Commentaries - March 2008

Now, at the Kelly Writers House main page, you'll see daily (or almost daily) updates, news, links to featured recordings, info about the upcoming reading. And be sure to subscribe to the feed.

The Writers House was founded in 1995–96 as a writer-centered bottom-up writers' haven or sandbox, and by now, a dozen years later, we offer 300 events — seminars, lectures, readings, book groups, manuscript exchanges, mentorships, symposia on all forms of writing — each academic year, September through May. All events are free.

We have an archive of media files — audio and some video, mostly mp3 but also RealAudio and RealVideo — of hundreds of readings and talks. It's called medialinks. There's also an archive of webcast recordings — of (to name a few writers) Laurie Anderson, Robert Creeley, Thalia Field, Lyn Hejinian, Tony Kushner, Alice Notley, James Alan McPherson, Carl Rakosi, Susan Sontag, Slavoj Zizek. We have a podcast series that on this date has produced 15 programs. We host week-long and month-long book discussion groups.

Best of all, we've made a bunch of good friends — mostly, I think, by treating writers well, by feeding them fabulous food and by bringing to them and their art audiences that typically have read carefully, ask thoughtful questions and don't mind disagreeing.

[] "You have created at once a center of artistic and personal social power, a non-bureacratic, unconventional power in one spot without being marginalized in the process. Brilliant."--Nick Spitzer, host of NPR's radio show, American Roots.

[] "The people at the Writers House have created such a lively and hospitable environment that I love to walk in and teach there. I just finished reading a manuscript about the University of Chicago in the 1950's and that literary environment, and I thought that Writers House might have saved a lot people in that era."--Max Apple, author of The Oranging of America and many other books, and member of the Writers House "hub" since autumn 2001.

[] "I keep telling everyone I see that this is an amazing thing you have here, this house of writers. It exists in no other space that I can think of in the United States. We were talking about that earlier, this question of a place for writers and translators, where poets and artists can come together and work, in a sense, in collaboration. It is amazing. So thank you."--Ben Hollander, poet and participant in "UnAmerican Poetry," a conversation about writing, translation, globalization, politics in the Middle East, the foreign poet's relation to language in March 2001.

...who present, past and future sees.

Allen Ginsberg saw himself in the line of prophetic poets. And so he made an LP of William Blake's songs of experience, including "The Garden of Love." We've just released PoemTalk episode #4, a 25-minute discussion of Ginsberg's chanting of this poem in country-western style, featuring Charles Bernstein, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, and Jessica Lowenthal.

Allen Ginsberg sings Blake's "The Garden of Love"



Hear the voice of the bard....

Which bard? Well, we're not quite sure how bardic Charles Bernstein is but he certainly loves the idea of poem as song; he joined some by-now regular PoemTalkers (Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Jessica Lowenthal) and chanted for us that very line. We've worn the grooves on an old LP of Allen Ginsberg singing William Blake's Songs of Innocence & Experience and for the fourth PoemTalk chose Ginsberg's countrified (crossover?) rendition of "The Garden of Love." Does the snappy, twangy (and relatively tuneful) setting create an irony? Jessica thinks yes; Charles thinks no.

But perhaps the tune should be in conflict with the poem's sense, and thus perhaps Ginsberg was not so much pushing a song of experience into a popular (and thus single-direction-tending) mode so much as making it still more Blakean.

The binary of innocence and experience, Rachel says, is broken by the way the song is sung. Blake wanted the binary to be broken; Ginsberg only breaks it further. And seems to been having fun along the way.

Listen for the happy out-take at the end. We had some fun ourselves, albeit somewhat atonally and quite arhythmically.

The Garden of Love

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And 'Thou shalt not' writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.

PoemTalk #4 was recorded in the Arts Cafe of the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia. Al Filreis and Mark Lindsay produced; Steve McLaughlin is our director, engineer and editor. Ginsberg's Blake song were recorded in New York City in 1969; PennSound has a complete collection of these recordings. Be sure to check out PennSound's Ginsberg page.

There's a poem by Guillaume Apolinaire called (in English translation) "There Is." (I just said that the poem is there. But that's a kind of pun, since I meant that such a poem exists — as in, "There is a young man who travels the highway ..." — but I also meant that there [below, here; on a page somewhere] it is, or, it is there, a particular place where you can find it. Ah.) Every line there (there I go again) begins with "There is" (or for plural objects, "There are" in English). Its effect as a list poem is doubled by the constraint/non-constraint of that opening phrasal construction. What is there? What is out there? What is in here (in the mind)? Whatever there is is there (here) in the poem. As a reader I don't try to follow a sequence — I don't try to "get somewhere" — because I know that what's next is just another thing that is there, and there can be outside but also inside the poem.

Then again the poem is a sequence but it's "about" war. It's about the ubiquity of war, in which every "there" is there. You can't turn away from it because it is just there. I don't try to get somewhere as a reader because in the end I will end up there, again.

The poet is pointing out things ("Look, there is that, and, see, over there is that ...") and he is saying that these things are. It is also, in certain lines, about what is not there, not present (his love). So "there" on occasion means the opposite of presence.

The translation I know is by Michael Benedikt. The whole poem is in my English 88 site, and there — just below, there (see what I mean about thereness?) — are the first few lines and then a few others:

There is this ship which has taken my beloved back again
There are six Zeppelin sausages in the sky and with night
coming on it makes a man think of the maggots from which the
stars might some day be reborn
There is this enemy submarine slipping up beneath my love
There are one thousand young pinetrees splintered by the
bursting of the same shells falling around me now
There is this infantryman walking by completely blinded by
poison gas ....

There are all these crosses everywhere this way that way
There are paradisial persimmons growing on cactus-trees in
There are the long hands of my love

I'm one of those people who've actually read William F. Buckley's God and Man at Yale. Mind you, I'm not recommending it — just, perhaps, asserting my oddity or mania or both. It's a very poorly argued book but, as you might expect from a young Buckley, dazzling in its audacity. I've always enjoyed the replies, reviews, and counterarguments published all over the place in the months after the book made its first splash. McGeorge Bundy's reply appeared in the December 1951 Atlantic:

"When I sat down to review Mr. Buckley's book, I was somewhat concerned lest my readers refuse to believe that so violent, unbalanced, and twisted a young man really existed. His rejoinder removes that concern, and it remains to demonstrate that as a defense it is almost a complete fraud."

That's hilarious. Of course "that concern" refers to the fact that such a person as the young Buckley actually existed!

Then of course the attack on Yale by one of its recent own created defenses of the university — I mean Yale, but also the idea of the modern university — that were, well, purely defensive, and also theoretically untenable. I'm now looking at a New York Times column reprinting the entirety of a report issued by an advisory committee of Trustees and other alumni, a "Report on Intellectual Policy." The gist is that "the business of a university is to educate, not to indoctrinate, its students." This was a distinction they had to make. This was 1952 — February 18 to be exact — and HUAC'ism and McCarthyism and McCarranism dominated the landscape; these old Yalies had to insist that there were no communists on the faculty, and to do so they mostly didn't mention communism but tried to imply it by describing the utter neutrality and apoliticism of the points of view of the faculty. Thus education shares nothing with indoctrination, and students at Yale "study, discuss, and write about facts and ideas without restrictions, other than those imposed by conscience and morality." That's a huge logical "other than those ..." turn. Constraints following the mores of the day — and those established by the tradition of the university — do not hedge free discussion, qualify the student-written word, or create boundaries between what can and cannot be studied in association with a class. God and Man at Yale ironically did nothing to make this back-and-forth freedom-constraint discussion a significant one, and when Yale entered the 1960s, and students began to demand real freedom to discuss, write and resist curricular indoctrination, it was as if the big Buckley fracas had never taken place.

Buckley and Bozell, in their defense of Joseph McCarthy (McCarthy and his Enemies) wrote: "A hard and indelible fact of freedom is that a conformity of sorts is always dominant ... [Therefore] the freeman's principal concern is that it shall be a conformity that honors the values he esteems rather than those he rejects" (p. 120). The above-cited book — and Buckley's ridiculous Yale book — are both full of hateful contentions and loose empty logic, but I have to say that here the Far Right is being franker about conformity than the Academic Center. A conformity that honors the values the conformed person esteems. That's surely it.

Now that Buckley is gone, mainstream media talking heads are describing his charm and even his talent for ideological crossing. And folks not just on the political right are coming forward to say that they were his friends and that they felt his grace and generosity. I don't really believe any of this, although I do recommend that you leave this zone of the web and go over to YouTube to watch some clips from Firing Line. The debate between Buckley and Noam Chomsky on Vietnam in '69 is stunningly good. I also have to say that I was momentarily moved by David Brooks' recollection of Buckley's generosity this past week during the Brooks-Shields political round-up on The NewsHour. (Brooks as a U Chicago upstart had brutally satirized WFB's limo- and ski trip-centered lifestyle, whereupon Buckley, giving a speech at Chicago, asked if there was a David Brooks in the audience. There was, and Buckley hired him on the spot. Call it strategic cooptation of the Young Right; call it reaching out. Either way, Brooks's gratitude is real.)

My own vision of being caught with Buckley alone has always been that of the oblivious mouse at the end of a cave with a venomous snake. (Psychoanalyze that if you like.)

Now I hold in my hands (as Tailgunner Joe used to say) an unpublished letter dated December 15, 1953, which I read and had photocopied in the Henry Regnery Papers at the Hoover Institution. It's in the Buckley file of Regnery's correspondence in box 10 of the enormous Regnery collection there. Regnery was a conservative publisher of conservative books. He worked with the liberal president of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins, on several Great Books projects, but for the most part he published far right essayists, novelist, literary critics (at least one book on Pound), and poets (Roy Campbell, e.g.) who were having a hard time finding a press. At this early point in Buckley's career, Regnery was a crucial supporter. The problem with McCarthy and His Enemies was that it was a big and expensive book — $6.50. At that price it would not sell. Buckley and Regnery agreed that if "gifts" (donations) could be made toward the selling of 6,000 advance copies of the book, Regnery could dare to print a larger first run, and the press could lower the price to $5.

So back to this 1953 letter. It's from William F. Buckley to The Honorable Joseph R. McCarthy himself. Buckley says he's thrilled that McCarthy likes the book so much (which he has no doubt seen in galleys). It "justifies the faith that your most earnest friends have in you." So "let me at this point ask your help," and Buckley goes on to ask if McCarthy can arrange for donations to be made to — in effect — subvene the cost of publishing the book. Buckley wonders if McCarthy can arrange with foundations to "accept gifts which would be earmarked for buying these advance copies." This was McCarthy at his height, or perhaps a few months after he'd reached the zenith of his power and influence. I don't know enough about the publication of Buckley's pro-McCarthy book to know if McCarthy did arrange for such "gifts," but I find the letter utterly remarkable. Leave aside that it's untoward for the supposedly independently minded author of a book to ask the book's controversial subject to help pay for its publication. I'm sure this sort of thing happens all the time. But here's the same brilliant, young, already famously autarchic fellow asking an elected government official to use his influence to engineer donations to ensure the profitability of a right-wing publisher. Surely this was deemed (even in those urgent days) to be a huge no-no, and surely WFB knew it.

Or maybe not. Maybe I'm naive about such things. (Maybe? Almost certainly.)

Near the end of this letter, the late great William F. Buckley says to the Honorable Joseph R. McCarthy: "Any suggestions you might have will be exploited with McCarthy-like vigor."

What a clever man he was.

Related: why real conservatives hate Freud.