Saturday, October 20, 2007

wants to destroy art for himself

Marcel Duchamp in this year. Nothing has been about him, notwithstanding his age and the remoteness by now of the moment when he first appeared on the scene.

In the rapidly commercializing field of contemporary art, he was a more and more visible presence. He served on exhibition juries, gave interviews, organized and installed the Surrealist group show at D'Arcy Gallery which has already been mentioned here, and accepted invitations to lecture about his work, a feat he discovered he could manage easily. In '60 he was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters (amazing, when you think of how staid that organization was).

"I'm nothing else but an artist, I'm sure," he said in '61 in a filmed interview for the BBC, "and delighted to be.... The years change your attitude, and I couldn't be very iconoclastic any more." I haven't seen the film, but reading this in print it strikes me that he couldn't have been serious in saying this, however much things had changed. He changed his anti-art rhetoric somewhat, but more, it seems, to suit the times than to express a major change in himself. At a symposium at MOMA (an event that was part of William Seitz's huge "Art of Assemblage" exhibition), he was asked, "Did you, or do you, really want to destroy art?" Duchamp's answer was: "I don't want to destroy art for anybody else but myself, that's all."

Among the sources: Calvin Tompkins, Duchamp, 1996.

Friday, October 19, 2007

poem has no charted orbit

On May 25, 1960, H.D. traveled from Europe back to New York to receive the Award of Merit Medal for Poetry at a joint ceremony hosted by the American Academy of Arts & Letters and the National Institute of Arts & Letters. Mark Van Doren made the presentation. "The poems...are so terse, so passionate, and so clear - in other words, so Greek - that they can best be celebrated on this day by giving back to her a few lines." And he quotes from Sea Garden (1916): "you say there is no hope / to conjure you... // But we bring violets..." "H.D.," Van Doren concluded, "to you these lines, those violets and this medal." And here's part of H.D.'s very brief acceptance speech:

Winged words, we know, make their own spiral - caught up in them, we are lost, or found. It is what a poem does, or can do, timelessly, having no charted orbit, or, if it has, then charted with those space instruments which only the spirit provides. / This winged victory belongs to the poem, not to the poet. But to share in the making of a poem it the privilege of a poet, and so I can thank you for measuring in space the whirr of my sometimes over-intense and over-stimulated, breathless meters."

I'm fascinated by this occasion and will doubtless later have more to say about it. For one thing, William Carlos Williams, ill and feeble, made the trip into Manhattan to be briefly reunited with H.D. after many years.

MORE... on H.D. in '60.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

hard-drinking Beat who studied Stein

Lew Welch's Wobbly Rock is published by Auerhahn Press in '60.

Welch entered Reed College in 1948, and the following year moved into a house with Gary Snyder; the following year they were joined by Philip Whalen. By the fall of 1949 Welch was co-editor of the school's literary magazine and was writing constantly. He wrote his senior thesis on Gertrude Stein and graduated in 1950.

For a number of years Welch showed his poetry only to close friends. With the emergence of the Beat movement, however, Welch's friends Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder began receiving national attention. Welch's desire to devote himself completely to his poetry was revived. He transferred to the Oakland office of Montgomery Ward and soon became a part of the San Francisco poetry scene. In 1958 he was fired from his job. His marriage fell apart soon after.

At the same time, however, Welch's poetry was beginning to meet with some success. Donald Allen included one of Welch's poems in The New American Poetry (1960). His first book Wobbly Rock was published just then. He was drinking heavily during this time, but he continued to write extensively. For a time he lived with his mother in Reno, Nevada, and then in a cabin in the Trinity Alps. He moved back to San Francisco in 1963, and in 1965 published three books.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

can history show us nothing but pieces?

Last night we sat with the stereopticon,
laughing at genre views of 1906,
till suddenly, gazing straight into
that fringed and tasselled parlor, where the vestal
spurns an unlikely suitor
with hairy-crested plants to left and right,
my heart sank.

It's Adrienne Rich, still writing in her premature style. Here is another long subjective-lyric sentence, starting out with time/place, then musing through verb-led clauses (laughing, gazing), until grammatical subject/object (heart/sank) emphatically finish it off. Periodic. Yet it was, somewhat daringly, writing about history--daring certainly for a woman poet, daring perhaps in context--she read it as "the poet," not to say "the young lady poet," after the more rooted speech by an academic straightforward literary historian and biographer.

A little later in her poem, in its fourth of six sections, called "Consanguinity," we have:

Can history show us nothing
but pieces of ourselves, detached,
set to a kind of poetry,
a kind of music, even?
Seated today on Grandmamma's
plush sofa with the grapes
bursting so ripely from the curved mahogany,
we read the great Victorians
weeping, almost, as if
some family breach were healed.

Yet it's not even clear if the poet, or we, or the Victorians, or all, are weeping.

At the College of William and Mary, each year the exercises of the Phi Beta Kappa chapter there feature a lecture and a poem. In December of 1960 the lecturer was Hemingway biographer Carlos Baker, of Princeton, and a mostly unknown poet named Adrienne Cecile Rich. She read her six-part poem, "Readings of History"; it was later published in Snapshots of a Daughter-in Law: Poems 1954-1962. The student newspaper, The Flat Hat, ran stories before and after the event.

can't write with his woman proximate

Summer '60: a Hollywood version of Kerouac's The Subterraneans is released, starring George Peppard. Philip Sheuer's review in the Los Angeles Times was given the headline, "Sensitive Film Tale Views Gropings of Beatniks" and indeed the photo designed into the story shows Peppard grabbing Leslie Caron hard from behind. "Even MGM is worried. Apparently fearful that the people, or squares, who might otherwise be attracted to the theaters, won't go." The studio used this phrase in its PR: "Today's Strange Young Rebels." Then Scheuer: "I'm not sure that I savvy what all the whoop-te-do is about."

The PR tagline in full: "These are The Subterraneans. Today's Young Rebels - who live and love in the world of their own. This is their story told to the hote rhythms of fabulous jazz."

Roddy McDowall (later an ape) makes an appearance as a poet-saint who can sleep standing up. And Arte Johnson (later of Laugh In) plays Arial Lavalerra, "a beat but not beaten Oscar Wilde--San Francisco style."

A. H. Weiler in the New York Times focuses on the sexual problems associated with this kind of writing. "Our hero finds he can't create his kind of iridescent prose with her [the Leslie Caron character] in close proximity."

Gerry Mulligan, the great jazzman, plays a sax-playing preacher. Andre Previn plays himself. Ranald MacDougall directed. The release date was June 23.

the Confucian side of Disney

Early in 1960 the young poet Donald Hall managed to interview Pound in Italy. Harry Meacham had recommended Hall to Pound, and the old tired poet knew that Hall had recently interviewed Eliot. Hall found that Pound's eyes were watery, red, showed fatigue. Pound said, on greeting the young poet (I think Hall put this in a poem): "You -- find me -- in fragements." During three days of interviews (add a fourth day, the first, when they met and spoke for an hour), Pound's voice was theatrical and stayed high in each sentence until the very end, when it fell. He had bursts of energy, even paced the room, until suddenly his faced sagged and he felt flat, eyes glassy, out of it. After one callapse, Pound recovered a bit and begged Hall: "Don't -- let me sound -- so tired."

Yes, this was in 1960. When finally Hall published an edited version of the interview in Paris Review, it was already '62.
Hall: It must be thirty or thirty-five years since you have written any poetry outside the Cantos, except for the Alfred Venison poems. Why is this?

Pound: I got to the point where apart from an occasional lighter impulse, what I had to say fitted the general scheme.

H: Do you think that the modern world has changed the ways in which poetry can be written?

P: There is a lot of competition that never was there before. Take the serious side of Disney, the Confucian side of Disney....

H: Did anyone ever help you with your work? ...I mean by criticism and cutting.

P: Apart from Fordie [Ford Madox Ford], rolling on the floor undecorously and holding his head in his hands, and groaning on one occasion, I don't think anybody helped me through my manuscripts. Ford's stuff appeared too loose then, but he led the right against tertiary archaisms.

H: How did you get started being a poet?

P: My grandfather on one side used to correspond with the local bank President in verse....

H: Can a man of the wrong [political] party use language efficiently?

P: Yes. That's the whole trouble! A gun is just as good, no matter who shoots it.

John Tytell, The Solitary Volcano, pp. 333 ff.; Paris Review #28, pp. 22- .

Monday, October 15, 2007

I will thy protestant be

H.D.'s prose, all told:

Notes on Thought and Vision (1919)
Paint it Today (written 1921, published 1992)
Asphodel (written 1921-22, published 1992))
Palimpsest (1926)
Kora and Ka (1930)
Nights (1935)
The Hedgehog (1936)
Tribute to Freud (1956)
Bid Me to Live (1960)
End to Torment (1979)
HERmione (1981)
The Gift (1982)

Robert Herrick's poem:

“Bid me to live, and I will live
Thy Protestant to be;
Or bid me love, and I will give
A loving heart to thee.

A heart as soft, a heart as kind,
A heart as sound and free
As in the whole world thou canst find,
That heart I'll give to thee.

Bid that heart stay, and it will stay
To honour thy decree;
Or bid it languish quite away,
And't shall do so for thee.

Bid me to weep, and I will weep,
While I have eyes to see;
And having none, yet I will keep
A heart to weep for thee.

Bid me despair, and I'll despair,
Under that cypress tree;
Or bid me die, and I will dare
E'en death, to die for thee.

--Thou art my life, my love, my heart,
The very eyes of me;
And hast command of every part,
To live and die for thee.”

Bid Me to Live is about the interplay between poetics and erotics. The character Rico is D. H. Lawrence and more generally a stand-in for the poet as mythic archetype. Julia, the protagonist, responds to Rico by rejecting the system that insists on two mutually exclusive sexes and from this Julia commits "simply" to the act of writing while aligning herself with the "common sex" proposed by Plato. It's a "coming to terms" with Lawrence that required a radical revision of his terms (and thus also Freud's)--for man and artist.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

"I am," a machine poem

Listen to "I Am," a machine poem (1960), by Brion Gysin: LINK. And also his "3 Permutations," also of 1960: LINK. Both courtesy of UbuWeb. Gysin appears here earlier.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

trippy sardonic West Coast surrealism

Recently I wrote about David Meltzer's The Clown and mentioned the connection between Meltzer and the Beat Generation visual artist - collagist, editor, painter, poet, photographer - Wallace Berman.

Earlier I briefly noted poet David Meltzer's 1960 book, Berman's amazing magazine, Semina, consisted of randomly compiled pages which features the Berman pantheon (Artaud, Cocteau) as well as still-emergent Beat colleagues, Philip Lamantia, Jack Anderson, Patricia Jordan, Kirby Doyle, Bob Kaufman, Aya Tarlow, Ruth Weiss, Michael McClure, John Wieners - as well as already more prominent poets such as Duncan and Ginsberg. To Holland Cotter Semina defined "a trippy, sardonic West Coast surrealism." (At left: a detail of a photograph of Semina #1.)

Cotter was reviewing - very favorably - a January-March 2007 exhibit at the Gray Art Gallery at NYU called "Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Circle."

"I would call Wallace a spiritmaker," Michael McClure has said, "a soul-maker, because I don't view Semina as a poetry magazine. I see Semina as an assemblage; the visual art in it is as interesting as the poetry. The act of creating it is an act that coincides with the poetry. I tend to look at the production of it. In other words: in the era of the slickest production values, here's probably the least slick magazine or the least slick assemblage that anybody had ever seen" (Support the Revolution 64).

Berman is shy about his own work but occasionally organized an exhibit to show it. One such show, at Ferus Gallery in LA in 1957, was busted by the cops. Berman himself was arrested "for exhibiting lewd material." (See below.) The piece the policed didn't like was not Berman's but Marjorie Cameron Parsons Kimmel (d. 1995) who went by "Cameron." The offending image had been published in Semina but copies of the magazine had been scattered on the gallery floor.

It seems that the next Berman show wasn't until 1965.

A 1964 broadside - 5.5" x 8.5" and printed in a small edition - was called Poetry Is a Muscular Principle. The text of this was written by Michael McClure, with a photo of McClure as a lion made by Wallace Berman, and Berman did the design and the printing.

Semina was eventually nine volumes. It was done in offset printing and also in letterpress printing.

Berman died in Topanga Canyon (north of LA) at the age of 50.

I'm looking at a fabulous exhibit catalogue prepared for Assemblage in California: Works from the late 50's and early 60's, a show at the U Cal Irvine art gallery in the fall of '68. (Berman was one of six artists featured in the show. Bruce Conner was one of the others.)

Christopher Knight in "Instant Artifacts" writes: "The inventory of pictures [Berman] overlaid over radio speakers is long: an antique bust, a palm-reader's chart, a jazz musician, a thumb, a bird, a one-eyed priest, a snake, a skull, a mandala, a praying cardinal, an engine, a flower, a soldier, a galaxy, a skeleton, a fighter plane, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, a gun, a dancer, a Hebrew letter, handcuffed wrists, Buck Rogers, a bed, a window, keens, a coat, an ear, a bell tower, an American Indian chief, a Mayan relief, a butterfly with a pocket watch, Mike Jagger, a planet, a copulating couple." This is a Verifax collage.

And a photograph of the Ferus Gallery door after the police raided the Berman exhibit and carried him off to jail:

[] Exhibit catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Art, Amsterdam, Wallace Berman: Support the Revolution.

[] Exhibit catalogue, assemblage in california: works for the late 50's and early '60s, Art Gallery, Univ of California at Irvine, 1968.

[] Holland Cotter, "A Return Trip to a Faraway Place Called Underground," New York Times, January 26, 2007.

In 1960 Berman started Semina Art Gallery on a houseboat in Larkspur, Marin County. He also that year published the sixth issue of Semina.

rhyming like crazy

Creeley's "Song" ("Those rivers run from that land"), a ditty (yes, ditty) of simple-but-sneakily-difficult geo-abstraction, includes (twice) a refrain which is a quatrain that rhymes A A A A.

And me, why me
on any day might be
favored with kind prosperity
or sunk in wretched misery.

Not remarkable in the least, and, at worst, clunky. But the poem by its diction implies that, well, it's all for love (For Love is the name of the book where this 1960 poem was later collected) and so get this sincere nature-human indefiniteness:

You I want back of me
in the life we have here...


I cannot stop the weather
by putting together
myself and another
to stop those rivers.

(A A A B)

"Song" was first published in the winter 1960-61 issue of a magazine called Inscape (number 6). It was evidently written on November 18, 1960.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

the ear of an unliterary era

An unsigned essay entitled "Breathing Words into the Ear of an Unliterary Era,"* published in TLS on September 9, 1960, eventually gets to an analysis of casual or "spontaneous"-seeming poems by Philip Larkin and Robert Creeley (what a pairing). The example from Creeley is "I Know a Man" ("As I sd to my / friend, because I am / always talking--John, I / sd..."), and from Larkin, "Days" ("What are days for? / Days are where we live"). But first there's this bit of complaining:
An elegant handling of the spoken and written word used to be a primary social weapon in England. Today an observer who covers enough ground can watch the English language being steadily democratized, as perhaps the American language is already; airs are graces, little flourishes, little niceties are being ironed out for the sake of direct communication. A way of speaking or writing is ceasing to be, except in an old-fashioned and growingly rather absurd way, an assumption of or a claim for status." And so in poetry of the day "we expect less and less attention to be paid to the artificial, the formal, the purely 'literary' qualities of poetry; we expect a growing attention to be paid to a quality of raw directness, of speakabiliity. Left to himself a provincial undergraduate might read D. H. Lawrence's Pansies for pleasure; he would not read "Lycidas."
* p. xv.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Chelsea goes political

A 1960 issue of Chelsea Review (number 8) included a special section entitled "Political Poetry" guest-edited by David Ignatow. Among the contributors of "political poems": David Antin, Jerome Rothenberg, Langston Hughes, Chad Walsh, Harry Roskolenko, Donald Hall, Robert Duncan, Robert Sward, Allen Ginsberg, Ed Dorn, Larry Eigner, Robert Creeley.

drink a highball to German metaphysics (not)

"Where is the monument of antiquity on which Kenneth Rexroth has not tapped a few cigarette ashes? Where is the misty crag of German metaphysics on which he has not balanced his highball glass?"

So wrote James Heanue, the Berkeley-based philosopher (Husserl specialist), to the editors of the NYT Book Review on July 3*, complaining about a negative review Rexroth had written about Anna Balakian's book on surrealism (mentioned recently--below--in my long post about 1960's surrealist happenings).

* page BR 13

art without need of literary occasion

Stuart Preston, art critic.

This entry wanders a bit, first dealing with a show featuring geometric and non-representational paintings, but then moves to the state of surrealism in the U.S. in 1960. Before I wander, let's begin with a deceptively simple summary statement about surrealism written for Poetry in 1960 by the long-time Bennington College teacher and critic of French modern lit, Wallace Fowlie:

Poetry is the power to create, to confer a new meaning on an object... The surrealist contribution to the theory of poetics ranks high today among the movement's major contributions. The poet, they say, borrows nothing that is foreign or unfamiliar to himself. He takes back what was his to begin with--those things, precisely, in which he recognizes himself... They spoke constantly of the state of poetry as something that is lived and thought of as an interrogation, as quasi-discovery.

Okay, let's go elsewhere the Galerie Chalette, where in the spring there was a compehensive exhibition entitled "Construction and Geometry in Painting--from Malevitch to 'Tomorrow.'" In other words, a show of non-objective paintings. A typical canvas was Victor Vasarely's "Citra" (1955-59): the canvas is divided in half, top background dark, bottom light. Shapes (squares, diamonds, bold polygons of all kinds) are arranged together in color-relief against the background, right triangle poking out at exactly 12, 3, 6 and 9 o'clock, like a spiny, squat top.

Preston* noted that these works "sacrifice too many human impulses in achieving their ends and can only be considered completely satisfactory works or art in a limited sense." The paintings here, he said, "exist[...] on their own without need of literary or emotional occasions."

Since I'm interested these days in the situation and reputation of surrealism in 1960, I am intrigued by the way Preston manages the transition between sections of his Times review - moving from one exhibit to the next. Here he's moving from the non-objective show to Kurt Seligman's recent paintings which were then showing at Fine Arts Associates. No need of a transition, of course; readers used to the "what's going on at the galleries" round-up can shift gears quickly. But Preston writes this:

The 'pure' basis of geometrical art is absolutely repudiated in surrealism's pact with the unconscious....

The main difference between Vasarely's inhuman non-literariness and Seligman's "dense thickets of myth and fantasy" is that the former doesn't partake of mystery in the least and the latter was...well here's Preston's awkward term that he got passed NYT's editors..."one of modern art's foremost mystifactors."

The key for Preston is the imagination. Non-objective art doesn't have it, surrealism does.

Surrealism in the U.S. seems to have had three big moments in 1960: (1) Wallace Fowlie's essay (quoted at the outset of this entry), "Surrealism in 1960: A Backward Glance," published in Poetry in March issue; (2) the publication of Anna Balakian's important book, Surrealism: The road to the Absolute (Noonday--reviewed variously in April); and (3) a show at D'Arcy Galleries featuring 58 surrealist painters and sculptors put together by Marcel Duchamp and Maurice Bonnefoy (owner of the gallery) at the end of November. (I'm focused on American happenings here, so I won't count a fourth big surrealist moment that year. Back in January, in Paris, crowds flocked to the Eighth International Exposition of Surrealism. The theme that year was eroticism. Apparently, though, gallery-goers were not sufficiently shocked. "For the truth is," one critic wrote, "surrealism's erotic symbols and visual jokes [e.g. the fur-lined teacup at New York's Museum of Modern Art show in 1936] have ceased to shock or enrage the bourgeois."***)

Later entries here will surely return to the three above-mentioned American surrealist moments, but let me add a word here about the Duchamp show. When reviewers showed up at the gallery to find out about the show in advance of the opening, they found Duchamp waiting for the delivery of three live chickens, standing outside 1091 Madison Avenue. The fowl were to participate in the show. (They were set off in a corner near a sign that read "Coin Sale.") A pair of half-burned logs were set neatly on andirons against a wall in which they was no fireplace.

The premiere was held on Saturday night, November 28. The opening was a benefit for the Damon Runyon Fund for Cancer Research.

The 58 pieces Duchamp and Bonnefoy chose were meant to be more representative of the surrealist movement "from 1913 to today." In one gallery five electric clocks hung from the ceiling. There was also "an ancient typewriter" and an old time clock with which guests at the premiere punched their invitations upon entering. There was a length of garden hose, to be spread around "as a good-natured hazard." A toy electric train circled a track set up in one of the gallery's Madison Avenue windows, pulling cards marked with the names of the surrealists in the show.

My favorite part of the exhibit: From concealed speakers set up around the galleries, came a recording...of a child's piano practice, mistakes and all.**

Another report**** says that the show was organized by Andre Breton, who of course wrote the first surrealist manifesto in 1924 and still by then presided over surrealism's followers in Paris.

Recent painters whom we don't normally call surrealist were included in the show: Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg. The New Yorker***** critic said somewhat oddly of Rauschenberg: "surely a Dadaist, if I ever saw one."

Generally critics in 1960 either gloated over the fact that surrealism no longer shocked the middle classes or tsk-tsk'ed that "what once seemed sick now seems strangely sane."

What interests me about the state of surrealism in 1960 is the conclusion drawn with such certainty by the New Yorker critic: "[I]t might be said that instead of Surrealism's taking over America, America took over the Surrealists."

* "Questions of Meaning," NYT, Apr. 10, 1960, p. X13. ** NYT, Nov. 28, 1960, p. 36. *** Newsweek, Jan. 18, 1960, pp. 87-88. **** Time, Dec. 12, 1960, p. 81. ***** New Yorker, Dec. 10, 1960, p. 200.

a scary time

UbuWeb Films features several shorts by Shirley Clarke (1919-1997), including A Scary Time of 1960. Music by Peggy Glanville-Hicks, produced by UNICEF (yes) in consultation with Thorold Dickinson. Go to Ubu's Clarke page and you'll find several of her shorts combined into one video.

Clarke studied filmmaking with Hans Richter at the City College of New York after making In Paris Parks (1954). In 1955 she became a member of the Independent Filmmakers of America. She became part of a circle of independent filmmakers in Greenwich Village such as Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, and Jonas Mekas.

Her 1963 film was The Cool World & Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel with the World.

Clarke also directed a 90-minute Cinéma vérité interview with a black homosexual titled Portrait of Jason (1967), which has been called an insightful exploration of one "persons character while it simultaneously addresses the range and limitations of cinema-verité style." -- Lauren Rabinovitz. She created the 90-minute film from twelve hours of interview footage. It was distributed by the Film-Makers Distribution Center, which was co-founded by Clarke in 1966, closing in 1970 due to a lack of funds.

In 1970, she formed the T.P. Videospace Troupe, a loose collective working in experimental video and theater.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Weldon Crusoe

I've mentioned that The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees was published in 1960. When the narrator of Kees' poems is in the third person, he is sometimes given a name - Robinson, whom Kenneth Rexroth described as "modern man at the end of his rope."

Rexroth (in his review of the book, published in the New York Times on January 8, 1961) added that Kees is only distinguishable from this Robinson by his (Kees') pity. And then, to make things clear: Kees is "Robinson Crusoe, utterly alone on Madison Avenue, a stranger and afraid in the world of high-paying news weeklies, fashionable galleries...high-brow movies," etc.

In 1956, in a letter, Rexroth observed of his friend Kees, that while others "have called themselves Apocalyptics, Kees lived in a permanent and hopeless apocalypse."

Kees worked for a while at Time magazine, where his boss was Whittaker Chambers.

Kees went with Elizabeth Bishop to visit Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeth's hospital in Washington, DC.

Mark Ford wrote in 2004 that Kees "radiated something Bartlebyish." "Why don't you want to be a success?" Truman Capote asked Kees at a party in 1948 (and one can well imagine Capote's tone in asking this).

From a late poem:

If this room is our world, then let
This world be damned.

I look to words, and nothing else

Robert Creeley in "A Note" published in the winter/spring 1960 issue of the magazine Nomad (p. 13) rejected, in manifesto-like language, the poem as a "sign-board." Here are a few sentences:

I believe in poetry determined by the language of which it is made. (Wiliams: 'Therefore each speech having its own character the poetry it engenders will be pecular to that speech also in its own intrinsic form.') I look to words, and nothing else, for my own redemption either as man or poet.... The poet, of all men, has least cause and least excuse to pervert his language, since what he markets is so little in demand.... I mean then words - as opposed to content. I care what the poem says, only as a poem - I am no longer interested in the exterior attitude to which the poem may well point, as sign-board. That concern I have found it best to settle elsewhere.... Only craft determines the morality of the poem.

He is not saying he's not social or political; nor is he quite saying that his poetry doesn't have social or political resonances or concerns. He's saying that such concerns for him are better manifested and dealt with elsewhere (in forms of expression and activities of life exterior to poetry). He's saying that if the poems take ethical positions they do so only through the words and the very way the words are arranged, assembled, put in, left out. (This Cagean position is generally associated later with the "poethics" of Joan Retallack and others.)

did Lowell mean himself to be "raw" or "cooked"?

Robert Lowell's book Life Studies, published in 1959, was given the National Book Award of poetry in April 1960. The party celebrating the awards - for Lowell as well as Philip Roth in fiction for Goodbye, Columbus and Richard Ellmann for his James Joyce biography - was held at the Grand Ballroom of the Hotel Astor. the jury said that Lowell's poems were "of fierce and immediate compassion...[striking] through the private dimension to document the pressures of an age." Not the individual mania but "the age."

Lowell's acceptance speech made a distinction between the kinds of contemporary poetry - raw and cooked. More about that in a moment. A journalist at the Astor party approached Lowell and asked him to enlarge on the distinction between raw poetry and cooked. "I'm not going to comment on something I haven't actually said yet," replied Mr. Lowell. Then Lowell, "his Yankee jaw stiffening," smiled and "even cracked a couple of homely jokes, for all the world like a Harvard Will Rogers."

The main address of the evening was given by Dr. Mason W. Gross, president of Rutgers University, who warned his audience that civilization was going to drown soon in a sea of increasingly meaningless words - presumably, though those gathered, he didn't mean Roth's, Lowell's or Ellmann's. Gross became and assistant professor of philosophy in '46 after fighting in the war, and moved quickly up through the administrative ranks, having become president in 1959, not quite a year before delivering this speech. But his gloomy prediction that we would drown in meaningless words might have struck some at the Astor as odd coming from the man who in the late 40s and mid 50s was widely known from his role as a panelist on the TV quiz show, Think Fast (1949-50) and the show Two for the Money (1952-55). This was the man worried about being awash in a sea of meaningless words?

Here is part of Lowell's speech, with his "raw/cooked" comment:

Our modern American poetry has a snarl on its hands. Something earth-shaking was started about fifty years ago by the generation of Eliot, Frost and William Carlos Williams. We have tried a run of poetry as inspired, and perhaps as important and sadley brief as that of Baudelaire and his successors, or that of the dying Roman Republic and early Empire. Two poetries are ever competing, a cooked and a raw. The cooked, marvelously expert, often seems laboriously concocted to be tasted and digested by a graduate seminar. The raw, hugh blood-dripping goblets of unseasoned experience dished up for midnight listeners. There is a poetry that can only be studied, and a poetry that can only be declaimed, a poetry of pedantry, and a poetry of scandal. I exaggerate, of course. Randall Jarrell has said that the modern world has destroyed the intelligent poet's audience and given him students. James Baldwin has said that many of the best writers are as inarticulate as our statesmen. / Writing is neither transport nor technique. My own owes everything to a few of our poets who have tried to write directly about what mattered to them, and yet to keep faith with their calling's tricky, specialized, unpopular possibilities of good worksmanship...."

Lowell is semi-coherently referring to the Beats (those who can only declaim their poetry - raw) and the so-called New Formalists (producers of New Criticism-friendly, wrought verse). And he clearly wanted to stand apart from these two schools, obviously concerned that the alleged directness and psycho-emotional frankness of Life Studies might lead folks to put him with the former, while also wanting the book to declare his separation from the merely academic qualities of the latter. Yet in saying this in so quick and dirty a form - and this is the reason why I like to read such occasional speeches - he reveals a sense of his poetics with respect to the major modernists. The clever "yet" in the final sentence quoted above is thick with meaning not quite fully intended.

modern child

"A modern young mother we know locked horns with her Dalton Schooled six-year-old daughter last week, and just at the crucial point of the impasse the child blurted, "I'm going to run away and I'm going over to the Guggenheim Museum and I'm never coming home again!"

From "Talk of the Town," the New Yorker, April 20, 1960, p. 32.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Nixon gave poet bad dreams

Back in 1956 (when JFK's presidential ambitions first became apparent) William Carlos Williams had read to him twice Profiles in Courage. (Williams by that point could not easily read. By 1960 he couldn't read at all and asked Flossie occasionally to read aloud to him, including at times his own poems in process.)

In 1957 WCW had made some disparaging remarks about Kennedy to a friend, but now that the Kennedy-Nixon election was on, and would obviously be a very close one, the old poet was elated. Nixon he found "so despicable that the thought that he might now be the President of the U.S. still [gave WCW] bad dreams."

back to words

In July 1959, Ezra Pound in Italy was busy reading Samuel Johnson's Dictionary.

Source: Paul Mariani's biography of Williams, p. 750.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Dick Higgins meets Bern Porter

One of the treasures of PennSound is a long interview/conversation with Bern Porter conducted by his long-time friend and collaborator Dick Higgins. There are two parts of the sound file. At around 34 minutes into the first recording, the two begin to talk about their first collaboration - and then, later, their first meeting - in 1959-1960.

[] Listen to the excerpt about 1959-60: mp3
[] Listen to the whole discussion: mp3
[] Go to the Bern Porter PennSound author page: link

Bern Porter and Dick Higgins first made contact with one another in 1959. Ray Johnson and Bern had been exchanging items through the Mail Art project, Ray sending collages, Bern altering them somewhat and sending them back. Bern was living in Maine at this point, having come back to the U.S. from Tasmania. Young Dick Higgins, about to go off to printing school, was given by Ray Johnson a brochure by Bern Porter that Bern had sent (something Bern had produced in 1947).

Dick loved the pamphlet and sent Bern some of his manuscripts. Bern loved them and wrote immediately back, inviting Dick to contribute to "Bern Porter Editions."

Dick sent Bern the manuscript of What Are Legends. Bern hand-lettered the book and Dick took it to the printing school, where it was printed with Bern's illustrations. This was in 1960.

One of Higgins' obits began this way: "DICK HIGGINS'S first book was entitled What Are Legends: a clarification. Higgins was himself a bona fide legend, for the books he published rather than wrote. A seminal figure in the Sixties avant-garde, in that astonishing decade of innovation and experimentation whose legacy seems dimmed today by a return to formalism, he was typically protean: poet, performer, composer, visual artist and filmmaker. Yet it was as founder, designer and publisher of the Something Else Press that he remains best known."

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

we need the sense of one voice speaking

In 1960 "serious" literary critics were still debating imagism. Actually in several belated critical attacks on imagism, I realize that imagism stands in for all of poetic modernism (quite a leap but handy for the anti-modernist). Graham Hough, then a Fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge, delivered a series of lectures at Catholic University in 1959; the university press published these in 1960 under the heading Reflections on a Literary Revolution.

In his lecture called "Imagism and Its Consequences," Hough announced: "I should like to commit myself tothe view that for a poem to exist as a unity more than merely bibliographical, we need the sense of one voice speaking, as in lyric or elegiac verse; or of several voices intelligibly related to each other, as in narrative with dialogue or drama; that what these voices say needs a principle of connection no different from what which would be acceptable in other other kind of discourse; that the collocation of images is not a method at all, but the negation of method. In fact, to expose oneself completely, I want to say that a poem, internally considered, ought to make the same kind of sense as any other discourse" (pp. 34-35).

So much for poetry's formal difference from other kinds of discourse.

And never mind that in fact imagism was a poetic method as (originally at least) focused and clear as any poetic -ism ever promulgated. Anyway, a negation of a method is itself a method, especially if that negation is a conscious principle of procedure.

And one can be glad that two voices are permitted, but of course they must be set in intelligible relation. Who's to say what is intelligible about a relation between two people talking?

Graham Hough (elsewhere) also said: “The fact that poetry is not of the slightest economic or political importance, that is has no attachment to any of the powers that control the modern world, may set it free to do the only thing that in this age it can do -to keep the neglected parts.”

Monday, October 1, 2007

Madame Blavatsky does the Marx Brothers

More on the Beat Hotel (9 rue Git-le-Coeur) where Burroughs and painter-restauranteur Brion Gysin "invented" the cut-up technique, where Corso wrote The Happy Birthday of Death, and so on. One walked up the stairs of this place to find a squat toilet hole, peeling walls, and a tilted landing. Rooms: bare floor, seedy furnishings, 40-watt bulbs on the ceiling. It cost $30/month to stay there. The landlady, Madame Rachou, didn't care what people did there and was highly selective about whom she rented to.

"It was like a Marx Brothers movie directed by Madame Blavatsky," Ted Morgan remembers.

Steven Watson, The Birth of the Beat Generation: Visionaries, Rebels, and Hipsters, 1944-1960 (Pantheon, 1995), p. 273. See also Barry Miles, The Beat Hotel (Grove, 2000).