Saturday, April 25, 2009

Frank Zappa, Commodity Logic, and the Dawn of Postmodernism

So there I was, puffing away on the treadmill, preparing for bicycle season (Team Slow Ride, the crew with which I so inelegantly ride, will be doing a Milwaukee-to-Chicago run this summer, and believe me, I'm in no kind of shape for anything more than a downhill roll to the local ice-cream truck). I'd wedged Frank Zappa's autobiography into the treadmill's little magazine-holder thing, and was a chapter or two into it when I ran across the following passage from Zappa's account of his blue collar, small town teenage years in the 1950s:

One day I happened across an article about Sam Goody's record store in Look magazine which raved about what a wonderful merchandiser he was. The writer said that Mr. Goody could sell anything—and as an example he mentioned that he had even managed to sell an album called Ionization. The article went on to say something like "This album is nothing but drums—it's dissonant and terrible; the worst music in the world." Ahh! Yes! That's for me! I wondered where I could get my hands on a record like that, because I was living in El Cajon, California—a little cowboy kind of town near San Diego.

Zappa couldn't find a copy in El Cajon, but one day, when visiting a friend in nearby La Mesa, he hit the record store and paydirt, in that order:

After shuffling through the rack and finding a couple of Joe Huston Records, I made my way toward the cash register and happened to glance at the LP bin. I noticed a strange looking black-and-white album cover with a guy on it who had frizzy gray hair and looked like a mad scientist [Zappa, whose father worked in a metallurgy shop, had a kind of mad science vibe to him at the time, and made of the mixing of chemicals and the blowing up of shit the main non-musical activities of his youth]. I thought it was great that a mad scientist had finally made a record, so I picked it up—and there it was the record with "Ionization" on it. The author of the Look article had gotten it slightly wrong—the correct title was The Complete Works of Edgard Varèse, Volume I...

The LP cost a princely $5.95, and Zappa had only $3.75 to his name. He made an offer, and, since the record seemed unsellable, the clerk let him buy it. The record was an ear-opener, and soon Zappa was laying in a supply of Stravinsky, Webern, and the like, along with the usual teeny-bopper stuff, and used blues records from old jukeboxes. "Since I didn't have any formal training," writes Zappa, "it didn't make any difference to me if I was listening to Lightnin' Slim, or a vocal group called The Jewels... or Webern, or Varèse, or Stravinsky. To me it was all good music."

Anyone who's spent time listening to Zappa's music can tell you it's the result of the collapse of the high culture/popular culture distinction — a collapse typical of what we think of as postmodernism. But what's interesting here is how Zappa starts on the road to being a postmodern musician: it has everything to do with the dominance of commodity logic in American culture. Firstly, there's the article in Look, which presents us with what, in historical terms, is a very strange kind of heroism: Sam Goody is no knight in shining armor, nor is he a holy man or a martyr. He's a hero because he can, Midas-like, convert anything he touches into a commodity to be sold (even something so resolutely non-commodifiable as Varèse's experimental music). It is only because the tale of the triumph of the Knight of Commodification over the Dragon of Aesthetic Innovation was being sung in the pages of Look that Zappa heard of Varèse in the first place. Secondly, there's the actual triumph of markets and commodities in midcentury America: the country was well on its way to being the everything-all-the-time-if-you-can-pay-for-it nation it is today, and you could even find a Varèse album in a shitkicker county if you traveled a town or two over. Also, there's the sense that the only value is the market or commodity value. What's the value of Varèse? Only what the market will bear, by the logic of commodities. And, since the market in La Mesa wouldn't bear $5.95, Zappa was actually able to afford the album.

Moreover, since young Zappa wasn't exposed to any system of cultural hierarchy other than the commodity, he encountered all music as equal (all commodities are in some sense exchangeable -- lead, feathers, fighter jets, bassoons, church windows, first folios of Shakespeare, truck tires, Van Gogh paintings, whatever: pile them up high enough and you can trade one for another). In another time and place he'd probably have learned one or another kind of snobbery. I mean, if you read old issues of Gramophone from the 1920s, the world of music is pretty clearly split into classical, on the one hand, and everything else, which was seen as worthless crap, on the other). So: the logic of commodities, where everything is curiously the same, was the only logic by which music was sorted for young Zappa, pure product of America that he was. And it was, I suppose, from a million little actions like Zappa's purchase of Varèse that the collapse of cultural hierarchies, of Webern-good, Lightinin' Slim-bad, followed. It's been said that with the triumph of market forces, all that is solid melts into air. It turns out that includes aesthetic hierarchy.

By the way: I'm ashamed to admit I didn't know, until reading Frank Zappa's book, that he and Captain Beefheart hung out together in high school. And thinking about them together reminds me that the guy who first turned me on to Belgian Surrealism, Michel Delville, is not only the editor of a book on Captain Beefheart: he plays in a band called Trank Zappa Grappa in Varese, which is well worth checking out.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Rimbaud Notebook

I've been working on an essay about Rimbaud and, as always, taking more notes than necessary. Here are a few of them...


The hagiographic quality of the French commentaries on Rimbaud can be overwhelming. If the French ever found the bullet with which Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the wrist, they'd put it in Lourdes and use it to heal the lame.


In 1901 a Belgian book-lover discovered all 500 copies of Une Saison en Enfer in the storeroom of the printer Rimbaud had hired 28 years earlier. Rimbaud, it seems, had never paid the man.

Rimbaud never tried to publish Illuminations: it was his former lover Verlaine who got it into print, long after Rimbaud departed for Africa. At the time, Verlaine thought it was a posthumous publication.

Whatever else you can say about Rimbaud, he was not a careerist.


Mallarmé said that Rimbaud "amputated himself" from poetry. It makes you wonder: what did Mallarmé amputate himself from by staying a poet?


I, like everyone else, really want the "Adieu" at the end of Une Saison en Enfer to be the last bit of poetry Rimbaud wrote, but the chronology remains muddled. It's probable some of the Illuminations came afterwards. Rimbaud is as inconsiderate of others in chronology as he was in everything else.


I don't think we can underestimate the role France's national humiliation in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 played in setting the mood for Rimbaud's poetry. The "Mauvais Sang" or "Bad Blood" section of Une Saison en Enfer revels in the idea of the French as a debased people. The self-doubt of a defeated nation becomes an opportunity for Rimbaud to undermine one of the pillars of bourgeois morality: pride in nation.


Everyone who writes about Rimbaud has an opinion about the statement "Je est un autre" ("I is another"), But for me the real interest lies in a related statement, "C'est faut de dire: Je pense: on devrait dire on me pense" ("It's wrong to say I think: one should say I am thought").

I could find only one truly first-rate gloss on the passage, by the great Geneva-school phenomenologist Georges Poulet. For him, "I am thought" (meaning something like "something thinks me," not "I am composed of thought") can be paraphrased as an undoing of the Cartesian "I think, therefore I am." Poulet: "I am, I do not doubt my existence, nor do I doubt that it is personal, or that the way in which I apprehend it is not equally personal. I am, and feel myself to be, living. But this being that I am and of which I am conscious, is dependent upon a power I cannot reasonably attribute to myself. My effort to think myself can only lead me to situate, somewhere back of me, a determining power of which I am the passive subject and about which I am at a loss to speak."

It's in the context of these ideas that "Je est un autre" takes on fuller resonance. Against this powerful sense of being formed by forces beyond one's control, "Je est un autre" can mean (again, in Poulet's words) "I can think myself other than I am or was."


It's freedom Rimbaud is after, but he's always after it the way a prisoner is, when he dreams of escape. Rimbaud feels the constraints of family, school, career, and religion, and satirizes them brutally in his earliest poetry. But what does escape look like? Sometimes it's a dream of a return to childhood (think of "Le Bateau Ivre," in which the only boat he cares for is the toy one launched by a child in a cold black puddle) and sometimes it's a dream of dissolving, and being swept away into nothingness (think of another part of "Le Bateau Ivre," where he dreams of the storms tearing his ship apart). Sometimes, too, it's a desire to transcend the limits of existence by having more than one life ("It seems to me we are owed other lives," he wrote in Une Saison en Enfer).

Robert Baker, in his wonderful study The Extravagant: Crossings of Modern Poetry and Philosophy gets at the nature of Rimbaud's escapism when he writes "At one extreme of his experience, Rimbaud explores theatrical, expressive, metaphoric multiplications of himself... while at another extreme he evokes a kind of translation of the self into the sweep of light."

Monday, April 20, 2009

What to Make of the NDR?

Back in the fall of '97 I opened my mailbox to find a free promotional CD from Naxos Records, a label specializing in inexpensive recordings of the more obscure corners of the classical music repertoire, often performed by fairly low-profile orchestras and ensembles. The CD was called Naxos: Ten Years of Success, and I suppose the bravado was merited. The good people at Naxos had succeeded by at least two criteria: they'd made a financial success for themselves, and they'd brought a vastly expanded range of music into broad circulation. The commemorative disk was a success, too, at least for me: I still listen to some of the tracks, long since scanned into my laptop and ported over to my various pods, phones, gizmos, and devices.

Today I opened my mailbox to find another collection commemorating a decade's worth of putting art in front of the public, only this time it wasn't music, it was writing: an anthology of poetry and fiction called Notre Dame Review: The First Ten Years. The title's got none of the fine bragadocio of Ten Years of Success, although I suppose the implied existence of a second decade ahead is a bit of an expression of confidence, given the lifespan of most literary ventures. Still, one is tempted to ask: in what ways, if any, could the journal's first decade be described as "ten years of success"?

I've been reading the Notre Dame Review since its first issue, and have written for it more times than I can remember (there's a poem of mine, "Victory Over the Sun," in the anthology, too). There's generally been something I've been impressed by in every issue, and on occasion something I've disliked, but generally I've disliked it with a grudging respect. So even though I've only had the anthology in my hands for something like two hours, and read only bits and pieces, I feel like I've got a pretty good sense of the journal and what it has tried to accomplish.

The anthology has two introductions, one by each of the editors, John Matthias and William O'Rourke. Reading over Matthias' introduction helps clarify what has been best about the journal, as well as its shortcomings. Let's start with the main shortcoming. "All issues since the second," writes Matthias, "have an an umbrella-like theme — 'Dangerous Times,' 'Work,' 'Signs and Surfaces,' 'Body and Soul'..." This is true, in that each issue has a title, and several of the pieces inside relate to the title. But one senses some bad faith on the part of the editors: the themes tend to be quite general ("Signs and Surfaces" is hardly a theme in the way that, say, "New Cuban Poets" would be), and if you can write a convincing defense of how each piece connects even to the general theme, I'll come over and paint your house for you. There are exceptions: I remember one issue devoted to writing from the &NOW Conference of Innovative Writing. But overall I rather suspect that the idea of themes was part of the proposal written for the NDR early on, and that the editors experience it as a burden more often than not.

Other statements from Matthias' introduction really do clarify what has been best about NDR's editorial policy. "One distrusts a reader of Pound who cannot admire Auden, a reader of Elizabeth Bishop who will not open a book by Susan Howe," writes Matthias, and this broadmindedness informs both the journal as a whole and the present anthology, in which Caroline Bergvall and Derek Mahon rub shoulders. The presence of Bergvall and Mahon doesn't just indicate open-mindedness about form, either: it also indicates a sensitivity to writing from outside the United States, in translation and in English. Until the Chicago Review became a kind of American outpost of Cambridge School poetry, the Notre Dame Review was your best bet for finding exciting British poetry in an American literary review. Outside of a particular range of experimental work, it still is.

Matthias proudly points out that the first issue of the journal contained, along with much else, work by two Nobel Laureates and two poets publishing their first poems. One suspects the Nobelists were there as the result of some arm-twisting and some calling-in of favors, but I take Matthias' point: NDR has been neither hierarchical nor in-groupish, and this, too, is something in which its editors can take pride. There's a kind of centripetal force that afflicts some journals once they've become established, and it can result in a narrowing down of the range of contributors. Notre Dame Review has kept itself admirably open. This isn't to say that there's a lack of personality to the journal, though. There are, in fact, editorial preferences, best summed up by Matthias' observation that he and O'Rourke "notice that, among the selections, there is not a lot of first person hyper-subjectivity or narrow manifestations of identity poetics; when the self appears, it seems to be fully conditioned by history, and conscious of that." This seems entirely right to me in two senses: it's right in that it's an accurate description of the editorial preferences at work for the past ten years; and it's right in that it's a good policy to follow. We are, after all, always involved in a dialectical interaction with the past in one way or another (literary, social, political, etc.), and there aren't enough journals devoted to publishing writing that begins by acknowledging this. The idea that the writer should engage the past is as old as T.S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" and as fresh as Edouard Glissant's Poetics of Relation. We need more of this, and the NDR is one of the places where we can count on getting it.

The anthology includes both fiction and poetry, but none of the critical writing that makes up a substantial portion of each issue, and this really is a shame, because NDR has been one of only a handful of journals (like Pleiades, Chicago Review, and of course Parnassus, among a few others) where reviewing habitually stretches its wings and becomes something more than publicity. When someone like John Peck writes a few thousand words worth of criticism, it's well worth anthologizing, and I wish some of that had been done. Still and all: I think the editors could, if they'd been less modest, have taken Naxos' route when titling the volume. Try it for size: Notre Dame Review: Ten Years of Success. Yeah, that fits.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Planets on Tables

A short review I wrote of Bonnie Costello's new book of criticism, Planets on Tables is now up on the Boston Review site. Costello's put together an interesting book of lit crit, tackling the big question of the role poetry plays in mediating between public events and private life. She treats the poetry of Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, William Carlos Williams, Richard Wilbur, and (surprisingly) the works of artist Joseph Cornell.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Death of a Surrealist: Franklin Rosemont, R.I.P.

Some very sad news: Franklin Rosemont has died at the age of 65.

Rosemont was the kind of man for whom the epithet "American original" was made. He was the real, true, independent bohemian, through and through: the son of a labor activist father and a jazz musician mother, he was a scholar, an activist, a poet, a publisher, a Surrealist, and a historian, and he was all of these things on his own terms, all the time. I only met him a few times, but every time I did I got a taste of what genuine independence was all about. He didn't hold an academic post, and, since he and his wife Penelope ran the old I.W.W.-affiliated press Charles H. Kerr and Co. together, he didn't have to write with an eye to what a publisher would accept.

A couple of years ago the artist Tom Denlinger and I were teaching a seminar on the artistic and literary institutions of Chicago, and Franklin and Penelope Rosemont were kind enough to drop in. Tom and I had been teaching the history of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Poetry, and the Chicago Review, among other institutions, but the Rosemonts came to tell us about an all-but-forgotten counter-culture, the bohemian world of Chicago's Towertown in the early twentieth century. It was a world where Kenneth Rexroth and Carl Sandburg rubbed shoulders with hobos and Wobblies and all manner of political, sexual, and social dissidents. Rosemont's collection of documents pertaining to that world's central venue, The Rise and Fall of the Dil Pickle is still the best place to get the flavor of a lost world where home-style Dada met midwestern labor radicalism.

Rosemont's commitment to Surrealism ran deep. He met André Breton in Paris in 1966, and later became a leading light of the Chicago Surrealist Group, which published an irregular journal called Arsenal, held international exhibits, and upheld the idea that Surrealism shouldn't be the prisoner of the very artworld institutions it initially protested. Rosemont's edition of Breton's selected writings in English translation, What is Surrealism?, remains unsurpassed.

For me, Rosemont represented a somewhat paradoxical position: classical Surrealism. He was always true to his sense of what Surrealism was about, and for some this seemed like a too-rigid adherence to the ideas of Breton. There may be something to that charge, but let's remember the best side of Breton's Surrealism: the insistence on Surrealism as life, not just as art, the sense of a continuity between labor-centered politics and Surrealist activity, and a conviction that (to use the title of one of Rosemont's books) there must be a "revolution in the service of the marvelous."

Pierre Joris has a fine tribute to Rosemont up at his blog, and the Chicago Tribune has a detailed obituary.


I think it's fitting to bring something else up here, since it's very much in line with the kind of thing Franklin Rosemont believed in, and the kind of commitments he lived out. Zena Sakowski (with whom I went to high school, and whose father was a colleague of my dad at the University of Manitoba's School of Art) has continued a long string of Situationist-style radical art/life actions by opening the Chicago Free Store, which she describes as "a nomadic, temporary free store that irregularly visits a variety of Chicago neighborhoods." If you're in the Chicago area, be sure to check it out.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Don Share and Chris Wiman Channel The Piqueray Twins!

No! Go away! I've had it with you lot, always banging on my door and demanding that I blog about Belgian surrealist poetry of the 40s and 50s. Haven't you had enough? Can't you leave me to my humble task, building a 3/4 scale model of Kurt Schwitter's Merz Palace? No? Well. I can't help you now. But the good people at Poetry magazine should be able to throw a steak or two to the howling wolf of your curiosity. Yep. They've got the new issue up online, and it includes "A Pedal-Pusher Said to Me," one of the nuttier of the Piqueray twins' poems, translated by Jean-Luc Garneau and the current humble blogger. And if that's not enough for you, check out the first five minutes of the Poetry podcast, where editors Chris Wiman and Don Share read the poem and comment on its various oddities (the rest of the podcast is good, too).

Now, where'd I leave my blowtorch and floral-print wallpaper? Let's get this Merz house built!