Commentaries - October 2011

Hilton Obenzinger on Kenneth Koch

from Jacket #15 (December 2001)

Jacket 15 included a many-part "Tribute to Kenneth Koch." Hilton Obenzinger's short memoir was among the parts:

“Did You Write Any Poems?” 

In April 1968 students occupied six buildings of Columbia [University, New York] to protest the university administration’s complicity in the Vietnam War and their insistence on building a new gym in Morningside Park despite the objections of Harlem, the city government, faculty, students. With other writers from the Columbia Review I spent nearly a week in President Kirk’s office in Low Library before getting beaten up by the cops in the final bust. The days in Low Commune were deliciously utopian — with approximately 125 students making decisions through participatory democracy, changing the world by example — and dangerous, despite our stance of non-violence. The right-wing students charged the building several times, setting up a blockade to prevent the anti-war students from sending in supplies. Fists began to fly, and the scene around the building roiled with constant near riots.

The faculty decided to set up their own line in an attempt to prevent the situation from getting even more out of hand. Professors took turns standing on the lawn outside the building beneath the second-story windows to keep the right-wing students from charging Low Library and, attempting some parity, to keep the left-wing students from bringing supplies to the communards. It was not an easy time to be a professor at Columbia. To be arbiters, intermediaries between the students and the administration, was an impossible task during such polarization. After the “bust” bloodied over a thousand students, the faculty realized that the administration held them in almost as much contempt as they regarded the students, and most of them ended up joining the strike that followed the beatings and mass arrests.

In the midst of Low’s occupation and siege, I was assigned to a shift to stand guard at one of the windows. Behind me and out of sight was one of those tall poles with a hook used for opening the tall windows — a possible weapon if indeed the “jocks’ and other right-wingers made their charge. On the grass below stood the line of professors, and among them was Kenneth Koch, doing his stint on the faculty cordon. He looked up at me, smiled in his affable way, didn’t preach or wail or gnash his teeth, and he offered a friendly wave at me and the other editors of the literary magazine, Les Gottesman and Alan Senauke. He couldn’t keep from enjoying himself, couldn’t take things too seriously, which was in its own way very unnerving. But it was good to see him, in all his goofiness, and we waved back. He had thrown his lot in with the rest of the feeble faculty, which saddened us, although we couldn’t be mad at him. His humor lent him some transcendent grace.

“Did you write any poems?” he chuckled up at us.

No, we hadn’t. We set right off to punch out a bunch of spontaneous three-way collaboration poems, each of us taking a turn on the typewriter we had liberated from President’ Kirk’s secretary.

So terrible, so embarrassingly idiotic were these poems that we threw them away almost immediately. The muse of Andre Breton and Tristan Tzara and Frank O’Hara had failed us, and moment-to-moment rhapsodic bop would sound only like Allen Ginsberg, and there was only one Allen Ginsberg. We couldn’t bear to write tedious Fight-Team-Fight anthems or lugubrious, boring manifestos. All we could knock out was intense, manic gibberish when what was needed was something entirely new written in a language no one had yet invented.

Still, I marveled at Koc’’s sweetness, his unwillingness to change his peaceable demeanor in the face of chaos and violence, his chuckle, and his question, “Did you write any poems?”

I’ve always remembered that moment, and at other tough times I recall the question. Throughout my life, it has formed a kind of mantra. Driving headfirst off a cliff, hard knocks on the Indian reservation, wrestling with COINTELPRO, whirr of printing press, bombs in Beirut, broke, evictions, whiffing tear gas while taking a shit in Gaza — whenever there was conflict and danger, I would remember Kenneth Koch’s chuckle, see his sweet grin, and I would recall the pleasures of peace: “Did you write any poems?”

From a Dylanfest, a note on "Series of Dreams"

Last night I co-convened a celebration of Bob Dylan at 70. Nine Dylanologists each chose one song, prepared a short, informal talk about that song, and arrange some sort of presentation of this music (some performed arrangements themselves, others chose an audio excerpt). I spoke about "A Series of Dreams," a song of the late 1980s, and then played the opening three minutes of the final episode of David Milch's John from Cincinnati. Here is the text of my talk:

I’m mostly turned off by the Christian Bob Dylan, and so you’ll wonder why I chose what is almost certainly meant to be a song expressing an abstract faith. And I’ll need a television series to help me explain this.

My favorite single song is “Love Minus Zero, No Limit” and as for a favorite album – on some days Blood on the Tracks and on others, Blonde on Blonde. And I like much of his work of the 1990s.  So I’m a sixties, seventies, and nineties guy. The 1980s? Dylan’s worst decade, to my lights, although Infidels has earned my respect and “Blind Willie McTell” is remarkable – and I treasured Bob’s four sung lines in “We Are the World” of 1985. 

The finest and most compelling song of the 1980s is “Series of Dreams.”  Most agree that it’s the strongest song in the Oh Mercy group and yet, strangely, it was omitted from that album. I should note that “Dignity” was omitted from the same album, and so perhaps there’s no strangeness here at all — just bad decisions. “Series of Dreams” came to most of us through Bootleg Series 1-3 and to a few intrepid TV watchers by its use as the song leading into the final episode of David Milch’s eccentric, one-season-only HBO series John from Cincinnati, about which more in a moment.

Daniel Lanois, the great producer of Dylan in that period (and also later), gave this song of visionary abstraction a driving, tumultuous production: insistent drumming much louder than usual for Dylan (louder than we’d heard since Desire), a foregrounded tamborine, the bass turned way up, an instrumental arrangement implying Lanois’ insistence that Dylan sing the entire song as if it were a bridge.

A whole song sung like a bridge? In his autobiography, Dylan writes revealingly about this: "I knew what [Lanois] meant, but it just couldn't be done. Though I thought about it for a second, thinking that I could probably start with the bridge as the main part and use the main part as the bridge . . . the idea didn't amount to much and thinking about the song this way wasn't healthy.”

Not the first time Dylan’s memory or description of intention has been misleading. For thinking about “Series of Dreams” this way — each verse having a bridge-ish quality, a crescendo all the way, up up up and up, with no clear way back to the melody as it began — is really just about the healthiest thing I’ve heard in all Dylan’s work.

You see, it’s tempting to understand the dream of this song as a single recurring dream dreamt by one dreamer — the believer Bob Dylan, dreaming of (in a phrase of the song) “nothing too very scientific.”  But unlike explicit Dylan dream-songs such as “Bob Dylan’s Dream” and “I Dreamed I saw St. Augstine,” where the single dreamer frames a subjective vision and inside the frame the genius is permitted to wander narratively and musically, this is a series of dreams with no individual specificity – and they seem not to be dreamt in sequence, one after the other, but simultaneously.

Thinking of a series of dreams
Where the time and the tempo fly
And there's no exit in any direction
'Cept the one that you can't see with your eyes

Wasn't making any great connection
Wasn't falling for any intricate scheme
Nothing that would pass inspection
Just thinking of a series of dreams

Dreams where the umbrella is folded
Into the path you are hurled
And the cards are no good that you're holding
Unless they're from another world

In one, numbers were burning
In another, I witnessed a crime
In one, I was running, and in another
All I seemed to be doing was climb
Wasn't looking for any special assistance
Not going to any great extremes
I'd already gone the distance
Just thinking of a series of dreams

This is a song of dreams dreamed by many simultaneously – variable but singular in its source. Dylan’s thought is not about the dreams’ content so much as the fact of them as a concurrence. The line might be “thinking of the idea of a series of dreams as spiritually distinct from that of the unique dreamer.”

Enter David Milch. In the final episode of season 1 of John from Cincinnati -- and he knew this very weird show was bound to be cancelled, so in effect he was making the final final episode — this strange prophet/diviner/savant/hope-channeler John, “J.C.,” a man not so much from Cincinnati but from “another world” — has gone off.  This is a series about a self-destructive surfer family and a hopeless, sketchy beach community near the California/Mexican border. The protagonist surfing dynasty has lost and then found again and then lost again its youngest, most innocent member, grandson Shaunie (played terribly and brilliantly by a real surfer kid).  Every member of the cast has invested all their hopes and faith in Shaunie; he is exactly as innocent and good as they are guilty and wasted. David Milch wants them to discover a genuine soulful communitarianism, but as the final episode begins Shaunie is still missing — and each character is disjunct and dissolute.  And then, from out among the far-off big waves, John from Cincinnati miraculously returns — with Shaunie — and they are in perfect surfing sync. They come in from the sky, born of and borne on the waves, and everyone is having a version of the same dream in a series of dreams.

When Milch chose a song rejected from Oh Mercy, “Series of Dreams,” to open this final episode, he offered a movingly recuperative interpretation that I think is exactly in the spirit of an all-cresendo, all-bridge-ish lyric that is as powerful as the finest visionary concurrent communing in all of Dylan — even “Visions of Johanna” and “Desolation Row” — except here there is hope expressed through the hidden love we do finally have the capacity to share:

And there's no exit in any direction
'Cept the one that you can't see with your eyes.

Sigmund Laufer at Kelly Writers House

Brodsky Gallery, University of Pennsylvania

Holocaust Prints by Sigmund Laufer

a Brodsky Gallery Opening

Opening Thursday, Nov. 3 at 6:00 PM in the Arts Cafe

The final Brodsky Gallery exhibition of the semester will feature nine prints from artist Sigmund Laufer's series "The Holocaust." Susan Bee and Charles Bernstein will introduce us to the artist and his work, and following will be a conversation about art and representation of the Holocaust, moderated by Writers House faculty director Al Filreis. Afterwards there will be a reception with ample time to continue the conversation and engage with Laufer's expressive prints.

Sigmund Laufer (1920-2007) grew up in Berlin until age sixteen, when he emigrated to a northern Palestinian Kibbutz as part of the Youth Aliyah of European Jews threatened by the rise of Nazism in Germany. He then moved to Jerusalem where he met his future wife, Miriam Laufer, also an artist and a refugee from Berlin. After the war in June 1947, they emigrated together to New York City, where they had two children, Abigail Laufer and Susan Bee (Laufer). Sigmund began working for the Board of Jewish Education as a book designer, calligrapher, and art director of the children's publication, World Over. He was employed by the BJE for 44 years from 1948 to 1992. Upon moving to New York, Laufer simultaneously began his career as a printmaker and artist, and created black and white and color etchings and lithographs. His first exhibition was just two years after arriving in New York, as part of a group show at the Jewish Museum in New York City in 1949. He had solo shows in New York and was included in many group shows. His work was widely reviewed. Laufer’s prints are part of many collections, private and public, in the United States and abroad, including the Metropolitan Museum and the Brooklyn Museum in New York, the National Library in Paris, and the National Museum in Jerusalem. This series of nine Holocaust etchings, which were created in the 1960s, have not been exhibited together since then. Visit his website here.

Coming soon: Drafting beyond the ending

On Rachel Blau DuPlessis

Rachel Blau DuPlessis in Philadelphia, 2008.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis in Philadelphia, 2008.

This week at Temple University: a celebration of Rachel Blau DuPlessis. From Jacket2’s forthcoming feature on DuPlessis, curated by Patrick Pritchett:

To say that Rachel Blau DuPlessis has built her entire poetic project on the logic of the provisional and the contingent is no exaggeration. And reader, make no mistake — she has married us to this process. In the School of DuPlessian Midrash every seam and suture is exposed as a subject of instigation cum investigation. Investigation, in Drafts, is not simply a prod to the ethical; it’s heuristic: in teaching us how to read Drafts, Drafts teaches us how to read. … Had she done nothing else but write such groundbreaking studies as Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers; H.D.: The Career of That Struggle; Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908–1934; and the trilogy of genre-bending works The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice, Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work, and the forthcoming Purple Passages: Pound, Eliot, Zukofsky, Olson, Creeley, and the Ends of Patriarchal Poetry, she would have secured her reputation as a major voice in modernist and contemporary literary studies. But of course, there are the poems. 

Look for the rest of Pritchett’s introduction as well as essays and responses from Alan Golding, Thomas Devaney, Naomi Shulman, C. J. Martin, Libbie Rifkin, Eric Keenaghan, Daniel Bouchard, Paul Jaussen, Chris Tysh, Catherine Taylor, and Harriet Tarlo soon at Jacket2, which will also be linking to newly available recordings at PennSound.

Say it's so, Joe

I've been thinking lately about Obama's first (first — “first,” you see I’ve said it) inaugural. His choices evince both range and constraint: Pete Seeger, Aretha Franklin, John Williams, Elizabeth Alexander. I'm reminded that at the blog Last Exit Joe Milutis gave Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural poem a positive review.  To start, he quoted William Carlos Williams as follows: “You’re not putting sugar on cake. You’re building!” Re-reading this review has gotten me thinking about Obama's centrism in general, its problems and possibilities.

Obama once said this: “A good compromise, a good piece of legislation, is like a good sentence.”