Commentaries - March 2008
"I'm saying that the domain of poetry includes both oral & written forms, that poetry goes back to a pre-literate situation & would survive a post-literate situation, that human speech is a near-endless source of poetic forms, that there has always been more oral than written poetry, & that we can no longer pretend to a knowledge of poetry if we deny its oral dimension."--Jerome Rothenberg, from a dialogue on oral poetry with William Spanos, 1975*
* in Pre-Faces, p. 11.
I've had a lot to say - too much, for most people, I'm sure - about the cardboard caricaturing of American communist poets, an invention of the 1940s and 1950s after the apparent/alleged dominance of such poets in the 1930s. I don't mean their politics, which often can be aptly caricatured (or at least predicted); I mean their aesthetics.
To take an instance: Collage, one would think, would be anathema to a communist poet at the height of the anti-fascist movement.
Responding to the death of Franklin Roosevelt in the spring of 1945, the communist Aaron Kramer constructed an elegy of words he found in the New York newspapers of April 13th and 14th. The result is a poem that is most certainly not an effort to respond coherently to a major political event - maybe emotionally, but not ideologically. It's not, in my view, a great instance of collage, but it is a newspaper collage and it was published in the American communists' official newspaper. The whole text is available in my modern American poetry site/English 88. Here are a few parts:
QUESTION: What did President Roosevelt mean to you
Place: Times Square...
A black crepe bowknot
either with or without streamers...
They came up out of the subways to put the question...
the flag is flown at half-staff, it was pointed out,
but never with the blue field down,
as that signifies a signal of distress...
Sometimes the magic is not in the looked-at but among the onlookers. As in this 1952 cartoon (published in the Saturday Review of Literature):
There's also here, of course, a related 1950s narrative about the Americanization of the Other, his transformation from status as the Real Thing to that of mere member of the Lonely Crowd craving the domestication of the non-rational. MORE >>>
In today's NYT "ThursdayStyles" section the lead story, under a huge photo of a famous crusty TV law prof, is a story about "the professor as open book." Wow! News! Now students and others can discover their professors' red wine preferences, their favorite films, their social-networking profiles, "friend" them. Or not - or not - if the academic in question does not choose to put such stuff up, which is most often the case, even at this late date into the internet age. So what really is the story here? The key perhaps is where the story runs: the "Style" section, not the higher-ed page/half-page in the main first section. This story befits the My Space/You Tube/no-one-is-private-anymore craze and has nothing to do with academics or education or the professoriat per se.
"It is not necessary for a student studying multivariable calculus, medieval literature or Roman archaeology to know that the professor on the podium shoots pool, has donned a bunny costume or can’t get enough of Chaka Khan.
Yet professors of all ranks and disciplines are revealing such information on public, national platforms: blogs, Web pages, social networking sites, even campus television....
While many professors have rushed to meet the age of social networking, there are some who think it is symptomatic of an unfortunate trend, that a professor’s job today is not just to impart knowledge, but to be an entertainer."
Now ponder this last part. The professor's "job" seemed to be in part to create an aura of personal impenetrability and solitariness and remoteness only when, as it happens, the technologies of personal knowing were what they were. Now that they are what they are, the "job" seems to be changing. These things are not innate. And as for entertainment, it's the Times that's asserting this by putting the "story" on its Style page. There's nothing more or less entertaining about a teacher who is known as distinct from unknown. It all depends on the teaching.