Commentaries - January 2009

Our Dial-a-Poem project is listed among items of poetry news on the Poetry Foundation’s web site.

This is a little Depression story. (When I mentioned it to my teenaged kids this morning over breakfast, one of them asked, “Which depression?” Okay. It’s January 2009, folks.)

Toward the beginning of the first era of big government (“The era of big government … has just begun!”), Eudora Welty was a fairly good but untried writer of short stories and a very fine and relatively experienced photographer. As a junior publicity agent for the Works Progress Administration (WPA — putting artists to work during a depression) she took some great pictures of the depressed Deep South but also of New York City.

But she wanted to write.

Given how hard it was to succeed as an artist generally, making the choice of short fiction over photography was counter-rational if not also counter-intuitive.

She wrote, although continued to love photography. But Welty was determined and tough. Later she left her camera on a bench in the Paris Metro and never replaced it — “never allowed herself to replace it.” I’ve heard of determination for the sake of an artist’s doing art, but this is such for the art of one medium over another. It’s an impressive, although not necessarily hopeful, anecdote.

I’d heard the story before. But today it’s also in Karen Rosenberg’s alluring review of the show of Welty’s documentary-style early ’30s photos now at the Musem of the City of New York. In today’s Times.

We at PennSound are pleased to release our newest author page — that of Marcella Durand. The earliest recording we have is her Segue series reading at Double Happiness, dated February 12, 2000 — when she read with John Yau. Among the others is “A Night of New Translations” at the Writers House in 2003. The most recent recording is from the benefit reading for Will Alexander at the Bowery Poetry Club in November ’07.

Here’s Marcella Durand speaking with Anselm Berrigan: Well, the most basic root of America’s spatial incompetence is that they/we stole the land in the most brutal, unfair, low-down ways possible. But the U.S. also has a tradition of ecological awareness and appreciation of “encounters with the wilderness” that definitely comes from both the overwhelming physicality of the land and influence of the native tribes. Cabeza de Vaca, Willa Cather, Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, Sarah Orne Jewett, Black Elk, Aldo Leopold are some earlier American writers who wrote with a particularly interesting spatial consciousness. I just finished Cape Cod by Thoreau where he experiences nature in a full-frontal (literally at times!) way that I just don’t think is possible anymore, at least, not where I live! Douglas gave me this book about the Grand Canyon which talks about how the early Spanish conquistadors who first saw it were unable to perceive it; their previous experience did not allow them to really see the magnificence and enormity of it. We’ve become able to perceive nature — Thoreau looks and looks into the darkness until his pupil becomes large enough to see — and what’s happened after that moment of perception? I’m being rather retro in my poetical aims by trying to drag back a sense of unpredictability, but I’m also trying to encompass, or maybe perceive, the industrial, genetic, and silicon revolutions.

A web site called PinoyBusiness.ORG, for “Global Filipino Business and Investing Community,” has a daily feature that provides motivational sayings, a link to “free motivational quotes,” another link to “Harness Your Own Power,” and finally a link to “Depression Quotes” (presumably meaning an emotional rather than financial crisis). Today’s motivational saying is from Wallace Stevens: “The summer night is like a perfection of thought.” I suppose in January this does motivate one … to daydream of a better moment.

The line is from “The House is Quiet and the World is Calm,” a late poem that actually celebrates, if anything, the final rest of the old reader-poet. No blazing artifice there.

A little further googling and I realize that the line has been passed around from web hand to web hand, obviously further and further from its context, until it is simply axiomatic that it's a “motivational saying.” It is, for instance, “Quotation #31277 from Laura Moncur's Motivational Quotations.” This is one of those rare moments when I wish Stevens was still around to respond to such “use” of his poetry. He would surely fire off a quip that would be memorable in itself. The world is not calm.

E. L. Doctorow was here visiting in March of 2005, and I moderated a discussion with him for about an hour one Tuesday morning late that month. Now I’ve edited a twenty-minute excerpt of that longer interview — as the twentieth episode in the Kelly Writers House podcast series. You can subscribe to these through iTunes and you can download the Doctorow podcast now just by clicking here.