Saturday, October 21, 2006

Blogging the MSA Part Two: The Two Cultures

Hey y'all (I'm trying to blend in with the good people of Oklahoma, so I hope you'll bear with my affected "y'all," which I think may be indigineous to these climes). So y'all remember C.P. Snow's classic essay The Two Cultures, right? The one about how the sciences and the humanities had become two very different animals, incapable of communicating with one another except through a rudimentary system of grunts and mewlings? Well, I'm not going to say anything much about all that, but Snow's title seems like a good jumping-off point for the second installment of my ongoing chronicle of the eighth annual Modernist Studies Association. And I report from the field, folks: live from the 14th floor of the Doubletree Hotel in Tulsa, just down the hall from Michael Bibby, with whom I (and Grant Jenkins and George Hart and Tenley Bank) tore up certain parts of Route 66 last night. If by tearing up we mean having a beer or two and talking about teaching, his new book, my old book, and the horrifying truth about parenthood. Yep. Anyway. A lone ant from a tweedy anthill, ego scriptor.

So what's the "two cultures" angle on the MSA? It goes something like this:

Yesterday I was moaning and whining about the culture of ordinary academe, wringing my hands about how so many profs feel pressure from their higher-ups to write on certain prescribed topics in certain prescribed ways. I cringed and blanched at the administered nature of it all, the harnessing of the life of the mind into narrow specialities and narrowly-conceived genres of writing (I refer to how our genres of writing about literature are narrow — at least if they're going to be considered legit by the thesis committees, hiring committees, tenure committees, promotions committees, not to mention the hiring and promotions committees at the institutions where one hopes to encounter that great mirage, The Better Gig). I also bemoaned what I thought was a decline of participation by the less conventional academic conventioneers, the actual living poets and their devoted critics. Such types — especially the Legions of Langpo — once roamed the great savannahs of MSAs past with impunity, but this year the herd seemed rather thinned.

That was yesterday. Today, after retiring to my base camp and consulting my carefully compiled field notes, I've decided that there are two distinct cultures of literary study here at the MSA. The dominant one is the beast I described with such dismay yesterday: an administered and regulated and prescribed and sort of nervous creature. The counter-culture, though, is a stronger-than-I'd thought language poetry scene of sorts. This creature takes a very different form, but one that is not necessarily any more benign. Let me fumble through my safari gear and see what conclusions I can draw from my notes. Ah yes. Here's the stuff. Let's start with the dominant culture of the convention:

Name of Creature: Homo Academicus Modicus
Form of Discourse about Literature: Standardized (genres: peer-reviewed article, peer-reviewed book, nervous and defensive conference paper, generally comparing two writers in terms derived from a Revered Theorist)
Motivations: self-preservation, career security in a climate of relative scarcity
Relation to Others: professional, after the gestation period in grad school, where collective misery makes for a feeling of ritual belonging.
Notes: See my post from yesterday for observations on the inner life and outer behavior of the creature.

And now for the counter-culture of the convention:

Name of Creature: Vates Lingua Auto-Laudatius
Form of Discourse about Literature: Various, but with particular emphasis on the following:

A. Complimentary remarks about fellow language poets and a narrow canon of approved others.
B. Obfuscatory verbiage about European theorists from the Prescribed List, often combined with A, above.
C. General remarks about the political evils of the world, and the redemptive power of the kinds of poets mentioned in A., above.
D. Catalogs of the names of other members of the tribe, uttered ritualistically in order to consolidate the sense of belonging, and the sense of the specialness of the tribe.
E. Shout-outs to their homies in the room, all of whom are, to judge from the content of the shout-outs, well above average.

Motivations: The Advancement of the Cause of the Group. Lauditory commentary on one another's work, the creation of panels and publications about one's comerades, the propagation of the species via one's disciple-grad students, and similiar activities are the means to this end.
Relation to Others:Unlike the administered, professional, distant, Weberian world of Homo Academicus Modicus, Vates Lingua Auto-Laudatius lives in a world rich in face-to-face tribal interaction, a warm community of the likeminded. What might be taken as conflicts of interest in a culture that aspired to the (impossible) ideal of disinterest are here celebrated. "As I was having dinner with [name of specific Vates Lingua Auto-Laudatius on whose work one is about to speak during a panel], I was thinking about how important our work together has been..." What might be taken as indecorous actions by Homo Academicus Modicus are here considered quite acceptable -- working a mention of a book about oneself and one's friends that one has co-authored with one's friends into a panel on one's friends given with one's friends, say.
NotesThere is a powerful appeal to all this, especially when set against the background of the colder, less supportive world of Homo Academicus Modicus. There is less fear in this world, and no sense of administrative surveillance, though the unspoken codes of conduct are as real and as restrictive as in any small, premodern village (one doesn't speak ill of the tribe in front of the tribe, one venerates the appropriate gods and only the appropriate gods, one walks in suspicion of outsiders, and considers most of what outsiders have to say about the village to be pernicious lies told by the hostile). There is an apparently — and perhaps actually —greater variety of forms in which one may write or speak about literature, though the canon of texts is, perhaps, somewhat narrow, and public feuding is as discouraged as it is among Homo Academicus Modicus.

So. How to choose between the dominant culture and the counter-culture? One needn't run with either crowd, I suppose. And I admit I get a certain no-doubt-illegitimate frisson from telling myself I can keep my distance from both species, bestriding the MSA like some Byronic collossus as I shout out lines from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage like:

But soon he knew himself the most unfit
Of men to herd with Man; with whom he held
Little in common; untaught to submit
His thoughts to others, though his soul was quell'd
In youth by his own thoughts; still uncompell'd,
He would not yield dominion of his mind
To spirits against whom his own rebell'd...

Oh yeah. Like a rebel without a cause. Like a rolling stone. Born to be wild! Death before dishonor! Unchained to the mere thoughts of man, I rise in glorious and splendid isolation above the ... what's that? I've got to get my annual self-evaluation in to the department chair this week? But there's no time! I've got to update my vita, and put the bibliography of my paper into MLA format. And it's cold out and I can't find my tweed jacket... (cut to shot of Archambeau wandering off through the groves of academe, the tail end of his knit tie flopping into his styrofoam cup of coffee as he mutters about committee meetings and the grading of essays).

Coda Concerning Adorno

I unearthed this bit about Adorno on Barret Watten's Site. It's a pretty sharp (if dubiously syntaxed) take on how the autonomous artwork is both a critique and a symptom of the conditions in the world from which it comes:

At the heart of the aesthetic, for Adorno, was precisely a relation to necessity, directly connected to the determination of necessity by nature, that can be found in the hybrid aesthetics of market socialism. The "windowless monad" of the artwork still conveys its social constructedness through the critical distance from the relations of production it demands to be a work of art; the artwork is critical precisely insofar as it escapes from mere necessity (of production and consumption) as its fundamental determinant.

Friday, October 20, 2006

The Word From Tulsa: Blogging the MSA 8, Part One

You know, the last time I attached the phrase "part one" to a post, I never quite got around to creating a "part two," so I know I'm on thin ice in labeling this, my dispatch from the eighth annual Modernist Studies Association conference in Tulsa, Oklahoma the first part of a series. But I intend to write daily dispatches from the trenches of the Doubletree Hotel. Honest.

Eric Hertz, an old pal from grad school, jumped me at O'Hare, and at the Tulsa luggage rack I ran into Jim Hansen, another old Notre Dame guy. Together we trucked it in to the hotel, where we hooked up with Grant Jenkins, last seen dancing samba with Cate Ramsden at the Miramar bar after the &NOW Festival.

Despite the cameraderie, though, I feel a little foreboding about the conference, which gets underway in earnest today (actually, the 8:30 a.m. sessions are well underway, but the unshaven and otherwise unpresentable Archambeau still lingers over his crappy room-service coffee, so enfeebled hath old age rendered him etc.). Why foreboding, you ask? Well, for one thing, it looks like the poets have largely abandoned the MSA. The conference used to get a healthy dose of the language poetry crowd and their poetic and critical fellow-travellers: you'd find yourself in the elevator with Bob Perelman, Barret Watten, Susan Howe and Charles Altieri. Watten's still here (we'll be reading together along with illustrious others tomorrow night), and so is Benjamin Friedlander, but by and large the actual living writers and the people who hang with/write about them seem to have given up on the conference. I'm not sure why, but I think the trend is real: my colleague the freakstream novelist, used to come to the MSA but has given it up, saying "I just don't like those people..." So that's evidence for foreboding point number one: fewer poets, plus more people who define themselves by having a specific field of study, equals Bob wondering whether this may be turning into another big standard academic gesselschaft festival, along the lines of the MLA and its regional offshoots.

Foreboding point number two has to do with the conversation at the expensively catered, big-ass opening reception last night. Don't get me wrong: I talked to some cool people, yukked it up happily, and learned a few things, most notably from Jim Hansen, who knows a lot about Adorno, and who may start up a blog to get in on the red-hot prof-on-Adorno action on Culture Industry, Pravda Kid and my own humble blog. I nattered away to him about things various, including my new work on the conundrum of the poet since the advent of full-scale aesthetic autonomy, and he pointed out that much of Beckett's work is a kind of dramatization, even a burlesque, of the idea of the autonomous artist's predicament (being free but isolated and possibly, just possibly, useless to the world). All those verbal artists of Beckett's, buried up to their neck in sand or living in trash cans, yearning, from their isolation, for some connection to the world or some definite purpose. Great! I'm going to have to riff on this for a few pages in my next book. But intriguing talk of Beckett aside, I heard, and overheard, and took part in, a distressingly large number of conversations of the genre I suppose we could call "l'anxiété d'académie."

What's this anxiety all about? Well, I suppose I use the French terms to draw a kind of parallel between academe today and the French academic painting establishment of the late nineteenth century. I mean, I kept running into people who were fretting about pleasing the powers-that-be in their particular institutions: they expressed their anxieties variously. Examples include:

  • A yearning to blog, balanced by a fear that senior colleagues would find out about it and consider it a waste of time.

  • An expression of frustration at how they "have to" write things they don't want to write in order to please their senior colleagues (this is not always an "I don't want to write but just teach really well" sentiment -- sometimes it was followed by an expression of hope that someday they'll really be able to write the book they really want to write.

  • An anxiety that their book won't be published by one of the dozen or so presses their senior colleagues consider legitimate.

    Ay yi yi. I mean, the sense of a mighty set of graybeards dictating what one may or may not do, and limiting the weirdness and waywardness of one's intellectual and creative impulses -- this is a nigthmare version of academe, and puts it into too-close a comparison with the nineteenth century French art establishment, with its disdain for Impressionism, Fauvism, and all the rest. You know, the academy that kicked Manet's "Dejuner Sur L'Herbe" out of the Salon.

    What we need is the spirit of the Salon Des Refuses, the Salon that embraced with pride the work kicked out of the Salon. And we have it, too, in the world of oddball small presses, freaky journals, and of course in the Mighty Mighty Blogosphere. Of course, like the Salon Des Refuses and Rodney Dangerfield, it can't get no respect. But neither could punk rock, long may it wave its shredded and safety-pin pierced banner.

    Anyway, I'm hoping all my foreboding is for misguided: in a few minutes I'm going to hit my first real panel. With any luck, my crotchety old associate prof fog of pessimistic funk will be blown away by some powerful grad-student fireball of intellectual freedom. Vive les jeunes!

  • Tuesday, October 17, 2006

    At Last, Adorno

    Right then. Here at last is my first contribution to the ongoing project of blogging about Adorno's Aesthetic Theory with Mark Scroggins and Dave Park, both of whom have gotten down to business before I have.

    Like Mark and Dave, I'm working with the Robet Hullot-Kentor translation, which tries to preserve Adorno's style — huge paragraphs, no subject headings, sentences that give with one dialectical hand while taking away with the other. We're working on the first sixteen pages at the moment.

    Unlike Adorno, I'm a great believer in section headings, so let me begin this way:

    1. Obligatory Opening Statement on Adorno's Style

    Martin Jay nailed it when he called Adorno's style "paratactic, anti-systematic, non-cumulative." Reading Aesthetic Theory isn't really like reading most philosophy or social thought: there's no sense of thesis-supporting points-conclusions to it. Much has been made out of this. People often seem to want to say that this is a product of Adorno's desire not to be assimilated into any blandifying culture industry pap, not to be dumbed-down and standardized. I suppose there's something to this. And there's something to the idea that Adorno's style comes out of his dialectical thinking -- his sense that there's no such thing as a simple transhistorically true thesis, but that all thinking is contextual and that ideas tend to generate their own contradictions.

    As I slowly warm to the style (something I did not actually expect to do), though, I feel more and more that the effect of Adorno's style is like the effect of listening to an exceptionally bright and clever and ironic colleage thinking out loud, and trusting you to catch his ironies, hyperboles, and arcane references, as well as those moments when he's kidding on the square. He begins going in one direction, maintaining, say, that art is hopelessly implicated in the dominant ideology of the time; then suddenly he'll react to the limits of his own thesis, and argue the other way, without entirely ceasing to believe what he'd been arguing. If you can stop worrying about determining Adorno's exact position, you can learn to love the way he writes. Negative dialectics and negative capability are less far apart than one might think.

    2. So What's Art For, Anyway?

    This is one of the questions animating the first few pages of Aesthetic Theory: Adorno begins by saying that nothing is self-evident about art anymore, least of all its right to exist. As it turns out, he's talking about one of my own favorite themes: the autonomy of art, once it ceases to have a cultic/religious function (as it did for all of those painters of Renaissance altar pieces), or a directly ideological function (as it does in, say, Hyacinth Rigaud's immensely rhetorical portrait of Louis XIV), or even much of a market function (as, say, Dickens' Christmas books did). From about 1910 on, Adorno says, art has been very much on its own, reveling in freedom but worrying about its role in the world.

    There's no easy way out of all this, for Adorno: art just wouldn't be art anymore if it decided to take up a directly social function, as Socialist Realism did. Or as a lot of art did in the 1970s, when it hooked up with identity politics: the other day while flanneuring my way through the local Borders Books I put down a Denise Levertove book I was browsing in when I ran into the section that seemed to renounce art in order to deliver no-doubt-valuable social statements like "That a woman never leave meaningful work for a man; that a man never leave meaningful work for a woman," words just as artless to that effect. Good feminism, but kind of crappy poetry from a poet who has done much better work.

    Adorno, probably relishing the scandalousness of his lines, even writes that art may well have no function any more, it may be over with. One senses a thin-lipped smirk appearing briefly on his gravid visage as he thinks of what Hans in Hamburg will think when he reads that.

    There does seem to be a purpose to art, often, though it's one Adorno feels quite ambivalent about. I suppose we could call that purpose otherworldliness, though that's not really Adorno's term.

    3. The Other Worlds of Art

    Adorno maintains that art creates other worlds, different from the empirical world around us. (But what about abstract art? you ask. Good question! But Uncle Teddy Adorno will get there, worry not). These other worlds tend to be consoling, says Adorno, even if they aren't pastoral idylls or splendid utopias. They console, often, simply because they posit the possibility of another way of life. So, I suppose, one could say that even as depressing and elegaic a writer as Thomas Hardy can be consoling: sure, he shows us a comforting and tough-but-authentic country world only as it is dying, being replaced by a soullessly technological and administrated world. But at least he posits the countryside as a kind of other world, a repository of dying virtues. The weary bourgeois may put aside the copy of Tess of the D'Urbervilles he's been re-reading in order to teach it at, say, Lake Forest College, glance over at his wife and say something like "Hey, Valerie -- whaddaya say we rent us a cottage in the Cotswolds next summer?" This consolation is bad news for Adorno, though: it is the opiate of the masses, the pap for the dispossessed, the thing that keeps us from changing the unjust world in which we live.

    Abstract art, or art that otherwise refuses to be about, or in the service of, anything but itself (think Mallarme, say), is just as suspect to Adorno. Its radical autonomy, and its rejection of the empirical world

    The principle of autonomy is itself suspect of giving consolation: by undertaking to posit totality out of itself, whole and self-encompassing, the image [of another world] is transferred to the world in which art exists and that engenders it.

    Think of Huysmans' Des Essenties from A Rebours here, or of any dandyish aesthete living on and for art alone. To lose oneself in art serves much the same function as losing oneself in a Hardyesque dream of the virtuous other world of the countryside. Or imagine the bourgeois and his wife taking a weekend trip down to, say, The Art Institute of Chicago, and tripping on the Calders and Mondrians, and feeling a general sense of peace and harmonious balance in all those clean well-lighted rooms as they let the disorder of the external world take care of itself. On the way back to their Honda they'll pass homeless people looking for handouts, but by the time they're home they'll be pawing through the exhibition catalog and chatting happily about it all.

    And that's not all. Check this out, a continuation of Adorno's last bit on autonomous art. Autonomous art is suspect of giving consolation "by virtue of its rejection of the empirical world ... art sanctions the primacy of empirical reality." Okay! By Adorno's reckioning, then, when a guy like Kazimir Malevich painted his red squares on white backgrounds, he was treading on dangerous ground. And when Malevich said that he wanted his ideal viewer to stand in front of his painting and say "everything I knew is dead -- before me stands a red square on a white field" he was in even deeper trouble. Instead of making a bold, past-clearing gesture, a gesture that puts us in touch with the primal act of seeing, Malevich was surrendering to the world as it is. His viewer gives up on any engagement with the world out there and, gooned on red, becomes a kind of lotus-eating quietist. Art becomes an opiate — if not for the masses, then at least for the connoisseurs.

    4. But no!

    And here's where Adorno does a little dialectical pirouette. While he finds art that consoles to be insufferable in a deeply unjust and imperfect world, he thinks that art that interrogates or attacks or investigates its own foundations — art that takes a good hard look at what it is that art does — to be potentially redemptive. It can be as oppositional as it is (malevolently) consoling.

    What does this mean? I suppose Adorno has something like Dada in mind: avant-garde art that questions what it is art is for. So when the Dadaists displayed their art with hammers and axes next to it, for the viewer who didn't like it to smash it to bits if he so desired, they were showing us all sorts of fundamental things about the bases of art. For one, they were showing us how passive our relationships with art objects usually are: we're just supposed to soak up art's consolations, and if we find those consolations problematic we're left with little recourse but some private grumbling. (There's a terrible irony in what's happened to Dada: exhibited at places like the National in D.C. reverantly, and with nary a hammer to hand, and with no one taking the provocation to blast what one dislikes seriously. I've been thinking about this lately, and I think I can make a chapter of my next book out of the fate of the Dada tradition. I mean, the institutions have really eaten Dada. One wonders if Dada poisoned them in the process, changing them fundamentally as much as the institutions changed Dada? But I digress).

    I think Adorno's observation about self-interrogating art's ability to contest as well as console applies to a lot of art we wouldn't think of as avant-garde, though. Consider this poem of Ken Smith's, which I had the pleasure to publish in Samizdat back in 1998:

    Countryside Around Dixton Manor, Circa 1715

    [Countryside around Dixton Manor is the title of a huge painting by an anonymous artist, dated circa 1715, on view in Cheltenham Art Gallery.
    The harvest verse is from Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry, 1580, by Thomas Tusser, published by OUP, 1984]

    Now strike up drum
    come harvest man come.
    Blowe horne or sleapers
    and cheere up thy reapers

    Layer under layer under the paintwork
    England is making its Midsummer hay—

    the dancing morris, pipelads and drum,
    scythemen and rakers, cockers and carters

    and centrefield my lord with his ladies
    riding where now the pylon hums

    with its wires over spring wheat
    through the early morning mist.

    These are the same hedgebacks,
    same lie to the landscape, Mickle Mead,

    Barrowdine, Harp Field and Sausage
    still here though the names gone now.


    In oils, unsigned, anonymous, a jobber
    moving through landscape, used maybe
    the wide angle lens of the camera oscura
    for this sweep of a corner of Gloustershire,

    back when all was thought well enough,
    and nothing would change beyond this—
    these peasants sweating in harvest
    content dreaming brown ale and a fumble

    among the haycocks, and the dancers dance off
    to their drink and their shillings. My lord lies now
    and since and soon and thereafter in Alderton
    in St Mary of Antioch, long dead.


    Long gone, nameless maids in a row,
    long curve of the back of 23 men
    in a Mexican wave of swung scythes

    to their lost graves. Two gossips
    by the gate that is still a gate
    maybe went for infantry, and the pipeboy

    shipped out to the far world, most
    stayed, went hungry, died anyway.
    The painting’s a lie, the landscape true

    where the field keeps its shape. Everything
    beyond this moment is yet to happen.
    Everyone here is part of the dust now.


    If my heart aches it’s for this
    though none of it’s true:

    the world we have lost never was
    so we never lost it:

    glitter of horse brass, bells
    rolling over the evening:

    all my lord’s dream of himself
    in a hired man’s painting:

    same tale then as now
    and this has not changed either:

    the enrichment of the rich,
    impoverishment of the poor.

    None but the reaper
    will come to your door.

    On the one hand, the poem is all about pastoral consolations. On the other hand, Smith acknowledges the fictive nature of those consolations: he knows that what his heart aches for (a just and better and altogether more congenial world) never existed, at least not under the old squirearchy in the eighteenth century. So he lets us feel deeply his (and, be extention our) need for a better world, gives it as local habitation and a name by embodying it in the painter's vision, and then tells us that there's no point pining for that past. We're consoled, but we're also left questioning what we could do, and where in the world we could turn, to find or make the better, other world.

    5. A Bunch of Stuff on the Origin of the Work of Art

    Adorno next tells us that there's no single, authoritative concept of what art must be. Definitions are historically contingent and prone to change. This was probably a more interesting and controversial section back when the academy still harbored tweedy old coots who though the Greek ideas were the best ideas because the Greek ideas were the first ideas. There's a kind of anthroplogical The Raw and the Cooked quality to this section: Adorno makes a big deal out of art being defined, at each historical moment, against whatever the culture deems to be "non-art."

    The most interesting bit for me, here, has to do with autonomous art again: Adorno tells us that "artworks became artworks only by negating their origin." That is, only after they left off their "ancient dependency on magic" and their "servitude to kings and amusement" did they become art, in the present sense of the word. Autonomy is essential to the artwork at this particular point in time, and we define it against religious artefacts, ideological shills, and mere fun. (Here's a point where you can feel that things have changed since Adorno wrote: the high/low distinctions in art, and the art/fun distinctions have been largely eroded — I'm sure Adorno would have something clever and interesting to say about this, too).

    Yargh. I've got to catch a train, and I see that I've covered only about four pages of Adorno. Well, more later. Metrarail is a cruel mistress.

    Saturday, October 14, 2006

    Beyond Close Reading and the G.I. Bill: A Secret History of the New Criticism

    What's that you say? You can't make it down to Tulsa, Oklamoma next week to hear me talk about the New Criticism and read my poems at the eighth annual Modernist Studies Association Conference? You're kidding! What are we going to do about this terrible state of affairs? Oh, come on. No whining. Okay, fine. But only since you insist. Here's the paper I'm giving.

    If any of you ever want to cite it in some dusty academic article, or perhaps attack it in a firey editorial, you can pretend you were in Tulsa and give it the full treatment:

    Archambeau, Robert. "Beyond Close Reading and the G.I. Bill: A Secret History of the New Criticism," Modernist Studies Association Convention, Tulsa Oklahoma, October 22, 2006.

    The essay is based on some material I was asked to eject, as irrelevant to my main argument, from the Laureates and Heretics manuscript. I did so at the behest of the very sharp and well-informed anonymous reader evaluating it for the press, a reader I'm increasingly convinced has to be Keith Tuma (J'accuse, Keith!).

    Oosh. I just realized that I'll have to come back to this post and fix all the formatting errors my cut-and-paste job is sure to introduce. No italics, and no footnotes will appear (and some of the "works cited," will seem irrelevant, as the works were cited in the footnotes).If you're reading this in 2008 and the italics still haven't reformatted, odds are I've given up on actually getting around to the task.

    Anyway Here it is:

  • Beyond Close Reading and the G.I. Bill: A Secret History of the New Criticism

    As I hope my attempt at a sexy title makes clear, I want to talk a little about some of the less-frequently-discussed elements of the rise of the New Criticism. The story of that rise has been told countless times in many a graduate seminar, and tends to go something like this:

    Once upon a time there was a small group of men who cared about poems, but not much else. They wanted to discuss poems in terms of their form, and such was their love for poetry they wanted these poems to be perfect, for every detail to balance out every other, and for the poems to come together in wonderfully ironic wholes. They worked hard reading those poems, searching for unities and ironies and balances, and they called this hard work “close reading.” This was all a terrible mistake, but they didn’t know it, because Derrida had yet to come down from his mountain with the ten commandments of deconstruction. And the men so loved poems that they didn’t want the messiness of the world to enter into the poems, so they read the poems they loved without reference to context. They worked hard to avoid looking at history and ethics and politics, and they called this hard work “formalism.” This too was a terrible mistake, but they didn’t know it because Greenblatt had yet to come down from his mountain with the ten commandments of the New Historicism. But these men, misguided as they were, came to dominate our English Departments, because something called the G.I. Bill came along, leading behind it a long line of eager and ambitious people, a new generation of students who hadn’t been prepared for college at fancy prep schools. Someone had to find a new way to teach them, a way that didn’t depend on the students having prepped for college at Groton or Choate or some provincial equivalent. And the New Critics came forward and said they didn’t need for their students to do anything but closely read a few short poems and all would be well. But all was not well until the New Critics were driven from the land by Derrida and Greenblatt, for whom we should all give grateful thanks.

    Anyone likely to be reading this — that is, anyone attending a seminar called “New Approaches to the New Criticism” — is likely to be dissatisfied with stories of this ilk. My own dissatisfactions with such stories are legion, but for the present context let me concentrate on just one: the insistence on unity where there is none to be found, really. In an oddly ironic way, those who tell stories like the one above are doing to the story of the New Critics exactly the sort of thing they are likely to condemn the New Critics for doing to a poem: taking a contradictory and dissonant thing and hammering it into something coherent, where all the parts are subordinated to an interpretive whole. What I’d like to do here, by way of chipping away at the dominant story of the New Criticism is this: I’d like to point out how the institutional imperatives that gave rise to the New Criticism within our universities also helped to exacerbate divisions that were latent in the movement from the beginning. The important institutional imperative, for my purposes, is not the need to serve a new generation of returning G.I.’s: it is the need to establish English as an autonomous discipline, a need created by the Germanic model of the university that became dominant in America in the twentieth century. My case study will be that of Yvor Winters, a New Critic who came to seem a marginal figure in the movement because his poetic and critical practices were at odds with this institutional imperative. Since I’ve indulged myself in this elaborate introduction, my demonstrations will of necessity be brief, but fret not: should you be so sadly addicted to this arcane topic that you hunger for more, I’ll be happy to inflict large chunks of my manuscript on you via email.

  • Autonomous Disciplines: Legitimating the Midcentury English Department

    While the common story of the rise of the New Criticism isn’t wrong in emphasizing the democratizing of higher education in postwar America, there is another factor to be considered in understanding that rise. This second factor in the success of the New Critics is the emphasis of many — but, as we shall see, not all — such critics on the autonomy of literary study, and their accompanying emphasis on the autonomy of the literary object. The American university, like its German model, is predicated on the assumption of discrete and autonomous areas of knowledge, and was therefore receptive to New Critical ideas of literary study as an autonomous endeavor.

    In addition to the need for a pedagogy that would suit the postwar student body, the American university turned to the New Criticism because it seemed that movement shared the universities’ amenability to an autonomous view of literature. The division-and-department administrative model of the university was one that favored the idea of autonomous areas of inquiry . This idea of clearly divided and administered knowledge-areas implies, as Gerald Graff puts it in Professing Literature, “the isolation of literature as its own autonomous mode of discourse with its own autonomous ‘mode of existence.’” Moreover, as Graff points out, the English Department’s mode of discourse and existence must, in this view, be “distinct from that of philosophy, politics, and history” and put a premium on “methods that seemed systematic and could easily be replicated” (145).

    This predisposition of the American university to autonomous rather than heteronomous views of knowledge predates the New Criticism considerably, having its origins as far as the founding of Johns Hopkins University on German educational models in 1867. By and large, though, literature departments lagged behind the sciences and social sciences in developing autonomous principles for the study of their subject matter. But by the mid-1930s (just as New Critics like Brooks and Warren were launching their fledgling academic careers) the institutions were ready for change. R.S. Crane of the University of Chicago, for instance, looked to reform his own department on the autonomous principle, calling, in 1935, for a faculty that did not subordinate formal to political or moral concerns: “…men of the type of the older impressionists we could hardly use, and as for the remnants of the Humanists, there is little to be hoped for from the kind of principles — essentially political and ethical rather than esthetic in character — for which they mainly stood” (4).

    Crane may not have known exactly what he wanted, but he knew what he didn’t want: heteronomous principles of literature, the prevalence of which seemed to threaten to subordinate literature to politics and ethics. It should come as no surprise that three years later, in the year of Understanding Poetry’s first edition, John Crowe Ransom would look back on Crane as a visionary, and praise him as a great reformer in the famous essay “Criticism, Inc.”. By 1950, many proponents of heteronomous principles of literature and literary study in the academy had come to feel that the reformers had them up against the ropes. MLA president and Harvard professor Douglas Bush’s address to the MLA two years earlier (“The New Criticism: Some Old Fashioned Queries”) had been less an act of resistance than an angry surrender to an enemy that dismissed his own ethical and humanistic views as nothing more than “the didactic heresy” (19-20). Then, as at many an MLA conference since, the desperate pleas of the president were ignored by the eager young assistant professors, ready to make names for themselves by following the next new thing.

    In an institutional environment that called out for a method of study based on autonomous principles of literature, critics like Tate and Ransom were there to supply what was needed. This is not to say that the they were nothing more than opportunists, merely that the ideas they produced happened to fit the demands of the academic/literary marketplace of the time. Then again, one can sometimes detect a whiff of opportunism in private correspondence, as when Ransom writes to Tate in 1937, saying that “I have an idea that we could really found criticism if we got together on it” and that “the professors are in an awful dither trying to reform themselves and there’s a big stroke possible for a small group that knows what it wants in giving them ideas and definitions and showing the way” (Young, John Crowe Ransom 85).

    Regardless of how deliberate any particular New Critics may have been in exploiting the universities’ need for a theory of literature as an autonomous object of study, those who prospered most seemed to embrace the idea that both the method and object of literary study were autonomous. Ransom’s “Criticism, Inc.,” for example, echoes R.S. Crane’s criticism of non-autonomous methods of literary study in claiming that the unreformed English department could “almost as well announce that it does not regard itself as autonomous, but as a branch of the department of history, with the option of declaring itself occasionally a branch of ethics” (Graff 148). A year later, in 1939, Cleanth Brooks would write in The Well-Wrought Urn that, without an insistence on formalist methods, professors of literature would wake up one day to find that they had been “quietly relegated to a comparatively obscure corner of the history division” or were being “treated as sociologists, though perhaps not as a very important kind of sociologist” (235). Against these dire consequences, Brooks held up a strictly formal method of literary study. By 1951, he felt able to codify the method in a number of “articles of faith” published in The Kenyon Review under the title “The Formalist Critic.” No minor sociologist he, but a professional practitioner in a proper field of inquiry.

    The literary object of New Critical literary study, too, was to be an autonomous. When W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley wrote, in “The Intentional Fallacy,” that “poetry is a feat of style,” (The Verbal Icon 4) they were codifying a position at a far pole from any notions of the poem as, say, a moral statement, an intervention in (or product of) history, an establishment of identity, or the like. This sense of the autonomy of the poem-as-poem was central to the idea of English as an autonomous discipline, and of great importance to the rise of critics like Wimsatt and Beardsley. But the triumph of this idea, fostered by an institutional structure with which it was eminently compatible, also created, or at any rate exacerbated, schisms within the New Criticism. One of these, to which we will now turn, involved the marginalization of one poet-critic associated with the movement: Yvor Winters.

  • The Heretic of Paraphrase

    In 1951 Randall Jarrell wrote:

    Is Clarity the handmaiden of Popularity, as everybody automatically assumes? How much does it help to be immediately plain? In England today few poets are as popular as Dylan Thomas — his magical poems have corrupted a whole generation of English poets, yet he is surely one of the most obscure poets who ever lived. Or take an opposite example: the poems of the students of Yvor Winters are quite as easy to understand as those which Longfellow used to read during the Children’s Hour; yet they are about as popular as those other poems (of their own composition) which grave Alice, and laughing Allegra, And Edith with golden hair used to read to Longfellow during the Poet’s Hour. If Dylan Thomas is obscurely famous, such poets as these are clearly unknown. (18-19).

    These comments, published four years later in Poetry and the Age are flippant but telling, in that they encapsulate much of the New Critical critique of Wintersian poetry and poetics. That critique, in most instances, boiled down to a preference for the interestingly obscure over the plainspoken or easily paraphrasable. While Winters, in one of his less tolerant moods, could write that “many poems cannot be paraphrased and are therefore defective” (see Von Hallberg, “Yvor Winters” 804), it would only be stretching things a little to say that the standard New Critical assessment of Winters was that his later poems were defective because they could be too readily paraphrased.

    This was the basic substance of John Crowe Ransom’s quarrel with Winters, and the substance of the critique that his student, Cleanth Brooks, would level at Winters. Both Ransom and Brooks objected to the statement-oriented, paraphrasable side of Winters’ poetics, and for the same reason: Winters’ work violated the autonomous principle of poetry. Two other New Critics, W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley, would also object to Winters’ work on the same grounds. The repeated rejections were strong enough to sting even the thick-skinned Winters, who remarked in 1953 that the young Turks of Ivy League thought of him as “lower than the carpet” (Hall 224).

    Ransom explicity objects to Winters’ heteronomous principles of poetry — his subordination of formal concerns to moral concerns — in the 1941 volume that became the namesake of a movement, The New Criticism. Here he maintains that “Winters believes that ethical interest is the only poetic interest” (214). This is a problem, Ransom argues, because it looks to poetry for reasons other than “poetical interest” itself (that is, the autonomous principle of poetry):

    Now I suppose [Winters] would not disparage the integrity of a science like mathematics, or physics, by saying that it offers discourse whose intention is some sort of moral perfectionism. It is motivated by an interest in mathematics, or in physics. But if mathematics is for mathematical interest, why is not poetry for poetical interest? A true-blue critic like Eliot would certainly say that it is, though he would be unwilling to explain what he meant. I think I know why all critics do not answer as Eliot would: because criticism, a dilettante and ambiguous study, has not produced the terms in which poetic interest can be stated. Consequently Winters is obliged to think that mathematics is for mathematical interest — or so I suppose he thinks — but that poetry, in order that there may be an interest, must be for ethical interest. And why ethical? Looking around among the stereotyped sorts of interest, he discovers, very likely, that ethical interest is as frequent in poetry any other one. (214).

    The passage reverberates with the energies that were to bring the New Criticism to power in the universities: the science-based emphasis on a division of knowledge into discrete, autonomous fields; the condemnation of “dilettante” critics; the call for an articulation of “terms in which poetic interest can be stated” (terms, one imagines, like irony, balance, and unity — terms that stress complex structure over moral statement). Ransom takes a position that will advance New Criticism to the center of academic and literary authority. A great deal, in fact, depends upon his ability to establish the autonomous principle of literature: “there’s a big stroke possible for a small group that knows what it wants in giving [professors of English] ideas and definitions,” as Ransom wrote to Tate four years earlier. Winters, in this process, serves as a foil: he is the poet-critic who fails to grasp the autonomous principle; the representative of an outmoded, heteronomous aesthetic.

    Winters, never one to let a criticism of his own work go unanswered in print, objected to Ransom’s criticism in his scathing essay “John Crow Ransom, or Thunder without God” from The Anatomy of Nonsense. Here, he claims quite rightly that Ransom has a truncated notion of Winters’ moralism, which was never as simple a matter as demanding that a poem make an overt moral statement. Instead, the poet’s responsibility is to co-ordinate rational statements about the world with the emotional connotations appropriate to those statements (In Defense of Reason 502-507). Nevertheless, Winters still maintains that the subject matter of poetry is inevitably human experience and that “it can therefore be understood only in moral terms” (506). That is, “the act of the poet” should always be “an act of moral judgment” (503). The poet, in this view, is ultimately responsible to morality, rather than to internal or formal “poetic interest” alone. This is a profoundly heteronomous idea of literature, and it is heteronomy itself, rather than any particular definition of morality, to which Ransom objects.

    Brooks’ major contribution to the anti-Wintersian argument comes in the middle section of his famous essay of 1947, “The Heresy of Paraphrase,” where Inquisitor Brooks fingers Winters as the leading heretic. Like Ransom, Brooks objects to Winters’ emphasis on statement on the grounds that it violates the autonomous nature of literature. “Mr. Winters’ position will furnish perhaps the most respectable example of the paraphrastic heresy,” intones the Inquisitor, naming Winters as a heretic because “he assigns primacy to the ‘rational meaning’ of the poem” (963). This is a violation of the autonomous principle of poetry because “to refer the structure of the poem to what is finally a paraphrase of the poem is to refer it to something outside of the poem” (964). For true believers free from heteronomous heresies, poems are to be judged in terms of structure and “internal order” (964) only. In addition, Winters’ is condemned for conceiving of the language of poetry as continuous with the language of “science or philosophy or theology” (964). Brooks, like Ransom, holds to the dogma that poetry is a special kind of language, and so is unsympathetic to Winters’ idea that poetry does not differ in essence from prose. While no dunking stools were available for use on heretics academy, the most powerful weapon available was deployed against the heretic Winters: he was derided, and worse, ignored.

    One of last major attacks on Winters — or perhaps we should say, one of the last moments when Winters’ work is taken seriously enough by a New Critic to merit sustained attack — comes in W.K. Wimsatt’s 1954 study The Verbal Icon. Even here much of the material devoted to Winters comes in a which Wimsatt co-wrote with Monroe C. Beardsley in 1946. In addition to making light of Winters’ concerns about improperly motivated emotion, they repeat the standard New Critical case against Wintersian poetics when they say they will not embrace “the extreme doctrine of Winters, that if a poem cannot be paraphrased it is a poor poem” (35). While they are willing to use some of the ideas about the emotive qualities of poetry, they share neither Winters’ sense of the dangers of unmotivated or spontaneous emotion, nor his sense of the poem as statement. He is, for them, largely passé.

    For critics like Ransom, Brooks, Wimsatt and Beadsley, the poems most favored were “obscurely famous,” centered on formal concerns, and consecrated because of those concerns. Had the Robert Lowell of Lord Weary’s Castle not been born, the New Critics would have had to invent him in a secret laboratory beneath Kenyon College’s biology building. But the poems of Yvor Winters, like those of his unnamed students in Jarrell’s Poetry and the Age, were “clearly unknown.” It was their clarity, in fact, that kept them that way. And it was his insistence on such clarity, and on a heteronomous poetic, that made him marginal in an movement that was riding high on the American university’s autonomous imperatives.

  • Works Cited

    Bledstein, Burton J. The Culture of Professionalism: The Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America. New York: Norton, 1978.

    Bush, Douglas. “The New Criticism: Some Old-Fashioned Queries.” PMLA 64 Supplement Part 2 (March 1949): 18-21.

    Brooks, Cleanth. “The Formalist Critic.” Kenyon Review 13 (1951): 72-81.

    Brooks, Cleanth. “The Heresy of Paraphrase.” Critical Theory Since Plato. Revised Edition. Ed. Hazard Adams. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992:961-968.

    Brooks, Cleanth. The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. New York: Dobson, 1968.

    Crane, R.S. The Idea of the Humanities, vol. 2. Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 1967.

    Graff, Gerald. Professing Literature: An Institutional History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

    Hall, Donald. “Rocks and Whirlpools: Archibald MacLeish and Yvor Winters.” Paris Review 121 (1991): 211-251.

    Jarrell, Randall. “The Morality of Mr. Winters.” Kenyon Review 1 (1939): 211-15

    Jarrell, Randall. Poetry and the Age. London: Faber and Faber, 1955.

    Ransom, John Crowe. “Criticism, Inc.” Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1979.

    Ransom, John Crowe, The New Criticism. Norfolk, Connecticut: New Directions, 1941.

    Richter , David, ed.. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1989.

    Von Hallberg, Robert. “Yvor Winters.” American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies. Supplement Two, Part Two. Ed. A. Walton Litz. New York: Scribner’s, 1981: 785-816.

    Wimsatt, W.K., and Monroe C. Beardsley. The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry. Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 1967.

    Winters, Yvor. In Defense of Reason. Denver, Colorado: Swallow, 1947.

    Young, Thomas Daniel. John Crowe Ransom: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1982.
  • Tuesday, October 10, 2006

    Avant-Post Arrives!

    That's Avant-Post people, not to be confused with the post-avant. The latter is either a school of poetry or a hopelessly vague abstraction, depending on whom you task. The former is a new book edited by Louis Armand, featuring work by a host of notables. And my essay "The Death of the Critic," which is about Benjamin Friedlander, among others. And about the fate of lit crit in these our indifferent times.

    Here's the press copy:

    Now available from Litteraria Pragensia Books...

    Avant-Post: The Avant-Garde Under "Post-" Conditions
    Ed. Louis Armand
    ISBN 80-7308-123-7 (paperback).
    Published: October 2006.
    Available for purchace online.

    Avant-Post engages the question of whether or not avant-garde practice remains viable under the prevailing conditions of a whole series of "post-" ideologies, from Post-Modernism and Post-Structuralism, to Post-Historicism, Post-Humanism and Post-Ideology itself.

    Contributors include Johanna Drucker, Michael S. Begnal, Lisa Jarnot, Ann Vickery, Christian Bök, Robert Archambeau, Mairead Byrne, R.M. Berry, Trey Strecker, Keston Sutherland, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Robert Sheppard, Bonita Rhoads, Vadim Erent, Laurent Milesi, and Esther Milne.

    Check it out! Also worth checking out: recent posts on Adorno's Aesthetic Theory by both Mark Scroggins and Dave Park. I'm meant to join this cross-blogging phenomenon, and am now the Official Laggard of the group.

    Monday, October 02, 2006

    The Figure Five in Gold: William Carlos Williams Between the Visionary and the Utilitarian

    So there I was, circa 1991, sitting with my fellow grad students around a certain self-styled radical feminist professor's dining room table in her rambling midwestern Victorian house, drinking too much wine and listening to her spiel about William Carlos Williams, which seemed to pivot on the observation that, because he liked to sleep around, he was a bad man (plausible) and a bad poet (manifestly untrue). Leaning over to my neighbor, another grad school newbie, a lanky Chicagoan whom I thought might be sympathetic to my discontent with the limits of the prof's view of things, I asked if he thought there might be more to Williams than what our prof seemed to think of as the primal sin of priapism. "This red wheelbarrow, it -- I -- I mean..." he sputtered "I mean, that's just... what's it got to say about... I mean, it's just stupid." It was a bit surprising: this was a guy who read Pynchon and DeLillo and Paul Auster, a man destined to write a sharp dissertation on difficult historiographic metafiction. He was every bit as hostile to Williams as our prof, although for very different reasons. She had a kind of moralistic objection to the man that translated into a dismissal of the work. My fellow grad student simply didn't seem to have anything in his otherwise well-equipped interpretive toolbox with which he could grab the little poems from Williams' Sour Grapes and pry them open.

    Later, after we left, I told him I thought Williams had been treated unfairly, but when he asked me to explain why I liked poems like "The Red Wheelbarrow" and "The Great Figure" I didn't acquit myself well. I think I mumbled some poorly remembered lines about "the visual chord of imagism" from T.E. Hulme, and left it at that. He was as unconvinced as he ought to have been. And he's far from alone in being left cold by those poems. When I'm teaching freshmen, "The Red Wheelbarrow" is one of the poems I can count on my some of my students having read in high school. A decade of teaching has taught me, though, that they almost invariably despise the poem. I think they've had a bad experience, with the poem having been shoved at them by a teacher who, thinking its brevity and simple diction make it accessible, doesn't really do much better than I did at explaining why he found it charming and interesting in the first place.

    I think, though, that I've finally found the perfect crowbar to use on Williams' imagism-derived poems of the early twenties. I found it while rummaging through Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception and his Heaven and Hell, of all books. I've been teaching some of Blake's prophetic books, and, one evening, decided to pull my unread-since-undergrad days copy of Huxley down off the shelf to see if there was anything clever on Blake (from whom he derives his title). There wasn't much on Blake I could use in Huxley's grab-bag of art history, peyote memoir, semi-Jungian jive and mystical ramblings, but when I hit his section on color and visionary experience I finally felt I could have given a decent reply to the scholar of postmodern metafiction who sat next to me in that seminar fifteen years ago. Talk about your esprit d'escalier already.

    In both The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell Huxley makes a big deal out of the significance of color in visionary experience. When he trips on mescaline in California, he's almost overcome by the sight of light falling on a blue chair, for example; and he quotes extensively from various mystics and visionaries who remark on the luminous, intensely colored world they perceive around them. To understand why this seems so important to him, we need to get a sense of the difference between ordinary and visionary perception as he understands them. Essentially, he tells us that ordinary perception is a very selective perception, a mode of experience that filters out anything that doesn't somehow help us get through the day; while visionary perception is an (inevitably limited) opening out toward experiencing the world as it really is, in all of its overwhelming and (to us) useless totality. Here'e what he says after his mescaline experience, which he takes as having approximated visionary experience:

    Reflecting on my experience, I find myself agreeing with the Cambridge philosopher Dr. C.D. Broad, "that we should do well to consider much more seriously than we have hitherto been inclined to do the type of theory which Bergson put forward in connection with memory and sense perception. The suggestion is that the function of the brain and nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative.... The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful." According to such a theory, each one of us is potentially Mind at Large [*a note from Archambeau: This sounds loopier than it is. I take Huxley to mean something like "each one of us has a potential for perception that is disinterested, not filtered through screens of utility"]. But in so far as we are animals, our business is at all costs to survive. To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness that will help us stay alive on the surface of this particular planet.

    Huxley's got a point about the reductive or eliminative nature of ordinary, utilitatian perception. If I could be forgiven for moving from the sublimity of visionary experience to the ridiculousness of an experiment involving a guy in a gorilla suit, I'd mention a psychological experiement in which people were asked to watch a videotape of a basketball game and keep track of the different plays. Here's what happened (really!), according to the British newspaper The Telegraph. The researchers

    played the tape to subjects and asked them to count the passes made by one of the teams. Around half failed to spot a woman dressed in a gorilla suit who walked slowly across the scene for nine seconds, even though this hairy interloper had passed between the players and stopped to face the camera and thump her chest. However, if people were simply asked to view the tape, they noticed the gorilla easily. The effect is so striking that some of them refused to accept they were looking at the same tape and thought that it was a different version of the video, one edited to include the ape.

    So we see what we're looking for, and we look for the things that are useful for the task at hand — in this case, watching the plays, not the gorilla. The reducing valve of utilitarian perception is in full effect.

    Anyway. The intense experience of color seems to correspond, for Huxley, with the seeing of a fuller or more than usually charged version of the ordinary world -- with the perception of (to use Huxley's favorite Blakism) "the world in a grain of sand." He recounts a bunch of visionary experiences from a variety of people (including the Irish poet AE). Here he moves beyond description to analysis:

    At the antipodes of the mind, we are more or less completely free of language, outside the system of conceptual thought. Consequently our perception of visionary objects possesses all the freshness, all the naked intensity, of experiences which have never been verbalized, never assimilated to lifeless abstractions. Their color ... shines forth with a brilliance that seems to us preturnatural, because it is in fact entirely natural — entirely natural in the sense of being entirely unsophisticated by language or the scientific, philosophical or utilitarian notions by which we ordinarily re-create the world in our own drearily human image

    So the perception of, and fascination with, brilliant color can be an indication that we're pushing the limits of ordinary, interested (as opposed to disinterested), utilitarian perception, and entering a broader perception of experience. We may not be seeing the world in a grain of sand, but we're in one of those rare and privileged moments when we're seeing more than we need to see in order to get by.

    Okay. Right. But what's it all got to do with William Carlos Williams? Well, this, I guess: A bunch of Williams' short poems from the early twenties, including some of the best known, give us two elements of a single object: its utilitarian value and the fascination of its brilliant color. I'm convinced this is significant: Williams is showing us that the ordinary objects around us glow with the possibility of the kind of visionary perception Huxley is trying to get at. Williams values the objects for their ordinary utility, but he's always ready to see the world in the grain of sand. Or, rather, in the wheelbarrows and firetrucks of New Jersey. Check it out. Here's the way-too-familiar "The Red Wheelbarrow":

    so much depends

    a red wheel

    glazed with rain

    beside the white

    "So much depends..." — we begin with an assertion of the utilitarian value of the wheelbarrow, its role in supporting the family and working the farm and all the rest of it. But then comes the color, both of the wheelbarrow itself and of the (equally utilitarian) chickens. And, of course, the wheelbarrow gleams, its color popping (uselessly, from a utilitarian perspective, or from the point of view of those who depend on the wheelbarrow to work and survive) with rain-glaze. If you turn to a standard explanation of the poem, such as you'd get in Exploring Poetry, you'll read that "...the word 'glazed' evokes another painterly image. Just as the reader is beginning to notice the wheelbarrow through a closer perspective, the rain transforms it as well, giving it a newer, fresher look. This new vision of the image is what Williams is aiming for." All of which is totally true. But explanations like this miss what I think is most important about the poem: its insistence that there is both an interested/utilitarian and a disinterested/visionary perspective to be had. On the one hand, the wheelbarrow has an economic value, which Williams notes at the beginning. On the other hand, it exceeds mere utilitarian value, and pops with a brightness that opens up for us the idea that the world pulses and gleams with a vivid life all its own, beyond its value as a tool for our survival.

    "The Great Figure" is even better as an example of this kind of dialogic take on perception in Williams' early poems.

    Among the rain
    and lights
    I saw the figure 5
    in gold
    on a red
    fire truck
    to gong clangs
    siren howls
    and wheels rumbling
    through the dark city

    The firetruck is a supremely utilitarian object, and on a serious mission in which lives may well be at stake. And the number of the truck is a sign of bureaucratic society, social organization and useful orderliness: it shows us that we live in a world of departments and social services designed to help us out in disasterous situations. It is a sign of how we've formed a utilitarian survival mechanism and learned how to put it into operation. But all of this is almost lost in the sense-overload of the number, its glaring goldness (which, like the wheelbarrow, is accentuated by a halo-glaze of water). It is the goldness of the numeral, the very extravagence of this, that fixates Williams (and that would soon fixate Charles DeMuth, in his painting based on the poem). The firetruck has its real and valuable utility (in this instance a very urgent utility), but its gleaming color also serves, here, to show us that we are capable of perceiving a world beyond utility. There it is, in all its splendid alterity, all its strangeness and gleaming, irreducible reality. I'm sure this kind of contrast between utilitarian and what I'll call visionary perception is hugely important to a full appreciation of Williams' poems.

    There's a lot more to say here, I'm sure — one could probably riff for a while on how both Williams and the man who was in many ways his opposite, Wallace Stevens, are both heirs to the Blakean visionary Romantic tradition. I mean, Stevens' "Of Mere Being," with its gold and "fire-fangled" bird, glowing brightly "without human meaning" is probably a good counterpart to these Williams poems. And there's probably something to say about the idea of language as a reducer of experience. Huxley talks about this, and so does T.E. Hulme, the main theorist of imagism. But I've got to kick it into gear and grade some of the papers I had my students write about Blake's prophetic books. Urizen, ho! Onward, Ahania!

    Postscript: Those of you who have been in touch with me via email about blogging on Adorno will no doubt have noticed that this is not an Adorno post. I'm getting there! But the new semester has crushed me beneath her voluminous academic trappings, and I gasp for air. Whatever else Adorno may be, he is not air.