Commentaries - November 2008

Our 12th PoemTalk show is being released this week. Here it is. You’ve not heard PoemTalk yet? Well, it’s twenty-five minutes of talk about a single poem. Tightly focused talk at moments, but mostly rather loose. Which is why I say “a close, but not too close, reading of a poem.” Some poems are left largely unsaid by us by the end, but for some few poems we’re really able, it seems, to cover the ground. I think we cover most of the ground this time, talking about Ezra Pound’s broadly satiric — and wonderfully performative — early poem, “Cantico del Sole.” Give a listen and let me know (afilreis [at] writing [dot] upenn [dot] edu) what you think. The thought of what America would be like if PoemTalk had a wide circulation. (I don’t flatter myself.)

Ezra Pound integrates - or, rather, doesn't quite integrate - a response to a stupid contemporary judicial ruling on censorship and a fragment from the Canticle of Simeon (Luke, 2:29-32) to make a powerful, comic (even schticky) satire on American culture of his time and perhaps of ours. How this works, variously (and depending too on which recording of Pound reading the poem you hear), is the topic of our twelfth PoemTalk. Talkers this time: Charles Bernstein, Joshua Schuster, Rachel Levitsky.

How broad is the satire? Is the figure whose sleep is troubled by Americans reading classics widely the anxious, sensorious judge, relieved that no one really reads the indecent classics? Or is he the modernist poet, aiming for whatever would strike such a man as indecent? (Is this just another early-Pound personae? Is it the performance of a subject position Pound would never quite occupy? Does the speaker's elitist animosity toward America confirm the judge's disquietude?

PennSound's Pound collection (it's complete - everything recorded by Pound that we know of) includes several readings of "Cantico del Sole." PoemTalk plays two of them, one from the 1930s, the other from the late 50s.

The thought of what America would be like
If the Classics had a wide circulation
Troubles my sleep,
The thought of what America,
The thought of what America,
The thought of what America would be like
If the Classics had a wide circulation
Troubles my sleep.
Nunc dimittis, now lettest thou thy servant,
Now lettest thou thy servant
Depart in peace.
The thought of what America,
The thought of what America,
The thought of what America would be like
If the Classics had a wide circulation...
Oh well!
It troubles my sleep.

PoemTalk's director, engineer and editor is Steve McLaughlin, who, by the way, has recently taken a turn at selecting his 12 favorite PennSound recordings.

This episode of PoemTalk was recorded in the Arts Cafe of the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia. Next time, PoemTalk goes on the road - to our Broadway studios in New York, for a discussion of a late poem by Wallace Stevens and the talkers are Nada Gordon, Lawrence Joseph, and Charles Bernstein. Stay tuned.

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Tim Carmody reminds us of this later Poundian remark about Americans' reading habits: "This crisis as I see it was and is at the moment I write this (July 22, 1930) due to a fear that the American public is too stupid to buy books without buying bindings. The continental European buys books in paper covers at 50 or 60 cents per volume in order to see what is in them very much as the American buys magazines." (Pound, "How to Write," Machine Art and Other Writings: The Lost Thought of the Italian Years, ed. Maria Luisa Ardizzone [Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996], p. 90.)

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Mike Hennessey's PennSound daily did a feature piece on this episode of PoemTalk, providing a good summary of the discussion and some helpful links. Go here for more.

Two nights ago Jessica Lowenthal and I taught a Dickinson “webinar.” With fifty people watching and participating from near- and far-flung locations, we discussed two poems, #556 (“The Brain, within its Groove”) and #1129 (“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant”). Some participants phoned us and made comments and asked questions that way. We had two phones working so there was some byplay and fun confusion. We also took comments and questions by email.

Of course we made a recording of the once-live video and here is your link to it. (You need QuickTime Video on your computer to play this recording.)

The Brain, within its Groove
Runs evenly — and true —
But let a Splinter swerve —
’Twere easier for You —

To put a Current back —
When Floods have slit the Hills —
And scooped a Turnpike for Themselves —
And trodden out the Mills — 

This, we decided, was the true end of industrialism-era assumptions about the imagination.

Bob Holman, about as passionate about poetic orality as anyone, is visiting Senegal, Gambia, and Mali for the next seven weeks filming endangered languages and presumably, too, doing a series of wildly entertaining performances. He’s set up a blog for the trip, the Griot Trail.

For some good recordings of Holman doing his thing, check out his PennSound author page.

In the summer of ’99 a group of us gathered to talk at great length about a single poem by William Carlos Williams — “To Elsie” (“The pure products of America / go crazy”). At one point Bob Perelman, one of the participants, said something about the way the poem leaves elements open and contradictory, and then implied (and then at one moment said outright) that this became and still is a key idea operating in contemporary avant-garde poetics. I think Bob frames the point very nicely here, so have a listen to this very brief excerpt from the longer discussion of the poem.