Commentaries - June 2008

Pepi Ginsberg, the 24-year-old Brooklyn (via Philadelphia) singer-songwriter, has a new video out — a song, "On the Waterline," that's on her new album, Red. Albert Birney directed the video and it's a fine one: Pepi's evocative warbly voice, ruminative and Dylanesque through phrasal repetitions, is matched by what the Stereogum note-writer calls the "vintage, analog-drenched feel" of the video. Her lyrics are poems for sure. Bias disclosure: Pepi (aka Jessy) was a student of mine many times over, and a close affiliate of the Writers House, and one of my favorite people in the world.

At a party last night, Upper West Side-y gathering. Great fun, nice people, lots of interesting folks to talk to. But one of those scenes where once you find out what someone does you can't help but think that you know a good deal about who he or she is. The architect who really turned out to be very much the kind of person who is an architect. A photographer with, in other ways too, a very good eye. A guy who, when he gives you his email address, you realize has his own domain name ([his-last-name].org) who turns out of course to be a technology entrepreneur. And I the Ivy League professor? The others, this morning upon arising, if they think of me at all, will think, That guy surely was the Ivy League professor he told us he was.

In part this is obvious, this is tautology. A photographer is, after all, a photographer. And is likely to seem so generally.

No sooner do I decide that there is nothing profound about any of this, I happen to re-read Lydia Davis's fabulous prose-poem or short-short short story titled "A Position at the University." It was published in a book of such pieces, called Almost No Memory in 1997. The text is below, and the recording of Davis herself reading the piece is in PennSound.

When Don Share was an archivist at Harvard, he worked with audio recordings that were and are in the collection of the Woodberry Poetry Room, and (getting grants and whatnot) started to put together "The Poet's Voice" — subtitled "a digital poetry collection." Harvard has a recording of the 1952 poetry reading Stevens gave there, introduced by Richard Wilbur. And also the more well known 1954 reading which became the basis of a cassette Stevens distributed by Random House Audio. Click here to see the Poet's Voice entry for these two recordings. Here is a perhaps more helpful listing of all the poems Stevens read aloud — with links to RealAudio streaming (not downloadable) digital recordings of some of them.

With thanks to Ben Wiebracht who helped me conduct this search, here is a list of other recordings of Wallace Stevens poems:

(1) A poetry blog where someone who calls himself "Hoon" quotes, comments on and reads aloud some poems by Stevens:


(2) Early poems read aloud by Alan Davis Drake. Many of these readings were made for and Cloud Mountain Studios.


(3) "Peter Quince at the Clavier" read by Walter Rufus Eagles.


(4) An old, not-maintained HarperAudio site that includes old-format digital audio files in three formats of Stevens himself reading "The Idea of Order at Key West," "The Poem that Took the Place of a Mountain," and "Vacancy in the Park," and "To An Old Philosopher in Rome."


(5) Wesleyan University hosts the site of the Hartford Friends and Enemies of Wallace Stevens. Here there is a link to a single poem read by Stevens from the recording made at Harvard in 1954, "Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself." The audio file is stored on a Wesleyan media server, but did not work the last time I attempted it.


(6) hosts recordings of Stevens reading "To the One of Fictive Music" and "Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself."


Novelist Indra Sinha, author of Animal's People, has begun a hunger strike in New Delhi to protest the neglect of Bhopal disaster survivors. The Guardian (U.K.) has the story.

Spring and early summer in particular have always been the season for poets setting themselves up outdoors among the other buskers of the city.

Max Bodenheim in the late 1940s and early 50s, destitute and always looking for the next whiskey, sold poems for drinks. To be specific, he set himself up on (let's say) Hudson Street right outside the White Horse Tavern, would in some way indicate to passersby or ingoing White Horse patrons that he was indeed the once-famous freewheeling Roaring Twenties novelist and poet Maxwell Bodenheim, a glimmer of those days of High Modernist Hilarity past, and you'd make an arrangement with him: he'd write you a "sonnet to order." People would pay to help out (and thus touch the life of) a broken-down old boho with bona fide modernist and radical lineage. If one ever gets to read the Bodenheim sonnets of this period, they have to be read, it seems to me, as made by the market for aesthetic-ideological nostalgia.

Back in the late 70s I spent some time reading the manuscripts of Bodenheim in the special collections department of Alderman Library at the University of Virginia. I was taking a graduate course in bibliography, textual criticism, philology, books and bookmaking, and manuscripts, taught by the eccentric and wonderful bibliographer, Lester A. Beaurline, whose love of setting type by hand was the one thing that made me realize doctoral study in English could well connect to my life as I'd already been living it. (In high school I'd been the one A-student who took "print shop" all four years. Print shop was deemed then to be a haven for guys we rather liberally called "greasers.")

One of the assignments Beaurline gave us: find a cache of unpublished manuscripts and make something of them. I think he was hoping students would read around in Arnold, Tennyson, Chaucer (there are four Chaucer manuscripts there), Poe, even Thomas Jeffrerson (patron saint at UVa), Faulkner (junior patron saint there). The other students went in canonical directions. I went for Max Bodenheim — and specifically Bodenheim's final post-communist post-modernist years on the streets of New York. He lived not just symbolically but literally on the Bowery. He was murdered in 1954 by a man who in court later said he was proud to have killed a commie poet. I read a pile of these sonnets, composed by a bad shaky hand. (Somewhere I have the notes from this — and possibly some photocopies. I'll look.)

Yesterday photographer Lawrence Schwartzwald happened upon a 21-year-old poet, one Robert Samel Snyderman, who sets himself up in Central Park to write on a portable typewriter: he will sell you a poem for $5. He told Lawrence that he "writes all the time" and prefers to write on his typewriter in the park "rather than in an academic environment." Of course there are many places to write poems in the large space between on one hand the "academic environment" and, on the other, Central Park, but never mind. The photo, I think, captures the early-summer post-communist post-modernist Bodenheimian sensibility perfectly.

There — see? — I used the term "post-modernist" to mean something much more specific (I mean it as ex- something) than the dead-metaphor term that gets deployed to indicate vaguely any 1945-present or 1960-present art that either continues out of modernism or reacts against it. Bodenheim's fate is thus finally instructive. He went through his modernist phase (Replenishing Jessica and other flapperistic fictions) and went through his communist phase (in the 30s and early 40s, as actually an activist member of CPUSA), and by the time we meet him selling sonnets for, shall we say, a flow of cash, beyond those aesthetic -isms and (back to? on to? down to?) the poem as a vital (desperate) function of the quavering body in need, setting itself up (through poetry!) to be needy. As you can see I'm still thinking about the possible import of C. A. Conrad's (Soma)tic Midge (see "Poems under the Influence" below). Not advocating it as an end to the coherent movement, just being sure I remember that not everyone befits such. It's possible that Lawrence's photo romanticizes this not-fitting; quite likely that Mr. Snyderman would join the first aesthetic category that would have him. And that's my point: Bodenheim would have done the same in a flash, if it would have saved him from the extremity that wrote those sonnets, some of which someone saved and which later I saw at Alderman. I'm glad I saw them. I've never known until now (blogs are fine things) how or when I could ever mention them.

Credit: Lawrence Schwartzwald/Splashnews