Friday, May 27, 2005

Rich Twits of Chicago's North Shore: An Anthropology

Although I always thought I'd stick to the humanities in this blog (poetry, philosophy, and a bit of art), I find myself morally compelled to sully my soft humanist hands with the rough silt of the social sciences -- let me explain.

The following report was passed to me by Raskolnikov T. Firefly, Ph.D., a former colleague of mine at another university. He seemed nervous, demanding to meet in the middle of the night at the Denny's on route 41. I arrived on time, but he was late, shambling in like a twitchy fiend as I was finishing my Eggs-over-my-Hammy special. He kept looking over his shoulder and trying, fruitlessly, to light cigarettes, which he then discarded. He said I had to help him, that my blog was his only hope now that the agents of his enemies had turned the respectable journals against him. Taking his yellowed, coffee-stained manuscript from his trembling hands, I promised to do what I could. This was all some time ago, and I haven't heard from him for weeks, although my caller ID indicates that the inhabitant of a certain single room in a certain Motel 6 near the Wisconsin border calls and hangs up every couple of hours. Frankly, I'm a little concerned for Rasko, as we used to call him in the grubby little leftwing bookshops in that university town in the mountains by the seashore in another country oh so long ago.

His report follows:

A Socio-Anthropological Typology of the North Shore
by Raskolnikov T. Firefly, PhD

My decade long researches among the inhabitants of Chicago’s North Shore have, at last, yielded results. I and my crack research team (thanks, Kid V, Pravda and Jimmies B and C -- couldn’t have done it without you), have spent the better part of the last ten years lurking in such dangerous and unpalatable locales as artisanal bread shops, high-end cycling centers, national-chain arthouse movie theaters and, in a true show of courage, Starbucks outlets not yet unionized by the I.W.W. Forthwith, our conclusions.

1. Method of Study

Lurking, malingering, and harumphing in lines outside American nouvelle cuisine bistros, sneering from our Hondas and Chevy Cavaliers as we pass the Aston Martin and Land Rover dealerships, looking suspiciously around the room during late night visits to Ben & Jerry’s, drifting aimlessly through Anthropologie or Jos. A Banks, trooping out to Lake Geneva Wisconsin to observe North Shore fauna in its semi-migrational mating-and-antiquing phase, attending community theater and Suburban Fine Arts Center fundraisers, checking the license plate numbers outside Unitarian churches, noting the girlish giggles of septuagenarian matrons in the Marshall Fields’ handbag section and the boorish grunts of Dick Cheney look-alikes from the 16th hole rough. Drinking cosmopolitans and anything ending in -ini, so long as it is from the color palette present in a roll of Jolly Ranchers. Also, a lot of internet surfing and repeated viewings of Ordinary People and Risky Business, for which we have drawn elaborate location charts and alternative storyboards depicting general uprisings of the people and the creation of a service-worker’s Utopia led by Tom Cruise and Rebecca DeMornay. Oyez, oyez. Power to the people.

2. A Typology of North Shore Habitants

A. The North Shore Goof (NSG)

You know this guy. He looks like Chevy Chase, especially the Chevy Chase of Caddyshack. Good-natured, but more of less useless on account of never having had to work a day in his life. Habitats include golf courses, convertibles, east Lake Forest, and restaurants featuring club sandwiches. Harmless, except when seen objectively.

B. Predatory Corporate Status Monkeys (PCSMs)

Think thirtysomething or fortysomething. Think wire-rimmed glasses in sylishly contemporary frames. On the weekends you see him biking like Lance Armstrong and looking at you with a faint disdain for not making as much money and biking as frantically as he, or out with his wife (either a PCSM herself -- 25-30% are women -- or a Subscriber) on a powerwalk, pushing the kid in an ergonomic high performance mountaineering pram, making quality time with the nipper he’s not seen all week and won’t see again until he makes sure the guys in Acquisitions get the WEENUS report in on time. Habitats include west Lake Forest, east Highland Park, and Glencoe, also the Green Bay Trail and Miramar. American Express gave him his Blackberry as a Preferred Customer Premium.

C. The Man

He does not work. You work for him. The PCSMs work for him. In the end, one way or another, we all work for him. He neither toils nor spins: he owns. His markings include great height and a shock of white hair. Habitats include houses that cannot be seen from the road. With stunningly little variation, he looks like George Plimpton.

D. Vic Wilcox

Named after a character from David Lodge’s splendid little novel Nice Work, the Vic Wilcoxes of the world have some cash and won’t be shy about telling you that they’ve earned their pile. They’ve earned it by building up companies that plate things in nickel, or supply Styrofoam coffee cups to office parks in the western suburbs, they’ve earned it by getting the contract to sell tanning beds to Carnival Cruise Lines, they’ve earned it by keeping those union guys out, they’ve earned it and they don’t mind telling you and they almost almost don’t mind that they’ll never be The Man because they’ve earned it and they haven’t had time to get comfortable at Lyric Opera fundraisers and their picture won’t ever be in Chicago Social (sorry, “CS”), they’ve earned it and wonder if they can trade in their first wives for new ones who might have contempt for them but could tell them which charities they could give to so they could go to the parties where they won’t be comfortable -- and wouldn’t they rather watch football and eat a meatball sub anyway. Usual cause of death is angina and a quite despair that knows not how to speak its name.

E. Subscribers

These are, as you guessed, the subscribers to that esteemed and storied magazine, North Shore Bitch. Picture that title, if you will, in the elegantly curving cursives of that journal’s cover. You see them jogging with their iPods, keeping it all in shape. You see them buying tureens at Williams and Sonoma, buying sundresses at Saks, buying stylin' maternity clothes at Bellydance, buying DVDs of Martha Stewart. Basically, you see them buying, often in small gaggles of the likeminded, oblivious to those outside their braying bubble of buy-buy-buy. In their fantasies they are Princess Diana as she marries Charles, or better yet as she has that affair with the dark and brooding Saudi billionaire. “How fun!” they gush, between bites of the roasted tomato and grilled chicken salad at Southgate. Only one fear haunts the manicured lawns and magazine-ad-like, blowing-curtained, wicker-furnished sunrooms of their dreams: becoming DFWs.

F. Discarded First Wives (DFWs)

Little is known about these middle-aged women of the North Shore, seen only buying gin in the Jewel or behind the wheels of slightly aged Volvos. Little is known because one dare not meet their gaze, so bitter it is, so soaked in the tannic fluids of experience and thwarted entitlement. Fear them.

G. Evil Withered Sticks (EWSs)

If you’ve seen Nancy Reagan, you know the type. Her weight never gets into three digits, her skin has, through repeated exposure on tennis courts and seasons in Coral Gables, attained the consistency of fine Corinthian leather. She may once have been a subscriber, fearing DFWhood, but she is now a formidable feature of the landscape, braying with laughter behind her cocktail glass at a lawn party on a sunny afternoon. Try the Onwentsia club if you seek a high concentration of the species.

H. The Good People of Evanston (GPEs)

This is a subspecies of the PCSM, with the following distinction: they’re smug about their virtue. Having once written a $500 check to the Sierra Club, having once attended a book signing by Deepak Chopra or perhaps Dave Eggers, they are secure, indeed ontologically grounded in their sense of superiority to their fellow PCSMs from farther up the shore. Also, since they live near Chicago, they secretly suspect that they’re street, homes, street. Surprisingly, not all GPEs actually live in Evanston. Some live elsewhere but are members of the North Shore Unitarian Congregation.

I. Standard Academic Clowns

Not often found outside of Evanston and a small enclave established in the unlikely and infertile soil of Lake Forest, these hapless sorts are distinguished by rumpled chinos, dented upper-mid-range cars, Steve Earle CDs, good internet access and a wonderful conformity of ideas, consisting of centrist beliefs masquerading as radicalism. Often seen birding, or overheard telling their friends about how little television they watch.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Edge and Evolution: Don Reichert's Nature Morph

I'm getting around, at last, to looking at my notes from Don Reichert's Nature Morph, a show of his work at the Gallery of the Canadian Embassy in D.C. I was there at the end of March for a bit of a Canadian-Culture blow out (represent, prairie provinces, represent!), and was glad to see both work that I recognized (Reichert's wonderful, large, abstract expressionist canvases) and work that looked like a new direction (computer-manipulated images of the bridge and riverbank near Reichert's studio). Reichert's always been a very painterly painter at heart, with exquisite brush-stokes and a mastery of those drip and pour techniques we all know about from Jackson Pollack. There's even something calligraphic about him. But while he's grounded in that abstract expressionist tradition, he's always been curious about other things, and willing to tackle them seriously. I remember listenig as a kid in the 1970s to his haunting electronic music, for example, and I remember, too, a large exhibit which opened after the first Gulf War. That show came out of Reichert's travels in Mexico, where he's seen pre-Columbian art drenched in the imagery of human sacrifice. He picked this imagery up in some very powerful and disturbing pieces like Fuel for the Sun, which consisted of 100,000 individual sketches of skulls arranged into a giant wall. It looked Mayan, but represented the more conservative estimate of the number of Iraqis killed in that war (the title had to do with the Mayan belief that human sacrifices fueled the sun, but there was also something lurking in there about oil, and the connection of all those deaths to our deep addiction to fossil fuels). So he's always exploring different media, techniques and effects.

Looking at the new show, though, I began to think about what has held his work together over the decades, and I think I'm on to something. Here's my thesis: Reichert's work almost always explores the intersection of controlled, even mechanistic effects and organic-seeming effects. Like any one-size-fits-all thesis, this is not so fine as a haute couture interpretation tailored to individual works, but I think it's not bad for pret a porter. Check it out:

--Some of Reichert's early paintings look like a strange cross between abstract expressionism and color field paintings, with canvasses divided geometrically between beautiful brush-stoked areas and flat colored sections. This work came out of some time spent in Spain, looking at the elegant abstract tilework and architectural ornamentation left by the Moors, but the fascination for Reichert really seems to have been in the juxtaposition of a very controlled, cool element and a more open, warmer, more organic element.

--Many of Reichert's large canvas works, the kind for which he is best known, include beautiful, warm, organic, layered elements that look like the moss-patterns that grow over decades on the granite outcroppings of the Canadian Shield. (If you ever watch Painter in the Landscape the CBC documentary about him, you'll see Reichert painting on canvasses spread over these rocks, and you'll see how he invites happenstance into his compositons, dousing areas with water, for example, to soften the effect. You'll also see one of my favorite art-documentary moments, in which Reichert, standing near an enourmous painting of his on a museum wall, is asked by a curator how far away he stands from these while he paints them. "Oh," says Reichert, "about five foot nine.") Anyway -- along with the layered organic elements you often find a hard edge or line, something straight or with a ninety-degree angle to it, something utterly unlike the natural forms that seem to have almost grown on the canvas. These come from folding the canvas over in the process of composition, but the effect is very strange, like a specifically human or technological intrusion.

--The newest work at the Canadian Embassy combines natural imagery (photos of a the foliage along a riverbank) with very industrial imagery (big steel girders from a bridge), and it does so in a digitally-manipulated format that pulls it into almost crystaline patterns that, in their angles and symmetries, seem both geological-organic and technological.

In all of these things we see a continued obsession with edges and growing things, with the mechanical form and the organic. You know, Reichert grew up in a little farm town on the prairies, and I'm willing to bet that the place he grew up in had something to do with these obsessions. What's a farm but the combination of machines and nature? Or, to put it another way, the meshing together of that which evolves naturally and that which we impose on nature? And farm guys have a combination we don't see in the sentimental suburbs: they know about nature but they also really, really like machines.

There was more to enjoy besides the paictures at the embassy event that night, too. I ran into the art critic Robert Enright, for example, and tried to pitch an article to him about one of my favorite artists in Chicago, Jason Salavon (whose work you can see at his website) for his magazine, Border Crossings. Enright was all kinds of enthusiastic about this, and said many encouraging things to me about the article, about me being a poet, and so forth. Then he sent me over to talk to his partner and co-editor Meeka Walsh, who gave me a stern editorial look and a hundred (entirely worthwhile and defensible) criteria the article would have to meet to be right for the magazine. I saw right away why Border Crossings has been such a successful art magazine (check it out at sometime) -- the Enright-Walsh dynamic of enthusiasm and judgment is exactly right for the Quixotic enterprise of art publishing.

The night ended with a bunch of us rolling out of the embassy after too much wine, holding hands in a circle beneath the big postmodern rotunda, and discovering that it had exceptional echo-chamber acoustics when we sang an off-key and intermittently lyrically-challanged version of "Oh, Canada." Even without the paintings that would have been worthwhile.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Rhizome Mannerism, or The Knight of Faith on a Thousand Plateaus

I've been thinking a bit about postmodernism and the avant-garde lately, and not just because I'm an effete and pretentious intellectual (although I'm certainly all that, oh mandarin me, oh my). Louis Armand wrote from Prague a few weeks ago, asking me to contribute to a collection of essays on the possibilities of avant-gardism under postmdern conditions. I've got a plan for that paper, and it doesn't look anything like the wierd little idea I'm going to lay down today, but today's notion is a kind of fallout from Armand's assignment.

So here's the deal: the Knight of Faith must traverse a thousand plateaus.

Cryptic, eh? It's my overly effete way of saying that the kind of postmodernism articulated by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari needs to be challenged by a kind of thinking best symbolized by the Knight of Faith, a figure drawn from that somewhat dusty tome of Soren Kierkegaard's, Fear and Trembling.

Remember Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus? It was the sequel to their Anti-Oedipus, and is probably best known as the book in which they describe the rhizome as a form of intellectual organization appropriate to our postmodern condition. Traditionally, they maintain, we treat form as a kind of tree-root: that is, we think of good organization as unified organization, with all the various roots and branches of our discourse coming together in a single unified trunk. Think of the last class you taught or took in composition, and you've got the idea. All parts are suborinate to the whole, and the work is put together hierarchically. If we're talking about an essay, the individual sentences serve the topic sentence of the paragraph, and the topic sentences serve the overall thesis -- you know, that sort of thing. And the same goes for a traditional novel. Think of something like Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure. In a book like that, the parts (fancy deconstructions notwithstanding) tend to add up to a pretty coherent whole. Sue and Arabella, the women in the very spiritual Jude's life, serve as foils for one another (one being presented in intellectual terms, the other in bodily terms). The settings (farm town, university town, cathedral town) play up the theme of body vs. mind vs. soul, and so on. A big old oak tree, that book.

But that's all old-school, as far as Deleuze and Guatarri are concerned. And so is the kind of organization they call the fascicule. This, they say with some disdain, was beloved by the modernists. Man, do I hate the casual dismissiveness in their book -- I mean, I think they've got something important to say, but that whole "people who wrote before us must have been naive because that was a long time ago" thing is a bit hard to swallow. What's next? "They're dead, ergo they couldn't have been up to much"? But I digress. Deleuze and Guatarri's image for the fascicule is a bunch of roots severed from the trunk that would have held them together. So imagine a bunch of fragments that don't seem, at first, to add up -- but then hey presto, they do, if you can infer the principle that once held them together. The big modernist works really do fit this model pretty well: T.S. Eliot's Waste Land looks like a collection of miscellenious bric-a-brac, but when you pick up Jessie Weston's book on the grail myth, you suddenly see how it all holds together. James Joyce's Ulysses is another instance of the fascicular text, maybe even of the fascicular text par excellence. I taught it for the first time this spring, and while it struck many of my students as something of a shitpile of unrelated wierdness at first, once they got their hands on the Linati Schema (a kind of secret-decoder-ring cheatsheat Joyce made for his pal Carlo Linati), everything fell into place for them. I mean, judging by their papers, they nailed that book (did I mention I really think we get some kickass students at Lake Forest? Really. I've taught at big universities and small, in Europe and America, and these kids are alright). So the fasciule is the apparently fragmentary text that can be unified by a kind of heroic act of interpretive inference.

And then there's the rhizome, the form D and G really like. They claim that the best way to think of it is as a system of roots like what you'd find in a potato field. My botanist colleague tells me that potato plants aren't rhizomes, though, indicating that French theorists are just about as in touch with potato-picking as you'd expect them to be. Luckily, Deleuze and Guatarri give another image for the rhizome: a series of interlocking tunnels, a kind of prairie-dog village of text (as a kid from the Canadian prairies, I prefer this anyway). You've got bits and pieces that intersect in all sorts of ways, and other bits that don't connect with anything. You've got modules, nodules, and overlaps, without a single unifying hermeneutic master-key. I think Pound's Cantos are kind of like this, even though Pound didn't want them to be ("I cannot make it cohere!" he laments, near the end). Kathy Acker's books always seem this way to me, too. There's cohesion here and there in all sorts of sideways fashions, but nothing like the clear order, the subordination of part to whole that you see in Thomas Hardy. D and G, I suppose I should say, don't just propose the rhizome as a strategy for literary form -- these guys are serious. They want us to reorganize all sorts of things (psychology, the various social sciences, etc.) on rhizomatic principles. But it works for literature too.

But you knew all that, right? I mean, the rhizome seems pretty well established in the hipper American poetry and litcrit circles. In fact (and this at last starts to bring me to my point) I think it's become a bit of a mannerism in some circles, and I suppose that's why I want to have a good thwhack at it, using Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling as my thwacking-implement. It is a bit unfortunate Kierkegaard's book is so slim, especially in the bantam-weight Penguin edition I own -- otherwise I could work up a cool image of squashing a rhizome-grown potato with a big weighty tome of Danish philosophy. Alas.

Anyway. The rhizome as mannerism, even as cliche -- it first occured to me at one of the Modernist Studies Association conventions, I think the one up in Wisconsin, at that great lakeside convention center designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. I was hanging out by a TV set up in the corridor, watching Notre Dame lose to some henious team of steroid-gulping mutants. I did this with, oddly enough, a fully-costumed, giant-shoe-wearing clown as a companion (he was there to entertain some kids who were part of a non-MSA event down the hall). Turning away in disgust from the Flounderin' Irish, I overheard a gaggle of my fellow academics on the way into a panel. "My paper's even more modular and fragmentary than usual!" one said with pride. "Ooh, mine too!" said another, not to be outdone. So there it was: more-rhizomic-than-thou was the order of the day. It was around this time, too, that I started to get a lot of student writing workshop pieces that took great pride in not adding up, in being collections of miscellaneous parts. When I would ask about the criteria of selection, or about how the various stands related I'd get pitying sighs, followed by the weary statement that "it's postmodern." Some of these were actually quite good -- especially one about an imaginary earth where the sky had been converted into a videodome projecting Disney images. But the point is that there seemed to be a climate of expectation in which ones intellectual or writerly bona fides were established by the rhizome. It was the new minor 6-4-1-5 chord progression, the go-to form for the culturally hip. And, as a new orthodoxy (or micro-orthodoxy -- a way of showing one belongs in advanced circles), it deserves a challenge. Enter, from the west gate of my imaginary Medieval Times jousting arena, Kierkegaard's Knight of Faith. Since the potato analogy turns out to be false, I suppose we'll have to imagine his rhizomic opponent as a giant prairie dog.

The Knight of Faith is Kierkegaard's figure for the person who could, against all the evidence of the world, struggle through and achieve faith in divine providence ("on the strength of the absurd" Kierkegaard says -- and you see right away why the existentialists loved him). Abraham, willing to sacrifice Isaac, is the embodiment of this kind of faith. Kierkegaard brings this up because what he sees all around him in the university coffee shops of Copenhagen is a kind of easy, breezy dismissal of faith. Everyone, he says, is talking about "getting beyond faith" -- and he's not sure we've even got to faith in the first place. Here's how he puts in in the preface to Fear and Trembling, written in the persona of Johannes de Silento: "Today nobody will stop with faith; they all go further. It would perhaps be rash to inquire where to, but surely a mark of urbanity and good breeding on my part to assume that in fact everyone does indeed have faith, otherwise it would be odd to talk of going further. In those old days it was different. For then faith was a task of a whole lifetime, not a skill thought to be acquired in either days or weeks."

Do not freak out. I am not about to lay some Christian trip on you, despite my earlier reference to Notre Dame. It isn't religious faith I'm interested in here, but the idea of trying to get beyond something that we may not even be able to achieve in the first place. Substitute "formal coherence" for "faith" in the above passage, and you'll have a sense of where we are now: we often disdain the tree-root and fascicle of textual coherence as mere modernism (D and G sure do), but there's some question as to whether we're even up to that level of achievement.

I'm not saying we should ditch the rhizome and try to write like Thomas Hardy. Hey, some of my best friends write rhizomes. But I am concerned about the idea of the rhizome being received uncritically. I don't want the prairie dog stamped out, but I think it will be stronger for having wrestled with the Knight of Faith. I mean, we should ask ourselves: is this rhizome more or less interesting than it would have been with a greater degree of coherence? I suppose my biggest concern is that the rhizome has become a kind of marker of advanced style, and that we may find poets writing rhizomatically because they come to think that that's what they're supposed to do as experimental poets (there's a contradiction for you: doing what you're supposed to do to be experimental). Just as the old saw "show me, don't tell me" became a cliche of American poetry in the writing workshops of the 70s, I think we may be in a period where the unexamined assumption in some circles is that tree-root or fascicular coherence is for chumps, and the rhizome is the only way to go.

(Picture: Catherine Daly, author of DaDaDa

Looking at some poems from Catherine Daly's DaDaDa may be one way of getting at what's at stake here. Not only is she an interesting poet with whom I share both a publisher and (oddly) a blog format and background (check it out at: -- she writes in both the rhizomatic and the fascicular mode. The two extended sequences of poems near the start of DaDaDa are good examples of rhizomic and fascicular poetics, respectively. The first sequence, "Palm Anthology," is a loose collection of notes in which the language of technology -- specifically the Palm Pilot PDA -- gets twisted up with the language of a kind of kinky eros. The effect is intertesting, but unless I'm missing something Daly doesn't try to get it add up into a coherent whole. She's more interested, here, in a field of intersections and ruptures than in an overall structure. In contrast to this we have "Mistress Plot," the second sequence. Here Daly gives us fragments again, but they seem to represent a catalog of all possible (or at any rate all common) patriarchal plots about women. What looks fragmentary at first is in fact united, and you can infer the principle of coherence. This one is really good, and reminds me more than anything else of one of those old-school books of structuralist criticism, like Barthes' A Lover's Discourse, in which the author anatomizes a cultural system. Daly's got some kind of engineering background and it shows here. She knows how to break something down into parts. This is where her real genius lies, but she seems pulled by the forces of period style to write in rhizomes more than in fascicles. I can't wait for her next book (which should come soon, since she's astonishingly prolific) but I hope it has more of what is particular to her, and less of what the age seems to demand of its hipper poets.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Return to the Supermarket: Sentimentalist Poetics Then and Now

Many things to blog, including the John Matthias retirement gathering at Notre Dame and a great show of Don Reichert's new works at the Canadian Embassy, but first, a moment of astonishment. As I was thumbing through an old issue of the NYRB, I turned with a certain ghoulish pleasure to Christopher Benfey's review of Helen Vendler's latest collection of essays. Oh boy, I thought, here we go: the usual obsequious east coast praise for the Queen of Harvard. I was all set to take a kind of perverse pleasure from witnessing the act of intellectual abasement. Oh, how wrong I was. Not only did Benfey leaven his praise with some actual criticism of Vendler, but it seems she's actually made a good point -- or almost made a good point -- about Walt Whitman. Let me explain.

The book Benfey reviews, Poets Thinking, has a chapter on Whitman that looks like it may have come close to the truth about the sage of Camden. Vendler sets out to "rescue" Whitman from charges of primitivism by old-school guys like Thoreau (who said of Whitman "it is as if the beasts spoke") and Santayana (who found in Whitman a "wealth of perception without intelligence"). She observes that Whitman not only registered detail on his retinas, he also thought, and that this thought found its way into the poems in a reprise-like structure, in which a scene is presented first as a "solely transcriptive" retinal record and then as an intellectually processed record. Let's check it out, shall we? Here's the example Benfey takes from Vendler's book, Whitman's poem "Sparkles from the Wheel." It begins with a senses-only presentation of a knife grinder:

Where the city's ceaseless crowd moves on the livelong day,
Withdrawn I join a group of children watching, I pause aside with them.
By the curb toward the edge of the flagging,
A knife-grinder works at his wheel sharpening a great knife,
Bending over he carefully holds it to the stone, by foot and knee,
With measur'd tread he turns rapidly, as he presses with light but
firm hand,
Forth issue then in copious golden jets,
Sparkles from the wheel.

Right. There's the unprocessed description. But here's the follow-up:

The scene and all its belongings, how they seize and affect me,
The sad sharp-chinn'd old man with worn clothes and broad
shoulder-band of leather,
Myself effusing and fluid, a phantom curiously floating, now here
absorb'd and arrested,
The group, (an unminded point set in a vast surrounding,)
The attentive, quiet children, the loud, proud, restive base of the
The low hoarse purr of the whirling stone, the light-press'd blade,
Diffusing, dropping, sideways-darting, in tiny showers of gold,
Sparkles from the wheel.

For Vendler, this shows that Whitman is a thinker of sorts: he takes the sense-or-retinal scene and adds to it a humanizing intellect (a "human response" added to a "perceptual registration," says Vendler). He does this by presenting the man as "sad" (an interpretation) and so forth. Okay. Yeah. Vendler's right here, and she's actually done a service to poetry by pointing out that this pattern is to be found everywhere in Whitman's poetry (note, though, that this service does not come close to cancelling out Vendler's disservice to poetry in helping Jorie Graham get Seamus Heaney's old job at Harvard -- Jorie Graham! The unholy fusion of the worst of Iowa and the worst of Buffalo! The muddle-headed mistress of mediocrity! Oh, her vagueness and pretence! Her giving-of-prizes-to-friends, her writer's-retreat realpolitik! Holy Christ! But I digress...). Here are some more examples, which again I lift from Benfey's quotation of Vendler's quotation of Whitman:

The little one sleeps in its cradle,
I lift the gauze and look a long time, and silently brush away flies with my hand.

The youngster and the red-faced girl turn aside up the bushy hill,
I peeringly view them from the top.

Okay! Yes! There it is: retina first, and then something more processed by the mind. But I'm not at all sure Vendler's gotten to the bottom of things, unless she does something important that Benfey doesn't mention (possible -- but I can't bear to read another of her books. The one on Shakespeare nearly killed me -- as did my Shakespearian colleague, when he saw me with it and called it a scandal for its historical ignorance). Here's the thing: it isn't so much that Whitman is thinking. I mean, "that guy looks sad" isn't really much of a thought -- hell, I think my neighbor's dog cogitates thusly when he sees me come home from a particularly trying faculty meeting. It is that he moves from a sense-record without any trace of his own filtering personality to a record filtered through the presence of the self. This isn't intellection so much as it is Romantic sentimentality -- as described (insert here an academic throat-clearing) -- by Schiller.

Schiller has loomed large in my intellectual life, and his essay "On Naive and Sentimental Poetry" has been big in my theory seminar (we get to Barthes “The Death of the Author” via Jung’s “On the Relation of Analytic Psychology to Poetry” and sometimes Breton’s “The Automatic Message,” and we get to those essays from Schiller). While I was googling around looking for a link to an English version of the essay (no luck, folks), I was surprised to see that the composer John Adams, who likes the essay, describes it as “a once-influential essay from 1795 which has by now been all but forgotten.” Aw, crap. It deserves to be read, if only to show grad students that sophisticated literary thinking didn’t begin in 1968. And now, since I can’t find an online copy, I’m forced to choose between running up to campus to get my copy, or quoting from Adams’ program notes, where he quotes Isaiah Berlin’s merely adequate summary of the essay (which a colleague of mine in German described as “the jewel in the crown of nineteenth century German criticism,” which is a hell of a claim). I have no desire to hit campus only a day after graduation, so here’s a paragraph of Adams/Berlin on Schiller:

“Naive” and “sentimental”: I use these two terms knowing they may at first be misunderstood. I mean them not as we commonly interpret them but rather in the sense that Schiller used them in his essay “Über Naive und Sentimentalische Dichtung”... Schiller saw essentially two types of creative personalities: “those who are not conscious of any rift between themselves and their milieu, or within themselves; and those who are so conscious.” (I [that is, Adams] quote from Isaiah Berlin, who so succinctly summarizes Schiller’s point of view.) The “unconscious” artists are the naive ones. For them art is a natural form of expression, uncompromised by self-analysis or worry over its place in the historical continuum. “They see what they see directly, and seek to articulate it for its own sake, not for any ulterior purpose, however sublime.” Schiller cites Homer, Shakespeare, Cervantes and his own contemporary, Goethe, as examples of the naive. Opposed to this is the sentimental poet whose art “comes about when man enters the stage of culture where the primordial, sensuous unity is gone…The harmony between sense and thinking, which in the earlier (naive) state was real, now exists only as an ideal. It is not in a man, as a fact of life, but outside him, as an ideal to be realized.” The sentimental voice arises when the unity has been broken, and the poet (or composer or painter, etc.) seeks to restore it or, going to the opposite extreme, parodies or satirizes it. In Isaiah Berlin’s words, the sentimental artist “looks for the vanished, harmonious world which some call nature, and builds it from his imagination, and his poetry is his attempt to return to it, to an imagined childhood, and he conveys his sense of the chasm which divides the day-to-day world which is no longer his home from the lost paradise which is conceived only ideally, only in reflection.” For Schiller the poet “is either himself nature (and thereby naïve), or else he seeks nature (and is thereby sentimental).” (from

Okay, that’s not so bad, really -- in fact, it is quite good. But what it leaves out is Schiller’s observation about the different relation of the self to the poem for the two different types of poet. The naive poet, feeling no alienation of self and world, presents the world without ever presenting the self. Think of Homer’s poems -- you never get any editorializing, or any sense of the man Homer, if in fact there ever was such a man, as I understand is questionable. Or think of Shakespeare -- much has been made of his aloofness from his own work (personally, I don’t see how Goethe fits the paradigm, but I’ll bow to Schiller’s superior Goethe chops any day). The sentimental poet, though, can’t help but make the self, the individual sentiment or sensibility, the core of the poem. I mean, think about Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” where the ratio of Abbey-to-Wordsworth is something like 1:20. When Wordsworth writes, in the “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” of “feeling giving importance to action” rather than action to feeling, he’s tipping his hand as a sentimentalist. His poems will be about his yearning self, rather than about the world in its fullness -- which is the naive poet’s selfless gesture.

So Whitman's gesture of representing first the retinal impression, and then the impression mediated by the self, is neither the barbarity seen by Thoreau and Santayana, nor the intellectualizing seen by Vendler. It is a sentimentalizing, an insertion of the individual sensibility into a world first perceived as innocent or naive. This should come as no surprise --the a Whitmanic "Song of Myself" is every bit as much a matter of Romantic self-centered sentiment as "The Prelude, or, the Growth of the Poet's Mind." You just know, too, that this sentimentalizing is somehow connected to Whitman's particular eros. He's such a perv, God bless him. A voyeur for sure (remember the "twenty-eight bathers" section of "Song of Myself"?). And a leading literary auto-eroticist of the nineteenth century (Benfey remarks on this, in a slightly creepy reading of "Sparkels from the Wheel"). His isn't the naive erotic gaze, simply taking in the other. His is an eros that requires the notion of himself as intruder or observer or creeping lingerer. I'm sure Allen Ginsberg really did find him in that supermarket in California, lurking and leering and "eyeing the grocery boys." It wouldn't just be the thought of the boys that got Whitman going. It would be the thought of himself watching the boys. Sentimental eros, not naive.

Interestingly, we still seem to be in a sentimental age for poetry, despite various alternatives (objectivism's new version of Schiller's naivete, say, or langpo's play at eliminating the self through other means). I mean, what is Jorie Graham if not a poet who spreads the sheen of a somewhat precious sensibility over the Big Ideas she likes to reference?