Commentaries - September 2007
Robert Frost dismisses modern poetry in Newsweek (January 30, 1956, p. 56):
Match Point: In Pittsburgh, 81-year-old poet ROBERT FROST strolled into educational station WQED for a televised chat and poetry reading with a group of fifteen high-school students, told them "Pittsburgh is still a kind of wilderness city . . . There are places where rocks stick out... Lots of places where you can't run a lawn mower...," got so interested that he ignored off-camera cues and overshot his scheduled hour of air time by a full 55 minutes. Four-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Frost's tart dismissal of 'free' verse: I'd just as soon play tennis with the net down.
To celebrate the life and work of David DeLaura, we gathered at the Writers House for an event that David and I had planned just two days before he died suddenly. David was an eminent scholar and teacher of Victorian poetry and one of the most passionate citizens of the university. (He was the incoming Chair of the English department here at Penn when I was hired in December 1984, a wise and super-sympathetic person to whom I went for counsel on various matters over the years.)
After he retired I saw him maybe three or four times a year. One day I had seen David on the street. We had chatted in our usual animated way. Then I suggested that we work together on creating a program at the Writers House to celebrate Victorian poetry. Readings from the verse, some informal commentary, and a reception. Pure fun. He loved the idea and agreed. A few months later we met at KWH and planned the program. He had begun to write something that he himself would deliver that night - a mini-talk on the Victorian poets he loved. He and Ann flew off the next day to Portugal (his beloved ancestral homeland) and he died in his sleep the next night.
On November 17, 2005 - the very day we'd planned to have our program - we memorialized David. Wendy Steiner read from Lord Tennyson's In Memoriam sec. 5 and Gerard Manley Hopkins's "The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo" and told some DeLaura stories in relation to both poets. Rebecca Bushnell reading from Algernon Swinburne's "Sapphics." Vicki Mahaffey (who had been David's student as an undergrad at Texas as well as a long-time colleague at Penn) read from Robert Browning's "Fra Lippo Lippi." We recorded the event and each of the readings/reminiscences is available as downloadable mp3 audio files here. If you have time to listen to only one, I recommend Roger Abrahams. Roger was a dear, dear friend of David's, and read that night Hugh Clough's "Qua Cursum Ventus" and gave a moving talk.
“David was perhaps more interested and open with other people than any academician I ever knew," Bob Lucid remembered at the time of David's death. "His friendliness was so irrepressible that he automatically fell into conversation with anyone standing next to him in line or sitting with him on planes, trains or buses, especially if he perceived the person to be in need of any sort.”
“[Elizabeth] Sprigge was a woman of her time, which may not have been the best time to be a woman. ... She is flirtatious, pleased with herself and given to exclaiming over the beauty of Paris and writing down everything she ate (‘a very chic sandwich with soft black bread and veal on the terrasse at Webers’). ... She refuses the role of the quietly treacherous interviewer, preferring to remain the spunky heroine of her own drama.”
The passage is quoted from Malcolm's new book about Stein and Alice B. Toklas (it's called Two Lives) as reviewed by Katie Roiphe in this week's New York Times Book Review. Roiphe opens this way: "One would not naturally pair Janet Malcolm, a clear, analytic writer, with Gertrude Stein and her modernist shenanigans."
William Carlos Williams was right in 1951 to wonder "Why...have we not heard more generally from American scholars upon the writings of Miss Stein? Is it lack of heart or ability or just that theirs is an enthusiasm which fades rapidly of its own nature before the risks of today?" Williams was probably referring to Louise Bogan's selectively antimodernist Achievement in American Poetry, 1900-1950, that comprehensive book in which Stein is given one paragraph. A little later, in 1954, in Grant Knight's 229-page survey of literature in the century's first fifteen years, Stein is mentioned in just one sentence.
In the book-length attack on Stein published in this period by a man named B. L. Reid, Stein's problems were reduced to the neurotic and the unAmerican. Her talk of war as a dance evinces signs of insanity--of "monumental detachment." Because she liked to arrange buttons, she could be said, like lunatics, to have "enormous patience with triviality."
In 1956, reviewing the Yale edition of Stanzas in Meditation, Karl Shapiro concluded that Stein was not properly understood as the obscure poet; the better Stein--the Stein now to be preferred--was the poet who "turned to writing about historical relations." He actually said: "[Stein] was on bad terms with the Imagination."
Then there's Stephen Spender, in a typically standoffish, skeptical review of Elizabeth Sprigge's 1957 biography--the same biography Roiphe is pleased to say Janet Malcolm mocks. Spender had much to criticize in Sprigge, yet at least he praised Stein in a way that stressed the possible, the local, the unabstract, the bodily: she was no longer to be deemed "a genius of invention" but rather a figure of "a good deal of inertia" whose talent lay in "her ability to stay put and hang on" - language that all but undoes newness (and expatriation). Spender wrote: "She had a certain massive, weighted-down greatness."
Beginning in the early 50s and continuing more or less to the present day, mainstream reviewers have tended to look away from the problem of language, focusing rather on domestic particulars. Roiphe seems delighted now that Janet Malcolm’s "concern isn’t so much Stein’s stylistic innovation as the construction of her life and reputation."
The narration of The Writing on the Wall, Lynne Sharon Schwartz's novel about 9/11, includes bits and pieces of mid-September speechfiying, as a kind of background blather. At one point the two main characters see and hear Donald Rumsfield on TV saying this:
What this war is about is our way of life, and our way of live is worth losing lives for.
After hearing this, Schwartz's narrator, Renata, thinks: "The secretary of defense, channeling Gertrude Stein."
Not fair to Stein, but very funny nevertheless.
I've been thinking about how we can learn to understand poetry and poetics through sound, as distinct from - or in addition to - the text versions of the poem. Not a new topic, but I want to keep myself to basics. I want to start again in thinking about this. Build the story a piece (or measure) at a time.
The first thing I observe, again thinking in the simplest way about all this, is that the English word for writing is unlike the word in most other European languages; most derive their word for "write" from the Latin "scrib" root (scribere). We in English have "scribe," of course, which came over from secular Latin scriba meaning the keeper of accounts or secretary. And "script," etc. But "write" derives from a Germanic root writanen meaning tear, scratch at, but also to outline, to draw, to design, to sketch. See the German "reissen." Or, in other words, to score.
Writing as scoring.**
When we write language on a page, is it just alphabetical? It is that perhaps secondarily and more recently. But primarily it was and could still be artisanal: make marks on a surface to indicate a design by indentation or to indicate the way sounds are to be said altogether.
Our word for writing - for whatever reason - has come to us with a visual sense and an aural sense.
It doesn't surprise me that so many concrete poets are also interested in sound. Both are alternatives to the meaning-driven tradition of writing.
** Score as a noun (printed piece of music) is a late entry, coming in around 1700. But the verb score to indicate setting out how sounds should be sung or played is older. Of course the verb meaning to cut with incisions or notches is older, first in evidence around 1400.