Commentaries - September 2007

Poetry goes with conservatism, prose with liberalism

So said Peter Viereck in the 1950s.

Peter Viereck

Peter Viereck energetically contended that prose was inherently associated with liberalism and poetry with conservatism. Hardly anything could irk a conservative anti-modernist of the postwar period more than the brazen way in which radical and avant-garde poets ignored the distinction between the proper stations and functions of poetry and prose. Eve Merriam, for instance, in a poem called “Said Prose to Verse”:

Listen, my insinuating poem,
stop poking your grinning face into every anywhere.
I have trouble enough keeping my house in order
without a free-loading moon-swigging boarder around
making like a solid ground.


For Viereck, conservatism “embodies” rather than “argues,” and whereas poetry in the 1930s argued exactly as if it were prose, conservatism could claim a closer connection to poetry than did the liberal-left. The liberals of Viereck's time could have prose; poetry — real poetry that did not poke its face into every empirical anywhere--would best be realized by conservatives.

Following Yeats's distinction between embodying truth and knowing it, Viereck wrote, “Poetry tends to embody truth, prose to know it. Conservatism tends to embody truth, liberalism to know it.”

wailing wall of sound

I've just read a pre-publication draft of an essay by Maria Damon on the creative world/work of Jewish-Canadian feminist Kabbalah scholar/poet Adeena Karasick. I've read Karasick's Dyssemia Sleaze (2000) and after reading Damon's inspired, breathless essay I'll buy The Empress Has No Closure if not other books as well. Perhaps Maria D. will ask me not to quote this draft, but I'm so taken by Damon's own lyrical verve here that I can't help myself. She begins by describing Rock n Roll's "Wall of Sound" as "an aural cenotaph for those lost in diasporic lines of frightflight." This takes us to Karasick's major piece in Dyssemia Sleaze, "The Wall," which (obviously) refers to, among other things, the Western Wall (or Wailing Wall) of Jerusalem. To Damon "The Wall" as a poem is itself "a tsunamic wall of words and images bearing down on the reader, a chaotic pile of junk, a roaring whirl." Then there's this phrase, describing the female performance poet: "the (coded-female) reproductive body spew-shpritzing verb-effluence as it it were a bodily fluid."

Much of this is overstated but I take it--and appreciate it--as Damon's attempt as a critic to be a participant in such a radical Jewish experimental poetics, with plenty of cognizance and self-consciousness that she herself, Damon, commits the imitative fallacy. This is indeed, as she puts it, "the danger of 'falling flat' [that is] always present in such specifically corporealized work and [thus] lends it some of its interest--as in (I can only hope) the overload of corny puns with which I tend to freight my essays." Wow, what a shrewd way of anticipating our objection to aspects of this tour de force (not "The Wall" but Damon's essay about it) that indeed fall flat. So why not? It seems to me all part of what Alfred North Whitehead calls a proposition--a "lure of feeling." (Damon herself quotes this phrase.) If the purpose of such an essay is to get me as reader to read more of its subject - Karasick - then it succeeds in a way most essays I've read about relatively unknown contemporary writers fails. Failure, in a sense, is not an option. Worth the risk.

Damon’s apparently whimsical essay on academic affiliation (published years earlier in a book on the academy*), while also interesting in its own right, seems to me most helpful as a provider of context for this critic’s personal intellectual origins. Affiliation is, after all, a function of the individual’s sense of her life-work. That long ago (as a student at Hampshire College) Damon was encouraged (“trained” is actually her word) to think of intellection in terms of “mode of inquiry” rather than “objects of knowledge” goes a long way toward explaining her orientation to process and her insistence on and devotion to self-disclosure. Non satis scire is or was Hampshire's motto: it is not enough (simply) to know. The literary historian of modern and contemporary poetics cannot (simply) describe, especially when she is actively a part of the scene she is describing.

And so I would suggest that Damon's Karasick essay makes emphatic and structurally/formally appropriate a tendency that Damon obviously feels she’s at her best when giving free reign to it. Even her essay on Alan Sondheim's intrusive/disruptive alienating art, for Damon a more academically rigorous critical performance, makes explicit her desire always “to some degree” to be writing essays which are themselves participants in the disjunctive “bricolagarie” (“repeating, quoting, and [self-]interrupting”) that is her main topic.

Adeena Karasick is a wonderful temptation for the critic who thinks of herself or himself as a writer--to cross from critic to poet or, a bit less obviously, to carry criticism across.

* "Memoirs of a Mutable Thoughter," Affiliation: Identity in Academic Culture, ed. Jeffrey R. Di Leo (Nebraska, 2003).

description without any sense of place - which (thus) conveys a keen sense of it

Wallace Stevens' "Description without Place" was a very odd choice of poem to compose for and deliver at the Phi Beta Kappa ceremony at Harvard in 1946. Another speaker at the same gathering, the State Department's Sumner Welles, spoke rather obviously about the urgent, chaotic world situation--spoke, in other words, about place in a rather specific manner. To say the least, Stevens did not speak about place in such a way. I'd always loved this poem nevertheless, and when I wrote my book about the second half of Stevens' life as a poet (Stevens and the Actual World) I sought to account for its seemingly deliberate nonrelation to actuality, contemporaneity and history. As elsewhere in this book, my idea was to recover a sense of the political for Stevens' wartime and postwar writings. Here's a paragraph that comes toward the beginning of the chapter devoted in part to my reading of this poem (chapter 3):

If a postwar context can even be partially recovered for Stevens's Harvard appearance, it will perhaps no longer seem so strange that a poem whose "rhetorical aim is a queerly hypnotic one . . . enclosed in a kind of baby talk" (as Helen Vendler has put it), "one of the most private of Stevens's poems" and "not likely to earn for [him] many admirers" for its "dangerous aridity" (Joseph Riddel), and one showing the poet "at his most arid" (Harold Bloom), should be indeed the poem Stevens chose to write for an occasion so dramatically public. One recent critic, Michael Beehler, in an essay devoted to "Description without Place," examines a tendency even among Stevens's historicist critics to view a poem as "not refer[ring] to any system of meaning outside of itself" and as having "no referent beyond its own 'closed systems.'" Beehler demonstrates that "Description without Place" continually plays on a double sense of referentiality, but in this instance the critic, when pointing out the poem's resistance to external reference, merely assures us of the poem's own deconstructive work; that is, Beehler's words for Stevens's project best describe the critic's main operational assumption: "description, and language in general, 'cannot coincide' with its object." Although convincing in its own terms, this sort of reading will not recognize that if there is a particular historical situation inscribed in Stevens's very resistance to referentiality, it is what promoted that resistance in the first place; I shall argue here, in other words, that that situation is the emerging postwar moment, characterized by a new-found imaginative power in which American intellectuals, emerging from a period of partisanship, were presented with the apparently liberating idea that ideologies had exhausted themselves and that political writing was to be outmoded. Vendler is right, then, to suggest of the manner of "Description without Place" that with its mere "appearance of logic" and "baby talk" it glances at the thirties. In its "lapsing back to the old dazzle of 'Owl's Clover'" and its "Blue Guitar"-like "hum of reiterated syllables" it does entail a kind of total collapse of reference and apparent plain sense while at the same time it was also very shrewdly marked by the politics of 1945 and beyond, with a special, post-political reversion to outmoded styles of a bygone era of social realism in which Stevens tried to play the role of the poet as reliable commentator on events. In my reading, he was attempting to play such a role again, though the role had radically changed since the thirties and had been undergoing further change in recent wartime months.

And here are a few lines from this remarkably abstract but in fact quite engaged poem:

Lenin on a bench beside a lake disturbed
The swans. He was not the man for swans.

The slouch of his body and his look were not
In suavest keeping. The shoes, the clothes, the hat

Suited the decadence of those silences,
In which he sat. All chariots were drowned. The swans

Moved on the buried water where they lay.
Lenin took bread from his pocket, scattered it--

The swans fled outward to remoter reaches,
As if they knew of distant beaches; and were

Dissolved. The distances of space and time
Were one and swans far off were swans to come.

The eye of Lenin kept the far-off shapes.
His mind raised up, down-drowned, the chariots.

And reaches, beaches, tomorrow's regions became
One thinking of apocalyptic legions.

Here's a link to all of chapter 3 of that book.

Fidget

Fidget is Kenny Goldsmith's transcription of every movement made by his body during thirteen hours on Bloomsday (June 16) in 1997. Originally commissioned by the Whitney Museum of American Art as a collaboration with vocalist Theo Bleckmann, Fidget attempts to reduce the body to a catalogue of mechanical movements by a strict act of observation.

Kenny read parts of the book at the Writers House on September 21, 2000, and the event was webcast live; we have a recording of the live webcast. On Kenny's PennSound page there are links to another reading of the book.

Recently Janine Catalano wrote an account of the September 2000 event at the Writers House. Here is a passage from Janine's piece:

The piece starts off with beautifully descriptive phrases, detailing body parts taking on unexpected autonomous functions (“Left nostril conforms to the shape of finger”) and their specific, directional twists and turns. At times strings of phrases can be envisioned as a body completing a sustained movement, but focus constantly jumps, shifting from external motions to internal mechanisms and back again. Even during the first hour of his exercise, while lying almost motionless in bed, a pervasive sense of unrest, to the point of frenzy, seeps into certain moments. Goldsmith vacillates between excitement verging on that of a sports commentator during a pivotal play and meditative tranquility of an introspective yogi.

However, despite Goldsmith’s professed interest in the “concretization of language” on the page, as the reading progresses it creates almost the opposite effect on the listener, producing a disjunctive aural ephemera, or what critic Marjorie Perloff, phoning in with a question after the reading, describes as the “broken ribbons” she hears in Fidget. The descriptions become increasingly reductive, focusing more on interactions between body parts than their isolated movements. Reading from the 5:00 section (his day having started at 10:00), Goldsmith’s language has evolved into a mesmerizing series of words and phrases that sound like disjointed commands. Later in the twilight hours of his experiment, while drunk and looking at the sunset in his own Joycean sojourn, subjectivity becomes less subtle and the first person which was so carefully edited from the initial sections peppers the text. Poetic phrases (“and the eyes from whence I came”) and nonsense statements (“achievement: hair”) beautifully intermingle in scenes in which both the original experiment and Goldsmith’s body itself seem to lose their rigidity and meld into their surroundings.

The Mississippi Project

I'll have more to say about The Mississippi Project in a later posting. Meantime, here's a passage from this year's convocation speech given to Penn's new freshman class by university president Amy Gutmann just a few nights ago:

If the first unwritten rule governing success at Penn is to open your mind to new ideas and friendships, then the second Penn rule is to aim high. The more unconventional, the better.

Consider Gabe Crane, a rising College senior whose passion for writing and canoeing led him to conceive a daring adventure: He and three of his pals would paddle canoes down the entire 2,000 miles of the Mississippi River. Then he’d write about the experience afterward.

Penn English Professor Al Filreis encouraged Gabe to be even bolder. Why not create a live blog called the “Mississippi Project” and make the adventure come alive in words, pictures, and conversation?

With tech support from Kelly Writers House and financial support from the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, Gabe created a multi-media literary journal that transformed his adventure into – in his words --- “a meditation on the state of our generation, coming now finally of age … and a meditation on the state of our country.”

Because Gabe aimed high, he has the beginnings of an original book and the makings of a successful literary career.

Penn can make the biggest difference in your lives when keep your mind open to challenging new ideas and friendships, and aim high.