William Carlos Williams' misunderstood, overused mantra, "No ideas but in things," succeeded in mobilizing the young modernist and later post-modernist base (to use the election-season idiom, aptly I think). It also, unfortunately, tended to alienate the undecided middle. Many used it as an excuse to express a false anti-anti-intellectualism. (False because they themselves were showing their anti-intellectual impulse in making the claim "against" Williams.) Others, allegedly pro-WCW, used "No ideas" to sanction their head-in-sand-ism: verse is distinct from all other disciplines and interpretive activities (history, sociology, political analysis), different in sticking to the "purity" of sensory apprehension, of observation, and/or the material world stripped of ideology or of "agendas."
By April 1963 - a month after WCW's death (this was an elegy of sorts) - the misunderstandings seemed so bad to Hayden Carruth, a proponent of Williams' ideas about things, Carruth felt the need to write a hyperventilated parallelistic one-sentence paragraph on the matter:
"When they set aside everything in Paterson, beyond the statement that there are 'no ideas but in things,' when they say that the statement is literally true, when they claim it as a sanction for their anti-intellectual attitudes, and finally when they use it as a warrant for attempting to write poems without ideas, poems which (in their terms) will have the 'purity' of 'self-existent objects,' then they are doing Williams, themselves, and all poetry, a grave disservice."*
Here's a lot of theys. You'd think the antecdent would be a major point made in previous paragraphs, but no. "They" = (mentioned just once prior to this outpouring) Williams' "disciples and admirers."
With friends like these...
* The New Republic, April 13, 1963, pp. 2, 3, 32.
One of the new shows at the ICA is "R. Crumb's Underground". It runs from September 5 through December 7. Congratulations to my friends at the ICA are in order - for creating this exhibit and on the good review in today's New York Times. That review begins this way:
PHILADELPHIA — What a long, strange trip it’s been. Over the course of his five-decade career the comic artist R. Crumb has gone from hero of the hippie underground to toast of the international art world. Founder of the deliriously psychedelic and ribald Zap Comix during the Haight-Ashbury wonder years, he has more recently contributed comic strips made in collaboration with his wife, Aline Kominsky Crumb, to The New Yorker. In 2004 he was included in the Carnegie International and had a career retrospective at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany.
Now the Institute of Contemporary Art here offers “R. Crumb’s Underground,” an excellent opportunity to ponder Mr. Crumb’s incredible journey. This enthralling selection of more than 100 works from all phases of his career was organized by Todd Hignite, the publisher and editor of Comic Art magazine, for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, where it was on view in 2007.
Al Filreis undertook two tasks: to be a good “archive rat” (a term he has borrowed from historian Richard Hofstadter, who used it dismissively) and to explain a complex movement that blended politics and aesthetics. As a rat, Filreis has few peers. He sifted through special collections, private letters, and other unpublished material in venues from Syracuse to Austin and beyond (even Truchas, New Mexico); thanks to these labors, he has seen through pseudonyms, traced connections unknown to previous scholars, and rescued from oblivion both unjustly neglected poets and their cranky detractors.
The final impression left by this book, however, is a sense of wonder. How seriously everyone—conservatives and liberals alike—seems to have taken poetry a mere half-century ago!
This fall I'm teaching my favorite course - a crazily fast-paced survey of modern and contemporary American poetry. We start with Dickinson and Whitman and finish with poetry written yesterday. The schedule is arranged as a series of chapters proceeding from pre-modernism through modernism (Williams and Stein in particular) and then a short sequence of three doubts about modernism, versions of antimodernisms. After that we consider a fourth antimodernism - the new formalism of the 1950s. Then the Beats as a reaction against the new formlist reaction. Then the New York School as another form of the same reaction against antimodernist reaction. Then an introduction to the languagy side of post-1975 avant-garde verse. Finally a look at what might be called documentary postmodernism.
Geez, I love the roughness of the story I just told of the course and the course of poetry from modernism through postmodernism - am always intrigued, but never more so than here, by the furious learning provoked by the self-consciously binaristic narrative the course proposes. For, you see, the students are asked to destroy that narrative. And the model for that student-centered pedagogy is much of the poetry itself. For example, the give-and-take-away quality of William Carlos Williams's "Portrait of a Lady". Or the anti-binaristic series-not-essence quality of Silliman's "Albany". Silliman there tells a story that might have been sequential (before it became language) but which if told in order would impoverish real understanding of the order of things.
Similarly, I'm happy with the course as a survey - not normally, these days, a positive term - because the idea of survey, with its assumption of causes and effects, is pretty much constantly itself the topic of discussion.
In poets' response to poets, heuristic oppositions give way to interanimations - cross-influences, the sometimes surprising sharing of aesthetic lineages. And, when the course is going well, the structure of discussion - and of the writing of "position papers" - operate just the same way. This is a course about itself as a way - an alternative to the usual survey approach - of teaching not just content (a particular history) but a mode of structuring thought.
Ceptuetics Radio is hosted by Kareem Estefan: avant-garde poetry readings and interviews airing Wednesday nights from 7:30-8:00 on WNYU 89.1FM in the NYC tri-state area and also through www.wnyu.org, or through iTunes. PennSound features 25 of these shows here.
I think my favorite of these episodes is number 5, recorded in December '07, in which Rodrigo Toscano shares technical, social, and theoretical aspects of his Collapsible Poetics Theater (CPT), generally discusses performance in poetry, and performs a radio work called "Eco-Strato-Static." Be sure to check out the Ceptuetics blog.
More on Toscano's project: The Collapsible Poetics Theater is an all volunteer effort, one that assembles itself within a given 48-72 hour period of each performance. Each locale (with its resident poets, experienced actors, experienced non-actors) brings an entirely new set of possibilities. It is reminiscent of Commedia Dell'Arte in its traveling, portable, rapid-set up qualities. To be sure, Poetics Theater fits into the poetry scene as a baby does in itchy burlap; it fits into the drama scene as does a little crown, little scepter, little gown, all neatly stored in a metal suitcase (quite literally!). The dings are just dings. The persistent question is: can the poem be tested any further?
The full text of "Eco-Strato-Static" can be found on Toscano's Electronic Poetry Center site. At the bottom of this entry see a photo of the performance. That's Rodrigo on the right.
Here is September's Ceptuetics line-up: Sep 10 Tan Lin, Sep 17 Tracie Morris, Sep 24 Juliana Spahr.