Commentaries - March 2011

Jack Spicer on Wallace Stevens, 1965


In one of Jack Spicer's now-famous lectures in Vancouver, 1965, he discusses (and commends) the "serial poem." After a while he takes questions, and someone asks him whether Wallace Stevens didn't indeed write serial poems--perhaps "Notes toward a Supreme Fiction" is one? Spicer's response is fascinating. I've taken the long audio recording of the whole lecture, and selected just the discussion about Stevens. The whole lecture can be found on Spicer's PENNsound page and the excerpt (3:27) can be heard here: mp3.

Recordings of Jackson Mac Low

Newly Segmented at PennSound

Jackson Mac Low at PennSound
A screenshot of Jackson Mac Low's PennSound author page.

Thanks to the efforts of Anna Zalokostas, we at PennSound have now segmented every one of the readings by Jackson Mac Low for which we have recordings. Through this work we re-discover that Jackson read four sections of Forties at the Ear Inn in '92; that in 1995 at a Little Magazine seesion he read "This Occasion, a Poem for John Cage after his 79th birthday"; that at a Radio Reading Series Project session in 1998, he explained Forties and discussed how he applied the diastic method to Pound's Cantos; that he read "Baltimore Porches" at the Ear Inn in '82...and much more. Have a look at our newly revised Jackson Mac Low author page.

The Careful Young Men of 1957

In March of 1957, the Nation magazine ran a feature called "The Careful Young Men," with this subtitle: "Tomorrow's Leaders Analyzed by Today's Teachers." They sought contributions from English professors--all men as it turned out, not surprisingly--at mostly elite universities, soliciting comments on what students were thinking, writing and reading. These students, "tomorrow's leaders" per the subtitle, and the "careful young men" per the title, befit--lo and behold!--the general notion of Nation articles and editorials of this period: the Fifties were pretty much uniformly a time of quietude, caution and rising orthodoxy. That the late fifties was a time of extraordinary experimentation is nowhere indicated, not even marginally, not even in one sentence in one of the entries--not even as a hint or premonition. Of course I see the names of the contributors (Carlos Baker at Princeton, Stanley Kunitz of Queens College, Wallace Stegner at Stanford) and understand that a major problem here is the narrow choice of respondents. The obvious irony is that these male literary academics, for the most part lamenting the aesthetic conservatism of their students, evince no sense of the intellectual diversity--to mention only one form of diversity--that might be required to see the resistance and experimentation at the edges of their classrooms or perhaps outside their office windows or at the fringes of campus (or indeed far down the academic road, at places like Black Mountain). It may be that these gentlemen are writing in 1957 but thinking of their students of 1950-1954, the cowed McCarthyite generation recently graduated. Or it may be that the freer spirits on campus had stopped taking lit courses, or kept quiet whilst Stegner and Baker were lecturing at them, or saved their heterodoxy for the sloppy garrett and cheap coffee shop six blocks from campus.

Anyway, Kunitz notes that the students don't seem to have culture heroes who are themselves young, and seem to be stuck with Jung, Mann, Yeats and Eliot. Stegner claims that "only Eliot seems to arouse enthusiasm in students." (He's talking about a San Francisco-area campus in 1957! Can that generalization really hold even for students on the conservative Stanford campus of that time? I doubt it, but of course I'll need to do a little digging to confirm my hunch that he's wrong.) J. A. Bryant of the University of the South notes that the Hemingway these young men love is not the unallegiant expatriate Hem but the Hem who "symbolizes the virility and essential goodness of the American male and is identifiable with the warrior [and] the athlete." R. J. Kaufmann says that his students "like Joyce's Portrait very well up to the point in which he works out his elaborate aesthetic." John Willingham of Centenary College says there's no rebellion in these students at all--that they "envy the undergraduate of the twenties" [sic - not "the thirties"].

I should note that Leo Marx (then at Minnesota) wrote an exceptional piece for this feature, and so, to some degree, did Alan Swallow, whom we think of now as primarily a great publisher but who had then recently left the University of Denver but was in any case never really comfortable in the academy the way Stegner, Baker and Kunitz were.

Cold War Gaming Theory

In Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

I've been re-reading Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and co-leading a month-long discussion online with a few dozen adults. We discuss every aspect of the play by email. Lots of fun. As anyone who knows the play will remember, George and Martha play a series of always slightly varied games with each other. These are games played to vary the relationship (in part to create sexual excitement through, for instance, role-changing) but also as a means of altering the power dynamic between them. (George married Martha in part because her father is the president of the college where he is a not very successful history professor. So she's got the power but he shifts rules of the games they play in order to challenge those positions; she often likes the rule-shifting because it shows some evidence that George is not entirely flaccid.

So our group was talking about the elaborate games in this play, and I decided to explore the possible connection between what Albee is doing here in this 1962 work and the Cold War rage for game theory. Here is what I wrote to the group this morning:

- - -

Game theory developed rapidly and quite publicly in the period when Albee was first writing plays - in the late 60s. It reached its peak in the early 50s. Gamesmanship, following from militarily-applied gaming scenarios, is largely credited for the White House strategy in dealing with the Cuban missile crisis in the fall of 1962. (Our play was written earlier and produced before the crisis in October that year, but audiences throughout that period would have been quite aware of cold-war versions of gaming as Martha and George engaged in their personal power struggles through ever-varying game scenarios.)

The way George and Martha interact - stepped up, psychological 'warfare'-style games whose rules shift ever more at the brink of danger - has always reminded me of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). This balance required open acknowledgment of each side's strengths and vulnerabilities. However, as "prisoner's dilemma" showed us, both players must assume the other is only concerned with self-interest; therefore, each must limit risk by adopting a dominant strategy.

I'm put in mind most keenly of the relationship between cold-war gaming and the "cold war" marriage in this play when George enters and shoots a rifle at Martha. For all we know (audiences), it's loaded and George has gone mad. But he hasn't gone mad at all; he's engaging the MAD psychology. Of course when a gun enters the play, analogies to current notions of warfare make momentarily a lot of sense.

Albee is explicit about the games. But we know these are not fun ha-ha harmless games. These are games played for keeps. When we get into the area of games involving sexual exploitation and domination, the games are dangerous. The gun isn't the place in this play where I am most scared. It's when George strangles Martha - chokes her at the throat. To this day, having lived with this play for years, I still don't know if we are to think that George has really lost control there, and is acting outside of gaming character, or if this is just the most dangerous line-crossing of his many games. (What do you think?)

By the way, the American art avant-garde was very much aware of Cold War game theory and made it relevant in their art. It was much the talk of the New York art scene in the late 50s and early 60s. Marcel Duchamp (a key figure of the modernist revolution back in the teens and 1920s) was making a comeback, and was in New York, promoting surrealism especially (an -ism that attracted Albee). Duchamp was constantly talking about game theory and gaming, and thought new art had to be relevant to it (and critical of its Cold War application). Duchamp was obsessed with chess, and considered it a form of psychological one-ups-manship.

Finally, game theory is a branch of applied mathematics that is used in the social sciences, most notably in economics - BUT ALSO IN BIOLOGY AND HISTORY. It strikes me--speculatively--that George is also gaming the system that permits a young turk biologist to rise in power at the university and suppresses the historian. There's a disciplinary war going on here as well. In part, George is performing his power games for an audience - for Nick the up-and-coming New Man, the breed about to take over. He's out-gaming the gamer and even offering his wife, with her access to power (daddy), as bait in the game. He offers Nick both paternity (pretending Nick's their son for a moment) and patriarchal lineage (fuck the President's daughter).

Patti Smith at the Writers House

We had the pleasure of hanging out with Patti Smith at the Kelly Writers House back on December 10. The highlight was an interview/discussion moderated by Anthony DeCurtis. The event was the fifth in our Blutt Singer-songwriter Symposia. Our previous Blutt visitors: Steve Earle, Suzanne Vega, Rosanne Cash, and Rufus Wainwright (Rufus is being rescheduled, actually). Some of these sessions were recorded so take a look at our Blutt page and enjoy.