Commentaries - November 2007
Harold Bloom was "madly in love" with the poems of Wallace Stevens from the time he was an undergraduate at Cornell University.He traveled from Ithaca to New Haven in 1949 and found his way somehow into the reading Stevens was giving that night for the members of a New Haven (not Yale-affiliated) humanities group. That night Stevens would read a short version of what became "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven." Norman Holmes Pearson, the legendary Yale English professor (and conduit between Yale and the OSS/CIA), saw the lonely-looking young Bloom and took him under wing, at least long enough to encourage the young man to approach the great poet, which Bloom did.
I don't how many times Bloom has told the story of his one encounter with the beloved poet, but a few years ago it was recorded as Bloom taught an undergraduate class at Yale, devoting all hour and twenty minutes of his lecture to a discussion of one poem, "The Poems of Our Climate" of 1938. Today, as I did household chores, brought in the houseplants from the back deck, made my lunch, etc., I listened to the entire lecture, hilariously and brilliantly digressive (at several points Bloom admits to being insane and that the main issuance of his madness is an addiction to never approaching the finality of any point). I then edited the recording and here is the 5-minute segment in which Bloom tells the story of meeting Stevens in 1949.
The title of Bloom's book about Stevens is indeed taken from the poem he taught the day the Yale podcast people made their recording: "The Poems of Our Climate." In that book, not surprisingly, he discusses "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven," and here are a few pages.
Guillaume Apollinaire was stationed in February 1915 not far from where my father and I visited recently — the edge of Provence along the Rhone River between Martigues in the north. To Apollinaire that country was "like a skeleton. It's just like a graveyard. Nothing but sharp stones, similar to bones." Charles Dickens steamed down (we went up) the Rhone from Lyon and got to Avignon, where we also stopped and walked around and through the medieval walls. Dickens noticed the distinct color and his remark, when fitted together with Apollinaire (even the tone is the same somehow), tells better than photographs what the pervasive coloring of the region is. If it's been sunny a few days (as it was for us, happily), I'm referring to a hue you can still see after you close your eyes. "The broken bridge of Avignon," Dickens wrote, "and all the city baking in the sun; yet with an under-done-pie-crust, battlemented wall, that never will be brown, though it bake for centuries." That just it, it seems to me. The sense one gets is of a under-done/not-quite brown. With limestone gray-brown, sandy orange, dull green-grey (a landscape with chestnut trees and maybe some olives), etc.
More photos from the trip.
After a dozen years of the Kelly Writers House — which I like to think of a learning community with a poetics — there are a few things that Writers House-affiliated students do each year that just thrill me, keep me going, make me want to put still more effort into this literary-communitarian project. One such moment has already happened this academic year. Kaegan Sparks, a spunky aesthetic Texan who's absorbing avant-garde energies like a sponge, dressed as the Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven for Halloween.
I've long been a fan of the Baroness — as writer but still more as a figure, a modernist personage. In being what she was (or posed to be — same difference), she performed the modernist word. My English 88 course/site includes a page that serves as a quick (very quick) history of early U.S. poetic modernism. If you go to that page and scroll down to the section entitled "'Talking about things that are understandable only weighs down the mind': modernism at extremes" you'll see links to materials by and about the Baroness, including a famous excerpt from William Carlos Williams' memoir, and several audio clips of people reading about the Baroness, and also a link to scans of photographs from the Fall 2002 Fashion of the Times issue which featured a model modeling what the Times at least considered a 21st-century version of dada style.
It's possible that Kaegan got her idea for her costume from these photos, but I rather think she held more closely to the original dada that did the Times. Don't you? Well, no matter: it's the spirit of the thing that counts, for sure.
The Baroness cut the most compelling modernist figure. She literally wore New York dada, thus inventing it as a pattern of aesthetic costume to be worn so tight that it was her skin, her self. She was, as Irene Gammel puts it in her remarkable biography, an "assemblage of paradoxes embodied in one body." That the Baroness knew and inspired or inspiringly repelled nearly everyone associated with the rise of modernist practice in New York has been already part of the story, but it has never been so richly detailed. In Gammel's presentation the Baroness emerges as far more than an ingenue. She became a mature, self-conscious dynamic artistic force — and remarkably productive in her own right, not despite but because she exhausted herself up from the inside out.