Commentaries - January 2009

TTom Devaney hosted “A Murder of Ravens” at the Writers House last night — a celebration of Poe’s 200th. Tom decided to invite lots of people to read and talk about “The Raven” and related topics. Both video (.mov, QuickTime) and audio (mp3) are available:

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Daniel Hoffman came and read from his classic critical book, Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe.

I started teaching at the university level in ’79 — that’s thirty years ago. In that time I’ve received thousands of student evaluations through the institutional bubble forms. Sometimes the response I can discern from the forms helps me to make a course better the next time. Sometimes I can merely enjoy the positives. Sometimes I glance quickly and move on. I’m a huge supporter of students’ response (I try to make it part of the course itself, to be sure — but that’s another story) but not a fan of the bubble forms. Anyway, I got one recently for the fall ’08 version of my modern & contemporary American poetry course (my favorite of those I teach), English 88, that positively stunned me. I like it. The comment says merely: “LOVE” (underscored three times) and to the right of that: “this class taught me how to read.” Not literally, of course, but “to read” as in: really, really to read thoughtfully, well, freshly. Makes me happy and proud. That someone would associate love with learning truly to read and a college course. These are not normally three peas in the same pod.

The piece is called “Pause the Podcast and Dial-a-Poem”: here. “The dial-a-poem concept dates back to 1969, when poet and performance artist John Giorno and his organization Giorno Poetry Systems set up a call-in recorded poetry project with ten phone lines in New York City. ‘Using an existing communications system,’ Giorno wrote in an introduction to a collection of featured dial-a-poem recordings, now available online, ‘we established a new poet-audience relationship.’ According to Al Filreis, one of the Kelly Writers House founders and the director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at Penn, comments on 6-POEM have been positive. ‘The responses I’ve received so far typically say, ‘Geez, this is so retro it’s cool,’’ Filreis wrote on his blog, ‘and ‘Everything seems to be converging on the phone,’ and ‘Telephony rocks.’”

David Yezzi of the New Criterion opined on Obama’s choice of Elizabeth Alexander to give the inaugural poem, in the Wall Street Journal, Friday, January 9, 2009. It’s been linked variously. Most of what he says seems apt, reasonable and in fact obviously true about the situation and the choice. But at moments the tone and diction of the piece reveal what Yezzi’s real concerns are: that Alexander is lefty-multicultural lite, that her inevitably bad inaugural poem will do further damage to the reputation of good nonpolitical poetry. And his tone discloses some joy in all this as proof yet again that political poetry (poetry that “tells you what to do”) is ipso facto aesthetically bad. In the first ’graph E.A. is identified as an AfAm prof who “writes extensively about that academic trifecta — race, class and gender.” What’s the diction of word choices that and trifecta? Her major concerns or topics of interest are … But trifecta? Well that’s a bet on a clean sweep, a gamble, a game; no truth and beauty within sight. If Alexander doesn’t recite a poemthat “add[s] to the language, claiming for it a new richness,” then it will be “politics as usual,” and political poetry. Those are the choices. A synonymous binarism: wideness and depth on one hand, narrowness on the other. “The stumbling block for most political poetry is narrowness. As soon as poetry espouses an interest group [there it is, equation of political poetry with an “interest group,” “single-issue politics” etc.], it ceases to speak to the widest audience and fails in its bid for universality.” So, let’s see where we are. We need an occasional poem, honoring a particular president in a particular national context (and of course one nation of many) yet it’s also got to be universal. I suppose the great American poem can be considered universal. Right? To clinch the point, we are treated to (you guessed it) the post-communist Auden, he of post-9/11 fame: “Poetry is not concerned with telling people what to do.” “Poetry, it turns out [diction trans.: in case you didn’t know; duh!], is unwieldy stuff, intricately layered and resistant to bald sloganeering.” Those last two words, in this newest brief against political poetry, cannot be separated. What if there’s a sloganeering that is not “bald”? Are there no slogans that have as their “guiding spirits … beauty and truth”? Is there never, ever beauty and truth in “incitement and hectoring”? As for sloganeering, I suggest we all go back to Frost’s “successful” inauguration poem. There was nothing here before we (immigrants from Europe) got here; the land was cultureless, without its own history, and we brought culture and history; what history and culture we make of the continent was always foreseen if currently unfinished. But now maybe here’s a new leader to finish the job.

The lecture: a nineteenth-century pedagogical mode that lived past its time into the twentieth century, an inefficient method by which the notes of the teacher become the notes of the student without passing through the heads of either. (So sorry. Here I am, on my high horse again.)