Commentaries - October 2008

I stand corrected. Earlier I snarkily noted that Stevens’s “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” gets a disproportionate load of parodying, and wondered why other Great Mods didn't. The author of In My Mind I’m Going posts her own snarky riposte: what about WCW’s “Red Wheelbarrow”? Of course. I suppose any modernist poem that can be taken as a ditty will get parodied. Yet, still, there’s something about “13 Ways”: trying one's hand at the perspectival variations. A guy who admits he's something of a drinker tries his hand, and the URL has the word “everypoet” in it (as in “everyone is …”):

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Keg

Among twenty restless students,
The only stoic thing
Was the base of the keg.

I was of three thirsts,
Like a cellar
In which there are three kegs...

Here’s a parody of Pound:

Salutation to a Previous Generation

O Generation of the entirely snug
and entirely impenetrable,
I have seen poets versifying in the dark,
I have seen them with uneven lines,
I have seen their volumes full of gibberish
and heard unlikely theories.
And you are smarter than they were,
And I am smarter than you are;
And Hopkins lives in the anthologies
and cannot even write criticism.

And here of Williams:

Homeland Security Advisory System

nothing depends

a red seal

phrases of high

on the blue

And Dickinson:

General Advice to Miscreants

Split the hair — when you face the music —
Blow after blow — will roll aside —
Violence dealt to the batted belfry
Spent on your hair and not your hide.

Loose the flood — like a snake oil seller —
Gush after gush, and swear it’s true —
Cro-Magnon creditors! Credulous cretins!
You’ll escape yet from the peer review.

The three just above (Pound, WCW, Dickinson) are the work of Jay Scott, who writes (among other things) The Daily Whale, satires for every leaf of the calendar.

For Godot, subtitled “research in poetry,” seems to announce “Issue 1,” dated Fall 2008. If you go to their blog site you’ll see that the “announcement” includes a list of authors in the hundreds. And there’s a link to the issue’s contents, a mere 3,785 pages of poems. So far as I know an email announcement was not sent around, so how do any of us find out about this For Godot? Well, poetry people seem to be a self-conscious, self-promoting bunch. Many have set up “Google Alerts” which by email daily report instances of, e.g., one’s own name as it appears somewhere on the ’net.

Evan J. Peterson, whose blog is “Poemocracy,” fell for For Godot’s “culture jamming” when he saw a Google Alert for his name, followed it to its source and found himself among the many pages of the “issue.” The same thing happened to me and presumably many others. For Godot, Peterson wrote, “is an obviously effective publicity stunt that lured some high-profile (unlike myself) self-interested (much like myself) people to the site.”

At another blog, a commentator named Rob wrote: “It is a joke, surely! Some kind of social comment on the meaningless of .pdf e-publication? Something like that …” And Barbara added: “Maybe it is an arm of the International Library of Poetry and they will be sending all those writers a request for $39.95 so their winning poem can be entered in the ‘contest.’”

Skip Fox wrote: “Andy Kaufman as muse?” And Nick Piombino: “There has been talk of a poetry bailout. Is this it?”

The creators of this instance of mock radical inclusivity are Vladimir Zykov, Steve McLaughlin, and Jim Carpenter.

A key notion of radicals at the start of the sixties was that theorizing could be done in public, with and in the midst of the people.

There are numerous instances of this sense. Here’s one. Tom Hayden, in a draft of the document that became The Port Huron Statement, tenets for the founding of SDS and more generally of the political side of 1960s student-led counterculture:

“The house of theory [is] not a monastery. I am proposing that the world is not too complex, our knowledge not too limited, our time not so short, as to prevent the orderly building of a house of theory, or at least its foundation, right out in public, in the middle of the neighborhood.”

There are many ways to see this. I like to conceive of it as a pedagogy.

After all, the document was written by students. Weren’t they thinking about the way they had been and were being taught? They wanted something different. Mainly two things different: 1) not so pragmatic, contingent; 2) not cloistered, but out there.

I suppose I’m a bit stuck on Stevens this time of year — seeing him everywhere. Because it’s the season of his birthday? (The day itself was yesterday, October 2.) The author of In My Mind I'm Going is (you guessed it) in North Carolina, where she’s a “professor” (otherwise unidentified) and blogs about once per week on cooking and writing. The latest of these is “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Squid” and it begins this way:

Among snowy cephalopods
The only moving thing
Was the blade of my cleaver.

And here’s the twelfth:

The water is moving.
The kraken must be swimming.

There’s an awful lot of bad Stevens out there. Do we do this to Pound or Williams or Stein? Well, yes — I think — Stein.

By the way, about section one (“Among twenty snowy mountains, / The only moving thing / Was the eye of the blackbird.”) a fellow who goes by “Pseudo Intellectual” at the “everything2” site writes: “This is very likely a verse about necrophilia.” Okay, I think I prefer the squidified version.

At left: Ray Kroc, poet of the economy.

This is the first recession in the blog era, so we are getting a glimpse of all the rhetorical stretching that we must presume was there before but unseen. Now we see it. If I had a dollar for every time Wallace Stevens’s “Money is a kind of poetry” has been quoted in this (loose) context, and invested them in stocks that are low (General Electric maybe), I might start to believe in the aphorism — to live off it.

There’s a blog called “Culture11” run by Joe Carter (ex Lawrence Welk roadie) and his less-traveled friend David Kuo. They write on politics, economics, and culture, and it’s usually fairly good.

Now they want to make a list of their favorite financial geniuses (Sam Walton, Ray Kroc, and people like that) but, well, it’s a blog and there must be a soft stretchy lead, a cute hook or gambit. So we have, once again, “Money is a kind of poetry.” Then something that’s not true: “As a Pulitizer Prize-winning poet and president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, Stevens was familiar with both free verse and the free market.” Stevens was an insurance executive who (after his first years out in the field) did mostly administrative work at corporate HQ. He worked with surety bonds and constraining devices such as that — and believed in their efficacy. If anything, he expected the free market to fuck up pretty much continuously, and conceived of the insurer’s mechanisms as the proper application of brakes on that freedom.

Untrue here too, in that phrase, in its implication of the positive relationship between “free verse” and “free market.” Not by any stretch the same “free” there. So it’s all bloggy b.s. aimed at getting us … where? To this point: “So if Stevens is correct, and money is a kind of poetry, then who are our epic monetary poets, the ‘poets of the economy’?”

Thus Gates, Kroc, Tom Watson … these are the great economic poets. Their talent for creating just the right removals economic constraints on business is a kind of free verse, and so poetry is a kind of money.

Epic, man. Really epic.

It’s still the case that smart people (the makers of Culture11 e.g.) assume that the businessman poet must be someone who would side with Ray Kroc and Sam Walton, thus that the poetic aura gets to include these latter gentlemen. (Stevens, for his part in particular, would have been appalled by them.)

Here finally is the moment where I get to express frustration and even occasional outrage at the way in which advocates of an unconstrained market are being permitted these days to switch sides, support constraints (regulation, moral hazard, etc.) and keep the same language about economics. Read statements made by congressmen who have been voting for the big bailout. Most who are free marketeers speak of this as the big exceptional moment where all that must go out the window (but how free is that?) and a few will talk about how this proves they’ve never really been “ideological” and that crossing over, when necessary, for the people, is okay. Yet when conditions improve “free” will once again be the poetic word of the day, and those great economic poets can take the field once again.