I've already commented here on Jerome Rothenberg's compelling skepticism about the efficacy of the classroom. "As for poetry 'belonging' in the classroom," he wrote, "it's like the way they taught us sex in those old hygiene classes: not performance but semiotics. If I had taken Hygiene 71 seriously, I would have become a monk; & if I had taken college English seriously, I would have become an accountant." Hilarious and devastating critique! Of course Rothenberg taught in classrooms for many years, but "realize[d] that the classroom becomes a substitute for those places (coffee shop or kiva) where poetry actually happens & where it can be 'learned' (not 'taught') in action." In a short prose piece from Shaking the Pumpkin, called "An Academic Proposal" (1972), Rothenberg advocated the point thus: "Teach courses with a rattle & a drum."
During the semester just now ending, the students in the Writers House Fellows seminar and I grappled with this problem. Every fine session of analysis we effected produced an irony: in our classroom, together, we were getting good at understanding Rothenberg's doubts about the relevance of classroom understanding. We had no rattle and drum. We even tried to chant but it was always already too well framed within the institution: the counter-institutional urge was too well made by the thing we wanted to repress or forget.
Finally, though, many of us did chant.
We gathered at the Writers House and make recordings of archaic poems drawn from Rothenberg's Technicians of the Sacred. We presented a CD of these recordings to Rothenberg when he visited. Here's a link to one of them: it's a Polynesian poem called "The Body Song of Kio." It gets a bit sexy (and frank) so don't play this with your kids around. Our main chanter is Simone Blaser.
This particular song - the very fact of our singing it after understanding but not doing anything about the pedagogy of rattle-and-drum - nicely connected us back to Jerry's hilarious line about Hygiene 71. We could study the body and sexuality and become monks; chanting this song made us vocal bodies and seemed to augur a better, fuller future for the students. But analogy between Hygiene and Poetry Class holds the day: "English" class might geniuinely lead to a love of the poem--of doing it.
This is really a quiz question. What indeed do Newton Minow (JFK's then-young FCC chairman) and T. S. Eliot have in common? You really should know the answer to this. Here's a hint: if you click here you will go to my 1960 blog, where I've written something about the state of television in that year. A few months after the year ended, Minow made a speech in which a single phrase will always be remembered.
A few years back we bought three letterpresses along with friends in Fine Arts and Rare Books. (The basics-minded founders of the Writers House back in '95 originally hoped to have a letterpress in the house itself--but we couldn't find the right space and went on for ten years before finally establishing it elsewhere on campus: in the old old Morgan Building on 34th Street.)
"In an era when publishing a poem or a political tirade takes little more than a mouse click, the basement of the Morgan Building is an incongruous place. The printed word is everywhere—draped over worktables and festooned on the white cinderblock walls—but it doesn’t flow from keyboards or toner cartridges. Indeed a quick glance at the posted list of commandments suggests that flow isn’t the right verb at all.
"CLEAN ROLLERS, INK KNIVES, GLASS PALETTES WITH VEG. OIL FIRST, THEN SIMPLE GREEN OR MINERAL SPIRITS, reads one of the rules. LEAVE NOTHING IN BIG SINK IN ACID ROOM, says another.
"Hanging from a nearby coat rack, next to a line of heavy aprons, an AOSafety brand gas mask promises protection against “organic vapors” and sulfur dioxide. Peek around the corner and the heart of the operation comes into view. Standing amidst cabinets filled with movable lead type are three letterpresses that weigh into the tons and have a combined age exceeding 250 years."
The Common Press site includes some examples of the good work done on the presses, as does the 15th Room Press site. Matt Neff (a painter now addicted to printing) and Erin Gautsche (the KWH Program Coordinator) will be together teaching an undergraduate seminar in the fall semester called "Grotesque Forms: Writing/Printing/Bookmaking." So far as I know this is the first time Penn has ever offered a course like this - a combination writing and printing/bookmaking seminar. Very exciting.
Oh conventional, well-adjusted American students of art, thwart your attraction to Gauguin, don't sign up for a Pacific troop transport and fight World War II for the wrong (namely, aesthetic) reasons. There can be only one right, well-adjusted reason to fight in the Pacific circa 1944. Aesthetic obsession ain't it. To me, this is the gist of Raditzer, Peter Matthiessen's third novel (1961). Click here to go to my 1960 blog, and read a bit more about the American named Stark who drift inexorably into his aesthetic heart of darkness.