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.