Friday, August 31, 2007

I have come to seduce you, Edna St. Vincent Millay

How did I miss so many blog entries from while I was gone? I thought I'd read them all when I got back in town, but looking through the list I noticed Adrienne's great and really helpful long note on Bellow, Evan's work on Pooley-Wah, and so on. I'm a bit slow.

About The Emperor Jones, I think I'm going to go see the Wooster Group's version of it in the Philly Fringe Fest next week and will report back if I do.

There's also a play called Gatz on -- have you all heard of this? Apparently it's 7.5 hours long (you get a meal at intermission) and involves a full reading of The Great Gatsby, with stage actions playing off the text in various ways. I kinda want to do this for the sheer Andy Kaufmanness, and cause it'll save me re-reading Gatsby. Couldn't there be a few more such plays? -- I'd gladly attend a 43 hour Invisible Man performance. Bloomsday people seem to get sloppily through Ulysses every year. I just want to be the audience to the rest of my generals list.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Hugh and Ray

OK, so: two ways out of Modernist criticism: Raymond Williams and Hugh Kenner. Both start publishing in the early 50s, in England and America (via Canada) respectively, and can be seen as a sort of transition between the rapidly aging New Critical establishment and the theory-soaked generation that would emerge from the ruins of Existentialism. They both brought new intellectual leanings to the examination of familiar texts and problems and they both engaged, significantly and influentially, with Modernism — Kenner for the whole of his career, Williams at the very end of it.

Hugh first. Kenner liked the Modernists because they were geniuses, and he liked geniuses because he was one. The Marjorie Perloff quote that Adrienne posted last week noting that Kenner posited "a conjunction of literary innovation with that of the other arts, sciences, and technologies" is totally on the money: and while it's certainly a big part of his achievement and the fantastic connections he's able to make, especially in The Pound Era, it also occasionally borders on becoming a gimmick. He also, problematically, assumes that simply by virtue of living through an era in which such scientific revolutions were transpiring, men as Ludditic as Pound and Joyce must have absorbed their innovations by osmosis.

What makes up for this fast-and-loose historicism is his unquestionable awesomeness at close reading, in which he can run circles around the New Critics he succeeded (and whom he mocks in passing in A Homemade World). His typical critical method was dogged patience before the mysteries of a difficult text, coupled with complete faith that its creator had been, in every respect, on to something. (Incidentally, he has one of the most apt names in literature: over the course of his long and tireless career, more and more technical procedures, factoids and acts of random scholarship swim into his ken.) The results of this attitude are its own justification: Kenner finds and explicates problems in Ulysses and The Cantos that other readers hadn't even realized were there, and probably never would have.

But, here's the problem, as I see it, with Kenner's scientistic Modernism: if the Modernists invented a new kind of poem, then they conveniently forgot to tell us how to build one of our own; or rather, the instructions they left are so colored by the first flush of excitement at the discovery that they're often more or less indecipherable. HK admits at much by quoting at length from Williams's "explanatory" prose writing in Spring and All, which he back-handedly compliments as "homemade philosophy," but justifies thusly: "Yet as on a stage where we see nothing but a good mime leaning on the invisible mantelpiece can persuade us he knows where the fireplace would be, so Williams' gesturings around the Imagination are not random nor self-contradictory but compatible with the existence, located and perceived by him, of a reality he may not succeed in making us see" (66). The writing here is so good that you can forget what an easy time he's giving Williams, just as he does Zukofsky's "Sincerity and Objectification" in a later chapter; and, more broadly, how much he has to supply himself in order to make a coherent Modernist Weltanschauung.

In essence, then, he treated the Modernists not like scientists but like scientific phenomena, ineffably but exactly "behaving" the way molecules behave — and not like like people with ideas which could sometimes be drastically wrong. For all his emphasis on science, Kenner lacks any account of how scientific ideas are transmitted from one mind to another: it's all "Eureka" with him, all homemade breakthrough, with almost no interest in that other important aspect of science in the 20th century, the process by which radical new ideas are tested and contested in a public arena. Thomas Kuhn he ain't.

Williams, on the other hand, is all about the communication of ideas. He's considered important for, among other things, finding a synthesis of Leavisism and Marxism to combat the reactionary political climate of Britain in the 50s, which in practice meant rehabilitating the problematic ideas of "culture" and "tradition" for a progressive democratic agenda. In the late 50s and early 60s Williams became a sort of academic celebrity and spokesman for the British New Left, called by Edward Thompson "our best man" (a designation that recalls Auden's position in the mid-30s — there's something very English about this sort of left-wing hero worship, evidently). His 1958 essay "The Masses" (excerpted from the conclusion of Culture and Society), though specifically arguing against "mass-communication" and the conservative fear of a lowering of cultural standards due to the influence of film and television, can also be read as an insistence on communication over aesthetics, intelligent discourse about standards replacing — or rather, constituting — standards themselves. This is a version of Modernism, if it is Modernism, with a politics quite removed from the meritocratic bias of the Pound tradition championed by Kenner. Williams writes that "much of what we call communication is, necessarily, no more in itself than transmisson: that is to say, a one-way sending. Reception and response, which complete communication, depend on other factors than the techniques" (50). Ideas, or poetic styles, in other words, aren't just right or wrong, good or bad, or even qualitatively "of their time"; there are no self-evident "discoveries" in the realm of culture; they take hold only if they are presented and defended in such a way that the people receiving them realize their benefit. (This is close to sounding like John Dewey, but I can't tell if that's me or Williams.) Contra his Canadian contemporary's faith in "a reality [someone else] may not succeed in making us see," Williams would seem to say that there is no reality (in the realm of culture, anyway, which by any definition is where literature belongs) that is not communicated, and communicated well: not, at any rate, for other people.

Well, I hope I'm communicating some kind of reality, at least to myself (hello there, self) in the future. Bottom line: I see Kenner and Williams as engaged in two markedly different attempts to keep Modernism going, Kenner by ensuring that its texts remain influential (and readable), and Williams by keeping the communication channels it opened within the academy free and clear. Kenner makes his name by digging indefatigably into the texts of Pound, Eliot, Joyce, &c, revealing unsuspected depths in them; while, at approximately the same time, Williams takes up the philosophical concepts associated with Modernism, and particularly with Eliot — the volume's editor John Higgins notes that RW's 1958 manifesto "Culture is Ordinary" was a kind of late response to Eliot's 1948 Notes Towards the Definition of Culture — in an attempt to revise and broaden them so they can be applied to new texts and new fields of study (notably politics, sociology and film).

(And now this is really just a suggestion for further study, but it might be interesting to compare Williams and Kenner in the light of the rise of communication theory; Kenner's early association with Marshall McLuhan would be particularly important in such a narrative. And lookee here: that ever-reliable conduit of communication Wikipedia informs me that McLuhan's "interest in the critical study of popular culture was influenced by the 1933 book Culture and Environment by F.R. Leavis and Denys Thompson." It all goes back to Leavis, it appears. Gotta read Leavis now, I guess.)

Sick and tired

I want to throw a passage by Raymond Williams, somewhat haphazardly, at the question of Modernism's Old Man Fetish that we were kicking around way back. This is from "Individuals and Societies," an excerpt from his 1961 book The Long Revolution given in The Raymond Williams Reader, and it clarifies his theoretical distinction between "subjects" and "servants":

"The subject, at whatever violence to himself, has to accept the way of life of his society, and his own indicated place in it, because there is no other way in which he can maintain himself at all … It is not his way of life, in any sense that matters, but he must conform to it to survive. In the case of the servant, the pressure is less severe, though still, to him, irresistible. The subject has no choice; the servant is given the illusion of a choice, and is invited to identify himself with the way of life in which his place is defined. It is an illusion of choice, because again, like the subject, he has no obvious way of maintaining his life if he refuses. Yet the illusion is important, for it allows him to pretend to have an identification with the society, as if the choice had been real. The subject will have few illusions about the relationship which is determining him; he will know that the way of life is not his but must be obeyed. The servant, on the other hand, may come to identify himself with the other way of life that is determining him; he may even, consciously, think of himself as a member … Yet at many levels of his life, and particularly in certain situations such as solitude and age, the discrepancy between the role the individual is playing and his actual sense of himself will become manifest, either consciously or in terms of some physical or emotional disturbance. Given the right conditions, he can play the role as if it were really his, or in situations evoking his deepest personal feelings, the identification breaks down." (77-78)

I'm thinking here in particular of Yeats, in such a poem as "Among School Children," where the "role" of poet as public "servant" (in his own phrase, a "smiling public man") is unexpectedly decimated under the pressure of lyric "disturbance." Is this what Yeats (and maybe Eliot) are trying to embody in their personae — the kind of lack of faith in society experienceable not by rebellious youth (Joyce's/Stephen Dedalus' "Non serviam") but only by old men who've spent themselves in trying to serve?

Kids today

Geez Louise. What was wrong with Maggie Estep?

P.S. Greg, any interest in going to this with me?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Gwendolyn Brooks's hair

Following up on what Adrienne had to say way back in June about H.D.'s follicles and the 'roots' of imagism, Gwendolyn Brooks's hair is literally the bearer of the history of mid-century Black poetics.

Compare Annie Allen (1949), the poem "beauty shoppe"...

"Guilty/ with invisible Beauty" and

(the smoking iron)

Lay it on lightly, lay it on with heed.
Because it took that stuff so long to grow."

...with Primer for Blacks (1980), the poem "To Those of My Sisters Who Kept Their Naturals"

"You have not wanted to be white.
Nor have you testified to adoration of that state
with the advertisement of imitation
(never successful because the hot comb is
laughing too.)"

Anyway, I love Brooks's poetry more than I can express right now. Probably my favorite thing I've read on my major list during the whole of generals. I'll have more to say about Maud Martha once I'm done reading Wright's Native Son, and tomorrow once i've finished looking at the Brooks-Wright indirect correspondence that is in special collections ("indirect" because they are writing to/about each other through their editor at Harper Bros.). I started looking today (can I legally post quotations on here from this material? I'll find out tomorrow) and found some wonderful details about the early draft history of Maud Martha, when it had the working title of American Family Brown and brought the whole family to a crowded center stage, before she decided to focus on Maud (originally named "Helen Martha").

CSI: Paterson

I spent a whole bunch of hours today in the archives! One thing on my long list of items to view was the 1934 Objectivist Press first edition of Charles Reznikoff's Testimony. A weird and wonderful book that I think Adrienne might really like. The copy in Rare Books was uncut, so I had the bizarre and thrilling opportunity to take a bone tool to the pages as I read. At this point my comments will be nowhere near so incisive, but I figured I would copy below various amazing quotations from the introductory essay by Kenneth Burke, "The Matter of the Document." The book begins with a short, comically modest note: "I glanced through several hundred volumes of old cases - not a great many as law reports go - and found almost all that follows. C.R." In the result, there's a whole other angle on Objectivism to be found here: of forensics and the "objectivity" of Law, which seems to me to be perhaps willfully muted in Zukofsky's rather easy assumption of ethical-lyrical care in "Sincerity and Objectification" and his account of "Rezi".

Before those quotes, tho, I want to give the first and last paragraphs of Testimony, to give a sense of what's going on here. The work is divided into three sections, "Southerners and Slaves," "Sailing Ships and Steamers," and "East and West." The first excerpt I give is just the first paragraph of a poem, the second is a complete section of the last poem in the book.

"Dun had been down to a sunken boat, and was coming back in his skiff about dark when he met Broadus and Lucas. He got out of his skiff, and went with them in theirs. He came back at one o'clock and when he got into bed, asked his wife where Elizabeth was. She was in the other bed in the room, but asleep, said Dun's wife, because she had called her and she did not answer. Dun then told his wife that they had shot 'Dutch,' but had not killed him. 'Dutch' was picking up wood when he was shot, and he ran and hallooed to those in the house, and cried out, 'Boys, I am shot!' Broadus, the damned fool, ran and left his hat." (1)

Do you think the first line, which is the first line of the book, recalls the opening of the Cantos? I love the sound patterns in the first line (Dun/down/sunken/coming, and the rep. of K's), but the book doesn't give an indication of what "poetic" work has been done to the extracts, so one cannot know if these are manipulations of Rezi's or felicities of the found prose. The interjection "Broadus, the damned fool" lends a sense of spoken witness and a seeming break from "objectivity" that is nevertheless still contained within the supposedly neutral, balanced gaze of the Law. (Important to point out, though: the book bears no judgments, shows no outcomes other than the often bloody remains of a crime scene - e.g. "The ax broke the teeth and left the lip hanging at one end. Ned then turned the ax in his hands and struck Ely on the back of the head with the eye of the ax and broke his skull." (6))

"As the case was turned over upon the wharf, a rattling was heard inside. The looking-glass was broken. The pieces were wedge-shaped; the cracks radiated from a center, as if the glass had been struck by a pointed instrument." (71 - "Depression" section 4, last lines of the book)

Imagine this lineated, cut out some of the verbs, and (at a stretch) you have a passable early poem by Oppen, or at least a note you'd find in an early Daybook. The cracked mirror image is an interesting one on which to end, as it suggests to me that Reznikoff is implying that law testimonies literalize and mediate the transition from realist or naturalist narratives to the "cracked mirror" of modernist prose and poetry (I know that's a bit swift, I can expand on that perhaps). This paragraph (stanza? vignette?) also, as in R's project here on the whole, reifies the evidentiary tradition of imagism, as highlighted by Kenner in The Pound Era -- the structural similarity between the "clue" or luminous detail in late Victorian detective fiction, providing a grammar with which to "read" the detritus of urban/late capitalist existence, and the imagist detail (cf. H.D.'s "Traces" in Sea Garden, on which I had meant to write something ages ago).

The cracked glass may also recall, and stand in tension with, Zuk's "Program: 'Objectivists' 1931", in which Zukofsky compares Objectivist poetry to the process of a "lens bringing the rays from an object into focus." The ref. behind both may be old lens-grinder Spinoza, about whom both Rezi and Zuk wrote poems, but if anyone (Evan, you philosophy buff you) can flesh out the bearing of that link, i'd be much obliged.

Here's Reznikoff standing on the bus:

Anyway, Burke it up!:

"As the 'scientific' quality of modern art came more and more into evidence, we began to note a progressive development of fiction towards the 'case history.' It is only recently that we have become aware of a complementary movement, the movement of the 'case history' towards fiction." (xi)

"In the end, any simplification of a human life is a fiction, and any case history is a simplification. And it is sometimes salutary for us to remind ourselves that even the vast 'world-historical' perspectives of a Spengler may be at bottom but the 'documentary substantiation' of an attitude as simple and moody as the lyric. Spengler is perhaps the ultimate instance of this process wherein a feeling or a metaphor is, by dint of industrious evidence, given massive intellectual backing. His 'morphology of history' is a poem, a pedant's dogged version of Shelley's Ozymandias, the Stimmung proper to one sonnet expanded inot a life work, plus a military pessimism that led the author to interpret existence in terms of a struggle (misleadingly called Werden, or Becoming) which necessarily made good times look like a battlefield and peace like decay." (xii)

[Reznikoff's] "profession itself [a lawyer] providing the principle of selectivity, he could leave the matter of 'truth' to the records as available." (xiii)

"'A few years ago,' he has explained, 'I was working for a publisher of law books, reading cases form every state and every year (since this country became a nation). Once in a while I could see in the facts of a case details of the time and place, and it seemed to me that out of such material the century and a half during which the United States has been a nation could be written up, not from the standpoint of an individual, as in diaries, nor merely from the angle of the unusual, as in newspapers, but from every standpoint - as many standpoints as were provided by the witnesses themselves.'" (xiii)

"In the large, however, his bare presentation of the records places us before people who appear in the meager simplicity of their complaints. They have grievances, they have brought those grievances before the law, whose abstract, forensic 'justice' will often treat their problems in a manner wholly alien to the subjective quality of their distress. And one is made to feel very sorry for them, a humane response which far too much of our contemporary literature has neglected, with its overemphasis upon dominance, conquest, the attainment or frustration of 'success.' (xiv)

"Whatever individual standpoints they may represent, be they plaintiff or defendant, interested or disinterested witness, slave or slave-owner, brutal sea-captain or recorders of his brutality, these bearers of testimony represent in the large the 'law court point of view.' In this respect Mr. Reznikoff's work embodies in miniature the problem of the 'whole truth' as it arises in a civilization marked by many pronounced differences in occupational pattern." (xv-xvi)

R.I.P. Grace Paley

A beautiful tribute, with a beautiful Paley poem, by Katha Pollitt at The Nation.

Monday, August 27, 2007

How German Is It?

The age of criticism has begun. For the past couple of days I've been reading Aesthetics and Politics, a handy little primer which chronicles the Marxist response to Modernism through essays and letters by Bloch, Lukács, Benjamin, Brecht and Adorno, with a wrap-up afterword by Fredric Jameson. What I like about Marxist criticism, as I was saying to Emily over a burrito last night, is that whether or not one agrees with the ideology, it's bracing to see that level of rigor applied to ideas, to see writers straining themselves to do justice to both their theories and historical facts, and to organize themselves into coherent positions vis-à-vis each other. It's that passionate rigor which is almost always missing from contemporary criticism, whether academic or otherwise: sadly, it may only be purchasable at the cost of being kind of an overzealous asshole.

Anyway, just a small thing for now. Jameson, in his conclusion says that "[t]he legacy of German Expressionism provided a more propitious framework for the development of a major debate within Marxism," and explains this fact by saying that "in the writings of the surrealists, and particular of Breton, the problem of realism largely fails to arise — in the first instance owing to their initial repudiation of the novel as a form. While for their principal adversary Jean-Paul Sartre … the realism/modernism dilemma did not arise either, but for the opposite reason: because of Sartre's preliminary exclusion of poetry and the lyric from his account of the nature and function of literature in general. Thus in France, until that second wave of modernism (or post-modernism) represented by the nouveau roman and the nouvelle vague, Tel Quel and 'structuralism,' the terrain for which realism and modernism were elsewhere so bitterly to contend — that of narrative — was effectively divided up between them in advance, as though in amicable separation" (197).

An interesting claim, that, and a difficult one to assess without a great deal of historical research. I think there are problems here. For one thing, it suggests a too-easy equation of poetry (and lyric in particular) with the subjective and fiction with the objective and committed that smacks of Lukács at his worst. Poetry is often spoken about, it seems to me, as some sort of means of escape or forced marginalization, perhaps for the simple reason that it's so much less popular than fiction. But when we're dealing with experimental literature, it really seems to me that this is a sort of category-error: it's only that modernist novels seem to be the same sort of things as popular novels that we think of them as being a more realistic or objective, more world-embracing, form than lyric poetry. In contrast, by the mid-20th century, there is no popular poetry really: it's all degrees of specialty interest.

But let's leave that aside, for now. Another thing that interests me here is Jameson's characterization of France as the province of a sort of complacent radicalism which remained outside the important debates about Modernism until the 60s. This is especially surprising given that the majority of the literary authors at issue throughout the book are French, including Balzac, Baudelaire, Proust, Valéry, Sartre, and, if we want to be provocative, we can count Beckett too. (The other major names that get thrown around are Thomas Mann, Joyce, Kafka and, of course, Brecht.) And in fact, after the initial exchange between Bloch and Lukács, Expressionism itself is little-mentioned in the debate: perhaps because it was quite literally destroyed by the rise of the Nazis, who viewed it as "degenerate art."

From the Marxist perspective, then, France is not ahead of the times (as most British and American intellectuals tended to think) but behind them, or rather it provides the times' most interesting literary symptoms, ready-made for German dialecticians to diagnose. Given this structure of cultural economy, it would be more accurate, it seems to me, not to dismiss France but to name it as a particular kind of site of literary production, just as Germany (or, to be more precise, Germans, since much of the writing in Aesthetics and Politics was produced in exile) as the source of the most sophisticated and influential literary theory of the period, is another. The whole book, read slightly against the grain, provides an interesting example of the division of labor among national intellectual communities in the Modernist period. In this scheme, it's usually French writers — or writers with the seal of French approval, like Joyce and Beckett — who are received as important; it's German critics (mostly Marxists and Critical Theorists, including Lukács, Benjamin, Adorno, and Horkheimer) who fight out the issues of Modernism on the terrain of aesthetic theory and provide ground for later philosophical justifications; and it's American entrepeneurs (Sylvia Beach and Ezra Pound, of course, spring immediately to mind) who publicize and canonize the great works that this transnational cycle of cultural production throws up.* This model holds good more or less up until the sixties, when Tel Quel and the post-structuralists finally supersede Marxism in the affections of American academics; which, of course, is also the moment in which Jameson himself comes of age.

[* This leads me to a further unwarranted speculation. Each nation got the version of Modernism its philosophical heritage could best imagine: Germany, with its tradition of idealism, produced the tortured distortions of Expressionism; France, home of Cartesianism, the proudly subjective but self-evidently present (because provocative) excesses of Surrealism, etc. England is a trickier call: I don't really see Humean skepticism or Russelian logic underlying the development of British Modernism (Empson, maybe?), but one way to explain this would be to say that in England literature was always more important than philosophy: therefore, its Modernism evolved in dialectic with the previous tradition, rather than starting over from some newly adopted position. (The negative way of putting this is that, in England, the new boss was the same as the old boss.) Finally, in America, the legacy of pragmatism produced a literature primarily committed to bringing artistic methods up to date, a milieu in which artists looked over each other's shoulders and commented on particularities of construction, rather than decimating each other's metaphysical foundations as in so much European literature (and literary theory). Pound, obviously, would be the classic example here. (I'd say this is also why the American academy was the most welcoming to Modernism in general, as well: because so much of its energies went into carving out a place for contemporary literature in the public sphere.) ]

Correction appended: It was morning, not night. And it was a breakfast burrito.

Big old lovable bear

Walter Benjamin called Theodor Adorno "Teddie." Cute!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

I had to abandon Naked Lunch about 50 pages in. I felt bad for 2 minutes, but now i'm glad i did. I guess I have to draw the line somewhere. Burroughs = my line. I'm considering doing this with Rabbit, Run as well (I read it years ago, and can't find the stamina to finish all 300 pages) Patience growing shorter as my list grows longer, are you having that?

Some short gwendolyn brooks, david foster wallace, angels and in america and some vonnegut might have to tide me over until i can gain some stamina for Call it Sleep and Invisible Man. I already cut the Jungle and any Steinbeck epic novels. The piece of advice i'm gonna tell next year's group--put the big novels first. All of them.

Friday, August 24, 2007

This is eerie

Have you heard the news, Adrienne?

What, I Say What, Is The Big Idea

The philosophy in Stevens' poems is cartoon philosophy. If philosophy can sometimes seem invulnerable to facts, his poetry is invulnerable to theory. If he decides to hit one of his concepts on the head with an anvil, it gets right back up again, unhurt.


“I consider her the most famous Negro woman poet in America.” — Langston Hughes on Marianne Moore, 1967

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Jarrell on Moore

Greg, I'm curious what you think of this passage by Randall Jarrell on Marianne Moore, written in 1945 in response to her volume Nevertheless. He's commenting specifically on her poem "In Distrust of Merits" (which is here, if you're unfamiliar with it) which Auden and others called the best war poem of WWII. Of particular interest is the end of the third paragraph, which puts Moore in the context of other Modernist poets who were reacting against the memory of the poets of the Great War.


"Miss Moore's war poem, 'In Distrust of Merits,' has been called the best war poem so often that it should be treated in detail.

"The title is humility, not understanding — she distrusts her own merits, but trusts, accepts almost as if she were afraid to question, those of the heroic soldiers of her poem. She does not understand that they are heroes in the sense that the chimney sweeps, the factory children in the blue books, were heroes: routine loss in the routine business of the world. She sees them (the recurring triplet is the major theme of the poem) fighting fighting fighting; she does not remember that most of the people in a war never fight for even a minute — though they bear for years and die forever. They do not fight, but only starve, only suffer, only die: the sum of all this passive misery is that great activity, War.

"Miss Moore thinks of the war in blindingly moral terms. We are fighting 'that where there was death there may be life.' This is true, in a sense; but the opposite is true in a more direct sense. She writes at the climax of her poem, 'If these great patient / dyings — all these agonies / and woundbearings and bloodshed / can teach us how to live, these dyings were not wasted'; and ends the poem with 'Beauty is eternal / and dust is for a time.' (The armies and the peoples died, and it meant that Beauty is eternal.) Since Pharaoh's bits were pushed into the jaws of kings, these dyings — patient or impatient, but dyings — have happened, by the hundreds of millions; they were all wasted. They taught us to kill others and die ourselves, but never how to live. Who is 'taught to live' by cruelty, suffering, stupidity, and that occupational disease of soldiers, death? The moral equivalent of war! Peace, our peace, is the moral equivalent of war. If Miss Moore had read a history of the European 'colonization' of our planet (instead of natural histories full of the quaint animals of those colonies) she would be astonished at nothing in the last world war, or in this one, or in the next. She would distrust us and herself, but not at the eleventh hour, not because of the war (something incommensurable, beside which all of us are good): she would have distrusted the peace of which our war is only the extrapolation. It is the peace of which we were guilty. Miss Moore's seeing what she sees, and only now, betrays an extraordinary but common lack of facts, or imagination, or something. But how honest and lovable — how genuinely careless about herself and caring about the rest of the world — Miss Moore seems in this poem, compared to most of our poets, who are blinder to the war than they ever were to the peace, who call the war 'this great slapstick,' and who write (while everyone applauds) that they are not going to be foolish enough to be 'war poets.' How could they be? The real war poets are always war poets, peace or any time.

"For this poem Miss Moore has given up her usual method, because of the emotion and generality that have overwhelmed her. I wish that she had — as the world has — taken her little animals, her bric-a-brac with all their moral and aesthetic qualities, her individuals with their scrupulous virtues, and shown them smashed willy-nilly, tortured, prostituted, driven crazy — and not for a while but forever: this is, till the day they died. As it is she has handled not these real particulars but abstractions she is unfamiliar with and finds it hard not to be heroic about; and her poem is neither good nor bad, but a mistake we sympathize with thoroughly.

"I don't want to finish my review of Miss Moore without saying what a good poet she is, and how lucky we are to have her." (Kipling, Auden & Co., 129-130, emphasis mine)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

You're right!

Yankee Go Home

I really can't handle Robert Lowell. I think it's a perfect storm of not getting/caring about Biblical references, disliking the solemnity and self-importance of his tone, and the fact that I hate Boston, and sort of hate New England in general. The last part is almost the worst, because Lowell never lets you forget where he comes from: dude mentions "Concord" or "Nantucket" or "Melville" or "New Bedford" or "our fathers" on like every fucking page of Lord Weary's Castle. (John Wheelwright also has this problem, but he's such a weirdo it comes off charming.)

Actually those three complaints are related: because what repels me most about the gravitas Lowell's poems assume is that I know they are banking on the grandeur of the (mid-century) reader's associations with the Bible and with the history of Boston, two things I know little about and have a mostly hostile reaction towards. So it's not just an annoyance about an uncaught reference, as is par for the course with Modernism, but also a certainty that if I did know the reference I wouldn't be impressed by it.

Plus he had a weird-shaped head.

Forget the melting pot, its a brew

Waldo Frank on American language:
"Our brew of Nigger-strut, of wailing Jew, of cantankerous Celt, of nostalgic Anglo-Saxon, is a brew of Dada"

Edmund Wilson on contemporary literature in 1926:
"polyglot, parvenu, hysterical and often only semi-literate"

The black William Carlos Williams, as quoted from Van Wyck Brooks:
"Dr Williams's father and mother had grown up with the colored people in their West Indian islands, and he himself had, ingrained in his very bones, a love of the negroes, 'furnaces of emotional power'.

McKay doesn't like Stein

In Paris, everyone kept telling Claude McKay to "go meet Gertrude Stein" if he really meant to be a "modern Negro writer." He didn't like that. He called Stein one of the "eternal faddists who exist like vampires on new phenomena."

No analysis today. brain hurts.

Die, Modernism, Die

Yep, it was literary critics killed Modernism, not poets (though many of them poet-critics: not exactly sure what to make of that). And it was accomplished not through any sort of polemical attack, but through a simultaneous collective lowering of expectations, and a willingness to rest on laurels. We know everything we need to know, the argument ran, to write great poetry now: and if you don't know, you haven't been paying attention. In that case, God help you.

Exhibit A: R.P. Blackmur's "Lord Tennyson's Scissors: 1912-1950," an overview of the Modernist period published in 1951 as the epilogue to his collection Language as Gesture. "Forty years of poetry took their rise in Eliot, Yeats, and Pound," Blackmur says, condensing a half century's worth of complex aesthetic and political wrangling into three Big Names to set alongside Shakespeare-Marlowe-Jonson, Wordsworth-Coleridge-Southey and Shelley-Keats-Blake. I'm just going to quote some (OK, a lot of) stuff from this essay, because some of it is helpful, a lot of it is funny (and unfair), and all of it gives a good index of how even the most pro-Modernist critics wanted to wrap things up and move on to the next thing by the beginning of the 50s:

On Yeats: "neither his vices nor his poetry ever quitted him" (424)

On 1922: "1922 seems the great year of our time — especially if you let the months run a little both ways — for it holds a good many of Yeats' Tower poems, Pound's first eight Cantos, and Eliot's The Waste Land, not to mention Ulysses, the finishing of The Magic Mountain, and the beginning of The Counterfeiters. The year 1922 is almost inexhaustible in all the arts" (426)

On Pound and prosody: "The general prosody of the 'teens and 'twenties had equally little to do with the practice of Yeats, Pound, and Eliot … and with the practice of the old conservatives. The general prosody was perhaps the weakest and least conscious in English since the dead poetry of the mid-sixteenth century. It ran, under various guises and doctrines, toward a combination of absolute doggerel and absolute expressionism. Ezra Pound was as responsible as anyone for this condition, not by the progress of his own work but by the procession of manifestoes which he promulgated by letter and print. His doctrine, however it may have promoted the incentive of writing, only got in the way of full work and when it got stronger, deeply damaged, though it never destroyed, his expressive powers" (427)

On "the ideographic method" and expressionism: "The procedure is very tempting, always, to get rid of what is behind one and what is ahead of one, neither by capitulation nor by mastery, but by declaring an arbitrary substitute. Then expression becomes immediate, which is good, and spontaneous, which is not; for spontaneity is the curse of poetry to at least the same degree that neologism is the curse of language. But the temptation is very deep; Art, as Maritain says, Art bitten by poetry longs to be freed from reason, but so long as nothing is substituted for reason the longing is not fatal and may indeed promote a fresh and rejoicing sense of disorder, as The Waste Land did, or a new underground for reason, as the work of Valéry and Mallarmé did" (428)

On Basic English: "What, should we get rid of our ignorance, of the very substance of our lives, merely in order to understand one another?" (428)

On the "heroization of the sensibility": "What [the modern poets] did was to make just enough of a prosody to heroize the sensibility and not quite enough to make a heroic statement. Just enough meter to make a patter, just enough rhyme to make a noise, just enough reason to make an argument; never enough of anything to bind together what came out of the reservoir of their extraordinary sensibility into possible poetry … This bad poetry is not worth reference in itself; it is here only to represent the condition of the language and the state of ambition in which an unusually large amount of good — or partly good — poetry got written" (428-429)

On flatness/prosiness: "Verse should be written, said Pound, not to the metronome but in the sequence of the musical phrase. The prose tradition alone produces flatness, inhibits song, and excludes behavior; and I see no sense in welcoming these disorders, as Eliot has done in parts of the Quartets and as Schwartz has done in all but his earliest work, as other and desirable forms of order. I do not refer to careless writing but to deliberate flatness; which is only the contemporary form of Georgian deliquescence" (429)
[this opinion will become particularly interesting in the context of Ashbery, I think]

On solipsism and "the real world": "…it seems to have been an age when the sensibility took over much of the task of poetry. That is why we have created so many private worlds each claiming ascendancy over the real world about which nothing, or nearly nothing got said. That is why, too, Yeats and Eliot (though not Pound, except rarely) were almost alone able to express a version — an actual form — of the real world. In each the sensibility had other grounds than itself; the ground of beseeching, history, faith or momentum and the other ground, no less important to poetry, of prosody." (430)

Then there's a long section where RPB runs down all the various "schools" of Modernism (what Graves and Riding call "dead movements"), those not entirely assimilable to the traditions created by Yeats, Eliot or Pound. This is the fun part:

1. "the parallel Old-Timers' school, what we might call the school of Chaucer and the Ballad; think of Hardy, Housman, Robinson, and Frost … Reading them, we see why Pound does not occupy a first position, but a position on one side. The superlative metric of Pound may be a clue to their weakness but it would never furnish an understanding of their imperfect strength. Their work stands ready to infect the work of young men who have not yet found a form for their ambition and who can no longer, since they apprehend what has happened to it, heroize their sensibility. At least I should suppose there might be a coming race of poets who would want to reverse Maritain's phrase and say Art, bitten by reason, longs to be freed from poetry: from the spontaneous and the private and the calculated public worlds. There might be a race of poets, that is, who would woo the excited miracles of absolute statement, not as a refuge, but to get their work done" (432)
[to me, this seems to presage a lot of the most accepted poetry today, in both America and Britain; what Ron Silliman calls the School of Quietude. More on this some other day, maybe.]

2. "the Apocalyptic or Violent school … Here is where we find the remains of Vachel Lindsay, the evangel of enthusiastic rebirth; Robinson Jeffers, the classical Freudian; Roy Campbell the animal, authoritarian evangel of anti-culture; Carl Sandburg, the bard of demagogic anti-culture; and of course others … All these stem poetically and emotionally from Whitman-Vates: and all are marked by ignorance, good will, solipsism, and evangelism … nor should we think of them even so briefly as more than false alarms if it were not for the two extraordinary talents that must be grouped with them … D.H. Lawrence and Hart Crane … Each is a blow in the face but neither can hit you twice" (433)

3. "another school of anti-intelligence … They got rid of too much of their reason, and as a result they effervesced rather than expressed, and what is left is flat. Nameless they shall be here; they belonged only to their principal journal transition. What was wrong with them is clear when you see how weak is their imitation of Apollinaire, Aragon, Cocteau, Soupault [!], and how great their misunderstanding of Mallarmé, Rilke, Joyce, Kafka, and Pirandello: all men who longing to be freed from reason had a kind of bottom supply of it. Neither the English nor the Americans have ever been very good at this sort of thing. Let us say that we have not so much of reason that we can afford to lose any of it; we need it to make our nonsense real as well as genuine; and one would say that in this respect prosody was a form of reason" (433-434)
[obviously, this will have renewed significance in the 60s with New York School et al.]

4. "the school of Donne into which the largest number of individual writers of good verse fall when shaken up and let settle … they are difficult in style, violent in their constructed emotions, private with actual secrecy in meaning. There is in their work a wrestling struggle toward statement, a struggle through paradox and irony … and the detritus of convictions. The statements are therefore impossible to make, but the effort to make them is exciting because genuine …" [here he includes John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, John Wheelwright, William Empson and Hugh MacDiarmid]
"The general poetry at the center of our time takes the compact and studiable conceit of Donne with the direct eccentricity, vision, and private symbolism of Blake; takes from Hopkins the incalculable and unreliable freedom … of sprung rhythm, and the concentration camp of the single word; and from Emily Dickinson takes spontaneous snatched idiom and wooed accidental inductableness. It is a Court poetry, learned at its fingertips and full of a decorous willfulness called ambiguity. It is, in a mass society, a court poetry without a court" (434-435)

5. William Carlos Williams: "To him beauty is absolute and falls like the rain, like the dream of rain in a dry year. He is, if you like, the imagism of 1912 self-transcended. He is contact without tact; he is objectivism without objective … The neo-classicist and the neo-barbarian are alike in this: their vitality is without choice or purpose" (435)

6. Stevens/Moore/Cummings
Each, so to speak, is full of syllables where [Yeats, Eliot and Pound] are full of words. Each is a kind of dandy, or connoisseur, a true mountebank of behavior made song … let us say they make an equilateral triangle of three styles hung like a pendant from the three major styles" (436)

a. Wallace Stevens
is a dandy and a Platonist … You need an old dictionary and an old ear to get his beauty: as if he had to find an unfamiliar name before the beauty of his perception could emerge; and it is along these lines that you have to think of the French symbolists' influence upon him. They taught Eliot the anti-poetic and the conversational style; Stevens they taught the archaic and the rhetorical; that is, Eliot and Stevens saw the one prosody running in opposite directions. But Stevens is in essence of a very old tradition, French and Platonic, working on a modern substance … He should have lived in the age of Pope; with his sensibility and his syllables he could have made rational statements with more beauty than that age was capable of. But as he is, he is 'the tranquil jewel in this confusion'" (436)

b. Marianne Moore
"has written the most complex syllabic verse of our time: as if she brought French numbers to English rhythms with no principle of equivalence. But she is not the syllabist as dandy but as connoisseur; she is the syllabist of the actual, the metrist of the immediate marvel… There is a correspondence here to the coerced heightened perception (the forced close observation) in the painting of still-life. Poetry is to her, as she says, an imaginary garden with real toads in it. She knows all about the toads because she has imagined the garden; as you look suddenly everywhere there is the disengaged leap of a green or a brown toad, all warts, all soft, all leaping, all real. If there is not much other reality there, and there seldom is in a connoisseur's garden, you bring her, or ignore, the life she hasn't got just because what she has got is do real: you bring or ignore as with a shut-in whom you love" (436-437)
[this is, incidentally, both one of the most eloquent and the most spectacularly condescending statements about MM ever made]

c. E.E. Cummings "is the child turned poet, the child with that terrifying and incomplete dimension. Otherwise put, Cummings is the traditionalist who insists on the literal content of his tradition without re-understanding its sources: this is, of course, the easiest form of eccentricity and the most human form of fanaticism … He has too little a developed self ever to escape from it except waywardly, when you want either to console him or beat him … He was educated by Edmund Spenser, the English sonneteers, Keats, Swinburne, the funny-papers, and John Bunyan; but perhaps he was most educated by the things that were left out that would have gone to make a structured mind. All he knows is by enthusiasm, habit, and aversion. He refuses the job of the full intelligence, preferring intimacy with what he loves and contempt for what he hates; and he accepts what love and hatred give as if they made all the music of a full mind … if he were not part of a going concern larger than he, he would be nothing. Here again is a case where prosody is an instrument of reason. Like the wilder currencies in the age of Veluta (or like the serried marks of Hitler [!!!]) Cummings' experimental typography depends on the constant presence of the standard it departs from and would be worthless if not measured against it" (437-438)
[seems like some of these ideas — or prejudices, if you like — could be usefully applied to Kenneth Koch]

Blackmur finishes up by assessing "the further development and release, still inchoate to these observations, of the doomed school of Auden about 1930" with its "deliberate approach to doggerel through Skelton, the Ballads, the immediate situation, and the multi-valenced distrust of self combined to produce the new flat style" (438-439): again, this suspicion of "flatness," and an interesting offhand use of the rhetoric of "doomedness" so often applied to the poets of 1890s (which, as RPB must be thinking of, produced Yeats). He also looks toward "the generation born between 1913 and 1918: Shapiro, Barker, Schwartz, Thomas, Berryman, Manifold, Lowell, Betjeman, Meredith, and Reed" (I must admit I have no idea who half these people are). Solemnly passing the torch to these promising whippersnappers, Blackmur delivers the New Critic's version of "you kids today don't know how good you've got it": "they have the enormous advantage over their predecessors that there is an idiom ready for them to develop according to their own needs" (439). So this is what it has come to, Modernism is "an idiom," and no longer anything like a movement, or even a set of loosely concatenatable authors and texts. "We might have a great age out of them yet," he reckons, but if they do succeed it will be because they keep ploughing the same furrow as the Big Three (or at least their equilateral pendant): "[t]hey have more than a chance — it is half done for them — to develop out of personality the most objective of all creations, the least arbitrary and spontaneous, a style."

Countdown to "arbitrary and spontaneous" begins now.

From Michael North's book The Dialect of Modernism
"The white vogue for Harlem has long had an accepted place in histories of the 1920s, and the shallow Negrophilia of this period has often been acknowledged in accounts of the Harlem Renaissance. But it is less often acknowledged just how far this racial cross-identification went or how widespread it was. Writers as far from Harlem as T.S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein reimagined themselves as black, spoke in a black voice, and used that voice to transform the literature of their time. In fact, three of the accepted landmarks of literary modernism in English depend on racial ventriloquism of this kind: Conrad's Nigger of the "Narcissus," Stein's "Melanctha," and Eliot's Waste Land. If the racial status of these works is taken at all seriously, it seems that linguistic mimicry and racial masquerade were not just shallow fades but strategies without which modernism could not have arisen.

To see these strategies simply as instances of modern primitivism is to miss a good deal of their importance. That the modern covets the primitive--perhaps even created it--is another frequently acknowledged fact. But to view this attraction merely as a return to nature, a recoil from modernity, is to focus myopically on a rather vapid message while missing its far more intriguing medium. The real attraction of the black voice to writers like Stein and Eliot was its technical distinction, its insurrectionary opposition to the known and familiar in language. For them the artist occupied the role of racial outsider because he or she spoke a language opposed to the standard. Modernism, that is to say, mimicked the strategies of dialect and aspired to become dialect itself...Dialect becomes the prototype for the most radical representational strategies of English-language modernism"

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Change of plans

I'm in a crisis. Originally I had planned to read English, American and a smattering of French poetry from 1870 straight through to 1970: basically the series that begins in Baudelaire and ends in John Ashbery, which we might reductively call French Poetry Coming In and Fucking With the English Tradition (or FPCIFWET for short). Piece of cake, right? In doing so, I'd hoped to avoid making a clear Modernism/Postmodernism break, basically relying on Ashbery's and the other New York Schoolers' productive re-readings of Modernism to help me tie it all up into a single revisionist Santa Claus narrative.

But now I think I need to stop at the 50s. It's just too hard to link it all together. Even by the beginning of the 40s the series is losing its internal coherence, everything is changing, you can feel it, the major Modernists are hardening into caricatures who can be toppled by the merest breeze of common-sense, England is a different England and America a different America and France is like the dozenth of a succession of different Frances, although not everybody in all of them seem to have realized it yet.

I'm reading Randall Jarrell's "The Obscurity of the Poet" today and the tone is so despairing and reactionary compared to earlier essays on Modernism and its social reception. The thing about this "early postmodern" period (let's say roughly 1940-1950) is that it can be easily overlooked because poetry doesn't actually change all that much: the work of Jarrell, Lowell, Berryman and Bishop seem pretty much like a natural outgrowth, maybe even a watering-down, of the expected Modernists like Yeats, Eliot and Auden, with Pound becoming ascendant in some of the more marginal quarters. But the self-justifications, and the climate in which such justifications seem necessary, are qualitatively different. The trajectory from Graves and Riding in 1927 (stubborn, brilliant resistance of Modernist dogma) to Burke and Wilson in 1931 (gentle skepticism about some of Modernism's larger claims combined with a firm laissez-faire attitude toward culture in general) to Jarrell in 1951 (hurt and freaked out that not just Modernism, but all poetry of all periods, is in danger of being permanently scrapped by the bourgeois democratic public) speaks volumes about the situation that eventually births full-fledged Postmodernism, in its heyday of 1960-1980, the simultaneous sprint into the arms of theory on the one hand and systematic dismantlement of Modernist prejudice and sense of superiority on the other.

Consider these representative excerpts from Jarrell's essay: "it is not just modern poetry, but poetry, that is today obscure" (3); "the poet seems difficult because he is not read, because the reader is not accustomed to reading his or any other poetry" (4); "Any American poet under a certain age, a fairly advanced age — the age, one is tempted to say, of Bernard Shaw — has inherited a situation in which no one looks at him and in which, consequently, everyone complains that he is invisible" (10); "today, many of the readers a poet would value most have hardly learned to read any poetry; and many of those who regularly read his poems have values so different from his that he is troubled by their praise, and vexed but reassured by their blame" (15); "the poet is a condemned man for whom the State will not even buy breakfast" (18); and finally, lazily, late-fortiesishly pinning it all on popular culture: "Boys who have read only a few books in their lives, but a great many comic books, will tell one, so vividly that it is easy to sympathize: 'I don't like books because they don't really show you things; they're too slow; you have to do all the work yourself.' When, in a few years, one talks to boys who have read only a few comic books, but have looked at a great many television programs — what will they say?" (19).

What these statements, en masse, add up to is an idea that Modernism, in its public character as a project of popular re-education, has utterly failed, not because of any lack of persuasiveness on its own terms but because the bottom fell out: there's no public worth convincing any more. As Jarrell himself admits, he can only be sure of this failure because he once passionately believed in such a project. (A quick perusal of his essays on Moore and Williams confirms this: he's drunk the Kool-Aid, all right.) As he puts it, "these are conclusions which I have come to slowly and reluctantly, as the world forced them on me. Would that I were one of those happy reactionaries, born with a Greek vocabulary as other children are born with birthmarks and incomes … But I had a scientific education and a radical youth; am old-fashioned enough to believe, like Goethe, in Progress — the progress I see and the progress I wish for and do not see. So I say what I have said about the poet, the public, and their world angrily and unwillingly." Even more discouraging is Jarrell's proposal for responding to this failure: "If my hearers say, 'But what should we do?' what else can I answer but 'Nothing'? There is nothing to do different from what we already do: if poets write poems and readers read them, each as best they can — if they try to live not as soldiers or voters or intellectuals or economic men, but as human beings — they are doing all that can be done" (21). In other words, the public apparatuses of Modernism are no longer worth wielding against a public that is more disinterested than it is hostile. Therefore, no more manifestoes, no more false claims to importance: the postmodern, for a while anyway, will take the path of least resistance. This is giving the argument up for dead, the argument for Modernism or for literature and art in general, not because art isn't something that can or should be argued about (Graves' and Riding's position, as I understand it) or because the argument is incorrectly framed (Burke's and Wilson's position), but because the argument is unwinnable. Which is a very different thing.

So: Postmodernism, for my purposes (for now), starts around about 1950, when all the arguments for and against Modernism (if not Modernism itself) are exhausted and familiar. There is an interregnum of a decade or so before there are theoretical issues to get worked up over again — namely, whether we ought not to do something to, and with, contemporary poetry after all — though this time they will be fought out almost entirely inside the academy, and be more markedly metaphysical than social in character.

And I need to stop here. I'm fascinated by this shift, I love some of the poetry that results from it, I want to know everything about it, but, for God's sake, you have to stop somewhere — sometimes. Plus we have World War II to worry about.

Next week I'm gonna read a lot of Hugh Kenner and try to make sense of my life.
I always mix up William Gaddis with William Gass. Damn it.

Perloff on kenner

I read Perloff's article on Hugh Kenner today and found it to be really helpful. I find Marjorie Perloff in general to be just a helpful person. Am I wrong to like her so? (it's probably because she's my go to explicator for poetry. What do you poecritics think?) And who knew Kenner was so goofy looking.

A Snippet (real link at bottom):

What do these modernist poets have in common? Kenner never spelled it out, but he demanded two things from modernist literature. One was accuracy of presentation-what Pound called "constatation of fact"-which was by no means mere facticity. The other was a conjunction of literary innovation with that of the other arts, sciences, and technologies. No Modernist writer, Kenner felt, could be impervious to Einsteinian physics or to such technological inventions as the X-Ray, the Marconi wireless, the airplane, and the typewriter. In The Mechanic Muse (1987), Kenner studies the role the typewriter played in the invention of a new poetry with regard to lineation, stanza form, and page design. Thus Yeats, Kenner shows, was still a poet of the handwritten page, Pound of the typed one. And it was Kenner who established the chronology of the separate Waste Land manuscripts by studying the typewriters on which they were composed.

But perhaps the most important demand Kenner placed on the twentieth-century text-and this has not always been understood-is that it be international. To write only for or about one's countrymen was no longer enough. Here the key Kenner text is A Sinking Island (1988), a book whose dismissive treatment of twentieth-century British writing caused consternation, especially in London but also in New York, where Bruce Bawer responded with "Hugh Kenner: A Sinking Oeuvre."3 A Sinking Island argues that, unlike Continental Europe or the United States, Britain never underwent an avant-garde phase, and hence its post-World War II writing was largely tame and regressive. One can refute this argument readily; indeed, in recent years, British poetry and fiction have often been more adventurous than our own. Still, Kenner is onto something important: that the rigid class structure of England, which lasted well into the 1960s, was inimical to avant-garde innovation.

One key to understanding Kenner the critic is that he considered himself an outsider. A Canadian of Scottish-Irish descent who lost most of his hearing in childhood as a result of influenza, a Catholic convert among Protestant Anglo-Canadians, Kenner was never at home at Yale, where his Toronto mentor Marshall McEuhan sent him for his Ph.D, and even less at home in England, whose residual Imperialism and Oxbridge snobbery he found irritatingly oppressive. Not surprisingly, then, Kenner early on determined that the "real" British modernists were, with rare exceptions like D. H. Lawrence, who was working class, not English, but foreigners: James, Pound, and Eliot (American), Conrad (Polish), Ford (German), and especially the Irish: Yeats (when not engaged in theosophical mumbo jumbo), Joyce, and Beckett.

Monday, August 20, 2007


"There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves; nothing that reminds us of the ones who made the journey and of those who did not make it. There is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby. There's no 300 foot tower. There's no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence or, better still, on the banks of the Mississippi. And because such a place does not exist (that I know of), the book had to."
Toni Morrison, "A Bench by the Road" (Talking about Beloved)

I thought you might find this interesting, Greg, in terms of elegy and the unnameable event. Though I'm not doing a full re-reading of Beloved (wish I could), I'm just looking at some criticism and things.

I also read Philip Roth's The Ghostwriter over the weekend (I picked this one purposefully because I wanted to read Roth doing the kind of meta-fictional rewriting of myth/history that writers like Morrison and Silko and Coover are doing in the 'pomo' 70s and 80s. ) And because it's really really short. And, interestingly enough, the first of the Zuckerman novels. For Zuckerman to begin as rewriting the Anne Frank seems really interesting to me. Roth wrote Ghost Writer after the Jewish community was castigating him for his non-Utopian depictions of the Jewish community. And so young 23 year old Zuckerman uses Frank's position as Jewish Martyr who has to be dead to be affective as a touchpoint for his own relation to the Jewish community. Anyway, if Morrison's point is that there's no suitable memorial for slavery exists and so she must create it through the stretchy fabric of space/time the novel allows her, than Roth is saying there are too many memorials to the Holocaust that allow polite and pretty relation to a terrible past event that serve as rhetorical tools and pleasurable burdens to those alive today. If Morrison wants to write to create a historical closeness to events and people she can't know, Roth writes to create a critical distance that allows for parody and a self-imagining from which to rescue the present self from the enclosing fictions of the past.

Ghost Writer is also strange because it feels a lot like the Human Stain. It basically starts the same way. Zuckerman trekking to the house of a man he admires/homoerotically loves in some ways/wants to be. Zuckerman spends the first part of both novels spending time in the homes of these male objects of desire, soaking up their aura and listening/creating his stories with/for them. If Human Stain is partially an ode to the Invisible Man, Ghost Writer is an ode to Anne Frank. And in both Roth is aware of the void of any real person/historical event as blank spaces on to which not just writers, but everyday people, use to project their own fictions upon. Real life is always more interesting than fiction, Roth says in this novel, but 'real life' is never real and the person you think you know is never disentangled from your own image of yourself. We're always Ghost-Writing all the time constantly is what both Roth and Morrison seem to be saying in radically different ways.

Writers who have been hit by cars

1. John Wheelwright
2. Renato Poggioli
3. Randall Jarrell
4. Frank O'Hara
5. Roland Barthes
6. Italo Svevo
7. James Weldon Johnson (by a train, while in a car)

Sunday, August 19, 2007

My literary travels

Come to think of it…


Watchers of this space will remember that, about a month ago, I declined to say who "won" in the contest between William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens — a pair who are always linked in my mind, somehow, maybe as the two "outsider Modernists" whose reputations actually improved after mid-century rather than declining. (Pound sort of belongs in this category, but only sort of.) And of course they were mutual admirers, as well, perhaps realizing that each were doing something for which the other had absolutely no talent. In a 1927 letter to Marianne Moore responding to a request to review WCW for The Dial, Stevens wrote that "[w]hat Columbus discovered is nothing to what Williams is looking for."

Well, without reservations, I'll say that in the 30s Williams beats Stevens hands down. This is largely because the field of American culture in that decade more closely resembled Williams' pre-formed vision of it than it did Stevens', I think. At the risk of generalizing wildly (you know you love it), I'll say that it's sort of a situation where Williams' long-imagined "America," the one the pure products of which go crazy, suddenly has direct reference to something — where the field his poetry has been gesturing toward suddenly fills up with content. (One could say, too, that a similar thing happened with Communism in the 30s: theories of Marx's that had seemed purely intellectual — to Americans, anyway — now seemed to directly address and describe current conditions, in a way that made them all but irresistible.)

In any case, WCW is on fire in the 1930s: the poems in An Early Martyr, Adam and Eve in the City and The Complete Collected Poems are, ironically, invigorated by the symptoms of material devastation that Williams records in them, from the old woman "munching a plum on / the street" (casting back to his own "This is Just to Say," the private domestic moment replaced by a public scene of degradation) to the pitch-perfect dramatic monologue concerning "The Raper from Passenack" to his at-once-Marianne-Moore-ish-and-militant (tough combination!) "The Yachts" to the "rumpled sheet / of brown paper / about the length // and apparent bulk / of a man" that is just symbolic enough to be moving in "The Term" (take that, American Beauty!). Best of all, maybe, is "The Crimson Cyclamen," an eight-page description of a blooming flower that also manages to be a meditation on Williams' own career, the process of poetic thought, the development of American culture in the Depression era, and an elegy for its dedicatee Charles Demuth, all without sacrificing the teensiest bit of grace or specificity. "It's the anarchy of poverty / delights me," Williams admits in "The Poor," but what impresses me most is his intuitive understanding of the structure underlying the anarchy, the distinctly American values and self-understanding that are not lacking in the poor (as Stevens seems to often imagine) but which display themselves more obviously in them, in both their positive and negative aspects, because they are unprotected, naked, left out in the sun. This compassionate humanism — not humanitarianism — is what impresses about Williams, as well as the sophisticated simplicity he invents and masters in order to express it. This attitude is to be preferred to Pound's bullying or Eliot's despair or Stevens' appalled detachment, but it's also better than the earnest but ultimately unconvincing work of other socially commited poets like Muriel Rukeyser (cp. 1938's The Book of the Dead): for her the poor are heroes, martyrs, victims. For Williams they're Americans, and so is he.

Stevens, on the other hand, runs into a twofold problem in the 30s. First, the constant flow of material and cultural amusements which supplied his 1920s poetry ebbs somewhat; thus the astounding catalogue of improbable nouns that filled Harmonium regularizes itself into a stock repertory of suns, moons, birds, books, masks, rabbits and guitars. (It's possible too that this represents a deliberate paring-down of his materials, in order to develop them into a somewhat coherent symbolic system in the manner of Yeats or Blake.) In that sense, then, the area that his poetry seems to be pointing to becomes less crowded, not more, as with Williams. More disastrously, though, the reigning assumption of Stevens' earlier poetry — that of the poet as a detached aesthete negotiating his relationship with the larger, essentially sympathetic culture carefully and almost disinterestedly — starts to fall apart around him. The evidence is rather that Stevens began to feel more and more alien in American culture, and interpreted events such as the Great Depression and the rise of Fascism in Europe as evidence that his early vision was unshared and unshareable. If he had remained happy to play around in his own imagination this would be fine, and if he had meaningfully synthesized his skepticism into his personal artificial vision (as did Eliot) it would be even better; but unfortunately (in my opinion) he makes the disconnect between his sensibility and the state of American political and poetic culture the theme of his poems in Ideas of Order and The Man with the Blue Guitar, rendering them, as a mass, colossally redundant. How many statements of the idea, "The kind of art I make and like seems useless today; I may be a bad person for making and liking this kind of art; but maybe if I just keep making the kind of art I make and like it will seem useful some day again" do we need from one poet? (This is a major component of at least 14 of Stevens' published poems from this period: "A Fading of the Sun," "Evening Without Angels," "The Reader," many sections of "Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery," "The American Sublime," "Mozart, 1935," "Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz," "Dance of the Macabre Mice," "Anglais Mort à Florence," "Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue," "Farewell to Florida," "The Men That Are Falling," "A Thought Revolved," and "The Man with the Blue Guitar" — in other words, a little less than half of them.) As a moral, poetic or philosophical stance, this is defensible; but as subject matter for poetry it's tame and dull and, after the dozenth revolution of Stevens' elaborate self-pity mechanism, starts to seem rather hypocritical as well. Over and over, Stevens fashions a gorgeous mental image, compares it to what he sees around him, despairs at the non-homology, and ends by drawing conclusions about the beautiful and/or impossible relationship of non-relationship between the Mind/the Self and the World. I'm not attacking the philosophical validity of such a view (though I could, I could) I'm just saying it's a boring basis for poetry. And Stevens, with some unerring self-sabotaging instinct, makes it more and more important to his work, as if forcing himself not to find a subject. (Well, we'll see if he turns it all around in the 40s.)

Other random notes I couldn't work in above: Stevens' style gets more epigrammatic in the 30s, more "French" in a classical sense, writing poems that often verge on being nothing more than strings of elegant pensées (and some which more than verge); also easier, a little more willing to telegraph the significance of his private ruminations. It's not a good look for a poet whose virtue is in being "fascinating."

God, I love value judgments.

Another view of space

"'In time everything is possible and in space everything forgivable; life is but the intermediary vice.'"

— Djuna Barnes, Nightwood, 135

Saturday, August 18, 2007

"I would tot up my factors"

Goddamn is post-partition Ireland ever a depressing place! In the most pessimistic view, the nation's cultural and global life after the Civil War is a flatline punctuated by occasional distant crises which only serve to consolidate a feeling of introspective disengagement and torpor. When people talk about the Irish modernists of the 30s, with the exception of Beckett, it's almost always prefaced by a kind of awe at wild-flowers growing in stony soil, asking that their parochial context be a bit of an excuse for their critical neglect. A lot of authors writing in the grim 30s-50s find weird homes in the 60s: Austin Clarke starts using his inwoven English approximations of Gaelic sound patterning to describe his gnarled consciousness when he had been stuck in mental hospitals, which makes for an Irish Mode confessionalism (akin especially to Snodgrass's Heart's Needle) in 1966's Mnemosyne Lay in Dust. Denis Devlin, long championed by Beckett (and a translator of Breton, Mallarme, Apollinaire and others into Gaelic!), is taken up by the Fugitives/New Critics and Allen Tate and R.P. Warren edit and introduce his 1963 Selected Poems. Couple these career turns with MacNeice's new haunted-carnival-ride lyric direction in 1963's The Burning Perch and Patrick Kavanagh's early 60s attempts to toggle the lyric with the epic, and you have a really solid post-Yeats/Joyce foundation for the barrage of amazing poets who form the "Ulster Renaissance" (Montague, Heaney, Mahon, Longley, Muldoon, etc.). Intensified civil rights efforts and political strife give this next generation's verse new urgency, but with tools honed by more than just "Easter 1916".

But I'm getting ahead of myself: 1966 was also the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, which - along with the resulting War of Independence, Partition and Civil War (fought, essentially, to exhaustion) - shaped Irish poetry of the 20s and 30s in a way particularly divergent from English High Modernism as it can be said to have risen from the trenches. We've looked at the enabling disillusionment of WWI as it ramifies in all that experimental good stuff. For Ireland, both WWI and the 1916 Easter Rising, particularly to a certain middle and upper-class audience, could be seen as poetic reifications that were affronts to common sense: one of a magnitude to quash Edwardian national pieties and the other, conversely, a revolutionary proof of romantic conceptions of the nation - born in books and shown, all too quickly, to be a bourgeois revolution at its heart.

MacNeice writes as a part of a committed lefty poetic community in England, who comes from a country that had its revolution and is now sticky with its afterbirth. Unlike English retrenchment in the 30s in the face of a crumbling empire (the "Shrinking Island" described by Jed Esty), Ireland's localism was paradoxically what made it "big" enough to be divided against itself: both fringe and cause of the empire's dissolution. As MacNeice writes in The Poetry of W.B. Yeats (1941), Ireland's "characteristic smallnesses [by which he means population, income and even meals], while uniting the country against England which is regarded as essentially big, divide it against itself." Thus, for MacNeice it's both easy and not easy being green: easy because "the Irishman can trade on the glamour of minorities" but tough cause the modern world makes the "traditional Irish aim" of spiritual self-support (think the last chapter of Portrait) as impracticable in the small country as is material self-support.

As Esty writes, "the end of British hegemony was a fait accompli to the Auden-Greene generation...they inherited the cultural detritus and political guilt of empire without the corresponding advantages of metropolitan perception" (8). MacNeice partakes of this guilt, and it's weird that he does because he also (to borrow something he says of the later Yeats) can and does "parade his sensuality like a released prisoner conscious of his freedom" [for "sensuality" here read literally: some accumulation of sense data, all those newspaper details]. Esty describes the Auden generation's characteristic desire to eulogize English culture as one result of growing up at the start of shift toward England being home to a "minor literature"; and it might be worthwhile to compare this generational trend to MacNeice's relentless need to eulogize puritanical Ireland in the days of its history-fraught infancy (or, furthermore, interesting to put his eulogistic ' perpetuum' alongside the Irish gothic tradition - still being well represented at this point by Elizabeth Bowen, among others - which could imply a need for constant eulogizing in traumatized response to the nation figured as constantly dying, being reborn, dying, etc.).

So, with these historical conditions perhaps too determinately in mind, check out all the images of fire freezing in MacNeice's early books. In fact, check out all of "Snow" from Jan. 1935:

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,

Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel

The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes -
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands -

There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

A poem about portioning and about partition, with a little or a big "p", describing how borders create the things they separate. It is a view of snow falling past a window, as at the end of "The Dead," that conversely describes profusion, confusion, incompatibility rather than generality over Ireland. At the center is the lyric I as the familiar Joycean God, sitting back and paring his fingernails - here peeling a tangerine (i.e. specifically not an orange, to point the more obliquely at the Protestant majority in the North). His "spit" seems to grow without clear provocation to "spite" when reflected in the fire's mirror. MacNeice's omission of articles and pieces of sentences convey the sense that by imposing form the speaker is finding ways to deal with surplus and where to "leave" it, though this vague, spreading "more"-ness cannot be named and is "incorrigible" or incapable of reform/re-form.

As in the "Last Will and Testament" to which Evan pointed us yesterday, MacNeice's "Train to Dublin" (Sep-Oct 1934) ends with a list of gifts, including "I give you the disproportion between labour spent/ And joy at random". The last stanza is basically "Snow" in reverse ("suddenly rich" to "more than glass between" vs. "give you more" to "they are rich"):

I would like to give you more but I cannot hold
This stuff within my hands and the train goes on;
I know that there are further syntheses to which,
As you have perhaps, people at last attain
And find that they are rich and breathing gold.

The knowledge in the poem's closing "I know" is that of "half-thought thoughts divid[ing]" (line 1), or further portioning and division. Notice that the inability to maintain the surplus - "I cannot hold/ this stuff" - recalls Yeats's vision in "The Second Coming," where "the centre cannot hold". Yeats's vatic assurance that a new golden age is "at hand" comes down to stuff, falling apart, and an "I" put boldly but hazardously at the centre.

David Lloyd has argued persuasively that "A major literature is established as such precisely by virtue of its claims to representative status, or its claims to realize the autonomy of the individual subject to such a degree that this individual subject becomes universally valid and archetypal." MacNeice's best poems puzzle along on the fault line between the ability to assume that universality, especially as it would be an ordering principle, and the sense that systems of archetypes must be, if not rejected, at least revealed as systems. Yeats gave one particularly polarized model of Anglo-Irish claims to universality, as is stated in 1940 by a skeptical T.S. Eliot in a talk he delivered as the first annual Yeats lecture at the Abbey Theater (with Patrick Kavanagh in attendance), where T.S.E. notes "that in becoming more Irish, not in subject-matter but in expression, [Yeats] became at the same time universal." By the time of Autumn Journal, Yeats's "rough beast slouching" may as well be the diaspora, "Who slouch around the world with a gesture and a brogue/ And a faggot of useless memories" (section XVI, my italics). Much of MacNeice's book on Yeats is written with a flat objectivity that registers Yeats's fabrications about and of Ireland as strategic, rather than malicious or misinformed; and it is thus the next generation's task to try to be less strategic in the use of national history - more quotidian, less vatic reportage.

He writes, "Poets like Auden and Spender abandoned this feminine conception of poetry and returned to the old, arrogant principle - which was Yeats's too - that it is the poet's job to make sense of the world, to simplify it, to put shape on it" (223). Could it be said that in this sense MacNeice is both of and to the side of the Auden generation? To put a shape on the world is to begin portioning up the world, and will result, he knows, in an uncountable pile of spit pips.