Commentaries - May 2010

the PennSound mothers

For Mother's Day selections from the PennSound archive and a whole lot more, follow PennSound on twitter. Click here.

short film about Second Life


Some innovative IT colleagues of mine here at Penn have made a short film about our use of the virtual world "Second Life" here. They interviewed me for it, but I'm not nearly the most lucid proponent of experimenting in SL. Watch for others.

Creeley on prosody and pacing

Back in 2000 I interviewed Robert Creeley in front of a live audience of 80 people or so at the Writers House. The recording (video and audio both) of the interview have long been available, but recently Michael Nardone has begun to draft a transcription. Note that it's not by any means finalized yet. Toward the beginning of the discussion Creeley brought out a small laptop which had loaded in it a software program called "Libretto." It was a primitive version of the much better voice transcription programs or voice recognition programs now available. In this early version a rudimentary avatar would speak a piece of text fed into it. Creeley was experimenting with prosody and wanted to dehumanize (for instance) the ballad stanza, to hear the words performed without subjectivity--as a machine would sound them. In this part of the transcript we find Creeley struggling a bit with the machine. Once it works, we hear the ballad (but it is by now unrecognizable so we've left out the verse itself in the transcript) and then Creeley discusses. (Here is a link to the audio segment transcribed.)

CREELEY:
It will come. I still have to get the appropriate file. I just took two verses from actually a very — it doesn’t use the syncopation quite at all very much, but I am also interested in pacing, what the intervals apparent are. Again, as I say this voice is in no way expressive or interpretive. I was visiting in a pleasant school, masters school, in just Dobb’s Ferry in New York and one pleasant teacher there, a Chinese-American, said “Sounds just like my uncle.” So here we go.

Wait a minute.

Speak.

COMPUTER MONOLOGUE READS:
[INAUDIBLE]

CREELEY:
Wait a minute I’m sorry. Let’s start again.

FILREIS:
In the room, if Aaron does some—-

CREELEY:
Let me just stop this. Abort.

I haven’t got the speaker turned on.

I’m an old man. I’m totally confused.

FILREIS:
He’s an old man with a libretto playing a voice synthesizer.

CREELEY:
Be that as it may.

FILREIS:
A cool old man, Bob.

CREELEY:
Come on, speak. Why do you never speak?

I don’t know. Maybe it’s tired.

FILREIS:
That ended that argument once and for all.

CREELEY:
Wait a minute, we’ll try again. Come on, I want to get it louder.

Louder, louder.

As loud as it can go.

Patience. Resume.

Speak

COMPUTER MONOLOGUE READS:
[Computer reads poem.]

FILREIS:
That was monotonous Robert Creeley.

CREELEY:
This program also allows you to slow down the tape and shift the pitch. It’s rudimentary. This is noted as a US English male H.L.

FILREIS:
H.L.?

CREELEY:
H.L.

H.L. Mencken or something.

Okay, that’s enough.

FILREIS:
All those lines are end-stops?

CREELEY:
Yeah.

[TRIUMPHANT COMPUTER SOUND]

FILREIS:
Whenever you don’t want Bill Gates, he appears.

So your sense of the line, your sense of rhythm at the level of the line. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about William Carlos Williams. Was that In the American Grain that voice?

CREELEY:
Yeah, I wanted something that would not, I wanted something that would not express or read into the language overly. I didn’t want it to be necessarily a drab voice, but I wanted it to be a saying of the words that would be dependent upon their pattern than my interpretation of it.

To me one of the problems in poetry, at least one that my particular company spent a great deal of time on, was the question of the register of the text and how that might be used as an information for the person reading it, presuming he or she would be hearing it in his or her head or reading it aloud.

Olson, for example, spends a lot of time on this problem. Duncan, literally toward the end of his life, acquires what’s then a state-of-the-art word processor so he can actually set his text and have it actually reproduced as the text of the published book. Groundwork, it seems to me, it was not In the Dark, but Before the War is thus composed. Denise Levertov has the same concerns. Paul Blackburn, et cetera.

I don’t why it became such a remarkable question for us. But it really is a difference between our company and that just previous. The Objectivists, for example, seem to have these concerns but do not particularly involve them in their own recital or their own reading of their own work.

FILREIS:
Yesterday you said that for a long while, at the beginning, you were using a typewriter, and a particular typewriter that you needed. And then you mentioned that Allen Ginsberg had genially advised you to get rid of the typewriter so you’d be maybe more mobile. Did, at first, the acquisition of the typewriter as the means of writing have anything to do with Williams, for instance, who was addicted to his typewriter?

I guess the second question is: what was it like when you got rid of the typewriter?

CREELEY:
Well the typewriter, initially, was a great way of freeing oneself from the personalism of one’s own handwriting. I was distracted by the way I wrote. Not that I wrote incompetently but I began to be, you know, obsessed with the nature of my handwriting, which was certainly not the point of what I was doing.

I wanted something that would instantly, so to speak, objectify these words I was putting in strings. I wanted to have something, again, that would not be informed by my personal disposition in handwriting. I wanted the words to be objectified, to be actualized so to speak by being generally characterized as typewriter fonts permit, and be there on the paper as something apart from my head or my personal, physical touch. I wanted them to exist in that sense by themselves. Nothing particularly vatic or mystic. I wanted to be able to look at them the way I would look at them on a page of print, let’s say.

FILREIS:
So what happened when you got rid of the typewriter?

CREELEY:
I think by that time, let’s see that’s ’63 or so, by that time I had been writing more or less—I began writing, particularly, let’s say, in the late ‘40s, so it had certainly been fifteen years of habit. At that point, what was far more useful to me was a means of collecting and/or composing in any kind of physical circumstance.

You know, if you have suddenly an impulse or some inquiry of some way of wanting to get something done and you have to go look for the typewriter, it’s awkward. So that this ability to use quick handwriting, that was very, very useful.

new recordings

My own PennSound page is being updated with recent recordings--interviews, introductions and discussions. Soon I hope to add the recording of the talk on Henry Rago and the Chicago Poetry scene 1955-60, delivered in Chicago in mid-April.

Cynthia Ozick

"Not all Holocaust art is authentic."

Some weeks ago Cynthia Ozick published a short essay in Newsweek bearing the brash subtitle "Not all Holocaust art is authentic. In fact, much of it is fraudulent." While I don't agree with all her judgments here, I like the gist - the hardness, the high standard, the fussiness about the problem of representing the holocaust. Here is a link to the whole piece. And here is a telling excerpt:

Consider a handful of movies that profess to render the Holocaust. Life Is Beautiful, a naive, well-intentioned, preposterous, painfully absurd, and ignorant lie. Inglourious Basterds, a defamation, a canard—what Frederic Raphael, writing in Commentary, calls "doing the Jews a favor by showing that they, too, given the chance, coulda/woulda behaved like mindless monsters," even as he compares it to Jew Süss, the notorious Goebbels film. The Reader, like the novel it derives from, no better than Nazi porn, and drawn from the self-serving notion that the then most literate and cultivated nation in Europe may be exculpated from mass murder by the claim of illiteracy. As for Schindler's List, its most honest moment, after its parade of fake-looking victims, comes at the very close of the film, and in documentary mode, when the living survivors appear on screen.

So where can the truth be found? In Anne Frank's diary? Yes, but the diary, intended as a report, as a document, can tell only a partial and preliminary truth, since the remarkable child was writing in a shelter—precarious, threatened, and temporary; nevertheless a protected space. Anne Frank did not, could not, record the atrocity she endured while tormented by lice, clothed in a rag, and dying of typhus in Bergen-Belsen. For what we call "truth" we must go into the bottom-most interior of that hell. And as Primo Levi admonishes, only the dead went down to the Nazi hell's lowest rung.

Along the way, Ozick reserves high praise for Paul Celan's great poem "Todesfuge" ("Death is a master out of Germany"); Elie Wiesel's outcry in Night; Dan Pagis's stunted, smothered lyric; Primo Levi's sober taxonomy of brutishness. I admire these judgments (excepting that for Night - a case where I out-Ozick Ozick in deeming it too novelistic, too narratively facile).