During a recent one-hour interview/conversation with Hilton Als conducted by me, I had occasion to ask Hilton about a reference to Gertrude Stein in one of his essays. Here is a 4-minute excerpt from the video recording of the discussion. In another essay, collected in White Girls, Hilton does a close reading, here and there, of Wallace Stevens's poem about the muse, "So-and-So Reclining on Her Couch." I asked him about Stevens, too, and that excerpt is presented below as well. The discussion was a program hosted by the Kelly Writers House for the annual Kelly Writers House Fellows program. Hilton Als was the second of the three spring 2021 Fellows to engage with the Writers House community, and many others, in three sessions. This was the third of those events.
When writing my books Modernism from Right to Left and Counter-Revolution of the Word: the Conservative Attack on Modern Poetry, 1945-60, I spent a great deal of time studying poets who in the 1930s had joined CPUSA and/or were attracted to the communist movement. And who, I should add, were shunned and even explicitly red-baited in the 1950s.
Whenever poetry becomes a topic movingly discussed by many people for whom it is not a daily—indeed, not even a monthly—thing, I realize once again what draws me to it ever and always. In a poem, how you say what you say is as important as, sometimes more important than, what you say. Is that a radical view? After all, content is central to communicating. But what about times when communication has broken down? If Allen Ginsberg in writing and performing “Howl” did not in the poem itself emit such a howl—if he did not himself evince the “mad” non-conformity he saw in the best minds of his generation—we would no more remember his poem today than we do the many smart and interesting books of sociological nonfiction written during the 1950s about the supposedly disaffected (but actually, hyper-affective) postwar generation. PennSound (the archive of recordings of poets, the largest in the world) includes the riveting performance Ginsberg gave before a huge, engaged, at times ecstatic audience in Chicago in 1959. How Ginsberg says “Howl” is as important as what he says, for sure. Words about crying out can themselves cry out.
Someone at my university who edits and publishes a newsletter asked me if I would write 500 words on what makes poetry distinctive I balked at such a task. But then decided to produce the statement. For better or worse, here it is.
In November 2016, Jacket2 published remembrances of Benjamin Hollander (1952-2016) by Joshua Schuster and Steve Dickison. Now we are adding three new pieces about Ben: a memory of his teaching, by Edgar David; a eulogy given by Murat Nemet-Nejat; and an excerpt from a review-essay also by Murat.
Note: In November 2016, Jacket2 published remembrances of Benjamin Hollander (1952-2016) by Joshua Schuster and Steve Dickison. Now we are adding three new pieces about Ben: a memory of his teaching, by Edgar David; a eulogy given by Murat Nemet-Nejat; and an excerpt from a review-essay also by Murat. —Al Filreis
From 1994 until 1998 or so my poetry class used a text-only virtual university that we built called PennMOO. (It was, obviously, a variation of MOO.) I held open online office hours, we had class there on the day of a snowstorm, we hosted poetry slams, and we even built and used a skating rink. Someone studying MOOs contacted me about this and I found an old web page with links that mostly still work.