Commentaries - June 2008
There’s much one can say about the iconoclastic philosopher Mortimer Adler - the complex, driven brilliant co-creator of Great Books and of the all-knowledge totalizing ultra-simplifying encyclopedia (The Synopticon) that was a child or grandchild of Great Books that Adler edited with the support of the president of the University of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins. I won’t say even a fraction of what I could about Adler, who has long fascinated me.
For now I will just repeat the wonderful (and mean-spirited but perhaps accurate) phrase James T. Farrell once used to describe Adler: “a provincial Torquemada.”
quoted by Leo Gurko in “The Angry Decade,” p. 127.
Robert Creeley wrote the preface to Paul Blackburn’s Against the Silences. Creeley there counted Blackburn as among those who starting in the late 1940s had hopes for poetry and felt “the same anger at what we considered its slack misuses.” Thus Creeley implicitly interprets Blackburn’s title phrase: this is a new poetry written against the quietude (to use that apt Sillimanian phrase) that Creeley and Blackburn, among others, associated with poetics that we can now describe as between modernism and postmodernism. I especially like the dating of Creeley’s realization: the late 1940s. In the view of some, that would be a bit early. After all, the anthology that certified that there was a new American poetry to supercede the old-New was published in 1960.
In an email here is what Creeley once wrote me when I asked him about the scene in the late 40s and early 50s: “Everyone of my authenticity or political definition was laying low.” The use of “authenticity” here C. did not mean as boast; he meant those who shared his version of authenticity – which is to say, not the then-usual sincere.
Henry Kissinger in the early 1950s edited a magazine out of Harvard called Confluence, and (presumably with help from some friends in the humanities) he published there a number of influential center-Right literary intellectuals, and a few in the category once known as "anticommunist liberals." In the latter camp was Richard Rovere; some say Daniel Bell too. Alberto Moravia’s “Communism and Art,” a series of anitcommunist aphorisms, is fascinating.
“A painter like Titian would see abstract art and Socialist Reaism as one. To the former he would say: 'Paint me a hand that is a hand,' to the latter: 'Endow your portraits of generals and politicians with a sense of power, of greatness, of poetry, as I did mine.'”
Another problem of the day was that communist poets know “instead of poetry only artifice.” And “instead of spontaneous creativity only the will to produce.” And this: “Art is memory, propaganda is prophecy.”
So: abstract art and constraint-driven poetry and poems that eschew personal remembrance are worse than bad; they’re subversive.
Okay, so at least we know where Moravia stands. But wait, how will we apply his standards against poetry that has these awful qualities? This is a problem, for, according also to Moravia, “The first requirement of party art should be that it not look like party art.” Ah, so the art that has been described as bad will not seem to have such qualities, which means it might indeed not at all have such qualities, since it might well have been disguised as creative, unabstract, highly personal writing.
Confluence vol 2, no. 2, June 1953.
The other day several of us were remembering high-school typing classes. Sit at old desk. Clang away at old worn manual typewriter. Type lines your teacher tells you will enhance your fingers' sense of the full range of QWERTY. Such as "Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party."
I never knew what party this was, but the article "the" made me suspect that it was the G.O.P., a hunch seemingly confirmed by a glance up at my extremely prim typing teacher. Once in a while, in a resistant mood, I would type this: "Now is the time for all good men to come to." "Mr. Filreis," Miss Prim would say, "please complete the assignment." "I didn't have time to finish" was my retort, whereupon I swung my bookbag over my shoulder, and was off, down the hall among the party-minded teenagers who wandered there during class.
To type this entry, which I did with great efficiency as always, I had once again to poke the letters forming that expression of classic American get-alongism. And I could strongly feel the body-memory, an adolescent sensory shadow.
Very soon we at PennSound will be announcing a new page of recordings: those of the poet Walter Lowenfels. We've been working with WL's daughter Judy to preserve readings and interviews that have been stored on reel-to-reel and cassette tapes. First they were digitized and put onto CDs. Then we've been selecting batches to upload, tag, name and organize on the new Lowenfels author page: here. We'll be adding more soon, but check it out now. Rare stuff there.
Lowenfels is, in a way, the Zelig of modern American poetry--part of nearly every aesthetic and political movement of his time. In the 20s he was an expatriate avant-gardist living, writing, experimenting, publishing, frolicking in Paris; toward and in the 1930s he became a political activist, and a member of the Communist Party; in the 1950s he actually went to jail after having been convicted under the anticommunist Smith Act, and wrote sonnets to love and liberty while in jail; re-emerging in the early and mid-1960s, he was taken up avidly by a new generation of readers and became a leader among the poet-activists who opposed the war in Vietnam.
For my book on the poetry of the 1950s and the way it responded to modernism in the 1930s, I spend a good deal of time tracking down Lowenfels' publications and reading among his unpublished letters and other archival materials. So this new Lowenfels PennSound gives me special pleasure.
Armand Schwerner: "Way before the sixties, Walter Lowenfels perceived the lopsided canon of our poetry; he did a great deal to change the climate, in which, as he writes, the country needed to include 'the vast emotional resources and insights that Indian, Black and Chicano people express in their poetry."