Commentaries - September 2008

I’ve been reading often and widely on McCain’s rhetorical strategic switcheroo (he drops the experience claim after picking Palin) and his tightrope-walking on change (he’s ninety percent the same as Bush but avoids all mention of the Prez and claims that he would bring everything New New New New to government). Blogs several times per day. And, on the iPod, two or three extensive podcasts a day (my favorite weeklies are “Left, Right, & Center” and “Slate’s Political Gabfest” but I also listen to CSPAN’s “Road to the White House” which gives you full audio of stump speeches).

One of the daily blogs on which I depend is that of my colleague Dick Polman, “The American Debate.” Sometimes Dick seems to need to please the conservative side of his audience, and thus treads lightly. Mostly he does not tread lightly: he’s incisive, sees the whirling rhetoric through the spin, writes well and — best of all — is out there for me every single day.

Dick’s blog started out as an experiment he was trying on the side — an unaffiliated, unadorned blogger site (like the one you’re reading now). A few months ago (April ’08) he moved over to a fancier Philly.Com site. Even before that move, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran his American Debate blog column every week or so, continuing Dick’s many years as the Inky’s chief national political correspondent. Now (happily for me and many others) he’s at Penn teaching journalistic writing (and indeed writing political anslysis for blogs) to undergraduates but maintains a connection to the Inky through the blog. It’s a good instance of how creating an indy blog can become the tail that wags the dog. In fact, it might be the best instance of that fairly new phenomenon I know.

William Carlos Williams' misunderstood, overused mantra, "No ideas but in things," succeeded in mobilizing the young modernist and later post-modernist base (to use the election-season idiom, aptly I think). It also, unfortunately, tended to alienate the undecided middle. Many used it as an excuse to express a false anti-anti-intellectualism. (False because they themselves were showing their anti-intellectual impulse in making the claim "against" Williams.) Others, allegedly pro-WCW, used "No ideas" to sanction their head-in-sand-ism: verse is distinct from all other disciplines and interpretive activities (history, sociology, political analysis), different in sticking to the "purity" of sensory apprehension, of observation, and/or the material world stripped of ideology or of "agendas."

By April 1963 — a month after WCW's death (this was an elegy of sorts) — the misunderstandings seemed so bad to Hayden Carruth, a proponent of Williams' ideas about things, Carruth felt the need to write a hyperventilated parallelistic one-sentence paragraph on the matter:

"When they set aside everything in Paterson, beyond the statement that there are 'no ideas but in things,' when they say that the statement is literally true, when they claim it as a sanction for their anti-intellectual attitudes, and finally when they use it as a warrant for attempting to write poems without ideas, poems which (in their terms) will have the 'purity' of 'self-existent objects,' then they are doing Williams, themselves, and all poetry, a grave disservice."*

Here's a lot of theys. You'd think the antecdent would be a major point made in previous paragraphs, but no. "They" = (mentioned just once prior to this outpouring) Williams' "disciples and admirers."

With friends like these …

* The New Republic, April 13, 1963, pp. 2, 3, 32.

One of the new shows at the ICA is "R. Crumb's Underground". It runs from September 5 through December 7. Congratulations to my friends at the ICA are in order — for creating this exhibit and on the good review in today's New York Times. That review begins this way:

PHILADELPHIA — What a long, strange trip it’s been. Over the course of his five-decade career the comic artist R. Crumb has gone from hero of the hippie underground to toast of the international art world. Founder of the deliriously psychedelic and ribald Zap Comix during the Haight-Ashbury wonder years, he has more recently contributed comic strips made in collaboration with his wife, Aline Kominsky Crumb, to The New Yorker. In 2004 he was included in the Carnegie International and had a career retrospective at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany.

Now the Institute of Contemporary Art here offers “R. Crumb’s Underground,” an excellent opportunity to ponder Mr. Crumb’s incredible journey. This enthralling selection of more than one hundred works from all phases of his career was organized by Todd Hignite, the publisher and editor of Comic Art magazine, for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, where it was on view in 2007.

Dennis Drabelle has published a review of Counter-Revolution of the Word. Here are two excerpts:

Al Filreis undertook two tasks: to be a good “archive rat” (a term he has borrowed from historian Richard Hofstadter, who used it dismissively) and to explain a complex movement that blended politics and aesthetics. As a rat, Filreis has few peers. He sifted through special collections, private letters, and other unpublished material in venues from Syracuse to Austin and beyond (even Truchas, New Mexico); thanks to these labors, he has seen through pseudonyms, traced connections unknown to previous scholars, and rescued from oblivion both unjustly neglected poets and their cranky detractors.

The final impression left by this book, however, is a sense of wonder. How seriously everyone — conservatives and liberals alike — seems to have taken poetry a mere half-century ago!

This fall I'm teaching my favorite course — a crazily fast-paced survey of modern and contemporary American poetry. We start with Dickinson and Whitman and finish with poetry written yesterday. The schedule is arranged as a series of chapters proceeding from pre-modernism through modernism (Williams and Stein in particular) and then a short sequence of three doubts about modernism, versions of antimodernisms. After that we consider a fourth antimodernism — the new formalism of the 1950s. Then the Beats as a reaction against the new formlist reaction. Then the New York School as another form of the same reaction against antimodernist reaction. Then an introduction to the languagy side of post-1975 avant-garde verse. Finally a look at what might be called documentary postmodernism.

Geez, I love the roughness of the story I just told of the course and the course of poetry from modernism through postmodernism — am always intrigued, but never more so than here, by the furious learning provoked by the self-consciously binaristic narrative the course proposes. For, you see, the students are asked to destroy that narrative. And the model for that student-centered pedagogy is much of the poetry itself. For example, the give-and-take-away quality of William Carlos Williams's "Portrait of a Lady". Or the anti-binaristic series-not-essence quality of Silliman's "Albany". Silliman there tells a story that might have been sequential (before it became language) but which if told in order would impoverish real understanding of the order of things.

Similarly, I'm happy with the course as a survey — not normally, these days, a positive term — because the idea of survey, with its assumption of causes and effects, is pretty much constantly itself the topic of discussion.

In poets' response to poets, heuristic oppositions give way to interanimations — cross-influences, the sometimes surprising sharing of aesthetic lineages. And, when the course is going well, the structure of discussion — and of the writing of "position papers" — operate just the same way. This is a course about itself as a way — an alternative to the usual survey approach — of teaching not just content (a particular history) but a mode of structuring thought.