Commentaries - November 2011

CB: Cryptic chill

From all accounts, Christopher Brennan (1870 - 1932) was an unusal Australian poet. This in two senses: he was an unusual poet and scholar, and he was unusually "Australian". Unlike a good slab of his contemporaries, Brennan was not at all interested in contributing to a national colonial poetic. He once said in an interview that he may as well have written from China, so unimportant was place and national identity in his work. His interest in the French Symbolists, especially Mallarmé, has been well documented, but even where that longterm engagement is concerned, Brennan never imagined he was a Symbolist. His way of describing his aesthetic affinities was to say simply that one must live in one's time, and must find others to get along with. The Symbolists happened to be those closest to his own conceit.

Nevertheless, he was utterly committed to a thoroughly European poetics. Some of his manuscripts are collected at the State Library of NSW, and when I looked through a box of his materials, I found extensive lecture notes, poems, lists, essays, criticism and correspondence in Latin, Greek, French and German.

Inalienable writes (PoemTalk #47)

Rosmarie Waldrop, "Shorter American Memory of the Declaration of Independence"

Rosmarie Waldrop. Photo by Steve Evans.


Rosmarie Waldrop's book Shorter American Memory consists of prose poems collaged from documents collected in Henry Beston's American Memory, a book of the late 1930s evincing an Americanist zeal for early documents. Beston's historicism seemed a liberal effort to restore and include in the American story, as it was being retold during the Depression, a wide range of Native American as well as both obscure and classic “founding” or “first encounter” Euro-American writings. By appying various constraints to these documents, Waldrop rewrites Beston by “taking liberties” — an intentional pun on her part — with the gist of the anthology and its very length. In doing so, she (to quote her publishers at Paradigm Press) “unearths compelling clues into America's perception of its own past, developing a vision of America vital for its intelligence, wit & compassion.”

We at PoemTalk decided to take a close look at one of these prose poems, “Shorter American Memory of the Declaration of Independence.” A performance of this poem, preceded by a short introduction, was recorded at Buffalo in 1992. The main work of that reading was to present many chapters from Key into the Language of America, a project related to that of Shorter American Memory in several ways we mention in our discussion. As a warm-up to Key, she read three of her writings-through Beston: ours on the Declaration, a second on Salem, and a third on “the American Character According to [George] Santayana.”  Here is a link to Waldrop's PennSound page, where these and many other recordings are linked.

Characters hanging out at Gotham

The Times City Room has a blog and I've been going back through it.  The January 2, 2009, entry was a piece about the donation of the books and papers of the famed bookstore, the Gotham Book Mart, to the special collections department of Van Pelt Library here at the University of Pennsylvania. Actually, a donor paid the bookstore a sum for its contents, whereupon the donor anonymously donated them to Penn. Penn had announced this major acquisition back in mid-December of 2008, but a few weeks later the City Room blog took a broader look at this once-important literary watering hole and the context of its demise. And they ran a great photo of some denizens, including writers who have long interested me, such as Horace Gregory and his wife Marya Zaturenska. Above is that photo.

'I have questions': Kalamu ya Salaam and Langston Hughes

'Montage of a Dream Deferred'

Beinecke Library, James Weldon Johnson Collection, Yale Collection of American Literature

i have questions. what do you mean by epic. the only “epic” i teach and enjoy teaching is the epic of gilgamesh. i’m not sure what definition you are using for epic. but in my immediate literary heritage and influences, the book length poetry selection that has deeply influenced my own writing and appreciation for literature is langston hughes’ montage of a dream deferred. there is nothing else in what might be considered the epic category that i relate to with any enthusiasm.


Drawing on African American popular music “jazz, ragtime, swing, blues, boogie-woogie and be-bop” (Collected 387) Montage of a Dream Deferred is made up of eighty-seven parts and shows Hughes’s ultimate conception of the poem as epic and as a book-length work. In the epigraph to Montage, Hughes writes, “this poem on contemporary Harlem, like be-bop, is marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rhythms, and passages sometimes in the matter of the jam session” (Collected 387).

More than half of the Langston Hughes poems in the second edition of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature (2004) are short lyrics from the 1920s — those poems for which Hughes is most well known such as “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1921) and “Danse Africaine” (1922). The works of Hughes first published in the 1950s that are included in this Norton anthology (“Juke Box Love Song,” “Dream Boogie,” “Harlem,” and “Motto”) that appear to be short lyrics as well are all actually part of Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951). Yet there is no indication of that, leading readers to believe that Hughes’s poetics had not shifted in thirty years.

Importantly, Hughes’s use of the epic genre in the late 1940s and early 1950s[i] signals that his concern with African American collectivity began to require a longer form.

The moan of 'Zong!'

                                              song long                                            ago a tale was

told with no                                                begin or end where

                        s the port and what

                                                            my part come

(from Zong!, M. NourbeSe Philip)

In that tenuous suspension between what is about to be silent and what is about to be spoken M. NourbeSe Philip intonates, makes utterances, working in and out of this impossible suspension: “…only if language bears witness to something to which it is impossible to bear witness, can a speaking being experience something like a necessity to speak.” (G. Agamben)

The song that is Zong! cannot be written about or described; it must be experienced. Because it sings for those who cannot speak, but must speak. Because Philip wades, swims, dives into the language of a law document and turns it oceanic, turbulent, makes the rock of law into the aquifer of moan.