Commentaries - March 2011

Cold War language theory

On free speech and literary intention

Back in the late '80s I used the opportunity to write a review of two books about the Smith Act prosecutions of American communists to put together an essay on First Amendment theory, literary intention and the political interpretation of speech. It's called "Words with 'All the Effects of Force': Cold-War Interpretation" and was published in American Quarterly (volume 39, issue 2 - Summer 1987). Here is the essay as a PDF.

Wallace Stevens of the New York School

Wallace Stevens dark portraitI've made an mp3 recording of a speech avatar reciting the lecture Wallace Stevens gave at MoMa in 1951, "Relations between Poetry and Painting." Stevens himself spoke in a low droning monotone so the avatar, minus the patrician accent, gets it about right. Stevens made more public visits to New York in 1951 than any other year. He read at the Poetry Center/92nd St Y, at MoMA, gave several short talks at various occasions, etc. Some of his letters read like I-do-this-I-do-that accounts of walking and looking along the avenues.

Aaron Kramer

We at PennSound have now created a new author page - that of the left-wing poet Aaron Kramer. Kramer was (for a time, and perhaps for a long time) a member of the Communist Party of the U.S. He was involved in just about every radical issue, cultural and straight-out political, of this time: the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. Perhaps his first big break as a poet was his inclusion in the anthology, Six Poets in Search of An Answer (1944), which at a (brief) hopeful moment in the liberal-left alliance brought Aaron in with Max Bodenheim, Joy Davidman, Langston Hughes, Alfred Kreymborg (by then a vintage modernist who'd joined the radical left), Martha Millet, and Norman Rosten. His "Garcia Lorca" memorialized that poet murdered by Spanish fascists. "Berlin Air Raid" begins: "For ten years they were listening to different / sounds." "Natchez" is about southern racist violence, a place where "a hundred tabloid writers ran to the flame." I have been in touch with Aaron's daughter Laura for years. Recently she went through the attic and gathered together three shoeboxes of cassettes and VHS tapes and delivered them to us at PennSound. We are slowly going through them, digitizing them, and make them available--as always--for free download through our archive. Thanks to the work of Rebekah Caton, the first three readings are now up. Coming soon: a recording of a radio program featuring a discussion and performance by Kramer of poems from the sweatshops - verse of radical Jewish immigrants of the first years of the 20th century.

Marjorie Perloff circa 2000

In January 2000, Lingua Franca asked me to write very, very briefly in praise of a then-recent book. I chose Marjorie Perloff's Poetry On & Off the Page and here is what I wrote:

This fine collection of occasional essays is concerned with the way supposedly ordinary language becomes poetic. From The Poetics of Indeterminacy (1981) forward, Perloff has confidently, helpfully mapped contemporary poetics during a period of almost constant change. (She herself is one of the few constant features on that landscape.) Wary, as always, of holistic paradigms for the literary history of poetry, in POETRY ON & OFF THE PAGE she describes not the replacement of hip canon for square canon, "political" for "formal" poetries. Rather she shows shifts within (usually coinciding with the growth of) aesthetic movements that range across interests, forms and social formulations. Although a number of the essays have less to say about poetry per se than about, for example, Johanna Ducker's bookworks, the video art of Bill Viola, the photographs of Eugene Atget, and Christian Boltanski's simulated documentaries, I cannot think of a better introduction to contemporary poetry and poetics. Such commendation tells much about the special mode of Perloff's writings as well as the dynamic, interactive condition of experimental poetry today.