Tuesday, October 30, 2007
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Richard Taruskin makes some big noise about classical music, or at any rate about the discourse around classical music, over at The New Republic. Long story (and I mean long story: it clocks in at about 12,000 words) short, Taruskin believes classical music's current crop of apologists does more harm than good. In a review of Who Needs Classical Music? Cultural Choice and Musical Value by Julian Johnson, Classical Music, Why Bother? Hearing the World of Contemporary Culture Through a Composer's Ears, by Joshua Fineberg, and Why Classical Music Still Matters, by Lawrence Kramer, Taruskin argues that the crisis in classical music isn't all it's cracked up to be. What's particularly interesting to me are the parallels in the "classical music is doomed and we gotta do something about it now" debate and the whole "can poetry matter?" debate.
I urge anyone interested in the high culture / pop culture debate to read the article, which makes good use of Adorno and Bourdieu, and is well-written, too. But if you don't feel like scaling a 12,000 word mountain, the basic line goes something like this: Taruskin believes that the classical music he loves needs to be defended from its own defenders, who can't seem to write without (wait for it...) "recourse to pious tommyrot, double standards, false dichotomies, smug nostalgia, utopian delusions, social snobbery, tautology, hypocrisy, trivialization, pretense, innuendo, reactionary invective, or imperial haberdashery."
The article begins with an account of an experiment in which Joshua Bell, a leading classical violinist, was asked to go undercover as a busker. Bell was generally ignored, and the planners of the experiement took this as an opportunity to hurl curses from on high at the philistine churls of the public. Taruskin mercilessly points out the flawed methodology of the experiment (Bell had to stand in a place no self-respecting busker would have picked, for example), and argues that the experiment was no experiment at all, but a stunt with a pre-fabricated conclusion.
Taruskin goes on to tell people who lament classical music's loss of prestige that the rise of classical's prestige came about under conditions when the elite classes needed to distinguish themselves culturally from the huddled masses yearning to get down with popular songs. A return to that state ( a condition still present but not robust) is neither possible nor all that desirable. I mean do we really want to become like a snob like Milton Babbitt, who said in 1979:
We receive brilliant, privileged freshmen at Princeton, who in their first year of college are likely to take a philosophy of science course with [logical positivist] Carl Hempel, and then return to their dormitories to play the same records that the least literate members of our society embrace as the only relevant music.
"Pierre Bourdieu, were you listening?" asks Taruskin, after quoting this passage.
Taruskin also invokes the Adorno/Frankfurt school defense of high culture, a version of which one finds in the alt-poetry community to this day. He summarizes the Frankfurt position about as well as anyone can in a short paragraph:
The main tenet of the creed is the defense of the autonomy of the human subject as manifested in art that is created out of a purely aesthetic, hence disinterested, impulse. Such art is without utilitarian purpose (although, as Kant famously insisted, it is "purposive"), but it serves as the symbolic embodiment of human freedom and as the vehicle of transcendent metaphysical experience. This is the most asocial definition of artistic value ever promulgated. Artists, responsible to themselves alone, provide a model of human self-realization. All social demands on the artist--whether made by church, state, or paying public--and all social or commercial mediation are inimical to the authenticity of the creative product.
Going on to note how this position is variously trivialized, mangled, and dumbed-down in defenses of classical music, Taruskin shows the weakness of the position when it comes to accounting for the public's actual musical tastes.
The big wrap-up in the article defends classical music from a more modest and pluralist position, claiming that it can serve as one register — a rather formal one — among others; that it can function like a formal level of diction in the larger and more various musical language as a whole.
I was hipped to the article by D.L. LeMahieu, a historian who's written about the whole pop culture/high culture issue with real depth and the kind of careful research that puts people in English deparments to shame. Since everything LeMahieu says is worth printing in gold-leaf outlined letters on enduring parchment and hanging on the wall for contemplation, I asked him if he'd mind if I posted our correspondence about the article. He graciously agreed:
Picked up a copy of the New Republic and gave the piece on classical music a read. I actually didn't find myself upset (as you’d predicted I would) at all: I think Taruskin's right about the disingenuousness of the Bell experiment; I think he gets his Adorno right; I'm sympathetic to his argument in general.
I do think he buys into the idea that there's a crisis in classical music a bit more than he should. For example, he downplays the fact that classical music is the main beneficiary of online sales (people who buy classical music tend to buy whole multi-movement works, unlike pop music buyers, who tend only to want the single, and being younger and poorer than the classical crowd, generally have no qualms about illegal free downloading). He also downplays the fact that more repertoire is available now than ever before, thanks to Naxos (a label he mentions very briefly, but a huge phenomenon in the music industry) and to online releases without major label support. He's right that classical radio is in decline, but he never mentions that fewer stations are needed, since one can listen to the better ones online anywhere in the world. So part of the perceived crisis isn't a crisis of the music but of the media. This, of course, is part of the whole internet shakeup, which effects everything from newspapers to (increasingly) television. Overall, I don't think many people would want to turn the clock back, even if it were possible.
Of course in many ways I'm both a romantic and a modernist — in fact, one reviewer of my work called me "An augustan sensibility trained as a romanticist and writing in a modernist idiom during the postmodern era" (talk about aufgehoben!). So when Tarushkin veers closest to the "blame modernism" thesis, or harps on the dark side of German Romantic nationalism, I get ready to pounce on him. But even here I think he's fair -- he doesn't shout "traison!" at les clercs of modernism, so much as he sees the evolution of their aesthetic as a property of a very particular history, a history linked to the rise of bourgeois self-definition via culture (as opposed to aristocratic self-definition via landholding and ancestry) and all the rest. Since these are the issues I've been trying to get at in the chapter I'm currently writing of a book called The Aesthetic Anxiety, I can't really take exception. [Shameless plug: an essay that contains a brief treatment of my book-in-progress' themes is about to come out in Art and Life in Aestheticism. It makes a great gift, so shop early...]
There's been a debate about poetry similar to the one Taruskin traces in the New Republic, with Adorno-influenced people proclaiming their purity and political potential from one corner, while the people at the another corner demand a kind of popularization. Many on both sides see themselves as besieged and on the defensive in an environment of general decline. Meanwhile, and quite un-remarked by either side, I’m told that one of the larger online poetry sites — salt — boasts 200,000 readers of its often avant-garde content every month, a readership comparable to that of Harpers'. Where it all goes is anybody's guess.
What's your take on the article? I'm glad you turned me on to it.
I gave my copy away over a week ago so I will have to rely on memory. One objection to the article was the tone: it was a mirror image of what it pretended to refute. I was also disappointed that he cast the entire problem in terms of the high/low culture debate, about which I know a modest amount. When I researched A Culture for Democracy over 20 years ago, I read a great deal about the decline of "music" (as Classical was then called) in the 1920s and 1930s. I read the first twenty years of Gramophone, which constantly editorialized about the issue. In any case, the NR author says absolutely nothing new or interesting about High/Low, other than to presume the legitimacy of the Low, which is not the issue.
I wish the author had explored not only the technology issue, which you grasp, but also the audience issue: Classical appeals most to UMC (upper middle class) and the old, often many of whom were exposed to the music in their youth but only grasped it firmly as they aged.
Also, there is the damned issue of "art".
You're right of course about the question of audience, and the aging of the classical audience. This is the elephant in the room that Taruskin doesn't discuss enough.
You're right, too, about how most of the article just wanders over well-trodden ground in the high/low culture debate. I'm not sure Taruskin presumes the legitimacy of the low, though. When he writes, at the end, of classical music as a formal idiom or register within music as a whole, he seems to say that genres aren't so much legitimate or illegitimate as they are appropriate or inappropriate for particular situations. This is interesting, I think — not because it represents any new conceptual blockbusting (it doesn't), but because it is representative of what I take to be the emerging attitude toward what we had thought of as commercial/autonomous or low/high culture. If there's anything newish in the article's take on high-low it's this embodiment of an attitude one sees emerging, a kind of non-hierarchical pluralism about culture. In this view, high culture has less special social prestige than it did in Bourdieu's France of the 1970s, nor does it have much of a special claim on Frankfurt school political/spiritual redemptiveness. But this doesn't mean (as it seemed to mean, in early postmodernism) that it is bad or irrelevant or to be chucked away in favor of a valorized low culture. Rather, high culture becomes one of the registers in which one can (culturally) speak. Sometimes it stands on its own, sometimes it is mixed with other registers for effect (as in speech that combines high and low diction). So the high culture tradition is absorbed into a largely post-hierarchical world.
20 years of Gramophone — I envy you that!
Yes his pluralism is quite postmodern. But it eludes questions about cultural hierarchy that he presumes in other places within the article. His 'broadbrow" view was first articulated, by the way, by J B Priestley in the 1930s: at the time it was thought "middlebrow" and vulgar to assert such a view.
I devoted 12 years to thinking about this issue and I ended up asserting contradictions: an indication that the problem with judging "art" may have to do with a logic yet to be fully defined. Perhaps it dwells in cognitive psychology or Dilthey's "lived experience" which suggests inaccessibility to the views we assert, despite the best attempts at rationalization, including "disinterestedness."
I admit to having failed to unravel the Gordian Knot that is the problem of art, and the judgement of art. I've been relying on a little dodge in which I treat questions of what is better by asserting that there is no better in the absolute sense, only better-for certain tasks. I suppose that's why I'm sympathetic to Taruhkin's ending sections.
As for self-contradictoriness and the inaccessibility of our own viewpoints: I'm sure you're right. I remember when the deconstructionists built their brief empire on that insight.
Mind if I put our little exchange in my blog? I'll let you have the last word...
Your pragmatic view echoes that of Dewey, at least as I understand him.
The Deconstuctionist Empire may be decline, but the Cognitive Psychologists still rule.
On Fox, being given the last word means that you have already lost.
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
About a decade ago I got into a bit of a tussle on the POETICS email list with Aldon Nielson. If I remember correctly, the tussling had to do with political agenda of the then-new ALSC (Association of Literary Scholars and Critics). Aldon saw that their funding came largely from neoconservative sources, and worried that they would be a political front for the right wing. I said he was right about where the funding came from, but I'd been corresponding a bit with John Ellis, one of the big wheels in the organization, and from what he said it didn't seem like the outfit was going to be particularly political.
In retrospect, I think Aldon was right about the hidden agendas of a number of the founders of the ALSC, but if their convention earlier this month in Chicago was any indication, they've ended up as a fairly innocuous organization. About the most political thing I witnessed was Morris Dickstein's presidential address, in which he said he'd wanted to have the conference open with a panel on Shakespeare, because (and here he eyed the room knowingly) "there's nothing more
canonical than Shakespeare." I think he meant to fire this off as a shot in the culture wars — a volley on the side of what he took to be the Great Beseiged Tradition against the invading barbarians (feminists, multiculturalists, and the like). But it all seemed as antique as a Cold War charge of communist sympathies — the war he wanted to fight seems to have settled down into a truce that is evolving into a fairly amicable peace, and his man Shakespeare has come through unscathed after all. I mean, I'll be down at the MLA later this year, and I'm sure there will be plenty of papers like those I heard at the ALSC: New Historicist inflected readings of the plays in cultural contexts.
Scott McLemee, who was meant to speak at the ALSC but couldn't attend, says that neither organization is as politicized as their reputations would lead one to believe. One of the people I had drinks with in the conference hotel bar even went so far as to call the ALSC "an organization without an agenda." In a way, I think he had a point. When I compare the ALSC conference to another conference on a similar scale — the &NOW Festival of Innovative Art and Writing, there's a real difference. The &NOW Festival (which — full disclosure — I helped organize in 2006, and am involved in its launching-in-09 publishing wing) is dedicated to an experimental literary agenda, and draws a crowd interested in, and advocating for, a particular set of concerns. There's a lot of overlap in what they talk about, and a particular goal they have in the back of their minds. But the ALSC seems much less directed. Like the &NOW Festival, the ALSC convention serves as a place where likeminded people can hang out together (the best thing a small conference can be, and something a big conference isn't usually good at). But I don't think the gathered tweedy cogniscenti of the ALSC have much of an agenda, other than to be around people for whom John Hollander pulls more weight than does John Ashbery.
This does make one wonder about the future of the organization, but I don't think it will dry up and go away. Unlike the &NOW Festival, which runs on wild-eyed enthusiasm, the ALSC runs on what seems like a pretty full tank of cash. I also don't see the ALSC growing much: for one thing, the crowd skews much older than the usual desperately-networking-grad-student dominated literary conference. For another thing, without a specific niche to fill, other than as a kind of home for the veterans of one side of ye olde culture wars, there's no big reason for it to grow.
This became clear to me when David Fenza, head of the AWP, made some comments on a panel about MFA programs and English departments. Fenza, who is quite a good public speaker, began by making some complementary remarks about the ALSC, and mentioned that it reminded him of the early years of AWP conventions, when they could fit into a botique hotel like the Allegro, where the ALSC was being held. The AWP had grown, he said, from having 300 person conferences to having conferences with over 5000 attendees, and he looked forward to seeing the ALSC prosper as thoroughly as the AWP had. Two things struck me there: firstly, how Fenza (once a prof) had absorbed the logic of the administrator (quantity equals success); and secondly, how unlikely his suggestion of rapid ALSC growth seemed. He was probably just being gracious, but it got me wondering what the AWP had that the ALSC didn't. Certainly the AWP has no core aesthetic agenda (as the &NOW does) and no core political agenda (as many feared the ALSC would have). What it has, of course, and the ALSC lacks, is a bureaucratic agenda: it represents the interests of some 450 creative writing programs, and serves as their trade organization. This gives it an agenda, but an agenda more like, say, the insurance industry's K-Street lobbyists in Washington than the agenda of the &NOW crew. And it makes the AWP a terrible place to hang out: people aren't there to be among the likeminded (as at the &NOW and ALSC conventions). Rather, they're there to advance the interests of their programs, or to hook up a job or a publication — all instrumental goals, rather than phatic ones. If you want to hang out properly at the AWP, you've got to flee the convention and find a congenial bar nearby.
And this talk of congenial bars brings me to another kind of literary gathering, the Chicago poetry scene, which has some of its best gatherings at places like Danny's Tavern. The most recent blowout, though, was at Gethsemane church, courtesy of Garin Cycholl, poet and minister, who opened his doors to a big crowd last weekend for a great group reading (well, great once I got off the stage after having kicked it off by inflicting a few poems of mine on the congregation). The scene is a great place to hang out: you go to any reading around town, and you know a bunch of people in the crowd. As Ray Bianchi pointed out at the Gethsemane reading, the Chicago scene is small enough that there are really only one or two degrees of seperation between everyone. For better and for worse, though, it's not a scene with much of an agenda, at least not yet. I think you need a scene to get older and bigger before it splits into factions, and for now the Chicago anthology The City Visible represents a pretty happy pluralism. I do wonder if the scene is going to institutionalize itself more: for all its reading series and bloggery, and despite the growth of Cracked Slab books, there isn't a very developed publishing infrastructure yet, nor is there a central hangout, an equivalent of the 92nd Street Y, say. Poetry is building a big new HQ downtown, and it will have reading space and a recording studio, but it remains to be seen how open it will be to the scene in Chicago (or, for that matter, how open the scene will be to hanging out there, after years of feeling semi-shut out of the biggest and most venerable homegrown poetic institution).
There's a good chance the scene could really grow, but I also worry that it may dry up and blow away, like the previous vital incarnations of a poetic communty in Chicago. New York and San Francisco are eternal: the scenes are so established and institutionalized that the fires can be kept burning even when there's nothing much really going on aesthetically. But Chicago's had a more on-and-off history, and currently I worry about a huge, Michael Anania-shaped hole in the middle of things. I mean, looking around the Gethsemane reading, I could see how many of his former students from the UIC graduate writing program were there, and how important they were to keeping things going. With Michael retired and living in Austin (which always seems to me as odd and upsetting as someone buying Wrigley Field and moving it brick by brick to Texas), I don't know if the current crowd of people he inspired will be replaced. It's sort of inevitable that people on the scene will move on, some to jobs elsewhere, some to the suburbs to have kids, and I don't know if there will be another set of Simone Muenchs, Garin Cycholls, Chris Glomskis, and Kristy Odeliuses to take their places. (I'm not sure why suburbanization is such a scene-killer, but it seems to function that way: I'm always one of the only guys in the room who doesn't live in the city proper, or in a city-adjacent town like Oak Park or Evanston).
So here's the scorecard:
ALSC: A small, phatic, institutionalized, congenial but largely agendaless organization with a steady future but no spectacular growth in sight.
AWP: A giant, growing gesselschaft-ish trade organization likely to continue to be big, useful, and unpleasant.
&NOW: A small, phatic, aesthetic-agenda-driven institution likely to keep chugging along until enthusiasm no longer makes up for the lack of money.
Chicago's Poetry Scene: An ecumenical, decentralized community of micro-institutions that will continue to prosper if the infrastructure is maintained.
Friday, October 19, 2007
I'm actually not plugging another big poetry reading in Chicago (although I will shamelessly mention tomorrow's shindig at Gethsemane Church, 3617 W Belle Plaine Ave, with its cast of thousands, including your humble blogger). Nope. I'm plugging the big anti-war protest on the 27th. Come one, come all, and see how well-behaved the Chicago police have become since the 1968 Democratic National Convention (although they seem to have joined in, and even anticipated, the national trend toward torture and cover-ups).
I thought the last protest I attended, a local one in my town (Highland Park) would be a sad little affair: a few prof-types, some leftover hippies, maybe someone from a local church or temple. In fact, it turned out to be startlingly robust, overflowing the town square before turning into a march to the local monument to the war dead. People driving by cheered and honked, and everyone seemed surprised at the level of support. If that's any indication, the upcoming event down in the city should be big big big. Click the image below for a larger version showing the list of sponsoring organizations.
Boston, New York, L.A., Philly, Orlando, New Orelans, San Francisco, Seattle, Salt Lake City and even Jonesborough, Tennessee are staging related events. Bust out those hippie threads and hit the streets!
On a related note, I can't help but mention that George W. Bush's approval rating in the latest poll, 24%, is actually a point lower than that of Richard Nixon on the day he resigned. Not that anything will come of this, but I think I'll go out to the driveway and burnish my old "Impeach Bush" bumper sticker for a while.
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Someone at Berkeley has had the wisdom to put their "Lunch Poems" series up online in both audio and video format — I discovered this via the brand new John Matthias reading, his first on the west coast in over two decades. He's ably introduced by Robert Hass as a poet of "inventive and assured imagination," who keeps inventing ways of making poems and seeing the world. I think this is fair: Matthias has gone through at least three incarnations, first as a kind of Duncan/Pound angry young man, writing radical poems about language and power, and railing against the prison house of language. Then there's the Bunting/Jones Matthias, a writing of book-length geographical poems. And now there's a third Matthias, a poet who feels totally original to me. This period began, I think, around the time John made the switch from Swallow Press to Salt. The Salt Matthias is someone who's invented a new way of understanding, among other things, the way information technology has changed who we are and how we experience the world and the past (see his Working Progress, Working Title for starters.
In the reading John reads from his new book, Kedging (not to be confused with another poet's Ketjak). If you want to hear the music in his work, listening to the reading is a great place to start.
Much to blog about lately — a panel on creative writing programs and English departments at the ALSC last weekend, where I hung out with Steve Burt and Don Share and ran into Reg Gibbons; some good speculations today at lunch with Ray Bianchi about the para-academic future of poetry, and more. But today all I want to do is watch the podcast of Matthias' reading.
Sunday, October 07, 2007
I woke up the other day and realized something: this is, for however brief and shining a moment, where it's at. This being our fair city of Chicago, it being American poetry.
I'm as surprised as the next guy: much as I've disagreed with Ron Silliman over the years, I kind of believed him when he said Chicago has been "the Rodney Dangerfield of writing scenes," the scene that can't get no respect. That was certainly true when I first moved to Chicago back in '93. A refugee from South Bend, Indiana, I'd decided it was better to commute out to Notre Dame than to live in the 'bend another day. "Decided" might not even be the right term: it was more of a compulsion to flight than anything else. Anyway, while I was glad to be in Chicago, and there were plenty of poets around, there really wasn't anything you'd call a scene, except for slam poetry — a kind of writing that wasn't my thing (though ask me about my brief and inglorious tenure as a judge at the Green Mill's Uptown Poetry Slam someday — it's a tale of humiliation I never tire of retelling). A few years later I briefly tried to remedy things, and I remember having grand schemes for making something happen. I booked Michael Heller (who was passing through town) to give a big talk about poetics, and beat a drum around town hoping to assemble the local literati. Assemble they did, or many of them, at Jax, a bar near UIC. But as I looked around the room at the different tables of people, I realized how atomized things were: the U of C crowd was over at the U of C table, hunched in turtlenecked seriousness. The UIC types kept to the UIC types, the Northwestern people were crowded, perhaps ironically, into the southeastern corner of the room. Academic and atomized, that's what we were. I'd tried to convince myself, in an editorial in Samizdat, that this was a good thing, a sign of nonconformity, but now I see myself as having been squeezing the local lemon as hard as I could in a futile attempt to make lemonade.
But over the last few years things have really started to feel different, and not just to me. My new colleague at Lake Forest, Josh Corey, recently arrived from Ithaca, describes a reading he gave at the guild center thusly: "Chicago continues to impress as a poetry center: the audience was large, diverse, and appreciative—there are genuine poetry fans here." And just the other day I stumbled across Kevin Killian's Amazon.com review of the new anthology of Chicago poets, in which he says:
When young poets ask me, where should I go, what should I do, nowadays I always say pull out a map, throw in a dart. X marks the spot, but Chicago is the most exciting scene around. Years from now we'll be looking back at the early 21st century and wishing we'd all relocated there at this time in poetry history.
So it's not just me being sticking my head outside the door of my study, where I'd been sitting in bearlike hibernation, and being overawed by the sensory stimulation. There's something going on in the big grid of beaux-arts two-flats and the rows upon rows of Mies dan der Rohes by the lake. In fact, I think we may be seeing the rising crest of a third wave of Chicago poetry.
The story we hear about the first wave of Chicago poetry is that it was a tsunami of modernism conjured out of the lake by Harriet Monroe when she wrangled the funding for Poetry magazine early in the century. And this is true, too, as far as it goes: where there had been only scattered efforts, suddenly something seemed to be happening, and there seemed to be a here here. But Poetry — as much a hangout as a magazine, since the office door was never closed to a passing poet, and local heroes like Carl Sandburg could be found opining over tea within was only the respectable end of the scene. Down in a now long-since-gentrified area once called Towertown, by the water tower, there was an equally vital institution, a bar/theater/lecture hall called the Dil Pickle Club (with one 'l,' not two, for reasons I'll tell you about someday if you're willing buy the drinks, and able to withstand about an hour of Archambeau being a blowhard). Here, if you could find the door down the alley, and were willing to duck low to get in, you could meet Sandburg in a more unbuttoned mode; here you could hear the Wobblies read political verse; here you could run into pre-San Francisco Kenneth Rexroth (another poet-critic refugee from South Bend) as he and his crew delivered a Dada-inspired anti-reading, complete with planned disruptions by hidden alarm clocks and planted accomplices in the audience. Poetry's story has been pretty well consecrated, but the Dil Pickle story has yet to be fully told, though the poet/publisher/Breton scholar Franklin Rosemont has assembled a great series of documents in The Rise and Fall of the Dil Pickle. But one thing that unified Poetry and the Dil Pickle, making them the respectable and raffish poles of the same scene, was the aesthetic they embraced: both were open to the latest things from around the world, hip to experimental modernism, and at the same time deeply committed to the local scene.
Poetry, of course, is still around, a giant sequoia in the forest of the art, but it doesn't have the same local function it once had: eighteen stories above Michigan Avenue, it isn't a hangout for the local poets, and thinks of itself (rightly) in national or international terms (something it did under Harriet Monroe as well, though in her day it was both local and international: Tagore and Sandburg both dropped in for tea). The bohemian world of Towertown disappeared in the forties, taking the Dil Pickle with it, and while there were plenty of poets in Chicago in the fifties and sixties — especially African-American poets — one would be hard-pressed to find a cohesive poetry scene, however defined. As Paul Hoover has said, when he was here in the late sixties and early seventies Chicago was "a fly-over city" in terms of poetry. All that changed, at least for a while, mostly due to the efforts of Paul, and of Maxine Chernoff, and of others, many of them alums of the English department at UIC (somedday I'm going to make a list of all the poets who studied there under Michael Anania, the godfather of Chicago poetry over several decades). Suddenly Chicago has the Poetry Center, and a bunch of little magazines (including New American Writing and Barry Silesky's ACM, still going strong, though only ACM remains a Chicago institution). The goals here seemed similar to those of the first wave: to bring in the best of what was happening elsewhere, to mix international currents (Surrealism, say, and the New York School) together, and to foster local writing too. For all that, though, the scene seems, in retrospect, to have had a bit of a junior varsity quality, in that the sign of success was to leave: Hoover and Chernoff left for San Franciso, and when Hoover looks back on his time here, he writes with pride of his students who made it elsewhere (they “were being accepted into the country’s leading MFA programs: Brown, Bard, Columbia University, the University of Iowa [and] Bennington,” he says). (I've blogged about this before).
Maybe the scene was too successful in creating people who wanted to make good elsewhere to last. Whatever happened, though, the wave had rolled back considerably by the 1990s. But in the new century there's a whole new turbulence, and the city seems to be a place people come to, rather than leave. Much of the real energy comes from a set of readings-series, generally unaffiliated with any big university or cultural institution: there's the Discreet Series, the Danny’s Tavern Series, and the Myopic Poetry Series, Series A, and Powell's North does a good job, too. There's Woodland Pattern up in Milwaukee, which seems plugged-in enough to what's happening in Chicago to be included. There are journals — the Chicago Review is in one of its longest-running smart and impressive phases, though less interested in local things than it could be; there's Conundrum and the wonderful LVNG; but just as important for the local scene there's a big online presence: Simone Muench has a weekly poetry feature at the Chicago art blog Sharkforum, Chicagopostmodernpoetry.com has a kind of who's-who of Chicago poetry in its profiles section, Seven Corners Poetry quietly showcases the poets of the city, and a bunch of people you meet on the scene blog it all as it happens. There's even a kind of running index of events at Golden Rule Jones. With Don Share's arrival at Poetry, I bet even the branches of that mighty sequoia are going to start shaking a bit with the noise from the streets.
Friday, October 05, 2007
This morning I gave a poetry reading at the University of Illinois — Chicago, one I didn't advertise with my usual shamelessness because it was limited to students. I'm glad to have done it: some of them had clearly read my poems, and I saw copies of The City Visible in the room. But there's something odd about giving a poetry reading at nine a.m. I mean, a poetry reading just seems like one of those things it's faintly indecent to do in the morning, like eating buffalo wings or reading Georges Bataille. And don't even think about eating buffalo wings while reading Georges Bataille, unless you're deep into a Friday night and no one's looking. Even then, you've probably got some explaining to do.
And so this brings me to the vital question: who are the morning poets, and who are the late-night poets? Just about anyone eighteenth century works well in the morning. (There are exceptions, you say? Preposterous!) Alexander Pope's Essay on Man is probably the best rise-and-shiner of the lot, beginning as it does with a kind of clarion call, a relentlessly wholesome countryside, and the prospect of an active-yet-playful exploration:
Awake, my St. John! leave all meaner things
To low ambition and the pride of Kings.
Let us, since life can little more supply
Than just to look about us and to die,
Expatiate free o'er all this scene of man;
A mighty maze! but not without a plan;
A wild, where weeds and flowers promiscuous shoot,
Or garden, tempting with forbidden fruit.
Together let us beat this ample field,
Try what the open, what the covert yield;
The latent tracts, the giddy heights, explore
Of all who blindly creep or sightless soar;
Eye Nature's walks, shoot folly as it flies,
And catch the manners living as they rise,
Laugh where we must, be candid where we can,
But vindicate the ways of God to man.
The "St. John" (pronounced "Sinjin," like the character from Jane Eyre) is Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke, so we've got to feel good and chuffed from being put in such a lordly subject-position. And all that fresh air wafting in from line six on will blast the cowbwebs out of the most hung-over of heads. (The eighteenth c. knew about hangovers, too: with most water too questionable to drink, they downed booze in quantities that would make Dylan Thomas blush). And then there's God, at the end of the stanza: as the rest of the poem makes clear, this is a deist-y sort of God, a good rational clockmaker, the sort of deity you'd want to meet in the morning, not one of those Dostoevsky-and-Carravagio Gods, with the sublime bolt of sudden light that catches you when you're lying in the midnight gutter. Pope's God is more of a reasonable-explanation-for-it-all than a shout in the street. So reading Pope, you just about feel you can face the day on your own two feet.
Your great late-night poets are, of course, your nineteenth century types: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Coleridge. If we lived in a nation with (ahem) Sound Literary Policy, there'd probably be a moment when the evening news with Anselm Hollo would be interrupted by a special bulletin announcing that it was now a felony to read any poem published between 1789 and 1914 until after dark. Poe would of course be banned entirely, unless one obtained a special permit to read him in a freezing garret with a half-finished bottle of absinthe and floorboards that creak enough to scare the bejezus out of you.
But what about what the poetry of the period volume 8-E of the Norton Anthology of English Literature assures me is called "The Twentieth Century and Beyond"? (I always hear that title in the voice of Buzz Lightyear). Morning, noon, or nighttime poetry? What's that? What? You find my paradigm simplistic and arbitrary? As bad as the whole experimental/mainstream thing of the 1990s? You wound me, sir! Wound me! I'm off to sulk over Bataille and chicken wings.