Commentaries

New at PennSound: James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson

Thanks to the archival and digital work of Chris Mustazza, who is the editor of this new material, we at PennSound are now able to announce a new page of recordings of James Weldon Johnson. Most readers who might otherwise know Johnson's work well have never heard the man's voice. The recordings Chris located, researched and digitized were made on December 24, 1935, at Columbia University, recorded by Barnard professors George W. Hibbitt and W. Cabell Greet, lexicologists and scholars of American dialects. PennSound wishes to thank the staff at Columbia's Rare Book & Manuscript Library, especially Thai Jones, Jennifer Lee, Devon Maeve Nevola, Jane Siegel, and Karla Nielsen, for helping us to make these recordings available.We acknowledge permission from Jill Rosenberg Jones and the James Weldon Johnson estate to present these recordings for free to anyone.

“The recordings here were originally made on aluminum platters,” writes Chris in his editorial note. “They were subsequently dubbed to reel-to-reel tapes by the Library of Congress in the 1970s. These digitizations are made from the reels, which are stored at Columbia University. I made the decision to present the recordings in the order in which Columbia numbered the aluminum platters, which may or may not be the same sequence used by Johnson and Hibbitt, except for where I reordered them to keep parts of the same poem together. Sequence numbers, as well as record numbers, are available in the file names.”

Anthology of 14 contemporary U.S. poems published in 'Hava LeHaba'

jacket of autumn 2014 issue of 'Hava LeHaba'

I was honored to be asked by editor Oded Carmeli to choose fourteen poems published during the current decade by U.S poets for an anthology that has now been published in the most recent print issue of Hava LeHaba in Israel, a Hebrew-language magazine of experimental poetry and poetics. Click here to view a PDF copy of the relevant pages from the magazine. I wrote the following very brief prefatory statement:

Contemporary experimental poetry in the U.S. is so diverse in mode, tone, and conception that no introductory generalization will suffice. But having chosen fifteen poems I admire, all published in the current decade, I noticed post facto that they are all meta-poetic. Nada Gordon thieves Marianne Moore’s anti-ars poetica. Susan Howe’s “That This” presents, in part, the this-ness of the writing. Rae Armantrout’s post-God/post-mother linguistic smiting reminds her and us that she owes her writing life to a mother who taught her to wring sweetness from syllables as a kind of maternal sacrifice. Tyrone Williams “scribbles furiously to a mortgaged future.” Brenda Hillman’s own words fall out of sentences when aerial bombs fall on their targets. And the poem I chose to represent Dorothea Lasky is itself titled “Ars Poetica.” Poems about poetry need not indicate an escape from the world. On the contrary, these are mostly political poems—a language of politics and a politics of language. Laynie Browne gives us the real Hillary Clinton, lines Hillary would say, except that key words are left blank so that readers can be competent co-creators.

Amish Trivedi: 'A Thousand Years of Staring I – VIII,' with a note on permutational art

A NOTE ON PERMUTATIONAL ART.  I am bringing in permutation, a math term, as a way of thinking about the biographical relation between the author and the work.

Modernists and feminists

The 'poem including history' and the 'autohistoria'

This Bridge Called My Back
This Bridge Called My Back

Multilingualism has long been a key characteristic, even a central tenet of literary experimentation. So maybe it seems a bit weird that after all these commentaries I still haven’t found anything to say about the various streams of modernist literature that drew upon other languages. Why haven't I addressed T.S. Eliot's attempted reconstitution of the “mind of Europe”? What about Ezra Pound's (also attempted) translation of Chinese written characters? Or what about the less well known but no less multilingual Zurich Dada “nonsense” poems that drew upon anthropological works, using fragments and phrases from world Indigenous languages to inform their experiments in non-meaning?

Analyses of avant-garde or experimental poetry typically understand multilingualism as a part of the modernist dream of breaking with the past in order to prefigure an unforeseen but possible future.

Vendler's Stevens

Notes on the literary politics of Stevens and the language of modernism in 1985

In the newest issue of The Wallace Stevens Journal, a special issue (volume 38, number 2, dated Fall 2014) devoted to Helen Vendler’s career-long interest in Stevens’s poetry, an essay by me appears. Here is a link to a PDF copy of the piece.