Commentaries

Amazon review of "Counter-revolution of the Word"

Counter-revolution of the Word explores in great depth the antimodernist literary movement of the mid 20th century. Alan Filreis, author of Modernism from Right to Left: Wallace Stevens, the Thirties, & Literary Radicalism, here investigates the question: Why did American conservatives react so strongly against modernism?

In preparing for this book Filreis dug deeply into archives across the country, sifting through original documents and correspondence, to examine how the anticommunist witch hunt of the mid 20th century combined with, and helped fuel, antimodernist attacks on new poetry and experimental writing.

To conservatives, the language of modernism was a 'linguistically heretical' mode that sought to 'destroy the designed order.' Conservative poet Robert Hillyer and others considered linguistic 'difficulty' part of a grand design to reduce Americans to a state of helpless confusion.

All this seems surreal, almost unbelievable. Yet look around and see how some people even today brand others as 'unAmerican' simply because they prefer to think for themselves and draw their conclusions independently of what the power structure would have them believe.

Times music critic

Nate Chinen, now a music critic for the New York Times, was a Writers House regular as a student and for the year or two afterward. Nate visited us again this past spring and here's a video of Anthony DeCurtis introducing him.

Blogging dementia

Susan Schultz: Remembering memory backwards

Susan Schultz

I've read Susan Schultz' Dementia Blog - the ongoing blog project and also a book published under the same title (excerpts from the blog). The blog is the diary of a daughter who cares for her mother as the parent's memory quickly fades, one crisis and change after another, in the usual sad and disorienting progression. But "progression"? Or "regression"? That, in short, is the key question. What is it that we call this human anti-narrativity? How do we describe it? Blogs, written in order, happen to feed to the browser last entry first, and so we read a blog, as it were, from last page to first page. Books conventionally turn this around. The reversal revealed itself to Susan as she wrote. Her primary response (to her mother's changing identity) yields to a secondary response (what is the apt mode for telling others of this) and then the primary/secondary distinction dissolves. To witness is to adjust. The illness becomes the medium.

As you read this work you go backwards into the daughter's recent past to a point just when the mother begins to lose a grasp on her past. Ironically, conventional novelistic progression is repurposed for the digital mode that would normally undermine it. As we move toward the end (the beginning: Susan's return home from a vacation abroad to deal with her mother's first crises), we arrive at wholeness. Not Pip realizing his realistic place in London, nor Emma right-siding the world into appropriate family pairings, nor even Clarissa Dalloway's party which brings the whole fractured cast together, but a happy-ever-after that is a moment in time just before the decline begins. In the end are things as they were.

I recently asked Susan if she would make audio recordings of her reading selections from Dementia Blog and I'm happy to say that she obliged and that PennSound's Susan Schultz author page now features recordings of nine of the diary entries, moving backward in time of course. In addition, we have a 1-minute "about me"--Susan on herself.

Six Poets Each Teach a Poem to High-School Students

Video and Audio Recordings Avaiable

In May we hosted a visit by a class of high school students from Friends' Central School, a second annual gathering co-organized by me and Liza Ewen of the FCS English department. (Liza teaches an elective quarter-long course each spring on poetry.) I invited six poets each to teach a single poem in just 20 minutes. Rivka Fogel taught "This Room" by John Ashbery, a beautiful indirect memorial to Pierre Martory and non-narrative meditation on absence as presence. Sarah Dowling then came in and taught a section of "A Frame of the Book" by Erin Moure. Jessica Lowenthal then taught Harryette Mullen's "Trimmings." Randall Couch taught a very early poem by John Keats before revealing that it was Keats. John Timpane taught an Yvor Winters poem about the emotional complication of saying farewell to an adult child at an airport; Wintersean restraint and emotional distance abound here and strike one (strike me, at least) as a refreshing sort of illiberalism in an age of gobs of conventionally sentimental parent-child verse. Tom Devaney may have taken the pedagogical prize on this day, presenting William Carlos Williams' "The Last Words of My English Grandmother"--a seemingly easy poem for h.s. students to grasp. Yet it also does everything a modern poem does, and makes a remarkably good scene of instruction.

Each of the six 20-minute presentation is now being made available in PennSound as downloadable audio, streaming QuickTime video, and the texts of the poems are available as PDF's (digital copies of photocopies handed out to the students).

It's our hope that by presenting such materials, grouped together and well organized, PennSound will be useful to teachers and others looking for an introduction to poetry and poetics - and also to the phenomenon of the poet teaching poetry.

Here is your link to the PennSound page. It includes the six presentations from 2009 as well.

Back to geography (PoemTalk #34)

Charles Olson, "Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 (withheld)"

LISTEN TO THE SHOW

Bob Perelman, Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Charles Bernstein converged on Al's office-studio to attempt what Al in his intro dubs a "daunting" task - to talk somehow about one of Charles Olson's Maximus poems in such a way that would make the poem make sense and might serve as a good introduction to The Maximus Poems more generally. We don't know if we succeeded but we certainly had fun trying. We chose a poem for which PennSound has two recordings, one made at the August 1963 Vancouver Poetry Festival and another made in Boston in 1962. As listeners will learn from episode 34 here, we also discovered that someone has made a YouTube video clip from a segment of the film about Olson, Polis Is This. In this segment, Olson reads the poem with what Rachel calls choreographic gestures, motions that continually point up the forward/backward, in-body/away planes or zones of geographic understanding. We happily add, below, a link to this remarkable but probably--most of us would agree--overdone performance.

The title of that film comes from the memorable final line of our poem, "Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 (withheld)," the last parenthetic term here referring to the fact that it was excluded from the first major collection of Maximus Poems, The Maximus Poems of 1960. Excluded but then apparently much in demand and/or much admired by Olson himself.

The poem, especially at the start (in which a family anecdote is told), seems personal and almost (in the term then popular) "confessional." But, as the PoemTalkers put it, it soon begins to do the usual Maximus thing, engaging a vortexical historical method line by line, and gesturing hugely at the convergences of geography and culture across eras and the (at turns) triumphant and lamentable westwardness of everything.

Here is the text of the poem. Here is the PennSound recording of the poem from a reading given in Boston in 1962.

Our episode was edited as usual by Steve McLaughlin, and, as always, PoemTalk was produced and hosted by Al Filreis in collaboration with the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, the Kelly Writers House, and the Poetry Foundation.