Saturday, March 02, 2013

The Battersea Review and the Failure of Yeats!

Hot soup, people—the  much-anticipated new issue of the Battersea Review is finally here!

Marjorie Perloff on John Cage!
Adam Kirsch on superfluity and anxiety!
William Logan!
Charles Bernstein!
William Logan and Charles Bernstein together!
Translations of Rilke’s Russian poems!
Saskia Hamilton!
Unearthed poetry by J. Robert Oppenheimer!
More! Much more!

My own contribution begins this way:

It was June in the year 1311 when the people of Siena walked in a great procession bearing Duccio's Maestà—his altarpiece depicting the Virgin Mary in the glorious golden Italo-Byzantine style—to the cathedral that would become its home. It was a momentous occasion for the entire city: Duccio's painting was to replace the fabled "Madonna of the Large Eyes," to which the Sienese had appealed a half-century earlier, when the fate of their soldiers hung in the balance in the war with Siena's bitter rivals, the Florentines. The Madonna, it was said, had worked miracles that assured the Sienese victory, and it was the intercession of Mary on behalf of Siena in that battle that led the Sienese to make her their patron saint. Now they wished to commemorate her in a suitably grand sacred image. The event involved the entire city, from the highest grandees to the lowest beggars. One contemporary describes the procession of the Maestà this way:
And on that day when it was brought into the cathedral, all workshops remained closed, and the bishop commanded a great host of devoted priests and monks to file past in solemn procession. This was accompanied by all the high officers of the Commune and by all the people; all honorable citizens of Siena surrounded said panel with candles held in their hands, and women and children followed humbly behind. They accompanied the panel amidst the glorious pealing of bells after a solemn procession on the Piazza del Campo into the very cathedral; and all this out of reverence for the costly panel… The poor received many alms, and we prayed to the Holy Mother of God, our patron saint, that she might in her infinite mercy preserve this our city of Siena from every misfortune, traitor or enemy. 
The occasion of the installation of the Maestà was an aesthetic event, of course, but it was a religious event too. It was also a civic event, connected to the city's military past and to its prestige in the future. And, as the distribution of alms indicates, it was also an economic event, an opportunity to redistribute wealth so as to maintain the social fabric, legitimate the civic rulers, and perform the religious duty of charity. We could not be further from the way artworks are unveiled in our own time, in the pristine white cube of the gallery space, where artists and art-lovers have gathered for an event far more specialized, and far narrower in appeal and intention, than the Sienese procession of the Maestà.
William Butler Yeats, that most vacillating and self-reinventive of poets, imagined many different roles for art in society—but if there is one dream he dreams most passionately, it is one along the lines of the installation of Duccio's Maestà. That is, he yearned for a world where art was integrated into the culture at large, and where all social institutions were woven into each other, in the manner of medieval Sienese society. But why would he have this dream? The short answer is that he had seen the limits of aesthetic autonomy—of art for its own sake—and felt pinched by the boundaries of the self-exiled minority culture in which so many poets of the fin de siècle lived. Having helped found that bastion of the aesthetes, the Rhymer's Club, he grew disillusioned with the small scope of interests expressed in the group's meetings at the Cheshire Cheese pub, and even more disillusioned at the limited public impact of the group.
All honor to U.S. Dhuga, Ben Mazer, and the Battersea crew for putting together a 300-pound per square inch pressurized tank of literary splendor!


  1. "That is, he yearned for a world where art was integrated into the culture at large, and where all social institutions were woven into each other,..."

    Is this your dream too, Bob?

  2. Good lord, no! I envision that a world as a nightmarish Edwardian kind of place, where a bunch of entitled mediocrities keep everything for themselves and go to a lot of horrible parties with each other. The world I dream of looks more like some kind of small college town, with good coffee, good bookstores, an old-school public square, a diner that's always open, free WiFi, and permanent sabbatical to work on the things you love. Also, there should be fireflies in summer, spectacular foliage, and a beach where one can walk alone in winter watching the heave of the waves in the wind. And a used record store with a little stage for bands. Also trains. The only connection to the rest of the world is by train.

  3. I think Robert Frost would agree with that vision.

    Why can't poets use language like Yeats' any more? We'd just be laughed at.

    1. I don't think fear of ridicule is a good aesthetic principle -- get as weird as you want to!