Commentaries - February 2014
Our series on the self-abolition of poets has, perhaps, long passed its expiration date. In the interest of finding our way to another line of inquiry, we’d like to turn to the obverse of the phenomenon we’ve been describing. While we will certainly hold fast to the argument that much of the most interesting poetry of the last century has been animated by a desire to destroy poetry, to eradicate it, disfigure it, render it inoperable – this is almost a definition of the avant-garde – negationist impulses of this sort have always existed in tension with an opposed and sometimes complementary drive to realize poetry, to generalize and universalize it. The impulses are sometimes hard to distinguish from each other. Think, for instance, of Frank O’Hara, in his mock-manifesto, “Personism,” proposing a poetry as intimate and ephemeral as a telephone call between lovers, in which “the poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.” O’Hara continues, however, by suggesting that this democratized poetry – poetry become, like water, electricity or phone service, a kind of utility – “may be the death of literature as we know it.” It’s not hard to see why. A realized poetry may, in some cases, mean the abolition of poetry as we know it.
Some readers will recognize that, in using the terms realization and abolition, we are essentially borrowing from language frequently used to describe the revolutionary mission of the proletariat, characterized alternately as the realization, self-abolition or the realization and self-abolition of that class. “When the proletariat is victorious,” write Marx and Engels in an early text, “it by no means becomes the absolute side of society, for it is victorious only by abolishing itself and its opposite. Then the proletariat disappears as well as the opposite which determines it, private property.” Here, realization and abolition are identical and coterminous. This conception lingers throughout Marx’s subsequent writing but, in later texts, often gives way to the much more popular notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat, where the realization of the proletariat is seen as a transitional stage on the way to its self-abolition and the creation of a classless society. There are other variants, too. In the 19th century, one frequently heard talk of the “emancipation of labor,” a term which might mean something like dictatorship of the proletariat, or alternately, refer to the autonomy and empowerment of labor as a force within capitalism, a partner at the table, a loyal (because empowered) opposition to the rule of capital. In all these versions, where realization of the proletariat is the goal what one risks (and what in fact resulted in many cases) is a worker’s society in which the domination of workers by capital is not overcome so much as transmuted, generalized, and submitted to a new form of management. Important arguments about the fate of the revolutionary experiments of the 20th century follow from this line of thought.
We might think of these twinned and sometimes indistinguishable drives as characteristic, also, of the art and poetry in the 20th century. While the referents of the terms “modernism” and “avant-garde” are often difficult to distinguish clearly, one approach might be to say that while the so-called historical avant-garde exemplifies the abolitionist strain, modernism is its realizationist complement. Modernism, in this sense, is a set of cultural products that offer a vision of modern society fundamentally improved and transformed by its submission to a modernizing set of aesthetic values and techniques. Just as the workers’ movement often argued that the existing machinery of modern society would be managed much more productively by the workers themselves – who knew how things worked, and knew, of course, what people’s needs were – so too did modernists imagine an improvement of the world if poets were made its acknowledged legislators. This is the explicit provocation of Pound’s early Cantos on warlord-poet and patron of the arts, Sigismondo Malatesta, who used the latitude afforded by his alliances with more powerful nobles to give the artists under his patronage (Piero Della Francesca, Leon Battista Alberti ) free rein to explore and exemplify the humanist values of the Rennaissance. (The raw materials of the Tempio Malatestiana, whose transport and procurement Pound describes in Canto IX, become an emblem for the found and elaborated materials of Pound’s poetic construction, and an index for its world-making ambition). We might make a similar argument – if we had space for it –about other major figures of Anglo-American modernism (Stein, Williams, Stevens) all of whom, in their way, conceive of the literary work as a kind of program for renewal, though often in a manner less literal and less totalizing than Pound.
Do poets today imagine such projects for themselves? And if the answer is no, as we think it is, why not? We hope to think about these questions in subsequent posts.
GOOOOOOR ! GOOOOOOOOOO !
GRAHHH ! GRAHH ! GRAHH !
Grah gooooor ! Ghahh ! Graaarr ! Greeeeer ! Grayowhr !
GRAHHRR ! RAHHR ! GRAGHHRR ! RAHR !
RAHR ! RAHHR ! GRAHHHR ! GAHHR ! HRAHR !
BE NOT SUGAR BUT BE LOVE
looking for sugar ! GAHHHHHHHH !
Many decades ago in San Francisco, lying on the couch, reading the newly written first Ghost Tantra [above] as it unveiled to my eyes and ears, I feel a ripple, maybe a shudder, of embarrassment and laugh at myself. Where is the beauty that I expect after my experience of that ball of silence promising me ninety-nine tantras to the goddess? I remember Robert Creeley’s admonition to believe in the experience of writing the poem. I look at the page again — it brings love looking for sugar! I know that there are to be ninety-eight more of these. I’m sure of it.
The next day Ghost Tantra 2 appears and speaks in “beast language” . . . the Tantra waves baby arms at me and gives me news of the great Tibetan poet Milarepa who is imprinting himself on the poem, becoming a “mystic experience” — and tells me that everything lies in front of me not in the past. Yes, it is a mystic experience and is my self-experience which can be laughable as easily as loaded with torment. Maybe some beauty that I do not expect will occur in a different guise or body or body of words. Next, Ghost Tantra 3 brings its own announcement with a cigar and cherries, and the sounds that begin to feel familiar — “grooooooooor yahh-yort gahhr.”
Immediately afterward, Tantra 4 carries long howls, brings gardens with cool shadows, and sings of youth and liberation. Sounds of the molecular body account for the fifth Tantra. Tantra 8 has the rose and lily-lovely cheek of the goddess appearing. Belief is beginning to push the edge of dubiety back.
Tantra 13 begins, “OH LOVELY LINE BETWEEN DAY AND DREAM.” I am “pleased and richly placid,” I am sentient and this flow of language seems to be conscious, and is its own being. Can these, in fact, bring changes to the universe, as tantras should do? I’m changing.
Once comic books had words like “CLANG” and the ancient Greek poem says “KLANG.” Did Goethe write Faust or did Faust create Goethe?
I am excited with the existence coming into being — I have brought it about.
Now it is time to pack my bag for the air flight to Mexico City and the long drive to Huautla de Jiménez — and the journey into the mountains of Oaxaca.
I write Tantra 15b in my notebook as the plane departs San Francisco for Mexico City. I have no idea what I’m doing — just writing. I sit in the near empty plane with a swelling sense of meditation, feeling the plane’s metal walls shudder with thoughtless physical pleasure. Above a central California of the Sixties I am thrilled with the magic entering Tantra 16. By the time the plane lands in Mexico City there is little doubt left. In the airport the sadness of all of everything strengthens me.
We drive across the desert stopping sometimes to look at roadside botany. Hours later, we turn off the worn asphalt and enter the mountains into an adventure of thunder and lightning storms and deserted, roadside, cliff edges and narrower “trails” with pounding torrents crushing them — no campesino or burro to be seen in the steep craggy latenight flashes of a landslide drive. Waking in the morning in the small pueblo of Huautla de Jiménez, in a quieter rain, we drive from the country town to empty cow pastures and carefully make cultures of psilocybes, sterilizing the instruments with a portable burner, propping a tarp of waterproof canvas over our heads, and our sterilized instruments make clean cuts in the small mushrooms. In the early afternoon the curandera María Sabina allows us into her chanting ceremony. Lightning is flashing and thunder booming through the uncovered windows of her home on a high road. Later that day carrying our broken movie camera, we listen to the stories of Isauro Nave, a curandero of the Leaves of the Good Shepherdess, in his hacienda. A few days later, we are in a rural Mexican airport and begin flying to San Francisco. At home, in a flat overlooking the Golden Gate and waves crashing on Point Bonita, I resume writing the Tantras. About this time I struggle in my writing with my shyness and an urge to explore self-dramatization — to attempt a non-mimetic poetry which would not be descriptive of the ordinary world but would be at one with creation of muscular music coming from the body and organs and inspiring sounds and “pictures” from that source.
I believe that a poem I make is part of myself like an organ or spirit-body, and these poem-tantras are becoming a body and growing up — having a life of their own. This is not hard to imagine for a young poet who believes in the divinity of Blake and Shelley, and in the paintings of Clyfford Still and Jackson Pollock as a part of those artists’ being.
It was, and is, part of my art to believe that all conceptions of boundaries are lies . . .
As the Tantras move forward and as the ball of silence from which they sound-out is both more clear and more elusive, I consider them carefully. I can feel the spirit of Marilyn Monroe (Tantra 39) entering them the day after her death in 1962. It is only right; it is a business of the goddess. I like the mammalian music when I declaim the poem. Now the title occurs to me “Ghost” from the German “Geist” or soul — Spirit Tantras — Ghost Tantras. I am moved by Brahms’ Four Serious Songs as they sing, in German, the Preacher of the Old Testament’s concern with the spirit of men and the spirit of the beasts and how one goes down under the earth and the other goes out, out, out. Huge low silences and huge high silences are occurring. Tantra 49, “SILENCE THE EYES! BECALM THE SENSES!” has an extending and extended life.
A year or two later, Bruce Conner and I go to the San Francisco Zoo to record lion roars and snow leopard growls for a sound-play I have written. The newly published first edition of this book is in my back pocket and through a lucky event we end up in the lion house, and I yell this Tantra to the four maned males of the building. They roar back with me and we sing it together. The five of us are deeply pleased; also I am profoundly shaken and then shaken again when Bruce plays back the tape he made with his high fidelity machine. A few years later a public television group is making documentary films of the new generation of poets and asks me to read again to the lions and again they roar with me. The film was shown on TV and now it can be found on the internet.
From Ghost Tantra 90 on, the stanzas build to power and the final ones close by hugely shouting into the dense mattress- like curtain of material reality, until it begins to lift in tranquility.
Michael McClure Oakland, 2013
[NOTE. The occasion for this posting is the republication in its full glory of Michael McCure’s Ghost Tantras, now available from City Lights | Grey Fox with both the new 2013 introduction & the original introduction from the 1964 edition. From the latter the detailed performance instructions still hold, marking a new turn in sound poetry & poetry performance: “Read these poems as you would Lorca, or Mayakovsky, or Lawrence but READ ALOUD AND SING THEM. / These are spontaneous stanzas published in the order and with the natural sounds in which they were first written. If there is an “OOOOOOOOOOOOOOH” simply say a long loud “oooh”. If there is a “gahr” simply say gar and put an h in. / Look at stanza 51. It begins in English and turns into beast language — star becomes stahr. Body becomes boody. Nose becomes noze. Everybody knows how to pronounce NOH or VOOR-NAH or GAHROOOOO ME. / Pronounce sounds as they are spelled and don’t worry about details — let individual pronunciations and vibrations occur and don’t look for secret meanings. Read them aloud and there will be more pleasure.”
My great pleasure too to publish them here. (J.R.)]
Four instances of contemporary Australian troubadour poetry
The Abbotsford Convent is located just above the banks of the excitable brown river that pulses alongside the Collingwood Children’s Farm, a few kilometres from the city of Melbourne. The Wurundjeri people, who lived in the area prior to white settlement, called the river Birrarung or River of Mists. Once a month, market-goers flip a two-dollar coin donation into a bucket so their children can ogle exotic fur-footed chickens, haggle with geese, pat pigs the size of bicycles and stumble into pails full of the thorniest roses this side of a country and western song. A bike path zippers the farm to the rejuvenated convent beyond and elderly women in black tops and skirts can occasionally be seen tugging at the weeds that grow along its fence, urging the scent of licorice into the river-laden air.
The Wurundjeri Tribe Land Cultural Heritage Council occupies an office in the convent alongside the artists, writers, musicians, architects, yoga instructors and practitioners of the healing arts who were drawn to the precinct following its development post-2005.* The convent grounds cover 6.8 hectares and along with studios, offices and galleries incorporate a radio station, a bakery, Japanese and vegetarian restaurants, and a café that is staffed almost entirely by independent record company owners and local musicians. It is also the home of the Shadow Electric, a kind of piazza formed by a warehouse-style bar and a number of convent buildings that shows outdoor movies in Summer and, if the weather’s right, is probably one of the best places to see a band outdoors in Melbourne. Tonight I’m seeing Kurt Vile and the Violators whose Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze has for the last three months kept me company on the drive to the convent where I’ve been sharing an office with some friends.
Strolling through the huge iron gates I spot the Tasmanian-born Melbourne-based poet, Duncan Hose. Hose is the author of the Newcastle Poetry Prize-winning “An Allegory of Edward Trouble”, one of the most somatically exciting poems ever written by an Australian, I think. I remember running into Hose at the University of Melbourne just after he’d won the prize. He printed me a copy of the poem and I took it to the library where I read it over and over waiting for the shock to subside. It never did. I remember my heart pounding at the daring, importunate glamour of its constructions:
An allegory of Edward Trouble
& his mean Tipperary mother
If blood stains the hydrangeas &
Holden succumbs at Mount Panorama
Priests and workers like white ants or louse
Chew off bits of Australia
You think of Azure or that the atmosphere is
It is alive with humbug
Edward Trouble w/ his tip
Contacting all her tips and points
Made love to Blazing Lou
On a Mackeral Saturday morning
Delicately taking the Duck you Deserve
from the buffet
The brothy Sun is still young and imperfectly done
but what colour!
Edward Trouble in Beechworth jail
Masturbating in his cot lying and thinking
All about Lou- one of the lesbians of the Ringarooma marshes
The poem goes on for a stunning eight pages, insistently and recklessly building a platform ‘right out to the point of ecstacy’. This is ‘Trubadurzy’, as the poem has it, at its most promiscuous. In “The Dictation of Poetry”, Agamben writes that speech is found ‘only through an appetitus, an amorous desire, such that the event of language appears as an inextricable interlacement of love, speech and knowledge’. “An Allegory of Edward Trouble” (ceallach, the original of ‘Kelly’, our Ned, means strife or trouble) takes the twelfth century troubadour’s fidelity to the impossible out for a night on the town where it falls for words and sounds and tropes, academic constructions, nature, and other poets (like Francis Webb, Charles Harpur, and Michael Farrell), always careful to remind itself, via John Forbes, that you can’t be ‘too cute’ about your chosen form. It’s already been chosen for you anyway so you might as well go for it. In other words, ‘The academic thorax of the captured wasp, / spider’s gambit, two well armed insects make / a corking model of rancour.’
As one might expect from a poet of such risk-taking propensities, Hose is unaware that Kurt Vile is playing at the convent tonight and he wanders off to the front lawn to meet some friends for a picnic. He will later materialise at the end of the gig having watched the whole thing from an obscure vantage point behind the stage.
Down at the Shadow Electric the support band, Courtney Barnett and the Barnetts, is just finishing its soundcheck. Courtney Barnett has had recent successes in the US and the UK, which are, in part, the result of a burgeoning local fame that began with frequent radio plays of her song, Lance Jr. The band comprises Barnett on guitar, ‘Bones’ on drums and Dave on bass with intermittent supplementary guitar sounds from Dan Luscombe of The Drones. Their sound has been described as anti-folk but its way more affectionate than that. They can tune variously and sometimes simultaneously to The Velvet Underground, The Go-Betweens, Paul Kelly and any other musician of note who has written spare, lyric driven songs featuring drowsy vocals that foreground the occasional attempted getaway by the band.
Barnett’s lyrics frequently enact what I think of as brilliant interventions from multiple angles into ideas about the muse and the creator/recipient relationship in pop music, lyric poetry, etc. Basically, she sings about things that we’re not used to hearing women sing about and in this sense she is a modern-day trobairitz with a ceaseless gift for narrative invention that, like the razos and vidas of the twelfth century, blurs the causal line between lived experience and the language that is used to dictate it.
Heading back to the front gate, I pass the singer and songwriter Dan Kelly whose 2004 album Sing the Tabloid Blues at certain moments pre-empts enough echoes from Kurt Vile’s musical universe that I’ve come to think of it as a kind of ghostly companion or gateway drug to the Philadelphian’s sound. By the time I’ve said hello to Melbourne poet and translator Marty Hiatt and caught up with my date, Melinda Bufton, I’m starting to feel like I’m at a troubadour convention. I’ll later spot Fraser Gorman, a singer/songwriter on Barnett’s self-starter record label Milk, who recently performed one of his heart-cracking tunes in an Italian café at the Paris-end of Bourke Street in Melbourne for Melbourne Music Week and French videographers La Blogotheque.
The grey-headed flying fox is a migratory creature whose night time trajectories are influenced by the availability of nectar, pollen and native fruits. About a decade ago approximately 30,000 of them were successfully relocated from the Royal Botanic Gardens in the city to Yarra Bend near the convent. As the light begins to dissipate and Courtney Barnett and the Barnett’s finish their set, the bats trawl soundlessly overhead, drawn to the Moreton Bay fig trees over at Edinburgh Gardens and Royal Park. Kurt Vile and his band arrive on stage just in time to prop up what’s left of the failing light. I’m relatively new to Vile’s oeuvre and part of the novelty lies in trying to work out what it is about these songs that make them so indispensable. The shifting, desiring ways in which they move remind me that language is set on a kind of virtual stave although it’s one that has many overlapping manifestations, intersecting, ghosting, and foretelling past, present and future interlacings. Vile has spoken about the extent to which his composition has been informed by having to ‘to learn how to get into the box’ of his first instrument, the banjo, with its open tuning, ‘overtones and ethereal chords’ and I think of this as somehow accounting for my sense of the music as a kind of poetics. Lyrics like ‘living life / to the lowest power / feeling bad / in the best way’ remind me of Alain Badiou’s thoughts on power and powerlessness from the “Ethics of Mystery”:
One cannot sublate the interplay between power and powerlessness in a dialectical way. Poetic revelation is interwined in an anarchic enigma or, rather, poetic revelation is the intertwining of the enigma. This enigma traverses the poetic saying with an excessive trace and requires an ethical approach: a response to an impossible demand, or a demand for the impossible. Poetic mystery lies in the fact that there is a point at its very centre that cannot be named.
Sublation – aufebhung – is the term used to describe the motion of the Hegelian dialectic with its triadic movement of thesis/antithesis/synthesis. In Hegelian philosophy the dialectic is ‘the principle of all motion, of all life, and of all activation in the actual world’ and sublation enacts nothing less than man’s transcendence out of the natural realm into the civilized world of the properly human. Feminist theorists (not to mention Marxist materialists) understandably have problems with this construction given that, as Patricia Jagentowicz Mills has remarked, ‘modern man’s realization of himself and the dialectical structure are at modern woman’s expense.’ Luce Irigaray and Shari Neller Starrett have cited Hegel’s reading of Sophocles’ Antigone as evidence that the dialectic is regulated and governed by a move towards a self-consciousness that favours the masculine and relegates woman to a domestic cave from the confines of which she is denied access to civil life. For Irigaray, Hegel’s notorious construction of woman as ‘the eternal irony of the community’ figures her as ‘that unconscious ground that nourishes nature’ and the receptacle that must externalize her own desire in order to accommodate the ‘dead being’ that is the byproduct of the negativizing drive of the dialectic.
Bartlett and Clemens have drawn on Alain Badiou’s Theory of the Subject to argue that the self-proclaimed ‘antiphilosopher’, Jacques Lacan, interrupts Hegel’s ‘pretty little dream’ of Aufhebung by locating a split in his account of courtly love: ‘The implication is that what was split there, Hegel never ‘sublated’ and thus in the great Hegelian discourse of love there is an immanent excess, a point from which to interrupt the Hegelian ‘absolute’ and to begin again the analysis of the place of love.’ When Badiou writes that ‘one cannot sublate the interplay between power and powerlessness in a dialectical way’ he is talking about the importance of poetic invention, a practice that is, for Lacan, ‘the least stupid of human endeavours’.
What this means, if you want to connect the dots, is that writing poetry (or lyrics that innovate like poetry) is one good way to invent a subject that is able to untangle itself from the bind of what some think of as the universalizing propensity of the Hegelian dialectic. Me ‘n’ Me Trumpet by Clemens is a bizarre and exciting investigation into how this might work. All you have to do is ‘Adumbrate yourselves infinitely aleatory adjutants / now we are barreling to interminability having exited exodus’, bust some ‘Mentaphonic radiocules enwinkling ordographic delicacies outta insalubrious oncophores’ and ‘awake drooling at me nightmaring trumpet’s desperate blundering bursts.’
In a chapter of The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, Lacan figures the twelfth century ‘invention’ of courtly love as the moment when poetic language becomes linked to the reification of the feminine. There is, as Zizek has remarked, a sense in which the elevating principles of such a poetics were designed to raise ‘the object’ to the ‘level of the thing’. For Lacan, this takes place not through the advancement toward and seizure of the object of desire but precisely to the extent that the object is missed. For Zizek, too, ‘[C]ourtly love appears as simply the most radical strategy for elevating the value of the object by putting up conventional obstacles to its attainability.’ I’ve often wondered, and attempted to investigate myself, how the female side of this operation might play out. “SONG GOAT” and “WOLVES ARE SWARMS” by Sydney poet, Astrid Lorange – from Eating and Speaking (2011) – are, as Joan Retallack has remarked, ‘lusty, omnivorous, humorously irreverent’ and ‘grave with longing’. Lorange’s inventive and thought-provoking strategies rhyme thyme with goats into ‘two the shapes of a poodle’ and mix
loving getting goat and battling noise
with computers a lion’s head on a goat’s
body in her head the entrails of a goat
in her head. let us cite a blood pact, of which
six get eaten, and the seventh goat takes away
all those goats
faceless depressive arborescent chosen
treated and laden with lamb, blocking the
line of flight. the publicness of a goat, namely
its face, sending on a faceless goat with wool
and hair, a guitar made from tongues, limbs from
facile tissues of the neighbourhood
Melinda Bufton’s forthcoming Girlery (Inken publisch) enacts a more traditional, though in its way similarly transgressive, strategy. Arriving in the wake of recent masterpieces such as Kate Lilley’s Ladylike and Gig Ryan’s New and Selected, the poems from Bufton’s Girlery think ‘something has to come after post-feminist’ and have titles such as “Bumper Book for Girls”, “Sessional Escort” and “Continental Hourglass”. They ‘quite like the way you can get burlesque in the inner locations like rooftop honey’ (27) and wonder ‘What lies between now and the day I meet you’ (2). In “Love poem to a poet, written in advance” they worry about ‘the problem of unreleased material / relating to my not having fucked enough young artists’ (8). These poems are ‘pregnantly sensitive to the world’s full badness’ (6), and propose instead a world in which
the Cup of Truth is a café I go to when I have city appointments.
It is underground and like Persephone
I descend the humanity-stained staircase
to the Degraves Street Subway
(I do it in a pencil skirt, for Bukowski)
and emerge with subterranean godly items, namely what’s in the cup
These poems are coming onto you and they’re not going to desist until they get what they want. At the same time, they’re waiting for the reader to make the first move. Power and powerlessness. We’re used to this insistence in poems by men. As a Sydney poet recently noted, Keats’ “Woman! when I behold thee flippant, vain!”, as stirring as it is, can read a bit like a series of what the Urban Dictionary describes as ‘Low-grade insults meant to undermine the self-confidence of a woman so she might be more vulnerable to your advances.’ This ‘negging’, though it presents as the inverse of the elevation that is the mainstay of courtly love, shouldn’t surprise us. As Clemens points out in Psychoanalysis is an Antiphilosophy, what Lacan takes from troubadour poetry is its emphasis on ‘staging’ the impossibility of the sexual relationship to distinguish psychoanalytic ethics from a more generalized ethics of the good. As Hallward has noted, to be ‘faithful to the peculiarity of your desire first requires “a radical repudiation of a certain ideal of the good” (Lacan, S7, 270/230), that is, the repudiation of all consensual social norms (happiness, pleasure, health, etc.) in favor of an essentially asocial, essentially traumatic exception.’ For Clemens
In its praise of the cruel Lady, troubadour poetry explicitly stages, not just the trials and tribulations of the experience of love, but the absolute impossibility of the relationship itself. In doing so, it exemplifies the very work of sublimation which it itself represents—as Lacan defines it at this point in his thought, the raising of an indifferent object to the dignity of the thing. […] In doing so, it also provides a key to the abiding Freudian puzzlement over the paradox of Vorlust: that foreplay increases tension, and thus unpleasure, in the ultimate service of pleasure itself. What resolves this puzzlement for Lacan is the analysis that the troubadours incised into their song as ‘the pleasure of experiencing unpleasure’: the key to ethics is not ‘well-being,’ as promulgated by philosophers of all stripes including your garden-variety psychologists, psychiatrists, pharmacists and pharmacologists, but ‘well-speaking’ (bien-dire).
“Shame Chamber” is missing from Kurt Vile’s set tonight at the Shadow Electric but as compensation we get a figure who must surely be Don Quixote ‘riding on a demon-possessed horse’ and the Hegelian recognition of ‘feel my pain and I’ll do yours’. The song hurts and so it should. Love, as the troubadour and the trobairitz have it, is not just about feeling good. It’s also about acknowledging pain, following through on the impossible and the troublesome, the pointless – even if it means admitting nothing less than that the other actually exists.
* The area that is now occupied by the convent was settled in 1835 by the Englishman John Batman on the strength of a controversial and historically disputed ‘treaty’ by which Batman claimed to have ‘purchased’ 600,000 acres of land from the tribe in exchange for ‘40 pairs of blankets, 42 tomahawks, 130 knives, 62 pairs scissors, 40 looking glasses, 250 handkerchiefs, 18 shirts, 4 flannel jackets, 4 suits of clothes and 150 lb. of flour.’ The British crown swiftly invalidated the treaty with the implementation of the concept of terra nullius – the disavowal of indigenous ownership and occupation of the land which was overturned in the Australian High Court’s momentous Mabo Case decision of 1992.
I found no immediate way in to Coolidge's work with the first book of his I obtained in the late 1990s, Solution Passage: Poems 1978-1981. Instead, the way in came through the essay on Coolidge and Robert Smithson in Barrett Watten’s Total Syntax. Watten offered analysis of Coolidge’s early works, which I had never before seen in print; finally, here were excerpts from the “early Coolidge” I had heard about so routinely but never actually read! Here was a passage I highlighted in Watten's book, from Coolidge’s Polaroid (1974):
few part once and then one as around leaves close stays then some
of you few head so forth by whom why leave either to go
part and it leaves once you then some do you within stays behind
either few or just some once of either leaving miss it to close to it beside
the either one or it you part per whom via either one or
few do stay once it's close to you missing the whole either one
Stein made writing like this somewhat familiar for me, but this was something quite different, exciting even. Fifteen years and much study later, it's hard to reimagine how this writing first affected me. It seemed to do so much with so little: aside from how the abundant monosyllables gave an incredible rhythmic drive to this writing, they also offered so many semantic possibilities, as Watten went on to demonstrate: the first five words of the last line could read “(few do) (stay once) (it's close),” “(few do stay) (once it's close),”etc. Likewise “close” could be the adverb or the verb. As I discovered later, rhetoricians had names for these devices, “apo koinou” (syntax that constructs in multiple directions) and “anthimeria” (words that serve multiple syntactic functions).
The Watten book led me to my university library, which had a copy of the Language Poetry anthology In the American Tree and contained representative examples from all of Coolidge's early books. I was also making my newfound excitement for Coolidge known in email discussions on the Buffalo poetics list, such that only a month later I was invited to chair a panel at the 1998 Louisville Modernism conference on Coolidge and Language Poetry. During that conference I skipped several sessions in order to peruse the Bingham Poetry Room, not really knowing what I was looking for but coming across a goldmine all the same: Flag Flutter and U.S. Electric, ING, & Space, here they were in the flesh, the early Coolidge books I'd only heard about but never seen. Later in the Spring of 1998, I made a trip to New York City and found four additional, later Coolidge titles: Own Face, Sound as Thought, The Crystal Text and The ROVA Improvisations. I had also been visiting friends and colleagues at SUNY-Buffalo at this point, the first time being the Louis Zukofsky conference held there. On one subsquent visit, Ben Friedlander and Carla Billiteri hosted me at their home, and Ben showed me through his extensive collection of Coolidge titles. Ben told me how, back in his day (early-mid 1980s) in the Bay area, there was a bookstore (Cody's?) that had multiple copies of The Maintains and Polaroid; had he known then how rare and valuable these titles would become, he would have bought up all the extra copies he could find.
This was my initiation into Coolidge’s work. By Summer 2000, I was presenting a paper on Coolidge’s early work at the Poetry of the 1960s conference held at the University of Maine at Orono. The panel was well-attended with lively discussion afterward. Questions arose about Coolidge’s process and other matters to which I did not have immediate answers. Watten talked to me afterwards and said, “Why don't you just write Clark and ask him?” I did this, and a few weeks later got a very kind and thoughtful letter from Clark encouraging me to continue our correspondence. I was also in touch with Nate Dorward, who was editing The Gig out of Toronto and looking for contributors to a special Coolidge section on Coolidge for a joint issue of Jacket and New American Writing. The material from my Orono talk went directly into the article for this joint issue and, seven years later, the dissertation I completed on Coolidge’s early (1962-1978) work.
Earlier today, we clicked through to Eric Bennett’s “How Iowa Flattened Literature.” Three people had emailed us the link by the time we got to our email. They knew that we have for some time been attempting to understand US literary nationalism and the role of literature in US soft diplomacy. Bennett too has been studying, as he puts it, “the relationship between creative writing and the Cold War.” Bennett’s addition is focused on Paul Engle, the second director of the writing program at the U of Iowa: “For two decades after World War II, Iowa prospered on donations from conservative businessmen persuaded by Engle that the program fortified democratic values at home and abroad: It fought Communism. The workshop thrived on checks from places like the Rockefeller Foundation, which gave Iowa $40,000 between 1953 and 1956—good money at the time. As the years went by, it also attracted support from the Asia Foundation (another channel for CIA money) and the State Department.”
A few hours prior to this, we had been reading Mark McGurl’s The Program Era because we had assigned two chapters of it to our class this week. McGurl, writing about creative writing programs in universities just has this as an aside, “proponents of the program since Iowa’s Paul Engle have argued that it is only because the United States typically offers so little economic support or respect to its artistically ambitious writers, as compared to other countries, that the university must step forth to assume the compensatory function that it does.”
It was just the close mention of Engle two times in one day that got us started thinking about funding again. First off, it doesn’t seem to be true that the US offers little economic support compared to other countries. It just does not all come directly from the government. As George Yúdice in “The Privatization of Culture” points out, the US offers a similar amount of funding to artists as other European nations, but the US does it through a complicated private and public nexus. Perhaps the largest and most far reaching way the US government supports the arts is through an arcane series of tax breaks to not-for-profit institutions. This is one of the reasons why any discussion of US literary nationalism must at the same time consider the privatization of the arts that happens through support from foundations, arts institutes, poets houses, and other forms of nonprofits.
Further, as Bennett is noticing, the US government also provides significant funds for the arts covertly. And has for some time. Frances Stonor Saunders in The Cultural Cold War documents in exhausting detail the numerous conferences, exhibitions, concerts, and readings that were organized by the CIA, often through philanthropic organizations that were basically fronts for the CIA, during the Cold War. Nicholas Cull in The Cold War and the United States Information Agency picks up where Saunders left off and tells the story of US Information Services/US Information Agency, in the 1950s. Andrew Rubin in Archives of Authority looks at the impact the CIA’s Congress for Cultural Freedom had on the careers of writers such as George Orwell, Thomas Mann, W. H. Auden, Richard Wright, Mary McCarthy, and Albert Camus.
The list of the beneficiaries of US government largess is a who's who of early to mid-century US culture. When we began reading about the CIA, we kept text messaging a friend each surprising name of someone who took money from the CIA at some point. Our friend asked us to stop; she was overwhelmed. It might have made more sense for us to text her the names of mid-century writers who do not show up in these studies. We imagine that list is much shorter. The US government was notably multicultural and aesthetically inclusive in its desires to counter communism during the Cold War. Although it is hard to know the budgetary extent of all of these projects together, the funding that the CIA gave out during the Cold War years might be the most extensive funding of the arts that the US government has ever undertaken. It was not minor. Symphonies went on tours. Plays were produced. Huge conferences were put on. Magazines were edited, for many years. The most famous of these is The Paris Review, the last of the CIA front magazines still meaningfully standing (although several--China Quarterly, Freedom First, Quadrant--are still moribundly publishing).
Bennett’s article is a sort of personalized telling of what it means to be a graduate of the MFA at Iowa and also writing about the MFA at Iowa as a scholar. This article isn’t his scholarly book which is forthcoming (ironically enough) from University of Iowa Press, whose editorial process is largely overseen by Workshop affiliates. Instead, in this article, he goes on to talk about what was acceptable and what not at Iowa. His analysis here is more personal than surprising. Iowa does not like postmodernism. And if one just reads his article, one gets the idea again of the modernist tradition, the experimental, the postmodern — choose your term — as being in its nature revolutionary, free from the state, from soft diplomacy’s base desires. As our more experimental poet friends have linked to this article in the social media feeds, we’ve noticed a sort of glee that the Iowa MFA’s New Critical aesthetic is CIA funded, anti-communist in intention. And a sort of implied, well if the CIA funded Iowa, then finally the resistant politics of my experimental formalism are confirmed.
And yet, the history shows otherwise. Greg Barnhisel, writing about modernism in "Perspectives USA and the Cultural Cold War: Modernism in the Service of the State," notices how James Laughlin worked with the CIA and the USIA and the State Department to make modernism part of US imperialist soft diplomacy: "In other words, Laughlin sought to 'corner [the] free market' of ideas about modernism in a way that made modernism useful to the coalition of business, foundations, universities, and the state in the service of their larger politico-cultural objective: creating a cross-cultural alliance of writers, artists, and intellectuals who would discard their disdain of the U.S. and join with the Americans in opposing the Soviet threat." This story continues even into the contemporary. We’ve been interested in how many artists we respect have been willing to work with the state in the name of soft diplomacy in recent years. We first started noticing this when shortly after 9/11 the State Department hired Charlotte Beers, a prominent adwoman often associated with J. Walter Thompson Co, as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. Among Beers's projects was the publication of an essay collection to be distributed by US embassies called Writers on America. The publication is an unusual example of old-fashioned, government-sponsored literary propaganda. It could not be distributed within the US because of the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act, which forbids domestic distribution by the State Department of propaganda materials intended for foreign audiences. Writers on America features fifteen American writers--among them are the expected, Poet Laureates Robert Pinsky and Billy Collins, and the less expected, such as Robert Creeley--writing about and celebrating being an American. With obvious nationalism, the writers featured in promote US freedoms. Much of the work omits the negative role that the US government plays in the lives of its citizens and does not reference the hugely detrimental impact that the US government has had on the lives of citizens of other nations. The publication is, of course, fairly multicultural and features many immigrant-identified writers writing about the advantages they have received from being included within the US nation-building project.
The Bush administration seemed to be interested in a fairly narrow aesthetic. Steve Evans notices a version of this in "Free (Market) Verse" and he calls his version by the tag name Poets for Bush, a group that comes into formation, he argues, after 9/11. "Through men like Dana Gioia, John Barr, and Ted Kooser," Evans writes, "Karl Rove's battle-tested blend of unapologetic economic elitism and reactionary cultural populism is now being marketed in the far-off reaches of the poetry world." But in recent years we have noticed a more multicultural and diverse aesthetic being embraced by the US government; this is an Obama legacy. Among those who have read recently in the “Reading Abroad: American Writers on Tour,” a series of State Department funded literary tours are Eleni Sikelianos in Cambodia and Vietnam; Annie Finch and Laird Hunt in the Congo; Bob Holman and Ram Devineni in Nepal, Afghanistan, United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan; Major Jackson in Kenya; Katie Ford in Tunis, Morocco, and Sarajevo; Eliot Weinberger in Tunisia, Morocco, and Kenya; Olena Kalytiak Davis in the Middle East; Joyelle McSweeney, Matt Hart, Amanda Nadelberg, and Shin Yu Pai in China; Terrance Hayes and Matthew Zapruder in Russia; Alison Deming and Cornelius Eady in Brazil. Ilya Kaminsky, Charles Simic, Cole Swensen, and Weinberger serve on the advisory committee of the State Department’s International Writing Program. Poets have been reading willingly at the Obama White House (notable after Sam Hamill’s “Poets Against the War” protest in 2003). In 2011 Elizabeth Alexander, Billy Collins, Common, Rita Dove, Kenneth Goldsmith, Alison Knowles, Aimee Mann, Jill Scott, and Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers all read. Do we need to note that in 2011 the wars with both Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the Guantanamo Bay detention camp — the reasons that provoked Hamill’s protest — were still ongoing concerns?
Whether cultural diplomacy is effective or not is anyone’s guess. Edward Said in Humanism and Democratic Criticism, while calling nationalism a "mixed blessing" for humanism (he is, of course, attentive to the role that nationalist literature has played in Palestine), also notes how dramatically "Cold War concerns" have shaped the field of literary study: "This is not to say that everyone who worked in these fields was in the pay of the CIA, but it is to say that an underlying consensus about knowledge began to emerge that was scarcely visible then but has, retrospectively, become increasingly evident.” And it can also be said with confidence that the State Department in its publications is fairly clear about the goals of this sort of programming. The US Department of State’s Paper of the Advising Committee of Cultural Diplomacy equates US “cultural riches” as the equivalent of military action in the war on terror: “History may record that American’s cultural riches played no less a role than military action in shaping our international leadership, including the war on terror.” The State Department’s rhetoric does make clear that agreeing to read for the State Department is an agreement to become part of the US war machine, to be willing to be the public face and representative of US policies. In this context, to read for the State Department has a different valence than to accept a National Endowment for the Arts grant. Cultural diplomacy will, the publication notes, counter the negative perception of the US “in the wake of the invasion of Iraq, the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, and the controversy over the handling of the detainees at Bagram and Guantanamo Bay.”
So what does any of this mean? We do not know. We’re trying to tell a history, not outline a program. We do not have a five point plan. We are not purists. We are fairly sure we got some State Department money when we taught a writers workshop in Tijuana a few years ago because the check that paid us came from the US Department of Energy.
We here at Commune Editions are probably much more skeptical about the efficiency of cultural riches than the Advising Committee of Cultural Diplomacy. The most we can agree on is that poetry might be a barking dog. We might be interested in the state’s interest in literature because it challenges some of our insistence that literature is at best beside political antagonisms, not a meaningful provoker of them. We are for sure interested in how optimistic the State Department seems to be. Do they know something we don’t?
It might be that the most we can say is something snide. Like we are fairly convinced that the red baiting that seems to crop up so regularly in poetryland is part of this CIA tradition. And we really hope that at least some parts of poetryland are billing the State Department for their service. We hope, for instance, that the organizer of the AWP panel Goodbye, Lenin: Poets Write the Cold War and Its Aftermath in which poets are going to explore “what it means to have witnessed firsthand the traumas of Communism and to have watched as the region made its delicate transition to democracy” at least got their travel expenses covered.