Saturday, March 15, 2008

didactic poem not a poem

A more or less randomly chosen academic book from 1960: Gordon E. Bigelow's Rhetoric and American poetry of the early national period, published by the University of Florida Press - a 77-page monograph, number 4 in Florida's "Humanities" series. "During msot of Western literary history," Bigelow begins, "rhetoric and poetic [sic] have lain close together, sometimes merging so completely for centuries at a time as to be virtually indistinguishable" ... but not so in America. Although there was much rhetoric written especially for political conversation, writers of the early U.S. did not have the willingness to devote themselves to writing poetry because (primarily) British writers were their competition. Poetry that was written in the early U.S. was done mostly to excite narrowly targeted audiences specifically for political or religious events of the day. American poetry began by being "vigorous" yet "dull" and makes "dull reading today." The poet's "words fall to the ground before they reach our ears." "The urgency which gave his poetry its life" back then is "gone" now.

Bigelow is tentative about opining but (especially in his fifth section, "Propaganda and Declamation") his view is readable between the lines: partisan poetry is not poetry because it is not for the ages, it is not universal. There's a definitional problem here, and once one sees that the historical argument goes in a circle. He begins by defining poetry as not rhetoric, argues that the early U.S. poet is rhetorical, and ends by saying that the poetry produced was not poetry. There is no such thing as a didactic poem that deserves the name of "poem."

Friday, March 14, 2008

the one thing Sontag published

According to Lauren McDaniel at UCLA's special collections library, Susan Sontag's papers (so far at least) do not contain any writings dated 1960. It's possible that new batches of material coming into that collection will eventually include some stuff from our year. Her career as writer really began in '62 and she published just a few things before that. It's known among Sontagians (and perhaps less so about Rieffians) that Susan was an uncredited quasi-co-author of Philip Rieff's The Mind of the Moralist (1959).

There is a piece dated 1960: it appeared in the Supplement to the Columbia Dailiy Spectator on November 18, 1960, on pages 3, 4 & 8: "History in the Drama." Sontag was an instructor in religion at Columbia.

I procured a copy of this piece. It's a review of Tom Driver's The Sense and History of Greek and Shakespearean Drama published by Columbia University Press. This is almost fully mature Sontagian writer at the level of the sentence--without, unsurprisingly, the pure verve of the writing on camp and avant-gardism coming soon. Driver's book, she says, contributes to a number of current debates - among them "the clash between an orientation to psychology and an orientation to history. The 'linear' view is under heavy attack by contemporary psychology-minded intellectuals. It is said that we have seen 'the end of ideology,' the end of hopes for radical transformation of the human condition, and that political convulsions are precisely the fruit of th[e] misguided and presumtuous energies of Biblical messianism."

She is here referring to a major book of 1960 by Daniel Bell: The End of Ideology. And she's in part using the Rieffian approach to and critique of "contemporary psychology-minded intellectuals" to counter the centrist/post-ideological End of Ideology thesis, which in part attributes the politics of difference (ideological critique of the American suburban middle-class 1950s-style status quo, for instance) to psychological maladjustment and crazy egoistic desires.