Commentaries - January 2008

A rich girl, played by Barbara Stanwyck, is caught hanging around with a campus agitator. Her father yanks her out of college and sends her south of the border to cool off. There she meets — and naturally falls for — a handsome Border Patrolman (Robert Young), whose straight-arrow ways quickly reform her leftish proclivities.

This was Red Salute of 1935. In 1953 some folks in Hollywood thought it would be a good idea to remake the film, and they did: Runaway Daughter. A new marketing campaign was devised — "A startling story of RED MENACE at work in our schools ... planting the seed of treason among the men and women of tomorrow!"

The poster says: "... from today's headlines!" Ah, but, it was a recycled 1935 movie.

Relevance to today? Hm. Well, it does give anti-immigration politicians another reason to argue on the stump for a beefed-up Border Patrol.

source: Better Red Than Dead: A Nostalgic Look at the Golden Years of RussiaPhobia, Red-baiting, and Other Commie Madness, by Michael Barson (New York: Hyperion, 1992).

Back in December of '04 I was finishing up another semester teaching English 88, my course on modern and contemporary American poetry. In the final "chapter" of the course I ended by having the students read two contemporary poets — Jena Osman and Kenneth Goldsmith. Then, as it happened, both of these people were in the Writers House at the same time, so I asked my students to come back to the House for a special evening session, and we spent an hour or so talking with Jena and Kenny. We recorded it, and you can find mp3's and a summary of the discussion here.

It will help to know that the person being discussed in the middle of the excerpt is Jackson Mac Low. He gets named after a while but at first it might not be clear. The session took place on the very day that Mac Low died.

Today we released a new episode in our series of PennSound podcasts featuring a 16-minute excerpt from the Osman-Goldsmith. Here is a link directly to the podcast recording.

The Wallace Stevens relevant to contemporary poets (and here I am going to take extreme examples from among writers never thought of as deriving from the Stevensean aesthetic) such as Kenneth Goldsmith or Tan Lin, both of whom often operate in ambient language — words arranged as to be analogous to sound already in the environment — is the Stevens who strives at times to “undo the traditional work of polyphonic harmony” and makes “moves toward a monotony, a dead unison.” This is the little-appreciated Stevens who responds with beautiful uncreativity to Wittgenstein’s assertion that “A tune is a kind of tautology, . . . complete in itself.” The Stevens whose words are sometimes a “semiotically dirty, mumbled smattering over the possibility of” a vowel, such as “O.”

Ah, but the phrases quoted in the previous two sentences were not from Goldsmith or Lin, but from an essay by, of all poets, John Hollander. One of the keenest early pieces on sound in Stevens was indeed authored by Hollander, a writer of sonorous, formally lyric lines, very nearly an anti-modernist (although Joyce was his earliest influence), generally associated with traditional poetics — a poet not at all in the Pound-Williams-objectivist nexus. (Hollander is often said by mainstream critics to be writing in the Stevensean tradition, but it is the supposed Auden side of that mode. ) Many young scholars of modern and contemporary poetry were trying to resist the “Whose Era Is it? – Stevens or Pound” dichotomy even before Marjorie Perloff stated the case for this key literary-historical binarism thus in 1982. Taking up Hollander’s cause seemed to cede the languagy ground to Pound and made sound-in-Stevens criticism unfashionable at best, irrelevant at worst. In 1981, as my handwritten notes on a photocopy of “The Sound of the Music of Music and Sound” indicate, before even reading it closely I filed away the Hollander piece and conducted my own research and writing on Stevens (for a book that made a political reading of a politically unconscious modernist) without the benefit of its insights. Yet there it was, critically incorrect, yet a large and fundamental — and super-obvious — claim: “The whole of ‘The Whole of Harmonium’ [Stevens’ term for his overall poetic project, the continuous poetic] is a musical trope.” I once published a 13-page interpretation of “Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz” and “Mozart, 1935,” describing a counter-politics against the lyric made in verse using music as a trope, without consulting this essay. That a critic like Hollander works as a poet at the Frostean end of the spectrum of Stevensean phrasing (and sense of nature) kept me from hearing the fitness of the critic’s sense that sounds apparently external to the poet, such as be-thouing Romantic bird, were “asserting their own exemplariness” through words as auralities. Missing the musical forest for the literary-political trees, lured down a single path formed by straight and narrow rather than crisscrossed aesthetic taxonomies, hearing talk of sound but seeing metrical traditionalism, I overlooked the clear assertion that “Frost and Stevens would make very different things of th[e] observation” offered by George Santayana that “To hear is almost to understand."

The official publication date for my new book, Counter-Revolution of the Word, is March 5, 2008, but books ordered in advance will be shipped on February 1. Here is an order form. You can also buy a copy, of course, on Amazon.

John Edgar Wideman visited KWH in April of 2000. He'd been away from Penn quite a while and relations between John and Penn had been — for various reasons — a bit frosty, despite continued admiration for John from long-time Penn people such as Peter Conn. My students and I were ga-ga over John's then-new book, Two Cities, which I've re-read twice since '00 and still think is one of the best postwar U.S. novels. I highly recommend it. So John's return to Penn was a homecoming of sorts, a chance for many of us to say directly to him how much we value him and missed having him a part of the Penn scene. He was touched. The Penn baseball cap my students gave him he wore around all the next day. At one of the receptions we held at 3805 Locust for him, nearly all the basketball players and the coach, Fran Dunphy, showed up and gathered round him to hear stories of the Penn team of the early to mid-60s.

Last night we released a new Writers House podcast which features a 20-minute excerpt from our conversation with John from that 2000 visit. Here is the link directly to the podcast mp3.

And here's the link to the whole visit.