Commentaries

which man is it that I know?

That's the late Stanley Kunitz taking a break at Poet's House in Manhattan. He happens to stop and pause beneath Robert Creeley's "I Know a Man," which has been inscribed on the large window. Ah, juxtaposition!

Finally, then! An answer to the darkly imponderable Creeley question:

the darkness sur-
rounds us, what

can we do against
it

The answer is: Stanley Kunitz!

books are not themselves symbols

Ken Krug has painted a series of book-and-thing still lives. A simple and yet--to me, anyway--endlessly pleasurable juxtaposition. Ken takes a favorite book and then quasi-intuitively reaches for the object that "catches my eye," as he puts it. Ken is a brainy guy--always reading and always intellectualizing--but for his paintings, at least these, he suspends the way he thinks about the book and sets the object with/against it in the spirit of an alternative (opposite) mode. For Durrell's Alexandra Quartet it's a pair of sunglasses. For Whitman's Leaves of Grass a single Adidas sneaker. Borges with a Mets cap. Spiegelman's Maus gets accompanied by a salt shaker and a pepper shaker (this is the painting I myself own). Kafka's Complete Stories and a can of Campbell's tomato soup (not a nod to Warhol). Krazy Kat gets painted with an iPod. And Samuel Delany's Dhalgren poses with a cell phone. Krug does these in one sitting, working oil paint on board only with a palette knife.

Book with object does not mean book as object. The object tends to defer to the book, challenging any easy categorical assignment. Ken Krug, it seems, is not opposed to the hegemony of reading, even when its representation is objective, even though, rendered in these works, it bears depictive qualities--color, shape. The book is desymbolized in order, paradoxically, so that its value as a repository of ideas and aesthetics can be reclaimed from the world of things.

The painting of Van Gogh's Complete Letters and a wristwatch is not meant as a temptation to interpret (O, Time!), but it is that. Resist the symbol-making impulse!

agh, petals maybe

Still transferring old Real-format audio and video materials into the more accessible and less proprietary mp3. Today it's a short discussion--by me and Shawn Walker--of William Carlos Williams's poem "Portrait of a Lady," which, perhaps oddly, I ask my students to read not when we study the rise of modernism but, a little later, when we are preparing to enter the postmodern. Here's the chapter of the course where it occurs. And here is the discussion of the poem.

Portrait of a Lady

Your thighs are appletrees
whose blossoms touch the sky.
Which sky? The sky
where Watteau hung a lady's
slipper. Your knees
are a southern breeze—-or
a gust of snow. Agh! what
sort of man was Fragonard?
—As if that answered
anything.—Ah, yes. Below
the knees, since the tune
drops that way, it is
one of those white summer days,
the tall grass of your ankles
flickers upon the shore—-
Which shore?—-
the sand clings to my lips—-
Which shore?
Agh, petals maybe. How
should I know?
Which shore? Which shore?
—the petals from some hidden
appletree—Which shore?
I said petals from an appletree.

Above: a detail of Fragonard's painting "The Swing."

An introduction to basic New York School modes

an old mini-lecture prepared for an online course

For my survey of modern & contemporary American poetry (English 88) I once (1999) made a recording of a really basic mini-lecture on three fundamental types of New York School poems: anti-narrative, non-narrative, pastiche. The whole thing is plausible enough, although obviously there are more "types" and much more to say about pastiche. Recently we converted a RealAudio file of this recording and produced a new mp3, which I've linked to "chapter 8" of the course. So here is that old talk as an mp3.

editorial presence

The late Ted Solotaroff--one of the most important literary editors of the '60s and '70s--visited us in 2003. He had recently published his very frank memoir, First Loves. He had been an editor of Commentary and the editor of Bookweek before he founded the influential literary journal New American Review. He is the author of The Red-Hot Vacuum, A Few Good Voices in My Head, and First Loves: A Memoir. He taught at the University of Chicago, Yale, Columbia, the City College of New York, and the University of California at Berkeley. He lived in East Quogue, Long Island, and in Paris.

It was in the pages of the New American Review where I found Max Apple's amazing short fiction for the first time. Even then, as I handled the paperback-sized magazine for the first time, I had a sense of Solotaroff's editorial presence. It was strong and clear somehow.

[] Solotaroff at the Writers House: LINK

[] audio recording of his talk: LINK

[] New York Times obit: LINK