Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Minimum Rock'n'Roll (Requirement)

A question that any reasonably obsessed music fan has presumably asked themselves about their own personal store of knowledge: "What do you do with all that crap?" (It's a particularly thorny question when your livelihood will depend, as ours will, on absorbing and doing something with a large load of other, marginally more culturally respectable crap.) Yet lately I get a strong sense that pop trivia is moving definitively away from silly life-encumbrance (as in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity) to a genuinely valuable, completely legitimate form of highbrow cultural capital. That is, knowledge of pop music, past and present (but especially past), works for people today the way knowledge of art, literature and politics customarily has: as a means of distinction and generator of standards and values. Which means it can also, not incidentally, make material for (other) art. I have two particular recent examples in mind: Todd Haynes' movie I'm Not There and Tom Stoppard's play Rock 'n' Roll.

Dylanology is perhaps the most highly developed symptom of this trend, so it makes sense that Haynes' film "about" "Dylan" is one of the best examples of what I'm talking about. As you all probably know already, in I'm Not There six different actors portray aspects of the main character, a risky Bunuelian move that comes off in large part thanks to the amazing wealth of sources and references Haynes has to work with. So what in lesser hands might have been just another patina of mythology on Dylan's already heavily lacquered bust becomes, under Haynes' direction, a meditation on lore itself, on the propensity of any person — but especially celebrities — to generate their own personal information-cloud, which can be just as much an obstacle to interpretation as an aid. Sometimes I think I like people like Dylan less for their music than for the simple fact that there's so much stuff out there about them: music, films, books, bootlegs, record reviews, scholarly articles, anecdotes, cultural detritus of all kinds. Judging by I'm Not There, I'd say Todd Haynes feels the same way.

And of course, where there's detritus, there's discourse: Dylan is a perfect subject for a movie like this not just because of his "greatness" — or his protean Americanness or something impressive-sounding like that — but because of the fact that there's already been so much talk about him, so there needs to be further talk to organize the talk that's already occurred, to figure out what's worth preserving, to make distinctions and counterarguments. If you're recognizing an "academic disposition" in Haynes' film or its reception, it's because this is one way cultural legitimation is accomplished: by transforming a given figure, or genre, or form, from a mass of empirical data and consumption statistics into a "field." And where there are fields, there are experts.

What's interesting about Tom Stoppard's new play Rock'n'Roll — which spans the period from 1968 to 1990 — is that it not only recognizes but narrates this same transformation, which is arguably only now coming into its own. The historical background of the play is the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and ensuing twenty-two year occupation, paralleled with the family saga of a British Communist academic (based loosely, maybe, on Eric Hobsbawm). The title is, in a way, ironic: though several of the play's characters care passionately about rock'n'roll (especially Jan, the émigré Czech graduate student and sometime dissident who travels back and forth between his homeland and the Cambridge home of Max, his mentor) it is, in a world-historical sense, the least important part of the era depicted. (As usual with Stoppard, there are various big ideas and issues floating all over the place: censorship and political repression in the Eastern Bloc, the decline of British Socialism, the irresolvability of mind/body dualism, problems of translation in Sappho — you know, like that.)

But rock 'n' roll — and, maybe more importantly, intimate knowledge of rock 'n' roll — continues to assert a powerful presence all throughout the evening, never quite being bested by the more legitimate areas of erudition on display. The rock-besotted Jan — who, it should be stated, also has quite cogent intellectual and political views — is by far the most sympathetic character, and the moments when he reacts with joy to some new record or fact about a British or American rock group are some of the most real-feeling emotional moments in the play. In fact, after a while you start to wonder about Stoppard's own feelings on the matter: would he recognize a hierarchy of value that sees political philosophy and Greek poetry as more consequential than the Rolling Stones? In Stoppard's play, everyone considers it utterly ridiculous that Jan would gauge the cultural health of his nation, and even make important life decisions, based on something as trivial as music (consider his rationale for not accepting an academic post in Frankfurt: "You know… German rock bands.") But today, that same narrow aesthetic fixation appears as prescient, not only because Czech rock turned out to play a catalytic role in the 1989 "Velvet Revolution," but because a knowledge of late 60s progressive rock is, in all kinds of contexts, more effectual than a knowledge of Soviet Communism, or politics at all for that matter: more relevant and "usable" for our lives today. Thus a theatregoer who misses the finer points of Marxist theory and dissident realpolitik in Rock 'n' Roll might not feel so bad, as long as they're able to appreciate the ramifications of the perfectly-judged references to the Beach Boys and Syd Barrett; they might even feel that they ended up on the right side after all. I mean, Soviet Communism (a regime and ideology begun ninety and extinguished almost twenty years ago, that maybe was never effective or tenable or even worth attempting in the first place)? Czechoslovakia (a country that doesn't even exist any more, in a unified form)? What do you do with all that crap?

Monday, December 17, 2007

A useful distinction

From Tom Lutz's book Cosmopolitian Vistas
"Instead of falling for what Fredrick Jameson called the 'false problem of value,' critics are now required either to disavow evaluative literary judgments or to cop to their own place of elite privilege, their own exclusionary biases. To engage in discriminations about literary value, even to declare, for instance, that Henry James is a better novelist than Zane Grey or Thomas Dixon, is simply 'leisure-class gossip,' and such 'debaucheries of judiciousness,' as Northrop Fry called them almost fifty years ago, are theoretically considered more appropriate at cocktail parties than in professional discourse. But I am going to argue that literary critics continue to make such discriminations and that the prime literary values that provided the ground for 19th century regionalism are very similar to those that are implicitly agreed on today across not only much of the academy but by the larger literary public--that public against which academics now find themselves pitted..."

"What we share is what I will call literary cosmopolitanism: briefly, an ethos of representational inclusiveness, of the widest possible affiliation, and concurrently one of aesthetic discrimination and therefore exclusivity. At the same time that it embraces the entire world, in other words, literary cosmopolitanism necessitates an evaluative stance, and it is this doubleness, this combination of egalitarianism and elitism, that has animated American literature since the Civil War. Literary cosmopolitanism is a way to describe literary taste and at the same time suggest that literary distinction and discrimination over the last 150 years has always been political, not just in the trivial sense in which all discourse is political or because of literature's class parameters, but precisely because, as I will explain, it has been tied so closely to an ethos of textual density and overdetermination."

Thought it was a nice coda to Evan's post and also interesting...What Lutz goes on to argue later is that the classic American Literary Text is always cosmopolitan and thus, "committed to representing the political issues of its day and committed to neutrality in relation to them". Even if the author's nonfiction is partisan, their 'canonical' works usually have an air of neutrality, meaning they aren't super didactic or allow a 'cosmopolitan vista' to exist with a stance with some room to breath.

Lutz argues his approach differs from New Critics in that for him and what he sees in the canon at large, a classic text achieves its 'ambiguous complexity' not from removing itself from the world of social and political reality as the New Critics argue, but by thoroughly immersing itself in that world.

"The 'bloody crossroads' was Lionel Trilling's nickname for the intersection of politics and aesthetics in literary culture: I want to suggest that instead of violence we have a kind of meld, that our politics, the politics for which we in academia have been pilloried of late even more than for our excesses of theoretical elaboration--and our aesthetics--which we have been discussing primarily as historical artifacts--together stem from the same cosmopolitan ethos. And this ethos of literary cosmopolitanism provides a common ground that unites the many disparate, warring factions of what continues to be a literary community--that group of readers whose work or leisure involves the reading of literary texts."

Friday, December 14, 2007

Koch Is It

An excellent, heartfelt tribute to Kenneth Koch from Ange Mlinko at Harriet.

Guest Star!

I hope she doesn't mind my doing this, but I'm going to go ahead and post the illustrious Sonya Posmentier's long and fascinating reply to my earlier writing on Gwendolyn Brooks (and to Evan's back-in-the-day comments about Claude McKay) as its own post, since I don't want it to get buried in the responses from November. I'll have something to say in reply, to this and to the comments on my original analysis, and I'd like to keep these discussions of race and form on the table. Take it away SP:

"Okay, so I’m going to take Greg’s bait and reply to Evan’s earlier post about Claude McKay. As I understood it, Evan had two questions: one about McKay’s status as “modern” and the other having to do with McKay’s apparent nostalgia for Jamaica, his bitterness toward American racism but not the effects of British colonialism. I’ve been reading Michael North’s The Dialect of Modernism, which offers a certain argument at least in response to the first question, but hopefully I can go beyond that. Greg has also already suggested much of what I want to say… first by pointing (through Goldsby’s reading of Brooks) to modern “uses” of form (important since McKay’s formalism is certainly the characteristic that most often labels him as Romantic or un-modern, and he often gets lumped with Countee Cullen in this regard), and second, by suggesting that if lynching is a modern phenomenon, so too are artistic expressions of/responses to that violence. What I see Greg starting to say is not that the subject of lynching alone would constitute “modern” poetry (more on that in a minute), but that McKay’s formal treatment of it might.

Michael North in The Dialect of Modernism notes that defenders of McKay’s modernism often pointed to his “racial” subject matter, as if the “racial” is inherently modern, regardless of style/formal strategy. North demonstrates how McKay must resist “the indiscriminate association of race and modernism,” because of the bind that modernist primitivism puts black writers in. According to North, “there is no real conflict between the defiant subject matter and the conventional form of McKay’s American poems , as is so often supposed” because the form itself is defiant (toward modernism’s “naturalizing” of blacks as “primitive”) (115). This would seem to underscore Evan’s sense that McKay is not so modern—it would seem to suggest that, in fact he can’t be. But North argues, quite convincingly, that in the course of McKay’s career he challenges the various dichotomies that place him in this trap in the first place. North’s focus is onMcKay’s history with dialect—from his first two books, written in Jamaican dialect with the encouragement of his English mentor Walter Jekyll, through the “American poems” written in standard English traditional forms, through the expatriate novels. Because white writers (including Eliot and Pound) use black dialect simultaneously to claim a rebellious aesthetic freedom, and to reinscribe dehumanizing cultural stereotypes of “the black”--that is, to delineate their own propriety—dialect and standard English are already implicated in one another. The tools that make white writers modern (including dialect, free verse), McKay fears, would make him “primitive.” However, having begun his poetic career writing in Jamaican dialect (more on this later), McKay is always in dialogue with dialect. Thus, to North what makes McKay modern is his thematization of this very problem, his bringing “to the surface the subterranean connections between dialect and the standard.” McKay is like Eliot and Pound and other expatriate modernists in his “realization of the malleability of language in general, and of the arbitrariness and relativity of particular languages” (123).

I’m pretty much convinced by North’s argument (although I’m not sure I’ve done it justice here), but he achieves it, finally, by recourse to the novels, which raises my hackles. North ultimately depicts poetry as a dead end for McKay, the bind I’ve tried to describe above, inescapable. While it’s true that McKay more or less stops writing poetry once he leaves America, I think North gives the sonnets short shrift. First of all, while I see the importance of challenging the equation between “racial” subject matter and modernity, the “racial” quality of McKay’s American lyrics takes many forms—not only the nostalgia of “Tropics in New York” (the one “American” poem North discusses in depth) but also, as Greg has already begun to suggest, the rage of the radical protest poems—“If We Must Die,” “The White House,” “The Lynching,” etc. A critic I read a long, long time ago (and thus, embarrassingly, can’t remember who it is), describes McKay’s couplets as enacting the “lynching.”

And little lads, lynchers that were to be,
Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.

McKay forces together the suspended existence (of lynchers and lynched alike.) and “glee” in these two lines. The description of the corpse as a “dreadful thing” underscores the dehumanizing, indeed deadening, effects of this coupling (an end formally charged with the eros of the “thronging” women). The sonnet form—to me at least—starts to seem complicit in the dance (at least partially the effect of the circularity of the rhyme scheme in the quatrains). I could say a lot more about this, but this post is too long, so…. If McKay is using the sonnet to resist the reductive primitivism of white modernism, I think he’s also using the sonnet to resist the sonnet.

Which brings me, finally, to Evan’s second question, about McKay’s attitude toward Jamaica. Evan, I think you’re right that a lot of the poems in Harlem Shadows seem purely nostalgic toward Jamaica. One simple response re: McKay’s attitude toward colonialism is that there’s a LOT more bitterness/ambivalence in the Jamaican poems. North does a great reading of “Quashie to Buccra” (the first poem in “Jamaican Songs”) that captures both its potential for resistance and its ultimate capitulation to “nostalgic romanticism” (and herein, perhaps, lies the relationship BETWEEN the question of McKay’s modernism and the question of his relationship to colonialism). But another point I’d make (and I said something like this in my presentation for Jeremy’s class) is that McKay’s use of the sonnet (an English form) in “Harlem Shadows” inevitably defines a triangular relationship between American racism, British colonialism, and the black subject (a triangle further outlined by the treatment of commodity/trade in “Tropics of New York.”) The form “penned” (“If We Must Die”) McKay’s speakers in—at once giving them expression and binding them. Is it possible that to use that form against itself is not only to “fight back” in the context of American racism, but also to engage in an anti-colonial struggle (people like Fanon and Derek Walcott would pick up on this kind of practice later, though many, like Kamau Brathwaite, would suggest that this is a losing battle as long as McKay was writing in pentameter)? I’m not sure what I think about this, but I think at the very least it’s a question we need to consider in the case of a double-expatriate Black Jamaican writer (with a British passport) writing sonnets in the 1920s…."

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

I knew most of these, but


Top 10 Bizarre Literary Deaths


Sunday, December 9, 2007

Some Versions of Subversion

Re: the subversion question, here's a choice little nugget from Carl Wilson's new Céline Dion book, which I've been treating myself to this weekend:

"Even in the ostensibly more serious realm of academia, notably Cultural Studies, the idea of 'resistant' reading — that audiences make self-empowering, anti-establishment reinterpretations of mainstream culture — can be merely a reverse justification of personal taste. An academic who likes Kelly Clarkson will find cause to claim she offers more recoupably resistant material than Britney Spears. It may be that, as Bourdieu believed, aesthetics are mostly a disguise for political relationships. But to then use politics as a further disguise for your aesthetics is to build a hall of mirrors." (126)

This is a pithier way of saying what I was trying to say about Gavin Jones' book in our dissertation seminar and on the blog: that the exact political terms we use to criticize or defend artworks (e.g., "subversive," "radical") tend to get smuggled in for rhetorical reasons rather than strictly political ones, and are perhaps closer to subjective aesthetic valuations than we want to admit. Seen this way, Jones' predicament seems like an all-too-common one: he likes dialect literature, or at least thinks it's interesting enough to write a book about; dialect literature has a bad name because an earlier generation of leftist critics have convincingly attacked it; so the only way to claim it again is to say yes, there was some hegemony going on, but some of the dialect literature (the "better" examples?) resisted it. All this does is weaken the original political point ("well, the hegemony must not have been all that totalizing if so many literary texts were able to resist or subvert it"), devalue the work of individuals who actually are working for radical change of some kind, and set you a difficult artificial problem which will often involve bringing anachronistic criteria to bear on a text you respond to for other reasons. But why wouldn't it be interesting to write a book about dialect literature that made no apologies for its repressive political effects, but considered them alongside other elements that make the texts interesting to you? By arguing a priori that what you happen to like is "subversive," you've taken your aesthetic tastes and put them into a "political disguise" in a way roughly coeval with how repressive political doctrines don an "aesthetic disguise" in the bad cases of ideology and hegemony we're talking about.

This does not mean we shouldn't be talking about politics at all, or should be treating art as an autonomous zone of values, or what have you. That really is reactionary, really does throw out the twentieth-century critical baby with the bathwater, and leads ultimately to a very sterile kind of formalism. The important point is this: if you think that society exerts a dominating, hegemonic influence on the products of culture — and certainly it's not outlandish, or radical, or "academic" to think so — you do not necessarily owe an account of your favorite artworks' resistance to that hegemony. "Since power is a dynamic that permeates even the most microscopic interactions," Wilson rightly says, "you can find submission or resistance in any cultural figure or artifact if you look; but it can be misleading to do so selectively, and break pop culture down into quiescent versus subversive blocs" (126-127). The not-breaking-down part is crucial, to my mind. If we're serious about the notion that politics has very important effects on all literary works, then we shouldn't valorize the works that subvert or rebel against political domination, still less those that secretly subvert or rebel (because then the credit redounds to us as critics for illuminating the subversion in the text — a subversion now at two removes from the hypothesized political situation). To do so may even reveal a latent desire for the political character of art to be neutralized, as if once we've established that the work we like takes the right position — the anti-hegemonic position — then its general aesthetic character is safeguarded, "it checks out," and we can enjoy it, guilt- and politics-free, at last.

(For another, no doubt clearer formulation of this distinction I'm trying to preserve, see Raymond Williams on the "rebel," the "subject" and the "servant" in his 1961 essay "Individuals and Societies," about which I realize I've already mouthed off here.)

Monday, December 3, 2007

Another good name from Graff: "Charles Hall Grandgent" (125).

Better late than never

Stephen Burt drops science.

Update: And politics!

Practical question

Hey guys. I'm wondering what, in a perfect world, your preferred day of reading is like, what the ratio of primary literature to theory to non-theoretical criticism would be. I'm reading kind of a lot of critical writing at the moment — an occupational hazard if you're writing a thesis on poet-critics, I guess — and I'm a bit worried about getting burnt out. I feel as though the argument-assessment part of my brain is getting hypertrophied while the aesthetic-assessment part starts to wither.

Anyway, thoughts welcome.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Ardent spirits

Currently reading: Professing Literature by Gerald Graff, which traces the formation of English as an academic discipline in America from 1828 til 1965, with particular attention to the way it absorbed the contradictory approaches of German philology and Arnoldian humanism. I'm reading it for general historical background for the poet-critics project, but it's surprisingly entertaining in places. To wit:

Students took revenge on [the] oppressive system through practical jokes and, occasionally, more serious forms of violence. Ernest Earnest states that "the history of every college before the Civil War is filled with accounts of riot, violence and disorder" … The faculty minutes at North Carolina during the years before 1868 recorded "disciplinary action taken in cases of misconduct, intoxication from drinking 'ardent spirits,' fights, raising hell in the buildings, shooting off fire arms, riding horses around the grounds in the middle of the night, and so on. There are a few widely scattered cases arising from rows in bawdy houses outside the village, where apparently also, spirits could be drunk." Lyman Bagg of Yale '69, in one of the most revealing (and entertaining) memoirs of college life in the nineteenth century, described standard tricks that "prevail at other colleges," such as "locking an instructor in his recitation room or dormitory, throwing water upon him, stealing his clothes or other property, upsetting his chair in recitation or tripping him up outside, writing or printing derisive or scurrilous remarks in regard to him, and so on." (25)

I think we can trust the word of Ernest Earnest. Don't know about that Lyman Bagg, though.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

My new favorite website

Fashion ads from Ebony Magazine, 1970 - '76


Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I am a film cricket

I know the last thing anybody needs right now is more writing from me, but my first published film review (of Godard's La Chinoise) is now up on Notcoming.com.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Liberal Aesthetics

[Hi all — I found this draft of an essay in an old notebook from last year, typed it up, and am wondering now how I feel about it. Basically it's about why I feel uncomfortable with the usual liberal defenses of art in general, and "morally objectionable" (or "amoral") art in particular, and how I think we need better ways of defining the relationship between art and morality (not that I have any positive proposals on that score myself). If anyone feels like wading through it at any point I'd appreciate your thoughts. I'm not really thinking about publishing it or anything, it's more like a working-through-thoughts sort of a piece.]


Definition of Terms

By "liberals" here I mean a set of people whose subsets include: (a) people with liberal political views, (b) people who attended “liberal arts colleges” or have aesthetic and ideological dispositions represented by same (which includes many of the faculty and graduate students in the humanities at big research institutions with all kinds of political affiliations), and (c) people who do much of the work of appreciating and encouraging aesthetic culture on its own terms, who are interested in whatever the arts present us with to be interested in, and thus have a liberal attitude toward the field of art itself. Of course not everyone in the set meets every one of the qualifications listed above, but for the purposes of my argument here two out of three — or even a particularly strongly held version of any one — are good enough. (I should also maybe point out that I consider myself covered by all three.)

I take it that a main tenet of the “liberal” attitude toward art is that we should treat art-works as we would treat people: with tolerance, faith, respect, etc. (Both approaches, which were developed in the nineteenth century and refined in the twentieth, are responses to increasing cultural diversity, in the interpersonal and in the aesthetic spheres simultaneously.) In practice, this means that we allow art-works to represent people in ways we disagree with — ways we would not treat people or would not like to be treated.

For the liberal, then, we have a kind of moral responsibility toward art-works, but those works have no moral responsibility themselves: what they depict can be the worst of human behavior, or be unrecognizable as human behavior, and still be great art. Examples of this abound: books by the Marquis de Sade or Vladimir Nabokov, films by Pier Paolo Pasolini, paintings by Kara Walker, songs by Notorious B.I.G. or 50 Cent.

So, we treat art-objects as we would treat people insofar as we respect them, protect them, attempt to understand them on their own terms, and believe they have some value in themselves which is not merely the human use we want to put them to. But we treat them differently in not holding them morally responsible — not because they contain no moral content or have no moral agency (as is the case with a non-artistic object like a cup or a stapler) but because the moral contet is not strictly traceable back to a human subject. If Picasso were to say, “I hate women,” we could hold him morally responsible; if his art says it, or seems to imply it, we could still take offense, but to denounce it on those grounds alone — or even to argue with it — we would be accused of “missing the point.” Or speaking the wrong language.

Excursus on Entertainment

Entertainment is a little different, because it is assumed to have a more direct relation to sociology, and to “the culture.” Thus, if a Hollywood movie contains what seems to be a racist idea, we not only feel no compunction about saying so and objecting, but we treat it like an empirical datum in a larger investigation: one more piece of evidence that our society is (or can be) deeply racist. When we do this we are not treating the entertainment-object like a person in one way (i.e. we don’t respect its intelligence enough to seek a more complicated explanation of its utterances than “it’s a product of its culture”) — but we are treating it very much like a person in another, by holding it morally responsible.

A puzzle arises here: art, which is largely assumed to be of importance for its humanistic value, is in important ways less available to human understanding than so-called “entertainment,” which in being aesthetically debased, commercially compromised and thus subhuman(istic), becomes the true reservoir for human values and emotions.

It’s good that we allow ourselves to get angry at the television: but bad that, in the productions of mass entertainment culture, there’s no one specific individual subject to hold morally responsible. Who exactly are we angry at, when an idea we don’t like appears in a movie? The actor who says the line? The writer? The director? The audience, who tacitly accepts it, especially if they laugh or cheer? The distributor? All of these people share in a mass moral failing: which means, every moral failure in a piece of mass entertainment has the character of a conspiracy, or a systemic injustice. I had this feeling watching the scene in Saving Private Ryan in which Jeremy Davies’ previously pacifistic character finally shoots and kills a Nazi, for example, upon which the audience cheered. I felt disgusted, but I wasn’t sure who to be angry at — Spielberg? Davies? The audience? WWII? This is the sort of moral omnidirectionality that deranges activists and revolutionaries, turning them into paranoiacs; it's what makes cynics and nihilists (and certain types of art-lovers). It's also the play-form of our liberal sense of helplessness to many gross injustices and social problems even in the "real world."

Context-Expansion and Moral Conversation

The easy way out of this problem of assigning moral responsibility is to shift our contempt towards “the culture,” whatever that culture may be in any given case. It’s as if we were saying “the thing that really bothers me about this racist idea is not that it was expressed (that it exists) in the mind of an individual fellow human, but that it was found acceptable, both by the artists that produced it and the audiences that responded to it.”

Problems with this reaction:

1. It assumes that we have knowledge of the multiplicity of “cultural” responses — whether articulated or not — to a given moral lapse. Just because a statement or action has been allowed to pass does not mean that it has been “accepted.” This is exactly where the accounts of sociology can help, in showing how response to statements are determined by a variety of facts.

2. It lets the moral actor(s) off the hook, in ways that both deepen their crime (by making it symptomatic of a widespread societal sickness) and trivialize it (by taking it out of their hands and finding the true meaning of the action in a framework for which neither he nor anyone else can be held morally responsible). This is a signal problem with the logic of political correctness: as a moral reproof, it’s fairly light, since it basically amounts to saying: “You are using words that, in a context larger than the one you have in mind, are offensive.” This move of expansion of context is also a hallmark of deconstruction, and has roots in Freudian discourse I think.) But it’s also unusually enraging, both because it can be seen as condescending (“you don’t know enough to know what you’re saying”) and because it’s essentially unanswerable (except if you deny that any such larger context exists, i.e. that anyone could conceivably be offended). Most moral reproofs admit of objections on their own terms (???) but accusations of political incorrectness rarely do.)

For moral conversation, we need to conceive that both parties are sensible of the meaning and likely repercussions of their statements and actions, or at least that the meaning of one’s statement can be redescribed by the other with a minimum of context-expansion. But the corollary to this is that we cannot dismiss the other’s points by supplying a context — most often a “cultural context” — which explains or excuses them in ways the other would object to. (How do we know if they object? We ask them.) This is the rhetorical move common to liberals and conservatives, continental and analytic philosophers, etc.: filling in the story to help make sense of what seems like an unreasonable (or sometimes, too reasonable) point of view.

This “filling in the story” is also what we do with entertainment — fairly, I think. It’s a coping mechanism that helps us filter the extraordinary amount of media material we receive daily: we fit it into fixed ideas we have about “our culture.” But we act a little differently towards art. Perhaps because there is so much less of it in our lives (a situation that is entirely deliberate — most people intentionally limit their encounters with art, and this is by no means a bad thing), our concern is not to place it in the story of ordinary culture but to hold it apart — at first, at least. (The art-historicizing impulse, if it occurs, should kick in later, once the object has been humanly appreciated.) We want to see what this, just this, will tell us about our lives (I might add “just our lives”). We open it up not to a story about “culture” but a story about “life” (and yes, they’re really the same thing; but not in our minds they’re not).

This leads naturally to the auteur theory/glorification of the author in the liberal arts: for if experience of art is first and foremost a “human” (not a “cultural”) encounter, then we need a person on the other end. And understanding about ourselves will be a function of understanding about her or him. No such reciprocity is needed for the experience of entertainment (or popular culture, which I might redefine here as “art understood culturally”). (Of course, one could change one’s relationship to a work of entertainment simply by looking into it a little more deeply. This is what the Cahiers du Cinèma crowd did with Western directors like John Ford, for instance; and in doing so they made movies which perhaps were interesting to intellectuals (such as Adorno) for what they revealed about American cultural codes into works of art which were interesting for what they revealed about John Ford, and his artistic decisions. They changed the viewing of these films from a form of surveillance into a form of conversation.)

A conversation has a moral basis: we speak expecting to be evaluated, and listen expecting to evaluate. But it also, necessarily, suspends evaluation: I’m going to wait to judge what you say until I’ve given you the chance to explain it to me (or I’ve had the chance to explain it myself). Capital-A Art is like this kind of conversation in that we imagine it to be an encounter with another person who gets the benefit of the doubt; but it is unlike it in that we will happily suspend moral evaluation forever, as we will not in interpersonal situations. We respect the piece of art (or, if you like, the artist) enough to let it speak, and to give it time to justify itself; but we are satisfied (perhaps even more satisfied) if the justification never comes. Hence the contemporary approbation for art that is undecidable, ambiguous, that can be “read” and approved more than one way — and the ensuing tendency to theorize that all art is like this.

The Humanities and Disciplinary Non-Reciprocity

What is still more symptomatic is the attendant rush to judgment on the entire context that surrounds the art: as if art were necessarily a mystery, but the apparatus of culture were plainly transparent. This if, of course, an abuse of techniques and theories developed by sociology and Marxism to explain cultural phenomena which once seemed baffling and unexplainable (e.g. alienation, reification, reproduction of the social order, false consciousness, etc.) but which now have the worthy obviousness of academic clichés. But it’s an amazingly widespread and firmly entrenched abuse: to the point that anyone who wants to care about art, and to hold it apart from what might be term more generally “entertainment,” almost has to insist on this transcendental quality of art to escape theory; and on the capability of theory to explain literally everything else.

This may be part of what is isolating the Humanities, and English in particular, from other academic, and especially scientific, discourses: its eagerness to steal concepts from all over the disciplinary map to frame its discussion of what is ostensibly its subject (literature), coupled with an extraordinary resistance to allowing that subject to be reappropriated “reductively” by other disciplines to their own ends. (Exhibit A: English professors’ frequent hostility to the sociology of literature, and to moral philosophers who make use of literary examples, like Richard Rorty and Martha Nussbaum.) In this way, the academic literary establishment is now more insular and quasi-religious than ever: it will absorb and scrutinize every datum the world throws up, while refusing scrutiny on other people’s terms.

Conversations with Conservatives

Such scrutiny might look like this: What is art good for? How does it benefit society? Do the assumptions that lie behind it make sense any more? Is it really worth devoting your life to? These are questions we as liberals are quite right to ask about the church or some particular political or social institution, but they now seem to us retrograde and unhelpful, even idiotic or philistine, when applied to art and literature. But they are, in fact, the very questions that will be asked, and answered, by conservatives who'd like to replace the kinds of "daring" or "avant-garde" art many liberals enjoy with something more morally responsible, and we are inclined to think, aesthetically debased.

There's a larger ideological issue here: have we, as liberals, since the sixties, invested more in people as they are (i.e. identity politics) and literature as it is (i.e. as it appeared as an institution in the postwar period) than in human possibility, or the possibilities of the human endeavor called literature? Ironically, perhaps, “progressive” politicians for the past twenty to thirty years have been more focused on safeguarding current freedoms (freedom of expression, the right to privacy, Roe v. Wade, affirmative action) than on advancing the liberal agenda any further. This is why the liberals sometimes appear today as the conservatives must have in the sixties: fearful, reactionary, pessimistic, unwilling to trust in the possibilities of the future.

And the liberal relation to art since that period shows some of the same tendencies: a burgeoning “avant-garde classicism” (comforting, in that it reiterates that sixties-era countercultural values are still a motivating force in art), a hardcore commitment to auteurism (in the form of ever more expansive and fulsome appreciations of “true artists,” retrospectives, etc.), and an accompanying skepticism toward all schools and movements trying to advance new aesthetics, which are all too often labeled "reactionary" or simply "retro." Presiding over it all is a sense that it’s not quite clear what art as a social practice is for — the inevitable outcome of a philosophy that strenuously maintains that it can be "anything" — but that it should nonetheless definitely be protected, at all costs.

This liberal attitude — of insisting on protecting what you refuse to define — is both sensible and kind of odd, if you think about it; and it must be particularly odd-sounding to people (let’s call them, paradoxically, conservatives) who find the overwhelming majority of this so-called art that is to be protected completely unpleasurable. And much of it, not to put too fine a point on it, immoral. Furthermore, how frustrating must it be, if you're a conservative who takes issue with a particular art-work, that not only don't liberal art-lovers share your feeling that this given piece of art is objectionable, but that they don’t even admit that morality comes into it — that art even can be considered objectionable? That these liberals will immediately launch into a defense of free speech, or condescend to you, or ridicule your response as unsophisticated? If they’re feeling particularly philosophical, they might explain that they just don’t see art in those terms — that, for them, art is valuable as an expression of human imagination (or maybe of the principled rage of the underclass) and, as ugly or repellent as it might initially seem, we art-lovers have a duty (they might not say “duty”) to try to understand it and see what it can tell us. To which you, if you’re feeling provocative, might ask: Well, why treat art this way and not people? Why spend a lot of time and energy trying to resolve why the word “CUNT” scrawled on a canvas is justifiable when you won’t look into my words (viz., that I find that canvas offensive) long enough to form a more coherent account than “he’s not used to it” or “she doesn’t understand”? Why does art get the benefit of the doubt and not audiences?

I would argue that we as liberals need to have a good answer to these questions — or a few good answers. We can’t just argue that they’re irrelevant. In trying to protect the aesthetic from the theoretical pressures of moral or political ideology, we risk perpetuating a more insidious ideology of practice. We need to find a way to defend art as art — that is, as a common human behavior fundamentally different from other kinds of human behavior, and learnable on its own terms — without recourse to any transcendental, uncriticizable category.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

"although the pattern prevailed,/ The breaks were everywhere"

Here is Gwendolyn Brooks's stunning short poem "The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till":


Emmett's mother is a pretty-faced thing;
the tint of pulled taffy.
She sits in a red room,
drinking black coffee.
She kisses her killed boy.
And she is sorry.
Chaos in windy grays
through a red prairie.

For Diana Fuss's class on the elegy, I've (we've) just been reading the final chapter in Jacqueline Goldsby's A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature, in which Goldsby closes with a deft reading of how Brooks's lyric acts in relation to the "modernization of the black press" around the coverage of Till's murder case in 1955, with the attendant shift from a predominantly literary/journalistic regime of protest to a coverage that gained wider support through visual media. Goldsby writes, "If, for the romantics, the emergence of mass-produced print technologies threatened poetry's hegemony as the arbiter of critical judgment, in Brooks's day visual apparatuses like photography and television (and, particularly, the novel channels of the photo-essay and live broadcast) instituted a comparable change worth worrying about" (299).

"The Last Quatrain", then, aims "to scale [Till's mother, Mamie] Bradley's hypervisibility
as a photographic subject down to a less iconic, more human form," marking "a time zone where there are no cameras, no reporters, no rallies, no trials, no open caskets, no graves" (300-301). Toward the end of her argument, Goldsby writes of Brooks's thick, painterly abstraction: "The haunting force of Emmett Till's absence from a poem meant to memorialize his death leaves its trace on the text in another way as well, referring (as its 'colored' words do) to the history of modernism and the literary movement of imagism. Red, black and gray: William Carlos Williams's 'The Red Wheelbarrow,' Ezra Pound's 'In a Station of the Metro,' and Wallace Stevens's 'The Gray Room' come promptly to mind when reading 'Last Quatrain.' Why?" (305). Goldsby goes on to define the peculiar applicability of imagist practice for a poem on Till's murder, but I don't want to reproduce her entire argument, fine as it is.

I'm wondering about the cost of reading Brooks's poem as one that tropes post-imagist concision, and how this description of her form relates to the formal modernity (or not) of earlier poets like Claude McKay (hi S.P., I'm writing this almost exclusively as bait for your commentary btw). Goldsby's focus, among Brooks's body of work, is exclusively on this often anthologized poem, though she notes that she lacks the space to address the poem that proceeds it in 1960's The Bean Eaters, "A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon". [You can find the poem here, though in a version that screws up the lineation.] Goldsby admits that the two poems "ought to be analyzed together as the diptych they are meant to be" (note 33, pg 401); so I'd like tentatively to begin to do just that, as well as to speculate why, even in the service of Goldsby's stated goal of describing Brooks's relation to visual culture, the critical isolation of "Last Quatrain" poses some difficulties for her interpretation.

"A Bronzeville Mother
Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon" is a longer and a messier poem, and that is partly its point -- beginning with that unwieldy title. As the title displays in miniature, the poem interrogates the possibilities of that "Meanwhile" (the simultaneity that allows us to imagine communication, specifically between mothers, across the crime) as well as what "Meanwhile" holds apart or in parallel (the simultaneity which is the basis for recognizing a common subjection within a larger system defined by the normalization of racial/sexual violence). "A Bronzeville Mother..." also describes the preparation of an inedible, abject meal (burnt bacon, "a sickness heaved within her", etc.) to which "Last Quatrain" is an ironic taffy-and-coffee dessert. "Last Quatrain"'s digestif has, itself, been abjected from the longer narrative of "A Bronzeville Mother...", which ends with an imagination of impossible touch and eros, a cross-cut to the "decapitated" ballad, and perhaps a passing reference (in the word "Bigger", capitalized at the line's start) to Richard Wright's Native Son:

But a hatred for him burst into glorious flower,
And its perfume enclasped them - big,
Bigger than all magnolias.

The last bleak news of the ballad.
The rest of the rugged music.
The last quatrain.

The 'plot' of "A Bronzeville Mother..." follows a woman who (given the poem's placement before the "Last Quatrain") we can presume to be Carolyn Bryant, the white woman who accused Emmett Till of his fatal breach of Southern 'decorum,' though neither she nor Till is named here. In Brooks's poem, this "Mississippi Mother" is consumed by the myths of chivalry which are thrust upon her, the "'maid mild'/of the ballad", and which she herself consumes but increasingly cannot swallow. The poem begins:

From the first it had been like a
Ballad. It had the beat inevitable. It had the blood.
A wildness cut up, and tied in little bunches,
Like the four-line stanzas of the ballads she had never quite
Understood - the ballads they had set her to, in school.

Right at the start, the ballad's form itself becomes a euphemism for the binding, torture, and murder of Till -- a form that simultaneously infantalizes the Mother who is here introduced as unable to 'learn her lesson'. In the heroic terms of the ballad, however, her "dark villian" is too young, too reminiscent of her own tussling children whom she is attempting to feed. "The fun was disturbed, then all but nullified" as her knight in shining armor - an agent of bloody infanticide - reveals himself, in acts of sexual aggression, as the true perpetrator of a terrifying leer (rather than the "sexual threat" supposedly posed by Till). The seven page poem testifies to the Mother's growing wordlessness in the face of her husbands "mouth, wet and red,/ So very, very, very red", a color that obviously seeps into "The Last Quatrain". Her husband morphs from Southern gentleman to male vampire, with a possible allusion in these small words "wet" and "red" to the corpse in Ivor Gurney's WWI elegy, "To His Love" ("hide that red, wet thing/ I must somehow forget"). There is also, of course, a pun on "read" that signals the "meddling headlines" that her husband abhors, and that proliferate the slashing visibility/audibility of his hateful, red perspective (metonymically his mouth) to a mass audience (even as the press, for one of the first times in American history, weighed in favor of the black victim). Nevertheless, while his wife is sickened by her husband and by the "courtroom coca-cola," she retains a trace of desire for such nectar, and while sad that the killing wasn't properly "fun" she thereby admits that it could/should have been (the fun was "all but nullified").

What is most disturbing to me about Brooks's "Last Quatrain" is that the signs of "fun" and sweetness have been amplified rather than muted or thrown up. I think this actually furthers Goldsby's reading of the poem, but it does require us to question, in particular, the intimacy of address that she reads too quickly as the site of the poem's enunciation. "Privy to the primacy of this act [of kissing her killed boy], the speaker claims the right to address Bradley using terms of endearment and the diminutive," writes Goldsby, "The colloquialisms indicate the intensity of their bond, which the content and form of the poem allow. Precisely because they are precious turns of phrase, the references counter the perception that figured Bradley to be knowable only as a picture, an image-object detachable from herself" (301-2). Here the "speaker" is tacitly assumed to be Brooks, or at least an empathetic subject whose proximity poses no threat. I would note, however, the ambiguity of the "intensity" that Goldsby rightly points out.

As I've used the term "abjection" a few times now, it may be clear that I'm taking it straight from Kristeva's Powers of Horror, which begins by establishing the concept in a scene of "loathing an item of food." Nevertheless, disgust is proven to be founded on a subject-violating libidinal "want" and, according to Kristeva, "jouissance alone causes the abject to exist as such." While "Bronzeville Mother" saturates us in nauseous scenes of food rotting, being misprepared, or being thrown around (one white child's face is smeared brown with molasses) (all of which, btw, might recall Langston Hughes's pivotal articulation of race memory in terms of food abjection: the "raisin in the sun"), the "Last Quatrain" is candy-coated and, precisely in its imagist bite-sized-ness, eminently edible. Edible, that is, not just by us as readers, but by us as imaginary readers who have been prefigured by the "Mississippi Mother." To say that Emmett's mother is "sorry" is both to allow a space for her unvarnished, moving statement of private grief (Goldsby's point); and yet -- in a disturbing possibility unavailable without the context of what has come before it -- "sorry" also cannot help but connote an apology for the white woman's self-indictment upon seeing, in the courtroom of a prior verse, the "Decapitated exclamation points in that Other Woman's eyes." As such, one could argue that, far from "counter[ing] the perception that figured Bradley to be knowable only as a picture, an image-object detachable from herself", Brooks heightens and even theorizes Mother Till's powerlessness.

Here I find it useful to turn to an article by Sianne Ngai, published in 2005 in Critical Inquiry, entitled "The Cuteness of the Avant Garde." Briefly: Ngai's current project is to examine "comparatively novel" aesthetic categories (in relation to old chestnuts like "the sublime" or "the beautiful") including "cute, glamorous, whimisical, luscious, cozy, or wacky" which, by dint of "the close link between their emergence and the rise of consumer aesthetics...seem all the more suited for the analysis of art's increasingly complex relation to market society in the twentieth century" (that is, a market society that has multiplied and specialized its vocabulary of taste in order to facilitate the "industrialization of modernist aesthetics") (812). As Ngai traces its definitions and uses, "cuteness" comes to describe "the aestheticization of the small, vulnerable, and helpless" which almost inevitably "find[s] its prominence checked in the culture industry of a nation so invested in images of its own bigness, virility, health, and strength" (819) and which is particularly courted by (and a potential source of embarrassment for) the imagist/objectivist /small-concrete-everyday-things tradition of the 20th century avant-garde.

With cuteness's characteristic exaggeration of features (e.g. huge eyes), its anthropomorphization of the commodity, its suggestion of softness, maleability, and smallness, "'cuteness' names an aesthetic encounter with an exaggerated difference in power that," however, "does something to ordinary or communicative speech" (think of how the baby elicits baby-talk from adults) (Ngai 828). This strikes me as useful in discussing Brooks's short poem, because it allows it to be diminished without depriving it of a capacity for retaliating against the discursive impositions of the long, preceding poem about a white mother. Goldsby needs for "pretty-faced" to equal intimate affection and Jahan Ramazani, in Poetry of Mourning, bizarrely describes "pretty-faced" as "colloquial black speech" (172), i.e. as a marker of authenticity. But there is no getting around the condescension of these words; and indeed there is no need to get around it or to cover-over the power imbalance that Brooks stages in introducing the grieving mother in such a way. As Ngai writes of Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons, "her interest is in how artworks might be driven by positive affects without necessarily becoming affirmative" (829, her italics). [See note 51 in Goldsby for a query on the relationship between Stein's aesthetics and Brooks's.] "The Last Quatrain" is not meant, or is not able given the historical circumstances, to be a nuanced or intimate portrait of Till, who is rather hyper-simplified and abstracted as we are given "just enough face to enable [her] to return our gaze" (Ngai 833, her italics). The Mississippi Mother in the earlier poem describes Emmett's "mouth too young to have lost every reminder of its infant softness." In "Last Quatrain" that softness returns with a vengeance.

In the actual scene of the awful crime against Emmett Till - which Goldsby reminds us can never be seen, can only form an aporia in the archive - we must recall that there were men who ignored his youth - men who did not allow his "infant softness" to take affective hold. Or, on the other hand, as Ngai implies, since infantilization is itself the "always already" of a racist perspective, it may be that these men were able to see nothing but youth and feel nothing but its affective disordering of their "power." "A Brownsville Mother..." asks, as a extreme limit case, what it would mean for Carolyn Bryant to come to identify with either Till's mother or, more uncomfortably, the murdered boy himself (or even with the institution of slavery in total). She imagines "The fear/ tying her as with iron." "Last Quatrain" asks the same question, but it does so by allowing us to identify with her, or to dis-identify, rather than by narrating the subjectivizing vicissitudes of that identification. To call out a pun as blunt as the primary colors on Brooks's palette: the room and the prairie are "read" by us, and thus potentially (made) "red" by us as well. Adam Gussow, in Seems Like Murder Here: Southern Violence and the Blues Tradition, describes the central paradox of an intraracial encounter with the lynched body: "Lynching haunts black southern blues subjects because they are helpless not to identify with the charred, mutilated horror-producing black body it generates, and yet they are unmade as subjects - because claimed by the abject - the moment they feel such identification" (130). In parallel with this formulation, I wonder if we might say that a poem such as Brooks's "The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till" requires an expression of cuteness, tweeness, etc. in order to critique the "grown-up" blindness at the foundation of the crime, while also recognizing that to inhabit this cuteness is to abandon, to some degree, the very agency necessary to undermine the power imbalances implicit in that perspective.

Goldsby argues convincingly that lynching constitutes a signal feature of American modernity, and that to call lynching "modern" forces us, as Paul Gilroy notes, to look "more deeply into the relationship of racial terror and subordination to the inner character of modernity" (qtd by Goldsby, 286). At heart, I think I'm asking questions of form here, and how this might help to clarify a question Evan posed way back in the thick of generals about the seemingly un-modern style of Claude McKay's sonnets. I know I'm being most opaque about the connection between this poem and, for instance, McKay's sonnet "The Lynching." But, anyway, maybe I've gone on for long enough.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

From the "Fuck That Guy" Department

"A regionalist is one who picked out a region (such as the abdomen fundament or elbow [)] and has a pain [in] it."
— Robert Frost, from The Notebooks of Robert Frost (quoted here)

Monday, November 12, 2007

Someone's getting greedy

Someone's started another blog. The second entry, "With Title" will explain why (if not how he expects to keep up with an extra project).

Also, Sianne Ngai is pretty rad, and more on cuteness and twee soon...

Pluralism, Period

A rhetorical tic I dislike: pluralizing abstract nouns ("pluralisms," "racisms," "sovereignties," etc.) without explanation, presumably to indicate a wider, less essentialized, more empirically verifiable version of a normally fuzzy concept. But of course in practice this makes the words vaguer and less verifiable — with the singular form you at least have a dictionary or a glossary of terms to refer to, but with the plural we have no recourse but to actually ask the author: "OK, exactly which 'pluralisms' are you thinking of?" In which case, why not just list all the relevant examples in the first place (at least in a footnote), and while you're at it attach them to a proper name.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Carl Wilson shows love for Bourdieu.

Update: And the middle-class suburban novel (hi, Adrienne!)

I may actually have something substantial to say about some of this at some point.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

"Hide that red wet / Thing"

Color photography from WWI. Not retouched or colored in, so far as I can tell.

Senegalese and other French-African colonial soldiers:

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Double Trouble

…numbers and gender. If you have time, take a look at the series of articles by Juliana Spahr, Stepanie Young and Jennifer Ashton in the Chicago Review this month, focusing on the representation of women in "experimental/postmodern/avant-garde/innovative" poetry (available online here). It's a very interesting exchange, and very in the line of the kinds of conversations we were having about anthologies and the politics of representation in Jeremy's class.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

An excellent exercise in literary guilt:


Office Politics

I've been watching The Office on DVD a lot lately — "binging," as Emily lovingly puts it. (It's occurred to me that, in these amorphous post-generals times, I might be indulging some weird fantasy about having a regular job again. If so, please remember to slap some sense into me the next time you see me.) It took me a long time to get into the American series, because I was so attached to the original British show, but it finally wore me down, and I've come to appreciate it on its own terms.

And as with anything that gives me real pleasure, I feel neurotically compelled to theorize a little bit about it. Here's a trial balloon: The British Office is to the American Office as Franz Kafka is to Erving Goffman. That is, the focus shifts from the mindnumbing banality and oppression inflicted on innocent office workers by idiotic superiors (Ricky Gervais' David Brent and Steve Carell's Michael Scott, respectively) to the coping mechanisms that the office workers use to live with that banality: pranks, office romances, small but significant expressions of community. All of which are an important element of the British version, but they're close to being the whole point of the American one.

Also, the characters' attitude toward the cameras is entirely different: in the British show they seem like something everyone (except for David) is subjected to, somewhat unwillingly; in the American one they're playfully acknowledged, even directly involved in the action (as when the camera operator directs Pam's attention to intrigue going on between Dwight and Angela). The impulse in the American Office is always toward inclusion, socialization, communal ritual (however unwelcome) above personal anomie: closeness at any cost.

To me this says a lot about the American attitude towards work, circa early 21st century: specifically, that it ought to be above all a lifestyle, and a socius. (This is an idea held by David Brent in the British show too, but there it's obviously a PC fiction, something everybody but him can plainly see; whereas the American show agrees with Michael that an office should be a community, but just thinks he goes about fostering it all wrong.) There are so many American TV shows about work, and about high-pressure jobs in particular (all doctor shows, all lawyer shows, The West Wing, 3o Rock, etc. etc.), where this vision of job-as-community is even easier to see; in fact, one thing that's refreshing and appealing about The Office is it's almost unique in being about a low-pressure job. Everything about the show is low-stakes, modest, unassuming: but rather than being experienced as degraded and humiliating, the mundanity of the office is exactly what gives pleasure, or allows the possibility of it.

(Just for the sake of probity, I am now issuing a spoiler alert.) The British Office ends with David Brent becoming a (minor) celebrity, in a literalization of the mock-documentary format of the show as a whole. Though this scarcely works out better for him than being a regional manager, it does read, in context, as a necessary dramaturgical move away from the temporary situation of the office, which Merchant and Gervais evidently considered exhausted after just twelve episodes. It's hard to imagine the American version allowing itself this way out, both because it's in the nature of American television shows to keep their premises humming indefinitely, and because, ultimately, the American office doesn't seem like such a bad place to be. (This difference also, if you think about it, reverses some of the standard commonplaces about American "escapism" and celebrity obsession.)

Not sure what valuation to put on this: Stockholm Syndrome or simple realism? Stanley Cavell said "the fact of television" is an acknowledgment of "the uninhabitability of the world," and one might say that the British Office works by extending this terrible fact to the workplace, the American Office by using the workplace to ward it off. But then again we do all have to work, somehow, don't we, and get along with each other in the process? Either way there seems to be something (not uniquely, but distinctively) American about the show's Weltanschaaung. Probably Elizabeth Bishop — who hardly worked a day in her life — said it best: "All the untidy activity continues, / Awful but cheerful."

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Scared Straight

William Empson to Charles Madge, upon receipt of (in Madge's words) a "long and probably half-baked and undigested manuscript about Chaucer, Spenser, and Milton":

"The shape of the book I think is bloody insolent. The idea that one must write very esoteric stuff because nobody will read [it] anyway seems to me nonsense — you get plenty of readers if you give anybody a chance. Surely even a communist can have a reasonable amount of democratic feeling; the point about writing as plainly as you can is that you are testing your ideas against somebody who is not a specialist and just knows about life in general. Really subjective writing seems to me nasty to touch, gluey on the outside like David Gascoyne. I feel I have some right to be rude about this because [I am] so much open to the same faults. You had much better imagine before you write anything that England has long been a settled communist state, and that the only difficulties before you are (a) making the comrades hear what you want to say (b) convincing them you are not talking nonsense; assuming the future to have arrived is a piece of symbolism quite in your manner; you will find it works much better both as making you write better and making people buy your books. Actual chapters of quotation without confessing what you quote for, actual articles in quotation without confessing who they are quoted from, all that kind of thing, is merely indulging yourself in madness without the excuse of being mad. Of course there isn't much money in the kind of criticism we write anyway; but the kind of thing one needs in the way of sales and success, enough recognition and criticism to go on doing one's stuff without the insanity of isolation, you can get in presentday [1936] England at once, but only if you don't pretend to be mad. You must expect me to take you seriously if you left the MS to ask my view of it, and I advise you very heartily not to publish this as it stands. Better make it several books and put in a great deal of your political opinions; I don't see that you lose anything by putting them in, it will make the thing far more human, and you may become sufficiently interested to find the main things you wanted to say. I myself generally find what I was trying to talk about while I am re-writing so as to try to be intelligible …

"I smack this out in a state of moderate beer assuming that you are not appallingly sensitive. The difficult thing would be to say it tactfully, but I don't believe you are as neurotic as your piece of writing. As to a public, of course there is a real muddle; the recent events have kept on showing a public opinion I find I agree with, its muddle is my own, and
I feel I can write decent (of course unselling) books with a notion that it is part of the country that provides the language. A man who doesn't feel that at all has of course a different situation, and I should have thought the straight way out was to bring in the politics firm and clear … Anyway, just as a point of theory, literary symbolism demands a public for symbolism; by all means imagine a public, and as a matter of fact you will imagine a real one; but those who write for no public are ever unconscious of their asylum.

"Love to you and Kathleen

"Bill Empson

Monday, October 29, 2007

A Worldly Country

By John Ashbery:

Not the smoothness, not the insane clocks on the square,
the scent of manure in the municipal parterre,
not the fabrics, the sullen mockery of Tweety Bird,
not the fresh troops that needed freshening up. If it occurred
in real time, it was OK, and if it was time in a novel
that was OK too. From palace and hovel
the great parade flooded avenue and byway
and turnip fields became just another highway.
Leftover bonbons were thrown to the chickens
and geese, who squawked like the very dickens.
There was no peace in the bathroom, none in the china closet
or the banks, where no one came to make a deposit.
In short all hell broke loose that wide afternoon.
By evening all was calm again. A crescent moon
hung in the sky like a parrot on its perch.
Departing guests smiled and called, "See you in church!"
For night, as usual, knew what it was doing,
providing sleep to offset the great ungluing
that tomorrow again would surely bring.
As I gazed at the quiet rubble, one thing
puzzled me: What had happened, and why?
One minute we were up to our necks in rebelliousness,
and the next, peace had subdued the ranks of hellishness.

So often it happens that the time we turn around in
soon becomes the shoal our pathetic skiff will run aground in.
And just as waves are anchored to the bottom of the sea
we must reach the shallows before God cuts us free.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Explain it!

F.R. Leavis on Ludwig Wittgenstein on William Empson (quoted in John Haffenden's Empson biography), in what strikes me as a kind of Cambridge intellectual Celebrity Deathmatch:

[Wittgenstein] said to me once (it must have been soon after his return to Cambridge): "Do you know a man called Empson?" I replied: "No, but I've just come on him in Cambridge Poetry 1929, which I reviewed for The Cambridge Review. "Is he any good?" "It's surprising," I said, "but there are six poems of his in the book, and they are all poems and very distinctive." "What are they like?" So I started: "You know Donne?" No, he didn't know Donne. … Balked, I made a few lame observations about the nature of the conceit, and gave up. "I should like to see his poems," said Wittgenstein. "You can," I answered; "I'll bring you the book." "I'll come round to yours," he said. He did soon after, and went to the point at once: "Where's that anthology? Read me his best poem." The book was handy; opening it, I said, with "Legal Fiction" before my eyes: "I don't know if this is his best poem, but it will do." When I had read it, Wittgenstein said, "Explain it!" So I began to do so, taking the first line first. "Oh! I understand that," he interrupted, and looking over my arm at the text, "But what does this mean?" He pointed two or three lines on. At the third or fourth interruption of the same kind I shut the book, and said, "I'm not playing." "It's perfectly plain that you don't understand the poem in the least," he said. "Give me the book." I complied, and sure enough, without any difficulty, he went through the poem, explaining the analogical structure that I should have explained myself, if he had allowed me.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Nerd Alert (Notes on Twee #0)

Carl Wilson, another of my favorite living critics (and not to be confused with one of my favorite dead singers), has a great piece on Slate about the cultural politics of contemporary indie rock, written in response to Sasha Frere-Jones' provocative but less convincing New Yorker article about race and the current lack of "miscegenation" in same. The whole thing is worth reading (as is SFJ's), but here are two of the most intriguing bits, which incidentally suggest a point of departure for a socioeconomic analysis of "twee," as well as the even more visible public hegemony of "nerd" culture (watch this space):

"With its true spiritual center in Richard Florida-lauded 'creative' college towns such as Portland, Ore., [indie rock] is the music of young 'knowledge workers' in training, and that has sonic consequences: Rather than body-centered, it is bookish and nerdy; rather than being instrumentally or vocally virtuosic, it shows off its chops via its range of allusions and high concepts with the kind of fluency both postmodern pop culture and higher education teach its listeners to admire … This doesn't make coffeehouse-indie shallow, but it can result in something more akin to the 1960s folk revival, with fretful collegiate intellectuals in a Cuban Missile Crisis mood, seeking purity and depth in antiquarian music and escapist spirituality. Not exactly a recipe for a booty-shaking party …

"The profile of this university demographic often includes a sojourn in extended adolescence, comprising graduate degrees, internships, foreign jaunts, and so on, which easily can last until their early 30s. Unlike in the early 1990s, when this was perceived as a form of generational exclusion and protested in 'slacker'/grunge music, it's now been normalized as a passage to later-life career success. Its musical consequences might include an open but less urgent expression of sexuality, or else a leaning to the twee, sexless, childhood nostalgia that many older critics … find puzzling and irritating. Female and queer artists still have pressing sexual issues and identities to explore and celebrate, but the straight boys often seem to fall back on performing their haplessness and hyper-sensitivity. (Pity the indie-rock girlfriend.)"

I have a few problems with the last paragraph: the too-easy, meaningless side-taking with anonymous "female and queer artists" (not any female or queer artists in particular) against equally hypostasized "straight boys," and the related leap from aesthetic self-representation to social practice embodied here by "the indie-rock girlfriend." But on the whole I find it kind of a fascinating idea: that the powerlessness and smallness that twee (and, these days, indie more generally) connotes can be seen as a function of, and response to, the knowledge/power conferred on its target audience by years of academic legitimation.

And, before anybody says anything, glass houses, stones, yeah I know.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Reading Reading Comics

My first post-/non-generals book is Douglas Wolk's Reading Comics, which Emily bought a while ago and I've been saving for a treat. It's a really great overview of the past quarter century or so of comics/graphic novels/"sequential pictorial narrative art"/what-have-you, written by one of the best contemporary critics of same. I care only a little about comics, but I love Wolk: he has the wonderful, and rare, critical ability to make me feel excited even about work that I already know I don't really respond to (Grant Morrison, for instance) just because his own response is so energetic and intelligent. This puts him in a class with people like Pauline Kael, Robert Christgau, Stanley Cavell, etc. Anyway, highly recommended. (Yes, I realize it's a little funny that I'm "relaxing" with a book of criticism — but I suppose, if I'm honest with myself, I love really good criticism almost more than anything else.)

And it reminds me of something you might want to look at, Greg, for your local Modernism project: Alan Moore's only prose novel, Voice of the Fire, which sounds like it's squarely in the tradition of Paterson and Briggflats. Amazon says: "In a story full of lust, madness, and ecstasy, we meet twelve distinctive characters that lived in the same region of central England over a span of six thousand years. Each interconnected tale traces a path in a journey of discovery of the secrets of the land. In the tradition of Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill, Schwob's Imaginary Lives and Borges' A Universal History of Infamy, Moore travels through history blending truth and conjecture, in a novel that is dazzling, moving, sometimes tragic, but always mesmerizing." It's also, according to Wolk at least, bordering on unreadable. But don't you kind of want to find out for yourself?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Just letters

First post-generals blog post!

In 1971, Elizabeth Bishop directed a seminar at Harvard on 'Letters': "Just letters - as an art form or something. I'm hoping to select a nicely incongruous assortment of people - Mrs. Carlyle, Chekhov, my Aunt Grace, Keats, a letter found in the street, etc, etc."

[quoted from an essay in Colm Toibin's Love in a Dark Time (p. 183)]

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


What happens in theory stays in theory.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

General good will

Which one of you is going tomorrow, and which on Tuesday? I forget.

In any case, knock 'em dead tomorrow, [Greg/Adrienne]! And then you, the day after, [Adrienne/Greg]!

Saturday, October 6, 2007

I need to know more about this!

Any of you two ever heard of this? (I found this tidbit on wikipedia)

When Roth in 1962 appeared on a panel alongside the distinguished black novelist Ralph Ellison to discuss minority representation in literature, the questions directed at him soon turned into denunciations.

I can't find anything on google....hmmm

Friday, October 5, 2007

This is a facile exercise

To exult with its great throat
To exult with its great throat
To exult with its great throat
To exult with its great throat
To exult with its great throat
To exult with its great throat
To exult with its great throat
To exult with its great throat

Not to be too "all work and no play..." about this, but why can't I memorize things? All I want is to hold onto one little phrase from "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction."

To exult with its great throat
To exult with its great throat

...even if it's a possibility of populist rhetoric that Stevens offers, only to snatch it back in a cuttingly brusque manner. "This is a facile exercise." The jeremiad, in Stevens, is a false basis of consensus. And yet

To exult with its great throat
To exult with its great throat
To exult with its great throat

Whatever. "These are not things transformed./ Yet we are shaken by them as if they were./ We reason about them with a later reason." Sometimes you just need to type the words.

Twee Postmodernism

By Randall Jarrell

Some of the sky is grey and some of it is white.
The leaves have lost their heads
And are dancing round the tree in circles, dead;
The cat is in it.
A smeared, banged, tow-headed
Girl in a flowered, flour-sack print
Sniffles and holds up her last bite
Of bread and butter and brown sugar to the wind.

Butter the cat’s paws
And bread the wind. We are moving.
I shall never again sing
Good Morning, Dear Teacher, to my own dear teacher.
Never again
Will Augusta be the capital of Maine.
The dew has rusted the catch of the strap of my satchel
And the sun has fallen from the place where it was chained
With a blue construction-paper chain…
Someone else must draw the bow
And the blunderbuss, the great gobbler
Upside-down under the stone arrow
In the black, bell-brimmed hat —
And the cattycornered bat.
The witch on the blackboard
Says: “Put the Plough into the Wagon
Before it turns into a Bear and sleeps all winter
In your play-house under the catalpa.”
Never again will Orion
Fall on my speller through the star
Taped on the broken window by my cot.
My knee is ridged like corn
And the scab peels off it.

We are going to live in a new pumpkin
Under a gold star.

There is not much else.
The wind blows somewhere else.
The brass bed bobs to the van.
The broody hen
Squawks upside-down — her eggs are boiled;
The cat is dragged from the limb.
The little girl
Looks over the shoulders of the moving-men
At her own street;
And, yard by lot, it changes.
Never again.
But she feels her tea-set with her elbow
And inches closer to her mother;
Then she shuts her eyes, and sits there, and squashed red
Circles and leaves like colored chalk
Come on in her dark head
And are darkened, and float farther
And farther and farther from the stretched-out hands
That float out from her in her broody trance:
She hears her own heart and the cat’s heart beating.

She holds the cat so close to her he pants.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The villain in the movie Underworld (1927; directed by Josef von Sternberg, story by Ben Hecht) is named Buck Mulligan.

Postscript: he's played by the actor Fred Kohler, above.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

More Twee Modernism

"Prowling night-puss leave my hard squares alone
they are in no case cat food
if you had sense
you wd/ come here at meal time
when meat is superabundant
you can neither eat manuscript nor Confucius
nor even the hebrew scriptures
get out of that bacon box"

— Ezra Pound, Canto LXXX, 518

Monday, October 1, 2007

bring down the maps again

Seriously last thing I need to be doing as I enter my last week of generals, but I've added Muriel Rukeyser's "Book of the Dead" (1938) to my list. A few notes that wont add up to anything major: A long pastiche poem that she wrote starting in 1936, when at the age of 22 she went to West Virginia to investigate and document the scads of miners dying of silicosis, a lung disease brought on by inhalation of silicon-dioxide. It's the true formal middle step between Reznikoff's Testimony, which carves its sources in order to crystalize historical violences in the present, and Paterson, which seeks to give the inhabitants of the town full control over their fates (WCW's argument against "accident" in Book I, even as spatial coincidence is the work's formal point of origin).

Here we are moved along the road,

"Past your tall central city's influence,
outside its body: traffic, penumbral crowds,
are centers removed and strong, fighting for good reason.

These roads will take you into your own country."

A clear relocation of both proletarian struggle and modernist representation outside the city. But "outside its body" begins to get troubled by the subject of poisoning, as the body politic succumbs to the same blockages (failed pleas on the floor of the House are included and dismissed) as the men's lungs. The purity of the raw materials becomes a threat to the poem's construction -- seeking to include testimonies unpurged -- as it is a threat to the miners, who were told to expand production once the bosses learned how the richest deposits could be "used...without refining". Documentation, as in the Oppen of Discrete Series, cannot stand apart from directly stated advocacy. Thus, the camera eye view of the city is blurred by movement, seems unable to survey properly (X-rays become the dominant and necessary form of photography in the poem, acting as truer "maps" throughout), and becomes another glass frame or prohibition, like the ones that house the manager who is "keeping his books behind the public glass".

"What do you want - a cliff over a city?
A foreland, sloped to sea and overgrown with roses?
These people live here."

ends the section "Gauley Bridge." Can't write a natural poem about the scene. Can't just show the city -- the bridge goes over the river, which is dammed, which is "a scene of power", which allows the mining, the highways, the road you took to get here.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Exhuming McCarthy?

I'm very curious what you guys think of this.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Keeping Up with LeRoi Jones

If one wanted a pocket history of late-fifties American avant-garde poetry that was under fifty pages and all by one author, one could do worse than to read LeRoi Jones' 1961 Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note. A teasing little note at the beginning of the book states that "these poems cover a period from 1957 until 1960 … I have arranged the book in as strict a chronological order as I could manage … for reasons best known to other young (?) poets" (parenthetical question mark Jones's). What this refers to I'm not entirely clear, but it's certainly true that Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note, more even than most books of poetry so arranged, is clarified enormously by proceeding chronologically. Jones covered a lot of distance in those three years, ending up, on the surface at least, at almost the diametrically opposite point to where he began.

The early poems have a casualness and humor that brings to mind the Beats and Frank O'Hara (all of whom were personal friends of Jones, and published by his Totem Press and Yugen magazine), as well as bearing plenty of traces of E.E. Cummings' easygoing satire. "Hymn for Lanie Poo," the second poem in the book, is a good example: a record of a black man's experiences in white urban bohemia, it features a provocative epigraph from Rimbaud ("Vous etes de faux Négres") and has references to John Coltrane, offhand travesties of academic "high" culture ("Read Garmanda's book, '14 Tribes of / Ambiguity,' didn't like it") and a generally breezy tone. Except for the heightened racial consciousness and occasional dips into a more Gothic register ("Beware the evil sun… / turn you black // crawl your eyeballs // rot your teeth"), this could be a late-fifties poem by O'Hara.

But Jones (like O'Hara himself, in fact) eventually becomes interested not just in expressing his personality but in critiquing it, a process which begins with the (great) sixth poem, "Look For You Yesterday, Here You Come Today." It begins: "Part of my charm: / envious blues feeling / separation of church & state / grim calls from drunk debutantes," the beginning of a poem-long anatomy of Jones' personality and lifestyle which is intricately bound up, not just with his status as a black man in a mostly white subculture, but with his role as literary editor as well:

terrible poems come in the mail. Descriptions of celibate parties
torn trousers: Great Poets dying
with their strophes on. & me
incapable of a simple straightforward

It's so diffuse
being alive. (15)

From there, Jones goes on to muse O'Hara-ishly about not being a painter, quote O'Hara himself on the value of quietism, contra Kerouac ("Frank walked off the stage, singing / 'My silence is as important as Jack's incessant yatter'"), associate his thoughts with Baudelaire's ("All these thots / are Flowers Of Evil"), get lost in a nostalgic reverie ("What has happened to box tops?"), and finally imagine his own death ("F. Scott Charon / will soon be glad-handing me / like a legionaire / My silver bullets all gone / My black mask trampled in the dust"). Thus the interior movement of this one poem anticipates the movement of Jones' development on the level of oeuvre.

What happens there is unexpected. As I read it, it entails a move away from O'Hara towards an engagement with the canonical texts of High Modernism: in particular, with exactly the quality of Modernism that poets like O'Hara, Ginsberg, Ashbery and Koch were most concerned to protest, its thoroughgoing depressiveness. Two poems in the middle of the book, "Way Out West" and "The Bridge," initiate a new phase in Jones' poetry by imitating and investigating what I'm going to call here the mode of "FUBAR Modernism," the sense of an entire environment gone to pot that in Eliot expresses itself elegiacally and, often through the use of the affective fallacy, lyrically as well. This return to Eliot, who Koch would later call "the Great Dictator / Of literature" (and not even exactly a return: let's keep in mind that Eliot was still alive in 1961, and if he was out of fashion with the avant-garde he was, in many ways, at the peak of his cultural power in the literary mainstream), is pretty surprising in a fellow-traveler of the Beats, Black Mountain and New York School, none of whom had much use for Eliot, preferring Pound and Williams if they had to have Modernist forebears at all.

I feel I could make a case for Eliot's pervasiveness throughout the whole second half of Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note, but for simplicity's sake I'll stick to the two poems aforementioned. Here's "Way Out West" in its entirety:

As simple an act
as opening the eyes. Merely
coming into things by degrees.

Morning: some tear is broken
on the wooden stairs
of my lady's eyes. Profusions
of green. The leaves. Their
constant prehensions. Like old
junkies on Sheridan Square, eyes
cold and round. There is a song
Nat Cole sings … This city
& the intricate disorder
of the seasons.

Unable to mention
something as abstract as time.

Even so, (bowing low in thick
smoke from cheap incense; all
kinds questions filling the mouth,
till you suffocate & fall dead
to opulent carpet.) Even so,

shadows will creep over your flesh
& hide your disorder, your lies.

There are unattractive wild ferns
outside the window
where the cats hide. They yowl
from there at nights. In heat
& bleeding on my tulips.

Steel bells, like the evil
unwashed Sphinx, towing in the twilight.
Childless old murderers, for centuries
with musty eyes.

I am distressed. Thinking
of the seasons, how they pass,
how I pass, my very youth, the
ripe sweet of my life; drained off…

Like giant rhesus monkeys;
picking their skulls,
with ingenious cruelty
sucking out the brains.

No use for beauty
collapsed, with moldy breath
done in. Insidious weight
of cankered dreams. Tiresias'
weathered cock.

Walking into the sea, shells
caught in the hair. Coarse
waves tearing the tongue.

Closing the eyes. As
simple an act. You float (24)

That the poem describes the contemplation of suicide should be obvious (even if Jones' book title didn't nudge us toward that reading). But it also narrates the passing of a day, beginning with "opening the eyes" and ending with "closing" them, though both are understood as "simple … act[s]" that contain within them the possibility of death, which is just as easy to bring on as wakefulness or sleep. As in Eliot, there is a constant toggling between dramatic or autobiographical details and purer image-making. There is also a tension between lyric and jeremiad, if we take the former to be the questioning of the self and the latter to be the questioning of the world. The textbook lyrical move of describing his "lady's eyes" leads him first to the natural world ("The / leaves. Their constant prehensions") and then to a corruption of it, as those eyes are in turn compared to "old / junkies on Sheridan Square" in a way that gives a wider characterization of the urban landscape in which our narrator dwells, a landscape which, as in Eliot, undermines the lyric impulse while paradoxically strengthening its effects (cf. Kant on disgust). The speaker, thrown once again into this sordid world, thinks of but does not quote from one of its more pleasant manifestations, a "Nat [King] Cole" song (an obvious update of the music hall numbers Eliot inserted into The Waste Land), and then free-associates across an ellipsis about "[t]his city / & the intricate disorder / of the seasons": an intricate disorder which recalls that which "breeds lilacs out of the dead land," the "stony rubbish" of "The Burial of the Dead." (I take it as significant that there is natural growth in Eliot's poem: it just appears as perverse, unnatural.) Writing a poem in what he sees as a waste land, but after Eliot, and after the avant-garde reaction against Eliot, Jones feels unentitled to the later Eliot's devices for coping with such misery: he is "[u]nable to mention / something as abstract as time" as in the redemptive Four Quartets (though of course Jones, in asserting this, has just mentioned it). Moving a little faster, we find "creep[ing]" "shadows," a personal "intricate disorder" ("your disorder") to match that of the city's, a dip into the rhetoric of pastoral elegy ("Thinking / of the seasons, how they pass, / how I pass, my very youth, the / ripe sweet of my life; drained off…"), horrible visceral images of the kind Eliot's early poetry is full of ("Childless old murderers," "giant rhesus monkeys") and then a final double echo, first of The Waste Land ("No use for beauty / collapsed … Tiresias' / weathered cock") and then, climactically, of "Prufrock" ("Walking into the sea, shells / caught in the hair. Coarse / waves tearing the tongue"): walk, sea, hair, drowning.

The next poem in the book, "The Bridge," takes up a different High Modernist author, one less eminent and influential than Eliot but perhaps even better as a symbol of the FUBAR aesthetic, since he actually killed himself: Hart Crane. The poem is not formally much like Crane, but it pays him unmistakable homage in its title and in its imagery.

I have forgotten the head
of where I am. Here at the bridge. 2
bars, down the street, seeming
to wrap themselves around my fingers, the day,
screams in me: pitiful like a little girl
you sense will be dead before the winter
is over.

I can't see the bridge now, I've past
it, its shadow, we drove through, headed out
along the cold insensitive roads to what
we wanted to call "ourselves."
"How does the bridge go?"

Here the bridge is also a musical bridge, and the poem can be understood as written from the perspective of a jazz musician. This realization renders the first strophe almost Metaphysical in its playfulness, with existential confusion figured as losing one's way in a song ("I have forgotten the head / of where I am") and "bars" meaning both measures of time in music and places where you drink alcohol, both of which are felt as mysteriously constricting ("seeming to wrap themselves around my fingers"). But music really appeals to Jones as a symbol of the unfreezable flow of time, a forward-rushing movement that cannot be seized at any one moment without losing its integrity: "The changes are difficult, when / you hear them, & know they are all in you, the chords // of your disorder meddle with your would be disguises." The obvious play is on "changes" as both chord changes and historical changes, both of which are "difficult" in the sense of jarring but which are felt as corresponding to some innate and inchoate need of the self, "your disorder" as opposed to "your would be disguises." My claim, a little bit of a stretch maybe, is that it's not just free jazz — and the postwar, postmodern moment associated with it — that Jones is talking about here, but also Crane's The Bridge, and Modernism. This has been left behind for what is already, by the late 50s, observable on the horizon as the coming of Confessionalism, which Jones presciently sees as abandoning monumental expression to travel down "the cold insensitive roads to what / we wanted to call 'ourselves.'"

The second half of the poem starts: "(Late feeling)," indicating a kind of postscript I suppose, the morning after the jazz performance maybe, but also continuing the theme of time, and of belatedness. It continues:

Way down till it barely, after that rush of
wind & odor reflected from hills you have forgotten the color
when you touch the water, & it closes, slowly, around your head.

Another image of immersion, death by water, suicide. But:

The bridge will be behind you, that music you know, that place,
you feel when you look up to say, it is me, & I have forgotten,
all the things, you told me to love, to try to understand, the
bridge will stand, high up in the clouds & the light, & you,

(when you have let the song run out) will be sliding through
unmentionable black. (26)

"The bridge will be behind you": literally in time (because the performance is over) but also figuratively in memory (because the forward-looking avant-garde is leaving The Bridge behind, and The Waste Land, or so they think). I read the passage, then, as expressing a certain melancholy for the moment of 20s/30s Modernism — a time when, arguably, jazz and avant-garde writing were more closely socially associated; in any case, a monumental timelessness ("the bridge will stand") placed in opposition to contemporary triviality, "all the things, you told me to love, to try to understand" (the pop cultural detritus celebrated in O'Hara's work, and in Preface's first six poems). Without the fixity and permanence of "the bridge" (a bridge between white and black experience? a testament to the potential of communal, human making?), the speaker of the poem is doomed to slide into solipsism, to racial and social isolation, "unmentionable black."

I guess what interests me most about this reading of Jones (which could be totally off the mark: I should admit I don't know almost any of his later, more militant work) is that it really fucks with the historical narrative that sees postwar poets, particularly ones with political leanings, rebelling against the High Modernist aesthetic of Eliot, Pound, Crane, etc. I'd argue that this is truer of essentially apolitical poets like Robert Lowell and (gulp) John Ashbery, who refuse High Modernism for affective reasons — it's not the mood, the tone they want to project — rather than because they see it is ideologically or communicatively faulty. This doesn't have to be a question of competing metaphysics, or its objectification ("poetics"), it's just rhetoric: the language of and
The Waste Land and The Bridge is more "political" — i.e. more strident, stirring, closer to agitprop and soapbox speeches — than the language of Life Studies and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Even if "the personal is the political," the persons involved have to speak to and convince each other: as Eliot puts it in Sweeney Agonistes, "I gotta use words when I talk to you."

For the trajectory of influence in
Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note is so clearly from O'Hara to Eliot, and not the other way around: that is, from personality to impersonality. And it is exactly personality, in O'Hara's sense, which is rejected by Jones as hegemonic, pedagogical, and totalizing ("all the things, you told me to love, to try to understand"). The mode of Eliot (and the example of Crane), on the other hand, offer him a different kind of expression.