Thursday, April 30, 2009

poet missing

As of April 30, 2009, poet Craig Arnold is missing on a small volcanic island in Japan. He went for a solo hike to explore an active volcano on the island and never returned to the inn where he was staying. The authorities are currently on the final day of the search mission. If he is not found by today, the search will be called off.

The Poetry Foundation is following the situation closely.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

poetic sweep

Proudly, I pass along part of a note we received from Sandy Van Doren, a member of the Board of the West Chester University Poetry Center:

ALL FOUR IRIS SPENCER UNDERGRADUATE POETRY AWARDS, sponsored by the West Chester University Poetry Center, were won by University of Pennsylvania students! Congratulations, and wow! The biggest award is for the Iris Spencer formal poem, with a prize of $500.00. That is going to Molly O'Neill. The second award for a formal poem is being given to Frances Wright, with a prize of $250.00. The two haiku winners are David Doyle, for $300.00, and Victoria Lee. As you may remember all four students will be honoured at the international West Chester Poetry Conference on Wednesday, June 10, with a panel discussion at West Chester University's Sykes Union Theater from 3:00-4:00 and then are invited to attend the reception and banquet that follow. The keynote speaker that evening after the banquet will be poet, Donald Hall.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

many tweets in poets' recordings

Are you following PennSound's twittering yet? Give us a try.

poetry is like capris and hybirds

From an interview conducted with Katia Grubisic* for the Afterword:

What's the most exciting thing happening in poetry these days?

Poetry is not like capri pants, or hybrid cars. What’s exciting now in poetry is the same as what always has been—the spaces between words, the truthy concision, the astonishing leaps; listening to, and articulating, what Wallace Stevens called “the cry of the occasion.”

Well...another chance to quote Stevens. And this phrase is perhaps the one most often quoted, but she got it wrong: "The poem is the cry of its occasion."

What's more: capris and hybrids are the cries of their occasion!

*Katia Grubisic is a writer, editor and translator whose work has appeared in various Canadian and international publications.

Friday, April 24, 2009

"so masterfully exposes & explores..."

A new review [PDF] of Counter-Revolution of the Word is now appearing in Against the Current, written by Sarah Ehlers.

four's a pair

Gertrude Stein, "Readings" (1921)

Kisses can kiss us
A duck a hen and fishes, followed by wishes.
Happy little pair.

- - -

I adore this little poem. It's got a lot of Stein it it - and by that I suppose I mean that it's teachable in an introduction to Stein overall. Back in '99 or so I recorded a short improvised reading of the poem with Shawn Walker and have now converted it to mp3 and added it to the English 88 intro to modernism pages.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

novelist on KWH-TV

Novelist (and memoirist and short story writer) MARY GORDON will be visiting the Writers House here in Philadelphia as a Kelly Writers House Fellow - next Monday and Tuesday (April 27-28).

The Tuesday morning session - an informal interview & conversation, moderated by me - is an event in which you can participate. You can watch it live on KWH-TV. But, more, we encourage you to ask Mary Gordon questions by sending them by email. And we also encourage you to phone us with your questions--to talk directly to Ms. Gordon and me.

The Tuesday morning event will begin at precisely 10:30 AM eastern time.

To participate in the KWH-TV live Mary Gordon program, please RSVP to

- at which point we will send you simple instructions for connecting to the video and for posing questions.

Writers House Fellows are made possible by an ongoing generous grant from Paul Kelly.

- - -

Kelly Writers House Fellows:


* Robert Coover
* Joan Didion
* Mary Gordon


* Art Spiegelman
* Lynne Sharon Schwartz
* Jerome Rothenberg


* John McPhee
* Jamaica Kincaid
* Donald Hall


* Richard Ford
* Cythia Ozick
* Ian Frazier


* Roger Angell
* E.L. Doctorow
* Adrienne Rich
* Lyn Hejinian


* Russell Banks
* James Alan McPherson


* Walter Bernstein
* Laurie Anderson
* Susan Sontag


* Michael Cunningham
* John Ashbery
* Charles Fuller


* Tony Kushner
* David Sedaris
* June Jordan


* Grace Paley
* Robert Creeley
* John Edgar Wideman


* Gay Talese

what is today's beauty? - c. 1970

These are the opening lines of 'Quand le Grand Foyer Descend Dans les Eaux,' a section of Robert Duncan's anti-war Passages. In 1982 Duncan went to Buffalo to read poems mostly from the "Regulators" sequence of Passages, published in Ground Work II: In the Dark.

Duncan began with a nearly 18-minute preamble--a talk about the imagination, nationhood, Christendom and Dante's Divine Comedy, Ludwig Wittgenstein, being a "poet of the spirit", being a "Christian non-Christian," language mysticism, and prayer. He ended with what he called a "sermon" (21 minutes).

Someone at Buffalo had the presence of mind to record this event - and now the recording has been added to PennSound - and (thanks to the amazing Jenny Lesser) it's been segmented into individual portions and poems.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Jennifer Scappettone

We at PennSound are pleased to announce our newest author page: that of Jennifer Scappettone. Jen has been to the Writers House twice recently. Her page now includes a Segue/Bowery Poetry Club reading; both audio and video of a session she did at KWH with Lyn Hejinian, hosted by Rachel Levitsky; another session in which she read a series of her poems; and a conversation with me, done as a PennSound podcast.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


I'm pleased to see that a New York Times education blog, responding to a high-school senior's choice among Barnard, Tufts and Penn, mentions that a reason to choose Penn is the Kelly Writers House. Okay, then...

Saturday, April 18, 2009

"what a great face he had"

John Giannotti has recently completed a sculpture of Matthew Henson, the African American explorer who assisted Robert Peary in the first visit to the North Pole on April 6, 1909. The sculpture will be part of a new maritime museum built out of an old church (the church was original constructed of ballast stones from the days when Camden was a shipbuilding town and busy port). PBS-affiliated NJN ran a segment on John and the Henson sculpture yesterday and here it is as a video recording. The piece on John comes at around 13 minutes into the program.

Friday, April 17, 2009

sock it to him, sweet Tito

Lawrence Felinghetti's "Baseball Canto" sits in the (I'm imagining April) sun, early-season baseball, schmoozing with the left-field bleacher-bound grungy populace. And makes the presences of blacks and Chicanos on the S.F. Giants into a reason for associating the limitations of the Anglo-Saxon poetic tradition and Poundian modernism and American conformity (the latter imposed by Irish umpires). Its aesthetic and ideological oppositions are all hilariously confused. Does Larry F. know that the pitcher, although Caribbean and thus blessed, is not likely to hit a home run as his means of out-performing the white players? It's a mess but I love it all the same. Yes, that's Lawrence Felinghetti's Baseball Canto. (I also have made available a RealAudio recording of F. performing the poem.)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

start with Stevens

Meaghan O'Rourke began to write poetry after being assigned Wallace Stevens's "This Solitude of Cataracts" in a class. This fact came out in an interview with a student newspaper in north Texas where O'Rourke recently gave a reading.

Monday, April 13, 2009

believe you me

TV film: a young Jew helps his skinhead friends desecrate and try to destroy a synagogue. He doesn't protest when one of them urinates from the balcony, but some residual religiosity makes him urge the others to stop tossing around a Torah and put it back where they got it. He identifies with Hitler in part because the Nazis recognized the importance of the Jews.

It's The Believer.

Reviewed by Julie Salamon in 2002.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

which way are you going, Walt Whitman?

Michael Silverblatt's Bookworm radio show does a tribute to Walt Whitman. For details and a link to the audio: click here.

happy Passover from the NJ Turnpike

Saturday, April 11, 2009

widowhood = slapsticky humiliation

Joyce Carol Oates.

Have you thought about writing a memoir? I wanted to write a memoir about being a widow. It was going to be the opposite of Joan Didion. Hers is beautiful and elegiac. Mine would be filled with all sorts of slapstick, demeaning and humiliating things. Like trash cans whose bottoms are falling out.

Do you think widowhood is properly understood? I think that Didion took it on a very high plane, and she does have assistants and maybe a maid. But it’s actually a very hardscrabble experience. It’s not placid and tragic so much as it’s physically arduous.

From an interview conducted by Deborah Solomon.

perfers serial killer novels to poetry

A few days ago I wrote about what happened when NY City schools chancellor Harold Levy asked members of the School Board to read and discuss three poems by Wallace Stevens. Now I want to add one of the letters to the editor the Times published in response to their article about Levy's unusual move.

To the Editor:

Reacting to the possibility that Harold O. Levy, the interim schools chancellor, had put three Wallace Stevens poems and other interesting reading matter in her mailbox, Ninfa Segarra, a school board member, said, ''Probably if I had gotten it I would have thrown it out,'' and added: ''I'm not a poetry kind of person. I like serial killer novels'' (front page, May 2).

As New York City public school students face the start of an intense testing season and while the march toward more teacher testing continues, Ms. Segarra's close-minded remarks make one wonder whether school board members, too, should be subjected to academic testing.

New York, May 3, 2000
The writer was an English teacher.

the prof you know personally

A year ago (3/20/08) I wrote this:

In today's NYT "Thursday Styles" section the lead story, under a huge photo of a famous crusty TV law prof, is a story about "the professor as open book." Wow! News! Now students and others can discover their professors' red wine preferences, their favorite films, their social-networking profiles, "friend" them. Or not - or not - if the academic in question does not choose to put such stuff up, which is most often the case, even at this late date into the internet age. So what really is the story here? The key perhaps is where the story runs: the "Style" section, not the higher-ed page/half-page in the main first section. This story befits the My Space/You Tube/no-one-is-private-anymore craze and has nothing to do with academics or education or the professoriat per se.

"It is not necessary for a student studying multivariable calculus, medieval literature or Roman archaeology to know that the professor on the podium shoots pool, has donned a bunny costume or can’t get enough of Chaka Khan.

Yet professors of all ranks and disciplines are revealing such information on public, national platforms: blogs, Web pages, social networking sites, even campus television....

While many professors have rushed to meet the age of social networking, there are some who think it is symptomatic of an unfortunate trend, that a professor’s job today is not just to impart knowledge, but to be an entertainer."

Now ponder this last part. The professor's "job" seemed to be in part to create an aura of personal impenetrability and solitariness and remoteness only when, as it happens, the technologies of personal knowing were what they were. Now that they are what they are, the "job" seems to be changing. These things are not innate. And as for entertainment, it's the Times that's asserting this by putting the "story" on its Style page. There's nothing more or less entertaining about a teacher who is known as distinct from unknown. It all depends on the teaching.

Now some Facebook friends and I have discussed the matter further and here are some of their comments:

[] M.L.: The professor's "job" seemed to be in part to create an aura of personal impenetrability and solitariness and remoteness only when, as it happens, the technologies of personal knowing were what they were. Now that they are what they are, the "job" seems to be changing. / If you remove the word "personal," 2x above, isn't this the same argument for all learning these days? Do you think that job is actually changing?

[] B.R.: Unsurprisingly, while I wholeheartedly agree with your general sentiment, and while I think you are actually a fascinating case study of someone who's utterly webbed up (2.0, natch) yet almost never in the "bethou me" sense -- in fact the contrary: almost always in a pedagogical or at least intellectually engaged/evangelical sense -- unsurprisingly, I'm not sure that, for some people anyway, the personal sh!t isn't possessed of some potent magnetism. Prof as celebrity, as it were: that same bone gets tickled. / But then, OTOH, isn't the poetic (STS) fallacy of YouTube & Facebook & whatnot that we can all be like celebrities, and have our wine preferences and our bunny suit escapades broadcast for consumption? YouTube -- to paraphrase Amis, "'TV, innit?'" That's a sexy promise. I suspect that demurrals about "the job" are, in some cases, cloaks for its indulgence.

[] D.M.: Personal impenetrability, solitariness, and remoteness are part of the mix when someone has a title that makes them the smartest person in the room. If it makes you feel better, those three qualities are minor superpowers.

[] J.F.: In a public school setting, administrators would frown upon this kind of formalized personal contact between teachers and students. (I have former students as facebook friends, but no current students, no matter how close I might be to them in class.) But you're right -- artificial boundaries inhibit education. I have, on more than one occasion told my students, "You're smarter than me; I just have 35 years on you, that's all." And the longer I do this (10 years now) I realize the absolute value of personal connections with students.

[] K.A.: blah blah blah ...what page are we on!?

Friday, April 10, 2009

artists: we will pay much of your rent

Through our ArtsEdge residency program, we will give you a place to live and work - and will pay half your rent! Deadline for applications for the 2009-10 residency is April 15. Here is more info and contact info for applicants. Our 2008-09 ArtsEdge resident is playwright Greg Romero.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

digitizing reel-to-reel tapes

Will Creeley sent us this great note after hearing the newest PoemTalk about one of his father's poems:

I saw word of this latest episode via PennSound's excellent & useful Twitter feed, and figured it was a good opportunity to say thank you again to Al, Charles and everyone at PennSound & Kelly Writers House for taking in our big cardboard boxes and digitizing the reel-to-reel recordings inside with such care and precision.

Being relatively handy with capturing digital audio, I figured I could convert the reels myself with Dad's trusty old Sony reel-to-reel player. It was not to be: When I first plugged in the player and turned on the power, thick gray Hollywood-style smoke started escaping from the set! Dramatic and slapstick, but disappointing. Once the smoke cleared, I knew I needed help - and graciously, that's where you guys came in.

It's a real pleasure for me, Hannah, and our mother to know that Dad's recordings are where he would have wanted them to be: online! As his many e-mail correspondents knew well, Dad was thrilled by the possibilities presented by the internet's ability to facilitate access and discussion - the power of inclusion! - and podcasts like PoemTalk demonstrate exactly the reasons for his excitement. Thanks again.

-Will Creeley

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Creeley driving the car

We've just released the newest episode of PoemTalk. Click here for more.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

a New Zealander among us

Wystan Curnow, art critic and poet, spoke at the Writers House this evening on curating as a critical practice. The event was shown live on KWH-TV and is already available as a video recording. Wystan was born in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1939, and studied English and History at the University of Auckland, and took his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. Yes, Penn. So his two-week visit here is actually a return to his alma mater many many years later. This afternoon he joined me and Charles Bernstein and Bob Perelman to record a PoemTalk episode on a poem by Louis Zukofsky--which will be released in a few months. Then we all went downstairs for his very good talk on curating. Have a look.

Frank over here

Frank Sherlock read from his poetry recently at the Writers House. Here is a video recording. Frank is the author of Over Here (Factory School 2009) and the co-author of Ready-To-Eat Individual (Lavender Ink 2008), a collaborative work with the Poet Laureate of Dumaine Street, Brett Evans. A duet with CAConrad entitled The City Real & Imagined: Philadelphia Poems is forthcoming from Factory School in fall 2009.

Monday, April 06, 2009

theory-mongering and the holocaust

"An iron law of avant-garde art is that theorizing expands to fill a void of talent." And when the untalented theory-mongering avant-garde approaches the Holocaust, there's special trouble. According to George Will.

I'm talking about a George Will column in 2002: on exploiting the Holocaust intellectually.

Will surveyed Holocaust-related games and toys and avant-garde exhibits and academic theories. He associates this stuff with "the explosive growth of Holocaust studies [which] has turned that genocide into a 'wonderful, creative teaching opportunity.'" (So such wonderfulness and creativity is tragically ironic, such "growth" lamentable.)

In the end this piece becomes another excuse for skewering liberal, facile academia, for "what hope can there be for even minimal decency and understanding when today's intelligentsia is hospitable to trivializations of a huge tragedy?" Here's your link to the whole article.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

they shall know well the heavenly fellowship

Harold Levy was an interim chancellor of New York City's public school system at the end of Giuliani and the beginning of Bloomberg. Levy got his BA from Cornell at a time when people like Allan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind) and poet A. R. Ammons held forth - and Harold Bloom, too, for that matter (I think). Levy hung out in an intellectually vibrant circle that produced (not surprisingly, when you think of Bloom's potential influence) Paul Wolfowitz and other neo-conservatives. (Wolfowitz had grown up partly in Ithaca; his father was a professor of statistical theory at Cornell.) Somewhere along the line--from Ammons and maybe Harold Bloom--Harold Levy picked up an absolute love of Wallace Stevens. And, many years later, when he was appointed chancellor he told all the members of the New York City School Board that they would be convened to discuss three poems by Stevens (Levy now recalls that two of these were "The Emperor of Ice Cream" and "Sunday Morning") and would be given a violin lesson by Isaac Stern. Levy's role (he was a businessperson) was to bring efficiency to the system, but he also brought what might be deemd the opposite--a conviction that Board members should be conversant in the philosophical questions of the sort that one would hope kids in the schools would face if and when presented with probing teaching. On May 2, 2000, the New York Times covered this story and here's the whole article:

May 2, 2000

Schools Chief Plays Higgins To Unlikely Eliza, the Board

A few weeks ago, the seven members of the New York City Board of Education found something odd in their mailboxes: three Wallace Stevens poems, courtesy of Harold O. Levy, the interim schools chancellor. ''Poetry,'' he wrote in an attached memo, ''can give voice to the inner souls of people who lead seemingly mundane lives.''

Then came the news that Mr. Levy was planning a series of lectures, intended specifically for the enlightenment of the board members. The first, scheduled for tomorrow night, will be on cosmology. That is, the study of the universe.

And next week, Mr. Levy will gather the school system's 43 superintendents for a group violin lesson at Carnegie Hall, taught by none other than Isaac Stern.

What is going on here?

If the school system's top officials did not have enough to worry about, with Mr. Levy pushing them to be more efficient and accountable, now he wants them to think more, too. Music and poetry are among the more esoteric parts of his plan to raise the level of debate on education policy, he says. That means focusing less on administrative minutiae, and adding intellectual rigor to the often tedious board meetings.

''The notion is to change the areas of conversation,'' Mr. Levy said in an interview, ''so that we are squarely confronting some of the great philosophical questions of our day.''

To that end, Mr. Levy has enlisted his friend, Jonathan Levi -- a novelist, jazz violinist and founding editor of the literary journal Granta -- to be the resident intellectual at 110 Livingston Street.

Mr. Levi, whose official title is executive assistant to the chancellor, says that his duties include bringing board members, school officials and students ''into the secret society that is New York City's intellectual culture.''

Whether they will go willingly is another question. After all, the members of the Board of Education -- who are appointed by the mayor and the borough presidents -- are known more for their political allegiances than their intellectual pursuits. At least one has suggested that Mr. Levy stick to being a manager and let them choose their own enrichment activities.

''For the most part I'm ignoring it,'' said Ninfa Segarra, one of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's appointees to the board, referring to the clippings that Mr. Levy has been circulating from Scientific American, The New York Review of Books and other erudite journals. ''I guess he thinks we don't read on our own. But every single board member gets Education Week. Most of us are pretty well versed on the issues.''

Ms. Segarra said she had not decided whether to attend the lectures. And as for the poems, she said she had not received them.

''Probably if I had gotten it I would have thrown it out,'' she said. ''I'm not a poetry kind of person. I like serial killer novels.''

Other board members appeared appreciative, or at least tolerant, of what one wryly described as Mr. Levy's attempt to play Henry Higgins.

''There is a very fine line between sharing information and being viewed as arrogant,'' said William C. Thompson Jr., the board president. ''But I don't think Harold has fallen on the side of arrogant. I see this as Harold constantly thinking and sharing ideas he finds exciting.''

Jerry Cammarata, one of the three board members who fought Mr. Levy's appointment, said his attempt to spark intellectual discourse was appropriate because the board's primary responsibility should be to debate and create policies.

''I think 110 Livingston should be an intellectually enriching experience for anyone who walks through the doors,'' Mr. Cammarata said. ''We should be continually thirsting for information. If he thinks this stuff is relevant, it would be imprudent and disrespectful of us not to give it a shot.''

But whatever their reaction to Mr. Levy's recent efforts, the board members pointed out that they had been mulling ideas long before Mr. Levy's appointment in January.

''We're always swapping stuff around,'' said Terri Thomson, the Queens member. ''The more we can learn together, the better.''

So far, Ms. Thomson and five other board members have signed up to attend the cosmology lecture, at the Museum of Natural History. The speaker will be Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium, who will provide insights on how to teach such a complex subject. In addition to board members and administrators, Mr. Levy has invited several dozen of the city's science teachers. For the second lecture, Alan Brinkley, a history professor at Columbia, will discuss the civil rights movement.

''This is a chance for them to exercise their minds,'' Mr. Levi (his name is pronounced with a long i), the son of a philosophy professor at Columbia, said this week. ''We want them to be doing mental push-ups.''

For the district superintendents, Mr. Levy has already brought in speakers like Jonathan Kozol, who has written extensively on urban education, and Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based advocacy group for poor and minority students. And, of course, they have the violin lesson to look forward to.

Mr. Levi said he and his boss would not be foisting lectures and clippings on the board -- and violin lessons on the superintendents -- if they did not believe that their audience was already highly intelligent.

''Henry Higgins was assuming that his audience was unsophisticated,'' Mr. Levi said. ''We're assuming our audience is sophisticated enough to listen to lectures at the highest level, but that in the course of their normal days as educators, they don't get the opportunity.''

But Ms. Segarra pointed out that Mr. Levy, a Citigroup executive, was hired for his corporate expertise, not his intellectual vigor. She said he had not used his managerial skills as much as she had hoped, and that he should be focusing on the coming summer school program, which is to be the largest in the city's history.

''He has a very limited amount of time to do some very critical things,'' Ms. Segarra said.

But while the plan to create a literary salon of sorts at 110 Livingston Street might not seem to fit in with Mr. Levy's efforts to make the Board of Education more businesslike, Mr. Levi said that in fact, the two efforts fit together seamlessly.

''To run a business you need to find the best resources and apply them as efficiently as you can,'' he said. ''My job is to look at the issue of resources more broadly, in terms of the artistic and intellectual resources of New York City.''

Mr. Levy did not deride his predecessors, but said that, as career educators, most were focused on a handful of initiatives directly related to classroom instruction. Many of those initiatives were abandoned when the next chancellor came in, he said.

''I don't want to blow through here with an initiative or project that won't withstand the test of time,'' Mr. Levy said. ''What I want to do is have a public debate about the methodologies and what the true needs of the system are.''

But whether such a debate will lead to permanent change is as open a question as whether Mr. Levy will become the permanent chancellor after his temporary contract ends in July. Quite possibly, his friend Mr. Levi said, people are reacting enthusiastically to Mr. Levy's initiatives simply because they do not expect him to stick around.

''The chancellor's office is such a revolving door,'' he said, ''you never know whether people are genuinely interested or just nodding politely and waiting for you to depart.''

spring hint

The dogwood in the Writers House garden was starting to flower. A just-arrived Joan Didion at left, the amazing Jamie-Lee Josselyn at right. Thanks to Barbara Brody Avnet, who took the shot.

Friday, April 03, 2009

telephony is so retro it's cool

For his newest "Poetry off the Shelf" podcast, Curtis Fox interviews me about our new dial-a-poem service. Just dial (215) 746-POEM and press "3" to listen to today's poem. Have a listen. Here's the first announcement of the project.

student will explore eastern Sephardim

I'm pleased to announce that Emma Morgenstern has won the Terry B. Heled Travel & Research Grant at the Kelly Writers House. We received dozens of fine applications.

Emma (class of 2010) is majoring in Linguistics. She has been published in The Boston Globe Magazine and Penn's own F-Word. Emma is also founder and editor-in-chief of Penn Appetit, Penn's first-ever and only student-run and -written magazine of food writing. Emma has also participated in the Penn Reading Initiative at Huey Elementary School.

Enabled by this grant, Emma will travel to Greece and Turkey to research and conduct interviews with the Jews of Thessaloniki and Istanbul, to learn about their culture, customs and linguistic behavior. She hopes to learn how being the member of a religious and ethnic minority affects attitudes toward religious, ethnic, and linguistic heritage. She will present her writing next fall at the Writers House.

As a way of memorializing her mother, Terry B. Heled, and of honoring the students of her alma mater in gratitude for the encouragement her own research and writing received while she was at Penn, Mali Heled Kinberg (C'95) has created this endowed fund at the Kelly Writers House that, each summer, will enable a student to travel for the purpose of conducting the research that will lead to a significant writing project.

For more about the Heled Grant, see:

Thursday, April 02, 2009

modernist skin

Irene Gammel and I corresponded on and off during the time she was writing her fine biography of the Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven. It's the only fully/carefully researched book about the Baroness that's been published. Here is the blurb I wrote for it:

The Baroness cut the most compelling modernist figure. She literally wore New York dada, thus inventing it as a pattern of aesthetic costume to be worn so tight that it was her skin, her self. She was, as Irene Gammel puts it in this remarkable biographical study, an "assemblage of paradoxes embodied in one body." That the Baroness knew and inspired or inspiringly repelled nearly everyone associated with the rise of modernist practice in New York has been already part of the story, but it has never been so richly detailed. In Gammel's presentation the Baroness emerges as far more than an ingenue. She became a mature, self-conscious dynamic artistic force--and remarkably productive in her own right, not despite but because she exhausted herself up from the inside out.

My students and I study the Baroness briefly during "chapter 2" of my course on modern and contemporary American poetry. Scroll down to the last lesson on this page and see various links to Baroness materials.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

from Miami to magical thinking (not so far)

Both audio (mp3) and video (streaming) recordings of Joan Didion's two-day visit to the Kelly Writers House are now available, linked here: LINK. And a few photos are here (taken by John Carroll).

I spent a good measure of my time and energy, during our various discussions (several public, others informally), focusing on the continuity between her early writing and The Year of Magical Thinking which so many people say marks a big change. But grab your paperback copy of that recent elegaic memoir and look at the bottom of page 7 and top of 8. She begins there to say that the manner of her writing has always been--increasingly in fact--a matter of hiding "thoughts" (she doesn't say feeling but means that) behind an increasingly untransparent, impenetrable skein of words. In other words, she does with language what I and many others who enjoy modern (and experimental) writing have always admired: the significance is in the words and the manner means something, so don't think you must find the true feelings below in symbols of some truth under or beyond the language that is itself no more or less itself the truth of what is being said. In that prefatory passage Joan Didion seems to say that now--now that the trauma of loss has struck her--she wants to be less impenetrable, since she herself is her writing and she wants that self no longer to hide what's really true about her feelings. Yet that's just a prefatory expression of hope. If you read the book closely you'll see that she "fails" to do what I think is the cliche of writing about the death of a loved one--that is to say, she does not change--but rather she reaffirms--that being made in the writing. It's the writing and only the writing. Indeed it's the main lesson she learned from the love relationship with her writer husband. It's the writing. That's where one is. So in the end, the fact that Magical Thinking is no more "personal" in its writing than Miami is the most remarkable thing about the newest development of his great writer.

When (in '67 or so) Joan Didion wrote through her first major breakdown she described a rejection of the conventional American narrative mode (a mode that tried to prevent improvisation, for one thing), she charted a move from narrative to image, from "ethical" to "electrical," and her mantra was--it still is--the Poundian call for juxtaposition: petals on a wet black bough. If one reads The Year of Magical Thinking as a Poundian foray rather than a self-help manual for grieving, one won't have it quite right but will be close enough, and, I believe, will derive tremendous pleasure from the reading. Read or re-read the passage about the family photographs along her hallway and I think you'll see what I mean.