Commentaries

arranging poetry on your shelf

Robert Hillyer, known now (if at all) because he led the attack against Ezra Pound in 1949, was more generally an enemy of modernism. He wrote a regular column called "Speaking of Books." In the August 3, 1958 piece he noted the revival of interest in Alexander Pope in the 50s. From there he went on (for the nth time) to celebrate the timelessness of poetry. He observed--as if this were evidence rather than an effect of such a belief--that on his on bookshelves he arranges his poetry books in alphabetical rather than chronological order. All his other books are arranged chronologically. The alphabetical arrangement of poetry permits him to see and derive pleasure from the ahistorical juxtaposition of poets such as Matthew Arnold and Conrad Aiken, such as William Plomer and Ezra Pound. William Plomer and Ezra Pound!? Say what?

There it is again: the bright line separating poetry from everything else.

Yet there's a glint of arbitrariness in Hillyer's otherwise natural history of poetics. Plomer and Pound share in common nothing but a first initial. Now that's language, not meant as Hillyer would normally like, but there only on his shelf at home. In the hard-fought poetry wars (Hillyer was a battalion chief on the "we mean what we mean" and "great poetry is timeless" side), this is one of those moments of ideological crossing I cherish. The Plomer-Pound connection, made of a personal alphabetical fiction, is more something I imagine someone like Bern Porter would find on his shelves.

eros, c'est la vie

Anne d'Harnoncourt died suddenly last weekend (after coming home from minor surgery). She'd been the director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1982 and was admired by pretty much everyone.

Many readers of this blog will know of the great, great Arensberg collection of early 20th-century modernist work (sculpture in particular) and thus of the amazing Marcel Duchamp pieces in those rooms at the PMA. Anne d'Harnoncourt was an expert on Duchamp and a tireless promoter of his work and centrality to modernism's strong (and postmodernism's obsessive) anti-art impulse.

NPR has made available a 9-minute interview with d'Harnoncourt conducted by Terry Gross for Fresh Air. Here it is.

your rhymed 14-line fly is open

From the notebooks of poet Winfield Townley Scott:

"A man may write a poem with his fly blatantly open--but the blatancy must not be in the poem."

And: "Oh, it appears too that there are those who maintain that the typewriter influences--or should influence--the length of the poetic line. God knows in what way or why."

Source: "a dirty hand": The Literary Notebooks of Winfield Townley Scott (Texas, 1969), p. 157.

Dylan bored by Warhol

This weekend I read Suze Rotolo's memoir of Greenwich Village in the early sixties and (of course, prominently) her relationship with Bob Dylan.This weekend I read Suze Rotolo's memoir of Greenwich Village in the early sixties and (of course, prominently) her relationship with Bob Dylan. The jacket includes a blurb/puff from Joyce Johnson, whose Minor Characters is about life as a woman among the male Beats. Rotolo's editors knew what they were doing when they asked Johnson to write (and when they put her blurb first): this book, A Freewheelin' Time, is of a piece with other remembrances by women who were "there" (as we say) for the young manic/inattentive male genius on the rise. As a reader of this narrator's writing, I was sad to see the inevitable leaving-behind, and I was very consciously annoyed at myself for skimming past the Suze-only/Bob-not-there materials waiting for the next appearance of that magnetic minstrel. For downtowners of that certain era, and their fans, followers and chroniclers, Suze Rotolo was a sufficiently important and interesting and creative member of that community and deserves our attention with or without Dylan. Then again this book almost surely would not have come to us without Dylan's centrality (however eccentric) to it.

Suze and Bob went to see Pull My Daisy and here is her response:

There was something familiar about the way it was off-balance, unknown and freewheeling. It was oddly discombobuating to see a movie that made you feel you were in the next room. / I identified with the men in the film, not the women, who seemed insigificant in the midst of these wild, funny, and offbeat guys. I wanted to be them but didn't know how. I envied their freedom. / Many years later when I saw the film again, I was shaken by that memory. This time I was cognizant of the women and their role in the story. They were inconsquential and extraneous in the way a prop is part of a set.


Suze moved out of Dylan's apartment before she became too obviously or too painfully peripheral to the scene that was forming around him. (Earlier, at the best moment of their connection, she spent a year in Italy living with her mother. Bob wrote adoring Dylanesque letters, which are amply quoted in this new book and constitute a reason for paying the money to buy it.) She managed to escape, sad as it was (for a while Dylan himself seemed to share this sadness).

By the way, Suze and Bob went to someone's loft at one point and watched one of Andy Warhol's films, a work in progress. "Bob didn't think much of the film or of Warhol. His taste in movies could be quite conventional. Storytelling was important."

It's clear that Bob's main introduction--in the months and first two years after his arrival in NY--to poetry and to politics was provided by Suze Rotolo. She was connected to the left (her parents were Communists and she, while no Stalinist, understood the radical variants) and generally to political theory - and to matters such as the Cuban revolution and civil rights. She was passionately interested in the experimental downtown theater scene and dragged Dylan along to various performances and happenings.

The book has no index but ought to. Rotolo's references to the avant-garde world of that time and place constitute a new reference guide to Dylan's formative months - a chatty guide, an often clumsily written guide, but a guide nonetheless.

Democrat woes redux

"I've always said that in politics, your enemies can't hurt you, but your friends will kill you." - Ann Richards