Commentaries - May 2009
Franklin Littel has died at 91. He lived not far from where I write. I met him several times in the late 1980s at Holocaust conferences. I never warmed to him personally but I was utterly impressed by his focus on the religious aspects of the European genocide. He was among the first intellectuals to delve into the question of how baptized Christians in the heart of Christian Europe could have either killed or ignored the killing of six million Jews. Today the Times is running a fairly long obit. Possibly no one has been more influential in creating awareness of Christian complicity, shortcoming, indifference in the face of what was happening to Jews. One profile puts it this way: "Professor Franklin Littell is rightfully known as the Father of Holocaust education in America. He was the first American scholar to offer courses on the Holocaust and genocide."
I'm reading Elizabeth Sifton's already much-discussed article about the demise of publishing in the current issue of the Nation. Here is a link to the whole, and here are two paragraphs from the middle of the piece:
A key element in the dissemination of books, independent of publishers and booksellers but essential to both, is the press. The simultaneous collapse of the business model for newspapers and magazines is a gruesome fact of life, and we book people keenly feel the pain of a sister print-on-paper industry, to put it mildly. All citizens should be alarmed by the loss of such a vital necessity to a democracy. But the hard numbers and socioeconomic exigencies of journalism's huge crisis differ greatly from those of book publishing's smaller one (though they are often conflated). Here I want only to stress that the loss of so many book-review pages nationwide is crippling all aspects of our literary life. And I mean all. Book news and criticism were fundamental to the old model of book publishing and to the education of writers; Internet coverage of books, much of it witty and interesting, does not begin to compensate for their loss.
It is taking time for the obsolescence and decay in the book world to show, given the energy and talent of so many writers, their continued devotion to book genres, the resourceful bravery of some publishers, the continuing plausibility of many aspects of their business, the pleasure and profit taken in reinforcing familiar reading habits and the astonishing biodiversity of book publishing. Not to mention the usual quotient of laziness. European publishers are happy right now because things seemed to go well at the winter book fairs in Leipzig and Paris; the London Book Fair, in April, was hopeful if meager, with strenuous, incoherent efforts made to engage with the digitized word. In America, pubescent vampire novels are selling like crazy to readers of all ages, also memoirs about cats and puppies; classics are still in demand, as are cookbooks about cupcakes, of which there are an amazing number. Books by brand-name writers continue to populate the bestseller lists (though not racking up the numbers they used to). Every week the trade bulletins report hundreds of new books being signed up, sometimes for absurd amounts of money, by dozens of publishers.
Here's a bio on Sifton: "Elisabeth Sifton, senior vice president of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, was born in New York City, graduated from Radcliffe College, and began her career in publishing at Frederick A. Praeger. She became an editor at The Viking Press in 1968 and was named its editor-in-chief in 1980, then in 1983 became publisher of Elisabeth Sifton Books and vice president of Viking Penguin. Her imprint won the Carey Thomas Award for Creative Publishing in 1986. From 1987 to 1992, Ms. Sifton was executive vice president of Alfred A. Knopf. Since 1993 she has been at Farrar, Straus, where she is both an editor for its main imprint and editor at large (formerly publisher) of Hill and Wang."
American Poetry after 1975, edited by Charles Bernstein, a special issue of boundary 2 (Vol. 36, no. 3). 225 pages (November 2009). You can order now.
"This issue offers a wide-ranging survey of poetic practice in the United States since the mid-1970s. Comprising scholarship, essays, and poems, “American Poetry after 1975” brings together notable senior critics such as Al Filreis, Marjorie Perloff, and Herman Rapaport, as well as younger critics who are redefining the field. The issue looks at new directions in American poetry as well as contemporary trends such as conceptual poetry; multilingual poetry; ecopoetics, in which writing reaches environmental concerns; and Flarf, subversive poetry that uses search-engine results, grammatical inaccuracies, and intentionally bad taste.
"Writing from the forefront of American poetry criticism, contributors to this special issue address topics such as the poetics of disability and the work of clairvoyant poet Hannah Weiner, ambience and the work of Tan Lin, the continuing influence of Wallace Stevens, and the use of found text in Susan Howe’s “The Midnight.” Two younger critics address their generation’s poetics, one by considering the social relevance of the lyric and the other by examining resistance to innovative poetry practice. The intersection of poetry and technology is explored in articles about digital spaces and radical poetry’s relationship with the digital archive. One contributor applies the work of philosopher J. L. Austin to the language of hip-hop and the work of rapper Rakim. Also included are four short poems, a panegyric for the poetics of sophism in critical discourse, and essays that address the aesthetics of sentimental poetry and the poetics of place."
Contributors. Christian Bök, Craig Dworkin, Al Filreis, Benjamin Friedlander, Peter Gizzi, Kenneth Goldsmith, Nada Gordon, Tan Lin, Joyelle McSweeney, Tracie Morris, Marjorie Perloff, Scott Pound, Herman Rapaport, Brian Reed, Jim Rosenberg, Jennifer Scappettone, Lytle Shaw, Jonathan Skinner, Juliana Spahr, Elizabeth Willis.
Third Factory runs its "Attention Span" series (comments on poetry) every so often. Yesterday a new "Attention Span" was released--by Tom Devaney. One of Devaney's selections, I'm pleased to say, was my book:
Alan Filreis | Counter-Revolution of the Word: The Conservative Attack on Modern Poetry, 1945-1960 | North Carolina | 2008
Yes, it’s a serious historical book, a major book, but Filreis’s personal voice and deep connections to mid-century modernism show how many formal concerns of the work were linked to progressive politics; it is an untold history of the so-called language/nature problem (and the reactions to it) that continue into our moment.
While you're at Third Factory, be sure to keep up with Lipstick of Noise - listening and linking to poetry audio files.
Here at a large conference hotel on Copley Square in Boston for a session convened by George Lensing. George asked five of us to come with our favorite three poems by Wallace Stevens. Or, to be a little more specific: the three poems that have shaped or are shaping us. My three: "Mozart, 1935," the XXth canto of The Man with the Blue Guitar, and "The Plain Sense of Things." These are Stevens reaching a dead end, in need of a restart, trying to turn a corner. Learning what it is poetically to reach the end of a line and grope around, in the poem itself, for the new line. In "Mozart" a man is told by the speaker (all imperatives) to play Mozart while rioters are throwing stones at the house and while several have entered the house and are bringing a body down the stairs. How can one going on playing such pure music at a time like this? The second--the "BG" canto--is as close to pure music as Stevens gets. It's linguistically his most experimental poem. He repeats most of the words of the poem, so that few are used, far fewer than the total number of words. It's an over-and-over-again lyric. The back-and-forth argument of the first 19 cantos has here reached its endpoint: nowhere to go ideationally or ideologically. Retreat into pure sound becomes a great liberation. Strumming is improvisation. Constraint can be improvisation. This is the way out. "Plain Sense," a late poem, can't think of the next adjective. This is poetic senility, exhaustion. The whole project is a botch (like Pound assessing the Cantos near the end), and yet, and yet, the poet realizes that this too--this blankness, this end-state--can constitute a poetics, and then end of the imagination is itself one of those things that the imagination has the power to imagine. Another dead-end averted in the poem.
There, that's my talk. Now can I go back to Philly?