Commentaries

abstract art = socialst realism

Henry Kissinger in the early 1950s edited a magazine out of Harvard called Confluence, and (presumably with help from some friends in the humanities) he published there a number of influential center-Right literary intellectuals, and a few in the category once known as "anticommunist liberals." In the latter camp was Richard Rovere; some say Daniel Bell too. Alberto Moravia’s “Communism and Art,” a series of anitcommunist aphorisms, is fascinating.

“A painter like Titian would see abstract art and Socialist Reaism as one. To the former he would say: 'Paint me a hand that is a hand,' to the latter: 'Endow your portraits of generals and politicians with a sense of power, of greatness, of poetry, as I did mine.'”

Another problem of the day was that communist poets know “instead of poetry only artifice.” And “instead of spontaneous creativity only the will to produce.” And this: “Art is memory, propaganda is prophecy.”

So: abstract art and constraint-driven poetry and poems that eschew personal remembrance are worse than bad; they’re subversive.

Okay, so at least we know where Moravia stands. But wait, how will we apply his standards against poetry that has these awful qualities? This is a problem, for, according also to Moravia, “The first requirement of party art should be that it not look like party art.” Ah, so the art that has been described as bad will not seem to have such qualities, which means it might indeed not at all have such qualities, since it might well have been disguised as creative, unabstract, highly personal writing.

Confluence vol 2, no. 2, June 1953.

abecedarianism as body memory

The other day several of us were remembering high-school typing classes. Sit at old desk. Clang away at old worn manual typewriter. Type lines your teacher tells you will enhance your fingers' sense of the full range of QWERTY. Such as "Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party."

I never knew what party this was, but the article "the" made me suspect that it was the G.O.P., a hunch seemingly confirmed by a glance up at my extremely prim typing teacher. Once in a while, in a resistant mood, I would type this: "Now is the time for all good men to come to." "Mr. Filreis," Miss Prim would say, "please complete the assignment." "I didn't have time to finish" was my retort, whereupon I swung my bookbag over my shoulder, and was off, down the hall among the party-minded teenagers who wandered there during class.

To type this entry, which I did with great efficiency as always, I had once again to poke the letters forming that expression of classic American get-alongism. And I could strongly feel the body-memory, an adolescent sensory shadow.

a Zelig of modern poetry

Very soon we at PennSound will be announcing a new page of recordings: those of the poet Walter Lowenfels. We've been working with WL's daughter Judy to preserve readings and interviews that have been stored on reel-to-reel and cassette tapes. First they were digitized and put onto CDs. Then we've been selecting batches to upload, tag, name and organize on the new Lowenfels author page: here. We'll be adding more soon, but check it out now. Rare stuff there.

Lowenfels is, in a way, the Zelig of modern American poetry--part of nearly every aesthetic and political movement of his time. In the 20s he was an expatriate avant-gardist living, writing, experimenting, publishing, frolicking in Paris; toward and in the 1930s he became a political activist, and a member of the Communist Party; in the 1950s he actually went to jail after having been convicted under the anticommunist Smith Act, and wrote sonnets to love and liberty while in jail; re-emerging in the early and mid-1960s, he was taken up avidly by a new generation of readers and became a leader among the poet-activists who opposed the war in Vietnam.

For my book on the poetry of the 1950s and the way it responded to modernism in the 1930s, I spend a good deal of time tracking down Lowenfels' publications and reading among his unpublished letters and other archival materials. So this new Lowenfels PennSound gives me special pleasure.

Armand Schwerner: "Way before the sixties, Walter Lowenfels perceived the lopsided canon of our poetry; he did a great deal to change the climate, in which, as he writes, the country needed to include 'the vast emotional resources and insights that Indian, Black and Chicano people express in their poetry."

owning the epoch

From Robert Stone’s June 2004 remembrance of Ken Kesey:

“More than the inhabitants of any other decade before us, we believed ourselves in a time of our own making.”

And: “I knew that the future lay before us and I was certain that we owned it.”

From “The Prince of Possibility,” June 14/21, 2004, p. 71.

as if it needed to be invented

Misha Defonseca's best-selling Holocaust memoir, a tale of a petite Jewish lass wandering around Europe and cohabitating with wolves, turns out to have been a hoax. Her confession came just yesterday. The online Boston Globe has the story.

I have mixed feelings. Oh, let me say my disgust is unambiguous. My indecision is this: do I care much about it (just another fake of our time) or do I work hard at the problem, countering such things, teaching verity as the only alternative, etc.? The latter impulse is to counter the way in which this sort of thing seems to give credence to "Holocaust revisionists" (deniers), the fabricators about an alleged fabrication who use "history" to (a) doubt the efficacy of fictive forms of representation of the genocide, and to (b) cast doubt on survivor testimony generally.

Thanks to Leslie Onkenhout, once a student in my Holocaust course, for pointing out the Globe story.