Commentaries - August 2007
My new book, Counter-revolution of the Word: The Conservative Attack on Modern Poetry, 1945-60 is being published by the University of North Carolina Press in November or December. Here's an early response from Alan Wald, author of The New York Intellectuals and many other books:
Counter-revolution of the Word is a magnificent feat of archival research, sensitive to ironic and contrary strains within adversarial political and cultural camps. Alan Filreis brilliantly troubles all previous narratives of the fate of modern U.S. poetry in the Cold War era by vivifying forgotten poems, reviews, and scholarly books, as well as scrutinizing literary debates, correspondence, and thwarted careers. This is a rare, distinctive and landmark model of original scholarship that dialogically addresses major as well as minor writers with wit and a personal voice.
I've been away (in the mountains) without newspapers and with little in the way of internet connectivity, so the sad news of Grace Paley's passing came to me late and indirectly. Very sad, indeed. She wrote her stories very slowly but those of us who awaited them learned to be patient. The new one almost inevitably seemed a part of a whole relevant fiction--a world. The Little Disturbances of Man in the late 50s, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute in the early 70s, and finally Later the Same Day in '85. There were other stories--and poems--after that but these three formed the whole I mean. Each story rewarded separate interest but together they were a life of love, personal flaws and self-criticism, and passionate ethical commitments.
I had taught Grace's stories since the early 80s when in 1999 I created "the Writers House Fellows"--a program whereby, each spring, I've hosted visits of eminent writers at the Writers House. For the year 2000, I invited John Edgar Wideman, Robert Creeley, as well as Grace. What a line-up.
Grace's visit was perfect. The students loved her and she loved the Writers House. Well, nearly perfect. There was one problem.
As Grace and I walked through the garden (such as it was then) into the back door of the House, she missed the step up and fell - hitting her forehead on the ground. She immediately cried out as one of her characters would: "I'm dead! I've died! Where am I?" and turned to me: "Are you real? I'm dead, aren't I? Oh my, oh my, oh my, my head hurts!" I brought her into office 109 and we sat there with Kerry and that year's Fellows coordinator, Adam Kaufman. We asked her what she needed. She said, "Do you have a bag of frozen peas?" We did! She put that bag on the bruised forehead and sat some more. We had maybe 20 minutes before the interview/discussion/live webcast was to start. She and I had gotten along beautifully the day before--during the class and the dinner. But now she suspected I was a dangerous official, pushing his guest to embrace his "show must go on" ideology, and she began to like Adam more and more. If
Adam left the room, Grace would call out, "Adam? Adam? Where's Adam?" Finally Adam persuaded her to let him escort her through the kitchen, dining room, living room and into the Arts Cafe. I went ahead and was waiting for her when she arrived and sat down in the comfy chair we had waiting for her, whereupon she turned to me and whispered: "Okay. I'm ready."
If you watch the video recording of the Tuesday morning interview, you'll notice two things: first, that Grace was superb--witty, ascerbic, political and completely responsive to my questions; second, that she spends some of the time holding a bag of peas to her forehead: writing.upenn.edu/~whfellow/paley.html.
A member of the Writers House community--who in those days was our chef for Fellows visits--remembers Grace this way:
her visit coincided with valentines day. the house was warm and cozy. i was in the kitchen, tucked out of sight as i liked to be, but with the doors wide open for those who would venture in, and for the occasion cooking by roses and candlelight. she ventured in, stirred the soup, and said something small and sweet that i now forget, but i took to be a blessing on the meal and the event. i was struck by how tiny she was and this gesture of inclusive kindness to someone whom i think she took to be a servant of sorts.
lots of people stopped into the kitchen during my years as house cook--students/house staff to talk out their ideas and sometimes to chop or (usually) to be fed, and fellow professors would sometimes come by after a meal to swap recipes/talk cooking shop, but no guest ever did what grace paley did--come to be alone with me for a
moment in the midst of an event to commune as two women, two caretakers, cooks, unspoken but understood friends.
I love teaching English 88, my modern & contemporary American poetry course, in part because the thing has evolved in such a way that it is something of a three-ring circus. It's created a life of its own, and certainly the vitality of the poetry hasn't hurt any. As the century ended and a new one began, of course I added new contemporary materials; as online technology improved, I added more e-features; as my disinclination to lecture deepened I abandoned even the 5-minute set-piece, no matter how instructive. So unlike my Holocaust course, which is, alas, inert in several respects, this course is dynamic, a moving target, as digressive as some of my favorite verse.
Anyway, the first time I really felt I was in the sway of this course, it was 1995 and I was teaching it to 90 students in a large cavernous space in unrenovated Bennett Hall on Penn's Campus, and the thing just went wildly off the rails, which of course was just what made it so terrific. The Philadelphia Inquirer somehow got word of this, and sent Lily Eng, who was then covering higher ed for them, to see what was going on. She made a "trend piece" of it, consulting with others about how and why poetry was "making a comeback." But the article nonetheless gives a sense of what fun we were having.
And anyway, how often does one read about the Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven in your local daily newspaper?
Penn has opened a channel at ITunes as part of a project called "ITunesU," which is really just a part of the ITunes Music Store where a selection of universities' audio and video materials are gathered. Both the Writers House podcasts and the PENNsound podcasts--and a few other series, such as Charles Bernstein's "Close Listening"/"Studio 111" interviews--are or will soon be available. Go here and click on "Take me to Penn on ITunesU" and, if you have ITunes, you'll be directly to the Penn site.
The Grand Piano is an on-going, multi-authored account of the San Francisco poetics community in the 1970s. If you're trying to get a sense of this project before, let's say, you buy and read copies of the volumes so far published, I suggest that you read a comment on and excerpt from it offered by Barrett Watten on his terrific blog. The focus is on the "turn to language" in that era, an excellent way in. And here's another.
I also recommend Watten's "The Secret History of the Equal Sign: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Between Discourse and Text," published in Poetics Today in 1999. "Avant-gardes, in breaking down the boundaries of the autonomous author in favor of both the work and its immediate reception within its community, frequently employ strategies of 'multiple authorship,' in which the work is positioned between two or more authors, toward a horizon of collective practice or politics. Any theory of the avant-garde must take into account, not only the poetics of its devices of defamiliarization and their relation to the construction of new meaning, but its stakes in the discursive community defined by means of its literary practices."
Here's the archive of Watten's blog posts.