Commentaries - January 2010

Bob Grenier, student of Robert Lowell (and more)

A few months ago, during Robert Grenier's most recent visit to Philadelphia, I sat with him — joined by Bob Perelman and Ron Silliman — and talked about his life and work in the early period, covering roughly 1958 through 1964. We talked a lot about his experience (in two stints) at Harvard. During the second of these he met and was taught by Robert Lowell. In between he wandered to San Francisco and met Robert Creeley in New Mexico. The recording of this 1 hour, 16 minute discussion is available on the Grenier author page at PennSound. Here is a direct link to the audio.

Conceptual writing project: holocaust

Robert Fitterman

I'm pleased to have had a chance to read the manuscript of Rob Fitterman's new massive conceptual writing project, called Holocaust Museum. It is now being sent around to publishers. The book will consist of a list of archival materials, organized under headings ("the science of race," "shoes," "mass graves," "uniforms"). The image above (sorry--it's taken from a Word document version of the typescript) shows a portion from the chapter of "family photographs." The effect of the project is realized most acutely only after one has read dozens or hundreds of items on the lists. One begins, blearily, weakly, to be half-conscious of the upsetting juxtapositions. Of course holocaust materials are loaded ipso fact with dramatic ironies, especially all the prewar stuff. The caption of the last-listed photo is of course a poem: "A group of young people pose outdoors in the snow." I could write three interpretive pages--traditional poetic close reading--of that line. That, too, would be ironic. 

New Susan Howe at PennSound

New at PennSound. When Susan Howe visited Rachel Blau DuPlessis' class at Temple University, in December 1986, Rachel had the presence of mind to record the conversation. And years later she re-found the tape, gave it to us at PennSound, whereupon we converted the recording from cassette to digital audio. Now Jenny Lesser has segmented the whole recording into short "singles," by topic. Here is the list of the topics (and recording lengths). Links to these, and to the whole discussion, are of course available at PennSound's Susan Howe author page:

1. background to class discussion on Stein, Plath and Niedecker (4:35)
2. the poetics of "The Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson" and self censorship in the work of female writers (10:58)
3. the sense of crime in Howe's work (5:19)
4. female symbols in "The Defenestration of Prague" (8:01)
5. on pastoral components and female space in "The Defenestration of Prague" and "The Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson" (3:16)
6. on Howe's beginnings in the theater and as a visual artist
7. on the use of contradiction and fragment in the work of female writers (7:28)
8. duplicity in the works of Howe and Wallace Stevens (6:37)
9. Emily Dickinson as an experimental poet (0:58)
10. intertextuality in Howe's work (3:18)
11. on "The Liberties" and reaching an audience (7:08)
12. on Howe's writing strategy as a "post-objectivist" strategy and the idea that when nothing is said everything is said (6:20)
13. on equality and difference in feminist debates, power, and fascism (3:53)
14. how Emily Dickinson abolished categories (2:16)
15. the multiple audiences and functions of poetry (5:22)
16. on embedding in "The Liberties" (4:44)
17. on the meanings of birds, days of the week, and sculpture in "The Liberties" (7:26)
18. deciphering codes in "The Liberties" (4:14)

The baseball fan redux

Baseball is a language, and, for the fanatic, it is language. It is the baseball fan who continues to make language baseball’s lingua franca.Baseball is a language, and, for the fanatic, it is language. It is the baseball fan who continues to make language baseball’s lingua franca. No more attentive fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers than the poet Marianne Moore ever attended games at Ebbetts Field or read accounts of their ultimate failures in the New York Times the next morning, and the evidence of that strange attention is of course in the poems. Her Dodgers finally won a World Series in 1955, and she combed through New York Times sports-page coverage, pulling phrases that specified her exultation, and made “Hometown Piece for Mssrs. Alston and Reese” something of a collage. From its rhymed title on, the poem seems to poeticize the unpoetical and thus create high-low ironies, but when one lays the poem beside clippings from Times coverage of the Dodgers, and carefully compares them, one realizes the extent to which this writing about baseball—this writing through baseball writing—doesn’t so much restate as rewrite the already published journalism. In doing so it discloses the latter’s myriad normative phrasings, utterly inconsequential and fascinating only when considered out of context. How could contextless phrases such as “get a Night” and “stylist stout” sufficiently convey Dodger mania? Yet they do. Moore is typical of the baseball fanatic in internalizing sportswriting diction only in the particular, and into her own writing—a fan’s writing—assimilated this quality beyond the need of quotation marks; she was beyond creating scare-quote ironies: irked by one misplay, a specialist versed in an extension reach, Podres on the mound. These, though borrowed verbatim from the New York Times, are simply presented in the language of the poem. Are they her words now? She implies no claim of authorship, nor of methodological uniqueness, for the poem itself implies, of its readership, that almost anyone who listens to or reads about baseball over the course of a sufficient numbers of days, or seasons, will be capable of reproducing phrases like "a specialist versed in an extension reach," despite its odd abstraction, its slightly unidiomatic quality, its seemingly contrived “poetic” assonance and consonance. Marianne Moore’s point is that such phrases are not poetic. They are in the ambience. The fan dating back to the 1930s, for instance, makes the mere substitution of “skein” for “string” and in doing so sufficiently conjures a whole ethos. “On August 3rd [1933],” Roger Angell remembered, “Lefty Grove shut out the Yankees, terminating a string (sorry: a skein) of three hundred and eight consecutive games . . . in which the Bombers had never once been held scoreless.” This is not merely adept verbal imitation. It is the word as entrypoint for whole contact. Possibly our most self-conscious writer of baseball writing, Angell has frequently claimed to despise the baseball-is-life/life-is-baseball conceit. Yet an essay in Once More around the Park and Game Time finds its way—-characteristically moves toward its unanticipated main point—not narratively and certainly not thematically, but along an associational sequence of words and phrases conjured from someone else’s account of a game. Finding himself at one point rewriting the play-by-play account of a Fourth of July weekend game between the Giants and the Cardinals, his writing of the old words merges into those of reporter John Debinger, and here are some: “dazzled a crowd,” “bewildered the Cardinals,” “master lefthander of Bill Terry’s amazing hurling corps,” “broadshouldered Roy Parmelee strode to the mound.” He comes to the point of remembering his father’s love of the game, and then his own love of his father, by way of remembering his own love of the language used by others, in his father’s era, to describe the game. He bears out his hatred of baseball is like life but affirms baseball is like language.

Angell in “Early Innings” discovered as he wrote that recalling the language of that baseball era with more rather than less accuracy, at the level of tone and diction, meant a more rather than less complete psycho-emotional presentation of his childhood. The essay would finally about his father, or more specifically the extent of the father’s connections to the present writer, and the turning point is Angell’s admission that the topic was latent, unconscious, and that the necessary method was that of unintended disclosure—the revelation of the writing’s very topic. “When I began writing this brief memoir,” he self-referentially confesses, “I was surprised to find how often its trail circled back to my father. If I continue now with his baseball story, instead of my own, it’s because the two are so different yet feel intertwined and continuous.” And only then, three pages from the end of the piece, does the fan begin to narrate the early innings: “He was born in 1889 . . . ,” etc. The game itself, as always, begins at the beginning, but the fan’s work of writing through the game ends there. Prior to that is (for so many, so often, so continuously) the discernment through writing of the reason for this inversion. A half page above Angell’s “I was surprised to find” confession—prior to the birth of the father—the son keeps his first mitt “in top shape with neat’s-foot oil,” and only after instating the practice learns the etymology. “What’s a neat?” he remembers asking. Then they pitch and catch. Then the young emergent fan, now the older eminent writer, rediscovers the precisely appropriate diction, chooses to reproduce it and addresses us: “Yes, reader: we threw the old pill around.”

TV drama-show form/content jibe

"Hill Street Blues"

Still in an online discussion with a few dozen adults, talking about season 3 of Hill Street Blues, 1983.Still in an online discussion with a few dozen adults, talking about season 3 of Hill Street Blues, 1983. We just watched episode 14, "Moon over Uranus," one of my favorites. (Watch it here.) Peter Wolk, the attorney and screenwriter, is in the group, and here is something he wrote us last night:

A couple random thoughts. It's amazing how much is going on in each episode. A typical hour-long drama today has an A story, a B story, and maybe a C story that's more comedic. [David] Milch is giving us A through G stories. One advantage he has is that the show runs 49+ minutes. An episode of Monk in 2009 is 42+ minutes.

My response is not profound by any stretch, but gave me a chance to express my admiration for an experiment in television-show narrative (a tight set of rules there, to be sure!) that today seems easy but in '83 was hard to get past the network ratings worry-warts:

You are right that Milch gives us stories A through G. And maybe H. One of us should count them all up. Someone years ago tracked them all across a season, charting which were maintained across episodes and for how long, which died out in a single episode, etc.

I believe it was in the very first show of the series, ep. 1 season 1, that two characters whom we immediately knew would be mainstays, Hill and Renko, were shot and presumably killed about halfway through the episode.** This was much commented-upon at the time. What a disruption of TV conventions! Introduce two characters and then kill them off, and not even at the end of the individual episode, let alone the end of a season! Threw us all way off, and we knew right then that we had to pay attention to our expectations and be prepared for them to be violated.The formal/structural violations of course mirror the crazy frenetic anything-can-happen early 80s urban reality being depicted. For me, as a longtime TV watcher whose favorite subgenre was the one-hour 9 PM or 10 PM drama series, this was the first time I truly experienced that form/content jibe.

Helter-skelter reality --> handheld camera, ensemble cast, crazy audio techniques, random elimination of characters, many plots going at once.

** Episode was entitled "Hill Street Station" and aired 1/15/81. Official plot summary is: "A hostage situation arises in Captain Furillo's precinct. Public defender Joyce Davenport is looking for her client, lost due to bureaucratic mismanagement. Officers Hill and Renko are shot in the line of duty." The episode was awarded an Edgar for Best Teleplay from a Series.