Commentaries - February 2009

the c that precedes the choir

The newest PoemTalk is out now. Episode #14, a discussion of Wallace Stevens' late poem, "Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself." Have a listen!

it's like a new reality, man (PoemTalk #14)

PoemTalk listeners will want to stick around for the end of this show in particular, when Nada Gordon, a first-time PoemTalker, recites her flarfistic rewriting of Wallace Stevens' late poem, "Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself." Meantime, of course, we give the poem a good going-through. The talkers this time, beside Nada, are Lawrence Joseph and Charles Bernstein, and we were (for the first time in PoemTalk's short history) on the road, at Studio 92 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Anyone who deals with this poem has to understand the rhetorical gist of Stevens's "like": the cry he thinks he hears seemed "like" a sound in his mind; it was "like" a new knowledge of reality. Charles half-jokes that it's anachronistically (and uncharacteristically) a 1960s like: a cool "very," an intensifer, a pause. Al tries to stipulate that this is a Keats-at-the-casement poem: he's inside, looking out and hearing minimal late-winter birdsong. But Larry believes firmly in the radical open-ness of this poem: we are neither inside nor out. There is no conventional place of standing. "Three times in the poem," Nada has written elsewhere, "he says the sound was coming 'from outside.' But I don’t believe him. How can I believe this from a poet whose 'actual candle blazed with artifice'?"

This was certainly the threesome, too, to say interesting things about the alphabetical "c" that precedes the choir.

Our recording comes from the wonderful collection of recordings at the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard, and we wish to thank Don Share, Christina Davis, Peter Steinberg, and others who have taken such good care of that material. Stevens traveled to Harvard to record this poem on October 8, 1954 (he died in 1955).

Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself

At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird's cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.

The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow...
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep's faded papier-mache...
The sun was coming from the outside.

That scrawny cry--It was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.

you are free except to be restricted

In 1949, Raymond B. Allen (pictured at left), then president of the University of Washington at Seattle, published an article titled "Communists Should Not Teach in American Colleges." (It appeared in a magazine called Educational Forum in May of that year.)

Allen did not mean that people actively involved in plots to overthrow the American government by violence should be banned from teaching at American colleges and universities. He would have meant it had that been an issue, but it wasn't. No, he meant those whose beliefs are determined (by him or by a panel of administrator and faculty) to be communist should be pulled from the classroom. Since bona fide members of the CPUSA in those Cold War days were not typically open about their membership, this wasn't simply a matter of ascertaining membership. Real communists might not even be formal members. So beliefs (what they did, what they said, whom they met with) could be used to determine such status.

Anyway, surely the most interesting sentence in this essay is this one:

The University's insistence upon academic freedom goes beyond the traditionally held concept that academic freedom can be abridged only by the institution and asserts that members of the faculty must likewise be free from other restraints that may restrict their freedom.

It means that faculty are free in the usual way that academic freedom guarantees but, at the same time, that faculty must be free from "other restraints." Must be. Those other restraints are ideologies that tend to make one unfree in one's thinking. So, having academic freedom, you are not free to engage in a way of thinking that limits your thinking. Of course this was a vague way of referring to communist ideology. A faculty member, Allen thought, could proceed intellectually and pedagogically under any set of principles or ideas, even those--let's say one's Catholicism even if one is a biologist exploring conception--that otherwise limit one's exploration of research topics...any set of principles except this one (communism).

In other words, academic freedom is the granting of freedom but it is also a demand that one must be free from an unfree worldview determined by the university to be such.

My position that Communists are not qualified to be teachers, Allen also wrote, grows out of my belief that freedom has little meaning apart from the integrity of the men and women who enjoy that freedom....The Communist Party, with its concealed aims and objectives, with its clandestine methods and techniques, with its consistent failure to put its full face forward, is a serious reflection upon the integrity of educational institutions that employ its members and upon a whole educational system that has failed to take the Communist issue seriously.... The classroom has been called "the chapel of democracy." As the priests of the temple of education, members of the teaching profession have a sacred duty to remove from their ranks the false and robot prophets of Communism....

Here's to whole article from '49.

The photograph of Allen above at left was printed in the Washington Post on March 27, 1949.