Monday, June 27, 2011

An Impossible Position

So there's this, an account in the Chicago Tribune of how people feel about what's been going on at the Poetry Foundation.  If you click through to the third page, you'll find that the last of the people is me.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Robert Kroetsch, R.I.P.

Robert Kroetsch—one of the most important Canadian writers of his generation—has died in a car accident at the age of 84.  I had the privilege of knowing him a little when I was an undergraduate.  Though I never took a course with him, he was a presence on the campus and on the local literary scene, and a few times I found myself having a drink with him after Dennis Cooley’s evening seminars on contemporary literature let out.

He was a novelist, and something of a critic, and one of the founders of the journal boundary 2, but for me he’ll always be two things: a poet, and a benign godfather of a movement in Canadian literature that suffers the fate of all movements in Canadian literature: utter invisibility in the non-Canadian world.  But it was a real movement, with its own journals and presses and contretemps and aspirations, and it made a difference where it wanted to make a difference, in the prairie provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.  One might think of it as a prairie school, and of Kroetsch as its éminence grise.

As a poet, Kroetsch was many things.  Sometimes he was a proceduralist, foregrounding the artificiality of writing, and the agility of the poet, by adopting an arbitrary restriction, Oulipo-style, and forcing himself to work within its constraints.  In The Sad Phoenician, for example, Kroetsch writes a long meditation in which new lines of poetry begin, alternately, with “and” and “but,” making for an ode-like snaking-through of strophe and antistrophe.  At other times Kroetsch was a master of found texts, writing through his family’s account books in The Ledger and through a ubiquitous document of the Canadian prairies in Seed Catalog.  In both cases, he was concerned with the way written documents were the binding agents of a collective, of family and of region.  The best way I can describe the effects of reading these poems is to say that it’s like encountering a secularized version of scribal commentary on religious texts.  What a poet like Norman Finkelstein does with the Jewish textual tradition in a book like Scribe, Kroetsch did with the ordinary found texts that bound together his family and the rural communities of the Canadian prairies.

Kroetsch was also a serialist poet, who kept a long project called Field Notes simmering for years, adding and inserting sections in the manner of Olson’s Maximus Poems or Duncan’s Passages.  There was none of the history and grandeur of Olson, and none of the mysticism of Duncan, though.  Instead, there was a kind of constant, amused intellectual probing of the everyday.  And Kroetsch was always ready to surprise his long-time readers.  After developing a theory of the ever-incomplete, constantly-ongoing poem, and inspiring a host of other Canadian poets to begin ambitious serial projects, he suddenly called his poem to a halt, issuing his Completed Field Notes in 1989.  I remember the arguments in the student pub about whether that word, “completed,” represented a transcendence or a betrayal of Kroetsch’s project: I left in a huff, consoled by a young woman who wore even more eyeliner than I did back then.  She gave me a peck on the cheek and one of her earrings before ditching me over cappuccino.

Kroetsch was also a postmodernist.  For me, he’ll always belong to that generation of poet-professors whose natural habitat was the brutalist concrete campus office lined with books by Robert Scholes and Jonathan Culler.  I picture him now as he appeared on the cover of a 1987 issue of Border Crossings magazine: tweed jacket, beard, Remington typewriter on the desk in front of him, ready for a fresh sheet of paper and a new page of poetry composed by field in the manner of the Olsonite wing of Black Mountain.

One reason to think of Kroetsch as a postmodernist was what I can only call his loving suspicion of language and of the apparent coherence of narrative truth.  Jean-François Lyotard’s distinction between the grand récit and the petit récit, in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, gets at the kind of thinking that informed Kroetch’s writing.  For Lyotard, the grand récit was a kind of authoritative story that purported to offer a comprehensive explanation of the world.  When, for example, a certain right-wing imbecile who happens to be a Cardinal of the Catholic Church maintained “the Church is neither left nor right, the Church is true,” he was offering the story of Catholicism as a (or, to his mind, the) grand récit, just as certain hard-core vulgar Marxists might see Marxism as a grand récit, or how the overconfident Victorian bourgeoisie took “progress” as their grand récit.  In postmodern conditions, Lyotard claims, such comprehensive stories become unsustainable, and instead we have a proliferation of smaller, more fragmentary, more localized, more tentative explanatory stories.  In postmodernism, one lets a thousand petit récits bloom.

Kroetsch was very much a man of the petit récit.  He would write paratactic, self-reflective works like those collected in his Field Notes, bend the conventions of narrative in his fiction, or hesitate at the brink of narrative, as in his first book of poetry, The Stone Hammer Poems.  Here, he begins with an artifact, a stone hammer found on the prairies.  The poem starts this way:

This stone
becomes a hammer
of stone


The rawhide loops
are gone, the
hand is gone, the buffalo’s skull
is gone;

the stone is
shaped like the skull
of a child.

We begin with the sense that the explanation of the artifact is a matter of framing: the stone, when literally framed with an apparatus of wood and rawhide, becomes a hammer.  It has since been many things, entering other narrative frames.  But the literal history of the stone, speculative and ultimately unknowable, isn’t the only frame.  As the last stanza above indicates, the stone can also enter a metaphorical frame: its shape and size allows it to become a metaphor for a child’s skull, for birth and for death.

The poem goes on, trying to locate the stone in a narrative, and failing to find much authoritative purchase on the truth of things.  A few sections later in the poem, for example, we find this:

Grey, two-headed
the pemmican maul

fell from the travois or
a boy playing    lost it in
the prairie wool or
a woman     left it in
the brain of a buffalo or

it is a million years older than
the hand that
chipped stone or
raised slough
water (or blood) or

The section ends there, with “or,” a gesture much like Olson’s opening of a parenthesis that never closes: it’s a sign of indetermination, of the impossibility of grand récit.  The poem goes on to trace the losing and finding of the stone in many histories, some imagined (Kroetsch imagines it moved in the last ice age by “the retreating ice,” then moved much later by “the retreating buffalo” and later still by “the retreating Indians) some grounded in family stories of how this same stone was lost by his grandfather and found again by his father plowing in a field.

There’s another reason to think of Kroetsch as a postmodern poet, rather than a modern one, a reason having to do with tone.  While the generalization I’m about to make has the flaw of all generalizations (i.e., that it is full of holes and therefore untrue), I’m still making it: modernism is more serious and less funny than postmodernism.  I grant all your objections regarding specific texts, and yet I return to the generalization.  Wry as he can be, T.S. Eliot is more grave and less funny than Frank O’Hara.  While he’s not above jokes, Ezra Pound is more often dead serious than is John Ashbery.  And when Robert Kroetsch is meditating on the perspectival nature of truth, he’s less sublime, and funnier, than Wallace Stevens when he does something similar.  I’m sure the model for Kroetsch’s “Sketches of a Lemon” is Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” but the tone is entirely different.  Here’s Stevens’ opening stanza:

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Is the eye of a blackbird.

This is straight-up Kantian sublimity: the little living eye comprehends the huge, rugged world that so exceeds it in scale and in grandeur that it renders the bird’s eye insignificant—except for the fact that the little eye comprehends the vastness.  Here, by contrast, is the opening of Kroetsch’s series of lemon sketches:

A lemon is almost round.
Some lemons are almost round.
A lemon is not round.

So much for that.

There’s a skepticism about our ability to intellectually frame the world here (it’s The Stone Hammer Poems again, or The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge), but there’s also a kind of philosophical pratfall.  The poem is full of this sort of thing: it's a self-deflating comic text that also has something serious to say about how intellectual frames fail, or about how narratives and descriptions end up mutating into something other than what they were initially meant to be.  Something like that happens in the following passage (“Smaro” is the name of the poet’s wife):

Sketches, I reminded myself,
not of a pear,
nor of an apple,
nor of a peach,
nor of a banana
(though the colour
raises questions)
nor of a nectarine,
nor, for that matter,
of a pomegranate,
nor of three cherries,
their stems joined,
nor of a plum,
nor of an apricot,
nor of the usual
bunch of grapes,
fresh from the vine,
just harvested,
glistening with dew—

Smaro, I called,
I’m hungry.

What began as a kind of attempt at negative definition (doomed to a seemingly infinite series of specifications) warps, suddenly, and we see that all along, without our knowledge, the list or catalog had been functioning in ways we hadn’t suspected, inciting the appetites rather than providing definition.  A hidden subordinate function becomes, suddenly, the dominant function of the list, and the sentence lurches jarringly in a new direction.  I like that: I remember reading this poem to the woman who would become my wife, and how she liked it too.  But it wasn’t her favorite section.  This was:

poem for a child who has just bit into
a halved lemon that has just been squeezed

see, what did I tell you, see,
what did I tell you, see, what
did I tell you, see, what did
I tell you, see, what did I
tell you, see, what did I tell
you, see, what did I tell you,
see, what did I tell you, see,
what did I tell you, see, what
did I tell you, see, what did
I tell you, see, what did I
tell you, see, what did I tell
you, see, what did I tell you

One could, of course, go on.

If straight-up sublimity lies a bit beyond Kroetsch’s range, something like this lies a bit beyond Wallace Stevens, and I think the difference is generational, modern vs. postmodern.

It’s poems like “Sketches of a Lemon” that first attracted me to Kroetsch’s work, but I knew of him in his capacity as the godfather of a literary movement before I’d read him.  He was a kind of benevolent, presiding presence for whole generations of aspiring writers in the Canadian west, and a great intellectual sponsor for a regionalist/postmodernist movement in the poetry produced on the Canadian prairies.  The point of the movement, I think, was a kind of mild intellectual and literary decolonization.  The western provinces have, in the minds of many of their inhabitants and more of their intellectuals, always been the resentful pseudo-colonies of the bankers and politicians of Toronto and Ottawa.  Ignored by a Canadian cultural establishment that was itself marginal and barely visible in the wider world, many of the writers of the west needed a good, strong dose of William Carlos Williams-style local pride, and Kroetsch, by writing out of western experience, provided exactly that.  And he was one of a group of writers and academics who built a regional literary infrastructure where none had been.  The journal Prairie Fire, Turnstone Press, Grain, Open Letter, a number of critical books, a bunch of reading venues: Kroetsch was one of the leaders in building something outside of the established literary networks.  I remember, in particular, one moment of Kroetschian direct action in the establishing of local literary institutions: a group of student poets were trying to launch a magazine called Ca(n)non (it was the eighties, and journal titles were filled with parentheses, backslashes, and other signs that the language was plural and unstable and self-deconstructing, etc.).  They approached Kroetsch as he was heading for the elevator outside his office, and asked if he could help them out.  He opened his wallet, hauled out a wad of bills, including a couple of the old red Canadian fifties with their Mounties on horseback, and handed it over.  “Wait,” he said, taking back a ten, “I need this for lunch.”  Not a lot of professors would have been so unhesitating with a crowd of scruffy and callow young poets.  It’s an image that’s stayed with me, and the image with which I’d like to end on the sad occasion of Kroetsch’s passing.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Kurt Vonnegut, Absurdity, and All Those Young Men in Chuck Taylors

The other day I found myself down in a particularly dark and foreboding part of my unfinished basement, groping around in my auxiliary bookshelves (yes, it has come to this, backup bookshelves in the basement), looking for a collection of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ letters that I thought might be of use for the book I’m writing. I never got to the Hopkins, though, because I was waylaid by a pile of crumbling old paperbacks I hadn’t looked at in at least fifteen years: the novels of Kurt Vonnegut, with which I then spent the afternoon. Like a lot of people, I read Vonnegut obsessively in my late teens: he was my transition from Heinlein and Asimov to Dostoevsky and Camus — and appropriately so, since Vonnegut is one part science fiction and one part existentialism, along with one part Mysterious Stranger-era Mark Twain, stirred and served chilled in a Mason jar found under the back porch of an Indiana farm house.

It’s a fairly common observation that a large portion of Vonnegut’s readership has always been young: you find his affinity with the young noted everywhere from the socialist website Solidarity to the pop culture shit-funnel Entertainment Weekly. The observation certainly rings true with my own experience, not only as a reader, but as a clerk in a used bookstore on Chicago’s Clark Street back in the 1990s.

Those of us who worked at the old Aspidistra Bookshop amused ourselves in all manner of ways, but one of them was in predicting what kind of book a customer would end up buying. Whole demographic categories were easy: the street people would go for self-help books or anything conspiracy oriented; the people from the nearby fetish store called House of Whacks would buy books on leatherworking, the sleek professional Lincoln Park ladies would buy Jane Austen, Jane Austen fan-fiction (there’s a ton of this stuff), and exotic cookbooks; the leftover Black Panther types always wanted Machiavelli and Soul on Ice; old white guys wanted biographies of dead presidents and books with pictures of World War II airplanes, etc. But the easiest of all were the teenage guys from the suburbs, the indie-rock looking ones in Chuck Taylor sneakers: they wanted Vonnegut. Once in a while they wanted the poems of Charles Bukowski, and after 1996 they sometimes sought out used copies of Fight Club. But it seemed like half of all the fiction we sold to these guys had been written by Vonnegut. We knew the type: we were the type, although now we’d moved on to more arcane snobberies, and looked down on the Vonnegut readers as only ex-Vonnegut readers could. “Vonnegut’s not a writer,” we’d say to one another, as another kid from New Trier High School trooped out with copies of Mother Night and Slapstick tucked into his courier bag, “he’s a phase.” We would then clink our bottles of Guinness — the Aspidistra beverage of choice — together, and get back to reading the free weekly papers and sneering at the movie reviews.

But here’s the funny thing: I can think of only one time I or any of my peers at Aspidistra ever sold a copy of a Vonnegut novel to a woman: a much tattooed, nose-pierced student from DePaul. My pal Colin tried chatting her up (he did this with any girl who looked like she was crazy enough to take him seriously), and found out that she was reading it for class. This means we never sold a Vonnegut book to a woman who wanted to read it of her own volition. I don’t mean to say no women read Vonnegut, only that he seems to be one of those writers — like Austen, like Hemingway, like Helen Fielding, like Pahlaniuk — whose readership seems fairly heavily skewed on the basis of gender.

If we can admit these admittedly unscientific notions about Vonnegut’s readership — that it skews young, and skews male — then the question arises: why? I don’t have anything like an answer supported by evidence, but I have a hypothesis, which is this: I think the youngness and maleness of Vonnegut’s readership may have something to do with the existential absurdity of his work.

My favorite explanation of existential absurdity comes from Sartre’s 1943 essay on Camus’ L’Étranger. In that essay Sartre goes back to a passage from Camus’ Le Mythe de Sisyphe to give us Camus’ image of a man seen talking animatedly in an old-style, glass box telephone booth as an image of absurdity: of life as a series of meaningless, possibly ridiculous, gestures. “A man is talking on the telephone,” goes the Camus passage, “We cannot hear him beyond the glass partition, but we can see his senseless mimicry. We wonder why he is alive.”

Here’s Sartre’s commentary on the passage:

"The gesturing of a man who is telephoning and whom we cannot hear is only relatively absurd, because it is part of an incomplete circuit. Listen in on an extension, however, and the circuit is completed; human activity recovers its meaning. Therefore, one would have, in all honesty, to admit that there are only relative absurdities…"

So there’s a bit of a difference between Camus (in this instance, if not in others) and Sartre on the question of absurdity. For the Camus of this particular passage, life is a series of pointless gestures, an absurdity without meaning; for Sartre life may seem absurd, but there is a possibility that it is not, that the apparently empty gestures do actually connect to some larger significance beyond absurdity.

Kurt Vonnegut was a humane man, who seems to have meant it when, in God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, he wrote “Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter…. There's only one rule that I know of, babies—‘God damn it, you've got to be kind.’” But his overall vision—and he was certainly a writer with an overall vision—was of a universe without transcendent meaning, without overarching significance. He was, in his way, as much of an absurdist as was Beckett, or Kafka — as much of an absurdist as the Camus who wrote the passage quoted by Sartre.

Vonnegut came by his absurdism honestly. The experiences upon which he based his greatest work, Slaugherhouse Five, were dire enough to drive anyone to the conclusion that the quest for meaning or significance was bound to falter and fail. Like the protagonist of Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut was a prisoner of war during the Allied firebombing of Dresden, and like that protagonist he was one of the very few survivors of that cataclysm, having been locked in an underground slaughterhouse when the city burned. The firebombing of Dresden—a beautiful city of absolutely no military significance—was a gratuitous act, coming at a time when the Allies had all-but-won the war, and gaining them nothing of strategic worth. It was, for the most part, a slaughter of innocents and a desecration of cultural heritage. It was, in short, an absurd action par excellence. When Vonnegut emerged from his bunker, his German captors set him to work on the hopeless task of cleaning things up, which involved, among other things, moving the charred remnants of untold numbers of people from the destroyed streets. The young Vonnegut was forced to see, and touch, the aftermath of an action of such excessive destruction and stupidity that it could not be explained as the result of a rational civilization, even of a rational civilization at war. Dresden put the lie to the idea of a simple right and wrong in war. It put the lie to the idea of technology as progress, as it put the lie to the idea of a benevolent democratic nation. One could not look on Dresden and believe in the old nineteenth century ideal of progress, nor could one believe in the even older Enlightenment faith in reason. It would take a Job-like level of faith to believe that a benevolent deity would have allowed something like this to happen, and Vonnegut was no Job. His world went dark that day and never really lightened: all the laughter in his novels comes from a dark place, and even when he writes of love, it comes not from joy, but from a sense of the pathos of humanity in a universe without meaning, a universe that renders our noblest hopes and gestures absurd.

Young people tend to connect with absurdism. But their absurdism is often more like the relative absurdism described by Sartre. That is, much of the absurdism of teenagers is predicated less on a deeply-felt sense of the metaphysical emptiness of the universe than it is based on lack of empathy and lack of experience (I’m sure there are exceptions, probably among the traumatized—but I’m thinking of all those boys from Winnetka who traipsed through Aspidistra on their way to buy Pavement CDs at Wax Trax back in the mid-1990s: a segment of the population statistically high in skinny-legged jeans, privilege, and Ivy League ambitions, and statistically low in deep trauma).

The notion that teenagers lack empathy is more than just a folk belief among frazzled parents: it’s got some pretty persuasive neuroscience behind it, based on studies of how the brain functions differently for people of different ages. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore of the University College London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience is, in my layman’s opinion, the best explainer of these matters. “We think that a teenager's judgment of what they would do in a given situation is driven by the simple question: ‘What would I do?’” says Blakemore. In contrast, she tells us, adults ask “What would I do, given how I would feel and given how the people around me would feel as a result of my actions?””

Other neurological studies,notably those of Donald Pfaff, indicate that women are likely to feel empathy in a broader range of circumstances than are men. Long story short, it seems that women are more likely than men to extend empathy to those they consider opponents and rule-breakers than men are. The guys take their cue from Conan the Barbarian, wanting to see their enemies driven before them, their villages in flames. The women, not so much.

What does any of this have to do with absurdity? Well, consider Sartre’s comments on Camus’ image of the man in the phone booth. If we watch him without empathy, he does indeed appear absurd: his gestures are ridiculous, pointless things. We might, if we’re teenagers, and even more so if we’re teenage guys, nudge the kid next to us, point at the guy with the cigarette we’re unduly proud of smoking, and say something like “check out that douchebag,” which is a demotic way of saying “that guy and his actions are absurd.” But if we have empathy—if we can imagine ourselves, perhaps, in his situation, we might think “that guy’s really agitated: maybe he’s pleading with a hospital administrator not to kick his daughter out of the treatment ward even though his insurance has run out and he can’t make the payments unless he somehow manages to move some real estate down at the office.” If we can imagine listening in on an extension, in the way Sartre describes, then perhaps “human activity recovers its meaning.”

In addition to cognitive difficulties with empathy, young people generally lack experience, which means that many of the actions they observe in the world seem pointless or meaningless, even when that may not be the case. If you don’t know anything about how a bureaucracy works, all bureaucracies look like they come straight off the pages of Kafka’s The Castle. I’m not saying there are no absurd bureaucracies—I’ve been in academe too long for that—only that youth correlates with inexperience, and the more inexperienced one is, the less one is likely to see actions as meaningful. It’s no accident, I think, that the gentle absurdism of Monty Python's Flying Circus was the creation of young men, and that it’s still young men one overhears doing those ridiculous pepperpot women voices and reciting skits like “Hello Mrs. Gorilla” or “Spam Spam Spam Spam.” This is relative absurdism, the view from outside the phone booth, where the gestures are visible but the words that give them meaning are inaudible. Absurdists of this type will feel an affinity for the novels of Kurt Vonnegut, but unless they are traumatized or otherwise driven into a different, more profound type of absurdity—a Dresden absurdity—their Vonnegut novels are likely to end up in the basements of their suburban houses.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Because You Wanted Your Martiniquais Surrealist Négritude Poetry Online

Since you asked: yes, two poems by Lucie Thésée, the Surrealist/Négritude poet from Martinique I've been translating, are now not only in the latest issue of Poetry, but also available on the Poetry Foundation's website. They're called "Sarabande" and "Poem," and they're accompanied by a few notes I wrote about this remarkable, little-known poet.