Commentaries - July 2007
PENNsound's Pound archive is truly remarkable. This blog has already thus testified, per poet Peter Gizzi. The earliest recording that survives--The Harvard Vocarium reading in Cambridge--was made in 1939. The latest are some miscellaneous recordings made in San Ambrogio and Venice, between 1962 and 1972, by Olga Rudge. Richard Sieburth did the lion's share of the work in assembling and comprehending the Pound recordings. Even he--an expert on the topic--discovered some new things along the way. For PENNsound Richard wrote a "listener's guide" titled "The Work of Voice in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction". On May 22, 2007, I recorded a discussion with Richard about all this. You can hear it here.
Each year for five years now I and a group of 20 or so Penn alumni have spent three days and two nights at the Straus estate at Frost Valley in the Catskills, studying and discussing modern and contemporary American poetry. And each year a poet--whose work we read--joins us. This web page describes the project and is an archive of previous workshops.
“The few days at Frost Valley were wonderful for me. I had been feeling overburdened and distracted in general. Those three days were like a different world. I think people become better somehow in that environment. And the opportunity to be there and to concentrate on poetry did create magical moments. On a more practical level, it’s hard to believe that there is so much clean air so close to New York. Anyway, even I wrote a poem when I got back, before reverting to my more prosaic self… That you have to read poetry to write it, is true. I immediately understood, on a deeper level, what poets are trying to, and in the case of what we read, did, accomplish.”--Liz Seeley
"For me Some Trees is a true retreat. I do not retreat to vegetate in the sun – I don’t like the feeling of emptiness when I return to the details of my daily life. I prefer to stretch myself, to test my limits. Sometimes it is to challenge myself physically. Sometimes it is to dig deep into my spirituality. Sometimes it is academic and cerebral. And then there is Some Trees, three days and nights that encompass all of these possibilities in the most enjoyable way. I will not wax poetic about our marvelous leader. Suffice it to say that he has brought us the best poets from whom to learn, given us the loveliest environment for discourse and contemplation, enthusiastically led us outdoors to remind us what a wonderful world this is, and most of all, gathered us together to be enriched by each other. I took some heat for being out of the office for half the week, and it was worth every raised eyebrow."--Carol Clapp
Here is a video about the 2006 retreat (the format is RealVideo). The project has become known among the participants as "Some Trees", after the early poem by John Ashbery that has become the one poem discussed every year, a kind of keynote.
These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance
To meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try
To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
I edited and brought out a new edition of a relatively unknown novel, Ira Wolfert's Tucker's People. The new edition was published by Illinois with my introduction. When Tucker's People was published in 1943 it was praised by the New York Times: "Wolfert's blowtorch intensity, his subtle shadings of character and meaning, his distinctive and even poetic style and his terrifying clarity of vision lift his first novel bodily above the run of the mill. Tucker's People is an important work." H. G. Wells called it "a great book by a really talented author" when it was published in Great Britain. The book was subsequently translated into many languages, including French, Italian, and Russian. Tucker's People examines the 1930s takeover of the New York City numbers racket by a gangster modeled after the notorious mobster Dutch Schultz. It is "a penetrating, sympathetic novel of frustration and insecurity, a story of little people, many of them decent people, battling against forces they are too feeble to resist and too simple to understand," according to the Saturday Review of Literature. Originally rejected for publication by Little, Brown on the grounds that Wolfert had been branded a Communist, Tucker's People was published only after Angus Cameron, a well-known editor, approached more than twenty publishers in a personal attempt to see the book in print. Within a month of its publication, the book was in its third printing. "Wolfert's blowtorch intensity, his subtle shadings of character and meaning, his distinctive and even poetic style and his terrifying clarity of vision [make] Tucker's People an important work." -- The New York Times
Last fall (autumn 2006) I taught my Holocaust course again. I love teaching the modern and contemporary American poetry course, English 88, and my annual spring Writers House Fellows Seminar, but I can't say I "love" teaching the Holocaust course. Do I feel obliged or committed to do so? Am I part of the "chain of witness"? That seems much too simple. My feelings about teaching this subject are more complex than I can say. I have doubts about every part of the enterprise. Well, the proper title of the course is "Representations of the Holocaust in Literature & Film":
This course is about the enormous difficulties faced by those who felt the urgent need to describe their own or others' experiences during the genocide of the European Jews, 1933-1945. We will explore the complex options they have faced as narrators, witnesses, allegorists, memoirists, scholars, teachers, writers and image-makers. Some linguistically (or visually) face the difficulty head on; most evade, avoid, repress, stutter or go silent, and agonize. Part of the purpose of the course is for us to learn how to sympathize with the struggle of those in the latter group. This is not a history course, although the vicissitudes of historiography will be a frequent topic of conversation.
I dread the semester going in, and sometimes still feel dread at the end. But this time the students' response was extraordinarily good and positive--notwithstanding the confusion the course (the topic but also the course as designed) creates. You can get a good sense of the students' response by listening to what they had to say on the last day of the semester: mp3 audio.
The Modern Language Association conference was held in Philadelphia last December ('06) and, as usual, the local newspaper feels obliged to cover it. Usually such stories devote most of the space to mockery at arcane, whacky paper topics and seem inevitably to have a jokey, anti-PC, anti-academic tone: how silly, all this. But this year the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a piece that catches nicely, I think, the sense of what we’re doing through the Writers House and CPCW, with the whole nexus of a university’s writing programs brought together, devoted to the art and practice of “contemporary writing” rather than splitting off modern and contemporary literature from composition from creative writing from a center for the writing arts (KWH). Add PENNsound to the mix and you've got what Charles Bernstein in the article is quoted as saying: an "interest[...] in these works as works of art," as made things. "People are interested in literature," says Marjorie Perloff, and "many of them are also writers." "We're in a phase right now where students was to study literature and to write. We're in a very literary moment," said Rosemary Feal, MLA's executive director, and "there is more emphasis on what writers do, reading what writers write, and if you want to be a writer, learning how to write." The full text of the article is here.