Commentaries - September 2007

This is Edwin Morgan's "Archives." It's my favorite of the "simple" typewritten concrete poems in the anthology of concretism edited by Eugene Wildman, published by Swallow Press in 1969. My paperback of this is nothing special, but I cherish it. I could talk about this poem for a long time and not nearly be done saying what I want to say about it: generation as proliferation of meaning and also the same thing over and over, the archive as something that forestalls decay, enjambment and its relation to generation, the irony of progress, the future of the machine, and more more. Form here adds a great deal of the meaning (as in all good concrete poetry, of course). This has so much more to offer than properly lineated syntactical descriptive language pseudo-transparently running left to right in lines telling us what we should think and feel about the generations' decline. But this, it seems to me, is art — so much more of an art. At least it's what excites me about art (form doing the hard work with seeming ease).

More Morgan:

– Crawford, Robert, and Hamish Whyte, eds. About Edwin Morgan. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990.

– "Edwin Morgan: A Celebration." Chapman 64 (1991): 1–45.

Born in Glasgow, Edwin Morgan was expected to join the family shipping business, but began writing love poems instead. He served in the second world war, taught himself Russian and drew inspiration from the Beats. Acknowledged as Scotland's foremost living writer, he was in 2004 named the country's first poet laureate.

For Morgan early on a powerful force from the US was William Carlos Williams: the poet with an instinct to explore his own locality. Morgan understood, as he himself put it, that "Williams was doing something with the place where he lived that I could apply to the place where I lived. He influenced me in being able to write about very ordinary things in Glasgow. I had never thought of that kind of approach before. At school, poetry was mostly Romantic poetry, it was exalted, it was about love and nature and great subjects - not about the slums of Glasgow." There's more here.

We underestimate what a big breakthrough it was when Jerome Rothenberg in 1972 (one could say this was the height of the American Indian Movement — just to take that cut on the tiWe underestimate what a big breakthrough it was when Jerome Rothenberg in 1972 (one could say this was the height of the American Indian Movement — just to take that cut on the times) decided to say outright that we can "cross [...] the boundaries that separate people of different races & cultures" and indeed set about not only understand but translate American Indian poetic expressions. This is not mild stuff, given the context of that moment: In the face of whatever objections he would meet, he declared that unfortunately "it has become fashionable today to deny the possibility of crossing the boundaries..." etc. But he did just that.

In putting together Shaking the Pumpkin (above I'm quoting from the preface), Rothenberg knew that as an editor, translator and indeed promoter of ethnopoetics, he was "attempt[ing] to restore what has been torn apart." Presumptuous. He could do the mending.

"Come not thus with your gunnes & swords," he quotes Powhatan (speaking to John Smith) in his epigraph, "to invade as foes... What will availe you to take that perforce you may quietly have with love." (Powhatan serves Rothenberg as a Christ figure here.)

Rothenberg was a peacemaker not just in the whites-Native American colloquy. He was making peace (or maybe it's killing with kindness) also with those who would angrily deny the boundary-crossers. Ethnopoetics in this form might seem moderate and even truistic now, but it mapped out (and then made pacific) a real battleground then.

Robert Grenier (in Phantom Anthems, 1986) wrote what I think is an absolutely brilliant response to and satire of William Carlos Williams. Here it is:

for William Carlos Williams

the young plum tree
like a martini
with new green
leaves how metrical

likely & con-
versant it would
have been today to
write a true imagist poem

I just love the loaded skeptical sense of "conversant." How conversant it would be of us today, of a poet today, to write one of those spare, seemingly descriptive or "objective" poems in Williams's manner. How metrical, how likely, how conversant. Its title "But" hangs up there like a large and general turner-around of the rhetoric and logic. I find all this hilarious. But — there I go myself — I don't have the sense of this as a rejection of Williams especially. There's a hint of lament that ... you can't say it that way any more (to borrow a line from John Ashbery). The use of the word "today" points toward this tone.

On the last morning of one of this summer's camping sessions, the Tacoma staff woke up the girls very very early (4 am?) and took them on a sunrise hike up Giant Ledge. Anna Armstrong, one of Tacoma's counselors, took this shot at the sunrise moment.

I think they cooked and ate pancakes up there. Could it get any better than that?

In the early 90s I taught my class on the literature and culture of the 1950s.In the early 90s I taught my class on the literature and culture of the 1950s. The course was about consensus and these young brilliant doubters decided that the form the seminar should take should be dissensus — in itself a resistance to the material. They went hog wild and I let them do so. These were heady early days of the web and we put a summary of the (non)final exam essays on a web page here.

The photo at right (created by the students in a then-new program called Photoshop) morphs me onto a singing/dancing/chanting it's-no-longer-the-1950s Allen Ginsberg.

At the end of the course, one of the students wrote: "We thrive upon cognitive dissonance; we never shrink from conflict, understanding that 'the disagreements themselves can be the point of connection' (to quote Gerald Graff's book on teaching the conflicts). There have been times that we have yearned for consensus, for closure, but we all agree that the most engaging, the most thought-provoking, sessions have been those left unresolved, both sides of the room ruddy-faced and hot under the collar as we collect our materials for our next class."

"I am indeed still muddling, sifting, figuring, reconfiguring, and getting a more firm grip on what I think," wrote Michelle, "but that effort no longer constitutes my position on anything. Even those 'who claim to be so straight as to the way they view the world,' of whom I had been suspect but also admired, are also still in a process of thinking and rethinking."

"This is what happens," writes Ellona, "to the undergraduate who is rejected by intellectual community: when students are assuaged into believing that they take nothing relevant from a course other than a letter on their transcript, they build an ideology of test scores and essay grades, and grow to love being judged solely by others for the intellectual content of their thought, rather than testing the limits of their own intellects against another person."

"A university," Christy writes, "should be a safe place for students to experiment with ideas and to challenge our perceptions of the world ..." Alas, she writes, in the current climate the student "quickly learns to keep his mouth shut about an issue until the professor has told him what to think about it. THIS IS NOT AN EDUCATION; IT IS CLASSICAL CONDITIONING AT ITS BEST." So "What needs to happen for such an environment to occur? Student-faculty interaction is undoubtedly a place to start. Students need to be able to discuss their ideas and beliefs with people who are more experienced at questioning such issues. Students need to learn to defend their beliefs against someone who knows more about the subject; this will force us to think critically about the issues with which we are working, and ultimately will teach us how to construct and deconstruct an argument. We will begin to understand the world around us in a very real way, and this understanding will provide us with ways to interact with the world."

The above-mentioned Ellona wrote up an "Undergraduate's Bill of Rights and Responsibilities." These included:

You have the right to conduct undergraduate research, and have its intellectual content taken seriously.

You have the right to prioritize teaching in the tenure process. You have a right to protest that lack. You have a right to expect that your concerns matter.

You have the right to organize class dinners and parties, and to invite the professor to attend without feeling you've overstepped the boundaries of propriety by mingling social and academic pursuits.

Under "Responsibilities":

This contract is in danger of being dissolved by the "University" at all times. You have not just a right, but a responsibility, to see that the academic community includes you at all times, and a responsibility to fight like hell when a Provost or Undergraduate Chair or tenured professor defines that community without you in it.

Finally she added: "In my ideal academic community, everyone would know this by heart, would recite it word for word and then follow it up with a Shakespeare sonnet."

[] See this comment on the above.