Monday, July 30, 2007

Why Is American Poetry Culturally Deprived?

Looking for something else, I stumbled on an extremely cranky essay by Kenneth Rexroth ("Why Is American Poetry Culturally Deprived?" from World Outside the Window: The Selected Essays of Kenneth Rexroth). Among other nasty bits there's this:
From the death of Longfellow to the day Allen Ginsberg took off his clothes, the American poet was not an important factor in American life. He was not a factor at all. For this reason, the kind of young man who wished to participate in the decisions of his community went into business, engineering, or the professions. The boy who knew he could not or was afraid to participate wrote verse.
One has to wonder whether he included himself in that last, somewhat emasculating hissy fit. In a way the essay is almost Gioiaesque, although of course it predated "Can Poetry Matter?" by almost thirty years.

I actually agree with Rexroth's larger point, that American poetry is often giddily free of historical seasoning and intellectual complexity. He makes some hilarious (and wildly contestable) observations about Stevens and Williams--poets he otherwise admires:
What is valuable about the poetry of Wallace Stevens is that it really does reorganize the human sensibility afresh in each poem in terms of quite simple elements of experience. This experience is never more profound than that accessible to the kind of man Wallace Stevens in fact was--a wealthy cultivated executive of a big insurance company.

So with William Carlos Williams, who for contemporary taste is the best of the generation of Classic Modernists. As a handler of general ideas, Williams is pathetic. As either aesthetic or epistemology, his favorite phrase, "No ideas but in things," is infantile....

To products of environments as troubled as those which produced Rilke, Mayakovsky, Paul Eluard, or Dylan Thomas, even the most tormented American poet must seem singularly content, but so it is.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

My Charm Offensive



December 4, 1970



As I have indicated in a number of my memoranda to you in the last two weeks, I have reluctantly concluded that our entire effort on the public relations front has been misdirected and ineffective. I want to be sure to separate the problems. We have gotten across the idea that the White House is efficient at the "process" in both the NSC and Domestic Council organizations--probably the best that the White House has had for many years and that, all in all, we have a very competent group of operators in the White House. The net result of this operation has been to create the impression among average voters--an impression which is gleefully underlined time and time again by our opponents in the press, that we are an efficient, crafty, cold machine, both in operating the government and all of our political activities....

There are innumerable examples of warm items--the way we have gone far beyond any previous President in this century in breaking our backs to be nicey-nice to the Cabinet, staff, the Congress, etc., around Christmastime in terms of activities that show personal concern, not only for them, but for their families. For example, the Church Service, every other person who comes through that line practically gets tears in his eyes when he thanks us for allowing them to bring their children to church. I have yet to see any columnist write this, and I of course doubt that anybody will because none of us really have the capacity to get it across, (due to the fact that we are ''slightly embarrassed to say such things").

There are such little things such as the treatment of household staff, the elevator operators, the office staff, the calls that I make to people when they are sick, even though they no longer mean anything to anybody, the innumerable letters I have written to people when they have fallen on bad days, including even losing an election. I doubt if any President in history has ever written somebody who has lost an election. But I write to them in terms of their families and how hard they had worked, etc. Here we have an ironical fact. Ehrlichman is constantly bugging me that I am going to have to see the Cabinet more and the sub-Cabinet more. And Flanigan, of course, is after me to see the members of the agencies. No President could have done more than I have done in this respect and particularly in the sense that I have treated them like dignified human beings, and not like dirt under my feet....

On a small note, I called Fred Cialles the other night who was going under the knife for a cancer operation, which will probably end his life. Fred Cialles has had it in Chicago politics but he has been my friend for years. I didn't tell anybody about the call and won't, but I put his nurse on also, and urged her to give a lift to all the other patients, but that was the most important thing she could do. Rose will remember an incident where I took dolls out to a couple of children at a hospital, when I was presiding over the Senate, who were dying with leukemia. We deliberately didn't have publicity....

All of this must be handled subtly and under no circumstances am I going to sit down with anybody and start telling them all the good deeds I have done. Again, such things, to be believable, have to be discovered, and one of the great factors that should be emphasized is that the President does not brag about all the good things he does for people....

In the whole field of warmth--the thrust should be not only jokes, glad-handing, back-slapping, etc., simply these small human acts of kindness which will mean an awful lot to people. Again, here is an area of utter failure on our part....

Having spoken of the White House events, one great plus is that this is a happy White House--one where the First Family has made it everybody's house. I have hit the theme over and over again--this house belongs to the people. I have used the Latin phrase to people over and over again "Esta en su Casa," which means "whenever you are here you are in your own house". Of course, the brilliant events that we have planned, the brilliant "verse" has simply not gotten through in any adequate capacity. This, of course, is a major public relations failure....

With regard to the whole warmth business, a very important point to underline is that we do not try to broker such items. We allow them to be discovered. For example, I would be horrified at the idea of putting out the fact that I called some mothers and wives of men that had been killed in Vietnam shortly after I met with the POW wives. Incidentally, on the warmth deal, the fact that after the Ohio State Game I called the Coach at Purdue--a team that had lost 8 games this year, and where the Coach is probably on the way out, and told him how I felt he had done an awfully good job under terribly difficult circumstances. This I did not put out and did not try to broker....

To sum up, what is needed is to get across those fundamental decencies and virtues which the great majority of Americans like--hard work, warmth, kindness, consideration for others, willingness to take the heat and not to pass the buck and, above all, a man who always does what he thinks is right, regardless of the consequences (he would rather be a one-term President doing what is right, rather than a two-term President doing what is wrong), and just plain guts and courage.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Either the Audience Wins or You Do: Harold Pinter, Audience Pleasure, and Other Musings

One of the most unnerving things about poetry readings for me, as a young poet, was my relative success with them. I had been reading with writers like Judy Grahn and Susan Griffin, among others, and as much as I admired Judy (for example), her spellbinding performances of her work, and the strangely (or at least astonishingly) warm reception for my own, still left me profoundly unsettled. It seemed way too easy to please people. And once one had figured out how to do this, the effects were eerily reproducible. I could imagine taking this show out on the road, and to a small extent I did, reading by invitation at a number of universities. But I wasn't happy with this process for a multiplicity of reasons, only one of which was that it felt uncomfortably like shtick.

All this must be why I'm still somewhat ill at ease when a poem is described as a "crowdpleaser," as one was during our discussion of humor and poetry in the new Jacket, edited by Pam Brown. It's not that pleasing a crowd is an embarrassing or shameful thing, one to be devoutly avoided; in fact I hope to please many of them, as the years go by, and have fun at it to boot. Perhaps I still just find the "public like a frog" aspects daunting (to quote Emily). But producing such pleasure will probably go best for me if I can interrogate it a bit, find out more about how it operates and satisfy myself that I'm not settling for anyone's smug preconceptions and self-satisfactions, especially my own.

An entire galaxy of concerns, maybe too many for one blog post. But these constellations may explain my perverse pleasure in some delicious comments a few months ago by Harold Pinter on Charlie Rose. I'm not usually a fan of the show's giddy hail-fellow-well-met attitude, but when I saw that it was Pinter for the hour I set up a tape and later went back and scribbled down this partial transcript, including my own descriptions of Pinter's body language as he spoke.

Charlie Rose: Harold Pinter began his career as an actor, using the name David Baron, and has performed often on the stage. In October 2006, despite his age and his battle with cancer, he made a triumphant return in Samuel Beckett's one-man play, Krapp's Last Tape.

[clip from Pinter's performance in the play]

Rose: I don't know how you could write what you write and not have a very realistic sense of who you are and what you have done and what talent you have. Is it just modesty?

Harold Pinter: I can't make any such judgment about my work. One thing I really do know about my work is that it makes me laugh. I really do get a lot of laughs out of it. And when I hear other actors saying the lines, I join in their own relish.

Rose: You would rather write a line that generates a laugh than some piercing insight?

Pinter: Well, I believe in two things. One is: get a laugh, if it's a natural laugh. And the other is: stop it.

Rose: By moving to the next...

Pinter: By shutting the audience up. I've always found the audience... a contest between myself and the audience, and I've enjoyed that contest. There's only one winner.

Rose: Either the audience wins or you do.

Pinter: It has to be me.

Rose: There have been times onstage in which you can feel the contest.

Pinter: Very much so. I had a most memorable, unforgettable night in New York many years ago with The Homecoming. When the lights went up on the first night, the opening night, the audience hated it. They saw the set, they saw the actors dressed in an unappealing way, and they detested it. And there was a tremendous [pumps fist for emphasis] contest that night in which the actors detested the audience as much as the audience detested them, and finally the actors won [punches the air]. And the audience, you know [mimics bow tie at his neck], their bow ties and their mink coats, slumped in their seats, defeated [wildly gleeful look in his eye].

Rose: And was that performance that night better than it had been?

Pinter: Yeah, it was a great performance.

Rose: Because they rose to the occasion.

Pinter: They certainly did.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Temple of the Inscriptions

Dear Strumpet,

The internet dreamt you last night, dreamt that you were slowly limning its texts in golds and blues and tagging its imaginary pictures. Was that you?

And then in the morning these Cloud-Bird glyphs, these fused Snake-Jaguars, these crumbling incisions in vellum and stone.

Can you survive in this place? I still don't know.

The Dwarf

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Borat and Bromige: Further Adventures

David Bromige gets the last word in our roundtable on humor and poetry in the new Jacket, edited by Pam Brown. In a backchannel note to me this week, he expanded a little on his time at the private Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School near London, which also includes among its old boys Sacha Baron Cohen, of Borat fame, and historian Simon Schama. (The school was established, sublimely enough, by the Worshipful Company of Haberdashers, one of the livery companies of the city of London, and has been running in one form or another since 1690.)

In our discussion at Jacket I'd mentioned that Haberdashers’ seems to be "a factory of comedy," chockablock with verbally (and comically) aggressive Jews, at least to hear Baron Cohen tell it, and indeed, according to the Sunday Times, the student body today is "a third Hindu, a third Jewish and a third Christian." When David arrived in 1945, however, he was not only a scholarship student but a WASP. "There were a lot of Jews," he says in his note (quoted with permission), "but perhaps there are more than there were in my time."

Of his comment in Jacket that Haberdashers' in his day was more "a factory of depression" than one that churned out comedians, as its young instructors were being killed off in the war, he says now that "It was really only snobbery to say that it was always dull."

He goes on: "I liked Cohen in Borat. His humor quite reminded me of Haberdashers' humor in my own time."

On the POETICS list he once wrote of those days, "The other boys might well make fun of how one spoke, a mocking that could readily be extended to one's background and antecedents. So it is by such means that a lad can lose his native woodnotes wild and be fetched into the fold of privilege."

Who else can write a sentence like that last one? His POETICS post of 24 April 1999 is signed:

David (was DIvid until Haberdashers' Aske's got their clause into my vocables.)

Sunday, July 15, 2007

In the Funhouse of History

Ehrensvärd Museum, Suomenlinna
(Photo: Timo Ketonen)

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Feeding in the Lilies

What can be said of her, finally, this fictional character? That she was nostalgic for her own stupidity? That, like another fictional character, she planned on taking more of an active role in the decisions she made?