Commentaries - September 2007

Our annual "Writers House New York" evening will take place this year on November 7, as always at Meisel Gallery in SoHo, 141 Prince. If you want to join us, write to rsvp [at] writing [dot] upenn [dot] edu. Among this year’s readers are LEE EISENBERG (Penn ’68) former Esquire editor and author of several books including the New York Times bestseller The Number; MAX APPLE, beloved fiction and nonfiction writing professor at Penn and author of seven books, including The Oranging of America, Roommates, and most recently The Jew of Home Depot; KRISTEN GALLAGHER (C’91, CGS’99), a poet, publisher and longtime Writers House Hub member whose work has appeared in Antennae, Ecopoetics and elsewhere; PIA ALIPERTI (C’07), whose poetry has been published in Peregrine, The F-Word, and The Penn Review and who has received multiple awards from Penn’s College Alumni Society; and GABE CRANE, a current Penn senior who paddled down the Mississippi River by canoe this past summer and blogged the whole way. You can find profiles of all our featured readers and more information about the event here:

It is surprisingly difficult to find a very good brief summary and introduction to the writing of John Ashbery.Harold Bloom once described a single poem ("The Instruction Manual" — not typical, though) as "a rueful adieu to experience." Perfectly right, I think. But of the whole? Not much in the way of coherent overview, elegant primer. Well, Ann Lauterbach recently introduced Ashbery at a weekend-long celebration of the poet at 80 — at Bard. Here is part of what she said in her brief welcome:

At nearly every page along the way, we have been invited to re-imagine what a poem is, to listen in a new way. This newness shifted the ground on which a poem might be resting. Indeed, the separation of figure from ground in an Ashbery poem is all but dissolved; things seem to happen in a fluid solution, as if always on the way to or from a destination that is itself simultaneously approaching and receding. Observations, revelations, ideas, encounters, and objects course through in such a way as to suggest there is nothing to know outside of the poem. This replete, mutating experience is carried along on the most elastic yet taut syntax; and, because nothing stays in focus for long, the notion of a poem as high-resolution picture, or story, or memo to live by, gives way to the poem as a condition, a habitat, a surround.

Between the high detail of the foreground and the abstract distance of the horizon, the reader is invited in. One can take one’s stuff; it is quite roomy. It is the space, say, of a city square, an open market, a corner bodega, a hotel lobby. Here we greet each other, exchange information and opinion, but because we are on our way elsewhere, a certain civility prevails; we do not intrude, or impose. The diction is one of mild, good-natured inquiry and response; a demotic grace and graciousness prevails, invariably punctuated by mishearings, odd juxtapositions, the marvelous, sometimes sad and often funny enjambments and eruptions of actual life.

The full intro is here on Charles Bernstein's blog.

I've re-read an essay John Yau published in American Poetry Review back in 1994 (vol. 23, no. 2, p. 45). He begins by quoting and playing off of someone else's assertion that we are all of us "an us of others." It is a claim that Yau finds "deeply disturbing," a claim about what he calls this "utopian vision" — that we're all on the outside. He discerns this mode as Poundian and his view is that it is the key to what's wrong with Poundian critics.

I'm interested here in this as a fight about Pound.

The critic Yau quoted — Eliot Weinberger, whom Yau otherwise admires — had been writing about the modernist interest in Chinese poetry. From this interest modernism got its preoccupation "with the detailed observation of the world around: an epic of particulars." And once Weinberger uses the phrase "an epic of particulars," most readers familiar with modern poetry will know he is thinking about Ezra Pound's poetry especially.

This leads Yau to Pound's Chinese-influenced book of poems, Cathay, and much of the rest of Yau's essay for APR is implicitly a criticism of Pound's orientalist premises and practice. Here is his point in a nutshell: "Pound's aesthetics are based on the idea that anything and anyone can be appropriated."

Now at the time of Yau's essay Weinberger had edited and published an anthology of American poetry since 1950, with a subtitle "Innovators & Outsiders." Yau is very critical of its contents. He lists, for example, a great many poets born between 1943 and January 1946 who should have been included. Yau is blunt. Of the 35 poets in all, five are women and two are African American. "As to other Others," Yau says, "forget it." "The demographic complexity of the United States," Weinberger had written, "is reflected in the work itself, rather than the police-blotter profiles of the poets." To which Yau acidly replies: "I suppose 'police-blotter' is supposed to throw a scare into anyone who might wish to look deeper."

The main causes of Weinberger's critical inabilities are indeed the nexus of assumptions that form the Pound-Williams-H.D. critical tradition, and this takes us back to the problems Yau sees in the Poundian appropriative mode of Cathay which he sees Poundian critics like Weinberger — among others — have adopted, to some extent unconsciously. "The Other, it seems, has not become enough like Us (Weinberger and his compatriots) to be acceptable." In short, Pound's brash orientalism has become an anthologist's manner.

What's interesting, too, is that this is not a Left-Right argument, nor is it a Modernist-Antimodernist argument. While this debate took place during, or to be precise just after, the PC or "culture" wars, it is not quite part of that contentiousness either, although perhaps at moments Yau's rejoinder resemble the multi-culturalist rejoinder to the Right in that fracas. One might say that this fight is being waged at or for the heart of modernism's liberalism. The rest of Yau's essay is a negative review of Weinberger's anthology, but what interests me is this framing idea -- that Pound's inadequate chinoiserie is itself a model for the critical method advocates of Poundian modernism have used to desire and claim poetic Others while at the same time being blind to their existence.

I should note that Marjorie Perloff has written about the Yau-Weinberger disagreement in her "Whose New American Poetry?" in Diacritics 26, 3/4, 1996, p. 109.

In an essay on modernism and postmodernism in American poetry, David Antin quoted a passage from Allen Ginsberg's "America" and then pondered the contemporary response among "'establishment' critics" of the 1950s. How did Ginsberg's antic style strike them? From the later vantage (Antin was writing in the late 1970s) it is hard for us to remember that Ginsberg's writing seemed unliterary. The fact is that when we read Ginsberg today we assume that, whatever else his language is, it is at least literary. "America the plum blossoms are falling" — indeed!

America stop pushing I know what I'm doing
America the plum blossoms are falling
I haven't read the newspapers for months everyday some-
body goes on trial for murder.
America I feel sentimental about the Wobblies
America I used to be a communist when I was a kid I'm
not sorry
I smoke marijuana every chance I get.
I sit in my house for days on end and star at roses in
the closet
When I go to Chinatown I get drunk and never get laid

Here's Antin: "The success of the style can be measured by the degree to which the 'establishment' critics responded to this poetry as anti-poetry, anti-literature, and as sociopolitical tract. While there may have been contributory factors in the political climate of the Cold War and [Ginsberg's] own mania, it is still hard to believe that this alternately prophetic, rhapsodic, comic, and nostalgic style could appear unliterary. But it did appear unliterary, primarily because the appropriate devices for framing 'Modern' poetry and literature in general were nowhere in sight. Instead of 'irony,' it had broad parody and sarcasm; instead of implying, the poem ranted and bawled and laughed; learned as it was in the strategies of European poetry it was seen as the poetry of the gutter."

(The essay's title is "Modernism and Postmodernism: Approaching the Present in American Poetry.")

Here is a rare recording: the Hatikva sung by Jewish inmates of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp on April 20, 1945. The recording, originally made by the BBC, had been lost until around 2000. It was aired in 2007 by NPR.

Thanks to Charles Bernstein for sending me this link.

Belsen prisoners shortly after liberation in '45.