Commentaries - March 2011

Modern art as communist subversion

In January 1957, a man named Arthur B. McQuern, describing himself as a retired Iowa farmer then living in "this artist town on the west coast"--Laguna Beach, California--writes to express indignation against the modern art on display there. McQuern was especially incensed by a recent exhibit, which caused him to write an essay he mailed to Congressman George A. Dondero. Here is a small portion of that essay:

"...the essence of the 'modern' doctrine apparently is to believe in nothing...The idol adopted by the modernist writers is a twentieth-century hybrid character which is made to appear as being neither good nor bad...The ultra-modernist is unconcerned with beauty and truth...By a standard of ethics peculiar to the 'moderns' truth has no stability or positive purpose but to them is only a point of view shifting and drifting with the tide of sentiment...In both literature and art a contemptible disregard for reality...."

Parataxis is unAmerican

Ernest Hemingway, Donald Davidson, domino theory

Donald Davidson, from "Grammar and Rhetoric: The Teacher's Problem" (1953):

In our time, the conjunction and has too often been the mark of a timid evasiveness in which I do not mean to indulge: "He was an old man who fished alone...," writes Ernest Hemingway, "and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish." The philosophy of Hemingway, as man and writer, is latent in that characteristic conjunction and. It bothers Mr. Hemingway to think that there may be some relationship between objects other than a simple coupling. "A" and "B" are there. The inescapable act of vision tells him so. But Hemingway rarely ventures, through grammar and rhetoric, to go beyond saying that "A" and "B" are just there, together. Similiarly, our diplomats and Far Eastern Experts long had a habit of declaring that there was a Red Russia and a Red China, with the tender implication that such a conjunction was entirely innocent. Political theories for nearly two centuries have coordinated liberty and equality, but have too often failed to tell us, as history clearly shows, that liberty and equality are much more hostile than they are mutually friendly; that the prevalence of liberty may very well require some subordination of the principle of equality; or, on the other hand, that enforcement of equality by legal and governmental devices may be quite destuctive to the principle of liberty. [Source: The Quarterly Journal of Speech 39, 4 (December 1953), p. 425.]

Here are some responses:

"Yes," I wrote in response to Matt, "one way to read this is as an expression of anger and frustration about the easy modernist "and" - early Hemingway, G. Stein, the Williams/Pound kind of juxtaposition. So it's plain 1950s-era antimodernism. But he's also connecting (seemingly with rigor, but I'd say very loosely) two things he hates: he hates modernist juxtaposition/collage (the seemingly easy conjunction of A and B) and he hates the left-learning/'commie' mostly academic China experts whose "modernism" (in this sense) 'lost' us China in '49. He's right about the historical choice ('choice') liberal and conservative polities have had to make when preferring equality over liberty (the former) or liberty over equality (the latter) and he's clearly implying that for him liberty is more important than equality. But Hemingway (and Stein...and others) all would make the same choice as a matter of thought, but not in the written line where they sought to mess with the supposedly inevitable 'choice' aforementioned."

First reading of Cecil Taylor's '#6.56' (4)

Gillian White

Well before I’ve clicked the audio file, the reading begins with the email invitation to (re)produce a “first reading” of a “spoken word” performance by Cecil Taylor. His name rings jazz bells, so I’m reading my mind, too. As a student of jazz vocals in Manhattan, I sat in with Reggie Workman, but didn’t feel free enough to accept the invitation to join his ensemble. I’ll be embarrassed later to remember that some call Taylor the “inventor of free jazz” (at the Five Spot), and to know how often he’s been written about by poets I even teach. So the reading, I’ll admit, begins with strained self-awareness about being a “professional” reader (maybe of a Certain Kind? Paranoia enters here, and anxiety about my limited experience writing about sound) invited to write what I don’t know. Initiate, meet professional. I will try here to stay with that situation, not take it back.

The question, at first, that is, was whether to research this track’s contexts before listening, or not. 

Either way, I’m beset with expectations of what I’ll hear, before I know my ear.

The invitation email introduces the link with several generic labels that strike me as conflicting. This is “a free-jazz poem,” yet also “[Taylor’s] poetry … recited,” yet also “spoken-word.” If Taylor’s “reciting,” is this free? Not only haven’t I been given a text, if there is one, the editors (also) disclaim it: “We’re obviously interested here in how our colleagues handle a poem that only exists as sound (i.e., where there is no text).”

So still before clicking the link, paratext and genre and I are in conversation about what to prepare for.

I decide a good first reading might plausibly be sensory and even naïve without being at sea, and so entertain without answering contextual questions before I click: How to place Taylor’s career (region? class? educational backgrounds? how canonized? collaborator, loner? how did he afford to make art? for whom? how was this work distributed? how was he oriented to and against mainstream American society in 1987)? Who among those writing about sound poetry write about him? “Spoken word” in what sense (like Amiri Baraka? Gil Scott Heron? Marc Smith? )? I recognize I have assumptions about about genre, class, aesthetics, and politics activated by the phrase. Was it Taylor’s phrase? There is spoken word and there are spoken words:  what’s his relationship to Charles Olson, to sound poetry, to the historical avant-garde, to the persons recording him, to my hosts for this? What is his interest in 1980s Mexico or the Aztec agricultural practice called “floating islands” (both which the album’s title — Chinampas — refers us to)? How was he recording? Did he write criticism? How embarrassing is what I don’t know? How will fully facing this gap in my knowledge affect my responses?

Click: SOUND washes out most of my questions. Not what I expected: the noise of this piece — the force and shock of it. Many of my assumptions don’t seem right upon hearing, especially those formed around the phrase “spoken word.” More questions; no time. (History of that word and its relation to “free jazz poems”?)    

To register the shock and formal complexity of this happening seems the most important thing to do. Before I know anything else, or why, there is its bodily thrill and irritation — its demands. How was this made? I try at first to jot down words as it goes, but Taylor (?) has overlaid — with multiple tracks it seems — vocal noise, bells, rain stick (?), percussion, audible speech, frustrating my desire to derive from this weave and wash of sound a semantic thread (especially at first). There is the word — “incarnate” — followed by “theyselves” (I think) but mostly there are tinkling bells … I make out “oyo” or an “oye” or “hoyo” (hole?) and the desire arises for TEXT — something to hold to, a raft. My initial notes are illegible though not meaningless later — mostly scribbles. I write all over the page, not horizontally or vertically but moving to jot quotes and comments (without indicating which is which) in distinct areas of the page, perhaps more like someone trying to map a physical space than recording language. The piece articulates a physical space, and if I attempted to turn it into text, I’d want varying orthographies, different fonts and sizes and overlays of text to articulate the overlays of sound in time and their rendering the inaudible and the audible, producing a foreground and background difficult to describe — but sensible. 

Because of its speed and multilayeredness, my desire to turn the experience into a text is interesting and frustrating, and being the type of reader I am — committed to what form provokes and fronts — I gather this is part of what the piece “knows” or invites me to explore. I pick out words but who knows why: “orifice,” “white skirt above, black pantaloons below” (?); a string of clear, instruction-manual-ese at minute five (approximately) meeting and mocking my urge to come away with information. Repeated phrases — “a column of rain” — maybe because I catch them, sound cited. Was that “flooded,” “dew,” and “spittle” forming a triad, or did I just think of dew and spittle together and jot those down? Sound or sense? So much that’s repeated seems not just cited but antique: “velvet black pantaloons,” “male above, female below,” “columns of rain,” the Miltonic “word was woe,” all of which I’m tempted to lineate. I write the word “issues” but is it his or are they mine? I write the words “native — a-lyric” and draw arrows out that rise above and cross. Later, I’m lost as to why. The loud and nasal phrase, “a raid,” repeats — assaulting air — then the voice spells it out: “a-r-r-a-y-e-d” — “arrayed.”

In then thinking about the first hearing, and listening again (and again), my assumption that I ought to transcribe this piece seems to miss its point, or to fall into its provocation to array what floats, to struggle against its irritation and freedom: Taylor’s growls, choking, squealing, heavy breathing, clicks, spits, muttering, whine explore the full, free, “out” range of his vocal instrument. Yet the whiff of Poetry is there, too — those clearer phrases and something about the poet’s voice remind me of the quaint oddity of some early-twentieth-century “poets’ voices” — think Ezra Pound in pantaloons.  Things move from sound to chant-like language but morph quickly to a highly stylized performance of (it seems) literariness — think Vincent Price on Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Who claims these voices? With what claim on them? In second and third readings, I’m wondering about Taylor’s relations to race in America. What’s improvised here, what’s meant to sound natural, what generic, what mediated, what free, and what was Taylor’s relationship to those questions? Would one want a text of this? What moves me as I go on, as I come to map this better and better, as I research where to turn — LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Nathaniel Mackey, Fred Moten — is the gain and loss of bearing in more than hearing.

Chinampas (1987)

1. # 5'04
2. # 3'43
3. # 5'46
4. # 5'07
5. # 12'30
6. # 9'20
7. # 5'46
8. # 6'56
9. # 3'36

Cecil Taylor: poetry, voice, tympani, bells, small percussion. Recorded  November 16 and 17, 1987. CHINAMPA, an Aztec word meaning “floating garden.” Source: UbuWeb’s Cecil Taylor page.

Gillian White is an associate professor of English at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She is author of the book Lyric Shame: The “Lyric” Subject of Contemporary American Poetry (Harvard 2014), and her writing on poetry and poetics has also appeared in London Review of Books, The Wallace Stevens Journal, and Twentieth-Century Literature

Christian Boltanski

Art: clothing in piles

Christian Boltanski's artwork/installation, "No Man's Land": a huge crane and a 25-foot-high mound of salvaged clothing rising from the floor of the Park Avenue Armory’s big drill hall. Every few minutes the crane’s giant claw will pluck a random assortment of shirts, pants and dresses from the mound and then release them to flap back down randomly. Visitors can watch the action — set to a ceaseless, reverberating soundtrack of thousands of human heartbeats — from ground level, standing amid dozens of 15-by-23-foot plots of discarded jackets that extend in all directions from the mound and that may - should - evoke refugee or death camps.  "No Man's Land" was described in the New York Times: here.

Maggie O'Sullivan

the page is a like a score

PennSound's Maggie O'Sullivan page includes a recording of a discussion with Penn students in Charles Bernstein's "studio 111" seminar. Michael Nardone has transcribed the session now and here is a portion:

Thank you for your close reading, Ms. O’Sullivan. I was wondering if you could describe the relationship between performing your work and writing it.

Well, it depends on, every situation is different. Performing it is another opportunity to re-engage with the text at different levels, and another opportunity to negotiate the text on the page.

As you’ve probably heard, I often find my work is quite difficult for me to read from the page. Writing it, I hear the sounds often in my ear. But having to perform it, all the difficulties emerge. There’s lots of disconnectiveness and disjunctiveness that is kind of working against how I sort of, how sometimes it seems it may be read.

Would you consider, sort of, maybe, performing it to be more body intensive than, I guess, writing it.

Well, writing is a body-intensive activity, totally. Absolutely, totally. The whole body is engaged in the act of writing. Whether it’s on the computer, with using a pen in the hands. The breath is involved in all activities. But with the performing, there are others that you have to connect with, and the place of performing also figures on it.

A number of your poems integrate different languages, musical notes, pictures, and streaks, and they push the possibilities of poetic forms on the page. I was wondering whether this is supposed to conflict with the words, compliment them, or maybe even both.

The words working as part of all this kind of radical shifting—

Right. Other forms on the page that would not be considered part of the traditional poetic form.

Well, it’s all material on the page. The page is like a score. Like a place for painting, or drawing, or word making, whatever. I am seeking to extend the range of poetic, what is traditionally regarded as poetic material.