Commentaries - September 2007

don't sign petitions

Harry Truman, in a speech at Detroit's 250th anniversary celebration, as quoted in the New York Times on July 29, 1951:

Now listen to this one. This malicious propaganda has gone so far that on the Fourth of July, over in Madison, Wisconsin, people were afraid to say they believed in the Declaration of Independence. A hundred and twelve people were asked to sign a petition that contained nothing except quotations from the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. One hundred and eleven of these people refused to sign that paper--many of them because they were afraid that it was some kind of subversive document and that they would lose their jobs or be called Communists. Can you imagine finding 111 people in the capital of Wisconsin that didn't know what the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights provided? I can't imagine it. Think of that, in the home state of two of America's greatest liberal and progressive senators, Robert M. LaFollette and Robert Jr.

neither us nor them, part 2

A few days ago I commented on John Yau's attack on Eliot Weinberger's anthology American Poetry Since 1950: Innovators and Outsiders. Toward the end of that entry I mentioned that the review didn't have about it the left-right contentiousness of many other lit-crit squabbles of the day (late '80s/early 90s).

Probably I shouldn't have spoken so soon. By now I've read (why I'm reading this stuff...is a good question) a long reply from Weinberger in the form of a letter to the editors of American Poetry Review (APR) and Yau's rejoinder. (These and several others letters--all of them taking Weinberger's side--were printed in the July/August 1994 issue of APR.)

Earlier here I wrote: "One might say that this fight is being waged at or for the heart of modernism's liberalism."

Perhaps that's still accurate but waged should in any case have been italicized.

Weinberger's letter speaks of the "embarrassed friends of John Yau" who urged him "not to reply to his bizarre attack"--and I had to wonder how many of these friends remained friends of Weinberger's when he went ahead and made his reply, which begins in a quite personal manner. Weinberger had thought he and Yau had been friends. "I went to his wedding," he notes. He offers his credentials of involvement with Chinese poetics and contrasts such experience with Yau's career-long incuriousness about poets of color or about such topics--or indeed about Chinese ("I spent years study Chinese--which John barely speaks and cannot read"). And: "My latest book is about Asia and Latin America. John's latest book is on Andy Warhol."

"I will not dignify his scumbag race-baiting."

Yau's rejoinder is more temperate but really does little more than repeat the criticisms of the original review: Weinberger's anthology is racist and narrowly focuses on a poetics that is self-serving to the editor (disproportionate emphasis on poets associated with Sulfur and related projects).

All these letters--W's and Y's but also those by defenders of W--really do seem to typify the PC/anti-PC fights of this era. Indeed, 1994 is on the late side for straight-out Political Correctness fights of this sort - the mode was well worn and easily comprehended by this point; the rhetorical patterns would have been very, very familiar to readers, so much so, I think, that the participants knew that witnesses to the contest would not need a scorecard to know the players, which is a perhaps too idiomatic (indirect) way of saying that the right-left terms of the debate about racism, sexism and literary-political multiculturalism did not need to be spelled out. Thus the larger ramifications of Yau's apparent attempt to use a left position to outflank the liberal-left Weinberger from his left did not need to be described for them to be operative.

Okay, fine. But I still think this isn't really, at bottom, a PC fight at all. It's not left-right (or left making liberal-left into right). Yau doesn't have a political bone in his body and nothing really explains his attack (unless, as Weinberger hints, Yau had just lost his sanity). I still think it's about Pound - the Poundian mode. And who gets to describe what it is and which nexus of critics and critic-poets get to claim its lineage. (In this fight there is collateral damage, e.g. Does writing a book about Andy Warhol qualify one for being part of the ongoing modern tradition? Or must it be a book about Chinese poetry?)

You can sense that this is a fight for the postmodern soul of Pound in Yau's original review-essay, but you can also see it in the July/August rejoinder. One of Yau's major complaints is that "Mr. Weinberger reduces the provocative wildness of the past fifty years of radical poetry to a tidy linear 'tradition.'" And that tradition is "Ezra Pound, passing through Charles Olson." Notice what Yau believes is lost in the ascendary of the Poundian mode as a late-20th-century critical apparatus: provocative wildness and radicalism. Yau doesn't mean "radicalism" as a matter for political poets (Edwin Rolfe, Tom McGrath, et alia), and his references to the non-avant-garde leftist poets left out of Weinberger's anthology seem disingenuous (he doesn't seem really interested in them even as he mentions them). And provocative wildness seems to be an attempt to make a category much wider than the already wide mode of poets working in the "cyclonic history" manner of Pound/Olson (Susan Howe is mentioned as such). Yau begrudges Amiri Baraka in this context. He'd like Baraka to be exhibit A in his case against Weinberger, but can't use him because "he is the only African American poet who can be directly connected to Charles Olson to emerge since 1960."

My point is that as a skirmish in the Culture War none of this is interesting. As a fight for the heart of the Poundian, it's utterly fascinating.

It's all about Pound.

the class that taught itself

In the spring of '96 I taught a course called "The Literature of Community", a seminar in which all the members of the class, including me, lived in the same building. This was Van Pelt College House, here at Penn.

We viewed and discussed - heatedly debated - the film On the Waterfront. I asked the students to summarize the film pithily by email (we used a listserv, one that hummed with incoming messages night and day, mostly night).

Here is a super-succinct summary of the film written by Alex Platt in the middle of the night on January 18, 1996:

So, we're all a bunch of squabs looking over our shoulders for the hawks that live on top of the hotel, with the occasional longshoreman to throw us a handfull of feed? Is that why ideally "everybody should care about everybody," cause we're all in the same pile of sh+t?

When students walked into class the next day, I wordlessly handed them a sheet with this on it:


Read the comment carefully - it's pithy and suggestive rather than explanatory (typical Alex, I think) - but if you take time to comprehend it you will be able to discover a general criticism of the film we watched last night. So read it and work out in your mind what Alex's position on the film is.

If you agree - more or less, on the whole - with Alex's position, sit on the side of the room nearest the windows.

If you disagree - more or less, on the whole - with Alex's position, sit on the side of the room nearest the door - across from the windows.

If you don't know, don't care, prefer not to take a position one way or the other, side along the back wall, between the windows and door walls.

Then they began to discuss - passionately. I experimented that day, deciding not to say a single word until at least 30 minutes into the class. It worked. They did it all themselves and the discussion covered pretty much all the points and topics and approaches I would have wanted to raise myself.

Drucker, Atget, Boltanski, et alia

For Lingua Franca's "Breakthrough Books" feature back in January of 2000, I wrote this paragraph on Marjorie Perloff's Poetry on & off the Page: Essays for Emergent Occasions (Northwestern University Press). What can one do in a paragraph? Not much. It's a bare summary, but I hope a suggestive one:

This fine collection of occasional essays is concerned with the way supposedly ordinary language becomes poetic. From The Poetics of Indeterminacy (1981) forward, Marjorie Perloff has confidently, helpfully mapped contemporary poetics during a period of almost constant change. (She herself is one of the few constant features on that landscape.) Wary, as always, of holistic paradigms for the literary history of poetry, in Poetry on & off the Page she describes not the replacement of hip canon for square canon, "political" for "formal" poetries. Rather she shows shifts within (usually coinciding with the growth of) aesthetic movements that range across interests, forms and social formulations. Although a number of the essays have less to say about poetry per se than about, for example, Johanna Drucker's bookworks, the video art of Bill Viola, the photographs of Eugene Atget, and Christian Boltanski's simulated documentaries, I cannot think of a better introduction to contemporary poetry and poetics. Such commendation tells much about the special mode of Perloff's writings as well as the dynamic, interactive condition of experimental poetry today.

pattern recognition circa 2003

By the age of 28, Ray Kurzweil had invented a print-to-speech reading machine for the blind that caught the attention of Stevie Wonder.

In November 2003, Kurzweil and John Keklak, an engineer, received patent No. 6,647,395, covering what Mr. Kurzweil calls a cybernetic poet. Essentially, it is software that allows a computer to create poetry by imitating but not plagiarizing the styles and vocabularies of human poets.

It works something like a cyberblender.

Here is a poem the cybernetic poet wrote after "reading" poems by Wendy Dennis, a poet employed by Mr. Kurzweil:

Sashay down the page
through the lioness
nestled in my soul.

While other poetry-generating software exists, Mr. Kurzweil said, it is less sophisticated than his. "Those are fixed, fill-in-the-blank approaches that resemble the Mad Libs game," he said. "They are not really trying to create new patterns based on a more flexible pattern structure."

"The real power of human thinking is based on recognizing patterns."

From a New York Times article.