Thursday, October 31, 2013

W.H. Auden and Ecopoetry

A little article I wrote on W.H. Auden and ecopoetics for the good people at Boston Review can now be found on their web site.  It begins like this:

W.H. Auden is a Greek poet, at least when it comes to nature. No, I don’t mean that he is all about olive trees and white sand beaches: I mean there is something fundamentally classical in his attitude toward the natural world, something that puts him at odds with the two dominant modes of nature poetry of our time—something that, indeed, casts light on the outlines of those norms.
The two most common attitudes toward non-human nature in contemporary poetry are the Romantic (or sentimental—if we can use that word without condescension) and the ecopoetic. The first of these dates back more than two centuries, and receives its most powerful theoretical articulation in Friedrich Schiller’s great essay of 1795, “On Simple and Sentimental Poetry.” Here, Schiller begins by describing the longing for the realm of nature among self-conscious and sophisticated people:
There are moments in our life, when we dedicate a kind of love and touching respect to nature in its plants, minerals, animals, landscapes . . . not because it is pleasing to our senses, not even because it satisfies our understanding or taste . . . but rather merely because it is nature.Every fine man, who does not altogether lack feeling, experiences this, when he walks in the open, when he lives upon the land . . . in short, when he is surprised in artificial relations and situations with the sight of simple nature.
The important thing here is how an encounter with the natural world catches us off-guard, and makes us feel the artificiality of our selves and our ways of going about things. We see how our will and our nature are out of sync, how our social relations and ambitions cause us to do things at odds with our inner nature. When we see the simplicity of a stone simply being a stone, or of water flowing downwards to the sea in accordance with its nature, it has a strong effect on us. We are drawn toward it. This urge to leave our own twisted, self-conscious way of being, to ditch our convolutions and artifices, is what Schiller calls sentimentality: an urge for the simplicity of nature. Such sentimentality, Schiller tells us, “is especially strongly and most universally expressed at the instigation of such objects, which stand in a close connection with us and bring nearer to us the retrospective view of ourselves and the unnatural in us.”
This attitude may well give the 21st-century reader pause...

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Lou Reed, R.I.P./Glam Rock, the Poem

Lou Reed has died.  He always meant a lot to me, and not just because I met my wife when she was singing backup in a Lou Reed/Velvet Underground cover band in a dive bar in South Bend, Indiana.  Here's a poem of mine about Reed, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie that appeared some years ago in Absent magazine.  It riffs on the photo of all three, above, and I hope it gets at what the nature of my admiration for all three performers.

Glam Rock: The Poem

The man who was to fall to earth in four years' time
still floated in his cloud of silvered fame.  His name

was David Robert Hayward Stenton Jones.
He'd been a Kon-Rad, King Bee, Manish Boy,

a Lower Third.  He'd be a thin white duke.
He'd be a Christ, an alien, he'd be a dance club king.

Remembering the self-invented master whose factory
invented selves, he'd play in film the man who

played the soup-can trick on art, he'd play that man (not well).
He'd play the husband of a wife -- she, born Somali,

she, born near Greece.  He, born in Bromley, had one
real wife, she, born in Bromley, her girl's-mouth his,

the marriage bed that sweet narcissus mirror
where he'd play out all his parts.

These fragments has he shored against his gender, so.
His name was David Robert

Hayward Stenton Jones.  Not David Jones, too close to Davey
of the pre-fab four.  He'd change it first to Tom Jones, then again

and then again.  But this year he was Ziggy,
this year he played guitar.

That's him on the left.  The man who'd fall to earth,
camp in his arm-crook, his long neck's arch.  Queer

in his gilded studied falsely vapid stare.
Nervous: glam and poise.

The others?  That year he'd save them both.
So New York and yet he's called "L.A."
when he fronts the Eldorados at a dance.  He'd been a Jade,

be mother nature's son, but been a Jade who sang
a doo-wop plaintive "Leave Her for Me."

And she was Lisa and she'd say.  And she was Stephanie
who'd also say.  And she was Jane and Candy too,

or she would be.  But he was Delmore Schwartz's
best student, gone to smack and speed and hell,

and he'd come back.  He'd play the White House
for two presidents, one ours, and one

the velvet revolutionary who'd call him the Velvet Underground's
own JFK, own wild-side walking Mao or Che.

A three-chord Che?  No martyr -- though he'd bottom out.
He'd always be the cracked-id island suburb kid who double-coded

his libido's twists in "CHD," his high school band: the backward-reading acronym
for Dry Hump Club: three boys, a girl, and one guitar.

One guitar lesson's all he'd need, a Carl Perkins 1-4-5 he'd play.
He'd play too much with fire, the kind

his "mashed-faced Negro friend, called Jaw"
sold him, with hepatitis, early on.

He'd play five years with his best band.
He'd leave and play out on his own (not well).

He's on the right, behind his shades, behind the junkie act
in which the junkie hides.

Nervous: cold-edged poise.
Bowie'd helped him make Transformer.

Reed's cracked id made his music well again.
He'd write "China Girl," and he'd sing "Shades"
the second time the thin man fell to earth

to scoop him up.  His name was Pop.  Had been Osterberg, had
been Prime Mover, had briefly been Iguana,

would then be Pop.  Twice called by Stooge, first
psychedelic, later (times where changing) not.

The Idiot who'd Lust for Life.  Like the Velvets
but not all cerebellum: all burnout, bastard, broke-ass bum. 

A pack of Luckies in his teeth.  His arms around them both,
a drunken-sailor Jesus carried, his forward thrust

and their support.  His eyes say "yes" his eyes say "now"
his eyes say "no one drives this drunken car."  And they're in love.

The attraction?  The man called Stardust, star-struck, said
"not Iggy in but Iggy and," and the Stooges drop to second bill,

while Iggy's resurrected (still on smack).
The wonder of attraction?  Not his chops --

he tried for ten months, played Chicago blues (not well).
And not his lyrics, his "Mona" or his "TV Eye".  Raw Power.  For this,

Ziggy'd play his management, get Ig a gig, a big release.
Lou Reed gave his producer: chops, technique, tribute, and joy.

The wonder of attraction?
Not nervous, not with poise, not him.

No one to drive the car.
Perspective's trick's a little imp behind their shoulders:
Tony Defries.  He, thinking

"Hammersmith Odeon" thinking "aren't they
fun!"  He, thinking, too " but will it sell?"

and then he's smiling,


Sunday, October 13, 2013

That Mona Lisa Snarl: Jehnny Beth as the Gioconda of Rock

Jehnny Beth, who fronts the post-punk band Savages, is the Mona Lisa of rock.  I don't mean that she's got an enigmatic smile—in fact, I can't recall seeing her smile during a performance.  I mean that she embodies whole traditions of rock front-man charisma, rolling them all into one dynamic whole in exactly the way the great critic Walter Pater saw Leondardo da Vinci's "La Gioconda" (the name for the figure and painting we commonly call the "Mona Lisa") embodying the history of many forms of beauty from the history of art.

We see this most vividly in the famous passage from The Renaissance on "La Gioconda," where Pater represents the woman in the portrait as embodying a synthesis of all the different forms of feminine beauty that come and gone in Western art.  “The presence that rose thus so strangely beside the waters,” writes Pater, of the woman in Leonardo’s paining, “is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire.”  He continues in his characteristically extravagant style, which you’ll probably either love or hate:
Hers is the head upon which “all the ends of the world are come,” and the eyelids are a little weary. It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions. Set it for a moment beside one of those white Greek goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity, and how they would be troubled by this beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed!  All the thoughts and experience of the world have etched and molded there, in that which they have the power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the mysticism of the middle age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias.

This woman in Leonardo's painting may have her roots in the beauty of classical antiquity, but he's painted her such that she's come to embody much more than that.  She includes the fleshier, less idealized beauty of Roman art, the mystical enigma of medieval Madonnas, and a worldliness drawn from Renaissance portraits of sly aristocratic ladies, too.

Pater really cuts loose as he continues.  The following passage, the most famous in the whole of Pater's oeuvre, is so purple it would probably embarrass Prince in his Purple Rain period.  But Pater makes his point:
She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants: and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands. The fancy of a perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences, is an old one; and modern philosophy has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself all modes of thought and life. Certainly Lady Lisa might stand as the embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea.

Pater has started writing about the figure in the painting as if she were an actual person, a kind of immortal who has lived through the ages and accumulated innumerable experiences, but what he's really doing is saying that the kind of beauty Leonardo has created is the synthesis of a long historical tradition, a traditin that includes Byzantine influences (those "Eastern merchants"), classical Greece (Leda, Helen), the art of the Christian middle ages (Mary) and of the gothic (vampires).  The coming together of all these forms of beauty into a grand historical synthesis represents, for Pater, a kind of culmination, and the creation of a truly modern form of beauty rooted in a rich and various past.

Which brings us to Jehnny Beth.  Beth, born in France as Camille Berthomier, has for the past two years been synthesizing and embodying a whole history of rock performance in exactly the manner Leonardo's Gioconda embodies a history of artistic modes of beauty.  Critics have caught on to the fact that Beth's is a complex charisma, and one that draws on a lot of sources.  She's been compared to Siouxsie Sioux, to Johnny Rotten in his Public Image Ltd. phase, to Curt Cobain, to Lou Reed, to Serge Gainsbourg, and to many others, even Johnny Cash.  More often than not she's been compared to men rather than women, which I think is significant: the tradition she's embodying isn't so much that of the female lead singer as chanteuse as it is that of the rock front-man—a stage presence as much as, or more than, a voice, and a presence that doesn't rely on a kittenish sex appeal, but on one or another kind of swagger.  Woman have done this kind of thing before (Courtney Love comes to mind) but so far it's been predominantly a boy's sport, though clearly one Jehnny Beth has mastered at a major league level.

Consider this performance of the song "Shut Up," nicely shot by director Giorgio Testi.  I recommend skipping to the 1:15 mark, after the long spoken introduction, and watching Jehnny Beth's arms, posture, neck and eyes.  The angular, restricted poses and arm movements come right out of the repertoire of the late, great Ian Curtis of Joy Division, and have all of that stiff anti-swagger swagger he understood so well.  The foreward projection of the neck and the eyes that shoot to the side are familiar, too, though not in combination with the Ian Curtis moves: we've seen them before as the signatures of Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong:

Or consider this, the John Minton directed video of the Savages playing "Husbands."  If you don't see and hear the influence of Patti Smith's "Horses" when we get to the repeated word "husbands," I'm going to have to send you to the back of the class in the school of rock.  There's a lot more going on than a Patti Smith homage, but Smith is clearly rolled into the mix:

Jehnny Beth's background is in acting and performance, and she was classically trained in these fields at the Conservatoire à rayonnement regional de Poitiers.  This shows, I sense, in the studied way in which she has assimilated the movements and gestures, as well as the vocal styles, of her predecessors.  If it's pure originality you're looking for, you've come to the wrong place.  She's not one of that cadre of artists Ezra Pound called "the innovators"—the makers of new techniques.  She belongs, instead, to the group Pound called "the masters"—those who assimilate and synthesize.  And it is precisely this that makes her the Gioconda of rock.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The World and the Open Sea: Poetry and the Aspect of Infinity

The crowd, as I remember it, consisted of about 200 young women—students of St. Mary's College—along with the poet John Matthias and a clutch of graduate students from the nearby University of Notre Dame, including myself.  It was the early fall, a year in the mid-1990s, and we were in the library at St. Mary's, waiting for Paul Muldoon to arrive.  When he strode in, a little late, with his mop-top flopping, he looked every inch the much-adored young prep school teacher in his blue blazer and grey flannels, and he carried himself, then as now, with a studied self-possession, letting the audience come to him with their attention, and knowing all along that they would.

But the first poem he recited, "The Briefcase," had nothing to do with self-possession.  Quite the opposite: it had everything to do with a kind of infinite dread.  On other occasions when I've heard Muldoon read the poem he's begun by mentioning its dedication to Seamus Heaney, and his anxiety about writing a poem involving eels since, he says, when you pick up an eel in Ireland and turn it over, it says "trademark Seamus Heaney" on its belly.  But in St. Mary's, when I first heard the poem, Muldoon prefaced the poem with an anecdote, possibly true, about receiving from his father in law the gift of a very expensive briefcase.  Then he began to recite the poem:

I held the briefcase at arm's length from me;
the oxblood or liver
eelskin with which it was covered
had suddenly grown supple.

I'd been waiting in line for the cross-town
bus when an almighty cloudburst
left the sidewalk a raging torrent.

At this point Muldoon pauses, glanced around at the rapt crowd at St. Mary's, and continued:

And though it contained only the first
inkling of this poem, I knew I daren't
set the briefcase down
to slap my pockets for an obol—

for fear it might slink into a culvert
strike out along the East River
for the sea.  By which I mean the 'open' sea.

It's all in that last part of the last line, isn't it?  Why, we wonder, does it matter that it's the open sea?  And immediately we feel it: the possibility of loss haunts the poem.  It's not quite rational: one isn't exactly likely to drop a briefcase, even a supple and slippery one, into a Manhattan culvert and see it drift out to sea in the East River.  But the thing about anxiety is that, even when it's well-founded, it doesn't operate rationally.  The open sea is, somehow, much, much vaster than the sea itself.  Indeed, the notion of openness puts the poem under the aspect of infinity— of the ever-expanding and endless.  The East River is a definite thing—as, for that matter, is the Atlantic Ocean into which it empties.  But the sea is indefinite, and the open sea promises not only an undefined vastness (does it refer to the Atlantic? To all oceans?  To the connection of all waters circling the globe?) but a sense of expansion.  We glimpse in it the possibility of utter loss.  And it's here that we encounter the poem's profound dread.

What, after all, is lost?  The poem, particularly when prefaced with an anecdote about an expensive gift, could be taken as a little parable about the downside of possessions, about how they make us anxious about the possibility of losing them.  But there's much more than that at work here.  The briefcase, we're told, contains the inkling of the very poem we're encountering: the loss of it would be the loss of the poet's work, and, in a sense, of a part of his life and his distinct identity.  The fact that the poem lost would be the one we're reading or listening to shows us what's at stake: the event we're experiencing might not have been, and we—Muldoon, the audience at St. Mary's, you, reading this—would all have been a little different, a little reduced.  We're brushed by the outer edge of the garment of infinite loss, of the possibility that who we are and what we've done might never have come to pass.

The undifferentiated vastness of the open sea stands in stark contrast to the poet and his particularity, his specific briefcase and specific poem and specific plans for getting somewhere in particular on the crosstown bus.  The whole world of identity and particularity brushes up against an infinite blankness into which things are lost and absorbed.  In a way, it's a vision of death, or at any rate the loss of oneself, and it's not a glorious mystical vision of oneness with the universe: it's a little shudder at the possible (no, inevitable) loss of our own small selves.

The experience described in the poem isn't the sublime, not quite.  The sublime, after all, involves not only a sense of the vast or infinite, but also of one's own superiority to that vastness.  In the dynamic sublime, to use Kant's term, we don't just experience the terror of a volcanic eruption, but also our own insulation from it, our distance at a safe vantage point, and we feel affirmed at being able to take in the destructive magnitude without being destroyed.  In the mathematical sublime, which is more like what we get in Muldoon's poem, we experience the notion of an ever-expanding vastness, an infinity—but we also experience something that isn't depicted in Muldoon's poem: our own superiority or privilege with respect to that vastness, by virtue of our ability to conceptualize it.  When we can write down an symbol or equation indicating infinity, we feel affirmed in our own small selves, because we have in some way been able to comprehend the endlessness.  We don't get that in "The Briefcase": in fact, we end with a vision of the small, controlled space of the briefcase being swept into the openness, lost beyond all recovery.  There's no superiority to or containment of the sense of dread, unless we consider the composition of the poem itself as a containment of dread, as I suppose we might, although that's a containment in the act of composition, rather than within the events depicted in the poem itself.

Much has been made about the Americanness of "The Briefcase," which is full of specifically American imagery.  It is the fate of Irish poets to be read as constantly meditating on their Irishness, and one can look at the dread of loss in this poem as a kind of Irish fear of deracination in America, a familiar enough story for Irish Americans.  But the direction the briefcase follows isn't toward the interior territory of the United States.  Instead, we move out from America, across the water—possibly, if we are Irish, toward our origins, though there's little to indicate any destination other than infinite openness.  For me, the primary theme of the poem will always be a matter of mortality rather than of national identity—a point underlined by the presence of the obol for which the poet slaps his pockets.  This isn't an American coin, but an ancient Greek one.  Specifically, it is the coin put in the mouth of the deceased to pay Charon to carry them across the water to the land of the dead.  We get the idea of a crosstown bus carrying one on a short trip (it is only a few blocks across Manhattan) in a highly populated area, and then we get the obol, temporarily not found, that will pay for our passage over water into an infinite land of death: another kind of open sea.

In the private anthology I carry in my head, Muldoon's poem is printed across from a poem by the Swedish poet Jesper Svenbro, in which we encounter another kind of infinity, one that, instead of confronting us with undifferentiated vastness, gives us an endlessly variegated infinity; one that instead of reducing us to fear and trembling, extends something like an invitation for us to join it.  The poem is called "The World," and I first encountered it when, teaching at Lund University, I accidentally picked up a copy of an English translation of it from the printer in the English department office (by some strange quirk of fate my colleage Lars-Hakan Svensson had, it turns out, been working on it via email with John Matthias, with whom I'd attended the Muldoon reading at St. Mary's).  It goes like this:

In my use of the word “world” there is a strangeness
which I have never been able to shake:
the word carries a hopefulness
which has no strict foundation
in the real world.
The world being what it is!
For although I know it cannot be used
in the sense I want to give it 
it is the same picture that faithfully
returns in my memory
whenever I pronounce it to myself—
it is the light space over my childhood,
white April sun over a province
whose horizon trembles in the distance:
The world rests over there.
It is the late 1940s. In those days
I went to Sunday school every week
in our northern Galilee. To me
Palestine was still a country
with heights, fields, and rivers such as ours;
and by a miracle
the hills of Rönneberga just outside of town
became the light green mountain
where on one spring day Jesus
had said to his pupils: “Go out into the whole world!”
Languages were buzzing in the air.
Jews, Arabs, Kappadocians, Egyptians!
We were in the Holy Land,
coltsfoots were blooming
along the ditch-banks of the whole world.
And among all the tongues that I heard 
was also the sound of my own.

The vastness here isn't an empty openness: it's an inhabited space, rich and various and full of life in all it's variety, life blooming, life talking, life buzzing in the air.  And we're not in danger of losing ourselves, there.  We're invited to take part, to enter this infinite world.  Indeed, we're already part of it: among the tongue we hear is our own.

For me, if for no one else, "The Briefcase" and "The World" are companion pieces—one giving us the invitation to participate in the ever-opening richness of life, the other giving us the intimation of our own mortality, and the endless vastness beyond our little selves.  Both show us poetry under the aspect of eternity.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

The Birth of the Death of the Author: Uncreative Writing circa 1968

We live in a great age of literary unoriginality.  It comes in many forms, from the mildly sordid and deceptive kind we've seen in prominent poetry plagiarism by C.J. Allen, Christian Ward, and David R. Morgan, to the highly-theorized and honest kind Kenneth Goldsmith and Marjorie Perloff discuss in the context of poetry, to the grand claims for the novel-as-collage put forth  by David Shields.  Advocates of unoriginality should feel a certain satisfaction, then, in acknowledging that the idea of unoriginality is itself something quite long established, and that there is little new in our golden age of the unoriginal.

One could make a strong case for tracing the origins of contemporary unoriginality back to Roland Barthes' great essay of 1968, "The Death of the Author."  The essay seems to present us with a crime scene: the author has been killed.  Who did it?  Of course there is no real corpse, only the death of a certain idea of the author as a personality that can be referred to as the explanation of the text, the owner, the source, and the little god from whose head the poem or novel or essay sprung fully formed.  This figure, born with the rise of the modern bourgeois subject, was killed by a conspiracy of murders, chief among whom was Mallarme (his weapon: a belief that language was more important than the individual author), followed by Proust (wielding books in which the distinction between author and characters dissolved), and a gaggle of Surrealists (bristling with armaments, most of which had to do with the subconscious mind and the disempowering of the ego).  These conspirators were aided and abetted by modern linguists, who were happy to load their weapons with the latest munitions from the structuralist armories, including the explosive notion that the subject as not a person with agency so much as he was a mere function of linguistics.

When this gang had killed the author, Barthes tells us, they replaced him with a new figure more to their liking, someone Barthes calls the scriptor, whose only power is to mix and mingle pre-exising kinds of writing.  As the great conspiracy took hold, all the authors were killed and replaced with scriptors.  They looked the same, and had the same names, but they were entirely different creatures than the authors they replaced.  When we wanted an explanation of the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien the author, we looked to his life, saw his experiences in the first world war, and concluded that the terrifying battle scenes, pathos of comrades facing destruction, and sense of an overwhelming, continent-wide doom came from the author's own experience of war.  Not so when we looked at Tolkien the scriptor.  His novels made sense as the mingling of pre-existing modes of writing—as the coming-together of saga-literature, Norse mythology, Beowulf, and Victorian realism (no one in Norse mythology has to pack a lunch the way Tolkien's hobbits do).  The same process occurs across the canon of literature, as authors are replaced by scriptors: individual life-events cease to signify, and the Frankenstein-like stitching together of literary bits-and-pieces takes center stage.  All writing becomes rewriting, or even recycling, in the brave new world of the scriptor.

But what if the real crime scene here didn't involve a murder, but a theft?  What if Barthes weren't the originator of the modern idea of unoriginality?  What if he stole it from someone else?  I'm not talking about inheritance, here, although there is a long tradition of writing about the text as something the author doesn't create ex nihilo (think of Plato's Ion here, or Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent").  I'm talking about the possibility of flat-out robbery.

Consider the facts, ladies and gentlemen of the jury.  Consider that in 1967, a year before the appearance of Mr. Barthes' essay, the novelist Italo Calvino wrote in a letter "For the critic, the author does not exist, only a certain number of writings exist."  Consider a later letter, in which he elaborated on the topic, saying "The living author, I believe, can never be taken into consideration.  To be able to study a writer, he must be dead, that is, if he is alive, he must be killed."  Consider, too, that Mr. Calvino knew Barthes—indeed, in the period leading up to Mr. Barthes' essay, Mr. Calvino was known to attend regularly Mr. Barthes' lectures in Paris.

It's intriguing to think of Barthes' grand theory of unoriginality being, itself, profoundly unoriginal.  Sadly, though, it's not so likely a case of theft as it seems at first glance.  When we look at the context of Calvino's remarks, it is clear that he's talking about the author as someone who is either ignored by scholars, who act as if he is already dead, or as a figure who disappoints readers after they've formed an image of him on the basis of his books.  His phrasing is as bold as Barthes'—and it is not inconceivable that the French critic pinched a good phrase from the Italian novelist—but his ideas are much more conventional.  Barthes' essay on the death of the author may present us with an exquisite irony: that there was considerable originality in the most powerful modern theory of the unoriginal.