Commentaries - March 2011

Christian Bok

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

BÖK:
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.

PENN STUDENT:
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?

BÖK:
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.

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

BÖK:
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.

PENN STUDENT:
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?

BÖK:
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.

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

BÖK:
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.

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

BÖK:
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.

Allen Ginsberg's FBI file

Here is Herbert Mitgang's summary of Allen Ginsberg's FBI file:

Ginsberg engaged the attention of the FBI recordkeepers. "I have a stack of documents three feet high," the . . . poet said, and showed me a sampling of them. He has devoted much of his time to challenging the government on issues of privacy and personal freedom - including sexual preference - and arousing his fellow writers to campaign for freedom of expression.

Ginsberg recently told me that Pacifica Radio, the group of radio stations that airs public events, contemporary verse, drama and other literature, may no longer broadcast much of his poetry, including the well known Howl and Kaddish. Under the Reagan administration's policy of destroying the power to regulate of the regulatory agencies, the weakened Federal Communications Commission has carried out Attorney General Meese's diktat against "obscenity" and "indecency." The final report of the Meese Commission on Pornography is a legacy for book censors and book burners that could affect authors, editors and elements of the publishing community for a long time to come.

Ginsberg said that some of the papers in his file come from related customs and Treasury Department investigative bureaus. His file crisscrosses those of other writers. "They include Leroi Jones, who was the victim of much more attack than people understand and, in that context, his anger is understandable," Ginsberg said. "Most people don't realize what he and other black literati have been through, assuming that all past injustices have been redressed or somehow disappeared out of mind. The waste remains, the waste remains and kills. The section on Tom Hayden in Newark intersects with Jones, since Jones was influenced by an FBI misinformation campaign to denounce Hayden as an [FBI] agent and drive him out of Newark. The section on Black United Front and Ann Arbor intersects with John Sinclair, poet director of Detroit Artists Workshop, a multiracial press that is one of my publishers."

Commenting on the FBI's activities in the literary political arena, Ginsberg said, "Why did the FBI lay off the Mafia and instead bust the alternative media, scapegoating Leroi Jones, ganging up on Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden, Martin Luther King, Jr., antiwar hero David Dellinger, even putting me on a 'Dangerous Subversive' Internal Security list in 1965 - the same year I was kicked out of Havana and Prague for talking and chanting back to the Communist police? 'The fox condemns the trap, not himself,' as Blake wrote in Proverbs in Hell. "

In a memorandum from Hoover to the Secret Service in 1965, Ginsberg was cited as an "Internal Security--Cuba" case, and a potential threat to the president of the United States. On the document, stamped Secret, Ginsberg was listed as "potentially dangerous" and a "subversive," with "evidence of emotional instability (including unstable residence and employment record) or irrational or suicidal behavior," as having made "expressions of strong or violent anti U.S. sentiment," and as having "a propensity for violence and antipathy toward good order and government." All such items were checked on a form in his file.

A photograph of Ginsberg was placed in the Federal Narcotics files in 1967 as if it were a dangerous explosive, and a copy of the photograph was sent to the FBI. Ginsberg had openly campaigned against what he regarded as harsh antimarijuana laws that were used to arrest anti Vietnam War and other protesters. "He is pictured in an indecent pose," the report said. "For possible future use, the photograph has been placed in a locked sealed envelope marked "Photograph of Allen Ginsberg - Gen. File: ALLEN GINSBERG." The locked sealed envelope has been placed in a vault in this office for safekeeping.

The nature of his case was described as "antirioting laws" in 1968 by the Chicago office of the FBI. "[Name blacked out] advised he observed GINSBERG at Grant Park in front of the Conrad Hilton Hotel in conversation with associates," his report read. "GINSBERG chanted unintelligible poems in Grant Park on August 28, 1968." Ginsberg explained that the "unintelligible poems" were William Blake's "The Grey Monk."

Ginsberg was tracked in this country and abroad. When he returned from a trip to Montreal in 1969, his valise was opened, bonded and held for customs inspectors at Kennedy Airport. It contained his manuscripts, poems, what were described by authorities as obscene photographs, a position paper on narcotics that he had prepared for Senator Edward Kennedy, and newspapers. The Ginsberg file reveals that when he gave a poetry reading in 1970 at Quincy College in Illinois the FBI bureau in Springfield was alerted to be on the lookout for him because he was an "IS" (Internal Security) case. It was duly and soberly noted that he was billed as the "Hippie Poet."

During the first term of the Reagan administration, a list of eighty four people deemed "unsuitable" as government paid speakers abroad was prepared by the United States Information Agency. Among the names were Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate; Coretta Scott King, the black leader; Betty Friedan, the feminist; John Kenneth Galbraith, Paul Samuelson and Lester Thurow, economists; and Allen Ginsberg, poet. It was, most felt, the equivalent of the Nixon administration's "enemies list" - and an honor to be included, a disappointment to be left off.

As he demonstrated in one of his recent poems, "Industrial Waves," Ginsberg is unstoppable when it comes to defying the authorities with verse that outrages: "Free computerized National Police! / Everybody got identity cards? At ease! / Freedom for Big Business to eat up the sea / Freedom for Exxon to examine your pee!"

He remains at the cutting edge of controversy. His only weapons are chants and poetry that may be depended on to arouse Washington officialdom and delight his admiring peers and readers. He continues to campaign openly for causes he believes in. Ginsberg's plots thicken, and so undoubtedly does his FBI file.

Source: Herbert Mitgang, Dangerous dossiers: exposing the secret war against America's greatest authors (New York : D.I. Fine, 1988)

Levertov here and there

We don't have any recordings of Denise Levertov yet in PennSound, but Levertov appears, one way or another, here and there throughout our archive. Robert Creeley talks about her (with me at the Writers House). Ken Irby reads one of her poems. John Weiners in 1965 at Berkeley reads a poem dedicated to her. Albert Gelpi talks with Leonard Schwartz about the letters of Duncan and Levertov. And a letter Duncan wrote Levertov as he was finishing the poem "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow" is discussed in passing in our Duncan PoemTalk episode.

Freud on communism

Years ago I made available to my students--and then through the web to the world (this page is one of the most frequently visited pages in any of my web sites)--Freud's comments on political theory and political life in Civilization and Its Discontents. Here is a link to the excerpt, and here is his paragraph on communism:

The Communists believe they have found a way of delivering us from this evil. Man is wholeheartedly good and friendly to his neighbour, they say, but the system of private property has corrupted his nature. The possession of private property gives power to the individual and thence the temptation arises to ill-treat his neighbour; the man who is excluded from the possession of property is obliged to rebel in hostility against the oppressor. If private property were abolished, all valuables held in common and all allowed to share in the enjoyment of them, ill-will and enmity would disappear from among men. Since all needs would be satisfied, none would have any reason to regard another as an enemy; all would willingly undertake the work which is necessary. I have no concern with any economic criticisms of the communistic system; I cannot enquire into whether the abolition of private property is advantageous and expedient. But I am able to recognize that psychologically it is rounded on an untenable illusion. By abolishing private property one deprives the human love of aggression of one of its instruments, a strong one undoubtedly, but assuredly not the strongest. It in no way alters the individual differences in power and influence which are turned by aggressiveness to its own use, nor does it change the nature of the instinct in any way. This instinct did not arise as the result of property; it reigned almost supreme in primitive times when possessions were still extremely scanty; it shows itself already in the nursery when possessions have hardly grown out of their original anal shape; it is at the bottom of all the relations of affection and love between human beings--possibly with the single exception of that of a mother to her male child. Suppose that personal rights to material goods are done away with, there still remain prerogatives in sexual relationships, which must arouse the strongest rancour and most violent enmity among men and women who are otherwise equal. Let us suppose this were also to be removed by instituting complete liberty in sexual life, so that the family, the germ-cell of culture, ceased to exist; one could not, it is true, foresee the new paths on which cultural development might then proceed, but one thing one would be bound to expect, and that is that the ineffaceable feature of human nature would follow wherever it led.

Robert Coover

Is experimental writing dangerous?

I ask Robert Coover if experimental writing is dangerous and necessary.