Tuesday, November 27, 2007

counting the day's writing in feet

For a good part of 1960, Lew Welch lived with his mother in Reno. He spent most of his days writing, somewhat in the manner of Kerouac: typing on a teletype roll and counting his day's work in feet. On February 8 he wrote a letter to Kerouac himself: "I can't write as fast as you--maybe cause I can't type that fast. So if I get 5 feet on a good day it is about the limit."

His poem Wobbly Rock was just then being published in San Francisco, and here he was in Reno, writing a novel with the tentative title, "I, Leo" (the title was his mother's idea).

And he was reading: Sons and Lovers, Nausea, The Sun Also Rises, William James's Varieties of Religious Experience, and, for the first time, all of Whitman's Leaves of Grass. He also read Ti Jean's Dharma Bums, a couple of Zen books, and a biography of Hart Crane ("sad").

He and Kerouac, in March, were to take "our huge trip in the woods." But later, in a letter of early April, Welch explains to Kerouac why he wasn't able to go. He was suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, and "stopped drinking altogether" and went to a doctor who told him to "eat and eat and eat."

In mid-May, still in Reno, he wrote to "reintroduce" himself to William Carlos Williams. Back in 1950, when Welch was just a kid, he met WCW at Reed College in Oregon, and spent an afternoon with the poet and Flossie. After WCW's westward trip was done, the two traded letters for several years, until Welch "cracked up in Chicago." "From then on it's the same story: learning, in America, how to crack out not up." He'd been reading WCW's autobiography and sensing how tough it was for WCW in the "bleak 30s and 40s--when the poem was the only food for the new hyenas of criticism."

By the end of May he's pleased to hear from Philip Whalen that Charles Olson had told Dave Haselwood that he (Olson) admired Wobbly Rock. By the end of July, still living with his mother, he sends a copy of his book to Marianne Moore, whom he has happily read for years.

At right: Dave Haselwood, in a 1951 photograph; in '60 he published Welch's first book of poems.

real conservatives hate Freud

Russell Kirk, a true conservative intellectual, hated Freud and in mid-'59 hailed the publication of The Freudian Ethic, an Analysis of the Subversion of American Character by Richard LaPiere, then professor of sociology at Stanford and editor of the McGraw-Hill series in sociology and anthropology. Kirk writes, in part:
The Protestant ethic (a term borrowed from Max Weber), Dr. LaPiere writes, is being supplanted by the Freudian ethic -- that is, a coddling of the human person in the delusion that man is happiest when he is almost back in the womb.

This study contains the keenest demolition of Freudian psychology that I have seen anywhere, particularly the two chapters about Freudian theory and practice in education: "The Progressive School" and "The Adjustment Motif." Going straight to the heart of the matter, Mr. LaPiere finds in a vague and vulgarized Freudian notion of man the principal cause of the failure of modern American education.
My 1950s web site includes the full text of the review. Above: that's Kirk on the left, and William F. Buckley on the right.

Monday, November 26, 2007

rat pack heist flick

More people saw Ocean's Eleven in '60 than any other film. Yes, the allure of the "Rat Pack." But more, I think: it puts a finger on a generational attitude, a certain specific emotional distance from World War 2. These guys care too little about what they had to do then; they also care too much. They're all balled up and they're also much too cool.

Sinatra is Danny Ocean and Sinatra's good buddies are Danny's good buddies - among them Dean Martin, Peter Lawford (months later he's related by marriage to the Presidency), Sammy Davis, and Joey Bishop. Danny's crew was in the 82nd Airborne division, paratroopers dropping against the odds into Germany. Fifteen years later, the end of that era: they're a bit rusty but ready to apply the skills Uncle Sam taught them against the casinos of Vegas. The style of the film is mod: bright 1960's colors (oranges and browns), lots of biomorphic horizontals, a quasi-early-pop-art typopgraphy in the titles. It's WW2 content set in sleek modern mode. We don't mind their grand theft because it's cool, because they're cool (Sinatra is the coolest, with Dean Martin a close second, and Lawford spins cool with a serious rich-boy neurosis, and Sammy's super-cool has a major race problem), but also because we are persuaded that since they risked their lives for the country and have wandered at the edges of society since then (in jail, in trouble, not monogamous, utterly alcoholic), they should be entitled to a portion of the profits made by these homefront casino owners.

It's just a heist movie, albeit with pedigree ensemble and tons of style, and thus one is tempted to read no more into it. But there's history happening here and the screenplay at certain moments acknowledges that. Just enough time has passed since the war so that a belated Coming Home narrative can both assume we know many vets have become asocial and diffident about earning money the honest, old-fashioned way and make playful yet accurate-seeming analogies between military skills we taught Americans in order to achieve international ascendancy on the one hand and American lives of major crime on the other. The irony is that this is the enemy's content (yes, fascism) even if it's hidden in the slick victorious style of the victors. They do the job against Vegas as if it's a war. Which it is.

Here's a scene: the wealthy mother of one of the 82nd (Peter Lawford's Jimmy Foster) is to marry a sporty, well-dressed prominent with connections to organized crime, Duke Santos (Cesar Romero). After Danny's boys rob all the casinos, Santos figures out that his fiance's ne'er-do-well son is involved (that's Lawford), and he tells Mrs. Foster what he suspects. She's indignant:

Mrs. Foster: That’s ridiculous. Jimmy has always had all the money he could spend. Why would he rob anyone?

Duke Santos: Hitler had Europe. Why did he want Russia too?

Mrs. Foster: Oh, you can’t compare my Jimmy with that monster. Why, he actually fought Hitler. He and his paratroopers over-ran Germany.

Duke (laughing): Yeah, well him and his paratrooper buddies last night over-ran a hunk of Las Vegas!

I'm afraid that in the context of this film, Santos is right. They've once again been dropped in behind enemy lines, but it's no longer clear whether these soldiers behave like or unlike the enemy, nor who the enemy is. Is it Santos himself - so totally connected to criminality as to be utterly in control and above the law (such as it is in Vegas)? Wait, but...he's marrying your mother! What's that going to do to a vet's psyche? Is Vegas itself the enemy? Is it Danny Ocean's Uncle Sam-taught casual ruthlessness in applying martial concepts to peacetime? Is it Sinatra himself (not Danny, but Frank Sinatra - the only person in the U.S. - sorry, Mr. Clooney - who could pull off the role completely)? It's almost as if the Sinatra character is fighting the brainwashing that would almost get the better of him two years later in that classic of postwar confusion, The Manchurian Candidate. Only the war there will be Korea, already a much less well defined war than the great anti-fascist crusade, where good and bad were clear, and about which, even by 1960, one would think the lines of distinction were still as bright as a day in the lawless Nevada sun.

the virus of modernism

I've been reading all of the letters readers sent to the editor of the New York Times Book Review after Karl Shapiro's "What's the Matter with Poetry?" appeared. (I wrote recently about Shapiro's scattershot jeremiad.)

Among the letters was this one from Ethel Tolbach of New York:

TO THE EDITOR: After adolescence, this is no time when modern poetry cannot be seen for the fraud it is. Recently a friend told me that William Carlos Williams was an exception. To my horror I found his poetry full of anti-democratic ideas, anti-Semitism, anti-Negro sentiments--the very symptoms of the virus of "modernism" which Mr. Shapiro discusses.*

Actually this is about the one thing Shapiro did not discuss (nothing Shapiro said could have led directly to this woman's complaint). Poor WCW. In this period he was often attacked for being pink, radical, commie--too democratic, too inclusive (think Paterson)...and here, also, of the opposite.

I'm guessing that the charge of anti-Semitism is guilt by association with Pound, an infection spread by the "disease" (Shapiro's word) of modernism.

The odd double negative of the first sentence of this letter is of interest. It befits the antimodernist laments of the period 1945-60: concerns raised about modernism's pernicious influence are said to be urgent, but no alternative (except typically a return to what poetically there was before) is offered. So we don't say that 1960 is a time when we should do such-and-such new or different in poetry. We say it's not a time when we should not disclose failures and betrayals.

* NYT, Jan 10, 1960, p. 32.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

after saving earth, guys bond over little black book

My son and I watched one of the top pop 30 films of 1960 tonight, Atomic Submarine. It was actually released in 1959 but made the '60 charts.

The director Spencer Gordon Bennet later noted that the film was influenced by the news of the voyage of Nautilus sub under the North Pole but that doesn't begin to account for this strange yet simple sci fi flick with political - or, more accurately, anti-political - overtones.

It's 1968 or so - anyway, 1960's version of 1968 - and by this point (in the future, I mean) the path under the pole has become a main thoroughfare (for reasons not explained--was there a demand for weeks-long passenger travel to Lapland and Siberia?) but this commerce has been disrupted by strange occurrences: ships of all kinds have been destroyed and disappeared. The attacks leave high levels of radiation. Back in Washington, scientists and the president's men are concerned. The best sub and the best captain are to be sent to the North Pole to seek out this unknown enemy and destroy it. The commander is "Reef" Holloway, a surprisingly relaxed fellow. The captain is Dan Wendover (played by Dick Foran, whose acting is truly wooden); Dan is enjoying a liaison in his apartment with a blonde bombshell when a note is slipped under the door, telling him to drop everything and go immediately to his beloved sub. On board, Dan is told that he must share his cabin with Dr. Neilson; he doesn't mind, as Neilson is a distinguished WW2 hero whom Dan admires. But when he steps into the cabin, there's instead a young, swarthy, handsome and skeptical-looking man there. We know instantly that there's trouble: for one thing, the music swells disharmoniously; for another, Dan (whose love of blonde bombshells and instant responses to his commander's call are both signs that he's a normative voice) obviously loathes the young man.

The young man turns out to be the hero Neilson's son. The father and son work together on an experimental mini-submersible capsule that apparently is needed on this adventure; the elder Neilson was felled by a minor heart attack and the son, played by Brett Halsey, must take his place (as the only other person on the planet who can operate the capsule).

Between Dan's conversations with other buddies, and the awkward voiceover narrator, we learn that the son is peacenik: he has opposed all war and apparently calls for negotiation with the Soviets (although that enemy is not mentioned explicitly--as it often is not in cold-war-era sci fi when other alien enemies stand in as analogies). The career of the war-hero father, we learn, has been cut short by the PR fiasco associated with the son's radical views. This is bad, bad, bad, and Dan cannot understand (thus neither can we) why a person with such views would be on this voyage. There are plenty of 50s-era sci fi films in which such a character - almost always dark-haired and swarthy - would turn out to be a "alien symp," a dupe who does the bidding of the little green men (in this case a furry tentacled super-intelligent cyclops who travels in an organic flying saucer) who want to take over the earth. But not here. There are a few moments when the camera focuses on the Brett Halsey's face, just when we are being asked to wonder who the real enemy is. But this never adds up to anything. In a way that's a relief, but what, then, is the purpose of this character?

Halsey's Dr. Neilson argues ideology with Dan ("We must give peace a chance"; "You fool, these enemies only know force"), but then the young dove reminds the captain that someone of his views can still be strong and principled and brave. Dan doesn't believe it, but when Dr. Neilson and Dan are the two mainly responsible for holding off the cyclops-like creature from outerspace it becomes clear that bravery trumps ideology any day. The evil creature is destroyed by an ICBM missile launched from the submarine and the world is saved. (It's a darned good thing America permitted itself to arm its subs with ICBM's. These are long-range missles and the cyclops was 100 feet away, but never mind.)

So in the final scene we're back in the U.S. of A., and Neilson and Dan are leaving the ship together. Shake hands; one last quick conversation. They like each other now, despite their opposing world views (as it were). Dan makes a wisecrack about having left his "little black book" on the alien's flying saucer, and Neilson very much appreciates this tragedy, so he's come a long way over to Dan's side. Maybe both of them will have blondes awaiting them ashore.

A conservative sci fi film would, as I say, have found Dr. Neilson guilty (the doctorate is almost always a bad sign) of sympathy or even collaboration with the enemy Other, or have him killed by said enemy after naively trying to deal with it. Liberal-centrist cold-war sci fi almost always enables us to see a Neilson type as redeemable - able to set his political ideas aside and see the value of use of force and the true beautiful humanity in each and every hawk (such as Don here).

Brett Halsey was an interesting choice for this role, for two reasons. First, he was known just then for roles in cheapjack James Dean-style motorcycle deliquent flicks (Hot Rod Rumble, High School Hellcats, Speed Crazy), so here on the submarine, with his pacifist ideas, he had an aura of irrelevant adolescence about him. Second, this young handsome actor was in real life the son of a great WW2-era military hero, William F. Halsey ("Bull" Halsey), commander of the Pacific Allied naval forces in the war. I don't suppose there's a real biographical parallel, but the symbolism is good enough to interest me, for in one sense the film enacts Hollywood's sense of these two generations, that of the Good War warrior and that of the beatnik whose eccentric notions of America's role in the world arose in the affluence made possible by the way the Good War had been fought by the fathers. Fathers and sons. All the fathers and some of the sons. A tale of two generations, perfect for telling from the p.o.v. of 1960: from military-hero father to beefcake bit-part hotrod movie type; from the real man of the Greatest Generation to the Beat-era know-nothing Teen; from martial honor to peacenik. No wonder we are losing the war against the Russians. Hawks and doves bond over little black books but will not try to come together on political philosophy.

The movie doesn't deal with political difference so much as sets it aside in the natural course of staving off real enemies. The sons are not our real enemies; they've deluded themselves into thinking they disagree. Political difference is not relevant in a world being attacked by the Ultimate Enemy. And finally, natural commerce--to restore which was the reason for the rescue mission--in this new enterprise zone can bustle once again: that presumably profitable traffic going back and forth under the North Pole. All is well.

Friday, November 23, 2007

the brutal new anti-modernist poetry

Every art in the 20th century is a flourishing art, Karl Shapiro writes in the New York Times Book Review on December 13, 1959. Except poetry. Except poetry.

Poetry, he says, is "diseased" and the reason is....modernism. Modernism, that "minor intellectual program which took the stage more than a full generation ago...with standards [that] are enforced rigorously by literary constables ready to haul away any dissenters."

Alas, he laments, our poetry today is "the only poetry in history that has had to be taught in its own time."

Our poetry is a poetry compounded by verse and criticism. He calls it "criticism-poetry."

T. E. Hulme's "Speculations" is "like the 'Mein Kampf' of modern criticism."

And "the revolt against modernism seems to be gaining ground as long last." And thank the lord these people are "beginning to use subjective judgment in place of the critical dictum."

And this "new anti-modernist poetry is brutal, illiterate and hysterical," but that's "the price we have to pay for the generation-old suppression of poetry by criticism."

It's a wild and no doubt for many readers an exciting attack, seeming to augur a great awakening. But if you press just a little at its salacious generalizations it falls apart in confusion. The chief problem is that it's not clear who, overall, Shapiro is attacking.

He attacks the modernist poetics enabled by the likes of Hulme - so Pound, H.D., at least the early Williams, early Eliot. And people like Wallace Stevens who were athiests and made modern art a kind of god (supreme fiction). But he's also attacking the New Critics, and it's they he means when he excoriates poetry-criticism--them (Tate, Ransom, et alia), and Eliot and perhaps I. A. Richards and his ilk. And what new poetry is he, in the end, hoping for? "[B]rutal, illiterate and hysterical," non-academic, anti-intellectual: he doubtless means the Beats, the new Whitmanians. Toward the end he refers to these rough types as emerging from the restored lineage of Whitman and William Carlos Williams. Yet Williams is of course very much in the modernist line Shapiro spends most of the essay damning. And the fact that the Beats embraced WCW should have signalled that there's a connection between them and modernism (in Burroughs and Ginsberg). In a few months, of course, Donald Allen's collection will signal that a new avant-garde shares both the anti-academicism and anti-formalism Shapiro feels is necessary now and the direct links to modernist elders (Pound, Williams again, Stevens to some degree, Stein, H.D.) that Shapiro believes is anathema to any new development in poetry.

One thing is certain: anti-modernism is alive and well as the decade turns.

I've read the letters to the editor that followed Shapiro's article - in the January 10, 1960 issue of the Book Review. A young Robert Scholes writes from Charlottesville that Shapiro's claim that the anti-romantic modernists hated Blake is wrong, since, for one thing, Yeats was a great admirer of Blake. Responding to Shapiro's disgust at New Critical pedagogy (where biography and history are eschewed in favor of attention to the poem itself), one couple from Narbeth, Pennsylvania, wrote in to ask Mr. Shapiro to list colleges where such a method is used--since they, having been dully trained with biographical info irrelevant to poetic understanding, are hoping to sign on and learn a little about poetics. Chester Page from Brooklyn wrote in to say that Eliot and Marianne Moore seem to be doing just fine and that American poetry seems in good shape. The then-young poet Theodore Enslin noted an obvious problem with Shapiro's complaint against academic critics - namely that Shapiro is one. Charles Martell wrote from Durham to remind readers that this "sophomoric diatribe" should remind everyone of the scattershot half-logical attacks against all of modernism (he means by Robert Hillyer) at the time of the Bollingen controversy in 1949, ten years earlier. A man from Haverford, PA, reminds readers that Shapiro himself "has not only written criticism but rimed criticism" and yet "counts himself on the good side" in the good-vs.-evil scenario he lays out.


Thursday, November 22, 2007

college marriage courses, fun or fraud?

Betty Friedan's remarkable book of narrative feminist sociology and mass-market fiction lit crit, The Feminine Mystique was published as excerpts in '62 and finally as a book in 1963. But she was gathering the materials for it thoughout the second half of the 50s, and was doing a lot of the writing and final research in '60 and '61.

Here are just a few of the many books and articles published in 1960 that she consulted:

1. the 75th anniversary issue of Good Housekeeping, May
2. "Why Young Mothers Feel Trapped," Redbook of September
3. Noel Clad, "Men Against Women," Good Housekeeping, January
4. Mary Ann Guitar, "College Marriage Courses--Fun or Fraud?" Mademoiselle's February issue
5. Margaret Mead's "New Look at Early Marriages," interview given to US News & World Report, June 6
6. "The Woman and Brains (continued)" in the New York Times Magazine of January 17, outraged responses written to the magazine in response to an article by Marya Mannes called "Female Intelligence--Who Wants It?" that had been published in the January 1 issue
7. Benjamin Spock, "Russian Children Don't Whine, Squabble, or Break Things--Why?" in Ladies Home Journal's October issue
8. April's transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences, which featured Nanette Scofield's study of the changing roles of women in suburbia
9. Richard and Katherine Gordon's The Split Level Trap, written with Max Gunther
10. an article on the social psychiatry of the mobile suburb, also by the Gordons, published in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry vol 6, number 1

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

nuke-age accessories no less in demand


No first-class war can now be fought
Till all that can be sold is bought.
So do get going helter-skelter
And sell each citizen a shelter
Wherein, while being bombed and strafed, he
Can reek and retch and rot in safety.

A ditty penned by Kenneth Burke and published in the September 24 issue of the Nation. Let's not think for a moment that the duck-and-cover civil defense anxieties of the 1950s had very much abated by 1960. The Cuban Missile Crisis of a year later certainly re-intensified these concerns, but they hadn't lessened greatly in the months immediately preceding. Of course Burke's complaint isn't merely about atomic hysteria. He's also here satirizing the commercializing and literal capitalization of nuke-age accessories.

cold-blooded definition of poetry

Alan Swallow brought out J. V. Cunningham's Tradition and Poetic Structure. JVC says that he attempted in this book to be "cold-blooded," but it's never quite clear why. Perhaps because, as we'll see in a moment, he didn't want to be perceived as belonging to the club of people who put poetry in general on a pedastal. Anyway, he implies that cold-bloodedness is an attitude opposite of that felt by others who "practiced...the highest and easier art of literary criticism." So we are to suppose that this analysis not itself a form of literary criticism. (Then what is it?)

It's possible that the term "cold-blooded" was a nod, or bow, to Cunningham's teacher-mentor, Yvor Winters, who had successfully raised cold-blooded poetry criticism to a new level. (By the way, Cunningham never formally studied with Winters, although he did spent some 15 years at Stanford, soaking in the master's contrarian blend of modernism and anti-modernism.)

In "Poetry, Structure and Tradition," he attempts to define poetry--no easy matter, for in this case "the object of definition is not constant."

The difficulty of definition "springs from the need to defend and praise poetry." "It is felt that one has not only to define poetry but also in so doing to put it in a place of honor." Yet, he contends, such claims for poetry "have in fact weakened it." On one hand poetry's puffers have "erected pretensions that no linguistic construction, no poem, could ever hope to satisfy."

Among such pretensions (and now we're really getting to it - to, for one thing, the connotation of the word "tradition" in the book's title) is that poets can lead the life of the nation. Silly for poets or poets' "nice" commenders to pretend that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world--"and a good thing it is that they aren't." This political pretension has "limited," he believes, the kind of poetry that can be written.

So moving away from the poet's power to say something for and to the polity is a move toward, not a retreat from, poetry's capaciousness. And from here making a definition is apparently a simple matter. "Poetry is what looks like poetry, what sounds like poetry. It is metrical composition."

So there you have it.

modern commerical religion not ready for prime time

Watched Elmer Gantry also this past weekend, another of the top 30 from '60. Burt Lancaster contorted his face into lit-up hucksterish glee, an expression he never ever for a moment loses in the otherwise unendurable 147 minutes of this melodrama about contending American values. Well, when Shirley Jones shows up as his floozy lover, one does attend closely (she's radiant--although, tellingly, a low-life). But even the good moment of seeing Jones before The Brady Bunch quickly fades.

The film is based, of course, on the bad novel by Sinclair Lewis.

It's a battle between the reasonable side of tent-pitching town-to-town wandering evangelical Christianity in the rural midwest and the ecstatic side with its tactics gleaned from sensational journalism, commercialism and the circus. Of course Jean Simmons (Sister Sharon Falconer) represents the reasonable side, and we root for her, for a while. Lancaster's Elmer Gantry is so alluring and exciting that even Sharon is willing to bring ecstasy into the show, and, predictably, the whole theological house of cards comes tumbling (or burns to the ground, to mix the metaphor and yet be more exact).

The key moment in this battle between ideologies of religious style is when Elmer suggests to Sharon and the other sober promoters of evangelical things-as-they-are that, with him and the new more modern approach, they are ready for the big city. Sharon's eyes light up. Is such a thing possible? But our place is the small rural town (American places with no other entertainment, although she won't say it that way). Elmer wins and they go to the city. (A bad sign, of course, since this is essentially a conservative film, and in conservative films cities are always scenes of demise.)

But what city? It's Zenith, Ohio. In the world of Sinclair Lewis's ficton, I know from reading and teaching the novel Babbitt, Zenith is not the zenith of anything. It's still at heart a small town, only the town prominents put on airs of sophistication. And George Babbitt himself, who actually gave the name to false middle-class modernity, becomes a somewhat major character in the story. Yikes. What a mess.

Feelings and attitudes toward Elmer's modern American theology are so confused by the end that it's no wonder we had to light absolutely everything on fire, stand up from the ashes, and walk out of town in the final scene. This, I suppose, is 1960 trying to rewrite 1935 in such a way as to show the flaws in the wandering, dislocated way of American life while at the same time expressing the hope that the worst hucksters (but only the worst) wander away from our town when things go too far.

Burt won Best Actor at the Oscars. Why? Sheer acting will. They must have used a crowbar to pry loose his normal face from the maniacal up-by-bootstraps American expression he had to wear for weeks while filming this thing.

Stevens was "second rate"...but what about Delmore Schwartz?

Delmore Schwartz, a poet who is rarely read today or mentioned in discussions of American poetry, won the Bollingen Prize for 1959. It was announced on January 10, 1960, in New Haven, where the prize had settled (at Yale, that is) since the Pound controversy in 1949. Hard to believe DS was just 47 when he won, and indeed he was then the youngest Bollingen winner. He won it for his book Summer Knowledge (1959), which was an edition of selected poems. At the time he lived at 725 Greenwich Street in Manhattan, which is just across the street from my Jane.

Later, in a 1979 review, a poet named Timothy Jahns, reviewing Last and Lost Poems of Delmore Schwartz, wrote that for Schwartz "it was all downhill from 1938, though his contemporaries kept on praising him." The editor of that posthumous volume noted that he (the editor) had "rescued" the work in that book, a tacit admission that DS had already long ago faded from poetic view.

In a journal entry dated August 15, 1959, Schwartz pondered the poetic value of Wallace Stevens: "Stevens's incomparable discoveries--S. has some fine things of his own to say--grace & honesty & courage--a good second-rate poet--". In the same entry, he wrote: "It's time to cultivate resignation." (Was it a non-sequitur?)

After the Bollingen was announced, DS gave a reading at Yale, where he reunited with Cleanth Brooks. And back in New York, he lunched with Robert Penn Warren.

In a review of Summer Knowledge published in the Nation on June 11, 1960, M. L. Rosenthal put his finger on it: "It is easy to say what has always been wrong with Delmore Schwartz' poetry. Briefly, he has rarely been able to sustain a whole poem at the level of its beginning. No one else but Auden in this century has so many wonderful first lines." Examples he gives: "In the naked bed, in Plato's cave," "The beautiful American word, Sure," "A dog named Ego, the snowflakes as kisses." And could there be a more enticing title than In Dreams Begin Responsibilities with its surrealist hint? "Unfortunately," MLR continues, "it is hard to remember any larger movement" after such openings. Once in a while there is more in Schwartz's poems "than unrelieved confessional or cosmic blarneying," but not often enough.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Liz is simply wandrous

Liz Taylor is Gloria Wandrous, the stylish call girl yearning to go straight. Somehow she thinks Weston Liggett (Laurence Harvey) is her Real Guy, but this is surely hard for anyone seeing the film, then or now, to believe, since Liggett hates himself so much, seethes with anger, has become an alcoholic, and could snap at any moment. Gloria hates herself too. She misses her dead father, and her mother's then-new husband raped her when she was 13, a story she tells her lifelong best friend, played by Eddie Fisher (then married to Taylor).

It's BUtterfield 8, based on the 1935 novel by John O'Hara. I haven't read the novel (but will): I hear that in the novel Gloria is an out-and-out escort. In the 1960 film about half the time you know a stylish prostitute is what you get when you dial the famous number. The other half the time it seems that she's a clothing model, somewhat on the up and up. There's denial all around: Liggett's wife tries not to react to her husband's sprees of infidelity; Gloria's mother can't see that her daughter is a tramp, for perhaps it would be a key to the fraught scene of the girl's weeklong deflowering at the hands of the mom's husband; the Eddie Fisher best friend can't seem to sort out his feelings for Gloria, although in the end gets it right (decides to marry his straight-good girlfriend while continuing to be decently helpful to Gloria).

In the end, after an almost utterly expected car crash, we have to hear Liggett, of all people, say how good a heart Gloria had inside, in spite of it all - a contender for the most unconvincing speech in any film I've seen. (Not because we have no sympathy for Gloria, but because the film chooses Liggett to express it. Where did that come from?)

Freudian possibilities are dragged across the plot, and these are wandrous too. Therapy gets a satiric knock, which hints at the film's use of the sexualized parental relationship as a creaky stage prop and little more. In a truly comic scene, Gloria goes to her shrink, played by George Voskovic (he was the Swiss watchmaker juror in Twelve Angry Men), and announces that she no longer needs therapy, since she has finally found the man who will send her straight. She marches happily out of the doc's office and we get to see his startled facial response as that quick scene ends.

Gloria and Liggett have huge psychological problems, perfectly matched. He wants someone to abuse him. She wants to give some abuse as a way of keeping herself from obtaining yet another sex partner. At one point, when she wants some distance from him (although she's already fallen in love with him), she digs her sharp stiletto heel into his shoe - for a long time. The camera lingers on the heel stuck into the leather for so long, and on his impervious face (feeling pain but not showing it, wanting to be different from the other guys who wince at this old trick of hers), that one wonders where the Catholic League of Decency was when this film came out. I nearly called them myself when watching this film the other night. Yet the only number in my head was the oft-repeated "BUtterfield 8." Well, some wise guy putting clips up on YouTube has reproduced this scene and dubbed it "The Heel Trick." Have a look if you dare.

Reportedly, Taylor and Fisher hated this film and referred to it as "Butterball 4." A turkey? Well, maybe, but are movies we call turkeys typically as complicated as this?

This film was one of the 30 most popular movies of 1960.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

recent but maybe not so new New American Poets

In September, Donald Allen's The New American Poetry is reviewed in The Atlantic Monthly by poet-editor Peter Davison, who somewhat restrained himself but obviously despises the young Beats and Olsonians Allen gathered. MORE...

Monday, November 12, 2007

silent majority, take 1

Barry Goldwater's book - it wasn't a campaign book but turned out to be - was published, with hurrahs coming from conservatives who felt that Rockefeller would betray them with his entitled eastern Republican-liberalism and that Nixon was good for them on foreign policy (anticommunism) and bad for them on domestic policy (too close to the moderate Ike, who was never really, to them, a true Republican, a fair-enough claim).

The book of course was The Conscience of a Conservative. It sold well despite its origin in Shepardsville, Kentucky, where the Victor Publishing Company put it out. Perhaps sold well because of them. Owning it must have given conservatives a sense of handling a document from the suppressed rightist anti-Washington underground.

"I was born in Arizona in territorial days," Goldwater writes. There's a bit of Daniel Boone about him. He's a throwback, not at all like the eastern establishment guys.

The Baltimore Sun reviewer called G's "hard counsel" a bunch of "nonsense." Walter Lippmann scored G's notion of a "great hidden majority in the country" of a large number of conservatives who don't vote but could take over the country if they wanted. When Nixon used his "silent majority" for anti-antiwar purposes in 1968, he was borrowing from Goldwater, although without real Right license to do so.

The book was a kind of rehearsal for 1964. It criticized increasing central-government paternalism at the expense of individual self-reliance. It offered "new" decentralized government as a solution. If Goldwater had been a real southerner, this call would have been nothing more or less than "states' rights" as rhetoric against African American enfranchisement and equal access to school and law. But because Goldwater was a southwesterner, a region with little to no history of slavery, he could avoid that assumption, even as some southern conservatives embraced him as good for segregation.

Should he join the Nixon ticket in '60 as vice presidential candidate? Russell Kirk, a brilliant super-conservative intellectual, wrote that G was "too good and too important...for that powerless post."

Rocky was a problem for the Goldwaterites. The two men were at opposites ends of Republicanism. Remarkably, they made a joint appearance on Meet the Press in July 1960. I will search for a recording of that!

that good old-time logology

That June Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley were continuing their long, longtime correspondence. Now Burke was telling Cowley of the new book he was putting together out of some new material and some lectures he had given a few years back. The book was published in 1961 as The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies on Logology (Beacon Press of Boston). The foreword makes this bold statement: "The subject of religion falls under the head of rhetoric in the sense that rhetoric is the art of persuasion, and religious cosmogonies are designed, in the last analysis, as exceptionally thoroughgoing modes of persuasion" (p. v).

Dell Hymes, reviewing the book for The Journal of American Folklore felt he had to specify that "Burke does not here regard persuasion as inherently bad (or good)." He knows "the social necessity of verbal persuasion" and is a master at insights into "the master debunkers of verbal persuasion, the Marxists, Freudians, et al."*

"Once," Burke writes in a Burkean footnote to a long paragraph about symbolic meaning, "when I was analyzing the symbolism of sun and moon in Coleridge's poem, 'The Ancient Mariner,' a student raised this objection: 'I'm tired of hearing about the symbol sun in poems, I want a poem that has the real sun in it.' Answer: If anybody ever turns up with a poem that has the real sun in it, you'd better be about ninety-three million miles away.... [Anyway] even things of nature can become 'symbolic'" (9).

The most remarkable part of this book is the seventy-page chapter on "The First Three Chapters of Genesis."

* vol. 75, no 297, 1962.

Friday, November 9, 2007

left on Lolita: authentic quality of the real

In the same issue of the New Left Review where I found the Clancy Sigal statement I've mentioned earlier, I read P.V. Ableman's review of Nabokov's Lolita. Although New Left Review was independent-left more than predictable communist-left, I was still expecting fairly straightforward condemnation of its unreality. Ableman writes very interestingly about this novel.

(I'm not sure why the journal published a review in 1960 of a novel first published in 1955. Perhaps the Weidenfeld and Nicholson edition mentioned atop the review was a new edition of some sort.)

First, authenticity does not at all depend on realism, and indeed might be necessitated by a break from the tools of the real. "What a potent feeling of authenticity is gradually generated by this book, which never seriously attempts to establish a single, conventionalised relationship with reality...."

Second: we might have a healthy start-again post-modernism here, and for a left lit critic this might be a way around or at least past the critique of modernism. "The machinery of Lolita is sometimes preposterous and never (to appropriate the adjective used for the adolescent heroine's underclothes) more than perfunctory. It is as if the narrative conventions of the European novel having finally broken down, analysed out of existence, perhaps, by Joyce, Nabokov has cheerfully started again from scratch." And more: "...it is late in the day to begin at the beginning" but in this book we may indeed have found" the authentic quality of 20th century life emerging."

Thursday, November 8, 2007

thirty most popular movies of the year

1. Ocean's Eleven
2. Spartacus
3. The Big Risk (Classe tous risques)
4. Les Les Bonnes Femmes
5. Cruel Story of Youth
6. The Apartment
7. The Atomic Submarine
8. L'Avventura
9. Ballad of a Soldier
10. The Austerlitz
11. The Battle of the Sexes
12. The Bellboy
13. Bells Are Ringing
14. Butterfield 8
15. Can-Can
16. Carry On Nurse
17. Cinderfella
18. Circus of Horrors
19. Colossus and the Amazon Queen
20. Dinosaurus!
21. Dupont Show of the Month
22. Elmer Gantry
23. Exodus
24. The House of Usher
25. Felix the Cat - An Hour of Fun
26. The Felix the Cat - Magic Bag of Tricks
27. Felix the Cat - Poindexter and the Flying Saucer
28. Felix the Cat - Rock Bottom Fails Again
29. Flaming Star
30. From the Terrace

Monday, November 5, 2007

the new left needs...a student movement

Clancy Sigal wrote an "Open Letter to the Left" in the English journal, New Left Review (Jan.-Feb. 1960 issue). He spoke of a "crippling pragmatism" on the left. And: "the New Left so far has been lazy about its political and economic analysis because it too easily depended, not for its vocabulary but its assumptions, on the Old Left; and it was superficial in its cultural observations." He urged the British left to establish a socialist Student movement.

New Left Review (which, as I say, began publishing in 1960) counted among its first editorial board members Norman Birnbaum, Doris Lessing, Dorothy Thompson, Raymond Williams. The main editor was (famously) Stuart Hall. Also publishing pieces in the first issue: E. P. Thompson on "The Point of Production," Dave Dellinger asking "Ar Pacifists Willing to Be Negroes?" and Paul Rose on the youth of Manchester. The gist of the project was to bring intellectuals and workers together (long a craving of the Anglo-American left). The editorial stance was anti-Soviet Marxist and, generally, anti-communist--although at the same time anti-anticommunist.

Patchen's picture-poems

1960 was a very bad year for Kenneth Patchen. While he was hospitalized in late '59 for yet another back operation, he fell from the operating cart to the floor and severely damaged his spine. He was never really without pain from then on, and he was in pain when he was lying on his back, lying on his side, sitting up or standing. He and his wife Miriam went to see a Dr. Victor Richards in February, and this man apparently responded indifferently to Patchen's report of pain, implying that Patchen was exaggerating how he felt. A little later the Patchens initiated a lawsuit against Richards--and managed, through San Fran columnist Herb Caen, to get a call and a meeting with famed defense lawyer Melvin Belli. Not much came of this, and the Patchens were destitute. Eventually, on January 29, 1961, there was a "San Francisco Tribute to Kenneth Patchen" at the Marines' Memorial Theatre. Kenneth Rexroth was the master of ceremonies and readings were given by Philip Whalen, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and others. It was a fund raiser, although few funds were realized.

Here's the good part. Unable to work at this typewriter any longer, Patchen stopped writing conventional poems. He wrote letters and poems only in a large hand scrawl. He used pens and a paint brush. He developed his "picture poems." Miriam said later: "That's why the drawing poems and picture poems came, because he could do them relatively shortly [quickly]."

In 1960 Kenneth Patchen published Because It Is, poems-and-drawings.

e. e. cummings has a process

e. e. cummings got really famous in the 1950s. In '58 he was awarded the Bollingen Prize. And in the new environment where poetry readings were for real (thanks to the Beats among others) cummings fared well, because he was a good reader of his own poems, and because whatever bias readers had against his typopgraphically odd arrangements on the page could be overcome when they heard the poems aloud--and they are much more conventional and traditional (so many of them straightforward love poems) when heard.

His favorite reading was the one at Bryn Mawr on April 20, 1959.

His 95 Poems, the last book of poems published in the poets' lifetime, appeared in October 1958.

But 1960 was the turning point: Norman Friedman's serious critical book, E. E. Cummings: The Art of His Poetry was published by Johns Hopkins. Cummings had been impressed by Friedman's work six years earlier, and had lent the critic a stack of 175 worksheets he had used for the poem called "rosetree, rosetree," thus enabling the book of 1960 to focus a great deal (a whole chapter) on the process by which the cummings poem was made. Presumably this diminished concerns about what seemed the "anything goes" quality of cummings' poems.

In the same year, our year, '60, George Firmage's E. E. Cummings: A Bibliography appeared and immediately became the standard reference work for people wanting to know what and when cummings had published.

At the end of September 1960, cummings and his wife Marion sailed first-class on the Vulcania and made a stop in Sicily. Then Athens in November.

The poet died in '62.

when did the "Sixties" start? not in 1960

Tom Brokow's second greatest generation is that of the 1960s, according to his just-out book Boom! Voices of the Sixties: Personal Reflections on the '60s and Today (a book that I will almost certainly not read--because there are already ten or so really great books about the decade that I want to read first).

Ah, but for Brokaw the 1960s run from 1963 to 1974. So the decade is defined on one end by the assassination of JFK and on the other end by the resignation of Nixon.

This is not just a center-stage-centered approach (though it is that, first and foremost) but, it seems to me, ignores art and what we call "culture" (in the phrase "arts & culture") almost entirely. It helps me understand a little more and a little more keenly what I want to do in learning about 1960 and its effects.

Friday, November 2, 2007

the most basic words in English

CAConrad and his colleagues at PhillySound worked hard to reproduce the transcript of a 1979 interview Gil Ott conducted with Jackson Mac Low, and it (part? or whole?) has been added to the PhillySound blog.

Mac Low always remembered in detail when his procedure for making his poems developed this way or that. He remembered the process more accurately, one might say, than the poems that got produced by it. Which of course is his point: the process is in a sense the (meaning of the) poem; the medium is (the same as) the message.

Here's Mac Low telling Ott about the first time he used his "nucleic method" (for choosing sourcetexts) in early 1961:
I began using the "Nucleic Method" in 1961, when I wrote a number of poems whose titles begin "From Nuclei..." At that time I also produced a whole pack of cards for improvising performers (NUCLEI FOR SIMONE FORTI), parts of which later became the basis of the series of Dance-Instruction Poems called THE PRONOUNS (3rd edition, Station Hill Press, Barrytown, NY, 1979). (This pack and how I got from it to THE PRONOUNS is described in the prose essay published with the poems.)

At that time in early 1961 I drew several lists of words by means of random digits from the Basic English List. Both the NUCLEI FOR SIMONE and a number of verse poems I wrote at the time were made by using chance means to draw words from these word lists that themselves had been compiled by chance operations. The Basic English list had been compiled in, I think, the 1920's by C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards. They believed that it included all or most of the most basic words in English and that most other words in English (except for proper names) could be "translated" into combinations of these Basic words. For instance, they translated the whole New Testament into Basic English. They thought that Basic English would be a better universal language than Esperanto, which in the 1920s was the widely used "universal language," albeit an artificial one. Since English was already so widespread, they thought its grammar and basic words would be a better universal language than any artificial one.

In making the FROM NUCLEI poems, the NUCLEI FOR SIMONE, and some other 1961 texts, I just used aleatoric means to draw words from their lists, which was in one of my dictionaries. That's when I began working freely between chance-given pivotal points ("nuclei"). Starting with Ogden and Richards' list, I'd let random digits draw a large list, and then often make a smaller list from the larger one, also by means of random digits, for use in any particular poem. As I said, between the chance-given nuclei I wrote pretty freely. I used similar methods in writing THE PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, but in making that series, I used the Phoenician meanings of the successive letters of the alphabet that comprised the presidents' names as my nuclei. For instance "G" is "Gimel" or "camel": thus the first line comes from the first letter of George Washington's name: "George Washington never owned a camel." Similarly, "E" and "O" mean "eye" and "head": the next line begins: "but the eyes in his head..." and so it goes throughout the series.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

make it new...over a campfire in the morning

I've never taken the time to understand why so many poets and critics and literary historians I respect say that Gary Snyder's Myths & Texts, published in 1960 by Totem Press (later republished by New Directions), was (and I suppose, they mean, is) such an important book. Perhaps Snyder got into this beautiful Totem Press edition because he'd already been publishing in the right places; the poems in the book had been printed in Black Mountain Review, The Fifties, Yugen, Jabberwock and elsewhere. His commitment to the natural setting seemed otherwise not to fit so well with the aesthetic and personal tone set by so many of the New American poets. A later introduction spoken of how the book's "several rhythms are based on long days of quiet in lookout cabins," and such.

Snyder believed in the importance of belonging to a place, knowing and respecting its culture. "[W]e are most of us a still rootless population of non-natives who don't even know the plants or where our water comes from." This is an ethical matter for him. (Think about how differently Wallace Stevens meant such a statement about being native in one's world. So different!)

Jerome Rothenberg's emergent sense of ethnopoetics, his appreciation of the primitive (he embraced the very term--a term that made and makes others nervous), certainly coincided in part with what Snyder was doing, although the two poets wrote in such distinct ways, with Rothenberg more openly committed to the modernist Revolution of the Word. But insofar as Snyder's poems held "the most archaic values on earth" and "go back to the upper Palaeolithic" ("the fertiilty of the soil" etc.) Rothenberg would clearly find a comrade in Snyder.

I've read around the criticism of Snyder's poetics, and might have something more to say about them and, in this regard, him, later, but for now let me respond to the reading of the text itself.

There are, for one thing, a ton of blocky one- or two-beat Anglo-Saxon words. Typical is "foot-whack" in the line "Foot-whack on polished boards." I mean, who needs to know what the line denotes. The sound of "foot-whack" conveys the sense perfectly well. (How fake is this? As fake as Ezra Pound simulating Anglo-Saxon in the first Canto?) "Drum-thump" comes just after - not nearly as successful as "foot-whack."

Section five of "Logging" (the book-length poem - is that what it is - is divided into "Logging," "Hunting," "Burning") is charmingly anti-academic.
Again the ancient, meaningless
Abstractions of the educated mind.
wet feet and the campfire out.
Drop a mouthful of useless words.
--The book's in the crapper
They're up to the part on Ethics now.

This is pretty ham-handed stuff, but charming and relevant. We get him. It's as if the primitive monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon vocab and diction is itself Snyder's ethical answer to the "be-Homburged heads" of the anthropologists and academic folklorists who spend their summers up in Northern California and the Northwest. Right in the midst of this, we have:
       skidding logs in fine-flat heat
long summer run
the flax bag sweet

"Summer professors / elsewhere meet / Indiana? Seattle? Ann Arbor?" And then, again, as if this in itself is the poem's answer: "bug clack in sage."

There are even dramatic monologues in the book (it's a generic grab-bag--I like this aspect). Several fall flat, but we know the voice. "In that year, 1914, we lived on the farm..." And these guys went through the Depression, were hobos, etc.

There's a myth of some sort...about a "ghost logger." Here I love: "Get off my back Confucius / There's enough noise now."

Later, in "Hunting," there's a gorgeous list poem. The list comes after this simple rationale: "Now I'll also tell what food / we lived on then:" And then: "Mescal, yucca fruit, pinyon, acorns, / prickly pear, sumac berry" etc.

In the penultimate section of "Hunting" Snyder tries his hand at Genesis - some sort of combination of creation myths coincide with the utter clarity of waking up in the morning, outdoors, by a campfire, and the elation of that feeling of newness. It's Snyder's version of making it new. "New! never before... / the first time...."

"Burning" ends the poem. One poem - the 8th section here - is Snyder's version of John Muir (white sachem, he) talking on Mt. Ritter. Ending in "I MUST fall."

Here there are Wobblies (Seattle-area anarchists), a bit of Zen irony ("What is the way of non-activity? / It is activity") and pithy Eastern/mountain soapbox ("'What is imperfect is best'").

The final poem is the book in a nutshell and gives a hint as to why so many of Snyder's friends and colleagues were blown away by this little New Directions triumph. The first part of the poem is "the text" and the second "the myth." Reversing the usual poet-critic order. "The text" is about fire. "The myth" seems to be about nature's survival. "The mountains are your mind.... / Rise from below."

Snyder at his best works by juxtaposition, apparent non-sequitur. My favorite:
Poetry a riprap on the slick rock of metaphysics
"Put a Spanish halter on that whore of a mare
& I'll lead the bitch up any trail"

Say what? Riprap (also known as rip rap, rubble, revetment, shot rock or rock armour) is rock or other material used to armor shorelines against water erosion. It's the right word for Snyder's poetics - and indeed he had already taken it for the title of a book of poems. Poetry performs such a function...but to keep what from sliding into what? I go back to the anti-academic poems in this book to take my cue. Poetry is a stay against conventional philosophical confusion. Getting back up that slippery slope is a matter of the most basic animal control, nothing fancy about it.

Nothing fancy indeed.