Commentaries - October 2011

Hilton Obenzinger on Kenneth Koch

From Jacket #15 (December 2001)

Jacket 15 included a many-part "Tribute to Kenneth Koch." Hilton Obenzinger's short memoir was among the parts:

“Did You Write Any Poems?” 

In April 1968 students occupied six buildings of Columbia [University, New York] to protest the university administration’s complicity in the Vietnam War and their insistence on building a new gym in Morningside Park despite the objections of Harlem, the city government, faculty, students. With other writers from the Columbia Review I spent nearly a week in President Kirk’s office in Low Library before getting beaten up by the cops in the final bust. The days in Low Commune were deliciously utopian — with approximately 125 students making decisions through participatory democracy, changing the world by example — and dangerous, despite our stance of non-violence. The right-wing students charged the building several times, setting up a blockade to prevent the anti-war students from sending in supplies. Fists began to fly, and the scene around the building roiled with constant near riots.

The faculty decided to set up their own line in an attempt to prevent the situation from getting even more out of hand. Professors took turns standing on the lawn outside the building beneath the second-story windows to keep the right-wing students from charging Low Library and, attempting some parity, to keep the left-wing students from bringing supplies to the communards. It was not an easy time to be a professor at Columbia. To be arbiters, intermediaries between the students and the administration, was an impossible task during such polarization. After the “bust” bloodied over a thousand students, the faculty realized that the administration held them in almost as much contempt as they regarded the students, and most of them ended up joining the strike that followed the beatings and mass arrests.

From a Dylanfest, a note on 'Series of Dreams'

Last night I coconvened a celebration of Bob Dylan at seventy. Nine Dylanologists each chose one song, prepared a short, informal talk about that song, and arrange some sort of presentation of this music (some performed arrangements themselves, others chose an audio excerpt). I spoke about “A Series of Dreams,” a song of the late 1980s, and then played the opening three minutes of the final episode of David Milch’s John from Cincinnati. Here is the text of my talk:

I’m mostly turned off by the Christian Bob Dylan, and so you’ll wonder why I chose what is almost certainly meant to be a song expressing an abstract faith. And I’ll need a television series to help me explain this.

My favorite single song is “Love Minus Zero, No Limit” and as for a favorite album — on some days Blood on the Tracks and on others, Blonde on Blonde. And I like much of his work of the 1990s. So I’m a sixties, seventies, and nineties guy. The 1980s? Dylan’s worst decade, to my lights, although Infidels has earned my respect and “Blind Willie McTell” is remarkable — and I treasured Bob’s four sung lines in “We Are the World” of 1985. 

The finest and most compelling song of the 1980s is “Series of Dreams.” Most agree that it’s the strongest song in the Oh Mercy group and yet, strangely, it was omitted from that album. I should note that “Dignity” was omitted from the same album, and so perhaps there’s no strangeness here at all — just bad decisions. “Series of Dreams” came to most of us through Bootleg Series 1–3 and to a few intrepid TV watchers by its use as the song leading into the final episode of David Milch’s eccentric, one-season-only HBO series John from Cincinnati, about which more in a moment.

Sigmund Laufer at Kelly Writers House

Brodsky Gallery, University of Pennsylvania

Holocaust Prints by Sigmund Laufer

a Brodsky Gallery Opening

Opening Thursday, Nov.

Coming soon: Drafting beyond the ending

On Rachel Blau DuPlessis

Rachel Blau DuPlessis in Philadelphia, 2008.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis in Philadelphia, 2008.

This week at Temple University: a celebration of Rachel Blau DuPlessis. From Jacket2’s forthcoming feature on DuPlessis, curated by Patrick Pritchett:

To say that Rachel Blau DuPlessis has built her entire poetic project on the logic of the provisional and the contingent is no exaggeration. And reader, make no mistake — she has married us to this process. In the School of DuPlessian Midrash every seam and suture is exposed as a subject of instigation cum investigation. Investigation, in Drafts, is not simply a prod to the ethical; it’s heuristic: in teaching us how to read Drafts, Drafts teaches us how to read. … Had she done nothing else but write such groundbreaking studies as Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers; H.D.: The Career of That Struggle; Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908–1934; and the trilogy of genre-bending works The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice, Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work, and the forthcoming Purple Passages: Pound, Eliot, Zukofsky, Olson, Creeley, and the Ends of Patriarchal Poetry, she would have secured her reputation as a major voice in modernist and contemporary literary studies. But of course, there are the poems. 

Look for the rest of Pritchett’s introduction as well as essays and responses from Alan Golding, Thomas Devaney, Naomi Shulman, C. J. Martin, Libbie Rifkin, Eric Keenaghan, Daniel Bouchard, Paul Jaussen, Chris Tysh, Catherine Taylor, and Harriet Tarlo soon at Jacket2, which will also be linking to newly available recordings at PennSound.

Say it's so, Joe

I've been thinking lately about Obama's first (first — “first,” you see I’ve said it) inaugural. His choices evince both range and constraint: Pete Seeger, Aretha Franklin, John Williams, Elizabeth Alexander. I'm reminded that at the blog Last Exit Joe Milutis gave Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural poem a positive review.  To start, he quoted William Carlos Williams as follows: “You’re not putting sugar on cake. You’re building!” Re-reading this review has gotten me thinking about Obama's centrism in general, its problems and possibilities.

Obama once said this: “A good compromise, a good piece of legislation, is like a good sentence.”