Commentaries - October 2007
Up with literary history!
A while back, Mark wrote this: "Maybe I’m just expressing my hankering for informative literary history that is able to synthesize large amounts of data, and to draw the sorts of connections that one doesn’t get merely from reading the poets’ books and the poets’ biographies – Alan Filreis’s book on Stevens in the 1930s, for instance, which not merely changes one’s view of WS, but rewrites the entire landscape of 1930s American poetry. There has been no even half-way decent overview of post-war American innovative poetry that can compare with the various histories of modernism out there."
And here's a paragraph from Mark's paper, "Blood to the Ghosts: Biography and the New Modernist Studies" - delivered at Cornell in October 2002. Thank you, Mark!
The ideological bases of "high" modernist poetics, poetics which for so long were taken as self-evidently heroic ruptures with fin-de-siècle stasis, have been examined in unprecedented detail and sometimes subjected to withering critique, as in Gilbert and Gubar's No-Man's Land, Peter Nicholls's Modernisms: A Literary Guide, and Raymond Williams's posthumous The Politics of Modernism. And the writings and ideological commitments of the canonical modernist poets have finally begun to receive adequate historical contextualization. Literary scholars have rarely written about "The Waste Land", The Pisan Cantos, or Auden's "Spain, 1939," without at least nodding towards historical context, but those nods were often exceedingly perfunctory. Far more detailed, careful, and revelatory are Alan Filreis's work on Wallace Stevens, for instance, or Lawrence Rainey's on Ezra Pound. Filreis's two books, which examine Stevens's career during the 1950s and the 1930s, have demolished once and for all the image of that poet as an ideologically detached contemplator of reality and the imagination. Rainey's Ezra Pound and the Monument of Culture has demonstrated not only the idiosyncratic, ad hoc, and ideologically motivated routes and methods of Pound's appropriations of Italian Renaissance culture, but how Pound criticism has in its turn largely overlooked or ignored those idiosyncracies and ideological motivations, implying instead that Pound simply drew upon some monumental, homogeneous archive of "true" history. MORE...
What exactly was it that they didn't tell him? And how would he know the answer to this question? By looking at the glint of the sun off his weddding band. Is this another instance of Make love, not war?
The second show in my new podcast series, "PoemTalk," features a lively discussion about Adrienne Rich's poem about the Iraq War, called "Wait." The recording of that show is now available. Please have a listen and let me know what you think.
We are hoping to bring Wystan Curnow to Penn in the fall of '08: poet, art critic, curator, maker of beautiful exhibit catalogues, editor of the most important anthology of essays on New Zealand literature.
Wystan Curnow was born in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1939, the son of the noted New Zealand poet, Allen Curnow. Wystan studied English and History at the University of Auckland, and took his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Back in the USA, Cancer Daybook, Castor Bay, and, most recently, Modern Colours.
Of Cancer Daybook he wrote: "I should say the first of these poems had at the time of their composition a peculiar purpose: that of distracting a disease. On a day to day basis, it seemed best to delay their publication as a volume until such time as that purpose had been well and truly served."
In 1998 Curnow brought out a stunningly beautiful retrospective catalogue of the life and work of Imants Tillers, the Australian visual artist, curator and writer. Tillers has exhibited widely since the late 1960s, and has represented Australia at important international exhbitions such as the Sao Paulo Bienal in 1975, Documenta 7 in 1982, and the 42nd Venice Biennale in 1986. Since 1981 Tillers has used his signature canvasboards to explore themes relevant to contemporary culture, from the centre/periphery debates of the 1980s, to the effects of migration, displacement and diaspora. Most recently, his paintings have been concerned with place, locality and evocations of the landscape. For his catalogue of Tillers' work, Curnow wrote substantive new art-critical prose, focusing on Tillers' great work, The Book of Power.
Curnow is also a writer of short stories, and in 1971 won the Katherine Mansfield Award for fiction.
At the time Essays on New Zealand Literature was published (1973), as we learned from the dustjacket: "Dr. Curnow is married with four children. He lives in Birkenhead and has a good view of the sea."
If we are able to bring him to Penn during the fall term of '08, Curnow would be given workspace at and use as a home base the Kelly Writers House. Students in Al Filreis' and Charles Bernstein's courses on modern and contemporary poetic and poetics would study Curnow's work, meet with him both in and out of the classroom. Students in poetry writing workshops (through the Creative Writing Program) would receive from Dr. Curnow commentary and guidance on their own poems. The students in Kenneth Goldsmith's experimental writing workshop, called "UnCreative Writing," would work closely with Curnow on their projects. All the while, events - a grand public reading, informal lunchtime workshop, recordings of Curnow's poems for PennSound (in front of a live audience) - would be on the Writers House events schedule. Students in Fine Arts and Art History will participate in any and all of these events, as woudl faculty, staff and students associated with the ICA. Finally, Curnow would be featured on two episodes of the ongoing poetry podcast, "PoemTalk," which is a collaboration of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing and the Poetry Foundation of Chicago.
 Wystan Curnow PennSound page
 review of 2001 Venice Biennale
 Writing History on the Margins: New Zealand
 three poems in Jacket 2006
 "Matisee Asleep"
 "High Culture Now! A Manifesto
 Best New Zealand Poems
 review of Curnow's Imants Tillers and the Book of Power
"In less dogmatic days, most U.S. colleges were places were all sides of many questions were heard. Student groups sponsored after-hours speeches by Republicans, Democrats, Communists, Buchmanites, Zoroastrians and ecdysiasts. But times have changed. Last week, six colleges barred their doors to speakers who were Communists or fellow travelers." And it goes on to say that one of those barred was novelist Howard Fast (shown above), and we have a photo of Fast set into the piece above the phrase "No one-syllable refusals."
I've read an awful lot of news articles like this from the period 1946 or so through around 1962, so I think I know and can place the rhetoric here.
In 1947 anticommunist rhetoric had not yet set in. In 1952 or '53, the article - if it took this approach at all, if it covered the "barring" of such speakers from campuses at all - would have intensified the mock of all the -isms that are out there. Here it's satirical enough: we go from what were in the 1930s three major voices (right, liberal-left and radical left) to a minor passing sect of radical left (Buchmanites) and then immediately to tiny far-flung minority (Zorastrian) with its tone of a little ridiculous to deliberately obscure (isn't America great that there even exist such voices?!). A classic list assuring diversity: starts serious and ends by mocking this multivocal craziness our forefathers guaranteed. So as I say a few years later we might have gotten such a list, but the earlier period - the 1930s - would not have been described as "less dogmatic days." In Time in '47 we could think of these days as "dogmatic" and those ideologically fraught days (the Red Decade) as "less dogmatic." In 1952 those days would dogmatic and these days, a time in which, alas, it's a necessity to keep communists from speaking at colleges, would be less dogmatic. The terms later were: sane, reasonable, mature, pragmatic, strategic, post-ideological, settled, sane. Did I already say sane?
What's even funnier about all this - and makes me think that the anonymous Time squib-writer was having a nice go at the early anticommunists - is that an ecdysiast is a performer who provides erotic entertainment by undressing to music. Much, much, much more common to colleges campuses (at least behind the closed doors of fraternities) than Zoroastrians or even Communists ever were.
At the end of this little forgotten piece, Eleanor Roosevelt, contacted in Geneva for comment (where she was attending a meeting of the Commission on Human Rights, of all apt things for her to be doing just then), is quoted as saying that Americans "are not completely sure of our ability to make democracy work." It's '47 and Truman hasn't quite made his rightward move away from the Roosevelt legacy, and Eleanor is quoted approvingly approving, in effect, human rights extended to American communist speakers at universities - in short, free speech despite the risks of subversion.
* Dec. 22, 1947, p. 50.