I'm happy to list Tony's blog among my links and also here in this entry:
http://tony_green.typepad.com/. A must read/see. Tony is a "former academic, now freelance art historian,art critic,curator,poet, twice married, father of a homeopath, an accountant, a schizophrenic, a ballroom/latin dancer, a gymnast, & a university arts student."
I believe I first "met" Tony during Robert Creeley's visit to the Kelly Writers House in 2000. During two-day visits by Writers House Fellows. And Tony - who had heard Bob Creeley read in Auckland in 1976 and got to know him in Albuquerque in 1983 and in Buffalo and elsewhere in the 90s - participated in the live webcast of the interview/discussion with the poet which I led. I recall that Tony phoned us from New Zealand to speak with Bob. Here's a link to the mp3 audio-only recording of that discussion. Somewhere in this hour-long recording should be the conversation between the two.
I even - and proudly - own one of the Tony's pieces. I "teach" it when I teach my course on modern & contemporary poetry.
In Understanding Poetry: An Anthology for College Students, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1938) dictated the order in which a poem of historical or political significance should be treated in the classroom. What was "prior" was the poem as a poem; then and only then could it "offer illumination" as a "document." Such illumination was possible, at least in the abstract, but literary significance must be comprehended first (and never mind the notion--which was in fact just then of interest to a number of poets ranging from Reznikoff to Rukeyser to Pound to Norman Rosten--that a poem could consist of documents or be a kind of document itself.)
Notwithstanding this statement of priority, the anthology is full of poems (Andrew Marvell's, for instance) that at least initially draw our attention to them because of their compelling historical subject matter; our sense of the beauty of the poem as a poem could follow secondarily. Really. Why not? The order in which these two sorts of value are ascertained does not affirm or refute the New Critical ban on historical readings, for, at least here, the interpretation of historical significance is permitted right from the start.
Here's a passage from the prefatory "Letter to the Teacher," written in 1938:
This book has been conceived on the assumption that if poetry is worth teaching at all it is worth teaching as poetry. The temptation to make a substitute for the poem as the object of study is usually overpowering. The substitutes are various, but the most common ones are:1. Paraphrase of logical and narrative content;
2. Study of biographical and historical materials;
3. Inspirational and didactic interpretation.
Of course, paraphrase may be necessary as a preliminary step in the reading of a poem, and a study of the biographical and historical background may do much to clarify interpretation; but these things should be considered as means and not as ends. And though one may consider a poem as an instance of historical or ethical documentation, the poem in itself, if literature is to be studied as literature, remains finally the object for study. Moreover, even if the interest is in the poem as a historical or ethical document, there is a prior consideration: one must grasp the poem as a literary construct before it can offer any real illumination as a document.
Now listen to this one. This malicious propaganda has gone so far that on the Fourth of July, over in Madison, Wisconsin, people were afraid to say they believed in the Declaration of Independence. A hundred and twelve people were asked to sign a petition that contained nothing except quotations from the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. One hundred and eleven of these people refused to sign that paper--many of them because they were afraid that it was some kind of subversive document and that they would lose their jobs or be called Communists. Can you imagine finding 111 people in the capital of Wisconsin that didn't know what the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights provided? I can't imagine it. Think of that, in the home state of two of America's greatest liberal and progressive senators, Robert M. LaFollette and Robert Jr.
A few days ago I commented on John Yau's attack on Eliot Weinberger's anthology American Poetry Since 1950: Innovators and Outsiders. Toward the end of that entry I mentioned that the review didn't have about it the left-right contentiousness of many other lit-crit squabbles of the day (late '80s/early 90s).
Probably I shouldn't have spoken so soon. By now I've read (why I'm reading this stuff...is a good question) a long reply from Weinberger in the form of a letter to the editors of American Poetry Review (APR) and Yau's rejoinder. (These and several others letters--all of them taking Weinberger's side--were printed in the July/August 1994 issue of APR.)
Earlier here I wrote: "One might say that this fight is being waged at or for the heart of modernism's liberalism."
Perhaps that's still accurate but waged should in any case have been italicized.
Weinberger's letter speaks of the "embarrassed friends of John Yau" who urged him "not to reply to his bizarre attack"--and I had to wonder how many of these friends remained friends of Weinberger's when he went ahead and made his reply, which begins in a quite personal manner. Weinberger had thought he and Yau had been friends. "I went to his wedding," he notes. He offers his credentials of involvement with Chinese poetics and contrasts such experience with Yau's career-long incuriousness about poets of color or about such topics--or indeed about Chinese ("I spent years study Chinese--which John barely speaks and cannot read"). And: "My latest book is about Asia and Latin America. John's latest book is on Andy Warhol."
"I will not dignify his scumbag race-baiting."
Yau's rejoinder is more temperate but really does little more than repeat the criticisms of the original review: Weinberger's anthology is racist and narrowly focuses on a poetics that is self-serving to the editor (disproportionate emphasis on poets associated with Sulfur and related projects).
All these letters--W's and Y's but also those by defenders of W--really do seem to typify the PC/anti-PC fights of this era. Indeed, 1994 is on the late side for straight-out Political Correctness fights of this sort - the mode was well worn and easily comprehended by this point; the rhetorical patterns would have been very, very familiar to readers, so much so, I think, that the participants knew that witnesses to the contest would not need a scorecard to know the players, which is a perhaps too idiomatic (indirect) way of saying that the right-left terms of the debate about racism, sexism and literary-political multiculturalism did not need to be spelled out. Thus the larger ramifications of Yau's apparent attempt to use a left position to outflank the liberal-left Weinberger from his left did not need to be described for them to be operative.
Okay, fine. But I still think this isn't really, at bottom, a PC fight at all. It's not left-right (or left making liberal-left into right). Yau doesn't have a political bone in his body and nothing really explains his attack (unless, as Weinberger hints, Yau had just lost his sanity). I still think it's about Pound - the Poundian mode. And who gets to describe what it is and which nexus of critics and critic-poets get to claim its lineage. (In this fight there is collateral damage, e.g. Does writing a book about Andy Warhol qualify one for being part of the ongoing modern tradition? Or must it be a book about Chinese poetry?)
You can sense that this is a fight for the postmodern soul of Pound in Yau's original review-essay, but you can also see it in the July/August rejoinder. One of Yau's major complaints is that "Mr. Weinberger reduces the provocative wildness of the past fifty years of radical poetry to a tidy linear 'tradition.'" And that tradition is "Ezra Pound, passing through Charles Olson." Notice what Yau believes is lost in the ascendary of the Poundian mode as a late-20th-century critical apparatus: provocative wildness and radicalism. Yau doesn't mean "radicalism" as a matter for political poets (Edwin Rolfe, Tom McGrath, et alia), and his references to the non-avant-garde leftist poets left out of Weinberger's anthology seem disingenuous (he doesn't seem really interested in them even as he mentions them). And provocative wildness seems to be an attempt to make a category much wider than the already wide mode of poets working in the "cyclonic history" manner of Pound/Olson (Susan Howe is mentioned as such). Yau begrudges Amiri Baraka in this context. He'd like Baraka to be exhibit A in his case against Weinberger, but can't use him because "he is the only African American poet who can be directly connected to Charles Olson to emerge since 1960."
My point is that as a skirmish in the Culture War none of this is interesting. As a fight for the heart of the Poundian, it's utterly fascinating.
It's all about Pound.
In the spring of '96 I taught a course called "The Literature of Community", a seminar in which all the members of the class, including me, lived in the same building. This was Van Pelt College House, here at Penn.
We viewed and discussed - heatedly debated - the film On the Waterfront. I asked the students to summarize the film pithily by email (we used a listserv, one that hummed with incoming messages night and day, mostly night).
Here is a super-succinct summary of the film written by Alex Platt in the middle of the night on January 18, 1996:
So, we're all a bunch of squabs looking over our shoulders for the hawks that live on top of the hotel, with the occasional longshoreman to throw us a handfull of feed? Is that why ideally "everybody should care about everybody," cause we're all in the same pile of sh+t?
When students walked into class the next day, I wordlessly handed them a sheet with this on it:
Read the comment carefully - it's pithy and suggestive rather than explanatory (typical Alex, I think) - but if you take time to comprehend it you will be able to discover a general criticism of the film we watched last night. So read it and work out in your mind what Alex's position on the film is.
If you agree - more or less, on the whole - with Alex's position, sit on the side of the room nearest the windows.
If you disagree - more or less, on the whole - with Alex's position, sit on the side of the room nearest the door - across from the windows.
If you don't know, don't care, prefer not to take a position one way or the other, side along the back wall, between the windows and door walls.
Then they began to discuss - passionately. I experimented that day, deciding not to say a single word until at least 30 minutes into the class. It worked. They did it all themselves and the discussion covered pretty much all the points and topics and approaches I would have wanted to raise myself.