Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Fates of the Pastoral, Case #205

Taken from Les Chants de Maldoror (1869) by Comte de Lautréamont, translated by Alexis Lykiard; emphasis added. Warning: NSFW.

"Here comes the madwoman, dancing, while she dimly remembers something. Children drive off the crone with volleys of stones as if she were a blackbird. She brandishes a stick and looks like chasing them, then sets off again on her way. She has left a shoe behind and of this she remains unaware. Long spider's legs stir upon her nape: these are naught but her hair. Her face no longer resembles the human face and she bursts into fits of laughter like a hyena. She lets slip shreds of sentences which, re-stitched, would afford very few any clear meaning. Full of holes, her dress flaps fitfully about her bony and mudstained legs. She drives herself onward like a poplar leaf blown along by the whirlwind of unconscious powers — she, her youth, her illusions and the past happinesses she glimpses again through the mists of a demolished mind. She has lost her pristine grace and beauty; her bearing is base and her breath reeks of brandy. If men were happy on this earth, one ought then to be astonished. The madwoman makes no reproaches, she is too proud to complain and will die without having revealed her secret to those interested in her but whom she has forbidden to address her. Children drive the crone off with volleys of stones as if she were a blackbird. She has dropped a scroll of paper from her bosom. A stranger picks it up, locks himself in his room all night and reads the manuscript which runs as follows: 'After many barren years Providence sent me a daughter. For three days I knelt in churches giving thanks to the great name of Him who had at last answered my prayers. I suckled the one who was more than my life on my own milk, and saw her grow apace, endowed with every quality of my soul and body. She would say to me: "I'd like a little sister to play with. Ask God to send me one, and to pay him back I'll wind him a garland of violets, mint, and geraniums." My only answer was to raise her to my breast and kiss her lovingly. She was already interested in animals, and would ask me why the swallow is content to skim across the cottages of humans without daring to enter in. But I would lay a finger at my lips as if to tell her to keep quiet about this serious question whose details I did not want her to understand, in order not to impress an extreme sensation upon her childish imagination; and I hastened to change the subject — one painful to discuss for any being belonging to that race which has extended an unjust domination over the other animals in creation. When she spoke to me of the graves in the cemetery, saying that in this atmosphere one inhaled pleasant scents of cypress and immortelle, I refrained from contradicting her, but I did tell her that it was the town of birds, that there they sang from dawn till dusk, the graves their nests, where at night, lifting up the marble slabs, they slept with their kin. I sewed all the dear little clothes she wore, as well as the lace things with a thousand arabesques, which I reserved for Sundays. In winter she had her rightful place on the hearth, for she took herself very seriously, and during the summer the meadow once more knew the dulcet pressure of her footsteps when with her silken net fastened to a cane's tip she would venture forth after the independent hummingbirds and the butterflies with their teasing zigzags. "What have you been up to, little vagabond, while your soup waited an hour with its spoon growing impatient?" But she would exclaim, flinging her arms around my neck, that she could not go back there any more. The next day she would wander off anew through the daisies and mignonettes; amid the sunbeams and the mayflies' swirling flight; knowing only the prismatic glass of lifenot yet its gall; happy to be bigger than the titmouse; making fun of the warbler for not singing as well as the nightingale; slyly sticking out her tongue at the nasty crow who would watch her paternally; and graceful as a kitten. I was not to delight in her presence for long. The time was approaching when, in an unexpected manner, she would bid farewell to life's charms, and abandon forever the company of turtle-dove, hazel-grouse, and greenfinch, the prattle of tulip and anemone, the counsels of the march-grass, the rasping wit of the frogs and the freshness of the brooks. They told me what had happened, for I did not witness the incident which resulted in my daughter's death. If I had, I would have defended that angel at the price of my very blood… Maldoror was passing by with his bulldog. He saw a young girl sleeping in a plane tree's shade and first he took her for a rose… None can conjecture whether the sight of this child or his resultant resolution rose foremost to his mind. He undressed rapidly, like a man who knows what he is about. Naked as a stone, he flung himself upon the young girl's body and pulled up her dress to attempt her virtue… in broad daylight! Not at all embarrassed, not he! Let us not dwell on this foul deed. His mind discontent, he dressed hurriedly, glanced cautiously at the dusty, deserted track, and ordered the bulldog to choke the blood-stained child with a snap of its jaws. He pointed out for the mountain-dog the spot where the suffering victim gasped and wailed, and drew aside out of sight so as not to witness the sharp teeth sinking into those rosy veins. Carrying out this order appeared to be hard for the bulldog. He thought his master was telling him to do what had already been done, and this wolf with monstrous muzzle in turn satisfied himself by violating this delicate child's virginity. The blood from her lacerated abdomen ran once again down her legs and on to the meadow. Her moans mingled with the animal's whining. The maid held up the gold cross she wore around her neck, so that he might spare her; she had not dared exhibit it to the savage eyes of him who had first thought of taking advantage of her tender years. But the dog knew well that if he disobeyed his master a knife thrown out of a sleeve would swiftly, without warning, rip open his guts. Maldoror (how loathsome to utter the name!) heard the death-pangs and was amazed that the victim was so hard to kill and was still not dead. He approached the sacrificial altar and saw the behaviour of his bulldog — surrendering to the lowest instincts and raising its head from the girl as a drowning man raises his above the wrathful waves. He kicked the dog and split open one eye. The crazed bulldog raced off across the countryside dragging after him — along a stretch of track that however short would always be too long — the little girl's dangling body, which was only disentangled thanks to the jerky motions of the flight; but the dog was scared to attack its master, who was not to see him again. Maldoror drew from his pocket an American pen-knife with ten or a dozen blades serving diverse purposes. He opened the angular paws of this steel Hydra and, equipped with one like a scalpel, and seeing that the greensward had not yet disappeareddyed by so much spilled blood — readied himself without blanching to grope without blanching inside the unhappy child's vagina. From this enlarged trough he removed the internal organs, one after the other: intestines, lungs, liver, and finally the heart itself were ripped from their roots and pulled up through the frightful aperture into the light of day. The sacrificer perceived that the girl — a drawn chicken — had died long ago. He cut short the increasing persistence of his ravages and let the corpse again sleep in the plane tree's shade. The knife was found lying a few steps away. A shepherd witnessed the crime — whose perpetrator was not discovered — and only told it long afterwards when he had ascertained that the criminal had safely reached the frontier and that he himself need no longer dread the retribution certain to overtake him should he reveal all. I pitied the madman who committed this heinous, unprecedented crime which the legislators had not predicted. I pitied him because it is unlikely that he was in his right mind when he wielded the dozen-edged dagger, ploughing completely through the stomach lining. I pitied him because if he were not mad his shameful conduct must have hatched out of a great hatred for his fellows in order to rage so rabidly against the flesh and blood of a harmless child, who was my daughter. I attended the burial of these human remnants with mute resignation; and every day I come to pray over a grave.' On concluding his reading, the stranger can no longer keep his senses, and faints. He comes to, and burns the manuscript. He had forgotten this souvenir of his youth (habit blunts the memory!); and after twenty years' absence he returned to this fatal land. He will not buy a bulldog! … He will not talk to shepherds! … He will not go and sleep in the plane trees' shade! … Children drive the crone off with volleys of stones as if she were a blackbird." (112-116)

Not expecting anyone to get this one, really

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Fiedler on Crane (via Whitman)

I'm reading some Fiedler tonight and he has an essay called "the Images of Walt Whitman"; starting with Whitman's own creation of an avatar of Walt Whitman and following his reception globally (what Whitman came to mean in Russia, Europe, etc.), ideologically (Marxists, New Critics, etc.) and his flux in reputation among Americans.

Fiedler writes that in the Cape Hatteras section of The Bridge, Crane's ode to Whitman is what does the poem in for so much criticism. He says, first of all, its not Crane at his best, and even Crane acknowledged this in a letter to Allen Tate..."It's true that my raphsodic address to him in the Bridge exceeds any exact valuation of the mind..." Fiedler says Crane had to work up this ode to Whitman, work up this version of Whitman via America, whether he believed it or not.

Fiedler writes that "the failure of The Bridge was interpreted not as Crane's failure, but as Whitman's. Tate, Blackmur and other seconded Winters and this judgment of the Whitmanian imago via the Bridge soon became a standard conviction of the 'new critics'."
Fielder than writes that, according to critic Van O'Connor, to follow Whitman is to follow the 'bad strain' of American fiction. It's Whitman vs. the tradition from Hawthorne to Melville through James and Eliot in the battle for American literary tradition

Before this, Fiedler traces Whitman in relation to Pound and Amy Lowell. It's really a beautiful essay. All should read!

Best passage:
"One does not easily come to love a poet who is used as a weapon against oneself and one's favorite writers. And Whitman has become precisely such a weapon in the hands of those who condemn Eliot or Pound on the grounds that they have rejected all that Whitman affirms. It is vain to retort with the commonplace that 'poetry affirmeth nought' for Whitman has taught us otherwise. Besides, it is turn and turn about; once the sides were chosen up--Baudelaire against Whitman; Poe, Melville, or Hawthorne against Whitman; Eliot against Whitman--warfare was inevitable. You cannot beat Whitman over the head with Eliot and be surprised when the process is reversed. Such conflicts have a certain strategic value so long as we remember that the causes for which they are fought are not really the poets who bear the same names, but merely their images, tricked out to horrify or allure. Whitman is no more devil than messiah. He is a poet whom we must begin now to rescue from parody as well as apotheosis."

The End of the 20s (Part 2)

Wednesday and Thursday: Hart Crane vs. Harold Bloom and R.P. Blackmur
I took two days for Hart Crane, because I was determined that this time I was going to learn to like him. Without quite knowing why, I've never quite gotten the big deal about Crane; even Angus Fletcher couldn't convert me, and that guy is pretty persuasive, so I was more or less ready to give up on him after one final graduate-school try. That's not quite what happened, though; read on…

Part of the problem, I suppose, is that a lot of other people haven't quite decided whether they like Crane either. If most of the Modernists have clearly benefited from the influence of academic criticism, and the New Critics in particular, then Crane has probably mostly suffered. Certainly he suffers, in my opinion, from having such a pompous defender as the latter-day Harold Bloom, one of whose ubiquitous introductions adorns my copy of The Complete Poems of Hart Crane. It begins, unpromisingly: "Born in the year 1930, the year Hart Crane published The Bridge, I never reflect on that year of my birth without also meditating on Crane's visionary epic" (xi) — I know just what you mean, I feel the same way about The Muppet Movie. Bloom (who says he's been reading Crane since the age of ten!) spends much of his introduction talking not about Crane but about his critical reception, including (of course) Bloom's own late, heroic intervention in that reception, a story which allows him to do a lot of name-dropping about how he convinced Empson and Kenneth Burke to like Crane after all.

For all his trademark windbaggery, though, Bloom does put his finger on the big historical problem with Crane: as the one Modernist who openly embraces the heritage of Romantic-era American poetry — running from Whitman through Dickinson — he is easily detachable from the master-narrative of early 20th century literary history, which states that the important Modernists either rebelled against Romanticism or repressed it. Of course, this same apostasy makes him perfect for Bloom's counter-canon, which essentially regards Modernism as an enormous distraction from the genuine series of strong American poets, which goes (say it with me now) Emerson-Whitman-Dickinson-Stevens-Crane-Ashbery. Seen in this light, Crane is either everything or nothing: either the one visionary Romantic who saw through Modernism's revisionist narrative (Bloom's take), or an ambitious also-ran who failed to get with the program of the moment, to his work's and reputation's detriment (R.P. Blackmur pretty much sums it up when he attributes to Crane's work "the distraught but exciting splendor of a great failure," 316).

Both schools of criticism deal with Crane by treating him as an exception, and this seems unfair, because in the end Crane's not so radically (or conservatively) different from his Modernist compeers: he's clearly read a lot of the same books (White Buildings has epigraphs from Rimbaud and Ben Jonson); has the same love/hate relationship to democratic institutions and popular culture; in fact, on the evidence of The Bridge, he would've been a better standard-bearer for early Eliotic critical values than Eliot himself ultimately became.

What he is is slightly belated, in much the same way as Cummings: that is, his work emerges first into a climate of criticism founded on essentially the same tenets in which he himself believed. Presumably poets like Pound, Eliot, Moore and Williams gained something from bringing their work first in an atmosphere of general incomprehension: it allowed them to experiment more recklessly, and to exhibit a wider range of quality and "neatness of finish" (to borrow a borrowed phrase from Marianne Moore). They didn't have to worry about producing perfect poems, because there was no clear standard of perfection: the criteria to judge their poetry didn't yet exist. It's no wonder, then, that in some cases (notably the case of Eliot) their reputations would swell to gigantic sizes: such overcompensation was necessary to counteract the assumed prevailing hostility, whether it really existed or not. (This is, naturally, the story of postmodernism as well, as it was advocated for by cheerleaders like Charles Altieri and Marjorie Perloff. Thank you for allowing me a Jim Longenbach moment.)

By the time the likes of Blackmur and Burke were writing, though, Modernism had Modernist critics to contend with, critics eager to do something with their criteria besides enshrine new demi-gods. Thus poets who began publishing after 1922, lacking sufficient time to gain the prestige of incomprehensibility, were at a serious critical disadvantage. You can sense the passion which Blackmur brings to demonstrating that Crane is almost, but not quite, a great poet; he mercilessly picks apart Crane's obscurities in order to judge whether or not they are earned, and you can't help but feel that if he were to apply these same tests to many of his beloved Stevens' lines, he'd be forced to reach the same conclusions. (In this criticism of small differences you can really see the influence of Blackmur on his student Michael Fried: compare the famous ending of his 1968 attack on minimalism, "Art and Objecthood.")

So, in short, I think the problem is not so much that Crane was "a High Romantic in the era of High Modernism" (which is how Bloom puts it) as that he was a High Modernist in the era of High Modernism. He had the disadvantage to be writing in a period when, to some degree anyway, Modernism had become the norm: when the burden was not on the critics to find some redeeming value in the work of les jeunes but on the poets to measure up to the established recent canon. Many of Crane's poems, interestingly, include anxious references to books or pages, a habit he may have picked up from Mallarmé but which also places him as a reader of Modernism and not simply a writer of it, and which may bespeak a fear of close reading that his immediate predecessors didn't have to suffer (they were presumably more worried about being read at all). Examples include "Possessions" with its "page whose blind sun finally burns / Record of rage and partial appetites"; "Passage" which seems to meditate on some obscure connection between plagiarism ("my stolen book in hand") and self-plagiarism ("Memory, committed to the page had broke"); and the "scattered chapter" Crane tries to recover "At Melville's Tomb." (He also writes quite a lot about "hair," here and in The Bridge; not sure what to make of that.)

All that said, I think I basically agree with Blackmur that most of Crane's short lyrics in White Buildings don't really come off, though there are extraordinary lines in almost all of them. (Bloom would probably tell me to shut up and come back when I've read more Shelley.) The Bridge, though, is another story. I'm not sure that I've read the entire thing before, and on this reading I finally see why Crane's reputation rests on it: it really is one of the great long poems of the 20s. Blackmur's major criticism of it is that "Crane had the sensibility typical of Baudelaire and so misunderstood himself that he attempted to write The Bridge as if he had the sensibility typical of Whitman" (303-304); that is, he was a natural representative of "the school of tortured sensibility" writing in the affirmative heroic/patriotic mode of "Song of Myself." I wouldn't say Blackmur's wrong, but I would contend that this unlikely cross between Baudelaire and Whitman is exactly what's interesting about The Bridge. But of course I would say that, because in many ways it looks forward to what the New York School poets would eventually be doing: Frank O'Hara in particular, who absolutely insists on a productive tension between poétè maudit-esque "tortured sensibility" and Whitmanian democratic grandeur. (This was kinda, sorta what I wrote about in my paper on O'Hara for Jeremy's class; Jeremy, if you're reading this, I'm sorry I didn't make this clearer at the time.) A fuller reading of Crane's poem will have to wait until I have some more time on my hands, but let me just remind myself to consider it alongside O'Hara's "In Memory of My Feelings" some day — I think the contrast would be revealing.

Winner: Crane!

Saturday, July 28, 2007

What is it good for?

John Dewey, in 1927, on WWI, offered as a corrective (or, if you like, addition) to Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory:

"The extent of that war is unparalleled, because the conditions involved in it are so new … We think of all wars as much the same thing, only the last one was horrible beyond others. Colonies were drawn in: self-governing ones entered voluntarily; possessions were levied upon for troops; alliances were formed with remote countries in spite of diversities of race and culture, as in the cases of Great Britain and Japan, Germany and Turkey. Literally every continent upon the globe was involved. Indirect effects were as broad as direct. Not merely soldiers, but finance, industry and opinion were mobilized and consolidated … Extensive, enduring, intricate and serious indirect consequences of the conjoint activity of a comparatively few persons traverse the globe. The similes of the stone cast into the pool, ninepins in a row, the spark which kindles a vast conflagration, are pale in comparison with the reality … The consolidation of peoples in enclosed, nominally independent, national states has its counterpart in the fact that their acts affect groups and individuals in other states all over the world. The connections and ties which transferred energies set in motion in one spot to all parts of the earth were not tangible and visible; they do not stand out as do politically bounded states. But the war is there to show that they are as real, and to prove that they are not organized or regulated." (The Public and Its Problems, 127-128)

Dewey's idea here not that the war was meaninglessly destructive, which is mostly how Fussell sees it, but that it was terrifyingly meaningful: the war as the global spread of consequences beyond prediction, the realization that the world forms more of a system and that that system is less thoroughly understood than had previously been imagined, the war as the beginning of a new world order which is not in order; in short, a harbinger of globalization avant la lettre. With this vision in mind, one might say that English poets like Wilfred Owen ("What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? / Only the monstrous anger of the guns") wrote like soldiers; Apollinaire (“Le tonnerre des artilleries qui accomplisent / le terrible amour des peuples”) wrote like the war itself.

The End of the 20s (Part 1)

Monday: T.S. Eliot vs. Ezra Pound
Rematch! This time Eliot fared a litle better: I read his two works published in 1925, "The Hollow Men" and two scenes from his unfinished first play Sweeney Agonistes. What I'll remark on here is the fact that, three years after The Waste Land, it's as if Eliot has wholly compartmentalized the two sides of his poetic personality: "The Hollow Men" has all the oracular gravitas, the violent imagery, the mantraic repetitions, the dried-out landscape, just as if it were a continuation of "What the Thunder Said." Sweeney Agonistes, on the other hand, has all the dark humor, dramatic interest, and fascination with pop culture and the underclasses typical of "The Burial of the Dead," "A Game of Chess" and "The Fire Sermon." I wonder if this was a reaction to negative criticism of The Waste Land as being too divided, or schizophrenic? It would be interesting to compare Eliot's use of repetition in the two works: the first operating more, I guess, "poetically" (the words taking on strength and symbolic/rhetorical power through reiteration), and the second more idiomatically, to indicate the inadequacy of contemporary conversation. (Words to live by: "I gotta use words when I talk to you / But if you understand or if you dont / That's nothing to me and nothing to you / We all gotta do what we gotta do," Complete Poems, 84). Of course, the two might not really be so different after all… In any case, I find Sweeney (which I'd never read before) by the far the more intriguing piece of writing, particularly in its recordings of the language of American businessmen (named, um, Klipstein and Krumpacker), an idiom which Eliot had now been separated from for about a decade. (There are no Americans in The Waste Land, are there?) There's a kind of conflicted loving irony in the way Eliot presents these characters; it reminds me of John Ashbery's remarks about his addiction to American newspapers and comic books when he was living in Paris in the early 60s.

As for Pound, I read the first sixteen Cantos (first published together in 1925). If Eliot was trying to separate out the strands of his sensibility in this period, Pound was clearly going in the other direction: developing the "ply over ply," hopelessly texturally enmeshed style that becomes literally inescapable for him in his later work. I don't have much to say about The Cantos (yet) except that they become much more fun to read over time, once you stop worrying about "getting it" (or worse, agreeing with it) safe in the knowledge that no-one ever really has or will and just bask in its shameless Poundness. I also never noticed before how many animals there are in the beginning of the poem, especially cats. Modernists love their critters!

Winner: Eliot.

Tuesday: Langston Hughes vs. E.E. Cummings
What these two dudes have in common is a reliance on a semi-consistent "poet" persona: they both usually write in the first person, tackle time-honored topics like love, nature and sadness, and in many ways dispense with more than a century's worth of abstruse poetic theory in order to embody the good old Wordsworthian values of "a man speaking to men" and "emotion recollected in tranquility." Though adopting such a mode might seem like the path of least resistance today, in the context of both High Modernism and traditional verse culture of the 1920s, it does feel fairly radical — and, of course, radically populist.

I think Hughes could do this because he was stepping into a cultural role that, by 1926 when The Weary Blues was published, was firmly, if newly, defined: that of a "Negro poet." Because writers like Countee Cullen and Claude McKay had preferred to demonstrate competence in traditional English versifying in order to back up their claims of racial and social equality, Hughes' insistence on using loose, non-English forms like the blues and Whitmanian free verse is especially provocative, opening himself up to hostile charges of simplicity, primitivism, or illiteracy. But it also gives his work the force of naturalness, and allows his inexhaustible talent for image selection and turn of phrase maximum room to maneuver. (I'm also interested, and this something to return to, in the traces here and there of a Symbolist inheritance in Hughes, though, particularly from Verlaine, in a poem like "Black Pierrot," for instance. What did Hughes read?)

One could make the argument that Cummings is playing with the expectations engendered by a similar readymade role, "the modern (or modernist) poet." Cummings' first book was published in 1922, the year of The Waste Land and Ulysses, "the year modernism broke," making him sort of New Wave to Joyce and Eliot's Punk: the slightly belated successor who can come in and benefit from the cultural capital accrued by previous experimentation (it is true, I think, that Cummings was more popular, at least in America, than any of the more reputable High Modernists). Cummings, at least by the time of is 5 (which I read), is aware of this precarious position and uses it to generate effects within his poetry: "what's become of (if you please) / all the grandja / that was dada?" (is 5, 11). Likewise all his unabashed liking for jazz and Krazy Kat, which Greg's analyzed well already. In Cummings, I see one of the first American expressions of what Stanley Cavell eventually comes to call a signal feature of modernist art: "the possibility of fraudulence" (Must We Mean What We Say?, 176). He exaggerates the distance between his technical oddity and his lyrical ego to the point where he's almost a "poet" before he is a writer of poetry. (One indicator of Cummings' almost Duchampian provocativeness is his extensive treatment in Laura Riding and Robert Graves' 1927 Survey of Modernist Poetry, which effectively calls Cummings' bluff by deciding that he is a real poet after all — just not a very interesting one.)

In any case, I think he certainly sets the stage for the Beats, and their particularly male forms of poetic self-display (and incidentally, take a look at that photo: EEC's definitely the buffest Modernist by a considerable margin).

Winner: Hughes. When it comes down to it, Cummings, for all his historical importance and surface amiability, is just too jokey — without being all that funny.

I'm going to stop at hump day for the time being, but there's more to come. Next up: Hart Crane vs. the Atlantic Ocean!

Friday, July 27, 2007

madness week

To continue on the madness theme, apparently Tennessee Williams' sister was schizophrenic and her parents made her have a frontal lobotomy that of course went wrong and left her severely brain damaged. Williams was terrified of falling into mental illness and died age 71 by choking on a bottle cap (his gag reflex undone by drugs). Also, apparently he wanted his body to be dropped in the water at the same approximate place as Hart Crane when he died. Didn't happen though.

Howl! intro

William carlos William's introduction to Howl:

"When he was younger, and I was younger, I used to know Allen Ginsberg, a young poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, where he, son or a well-known poet, had been born and grew up. He was physically slight of build and mentally much disturbed by the life which he had encountered about him during those first years after the First World War as it was exhibited to him in and about New York City. He was always on the point of ‘going away', where it didn't seem to matter: he disturbed me, I never thought he'd live to grow up and write a book of poems. His ability to survive, travel, and go on writing astonishes me. That he has gone on developing and perfecting his art is no less amazing to me.

Now he turns up fifteen or twenty years later with an arresting poem. Literally he has, from all the evidence, been through hell. On the way he met a man named Carl Solomon with whom he shared among the teeth and excrement of this life something that cannot be described but in the words he has used to describe it. It is a howl of defeat. Not defeat at all for he has gone through defeat as if it were an ordinary experience, a trivial experience. Everyone in this life is defeated but a man, if he be a man, is not defeated.

It is the poet, Allen Ginsberg, who has gone, in his own body, through the horrifying experiences described from life in these pages. The wonder or the thing is not that he has survived but that he, from the very depths, has found a fellow whom he can love, a love he celebrates without looking aside in these poems. Say what you will, he proves to us, in spite of the most debasing experiences that life can offer a man, the spirit of love survives to ennoble our lives if we have the wit and the courage and the faith—and the art’ to persist.

It is the belief in the art of poetry that has gone hand in hand with this man into his Golgotha, from that charnel house, similar in every way, to that of the Jews in the past war. But this is in our own country, our own fondest purlieus. we are blind and live our blind lives out in blindness. Poets are damned but they are not blind, they see with the eyes of the angels. This poet sees through and all around the horrors he partakes of in the very intimate details of his poem. He avoids nothing but experiences it to the hilt. He contains it. Claims it as his own—and, we believe, laughs at it and has the time and affrontery to love a fellow of his choice and record that love in a well-made poem. Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell.

William Carlos Williams"


So for Williams, the poem's all about about love of men for men, love of the male mind and the male body and everything that comes with it, the horribly good and the horribly bad. Men who use their manly 'tools' which allows them to 'plunge' into the world and "experience it to the hilt"--- and yet, the final invocation is to ladies who need to hold up their gowns. Or men who are like ladies in gowns. A jab at the feminine, nonetheless (no matter if its the bourgeois feminine...its the feminine under attack, since bourgeois and feminine can't be unlinked by Williams nor the Beats it seems)

Howl! contains the male flanneur tradition continued, except with more drugs and more shit. The flanneur may be crazy and imprisoned from time to time, but the mobility is always still central. It's interesting to compare this long outrageously-announced constantly-moving madness with Plath's quiet unperformed and unarticulated poems of madness, which happen to be just as image-filled, horrific, and desperate, but without the mobility. Plath's ultra-white poems (the color of her imagery, not completely but also not un-completely racial--especially with all the African lions running around in contrast) versus the dirty grays and blacks of Howl! (with its own black shadows and Negro-fied background figures leaping in and out of the poem) reveal the conflict for me. Ginsberg doesn't seem to really care about color...a few are mentioned in Howl! from time to time, but I think he wants them all to blur, to create a blurish block where its impossible to pick a single color.

Anyway, just wondering if anyone knew about Plath's connections/possible reflections on the beats. Ariel could be read, somewhat perhaps, in response to the utterly masculinized madness of the Beat generation, where their madness is allowed to be celebrated and idolized, making them freer and freer with every public performance of it, people eating up the (faux) spontaneity as part of all the boyish antics. Ten years later, we have Plath's carefully revised and reworked poems, written alone, portraying a slow and static position, a madness unglorified, poems not read aloud or not even allowed to be read. Not allowed to be dirty, the cleaness is what ultimately seems to be what is so dangerous to Plath.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Did you know…

…that Elizabeth Bishop was friends with John Dewey?

I love author/philosopher friendships, like William James and Gertrude Stein. And… um, are there any others?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

File Under Krazy

From the foreword to E.E. Cummings' is 5 (1926):

"At least my theory of technique, if I have one, is very far from original; nor is it complicated. I can express it in fifteen words, by quoting The Eternal Question and Immortal Answer of burlesk, viz. 'Would you hit a woman with a child? — No, I'd hit her with a brick.' Like the burlesk comedian, I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement." (vii)

Monday, July 23, 2007

World Series

Georg Simmel's writing is full of ideas; and while it seems like you should be able to say this of any philosopher or theorist of note, I think GS gives an unusually strong feeling of an active mind deluged with possibilities, searching for at least a temporary way of disgorging them in a useful and convincing manner. His training was in Neo-Kantian philosophy, and he is unapologetically a systems guy, but he was just as firmly committed to the practice of cultural criticism, and to the development of what he termed a "German philosophical culture." To this end, he wrote about money, art, literature, clothing, women's liberation, space (paging Adrienne!), meals, and the history of philosophy — all of which makes him a perfect poster-boy for the intersection of Modernist literature (or, if you prefer, culture) and theory.

It also tends to make his essays rather messy, and of course Simmel's not traditionally one of the "master thinkers" of the 20th century (unless you ask Jeff Nunokawa); his methods and opinions are a little too idiosyncratic, and many of his conclusions are far too tied to the political and historical circumstances of his time and place (Germany during and preceding the first World War) to be usable in other connections. He goes in big for German nationalism, for one thing, and his conclusions about the differences between "male" and "female culture" are today not much more helpful than the average stand-up comic's. But despite all these flaws, he's a great and inspiring writer, I think, and, more perhaps than his contemporaries, seems like a Modernist himself in his passionate concern with culture from a slight remove, and always with a weird mixture of missionary zeal and caution.

Appropriately, then, I find the Simmelian concept that's having the most afterlife with me is that of the "cultural series," which he formulates most cogently in this passage from his 1911 essay "On the Essence of Culture":

"We are accustomed automatically to label as cultural values the great series of artistic and moral, scientific and economic achievements. Perhaps they all are; but they are certainly not so by virtue of their purely objective, as it were autochthonous significance. The cultural significance of any particular achievement is by no means equivalent to its significance within its own series as determined by its specific nature and purpose. For example, a work of art is subject to quite different criteria and norms when considered within the sphere of art history or aesthetics, than when its cultural value is involved.

"Each of these great series can be regarded on the one hand as an end in itself, so that each individual member of them constitutes a value which is proven directly by being enjoyed and giving satisfaction. On the other hand, they can all also be included in the cultural series, i.e. considered in respect of their significance for the overall development of individuals in society at large. Standing on their own ground, all these values resist inclusion in the cultural series. A work of art aspires only to perfection as measured by purely artistic criteria … Their contribution to the development of human personality, i.e. their cultural value, is a different matter." (43, italics mine)

This is an extremely useful encapsulation of the problems swirling around l'art pour l'art and the historical efficacy of art and literature which converge so noisily and excitingly in the Modernism of the 1910s and 20s. What's important here, for me, is not that Simmel synthesizes the approaches but that he insists on their fundamental incommensurability. Despite the enormous differences in their writing styles and philosophical allegiances, I actually detect a lot of Jacques Derrida in Simmel: a similar insistence on irreducibility, the impossibility of either incorporating art into culture "without remainder" or of separating the two spheres completely and conclusively.

Without digging too deep, I think it'll be obvious that Simmel's view of culture as a multiply divided sphere has resonance for the Modernists and their situations. Marianne Moore's "Poetry" comes to mind first: "I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle. / Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in / it after all, a place for the genuine." This is saying more than "most poetry is trivial, but some of it is worthwhile": it's saying, at least in its extended context, that "all this fiddle" is what poetry is, and that "the genuine" will never be found unless we can find it within the fiddle. Moore is perhaps more of a liberal humanist than Simmel, but like him she shies away from any claim that "reading poetry will make you a better person." What it will do is make you a better reader of poetry; and with that skill in your back pocket, you're on your own to hunt out the genuine. As Moore ends it: "if you demand on the one hand, / the raw material of poetry in / all its rawness and / that which is on the other hand / genuine, you are interested in poetry."

The distinction, then, is between "artistic and moral, economic and scientific achievements" — each of which we must preserve in their own distinctness from the others — and what these achievements are for, the use-value of culture as it were. One could say that Pound and Eliot's problem was that they tried to ignore this distinction, to collapse the multiplicity of cultural series into one epic narrative of civilization's decline (and potential rebirth), though I think Eliot was a lot more tortured by the aporia than Pound was.

Lastly, I'll say that part of why this "cultural series" idea appeals to me has something to do with the process of reading for Generals itself. Following the cultural series that is "Modernism" — let's leave aside the subseries "American," "British," and "French" for now — is not exactly equivalent to following that of "literature," or "history," or even "poetry." Each series includes some of the same materials, perhaps even with the same interpretations placed on them, but the important part is that they reach them and proceed from them in decidedly different ways. The path that leads to Eliot from "French Symbolism" is related but fundamentally foreign to the path that leads to him from "late Victorianism"; and what to make of the longer trajectory that gets us there from Dante, or the Metaphysicals, or, as Edmund Wilson suggests, from New England Protestantism? When dealing with such lengthy series — Derrida, or Mallarmé, might call them "chains" — it's probably best not to try to over-intertwine them, or lay them out parallel, for fear of distorting or destroying the integrity of the individual series itself. But in order for the act of criticism to be worth performing at all, there needs to be some kind of space where they can come together, or where you can put them together, at least provisionally. That space, for Simmel, is called "culture" (and for Habermas, the "public sphere"?). For us, maybe "theory."

Of course all of this (my pontification, not Simmel's) is to some extent graduate-student navel-gazing (hello if you've made it this far!): the thing is to get on with your work, learn as much as you can about context in the broadest sense, and use what seems relevant in any given connection (the pragmatist approach). But I guess what I want to affirm here is why Simmel is now sort of a hero of mine: he's a proud non-specialist who resists being a universalist, but is nonetheless far from a nihilist. (As a matter of fact, the other philosopher he reminds me of most is Nietzsche.) The problem for Simmel was that there was too much stuff in the modern world — too many material objects, too many people, too much knowledge, theory, art, culture; not too much because in and of itself excess is deplorable (that's more the Puritan consciousness as diagnosed by Simmel's mentor Max Weber), but too much for any individual subject, even a highly educated and "cultivated" one, to absorb for him or herself. (In this attitude we might see a hint of self-pity; Simmel can be read as sort of a Modernist Henry Bemis.) Thus he saw most trends in modern life and thought as a way to either screen out or superficially synthesize the overwhelming plethora of series existing all around us.

It's this awareness of plethora, and strange mix of caution and exhilaration in the face of it, that makes me want to put Simmel forward as the model for a kinder, gentler critical theory: one which does not insist on a forcing of connections across cultural fields, or anyway recognizes the eternal difficulties of such connections,* but which allows that these connections are possible and desirable, are something which all but the most blinkered and limited human beings will want to do. And which, along with whatever expert authority it claims for itself and its own interpretations, maintains a trust in the capacity of other people to make these connections for themselves, given proper access to a wide enough variety of series, and enough time.

(* I'm dancing around the figure of Adorno here, who strikes me in many ways as Simmel's evil twin. )

Friday, July 20, 2007

The age demanded an image

1920s Cage Matches!

This week I surveyed the first half of the 1920s. I was originally planning on cramming the whole decade, at least in its Anglophone manifestations, into one week and then doing French Surrealism next week for contrast, but I ended up feeling that the 20s are so important for Modernism that I might as well give them an extra week at the expense of something later on (the 40s or 50s, probably). I read two poets per day, which resulted in some interesting unexpected juxtapositions. And because I can't think of any overarching conceptual rubric in which to fit everything I read this week, I will do it in the form of completely subjective value judgments on arbitrarily paired authors. Enjoy!

Tuesday: T.S. Eliot vs. Ezra Pound
(I tried to pick the pictures where they look most like wrestlers.) This is a fairly obvious match-up, and I should state up front that I am basically an Eliot guy. But I think Pound actually won this round. It may have helped that I read a little less of him (basically just Hugh Selwyn Mauberley; I'll do A Draft of XVI Cantos next week), and that this is the third time I've been made to read The Waste Land in a calendar year. I still love Prufrock and Other Observations above all, but on this reading I've decided that Eliot's 1920 Poems (published as Ara Vos Prec in England) is, for me, one of the most thoroughgoingly unpleasant books of poetry ever written, what with its triple discovery of off-putting obscurantism, brittle quatrains, and off-hand, virulent anti-Semitism. I think this is the Eliot people hate when they hate Eliot (well, one of them). Pound's Mauberley's got the quatrains and the obscurantism (not the anti-Semitism yet; he was saving that up, apparently) but also a more accomplished technical sense and a goofier sense of humor (always Pound's trump card, to my mind), and it benefits greatly from even the limited background I now have in 1890s aestheticism (as Mauberley is essentially somebody like Ernest Dowson, if he had lived). It also marks the last (and, arguably, first) time Pound had a theme that wasn't objectionable and/or completely insane.

Winner: Pound … but this is far from over.

Wednesday: Claude McKay vs. Edith Sitwell
I must say that McKay, while interesting and talented and obviously hugely important, doesn't strike me as all that modern of a poet; he shares a lot more with the English Great War poets, still working through Keats and Shelley rather than wrestling with even the late nineteenth century, let alone the roaring twentieth. (A comparison with Langston Hughes, who I'm reading next week, is instructive.) One thing about this interests me: I note McKay's deep debt to British Romanticism, and his surprising silence (in his poetry, at least) on British colonial racism, as versus his outspoken condemnations of the American variety. Whenever Jamaica appears in his poetry it's always a pastoral paradise, set against the awfulness of New York City, and moreover it seems populated by nothing but black people. Anybody who knows more about McKay have any comment on this?

Anyway, McKay's stylistic tameness, which might have bored me on another day, was a welcome relief from wading through the once-fashionable train-wreck that is Edith Sitwell's Façade. Talk about imperialism: here we have an indiscriminate display of verbal and cultural wealth, swiped mostly from the French Symbolists (particularly Laforgue — lots of clowns — and Mallarmé — lots of jewels and negresses) and contemporaries who were more legitimately "on to something" like Eliot, Stein and Stravinsky. The poems are controlled by nothing but self-amused alliteration and allusion, toss around foreign phrases (often musical terms) ostentatiously and completely nonsensically, and are so indescribably annoying that I think I just have to quote from one of them and have done:

"The wind's bastinado
Whipt on the calico
Skin of the Macaroon
And the black Picaroon
Beneath the galloon
Of the midnight sky.
Came the great Soldan
In his sedan
Floating his fan —
Saw what the sly
Shadow's cocoon
In the baracoon
Held. Out they fly.
'This melon,
Sir Mammon,
Comes out of Babylon:
Buy for a patacoon —
Sir, you must buy!'
Said Il Magnifico
Pulling a fico —
With a stoccado
And a gambado,
Making a wry
Face: 'This corraceous
Round orchidaceous
Laceous porraceous
Fruit is a lie!' "

That's about enough of that.


Thursday: Mina Loy vs. D.H. Lawrence
Probably the most provocative juxtaposition, Loy being most ardent feminist among the Modernists, Lawrence the most chauvinist. This was my first experience with both, and basically I think Loy was right on the verge of being incredible before something went confusingly wrong; Lunar Baedeker, to me, gets steadily less compelling as it goes along. The early satires of Italian Futurism, co-opting the Futurists' (and Apollinaire's) own language in order to impale their pretensions and misogyny, are pretty extraordinary; and the fragmented, profane micro-lyrics of "Songs to Joannes" (which scandalized everybody when they appeared in 1915 in Others) are intriguing as well. She also has a great sense of the colloquial, combined with perhaps the weirdest vocabulary of any Modernist writer (she uses words like "infructuous" and "sialagogues"). But by the end of the 1920s she is doing terrible jazz/dialect poetry ("The Widow's Jazz," "Lady Laura in Bohemia") and "portraits" of the likes of Joyce, Stein and Nancy Cunard, which just makes you want to be reading them instead (well, maybe not Cunard). It's hard not to feel as if Loy lost her direction, which is a shame, because she could've been among the best of the Modernists, probably.

Contrast this with Lawrence's Birds, Beasts & Flowers, which is nothing if not single-minded: basically, in Lawrence's conception all God's creatures are tough, beautiful little bastards, who are more fun to hang out with than people, but end up reminding us anyway of human genitalia. I've got to say that I found this book convincing, and disturbing, in a way I've never felt of any of Lawrence's fiction (of which, admittedly, I've read very little): the way he lovingly renders naturalistic detail is often worthy of John Clare, and the gradual but determined way he pushes his observations into significance is something he legitimately got from Whitman. Granted the poems are completely ridiculous much (most?) of the time, but I don't think it's too perverse to say that's part of their charm.

Winner: As much as I want to like Loy better, I have to give it to D.H.L. Having said that, if I had to read much more of his poetry, I might revoke his title.

Friday: Wallace Stevens vs. William Carlos Williams
Apples and oranges.


I need an angle

So I just read Pale Fire. And it's too much for me, i can't pick an angle on it. I know too much about it, but I don't really KNOW anything about it, ya dig? And I know Benj will ask me about it. But I dont' know what to say. It's impossible to talk about for me, I think its a book that defies any attempt to render it knowable through speech acts (I guess that's an angle??) Is it postmodern or fully represent the crisis of modernity? (is there or a difference?) or does it represent the academic crisis of modernity? I'm gonna read Mikey Wood's book in a bit, so maybe salvation is around the corner.

It's weird cause I'm perfectly okay with Lolita, I can talk about it from different angles, what have you. I'm okay with all the authorial problems and questions there. But Pale Fire makes my brain explode. And once I started reading criticism (serious criticism!) about how a ghost is guiding the book, I lost it. I think I share Michael Wood's avoidance of all the verbal/linguistic stuff in Nabokov in favor of questions of ethics and feeling. And Rorty's introduction to Pale Fire is beautiful...but not quite right all the way, I feel.

Here's Yaron's helpful words to me:
pale fire is hands down my favorite nabokov novel. i think it is so
fantastic. let me see what i remember from when i read it last, whihc
was 4/5 years ago:

-pale fire is in part abt nabokov's obsession w/homosexuality, which is
impt in many of his novels and esp in this one and lolita. nabokov wrote
PF, L, and Pnin at basically the exact same time, and they have a lot in
common, all being abt ex-pats, academia, violence, etc
-in part pale fire is abt graphic fictional violence. kinbote's story is
in a sense a retelling of nabokov's own family fleeing russia (vlad's
older brother and uncle were gay btw) and the assassination of shade is
a retelling of nabokov's father's murder
-the story is also abt authorial control, the author vs. the critic, and
who has the 'final' say on the author's work, and what's at stake in
that say, in keeping with this pale fire is in part abt the power of
naming, lolita is more obviously abt this, but i'd bet pale fire would
be interesting to read w/the part abt naming in butler's excitable speech
-the ghost is spelling out the scientific name of a butterfly, and its a
warning to john shade, a butterfly passes him right before he's killed
-the poem pale fire has a lot of references to previous poetry, esp
pound's cantos i remember
-its also in part an attack on the beats through an attack on Dostoevsky
(also an attack on freud - nabokov would say he put a lot of stuff in
the book to make you think its freudian but it really isn't, but well, i
guess probably also a very psychoanalyticaly interesting book - it is
all abt fantasy space)

that's all i can recall, my favorite line the whole book is "even the
climate seemed to be improving," which is kinbote talking abt the reign
of peace and prosperty in zembla, its right after an emerald tower is
being erected

D.H. Lawrence is Twee as Fuck

From "Tortoise-Shell":

"It needed Pythagoras to see life playing with counters on the living back
Of the baby tortoise;
Life establishing the first mathematical tablet,
Not in stone, like the Judean Lord, or bronze, but in life-clouded, life-rosy tortoise shell.

The first little mathematical gentleman
Stepping, wee mite, in his loose trousers
Under all the eternal dome of mathematical law." (Birds, Beasts & Flowers, 115)

I won't even get into "Bibbles," where he calls his French bulldog "[y]ou little Walt-Whitmanesque bitch."

"Meteoric Burlesk Melodrama," (OR "there'd still be the brick")

In my post on Sandburg I made an aside to suggest that Sandburg's urban sketches owe something to contemporary cartooning. The slapstick broadstrokes of certain of his verses, no less than his imagistic "handfulls," are pure ash-can; and it is this sketchiness and emphasis on the "daily" (a chronologically generative constraint, then, as much as a populist quotidian perspective) that seems to be a sticking point for S's detractors. His haphazard pile of images bother especially those who find him a sentimental "mystical mobocrat" (William Aspenwell Bradley's phrase, reviewing Chicago Poems in the Dial). I think that a proper discussion of the gestural, democratic expansion of the comix medium in this period could redeem some of those very gestures, which I would not deny are present and, insofar as Sandburg never really bothers to work up much formal prosodic fuss, are indeed sometimes frustrating. (Perhaps an especially valuable redemption, for their proximity to yellow journalism?)

Well, here's an pretty unnecessary follow up: e.e. cummings, among illustrious others (Eliot, Pound, Hemingway, Stein, later Umberto Eco, etc.) read George Herriman's Sunday Krazy Kat strips regularly. For those unfamiliar, Herriman's genius was in his ability to endlessly riff on a roughly identical plot in most every strip: Krazy Kat loves Ignatz Mouse, and never so much as when the latter hurls a brick at him, which he takes to be a sign of Ignatz's affection. Offissa Pupp, who loves Krazy Kat, attempts to arrest Ignatz, who repeatedly escapes to pitch bricks once more. (They all speak in this bee-yoo-tee-full sorta Joyce-via-Vaudeville mishmash).

In 1946 the poet wrote an introduction to a collection of Krazy Kat, in which this whole cycle becomes a reflection on the anarchic play that Cummings places at the heart of democracy:

"Even if Offissa Pupp should go crazy and start chasing Krazy, and even if Krazy should go crazy and start chasing Ignatz, and even if crazy Krazy should swallow crazy Ignatz and crazy Offissa Pupp should swallow crazy Krazy and it was the millennium - there'd still be the brick. And (having nothing else to swallow) Offissa Pupp would then swallow the brick. Whereupon, as the brick hit Krazy, Krazy would be happy." (Cummings: A Miscellany, p. 105)

And because I can't help myself, also this (remember: 1946):

"Right! The game they're playing, willy nilly, is the exciting democratic game of cat loves mouse; the game which a lot of highly moral people all over the socalled world consider uncivilized. I refer (of course) to those red-brown-and-blackshirted Puritans who want us all to scrap democracy and adopt their modernized version of follow the leader - a strictly ultraprogressive and super-benevolent affair which begins with the liquidation of Ignatz Mouse by Offissa Pupp. But (objects Krazy, in her innocent democratic way) Ignatz Mouse and Offissa Pupp are having fun. Right again!" (104)

So here's Spiegelman's Maus in utero (a lineage which has been explored, not least of which by Spiegelman, though the debt is more clunkily overt in In the Shadow of No Towers).

Eros - the Conqueror! And so on and so on. Cf. Nathaniel West's description of The Day of the Locust as "a novel in the form of a comic strip", the chapters being "squares in which many things happen through one action." Apparently Faulkner was a good comic artist as well -- anyone seen these cartoons? I'm tempted to keep on by comparing how the quatrains of Pound's "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly" might be homologous to comic strip panels, or to compare that formal analogue to Cummings's typographical spillage as a satirical model. But i'd better not. [Hi Emily]

Oh, and P.S. as I'm reading back over this, is "there'd still be the brick" potentially a summation of Imagist poetics as it shades into Objectivism?

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s favorite philosopher was Hegel.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

This picture heralding a forthcoming post on H.D.'s poem "Pursuit"

Frank Lloyd Wright wore a cape in his everyday life.
Is anyone reading anything by the critic Fran Lentricchia?

Friday, July 13, 2007

Yeats on Owen

"My anthology continues to sell, & the critics get more & more angry. When I excluded Wilfred Owen, whom I consider unworthy of the poets' corner of a country newspaper, I did not know I was excluding a revered sandwich-board Man of the revolution & that some body has put his worst & most famous poem in a glass-case in the British Museum — however if I had known it I would have excluded him just the same. He is all blood, dirt & sucked sugar stick (look at the selection in Faber's Anthology — he calls poets 'bards,' a girl a 'maid,' & talks about 'Titanic wars'). There is every excuse for him but none for those who like him." (from a letter of December 26, 1936, in Letters on Poetry from W. B. Yeats to Dorothy Wellesley, p. 113)

With that, I will arise and go now, and go to Nantucket.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Bottom nature

"These two then are of the same kind of them but this being in them is very different in its action. To begin then.

"The first one the one when it is lightish brown and gritty a little and sometimes very fluid and thin and sometimes almost dried hard and not really smooth then, in this one then it has a very different action this bottom nature from that in the one where it is dark and smooth and murkier and always about the same state of being a thickish fluid state there in her. These then are two kinds of a kind of men and women …

"The first one then as I was saying has as bottom nature in her being, resisting, this was then the action of this bottom nature in her that she never really gave herself to any one to own them, though always she wanted to be giving herself to some one … and once when she was not resisting some one engulfed her so completely that what she is, the bottom being in her, was watered down so thin that it was not of strength enough to cling to any one as dirt to hold them, to stick on them as it would if it were thick enough to own to inclose them by encasing them. This was true then that this one had it to be that the resisting substance was sometimes very thin and never thick but sometimes almost dried up into a grey brown, it looked browner thin, a little more grey when it was not wet, very thin, stuff in her." (The Making of Americans, 353-354)

Is anyone thinking what I'm thinking?

Little Geniuses

'Bout time for another one of these:
(That's Van Dyke Parks, by the way.)

EXTRA! EXTRA! Sandburg's class war looks toward Great War!

Check out Sandburg's draft card. Gray eyes. Sexy.

Anyway, I'm finding Sandburg more complex than I had remembered. I think I was swayed too easily by Bill Williams's scathing review of Sandburg's 1951 collected poems, where he denounces the mere accumulation of images and people in Sandburg's verse. Mere outcry, says WCW, does not cry out with the democratic directness Sandburg assumes. The truly democratic poet, for Williams, "digests that powerful incentive and puts it out as imaginative design, a new thing that embodies all their timeless agonies" (Selected Essays 276). But Williams's "poem as a field of action" has such a terribly different view of "fields" from Sandburg's midwestern vantage that his desire that Sandburg should be "disengaged" sounds faintly ludicrous (that is, if you take it as anything other than a self-analysis on Williams's part).

But listen to Sandburg the journalist, writing in the International Socialist Review (May 1917) about the question "Will Marshall Field III Enlist?". We've heard this recently: should the torpid, useless heir or heiress get it together, go to the front lines? (Whee!: "The general theory is that if he hadn't picked the world's greatest merchant's loins to spring from he would on natural form and ability be selling sox at the well-known wages paid by Marshall Field & Co. and without bonus payment at New Year's in war time with record-breaking profits.") At one point Sandburg notes, "When Marhall Field III. sings "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" with the accent on "MY," he is singing true to form, because he is chief designated heir to an estate of $350,000,000 at 50 years of age, and a big share of the country will be his." I take this to be a point about the interaction of class and prosody, and an especially interesting one as it comes up in relation to America's movement out of isolationism.

The question of the cost of poetic form comes up all the time in Chicago Poems (1916), most memorably in his most famous poem, "Chicago," with its incantatory, braggadocious rhythms of market accumulation. But poems like "Graceland" and "The Right to Grief" raise lots of questions for me: which poets were writing elegies for millionaires? Is the latter poem, which contrasts the amply commemorated rich with the neglected death of a poor girl whose father returns the day after to his job in the slaughterhouse, in any way an elegy for the hog's being butchered? Or what does it mean to compare the father sweeping pigs' blood away to the father pushing past his grief? Is grief, for Sandburg, qualitatively different across class lines, or just the degree of attention paid to it?

(ASIDE: The millionaires in Sandburg seem to me always to be cartoon millionaires, and S.'s invocation of the "cartoonist" in "Halsted Street Car" an allegory for the sort of sketching he is doing in verse; comp. to those other newspapermen like Mutt and Jeff, Krazy Kat, etc. as Gilbert Seldes analyzes them in the early 20s. END ASIDE)

Sandburg's exclamation, "I have a right to feel my throat choke about this" (in "The Right to Grief") pulls a broader social awareness of the poor, dead girl back to the individual speaker, with his very American "right" to grief. But it also recalls the singing contests that are among elegy's oldest conventions, and the origin of such contests in legitimating who had the right to bury and to mourn the dead. There is thus a kind of jockeying for possession of the poor ("stewardship" would be a more neutral word here, but i'm going with "possession"), between Sandburg's speaker and the vague top-hatted crowd.

I should say that Sandburg's reaction to the war was ambiguous, from what I understand, with his sentiment pulled between the dominant socialist opposition to the war and his own sense of America's necessary involvement. This page is better than I could be at breaking it down.

Copper and Bronze: In the brief poem "In the Back Alley," the Lincoln-head on the penny makes any circulation of the coin a sort of memorial for the great man, even if it's just newsies pitching pennies back of the tenements (and it's notably that the penny-handlers earn their keep by spreading the word, as opposed to any other job S. could have picked). But the most interesting poem I've seen yet is "Bronze," which has the statue of General Grant in Lincoln Park watching the motorized cars whizz past, as newsies yell out headlines of the "forty thousand men are dead along the Yser". The news of Battle of the Yser (16-31 Oct, 1914), which is heralded in the poem by the noise of mechanized transportation, almost rouses the statues to battle, but cannot. They sit on their pedestals, reminders of actions (Garibaldi and Shakespeare look on as well). But they are also, in their stillness and sentience, valuable stoics set apart from and maybe above the cold world (in short, the poem seems to be using these statues to test two versions of art's relation to the news of war).

What I'm wondering about a poem like this is to what extent the poetics of accumulation that Sandburg is constructing in a book like Chicago Poems (I'm not familiar enough with the full oeuvre to speak outside of this collection) are shaped by the U.S.'s neutrality? (I'll nod to Whitman here, since I haven't really considered that legacy of war verse yet, and need to.) Clair Wills has a brand new book on the neutrality of the Irish Free State during "the Emergency" (aka WWII), in which she discusses the local particularity and self-anthropologizing that was fostered by the insular gaze that became the nation's necessary policy (e.g. Patrick Kavanagh writing "The Great Hunger" at this moment).

Have either of you encountered works that speak to the contours of American responses to, or figurations of, neutrality? More broadly, what are the poetics of peace, within visible range of war?

(Lordy, I meant for this to a be a short posting...)

lotta whisky in that

Faulkner was only five foot six.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

World War Wha?

Question for Greg: what Great War poets are you reading/have you read? I'm just about finished with Fussell's book, and I'm planning on taking a look at Brooke, Graves, Sassoon and Owen afterwards. Anybody else I should check in with before I bid goodbye to all that for good?
Hart Crane's father invented Lifesavers candies?!? How delicious and ironically sad.

"Let us go then, you and I…"

is an opening that evokes both an immediate past (by the use of "then," indicating that we are already in the middle of something) and an immediate future ("Let us go").

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Campaign for Caldwell

So my new personal crusade is to bring Erskine Caldwell back into the fold of literary studies. Apparently, he was purposefully kicked out of the canon, along with Steinbeck somewhere in the 60s and 70s.. Liberals didn't think he was liberal enough, conservatives thought he was too racy. God's Little Acre is something like the best-selling American book in Tokyo and Russia or something ridiculous like that. Faulkner and Fitzgerald loved him. He almost won the Pulitzer in the 60s, but thats when he went out of style. And he's amazing. I also haven't come across a writer yet, except for Baldwin, who attempts to narrate black and white characters or to narrate any sort of interracial community without one race or the other just being cast as the scenic and atmospheric Other. (I guess you could argue for Faulkner doing this, but I dont' really think that's true) And also, he needs to be back in the canon because his books have the best covers.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Maybe another, shorter way to say everything I just said

"If truth is the main casualty in war, ambiguity is another." (Fussell, 74)

Naiveté, Irony, Repetition, Repetition

So I have finally started reading Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory, and I'm struck, as who wouldn't be, by this sentence at the end of his first chapter: "I am saying that there seems to be one dominating form of modern understanding; that it is essentially ironic; and that it originates largely in the application of mind and memory to the events of the Great War" (35).

Yeah? You and what army? As always with this kind of pronouncement, it depends when, and where, you situate the "modern," and Fussell is situating it in the England of the 1910s, by which point modernity, by most people's lights, had already been going on for some forty years, if not fifty or sixty. (It's a weird experience to read critical texts semi-chronologically and see the date of the beginning of "modernity" recede further and further into the past; I think it's about at 1550 now.) All of this is just semantics, though, and doesn't affect Fussell's basic argument (in his first chapter; not in the whole book) that a form of irony associated primarily with Thomas Hardy became, as a result of the colossal social disillusionment by the events of World War I, the modern literary temperament, preparing the way for Eliot, the later Pound, and all the rest of the Modernist gloomy gusses. This irony, put in the simplest possible way, posits an innocent Before and a terrible After, with the author/speaker situated firmly on the latter side, the After (whether it be of war, modernity, death, classicism, revolution).

While not exactly disagreeing with this analysis, I'm interested in the fact that it so obviously doesn't apply to the two modernist writers I've been reading most intensively lately, namely Gertrude Stein and Guillaume Apollinaire. While Fussell locates the force of Hardy's irony in "a collision between innocence and awareness" (5), it seems to me that both Apollinaire and Stein skirt these categories in favor of a thoroughgoing, incorruptible naïveté which simply cannot be mapped on to the before/after structure Fussell sets up. This naïveté seems, more than anything else, to be what links these two seminal figures, and on Fussell's reading it is utterly opposed to the definition of "modern" sensibility that the Great War puts forward and that, on his reading, is apotheosized in a postwar modernist like Eliot. So, is it only because Stein and Apollinaire came of age well before the War that they are so invested not in knowingness (which is what irony, in Hardy's sense, is all about) but in ignorance, in lack of knowledge? Is it because they are American, and French/Italian/Polish, rather than British? Or what?
I'll start with Stein. I keep thinking of a remark made I think by Tristan Tzara in that amazing Pamphlet Against Gertrude Stein that Jeremy assigned us last semester, to the effect that Stein has a "baby style": not quite right, I don't think (she's more like an extremely excited and confident six-year-old) but close enough to suggest the lack of sophistication that Stein so willfully projects in her writing, a lack of sophistication coupled with a dogged urge to pronounce, to state, to display authority.

Two procedures seem important to Stein in maintaining this tricky balance between naïveté: repetition (yes, that again) and time-framing. I was very interested, Greg, in what you wrote a while back about Yeats "testing" his words through repetition, or, to quote you specifically, "asking his rhythm to test ideas and words til they become old in the way polished stones in creeks are old." It's tempting to apply this description to Stein as well: certainly, The Making of Americans (when it's not reminding me of a vacuum cleaner) has the feel of a verbal laboratory, in which the author tries tiny variations on a limited number of formulae, hoping to produce some long-promised extraordinary effect. But Yeats' testing, one could say, attempts to create a sort of eternal present through the construction of a usable mythic past; whereas Stein is always oddly oriented toward the future, at the expense of the past and present. What's interesting in The Making of Americans is how she continually dispels the incantatory power of her repetitions with little reminders that she's driving at something: "soon there will be a history of the Hersland children," "later it will become clearer the kind of being that each one had in them," etc. (I'm paraphrasing; you know how it is, the book's all the way on the other side of the room). These reiterations aren't allowed to seem old, or familiar, or even properly symbolic, the way Yeats' (or Eliot's or Pound's) repeated words are, because they're so obviously temporary: they're not mantras but coordinates on an enormous map we will soon (but when?) be able to step back and admire.

All this to say, Stein is not a Symbolist: where Mallarmé or Verlaine or Symons or Yeats take aesthetic pleasure in the symbol, the image and the word in and of themselves, Stein is so focused on her version of the novelist's traditional "big picture" that she refrains from putting too much weight on any one detail or image or construction. What's happening in The Making of Americans is happening sentence by sentence, but it's not happening within the sentence; and it is, for that reason, impossible to excerpt. One could say that it's happening in the next sentence, only by the time we get there it no longer is. Again and again, we confront Stein's "sometime," "someday," "soon," and, occasionally, a "now" that projects us into the next sentence or paragraph hopefully only to confront us with another delay, or another restatement. This stops being incredibly frustrating only once (and if) you begin to view Stein's progress as incremental, that is, that she is actually accomplishing what she claims to be putting off until later: viz., narrating the history of a family's progress.
Another kind of modernist naïveté is displayed by Stein's contemporary and friend Guillaume Apollinaire. Even more than poétès maudits like Rimbaud and Verlaine, Apollinaire writes a style of French that is intentionally awkward: polyglot, crude, often obscene, syntactically either overly simple or ridiculously muddled. (It may or may not be necessary to emphasize that he did this on purpose; his critical prose is perfectly literate, even elegant.) The title of his most famous volume is Alcools and I think more than a few times in it he is endeavoring to mimic drunkenness (and in the last poem he turns into the mouth of Paris and drinks the blood of Europe like wine). Like Stein, he uses repetition to an effect that is less authoritative than childlike ("Les anges les anges dans le ciel," e.g.). And he also likes to play with the time-frames of his works, most obviously in his landmark poem "La Chanson du Mal Aimé," which begins:

Et je chantais cette romance
En 1903 sans savoir
Que mon amour à la semblance
Du beau Phénix s'il meurt un soir
Le matin voit sa renaissance

(And I sang this ballad
In 1903 in ignorance
Of love's resemblance
To the Phoenix dead at evening
Resurrected by morning) (Alcools, 14-15)

Apollinaire is effectively beginning his poem with a disclaimer: this poem was written in 1903, when I knew less about the subject; I no longer feel this way. But somehow rather than undermining the lyric intensity of the poem that follows, this bizarre flash-forward heightens it (and the tension builds as Apollinaire goes on to interpolate three further poems, taking place further back in the speaker's past or in his fantasy, all of which complicate the lyrical "now" of his "Chanson"). The reason for this is that the ignorance of the speaker is exactly what conditions his utterance: it is Apollinaire's favored pose to be bewildered, melancholy, and slightly drunk-seeming, just as it is Stein's to be earnest, relentless, and positivistic. The poem works if we are affected by this state of confusion and ignorance, and identify with it. But unlike in traditional dramatic irony, where the speaker's ignorance helps us to attain a position of interpretive power over him (because we know more than he does), here the effect relies on us sharing for the most part in the speaker's ignorance, while still recognizing it as ignorance.

Like Stein, then, Apollinaire makes us feel that we aren't fully in possession of the equipment we need to read his work: that it would not just be a matter of understanding how he feels now, but also who he used to be. And of course this knowledge is not just difficult to acquire, it's impossible, and not just for us, but for the speaker himself. The proper time of understanding the poem is not now and not then, and not a simple mediation between the two (as in Hardy's customary irony). For in Apollinaire's poems, each line is an experience of its own: they float on the page, abutting but not intruding on each other (an effect which is enhanced by Apollinaire's removal of all punctuation from the book at the proof-correcting stage).

What I am (very provisionally) theorizing here is a sort of naïve irony common to Apollinaire and Stein, a chosen naïvete, one which always retains the suggestion of a state of greater knowledge to come but which prefers to write out of ignorance (thus, perhaps, anticipating Beckett and his epochal rejection of Joyce's "omniscience and omnipotence"); and that this stands apart from the essentially ironic, elegiac strain of Modernism that Fussell sees as coming to fruition during the Great War. I can't decide whether this type of irony — if it even is irony — is the opposite of Hardy's, or just a lot more complicated: for Hardy there is only before and after, now and then, while for Apollinaire there is a complex weft of nows and thens, perhaps as many as there are lines in the poem.

Question: does this kind of naïve attitude make irony, as such, impossible?

OK, I am probably sounding like Marjorie Perloff with a couple of drinks in her. Sorry to go on so long.

I haven't even gotten to Apollinaire's war poetry yet, but I think it will make a fascinating comparison with the kind of stuff Fussell writes about in his book (about which also more anon).