Commentaries - February 2014

Thomas McEvilley: Arimaspia launch and McEvilley tribute

Wednesday, March 5, 2014 8:00 pm,
The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church
131 E. 10th Street, New York, NY 

Celebrating the life and work of  Thomas McEvilley (1939-2013) and the publication of his new books The Arimaspia: Songs for the Rainy Season, from McPherson & Co,,  and Seventeen Ancient Poems: Translations from Greek and Latin.

My introducton to the book is here.  

The tribute will feature Carolee Schneemann, Holland Cotter, Pat Steir, Les Levine, William Anastasi, Susan Bee, George Quasha, Richard Fletcher, Bruce McPherson, Stacy Szymaszek, Dove Bradshaw , Ann McCoy, David Shapiro, Joyce Burstein, Charles Bernstein (emcee), & special video tribute by Marina Abramovic .

McEvilley was a scholar, poet, novelist, art historian, critic, and translator best known as a provocative and influential art critic. He wrote many books on art and classical philology including The Shape of Ancient Thought, Sappho and three novels. He lived in New York City and the lower Hudson Valley.

"If Ezra Pound and Alexandre Dumas were to become one author and pen a historical novel about Greek philosophy and Indian spirituality in Late Antiquity, the result might be The Arimaspia. Best known for his writing on contemporary art and his novels, the late Thomas McEvilley was also a formidable philologist with a mastery of Greek and Sanskrit, and his neglected masterpiece, The Shape of Ancient Thought, dealt with the mutual influences of these two philosophical worlds. Arimaspia (his last novel) covers the same vast subject — but now as an adventure romance in which the escapades are metaphysical — and sexual. Alexander the Great and Nagarjuna appear, as does an unnamed modern college professor with a roving eye for sex-crazed graduate students — who may be a reincarnation of the unnamed Syrian/Greek narrator who makes the journey (on foot) to the East. Both characters are simultaneously cynics and mystics, all-too-human yet somehow immortal. Frankly I haven't had such a pleasurable reading experience in a dog's age: — like holding The Symposium in one hand and The Count of Monte Cristo in the other."
—Peter Lamborn Wilson 

In a way, McEvilley was always neglected, because he was usually caught in the fact that he was the best art critic of his day. He was much more. The new book shows that he was a poet among anthropologists, and an erotic novelist in the line of Lolita and Pnin. He is by the by a hilarious breaker of taboos. To understand McEvilley one has to read his book on Sappho, where his sense of the psychological lyric is heartbreaking. He is a translator, and also a wild mistranslator. He had a lover’s quarrel with the world of pedants, and he played poetry with the nets up and down. How much of him is involved with a classicist’s vision of Tantric practices glazed with the rainwater of American poetics. Now we know not to place him too easily. His work is like a Twombly sculpture, a flower, a rainbow of jibes and whistles. His full work is a masterpiece of comical thought. With his introspective zeal about Yves Klein and primitivism, he is really nonpareil.
--David Shapiro 

The Arimaspia is a work of grand collage and radical pastiche, in which McEvilley’s own poems, translations and narrative are hard to distinguish from the cascade of borrowed materials. Indeed, The Arimaspia is replete with citation and quotation: even the material that was not appropriated sounds as if it could have been –and each rubbing (as of an epitaph) comes across as fresh insight, made new for new time. Stunning in its archaic originality, The Arimaspia is a work of extraordinary learning, steeped in classical references that go well beyond the ken of most readers. At a certain point, the dance of the sources gives way to an immanent experience of refamiliarization, in which long-elided classical works come to life.  
–Charles Bernstein, from the preface 

Entry 7

Poetics Diplomacy II

Beachfront apartment, Tel Aviv, 1997. Photo: author

Writing on the debate over Israel/Palestine and BDS, while reflecting on the poetics conference I attended at Tel Aviv University in 1997, I am aware of the limits of discussion in public and academic spheres. The boycott itself has occasioned acts of recrimination, but at the same time there is a lack of more general discussion lest prior, fixed commitments be unveiled. While ASA's call for suspending contacts with Israel was put forward along with a claim for the right to argue for the boycott itself, the immediate response was unconcerned with any such subtlety as freedom of speech. This was in part due to the proposal itself, which divided the issue into boycott or not—as a result, the proposal was easily characterized as an attack. In return, the National Lawyers Guild has issued a resolution that defends the right to boycott, citing the First Amendment and a statement by the AAUP on the rights of faculty "not to cooperate" with persons or institutions "with whom or with which they disagree" (one wonders about the scope of that pronouncement, however). Meanwhile, in an article for the Chronicle for Higher Education, MLA President Marianne Hirsch describes the distorted, hate-mongering responses to its session on BDS and its resolution to protest travel restrictions to occupied Palestine. The conduct of the debate indicates the real limits on "speech" in public contexts, and these are worth interrogating: how did they come about? What forms of self- and group censorship are in force in our communities, including poetics, over what may be said? In academia, disciplinary structures work to keep controversy within micromanaged limits, but a similar result obtains, often without any perceptible leverage applied, in arts communites.

That said, I want to continue my discussion of the 1997 conference. My theme image, above, is precisely the kind of material I encountered outside the institutional context but which made it so valuable to be there. On one of my many walks from the hotel down the November beach front of Tel Aviv, I came across a series of hotels or apartments with seemingly futuristic design. Our conference on the avant-garde might have found a reference to Tatlin, Sant'Elia, or Lebbeus Woods in these deconstructed towers, which appeared to strip away the quotidian reality of everyday living, with its holiday balconies, to their infrastructural or militarized core. Seeing the above example as a dialectical image, I could not help associate it with the burning towers of Beirut during the siege of 1982—a psychic object to be reenacted in 2001. Condensing that occasion with the founding of Israel, the building seemed to encompass its own destruction as a traumatized horizon continuous with everyday life. When I travel, I like to scan—my cultural transcoder is looking for evidence of whatever kind—and the tower struck me as a site for questioning where I might find out something about where I was. There were a number of such moments in my travels after the conference; the tear-streaked face of the bald mannikin in the previous post, in a Tel Aviv boutique, was another. 

As conferences go, this was a fine one: there was every reason to discuss contemporary poetics under the auspices of the Porter Institute for Poetics and Semiotics. The results, as I have said, have been published in two volumes by Poetics Today (20:4 and 21:1); the conference proceeded with professional standards and quite a lot of added excitement in impromptu discussions. The usual celebratory occasions—welcome by the dean; readings by poets—could easily have been staged at MLA or MSA. There were moments, however, where the external context broke through; the first that I recall was a lunch held, I was told, in the confiscated manor of the former owner of the land on which the university had been built in 1948. The building was shown off as a cultural trophy in the otherwise cement-cast, modernist university buildings. At the reading, I recall the dean was by no means copacetic about the humanities in a time of crisis; he likened the work of poets to that proverbial dwarf standing on the giant's shoulders of history. I riled at this a bit, countering with a reference to our 1989 poetics conference in Leningrad—truly a twilight moment where poetry and history coincided for a flicker of an instant. Not wanting to bypass a present occasion, I included in my texts for the evening reading this section of Bad History on the first Gulf War:

Iraqi: various scenarious for wearers of a mark of distinction and/or shame. "My husband was a driver on the Iraq-Amman highway, transporting food. On the way back, there was an air raid at the al-Rutbah area, at the 106-kilometer mark from Baghdad to Amman. The air raid took place, and he was killed. He was driving with another man sitting beside him. My husband jumped out of the cab after the bombing and ran about 25 meters from the truck. The planes came back and strafed him; he was hit with machine gun fire." Thus the consequences of appearing to be Iraqi at a particular moment in time. "I was walking down Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley after an embarrassing lunch with J— M—, during which I had been very conscious of the Iraqi pin on my shirt. Guys would loom out of the crowd saying, "Hey, an Iraqi!" This was some time about the beginning of February. But I always remembered to take my pin off for official meetings at my work. (Bad History, 16–17)

I read this poem at Tel Aviv University, which I would not have been able to do had I not been there. The response was immediate; after a round of congratulatory back-slapping for my daring act of speech, I learned about the first Gulf War from the perspective of people in Tel Aviv who had to seal their windows in anticipation of missile attacks, along with details of the landing of the few that got through (and the inaccuracy of the Patriot missiles said to intercept them) and with deep vilification of Saddam Hussein. My exercise in testing the limits of speech, I think, was as much a continuation of the shame of not having an adequate political response to the first Gulf War, except to wear the Iraqi pin (on the Iraqi pin project, see Constructivist Moment, chapter 5). This was the true beginning of the conference; I had come there to find out, not just to assume the adequacy of prior knowledge.

The next revelation occurred with a group dinner at an Arab restaurant in Jaffa, not far from the Gaza Strip. We were taken, in what amounted to a convoy, to a tourist restaurant atop a defensible hilltop that was otherwise stripped of any obstructions, its parking lot lit by security lights. Orientalism IA identified this establishment with many other bordertown establishments serving colonial cuisine: an Israeli version of Tijuana. Finally, there was the chartered bus up the coast to the Roman ruins of Caesaria and the port of Haifa, which at the last moment I agreed to join. A half hour at the ruins was more than enough, in part due to the American evangelists who were staging a revival meeting, with country and western band, in its amphiteater (Christians had been sacrified there, it was said). It seemed equally historical how the sand dunes, like those we were seeing, had been turned into flowering gardens. Counter to these ideological moments, I had an informative conversation with a Russian-born scholar on the benefits of the surge in post-Soviet immigration for the Israeli Right. On the way to Haifa, I jumped out of the minivan and hailed a cross-country bus back to the Tel Aviv Museum, where I had scheduled an appointment with the poet Rony Someck, who had recorded for John Zorn's Masada project. On the bus itself I had a lengthy literary discussion with an Israeli novelist and noticed the social space created around a black Ethiopian Jew, who stood alone at the front. 

[At this point, the organized part of conference was over and I was left free to explore on my own. I went on to visit Jaffa alone and Jerusalem in the company of M—, T—, and C—. Further perspectives will be described in my concluding post.]

Joglars and Symbolic Capital

Joglars 1 (1964Joglars #1 appeared in Spring 1964, and its lineup of eleven contributors closely followed the tendencies that the Coolidge-Palmer correspondence was already indicating: a strong showing from the Black Mountain group (Fielding Dawson, Joel Oppenheimer, John Wieners, Jonathan Williams), two Bay area poets (Gary Snyder and Michael McClure), and the Objectivists Zukofsky and Niedecker. The lineup of poets is supplemented by the magazine’s first in what would be an ongoing commitment to work in other arts and media--in this case, a score and performance instructions for an orchestral piece composed by Zukofsky’s son Paul. The remaining two contributors, Carol Bergé and Robert Kelly, can be seen representing the Downtown New York poetry scene described earlier in this chapter and of which Dawson and Oppenheimer were part as well in the wake of the Black Mountain College diaspora precipitating the school’s closure in 1965.

            By June 16, 1964 Coolidge is able to report to Palmer the following: “3 copies sent to all contributors. . . 100 copies sent to ‘divers’ poets & people free free free!! I don’t like to come on poverty but, other bookstores & library-circulars (for which many thanks!) have gotta wait.” Nevertheless, favorable reviews of the first issue of Joglars were coming in from all quarters:

A Letter, of ecstatic praise (“best first issue of a mag I’ve ever seen...” etc.) from somebody named Sam Abrams (claims he met me at LeRoi’s reading [. . . .]) Card from Louis, “thanking”, says “we’ll be talking soon” [. . . .] 2 letters from Paul Blackburn -- first, very praising to Joglars “keep it up” &c. with 3 poems, not bad very Blackburn, at least one we might be able to use.

A week later, June 23, Coolidge reports high praise from Creeley: “Thanks very much for the copy of your first issue--which I think a fine job indeed.[...] So really all of it is a pleasure, and again thanks for sending it.”

            In addition to the praise, Coolidge finds himself inundated not only with submissions for future issues--“running out of tongue licking reject envelopes,” he tells Palmer on October 8, 1964--but also, consistent with the gift economy and free exchange that so often characterizes the small press poetry world, free copies of numerous other publications, as he reports to Palmer on June 23, 1964: The Outsider, edited by Jon Edgar Webb out of New Orleans; Burning Deck, a short-lived magazine that would eventually evolve into Burning Deck Press, edited by Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop in Providence; Set, edited by Gerrit Lansing in Gloucester, Massachusetts; and the last issue (#9) of visual artist Wallace Berman's magazine Semina, inscribed with the words “dug yr first issue--cool selection.”

            Beyond simply a free exchange of goods, however, such interaction ultimately serves as a means of mutual support between fellow poet-publishers. For example, Coolidge writes to Palmer on October 8, 1964 that the “Insect cats sent Burroughs’ address -- so I wrote him and sent mag.” The reference to “insect cats” remains a mystery unless one knows that the Insect Trust Gazette was a little magazine edited by Bob Basara, Leonard Belasco and Jed Irwin out of Philadelphia that ran for three issues from 1964 to 1968. While William Burroughs never appeared in Joglars, Coolidge would include Basara’s work in the final issue, and his “Bond Sonnets” ran in the Summer 1965 Insect Trust #2. An example of his own efforts in cut-up and collage techniques, the “Bond Sonnets” were largely forgotten until I discussed them in an essay published in a joint issue of New American Writing and Jacket (2001); Craig Dworkin has since made the text available on his Project Eclipse website. (Information on the magazines mentioned in this paragraph can be found in Steven Clay and Rodney Phillips, A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing, 1960-1980 [New York: New York Public Library and Granary Books, 1998].)

Joglars and Coolidge's Poetics: From Sound to Sense

Joglars 1 (1964)As the Coolidge-Palmer correspondence housed at SUNY-Buffalo indicates, one challenge faced by the young editors of Joglars was coming up with a name for their publication. In the letter to Palmer dated November 26, 1963, Coolidge writes: “NAME for the 'creature' still hangs me -- maybe (a la tzara) open dictionary, aleatory style? I agree tho -- staying away from pop-toon, & intellecto titles.” As Palmer explains in his interview with Peter Gizzi:

I’ve always been drawn to circus performers, but also to that aspect of poetry which has to do with juggling and tumbling. In doing Joglars with Clark, we were proposing that other side. There was the magazine Trobar, which suggests the more auratic sense of the poet, of the troubadour, the fashioning of trobar. The joglar was the clown and camp follower who went along and performed and ripped off other people’s songs; but that’s also a side of the poet. (Exact Change Yearbook #1 [1995], 175)

Perhaps, if Coolidge and Palmer had agreed to avoid “intellecto titles,” they nevertheless took a rather educated route to convey the clowning side of poetry. Then and now, readers of the magazine are often uncertain how to pronounce the title (zho-GLAR).

            While the journal's name is obviously an important issue, greater significance lies with aesthetics and politics that younger poet-publishers need to work through in order to define and shape the literary field as they not only see it but emerge into it. We can see Coolidge go through this process at length in a letter to Palmer dated December 28, 1963.

What interests me tho, “now”, that ole saw: “the personal” -- how far you can run with that (like, in most poesy I wanta see signs of the man hisself -- voice, eyes, lips, etc. -- all else seems so much literatour) (forget GROUPS!) & of course -- the MUSIKS (Zukofsky: best field general) or more simply, inclusively, -- sounds -- what kinda sound organization can be got to -- what happens, then, to meanings (Z’s cats?) -- so here’s where the aleatory gang (Cage, Wolff, Feldman --) interests me (Burroughs too?) -- almost despite any natural desire for control...... -- Well -- two points of attack -- contradict each other maybe? maybe, but it keeps me hoppin’.

Beyond the individualist stance (“forget GROUPS!”) and the dismissal of mere “literatour” that echoes, however consciously, the French Symbolist Verlaine (“all the rest is lierature”), Coolidge clearly demonstrates the oppositions he is working through here--between “the personal” and “sounds,” intentionality (authorial control) and non-intentionality (the chance procedural methods of the New York School of composers and William Burroughs), and what might customarily be thought of as form versus content but might in this context be more fruitfully thought in terms of sound versus sense, “what kinda sound organization can be got to” versus “what happens, then, to meanings.”

            Notice the implications of Coolidge’s specific phrasing here: different kinds of sound organization are an objective, goal or destination, something that one “gets to,” with the result that something then happens to meanings. To begin with sound and then see what happens to sense as a result is already to place a poetics in an experimental mode that runs counter to many other poetries. As I will show later, Coolidge is here already reiterating a line of thinking that he came upon and described in a notebook over a year and a half prior to this December 1963 letter to Palmer; what he may not have known then is that his life’s work as a poet will be spent working through these very issues.

Joglars and post-New American Poetry

Joglars 1 & 2 (1964)Scholars frequently cite the importance of the little magazines for literary production but, with some noteworthy exceptions--Steve Evans, Alan Golding, Daniel Kane, Libbie Rifkin, Linda Russo, Susan Vanderborg--rarely spend time much considering them in-depth. The correspondence between Clark Coolidge and Michael Palmer, who co-edited Joglars (1964-1966), offers a unique glimpse into the activity of two young poet-publishers sizing up the literary field as they find it. Their letters (housed at the SUNY-Buffalo Poetry Collection) are filled with discussions of whom to solicit work from as well as favorable reactions to the magazine from poets and artists spanning several generations and affiliations. And though it ran for only three issues in two years, Joglars telescopes into that short space a long view of post-New American poetries, occasionally looking back to Modernist precursors of the Allen anthology but most often looking ahead to where the work was going.

            When Coolidge met George Palmer (who then went by his first rather than middle name) at the so-called Vancouver Poetry Conference in 1963, they hit it off immediately. As Palmer recalls in an interview with Peter Gizzi,

we took to each other instantly and started immediately talking about, well, jazz of course, John Cage, and composing aleatory works on the typewriter as people had conversations, and that sort of thing. The musical connection--both jazz and new music--was an immediate opening for both of us because we were both very much involved in that world. (Exact Change Yearbook #1 [1995], 172)

Charles Olson encouraged Coolidge, Palmer and Fred Wah (a poet and editor who had been involved wth the TISH group in Vancouver) to start their own magazine, largely, Coolidge recalls, to publish Olson and his contemporaries. But the physical distance between countries and coasts (Coolidge and Palmer both living in New England at the time), along with other logistical difficulties, quickly proved insurmountable, and Wah had to bow out of the project.

            By November 1963, Coolidge writes Palmer with insistent encouragement from another of the elder poets they met in Vancouver: “Already Creeley writes me: ‘I thought you people were going to start something--not to bug you, but do keep moving--otherwise things begin to clog, and one is left stuck etc.’” Here is one of the cardinal tenets of projective verse, “to keep moving,” in a most practical application.

            A few weeks later, Coolidge writes Palmer  with news of solicitations that begin to give a sense of the editorial sensibilities that will shape Joglars: “Have also letters out to [Ron] Loewinsohn, Phil W[halen], Jonathan [Williams], etc.” One of the more exciting prospects is a submission from the under-acknowleged modernist master Zukofsky: “Louis Z. says all new work is presently committed elsewhere but he wants in, very much.” Four days later, Coolidge elaborates:

Can’t remember if I wrote you of Louis’ reply (?) anyhoo he says: “I’ve no new work that’s not committed, but we’ll talk about it in time. Go on, if you will, with your newsletter for the others, meanwhile, get settled, prosper, etc. . . . . love, etc.” He also says -- come see him when in NYC, talk, etc. Knowing Louis, it sounds promising, sympathetic, etc.

In this same letter Coolidge responds favorably to what is apparently a suggestion from Palmer to solicit another under-acknowledged modernist master: “Lorine Niedecker!!! -- yes! sure, why didn’t I think of her? She’s a friend of Louis’ -- maybe thru him. . . . (or reprint some poems from old ‘New Goose’ (?)),” and then continuing that he is “still awaiting word from Whalen (Allen & McClure), Loewinsohn, Olson, Jonathan. Any other idees?”

            At this point we can begin to get a sense of the view that Coolidge and Palmer were taking of the poetic field and the picture of it they were trying to capture and create in their magazine. The names that Coolidge mentions in these letters point to three distinct areas of the New American poetic landscape. First, there is Black Mountain poetics as represented by Olson, Creeley, and Jonathan Williams. Second are poets from the Bay area and with Beat affiliations (even if Donald Allen did not place them all in the Beat section of his anthology), namely Philip Whalen, Ron Loewinsohn, Allen Ginsberg and Michael McClure. Third, and already alluded to earlier, are the modernists Zukofsky and Niedecker, very much fellow travelers in the Objectivist poetics that the former first outlined in the celebrated February 1931 special issue of Poetry magazine that Zukofsky edited. After roughly two decade in which a number of the original Objectivist poets either toiled in almost complete obscurity (Zukofsky and Niedecker) or stopped writing poetry altogether (George Oppen, Carl Rakosi), something of an Objectivist renaissance began in the early 1960s.

            As Ron Silliman writes, somewhat hyperbolically, “Objectivism’s third or renaissance period was marked by the resurrection of the works of Zukofsky, Oppen, Basil Bunting, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff and Lorine Niedecker to public attention virtually overnight in the early 1960s” (New Sentence 136). In fact, this renaissance might be seen taking place less “virtually overnight in the early 1960s” than over the course of said decade, with Oppen’s winning the 1969 Pulitzer Prize as a culminating achievement. In any case, what should be noted here is that by targeting Zukofsky and Niedecker for submissions to their magazine in late 1963, Coolidge and Palmer are staking out a position in the literary field that attempts to reassert the value of Zukofsky and Niedecker and thus make a decisive contribution to the Objectivist renaissance.