Commentaries - March 2011

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?

PERLOFF: Not like everybody so much, but acknowledge them. But Marianne Moore, to me, is just, it’s precious. I don’t like all those animals, you know. It’s just not my sensibility. But any of those poets, you see, for me, I would say all those poets, and still I’ll get back to Yeats in a moment, are not as great as Baudelaire, who is the great modernist poet. Rimbaud, Mallarme. Those, to me, are even greater than the Anglo-Americans. So that the fights between Stevens and Pound or Marianne Moore or H.D.—

BERNSTEIN: Are you saying the Americans are not so good as the Europeans, Marjorie?

PERLOFF: Well, just as far as, if you want poetry with a capital P. I mean, you go back and you read Baudelaire and I just can’t believe anybody could be that great a poet. Let’s put it that way. And I don’t really feel that way going back sometimes to, you know, I had to go do a lot of work on Wallace Stevens and I felt that was a good exercise. And when you said you don’t do people you don’t like, I mean, once I accepted that assignment, which came about in various ways, I really did my best to read the new Stevens scholarship. I am a scholar and I go back and read what everybody else says, and I look at what is said about Stevens, and, you know, only to a point can I really get that involved with Wallace Stevens.

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.

So, you think that when phrases can’t be translated, so these other limits of syntax, that this is actually more resources, is what you’re saying?

Yeah, I think the whole notion of untranslatability, unsayability, the unsayable remains a profound interest again both linguistically, culturally and politically. The what isn’t there, what isn’t, that can’t be said. The kind of immanence and the emergence implied in that state of the unsaid, I think, has to be a certain kind of social force.

In listening to you last night and then a reading you did at Buffalo, I guess, before Commons was printed officially, I was noticing a lot of differences in what you were reading and what I was reading along with in the version, so I was wondering speak a little about versions of text, and when you do or don’t think something is finished. Also, you mentioned last night about conceiving of your works as one long continuum, and sort of how that might play into how you think about a finished product.

When I finish the text, in fact, that is the finished text. However I feel that when I’m giving readings from the finished text, it’s almost as if the text literally re-presents itself to you. Even if you are the maker of that particular text, there’s a way in which you’re greeting it and reading it. So, the occasion of the reading creates a space in which that re-listening and re-making initiates itself, and sometimes that happens, say, before the event, that I’ll sit down and wonder, in a sense, out loud to myself, what will I be reading. In that process, something gets kicked up, something is, as I say, re-initiated. Sometimes it happens literally in the reading itself, in the performance itself. I don’t think of them necessarily as revisions at all. I do think of them as reformulations, re-takes, re-assembling, which is a lot how I work in the first place, a kind of process of accretion and assemblage and reconfiguration and there are many mobile parts. So, in a way, every time you come back to the text, the process can re-kindle itself. That’s been of some interest to me simply because it opens up the question of what is real time, what is compositional time, and what is the time of making a text. I think they are all different sort of filtrations of what it means to produce a written text, which is not to refuse or in any way empty out the meaning of the book or the text that might come to some kind of rest, right. So, these are things that are being held in some kind of complicity and conversation with each other so that no one part of that, processually speaking, forecloses on any other part.

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.

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."

This comes from a transcription recently done of Charles Bernstein's LineBreak interview with Guest in 2005. The full transcript will be published in Jacket2.

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)

Natalie Gerber, Structural Surprise in the Triadic-Line Poems
William Carlos Williams Review, Volume 27, Number 2, Fall 2007, pp. 179-186 (Article)

Emily Mitchell Wallace, The MLA Seminar Papers on Williams and Sound
William Carlos Williams Review, Volume 27, Number 2, Fall 2007, pp. 157-159 (Article)

Don Riggs, Lots of City Poets: A Review of Essays on the "Second Generation" New York School: Journal of Modern Literature, Volume 31, Number 3, Spring 2008, pp. 143-149 (Review)

Xiaojing Zhou, "What Story What Story What Sound": The Nomadic Poetics of Myung Mi Kim's Dura” College Literature, 34.4, Fall 2007, pp. 63-91 (Article)

Charles Bernstein, Making Audio Visible: The Lessons of Visual Language for the Textualization of Sound Making Audio Visible: The Lessons of Visual Language for the Textualization of Sound

Jennifer Scappettone, Traffics of Historicism in Jackson Mac Low's Contemporary Lyricism, Modern Philology, Vol. 105, No. 1, Special Issue on Poetics (Aug., 2007), pp. 185-212

Claudia Rankine, ed.; Lisa Sewell, ed., American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics.