Commentaries - February 2008
You can listen to a podcast version of this entry.
Bill Owen was gentle and effective. In his day he was a major university administrative player. In retirement he was a genial presence - knew what needed to happen but never raised his voice about it. He was on the Board of Penn's Class of 1942 when I met him in my days as "Class of 1942 Professor." He and I quickly decided that together we would induce the class to make a donation to enable the renovation of the garden outside the Kelly Writers House on Penn's campus. It worked.We completely redid the garden - beautiful stones, a William Carlos Williams poem engraved along a path, new flower beds of locally native flowers, shrubs, and trees, and a great watering system. The spring there is gorgeous.
Bill died recently. He was not just a Penn friend of mine, but, as it happens, the father of my son's fourth-grade teacher at a local Quaker school. So through that doubled connection I got a chance to teach Williams' poetry to 10 year olds! ("Joy,joy!" as WCW might have said without a trace of irony.)
I didn't know Bill Owen well but I sense the loss of his presence. Universities tend to forget even very efficacious administrators, but I'll try not to. Bill ran the whole development effort here, was in Admissions for some years, and served as the University's "secretary" (managing trustees and overseers, etc.).
Please look at this obituary and try to read between the lines: see if you can the kind of person that makes so much of what we do possible.
Here's the Williams poem in the garden. Today it's for Bill:
The Quality of Heaven
William Carlos Williams
Without other cost than breath
and the poor soul,
carried in the cage of the ribs,
I walked in the garden. The
garden smelled of roses.
The lilies' green throats opened
to yellow trumpets
that craved no sound and the rain
was fresh in my face,
the air a sweet breath.
the heat was oppressive
dust clogged the leaves' green
and bees from
the near hive, parched, drank,
the birdbath and were drowned there.
Others replaced them
from which the birds were
--the fleece-light air!
The Poetry Foundation web site hosts a blog called "Harriet" (named of course after Poetry founder Harriet Monroe). Currently Christian Bök, Stephen Burt, Rigoberto González, Major Jackson, Ange Mlinko, and A.E. Stallings are the poets writing entries. The cast of bloggy characters rotates. Last summer Kenneth Goldsmith was among them. On July 26, 2007, Kenny's entry incited a number of responses, many of them negative. Here is link to the full entry and the responses, and here is the first paragraph of Kenny's comment:
I recently gave a lecture recently to a group of poetry MFAs on uncreative writing, appropriation, information management and unoriginality. During the Q&A;, a student declaimed, "C'mon, man, be real. Drop all that stuff and be real, you know, artist to artist." To which I responded, "If you can give me a definition of what real is then I can be real with you." I thought to myself, wow, writing is so far behind other art forms in this regard. Could you imagine after a lecture someone say to Jeff Koons, "Hey, Jeff, drop all that stuff and be real." Never. No one expects Jeff Koons to "be real." Jeff Koons has made a career out of being "unreal." Likewise, during a pop concert -- say, a Madonna concert -- it's hard to imagine someone shouting out to Madonna to be real. No one expects Madonna to really sing, rather they revel in the image of her while listening to a pre-recorded vocal track. Would the "real" Madonna please stand up? For the past two decades, "realness" has ceased to be an issue in music, art and fashion. But in writing we're still expected to "be real." Twenty five years after Baudrillard, these poetry students were still prioritizing Romantic notions of authenticity -- "truth", "individuality" and "honesty" -- over any other form of expression. My god! Is it a case of naivety, amnesia or just plain ignorance?
Image above: Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson and soap bubbles (1988).