so I think I know and can place the rhetoric here.

In 1947 anticommunist rhetoric had not yet set in. In 1952 or '53, the article - if it took this approach at all, if it covered the "barring" of such speakers from campuses at all - would have intensified the mock of all the -isms that are out there. Here it's satirical enough: we go from what were in the 1930s three major voices (right, liberal-left and radical left) to a minor passing sect of radical left (Buchmanites) and then immediately to tiny far-flung minority (Zorastrian) with its tone of a little ridiculous to deliberately obscure (isn't America great that there even exist such voices?!). A classic list assuring diversity: starts serious and ends by mocking this multivocal craziness our forefathers guaranteed. So as I say a few years later we might have gotten such a list, but the earlier period - the 1930s - would not have been described as "less dogmatic days." In Time in '47 we could think of these days as "dogmatic" and those ideologically fraught days (the Red Decade) as "less dogmatic." In 1952 those days would dogmatic and these days, a time in which, alas, it's a necessity to keep communists from speaking at colleges, would be less dogmatic. The terms later were: sane, reasonable, mature, pragmatic, strategic, post-ideological, settled, sane. Did I already say sane?

What's even funnier about all this - and makes me think that the anonymous Time squib-writer was having a nice go at the early anticommunists - is that an ecdysiast is a performer who provides erotic entertainment by undressing to music. Much, much, much more common to colleges campuses (at least behind the closed doors of fraternities) than Zoroastrians or even Communists ever were.

At the end of this little forgotten piece, Eleanor Roosevelt, contacted in Geneva for comment (where she was attending a meeting of the Commission on Human Rights, of all apt things for her to be doing just then), is quoted as saying that Americans "are not completely sure of our ability to make democracy work." It's '47 and Truman hasn't quite made his rightward move away from the Roosevelt legacy, and Eleanor is quoted approvingly approving, in effect, human rights extended to American communist speakers at universities - in short, free speech despite the risks of subversion.

[] Fast bio
[] Fast on the Peeksill riots
[] a short story by Fast
[] a 1959 sci fi story by Fast, a fascinating political allegory

* Dec. 22, 1947, p. 50.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Mainecoast post office outlasts the classics

The PoemTalkers talked Oppen yesterday. George Oppen. The poem is "Ballad", recorded in Brooklyn in 1979. And... A LINK.

small boxes

Back on September 26 Tom Devaney was celebrated at the Writers House on the occasion of his new book, A Series of Small Boxes. The reading was recorded for PennSound. Here is an mp3 of the whole reading. The final poem in the new book is one Tom wrote for my 50th birthday. Oh man, I'm hitting clean-up. MORE...

Below: Randall Couch happily chatting with Jessica Lowenthal at the party after the reading.

as if some family breach were healed

Adrienne Cecile Rich was the Phi Beta Kappa poet at the College of William & Mary in December 1960. She read her poem "Readings in History." Above is the poster that was printed by the PBK chapter and posted around campus that month (courtesy William & Mary Archives). MORE...

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

the Confucian side of Disney

Q.: Do you think that the modern world has changed the ways in which poetry can be written? A.: There is a lot of competition that never was there before. Take the serious side of Disney, the Confucian side of Disney. MORE...

you're a commuter in a station of the Metro

Wordsalad features a short entry on PennSound and in particular points out as useful my podcast called "PennSound pedagogy", "which discusses the reasons for setting up this audio archive and how educators can use it. For example, how can a teacher help students make a connection between Emily Dickinson and a contemporary poet like Rae Armantrout?"

But Wordsalad is not primarily a blog. It's "a weekly radio program on WSUM featuring recordings of contemporary authors reading from their own works. Imagine you’re a commuter in a station of the Metro, hearing bits and snatches of conversation as you pass by Modernist, experimental, performance poets, and Language writers. Wordsalad streams live on Thursdays from 1 to 2 pm Central at and airs at 91.7 FM in Madison, Wisconsin." is Madison Student Radio - and naturally you can listening to a live stream. I'm listening as I write this: The Weakerthans are singing a song from their album Left & Leaving: extremely quiet punk (that possible?). Try this one.

Of course for the most interesting radio internet stream, there's FMU, independent freeform radio. FMU gives you ten or more options for internet listening.

Monday, October 15, 2007

the rest is noise

I recommend J. Henry Chunko's October 6th John Cage wrap-up, which begins with his apt admiration for Cage's 1977 performance of Empty Words. He calls it "this jaw droppingly incredible recording." (He's pointing to this.) And then he just enthuses across other links and references. Along the way he mentions my Cage stuff in English 88.

The new book, The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross, was reviewed yesterday by the Chicago music journalist Marc Geelhoed on his "Deceptively Simple" blog. Lots of John Cage there too.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

humanistic informatics

Lately I've been reading Scott Rettberg's blog. Scott, a Chicagoan who lives in Norway, writes about electronic poetry and new media. He's associate prof of humanistic informatics at the University of Bergen. His Kind of Blue is a serial novel for email. One of his current projects is called "Dada Redux: Elements of Dadaist Practice in Contemporary Electronic Literature." From what I can tell, Scott has worked with Nick Montfort and Brian Kim Stefans, both of whom I admire. Good nexus.

As these things go: I ran into Scott's blog while I was googling myself in order to find an old photo that I knew was tagged near my name. Up came an entry about my English 88:

I'm teaching my first hybrid distance learning course next summer (Books into Movies), and I'm participating in a committee at Stockton that addresses distance ed. I ran across Al Filreis' course at Penn, English 88V, and think it's a great model for a web distance course — lots of online resources, short video clips, position papers, and synchronous and asynchoronous discussion. I especially like their short guide to position papers and the realvideo lecture that accompanies it. I might even send my New Media Students over there — the type of position paper they describe is exactly the type of work I look for NMS students to write in their reading journals.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

reminding you of silent doubles

Rachel Blau DuPlessis, poet, teacher, critic, editor: her newest book of poems is Torques: Drafts 58-76, out from Salt Modern Poets since September. Drafts is an ongoing long poem (Rachel calls it her "endless poem") written in canto-like sections, and Torques is the third collection of these to appear since 2001 (she's been writing the drafts since '85).

Rachel has prepared a grid that helps to organized the whole project so far (well, at least as of March 2007). So, for instance, draft 59 is "flash back" and 62 is "gap" and 69 is "sentences" and 85 is "hard copy."

The new book stops at 76, but of course Rachel continues to create drafts of this endless poems, and I've been reading "Draft 85: Hard Copy" lately and here are some of my favorite passages:

Even the simplest things
Their provenance--
a shoe, a prosthetic
post-war leg
reminding you of
silent doubles
unfinished, imperfect,
imperfect, shadowy.

Slowly the particulars
get scattered to the wind....


Chickens come Home.
And Us Chickens.
Two old sayings.
High crimes and low cunning,
One must refuse. Easy, so far.

Yet a clutch of events
hatches in the world at large
leaving a rash, a stain, an infection, a pandemic.

and here is all of section 18:

Stet atrocity
Stet astonishing events fast come ordinary
Stet particular Presidents

Stet plum of smoke
Stet people burn

With an increase of allusions and referents.

Draft 85 is "mapped loosely on, thinks about, and responds to" George Oppen's masterful 1968 work, "Of Being Numerous." There are citations (marked as quotations from Oppen) and allusions to Oppen and variations around keywords in Oppen's sections.

[] Rachel's PennSound page.

[] Rachel on Virginia Woolf at the October 2000 "nine contemporary poets read themselves through modernism" event.

Friday, October 12, 2007

speak of it as if it is just new

Last March Jamaica Kincaid visited for three days as a Writers House Fellow. She was a marvelous presence and we got along extremely well. Here you'll find links to video recordings of her reading and also the interview/conversation I conducted the next morning--as well as photos taken during the visit. Today Andy White finished editing a 16-minute excerpt from the interview, and it is now part of a Writers House podcast. Listen to it here. Anna Levett, a student in the Fellows seminar, wrote this:

That Ms. Kincaid so values youth-that she so values newness-is reflected in her work. Before meeting her, we spoke often of the deceptive simplicity, almost childlike, of her writing. Al told us that his favorite line in all of her work came from My Garden (Book), where she writes, "I shall speak of it as if no one has ever heard of it before. I shall speak of it as if it is just new."

Lisa Tauber, a student in our class, wrote, "One of the things I really love about her writing is the seemingly simple choice of metaphors and descriptions, so that it appears the world is being viewed by a child. I remember when we went to lunch, one of the first things she did was tell us some little anecdote, and then she said, 'It was as clear to me as this glass of water.' I was struck by the use of her writing style in her everyday speech. It was a nice moment where I felt I saw her artistic sensibility outside of her work."

Indeed this may be the best thing about Writers House Fellows-the chance to see from where, from who, the words on the page arise. It's nice to be reminded that even famous writers are real people.

Though she doesn't refrain from criticism (particularly when it's political), Ms. Kincaid herself likes to remember that we are all human. As our Fellows class discussion came to an end on Monday afternoon, she encouraged us to be bold, to go at the world with the same directness as a beam of light.

"That's the thing about being young," she said. "You should say all sorts of things-because you have to have something that you should be forgiven for when you're old."

notes toward a modernist pedagogy

I'm interested in what it means to teach modernism in the manner appropriate to the modern text. I do not think that doing this enacts the imitative fallacy - that is, why would someone need necessarily to teach modernism in a modernist way? What's the advantage? These would seem to be a legitimate doubt, but please read on and tell me if I'm wrong. Let me start here with the final lines of a famous poem by Gertrude Stein:

They cannot.
A note.
They cannot.
A float.
They cannot.
They dote.
They cannot.
They as denote.
Miracles play.
Play fairly.
Play fairly well.
A well.
As well.
As or as presently.
Let me recite what history teaches. History teaches.
--Gertrude Stein, “A Completed Portrait of Picasso”

History doesn’t teach that history teaches. Modernism is a topic but also a mode, on the other hand, in which the recitation of what history teaches is ironized. The conventional denotative pedagogy ([teacher points to text:] “This is what it means”) is not up to the challenge of permitting the performance of this self-reflexivity. In modernism’s materials is implicitly a meta-pedagogy. In the years since the emergence of digital media and ubiquitous connectivity – and as its effect on the delivery of materials to the classroom but also its storage outside it becomes profound – the irony of the lecture on modernism has become increasingly obvious and disabling.

At a conference sponsored by the SEI Center for Advanced Studies in Management on "The Virtual University" in early 1995, the urban sociologist and former university president Martin Meyerson said: “The best lectures have always been those that deal with ‘tentative materials’ that result from the professor's research. If they cease to be tentative, don't include them in the lecture; print them. The main teaching function has to be interactive.” The world wide web was new then, and when Meyerson said “print them,” it was quickly pointed out in the discussion following his remarks, he might now have meant, “digitize them and make them available on the web.”

But the pedagogical change these remarks augured was hardly in error. The sociologist’s slip about printing suggests that the advent of the web was not required to bring on this reform, but it certainly has catalyzed it. (So, too, new versions modernism arising since the mid-1990s bear with them methods and even some technical practices that pre-date digital connectivity, but the emergence of the latter can still be said to coincide with further developments. My point is that teaching has as yet changed only superficially in response to all this.) The great change, I would submit, is especially difficult for, let us say, historians, for whom disciplinarily the display of “tentative materials”—in the classroom or in scholarly articles and books--is generally greeted with concerns about professionalism – where, as Gerald Graff negatively contended in Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education (1992), arguments about the state of the field have already taken place and been more or less resolved by the time the professor walks onto the classroom stage to perform the current state of knowledge and even of method. Historiographers, focused on method, would rightly call this generalization into question, but my point is that the field of modern poetics is utterly different: the whole idea we want our students to grasp is that modernism itself promulgated tentative materials—that the texts we study are tentative in this very basic sense, that (to take Wallace Stevens’s classic modernist formulation) the poem is the act of the mind finding what will suffice for the moment. And, so, what of the mind of the teacher?

The pedagogy of fixed materials is a fundamental, potentially disabling irony. The call to move fixities – for example, informational materials about literary history, the chronological flow of aesthetic movements, etc. – to a shared retrieval space (the web is ideal) literally frees the teaching time and space for a tentativeness that is not just characteristic of the art itself but must also be of the manner in which it is presented. Meyerson’s sense of “research” here refers, in the context of modernism, to some sense of sharing with the orientation to process in the poetry itself. While the books and articles produced by the teacher as a disciplinary expert (and tenure-seeker) might well eschew the flux and openness of the texts under study there, I would insist that the practice of teaching cannot. The irony produced by such a refusal closes off the main avenue by which the student interacts with a kind of writing that seeks interactivity and is (often) about it.

Kenny Goldsmith, founder and curator of UbuWeb and creator of a course called "Uncreative Writing," responds:

[H]aving come to teaching in an age of non-fixed materials, I can't imagine the classroom situation as otherwise. So, I might be the wrong person to comment on this: for me, it's always been this way. And I've never taught in a room that's not wired -- at the Art Institute last semester, I insisted on a networked classroom with projector and screen or I told them that I would refuse to teach at all. Such is the environment today.

I teach horizontally, meaning that while I might begin with a fixed idea of what I'm going to teach that day, I let it drift rhizomatically way off topic, often pulling it back when it gets too far. I rely on non-fixed materials to teach this way; the whole world is at my fingertips. Should I go off on a tangent about John and Rauschenberg and their love relationship as expressed in Rauschenberg's bed, an image of that bed is always a click away. From there, we can head anywhere into the non-fixed universe, be it film, text or sound. And of course, that always takes us elsewhere. As Cage says, "We are getting nowhere fast."

The flip side of all this is that the web itself is a non-fixed space. Much of what is there on Weds afternoon is gone or unavailable on Thursday morning. So, I must, within reason, somehow fix that space for lecture purposes. I PDF like mad and archive; I always bring an external hard drive crammed with hundreds of gigabytes should the thing I'm looking for not be available. Also, much of the stuff I teach is so non-fixed that it never appeared in any sort of stable form, rather its nature is ephemeral. So, the teacher becomes an archivist (but haven't we always?).

The secret, though, is making the materials available in a sharable form that can be passed around. Xeroxes can only go so far. So in that way, the pedagogical materials need to be truly non-fixed, even at the risk of breaking arcane and outdated notions of copyright law. The students need things to take away with them, to listen to on their iPods, to share, to love... to possess.


Jacket design for my new book - by Laura Palese. Coming out in December or January from North Carolina. Here's a short summary.

...and a note about teaching this stuff

If it's true, as Bob Cobbing put it in 1969, that "Sound poetry dances, tastes, has shape," then those of us who have been teaching poetry-as-printed (poetry on the page, unsounded poetry, what have you...) would presumably have to add at least these three dimensions to the realms of approach in the classroom. Which is perhaps too elaborate a way of saying that to have been prepared to teach words on a page, no matter how complex, is not to be prepared to help present a language as a kind of dance, as something to be tasted, as something that has a physical shape.

Cobbing again: "Leonardo da Vinci asked the poet to give him something he might see and touch and not just something he could hear. Sound poetry seems a to me to be achieving this aim."* Same problem here, I'd suggest. See and even hear we can do, with work. But touch? That's difficult. (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 something we think we do in a close reading when often it is not what we're really doing.)

All this strikes me as relatively easy to talk about - I mean presenting the problem does not require hard work at the writing of it - but really doing it seems quite daunting.


suddenly everyone began reading aloud

Last night's Cobbingfest - an event on visual and sound poetries - at the Kelly Writers House featured readings by Maggie O'Sullivan and cris cheek and a panel discussion led by Charles Bernstein that included O'Sullivan and cheek as well as Matthew Abess and Marvin Sackner. Once the recordings of the readings and talks are available (soon, I should think) I will surely link them here. Come back.

At left: the late Bob Cobbing (d. 2000).

Matt Abess is a senior undergraduate who was drawn into this poetics through courses and other doings and connections at the Writers House and Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing (CPCW). During 2005-06 he took Kenny Goldsmith's year-long course we do in collaboration with the ICA, a variant on Kenny's "Uncreative Writing" seminar; then in the spring of '06 was Kenny's apprentice through our relatively new program of writing-arts apprenticeships. And in summer '06 we sponsored his research at Marvin and Ruth Sackner's remarkable concrete poetry archive in Miami. All the players in supporting Matt already knew and liked each other and his wonderful work served to bring us all together. Add O'Sullivan and Cheek to the mix - Matt, working with Charles and KWH Director Jessica Lowenthal - invited them, and you have a memorable few days.

After the reading last night I chatted with Bob Perelman and Ron Silliman about the event, about Cobbing, and about the extent to which there was a parallel development of sound poetry on the U.S. side. Here's a link to that 5-minute conversation.

[] The Daily Pennsylvanian covered this story in its October 12, 2007 issue.

[] PennSound has put up quite a good collection of Cobbing pieces, with lots of help from Matt Abess and PennSound's Managing Editor Mike Hennessey.

[] Our "Suddenly Everyone Began Reading Aloud" page is already up - and soon will have added to it links to the recordings of the October 10 and 11 events.

[] Matt received the annual Kerry Sherin Wright Prize given to a Writers House community member who proposes a program or project that befits the capacious and communitarian spirit of our former director, Kerry Sherin Wright. The funds that come with the prize literally paid for the program last night.

[] The Writing Arts Apprenticeships program has been made possible by a generous gift from Emilio and Reina Bassini, members of the Writers House Advisory Board and good friends.

[] Kenny Goldsmith's UbuWeb has a few Cobbing video materials as well as a link to Matt Abess' paper, and of course also has some fabulous Cobbing sound pieces.

[] Matt worked with our friends in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library - in particular, Dan Traister - on an exhibition of Cobbing's work (visual and also sound). The show is called "Make Perhaps This Out Sense Of Can You" and is up until December 16, 2007. Rosenwald Gallery, 6th floor, Van-Pelt Dietrich Library Center University of Pennsylvania, 3420 Walnut Street. Gallery hours: Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm, Saturday, by prior arrangement, noon-4pm. 1-800-390-1829.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

looking at the production of it

Recently I've become interested in the trippy, sardonic West Coast early '60s surrealism of Wallace Berman and the Semina circle - and more generally in what sort of manifestation in the visual arts there was in and around and at the time of the Beat writing scene.

talk about your form/content split

If you have never read even just a few paragraphs of the "Wansee Protocol," you are missing a chance to read Nazi writing at its most routine and most bizarre (both at once, of course). At Wansee, a Berlin suburb, in January 1942, senior officials of the German state met in order, essentially, to figure out a way to communicate clearly to everyone above a certain level of seniority within the Nazi government about the plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe.

A gorgeously bland 1984 film about the not-quite-daylong "discussion"--boring talk around a big conference table; just another meeting--about this horrendous, insane topic. Boring talk about insane stuff. Talk about your form/content split.

The "protocol" was prepared afterward. During the Nuremberg trials after the war it was translated into English. On my Holocaust site I've made the full protocol available. Here are some typical sentences:

"Persons of mixed blood of the first degree who are exempted from evacuation will be sterilized in order to prevent any offspring and to eliminate the problem of persons of mixed blood once and for all. Such sterilization will be voluntary. But it is required to remain in the Reich. The sterilized "person of mixed blood" is thereafter free of all restrictions to which he was previously subjected.... In conclusion the different types of possible solutions were discussed, during which discussion both Gauleiter Dr. Meyer and State Secretary Dr. Buehler took the position that certain preparatory activities for the final solution should be carried out immediately in the territories in question, in which process alarming the populace must be avoided."

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

two cheers for antigregorypeckerism

Herbert Gold reviewed On the Road in the November 16, 1957 issue of the Nation, under the title: "Hip Cool, Beat - and Frantic." Here's a passage of the review that'll give you a good sense of the whole:

The hipster-writer is a perennial perverse bar mitzvah boy, proudly announcing: “Today I am a madman. Now give me the fountain pen.” The frozen thugs gathered west of Sheridan Square or in the hopped-up cars do not bother with talk. That’s why they say “man” to everybody—they can’t remember anybody’s name. But Ginsberg and Kerouac are frantic. They care too much, and they care aloud. “I’m hungry, I’m starving, let’s eat right now!” That they care mostly for themselves is a sign of adolescence, but at least they care for something, and it’s a beginning. The hipster is past caring. He is the criminal with no motivation in hunger, the delinquent with no zest, the gang follower with no love of the gang; i.e., the worker without ambition or pleasure in work, the youngster with undescended passions, the organization man with sloanwilsonian gregorypeckerism in his cold, cold heart.

daily bread

This is George Herlick's b&w photo called "Bread in Window," taken on April 21, 1937, part of a series called "City Scenes" that Herlick shot as part of the Photographic Division of the New York City Fine Arts Project, a New Deal enterprise. The remarkable online New Deal Network has organized this and hundreds of other Depression-era photographs in its Photo Library. Herlick is also known for his photographs of rural scenes in the city, such as "Haycart".

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

avatar of Newt

Part of the problem, part of the solution--'60s cant. Yet, saying just that, our old friend Newt Gingrich is back, not apparently running for President, but launching a new project he thinks is going to solve our problems. It's called "American Solutions". For some reason - unclear to me even though I've read two articles about it - Newt felt it was important to go into a virtual space to announce the project and "discourse" with Americans. He chose Second Life, where I myself have an avatar (in a thus far failed attempt to locate virtual poetry readings and see if it's a good venue for the Writers House). Sarah Posner of AlterNet has written about Newt in Second Life, and here's a paragraph from her story:

This past weekend, it was the "virtual" incarnation of Newt that was on display. Just days before it turned out that another manifestation -- Gingrich the presidential candidate -- was but a flicker that would fail to light the way for a fractured conservative movement, Gingrich's avatar was making an exclusive appearance in the virtual reality world called Second Life. Like in Gingrich's real life, he was confronted by hecklers and naked women. Gingrich looked right past them and extolled the virtues of political discourse in the "metaverse." On its own news network, Second Life reported that he called the virtual world "part of the solution."

Monday, October 08, 2007

Howl pulled from WBAI on trial's 50th

To the editor:

You rightly express disappointment ("A Muse Unplugged," Oct. 8) that WBAI feels it cannot afford to risk airing a recording of Allen Ginsberg's ecstastic performance of "Howl" to mark the 50th year since the poem went on trial. Let's face it. Many thousands of American students will read the poem in print this year (same coarse language - only printed, not spoken), whether the FCC chills it off the FM airwaves.

Yet there is nothing quite like hearing Ginsberg declaim it. Fortunately, most of your readers and WBAI's listeners can listen to recordings of the poem on PennSound ( PennSound, a nonprofit, noncommerical site, beyond the FCC's reach, makes these sound files available to everyone: they're downloadable, and free, and they're there with permission of the Allen Ginsberg Trust. Radio or not, the poet's visionary yawping can travel freely in 1's and 0's along these new paths.

Al Filreis
Faculty Director, Kelly Writers House
Co-Director, PennSound

Charles Bernstein
Regan Chair of English
Co-Director, PennSound

A Muse Unplugged
October 8, 2007

At the height of his bardic powers, Allen Ginsberg could terrify the authorities with the mere utterance of the syllable “om” as he led street throngs of citizens protesting the Vietnam War. Ginsberg reigned as the raucous poet of American hippiedom and as a literary pioneer whose freewheeling masterwork “Howl” prevailed against government censorship in a landmark obscenity trial 50 years ago.

It is with a queasy feeling of history in retreat that poetry lovers discover that WBAI, long the radio flagship of cocky resistance to government excess, decided last week that it couldn’t risk a 50th anniversary broadcast of the late poet’s recording of “Howl.” The station retreated out of fear that the Federal Communications Commission would levy large obscenity fines that might bankrupt the small-budget station.

The retreat was hardly an exercise of the sort of rhetorical paranoia that listeners rate as part of the charm of WBAI, an outlet with a brave history in broadcasting such free speech as George Carlin’s comedic “seven dirty words.” No, this time the broadcaster had to be mindful that the F.C.C. had already fined CBS $550,000 for its absurd nanosecond telecast of Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction.” Stations are rightly worried these days that airing “fleeting expletives” can cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars a pop.

The result is a growing tendency toward self-censorship. WBAI is hardly alone in flinching. Public broadcasting stations already are editing Ken Burns’s new documentary on World War II, eliminating pungent four-letter talk from the eyewitness accounts of G.I. Joe.

If Ginsberg were still with us, he would undoubtedly pen a mocking line or two about his poem being banned from the airwaves 50 years after it was ruled not to be obscene. Congress, of course, could redress the F.C.C.’s bullying powers if it wanted to. But lately, the Capitol’s most energetic broadcast agenda has been conservative members’ organizing against any attempt to restore the fairness doctrine to political broadcast, which could crimp the 24/7 rants of right-wing talk radio. The poet would understand, having once noted: “Whoever controls the media, the images, controls the culture.”

blame imagism

I continue to be fascinated by the reputation of imagism in later decades. Folks less rather than more knowledgeable about poetry - and who are also suspicious of modernism - tend to let imagism stand in for all of modernism. So no matter how inaccurate such substitution is, imagism, that fleeting movement, has had a disproportionate effect, less perhaps on later poets themselves than on poetry's reputation.

Robert Pinsky in The Situation in Poetry (1976) is an antimodernist. He's not adamant or overt about it, except at moments. One such moment is his assessment of imagism. He looked around at poetry in the 1970s and sadly found imagism's influence. "[T]he techniques of 'imagism,' which convey the powerful illusion that a poet presents, rather than tells about, a sensory experience" are "tormented premises" for poetry. Yet such premises have "become a tradition: a climate of implicit expectation and tacit knowledge" and this "aspect of modernism...effaces or holds back the warmth of authorial commitment to feeling or idea, in favor of a surface cool under the reader's initial touch."*

[] Some imagist materials.

* p. 3; thanks for Robert Archambeau's "Roads Less Traveled: Two Paths out of Modernism" in The Mechanics of Mirage: Postwar American Poetry (2000).

radio nowhere

The new Springsteen album is very good - Magic. We picked it up this week and listened happily - "Magic" (title cut) and "Radio Nowhere" favorites to this point. Then Irwyn Applebaum, prez and publisher of Bantam, a huge fan, treated us to good seats at the Wachovia Center Saturday night for the third date on the newest E Street Band tour. Fantastic. Here is a quick summary and analysis of the concert and a playlist. Remarkable: 17,000 out of the 19,000 in the building seemed to know all the words to the new songs (been out--what?--for two weeks) and sang them blissfully, eyes closed, hands in the air, fingers pointed upward.

Here are Irwyn's good notes on the night: What a show! One of the best I've seen. After last night, tongiht clearly all concerned were determined to shake off any remaining tentativeness of the new tour and to rip open the Philly bag of tricks to serve up a show "wit'" as they say down at Pat's Cheesesteaks. Banging right out of the gate starting with Night instead of Radio, it was clear that this was to be a shake it up and pour it out night. As in the last night of the stadium tour, there must be some Philly connection that brings Spanish Johnny to meet Puerto Rican Jane on lovers lane. Just gorgeous, epic, soaring with one of the many many fine guitar solos. One of the obvious pleasures for Bruce on this tour is getting to play electric guitar up front, something he has not really done in the last two tours. Town Called Heartbreak was back as the duet, and the arrangement has toughened up even a little more, his vocals are still carrying it, and Patty was able to rise into it a little better so that it's a good number now. The other two happy happy joy joy additions were Cadillac and Dancin' in the Dark, which replaced the singalong of Waitin on a Sunny Day in the encore. During Dancin--the medley of his hit--it struck me that even if you're hardcore, you haven't heard them perform this in four years when it ended the stadium shows and yet I'm hearing grown men sing the harmony parts that the band isn't singing on stage. It was a night to appreciate the dazzling contradictions that make the Springsteen concert experience so unique, at once loose and tight, muscular and subtle, earth-shakin', booty-shakin'--yes, indeed--but what also makes them heart-stoppin', jaw-droppin' are those many smaller moments, listening to each other's musicianship and pushing one another in match-ups like Bruce and Nils during Thundercrack, or as noted the relentless beat-of-your-heart, beat-of-your-heart duet at the end of Devil's Arcade, or Suzie's opening of Magic or Danny's organ intro and outro of Town Called Heartbreak. Not the lovely, extended mannered keyboard solos from the 80s in those marathon days, but condensed to be very effective notes of grace. They pack alot into 23 songs in a little over two hours. One is tempted to say it seems short compared to tours past, but there's almost no talk, no fat, no breaks between numbers and they fire back for the encore like there are fireants backstage, so this is concentrated Bruice Juice. May Jersey rain down such yabba-dabba-abracadabra.

The last time I'd seen Springsteen was November 1978, and here (courtesy again of Irwyn) is the playlist from that concert 29 years ago:


Note: He sang "Louie Louie"!

In the middle of performing "Rosalita" that night long ago, he said this: "Are we ready for a flight ? (cheers)....on the piano and navigation, Professor Roy Bittan.... on the guitar and radar, Miami Steve Van Zandt....on the drums and (?) crew, the Mighty Max....on the bass guitar, Mr.Garry W.Tallent.....on the organ, Mr.Dan Federici.....and in the control tower....the king of the world.....the master of it a bird ? it a plane ? it the Big Man ?....Clarence Clemons on the saxophone...."

Thirty years later there was Clarence, oddly a bit slimmer, drastically pigeon-toed, 60-something years old, shuffling to the center of the stage for his sax blasts which were note for note exactly what fans remembered and wanted again.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

responsibility of the word

Thomas Mann, writing about the word and responsibility in a time of fascism, on March 6, 1937, in the Nation magazine:

The mystery of the Word is great; the responsibility for it and its purity is of a symbolic and spiritual kind; it has not only an artistic but also a general ethical meaning; it is responsibility itself, human responsibility quite simply, also the responsibility for one’s own people, the duty of keeping pure its image in the sight of humanity. In the Word is involved the unity of humanity, the wholeness of the human problem, which permits nobody, today less than ever, to separate the intellectual and artistic from the political and social, and to isolate himself within the ivory tower of the "cultural" proper....

A German author accustomed to this responsibility of the Word... should he be silent, wholly silent, in the face of the inexpiable evil that is done daily in his country to bodies, souls and minds, to right and truth, to men and mankind?... It was not possible for me to be silent.

The article was called "I Accuse the Hitler Regime."

3 chickens = coin sale

My report on the state of surrealism in 1960.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

hear Miss Mackie Rhodus

Recently added to PennSound: the audio recording of a performance of Helen Adam's San Francisco's Burning (1963), a lyric play written by Helen and Pat Adam, and performed by the Audio-Experimental Theatre on WBAI, July 17, 1977. The audio was produced by Charles Ruas and made available to us at PennSound by Ruas. Here's the link:

Here's the cast:

Helen Adam (reading Miss Mackie Rhodus and Anubis)
Pat Adam (reading Susan Pettigrew)
Marilyn Hacker (reading the Countess of Barth Malone)
Robert Hershon (reading Spangler Jack)
Barbara Wise (reading the Lovely Mrs. Valentine)
Peter Fleur
William Packard
Martin L.H. Rhymert
Daniel Haberman
William Trapp
Arthur Williams
Rob Noah Wynne

Elsewhere I've written a little bit about Helen Adam in 1960.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

two legends

In 1959-60 Dick Higgins (above) collaborated with (and then a little later met) Bern Porter. The result of the collaboration was Higgins' first book, What Are Legends (1960). They didn't have enough money for a typesetter so Porter hand-lettered the volume. For the story, and a recording of the two of them telling of their meeting, go here.


Donald Hall visited us last April, and I enjoyed every minute of it. He was frail and yet hardy and game at the same time. Be sure to go to the Don Hall Writers House Fellows page and listen to his Monday evening reading and the Tuesday morning interview/conversation I hosted.

Don Hall has always written poems - and more recently prose too - about death (human mortality and nature's stasis are his two [related] major concerns), and so naturally we talked a lot about death while he was with us. I and my students were stunned by how easily and articulately he talks about death - others' (his father's, his grandfather's and of course his wife's) and his own.

Readers looking for the best Hall on death will read Without, which includes a somewhat by-now famous series of poems about the illness of death of Hall's beloved poet-wife Jane Kenyon. And later, stuff like

When you died
in April, baseball took up
its cadences again
under the indoor ballpark's
patched and recovered ceiling.
You would have admired
the Mariners, still hanging on
in October, like blue asters
surviving frost.

This is subtler than one might at first think, referring as it does to the beautiful and also horribly displaced time Jane and Don spent in Seattle while they awaited and she then received a bone-marrow transplant. They both loved baseball and presumably spent some time in the hospital room watching the Mariners, the local time. Hanging on in October is a deep phrase, and not just about nature and not just about baseball.

But his best poem about death is not in Without. It's "Deathwork" and was collected recently in Hall's definitive collected poems, White Apples and the Taste of Stone. "Deathwork" is linguistically one of Hall's most experimental poems and it's also a depressed/angry rejoinder to his own Lifework, a lovely book of prose about his total happy addiction to work, his kind of work (writing and having a daily domestic sequencing of events around that work, which includes writings letters, watching baseball, reading the newspaper, walking the dog, tending the garden, cooking dinner, etc.). When all that seems to be gone, he second-guesses that old pleasure, removes the subject from every sentence, and makes a list poem that consists of a series of grammatical imperatives. "Drag out afternoon. / Walk dog. Don't write. / Turn off light. / Smoke cigarette / Watching sun set. / Wait for the fucking moon." Then, lest any romance and poetry creep back in, the next line: "Nuke lasagna."

Other poems from White Apples and the Taste of Stone I recommend:

"Dread" - his father can't even admit to himself that he is dying of cancer fast, and is embarrassed by the rare affectionate kiss his son gives him on returning home after the early news of the illness

all the Kearsarge poems - the mountain he can see every day (or knows is there behind mists) behind his ancestral home; it looms and reminds him that it will stay and he will go; by the later poems he is angry at Kearsarge and rages at it

"1943" - about WW2-era Home Front guilt

"Stone Walls" - Kearsarge again but in the context of what the Nixonian U.S. is doing to Allende in Chile; why have I retreated to New Hampshire and what relevance does it have?

"Witness's House" - my favorite of the Hall family poems, about his grandmother who is engaged in her own kind of lifework and passes that on to him, the poet, a clearer sense of the custom and reason for the day's efforts than does his grandfather who is more obviously beloved and seems to have had a clearer influence

two long baseball poems, "Baseball" and "Extra Innings" - using the formalistic grid of baseball (each poem is nine sections each consisting of nine sections) he permits himself - unusual for him - to wander off into thoughts about art, the history of modernism, etc

Don Hall is now fairly open as to his support of poets and differing poetics. In the late 50s and early 60s, however, he was not nearly as receptive to the New American Poetry. To me the key text on this point is "Ah, Love, Let us Be True: Domesticity and History in Contemporary Poetry," written for a special issue of The American Scholar on poetry in (I think) 1962. "Conformity," Hall wrote, "is social and public and protective; domesticity for the poet has uses that inhibit his extension as an artist.... If a man writes a love poem to his wife, it is childish to complain that he is conforming to a bourgeois institution." On Richard Wilbur: "He seems representative of an increasing impatience, among poets, with subjectivism as a contemporary alternative. It seems played out." And: "When Eliot and Pound were our age, they wrote out of a sense of history which no one now seems to possess." And: "Surely Kenneth Fearing is excellently subversive and yet unreadable because of the frailty of his imagination.... It is not, of course, necessary to see two sides of a one-sided coin ('Does Lynching Have a Silver Lining?'), but a poem that entirely represents the world that it hates, and excludes representation of the world of poetry and the imagination that it loves, ultimately fails."

In 1956, in a review published in The New England Quarterly: "Elizabeth Bishop is the only well-known contemporary poet to begin publishing in the last twenty years who has written well in free forms."

Here is a podcast version of this entry.

Above, from left to right: Donald Hall, Amy Gutmann (president of the University of Pennsylvania) and Dan Hoffman (poet and former chair of the Creative Writing Program at Penn), just prior to my interview/conversation with Don in April 2007.

not that kind of man

Tom Short, an itinerant evangelist brought to campus by the A&M Christian Fellowship, told one student that, because she is Jewish, she is going "to burn in Hell." He told another Jewish student that "Hitler did not go far enough."

This was the lead in a November 1996 story about anti-semitism at Texas A&M University.

Shortly after the incident was described on a Holocaust listserv to which I subscribed in those days, a scholar called the leaders of a Christian organization on that campus and then posted a response, which included this comment: "Subscribers may be interested to know that I have spoken with both the adviser and student president of the A&M Christian Fellowship, the organization that invited the antisemitic preacher Tom Short to campus. Both claimed that his comment about Hitler was 'taken out of context,' and that Short 'is not that kind of man.'"

(Well, what "kind" exactly is he?)

I posted these materials to my Holocaust site at the time and it has received more response from viewers than almost anything else.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

triumph of the therapeutic comes to baseball

John Rocker, once the fireballing closer for the Atlanta Braves, hated coming to Queens, NY, to play the Mets before their raucous urban fans. To reporters he said nasty things about NYC gays, about what might happen to him if he took Mets' fans' beloved number 7 train--and he had earlier called an African American player "a fat monkey." You can well imagine what the New York tabloids did with this - and that, in turn, made Mets' fans at Shea louder still - and all this in a September pennant race.

What interested me at the time was that baseball officialdom assumed that the problem was psychological and that what Rocker needed was therapy. The triumph of the therapeutic - there are no real political problems; there are only psychological adjustments that need to be made in individuals - comes to baseball. Rocker was a die-hard southern conservative, replete with fears of northern cities and the racism and homophobia that either go along with that or are its source.

From the New York Times: "Last week, Selig, the baseball commissioner, ordered Rocker to undergo a psychological evaluation in the wake of disparaging comments he made about minorities and gays in an article in Sports Illustrated. He ripped teenagers with purple hair, called an African-American teammate a fat monkey and made racial and homophobic slurs about New Yorkers. The tests were ordered Thursday. Rocker visited psychologists on Friday and then left for a hunting trip in Arkansas. But in ordering psychological tests, Selig may have stumbled upon the beginning of a path to slay the wrenching beast of prejudice, intolerance, bigotry. Selig equated racism and bigotry to a psychological disorder to be confronted and wrestled with -- not to be shunted in a closet and hidden."

My favorite line here: Rocker goes to therapy and then off to his hunting trip in Arkansas, where, presumably, his hunting colleagues will reinforce the values of acceptance of diffrence and a love of urban culture.

Here is a link to two Times articles from 2000.

Monday, October 01, 2007

as lucid as it gets

Join us for this event; rsvp to whlucid [at]

We do remember Bob Lucid and created a web page that conveys the feelings of Bob's students and colleagues.

At the October 19, in my remembrance, I think, I will trace the intellectual-pedagogical lineage that Bob followed and brought here to Penn. A fantastic concoction of non-academic (the radical-anarchist influence of his northwest childhood and his older brother Jack who fought in Spain) and academic (the influence of his experimentalist small-college liberal arts college days and the University of Chicago of Robert Maynard Hutchins). To me it is an important and not-quite-discerned legacy and needs spelling out (I only hope not boringly).

"I always found Bob to be graceful and gentle. I remember him hosting Ginsberg and Creeley at Penn 10 years ago and showing his pleasure at just having them talk about getting into various sorts of trouble. Creeley spoke about how he liked sitting in open air toilets, Ginsberg sang the communist anthem, and Bob just made it all come together. He then held the stage with Norman Mailer and had just as much fun getting into trouble there. I would pass him by on occasion and just enjoy the short moments in common. He was complete kindness."--Josh Schuster

Above: Bob Lucid and his wife Joanne (at right) and (left) my parents, Sam and Lois. Taken in 1999.