Sunday, July 27, 2008

academic blacklisting

Academic blacklisting, a creature of the McCarthy heyday, was still affecting some of the accused in 1960. That was the case with Chandler ("Chan") Davis, once on the University of Michigan faculty. Look on my 1960 blog for more.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Creeley tattoo

On this arm: the first stanza of Robert Creeley's "The Warning":

The Warning

For love – I would
split open your head and put
a candle in
behind the eyes.

Love is dead in us
if we forget
the virtues of an amulet
and quick surprise.

Click on the image for a larger view.

Thanks to Mike Van Helder.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

visiting WCW

Kaegan Sparks was passing by Paterson NJ on her way to Beacon NY, the latter a trendier destination, to be sure. But she saw the sign for Williams's beloved city and turned off the highway, found Passaic Falls (star of the epic poem of American place, Paterson) and snapped these shots.

Monday, July 21, 2008

per Göransson

Johannes Göransson's blog features a response to Charles Bernstein's review of my new book. He writes:

" important point here is that the historical avant-garde - dada, Surrealism etc - was deeply political and their reception was mostly seen in political terms. This is even true in my favorite area of study, the Finland Swedish Modernists, who were accused of being foreign/German instigators and Bolsheviks (even though Björling fought on the side of the anti-communist Whites during the Finnish Civil War)."

how truly "neat" could it be?

For the blockbuster special Esquire issue on the 1950s (June 1983), Frank Conroy contributed a piece called "America in a Trance." Here is a passage:

The Beats were just beginning, Kerouac, et al., and we greeted them with a certain amount of suspicion, convinced that art was not that easy. Our standards were rather high, I think. The New Critics had filled us with an almost religious awe of language. We read Leavis, Edmund Wilson, and Eliot as well, taking it all very seriously, worrying over every little point as if Truth and Beauty hung in the balance. The conservatism that colored so much of our experience did not evaporate when we dealt with literature. We defended literary art as if it were a castle under siege, in imminent danger of being destroyed by the vulgarians. In every college or university I knew anything about the most hated course was Social Science, as much a result of the incredibly rotten prose of the text as it was of our disinterest in things social.... We were neat, very neat, and sloppiness of any kind irritated us.

Most of this will strike readers of this blog as unremarkable since so many chroniclers of and generalizers about "the fifties" set alleged Beat easiness against the rigors demanded by New Criticism. And the New Critics' hatred of Social Science seems to have persuaded aspiring young literati to join the crusade against sociological (and social-psychological) interpretation. And yet, when one steps even further back, one sees that the most influential social science - epitomized by Daniel Bell's End of Ideology - formed a great political alliance with New Critical formalism. In the former case, we're talking about conservatives (of Ransom's and Tate's and Donald Davidson's stripe) coming on as centrists; in the latter case - that of sociologists like Bell (shown at right) - we're talking about left-liberals moving rightward to the post-ideological center. In that context (and perhaps only that context) Conroy's recollection of being pro-New Criticism and anti-Social Science seems odd, and only points up the passion (I would say it comes from an exhaustion with political interpretation) with which the young generationally-unselfconscious writers of that day embraced aesthetics. But--again--this embrace was a function of an urge to gain distance from the merge of aesthetics and politics that had gotten so many in an earlier self-conscious generation into trouble.

The result is the advocacy of "neat" and a distrust of "sloppy." Yet "neat" derived from victory after a very sloppy battle defending the castle against vulgarians. Think about how truly neat that could be.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Paterson on the road

For a while I've been reading the blog New Jersey as an Impossible Object written by Joe Milutis. William Carlos Williams' beloved Paterson becomes the basis for all kinds of interesting projects and thought. That very idea is enough to interest me, but there's always more of interest too. Joe's been on the road the past few months and he's been stopping at various places to speak with people about Paterson. He visited the Kelly Writers House a few weeks back where, in my third-floor office, Joe and Randall Couch and Jessica Lowenthal and I chatted about Paterson from every which way.

Now Joe has made a blog entry of this visit, and has organized sound recordings of parts of the conversation. Please go here and have a listen.

cold-war politics of poetic form

Charles Bernstein's review of my new book appears in the current issue of The Boston Review. Here's a link. And here's a paragraph from the middle of the essay:

One thing the anticommunist antimodernists had right was that the poetic form of radical modernism was political; Filreis calls this the “cold war politics of poetic form.” A 1953 article by Donald Davidson targets parataxis in poetry—the juxtaposition of two images or units of sense that lack any immediately apparent connection—for its “treacherous political irresponsibility in the act of eschewing relations of cause and effect while the related elements [are] left to stand in unordered, unsubordinated lists.” Just a few years earlier, Robert Hillyer, in the widely circulated Saturday Review of Literature, assailed modernism in poetry as an “illusion of independent thought” and a “propaganda” machine of “the powers of darkness.” Writing in the Bulletin of the Poetry Society of America, Hillyer accused modernists of “a cold conformity of intellectualism” that eliminated “diversity” and insisted on “a critical censorship, in its effects like that of the Kremlin.”

this is the end

Who is it that put Arthur Rimbaud and Jim Morrison together in a book? It will probably surprise you to know that its author took his academic degrees in the early 1930s. He was Wallace Fowlie, a serious popularizer of surrealism. For much more about Fowlie, take a look at my 1960 blog.

By the way, as many people know, The Doors took their name from an Aldous Huxley book called The Doors of Perception and that Huxley had taken his title from a line in William Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell": "If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite."

Wednesday, July 16, 2008



Tuesday, July 15, 2008

G-men lit crits

Over at the Poetry Foundation's "Harriet" blog, there have been several postings made by Mark Nowak about recent scholarship on Claudia Jones, a writer-activist who was hounded as a subversive by the FBI. To get a sense of these blog posts and of the many comments made about them, start here and look for links to the comments.

As I prepared to write a book on the anticommunist attack on modernism, I accumulated (slowly--very slowly--over time) FBI files on a number of writers, especially poets, and read others' that had already been released through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). I had already written about communists' interactions with modernists in the 1930s and was generally well versed in the impact of the CPUSA and most generally of communist culture (some would say "culture" in scare quotes) on American poetry and poetics. Perhaps foolishly (insofar as use of my time goes) I read thousands of pages of materials compiled during the Smith Act prosecutions of communist leaders (especially the so-called "Foley Square trials" that began in 1949.

I wrote a review-essay on a book about the Smith Act prosecutions and in the course of writing that review realized the crucial role that language and literary interpretation played in the strategy to which the Justice Department resorted in order to prove that communists "meant" something that was (under the Smith Act) illegal and thus could cause judge and/or jury to send these people to jail for acts they did not "yet" commit but which they "meant" when they wrote what they wrote.

Here is a portion of that essay:

...the distance between the subversive language of the depleted postwar [post-WWI] CPUSA and a future violent toppling of the American government was so great, the sign pointing so indirectly toward the signified, as to make the danger extremely unclear, indeed, largely absent. Lacking the external evidence that seemed required by the Schenck interpretation [a World War I-era radical speech case--the famous "fire in a theatre" case], the prosecutors, aides in the executive branch (guided by Truman and his attorney general), the FBI, the lower court, and eventually the high court succeeded in shifting the test from the relation between language and the world to the intention of the language itself--that is, from external evidence of a powerful state imminently endangered by subversive language to internal evidence offered in a text which "meant" future illegal action. The government was ready to devalue clear and present danger in order to place great emphasis on the most impressionistic aspect of Holmes's 1919 writing: the First Amendment, Holmes had written, "does not even protect a man from injunction against uttering words that may have all the effects of force." One easily perceives instability in the relation of utterances to effects of force, let alone the susceptibility of the idea of intentionality to abuse. When Harold Medina instructed the jury that "words may be the instruments by which crimes are committed" as Steinberg quotes him (Steinberg has performed the heroic task of reading the entire million-plus-word transcript of the trial), the judge was making sure the jury understood that it was their duty to interpret intention. He was "instructing" them to read the texts of subversion thus: punishable advocacy was that which would incite illegal action "by language reasonably and ordinarily calculated to do so."

Thursday, July 10, 2008

fun with Nazis

Before Hogan's Heroes started up its run of several years airing weekly on a TV network, a pre-debut radio ad for the show was heard widely - and quoted in Newsweek:

Question: "What are some of the amusing ingredients?" Answer: "German police dogs, machine guns, the Gestapo… shall we say, ‘If you liked World War II, you’ll love Hogan’s Heroes’"

The second voice was that of Bob Crane, the actor who played Hogan.

(The Newsweek piece was called "Fun with the Nazis.")

See more.

carefully written legislation

Below is an excerpt from the texts of the Communist Control Act of 1954. Note that membership in the Communist party could be discerned from the accused person's having knowledge of the purpose of the evil organization. Juries were instructed by this act (it established guidelines as to what was criminal behavior) not to limit themselves to evidence such as a current membership card. Here we go:

"In determining membership or participation in the Communist party of in any other organization defined in this act, or knowledge of the purpose or objective of such party or organization, the jury, under instructions from the court, shall consider evidence, if presented, as to whether the accused person...

... 8. Has written, spoken, or in any other way communicated by signal, semaphore, sign, or in any other form of communication, orders, directives, or plans of the organization...

12. Has indicated by word, action, conduct, writing, or in any other way a willingness to carry out in any manner and to any degree the plans, designs, objectives, or purposes of the organization;

13. Has in any other way participated in the activities, planning, actions, objectives, or purposes of the organization."

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

no ideas but in bling

Nada Gordon joined a conversation some of us were having yesterday in New York about the spare late poem of Wallace Stevens, "Not Ideas about the Thing But the Thing Itself." Nada, a proud flarfist, feels that poetry should include (rather than exclude) and would seem to love the fecund, richly imaginative Stevens of poems like the florid, overwritten "Comedian as the Letter C." But "Not Ideas" is sparse, thin, scrawny, barely there. In it, nonetheless, Nada finds here a beckoning to the (faded, past, almost gone) richness of the imagination. The poem's call for thing-only objectivity is not (at it were) real. Nada has written about all this on her blog today. She has also rewritten the poem and that seems to express perfectly well her overall response to it:

Not Ideas About the Bling But the Bling Itself

At the earliest antinomian disaster,
On Mars, a prawn-y guy from outside
Seemed like he had blown his mind.

He knew that he blown it,
A dry curd, under a fluorescent light,
In the early harsh of mellow.

The sun wore purple underwear,
No longer a buttered ganache above dandruff...
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast vacuum cleaner
Of creepy jaded poetics conferences...
The sun was wearing purple underwear inside out.

That brawny gay--It was
A chorine whose c preceded the bleach.
It was part of the giant lox,

Surrounded by its collar rings,
Still barbarous. It was like
A new knowledge of reality shows.

Monday, July 07, 2008

lost in the woods of pages

I love this old photograph of Rae Armantrout. Presumably she is reading her own poems from a temporarily bound typescript. To me she seems lost in the pages.

She recalls being read to her mother as a child, and in a poem called "The Way" brilliant reproduces the effect of that special kind of abandonment: the child, sent into story, follows Gretel-like into the pages' wood (Ron Silliman believes the mention of "paper" in "The Way" is a forest made of pages), gets horrifyingly lost, only to come into a clearing once again.

The 8th episode of PoemTalk is being released today. I gathered the abovementioned Ron Silliamn and also Charles Bernstein and Rachel Blau DuPlessis to talk with me about "The Way" for about 25 minutes. Here is your link; have a look and listen and please let me know (afilreis [at] gmail [dot] com) what you think.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

kinetic? not on your life

How does a poet in 1960 turn this momentous modernist gesture of 1912 into an opportunity for standing below the staircase to peekaboo upward? Click here to find out.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

"Are we stupider?" is a stupid question

There's been much talk about Nicholas Carr's Atlantic essay bemoaning the demise, in the internet age, of deep reading (“Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” Atlantic, July/August 2008, pp. 56-63). Carr's answer is that Google is indeed making us stupid and, to be perfectly frank, I think the question is itself rather stupid. First off, "us"? Second: "stupid"? Reading habits are changing, just as they always have been changing; it's just that they are changing more rapidly than usual. I'd guess that the emergent ubiquity of the daily newspaper in the 18th century probably changed urbanite reading habits as quickly as they've changed in the 1996-2008 period in which the web has become a major source of words to be read. And I'm not sure anyone will ever be able to speak very specifically about wide reading as distinct from deep reading as a positive or negative value. The traditional notion is that deep reading is of greater value than wide. But I've never felt that way. Moreover, when we're moving fast we are wide readers pretending (e.g. in class, at cocktail parties, at the office on a Monday morning) to be deep readers.

One sane response to Carr is at the blog called PolEconAnalysis: here. Disclosure: I found this because GoogleAlerts signalled to me that this blog response mentions me.

Responding to the above, Murat Nemet-Nejat wrote: In my view, the real value of reading occurs in re-reading. The speed at which things occur in the web, the intense flow of time constructs in the web represent -for instance, the way entries of "yesterday" gain a secondary place in a blog, replaced by the entry of "today"- make re-reading very difficult. When Thoreau says that one does not have to travel the world, that examining one's own place is the greatest of travels, he is also referring to the experience of re-reading, the loss of which can be nothing but a melancholy experience.

To which I casually wrote: You're certainly right about re-reading. I think re-reading prose in particular has gone or is going out the window. Fortunately certain forms have the experience of re-reading inhering in them (or seemingly) - poetry being one. I might be unusual in that I do in fact re-read a lot of things that fly past me digitally. I save them, put them somewhere (bookmark, saving-as, etc.) where I can find them again. I take advantage of the new portability. But again I take your point. I like your second point even better - yesterday's blog entry becomes secondary. But but but...web searches produce old blog entries and bypass that hiearchizing within any one blog. Make sense?

Then Murat again: Particularly in its manifestation in blogs, but even more generally, in its incredible ability to produce, to replicate, the internet makes the passage of time very concrete. By definition, reading/re-reading is a meditative activity, involving a slowing of the time process, in Spicer's terms, going against its grain. Here is the dilemma, for me, in the contradictory nature of the internet, both its intense allure, its power, and the peril involved in this fatal seduction. I do not mean by this that one can or one should wish to undo this historical change, as if not more profound than the industrial revolution; only that one must -particularly us as poets- develop a more complex relationship to it.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Cuban gays and Wallace

Eric Keenaghan published a very good essay on the Cuban “Origenes” group whose leading figure was Jose Lezama Lima. It’s called “Wallace Stevens’ influence on the construction of gay masculinity by the Cuban Origenese group” (published in the Wallace Stevens Journal a few years back).

Stevens befriended (by mail) the Cuban poet-editor Jose Rodriguez Feo, and they exchanged affection – at certain points one would almost say loving – letters for many years starting in 1944. When Beverly Coyle and I set about to edit the entire correspondence (both sides, not just Stevens’s letters) we decided – back in those Reagan-era cold war days – to meet Rodriguez Feo if we could. The State Department would not approve visas for a visit to Cuba. I had located Jose (“Pepe,” he wanted us to call him) in Havana and we exchanged letters for several years; finally, somewhat suddenly, Pepe got approval to travel to New York, where he spent about 5 days visiting old friends, going openly to gay bars in the Village. The latter especially was a huge treat for him, since he had not been to New York since (I think) 1949. We met with him in a borrowed downtown apartment for two or three long sessions of interviews and talks. We hit it off. He gave me a copy of a book by Stevens that the poet had inscribed for his Cuban friend, Transport to Summer. And one evening we all went to a bar on Christopher Street.

What emerged from our meetings with Pepe and our work on the letters was published in ’86 by Duke University Press, Secretaries of the Moon.

I’m pleased that Eric Keenaghan begins his essay with this sentence: “Publication of Alan Filreis and Beverly Coyle’s Secretaries of the Moon, the collected correspondence of Wallace Stevens and Cuban translator and editor Jose Rodriguez Feo, opened new possibilities for the study of North-South relations in modernism.” Three other studies made use of the letters in Secretaries: chapter 5 of my own book, Stevens and the Actual World; an essay by Roberto Ignacio Diaz; an essay on the queer dynamics of the letters by David Jarraway. I in my book and Ignacio Diaz in his essay focus on Stevens’s encouragement of the Cuban’s primitivism as an imperialistic gesture.

For Jarraway, by the way, the letters are a way of understanding why Mark Doty thinks Stevens’s writing is a model for what Keenaghan calls “a contemporary poetics of queer androgeny.” That’s not as much a stretch as it would seem.

Above: Jose Lezama Lima