To celebrate the life and work of David DeLaura, we gathered at the Writers House for an event that David and I had planned just two days before he died suddenly. David was an eminent scholar and teacher of Victorian poetry and one of the most passionate citizens of the university. (He was the incoming Chair of the English department here at Penn when I was hired in December 1984, a wise and super-sympathetic person to whom I went for counsel on various matters over the years.)
After he retired I saw him maybe three or four times a year. One day I had seen David on the street. We had chatted in our usual animated way. Then I suggested that we work together on creating a program at the Writers House to celebrate Victorian poetry. Readings from the verse, some informal commentary, and a reception. Pure fun. He loved the idea and agreed. A few months later we met at KWH and planned the program. He had begun to write something that he himself would deliver that night - a mini-talk on the Victorian poets he loved. He and Ann flew off the next day to Portugal (his beloved ancestral homeland) and he died in his sleep the next night.
On November 17, 2005 - the very day we'd planned to have our program - we memorialized David. Wendy Steiner read from Lord Tennyson's In Memoriam sec. 5 and Gerard Manley Hopkins's "The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo" and told some DeLaura stories in relation to both poets. Rebecca Bushnell reading from Algernon Swinburne's "Sapphics." Vicki Mahaffey (who had been David's student as an undergrad at Texas as well as a long-time colleague at Penn) read from Robert Browning's "Fra Lippo Lippi." We recorded the event and each of the readings/reminiscences is available as downloadable mp3 audio files here. If you have time to listen to only one, I recommend Roger Abrahams. Roger was a dear, dear friend of David's, and read that night Hugh Clough's "Qua Cursum Ventus" and gave a moving talk.
“David was perhaps more interested and open with other people than any academician I ever knew," Bob Lucid remembered at the time of David's death. "His friendliness was so irrepressible that he automatically fell into conversation with anyone standing next to him in line or sitting with him on planes, trains or buses, especially if he perceived the person to be in need of any sort.”
“[Elizabeth] Sprigge was a woman of her time, which may not have been the best time to be a woman. ... She is flirtatious, pleased with herself and given to exclaiming over the beauty of Paris and writing down everything she ate (‘a very chic sandwich with soft black bread and veal on the terrasse at Webers’). ... She refuses the role of the quietly treacherous interviewer, preferring to remain the spunky heroine of her own drama.”
The passage is quoted from Malcolm's new book about Stein and Alice B. Toklas (it's called Two Lives) as reviewed by Katie Roiphe in this week's New York Times Book Review. Roiphe opens this way: "One would not naturally pair Janet Malcolm, a clear, analytic writer, with Gertrude Stein and her modernist shenanigans."
William Carlos Williams was right in 1951 to wonder "Why...have we not heard more generally from American scholars upon the writings of Miss Stein? Is it lack of heart or ability or just that theirs is an enthusiasm which fades rapidly of its own nature before the risks of today?" Williams was probably referring to Louise Bogan's selectively antimodernist Achievement in American Poetry, 1900-1950, that comprehensive book in which Stein is given one paragraph. A little later, in 1954, in Grant Knight's 229-page survey of literature in the century's first fifteen years, Stein is mentioned in just one sentence.
In the book-length attack on Stein published in this period by a man named B. L. Reid, Stein's problems were reduced to the neurotic and the unAmerican. Her talk of war as a dance evinces signs of insanity--of "monumental detachment." Because she liked to arrange buttons, she could be said, like lunatics, to have "enormous patience with triviality."
In 1956, reviewing the Yale edition of Stanzas in Meditation, Karl Shapiro concluded that Stein was not properly understood as the obscure poet; the better Stein--the Stein now to be preferred--was the poet who "turned to writing about historical relations." He actually said: "[Stein] was on bad terms with the Imagination."
Then there's Stephen Spender, in a typically standoffish, skeptical review of Elizabeth Sprigge's 1957 biography--the same biography Roiphe is pleased to say Janet Malcolm mocks. Spender had much to criticize in Sprigge, yet at least he praised Stein in a way that stressed the possible, the local, the unabstract, the bodily: she was no longer to be deemed "a genius of invention" but rather a figure of "a good deal of inertia" whose talent lay in "her ability to stay put and hang on" - language that all but undoes newness (and expatriation). Spender wrote: "She had a certain massive, weighted-down greatness."
Beginning in the early 50s and continuing more or less to the present day, mainstream reviewers have tended to look away from the problem of language, focusing rather on domestic particulars. Roiphe seems delighted now that Janet Malcolm’s "concern isn’t so much Stein’s stylistic innovation as the construction of her life and reputation."
The narration of The Writing on the Wall, Lynne Sharon Schwartz's novel about 9/11, includes bits and pieces of mid-September speechfiying, as a kind of background blather. At one point the two main characters see and hear Donald Rumsfield on TV saying this:
What this war is about is our way of life, and our way of live is worth losing lives for.
After hearing this, Schwartz's narrator, Renata, thinks: "The secretary of defense, channeling Gertrude Stein."
Not fair to Stein, but very funny nevertheless.
I've been thinking about how we can learn to understand poetry and poetics through sound, as distinct from - or in addition to - the text versions of the poem. Not a new topic, but I want to keep myself to basics. I want to start again in thinking about this. Build the story a piece (or measure) at a time.
The first thing I observe, again thinking in the simplest way about all this, is that the English word for writing is unlike the word in most other European languages; most derive their word for "write" from the Latin "scrib" root (scribere). We in English have "scribe," of course, which came over from secular Latin scriba meaning the keeper of accounts or secretary. And "script," etc. But "write" derives from a Germanic root writanen meaning tear, scratch at, but also to outline, to draw, to design, to sketch. See the German "reissen." Or, in other words, to score.
Writing as scoring.**
When we write language on a page, is it just alphabetical? It is that perhaps secondarily and more recently. But primarily it was and could still be artisanal: make marks on a surface to indicate a design by indentation or to indicate the way sounds are to be said altogether.
Our word for writing - for whatever reason - has come to us with a visual sense and an aural sense.
It doesn't surprise me that so many concrete poets are also interested in sound. Both are alternatives to the meaning-driven tradition of writing.
** Score as a noun (printed piece of music) is a late entry, coming in around 1700. But the verb score to indicate setting out how sounds should be sung or played is older. Of course the verb meaning to cut with incisions or notches is older, first in evidence around 1400.
There's a story on the front page of the arts section of today's New York Times that begins by the usual condescending reference to "[t]he cloistered community of American poetry." After that, the lead is:
The board of the 97-year-old Poetry Society of America, whose members have included many of the most august names in verse, has been rocked by a string of resignations and accusations of McCarthyism, conservatism and simple bad management.
(And there's "august": is that word ever used unironically any more? Made more ironic here by its being rocked by "rocked.")
The story is: the conservative orientation - conservative in the sense of aesthetically cautious, and conservative (here and there) in the sense of right-of-center political views - of the PSA led to an award given to John Hollander, which led to resignations, which led to interest at the Times. Here's the whole article.
I've looked into the PSA's politics (or non-politics, which at certain moments amounts to a very definite politics), especially in the 1930s, '40s, and 50s. As usual with daily journalism, there's no long context, no sense of whether this sort of thing is a hiccup or part of a continuity. The continuity (what in journalism is unfortunately called "trend" - as in "a trend story," as in "let's make this a trend story") tells us that PSA has always been more or less like this, and that in turn would lead us to reject the opening-gambit assumption about poetry being usually "cloistered."
There was, for instance, the position expressed in 1947 by the poet A. M. Sullivan, President of the Poetry Society of America, who confidently told a New York Times reporter that good American poets are simply “not whimpering about social problems or ideologies which belong to the field of journalism.”
Sullivan, the self-consciously Catholic poet and beloved president of the PSA, who in 1953 had to “admit” his view “that [Joseph McCarthy] was doing a good job and behaving himself,”** knowingly participated in a redefinition of contemporary writing that would successfully pass the anticommunist test. In staking out his anticommunist position, that is, he went around announcing that good, beautiful poetry is never political – never has anything to say about the political situation.
The damage done by the Hollander flap (even the Times reckoned it was not nearly as big as the Ezra Pound/Bollingen fracas) is minor if you think of it as a blip. But why must such "events" always be thought of in such a way? The answer is, partly: journalistic ignorance about culture--and I should say, what they think of as high culture.
** Although Sullivan had once “wandered a trifle left of center,” voting for socialist Norman Thomas despite registration as a Democrat, by 1954 he “certainly applaud[ed] [Joseph] McCarthy’s clean-up of the U.S. Printing Office.” The quoted words and phrases are his (in an unpublished letter).