Commentaries - September 2011

'From the Heliconian Muses let us begin to sing'

The muse of epic poetry

Muse Calliope, Athenian red-figure pyxis C5th B.C., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Some of my students find it outrageous that I would ask them to actually walk into a library and find print sources for their research. They believe that they can find everything they need to know online — and in some cases they might be correct. At eHow.com, you can learn “How to Build a Concrete Storm Shelter”[1] or “How to Clean Your Coffee Maker With Vinegar.”[2] Using the information collated there, a friend of mine renovated an entire house to ready it for sale. But wait, there’s more: should you decide to write an epic poem, eHow breaks the process down into seven easy steps. Here are steps one through three:

1) Write a brief statement of the poem’s purpose before you begin recounting the story — say, to detail your dog Champ’s heroic crusade against backyard birds — followed by an invocation of the Muse.

2) Give a short, general outline of the action of the poem in the statement of the poem’s purpose.

3) Invoke the Muse next by first praising her, then by asking her to aid you in the writing of your poem. The Muse of epic poetry was Calliope, but you can also invoke Thalia (Muse of comedy) or Melpomene (Muse of tragedy).

Visionary architecture, 1960

'Social usage determines what is visionary.'

Wall label for Buckminster Fuller's "Partial Enclosure of Manhattan Island" (1960) as presented at MoMA's "Visionary Architecture" exhibit, fall 1960. Text probably written by Arthur Drexler.

I'm fascinated by the “Visionary Architecture” show put on at MoMA in the fall of 1960. The exhibit consisted of materials (photographs of models, plans, drawings) from 28 ideas for cities and urban structures “considered too revolutionary to build.”  “Ideal projects,” writes the show's curator Arthur Drexler, “afford the sole occasions when [the architect] can rebuild the world as he knows it ought to be.”  And: “When ideal projects are inspired by criticism of the existing structure of society, as well as by the architect’s longing for a private world of his own, they may bring forth ideas that make history.” Theory and practice — vision and realism — merge in this presentation. “Today virtually nothing an architect can think of is technically impossible to realize.” Here, then, comes a definition: “Social usage, which includes economics, determines what is visionary and what is not.”

Buckminster Fuller's project on display here was brand new — done in 1960, just before the show opened. The wall label from the MoMA exhibit is reproduced above. This is vintage dome-obsessed Fuller, but now with a hint of ambient-coverage aesthetic the manner that would emerge with Christo and others. A dome over “a large part” of Manhattan.

Remembering the objectivists

Norman Finkelstein (left) and Harvey Shapiro

In the fall of 2005, Harvey Shapiro and Norman Finkelstein came together — to read their poems in tandem, and to talk about the objectivists, which, in Harvey's case, entailed remembering them through years of personal as well as aesthetic interaction. Bob Perelman moderated the discussion, and here are audio recordings of a few highlights:

on the Jewishness of the objectivists
on reading Zukofsky
on Lorine Niedecker.

And there's more. Consult PennSound's Shapiro-Finkelstein page.

Magazines #5

One more Rabbit

Rabbit #1 cover
Rabbit #1 cover

Free verse isn't just for students. One of the most interesting practitioners of the line - perhaps the most - in Australia is Claire Gaskin. Gaskin's use of the line is always working the line over other formal elements, even when she enjambs it:

suppose, for instance, that men were only

represented in literature as the lovers of woman

says Woolf

This is from the poem 'Paperweight', just one more poem from Rabbit #1. Whereas other poets worth reading work the line to energise a stanza or their poem as a whole, Gaskin's focus is on the line. This allows, I suppose, for readings of her work as dispersed, disjunctive blah blah, but such readings miss the point. Gaskin's power is that of a haiku-inflected, feminist-charged, Surrealist fission. Not fusion, as a lazy music as soup metaphor might have it. (Because we who love to not love formalism have heard all that 'line' before.) There is a post-formal feel to such 'free verse' too; not the echo of metre, but the echo of the line-based form of, in particular, the pantoum, in the recycling of sentiments and the 'soap in the stocking' line. In the above, though Gaskin is making a point, a not perhaps startling one, the emphasis comes down on 'says Woolf', giving her an authority that is common in many places, and yet in texts by men, generally subsidiary to the list of modernist men.