Commentaries - August 2007
During the Cold War an unlikely coalition of poets, editors, and politicians converged in an attempt to discredit—if not destroy—the American modernist avant-garde. Ideologically diverse yet willing to bespeak their hatred of modern poetry through the rhetoric of anticommunism, these “anticommunist antimodernists,” as Alan Filreis dubs them, joined associations such as the League for Sanity in Poetry to decry the modernist “conspiracy” against form and language. In Counter-revolution of the Word Filreis narrates the story of this movement and assesses its effect on American poetry and poetics.
Although the anticommunist antimodernists expressed their disapproval through ideological language, their hatred of experimental poetry was finally not political but aesthetic, Filreis argues. By analyzing correspondence, decoding pseudonyms, drawing new connections through the archives, and conducting interviews, Filreis shows that an informal network of antimodernists was effective in suppressing or distorting the postwar careers of many poets whose work had appeared regularly in the 1930s. Insofar as modernism had consorted with radicalism in the Red Decade, antimodernists in the 1950s worked to sever those connections, fantasized a formal and unpolitical pre-Depression High Modern moment, and assiduously sought to deradicalize the remnant avant-garde. Filreis’s analysis provides new insight into why experimental poetry has aroused such fear and alarm among American conservatives.
The illustration above will appear in the book. It was drawn by Howard Sparber for a conservative antimodernist diatribe written by Stanton Coblentz and published in the New York Times Magazine in 1946.
"Time being of the essence in the purity of speech, sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-words, blowing (as per jazz musician) on subject of image." That's Jack Kerouac.
My Jack is the writer and voicer of babbleflow, e.g.
Aw rust rust rust rust die die die pipe pipe ash ash die die ding dong ding ding ding rust cob die pipe ass rust die words-- I'd as rather be permiganted in Rusty's moonlight Rork as be perderated in this bile arta panataler where ack the orshy rosh crowshes my tired idiot hand 0 Lawd I is coming to you'd soon's you's ready's as can readies by Mazatlan heroes point out Mexicos & all ye rhythmic bay fishermen don't hang fish eye soppy in my Ramadam give--dgarette Sop of Arab Squat
--not the novelist of themes (wanderlust, national anti-identity, discovery of the true self). So it baffles me a little, or anyway bores me, when celebrations or indeed criticism of Kerouac focus on the new teen generation's response or indifference to On the Road.
This past year was the 50th anniversary of the publication of that book. We at the Writers House staged a marathon reading of the novel from start to finish. I participated, reading a passage for a half hour or so. As I read myself, and listened to others, I could hear how right I and others have been to conceive of this project as most interestingly a wordy, languagy thing.
What's important is language's own performance--its thingness.
But then there are the journalists, "covering" this 50th. And of course form doesn't sell newspapers.
I'm sure that when the Philadelphia Inquirer's reporter interviewed Erin Gautsche, our amazing Program Coordinator, she told him all kinds of things about the sound of the language, about the experience of reading the novel aloud as a community. But the reporter's angle was the usual topical thing, and in this passage he's writing about how and why today the book doesn't quite have the grip it once did. Here's a passage (and here's the whole article):
These days, though, kids don't react the same way. "They're more detached from the book and its message than students before," [Hilary] Holladay [director of the Kerouac Center for American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell] said. They are not gripped by the romantic notions that fevered Kerouac's brain. Could that spell an end to On the Road's relevance?
Certainly, the political incorrectness of the writing seems dated to today's young readers. For others critical of the book, there is a sense that it has been overrated through the years, and that there are better novels with better stories to tell.
To today's readers, parts of the book seem immature, even ridiculous, said Erin Gautsche, program coordinator of Kelly Writers House, a literary arts organization housed at the University of Pennsylvania.
The group did its own celebration of the book's 50th anniversary earlier this year.
"When you read Kerouac's descriptions of sharecroppers in the South and people in Mexico, he has an old-fashioned idea of race: that of the noble savage."
Kerouac saw poor minorities and other impoverished types as holy innocents untouched by the "dirtiness" of capitalist culture, Gautsche said. "They were shown as peaceful, happy, simple people," she added.
Also, as some readers have learned in dismaying second reads, a good deal of the book is simply about boorish guys looking for sex from disturbingly young, poor girls.
Here's Clark Coolidge on the topic of Kerouac's babbleflow.
In 2001 I was interviewed for the NPR show, "The Best of Our Knowledge." It was recorded at Bard College and aired on WAMC 90.3 FM in Albany and a number of other NPR stations that February. The questions asked of me were very basic but I think I described my online poetry course fairly accurately. Here is a link to an mp3 audio file of the interview as it aired.
The late U.S. Senator Alan Cranston was born in 1914, studied journalism at Stanford and then became a foreign correspondent in order to warn Americans about the rise of fascism. He traveled Europe and North Africa, covering Mussolini and Hitler and Ethiopia for the International News Service, but found himself frustrated with his role as a journalist, as he later recalled in an interview: "I became very concerned about American isolationism, the fact that there were many Americans wanting to have nothing to do with what was happening in the rest of the world," he said. "I didn't want to spend my life writing about such evil people and their terrible deeds; I'd rather be involved in the action."
When he returned to the United States, he saw a translation of Hitler's Mein Kampf for sale and, having read the original, recognized that it had been watered down to make it less worrisome to Americans, he said. So he quickly brought out an unauthorized, fuller translation and sold half a million copies of it for 10 cents apiece until the Third Reich sued him for copyright violation.
A few years ago I was asked to write a few pages that would help students and faculty prepare for discussions of Michael Frayn's Copenhagen. Specifically I was asked to describe the cultural aspects of atomic anxiety. The short piece I wrote is here, and the opening paragraph ran as follows:
Some culture-watchers doubted that Americans were as anxious about the prospects of nuclear annihilation as everyone said they were. Was it really the "Age of Anxiety" specifically because of the bomb? The poet Rolfe Humphries, in his introduction to a 1953 anthology of New Poems by American Poets, noticed a distinct lack of such anxiety in the hundreds of poems by young writers he considered including in his book. "In the profession of anxiousness, there is an element of fashion," he noted, "of chichi: how many, I wonder, who feel sure that the Atom Bomb is going to get us all tomorrow, ever dream about bombs, instead of their father chasing their mother with a knife, or vice versa." Leaving aside his apparent naivete about how in dreams we substitute one set of fearful symbols for another, Humphries seems to have missed the point about the larger cultural effects of the nuclear age. People feared the bomb itself, yes - and probably such fears were indeed overstated by officials who wanted every new home to be built with fall-out shelters; and perhaps poets, among others, did not abide what seemed to them hysteria. But it seems also true that the bomb generally made midcentury Americans fear more acutely what they always already feared: that things that had been whole in their lives would now split, and that such splitting could not be controlled.