Commentaries - July 2008

How does a poet in 1960 turn this momentous modernist gesture of 1912 into an opportunity for standing below the staircase to peekaboo upward? Click here to find out.

There's been much talk about Nicholas Carr's Atlantic essay bemoaning the demise, in the internet age, of deep reading (“Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” Atlantic, July/August 2008, pp. 5663). Carr's answer is that Google is indeed making us stupid and, to be perfectly frank, I think the question is itself rather stupid. First off, "us"? Second: "stupid"? Reading habits are changing, just as they always have been changing; it's just that they are changing more rapidly than usual. I'd guess that the emergent ubiquity of the daily newspaper in the eighteenth century probably changed urbanite reading habits as quickly as they've changed in the 19962008 period in which the web has become a major source of words to be read. And I'm not sure anyone will ever be able to speak very specifically about wide reading as distinct from deep reading as a positive or negative value. The traditional notion is that deep reading is of greater value than wide. But I've never felt that way. Moreover, when we're moving fast we are wide readers pretending (e.g. in class, at cocktail parties, at the office on a Monday morning) to be deep readers.

One sane response to Carr is at the blog called PolEconAnalysis: here. Disclosure: I found this because GoogleAlerts signalled to me that this blog response mentions me.

Responding to the above, Murat Nemet-Nejat wrote:

In my view, the real value of reading occurs in re-reading. The speed at which things occur in the web, the intense flow of time constructs in the web represent — for instance, the way entries of "yesterday" gain a secondary place in a blog, replaced by the entry of "today" — make re-reading very difficult. When Thoreau says that one does not have to travel the world, that examining one's own place is the greatest of travels, he is also referring to the experience of re-reading, the loss of which can be nothing but a melancholy experience.

To which I casually wrote:

You're certainly right about re-reading. I think re-reading prose in particular has gone or is going out the window. Fortunately certain forms have the experience of re-reading inhering in them (or seemingly) — poetry being one. I might be unusual in that I do in fact re-read a lot of things that fly past me digitally. I save them, put them somewhere (bookmark, saving-as, etc.) where I can find them again. I take advantage of the new portability. But again I take your point. I like your second point even better — yesterday's blog entry becomes secondary. But but but … web searches produce old blog entries and bypass that hiearchizing within any one blog. Make sense?

Then Murat again:

Particularly in its manifestation in blogs, but even more generally, in its incredible ability to produce, to replicate, the internet makes the passage of time very concrete. By definition, reading/re-reading is a meditative activity, involving a slowing of the time process, in Spicer's terms, going against its grain. Here is the dilemma, for me, in the contradictory nature of the internet, both its intense allure, its power, and the peril involved in this fatal seduction. I do not mean by this that one can or one should wish to undo this historical change, as if not more profound than the industrial revolution; only that one must — particularly us as poets — develop a more complex relationship to it.

Eric Keenaghan published a very good essay on the Cuban “Origenes” group whose leading figure was Jose Lezama Lima. It’s called “Wallace Stevens’ influence on the construction of gay masculinity by the Cuban Origenese group” (published in the Wallace Stevens Journal a few years back).

Stevens befriended (by mail) the Cuban poet-editor Jose Rodriguez Feo, and they exchanged affection – at certain points one would almost say loving – letters for many years starting in 1944. When Beverly Coyle and I set about to edit the entire correspondence (both sides, not just Stevens’s letters) we decided – back in those Reagan-era cold war days – to meet Rodriguez Feo if we could. The State Department would not approve visas for a visit to Cuba. I had located Jose (“Pepe,” he wanted us to call him) in Havana and we exchanged letters for several years; finally, somewhat suddenly, Pepe got approval to travel to New York, where he spent about 5 days visiting old friends, going openly to gay bars in the Village. The latter especially was a huge treat for him, since he had not been to New York since (I think) 1949. We met with him in a borrowed downtown apartment for two or three long sessions of interviews and talks. We hit it off. He gave me a copy of a book by Stevens that the poet had inscribed for his Cuban friend, Transport to Summer. And one evening we all went to a bar on Christopher Street.

What emerged from our meetings with Pepe and our work on the letters was published in ’86 by Duke University Press, Secretaries of the Moon.

I’m pleased that Eric Keenaghan begins his essay with this sentence: “Publication of Alan Filreis and Beverly Coyle’s Secretaries of the Moon, the collected correspondence of Wallace Stevens and Cuban translator and editor Jose Rodriguez Feo, opened new possibilities for the study of North-South relations in modernism.” Three other studies made use of the letters in Secretaries: chapter 5 of my own book, Stevens and the Actual World; an essay by Roberto Ignacio Diaz; an essay on the queer dynamics of the letters by David Jarraway. I in my book and Ignacio Diaz in his essay focus on Stevens’s encouragement of the Cuban’s primitivism as an imperialistic gesture.

For Jarraway, by the way, the letters are a way of understanding why Mark Doty thinks Stevens’s writing is a model for what Keenaghan calls “a contemporary poetics of queer androgeny.” That’s not as much a stretch as it would seem.

Above: Jose Lezama Lima