Commentaries

it's like a new reality, man (PoemTalk #14)

PoemTalk listeners will want to stick around for the end of this show in particular, when Nada Gordon, a first-time PoemTalker, recites her flarfistic rewriting of Wallace Stevens' late poem, "Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself." Meantime, of course, we give the poem a good going-through. The talkers this time, beside Nada, are Lawrence Joseph and Charles Bernstein, and we were (for the first time in PoemTalk's short history) on the road, at Studio 92 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Anyone who deals with this poem has to understand the rhetorical gist of Stevens's "like": the cry he thinks he hears seemed "like" a sound in his mind; it was "like" a new knowledge of reality. Charles half-jokes that it's anachronistically (and uncharacteristically) a 1960s like: a cool "very," an intensifer, a pause. Al tries to stipulate that this is a Keats-at-the-casement poem: he's inside, looking out and hearing minimal late-winter birdsong. But Larry believes firmly in the radical open-ness of this poem: we are neither inside nor out. There is no conventional place of standing. "Three times in the poem," Nada has written elsewhere, "he says the sound was coming 'from outside.' But I don’t believe him. How can I believe this from a poet whose 'actual candle blazed with artifice'?"

This was certainly the threesome, too, to say interesting things about the alphabetical "c" that precedes the choir.

Our recording comes from the wonderful collection of recordings at the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard, and we wish to thank Don Share, Christina Davis, Peter Steinberg, and others who have taken such good care of that material. Stevens traveled to Harvard to record this poem on October 8, 1954 (he died in 1955).

Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself

At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird's cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.

The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow...
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep's faded papier-mache...
The sun was coming from the outside.

That scrawny cry--It was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.

you are free except to be restricted

In 1949, Raymond B. Allen (pictured at left), then president of the University of Washington at Seattle, published an article titled "Communists Should Not Teach in American Colleges." (It appeared in a magazine called Educational Forum in May of that year.)

Allen did not mean that people actively involved in plots to overthrow the American government by violence should be banned from teaching at American colleges and universities. He would have meant it had that been an issue, but it wasn't. No, he meant those whose beliefs are determined (by him or by a panel of administrator and faculty) to be communist should be pulled from the classroom. Since bona fide members of the CPUSA in those Cold War days were not typically open about their membership, this wasn't simply a matter of ascertaining membership. Real communists might not even be formal members. So beliefs (what they did, what they said, whom they met with) could be used to determine such status.

Anyway, surely the most interesting sentence in this essay is this one:

The University's insistence upon academic freedom goes beyond the traditionally held concept that academic freedom can be abridged only by the institution and asserts that members of the faculty must likewise be free from other restraints that may restrict their freedom.

It means that faculty are free in the usual way that academic freedom guarantees but, at the same time, that faculty must be free from "other restraints." Must be. Those other restraints are ideologies that tend to make one unfree in one's thinking. So, having academic freedom, you are not free to engage in a way of thinking that limits your thinking. Of course this was a vague way of referring to communist ideology. A faculty member, Allen thought, could proceed intellectually and pedagogically under any set of principles or ideas, even those--let's say one's Catholicism even if one is a biologist exploring conception--that otherwise limit one's exploration of research topics...any set of principles except this one (communism).

In other words, academic freedom is the granting of freedom but it is also a demand that one must be free from an unfree worldview determined by the university to be such.

My position that Communists are not qualified to be teachers, Allen also wrote, grows out of my belief that freedom has little meaning apart from the integrity of the men and women who enjoy that freedom....The Communist Party, with its concealed aims and objectives, with its clandestine methods and techniques, with its consistent failure to put its full face forward, is a serious reflection upon the integrity of educational institutions that employ its members and upon a whole educational system that has failed to take the Communist issue seriously.... The classroom has been called "the chapel of democracy." As the priests of the temple of education, members of the teaching profession have a sacred duty to remove from their ranks the false and robot prophets of Communism....

Here's to whole article from '49.

The photograph of Allen above at left was printed in the Washington Post on March 27, 1949.

the rest of it's there too

Jon Pareles has gotten some great quotes from Bruce Springsteen for his big piece in today's New York Times. Pareles knows it's big, that his claim is big. The piece is called "The Rock Laureate."

I, for one, accept the claim (happily as well as logically).

Others have seen Springsteen in the Whitman/proletarian Guthrie/folk American tradition (the best writer about Bruce in this mode is David Wyatt in Out of the Sixties--and Greil Marcus gets it too), but I still can't help feeling as a fresh wind in my face the vague faux-rough visionary romanticism of Springsteen's spoken rhetoric. Below are two quotes from Pareles' essay. In the first, the phrase "eight years" obviously refers to the two terms of George Bush. The oracular ("swimming in the current of history") is flattened and made humble really really nicely by "your music is doing the same thing."

The second quote begins unpromisingly with yet another Where were you when Obama was elected? anecdote but then indulges gorgeously, I think, in the vaguest American pronoun referent - the it of liberationist folk spirit. This is the same "it" that Steinbeck uses clumsily at various points in--and at the end of--The Grapes of Wrath. But Henry Miller, when he really got going, used it well. Dreiser, too, in rare upbeat passages. And, at several crucial moments, William Carlos Williams. And early in Kerouac. And Ashbery in several poems about America, most movingly in "The One Thing That Can Save America" (ironic title--but the sentiment about "it" is true). And, in his hyperdemocratic WWII newspaper pieces, Ira Wolfert. And in times of crisis, Eric Severeid (he of Upper Midwest labor-populism), spoken on the air in the endless insistent sentence. And Whitman, often.

At its least interesting, all this takes us merely to a cheap, easy spot where, because of some momentary alliance, Kate Smith meets Woody Guthrie. At its best, though, it's the great provocative American cultural confluence.

"[E]ight years go by, and that’s where you find yourself. You’re in there, you’re swimming in the current of history and your music is doing the same thing.”

"[O]n election night it showed its face, for maybe, probably, one of the first times in my adult life,” he said. “I sat there on the couch, and my jaw dropped, and I went, ‘Oh my God, it exists.’ Not just dreaming it. It exists, it’s there, and if this much of it is there, the rest of it’s there. Let’s go get that. Let’s go get it. Just that is enough to keep you going for the rest of your life. All the songs you wrote are a little truer today than they were a month or two ago.”

Well, this is a circular and probably self-serving final statement. Of course the songs are "truer" now that you're on the inside--you're in and so you can sing them as part of the bona fide (but, alas, temporary) language of the nation. No, the songs being truer now than before is not what's remarkable about Bruce. What's remarkable is his strong antipoetic (and thus very poetic) sense of the big "it," and he enacts this sense out of two great talents simultaneously: first, a resistance to narrowing or clarifying it and an ability to flow fast with it and yet not infuriate listeners; second, his sense that new songs will come from the place where the rest of it is to be found. He's on a roll, no doubt. Listen for some of the rest of it in the new album.

needed: curator with sandwich-board

Have you been following the financial troubles at MOCA? Combination of woes: the endowment has taken a big hit (as all endowments have) in the current recession; major mismanagement from the top; allegedly, boring curatorial choices ("Everyone i know just go to shop at the stores anyways. The shows have been either really good or really bad, but the store is always worth the trip and the hassle to park"); and, the presence already in LA of LACMA, which isn't supposed to cause overlap or redundancy, but perhaps does. The inner workings of this crisis are of course much more complex than I've just now conveyed. I recommend KCRW's "The Politics of Culture" (radio show that is also an audio podcast available on KCRW's web site and through iTunes), which hosted a fascinating discussion on the topic among several long-time LA art people.

Well, yesterday MOCA announced that 20% of the staff will be laid off. And they will cut other operating expenses. It will reduce expenses by $4.4M annually, but when I last understood the math here, I think they were $12M in the red annually even after a pledge of a major endowment gift by Eli Broad.

Here's the L. A. Times story on the lay-offs. One commentator snarks as follows: "Anyway, what I don't understand about the cuts is why they are aiming them at the marketing department. After all, they are the ones who actually put together the programs meant to lure people into the museum, and therefore bring in the money. What they going to do now? Have the prints assistant curator stand at Union Station with a clapboard [sandwich board] around their neck??"

true meaning of giving

Behold! I do not give lectures or a little charity,
When I give I give myself.

- Walt Whitman [source]