Commentaries - September 2007
There's a story on the front page of the arts section of today's New York Times that begins by the usual condescending reference to "[t]he cloistered community of American poetry." After that, the lead is:
The board of the 97-year-old Poetry Society of America, whose members have included many of the most august names in verse, has been rocked by a string of resignations and accusations of McCarthyism, conservatism and simple bad management.
(And there's "august": is that word ever used unironically any more? Made more ironic here by its being rocked by "rocked.")
The story is: the conservative orientation - conservative in the sense of aesthetically cautious, and conservative (here and there) in the sense of right-of-center political views - of the PSA led to an award given to John Hollander, which led to resignations, which led to interest at the Times. Here's the whole article.
I've looked into the PSA's politics (or non-politics, which at certain moments amounts to a very definite politics), especially in the 1930s, '40s, and 50s. As usual with daily journalism, there's no long context, no sense of whether this sort of thing is a hiccup or part of a continuity. The continuity (what in journalism is unfortunately called "trend" - as in "a trend story," as in "let's make this a trend story") tells us that PSA has always been more or less like this, and that in turn would lead us to reject the opening-gambit assumption about poetry being usually "cloistered."
There was, for instance, the position expressed in 1947 by the poet A. M. Sullivan, President of the Poetry Society of America, who confidently told a New York Times reporter that good American poets are simply “not whimpering about social problems or ideologies which belong to the field of journalism.”
Sullivan, the self-consciously Catholic poet and beloved president of the PSA, who in 1953 had to “admit” his view “that [Joseph McCarthy] was doing a good job and behaving himself,”** knowingly participated in a redefinition of contemporary writing that would successfully pass the anticommunist test. In staking out his anticommunist position, that is, he went around announcing that good, beautiful poetry is never political – never has anything to say about the political situation.
The damage done by the Hollander flap (even the Times reckoned it was not nearly as big as the Ezra Pound/Bollingen fracas) is minor if you think of it as a blip. But why must such "events" always be thought of in such a way? The answer is, partly: journalistic ignorance about culture--and I should say, what they think of as high culture.
** Although Sullivan had once “wandered a trifle left of center,” voting for socialist Norman Thomas despite registration as a Democrat, by 1954 he “certainly applaud[ed] [Joseph] McCarthy’s clean-up of the U.S. Printing Office.” The quoted words and phrases are his (in an unpublished letter).
Years ago I wrote a review-essay on a book about the Cold War-era prosecutions of leaders of the Communist Party of the U.S. - the so-called Foley Square Trials which began in 1949 (Dennis v. U.S.). What interested me was the theory of language implicit in the way the prosecution presented--or felt they had to present--their case. They went after these American communists for acts they didn't do but said they would do; but they didn't even have evidence for such saying, so they proved that illegal acts would occur in the future based on what the communists read and said about what they read.
Here are two paragraphs from the beginning of the review and part of a third paragraph from a little later on - and here is the whole review (published in the summer 1987 issue of American Quarterly):
Peter Steinberg's The Great "Red Menace" tells the story of the 1949 Smith Act trial of leaders of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA), which culminated in the 1951 Dennis v. United States decision. In that decision the Supreme Court upheld Judge Harold Medina's ruling that the First Amendment certainly does not extend to those who conspire to advocate the violent overthrow of the American government. The exposition is brilliant: Steinberg alternates between groups of chapters written from the perspective of the government and its prosecutors on the one hand, and the beleaguered CPUSA on the other. Telling the story of the prosecution of a small and by-then uninfluential political group may not seem to require the time and space it has taken, but if we focus on a shift in the conception of American language marked by the trial and the Dennis decision, we will find plenty to go on.
The shift will seem as dramatic to "new" American literary historians as to a new, skeptical generation of legal theorists, and that is perhaps why, with the two disciplines now sharing much the same ground, Steinberg's good work is so timely. In the 1919 Schenck decision, the Supreme Court ruled that to decide if subversive language was not protected by the right to free speech the courts would have to test the direct relation between the writing and the prohibit able action. One could not shout fire in a theater if there were no fire, Justice Holmes wrote in the famous metaphor; if one did falsely shout, the falsity would be clear enough (where was the fire?), and the connection of the language shouted to the ensuing harm was present (for example, theatergoers trampling one another to get out). A court could expect the prosecution to demonstrate both clarity and presence. The high court thus used an abstract notion of proximity--that is, of language to action; of language intended to lead to action to the action itself--but tried to look away from the intention in the language and as exclusively as possible at the action, and in this way demanded the relevance of external evidence to the interpretation of language. Investigators and attorneys working on behalf of the American government in 1951 had no choice but to reshape the doctrine of clear and present danger if they wanted to define American communist language as suggesting illegality; and, as Steinberg demonstrates, they wanted this very badly.
...When Harold Medina instructed the jury that "words may be the instruments by which crimes are committed" as Steinberg quotes him (Steinberg has performed the heroic task of reading the entire million-plus-word transcript of the trial), the judge was making sure the jury understood that it was their duty to interpret intention. He was "instructing" them to read the texts of subversion thus: punishable advocacy was that which would incite illegal action "by language reasonably and ordinarily calculated to do so." At this rate--and in a moment I will turn to the Congressional hearings of writers to show this specifically--Holmes' falsely shouted "Fire!" in the theater may as well have been uttered by a player in the play for all the attention actually paid to text in context. In order to shift attention away from the expectation that some evidence, any evidence, would be brought into the court establishing that any one of the twelve communist defendants had themselves acted illegally at a certain time, or had proposed to act illegally, or had taught others the specific duty to act illegally--no such evidence was ever introduced--the prosecution began with the witness Louis Budenz whose testimony is undoubtedly the oddest ever admitted in an American criminal trial. The strategy was to ask the judge to allow as evidence readings from "classic texts," works by or about communists, which would establish what all communists do by suggesting what one of them once intended. Anticipating that the defense, conducted by Eugene Dennis himself, would offer counter examples of classic texts arguing for change through peaceful means, Budenz then stunned the defendants by introducing the notion of "the Aesopian language thesis." According to the Aesopian language thesis, communist language was hardly ever meant literally. CPUSA communicated in codes of metaphors, synecdoches, and antitheses. If Dennis produced a text which claimed "peace" as the communists' objective, it was to be read as intending "war." The trick was to catch the communist-influenced writer off his guard, saying what he really meant.
Call me crazy or call me a digital anthropologist, but here you see me (well, my avatar, "Alf Fullstop") entering a poetry cafe in Second Life. Pretty nice looking place, a bit more upscale and cozy than the Bowery Poetry Club. I'm sure the coffee is better, though. I teleported to about a dozen poetry cafes, writers' hangouts, museums, digital schools, just to have a look around. It did this at 3 PM on a weekday, and there wasn't much poetry going on, but I found one reading space that was clearly set-up for an open mic. But again for now, nothing happening in the "arts & culture" areas. Nicely set up spaces but few people. Is this one of those new media solutions that turns out to be all talk and no serious action?
If I ever attend a poetry reading, I'll report on it in a future entry. Some reading this will be way ahead of me--already denizens of such readings and writers' communities in SL, but for me it's new and I hardly know yet how to talk about it. I'll get there. (I'm exploring possible virtual venues for Kelly Writers House-hosted readings and seminars. SL might not be it. I know there a dozen other easily accessible virtual communities, but this one seems to be catching on quickly. At least the software is not difficult to download.)
Interested enough in SL to read more about it? Go here and see that I've made links to eight articles about it.
In 1967 Mark Van Doren recorded his poems for the Smithsonian Folkways archive (founded in 1948 and led for many years by the remarkable Moses Asch). Mark's son Charles gave me a copy of the CD version of this recording and we at PENNsound had it made into downloadable mp3's, which you can get here on PENNsound. I especially recommend that you listen to the final poem, "When the World Ends."
Mark Van Doren was a legend at Columbia University and around much of Manhattan. Dan Wakefield, when he wrote his memoir of the 1950s, remembered encountering an urbane yet at bottom quite radical essay, an essay that made the young man feel "a quiet excitement of the kind that comes when you discover something...that speaks directly to you, that seems to be a response to questions you didn't even know you were asking until the answers appeared with such clarity and power, as if they were waiting for you all the time." The author of the essay was Mark Van Doren, "identified as a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who was also a professor of English at Columbia."
"Mark Van Doren," Wakefield continues to remember. "His name seemed to rise up off the page like an Indian smoke signal of the intellect or a Jack Armstrong secret code from the unconscious to guide me to his classroom. I knew without further explanation that somehow I was going to go to Columbia to study with Mark Van Doren."
Leaving hyperbole aside--there must be some of it here--I find in my large Van Doren file a dozen similar encomia. Van Doren was a magnet.
A few years ago I read The Autobiography of Mark Van Doren (Greeenwood, 1968) and was much moved by his beautiful evocation of his beloved farmhouse (which he built with his famous brother Carl) in rural Connecticut - and the sense of the shuttle between Bleecker Street, teaching classes, returning to "the country," summering, sabbaticalizing, writing belle lettristic critical books and introductions, and poetry. I can't say the latter speaks much to me, not often anyway (although I am always of open mind reading it), but the figure, the position, the intellectual passion, the style of life...has always been an allure.
He contribued to the upstart Chicago Review in the late 40s and early 50s--quite a reaching-out from such an eminence.
He was the son of Charles Lucius Van Doren, a country doctor in Hope, Illinois. (Thus not, most definitely not, a descendent of priveleged Dutch-stock Yankee/New Yorkers as some people think.)
He was on the liberal-left during the McCarthy period, and there's no mistake about that. At NYU's Tamiment Library one can look through the archives of "Counterattack," one of the anticommunist red-baiting "research" groups. They would gather damning info and materials and clippings about the supposed communist activities of people--actors, intellectuals, writers--and sell the info to others who could smear, blacklist, etc. Well, Mark Van Doren has a sizable file in the Counterattack papers. Here's an example: "Mark Van Doren was listed as a sponsor of the Children's Unity Festival, which was sponsored by the CITIZEN'S COMMITTEE OF THE UPPER WEST SIDE. This festival took place in approximately 1945. This COMMITTEE was cited as a subversive organization in New York City which is among the affiliates and committees of the Community Party, USA, by Attorney General Tom Clark in December 1947.... Mark Van Doren...was listed as a host to a dinner honoring the Spanish Government-in-Exile [this was during Franco's Spain!], to be held in the Grand Ballroom of the Hotel Roosevelt, November 26, 1946....According to the DAILY WORKER of December 10, 1947 a "Free the Movies" rally was held in Manhattan Center. Speakers at this meeting included MARK VAN DOREN." And so on. It goes on for 8 pages like this.
(Ah, if only there were a Citizens Committee of the Upper West Side today running children's unity festivals.)
And Eugene Lyons, in The Red Decade, a book that listed communist intellectuals and was a bible for red-baiters for 15 years, lists Mark Van Doren (p. 318). Being a Red Decade Red meant some serious smearing, boycotting, letters of complaint, concern if not fear among publishers, etc.
He was Old School, but he was sane and would not tolerate idiocy of the Counterattack sort, and, by all accounts, he was an alluring important teacher and devoted mentor.
Ben Friedlander, the poet, critic and editor, will not be attending the 30th reunion of his Bronx Science High School class this year. He's not the reunion type. So here, in lieu of that, is his high-school-memory offering, a response to the above entry:
The first assignment in my AP English class (at Bronx Science) was to write an "explication du texte" of Robert Hayden's "A Ballad of Remembrance," which concludes with a loving apostrophe to Mark Van Doren, as I'm sure you recall. So researching who this "Mark Van Doren" was, was my first act as a literary scholar! Not that I learned much of anything about him. In those days before Google, my only real option was to call the reference desk at the New York Public Library, and the person who answered the phone had him confused with the quiz show Van Doren. My paper was a bit of a mess.
I've created what's called a "gadget" which you can add to your personalized Google page (called "iGoogle"). If you already have a personalized Google page, just click on this link and you'll now see "your daily Al" every time you go to Google. If you don't have an iGoogle page (your customized look at the Google home page), just go to http://www.google.com/ig and see how to get started. It's easy and a good way of organize web links you frequently use.
And no I don't own shares in Google and am not usually a proponent of proprietary software (although of course I'm using Google's blogger to enable what you're now reading, so I suppose I've become something of a Google Guy).
Click on the photo above and you'll get a sense of what a personalized home or starting Google page can look like. Every time I change "your daily Al" you'll see it there. It will almost always consist of links to new entries here. A more succinct way of receiving updates is to use the RSS feed. Go to the top of this page and click on "RSS."
Here's a sample daily Al.