Sunday, November 30, 2014

Orlando Notebook

No, not Orlando, Florida: Virginia Woolf's Orlando, which I've been reading for the first time in years.  As always, I've taken too many notes.  Here are three of them.


The question of the old-school bildungsroman like Jane Eyre is "how can the individual find balance and rule herself?"  The question of a more naturalistic novel, like Hardy's Tess or Jude, is "can the individual find agency in a world of chance and Titanic forces?"  The question in one type of modern novel, like Orlando, is "is there a self beyond conventions?"


When Orlando gives birth to a son, it comes as something like a non-event in the novel, and we never meet the boy.  This is significant: in a novel so concerned with gender, we find that motherhood does not define a woman.


"What is life?" asks Woolf's Orlando, near the end of the novel, when we read that she is finally growing up.  It matters that the question comes after the publication of her poem "The Oak Tree."  For much of the novel, identity has been a dialectic of social conventions (of an era, a genre, a gender) and solitude or withdrawal, the latter associated with both the poem and the actual, ancient oak tree to which Orlando retreats from society.  Now, though, she turns the poem loose into the world, and she feels herself to be a part of that world in a rich and particular way: she is a palimpsest of different eras and experiences, a multitude of accrued identities, the culmination of "the selves of which we are built up, one on top of the other, as plates are piled on a waiter's hand."  She no longer worries about being reducible to any one set of conventions, having lived through so many of them.  So she no longer feels the same need to withdraw, to retreat from society to solitude.  This is Woolf's take on what it means to grow up, to become someone in particular.  The vision of growth is less schematic than what we find in Jane Eyre, where we're being taught how to balance passion and reserve, how to become a self-policing bourgeois subject.  Orlando is as much a feminist's book as is Jane Eyre, but it is far more of an aesthete's book, out to show us the rich, strange evolution and accretion of individual personalities—personalities treasured not for their self-control, but for their idiosyncrasy.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Allan Kornblum, R.I.P.

Allan Kornblum in 2002

Sad news: Allan Kornblum, whom many of us knew as the presiding genius of Coffee House Press, has died.  I heard the news from Michael Coffey, who kindly agreed to let me post his tribute to Kornblum:

Allan Kornblum was a true pioneer in American publishing. He was present at the creation of the small press movement, which fed upon energies for social change in the 1960s and that sited its passions in a not-for-profit business model. This inevitably brought Allan from Iowa City, where he learned the craft of letterpress from the legendary Harry Duncan, to Minneapolis in the early 1980s, an environment that benefited from a progressive state arts program (Allan joined Scott Walker, who had moved Graywolf Press to the Twin Cities, from Port Townsend, Wash., for similar reasons). Coffee House Press, a new name for what in Iowa had been called Toothpaste Paste—a renaming reflecting Allan's intention to build a larger community around his literary press—was among the original eight publishers distributed by the then-fledgling Consortium Books and Sales Distribution. Allan's combination of book-making skills and his tastes for the New York School of poets, for new ethnic voices in America, and particularly those voices that had found their way to the Upper Midwest, made for an impressive and award-winning list. 

Of course, to all in the independent publishing community, Allan was a longtime friend and presence at the various book fairs, particularly the BEA, where he would appear each year with a printer's apron and visor and a new broadside of a poem beautifully typeset by hand and always having to do with the wonder of language and books. Allan published a book of my poems because, he told me, "Michael, I can see these poems matter to you—and it comes through. That's what I want to publish." Allan, ever the visionary—there was no foot-dragging at Coffee House about doing books in digital formats—also saw his own end approaching, and managed a brilliant succession, selecting and then grooming and then adjudging that he had his man in Chris Fishbach, who now steers the press with his own independent and unique tastes (which Allan told me was as important as anything) but also with a spirit that is the continuation of Allan's. As for the larger literary culture, it is by Allan's efforts that we have been able to follow Anne Waldman's essential trajectory, read the delicate poetry of the brilliant Anselm Hollo and got the whole of Ron Padgett's work. Not to mention the finds: Laurie Foos and Karen-Tei Yamashita and Sam Savage, these discoveries that now meld into Chris's, with Eimar McBride's A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing as the latest example. In this instance, Allan's passing does not mark, for publishing, an end of anything, but rather highlights a bright legacy that has been handed on, for which we should be thankful.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

John Berryman at 100

John Berryman's centenary is just a few weeks behind us, and it has occasioned a renewal of interest in this troubled, troubling, and undeniably great American poet.  There's a new edition of his selected poems, his publisher has re-issued his best books, including The Dream Songs, and there's a new version of Poets in their Youth, a memoir by Berryman's first wife, Eileen Simpson.  The national and international press has taken notice—so it's no surprise that the poets have joined in and made their own contribution to the Berryman revival.

Philip Coleman's Berryman's Fate is a major document of the renewed interest in Berryman among poets.  It collects tributes to Berryman from a host of poets including Paul Muldoon, Timothy Donnelly, John Matthias, Isobel Dixon, Jane Robinson, George Szirtes, John Montague, and me, among many distinguished others.

My own contribution takes its title from a line in "Dream Song 14," but it's really a riff on Berryman's wonderful meditation on loss, "The Ball Poem."  It goes like this:

We Must Not Say So 

Sadness was he ever. Teacher, taught 
my teacher, taught me too (his being not 
in body but in book). “What is the boy now 
who has lost his ball?” he’d ask. The question’s flawed. 
“What, what” he’d ask “is he to do?” A haughty Henry’d 
huff his loss, a stone his daily broken bread. 
And yours and mine? Is what he wrought? 
Sadness we are ever, teacher taught. 

“No use,” he’s say, to say “O there 
are other balls,” the ball gone harbor-wise, 
and out, the tidal-tugging way. 
No use to whistle “I am not a little boy.” 
For him a hurting. Us, maybe a sigh. 
No laws against our Henry but “Beware.”

Berryman's Fate is available here.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Archambeau World Tour 2014: Making Nothing Happen in Houston

My last, somewhat more dramatic, performance in Texas.

I know, I know.  You're exhausted because you piled into your VW microbus and followed my motorcade earlier this year as it shuttled from Boston to Chicago to Poughkeepsie to New York.   I apologize to the damage your ears may have suffered from the sirens of the police escort and the shrill shrieks of the younger and more enthusiastic fans. But there's one more stop on the Archambeau World Tour this year: Houston.  I'll be giving a talk at the University of Houston at noon on Wednesday the 12th of November.  It's called "Making Nothing Happen: Poetry for Its Own Sake, 1914-2014."  It's really a kind of hyper-compressed version of the book I've been working on for a few years and that I hope to finish next summer.  Hope to see you there!

Saturday, November 01, 2014

The Ego as Hero in Victorian Literature

Our protagonist.

Hypocrisy, we think, is where the Victorians truly excelled. Prodigious achievers in industry, in science, in the triple-decker novel and the many-gunned battleship, they were even better at having things both ways: at keeping a stiff upper lip and a respectable front while groping the maidservants on the back stairs and puffing opium discretely behind a curtain in a den where no one asks a gentleman his name or his place in the Great World beyond. There’s something in this, of course: public virtue and private vice thrived together in the first great bourgeois empire, with its un-aristocratic moralism and its many newfound opportunities for decadence. It helped, too, that this was also the first age of mass media, with its quenchless thirst for both sentimentality and scandal.

One of the more notable characteristics of the age was the disunified psyche created by such circumstances. What, after all, could be more Victorian than the thought of Prime Minister William Gladstone lusting over the prostitute Marian Summerhayes —one may turn to his private diaries for considerable salacious detail—then declaiming Tennyson’s poetry to her for hours on end before sending her off untouched and whipping himself for having sinned in his mind. There is precious little reconciliation between the forces warring in the poor man’s breast: the id bubbles and roils away, wanting what it wants, before being violently, albeit temporarily, crushed by the appalled and vengeful superego. We would do well to remember that Freud himself was something of a late Victorian, born a few years after Oscar Wilde and Robert Louis Stevenson, and a few before George Gissing and Rudyard Kipling. The trio that played so much of Freud’s chamber music—the yearning id, the stern superego, and the hardworking ego that negotiates between them—was the product of the same broad cultural conditions that gave us Gladstone’s symphonies of self-flagellation.

Much of the underground literature of the Victorian era serves as a kind of testimony to the fractured identity, to the id unreconciled to the public life of its possessor. My Secret Life, for example, the million word obsessive and repetitive chronicle of sex in the age of Victoria, documents the erotic life of an anonymous gentleman with what seems like an army of prostitutes and servants—a life that had to be kept separate from the author's public and domestic lives. As the title indicates, the author led a fractured existence, indulging his urges yet keeping his erotic activities so thoroughly isolated from the rest of his life that to this day scholars remain unsure of his identity (we suspect Henry Spencer Ashbee, but I personally hope it will turn out to have been another candidate, William Haywood, since his high position in the City of London’s Commissioners of Sewers Office, with its concern for the underground and the abject, seems almost allegorical).

Pre-Raphaelite poetry positively bursts with sexual energies that chafe against its own moralizing or even scolding tones—a kind of verse equivalent of Gladstone’s idiosyncracies with hookers and whips. Consider William Morris’ “The Defence of Guenevere.” Here, we find King Arthur’s wife accused of adultery with Sir Lancelot, a crime of individual indulgence that not only violates the sacrament of marriage, but threatens to throw the kingdom into chaos. The accuser, Gawain, is known for his honesty and honor, and Guenevere addresses a silent assembly of lords, whose disapproving actions we can infer from her speech. The speech itself consists of an astounding catalog of rhetorical appeals, running the full gamut from pathos (pity me, so lonely as the bride of the distant Arthur) to ethos (I am a fearsome queen, how dare you judge me!) to bad logos (God wants us to be happy, sex with Lancelot made me happy, ergo…) to really bad logos (it wasn’t me who kissed Lancelot, it was my mouth… I was driven mad by my own beauty, and can’t be held responsible, etc.). The poem is structured such that we can see through Guenevere’s arguments: indeed, at the end, we see that she was merely playing for time, waiting for Lancelot to arrive on his white charger to carry her off to safety. Everything at the level of reason indicates Guenevere’s guilt, and urges us to disapprove of her affair with Lancelot. But everything, or almost everything, at the level of emotion urges us to kind of admire her: she is spirited, she is fierce, she is independent, clever, funny, charming, and on the side of desire—we kind of want to give her what amounts to a free pass, even as we know we shouldn’t. The poem never really reconciles these things, but leaves us with a curiously doubled reaction: it’s a poem whose id is at war with its superego, a poem without a mediating ego forging some kind of compromise or détente. It is worth noting that Morris used his notoriously unfaithful wife Jane as the model for his painting of Guenevere—the unresolved judgment and emotions of “The Defense of Guenevere” came from experiences very close to home indeed. 

A much greater poem, Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” shows, if anything, an even more disunified psychological position. It sweats eroticism from every pore: from the goblin men with their animalistic faces calling out for young Lizzie and Laura to buy their fruit with locks of hair, to their disturbingly violent manhandling of Lizzie, covering her with mashed fruit and its juices, to her return to save her sister as a kind of same-sex incestuous Christ figure, crying out:

 … “Laura,” up the garden, 
“Did you miss me? 
Come and kiss me. 
Never mind my bruises, 
Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices 
Squeez’d from goblin fruits for you, 
Goblin pulp and goblin dew. 
Eat me, drink me, love me; 
Laura, make much of me… 

But for all this wildness, all this exploration and embracing of all that Victorian public morality forbids about sex, the poem ends with a little picture of the sisters as that most legitimated form of Victorian womanhood: they are wives and mothers. And when they speak of their past with the goblins, they offer a moralistic vision unrecognizable to those who have witnessed the events in the earlier lines: 

Afterwards, when both were wives 
With children of their own; 
Their mother-hearts beset with fears, 
Their lives bound up in tender lives; 
Laura would call the little ones 
And tell them of her early prime, 
Those pleasant days long gone 
Of not-returning time: 
Would talk about the haunted glen, 
The wicked, quaint fruit-merchant men, 
Their fruits like honey to the throat 
But poison in the blood; 
(Men sell not such in any town): 
Would tell them how her sister stood 
In deadly peril to do her good, 
And win the fiery antidote: 
Then joining hands to little hands 
Would bid them cling together, 
“For there is no friend like a sister 
In calm or stormy weather; 
To cheer one on the tedious way, 
To fetch one if one goes astray, 
To lift one if one totters down, 
To strengthen whilst one stands.” 

It’s not that there is some sophisticated irony here, some version of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner preaching a line about community that he fails to embody: the poem doesn’t work with that kind of irony. Rather, it is a poem imperfectly at one with itself. It embraces public morality about motherhood and sisterhood and about a wife’s duty, and does so explicitly in a moralizing conclusion. But the poem that comes before ripples with a very different kind of energy, with a sexuality forbidden not only by Victorian society but by the poem’s own conclusion. Like Morris’ “Defense of Guenevere,” it is a poem with a strong and prudish superego, an even stronger id, and little or no ego seeking to mediate between and reconcile the two. 

Poems like these express the condition lived out by the author of My Secret Life: desires segregated from principles.  It's the same condition that, in more acute form, tormented poor Mr. Gladstone. With such a vast gulf between id and superego to be bridged, is it any wonder many Victorian writers came to portray the ego itself as a kind of hero? 

We see this ego-heroism in some of the most enduring fiction of the Victorian period. In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, for example, our heroine is constantly pulled between the world of the passions—lust, anger, anything adhesive that would link her to other people, positively or destructively—and the world of cold self-possession. From the moment we first see her—with a red curtain separating her from a domestic world of blood violence, rage, and passion, and a window facing a white, cold, foggy world of solitude and exile—she is trapped between two poles, a world of id and a world of self-disciplining, self-respecting superego. The novel is filled with doubles and foils: the too-passionate Mr. Rochester and the too-cold St. John Rivers, say, or the too disciplined Helen Burns and the overly passionate Bertha Mason (whose passions are embodied in the fire she sets that destroys Rochester’s home, maim him, and kill her). Jane’s journey and self-invention, the bildung in this bildungsroman, is a journey toward the reconciliation of desire and self-control. The elaborate fire and water symbolism of the novel culminates in a deceptively simple image near the end, when Jane bears a tray in to the the wounded Rochester. On the tray burns a candle, next to a glass of water, some small amount of which spills. Here we have Jane balancing (albeit unsteadily) the passions of the id and the strictures of the superego—but just as important as the presence of fire and water is the fact of the tray. Jane holds the two, controls them, and in some sense masters them. She is a force that works out and managing the proper relation of id and superego. She is the figure absent from “The Defense of Guenevere” and “Goblin Market,” and too weak to keep poor Gladstone from wounding himself. She is the ego itself. 

The ego balances desire and conscience—it is the “inner gyroscope” David Reisman described as the necessary equipment of the self-governing subject that grew out of the long drama of renaissance, reformation, and the bourgeois-capitalist transformation of society. And it isn’t just in Brontë that it emerges as a Victorian hero. It’s everywhere, especially in the works consumed by the common middle-class reader of the time. Consider Robert Louis Stevenson’s perpetually popular novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The dilemma of the titular character, or characters, is a dilemma of disunified psyche. Jekyll wishes to be purely good, and approved of by society (the string of honorific letters after his name is significant in this regard). And he wishes, at the same time, to let loose his basest inner urges—violent ones, in this strangely chaste book, rather than sexual ones. There is a primitive and childlike self-assertion to Mr. Hyde, something devoid of empathy or morality, something like a pure assertion of self and will, the desire to put others out of the way—and this childlike urge accounts for the curious smallness of Hyde, a smallness emphasized when he is forced to drape himself in Jekyll’s clothes, like a little boy in his father’s suit. Jekyll, in creating Hyde, wants to have it both ways: to be purely good, in society’s conventional sense, and to act on his will and desire, like an unsocialized child. He wants all of this, and he wants to surrender the wearisome work of the ego in continuously working out a compromise between the two. In this, he is unlike Mr. Utterson, the lawyer we meet at the beginning of the book, who enjoys expensive wines but will only allow himself a little cheap gin, who loves the theater but almost never lets himself attend. Utterson is the ego figure, the mediator of desire and restraint, and his are the virtues celebrated in the book, the virtues whose absence bring about Jekyll’s tragic fate. 

The ego—as fact, as idea, as ideal—has been battered pretty hard by the twentieth century and its aftermath. Variously accused, dissolved, pilloried, declared dead, dismissed as fictitious, and otherwise expunged by Surrealism, structuralism, poststructuralism, feminism, late Marxism, postmodernism and the infernal machines of neoliberal capitalist desire, it remains, at best, as a chipped and smog-besmirched monument from a prior age, under which sit hipsters dropping references to Rimbaud’s “je est un autre” as they stub out their cigarettes on the base moulding. But like most monuments, it was built by people who really believed in it, and for whom it celebrated something that seemed like a solution to their genuine pains and troubles.