Commentaries - November 2007
Today's Times features an article about the pressures brought to bear on these mostly ridiculous big-time party designers - "event planners" who sometimes take six months to create a gathering. One of these folks, David Stark, might rightly be called a conceptual event designer (in the sense of "conceptual artist," although as I verily write this parenthesis I realize it will seem a stretch, but bear with me...).
Stark's latest work, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum’s awards gala, was meant to be Green & enviro-friendly and avant-garde at once. Giving into decadence in one sense, creating green ironies in another, and possibly mocking the tuxes and little black dresses prancing below trash topiaries and shredded-paper chandeliers in yet a third. Stark created indeed giant faux-natural shapes - many florid archaisms fashioned from trash. "It was the language of excess," says the Times "— those topiaries recalled the gardens of Versailles — expressed in the material of frugality."
The shredded paper of which these biomorphs were made included 12 years of Stark's own tax returns. Excess means the extra stuff you throw away (or now: make available for recycling), and it also means too much.
(Maybe, as a result of this success, Stark's tax return this year will need to have a few extra addenda. I wonder, if we demand to have his tax returns made public, if it will be part of the art. I rather think so.) MORE...
Recently I was asked about the precise origins of the word "McCarthyism." The correct answer to the question is that for a while (perhaps five or six years) the term was used by some as a term of commendation--a positive as well as, of course, for many if not most, a negative. Soon I remembered that Richard Rovere (in his book Senator Joe McCarthy) wrote a nice passage on this topic:
Barely a month after [the] Wheeling [West Virginia speech in which the junior senator from Wisconsin claimed to know about several hundred communists in the State Department], "McCarthyism" was coined by Herbert Block, the cartoonist who signs himself "Herblock" in the Washington Post. The word was an oath at first--a synonym for the hatefulness of baseless defamation, or mudslinging. (In the Herblock cartoon, "McCarthyism" was crudely lettered on a barrel of mud, which teetered on a tower of ten buckets of the stuff.) Later it became, for some, an affirmation. The term survives both as oath and as affirmation not very usefully as either, one is bound to say and has far broader applications than at first. Now it is evocative of an almost undifferetiated evil to a large number of Americans and of a positive good to a somewhat smaller number. To the one, whatever is illiberal, repressive, reactionary, obscurantist, anti-intellectual, totalitarian, or merely swinish will for some time to come be McCarthyism, while to the other it means nothing more or less than a militant patriotism. "To many Americans, McCarthyism is Americanism," Fulton Lewis, Jr., a radio commentator and the official McCarthyite muezzin, said. Once the word caught on, McCarthy himself became intrigued with it. "McCarthyism is Americanism with its sleeves rolled," he told a Wisconsin audience in 1952, and, sure enough, there was the eponym, with his hairy arms bare to the biceps. That year he published a book of snippets from his speeches and his testimony before committees, and it bore the modest title of McCarthyism: The Fight for America. There is injustice as well as imprecision in both meanings; if patriotism can hardly be reduced to tracking down Marxists in the pastry kitchens of the Pentagon or the bindery of the Government Printing Office, neither is the late Senator's surname to be placed at the center of all the constellations of political unrighteousness. He was not, for example, totalitarian in any significant sense, or even reactionary. These terms apply mainly to the social and economic order, and the social and economic order didn't interest him in the slightest. If he was anything at all in the realm of ideas, principles, doctrines, he was a species of nihilist; he was an essentially destructive force, a revolutionist without any revolutionary vision, a rebel without a cause.
For more, have a look at my 1950s site.
This week's "Poetry off the Shelf" podcast, produced by Curtis Fox for the Poetry Foundation, features Flarf poetry. The best way to get this podcast series is to go to the alt.NPR podcast series page: here. The piece is well edited and jabs both pro and con.
Not quite a year ago I gave a short paper on sound in Wallace Stevens, at a session that was part of the cluster of sessions on the conference-wide theme, "the sound of poetry," at the Modern Language Association's huge annual gathering. I opened with this simple assertion:
If Stevens contended that “There is a sense in sounds beyond their meaning”; if he argued that poetry “makes us listen to words when we hear them, loving them and feeling them, makes us search the sound of them, for a finality, a perfection, an unalterable vibration”; and if he insisted that “[a]bove everything else, poetry is words…[and] words, above everything else, are, in poetry, sounds” – then why hasn’t the critical response to Stevens put sound at the center of the discussion? Here are six reasons: (1) fear of a mannerist reputation; (2) guilt by association with the non-innovative; (3) Hi Simons; (4) Stevens’ dull-seeming poetry readings; (5) a lagging interest among critics in sound technology; (6) a certain deafness in the project of disclosing Stevens’s politics.
I've been writing a little more about this topic, and have said my piece, more or less, on what might seem the least interesting and most obscure and intramural of the 6 reasons: Hi Simons. So here's more on Hi.
Hi Simons, the first to ask Stevens in any sort of systematic way about the sound of words, was an amateur critic. He was unconfident and awed, critically a plodding workaholic, star-struck around Stevens’ replies, and aware of his own tendency to believe utterly whatever Stevens said. As he told a close friend of Stevens, who in turn told Stevens: “I work so slowly that I am constantly embarrassed about it . . . . I often doubt that I possess that ability to carry water on both shoulders which Mr. Stevens cultivated so successfully . . . twenty-five years ago” (unpublished letter from Hi Simons to Arthur Powell). Simons was an independent critic whose daily life was consumed by his work as a publisher of medical textbooks in Chicago. He seems to have deliberately misled Stevens by continuing to imply for several years that he was preparing a bibliography even well beyond the point of posing merely bibliographical questions; their earliest exchanges, beginning in 1938, were all about tracking Stevens’ old appearances in periodicals, but soon letters arrived from Chicago requesting line-by-line close readings. A number of them asked directly or indirectly about the meaning of the sounds words make—for Simons ever the most difficult aspect of the verse to follow. Stevens’ replies show that he was aware of Simons’ awe, and his letters—saying for instance that the meaning of “The Comedian as the Letter C” was in the sound of the letter C—were sometimes toneless yet overstated, sometimes oddly ironic, and occasionally just shy of toying with the rookie close reader; alternatively, they were literalistic in the extreme. Once Stevens began to hear (first from others, then, confessionally, from Simons himself) that Simons hoped to write a huge critical biography—“an affair . . . larger than Horton’s work on Crane, something like Foster Damon’s on Amy Lowell” (unpub. letter from Duncan to Stevens), a prospect horrifying to Stevens, who hated the idea of biographical readings—the poets’ answers to the critic’s request for detailed response seemed ironically to bear out, rather than to contradict, his principle against authorial explanations, as he described this tenet to Simons directly: “I made up my mind not to explain things, because most people have so little appreciation of poetry that once a poem has been explained it has been destroyed.” Or, more bluntly when the critic’s questions were about a poem whose form turns on the limits of words as sounds, “A paraphrase like this is a sort of murder.”
Here the homicide victim was “The Man with the Blue Guitar.” The question Simons posed about unreality in canto XVIII might well have led Stevens to discuss how the sound of the “Sea of Ex” negates the negation of intelligible language in the poem. The canto is a dream of the sort that defies the term “dream” (“to call it a dream” is the best we can do). And the rest is repetition, words crossing the senses (the guitarist’s “long strumming on certain nights / Gives the touch of the senses, not of the hand”) such that the thing, the idea of the thing in the phrase “things are they are,” is lost in the ringing of repeated, modulated phrasing: “A dream no longer a dream, a thing, / Of things as they are, as the blue guitar” etc. Thus “Ex” marks a poetic spot beyond sounded sense-making, a place toward which the poem’s language drifts. Yet, especially if we’ve read Simons’ letter (now housed at the Huntington Library), we can sense in Stevens’ reply to Simons that he knew he needed first to help his correspondent make basic sense of the exclusive visual scene, so that the “sense of irreality often in the presence of morning light on cliffs when they rise from the sea” engages image by analogy as a didactic tool. Impressionism here is an analogy to irreality, not a theme of the poem, nor its aesthetic ideology or mode. The canto uses the sound of words to stipulate irreality too, yet the brief explanation, published in Letters without, of course, the incoming letter from Simons, nor the context of the imbalanced power relationship, seems definitive. There are at least a dozen similar readings. The same confusion, for instance, seems to derive from Stevens’ answers to Simons’ queries about the Arabian in the room in canto III of the “It Must Be Abstract” section of Notes toward a Supreme Fiction. In the margin of Simons’ incoming letter, next to the question as posed, Stevens wrote in pencil: “The Arabian in the room & the unscrawled fores (the vagueness – undecipherable) – is the moonlight” (letter to Simons). He was hardly avoiding the centrality of the “chant” and of the “damned hoobla-hoobla-hoobla-how” here; rather, he was literally responding to what he thought Simons needed to get along section by section in the epic.
The Stevens community seems to have been thrown off the scent of sound by this exchange for at least two decades, even before Holly Stevens’s edition of letters was published in 1966 – for stories of the poet’s explications for Simons were told in detail by Holly Stevens and Samuel French Morse, among others. Sound got off to a bad critical start, beginning with the way in which the aural excesses of “The Comedian as the Letter C” were read and taught based on a contextless understanding of Stevens’ relationship with the man who first received the seemingly definitive answer to questions about the importance of the sound of the letter C.