Commentaries - March 2011

John Rodker, Mary Butts

I'm listening to a 2-hour recording made of Kenneth Irby reading at the Ear Inn in New York, in Ma'm listening to a 2-hour recording made of Kenneth Irby reading at the Ear Inn in New York, in May of 1984. At the time he was obsessed with the relatively unknown poetry of Mary Butts. And he began his reading by talking about Butts' writing career, and life, and by reading several of her poems.

Along the way Irby mentions that Butts was married to John Rodker. I hadn't known that. I've long been fascinated by Rodker. In the 80s, when I first started visiting archives and collecting odd bits of modernist literary history, I ran into Rodker's legacy. I believe I read his papers at the University of Maryland, but I could be wrong about that. Or maybe at the Ransom Center at UT Austen, which is where a smallish archive of his papers is housed today. Rodker was a correspondent of many modernist poets, including Wallace Stevens; he published some early Stevens. But no Rodker-Stevens letters are at Texas. I do see correspondences with Theodore Draper and Jessica (Decca) Mitford, which makes me think, on a hunch, that he had a radical/leftist phase, perhaps in the 40s. He was a good friend of Doris Lessing.

In 1919 he started the Ovid Press. It lasted about a year. In the 20s he was in Paris helping Joyce with a second edition of Ulysses. He got into occult publishing and, much later, into publishing pornography. A Collected Poems was published in 1930.

John Rodker and Stevens shared the pages of the October 1919 issue of Poetry. Rodker's poem "The Searchlight" is there, along with a dozen or so of Stevens' famous Harmonium poems.

For a while Rodker was a go-between for Stevens and painting. At one point Rodker, in Paris, was trying to get Stevens to buy a painting by Wyndham Lewis. Stevens never bought a Lewis, but did say this in a letter: "Fancy the swank of Wyndham Lewis."

Ken Irby's interest in the unknown poems of Mary Butts seems warranted - judging from the few poems I've read and, now, thanks to Irby, have heard read aloud. If I ever get the time I'd like to explore the aesthetic cross-influence of Butts and Rodker. This was the time of the formation of Anglo-American modernism in poetry and these two people were important but now almost indiscernible influences.

I haven't read the biography of Butts written by Nathalie Blondel, but that would certainly be a good next step.

Later, Danny Snelson affirms my interest in Rodker, thus: "I've also had a long-time fascination for the man. He was also the center piece, really the only recurring character, in Pound's short-lived Exile journal, wch published an incredible Rodker novel in pieces. Really fascinated by his work I was just reading the Ovid edition of Mauberley, wch is just fabulous. It wld be great to get hands on some of the occult / pornographic publications. Also the Imago editions of Freud. Totally wonderful trajectory!"

The ghostly presence of New England

Back in mid-March 2010, I traveled to Manhattan and met Charles Bernstein and Robert Grenier at the East Side apartment of Michael Waltuch, Grenier's old friend and collaborator. We recorded part 2 of what is now a long 2-part interview with Grenier about his early years. Part 1 focused on 1959-64, with a bit of a look back to Grenier's high-school years just before that period. Part 2 goes back a bit into the early 60s but then moves forward, covering 1965 to the early and mid 1970s. If last time the central topic was Harvard, this time the central topic, as it emerged, was New England: New England in the specific biographical sense (Bob G.'s wanderings there, especially on trips shooting outward from Harvard) but also in the meta-geographical sense--New England as a haunt, a crucial (it would seem now, in Grenier's way of thinking) ghostly presence in his thinking and in his writerly development.

We are pleased to release this second interview through PennSound - available, along with part 1 and many other Grenier recordings, on PennSound's Robert Grenier author page. It's a long recording (2 hours and 11 minutes) but I hope you'll find listening to it rewarding.

Once you're in the room, you'll never get out

Daughter of an Auschwitz survivor, Debbie Fischer, asks her father, as he lies dying, to tell her the real story of his time at the death camp. He has refused to tell her much all these years, always giving a blandly positive response to life in the camp. Here is the audio recording of her testimony about his testimony: mp3. (See my Holocaust site for much more.)

On "In the American Tree," 1978

August 11, 1978. On the radio program, "In the American Tree: New Writing by Poets," Lyn Hejinian and Kit Robinson are our hosts, and the guest is Ted Berrigan. A PennSound recording of the show is available, and here--thanks to the work of Michael Nardone--is part of the transcription:

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We’re going to continue on now with our guest Ted Berrigan. This is "In the American Tree: New Writing by Poets."

Ted, you have a sequence of poems?

Yeah, I’ll read three poems from a book, which I just completed, I completed it three or four months ago, it’s called Easter Monday, and it’s fifty poems. And they’re all, most of them are close to the same size, which is about, well, my favorite size, which is about 14 lines. Well, they are sonnets, in fact, but they don’t really work at that too much. Not all of them are. Some are longer. None are shorter, but some are quite long, quite a bit longer, because they just got longer sometimes, and when they did I just let them be longer.

These fifty poems are, fifty was an arbitrary number I decided upon ahead of time based on a theory that if you do two or three works that are fairly similar, and that you liked them, even if you just do one, you do one work and you like it and do another one that’s similar to it, there’s no particular reason to do the next one, a second one, and there’s no particular reason not to do it. But if you feel you have a number then there, you can set yourself this arbitrary number and just decide, well, I’ll do fifty of these. Then you’re sort of clear as to what you’ll be doing for a while. I got this idea from a painter friend of mine.

So, I did fifty of these, and it took me a lot longer than I thought it would. I said that I would do fifty. It’s called Easter Monday because it’s really about second life, life beginning about the age of 40. And since it is personal, I mean it is the second half of one’s life, it’s about being young, a young older person. I was involved in a second marriage, second family, but even if I hadn’t been, it still could have been the same thing.

Consequently, it is like Easter Monday. Easter Friday you die. Easter Sunday you rise again from the dead and that’s really glorious and wonderful, but then Easter Monday you have to get this job and support yourself for the rest of your life.

The poems were all written in two or three or four years from the time I was 38 until last year when I was 42. So they are not all about one’s whole second life, but rather about being aware of coming into that.

When I say they are about something, I mean, I strictly mean “about”. I don’t know what each poem is about particularly. I could study them and tell you what each one is about, but that’s not what I’m willing to do.

Each poem is a very separate poem. They are not like my work The Sonnets where, although every poem can stand on its own, they were sequential and serial in a certain way. There is some repetition of things, but it’s really like fifty separate works which were done knowing I was going to do fifty, and therefore they relate that way. Now, I knew what the themes were, though I didn’t work at them too hard. I just knew what they were.

This is the first three. The first one is called “Chicago Morning.” It’s dedicated to the painter Phil Gustin simply because I was looking at a painting of his while I was writing because it was hanging on the wall over the typewriter, and so I actually used some things in his painting to refer to when I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

[Reads “Chicago Morning”]

The second one is called “New Town.” New Town is a section of Chicago.

[Reads “New Town”]

“The End.” This is the third one. And these are the first three actually that were written, and it was after writing these three that I then decided I would go on and write 47 more. “The End.” Which is why I call this “The End” because I, you know, I wanted to get the end out of the way right away.

[Reads “The End”]

I’m going to read one more of those. Since my voice started to click in about the middle of the third one.

This is one that came later, maybe about the thirtieth one. This is a made work, and it was made from a master list in a psychology textbook. The title of it is “From A List Of Delusions Of The Insane, What They Are Afraid Of.” And this is a fairly classical sonnet of 14 lines, which works, in fact, in three fours and a two.

[Reads “From A List Of Delusions Of The Insane, What They Are Afraid Of.”

What a list.

Yeah, well, the children are burning. And we are those children. And they are those children too. And they are not insane.

All those things are very true. I mean, evil chemicals are in the air.

And they are poor.

And we are in the control of another power. We have stolen something, namely those lines.

I mean one has to be as witty as one can in the face of the holocaust.

Retelling the Illiad with the letter E

In 2005, a seminar of Penn students and Charles Bernstein spoke with Christian Bok, making a recording that is now part of the "Close Listening" series hosted by Bernstein. Here is the recording and here is more information about the session. Now Michael Nardone has transcribed the interview for later publication in Jacket2 but we cannot resist offering a brief excerpt here:

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So, while we are talking about Eunoia, can we look forward to a consonant sequel?

A consonant sequel? No, I’ve promised myself that I won’t ever write another constraint-based book again. The blood-pact I have with my peer group is that every book we write will be radically different from its predecessor, that the entire oeuvre should be completely heteroclite. So, the next project requires learning a whole new skill-set and re-training my brain, in effect, to learn something else. I probably would not have the endurance now or perseverance required to actually finish a constraint-based book.

So, clearly, this is very constraint-based, and from what you’re saying, you’re probably going to set yourself a new set of rules every time you write something new. So, are you arguing for something, for going back to sort of the poetic formality that has existed forever, against the tide of free verse, or stream-of-consciousness?

Well, actually, I have no problem with those poetic forms. I think my only complaint about those poetic forms you’ve cited is that they are not feeling much incentive to innovate and produce something new and reinvent themselves in a manner which is exciting and stimulating. And to me, it’s not so important that the work actually demonstrate some sort of formalistic character, so long as it has some kind of innovative rationale for its practice. So, I’m not making a case, I think, for a return to rigorous and strict formality. You know, I’m not that fascistic or school-marmish, I think, in my sensibilities. But I did this project thinking that it was a kind of experimental work. I didn’t know if it could be done, and I merely conducted the experiment to see what would happen. And to me, that’s really what writing poetry is about, it’s a kind of heuristic activity where you indulge in a completely exploratory adventure through language itself.

Well, speaking of innovative rationale, where did your constraints, your content constraints about, you know, the nautical voyage and so forth, come from?

Okay, in the book, the five chapters have a thematic thread, which runs throughout the entire book. Every chapter has to allude to the art of writing. All the chapters have to describe a culinary banquet, a prurient debauch, pastoral tableaux, and a nautical voyage. These four scenarios are indicative of a vocabulary that’s common to all five vowels. It’s possible to say something erotic or culinary in theme in all the vowels cause they actually have that vocabulary common to all of them. So, I wanted there to be sort of thematic consistency across the entire book. I didn’t want it to be just five separate, individual stories that had no correlations with each other. I wanted there to be some sort of thematic parallelism, and it just so happened that these were the lexicons that were common to the five vowels. So, included them in the story.

Now, coincidentally, those four scenarios are, in fact, the kinds of scenarios you typically see in Greek epic poetry. And, for me, the word eunoia, which is originally from Greek, means quite literally “good-will”—it was a term coined by Aristotle to describe the frame of mind that you have to be in in order to make a friend—it seems to me it reflects a kind of neo-classical set of values about beautiful thinking. And certainly, there is a kind of classical story in there. The re-telling of the Iliad in chapter E, I think, alludes, in fact, to these kinds of four scenarios, which are common to a classical form of story telling. You would find these scenes in that.

So, did the classical idea come first, because when I read the nautical voyage, it reminded me of, sort of, epic, the epic tradition? So, did the research for what was common come first, or sort of a homage to the classical traditions?

It’s all a side effect of the actual vocabulary itself. It wasn’t as though I planned to write about these four scenarios. The vocabulary determined, in effect, what it was possible for me to say, and I simply said it. It just so happens that, I think, coincidentally, they are easily integrated into this rationale, this explanation, you know, that it has something to do with, I think, a kind of neo-classical, kind of Apollonian rigor or, you know, aesthetic value that I think the Greeks exemplify.

Okay, my final question: have you ever thought of joining an acapella group?

No, I don’t think so. I don’t think I would join an acapella group. I’m too much of an auteur.

I have no vocal training. I’m not a musician.

You know, I always thought Eunoia was what people said about poetry like ours: You annoy-a me.

That’s right, that’s right. That was the standard joke my friends when the book was out wearing its welcome, people would describe it as Annoy-you, or, better yet, Ennui.