"How many poets does it take to screw in a light bulb?" asked a well-respected New York poet in a recent Facebook update. "There are no light bulbs, only kinds of light bulbs" replied the much-beloved editor of a prominent, and therefore often-maligned, literary journal [update: the editor in question, Don Share, has informed me I may name him by name]. I nearly sneezed my fourth coffee of the day out of my over-caffinated nostrils in mirth. To laugh at the editor's response, though, you'd have to know one of the most-repeated phrases of that éminence grise of poetry bloggers, Ron Silliman. "There is no such thing as poetry," Silliman often intones, "only kinds of poetry."
I've always had a mixed reaction to Silliman's mantra. On the one hand, I think I get what he's trying to say, and I agree with it. I suppose he means that there's no such thing as normal poetry, no entity that is the natural state of the art, from which other kinds of poetry are deviations. In his view, it is with poetry as it is with language. Just as there's no such thing as a version of English that has no accent, there's no kind of poetry that is simply "poetry" in an unqualified state. Those people who blithely say "I don't have an accent" do, in fact, have accents — it's just that their accents are the dominant ones in their countries, so they think of their speach as normal, natural, pure, and uninflected by class or region. Speakers of the dominant accent have the privilege of thinking of themselves as normal, and of others as deviants, but this is simply the ignorance and insensitivity that so often comes with power. And those people who might think of themselves as poets, pure and simple, are actually writers of a particular kind of poetry, members of some kind of school of poetry, every bit as much as are the writers of less dominant kinds of poetry. It's just that the dominant group doesn't have to give itself an -ism (imagism, surrealism, dadaism, postmodernism, what have you)
What Silliman objects to is that some people go around thinking that their poetry has no accent. I'm with him on this.
It's at this point that Ron, in a gesture both helpful and, I think, spiteful, provides a label for this kind of poetry — his infamous "School of Quietude." I like the idea of a label, just as I like the idea of people with the dominant accent realizing that they have accents. But labels always seem to cause trouble, since there are always people who feel that the level of generalization is too high (this is a problem with accent labels, too, since few people speak in exactly the same accent). People used to carp about being called language poets (I remember Steve Evans making some remarks about how poets outside the mainstream seemed to either have to accept that label or be ignored). And not long ago, when I wrote about "Cambridge Poetry," I set off a small-time internet shit-storm, in which a number of poets objected to the category as too general. Ron's term is particularly bad, though, because it comes laden with a negative judgement from the start, implying that those poets who write this kind of poetry are somehow complicit with the bad guys, quiescent in the face of situations of moral urgency. Also, it has even less buy-in from those whom it is meant to label than terms like "language poetry" and "Cambridge poetry" have had. After all, unlike the "School of Quietude," both "Cambridge poetry" and "language poetry" have at times been used by some of the poets they designate. To make things worse, I've seen Silliman create versions of literary history that essentially project his model of the current American poetic situation (the School of Quietude on one side, the Post-Avant on the other) back in time, claiming a history that extends from Whitman and Dickinson to the Post-Avant, over against a history that extends from Longfellow to the School of Quietude. I don't even know where to begin discussing how messed up this is — it betrays a kind of ignorance of the complex ways literary history and influence work, and it betrays a weird kind of will-to-power, a wish to grab the currently respected names from the past and label them "mine, not yours."
But my real problem with Silliman's phrase "there is no such thing as poetry, only kinds of poetry" doesn't come from the whole lamentable "School of Quietude" thing. It comes from the blatant logical fallacy of the statement itself. To say "there is no such thing as poetry, only kinds of poetry" is analogous to saying "There is no box, only compartments inside a box." That is: the second part of the statement asserts the existence of the category (poetry, or boxes) that the first part denies. To say that there are "kinds of poetry" is to posit the overall category of "poetry" as something that exists. I actually think Ron does believe there is such a thing of poetry — he just means no one writes "poetry" without writing a kind of poetry. Again, the analogy with language might help: it's not that there is no such thing as a "Romance language," it's just that it's an overall category into which particular languages like French and Spanish and Italian fit. No one goes around speaking "the Romance language," but this doesn't mean the term is empty or represents nothing. The analogy could be extended, of course — there's really no one who simply speaks "Spanish" pure and simple, only people who speak the Spanish of Barcelona or Uruguay or East L.A. or whatever — which doesn't mean that there's no such thing as "Spanish." It's an overarching category that exists but that manifests only in particular versions.
I'd like to continue, but the light bulb here in my secret backyard writing dojo seems to have burnt out. I'm going to cruise around to the corner shop to see if they have any Lightbulbs of Quietude. Last time they were out, and I had to use a 300 watt Avant-Bulb. My eyes are still hurting.
Thursday, July 29, 2010
"How many poets does it take to screw in a light bulb?" asked a well-respected New York poet in a recent Facebook update. "There are no light bulbs, only kinds of light bulbs" replied the much-beloved editor of a prominent, and therefore often-maligned, literary journal [update: the editor in question, Don Share, has informed me I may name him by name]. I nearly sneezed my fourth coffee of the day out of my over-caffinated nostrils in mirth. To laugh at the editor's response, though, you'd have to know one of the most-repeated phrases of that éminence grise of poetry bloggers, Ron Silliman. "There is no such thing as poetry," Silliman often intones, "only kinds of poetry."
Sunday, July 25, 2010
The most important thing to remember about Don Draper, the lead character in the AMC series Mad Men, is that he's awesome. He's better at his job than anyone else in the industry, and he knows it. When he sets his sights on a woman, she comes to him. He drinks hard and dresses sharp. If he was in espionage rather than advertising, he'd damn near be James Bond. He's not quite 007, though, in that he's capable, in rare moments, of doubt and anxiety. But even the nature of his doubts betray his superiority to the common run of men: he wonders What It All Means, not just with a sigh, but with a passion that could at any moment translate into action. In some respects, the writers of the series have pulled off an amazing feat in that they've take the prototypical man in the grey flannel suit — a Manhattan office jockey — and turned him into a glamourous, Byronic figure. He's cloaked in mystique, and driven by inner passions, by yearning for self-understanding, and by a sense of outsiderness. He's capable of breaking the norms of decency while nevertheless maintaining our sympathy, even admiration. He's got alpha written all over him.
In the season two opener, though, which I recently re-watched as part of my ramp-up to tonight's fourth season opener, he's feeling uneasy. Frank O'Hara's poem plays into this. O'Hara first enters Don's consciousness when he's sitting alone at a bar having lunch, his grey suit immaculate as always. Being the ever-glib ad-man, Don strikes up a conversation with the next guy over, a tweedy, long-haired intellectual looking guy, a bit younger than Don. He could be an academic, or a theater guy, or someone connected with the arts. It doesn't matter: the important thing is that there's a reversal. In his ordinary office context, Don represents creativity, and we usually see him in this light, compared to his shadowy foils from Accounts, hail-fellow-well-met backslappers and hand-shakers all. But here, Don's the square, the suit. He represents the hip side of the office, but in this downtown bar he represents The Man. The point, already established for us by the clothing and hair differences is soon made clear to Don in conversation. "Is it good?" Don asks the arty, slightly younger guy, as he eyes up the book in his hand — Frank O'Hara's Meditations in an Emergency. Arty guy looks back, with the aloofness arty types reserve for those who visibly make more money than they do. "I don't think you'd like it," he says. Don tries to salvage the conversation by saying that reading while having lunch makes you feel like you're getting something done. "That's what it's all about, isn't it," says Mr. Downtown book-guy, with an ironic, even slightly sneering, air, "getting things done." Ah, the liberal arts graduate, and his compensatory condescension — it's like looking in a mirror, isn't it? But not for Don. It bothers Don. It's an attack on his sense of himself as creative genius, a role he plays so very well in his own dojo up on Madison Ave. It makes him feel like a mere utilitarian, and he treasures the sense of himself as belonging to the part of the ad agency that's above mere business, about which he is, in his way, as snobbish as the O'Hara reader at the bar.
Later, we see Don with his own copy of O'Hara's book, in his study at home. There's some defiance in this — he's not going to be told there are things too subtle for him to appreciate, or that his tassled loafers are unfit for the slopes of Parnassus. But along with this defiance, there's some insecurity. It's perfect, in this context, that the poem he reads is O'Hara's "Mayakovsky." In a wonderful voice-over rendition, we hear the whole poem
Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.
The country is grey and
brown and white in trees,
snows and skies of laughter
always diminishing, less funny
not just darker, not just grey.
It may be the coldest day of
the year, what does he think of
that? I mean, what do I? And if I do,
perhaps I am myself again.
The key words here are "interesting" and "modern," because Don isn't feeling much like either of those terms. The arty guy made him feel uninteresting. What's more, one of the themes of the episode has been youth, a quality Don — like everyone except the very young who, as Don says, know so little they don't even know they're young — feels is slipping away. He's been asked to hire new, younger creative talent, to appeal to the growing baby-boom market of the early sixties, and he's wondering if his talent, his particular mojo, is still relevant. And now he's wondering if he's even all that creative, if the downtown hipsters see him as a washed-up square. He needs to find some way to stay fresh, and not just on a career level: his habitual ways of finding fulfillment (chasing tail, mostly) haven't been doing much for him lately. Things seem as grey as his suit, really. What is to be done?
One of the best things about the writing in Mad Man is how it tends to show, quite subtly, that whatever's been eating at Don at a deep, not fully cognized level finds its way into his work. The show can be self-reflective about this — in a later episode, for example, one of the young guys Don hires is watching people in a focus group talk about their dogs. "They're really just talking about themselves!" he says, as each owner, without knowing it, projects his own aspirations and worries into his description of his pet. "Is this the first one of these you've seen?" asks Don. It's kind of a reference to the way the show itself works, with Don's best ad campaigns being projections of his inchoate desires.
So: in a couple of scenes where Don is trying to get his creative team to come up with an a campaign for Mohawk Airlines we see his worries about aging, and his need to reinvent himself, come to the fore. How to make a regional airline appealing? One of the writers, Peggy Olson, pushed to be creative by Don, comes up with the slogan "Mohawk Airlines: where are you going," accompanied by an image of a guy in a suit getting on a plane, a sexy flight attendant in a short skirt there to welcome him ever-so-sexily aboard the plane. At first Don seems resigned to accepting it, but he's not happy about it, calling it "banal." Later, he revisits the ad, and circles a small figure in the background, the man's daughter, excited to see him. He says that this is where the heart of the campaign lies. He can't quite make things come into more focus than that, but Peggy sees what he means, and gives him the new slogan: "Daddy, what did you bring me?" Don tells her to run with it.
Of course what's really happened isn't just that Don has, once again, proved himself awesome at his job, though there's some of this, and a speech to drive the point home. "You, there, feeling something — that's the product," he tells Peggy, "the people in accounts can't understand that. They can't do what we do, and they despise us for it," or words to that effect. He's reaffirmed his sense of himself as creative, as the imaginative guy, not the suit. One could make much of this and claim that it's a window into the paradox of commercial creativity, where the advertising "creative" wants the money of a businessman, and the freedom of the artist, and has to defend himself on all fronts — against the suits who envy him, and against the arty types who think he's a suit. All this is real, but there's more, too: Don has redefined his relationship to youth. Up to now, he's been seeking happiness the way a young guy does (the aforementioned chasing of tail). But with this ad, he sees a new role for himself — not as lover, ("where are you going?") but as father ("Daddy, what did you bring me?"). His mentoring of Peggy Olson — pushing her to new levels of creativity, rather than trying to come up with better ideas on his own — mirrors this paternal role.
At the end of the episode, Don goes back to his wife and children. This is the traditional suburban pastoral, the family place where he doesn't have to think of himself as defending his status against culture snobs and the suits. It's also a place where he affirms his new way relating to youth -- not by chasing after young tail, but by protecting and caring for his own children. He's arrived at a slightly different sense of his own awesomeness. He is, perhaps, himself again.
Friday, July 23, 2010
So there I was yesterday, doing what I do pretty much every morning around ten o'clock — lounging on the couch drinking coffee, listening to music, and staring into space with a book open on my lap — when it hit me: it's Coleridge now, and has probably been for about a year. The "it" in question is something I suppose I'd call my personal laureate — the poet with whom I feel the strongest connection, but more than that, too: the poet who serves as a kind of personal patron saint. It's not a lifetime appointment like the British laureateship (nor does it, like that storied office, come with a butt of sack). The term of service is variable, but generally longer than the single-year renewable appointment of the American laureate, whose demeaning position, with its low pay, uncertain possibility of coming back, and its chorus of constant subtle derision from one's peers, seems to mirror that of the American adjunct instructor. I'm 42 years old now (how the hell did that happen?), and I can count half a dozen personal laureates since I was 18, plus two contenders of equal influence and merit, whom I must disqualify for different reasons. So on average the term seems to be about four years.
I remember exactly the moment when Walt Whitman became my first personal laureate, because I discovered two dubious pleasures right around the same time: hero-worship and reading while smoking pot (ah, youth, and it's wayward ways of youthful waywardness, etc.). I'd encountered both Whitman and the nefarious herb earlier, of course, but it was only toward the end of my first undergraduate year that I put them together. My dad was a professor at an enormous, provincial university, and I'd long had the run of the place, particularly enjoying it in the summer, when I'd go there to spelunk in the underground tunnels connecting the buildings, to hang out in the big, brutalist student center, to boost those little Loeb Classical Library editions from the campus bookstore and — best of all — to sneak, by secret paths, up onto the roofs of the buildings, where I could feel like the only person in the world. It was on the roof of one of the science buildings that I pulled my brick-thick Norton Critical Editions copy of Leaves of Grass out of one compartment of my backpack, and a tightly-rolled jay of British Columbian ditch-weed out of another, and spent a good four hours pouring over the pages (I remember chuckling at what seemed, for a moment, like a clever play on words inherent in the title of Whitman's book and the presence of the weed, but let's leave it go — the apparent cleverness surely being conditioned by the context). I remember being impressed by "The Ox-Tamer," and especially by "The Last Invocation," and feeling very clever for thinking that "What Place is Beseiged" must be a poetic reply to John Donne's "Batter My Heart, Three-Person'd God" (I'm sure, now, I was wrong). I suppose what really got to me, though, what made Whitman my hero and my laureate, was the mysticism, or perhaps I should say the callower side of Whitman's mysticism. There's profundity in Whitman, of course, but what I took from him, up on the roof on that clear-skied prairie day in 1987, wasn't the profundity. It was almost a kind of innocent's mysticism, something I'd recognize some fifteen years later when I read William James' comments on Whitman in The Varieties of Religious Experience. In a chapter called "The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness" James says Whitman has a powerful sense of the goodness and unity of existence, that he rejects the "old hell-fire theology" of America's Puritan past for a sense that "evil is simply a lie, and any one who mentions it a liar." There's a kind of Dr. Pangloss quality to the Whitman I loved back then. James gets it exactly when he says:
Whitman is often spoken of as a 'pagan.' The word nowadays means sometimes the mere natural animal man without a sense of sin; sometimes it means a Greek or Roman with his own peculiar religious consciousness. In neither of these senses does it fitly define this poet. He is more than your mere animal man who has not tasted of the tree of good and evil. He is aware enough of sin for a swagger to be present in his indifference towards it, a conscious pride in his freedom from flexions and contractions, which your genuine pagan in the first sense of the word would never show.
I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained,
I stand and look at them long and long;
They do not sweat and whine about their condition.
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins.
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
No natural pagan could have written these well-known lines. But on the other hand Whitman is less than a Greek or Roman; for their consciousness, even in Homeric times, was full to the brim of the sad mortality of this sunlit world, and such a consciousness Walt Whitman resolutely refuses to adopt.
When I first read Whitman with some intensity it was that swagger in the face of the first intimations of mortality that caught my eye from across the gulf of time. I suppose, in my hazy way, I thought I'd discovered the Great Secret — that despite our individual deaths, we live on as part of the whole. The lines "I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, / If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles" were, of course, particularly appealing to me. Cocky stuff, aiming at profundity, and failing, in the final analysis, to address the tragic side of our condition. When I think of who I was, then, I think of words from another poet, one (perhaps not coincidentally) working in the Whitmanic tradition: Carl Sandburg. His personification of Chicago as a brawling man "laughing as a young man laughs,/Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle" seems about right as a description of who I was, then, at least in this one respect of a cocksure, arrogant affirmativeness that was predicated on little more than a lack of experience. In other respects, such as looking really good with his shirt off, I'm sad to say I was, and remain, quite unlike Sandburg's brawler.
Whitman's term as my personal laureate didn't last long — less than a year and a half. It wasn't that I encountered any terrible tragedy that stripped me of my relative innocence. Rather, it was that I was seduced by some of the less legitimate qualities of another poet, Ezra Pound. Fret not: it wasn't Pound's least legitimate qualities that seduced me — his politics and his anti-Semitism were never things I cared for, though perhaps I was too blithe about separating those things from the things I did care for in his work. Unlike Whitman, Pound was a poet I initially encountered in the classroom, in a class on Modern American poetry taught by a kindly, indulgent old prof doing what I later learned was his last lap around the teaching pool before retirement. We were reading the slim, austerely black-and-white covered New Directions edition of the Selected Poems, which became, for me, a springboard to the extracurricular pleasures of Pound's Selected Essays, Guide to Kulchur and ABC of Reading, and to his edition of Fenollosa's Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry. Looking back, I see now that what attracted me to Pound's cranky, half-assed, often naïve essays was the fact that they seemed to offer shortcuts: shortcuts to erudition, to a knowledge of the shape and import of literary tradition, and shortcuts to a set of reasoned-out aesthetic principles.
There were a couple of reasons such shortcuts appealed to me. I had always cared for history, especially European history. Some of my most vivid early memories are of sitting on the floor of my family's weekend place in the Canadian wilderness, oblivious to the shimmering lake in the front yard and the huge forests all around us, utterly absorbed in reading about Leonidas at Thermopylae, or destruction of the Athenian fleet by Syracuse on the ill-starred Sicilian expedition during the Peloponnesian wars. But now, at university, I was encountering literary history in detail, and where I'd once felt a kind of supreme confidence (no kid at Acadia Junior High knew, or cared to know, as much as I did about the Babylonians), I now felt a kind of lack. There was so much I didn't know, and (my teenaged self-esteem hanging in the balance) I wanted to know now. Real knowledge, whatever that may be, takes time, of course. I've been studying literary history for decades now, and make a living teaching it, and every year I find myself thinking that I'm still just getting started. Now I consider this a blissful state of affairs — not many people get to feel an ongoing excitement of discovery in their work, still fewer get to sense of an inexhaustible richness in the materials they spend time with. But back then I wanted to fill the gap as quickly as possible. The young Ezra Pound had been the same way, except he conducted his education in public, coming up with a slightly harebrained scheme of cultural history on his own and publishing it as he went along.
Europe, or the idea of Europe, was another reason I found Pound so appealing. I never quite understood this until 1997, when I sat down in the poet Michael Anania's office up in a skyscraper just west of Chicago's loop to interview him for the article I was writing on his work for the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Anania told me about his childhood in Omaha, and how as a student he was initially "thrilled by anything complicated and remote," and became immersed in modernism, and in European literary history. Like Pound, and like me, Anania was a provincial, and he wanted to know about Europe — not about Sussex or the Dordogne or the Veneto, but the whole damn thing, all of it, from way back then to just this minute. What's at work in this sentiment is something like an aspiring bookish highbrow's version of the "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere" mantra sung by yokels who want to hit the big-time in New York. If I can master all that prestigious stuff from over there, where the big dogs live, then I'd be up for anything — or so I thought at the time.
As if all this weren't enough, Pound offered what seemed like a bad-ass set of aesthetic principles, ready-made for deployment in creative writing classes and arguments with my fellow honors students in the little coffee shop that occupied a strange, cave-like space just off one of the university's building-to-building tunnels. "Go in fear of abstractions," said Pound, and so said I, when called upon to comment on another students work. "Pay no attention to the criticism of men who have never themselves written a notable work," said the mighty impressario of American modernism — words I'd parrot over my fourth jittery cup of java when one of my friends quoted the opinion of a professor who had the sad misfortune to be a scholar of medieval literature — a creature (I'd proclaim) who, no matter his distinction, must always be outranked by an actual poet, such as I then believed myself to be.
Looking back, I notice that Pound's poems rarely entered into my thinking about him, except in the abstract. There were exceptions: I remember liking the windblown sentimentality of Cathay, and thinking, with a combination great self-importance and insensitivity, that "Portrait d'Une Femme" was pretty much right on about the girl with whom I'd split up, but for the most part the poems were less important to me that the crank scholarship, the hip-shooting aesthetic pronouncements, and the idea of the great literary enfant terrible. The Cantos stood in hard-covered splendor on my shelf, an object of veneration, largely unread for many months to come.
Eventually I did read Pound's Cantos, and it was through a combination of Poundianism and a growing interest in the poetry of place that I ended up going off to graduate school to work with the first poet whose candidacy for personal laureate is strong, but ultimately invalidated: John Matthias. (Matthias is disqualified through no defect of his own, but by the simple fact that no living man can be a patron saint). I'd discovered John's work while trolling through the library stacks, pulling down random books of poetry. This, like my attraction to Pound's prose, was a manifestation of my sense of lack, of a big void of knowledge that I wanted to fill. There were so many poets we didn't get on the syllabus, and I wanted to know about all of them. So, when I'd had enough of studying whatever I was studying in the library, I'd get up, walk over the PR, PS, or PN sections of the library, pull down a couple of slim volumes, and read for a while, leaning back against the stacks. Once in a great while I'd shuffle over to the Slavic Languages collection, in a corner of the library, where mortal feet rarely trod, and where some vandal had handily disabled the smoke detector, and stealthily read in the manner in which I'd read Walt Whitman, but for the most part I read tanked up on coffee and No-Doze.
What I liked about Matthias was how he seemed to square a certain circle for me. As attracted as I was by the arcane, the remote, the European, and the Poundian, I was also reading a lot of the poetry and polemics of the local campus poet-professors (Dennis Cooley, Robert Kroetsch, David Arnason) and their peers elsewhere in western Canada. They were militantly against everything I liked about Pound. Postmodern-loopy rather than Modernist-serious, and locally proud in the William Carlos Williams vein, they were part of a movement to decolonize the local mind. They were from the boonies and committed to the boonies, and wanted to write out of a sense of place, a sense of the history and geography around them, claiming it as important and literary. Their world, after all, wasn't part of the world they saw on television or the movies or read about in novels from commercial publishers, so they would have to make it part of the imagined community by putting it in words themselves. They knew they were never going to be much noticed by people in Toronto, much less New York or London. They didn't see this as a problem, though, so much as an opportunity, and set about making their own scene, with presses (Turnstone Press was their dojo) and journals (Prairie Fire was their house organ), readings, conferences, seminars, the whole deal. They had a very real local effect: you could count on any decent Winnipeg bookstore having a shelf dedicated to local writing, something I've never seen in Chicago, unless you count the Seminary Co-Op in Hyde Park flooding the front room with this month's Richard Posner book and this week's Martha Nussbaum title.
How, I often wondered in some semi-inchoate way in the back of my mind, could one reconcile all of this son-of-the-local-soil, poet-of-place stuff with Pound? Standing in the library stacks with John Matthias' poem "An East-Anglian Diptych" on the page in front of me, I saw an answer. Here was a poet who was deeply concerned with the history and geography of out-of-the-way places, but who came to those places from elsewhere, and saw in them the Big Story of European Civilization. Here was a Poundian of sorts, but also someone writing his own, expatriate version of Williams' Paterson (later, once I'd discovered Basil Bunting's poetry, I saw Matthias' long poems less as Patterson and more as Briggflatts, a comparison since made in a much more specific and insightful manner by Mark Scroggins, writing on Matthias in Parnassus). If I was going to understand more about these things, the only thing for it was to go off to grad school and study with Matthias, which I did, chucking the letters of acceptance from the schools foolish enough not to employ Matthias into the trash.
And so I found myself in South Bend, writing poems about the Canadian west (only one of which, a little effort about barbed wire, would eventually make it into my book Home and Variations), arguing critical theory in the coffee joint in Notre Dame's O'Shaughnessy Hall, and — in order to get at the roots of the poetry of place — reading Wordsworth. Wordsworth stuck, though South Bend didn't, and I soon found myself reading Wordsworth in the tiny apartment in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood I shared with my new wife, Valerie. I’d take the South Shore train out to Notre Dame every now and then to teach a freshman lit class, meet with my thesis committee, and spend the evening bullshitting merrily with friends at a local oyster bar before crashing dizzily on someone's couch for the night. What kept me reading Wordsworth — and what elevated him to the level of personal laureate, displacing Pound, wasn't really the regionalism. It was the organic conception of personal and cultural identity, the side of Wordsworth that comes out of Burke's view of history as something that grows, rather than something that is made, and as something whole, from which nothing is truly separable.
In a way, Wordsworth's vision was as mystical as Whitman's, but without the Panglossic quality you sometimes find in Whitman: Wordsworth's mystic unity is one that retains a strong sense of loss and tragedy. The sense of loss comes in many ways: in "Ode: Intimations of Immortality" we begin to lose the visionary gleam, the sense of the oneness of all things, almost immediately upon birth. We come into the world "trailing clouds of glory," but soon enough we find that "shades of the prisonhouse surround the boy" — loss comes in the form of our alienation from the world, our sense of a difference between self and other, our sense of the world as something different, hostile, confining. The "Blest the Infant Babe" passage of The Prelude shows us Wordsworth at his most grateful for never having fully lost the sense of the world as a benevolent, enveloping force to which he was linked. I used to return to those lines again and again, underlining parts of it and never quite knowing what to write next to them in the margins.
I remembering being particularly struck, too, by "The Ruined Cottage," because of how, on the one hand, it showed the organic unity of nature and history, and yet, on the other hand, remained sensitive to the reality of loss, sorrow, and destruction. The image of a ruined cottage and a mourning woman, whose world had fallen apart since her husband was shipped off on one of England's seemingly endless wars, is set against the slow return of the cottage to nature, as the vines and forest-growth reclaim it. Whitman's easier mysticism appealed to me when I went around like an arrogant young man, "laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle." But this poem appealed to an ever-so-slowly maturing version of myself. By this point in my life I'd had just enough of a view of the world — especially poor, run-down South Bend — to think that any representation of it that didn't make one feel the pathos of our condition wasn't going to adequate. I think really caring for someone had something to do with it,too: thinking how devastated I'd be if I lost my wife, or how she'd feel if something were to happen to me, made the Whitmanic embrace of death as just one more phase we go through, on the journey in which our identities as individuals are a very brief station-stop, seem like a half-truth. I suppose some of these thoughts lie behind "Wordsworth at the Cuyahoga's Mouth," a poem of mine where I imagine an American Wordsworth, and wonder if he'd have become more like Whitman had he lived in this country. That poem and it's companion piece "Marinetti at Union Station, Chicago" are also both, I suppose, attempts to square the circle of local pride vs. Poundian Europhilia. And they're full of industrial imagery, coming from the view out the South Shore Line windows as that train chugged through Gary and Hammond on the way to South Bend and back. I was certainly thinking better in those poems than I was in my doctoral dissertation on Wordsworth's influence, which I can't bear to think about now, much less revisit.
Wordsworth had a good, long tenure as my personal laureate — seven years, I think: all through my studies for my M.A., M.F.A., and doctorate, and into my first year as an assistant prof, when I directed a student's thesis contrasting Wordsworth’s populism with that of Whitman, still one of the best theses I've had the privilege to direct. I'm sure the student who wrote it would have made a good English prof, but he opted for a more adventurous life, moving to Thailand, starting a punk band, and scoring a #1 hit in southeast Asia. Sometime late in 1997 Wordsworth’s star began to set for me, though, and Byron's began to rise.
Byron's tenure as my personal laureate really consists of two consecutive terms, the first based on the strength of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, the second on irony of Don Juan. I imagine Byron's first term as my laureate came about because his earlier poetry offers so much to anyone who feels alienated, and the experience of being a young prof on the tenure trail is a bit alienating. I shouldn't complain: the whole experience for me was easier than it seems to be for most people, and I actually think Byron had something to do with that.
By this point in my life I've listened — as peer, as old friend, and now as Senior Guy Who's Been Through It All; in faculty lounge, in office, at back-yard barbecue, on barstool, by Skype, — to a lot of junior faculty cris du coer from people at lots of different institutions, and the people who suffer the most seem to be those who look on the whole process as a set of hoops one is commanded to jump through. They treat everything as a means to the end of tenure, trying to get on the right committees to get noticed, trying all kinds of tricks to change their teaching (and sometimes their grading) habits so as to get higher evaluation numbers, and they try to write the sort of thing that will get published in the kind of journal they think will impress the powers-that-be. I get it: the job is, after all, on the line. But there's a way in which all this is to get things backwards. The idea, after all, is to do one's job and then stand back while others assess it, not to try to do one's job by what one imagines will be the criteria of assessment. To go about it otherwise is to alienate yourself from the work that you love, and to end up like one of those embittered kvetches one sees writing so often in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Of course stepping back and just doing what you do — writing things that come out of who you are, allowing yourself to grow unselfconsciously into teaching better — doesn't come easily. You've got to find some way to be inner-directed, rather than governed by the norms of those around you. And that's where Byron (or, rather, the Byron of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage) comes in.
I suppose I was lucky to be teaching that book so often in my early days of professoring. The book sprang from Byron's sense of being an alienated outsider (club-footed, wrong-accented, bisexual, taunted at school, attracted to his half-sister, and sexually abused as a child, he had good reasons to feel this way). But Byron turns that alienation into pure glamour and self-assertion. He selected as his heroes Napoleon and Rousseau, and loved them for their ungovernableness. Childe Harold, the Slim Shady to Byron’s Marshall Mathers, the Ziggy Stardust to his David Bowie, tells us that he cannot "herd with man" — those unalienated conformists who are little better than cattle. He may be wounded and fraught with discontent, the powers of respectable authority may judge and despise him, but Childe Harold does not give a flying fuck. He stands above them on his melodramatic mountaintop, rejects their reality, and substitutes his own. He will be who he is, in all his freaky majesty, and he, not the square community, will be the first and last judge of all things. There's a passage from Bertrand Russell's essay on Byron I used to show my students that gets at the gist of these things better than I can:
The aristocratic rebel, of whom Byron was in his day the exemplar, is a very different type from the leader of a peasant or proletarian revolt. Those who are hungry have no need of an elaborate philosophy to stimulate or excuse discontent, and anything of the kind appears to them merely an amusement of the idle rich…. No hungry man thinks otherwise. The aristocratic rebel, since he has enough to eat, must have other causes for discontent…. It may be that love of power is the underground source of their discontent, but in their conscious thought there is criticism of the government of the world, which, when it goes deep enough, takes the form of Titanic cosmic self-assertion, or, in those who retain some superstition, of Satanism. Both are to be found in Byron.
That's Satanism of a kind like the Romantic version of Milton's Paradise Lost Russell's referring to — self-assertion, non serviam, “better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven” stuff, not Aleister Crowley and the black mass. And all that Titanic cosmic self-assertion, all that inner-direction, can serve you well on the road to tenure. It can convince you that you're above the whole process, and let you get on with your life and your work. At least that's how I felt, as I stood under the patronage of Saint Byron. But if a self-image as aristocratic rebel will get you through the tenure trail, at some point the gulf between the rebel aristocrat and the comfortable, portly, bookish college professor becomes apparent — even to a thick-headed narcissist such as I was, a decade or so ago. Even Byron caught on to the fact that he wasn't really Byron, that he couldn't ever be the man he'd convinced half of swooning Europe he was.
This is how he came to write Don Juan, the poem for which the term "Romantic Irony" was invented, and the poem which won Byron a second term as my personal laureate. The poem's eponymous hero is, of course, meant to be the dashing, brooding, devil-may-care lover extrordinaire of legend — but in Byron's telling of Juan's adventures, that figure is constantly inflated and deflated. We see him built up, we see him knocked down. He is alternately the man you'd hope him to be and a hapless schmuck. In fact, the poem alternates between moments of high sentiment, even sincere pathos, and moments when the very things for which we'd been feeling such strong sentiment become ridiculous. This isn't a bad attitude for a recovering narcissist to take. Narcissists, as I've learned through long experience, are never "recovered" — like addicts or alcoholics, they're always only in remission, always about to slip. But self-irony that doesn't blot out other sensations, including the occasional belief in one's own (soon to be ironized) awesomeness, is a good thing. Or so I thought for a number of years. I don't think it's a coincidence that it was during these years that a former student with whom I'd had a few too many drinks down at the bar in the Heartland Cafe leaned laughing over the table and told me, not without some affection, I hope, "You're an asshole, Archambeau, but you know you're an asshole, which helps a little" — it’s a comment I've heard in one version or another from several quarters, though (I say this with a sigh) rather less frequently over the years.
It was in this period — the final years of the last century, and the opening ones of the present one — that my second disqualified candidate for personal laureate hove into view. This was Samuel Johnson, whom I hadn't read since my student days. But then I found myself teaching a seminar on the intellectual history of the 18th Century with a friend from the history department. We'd divvied up the various Enlightenment and Augustan figures before the semester started, and I'd taken Johnson, not because I knew much about his work, but because my colleague wanted both Voltaire and Rousseau, (I later learned that this was so that he could praise Rousseau — quite convincingly — at Voltaire's expense) and I needed to shoulder a little more of the curricular weight. When the time came to teach "The Vanity of Human Wishes," I found myself a bit flummoxed about how to do it. It certainly didn't seem like the kind of thing that would appeal to a bunch of people in their early twenties. When I talked to John Matthias about it, he told me of a poet friend of his who once wrote to him about the poem, proclaiming "I hope I am never old enough to like this." What to do? In the end, I played a little game of compare and contrast with the people in the seminar, showing them Johnson side by side with some passages from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. I don't know if it was instructive for them, but it was for me. I'd shown them Byron's passages on Napoleon, where the poet praises the deposed emperor for his self-assertion, his refusal to acknowledge authority or limit, saying that in Napoleon and men like him:
… there is a fire
And motion of the soul, which will not dwell
In its own narrow being, but aspire
Beyond the fitting medium of desire;
And, but once kindled, quenchless evermore,
Preys upon high adventure, nor can tire
Of aught but rest; a fever at the core
Byron adds, almost as an aside, that this fever of endless desire is "Fatal to him who bears, to all who ever bore," it, but that's the merest quibble. All the glamour lies with Napoleon and aspiration "beyond the fitting medium of desire."
After this, I pointed to Johnson’s poem, particularly a passage where he talks about the fate of Cardinal Wolsey, who'd risen from obscurity to great power, and dreamed (oh quenchless was his fever) of ever more:
In full-blown Dignity, see Wolsey stand,
Law in his Voice, and Fortune in his Hand:
To him the Church, the Realm, their Pow'rs consign,
Thro' him the Rays of regal Bounty shine,
Turn'd by his Nod the Stream of Honour folws,
His Smile alone Security bestows:
Still to new Heights his restless Wishes tow'r,
Claim leads to Claim, and Pow'r advances Pow'r;
Till Conquest unresisted ceas'd to please,
And Rights submitted, left him none to seize.
At length his Sov'reign frowns — the Train of State
Mark the keen Glance, and watch the Sign to hate.
Where-e'er he turns he meets a Stranger's Eye,
His Suppliants scorn him, and his Followers fly;
Now drops at once the Pride of aweful State,
The golden Canopy, the glitt'ring Plate,
The regal Palace, the luxurious Board,
The liv'ried Army, and the menial Lord.
With Age, with Care, with Maladies oppress'd,
He seeks the Refuge of Monastic Rest.
Grief aids Disease, remember'd Folly stings,
And his last Sighs reproach the Faith of Kings.
Speak thou, whose Thoughts at humble Peace repine,
Shall Wolsey's Wealth, with Wolsey's End be thine?
Or liv'st thou now, with safer Pride content,
The wisest Justice on the banks of Trent?
There's the stuff. Maybe the passage made such an impression on me because I'd started reading Kant's aesthetics, and was thinking a lot about disinterest as an ethos, a way to try to live. Or maybe it was the perspective I'd gained from watching people I know angle for the various gewgaws on offer in the American professional classes — promotions, prestige jobs, big-ass houses, what passes in the literary sphere for fame, prizes of various sorts — and making themselves miserable in the process (or, worse, becoming toadies of one sort or another). Or maybe it was the even sadder spectacle of seeing people for whom I had the utmost respect — poets and critics with real achievements to their names — lament, in their later years, the loss of the spotlight. Or maybe it was catching myself scheming, a couple of times, about how I could begin a campaign to end up Somewhere Grand in my career, and not liking that kind of calculating mind in myself, a mind that could conceive of instrumentalizing people and using them as means to my own ends. One way or another, conditions were right for me to hear what Johnson had to say, and I started tearing through his works, his Idler and Rambler essays, his fiction, his poems. He's a good antidote for so much in American culture, and he became the foundation for my way of feeling about academe, about the poetry biz, and about status of all kinds. I suppose I should mention that I live and work in towns populated by some of the richest people in America — watching those predatory corporate status monkeys and their Martha Stuart-wannabe wives jostle for status with one another must surely have played into the appeal Johnson had for me.
In some ways, Johnson's not a truly great writer, not in the way my other laureates have been (you’ve never heard of Matthias, you say? I’ll go to the wall for Matthias as great writer!). I remember the critic Gerald Bruns once telling me that, "compared to Candide, Johnson's Rasselas is trivial; compared to Pope's Essay on Man, "The Vanity of Human Wishes" is trivial — but I see why people keep coming back to him." I suppose I feel that way, too, and would gladly have awarded Johnson my laureateship, but for one thing: I'm sure he'd have turned the honor down, as a vanity unbecoming for a man to covet.
Instead, it was William Blake who became my next laureate. I never thought he would. I'd been reading him since I was a teenager, and liking him, but somehow I'd always had a bit of not-quite-conscious snobbery about him. Being such a creature of academe myself, at some level I condescended to Blake's autodidacticism. I had no idea of it at the time, but looking back on myself, I'd say my attitude to Blake was something along the lines of "You've gotta love the poems, but isn't he, after all, a bit of an intellectual hick? Hadn't he woven together his personal mythology out of Evangelical tracts and the dubious weirdo theology of Emanuel Swedenborg? Come on!" I was reading Kant and Fichte and Hegel and Schiller and Marx and Adorno and Bourdieu and Deleuze, and I wasn't about to be intellectually impressed by a guy who was home-schooled by religious freaks. Was I poetically impressed? Sure. But I had too much at stake in my own sophisticated intellectual grandeur to think of Blake as a serious intellect. Until, of course, I decided to really dig into the long, strange, prophetic works. Then (neither for the first time nor the last) I came to a realization: I'd been an idiot. Big time.
It was The Book of Urizen that broke things open for me, and took me back to poems I thought I knew well, like "The Mental Traveler" and "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell." What I saw in Blake was, in fact, something very like what I'd been getting at by reading all those philosophers from the German Idealist tradition, and all those critical theorists from the Marxian and post-structuralist traditions: a dialectical vision of truth, in which forces create, and in some sense require, their own opposites. I once tried to explain dialectics to a skeptical colleague by using the image of a water-heater whose release-valve had become clogged. It builds and builds and builds pressure, until it suddenly releases it in an explosion — that's a negation of the first force (constraint), but it is also a kind of continuation, and couldn’t exist without the first force. He didn't like the analogy, so I tried again, saying that an instrumentalist view of trees, as potential lumber, could create an environment where we'd cut down all the trees, and consequently we'd develop an opposite view, a kind of "Earth First!" idea of ecological preservation — once again, the thesis creates its antithesis. He didn't like that either, so I swirled the cheap white wine in my plastic cup, shuffled over to a cluster of people at the other side of the room, and concluded that I wasn't any good at explaining dialectics. Of course Hegel's explanations, while more profound than mine, are turgid as hell. But Blake can make these kinds of things into music, and image, and set them dancing in front of you. In "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" he's even funny while doing it. And for him it isn't merely a set of empty ideas: it's a truth about how the universe, and human consciousness, is structured. It's an apprehension, a mystical vision, of the nature of our being, and the necessarily contradictory nature of any kind of understanding or representation of things.
Coleridge, of course, is no slouch when it comes to thinking about metaphysics and the nature of consciousness, and it's through his concern with these things that he's won the coveted laurels. What Coleridge has got, and Blake hasn't, is a strong sense of the historical nature of truth, how the way it manifests depends on where we stand in the great scheme of things. Since I’d been reading a lot of Raymond Williams and the whole British cultural studies tradition, and seeing ideas as embodied in their moment, this had real appeal for me.
Consider The Rime of the Ancient Mariner for example, where we have a kind of model of the evolution of the way our understanding of truth evolves over time. At the core are the experiences of the Mariner, events that actually happened to him, and for which he seeks meaning. Then we have the story the Mariner tells, which includes his attempt at understanding the significance of those events. He sees everything as a morality tale about the oneness of all being, about how we should respect all things as we would respect ourselves, the division of self and other being essentially fictional. But this grand vision doesn't quite add up: the events of the story don't all fit the moral the Mariner draws. We could say that the Mariner's message is holistic — a statement about the unity of all things and the falseness of any sense that any part can be separated from the ultimate unity. It’s a kind of version of Hegel's "the true is the whole." But the failure of the moral to account for all the contradictory details of the narrative points in the opposite direction, to Adorno's dictum that "the whole is the false" (that is, that any attempt to represent the whole of things, and say this representation is true, is bound to fail, since the only truly adequate explanation of the thing is the thing itself). And the poem gets more interesting when we look at the marginal notes Coleridge added. They're meant to be the notes of some scribe who has found the manuscript of the poem, and written his interpretation in the margins. He's sophisticated and learned, this scribe, and represents a later historical stage than the Mariner, whose tale we're meant to see as having been found many years after it's composition. But he's wrong, too, imposing too much of Christianity on the tale, and too proud of his erudition. And then there's the level of where we, the readers, stand: still trying to make a full, total interpretation out of the weird, apparently contradictory world before us. This is Coleridge telling us about the evolution of insights, from experiences to moral injunctions to scholarly concepts — an ongoing process of increasing sophistication that remains, in the end, based on a world that is ultimately enigmatic.
In a way, Coleridge is like Blake, but more of a historicist. He’s also less imagistic, and more concept-driven. You can look at this in one of two ways: as either a great leap forward in clarity and specificity, or a terrible falling backward, from the vivid and moving to the deathly-dull and ink-stained. Indeed, you may, should you so desire, look at my own trajectory, from mostly-poet poet-critic, to mostly-critic poet-critic, in the same two ways, and I'm pretty sure my realization that Coleridge had been my laureate for more than a year is the product of my own shifting emphasis toward the spirit of criticism.
I suppose what attracts me to Coleridge is the way he takes a kind of insight into the unity of things, and shows us what the mind does with it, slowly, over time, in each phase taking on the colors of local conditions. He manages to be both a mystic and a historicizor of mysticism, which is no small feat. It's particularly impressive to someone whose own journey has been a matter of adding layers of self-reflexivity to a fundamentally mystical apprehension of experience.
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
A Top Literary Studies Blog? You're Looking at It. Or: The Double-Cliché Self-Regarding Self-Destructo
This post represents a complex double-jointed maneuver, in which I simultaneously pat myself on the back and bite the hand that feeds me. That's right, people, the double-cliché self-regarding self-destructo, a leap never before landed in competition.
The little badge image above comes with the award of "Best Literary Studies Blog" the the present humble blogger, and placing the image there represents the first part of my athletic feat, the patting of myself on the back. But how legit is an award like this? Well, here are the criteria, from "Awarding the Web," the organization that's been kind enough to honor this blog ("Samizdat Blog," by the way, must surely be the ugliest, most dated-looking, dumbest-named of the 45 blogs so honored in the category). As a guy who's been involved in the judging of poetry award competitions, I'd say the awards procedure looks neither more nor less legit than those I've applied/seen applied in various other contexts:
This award highlights the very best blogs about literary studies on the internet as selected by our judges, and is designed to thank the authors for their contribution toward the world wide web we all use & enjoy.
Awards candidates are selected using two methods:
- Audience nominations
- Our team of research associates scouring the web
After a list of candidates is compiled they are each scored by our panel of 5 judges. Each judge rates each blog across 20 different attributes providing it with a ‘subjective’ score. These ratings are combined into an aggregate, and the aggregates of the 5 judges are averaged to give the blog its final rating.
The ratings are then compared, and awards are given out to blogs in the 99% percentile (meaning the top 1% of blogs receive awards).
Sounds on the up and up. Then again, if you go to the list of winners, you'll find that there are only 44 blogs. The number ten spot is occupied by this blog, but at the time of writing, the number twelve spot is vacant. Why? Glad you asked. My colleague Josh Corey's blog was supposed to occupy that spot, but he has declined to be a part of this, and his reasons are worth considering. (This information pertains to the situation at the time of writing: "Awarding the Web" may have found a replacement by the time you read this).
I got in touch with Josh after seeing that we'd both been named winners, and after doing my obnoxious chicken dance of victory at having seen my blog placed ever so marginally higher than his more deserving and elegant blog, I wiped the sweat from my brow and asked how he felt about the award. "they want to list my blog as one of Top 45 Literary Studies Blogs," he said, "Which would be fine and dandy if the purpose of the list weren't to shore up their credibility as a diploma-mill."
What what? Ah! Well. As it turns out, the awards are sponsored by a consortium of online doctoral programs, some run by for-profit institutions. What's more, the html code for the badge one is meant to display on one's blog contains a text link, just below the badge, for a site promoting these programs. I've taken the html code for the link out of the badge above, leaving only the image itself. I imagine I might soon be contacted by the Awarding the Web people and asked either to remove the badge image, restore the link, decline the award, take down this post, or otherwise change my behavior, though I didn't notice anything in the material they sent me about leaving the link in as a condition of the award. (We're now well into the second part of my amazing athletic feat — biting the hand that feeds me — although all said hand has actually fed me is a bit of recognition — always nice, but so very much less nice than, you know, cash).
Being far more morally compromised than Josh, I'm not about to decline the award, though I have a strong suspicion it may soon be rescinde). But just so you know where I stand regarding online education and for-profit education, I'd like to make a couple of statements.
1. Online education in and of itself can be a good thing. I mean, check out all of these free courses over at Open Culture's site (not the courses named in the ads — the ones listed in the main text). I don't think courses like these are a substitute for the actual back-and-forth of a face-to-face classroom experience, nor do I think the kind of courses where you chat online with an instructor are a real substitute. But such courses are not a bad way to pick up some knowledge, and until such time as we collectively decide that access to face-to-face education should be within everybody's reach, free online courses like these may, along with public libraries and the like, be all that's available to some people.
2. For-profit education, whether online or otherwise, is often a deeply suspect enterprise. I'm pretty convinced by what the New York Times has had to say on the issue. Here's a highlight from the article:
... the profits have come at substantial taxpayer expense while often delivering dubious benefits to students, according to academics and advocates for greater oversight of financial aid. Critics say many schools exaggerate the value of their degree programs, selling young people on dreams of middle-class wages while setting them up for default on untenable debts, low-wage work and a struggle to avoid poverty. And the schools are harvesting growing federal student aid dollars, including Pell grants awarded to low-income students.
The article deals with trade schools, not doctoral programs, but they do name the Apollo Group, which owns the for-profit University of Phoenix, and the University of Phoenix is part of the sponsoring group of online doctoral programs behind the award this blog received (some other online doctoral programs sponsoring the award seem to be run by non-profits, like Benedictine University. I have no idea whether Benedictine sees their online doctoral program as a revenue-generator or not).
So. I'm happy for the recognition of the award, but I'm not a fan of for-profit education, online or otherwise, as it is so often practiced in the United States at present. And I imagine we'll soon find out whether the Awarding the Web outfit is going to find their award and my opinions — or my removal of the link that takes you to a list of online doctoral programs — compatible.
If they do get in touch I will, of course comply with whatever reasonable things they ask (I want to stay within their rules and the law), and I'll tell you all about it.
UPDATE JULY 15
I received a note from the good people at Awarding the Net. Here, in their words, is the gist of it:
Thank you for recognizing our award, and what were trying to do. In terms of what you’ve written about our sponsor, I really can't say anything about what they do. If you read www.awardingtheweb.com/disclaimer, we clearly state that our working with the sponsor is because they have generously allowed us to host our award on their site, but that is the extent of it. We are not their employees, do not receive any financial compensation, nor are vouching for anything on their site. It is an unfortunate compromise that we have to deal with when hosting our awards, because we don’t have all the finances in the world, but would still love to do our passion, which is reward good content on the web. So we have to work with a sponsor that can host our award.
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
It's probably a sign of my irredeemable logocentrism that, when I started to think about how I could describe my recent experience visiting the Museum of Contemporary Art's show of Alexander Calder's mobiles, I thought not of any particular mobile, but of Jean-Paul Sartre's essay "Les Mobiles de Calder," from Situations III. The essay defines a mobile as "a small, local festival, defined by movement and nonexistent apart from it," which isn't a bad place to start. In fact, the word "festival" gets at a couple of important things about Calder's mobiles: firstly, it gives a sense of them as collections of individual elements, the way festivals are living collections of large and small events held together in some kind of relationship; and secondly, it gets at the joyfulness of the things — an emotion not prominent enough in discussions of art. The people at the MCA understand the joy of the mobiles — in fact, the name of the show is "Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art: Form, Balance, Joy." But one senses a little hesitation, maybe even a little condescension, in the way some art-types treat the notion of Calder's joy. "Some scholars," says Laura Pierson in her piece on the show in TimeOut Chicago, "have criticized [Calder's] works as too playful or simplistic and devoid of layered meanings."
The idea that playful joy is somehow beneath us makes me sad, since it's often just a sign of deep insecurity, of people afraid that lightheartedness might be taken as a sign that one is insufficiently cynical/worldly/critical of late capitalism/intelligent/full of deep sympathy for the wretched of the earth. (Trust me: I'm an art school brat, I've seen this kind of anxiety in artists, critics, profs, and especially grad students since I could first toddle along to gallery openings, gripping my mom's hand, in the early 70s). The other idea Pearson mentions — that Calder's art is somehow without meaning — points to a strange thing that's happened to art (or, at any rate, to prominent art, and the prominent discourse about art) over the course of the last few decades. If I had to name the phenomenon, I suppose I'd call it either a failure to understand the significance of formalism, or a return to some elements of Victorian aesthetics.
Let's come at it this way: consider Alexander Calder's father and grandfather. Each was a sculptor of some prominence in Calder's native Philadelphia. The grandfather, Alexander Milne Calder, made some of the best-known pieces of Philly public sculpture, such as the statue of General Meade in West Fairmount Park, and the giant William Penn on top of City Hall. The father, Alexander Stirling Calder, also did statuary for City Hall, and made the Witherspoon Building Figures. In short, both of these Calders were creators of the kind of civic, commemorative sculpture that pigeons like to shit upon in public spaces everywhere. These guys were skilled in making forms, but they weren't formalists. Instead, they were informed by an aesthetics that said form should serve meaning (in this case, meaning of a pretty straightforward kind: "Billy Penn founded Pennsylvania, and you live in Pennsylvania: be proud of your state identity, and trust in Great Men like Penn and General Meade, whose like will guide us, the masses huddled beneath these great, dignified statues, in the future" and similar patriarchal/establishment bullshit). By the time the elder Calders were making their civic sculpture this kind of aesthetic was already being challenged in London and, to a much greater extent, in Paris, but the news hadn't really hit Philadelphia in a big way, at least not those circles willing to commission public sculpture. So the elder Calders were very much parts of what we think of as the Victorian way of thinking about art. The grand old critic Richard Altick gives a good, brief summary of this way of thinking when he writes (in Victorian People and Ideas):
The age's criteria of acceptable art are usually summed up in the term 'moral aesthetic.' The idea that art should teach and inspire as well as give pleasure was not new; it was, indeed, older than Horace's dulce et utile. But seldom had it been as established as it was in this period…. Poetry and painting supplemented the pulpit if they did not actually replace it. The early and mid Victorian emphasis was thus upon theme rather than expression, upon intention and substance rather than technique. The more pleasing a style was, the better; but style should never be so pleasing as to distract attention from content.
This is art at the service of morality — more specifically, it is art at the service of paraphrasable, specific moral messages. It certainly isn't the autonomy of art for it's own sake: rather, it's the heteronomy of art for the sake of something else (the moral message). But things, as I mentioned, had started to change, even as the elder Calders were scrubbing the pigeon shit off their newly-unveiled statues of generals. Aestheticism, and later some strands of modernism, were (for hugely complicated social reasons) freeing art to be for itself, taking the emphasis off message, and allowing the emphasis to settle on form. So the modernist tradition that young Alexander Calder, the Calder of the mobiles, found when he went to Paris as a young man was all about form, and this made all the difference.
Think about materials. Unlike his father and grandfather — who used Serious Materials like bronze and marble, because these were the materials suitable to Serious Civic Significance — our Calder was free to use anything that pleased him formally. "I like broken glass on stems, old car parts, old spring beds, smashed tin cans, bits of brass imbedded in asphalt," he said, "and I love pieces of red glass that come out of tail-lights." Of course none of this feels particularly liberating to us now, since art schools have been preaching about the infinitely variable materials for art for decades. But for Calder, the use of sheet metal, bits of broken glass, coiled wire, and the occasional coffee can was a step away from the practices of generations of family sculptors. It was a realization, long after Kant had claimed that an emphasis on prestige materials constituted "barbaric taste," that form could be primary, and that amazing form existed in the humblest of places. A broken wine glass is, after all, an elegantly incomplete and asymmetrical set of curves. I can think of a couple I wish I hadn't thrown out.
Just as the notion that form was primary set Calder free with regard to materials, it also set him free with regard to subject matter. Instead of weighty civic themes, he took to subjects that pleased him. Not coincidentally, these tended to be subjects of visual fantasticness, not moralistic seriousness: his early Calder Circus, for example, was just that: a small model of circus animals, performers, and sets, which he'd sometimes animate for his friends. And the sense of the primacy of form also set Calder, among many others, free from any bond to representation. Sometimes his stabiles look a bit like elephants or flamingoes (the big one on Chicago's Federal Plaza is even called "Flamingo") and the mobiles can look like seals or spiders, but ultimately they're nonrepresentational. As Sartre put it, Calder's mobiles represent nothing in the world, nor do they try to convey messages, "his mobiles signify nothing, refer to nothing other than themselves; they simply are, they are absolutes."
It's this sense of signifying nothing and referring to nothing but themselves that seems to have put Calder in the doghouse of the art world in the decades since his death in 1976. Nathan Carter, one of the younger artists influenced by Calder whose work is also on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art show, tells us:
When I went to art school in the mid-’90s, having an interest in Calder or anybody from that particular generation was completely taboo. Most work at art schools is being made in relation to philosophy and psychology or things like that. You’re more likely to have a discussion about like, Hegel, than about the way something looks."
This is interesting, and it points to what I would call either a failure to understand the significance of formalism, or the return of elements of Victorian aesthetics. I think the neo-Victorianism is pretty obvious: when Carter was going to art school at the School of the Museum of Fine Art (Boston) and at Yale, art was as subordinated to its discursive meaning as it had been for the Victorians. A 'moral aesthetic' was all the rage, and just like the Victorians Altick describes, artists were oriented to "theme rather than expression, upon intention and substance rather than technique." Oriented, that is, to Hegel or psychology, not to how things look. Some things were different from the Victorian moral aesthetic — the particular themes, for example, were likely to be intended as challenges to norms of race, gender and (more rarely) class, rather than the kind of urge to be one's supposedly better self that were the substance of so many Victorian works. But the orientation to social message, and to discursive, paraphrasable, specific moral messages, and away from form, was similar. Think of someone like Barbara Kruger or Martin Firrell, and you'll get one idea of how this kind of new-moral-aesthetic-driven of art can work. (I am not saying Kruger and Firrell are bad artists, by the way — far from it — merely that they seem to operate under what Altick called a "moral aesthetic" rather than a formalist one).
I suppose one reason this kind of message-based art came about was out of a sense that formalism was somehow meaningless (that whole "devoid of layered meanings" thing), and that meaninglessness was somehow a bad thing. The "somehow" often seems to have to do with moral or political reasons: the idea being that formalism is, by virtue of its refusal to subordinate form to message-making, a kind of moral or political vacuity. Art, in this view, exists for critique. There's certainly an uptightness about inutility and beauty here, again reminiscent of the Victorians (not that such uptightness is always a bad thing — Victorian uptightness created much of the world we live in, for better as well as for worse).
Anyway. This view of formalism has always seemed to me a bit naïve. I mean, think about what Sartre says about Calder's mobiles. They "refer to nothing other than themselves; they simply are, they are absolutes" — this is actually important stuff. If the mobiles don't serve any function except to be themselves, then they aren't means to any end, they aren't instrumental. They're autonomous — and this matters. It means they put us in a position where we aren't treating them as means to something else, some goal we want to achieve. We're distanced (relatively, if not entirely) from our normal habits of thinking of things in terms of how useful to us they are. This is a moral stance, and in some profound sense a political stance, too. In fact, it's a stance very much in line with what Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno had to say in Dialectic of Enlightenment about the problem of modernity being the instrumentalization of everything, including ourselves. This kind of formalism works (because of and despite its unconcern with anything but itself) as an antidote to the instrumentalizing intelligence.
It's a different kind of moralism or politics than the message-based world of artists like Barbara Kruger and of the art culture that produced her. In a way, the 90s art-school/Barbara Kruger method accepts the premise that everything is rhetorical and instrumental, and tries to counter the rhetoric and instrumentalism of the powerful with rhetorical/instrumental messages of its own. That is, it counters one kind of propaganda with another. Formalism, in the Calder-as-seen-by-Sartre version, doesn't accept the idea of instrumentalism. Calder doesn't concede that everything is rhetorical, manipulative, and about achieving some end: he proposes a different way of experiencing the world, one where things aren't means, but absolutes in themselves.
So Calder's formalism is not without a moral dimension, though it is without a specific moralistic message. You could actually make a pretty strong case that the joyfulness of the work plays a role in the moral dimension of the work. Consider what Adorno says in his often-misunderstood essay "Is Art Lighthearted?" Adorno begins the essay with a quote from Schiller's Wallenstein about life being serious and art lighthearted. He then says that this attitude of Schiller's is typically bourgeois, in that it accepts the notion that most of life is alienating, but that we get compensated with free time where we can have some fun. The essay ends with the famous remarks about the difficulty of writing poetry after Auschwitz, and then makes a big claim that art in 1967, the year of the essay's composition, can only have very limited, qualified kinds of joyfulness, lest it show complicity with the culture industry's calculated, calculating high spirits ("the smirking caricature of advertising") or become merely "cynical" about the darkness of history. But there's a less-commented-upon middle bit, in sections two and three of the essay, in which Adorno makes the case for joyfulness in art. Check it out:
Still, there is a measure of truth in the platitude [from Schiller] about art's lightheartedness. If art were not a source of pleasure for people, in however mediated a form, it would not have been able to survive in the naked existence it contradicts and resists. This is not something external to it, however, but part of its very definition. Although it does not refer to society, the Kantian formulation "purposiveness without purpose" already alludes to this. Art's purposelessness consists in its having escaped the constraints of self-preservation. It embodies something like freedom in the midst of unfreedom.
And he continues a little later:
What is lighthearted in art is, if you like, the opposite of what one might easily assume it to be: not its content but its demeanor… This confirms the idea expressed by Schiller, who saw art's lightheartedness in its playfulness and not in its stating of intellectual contents… art is a critique of the brute seriousness that reality imposes upon human beings.
So: joyful form has a significance, as does the demeanor of the work of art, apart from any specific thematic content. The significance is the expression of an aspiration towards freedom from the ordinary constraints of life (including, I suppose, the constraint of treating everything in a utilitarian way, as a means to an end). I can't think of a better example of the kind of work being discussed here than Calder's mobiles.
We can even begin to see a further significance to the mobile's materials here. Consider Adorno's comments on Mozart from a little further on in the essay. Mozart, says Adorno, gives us a joyful, harmonious music, seemingly unconnected with the dark historical situation around him. But that very harmony is a kind of dissonance, precisely because it is out of whack with the unharmonious world around it. Mozart's "harmony sounds a dissonance to the harsh tones of reality and has them as its substance. That is Mozart's sadness. Only through the transformation of something that is in any case preserved in its negative form" does his music accomplish something significant, says Adorno. That is: the harmony of the music isn't saccharine, because we think of how unlike the world that harmony is. We don't only hear the joy of the music — the very joyfulness of the music reminds us of how the rest of the world doesn't live up to that joy.
Okay. On the one hand, we could concentrate on Calder's form here. That is, we could say that looking at the beautiful forms of the mobiles, and their graceful motions, provides us with a similar push-and-pull of harmonic joy and dissonant sorrow. We see the mobiles and are filled with their joyful harmony. But then we remember how the world is so rarely this happy and serene, and we can think of how heroically Calder works to overcome all of that unhappiness and give us this joy. But on the other hand, we could talk about the materials of the mobiles in this context. They're made, mostly, of sheet metal and rivets. These are materials we associate with industry, with factories and high-rises, as well as with the military, with warships and tanks. When we see them in the mobiles, we think of how Calder is out to negate the normal use of these materials as utilitarian means to gain money, or to kill. We see that he has accomplished what Adorno called "transformation of something [here, the military-industrial complex] that is in any case preserved in its negative form." It's all a matter of taking these specific materials and creating out of them joyful, harmonic forms.
This kind of significance of formalism seems pretty straightforward, but somehow it got lost in much of the thinking in art schools and in what we call the art world during those years when Calder and his generation were, in Nathan Carter's words, "completely taboo," and when the scholars to whom Laura Pierson points found Calder "devoid of layered meanings." And if you want layers, Calder's mobiles have got layers. I mean, we've barely scratched the surface in talking about a moral or political meaningfulness to the experience of their formal beauty. There are other kinds of significance, too.
Let's go back to Sartre for one of these other kinds of significance. Looking at a mobile as it moves slowly through the air, Sartre observes that "the movements of the object are intended only to please us, to titillate our eyes, but they have a profound, metaphysical meaning." This metaphysical dimension comes from the nature of the movement itself. As Sartre puts it,
In [Calder's] mobiles chance probably plays a greater part than in any other creation of man. The forces at work are too numerous and too complicated for any human mind, even that of their creator, to foresee all possible combinations. For each of them Calder establishes a general scheme of movement, then abandons it; the time, the sun, the heat and wind will determine each particular dance.
There's an order to the pieces, a harmony or dance, but it isn't a schematic one, or a predictable one. There is overt balance, but it is asymmetrical and ever-changing and not under the control of a guiding intelligence. The branches of the mobiles — sometimes setting one large object in balance with many small sub-branches and little objects, sometimes creating the illusion that things are connected where they aren't — are like systems opening up to little sub-systems, orders coming into being and then shifting into apparent disorders. Parts that seemed subordinate become important, elements that seemed to coalesce suddenly disperse. Sartre sees this as a kind of dialectic between arbitrariness and order, saying that while Calder's "one aim is to create chords and cadences of unknown movements" his mobiles are nevertheless
…almost mathematical combinations and the perceptible symbol of Nature, squandering pollen and abruptly causing a thousand butterflies to take wing and never revealing whether she is the blind concatenation of causes and effects or the gradual unfolding, forever deferred, disconcerted and thwarted, of an Idea.
Sartre sees the "metaphysical meaning" inherent to the pieces as a metaphysics that holds out the possibility of total disorder, or of total, Hegelian order. For me, though, the point of reference wouldn't be Hegel, but Gilles Deleuze. The evolving chords and cadences of the mobiles seem to echo Deleuze's rhizome, in that they create a structure in which things come together at odd angles, and in which we can follow lines of flight out of an apparently fixed order into something new. I mean, you could stand in the middle of the big room at the Museum of Contemporary Art and watch these combinations cohere and disperse with a big, open-mouthed smile on your face until the security guards begin to suspect you're tripping on something. The mobiles have that kind of metaphysics, layered on top of the moral or political significance that also comes in their joyful forms.
Since we're talking about metaphysics, I think the story Calder used to tell about one of the foundational moments of his way of seeing is important. One night, when Calder was a young man serving in the Merchant Marine, he found himself alone on deck at dawn, at precisely that moment when the sun and moon were balanced forces in the sky. On the one hand, the saw a dull, red disk of the sun, and on the other the bright, hard, cold whiteness of the moon. Around him was the featureless sea, becalmed, and on the deck beneath him nothing but a coil of rope. As he put it in his autobiography:
It was early one morning on a calm sea, off Guatemala, when over my couch—a coil of rope—I saw the beginning of a fiery red sunrise on one side and the moon looking like a silver coin on the other. Of the whole trip this impressed most of all; it left me with a lasting sensation of the solar system.
Three circles, each balanced in visual significance, but each entirely different, and all of them in some kind of large motion in relation to the others. The moment struck him, and stayed with him, and we can see in the coiled wires, and in the colored circles and blunted triangles of his mobiles echoes of this moment, when he seemed to feel most keenly something about the asymmetry and motion-inflected temporary harmonies of the world. There's a visual epiphany, an insight into the structure of the cosmos, in that moment, and it's a metaphysical insight Calder explored again and again. I think it matters, too, that this was a ship made of rivets and sheet metal, devoted to commerce and war and power — because this is the world that (to use Adorno's words about Mozart) is "preserved in its negative form" in the mobiles.
It's sort of amazing to me that things as profound and beautiful as Calder's mobiles could become taboo in art schools, and dismissed as merely decorative objects without significance. You'd have to forget a lot about how to look at things to come to that conclusion.
Tuesday, July 06, 2010
It's been a few days since I've been back from Cambridge, where I was speaking at a conference on the late, great Swedish poet-critic, Göran Printz-Påhlson, but it's been too much of a holiday weekend to blog. Since I've been back it's been nothing but sweating down the bike trails with Team Slow Ride, lounging in the hammock, trekking to the zoo with my wife and daughter, trying to get the beach sand out of my hair, and hanging with friends at the BYOB Mexican joint while they regaled me with tales of their trip to Thailand. And there were fireworks. But I'm back at the computer now, people, and there's no avoiding my comments on the Cambridge caper. Here, in mostly chronological order, are the Observations of the Intrepid Traveller.
Heathrow. It's not just jet-lag that makes Heathrow seem so strange. It's the category-defying nature of the place. I mean, first-world airports tend to be of two kinds: the sleek, modern, clean sort (think Chicago-O'Hare, or Amsterdam Schipol, or whatver they've built in China this week), or the overtly beaten-down and desperately crappy (think LaGuardia, or Rome's Fiumicino). But Heathrow sort of fakes you out. If you arrive at Terminal One, it seems sleek and modern enough at first, but as you make the long schlep toward the exit, it slips into a Frayed 1970s mode. Then, as you continue on and downwards toward the tube hook-up, you go through a short passage of Swinging Sixties Gone to Seed, before emerging into a long tunnel that sould be labeled The Museum of Decayed Linoleum, certainly dating from about 1950. Luckily, this is as far as I ever have to go, though I'm pretty sure that a hundred yards on I'd have found the original airport of Roman Britain.
The Frickin' Shire or Something. That's about all I have to say about the English countryside between London and Cambridge. Later, when I was having dinner with Andrea Brady, she called it "overtly benevolent," which seems about right. But something in her tone made me think she shared my view that it's all so pretty that it should be treated with suspicion. I mean, don't you sort of think the kindly old woman bringing you cider or scones will be screaming for your blood at night once the crowd has come to burn you in a giant wicker man in some holdover druidic ceremony? Maybe that's just me.
Cambridge. I lived in Lund, Sweden, which is also a medieval university town built around a big public square, so my first thought about Cambridge was "Lund, if Lund were populated exclusively by German tourists and guys who look like Stephen Spender in white linen suits riding bicycles." (As to the hazards of riding bicycles while wearing white linen, hold on. I touch on this more when I get to my meeting with a publisher). I did manage to get out of the academic zone, visiting poet Richard Berengarten (formerly Burns) in his house, which seems to be made up of several old row houses knocked together and filled to bursting with books. He proved beyond doubt that you can find very good Turkish food for a party of twelve in Cambridge on a moment's notice. He also proved how much one could accomplish before email, when he showed me the program for the first Cambridge Poetry Festival, an invention of his back in the seventies. There must have been eighty poets from all over. As a guy who's organized a few literary festivals, I can tell you there's an amazing amount of what may dad calls "ass-grind and agony" involved in putting something like that together.
The Conference: Afternoon. This was an interesting event, not just for what was said (and any event where the Sorbonne's very own Jesper Svenbro is speaking will be interesting for what is said), but for the nature of the event. As the Berengarten pointed out as he began his remarks, this wasn't just an academic event, though it was surely that. It was also a poet's event; and what's more, it was an event for family and friends of Printz-Påhlson, who'd turned up in force. The world needs more events like this: it adds a little gemeinschaft to the generally gesselschaft world of conferences.
The Conference: Evening Poetry Readings. Dinner at Clare Hall, at a long table of conference participants presided over by John Matthias. It was good to see John Wilkinson, whom I finally met earlier this year when I was giving a poetry reading in South Bend (which he has recently abandoned for Chicago). He's a charming guy, and I like that he's unbothered about how we've sparred a little in print about J.H. Prynne and those influenced by him. It was good, too, to finally meet Andrea Brady, with whom I've also had some fisticuffs in the pages of obscure quarterly magazines. She tells me there's less going on, poetry-wise, in Cambridge than there was a few years ago, though Justin Katko is there and going strong. I told her my story about being snubbed by John Ashbery, and asked if she'd ever been snubbed by a famous poet. "As a younger woman," she said, "it doesn't really happen." She was rather glamorous in a summer dress, so I took her point. After dinner came a series of readings, with a sort of astonishing range of poets put together by Matthias (the rationale being that "these are poets who knew and admired Printz-Påhlson, or who I am convinced would have admired him"): Clive Wilmer from Oxford, Berengarten, Jesper Svenbro, Matthias himself, my old colleague from Lund Lars-Håkan Svensson, Andrea Brady and John Wilkinson. I'm sure there were others, but I'm having trouble remembering (the chardonnay wasn't very good, but the soave sure was). It's the first time I've heard Wilkinson read, and it was a bit of a surprise. All the instruments agree about Wilkinson being one of the pleasantest, mild-mannered guys you're likely to meet, but he reads with a powerful, macho kind of aggression (the subject matter of his pieces, which he described as "de Chirico nightmares" added to this). The effect was similar to what I experienced when I saw Keston Sutherland read in Chicago some years ago. It makes one wonder if this was the common style of the group of poets who clustered around Prynne a while back. If so, it sheds a new light on a some comments Andrea Brady made about how it could be a bit alienating being one of the only women on that scene. Speaking of Prynne, he was there, wearing what appeared to be a red star pin on his collar. I wonder — given his popularity in China, has he been made into some kind of Chinese version of the Chevalier de Légion d'Honneur? Or is it a matter of expressing approval of the Chinese regime (one hopes not). Or maybe it's something else entirely. I didn't ask, since I saw Romana Huk across the room and wanted to say hello.
Non-Conference Things.. Other than wandering around gawking at the punts on the Cam, and having an entirely pleasant beer with an old grad school friend now with Cambridge's department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic, there's not much to report except…
A Very Cambridge Moment. John Matthias, the wonderful Elinor Shaffer of Cambridge and of Comparative Criticism (sister to Sir Peter Shaffer, whose Amadeus you've seen twice), and I were waiting to meet with the president of a certain Cambridge-based publishing firm (no names, but it's not Chris Hamilton-Emery), who was late. As we sat waiting, the publisher, a dashing man in white clothes came tearing into the room, with a black, hand-shaped stain on his shirt. "Terribly sorry," he said, seeing us, but I can't shake your hands. He held up his own fingers, utterly blackened with oil, "typical Cambridge excuse: broken bicycle chain." It's not quite how things go with New York publishers, whose oiliness is in their souls, not on their fingers.
And so it was back to Chicago, with no time to meet with Michael Gregory Stephens and Katy Evans-Bush in London, as I'd hoped to do. There was barely time to hit the Harrod's in Heathrow to pick up a Paddington Bear for my daughter.