Commentaries

portrait, but of whom? (PoemTalk #10)

"Stein leaves no doubt...that she's doing portraits in the same way that Picasso and Braque are doing portraits." So says Jerome Rothenberg--very helpfully--in the first minute of our discussion of Gertrude Stein's "Christian Bérard." PennSound's Stein page includes a recording made in New York during the winter of 1934-35 of the first page of the poem as it appeared in Portraits & Prayers, the Random House volume that had just been published. The portrait of Bérard - a friend of Stein's, a painter and set designer and frequenter of her salon - had been written in 1928.

But back to Jerry's statement, meant to get us to talk about non-representational depictions, for (the first line of the poem) "Eating is her subject. / While eating is her subject. / Where eating is her subject" certainly does suggest, emphatically, that neither Bérard nor anyone else is the subject of the poem.


Bob Perelman joined us for PoemTalk 10 and noticed that when Jerry read the poem aloud for us he erred in reading the line "She ate a thin ham and its sauce." Jerry said "name" instead of "sauce" and Bob persuasively runs with that apt substitution. This is a poem about the named and not-named - or, as Lee Ann Brown, our third PoemTalker this time, noted, how language for Stein is something that can be eaten and, in that sense, purely enjoyed, taken in, consumed, made an embodiment.

I kept pushing my conversants to find an at least winking reference to Bérard, at least in the avoidance of him. We know that he was considered an improvisatory genius (in stage design) and had irresistible personal charm despite "his apparent indifference to personal hygiene."* He cut quite a figure in the Stein/Toklas flat, especially at dinnertime. Yet about Bérard's paintings, Stein quipped: "They are almost something and then they are just not."** This there/not-there quality of her subject's art--especially when contrasted with Picasso's and Braque's portraiture (the real instigation of the poem)--seems replicated in the poem's relationship to portraiture itself.

Such winking Paris-insider references aside - they become mere literary-historical background - we four took pleasure in the pleasure Stein obvious took here, word by word. Bob's sense of the punning "Withdraw" (pull back, yes; but also, draw one kind of portrait while withdraw another kind), Lee Ann's and Jerry's sense of child-like play on sounds, our all getting hungry during a late-afternoon talk about a poem dwelling upon "the difference between steaming and roasting," "breaded veal and grapes," "pigeon and a souffle"...these are elements of a language that is like food: delicious, to be taken in. Stein is perhaps to the literary critic as the lover of meals is to the foodie. The foodie's irony: there's talk about food and then there is its realist purpose. What if language were really seen in such a way? We'd all be happier.

PT #10 was directed and edited by Steve McLaughlin and recorded in the Arts Cafe of the Kelly Writers House. Our poem is available as a free, downloadable mp3 recording on PennSound.

* Dance Research Journal 22/1 (Spring 1990), p. 32; ** The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, 1933, chapter 7.

blog tail wags newspaper dog

I've been reading often and widely on McCain's rhetorical strategic switcheroo (he drops the experience claim after picking Palin) and his tightrope-walking on change (he's 90% the same as Bush but avoids all mention of the Prez and claims that he would bring everything New New New New to government). Blogs several times per day. And, on the iPod, two or three extensive podcasts a day (my favorite weeklies are "Left, Right & Center" and "Slate's Political Gabfest" but I also listen to CSPAN's "Road to the White House" which gives you full audio of stump speeches).

One of the daily blogs on which I depend is that of my colleague Dick Polman, "The American Debate". Sometimes Dick seems to need to please the conservative side of his audience, and thus treads lightly. Mostly he does not tread lightly: he's incisive, sees the whirling rhetoric through the spin, writes well and--best of all--is out there for me every single day.

Dick's blog started out as an experiment he was trying on the side - an unaffiliated, unadorned blogger site (like the one you're reading now). A few months ago (April '08) he moved over to a fancier Philly.Com site. Even before that move, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran his American Debate blog column every week or so, continuing Dick's many years as the Inky's chief national political correspondent. Now (happily for me and many others) he's at Penn teaching journalistic writing (and indeed writing political anslysis for blogs) to undergraduates but maintains a connection to the Inky through the blog. It's a good instance of how creating an indy blog can become the tail that wags the dog. In fact, it might be the best instance of that fairly new phenomenon I know.

anti-intellectualism & its contents

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.

zap retrospective

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.

few peers among rats

Dennis Drabelle has published a review of Counter-Revolution of the Word. Here are two excerpts:

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!