Commentaries

sonnet written after the Swift Boating of Adlai

Here is an example of what the author of this sonnet called the "vituperative political style." It's awful but so wonderfully telling - and the final couplet is a hoot. (Click on the image of the typescript and see a readable version.)


A few days after the presidential elections of November 1956, the poet John Frederick Nims wrote a poem that he meant to be read only by his friend Henry Rago (the editor of Poetry magazine).

That November of course it was Adlai Stevenson - egghead, liberal, articulate, mild-mannered, the candidate who would not "go negative" against Ike know-nothingism - versus the just-mentioned Dwight Eisenhower, incumbent. Stevenson didn't have a chance. Ike sent Nixon (and Nixon's little proto-plumbers) out to Swift Boat poor hapless Adlai. It was ugly. (One of the rumors circulating about Adlai was that he was gay.)

Nims was one of those saddened by the result, politically hungover the next morning. In his letter to Rago, sent with the poem, he wrote: "Frankie [his son] burst into tears Wednesday morning when he heard Stevenson lost. Bonnie's bringing him up right."

Nims sent Rago a sonnet. To introduce it, he wrote: "Want to see a specimen of my vituperative political style? See enclosed sonnet." And added: "Needless to say, this is NOT a submission; no need to return." (The political sonnet was not Nims' known public style.)

even when they're abbreviated

In response to "Is email ruining writing?" here, my old e-collaborator Jack Lynch has written this:

I think that's right. Plenty of electronic communication is rotten and subliterate, but such has always been the way. The good news is that people who would never have put pen to paper in the days of hard copy, and who never owned a typewriter, now spend hours every day trying to communicate through the written word.

Beginners are rarely eloquent, and many have a long way to go before they write powerful or graceful prose. But I can only rejoice to see so many people getting practical experience in writing. Rather than lamenting the disappearance of the good old days, I'd like to see those concerned about young people's writing try to take advantage of students' passion for putting things in words, even when they're abbreviated and misspelled.

Here's a link to Jack's entry in full.

the personal is the political

My favorite line from Maus is not a line in the panel above. Although here - "You don't understand...at that time it wasn't anymore families" - is a close second. No, my favorite line from Maus is...

Well, first - sorry - a little set-up. Artie is exasperated by his survivor father's behavior. Artie loved his mother and feels he hates his father; constantly feels guilty about the brother he never met, who died in the Holocaust; feels that his father especially holds him up to the standard of what the brother might have done and been. Artie, who is now of course a visual artist - a comix guy - longs to see his mother's story of surviving Auschwitz. But now he is about to learn that his father has burned the diaries his mother kept, for which they had both been searching - and which Artie desperately needs for his book project, to "bring balance" to it. Currently it has no balance because it's wholly the story of the manipulative father.

Vladek, the father, pretends to have had a heart attack - in order to be sure Artie responds to his latest phone call. Drop everything, he says to Artie on vacation in Vermont, and drive down to my summer bungalow - right now. So Artie and his partner Francoise begin the drive. Art sighs:

"I mean, I can't even make any sense out of my relationship with my father... How am I supposed to make sense out of Auschwitz? ...of the Holocaust?"

The key phrase is "make sense...of." He wants to understand the huge historical forces, continent-wide life in extremis, that shaped his way of understanding his family, which is to say shaped his most basic means of understanding what people do for and to each other. He cannot make sense of B (the larger force which created the smaller force) if he cannot (first?) make sense of A (the smaller force created by the larger). B made A but A must be made sense of if B is to make sense.

Another reading has it that Artie is wrong: one does not need to deal with one's Freudian family romance (love mom, hate dad, envy sibling who had mom's special love, call dad murderer for destroying mom's narrative) - to deal with one's personal neuroses - in order to be able to tell the story of the Holocaust. Personal psychic health should not be a pre-requisite for knowing how the European genocide happened, and why - and to know how to try to prevent another. If so, lots of folks would have an excuse not to learn about the Holocaust. Or, in short: Artie's idea of subjectivity is itself selfish and perhaps (in a world that understands the Holocaust too little) dangerous.

I don't agree about the danger imagined just above. Maus is a representation of the Holocaust that is constantly showing its awareness of itself as a representation - that it is opaque; that it is the survivor narrative filtered through layers: (1) anger and damaged memory; (2) loss of crucial perspective; (3) a neurotic teller of the tale. We need to know that in order to know how hard it is to "make sense of" something that would seem to be objectively knowable as a story but is utterly dependent on a knowledge of the subjectivity that nearly prevents it every time.

the look of a shaven Chassid

The pithy above-described figuration did not refer to the man at right; the phrase was uttered by him.

I was pleased to read Dan Chiasson's positive review of Mark Scroggins's biography of Louis Zukofsky in the New York Times this past Sunday. It mentions Scroggins's work only briefly - but glowingly. That's good in itself. Better, it's a very good one-page summary of why Zukofsky should be read. One dear to me - a smart wide-ranging reader who loves modern art, the modern novel, modern design but keep a little distance from modern poetry - read Chiasson and pronounced herself excited by Zukofsky's project. What more could a review accomplish? If you know Zukofsky well, you might not have the same response, but give it a try.

Along the way we learn that Zukofsky admired Henry James - which both makes sense and doesn't. Here's Chiasson, drawing off information he found in Scroggins: "A poet needs a myth of origin: Zukofsky, born among James’s 'great swarming,' located his at the moment when Henry James stood on Rutgers Street with 'the look of a shaven Chassid.'"

journalists follow beatnik invasion

For my 1960 blog (no, not the 1960s - the year 1960) I've been reading dozens and dozens of newspaper articles and magazine pieces about "beatniks." By then the phenomenon was four or five years old, in the public consciousness, at least, and yet 1960 seems to be the year when it really hit Time and Newsweek and began to receive the usual scoffing afforded such trends in the New Yorker. Legit beat hangouts were invaded by journalists asking regulars and proprietors to make distinctions between real beatniks, part-time beatniks, tourist beatniks, and gawkers at beats who happened themselves to be bearded or carrying bongos for non-beat purposes. My most recent blog entry quotes from a New Yorker "Talk of the Town" piece that resulted from a visit to Cafe Figaro in the Village. Click here to see it.