Commentaries - March 2011

Liking the Poets

Perloff and Bernstein in Conversation

Here is a draft excerpt from Charles Bernstein's "Close Listening" discussion with Marjorie Perloff - which was recorded in November of 2009. Of course these are candid, drafty remarks and we'll need to edit them for Jacket when and if we publish "Close Listening" transcripts there. And here are some remarks Marjorie sent after seeing the excerpt below: "I’m just back from London from the TS Eliot Summer School and it was WONDERFUL and restored my faith in poetry. The students were exceptional—from all over including Beijing—and knew their Eliot inside out and so I was kept on my toes. And when all is said and done, Eliot is a GREAT and amazing poet; the students this time convinced me (almost) even to admire THE FOUR QUARTETS. Do I like E’s poetry better than Stevens’s? I’m afraid yes I do. But that should be neither here nor there."

- - -

BERNSTEIN: How about, let me shift it to Stein/Pound, who are so different, and yet you’ve obviously written a lot about and are a champion of both.

PERLOFF: Yeah, they are very different, and both wonderful in different ways. It’s certainly a different concept of what modernism is, but I do think, actually, modernism can cover them both very well, as opposed to other people, you know, for instance, now there’s this kind of Marianne Moore cult afoot. My feelings about Marianne Moore are she’s a, yes, of course, she’s a delightful poet. She always was admired, you know, it isn’t that she was neglected. Eliot loved her, Pound loved her, Williams loved her, et cetera. But she’s just, for me, not very interesting. So there are always two things. One is a kind of broad view that one can try to have and be objective, and another is, as one gets older and gets more subjective. You sort of feel that you don’t have to like everybody anymore, and, I mean, I’ve taught Marianne Moore, for instance, but—

BERNSTEIN: Was there some time in your life where you did feel like you had to like everybody. I can’t imagine that.

PERLOFF: Well, yes. Yes, certainly I did when I was a student. You had to write about whatever you were assigned to write about.

BERNSTEIN: Sure, but like everybody?

Emergence Implied in the Unsaid

Myung Mi Kim

Myung Mi Kim at the Kelly Writers House

On March 15, 2007, Penn students and Charles Bernstein interviewed Myung Mi Kim as part of Bernstein's "Close Listening" series. Michael Nardone has now transcribed the entire discussion, for publication, later, in Jacket2. Meantime, here is an excerpt:

You mentioned yesterday how each reading is different and how you would have other people come up and read your work. If you could just elaborate on that and how would someone who doesn’t speak another language experience repercussions while reading?

Let me start with the second part of your question first, because I think it dovetails nicely with what I’ve just been saying about what are the demands on sense and sense-making that are politically and socially and culturally driven. So, when you ask that question about, well, what about a person who doesn’t speak, you know, another language, and what kind of condition would be produced for that reader, my question always, whether out loud or implicitly, is can you produce an approximation of the condition of language again unhooked from the demands of communication and communicability and transparency, and can you somehow suggest/evoke/amplify/proliferate different ways of being inside and listening to and activating the space that we call language, which doesn’t belong to any one language group, doesn’t belong to any one particular idea of how basic things that benchmarks of language like rhythm, syntax, intonation, inflection, taking all those things as resources for meaning, as resources for experience. So, in other words, even if there were no identifiable thing called the second language, there’s something produced about an experience of language, and I think everyone has access to that.

Winston Churchill For Black Counterviolence?

Claude McKay and the Uses of Poetry in a Time of War

Claude McKay and Winston Churchill

It has always been assumed that Claude McKay's sonnet, "If We Must Die" - a poem calling for counter-violence as a response to racist hatred in the context of the 1919 race riots in U.S. cities - was later recited by Winston Churchill on the BBC (and/or in a speech before the House of Commons) as a World War II-era rallying cry for Britons. McKay himself later said (in the late 40s, by which time his political views had changed) that he felt the poem to be universal - and was not about race. If indeed Churchill recited it and it could be used--presumably with pride and affirmation from its author--to rally the British against the Germans, then its historical, national/ethnic specificity would be in question.

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

The Shakespearean sonnet--a strategic choice of form by McKay--would seem to endorse the notion of Churchill's use of the poem. After all, he chose on other occasions to buck up beset Britain by reminding them of their bard who believed in the green isle as sceptered in noblest, complexest high forms. Defense by poetic rhetoric.

I've for some time tried to find the recording of the speech in which Churchill quotes McKay's poem. No luck. I tried again recently, with some help from Emily Harnett. No luck still. We did find a footnote in a book by David Caplan that seems to conclude that Churchill's use of the poem is a myth. Here is a PDF copy of Caplan's note.

Here is a recording of McKay reciting his poem.

Oh, Yes, Subject Matter

Barbara Guest

Barbara Guest in reply to a question about subject matter:

"Oh, yes. The subject matter. The subject matter. I know I was talking to some students in Santa Fe and they were very worried about when I said well what have you been writing, and they said, well, not very much. I realized that they were disturbed more by what they thought was in front of them that they didn’t want to write about, so I told them that the subject matter wasn’t important. And this released them. They were thrilled. They went around for days saying she said the subject doesn’t matter. Because the idea is that sometimes you find the subject as you proceed with the poem. It’s a good rule. It doesn’t always work, but it’s a good rule."

Scholarly uses of recordings of poets performing their poetry

A PennSound bibliography

Below is a partial list of articles that make explicit use of PennSound material (prepared by Charles Bernstein):

Christine Hume, Improvisational Insurrection: The Sound Poetry of Tracie Morris, Contemporary Literature, Volume 47, Number 3, Fall 2006, pp. 415-439 (Article)

Hank Lazer, “Is There a Distinctive Jewish Poetics? Several? Many?: Is There Any Question?” Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, Volume 27, Number 3, Spring 2009, pp. 72-90 (Article) [At left: Photo of Hank Lazer reading at California State University at San Marcos, October 2008.]

Andy Weaver, Promoting “a community of thoughtful men and women”: Anarchism in Robert Duncan’s Ground Work Volumes
ESC: English Studies in Canada, Volume 34, Issue 4, December 2008, pp. 71-95 (Article)

Charles Bernstein, Objectivist Blues: Scoring Speech in Second-Wave Modernist Poetry and Lyrics: American Literary History, Volume 20, Number 1-2, Spring/Summer 2008, pp. 346-368 (Article)