Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Moist Lotus Open Along Acheron

photo by Timo Ketonen

A whelming if not overwhelming time. You'd think I would like a drug called Versed, but I didn't. When they pump you full of Versed and Fentanyl and then (later) tell you to go home and not make any major decisions, you have to wonder what they're imagining.

As somebody else must have said (please come forward mysterious personage), I'll cross that bridge when I jump off of it.

But things are fine: one is just rather tired of death and tubes and Versed. Flames shooting out the windows of the Old Executive Office Building, as though even the vice-president's walls were longing for release.

Goodbye, goodbye no more water, the fire next time. Or Mayakovsky: "In the church of my heart the choir is on fire!"

Indeed. Only a couple of weeks ago the title of an Alan Williamson poem had sent me spinning into the dictionaries: I had heard of psychopomps before, but somehow I had never been besotted with them.

Now I was, since the OED said they were "conductor[s] of souls to the place of the dead. Also, the spiritual guide[s] of a (living) person's soul; a person who acts as a guide of the soul."

And there was this, too, in the OED, from a letter of Rupert Brooke: "I, Hermes-like, am coming to fetch you psychopompically to Hell." Even if "the handsomest young man in England" (as Yeats called him) has not been kissed by time, this is a missive I'd dearly love to finish.

Because wasn't this what I was trying to be for Richard Nixon: his Charon, so that he might see (in Sappho's words, tr. Mary Barnard) "the moist lotus open / along Acheron"?

Surely I could not be as cruel as she was:

Rich as you are

Death will finish
you: afterwards no
one will remember

or want you: you
had no share in
the Pierian roses

You will flitter
invisible among
the indistinct dead

in Hell's palace
darting fitfully

I should be more cheerful by New Year's! Bah humbug, fellow curmudgeons.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Important Looking Men (with a Note from Mairéad Byrne)

Late one October night I read all of Mairéad Byrne's Talk Poetry in one addictive sitting, greedily, as if it were a plate of hot onion and cauliflower pakoras, which it was.

I asked her to say a few words about her poem "The Important Looking Men," her crisp and spirited book or anything else that struck her fancy, and her comments follow the poem.

The Important Looking Men

The important looking men are not always the important looking men. Sometimes the important looking men are women. Sometimes the important looking men are the woman with the brown helmet of hair, head tilted attentively. Sometimes the important looking men are not the important looking men but visitors from out-of-town where they are not important either. The tortured artist is not always the tortured artist. The tortured artist is not always the guy in the thin cardigan smoking a cigarette outside the studio. That might be the electrician. The tortured artist is sometimes the small priest who stands in the corner of the salon balancing his cup of tea. Or the woman nobody sees. The lover is not always the lover. The lover can be a liar, refracting images of himself back into infinity. The lover might be this beagle, this couch, this slipper, this child who shouts out to me this morning late for school tumbling from his father's car & again from the side-walk Clio's Mom! Or this other child, this evening, alone, walking home, who tosses his glorious hello across Camp Street to land at my feet.


Mairéad Byrne writes:

This poem was originally called "Appearances." You can see that's what it's about. Usually, poems begin with titles for me; this one oscillated between two titles. Ultimately, "The Important Looking Men" was irresistible.

Flat statement is very much part of Talk Poetry, even flat contradictory statement, as this early poem on my blog indicates:

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


I write every day.
But not really.
But really.
This is a new way of speaking.
Talk poetry.

Except for "the important looking men," who are generic, the images in the poem are all very specific for me. "The woman with the brown helmet of hair, head tilted attentively," or "solicitously," as it once was, is a colleague. "The tortured artist" is glimpsed on my way to work. The small priest is Gerard Manley Hopkins, isolated at a soirée hosted by John Butler Yeats, when William was about 17, the star of the show. I guess the woman nobody sees is Emily Dickinson, although she was seen by many she loved. And that's how the poem goes. I didn't always find love where I looked for it but it sprung up around me nonetheless. The child tumbling from his father's car is a boy I know. When I taught poetry in my daughter Clio's third grade class, the children wrote list poems beginning "I wish." He wrote "I wish Clio was my friend." He wrote more than any of the other children. He had a lot of heart and was not afraid to show it. His father was sick at the time I wrote the poem. He was a single parent, his three boys lived with him. He died this year. The second child who shouts out to me in the poem is also a boy. A valiant, friendly boy.

The public schools in Providence and in all American cities probably are very poor. It really grieves me. The children are made grey. But I have faith that they are untarnishable.

Sunday, December 09, 2007


Woody Allen on the WGA strike, via the union web site.

Have been a bit speechless myself, for different reasons. It's amazing how sick you can get when you put your mind to it.

Actually overdosing on the vitamins and so on but would much rather be out on the picket line.

"What say you / soldiers of the lyre, we wait / for some o’clock and then stop / singing? Oh I would stop, oh yes / and let the feckless meadow fill / with xylophones and snow, the striped / tail of the muse slap in her burrow."

(from "Poetry and Sorrow in a 'Right-to-Sing' State")

Monday, December 03, 2007

Rose, Oh Pure Contradiction

photo by Timo Ketonen

Season of faxed cremation papers, which one shouldn't read, one really shouldn't.

But here's arguably the best blurb ever:

Since Knox favors premise over conclusion, her poems simply speak — they do not explain. In this way they are not entirely unlike scripture. The part that is unlike scripture is the one that’s like “Wait, I was reading these poems and laughing but my hearing aid fell out and then my face just kind of blew off in a beautiful rainbow spray of bullshit-dissolving napalm.”

This from Sarah Manguso, writing about Jennifer L. Knox's Drunk by Noon. I'm looking forward to the book, and perhaps (with a virulent head cold) living up to its title.

But what else might one expect from someone capable of writing these lines, as Manguso did in her book Siste Viator (wait for the last rim shot):

My great-grandmother's lamp is mine now. It is made of rose quartz — that is, it is made of poetry.

More poetry: A coin you dropped when you took your pants off is still on the floor. Please come back and pick it up.

More: The scar on my hand I got cleaning the house for you has outlasted you. In this way you are indelible, but only as long as I have my hand.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The More Things Change Dept.

"Practically everyone is a manic depressive of sorts with his up moments and his down moments, and you certainly don’t have to be a humorist to taste the sadness of situation and mood. But there is often a rather fine line between laughing and crying, and if a humorous piece of writing brings a person to the point where his emotional responses are untrustworthy and seem likely to break over into the opposite realm, it is because humor, like poetry, has an extra content."

"The world likes humor, but it treats it patronizingly. It decorates its serious artists with laurel, and its wags with Brussels sprouts. It feels that if a thing is funny it can be presumed to be something less than great, because if it were truly great it would be wholly serious. Writers know this, and those who take their literary selves with great seriousness are at considerable pains never to associate their name with anything funny or flippant or nonsensical or 'light.' They suspect it would hurt their reputation, and they are right. Many a poet writing today signs his real name to his serious verse and a pseudonym to his comical verse, being unwilling to have the public discover him in any but a pensive and heavy moment. It is a wise precaution. (It is often a bad poet, too.)"

"I think the stature of humor must vary some with the times. The court fool in Shakespeare's day had no social standing and was no better than a lackey, but he did have some artistic standing and was listened to with considerable attention, there being a well-founded belief that he had the truth hidden somewhere about his person. Artistically he stood probably higher than the humorist of today, who has gained social position but not the ear of the mighty. (Think of the trouble the world would save itself if it would pay some attention to nonsense!) A narrative poet at court, singing of great deeds, enjoyed a higher standing than the fool and was allowed to wear fine clothes; yet I suspect that the ballad singer was more often than not a second-rate stooge, flattering his monarch lyrically, while the fool must often have been a first-rate character, giving his monarch good advice in bad puns."

All excerpts from "Some Remarks on Humor," adapted by E.B. White from his preface to A Subtreasury of American Humor, Coward-McCann, 1941.

But of a piece with pretty much everything the Humpolonians had to say in 2007, and most likely of a piece with the compleynts and sorrows of the fools of 1257 or 1384.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Susan Sontag, An Argument about Beauty

(photo: Timo Ketonen)

Taken in the Finnish autumn afternoon, about a week ago.

Found Susan Sontag's At The Same Time: Essays And Speeches on the new book shelf at the local library and remembered what a tonic "Notes on Camp" had been for my teenaged soul.

I mean, a girl intellectual, and a particularly shameless, even arrogant one. Imagine. I'd been feeling like a freak, sinking down in my seat when the grade curve was outlined on the blackboard, trying to disappear.

Not that that feeling evaporated after reading "Notes" in the Westport, Connecticut, public library
far from it, I spent years and years thinking that it was somehow weird to want to be both Orpheus and Eurydice. Could one possibly be both singer and beloved?

These were serious questions decades ago, believe it or not, and perhaps they're still serious questions for girls now. It's certainly depressing getting random toy and tot catalogues in the mail: there's the pink, flouncy, gauzy section, and then there are army fatigues for four year-olds.

It's tempting to feel like Rip Van Winkle: did the sixties and seventies and eighties and nineties even happen? It's 1957 and Eisenhower's on the golf course.

But Sontag (at least in that first blush) was one thrilling, transgressive blow against the idiocracy and I'm still grateful for it, and for her.

From my favorite piece in the new book:

When that notorious beauty-lover Oscar Wilde announced in The Decay of Lying, "Nobody of any real culture . . . ever talks nowadays about the beauty of a sunset. Sunsets are quite old-fashioned," sunsets reeled under the blow, then recovered. Les beaux arts, when summoned to a similar call to be up to date, did not. The subtraction of beauty as a standard for art hardly signals a decline of the authority of beauty. Rather, it testifies to a decline in the belief that there is something called art.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Concord in the Sixties

The Wayside, Hawthorne's home 1852-1864

The 1860s, that is.

Since I'm in no condition to blog I thought I'd turn things over again to someone who shares my mitochondrial (a.k.a. matrilineal) DNA, my great-grandmother's sister Rebecca Harding Davis. My first excerpt from her memoir, Bits of Gossip, which Houghton Mifflin published in 1904 , is here. That chunk, which I called "A Walk with Nathaniel Hawthorne," is preceded by a bit of background which I won't repeat.

This shorter clip includes a hilarious dining moment-of-truth with Bronson Alcott, as seen in part through the eyes of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Also RHD's musings on the Concord circle as a whole its moral and philosophical airs and impracticalities, especially as contrasted with the actual Civil War, which she had observed firsthand and a first encounter with Alcott's daughter Louisa, later of course of Little Women fame.

Note: a "second girl" was "a household domestic in a subordinate position," according to The Rebecca Harding Davis Reader (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995).

I wish I could summon these memorable ghosts before you as I saw them then and afterward. To the eyes of an observer, belonging to the commonplace world, they did not appear precisely as they do in the portraits drawn of them for posterity by their companions, the other Areopagites, who walked and talked with them apart always apart from humanity.

That was the first peculiarity which struck an outsider in Emerson, Hawthorne, and the other members of the "Atlantic" coterie; that while they thought they were guiding the real world, they stood quite outside of it, and never would see it as it was.

For instance, during the Civil War, they had much to say of it, and all used the same strained high note of exaltation. It was to them "only the shining track," as Lowell calls it, where

. . . "heroes mustered in a gleaming row,

Beautiful evermore, and with the rays

Of morn on their white shields of expectation."

These heroes were their bravest and their best, gone to die for the slave or for their country. They were "the army" to them.

I remember listening during one long summer morning to Louisa Alcott's father as he chanted paeans to the war, the "armed angel which was wakening the nation to a lofty life unknown before."

We were in the little parlor of the Wayside, Mr. Hawthorne's house in Concord. Mr. Alcott stood in front of the fireplace, his long gray hair streaming over his collar, his pale eyes turning quickly from one listener to another to hold them quiet, his hands waving to keep time with rotund sentences which had a stale, familiar ring as if often repeated before. Mr. Emerson stood listening, his head sunk on his breast, with profound submissive attention, but Hawthorne sat astride of a chair, his arms folded on the back, his chin dropped on them, and his laughing, sagacious eyes watching us, full of mockery.

I had just come up from the border where I had seen the actual war; the filthy spewings of it; the political jobbery in Union and Confederate camps; the malignant personal hatreds wearing patriotic masks, and glutted by burning homes and outraged women; the chances in it, well improved on both sides, for brutish men to grow more brutish, and for honorable gentlemen to degenerate into thieves and sots. War may be an armed angel with a mission, but she has the personal habits of the slums. This would-be seer who was talking of it, and the real seer who listened, knew no more of war as it was, than I had done in my cherry-tree when I dreamed of bannered legions of crusaders debouching in the misty fields.

Mr. Hawthorne at last gathered himself up lazily to his feet, and said quietly: "We cannot see that thing at so long a range. Let us go to dinner," and Mr. Alcott suddenly checked the droning flow of his prophecy and quickly led the way to the dining-room.

Early that morning when his lank, gray figure had first appeared at the gate, Mr. Hawthorne said: "Here comes the Sage of Concord. He is anxious to know what kind of human beings come up from the back hills in Virginia. Now I will tell you," his eyes gleaming with fun, "what he will talk to you about. Pears. Yes. You may begin at Plato or the day's news, and he will come around to pears. He is now convinced that a vegetable diet affects both the body and soul, and that pears exercise a more direct and ennobling influence on us than any other vegetable or fruit. Wait. You'll hear presently."

When we went in to dinner, therefore, I was surprised to see the sage eat heartily of the fine sirloin of beef set before us. But with the dessert he began to advocate a vegetable diet and at last announced the spiritual influence of pears, to the great delight of his host, who laughed like a boy and was humored like one by the gentle old man.

Whether Alcott, Emerson, and their disciples discussed pears or the war, their views gave you the same sense of unreality, of having been taken, as Hawthorne said, at too long a range. You heard much sound philosophy and many sublime guesses at the eternal verities; in fact, never were the eternal verities so dissected and pawed over and turned inside out as they were about that time, in Boston, by Margaret Fuller and her successors. But the discussion left you with a vague, uneasy sense that something was lacking, some back-bone of fact. Their theories were like beautiful bubbles blown from a child's pipe, floating overhead, with queer reflections on them of sky and earth and human beings, all in a glow of fairy color and all a little distorted.

Mr. Alcott once showed me an arbor which he had built with great pains and skill for Mr. Emerson to "do his thinking in." It was made of unbarked saplings and boughs, a tiny round temple, two storied, with chambers in which were seats, a desk, etc., all very artistic and complete, except that he had forgotten to make any door. You could look at it and admire it, but nobody could go in or use it. It seemed to me a fitting symbol for this guild of prophets and their scheme of life.

Mr. Alcott at that time was their oracle, appointed and held in authority by Emerson alone. His faith in the old man was so sincere and simple that it was almost painful to see it.

He once told me, "I asked Alcott the other day what he would do when he came to the gate, and St. Peter demanded his ticket. 'What have you to show to justify your right to live?' I said. 'Where is your book, your picture? You have done nothing in the world.' 'No,' he said, 'but somewhere on a hill up there will be Plato and Paul and Socrates talking, and they will say: 'Send Alcott over here, we want him with us.'" "And," said Emerson, gravely shaking his head, "he was right! Alcott was right."

Mr. Alcott was a tall, awkward, kindly old man, absolutely ignorant of the world, but with an obstinate faith in himself which would have befitted a pagan god. Hearing that I was from Virginia, he told me that he owed his education wholly to Virginia planters. He had traveled in his youth as a peddler through the State, and finding how eager he was to learn they would keep him for days in their houses, turning him loose in their libraries.

His own library was full of folios of his manuscripts. He had covered miles of paper with his inspirations, but when I first knew him no publisher had ever put a line of them into print. His house was bleak and bitter cold with poverty, his wife had always worked hard to feed him and his children. In any other town he would have been more respected if he had tried to put his poor carpentering skill to use to support them. But the homelier virtues were not, apparently, in vogue in Concord.

During my first visit to Boston in 1862, I saw at an evening reception a tall, thin young woman standing alone in a corner. She was plainly dressed, and had that watchful, defiant air with which the woman whose youth is slipping away is apt to face the world which has offered no place to her. Presently she came up to me.

"These people may say pleasant things to you," she said abruptly; "but not one of them would have gone to Concord and back to see you, as I did to-day. I went for this gown. It's the only decent one I have. I'm very poor;" and in the next breath she contrived to tell me that she had once taken a place as "second girl." "My name," she added, "is Louisa Alcott."

Now, although we had never met, Louisa Alcott had shown me great kindness in the winter just past, sacrificing a whole day to a tedious work which was to give me pleasure at a time when every hour counted largely to her in her desperate struggle to keep her family from want. The little act was so considerate and fine, that I am still grateful for it, now when I am an old woman, and Louisa Alcott has long been dead. It was as natural for her to do such things as for a pomegranate-tree to bear fruit.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Paul Robeson in Prague

My brother just called me up and sang this song to me, which (given any expectation I ever had of him) was pretty extraordinary.

Our mother liked to sing it to us on Deakin Street in Berkeley, thousands of years ago, and she learned it from this guy.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

On an Age-old Anvil Wince and Sing

Cynthia Ulrich Edelson

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind. . . .

G.M. Hopkins of course. I seem for the nonce to be almost out of words.

Many thanks to all who sent notes, etheric or otherwise (Susan, Ange, Linh, sweet backchannelers and thought-streamers).

That sort of kindness gets recorded pretty deeply, at a time like this

more soon, as things start to make sense.

If they ever entirely do again. . . .

Monday, November 05, 2007


My mother fell this morning and then had a heart attack, so I'm going to have to put this blog on ice for a few days.

Be well, all of you.

See you later....

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Theory of Heartbreak

If, as David Bromige says, poetry is the theory of heartbreak, when do we begin to theorize?

The person I'm thinking about has never had a problem with separations, barely glancing at his parents as they go out the door. But when he wakes up after a night away from them, a night (one can assume) full of dreams and confusions, surf's up in the feelings department.

This time, however, for the first time, he had a word to say, the germ of a theory about this unsatisfactory situation. He let my husband pick him up out of his crib but then (from this high perch) took a long, disappointed look at us and turned away. "Mama," he said, heartbrokenly, and let his body shake with sobs.

It started me musing. I came to poetry in my teens after losing both my parents, my father to divorce (when I was close to this guy's age) and then my mother to madness.

And poetry kept me alive. At ten, living for a year in Los Angeles, I'd decided I wanted to be a singer but that was actively opposed (while my mother was still relatively well). I wanted lessons but kept singing anyway, especially when everybody was out of the house. Still, as a dream, as a vocation, it seemed absurd and out of reach.

Poetry, though, when I stumbled on it, was just the solution. Who could take it away from me? One didn't need materials other than those one already had for school. It made no noise. It wasn't part of that feared and hated entity, show business (my father's first career path, before blacklist and economic reality set in). I could even take it along when, later that same year, my mother entered a mental institution and I was sent to live with a foster family.

I could be a poet and nobody would be the wiser. And so I was, really, for decades. Maybe that's why I've always remembered what John Logan said of Bill Knott's poems (on the cover of his Naomi Poems: Corpse and Beans): that they "give asylum to the orphan in each of us." I'm sure that's also why I was so taken with the work of John Wieners, poet-waif of poet-waifs:

Rain today and rain in the self. Reign. Return
to the place of imprisonment. Reign of life, how many
years left to bury the old heart and give birth to the new?
Reign of years, with each day a marking place of what
happens in the universe, what comes into ken,
of the stars and their turning. What one does not know.
Will never know. The desire to pierce space and
be up on the moon. Doomed as fellow men to
walk this place with sweat on our forehead.
         That we are not given enough, must find
the means to fulfill our existence. That we are
given enough, too much as a distraction to pene-
trate the essential core of our being. And what is
that but a hollow place? No radiant outpouring
as stars of light. We have eaten away our basic
substance, fed it to the drugs, of days
when there was nothing to do. Too many on the calendar.
         And yet this is substance, this despair.
         To walk with it as a beloved companion, or
friend. See that as the broken leg we try to mend.
Cripples with no crutch, looking for the broken tree
to fashion into a stump.
         And yet this is not the true condition. There
are comedies and comedians. Flowers in blossom.
The same old dirge. Age-old. The curse of
"Adam" that each man is heir to, and equipped
for — interrupted by the doctor coming down the
hall — that each man is heir, and for which each
is equipped.

(from "A Series," Ace of Pentacles)

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Fresh Face, Somebody Who Understands

Nixon and Rumsfeld, circa 1971

"Rumsfeld flees France fearing arrest," reads the story, still unconfirmed. "Former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld fled France today fearing arrest over charges of 'ordering and authorizing' torture of detainees at both the American-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the US military’s detainment facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, unconfirmed reports coming from Paris suggest."

What we know for certain, according to the New York Times, is that "several human rights organizations
based in the United States and Europe have filed a complaint in a Paris court accusing former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld of responsibility for torture."

Monsieur le Procureur, begins the text of the document, after twenty-four pages summing up:

Il résulte des éléments ci-dessus et des documents annexés à la présente plainte que la responsabilité pénale personnelle de Monsieur DONALD RUMSFELD dans les faits de torture et de mauvais traitements, constitutifs également de crimes de guerre, est absolument indiscutable.

(It follows from the above elements and documents annexed to this complaint that the personal criminal responsibility of Mr. DONALD RUMSFELD in the facts of torture and ill-treatment, also constitute war crimes, absolutely indisputable.)

If this isn't exactly justice at least not yet it is still a physical relief to read.

And it reminded me of this 1971 conversation between Nixon and Rumsfeld: the then-president, in almost avuncular mentoring mode, and his shiny young underling looking for work commensurate with his talents:

PRESIDENT NIXON: I have an idea. I have an idea. There might be, even at this time-- you're not, you're not too sensitive about, I trust you're not about where you sit at the table. You really ought to be, you really ought to be in foreign affairs. I wish I had any position. The question ...(inaudible) assistant secretary or something like that. ...(inaudible) That's where the action is. That's where it is.

RUMSFELD: And five years from now, that would give me a--

PRESIDENT NIXON: Oh, enormous.

RUMSFELD: --a credential, a background in terms of running for the Senate in Illinois, or in terms of being involved in the world. It's just a much--it seemed to--it struck me that it may be something say, your ...(inaudible) at this point.

PRESIDENT NIXON: Well, let's look at the transcript.

RUMSFELD: Of course, those service secretaries are--

PRESIDENT NIXON: Well, they're just ...(inaudible). I like them all as individuals. But the poor guys, they do, they must do important things. ...(inaudible), if Henry weren't such a difficult person, god knows he needs somebody else ...(inaudible). He needs a fresh face, somebody that understands.

Monday, October 29, 2007

My Wicked Caddywumpus Ways

Welcome to my world, this week anyway. This surely can't be a "good" picture, technically speaking, though my half-mad subject makes me want to figure out how to take one. But I'm happy in any case with its small capture of wild unraveling frenzy.

The personage involved is (seemingly overnight) exploding with language cracker, money, airplane, baby it's intoxicating to listen while it all suddenly manifests in this realm.

Grateful to find Nada Gordon's anti-rules of poetry blogging, each of which I have been breaking (and will no doubt continue to break) constantly. Still, they're liberating.

I keep thinking that these posts ought to be notes on something (rather than attempting to be something) or like Wile E. Coyote I am going to end up one day dangling in mid-air.

Followed by a very uncartoonish fall from grace. Till then I will continue in my merry (or should it be my wicked or at least my daffy) caddywumpus way.

This morning that means splurging on cups of green Lung Ching Dragon Well tea and thinking about a blurb for somebody. Reading Marianne Moore's dust jacket copy, which Wayne Koestenbaum recommends here as "fanatical exercise[s] of a personality sculpted in the privacy of the bedroom/atelier." That sounds about right.

Noticing a word strewn through them, over and over, and not of course accidentally: verity. Verity! So quaint.

A foot-wrong that would be expunged from any self-respecting bit of puffery today.

Friday, October 26, 2007

A Page from the Dangerfield Playbook

This makes perfect sense. The strumpet proposes a new model for literary prizes and Stephen Colbert immediately takes advantage of it. Evidence: his book I Am America (And So Can You!) has just taken the first coveted Stephen T. Colbert Award for Literary Excellence. Somebody's slapped a silver seal announcing this honor right on the book jacket, so it looks like the Newbery Medal or something:

I wouldn't want to claim that Colbert reads this blog, although that would have an air of truthiness. But what is clear is that ideas of this order cannot be contained in the poetic blogosphere and so loft like pixie dust over circus tents and television studios alike, finally taking purchase in the brains of well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiots* like Colbert.

What's even lovelier is that apparently the book contains a raft of silver stickers like the one on the cover, so that each of us may win the Colbert Award in turn.

Who said prizes are for children? Stickers may be for children but surely these beauties should be kept out of their hands at least till they are older and have developed the requisite level of narcissism.

When we launched the conversation that became The Dangerfield Conundrum: A Roundtable on Humor and Poetry on the same day as The Colbert Report on Comedy Central, it seemed like a happy oddity but obviously it was a signal that larger forces were at work, and only poets who are content with their station can afford to ignore them.

* Colbert's own description of his character.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Poetry, Grimness, and Gallows Humor

Ange Mlinko

Ange Mlinko, whose posts are such an impertinent pleasure over at Harriet, gets off a good volley against grimness in the comment box this morning, and I don't want it to go unnoticed. "Is black humor the only serious humor, then?... 'Dahn the Plug'ole' makes me want to cry, not laugh. Which is fine, but frankly I'm tired of the sense I get from some in the avant-garde that negativity is the ultimate value. Nietzsche's Silenus, who stops laughing long enough to advise one that it would have been better never to have been born, might be its mascot."

I understand her weariness with gallows humor, although I don't always share it when the hangman (or is it the hanging man or woman) leaves us with uncertainties about the larger order that set the death-platform stubbornly in place. Here's a poem that accomplishes that feat of gallows legerdemain (apologies for wrapped lines, which defeat me in html with all the different browsers and text sizes out there):

War Has Been Given a Bad Name

I am told that the best people have begun saying
How, from a moral point of view, the Second World War
Fell below the standard of the First. The Wehrmacht
Allegedly deplores the methods by which the SS effected
The extermination of certain peoples. The Ruhr industrialists
Are said to regret the bloody manhunts
Which filled their mines and factories with slave workers. The intellectuals
So I heard, condemn industry's demand for slave workers
Likewise their unfair treatment. Even the bishops
Dissociate themselves from this way of waging war; in short the feeling
Prevails in every quarter that the Nazis did the Fatherland
A lamentably bad turn, and that war
While in itself natural and necessary, has, thanks to the
Unduly uninhibited and positively inhuman
Way in which it was conducted on this occasion, been
Discredited for some time to come.

— Bertolt Brecht
(tr. John Willett)

Ben Lerner’s “Twenty-One Gun Salute for Ronald Reagan,” from his 2006 book Angle of Yaw (Copper Canyon), immediately comes to mind as well as a poem bracing (not enervating) in its darkness. Here’s a brief excerpt:

I am wearing a Mikhail Gorbachev Halloween mask.
Blood is a vegetable when it forms part of a school lunch.
Tell the boys to go out there and win one for me.
The former president entered my room at night.
We celebrated by breaking off pieces of the wall.
I want the tone to have a very broad surface in relation to its depth.
I want a gun for protection.
         I want the form to enact the numbing it describes.
         I would shoot myself only in self-defense.

Like Ange I do sometimes find it hard going when a poetic performance seems to teeter on the edge of nihilism, when the poet speaks from a seemingly airless cultural room in which the objects of his or her loathing loom triumphant, with no possibility of resistance in sight. This is clearly not the case with books of incendiary satire like K. Silem Mohammad’s Deer Head Nation and Drew Gardner’s Petroleum Hat, but (in less skilled hands) it does seem a particular challenge for a poetry collaged from found materials chosen for their ridiculousness or even for their ignorance and bigotry, in which the poet’s own stance must emerge solely from what he or she selects.

I’d be very interested in hearing more from Ange or others about dark-humored books or oeuvres that seem rooted in unreconstructed hopelessness, or tack against it. I’m sure Ange would not include excitable boys and girls Ron Padgett, Bernadette Mayer, Kenward Elmslie, Maxine Chernoff, and Kenneth Koch among the grimly hilarious, for instance, but who else might we put forward among our contemporaries or recent contemporaries?

Who, in other words, is writing funny poems that set nihilism on its ear? And where do we run into a thick, unmoving, windless sea of despair, that Nietzschean Silenus wanting to sleep and never wake again?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Adventures in Heresiology

Priests and Levites shewing the sentence of judgment

Stan Apps makes some provocative (if in my view somewhat puritanical) observations on "Rear-Gardism and Aesthetic Norms" here. Why such earnestness and territoriality in someone who displays a puckish and transgressive sense of humor in his art?

Apps says he wants to "imitate science, in its fantastical escape from prior knowns." But science is a process of gradual corrective action, based on testability and the constant revision of theories.

He thinks that the relationship between Newtonian mechanics and quantum physics is one of supersession. But actually Newtonian (a.k.a. classical) mechanics hasn't been superseded. It's used all the time to predict the motion of spacecraft, comets, planets etc.

And Einstein's corrections to the system are so small that they make no difference in calculating mundane things like the orbits of satellites.

Quantum physics is a "new" theory but the mathematics behind it was spawned by classical mechanics, and that mathematics is in constant use.

So no fantastical escape from prior knowns is possible in science or in art, and attempts to parachute out are less fantastical, in their impulses, than they are hygienic.

Here we go again (as I began to say here): solemnly patrolling the perimeter of the avant-garde, casting out the heretics, keeping the pure of heart within the fold.

Perhaps it's my origins in the order of the red diaper, but I am ever so tired of claims that in their humorlessness remind me less of art, or science, than religion.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Academy of Fine Arts

Jonathan Hill, an illustrator/cartoonist living in Portland, Oregon, has made a cartoon out of one of my favorite poems from Linh Dinh's oeuvre, "Academy of Fine Arts," and somehow he's actually made it funnier.

Is it the last (and first) panel with the empty word-balloon that adds a sort of delicious extra beat to the poem? I don't know, but that pause at the end just kills me.

What would Wittgenstein think? It's
"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent" all over again.

Thanks to Jonathan (whose website is here) and to Linh for giving me permission to run the comic.

Click on it to make the image larger and much more readable.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Poem in Spanish (with a Note from Paul Hoover)

A couple of years ago I fell hard — first for a single poem called "Poem in Spanish," by Paul Hoover, and then for the collection it names.

I wanted to know how Hoover came to write this book, which I envied for the extravagance of its gestures and its deft feints and parries with the post-avant rules.

So I asked him to say a little something about it here. His comments follow the poem:

Poem in Spanish

I have two coffins but only one wife,
who loves me like a neighbor.
I have one wing and a long flight scheduled.

I have two sons and the time of day,
its late hour dark in a brilliant landscape.

I have a small religion based on silence
and a furious heart beating. I have a map
of the region where the kiss is deepest,
a duplex cathedral for my hells and heavens,
and one oily feather. No matter how I settle,
the world keeps moving at its famous pace.

I have two minds and an eye for seeing
the world's singular problems as my self-portrait.
I have fuzzy lightning and a pair of old glasses.

I have two radios but only one message,
subtle in transmission, arriving like wine.
I have yo tengo and two tambiens.
The world between them creaks
like distance and difference.

I have two fires and a very sleepy fireman,
immortal longings and one life only,
unliving and undying.


Paul Hoover writes:

The poems "Poem in Spanish" and "Corazon" were the last two poems in Winter (Mirror), published by Flood Editions in 2002. I wrote the rest of the sequence in 2003, while going through an excrucriating separation from the Chicago college where I'd taught for 28 years. I had always loved Latin American poetry for its warmth, daring, and sense of humor. The project developed out of this attraction. Why not be Latin American for a few poems? After a while, I realized that I could express certain things through the mask of style that my writing could not directly address: the death of parents, feelings of love, and so on. In discussing Poems in Spanish this summer at a literary conference in Rosario, Argentina, I stated that, as postmodern artifice, the concept of writing in Spanish gave me "permission" to speak forthrightly. As soon as the session ended, Hector Berenguer, the conference organizer, leaped to the stage to ask, "Why do you need permission?" He had invited me to the conference because of the directness and openness of the poems, not for the charm of their postmodern artifice. At the same time, Marjorie Perloff sent an email stating that the sequence is a "breakthrough" work. To some degree, apparently, the poems are like tea leaves; you can see in them whatever you desire to see. But I suspect a stronger force is present. The poems stand on essential ground and address essential matters. When I read them in Argentina, as well as at Omnidawn book events, I could literally hear the attention in the room. I could also feel attention in myself as a speaker. There was no doubt in me or in the audience about what the poem was after; even the poem knew.

We live at a time of crisis in expression, when subjectivity is broadly challenged, constructivism is increasingly triumphant, and the concept of unity of being is considered laughable. Our postmodern psychology is more or less: no artifice, no authenticity. The word "imagination" is no longer used. Poems are "constructed" rather than divined. By this standard, my poems break all the rules established against Romanticism, except for one thing they appear to have been written in another voice than my own. This minor irony sets the work gently back into the postmodern camp. The reader is allowed to think: "Oh, they're constructed, after all, and stand at a safe distance from sincerity. What a relief!"

Monday, October 15, 2007

M. A. Numminen Sings Wittgenstein

Specifically, sings the seventh and last proposition of the Tractatus:

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen

("Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent").

A must-see, if you're as goofy as we are.

All others warned.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Longfellow of Philosophy (Part Two)

Wittgenstein with Georg Henrik von Wright

To pick up where I had to leave off on Wednesday —

It seems that Kreisel was on to something in his anecdote about Wittgenstein’s legacy-anxieties, especially whether his fate might resemble Longfellow’s.

When recounting a story from Kreisel it is perhaps always best to have a second source. He loved the cultivation of scandal, and no one is quite sure whether he (for instance) actually spent the night with Brigitte Bardot, as alleged. The fact that it seems entirely plausible, however, is a testament to his wide circle of glamorous friends and acquaintances.

Since I first heard Kreisel’s recollections years ago, I’ve been wishing there were more meat on those bones. In that pursuit, back in the nineties, I asked my husband Jussi to speak to his father, the Finnish philosopher and logician Oiva Ketonen, to see whether he or his close associate, Georg Henrik von Wright (co-executor of Wittgenstein’s literary estate), had any memories that could either confirm or cast doubt on what Kreisel had to say.

Von Wright (the “Wright” pronounced as in Richter scale) had succeeded Wittgenstein at Cambridge and often housed and cared for him during the waning days. My father-in-law (now deceased, like von Wright), spent some time in the von Wright home during this period.

Alas, neither of them could confirm the story, von Wright flatly telling Ketonen that it wasn’t true.

As it turns out, however, he was quite wrong, at least according to Wittgenstein’s close friend, British philosopher Elizabeth (G. E. M.) Anscombe, co-administrator with von Wright and Rush Rhees of Wittgenstein’s literary estate.

In her essay “On the Form of Wittgenstein's Writing,” she writes:

Wittgenstein once said to me in the course of a conversation that he had asked himself the question whether he was a second-rate artist. He added by way of illustration that Longfellow’s discovery of the Hiawatha metre must have seemed a great thing to him; and he said, or implied, that under the influence of such an impression it would have been difficult or impossible for Longfellow to perceive — what we could easily see — that he was a second-rate artist.

Anscombe’s brief anecdote, when combined with Kreisel’s, seems enough to confirm Wittgenstein’s anxieties. She goes on to say that “what corresponded to the Hiawatha metre [in Wittgenstein’s writing] was the use of separate ‘Bemerkungen.’ A Bemerkung might be a single short sentence, or it might be over a page long....”

These separate Bemerkungen are of course Wittgenstein’s famous “remarks.”

Elizabeth Anscombe

It’s fascinating — and poignant — to think of Wittgenstein torturing himself with the notion that his style, so beloved by the poets and critics of our era, might have blinded him to (what he imagined might be) his irrelevance.

But it also makes one wonder, somewhat tantalizingly: which stylistic tics (or other self-important bits of business) might be blinding poets to their irrelevance or just-plain awfulness today? And which of their contemporaries — poets, editors, critics — might be embracing them for exactly that shtick, and those gimmicks?

It’s enough to give a poet pause. The sort of pause Wittgenstein seems to have taken when he says, in the preface to the Philosophical Investigations:

I make [my remarks] public with doubtful feelings. It is not impossible that it should fall to the lot of this work, in its poverty and in the darkness of this time, to bring light into one brain or another — but of course it is not likely.

I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking. But, if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of his own.

I should have liked to produce a good book. This has not come about, but the time is past in which I could improve it.

January 1945.

Von Wright, in his “Biographical Sketch” of Wittgenstein, writes that “His life was a constant journey, and doubt was the moving force within him. He seldom looked back on his earlier positions, and when he did so it was usually to repudiate them.”

Such mutability (and I do think it is an ability rather than a form of intellectual weakness) should perhaps be considered in light of the puzzling fact that Wittgenstein selected a quote from Longfellow, his “second-rate artist,” as a possible motto for the Philosophical Investigations.

Marjorie Perloff, in her essay “But isn’t the same at least the same?”: Translatability in Wittgenstein, Duchamp, and Jacques Roubaud,” writes of “the almost comic vehemence of [his] extreme aesthetic judgments,” especially ironic in someone whose “impatience with aesthetic theory is legendary.”

She explains this as an expression of “le côté Viennoise of Wittgenstein — the social code of his time whereby those who are gebildet (cultured, well educated) took it to be incumbent upon them to pronounce on the given art work or performance or concert,” and goes on to expand enormously on our understanding of his proposition (collected in Culture and Value) that “One ought really to do philosophy only as a form of poetry.”

What Anscombe's memories make clear, I think, is that Wittgenstein did think of himself as an artist, as much as a philosopher, and found the model of an artist’s life peculiarly useful in thinking (or worrying) about his legacy.

More on this, I hope, sometime next week — Wittgenstein actually slightly misquotes Longfellow in his proposed motto for the Philosophical Investigations, and the stanza in question turns out to have hilarious echoes in the poetry of today.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Longfellow of Philosophy

Ludwig Wittgenstein

I’ve been dipping into what must be one of the loopiest and most sensational festschrifts ever set to paper, Kreiseliana: about and around Georg Kreisel, edited by Piergiorgio Odifreddi (A.K. Peters, 1996), concerning the ferociously brilliant and witty mathematical logician who was one of Wittgenstein’s favorite students and whom Wittgenstein called the most able philosopher he had ever met who was also a mathematician.

Among other things of interest (at least to people who knew him or knew his penchant for infamy) the book contains the extraordinary and strangely affecting reminiscences of mathematician Verena Huber-Dyson, who left her husband, the renowned physicist and writer, Freeman Dyson, for Kreisel. Following those are Freeman Dyson’s own brief and somewhat sniffy comments, including the observation that he “never felt [himself] to be in competition with [Kreisel].”

Kreisel was also the likely model for the wicked Julius King in Iris Murdoch’s A Fairly Honourable Defeat (although she denied it in a way that seems rather to confirm it) and, according to Iris Murdoch: A Life by Peter J. Conradi, “one model for Marcus Vallar in [Murdoch’s] The Message to the Planet, who is brilliant and solitary to the point of near-autism, and given to bouts of random cruelty that devastate its victims.” (She also dedicated An Accidental Man to him.)

More on the looking-glass world of Kreiseliana later, perhaps, but the book reminded me of a story recounted by my husband, Jussi Ketonen, who knew Kreisel when they were colleagues at Stanford. Kreisel had a habit of inviting Jussi over to his then-home on Forest Avenue in Palo Alto for conversations which Jussi describes as among the funniest and most intellectually arresting of his life.

In one of these conversations, Kreisel described Wittgenstein as worrying, in the years before his death, that he would be remembered as “the Longfellow of philosophy.”

For obvious reasons, this amused and intrigued me, and I’ve always wondered whether there were mentions of Wittgenstein’s Longfellow-anxieties elsewhere. I’d never been able to find one until a couple of weeks ago — although I’m certainly not a Wittgenstein scholar, and would be very happy to be enlightened by such.

When time permits, probably by Friday, I’ll pass on my small discovery.

Monday, October 08, 2007

The Hat Makes the Man

Max Ernst, The Hat Makes the Man (1920)

"Given a choice / Between the good / And the beautiful, / Please don't give me that choice" (Gary Lenhart)

Much that looks delectable in The Hat 7: Rae Armantrout, Cynthia Arrieu-King, Robyn Art, John Beer, Aaron Belz, Joseph P. Bienvenu, Jack Boettcher, Anne Boyer, Adam Clay, Bruce Covey, Crystal Curry, Alison Stine Davis, Orman Day, Christopher DeWeese, Mary Donnelly, Andrew Epstein, S. Jason Fraley, Jane Gregory, Jenny Gropp, Jeffrey Harrison, Lois Marie Harrod, Anthony Hawley, Anne Heide, Dale Herd, Claire Hero, Elizabeth Hughey, D.J. Huppatz, Vincent Katz, Wayne Koestenbaum, Jason Koo, Jacqueline Kolosov, Jason Labbe, Erik La Prade, Josh Lefkowitz, Gary Lenhart, Reb Livingston, Rachel Loden, Jonathan Mayhew, Richard Meier, Catherine Meng, Andrew Mister, Michael Morse, Gina Myers, Cynthia Nelson, Charles North, Kathleen Ossip, Jean-Paul Pecqueur, Frederick Pollack, Michael Robins, Ken Rumble, Zachary Schomburg, Peter Jay Shippy, Gary Sullivan, Maureen Thorson, Jen Tynes, Chris Vitiello, G.C. Waldrep, Della Watson, Dara Wier, Betsy Wheeler, Shelley Wong and John Yohe

Monday, October 01, 2007

In the Vale of Poem-Making

photo by babblingdweeb

Really. Is there anything more poignant in a ridiculous sort of way than finding your own book in a used bookstore? Unless perhaps it is finding two of your books, two different books, in a used bookstore. Unless perhaps it is finding two of your books, two different books, in a used bookstore and not even in the main store -- no, they are in some sort of annex, an annex where you had gone to look at other people's poignant and unsorted books.

You had gone there to wonder whether you could love those books more than the people who had abandoned them without a second thought, but instead you were staring at your own tattered orphans.

Reader, this happened to the strumpet not ten days ago at Green Apple Books in San Francisco and as she is ever desirous of affording you an accurate representation of her humiliations in the vale of poem-making, she passes on her little tableau. Enjoy it in good health.

Well, not an accurate representation, no: for to give you an accurate representation of her humiliations would get her booted out of poesy in a great hurry, possibly in a coffin. But be assured that she will strive to tell you whatever she can. Until she can't anymore, that is, and then all bets are off.

And actually the day at Green Apple was far from lost because she found (crisp and thrilling, in the real store, not in the shabby but endearing annex) this shiny thing:

and brought it home, where somebody loves it, and it is a wonder-cabinet. Which of many wonders to show you?

To a Muse

Give me a first line, you who are far away.
The second line will almost write itself.
In times of pain, I open the dictionary.

Like a girl in the last row who will not say
The theoretical part of the dream was herself,
Give me a first lie, you who are far away.

A student laughs: I died once. Red is gray.
Cheat me like a quote, deceiving Elf.
In times of pain, I open the dictionary.

You who tried to carve this family in clay
Skeptical and frivolous as a filthy shelf
Give me another line, you who are far away.

It's a small freedom on a revisionary day
As a jay imitates the human on an elm --
In times of pain, I open the dictionary.

And in ordinary happiness, I open the dictionary.
The words remain, but the guards are gone for help.
Give me a last line, you who are far away.
In times of pain, I open the dictionary.

First Monday in October

Steve Kroft's attempt to soften and recraft the image of Clarence Thomas on 60 Minutes yesterday left me both shaken and depressed. Shaken because Thomas is filled with unexamined fury and it clearly fuels what (in his case) passes for thinking. Depressed because he's only 58 and will likely be imposing his unconscious on us for decades and decades.

The 2006-2007 Supreme Court term was downright scary, with reaction (for the first time in my memory) entirely ruling the roost.

Not voting (so fashionable once again) is a luxury for people without uteruses.

Friday, September 28, 2007

'Guillaume Apollinaire is Dead'

Jasper Johns, "Land's End" (1978)

As I mentioned in the comment box yesterday, there is a connection between Jasper Johns and The Sonnets, beyond the fact that Joe Brainard (in his cover for the first edition and in some of his early paintings and assemblages) "showed the influence of Jasper Johns," to quote from his bio at the website devoted to his work.

According to Roberta Bernstein, in Nice to See You: Homage to Ted Berrigan (Coffee House, 1991), "Near the upper left corner of 'Screen Piece 3,' Johns silkscreened the title page and adjoining blank page of a book of poems by Ted Berrigan, The Sonnets (1964) [in the Grove Press edition]. There are many aspects of The Sonnets which would have appealed to Johns at this time, but I think the most important was the way the poems were conceived as a series. They are all written in the sonnet form and certain lines reappear in different poems, sometimes fragmented or slightly altered. Two of the poems, 'Penn Station' and 'Sonnet XXI,' are made up of identical lines rearranged. Johns' Screen Pieces are likewise the same format, and contain motifs which are repeated in each version. Johns was reading The Sonnets in November 1967, when he was beginning work on his Screen Pieces, and I think these poems reaffirmed or possibly inspired the idea of a closely related series of paintings."

Here's that bit from the upper left corner of "Screen Piece 3" (I'm snipping it from a photo of the entire work by Eric Pollitzer, and then rotating it ninety degrees):

Bernstein goes on to talk about the pleasure Johns took in discovering the patterning of The Sonnets. He read her poems from the book and selected favorite lines, some of which she quotes as particularly relevant to his art (and some of which Berrigan borrowed, of course): "Everything turns into writing / I strain to gather my absurdities into a symbol"; "(to cleave to a cast-off emotion--Clarity! Clarity!)"; "I'll break / My staff     bury it certain fathoms in the earth / And deeper than did ever plummet sound / I'll drown my book."

She also mentions the wealth of personal and poetic references in The Sonnets and how Berrigan's allusions "to particular poets and poems, even through a name or title only, enabled Johns to bring personal associations and feelings into his own work indirectly through the intermediary of poetry."

Lovely affinities all. But since the initial charge of this blog was to throw light on lives both saved and ruined by poetry, one can't help noticing that these affinities pale a little (or are overshadowed by an element of sadness) when one remembers the economic circumstances in which Berrigan left his family and how they compare to the prices fetched by works like "Screen Print 3" today.

On November 2, 1994, under the headline "At the Auctions," the Washington Post reported the top five prices of recent days, including a work by Jasper Johns which they called "Screenpiece #3 (The Sonnets)."

Kvelled the Post, "One of the handful of works offered by publishing magnate S.I. Newhouse, this esoteric canvas is inspired by the New York poetry of Ted Berrigan."

Selling price? A cauterizingly ironic $662,500.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Library of Missing Books

Is it possible to pine away after a lost book? Apparently.

But it seems particularly ridiculous to carry a torch for a missing book if indeed one still owns it in three different editions. The level of absurdity reaches absolutely giddy heights if (as is the case) each of those editions is supposed to be improved, i.e. more complete than the last, and if all three are vastly more readable, as physical objects, than the lost original.

Because yes, I have the October 3, 2000 edition of The Sonnets by Ted Berrigan, listed somewhat hilariously at as "Penguin (Non-Classics)" (well okay, if you say so); I've long had the 1982 United Artists Books edition; and a few years ago, in a fit of grief, I bought the 1964 Grove Press edition from a guy in the Netherlands.

What I don't have anymore is the crudely mimeoed and stapled stack of pages published by "C" Press in 1964, in an edition of three or four hundred copies. Ron Padgett, who typed the stencils, says four hundred in an essay in Nice to See You: Homage to Ted Berrigan, which Coffee House published in 1991; sellers of rare books seem to say three hundred, and they want considerably more than a thousand dollars for it.

I had it when we moved to Hawai`i in 1975, shipping all our worldly goods in a container that left from the Port of Oakland. I had it during the two years that my husband taught mathematics at UH Manoa. But somehow, in the chaos of moving back to California, it seems to have been misplaced. I say seems to have because to this day I am still thinking of places it might have been stashed by accident, and I'll probably always maintain the image of it turning up, as cheerfully shabby as ever, to assume its rightful place among its brethren.

It would have been easy for someone else to misplace it, and I did have friends helping in those last insane days, with a seven-year-old running around. It was about the size of the average glossy magazine and might have been shuffled in with a bunch of those and (this is difficult to think about) tossed into limbo. (The thought that it was recycled or that it's mouldering somewhere in a landfill fills me with despair and makes me want to wear a hair shirt and beat myself with birch branches, to atone for my carelessness.)

What seems completely wrong, in each of the other editions, is the cover. That's because the covers are wrong: they're not the thing you see above. As far as I'm aware, the original cover, by Joe Brainard, was nowhere on the web before today. I scanned a picture of it from Nice to See You, and have to say that it's a kind of tonic for what ails me to see it again, a thing in itself, and not closed up in the pages of a different book.

The other covers are definitely slicker, and some might say lovelier, but I will never be reconciled to them.

My sorrow isn't about the money, which I would have left on the table in any case unless I had a starving baby. No chance that thing would have walked out of here (with my consent) while I am still living, so it must be about something else. Is it possible to miss a book physically? Because that's what it's about: I want to touch it again. I want to feel its strange heft, turn its pages (carefully), note again the way the staples fail to really hold it together.

Perhaps you, too, have a book that got away? I'd like to imagine all those lost and cherished books in a secret library somewhere, our never-burned, secret Alexandria.

~ . /~ . /~ . /~ . /~ . /~ . /~ . /~ . /~ . /~ . /~ . /~ . /~ . /~ . /~ . /

Going through the eye of the needle, alas, and no doubt it's going to happen more than once, although I hope to be here at least a few times a week.

So check in when you can and find us stuttering (or strumpeting) back to life....

Friday, September 21, 2007

Poetic License and the Powers That Be *

Some interesting reactions to my last post on mailing lists and by the backchannel. The hip stance is revulsion, almost horror; this is not something we care about, not something we could possibly care about. And indeed as I said myself in the comment box, in the main "prizes don't matter a fig. Most times, they're not actually about literature."

What I was trying to do was to inject an element of playfulness and merriment into the general gloom, to suggest that (if these things occasionally rankle us, and they do seem to rankle even the hipnoscenti, for all their supposed aloofness) we're not entirely powerless to tweak those conditions, or even turn them slightly on their ear, if we take them into our own hands. What is always fascinating, and poignant, is to see how many people do think we're powerless as arbiters of taste, that there's no way to accumulate enough literary capital and credibility to make us anything but fodder for establishment guns.

Ron Silliman has written as well and as frankly as anyone about prizes over the years, remarking at one point that "It’s this need for external validation that strikes me as sad, finally, though I’m sure I crave it just as badly as the next human being, maybe more. What makes it sad is what it says about how our culture doesn’t let us value the act of writing itself, for its own sake, as its own reward."

And yet he often links contemptuously to notices of particularly idiotic prize selections (so they must eat away at him on some level), notes the better choices ("And when prizes do work: / More on the Pulitzer / for Ornette Coleman"), or says, on some sunny morning, "It strikes me as bizarre that John Ashbery, of all people, never has received a National Medal for the Arts."

Bizarre indeed: according to something called the Ashbery Resource Center ("project of the Flow Chart Foundation for Bard College"), Ashbery has won everything from the Discovery Prize in 1952 to the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, the Bollingen Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award and the Robert Frost Medal (both given by the Poetry Society of America) and on and on, not to mention fellowships from the Guggenheim, MacArthur, and Rockefeller foundations, to name a few.

Nor should we forget for a moment the much more culturally salient fact that he is now, as we all know, poet laureate of MTV.

Of course he deserves every bit of it plus the National Medal for the Arts to boot. Given all the fashionable loathing for awards, I do think it's interesting that nobody has ever suggested that (in order to remain intellectually respectable) he should have turned them all down.

Often (mis)quoted in these discussions is something Charles Ives is reputed to have said, that "Prizes are for children." I went looking for accounts of the Ives remark and found two good ones, the first marvelously romantic:

Equally significant was Lou Harrison's performance of the Third Symphony in 1947. It won Ives a Pulitzer Prize, forty years after the work had been composed. Ives was gratified; he disliked the hubbub, however, and remarked: "Prizes are for boys. I'm grown up." He had a point. The years that followed saw the recording of virtually all his important works, and Ives took his place in the textbooks as, all things considered, probably the most important American composer.

Europeans discovered him as well. When Arnold Schonberg died in 1951, his widow mailed Ives a sheet of paper that she had found. On it he had written:

There is a great Man living in this country—a composer.
He has solved the problem how to preserve one's self and to learn.
He responds to negligence by contempt.
He is not forced to accept praise or blame.
His name is Ives.

(Ministers of Reform: The Progressives' Achievement in American Civilization: Robert M. Crunden, University of Illinois Press, 1985)

But the second account, from Timothy A. Johnson's Baseball and the Music of Charles Ives: A Proving Ground (Scarecrow Press, 2004), may, in the end, be more telling:

1947 also was the year that Ives was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in music for his Third Symphony. According to legendary accounts, Ives replied to the committee, "Prizes are for boys. I'm grown up." Moreover, he claimed that "prizes are the badges of mediocrity." But this public reaction perhaps has been overplayed. As Jan Swafford noted, "In private he hung the certificate proudly on the wall."

* Title cribbed from this.