Tuesday, September 25, 2007

understanding poetry (or not, as the case may be)

The third edition of the for-the-classroom anthology, Understanding Poetry, by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, was published in 1960. I've made a blog entry here. (The jacket depicted at left is the 60s-style fourth edition. I'll eventually replace it with the third.)

What interests me for the moment is the way the editors dictated the order in which a poem of historical or political significance should be treated in the classroom. What was "prior" was the poem as a poem; then and only then could it "offer illumination" as a "document." Such illumination was possible, at least in the abstract, but literary significance must be comprehended first.

And never mind the notion--which, in the late 30s when the first edition was published, was of interest to a number of poets ranging from Reznikoff to Rukeyser to Pound to Norman Rosten--that a poem could consist of documents or be a kind of document itself. I wonder whether the 1960 accounts for this possibility. I'll soon be reading the new preface and will report back.

From the 1960 preface:

[] "Poetry gives us knowledge. It is a knowledge of ourselves, in relation to the world."

[] "[W]e miss the value of poetry if we think of its characteristic knowledge as consisting of 'messages,' statements, snippets of doctrine. The knowledge that poetry yields is available to us only if we submit ourselves to the massive, and subtle, impact of a poem as a whole."

Snippets of doctrine are bad: this of course ignores the entire tradition - yes, by 1960 it's an well-tried manner - of collage, wherein pieces of others' statements can be included in the poem without the assumption of a subject (subject position) necessarily aligned with it.

You can't feel the aura of a poem unless you submit. Submit to what? A thing that is massive and yet subtle. (As opposed to massive and unsubtle, which is the effect of messages, statements and even snippets of doctrine.

Whole: ditto the point about snippets. Wholes, not parts.

Kees, he dead

A few of the many, many books of poetry published in 1960:

- W. H. Auden, Homage to Clio
- Paul Blackburn, Brooklyn Manhattan Transit: A Bouquet for Flatbush
- Gwendolyn Brooks, The Bean Eaters
- E. E. Cummings, Collected Poems
- Ted Hughes, Lupercal
- Weldon Kees, The Collected Poems (posthumous; ed. Donald Justice)
- Sylvia Plath, The Colossus

And some prizes:

- National Book Award for Poetry: Robert Lowell, Life Studies
- Pulitzer Prize for Poetry: W. D. Snodgrass, Heart's Needle
- Bollingen Prize: Delmore Schwartz
- Academy of American Poets Fellowship: Jesse Stuart

From Kees, "Robinson at Home":

This sleep is from exhaustion, but his old desire
To die like this has known a lessening.
Now there is only this coldness that he has to wear.
But not in sleep.--Observant scholar, traveller,

Or uncouth bearded figure squatting in a cave
A keen-eyed sniper on the barricades
A heretic in catacombs, a famed roué,
A beggar on the streets, the confidant of Popes—

Monday, September 24, 2007

an excruciating spasm of guilt

In his semi-bombshell New York Times Book Review essay** about the new American poets generally - the piece was written in 1960 but published in the February 21, 1961 newspaper - Kenneth Rexroth said that the new poets owe more to the example of Apollinaire or Lorca than to the T. S. Eliot giving speeches about the English Metaphysicals. (Yes.) He said that for better or worse the doings of poets were once again momentarily "hot copy for newspapers and magazines." This was because of a myth about the new poets--a myth, he felt, promulgated by the Beats, whom he somewhat dismisses as a PR phenomenon: myth-making about not poetry but the image of the poet as "Bearded Barbarian" (the title of the essay is "Bearded Barbarians or Real Bards").

The new poets were political in their frankness, their independence of mind, their non-academicism, and their intellectual affiliations with the world ("American poetry is once more a recognizable part of world poetry").

They're more socially conscious than the preceding era's poets and at the same time also more willing to "sacrifice all for Art."

Rexroth felt that Denise Levertov was the best of the lot.

"Second only to Denise Levertov is Robert Creeley." Rexroth lavishes praise on Creeley. His poems superficially fall in the William Carlos Williams category but they "turn out to be anything but Imagist." "They are all [sic] erotic poems."

And this good line: "Each [poem] is an excruciating spasm of guilt."

Then Rexroth goes on to talk about Charles Olson. While he doesn't call him third on the list behind Levertov and Creeley, it's pretty clear that that's what he means. (One can just imagine how Olson felt about that implication.)

I realize that it is or at least was once the custom of those who design NYTBR that an illustration is always placed somewhere on the front page. Sometimes the drawing or photo has nothing whatever to do with the lead review. Perhaps in this case it doesn't either. And yet the choice to use a modernist wood sculpture by Barbara Hepworth had to lead readers to believe a relationship between the image of Rexroth's survey of contemporary avant-garde poetry was being meant. Especially because the sculpture is a biomorphic lyre. Are poets returning to the age-old responsibilities and song-singing of Western poetic tradition? Actually, in a way, Rexroth is saying yes. But he is also saying that the new American poets are getting beyond modernism - that Eliot's influence is waning, that the "social role" of the poet, long an agonizing question for first-generation modernists, is a comfortable one for these young writers. So what were the NYTBR editors consciously or half-consciously expressing by way of illustrating Rexroth with the Hepworth sculpture?

Implicitly: Bearded barbarians or whatever.... Play things as they are.

** February 12, 1961, pp. 1, 44.

double-sided surrealism

This untitled piece is one of Toyen's double-side collages (paper size 12¼" x 8¼"). This one is dated 1960 and is at the Gallery of Surrealism, 160 Bleecker Street. It was exhibited at Gallery de la Ville de Prague, May 12-August 6, 2000.

Toyen was Marie Cerminova (1902 - 1980). Toyen never exhibited the double-sided collages she produced during the 1960s and 1970s and she probably did not even show them to any of her close friends. They were not made public until an auction in 1982.

Toyen, who rejected her name and chose to pursue her career as an artist under an assumed name, was the leading Czech surrealist and one of the many women who played important roles in the International Surrealist movement. A feminist, she rejected suggestions that she play a woman's role, and soon she endorsed the anarchist movement. She and the Czech poet, Jindrich Styrsky, went to Paris in the early 1920s and announced their own alternative to Abstraction and Surrealism, "Artificialism." By the mid-1930s, however, her work had become sufficiently Surrealist that, back in Prague, they became founding members of the Czech Surrealist group. In 1935, Andre Breton and Paul Eluard came to Prague and began a lifelong friendship with Toyen, interrupted only by the Nazi invasion and conquest of Czechoslovakia.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Meltzer's The Clown and the Semina circle

At left is an album cover: David Meltzer's jazz poems, 1958.

Meltzer published The Clown in 1960. It was issued by the Semina press. Jed Birmingham on REALITYSTUDIO.org has written about the Semina Circle and Meltzer, thus:

This mini-archive sat in my bookshelf for a couple of years untouched until January of this year when I purchased Wallace Berman and the Semina Circle. This book accompanied an exhibit relating to the literature and art surrounding Berman until his untimely death in 1976. This exhibit is currently touring the West Coast and will make its way to New York City (New York University to be exact) in January 2007. A complete run of Semina Magazine represents the Holy Grail for me as a collector. An early fragment of Naked Lunch (Pantapon Rose) appeared in Semina 4. As I have mentioned before, Semina is the epitome of the little magazine as art object. David Meltzer appeared in Semina as well. In fact, the entire issue of Semina 6 features Meltzer’s The Clown.

Unlike Burroughs, Meltzer was an intimate member of the Berman Circle. He published a few books including Luna with Black Sparrow. In the late 1960s, he wrote a series of avant garde pornographic novels for Essex House. At the same time, he fronted the psychedelic band Serpent Power. In 2004, Meltzer published Beat Thing. He also edited two collections of valuable interviews entitled San Francisco Poets and San Francisco Beat. A collection of Meltzer’s papers are at Washington University.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

minutes to go

One day in late September 1959, Brion Gysin was mounting some drawings in his hotel room. Cutting the boards with his knife, he also sliced through a pile of old newspapers that he'd placed under the boards to protect his table. When he was done cutting the boards, he noticed that the New York Herald Tribune had been sliced in strips and that the words in print lined up and could be read across the sliced strips. This combined stories from different pages. He loved the results.

By the time William S. Burroughs returned to the hotel (he'd been lunching with reporters), Brion was almost hysterical with excitement about his discovery. The two began to experiment with the process, soon calling it "Cut-ups."

"Of course, when you think of it, 'The Waste Land' was the first great cut-up collage, and Tristan Tzara had done a bit along the same lines." He credited John Dos Passos as well - the Dos of "the Camera's Eye" sequences in USA.

Perhaps Burroughs' most significant conclusion: "A page of Rimbaud cut up and rearranged will give you quite new images - real Rimbaud images - but new ones."

Gysin was a great influence on Burroughs in 1959 and 1960 and later. He got him interested in the followers of Hassan (political cult --> assassinations --> hashish) and in the Church of Scientology too.

But back to Cut-ups. Minutes to Go, published in 1960, was the result of Gysin's turning WB on at the Beat Hotel. Burroughs: "Minutes to Go contains unedited unchanged cut ups emerging as quite coherent and meaningful prose. The cut-up method brings to writers the collage, which has been used by painters for fifty years. And used by the moving and still camera. In fact all street shots from movie or still cameras are by the unpredictable factors of passers by and juxtaposition cut-ups. And photographers will tell you that often their best shots are accidents . . . writers will tell you the same. The best writing seems to be done almost by accident...."

Later Burroughs taught cut-up technique to Genesis P-Orridge as a method for "altering reality". Burroughs' insisted that everything is recorded, and if it is recorded, then it can be edited. P-Orridge employed cut-ups as an applied philosophy, a way of creating art and music.

UbuWeb's great "UbuWeb Papers" section includes Burroughs' essay "The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin".

More on The Beat Hotel here.

Monday, September 10, 2007

dummy in space

Sputnik 4 was a Soviet satellite, part of the Sputnik program and a test-flight of the Vostok spacecraft that would be used for the first human spaceflight. It was launched on May 15, 1960. (Sputnik 1 of course had been launched in 1957.)

A bug in the guidance system had pointed the capsule of this #4 in the wrong direction, so instead of dropping into the atmosphere the satellite moved into a higher orbit. It re-entered the atmosphere on or about September 5, 1962. A piece was found in the middle of a major street in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

This spacecraft, the first of a series of spacecraft used to investigate the means for manned space flight, contained scientific instruments, a television system, and a self-sustaining biological cabin with a dummy of a man.

"I remember quite well the Sunday morning when the news of the launch of Sputnik-4 was announced," writes Sven Grahn. It really made big headlines and was seen as a first step to manned spaceflight, despite the fact that TASS clearly stated that the spacecraft would not be returned to earth."

Meantime, at Seattle University, the math department attributes to Sputnik the pressure to beef up the math-science faculty even if it meant violating some old taboos. And so Mary Turner, the first woman on the math faculty there, was hired. (She had also been the first woman to earn a doctorate in mathematics at the University of Chicago.)

Thursday, September 6, 2007

125 hours and 31 minutes, with one 15 min. break

On May 6, Eisenhower signed into law The Civil Right Act of 1960, which did no more or less than establish federal inspection of local registration polls and create penalties for people who prevented a citizen registering to vote. (In the 1960 election, despite this new law and a civil rights bill passed in 1957, only an additional 3% of African American voters were added to the electorate.)

The real story of the 1960 act was what happened in Congress. LBJ, majority leader, prevented 18 southern Democrats from killing the bill by filibuster (they each took four-hour stints jabbering on the floor). He outlasted them procedurally and psychologically. John instigated round-the-clock sessions. He also had 40 army cots with bedding moved into Senate offices to ensure that 51 senators could be rounded up at any moment for an emergency quorum call. Eventually the Republicans--the Republicans--with an eye on the upcoming election, wanted some kind of civil rights bill passed that spring. LBJ worked with Eisenhower's attorney general, William P. Rogers (same man who was later Nixon's Secretary of State, the guy bypassed by Kissinger), to come up with a compromise bill, and that's the modest bill that was eventually passed.

LBJ was called "the southern Benedict Arnold" by the Florida Times-Union.

When it was done it had been the longest filibuster in history, lasting for 43 hours from February 29 to March 2. Johnson made sure that the bill was intact even after such a long "debate."

Above is the famous sequence of "Johnson treatment" photos taken for the New York Times.