Commentaries - May 2008

Cecilia Vicuña at the Writers House on April 15. Cecilia was our first "Writers without Borders" featured visitor. She chanted and recited for 40 minutes (and 8 seconds) — and that recording is now available on her PennSound page. The Writers House web calendar entry introduces her as follows: "Cecilia Vicuña, acclaimed Chilean poet, filmmaker, and performance artist, weaves time, space and sound to evoke ancient sensory memories. Through playful improvisations, stories, and chants, she leads her audience into a communal space where poetry unfolds. In her work indigenous word-play interfaces the contemporary realities of ecological disaster. Cecilia Vicuña is the author of sixteen poetry books published in Europe, Latin America, and the US. Born and raised in Santiago de Chile, she has been an exile since the Pinochet coup in the early 1970s, and since 1980 has resided in New York, spending several months a year in Latin America. Currently she is co-editing the Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry, forthcoming 2008."

John Carroll took some great photographs of this event.

Jaap Blonk, "What the President Will Say and Do"


It's easy to imagine that when Tracie Morris (the performer and musical poet) and Kenny Goldsmith (father of Ubuweb, proponent of uncreative writing) joined me and Joshua Schuster as PoemTalkers there would be some noise, pure noise, and indeed there was. So why not go all the way and make our poem a sound poem: Jaap Blonk's insistently sounded performance of the phrase that is the title of a book by Madeline Gins. What the president will say and do. What, indeed?

Joshua and Kenny and I had seen and heard Blonk perform the piece in the very room where we recorded this episode of PoemTalk; Tracie and Kenny had heard him do it for the first time, at a conference in L.A. where Gins was in the audience. So we had this one covered from all sides.

"So," I asked, "what do you think is the deficiency of having only an audio recording of this?" thinking of Blonk's strained reddening face and neck toward the end of the piece: a giant of a man holding his breath and choking on words. Kenny's response to this question: "I don't think there's any deficiency, because he's such a good performer that the audio component of the performance carries the day. And if you're lucky enough to see him it's even more incredible in a different way, but I don't think anything is lost without him being there." Tracie agrees: "You listen. You just listen. There are so many great things he's doing with that piece."

So do, please, listen. Listen to us, yes, but listen especially to Blonk.

Tracie hears patriotic marching in the percussive deformation of the sound of the words (and specifically hears Sousa). Josh hear resonances with presidential politics (to which Tracie adds that she also hears chickens). That leads Josh and me to take some advantage of an apparent split in the soundy camp between the overtly political music poet (Tracie) and the pleasure-seeking all-words-are-already-political gatherer of verbal ambience (Kenny). The political/aesthetic binarism collapses rather quickly, but it's fun (and edifying) while it lasts.

Our recording of Jaap Blonk was made on November 11, 2004 at the Kelly Writers House, recorded by Chris Mustazza and now part of the PennSound archive. Kenny's UbuWeb has a wonderful Blonk page, replete with a bibliography.

As always, Steve McLaughlin was our director and our editor.

The first "lesson" people seem to learn about Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" is that it is spontaneous, follows the rule of "first thought, best thought," and all this talk about its natural language leaves one with the impression (intentionally enhanced by the poem's own rhetoric) that it was composed in a white heat, a burst, and then left to be its now-canonical self.

When I teach the poem I use the first (mis)impression to my advantage (I mean, as a teacher who wants to convey, among other things, that there is no such thing as a poem consisting of natural language — that poems are made things). A lesson simple enough. After a while — after a discussion of the students' sense that the poem was composed in a flash of "inspiration" and ecstasy — I show them the marked-up typescript. You see a page below. If you click on the image, it will enlarge just enough for you to be able to see some of the careful revisions Ginsberg made as he worked this poem toward perfection — toward the impression of natural speech he wanted to create.

[inserted between lines 1 and 2] who sat all nite rocking & rolling over lofty incantations which in the yellow morning were stanzas of gibberish

[inserted in the left margin near line 9] * Meat truck egg

[inserted by line 10] lunged out of subway windows, jumped in the filthy Passaic, leaped on negroes, Cried al over the street, danced on broken wineglasses barefoot smashed their phonograph records of European 1930's German jazz finished the whisky &

[inserted in line 11] groaning

[inserted in line 15] got hi [canceled]

[inserted in left margin by lines 20–21] See p 1 [Ginsberg is proposing a shift here to page 1]

[inserted in left margin by lines 23–26] After free Beer [Ginsberg is proposing to move this so that it follows "not ever one free beer" above]

"If I was asked to name the person of my generation whom I most admired, I would promptly answer Telford Taylor. ... [W]ise counselor, persuasive advocate, careful scholar, all the qualities that signify distinction ... were his in high degree." So wrote Herbert Wechsler, who worked with Taylor at Nuremberg.

I once met Telford Taylor — briefly but at least I met him. It was at a conference on the Nuremberg Trials. Well, I should say the series of sessions, hosted by a nonprofit holocaust education group, featured discussions of what is generally called "judgment." The only panel I attended which I remember in any detail included Taylor and a wonderful energetic man named Benny Ferenz. Ferenz had been one of Taylor's assistants in the prosecutions at Nuremberg.

Iniitally Taylor was assistant to the U.S. chief counsel at the long postwar trials, second fiddle to Robert H. Jackson (later a Supreme Court justice). But Jackson left to go back to the States and Taylor himself became chief counsel. Taylor was critical of many aspects of the Nuremberg proceedings. He felt that the prosecutions were undermined by the cold war, which forced the focus to shift from the Nazis to the Soviets as enemies. Denazification was not just an apt thing in itself; it was driven by anticommunist policy: make the Germans our friends quickly and we will have a central European bulwark against the Russians. Taylor felt implicit and explicit pressure to ease up.

After the trials were done, he went home, into private practice, but McCarthy's rise forced him into public positions. He worked hard as a detractor of McCarthy, at a time when this could make one seem a subversive. David Rudenstine has written: "Telford gave a speech at West Point in which he attacked McCarthy as a "dangerous adventurer" and described the then ongoing congressional investigations of the political left as 'a vicious weapon of the extreme right against their political opponents.'" In the same speech, Telford criticized President Eisenhower and the Secretary of the Army, Robert T. Stevens, for not standing up "against the shameful abuse of Congressional investigatory power."

To me the most impressive thing about Telford Taylor's life and work is the way in which his opposition to the American involvement in Vietnam was related to lessons we did not learn from the Holocaust. His book, Nuremberg and Vietnam, puts such a war into the context of genocide and postwar judgment. I urge everyone reading this to pick up a copy of Nuremberg and Vietnam: a short brilliant book. You will not think of the Vietnam War the same way again.

It's possible to say that the international human rights movement was begun by Telford Taylor.

"The laws of war," Taylor wrote in his memoir of Nuremberg, "do not apply only to the suspected criminals of vanquished nations. There is no moral or legal basis for immunizing victorious nations from scrutiny. The laws of war are not a one-way street."

At the end of the year Taylor died, the Times included him in its year-end round-up of short essayistic obituaries. Here's a link (PDF) to Taylor's.

Mr. [Arthur] Miller [recently author of The Crucible]: I am opposed to the Smith Act and I am still opposed to anyone being penalized for advocating anything ... It is the nature of life, and it is in the nature of literature, that the passions of an author congeal around issues. You can go from War and Peace through all the great novels of time and they are all advocating something ... l am not here defending Communists, I am here defending the right of the author to advocate.

Mr. Sherer: Even to advocate the overthrow of the Government by force and violence?

Mr. Miller: I am now speaking, sir, of creative literature. The[r]e are risks and balances of risks.

We tend to read Arthur Miller's stand against the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities ("HCUA" or more commonly — but mistakenly — "HUAC") as bold because, on the face of it, we know that he came to oppose the odious Smith Act, which permitted the government to prosecute Americans for "intending" to advocate something, and because he seemed admirably unwilling to back off from the idea that "the passions of the author" and his "issues" constituted evidence of benevolent intentionality, that is, evidence which Miller would argue indeed suggested a beneficial, not dangerous, relation to the world. In order to save the liberal-left conception of writing as invariably related to a world-made-better, Miller was in effect willing to argue with HUAC not the nature of interpretation but the interpretation of specific texts themselves.

Fortunately that hearing never really came down to a text-by-text interpretation. But the committee did succeed in forcing Miller to concede the harmlessness of certain genres. The committee could get him to admit that, say, poetic writing could be about anything and then at the same time to concede that there had to be limits on what could be said. If literary language congeals around life's action, then it fell into the government's widening net of established subversives and subversive material. The only alternative was to make a substantial retreat and concede that some literary genres — poetry: harmless, it would commonly seem — entail less absolutely than other genres a responsibility for what the writer says about the world. Thus the "absolute" right specifically of the poet to write anything he or she wants about, say, bloody revolution, implies for the writer the evaluation of more or less dangerous genres.

Mr. Scherer: Let us go into literature. Do you believe that, today, a Communist who is a poet should have the right to advocate the overthrow of this Government by force and violence? In his literature, his poetry, or in newspapers or anything else? (The witness confers with his counsel.)

Mr. Miller: I tell you frankly, sir, I think, if you are talking about a poem, I would say that a man should have the right to write a poem [on] just about anything.

Mr. Scherer: All right.

Mr. Jackson: Then I understand your position is that freedom in literature is absolute?

Mr. Miller: Well I recognize that these things, sir, are not: the absolutes are not absolute.

Mr. Jackson: My interpretation of your position is that it is absolute that a writer must have, in order to express his heart, absolute freedom of action.

So rather than making Cold War hermeneutics a more exact business, the shift in the government's idea about what is a subversive text — the shift in and caused by the Dennis Supreme Court case, the move to the subversive text itself and the more (or less) subversive genre — only made the government's readings more arbitrary.

That is, now that the court had put itself and the government's investigating agencies in the business of interpreting intent, the normal hard work of gathering external evidence could be dispensed with. So the prosecution could use the rhetoric of a text-centered interpretation (with its usual claims to objectivity, close attention, and exactitude) while actually focussing once again imprecisely on the author, the radical absolutist seeming to "express his heart." "The crime," noted Justice William O. Douglas wisely in his Dennis dissent, "then depends not on what is taught but on who the teacher is. That is to make freedom of speech turn not on what is said, but on the intent with which it is said." When Douglas wrote later about his disgust for the Dennis majority, he spoke again of the issue in terms of academic freedom, eloquently suggesting in general what historians such as Ellen Schrecker have recovered in great specificity — that the notion of "objectivity" in American scholarship and teaching became increasingly valued in the 1950s. While objectivity was put forth even in the humanities as an absolute value, it was in a very important way a practical response to the invitation from government and universities to come to the end of ideology. "Thus those who believed in Communism and hoped it would take hold here and taught the creed became criminals," Douglas wrote about the Dennis case and intentionality, "while those who were more detached — that is, did not believe in Communism — could teach it with impunity. Yet from the academic viewpoint, the deeper a person was immersed in a subject and the more passionately he felt about it, the better teacher he usually was — whether the course be one on Wordsworth, Henry George, or Karl Marx."

Douglas was alluding to the case of university professor Paul Sweezy, who taught Marxist theory at the University of New Hampshire at the time the state gave its attorney general a very broad definition of subversive language and suggested that he go find it at the local U. Here are two of the questions Sweezy declined to answer:

"Did you tell the class at the University of New Hampshire on Monday, March 22, 1954, that Socialism was inevitable in this country?"

"Did you in [that] or in any of the other former lectures espouse the theory of dialectical materialism?"

One wonders, of course, how a teacher can clearly explain dialectical materialism without even momentarily seeming to espouse it? And how was it concluded that Professor Sweezy said socialism is inevitable in this country if, in interpreting the Marxist text for his students that day in class, he said Marx himself would have argued that socialism is inevitable in countries like the United States in which certain conditions manifest themselves? The unequivocal "is" was made more central to the state's analysis of subversive language than the conditionally speculative "would have" and the relationally speculative "like." Even such simplification of scholarly hypothesis assumes the teacher's language would be accurately in question during the course of the investigation; in fact, paraphrases in students' notes, subpoenaed or volunteered, would be the basis of the state's interpretation of espousal:

"I have in the file here a statement from a person who attended your class, and I will read it in part because I don't want you to think I am just fishing. 'His talk ... was a glossed-over interpretation of the materialistic dialectic.' Now, again, I ask you the original question."